The Arty Semite

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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The Furrier, the Psychoanalyst and the Assassin

By Mikhail Krutikov

A version of this post appeared in Yiddish here.

Wiki Commons
Soviet agent Leonid Aleksandrovich Eitingon

As one unravels the history of the 20th century, it becomes apparent how deeply individual lives were woven into the larger fabric of world events. From the shtetls of Eastern Europe a new generation of Jewish youth emerged whose exploits shook the entire world. Now, after the members of that generation have gone, their grandchildren are left with fragments of family memories, yellowed newspapers and archival documents. But from these we can still piece together a picture of the past with its incredible adventures, its great ascents to wealth and power, and its equally dramatic defeats.

In her recent book, “The Eitingons: A Twentieth-Century Story,” Mary-Kay Wilmers, the longstanding editor of the London Review of Books, looks at three members of her family, each of whom belonged to a completely different world: one was in business, one science, and one military intelligence and political intrigue.

The latter of these, Leonid Aleksandrovich Eitingon, born Nahum Isaakovich Eitingon, is a well-known figure in the history of the Soviet intelligence and security services. A top Soviet agent, his main job was organizing operations against enemies of the Soviet regime abroad.

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Memory, Scent and My Mother

By Molly Birnbaum

Earlier this week, Molly Birnbaum wrote about her first writing teacher and the scent of Passover. 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:


This past Sunday was Mother’s Day. In celebration, my mom and I went out to lunch. We ate crisp salads and tuna sashimi. We laughed a bit too loudly, tipsy after a glass of white wine. Before that we had been shopping, trying on summer dresses and sandals with straps twisting up our ankles—a little too hopeful for the immediacy of warm weather as we listened to a chilling thunderstorm soaking the streets outside.

I write about my mother in my book, “Season to Taste: How I Lost My Sense of Smell and Found My Way.” After all, she took care of me after I was hit by a car while jogging in 2005 — the accident that broke my pelvis, tore the tendons in my left knee, and fractured my skull; the one that ultimately robbed me, an aspiring chef, of my sense of smell. In the months of my recovery, I found it devastating to not be able to perceive the scents that had once been so closely aligned with my memories of my mother: the smell of her lilac perfume, of her rosemary-mint shampoo, of the chicken dish she used to make with dried cherries and cream. I understood the importance of scent in terms of taste and flavor. But I had not realized how intrinsically it is tied to memory and emotion, too.

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Friday Film: Amos Oz on Not Writing Universally

By Tahneer Oksman

Courtesy of Yonathan & Masha Films

Yonathan and Masha Zur’s recent documentary “Amos Oz: The Nature of Dreams,” screening May 17 at the New York Israel Film Festival, expertly circles around the question: What is the place of politics in literature, and vice versa? For Oz, the two cannot be disentangled. “To write what they call ‘universally’… how is it possible?” Oz asks at the opening of the film. For him, the writer is inextricably tied to the time and place in which he writes; like it or not, he is as attached to the sounds, smells, and sights of the world that surrounds him as he is to the language he uses to express his thoughts — its syntax and vibrations, its sound, its history. These details seep into his literature whether he is conscious of it or not. In telling his own story, as Oz has done in his 2002 memoir, “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” he inevitably also tells the story of a particular place and time (in the case of the memoir, it is the story of Jerusalem in the 1940s).

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Go the F*** To Sleep

By Dan Friedman

It’s not porn, that’s colonizing the viral virtual space of business America in early May 2011 but a children’s book written by Adam Mansbach.

Mansbach is best known for his cheerily titled books “Angry Black White Boy: A Novel” and “The End of the Jews: A Novel,” But he has clearly met with parenthood in a meaningful way and his new book, “Go the F*** to Sleep” has touched a chord beyond his normal readers.

Somehow a rogue pdf of the book has been circulated. I got mine from a lawyer who got his from a lawyer who got his (hers?) from a recruitment consultant who got it from I don’t know where. Elsewhere in the virtual world cover pictures are being exchanged along with rumors of rhymes that didn’t make it to the final edition.

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András Mezei's Holocaust Poetry for Our Time

By Thomas Ország-Land

András Mezei (1930-2008) was a major Jewish-Hungarian poet who left behind a retrospective exploration of the Holocaust for our time. There are many voices speaking to us of terror, folly, greed, cruelty and absurdity, but Mezei’s poetry makes them sound like our own voices. His testimony has been published in England, in my translation, as “Christmas in Auschwitz” (Smokestack Press, 2010).

Mezei survived the Holocaust as a child in the Budapest Ghetto where some 17,000 people perished from hunger, disease and the fancy of uniformed bandits. Mezei’s father, a jobbing fiddler usually engaged to play in taverns and fairgrounds, perished at Auschwitz.

Unlike the other great poets of the Holocaust such as Paul Celan, Primo Levi and Miklós Radnóti, Mezei refused to come to terms with death. Indeed, his work is a celebration of the unconquerable spirit of his people. And unlike Anne Frank, he had the time to give voice to the concerns of the victims while he was at the height of his literary powers. This is how he sums up the experience of the survivor in a single couplet:

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Picasso and the Cone Sisters

By Julie Reiss

Pablo Picasso, ‘Woman With Bangs,’ 1902. Courtesy of the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Claribel and Etta Cone were born in Baltimore in 1864 and 1870, respectively. Two daughters from a large family of German Jewish immigrants, they were in many ways ahead of their time. Claribel Cone went to medical school and later became a professor at Johns Hopkins University. Neither sister ever married, and together they traveled, met artists and writers, and formed an important collection of modern art, which Etta Cone ultimately bequeathed to the Baltimore Museum of Art. A portion of this collection, along with archival material, is currently on view at The Jewish Museum in New York.

The Cone collection is most renowned for its Matisse holdings, but, as I will explain in a May 16 lecture at the museum, the two sisters were avid collectors of Picasso’s work as well. While the Picasso holdings currently on view at The Jewish Museum are modest, they rekindle interest in the points of intersection between these collectors and the artist.

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A Director Sheds Light on Sexual Abuse of Women in Arab Society

By Nirit Anderman

Crossposted from Haaretz

One of the interviewees in the film “Doma” sits in her house next to a window overlooking the sea. Only parts of her are reflected in the window pane. In quiet, almost whispered tones, the woman offers a heartbreaking tale of the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of her uncle since she was five. When she tried to resist, he threatened to go after her sisters. Her grandmother witnessed what was going on under her nose one night, but chillingly chose to do nothing and say nothing.

Ivon Miklosh
In ‘Doma’ Arab women speak, many for the first time, about the trauma they underwent.

“I couldn’t scream because if anyone heard or found out about what he was doing, it would be a big mess,” says the woman, explaining why she remained silent over the year. “Many times he would tell me that nobody could know, because if that happened, my parents would get divorced, my brothers would be sent to different places and the two families would fight, and my brothers and sisters wouldn’t get married. I would bring shame on my family; I would cause damage and ruin my brothers’ and sisters’ future. Here… you are responsible for the entire clan.”

In her first film, director Abeer Zeibak Haddad chose to set off from her Jaffa home on a journey across Israel in order to shed some light on a subject that has been covered up for years in Arab society: sexual assault of girls, teenagers and women within and outside the family. “Doma” will be screened on Saturday at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque as part of the DocAviv Festival which opens today.

Read more at Haaretz.com


Out and About: Israeli Music for Syrian Protestors; The Shame of Playing Shylock

By Ezra Glinter

Getty Images
Patrick Stewart will play Shylock in a new production by the Royal Shakespeare Company.
  • The Independent takes a look at Habonim, the Socialist Zionist youth group that was once home to Mike Leigh, David Baddiel and Sacha Baron Cohen.

  • The Brooklyn Rail revisits the work of Russian Jewish filmmaker Dziga Vertov, on the occasion of a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art.

  • Israeli singer Amir Benayoun (profiled in the Forward here) has recorded a CD in Arabic that has been passed on to Syrian protestors.

  • The shame of Shylock: Patrick Stewart, Anthony Sher and others tell what it’s like to play Shakespeare’s most infamous role.

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A Scientist From the Overachieving Panofsky Family

By Benjamin Ivry

Stanford University SLAC

The German-born Jewish physicist Wolfgang Panofsky confounds the general rule about offspring of geniuses being disappointments. Son of the eminent art historian Erwin Panofsky, Wolfgang was not just an accomplished scientist who made contributions to the Manhattan Project, but was also a delightfully witty man, as proven by a new paperback edition of his charming 2007 memoir, “Panofsky on Physics, Politics, and Peace: Pief Remembers,” out in November, 2010 from Springer Verlag.

Pief, as he was known by classmates, gracefully matched a family precedent for overachieving. Still in print are Erwin Panofsky’s magisterial works, such as “Life and Art of Albrecht Durer” from Princeton University Press; Studies in Iconology from Westview Press; and a brilliant ongoing series of Panofsky’s correspondence from Harrasowitz Verlag.

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Slideshow: Departures, Experiments and 'Degenerate' Art

By Rebecca Schischa

Gert Wollheim, ‘Head of an Old Man’

Among the Nazis’ persecuted minorities were Jewish and non-Jewish artists, musicians and writers branded “degenerate” by the regime.

“Radical Departures: The Modernist Experiment,” an exhibition currently showing at the Leo Baeck Institute/Center for Jewish History in New York, gathers together work by these “degenerate” artists, including Georg Stahl, Samson Schames, David Ludwig Bloch and others.

Although compact, the exhibit presents a whistlestop tour through the major European art movements from the turn of the 20th century, taking in German Expressionism and Weimar Modernism, through to the Second World War period, and the Surrealism and Abstract art of the postwar era.

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The Scent of Passover

By Molly Birnbaum

On Monday, Molly Birnbaum wrote about her first writing teacher. 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:


On the first night of Passover, my boyfriend and I attended a seder on the grounds of a mental institution.

That sounds strange, I know. But that’s where my aunt and uncle live: in a new condo development on the campus of an old hospital, one of the many developments constructed over the last few years in this surprisingly popular real estate hot spot. And as we drove our car up the road leading to their home, I thought of the complicated mental landscape surrounding this land, of the myriad diagnoses and dramas that had run their course on the surrounding acres. And you know what? It felt fitting.

Not that my family is crazy.

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A Rock Opera for the 'Memory Industry'

By Jillian Steinhauer

John C. Watkins V
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin

It’s not every day that one gets to see an opera illustrated in comics and sung by rock musicians, but happily, May 7 was one of those days. That night “Memorial City,” the latest musical theater piece by comics great (and former Forward cartoonist) Ben Katchor and composer Mark Mulcahy, had its Manhattan premiere as the culmination of a daylong conference organized by New York University’s Humanities Initiative and The New York Institute for the Humanities.

The conference, titled “Second Thoughts on the Memory Industry,” explored ways we bear witness to and memorialize tragic events — from photojournalism to truth commissions to artistic endeavors — and how those acts have become “increasingly reified, stylized, fetishized, instrumentalized, hijacked and ossified,” according to the press release.

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Greta Garbo’s Gay Jewish 'Svengali'

By Benjamin Ivry

wiki commons

Greta Garbo, who died 21 years ago on April 15, is a permanent screen legend, as last year’s lavishly illustrated “Greta Garbo: The Mystery of Style” by Stefania Ricci from Skira Publishers, reminds us. Yet director Mauritz Stiller, who discovered Garbo and made her a star, remains an enigmatic figure, as “Nordic Exposures: Scandinavian Identities in Classical Hollywood Cinema,” out in October, 2010 from The University of Washington Press establishes.

Its author, Arne Lunde, teaches Scandinavian literature at UCLA. Lunde explains that Stiller, although he made a career in Sweden before moving to America, was born Moshe Stiller in Helsinki, Finland, to a Jewish family of Russian and Polish origins. Stiller fled his homeland to Sweden to avoid serving in the Russian army during World War I.

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Celebrating the Film Studio That Showed Israel's Early Days

By Alon Raab

Geva Studios

Bronzed workers forge a winding road through the hills leading to the Dead Sea; smiling politicians cut ribbons marking the National Water Carrier, chemical factories and a gleaming submarine; proud generals lecture an adoring audience on their latest military victories; Jewish athletes march at the Maccabiah Games — these images, known as “Yomaney Geva” (“Geva Diaries”), were shown during the first three decades of the State of Israel to cinema-goers before every film screening, representing the ethos of an idealistic era and helping the process of cultural and ideological integration in the new country. Now, the celluloid on which they were printed has faded and soon the buildings they were created in will be demolished, replaced by luxury apartments.

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London Book Club Keeps Arab-Israeli Dialogue Open

By Chris Cox

When the English novelist Ian McEwan accepted the Jerusalem Prize in January, he did so despite strident demands from pro-Palestinian writers to reject the prize and boycott the Jerusalem Book Fair where it is awarded. But McEwan insisted on his right to engage in dialogue with all Israelis, and argued in the Guardian that literature, “with its impulse to enter other minds, can reach across political divides.”

Lisa Goldman
Palestinian novelist Samir El-youssef

It’s this spirit which animates a new public book club in London. Having just celebrated its first anniversary, the Arab-Israel Book Club has been inviting people to inhabit the minds of characters living with “the situation.” From Anton Shammas to Sara Shilo, its aim has been to introduce readers to authors — and characters — who might deepen their understanding of the Arab-Israeli conflict. And its time seems to have come: As uprisings spread across the Middle East this winter, its numbers have more than doubled. People suddenly seem hungry to know more.

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'The Normal Heart' Beats On Broadway

By Curt Schleier

Joan Marcus
Joe Mantello as Ned Weeks in Larry Kramer’s ‘The Normal Heart.’

“The Normal Heart,” just revived on Broadway, is less a play than a sensory experience, likely to leave audiences feeling drained, exhilarated and perhaps a bit guilty.

That the play is powerful is, given its subject matter, to be expected. That it is nuanced as well is a tribute to playwright Larry Kramer, a man hardly noted for delicacy.

Originally produced in 1985 by the Public Theater, “The Normal Heart” is set in the early 1980s, and closely chronicles Kramer’s own experiences as HIV/AIDS began to spread in the gay community. The disease was almost completely ignored, not only by the straight world, but also by those most likely to be affected by it.

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Monday Music: Fusion Mix-and-Match

By Mordechai Shinefield

In the late 1960s the term jazz fusion became a popular way of referencing music that borrowed heavily from both jazz and funk, or jazz and rock, or really any two genres that musicians troubled to smash together. If you hadn’t already noticed, fusion has been a dominant mode of expression in Jewish music over the last few decades. Reviews of new albums can tend to sound like exercises in proper noun naming; sometimes it’s easier just to list the influences on an album than it is to explain what they’re all doing together. Klezmer and rock. Klezmer and metal. Ladino and jazz.

JDub Records and John Zorn’s Tzadik label have split the difference on these fusion experiments. Tzadik headed in a more avant-garde direction, where jazz is piled on experimental guitar pieces or post-apocalyptic klezmer piano riffs, and JDub participated more in globe-trotting world music excavations or pseudo-jam acts. On Shotnez’s self-titled debut album on JDub, the band bridges the distance between world music and the avant-garde. Unlike comparable acts, however, Shotnez puts that genre mix-and-matching in the limelight. The band’s name refers to the halachic prohibition of mixing wool with linen, and with tracks like “Stolen Goods” or “Chaos” it suggests that there’s a dark blasphemous heart beating in Jewish fusion music.

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My First Writing Teacher

By Molly Birnbaum

Molly Birnbaum is the author of “Season to Taste: How I Lost My Sense of Smell and Found My Way.” 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:


The first book I ever wrote was with my grandfather, Morris, a big-boned businessman who lived with my grandmother in upstate New York. He was a talented amateur artist. I was five.

We wrote a whole series of books together, in fact, over a number of years, lying belly-down on the living room rug, surrounded by sheathes of blank paper and boxes of colored pencils, pastels, and crayons. I spun tangled stories — often minute variations on the same one about a nurse, her puppy, and the bright red convertible they drove around town — that my grandfather transcribed in his spidery scrawl. He would then illustrate the blank pages of our makeshift books with intricate line drawings of people, animals, and cars. Under his watchful eye, I filled them with waxy strokes of color.

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'Baroque Synagogues' at Prague Jewish Museum

By Samuel D. Gruber

Exhibition curator Arno Pařík in the restored synagogue in Boskovice, Moravia. Photo by Samuel Gruber.

Crossposted from Samuel Gruber’s Jewish Art & Monuments

The Jewish Museum in Prague has opened the exhibition “Barokní synagogy v českých zemích” (“Baroque synagogues in Czech Lands”) curated by Arno Pařík. The exhibtion is at the Robert Guttmann Gallery, and will be on view until August 28.

According to Dr. Pařík, “the exhibition seeks to chart in more detail than ever before a group of lesser-known monuments that uniquely reflect the history and culture of the traditional Jewish communities in this country.”

The exhibition presents a selection of the Czech Republic’s oldest synagogues, dating from the 17th and 18th centuries, with particular focus on their plans, designs and decoration. The exhibition also includes many ritual and decorative objects form the Museum collection, including a Star of David, a weather-vane, a stone alms box, a brass lavabo, and a wooden Decalogue (from Roudnice) and other items.

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