The Arty Semite

Perfectly Pitched Music From a Hungarian Fable

By Benjamin Ivry

Courtesy of MarkusChor Hannover

On September 21 at a church in Hannover, the Hungarian Jewish conductor and organist Andor Izsák will lead a concert of liturgical music under the auspices of The European Centre for Jewish Music (EZJM) which he founded in 1988 and still directs. A special zest should infuse the event, as a new biography, “Andor the Itinerant Musician: a Jewish Musical Life” appeared in June from Georg Olms Verlag.

Author Arno Beyer’s limpidly written account reads like a fable, and indeed at times, Izsák’s life does seem at least in part fable. Born in the Budapest ghetto in 1944, Izsák and his family were among the minority of Hungarian Jews who survived the war, and despite a near-escape from an exploding roadside bomb, the infant Andor’s ears were gifted with absolute pitch.

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Brother Daniel, Jew-Turned-Christian-Turned-Monk

By Shalom Goldman

Crossposted from Haaretz

Rachel Hirsch
Brother Daniel ministering to his flock, 1982.

Daniel Stein, Interpreter: A Novel in Documents, by Ludmila Ulitskaya (translated from Russian by Arch Tait ) Overlook Duckworth, 416 pages, $27.95

In the struggle over definitions of Israeli and Jewish identity, Oswald Rufeisen, better known as Brother Daniel, was a pivotal figure. The case that Rufeisen (1922-1998 ) took to Israel’s High Court of Justice in 1962 brought the question of “Who is a Jew?” to public attention in a new and startling manner. And the decision in that case, which historian Michael Stanislawski has called “a fundamental episode in the history of the Jewish State,” has influenced Israeli law and public opinion to this day. In it, the court was asked to decide whether Rufeisen, a Polish Jew who had converted to Catholicism during World War II, and had served for many years as a Catholic priest, should be granted citizenship under the Law of Return. In a four to one decision, the High Court ruled against Rufeisen, on the grounds that by joining another religion, he had forfeited his right to fast-tracked citizenship in the Jewish state.

In “Daniel Stein, Interpreter,” Russian novelist Ludmila Ulitskaya has fictionalized Rufeisen’s life and presented his remarkable story in what she dubs “documentary” form. Published in Russian in 2006, her novel has now been translated into English.

Read more at Haaretz.com


Four Poems By Alicia Jo Rabins

By Jake Marmer

Courtesy Alicia Jo Rabins

Each Thursday, The Arty Semite features excerpts and reviews of the best contemporary Jewish poetry. This week, Jake Marmer introduces four poems by Alicia Jo Rabins.

Songwriters who are also known as poets often only become so once they receive a degree of popular acclaim for their music. Cases in point include Bob Dylan and Ani Di Franco, David Byrne and Lou Reed. With the recent album, “Half You Half Me” by her Girls in Trouble project, violinist and indie singer-songwriter Alicia Jo Rabins has made a powerful pitch for inclusion in that elite realm. Each song on the album is a lyrical exploration about another female character in the Tanakh — the “girls” of the project’s name.

But her writing is not confined to her lyrics, and today on the Arty Semite we’re featuring four poems that were written as such, not for songs. The first three works are part of her “Ancient Studies” cycle, and walk the line between mythic and contemporary, culminating perhaps most intensely in the third piece where a customer service phone call turns into a deeply personal hallucination. The final work featured here returns the poetic context inherent to much kabbalistic thought back into poetry, lightly swinging images and abstractions into a meditation on things most timeless.

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Out and About: Philip Glass Signs a Book Deal; Was Wagner So Bad?

By Eileen Reynolds

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Jewish Novels From the Finnish Saul Bellow

By Benjamin Ivry

The modern history of Finland’s Jews, who during World War II fought on the Nazi side to combat the Russians, is genuinely surreal. It seems appropriate that the leading novelist of Finland’s tiny Jewish population — today estimated at around 1,500 people — should be equally expressive of a surrealist sensibility.

Daniel Katz, born in 1938 in Helsinki, is a prolific author, whose books have been translated in many languages, but not English. His 2009 story collection, “The Love of the Berber Lion,” was published on March 9th by France’s Gaïa Editions, in French as “L’amour du lion berbère.” Its offbeat sensibility follows in the tradition of his previous books, such as 1969’s “When Grandpa Skied to Finland”, an autobiographical novel in which his grandfather Benno goes through the First World War unscathed but then is injured when a mohel’s knife slips during his grandson’s bris.

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Sondheim’s ‘Porgy’ Complaints Come to the Fringe

By Schuyler Velasco

Dixie Sheridan
Christine Campbell and Greg Horton in ‘Chasing Heaven.’

There is exactly one perceptive sentence of dialogue in “Chasing Heaven,” now playing through August 26 at CSV Flamboyan as part of the 15th Annual New York International Fringe Festival. It comes rather late in the proceedings, when the two main characters, in grudging collaboration on a rewrite of a very familiar-sounding piece of iconic theater, come to an impasse over whether or not to cut a villain dubbed Trout Bait from the revised version. One argues that Trout Bait is a racist and offensive portrayal of Blackness: a lying, gambling boozer. The other points out that, while Trout Bait may be all of those things, the show can’t afford to lose him because “he moves the work along and he gets to sing a lot of great stuff.”

This line gets at the most basic tenet of live theater, and what should separate even the most cerebral, “issues”-minded work from a debate in a freshman “Race and Diversity” lecture: A play is, above all else, a story. It helps immensely if that play also has characters interesting enough to make an audience care about whatever story that is. This, unfortunately, is a concept that “Chasing Heaven” fails to grasp, making the bit about Trout Bait memorable only for making me desperately wish it were heeded.

The play chronicles the creative struggle of Kinshasa “Tree” Morton (Christine Campbell), a Pulitzer Prize-winning black novelist commissioned to rewrite “Chasing Heaven,” a broadly drawn, dialect-heavy black folk opera from the 1930s, and make it more palatable to modern audiences. Along the way, she is haunted by the ghost of show’s creator, famed Tin Pan Alley composer/lyricist Joshua Gerwitz (Greg Horton), who is ticked off by the way Morton is tampering with his most famous work. The timeline of the plot shifts between Gerwitz writing what he originally titled “Chasing Hebben” in 1935 and an artistically blocked Morton pacing around a skeletally furnished room of the Gerwitz estate in 2008. These chronological jumps couldn’t be more straightforward; nevertheless, an enthusiastic “curator” (Daniel Carlton) is on hand to announce each one, in case anyone gets confused.

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Researching Jewish Sports

By Douglas Stark

On Monday, Doug Stark wrote about the best Jewish basketball team ever. His new book, The SPHAS: The Life and Times of Basketball’s Greatest Jewish Team, is now available. His posts are being featured this week on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:


Writing a book about a Jewish basketball team that had not played a meaningful game in nearly seventy years posed some challenges. The Philadelphia SPHAS were a great basketball team, but by the end of World War II, their best days were behind them. They were no longer significant players in the basketball world. So, I asked myself some questions. How do you find information about a team that no longer exists? Are any of the players still alive? Does anyone still remember them?

As I began working on this book, I realized that I needed to assemble a research plan. I figured newspapers would be a good start. Philadelphia had several papers such as the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Record and I felt both would be helpful. But I wanted to see what was written in the cities of their opponents. How was the team covered on the road? What was press coverage like in opposing cities? I then began tracking down newspapers in Boston, New York, New Jersey, Wilmington, Baltimore, Washington and many cities in the Midwest where they traveled. In addition to the mainstream press, I also targeted the Jewish press to see if the team was covered.

Over the course of several years, I spent many long and lonely hours in front of microfilm machines finding articles and scores. Unfortunately, none of the newspapers I needed were digitized, so I was manually cranking the microfilm reader.

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How Jews Can Defend Animals without Invoking Treblinka

By Benjamin Ivry

wiki commons

French Jewish philosopher Élisabeth de Fontenay has published books on Jewish themes, such as 1973’s “The Jewish Faces of Karl Marx” (Les figures juives de Marx) from Les editions Galilée, and on animal rights, such as 1998’s philosophical inquiry “The Silence of Animals” from Les éditions Fayard or 2008’s “Without Offending Mankind” from Les éditions Albin Michel. In March though, Les éditions du Seuil published Fontenay’s “Birth Certificates” (Actes de naissance) a book of conversations with journalist Stéphane Bou, which addresses both themes.

This combination of divergent interests in one subtle mind is useful, since some animal rights advocates have crudely conflated their subject to tragedies of modern Jewish history, as in Charles Patterson’s dramatically named 2002 “Eternal Treblinka: Our Treatment of Animals and the Holocaust” from Lantern Books. Patterson’s title derives from a story by Isaac Bashevis Singer, “The Letter Writer,” in which the sickly, hallucinating Herman Gombiner, a Holocaust survivor, declares:

In relation to [animals], all people are Nazis; for the animals, it is an eternal Treblinka.

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Gil Ben Aych Breathes Life into France’s Sephardi Experience

By Benjamin Ivry

wiki commons
A Street in Tlemcen.

On February 24, L’École des loisirs publishing group reprinted two minor classics of French Jewish writing for young readers: “The Hand-Towel for Your Feet” (L’Essuie-mains des pieds) and “Granny’s Trip” (Le voyage de Mémé).

Originally published in 1981 and 1982, respectively, by French author, philosophy teacher, and wine merchant Gil Ben Aych, both books charmingly address the linguistic, and other, confusions of Algerian-born Jewish immigrants to France in the 1950s. The author was born Simon-Paul Gilbert de Ben Aych in 1948 at Tlemcen, a town in Northwestern Algeria nicknamed “Little Jerusalem” for its once-vibrant Jewish community.

Moving to France in 1956, in anticipation of Algeria’s 1962 independence from France, after which most Algerian Jews departed their homeland, Ben Aych’s family in this tender autobiographical tale chide each other for linguistic mistakes, such as asking for the title “hand-towel for your feet.”

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Five Plays To Make You Farklemt

By Katelyn Manfre

Gerry Goodstein
Noah Keene in Timothy Scott Harris’s ‘A Walk in His Shoes’

It is always inspiring to see the amount of new theater being developed in New York. Though not always commercially or artistically successful, new plays are heartening; their presence suggests that there are brave artists out in the world who will continue to create, seemingly unscathed by the cruelties of “the business.” These artists make for a positive evening at the theater.

The Workshop Theater Company provides a stage for many of these bourgeoning talents, through their various reading series, workshops and mainstage productions, some specifically focused on a particular culture or subculture. Their latest venture, “I Laughed, I Cried…5 Short Plays to Make You Ferklempt” explores the heart and hardships of the Jewish faith from different angles by different writers.

First up is “A Walk in His Shoes,” which is based on a true story from author Timothy Scott Harris’s own family history. Set in modern-day Poland, we see Gabriel (Noah Keen), an escapee from his small town prior to the Nazi occupation, return home for the first time to a festival honoring those who were forced out nearly 70 years ago. Gabriel is unsettled by the showy nature of this homecoming, and voices his regret of a culture gone and forgotten from the city it built. The basis of this piece is powerful — a new and interesting look at a post-war situation on the other side of the world. Yet while Keen’s performance is strong, the would-be reconciliation that eventually comes is rushed and not fully fleshed out, leaving him with an emotional journey that lacks a real payoff.

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Five Songs for the Tent Protests

By Robbie Gringras

Getty Images

What is the theme song for Israel’s tent protests? Although there are some brand new candidates (Mosh Ben Ari’s “Look Me In The Eyes,” and “The Good Guys Will Win,” which HaDag Nachash wrote specially for the protests), Israelis are rediscovering popular songs from the recent past that would seem to have been written with the current protests in mind. Writers of Internet posts and YouTube uploaders are hailing them as prophecies finally coming to pass.

My top five are as follows:

1: The hands-down winner for the funksters has to be from HaDag Nachash, whose entire back catalog reads like a manifesto for today’s protesters. “Lo Frayyerim” (“Not Suckers”) is the band’s early attempt to both describe and ridicule a situation that the middle classes seems to have finally chosen to reject. “Until when?” they sing with a great Sisters Sledge-like rhythm guitar, kicking bass line and lyrics of disbelief and yearning. “We’ll serve reserve duty, pay our taxes, stand in traffic, no one screws with us…” Here is the clip with a translation into English, but this is the best version I’ve heard, where the lament for h-a-r-m-o-n-y rings out in brass celebration.

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Dream a Little Dream of Tobie Nathan

By Benjamin Ivry

'Sleeping Putto' by Léon Bazile Perrault, Wiki Commons

The Cairo-born French Jewish ethnopsychiatrist Tobie Nathan author of a 2010 novel, “Who Killed Arlozoroff?” from Les Éditions Grasset about the 1933 murder of left-wing Israeli political leader Haim Arlosoroff, has also focused on psychiatry’s ultimate father figure, Sigmund Freud.

In a 2006 novel from Les Éditions Perrin, “My Patient Sigmund Freud, Nathan offers a psychoanalysis of Freud by Isaac Rabinovitch, a fictitious Viennese medical student. Earlier this year Nathan’s turned the tables on Papa Siggy again when Les éditions Odile Jacob published his book-length essay “New Interpretation of Dreams.”

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The Lions of Zion, Chapter Four

By Ross Ufberg

What would have happened had there been a Jewish team in the Major Leagues? In an original novel serialized on The Arty Semite, Ross Ufberg imagines the trials and triumphs of The Lions of Zion, an all-Jewish team competing in the National League in 1933. Read the first three chapters here.

Spring Training


Getty Images

The Jewish ballplayers were staying two to a room in the Montefiore Hotel. After breakfast, we’d walk three miles along the Hillsborough River to arrive at a crude baseball diamond. We had no support system or ready facilities like the other, established teams, so the boys from the local YMHA came out to pitch balls and shag flies, while their sisters and mothers helped with the laundry.

Days in the Florida sun worked wonders on Reb Shlomo. Soon he was tan and limber, running around the field with a whistle in his mouth, instructing, correcting, shouting and, occasionally, encouraging. Clearly some men — and one woman — had come to tryouts in a delusional dream. There was the Great War veteran who was missing his arms, but begged us to take him on as a pinch runner: He claimed it was difficult to tag him when he slid. Then there was the buxom brunette who’d been playing for a Bloomer Girls team in Indiana. One of the YMHA boys who tossed balls during practice always lobbed her softies.

“She’s not much of a hitter,” he told the other infielders, “but it’d be a shame to pass up a chance to watch her round first.”

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Monday Music: Fool’s Gold’s ‘Leave No Trace’

By Mordechai Shinefield

Jesse Fleming

Fool’s Gold’s new album, the sophomore effort “Leave No Trace,” keeps the sun-touched Afropop sound from its critically successful debut and mostly jettisons the Hebrew language lyrics that helped that first album stand out.

The new album is a bid for a wider audience but it’s missing the combo that made their self-titled so special. On “Fool’s Gold” the band married the exoticism of the Middle East to the South African musical sounds that Paul Simon brought to the States on his 1986 “Graceland.” On “Leave No Trace” things are sunny and bright, but on only one track (the bouncy “Tel Aviv”) does Luke Top sing about Israel.

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Nonesuch Pulls Steve Reich's Controversial 'WTC 9/11' Album Cover

By Renee Ghert-Zand

Nonesuch Records

“[It] looks like something swiped from Rudy Giuliani’s presidential campaign press shop circa January 2008,” Seth Colter Walls wrote in a July 21 piece for Slate about the cover for Minimalist composer Steve Reich’s “WTC 9/11.”

Walls had no problem with “WTC 9/11” itself; he called Reich’s composition for three string quartets combined with recorded voices “a complex and intriguing achievement.” His beef was with the album cover art for the Kronos Quartet’s studio recording of the piece, which is set for release on September 1. The cover features a photograph of the second plane bearing down on the second tower of The World Trade Center as smoke billows out of the first tower. Walls noted that the image was darkened and dirtied, making the upsetting image even scarier.

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French Feminist Cathy Bernheim Investigates a Hypnotic Ancestor

By Benjamin Ivry

wiki commons

An interest in family roots can appear without warning. A new biography, “Hippolyte Bernheim: a Destiny Under Hypnosis” (“Hippolyte Bernheim, un destin sous hypnose”), appeared in March from Les éditions Hugo & Cie, recounting the life of a French Jewish neurologist and pioneer of hypnotic therapy.

Its author is French novelist and essayist Cathy Bernheim, the subject’s great-grand-niece. Bernheim herself, born in 1946, admits surprise at recently feeling fascination for her Jewish ancestors, especially male ones, as her previously published works express little, if any, affection for men in general. In 2003, Les éditions du félin published Bernheim’s 1991 treatise “Almost-Perfect Love” (“L’amour presque parfait”), slating the lack of “truth or equality” in male-female relationships, and concluding:

The only way I would have been able to put up with loving men was if I were one myself.

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The Greatest Jewish Basketball Team

By Douglas Stark

Douglas Stark’s The SPHAS: The Life and Times of Basketball’s Greatest Jewish Team is now available. His posts are being featured this week on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:


When I told friends and colleagues that I was researching and writing a book about a Jewish basketball team, I was often met with a hesitation or a stunned look. Why are you writing a book? Well, many people write books, I would often answer, and I wanted to take a crack at it myself.

No, the most common questions were the following: Did Jews play basketball? Was it a professional team? Was the team good? The answer is yes, yes, and most definitely yes.

Most sports fans today, whether they are serious or casual, hardly see any Jews participating at the highest level. But, Jews were an important part of the early history of sports in America, particularly basketball. Invented in 1891, basketball spread quickly and was soon played in YMCAs and gyms throughout the country. One place where basketball caught on immediately was urban areas.

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Arnold Schoenberg and the American Dream

By Benjamin Ivry

Detail of 'Self-Portrait' by Arnold Schoenberg, Courtesy of Arnold Schönberg Center, Vienna

Coming to America is normally shorthand for the opening of opportunity: apparently not for Arnold Schoenberg. Commentators on modern music have long undervalued the Vienna-born composer Arnold Schoenberg’s years in America, from 1934 until his death in 1951.

Admittedly, there were some disappointments, such as when the Guggenheim Foundation notoriously refused to grant Schoenberg a fellowship, citing a then-extant age limit for applicants. Yet overall, Schoenberg’s last years were fulfilled and productive, as “Schoenberg’s New World: The American Years” by Sabine Feisst, out in March from Oxford University Press, establishes.

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On Getting Sholom Aleichem's Name Wrong

By Jenna Weissman Joselit

wiki commons
Jewish Writers, Odessa 1910. L-R: Mendele Mocher Sefarim, Sholom Aleichem, Ben-Ami, H.N. Bialik

Crossposted From Under the Fig Tree

I’ve been called many things in my day: Jocelyn, Jennifer, Jen, Joselit Weissman and on occasion (and hopefully in jest) even Gender Weissman Joselit, a name designed to highlight my stalwart embrace of feminism in matters large and small. Little wonder, then, that I sympathize with the fate that has recently befallen the celebrated man of Yiddish letters, Sholom Aleichem.

Thanks to Joseph Dorman’s affecting and insightful new film, “Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness,” its eponymous subject is experiencing something of a new lease on life (though the Forward and Dorman use different standard transliterations). At the very least, his name has probably appeared in print more times in the past month than in the previous 90-odd years since his demise in 1916.

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Friday Film: Israel's Slacker King

By Ronen Shnidman

A shaggy-haired director is reclining on a couch in his parents’ home, watching the boob tube while he enjoys another bout of funemployment.

Lama Productions

Such a description could easily apply to the beginning, middle or end of a Kevin Smith movie or to El Duderino himself, Jeff Bridge’s famous character from the cult hit “The Big Lebowski.” Instead, we are looking at the cinematic rendering of the family life of Israeli Arab filmmaker Mamdooh Afdile.

Just like Jeffrey Lebowski, Silent Bob and even Don Quixote before them, the story of “Jean Wejnoon” (“Shed Ve’Shigaon”), which screened in July at the Jerusalem Film Festival, is at its best when it focuses on the characters surrounding its hapless protagonist.

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