Jews in Classical Music 101

Written by Victoria Liang

If one were to ask a stranger about classical music, they’ll likely name Mozart, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky—and maybe, if they’re really clever, Bach, too. Sadly, most people are at best lukewarm toward this “old-fashioned” style of music, sometimes branding it as “boring,” “elitist” and “the perfect ambience for putting someone to sleep.” But there is something alluring about classical music that never ceases to amaze even a slightly-more-than-casual listener like me.

As I explore into the histories and biographies of the classical musicians that intrigue me, I’ve discovered that many of them are Jewish either by proud expression or by concealed ancestry. Violinist Joshua Bell once said, “There was a time when practically every major soloist was Jewish.” I cannot vouch for being Jewish and musical simultaneously, but there are indeed a significant amount of Jews not only as soloists but also composers. The numbers are as fascinating as the hefty Jewish representation in Nobel Prizes. The Jewish Virtual Library reports that even though Jews make up less than 0.2% of the global population, more than 22% of all Nobel Prize honorees are of Jewish ancestry.

However, my purpose here is not to explain nor argue for this striking and curious correlation. There are plenty of scholarly books that tackle such an endeavour and I likely would be echoing their rhetoric anyway. Instead, I write this primer for those who know little about Jews in European classical music, to introduce a few eminent Jewish virtuosos who deserve an open-minded audience, and prove the genre to be less boring and tedious.


Jascha Heifetz

It was rumored that Niccolo Paganini, the nineteenth-century rockstar violinist who’s now the author of much of the contemporary violin repertoire, made a pact with the Devil to acquire supernatural talent. Much of the Paganini legend—as well as his “legendaryness”—could use more first-hand evidence than simply hearsay. I cannot confirm Paganini’s genius any more than a historian reading about Paganini’s acclaim at the time or a violinist trying to master his complex melodies. But, Jascha Heifetz might be the next best thing, or the only thing I can attest with confidence to be almost supernatural.

Born to Russian-Jewish parents in the Lithuanian region of the Russian Empire, Heifetz spent much of his career in the United States and became a U.S. citizen in 1925. “God’s fiddler,” as he was called, was known for his impeccable technique, intense vibrato, and revolutionizing the violin soloist style. There were the violinists who came before Heifetz and there were those who came after. The latter kind more or less modelled themselves after Heifetz’s playing style.

There’s little one can do wrong when selecting a piece of music played by Heifetz because the man do little wrong when playing the violin. The current violin solo standard is the trio of Brahms, Beethoven and Mendelssohn concertos. Every aspiring violinist masters these three grand pieces of music and fortunately for us, Heifetz did recordings for all of them. Much of his fame came from numerous albums of the expected classical repertoire as well as Tin Pan Alley genres. However, he unfortunately never recorded Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, another recognizable concerto that showcases a violinist’s mastery. Perhaps Baroque’s rigid rhythms never suited Heifetz’s naturally Romantic timbre.


Heifetz Classics:

Violin Concerto in D Major, Movement III. Allegro giocoso

Composer: Johannes Brahms


Violin Concerto in D Major, Movement III. Rondo

Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven


Violin Concerto in E Minor, Movement I. Allegro molto appassionato

Composer: Felix Mendelssohn


Porgy And Bess: It Ain’t Necessarily So

Composer: George Gershwin


24 Caprices Op. 1: No. 24 in A minor

Composer: Niccolò Paganini



Gustav Mahler

Gustav Mahler wasn’t the most popular composer during his days and was known for his conducting rather than composing. The American conductor Leonard Bernstein revived Mahler’s symphonies in the Fifties and Sixties and recorded marvelous renditions of them, bringing the composer’s music into the spotlight. To speak of Mahler’s symphonies is to imply Bernstein’s performances of them among classical music circles. The two men had many things in common. Both were composers and conductors concurrently, and both were of Jewish ancestry while assimilating into their country of birth.

Mahler was born in the region of Bohemia of what was known as the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1860. He played the awkward and dangerous balancing act of being both Austrian by nationality and Jewish by ancestry. Anti-Semitism plagued Austrian culture especially within the “high-culture” cliques like classical music. Mahler didn’t miss the sinister racism like so many of his other Jewish friends and wasn’t so naive as to be public about being Jewish. He converted to Christianity in 1897 so he could lead the Vienna Hofoper (the state opera for one of the global capitals of classical music) which barred Jews from its most respected position, and married a Catholic wife who was an outspoken anti-Semite.

Some music critics argue that Mahler’s music has very apparent Jewish influences although I can’t fully affirm it. These musical “notes” of flavor are mostly relative and subjective in my experience. But what is certain to me is that his adagietto from Symphony No. 5 possesses an indescribable pathos. It’s a melancholic tune at first hearing but has moments of comfort and hope during harmonic phrases as well as brief peaks of anxiety with its striking dissonances. This entrancing imbroglio of moods puts Mahler high on my list of favorites.


Selections from Mahler’s Symphonies:

Adagietto from Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp minor

Conductor: Leonard Bernstein


Symphony No. 1 in D Major “Titan”

Conductor: Leonard Bernstein


Symphony No. 6 in A minor: 3. Andante moderato

Conductor: Leonard Bernstein



Daniel Barenboim

On my list of musicians here, Daniel Barenboim is undoubtedly the most politically bold and bolder than many other classical musicians. Therefore I contend that Barenboim deserves a special, amusical mention. Born in 1942 in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Daniel Barenboim only spent about ten years in the Argentine capital before he and his family moved to Israel. He was first a star pianist then a star conductor. He’s a beloved musician in Europe, but not without a claim to infamy as well. His statements on the Israel-Palestine conflict attracted much controversy, expectedly for a such a benighted conflict. His musical projects to improve this bitter situation are his most impressive feat.

Barenboim was a close friend of Edward Said, the Palestinian-American academic known for bringing more attention to the Palestinians back when their voices were unheard. Like Said, Barenboim criticizes Israel for maintaining humanitarian principles in writing but not in practice. In 2004, Barenboim received the Wolf Prize (an Israeli award which honors distinguished scientists and artists) and in his speech before the Knesset, he said, “I am asking today with deep sorrow: Can we, despite all our achievements, ignore the intolerable gap between what the Declaration of Independence promised and what was fulfilled, the gap between the idea and the realities of Israel?”

Barenboim mentioned his admiration for the original Israeli Declaration of Independence in that it promised equality and freedom regardless of religious or ethnic background. This “gap between the idea and the realities of Israel” referred to the occupation of Palestinian land which Barenboim saw as an unrealistic goal. The conductor asserted that Palestinian protests were not a product of anti-Semitism but of injustice and expulsion. He once said that he isn’t a political man and one can see that in this conflict, “political” is easily synonymous with the uncompromising. With Hamas’ growing power in recent decades, the prescient maestro, like so many others, sensed a growing odor of “anti-Jewishness”—as opaque as their perpetrators frequently imply it. He reiterated that the Palestinians must never forget the Holocaust and their grievances mustn’t become anti-Semitic. There are important distinctions to be made in this messy squabble, and the worst of the propagandists will continue to blur them by wielding peace on one hand and holding a gun with the other. Barenboim is not a prey to these deceptions.

Amid the loud cacophony from both sides of extremes, the orthodox Israelis and the jihadists forces, Barenboim represents what is now unfortunately a rare voice that’s alien to the people in power. He emulates the shrewd rhetoric agreed upon by many intellectuals and policymakers, yet the direction of this conflict has swerved farther away from peace since it began. Barenboim is allegedly the first person to hold both Israeli and Palestinian citizenship. He spends part of his time with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra (founded by him and Edward Said), a youth orchestra dedicated to encourage dialogue between Jews and Muslims. If there is anything every decent human being should share, it is an appreciation of the arts and music. Those who want to destroy art because of an unwelcomed ideology will want to destroy other forms of expression as well.



Barenboim, Pianist and Conductor:

The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1: Prelude No. 1 in C Major

Composer: J. S. Bach

Pianist: Daniel Barenboim


La Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas: No. 3 Primavera porteña

Composer: Astor Piazzolla

Pianist: Daniel Barenboim


Götterdämmerung, Act 3: Funeral March

Composer: Richard Wagner

Conductor: Daniel Barenboim



“I find it all the more important to do away with certain misunderstandings and false claims about Wagner precisely because perceptions of him are often so confused and controversial. Today we also want to devote ourselves to the extra-musical sides of Wagner’s personality, and among these are of course his notorious and unacceptable anti-Semitic statements.”—Daniel Barenboim

Barenboim has advocated for breaking the taboo on Wagner’s music in the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. The “Funeral March” from Götterdämmerung was the last piece of music played by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra before they evacuated from Berlin at the end of World War II.

The Tale of The Hunched Old Man

Written by Zachary Brenner

Illustrated by Annelise Asch

For five years, Isaac had roamed the land of Eastern Europe, going from village to village and entering households each Friday morning to accompany the local residents for Shabbat — the Jewish day of rest. However, for Isaac, Shabbat was not merely a day of rest. It was a day to rejuvenate the soul— and his soul, in particular, craved love and community. Like many Jews of his neighborhood in Poland, Isaac found community to be among the greatest attractions to Judaism—he often remembered the weekly, village-wide feasts with his closest friends, greatest foes, and interesting individuals in between.

This particular Friday would mark the anniversary of the beginning of his travels, which began as a search for the perfect chicken soup recipe, then unpredictably expanded to Isaac searching for more and more community to surround himself with. After havdalah each Saturday night, he would take out his quill and parchment and write to the new friends he spent Shabbat with. He would recite Torah verses they discussed, remind these friends of the stories he had shared with them, and most importantly, he would ask for the chicken soup recipe. He always wanted that chicken soup recipe. The return address he left was his father’s house in Poland, and Isaac often dreamt of how great it would be to return home to see hundreds of letters waiting for him, and his family anxious to ask him about who he met and where he went.

Isaac often felt guilty, however. Although his family had encouraged his travels, Isaac knew that the chores and work to be done in his village were no small tasks. Hopefully, when Isaac returned, he would be able to do all the work so his brothers, sisters, and friends could travel like he did.

On this particular Friday morning, Isaac sat atop a grassy hill and watched the cloudy sunrise. The clouds obstructed the unpleasantness of the sudden brightness that the Sun introduces once rising enough over a nearby mountain. Isaac took a long breath in, accepting the simultaneous coolness and freshness of the morning air—one of his favorite pre-Shabbat rituals. The air seamlessly moved through his lungs and back out of his mouth. He took another inhale, only this time the freshness was elevated to a level he hadn’t smelled since his days in Poland as a young boy—something floral. He opened his eyes and turned his head—and he saw him. An older man, hunched over, carrying a basket of mustard flowers. The bright yellow tint replaced the brightness the sun was meant to provide, yet Isaac could not take his eyes off the flowers. Flowers like he hadn’t seen in years—the flowers of his younger years in Poland playing in the fields with his siblings.

Isaac walked toward the man who hadn’t noticed him sitting there. Careful not to startle him, he gently tapped the hunched man’s shoulder. Shocked, and a bit confused, the man looked up at Isaac and in the next couple seconds, suddenly blurted out, “You’re Isaac… Mayer’s son…”

Isaac did not know this man. He had never seen him before.

“How do you know my name, sir?” Isaac inquired.

“We are both from the same place in Poland… I haven’t seen you in years.”

“That’s not possible… I’ve never seen you before. I know everyone in my village.”

“I’ve been around. I’m not sure how we’ve not crossed paths.”

They both sat on the hill together— the man recovering from fatigue, and Isaac curious how he could have never met this man before. They talked about things of mutual interest: such as what makes a great kneydl and how to properly build a stable roof. They discussed things of mutual regret: both had left their families in pursuit of higher dreams. The hunched man, in pursuit of the perfect, secluded area to build a home where his wife and he could reside until the end and Isaac, in pursuit of greater community. They exchanged jokes and laughed together. Isaac found himself laughing more than he usually did.

For the first time in years, Isaac felt as if he could remain right where he was: talking and joking with the hunched old man. He could not remember the last time he felt this way about any particular person.

When the sun was high and Isaac had to begin his journey to the nearby village for Shabbat, he did not want to go anymore. His vision for this Shabbat was sitting with the hunched old man, looking for the perfect place to build his new home. A new home that, for Isaac, was less happy and more melancholy, for this man would no longer live in the village that Isaac would soon be returning to. How could he have overlooked such a pleasurable human being that lived possibly a few doors down from him? His pursuit for something greater, for the perfect community — and his obsession with returning home to find stacks of letters — seemed far less grand and attractive at this point in time. Instead, he felt a stronger sense of regret than he ever had: where had the years gone, and why had this friendship not flourished to anything profound or possibly everlasting?

Isaac turned to the man and offered his help to bring the flowers with them.

“But what about Shabbat?” the old man asked.

Isaac looked ahead to the village he was meant to journey to: the locals walked around their homes with various cooking supplies and siddurim. He smiled as he saw a young girl grab onto an older woman’s leg.

“I’d be happy to spend this Shabbat with you.”

Handmade With Love

Written by Sarah Cohen

Illustrated by Rose Teplitz

“Knitzvah” is a play on words, combining the Hebrew word mitzvah with knitting, which cleverly describes the focus of the ever-growing Bay Area-based charity knitting group. The organization will be celebrating its 11th birthday this August, and Barbara Berlant, the Knitzvah chair, shares how her passion project quickly turned into a flourishing volunteer organization underneath the umbrella of Jewish Family Services. Barbara organizes meetings and donation distributions. She also maintains a strong relationship with recipient organizations such as schools, shelters, care facilities, and hospitals.

My first time walking into the Sunday morning meeting was a little bit daunting. Women pulling yarn from project bags at their feet, each with a pile of finished work and an equally large pile of yarn to take home for the next month’s projects, chatting happily around tables set up in a circle in the room. Totes of yarn lined the front counters: acrylic, wool, worsted, sock yarn, and scraps. After sharing with us the donations that have gone out and the thank you cards from classrooms, parents, and others accepting donations, Barbara invites people to share their finished projects with the group. “Oohs” and “Ahhs” fill the room as each handmade item is held up, and two women sort them by type into large bags on chairs in the back. I quietly sit with my mom.

Now, as a semi-regular attendee, I am greeted with hugs and while I still sit with my mom, I have made friends with many different Knitzvah members. I have had the privilege of being part of Knitzvah for approximately two years, and now I have the chance to talk to Barbara about how it all got started.

Once Barbara started knitting, she couldn’t stop. She made hats for all of her friends and family, and made baby hats to drop off at shelters. While at a Jewish fundraiser, she had a conversation with Mindy Berkowitz, the Executive Director of Jewish Family Services, in which she shared her interest in a knitting group in the Jewish community. Excited, Mindy told her that JFS would take donations of hats and scarves. Mindy called her back a few days later, and after confirming Barbara was still interested, said, “Well, get your friends together and come knit here!” Both had thought that the other had an already established knitting group. There was no shortage of interest though – knitters came together and began on the first project. Eleven years later, Knitzvah has donated over 20,000 items to over two dozen local charities.

Knitzvah’s first project was lap blankets for seniors. They began their first meeting in August. Barbara had never made a blanket before and thought that at her pace, one would take a year. Word spread fast about Knitzvah, and the organization that had started with just one woman’s enthusiasm for knitting soon had 15 members. At their first “wrap up” meeting in December, they gift wrapped 125 blankets for seniors, made in just 4 short months, that were given as Hanukkah gifts.

Barbara went on to tell me stories about various introductions to new charities, new donations, and new Knitzvah members. She is amazed by the community response and the donations that pour in. Recipients in need were introduced to Knitzvah the same way that volunteers were, and word spread. A friend of a friend suggested donating to the program Transition Age Youth in Santa Cruz County. When offered hats and scarfs, the organization was grateful, and asked for luggage. Barbara explained, “These kids carry their things around in garbage bags and it makes them feel like garbage.” In the last three years, Knitzvah has given over a thousand pieces of luggage, from duffel bags to backpacks to suitcases.

Proud of all of the “fabulous and amazing” Knitzvah members, as she addresses the monthly email, Barbara shares stories of incredible work these volunteers have done. It doesn’t matter to her what projects people bring, or if you bring 20 completed items or just one, everyone has a favorite pattern and there will be a need for it somewhere. Her enthusiasm is contagious and her motivation is simple. She wants to “provide an avenue for people who have the best of intentions to give to the community… I’m the luckiest person in the world to be around them.”

Matzah Toffee

Written by Jessica Fischman

Matzah Toffee, or “matzah toffee crack” as I like to call it, is a simple, yet delicious treat you can make for Passover. About 8 years ago, my aunt showed me this recipe, and from then on I have been addicted to making it every year as tradition. What’s great about this recipe is it can be made with saltines for whenever you want to make a quick dessert for dinner.



First, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a cookie sheet with foil as well as parchment paper. The foil sheet will be on the bottom, and make sure the foil folds over the edges of the cookie sheet. The toffee can be very hard to clean off the cookie sheet if the foil is not used Cover the whole baking sheet with matzah.


Now, to make the toffee combine butter and sugar in a sauce pan. Cook on medium heat while stirring the mixture constantly with a whisk. Keep the mixture on the fire until it becomes bubbly and foamy. Immediately pour the mixture onto the matzah. Then use a spatula to evenly spread the toffee to cover all of the matzah.


Put the baking sheet into the oven and bake for about 10 minutes or until the toffee bubbles all over. Then take the baking sheet out of the oven and immediately sprinkle chocolate chips all over the top. Wait a few minutes for the chocolate chips to soften, and then use a spatula to evenly spread the chocolate to cover all of the matzah.


Then, take the nuts of your choice (I like to use almonds or pecans) and sprinkle them on top of the chocolate. Let your matzah toffee cool in the refrigerator for about 45 minutes, I like to stick it in the freezer for 20 minutes.


After the matzah has cooled, you can remove it from the fridge and lift the foil layer from the baking sheet and place it onto a cutting board. Using a sharp knife, cut the matzah toffee into 2 inch squares or simply just break it into pieces with your hand.


*Best served cold


Topping Ideas:

Peppermint pieces



Cereal ie. Cocoa Pebbles, Fruity Pebbles or some non-kosher for Passover cereal like Captain Crunch or Lucky Charms


4-5 lightly salted matzos

2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter

1 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar

1 (12-ounce) bag semi-sweet chocolate chips (I use Ghirardelli)

1 heaping cup chopped nuts

1/2 teaspoon sea salt flakes or kosher salt

Remembering Primo Levi in the 30th Anniversarry of his Death

Written by Avery Weinman

Illustrated by Rose Teplitz

April 11, 2017 marks the thirtieth anniversary of the death of writer, activist, and Holocaust Survivor Primo Levi at his home in Turin, Italy. Leviathan remembers him in this issue to celebrate the fascinating life of a man who was truly a great author, and to honor him for his contributions to justice and empowering Holocaust survivors to come to be able to speak about their experiences.

This piece is too short a space to provide a biography that would do Primo Levi justice.  Detailed accounts of his own life, in his own voice, are available in his numerous works and autobiographies including Survival in Auschwitz, The Periodic Table, Moments of Reprieve, and The Drowned and the Saved; these works provide more meaningful insight than anything I could hope to accomplish in this piece. I will say simply this: a chemist by trade, Primo Levi was an Italian Jew who was sent to Auschwitz after revealing he was Jewish when Italian fascists captured him as a Partisan fighter.  His life both at Auschwitz and after is a portrait of both the best and the worst that humanity has to offer.   He dedicated his life to speaking and writing about the events and the lessons of the Holocaust.


Since there was an Auschwitz, can there also be a God?


In this piece I will choose to focus on the legacy of Levi’s works, and what sets his work apart from other memoirs about the Holocaust.  To do this, it is imperative to have a sense of what Holocaust literature looked like in the years immediately following the end of the Second

World War.  In 1947, when Primo Levi originally published his first autobiography Survival in Auschwitz – in its original Italian language and title Se Questo è un Uomo (If This is a Man) – Holocaust literature was in its infancy.   The most popular Holocaust autobiography which existed at the time was The Diary of a Young Girl, known more popularly as The Diary of Anne Frank.  And, while The Diary of a Young Girl recounts in great autobiographical detail the trauma of life under Nazi occupation in the Netherlands, it did not provide an autobiographical account of Anne Frank’s time at Auschwitz and her eventual murder at Bergen-Belsen.  Viktor E. Frankl’s 1946 work, Man’s Search for Meaning – part Holocaust memoir, part explication of Frankl’s psychological method of logotherapy – predates Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz by one year, but is more of a study in the psychology of how and why people survive trauma than it is dedicated to telling the history of the Holocaust. Władysław Szpilman’s memoir from 1946, The Pianist: The Extraordinary Story of One Man’s Survival in Warsaw 1939-1945 – the book which would inspire the acclaimed 2002 film of the same name – is similar to Frank’s memoir in that it describes in great detail the horror of Nazi rule in the Warsaw Ghetto in Poland, but does not venture into the realm of the Nazi concentration camps.  

What makes Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz unique is that he recounted, for the first time in full and excruciatingly remembered detail, the reality of life at a concentration camp.  Levi’s unflinching portrait of the pinnacle of human degradation in the modern era, coupled with prose that asked the audience to question the implications of the fact that the Holocaust was even able to happen at all, set Levi apart from the mainstream of the narrative of Holocaust memoirs at the time.

In the immediate years following World War Two, talking about the Holocaust was not yet an acceptable part of our global culture.  The pervading sense was that Holocaust survivors, and more generally anyone who had any contact with the camps at all, were eager to forget and attempt to move on.  Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz made this complacency impossible; the titular poem which opens the book – “If This is A Man”  – made it clear that Levi intended to force the world whose indifference enabled the genocide of six million Jews to reflect fully on the fact that this has happened.  Levi expanded upon the descriptions of the Holocaust provided by Frank, Frankl, and Szpilman and exposed the full depravity of the concentration camps.  Levi’s prose is meticulous and comprehensive to the point that it causes the audience genuine discomfort, and the questions Levi asks of the audience are among the most acute ever asked about the Holocaust. Were civilian Germans, complicit in Nazi rule, responsible for the Holocaust?  Who are we to judge the men and women in the Judenrat or who worked as Sonderkommandos? Since there was an Auschwitz, can there also be a God?  And, most importantly, since the Holocaust did happen, will it happen again?

In the Parshat Shoftim, the 48th weekly portion in the Jewish tradition of reciting the entirety of the Torah over a one year period, Moses speaks these words unto the Israelites, “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” He did not say pursue justice only when it is uncomplicated, pursue justice only when it is easy to find, pursue justice only when it is painless; he said pursue justice, in all its complications, in all of its difficulty, in all the pain that it causes you to pursue it.  Leviathan remembers Primo Levi in this issue, thirty years after his death, for his importance as a writer, as a survivor, as an activist, but most importantly for the lesson he offers us about the tenacity with which we must all pursue justice.  

Primo Levi was sent to Auschwitz in 1944 when he was twenty-four years old, and he published his last book on the Holocaust, The Drowned and the Saved, in 1986, the year before his death at age sixty-seven.  For forty-two years, Primo Levi spent his life reliving and recounting the horrors of the Holocaust at Auschwitz.  And why? Why did he bear the burden of living in a state of excruciating trauma for so long?  In Survival in Auschwitz, Levi wrote, “Even in this place [Auschwitz] one can survive, and therefore one must want to survive, to tell the story, to bear witness; and that to survive we must force ourselves to save at least the skeleton, the scaffolding, the form of civilization. We are slaves, deprived of every right, exposed to every insult, condemned to certain death, but we still possess one power, and we must defend it with all our strength for it is the last — the power to refuse our consent.”

Levi’s dedication to writing about the Holocaust led him to experience deep bouts of debilitating depression, but he continued to write because he knew that he had a deeply important and necessary job to do. In his utter commitment to reminding humanity of the Holocaust through revisiting his own trauma, Primo Levi pursued justice for the six million Jews who could not speak.  They did not live to tell us their stories, but Levi could tell us his.  This is how he could pursue justice. Through his service to us, in spite of the insurmountable tragedy he survived, he is a testament to us all about the voracity with which we must pursue justice.  We must bear witness when others cannot.  Unspeakable tragedies occur, but we must speak on them.  We must speak on them to remind us all what we are capable of, and to pursue justice for those in the past, present, and future so that no one may have to relive what we suffer.


Blending Inspiration: How the Colors of Helen Frankenthaler Moved Me

Writen by Natalie Friedman

Photos by Yessenia Pozo Coronel

There is an exquisite flow that occurs when I am painting and falling deep into the color as it coats the canvas. Suddenly, I remind myself that I need to take a step back, look at the big picture, and plan. I always look out for painters who seem to demonstrate this flow – especially with color. I was attracted to Helen Frankenthaler’s paintings because she appears to truly understand this concept.

Helen Frankenthaler was a German-Jewish abstract painter, born in 1928 into a wealthy family in Manhattan, New York. Her father Alfred Frankenthaler, was a New York State Supreme Court Justice while her mother, Martha Lowenstein, emigrated with her family from Germany to the United States. Helen Frankenthaler grew up in New York’s Upper East Side and lived with a educated and progressive Jewish family. She studied art at the Dalton School and Bennington College. She was popular in the abstract art community through six decades. Her first major accomplishment was a showing at the Jewish Museum in 1960 in New York City. The Jewish Museum is especially meaningful to many Jewish people in the United States as it is the first museum in the United States to specifically showcase Jewish artists, in addition to one of the oldest existing Jewish museums in the world. She is now considered one of the most “important contributors to the history of postwar American painting,” according to the Jewish Women’s Archive.

She uses the color field method, which means her pieces consist of large spaces of flat, solid color. First, she mixes oil paint and turpenoid (an oil paint thinner). Then, she pours the mixture onto a large canvas. This pouring method lacks control, which aids experimentation. The Jewish Women’s Archive explains, “The rules and risks and possibilities mentioned by Frankenthaler were meant by the artist in reference to her art, to the traditions and conventions that are acknowledged or altered or discarded by it, to the unknown territory it opens before us and explores, to the deep significance of its creativity. Frankenthaler’s art embodies all of this, but it could not do so in the absence of the exceptional human being behind it.”

While she may have planned her paintings, it seems that her flow is uninterrupted and exploratory. She once said, “The only rule is that there are no rules. Anything is possible … It’s all about risks, deliberate risks.” Many painters are familiar with the initial steps of painting with oils. Personally, doing color studies is my favorite part of the process. A color study is a step in preparation for the final piece. The artist creates rough shapes in various colors in order to check that the colors don’t clash. In Frankenthaler’s paintings, it is easy for the viewer to fall into her color and thus, in a way, the viewer becomes the painter. This is because the viewer becomes aware of each step in the process. She explains, “The landscapes were in my arms as I did it.” The act of pouring paint is a unique interactive experience – both physically and emotionally. In my own piece, I have used the color field method, used by Helen Frankenthaler.

“Frankenthaler’s soak-stain technique enabled an entirely new experience of

pictorial color: fresh, breathing, disembodied, exhilarating in its unfettered

appeal to eyesight alone.” -Carl Belz


Written by Hannah Carrasco

Illustrated by Rose Teplitz

Last year, I embarked on my second intensive Israel education trip, this time with Hasbara Fellowships. My delegation, made up of college students from the U.S. and Canada, traveled all across Israel and the West Bank during our 15 days. We would learn how to become effective campus educators and advocates for Israel through facts and first-hand experiences. Although I cannot recall everything we learned, not everyone we met, and not every place we visited, there is one place that clearly stands out among the rest: Sderot. This was not my first time visiting “The Bomb Shelter Capital of the World”.Sderot did not change during this time, neither did its inhabitants nor its security. But, Sderot changed me.

Sderot is a city less than a mile away from the Gaza Strip. Gaza is ruled by Hamas, a recognized terrorist organization. Thousands of rockets fired by Hamas have rained from the sky into schools, homes, playgrounds, and streets. Rockets fall regardless of wars. There is no knowing when, where, or how many. Because of the high volume of rocket attacks, an early-warning radar system was installed. By the time a rocket is spotted, there is only fifteen seconds until it makes contact. That means, that within that time, everyone has to run and seek safety in a bomb shelter. The alarm system that warns the city of incoming rockets is fallible. And because of that, people get injured and people, young and old, die.

There are four things from that visit that I will never forget: our initial conversation with our tour guide, the videos we watched, the displayed collection of rockets, and the fear in the eyes of three young boys.

When we arrived, we were greeted by Noam Bedein, our tour guide for the day. The first place we visited was an underground bomb shelter where, from what I understood, Israel Defense Forces soldiers watched security screens to identify incoming rockets from Gaza and sound the alarm. We all sat down around a large table and listened to the history of Sderot and the challenges its people face.

The most emotional part of this conversation was when we were told that around half of the people living in Sderot suffer from similar symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, including the children. But, alas, they are not in a post-traumatic state, Bedein told us. Sderot citizens currently suffer from ongoing trauma. We learned that the birth rate in Sderot was declining, not because of the fear of bringing children into this world, but because people were afraid to have sex. Would they have enough time to get to the bomb shelter if they did? They had to weigh the pros and cons of all of their actions to determine what they should do, and most decided better safe than sorry. Our barrage of questions included topics like “why don’t they move, get out of this place?” And “why do parents put their children through these horrors?” Bedein told us it was because of Jewish resilience. People did not move away because they didn’t want to give in to Hamas. They would not run away and let Hamas win. They would stay and weather out the storm.

Next were the videos. We watched a handful, but two were seared into my mind. The first one was a video taken during one of the many rocket attacks Sderot continuously faces. It showed a school where the young children were outside playing and having fun when suddenly the warning alarm went off. The teachers hurried them to the safety of the school shelter. Many immediately knew what they were supposed to do: run to the nearest shelter. They are taught this from the time they can walk; it becomes second instinct. Still, a few straggled as some children are bound to do. Teachers quickly ushered them inside or picked them up and hurried inside. And then, the video shows these little children, maybe around six or seven, all singing this song and purposefully moving their arms and legs about. They knew what was happening whether they really grasped the gravity of the situation or not. The song and dance combo is a strategic technique to prevent their little bodies from going into shock. It is to keep their blood moving and to distract them from what was happening outside. But, since they are young, the singing and ‘dancing’ was made fun. The song is in Hebrew and Bedein told us an abbreviated version of the lyrics. They all sing along and smile and follow the instructions the song lays out.

Hurry to the bomb shelter. Shake one’s arms and loosen one’s legs. Breathe in deep and breathe out slow.

They sing about how it’s happening because they are a little different, but that’s ok. They won’t get hurt today. Before the creation of this song, many children would panic and freeze when the alarm went off putting themselves in danger and some faced different types of developmental regression,  like bed-wetting, for example.


We learned that the birth rate in Sderot was declining, not because of the fear of bringing children into this world, but because people were afraid to have sex. Would they have enough time to get to the bomb shelter if they did?



The next video was not actual footage of events happening in Sderot; it was a representation of the short amount of time a person has to get to a bomb shelter. The video itself is about a minute long, but it feels like an epic journey. The first shot shows a three or four-year-old girl playing with her toys in the backyard. The screen changes then to her mother laying her baby boy in his crib. She walks out and stands near the back door watching her daughter. Then, the mother walks to the kitchen to make a cup of coffee. Suddenly, the alarm sounds. Fifteen seconds on the clock. Her coffee cup immediately falls to the ground and shatters. The countdown begins on the screen. She runs to the backdoor and bangs on it trying to get her daughter’s attention. The little girl just sits there with her hands over her ears. Eight seconds to go. She has to make a decision. Continue trying to get her attention or run and get the baby from his crib and pray her daughter realizes to run to the shelter. She decides. Get the baby and pray. The mother grabs him. They rush to the shelter. She looks out of the little window at her daughter. Five seconds. The girl hasn’t moved. Four. Panic fills the mother’s eyes. Three. The camera pans back to the daughter. Two. One. The screen goes black. This video shows that decisions have to be made in a split second and those decisions can alter everything. One wrong decision, and someone can get injured or die. This is a reality that the people of Sderot live with every day.

We left the safety of the underground shelter to make our way to a playground. But on our way there, we took a detour to the Sderot Police Station. But it wasn’t the police station that we stopped to talk about. Rather, it was the collection of hundreds of exploded rockets displayed outside of it. Shelves full of metal rockets ranging in size. The ends blown off and the metal shredded near each end of the cylinder. Hundreds of rockets sitting right before us. The most shocking thing was not the rusted rockets sitting on top of each other in piles. Rather, the most shocking thing was a giant menorah, the symbol of the Jewish people, of Jewish resilience, of light and hope, constructed by the police department and made out of the scraps of rockets meant to kill them.

Lastly, our final destination was the aforementioned playground. Why was this on the agenda? It wasn’t to give us a break. When we got there, we all sat down on the picnic benches. Bedein pointed out two or three bomb shelters on the playground, but the one worth mentioning was the main ‘attraction’. It was a huge concrete capitellar snaking its way through the middle of the playground, brightly painted with yellow and green, with a silly face and big happy eyes. While we were there, there were three boys sitting on top of it, talking and playing. For them, it was a normal toy. Bedein told us that all parks and playgrounds have multiple bomb shelters because of the volume of children playing there during certain times. He pointed to the three young boys and told us that they have witnessed two wars. Bedein did not know them, but still his words are true for any child around their age in Israel, and especially in Sderot where the damage of the war is exacerbated.


I get to walk away but they do not. For us it’s a visit. For them, it’s their whole lives.



Now it was our turn. Not to experience a war, but to experience how fast fifteen seconds passes. He told us to go play around, walk around, do whatever we wanted to do, but as soon as he yelled “Tzeva Adom” to run to the bomb shelter. Tzeva Adom, or “Color Red” in English, is what the warning alarm system says as the siren blares. The female voice repeats “Color Red, Color Red” until the threat passes. We followed his instructions for a minute and then he yelled out “Tzeva Adom” and we ran towards the caterpillar. Fifteen seconds is very little time. As we were running for shelter I looked up at the boys. I saw their fear, their confusion. Why did that man just yell “Tzeva Adom” out of nowhere? Why were these 25 some-odd college students running for shelter? These are some questions that probably went through their heads. They knew it was not the real alarm, since Bedein was the one to yell it, but the words themselves invoke fear for it is those words that links the people to their survival.

“Just remember, at the end of the day you get to leave. They don’t.”

The words above were told to us by our tour guide for the day. He presented this statement to us at the beginning of our visit to preface what we would learn and see and at the end to remind us of Jewish resilience and of our privilege. The reason Sderot changed me lies in those words. The first time I went, I left. It did not occur to me that I would be back. It was another emotional stop on our trip, but one that I would soon forget. Returning to Sderot reminded me that I have the privilege to live a (not bomb) sheltered life where I can pick and choose when and when not to worry about others facing catastrophes on a daily basis. I can walk around my neighborhood without seeing bomb shelters looming at every bus stop or playground. The only thing that falls from the sky that I have to concern myself with is rain, not rockets. I just go about my business, as well as countless others, without having to worry about my life being on the line. I forgot what those that live in Sderot, and other war-torn and dangerous areas, face every day.

Visiting Sderot a second time was when those words stuck. This time, I made sure to recognize the privileges I have, especially when it comes to not having to worry if each day is my last.  I get to walk away but they do not. For us it’s a visit. For them, it’s their whole lives.