Is there a grouch in the world who can maintain a proper scowl while listening to French swing? There is something about the sound of this music (is it the sweet, kaleidoscopic chord changes, or the bouncy, peripatetic bass lines?) that seems to rob even the devout pessimist of any meaningful sense of gloom. Wistfulness is possible, yes: One sighs with vague nostalgia for some half-forgotten past, but it’s difficult to concentrate on the horrors of the present or the hopelessness of the future with all those guitars and ukuleles thrumming in one’s ears.
The New York-based band Les Chauds Lapins, led by Meg Reichardt and Forward art director Kurt Hoffman, specializes in this sort of mood-lifting music, and their new album, “Amourettes,” is a repository of hits from the French pop charts of the 1920s, ‘30, and ‘40s re-imagined and rearranged to maximum grin-inducing effect. Love is the subject of this collection, of course, but we sense — even before glancing at the English translations of the French lyrics — that these aren’t, for the most part, songs about pining, whining, or serious regret. Here is ardor at its most cheerily casual: We picture couples dancing on breezy evenings after too much wine, or whiling away sunny afternoons with books and teasing and naps.
“The Calling,” a four-hour documentary that aired on PBS in December and screens this month in San Francisco and at Knesseth Israel Congregation in Birmingham, Al., profiles seven young Americans who have chosen to become leaders of their faiths. While the film’s intentions are good and it has interesting moments, seven lives are too many to examine in a meaningful way.
As might be expected, “The Calling” is balanced in a politically correct way, with two Muslims, three Christians (two Protestants and a Catholic) and two Modern Orthodox Jews. It is largely a fascinating group: Catholic priest Steven Gamez admits to reservations about celibacy. Jeneen Robinson, an African Methodist Episcopal minister, seems more interested in preaching than ministering. Rob Pene, a Samoan, is caught between two worlds. His father, a chief back home, dies, and Rob is elected to take his place — though it’s not clear what that entails.
Elizabeth Rich as Rosalind Franklin in ‘Photograph 51.’ Photo by Stan Barouh.
Watching the current production at Washington D.C.’s Theater J of Anna Ziegler’s “Photograph 51,” which tells the tragic tale of Jewish scientist and almost Nobel laureate Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958), I was reminded of Walt Whitman’s poem “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” (1900).
Whitman’s narrator, who finds himself “tired” and “sick” of all the proofs and figures in the academic astronomy lecture he is attending, decides to glide out of the room and look up in rapture at the “perfect silence of the stars.”
Just as Whitman’s narrator chooses life over science (as if it is the case that never the twain shall meet), “Photograph 51’s” distinguished cast, directed by Daniella Topol, are forced into a Nietzschean choice between the Dionysian and the Apollonian — between fun and math.
This year, the Forward is celebrating National Poetry Month in style. The Arty Semite will be featuring new poetry every weekday, and it is our great pleasure to kick off the series with “Jew on Bridge” by C.K. Williams, an American poet who has been awarded nearly every major poetry prize, including a Pulitzer in 2000, a National Book Award in 2003, and a National Book Critics Circle Award in 1987.
“Jew On Bridge” appears in Williams’s recent collection, “Wait.” The poem is an epic-length meditation, at the core of which lies the question, “How Jewish am I?” As the poet swirls between Dostoyevsky’s implicit anti-Semitism, the tragic fates of Paul Celan and Walter Benjamin, as well as his own vague, somewhat uncomfortable notion of Jewishness, he finally narrows in: “Your suffering is Jewish. Your resistant, resilient pleasure in living, too.”
That, but also, throughout the poem, the Holocaust and the anti-Semitism of the admired author colors Williams’s notion of Jewishness. Whether this sentiment appeals to you, or appears flat in its limitations, perhaps you’ll be compelled by the poem’s setting, perfect for such a discussion. The bridge, which is meant to join disparate sides and make transitions smooth, here becomes the opposite. The sight is a reminder of Celan’s suicide (he jumped off a bridge to his death in the Seine), triggering an identity crisis, and finally, a rupture.
Uprooted at age 9, abandoned into poverty, targeted by anti-Semitism, exposed to the horrors of World War II and finally confined to a wheelchair, Ed Galing’s life has been beset by ongoing difficulties. Yet he has never lacked dedication, perseverance, or imagination, in art or in life. In eloquently written work that defies his hardscrabble Lower East Side and South Philadelphia origins, Galing has chronicled his remarkable journey in poetry, cartooning, storytelling and journalism.
At 94, the harmonica-playing poet laureate of Hatboro, Pennsylvania has an ultimate wish. Although he has received numerous literary awards (including two Pushcart nominations), citations from the Pennsylvania House of Representatives and Senate, and has written over 70 chapbooks, he has long dreamed of seeing his Jewish poetry in a published collection. That wish was granted in February with “Pushcarts and Peddlers” from Poetica Publishing Company, an offshoot of the Judaica-themed Poetica Magazine.
Richard Brody discovers Stanley Kubrik’s unmade Holocaust film, “The Aryan Papers.”
Joel Schalit has a run-in with the garbage Nazis of Stuttgart.
Philip Roth is among the nominees for the Man Booker International Prize.
Forward contributor Mark Oppenheimer on the new teenage anti-hero.
Rediscovering Julie Eichberg Rosewald, cantor at San Francisco’s Temple Emanu-El from 1884 to 1893.
Crossposted from Haaretz
The Aspen Santa Fe ballet company is currently on its first visit to Israel, at the invitation of the Herzliya Performing Arts Center. The American repertory company, which consists of 12 dancers, uses classical ballet techniques to support solid modern dance. A refreshing troupe, Aspen Sante Fe exhibits refined taste, expressed in its choice of dances and the group’s stage presence — free of theatrical effects, allowing viewers to concentrate on the dancers’ bodies and the lucid compositions.
The common denominator in the first and third pieces, created especially for Aspen Santa Fe, is the emphasis put on the dancers’ capabilities: the long lines of the women with their lovely muscular legs, raised toes and arched heels; the pirouettes; and the pas de deux, featuring an abundance of lifts and perfected transitions. All the dancers are good, but this is especially true of the women.
A.B. Yehoshua’s new novel was inspired by a painting of a woman breast-feeding her father. The 74-year-old literary luminary, who has published some 15 books, does not retreat from the provocative or the perverse.
Yehoshua calls “Spanish Charity” a probing of the creative process, and Haaretz saw it as a retrospective of the author’s own work. English readers will have to wait to judge the novel’s contents, as it is currently only available in Hebrew. Yehoshua told me the English title, which likely won’t be available until late 2012, might change to something more suggestive, perhaps simply, “The Picture.”
Yehoshua appeared at the New York Public Library in conversation with Paul Holdengräber on March 28, and reminded his audience that he is of the rare breed of writer who relishes speaking his mind, even if it means upsetting people. In 2006, for example, at a meeting of the American Jewish Committee, he suggested that a Jew could not live a completely Jewish life outside of Israel, and he still believes this.
“It’s a shanda (outrage)!” exclaimed Bruce A. Phillips of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles Campus. He was reacting to the cessation of the American Jewish Year Book after a successful run of more than a century by the American Jewish Committee.
The Yearbook — a handy compendium of demographic and historical trends, global statistics on Jewry, obituaries, and exhaustive listings of Jewish organizations and publications — has lined the bookshelves of major Jewish community executives for decades, immediately recognizable by its candy color-striped covers. The last volume was published in 2008.
But new hope for the publication came in December at the Association for Jewish Studies conference in Washington, D.C., when Ira Sheskin, a University of Miami professor, declared that he and colleague Arnold Dashefsky, a professor of sociology and Judaic studies at the University of Connecticut, were in discussions with the German-founded Springer publishing company to resurrect the Year Book.
Crossposted from Samuel Gruber’s Jewish Art & Monuments
On March 27, residents of Baytown, Texas celebrated the restoration of their 80-year-old synagogue, Congregation K’nesseth Israel. The building was designed by Houston architect Lenard Gabert in 1930, and after suffering limited damage in the destructive Hurricane Ike of 2008, has now been repaired and restored. The community center was much more heavily damaged by the storm, and that, too, has been repaired and renamed the Jewish Community Center.
Baytown resulted as a consolidation of Goose Creek, Pelly and Baytown in 1948. It is located at the eastern end of Harris County, 22 miles from Houston, and Jews first settled in Goose Creek after 1915 mostly to provide retail and commercial services to the booming oil and gas facilities. This is hardly a unique situation in the Jewish world. Jewish merchants flocked to Gold rush towns in the 19th century, and they involved themselves in service industries for the oil and gas business in the 20th. I’m reminded of how Jewish retailers moved to Drohobych (now Ukraine), when oil was discovered there in the mid-19th century. My grandfather Joseph Moskowitz was a surveyor the oil companies, especially in the interwar period.
Enthused readers of the German Jewish intellectual Walter Benjamin are impatiently awaiting the announced May 9 publication date of a landmark translation of Benjamin’s “Early Writings” from Harvard University Press. Until then, readers afflicted with Benjamania can delight in a catalog published by the Kunstmuseum Solingen in Germany, “Stellar Immortality” (Die Unsterblichkeit der Sterne, to accompany an exhibit on display at the end of 2010.
To commemorate the 70th anniversary of Benjamin’s suicide in 1940 at the Spanish-French border, while fleeing the Nazis, “Stellar Immortality” comprises a remarkable project in which the Stuttgart antiquarian book dealer Herbert Blank reassembled a library for Benjamin, based on book titles mentioned in his writings. Blank took over 30 years to gather the more than 2500 books, many of them depicted and described in “Stellar Immortality.”
“Do you think we told a good story?” filmmaker Sharone Lifschitz asks her mother at the end of her video installation “The Line and the Circle.” “Yes, we talked about all sorts of things,” her mother responds. “You will now have to edit it.” The installation, a short film tucked away from the main galleries in New York’s Jewish Museum, where it is showing until August 21, is a small yet sweeping film that beautifully weaves together narratives about what it means to be a child, a daughter, a kibbutznik and an Israeli — and what it means to preserve memories while also embracing and forgiving the past.
Just under 20 minutes long, “The Line and the Circle” was filmed over a two week period in 2009, and documents a conversation between Lifschitz and her aging mother. The movie follows the two as they return to the darkroom for the first time in over 20 years to develop black and white photographs taken on Kibbutz Nir Oz, where Lifschitz was born and raised. Throughout the film the camera remains fixed on the developing solution where the blank photo papers crystallize into images. Framed by a circle and a line, the development of the images is the only action seen through the camera’s unmoving lens. The photos, taken between 1959 and the early 1980s, depict day-to-day activities on the kibbutz, as well as celebrations and the occasional photo of Lifschitz and her mother. Watching the video, however, it is not the images or even one event that stands out. Rather, it is the sometimes disjointed conversation between Lifschitz and her mother that makes for the film’s narrative pull.
Crossposed from Haaretz
The University of Haifa has in the past two years undergone a dramatic facelift. Its main building, a modernist icon common in the mid-1960s in the work of noted Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, underwent an essential and comprehensive refurbishment after years of neglect.
Over the coming year, the university’s central library will undergo similar renovations, according to the plans of architect Asaf Lerman. In addition to the welcome investment in refurbishing the original buildings, all over the campus several new buildings have recently been dedicated, the most notable among them the Hatter Student Building, named for Sir Maurice Hatter.
It’s a staple of Hollywood and European cinema, and now a Holocaust movie is being shot in China.
Xinhua, the country’s official news agency, reports that production will soon begin on “The Melanie Violin,” a drama about a Jewish musician who flees Europe for Shanghai and falls for a local love interest. The film will be backed by “Schindler’s List” producer Branko Lustig, and will be scripted by Chinese-American writer He Ning.
An Auschwitz survivor, Lustig announced the new film Friday during a visit to Shanghai, where some 30,000 Jewish refugees found shelter during the war.
A Chinese-American co-production, the movie has a budget of between $30 and $45 million, and should be completed by the end of the year.
“Rockets on the Balcony,” Omer Klein’s fourth album and his Tzadik Records debut, is also his first self-consciously Jewish record. In the liner notes, Klein explains that when John Zorn first approached him about the project, he was reluctant to make “calculated evaluations as to what counts as Jewish music and what doesn’t.” But over the course of working on the album, Klein developed a knack for labeling each of his pieces as either “Jewish” or “not-Jewish.”
For those of us who cling to a romantic vision of the creative process — an image of the artist’s various influences simmering together in some delicious subconscious stew — it jars a little to hear Klein describe his oeuvre in these stark terms. The good news, though, is that Klein is a gifted jazz pianist who can riff on just about anything. A few of the pieces on “Rockets on the Balcony” started as what Klein describes as an “exercise” in writing folk tunes, and in their clumsiest moments, we can too easily hear the composer’s effort to come up with something that sounds homespun. Blessedly, though, these introductions don’t last long; far more exciting than Klein’s faux-folk melodies are the pleasing improvisations that come out of them.
It’s the Itzhak and Yitzchok show! Violin virtuoso Itzhak Perlman is teaming up with cantorial superstar Yitzchok Meir Helfgot for a concert tour and recording project titled “The Soul of Jewish Music.” The inaugural concert takes place March 30 at the Saban Theatre in Los Angeles and will benefit Bet Tzedek Holocaust Survivors Justice Network.
The collaboration is Perlman’s first foray into Jewish music since “In the Fiddler’s House,” his klezmer tour and recordings in the mid-1990s. In a press release from L.A.-based producer Dan Adler, Perlman gushes that teaming up with Helfgot is an “historic project” and declares, “It excites me to my kishkas!”
Jewcy reviews the work of Bonnie Lucas, “another artist toiling forever as art teacher with a mature body of thirty years work in her fifth floor walk-up.”
What better place than Israel for an adult archeology camp?
But are Jewish studies on decline in the country’s universities?
Talmud study is catching on in South Korea.
Happy 80th birthday, Leonard Nimoy!
In the first of a two-part series, Lisa Traiger traces the growth of Israeli folk dancing from one dance — “Hora Agadati” in 1924 — to 4,678 in 2005.
Jordana Horn surveys the career of the remarkable Moroccan-Israel actress Ronit Elkabetz, who was recently honored by the New York Sephardic Jewish Film Festival.
Philologos is, as we all suspected, a nerd.
Jay Michaelson argues that current political arguments are not “l’shem shamayim.”
Howard Shapiro explores San Francisco Symphony artistic director Michael Tilson Thomas’s tribute to his late grandparents, Yiddish theater stars Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky.
The 19th century New Orleans-born entertainer and sex symbol Adah Isaacs Menken is still shivering timbers long after her premature death in 1868. Back in 2003, Renée M. Sentilles, a history professor at Case Western Reserve University, published an enjoyable scholarly analysis with Cambridge University Press, “Performing Menken: Adah Isaacs Menken and the Birth of American Celebrity.” On February 1, Lyons Press published a more popular offering, “A Dangerous Woman: The Life, Loves, and Scandals of Adah Isaacs Menken, 1835-1868, America’s Original Superstar” by Michael and Barbara Foster.
Pitched at a resolutely pop-culture level, “A Dangerous Woman” dishily recounts how in 1856 she married a Jewish musician, Alexander Isaac Menken, and to a journalist who asked if she had converted to Judaism, she responded, “I was born in [Judaism] and have adhered to it through all my erratic career. Through that pure and simple religion I have found greatest comfort and blessing.”
Onstage Menken did a little of everything, whenever possible when garbed in form-fitting tights, whether minstrel acts, celebrity impressions of noted actor Edwin Booth (the brother of Lincoln’s assassin), and tightrope walking. Yet despite this circus-like activity, even more than later famous showbiz converts such as the late, lamented Elizabeth Taylor, Menken shows every sign of being a devoted student of Judaica, reading Hebrew fluently and pondering the Talmud and other sacred texts. Menken was a regular contributor of poems and prose to the newspaper “The Israelite,” founded and edited by Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise.
“The Klezmatics are the Jewish equivalent of arena rock,” ethnomusicologist Bob Cohen deadpans early in Erik Greenberg Anjou’s documentary “The Klezmatics: On Holy Ground.” “They’re not heavy metal; they’re heavy Yiddish.”
It’s a bit of tongue-in-cheek analysis calculated to make us chuckle (picture these mild-mannered, middle-aged folks head-banging in eyeliner and platform heels!) — and yet there’s truth in Cohen’s quip. The Klezmatics are, in a certain sense, a big-time group, having achieved a level of name recognition that’s rare in world music circles, and — it would seem to go without saying — rarer still for contemporary groups who sing in Yiddish. From an ethnomusicologist’s perspective, they’re interesting because they don’t just mimic old recordings: Here is something that at least approximates a living tradition — new tunes are composed, old tunes combined with jazz and gospel elements, Yiddish lyrics written about workers’ rights and gay pride. The group has been together for 20 years, released nine albums, collaborated with Itzhak Perlman and Nora Guthrie, and won a Grammy Award. And now, another milestone: The Klezmatics are famous enough that someone thought to make a documentary about them.