Tag Archives: Jewish

Another Promised Land: Anita Brenner’s Mexico at the Skirball Center, Los Angeles

Once the dust of Mexico settles on your heart,

you will have no rest in any other land.

On September 13, I joined Patrice Wynne and Gloria Orenstein at the Skirball Cultural Center in West Los Angeles for a curator-led preview tour of this landmark exhibition, Another Promised Land: Anita Brenner’s Mexico.

The exhibition runs through February 25, 2018.

The term promised land is rooted in a vision of freedom and liberation.  Emotionally, it has meaning for peoples seeking release from oppression who want a secure life where one can become fully realized without restraint. Jewish identity is intertwined with Israel as the promised land. African-American slaves looked to the north as a promised land. Oppressed peoples throughout the world continue to seek asylum in America, their hope of the promised land where opportunity and justice prevail. (We must be vigilant.)

Tina Modotti captures Anita Brenner in black and white

Anita Brenner (1905-1974), a Mexican-born Jewish writer who lived and worked during the Mexican Renaissance, saw the country adopted by her Latvian parents as a promised land for intellectual and artistic expression. Her own experience with prejudice and discrimination helped give her voice to bridge understanding.

Mexico was a haven for immigrants escaping Europe throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Even today, Mexico has a welcoming immigration policy. Her people are a blend of indigenous, Spanish, African, Filipino, Chinese, German, and French — representing waves of conquest and immigration. Jews sought haven in Mexico when the gates were closed to the United States of America. (Thank you, Mexico!)

Diego Rivera, Dance in Tehuantepec, watercolor

Brenner was an integral part of the circle of Mexican modernists in the 1920s and played an important role in promoting and translating Mexican art, culture, and history for audiences in the U.S.

Jean Charlot, The Massacre in the Main Temple, fresco, Collegio San Ildefonso

Born during the turmoil of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), Brenner was close to the leading intellectuals and artists active in Mexico at the time. These are names we know well: painters José Clemente Orozco, Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, Jean Charlot, and photographer Tina Modotti. There were others whose name we do not widely know in the USA, including Rivera’s second wife, Guadalupe Marin, Frances Toor, Nahui Olin, Luz Jimenez and Concha Michel.   

Abraham Angel, La India

Art historian Karen Cordero says they would meet at Sanborn’s Casa de los Azulejos to talk about politics, social injustices, women’s rights, feminism, and other issues.

The exhibition introduces us to Brenner as an important figure who has been heretofore obscured by the more illustrious in her circle.  An influential and prolific writer on Mexican culture, Brenner is best known for her book Idols Behind Altars: Modern Mexican Art and Its Cultural Roots (1929). 

Cover of Mexico this month, February 1956

Her work is rooted in the shaping of post-Revolution Mexico, when a new identity for a new nation needed to be reassessed to reflect the persistent indigenous culture behind the Spanish conquest. The Revolution brought with it the need to create political, social and cultural change and artists turned to folk art as inspiration to re-imagine past with future.

Mathias Goeritz, Satellite Tower. He was close to Luis Barragan, architect.

She was also instrumental in creating cultural tourism for Mexico — promoting cultural exploration as a vacation activity by publishing the cultural travel magazine, Mexico this month. We can consider her a pioneer in learning about the people who live where you visit.

The Skirball’s exhibition includes a narrative of Brenner’s life. It features pre-Columbian art, paintings, prints, photographs and drawings by Miguel Covarrubias, Jean Charlot, Edward Weston, Leonora Cunningham, Maximo Pacheco, Lola Cueto, Abraham Angel, plus those we are more familiar with: Kahlo, Rivera, Orozco.

Lithograph by Orozco

Charlot was a disciple of Rivera who contributed to the murals at the Secretariat de Publica Education (SEP). He was in love with Brenner; they could never reconcile religious differences and did not marry, though they remained lifelong friends.

Cultural map of Oaxaca, Mexico/this month

Another Promised Land: Anita Brenner’s Mexico is part of Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA, a far-reaching and ambitious exploration of Latin American and Latino art in dialogue with Los Angeles, taking place from September 2017 through January 2018 at more than sixty cultural institutions across Southern California. Pacific Standard Time is an initiative of the Getty.

Gloria Orenstein, Norma Schafer and Patrice Wynne at the exhibition

Footnote: Los Angeles County has the second largest Jewish population and the largest Latino population in the United States.

Thank you to the Skirball Cultural Center for background information and photographs.

Names, Identity and Change: Why Norma Schafer

Perhaps you have noticed, or not, that my name on the masthead of this blog has changed to Schafer. I thought I might offer an explanation. If you don’t care, just stop reading, delete this post and Move On. This is not about Oaxaca or Mexico or my recent trip to Spain. This is personal. In my creative writing and the work I have published on Minerva Rising, I have learned to write from the depths.

When I married in 2002, I took my husband’s surname. This is something neither of his first two wives had done. In doing so, I believed it would honor him and signal a strong commitment to this union.

Many years earlier, I had taken another man’s name when it was conventional custom and after the dissolving of this first marriage, I kept that name for a very long time because it also belonged to my son.

The man I married in 2002 became my recent ex-husband.  He was Husband Number Two. I was Wife Number Three. Soon, friends told me, there will be a Wife Number Four. I realized it is time for me to put that identity completely behind. Some said, it’s a nice name, you can keep it. But names are symbolic of something else.


As a woman, I have always carried a man’s name, starting with the name of my father. I never liked my father’s name although I loved him very much. It is awkward to say, lengthy, unusual and must be spelled at each introduction. For me, it never fit.

My mother’s family name has resonance. I experimented with spelling (just like they did at Ellis Island) first selecting Shafer. I tacked it on to the married name to ease into a public transition to change. How long does it take? Maybe a year? Do readers even notice? I wasn’t sure. Now, easing into another name is not an option.

What I also know is that I also want to reclaim my identity through my last name. The spelling Schafer makes sense. It means scribe, an ancient Jewish record-keeper, then later a theologian or jurist. I am a contemporary record-keeper of Oaxaca art, culture, history, etc. I document what I experience through photographs and words.

I researched various spellings of my  mother’s family name that has both German and Ashkenazi Jewish origins, and made a choice. Please join me in celebration of Norma Schafer and new beginnings.

Please let me know if you have any questions: norma.schafer@icloud.com

Today, I am leaving North Carolina, returning to Northern California to visit my 99-year old mother and sister, and then will get back to Mexico in early June. It’s been quite a journey.

Women’s Creative Writing and Yoga Retreat: Lifting Your Creative Voice 2016




Why Visit Girona, Spain?

Girona_38-23Girona, Spain, is a half-hour north of Barcelona Sants station by AVE bullet train going at 200 km per hour. It catapulted us into the Middle Ages.


It has the best preserved medieval Jewish neighborhood in Europe dating from the 8th century with an outstanding museum atop an archeological dig that contains a mikvah. There is an investment by the Spanish government now in historical Jewish tourism. Spain is offering dual citizenship to Sefardim who want to reclaim their past.

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Until the pogroms of 1391, Girona was a center of Jewish intellectual life in Spain where Kabbalah Jewish spirituality fully developed from its roots in southern France.

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By 1492, with the Expulsion Decree and the start of the official Inquisition, Jews had either converted to Catholicism or left for France, Amsterdam, Turkey, North Africa, towns along the Adriatic Sea and the New World. No Jews remained in Spain.


According to our expert Barcelona guide Dominique of Urban Cultours, the Spanish Jewish community there was mostly decimated in 1391. Surviving in Girona are tombstone fragments from Montjuic cemetery and artifacts of Jewish ritual and daily life. In Barcelona, cemetery stones were used for foundation construction of 15th century church and government buildings.


Girona boasts an amazing gothic cathedral dating from 1038 A.D. with an impressive, wide nave, second only to Saint Peter’s in Rome.

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The stained glass windows spill colored light into an otherwise dark, stony and austere interior. It speaks of early European Catholicism where the so-called chair of Charlemagne commands attention.


From the top of the cathedral steps, you look down onto a lovely square, perfect for resting, sipping a glass of Estrella beer with tapas appetizers.

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During the Spanish civil war, 1936-1939, the figures of the twelve apostles that flanked the side entrance to the cathedral were destroyed. Their intricate crowns are still intact, and one can imagine …

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Girona’s old town flanks both sides of the beautiful Onyar River, connected by bridges. It is walkable, accessible, filled with narrow alleyways, hillside steps, ancient porticos, smart shops filled with designer clothes and accessories, excellent patio cafes and Catalunya flags flying everywhere.

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The sentiment for an independent Catalan state is strong. It feels and smells old world.


Two days here are not long enough!

Compared with Barcelona there is not the crush of tourists although there are plenty of European visitors. We heard French, Italian, Czech, German and Russian, plenty of Catalan and Spanish. Not much English!

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We had an amazing dinner at Massana, a one-star Michelin restaurant, our best in Spain. We saw the restaurant sign and rang the doorbell to what we discovered was a private dining room. Chef-owner Pere Massana emerged in his kitchen whites to personally guide us to the actual entrance.

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Our welcome was warm, service outstanding and engaging. Food spectacular. We opted out of the tasting menu — too much food late at night (most restaurants don’t open until 8:30 p.m.) and instead ordered an entree and dessert. Otherwise, we would have lingered until well beyond midnight!

The meal was preceded by three taste treats to whet our appetite: fresh goat cheese topped with rosemary, mussels marinated in orange vinaigrette and a fois gras yogurt topped with crunchy flashed dried ground corn. This sure beat the chocolate coated fois gras popsicle we had in Granada at overrated La Fabula that was part of an over-the-top tasting menu.

FullSizeRender This chocolate hazelnut extravaganza tasting plate was my dessert at Massana. So chocolate-y I couldn’t eat it all!

We were astounded that Chef Massana followed us out to the street to personally thank us for coming, asking how we enjoyed the meal! Memorable. Sincere.

After a good night’s rest at Hotel Nord 1901 we took the afternoon train to Figueres, rented a car and drove to a 15th century village where we stayed overnight in a converted farmhouse. Then, on to the Dali Museum where I will post about his surrealist jewelry designs next.

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Today, we are resting in the Mediterranean seacoast town of Cadaques, Spain. But, I can’t get magical Girona off my mind.





Klezmer Music in Puebla, Mexico: Who-da Thunk It

We are wandering around the Saturday flea market at Plazuela de los Sapos in Puebla, Mexico, in and out of aisles filled with rusted iron butcher hooks, old painted pottery, antique furniture, glitzy glam rhinestone jewelry in dazzling day-glow colors, brass hand bells new and old, religious relics, doll heads, ancient detritus of Tia Maria’s kitchen cupboard.

Then I hear it. The sounds of a band draw me to them. I can’t quite name the music although it sounds familiar.  We stand around listening. Put money in the violen case. And, ask, what kind of music is this.  Oh, it’s klezmer, says the percussionist.

Here is what we found: Tate Klezmer Band.

Is anyone in the group Jewish? I ask, knowing that Mexico has a history of Conversos, hidden Jews, who came from Spain during the inquisition, forced to convert to Catholicism and  kept their religious practices secret. No, she says. We play it because we love it. It’s lively and makes us feel happy, like dancing. It’s the music of weddings, she says, and they continue to play.

All are students in the music conservatory.  I want to invite them to Oaxaca to play at my next party!


Vintage Moroccan Tribal and Berber Jewelry: For Your Collection

In this post: a stunning collection of Moroccan tribal jewelry for sale.  We traveled the souks of Marrakech and Essaouira to find these treasures — several stunning necklaces and one outstanding filigree Berber bracelet. All are vintage!  We sat on leather poufs at the feet of Moroccan traders who served us glasses of hot, sweet mint tea.


We haggled Moroccan-style to get the best possible prices and selected the most original, authentic antique pieces from the most reputable merchants who locals know and trust.   We went right to the source and are offering these treasures to you just in time for the holidays.  Please send me an email with your mailing address, if you would like to purchase a piece.  I will send you a PayPal invoice, add mailing costs and the piece will be on its way to you pronto.  Oops, as fast as a sheik on a camel.


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Stunning, hand crafted, vibrantly colored four strand antique Berber tribal necklace with amber. Circa 1940s. Pink coral, red coral, orange coral, turquoise, intricately painted wooden trading beads, hand rolled ceramic beads, engraved Berber silver, jet. Traditional yarn tie.

Length: 24 inches. Adjustable. Weight: 200 grams.  $285


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Rare, exquisite multi-pendant antique tribal necklace. Four perfect strands of etched-pattern Berber silver, amber, turquoise, red coral, orange coral, hand rolled ceramic and painted wood beads. Antique Berber 2 dirham coin pendant, circa 1890s, and 2 red coral pendants.  Traditional yarn tie. Length: 24 inches, adjustable.  Weight: 195 grams.  $310.


photo 3Antique red coral and red Venetian glass beads with Tuareg Berber silver desert medallion. Circa 1940s. Length: 20 inches. Weight: 95 grams.  Old clasp reinforced with invisible clear wire.  $225.

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A show stopper. Remarkable antique Desert Tribal Necklace “Green Beads.” Circa late 19th century or earlier from the Ida ou Sental Berber tribe, southern Morocco. Six beaded strands with old brass and Berber silver desert medallions and coins. An elaborately engraved antique brass centerpiece medallion with Berber silver coin pendants symbolizing Circle of Life.  Hand painted wood trading beads and jet Venetian glass beads.

Length: 24 inches. Weight: 275 grams. Old hook clasp reinforced with clear wire. $350




INTRICATE filigree Berber Silver Tribal Bracelet from the mid-Atlas Mountains. Green and yellow enamel, red and green original Venetian glass trading bead inserts, bezel set.  Six Berber silver coins with 5-pointed stars.
Diameter 2 ¼ inches diameter, 1 ½ inches wide. Weight: 100 grams. $280