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.
Crossposted from Haaretz
Singer Avigail Roz has spent many hours with Yoni Bloch, who produced her albums “Milchama Yomyomit” (“Daily War”), which was released three years ago, and “Hetzi Nehama” (“Half a Consolation”), forthcoming at the end of the month.
But when it comes to technology, they are on opposite sides of the barricades. While Bloch, the head of the startup Interload, defines himself as a computer geek, Roz says she finds it difficult to keep up with technological developments connected to the music world.
“I would like to know how to produce [music] at home, that’s important to me, but I’m not there yet, which puts me behind somewhat,” she says.
Once Hosni Mubarak is liberated from his heavy chains of office, he’ll have time to kick back and appreciate some of the new classical CDs on offer. And, as many Egyptians have taken time to point out, he’s a big fan of Yiddishkeit.
If he decides to take up American hospitality he might be especially interested in the gifted young ensemble, the Claremont Trio which has a new CD, “American Trios.” It includes works by American Jewish composers Leon Kirchner and Paul Schoenfield, the latter is an ex-kibbutznik who maintains a part-time residence in Migdal HaEmek with probably a soft spot for the Arab leader who presided over 30 years of peace with Israel. Schoenfield’s 1986 “Café Music,” especially as played by the Claremonts, is a rhythmic delight.
When I entered Saint Joseph’s Catholic Church in Greenwich Village on a recent Sunday afternoon to see the play “In Between,” which explores the cultural identity of a Palestinian-Muslim/Jewish-Israeli man, I suddenly felt hyper-aware of my own Jewish identity. It seemed telling to me, and surprising, that the only current New York performance of this show was being held at a church (the play is also being staged February 9 at Nichols College in Dudley, Mass). While I’m sure there were Jews in the audience (I overheard an Israeli woman speaking with the performer after the show in Hebrew), the crowd was indeed mixed. Many attendees were members of Pax Christi, the organization that hosted the event and which is a part of the national Catholic peace movement.
“In Between” is an autobiographical one-man play created by Ibrahim Miari, who was born in Akko, Israel, to a Palestinian-Muslim father and a Jewish-Israeli mother (Miari’s mother converted to Islam in order to marry his father, though both were not religious at the time). The circumstances of his parents’ meeting are shrouded in mystery, as they were elusive about it with their two children, so Miari conceives a fictional account in which his dad spots his mom walking on the street as he drives by in a VW Beetle, blasting the Beatles song, “All You Need is Love.” Throughout the play, Miari seems to imply that while the “love-conquers-all” veneer of cross-cultural romance may appear simplistic, a sweet approach to such stories, combined with a touch of silliness, is sometimes necessary in the face of serious political conflict.
Crossposted from Haaretz
The story of “Labrador Labratories” (sic) should be taught in workshops for developing creativity. A year and a half ago, after the unknown Makolet band broke up, soloist Tom Gottlieb found himself suffering from a creative block. “In Makolet there was a very critical atmosphere,” he says. “We would sit a lot in the rehearsal room, think about every song for a very long time, play it for others, correct, change and correct again, until I reached a point where I was simply sick and tired of it. Music is supposed to reflect a moment, an atmosphere, a mood, a specific experience, and all that talk about what’s working and what isn’t working simply wipes that out, at least for me.”
Gottlieb, 27, sat at home and tried to write alone, but his increasingly sophisticated self-criticism made that impossible.
“Simply nothing came out,” he recalls. “And then I read somewhere about an exercise for someone who has a block and is unable to write songs. The exercise was to record one album a week, no matter what emerges. The main thing is to get rid of the sense of criticism and do something.”
A version of this post appeared in Yiddish here
The modern period in Yiddish prose began with Yisroel Aksenfeld’s novel “Dos Shterntikhl” (“The Headband”), written some time in the 1820s, which opens with a detailed description of the shtetl “Loyhoyopolie.” The name, which can be translated as “Nosuchville,” is a neologism, made up of the Hebrew words meaning “never was” and the Slavic geographical suffix, “polie.”
Aksenfeld’s artistic intention was to create a literary portrait of a shtetl that was both general and concrete. Loyhoyopolie, which incorporates features of real places, represents a typical shtetl in the Podolia region of Ukraine in the first half of the 19th century. In the decades that followed the publication of “Dos Shterntikhl,” Aksenfeld’s device was taken up by the classic Yiddish writers Mendele Moykher-Sforim and Sholom Aleichem, in the form of Glupsk and Kasrilevke, also symbolic Jewish towns.
This is one source of Forverts editor Boris Sandler’s new novella, “Keynemsdorf.” The other comes from Yiddish folklore, namely, the tales of the Wise Men of Chelm. Putting the two together, Sandler tells the story of Keynemsdorf, a shtetl located “in a forgotten corner of Arizona.” It’s inhabitants, who call themselves the “Free Citizens of Keynemsdorf,” speak a language similar to Yiddish, made up of archaic Daytshmerish and vestiges of Galician or Bessarabian dialect. The book is provided with a short glossary, ironically intended, since almost everything is understandable anyway.
Male midlife crisis is apparently a cross-cultural phenomenon. The television comedy “Traffic Light,” an Israeli import, is enjoying critical acclaim on the eve of its February 8 debut on the Fox network. Sitcom humor just may be able to cross the Israel-U.S. divide.
The show centers around three 30-something buddies, each of whom is at a very different stage of life when it comes to relationships with women. One has just moved in with his girlfriend, another is married with a toddler, and the third is a swinging bachelor who can’t commit to one girl but who has a very meaningful relationship with his dog. The comedy has enjoyed two successful seasons in Israel and its creator and star Adir Miller recently won an International Emmy award for best comedy.
The Skirball Center, a sober cultural institution on Los Angeles’s ritzy Westside, was unusually alive on January 27. Music journalists, record executives and South American diplomats with an array of Spanish accents — from Argentina to Spain to East Los Angeles — bounced about the room. Along with the requisite contingent of L.A. yentas and Hollywood types, the event brought out an eclectic crowd.
They came for Jorge Drexler. When examining the life and work of the Oscar-winning musician, it becomes clear why such a diverse audience would show up.
Born in Uruguay to a German-Jewish family, 46-year-old Drexler grew up practicing classical guitar. But like others in his family, he studied medicine, eventually becoming an otolaryngologist. Yet music still beckoned, and at the urging of Joaquin Sabina, a Madrid-based singer-songwriter, Drexler left medicine — and Montevideo — for Spain.
Crossposted from Haaretz
A few weeks from now, a new fringe theater center is slated to become home to a number of experimental groups now working in temporary spaces around the Jerusalem. The Jerusalem Theater Group, Psik and Incubator (the local branch of the Nisan Nativ Studio), will all use the new space.
The center will operate in the historic Mazya House, a beautiful urban villa located between Mordechai Eliash and Mesilat Yesharim streets near Nachlaot and the city center, which has recently undergone comprehensive renovation and preservation work.
The building has a considerable Jewish and Palestinian heritage and is characterized by fine period architecture, but over the years was left abandoned and neglected.
Does the Coen Brothers’ “True Grit” draw on ancient Indo-European myth?
Israeli musician Avi Avital has become the first mandolinist to be nominated for a Grammy award in the classical music category.
Four less admirable Israelis were caught trying to steal Judaica from a synagogue in Milan.