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Two Reconstructionist Artists Rediscovered

Lionel S. Reiss
 In the Footsteps of the Wandering Jew
Cheryl Chase Slutzky


In the early 1920s, Lionel S. Reiss (1894-1988), American painter, watercolorist and draftsman, made a career-altering decision to leave a lucrative position as a commercial illustrator and concentrate on becoming a fine artist. Seeking a source of artistic inspiration to facilitate the transition from commercial to fine art, he embarked on a journey to old Jewish ghettos all over the world. Before leaving for Europe in 1922, Reiss was interviewed by reporters from newspapers and Jewish-interest periodicals. He said: "If I follow in the footsteps of the wandering Jew, I shall go into almost every corner of the globe. The traces of their customs and legends, which the Jews have left in various places, have long been reproduced here and there, spasmodically, by different writers and artists, but never as a historical whole, and so it is my big task to create a memorial of the world’s ghettos."              

click to see larger image
"The Talmud Student," 
by Lionel S. Reiss, 1947 
(illustration for H. N. Bialik poem). 
 Collection of David & Joann Reiss.

The goal of this idealistic young man blossomed into a lifelong commitment. It became an artistic documentary of Jewish life in the shtetl, as well as in the nascent Jewish State of Israel. In 1952, when Reiss’ reputation as a genre painter was well established, the Reconstructionist movement, with the full support of its leaders, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan and Rabbi Ira Eisenstein, provided him with a grant to spend six months traveling throughout Israel on an artistic mission.

The Reconstructionist Press published Reiss’ artistic portfolio, New Lights and Old Shadows: New Lights of An Israel Reborn; Old Shadows of a Vanished World, in 1954. More than 175 of Reiss’ drawings, watercolors and paintings show scenes of a pioneer way of life within a multicultural mix of Jews and Arabs. Printed on the dust jacket are endorsements by Kaplan, Eisenstein and art critics of that period. It was my discovery of this book at a flea market in Maine that introduced me to the work of this protean American artist. I was as much taken with the art as with the publisher, but the knowledge that the Reconstructionist movement had played an important role in the creation of these works was an intriguing revelation and a catalyst for further study.

An immigrant from the Austro-Polish province of Galicia, Reiss came to the U.S. in 1899, settled on New York’s Lower East Side and lived most of his life in the city. His origins reflect those of other immigrant artists: Max Weber (1881-1961), Mark Rothko (1903-1970), Louise Nevelson (1899-1988), Ben Shahn (1899-1969), Raphael Soyer (1899-1987), Moses Soyer (1899-1974), Isaac Soyer (1902-1981), and Chaim Gross (1904-1991). Like Reiss, they carried with them childhood impressions of Eastern Europe and Russia. It was only Reiss, however, who took to returning to his native country to create a visual document that resonates with the vibrancy of Jewish life. In the European shtetls, Reiss would find not only the exoticism of a foreign culture, but an emotional connection to his boyhood village of Jaroslav. He went back to bring awareness of such villages to a U.S. audience. The devastation in Europe resulting from World War I reached into the old Jewish ghettos of Krakow, Lublin, Prague and Warsaw. Reiss sensed that the existence of these cultures hung on an ever-thinning thread.

Creating graphic appraisals of street life was central to Reiss’ art. Throughout his career, his work focused on class distinctions and social strata. In later years, the locations changed but the subject matter, the people and the street, remained the same. Reiss’ "59th Street Series" (1946) of oil paintings, watercolors, and pen and ink drawings portray daily life with the artist as witness. With a studio on 59th Street, Reiss was both inhabitant and spectator. Anyone walking on that street could experience cultural and social diversity without having to travel a great distance. Reiss also painted landscapes and still lifes of bucolic Bucks County, Pennsylvania in the 1930s; seascapes and fishing scenes of Gloucester, Massachusetts; a series of watercolors that conveyed his personal reaction to the Holocaust; a series of ink drawings that illustrated the poetry of Hayim Nahman Bialik (1873-1934); finally, a series of large murals, entitled "Genesis," depicting biblical scenes. Reiss worked on these Genesis murals for more than twenty years and was still creating them at age 92.

It was from Reiss’ strong Jewish identity and his premonition that European Jewish culture was in jeopardy of vanishing that emerged a collection of works on paper documenting and immortalizing it.

Many of his most poignant etchings and drawings, including The Ghetto Gate of Lublin, 1922, and Blessing of the New Moon, 1922, depict life’s hardships along with its sweetness. Within lives of extreme poverty and persecution were the comforting rituals of tradition. His works from his first journeys in the 1920s and ’30s appeared in his first portfolio, My Models Were Jews: A Painter’s Pilgrimage to Many Lands, in 1938. In 1971, many of those works and others from New Lights and Old Shadows, appeared in A World at Twilight: A Portrait of the Jewish Communities of Eastern Europe Before the Holocaust by Milton Hindus of Brandeis University. click to see larger image
"Blessing of the New Moon," 1922. 
Etching, blue ink, 14 3/4 x 18 3/4 inches.
Collection of William Mehlman and the Jewish Theological Seminary, N Y.

As a Reconstructionist Jew, Reiss confronted in his art a variety of changing aspects of Jewish life. Holding fast to a Jewish identity that stemmed from his own background, he could adapt his Jewish origins to an American lifestyle. This need to live in two civilizations most likely influenced his decision to join the Society for the Advancement of Judaism (SAJ) in New York, the pioneering institution of the Reconstructionist movement. Mordecai Kaplan’s ideology of American Judaism as an ongoing, adaptive cultural process that promotes self-expression, remains open to change, encourages social action, and integrates the practice of Judaism with the broader demands of living in a secular society, epitomizes Reiss’ goals as an artist. Reconstructionism connected Reiss to both his Jewish and his American identities.

The years of World War II made real Reiss’ premonitions. While living in New York and listening to the news dispatches about the war, Reiss created a composite of eight watercolors, "In Memoriam: The Millions of Innocent Victims of Nazi Warfare," published in The Menorah Journal in 1944. In these watercolors, he used realistic images to recreate events that he could not begin to comprehend. As disturbing as the images are, they were created before anyone in the U.S. understood the real facts about the actual Nazi brutalities, and in retrospect they are mild in comparison to the truth. Reiss was responding emotionally to the destruction of the Jewish communities to which he had traveled twenty years earlier. His trip to Israel, funded by the Reconstructionist movement, was a celebration of endurance and of the rebirth of a culture shaken by enormous loss.

click to see larger image
"Ghetto Gate of Lublin," 1922.
Etching, sepia ink on paper,
11 x 8 inches.
Jewish Museum, New York.

In 1981, Reiss was honored for his cultural contribution by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, which bestowed its Keter Shem Tov Award (The Crown of the Good Name). The Hon. William Mehlman, who also holds the Keter Shem Tov and is an active RRC Board member, knew Lionel Reiss and owns several of his beautiful etchings as well as a watercolor, "Yemenite Synagogue," 1952.

The Jewish Museum, The New-York Historical Society, and the Skirball Collection in Los Angeles, as well as the Park Avenue Synagogue, own collections of Reiss’ work. Over two hundred and twelve works are in the Reiss Art Collection in the Judaica Division of the Widener Library at Harvard College, seventy are at Brandeis University, and many more are in the private collection of Drs. David and Joann Reiss, the artist’s son and daughter-in-law.

If every drawing of every face, arched ghetto entrance, synagogue interior and alleyway created by Reiss were lined up for viewing today, a spectrum of studies from a time and place that no longer exist would confront the viewer as a startling and poignant historical panorama. The images created by this protean artist throughout a long career remain strong and clear, although their real models have vanished. To that extent, Lionel S. Reiss realized his goals — and, as a result, we are culturally enriched.

To see more images of the work of Lionel Reiss


Moshe Nathanson
The Reconstructionist Who Wrote "Hava Nagila"
Lawrence Bush


 "Hava Nagila" — a song so ubiquitous in American Jewish life that it has achieved the status of cliché — received its melody from an Hasidic nigun and its lyrics from a 12-year-old boy in Jerusalem. That boy, Moshe Nathanson, would later serve for forty-six years as cantor at the Society for the Advancement of Judaism (SAJ) in New York, where Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan had the pulpit and Reconstructionism was virtually invented.

These are among the revelations contained in Cantor Sheldon Feinberg’s 1988 book, Hava Nagila! The World’s Most Famous Song of Joy, which was recently passed on to me by Pete Seeger through a mutual friend, Martha Kransdorf.

Moshe Nathanson was the sabra son of a rabbi and the student in Jerusalem of cantor and musicologist Abraham Zevi Idelsohn. At the outset of World War I, Feinberg writes, Idelsohn set out to record, on newly developed Gramaphone wax cylinders, "the songs, chants and melodies of the very many groups that had arrived in Palestine from the four corners of the earth."

A group of Hasidim led by Mendel Yankelovicz appeared before Idelsohn with a nigun (wordless melody) that expressed, they said, the joy and sorrow of departure for Palestine from their village in Austro-Hungary. Idelsohn recorded the melody, then turned to his class of music students and asked them to write lyrics. Nathanson, a red-headed 12-year-old with strong musical ability, selected words from Hallel (Psalm 118: 24), "Zeh hayom asah Adonai; nagila v’nismekha vo" — "This day the Lord has made; let us be happy and rejoice in it."

"These ancient lines," Feinberg continues, "written by a psalmist in biblical times, adopted during the Middle Ages ... [for] the prayer book, recited in toto since, by congregations universally on special holy days throughout the year, was the well-selected source of his inspiration. ... To Moshe, however (his thinking revealing early learnings to a progressive approach to Judaism, as well as to life itself), the poet’s expression in those lines ... had to be updated — reconstructed — if it was to be relevant to himself and his fellow students, in the world in which they lived. ... As such, he took the ancient words, deleted from them the Hebrew name for God . . . added additional lyrics in the modern Zionist idiom, shaped the combined effort to the Hasidic beat — and behold — the total song was born!"

Hava Nagila (3x)

Hava n'ranana (3x)

Uru akhim
Uru akhim b’lev sameakh (3x)

Come, let us be joyful
And let our happiness overflow.

Come, let us rejoice
And let our happiness overflow.

Rise, O brethren.
Rise, O brethren, with joyful hearts.

Unfortunately, Hava Nagila! fails to trace the fabulous growth in popularity of Moshe Nathanson’s song, although the author does mention popular renditions by Connie Francis, Harry Belafonte, Sergio Franchi and Richard Tucker (a list to which rock ’n’ roll afficionados can rightly add Bob Dylan and Dick Dale, King of the Surf Guitar). Clearly, the song’s association with the hora helped propel it into the culture, similarly to "Let’s Twist Again" and the "Hokey-Pokey" —dance songs accessible to all ages. Obviously, too, the frenzy was fed by the growth of the bar/bat mitzvah ritual into a major dine-and-dance event, and the upsurge in the popularity of Israeli folk dance in the 1950s and ’60s.

In outlining Nathanson’s biography, Hava Nagila! offers intimate, sentimental details about life in the yishuv (pre-state Jewish Palestine) at a time of international chaos. One compelling section describes how, at 17, the young musician was drafted into the Turkish army, where he preserved himself from military assignment by learning to play the piccolo in four weeks and joining the military band greeting Enver Pasha, the Chief Commander of the army, during a troop inspection in Damascus. Nathanson twice deserted in anticipation of a British takeover of Palestine. The first time, he received twenty-five lashes; his reputation as a songbird preserved him from execution. The second time, he was captured and released by Australian soldiers.

In 1922, Nathanson emigrated to Canada, then moved to New York and enrolled at the Institute of Musical Art (what is now the Julliard School of Music). In 1924 he became cantor at the two-year -old SAJ, replacing his own former teacher, A. Z. Idelsohn, who had been hired as professor by the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. As Feinberg tells it, in Moshe Nathanson, "Mordecai M. Kaplan found that artist who could make the moments from the removal of the Torah until it was replaced the central and most important part of the service, not its least attractive and little cared-for period . . . As hazzan, Moshe poured out the hazzanut for which his musical, lingual and cultural background had prepared him." The book also includes a tidy summary of Kaplanian thought and notes that "Moshe was many times requested to change the form of the service, add new music or reinterpret a prayer in the light . . . of Kaplan’s insights." Cantor Moshe Nathanson
Cantor Moshe Nathanson
Courtesy Society for the
Advancement of Judaism
from its 1959 Year Book

Included in the book is a 1959 testimonial to Nathanson by Judith Eisenstein, a significant Jewish musicologist in her own right, who describes his contribution with specificity: "[F]rom the time of his arrival in New York he was a pioneer in spreading the folksong of Israel (then Palestine) . . . through teaching and concertizing and singing on radio. He was among the first to introduce not only the light, simple, gay songs of the new yishuv, of workers and of halutzim, but also the style in which they were sung. He created an awareness and a taste for the songs of Yemenites and Sephardim . . . and for the singing style of the Middle East. Single-handed, through song, he demonstrated the beauty of sound of the Hebrew language. . . . Child of Jerusalem that he was, and close neighbor of Arabs, Turks, Yemenites, Bokharans and others, this was his rightful heritage."

Sheldon Feinberg studied cantorial music with Nathanson. Hava Nagila! was first published in 1973 as Song Without Words, then by Shapolsky Publishers, and now by the author. It has the funky appearance of a homemade book, which I found all the more delightful. Hava Nagila! can be obtained for $12.95 (plus $4 shipping) from 306 East Street, Beaufort, SC 29902. Feinberg also offers a cassette tape of Moshe Nathanson singing the first twelve songs that he brought as an immigrant from Palestine ($9.95, plus $4 shipping; the book and cassette together cost $19.95 plus the $4). These are engrossing finds for people interested in the pioneering days of both Zionism and Reconstructionism.


Type: RT Article

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