A culture editor gets invites from across the spectrum of Bay Area arts. Cultural events that reflect Jewish identity abound — from religious to secular, traditional to innovative. It’s not possible to experience them all, so this monthly column will highlight some of my personal favorites. If there weren’t debate about it, it wouldn’t be art. But these are my choices and I hope you’ll come to value my sensibilities. (Feel free to write me at email@example.com.)
When American writer Tom Wolfe published “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” his 1987 satirical novel, all the talk in New York was about which real-life New Yorkers had made it into the novel in some guise or character. The local version of that “who’s who” game is “The Chronicles of San Francisco,” a new mural to be unveiled to the public on May 23 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. It depicts some 1,200 city residents from all walks of life in black-and-white photographs scrolling across giant digital screens.
Congregation Emanu-El Rabbi Ryan Bauer is among the Jewish San Franciscans represented in the massive installation, created for the SFMOMA by the French photographer JR and largely funded by Lynne and Marc Benioff — the Salesforce co-CEO and founder also appears in the work.
“I honest-to-god didn’t know that I had made it into the mural until I started getting text messages from people,” Bauer told me last week, after museum members got a preview at the Director’s Circle Dinner on April 24.
His participation in the project took place about a year ago, when JR’s mobile photography truck parked in the Pacific Heights neighborhood of Congregation Emanu-El and Bauer walked down to meet it. The artist asked how he sees himself in the context of the city.
“The main thing I told him,” Bauer recalled, “is that if you want to understand San Francisco — which has been described as the only real city that Jews have built outside of Jerusalem — you should remember what Shimon Peres said: that ‘the Jews’ greatest contribution to history is dissatisfaction. Whatever exists, we believe can be changed for the better.’ I think JR got that.”
A number of other prominent Jewish San Franciscans are represented in the mural, including philanthropist and community activist Daniel Lurie, CEO of Tipping Point, whose father Brian Lurie is a rabbi and longtime peace activist; LGBTQ activist and fomer state assemblyman and senator Mark Leno; San Francisco Giants CEO Larry Baer and his wife, Pam; and of course Benioff, a fourth-generation San Franciscan.
“It’s great to be part of San Francisco’s history,” Benioff told JR, in an interview that can be found in the companion book published by Chronicle Books. “I love the incredible diversity that we have here… our pursuit of equality, the level of innovation that has always surrounded us.”
Bauer seconds that emotion. “And I think it’s a nice thing that we are included in an artwork that’s going to be a prominent feature of the city for a long time to come,” he said.
It will be at SFMOMA for about a year, a long time for an art installation to be up. So you’ll have plenty of opportunity to stop in the free Roberts Family Gallery off Howard Street to check out who’s in it. Are you?
J. Editor Sue Fishkoff says she thoroughly enjoyed “Significant Other” at San Francisco Playhouse, both for the script by Joshua Harmon (“Bad Jews”) and the fabulous performances, especially Kyle Cameron as the central character, Jordan Berman. Jordan is a 20-something gay Jewish man living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan who feels his world falling apart as his three closest girlfriends get married, one after one, and he still hasn’t found Mr. Right. Though not a Jewish-themed play per se, Jordan is a very Jewish character, and his interactions with his bubbe, performed by longtime actor-director Joy Carlin, are pure gold. The story is tender and funny, in just the right balance; tight direction and rapid-fire dialogue make the production glow. Through June 15.
I also took in the West Coast premiere of “The Good Book” at Berkeley Rep, curious about whether the main character, an atheist professor of biblical studies, had Jewish roots. With a name like Miriam, and such a deep propensity for radical questioning, I reasoned, how could she not? It’s really not a spoiler that, in fact, she is not Jewish. But the play offers tremendous interest to anyone pondering the Big Questions: e.g., why are we here, and what happens afterward. The script, direction and stagecraft make the heady subject accessible, and all of the actors are deeply appealing. They combine to offer a fascinating look back into the origins of religion and the interface of Judaism and Christianity. Through June 9. Note: Rabbi Steven Chester will lead a discussion of the play on May 22 at Temple Sinai, 2808 Summit St., Oakland. The event, from 7 to 8:30 p.m., is co-hosted by Building Jewish Bridges.
Speaking of good books, an interesting observation was made at the wonderful Bay Area Book Festival the weekend of May 3-5, when thousands of readers flocked to Berkeley to hear hundreds of authors on every topic under the sun. But East Bay author Michael Levitin (“Disposable Man”), who joined Katja Petrowskaja (“Maybe Esther”), Sarah Stone (“Hungry Ghost Theatre”) and moderator Joan Frank on a panel called “Quest: Journeys Through Generations,” wondered later why the event title had not signaled its Jewish focus given that it featured intergenerational Jewish stories. Nearly all of the other panels were clear about their identification with causes, ethnicities or identities: women, LGBTQ, youth, environmentalists, prison activists, even “Nordic noir” novelists. Was there some shyness about the designation of a specifically Jewish panel, Levitin asked? That said, there was no shortage of Jewish writers represented in the festival (keynote co-speaker was Robert Reich). Michael David Lukas was there, flush with the announcement of his 2019 Sami Rohr Prize, with a $100,000 purse, for “The Last Watchman of Old Cairo,” though we did not witness him buying any rounds of drinks … We’ll be there again: Next year, in Berkeley.
On the other hand, “Virtually every writer I know would rather be a musician,” Kurt Vonnegut said, and there will be plenty of that on hand at San Francisco’s annual Mission District music and dance extravaganza known as Carnaval. Co-headlining the event on Sunday, May 26, will be the Jewish Latino band “Hip Hop Hoodíos” (a play on the word “judíos,” which is Spanish for “Jews”), which gained notice in 2002 when they released their video — a hip-hop version of the Ladino Hanukkah song “Ocho Kandelikas” — featuring a girl wearing two bagels for a bikini top. Frontman Josué Noriega’s given name is Josh Norek, and he describes his background as a European Jewish diaspora mix. His grandparents landed in Argentina (like mine!), then headed for New York, contributing to his “dual identity.” (In New York, his group has co-headlined at both the Salute to Israel Parade and the Barrio Museum in Spanish Harlem.) He says he’ll be making history at Carnaval performing with Santi Mostaffa in “the first-ever Latino-Jewish and Latino-Arab rap collaboration.” I expect we’ll be seeing and hearing more from the Hoodíos now that they’ve re-released their debut album, “Raza Hoodío.”
Film note: If you missed “Who Will Write Our History” at the different Jewish film festivals last year, or its global screenings for International Holocaust Remembrance Day in January, the stunning, heartbreaking, incredibly important documentary is now available on iTunes. I won’t be saying this very often — I’m reserving it for when I really mean it: Do. Not. Miss.This. One. Download it at your convenience, at apple.co/WriteHistory.