The Arty Semite

In New HBO Special, Mel Brooks Is in Fine Form

By Curt Schleier

“Good evening ladies and Jews.”

That, Mel Brooks explains, is the way he used to start his shtick in the Catskills resorts where he honed his craft. It’s also how he begins his outstanding January 31 HBO stand up (and given his 86 years, partly sit-down) special, “Mel Brooks: Live at the Geffen.”

Brooks offers humorous patter about his amazing life and sings some of the songs he wrote for films and other projects.

This is not the first time Brooks has shared biographical details. He was already a semi-regular on HBO, with revealing and witty conversations in 2011 (with Dick Cavett) and 2012 (with Alan Yentob), the latter at this same Geffen theater. He was also the subject of an extraordinary American Masters documentary in 2013. Therefore and not surprisingly, some of his material will prove familiar to Brooksophiles.

But it is a tribute to the comedian’s genius and his lengthy list of accomplishments that he still has baskets-full of farm-fresh anecdotes to offer.

Brooks talks about his early military career, when he was assigned to Ft. Sill’s Field Artillery Replacement Training (or FART) Center.

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POEM: 'Hide and Seek'

By Seymour Maine


Sarah Silverman Shows Her Dark Side

By Anthony Weiss

(JTA) — The Sarah Silverman that the world knows and loves is a loudmouthed, foulmouthed, ribald comedian who tramples on the boundaries of social decency with sharp purpose and uproarious glee.

The Sarah Silverman who stars in the domestic drama “I Smile Back,” which premiered at Sundance, is stripped of both bravado and joy. In the movie, which marks Silverman’s first starring dramatic role, she plays Laney, a deeply depressed housewife who veers into self-destructive behavior. She snorts coke in the bathroom, cheats with a friend’s husband while the kids are at school, sneaks vodka on the sly and even masturbates with a teddy bear on the floor next to her sleeping daughter. The portrait of Laney that emerges is intense, raw and disturbing. It is also unmistakably, recognizably Silverman.

At least partial credit for that insight goes to Amy Koppelman, who adapted the screenplay from her own novel of the same name, along with co-screenwriter Paige Dylan. Koppelman didn’t know much of Silverman’s comedy when she heard Silverman on Howard Stern’s radio show talking about childhood depression. Instinctually, Koppelman felt that Silverman would be a perfect match for the novel.

“I felt she would understand what I was trying to say in the book,” said Koppelman at a post-screening Q&A.

Sure enough, Silverman met with Koppelman and agreed to sign up for the movie.

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12 Sibling Teams That Changed Hollywood

By Curt Schleier

Getty Images

Nancy, Anne and — who was that other one? — oh yes, Steven Spielberg aren’t the only siblings in film. In fact, the list is longer than you might imagine.

1. Joel and Ethan Coen

If there’s one constant in the Coens’ collaboration, it’s the consistent high quality of their work: “Barton Fink,” “Fargo,” “O Brother, Where Art Thou,” “The Big Lebowski,” and, of course, their truly Jewish film, “A serious Man.” Another factor sets them apart: their work ethic. Since 1984’s “Blood Simple,” they’ve made over 20 films, in almost all cases, writing, editing, producing and directing themselves.

2. Auguste and Louis Lumière:

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Why Nancy Spielberg Made a Movie About the Israeli Air Force

By Curt Schleier

“Above and Beyond,” the documentary about the birth of the Israeli Air Force, started with an obituary. This according to the film’s executive producer, Nancy Spielberg.

Yes, for the record, she is one of those Spielbergs. Yet, despite her impressive credentials — she served as a consultant on the Oscar-winning documentary, “Chernobyl Heart,” and executive produced “Elusive Justice: The Search for Nazi War Criminals” — she is probably not even the second or third most famous member of the clan.

There is, of course, older brother Steven. Sister Anne was nominated for an Academy Award for co-writing the screenplay of “Big.” And then there is Nancy’s daughter, Jessica Katz, a contestant on the Israeli version of “The Voice.”

“Above and Beyond” is about a small group of mostly American, mostly secular Jews who risked everything to sneak aircraft around worldwide embargoes into the newly founded State of Israel — and then fly those planes on missions against the massed armies of five Arab nations.

Czechoslovakia, in desperate need of U.S. dollars, sold Israel Messerschmitts from a German-built factory there — as well as German parachutes and uniforms. Other aircraft and parts were smuggled out of the U.S. and other countries.

Interestingly, one of the pilots was Milton Rubenfeld, the father of entertainer Paul Reubens, better known as Pee Wee Herman, who talks about his dad in the film.

Spielberg spoke to the Forward about being from a “heymish” family, why the director she hired refused her calls, and what it was like growing up as a prop person for her older brother.

Curt Schleier: How did the film come about?

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Lost Violin of Auschwitz Plays Again

By Alexandra Hudson

Amnon Weinstein has devoted his life to researching and collecting Holocaust-era violins.

(Reuters) — A violin thrown some seventy years ago from a train transporting French Jews to the Nazi Auschwitz death camp will sound in the concert hall of the Berlin Philharmonic on Tuesday night, along with other instruments once played by victims of the Holocaust.

A French railwayman caught that unknown passenger’s violin and gave it to his daughter to play.

Years later it found its way into the hands of Israeli violin-maker and restorer Amnon Weinstein, whose extraordinary collection comprises violins embodying their former owners’ tragic histories and stories of survival.

Tuesday marks 70 years since the liberation of Auschwitz by Soviet troops. Around 1.5 million people, mainly European Jews, were gassed, shot, hanged and burned at the camp in southern Poland during World War Two.

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A Jewish David Foster Wallace? Welcome to Sundance

By Gabe Friedman

Getty Images

(JTA) – No, the late great writer David Foster Wallace was not Jewish – but the first actor to portray him onscreen is.

Jason Segel, the Jewish actor known for his roles in films such as “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” and “The Five-Year Engagement” as well as the popular TV show “How I Met Your Mother,” plays Wallace alongside fellow Jewish thespian Jesse Eisenberg in “The End of the Tour,” which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival this weekend.

“The End of the Tour” is an adaptation of the book “Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself,” author David Lipsky’s account of a five-day road trip he took with Wallace on a book tour in 1996, just as the publication of “Infinite Jest” was turning Wallace into a literary rock star.

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An Outsider Among Montreal's Hasidim

By Michael Kaminer

In Quebec, the term “two solitudes” once described icy/cozy relations between the English and French. But in Maxime Giroux’s sublime “Felix and Meira,” which closes out this year’s New York Jewish Film Festival, the phrase seems apt for the Hasidim and hipsters of Montreal’s happening Mile End neighborhood, coexisting without actually engaging.

The film’s title characters cross those lines — and many more — in Giroux’s wintry film, whose acute sense of place registers as strongly as his finely drawn characters. Sharp-eyed viewers will recognize Hadas Yaron, who plays the rebellious Orthodox wife Meira; in Rama Burshtein’s “Fill the Void,” another frum drama, she played another Orthodox woman facing difficult choices.

“Felix and Meira” won Best Canadian Feature honors at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival; it opens wide in May. The Forward caught up with director Giroux as he shuttled between meetings in Old Montreal.

Michael Kaminer: What kind of research did you do in Montreal’s Orthodox community, which seems highly insular?

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10 Movies for International Holocaust Remembrance Day

By Curt Schleier

It seems more than a little disturbing to talk about the Holocaust and good movies in one sentence, but the former has certainly inspired many of the latter. In fact, there is an embarrassment of riches. This is a good thing, because any effort to educate the world about the horrors of genocide is important.

There are so many choices that any list of Holocaust-related films will be incomplete. To leave some room for less-known movies, some obvious choices have purposely been left out. Among them, “The Diary of Anne Frank” (there are so many productions of the movie and play to name it here seems redundant) and “Life is Beautiful” (a little too light in its approach for my taste).

Here are those who made the list, starting with:

1. Schindler’s List (1993, Steven Spielberg)

This is not only the best Holocaust film, but among the best movies I’ve ever seen. Images of the little girl in the red coat still haunt me. Nowhere have I seen the precarious nature of life better portrayed than in the scene where camp commander Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes) randomly uses prisoners for target practice. John Williams’ score, played by Itzhak Perlman, is appropriately affective. Simply put: there is not a comma out of place anywhere.

I spoke to Spielberg at the time of the film’s release. He told me the rights to the book it was based on, Thomas Keneally’s “Schindler’s Ark,” had been purchased for him years earlier, but he did not feel he was mature enough to handle its emotional intensity. When he decided to make the film, he refused his normal fee. He said it would be “blood money.” All his earnings were used to fund the Spielberg Foundation, now the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education.

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‘The Return’ Takes New Look at Polish Revival

By Tom Tugend

(JTA) — On the crumbling wall of a former Polish synagogue, adjacent to a one-time Jewish ritual bath converted into a car wash, a graffiti artist has painted “Jews, We Miss You” in Polish and German.

The message, scrawled on the wall in the Polish town of Dabrowno, is an apt message in contemporary Poland, which has seen a surprising revival of Jewish life in a land that nearly saw its Jewish community eradicated, first by the Holocaust and then under decades of communist rule.

The story of that revival is the subject of the new documentary “The Return.” Adam Zucker, a 57-year-old New Yorker, does triple duty as the film’s director, producer and writer. He tells his tale through the eyes of four women.

Zucker estimates that there are now 20,000 people in Poland who formally identify as members of the Jewish community — a number that doesn’t include those who have some Jewish ancestry, often recently discovered, or the legions of non-Jews who have become enamored of Jewish culture.

“Poland was the cradle of Ashkenazi Jewry, where Hasidism started and Yiddish developed,” writer Konstanty Gebert declares in the film, adding defiantly, “And this is where it did not end.”

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POEM: '10/20/07'

By Hank Lazer

it sounds like a kind of whispering
intercessor said in a hush said
behind your back like ruach a breath
making room within you though the eyes
look outward & so a jewish poetics
is to think about a jewish poetics i am
a what & so in all of this
there is a hidden mathematics

Hitchcock Holocaust Doc To Air on International Remembrance Day

By Curt Schleier

“Night Will Fall” is not just another film documenting Nazi atrocities. It is also an anger-inducing reminder of how little the Allies did after the war to help the victims.

The film debuts January 26 on HBO, and will be rebroadcast January 27 on networks around the world to commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

At its heart, “Night Will Fall” is a “making of” documentary, but it is about the making of a film that wasn’t completed until almost two decades after it was shot. In April 1945, combat cameramen were assigned to accompany British troops about to enter the Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp.

Sidney Bernstein, a film producer and founder of both the Granada Group and Granada Television, was head of England’s Film Psychological Warfare unit and wanted to document the atrocities. He said he wanted to “film everything, which would prove one day that this actually happened… because I guessed right. People would deny this ever happened.”

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Pete Sokolow Is the 'Youngest Old Guy' of Klezmer

By Jon Kalish

Photo: Michael Macioce

The Arty Semite wishes Brooklyn musician Pete Sokolow a speedy recovery. Sokolow suffered a stroke last month and ended up missing the last KlezKamp. The man who came to be known in the klezmer revival as “the youngest old guy” is a little weak on his right side but many are hoping that after some physical therapy, the 74-year-old teacher and bandleader will be back in form. In addition to being a consummate klezmer musician, Sokolow is a monster stride piano player.

Sokolow started playing klezmer in the Catskills in 1958 as a college student. It was there that he met the great klezmer clarinetist Dave Tarras. More than 50 years later, he is one of the last living links to Tarras, one of the Jewish immigrants who brought klezmer to America. Look for a new CD this spring from Tarras Band, the ensemble led by Ben Holmes and Michael Winograd, who studied with Sokolow at KlezKamp.

Winograd is just one of the klezmorim who does a spot-on impersonation of Sokolow, who has been described as a man who talks like W.C. Fields with a Yiddish worldview. When I interviewed Henry Sapoznik, a key player in the klezmer revival, for an NPR profile of Sokolow, I asked him if he agreed that Sokolow could be irascible at times. Sapoznik replied: “Pete Sokolow, irascible? If you open up the Webster’s dictionary and you look up ‘irascible,’ there’s his picture.”

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Was Eichmann Trial 'Most Important TV Event'?

By Liam Hoare

More than almost any other event, it was the trial of Adolf Eichmann that, in 1961, brought the Holocaust into the public consciousness of the world. In both Europe and Israel, the trial marked the beginning of the end of a period, immediately after the Second World War, when the Holocaust was deliberately ignored and forgotten. The cause of the change: the medium of television.

A new 90-minute BBC drama, “The Eichmann Show” — which aired in the United Kingdom January 20 as part of a season of programming to mark the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz — captures the making of the Eichmann Trial as a television spectacle. It was an American producer, Milton Fruchtman (played by Martin Freeman), who persuaded David Ben-Gurion that “only television can show the world what Eichmann did,” and that the trial of Eichmann would be “the most important television event in history.”

Fruchtman hired Leo Hurwitz (Anthony LaPaglia), who was blacklisted in the United States during the McCarthy period, to direct his show. “The Eichmann Show” homes in on Hurwitz’s singular obsession with Eichmann, what the camera could do to inspect him, and his failure to get the much-desired close-up of him showing even a scintilla of regret. “Come on, do something!” Hurwitz bellows, as Eichmann watches stony-faced images of trucks plowing piles of skeletal corpses into mass graves. His face barely even twitches.

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The Summer Polish Jews Were Hunted

By Donald Snyder

Getty Images

In the cities, hamlets, and pine-covered forests of Poland, a murderous hunt took place in the summer of 1942. The Germans called it the Judenjagd, the hunt for the Jews.

Historian Jan Grabowski documents the deadly dragnet in his book “Hunt for the Jews: Betrayal and Murder in German-Occupied Poland.” Originally published in Polish in 2011, the book prompted vigorous debate. Some critics claimed it tarnished Poland’s image.

The subsequent English version, which contains new evidence, was awarded the 2014 Yad Vashem International Book Prize for Holocaust Research in December 2014.

The book is the story of the hunt for Jews in Dabrowska Tarnowska, a rural county in southeastern Poland 50 miles east of Krakow. It describes the search for Jews who escaped from death camp transports and sought refuge among non-Jews in the Polish countryside, and gives a candid picture of terrible instances of Polish complicity in the detection and murder of Jews in hiding.

At the same time, Grabowski makes it clear that there was no Polish involvement in more than 90% of the Holocaust murder perpetrated by the Germans.

Grabowski, 52, is a professor of history at the University of Ottawa in Canada. He is also a founding member of the Polish Center for Holocaust Research in Warsaw, Poland. Born in Warsaw to a Christian mother and Jewish father, Grabowski immigrated to Canada in 1988.

According to the Book Prize Committee, Grabowski’s study is “exemplary and shows that a careful reading of archival material allows for the detailed reconstruction of personal life (and death) stories of Jews in hiding.”

The Forward’s Donald Snyder spoke with Grabowski about his book by phone.

Donald Snyder: How effective was the German hunt for the Jews?

Jan Grabowski: It was very effective. Two hundred and fifty thousand Jews fled to villages and the forests of eastern Poland to seek refuge, and 35,000 survived the Holocaust. That’s roughly 14%.

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Awards Announced for Best Jewish Books for Kids and Teens

By Forward Staff

Wikimedia Commons

The Jewish book award season is in full swing.

The winners of the 2015 National Jewish Book Awards were announced last week. Today, the Association of Jewish Libraries released the list of laureates of the Sydney Taylor Book Award that honors new books for children and teens about the Jewish experience.

In the Younger Reader category, the gold medal went to Jim Aylesworth and Barbara McClintock, author and illustrator of “My Grandfather’s Coat”, a tale about the recycling of a coat over four generations until it becomes its own story.

In the Older Reader category, authors and illustrators Loic Dauvillier, Marc Lizano and Greg Salsedo, will be awarded the gold medal for “Hidden: A Child’s Story of the Holocaust”, a graphic novel about survival during the Holocaust with the help of righteous gentiles.

In the Teen category, Donna Jo Napoli, author of “Storm”, won the gold medal. “Storm” retells the Noah story from the perspective of Sebah, a teenage girl who hides on the ark.

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Argentina’s Very Jewish Oscar Nominee

By Diego Melamed

(JTA) — If Damian Szifron’s “Wild Tales” (“Relatos Salvajes” in Spanish) wins an Academy Award on February 22 — it was nominated last week for Best Foreign Film — it will be Argentina’s third Oscar and the first for a film directed by an Argentine Jew.

The film, which combines humor, suspense and violence, consists of six independent segments, many featuring Jewish characters and details taken from Szifron’s life. The final segment revolves around a Jewish wedding, complete with klezmer music.

The film screened in prominent festivals, included Cannes, and, even before getting the Oscar nomination, broke Argentine box-office records, with more than 3.5 million tickets sold. The movie will be screened at the upcoming Sundance festival and will be released in the United States on Feb. 20. Szifron’s film career started in 2003, with “El Fondo del Mar” (“The Bottom of the Sea”), which starred the Jewish Uruguayan actor Daniel Hendler. Szifron’s second film, “Tiempo de Valientes” (“Time of the Courageous”) is about a Jewish psychologist, Mariano Silverstein.

Szifron, 39, had already established himself as a popular TV writer/director before entering the film world. His series, “Los Simuladores” (“The Pretenders”) in 2002 won the Argentine equivalent of the Emmy, the Martin Fierro award for Best TV Series. And broadcasters in Chile, Spain, Mexico and Russia bought the rights to make their own versions of it.

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Book Critics Nods to Roz Chast, Gary Shteyngart

By Forward Staff

Photo: Martyna Starosta

Forward 50 members Roz Chast and Gary Shteyngart are among the 30 nominees for the 2014 National Book Critics Circle Awards.

The award, given to books in the areas of autobiography, biography, criticism, fiction, nonfiction and poetry, is given by the book critics and book review editors of the National Book Critics Circle. This year’s winners will be announced March 12.

Other nominees include the late Ellen Willis for “The Essential Ellen Willis,” (see the Forward’s review here) and Marilynne Robinson for “Lila” (read our piece on Robinson’s trip to Israel here).

Check out the full list of nominees below.

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Art World Pariah Is Unlikely Star at 92

By Michael Kaminer

Jonah Kinigstein, ‘Coney Island.’ Courtesy the artist and Society of Illustrators.

A certain Jewish weekly rejected one of Jonah Kinigstein’s scathing cartoons back in 2004; responding to the furor over Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ,” Kinigstein had drawn Jesus tossing the movie into a bonfire in front of the White House.

“I’d sent it to the Forward,” Kinigstein laughs. “They told me, ‘Sorry. We don’t publish cartoons from the outside.’”

Inadvertently, that exchange captured the paradox of Kinigstein’s career. An art-world pariah most of his life, he’s become an unlikely star at age 92, with an acclaimed exhibition of his savagely satirical cartoons at the Society of Illustrators in New York and a new book from comics powerhouse Fantagraphics that shares its title, “The Emperor’s New Clothes: The Tower of Babel in the ‘Art’ World. “

As that name attests, Kinigstein’s work rips into what he sees as the vapidity, pretension and inanity of 20th-century modern art, from institutions like MoMA to gallerists like Ilona Sonnabend to critics like Clement Greenberg. Sacred-cow artists — Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Jasper Johns – don’t escape his poison pen, either.

“I put the cartoons up on walls all over Soho,” he says. “I really gave these people the business. And I got a lot of pushback. Some people wanted to fight with me.”

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'The Goldbergs' Were Even Crazier in Real Life

By Curt Schleier

Photo courtesy ABC/Tony Rivetti

The family portrayed in the ABC sitcom, “The Goldbergs” — which finished its second season January 14 — spends a lot of time yelling and screaming. Mom is a busybody. Dad comes home from work and drops his trousers for comfort.

Though Adam F. Goldberg, creator, writer and executive producer, based the show on his real life and kin, he is quick to assure that the actual Goldbergs were not that bad. They were worse.

“My family is a lot cruder, a lot louder. All they do is yell at each other. My mom [Beverly] is at the point where she recognizes that. Wendi [McLendon-Covey, who plays her] brings a softness she doesn’t have. [My mom says] ‘everyone hugs her at the end of every episode. I never get hugs. She’s not me. She’s too nice. She’s too loud and always gets her way.’”

The show was not always “too nice.” When it first aired in the fall of 2013, the critics (including The Forward’s Ezra Glinter) were, well critical. When I mention that Goldberg suggests I’m the one being too nice.

“In the beginning, we were polarizing,” Goldberg said. “The either hated us with a passion or if they got it, it was because they came from a family like that.

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