The Arty Semite

When Fashion Gets Political

By Michael Kaminer

Photo: Pascale Richard

Journalist Jeanne Beker has shaped fashion as much as the designers she’s covered. As longtime host of Canada’s much-missed Fashion Television, her zingy runway reports and designer interviews aired in more than 130 countries; she still hosts a spinoff on a Canadian cable channel, and has opined on fashion for The Toronto Star. Now, she’s added “curator” to her resume. “Politics of Fashion | Fashion of Politics,” which she guest-curated, opens at Toronto’s Design Exchange museum this week; it’s a provocative look at fashion “as a mirror of society by highlighting how clothing has been used as a tool for communicating identity and political expression.”

With 200 pieces, from PETA t-shirts to Stella McCartney’s 2000 plastic-and-glass jacket to historic pieces from ‘60s icons Rudi Gernreich and Mary Quant, the exhibition is a provocative look at subversive clothing at a volatile time in history. Beker herself carries an especially keen sense of personal politics to the show; she’s the daughter of Holocaust survivors who immigrated to Toronto in 1948. Educated at Toronto’s Talmud Torah Jewish schools, Beker’s a mainstay on the Jewish-giving circuit, most recently as producer of a fashion-show benefit for Zareinu, a school for children with severe developmental issues. The Forward caught up with her from her Toronto home.

Michael Kaminer: The exhibition’s called “Politics of Fashion | Fashion of Politics.” How much of the political content in fashion is part of someone’s agenda, versus an accident or subconscious expression?

Jeanne Beker: That’s exactly what’s at the crux of the show. It is deliberate. I’ve worked with and interviewed designers, and covered their collections, for nearly three decades. I’ve met many who wanted to say more through their garments than just a perfect design or something that makes a woman look sexy. A lot of designers have a point of view, and want to enlighten people. It’s the power of fashion to communicate all kinds of ideas. Those can come from political beliefs and convictions. Those are the types of garments we’re featuring.

But some controversial collections, like Jean-Paul Gaultier’s infamous 1993 take on Orthodox garb, didn’t make the cut.

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POEM: 'The Converts'

By Chana Bloch

On the holiest day we fast till sundown.
I watch the sun stand still
as the horizon edges toward it. Four hours to go.

The rabbi’s mouth opens and closes and opens.
I think fish
and little steaming potatoes,
parsley clinging to them like an ancient script.

Only the converts, six of them in the corner,
in their prayer shawls and feathery beards,
sing every syllable.
What word
are they savoring now?
If they go on loving that way, we’ll be here all night.

Why did they follow us here, did they think
we were happier?
Did someone tell them we knew
the lost words
to open God’s mouth?

The converts sway in white silk,
their necks bent forward in yearning
like swans,
and I covet
what they think we’ve got.

Forthcoming in “Swimming in the Rain: New & Selected Poems, 1980-2015”


POEM: 'The Great Dying'

By Rachel Berghash

He gathered his friend’s dead flesh,
walked back and sat in a field reciting a psalm.
Kneeling, he signaled the signs of courage
and defeat with his bloody fingers,
each sign for each heart beat before the great dying.
An instinctive act, he ruminates.
He sounds the psalm like a warning bell,
befuddled by what he had done, unexpectedly,
chasing death in an everlasting tunnel,
an unending struggle to choose between
life and death, the blessing and the curse,
bonded like separate and one twin mountains.


A Delirious Interpretation of the Binding of Isaac for Yom Kippur

By Jake Marmer

Writing of Kafka’s tales, Walter Benjamin pointed out that Kafka’s tangled meanings “do not modestly lie at the feet of the doctrine, as the Haggadah lies at the feet of Halakah… they raise a mighty paw against it.” Benjamin, ultimately, juxtaposed the Jewish law (halachah) with mythic storytelling (aggadah), envisioning the rise of the latter from the downfall of the former. One can only imagine how pleased Benjamin would be reading Alexander Nemser’s poetry collection “The Sacrifice of Abraham,” released earlier this month from Bookieman.

It is hard to name a genre that would encompass Nemser’s work: these are prose poems with an aphoristic scent, reminiscent of Borges, Kafka, Calvino and Jabes, among others. Each prose poem imagines an aggadah-like talmudic conversation between rabbis, who are struggling to interpret the Akeida, that is, the story of the binding of Isaac. Though framed in traditional Jewish rhetoric, Nemser’s tales are surreal, disturbing, funny, smart and anything but pious. The prominence of the transgressive element of Nemser’s writing is in perfect accord with his spiritual vision and concern for Judaism’s formative and perhaps most inexplicable myth.

“The rabbis floated down the river in an ark containing two copies of each dream their masters had dreamt on the story of Abraham and Isaac,” opens one of the tales. Another starts with: “A group of rabbis gathered at the wedding feast as fiddles and trumpets played faster and faster, until they spiraled into delirium, and guests spilled dark wine across the lace tablecloths. The cantor began chanting the story of Abraham and Isaac.” Both openers set a stage for the speakers to create their interpretations in altered, visionary states, through dream and delirium.

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'Yidlife Crisis,' the First Yiddish Sitcom

By Leyzer Burko

A version of this post appeared in Yiddish here.

“Yidlife Crisis” has been a long time coming.

Back in the good old days — 60 or 70 years ago — there were Yiddish comedy serials on the radio, featuring the same cast of characters week after week. Unlike their English counterparts, however, these shows never made the jump to television. Thus, “Yidlife Crisis” can be considered the first Yiddish sitcom.

The comedy, which had its premiere in August at the Ashkenaz Festival in Toronto, has already had a big impact in the online Yiddish world, at least judging by my own Facebook feed. So far there are four episodes in the series, which can be seen on the show’s website and YouTube channel.

Shortly before the Toronto premiere I talked to the show’s creators, Jamie Elman and Eli Batalion, to find out the backstory behind the project.

Elman and Batalion, who wrote the scripts for the show and play the two main characters, Chaimie and Leizer, are no amateurs. Both are professional writers and actors with an impressive list of mainstream film and TV roles to their credit. So what inspired them to make “Yidlife Crisis”?

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Ben Feldman on 'Mad Men,' Playing Jews, and Why He Never Had a Bar Mitzvah

By Curt Schleier

Photo: Trae Patton/NBC

The last time we saw Ben Feldman, he’d just cut off one of his nipples. Now, he’s head-over-heels in love with a girl he spied — but never met — years earlier at a rock concert.

Perhaps an explanation is in order.

For the last three seasons, Feldman has played Michael Ginsberg, the somewhat acerbic, somewhat crazy Jewish copywriter on “Mad Men.” Ginsberg chose a most unusual way to declare his love for a co-worker.

Starting October 2 (and every Thursday forever thereafter, he hopes), he’s Adam Laughlin on “A to Z,” the besotted bachelor who believes in destiny and true love and a more traditional approach to wooing. The object of his affection is Zelda Vasco (Cristin Milioti), an attorney whose hippie, multi-partner mother soured her on the idea of romance.

The show’s pilot, at least, is funny and sweet and if nothing else an antidote to television zombies. It is also more than a little reminiscent of “(500) Days of Summer,” a similarly themed romance that at least in the cinema ended badly.

According to the voiceover here though, Andrew and Zelda go out for “eight months, three weeks, five days and one hour.” After winning kudos for her role in the Broadway musical “Once,” Miloti went on to become the title character in “How I Met Your Mother,” an issue that took nine seasons to resolve. So it may take a while to find out what the end of that near nine-month period has to offer.

In the meantime, Feldman spoke to the Forward about “the one,” defending a Jewish character’s right to be a little nuts, and going all-in on a bar mitzvah or not having one at all.

Curt Schleier: Do you believe in “the one”?

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Paul Reiser Returns to the Stage

By Curt Schleier

Paul Reiser is coming to Manhattan to make his first New York appearance in over two decades. He’ll be appearing October 2 at Merkin Concert Hall in a benefit for JazzReach, an organization that sends musicians to schools around the country to perform jazz for students.

The comic is most famously the star and creator of the long-running sitcom “Mad About You.” He’s also had important roles in films ranging from “Diner” — his first big break — to the “Beverly Hills Cop” movies. He’s also a talented musician and composer with a bachelor’s degree in music and an album to his credit.

For Reiser, it’s a quick visit to his hometown. “I am flying in Thursday and flying home Friday to commence not eating and getting those pots not cooking so I can not eat,” he said.

“In fact, the peanuts on the plane may be the last thing I eat, so I better enjoy them. Now that Yom Kippur is upon us, I don’t think I’ve done anything wrong this year. I have 48 hours to mess up. I should jump into a life of crime, so I have something to pray about. I have been pristine this year.”

Reiser spoke to the Forward about his return to his standup roots, coping with disappointment, and the pre-bar mitzvah conversation he had last year with his son.

Curt Schleier: What made you return to the grind of standup?

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Trying To Find the Real Heinrich Himmler

By Curt Schleier

A sense of irony is helpful, perhaps even necessary, to truly appreciate “The Decent One,” the new documentary about Heinrich Himmler. The paradox begins with the title character.

He was the architect of the Final Solution, commander of the SS, and a man who in civilian clothes looked like a Jewish accountant.

What Vanessa Lapa, the Belgian-born, Israeli filmmaker, has attempted to do is juxtapose the man who considers himself the height of German morality, a man who loved his wife and his mistress equally (see what I mean about irony?) with the human being responsible for millions upon millions of deaths.

The idea originated with the recent discovery of a treasure trove of Himmler papers including diaries, documents and photos. These were originally uncovered at the end of the war in Himmler’s residence by American soldiers who, hoping to cash in on the cache, kept what they found instead of turning it in.

A portion of the find wound up at Stanford University and the remainder disappeared, hidden in the home of an Israeli. How he came to own it is unclear, but he sold the material to Lapa’s father. Fascinated, she used it as the basis for her film.

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Brothers in Minimalism Came Together at BAM

By A.J. Goldmann

Photo: Alex Rivas/Twitter

Hiney ma tov u’ma-na’im shevet achim gam yachad.” “How good and how pleasant it is when brothers sit together.” That campfire classic came to mind as I sat in the Gilman Opera House at the Brooklyn Academy of Music earlier this month for the second of three concerts featuring Steve Reich and Philip Glass.

The two pioneering composers were appearing onstage together for the first time in nearly 40 years as part of “Nonesuch Records at BAM,” a series marking the 50th anniversary of the influential label, which ran from September 9 to 28. Nonesuch, whose founding mandate was to produce “fine records at the same price as a trade paperback,” has nurtured and promoted an extraordinarily wide and genre-crossing range of composers and musicians, from George Crumb to the Gipsy Kings, John Zorn to Wilco.

Both Reich and Glass studied composition at Juilliard and honed their musical styles in the downtown New York arts scene of the 1960s. In that symbiotic atmosphere their music, often performed in lofts and clubs, developed along similar paths. The result was what is now known as “minimalism,” a term coined by the composer — and fellow minimalist — Michael Nyman, although neither composer embraces the designation.

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Writing 'The Americans' and Remaking 'Can-Can'

By Curt Schleier

Photo: Joan Marcus

Joel Fields had me at “Hello.”

He began our phone conversation like this:

“A quick hello and let me tell you I can’t believe I’m getting a chance to talk to someone at the Forward. It was such a big part of my childhood. My dad, who passed away in January, was a rabbi [Harvey Fields, long time head of the Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles]. I grew up in East Brunswick [N.J.]. We lived in Israel. We moved to Toronto where I attended the Bialik Hebrew Day School and learned Yiddish. And the Forward was always present in our lives.”

Eat your heart out, New York Times.

Fields made his bones as a television writer. He worked on “Ugly Betty” and “Rizzoli & Isles” and is currently writer and executive producer on “The Americans,” one of those hot water cooler shows on FX.

But that’s not the reason we’re talking. Along with writer David Lee (“Wings,” “Frasier”), Fields took on the daunting task of re-writing “Can-Can,” which opens October 1 at the Paper Mill Theater. The Abe Burrows-Cole Porter musical, featuring ageless songs such as “I Love Paris” and “C’est Magnifique,” was a success in both its Broadway and West End productions and spawned a Frank Sinatra movie. But subsequent revivals failed to wow audiences.

Fields spoke to his favorite paper about how this production came about, why it took more than a decade to make it to the stage, and why he doesn’t count his Broadway chickens before they hatch.

Curt Schleier: You’re a TV guy. How did come to make a musical?

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All the Jewish Superheroes

By Roz Warren

Courtesy AH Comics

If you had asked me, when I was a comic book-loving Jewish girl coming of age in 1960s Detroit, besotted with Batman and following Superman’s every adventure, what I wanted to do when I grew up, I may well have described exactly what Steve Bergson does today.

Bergson is a “comics scholar.” He studies comic books, specifically comics with Jewish content. Bergson grew up in the 1970s reading Superhero comics, as well as listening to his Bubbe Esther’s Jewish stories, which, he says, instilled in him “a love for Yiddishkeit and for storytelling.”

“I first learned that comics could contain Jewish content when my Israeli Aunt Edie bought me a copy of the first issue of ‘Sabraman,’” he told the Forward. In college he discovered the work of Will Eisner, which featured Jewish characters, and the Holocaust graphic novel “Maus.”

“The more that I encountered Jewish comic stories,” Bergson said, “the more compelled I felt to seek out and collect ‘hidden gems’ of “sequential art Judaica.” For instance? The 1944 comic book series “Jewish War Heroes.“ And issue 188 of DC Comic’s “Justice League of America,“ which included a 15-page Hanukkah-themed story, “Miracle at 22,300 Miles.“

Bergson’s growing expertise led to speaking engagements, museum exhibitions, a popular website and finally, to a book.

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Talking With an Angel in Suburban Hell

By Tobias Carroll

An Amorous Discourse in the Suburbs of Hell
By Deborah Levy
And Other Stories, 96 pages

Whether writing with barely suppressed rage or achieving a brisk comic pace, the writing of Deborah Levy rarely lets the reader grow complacent. Her earliest novels, “Beautiful Mutants” and “Swallowing Geography,” channeled Thatcher-era fury through surrealistic modes and landscapes. Her 2011 novel “Swimming Home,” shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, worked in a more realistic vein, but left the reader no less unsettled, as Levy slowly revealed the buried secrets and repressed tension in the hearts of her central characters. It was the sort of novel the reader knew would end unhappily; the tension stemmed from the how, not the why. Levy deals with grand themes in unexpected ways, and her latest book (in a manner of speaking) addresses this head-on.

“An Amorous Discourse in the Suburbs of Hell,” a long poem in dialogue, was first published in 1990, and has been revised for this edition. There’s a short reference to smartphones; otherwise, this fable of suburban disquiet and divine intervention achieves a largely timeless tone. Our two speakers, “He” and “she” — which also reflects the use of capital letters in their dialogue — are, respectively, a man working as an accountant and residing in the titular suburbs and an angel, “wonderful and winged and leaking,” who hopes to save him by bringing him out of the familiar and into the wider world. Their dialogue is a verbal tug-of-war, opening with the man gazing upon the angel, describing her in (literally) glowing terms, then posing a crucial question: “Who are you / Anyway?”

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Remembering a 20-Year Protest for Soviet Jewry

By Menachem Wecker

Photo Courtesy of the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington

Long before Occupy Wall Street, protests were held from 12:30 to 12:45 p.m. every day from December 10, 1970, until January 27, 1991, in front of the Soviet embassy in Washington, D.C., in an effort to raise awareness about the mistreatment of Soviet Jews. Those demonstrations, held rain or shine — including through muggy District summers — are the subject of the exhibit “Voices of the Vigil: D.C.’s Soviet Jewry Movement,” which is on view at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington in Rockville, Md., until October 19.

“Washington Jews organized rallies and marches, waged letter-writing campaigns to pressure politicians, sent packages and Rosh Hashanah greeting cards to refuseniks, and visited Jews in the Soviet Union,” according to the exhibit website.

Some gems from the exhibit include photographs of the actor Theodore Bikel speaking at the September 1965 Eternal Light Vigil on the National Mall (he shares the stage with a man holding a twisted shofar); of 3-year-old David Sislen burying his face in tears in his mom Bonnie’s coat after a police officer removed the placard from his sign, which violated a rule prohibiting any signs within 500 feet of an embassy; and a youthful Senator John Kerry marching, arms locked, with colleagues and with Avital Sharansky en route to the Soviet Embassy demanding Natan Sharansky’s release.

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An Israeli Artist's Abandoned Spaces

By Aimee Rubensteen

Naomi Safran-Hon, ‘Wadi Salib: Living Room with 4 Windows,’ 2013

Art is a language of its own, and Naomi Safran-Hon is redefining its words. “Hard Times: Paintings,” is a small solo exhibition of the Israeli artist’s most recent work currently on display at Slag Gallery in Brooklyn. The gallery explores the evolution of mediums (Slag is a recyclable waste product in metal smelting) and celebrates the way Safran-Hon utilizes unconventional materials such as concrete, sequins and lace in order to transform worthless objects into meaningful pictures.

When the artist returned to her hometown of Haifa in Israel, she photographed abandoned interiors. While Safran-Hon does not suggest a particular political agenda, her canvases present a multitude of questions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The gallery explains that the depicted spaces “have been abandoned for the past half-century following a mass Palestinian exodus — a migration whose causes and effects differ depending on the historical narrative to which one subscribes.”

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Conversations With Ed Koch

By Curt Schleier

That Neil Barsky selected Ed Koch as the subject of his first film was far from an accident. Barsky spent his formative years in New York during Koch’s mayoralty (1978-1989), both as a high school student and later as a journalist.

The city was in the midst of desperate times. Crime was rampant and the Big Apple was running out of cash and time. Koch ran as a “liberal with sanity” on a law and order platform shortly after the 1977 blackout and ensuing riots; he easily defeated a passel of more liberal Democrats (Bella Abzug and Mario Cuomo, among them) for his party’s nomination and then won the election handily.

Koch was brash and combative in a New York City kind of way — at least in the way New Yorkers like to think of themselves. Barsky is a former journalist — he wrote for the Wall Street Journal and the New York Daily News — and he comes to filmmaking by a circuitous route. He ran a hedge fund, Alson Partners, named for his children, Alexandra and Davidson, but “retired from the hedge fund world” in 2009 when the market collapsed. After a brief stint teaching college-level economics, he self financed “Koch,” his first foray into the world of documentaries. The movie opened to near unanimous praise last year and will be broadcast September as part of POV’s 27th season on PBS.

Barsky spoke to the Forward about his life journey, why there was a time when Koch refused to speak to him and the Yiddishkeit in his life.

Curt Schleier: How did you go from hedge fund entrepreneur to filmmaker?

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Forging Art for Fun and Philanthropy

By Dorri Olds

Art forger Mark Landis is the subject of the documentary “Art and Craft,” directed by Sam Cullman, Jennifer Grausman and Mark Becker. The film focuses on Landis’s history of art forgeries and the process he went through to create and donate them. The film also features Matthew Leininger, a museum registrar from Cincinnati who discovered the fakes and made it his mission to track down and stop Landis.

At the age of 17, Landis took the death of his father very hard. He was sent to a mental hospital for treatment and diagnosed with schizophrenia. Later he took art classes at the Art Institute of Chicago and worked on repairing damaged paintings. He bought an art gallery but it went bust. At 30, he went back to live with his mother.

In an attempt to honor his father and please his mother, Landis donated a Maynard Dixon painting he’d copied to a California museum. After that went well, he continued to paint dupes and donated them to 60 museums over a 20-year period. Most times he approached the museums impersonating a priest.

Landis said, “I liked being a priest and being kind to people. I remember once I was at a bus station and saw a family who had everything they owned tied up in boxes so I watched all their things for them when they wanted to go off and do something. Then, when they came back I gave them a blessing and sent them on their way. I’ve also comforted people at airports, with marital problems.”

In 2007, Landis offered a few paintings to the Oklahoma City Museum of Art. The museum’s registrar, Matthew Leininger, investigated the pieces and discovered that one of the paintings had already been donated to the SCAD Museum of Art. Leininger dug deeper and found out that Landis had tricked more than 60 museums in 20 different states. It became Leininger’s mission to stop Landis from deceiving museums. Landis did not sell any of the paintings, so he has never faced legal charges for the fakes.

We talked to directors Cullman and Grausman about meeting Mark Landis, authenticity in art, and what will be in the DVD extras.

Dorri Olds: How did this project begin?

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12 Underappreciated Leonard Cohen Songs

By Ezra Glinter

Leonard Cohen is not a very prolific artist. In a 47-year music career he has made just 13 studio albums, along with a passel of live releases. (Compare that with Bob Dylan’s 35, or Neil Young’s 39 solo records.) But despite the relatively small size of Cohen’s catalog, it still has a lot of underappreciated gems. Here are 12 songs that seem to me to be unjustly overlooked, in honor of Cohen’s 80th year. Happy birthday, Leonard!

1. “Seems So Long Ago, Nancy,” 1969

I’ve always preferred Cohen’s first album, “Songs of Leonard Cohen,” to his second, “Songs From a Room,” partly because I’ve never been a huge fan of “Bird on a Wire,” the most famous track from the second album. But the 1969 release does have this sad and beautiful tune, one of several Cohen songs to address the subject of suicide. In this performance, from the 1970 Isle of Wight festival, he explains some of the background as well.

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POEM: 'You Think This May Be How It Happens'

By Janet Kirchheimer

You’re sitting in an armchair,
it’s your favorite, though
beat up from years of use,
and there is a tear in the fabric
covering the seat cushion, and
it’s after noon, and you’re taking
your nap, and you

wake up and ask your daughter
if anyone is there, you feel as if
someone has been pulling
at your arm, and she tells you
no one is there, to go back to sleep,
and you begin to wonder
if someone was there,

perhaps the Angel of Death who comes
to distract you for the slightest moment
so he can take you, and if you concentrate
on something, studying, praying, or
performing a commandment, the Angel must pass you by
but he is cunning, and will do everything

in his power to distract you, and you are
tired these days and are having
trouble concentrating and remembering things,
and you know the Angel will not stop trying, and
your daughter tells you, again, to go back
to sleep, but you can’t, you keep wondering
if this may be how it will happen.


POEM: 'Neighbors'

By Rachel Berghash

If only I’d climb over the fence
and step into my neighbor’s
grove of almonds, stealthily put
my ear against his window
listening closely to Farid
and his oud, and think
of his ancestors as mine, and
remember him coming
from Mecca with his green flag
for my son’s birth, if only
we’d sit together under
the garden’s broad-leaved tree,
unknowing religion and race,
and worship a nameless God,
crouch, humble like grass,
a seraph on fire, we’d wash
each other’s feet, letting
the hamsin pass over,
and breaking bread without a claim.


A Page-Turner That Tackles Hot-Button Issues

By Roz Warren

All I Love and Know
By Judith Frank
William Morrow, 432 pages, $26.99

You don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy “All I Love and Know,” Judith Frank’s terrific new novel. Nor do you have to be gay. Although the book addresses issues important to both Jews and gays — Jewish identity, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, gay parenting and marriage equality — it will satisfy anyone who longs for a first rate novel.

Daniel Rosen is a twin whose brother and sister-in-law are killed when a terrorist bomb explodes in an Israeli café. Their will grants custody of their baby boy and 6-year-old daughter to Daniel and his partner Matt, who, until then, have led an enviably carefree life as a popular gay couple in the “Lesbian Mecca” of Northampton, Mass.

Although Dan‘s brother and sister-in-law loved Israel, “If we die, take them away from here,” they’ve instructed Dan. “Enough is enough.”

But it’s not that simple. The will, as it turns out, isn’t binding. An Israeli court must decide the issue, and the children’s maternal grandparents, who are not only Israeli citizens but Holocaust survivors, are also fighting for custody. And they might win. The judge could have a bias toward keeping the kids in Israel, or against granting custody to a gay couple. And they’re a “mixed” Gay couple at that — Matt isn’t Jewish.

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