On Monday, Michael David Lukas shared a list of his top 10 favorite Jews of all time. His 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:
In my last post I mentioned the loneliness and alienation I felt during the first few months of the year I spent in Tunis. While my list of top ten favorite Jews of all time cheered me up, it wasn’t until I met Nomi Stone that I truly got out of my funk. Nomi is a poet and a scholar who was in Tunisia on a Fulbright. Her project was to research and write a book of poems about the Jews of Djerba (a desert island off the southern coast of Tunisia), which is exactly what she did. The fruits of her year in Tunisia, “Stranger’s Notebook,” was published by TriQuarterly Press in 2008 and it is just amazing.
For many Jews and non-Jews, American Jewish culture is defined by stereotypes such as the pushy mother, the shleppy father, chopped liver swans, too much food (“just in case…”) accountants, doctors, and holidays in the Catskills or Florida. But a new generation of Jews are so hip, Americanized and assimilated that they are not even familiar with those stereotypes. They may think, for example, that Bar Kochba is the name of a nightclub — at least according to Ellis Weiner and Barbara Davilman in “The Big Jewish Book for Jews.” The authors of “Yiddish With Dick and Jane,” Weiner and Davilman will make you chuckle, cause you to give away that Holocaust memoir, and maybe even teach you something about American-Jewish cultural history in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Crossposted from Haaretz
The life cycle of the building at 58 Allenby Street in Tel Aviv, with its glory days and its bleaker days, is a microcosm of trends and fashions that have affected the city from the 1930s to today.
As a movie theater built in 1937, it integrated well into the inhabitants’ leisure lives and became an architectural icon on what was once Tel Aviv’s main drag for shopping and entertainment.
In the 1980s, it was abandoned as part of the movie theaters’ migration to large shopping centers and for a short time it screened pornographic films. In the 1990s the Allenby Cinema became a pioneering club that entirely turned around the nightlife scene and attracted the best DJs from all over the world.
A version of this post appeared in Yiddish here
The name Mark Epshtein (1899-1949) no longer occupies a prominent place in Yiddish cultural history, but a current exhibit in Kiev brought the artist back to the city where he created his most important work. “The Return of the Master,” which runs until February 20 at the National Art Museum of Ukraine, is the first full-scale exhibition to showcase the legacy of this strange but forgotten master of the Yiddish avant-garde.
Born Moyshe Epshtein in Bobruisk, White Russia, Epshtein moved at a young age to Kiev with his family, where he entered art school. According to one story, when Epshtein was barely 10 years old, his mother sent him to bring water from the well. When he didn’t return his mother went looking for him, and found him building a sculpture of Leo Tolstoy out of snow. A neighboring photographer took a picture of the boy with his sculpture, and the picture was later was given to the Tolstoy Museum.
The story illustrates not only Epshtein’s talent and love of art, but also the tragic fate of his work. Like his childhood snowman, almost all of Epshtein’s sculptures have been lost or destroyed, with only a photographic record of them remaining. Moreover, because of his overt Jewishness Epshtein was never included in official versions of Soviet art history. Neither has he been much appreciated by Jewish art historians, presumably because his artistic vision didn’t accord with their own ideas about Jewish art.
“The Diary of a Young Girl” by Anne Frank has inspired numerous dramatic works since its publication in English 1952. There was a Broadway play in 1955 by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett which won the Pulitzer Prize; an adaptation of the play for film in 1959; a 1980 television movie also written by Goodrich and Hackett; and an ABC miniseries in 2001, not to mention reams of nonfiction that examine the girl and the book.
But this is nothing compared to the drama backstage: The feud between Meyer Levin (1905–1981), the journalist who first reviewed Frank’s book for the New York Times, and Frank’s father, Otto.
Levin had obtained permission to adapt the book for the stage, but was later replaced by Goodrich and Hackett. Levin, a respected writer and Zionist, won an Edgar award for his 1957 book “Compulsion,” a “non-fiction novel” (a style later used by Truman Capote in “In Cold Blood”) about the Leopold and Loeb case. Other works include the novel “The Settlers” (1972) and “The Obsession,” his autobiographical volume on his battle for the diary.
Rinne Groff’s play “Compulsion,” opening at The Public Theater February 17 following productions by Yale Repertory Theatre and Berkeley Repertory Theatre (read the Forward’s review of the Yale production here) follows Sid Silver, a Levin-like character played by Mandy Patinkin, through his quest to adapt Frank’s diary. The Arty Semite caught up with Groff the morning after the first New York preview.
Gwen Orel: Why did you write this play?
Crossposted from Haaretz
A cloud of having missed the mark hovers over “Forehead Mesh,” Aaron Adani’s exhibition at the Kibbutz Gallery in Tel Aviv. There are quite a number of beautiful of works in it and interesting treatment of wire mesh (chicken wire, a material often used in art courses ) but it seems as though the curator, or the artist, fell indiscriminately and deleteriously in love with the works.
It is hard to understand how some of the works in this exhibition ended up displayed in the gallery. I am referring mainly to “Veil,” which oversteps the boundary of kitsch and leaves it far behind, as well as to “Forehead Mesh.”
Crossposted From Under the Fig Tree
So, too, has “Tweet Your Prayers,” in which electronic kvitlakh, or personal petitions, can be sent to the kotel, the Western Wall in Jerusalem, via twitter, or www.e-daf.com, in which the age-old custom of studying a page of Talmud a day can now be handily accomplished online.
Whatever will they think up next?!
One might be forgiven, upon first listening to the NAXOS recording of Avner Dorman’s concertos performed by Andrew Cyr’s Metropolis Ensemble, for not feeling immediately convinced that these are, in fact, concertos in any traditional sense. There are no buoyant Mozartian introductions here, no grand orchestral pauses to launch soloists into rapturously virtuosic cadenzas before a triumphant final cadence. Those squeamish about contemporary orchestral music might initially recoil from what is strange and new in Dorman’s work: unsettling harmonies, unusual pairings of instruments, extended instrumental techniques. Ultimately, though, there is plenty here that is familiar. Dorman, a 35-year-old Israeli composer and protégé of John Corigliano and Zubin Mehta, has an eclectic approach — borrowing elements from jazz, pop, and Middle Eastern musical idioms — that makes his music surprisingly accessible.
Crossposted from Haaretz
Quietly, almost imperceptibly, a new Israeli symphony orchestra is emerging. Given the minuscule government budget allocated to local musical ensembles, there will surely be some people who will be unhappy about this: Many advocate the “divide and conquer” ideology that seeks to close down orchestras or at least combine a few together, so that the meager funding available does not have to be spread among too many. Who needs another orchestra here, they say, when the existing ones are starving to death? On the other hand, some people are skeptical about the assumption that reduction of the number of entities will actually increase the share allocated to the remaining bodies — because who can guarantee that the budget will remain at its original level should the number of institutions it supports drops?
In Ramat Gan, it turns out, there has been no such speculation. Indeed, the mayor, Zvi Bar, together with the director of the city’s education department, Moshe Bodega, have set about to establish a symphony orchestra with full funding from the municipality. This is how the Ramat Gan Symphony Orchestra came into being, first as a youth ensemble, then an amateur orchestra, and now a budding professional orchestra.
Michael David Lukas’s first book, “The Oracle of Stamboul,” is now available. His 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:
I’ve been thinking a lot these past few months about the year I spent in Tunisia. It was 2003, I had just graduated college and was living on the outskirts of Tunis. Officially, I was there as a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar and was supposed to be studying Arabic while bridging the gap of understanding between the United States and the Arab World. It was, by all accounts, a good year. I did my best to bridge the gap between the United States and the Arab World, I read a trunk full of classic literature, and towards the end of the year I started writing what would later become my first novel, “The Oracle of Stamboul.” Those first few months, however, were full of loneliness and alienation. I missed my family and my friends, I missed my girlfriend, I missed being in college, and I missed those small American comforts (peanut butter, dryers, wood floors) which seemed not to exist in Tunisia. I had a few Tunisian friends at the Internet cafe around the corner, and my Eastern European roommates — Ozzie and Petr — were good guys, though I had difficulty connecting with them at first. One reason for this was that I got up early for Arabic class and they stayed up late partying, drinking cheap Tunisian beer, and playing hair metal at the highest volume Petr’s tinny laptop speakers could bear.
Novelist Jonathan Lethem, author of “Motherless Brooklyn,” leaves Brooklyn for Southern California.
Kevin Spacey unveiled his new Middle East Theater Academy in Dubai.
Forward contributing editor Ilan Stavans talks about putting together the Norton Anthology of Latino Literature.
Ketubahs aren’t just for Jews anymore, says Samuel Freedman in the New York Times.
Jay Michaelson argues that being gay and Orthodox is not an oxymoron.
Philologos argues that being a rhinoceros and a faynshmeker is an oxymoron.
There is a Vidal Sassoon most people know: the famous hairdresser who built an empire of beauty salons, hair care products and beauty schools. If you’re of a certain age, you may remember his television commercials, featuring a young, good-looking guy gently running his fingers through a model’s gorgeous hair, saying: “If you don’t look good, we don’t look good.”
But there is another Vidal Sassoon as well, one that doesn’t conform to the common image of stylists: a child who was placed in an English orphanage when only five years old; a man who became part of the 43 Group, Jews who went around breaking up Fascist rallies in post World War II England; and a warrior who went to Israel in 1948 and joined the elite Palmach unit.
Both these Sassoons were on the phone last week, reminiscing about a life well lived and largely hidden from his adoring public. The 83-year-old has done a lot of reflecting lately, in part because he wrote a memoir just published in England, and has participated in a flattering documentary about his life, “Vidal Sassoon: The Movie,” which opens in New York February 11 and expands nationally thereafter.
Over a half-century after his death in 1955 at age 40, the American designer Alvin Lustig of Polish-Austrian Jewish origin is more influential than ever. “Born Modern: The Life and Design of Alvin Lustig,” by Steve Heller and Elaine Lustig Cohen, out from Chronicle Books in October 2010, pays elegant homage to the visual thinker. Cohen, Lustig’s widow, is a noted designer herself, explaining how before Lustig’s life was cut short by complications from diabetes, he managed to conquer the book and interior design professions by being “never short of chutzpah.”
Belonging to a generation of designers which also includes Saul Bass, Louis Danziger, and Paul Rand (born Peretz Rosenbaum), Lustig managed to stand out by virtue of his talent and initiative. After studies in Los Angeles, Lustig landed an early job designing a calling card for the California bookseller Jacob Zeitlin. Zeitlin introduced Lustig to publisher James Laughlin, and a series of book covers for New Directions Publishing resulted, of such authors as Kafka, Gertrude Stein, Italo Svevo, and Nathanael West.
Almost 150 years after shots rang out at Fort Sumter, the United States has yet to fully recover from the brutalities of the Civil War. The conflict ripped families apart along regional lines, and pummeled the economy and infrastructure of many Southern cities into such disrepair that many are still working on their reconstruction. When the increasingly bitter fight over slavery and states’ rights developed into full-on war, thousands of men on both sides rushed to volunteer for the armed services, including hundreds of Jewish Americans. And yet, according to the documentary “Jewish Soldiers in Blue & Gray,” screening February 13 and 22 at the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, Jewish militiamen’s accomplishments have been woefully overlooked.
He gave chic new definition, boosted the New York art scene, and went to such brazen lengths as to deliver artwork unrequested to the Museum of Modern Art and simply send a bill. He was known to have commandeered a gondola with his pals to transport art in time to compete in the Venice Biennale. He even vowed he would break down a gallery door rather than cut an artwork in half. Few dealers were ever so devoted to their artists as Leo Castelli.
Castelli is perhaps best known for helping make artists such as Roy Lichtenstein and Jasper Johns the legendary names they are today. But few realize the extent to which one New York Jewish institution helped spur his own career.
“The Jewish Museum played an unexpected role in Castelli’s success,” said Annie Cohen-Solal, author of “Leo and His Circle: The Life of Leo Castelli” at a recent panel in New York (Solal will also be speaking on Castelli at upcoming lectures in Maryland, Los Angeles, Minneapolis and Chicago). There, in 1957, Castelli first glimpsed Jasper Johns’s green wax painting of a target and had an epiphany. “I can’t think of anything else,” Castelli told his first wife Ileana at the time.
The finalists for the 2011 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature have been announced.
Philadelphia’s Rosenbach Museum and Library has become home to Maurice Sendak’s only mural.
Jonah Lehrer retrieves Thorstein Veblen’s forgotten essay on why Jews become intellectuals.
An Iranian grandmaster claims to have beaten an Israeli chess record after playing 614 people simultaneously in Tehran.
Each Thursday, The Arty Semite features excerpts and reviews of the best contemporary Jewish poetry. This week, Zackary Sholem Berger reviews “70 Faces” by Rachel Barenblat.
There are a few very good poems in Rachel Barenblat’s “70 Faces,” a collection of “Torah poems” published last year following the sequence of the weekly reading. For instance, the Akedah Cycle, 10 poems on the binding of Isaac, brings that ancient mountaintop sacrifice into sharp focus. Barenblat, who is also a rabbi and blogger, can make the patriarchs and matriarchs immediate and narrative possibilities concrete: “Maybe there’s always a ram,” she writes, “waiting just outside the frame.”
Similarly, “Larger than Life/Shlakh-Lekha” deftly compares the contemporary Jewish state, or something very like it, to the land the spies gave a bad report about: “If you don’t feel at-home there./ the minute the wheels kiss the ground / for God’s sake don’t tell a soul!”
Tracing Old Testament influence on modern literature is a never-ending study, but “The Sign and the Seal: Literary Variations on the Song of Songs” (Le Signe et le sceau: Variations littéraires sur le Cantique des Cantiques) by Dominique Millet-Gérard, out last August from La Librairie Droz in Geneva, offers precious new insights on the subject.
Nobel-Prizewinning poet Paul Claudel was long fascinated and mystified by the Song of Songs. In 1938, Claudel wrote to a friend, puzzling over certain lines such as “Thy cheeks are beautiful as the turtledove’s.” “A turtledove’s cheeks?” asked Claudel, clearly baffled: “All this needs to be seriously meditated and explicated.” A 1954 book, “Paul Claudel Examines the Song of Songs” was the result.
The Firebird Dance Theatre dancers soared on stage last month at a benefit performance at the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto, Calif., in celebration of the company and school’s 20th anniversary. With a 21-part program featuring Firebird’s signature fusion of modern, folk, lyrical, ballet and ballroom styles, dancers ranging in age from 3 to 26 joyfully honored the memory of founder and original artistic director, Roza Lysaya, who died in a car accident 12 years ago.
“She is unfortunately gone, but the tradition, the legacy is alive,” said Lotta Lysaya Burton, Firebird’s director, of the work her mother did in translating her success as the director of leading dance schools in the Former Soviet Union into a new school which has flourished over the past two decades in Silicon Valley. It was the Palo Alto JCC that provided Roza Lysaya a professional home upon her immigration to the United States, and Firebird has maintained close ties to it even years after having moved into its own studio space in nearby Mountain View.