The Arty Semite

Out and About: Phillip Lopate on Simon Schama; New Director for the Folksbiene

By Ezra Glinter

Wiki Commons
Portal to the renovated synagogue in Ostrow Wielkopolski, Poland.
  • Essayist Phillip Lopate ponders “Scribble, Scribble, Scribble” a new miscellany by historian Simon Schama.

  • Has Paul Simon been getting the attention he deserves?

  • The Canadian Jewish News profiles former Guns N’ Roses drummer Steven Adler.

  • Two synagogue restoration projects in Poland have won awards, one of them for “façade of the year.”

  • Bryna Wasserman, artistic director of the Segal Centre for Performing Arts in Montreal, is leaving that post to become the executive director of the Folksbiene Yiddish Theatre in New York.

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Regal Theater in St. Petersburg

By Michael Handelzalts

Crossposted from Haaretz

Yair Haklai

The Europe Theatre Prize award ceremony, held 10 days ago in St. Petersburg, Russia, was the most impressive and certainly the most moving out of the five times I’ve had the honor of attending this event. This was due not only to this year’s prize winners and their work, but also the fact that the ceremony took place in the Alexandrinsky Theatre (named for Alexandra, the wife of Czar Nikolai I; though it was since renamed the Pushkin, for the writer, everyone still uses its historic name). This facility was inaugurated in 1756, a fact the event organizers made great use of. In addition, one prize winner turned the award ceremony itself into a theatrical spectacle, further adding to the event’s overall success.

The Europe Theatre Prize (or Premio Europa) was awarded for the first time in 1987 in Taormina, Sicily, and it is a project jointly run by a large group of organizations: the European Union, UNESCO’s International Theatre Institute, the International Association of Theatre Critics, and two other somewhat competing frameworks — the Union of European Theatres and the European Union of Theatres (Habima belongs to the former and Cameri to the latter, or vice versa).

Read more at Haaretz.com


National Poetry Month: In Person

By Jake Marmer

Poetry existed long before printing, literacy, or even the alphabet: Poet-bards went around reciting their material orally, memorizing lines and improvising on them. Their performances — from slight intonations to full-on theatrics — were inseparable from the messages themselves. Although today most writing resides on bound print pages, some poetry circles have pushed for an emphasis on the performed, rather than the merely written, word.

Michelle Hunt

Matthue Roth, who we’re introducing today as part of our National Poetry Month celebration, finds inspiration in the rhythms and exuberant energy of slam poetry gatherings and hip-hop. Watching the video below, it seems impossible to opt for a mere printed version of it.

Aside from being a prolific performance poet, Roth is also an author of four novels and is staff writer for My Jewish Learning. He has appeared on HBO Def Jam, MTV, and numerous other stages in the U.S. and abroad. Read the Forward’s interview with Roth, along six other poets, here.

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April 11: An Eerie Confluence of Dates

By Deborah Lipstadt

Deborah Lipstadt’s most recent book, “The Eichmann Trial,” is now available. 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:


It was the 50th anniversary of the start of the Eichmann Trial and the 11th anniversary of the verdict (judgment) in my libel trial in the U.K. when David Irving sued me for libel for calling him a Holocaust denier.

More significantly, on April 11 I spoke at the United States State Department to mark the anniversary of the Eichmann trial. In addition to State Department staff members, there were a number of diplomats present (Turkey, Morocco, Ukraine, and Israel among others), as well as friends and colleagues. It was quite meaningful that I was speaking about this seminal act of genocide to an audience composed in part of people who deal with genocide and persecution-related issues. One of the people with whom I spoke has spent years working to rid the world of land mines. Another had been involved in the genocide in Darfur. Another had worked on issues related to the former Yugoslavia. Tragedies all.

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'Ten Commandments' for the TV Nation

By Jenna Weissman Joselit

Crossposted From Under the Fig Tree

For decades now, Cecil B. DeMille’s cinematic extravaganza, “The Ten Commandments,” has held pride of place on television screens across America, its timing sandwiched between Pesach and Easter.

Wiki Commons

An invented holiday tradition if ever there was one, the annual broadcast of a nearly four hour film given over to the story of the ancient Israelites and their search for freedom puzzles as well as delights me.

I can well understand the film’s connection to Pesach, which, after all, commemorates the Exodus and exhorts its celebrants to remember. The movie version may even enhance the process of remembering, rendering the ancient story vivid and alive. As one movie-goer put it, way back when, “the story of Israel had laid frozen in hieroglyphics, manuscripts and books.” But thanks to DeMille, it has “thawed into something colorful.”

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Ex-Haredi Artists Grapple With Their Pasts

By Shulem Deen

‘Protection’ by Leah Vincent

A photo of a woman wrapped in phylacteries might not seem very bold after Leonard Nimoy’s “Shekhina” project. But to many of the artists at the opening of a new art exhibit called “All in the Eye,” a photograph of a woman adorned with tallit and tefillin, eye to the camera with a slight smile, represents the height of sacrilege.

The woman in the photo is ex-Hasidic, as is the artist who took it. Both hail from a culture in which the act is still shocking and offensive: a woman entering a man’s domain in search of spiritual fulfillment. The portrait, of course, is powerful both for its rejection of traditional values and the re-appropriation of its ritual objects — especially given its personal context. But it’s the playful, slightly mischievous smile that is most captivating. It is as if both subject and artist, still, after many years, delight in the act of ritual subversion.

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Haifa Starts Rocking

By Ben Shalev

Crossposted from Haaretz

A festival being held for the first time is an idea. A festival being held for the second time is already a fact on the ground. Haifolk, Haifa’s indie music festival, had its second run this weekend and can, therefore, safely be declared an established festival on the Israeli indie music scene.

Established yet small. Tel Aviv need not fear for its status as the unquestioned Indie City and Jerusalem will continue to don the hat of extreme deputy to the left. But if in recent years Be’er Sheva had laid claim to the title of “Indie’s Third City,” Haifolk might well be positioning sleepy Haifa as its new rival.

Read more at Haaretz.com


National Poetry Month: Robert Pinsky's 'Samurai Song'

By Ezra Glinter

Jared C. Benedict

Today, in honor of National Poetry Month, The Arty Semite is featuring “Samurai Song” by Robert Pinsky. In the spirit of Passover, one can read “Samurai Song” as a kind of inverse “Dayenu.” It is often asked of the latter text, that if God had not given us the Sabbath, the Torah, or brought us to the Land of Israel (among the other things), would it really have been enough? The answer usually given is that while lesser benevolences may not have been enough in the larger scheme, we would still have had sufficient reason for thanksgiving and praise. Pinsky’s poem, in contrast, works the other way around. Rather than counting our blessings in ascending order, the poem strips them away one by one, while saying each time, in effect, dayenu.

Robert Pinsky is a three-term United States Poet Laureate, a professor at Boston University and the author of 19 books, including translations of Czesław Miłosz and Dante Alighieri. “Samurai Song” comes from his latest collection, “Selected Poems,” published this month by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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Friday Film: Bridge to Kashmir

By Amy Rosenberg

Courtesy of Artists Public Domain

As a child, Tariq Tapa learned to read while traversing Manhattan’s First Avenue to and from school. His mother designed logos for a living (Sky-Line Taxi and Limousine in the Bronx still uses the one she created for the company 25 years ago), and as they walked she would pay particular attention to the signs lining their route, asking her son to sound out the letters he saw. It’s fitting that a couple decades later Tapa, who turned 30 in March and is now a director and screenwriter based in northern California, sees his job partly as a call to animate marks on a page. “The characters you see on a piece of paper, the letters — those can’t be the same as the characters you see before you on the screen, the people,” he said. “I always want to try to turn the abstractions into flesh and blood.”

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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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