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Jewish culture now refashioned

The 'Zeitgeist' festival at the Skirball offers Jewish-oriented dance, music and film, all imported from Europe.

August 10, 2003|Donna Perlmutter | Special to The Times

Scrawled on a building on Rome's Via Cavour this spring was a Star of David. Written over it was the word raus -- "out" in German. This anti-Semitic graffito reportedly can be seen throughout the Italian capital, as well as in many other European cities.

Yet just weeks ago, 15,000 Poles could be found dancing to the wildly infectious music of an onstage klezmer band at the 16th annual Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow, a city with only 200 Jews.

In fact, such festivals are occurring all over Europe. More than 25 of them sprouted last year alone in Belgium, Sweden, Italy and Poland -- countries whose Jewish populations are tiny fractions.

Now this flowering of Jewish culture amid a new surge of anti-Semitism is going on display in "Zeitgeist," an international festival offering performances from today through Aug. 28 at the Skirball Cultural Center and set to restart in late January. It will feature Jewish-oriented contemporary music, dance, film and performance art -- all imported from Europe.

The U.S., where religious tolerance is cherished, doesn't have anything to match this energetic outburst.

"Jews in the United States are viewed as 'white,' " says Skirball program director Jordan Peimer, who curated "Zeitgeist" with funds largely bequeathed by the late Harry and Belle Krupnick of Los Angeles. "They seldom had to be self-protective about their traditions. Instead, there was a natural impulse to assimilate into the American arts mainstream."

Peimer acknowledges that in the pre-civil rights period, signs saying "No dogs, no Jews" were familiar to Americans, along with hotels that were restricted and professional schools that had admissions quotas. "But even so, Europeans could never hope to enjoy the kind of open door that American Jews had otherwise." After the Holocaust, he adds, not only were Jewish populations in Europe all but wiped out, but "things Jewish" were missing.

Ruth Gruber, the author of "Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe" (UC Press), believes the coexistence of anti-Semitism and popular interest in Jewish culture can be explained partly because many Europeans regard Jews the same way some on this side of the Atlantic regard Native Americans.

"Everything from guilt to fascination to New Age mysticism to commercial exploitation is involved," Gruber says. "Even some of the kitsch is similar. Rows of mass-produced Indian dolls in souvenir shops in Niagara Falls, say, are remindful of mass-produced, carved wooden Jews in souvenir stalls in Krakow.

"But anti-Semitism is forever, and these festival celebrations come in reaction to it."

Whatever the impetus, no one can deny the rousing and robust refashioning of Jewish culture by European artists. Its face, as represented in the Skirball's offerings, looks altogether current -- including everything from the disc jockey scene in London to theater projects out of Uzbekistan to world music that blends boogie, Cuban rumba, chansons and North African chaabi, with a little Sephardic and Ashkenazic influences for good measure. There's also a British Arab-Jewish collective that mingles dub, funk and drum-and-bass and not a small amount of klezmer fusion.

What's more, many of these artists from Western and Eastern Europe -- some of them non-Jews -- have grown up creatively in an atmosphere of post-Communist freedom. For most of them, the spirit of the times is the spirit of fusion.

Pianist Maurice El Medioni, appearing at the festival Aug. 20, has a dual identity from his Algerian beginnings. "Jews and Arabs share the same musical story," says the headliner, 74, who now lives in Marseille, France, and appears at such celebrated venues as the Barbican in London. Both peoples, along with the Moors, "were kicked out of Spain in 1492, and in our baggage was the same music," he says.

As a teenager, El Medioni was living in the Mediterranean port city of Oran, Algeria, when U.S. troops landed in 1942. The GIs brought him Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Xavier Cugat, whom he lovingly added to his musical polyglot. A prototype of the dispossessed Jew, he waxes philosophical when recounting being called names and driven into exile from Algeria in 1962.

"It's not quite like choosing to leave London for Australia in search of a better life," he says.

Max Reinhardt, on the other hand, was born after the World War II generation who endured persecution and displacement. Billed as "the undisputed maitre d' of discerning dance floors du monde," the London DJ, music director, composer and writer finds all his influences right at his front door, many of them deposited by the likes of El Medioni. "But until the late 1980s," says Reinhardt, who will appear Aug. 21, "I kept my musical roots to myself. The idea of a club night featuring Jewish music would have been a nightmare, not a dream."

Those roots consisted of cantorial prayers, Israeli songs, Yiddish pastiches, Borscht Belt material from singers such as Mickey Katz, and music played at weddings and bar mitzvahs.

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