The Arty Semite

A Refugee Pianist, Played by Her Daughter

By Curt Schleier

Lisa Jura was a talented teenage pianist who dreamed of one day performing the Grieg piano concerto with the Vienna Philharmonic at the famed Musikverein. It was a lofty ambition, to be sure, but she had the talent and will to make it happen.

Unfortunately, it was 1938 and her life and the lives of all of Austria’s Jews were about to be turned upside down. Her story is told in “The Pianist of Willesden Lane,” a powerful, emotional drama that runs through August 24 at the 59E59 Theaters in Manhattan.

The play is especially fascinating because not only is the story true, but it is told by her daughter, Mona Golabek, an extremely talented pianist in her own right. Golabek plays her mother and all of the show’s other characters. The play is based on a book, “The Children of Willesden Lane,” written by Golabek and Lee Cohen.

To a very sad degree, the narrative is familiar. The Jura family lived a comfortable middle class existence. Lisa’s dad had a successful tailor shop. Lisa herself went every Friday for piano lessons, until the Anschluss.

Lisa’s father, Mona’s grandfather, secured one pass on the Kindertransport. Perhaps because she was so talented, Lisa — and not one of her two sisters — was awarded the prize.

At the train station before leaving for England, Lisa’s mother tells her: “Never stop playing and hold on to your music.”

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: The Pianist of Willesden Lane, Lisa Jutra, Mona Golabek, Theater

Why 'Bert Berns Story' Is Best Summer Musical

By Curt Schleier

Photo: Jenny Anderson

Bert Berns is the best pop songwriter you never heard of.

“Piece of My Heart: The Bert Berns Story” is the best new musical of the summer, and you heard that here first.

Berns was an angst-ridden Jewish kid from the Bronx, haunted by a weak heart and a doctor’s predictions that he wouldn’t live beyond 30. He died at 38, but not before writing a slew of hits including “Twist and Shout,” “Hang on Sloopy” and “Cry Baby” (among many others). He also produced early hits for Neil Diamond, Solomon Burke and Van Morrison (among others).

“Piece of My Heart” is a highly entertaining (if not entirely factual), toe-tapping retelling of Berns’s story. Book writer Daniel Goldfarb (“Modern Orthodox,” “Adam Baum and the Jew Movie”) has taken an imaginative approach.

Bert’s daughter, Jessie (Leslie Kritzler) gets a mysterious phone call urging her to return to New York, to her father’s office. When she gets there, she meets Carmine “Wassel” DeNoia (Joseph Siravo), her dad’s best friend, manager and supporter, who has mob connections.

He’s concerned because Jessie’s mom, Ilene (Linda Hart), is about to sell Bert’s catalogue. Jessie, who ostensibly was only 10 days old when her father passed away, knew nothing of this. She didn’t even know he had an office, so Wassel takes her on a journey into the past.

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Musicals, Piece of My Heart, Theater, Bert Berns, Musical Theater

Sephardic Legend Flory Jagoda Keeps Singing at 90

By Menachem Wecker

Photo: Tom Pich

Soon after she assumed the makeshift stage during her July 16 performance at the Washington D.C. JCC, Flory Jagoda, 90, lit a candle. “Sephardic women always believed in light, in a candle,” she told the audience of about 125 people. “With these candles,” the Bosnian-born artist sang in Ladino, “We pray to God … to grant us a healthy life.”

A few songs later, however, an accidental thrust of the guitar sent the candle flying, and for a split second before it was clear whether a firefighting team would need to be summoned, the assembly’s collective heart skipped a beat. “Let’s just sing,” said Susan Gaeta, one of the two musicians accompanying Jagoda, defusing the mood.

The candle was encased in a glass box, so catastrophic danger probably wasn’t too likely. And Jagoda, for her part, has seen music do the exact opposite of destroy. “I did save myself with music,” she said, recounting her parents placing her alone on a train out of Croatia in 1941. “Don’t open your mouth,” her father had told her. “Just play your harmonica.” (Throughout the performance, Jagoda used the word “harmonica” to refer to an accordion.)

At 90, Jagoda appears to have a healthy sense of humor about her performances. In response to a false start on one song, where the trio wasn’t in the same key, she told the audience, “You know at my age, I don’t hear good.” Eying her colleague Howard Bass, she said, “He’s going to play beforehand, which is good, because it leaves me a good in.” Without batting an eye, Bass told her, “I’m just playing what you wrote!”

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Sephardic Music, Flory Jagoda, Music

When a Terrorist Is Not a Terrorist

By Curt Schleier

Image courtesy of HBO

When is a terrorist not a terrorist?

That’s the question asked and answered in the important HBO documentary, “The Newburgh Sting,” which debuts July 21 at 9 p.m.

It’s been over five years. Still, many people are likely to remember how a joint terrorism task force arrested four men before they could bomb a Bronx synagogue and JCC, and fire a missile at military aircraft at Stewart Airport in upstate New York.

The government gratuitously went through the process of a trial, but the men, who became known as the Newburgh Four, had already been convicted in the media.

However, an investigation by filmmakers Kate Davis and David Heilbroner suggests that the four men were not terrorists, but dupes in an elaborate plot set up by an FBI informant.

Following 9/11 (which the FBI missed), the Bureau set up a network of informants to root out home grown terrorists. Most (if not all) of these informants were set loose on mosques. This certainly isn’t politically correct, and no U.S. mosque has yet ben implicated in any kind of terrorist plot. But the FBI seems to have adopted a “We screwed up and now we have to catch up” attitude that made its agents willing to overlook such niceties.“The rules are off,” was a common refrain in FBI offices.

Important, too, these undercover informants were financially rewarded. Previous criminal activity was overlooked. So, if they couldn’t find genuine terrorists, they were potentially motivated to create them, or else lose their jobs. And that seemed to be the case here.

Newburgh, 60 miles north of New York City, is an impoverished community. Shahed Hussain, an informant and shady character, visited the local mosque and asked the Imam if he knew anyone interested in Jihad.

The Imam suggested congregants stay away from him, but Hussain kept showing up in fancy suits, fancy cars (plural) and flashing wads of cash.

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POEM: 'The Necessary Killings'

By Rodger Kamenetz

We have to kill them the President said because they are killing us before we can kill them.

In that case said the other president, why don’t we kill them yesterday, in which case their children won’t have a chance to grow up.

We tried that before said the President, but their children were carrying jelly beans which spilled on the floor and made a mess difficult to clean up. They trampled them so.

What color were the jelly beans asked the reporter.

You know — the President said, his head turning bright red with rage. It is the color of stop signs.

Then why didn’t you stop said the other president.

There you have it, said the President, the jelly beans were delicious!

That’s probably against the law said the giant media head. Her television was full of eyes and ears.

There were many people underfoot clamoring to be heard but their voices added up to a whisper so they could hardly be seen.


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POEM: From 'Portable Folia'

By Carole Birkan Berz

Israel greet me once a month
let every being with a soul praise god
& his spouse
Your wives are your securities
a fuselage to die for
Open air relentless inventive
elation the measure of measure
400 OVERNIGHT
You can have free ovaries
but it’ll cost ya
Can you plan on pleasure or pain?
Earn a degree under happy duress
THE BEST DISH EVER
don’t check too often or not often enough
& don’t multitask in meetings
with the Almighty
Call her as soon as possible
communicating calamitously
alter not your task
i could text you (thy byron or thy goethe)
unfurl the scroll
DISPELL after use


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Szymon Szurmiej, Jewish Actor and Polish Leader, Dies at 91

By JTA

Wikipedia

(JTA) — The Jewish actor and director Szymon Szurmiej, the longtime head of Poland’s State Jewish Theatre, has died.

Szurmiej, a leading Jewish figure for years during the post-Holocaust communist era, died Wednesday in Warsaw. He was 91.

He survived the widespread anti-Semitic purges of 1968 and, in addition to heading the theater since 1970, served as the longtime president of the Social and Cultural Association of Polish Jews, or TSKZ, a secular, state-allied body that was one of the few Jewish organizations permitted to operate under communism.

Szurmiej also served as a member of Poland’s Parliament in the 1980s and represented Polish Jewry in international Jewish organizations.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Theater, Obituaries, Szymon Szurmiej

When Music Is the Best Medicine

By Curt Schleier

Photo courtesy of BOND/360

Carly Simon recently told The New York Times that one of her goals this summer was to see “Alive Inside” again. She calls the documentary, which won the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, “an extremely moving depiction of the power that music has.”

She’s right. And so were the Sundance folks who selected the film as a favorite. It’ss a tear-jerker of a magnitude to raise the stock price of Kleenex Corp.

The movie chronicles Dan Cohen’s efforts to bring music to dementia patients in nursing homes and the extraordinary impact his project has had. It’s not just any music, but an iPod full of songs the patients grew up with.

Cohen, 62, posses a master’s degree in social work, but spent most of his professional life working for a tech company. In 2006 he read an article about how ubiquitous iPods had become, and wondered if he’d have access to his iPod if he were ever confined in a nursing home.

Cohen spoke to the Forward about his project, how the documentary came about, and forming the charity Music & Memory.

Curt Schleier: What happened after you read that article?

Read more


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Interviews, Film, Documentaries, Dan Cohen, Alive Inside

Cote de Pablo To Play 'Witch of Moab' in 'The Dovekeepers'

By Curt Schleier

Cote de Pablo is a Chilean-born actress who seems to specializing in playing Jews.

She is most famous for playing Mossad agent Ziva David in the long-running CBS hit “NCIS.” Now comes news that she has been cast in “The Dovekeepers,” a four-hour mini-series based on Alice Hoffman’s best selling novel, which, in turn is based on true events at Masada.

The mini-series will depict the siege from the perspective of four women who arrive at the mountaintop with “unique back stories but share a common bond for survival,” according to CBS.

Pablo plays Shirah, an independent single mom with mysterious power. Called the Witch of Moab, she practices forbidden ancient rites of magic and is knowledgeable about herbal medicines.

The series is being produced by Roma Downey and Mark Burnett, who received multiple Emmy nominations for the 10-hour mini-series, “The Bible” and produced the feature film, “Son of God.” “The Dovekeepers” will air sometime next year.


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'Tyrant’ Quitting Tel Aviv Over Rocket Fire

By JTA

(JTA) — The production of “Tyrant” is leaving Tel Aviv because of the ongoing rocket fire in Israel.

The television drama, which was co-created by Israeli writer Gideon Raff, will move its operations to Istanbul, Turkey, Variety reported Wednesday. Air raid sirens and ongoing rocket fire from Gaza have disrupted the production, and members of the cast and crew have posted on social media about the stresses of running to bomb shelters.

The show’s producers reportedly hope to return the production to Israel if the situation allows it.

“Tyrant,” which airs on the American cable network FX, is set in the fictional Middle Eastern country of Abbudin.

Meanwhile, executives of the USA Network’s “Dig,” which had been filming in and around Jerusalem, are waiting to determine their next move, according to a report in TV Guide. The show delayed its return to shooting from a hiatus because of the current violence; the break will be extended by several days.

“Dig,” which also was created by Raff, was on hiatus when Operation Protective Edge began last week.

“Our first priority is the safety of our cast and crew,” said a statement from Universal Cable Productions, according to TV Guide. “We will continue to assess the situation and plan accordingly.”


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Now You Can Call Ishmael, To Talk About Books

By Michael Kaminer

“Call me Ishmael,” declares one of the most famous opening sentences in Western literature.

But what if the narrator of Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” was actually asking you to call him?

That was the whimsical thought Logan Smalley offered in a spirited bar conversation about notable first sentences. He jotted the notion down on a bar napkin.

Now, Smalley’s turned that notion into Call Me Ishmael, an innovative voicemail project that aims to spread the love of books by getting callers to share their most meaningful reading experiences.

“It’s about telling stories and discovering great books,” Smalley told the Forward. “Books define us, but we also define the books we read.”

In the month since Call Me Ishmael has launched, callers — who remain anonymous — have left messages about a far-flung range of books, from “Of Human Bondage” to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. A significant number of messages have covered Jewish-themed books.

The daughter of a Holocaust survivor called to share her father’s reaction to “Maus” — and her own awe at learning he knew Vladek Spiegelman, the author’s father. A woman rang up to confess how she wept after reading the World War II novel “The Book Thief” — on a treadmill at the gym. “Even when I look like a complete fool in public, I’m still completely transported by a book,” she said.

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: David Sax, Logan Smalley, Call Me Ishmael, Books, Moby Dick

Should 'The Goldbergs' Be More Jewish?

By Curt Schleier

Paul Lee, ABC’s group president of entertainment, met with reporters this morning during the Television Critics Association semi-annual meeting in Hollywood. Not unexpectedly, the subject of “The Goldbergs” came up.

Lee,who recently renewed his own contract with the network (though ABC has languished in fourth place for the last four years), recently renewed the Jewish-themed comedy for a second season. It joins black, Hispanic and Asian-themed comedies that the Hollywood Reporter said “ambitiously mine cultural and ethnic diversity.”

Lee, who is a British Jew, was asked if “The Goldbergs” needed to become more specifically Jewish. He responded that what aired was the vision of its creator, Adam Goldberg. “It’s Adam’s show. I’m not going to sit there and say, ‘From one Jew to another, I want a bar mitzvah.’”


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Filming the One-State Solution

By Mira Sucharov

With the two-state solution increasingly invoked as either tragically out of reach or altogether unjust, a new film seeks to examine another possibility for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: the one-state solution.

More in the tradition of didactic documentary films than storytelling ones, Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon’s “A People Without a Land,” which recently premiered at the Manhattan Film Festival, winning a “Film Heals” award, features the most prominent voices of the one-state movement. There’s Ali Abunimah, founder of The Electronic Intifada, Omar Barghouti, an organizer of the BDS movement, and anti-Zionist activist Jeff Halper. There’s also Neta Golan, a trilingual Israeli-Jewish Ramallah-based activist for Palestinian solidarity, and Eitan Bronstein, director of Zochrot, an Israeli NGO that seeks to raise awareness of the Nakba. Rabbi Asher Lopatin, a U.S.-based Orthodox rabbi, provides a slightly different twist on the one-state idea, and Saeb Erakat and Hanan Ashrawi make brief appearances.

Perhaps most importantly, the film admits modesty in its aims, something that is both its strength and its weakness. Through the words of the interviewees, the film stresses the desirability — rather than practicability — of the one-state option. “First tell me whether it’s a good idea,” one of the interviewees suggests, “then we’ll talk about what is possible.” A more ambitious project might have attempted to tackle the equally pressing question of whether and how the one-state option could be brought to fruition given the historical propensity for the two-state option on each side. And despite recent polling revealing that the two-state solution is losing adherents, the one-state solution is even less appealing (with only 10% of Palestinians favoring it).

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Tommy Ramone, Jewish Punk Icon, Dies at 65

By Michael Kaminer

Getty Images

As Thomas Erdelyi, he was the Budapest-born son of Holocaust survivors who settled in Forest Hills, Queens.

But as Tommy Ramone, he became the leather-jacketed, rhythm-slashing backbone of The Ramones, arguably one of the most influential bands of the late 20th century.

Ramone, the last surviving original member of the band, died July 11 of bile duct cancer at his home in Ridgewood Queens. He was 65.

The Ramones first came together in 1974, at the height of California-rock flab and music-business excess.

Erdelyi, who had worked as a record producer beginning in his teens, was going to be the band’s manager and was helping audition drummers when the group was forming in 1974, according to the Washington Post.

When none of them could follow the Ramones’ style, he picked up the sticks himself, learned to play drums on the job, and became Tommy Ramone. He was also widely credited with creating the band’s signature look — leather jackets, huge mops of hair, and, for himself, omnipresent sunglasses.

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Matt Freedman's Moving and Inspiring Memoir

By Liana Finck

When we read Matt Freedman’s harrowing and hilarious illustrated memoir “Relatively Indolent But Relentless,” we were struck by how it was unlike traditional memoirs.

So, we passed a copy along to Liana Finck, the incredibly talented artist and author of ‘A Bintel Brief: Love and Longing in Old New York.’

Finck’s response was both enthusiastic. And quite graphic as you shall see.

SCROLL DOWN TO ENLARGE.


*Liana Finck is the author of ‘A Bintel Brief: Love and Longing in Old New York.’

Liana Finck
CLICK TO SEE FULL CARTOON


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When Having It All Is Too Much

By Curt Schleier

Director Kevin Asch’s film, “Affluenza,” is about a “disease” that seems to strike people with too much money and too much time but not enough of a moral compass to guide them. Its symptoms are a sense of entitlement and self-indulgence.

The movie is set in Great Gatsby country, on Long Island’s Gold Coast, where an aspiring photographer, Fisher Miller (Ben Rosenfield), from upstate New York, moves in with his aunt and uncle while he applies to college in Manhattan. It is his first exposure to a world seemingly without limits on both wealth and behavior — until the financial crisis hits.

“Affluenza” is an extremely personal film for Asch, 38, who grew up in that milieu. For him, the movie is as much an exercise in therapy as in filmmaking. He spoke to the Forward about the trials of his own Long Island upbringing, how film helped him through his alienation, and why he can now move on.

Curt Schleier: The production notes say growing up you were “grappling with personal questions about my family shattering and how growing up in an affluent community led to such great expectations and such pressures.” Can you give us some more details?

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First Look at Ridley Scott’s ‘Exodus’

By Anthony Weiss

(JTA) — The first trailer for Ridley Scott’s upcoming take on Exodus is out, and JTA is here to obsessively parse its 97 seconds so you don’t have to.

With “Exodus: Gods and Kings” following closely on the heels of Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah,” we appear to be experiencing at least a mild renaissance of biblical epics — and by epics, do we ever mean epics. Unless the trailer for “Exodus: Gods and Kings” is wildly misleading, Scott seems to have gone hard in the swords-and-sandals direction, with a major emphasis on spectacle.

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POEM: It's Summer

in the south where we are busy
slaughtering each other.
There’s no time for flowers amid
burnt bodies and ruins.
Scalding summer will pass, autumn

will arrive unnoticed. If only an early winter
rain would come, send us all indoors, there
to stand at shattered thresholds and watch
the yellow sky weep and weep
for all our dead.

By Rachel Tzvia Back


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Israeli Culture Explosion Snuffed Out by Real Blasts

By Renee Ghert-Zand

Maybe Next Year: Contact Point, which in previous years attracted 5,000 attendees, has been postponed. Photo Credit: Barak Aharon

JERUSALEM – Usually, there is an explosion of culture in Jerusalem in the summer. But with Hamas striking Israel with hundreds of rockets and missiles daily, popular arts events in the country’s capital have had to be cancelled or postponed.

When the current war with Hamas broke out early Tuesday, Jerusalemites were not particularly fearful of rockets landing in their city. While one or two sirens went off in Jerusalem during Operation Pillar of Defense in late 2012, the capital was largely spared from missile fire. However, when the wailing siren sounded and was followed by three explosions on Tuesday night, residents realized that things may actually be different this time.

Within minutes of the attack on Jerusalem, authorities ordered that the concert by Israeli rocker Berry Sakharof taking place that evening at the outdoor Sultan’s Pool venue just outside the walls of the Old City be stopped and its 6,000 attendees immediately evacuated.

Large outdoor gatherings, which are traditional during cool Jerusalem summer evenings, are problematic security-wise at a time like this. People have at most a minute and a half to reach shelter when a air raid siren goes off, making it difficult — if not impossible — to hold such events safely.

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Mystery Mosaic Discovered in Ancient Galilee Synagogue

By Menachem Wecker

Photo Credit: Jim Haberman

Researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Brigham Young University, Trinity University (Texas), University of Toronto, and University of Wyoming believe that they have uncovered the first ancient synagogue mosaic to feature a non-biblical narrative.

In 2012, the team, led by Jodi Magness, Kenan distinguished professor for teaching excellence in early Judaism at Chapel Hill, excavated a mosaic at the 5th-century synagogue at Huqoq, in Israel’s Lower Galilee, which represented Samson tying torches to foxes’ tails, per Judges 15:4. Last year, the scholars found a second mosaic, which depicted Samson shouldering Gaza’s gate (per Judges 16:3).

The third mosaic, which the researchers uncovered in 2013 and continued to unearth through this summer, has an entirely different iconographic program. The mosaic, which is split into three registers along the synagogue’s east aisle, shows spears piercing a bloody bull, and what a UNC press release describes as “a dying or dead soldier holding a shield.”

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