The Arty Semite

Learning Jewish History on 'Finding Your Roots'

By Curt Schleier

Photo Courtesy of WNET/Joseph Sinnott

Henry Louis Gates’ PBS series, “Finding Your Roots,” is invariably emotionally powerful. And tonight’s episode, which profiles the background of three leading Jewish Americans, is no exception.

Carole King, Tony Kushner and Alan Dershowitz are the subjects. As always, Gates and his research team have done an excellent job checking the roots of the participants’ family trees. They went back the furthest in King’s lineage, to late 18th-century Russia. But it is the Dershowitz and Kushner segments that prove the most fascinating.

Dershowitz’s mother’s family came from Galicia in the 20th-century when pogroms wrecked havoc there. His grandfather, Naftali Ringer, came first, followed two years later by his grandmother Blima. There was a problem at the dock when she arrived — Naftali had shaved off his beard. As a result she didn’t recognize him and, according to family legend, at first rejected him.

Blima ruled the roost in the Dershowitz household, and she remained observant. Dershowitz claims when he came home from Ebbets Field and declared “The Dodgers won,” she would ask “But was it good for the Jews?”

But she was also very American. “She made my brother and me recite the Pledge of Allegiance every day… America was everything Poland was not.”

Read more

Elegy to 'Car Talk' Everyman

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

When Daniel Pinkwater learned on November 3 that Car Talk host Tom Magliozzi had died, he sent a one-line condolence to Doug Berman, the show’s longtime producer: “He improved the lives of millions. Weekly. For decades. They give Nobel Prizes to the wrong people.”

Tom, better known as Click (or was he Clack?), co-hosted the public radio call-in show Car Talk with his brother Ray for 35 years. The show still airs in reruns, though the two stopped producing new episodes in 2012. Pinkwater, the renowned children’s book author and radio personality, was a longtime friend of the program and a frequent guest.

“The crux of it was — this is basically what made them popular —they’re brothers and they get along,” Pinwater said. “People love that.”

Though the show as it aired was family-friendly, Pinkwater recalled Tom and his brother as having a wild sense of humor.

“They were out of control,” Pinkwater said. “They would say things and tell jokes and deliver of themselves remarks which, had they not been caught and edited out by the remarkable Doug Berman, would have ended my career as a children’s writer.”

When Car Talk was picked up by NPR in 1987, the ragged-voiced Magliozzi brothers didn’t sound like anyone else on the public radio roster. “My wife used to notice you couldn’t tell the speakers on NPR one from the other — except them,” Pinkwater said.

Read more

Top 4 Christian Works By Jewish Composers

By Michael Kaminer

Everyone knows that the most popular American Christmas songs were written by Jews. But like Leonard Bernstein’s “MASS,” (see my piece on the recent Queens performance here) there’s a long tradition of Jewish musicians involved in Christian-inspired music — and even a few non-Jewish composers who’ve written for the Hebrews. Here are four of the most interesting:

1. Felix Mendelssohn wrote Christian music like Symphony No. 5 “Reformation,” St. Paul Oratorio along with other chamber and vocal pieces.

Read more

Harry Potter Keeps Taking Off His Clothes

By Dorri Olds

Dorri Olds

Actor Daniel Jacob Radcliffe, now 25, has a net worth of $110 million, thanks mostly to the Harry Potter franchise. The eight movies all made it into the top 50 grossing films of all time. At 18, Radcliffe was ready to shed the Harry Potter image. He starred onstage in “Equus,” a role that requires full-frontal nudity — and lots of it. These days Radcliffe continues to take off his clothes. In 2013 we saw him in a gay sex scene as the Beat Generation poet Allen Ginsberg in “Kill Your Darlings.” Then his clothes came off again in that summer’s romantic comedy “What If.”

Now you can see him in the buff starting on Halloween, in the horror-fantasy-drama, “Horns.” The film is based on the best-selling novel by Joe Hill, son of Stephen King. Radcliffe plays Ig Perrish, a man who inexplicably sprouts horns right after his girlfriend, Merrin, is raped and murdered and he becomes the prime suspect.

Naked or not, though, Radcliffe is a damn good actor. Last year he played a morphine-addicted doctor on the BBC TV show “A Young Doctor’s Notebook,” portraying the younger version of Jon Hamm’s character. He received critical acclaim for playing a crippled man on Broadway’s July revival of “The Cripple of Inishmaan.” Known to work 90-hour weeks, the actor has honed an enormous set of talents. He learned to dance and sing for the musical “How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying”; and in late October he surprised everyone on “The Tonight Show” by rapping a flawless version of the complex, lyric-heavy Blackalicious song, “Alphabet Aerobics.”

Currently, the prolific star is learning to speak Japanese for the movie “Tokyo Vice.” He’s also set to play the son of Michael Caine’s character in the sequel to “Now You See Me,” slated for 2016. And he just wrapped playing Igor in “Frankenstein,” due out October 2015.

The Forward’s Dorri Olds caught up with Radcliffe to talk about his timed-for-Halloween movie, “Horns.”

Read more

Bernstein's 'MASS' Gets Rare Performance at Queens College

By Michael Kaminer

Getty Images

In 1971, the first time Maurice Peress conducted Leonard Bernstein’s “MASS,” the monumental piece echoed the life and death of John F. Kennedy, the social upheaval of the 1960s, and the morass of Vietnam.

Spectators today might see “MASS” in a very different light — as a tragic commentary on U.S. involvement in the Middle East, according to Peress. “The geography’s different, but it’s the same issues, the same arguments of what destructive power can do,” he told the Forward.

For the first time in nearly two decades, audiences will get the chance to make those connections themselves. Bernstein’s monumental “musical pageant” will get a rare full staging at Queens College’s Kupferberg Center for the Arts on November 1 and 2.

More than 200 performers, a rock band, marching band, and full pit orchestra will convene for the performance, which Bernstein loosely based on rituals of the Roman Catholic Mass. Folk, blues, rock, gospel, jazz, and even a marching band make appearances, along with Mahlerian meditations for orchestra, Hebrew prayer, chamber music, Arabic dances, and — why not — a Chilean folk ballad.

What’s different now from the historic 1971 premiere of “MASS,” which Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis had commissioned for the inauguration of Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center?

Read more

POEM: Friday Late Morning Montage

By Shoshana Olidort

baby: in bassinet, breathing loud,
me: on the couch breasts filling up, heavy with milk
toddler’s sweater thrown over his chair,
on the floor: toys, a towel, a Ziploc bag
on the ottoman: blue-and-white polka-dotted boppy — a nursing pillow
on the sofa: baby-wearing wrap
outside: the rain, in the dining corner: shades are still drawn though it’s
nearly midday (but what is time
in the life of a new mother — second time around — ?)
a not-yet-ripe pineapple on the credenza, a bowl of fruit, a piggy bank and toddler’s
most recent paintings
strewn across the coffee table: envelopes and opened books,
(shrine for Amiri Baraka, just dead)
also: a blue suction bulb for baby’s nose,
white tissues in a pink box
baby blue breakfast bowl
my new breastfeeding friendly cocktail: diluted cherry juice concentrate
kids’ books, Marguerite Duras, poetry, a pen, The New Yorker
on the desk: a little American flag, Jake’s welcome gift from the U.S.A. and an unopened bottle of chardonnay
Jimmy Cliff vinyl spinning in silence

Jan 10th 2014

POEM: 'Rockets Falling'

By Rachel Berghash

and the melon field drinks the cup of wrath.
I go from room to room,
weighing my conscience,
and stop by the window to look at the view.
The river is calm, a boat or two.
Melons, unpicked, are on fire, leaving
black scars. A kid’s kite on a winged
wind disappearing in smoke.

'Finding Your Roots' Goes All Jewish

By Curt Schleier

WNET/ Joseph Sinnott

If you’re not familiar with it, “Finding Your Roots” with Henry Louis Gates is in part a PBS response to the genealogy craze, people increasingly curious about where they came from.

The next episode is all Jewish, as we learn about the ancestors of three celebrated Americans. Tony Kushner delves into the history of the Holocaust to discover his ancestors’ fate; Carole King learns the origins of her family name and confronts the reality of the discrimination her ancestors faced in America, and Alan Dershowitz finds out that the first Hasidic synagogue in Brooklyn, started by his great-grandfather, played a secret role in World War II.

The episode airs November 4 at 8 p.m., though it’s always best to check local listings.

6 Jewish Crime Novels With Female Protagonists Everyone Should Read

By Michael Kaminer

Nora Goodman, the troubled heroine of Diane Lawson’s thriller “A Tightly Raveled Mind,” (read our interview with the author here) might call herself a disciple of Freud. But she follows a long line of Jewish women in crime fiction, from Orthodox mothers to Miami Beach beauticians to wisecracking lawyers. Here are six of our favorite books featuring Jewish women crime-solvers. Who’s yours?

1. Sara Paretsky, “Indemnity Only” (1982)

V.I. Warshawski, daughter of a Polish Catholic policeman-father and an Italian Jewish opera singer-mother, has practically become a folk hero. Kathleen Turner portrayed her in a 1991 film.

Read more

A Freudian Detective in Texas

By Michael Kaminer

When San Antonio psychotherapist Dr. Nora Goodman’s patients start dropping dead, police tell her it’s a coincidence. But the good Dr. Goodman refuses to buy it, and hires a private detective to help figure out if someone’s targeting her practice. Could it be her despised ex-husband, a disturbed patient, or something more nefarious?

Author Diane Lawson — herself a therapist and a convert to Judaism — takes the plot in some unexpected directions in “A Tightly Raveled Mind” (Cinco Puntos). It’s hard to believe this is Lawson’s first novel; the dialogue crackles, the story hums along, and Dr. Goodman, a strict Freudian still haunted by her Talmud-spouting kook of a father, seems completely real. The only thing hard to buy about the novel is that San Antonio seems just as populated by neurotics as New York. The Forward caught up with Lawson by email.

Michael Kaminer: What did Nora’s Jewishness allow you do with that a non-Jewish protagonist wouldn’t have?

Diane Lawson: Since the inception of the field, a high (though diminishing over time) percentage of the practitioners of psychoanalysis have been Jewish. On that level, Nora’s being Jewish adds some degree of authenticity. Her being Jewish in San Antonio, of course, is simply another iteration of her life-long feeling of being an outsider.

“In Texas, as in most of the country, Jews are well enough regarded, as long as they’re doctors, lawyers or accountants,” Nora says. Could you elaborate?

Read more

PBS Wades Into the ISIS Quagmire

By Curt Schleier

“The Rise of ISIS,” the latest documentary from the award-winning Frontline PBS investigative series, is likely to leave you with one major takeaway.

Despite the best of intentions, pretty much everything the U.S. has done in the Middle East has contributed to the chaos. We are Westerners lost in a strange land with absolutely no idea what we are doing or the consequences of our actions.

The film starts in late 2011, when American troops withdrew from Iraq. Presumably, we left behind a stable government with a functioning military. Both assumptions were incorrect.

The nation’s prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, promised an inclusive government, but soon began a campaign of terror against Sunnis, including Sunni officials in his own cabinet. Shia militia were particularly violent and Sunni bodies piled up on the streets.

The then-U.S.ambassador, James Jeffrey, warned President Obama that Maliki needed to be constrained, but he adopted a hands-off approach, claiming it was an Iraqi internal problem. Leon Panetta said U.S. the response was to keep “their fingers crossed [hoping] that Maliki would step down.”

The President’s position seems defensible. We just got out of that country and he didn’t want to be the man who put us right back in. And at the time Al Qaeda was a small broken force unable to mount a serious insurgency.

Read more

Treblinka's 'Last Witness' Keeps Alive Camp's Memory

By David Adams and Zachary Fagenson

Samuel Willenberg, the last known living survivor of the notorious Nazi extermination camp Treblinka is nearing the end of a life’s mission to tell of the horrors that he saw there.

Now 92, his remarkable story, featured in a documentary film produced by Miami public TV channel WLRN, is spurring efforts to fulfill that mission by building an educational museum at the camp’s site in a remote pine forest in eastern Poland.

“Treblinka’s Last Witness,” airing on Tuesday, tells the story of how Willenberg, a Polish Jew, became a forced laborer at Treblinka where his two sisters were among the 900,000 Jews sent to their deaths. He later escaped during a camp revolt, one of barely 100 Jews to survive the place.

A history professor he met in the camp told him: “You’re not like other Jews, you have blonde hair, you know how to survive,” Willenberg recalled in an interview during a visit to Miami for a premiere of the film last week before a packed audience, many of them relatives of Holocaust victims.

“You have to run away from this,” the professor told him. “It will be your mission to tell people about what happened here.”

Read more

'Disgraced' Asks Uncomfortable Questions About Islam

By Curt Schleier

Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

“Disgraced,” which opened October 23 at Broadway’s Lyceum Theater, is breathtaking.


There are moments when the entire audience gasps at something so surprising or disturbing on stage, it’s as though all the air is sucked out of the room. Those gasps, however, are the only sound the audience makes throughout this intellectually and emotionally engaging 90-minute production.

The play, written by Ayad Akhtar, debuted almost exactly two years ago off-Broadway, and deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize for drama.

It’s set in a lavishly furnished Upper East Side Manhattan apartment. Amir Kapoor (Hari Dhillon) is posing for a portrait painted by his wife Emily (Gretchen Mol). She was inspired by a Velazquez painting of a slave and their dinner the evening prior. The waiter kept staring at them, the gorgeous blond American princess and this brown-skinned man.

Amir was used to it. In fact, he’d conquered the prejudice. He is a successful mergers and acquisitions attorney working for a Jewish law firm. His boss and mentor, Mort, befriended and depended on him, and Amir sees a partnership in his future.

But all is not as it seems. Kapoor is not his real last name. It is Abdullah. While he claims his heritage is Indian (and presumably Hindu), his family emigrated from Pakistan and is Muslim. But he is not.

Read more

Philip Roth, Film Critic

By Gabe Friedman

Getty Images

In 1957, while writing his first novel and teaching at the University of Chicago, Philip Roth found an unexpected way to get out some of his trademark anger: movie reviews.

From June 1957 to the spring of 1958, until he moved from Chicago to New York, the 23 year-old Roth wrote film reviews for The New Republic. According to Tablet Magazine, Claudia Roth Pierpont (who recently wrote “Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Books” ) noted that Roth received $25 per review and eventually bought a used car with this pay.

Below are quotes from some of his reviews, which, like Roth himself, tended to be more than a little cynical.

Read more

POEM: 'Untitled, Jerusalem, 2002'

By Rachel Berghash

You are captives of illusion,
experts in eluding truth, you party, drink wine,
pick anemone in spring.

Occasionally you are reminded that life is transient as grass,
that death lies in ambush among green meadows.

Though the wrath of the suicide bomber is daily at your door,
your children bask in your warmth,
and this old earth, this biblical earth
blooming with camouflaged memories, quivers
with gratitude, that such people as you
inhabit it.

Jay Black's 7 Favorite Songs

By Curt Schleier

Jay Black has been singing professionally for 51 of his almost 76 years. That “almost” comes out November 2. He’ll be celebrating that birthday with a pair of concerts, one at the Bergen Performing Arts Center in Englewood, N.J., and the other at NYCB Theatre at Westbury on Long Island. We chatted with him about the stories behind a few of his favorite songs:

1. Where Is the Village?

Mention Jay’s Yiddish song and he immediately launches into the lyrics of “Where is the Village” (“Vu iz dos Geseleh?”). “’After the war, I returned to my village. My mother, mu father, my sister, my brother, my sweetheart, were all gone.’ It’s one of my favorites, because after I do it, the audience stands for five minutes.”

Read more

That Time James Joyce Was Mistaken for His Jewish Character

By Gabe Friedman

It is widely known that James Joyce’s novel “Ulysses” was not autobiographical. For one thing, the book’s protagonist Leopold Bloom was Jewish, and Joyce was raised as an Irish Catholic.

However, in 1940, when Joyce attempted to flee Vichy France to Switzerland during World War II, the Swiss government thought that he was Jewish. More accurately, as The New Republic explains, the Swiss thought Joyce was his character Leopold Bloom.

The Swiss government demanded that Joyce pay a fee of $7,000 ($120,000 today) to prove that he would not have to rely on the state financially. The majority of Joyce’s money was overseas, and as a foreigner in France, by rule he was cut off from outside sources of income.

The New Republic recently republished a letter to readers from the December 9, 1940 issue that asked for help for Joyce. His literary friends from around the world pitched in and appealed for others to donate to Joyce’s cause.

These appeals helped the Joyce family raise the necessary sum of money, and they made it to Switzerland in December of 1940. Unfortunately, Joyce died soon after in January of 1941 from surgical complications – but his story, and the revered story of Leopold Bloom, lives on.

How Jay Black Got Kicked Out of Yeshiva

By Curt Schleier

Jay Black isn’t feeling well. Descriptions of his aches and pains are pretty much the first thing out of his mouth, even before he asks why I’m about to interview him.

“You’re going to be doing two dates around your 76th birthday next month,” I tell him, “And, well, you’re Jewish.”

“How do you know I’m Jewish?” he asks.

“For one thing, you started kvetching the moment I called.” He understands and chuckles. It doesn’t stop his complaining — “I have a skipped heart beat and tracheitis,” he says later in the conversation — but it relaxes him sufficiently to discuss his life and meteoric career in ‘60s and ‘70s rock and roll. Or at least discuss what he remembers of it.

“I’m also getting a little bit of Alzheimer’s” he says. “I’m sitting here looking at an award I got, a lifetime achievement award from the Hard Rock Seminole, but I have no recollection of the night. My sister tells me ‘You’re crazy. They roasted you.’ Shecky Greene and Pat Cooper roasted me, but I have no recollection of that night.”

Fortunately there were memories of other nights. He grew up in an Orthodox family in Brooklyn. “My father was in shul day and night. In fact, tonight is Simchas Rorah and I have to light two yahrzteit candles for my mom and dad. I was in shul all my life when I was young.”

Read more

Waiting on Tables, and for a Break

By Curt Schleier

Photo: Ken Jacques

The tiny Triad nightclub in the Upper West Side of Manhattan was filled by a crowd sufficiently large to give a fire marshal palpitations. That was probably due to the fact that the night’s attraction, Brad Zimmerman, grew up across the Hudson, just a hop, skip and $14 George Washington Bridge toll away.

The truth of the matter is that it wasn’t the fire marshal who should have been worried, but the building inspector. Because the moment he began his show, “My Son the Waiter, a Jewish Tragedy,” Zimmerman had the place and pretty much everyone’s belly shaking.

“My Son the Waiter” is a one-man show, an autobiographical retelling of a life at once sad and funny. Growing up, Zimmerman had a great deal going for him. He was the best athlete in his bunk at Camp Akiba, hit a home run on the first pitch in his first Little League at-bat and, of the three colleges he applied to, decided to attend the one that accepted him.

He graduated with a degree in theater, but spent the next 29 years of his life as a waiter in restaurants, but working with a Jewish deli waiter attitude. A customer starts to flag him as he is walking to the table. When Zimmerman comes over, the customer says, “I’m in a hurry.” Zimmerman tells him, “So, go.”

Waiting on tables was a humbling experience for the college grad — and his mom. When her friends told her about their sons’ successes and giant mansions, all Zimmerman’s mother could brag about was, “If all goes well, I think Brad is gonna buy a book case.”

Zimmerman’s problem wasn’t that he went out on auditions and was turned down. It was that he didn’t even try.

Read more

How a Midlife Crisis Turned Into Jewish Cabaret

By Curt Schleier

Daniel Cainer’s “Jewish Chronicles,” currently at the Soho Playhouse in New York, is a delightful cabaret act filled with Yiddishkeit and Yiddish-cute.

Cainer is a British Jew who grew up in an observant household, but, inexplicably, was sent to a Church of England School. (Ironically, he notes, the school later became a synagogue, proving “God has a sense of humor.”)

Cainer became a musician and composer, and admits he didn’t have “much to do with the Jewish world until recently,” when he experienced a “midlife kosher crisis.” That’s when a rabbi came to him in a dream and told him he should write a Jewish musical.

So here he is, sitting on a bare stage behind what presumably was a Yamaha electric piano, renamed a “Yamalka” for the occasion. Over his 80-minute set he sings a half dozen songs, which doesn’t sound like much. But they are not so much songs as ballads, short stories set to music, about his family and observations of life around him.

Cainer starts with a song about two tailors set to a ragtime beat — pausing only long enough to point out to the humorless that that was a joke — tailors, ragtime, get it? Would it have worked better for you if he said shmatte time?

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.