Imagine a museum performance art exhibit consisting of a Jewish man or woman, seated inside a glass box, answering visitors’ questions about Jewish life and culture. An outrageous fantasy? Part of a new reality TV show? A scene from the new Woody Allen movie? Au contraire. It’s an actual exhibit, called The Whole Truth, going on now at Berlin’s Jewish Museum. Inspired by the many questions left in the museum visitors book, the questions and answers vary from those about common Jewish stereotypes to simply wanting to know how to become a Jew. The reaction has been mixed, with some perceiving it as intriguing and educational, while others describing the exhibition as “degrading” and not helpful to German-Jewish relations.
Performance artists often challenge the audience to think in new and unconventional ways, break conventions of traditional arts, and break down conventional ideas about what art can be. Which is not to say that every occurrence of performance art has been successful or popular. They can be bad on any number of levels. Yet those very failed attempts are invariably the most entertaining to discover. You want specifics? Of course you do. And being the people-pleaser I am, I did the research for you. Because I know you have a full schedule. So, relax, sit back, and enjoy this selective survey of some of America’s least-popular Jewish performance art pieces.
As we all know, Maimonides, or Rabbi Mosheh Ben Maimon, was a preeminent medieval Spanish Jewish philosopher. He was also one of the most prolific and influential Torah scholars and physicians of the Middle Ages. What possessed performance artist Reuven Blatberg to train a five year old boy to portray Maimonides at that age—we don’t know. What we do know, however, is that it took place on August 17th, 1974, at the Yazoo City, Mississippi Community Center. The seven audience members who witnessed Maimonides Junior on its opening night, which also turned out to be its closing night, experienced a five year old boy, dressed as a medieval Spanish Jewish Torah scholar, make such exclamations as: “While one man can discover a certain thing by himself, another is never able to understand it, even if taught by means of all possible expressions and metaphors, and during a long period; his mind can in no way grasp it, his capacity is insufficient for it.” – and then complain bitterly about his parents forcing him to keep his room clean.
Flash Mob Bris
A bris (ritual circumcision) is usually held in a private home. Yet Sy and Rivka Vogelman decided to have their son Yitzak’s bris, flash mob style, in New York City’s Grand Central Station—during rush hour, on February 12, 2009. Sy’s plan was to film it for YouTube, have it go viral, and increase both his fame and the number of presents Yitzak would receive. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to Sy, Grand Central Station had just instituted a no-flash mob policy. Consequently, Station police broke up the bris flash mob less than five minutes into the service, before the mohel even had an opportunity to do the deed. Those who witnessed the first 4 ½ minutes, however, found it quite moving. And Sy is in the process of planning a repeat event, this time at the New York Public Library.
Benny the Dancing Blintz
New York City’s Juilliard School Dance Division offers a four-year conservatory program leading to either a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree or an undergraduate Diploma. Unfortunately, getting in requires an audition and during his, 18 year old Benjamin Feinblatt failed to impress. Dejected, Feinblatt returned home. But rather than sulking and feeling dejected, Feinblatt decided to make lemonade out of lemons and march (or dance) to the beat of a different drummer. Using his talents, he transformed himself, on November 3, 1992, into Benny the Dancing Blintz for a one night, interactive performance art presentation at the Public Library in his hometown of Menlo, New Jersey. There, the five who attended (four of whom were members of Feinblatt’s family) found Feinblatt dressed as a blintz and doing traditional Jewish folk dancing with audience members while sharing interesting historical tidbits about blintzes, such as: “Blintzes or blins or blini were symbolically considered by early Slavic peoples in pre-Christian times as a symbol of the sun, due to their round form.They were traditionally prepared at the end of winter to honor the rebirth of the new sun.” The show closed three days later, despite a 15-minute promotional appearance on local TV morning show, “Good Day, Jewish Menlo.”
Talk to a Podiatrist
One might have guessed that a fine arts museum and podiatry would not be the perfect mix. Yet when Dr. Sarah Weiss pitched her Talk to a Podiatrist installation to the acquisitions committee of the Milwaukee Museum of Fine Arts, they surprisingly gave her the thumbs up—or rather, the big toe up. Patrons arriving on the weekend of January 19-20 of 1985, were able to get professional advice from Dr. Weiss, suspended from the ceiling in a giant walking shoe, about their corns, bunions, orthotics, foot fungus, and ingrown toenails. Between consultations, Dr. Weiss, an amateur singer, entertained those attending, with her own versions of Broadway songs, including, “I Could Have Limped All Night,” “Some Enchanted Sandal,” “Oh What a Beautiful Big Toe,” and “I’ve Grown Accustomed to His Heel.”
Complaining Bar Mitzvah Gifts
If you were one of the nine people to have attended Bismarck North Dakota Veterans Memorial Building during a two week period in July of 1961, you would have encountered one of the earliest performance art exhibitions—Complaining Bar Mitzvah Gifts, the creation of Wendell Seidelbaum, the sole performance artist in Bismarck, North Dakota at that time. The exhibition consisted of a number of artfully displayed bar mitzvah gifts, each of which was placed alongside its own button and speaker. When the button was pressed, you’d “hear” the inner voice of each bar mitzvah gift complaining about being forgotten, unappreciated, left in a box, ridiculed, re-gifted, or thrown out. Example—Cross pen and pencil set: “Everybody gives us as a gift. We know that. We’re the wooden salad bowls of bar mitzvah gifts. 13 year old boys have no use for elegant pens and pencils; they’ll trade us in for a bowling ball or a set of comic books at the first opportunity. So, don’t talk to us about being depressed.”