The Arty Semite

Why Matisyahu Is More Interesting Than His Music

By Mordechai Shinefield

Getty Images

Last week on an adorable TMZ segment, former Degrassi child actor and current ubiquitous pop radio presence Drake called himself “one of the best Jews to ever do it,” where “it” presumably meant spitting lines. Conveniently timed to coincide with the release of his new album, “Live at Stubb’s Vol. II,” peyot-sporting rap-reggae-pop singer Matisyahu fought back: “He happens to be Jewish just like Bob Dylan happened to be Jewish, but what I’m doing is really tapping into my roots and culture, and trying to blend that with the mainstream… Drake’s being Jewish is just a by-product.” Jay-Z vs. Nas Pt. II this is not (it’s not even Eminem vs. Insane Clown Posse quality), but it does raise a question that anyone writing and reading about Jewish music has to confront eventually: What is Jewish music?

A snarkier critic might point out that Matisyahu dueting with Evangelical Christian nu-metal rockers P.O.D. in 2006 did very little for his Jewish bona fides (the “Testify” album cover contained a giant crucifix in place of the second ‘t’) but I’ll just wonder aloud if Matisyahu returning to Stubb’s on an album indicates his own uncertainty about his Jewishness.

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On NCIS, the 'New Jew' Is Much Like the Old

By Eitan Kensky

Courtesy CBS
Cote de Pablo as Ziva David on NCIS.

I can’t help but think that NCIS officer Ziva David is not what Max Nordau had in mind when he developed the concept of Muskeljudentum (Muscular Judaism). Living in an environment of anti-Semitic discourse that saw the Jewish male as sickly and weak, Nordau advocated a physical Judaism that would challenge anti-Semites by carving a new Jewish body, lithe and muscular and capable of fighting back. His ideas enjoyed wide support in the early decades of the 20th century, and became a major ideological component of the Zionist “New Jew.” If Muscular Judaism didn’t quite dispel the image of the intellectual Jew incapable of harming a fly, it at least created a counter-image: the strong, aggressive Sabra, unafraid of combat.

This is certainly the role played by Ziva (Cote de Pablo) on NCIS, the popular CBS procedural about a Navy Criminal investigative agency. Ziva, who joined in the third season, is the unit’s resident killer, and the only officer other than the team leader Gibbs (Mark Harmon) capable of routinely disarming and capturing suspects. Though played by a non-Jewish actress, Ziva is our most prominent televisual Israeli, helping, in her own way, to spread awareness of Israeli culture: She sports a Star of David necklace, listens to the popular band Hadag Nachash, and if she sometimes pronounces “layla,” the Hebrew word for night whose first syllable rhymes with “eye,” like the Eric Clapton song, her dialogue with other Israeli characters likely exposes the audience to more Hebrew than they’d otherwise hear in a lifetime.

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Slices of Sderot Life — and Death

By Gili Izikovich

Crossposted from Haaretz

There is a lot of festivity in the family scene that opens the film, “Edges.” Three of the brothers are smiling; another, who looks ill, congratulates his mother on her birthday; and the person holding the camera, director Tal Avitan, asks everyone to say something to Mom.

Eliyahu Hershkovitz

But the joy does not last, and the gruesome reality of this family’s life is then presented without any efforts to prettify it. Meanwhile, Avitan narrates dryly: That scene was filmed just after his father committed suicide in jail. Three years later, Avitan started working on his film.

What happens when a parent commits suicide — that’s the big question hovering over “Edges,” Avitan’s final project at Sapir College, which will air tonight on Yes Docu and won the Aliza Shagrir documentary prize in 2009. In it he delves into the heart of the family dynamic, documenting moments of happiness but also great misery. It seems he does not want to take pity on any member of the family.

Read more at Haaretz.com


This Week in Forward Arts and Culture

By Ezra Glinter

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Mon Semblable, Mon Père: Likenesses Found on the Lindon Tree

By Benjamin Ivry

The French Jewish publisher Jérôme Lindon, who died in 2001 at age 75, introduced such authors as his friend Samuel Beckett and the 1950s Nouveau Roman (new novel) school, including Nathalie Sarraute and Claude Simon through his Les Éditions de Minuit.

Growing up as Lindon’s son is the subject of an elegant new memoir by Mathieu Lindon, a novelist and critic. “What Loving Means” (Ce qu’aimer veut dire), out in January from Les Éditions P. O. L., describes the early twenties of Mathieu, now 55. The wild oats he sowed during those younger years included promiscuous sex and LSD. Mahler’s first two symphonies are appropriate acid trip listening, Offenbach’s “Orpheus in the Underworld” is not, Mathieu claims.

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Friday Film: Phil Ochs Finally Gets His Biopic

By Susie Davidson

Last month, fans of 1960s singer-songwriter Phil Ochs got some long-delayed gratification when the film “Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune,” directed by Kenneth Bowser, opened in limited release at New York’s IFC Center. With reviews ranging from good to excellent, the movie is now scheduled for runs at 57 theaters nationwide. Aficionados are optimistic that the enigmatic topical singer will finally get the recognition he craved.

Courtesy First Run Features

Ochs’s legions of hardcore devotees have long weathered rumors of impending biopics. Among the more enduring was a purported movie starring Sean Penn, who expressed his desire to play the singer-songwriter in his liner notes for “A Toast to Those Who Are Gone,” a 1986 compilation of early-to-mid ‘60s Ochs recordings.

Other teasers included the early-‘80s film “Chords of Fame,” directed by Michael Korelenko and starring Bill Burnett as Ochs, which aired at festivals and on Britain’s Channel 4, but never saw official release. Marc Eliot, who penned the 1978 Ochs biography “Death of a Rebel” produced another unreleased film, “The Farewell Performance of Phil Ochs.” Ochs clips are out there, and many appear in Bowser’s film. But an official, full-length feature movie has never panned out — until now.

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Friday Film: Too Much Shop Talk

By Schuyler Velasco

IsraeliFilms
Liron Ben-Chelouche in ‘Maya.’

The craft of acting, like writing, is a very difficult thing to talk about without sounding like a dallying idiot. Perversely, it’s also one of the hardest topics to stop talking about once you’ve started, since it’s rife with irresolvable quandaries about “intent,” “truth,” and the nature of Little Red Riding Hood’s relationship with her mother. Like all shop talk, it’s a conversation that gets tiresome very quickly for the non-actors in the room.

Such is the problem with “Maya,” the latest effort from director Michal Bat Adam, which screened at the Boston Jewish Film Festival in November and returns at the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival February 13 and 21. This movie can’t stop talking about acting, but it doesn’t know how to do so without sounding like a frustrated high school drama teacher who’s being a little bit condescending. Thus we get helpful tidbits like, “It has to be more real for you”; “You’ve to choose if you want drama or truth”; and my personal favorite, “Acting is not just reciting words from memory.” Yikes.

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This Storm Is What We Call Progress

By Michael David Lukas

Earlier this week, Michael David Lukas shared a list of his top ten favorite Jews of all time and his connection to Nomi Stone. 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:


Histories of Jews in the Ottoman Empire (like histories of Jews in the Iberian Peninsula, Ancient Rome, and the Arab World) tend to fall into one of two camps: those that emphasize coexistence and those that emphasize strife. This seems a rather simplistic binary, I know, but pick up any book about the Jews of the Ottoman Empire — say Bernard Lewis’s “The Jews of Islam” or Avigdor Levy’s “Jews, Turks, and Ottomans: A Shared History” — and you will be able to tell in a page or two which camp the book falls into.

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Israel and Germany Collaborate on Online Archive

By Maya Sela

Crossposted from Haaretz

Soon you’ll be able to read the personal archives of Martin Buber and Gershom Scholem online. Hundreds of medieval manuscripts, scores of personal archives and many other materials retained at the National Library in Jerusalem will be digitized, as part of a joint project by the Israeli and German governments. The materials will then be made available on the Internet.

As the two governments are particularly interested in highlighting points of encounter between the Jewish and German cultures, the project will focus on literature documenting German-Jewish culture of the past thousand years. Digitized documents will include copies of Hebrew manuscripts produced in Germany in the Middle Ages and held today in the National Library, as well as rare Hebrew books and newspapers.

Read more at Haaretz.com


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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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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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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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


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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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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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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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


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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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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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


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