July 10, 2008
In which the writer discovers Nextbook’s new read on culture
The Yiddish proverb, tacked to the wall of my study, came to mind when curiosity -- and the assignment to entertain my visiting young grandsons -- led me to the Nextbook festival.
It's a personal embarrassment, or the fault of the organization's anti-promotional attitude, that I had never heard of Nextbook, or as its logo has it: nextbook>.
This self-effacement was lucky for us, because we saw only a few hundred people during the time we were at the festival and lots of empty seats, instead of the thousands who would have come had they known about the fun and intellectual goodies awaiting them.
In its print magazine and online, nextbook> describes itself as "A new read on Jewish culture." In one instance, though, losing all restraint, the New York-based organization goes on to proclaim, in small print:
"Nextbook was established in 2003 to serve as a gateway to Jewish literature, culture and ideas. Through its online magazine (www.nextbook.org), its Jewish Encounters book series and public programs across the country, Nextbook brings audiences and readers the best in Jewish culture."
Journalistic balance forces me to observe that there was something seriously missing. Not once in the fliers, magazine or at the various events was there a single pitch for generous donations or a single proclamation that lack of such contributions would spell the end of Jewish peoplehood.
Only a simple line, in microscopic print, informed the persistent reader that "Nextbook is funded by Keren Keshet -- The Rainbow Foundation." Thank you, whoever and wherever you are.
During the late morning of a glorious day, Jake, 7, and Zach, 3, were wrapped up in making their own mezuzah cases or listening to marvelous storytellers act out the tall tales about the follies of Chelm and other shtetl adventures. The kids never got around to building a pop-up shtetl, and I had a hard time breaking them loose for a transgenerational jump into the UCLA pool, usually their favorite pastime.
Later, with the kids gone, it was time for a different kind of adult fun. Nextbook had gathered together some of the liveliest minds on the American cultural scene for a series of "conversations" under the overall theme of "Jewish Geography: Place, Design, Memory, Imagination."
I had time for only one dialogue with Peter Eisenman, architect of the controversial Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe in the center of Berlin, and Daniel Mendelsohn, a classics scholar and author of the international best seller, "The Lost: A Search for Six of the Six Million."
Their focus, in essence, was on how to memorialize and how to encompass, the enormity of the Holocaust. Surely, this has been discussed endlessly in books, the visual arts, sermons and heated discussions, and the surprise of the dialogue was that it discarded platitudes in favor of genuine soul wrestling and some provocative insights.
There are two kinds of memory, Eisenman said, recalling a Time article, the archival, based on facts, documents and eyewitness accounts, and the immemorable, which it is impossible to memorialize.
Mendelsohn drew another distinction, the micro vs. the macro focus. His own book represents the former by focusing in exhaustive detail on the fates of six survivors, practically to the exclusion of the other 5,999,994 victims.
Eisenman's Berlin memorial represents the opposite, the macro approach, by trying to represent the Six Million as a whole, erasing individual distinctions.
Eisenman first presented his concept in 1999, and it was completed in 2005. It was, and continues to be, attacked by the German left and right, Berlin's Jewish community and the Israeli press.
"The selection committee expected something like Rodin's 'The Burghers of Calais,' sculptures of six emaciated, defeated men awaiting their executions, Eisenman said.
Instead, the committee got a vast field of 2,711 stones of varying heights, tilted slightly, resting on uneven, sloping ground in an undulating, wavelike pattern.
The field of stones stands close to Hitler's old chancellery, as well as the underground bunker where he took his life, and it has been compared to a graveyard with nameless tombstones, among other interpretations.
Visitors to the memorial report one odd effect of the uneven ground and varying heights of the stones, namely that the heads of other nearby pedestrians suddenly disappear from sight, as if going under water.
Eisenman had not planned that effect, but he welcomed it as a fortuitous enactment of Primo Levi's description of fellow prisoners in concentration camps, who were neither dead nor alive but descending into a personal hell.
Eisenman, who did not hesitate to describe most other Holocaust monuments as "mawkish," designed his as a site "without information," giving the visitor an unsettling, disorienting experience, a sense of loss and a place "he had never seen before."
Mendelsohn described a similar disorientation from his long interviews with Holocaust survivors.
"It is the realization that civilization has disappeared, that its fabric had disintegrated," he said. "Suddenly, you had no idea how another human being would act."
So far, so good, but Eisenman's next statement helps explain why his opinions and his works are often met with visceral dislike.
"I didn't design the memorial for the Jews but for the Germans," he said. "I want the Germans to get over their guilt. One cannot live forever with guilt, and you cannot visit the sins of the fathers on the children and grandchildren."
Eisenman, at 74, is sure about one thing -- he will never build another memorial. He said he would much rather create a sports stadium, as he did for the Arizona Cardinals football team.
An ardent sports fan, especially of soccer, Eisenman explained, "For me, building a stadium is like a Catholic creating a cathedral."
(From left) Peter Eisenman, Wendy Lesser and Daniel Mendelsohn at the book signing following their symposium, "Things Past: Memory and Space."