The Arty Semite

Back in the Old Courtyard

By Sasha Senderovich

Courtesy Eilat Gordin Levitan

Between 1929 and 1935, Yiddish writer Moyshe Kulbak (1896-1937) published a comic novel called “The Zelmenyaners” serially in the Minsk-based Yiddish language monthly Shtern.The novel told the story of a family courtyard in Minsk, in Soviet Belorussia, which was being progressively transformed through aggressive Soviet modernization.

As I will explain in an April 13 lecture at YIVO titled “Ethnography of a Vanishing Courtyard: Moshe Kulbak’s Zelmenyaner,” the novel offers great insight into official ethnographic discourses about Jews produced in the 1920s and ‘30s as part of Soviet policy.

“The Zelmenyaners” offers a multi-layered commentary on the persistence of Jewish difference in a period of increasing attempts at ideological homogenization. One particular character, Tsalel, is engaged throughout the novel collecting and preserving the linguistic and behavioral peculiarities of his family — a clan of Zelmenyaners named after their patriarch, Reb Zelmele.

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Travelling to Toledo

By Jenna Weissman Joselit

Crossposted From Under the Fig Tree

When people talk of travel as broadening, they usually have Paris in mind, not Toledo, Ohio. But as I discovered recently, travelling to the heartland of America can be just as eye-opening.

I had come to the University of Toledo to deliver an illustrated lecture about the Ten Commandments and to participate in a Jewish-Christian-Muslim conversation about religion in contemporary America. By the end of my 24-hour stay, I had learned a lot.

For starters, I was exposed to the debilitating, corrosive effects of de-industrialization on the urban landscape. I then discovered that despite a first-rate women’s basketball team, the lecterns in the university’s student union are not equipped with digital technology. I subsequently drove all over town in search of a laptop as well as a clicker and, in the process, visited Corpus Christi Church where an interfaith dinner was being held.

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Hebrew for the Internet Age

By Haggai Hitron

Crossposted from Haaretz

“Writing on the Internet is like breathing or walking,” says Dr. Carmel Vaisman, who earned a Ph.D. from Hebrew University for her research on language, gender and play.

“Hebrew Online” (Keter, in Hebrew), which Vaisman wrote with her colleague, Ilan Gonen, who is completing a thesis on the Aramaic of Kurdistan’s Jews, offers a calm and methodical review of the ever-shifting role of Hebrew on the Web. Loaded with information and perspectives on trolls, spammers and people who post nasty comments, as well as sites like Wikipedia, Facebook and Twitter, the book can be read continuously or opened up at random. A useful dictionary with various Internet-related terms is provided in the back as well.

Read more at Haaretz.com


National Poetry Month: Hebrew, Arabic, and Dead Poets

By Jake Marmer

moti kikayon

Among the most original contemporary Israeli poets is Almog Behar, a Jerusalemite in his early 30s. His story “Ana Min Al-Yahoud” (“I am one of the Jews”), which won the Haaretz Short Story competition in 2005, in many ways defined his artistic and poetic practice: incorporating the Arabic heritage of his ancestors (who made their way to Israel from Iraq) into his Israeli, Hebrew-speaking purview. The musicality of his work grows not only from the tension in such a union, but also from cultural cross-pollination, and the possibilities this process has to offer.

And so, while the first poem featured today addresses the two languages and the two voices that are in conflict in the poet’s very throat, in the second piece, the undercurrent of Arabic heritage envelops a Jerusalem setting in an organic, wholesome and sweetly nostalgic manner. The third poem, despite its seemingly ominous title, is a more light-hearted, humorous diversion from heavy matters of identity conflict.

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Monday Music: Pilgrimage to Timbuktu

By Mordechai Shinefield

Tatiana McCabe

In geographic space the farthest city from New York is Perth, Australia, but in mental space the farthest is certainly Timbuktu. The Malian city sits on the southern border of the Sahara Desert and is so distant that schoolchildren name it as an impossible place. Dictionaries define it as “the most distant place imaginable” or someplace “foreign, outlandish.” Appropriately then, The Sway Machinery — JDub Records’ preeminent cosmopolitan culture-divers — travelled to Timbuktu to make their new album, “The House of Friendly Ghosts Vol. 1.”

The Sway Machinery guitarist and vocalist Jeremiah Lockwood started work in 2008 on a project he simply called “Pilgrimage,” thematically organized around the Temple pilgrimages of Ancient Judea and his own need to search out his grandmother’s vanished village in Transylvania. These impulses were satisfied last year when the band traveled to Timbuktu to play the Festival in the Desert, and “House” is the document of that pilgrimage to Mali.

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As Jewish as a Hillel Sandwich

By Austin Ratner

Austin Ratner‘s 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:


When I learned about Philippe Halsman’s life-story and determined I would write a novel about him (“The Jump Artist,” 2011 winner of the Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature), I was struck by the contradictions he embodied. Here was a man whom history had ensnared in a frightful way — at the age of 22, he was falsely accused of murdering his father in anti-Semitic western Austria, and he served two years in prison, where he attempted suicide and almost died of tuberculosis. At the same time, here was a man who re-emerged in New York in the 1940s as a photographer — one whose work expressed the playfulness and optimism of post-war life in America on the covers of Life magazine. Halsman himself was by all accounts a secular Jew, but his story and his work are as Jewish as a Hillel sandwich, and represent almost as neatly the opposite poles of pain and joy that define the Jewish historical experience.

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Out and About: Eichmann, 50 Years Later; Israel on the (Art) World Stage

By Ezra Glinter

‘Kalkidan’ by Kehinde Wiley. Courtesy Roberts & Tilton.
  • Israeli authors such as David Grossman and Amos Oz are protesting their government’s decision to deport Palestinian bookstore owner Munther Fahmi.

  • A 2,000-year-old synagogue in the Libyan town of Yefren is said to have been destroyed by government forces.

  • On the 50th anniversary of the Eichmann Trial, Deborah E. Lipstadt looks at six of the trial’s most significant moments.

  • Los Angeles artist Kehinde Wiley has made Israel the subject of his new show.

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This Week in Forward Arts and Culture

By Ezra Glinter

  • Philologos decides it’s time for a snack.

  • Philip Lutz listens in on “If a White Horse From Jerusalem” by jazz composer Bret Zvacek, featuring saxophonist and Miles Davis collaborator David Liebman.

  • Mladen Petrov peruses the work of third generation Polish Holocaust writers.

  • Jay Michaelson surveys this year’s new crop of Haggadot.

  • Jillian Steinhauer investigates Dalvador Dalí’s Jewish connections.


Prolific Director Sidney Lumet Dead at 86

By Ezra Glinter

Getty Images

Sidney Lumet, the acclaimed director more than 50 films, died April 9 in Manhattan at the age of 86.

Best known for taut psychodramas such as “Serpico” (1973), “Dog Day Afternoon” (1975), “Network” (1976) and “The Verdict” (1982), Lumet’s work demonstrated an enduring interest in social realism and the difficulty of obtaining justice, a concern he attributed to his Jewish upbringing.

“The Jewish ethic is stern, unforgiving, preaching, moralistic. And I guess it starts you thinking like that at an early age,” he told film scholar Gordon Gow in a 1975 interview.

Lumet also adapted many well-known works of theater for the screen, including Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey into Night,” Arthur Miller’s “A View from the Bridge,” and Tennessee Williams’s “Orpheus Descending” as “The Fugitive Kind.”

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Generations of Tradition, and Rare Books

By Katherine Clarke

From Ten copper plate etchings by Ira Moskowitz (1912-1985) for Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “Satan In Goray.”Courtesy of Cantor Bob Scherr at the Jewish Religious Center

An exhibition of rare Jewish books, now on display at the Jewish Religious Center at Williams College, Massachusetts, marks the center’s 20th anniversary. Alumnus and Jewish art collector Sigmund R. Balka loaned the books — part of his own personal Judaica collection — to the center as a means of honoring its contribution to his alma mater and passing his love of Jewish heritage on to the next generation.

Balka had a different experience from the current Jewish students at Williams: “When I began at Williams there was no Jewish center. In fact, there were very few Jewish students and certainly no place they could worship. There was compulsory chapel,” Balka, who graduated in 1956, told the Forward.

The passing of multiple new administrations since Balka’s college years has rendered the college more accepting and multi-faith, he says. Balka feels an emotional connection to the Jewish center as a symbol for Jewish students and a focal point for religious and cultural activity; “It was moving,” he remembers, “to be at the initiation of the Jewish center 20 years ago, when the prior history of the college, which was not empathetic to Jewish students, was frankly spoken about. Jewish students were able, for the first time, to have a home on campus, to be part of the student body instead of outsiders.”

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Friday Film: 'Mary Lou' Is More Than the Israeli 'Glee'

By Schuyler Velasco


“Courage is sometimes no more than an outburst of great despair.”

Early on, when our hero and narrator delivers the above line, one begins to suspect that “Mary Lou,” the infectious, surprisingly rich new musical drama from Israeli director Eytan Fox, has more to offer than sugary pop escapism, though it is generous on that front. Most of the major plot developments and character actions, courageous or not, are motivated by deep pathos, and that juxtaposition between sadness and sparkle lend “Mary Lou” its uniquely strange, fascinating character.

The film, which screened March 28 at the New Jersey Jewish Film Festival, began as a four part miniseries on Israeli television and won Best Miniseries at Israel’s annual television awards in 2010. It tells the story of Meir (Ido Rosenberg), a young gay man searching for his long-lost mother, Miriam (Maya Dugan), who calls herself Mary Lou. Mary Lou, who disappears on Meir’s 10th birthday, is an obsessive fan of Israeli pop star Svika Pick (her assumed nickname comes from one of his biggest hits), so Meir becomes convinced that she has run away to become the musician’s backup singer. It’s a lie that Meir tells himself, and anyone else who will listen, shortly after her disappearance; as he grows into an adult, he comes to believe in it heartily enough to make his own escape to Tel Aviv, certain he will find his mother there.

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National Poetry Month: 'The Grave of Craving'

By Ezra Glinter

Courtesy Sheep Meadow Press

It’s tempting to read nearly anything by Joy (previously Jay) Ladin against the backdrop of her decision some five years ago to become a woman. That is certainly the case with “The Grave of Craving,” featured today on The Arty Semite as part of our poem-a-day series in honor of National Poetry Month. Taking its cue from the episode in the book of Numbers, in which the Children of Israel complain about the lack of meat in the desert, the poem speaks to themes of both re-birth and transgression. But “The Grave of Craving” is not limited by Ladin’s biography; its evocation of earthly appetite, simultaneously signaling both life and mortality, is universal.

A professor of English at Stern College of Yeshiva University, Ladin’s previous books include “Alternatives to History” (2003), “The Book of Anna” (2007) and “Transmigration”(2009). She has been the recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship, an American Council of Learned Societies Fellowship and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize in Poetry. “Grave of Craving” is included in her most recent collection, “Coming to Life.”

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Leaving Mother Moldova

By Marina Blitshteyn

Marina Blitshteyn is the author of the new poetry chapbook “Russian for Lovers.” In her earlier post, she wrote about the origin of Russian for Lovers and the poetry writing process. Her blog posts have been 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’s not my story to tell so I haven’t really been telling it. The struggle was my parents’, who lost their careers and started from scratch in a new country, and more my sister’s than mine, having been thrust into an American public high school with an accent and a bad case of culture shock. Over the years I’d been collecting bits and pieces of the narrative: how bad things got towards the end, Jewish homes broken into, families beaten, demonstrations in public squares, the slogan “We will drown the Soviets in Jewish blood!”

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Excerpt: Terrorism and the Fotonovela

By Ezra Glinter

On the morning of July 18, 1994, the deadliest terrorist attack in the history of Argentina took place with the bombing of the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina, killing 85 people and injuring hundreds. The investigation into the attack is ongoing. In his new fotonovela, “Once @ 9:53 am,” Forward contributing editor Ilan Stavans, along with photographer Marcelo Brodsky, revisits the incident, delving into the historic neighborhood where it took place and speculating as to the identity of the attackers. In an interview with the Forward’s Ezra Glinter, Stavans talks about making art out of news and how an attack against a Jewish community was seen as an attack against an entire nation. “Once @ 9:53 am” will be launched on April 14 at The JCC in Manhattan.

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Dances With Sculptures

By Ruth Eshel

Crossposted from Haaretz

Efrat Valero

Improvisations by veteran dancer Anat Shamgar and up-and-coming dancer and choreographer Arkadi Zaides form the basis of “Dance with a Sculpture,” an intimate, magical and profound show. Created with sculptor Avital Cnaani, the dance is accompanied by the sounds of the cello, played by Dan Weinstein and Karni Postal.

The name of the program aroused my curiosity, as I was hoping to see the extent to which the encounter between dance and sculpture has changed, 30 years after the trend swept over independent dance in Israel. Back then, the dancers’ interaction with sculptures and other props stemmed primarily from a desire to discover a new language of movement. The sculpture or prop became part of the movement solution, and technical dancing ability was occasionally sidelined in favor of creative solutions found in the encounter between the object and the body.

Read more at Haaretz.com


David Bezmozgis and Me

By Karen E. H. Skinazi

Back in the early 1980s, the Russians were coming. Not the Cold Warriors, but the Jewish children, with names like Yana and Inna and Igor. Each child seemed impossibly pale — pale hair, pale eyes, pale skin, pale lips, pale hand clutching the hand of his or her mother, a woman, in contrast, impossibly bright — garish makeup, colorful clothing, aflame in gold and diamonds, awash in heady perfume. The Russian child (for we didn’t distinguish then between Russians and Ukrainians, Ukrainians and Latvians) arrived at our classroom door, silent, in clothes of Soviet gray: ill-fitting gray sweaters, and gray pants, pulled too high, cut too short. The mother stood in line for financial aid, chatting away with the Russian mother in front of her and the Russian mother behind her: a line of peacocks speaking in a foreign tongue, a sight and a sound not soon forgotten.

David and me (Toronto, 1985). The caption on the back reads “Skinny and Bizzy.”

Only later did those sounds take on meaning as those children, a blond boy named David among them, taught us to repeat key ones: “Dasvidaniya,” “Pajalusta,” and “Yob tuvyu mat.”

In his short story “Natasha,” David Bezmozgis lingers in the land of Soviet children I remembered: those who had arrived in Canada, had to learn a new language, and a new Judaism. Similarly, in his film “Victoria Day,” Bezmozgis explores a young, Canadian, Jewish immigrant world through the story of one of our own who was lost to us, back in 1988: Benjy Hayward, who, like the film’s Jordan Chapman, went to a Pink Floyd concert one night and never returned.

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National Poetry Month: 'The Zoo in Winter'

By Ezra Glinter

Still in her mid-30s, Polina Barskova is already considered one of the foremost contemporary Russian poets. Born in 1976 in then-Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), she began publishing her poetry at age 9 and released her first collection at 15. After earning a bachelor’s degree in Russian Literature and Classics from St. Petersburg University, Barskova moved to the United States, where she earned a Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, and joined the faculty at Hampshire College, where she currently teaches. Though Barsokova has published seven poetry collections in Russian, “The Zoo in Winter,” whose title poem is featured today on The Arty Semite, is her first collection in English.

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Walt Whitman in Yiddish

By Shoshana Olidort

Wiki Commons

Perhaps the greatest American poet ever to have lived, Walt Whitman was not always regarded as such. Thanks, in part, to the emergence of modernist forms in poetry toward the end of the 19th century, Whitman’s work did not attract critical attention until after his death in 1892. But for Jewish immigrant poets living in New York City at the turn of the century, Whitman was an iconic figure — a poet and even a prophet. The famous American Yiddish poet Morris Rosenfeld wrote an ode to Whitman, shortly after his death, which concludes “Prophet, immortal, I praise you / I fall now into the dust before your dust and sing!” And the legendary Yiddish writer Avrom Reyzn, in a study delineating Whitman’s influence on Yiddish poets, called him the “Prophet of New America.”

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The Poetry Writing Process

By Marina Blitshteyn

Marina Blitshteyn is the author of the new poetry chapbook “Russian for Lovers.” In her earlier post, she wrote about the origin of Russian for Lovers. 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:


A confession about my writing/editing process: I have none. Which is to say, I wish I could say something about how regimented I’d been with this project, working a select number of days on select letters, sending drafts to my editor for proofing, receiving feedback, editing, sending them back. The truth is this was my first real long thing up for publication, so I’m surprised it’s even finished, let alone published.

As soon as I get an idea, I obsess over it, work on it religiously for a while, then come to a point that resembles a crossroads. Then I don’t know where to go. So ordinarily I put it aside until one fine day I figure it will come to me. Because Liz, my dear friend and editor at Argos Books, got invested in the project, I couldn’t put it aside for too long. I vowed to myself that I’d work on it last summer, but of course that didn’t happen.

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The Artist's Pinch

By Dafna Arad

Crossposted from Haaretz

If you’re willing to pose with a hibiscus flower in place of a sexual organ, or have a lobster dance with you as you strike a pornographic pose — and have that photo tagged on Facebook — you have to pay for it.

Yoash Foldesh approaches a wide drawer in his house, pulls out a tin cylinder, opens it and spills puzzle pieces on a low wooden table. The pieces are large, like those of a puzzle for beginners, greenish and yellowish, and outlined in black. The task of assembling them is performed quietly, with concentration. The red lobster featured in many of Foldesh’s pieces splashes in its nearby aquarium.

Read more at Haaretz.com


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