The Arty Semite

Does 'Money Grubbin' Play Need To Be Jewish?

By Curt Schleier

Photo: Zack DeZon

There is a good play lurking within Sean J. Quinn’s “Money Grubbin’ Whores.” More’s the pity.

“MGW” takes place in the basement of what appears to be an old pizzeria in what is now a Hispanic neighborhood. There will be a kid’s birthday party there tomorrow. A banner reading Felíz Cumpleaños is on the wall and a candy-filled piñata hangs from the ceiling. But today, this party room will serve as an unlikely divorce settlement room, rented for the occasion with just the promise of buying a pie.

First to enter are Matt (Adam Mucci) and Frankie (James Andrew O’Connor). Matt is a plumber and in the process of divorcing his wife, the supposed title character. Frankie is his life-long friend and a paving contractor who considers himself a “dealmaker.” He is going to help Matt and his wife end their marriage in an amicable and financially stable way.

It’s a difficult chore, because Matt is angry. Very angry. He’s angry because whenever he sees his wife she’s wearing new clothes, short dresses and push-up bras. “And she’s smiling all the time. She looks like she’s trying to be very happy. And she knows I’m not.”

Also, Matt feels his wife turned their daughter against him. The last time he saw her, Matt asked for a hug and she just stared at him.

And, finally, there is the money problem. His wife’s new look is apparently expensive. The push-up bra cost $175. All she wants, Matt feels, is his money.

Read more


Hit Man to Las Vegas Rabbi in 'Gangsterland'

By Michael Kaminer

David Cohen’s the new rabbi at Temple Beth Israel in Las Vegas. He’s a learned guy who drops pearls of Torah wisdom for admiring congregants. And he’s overseeing both preschool and funerals for the growing shul.

Oh, Rabbi Cohen’s also Sal Cupertine, a ruthless Chicago mafia hit man who’s had to assume a new identity after getting set up for the murder of FBI agents. And in Tod Goldberg’s laugh-while-you-cringe new novel “Gangsterland,” he’s one of the most compelling, and repulsive, crime-fiction protagonists in a long time.

The director of an MFA writing program at University of California-Riverside’s Palm Desert campus, Goldberg’s been a prolific novelist and story writer, with a raft of compulsively readable paperbacks based on USA Network’s hit series “Burn Notice” under his belt as well.

The Forward caught up with Goldberg from his office.

Michael Kaminer: David Cohen is a mask for Sal Cupertine, but you also get the feeling the new identity has changed Sal for real. Did you want the reader to walk away with a sense of awe around the transformative power of the Talmud and Midrash? Or was the character’s disguise just a device?

Read more


When Investigative Reporting Turns Deadly

By Dorri Olds

Writer Peter Landesman seems the only good choice to have written “Kill the Messenger.” The movie is about Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner) who broke the story that the CIA, during the Reagan administration, was part of a conspiracy that looked away while gobs of cocaine was smuggled into the U.S. and the money from drug sales funded weapons for the rebel forces in Nicaragua. The influx of coke was also at the root of the 1980s crack epidemic.

In an almost parallel universe, Landesman wrote an expose for The New York Times magazine in 2004 called “The Girls Next Door” about the horrors of America’s sex trade. Like Webb, Landesman was accused of inaccurate reporting and wild exaggerations and had to fight for his reputation.

Gary Webb died in 2004. His life had been destroyed. He’d suffered depression, substance abuse, lost his marriage, his career, his credibility and then his life. His death was ruled a suicide. But how do you shoot yourself in the head twice?

The Forward caught up with Landesman to talk about the movie and the dangers inherent in uncovering “stories that are too true to tell.”

Dorri Olds: Did writing the screenplay for “Kill the Messenger” hit close to your own experiences?

Read more


USA Network Orders Up Israel Crime Thriller

By Curt Schleier

Photo: Virginia Sherwood

USA Network has ordered four additional episodes of “Dig,” an Israeli-set crime thriller. This brings to 10 the total number of episodes of the series, which premiers in March.

Jason Isaacs stars as FBI agent Peter Connelly, who has his share of heartbreak and demons he want to leave behind. So he accepts an assignment in Israel, where his new supervisor, Lynn Monahan (Ann Heche), is also, as luck would have it, an occasional love interest.

But investigating the murder of a young American embroils them in an ancient mystery.

The series also features a number of well known names, including David Constabile (“Breaking Bad”), Lauren Ambrose (“Six Feet Under”) and Israeli actor Ori Pfeffer (World War Z).

Also remarkable are the number of bold face names behind the scenes, including Gideon Raff and Avi Nir, who are responsible for a number of Israel shows that have crossed borders to European and American television.


The Ink-Stained Men Behind the Superhero Masks

By Eddy Portnoy

There is little argument regarding the fact that Superman, Captain America, and The Green Lama are comic book heroes. But if you thought muscle-bound, caped-crusaders who wear their underpants on the outside are the only heroes of the genre, you’d be flat out wrong. If you delve into Drew Friedman’s brilliant new book, “Heroes of the Comics,” you’ll find that the real heroes of the genre are the disheveled, ink-fingered nebbishes that created the amazing panoply of American superheroes and other comic figures.

Riding a continuing wave of popularity, the superheroes of Golden and Silver Age comics were created by artists and writers who, in reality, seem to have toiled in inky sweatshops. Portraying dozens of them in their rumpled glory, the formerly stipple-obsessed artist, Drew Friedman, reveals a cadre of of men (and three women) many of whom suffer from bad posture, pot-bellies and bubbling double chins. Also included are concise and informative biographies of each.

Bearing no resemblance whatsoever to their comic book progeny, Friedman’s Heroes are drawn in his trademark photorealistic style, warts and all. As a result, on offer among the more than 80 charming portraits are a broadly smiling Stan Lee with a hairpiece and liver spots, and a Carmine Infantino whose face is so creased it looks like a happy prune. Friedman, who evidently takes great joy in the drawing of older faces rich in character and lives lived, is the American Master of the Wrinkle, whether it be in skin or in gabardine.

Read more


POEM: 'Paste-Up'

By Ivan Klein


POEM: 'Soldiers, Israel, 2014'

By Rachel Berghash

For Dina

Dewy petals on his uniform,
a psalm inscribed
beneath roots of an anemone.
“Every soldier is a flower”
you say, grown with a morning
shower of affection,
pulsing gently, petals quiver
at the thought of killing.


Mysticism, Heresy and Multimedia Art

By Michael Kaminer

Ira Eduardovna, ‘A Thousand Years’ (video still), 2014.

In the Talmudic legend called “Four Entered the Orchard,” a quartet of wise men who explore Jewish mysticism meet severe ends: One dies, one loses his mind, and one forsakes Jewish tenets altogether. Only one leaves intact.

Here’s hoping that the artists in “Pardes,” a new exhibition at Toronto’s Koffler Centre of the Arts, meet gentler fates. Inspired by the ancient tale, the exhibition “brings together four Israeli sound and multimedia artists to investigate notions of mysticism, heresy and the occult from secular perspectives, as they relate to contemporary society,” according to Mona Filip, the Koffler’s director.

The Talmudic story “becomes an overarching metaphor and theme of research for the show,” Filip said.
Pardes is also “a metaphor for the transcendent,” according to Toronto-based curator Liora Belford, who organized the exhibition. ”Where traditional transcendent and institutionalized religions are waning, alternative forms of non-physical yet non-transcendent ‘spirituality’ are emerging.”

“Having lived in Israel, where religion is a significant part of everyday culture, I often wonder about the impact of mysticism and tradition on contemporary secular life,” Belford told the Forward. “Even from an atheist perspective, I find interesting correlations between religious experience and the experience of a work of art, both in its creation and reception.”

Read more


'Blowin' in the Wind?' With a 13-Pound Book, Not So Much

By Gabe Friedman

Be careful, because the latest Bob Dylan book may break your coffee table.

A comprehensive collection of Dylan’s lyrics, entitled “The Lyrics: Since 1962,” will be published by Simon & Schuster on October 28. It will consist of about 1,000 pages and weigh thirteen and a half pounds. Only 3,000 copies will be printed in the United States (500 will be sold in Great Britain), and each will cost $200. Fifty select copies will be signed by The Bard himself and sell for $5,000.

Jonathan Karp, the publisher and president of Simon & Schuster, told The New York Times that the book will be the “biggest, most expensive” book the company has ever published.

In 2004, Simon & Schuster published “Lyrics: 1962-2001,” but the updated version comes with a few additions. Firstly, this collection was edited by Christopher Ricks, a professor at Boston College who in 2003 also wrote “Dylan’s Vision of Sin,” a close reading of Dylan’s lyrical themes. Ricks, along with co-editors Lisa and Julie Nemrow (who designed the book’s layout), contributed a lengthy introduction to the upcoming collection, and alternate lyric versions of songs released on the “Bootleg Series,” a series of live albums, will also be included. Wide thirteen-inch pages will allow for large reproductions of the front and back artwork of thirty-three albums.

Lastly, for the biggest Dylan fans, Ricks notes where and how the song lyrics changed over time. “They’re amazing, shape-changing things,” he told The New York Times.


Why Judd Hirsch Almost Turned Down ‘Taxi’

By Curt Schleier

Judd Hirsch has packed a lot of success into his 79 years on the planet. He is of course known as Alex Rieger, cabbie extraordinaire in the long-running television sitcom “Taxi.” The role earned him four Emmy nominations and two wins.

He’s also starred in a number of other successful series, including “Dear John” and, more recently, “Numb3rs.”

That’s only television. He’s appeared in 20 feature films, ranging from his role as a psychologist in “Ordinary People” (Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor) to playing himself in “The Muppets,” which garnered him no awards but the affection of thousands of young people.

Then there is his true love, theater. He’s appeared in three Broadway productions, was nominated for three Tony Awards as best actor in a play and won two — for “I’m Not Rappaport” and “Conversations With My Father.”

Hirsch spoke to the Forward about his latest project, the new ABC series “Forever,” how he almost didn’t want to take “Taxi” and why he’s still doing the grind of a TV show at age 79.

Curt Schleier: Getting ready for this interview, I was taken aback by how much you’d done and how much I’d forgotten. What a career! What’s your reaction to my ignorance?

Read more


Growing Up in Jazz Age Chicago

By Tobias Carroll

On Bittersweet Place
By Ronna Wineberg
Relegation Books, 270 pages, $13.95

As Ronna Wineberg’s novel “On Bittersweet Place” opens, the Czernitski family is escaping Russia. Revolution is in the air, and the family fears religious persecution. In the prologue, set in 1922, Lena, the young narrator of the book, spells out the fears she associates with living in the United States.

Those anxieties carry through over the course of the rest of the novel, which jumps forward a few years from the beginning. By now, Lena is a teenager in Chicago with a talent for art and a curiosity about the city around her. Familial tensions inform her quotidian interactions. The juxtaposition of Lena’s coming of age with the period setting unfolds in ways that are sometimes unexpected. And it’s that aspect of Wineberg’s novel, combined with the understated yet forceful voice of her protagonist, which makes this work memorable.

Initially, Lena’s family life seems stable. Early on, she describes leaving Russia with her mother, brother, and uncles William and Maurice at the age of 10; her father made his way to Chicago eight years before, a gap in which the contrasts between his life as a patriarch and a a less constrained lifestyle are revealed.

Read more


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.

Read more


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.

Read more


'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”?

Read more


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”?

Read more


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?

Read more


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.

Read more


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.

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.