Continuing education series at Gates of Prayer is all about Chagall, Tevye & ‘Fiddler’

In what may well  be one of the most unusual joint programs in the country, Reform Congregation Gates of Prayer welcomes its neighbor –  Orthodox Congregation Beth Israel – for three weeks of continuing education called “The World of Fiddler on the Roof.” The three nights are all related to 19th Century Eastern Europe culture, especially to that of the Sholem Aleichem character Tevye, whose story became the basis for the beloved musical “Fiddler on the Roof.” The first program slated to begin next Wednesday, July 18, is titled “Marc Chagall’s World.” Chagall  was born in what is present-day Belarus in a place similar to that depicted in the Tevye story, award-winning Broadway musical and, later, Oscar winning film of the same.

Marc Chagall's famous "Fiddler," a self-portrait.

One of his most famous paintings is that of a fiddler, which is in reality a self-portrait, according to  Sergio Diaz, an authority on the artist and senior consultant from the local Martin-Lawrence Galleries on Royal Street. Diaz was contacted by Gates of Prayer’s Rabbi Robert Loewy to talk about Chagall’s unusual artistic endeavors and famous works with various media. As a painter he worked in oils, watercolors and gouache, which is an opaque watercolor. Yet, some of his most famous works include the impressive 12 stained glass windows named for the 12 Tribes of Israel at Haddasah Hospital in Jerusalem as well as his “America Windows”  at the Chicago Museum of Art and his massive, colorful tapestries at Lincoln Center in New York. Diaz will be presenting a video biography on Chagall’s life to start off the evening, but will then speak on a number of rare facts related to the artist’s life and his various techniques. “I’m going to fill in the blanks that haven’t been filled,” Diaz explained.

Art expert Sergio Diaz with a work by Marc Chagall on display at the Martin-Lawrence Galleries. (Courtesy Sergio Diaz)

As an example, Diaz will be reading some of Chagall’s little-known poetry. Diaz claims the poetry was directly responsible for several of the artist’s more unusual pieces – a series of wood engravings, one of which he will be showing to the audience. As Diaz related, Chagall lost his beloved wife Bella in 1944. “She was everything to him. He fell into a deep depression and refused to paint,” he continued. According to Diaz, Chagall turned to writing esoteric poetry about love, his wedding day and mourning.”People don’t always associate him with poetry, but he was a poet,” Diaz averred. “This was cathartic for him; it was his way back.” The poems were originally written in Yiddish, translated into French and finally prepared to be published in English. But when it came time to publish the works, Chagall determined the poems needed illustrations. The illustrations formed the basis for the wood engravings, which were not cut until 1968. Significantly, it was a project the artist funded entirely out of his own pocket, which, according to Diaz, was highly unusual. Chagall used the unique set of 24 wood engravings to render the prints used for the book’s illustrations.

Several of the paintings Diaz will be showing to the audience in his presentation are owned by David Rogath, the multi-millionaire owner of the gallery where he works. According to Diaz, Rogath was a good friend of Chagall and his wife’s before the artist died. Rogath arranged a purchase of 100 works from the artist’s estate after his death and became one of the largest collectors of Chagall’s paintings. According to Diaz, Rogath’s Martin-Lawrence Galleries are the largest owners of Marc Chagall, Andy Warhol and Picasso artwork in the Western world and regularly loan valuable pieces to world class museums around the globe.

Diaz anticipates a presentation of about one-half hour before turning it over to the audience for a question and answer period. Chagall was very much shaped by his childhood environment, which was very religious, Diaz pointed out. “Some of his most important memories from childhood were (affected by) books and how important books were to him.” It may be that his illustrations for a number of books came about form his reverence toward the printed word.

Rabbi Robert Loewy (©Alan Smason)

The following Wednesday, July 25, Loewy will address the crowd at Gates of Prayer with his talk titled “Tevye’s World.” He plans on showing several scenes from the movie “Fiddler on the Roof,” which depict life in Czarist Russia near the turn of the century. In the film Topol plays Tevye, the poor milkman who ekes out a living for his wife and daughters. Loewy intends to give historical, literary and religious perspective on the story. “‘Fiddler on the Roof’ is not only an entertaining play/movie, it provides a prism into Jewish history, faith and philosophy,” wrote the rabbi in a recent e-mail.  “That’s essentially what my talk will be sharing.”  Aside from the movie, Loewy will be discussing the author Shalom Aleichem as well.

The third and final installment for the series is “Fiddler on the Roof.” The Broadway musical starring Randy Cheramie as Tevye opens Thursday night, August 2 at Tulane’s Dixon Hall as part of Tulane Summer Lyric’s final summer production. A block of 25 seats were purchased for series attendees, but have already been sold out by Gates of Prayer. However, individual tickets for the show may be obtained by calling 504-865-5269 prior to the show.

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