The Arty Semite

How Lewis Black Almost Became a Rabbi

By Curt Schleier

Clay McBride

Lewis Black is a bundle of apoplectic fury on stage. His fingers shake and his voice is raised in rage as he throws thunderbolts of indignation at the audience.

Consider his concert at Carnegie Hall a few years ago. It was recorded for posterity (not to mention profit) and ultimately earned him his first Grammy Award. In it, he recalled his first Yom Kippur services. Words cannot describe his reaction as a five-year-old to hearing the rabbi discuss the prospect of being placed in the Book of Life.

Or the Book of Death.

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France's Jewish Triple Threat

By Omer Laor

Crossposted from Haaretz

“I was boiling with anger when I heard that Mike Leigh and Ken Loach had called for the boycott of Israeli films,” says French-Jewish actor, director and screenwriter Pascal Elbe. “As a Frenchman, I see in culture, as in academia, a necessity for every dialogue. What bridges do they want to burn? To silence Israeli cinema? That’s ridiculous! After all, Israeli cinema is also a vehicle for criticism and that’s one of the reasons why it’s successful. It touches on relevant and painful issues, at a time when in France they prefer to make stupid comedies that have guaranteed success and don’t challenge anything.”

Elbe, who this year is serving as president of the 11th Israeli Film Festival in Paris, will arrive in Israel next month to film two movies, one of which he is directing.

Read more at Haaretz.com


The Last Great Yiddish Modernist Poet

By Itay B. Zutra

The Yiddish poet Yirmiye (Jeremiah) Hesheles died on October 16, 2010. When he celebrated his 100th birthday a group of dedicated Yiddishists, myself included, celebrated the occasion by paying him a visit at the New York State Veterans Home in St. Albans, Queens. A herd of geese, as if out of an Eastern European legend, greeted us in the parking lot. The building was big, its corridors cold. Veterans were rolling around in their wheelchairs or lying quietly in bed. We were looking for the last great Yiddish modernist alive. We found him asleep in one of the geriatric wards. The nurse did not let us see him. Showing her a picture of the young Hescheles did not help.

Itzik Gottesman

What do Yiddish pilgrims do when they are denied access to the object of their desire? They go see the Lubavitcher Rebbe in the nearby Montefiore cemetery. Maybe it was the spirit of the dead Rebbe who helped us, but back in the hospital we negotiated with a weary social worker and were granted permission for a short visit. Hescheles was lying in bed wearing a hospital uniform. When he saw us he sighed and said (in English): “Oh no. This is not a good day. I have a heart condition and I am 100 years old.”

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Out and About: Elizabeth Taylor's Best Roles; Translating Kabbalistic Poetry

By Ezra Glinter

Getty Images

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The Game of Life

By Oded Yaron

Crossposted from Haaretz

Getty Images

Computer games have been known for decades now as the bitterest enemies of efficiency; after all, when the icon for the World of Warcraft or Angry Birds is easily accessible on the screen, it’s tempting to ignore one’s daily work. But must the fun of virtual games stand in opposition to the real world and the tedium of routine?

Voices in the community of game developers believe that these two worlds don’t have to collide. Many of them have recently been talking about “gamification” — a combination of computer game elements with other worlds, which the developers say can inspire activities outside the borders of technology.

Read more at Haaretz.com


A French TV Host's Ardor Emanates from Jewish Roots

By Benjamin Ivry

Courtesy of France Télévisions Publicité

For decades, a French Jewish host of chat show and variety programs on radio and television has been famous locally for filling a Johnny Carson/Ed Sullivan role, but with the likeability of a Mike Douglas/Merv Griffin. At 68, Michel Drucker, born in Normandy of Romanian and Austrian ancestry, has been looking back at his Jewish family roots, which may be the source of his unique warmth.

After a 2007 memoir co-authored by Jean-François Kervéan, “What are We Going to Do With You?” (Mais qu’est-ce qu’on va faire de toi?) from Les Éditions Robert Laffont, he has produced, again with Kervéan and from Laffont, “Remind Me” (Rappelle-moi), which appeared at the end of October, 2010. Both books are loosely anecdotal narratives which alternate name-dropping with highly human, empathetic tributes to Drucker’s father, Abraham Drucker, and his mother, Lola Schafler.

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Dance, Drink and Mayhem at Moscow's Purim Bacchanale

By Josh Tapper

Michael Alpert, Daniel Kahn and Psoy Korolenko perform at Moscow Yiddish Fest 2009.

For all of its charitable mishloach manot-giving and passive-aggressive gragger-shaking, Purim is hardly the tamest Jewish holiday. At its best (worst?) the celebration follows a sort of Bakhtinian carnivalesque disorder, with masks, public denunciations of the villain Haman and booze — lots of booze.

With that in mind, one would expect Moscow, surely a world capital of hedonism, to know how to throw down on Purim. And at Yiddish Fest 2011, a three-hour concert at the upscale music club Milk on March 19, the city did not disappoint. Twenty-five musicians, often on stage all at the same time, taking vodka shots mid-song, shelled roughly 2,000 concert-goers with a raucous fusion of neo-klezmer, reggae, funk and hip-hop sounds, working the atmosphere into what can only be described as part bar mitzvah, part raw punk, part Breslov dance party.

“It was an orgy, a public orgasm,” accordionist and singer Daniel Kahn, of Berlin-based Daniel Kahn and The Painted Bird, said after the show. “Irreverent, anarchic and just fun.”

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Choosing 'The Chosen,' on Stage and Screen

By Jenna Weissman Joselit

Crossposted From Under the Fig Tree

There aren’t too many novels that can lay claim to a second, much less a third, lease on life as both a film and a play, especially when the subject at hand has to do with religion and faith. But “The Chosen,” Chaim Potok’s novel of Orthodox Jewish life in Brooklyn during the waning years of the 1940s, has, of late, scored a home run.

These days, it takes the form of a critically acclaimed play which, thanks to a creative partnership between Theater J and Arena Stage, can be seen at the latter’s 800-seat Fichandler Theatre downtown.

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Man in the Mirror

By Smadar Sheffi

Crossposted from Haaretz

Elad Sarig
Miroslaw Balka’s “Heaven.”

“Heaven,” a work by Miroslaw Balka now showing at Hangar 2, Dvir Gallery’s space in the Jaffa Port, stirs more than a trace of irony. Sixty-eight Perspex rods, each wrought in a kind of open spiral, turn slowly, “flowing,” reminiscent of decorative objects sold at spiritual fairs or plant nurseries. In the middle of the week, when the space was entirely empty of visitors, the observer’s portrait was refracted in the rods and illuminated by an unearthly sort of light.

It is an experience in which the “I” is infinitely reduplicated, like in a hall of mirrors or in a dream. The duplication is one of solitariness, and its amplification creates an uncomfortable feeling.

Read more at Haaretz.com


Umberto Saba: a Writer of Passions and Frustrations

By Benjamin Ivry

Wiki Commons

Although the Italian Jewish poet Umberto Saba (born Umberto Poli in Trieste) died in 1957, only in 2009 did an accurate translation of many of his poems appear, “Songbook: The Selected Poems of Umberto Saba” from Yale University Press.

A further tribute to Saba appeared from Les Éditions du Seuil in October 2010, in the form of a new French edition of Saba’s posthumous autobiographical novel “Ernesto” translated and introduced by René de Ceccatty, who published a February, 2010 biography of Alberto Moravia for Les editions Flammarion. A new translation was needed because after the original Italian edition in 1975, edited by the poet’s daughter Linuccia and her companion, the painter and author Carlo Levi, a revised and augmented edition of “Ernesto” was published by Einaudi Editore in 1995.

Aside from textual matters, “Ernesto” baffled many of Saba’s admirers, who were unaware that he was a gay man, since his poetry does not make this aspect of his life evident, whereas “Ernesto,” published posthumously, is explicitly homoerotic. “Ernesto” recounts a sixteen-year-old’s sexual encounters with two males, one an older work colleague and the second a contemporary, as well as a female prostitute.

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A Girl Who Slays Dragons, but Stops for Shabbat

By Laurie Kamens

Mirka Hershberg is a normal 11-year-old Orthodox Jewish girl. She attends school, polishes the candlesticks for Shabbat, does her homework, gives tzedakah, fights trolls and dreams of slaying dragons.

Well, maybe not your typical 11-year-old Orthodox Jewish girl.

Written by illustrator Barry Deutsch, “Hereville” is the story of Mirka’s quest for a dragon-slaying sword. Originally drawn as a comic strip on Girlamatic.com, Deutsch recently developed it into a graphic novel.

Raised in the remote village of Hereville, Mirka lives with her father, stepmother, and eight siblings. Though her stepmother tries to instruct her in the “womanly arts,” including knitting and crocheting, Mirka has bigger dreams for herself that don’t include domesticity.

She wants to fight dragons.

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Out With Punk, In With 'Ounk'

By Lea Penn

Crossposted from Haaretz

Daniel Tchetchik

Man 25 considers itself a performance band in the full sense of the word. While other local indie bands save every penny in order to produce an album and release singles to be played on the radio, Man 25 views recorded materials as a calling card only. Drummer Tomer Tzur (30), guitarist and video artist Gidon Schocken (28) and soloist and text writer Orly Eitan (28) invest most of their efforts in creating an extremely loud show that combines noise, metal, post-punk, psychedelics, and in effect, “every musical genre that generates distortion walls, feedback whistles and screams.”

They describe their music as “ounk,” a genre they themselves invented. “It began with a typo,” says Tzur. “We wanted to write ‘punk’ and instead we wrote ‘ounk,’ and so we went with it. I think it’s a word that does a good job of summing up all the styles that we experiment with, and it has a good sound.”

Read more at Haaretz.com


Monday Music: Wartime Songs for Gertrude Stein

By Raphael Mostel

Barbara Braun

There have been New York premieres of several noteworthy works recently, including major new violin concertos by Harrison Birtwhistle and James McMillan. But easily the most interesting was the grand finale of Lincoln Center’s Tully Scope Festival on March 18: Heiner Goebbels’s “Songs of Wars I Have Seen,” which uses passages from the remarkable book of the same name by Gertrude Stein. Despite being not only Jewish and American but also a lesbian and a modernist, Stein managed to survive Vichy-era France without too much privation, and the book is essentially a distillation of her diary from that period.

Goebbels (of no relation to the infamous Nazi Minister of Propaganda) is a German composer of substance and subtlety who creates rarified, difficult-to-categorize, large-scale works that embrace or even cross over into other art forms, and which often marshal a distinctive army of collaborators. To call Goebbels’s music eclectic is to state the obvious, but it is also misleading. He believes there are no new sounds to be discovered, and his compositions combine or reference a wide range of sources without being derivative.

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Monday Music: A Simple Jew With a Touch of Gaga

By Binyomin Ginzberg

Last month, the hugely popular Hasidic singer Lipa Schmeltzer, known simply as “Lipa,” released his latest album, “24/6,” a collection of cover songs currently popular at Hasidic weddings.

The release comes almost exactly three years after the singer’s then-largest concert was banned by many prominent rabbis in the Haredi world, and it is only the latest step in what has become an exceedingly successful career.

In early 2008, the then-rising Hasidic entertainer advertised a huge concert at Madison Square Garden dubbed “The Big Event.” Just two and a half weeks before the March 9 show, a ban was published in religious newspapers signed by many respected ultra-Orthodox rabbis. The ban resulted in the cancellation of the concert, as well as of an April show in London. The New York Times quoted Schmeltzer saying that he had no choice but to obey the decree. “I have a career, I have a wife and kids to support, I have a mortgage to pay, I have to get out of the fire.”

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A Tenor for the People

By Noam Ben-Zeev

Crossposted from Haaretz

Tali Mayer

Without any fanfare or festivities, modestly and almost anonymously, Christoph Pregardien — one of the greatest lyric tenors of our time — landed in Israel a few days ago. It is hard to imagine a more impressive career than his: The greatest conductors conduct him, and he is hosted by the top stages and festivals around the world, as well as orchestras and recording companies. The German tenor has already recorded over 120 discs, which have won innumerable prizes.

Pregardien’s tremendous range begins with Monteverdi and Schutz at the dawn of Baroque, through Purcell, Bach and Handel, all the classical and romantic composers, up to Britten and contemporary German composers. He arrived in Israel to sing Schubert’s “Winterreise” (“Winter Journey” ) cycle (at the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center this past Saturday, and tonight at the Jerusalem YMCA, at 8:30 PM), with which he continuously fills concert halls all over the world. Just last week he sang it in Germany and Belgium, and the upcoming months are already filled with performance dates too.

Read more at Haaretz.com


Out and About: Talking Jewish in Livorno; Anselm Kiefer's Apocalyptic Vision

By Ezra Glinter

Getty Images
‘The seven heavenly palaces’ by Anselm Kiefer at the Hangar Bicocca Contemporary Art Museum.

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This Week in Forward Arts and Culture

By Ezra Glinter

Sarah Silverman in ‘Peep World.’
  • Curt Schleier goes to see “Peep World,” where Jews finally attain the dysfunctional status of WASPs.

  • Philologos noses around with exasperation.

  • Michelle Sieff adjudicates Deborah Lipstadt’s arguments with Hannah Arendt in “The Eichmann Trial.”

  • Katherine Clarke looks into Southeastern Europe’s first Holocaust Museum in Skopje, Macedonia.

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Catherine Clément: a French Author of Memory and Understanding

By Benjamin Ivry

Wiki Commons

On January 21, French author Catherine Clément, whose Jewish mother Rivka was portrayed onscreen by Jeanne Moreau in Amos Gitai’s 2008 film One Day You’ll Understand, published an open letter in the weekly Le Nouvel Observateur. Clement announced her resignation from France’s High Commission for National Commemorations (Le Haut comité des Célébrations nationales) after Culture Minister Frédéric Mitterand scheduled celebrations of the ferociously anti-Semitic author Louis-Ferdinand Céline for the upcoming 50th anniversary of his death in 1961.

Noted Nazi-hunter Serge Klarsfeld had expressed objections the previous day, which led to Clément’s resignation in “solidarity” with Klarsfeld’s view that since Céline had, during the German occupation of France, published several lengthy books — still banned for republication in France today — urging that Jews be killed, he was not someone to celebrate. In her open letter, Clément explains: “The name of Céline having revolted me for over fifty years” she could not approve of honoring anyone so marked by the “virulence of his racism.” Then Clément offered a quote from her mother Rivka: “So long as only 20 percent of French people are anti-Semites, that’s okay;” in Clément’s view, today France’s younger generation rarely hate Jews, but among septuagenarians like herself (Clément was born in 1939) “latent anti-Semitism creeps up until it reaches the unconscious.”

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Turkish Coffee for the Crown Prince

By Reyna Simnegar

Earlier this week, Reyna Simnegar, the author of “Persian Food from the Non-persian Bride: And Other Sephardic Kosher Recipes You Will Love,” wrote about Miss Venezela Material and Sephardim Strike Back! 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:


Wiki Commons
Reza Cyrus Pahlavi, the last crown prince of the former Imperial State of Iran.

It was a regular morning at my home, dishes to wash, laundry to fold, when I got a phone call from my husband. “Reyna, I am coming this afternoon with Reza Pahlavi.” Thinking it was a work colleague, I casually asked him, “At what time? Do you guys want to have dinner here?” That’s when he finally explained to me this “Reza Pahlavi” was not any “Pahlavi,” he was His Imperial Highness Crowned Prince Reza Pahlavi of Iran!

The Prince was visiting Boston and somehow my husband (if you know him, you know this is right up his alley) had convinced His Imperial Highness to come have dessert and tea at our house! My legs were shaking. “The crowned prince — here? In this messy house? I am going to kill Sammy!” I immediately recruited a cleaning lady and set off for a hunt to buy Persian desserts. As I was pulling off the driveway, I noticed the secret service searching the vicinity of my house making sure it was a safe place for the prince.

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Friday Film: Stalking Grace

By Tahneer Oksman

Karl Bissinger

In a 2007 obituary for Grace Paley published in the New York Times, Margalit Fox wrote that “Ms. Paley was among the earliest American writers to explore the lives of women — mostly Jewish, mostly New Yorkers — in all their dailiness.” Lilly Rivlin’s recent documentary, “Grace Paley: Collected Shorts,” screening March 27 at the Minneapolis Jewish Film Festival, brings together a chorus of voices from friends, family and colleagues to Paley herself, to convey a powerful portrait of an artist, poet, teacher and political figure whose depictions of the everyday lives of women had, and continue to have, a deep and powerful impact.

Paley was born in 1922 to Russian parents who were “kid socialists,” as she calls them in one of many interviews interspersed throughout the film. She explains that her parents “were part of a generation of Russians who hoped they could be Russian.” Of course, in Russia at the time, they were seen primarily as Jews, a legacy that Paley examines throughout her oeuvre. Her stories, poems, and essays continually explore questions of identity, and through her writing we witness an author attempting to account for diversity even as she celebrates the mundane but meaningful rituals and experiences that people share: spats between loved ones, the humor of everyday life, the solace and beauty that can be found in art and literature and language.

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