Jews are wanderers, not always by choice, and the theme of Nextbook’s second Los Angeles area festival, held at UCLA on June 29, was “Jewish Geography.” Nextbook, a web site and book publishing outfit based in New York, holds several events each year on themes pertaining to Jewish culture. This year’s L.A. event featured locally prominent Jewish artists and activists who spoke of the impact that their place in Jewish geography has had on their lives and careers.
Architectural photographer Julius Shulman was the guest whose appearance was most anticipated. With a career in photography going back to the 1920s, Shulman has a reputation as a chronicler of the physical changes Los Angeles has experienced.
Aaron Paley, president of Community Arts Resources (CARS) which produced the event locally for Nextbook, had prepared questions to ask Shulman, in coordination with a PowerPoint presentation of his photos.
But the 97-year old Shulman talked about what he wanted to talk about. He reminisced about the immigration of his parents, noting that his father went from Latvia (where it was cold) to the Ukraine (warmer), to Brooklyn, Connecticut, and finally California. “Jews keep moving to where it’s warmer,” he said.
Shulman eventually spoke about how he came to be the photographer of the great master builders of L.A. He took photography in high school, took pictures of the early urban environment as an amateur, studied for seven years at UC Berkeley (“without getting a degree”), and met Richard Neutra, who gave him his start.
While Shulman signed copies of his books after the talk, attendees enjoyed kosher and non-kosher lunches on the patio, listened to the music group Klezmer Juice, and participated in two workshops run by CARS. One involved making a mezuzeh (a small cylindrical case containing prayers written on paper, to be attached to one’s front door for good luck). In the other workshop, kids and adults worked on the construction of cardboard houses to create a shtetl, or Jewish village in Europe.
In one of the talks held after lunch, Andy Lipkis of Treepeople and landscape designer Mia Lehrer spoke with Rabbi Zoe Klein about Jewishness and the environment.
Lipkis spoke of how the concept of family and community influenced his activism. “Treepeople is one word because [trees and people] can’t be separated,” he said. He recalled that being raised in a family committed to service led to his first tree-saving actions as a teenager in Jewish summer camp.
Ms. Lehrer also spoke of her commitment to creating outdoor environments in cities, with the help of the communities.
At other panels, writers and artists explored the physical spaces where Jews have both wandered and settled, and the inner-space issue of what everything means.
At a discussion about the Lower East Side of New York, filmmaker Joan Micklin Silver explained how she recreated Hester Street for her film of that name, on one block of Manhattan’s Morton Street, using old photographs and the accounts of the area described in Jewish fiction to help her visualize the street.
In a discussion of “Jewish inner space”, L.A. Times Book Review editor and writer David Ulin recalled that he has asked his father what the purpose of life was and his father, a doctor and scientific-minded Jew, replied “It’s to perpetuate the food chain.” Ulin, who had grown up with many inner questions on the mysteries of life and death, is now, he says, trying to help his two children with the difficult answers to what existence and non-existence mean.
For those who were unable to attend the Festival, Nextbook has recorded the event and it will be available in a few weeks as podcasts at nextbook.org.