‘Soul Memories’: Powerful Art


By Masha Leon

Published February 05, 2009, issue of February 13, 2009.
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On January 16 it was freezing outside, but inside Gramercy Park’s National Arts Club there was a glow, as Rosalyn Engelman’s friends and admirers gathered at the opening of the abstract artist’s exhibit, Soul Memories. On display, a collection of new works, brought together for the first time, as well as canvases lent by local collectors. My mention of the Forward got Engelman and me off and running in Yiddish. Creator of works now in private and public collections, including The War Tribunal Court; The Hague, Netherlands; Nigerian Embassy; Togo; Baruch College, and City College of New York, Engelman described her paintings as “the memories of my soul… the music of my life.” Among the works on display are “Babi Yar” and “Dream of Freedom (2007–2008), both viscerally moving. Citing art as “one of the most powerful tools of activism,” Laura Kruger, curator of “Dry Tears,” Engelman’s 2008 exhibit at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, touted the artist as being in the “vanguard… calling attention to the ongoing calamity of human trafficking and human rights.”

Called “a painter’s painter” by Charlotta Kotik, curator of contemporary art at the Brooklyn Museum, Engelman has had her art compared “to the Abstract Expressionist tradition which includes Mark Rothko, Willem De Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Robert Motherwell.” After studying at CCNY, “where we were taught by second- and third-generation Bauhaus refugees from Europe,” Engelman got her master’s degree from the University of Rochester. “For me, art was never a hobby or a vocation. There was nothing else I loved but art, and as a child, my mother hung all my drawings all over the house.” Engelman has more than 30 one-person and group exhibitions to her credit. Soul Memories will be on display at the Arts Club through February 13.

During our private chat, Engelman told me: “My parents used to get the Forverts. My mother’s grandfather was from White Russia, from Baranovich (the same town where my family had roots), where he built synagogues. When he came here, he built the foundation for [an unnamed] synagogue. There was a dispute over payment. Rather than argue, my father told the committee members, ‘The foundation is my donation to the temple,’ and just left.” Engelman also recalled going to Camp Beth Yakov in Swan Lake, N.Y.: “Imagine! Here were rabbinic children on the grounds of what had once been a German American Bund camp where kids used to march with swastika flags and armbands!”


A pinch of Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows,” a dash of Mel Brooks’s meshugas, a sprinkle of Marx Brothers insanity, and what you get is the riotous yet intellectually stimulating “Freudian Slips,” produced by Abingdon Theatre Company. Written by Marvin Lifschitz, a practicing New York psychoanalyst, and directed with tongue-in-cheek panache by Tom Bloom, the play stars a very agile Joel Leffert as Sigmund Freud, himself in need of therapy. “Quick Fix” Dr. Otto Brotto, Freud’s competitor and nemesis, is portrayed by Allen Lewis Rickman, whose credits include the National Yiddish Theatre-Folksbiene’s recent award-winning Yiddish version of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Pirates of Penzance” (“Di Yam Gazlonim”). Dr. Thomas Buxton (Warren Kelley) puts Freud on the couch in order to resolve Freud’s obsession with a beautiful young patient, Madeline Shumsky (Margi Sharp), wife of a “controlling” rabbi. That’s just the beginning. The ensuing complications had the 50-plus ticket-holding “voyeurs” in the pocket-size Dorothy Strelsin Theatre laughing throughout the show’s two acts.

As Freud, Leffert uses enough Yiddish — not Litvak, not Galitzianer, but raunchy “Catskillian” — with enough sch-opening words relating to bodily functions and parts to bring tears of nostalgia to former Borsht Belt devotees. Though Freud denied ever speaking Yiddish, Arnold Richards, current director of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research and former editor of The Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, assured me: “Yes. Freud did speak Yiddish. He visited his mother every Sunday, and she only spoke [Galician/Galitzianer] Yiddish.”

Freud’s stage couch — somewhat less depressing than his 1912–1921 Vienna original — is covered in an orange-and-gilt throw and gets morphed into a bench, analysis lounge and seduction prop. “Freudian Slips,” a no-holds-barred, side-splitting drama with touches of a Georges Fadeau farce — sans slamming doors — culminates in a psychoanalytic showdown pitting Freud, who dances a mean hora and kazachok, against Brotto. Completing the cast are David Smilow as Rabbi Hyman Shumsky, Jason Marr as Sidney Layman (another one of Freud’s needy patients) and Sue Brody, who morphs into more than half a dozen characters, each funnier than the last, culminating in a scene with a tongue — never mind. Go see the show! Maybe Abingdon will extend the run beyond February 15!


During my post-performance Yiddish chat with Rikman, he confirmed the program note that he stars in the Coen brothers’ forthcoming film, “A Serious Man,” slated for a summer release. Rikman, who not only performed in, but also directed “Di Yam Gazlonim” and was in the Jewish Repertory Theatre’s production of “Theda Bara and the Frontier Rabbi,” was very circumspect about the film. “All I can tell you is that it takes place in the 1960s. I’m in a flashback to a shtetl in Poland, shot entirely in Yiddish. More I can’t say. In fact, I don’t know what the final cut will be.”

A far cry, for Joel and Ethan Coen, from the blood and gore of “Fargo” and “No Country for Old Men.” “A Serious Man,” a black comedy set in 1967, stars two relatively unknowns — Michael Stuhlberg and Richard Kind. There are problems in Hebrew school and money for a nose job. More I don’t know, will have to wait for its release. But the big news is the movie’s soundtrack! An eclectic mix of 1960s rock ’n’ roll, TV themes and Yiddish folk music, the film will feature Sidor Belarsky’s recording of “Dem Milners Trern” (“The Miller’s Tears”). Isabel Belarsky, Sidor’s 89-year-old daughter and “keeper of the flame,” has devoted the past three decades of her life to preserving the memory — and the music — of her father. Sidor, who died in 1975, sang leading roles with opera companies from Russia to the United States and Latin America, had 22 Carnegie Hall concerts to his credit and was a leading interpreter of classic Jewish religious music, as well as folk music. And now he’s on a soundtrack of a movie by Academy Award-winning filmmakers. “Masha! Who would have believed it?” Isabel exclaimed when she first called to tell me the news.

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