The Arty Semite

A Picture Out of Focus

By Rokhl Kafrissen

Joan Marcus
Donna Murphy and Christopher Innvar in ‘The People in the Picture.’

Is Broadway ready for dancing girls in the Warsaw ghetto? Can an American musical high kick through the darkest moments of Jewish history and still avoid giving offense, or worse, falling into kitsch?

“The People in the Picture,” a new musical playing at the Roundabout theater until June 19, raises this question, treading where even the now sainted creators of “Fiddler on the Roof” dared not go. Indeed, in his commentary for the anniversary of “Fiddler on the Roof’s” original Broadway cast recording, Sheldon Harnick tells how “Fiddler” almost had dancing girls in a big second act production number. Jerome Robbins even had it choreographed before deciding that the juxtaposition of dancing girls to communal expulsion just wasn’t the show they were writing.

Though the dancing girls in the ghetto are only a brief moment in “The People in the Picture,” as an artistic choice it stands for a show which is neither very funny nor very serious, and ends up falling, unfortunately, on the wrong side of self-parody.

Read more


Two Views of Egypt's Jewish Past

By Samuel D. Gruber

Crossposted From Samuel Gruber’s Jewish Art & Monuments

Hayyim Capusi Synagogue of Cairo’s Haret El-Yehud. Photo by Zbigniew Kosc.

I am indebted to the blog Point of No Return for links to two articles about (formerly) Jewish Egypt. The first, an article from Al-Ahram online, takes a tour of the Haret El-Yehud, what was once Cairo’s “Jewish Alley,” a site of Jewish habitation for centuries. It concludes with the ambiguous line, “over the past few years, the Supreme Council of Antiquities funded the restoration of most significant Jewish landmarks in Cairo. One thought that the council’s attempt was to enrich Egypt’s heritage. However, the quarter seems to have remained the same. If the Jewish buildings have been restored, they are empty of the people who once filled them.”

Click here see beautiful images of some of the Jewish sites remaining in Cairo and Alexandria by photographer Zbigniew Kosc, and especially the 18th-century Italian inspired Haim Capusi Synagogue of Haret El-Yehud (prints of Kosc photographs can also be ordered). For more on the synagogue see David Cassuto’s “The Rabbi Haim Capusi Synagogue in Cairo & its Uniqueness,” (in Hebrew with English summary). Unlike the more famous Ben Ezra and Ramban synagogues, The Capusi synagogue has not been restored.

Read more


Putting Some Punch Into the Protest Song

By Lea Penn

Crossposted from Haaretz

Daniel Tchetchik

When Mary Ocher participated in a singing competition at 14, Idan Reichel, who was working as a music arranger in the same competition, told her she would never be a singer. At 20, after hearing the same thing from a few other Israeli teachers, Ocher packed her bags and moved with her band, Mary and the Baby Cheeses, to Berlin.

She says she feels like part of the scenery there. “There are so many oddballs there, and the mainstream is not all that absolute so I’m really comfortable there,” she says. “I can wear the most outlandish clothes I want and put on the most extreme makeup and that will be fine. There is a lot less sexual harassment there. Here I can’t cross the street without someone yelling something at me, and I just want to disappear.”

Read more at Haaretz.com


Monday Music: The Girls Are in Trouble, but Not This Album

By Mordechai Shinefield

Courtesy of JDub Records

It is hard to believe we are only five years from klezmer-punk band Golem’s 2006 debut album, “Fresh Off Boat,” and the first time (most of us) heard Alicia Jo Rabins on a record. Since then we have gotten a follow-up from Golem (2009’s tremendous “Citizen Boris”) and a solo debut from Rabin’s new project, Girls in Trouble.

Now, in 2011, Rabins has released her own solo sophomore album, “Half You Half Me,” putting herself in contention for the most prolific Jewish artist of the last few years. Moreover, “Half You Half Me,” out this week on JDub records, escapes the fate of many album follow-ups. Instead of a collection of hastily thrown together songs in the wake of a debut success, the album is a carefully written, confident set of songs that pushes the Girls in Trouble project forward and almost alleviates the pain of going two years without a new Golem album.

Read more


Surveying the Jewish Remains of Bosnia-Herzegovina

By Samuel D. Gruber

Courtesy of Samuel D. Gruber/US Commission for Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad

Crossposted from Samuel Gruber’s Jewish Art & Monuments

I am pleased to report the release by the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad of a report on the survey of “Jewish Heritage Sites of Bosnia-Herzegovina.” The survey of over 60 sites was organized and sponsored by the Commission, and carried out by researcher Ivan Ceresnjes, a former leader of the Bosnian Jewish community who is now with the Center for Jewish Art in Jerusalem. I edited the report and contributed to some of the sections when serving as Research Director of the Commission. Ruth Ellen Gruber also provided important information.

I first got involved in Jewish heritage sites in Bosnia when the Commission helped raise funds and organize the restoration of the prayer and pre-burial house at the venerable Sephardic cemetery in Sarajevo. The cemetery had suffered greatly during the Siege of Sarajevo and the building had been heavily damaged by fire. A picture of the restored structure is on the cover of the report. Many other sites have not fared so well. Many sites are still in ruins, and cemeteries are overgrown. Some cemeteries may still have landmines from the civil war.

Read more


Monday Music: Aviv Geffen, Steven Wilson and Israeli-British Hybrid DNA

By Abby Margulies

Photo by Chiko. Courtesy of Kscope Music.

As far as cross-cultural collaborations go, Blackfield’s most recent album, “Welcome to My DNA,” is rather unexpected. Not because the album is particularly shocking, but for just the opposite reason — because without reading the liner notes, the album plays like that of any other band. But unlike most bands, which come together by coincidence, Blackfield is the intentional side project of Israeli pop star Aviv Geffen and British singer and producer Steven Wilson.

The band was formed in 2000, when Geffen invited Wilson’s British progressive rock band Porcupine Tree to play a few shows in Israel. Following the performances, Wilson and Geffen quickly became friends, and as Geffen was looking to expand into the realm of English rock, the two conceived of the idea for Blackfield. Together, the duo went on to record their eponymous debut “Blackfield” (2004), followed by “Blackfield II” (2007). This past March the band released their third album, “Welcome to My DNA” on Kscope, and are now embarking on a 14-date North American tour beginning in Washington, D.C. on May 18.

Read more


Scatterbrained, but a Star

By David Rapp

Crossposted from Haaretz

Pages out of the new version of the book “The Absent-Minded Guy from Kefar Azar” a tribute to Leah Goldberg.

A large pigeon roosts on the roof of a house in the picture that opens the new edition of “Ha-Mefuzar Mi-Kfar Azar” (“The Absent-Minded Guy from Kefar Azar,” Am Oved, 1968), by Leah Goldberg. Goldberg’s book, based on a work by Russian Jewish writer Samuil Marsha, originally appeared with illustrations that she did. Now it is being reissued with drawings by Natalie Waksman Shenker.

The new edition of “The Absent-Minded Guy” is a lot more than a tribute to the work of the late Goldberg, whose 100th birthday will be celebrated this month. The scatterbrained protagonist is reborn in this book, and the illustrator, Waksman Shenker has provided a refreshing and inspiring version of him and the entire work.

Read more at Haaretz.com


Out and About: A Modern Tower of Babel; Paul Simon and 'A Pure Moment of Sobbing Joy'

By Ezra Glinter

Getty Images
  • The Library of Congress has launched an online “National Jukebox” of some 10,000 historical recordings.

  • The New York Times profiles guitarist Gary Lucas on the occasion of his new CD, “The Ordeal of Civility.”

  • Argentine artist Marta Minujine has built a 25-meter Tower of Babel out of 30,000 books.

  • A student remembers Yeshiva University economics professor Rabbi Dr. Aaron Levine.

Read more


This Week in Forward Arts and Culture

By Ezra Glinter

Joan Marcus
  • Gordon Haber reviews Jon Ronson’s “The Psychopath Test,” a book about, well, crazy people.

  • I ponder Jewish music that courts a secular audience with religious material.

  • Joshua Furst believes in the spirit of Tony Kushner’s new play, if not always its execution.

  • Elissa Strauss goes to see the art collection of the Cone Sisters of Baltimore, now on view at The Jewish Museum.

Read more


The Furrier, the Psychoanalyst and the Assassin

By Mikhail Krutikov

A version of this post appeared in Yiddish here.

Wiki Commons
Soviet agent Leonid Aleksandrovich Eitingon

As one unravels the history of the 20th century, it becomes apparent how deeply individual lives were woven into the larger fabric of world events. From the shtetls of Eastern Europe a new generation of Jewish youth emerged whose exploits shook the entire world. Now, after the members of that generation have gone, their grandchildren are left with fragments of family memories, yellowed newspapers and archival documents. But from these we can still piece together a picture of the past with its incredible adventures, its great ascents to wealth and power, and its equally dramatic defeats.

In her recent book, “The Eitingons: A Twentieth-Century Story,” Mary-Kay Wilmers, the longstanding editor of the London Review of Books, looks at three members of her family, each of whom belonged to a completely different world: one was in business, one science, and one military intelligence and political intrigue.

The latter of these, Leonid Aleksandrovich Eitingon, born Nahum Isaakovich Eitingon, is a well-known figure in the history of the Soviet intelligence and security services. A top Soviet agent, his main job was organizing operations against enemies of the Soviet regime abroad.

Read more


Memory, Scent and My Mother

By Molly Birnbaum

Earlier this week, Molly Birnbaum wrote about her first writing teacher and the scent of Passover. Her blog 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:


This past Sunday was Mother’s Day. In celebration, my mom and I went out to lunch. We ate crisp salads and tuna sashimi. We laughed a bit too loudly, tipsy after a glass of white wine. Before that we had been shopping, trying on summer dresses and sandals with straps twisting up our ankles—a little too hopeful for the immediacy of warm weather as we listened to a chilling thunderstorm soaking the streets outside.

I write about my mother in my book, “Season to Taste: How I Lost My Sense of Smell and Found My Way.” After all, she took care of me after I was hit by a car while jogging in 2005 — the accident that broke my pelvis, tore the tendons in my left knee, and fractured my skull; the one that ultimately robbed me, an aspiring chef, of my sense of smell. In the months of my recovery, I found it devastating to not be able to perceive the scents that had once been so closely aligned with my memories of my mother: the smell of her lilac perfume, of her rosemary-mint shampoo, of the chicken dish she used to make with dried cherries and cream. I understood the importance of scent in terms of taste and flavor. But I had not realized how intrinsically it is tied to memory and emotion, too.

Read more


Friday Film: Amos Oz on Not Writing Universally

By Tahneer Oksman

Courtesy of Yonathan & Masha Films

Yonathan and Masha Zur’s recent documentary “Amos Oz: The Nature of Dreams,” screening May 17 at the New York Israel Film Festival, expertly circles around the question: What is the place of politics in literature, and vice versa? For Oz, the two cannot be disentangled. “To write what they call ‘universally’… how is it possible?” Oz asks at the opening of the film. For him, the writer is inextricably tied to the time and place in which he writes; like it or not, he is as attached to the sounds, smells, and sights of the world that surrounds him as he is to the language he uses to express his thoughts — its syntax and vibrations, its sound, its history. These details seep into his literature whether he is conscious of it or not. In telling his own story, as Oz has done in his 2002 memoir, “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” he inevitably also tells the story of a particular place and time (in the case of the memoir, it is the story of Jerusalem in the 1940s).

Read more


Go the F*** To Sleep

By Dan Friedman

It’s not porn, that’s colonizing the viral virtual space of business America in early May 2011 but a children’s book written by Adam Mansbach.

Mansbach is best known for his cheerily titled books “Angry Black White Boy: A Novel” and “The End of the Jews: A Novel,” But he has clearly met with parenthood in a meaningful way and his new book, “Go the F*** to Sleep” has touched a chord beyond his normal readers.

Somehow a rogue pdf of the book has been circulated. I got mine from a lawyer who got his from a lawyer who got his (hers?) from a recruitment consultant who got it from I don’t know where. Elsewhere in the virtual world cover pictures are being exchanged along with rumors of rhymes that didn’t make it to the final edition.

Read more


András Mezei's Holocaust Poetry for Our Time

By Thomas Ország-Land

András Mezei (1930-2008) was a major Jewish-Hungarian poet who left behind a retrospective exploration of the Holocaust for our time. There are many voices speaking to us of terror, folly, greed, cruelty and absurdity, but Mezei’s poetry makes them sound like our own voices. His testimony has been published in England, in my translation, as “Christmas in Auschwitz” (Smokestack Press, 2010).

Mezei survived the Holocaust as a child in the Budapest Ghetto where some 17,000 people perished from hunger, disease and the fancy of uniformed bandits. Mezei’s father, a jobbing fiddler usually engaged to play in taverns and fairgrounds, perished at Auschwitz.

Unlike the other great poets of the Holocaust such as Paul Celan, Primo Levi and Miklós Radnóti, Mezei refused to come to terms with death. Indeed, his work is a celebration of the unconquerable spirit of his people. And unlike Anne Frank, he had the time to give voice to the concerns of the victims while he was at the height of his literary powers. This is how he sums up the experience of the survivor in a single couplet:

Read more


Picasso and the Cone Sisters

By Julie Reiss

Pablo Picasso, ‘Woman With Bangs,’ 1902. Courtesy of the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Claribel and Etta Cone were born in Baltimore in 1864 and 1870, respectively. Two daughters from a large family of German Jewish immigrants, they were in many ways ahead of their time. Claribel Cone went to medical school and later became a professor at Johns Hopkins University. Neither sister ever married, and together they traveled, met artists and writers, and formed an important collection of modern art, which Etta Cone ultimately bequeathed to the Baltimore Museum of Art. A portion of this collection, along with archival material, is currently on view at The Jewish Museum in New York.

The Cone collection is most renowned for its Matisse holdings, but, as I will explain in a May 16 lecture at the museum, the two sisters were avid collectors of Picasso’s work as well. While the Picasso holdings currently on view at The Jewish Museum are modest, they rekindle interest in the points of intersection between these collectors and the artist.

Read more


A Director Sheds Light on Sexual Abuse of Women in Arab Society

By Nirit Anderman

Crossposted from Haaretz

One of the interviewees in the film “Doma” sits in her house next to a window overlooking the sea. Only parts of her are reflected in the window pane. In quiet, almost whispered tones, the woman offers a heartbreaking tale of the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of her uncle since she was five. When she tried to resist, he threatened to go after her sisters. Her grandmother witnessed what was going on under her nose one night, but chillingly chose to do nothing and say nothing.

Ivon Miklosh
In ‘Doma’ Arab women speak, many for the first time, about the trauma they underwent.

“I couldn’t scream because if anyone heard or found out about what he was doing, it would be a big mess,” says the woman, explaining why she remained silent over the year. “Many times he would tell me that nobody could know, because if that happened, my parents would get divorced, my brothers would be sent to different places and the two families would fight, and my brothers and sisters wouldn’t get married. I would bring shame on my family; I would cause damage and ruin my brothers’ and sisters’ future. Here… you are responsible for the entire clan.”

In her first film, director Abeer Zeibak Haddad chose to set off from her Jaffa home on a journey across Israel in order to shed some light on a subject that has been covered up for years in Arab society: sexual assault of girls, teenagers and women within and outside the family. “Doma” will be screened on Saturday at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque as part of the DocAviv Festival which opens today.

Read more at Haaretz.com


Out and About: Israeli Music for Syrian Protestors; The Shame of Playing Shylock

By Ezra Glinter

Getty Images
Patrick Stewart will play Shylock in a new production by the Royal Shakespeare Company.
  • The Independent takes a look at Habonim, the Socialist Zionist youth group that was once home to Mike Leigh, David Baddiel and Sacha Baron Cohen.

  • The Brooklyn Rail revisits the work of Russian Jewish filmmaker Dziga Vertov, on the occasion of a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art.

  • Israeli singer Amir Benayoun (profiled in the Forward here) has recorded a CD in Arabic that has been passed on to Syrian protestors.

  • The shame of Shylock: Patrick Stewart, Anthony Sher and others tell what it’s like to play Shakespeare’s most infamous role.

Read more


A Scientist From the Overachieving Panofsky Family

By Benjamin Ivry

Stanford University SLAC

The German-born Jewish physicist Wolfgang Panofsky confounds the general rule about offspring of geniuses being disappointments. Son of the eminent art historian Erwin Panofsky, Wolfgang was not just an accomplished scientist who made contributions to the Manhattan Project, but was also a delightfully witty man, as proven by a new paperback edition of his charming 2007 memoir, “Panofsky on Physics, Politics, and Peace: Pief Remembers,” out in November, 2010 from Springer Verlag.

Pief, as he was known by classmates, gracefully matched a family precedent for overachieving. Still in print are Erwin Panofsky’s magisterial works, such as “Life and Art of Albrecht Durer” from Princeton University Press; Studies in Iconology from Westview Press; and a brilliant ongoing series of Panofsky’s correspondence from Harrasowitz Verlag.

Read more


Slideshow: Departures, Experiments and 'Degenerate' Art

By Rebecca Schischa

Gert Wollheim, ‘Head of an Old Man’

Among the Nazis’ persecuted minorities were Jewish and non-Jewish artists, musicians and writers branded “degenerate” by the regime.

“Radical Departures: The Modernist Experiment,” an exhibition currently showing at the Leo Baeck Institute/Center for Jewish History in New York, gathers together work by these “degenerate” artists, including Georg Stahl, Samson Schames, David Ludwig Bloch and others.

Although compact, the exhibit presents a whistlestop tour through the major European art movements from the turn of the 20th century, taking in German Expressionism and Weimar Modernism, through to the Second World War period, and the Surrealism and Abstract art of the postwar era.

Read more


The Scent of Passover

By Molly Birnbaum

On Monday, Molly Birnbaum wrote about her first writing teacher. Her blog 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:


On the first night of Passover, my boyfriend and I attended a seder on the grounds of a mental institution.

That sounds strange, I know. But that’s where my aunt and uncle live: in a new condo development on the campus of an old hospital, one of the many developments constructed over the last few years in this surprisingly popular real estate hot spot. And as we drove our car up the road leading to their home, I thought of the complicated mental landscape surrounding this land, of the myriad diagnoses and dramas that had run their course on the surrounding acres. And you know what? It felt fitting.

Not that my family is crazy.

Read more


Would you like to receive updates about new stories?






















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.