The Arty Semite

VIDEO: Jazz Genius in the City of Light

By Jon Kalish

A friend of klezmer clarinetist David Krakauer recently stumbled on a mention of Behcet’s Syndrome, a medical disorder involving inflammation of the blood vessels. He joked that Krakauer seems to be suffering from Bechet’s Syndrome, an obsession with the American reeds player who received great acclaim in the late 1940s. Krakauer has let it be known that he has idolized Bechet ever since he was 11, when his parents gave him one of the great clarinetist/saxophonist’s LPs, and has called Bechet the teacher he never met.

Krakauer covers Bechet’s “Si Tu Vois Ma Mere” on his “The Big Picture” CD and the live show based on the album. Film buffs may know the tune from Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris.” Krakauer’s wailing clarinet is heard on the track improvising over funk guitar lines. He told the Forward that it was a daunting task to cover a Bechet piece, though Krakauer paid tribute to Bechet in a rollocking 1997 composition titled “Klezmer Ala Bechet.”

We’re proud to debut the latest video for Krakauer’s Big Picture project here. Created by Matt Esolda, a video wiz at Manhattan’s Light of Day production company, it starts with an Oscar Wilde quote: “When good Americans die, they go to Paris.” Esolda mixes grainy color footage of Paris from the early 1950s with more quotes about the City of Light from Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Man Ray, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dalí. Enjoy.

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A Holocaust Movie Without a Soul

By Curt Schleier

“Walking With the Enemy” has brave Jews standing up to the Nazi death machine. It has helpless Jews loaded onto cattle cars. It has good Germans unwilling to participate in the eradication of a people. It has both Hungarian anti-Semites and Hungarian nuns who sheltered the oppressed. In short it has everything a good Holocaust film should have — except soul.

The film tries to do too much. Because it wants to be fair to everyone on both sides of every issue, it lacks the emotional connection a more focused approach might have.

It also lacks context. Hungary may not have been the place where the most Jews were murdered, but it is where they were killed with the greatest Nazi efficiency in the shortest amount of time: About 400,000 liquidated within a couple of months.

And while some of this is hinted at, it is never explained, diminishing the movie’s impact.

Hungary was an Axis ally during much of the war. This was good for Jews, because it meant Nazi troops were not stationed there and the country’s regent, Miklos Horthy (a woefully under utilized Sir Ben Kingsley), was able to protect his people from the worst of the German race laws.

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New Spielberg Film About Jewish Boy Seized by Church

By Renee Ghert-Zand

Director Steven Spielberg has several new projects in the works, including a film about the kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara.

The movie will recount the true story of how in 1858 a young Italian Jewish boy was taken from his parents by authorities of the Papal States after a housemaid claimed to have given him an emergency baptism. The incident led to international attention and controversy. Many believe that the kidnapping was instrumental in convincing the public that the Papal States should be conquered, and thus ultimately helped bring about the modern Italian state.

Tony Kushner will write the screenplay as an adaption of the 1998 book, “The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara” by David I. Kertzer. In the past, Kushner collaborated with Spielberg on “Munich” and “Lincoln” — both of which received Oscar nominations.

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Celebrate the Marx Brothers With 'Marxfest'

By Curt Schleier

It’s been 100 years since four brothers — Leonard, Arthur, Julius and Milton — sat down at a table and, with the assistance of a fellow vaudevillian, reinvented themselves as Chico, Harpo, Groucho and Gummo. The centennial anniversary of that comic rebirth will be celebrated with Marxfest, a month-long series of screenings and discussions taking place in May.

Noah Diamond is one of six committee members running the events. They are “mostly New York theater people and media people who were sort of passionate about the Marx Brothers,” he said.

Why this obsession for comics long gone? “I think the simple answer is that they were so funny. If you watch their films today, they are still so surprising and so fresh.”

Diamond, an actor and writer who has performed as Groucho, noted that many of the events are free and others are moderately priced. “Hopefully if we sell a reasonable amount of tickets we won’t lose money.”

The brothers were Jewish, though not observant. Diamond says that in “The Cocoanuts,” Groucho is credited with being the first actor to speak in a natural New York/Jewish accent rather than the sort of high-tone faux British accent typical of the time. Harpo donated his harp to the State of Israel.

More information about events is available at marxfest.com

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Clara Mamet Makes a Movie

By Curt Schleier

“Two-Bit Waltz” is a small independent film about teenage alienation that debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 19. But before you say: “Thank goodness, that’s just what the world needs — another film about teenage angst,” here are a couple of facts you should know.

First, yes, the film has moments best described as bizarre, but there are far more sequences that are funny and revealing. And while it takes a little time to get used to its rhythms, the movie has a remarkably mature sensibility.

Which brings us to fact number two: The first-time filmmaker — writer, director and star — is Clara Mamet, who herself is a 19-year-old teenager. If the name is familiar, it may be because she is a star of the ABC show “Neighbors.” The show is buried in television’s Bermuda Triangle, Friday nights, and is subversively intelligent, which is reason enough for many to predict its momentary cancellation.

Oh, yes. She is also the daughter of playwright David Mamet and English actress Rebecca Pidgeon, and she is the half-sister of Zosia Mamet, who stars in HBO’s “Girls.”

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Jonas Armstrong Plays the Role of a Lifetime

By Dorri Olds

Irish-born British actor Jonas Armstrong stars in “Walking With the Enemy,” a story set in Hungary during the last months of World War II. Inspired by a true story, it tells of a man who used a stolen Nazi uniform to free hundreds of Jews. It’s an action story about love and courage directed by Mark Schmidt from a screenplay by Kenny Golde. Academy Award winner Ben Kingsley also stars.

Armstrong plays the lead, Elek Cohen, a fictional character who was inspired by Hungarian Pinchas Tibor Rosenbaum, who was able to steal a uniform from the Arrow Cross, an extreme Hungarian faction responsible for the deportation and death of tens of thousands of Jews.

Just when it seems that the topic of WWII has been exhausted, yet another gripping story comes out about the atrocities of the war and what Jewish people had to do to survive. The Forward’s Dorri Olds sat down for an interview with Jonas Armstrong.

Dorri Olds: How did you prepare for this role?

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How a Theater Legend Overcame the Odds

By Curt Schleier

“Act One,” Moss Hart’s inspirational memoir, is the story of the son of Jewish immigrants who found and successfully pursued his passion for theater despite — or because of — his family’s impoverished circumstances.

Hart’s muse was his Aunt Kate, an eccentric woman who encouraged his love of theater, where he found “a refuge for an unhappy child … a scrawny, poor kid with bad teeth, a funny name and a mother who was a drudge.”

In addition to abject poverty, Hart had a difficult relationship with both of his parents, particularly his father, who forced him to quit school after the eighth grade to work and contribute to the family coffers.

Still, he managed to become one of the 20th century’s greatest playwrights (“You Can’t Take It With You,” which won the Pulitzer Prize, and “The Man Who Came to Dinner”), Broadway directors (the original “My Fair Lady” and “Camelot”) and screenwriters (“A Gentleman’s Agreement,” “A Star is Born”).

Hart died unexpectedly at age 59, so he never had a chance to write a second chapter to his memoir incorporating many of these achievements. Still, those early years provided more than enough drama for a successful play — or at least they should have.

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POEM: 'Lilith at the Cosmetics Counter'

By Lynn Levin

Lilith’s face made a face at her
in the lighted mirror at the cosmetics counter.
Craggy, ravined, parched,
that thing above her neck looked like the Sinai Desert.
Yesterday militants high on toxic rumors
baby killer! man raper!
had run her out of town. Again.
She needed some ego first aid.
New address, new name, plastic surgery—
all that in good time.

“You look as one who has returned
from a long journey. This makeup will help,”
said the saleslady. She tilted her head
toward Lilith as if to say
we’re all in this together
then tried to sign her up for a store credit card:
20% off all first-day purchases
including cosmetics!
The lady also happened to be
missing a front tooth.
Her false eyelashes were so thick
she gave everyone the hairy eyeball.

She began to fuss with her brushes
(probably not clean)
and pots of color
(no doubt contaminated by frequent double dipping).
Lilith was about to put herself
under the other woman’s power
when she detected a whiff of sabotage
in the jasmine of her perfume.
Advice from an old lover tapped Lilith on the shoulder:
never buy makeup from someone
who’s not as good looking as you.

Lilith glanced at the high-def mirror.
The wilderness of her face looked back at her
with weird familiarity. Haggard
is good enough for me, she decided,
thanked her saboteur and slid from the chair.
She knew her fate was a bitch
but it was her bitch.
And that was the beauty of it.

From “Miss Plastique” (Ragged Sky Press, 2013)


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Israeli Films Show Nuance at Tribeca Film Fest

By Simi Horwitz

Two films screening at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival show subtle and nuanced perspectives on Israeli life from a woman’s point of view.

Talya Lavie’s first feature, “Zero Motivation,” screening April 17 – 24, focuses on a unit of female Israeli soldiers at a desert-based human resource center awash in hierarchy, bureaucracy and pointless tasks. Tedium is the defining gestalt as they serve coffee, shred paper, and re-organize closets to fill time. Between chores they play computer games, sometimes with each other, often alone. The girls are isolated and, paradoxically, deeply interconnected. Friendships evolve and disintegrate in the face of betrayal, disappointment and thwarted ambition.

Despite its bleak backdrop the film’s signature is its good humor and light touch. Thanks to fine performances and, especially, Lavie’s subtle script and self-assured direction “Zero Motivation” is a fascinating look at a rarely explored subculture. This movie is both a character-driven work and a briskly paced entertainment.

The film is structured around three different girls and is divided into three sections, “The Substitute,” “The Virgin” and “The Commodore,” with one part flowing into the next and each informing the other two.

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A Soviet Journey to Adulthood

By Anna Goldenberg

Ellen Litman dreamed of being a writer when she went to school in Moscow in the 1980s. There was only one problem: She was Jewish, and thus she was advised to focus on something more practical, since in the Soviet Union, Jews couldn’t be successful at writing.

Litman studied math and computer programming, and immigrated to Pittsburgh with her family in 1992. It took her several years to work up the courage to take a writing class; she worried that she couldn’t write in a language that was not her native one. It turned out she could: In 2004, she completed her Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing at Syracuse University. In 2007, she published her first book, “The Last Chicken in America,” which deals with the experiences of a young woman from Russia trying to settle into Pittsburgh.

In March, Litman, who is an assistant professor at the University of Connecticut and teaches writing and English, released her second novel, “Mannequin Girl.” Set in a Soviet boarding school for children with scoliosis, it tells the story of a Jewish girl, Kat, and her journey into adulthood dealing with her parents, who teach at her school, as well as unrequited love and latent anti-Semitism.

Litman, 40, lives with her husband and two children in Mansfield, Conn. She spoke to the Forward’s Anna Goldenberg about playing with autobiographical elements and why moving to the United States hasn’t changed her idea of Judaism.

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Edgar Bronfman's Art Collection On Sale

By Anna Goldenberg

Kees Van Dongen (1877–1968): Egyptienne au collier de perles, 1912-1913. Photo credit: Christie’s Images Ltd. 2014

The legacy of businessman and philanthropist Edgar Bronfman, who passed away last December at the age of 84, could soon be adorning your living room walls. With his penthouse property in Manhattan as good as sold, his impressive art collection will soon be available to the highest bidder at several Christie’s auctions.

Impressionist and modern art paintings by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Kees van Dongen and others will be offered on May 6 and 7 in New York, followed by postwar and contemporary art on May 14 and American art, which includes Milton Avery’s “The Mandolin Player,” on May 22. A selection of ceramics by Picasso will be sold in an online-only auction between May 2 and 16.

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Forgotten Songwriter of 'Twist and Shout'

By Michael Kaminer

“Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Piece of My Heart.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.”

The songs are recognized almost everywhere. But their Jewish creator, Bert Berns, has nearly vanished into obscurity.

That should change this year, with a book, documentary, and stage musical — all inspired by Berns and his music. April 15 sees the release of Joel Selvin’s “Here Comes The Night: The Dark Soul of Bert Berns and the Dirty Business of Rhythm & Blues” (Counterpoint); in June, the off-Broadway musical “Piece of My Heart” will open at the Pershing Square Signature Theater in Manhattan. And a documentary on Berns is slated for distribution this fall.

Other Brill Building songwriters may have had the glory, but few influenced pop music as much as Berns. He stewarded the early careers of Neil Diamond and Van Morrison, co-founded Bang Records with music-industry heavyweights Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler, and recorded with legends like the Isley Brothers, the Drifters, and Ben E. King. And none other than Sir Paul McCartney extolled Berns and his music in a recent video posted on Time.com.

The son of Ukrainian-Jewish immigrants, Berns contracted rheumatic fever as a child, which ultimately caused his death from a heart defect in 1967. His son, Brett, and daughter, Cassandra, are now overseeing the multimedia celebration of their father and his work.

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The Dean of Gay Journalism

By Michael Kaminer

The marketing spiel makes the John C. Anderson Apartments sound like an enviable place to live: Open floor plans, oversized windows, and fully equipped kitchens, all in a happening downtown neighborhood.

The twist: The just-opened Philadelphia building is a pioneering “LGBT-friendly senior apartment community” — the only one in Pennsylvania, and one of just three LGBT-oriented senior housing developments nationwide.

As they sang the project’s praises at a ribbon-cutting last month, dignitaries like Mayor Michael Nutter and former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell singled out one man as the force behind it: Philadelphia Gay News founder and publisher Mark Segal.

A longtime gay activist who first took to the front lines for civil rights in the 1960s, Segal almost singlehandedly pushed elected officials, government agencies and development partners to make the Anderson Apartments a reality.

It’s just the latest milestone for Segal, 61, whose gay activism started at age 18. Anyone old enough to remember Walter Cronkite might recall Segal’s famous disruption a CBS Evening News broadcast to protest a lack of coverage of gay issues. Today, he’s widely praised as the dean of gay journalism.

On the day before he and partner Jason Villmez departed for a long-awaited vacation — “I’m not telling you where!” Segal joked — the Forward caught up with him in Philadelphia.

Michael Kaminer: Did you have an “aha” moment when you realized the John C. Anderson Apartments were necessary?

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Chicago Concert Brings Interfaith Music Together

By Menachem Wecker

“This sanctuary is the most religiously diverse place in this great city,” said Michael Siegel, the rabbi of Anshe Emet, a Conservative synagogue in Chicago.

If that sounds like crowing, consider that conspicuous among the attendees of the synagogue’s April 6 “Sounds of Faith” concert were kippas, Greek Orthodox vestments, and headscarves.

The program, which packed the synagogue’s 1,100-capacity main sanctuary, featured Koranic recitations, Old Testament cantillation, and monastic chants. Musicians ranged from the choirs of St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church and Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation to the Islamic Foundation Children’s Choir and Anshe Emet cantor [Alberto Mizrahi and Temple Sholom of Chicago (Reform) cantor Aviva Katzman.

“The greatest thing that happens at this concert is community building. There are divides and there are people who say ‘We should never get together,’ and ‘Oh my God! The Koran was being read on a Bima of a synagogue?!’” said Mizrahi in an interview. “Well they’re not used to hearing the ‘Sim Shalom’ of [Max] Janowski either.”

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David Letterman Exposed Our Mass Psychosis

By Eitan Kensky

Sometimes I catch myself muttering, barely audible (I hope): “If you need help, here I am.” Then, a few minutes later, I repeat it. “If you need help, here I am.”

“If you need help, here I am” is an idiotic phrase intoned by Renée Zellweger in the movie “Cold Mountain.” In February 2004, David Letterman played the trailer on his show and became obsessed by its melodrama and its sound. For weeks after he would repeat, “If you need help, here I am.” Sometimes he played an audio clip of Renée. Usually he just said it several times in a row and laughed to himself. Maybe the studio audience laughed too. Maybe the audience cringed. First time viewers of “The Late Show” could only reach one conclusion: David Letterman was insane.

David Letterman is insane, but that’s only tangentially related to why he repeated the Zellweger line over and over. David Letterman’s insanity is hosting a five-night-a-week television program. His insanity is the need to be funny night after night, week after week, year after year. His insanity is the need to entertain and the need to stay relevant. His insanity was not being able to walk away — though, thankfully, that fever has broken. On April 4 Letterman announced that he would retire in 2015, and on April 10 CBS announced that he would be succeeded by Stephen Colbert.

But that other people want to host a late night television show doesn’t make Letterman — or them — any less deranged. It only means that we’re suffering through a mass psychosis.

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Mystery of 'Jewish Cardinal'

By Anna Goldenberg

Jean-Marie Lustiger (Laurent Lucas) in “The Jewish Cardinal” // Film Movement

“If you don’t battle your characters, it’s very boring,” said French filmmaker Ilan Duran Cohen. For his latest movie, “The Jewish Cardinal,” he chose as his subject Jean-Marie Lustiger, one of the most divisive figures of Jewish — or should we say Christian? — life in France. Lustiger, the cardinal and archbishop of Paris from 1981 to 2005, was born with the first name Aaron to Polish Jewish immigrants and converted to Christianity at the age of 13, against his parents’ wishes.

A staunch conservative nicknamed “Bulldozer,” Lustiger made a high-flying career in the Catholic Church, becoming an influential voice in the French Catholic Church and a confidante of Pope John Paul II. At the same time, Lustiger, whose mother had died in Auschwitz, maintained that he was Jewish — which drew hostility from both Jews and Catholics. The movie focuses on the role Lustiger played in negotiating the departure of the Carmelite nuns who set up a convent in Auschwitz between 1984 and 1993, which fully displays Lustiger’s dual and paradoxical, yet at the same time genuine and charismatic personality.

The 90-minute biopic is Duran Cohen’s attempt to present a balanced, non-judgmental perspective on Lustiger’s legacy, leaving it to the viewer to judge the ambiguous character. The mystery surrounding Lustiger’s identity was intentional, said Duran Cohen, speaking with the Forward’s Anna Goldenberg on the phone from his home in Paris. The movie won the Grand Prix for Best French TV Drama at the Festival de Luchon in 2013, and will be released in select cinemas in New York, California and Florida on April 11.

Anna Goldenberg: What made you want to do this movie?

Ilan Duran Cohen: I was looking to work together again with my screenwriter, Chantal Derudder, after making a film on Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir [“Les amants du Flore” (2006)]. She knew I love films about identity and identity contradiction. She proposed [a movie about Jean-Marie Lustiger], and I didn’t know much about it. I knew he was a convert but I didn’t know his mother died in Auschwitz… It’s a paradox, this story, and so mysterious to me. As a filmmaker, you’re always attracted to something you don’t comprehend at the start [and] you precede the audience in the discovery of the character. [Lustiger] is torn apart by his contradiction and his paradox. It’s even stronger than fiction. That’s why it makes great material for film.

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POEM: 'Framework'

By Baruch November

Old pictures of us
on white staircase walls,
lined diagonally upward
in little wood frames,
lecture us on choices
we have made since
they were taken —

we cannot never argue
with former selves
who weigh less,
have more hair,
and the gift of youth’s
optimism. We can
only cover them,
as one does mirrors
in houses of mourning,
hoping the best of
our spirits are not
stuck there, too,
in the past behind
the glass.


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Won Over by Ballroom Dance

By Curt Schleier

Israeli-born director Hilla Medalia didn’t exactly jump at the opportunity to direct “Dancing In Jaffa.” Her initial reaction was, “there are already so many films about Palestinian and Israeli kids being brought together.”

But then she met Pierre.

Ironically, that was my reaction, too: Did we really need another feel-good movie about Arabs and Jews when every day brought more headlines of diminishing prospects for peace?

And then I met Pierre. Cinematically.

Pierre is Pierre Dulaine, an internationally known ballroom dancer whose volunteer work bringing dance to inner city school children was the subject of a 2005 documentary, “Mad Hot Ballroom.” The following year, Antonio Banderas played him in a feature film based on his life.

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Podcast: The Best Hasidic Composer in Brooklyn

By Jon Kalish

Over the past 200 years, the Modzitzer hasidim have become known for their beautiful melodies, or nigunim. Thousands of them, in fact. Today, 88 year-old Ben Zion Shenker is one of the most prolific, and respected, Modzitzer composers. For his latest album, “Hallel V’zimrah,” he teamed up with klezmer and bluegrass virtuoso Andy Statman. The Forward’s Jon Kalish caught up with Shenker in the Midwood neighborhood of Brooklyn to talk about composing Jewish music, meeting the Modzitzer rebbe, and performing on Yiddish radio.

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Jewish War Poet Finally Getting His Due

By Liam Hoare

It was the slain generation of warrior-poets who, more than any others, captured the brutality and inhumanity of the First World War and cemented in the English imagination a perception of that conflict as pointless and futile.

As wave after wave of men were sent to their deaths at the Somme and comrades drowned in the mud at Passchendaele, English poetry from the front abandoned themes of patriotism, glory and valour for the pain and misery of trench warfare. Verse became soaked in blood as nearly 900,000 British troops fell in the fields of France and Belgium. “But the old man who not so, but slew his own,” Wilfred Owen wrote in his twisted retelling of the binding of Isaac, “and half the seed of Europe, one by one.”

The Great War’s centennial has brought about a re-examination not only of the war itself but how it is remembered, what is emphasised and what is forgotten. In that spirit, the Jewish East End Celebration Society — whose aim is to raise awareness of the history and culture of London’s Jewish East End — is fundraising to erect a statue of the war poet Isaac Rosenberg at Torrington Square in Bloomsbury. To be unveiled on April 1, 2018 – the hundredth anniversary of his passing – it would make Rosenberg the only Jewish literary figure other than Benjamin Disraeli to be afforded a monument.

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