Thursday, 11 December 2014

Bei Mir Bistu Scheyn - a Yiddish musical classic



Before the Second World War there were as many as 13 million Yiddish speakers. About 5 million of these were murdered during the Holocaust and following emigration to and assimilation in the USA, the strong preference for Hebrew in Israel and cultural suppression in the former Soviet Union, use of the language continued to decline. More recently, this trend has begun to reverse, primarily due to its use by many Orthodox Jews and to a lesser extent through revived interest in other Jewish communities with classes being available in several major cities. 

Many English speakers will have used yiddish words in their day to day speech, possible without knowing their origin. Schmuck, schlep, nosh, nudge, schmooze all having found their word into daily use. As well as surviving as a spoken language, Yiddish also lives on through music, in particular with Klezmer festivals around the world, celebrating the music and language of the pre- war world. One of the best known songs from the Yiddish cannon is Bei mir bistu scheyn, or To me (or more literally, by meyou are beautiful. 

Written in 1932 for a Yiddish musical comedy, I wish I could, with lyrics by Jacob Jacobs (Born Yakov Yakubovitsch in Hungary in 1904) and music by Sholom Secunda (born in the Russian empire in 1894), the lyrics are a paean to the charms of the singer's beloved who is described as lovely, charming, the only one in the world and more precious than money! It has become one of the most enduring songs of its time with at least 100 known recorded versions. The musical itself was less successful, closing after just one season, perhaps reflecting the original Yiddish version of the show's title which translated to You could live but they won't let you.

That might have been the end of it, if, at least according to legend, one Jennie Grossinger, owner of a hotel in the Catskills had not taught the song to Johnnie and George, two African American performers who had worked at her Grossingers Catskill Resort Hotel. Grossingers was one of many well-knwon hotels in this part of New York State that catered almost exclusively to Jewish guests taking summer and other holiday vacations, providing kosher food, organised activities and entertainment at a time when many hotels in the USA were off limits to Jews. A little later, in 1937, lyricist, songwriter and musician Sammy Cahn heard Johnnie and George perform the song at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, got his boss to purchase the rights to it and with partner Saul Chaplin re-wrote the song with English lyrics, adding a swing rhythm. Secunda is said to have sold the rights for just $30 which he shared with Jacobs.

The rest as they say is history. Cahn persuaded the Andrews Sisters to record the re-worked song in November 1937. It became a worldwide hit and earned them a gold record. Since then it has continued to be a recording favourite with some very big names having put their stamp on it, including Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland, June Christy, Glenn Miller, Eydie Gorme and more recently Joss Stone and Bette Midler on her 1914 album, Its The Girls. I love Ella's version (which you can listen to here), with that silky voice and great arrangement and of course the Andrews Sisters version is a classic and widely known. However, my favourite is that of the Barry Sisters, Minnie and Clara, born in the United States to Jewish immigrant parents and popular from the 1940's until the 1970's. Click on the link at the top of this post to hear it. There has also been a Swedish version and a number of Russian songs were put to the musical score in the old Soviet Union whilst it has also been featured in films, TV shows and used as the sound track for various advertisements. I especially like the Shasta root beer advert - It's root beer Mr. Sheyn...

Over the years the song grossed several million dollars in royalties making Secunda and Jacobs' $30 look like a bad deal. However, in 1961, copyright expired and ownership reverted to the songwriters, allowing them to secure proper recompense. Secunda was an interesting character having fled Russia's pogroms, traveled in steerage to the United States and been held briefly at Ellis Island before becoming a noted child chazan. He later studied music and worked in several capacities, included conducting, in New Yorks' Yiddish theatre world, continuing to write songs but never producing work of such popularity as Bei mir bistu scheyn

Friday, 5 December 2014

Picture Post 37 - Trinity Court, Modernism in London's Kings Cross



Grays Inn Road in December can be a bit, well, grey. Earlier this year on one of London's sunny summer days I went there to photograph Trinity Court, a beautiful modernist block completed in 1935. On arrival I found the building to be covered in scaffolding with a sign informing residents, passers-by and would be photographers that the works being carried out would not be completed until November. November can sometimes mean December or even January here so I left it until today to chance returning. No sunshine today but the recently revealed, repainted, repaired and restored Trinity Court was looking very beautiful with its white exterior and light blue details.

Architects F. Taperell and Haase designed an eight storey rectangular building with the shorter sides parallel to the street. The facade has a magnificent entrance with double glazed doors bearing decorative tracery, whilst a stepped pediment above carries the block name in clear blue letters. I especially likes the black and white checkered details on the external steps. Above the pediment there are seven metal framed windows, separated by attractive vertical ridges that culminate in a second pediment which hides the housing for the lift shaft at roof level. There are balconies on each side of the building, accessed through a door adjoining bay windows with uniform blue metal frames. The balconies also have blue balustrades with some decorative detail.




Haase and Taperell were responsible for designing buildings elsewhere in London, including in Soho Square and the Heath View block of flats in Kentish Town. Herbert Haase turns up in the 13th May 1931 edition of the Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advisor, as the victim of a robbery from his house in Marylebone. Apparently thieves made off with several valuable paintings (including a Van Dyck), several Persian rugs, 22 Chinese ivory figures, a vase and four boxes of cigars - each containing fifty. He must have liked a smoke.

Trinity Court backs on to the former St. Andrews Holborn burial ground which is now a public park. There are a number of aged, mold covered gravestones remaining. In the summer the park attracts workers from the many nearby office blocks who bring their lunch there. This is very different from the first time I visited Trinity Court - perhaps 20 years ago when the park was inhabited by drunks and homeless people and drugs detritus was clearly visible. It was much nicer today despite the damp weather, although I wasn't keen on the bull terriers being walked there! The rear of the building mirrors the street facing facade with the exception of having a smaller entrance and an odd modern lobby.

It is great to see one of London's remaining modernist gems restored and cared for, especially in a part of the city that has seen so much change in recent years. If anyone from Open House ever reads this, Trinity Court would make a great addition to the programme if residents could be persuaded - even if just to get a proper look at what might be the original lift. I've only been able to squint through the main doors but it looks very elegant. Open House might be the only way I ever get inside. I looked the building up on Zoopla today to be advised that a one bedroom flat will cost me about 750,000 pounds. Of course there's always the lottery...





Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Picture post 36 - A riot of colour, Santa Maria Tonatzintla and San Francisco Acatapec



Church of Santa Maria Tonatzintla
The journey from Mexico City to Puebla takes a couple of hours dependant on traffic. However, there are many delights en route that tempt travellers to lengthen the journey by enjoying short stops to look at the volcanoes Popocatapetl and Iztaccihuatl (at least on a clear day) and the historic city of Cholula, which will be the subject of another post. There are also two stunningly beautiful churches in small settlements near to Cholula and I was lucky enough to be able to visit them on my recent Mexico trip.


Tonatzintla is a small, very ordinary village but its pride and joy is the Church of Santa Maria of Tonatzintla in the main square. Accessed through a yellow painted archway and across a paved patio, the talavera and brick facade is a glorious red with blue, yellow and white details and naive figures sheltered in a series of small recesses. I love the crisp, clean combination of colours and the way they fit perfectly with the bright Mexican light. 

Archway, Santa Maria Tonatzintla
Work began on the church in the 16th century and the style is described as folk baroque, mixing elements of Christianity with indigenous beliefs and practices. Interestingly, even the name of the church (and the village) reflects this. Tonanzin was a goddess of fertility popular amongst the indigenous Nahua speaking peoples, whilst the village name means "place of our little mother". This is mirrored in the choice of Mary for the church's dedication.

The exterior of the church is beautiful but the interior is overwhelming. Over the last several hundred years, craftsmen have covered almost every inch of the church with stucco ornament including birds, plants, fruits and indigenous figures interspersed with biblical characters. Everywhere you look there is something different to see and it is hard to know where to look first. It is fascinating to see that many of the figures have the facial features of the original Mexicans rather than the Spanish colonialists, suggesting perhaps that the vast majority of the craftsmen were also indigenous people. This style of decoration is known as churrigueresque and originated in Spain in the late 17th century. Unfortunately photographs are not allowed inside but it is relatively easy to find pictures of the interior on the internet.



Acatapec is another small village just a short distance form Tonatzintla. It is home to the riot of colour that is the church of San Francisco. The baroque exterior is covered in glazed bricks and locally produced talavera tiles in blue, green, yellow, red and white. Set back from a busy main road, it is a complete surprise in a village that is otherwise unremarkable. Built at the end of the 18th century it is a other example of the churrigueresque style of stucco decoration on the internal walls and ceiling with the rear of the main altar being particularly impressive. But for me the facade was the main reason for visiting. The uniquely Mexican combination of bright colours, brilliant sunlight and ceramic beauty is truly spectacular, whilst the main lines, angles, edges, curves and patterns are a photographer's delight. 

Both San Francisco and Santa Maria Tonatzintla are unmissable sites on the road to Puebla or Cholula, but a word of warning. Get there early because both churches attract large numbers of visitors including coach parties and school groups. Its great that so many people want to visit, but these are treats best enjoyed quietly. 

Church of San Francisco, Acatapec




Saturday, 29 November 2014

Calle Justo Sierra 71 - a synagogue comes back to life

One of the highlights of my first trip to Mexico City last year was a guided tour of the old city with Monica Unikel-Fasja, who pointed out places of Jewish interest and told me many stories from  the community's fascinating and sometimes difficult history. But Monica is much more than a excellent tour guide. She was responsible for ensuring the restoration of the beautiful Ashkenazi synagogue at Justo Sierra 71 in the heart of the city's Centro Historico.

Ceiling detail of the restored synagogue
She explained to me how this once thriving synagogue had gradually fallen into disuse as when members began to prosper they would move away to more affluent areas such as Condesa and Polanco. For some years, those who maintained businesses in the area continued to attend services but eventually this too ceased and for a long time the building was neglected, falling into disrepair. Monica, who understood the importance of building not just to the history of the community, but also to the Centro Historico told me about her having been part of a team that worked hard to restore the synagogue, by securing funds and appropriate expertise. After much hard work they succeeded in bringing it back into the beautiful condition it is in today.

No longer a place of worship, it operates as cultural centre, making a range of Jewish themed events and activities available to Mexicans (and visitors) of all religions and none, with a programme of music, talks, book launches and readings. This would be enough of an achievement for most people but Monica still has ambitions for the part of the building that formerly acted as the base of the organised Ashkenazi community. On my more recent visit, I caught up with her and she showed me around the large hall and office rooms that were once alive with the affairs of the community as well as for a time being home to a kosher restaurant. Her idea for the space was to have it used as an arts venue. This was quite an ambition - not only was the paint peeling and in some places the floor in poor condition but there was no electrical supply to the building. Sorting all of this out was going to be expensive and possibly more difficult to raise funds for than for the synagogue restoration. 

Hall in the former community building
Detail, the former community building
Left, Monica Unikel-Fasja, right Berta Kolteniuk
Giving more thought to it, Monica decided to bring the space back into use by inviting emerging artists to work there, reasoning that the peeling paint and some of the other aesthetic challenges might not be so important to the artists. She was right. A number of artists have displayed their work in the space, primarily installations. The space is currently occupied by Estudio 71, a contemporary art project led by artist and curator Berta Kolteniuk who suggested that contemporary art would fit well here. Berta also works for the Universidad de Claustro de Sor Juana, as curator of Celda Contemporanea. But this is jumping ahead a little. Concerts have always been a success in the restored synagogue and Monica used music as a vehicle for bringing the old community building back into use. She approached maestro flautist Horacio Franco, asking him to give a concert in the building and to give the box office takings to cover the cost of restoring electricity to the building. Not only did he agree to do it, he did it in style, taking the audience on a journey through the building as he led them pied piper-like through its many rooms. The takings were enough to restore the electricity supply and the artists were able to move in.

Walking through the building during my visit I imagined the many people who must have passed through this place over the years - important figures in the community, new immigrants seeking help with work and housing and people looking for advice on all kinds of matters both secular and religious.  In its day it must have been quite grand, evidence of which includes the ornate metalwork on the staircase, the beautiful floor tiles (many of which remain) and some beautiful glass paned wooden doors. And in case anyone forgot that although the requirements of daily life were looked after in these rooms, a view of the synagogue from the landing windows was available to remind visitors that this was also a religious community.

The synagogue from the community building
So what's next? Monica would like to establish a museum about the Mexican Jewish community. Mexico City has a holocaust museum and memorial but lacks a museum of  Mexican Jewish life and achievement. Her ideas are in the early stage of development and she has no illusions about the size of the task but having restored the synagogue, brought the community hall back into use and written a couple of books, my money is on her to succeed. Perhaps on my next visit to Mexico City this new project will be beginning to take shape. I hope so. 

You might also like Jewish Mexico City - a step back in time and Return to Mexico City

And I can't resist including some more photographs of the restored synagogue.





Sunday, 23 November 2014

Return to Mexico City - Coyoacan, Soumaya and the Day of the Dead

I visited Mexico City for the first time last year and enjoyed it so much that I returned just a few weeks ago for a second look. Last year I was overwhelmed and delighted by the colours, sounds and tastes of Mexico and this time was no different. I had nine full days in the city and was able to cover a lot of ground but be warned - Mexico City is huge and I still have a long list of places yet to visit. A good reason to go again!

Detail from the Day of the Dead presentation at the Dolores Olmedo Museum
I timed my visit to coincide with the Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos in Spanish) festival at the beginning of November and found the city to be awash with colour - especially bright orange from the ubiquitous marigolds used to decorate the altars dedicated to departed relatives and friends. The festival pre-dates the arrival of the Conquistadores and despite its links to the old religions and the continued power of the Catholic Church it remains important and hugely popular. People remember the family members who have passed away and many go to cemeteries to place the favourite food and drink of the departed on the graves in the belief that on this day the spirit of the relatives will visit. Altars are set up in homes, businesses, the street and even museums to acknowledge the dead, often displaying their photographs amongst the food and drink, skulls and skeletons, papercuts and brightly coloured items. I particularly liked the altars in the lobby of the Hotel Gran Ciudad de Mexico, at the Dolores Olmedo Museum and in the Jose Emilio Pacheco bookshop.

One of the key figures in Day of the Dead tradition is La Calavera Catrina, a character believed to be based on the Aztec goddess known as the Lady of the Dead. Normally shown as a skeleton in a  large European style hat and gown of the type fashionable in the 19th century, Catrina can be seen everywhere in the city during November. Despite the link back to Aztec tradition the modern representation of her dates back only as far as 1910 when the famous Mexican printer, cartoonist and lithographer Jose Guadaloupe Posada included her in a satirical zinc etching. 

Detail from the Day of the Dead presentation at Casa Azul
Dia de los Muertos is not seen as a sad occasion but a celebration of the life of the departed. Evidence of this was the spectacular parade staged on the night of November 1st along Calle Isabel de Catolica in the centre of the city. Starting outside a churchyard and led by a Catrina on stilts, drummers, jugglers and assorted skeletons paraded the length of the street, sometimes turning and doubling back before resuming the onwards direction. All along the Calle, hundreds of people joined the parade, danced with the skeletons and even helped out by taking a turn on the drums. Catrina stopped and posed for photographs, blew kisses and danced her way along the street - on those stilts from start to finish. A night to remember.

Altar at Jose Emilio Pacheco bookshop
Another new experience for me was to visit the Soumaya Museum in Polanco. When traveling, I usually like to walk as much as possible, to wander about and happen on unexpected delights. In keeping with this I decided to walk from Polanco metro station to the Soumaya. I probably wouldn't do that again - its a very long way, but the reward at the end of the walk was well worth it. The museum is a stunning piece of modern architecture, designed by Mexican architect Fernando Romero and engineered by Frank Gehry and Ove Arup. Completed in 2011 it houses the private collections of Carlos Slim, Mexican multi (multi) millionaire and possibly the richest man in the world. Slim had the museum built to the memory of his wife, Soumaya, who died in 1999.

The building stands 46 metres high, includes six storeys and is covered with 16,000 hexagonal aluminium tiles that change shade in response to the changing light. It soars upwards with beautiful curves, the upper floors being larger than those below, resembling a flower opening up to face the sun. The interior is also interesting with different shapes and layouts on each floor and a ramp around the perimeter of the museum that reminds me somewhat of the Guggenheim ramp in New York.  As well as displaying Slim's private collection, the museum stages temporary shows - when I visited there was a large exhibition about Sophia Lloren including some fabulous costumes, film clips, and posters, jewellery and press cuttings. The Soumaya is open to the public every day and there is no entry fee. 

Polanco is an extremely stylish and affluent area. The Soumaya is in a newly developed part of the neighbourhood and is surrounded by expensive shops, restaurants and malls. It was interesting to see that despite all of this, the office workers continue to queue for food at the street stalls that stand below the Soumaya and its neighbouring museum, the recently built Jumex Museum of Contemporary Art. Let's hope the stallholders continue to do well and that independent businesses can thrive. Speaking of small business, one of the good things about the long walk from the metro station was the number of excellent patisseries along Moliere, the boulevard leading to the museum. Did I try any? Of course, but only on the way back and only as a means of fortifying myself...

Soumaya Museum, Polanco

Detail, Casa Azul
Casa Azul - Frida Kahlo's cobalt blue painted house in Coyoacan is one of Mexico City's main tourist attractions. Unfortunately it was closed when I tried to visit last year but this time, not only was it open, I managed to get there early enough to be first in the queue. This was a good thing as a very large queue soon built up including large numbers of school children and tourist groups. Getting there first meant I was able to enjoy the house, the collections and the garden without feeling too crowded.

Frida Kahlo was born and also died in this house which contains several of her paintings as well as some of Diego Rivera's works, a large collection of Meso-American items, some of her personal effects and a number of the original furnishings. Despite the large numbers of visitors, the house and gardens are peaceful and it is easy to understand why she loved this place so much. The exterior of the house is painted a deep cobalt blue whilst there is also a riot of colour inside including the blue and yellow kitchen with its geometric patterns and tiles. The garden is equally beautiful with its lush green palms, cacti and trees as well as a number of Mayan sculptures set amongst the foliage. Kahlo and Rivera both had a particular interest in and fondness for works of art from the pre-colonial period and a special pyramid was constructed in the garden in order to display some of their pieces. It is still there today.

Kahlo suffered great physical pain and disability as a result of a traffic accident sustained during her youth. The museum connected to the house contains a number of the special implements she used in order to remain mobile and to live as full a life as possible including special corsets and footwear. She "customised" these items to make them beautiful. The current temporary exhibition shows how her style has influenced contemporary fashion designers. 

Meso-American sculpture, Casa Azul
The pyramid, Casa Azul
The kitchen, Casa Azul
Casa Azul may be the main tourist destination in Coyoacan, but this former village, now subsumed into the city has many other charms. The main square is a hive of activity especially at weekends when there are markets, musicians and sometimes dancing, whilst the 16th century church of San Juan Bautista, one of the three oldest in the city, is also worth a visit. I liked strolling along Calle Francisco Sosa, a long street that links Coyoacan to the neighbouring district of San Angel. It is a relatively quiet, leafy lane filled with beautiful houses from a number of periods painted in yellow, green, orange, purple and red, several with decorative geometric patterns laid over the top. Some of the paint is peeling but this only adds to the romance of the street. There are also a number of small, specialist shops including the chocolatier and confectioner, Puro Gusto at Francisco Sosa 103 which has around 20 different types of marzipan (!) and the delightful delicatessen, Barricas Don Tiburcio at number 243. This beautifully presented shop sells quality wines and food including those chocolate discs (hearts here actually!) to make real drinking chocolate with and even a few kosher snacks. If I lived here this would be a regular stop for me. As it is I came home away with a box of the chocolate hearts which I have been happily making my way through since coming home.

Happening upon little jewels like this is one of Mexico City's delights. Other unexpected treats including the almost daily gathering of Mexican Indians in the small plaza outside the National Art Museum  on Calle Tacuba, to play various types of drums and to perform traditional dances. This is not intended to be a "performance" but crowds gather and the movement and the drumming are intoxicating. The drumming is also very loud - it can be heard at the top of the Torre Latinoamerica, at 188 metres the tallest building in the Centro Historico. 

Zinco Jazz Club was another find. Tucked away behind a small metal door at Montalina 20, the club hosts some great jazz concerts. I was lucky to catch Gabriel Hernandez the Cuban pianist, playing on one night and to see him again the following night, this the supporting the veteran American trumpeter Doc Severinsen with Mexican guitarist Gil Gutierrez completing the front row of an excellent ensemble. The live music doesn't start much before 11.30 (but you can eat and drink from about 9), with a second set starting well after midnight. Its a long time since I knocked on a locked hotel door at 2 in the morning but both concerts were certainly worth it!

No trip to a major city is complete for me without searching out its art deco buildings. Mexico City is full of them. You can see pictures of them at Mexico City Art Deco - you can find it everywhere. 

Mexico City is one of the world's largest cities. There are surprises everywhere you go. It's one of my top five cities and I will be going again. More posts from marvellous Mexico still to come!

Peeling paint, Calle Francisco Sosa
Light and shade, Calle Francisco Sosa.
Tower of Church of San Juan Bautista
A peep into a restaurant/ cultural centre on Calle Francisco Sosa
Look up! Purples, yellows and decorative tiles in Calle Francisco Sosa.

Friday, 21 November 2014

Late night pizza - Aaron Goldberg at the London Jazz Festival



The Aaron Goldberg Trio played Soho's Pizza Express late last night as part of the London Jazz Festival. Not only was it an excellent set, it was also free, although as Mr Goldberg pointed out you still had to pay for the pizza!

This extremely tight trio played for just over an hour, taking us through several tracks from the new album - The Now- as well as a couple of older numbers from earlier recordings. The set opened with Trocando Em Miudos, a Chico Buarque composition. The Portuguese is difficult to translate but the story behind the song is one of a separation, a divided home and leaving with only regret. A downbeat start in terms of subject matter but an excellent introduction to the evening musically speaking.

This was followed by a very playful version of Charlie Parker's Perhaps which not only showcased Goldberg's undoubted skills but also those of rising bass star Joe Sanders. Sanders previously played bass for the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz and has played with Ravi Coltrane, Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter amongst others. Totally engaged with his instrument including "singing" to it off mic, we were treated to some unexpected vocal work from him too. Mr G also referred to him as his fashion advisor and tonight he was resplendent in a blue v-necked elbow padded sweater, white shirt, tie and wool peaked cap. Nice.

Other tracks from the new album included The Wind in the Night and YoYo. The Wind in the Night is a laid back ballad and Goldberg's own composition. Nice brush work from drummer and long time collaborator Eric Harland on this one. Harland is another stellar player and has worked with Betty Carter, Wynton Marsalis and Terence Blanchard amongst others. I especially liked YoYo which is based on a Haitian folk song about a generous meat vendor who gives extra meat to his customers! It featured a latin/ oriental flavoured piano and a cheeky conversation between bass and drums. Those latin/ oriental flavours brought to mind other favourite jazz pianists of mine - the wonderful Omer Klein and Omri Mor as well as a hint of Maurice El Medioni! Just great and the audience loved it. Incidentally this was a much younger crowd than the regular Pizza Express/ Ronnie Scott's turnout - in part because of the free entry as Soho jazz venues ain't cheap - but good to see and hope for the future!

One of my favourites from the earlier Worlds album, Lambada de Serpente (featured in the clip above) got a good long workout later in the set, its slow start building and building into an optimistic latin influenced piece of happiness with all three musicians shining. Continuing the latin kick, we were treated to a thumping version of Manha de Carnaval (also known as Black Orpheus), the much recorded Luiz Bonfa/ Antonio Maria penned classic and one of the best received pieces of the evening. Background Music from the new album is a musical sprint played at breakneck speed with some great work on bass and if you closed your eyes you could have been in a smokey 1960's New York jazz club listening to Bill Evans and his team.

It was all over too soon but the trio were persuaded back to the stage for a nice long version of Stevie Wonder's Isn't She Lovely from the Home album with some interesting cutting short of sentences in the main melody. And that was it - out into the cold cold Soho November night. Another great evening at Pizza Express Jazz - and the music was for free!

Oh, and I bought the new album. It's very good.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Gett: the trial of Vivian Amsalem at the UK Jewish Film Festival



Viviane Amsalem, the woman at the centre of this film says very little for the first one and half hours of this gripping film. She sits in the religious court assembled to hear her petition for divorce from a husband she can no longer bear to live with. The three judges are men. Her husband, Elisha, is represented by a man - his Rabbi brother, and Viviane's legal representative is also a man. When through frustration and despair she eventually turns on the judges she is told "woman know your place" which well describes the position of Jewish women in these situations,  where their husbands have the authority to grant or deny a divorce and their freedom.

Ronit Elkabetz plays Viviane as well as co-directing with her brother, Shlomi Elkabetz, whilst Simon Akbarian plays Elisha. We have met these two before in previous movies - To Take A Wife and then Shiva, both studies of family life in more traditional Moroccan-Israeli families with a strong patriarchal tradition. Let's be clear. Elisha is not violent, he provides for her and the family, but he is cold towards her and they have not lived together for the best part of three years. Some of this is driven by his firm religious commitment whilst Viviane has become more secular and at the same time he appears to have limited powers of empathy. 

Various witnesses are paraded through the courts - relatives, neighbours and supposed friends of the couple. All sing the praises of Elisha before having their assertions called into doubt by Menashe Noy in the role of Carmel Ben-Tovim, Viviane's Brief. Although the men have the authority and are permitted to speak at length, it is the women characters that particularly struck me. Viviane's sister, although something of a caricature, tells it like it is saying its better for a woman to stay with a husband she doesn't love rather than be single and treated like an outcast - her assertiveness being way too much for the judges. She even causes Viviane to laugh openly at the shock on the faces of the judges unused to being spoken to in this way. 

Viviane's neighbour, the slightly older Donna Abecassis appears in court with her husband trying to answer on her behalf and although clearly  fearful of him, she tries to help the woman she describes as her friend. Her performance was especially moving and her own regrets are played out during her questioning. It is interesting that these characters appear towards the end of the film as the story reaches its denouement following interminable delays by the husband and the unsympathetic judges who are more annoyed by Elisha's failure to appear at some of the hearings and by Carmel's failure to wear a kippah than by the unhappiness visited on Viviane.

The film says much about the predicament of Jewish women in Israel who can only secure a divorce (called a Gett) through this method. There are a number of cases where husbands have either disappeared or refused over a number of years to grant the Gett and so the women remain married and unable to move on, indeed they are referred to as "agunah" or "chained".

Gett is one of 95 films featured in this year's UK Jewish Film Festival which runs until 23rd November. Tonight's screening at JW3 was introduced by Festival Founder and Executive Director, Judy Ironside, who said that if anyone had told her she would sit through almost two hours of a film located entirely in a religious court she might have had trouble believing them. I might have been inclined to agree with her, but Gett is a gripping, disturbing even shocking film that held the audience as might a fast moving courtroom drama right to the very end. At the same time it was hard not to feel the claustrophobia of being in that same barren, leaking courtroom month after month, year after year - the physical condition of the room perhaps reflecting the drama being played out there. There are also some very gentle touches - I liked the short piece when Viviane notices that Carmel's shirt collar is not straight and tells him to re-arrange it. A nice touch.

As ever, Ms Elkabetz is outstanding. For me this might be her best performance so far, whilst Sasson Gabai as ever, is excellent as Rabbi Shimon Amsalam, Elisha's brother and representative in a much less sympathetic role than he might normally play.  Good performances too by Menashe Noy and Evelin Hagoel, wonderful as Donna Abecassis. Another Elkabetz triumph and a film that lives the audience thinking a long time after the credits have rolled. Let's hope for a wider release. Oh,  and go  to see some of the films in this year's Festival - its a great programme. 

Friday, 14 November 2014

Mexico City Art Deco - "you can find it everywhere"

I visited Mexico City for the first time in December last year and immediately fell in love with the place. I enjoyed my visit so much that I returned earlier this month, less than a year later. One of the highlights of my 2013 visit was seeing the art deco buildings in the Condesa district. I had a second look at Condesa this month but thanks to Eduardo of Art Deco Mx, I also discovered many art deco and modernist buildings in other parts of the city. And there are lots of them. As Eduardo says of the style, "You can find it everywhere".  

Edificio Viena, Calle Lopez 34
A number of art deco apartment blocks cluster in the streets behind the Reforma boulevard, close to Alameda Central. Many of them are deteriorating and in a poor state of repair, but it doesn't take much  imagination to picture how very grand these streets must have been in the 1930's and 1940's with ornate doors, soaring towers and beautiful deco details.  

Calle Lopez is home to several of these apartment blocks. One of the most striking is Edificio Viena at number 34 which stands on a corner location at the junction with Articulo 123. It is captivating with its stunning pink facade, vertical stripes filled with geometric designs and fanned details between windows. The colour is broken up by sections of buff coloured brickwork, strangely reminiscent of some of Glasgow's older buildings whilst the still elegant main door tells the story of how affluent this part of the city must once have been. Like several of the buildings I will write about here, I have been unable to trace details of the architect or the dates so all information is very, very welcome.

A little further along Calle Lopez at the junction with Calle Victoria, stands Edificio Victoria, another beauty. The building which has shops on the ground floor, is simpler in style than Edificio Viena but still has a number of decorative details including floral designs, shields and greyhounds as well as a show stopping main door. Rigorous scanning of the internet has failed to reveal details of the architect or dates for the block.

Edificio Victoria, Calle Lopez 44.
Main door, Edificio Victoria, Calle Lopez 44
Calle Revillagigedo is a five minutes walk from Edificios Viena and Victoria. The Museum of Popular Arts, designed by architect Vicente Mendiola Quezada stands at number 11. Originally built as a fire station this supremely elegant white building dominates the street, not only because of its height, but also because of its decorative elements which include geometric shapes, stepped recesses and a flagpole. I especially like the blue and yellow waves just below the tower's summit which struck me as a reference to the beautiful multi-coloured domes of Mexico City's many churches. There are also panels on the exterior walls featuring Aztec designs. 

Mendiola Quezada studied at the Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes in Mexico City, going on to design a number of buildings in the art deco style. He also worked as an academic, lecturing in urban planning, architectural history, art and design. A street is named for him elsewhere in the city.

Museum of Popular Arts, Calle Revilagigedo 11.
Happy as I was to spend time in this part of the city, I couldn't resist making another visit to Condesa which must have one of the richest collections and concentrations of art deco buildings anywhere in the world. Many are located in the two main avenues of the quarter - Avenida Amsterdam and Avenida Mexico but one of my favourites is a little blue painted house in Calle Ozuluama, built in 1931 and carrying the name of the architect Daniel Lopez. The house carries a number of art deco features including the floral motifs at the upper level and geometric shapes as well as some references to the earlier "California" style especially in the swirled stone columns dividing the windows at the upper level. But, the most outstanding feature of the house is its stunning front door. Beautifully recessed with an external lobby it is flanked by external lights covered in metal detail and a "skyscraper skyline" running from the front of the building into the recess. The door itself has beautiful glass panels with metal detailing in geometric patterns. 

Entrance, Calle Ozuluama 11
Detail, Calle Ozuluama 11.
Just around the corner on Avenida Amsterdam, I discovered two new favourites. Architect Francisco J. Serrano was responsible for a number of buildings in Condesa, including the delightful deco house at 110 Avenida Amsterdam. Although in need of some urgent love and care, it retains much of its original 1931 beauty with its curved windows, external decorative features referencing Aztec art and a beautiful metal gate with relief lines, swirls and flowers. Serrano was born in Mexico City and studied at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, where he later taught civil engineering and architecture. He was also responsible for Edificio Mexico on Avenida Mexico and the Pasaje Commercial on Avenue Masaryk in Polanco.

Just over the road from the Serrano designed house is Edificio Niza, an apartment block at 73 Avenida Amsterdam. Built in 1934, it has an interesting double entrance with adjoining doors on Avenida Amsterdam and Calle Parras, giving residents a choice of entrance. The exterior is extremely well maintained and eye catching with stylised vertical lettering on the doors showing the building's name and interesting use of contrasting colours - black, blue, orange and yellow in the entrance lobby which is visible from the street. I also like the squared-off canopy that separates the upper levels from the ground floor and the green "Tel Aviv" style curves of the higher floors. Just beautiful. Any details of the building's history, including the architect's name would be very welcome!

Avenida Amsterdam 110.
Avenida Amsterdam 110
Detail, Edificio Niza, Avenida Amsterdam 73.
Double entrance, Edificio Niza, Avenida Amsterdam 73.
Condesa is worthy of several articles, if not of a book, but in conclusion I continue Eduardo's theme of art deco being present throughout the city. The pictures below are of apartment buildings in the Centro Historico and in the area around the monument to the Revolution on Reforma. There is a dearth of documentation about these and many other Mexico City buildings from this period so I include only photographs for the moment. I think Eduardo needs to write a book...

Apartment bock, Calle Edison.
Apartmentos Tissot, Calle Baranda
Apartment block, Calle de Cuba
You might also like Mexico City - art deco treasure house or Picture Post number 35 Mexico City - the abandoned Fronton.

See more pictures of Mexico City here and here.