Mar ’07 Spotlight

Novelist Jonathan Wilson will be at the Woman’s Club of Evanston on March 20 to read from his new biography Marc Chagall. I called the Tufts University professor at home to ask him what he most wants his readers to know about history’s most famous Jewish painter.

“Chagall, who died at age 97, had a long, complex, fascinating life, which spanned World War I, the Russian Revolution, the Second World War, the Holocaust and beyond,” he said. “In some ways, the complexities of his life, the shift from a tiny Jewish world near Vitebsk [now in Belarus], a nothing shtetl, a small Hasidic ultra-Orthodox world, moving into the vast open prairies of the secular world and the Bohemian world in Paris, in some ways, Chagall’s life is a representative sort of Jewish life, representing an entire shift in Jewish life in the 20th Century and all the conflicts between the old world and modernity that that involves. Chagall’s work as a painter?  He’s far edgy, far more experimental and original than contemporary stereotypes allow.”

“One of the Jewish fantasies about Chagall,” Wilson continued, “is that he is sort of nostalgically sentimentally attached to the lost world of the shtetl whereas in fact he both his and he isn’t. There’s one very revealing moment in his memoir where he talks about how utterly bored he is to be back in Vitebsk. He feels the electric tug of the secular world: Paris!”

“In that sense he’s very emblematic of an entire movement of Jews coming out of Europe and embracing the modern secular life of the west. But beyond that, he becomes a vitally important trailblazer in that world. Chagall arrived in Paris struggling with his artistic and his political and his sexual ambivalence, and this is something I don’t think has been paid much attention to.  But what intrigues me is that I think that it’s there in the paintings.”

Nextbook is also sponsoring a lecture by Sara Paretsky at the Newberry Library in Chicago on March 14.  Best-known for her detective fiction, Paretsky is about to publish a new book of essays called Writing in an Age of Silence in which she talks candidly about growing up in one of the only Jewish families in her home town (Lawrence, Kansas). Paretsky and I met last month near her current home in Hyde Park, and I will provide more details in May, once her essays are on the shelf and available to all.

For more information about both events (including how to order tickets), visit


Michael J. Oren, author of the award-winning book Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East, was in Chicago on February 8 to promote his new book Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East (1776 to the Present). The event, sponsored by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, was so packed that Hilton staff had to scurry around for extra chairs.

Power, Faith, and Fantasy is huge and scholarly with over 600 pages of text followed by rich footnotes and a comprehensive bibliography. Nevertheless, Oren did a masterful job of succinctly explaining his three themes (power, faith and fantasy), and illustrating them with fascinating anecdotes from the eighteen and nineteenth centuries.  For example, when contemplating our current options in Iraq, Gaza, etc, Oren wants us to remember that the well-known line in the Marine Corps anthem “… to the shores of Tripoli…” refers to America’s war against the Barbary Pirates (1783 to 1815).  Then as now, according to Oren, when dealing with terrorists, the basic choice is the same: to fight or to bribe?

Oren’s presentation is available on C-SPAN’s BOOK-TV.  To watch, visit:


Comfortably nestled between South Park and The Daily Show, comedian Sarah Silverman now has her own television show every Thursday night on cable’s Comedy Central channel. In the opening moments of the first broadcast on February 1, Silverman promised us that her show would contain “full frontal Judity,” and indeed, her Jewish identity has always been an essential component of Silverman’s shtick.

I have to admit that I didn’t quite get it at first, but a friend advised me to watch The Aristocrats and that really does help. The Aristocrats is a 90-minute documentary about the dirtiest joke ever told. The set-up is simple; it’s nothing more than pitching a lewd new act to a jaded talent agent. That said The Aristocrats’ first half hour was rough going for me, with comedian after comedian peddling the most disgusting stories imaginable.  But gradually, the light began to dawn: in this case the devil is not in the details, the whole point here is simply in the telling.

In our world, especially after 9/11, where is the line separating what can and cannot be said?  Does the word “transgressive” have any meaning anymore?  Like Sasha Baron Cohen, Silverman consciously bases her routine on centuries of anti-Semitic stereotypes. The results in both cases are definitely not for the squeamish, but the goal is a noble one: to shake today’s viewers up the way Lenny Bruce once did.

To zero in on Sarah Silverman’s contribution to The Aristocrats DVD, start at chapter 12 (so you have some context for what she actually says in chapter 13).

For more details about The Sarah Silverman Program, visit:


Tziviah bat Yisroel v’Hudah (Jan Lisa Huttner) is the managing editor of Films for Two: The Online Guide for Busy Couples ( Send comments and/or suggestions for future columns to

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