On Monday, Michael Wex wrote about the birth of his idea for his new novel “The Frumkiss Family Business.” 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:
It’s nothing to complain about, really. Ever since word got out that I’m supposed to know something about Yiddish, I’ve been receiving scores of e-mails every week. Most are very nice; someone has read something that I’ve written and wants to let me know that they’ve enjoyed it. Some of the correspondents even enclose their own stories about specific Yiddish words or phrases, reminiscences of things that their parents or grandparents used to say.
These are good. Now that snail mail from anybody but billing departments and lawyers is pretty much a thing of the past, e-mails of this type help to give authors the feeling that they haven’t been working in vain.
How can young people’s first experiences of Israel be at once profound and revelatory, yet predictable and banal? This conundrum was well in place before 2000, when Taglit-Birthright Israel began offering free 10-day trips to Israel to qualifying diasporists aged 18 to 26. But the Birthright machine mass-produces the phenomenon — and now showcases it in the new book, “What We Brought Back: Jewish Life After Birthright” (Toby Press).
Over 30 selections, Birthright’s alumni (numbering some 200,000, they spawned the organization Birthright Israel NEXT, which co-sponsored the book’s production) reveal the high and low points of their sojourns abroad, and examine their religio-Zionist identities before and after. Men and women, straight and gay: Most came home reinvigorated as Jews. The book isn’t just propaganda for Birthright, however.
World War II delayed the just appreciation of many wonderful Jewish composers, such as Mieczyslaw Weinberg, a Russian composer who died in 1996. Trio Voce, a gifted piano trio, has nimbly recorded Weinberg’s multifaceted Trio, Op. 24 on Con Brio Recordings, bringing out the composer’s attachment to the works of J. S. Bach.
Viktor Ullmann, a Silesia-born composer of Jewish origin, was murdered in Auschwitz in 1944, and is now sufficiently recorded that listeners — as with increasing numbers of excellent composers whose lives and music were blotted out by the Holocaust — may admire him for his talent, not merely out of dutiful sympathy. A 1997 performance, newly released on CD from Hänssler Classic, of Ullmann’s work for narrator and piano, “The Lay of the Love and Death of the Flagbearer Christoph Rilke” teams the baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau — a mighty actor as well as singer — with the spiky, uncompromising pianism of Hartmut Höll. Ullmann’s work sets a text by Rainer Maria Rilke about his 17th century ancestor who died in battle, thereby expressing the dangers of war as an oft-fatal initiation rite, as indeed it turned out to be for Ullmann.
To see the splendid new exhibit of caricatures and miniature drawings by Polish-born Jewish illustrator Arthur Szyk (1894-1951), on view until March 27 at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor, you first have to walk through several galleries of religious paintings devoted to Christian saints, Madonnas with child, and Christ on the cross. Szyk’s pictures also introduce religious themes, but his portraits of martyrs and Jewish heroes are often less reverential than those in the museum’s adjoining rooms.
Szyk has no respect for the tyrants who oppress Jews. In a drawing titled “Valhalla” he satirically portrays Hitler and Mussolini as beer hall waiters serving rowdy Nazi soldiers, one of whom tramples a prostrate Jew. “De profundis,” a more startling 1943 pen and ink response to Nazi cruelty, depicts Christ holding the Ten Commandments atop a pile of war victims, many of them Jewish. A Torah and yarmulkes on bearded heads can be seen among the fallen. Ornately lettered words above the tumbled mass of men, women and children ask: “Cain, where is Abel thy brother?”
View a slideshow of images by Arthur Szyk:
Crossposted From Under the Fig Tree
Much has been written of late about the ways in which celebrated American musicals such as “Oklahoma” or “South Pacific” carry considerable Jewish freight. While most audiences come away humming rather than thinking, the American musical, many scholars suggest, is actually where American Jewish playwrights, lyricists, choreographers and designers set to rights their relationship to America.
But what of those on the other side of the footlights: the audience? I’ve always wondered what accounted for the longstanding affinity that so many American Jews, as well as their European counterparts, have had for the theater and the arts in general. Was this an accident of history? An artifact of demography? Or a deliberate strategy of modernization?
A recent article in the real estate section of The New York Times provides something of an answer.
Gabriele Coen’s “Awakening” is a dark, moody collection of pieces built around complex, syncopated rhythms and long, spinning melodies in minor modes. Coen and his band mates are clearly accomplished jazz musicians, and together they produce moments of understated elegance. But don’t think of playing this album at your next cocktail party — your guests would likely take their conversations into another room. This is music that not only demands active listening, but also seems designed to engender anxiety.
The album’s title track, which clocks in at over eight minutes, alternates between high tension and relative calm without ever building to a particularly cathartic climax. It starts with a chaotic drum fill accompanied by improvised squeaks and blats from Coen’s saxophone before settling into a rhythmic groove laid down by the bass.
Listen to ‘Awakening’:
Michael Wex is the author of “Born to Kvetch,” and the new novel “The Frumkiss Family Business.” 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:
A couple of years ago, Diane Martin, an editor at Knopf Canada, told me a story about an acquaintance of hers, a Jewish man living with a gentile woman who had become so fascinated with her partner’s cultural background that she had taken the plunge and converted to Judaism a couple of weeks earlier.
While the man had no ideological objections to a decision that could do nothing but make his parents, if not happy, at least happier than they had been about his relationship, he was concerned with a far more fundamental problem. According to Diane, he took his wallet from his pocket — he was a writer and Diane was his editor — flipped the photo holder open and showed Diane a picture of a California blonde in a bikini. “She doesn’t look hot to me anymore.” Whatever this couple’s relationship had been, it owed too much to the woman’s forbidden quality, her psychic role as bacon and eggs in briefs and a bra, to survive her passage into kashrus. The man was alienated by the idea of a woman who wasn’t an alien and the couple split up not long afterwards.
Crossposted from Haaretz
Every young dance artist striving to establish himself as a choreographer dreams of the moment when the manager of a theater or cultural institution offers him funding and a framework to produce a full-length work. This is exactly what happened to Anat Yaffe after Emmanuel Witzthum saw a short duet she created. The artistic director of Maabada (The Lab), a performing arts center in Jerusalem, spotted an unusual talent in Yaffe and invited her to create a full-length piece as part of a new program to encourage young artists in Jerusalem.
For Yaffe, however, her response to this offer was not entirely obvious.
“I deliberated for a long time,” she acknowledges. “First of all because I really like to dance in pieces created by others, to be the simple laborer who does their best within the framework of what is asked. And on the creative side, I like to work at my own pace. Suddenly there was talk of putting together a performance to fill an entire evening, with a deadline and a commitment.
An exhibit at the Israel Museum celebrates German Jewish painter Jakob Steinhardt.
The Arty Semite contributor Menachem Wecker looks at a 1979 caricature of Henry Kissinger that was cut from the New York Times.
Which Yiddish books would you like to see translated?
The Palestinian National Orchestra has its debut.
Eilat celebrates the 10th annual Red Sea Classical Music Festival.
Benjamin Ivry remembers Yuli Margolin, a survivor of the gulag whose memoirs have finally been published, 40 years after his death.
Philologos strips down.
Jenna Weissman Joselit pores over the Encyclopedia of Jewish Food.
Catie Lazarus takes a look at Jewish documentary filmmakers.
Many years ago, while researching German supporters of Holocaust reparations, I went in search of information on the social-democratic politician Kurt Schumacher. I found what I was looking for, but right next to Schumacher’s listing in an encyclopedia was a surprise: “Scholem, Werner, * 29.12.1895 Berlin, † 17.7.1940 KZ Buchenwald; konfessionslos.”
It was Gershom Scholem’s brother.
In the 1920s, when Gershom was still a little-known scholar working as a librarian, his brother Werner had already achieved international fame — and infamy — as the enfant terrible of German politics. He was elected to the Reichstag twice before he turned 29. When a group of Jewish intellectuals took over the German Communist Party in 1924, Werner joined the Central Committee and became head of the party’s internal organization.
A version of this post appeared in Yiddish here.
Last month, New York’s central Jewish education agency changed its name, and is now celebrating its new identity with a fascinating exhibit of a fresh new Jewish artist and art educator.
The exhibit, hosted by the Jewish Education Project (formerly the Board of Jewish Education of New York) until May 23, is called “The Art of Seeing,” and features the work of Tanya Fredman, a 25-year-old native of St. Louis, Mo., whose oil paintings, portraits and collages depict an unusual blend of cross-cultural diversity and Talmudic study.
At the exhibit’s opening on December 9, Fredman explained that she gets deep satisfaction from directing community-wide art projects, using art as a form of expression and as a tool for uniting people of different cultures.
Crossposted from Haaretz
Looking to rekindle your youth?
This New Year’s Day, Israeli folk trio Green Fields hopes to help you do just that in a special concert in Tel Aviv.
Moni Arnon and Suzi Miller from the famed 1970s group Brothers and Sisters have teamed up with guitarist Sagi Eiland to perform their favorite childhood folk music.
Under the banner Days of Innocence from the ’50s and ’60s in the U.S., the trio has traveled down the length of Israel to share with the audience American folk songs from the early McCarthy era to the days of Bob Dylan.
In this, the second annual Forward Fives selection, we celebrate the year’s cultural output with a series of deliberately eclectic choices in film, music, theater, exhibitions and books. Here we present five of the most important Jewish performances of 2010. Feel free to argue with and add to our selections in the comments.
Hapless Hooligan in ‘Still Moving’
What happens when you put a prominent modern dance company in a room with one of the great innovators of the graphic novel? The answer in this case was “Hapless Hooligan,” a collaboration between Pilobolus Dance Theater and Art Spiegelman, creator of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Maus” series. Premiering this past July at the Joyce Theater, the vaudeville-esque piece included an animated sequence based on Spiegelman’s drawings, which was projected onto a backdrop for the dancers to interact with. Though somewhat unorthodox, “Hapless Hooligan” was a creative gamble that paid off.
Read the Forward’s review of ‘Hapless Hooligan in Still Moving’ here.
In this, the second annual Forward Fives selection, we celebrate the year’s cultural output with a series of deliberately eclectic choices in film, music, theater, exhibitions and books. Here we present five of the most important Jewish exhibitions of 2010. Feel free to argue with and add to our selections in the comments.
Shifting the Gaze: Painting and Feminism
Like any good retrospective, the Jewish Museum’s display of 32 pieces of art from the past 50 years makes an argument for their continued relevance. Instead of focusing on a single artist, however, “Shifting the Gaze” shows how the entire question of Jewish gender identity and its artistic expression is still very much with us. Featuring works by artists such as Judy Chicago, Joan Semmel and Deborah Kass, the exhibit illustrates how feminist ideas have challenged conventions in the art world and have resulted in thought-provoking new works.
Read the Forward’s review of ‘Shifting the Gaze’ here.
Crossposted from Haaretz
A line of nine chairs greets the visitor to the exhibition “A chair is a chair is a chair” at the Paradigma design gallery in Tel Aviv. For a moment it seems as if they were placed there as part of a children’s game of “musical chairs.”
The fact that these are not standard chairs contributes to the feeling of a game, but above all this feeling stems from the fact that it is clear that the chairs are not meant to be mass produced, but rather are experimental objects whose morphology those who designed them wish to investigate, even if this is at the expense of comfort or utility. This is also true of the other chairs on display at the exhibition — 17 in all.
In this, the second annual Forward Fives selection, we celebrate the year’s cultural output with a series of deliberately eclectic choices in film, music, theater, exhibitions and books. Here we present five of the most important Jewish poetry books of 2010. Feel free to argue with and add to our selections in the comments.
All the Whiskey in Heaven: Selected Poems
By Charles Bernstein
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 320 pages, $26
Co-founder of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine, Charles Bernstein has long been recognized as one of the key avant-garde figures on the contemporary poetry scene. Until now, however, most of his work has been published by university or indie presses. This handsome sampling of his oeuvre presented by FSG is a reason for celebration, yet it is bittersweet, for doesn’t it imply a shift toward the mainstream? Or is it vice versa, and we have all become, in a sense, avant-garde? The Jewish angle in Bernstein’s work is complex, fraught with ambiguity and tension, though thankfully, also with humor. It is discussed in further detail in last year’s “Radical Poetics and Secular Jewish Culture” (University of Alabama Press) which, aside from Bernstein’s work, contains the poetics of many of his excellent colleagues.
Read the Forward’s review of ‘All the Whiskey in Heaven’ here.
In this, the second annual Forward Fives selection, we celebrate the year’s cultural output with a series of deliberately eclectic choices in film, music, theater, exhibitions and books. Here we present five of the most important Jewish non-fiction books of 2010. Feel free to argue with and add to our selections in the comments.
As Forward readers surely know by now, my own book, “When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry,” was published this year. I’ve been lucky to find it mentioned on two end-of-year lists — The New Yorker’s and the Washington Post’s. For this, I am very grateful. And partly by way of passing on the favor, I was happy to choose the Forward’s five best non-fiction books of the year. These are all books that sparked conversations and that were, more importantly, great reads.
By Tom Segev
Doubleday, 448 pages, $32.50
Who was Simon Wiesenthal? Tom Segev takes as his most recent subject a man whose reputation as Jewish avenger completely overshadowed all else about him. Segev brings Wisenthal back down to human size. He shows us the Nazi-hunting operation for what it was — both impressive and more slapdash than we knew — and explores controversies like Wiesenthal’s friendship with Kurt Waldheim and his work for the Israeli Mossad. It was a life, as Segev shows, that was forever linked to the great 20th century cataclysm. The horror never let him go.
Read the Forward’s review of ‘Simon Wiesenthal’ here.
In this, the second annual Forward Fives selection, we celebrate the year’s cultural output with a series of deliberately eclectic choices in film, music, theater, exhibitions and books. Here we present five of the most important Jewish novels of 2010. Feel free to argue with and add to our selections in the comments.
It’s been some year for Jewish fiction, though we continue to scream about, ponder and dissect what that even means. It is produced by Jewish writers, certainly, but not always. It centers on otherness, our history and culture, the nature of family and whatever we call god. It’s set in Israel or in Europe before or after the war, in New York City, England and America’s heartland. Its heroes are bold, men-children, revolutionists or the inward-looking. And like we’re boarding Noah’s ark, much of the fiction we loved this year can be discussed in pairs.
There were the young men who wrote big books that tinkered with language and form while winking at their readers. Joshua Cohen mellifluously skewers capitalism in “Witz” as he writes about the last Jew on earth. With less hubris, Adam Levin’s “The Instructions” spurred difficult conversations about religion and terrorism by tunneling into the mind of a puckish Day School student.
Crossposted from Haaretz
He may not be the most popular artist in the local Israeli scene, but the rising prices for works by Yaacov Agam at the close of 2010 signify his stature as one of the most important kinetic artists in the world. Perhaps the time has come for us to take stock.
On a wintry evening last week at Sotheby’s Auction House in New York, about 50 people (plus a large number of buyers via telephone and Internet) gathered for the sale of 112 works by great Israeli artists, both veteran and contemporary (Reuven Rubin, Nachum Gutman, Gal Weinstein, Adi Nes and others), and one Yaacov Agam, who has never quite belonged to any clique. Two of his pieces sold at prices far beyond the estimates they’d been given; pieces by the same Agam who made headlines last year when his “4 Themes Contrepoint” sold for a record amount for Israeli art — $326,500.