The Arty Semite

POEM: 'On the Machine'

By Baruch November

my grandmother did not change
my grandfather’s greeting,
so his voice ripened my sadness
before the tone.

I considered how he might find
contentment knowing we were
checking on the short woman
he had left to the heavy warmth
of lower Florida,

how for the children of Israel,
it is customary to leave
desperate notes
over tombs of the righteous,

how a measure of the soul
might remain in the sound
of a voice uncontained
by the body,

completing the circuit
between the dead and
their grandchildren.


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Filmmaker Made Public Humiliation His Muse

By Curt Schleier

Independent filmmakers can face many discouraging obstacles on the road from concept to screen. But Seth Fisher found a way to make sure he would not abandon his first full length feature along the way: his fear of public humiliation.

“As soon as I started writing ‘Blumenthal’ I started a blog called watchmemakeamovie.com,” he said in a telephone interview with the Forward. “Every day I’d post what I did that day. I figured if I was going to announce to the world that I was going to make this movie, I would have to see it through to the end. It would be embarrassing if I stopped.”

That was back in November of 2010. Now, more than three years later, “Blumenthal” opens in New York on March 28. with more cities added in the coming weeks. The movie, already a Jewish film festival darling, is about the family of successful playwright Harold Blumenthal, who dies while laughing at one of his own jokes.

His survivors are a younger and jealous brother, Saul (Mark Blum), Saul’s wife Cheryl (Laila Robins) and his son Ethan (writer/director Fisher). As Saul grapples with his angst, Cheryl deals with aging and Ethan with trying to find the perfect woman.

Fisher spoke to the Forward about where the film came from, why the characters were Jewish, and what Tom Stoppard told him about Jewish characters.

Curt Schleier: I found the film very enjoyable, but I wasn’t entirely sure what you wanted to say. Can you explain?

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Uncovering the Remains of Treblinka

By Curt Schleier

Dr. Caroline Sturdy Colls is a British forensic archeologist. Much of her work is with police departments, often literally digging up missing persons — so she’s used to uncovering remains.

Still, what she discovered during her research at the Treblinka death camp was so emotionally wrenching, it forced her to tears. A riveting account of her work there, “Treblinka: Hitler’s Killing Machine,” airs March 29 at 8 pm on the Smithsonian Channel.

Treblinka was actually two camps. Treblinka 1 was supposedly a labor camp. Treblinka 2 was almost certainly the most efficient murder operation in the history of mankind. About 900,000 people fell victim there in a little more than a year. Camp commanders bragged about their efficiency.

But, facing an oncoming Soviet army, the Germans destroyed the buildings, dug up mass graves and burned the bodies, forced local people to spread the ash and planted trees to cover over what had been the camp.

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Growing Up in a Former Synagogue Sanctuary

By Renee Ghert-Zand

For the many people walking through New York’s Lower East Side on any given day, 70 Hester Street is just one of many historic buildings. But for 37-year-old filmmaker Casimir Nozkowski, this former synagogue is home. He grew up in the loft space on the upper two floors, which his artist parents, Thomas Nozkowski and Joyce Robins, used as their studio for 45 years until they were evicted in 2012.

With a sense that 70 Hester Street would likely the suffer the fate of so many other buildings in the old neighbourhood and be torn down to make way for a new, sleek condominium or commercial space, Nozkowski started filming his childhood home in June 2012. His premonition turned out to be correct. Not long after, his parents received notice that the building was being sold and that they, as rental tenants, would have to move out.

“I went in to overdrive when we got the eviction notice,” Nozkowski told the Forward. “I started editing as I was still filming, and finished the film toward the end of 2013.” Fortunately, he completed the documentary in time to submit it for the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival, which accepted it for its City Limits: New York Shorts program. In its world premiere, “70 Hester Street” will be screened five times between April 17 and 27.

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How Adam Jacobs Became a Disney Prince

By Curt Schleier

Adam Jacobs has a 1,000-megawatt smile that would put the young Donny Osmond to shame. And he puts it on constant display at the New Amsterdam Theatre in the heart of Times Square, where he plays the title character in the latest Disney megahit, the well-received “Aladdin.”

The son of a Filipino mother and Jewish father, Jacobs sings and dances up a storm as he makes the transition from street ragamuffin to successful suitor for Princess Jasmine’s heart.

Jacobs spent some time recently with the Forward to discuss how he became the go-to actor for Disney royalty, the difference between taking over a theater role and creating one, and balancing princely and fatherly duties.

Curt Schleier: This is not your first shot at Disney royalty, is it?

Adam Jacobs: Not if you count Simba [a role Jacobs played in “The Lion King”] as a prince, even though he’s a lion. He’s the king of the pride. Now I’ve stepped into the role of Aladdin who becomes Prince Ali. I didn’t go into this career knowing that was going to happen, but I’ll take it.

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Some Jews Are Funnier Than Others

By Curt Schleier

A popular form of entertainment is watching comics analyzing comedy — a subject that doesn’t easily lend itself to analysis. Simply: What’s funny is what makes the lady in the third row laugh. You cannot tell her she’s wrong; if she doesn’t laugh it isn’t funny, she does and it is. End of story.

Still, shows like Jerry Seinfeld’s “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” David Steinberg’s “Inside Comedy” on Showtime and the DVD “When Comedy Went To School” (about the Catskills) are all the rage.

I suspect the DVD release of Alan Zweig’s documentary, “When Jews Were Funny” will swiftly put an end to that. Zweig interviews about 25 comics of various ages and levels of success: Howie Mandel, Shecky Greene and the late David Brenner, among others in the top tier, and numerous others I’d never heard of before.

Part of the documentary’s problem is visual. Even under the best of circumstances, a film made up almost entirely of talking heads lacks tempo. It simply moves from one face to another, in this case with each face saying almost the same thing we’ve heard over and over again: Comedy comes from suffering and who has suffered more than Jews?

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The Jews Who Fought for Britain

By Anne Joseph

During the early stages of the First World War, Yiddish recruitment posters, published by the Joint Labour Recruiting Committee, were displayed in London’s East End. They appealed to Jewish youth, “to do their duty to the country.”

In England there are thousands of Jews who should be grateful to it for their freedom and justice … and in general they have been accepted here, free from racial prejudice and racial hatred. We, who have many times raised our voice for the welfare of the Jews, ask them now to demonstrate that we were justified in saying what we did.

The poster is one of the many exhibits in “For King and Country?,” a new exhibition that opened earlier this week at London’s Jewish Museum, in partnership with the Jewish Military Museum. It explores the British Jewish experience of the First World War and includes oral histories, memorabilia, letters, embroidered postcards, sepia coloured photographs as well as personal artefacts like identity tags, symbolic silk handkerchiefs and uniforms.

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Stephen Sondheim’s Wonderful Years

By Liam Hoare

“Alice Longworth Roosevelt said, ‘First you’re young, then you’re middle-aged, then you’re wonderful,’” Stephen Sondheim remarked at the conclusion of his 80th birthday celebrations at Avery Fisher Hall in 2010.

Now very much in his wonderful years, Broadway’s greatest living composer-lyricist is experiencing a phase in his career where revivals, musical reviews and fêtes honoring his achievements have filled the void left by the absence of new material. His last original musical, “Road Show” — which had been in development since the mid-1990s — played Off-Broadway at The Public Theater in 2008. One must look back to “Passion” in 1994 to find Sondheim’s last musical début on Broadway.

But since “Road Show,” Broadway has experienced revivals of “Gypsy,” “West Side Story,” “A Little Night Music,” and “Follies,” as well as a New York City Center production of “Merrily We Roll Along.” “Sondheim on Sondheim” — a revue which included an original song, “God,” written by Sondheim — played Studio 54 in 2010. Last year, New York City Center put on “A Bed and a Chair: A New York Love Affair,” which wrapped jazz arrangements of Sondheim’s back catalogue by Wynton Marsalis around an original plot.

Now, 54 Below — the Broadway cabaret and restaurant on West 54th Street — is staging “Three Wishes for Sondheimas,” turning Stephen Sondheim’s birthday — he will turn 84 on March 22 — into something of a religious festival for musical theatre aficionados. Described as “one part concert, one part hilarious worship service,” the evening will tell “the Birth of Steve as you’ve never seen it before,” featuring a salad of Broadway actors and dancers, puppeteers, and the Sondheimas Tabernacle Choir.

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POEM: 'Eve and Lilith Back at the Garden'

By Lynn Levin

Eve and Lilith peered through
the padlocked gates of the garden,
now a restricted community.

Eve glared at Lilith,
“You told me it was easier to beg
forgiveness than ask permission. Now look.”

“That’s what I always do,” Lilith replied,
aware that under the circumstances
she sounded pretty lame.

“Plus,” said Eve, “I think I’m pregnant.”
“I told you to use protection,” said Lilith.
“But Adam promised…” Lilith rolled her eyes.

“Him and his teaspoon of joy,” said Eve.
A fault line threatened her brow.
“Girlfriend,” counseled Lilith,

“either change your life or accept your life
but don’t go around mad.
Let that anger go,” said Lilith. “Just let it go.”

Eve hated it when her friend got preachy.
Anyhow when it came to holding onto anger
Eve was an Olympian, a gold medalist.

She clung to a grudge
like a shipwrecked sailor to a scrap of wood.
It had something to do

with her excellent memory.
As Eve sucked on the red lollipop of her hurt
the two women trudged back to Nod.

All of a sudden something dark
waved in the grass.
“Eek!” shrieked Lilith. “A snake!”

She high-stepped in panic.
Oh, woman-up, thought Eve
as she grabbed a Y-shaped stick,

immobilized the critter’s head,
stared straight into its eyes.
The snake looked back at her with a who me? look.

“This one’s harmless.
It’s only a dumb animal,” said Eve.
“Kill it! Kill it!” pleaded Lilith.

“Sorry,” said her friend. “No can do.”
Eve let the snake go.
She just let it go.

From “Miss Plastique” (Ragged Sky Press, 2013)


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Charlotte Gainsbourg on Playing a 'Nymphomaniac'

By Dorri Olds

Charlotte Gainsbourg, 43, is the star of director Lars von Trier’s much-anticipated film, “Nymphomaniac.” She plays Joe, a sex addict, and the film covers 20 years of her unusual life. The Danish director is known for his penchant to shock audiences, but this film is not as sexy as you might guess, nor is sex the main story. Rather, it is a sad tale of a woman bent on self-destruction.

The film boasts an all-star cast including Uma Thurman, Christian Slater, Stellan Skarsgård, Willem Dafoe, Jamie Bell, Shia LaBeouf and newcomer Stacy Martin, who plays the younger Joe. The director’s cut is five and a half hours. For theatrical release, the film was edited down to four hours and split into two volumes. Both are deeply disturbing, yet fascinating. It’s a film unlike any you’ve seen before.

In addition to acting, Gainsbourg is a singer and the daughter of English actress Jane Birkin and French singer-songwriter Serge Gainsbourg. She is married to the Israeli actor, writer and director Yvan Attal and they have three children together. Her entre into singing was at 12 years old when she sang a duet with her father called “Lemon Incest” — with lyrics that are just as worrisome as the title implies. When she reached adulthood, Gainsbourg released three successful albums and she has appeared in films every year since 1984.

The Forward caught up with Gainsbourg to discuss her upcoming film.

Dorri Olds: What was the most challenging aspect of playing Joe?

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Fran Drescher Is More Than 'The Nanny'

By Curt Schleier

An idiosyncrasy of the cavernous Broadway Theater in Manhattan — currently home to the hit show “Cinderella” — is that actors need to traverse the stage to get from their dressing rooms to the stage door. So it’s where I wait for Fran Drescher, who has very successfully traversed from lovable Jewish nanny to evil step mom.

But when she appears, it’s more like the fairy godmother — or at least someone with magical powers. Though it’s been 15 years since the finale of her hit TV sitcom, “The Nanny,” the 56-year-old actress hasn’t seemed to age a bit. And that’s not all that hasn’t changed.

There is, of course, the familiar voice, one the adjective nasal only begins to describe. No, she says, in response to a question, she is not comfortable “playing a character that you love to hate. I love playing characters you love to love.”

So the first time she ripped a fancy gown from Cinderella (Carly Rae Jepsen), she actually apologized to the young singer. Recalling that moment, Drescher laughs. That laugh. The laugh once called “the sound of a Buick with an empty gas tank cold cranking on a winter morning.”

Several days later on the phone, she continues the thread of that conversation, speaking also about how she got to Broadway and the perils of her very public life.

Curt Schleier: Did you really apologize to Carly Rae after the scene?

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Meet Drew Friedman, Picasso of 'Old Jewish Comedians'

By Michael Kaminer

Did you hear the one about the old Jewish comedians who got hung on the wall?

Seriously, a new show at the Society of Illustrators gallery in Manhattan is showcasing original paintings from Drew Friedman’s cult trilogy “Old Jewish Comedians” (Fantagraphics), along with a trove of memorabilia from Friedman’s own collection.

Spread across two floors, the 110 nightmarishly funny illustrations also include Friedman’s warts-and-all illustrations for media outlets like The New York Observer, and a terrifying Woody Allen portrait for “He Said/She Said,” a 1996 comic book about the director’s split from Mia Farrow.

Friedman attended New York’s School of Visual Arts from 1978 to 1981, where he studied under legendary comics masters like Will Eisner, Harvey Kurtzman, Edward Sorel, Stan Mack and Arnold Roth, as his bio explains. He launched his career in the 1980s writing and illustrating what he calls “morbid alternative comics,” often collaborating with his brother, writer Josh Alan Friedman. He’s gone mainstream since then, supplying illustrations to everyone from The New York Times to Esquire to The New Republic.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why the old comedians have struck such a chord. “The subject of humor speaks to everyone, and the cultural aspect of Yiddish theater and comedy has huge appeal,” says Anelle Miller, the Society of Illustrators’ executive director. “But I’d also rank Drew with people like Ed Sorel, who did this great satirical work while continuing his illustration practice.”

The Forward caught up with Friedman a week after the show’s opening, where he mugged for photos with OJC subjects like Robert Klein and Abe Vigoda — and future OJCs like Gilbert Gottfried.

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The Forward, 'Blue Bloods' and the Knockout Game

By Curt Schleier

What happens when the New York City Police Commissioner wants his Deputy Commissioner for Public Information to ask the press for restraint?

There’s been an epidemic of the “knockout game,” where young males sneak up on unsuspecting people and punch them, and the commissioner wants to turn down the volume. But only two newspapers are willing to downplay the epidemic of violence: the Village Voice and yes, The Jewish Daily Forward.

It’s unlikely that either paper would bend to the will of a police commissioner, but that’s how the fictional story played out in last Friday’s episode of “Blue Bloods,” where Commissioner Frank Reagan (Tom Selleck) ordered his DCPI Garrett Moore (Gregory Jbara) to muzzle the media.

“Blue Bloods” follows the lives of three generations of the Irish-American Reagan family, all involved in law enforcement.

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Is 'Family Guy' Anti-Semitic?

By Mark I. Pinsky

Sunday night’s episode of “Family Guy,” the long-running animated comedy, included a 25-second segment that illustrated once again creator Seth MacFarlane’s unapologetic anti-Semitism.

In the episode, main character Peter Griffin and his friends are off on a typically absurdist search to find God and to get Him to stop thwarting their favorite football team, the New England Patriots. In a Jerusalem square they spot Mort Goldman, the obviously Jewish pharmacist from their hometown of Quahog, Rhode Island.

Actually, they spot a “flock” of bobbing Morts, whom they attract by tossing pennies, as you might use popcorn to draw pigeons. The message being, Jews love money. MacFarlane used similar imagery in a much earlier episode, in which Peter’s anti-Semitic father-in-law tries to use a dollar bill tied to a string to distract his wife, who has just told Peter’s wife Lois that she was raised Jewish.

Anti-Semitism is a serious charge, made too quickly and too often. But as someone who has followed MacFarlane’s career, I think it is well past time to call him out. His star is clearly on the rise in Hollywood — he has hosted a major awards show, been writing and directing movies and, most recently, produced the Fox series “Cosmos.” And thus far he has been unimpeded by his consistent record of anti-Semitism.

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Suit Against 'McMansion' Director Thrown Out

By Curt Schleier

Lauren Greenfield received a best director nod at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival for her documentary, “The Queen of Versailles.” Now, two years later, she has another victory to her credit, which may ultimately prove more important to her career.

An arbitrator at the Independent Film and Television Alliance ruled that her movie about David and Jackie Siegel was not defamatory. This seems to end Siegel’s effort to punish Greenfield for her film, which centered in large measure on the family’s profligate ways — building a 90,000 square-foot mansion (to replace the 26,000 square-foot home they lived in); spending $1 million a year on clothing, and having a household staff of 19.

It also covered the rise and fall of Westgate Resorts, Siegel’s timeshare empire that funded these extravagances — at least until the 2008 credit crunch.

Siegel charged the film defamed him and his company. His claims were dismissed by a federal court judge, which is how the case ended up in arbitration.

“Having viewed the supposedly egregious portions of the Motion Picture numerous times, [the Arbitrator] simply does not find that any of the content of the Motion Picture was false,” the arbitrator, Roy Rifkin, ruled.


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Theology of 'True Detective'

By Steven I. Weiss

You don’t have to go far to find people utterly disappointed in the season finale of “True Detective.” Many websites have spilled thousands of words expressing upset that the episode didn’t expose any remaining mysteries about the criminal acts driving its plot.

But those upset at the finale weren’t paying attention. This show didn’t follow the standard tropes of criminal drama, avoiding speculation about the crimes themselves. Very large swaths of who did what and why were revealed early on: as show creator Nic Pizzolatto told The Daily Beast, “if someone watches the first episode and really listens, it tells you 85 percent of the story of the first six episodes.” Essentially every major aspect of solving the crime was telegraphed at least an episode ahead of time — as was the case with the finale, because we met the ultimate antagonist at the end of the previous episode. Indeed, rather than focusing on crime-solving as an exploration of criminality, the entire season — and the entire season finale — is an exploration of how people confront criminality and evil.

Those who were disappointed took the wrong cue from the show’s early episodes. The book from which Pizzolatto drew the satanic-style ritual of his serial killer antagonist, Robert Chambers’s “The King in Yellow,” shot up to the #4 slot of bestselling books on Amazon. And yet, Pizzolatto revealed in an interview this week, the real lessons from the series speak to a very different book. Pizzolatto told journalist Alan Sepinwall that “if someone needs a book to read along with season 1 of ‘True Detective,’ I would recommend the King James Old Testament.”

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POEM: 'Late for Work'

By Baruch November

so I tell the man
behind the coffee counter
a made up name,
not my Hebrew name,
which requires gentiles
to practice heavy sounds
of machine gun fire
at the back of the throat
before they get it right.

I could have told him
my name means “blessing,”
but will I ever know
for sure that this is
what my life means?

Soon in the classroom,
I pretend to be blessed
with every answer because
that’s what we must do,
those in my profession —

console a world sunk
in the shadows
of all
it will never know.


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Filming His Refusenik Father's Doppelganger

By Curt Schleier

Writer/director Arie Posin is standing in the lobby of the Paley Center for Media in midtown Manhattan, not far from the red carpet and a dozen or so photographers. Everyone is waiting for Annette Bening and Ed Harris. The two star in Posin’s “The Face of Love” and have come to New York for a post-screening Q&A with media, friends, family and anyone else who can score a ticket.

“The Face of Love” is the kind of small, independent film that, in the face of competition from Superman and Batman, frequently escapes media attention. But Posin doesn’t escape our fascination.

His parents were refusniks lucky enough to get out of Russia and make it to Israel, where Posin was born. Then there was his uncle, Leon Lerman, the famed Russian Yiddish poet. Moreover, his grandmother is seven generations removed from the Baal Shem Tov. On top of all that, the idea for his movie came from his own mother.

“A few years after my father passed away my mother was at a crosswalk outside the Los Angeles County Museum of Art when she looked up and saw a man who looked very much like him. She told me: ‘A very funny thing happened to me today. I saw a man walking toward me who was a perfect double for your father.’ I asked her, ‘What did you do?’ She said, ‘I just stopped in the middle of the road. He had a big smile on his face as he walked toward me and it just felt so nice.’”

That encounter became the basis for Posin’s film, which opened in New York and Los Angeles March 7 and opens in additional cities in the coming weeks.

Posin spoke to the Forward about how that incident sparked his imagination, his family history and, most important, his mother’s reaction to the film.

Curt Schleier: What was your reaction when your mother told you that story?

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Marissa Nadler Isn't Afraid of the Dark

By Michael Kaminer

Boston-based singer-songwriter Marissa Nadler, long a critical darling with a cult following, seems poised to cross over with the haunting “July,” (Sacred Bones) her sixth studio album in ten years. Reviews have been the strongest of her career; UK pop bible NME called “July” “a career high,” and the PopMatters blog dubbed it “one of 2014’s best albums so far… A triumph.” Pundits usually trip over themselves trying to describe Nadler’s dark, wry confessional folk; in just one review, music site Pitchfork name-checked Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Mazzy Star singer Hope Sandoval, German folkie Sibylle Baier — and Edgar Allan Poe.

Newly signed to high-profile music company Sacred Bones, Nadler is now a labelmate of indie royalty like David Lynch, Jim Jarmusch and Fleet Foxes, which makes the acid opening lines of “July” feel a bit ironic: “If you ain’t made it now / You’re never gonna make it.” The Forward caught up with the singer by email between gigs in New England to support her new album. “And I’m doing the driving as well!” she said.

Michael Kaminer: Journalists seem to grasp at descriptions for your music. If you had to introduce yourself and your music to our audience in a couple of sentences, how would it read?

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Painting Pictures of India's Jews

By Leah Koenig

Last month, while researching an article for The Forward about Indian Jewish cuisine, I spent the afternoon in Montclair, New Jersey with Siona Benjamin. A home cook who grew up in Mumbai’s Jewish community, Benjamin demonstrated how to prepare a traditional Shabbat coconut curry and a sweet rice and coconut dish called malida that Indian Jews make in honor of the Prophet Elijah. But, as often happens when I cook in other people’s kitchens, I learned about much more than food.

Benjamin’s home is filled with art — specifically her own technicolor paintings and multimedia pieces, which weave together Jewish and Indian images. A classically trained artist (she has two MFAs in painting and theater set design), who is inspired by “traditional styles of painting, like Indian/Persian miniatures, Byzantine icons, and Jewish and Christian illuminated manuscripts,” her work has been exhibited across the United States, Europe and Asia.

In 2011, Benjamin traveled to India on a Fulbright scholarship to interview, photograph, and document the lives of more than 70 of Mumbai’s remaining 5,000 Jews. Back at home, she transformed these stories into a stunning collection of oversized photo collage paintings called “FACES: Weaving Indian Jewish Narratives.”

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