18 June 2011

Like Capa

Berkowitz was right.
My pal and teacher caught wind across the pond that I was reading Ernie Pyle and told me straight away, "When you're done, read Capa's autobiography."

I found it on Abe Books.  It's called "Slightly Out of Focus," his own play on words for the famous D-Day shots he captured as well as the fact that like Ernie Pyle, Robert Capa spent most of the Second World War blurry from post-traumatic stress and booze.
The book came to a tragic, hilarious, emotional, artfully crafted end while I rode the train early Friday morning to conduct a funeral.  In between 14th Street and Penn Station, while there was briefly a cellphone connection, a text came through from the son of the deceased, remembering to ask me to mention in my eulogy that his father was a Korean War veteran.  With all the telegraphing and cable sending that Capa had to contend with for visas and permits and rendezvous with his girlfriend Pinky, his ghost (or so imagined) would have enjoyed the instantaneous conveyance of information about someone already dead.

Living with Ernie Pyle and Robert Capa (who were together on a number of famous occasions during the European campaign to defeat Hitler) was profound.  In the imaginary high school history class that I teach (where I also coach the basketball team) my students read Pyle and Capa, have a passion lit within, and talk to their friends and girlfriends about deciding to be journalists, living lives with no compromise but the bold pursuit of truth and justice.  If tatoos weren't against Jewish law, I'd wear their names on each forearm.

Ah, well.

On my way back to the city from the burial in New Jersey, the hearse driver dropped me at 26th Street and the Hudson River, where I went to visit Andrea Meislin's gallery, one day before the Barry Frydlender show closed.  Andrea had a really nice chat about all sorts of stuff--she is New York City's largest collector of Israel photographers--and I didn't bring up Capa--mostly because being surrounded by Frydlender's photographers, which were so in-focus, it seemed not to quite fit.  (Capa's 1949 collaboration with Irwin Shaw, "Report on Israel," is in the mail, ordered as well from Abe Books.)

Anyway, across the street from Andrea's gallery is the James Cohan Gallery, where I went to say hi to James and his wife Jane.  Randomly, while looking at young Chinese artists out-there work on the walls, a gallery curator heard I was a rabbi and asked me to help solve a mystery she had been puzzling over with regard to a 1970 work by the artist Robert Smithson.  Smithson had apparently created a "displacement piece" using earth from Hebron and wanting to put it on Mount Moriah (let's say the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, if legend has it correctly in terms of where Moriah may be located.)  It's a fairly evocative idea and I was asked to help understand why Smithson may made certain Hebrew shapes in the piece, and if they were letters, what did the letters mean.

It was fun, unintended opportunity to riff freely on the date of the piece, the significance of Hebron and Mt. Moriah in the Jewish imagination in 1970, and what a "displacement" from one of the holiest Jewish burial sites (Hebron) to the holiest of holy sites, the Temple Mount and seat of sacrifice to God in our ancient Jewish practice.

While trying to tie these ideas together, I glanced down at my leg, twitching underneath the desk, and noticed the red earth from the cemetery in New Jersey, clinging to my shoe and pants leg.

Another displacement piece.

Like Capa, still alive in a rabbi's bag, in a gallery in Chelsea.

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