The Arty Semite

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.

Read more


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.

Read more


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?

Read more


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).

Read more


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.”

Read more


This Week in Forward Arts and Culture

By Ezra Glinter

  • Benjamin Ivry remembers French politician and media figure Françoise Giroud.

  • Jake Marmer reviews “Coming To Life,” a poetry collection by Joy Ladin.

  • Philologos goes to learn in yeshiva.

  • Cheryl Kaplan goes to see “The Sota Project,” a 22-minute film installation about adultery, betrayal and doubt.

Read more


Them Low Down Yemen Blues

By John Semley

Courtesy Yemen Blues
Yemen Blues front man Ravid Kahalani

World music is a disingenuous marker for a genre. Besides presuming that popular forms of western (that is, American) music like pop, rock, rap, soul and country-western are something other than of the world, the term “world music” tends to flatten the rich idiosyncrasies and particularities of music coming from all corners of the globe. It makes filing CDs at your local HMV or Virgin Superstore easier. But that’s about it.

But Yemen Blues, the most exciting touring band out of Israel (with apologies, Monotonix), are different. Mixing traditional Yemenite music with soul, blues, and West African rhythms, the group’s claim to the “world music” moniker is well-earned. “The sense of the band, especially in industry circles, is that this band is the hottest thing,” said Eric Stein, artistic director of the Ashkenaz Foundation in Toronto, Canada. So when Stein heard that the band was plotting a North American tour, he scrambled to schedule a Toronto date. (Yemen Blues plays in Toronto on February 26 before dipping south of the border for dates in Chicago on February 27, Los Angeles on March 6, and New York on March 9, among others.) “I’d been hearing rumblings for months that there was this hot new thing coming out of Israel. And my ears always perk up to that kind of thing.”

Read more


Friday Film: Reading Chaim Potok in Algeria

By Ralph Seliger

Sony Pictures Classics

In this age of conflicts in and with the Islamic world, it’s heartening to see a fact-based film about religious amity, even one that’s set during a sectarian civil war in an Arab country. The French-language production “Of Gods and Men” follows a group of French monks in Algeria who are threatened by Islamic extremists during the Algerian civil war in the 1990s. After winning the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2010, the film is being released commercially in the U.S. on February 25.

The film’s star, Lambert Wilson (alongside the ever-stately Michael Lonsdale), is a veteran actor in both his native French and in English. His talents as a singer stand him in good stead as Brother Christian, the head monk in a Trappist monastery. The authentic prayers the actors intone are but one of the film’s charms.

Aside from a title inspired by Psalm 82, the Jewish connection is slight: A visiting monk brings “The Chosen” as a gift requested by Christian. The screenwriter, Etienne Comar, confirmed in an e-mail that this was Chaim Potok’s novel, but he could not recall if the gift was factual or an invention.

Read more


A.B. Yehoshua and Umberto Eco at the Jerusalem Book Fair

By David B. Green

Crossposted from Haaretz

Though the Jerusalem International Book Fair continues through tomorrow morning, it’s possible that last night marked the festival’s climax, as two literary titans — A.B. Yehoshua and Umberto Eco — met and put on a performance for an enthusiastic, overflowing crowd. Even 20 minutes before the event’s scheduled start, fans were being turned away, and the air had that electrified sense of anticipation that precedes historical events.

Getty Images

History was certainly something that infused the entire hour-long conversation between the Italian novelist and his Israeli interviewer, as Yehoshua acknowledged that “The Name of the Rose,” Eco’s 1980 murder mystery set in a 14th-century Italian monastery, inspired him to write his 1997 historical novel “A Journey to the End of the Millennium,” set in Paris in the 10th century.

Read more at Haaretz.com


Poetry in the Mikveh: Three Works by Aaron Roller

By Jake Marmer

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

Notorious for having their heads in the clouds and their hearts set on unearthly matters, poets have, nevertheless, often designated physical spaces as makeshift shrines for their inspirations. Just think how much verse has sprung from the proverbial park bench, the grassy bank, or the window of a moving train. In his poem “Naked,” featured below, New York poet Aaron Roller picks the most auspicious location of all: the mikveh, or ritual bath.

Wiki Commons

In a wild Whitman-esque frenzy, Roller summons the world to the mikveh with him, purifying us with his gritty, ecstatic, and at times endearingly dorky jokes. As it becomes clear from the second poem, “My Wife Has a Secret,” the mikveh is more than a random location on the map of Roller’s inspiration; rather, it is a recurring image, a pit stop where his muse does not fail to pause while racing through the lines. And indeed, if the third poem, “Write Like a Jew,” does not reference the ritual bath explicitly, it is clear that the wild hair of the rallying, ranting poet is still wet with precious drops of that holy water, enriched with the traces of the many greats who have bathed in it before.

Roller has been one of key editors and contributors to the Mima’amakim Journal of Jewish Art, and the first two poems made their initial appearances in the journal. The final poem was composed especially for Mima’amakim’s closing party earlier this month, and luckily, was captured on video. Located where spirituality meets holy awkwardness, romanticism holds hands with sarcasm, Orthodox Judaism jives with high-brow and low-brow grimaces of the Western cannon, Roller’s poetry continues to entertain, to explode, and, indeed, to purify.

Read more


Tel Aviv School No 'Stranger' to the Oscars

By Allison Kaplan Sommer

The crowded hallways of the Bialik-Rogozin school in gritty South Tel Aviv are about as far from the glitz and glamour of Hollywood as one can imagine.

Courtesy Simon & Goodman Picture Company

But on the evening of the 83rd Academy Awards on February 27, the school’s principal, Keren Tal, will make the transition from those hallways to the red carpet, as she walks alongside filmmakers Kirk Simon and Karen Goodman. Tal, along with the teachers and students of her school, are the stars of a 40-minute documentary “Strangers No More,” which is nominated for an Oscar in the Best Documentary Short category.

Bialik-Rogozin is not your typical Israeli school. On the campus, 800 children from more than 48 countries in grades K-12 are educated, many entering school with no understanding of Hebrew.

“Here, Christians, Jews and Muslims study together,” declares principal Keren Tal in the film. “In education, there are no strangers.”

Read more


Out and About: Jewish Films Honored in Berlin; Painting Rahm Emanuel With Pancakes

By Ezra Glinter

  • How one of the most popular Jewish books of the modern era explained everything from Kabbalah to cosmology, astronomy, geography, botany, zoology and medicine.

  • Novelist David Bezmozgis and filmmaker Richard J. Lewis exchange letters on “Barney’s Version.”

Dan Lacey

Read more


Coen Brothers To Receive Tel Aviv University Prize

By Haaretz Service

Crossposted from Haaretz

Joel and Ethan Coen, the Oscar award-winning producer-director team that created films like “The Big Lebowski” and “A Serious Man” have been announced as the recipients of a million dollar prize from Tel Aviv University, to be granted in May.

The Dan David Prize is named for the businessman and philanthropist and is administered by a board of directors headed by Tel Aviv University President Professor Yoseph Klafter. Ten percent of the recipients’ prize money is donated on their behalf to doctorate and post-doctorate student grants.

Read more at Haaretz.com


How Jewish is 'How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying?'

By Benjamin Ivry

Blue Eyed Bow Tie: Daniel Radcliffe will star as J. Pierrepont Finch in the forthcoming Broadway production of “How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.”

In Frank Loesser’s beloved 1961 musical “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying”, a new production of which starring Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliffe opens at Broadway’s Al Hirschfeld Theatre on March 27 (previews start February 26), J. Pierrepont Finch (Radcliffe) is portrayed as an inexorably rising businessman. His name alludes to the turn-of-the-century capitalist and Episcopalian, J. Pierpont Morgan, whose presence in 20th century American Jewish culture includes appearance or evocations in E. L. Doctorow’s novel and subsequent Broadway musical Ragtime; Charles Strouse’s musical “Annie,” Jerry Herman’s Hello, Dolly! (in the song “Elegance”); and even Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. But how Jewish is J. Pierrepont Finch and his world?

Finch, a window-washer who schmoozes his way amazingly quickly to being chairman of the board, is often casually compared to Sammy Glick from the Broadway musical What Makes Sammy Run? adapted from Budd Schulberg’s 1941 novel. Yet Sammy Glick is a lethally ambitious, double-dealing bluffer who “runs people down” so somberly that some readers saw him as an anti-Semitic stereotype, to which Schulberg could only reply that Sammy’s victims were Jews, too. By comparison, Finch is a gracefully sunny caricature (entirely appropriate for a theater named after Hirschfeld), thanks to the genius of writer and director Abe Burrows (born Abram Solman Borowitz), who directed “Sammy” in its Broadway debut in 1964, when “How to Succeed,” for which Burrows wrote the book and directed as well, was still running.

Read more


Jewish Photos Laced With Gold

By Ethan Pack

‘Tallit Steps’ by Bill Aron and Victor Raphael

In the world of Jewish museums and art collections, there is no more iconic landscape than Jerusalem. But how many ways can one see the Dome of the Rock, the Old City gates or the shuk at Mahane Yehuda before they become static tropes? With such a heavily charged backdrop, photography of Jerusalem often devolves into bland suggestions about what people struggle with and share in the sacred city.

The most welcome achievement of “Illuminated Reflections: A Bill Aron and Victor Raphael Collaboration,” showing until May 8 at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, is how directly it takes on these familiar scenes and creates something new with the material. Aron is a photographer who focuses on Jewish communities, while Raphael works with an eclectic range of media, from traditional gold leafing to digital art, both of which he uses here to alter pictures taken over the course of Aron’s career.

Read more


Jewish Children's Ephemera Where You Least Expect Them

By Jenna Weissman Joselit

Crossposted From Under the Fig Tree

Wiki Commons

Princeton’s Cotsen Children’s Library is justly celebrated for the range of its holdings, the imaginative reach of its curators and its stimulating conferences, like the one I had the good fortune to attend just the other day, which explored the ephemera — the stuff — of childhood.

From its title, “Enduring Trifles,” to the fascinating constellation of its presentations, which encompassed such “trifles” as toy theater, writing sheets, paper and rag dolls, grammar books, Girl Guide badges and Moses action figures (my contribution to the proceedings), I knew I was in for a treat.

What I didn’t anticipate was the degree to which references to the Jews would surface time and again — and in the most curious ways, leaving me feeling a bit like Alice in Wonderland.

Read more


'Obama's Secrets' at the Jerusalem Book Fair

By David B. Green

Crossposted from Haaretz

Moti Kimche
Neuro-linguist Gil Peretz, right, co-author of ‘Obama’s Secrets.’

The Jerusalem Book Fair may be the only place where you can get from Russia to India via Angola. With a maze of stands representing publishers both local and foreign (this is Angola’s first showing at the biennial convention) you’ll need a GPS to find your way around, or at least a map, which is the one thing easily found — right when you first walk in.

In a day and a half of wandering around Binyanei Ha’uma, I still haven’t made it beyond the Israeli publishers to the international stands. After passing back and forth a few times before a small stand in the Israel pavilion advertising a book called “Obama’s Secrets,” curiosity won out over the unpleasant expectation that the work would offer proof of the U.S. president’s non-American birth, or his links to the Illuminati, and I stopped to talk with Gil Peretz, the book’s co-author.

Read more at Haaretz.com


Sounds of Chutzpah on CD for February

By Benjamin Ivry

Gitta Alpár: A 1920s Hungarian Diva, still singing strong on CD.

Sometimes music achievement is directly associated with a degree of chutzpah. Generations have been moved by the stirring 1881 setting for cello and orchestra of “Kol Nidre” by Max Bruch, especially as performed with granitic Old Testament authority by Pablo Casals on Emi Classics. Only an audacious composer would dare to rival Bruch’s achievement, as is done by a 1970 Kol Nidre for cello and piano on Albany Records’s new CD, “Alan Shulman: Works for Cello CD”.

Shulman, a virtuoso cellist who performed with Toscanini, created an intensely somber melodic line which is more valid liturgically, if less theatrical, than Bruch’s. Shulman’s 1948 Concerto for Cello and Orchestra, dedicated to the “People of Israel” is also included on the Albany CD, played by soloist Wesley Baldwin with epic idealism.

Read more


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.

Read more


Would you like to receive updates about new stories?






















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.