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Monday, November 24, 2014

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Foundation's closing sounds an alarming note for Jewish culture

Tags: News Alicia Svigals Ashkenaz Ed Segalowitz Eric Stein Yellow ticket
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Alicia Svigals

In 2012, Klezmer violinist Alicia Svigals got the chance to compose a score for The Yellow Ticket, a 1918 silent film about a Jewish woman in czarist Russia. Svigals says she says she did not realize the job would develop a life of its own.

The musician got a commission from the New Jewish Culture Network (NJCN), part of the New York-based Foundation of Jewish Culture (FJC). However, the cut of the film she was playing under had been sped up and the intertitles were poorly translated. 

Svigals used that grant to get a better film print – one at regular speed and with better dialogue – and re-write the score. The $10,000 in NJCN funds gave her the time and resources to refine the music.

“It really made me understand what a huge force funding like that can be for developing and maintaining the arts,” Svigals says. “It was one grant, but it had a snowball effect. It opened up a whole world for me as an artist and a lot of untapped potential.”

When she performs her score for The Yellow Ticket at the Ashkenaz Festival in Toronto on Aug. 31, alongside Canadian jazz pianist Marilyn Lerner, Svigals may feel bittersweet. She is one of the last people to receive such a grant, as the Jewish arts giant is set to close for good.

The FJC’s closing will likely make financial support for Jewish artists in North America even more difficult. A lack of funding in the years since the 2008 global recession was a major factor in the FJC’s decline.

Although Toronto’s Ashkenaz Festival is the largest Jewish cultural gathering in Canada and could see up to 60,000 guests this year, the dearth in arts funding in the U.S. is a grey cloud hovering over the organization.

The arts often see the steepest cuts, and this is something that should concern every Jew, says Eric Stein, the Ashkenaz Foundation’s artistic and executive director.

“Over the last 20 years, arts and culture activity within the Jewish community has been the Number 1 driver of positive affiliation for people that would otherwise not find a way into the Jewish community,” Stein says.

Stein is also a member of the NJCN, which appointed FJC-led projects The Yellow Ticket and The Sarajevo Haggadah: Music of the Book and toured them around North America. Both programs will appear at the Ashkenaz Festival this year, on August 31.

Still, with the FJC closing down, Stein says he fears there may not be another round of commissioning by the NJCN.

“When you see a 50-year-old institution fall by the wayside like that, it’s definitely something that should concern anybody who recognizes the value that arts and culture fulfill in the Jewish community,” he says.

Ashkenaz, meanwhile, gets around half of its funding from Canadian government foundations that support the arts, says Ashkenaz development director Ed Segalowitz. The other half comes mainly from private donors and the public.

The financial support Ashkenaz receives allows much of its programming, both during the festival and through the year, to be presented free. 

The Yellow Ticket tells the story of a young Jewish woman, Lea (played by Polish actor Pola Negri), who dreams of becoming a doctor. However, she has a “yellow ticket,” held by Jewish citizens as a symbol for their lack of status. In the film, Lea has to assume a false identity so that she can study at a major university. 

“[The festival is] probably the best place for non-Jews to get a sense of what Jewish culture is about and understand Jewish people,” Segalowitz says. “Many in our community relate to Jewish culturally more than religiously. That cultural window is a really important way of being able to assert that you’re a Jew.”

Even with the cuts south of the border, Stein is convinced Ashkenaz will keep on going. However, he says the FJC’s end is “alarming,” as it could signal the arrival of cuts in the near future. 

As Ashkenaz moves further into York Region, thanks to a grant from the Trillium Foundation, the arts organization will need even more funding.

In New York, the FJC is still operating at some level. Its board is now searching for other organizations to adopt and steward their current programs.

The FJC did not just provide money to a wide variety of Jews, from filmmakers to musicians, but helped to nurture these artists, Svigals says. Among the recent projects the FJC helped to support included the Israeli, Oscar-nominated war drama Waltz with Bashir.

“[The FJC] was so positive and collaborative… it’s very sad that it’s closing,” Svigals tells The CJN. “Respect for the arts in the culture at large has been declining, which is a very bad sign for a civilization. It’s something that needs to be reversed.”

Advance tickets for The Yellow Ticket are $15. Visit the website for more information.

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