The Arty Semite

Friday Film: Alan Zweig and the Cinema of Emotional Crudity

By John Semley

In 2000, filmmaker Alan Zweig gained modest success on the festival circuit with “Vinyl,” a documentary probing the quirks and eccentricities of compulsive record collectors. (“Compulsive” referring not to some guy with a few hundred LPs, but to some guy who rents a U-Haul locker on the edge of town to serve as a supplementary storage archive.) In a highly conversational, and often confrontational manner, Zweig pressed his subjects to spill the beans about their hoarding impulses, their loneliness, and all of their other personal peccadilloes. And it was all intercut with shots of Zweig interviewing himself in a vanity mirror, mining his own emotional depths.

Courtesy Hot Docs

It’s a style that Zweig — a former taxi-cab driver who shares an affinity with the bare-all first-person narratives of Charles Bukowski and Harvey Pekar — would employ in his subsequent studies of human loneliness: 2004’s “I, Curmudgeon,” 2007’s “Lovable,” and 2009’s “A Hard Name.” In the post-“Bowling For Columbine” climate of documentary filmmaking that favours glossy production values, didactic voice-overs, and dumbed-down argumentation, Zweig’s films reek of bluntness and sincerity. Their ostensibly slapdash quality (he doesn’t light his subjects or use crews; it’s all Zweig and his camera) suits their anxious, candid approach — the cinema of emotional crudity.

Now Zweig, 59, is being honoured with a retrospective of his work at the 2011 Canadian International Documentary Film Festival (more colloquially, Hot Docs), which runs from April 28 to May 8 in his native Toronto. It’s a fitting homage, given Zweig’s cult status in the Toronto film scene. I spoke with Zweig in a coffee shop in the Roncesvalles neighbourhood, one of the city’s less gentrified quarters, where the he makes his home.

John Semley: How did you land on the particular style, or non-style, that defines your work?

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The New Ars Judaica Has Arrived

By Samuel D. Gruber

Crossposted from Samuel Gruber’s Jewish Art & Monuments

Wiki Commons
The synagogue of Oran, discussed in an article in Ars Judaica by Dominique Jarrassé.

The seventh volume of the excellent art journal Ars Judaica has been published by Bar-Ilan University. Editors Bracha Yaniv, Mirjam Rajner and Ilia Rodov have done it again, producing a rich selection of well-research articles, beautifully illustrated and presented. Older readers will remember that from the 1970s through the 1990s there was only one reliable forum dedicated to scholarly works about Jewish art, and that was the Journal of Jewish Art (later just Jewish Art) published by the Center for Jewish Art at The Hebrew University. That journal is no more — though the Center continues to publish important monographs and other volumes, now in partnership arrangements with other institutions.

Fortunately, Ars Judaica and the journal Images, published by Brill, have developed to take its place. Significantly, the journals are complementary in editorial approach. Ars Judaica mostly focuses on painting, especially the “heroic” period of Jewish history painting and nascent modernism form the late 19th century until the Holocaust. There is usually a strong representation of new research on art and artists from Central and Eastern Europe, and of course utilizing sources in Israel.

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Hannah Arendt and the Eichmann Trial

By Deborah Lipstadt

On Wednesday, Deborah Lipstadt wrote about eerie anniversaries. She is the author of the new book “The Eichmann Trial.” 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:


I have spent much of the past few weeks talking about my new book, “The Eichmann Trial.” I don’t want to make this blog entry about the book. (To be blunt, I’d rather have folks read the book.) But something has struck me in the talks and interviews I have conducted.

For so many people the issue of the Eichmann trial remains Hannah Arendt. They seem to have a hard time conceiving of the Eichmann trial independent of Arendt’s “analysis.” I am speaking of who abhor what she said as well as of those who espouse her views.

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A Mélange of Musical May Days

By Benjamin Ivry

As May rolls around for Manhattan music lovers, ‘tis the season for appreciating the works of George Kleinsinger, whose much-loved orchestral work “Tubby the Tuba” will be performed on April 30 in the Peter Jay Sharp Theater by The Lesbian & Gay Big Apple Corps Symphonic Band.

Kleinsinger wrote “Tubby” in 1941, about the possibly hidden virtues of difference in a world darkened by Fascist uniformity, just as one year later, he would contribute a song, “Queen Esther,” glorifying the heroine who defeated Haman, to a Broadway review about victory over Hitler, entitled “Of V We Sing,” a punning reference to the Gershwin musical hit “Of Thee I Sing.”

More pop music pizzazz may be heard from May 3 to May 5, when the sibling songstresses Liz Callaway and Ann Hampton Callaway perform at Birdland music of the 60s and 70s by Carole King, Carly Simon, and Paul Simon. Opera fans will note that May is hitherto the official Regina Resnik Appreciation Month, for the great Bronx-born mezzo-soprano, 89, has vocal-coached a new production of Verdi’s Falstaff to be performed by The Mannes Opera on May 5 and May 6.

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Terrorist Noire

By Ishai Mooreville

It is often forgotten that before the existence of film noir, there was literary noir. The genre came to prominence in novels by James Cain, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, who wrote “The Maltese Falcon” in 1930. Its origins can be found even further back, in Joseph Conrad’s “The Secret Agent,” from 1907. It is therefore no surprise that someone has finally decided to portray the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the lens of literary noir. After all, the conflict has been full of hidden motives, personal vendettas, and tragic killings.

In his novel “Limassol,” translated from the Hebrew by Barbara Harshav, author Yishai Sarid uses the conventions of noir — the cynical, hard-boiled detective, the femme fatale, overweight gangsters and, of course, guns — to tell an emotionally wrenching story.

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National Poetry Month: An Ancient and Modern Job

By Ezra Glinter

‘The Patient Job’ by Gaspare Traversi

As it’s title indicates, Freddy Frankel’s “Job,” featured today on The Arty Semite in honor of National Poetry Month, is about the biblical figure tested by Satan to see whether his piety was sincere. In Frankel’s rendering, Job is at once the ancient figure of the Bible (“Desolate on the dung-hill”), as well as a more modern victim of calamity, perhaps a Holocaust victim (“my life aflame like books banned”). The final line makes Job a thoroughly contemporary character, as he ponders the impossibility of obtaining justice for irreparable suffering.

Before devoting himself full-time to poetry, Freddy Frankel had a distinguished career as a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School, and Beth Israel Hospital. A native of South Africa, he served with the British Army during World War II before immigrating to the United States following the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960. His latest book, “Wresting Angels,” is available from Ibetson Street Press.

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Video: 'Next Year in Uman: A Journey to Ukraine'

By Ezra Glinter and Nate Lavey

Photo by Ahron D. Weiner

In 2004, photographer Ahron D. Weiner took his first trip to the gravesite of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov in Uman, Ukraine. Before his death in 1810, Nachman is said to have promised that if his followers came to his grave on Rosh Hashanah, he would intercede on their behalf in heaven, even “pulling them out of hell by their peyes.” In recent years Uman has become the largest Jewish pilgrimage site outside of Israel, drawing tens of thousands of visitors each year, a scene Weiner describes as “Mt. Sinai meets Woodstock.” For six years Weiner returned to Uman for Rosh Hashanah, taking thousands of photographs. In the video below, Weiner describes his experiences in Uman, interacting with and taking pictures of the pilgrims who flock there. An exhibit of these photos titled “Next Year in Uman: A Journey to the Ukraine” is currently on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Jewish Art.

Watch a video of ‘Next Year in Uman’:

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The Ghosts of Kentridge Past

By Akin Ajayi

“Drawing for II Sole 24 Ore [World Walking],” by William Kentridge, 2007, Charcoal, gouache, pastel, and colored pencil on paper. Courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery, New York.

At a remove, William Kentridge’s work can seem like a study in contradictions. His work is heavily influenced by the once repressive — now merely turbulent — politics of his native South Africa, but often features a lightness sometimes bordering on whimsy; his observations have a universality of tone, yet are underpinned by a distinctly personal, at times autobiographical twist. The works themselves — collages, charcoal drawings and animations that Kentridge himself has likened to “stone-age filmmaking” — are functional in form, yet touched with an unexpected gracefulness and charm.

Showing at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem through June 18, “Five Themes” explores the last two decades of Kentridge’s prolific output in five mediums — drawing, sculpture, animation, print and stage design. Kentridge is a restless artist; the exhibition demonstrates the breadth of his artistic scope. Even so, a theme does recur, one of preoccupation with the ghosts of the past and their influence on the present.

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Out and About: Phillip Lopate on Simon Schama; New Director for the Folksbiene

By Ezra Glinter

Wiki Commons
Portal to the renovated synagogue in Ostrow Wielkopolski, Poland.
  • Essayist Phillip Lopate ponders “Scribble, Scribble, Scribble” a new miscellany by historian Simon Schama.

  • Has Paul Simon been getting the attention he deserves?

  • The Canadian Jewish News profiles former Guns N’ Roses drummer Steven Adler.

  • Two synagogue restoration projects in Poland have won awards, one of them for “façade of the year.”

  • Bryna Wasserman, artistic director of the Segal Centre for Performing Arts in Montreal, is leaving that post to become the executive director of the Folksbiene Yiddish Theatre in New York.

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Regal Theater in St. Petersburg

By Michael Handelzalts

Crossposted from Haaretz

Yair Haklai

The Europe Theatre Prize award ceremony, held 10 days ago in St. Petersburg, Russia, was the most impressive and certainly the most moving out of the five times I’ve had the honor of attending this event. This was due not only to this year’s prize winners and their work, but also the fact that the ceremony took place in the Alexandrinsky Theatre (named for Alexandra, the wife of Czar Nikolai I; though it was since renamed the Pushkin, for the writer, everyone still uses its historic name). This facility was inaugurated in 1756, a fact the event organizers made great use of. In addition, one prize winner turned the award ceremony itself into a theatrical spectacle, further adding to the event’s overall success.

The Europe Theatre Prize (or Premio Europa) was awarded for the first time in 1987 in Taormina, Sicily, and it is a project jointly run by a large group of organizations: the European Union, UNESCO’s International Theatre Institute, the International Association of Theatre Critics, and two other somewhat competing frameworks — the Union of European Theatres and the European Union of Theatres (Habima belongs to the former and Cameri to the latter, or vice versa).

Read more at Haaretz.com


National Poetry Month: In Person

By Jake Marmer

Poetry existed long before printing, literacy, or even the alphabet: Poet-bards went around reciting their material orally, memorizing lines and improvising on them. Their performances — from slight intonations to full-on theatrics — were inseparable from the messages themselves. Although today most writing resides on bound print pages, some poetry circles have pushed for an emphasis on the performed, rather than the merely written, word.

Michelle Hunt

Matthue Roth, who we’re introducing today as part of our National Poetry Month celebration, finds inspiration in the rhythms and exuberant energy of slam poetry gatherings and hip-hop. Watching the video below, it seems impossible to opt for a mere printed version of it.

Aside from being a prolific performance poet, Roth is also an author of four novels and is staff writer for My Jewish Learning. He has appeared on HBO Def Jam, MTV, and numerous other stages in the U.S. and abroad. Read the Forward’s interview with Roth, along six other poets, here.

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April 11: An Eerie Confluence of Dates

By Deborah Lipstadt

Deborah Lipstadt’s most recent book, “The Eichmann Trial,” is now available. 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 the 50th anniversary of the start of the Eichmann Trial and the 11th anniversary of the verdict (judgment) in my libel trial in the U.K. when David Irving sued me for libel for calling him a Holocaust denier.

More significantly, on April 11 I spoke at the United States State Department to mark the anniversary of the Eichmann trial. In addition to State Department staff members, there were a number of diplomats present (Turkey, Morocco, Ukraine, and Israel among others), as well as friends and colleagues. It was quite meaningful that I was speaking about this seminal act of genocide to an audience composed in part of people who deal with genocide and persecution-related issues. One of the people with whom I spoke has spent years working to rid the world of land mines. Another had been involved in the genocide in Darfur. Another had worked on issues related to the former Yugoslavia. Tragedies all.

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'Ten Commandments' for the TV Nation

By Jenna Weissman Joselit

Crossposted From Under the Fig Tree

For decades now, Cecil B. DeMille’s cinematic extravaganza, “The Ten Commandments,” has held pride of place on television screens across America, its timing sandwiched between Pesach and Easter.

Wiki Commons

An invented holiday tradition if ever there was one, the annual broadcast of a nearly four hour film given over to the story of the ancient Israelites and their search for freedom puzzles as well as delights me.

I can well understand the film’s connection to Pesach, which, after all, commemorates the Exodus and exhorts its celebrants to remember. The movie version may even enhance the process of remembering, rendering the ancient story vivid and alive. As one movie-goer put it, way back when, “the story of Israel had laid frozen in hieroglyphics, manuscripts and books.” But thanks to DeMille, it has “thawed into something colorful.”

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Ex-Haredi Artists Grapple With Their Pasts

By Shulem Deen

‘Protection’ by Leah Vincent

A photo of a woman wrapped in phylacteries might not seem very bold after Leonard Nimoy’s “Shekhina” project. But to many of the artists at the opening of a new art exhibit called “All in the Eye,” a photograph of a woman adorned with tallit and tefillin, eye to the camera with a slight smile, represents the height of sacrilege.

The woman in the photo is ex-Hasidic, as is the artist who took it. Both hail from a culture in which the act is still shocking and offensive: a woman entering a man’s domain in search of spiritual fulfillment. The portrait, of course, is powerful both for its rejection of traditional values and the re-appropriation of its ritual objects — especially given its personal context. But it’s the playful, slightly mischievous smile that is most captivating. It is as if both subject and artist, still, after many years, delight in the act of ritual subversion.

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Haifa Starts Rocking

By Ben Shalev

Crossposted from Haaretz

A festival being held for the first time is an idea. A festival being held for the second time is already a fact on the ground. Haifolk, Haifa’s indie music festival, had its second run this weekend and can, therefore, safely be declared an established festival on the Israeli indie music scene.

Established yet small. Tel Aviv need not fear for its status as the unquestioned Indie City and Jerusalem will continue to don the hat of extreme deputy to the left. But if in recent years Be’er Sheva had laid claim to the title of “Indie’s Third City,” Haifolk might well be positioning sleepy Haifa as its new rival.

Read more at Haaretz.com


National Poetry Month: Robert Pinsky's 'Samurai Song'

By Ezra Glinter

Jared C. Benedict

Today, in honor of National Poetry Month, The Arty Semite is featuring “Samurai Song” by Robert Pinsky. In the spirit of Passover, one can read “Samurai Song” as a kind of inverse “Dayenu.” It is often asked of the latter text, that if God had not given us the Sabbath, the Torah, or brought us to the Land of Israel (among the other things), would it really have been enough? The answer usually given is that while lesser benevolences may not have been enough in the larger scheme, we would still have had sufficient reason for thanksgiving and praise. Pinsky’s poem, in contrast, works the other way around. Rather than counting our blessings in ascending order, the poem strips them away one by one, while saying each time, in effect, dayenu.

Robert Pinsky is a three-term United States Poet Laureate, a professor at Boston University and the author of 19 books, including translations of Czesław Miłosz and Dante Alighieri. “Samurai Song” comes from his latest collection, “Selected Poems,” published this month by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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Friday Film: Bridge to Kashmir

By Amy Rosenberg

Courtesy of Artists Public Domain

As a child, Tariq Tapa learned to read while traversing Manhattan’s First Avenue to and from school. His mother designed logos for a living (Sky-Line Taxi and Limousine in the Bronx still uses the one she created for the company 25 years ago), and as they walked she would pay particular attention to the signs lining their route, asking her son to sound out the letters he saw. It’s fitting that a couple decades later Tapa, who turned 30 in March and is now a director and screenwriter based in northern California, sees his job partly as a call to animate marks on a page. “The characters you see on a piece of paper, the letters — those can’t be the same as the characters you see before you on the screen, the people,” he said. “I always want to try to turn the abstractions into flesh and blood.”

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Matzos for Lord Byron

By Jack Wasserman

Wiki Commons
Portrait of Lord Byron by Thomas Philipps, 1824.

On January 2, 1815, the 27-year-old Lord Byron married the odious Annabella Milbanke, daughter and heiress of Lord and Lady Wentworth. Their daughter, Ada, was born on December 10. On January 15, 1816, Lady Byron took Ada and returned to her parents. The “first popular media scandal” erupted, and rumors spread that Byron beat and sodomized his wife during her pregnancy, was homosexual and a drunk, and committed incest with his half-sister. On April 21 Byron agreed to a separation, and on April 23 he left London to take a ship to the Continent. He sailed on April 25, and never returned to England and never saw his daughter again.

Isaac Nathan was 23-years-old in 1815, the son of a Jewish cantor in Cambridge. (They never met while Byron was at the university.) Nathan acted on his idea to collect and publish the “ancient” melodies of the synagogues in order to capitalize on the nationalist spirit in Europe after the defeat of Napoleon. He also had the idea to ask the most popular poet in England to write words to accompany the melodies. After an amazing series of contacts, Byron consented. (The first poem was “She walks in beauty.”) Equally amazing, Byron and Nathan became friends, and Nathan was with Byron during his last days in London. Nathan sent the following letter after he left Byron:

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Brave New Concrete World

By Esther Zandberg

Crossposted from Haaretz

I experienced my own great architectural revolution in 1955, when my family moved from a rural area in the heart of the Sharon to an apartment block in a Histadrut labor federation cooperative housing project, on the outskirts of Givatayim. The moment we unpacked our bags on the gravel — which later became a blossoming garden — an entirely different world opened up to me.

This revolution encompassed all aspects of my life. My relationship with other people and with the environment changed beyond recognition, as did my perspective on the world, which looked entirely different from the third floor. Everything was new, primeval, traumatic and yet promising.

Read more at Haaretz.com


National Poetry Month: Passover and Easter

By Jake Marmer

Stanley Moss’s much anticipated collection “God Breaketh Not All Men’s Hearts Alike: New and & Later Collected Poems” will be out in just a few months, and we’ll be sure to discuss its publication in the Forward. In the meantime, we’re bringing to you a time-appropriate sampling from the forthcoming collection. This poem exhibits Moss’s tendency to gravitate towards an expansive, cosmopolitan spirituality, which is not limited to the three religions mentioned in the poem. Rather, it can also be found in nature and in the whole pantheon of sensuous literary and historical free associations, which in this work, as in many others, Moss treats with a connoisseur’s palate and the fervor of a true initiate.

Read more about Moss’s views on writing in the special Poetry Month pre-Passover interview, along with those of six other poets, here.

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