The Arty Semite

Almost Contemporary Kiev

By Natan Meir

There are Orthodox Jews versus secular Jews; accusations that wealthy philanthropists are trying to control Jewish organizations staffed by overworked, underpaid communal professionals; charges that certain Jewish institutions are sucking up the lion’s share of communal funds, leaving others to languish. Sound familiar? Something like New York, or any other large American Jewish community, in the 21st century? Yet these phrases could just as accurately describe the Jewish community of czarist Kiev, as I’ll explain in a lecture at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research on May 24.

Kiev was formally opened to Jewish settlement in only 1859, but its Jewish population grew by leaps and bounds in the following decades, despite continued czarist legislation restricting Jewish residence and cultural and religious activities. By the turn of the century it had a wide array of Jewish welfare and communal institutions, as well as a chorus of critics who, dissatisfied with the way the community was run, demanded a revolution. In this, Kiev was typical of many Jewish communities in the Russian Empire, where a new Jewish leadership — often inspired by ideologies such as Zionism and Bundism — was in the ascendant, but had to struggle with an entrenched establishment.

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At 70, Bob Dylan Remains the Reluctant Prophet

By Seth Rogovoy

Getty Images

Bob Dylan turns 70 on May 24. So what? Well, for one, let’s see you continue to perform two-hour concerts 100 nights a year, as you’ve been doing practically nonstop for the past quarter-century or so, all over the world, keeping things new and fresh, while the music industry around you falls apart; your body is battered by so many aches and pains that you can barely hold a guitar, and your singing voice — never the greatest to begin with — is nothing but a hollow shell of what it once was. You’re lucky if you can even spit out the lyrics of songs from throughout your 50-year career in a talking voice, much less even remember them.

So that’s what. It’s incredibly impressive and unprecedented. Sure, B.B. King and Willie Nelson are older and have been at it longer, but those two have been phoning it in for at least two or three decades at this point. Only Bob Dylan continues to take the stage, night after night, for no apparent reason; it can’t be for the money, and he sure doesn’t seem to be having a good time. Yet he still delves deep into 30- and 40-year-old songs and discovers new nuances, previously overlooked twists and turns of phrase, seemingly channeling something far beyond the conventional rock concert experience in which an artist delivers renditions of greatest hits and some new songs so you might buy one of his more recent recordings.

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The Wandering Jew and The Yeti

By C. Alexander London

C. Alexander London is the author of “We Are Not Eaten by Yaks: An Accidental Adventure,” and the forthcoming sequel, “We Dine With Cannibals.” As Charles London, his grown-up alter ego, he wrote “One Day the Soldiers Came: Voices of Children in War” and “Far from Zion: In Search of a Global Jewish Community.” 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 odd that a middle grade novel called “We Are Not Eaten by Yaks” about two 11-year-old couch potatoes and their adventures, should have its origins in a personal quest for Jewish meaning, but if it had not been for the scattering of the Jewish people, I never would have been in Rangoon to celebrate the High Holy Days with a few of the last Jews in Burma, and I never would have written it.

I suppose I should start at the beginning, before I became a writer of books for younger readers.

I was in Asia, doing research for what would become “Far From Zion,” a narrative of my journey through the far reaches of the Diaspora to figure out what it meant for me to be a part of the Jewish people. What did I have in common with a Jew in Rangoon? What did he share with a recent convert in rural Uganda? And what did all of us share with a Jewish community in Arkansas or with my Orthodox great-great grandfather who settled in Virginia, or with the nephew of a Hasidic rabbi in Jerusalem? What bound us together? Why did Jewish community persist, and what was my place in it?

I took a trip, starting in Burma, to find out.

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Monday Music: Sadder but Wiser in Berlin

By Renee Ghert-Zand

Photo by Kenneth Locke

Orit Shimoni is a singer-songwriter in perpetual motion, with little slowing her down as she travels from city to city, gig to gig. But it was a 2008 first-time visit to Berlin that gave her uncharacteristic pause. She had gone to the German capital to check out the music scene, where, she said, “you can show up and let things happen… Berlin is a hot spot for people who are just hovering.” Yet she couldn’t ignore the fact that she was a Jewish person in Germany and consequently grappling with being both “comfortable and uncomfortable” there.

From this tension emerged an album’s worth of songs, which Shimoni recorded live and has just released as “Sadder Music: Live in Berlin” under her performing alias, Little Birdie. The 10 tracks on this, her third independently produced album, are fine examples of her intimate and direct style, regardless of whether you label the album folk or country. Her sound, which is hard to pin down, is actually a bit of both. Shimoni herself likes to refer to it as “dark country.” She sings lead vocals, plays acoustic guitar and is backed up by a band that includes violin, electric guitar, bass and percussion.

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Israel's Secret Bromance

By Gili Izikovich

Crossposted from Haaretz

Daniel Tchetchik
Adir Miller ‏(center‏) and Lior Halfon ‏(left‏) on the set of ‘Ramzor.’

About year ago, on an El Al flight to somewhere in Asia, was the usual variety pack of Israeli types: newly discharged soldiers, young couples, families with kids; religious, ultra-Orthodox and nonobservant. For all of about half an hour, when an episode of the second season of “Ramzor” (“Traffic Light”) played, we seemed to be “one people.” The response was uniform: Everyone, young and old, secular and religious, Mizrahi and Ashkenazi, laughed and nodded at the same moments.

Ramzor,” whose third season airs Thursday on Channel 2, is nothing short of a phenomenon. But not because of its high ratings: This Israeli series about the friendship among three rather infantile men and about the characters’ love lives, which are totally controlled by the women, received the International Emmy Award for comedy this year. An American version was pulled after one season, but when Fox announced that “Ramzor” was not being renewed for another season, it also emphasized that it was considering future collaborations with series creator Adir Miller. He is expected to meet with studio executives in the United States in a few weeks.

Read more at Haaretz.com


Out and About: Jacob Frank, False Messiah; Joseph Cedar's Triumph at Cannes

By Ezra Glinter

Getty Images
  • Allan Nadler reviews “The Mixed Multitude,” a study of “serial apostate, sexual deviant, messianic pretender and chameleonic charlatan” Jacob Frank.

  • Sara Ivry interviews David Unger about his novel “The Price of Escape,” the story of a German- Jewish refugee’s misadventures in Guatemala.

  • Filmmaker Saul Sudin on Lars Von Trier’s disgrace, and Joseph Cedar’s triumph, at Cannes.

  • Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” is burning up the box office.

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This Week in Forward Arts and Culture

By Ezra Glinter

  • A.J. Goldmann appreciates Wanda Landowska, the 20th-century champion of the harpsichord.

  • Micah Kelber profiles Jeffrey Yohalem, winner of head writer award from the Writers Guild of America for “Assassin’s Creed.”

  • Laura Hodes reviews Joseph Skibell’s “A Curable Romantic,” which was shortlisted for the Rohr Prize.

  • Philologos lives like God in Odessa.

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A Yiddish Opera for Cuba’s ‘First National Hero’

By Ezra Glinter and Itzik Gottesman

A Monument to Hatuey in Baracoa, Cuba. Photo by Michal Zalewski.

A version of this post appeared in Yiddish here.

In 1931, Yiddish poet, journalist and editor Ascher Penn published “Hatuey,” a 126-page epic poem about a Taíno chieftain who fought against the Spanish invasion of Cuba at the beginning of the 16th century, and who was eventually burned at the stake in 1512.

Born in 1912 in Ukraine, Penn immigrated with his parents to Cuba in 1924 following a pogrom in his native shtetl of Gaysin. In “Hatuey,” Penn drew on the experience of the pogrom to describe the massacre of Taíno natives by the Spanish, and expressed his admiration for Taíno history and culture.

Now, composer and Klezmatics trumpeter Frank London is working on an opera based on Penn’s poem, incorporating both Yiddish and Cuban music. At a May 5 symposium on Yiddish opera at the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale University, London discussed the project together with Yale University English professor Alan Trachtenberg; Penn’s daughter, Eileen Posnick, and her husband, dramaturge and visiting artist Michael Posnick, who organized the symposium.

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In Song: Bechukotai

By Martin Stone

Ed note: This is the first in a series linking the weekly Torah reading — however tenuously — to classic works of rock ‘n’ roll.

In the first, and longest, section of this week’s parsha God tells us of the reward we will receive if we “walk in my statutes,” and the sufferings that will befall us if we don’t. With a somewhat different take on that phrase, live from Houston, Texas, June 24, 1977:


Friday Film: Woody Allen’s Parisian Sleight of Hand

By Dorri Olds

Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

In his new movie, “Midnight in Paris,” Woody Allen did what he does best. He created a character out of a city and added his signature sleight-of-hand magic. Think “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” when a handsome leading man steps through a screen to romance a depression-era Mia Farrow, or “Zelig,” when the title character appears on the nightly news with the Pope and Calvin Coolidge.

“Midnight in Paris,” which premiered at the Cannes International Film Festival earlier this month and opens in limited release May 20, reverberates with that same abracadabra wish fulfillment. “I always feel that only a magical solution can save us,” Allen said in an interview with L.A. Weekly. “The human predicament is so tragic and so awful that, short of an act of magic, we’re doomed.”

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Roth the Invincible

By Shoshana Olidort

Getty Images

A prolific novelist, Philip Roth, at 78, has authored 31 novels and received the most distinguished literary awards, including, most recently, the Man Booker International Prize, which was awarded to him yesterday despite heavy opposition from one of the judges, Carmen Calil. Calil, a feminist author and publisher, criticized Roth’s repetitiveness and resigned from the judging panel in protest over the award. In the midst of the controversy, and his generally reclusive nature notwithstanding, Roth made a rare public appearance May 18 at YIVO, where some 300 people gathered for an evening dedicated to his most recent novel, “Nemesis.”

Described by YIVO Executive Director Jonathan Brent as a novel of “remembrance and loss,” “Nemesis” tells of a polio epidemic that strikes a Jewish neighborhood in Newark in the summer of 1944. A panel of four scholars — Bernard Avishai (Hebrew University), Igor Webb (Adelphi University), Steven Zipperstein (Stanford University, and Brent — spoke about the novel and its relation to Roth’s greater body of work, many touching on the question of Jewishness in Roth’s novels in general, and in “Nemesis” in particular.

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Hillula: Poetry for Lag B'Omer

By Jake Marmer

Wiki Commons

Marking the 33rd day since the beginning of Passover (this year on May 22), Lag B’Omer is a less of a holiday than a mystical occasion to party. In Meron, right outside of the northern Israeli city of Safed, an annual gigantic celebration called Hillula takes place. Safed is famous for the medieval kabbalists who settled there, as well as the grave of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, a first-century rabbi regarded as the originator of the mystical tradition in Judaism. People dance, blast music, and feast. Matthue Roth, whose performance poetry was recently featured on The Arty Semite, is here again with a poetic narration of the Hillula.

This poem first appeared in Mima’amakim as well as on My Jewish Learning, where Roth is an editor. In addition to being a prolific performance poet who has appeared on HBO Def Jam, MTV, and numerous other stages in the U.S. and abroad, Roth is also an author of four novels. Read the Forward’s interview with Roth, along six other poets, here.

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A Grave Mistake at Tel Aviv University?

By Noam Dvir

Crossposted from Haaretz

Haaretz

On Sunday the cornerstone was laid at Tel Aviv University for a new wing of the school of architecture named for David Azrieli, an Israeli-Canadian businessman and a local shopping mall magnate who has been supporting the institution generously ever since its inception. Present at the ceremony were his daughter Danna Azrieli, vice president of the Azrieli group, senior university administrators, lecturers, teachers and students who all crowded onto a small strip of parking lot in order to view for the first time what is supposed to become the school’s growth engine in the coming years. Prof. Hannah Naveh, dean of the Faculty of Arts, spoke about Azrieli’s contribution to the school and heaped praise on the design of the new wing — which is signed by David Azrieli himself. “After David Azrieli considered awarding the project to a local architect he decided to give it his personal attention and his inner artist developed and grew,” she related with her characteristic enthusiasm.

However, behind Prof. Naveh’s complimentary words there is a fierce storm raging over the construction of the new wing. Teachers at the school, nearly all of them outstanding figures in the professional and academic world, are strongly opposed to the planning and believe that building the new wing is a grave mistake.

Read more at Haaretz.com


Out and About: Talmudists at Cannes; Busking Tryouts Hit New York

By Ezra Glinter

NYBC
  • “Beaufort” director Joseph Cedar has made a splash at Cannes with “Footnote,” a film about a competitive father-son pair of Talmudists.

  • The LABA fellows at the 14th street Y will culminate their year-long journey into eros with the LABA festival, starting tonight.

  • The National Yiddish Book Center is raising money to restore a collection of recorded Yiddish books.

  • New York City’s buskers just went through their annual auditions for permits to play in the subway. Let’s just hope that Xylopholks made the cut.

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Q&A: A 'Dybbuk' of Her Own

By Ezra Glinter

Avia Moore

S. An-sky’s “The Dybbuk” is arguably the most famous play and film in the cannons of Yiddish theater and cinema. Written in 1914 and first produced by the Vilna Troupe in 1920, “The Dybbuk” is an otherworldly tale, based on Jewish folklore collected by An-sky during a three-year ethnographic expedition through Russia and Ukraine. In the play, Leah, the daughter of a rich merchant, is possessed by the dybbuk of her suitor Hanan, who died after Leah’s father opposed the match. Though an attempt is made to exorcise the Dybbuk and allow Leah to marry her new suitor, she ultimately chooses to unite with her first lover in death.

In addition to its original stage performance in Yiddish, “The Dybbuk” was translated into Hebrew by Haim Nahman Bialik, into English by Henry G. Alsberg, and was produced as a Yiddish film in 1938 by Polish-Jewish director Michael Waszynsky. Now, a production of “The Dybbuk” is being staged from May 22 to 25 in Montreal by Uncatalogued Productions, featuring an all-female cast. The Arty Semite spoke to director Avia Moore about the significance of this casting decision, as well as the ways in which this production experiments with one of the most experimental Yiddish plays.

Ezra Glinter: Why “The Dybbuk”? Isn’t there a less famous play to bring to the public’s attention?

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Nostalgia and Moderns on CD for Heritage Month

By Benjamin Ivry

courtesy of www.blumina.com

For background sounds to Jewish American Heritage Month, why not investigate some nostalgic treasures of Hebrew education from a half-century ago, available from Smithsonian Folkways, such as 1958’s “Israeli Children’s Songs” sung by New York native Miriam Ben-Ezra; or a charming 1955 lecture, “The Hebrew Language: Commentary and Readings” by Theodor Herzl Gaster, a UK-born scholar of religion and myth whose books Holy and the Profane: Evolution of Jewish Folkways and Festivals of the Jewish Year are still remembered fondly?

A different kind of nostalgia is provided by “Mosaic,” a CD from Solo Musica/Naxos by violinist Orsolya Korcsolan and pianist Judit Kertész, featuring beloved salon works including Josef Bonime’s Danse Hébraïque and Issay Dobrowen’s Mélodie Hébraïque. Similarly, on “The Hollywood Cello: Concert Works from Film composers of the Golden Era,” from Soundset Recordings, cellist Gregory Hamilton resonantly interprets works by Ernst Toch and Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, among other Jewish composers who found refuge in 1930s California.

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Women's Liberation and Helène Aylon's 'Word of God'

By Savannah Schroll Guz

Helène Aylon, ‘Self Portrait: The Unmentionable,’ 2010

Performance and installation artist Helène Aylon scrutinizes the entrenched, sometimes invisible, belief systems that shape society. Since the 1970s, she has used her work as a tool for poetic dissent and constructive revisionism. Aylon’s early work contributed to the women’s movement, opposing the unrealistic imagery pedaled by magazines like Playboy. In the 1980s, her focus shifted to ecology and nuclear non-proliferation. By 1990, she turned her penetrating gaze to the religious texts that helped to define her female identity.

The Pentateuch, or Chumash, is the focus of Aylon’s exhibition “The Liberation of G-d and The Unmentionable,” now on view at Pittsburgh’s Andy Warhol Museum. The show is part of the Warhol’s ongoing series, “The Word of God,” which features art that addresses religion in ways intended to promote understanding between faiths. Aylon’s show follows the series’s controversial first installment, Sandow Birk’s “American Qur’an.” While controversy is also central to Aylon’s exhibition, her approach is more analytical than accusatory. Aylon acknowledges this, dedicating the show, in part, to her fifth grade Hebrew teacher and a female principal, who “encouraged Boro Park girls to question.”

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The Truth About Leah

By Nirit Anderman

Crossposted from Haaretz

When Leah Goldberg was 8 years old, her father suffered a mental illness and her mother went to work. Leah started studying at the trade school in Kovno (now Kaunas), Lithuania, and turned out to be a gifted student. Within just six months she was learning Hebrew.

Courtesy of the Gnazim archive

“Today I am starting to write a journal. I remember that two years ago I also wanted to write but there was never any time,” Goldberg penned at the time. “When I got home I stared at the sky and saw little clouds, like angels of light that sailed across the heavens. There is nothing to write about today. Enough!”

Using a variety of quotes from journals, letters and poems she left behind, plus a number of unpublished photographs and interviews with literary figures and people who knew her, the documentary film “The 5 Houses of Leah Goldberg” will premiere today at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque (as part of DocAviv). The film tells the story of the revered Hebrew language poet and writer, whose 100th anniversary falls in two weeks, on May 29.

Read more at Haaretz.com


Arthur Hartmann Fiddled With Debussy

By Benjamin Ivry

Star violinists are not usually known for modesty, but even in this company, Arthur Hartmann, born in Philadelphia to Hungarian-Jewish immigrants, stands out for braggadocio. Hartmann, who died in 1956, had talent, as we read in “Claude Debussy As I Knew Him and Other Writings of Arthur Hartmann,” a paperback out in September, 2010 from The University of Rochester Press.

While touring internationally, Hartmann wrote transcriptions for his instrument. A CD of Hartmann’s miniaturist compositions was released in 2009 from Toccata Classics, played by violinist Solomia Soroka and pianist Arthur Greene.

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Magic as a Jewish Family Business

By Gordon Haber

The Great Ramses Egyptian Temple of the Mysteries, 1909–1910. David Allen and Sons, Ltd., London, 1909–1910. Collection of Mike Caveney’s Egyptian Hall Museum.

Perhaps it’s time to stop being surprised by the disproportionate number of successful Jews in any random profession. That’s one of the lessons to take from “Masters of Illusion: Jewish Magicians of the Golden Age,” an entertaining exhibit at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles on view until September 4.

The exhibit runs concurrently with the Skirball Center’s showing of “Houdini: Art and Magic,” which was at The Jewish Museum in New York earlier this year. “Masters of Illusion” is intended as a complement to “Houdini,” a way of providing some context to the career of the most famous magician ever, Jewish or otherwise.

“The Golden Age” of the title refers to the time between 1875, when magic as live performance bloomed in America and Europe, and the advent of television in 1948. But the exhibit actually begins earlier, with the inclusion of an edition of Reginald Scot’s “The Discoverie of Witchcraft,” first published in the 16th century. Scot’s book argued that his witch-hunting contemporaries were mistaking prestidigitation for witchcraft. To that end, he wrote about a number of tricks that magicians use to this day.

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