The Arty Semite

Friday Film: Woody Allen’s Parisian Sleight of Hand

By Dorri Olds

Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

In his new movie, “Midnight in Paris,” Woody Allen did what he does best. He created a character out of a city and added his signature sleight-of-hand magic. Think “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” when a handsome leading man steps through a screen to romance a depression-era Mia Farrow, or “Zelig,” when the title character appears on the nightly news with the Pope and Calvin Coolidge.

“Midnight in Paris,” which premiered at the Cannes International Film Festival earlier this month and opens in limited release May 20, reverberates with that same abracadabra wish fulfillment. “I always feel that only a magical solution can save us,” Allen said in an interview with L.A. Weekly. “The human predicament is so tragic and so awful that, short of an act of magic, we’re doomed.”

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Roth the Invincible

By Shoshana Olidort

Getty Images

A prolific novelist, Philip Roth, at 78, has authored 31 novels and received the most distinguished literary awards, including, most recently, the Man Booker International Prize, which was awarded to him yesterday despite heavy opposition from one of the judges, Carmen Calil. Calil, a feminist author and publisher, criticized Roth’s repetitiveness and resigned from the judging panel in protest over the award. In the midst of the controversy, and his generally reclusive nature notwithstanding, Roth made a rare public appearance May 18 at YIVO, where some 300 people gathered for an evening dedicated to his most recent novel, “Nemesis.”

Described by YIVO Executive Director Jonathan Brent as a novel of “remembrance and loss,” “Nemesis” tells of a polio epidemic that strikes a Jewish neighborhood in Newark in the summer of 1944. A panel of four scholars — Bernard Avishai (Hebrew University), Igor Webb (Adelphi University), Steven Zipperstein (Stanford University, and Brent — spoke about the novel and its relation to Roth’s greater body of work, many touching on the question of Jewishness in Roth’s novels in general, and in “Nemesis” in particular.

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Hillula: Poetry for Lag B'Omer

By Jake Marmer

Wiki Commons

Marking the 33rd day since the beginning of Passover (this year on May 22), Lag B’Omer is a less of a holiday than a mystical occasion to party. In Meron, right outside of the northern Israeli city of Safed, an annual gigantic celebration called Hillula takes place. Safed is famous for the medieval kabbalists who settled there, as well as the grave of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, a first-century rabbi regarded as the originator of the mystical tradition in Judaism. People dance, blast music, and feast. Matthue Roth, whose performance poetry was recently featured on The Arty Semite, is here again with a poetic narration of the Hillula.

This poem first appeared in Mima’amakim as well as on My Jewish Learning, where Roth is an editor. In addition to being a prolific performance poet who has appeared on HBO Def Jam, MTV, and numerous other stages in the U.S. and abroad, Roth is also an author of four novels. Read the Forward’s interview with Roth, along six other poets, here.

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A Grave Mistake at Tel Aviv University?

By Noam Dvir

Crossposted from Haaretz

Haaretz

On Sunday the cornerstone was laid at Tel Aviv University for a new wing of the school of architecture named for David Azrieli, an Israeli-Canadian businessman and a local shopping mall magnate who has been supporting the institution generously ever since its inception. Present at the ceremony were his daughter Danna Azrieli, vice president of the Azrieli group, senior university administrators, lecturers, teachers and students who all crowded onto a small strip of parking lot in order to view for the first time what is supposed to become the school’s growth engine in the coming years. Prof. Hannah Naveh, dean of the Faculty of Arts, spoke about Azrieli’s contribution to the school and heaped praise on the design of the new wing — which is signed by David Azrieli himself. “After David Azrieli considered awarding the project to a local architect he decided to give it his personal attention and his inner artist developed and grew,” she related with her characteristic enthusiasm.

However, behind Prof. Naveh’s complimentary words there is a fierce storm raging over the construction of the new wing. Teachers at the school, nearly all of them outstanding figures in the professional and academic world, are strongly opposed to the planning and believe that building the new wing is a grave mistake.

Read more at Haaretz.com


Out and About: Talmudists at Cannes; Busking Tryouts Hit New York

By Ezra Glinter

NYBC
  • “Beaufort” director Joseph Cedar has made a splash at Cannes with “Footnote,” a film about a competitive father-son pair of Talmudists.

  • The LABA fellows at the 14th street Y will culminate their year-long journey into eros with the LABA festival, starting tonight.

  • The National Yiddish Book Center is raising money to restore a collection of recorded Yiddish books.

  • New York City’s buskers just went through their annual auditions for permits to play in the subway. Let’s just hope that Xylopholks made the cut.

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Q&A: A 'Dybbuk' of Her Own

By Ezra Glinter

Avia Moore

S. An-sky’s “The Dybbuk” is arguably the most famous play and film in the cannons of Yiddish theater and cinema. Written in 1914 and first produced by the Vilna Troupe in 1920, “The Dybbuk” is an otherworldly tale, based on Jewish folklore collected by An-sky during a three-year ethnographic expedition through Russia and Ukraine. In the play, Leah, the daughter of a rich merchant, is possessed by the dybbuk of her suitor Hanan, who died after Leah’s father opposed the match. Though an attempt is made to exorcise the Dybbuk and allow Leah to marry her new suitor, she ultimately chooses to unite with her first lover in death.

In addition to its original stage performance in Yiddish, “The Dybbuk” was translated into Hebrew by Haim Nahman Bialik, into English by Henry G. Alsberg, and was produced as a Yiddish film in 1938 by Polish-Jewish director Michael Waszynsky. Now, a production of “The Dybbuk” is being staged from May 22 to 25 in Montreal by Uncatalogued Productions, featuring an all-female cast. The Arty Semite spoke to director Avia Moore about the significance of this casting decision, as well as the ways in which this production experiments with one of the most experimental Yiddish plays.

Ezra Glinter: Why “The Dybbuk”? Isn’t there a less famous play to bring to the public’s attention?

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Nostalgia and Moderns on CD for Heritage Month

By Benjamin Ivry

courtesy of www.blumina.com

For background sounds to Jewish American Heritage Month, why not investigate some nostalgic treasures of Hebrew education from a half-century ago, available from Smithsonian Folkways, such as 1958’s “Israeli Children’s Songs” sung by New York native Miriam Ben-Ezra; or a charming 1955 lecture, “The Hebrew Language: Commentary and Readings” by Theodor Herzl Gaster, a UK-born scholar of religion and myth whose books Holy and the Profane: Evolution of Jewish Folkways and Festivals of the Jewish Year are still remembered fondly?

A different kind of nostalgia is provided by “Mosaic,” a CD from Solo Musica/Naxos by violinist Orsolya Korcsolan and pianist Judit Kertész, featuring beloved salon works including Josef Bonime’s Danse Hébraïque and Issay Dobrowen’s Mélodie Hébraïque. Similarly, on “The Hollywood Cello: Concert Works from Film composers of the Golden Era,” from Soundset Recordings, cellist Gregory Hamilton resonantly interprets works by Ernst Toch and Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, among other Jewish composers who found refuge in 1930s California.

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Women's Liberation and Helène Aylon's 'Word of God'

By Savannah Schroll Guz

Helène Aylon, ‘Self Portrait: The Unmentionable,’ 2010

Performance and installation artist Helène Aylon scrutinizes the entrenched, sometimes invisible, belief systems that shape society. Since the 1970s, she has used her work as a tool for poetic dissent and constructive revisionism. Aylon’s early work contributed to the women’s movement, opposing the unrealistic imagery pedaled by magazines like Playboy. In the 1980s, her focus shifted to ecology and nuclear non-proliferation. By 1990, she turned her penetrating gaze to the religious texts that helped to define her female identity.

The Pentateuch, or Chumash, is the focus of Aylon’s exhibition “The Liberation of G-d and The Unmentionable,” now on view at Pittsburgh’s Andy Warhol Museum. The show is part of the Warhol’s ongoing series, “The Word of God,” which features art that addresses religion in ways intended to promote understanding between faiths. Aylon’s show follows the series’s controversial first installment, Sandow Birk’s “American Qur’an.” While controversy is also central to Aylon’s exhibition, her approach is more analytical than accusatory. Aylon acknowledges this, dedicating the show, in part, to her fifth grade Hebrew teacher and a female principal, who “encouraged Boro Park girls to question.”

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The Truth About Leah

By Nirit Anderman

Crossposted from Haaretz

When Leah Goldberg was 8 years old, her father suffered a mental illness and her mother went to work. Leah started studying at the trade school in Kovno (now Kaunas), Lithuania, and turned out to be a gifted student. Within just six months she was learning Hebrew.

Courtesy of the Gnazim archive

“Today I am starting to write a journal. I remember that two years ago I also wanted to write but there was never any time,” Goldberg penned at the time. “When I got home I stared at the sky and saw little clouds, like angels of light that sailed across the heavens. There is nothing to write about today. Enough!”

Using a variety of quotes from journals, letters and poems she left behind, plus a number of unpublished photographs and interviews with literary figures and people who knew her, the documentary film “The 5 Houses of Leah Goldberg” will premiere today at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque (as part of DocAviv). The film tells the story of the revered Hebrew language poet and writer, whose 100th anniversary falls in two weeks, on May 29.

Read more at Haaretz.com


Arthur Hartmann Fiddled With Debussy

By Benjamin Ivry

Star violinists are not usually known for modesty, but even in this company, Arthur Hartmann, born in Philadelphia to Hungarian-Jewish immigrants, stands out for braggadocio. Hartmann, who died in 1956, had talent, as we read in “Claude Debussy As I Knew Him and Other Writings of Arthur Hartmann,” a paperback out in September, 2010 from The University of Rochester Press.

While touring internationally, Hartmann wrote transcriptions for his instrument. A CD of Hartmann’s miniaturist compositions was released in 2009 from Toccata Classics, played by violinist Solomia Soroka and pianist Arthur Greene.

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Magic as a Jewish Family Business

By Gordon Haber

The Great Ramses Egyptian Temple of the Mysteries, 1909–1910. David Allen and Sons, Ltd., London, 1909–1910. Collection of Mike Caveney’s Egyptian Hall Museum.

Perhaps it’s time to stop being surprised by the disproportionate number of successful Jews in any random profession. That’s one of the lessons to take from “Masters of Illusion: Jewish Magicians of the Golden Age,” an entertaining exhibit at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles on view until September 4.

The exhibit runs concurrently with the Skirball Center’s showing of “Houdini: Art and Magic,” which was at The Jewish Museum in New York earlier this year. “Masters of Illusion” is intended as a complement to “Houdini,” a way of providing some context to the career of the most famous magician ever, Jewish or otherwise.

“The Golden Age” of the title refers to the time between 1875, when magic as live performance bloomed in America and Europe, and the advent of television in 1948. But the exhibit actually begins earlier, with the inclusion of an edition of Reginald Scot’s “The Discoverie of Witchcraft,” first published in the 16th century. Scot’s book argued that his witch-hunting contemporaries were mistaking prestidigitation for witchcraft. To that end, he wrote about a number of tricks that magicians use to this day.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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