Comedian Yisrael Campbell likes to get the crowd warmed up during his stand-up routines by using a little bit of background: “I grew up vaguely Catholic. ‘How Catholic?’ people always ask me. Well, Catholic enough to know I was going to hell.” He goes on, “I’m the firstborn son of a manic depressive Italian woman and a pathologically silent Irishman. This makes me wildly emotional… in a very quiet way.”
Humor is a great way to begin tough conversations — ones that might lead to healing and understanding identity. As Jews, we know this as well as anyone; just look at our long tradition of conspicuously Jewish comedians who joke about identity.
At a recent fashion show hosted by Brooklyn College Hillel, all eyes were focused on designs by Igor Rozenblyum, a self-taught 24-year-old who immigrated to the United States from Ukraine with his family 10 years ago. A sort of modern-day Nudie Cohen — the late celebrity designer responsible for the over-the-top, blingy suits worn by the likes of Johnny Cash, Hank Williams and Elvis Presley — Rozenblyum designs custom menswear, under his label Rozenblyum Couture, that is Euro-chic (think Moscow nightclub) and carefully detailed. But while Cohen, who was also a Ukrainian Jew, drew inspiration from Mexican art and the American Old West, Rozenblyum incorporates themes into his work that are closer to home. Stars of David accentuate hoodies, hamsas adorn the back pockets of jeans and Hebrew phrases are displayed over bejeweled T-shirts.
When Ladino-rock musician Sarah Aroeste visited Santa Clara, Cuba, on a recent humanitarian trip with B’nai B’rith International, she was surprised to find that while the 25-member strong Jewish community had a huge Holocaust memorial to commemorate those who died, it had only one CD of Jewish music to celebrate the living. She was also surprised that young Jews came up to her after the shows she performed with Cuban-American musician Roberto Rodriguez and asked, “How do we learn this music?”
Every artist remembers the first time he or she re–masters another artist’s work. The poet Ezra Pound caught his artistic stride translating traditional Japanese and Chinese poems complete with Eastern “pigments” and blending them with his own Western perspective. In this way “In a Station of the Metro” and “The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter” brought distinctive new idioms into English poetry. For me, the re-mastering was more prosaic: a 7th grade mixtape for a Halloween party — with boys.