The Arty Semite

Podcast: The Best Hasidic Composer in Brooklyn

By Jon Kalish

Over the past 200 years, the Modzitzer hasidim have become known for their beautiful melodies, or nigunim. Thousands of them, in fact. Today, 88 year-old Ben Zion Shenker is one of the most prolific, and respected, Modzitzer composers. For his latest album, “Hallel V’zimrah,” he teamed up with klezmer and bluegrass virtuoso Andy Statman. The Forward’s Jon Kalish caught up with Shenker in the Midwood neighborhood of Brooklyn to talk about composing Jewish music, meeting the Modzitzer rebbe, and performing on Yiddish radio.

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Jewish War Poet Finally Getting His Due

By Liam Hoare

It was the slain generation of warrior-poets who, more than any others, captured the brutality and inhumanity of the First World War and cemented in the English imagination a perception of that conflict as pointless and futile.

As wave after wave of men were sent to their deaths at the Somme and comrades drowned in the mud at Passchendaele, English poetry from the front abandoned themes of patriotism, glory and valour for the pain and misery of trench warfare. Verse became soaked in blood as nearly 900,000 British troops fell in the fields of France and Belgium. “But the old man who not so, but slew his own,” Wilfred Owen wrote in his twisted retelling of the binding of Isaac, “and half the seed of Europe, one by one.”

The Great War’s centennial has brought about a re-examination not only of the war itself but how it is remembered, what is emphasised and what is forgotten. In that spirit, the Jewish East End Celebration Society — whose aim is to raise awareness of the history and culture of London’s Jewish East End — is fundraising to erect a statue of the war poet Isaac Rosenberg at Torrington Square in Bloomsbury. To be unveiled on April 1, 2018 – the hundredth anniversary of his passing – it would make Rosenberg the only Jewish literary figure other than Benjamin Disraeli to be afforded a monument.

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Rock Journalism and Mick Jagger's Shoes

By Michael Kaminer

When Lisa Robinson name-checks Elton, Mick and Iggy, it sounds completely natural. It should; through four decades, the legendary music journalist has been nearly as pivotal a pop figure as her subjects. Robinson famously introduced David Bowie to Iggy Pop, helped The Clash and Elvis Costello score record deals, and hung out with the Beatles. In great detail, she recounts these and other unbelievable-but-true anecdotes in “There Goes Gravity: A Life in Rock and Roll” (Riverhead Books), a vivid, richly detailed memoir that functions as a de facto history of rock — and of an edgier, bygone New York.

Robinson culled her copy from thousands of hours of tape-recorded interviews she’s collected since her first columns were published in the British music weekly Disc and Music Echo in 1969. Today, as a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, she oversees music coverage and profiles pop royalty like Jay-Z, Beyonce, and Lady Gaga — who ended up cooking Robinson pasta. The Forward caught up with Robinson by phone from Manhattan, where she lives with her husband of more than four decades, Richard Robinson, himself a onetime rock journalist who produced Lou Reed’s first solo album.

Michael Kaminer: “There Goes Gravity” offers all of these fascinating anecdotes about pop legends, but gives away very little about Lisa Robinson. Why did you leave out autobiographical details?

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A Royal Menorah in Amsterdam

By Menachem Wecker

A Hanukkah lamp that was recently given to the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam may have one of the most compelling provenances of any Jewish ritual object.

The lamp was created by a Christian (Dutch Reformed) silversmith, Harmanus Nieuwenhuys, for the Dutch Jewish community in 1751 — when Jews were still barred from guilds. (Harmanus’ son Hendrik also created ritual objects for Jewish patrons.)

By all accounts, it appears to have gotten a good deal of use, and a condition report from the museum identifies the object as “good (dent in back).” In 1907 Queen Wilhelmina (1880-1962) of the Kingdom of the Netherlands bought the lamp at auction and gave it as an Easter gift to her mother, Queen Emma (1858-1934).

Staff at the Jewish Historical Museum may have learned of the lamp’s existence following its inclusion in 1965 in the book “History of Dutch Silver,” according to Irene Faber, the head of collections at the museum. The lamp was given on short-term loan to the museum at some point in the 1980s, she adds. “We do not know what the occasion was, probably an exhibition on ceremonial objects or about history of the Jews in Holland.”

And now, the lamp, which this reporter recently viewed in a museum back room, has found its way to the Jewish community again through Christian hands.

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POEM: 'Eve and Lilith Go to Macy’s'

By Lynn Levin

In the fitting room at Macy’s
Eve shimmies into a pair of leopard-print leggings
then mocks a dance pose.
“OMG! You’re hotter than a habanero in those pants,”
gasps Lilith. She slides her finger
down Eve’s shapely hip
as though striking a match
then blows out her finger.

Eve can’t believe how good that feels
through the cotton-polyester-spandex blend.
Lilith always went for men in a big way
but maybe the oversexed act
was overcompensation, a put-on.
Maybe Lilith is gay.
Maybe I’m gay, thinks Eve
wishing her friend would touch her again.

In the Macy’s fitting room
with the triple-paneled mirror
the women’s figures mingle and multiply.
Looking at one of her selves
Eve moves her right arm
but in the mirror it looks like her left arm.
She can’t be sure which image
reflects the real Eve.

In the champagne of the moment
she turns to Lilith, the real one, the warm one
intending to bestow upon her
an air kiss of gratitude
at most a smooch on the cheek,

but Lilith catches Eve’s mouth,
draws her to her other self.
Eve can’t remember
when she’s ever had a kiss like that.
Maybe she never has, never will again
so what is the point in stopping?

The women linger in each other’s arms
as the hidden security camera
looks on with its mysterious eye.
And the women are okay with that.
They know that eye sees all things.
Sees all. Says nothing.

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


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Cracow Crescendo

By Martyna Starosta

“We sing in Yiddish, we sing in Hebrew and sometimes we sing in Polish,” explains Zofia Radzikowska who joined the JCC choir in Cracow when it first opened two years ago.

At the beginning it was uncertain whether the choir would be able to attract enough members. Today the multigenerational ensemble is a lively proof of the small but vibrant local Jewish community.

Each singer has a slightly different reason to sing in this group: Some want to learn more about their Jewish roots whereas others recognize something in Jewish culture that was inextricably linked to Polish culture.

A big sign at the entrance of the local JCC trumpets: “Building A Jewish Future in Cracow.” That seems like a pretty bold undertaking if one considers the bigger historical picture of complicated Jewish-Polish relationships.

But choir member Paulina Skotnicka says the JCC is able to create a “non-judgmental place where nobody is maligned based on his or her background.” This welcoming approach inspires a lot of optimism.

Skotnicka sounds both down to earth and realistic when she says the choir is doing its small part to revive Jewish culture that was all but wiped out in the Holocaust.

“We can’t actually recover what is lost,” she says. “But we can certainly build something new.”


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Seth Rogen Tells Detroit Mayor To Smoke Crack

By Forward Staff

Smoking crack isn’t usually taken to be a civic leadership strategy but hey, it’s working out for Rob Ford.

That’s what Seth Rogen told Conan O’Brien, anyway. On Tuesday night’s episode of “Conan” the actor suggested that Detroit mayor Mike Dugan take a page from Ford’s book, since Toronto seems to be doing pretty well and Detroit, not so much.

“What’s weird is like, you go to Toronto and and it’s like it’s really a beautiful city that is very well-running, a lot better than a lot of non-mayor crack smoking cities that I’ve been to in my life,” Rogen said.

This isn’t just idle chatter, either. Rogen and writing partner Evan Goldberg have reportedly sold a movie about a crack-smoking politician, although they deny that it’s based on Ford specifically. Still, the Ford scandal didn’t hurt any — at least not for a couple of comedians making hay.


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Richard Shepard on His Dad and 'Dom Hemingway'

By Dorri Olds

For the comedy crime drama, “Dom Hemingway,” Jude Law transformed himself into a vulgar, violent, puffy and unhinged alcoholic fresh out of prison. The film was written and directed by Richard Shepard (“The Matador”) and the cast includes Richard E. Grant (“Dracula”) as Dom’s pal Dickie and Oscar-nominee Demian Bichir (“A Better Life”) as Mr. Fontaine, a Russian mobster that Dom didn’t rat out. Dom feels entitled to a big reward, so after a few excursions to the English pubs to get pissed and have hedonistic times with hookers, Dom sets off to find Fontaine and get what he deserves.

The Arty Semite caught up with Shepard to talk about working with Law, his dad, and directing episodes of ‘Girls.’

Dorri Olds: Did you and Jude Law work well together?

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Anselm Kiefer Says Jewish Collectors Boosted Career

By Michael Roddy

(Reuters) — German artist Anselm Kiefer, many of whose huge canvases examine the legacy of the Third Reich, attributes much of his success to Jewish collectors in New York who latched onto his art early in his career when his fellow Germans were not all that interested.

Charles Duprat/Opera National de Paris

Kiefer spoke on Tuesday at London’s Royal Academy of Arts, which will mount the first British retrospective of the 69-year-old artist’s work in an exhibition opening at the end of September.

“These were the first big collectors, who admired and made my career, it wasn’t in Germany,” Kiefer said at a news conference to announce the works that will be in the exhibition.

They include art from private collections and some of the world’s most prestigious museums.

Among them are canvases Kiefer painted in the early years of his career looking at the legacy of the Third Reich, including his paintings of spaces designed by Hitler’s favorite architect, Albert Speer.

Others are paintings of Kiefer himself in his Occupations and Heroic Symbols series of the late 1960s and early 1970s which show him re-enacting the Nazi salute in locations across Europe.

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Bosnia Through Muslim Eyes

By Dorri Olds

New York author Susan Shapiro and her Muslim physical therapist, Kenan Trebincevic, bonded, and together they wrote the recently published “The Bosnia List: A Memoir of War, Exile, and Return” (Penguin Books). The book tells the story of the Bosnian War through Trebincevic’s eyes.

In 1992 he was 12 and living a normal, happy childhood, until his beloved karate coach arrived at the door one day with an AK-47 rifle and yelled, “You have one hour to leave or be killed.” Christian Serb neighbors and classmates turned on him and his family. Their crime? They were Muslim. Trebincevic fled to America. Now, after two decades in the United States, Trebincevic is going back to visit his homeland to confront the neighbors who’d betrayed him and his family.

The Forward’s Dorri Olds caught up with Shapiro for an exclusive interview.

Dorri Olds: How did you come to co-write “The Bosnia List”?

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Read Darren Aronofsky’s 7th-Grade ‘Noah’ Poem

By Forward Staff

“Noah,” the blockbuster biblical adaptation by Darren Aronofsky, just came out in theaters on March 28, but the story has been on the director’s mind for a long time.

Aronofsky first said he was planning to make a “Noah” movie in 2007. When it didn’t happen right away, he wrote a graphic novel instead with co-screenwriter Ari Handel. But he’s been interested in the biblical tale of the flood since at least 7th grade.

According to Variety, Aronofsky wrote a poem in 7th grade about the story of the flood, with the encouragement of his teacher, Vera Fried, at Mark Twain I.S. 239 in Coney Island. The poem was entered in a student writing contest, and won. Thirty-three years later Aronofsky decided to repay the favor by tracking down Fried in Delray Beach, Florida, and offering her a bit part in the movie. Fried told Variety that “They wouldn’t give him my phone number at the school. His grandma went to a Hadassah meeting in Brooklyn, stood up and said, ‘Does anyone know Vera Fried?’”

Read Aronofsky’s poem after the jump.

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Donald Rumsfeld Gets Interrogated

By Dorri Olds

Academy Award-winning documentarian Errol Morris (“The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara”) has most recently turned his Interrotron on former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld for 33 hours of interviews in his new film, “The Unknown Known.”

When asked a question Morris’s brain ticks while he stares directly at you. He looks away while he considers each query and responds in a slow, thoughtful cadence. He goes quickly from serious furrowed brows to laughing. The Forward recently caught up with Morris to talk about Rumsfeld, responsibility and Abu Ghraib.

Dorri Olds: Do you think Rumsfeld comes across as likable?

Errol Morris: Yes, but liking him and approving of his policies are two different things. I could come away liking him, even being charmed by him but I was also appalled by him, appalled by the junk philosophy, the manipulation, the ruthlessness, the self-deception, the delusion.

Is he phony or does he still believe in what he did?

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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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