The Arty Semite

This Week in Forward Arts and Culture

By Ezra Glinter

Shelley Kaiser
  • A.J. Goldmann talks to Israeli filmmaker Jonathan Sagall, about his new film “Lipstikka,” which recently premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival.

  • Jan Ellen Spiegel looks at a new exhibit of Jewish-themed art by Norman Gorbaty, who is just being discovered at the age of 78.

  • Benjamin Ivry revisits the legacy of hotel architect Morris Lapidus, whose over-the-top designs were often the subject of critical scorn.

  • Philologos digs up 10 Yiddish words for “potato.”

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Friday Film: Bringing War Criminals to Justice in Sierra Leone

By Margaret Eby

Salone Films LLC
Mongolian peacekeepers protect the Special Court.

In 1991, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) began a bloody insurgency against the government of Sierra Leone. The resulting conflict lasted 11 years and caused more than a third of the population to flee; thousands more were killed by guerillas or had limbs forcefully amputated by machete. In the wake of the crisis, the U.N. and the re-instated Sierra Leonean government took an unprecedented measure, creating a “Special Court” to seek justice against war criminals in a tribunal that combined international and state law. As a third year law student at Harvard, Rebecca Richman Cohen went to the Special Court on a fellowship to work for the defense. When she returned to the country several years later, she brought a film crew.

The documentary that resulted from Cohen’s three year stay is “War Don Don,” screening next week at the Ambulante Film Festival in Mexico, following a short run in New York last fall. Her film traces the trial of RUF leader Issa Sesay, a man directly responsible for many of the war’s worst atrocities, who also protected many civilians from the clashing forces. Wayne Jordash, Issay’s lead defense lawyer, admits at one point that in other circumstances, he would have been friends with Issay. For Cohen, this is part of the central point: War criminals, if not for the war, might not be criminals.

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Reimagining the Talmud

By Aaron Roller

Earlier this week, Aaron Roller, an editor of Mima’amakim, wrote about the Jewish Austin Powers and the Jewish poetry conspiracy. 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:


Yonah Lavery-Yisraeli

I knew something exciting was afoot when an e-mail from the poet Jake Marmer popped up in my inbox with the subject header, “Won’t you be my Tosafot?” Jake Marmer is a longtime editor with Mima’amakim who performs improvisatory jazz poetry with the hippest downtown avant gardists. The Tosfos were a group of Talmudic commentators centered mostly in medieval Provence whose work of dense and brilliant legal exposition is compiled in the margins of the Talmud. As many a teacher of Talmud might ask, “So, nu, what’s the connection?”

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Are We Living in a Golden Age of Jewish Art?

By Matthew Baigell

Most people do not know that we are living in a golden age of Jewish American art. But, as I will explain in a lecture at the Jewish Museum on March 7, we are.

‘In the Land of the Brave’ by Siona Benjamin

Since around 1975, there has been an incredible but largely ignored outpouring of art based on the Bible, the Talmud, Kabbalah, the prayer books, and midrash by artists all over the country. Depending on their points of view — feminist, psychological, existential — they approach their subject matter in entirely different, personal ways. Rather than illustrate texts they challenge their subject matter, as well as invent explanations of their own. Their work has little precedent in past Jewish American art, and the artists have leap-frogged back over generations to find their source material directly in the ancient texts. Taking nothing for granted, they have few inhibitions about questioning what they find.

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Why Branding Judaism Is a Bad Idea

By Gordon Haber

I blame Heeb. Launched in 2001, “The New Jew Review” iterated a sharp, satirical take on Jewish culture. The idea was to edify through mockery: Thus a 2005 cover featured Sarah Silverman displaying her cleavage through a hole in a sheet. Although it can try too hard to shock (remember Roseanne Barr as Hitler baking “Jew cookies?”) Heeb is usually funny — and kind of cool.

Courtesy Aharit Hayamim
Israeli band Aharit Hayamim, one of the recent performers at Jewlicious Festival.

That is to say that the magazine is cool (or was — the print version folded last year). But now, perhaps emboldened by Heeb, a number of organizations are attempting to brand Judaism itself as cool.

For example, there’s the Jewlicious blog and its attendant festival, which I covered for the Forward last year. The festival (which took place February 24 to 27 in Long Beach, California) features Jewish music and Jewish comedians and Jewish panels talking about Judaism. The blog is strongly Zionist, with articles like, “Egyptian Riots… but is it good for the Jews?” [sic]. And blatantly supportive of sex between Zionists, with articles like, “The Unofficial Guide to Sex on Birthright Israel.”

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Metaphysics of Landscape: Four Poems by Jennifer Barber

By Jake Marmer

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

Courtesy of Jennifer Barber

“All forms of landscape are autobiographical,” wrote poet Charles Wright, and indeed, some poets, while describing natural or urban landscapes, tend to use words that echo with metaphysical sensations evoked by these landscapes in our inner lives. This, to some extent, is true of all four poems by Jennifer Barber, featured on The Arty Semite today. The concept comes to light most explicitly in “Proximity,” while “Dwelling” reverses gears, using a play of private and public spaces as a layered metaphor. The poem “The Way to Rainbow Lake” touches subtly on the setting before it dissipates into a spiritual experience of nature and one’s own emotions.

Jennifer Barber’s “Rigging the Wind” received the Kore Press First Book Award for 2002 and was published in 2003; her next collection, “Given Away,” is forthcoming from Kore Press. She has been the recipient of a Pushcart Prize, a St. Botolph Grant, and a Heinrich Boll Cottage Residency in Ireland. Her poem “God Doesn’t Speak in the Psalms” was awarded the 2008 Anna Davidson Rosenberg Award. Barber is the founding and current editor of the literary journal Salamander, now in its 19th year.

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Out and About: Spielberg Gets Wikileaks Movie; The Origins of Jewish Humor

By Ezra Glinter

Getty Images
Wikileaks leader Julian Assange

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'Jaffa Road Botox Party'

By Esther Zandberg

Crossposted from Haaretz

The writing was on the wall regarding the urban renewal projects on Jaffa Road in Jerusalem and the old central bus station in Tel Aviv. Urban renewal has become just another word for gentrification, higher prices, uprooting working-class residents and small businesses, widening the gap between rich and poor — all in exchange for improving the quality of life and the public landscape of the affluent.

Rami Tsalka

No one has yet come up with the formula for renewal that will benefit all those who have rights to the city, while balancing improvement with fairness. But this needs to be the top priority for all those involved today in renewal, whether from a government or municipal standpoint, or from a practical or theoretical standpoint.

“The Jaffa Road Botox Party” was the name (unforgiveable, indeed) of the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design’s end-of-semester event organized by students enrolled in an interdisciplinary course that focuses on redesigning showcase windows. Held last week, it included a tour of the shops that participated in the project, an exhibit at the Yaffo 23 Gallery that provides documentation of the work done, and a study of preservation efforts on the street that includes interviews with merchants.

Read more at Haaretz.com


When Zayda Was Also a Great Polish Pianist

By Benjamin Ivry

Wiki Commons

After 2009’s biography Ignaz Friedman: Romantic Master Pianist by Allan Evans from Indiana University Press, and CD reprints on such labels as Arbiter Records; Naxos USA; and Philips Classics, new attention is being paid to the splendid Polish Jewish pianist Friedman. A warmly affectionate biographical memoir, “Ignaz Friedman” by Nina Walder, the pianist’s granddaughter, appeared in November 2010 from Les Editions Slatkine in Geneva.

The pianist, born Salomon Isaac Freudman in Podgorze, outside Cracow, adopted his stage name only in 1905, at age 23. By then, his identity as a Jewish pianist was well established after studies with noted teacher Theodor Leschetizky, who famously proclaimed three requirements for any keyboard virtuoso: “Being Slavic, Jewish and a child prodigy.” Friedman fulfilled all three criteria. On perpetual tour to far-flung places as an adult, Friedman wrote home to his family in 1927 from Cairo, Egypt:

The region which can be seen from our boat is sandy, dry, and extremely dull. Now I understand why Jews never wound up here.

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Samuel Thrope: International Historian of Mystery

By Aaron Roller

On Monday, Aaron Roller, an editor of Mima’amakim, wrote about the Jewish poetry conspiracy. 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:


Wiki Commons

Of all the poets whose work I’ve come across while reviewing submissions for Mima’amakim, Samuel Thrope is probably the most mysterious. I don’t know Samuel, though I hope our paths will cross some day soon. For the past two years, Mima’amakim has published poems by Thrope that encompass the unpredictable sweep of the Jewish past, while playing some serious postmodern tricks.

Last year, Thrope submitted a short, translated excerpt from the “Dabestan-e Mazaheb” or “School of Religious Doctrines,” a 17th-century book that documents and compares Asian religions. The portion of the Dabestan that pertains to Judaism was taken from the anonymous author’s encounter with a Jewish convert to Islam named Sarmad. Sarmad, himself a poet, traveled to India, whereupon he fell in love with a Hindu boy and renounced everything, becoming a wandering ascetic.

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Being a Jewish Musician in Belarus

By Dmitri Slepovitch

Image by Ivan Dribas. Courtesy of Minsker Kapelye.

There is a story in my family about my paternal great-grandfather Yosl (Yeysef), who served as a clarinetist in the Russian Army military band. During World War I, he was captured as a prisoner of war and was held in Germany until a year after the war ended. When he returned to his hometown of Mogilev in late 1919 with his clarinet in hand, all he saw was devastation and famine, and he was forced to trade his instrument for bread to feed his family.

I started to play the clarinet at the age of 13 as a second instrument after first learning the piano. As a child, I dreamed of becoming a symphony orchestra conductor, and it seemed important to master an orchestral instrument. But as soon as I became interested in Jewish music I knew I had discovered a powerful tool to express myself as a Jewish musician. For my zeyde’s clarinet, I like to think that it was a kind of reincarnation.

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How Good is Gogol Bordello?

By Ben Shalev

Crossposted from Haaretz

Before you read any further: If you weren’t at Gogol Bordello’s first two performances this week and you don’t have tickets for tonight — get them now. This is the sort of event for which the words “don’t miss” were invented.

Daniel Tchetchik

The question with regard to Gogol Bordello, as opposed to most bands, is not whether its show was good, but rather just how good it was. Or more precisely, just how amazing it was. This is because less than “amazing” is apparently not an option for Eugene Hutz and his explosive multinational gang.

The band’s previous appearance in Israel, about a year ago, was tremendous. It was nearly a religious experience, in the aesthetic sense of the term: A celebration of liberation and humanism. The performance on Monday, which (for me, at least) lacked the element of surprise, in the nature of things did not replicate that experience. The first time is always the best. But even the second time was excellent.

Read more at Haaretz.com


Pondering Our Doom, Together and Apart

By Elizabeth Stone

Courtesy of Shagan Arts

An electrifying dance performance by Israel’s Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company (KCDC) brought the audience to its feet on February 26 at Kanbar Hall at the Jewish Community Center in San Francisco.

The San Francisco performance — the last of an international tour — was of a work titled “Ekodoom,” choreographed by Rami Ba’er, who also designed the sets, lighting and costumes.

Ba’er refers to ”Ekodoom” as an introspection on both a shared ecology and our potential doom. While it’s tempting to look for a narrative or to discover the choreographer’s intent, Ba’er said that “I don’t like to interpret the piece in words with a narrative or story. I want the spectator to connect to himself through the piece — through his own associations, memories, feelings, and thoughts.”

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The World's Mightiest Mortal Gets a New Lease on Life

By Jillian Steinhauer

We Jews like to pride ourselves on the many things we’ve invented: the ballpoint pen, blue jeans, and the atomic bomb, to name a few. (How about the theory of relativity — does that count?) We’ve also had a strong hand in shaping the world of modern entertainment, helping to build Hollywood, create the modern sitcom, and, not least important, invent that beloved American lowbrow figure, the comic book superhero. Whether you consider it a feat or a flaw, Jews dreamed up Superman, the Fantastic Four, Spider Man, Iron Man, the Hulk, the X-Men — in other words, nearly every big-name character that came to life during the Golden (late 1930s–1940s) and Silver (late 1950s–1970) Ages of comics.

Captain Marvel — the “World’s Mightiest Mortal,” as his creators billed him — is an exception, wildly popular in his day but not called into existence by Jack Kirby, Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, Will Eisner, or any other of the Jewish comics greats. Instead it was a magazine publisher named Roscoe Fawcett who, two years after Siegel and Shuster’s Superman first appeared in DC Comics in 1938, allegedly told his company’s art director he wanted a comparable character whose alternate identity would be a young boy rather than a grown man. Thus Captain Marvel was born, and proceeded to outsell Superman throughout the following decade, sometimes by as many as 14 millions copies a month. He met a premature demise, however, at the hands of DC, who sued Fawcett Comics for copyright infringement. After three trials, a financially beleaguered Fawcett settled in 1952, agreeing never to publish Captain Marvel again.

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A Week of Jewish Bookends in London

By Dan Friedman

Ian Jones

The most striking thing about the opening of Jewish Book Week — London’s biggest book fair — was the relative lack of books. At the opening, on Saturday night, to a packed audience, Simon Sebag-Montefiore led off the presenters with an account of his much feted “Jerusalem, a Biography,” but the smorgasbord of Judaic books that had previously greeted the attendees like a literary bagel spread was notably, and deliberately, thin.

The theme of this year’s event is “bookends,” by which the organizers mean to conjure both an idea of formative books as well as those solid citizens of the bookshelf that provide balance to a row of books. An unfortunate echo of the theme, though, is the “end of books.” And, though the reason for the limited showing of hard copies in the foyer is the increasing ease and thrift of buying books online (Amazon is cheaper after you’ve found a book at JBW), the decreasing number of hard copies is a trend that will continue as Europe follows America, and move increasingly towards eBooks.

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Remembering Influential Orthodox Songwriter Moshe Yess

By Binyomin Ginzberg

The English-speaking Haredi Jewish community produces an awful lot of original Jewish music, though critics might consider it a lot of awful original Jewish music. With rare exceptions, the lyrics of popular songs in English — as opposed to settings of liturgical texts or Yiddish lyrics — come in just a few flavors, ranging from preachy to maudlin to just plain bad. Good lyrics are few and far between, the repertoire consisting of less-than-subtle presentations of the importance of Torah, Shabbos, and especially Moshiach and Geula (the Messiah and Redemption).

The recent passing of one of the few compelling frum English-language singer-songwriters is an opportunity to reflect on the story and songs of a man many consider the most influential English-language song lyricist of contemporary Orthodox Judaism.

In 1978 singer-songwriter Moshe Yess (born Morris Arthur in 1945) bought a one-way ticket from Hollywood, Calif., to Jerusalem and enrolled in Yeshiva Dvar Yerushalayim to learn more about Judaism. He quickly teamed up with another ba’al teshuva (returnee to observance), Rabbi Shalom Levine, to form the Megama Duo (“Megama” can be translated as aim, direction, or purpose), a project using American folk-rock sounds to express Jewish values. Megama’s most enduring hit is “My Zaidy,” a song off their debut, self-titled record.

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The Jewish Poetry Conspiracy

By Aaron Roller

Aaron Roller is an editor of Mima’amakim, a journal of Jewish religious poetry and art. Their new issue was just released. 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:


The very notion of creating one magazine to house “Jewish poetry” doesn’t seem to make any sense. Jews wrote poetry in medieval Spain. Other Jews wrote Yiddish poetry as the Enlightenment made its way to Eastern Europe. There were poets among the early Zionists, just as there were among early Jewish immigrants living in New York’s Lower East Side.

What justifies grouping these seemingly disparate poets together? They wrote in different languages, in different forms about different topics. They range from the the greatest defenders of faith to those who struggled with belief to those who gave up on G-d completely.

So what is Jewish poetry?

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Monday Music: Shakin’ That Melancholy With the Afro-Semitic Experience

By Jake Marmer

Courtesy David Chevan
Baba David Coleman of the Afro-Semitic Experience

Jewish and African-American cultures have met on musical ground on many occasions — just think of Cab Calloway’s forays into Yiddish, Nina Simone’s covers of Hebrew folksongs, or most recently, the collaboration of Fred Wesley, David Krakauer and Socalled as Abraham Inc.

David Chevan’s Afro-Semitic Experience, however, is different. The project unapologetically focuses on religious — or rather, sacred — music, as attested to by their recent live double album, “Further Definitions of the Days of Awe.”

This year, along with the album release, the band celebrated its 13th year of existence. In honor of the occasion, a “bar mitzvah” concert was held at New York’s Sixth Street Synagogue in January. The album is also coming out in three different iterations, capturing three different live performances in Greenfield, New Haven, and New York (this review is of the Greenfield concert).

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Israel's Yuval Pick to Head French Dance Center

By Elad Samorzik

Crossposted from Haaretz

The Israeli dancer and choreographer Yuval Pick was appointed director last week of France’s Centre Choregraphique National de Rillieux-la-Pape. Pick, 40, will replace choreographer Maguy Marin, who has held the position since 1998, in August.

Daniel Tchetchik

CCN Rillieux-la-Pape, in the Rhone-Alpes region, is one of 19 such centers established around France in the 1980s in order to promote dance in outlying areas. Each is headed by a leading dance figure who produces their own works, and is responsible for a range of activities, including hosting guest choreographers and dance companies, promoting dance and organizing lessons and workshops.

Read More at Haaretz.com


Out and About: Jewish Winners at the Oscars; Arguing for Modigliani

By Ezra Glinter

Getty Images
  • Actress Natalie Portman and writers David Seidler and Aaron Sorkin were among the winners at last night’s Academy Awards. Also, the Israeli documentary “Strangers No More” took home the prize for best short documentary.

  • “Zenga Zenga,” An Israel video lampooning Muammar Gaddafi, has gone viral.

  • A new biography argues for the continuing relevance of Amedeo Modigliani.

  • The National Post talks to Forward contributor Michael Kaminer about “Graphic Details: Confessional Comics by Jewish Women.”

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