The Arty Semite

'Finding Your Roots' Goes All Jewish

By Curt Schleier

WNET/ Joseph Sinnott

If you’re not familiar with it, “Finding Your Roots” with Henry Louis Gates is in part a PBS response to the genealogy craze, people increasingly curious about where they came from.

The next episode is all Jewish, as we learn about the ancestors of three celebrated Americans. Tony Kushner delves into the history of the Holocaust to discover his ancestors’ fate; Carole King learns the origins of her family name and confronts the reality of the discrimination her ancestors faced in America, and Alan Dershowitz finds out that the first Hasidic synagogue in Brooklyn, started by his great-grandfather, played a secret role in World War II.

The episode airs November 4 at 8 p.m., though it’s always best to check local listings.


6 Jewish Crime Novels With Female Protagonists Everyone Should Read

By Michael Kaminer

Nora Goodman, the troubled heroine of Diane Lawson’s thriller “A Tightly Raveled Mind,” (read our interview with the author here) might call herself a disciple of Freud. But she follows a long line of Jewish women in crime fiction, from Orthodox mothers to Miami Beach beauticians to wisecracking lawyers. Here are six of our favorite books featuring Jewish women crime-solvers. Who’s yours?

1. Sara Paretsky, “Indemnity Only” (1982)

V.I. Warshawski, daughter of a Polish Catholic policeman-father and an Italian Jewish opera singer-mother, has practically become a folk hero. Kathleen Turner portrayed her in a 1991 film.

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A Freudian Detective in Texas

By Michael Kaminer

When San Antonio psychotherapist Dr. Nora Goodman’s patients start dropping dead, police tell her it’s a coincidence. But the good Dr. Goodman refuses to buy it, and hires a private detective to help figure out if someone’s targeting her practice. Could it be her despised ex-husband, a disturbed patient, or something more nefarious?

Author Diane Lawson — herself a therapist and a convert to Judaism — takes the plot in some unexpected directions in “A Tightly Raveled Mind” (Cinco Puntos). It’s hard to believe this is Lawson’s first novel; the dialogue crackles, the story hums along, and Dr. Goodman, a strict Freudian still haunted by her Talmud-spouting kook of a father, seems completely real. The only thing hard to buy about the novel is that San Antonio seems just as populated by neurotics as New York. The Forward caught up with Lawson by email.

Michael Kaminer: What did Nora’s Jewishness allow you do with that a non-Jewish protagonist wouldn’t have?

Diane Lawson: Since the inception of the field, a high (though diminishing over time) percentage of the practitioners of psychoanalysis have been Jewish. On that level, Nora’s being Jewish adds some degree of authenticity. Her being Jewish in San Antonio, of course, is simply another iteration of her life-long feeling of being an outsider.

“In Texas, as in most of the country, Jews are well enough regarded, as long as they’re doctors, lawyers or accountants,” Nora says. Could you elaborate?

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PBS Wades Into the ISIS Quagmire

By Curt Schleier

“The Rise of ISIS,” the latest documentary from the award-winning Frontline PBS investigative series, is likely to leave you with one major takeaway.

Despite the best of intentions, pretty much everything the U.S. has done in the Middle East has contributed to the chaos. We are Westerners lost in a strange land with absolutely no idea what we are doing or the consequences of our actions.

The film starts in late 2011, when American troops withdrew from Iraq. Presumably, we left behind a stable government with a functioning military. Both assumptions were incorrect.

The nation’s prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, promised an inclusive government, but soon began a campaign of terror against Sunnis, including Sunni officials in his own cabinet. Shia militia were particularly violent and Sunni bodies piled up on the streets.

The then-U.S.ambassador, James Jeffrey, warned President Obama that Maliki needed to be constrained, but he adopted a hands-off approach, claiming it was an Iraqi internal problem. Leon Panetta said U.S. the response was to keep “their fingers crossed [hoping] that Maliki would step down.”

The President’s position seems defensible. We just got out of that country and he didn’t want to be the man who put us right back in. And at the time Al Qaeda was a small broken force unable to mount a serious insurgency.

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Treblinka's 'Last Witness' Keeps Alive Camp's Memory

By David Adams and Zachary Fagenson

Samuel Willenberg, the last known living survivor of the notorious Nazi extermination camp Treblinka is nearing the end of a life’s mission to tell of the horrors that he saw there.

Now 92, his remarkable story, featured in a documentary film produced by Miami public TV channel WLRN, is spurring efforts to fulfill that mission by building an educational museum at the camp’s site in a remote pine forest in eastern Poland.

“Treblinka’s Last Witness,” airing on Tuesday, tells the story of how Willenberg, a Polish Jew, became a forced laborer at Treblinka where his two sisters were among the 900,000 Jews sent to their deaths. He later escaped during a camp revolt, one of barely 100 Jews to survive the place.

A history professor he met in the camp told him: “You’re not like other Jews, you have blonde hair, you know how to survive,” Willenberg recalled in an interview during a visit to Miami for a premiere of the film last week before a packed audience, many of them relatives of Holocaust victims.

“You have to run away from this,” the professor told him. “It will be your mission to tell people about what happened here.”

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'Disgraced' Asks Uncomfortable Questions About Islam

By Curt Schleier

Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

“Disgraced,” which opened October 23 at Broadway’s Lyceum Theater, is breathtaking.

Literally.

There are moments when the entire audience gasps at something so surprising or disturbing on stage, it’s as though all the air is sucked out of the room. Those gasps, however, are the only sound the audience makes throughout this intellectually and emotionally engaging 90-minute production.

The play, written by Ayad Akhtar, debuted almost exactly two years ago off-Broadway, and deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize for drama.

It’s set in a lavishly furnished Upper East Side Manhattan apartment. Amir Kapoor (Hari Dhillon) is posing for a portrait painted by his wife Emily (Gretchen Mol). She was inspired by a Velazquez painting of a slave and their dinner the evening prior. The waiter kept staring at them, the gorgeous blond American princess and this brown-skinned man.

Amir was used to it. In fact, he’d conquered the prejudice. He is a successful mergers and acquisitions attorney working for a Jewish law firm. His boss and mentor, Mort, befriended and depended on him, and Amir sees a partnership in his future.

But all is not as it seems. Kapoor is not his real last name. It is Abdullah. While he claims his heritage is Indian (and presumably Hindu), his family emigrated from Pakistan and is Muslim. But he is not.

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Philip Roth, Film Critic

By Gabe Friedman

Getty Images

In 1957, while writing his first novel and teaching at the University of Chicago, Philip Roth found an unexpected way to get out some of his trademark anger: movie reviews.

From June 1957 to the spring of 1958, until he moved from Chicago to New York, the 23 year-old Roth wrote film reviews for The New Republic. According to Tablet Magazine, Claudia Roth Pierpont (who recently wrote “Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Books” ) noted that Roth received $25 per review and eventually bought a used car with this pay.

Below are quotes from some of his reviews, which, like Roth himself, tended to be more than a little cynical.

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POEM: 'Untitled, Jerusalem, 2002'

By Rachel Berghash

You are captives of illusion,
experts in eluding truth, you party, drink wine,
pick anemone in spring.

Occasionally you are reminded that life is transient as grass,
that death lies in ambush among green meadows.

Though the wrath of the suicide bomber is daily at your door,
your children bask in your warmth,
and this old earth, this biblical earth
blooming with camouflaged memories, quivers
with gratitude, that such people as you
inhabit it.


Jay Black's 7 Favorite Songs

By Curt Schleier

Jay Black has been singing professionally for 51 of his almost 76 years. That “almost” comes out November 2. He’ll be celebrating that birthday with a pair of concerts, one at the Bergen Performing Arts Center in Englewood, N.J., and the other at NYCB Theatre at Westbury on Long Island. We chatted with him about the stories behind a few of his favorite songs:

1. Where Is the Village?

Mention Jay’s Yiddish song and he immediately launches into the lyrics of “Where is the Village” (“Vu iz dos Geseleh?”). “’After the war, I returned to my village. My mother, mu father, my sister, my brother, my sweetheart, were all gone.’ It’s one of my favorites, because after I do it, the audience stands for five minutes.”

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That Time James Joyce Was Mistaken for His Jewish Character

By Gabe Friedman

It is widely known that James Joyce’s novel “Ulysses” was not autobiographical. For one thing, the book’s protagonist Leopold Bloom was Jewish, and Joyce was raised as an Irish Catholic.

However, in 1940, when Joyce attempted to flee Vichy France to Switzerland during World War II, the Swiss government thought that he was Jewish. More accurately, as The New Republic explains, the Swiss thought Joyce was his character Leopold Bloom.

The Swiss government demanded that Joyce pay a fee of $7,000 ($120,000 today) to prove that he would not have to rely on the state financially. The majority of Joyce’s money was overseas, and as a foreigner in France, by rule he was cut off from outside sources of income.

The New Republic recently republished a letter to readers from the December 9, 1940 issue that asked for help for Joyce. His literary friends from around the world pitched in and appealed for others to donate to Joyce’s cause.

These appeals helped the Joyce family raise the necessary sum of money, and they made it to Switzerland in December of 1940. Unfortunately, Joyce died soon after in January of 1941 from surgical complications – but his story, and the revered story of Leopold Bloom, lives on.


How Jay Black Got Kicked Out of Yeshiva

By Curt Schleier

Jay Black isn’t feeling well. Descriptions of his aches and pains are pretty much the first thing out of his mouth, even before he asks why I’m about to interview him.

“You’re going to be doing two dates around your 76th birthday next month,” I tell him, “And, well, you’re Jewish.”

“How do you know I’m Jewish?” he asks.

“For one thing, you started kvetching the moment I called.” He understands and chuckles. It doesn’t stop his complaining — “I have a skipped heart beat and tracheitis,” he says later in the conversation — but it relaxes him sufficiently to discuss his life and meteoric career in ‘60s and ‘70s rock and roll. Or at least discuss what he remembers of it.

“I’m also getting a little bit of Alzheimer’s” he says. “I’m sitting here looking at an award I got, a lifetime achievement award from the Hard Rock Seminole, but I have no recollection of the night. My sister tells me ‘You’re crazy. They roasted you.’ Shecky Greene and Pat Cooper roasted me, but I have no recollection of that night.”

Fortunately there were memories of other nights. He grew up in an Orthodox family in Brooklyn. “My father was in shul day and night. In fact, tonight is Simchas Rorah and I have to light two yahrzteit candles for my mom and dad. I was in shul all my life when I was young.”

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Waiting on Tables, and for a Break

By Curt Schleier

Photo: Ken Jacques

The tiny Triad nightclub in the Upper West Side of Manhattan was filled by a crowd sufficiently large to give a fire marshal palpitations. That was probably due to the fact that the night’s attraction, Brad Zimmerman, grew up across the Hudson, just a hop, skip and $14 George Washington Bridge toll away.

The truth of the matter is that it wasn’t the fire marshal who should have been worried, but the building inspector. Because the moment he began his show, “My Son the Waiter, a Jewish Tragedy,” Zimmerman had the place and pretty much everyone’s belly shaking.

“My Son the Waiter” is a one-man show, an autobiographical retelling of a life at once sad and funny. Growing up, Zimmerman had a great deal going for him. He was the best athlete in his bunk at Camp Akiba, hit a home run on the first pitch in his first Little League at-bat and, of the three colleges he applied to, decided to attend the one that accepted him.

He graduated with a degree in theater, but spent the next 29 years of his life as a waiter in restaurants, but working with a Jewish deli waiter attitude. A customer starts to flag him as he is walking to the table. When Zimmerman comes over, the customer says, “I’m in a hurry.” Zimmerman tells him, “So, go.”

Waiting on tables was a humbling experience for the college grad — and his mom. When her friends told her about their sons’ successes and giant mansions, all Zimmerman’s mother could brag about was, “If all goes well, I think Brad is gonna buy a book case.”

Zimmerman’s problem wasn’t that he went out on auditions and was turned down. It was that he didn’t even try.

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How a Midlife Crisis Turned Into Jewish Cabaret

By Curt Schleier

Daniel Cainer’s “Jewish Chronicles,” currently at the Soho Playhouse in New York, is a delightful cabaret act filled with Yiddishkeit and Yiddish-cute.

Cainer is a British Jew who grew up in an observant household, but, inexplicably, was sent to a Church of England School. (Ironically, he notes, the school later became a synagogue, proving “God has a sense of humor.”)

Cainer became a musician and composer, and admits he didn’t have “much to do with the Jewish world until recently,” when he experienced a “midlife kosher crisis.” That’s when a rabbi came to him in a dream and told him he should write a Jewish musical.

So here he is, sitting on a bare stage behind what presumably was a Yamaha electric piano, renamed a “Yamalka” for the occasion. Over his 80-minute set he sings a half dozen songs, which doesn’t sound like much. But they are not so much songs as ballads, short stories set to music, about his family and observations of life around him.

Cainer starts with a song about two tailors set to a ragtime beat — pausing only long enough to point out to the humorless that that was a joke — tailors, ragtime, get it? Would it have worked better for you if he said shmatte time?

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POEM: 'Backseat Mama'

By Shoshana Olidort

my son consigns me
to a knife-less table-setting
he explains: “mama doesn’t get a knife,
she sat in the backseat” — in the car —
it’s true: my husband at the wheel, his mother,
visiting from revolution-ravaged Ukraine at his side
I’m the only one small enough (even post-birth)
to fit between two carseats
surprisingly there’s ample leg room
and my hips aren’t too constricted —
only my arms poke out uncomfortably —
but I feel shut out
of a conversation happening between two adults
in the front seat
in a foreign tongue


POEM: 'Gaza'

By Rachel Berghash

Scrawny goats limp on heaps of rubble,
the sea — under weights of sorrow.
Nowhere to go, she says, escaping
the bombs with her wounded child.
And the child guarded
by ten silent angels who weep.


Sukkahs for the Homeless

By S. Bear Bergman

Courtesy of Kehilla

At Sukkot, as we build or assemble and decorate our temporary shelters in the backyard, we might complain about the chilly weather or having hammered our thumbs or the rising cost of etrogim. One Toronto organization is using the opportunity to draw community attention to a much more serious problem: homelessness. Kehilla, a community organization devoted to serving Jewish household experiencing a gap between their housing costs and what their families can afford, presented the 4th annual Sukkahville art show and competition this year to raise money (and awareness) around homelessness.

For the competition, Sukkahville solicits artist and architect proposals from across the world, requiring that the structures be built in accordance with Jewish laws that govern sukkah construction — they must provide shade in the daytime but be open to the sky, the roof must be made of natural materials that grow in the soil like leaves and branches, and the structure must provide some shelter from the elements. Beyond the traditional strictures (overseen by a Toronto rabbi) and a few practical matters, designs are beautiful and wild, opening the senses to the beauty and possibility of a sukkah that dazzles. Eight finalists are chosen from the designs submitted, and those sukkot are the ones exhibited during Sukkahville.

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Filming the Wives of Bali

By Dorri Olds

Courtesy of Elemental Productions

Filmmaker Robert Lemelson’s “Bitter Honey” is a documentary about polygamy and violence towards women in Bali, Indonesia. Lemelson filmed three families — three husbands, 17 wives and 20 children — over a seven-year period. Many were tricked into being co-wives and are psychologically manipulated and physically abused by their unfaithful and often cruel husbands once they are married. Feeling trapped for economic and cultural reasons, they remain with their husbands despite their grim conditions. It is fascinating and heartbreaking to watch them open up to Lemelson about their ongoing plight: their fear and sadness.

Lemelson, 53, has been making documentary films in Indonesia for two decades. The New Jersey native is also a professor of anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles, with a specialty in Southeast Asian studies, psychological anthropology and transcultural psychiatry. He was a Fulbright scholar in Indonesia and holds a master’s degree in anthropology from the University of Chicago and a doctorate in anthropology from University of Califaronia, Los Angeles.

The Forward’s Dorri Olds caught up with him in New York City, at the Clinton Global Initiative, with which he has been involved for the last 5 years.

Dorri Olds: How did a nice Jewish boy from New Jersey end up in Indonesia?

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A Heartbreaking Work of Intellectual Fiction

By Tobias Carroll

Florence Gordon
By Brian Morton
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 320 pages, $25

Those who spend enough time with the title character of Brian Morton’s novel “Florence Gordon” are both fixated on and frustrated by her. That applies to the characters in the novel — Florence’s family, friends and literary peers and acolytes — but may well apply to readers as well. That seems intentional: Morton has created an iconoclastic character who refuses easy categorization and has applied that same unpredictability and veracity to the novel that shares her name.

“Florence Gordon” is set in an intellectual milieu. There are knowing references to the cover of the New York Times Book Review, along with publications like n + 1 and The New Inquiry. Early in the book, the 75-year-old Florence is described by one character as a kind of precursor to writers like “Vivian Gornick, Ellen Willis, Katha Pollitt” — and while Morton will delve more into both Florence’s work and how it was received over decades of life as a public intellectual, that early description works as both useful shorthand and as a kind of suggested reading list for those taken with her dedication to politics, social justice and intellectual rigor.

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Does 'Money Grubbin' Play Need To Be Jewish?

By Curt Schleier

Photo: Zack DeZon

There is a good play lurking within Sean J. Quinn’s “Money Grubbin’ Whores.” More’s the pity.

“MGW” takes place in the basement of what appears to be an old pizzeria in what is now a Hispanic neighborhood. There will be a kid’s birthday party there tomorrow. A banner reading Felíz Cumpleaños is on the wall and a candy-filled piñata hangs from the ceiling. But today, this party room will serve as an unlikely divorce settlement room, rented for the occasion with just the promise of buying a pie.

First to enter are Matt (Adam Mucci) and Frankie (James Andrew O’Connor). Matt is a plumber and in the process of divorcing his wife, the supposed title character. Frankie is his life-long friend and a paving contractor who considers himself a “dealmaker.” He is going to help Matt and his wife end their marriage in an amicable and financially stable way.

It’s a difficult chore, because Matt is angry. Very angry. He’s angry because whenever he sees his wife she’s wearing new clothes, short dresses and push-up bras. “And she’s smiling all the time. She looks like she’s trying to be very happy. And she knows I’m not.”

Also, Matt feels his wife turned their daughter against him. The last time he saw her, Matt asked for a hug and she just stared at him.

And, finally, there is the money problem. His wife’s new look is apparently expensive. The push-up bra cost $175. All she wants, Matt feels, is his money.

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Hit Man to Las Vegas Rabbi in 'Gangsterland'

By Michael Kaminer

David Cohen’s the new rabbi at Temple Beth Israel in Las Vegas. He’s a learned guy who drops pearls of Torah wisdom for admiring congregants. And he’s overseeing both preschool and funerals for the growing shul.

Oh, Rabbi Cohen’s also Sal Cupertine, a ruthless Chicago mafia hit man who’s had to assume a new identity after getting set up for the murder of FBI agents. And in Tod Goldberg’s laugh-while-you-cringe new novel “Gangsterland,” he’s one of the most compelling, and repulsive, crime-fiction protagonists in a long time.

The director of an MFA writing program at University of California-Riverside’s Palm Desert campus, Goldberg’s been a prolific novelist and story writer, with a raft of compulsively readable paperbacks based on USA Network’s hit series “Burn Notice” under his belt as well.

The Forward caught up with Goldberg from his office.

Michael Kaminer: David Cohen is a mask for Sal Cupertine, but you also get the feeling the new identity has changed Sal for real. Did you want the reader to walk away with a sense of awe around the transformative power of the Talmud and Midrash? Or was the character’s disguise just a device?

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