Taking New York By Storm, In Song

By Masha Leon

Published September 29, 2006, issue of September 29, 2006.
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As the world reeled under the Nazi boot, few knew that such American icons as Superman and Captain America, who were zapping evil Axis powers and spies on comic-book page battlefields, had been created and drawn by Jewish artists.

In Kobe, Japan, in 1941, before English had become my new language of speech and dreams, I was introduced to America’s unique form of literature: the comic strip and its cast of characters — Dick Tracy, Popeye, Gasoline Alley, Prince Valiant, and Terry and the Pirates. I’ve been a comics buff ever since. Therefore, I was delighted to experience “Superheroes: Good and Evil in American Comics,” a split exhibition with New York City’s Jewish Museum spotlighting the post 1940s period and the Newark Museum focusing on the comic strip genesis through post-World War II. Among the comic-book artists’ work on display are Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, Will Eisner, Stan Lee (born Lieber), Jack Kirby (born Jacob Kurtzberg), Harvey Kurtzman and Art Spiegelman.

Arriving at the Newark Museum for the September 14 preview and reception for “Masters of American Comics,” I wondered why media news emanating from Newark is so focused on corruption and crime with minimal information on the city’s cultural institutions that are supported by still vibrant Jewish and ethnically diverse constituencies. The first surprise was the museum’s location — in the city’s center downtown. The second was the innovative way in which the exhibit was curated. The evening’s launch, emceed by museum director Mary Sue Price, was “What Makes a Comic Strip Creator a ‘Master,’” a conversational lecture by artist Patrick McDonnell and exhibit co-curator John Carlin. Carlin and McDonnell (“Mutts”) informed: “Ours is a young art unlike that of Europe… yet has the complexity of European art…. [Had he lived today] da Vinci would have been a cartoonist and had a rock band.” In their counterpoint commentary regarding the comics being “a counter culture… [using] new format devices that expanded the medium,” they concurred that the comic strip’s message is “We have to learn to love ourselves and our culture — a relatively young culture [that encompasses] jazz and Hollywood films.”

Carlin stated that the success of the comic strip was due in part to its large immigrant population audience. Case in point: Several of the exhibited panels of “Krazy Kat,” by George Harriman, a Creole, feature Yiddishisms and Yiddish articulations such as “for you, I am making…”; and from a 1920 Sunday “Kit Kat” page, “I’m a heppy, heppy ket.” Slide projections of early comic strips highlighted the skill and complexity of the early artists’ work and the innovative use of color. Among the evocative, “ah”-eliciting works on display are original panels by Milton Caniff (“Terry and the Pirates”) Chester Gould (“Dick Tracy”); Winsor McCay (“Little Nemo”); E.C. Segar (“Popeye”) and Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”).

“This was and still is a very Jewish city,” Jerome Enis of Herbert George Associates (a public relations and crisis management firm) told me as we wended our way through the galleries toward the magnificent 1885 landmark Ballantine House (of Ballantine Beer fame), which is adjacent to the museum. “Not all the Jews who landed at Ellis Island ended up on the Lower East Side. Many were brought here to settle in Newark.” As we mounted the exquisitely carved wooden staircase for dinner on an upper floor, Ennis pointed to a plaque on the wall. It was a 1911 census map listing “Italians, 50,000; Jews, 50,000;

Germans, 40,000; Irish, 30,000; Slavs, 20,000+; Negroes,11,000; Others, 34,000. Total 235,000.” During dinner, museum board president Arlene Lieberman told me, “My grandmother came here from Odessa 1880-1890. She was 10. She worked in a sweatshop rolling cigars and helped organize unions. She was among those rounded up when [president] McKinley was shot.… My grandmother went to the Met every Saturday and knew every opera!” My dinner mates included museum trustee Steven Ehrlich (managing partner, Mabon Nugen & Co., N.Y.C.) and his wife, Mary Ann, who in 1944 had been a “hidden child” in Budapest Hungary; trustee Clive Cummis (board chairman, Sills Cummis) and his wife, Ann, and Victoria Foundation executive director Irene Cooper-Basch.

Earlier this year, France’s celebrity intellectual, Bernard-Henri Lévy, took America by literary storm as he was feted for his opus, “American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville” (Random House). On September 11, his celebrity wife, chanteuse-film star-model and French national treasure Arielle Dombasle, inaugurated her own American invasion at New York’s French Cultural Services, an adjunct of the French consulate. In town for her September 19-21 American debut at The Supper Club on W. 47th Street, opera-trained Dombasle decided to launch her new album here instead of in Paris. With the 18-man Joe Battaglia & the New York Big Band behind her, augmented by miked music, a seductively undulating Dombasle sang a whispery rendition of “Amapola” in Spanish, followed by “I’m in the Mood for Love.” Dombasle, 47, poured into a size zero — yes, a zero — black-satin dress appeared as lovely as she had in Eric Rohmer’s 1983 film “Pauline at the Beach”

Also present was Veronica Kelly, wife of New York City’s police commissioner, Ray Kelly. She had been center stage in organizing New York City’s “The September Concert Project” — dozens of concerts throughout the city’s boroughs, dedicated to “spreading the message of peace through music.” Mrs. Kelly recalled: “I was in France on 9/11…. I remember the love, kindness and generosity we received from friends, strangers. If I had a Herald-Tribune in my hand, people came up to me, touched my hand and said, ‘We are so sorry for you.’”

On September 14, Manhattan’s Upper West Side Congregation Rodeph Sholom hosted the first ever — anywhere — Annual Yiddish Singalong. Five hundred fans of Yiddish song joined their favorite Yiddish stars in singing songs they knew well or remembered from childhood. Singer-songwriter Debbie Friedman performed “Tumbalalaika” and a Yiddish translation of her song for healing, “Mi Shebeirach.” Neshama Carlebach sang a zippy Yiddish song, and Mike Fox delighted with Sholem Secunda’s “Dona, Dona.” Cantor Rebecca Garfein led the audience in the ever-popular “Rozhinkes Mit Mandlen” (“Raisins and Almonds”) from Abraham Goldfadden’s operetta “Shulamith.” Two choruses and 20 performers melded their voices with the audience, most of whom miraculously managed to stay in their seats for more than three hours! Under the direction of Zalmen Mlotek, the cast included Robert Abelson, Phyllis Berk, Joanne Borts and Adrienne Cooper. The Yiddish singalong was the brainchild of producer Moishe Rosenfeld, head of Golden Land Concerts & Connections, and was part of the weeklong Oyhoo Festival of Jewish Music and Heritage in New York. I was later told that one audience member used up a lot of cell phone minutes calling her 95-year-old mother so that she could also enjoy the evening long-distance.

Along with the flood of New Year calendars in the mail from various yeshivas, Jewish Centers, Holocaust museums and the Bikur Cholim Hospital, there was a Spanish-language calendar. With a last name like Leon, my husband and I are used to getting Spanish-language fliers offering English lessons, driving lessons, green cards and more. About to discard the calendar, I decided to flip through the pages. Whoa! In addition to such fiestas as Natalicio de Simon Bolivar, Constitucion de F.I.A. de Puerto Rico and Dia de Pearl Harbor, the calendar listed Pascua de los Hebreos (Passover); Primer Dia de Rosh Hashanah, Primer Dia de Yom Kippur and Primer Dia de Chanukah.

That’s America for you!

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