The Arty Semite

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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New Life for the American Jewish Year Book?

By Gary Shapiro

Gary Shapiro

“It’s a shanda (outrage)!” exclaimed Bruce A. Phillips of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles Campus. He was reacting to the cessation of the American Jewish Year Book after a successful run of more than a century by the American Jewish Committee.

The Yearbook — a handy compendium of demographic and historical trends, global statistics on Jewry, obituaries, and exhaustive listings of Jewish organizations and publications — has lined the bookshelves of major Jewish community executives for decades, immediately recognizable by its candy color-striped covers. The last volume was published in 2008.

But new hope for the publication came in December at the Association for Jewish Studies conference in Washington, D.C., when Ira Sheskin, a University of Miami professor, declared that he and colleague Arnold Dashefsky, a professor of sociology and Judaic studies at the University of Connecticut, were in discussions with the German-founded Springer publishing company to resurrect the Year Book.

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Baytown, Texas Celebrates Historic Synagogue Restoration

By Samuel D. Gruber

Crossposted from Samuel Gruber’s Jewish Art & Monuments

Samuel D. Gruber

On March 27, residents of Baytown, Texas celebrated the restoration of their 80-year-old synagogue, Congregation K’nesseth Israel. The building was designed by Houston architect Lenard Gabert in 1930, and after suffering limited damage in the destructive Hurricane Ike of 2008, has now been repaired and restored. The community center was much more heavily damaged by the storm, and that, too, has been repaired and renamed the Jewish Community Center.

Baytown resulted as a consolidation of Goose Creek, Pelly and Baytown in 1948. It is located at the eastern end of Harris County, 22 miles from Houston, and Jews first settled in Goose Creek after 1915 mostly to provide retail and commercial services to the booming oil and gas facilities. This is hardly a unique situation in the Jewish world. Jewish merchants flocked to Gold rush towns in the 19th century, and they involved themselves in service industries for the oil and gas business in the 20th. I’m reminded of how Jewish retailers moved to Drohobych (now Ukraine), when oil was discovered there in the mid-19th century. My grandfather Joseph Moskowitz was a surveyor the oil companies, especially in the interwar period.

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Walter Benjamin, Book Collector Redivivus

By Benjamin Ivry

Enthused readers of the German Jewish intellectual Walter Benjamin are impatiently awaiting the announced May 9 publication date of a landmark translation of Benjamin’s “Early Writings” from Harvard University Press. Until then, readers afflicted with Benjamania can delight in a catalog published by the Kunstmuseum Solingen in Germany, “Stellar Immortality” (Die Unsterblichkeit der Sterne, to accompany an exhibit on display at the end of 2010.

To commemorate the 70th anniversary of Benjamin’s suicide in 1940 at the Spanish-French border, while fleeing the Nazis, “Stellar Immortality” comprises a remarkable project in which the Stuttgart antiquarian book dealer Herbert Blank reassembled a library for Benjamin, based on book titles mentioned in his writings. Blank took over 30 years to gather the more than 2500 books, many of them depicted and described in “Stellar Immortality.”

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On the Kibbutz, No Straight Line to the Past

By Abby Margulies

“Do you think we told a good story?” filmmaker Sharone Lifschitz asks her mother at the end of her video installation “The Line and the Circle.” “Yes, we talked about all sorts of things,” her mother responds. “You will now have to edit it.” The installation, a short film tucked away from the main galleries in New York’s Jewish Museum, where it is showing until August 21, is a small yet sweeping film that beautifully weaves together narratives about what it means to be a child, a daughter, a kibbutznik and an Israeli — and what it means to preserve memories while also embracing and forgiving the past.

Just under 20 minutes long, “The Line and the Circle” was filmed over a two week period in 2009, and documents a conversation between Lifschitz and her aging mother. The movie follows the two as they return to the darkroom for the first time in over 20 years to develop black and white photographs taken on Kibbutz Nir Oz, where Lifschitz was born and raised. Throughout the film the camera remains fixed on the developing solution where the blank photo papers crystallize into images. Framed by a circle and a line, the development of the images is the only action seen through the camera’s unmoving lens. The photos, taken between 1959 and the early 1980s, depict day-to-day activities on the kibbutz, as well as celebrations and the occasional photo of Lifschitz and her mother. Watching the video, however, it is not the images or even one event that stands out. Rather, it is the sometimes disjointed conversation between Lifschitz and her mother that makes for the film’s narrative pull.

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A View to a School

By Noam Dvir

Crossposed from Haaretz

The University of Haifa has in the past two years undergone a dramatic facelift. Its main building, a modernist icon common in the mid-1960s in the work of noted Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, underwent an essential and comprehensive refurbishment after years of neglect.

Amit Garon

Over the coming year, the university’s central library will undergo similar renovations, according to the plans of architect Asaf Lerman. In addition to the welcome investment in refurbishing the original buildings, all over the campus several new buildings have recently been dedicated, the most notable among them the Hatter Student Building, named for Sir Maurice Hatter.

Read more at Haaretz.com


'Schindler's List' Producer Backing Made-in-China Holocaust Movie

By Nathan Burstein

It’s a staple of Hollywood and European cinema, and now a Holocaust movie is being shot in China.

Getty Images

Xinhua, the country’s official news agency, reports that production will soon begin on “The Melanie Violin,” a drama about a Jewish musician who flees Europe for Shanghai and falls for a local love interest. The film will be backed by “Schindler’s List” producer Branko Lustig, and will be scripted by Chinese-American writer He Ning.

An Auschwitz survivor, Lustig announced the new film Friday during a visit to Shanghai, where some 30,000 Jewish refugees found shelter during the war.

A Chinese-American co-production, the movie has a budget of between $30 and $45 million, and should be completed by the end of the year.


Monday Music: Dancing Between the Rockets

By Eileen Reynolds

Courtesy of Omer Klein

“Rockets on the Balcony,” Omer Klein’s fourth album and his Tzadik Records debut, is also his first self-consciously Jewish record. In the liner notes, Klein explains that when John Zorn first approached him about the project, he was reluctant to make “calculated evaluations as to what counts as Jewish music and what doesn’t.” But over the course of working on the album, Klein developed a knack for labeling each of his pieces as either “Jewish” or “not-Jewish.”

For those of us who cling to a romantic vision of the creative process — an image of the artist’s various influences simmering together in some delicious subconscious stew — it jars a little to hear Klein describe his oeuvre in these stark terms. The good news, though, is that Klein is a gifted jazz pianist who can riff on just about anything. A few of the pieces on “Rockets on the Balcony” started as what Klein describes as an “exercise” in writing folk tunes, and in their clumsiest moments, we can too easily hear the composer’s effort to come up with something that sounds homespun. Blessedly, though, these introductions don’t last long; far more exciting than Klein’s faux-folk melodies are the pleasing improvisations that come out of them.

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Itzhak Perlman in the Cantor's House

By Jon Kalish

Getty Images

It’s the Itzhak and Yitzchok show! Violin virtuoso Itzhak Perlman is teaming up with cantorial superstar Yitzchok Meir Helfgot for a concert tour and recording project titled “The Soul of Jewish Music.” The inaugural concert takes place March 30 at the Saban Theatre in Los Angeles and will benefit Bet Tzedek Holocaust Survivors Justice Network.

The collaboration is Perlman’s first foray into Jewish music since “In the Fiddler’s House,” his klezmer tour and recordings in the mid-1990s. In a press release from L.A.-based producer Dan Adler, Perlman gushes that teaming up with Helfgot is an “historic project” and declares, “It excites me to my kishkas!”

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Out and About: Ashkelon's Adult Archeology Camp; Leonard Nimoy Lives Long and Prospers

By Ezra Glinter

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This Week in Forward Arts and Culture

By Ezra Glinter

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Adah Isaacs Menken: a Civil War-era Sexpot Remembered

By Benjamin Ivry

The 19th century New Orleans-born entertainer and sex symbol Adah Isaacs Menken is still shivering timbers long after her premature death in 1868. Back in 2003, Renée M. Sentilles, a history professor at Case Western Reserve University, published an enjoyable scholarly analysis with Cambridge University Press, “Performing Menken: Adah Isaacs Menken and the Birth of American Celebrity.” On February 1, Lyons Press published a more popular offering, “A Dangerous Woman: The Life, Loves, and Scandals of Adah Isaacs Menken, 1835-1868, America’s Original Superstar” by Michael and Barbara Foster.

Pitched at a resolutely pop-culture level, “A Dangerous Woman” dishily recounts how in 1856 she married a Jewish musician, Alexander Isaac Menken, and to a journalist who asked if she had converted to Judaism, she responded, “I was born in [Judaism] and have adhered to it through all my erratic career. Through that pure and simple religion I have found greatest comfort and blessing.”

Onstage Menken did a little of everything, whenever possible when garbed in form-fitting tights, whether minstrel acts, celebrity impressions of noted actor Edwin Booth (the brother of Lincoln’s assassin), and tightrope walking. Yet despite this circus-like activity, even more than later famous showbiz converts such as the late, lamented Elizabeth Taylor, Menken shows every sign of being a devoted student of Judaica, reading Hebrew fluently and pondering the Talmud and other sacred texts. Menken was a regular contributor of poems and prose to the newspaper “The Israelite,” founded and edited by Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise.

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Friday Film: Behind the Scenes of 'Jewish Arena Rock'

By Eileen Reynolds

“The Klezmatics are the Jewish equivalent of arena rock,” ethnomusicologist Bob Cohen deadpans early in Erik Greenberg Anjou’s documentary “The Klezmatics: On Holy Ground.” “They’re not heavy metal; they’re heavy Yiddish.”

Courtesy GAT

It’s a bit of tongue-in-cheek analysis calculated to make us chuckle (picture these mild-mannered, middle-aged folks head-banging in eyeliner and platform heels!) — and yet there’s truth in Cohen’s quip. The Klezmatics are, in a certain sense, a big-time group, having achieved a level of name recognition that’s rare in world music circles, and — it would seem to go without saying — rarer still for contemporary groups who sing in Yiddish. From an ethnomusicologist’s perspective, they’re interesting because they don’t just mimic old recordings: Here is something that at least approximates a living tradition — new tunes are composed, old tunes combined with jazz and gospel elements, Yiddish lyrics written about workers’ rights and gay pride. The group has been together for 20 years, released nine albums, collaborated with Itzhak Perlman and Nora Guthrie, and won a Grammy Award. And now, another milestone: The Klezmatics are famous enough that someone thought to make a documentary about them.

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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

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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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