Archive for Zhitomir

Book of Dreams

Posted in Art and Culture with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 10, 2011 by Louise Steinman

“A dream which is not interpreted is like a letter which is not read,” says the Talmud. In the little shtetlach of Eastern Europe—in towns like Zhitomir and Radomsk where my father and mother’s families came from—travelling booksellers once plied their routes. Among the most popular items they offered for sale were dream books. In the pages of those books you could learn the meaning of any dream: the baby born with the head of a carp; the midwife dancing in the beet field; the miller’s daughter with the extra eye, your long-lost brother with shoes aflame.
In my performance “Sinai/Sinai” (created with poet John Marron) in the early 80’s, I made my own appearance as a Dreampeddlar. To the melancholy chords of a harmonium score, my peddlar entered the stage dressed in a long overcoat weighted down with his over-sized book of dreams.

An artist friend, Richard Posner, made that marvelous Dream Book, a three-ring binder with a white stork embroidered on the front and a camel from a flour sack on the back cover. Richard was a bricoleur; he used whatever was at hand to make luminous works of art. Glass was his primary medium, and his stained glass windows were in the collection of the Exploratorium in San Francisco; the Metropolitan Museum and the Victoria and Albert. An installation he created in Berlin, “Der Wider-Haken-Krauter-Garten” (The Live Not on Evil Garden) used broken glass and healing plants to create what Richard called “a work of transformation” from “waste material into living things.”

Richard died this past spring, victim of a homicide in Tucson, Arizona. When his body was first discovered by the Tucson police, it was reported as “the body of an anonymous 62 year-old man.” Later, Richard’s name was restored and his many accomplishments—numerous public art commissions, four-time Fulbright scholar– were mentioned in the press.

A few weeks ago, several of his friends gathered for a memorial in the Malibu home to commemorate his life. Richard was a difficult man with many problems, including mental health issues all exacerbated by poverty and lack of health care. He could be exasperating. He was neurotic and needy. “Sometimes Richard drove me nuts or maybe it was him reminding me that I was nuts,” wrote one friend. He was also loyal and brilliant.

My dear teacher Rabbi Singer—also Richard’s friend and teacher — wrote to me after he heard the news: “I have his nine wine bottles Menorah on the deck outside. It is just a row of nine wine bottles fused together by some plastic compound. I could never throw it away. It works. It expresses the desperate, makeshift genius of the impoverished to turn on the lights.”

This gathering of friends took a tour of Richard’s artwork from our various collections. Petra Korink, Richard’s wife from Berlin, brought several of his GWOTBOTS (Global War on Terror Robots), constructed from toys gleaned from Berlin flea markets. Richard, an intrepid wordspinner, gave them names like “Blind Leading Blind in Mad Cow Circles.” Our host, Dr. Ralph Potkin pointed out one of Richard’s glass Kitschina, what RP called “a May-December marriage of German ‘kitsch’ with Hopi Indian Kachina dolls.”) Susan Rubin talked about Rich’s Coping Saws, cast and found glass tools which Richard constructed from the detritus of a decade of stained glass and windows broken in the 1994 Northridge, Ca. earthquake. We posed for portraits in his “Bird-Brained Bicycle Helmets”

and we contemplated ethereal glass marbles with fragments of Richard’s ashes. Rabbi Don read the Kaddish and Petra read Wyslawa Szymborska’s poem, “The Heavens,” which begins:

I should have begun with this: the heavens.
A window without a frame, without curtains, without glass.
An opening with nothing beyond
but a vast opening.

I’d rooted through my basement for the occasion, and unearthed that Dream Book that Richard made me decades ago. I sat on a leather chair in Ralph’s house, my back to the Pacific and facing Richard’s friends. I reached into the transparent pockets the artist created in the book, where the storyteller could stash whistles and a mirror, a clothespin, a Jew’s harp or a pocket watch on a gold chain.

[still from my film, “The Strange Tale of Shabbatai Sevi”]

I opened the pages to reveal the dream images within: an erupting volcano; an astronaut tumbling through space; a city under siege; a white horse rearing up under his rider; a veiled woman with a birdcage balanced on her head; a shining green Star of David.

Sarah’s Brain

Posted in Crooked Mirror with tags , , , , on March 2, 2011 by Louise Steinman

Sarah Rebecca Steinman, eldest daughter of my younger brother, is named for her two great-grandmothers. She’s named for Sarah Konarska Weiskopf (my mother’s mother), born in NowoRadomsk, Poland and for Rebecca Nusenov Steinman (my father’s mother) born in Chernihov, Ukraine. My female lineage is embodied in this beautiful young woman, whose mother (née Pedersen) is of Norwegian Lutheran descent.

When Sarah was growing up, her mother offered to join a synagogue, but my brother, then preoccupied with starting his business, was not focused on his daughter’s religious education. Sarah accompanied her mother to church on Sundays, attended Bible camp/

My husband and I wanted children, but have none of our own. From the time she was eight, Lloyd and I eagerly anticipated Sarah’s arrival for a week’s visit each summer. At the end of her stay, we’d watch tearfully as her small figure, laden with her pink backpack and dangling novelty keychains, disappeared through the gate at Burbank Airport.

When Sarah came to visit—I’d flip the switch into Super Aunt. Art museum exhibits. Trips to the beach. Sarah saw her first Shakespeare play (“King Lear”) one summer; another summer, her first Kurosawa film. We watched the film “Gandhi” together and discussed the meaning of non-violence; we watched “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which led to a conversation about the civil rights movement. Sarah loved to pick tomatoes in our garden, fill a bucket with enough oranges from our tree to squeeze for fresh juice.

Already a dreamy child, my niece in those years was wont to slip into a non-communicative mode that could be unnerving. I saw it as my challenge to provoke her, elicit her opinions and observations. (I was channeling my own mother.) One summer afternoon, en route to some cultural destination, I popped into the car’s tape player the cassette recording I’d made of a long-ago Steinman Passover seder.

The tape was a sound collage of my mother Anne, my grandmother Rebecca, my Russian cousin Maya—none still living– in the kitchen preparing a Passover feast. I loved the sound of my mother’s voice– her ebullient phrasing and enthusiastic fervor about the holiday meal. There was the comforting sound of my Grandma Becky’s Yiddish-accented English, warning me as I stirred a pot: “Don’t let the oil jump up and bite you.” My cousin Maya, a recent immigrant from Kiev, protested that her English was not yet good enough to read from the Haggadah. My mother insisted yes it was! There was a dispute over the Russian word for “parsley.” Animated voices preserved in amber. They felt so close; how could they be gone?

I looked over at Sarah. No reaction. Completely impassive. She stared straight ahead. Was she even listening? I was irritated, how could she not have feelings about the sound of her grandmother’s voice?

The answer was obvious. She didn’t know these people. These voices awakened no direct memories. They did not stir the part of Sarah’s brain where emotion was stored. How quickly direct transmission from generation to generation lapses! My grandmother Rebecca died before Sarah was born. My niece didn’t remember my mother Anne, her own grandmother, who adored her. I know she now ardently wishes she did.

Joyce Stanfield Perry, a Juaneño tribal leader in Orange County, wrote about finding a recording of the voice of a tribal elder, made in the 1930s. It was on a dusty shelf in the Smithsonian. Anastacia de Majel, then in her 70s, was one of the last speakers of the Juaneño langauage. According to the news account: Perry said, “We wept. It was truly like our ancestors were talking directly to us.” She discovered things about her ancestors and how they lived that made a deep impression on her. “I didn’t know that animals would talk to my ancestors and that my ancestors understood them. I didn’t know that the stars communicated with my ancestors or that when a crow flies overhead that I’m supposed to say certain words to them. It was humbling to acknowledge how much our ancestors knew.”

What did my ancestors know? I never met my mother’s father, for whom I’m named. My mother never met her own grandparents, nor did she even know their names. I was so fortunate to spend so much time with my grandmother Rebecca, a great storyteller. I attribute my fascination with Eastern European culture and Jewish history to her stories about growing up in Ukraine; when I watched her radiant face as she lit and blessed the Friday night candles, it offered a glimpse of the possibility of communing with the Divine.

Ultimately, it was Sarah—around age 12—who decided she wanted to study Hebrew for her Bat Mitzvah. My brother even joined her studying Hebrew at night, and the ceremony gave great delight to the entire family.

The other night, Sarah (now twenty-two and soon to graduate from USC) and I were working at the computer in my office at home. I noticed Sarah staring at a hand-tinted family photo on my desk. “Who is that?” she asked. It was a photo of my Aunt Ruth, Sarah’s great-aunt. I was happy to tell Sarah what I knew about Aunt Ruth, how, when my grandmother made the journey from Ukraine to New York, she pinned a little muslin sack containing the family valuables to the underside of Ruth’s pinafore. You could trust Aunt Ruth with the family valuables. Ruth Steinman had a congenital heart defect—a little hole in the heart– and died at age 14. My father was anxious to name his first-born Ruth, in memory of his ally, his best friend. My sister Ruth, born while my father was away at war, is named for this plucky Russian aunt of ours.

The exiled Egyptian-Jewish writer Edmond Jabès speaks of “permanent rupture” as a state of being in his writing and in his Jewish heritage. He writes, “I don’t believe in continuity. Continuity is made of ruptures, and we ourselves are this rupture.”

Sarah Rebecca Steinman is the rupture; she is also the continuity.

Sarah and her aunt

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