The Arty Semite

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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Rock Journalism and Mick Jagger's Shoes

By Michael Kaminer

When Lisa Robinson name-checks Elton, Mick and Iggy, it sounds completely natural. It should; through four decades, the legendary music journalist has been nearly as pivotal a pop figure as her subjects. Robinson famously introduced David Bowie to Iggy Pop, helped The Clash and Elvis Costello score record deals, and hung out with the Beatles. In great detail, she recounts these and other unbelievable-but-true anecdotes in “There Goes Gravity: A Life in Rock and Roll” (Riverhead Books), a vivid, richly detailed memoir that functions as a de facto history of rock — and of an edgier, bygone New York.

Robinson culled her copy from thousands of hours of tape-recorded interviews she’s collected since her first columns were published in the British music weekly Disc and Music Echo in 1969. Today, as a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, she oversees music coverage and profiles pop royalty like Jay-Z, Beyonce, and Lady Gaga — who ended up cooking Robinson pasta. The Forward caught up with Robinson by phone from Manhattan, where she lives with her husband of more than four decades, Richard Robinson, himself a onetime rock journalist who produced Lou Reed’s first solo album.

Michael Kaminer: “There Goes Gravity” offers all of these fascinating anecdotes about pop legends, but gives away very little about Lisa Robinson. Why did you leave out autobiographical details?

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A Royal Menorah in Amsterdam

By Menachem Wecker

A Hanukkah lamp that was recently given to the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam may have one of the most compelling provenances of any Jewish ritual object.

The lamp was created by a Christian (Dutch Reformed) silversmith, Harmanus Nieuwenhuys, for the Dutch Jewish community in 1751 — when Jews were still barred from guilds. (Harmanus’ son Hendrik also created ritual objects for Jewish patrons.)

By all accounts, it appears to have gotten a good deal of use, and a condition report from the museum identifies the object as “good (dent in back).” In 1907 Queen Wilhelmina (1880-1962) of the Kingdom of the Netherlands bought the lamp at auction and gave it as an Easter gift to her mother, Queen Emma (1858-1934).

Staff at the Jewish Historical Museum may have learned of the lamp’s existence following its inclusion in 1965 in the book “History of Dutch Silver,” according to Irene Faber, the head of collections at the museum. The lamp was given on short-term loan to the museum at some point in the 1980s, she adds. “We do not know what the occasion was, probably an exhibition on ceremonial objects or about history of the Jews in Holland.”

And now, the lamp, which this reporter recently viewed in a museum back room, has found its way to the Jewish community again through Christian hands.

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POEM: 'Eve and Lilith Go to Macy’s'

By Lynn Levin

In the fitting room at Macy’s
Eve shimmies into a pair of leopard-print leggings
then mocks a dance pose.
“OMG! You’re hotter than a habanero in those pants,”
gasps Lilith. She slides her finger
down Eve’s shapely hip
as though striking a match
then blows out her finger.

Eve can’t believe how good that feels
through the cotton-polyester-spandex blend.
Lilith always went for men in a big way
but maybe the oversexed act
was overcompensation, a put-on.
Maybe Lilith is gay.
Maybe I’m gay, thinks Eve
wishing her friend would touch her again.

In the Macy’s fitting room
with the triple-paneled mirror
the women’s figures mingle and multiply.
Looking at one of her selves
Eve moves her right arm
but in the mirror it looks like her left arm.
She can’t be sure which image
reflects the real Eve.

In the champagne of the moment
she turns to Lilith, the real one, the warm one
intending to bestow upon her
an air kiss of gratitude
at most a smooch on the cheek,

but Lilith catches Eve’s mouth,
draws her to her other self.
Eve can’t remember
when she’s ever had a kiss like that.
Maybe she never has, never will again
so what is the point in stopping?

The women linger in each other’s arms
as the hidden security camera
looks on with its mysterious eye.
And the women are okay with that.
They know that eye sees all things.
Sees all. Says nothing.

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


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Cracow Crescendo

By Martyna Starosta

“We sing in Yiddish, we sing in Hebrew and sometimes we sing in Polish,” explains Zofia Radzikowska who joined the JCC choir in Cracow when it first opened two years ago.

At the beginning it was uncertain whether the choir would be able to attract enough members. Today the multigenerational ensemble is a lively proof of the small but vibrant local Jewish community.

Each singer has a slightly different reason to sing in this group: Some want to learn more about their Jewish roots whereas others recognize something in Jewish culture that was inextricably linked to Polish culture.

A big sign at the entrance of the local JCC trumpets: “Building A Jewish Future in Cracow.” That seems like a pretty bold undertaking if one considers the bigger historical picture of complicated Jewish-Polish relationships.

But choir member Paulina Skotnicka says the JCC is able to create a “non-judgmental place where nobody is maligned based on his or her background.” This welcoming approach inspires a lot of optimism.

Skotnicka sounds both down to earth and realistic when she says the choir is doing its small part to revive Jewish culture that was all but wiped out in the Holocaust.

“We can’t actually recover what is lost,” she says. “But we can certainly build something new.”


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Seth Rogen Tells Detroit Mayor To Smoke Crack

By Forward Staff

Smoking crack isn’t usually taken to be a civic leadership strategy but hey, it’s working out for Rob Ford.

That’s what Seth Rogen told Conan O’Brien, anyway. On Tuesday night’s episode of “Conan” the actor suggested that Detroit mayor Mike Dugan take a page from Ford’s book, since Toronto seems to be doing pretty well and Detroit, not so much.

“What’s weird is like, you go to Toronto and and it’s like it’s really a beautiful city that is very well-running, a lot better than a lot of non-mayor crack smoking cities that I’ve been to in my life,” Rogen said.

This isn’t just idle chatter, either. Rogen and writing partner Evan Goldberg have reportedly sold a movie about a crack-smoking politician, although they deny that it’s based on Ford specifically. Still, the Ford scandal didn’t hurt any — at least not for a couple of comedians making hay.


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Richard Shepard on His Dad and 'Dom Hemingway'

By Dorri Olds

For the comedy crime drama, “Dom Hemingway,” Jude Law transformed himself into a vulgar, violent, puffy and unhinged alcoholic fresh out of prison. The film was written and directed by Richard Shepard (“The Matador”) and the cast includes Richard E. Grant (“Dracula”) as Dom’s pal Dickie and Oscar-nominee Demian Bichir (“A Better Life”) as Mr. Fontaine, a Russian mobster that Dom didn’t rat out. Dom feels entitled to a big reward, so after a few excursions to the English pubs to get pissed and have hedonistic times with hookers, Dom sets off to find Fontaine and get what he deserves.

The Arty Semite caught up with Shepard to talk about working with Law, his dad, and directing episodes of ‘Girls.’

Dorri Olds: Did you and Jude Law work well together?

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