The Arty Semite

Photographer Alfred Stieglitz, 'Jewish Mystic'

By Benjamin Ivry

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibit “Stieglitz, Steichen, Strand” which ran from November, 2010, closed in April of this year; however, there is new reason to admire the achievement of photographer and modern art maven Alfred Stieglitz, born in Hoboken in 1864 to a family of German Jewish origin.

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Stieglitz’s own acclaimed photos reveal scant attention to Yiddishkeit, with the possible exception of “The Steerage,” from 1907, in which impoverished immigrants, not obviously Jewish ones, arrive in America. More insight into Stieglitz’s own Judaism may be derived from the forthcoming “My Faraway One: Selected Letters of Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz: Volume One, 1915-1933” edited by Sarah Greenough, over 800 pages of the married couples’ letters, due out from Yale University Press on June 21.

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In Song: Shlach Lecha

By Martin Stone

Each week The Arty Semite connects the Torah reading — however tenuously — with a classic work of rock and roll.

In this week’s parsha, Shelach Lecha, Moses sends out 12 men — a prince from each tribe — to scout the Promised Land. They return with proof of its bounty, but 10 of them despair of being able to conquer it. The people are disillusioned and demand to return to Egypt. God’s response is to kill the 10 scouts and delay the people’s entry to the land by 40 years, during which all the adults who left Egypt will die.

God immediately consoles the people by giving a set of commandments that will only be performed once they enter the land. Then there is the incident of the man who chopped wood on Shabbat and is punished with death by stoning. The parsha concludes with the third section of the Shema prayer, where we are told to wear fringes on our clothes to remind us of God and to behave as He commanded us. This week’s song goes with Israel’s punishment to wander the desert for 40 years — to “Take the Long Way Home.”


Friday Film: Of Victimhood, Girl Groups and Marlene Dietrich

By Michael Kaminer

Courtesy of TJFF

More a filmed performance piece than a conventional movie, Amit Epstein’s “The Stockholm Syndrome Trilogy” — which had its North American premiere last month at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival — mashes up interpretive dance, ‘80s pop, Marlene Dietrich, and same-sex lust into a sometimes-successful fantasia on Jewish victimhood.

The titular condition, of course, manifests as “curiously positive feelings for perpetrators,” as Time magazine puts it. And in a series of surreal set-pieces, Epstein explores his own conflicting emotions — not only as a Jew spellbound by all things Teutonic, but as a gay man apparently into German guys in a big way.

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Getting Rid of Journalists in Haaretz's Third 'Writers Edition'

By Renee Ghert-Zand

Author Etgar Keret with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Photo by Tal Cohen.

It’s become a tradition since 2009 that in honor of Israel’s Hebrew Book Week, Haaretz publishes its “Writers Edition.” For this unique edition, all the paper’s reporters disappear and are replaced by well-known Israeli, Middle Eastern, Jewish and Jew-ish authors and poets. This year, 53 noted writers cover everything from breaking news to sports to the weather report.

The depressing main headline, “Netanyahu says there’s no solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” is for a political interview author Etgar Keret did with the Prime Minister. The great Israeli poet Natan Zach writes an opinion piece on why he thinks Gilad Shalit will never return home. Nathan Englander gets an exclusive interview with Tony Kushner, the first time he has spoken publicly since the controversy over his receiving an honorary degree from CUNY. On the lighter side, Nicole Krauss reflects on her nostalgia for brick and mortar book stores, and Dorit Rabinyan tries her hand at sportswriting.

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Poetic Resources of Jewish Folklore: Three Works by Howard Schwartz

By Jake Marmer

In a recent article in the Jewish Review of Books titled “Why There Is No Jewish Narnia,” Michael Weingrad argued that dark, Gothic fantasy writing does not sit well with the Jewish weltanschauung, and that by and large, we simply do not have that kind of literature. This is because, as Weingrad compellingly puts it, “Judaism is much warier about the temptation of dualism than is Christianity, and undercuts the power and significance of any rivals to God, whether Leviathan, angel, or, especially… devil.”

Weingrad casually mentions folklorist Howard Schwartz, author of the “Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism” (2004) as one of the recent authors to compile the lore of “repressed or marginalized Jewish mythic vitality.” To him, Schwartz’s work and related publications of a similar direction, are not a natural fit in the wider discourse of Jewish literature. Schwartz’s recently published book of poetry, “Breathing in the Dark,” however, not only seems a welcome addition to Jewish literature, but also offers it a whole new direction and wealth of resources rooted in the underside of Jewish folklore.

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The Tragic Lives and Loves of Joyce's Russian Translators

By Yoel Matveev

Mikhail Yakovlev’s sculpture of James Joyce in the yard of the State Library of Foreign Literature in Moscow. Image courtesy of the artist.

June 16 is Bloomsday, the day when Leopold Bloom, the Jewish-descended protagonist of James Joyce’s novel “Ulysses,” took his quasi-Homeric one-day odyssey through Dublin. It’s the day when Dubliners and Joyce’s fans throughout the world celebrate the legacy of the great Irish novelist, whose protagonist transcends all cultural and temporal borders while remaining both Irish and Jewish.

Like its border-transcending protagonist, the story of the novel itself doesn’t end in Ireland. In the USSR, James Joyce was long considered a dangerous and forbidden writer.

The first Russian translator of “Ulysses,” Igor Romanovich (1904-1943), was arrested in 1937 for his literary activities and died in the Gulag. His wife, Elena Verzhblovskaya (1904-2000), also spent almost four years in the Gulag after being brutally beaten by her captors for refusing to confess to crimes she never committed.

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Out and About: A Librarian for the Ages; Larry David, Man of His People

By Ezra Glinter

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  • Happy Bloomsday! Stay tuned for more.

  • The runaway bestseller not-really-children’s book “Go the F*** to Sleep” (previously covered on The Arty Semite here) now has the distinction of being read aloud by Samuel L. Jackson.

  • The Atlantic’s James Parker on Larry David, “a figure of pioneering godlessness and a loyal celebrant of the traditions.”

  • On the great bibliophile, librarian to the Vilna Gaon and Solomon Maimon, and chief rabbi of Slonim, Shimshon ben Mordechai.

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Ulysses S. Grant's Washington Synagogue

By Samuel D. Gruber

Crossposted from Samuel Gruber’s Jewish Art & Monuments

Former Adas Israel building in Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy of Julian Preisler.

On a few previous occasions I have mentioned visits of heads of state to synagogues. One of the most significant such occasions in American history was the visit 135 years ago of President Ulysses S. Grant to the dedication of the new synagogue in the national capital city of Washington, D.C. On June 9, 1876, shortly before the nation’s centennial, Adas Israel Congregation dedicated its modest building made festive for the occasion with flowers, “festoons of evergreens,” and American flags over the Ark.

Adas Israel was established as an traditional (Orthodox) congregation in 1869. The synagogue was built at the corner of 6th and G Streets, NW, then part of the city’s residential and commercial center, after many years of planning and fundraising. The Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington now maintains the former synagogue, which was moved to a different site in 1969, as a museum.

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Pro-Israel Screenwriter Founds 'Mike Leigh Scholarship for Political and Moral Courage'

By Renee Ghert-Zand

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While visiting the Ma’aleh School of Television, Film and the Arts in Jerusalem this week to co-teach a workshop with fellow Hollywood screenwriter David N. Weiss, Dan Gordon used the opportunity to take his public critique of British filmmaker Mike Leigh one step further.

Gordon followed up on a promise he made Leigh in an open letter he wrote last November, inaugurating the “Mike Leigh Scholarship for Political and Moral Courage.” The scholarship was awarded this year to Ma’aleh student Noam Keidar. Gordon is highly critical of Leigh’s decision to renege on an agreement to teach in 2010 at the Sam Spiegel Film and Television School in Jerusalem and his boycotting of Israel, in general, in response to Israeli policies towards Palestinians, including its blockade of Gaza.

The open letter ended in the following way:

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Traveling the Length and Breadth of 'Yiddishland'

By Ezra Glinter

Photo by Spencer Ritenour

In his 2006 study “Adventures in Yiddishland: Postvernacular Language and Culture,” Rutgers University professor Jeffrey Shandler noted the strange phenomenon in which musicians have become some of the most well-known authorities on Yiddish culture. “Marginal figures in East European Jewish society before World War II, klezmorim are now prominent cultural spokespeople, enacting representations of that society on stages around the world.”

However one feels about the primacy of music over the language itself in much contemporary Yiddish culture, there is no doubt that klezmorim are doing a great job, not just playing music, but also conducting ethnographic research into a folk repertoire that goes well beyond the Yiddish theater chestnuts and art songs of the early 20th century. On June 13, at New York’s Baruch College Perfoming Arts Center, musician, composer, arranger and bandleader Dmitri “Zisl” Slepovitch premiered a collection of just such material in a program titled “Traveling the Yiddishland,” the result of some 10 years researching Yiddish songs in Belarus and other parts of the Former Soviet Union with the late Jewish music scholar Nina (Nechama) Stepanskaya.

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Q&A: Joey Weisenberg and the Hazan of the Future

By Renee Ghert-Zand

Joey Weisenberg, 29, is the musical director at the Kane Street Synagogue in Brooklyn and is in charge of musical education at Yeshivat Hadar in Manhattan. He plays guitar, mandolin and percussion and sings in 10 different bands, is an artist-fellow at the 14th Street Y’s LABA program and a faculty member at KlezKanada. He also teaches music privately. He does all this, and still spends half or more of his time teaching congregations around the country how to build singing communities and conduct spontaneous choirs.

Courtesy of Joey Weisenberg

Having spent the past eight years honing his techniques, Weisenberg is now sharing them in the recently published “Building Singing Communities: A Practical Guide to Unlocking the Power of Music in Jewish Prayer” (Mechon Hadar, 2011). The book, which provides advice on everything from melody acquisition to room set-up to shul politics, is accompanied by a CD of a spontaneous choir, directed by Weisenberg, singing 15 nigunim based on the Shabbat liturgy.

Weisenberg recently spoke to The Arty Semite about his passion for Jewish communal singing and how it fits into a larger vision for Jewish music.

Renee Ghert-Zand: Is the interest in communal singing a recent phenomenon, or is it a revival of an older one?

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Broadcasts From Another World

By Ben Shalev

Crossposted from Haaretz

Tomer Appelbaum

Sounds from another world, at a very low volume and of terrible audio quality, welcome the visitor to Nino Bitton’s small apartment. They sound like broadcasts from an ancient Arab world, which has long since ceased to exist outside isolated enclaves like this Jerusalem living room. What are we listening to? “Algerian music from before you were born. I recorded it many years ago from Algerian radio. That’s my school,” says Bitton, regarding his favorite recordings.

Those recordings were made with great effort and even caused Bitton physical harm. In the 1960s and the 1970s, when he began his campaign to research Andalusian music in depth, Bitton discovered that, after the end of the Israel Radio broadcasts at midnight, he could hear Algerian radio. But in order to get a reception he had to go up to the roof and connect to the building antenna. So Bitton would go up to the roof every night and listen to songs. He fell from the roof four times. “I almost lost my life because of this music,” he says.

Read more at Haaretz.com


Jerusalem Gets Its Own American Academy

By Daniella Wexler

Inaugural Academy Fellows: Clockwise from top left, David Karnovsky, David Herskovits, Donald Byrd and Lynne Avadenka.

The American Academy in Jerusalem — newly established by the Foundation for Jewish Culture and modeled after the American academies in Rome and Berlin — will host four American artist fellows to help pioneer a cultural renaissance in the holy city. A fifth fellow, filmmaker Barbara Hammer, dropped out of the program yesterday for personal reasons.

Representing the fields of visual arts, dance, theater and urban planning, the artists will spend nine autumn weeks in Jerusalem pursuing their projects, collaborating with Israeli and international artists, and teaching master classes at Hebrew University and Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design. In addition to the lifespan of the projects and the connections the fellows make, the American Academy in Jerusalem will measure its success by how often the fellows are invited back to work in Israel.

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Slideshow: Nir Hod's Cigarette-Smoking Child Geniuses

By Ezra Glinter

Courtesy Paul Kasmin Gallery

In “Genius,” the current exhibit by Israeli artist Nir Hod at New York’s Paul Kasmin Gallery, pouty, fat-cheeked little boys glare out at the viewer, lit cigarettes dangling insolently from their sausage-like fingers. The series of more than 50 paintings, on view until June 18, is the latest installment in Hod’s growing body of arresting, lurid, and occasionally grotesque artworks.

The Tel Aviv-born painter, photographer, poet and video artist, currently based in New York, came to prominence in Israel in the 1990s with “Forever,” an exhibit and book featuring campy, exaggeratedly glamorous images of Israeli soldiers. Hod began painting the current series three years ago, at first as a side project, but eventually as a more concerted undertaking.

As it’s title suggests, the subjects of “Genius” are precocious and often creepy-looking children behaving provocatively like adults. They are dressed in elegant outfits and sport elaborate hair-dos that are obviously dated but whose period is difficult to pin down. Between their clothes and their dismissive facial expressions these little “geniuses” suggest the corrupting and destructive effects of privilege on the young. Both seductive and repulsive, their sad glamour and insistent sophistication seem to mask a deeper vulnerability.

View a slideshow from Nir Hod’s ‘Genius’:

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Generational Upset at a One-Act Wedding

By Katelyn Manfre

Erik Lieberman and Delphi Harrington in ‘For Elise.’ Photo by Gerry Goodstein.

Weddings are the best. There is food, drink, music, organized dancing, and cake. What could be better? My favorite part of any wedding is watching the old and new generations interact. Nothing is more priceless than the look on my grandmother’s face when Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” starts pumping through the speakers. There is always a bit of embarrassment, mixed with half-hearted disapproval, and ultimately an understanding that this is, after all, her grandchild’s special day, and whether or not the groom is currently shirtless is really none of her concern.

The wedding in question is more of a somber affair in David Zellnik’s “For Elise,” playing until June 25 as part of Ensemble Studio Theatre’s “Marathon 2011” one-act play series. Here we see, huddled in the parking lot, Elise (Delphi Harrington), the matriarch of a large Jewish family. Stumbling out into the night is her great-nephew Donny (Erik Lieberman), a young gay man sneaking cigarettes, trying to make it through his cousin’s wedding reception.

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Moving From the Gut at La MaMa Israeli Dance Week

By Eileen Reynolds

‘Quiet’ by Arkadi Zaides, featuring Rabie Khoury and Ofir Yudilevich. Photo by Gadi Dagon.

In his welcoming remarks on the opening night of the the La MaMa Moves! Festival’s Contemporary Israeli Dance Week (June 8-12), Edo Ceder, of the New York-based YelleB Dance Ensemble, talked about “dancing from the gut.” That evocative phrase could have been an alternate title for the cumbersomely named festival-within-a-festival, which featured performances from nine different contemporary Israeli dance groups — five based in New York and four brought in from Israel just for the occasion.

I couldn’t help thinking, as I looked at those strong, lean bodies, that dancers don’t really have guts — at least not the flabby kind that we can see. But on that first evening the performers did seem to draw from emotional reserves somewhere deep within themselves. They writhed in agony on the ground; they stood defiantly on their heads; sometimes, they transfixed just by standing still.

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Customs Officials as Curators

By Yuval Saar

Crossposted from Haaretz

One day designer Eyal Burstein was asked to submit a proposal for the design of the Camper shoe store in Berlin, where he lives. For that purpose he visited the store, spoke to the salespeople and finally even bought a pair of shoes in order to use them as part of the proposal.

Courtesy of Gestalten

At the end of the month Burstein sent the receipt for the shoes’ purchase to his accountant, together with all the receipts and invoices for that month. The accountant refused to register the purchase of the shoes as a tax-deductable expense; only after a prolonged argument did she agree to declare the purchase a loan from the owners of the business. In the end Burstein’s proposal for designing the store was not accepted, but this event caused him to delve into the tax laws for design and art, which he had already encountered in the course of his work as a designer who often transfers objects between countries.

Last month Gestalten published a book documenting Burstein’s research, called “Taxing Art: When Objects Travel.” The book jacket has a photograph of a chair he created, one side of which is functional and smooth while the non-functional side is in the shape of a pyramid. When you look at the smooth side it’s simply a chair, whereas when you look at the pyramid side it can be seen as an objet d’art.

Read more at Haaretz.com


Eighty-Two Years Later, Anne Frank Remains the Subject of Commemoration and Dispute

By Ezra Glinter

If Anne Frank hadn’t died of typhus at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in March, 1945, she might have turned a grand 82 years old on June 12. It’s useless to try and imagine what she — or the world — would have been like had she survived. What is certain, however, is that Frank is as present in the public consciousness as ever.

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In one of the quirkier stories to come out in recent weeks, the Jewish Chronicle reported that a London theater company is taking their production of “And Then They Came for Me: Remembering the World of Anne Frank” on its second tour of China only months after a sold-out first run. As the article points out, China has a unique relationship to the Holocaust. Not only did the country suffer brutally under Japanese occupation, but it also provided a safe haven to tens of thousands of Jewish refugees in Shanghai. In addition to the story of Anne Frank, Chinese interest in the Holocaust also includes the recent animated film, “A Jewish Girl in Shanghai,” which The Arty Semite covered when it screened at the Hong Kong Jewish Film Festival, and which is currently making the rounds of Jewish film festivals worldwide.

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Celebrating Jewish Difference in the Dead of Night

By Jenna Weissman Joselit

Crossposted From Under the Fig Tree

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Many moons ago, when I was in college, I rarely pulled an all-nighter. I had too hard a time staying up until the wee hours of the morn. But now, when my internal clock sees to it that I’m wide awake in the middle of the night, I have come to understand what I missed way back when. Pulling an all-nighter is fun, especially when you have someone to keep you company.

Just the other evening, I had lots of company, when, in celebration of Shavuot, the ancient Jewish festival that commemorates, among other things, the giving of the Torah, hundreds upon hundreds of American Jews, myself among them, descended en masse on the JCC in Manhattan for a tikkun leil Shavuot, which commenced at 10 p.m. and ended at sunrise. An age-old custom that has been revived of late, the tikkun infuses the rhythms of the all-nighter with religious and cultural meaning.

Flooding the lobby, the halls and the stairwells of the JCC, some of us came for the cheesecake, others in search of companionship and still others for the learning, which ran the gamut from traditional text study to film screenings and classes in meditation and dance.

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Monday Music: Furious Hip-Hop for Comp. Lit. Majors

By Mordechai Shinefield

Courtesy of Yitz Jordan/Shemspeed Records. Photo by Jonathan Hunter.

Y-Love, also known as Yitz Jordan, is a black Jewish convert from Baltimore who feels just as comfortable at underground freestyles as he does at the Sabbath table. The son of a Puerto Rican mother and an Ethiopian-American father, Y-Love converted in 2000 at Brooklyn’s Conversion to Judaism Resource Center and has since become one of the most outspoken Orthodox artists alive. He makes hip-hop music in the tradition of N.W.A. and Public Enemy, raging political tirades chock full of deft wordplay and witty rhymes. He’s also, by self-description, “furious.”

Over the past few years Y-Love has undergone something of a musical transformation. His 2008 debut, “This Is Babylon,” borrowed heavily from backpacker socially conscious hip-hop artists like Taleb Kweli. His material traded heavily on his lingual prowess — often substituting Bakhtian polyphony and code swapping for more traditional hip-hop wordplay. You need a master’s degree in jargon to decode the in-jokes of most contemporary hip-hop artists. For Y-Love, you might be better equipped with a degree in comparative literature.

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