The Arty Semite

Out and About: The Trials of Leonard Slatkin; New Ending for West Memphis Three

By Ezra Glinter

Courtesy of Music Box Films
  • Sara Ivry talks to comic book artist Joann Sfar, diretor of a new film about French Jewish songwriter Serge Gainsbourg.

  • Leonard Slatkin has suffered a heart attack, been fired from the Metropolitan Opera and had the Detroit Symphony Orchestra go on strike, but the Los Angeles conductor keeps on trucking.

  • “Paradise Lost: Purgatory,” a documentary by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky about the West Memphis Three, is getting a new ending after the wrongfully convicted men were set free.

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This Week in Forward Arts and Culture

By Ezra Glinter

  • Binyomin Ginzberg profiles Chilik Frank, a master Breslov clarinet player.

  • Mark Oppenheimer reviews Lee Siegel’s “Are You Serious?: How To Be True and Get Real in the Age of Silly.”

  • On the 72nd anniversary of the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, we feature Israeli author Ada Pagis’s story about a speculative image.

  • Josh Lambert reviews Harvey Pekar and Paul Buhle’s “Yiddishkeit: Jewish Vernacular & the New Land,” a “postvernacular tour de force.”

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Basketball, History of People

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:


To me, history is telling stories about people. I have always been fascinated by people’s lives, the decisions they make (or don’t), and ultimately what happens to them. One of my objectives in writing The SPHAS was to have an opportunity to tell the stories of the players and, in some cases, the fans who attended the games. Who were the SPHAS? Where did they come from? Why were they attracted to basketball? Who were they as people?

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Friday Film: 'The Prize' Takes the Prize in Peru and Jerusalem

By Akin Ajayi

Top prize of the Lima Film Festival that ended on August 12, is just the latest award El Premio (The Prize) by Paula Markovitch has collected on its round of the film festivals.

Opening with a long tracking shot, the camera follows a small child struggling along a desolate, windswept beach. She’s trying to rollerskate, but it’s clearly an exercise in futility. But she persists and soon the old fashioned strap-on skates drag uselessly behind her. Her stubbornness is perplexing, even disturbing: why try so hard to overcome an impossible situation? The moment suggests a willful detachment from reality, and is a powerful precursor for what follows.

Winner of the In The Spirit of Freedom Award at the 28th Jerusalem Film Festival, El Premio is a powerful observational document, taking in the terror and the absurdity of the darkest years of the Argentinian dictatorship of the 1970s as seen through the eyes of a small child.

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In Song: Ekev

By Martin Stone

Each week The Arty Semite connects the Torah reading — however tenuously — with a classic work of rock and roll.

In this week’s parsha, Ekev, Moses continues his lengthy speech from last week with more basic theology. He asks and answers questions such as why the Jews were chosen, what they have to do as a result, what happens if they do those things, and what will happen if they don’t.

Moses asks, “What does your God want from you?” and answers, “to fear and love Him, and to carry out His commandments.” Pink Floyd asks a similar question:


Star-Gazing, Optimism and Courage From Italy’s Jewish Partisans

By Benjamin Ivry

Courtesy Salone Internazionale del Libro di Torino
Alessandra Chiappano

Isacco Levi, who turned 87 in July, a distant relative of Primo Levi who fought as a wartime anti-Nazi partisan, is the sole survivor of a family of thirteen from Saluzzo in northwest Italy; the rest were murdered in Auschwitz. In 2005, a Berlin war claims conference bizarrely denied Levi any compensation for this loss because he was a member of the Italian Resistance.

As Levi continues to protest this decision, (his story is told in 2005’s “The Levis of Spielberg Street: Isacco Levi Between Fascism and Nazism” by Alessio Ghisolfi from Clavilux Edizioni), other Italian Jewish partisans are being heeded, at least within Italy. “Voices of the Italian Jewish Resistance” edited by Alessandra Chiappano appeared earlier this year from Casa editrice Le Château. Chiappano, author of last year’s “Luciana Nissim Momigliano: a Life” from La casa editrice La Giuntina, the story of an Italian partisan and Auschwitz survivor, knows heroism when she sees it.

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Howard Stern To Get a Comic Book

By Gary Shapiro

Fresh from being attacked by comedian Andy Dick as a “shallow, money-grubbing Jew,” with a “big fat hook nose,” Howard Stern has a new way to be his provocative heebie self. The shaggy-haired star has his own comic book that gives him new opportunities to mouth off.

The “Howard Stern” title is part of a line of comics aimed for the 18- to 35-year-old male market, said Darren G. Davis, president of Bluewater Productions, Inc.

Larry “Ratso” Sloman, who worked with Stern on his books “Private Parts” and “Miss America” is not surprised by the interest in Stern. He told The Arty Semite that Stern is popular because he has the courage to say what others won’t. “Beneath that image,” Sloman continued, “Howard is probably the hardest working guy I’ve ever met.”

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Johannes Heesters, Hitler’s Favorite Singer, at 107

By Raphael Mostel

Getty Images

It seems evil people can live a really long time.

Now 107(!) years old and still singing, Hitler’s favorite singer Johannes Heesters recently discovered his native Netherlands still regards him as a traitor. German chancellor Angela Merkel was recently hosting a formal state dinner for the visiting Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, and invited Heesters, one of the most prominent Dutch residents in Germany and most famous entertainers there. However, when the Dutch officials noticed his name on the guest list they insisted he be disinvited.

Heesters’s career was made when Hitler fell in love with his performance as the male lead of Franz Lehar’s operetta “The Merry Widow,” going to every performance. Hitler even took to imitating his idol, kissing his hands, showering him with money, automobile, house, food and other goods, mostly appropriated from Jews, and even benefiting from personal cut in his taxes. Heesters claimed to know nothing, for example, about Dachau — until photos surfaced of him there, while his opera company was entertaining the SS to help them relax. He then claimed he might have been there but he was not one of the people who sang for the SS. On a recent television appearance, he actually referred to Hitler as a “really great guy” [ein netter Kerl].

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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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