The Arty Semite

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


National Poetry Month: New Fugue to Sing

By Jake Marmer

French Jewish poet and writer Emmanuel Moses is well known and recognized overseas, as his Nelly Sachs Prize for translation, the Max Jacob Prize for poetry and the Ploquin-Caunan Academie Française prize attest. Fortunately, his work has also been steadily reaching American audiences. A retrospective poetry collection “Last News of Mr. Nobody” came out in 2005, featuring translations of Moses’s work by such luminaries as Marilyn Hacker, C.K. Williams, and others. In 2009 Hacker translated Emmanuel’s new collection “He and I,” the title of which hints at poet’s relationship with his father, as well as perhaps a larger, Buberian I-Thou angle. One of Moses’ character, Mr. Nobody, is prominently featured in the collection, a product of self-deprecation, dark humor, displacement, and other such exilic joys.

Today, we’re featuring two of the poet’s works, both in Marilyn Hacker’s translation. The first, “Fugue I,” responds to conceptual make up of a fugue, a classical composition in which a theme is repeated in multi-layered ways throughout the piece. Here, too, certain phrases and key images emerge, gradually intensifying throughout the work. There also appears to be a lifeline to another famous fugue-poem — Paul Celan’s “Todesfuge,” as both walk and blur the tenuous line between life and death, and both use the word “ash” as the recurring image.

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The Origin of Russian for Lovers

By Marina Biltshteyn

Marina Biltshteyn is the author of the new poetry chapbook “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:


It was my first semester in the MFA program and I was having a hard time, as can be the case. I was in the shower one day and it occurred to me I wanted to write an alphabet book to help my American lover learn Russian faster.

He’d been expressing interest in the language, picking up some words and phrases here and there, so I figured I could work out a little side-project from all the MFA work I was supposed to be doing. I planned on going letter by letter, making each poem revolve around the sound of that letter so he could learn it better.

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'Close to the Sun'

By Daniel Rauchwerger

Crossposted from Haaretz

Tali Mayer

Last Friday, a day before the opening of his solo show, “NU,” at the Dvir Gallery (Hangar 2, the Jaffa port), Algerian artist Adel Abdessemed looked relatively calm. His works, which arrived last week, had been carefully and slowly unboxed and set up, one behind the other, in the large, darkened space.

One video piece, two neon graffiti and a glass installation are what he chose to exhibit here now. They are fragments: He’s not seeking to build a narrative, but rather to display “acts,” as he calls them. In the future, art critics may classify them by comfortable and clear categories, such as migration, the exploitation of women and one world catastrophe or another.

Read more at Haaretz.com


National Poetry Month: Kabbalah and the Eagles

By Jake Marmer

Poets eat defiance for breakfast — rule-breaking, language-bending, Houdini-like wriggling out of cliché’s confines comes with the territory. In the works of poet-performer-professor Adeena Karasick such poetic freedom-seeking is manifest by dancing between complex academic concepts, pop culture, and shtick. She oscillates from poetics to social commentary in a manner that is darkly funny, parodic, over the top, and wonderfully challenging. Just see her infamous “I got a Crush on Osama” YouTube video, and check out some of the audience comments that went along with it.

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Overlooking Henry Mayhew's 'Street-Jews' in Dickensian London

By Benjamin Ivry

The vivid scenes of a bustling and brutally poor metropolis at the heart of Empire make Henry Mayhew’s masterpiece “London Labour and the London Poor,” first published in 1851 compelling reading. With or without Jews.

The Victorian social researcher originally published his work in three volumes and augmented it to four volumes in 1861 so reprints, apart from a long-unavailable complete version from Dover Publications decades ago, and current print-on-demand services, are by necessity abridgements. One such, in 1968, evoked a rave review from poet W. H. Auden, later collected in his “Forewords and Afterwords” lauding Mayhew’s “amazing ear for speech”; establishing that even the most caricature-like of Dickens’ characters seem to be inspired by reality as notated by Mayhew; and for giving a voice to the voiceless. (Even the stone-hearted poet Philip Larkin was moved by one of the monologues of misfortune in Mayhew to write a 1950 poem, “Deceptions.”)

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Slideshow: New Moon as Meaning and Metaphor

By Renee Ghert-Zand

‘Rosh Hodesh Reflection’ by Elizheva Hurvich

“Rosh Hodesh: Beginning and Renewal,” a community art exhibition on view at the San Francisco Bureau of Jewish Education’s Jewish Community Library until July 31, begins and ends with an egg.

Curator Elayne Grossbard selected Amy Kassiola’s colorful mixed media “One Cycle of the Moon,” which depicts the egg of a woman’s menstrual cycle, as the starting point for viewing the 30 works by 27 local artists (25 women and two men), some of whom have participated in this annual show since the 1990s.

Kassiola’s piece, one of the strongest in the show, is followed by a variety of interpretations of the celebration of the New Month. Inspired by a variety of traditional and modern texts and commentaries provided by Grossbard, the artists took off in a myriad directions in terms of both message and media.

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National Poetry Month: Old Men, Scattered

By Dan Friedman

Alicia Ostriker is a major American poet, critic and teacher. Recently a participant in the Forward’s “3 Alicias 3” event (part of our Jewish Art for the New Millennium series) and a judge for our Triangle Fire Poetry competition, Ostriker has twice been nominated for a National Book Award.

An emeritus professor of Rutgers Ostriker has taught across the world and has been published in many major periodicals (The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The Nation, Poetry, American Poetry Review, Kenyon Review, The Atlantic). In recent years she has shown increasing interest in her Jewish heritage, culminating (thus far) in winning the Jewish Book Award for Poetry in 2009 for “The Book of Seventy.”

The two poems below come twenty years apart but show a similar oscillation between metaphor and subject, between foreground and background, between the context and the observation. In the earlier one, forebears (the “old men” of the title) are compared to a God, for the purpose, it later seems of showing why old men evoke the idea of a God that stretches into a vast kindly past.

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Monday Music: Let's Talk About Love

By Eileen Reynolds

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.

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Friday Film: In 'The Calling,' the Mysteries of Faith Stay Mysterious

By Curt Schleier

African Methodist Episcopal pastor Jeneeen Robinson in ‘The Calling.’ Image courtesy of The Kindling Group.

“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.

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'Photograph 51' Puts Science Onstage

By Menachem Wecker

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.

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National Poetry Month: 'Jew on Bridge' by C.K. Williams

By Jake Marmer

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.

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First Jewish Collection for a 'Small Press Legend'

By Susie Davidson

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.

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Out and About: Stanley Kubrik's Unmade Holocaust Movie; A 19th-Century Female Cantor Remembered

By Ezra Glinter

Harvard Theater Collection

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Aspen Santa Fe Ballet Company Makes Israeli Debut

By Ruth Eshel

Crossposted from Haaretz

Rosalie O’Connor

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.

Read more at Haaretz.com


A.B. Yehoshua Speaks His Mind at the New York Public Library

By Allison Gaudet Yarrow

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.

Jori Klein

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.

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