The Arty Semite

Matzos for Lord Byron

By Jack Wasserman

Wiki Commons
Portrait of Lord Byron by Thomas Philipps, 1824.

On January 2, 1815, the 27-year-old Lord Byron married the odious Annabella Milbanke, daughter and heiress of Lord and Lady Wentworth. Their daughter, Ada, was born on December 10. On January 15, 1816, Lady Byron took Ada and returned to her parents. The “first popular media scandal” erupted, and rumors spread that Byron beat and sodomized his wife during her pregnancy, was homosexual and a drunk, and committed incest with his half-sister. On April 21 Byron agreed to a separation, and on April 23 he left London to take a ship to the Continent. He sailed on April 25, and never returned to England and never saw his daughter again.

Isaac Nathan was 23-years-old in 1815, the son of a Jewish cantor in Cambridge. (They never met while Byron was at the university.) Nathan acted on his idea to collect and publish the “ancient” melodies of the synagogues in order to capitalize on the nationalist spirit in Europe after the defeat of Napoleon. He also had the idea to ask the most popular poet in England to write words to accompany the melodies. After an amazing series of contacts, Byron consented. (The first poem was “She walks in beauty.”) Equally amazing, Byron and Nathan became friends, and Nathan was with Byron during his last days in London. Nathan sent the following letter after he left Byron:

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Brave New Concrete World

By Esther Zandberg

Crossposted from Haaretz

I experienced my own great architectural revolution in 1955, when my family moved from a rural area in the heart of the Sharon to an apartment block in a Histadrut labor federation cooperative housing project, on the outskirts of Givatayim. The moment we unpacked our bags on the gravel — which later became a blossoming garden — an entirely different world opened up to me.

This revolution encompassed all aspects of my life. My relationship with other people and with the environment changed beyond recognition, as did my perspective on the world, which looked entirely different from the third floor. Everything was new, primeval, traumatic and yet promising.

Read more at Haaretz.com


National Poetry Month: Passover and Easter

By Jake Marmer

Stanley Moss’s much anticipated collection “God Breaketh Not All Men’s Hearts Alike: New and & Later Collected Poems” will be out in just a few months, and we’ll be sure to discuss its publication in the Forward. In the meantime, we’re bringing to you a time-appropriate sampling from the forthcoming collection. This poem exhibits Moss’s tendency to gravitate towards an expansive, cosmopolitan spirituality, which is not limited to the three religions mentioned in the poem. Rather, it can also be found in nature and in the whole pantheon of sensuous literary and historical free associations, which in this work, as in many others, Moss treats with a connoisseur’s palate and the fervor of a true initiate.

Read more about Moss’s views on writing in the special Poetry Month pre-Passover interview, along with those of six other poets, here.

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Objects Come Alive in Tragicomic Holocaust Drama

By Jenny Hendrix

Ronny Wasserstrom, left, as Mr. M, accomanied by his pigeon, center, played by Theresa Linnihan, and his shadow, right, played with finger puppets by Michelle Beshaw. Photo by Lee Wexler.

In its evocation of “Terezin humor” — the grim recognition that if we didn’t laugh, we’d hang ourselves — “Mr. M,” by the Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre, is both the same as, and unlike, every other Holocaust play you’ve ever seen. The play, which runs at the Theatre for the New City through May 1 and at the JCC in Manhattan from May 5 to 8, draws on familiar themes, but does so in an altogether original way. It is performed in the “zivacek” style of Czech theatre, in which the cast, some of whom work with puppets, nonetheless remain visible throughout. In practice, the technique gives the story a beautifully layered feel, in which each object holds the potential to be several things at once.

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Questions Aplenty From New Installation at San Francisco Museum

By Dan Friedman

courtesy of Megan Bayley

Is someone asking a question in the Yud Gallery at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco? Has the CJM just opened a new sound installation in its Yud Gallery called “Are we there yet?” Has it been designed — based on Jews’ inquisitive impulse — by regular collaborators Ken Goldberg (artist and professor of robotics at U.C. Berkeley) and Gil Gershoni (commercial designer)? Did they talk to the Forward’s Dan Friedman by telephone? Did the chief rabbi eat matzo at Seder?

Dan Friedman: Are the Jews really the only people who ask questions?

Ken Goldberg: Who else asks questions? What are you trying to say? What do you mean?!

What is a good question?

Gil Gershoni and K.G.: Paper or plastic? Where are you? Don’t you think that even these everyday questions are philosophical? If you ask these — or a lot of political questions — in a new setting, don’t they resonate in a new way?

How did the exhibition come about?

G.G. and K.G.: We were given an opportunity to use this space — with high walls and dramatic angles — for an exhibit to engage the wider community, and weren’t we right to think that the use of sound and questions tie it into Daniel Libeskind’s enigmatic design that avoids any graven images?

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Slideshow: The Ruins of Goodash

By Renee Ghert-Zand

‘Memories 5’ by Gideon Spiegel

In 1973, during the Yom Kippur War, Gideon Spiegel, the Tel Aviv-based Israeli artist also known as Goodash, entered an abandoned Egyptian house and leafed through family photo albums that had been left there. That experience of connecting to photos of a family amid the ruins of what was once their home led to his creation of “Memories,” a series of digital collages, or “photodrawings,” which Spiegel says “use imagery that connects to ideas surrounding ancestry, collective memories, and abandoned spaces.” A selection of these works is on view at the Koch Gallery of the Schultz Cultural Arts Hall at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto, Calif., until mid-June.

By blending his photographs of Christian, Muslim and Jewish buildings in Israel and the Palestinian Territories that have been abandoned since 1950 with antique photographic portraits, and then adding hand-drawn elements, Spiegel aims to evoke a bygone era, “reoccupying [the buildings] with images of former inhabitants.”

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The Goat and the Pear

By Nitsa Priluk

Crossposted from Haaretz

El Lissitzky, illustration for ‘Had Gadya,’ 1919.

The master wishes to eat a pear, but a series of strange setbacks prevents him from biting into the succulent fruit — until the happy ending. This is the frame story of an old German folk song. Over the course of it, we encounter the following: a dog, a stick, water, fire, a calf, a butcher — all familiar from the piyyut (liturgical poem) “Had Gadya” (“One Kid”) sung at the end of the Passover seder.

The song “Das Birnli will nit fallen” (“Little Pear Doesn’t Want to Fall”) appears in the collection of tales put together by the brothers Grimm (Jacob, 1785-1863 and Wilhelm, 1786-1859), the renowned German folk and fairy-tale collectors. Their first volume of tales (“Die Kinder und Hausmarchen der Brueder Grimm”), released in 1812 in the city of Kassel, includes the song about the pear.

Read more at Haaretz.com


National Poetry Month: 'Jewish Spring'

By Ezra Glinter

Today’s poem in honor of National Poetry Month is “Jewish Spring” by Yermiyahu Ahron Taub, which appears in his recent collection, “Uncle Feygele.” While the subject is a seemingly appropriate choice for Passover — also known as “Chag Ha’Aviv,” or the “Holiday of Spring” — the poem questions not only the contemporary state of nature appreciation, but the fate of the nature poem itself in a society increasingly distant from the natural world.

Yermiyahu Ahron Taub is an English and Yiddish poet. His previous collections include “What Stillness Illuminated/Vos shtilkayt hot baloykhtn” (Parlor Press, 2008) and “The Insatiable Psalm” (Wind River Press, 2005). In addition to the Forward, his work has been published in The Adirondack Review and Prairie Schooner, among other places.

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Monday Music: From Prague to Masada and Back Again

By Renee Ghert-Zand

Courtesy Lenka Lichtenberg

On her first visit to Israel in 1987, Czech-born Canadian singer Lenka Lichtenberg looked out from the top of Masada and never looked back. It was at that moment that she decided to leave behind her lounge singing career in pop, jazz, rock and folk and focus solely on perpetuating Yiddish culture through her music. Now, having built a noted international career in performing and recording Yiddish songs, Lichtenberg has recently released a new album called “Fray” (pronounced “Frei” and meaning “Free”), in which she circles back to Israel through her melding of Yiddish poetry with Middle Eastern and World sounds.

“I was always more attracted to sounds of the Middle East than of Eastern Europe, even though I was born and grew up in Prague,” the petite and animated singer with long curly blonde hair explained in an interview with The Arty Semite in her home in Toronto. However, her desire at the start to be “authentic, legitimate, to justify my connection to my personal roots,” (her father was from Moravia and her mother and grandmother were survivors of Theresienstadt) led her to ground herself firmly in the repertoire of Yiddish standards. Having grown up in Communist Czechoslovakia atheist and uneducated about her Jewish heritage, she “sometimes felt like an imposter. It was a strange dynamic singing to people who knew more about the culture than I did. But my voice really helped me to ease my way into the whole thing,” she reflected.

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Swimming in the Sea of Haggadot

By Jenna Weissman Joselit

Image courtesy of Sanford Kearns

Crossposted From Under the Fig Tree

This year, or so it seems to me, the American Jewish community is awash in new editions of the haggadah, the age-old ritual text that structures the Passover seder.

At one end of the spectrum, there’s the stunning Washington Haggadah, a facsimile edition of a 15th century text. Its brightly colored illustrations of daily life — women stir the pot, an entire family crowds atop a horse, birds chirp, a jester beats a drum — dazzle the eye and enlarge our sense of wonder at the ways in which earlier generations of Jews claimed the haggadah as their own.

At the other end of the spectrum, there’s a brand new version of the Maxwell House Haggadah, whose very ordinariness belies its extraordinary hold on the American Jewish imagination. Households across the country may lack a Kiddush cup and perhaps even a set of Shabbat candlesticks, but chances are they own a copy or two of the unadorned and down-to-earth Maxwell House Haggadah, which has been around in one form or another since the 1930s.

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Out and About: Comics for Passover; Jeff Goldblum and His Jazz Orchestra

By Ezra Glinter

Vanessa Davis

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This Week in Forward Arts and Culture

By Ezra Glinter

Courtesy Fox
  • Jay Michaelson pays a visit to John Zorn’s Masada Marathon at the New York City Opera, and re-interprets the four sons of the Haggadah as characters from “Glee.”

  • Eli Valley re-interprets the four sons in light of the Egyptian Revolution.

  • Philologos has difficulties and questions, both.

  • Meredith Ganzman looks back on the career of Rochelle Slovin, founding director of the Museum of the Moving Image.

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National Poetry Month: The Fifth Son

By Jake Marmer

Courtesy Karen Alkalay-Gut

Karen Alkalay-Gut began her illustrious poetry career here in the Forward at the age of 10. Recently we unearthed that first foray into poetry here on The Arty Semite, along with a few of her other poems. Celebrating National Poetry Month, we not only have the pleasure of featuring Karen’s interview (along with six others), but also another batch of her works.

In the first poem Alkalay-Gut posits herself as an “apicorous” (heretic), the fifth son, riffing on the classic Haggadic image. One would be hard pressed to agree with poet’s self-description as a heretic, however, based on the second poem, which interacts closely with Judaism’s essence — the multiplicity of meanings derived through interaction with tradition, a blessing that can sometimes turn into a curse.

Born in London, Karen Alkalay-Gut grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and in 1972 she moved to Israel, where she teaches at Tel Aviv University. Her sixth volume of poems in Hebrew translation will appear after Passover.

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Making Music That's Not Disgusting

By Katherine Clarke

Courtesy Fatpossum Records

Having launched their self-titled debut album in February and now embarking on an American tour, British indie-rock band Yuck are causing quite a stir. A successful stint playing to crowds at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas last month generated a great deal of conversation, particularly in the blogosphere. On April 6 the band took the top spot on Hype Machine, a buzz tracking system that aggregates information from more than 1,000 music blogs worldwide, making Yuck, unofficially, the world’s most talked about new band.

Guitarists and vocalists Max Bloom and Daniel Blumberg started the group in 2010, later inviting New Jersey drummer Jonny Rogoff and Japanese vocalist Mariko Doi to join. Blumberg’s sister Ilana occasionally provides backing vocals. While international in makeup, the band have a strong connection to the Jewish community, with Bloom and Blumberg meeting at cheder in New North London Synagogue at age 4.

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Righting Wrongs

By Austin Ratner

Earlier this week, Austin Ratner wrote about Hillel sandwiches and patricide, photography, and Audrey Hepburn. His first book, “The Jump Artist,” is the winner of the 2011 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. 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:


It goes against my convictions as a novelist to characterize any person as either a demon or a hero; human nature isn’t so simple. It’s the fascist psyche that adores such black-and-white categories: good or bad, Aryan or Jew, friend or enemy, worthy of life or of extermination. But even in a psychologically mature piece of fiction, there are protagonists and antagonists and what divides them from one another in “The Jump Artist,” is precisely their degree of maturity of thought — i.e., their ability or inability to think in a nuanced, non-binary way. Karl Meixner, a fascist, had a lot of trouble thinking that way. Philippe Halsman’s attorney in the second trial, by contrast, refused to see the world in the polarized terms that would later dominate the politics of Grossdeutschland.

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Friday Film: Teaching the Holocaust to Teenagers

By Michael Kaminer

It sounds like a high-concept Hollywood pitch: Feisty 86-year-old Holocaust survivor meets tough inner-city high-school kids. In fact, a documentary about the indefatigable Fanya Gottesfeld Heller — and her conversations with students at Brooklyn’s “alternative” Pacific High School — airs on PBS affiliates throughout April. Richard Gere narrates “Teenage Witness: The Fanya Heller Story,” partly based on Heller’s 1993 autobiography “Love in a World of Sorrow.” Heller spoke to the Forward’s Michael Kaminer from her Upper East Side apartment — on the day she learned that Pacific High School was slated to close.

Michael Kaminer: What do you hope the film accomplishes beyond what you’ve already achieved with your lectures and book?

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National Poetry Month: 'In the World He Created According to His Will'

By Ezra Glinter

The poetic practice of praising God through his works is of such long standing (as long as the history of religious poetry, perhaps) that it would seem difficult, if not impossible, to offer a new and contemporary take on the tradition. But in the title poem of David Caplan’s recent collection, “In the World He Created According to His Will,” Caplan manages to turn the form inside out, while still creating a deeply spiritual meditation on nature, human relationships, and God. Here, instead of perceiving God through nature, the opposite is the case — the beauty of a natural scene is imbued with a spiritual aura thanks to the prayer uttered by the speaker’s partner. “What returns you to these words/ in the pause between tides, the rising/ and falling back not only of water?” Here God is as much a means as an end, with the supplicant’s prayer binding the rest of the poem’s elements together.

Caplan is a professor of English at Ohio Wesleyan University and a contributing editor to the Virginia Quarterly Review and Pleiades: A Journal of New Writing. His poetry has been published in the New England Review and the Antioch Review and he is the author of “Questions of Possibility: Contemporary Poetry and Poetic Form,” among other books.

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In Montreal, Smoked Meat Gets the Musical Treatment

By Crystal Chan

Courtesy lucetg.com/Centaur Theatre

In Montreal, not only can a musical about smoked meat be more than a gag, but “Schwartz’s: The Musical” is a $240,000 professional production. That’s around twice the usual cost of a play at the Centaur Theatre, where the show is playing until May 7.

Schwartz’s, a “Hebrew Delicatessen” founded in 1928, is a mecca for meat lovers, and its waiting line is as much of a trademark as the items on the menu. Clippings on the wall testify to the many celebrities who have passed through: Tina Turner, Celine Dion, Mick Jagger, and many sports and political figures (there’s even a running joke that eating at the diner ensures future Canadian prime ministers a majority government when they come into power — a pertinent theory seeing as Canadians are going to the polls on May 2).

The musical reads like a dream — albeit the dream you’d have falling asleep with the “Best of Broadway” playing on repeat after a night of beer and that smoked meat sandwich that seemed like a good idea at the time. Alternatively, it feels like a two-hour infomercial for the famed delicatessen.

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Murdered at Auschwitz, Charlotte Salomon Survives Through Her Art

By Joel Schechter

Gouache from “Life? Or Theatre?” Courtesy of the Charlotte Salomon Foundation.

Three hundred of Charlotte Salomon’s beautiful expressionist paintings illustrating a young German Jewish women’s self-discovery can be seen at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum until July 31. The same week that the San Francisco exhibit opened, an enormous comic book convention nearby attracted thousands of young readers searching for their latest superhero (Green Lantern this year) and his predecessors. I would like to report that all the comic book readers paraded a few blocks across town to pay homage to Salomon’s landmark project, “Life? or Theatre?,” after hearing that her gouaches painted in 1942 anticipated contemporary graphic novels and the films based on them.

Regrettably few of the comic book acolytes left their convention center, as far as I know; but Salomon already has quite a following, thanks to prior exhibits of her masterwork in other cities. First brought to public attention in 1971 by the Jewish Historical Museum of Amsterdam, the series of 1,300 paintings was celebrated over a decade ago at New York’s Jewish Museum, as well as at Boston and Toronto exhibitions. (Amsterdam’s Joods Historisch Museum, repository of the collection, organized the selections in the current West Coast premiere.) By now Salomon’s work also has been well documented in scholarly books, and inspired a fine play by Elise Thoron and a volume of poems by Anne Barrows.

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Out and About: The Humorous Haggadah; Ohad Naharin's New Dance

By Ezra Glinter

  • “The Revolution Will be Televised”: A webcomic, some Jews, and the Egyptian Revolution.

  • Pianist Evgeny Kissin, who performed April 12 in honor of Forverts editor Boris Sandler, gets rave reviews elsewhere.

Gadi Dagon

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