The Arty Semite

Concrete Poetry or Shiviti? Four Works by Hank Lazer

By Jake Marmer

Each Thursday, The Arty Semite features excerpts and reviews of the best contemporary Jewish poetry. This week, Jake Marmer introduces four concrete poems by Hank Lazer.

If you’ve been to an old-school Sephardic synagogue or a Hasidic shtibl, you’re likely to have seen various specimen of Shiviti, plaques which traditionally adorn the corner of the shul where the chazzan is stationed. They spell out names and attributes of the Divine, for inspirational and meditational purposes — with aesthetics as an integral element of the experience. Shiviti are what contemporary critics would call an early example of concrete poetry, that is, poetry where meaning is conveyed not only through words, but also through the arrangement of the poem on the page.

Wiki Commons

While acknowledging the modernist concrete poetry of e.e. cummings and Guillaume Apollinaire, the four poems by Hank Lazer featured below appear to have a lot in common with Shiviti. They too are mediations, opening doors into the realm of ritualistic, perhaps even liturgical moments. It is not accidental then, that the third poem — the one that spells out the Hebrew letter shin — was written for the dedication of the new temple in Tuscaloosa, Ala., where Lazer resides and teaches English at the University of Alabama.

The graphic arrangement of these poems prods the reader toward a new state of attention, calling for an instantaneous intake of the whole picture — the symbol that upholds the poetry like a vessel, framing the poetic experience. A new dynamic comes to the fore, as well: In the second poem, which spells out the number 18 — traditionally a Jewish equivalent of the word “chai,” or “life” — the figure 8 has lines of poetry cycling through it as if through infinity, offering the reader multiple points of entry. This approach challenges the very idea of a poetic “line,” turning the text, instead, towards an unending loop that reincarnates itself, responding to the poem’s central image of “turning as we do upon the invisible loom.”

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: e.e. cummings, Tuscaloosa, Shiviti, Poetry, Jake Marmer, Hank Lazer, Guillaume Apolliaire

Slideshow: Order, Chaos and Psychedelic Snails

By Katie Rolnick

Courtesy Jon Axelrod

It would be fair to call Jon Axelrod’s paintings synesthetic. They are, after all, visual representations of sound. However, these aren’t the idiosyncratic cross-sense connections of an unfettered mind. His is a willful synesthesia. Axelrod uses science and math to reveal relationships between color, shape and sound. He finds kinship, for example, in the frequency of high-pitched tones and the high-frequency wavelengths of blues and violets.

Axelrod’s creativity is borne of constraint. “I am interested in how a system that is completely closed can still have mystery and allow for free will,” he writes in his artist’s statement. This methodical style can yield exciting results. Yet, of the 13 pieces in “Imaginary Oscillations,” on display at New York’s Hadas Gallery through February 28, his most recent paintings feel the most restricted. You feel him pushing against, but subdued by the increasingly clear and strong rules guiding his work. The question is, must he push harder or surrender completely to find the freedom he seeks?

View a slideshow of images from ‘Imaginary Oscillations’:

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Katie Rolnick, Visual Art, Imaginary Oscillations, Jon Axelrod, Hadas Gallery, Exhibits

Out and About: Garry Kasparov on Bobby Fischer; Where Have All the Holocaust Movies Gone?

By Ezra Glinter

Konrad Bercovici
  • Garry Kasparov tells us what it’s like to play chess in the shadow of Bobby Fischer.

  • In a 1923 article in The Nation, “Romanian-Jewish-American-Yiddish novelist, journalist, dandy, screwball folklorist of the Gypsies” Konrad Bercovici described “The Greatest Jewish City in the World.”

  • An Israeli forger almost managed to sell a fake Kandinsky for three million Euro.

  • You have until February 27 to catch Yeshiva University’s annual Seforim Sale.

  • Sexploitation filmmaker David F. Friedman and actor Len Lesser, who played Uncle Leo on “Seinfeld,” have died.

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Zorba The Greek, Yehudah Halevi, Wassily Kandinsky, Uncle Leo, The Sway Machinery, Sexploitation, Seinfeld, Paul Kletzki, Out and About, Oscars, Mikis Theodorakis, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Len Lesser, Konrad Bercovici, Joe Banowetz, Jeremiah Lockwood, Jeffrey Kahane, Hillel Halkin, Grammys, Golden Globes, Garry Kasparov, Erwin Schulhoff, David F. Friedman, Daniel Hope, Bobby Fischer, Berlin International Film Festival

Architecture by the People, for the People

By Esther Zandberg

Crossposted from Haaretz

The city of Holon invested $17 million of its own funds in the Design Museum. But for the Jesse Cohen project — a biennial program of community-based art and architecture in its most run-down neighborhood — it budgeted only NIS 800,000. That covers only half the cost of the project, which the city itself initiated.

David Bachar

So, the rest of the funds will have to be raised by its partner, the Israeli Center for Digital Art, which effectively runs the project.

The continuation of this project is not guaranteed, and two years is too short an amount of time to change a situation created over 60 troubled years. But it provides a good case study of municipal priorities and social justice, especially given the huge efforts and energies Holon has invested in making itself a brand name.

Read more at Haaretz.com


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Jesse Cohen Project, Israeli Center for Digital Art, Haaretz, Holon, Design Museum, Esther Zandberg, Architecture

From Chagall to Orpheus, Frenchifying European Jews

By Benjamin Ivry

Hunting around France’s National Archives for naturalization papers of famous people might seem an odd way to compile a fascinating book, but Doan Bui and Isabelle Monin, two journalists from the weekly Nouvel Observateur, managed to do just that with “They Became French” (Ils sont devenus français), out from Les éditions J.-C. Lattès in November.

The immigrants, many of them Jews, would be such cultural and intellectual notables (or the parents of notables) as singer/songwriter Serge Gainsbourg, statesman Robert Badinter, painter Marc Chagall, Nobel-prizewinning scientist Georges Charpak, and author Joseph Kessel.

Of the Jewish luminaries described in “They Became French,” the easiest naturalization process was accorded to Jacques (born Jacob, of German Jewish ancestry) Offenbach in 1860. Already celebrated as the composer of 1858’s “Orpheus in the Underworld,” Offenbach was worshiped by a prefect of police, who wrote an official letter of praise for his dossier.

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Marcel Marceau, Serge Gainsbourg, Marc Chagall, Josef Kozma, Georges Charpak

The Stranger’s Notebook

By Michael David Lukas

On Monday, Michael David Lukas shared a list of his top 10 favorite Jews of all time. 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:


In my last post I mentioned the loneliness and alienation I felt during the first few months of the year I spent in Tunis. While my list of top ten favorite Jews of all time cheered me up, it wasn’t until I met Nomi Stone that I truly got out of my funk. Nomi is a poet and a scholar who was in Tunisia on a Fulbright. Her project was to research and write a book of poems about the Jews of Djerba (a desert island off the southern coast of Tunisia), which is exactly what she did. The fruits of her year in Tunisia, “Stranger’s Notebook,” was published by TriQuarterly Press in 2008 and it is just amazing.

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Tunisia, TriQuarterly Press, Tunis, Stranger's Notebook, The Oracle of Stamboul, Nomi Stone, My Jewish Learning, Michael David Lukas, Jewish Book Council, Books, Djerba, Author Blog Series

How to Sacrifice a Lamb and Other Important Information

By Netty C. Gross

For many Jews and non-Jews, American Jewish culture is defined by stereotypes such as the pushy mother, the shleppy father, chopped liver swans, too much food (“just in case…”) accountants, doctors, and holidays in the Catskills or Florida. But a new generation of Jews are so hip, Americanized and assimilated that they are not even familiar with those stereotypes. They may think, for example, that Bar Kochba is the name of a nightclub — at least according to Ellis Weiner and Barbara Davilman in “The Big Jewish Book for Jews.” The authors of “Yiddish With Dick and Jane,” Weiner and Davilman will make you chuckle, cause you to give away that Holocaust memoir, and maybe even teach you something about American-Jewish cultural history in the 19th and 20th centuries.

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Yiddish With Dick And Jane, Winona Ryder, Without Feathers, Woody Allen, Sharon Strassfeld, The Big Jewish Book For Jews, Richard Siegel, Netty C. Gross, Michael Strassfeld, Lee J. Cobb, Joan Rivers, Humor, First jewish Catalogue, Ellis Weiner, Comedy, Books, Barbara Davilman

The Party Is Over for Allenby 58

By Noam Dvir

Crossposted from Haaretz

Eliakim Architects

The life cycle of the building at 58 Allenby Street in Tel Aviv, with its glory days and its bleaker days, is a microcosm of trends and fashions that have affected the city from the 1930s to today.

As a movie theater built in 1937, it integrated well into the inhabitants’ leisure lives and became an architectural icon on what was once Tel Aviv’s main drag for shopping and entertainment.

In the 1980s, it was abandoned as part of the movie theaters’ migration to large shopping centers and for a short time it screened pornographic films. In the 1990s the Allenby Cinema became a pioneering club that entirely turned around the nightlife scene and attracted the best DJs from all over the world.

Read more at Haaretz.com


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Noam Dvir, Israel, Haaretz, Architecture, Allenby 58, Allenby, Tel Aviv

The Return of Mark Epshtein, a Forgotten Master of the Yiddish Avant-Garde

By Mikhail Krutikov

A version of this post appeared in Yiddish here

The name Mark Epshtein (1899-1949) no longer occupies a prominent place in Yiddish cultural history, but a current exhibit in Kiev brought the artist back to the city where he created his most important work. “The Return of the Master,” which runs until February 20 at the National Art Museum of Ukraine, is the first full-scale exhibition to showcase the legacy of this strange but forgotten master of the Yiddish avant-garde.

'A Fiddler' by Mark Epshtein

Born Moyshe Epshtein in Bobruisk, White Russia, Epshtein moved at a young age to Kiev with his family, where he entered art school. According to one story, when Epshtein was barely 10 years old, his mother sent him to bring water from the well. When he didn’t return his mother went looking for him, and found him building a sculpture of Leo Tolstoy out of snow. A neighboring photographer took a picture of the boy with his sculpture, and the picture was later was given to the Tolstoy Museum.

The story illustrates not only Epshtein’s talent and love of art, but also the tragic fate of his work. Like his childhood snowman, almost all of Epshtein’s sculptures have been lost or destroyed, with only a photographic record of them remaining. Moreover, because of his overt Jewishness Epshtein was never included in official versions of Soviet art history. Neither has he been much appreciated by Jewish art historians, presumably because his artistic vision didn’t accord with their own ideas about Jewish art.

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Yiddish, Visual Art, Soviet Art, National Art Museum of Ukraine, Sergei Papeta, Modernism, Mikhail Krutikov, Mark Epshtein, Marc Chagall, Leo Tolstoy, Kultur-lige, Kiev, Jewish School of Industrial Art, Exhibits, Forverts, Culture League, El Lissitzky

Compelled by Drama: Q & A With 'Compulsion' Playwright Rinne Groff

By Gwen Orel

“The Diary of a Young Girl” by Anne Frank has inspired numerous dramatic works since its publication in English 1952. There was a Broadway play in 1955 by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett which won the Pulitzer Prize; an adaptation of the play for film in 1959; a 1980 television movie also written by Goodrich and Hackett; and an ABC miniseries in 2001, not to mention reams of nonfiction that examine the girl and the book.

Joan Marcus
Rinne Groff with The Public Theater Artistic Director Oskar Eustis.

But this is nothing compared to the drama backstage: The feud between Meyer Levin (1905–1981), the journalist who first reviewed Frank’s book for the New York Times, and Frank’s father, Otto.

Levin had obtained permission to adapt the book for the stage, but was later replaced by Goodrich and Hackett. Levin, a respected writer and Zionist, won an Edgar award for his 1957 book “Compulsion,” a “non-fiction novel” (a style later used by Truman Capote in “In Cold Blood”) about the Leopold and Loeb case. Other works include the novel “The Settlers” (1972) and “The Obsession,” his autobiographical volume on his battle for the diary.

Rinne Groff’s play “Compulsion,” opening at The Public Theater February 17 following productions by Yale Repertory Theatre and Berkeley Repertory Theatre (read the Forward’s review of the Yale production here) follows Sid Silver, a Levin-like character played by Mandy Patinkin, through his quest to adapt Frank’s diary. The Arty Semite caught up with Groff the morning after the first New York preview.

Gwen Orel: Why did you write this play?

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Truman Capote, Yale Repertory Theatre, The Settlers, Theater, The Public Theater, The Obsession, The Diary of a Young Girl, Rinne Groff, Otto Frank, Oskar Eustis, Meyer Levin, Leopold and Loeb, Mandy Patinkin, In Cold Blood, Gwen Orel, Frances Goodrich, Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Compulsion, Anne Frank, Albert Hackett

Bird Made of Wire

By Smadar Sheffi

Crossposted from Haaretz

Courtesy Kibbutz Gallery

A cloud of having missed the mark hovers over “Forehead Mesh,” Aaron Adani’s exhibition at the Kibbutz Gallery in Tel Aviv. There are quite a number of beautiful of works in it and interesting treatment of wire mesh (chicken wire, a material often used in art courses ) but it seems as though the curator, or the artist, fell indiscriminately and deleteriously in love with the works.

It is hard to understand how some of the works in this exhibition ended up displayed in the gallery. I am referring mainly to “Veil,” which oversteps the boundary of kitsch and leaves it far behind, as well as to “Forehead Mesh.”

Read more at Haaretz.com


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Visual Art, Smadar Sheffi, Tel Aviv, Kibbutz Gallery, Haaretz, Exhibits, Aaron Adani

Being There

By Jenna Weissman Joselit

Crossposted From Under the Fig Tree

The recent revelation that iTunes has created an app that seems to substitute for confession underscores the power of technology to redefine the very notion of ritual practice.

So, too, has “Tweet Your Prayers,” in which electronic kvitlakh, or personal petitions, can be sent to the kotel, the Western Wall in Jerusalem, via twitter, or www.e-daf.com, in which the age-old custom of studying a page of Talmud a day can now be handily accomplished online.

Whatever will they think up next?!

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Western Wall, Tweet Your Prayers, Obituaries, Jenna Weissman Joselit, From Under the Fig Tree, E-Daf, Confession App, Charles E. Silberman, iTunes

Monday Music: Contemporary Concertos Go Baroque

By Eileen Reynolds

Dan Seltzer
Composer Avner Dorman at work.

One might be forgiven, upon first listening to the NAXOS recording of Avner Dorman’s concertos performed by Andrew Cyr’s Metropolis Ensemble, for not feeling immediately convinced that these are, in fact, concertos in any traditional sense. There are no buoyant Mozartian introductions here, no grand orchestral pauses to launch soloists into rapturously virtuosic cadenzas before a triumphant final cadence. Those squeamish about contemporary orchestral music might initially recoil from what is strange and new in Dorman’s work: unsettling harmonies, unusual pairings of instruments, extended instrumental techniques. Ultimately, though, there is plenty here that is familiar. Dorman, a 35-year-old Israeli composer and protégé of John Corigliano and Zubin Mehta, has an eclectic approach — borrowing elements from jazz, pop, and Middle Eastern musical idioms — that makes his music surprisingly accessible.

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Zubin Mehta, The Cure, The Police, Music, Nina Simone, Mindy Kaufman, Metropolis Ensemble, Grammy Awards, John Corigliano, Eliran Avni, Eileen Reynolds, Classical Music, Avner Dorman, Avi Avital, Andrew Cyr

A New Symphony for Ramat Gan

By Noam Ben-Zeev

Crossposted from Haaretz

Moti Milrod

Quietly, almost imperceptibly, a new Israeli symphony orchestra is emerging. Given the minuscule government budget allocated to local musical ensembles, there will surely be some people who will be unhappy about this: Many advocate the “divide and conquer” ideology that seeks to close down orchestras or at least combine a few together, so that the meager funding available does not have to be spread among too many. Who needs another orchestra here, they say, when the existing ones are starving to death? On the other hand, some people are skeptical about the assumption that reduction of the number of entities will actually increase the share allocated to the remaining bodies — because who can guarantee that the budget will remain at its original level should the number of institutions it supports drops?

In Ramat Gan, it turns out, there has been no such speculation. Indeed, the mayor, Zvi Bar, together with the director of the city’s education department, Moshe Bodega, have set about to establish a symphony orchestra with full funding from the municipality. This is how the Ramat Gan Symphony Orchestra came into being, first as a youth ensemble, then an amateur orchestra, and now a budding professional orchestra.

Read more at Haaretz.com


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Ramat Gan, Zvi Bar, Ramant Gan Symphony Orchestra, Music, Noam Ben-Zeev, Moshe Bodega, Haaretz

Tunisia, Whitesnake, and My Top Ten Favorite Jews of All Time

By Michael David Lukas

Michael David Lukas’s first book, “The Oracle of Stamboul,” is now available. 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:


I’ve been thinking a lot these past few months about the year I spent in Tunisia. It was 2003, I had just graduated college and was living on the outskirts of Tunis. Officially, I was there as a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar and was supposed to be studying Arabic while bridging the gap of understanding between the United States and the Arab World. It was, by all accounts, a good year. I did my best to bridge the gap between the United States and the Arab World, I read a trunk full of classic literature, and towards the end of the year I started writing what would later become my first novel, “The Oracle of Stamboul.” Those first few months, however, were full of loneliness and alienation. I missed my family and my friends, I missed my girlfriend, I missed being in college, and I missed those small American comforts (peanut butter, dryers, wood floors) which seemed not to exist in Tunisia. I had a few Tunisian friends at the Internet cafe around the corner, and my Eastern European roommates — Ozzie and Petr — were good guys, though I had difficulty connecting with them at first. One reason for this was that I got up early for Arabic class and they stayed up late partying, drinking cheap Tunisian beer, and playing hair metal at the highest volume Petr’s tinny laptop speakers could bear.

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Whitesnake, Walter Benjamin, Tunisia, Tunis, The Oracle of Stamboul, Nomi Stone, Rosa Luxemburg, My Jewish Learning, Moses, Michael David Lukas, Martin Buber, Maimonides, Jewish Book Council, Jesus, Jaques Derrida, Franz Kafka, Emma Goldman, Books, Author Blog Series, Albert Einstein

Out and About: Jonathan Lethem Leaves Brooklyn; Ketubahs for All

By Ezra Glinter

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Motherless Brooklyn, Out and About, Samuel Freedman, Moby Dick, Middle East Theater Academy, Ketubah, Kevin Spacey, Jonathan Lethem, Ilan Stavans, Adah Isaacs Menken

This Week in Forward Arts and Culture

By Ezra Glinter

  • Jordana Horn goes to see “Wandering Eyes,” a film about Israeli bi-polar rock star Gavriel Balachsan, at the Reelabilities Film Festival (read more coverage of the festival here).

  • Jay Michaelson argues that being gay and Orthodox is not an oxymoron.

  • Philologos argues that being a rhinoceros and a faynshmeker is an oxymoron.

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Wandering Eyes, Reelabilities, Sloane Crosley, This Week in Forward Arts and Culture, Else Lasker-Schüler

Friday Film: Annals of Heroism and Hairdressing

By Curt Schleier

Courtesy 42West

There is a Vidal Sassoon most people know: the famous hairdresser who built an empire of beauty salons, hair care products and beauty schools. If you’re of a certain age, you may remember his television commercials, featuring a young, good-looking guy gently running his fingers through a model’s gorgeous hair, saying: “If you don’t look good, we don’t look good.”

But there is another Vidal Sassoon as well, one that doesn’t conform to the common image of stylists: a child who was placed in an English orphanage when only five years old; a man who became part of the 43 Group, Jews who went around breaking up Fascist rallies in post World War II England; and a warrior who went to Israel in 1948 and joined the elite Palmach unit.

Both these Sassoons were on the phone last week, reminiscing about a life well lived and largely hidden from his adoring public. The 83-year-old has done a lot of reflecting lately, in part because he wrote a memoir just published in England, and has participated in a flattering documentary about his life, “Vidal Sassoon: The Movie,” which opens in New York February 11 and expands nationally thereafter.

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Vidal Sassoon, Palmach, Oswald Mosley, Nancy Kwan, Mia Farrow, Film, Curt Schleier, Adolph Cohen, 43 Group

Alvin Lustig, a Visual Artist with Designs on Posterity.

By Benjamin Ivry

Over a half-century after his death in 1955 at age 40, the American designer Alvin Lustig of Polish-Austrian Jewish origin is more influential than ever. “Born Modern: The Life and Design of Alvin Lustig,” by Steve Heller and Elaine Lustig Cohen, out from Chronicle Books in October 2010, pays elegant homage to the visual thinker. Cohen, Lustig’s widow, is a noted designer herself, explaining how before Lustig’s life was cut short by complications from diabetes, he managed to conquer the book and interior design professions by being “never short of chutzpah.”

Belonging to a generation of designers which also includes Saul Bass, Louis Danziger, and Paul Rand (born Peretz Rosenbaum), Lustig managed to stand out by virtue of his talent and initiative. After studies in Los Angeles, Lustig landed an early job designing a calling card for the California bookseller Jacob Zeitlin. Zeitlin introduced Lustig to publisher James Laughlin, and a series of book covers for New Directions Publishing resulted, of such authors as Kafka, Gertrude Stein, Italo Svevo, and Nathanael West.

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Alvin Lustig, El Lissitzky, Elaine Lustig Cohen, Gertrude Stein, Italo Svevo, Kafka, Nathanael West, Paul Rand, Saul Bass, Steve Heller

Friday Film: Jewish Confederates and Jewish Yankees

By Margaret Eby

Almost 150 years after shots rang out at Fort Sumter, the United States has yet to fully recover from the brutalities of the Civil War. The conflict ripped families apart along regional lines, and pummeled the economy and infrastructure of many Southern cities into such disrepair that many are still working on their reconstruction. When the increasingly bitter fight over slavery and states’ rights developed into full-on war, thousands of men on both sides rushed to volunteer for the armed services, including hundreds of Jewish Americans. And yet, according to the documentary “Jewish Soldiers in Blue & Gray,” screening February 13 and 22 at the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, Jewish militiamen’s accomplishments have been woefully overlooked.

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Reconstruction, Margaret Eby, Jewish Soldiers in Blue and Gray, Isachar Zacharie, Judah Benjamin, Jefferson Davis, Fort Sumter, Film, Confedracy, Civil War, Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant



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