The Arty Semite

Obama's Bar Mitzvah Dance Party

By Jenna Weissman Joselit

A few days ago, I was in the process of retrieving my book bag from the trunk of a colleague’s car when the hood of the trunk came down suddenly and swiftly on my head, leaving me momentarily stunned. Like the characters in countless cartoons, I saw stars.

VA Democrats

The stars, in turn, gave way to a dull ache and to a nagging anxiety about the lingering consequences of my encounter.

I tell you all this, because I actually thought I was seeing things when, in reading about President Obama’s 50th birthday bash, I came across the following sentence from the Chicago Sun Times: “The night was balmy, and when dinner was done, a DJ spun dance tunes—‘like at a Bar Mitzvah,’ said one guest.”

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Out and About: Painting Jerusalem; Roseanne Barr for President?

By Ezra Glinter

Detail from ‘The Destruction of Jerusalem’ (1849), lithograph from a painting by David Roberts. Courtesy of Yeshiva University Museum.
  • Roseanne Barr announced on the Tonight Show that she was running for president.

  • Sarah Lazarovic illustrates her family trips to out-of-the-way shuls.

  • Jenna Weissman Joselit reviews Michael Levy’s “Kosher Chinese: Living, Teaching, and Eating with China’s Other Billion.”

  • Richard McBee takes a look at paintings depicting the destruction of Jerusalem.

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This Week in Forward Arts and Culture

By Ezra Glinter

Wiki Commons
  • Gerald Sorin looks at the complicated history of Jews and Black baseball.

  • Berel Lang celebrates the 50th anniversary of ‘Catch-22’ by arguing that the book is a neglected masterpiece of Jewish fiction.

  • Jenna Weissman Joselit pays a visit to the Stanton Street Shul and admires its zodiacal murals.

  • Benjamin Ivry appreciates two new books by French Resistance hero Raymond Aubrac.

  • Philologos ponders the death of Moses.

  • Ruth Ellen Gruber interviews New York University professor Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, who is now working with the Museum of the History of Polish Jews.

Friday Film: The Changing Face of the Israeli Family

By Jenny Hendrix

“The Queen Has No Crown,” Tomer Heymann’s devoutly personal look at family, gay identity, and homelessness, is a document of the ideological and geographical peregrinations of one Israeli family. Recently screened at the JCC in Manhattan as part of its Feigele Film Festival, and showing August 7 at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, the film was crafted from a decade’s worth of home videos and a precious trove of 16- and 8-millimeter film given to Heymann by his father. The resulting movie has no overt dogmatic or political message, nor does it chronicle any remarkable event, such as death or illness. At heart, it’s a profoundly human look at the run-of-the-mill challenges a family faces by its very nature — and the inevitable gaps that form in the sense of home as one tribe becomes many.

The film is a bit over-long, and drags at times, but is otherwise beautifully made. Each shot — of brothers’ faces, soldiers, male posteriors — is imbued with a feeling of intimacy and almost prurient tenderness. The colors, especially those of the older footage, have a kind of jewel-toned fuzziness that can’t help but summon nostalgia. Yet Heymann’s focus is always on the mobile present of this family, one remarkable mostly for being — like most families — a source of both pain and comfort.

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In Song: Devarim

By Martin Stone

Detail from ‘Moses and the Messengers from Canaan’ by Giovanni Lanfranco, 1621-1624.

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

This week’s parsha, Devarim, is the first in the fifth and final book of the Torah.

Moshe begins his recap of the Torah as he takes his leave of the people before they enter Canaan. This week, he gives a summary of some of the events that befell the people since they left Egypt, beginning with the story of the 12 scouts, who caused the people to take a roundabout route and approach the land from the East. Because of this they encountered and did battle with the nations east of the River Jordan, winning their lands.

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Our Good Friends the Essermans

By Melissa Fay Greene

Earlier this week, Melissa Fay Greene wrote about the adoption of her daughter, Helen, from Ethiopia, and telling jokes at church. Her new book, “No Biking in the House Without a Helmet,” is now available. Her 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:


My husband and I are white people. We shop at R.E.I. for the clothes. We have cousins on both sides who are vegans and have attended more than one bean-filled wedding reception. We could move to Dubuque, Iowa, or Bangor, Maine, if we wanted to, without anyone wondering what on earth we were thinking. If pulled over by a traffic cop for a moving violation, we await him at our driver’s side window with the wide-eyed innocent-looking expectation that the exchange will proceed cordially and without undue suspicion. We are well-acquainted with the many bonuses of what is known on the street as White Skin Privilege.

We were born just this side of the mid-20th-century, to Jewish parents, when ethnicity was on the verge of being accepted as an acceptable American lifestyle. Jerry Lewis, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion of Israel, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, Danny Kaye, and Sammy Davis, Jr., were major Jews of our childhood. We weren’t told about the Holocaust.

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Friday Film: Sudeten Germans Were Victims, Too

By Ralph Seliger

Courtesy of Corinth Films

The Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia began with the annexation of the largely German-speaking Sudetenland in October 1938. Most people are unaware of the aftermath of the occupation, in which Czech people took revenge on their German-speaking neighbors. This story is explored in a German-Czech-Austrian feature film titled “Habermann,” opening August 5 at New York’s Quad Cinema and being screened at the JCC in Manhattan from August 7 to 11.

The film tells the fact-based story of a wealthy mill owner and the scion of an old German family, August Habermann (Mark Waschke). He is apolitical and initially naïve about the Nazis, but he believes in dealing fairly with his neighbors and employees, whether they are Czech or German. The woman he marries in 1937 is a Czech, as is his best friend, a forester who is married in turn to a German.

Still, August’s orphaned young brother, Hans, enthusiastically supports the Nazis, as do many (if not most) Sudeten Germans. Hans is an exemplary member of the Hitler Youth movement and eagerly volunteers to join the Wehrmacht to fight the Soviet Union.

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No Sting in the Tail From Cale

By Ben Shalev

Crossposted from Haaretz

Daniel Tchetchik

I wish the opposite had been the case. I wish John Cale’s show Tuesday had been lukewarm at the start, and then picked up momentum until the fabulous end. But in fact, exactly the opposite occurred. The performance started out fabulously, became less exciting and ended just okay. While leaving the club, I did mental exercises in an effort to remember the best part of the show and shake off the okay part, but the attempt was doomed to failure, and fail it did.

A show that begins reasonably well and ends fantastically is filed away in our heads as a fantastic show. A show that begins splendidly and ends okay is remembered as a good but disappointing show. You’ve already touched the real thing, the process of fulfillment has begun as you inch closer to it, but then it suddenly becomes less real and you leave with half your craving still in your mind.


The Disembodied Evil of Jewish Horror Movies

By Nathan Abrams

Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror
By Jason Zinoman
The Penguin Press, 272 pages, $25.95

The contribution of Jews to the American film industry both behind and in front of the camera is well known and well documented. Yet, having just read Jason Zinoman’s “Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror,” it has struck me that the specific contribution of Jews to the development of the modern horror genre is perhaps not so widely circulated.

Arguably, four of the key psychological and supernatural horror films of the late 1960s and ’70s were directed by secular and agnostic Jews: Roman Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968), William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist” (1973), Richard Donner’s “The Omen” (1976) and Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” (1980). In the contemporary era, they have been joined by Eli Roth’s “Cabin Fever” (2002), “Hostel” (2005) and “Hostel: Part II” (2007). Zinoman also argues for the inclusion of Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan” (2010), which he claims “may be a lavishly shot portrait of the world of New York ballet with an A-list cast, including Natalie Portman, that is led by one of most ambitious art house directors of the day, Darren Aronofsky. But it’s also a nasty little horror move that uses the convention of classic fright films.”

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Yossi Huttler's Poetry of Fate and Faith

By Susan Comninos

Georg Baselitz, ‘Man of Faith,’ 1983.

The unswerving religious focus of emerging American poet Yossi Huttler, 45, will likely limit the audience for his debut book, “Lakol Z’man” (“A Time for Everything”) — and that’s a shame. In it, the author, who is pious in his Jewish practice, evokes piyyutim, Hebrew liturgical verse. But he also alludes to a more varied literary framework.

From ancient faith, Huttler wrests powerful new epigrams. Brief and often fragmented, they resolve with an incisive twist. When they introduce doubt, or admit to both fear and rage in the face of observance, they become at once simple and layered. Pegged to the cycle of Jewish holidays, the loveliest of them are nevertheless universal.

One such poem treats a biblical scapegoat, chosen by chance to assume the sins of the Jewish people. By underscoring the randomness of luck, “Goral” recalls the High Holy Day prayer “Unetanneh Tokef,” a litany of all of the possible — and often frightening — fates held in reserve for Jews in the upcoming year:

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Israel's Friday Night Sitcom

By Gili Izikovich

Crossposted from Haaretz

Daniel Tchetchik
Ruby Duenyas on the ‘Savri Maranan’ set.

This is apparently the ultimate all-Israeli experience, crossing sectors, affiliations and barriers. A family comes together for Friday night dinner. Elderly parents, their children with or without families of their own. Often there will be a blessing over the wine and there will always be a gut-busting meal, full of familiar dishes. And throughout, amid the repeated jokes, the gestures and the dynamics, the relationships are revealed: the familial intimacy of those who grew up in the home and continue to behave in the patterns they formed as children, and those who joined the family later as partners and do not yet feel entirely at home. There is no one who hasn’t been there and mostly, in familial Israel, this happens in rotation: one week at her parents’ home, the next week at his.

It was inevitable that this experience would become the center of the new Israeli sitcom “Savri Maranan” (the opening words of the preface to the blessing over wine, the Kiddush). The sitcom, written by Ruby Duenyas (who also directs) and Yaniv Polishuk (who also acts), will be broadcast starting this evening on Channel 2.


Out and About: Wikimania in Haifa; Lady Gaga and the Jews (for Jesus)

By Ezra Glinter

Getty Images
  • The dispute between Chabad-Lubavitch and Russia over the Schneerson library is gumming up the works for major art exhibits.

  • Hundred of Wikipedia contributors are descending on Haifa today for the seventh annual Wikimania conference.

  • At the Paris Review, Sadie Stein writes about her grandfather, Joseph Stein, who wrote the screenplay for “Fiddler on the Roof.”

  • Jason Diamond takes on Jews for Jesus’ misuse of Lady Gaga.

  • Adam Kirsch on the legacy of David Foster Wallace.

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Moroccan Murder Mystery

By Renee Ghert-Zand

The Honored Dead: A Story of Friendship, Murder, and the Search for Truth in the Arab World
By Joseph Braude
Spiegel & Grau, 318 pages, $26.00

You can take the Jew out of the Arab world, but you can’t take the Arab world out of the Jew. That basically sums up Joseph Braude, a young American Jew of Iraqi descent who studied Near Eastern languages at Yale and Arabic and Islamic history at Princeton, and who is fluent in several Arabic dialects, Persian and Hebrew. It also partially explains why, in 2008, he found himself conducting his own unofficial investigation into a violent murder while officially embedded with the Moroccan police on a journalistic assignment.

At once a murder mystery, a travelogue, a history text, and memoir, “The Honored Dead: A Story of Friendship, Murder, and the Search for Truth in the Arab World” is a compelling and illuminating chronicle of Braude’s sleuthing in the slums of Casablanca and the Berber countryside. He does this together with an unemployed baker referred to as Muhammad Bari, a poor, average Moroccan who believes that the police are covering up a conspiracy, and who convinces Braude to help him discover the real circumstances surrounding the murder of his night watchman friend, Ibrahim Dey.

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Boyhood Days in Brownsville

By Katelyn Manfre

Photo by Carol Rosegg

There is something to be said for knowing one’s audience. The people sitting in the cushioned, expensive seats all have expectations, wants and needs. Perhaps they want to forget; to laugh; to be touched, or to hear a really good story. Or maybe they want to remember.

Jake Ehrenreich’s one-man comedy musical, “A Jew Grows in Brooklyn,” playing until August 21 at the Queens Theatre, is a trip back in time to his childhood in Brownsville. The son of Polish Holocaust survivors, and the first of his siblings to be born in America, Ehrenreich tells of his struggles to maintain an all-American identity with a family so recently arrived from the Old Country.

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Different Jokes for Different Folks

By Melissa Fay Greene

On Monday, Melissa Fay Greene shared the story behind the adoption of her daughter, Helen, from Ethiopia. Her 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:


Twenty years ago, as I set out upon my very first book tour, for “Praying for Sheetrock” — my 1991 work of nonfiction about the heyday of a corrupt “courthouse gang” on the flowery coast of Georgia and the belated rise of civil rights there — I discovered I had a line in my book-talk that only Jews laughed at.

It was unintentional on my part. I thought it was funny; I didn’t realize until I criss-crossed the country with it, like a stand-up comic, that it wasn’t funny to non-Jews.

The scene: “The blazing summer nights of 1975, as darkness dropped…” when the rural black citizens of McIntosh County, enraged by the police shooting of an unarmed man and by the deliberate neglect of the all-black public school system by the all-white school board, stormed across the sand parking lot, illuminated by bare light-bulbs dangling from wires strung through the live-oak trees, and crowded into the weather-beaten Shorters Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

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Superficial Characters and Their Sex Lives

By Michael Handelzalts

Crossposted from Haaretz

Gérard Allon
A scene from “Monogamy.” If the theme is relationships, then there are better plays than this substantially chattery work.

This shouldn’t have happened. A spectator coming to the theater is supposed to take an interest in many things: the plot, the characters, the style, the acting, the directing. When the play is really good, he is supposed to take all of these in, perhaps reflect on them later in greater detail, and allow himself to feel what this play — the theme, the story, the characters — has to say to him as a person; how he would react if something similar to that which took place onstage were to happen to him.

What shouldn’t have happened is what happened to me in “Monogamy,” (the play’s title in English is “O Go My Man,” an anagram of “monogamy”) a play by Stella Feehily, directed by Rami Heuberger at Habima Theater. And what happened was that as the play progressed, and especially when it was over, my mind was preoccupied with one question: “Who in the Habima Theater management decided to stage this play, and why, dammit?”


Q&A: Actor Danny Aiello on 9/11, Jewish Characters and Chopped Liver

By Curt Schleier

Ben Hider

Danny Aiello grew up in New York City, first in Manhattan and then at various addresses in the Bronx. The actor, 78 (“please put that in a smaller font,” he said), has appeared in films such as “The Godfather: Part II,” Woody Allen’s “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” and he was nominated for an Oscar for his supporting role in Spike Lee’s “Do The Right Thing.” He has also won a daytime Emmy award for his role in an after school special, and has recorded several albums.

Aiello’s latest role may be his most personal. He stars as the title character in “The Shoemaker,” a play by Susan Charlotte about an Italian Jew on 9/11. The horrific events of the day bring back memories of a father who died in a Nazi camp, and who sent his then 9-year-old son to safety in the U.S. Aiello spoke to The Arty Semite about 9/11, playing Jewish characters, and his disdain for chopped liver.

Curt Schleier: What makes this project so special for you?

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The Lions of Zion, Chapter Two

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 chapter here.

A Gangster Brings Baseball

Getty Images

I had just poured Reb Shlomo a glass of tea — the shul was in such dire straits that they wouldn’t even provide sugar to sweeten his bitter drink — and was carrying it down the hallway when I heard voices coming from his office. I was the rabbi’s assistant, a 16-year-old yeshiva flunkee with not much talent for anything but “wasting time” and, as the school principal had said to my parents, “playing ball with the neighborhood goyim.”

It was a Wednesday, a little before nine, first week of January, and the congregants at the morning prayers had already dispersed — a time when the shul was usually deserted. The atmosphere was gloomy. The rabbi and I were constantly expecting the hatchet to fall: In 1933, each Shabbes brought news of another congregant going out of business, another neighbor shuttering his store windows and moving to the bread line, and we were worried there would soon be no money left for the rabbi’s meager salary.

I was about to knock when something in the tones emanating from the cold, dank room made me think twice. I moved closer to the door, put my eye to the keyhole and listened.

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Israeli Punk Band That Didn't Forget Its Roots

By Dafna Arad

Crossposted from Haaretz

Tali Mayer
Useless ID band members (from left to right) Ishay Berger, Yonatan Harpak and Haim Binyamini.

Useless ID is undoubtedly the most successful Israeli punk rock band in the world. Formed in 1994, it set out to try its luck abroad and became a respected member of the international scene, establishing itself within just a few years. The band signed with an American record company and gathered a devoted fan base, which knows all the words to its songs, in forceful and precise English.

What is less well known is that at some point along the way, band members did not forget where they had come from. In between appearances in a Canadian stadium and a tour in Australia, they continued to be a major influence on the Israeli scene too. Members of Useless ID have performed in every remote corner of Israel, drunk themselves silly with the kids on the local scene, and participated in endless numbers of discussions on the Tapuz punk forum — in particular, the band’s guitarist, Ishay Berger.


Turning a Synagogue's Tale Into Kid Lit

By Samuel D. Gruber

Crossposted from Samuel Gruber’s Jewish Art & Monuments

“If these walls could talk” is a cliché in the historic preservation world, but when standing inside an old synagogue it is still an irresistibly phrase and idea. Anita Kassof, associate director of the Jewish Museum of Maryland and illustrator Jonathon Scott Fuqua have now taken the idea literally and made an appealing children’s book from it. “Long before your grandparents’ grandparents were babies, before they walked or talked or tied their own shoes, I was built with shovel and pail, hammer and nail, brick and stone.” So begins the narrative of Baltimore’s Lloyd Street Synagogue, opened in 1845 as Maryland’s first synagogue, the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, as told in the recently published “The Synagogue Speaks.”

The historic building, now part of the museum, evolved from traditional to Reform observance in the mid-19th century, and was transformed into a Catholic church in 1889. In a less common twist of fate, the building became home to an Eastern European Orthodox Jewish congregation in 1905. It was saved from the wrecking ball in 1960 and now serves as the cornerstone of the Jewish Museum of Maryland, and has long been celebrated as one of the Jewish community’s first historic preservation successes.

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