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If poetry requires disclosure, I’ll start with one: I am a friend of Yermiyahu Ahron Taub’s, and a fellow Yiddish poet. He sent me his book with a kind dedication, and an additional inscription in his neat hand: bet-samekh-daled. That is, the author of this book entitled “Prayers of a Heretic” noted that his signature to me was written “besiyata-dishmaya,” with the aid of Heaven.
Such a juxtaposition is an illuminating introduction to the contradictions in Taub’s work. He left the ultra-Orthodox community, but that is not the subject of his poems any more than sex is the topic of Yona Wallach’s — that departure makes the poems possible, but the volume is not merely a translation of his personal story into poetic biography. Rather, this transformation gave him a set of tools. To become someone else is a lasting condition of every living person; Taub’s particular experience of that change makes him able to perceive it in others.
Taub’s poems are like short stories, or cleverly caught snapshots. His depiction of diverse personalities is sympathetic, sometimes even tender in its broadmindedness, and nearly unerring. Characters in a city crowded with people, abandoned and alone in their apartment, “snot pooling on [their] floorboards” (this from “The Woman Who Did Not Turn Her Sorrow Into Art” — itself a thought-provoking title); couples gay and straight, old and young, having sex in a real bed or in their imagination; cigarette smokers thrown into the world (“Temporary Outcasts”).
There are the eccentric denizens of the libraries which are their only refuge, and the quasi prophets caught in a dystopia they are powerless to prevent (these are some of Taub’s most strident, least nuanced, and thus least successful poems). Of course, as well, we meet those who have left the ultra-Orthodoxy of Taub’s youth.
Once upon a time, Americans grew up humming show tunes. They dominated radio airwaves, so, even if you hadn’t seen the musicals (or the films made from them), you knew the melodies and words to the songs of “Oklahoma,” “Carousel” and “My Fair Lady.”
But that changed as pop, rock and rap started to control airtime. Today, it’s a rare Broadway song that cracks the national consciousness. It’s in part for this reason that James Lapine’s HBO documentary, “Six by Sondheim,” which debuts December 9, is so fascinating and important.
Lapine uses archival footage as well as fresh performances by Audra McDonald and America Ferrera of six Stephen Sondheim songs to tell the story of the composer’s fascinating and troubled life.
Some of the stories will be familiar to Sondheim enthusiasts, especially those who’ve read Meryle Secrest’s outstanding biography, “Stephen Sondheim: A Life.” He was a child of divorce. His mother once sent him a note saying she was sorry she gave birth to him. But he lived near the Pennsylvania home of Oscar Hammerstein, who mentored and encouraged him and became almost an adoptive parent.
That turns out to have been entirely appropriate, since Sondheim went on to become heir to Hammerstein (and Rodgers) and certainly the greatest Broadway composer of his generation. His shows, starting with “West Side Story” and including “Gypsy,” “Sunday in the Park With George” and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.”
He’s sort of like Mozart,” Lapine told the Forward in a telephone interview. “His work is going to live.”
Of course, Lapine is not exactly an unbiased observor. He’s been Sondheim’s partner on several musicals. They shared the Pulitzer for “Sunday in the Park” and Lapine won a half dozen Tonys for directing and writing the book of plays for which Sondheim wrote music. Lapine talked to the Forward about how he and Sondheim met, about their collaborations, and how the film came about.
Curt Schleier: How did you meet Stephen?
Israeli-born director Jonathan Gurfinkel’s first film is officially called “S#x Acts.” You can substitute an “I” for the asterisk, because the movie has six acts. Or you can put in an “E,” because there are numerous erotic scenes. But mostly it is an emotionally charged film about bullying that is both fascinating and depressing.
In “S#x Acts,” a young girl who has moved to a new school uses sex to win favor with the popular boys in her class, boys who, in turn, manipulate and abuse her.
Gurfinkel, 37, born and raised in Tel Aviv, spoke to the Forward about his film, out December 6 in New York and available on demand, about his famous father, and about the fact that there are no Hollywood endings in real life.
Curt Schleier: You were raised in the movie business, weren’t you?
Jonathan Gurfinkel: My father [David] is a very well known cinematographer, almost mythological in Israel. He shot a lot of films in the states for Canon [the defunct company owned by Israelis Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus], like “Rambo 3: Over the Top” with [Sylvester] Stallone and a lot of classic Israeli films. So I was kind of brought up on the set. The only film where I wasn’t on the set with him was one with John Cassavetes. He only finished about a quarter of it before Cassavetes fired him. Or he resigned. The facts aren’t certain. And I wasn’t there to see it.
So your career was bashert.
Glen Berger wasn’t surprised when the announcement came. He’d had an inkling that “Spiderman: Turn off the Dark” was on the last of its eight legs well before producers made it official.
“I was speaking to some of the actors back in August, and the general feeling was that unless a miracle happens we were going to close in January,” he told the Forward. “It wasn’t the attendance or the grosses, but the weekly running costs were that high.”
Berger was hired by Julie Taymor, who conceived and directed the play, to co-write the book with her. Along with the show’s composers, Bono and The Edge of U2, Berger ultimately split with Taymor, and re-imagined the play, which officially opened in mid-2011.
Berger wrote about that experience in “Song of Spider-Man: The Inside Story of the Most Controversial Musical in Broadway History.” He spoke to the Forward about the critical response to the play, his 13-year leave of absence from Judaism, and what he discovered when he returned.
Curt Schleier: What were you doing when you were selected to co-write Spiderman?
Glen Berger: I was the head writer of the PBS children’s show, “Fetch.” It was an animated program with a mandate to teach science to kids. It was seen every week by 2 or 3 million people. A lot of people say Glen Berger was plucked from obscurity. But my show was seen every week by more people than “The Lion King” in its first five years.
Turns out that Wonder Woman is Israeli.
Director Zack Snyder announced that he’s cast Gal Gadot as the iconic super hero for his “Batman vs. Superman” film, joining Henry Cavill (reprising his role as Superman) and Ben Affleck (recently named to play Batman). Gadot has been in three “Fast & Furious” films, among others.
Said Snyder: “Wonder Woman is arguably one of the most powerful female characters of all time and a fan favorite in the DC Universe. Not only is Gal an amazing actress, but she also has that magical quality that makes her perfect for the role. We look forward to audiences discovering Gal in the first feature film incarnation of this beloved character.”
A version of this post appeared in Yiddish here.
In 2013, The Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass., launched an ambitious series of cultural programming aimed at providing an opportunity for young Jews to learn about modern Jewish culture. The weeklong program, “Tent,” brings together 20 young people aged 21 to 30 in order to intensively study different facets of modern Jewish culture. Each week is dedicated to a different subject and the participants attend performances and lectures related to the topic and meet with experts in their chosen field. At the same time they learn about the connections between the week’s theme and modern Jewish culture.
In the coming year, The Yiddish Book Center plans to expand Tent to include 10 different programs, with the help of partner organizations around the country.
The first three Tent programs were about comedy, in March in Los Angeles; creative writing at the Yiddish Book Center in June, and a week dedicated to theater in New York in August.
During the program in creative writing participants read selections from modern Yiddish and Hebrew literature in translation as well as works on Jewish themes originally written in other languages. After lunch the aspiring writers workshopped their own stories with professional writers. During the evenings they went to literary readings or met with literary agents and publishers. And later at night they hung out together in the dorms at Hampshire College and quickly became friends.
Five years after Daniel Menaker started working at The New Yorker in 1968 — first as a fact checker, then as a copy editor — he was told by the executive editor to look for another job. A lack of diligence, and because Menaker had criticized the content of a piece, something that was considered out of line for a copy editor, almost derailed his career at The New Yorker.
Menaker stayed another 26 years, and eventually became the magazine’s fiction editor, editing submissions by Alice Munro, David Foster Wallace and others before moving on to becoming editor-in-chief of Random House. He left the post in 2007 to undergo treatment for lung cancer. A New York City native born to a Jewish father and a Protestant mother, Menaker, now 72, wrote his memoir, “My Mistake,” which was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on November 19. He spoke to the Forward about the omnipresence of Woody Allen’s humor and what he thought the Bible might look like in 2,000 years.
Anna Goldenberg: At the end of your book, you describe how you sift through your personal archives, look at the old New Yorker issues and look at your books. As you do that, what sort of thoughts go through your head?
Daniel Menaker: The first thought that goes through my head is, “How could I have made such a mess of my papers?” I guess the second thing that occurs to me was how fortunate I have been in my life and my background, despite its problems and despite its tragedy. Even though there were dark periods, in a way even they turned out to make my life fuller, even if sadder. I don’t believe in being thankful to any deity, but I do believe in being grateful to randomness.
Woody Guthrie sang of America’s “redwood forests” and “gulf stream waters.” The traveling troubadour and American folk poet electrified a nation with his paeans to America’s indomitable spirit and beauty.
Oklahoma-born and Texas-raised, he also ignited mighty debates with songs and writings that took on the establishment and sought to elevate the working masses. His guitar bore the message: “This machine kills fascists.” And he even has a Jewish connection, that lives on in some of his music and his ideals.
His baldly patriotic hymn to his country, “This Land Is Your Land,” features a stanza that states: “In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people, / By the relief office I seen my people; / As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking / Is this land made for you and me?”
Guthrie’s songs, spirit and life have been brought to the stage in a 90-minute musical biography written and performed by actor and musician David Lutken. His “Woody Sez,” developed with Nick Corley, tells the singer/songwriter’s story in song.
“Growing up in Texas I learned a lot of folk songs that had to do with the West and with America,” Lutken said. “Woody Guthrie was right in there. I didn’t know at the time when I was singing his ‘Take Me Riding in the Car Car’ when I was 5 that that was job training.” The show premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe festival in 2007 and has since toured the U.S. and beyond. It returns to Washington, D.C.’s Theater J through December 14 and then moves to Milwaukee Repertory Theater in January.
Merriam or Webster ought to place a photo of Theodore Bikel right by the dictionary definition of polymath. Bikel is the ultimate multi-hyphenate. In a career that spans 70 years — he joined Israel’s Habima Theatre as an apprentice actor in 1943 — he’s had enviable careers as a film actor, a stage actor, a folk singer and recording artist and, as co-founder of the Newport Folk Festival, an entrepreneur. He even played a space rabbi on TV’s “Babylon 5.”
Throughout that time, both independently and as a union leader — he was president of Actor’s Equity in the late 1970s and early 1980s — he supported liberal causes, Israel, and human rights initiatives.
Bikel was born in Vienna, and left for Palestine after the 1938 Anschluss. He subsequently studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and debuted on the West End as Mitch (opposite Vivien Leigh) in “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
On December 2, the National Yiddish Theatre-Folksbiene honors Bikel (a few months prematurely) on his 90th birthday. Bikel spent a few minutes on the phone with the Forward from his home in Los Angeles to discuss his life, the upcoming celebrations — plural, as it turns out — and Vienna before the war.
Curt Schleier: You’ve had so many careers. Have you decided yet what you want to do when you grow up?
News of iconic Israeli singer-songwriter Arik Einstein’s sudden death November 26 at age 74 spread quickly throughout Israel and around the globe. Israelis and Jews the world over, including political leaders and famous artists, poured out their shock and grief, many saying that the iconic entertainer’s passing signaled the end of an era.
While he had not performed live for quite some time, Einstein maintained a special status in Israeli popular culture. Many believe that had he not come on the scene when and as he did, Israeli music would not have developed as it had. “Einstein was the harbinger of Hebrew rock n’ roll, the man who, with a small group of talented friends, absorbed the sounds of the Sixties and translated them into Israeli,” wrote Liel Leibovitz in Tablet.
“A part of Israel passed away on Tuesday night. A slice of its soul has departed. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis, possibly millions, have lost a close personal friend, an intimate lifelong companion. A voice of Israel — the voice of Israel, for many – will sing no more,” wrote Chemi Shalev in Haaretz.
As preparations for Einstein’s funeral Wednesday afternoon at Tel Aviv’s Trumpeldor cemetery were being made, news of his passing continued to lead Israeli news websites. Social media feeds were clogged with posts of personal reminiscences about the singer, as well as videos of his performances.
“Lies My Father Told Me” is one of the most ambitious productions in the 99-year history of the National Yiddish Theatre-Folksbiene. The musical has a large and extremely talented cast of 17. It features an innovative, Broadway-caliber set (by John C. Dining). And it has a long and storied history, both as an award-winning film and a play with music.
“Lies” is based on the autobiographical works of Ted Allan, a Canadian writer, who grew up in a poor Montreal neighborhood in the 1920s. His doppelgänger here is David Herman, who lives with his grandfather and parents.
Young David (Alex Dreier, definitely a star in the making) is caught between his beloved Tevye-like Zaida (Chuck Karel) and his father, Harry (Jonathan Raviv).
Zaida is a junk man, who takes David with him on his Sunday rounds, regaling him with Jewish stories and wisdom along the way. Harry fancies himself more modern and constantly belittles the older man and his beliefs.
If the inter-generational battle between religion and secular had been the central plot line, it would have been sufficiently involving. But Harry is also mean and delusional, blinded by ambition and always coming up with hair-brained schemes to make money. If that’s not enough, he’s also — at least by contemporary standards — abusive to his wife and son.
Legendary Israeli singer Arik Einstein died at age 74 after being admitted to Sourasky Medical Center in Tel Aviv Tuesday evening. He was reported to have suffered an aortic aneurism.
According to Ynet, Einstein was rushed to the hospital and was sedated and intubated before he was taken in for surgery.
Einstein, a Tel Aviv native, is considered one of Israel’s greatest musicians. He began his recording career in 1960, a year after his discharge from the IDF, and put out his first solo album in 1966. Together with Shalom Hanoch, he put out some of the country’s first rock albums. Einstein’s most famous songs include include “Ani Ve’ata” (“Me and You”), “Sa Le’at” (“Drive Slowly”), and “Oof Gozal” (“Fly, Little Bird”).
The singer was involved in a serious car accident in 1982, and in the 1990s, his career slowed down as he stopped performing in public.
Einstein has four children, two with his first wife Alona, who died of cancer in 2006, and two with his current partner, Sima Elihu.
It seems that parody will get you nowhere with the Beastie Boys. The hip-hop group is not amused by the use of its song “Girls” in a viral advertising video by GoldieBlox, a San Francisco-area start-up that designs toys encouraging girls to explore science and engineering. (You’ve probably seen the video — it’s the one with the adorable little girls who built an incredibly cool Rube Goldberg contraption.)
GoldieBlox, say the Beastie Boys in an open letter, has the right to fight to encourage girls to become engineers, but not to use their music for commercial purposes.
The toy company, on the other hand, thinks it has every right to put out a parody version of the song, whose original anti-feminist lyrics speak of girls who do the dishes and laundry (in the GoldieBlox version, the girls build spaceships and code apps).
It seems the start-up knew Beastie Boy members Michael “Mike D” Diamond and Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz (third member Adam “MCA” Yauch died in 2012) would not approve of its use of “Girls.” The company filed a preemptive lawsuit last week against the Beastie Boys, their record label and producer, asking the California federal court to classify the video as an example of fair use.
Here’s some of what the musicians had to say about GoldieBlox’s actions:
The publication of Alisa Solomon’s “Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof” has seemed to reassert the prominence of “Fiddler” as the Jewish musical to end all Jewish musicals. “Fiddler,” Eileen Reynolds wrote in her review of Solomon’s book, “has achieved something like folklore status in the American imagination, and grapples, as any history of this musical must, with fundamental questions about Jewish identity.”
The same year that “Fiddler” premiered on Broadway, however, another American musical brought not only Jewish themes and narratives to forefront but also a new star to the stage. That was “Funny Girl,” a fast-and-loose biographical telling of the life of entertainer Fanny Brice, played by Barbra Streisand. But unlike “Fiddler,” “Funny Girl” remains undervalued, and is not generally considered to be as important a musical.
In “Fiddler on the Roof,” the American Jewish audience was able see something of itself. This not only had to do with the musical’s presentation of shtetl life, with the spectre of expulsion and pogrom looming over everything, but also with the struggle between tradition and modernity. New political and cultural ideas like Marxism and intermarriage challenge longstanding belief and Tevye, as the embodiment of this antagonism between past and present, seeks to preserve his relationships with his wife and daughters as the shtetl disintegrates around him.
Nearly 50 years since his first student films, David Cronenberg is getting a pair of well-deserved tributes in his hometown of Toronto. For the Jewish-Canadian filmmaker, it’s been an unlikely ascent from genre outlaw to artistic heavyweight. And twinned exhibitions make the case that his intellectual and cultural significance extends far beyond his onscreen output.
The more elaborate of the two exhibitions, “Evolution,” provides a thrilling look at the Cronenberg’s work and process. The title of this dark, dazzling show — at the Bell Lightbox, home of the Toronto International Film Festival — fits perfectly. Cronenberg has evolved as a major figure in world cinema, from the brainy grad-school filmmaker in the late 1960s who explored pitch-black themes of paranoia and control to the mainstream-movie maker he’s become.
His work has evolved from the intellectual body horror of “Shivers” (1975) and “Rabid” (1976) to heady explorations of what it means to be human in “A Dangerous Method” (2011) and “Cosmopolis” (2011). And the world has evolved to catch up with his prescient mashups of humanity and technology in fleshy sci-fi like “Videodrome” (1983) and “eXistenZ” (1999).
With in-your-face video clips, eloquent wall texts, and props from his films — including the notorious gynaecological tools from “Dead Ringers” (1988) and an actual Mugwump from “Naked Lunch” (1991) — “Evolution” lays out an eloquent case for Cronenberg’s import as an artist and thinker.
It also manages to evoke the high-low thrills of his movies, which ground serious existential musings in razor-edged pulp. Seeing some of the effects and objects from films — like the gristle “guns” from “eXistenZ” — makes you realize all over again how radical some of Cronenberg’s visions have been.
There’s no way of getting around the violence in the noteworthy, but often neglected, Hanukkah-related story of Judith and Holofernes. Judith’s heroic action, the political assassination of the Assyrian general Holofernes, is one of the reasons, some say, why one Jewish legal code states that women shouldn’t work while the Hanukkah candles are burning.
Here’s the short version of the story. Apparently unaware of Jael’s successful strategy — detailed in Judges 4 — of lulling Sisera to sleep with a jug of milk and then pounding a tent peg through his temple, Holofernes invites Judith (Yehudit in Hebrew) into his tent one night while he is in one of his drunken stupors. That mistake costs him his head, which Judith brings back to the Jewish camp.
Although Holofernes gets decapitated in every telling of the story — whose canonical status is questionable in the Hebrew scriptures — artistic representations of the political assassination prior to the 17th century were relatively tame.
The rumors were true.
For years, the gossip was that the Israeli-born producer Arnon Milchan (“12 Years a Slave,” “The King of Comedy”) was a secret agent for his homeland. More recently, a 2011 book maintained that Milchan, chairman of New Regency, was recruited by Shimon Peres as a liaison for LAKIM, the Bureau of Scientific Relations. His job: help get technology and materials for Israel’s nuclear program.
The spy has come in from the cold. According to the Hollywood Reporter, Milchan admits his undercover work to Ilana Dayan, host of Uvda (Fact), an investigative documentary program that will air a length report next week on Keshet.
One of the most interesting revelations in the segment is that the late director/producer Sydney Pollack was an occasional collaborator. The report offers brief appearances by Robert De Niro, Warren Beatty and others who have worked with Milchan over the years. De Niro said: “I did ask him once. We spoke about something and he told he was an Israeli and that he of course would do these things for his country.”
Henri Bendel’s holiday window on Fifth Avenue and 56th Street in Manhattan was revealed November 14. It is a bursting celebration of the great Al Hirschfeld and his long life (1903–2003) creating celebrity drawings with his daughter’s name, Nina, hidden within the lines of hair and fabric folds.
The twist is you’ve never seen these line drawings in 3D sculpture before. Henri Bendel worked together with Hirschfeld’s gallery, Margo Feiden Galleries, to create the exhibit. The parade of artworks were hand sculpted by Tom Carroll Scenery, along with art direction by Gilberto Santana.
“Seinfeld” star Jerry Stiller was the official master of ceremonies as the window was revealed. On his arm was Margo Feiden and behind them sat 3D sculptures of Hirschfeld’s famous Stiller drawing, and many more including Whoopi Goldberg, Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, Woody Allen, Matthew Broderick, Sarah Jessica Parker, Jerry Stiller, Bernadette Peters, Carol Channing and Al Hirschfeld himself, whose sculpted likeness is seated in his famous barber’s chair at his drawing desk with art pen in hand.
In the mid 1980s several key figures in the klezmer revival movement had day jobs at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. So, perhaps it was only fitting that The Klezmatics were given a lifetime achievement award at YIVO’s Manhattan headquarters November 19. After cocktails and dinner at the Center for Jewish History’s atrium on West 16th Street, the band performed a lively set in an auditorium after being introduced by Jeffrey Shandler, chair of the Jewish Studies department at Rutgers University.
Shandler, a former YIVO staffer, told the crowd that the band “offers all of us a provocative model of how to respond to the destruction of Europe’s Yiddish culture during World War II, not to accept its devastation, not simply to preserve its fragments, but to respond to destruction with creativity. And to do so brazenly, smartly and playfully.”
After noting that The Klezmatics have collaborated with such cultural luminaries as Itzhak Perlman, Chava Alberstein, Theodore Bikel, Tony Kushner, Neil Sedaka and John Zorn, Shandler said, “I mean Neil Sedaka and John Zorn alone is remarkable.”
Lorin Sklamberg, who has worked on and off at YIVO since 1987 as assistant to the assistant director, Yiddish typesetter, graphic designer and assistant director of KlezKamp, currently works there part-time as a sound archivist. Asked to comment on how klezmer music has evolved over the years, Sklamberg told The Arty Semite: “The music had been cut off for 20 years. People weren’t passing the music on in the United States past the late 1950s. So, to be able to take up that mantle was a challenge and our great joy.”
She’s just a 16-year-old Jersey girl “suddenly bestowed with super-human powers that send her on the adventure of a lifetime.”
But Kamala Khan’s also a Pakistani Muslim-American. And as the title character of Marvel Comics’ new “Ms. Marvel” series, she’s making history.
The team behind the series includes Eisner Award-nominated writer G. Willow Wilson — who’s also a Muslim convert. “I didn’t want to start with making her the perfect poster child for Islam,” Wilson told the AltMuslim web site. “I’ve been wearing hijab for ten years, but I wanted to make her representative of Muslim woman at large, and the majority does not wear hijab.”
Considering the heavily Jewish lineage of both superhero comics and Marvel itself — co-founder Stan Lee, ne Lieberman, was the son of Romanian immigrants — the character’s appearance represents a turning point, according to Steven Bergson, whose Jewish Comics blog offers a Hebraic spin on the comics world.
“We’re in an age where it’s not only much more acceptable but expected and highly marketable to give characters unique identities, whether it’s religious, national, sexual or physical i.e. disability),” Bergson told the Forward. “In the past, Jewish creators have written non-Jewish characters and Gentiles have written Jewish characters like Marvel’s golems, DC stories with rabbis, Marvel’s Moon Knight.
If Ms. Marvel turns out to be “an anti-Semite, that would be as unacceptable as if the character were sexist, homophobic, or racist. If she is merely critical of Israel, then she’ll join the ranks of political-minded superheroes, which includes Superman, who joined an Arab Spring protest not that long ago,” Bergson added.
But Marvel’s announcement about the series was careful to downplay political implications. “This story isn’t about what it means to be a Muslim, Pakistani or American,” series editor Sana Amarat said in a press release. “Those are just cultural touchstones that reflect the ever changing world we live in today.”
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