Ah, New York. I don’t miss winter since I moved to Tucson from Manhattan more than two decades ago — before I could be mistaken for a snow bird — but I miss New Yorkers’ unabashed grumpiness about the season. If you’re going to experience frigid weather, as I did last week, you can’t beat a place where kvetching about the cold has been raised to an art form.
And where there are many, many reasons to pile on scarves and sweaters and go forth to freeze your kishkes off.
Wind-chill notwithstanding, I had a wonderful time seeing old friends and new, meeting recently acquired relatives, visiting museums, going on a deli pilgrimage — often in combination. I also found a key ally in my getting-to-Vienna quest. So I’ll start the How I Spent My Winter Vacation report with a museum showcasing the art and food of my people: The Viennese.
An Unexpected Treasure
I stumbled on the Neue Galerie on my way to the Metropolitan Museum to meet a friend — almost literally. I didn’t actually trip, though anyone who knows me wouldn’t be surprised if I had, but I did stop short. I was striding briskly up 86th Street towards Fifth Avenue from the subway when I saw a line of people waiting to enter a building with a sign on it that announced it was devoted to German and Austrian art. I asked about the queue and was told that the museum was small and that a new show had just opened.
My friend Sharon, who grew up with me in Brooklyn — let’s just say it was long before the borough became trendy and more expensive than Manhattan — readily agreed to go back there with me after we wandered around the Met for a bit. She knew the Neue (New-ee? Noy? Neh-ew? It’s hard to pronounce the name of the gallery without sounding either nauseated or pretentious), and told me that it was founded and funded by collector Ron Lauder, of Estee Lauder fame, and that it was in a beautiful restored mansion. She also pointed out that the museum had a cafe that served Viennese pastry. I don’t want to suggest that I rushed her out of the Met after I heard that, but let’s just say I didn’t linger at the Temple of Dendur and other parts of Egyptian collection as long as I usually do.
Degenerate Art for a Degenerate’s Descendant
Sharon and I were soon lining up to wait for “Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany.” The show focuses on a 1937 exhibition in Munich called “Entartete Kunst” that, as the New York Times notes:
…was made up of work in vanguard modernist styles: Expressionism, Cubism, Surrealism, Dada, abstraction. The whole thing was pitched as a freak show, meant to demonstrate the threat the new art posed on everything German. Jews were implicated in the attack, even though only six of the 112 artists were Jewish.
When you enter, you see two facing photo murals, one of a line of people waiting to see the Munich show, the other of a line of Jews arriving at Auschwitz. There was something dizzying about the thought that we had waited in line to see an exhibition that shows people waiting in line to see an exhibition — and disturbing about suddenly being confronted with the reminder of the many relatives who had perished at the death camp.
But I didn’t dwell on that. Mostly, I was moved by discovering a historical affinity with some of my favorite artists, including Paul Klee, a central figure in this show and in the museum’s permanent collection as a teacher at the Bauhaus school, which Hitler closed. A print of Klee’s “Le Voyage en Tunisie” hangs in my home, but I never thought of his work in the context of world events; I just found his compositions and colors pleasing. It never would have occurred to me to consider his work “degenerate” — but of course, by most sane standards, the members of my mother’s family wouldn’t fall into that category either.
The exhibition encapsulated my experiences with this blog, with stumbling into and exploring a family history I had avoided for so long. While it is often painful, the journey has also enriched my life in innumerable, unexpected ways.
Speaking of enrichment…or just plain rich. Sharon and I next joined another line, this time for the elegant Cafe Sabarsky, pictured next to the title of this post. No justification is required for dessert desire, but in keeping with the historical context, I should mention that one of my great uncles was a co-owner of Cafe Victoria in Vienna.
Sharon left the selection of our shared treat to me as the visitor, if not the expert; after all, it was her mother who allowed us to eat Ebinger’s blackout cake for breakfast when I slept over at her house. I chose Rehrücken, described as “chocolate marzipan cake with orange confiture.” I had never heard of it but it was the only dessert on the menu that mentioned marzipan, one of my mother’s favorite confections; I inherited her fondness for it. The Rehrücken was delicious but a bit short on the coveted ingredient. See that circular bit at the top of the slice in the picture? That was the only place that the almond paste put in an appearance. I know this will shock some people, but if I had to choose between marzipan and chocolate, the marzipan would win, hands down.
On the other hand, the schlag (whipped cream) that accompanied the dessert turned out to be a perfect complement to the rich dark chocolate frosting, a light contrast in taste and texture. Whipped cream is something I would never consider ordering with a slice of iced cake — talk about gilding the lily — but there it was on the plate, clearly part of the authentic Viennese experience. Wasting it would have been wrong, Sharon and I agreed.