The Arty Semite

Waiting on Tables, and for a Break

By Curt Schleier

Photo: Ken Jacques

The tiny Triad nightclub in the Upper West Side of Manhattan was filled by a crowd sufficiently large to give a fire marshal palpitations. That was probably due to the fact that the night’s attraction, Brad Zimmerman, grew up across the Hudson, just a hop, skip and $14 George Washington Bridge toll away.

The truth of the matter is that it wasn’t the fire marshal who should have been worried, but the building inspector. Because the moment he began his show, “My Son the Waiter, a Jewish Tragedy,” Zimmerman had the place and pretty much everyone’s belly shaking.

“My Son the Waiter” is a one-man show, an autobiographical retelling of a life at once sad and funny. Growing up, Zimmerman had a great deal going for him. He was the best athlete in his bunk at Camp Akiba, hit a home run on the first pitch in his first Little League at-bat and, of the three colleges he applied to, decided to attend the one that accepted him.

He graduated with a degree in theater, but spent the next 29 years of his life as a waiter in restaurants, but working with a Jewish deli waiter attitude. A customer starts to flag him as he is walking to the table. When Zimmerman comes over, the customer says, “I’m in a hurry.” Zimmerman tells him, “So, go.”

Waiting on tables was a humbling experience for the college grad — and his mom. When her friends told her about their sons’ successes and giant mansions, all Zimmerman’s mother could brag about was, “If all goes well, I think Brad is gonna buy a book case.”

Zimmerman’s problem wasn’t that he went out on auditions and was turned down. It was that he didn’t even try.

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How a Midlife Crisis Turned Into Jewish Cabaret

By Curt Schleier

Daniel Cainer’s “Jewish Chronicles,” currently at the Soho Playhouse in New York, is a delightful cabaret act filled with Yiddishkeit and Yiddish-cute.

Cainer is a British Jew who grew up in an observant household, but, inexplicably, was sent to a Church of England School. (Ironically, he notes, the school later became a synagogue, proving “God has a sense of humor.”)

Cainer became a musician and composer, and admits he didn’t have “much to do with the Jewish world until recently,” when he experienced a “midlife kosher crisis.” That’s when a rabbi came to him in a dream and told him he should write a Jewish musical.

So here he is, sitting on a bare stage behind what presumably was a Yamaha electric piano, renamed a “Yamalka” for the occasion. Over his 80-minute set he sings a half dozen songs, which doesn’t sound like much. But they are not so much songs as ballads, short stories set to music, about his family and observations of life around him.

Cainer starts with a song about two tailors set to a ragtime beat — pausing only long enough to point out to the humorless that that was a joke — tailors, ragtime, get it? Would it have worked better for you if he said shmatte time?

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POEM: 'Gaza'

By Rachel Berghash

Scrawny goats limp on heaps of rubble,
the sea — under weights of sorrow.
Nowhere to go, she says, escaping
the bombs with her wounded child.
And the child guarded
by ten silent angels who weep.


POEM: 'Backseat Mama'

By Shoshana Olidort

my son consigns me
to a knife-less table-setting
he explains: “mama doesn’t get a knife,
she sat in the backseat” — in the car —
it’s true: my husband at the wheel, his mother,
visiting from revolution-ravaged Ukraine at his side
I’m the only one small enough (even post-birth)
to fit between two carseats
surprisingly there’s ample leg room
and my hips aren’t too constricted —
only my arms poke out uncomfortably —
but I feel shut out
of a conversation happening between two adults
in the front seat
in a foreign tongue


Sukkahs for the Homeless

By S. Bear Bergman

Courtesy of Kehilla

At Sukkot, as we build or assemble and decorate our temporary shelters in the backyard, we might complain about the chilly weather or having hammered our thumbs or the rising cost of etrogim. One Toronto organization is using the opportunity to draw community attention to a much more serious problem: homelessness. Kehilla, a community organization devoted to serving Jewish household experiencing a gap between their housing costs and what their families can afford, presented the 4th annual Sukkahville art show and competition this year to raise money (and awareness) around homelessness.

For the competition, Sukkahville solicits artist and architect proposals from across the world, requiring that the structures be built in accordance with Jewish laws that govern sukkah construction — they must provide shade in the daytime but be open to the sky, the roof must be made of natural materials that grow in the soil like leaves and branches, and the structure must provide some shelter from the elements. Beyond the traditional strictures (overseen by a Toronto rabbi) and a few practical matters, designs are beautiful and wild, opening the senses to the beauty and possibility of a sukkah that dazzles. Eight finalists are chosen from the designs submitted, and those sukkot are the ones exhibited during Sukkahville.

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Filming the Wives of Bali

By Dorri Olds

Courtesy of Elemental Productions

Filmmaker Robert Lemelson’s “Bitter Honey” is a documentary about polygamy and violence towards women in Bali, Indonesia. Lemelson filmed three families — three husbands, 17 wives and 20 children — over a seven-year period. Many were tricked into being co-wives and are psychologically manipulated and physically abused by their unfaithful and often cruel husbands once they are married. Feeling trapped for economic and cultural reasons, they remain with their husbands despite their grim conditions. It is fascinating and heartbreaking to watch them open up to Lemelson about their ongoing plight: their fear and sadness.

Lemelson, 53, has been making documentary films in Indonesia for two decades. The New Jersey native is also a professor of anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles, with a specialty in Southeast Asian studies, psychological anthropology and transcultural psychiatry. He was a Fulbright scholar in Indonesia and holds a master’s degree in anthropology from the University of Chicago and a doctorate in anthropology from University of Califaronia, Los Angeles.

The Forward’s Dorri Olds caught up with him in New York City, at the Clinton Global Initiative, with which he has been involved for the last 5 years.

Dorri Olds: How did a nice Jewish boy from New Jersey end up in Indonesia?

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A Heartbreaking Work of Intellectual Fiction

By Tobias Carroll

Florence Gordon
By Brian Morton
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 320 pages, $25

Those who spend enough time with the title character of Brian Morton’s novel “Florence Gordon” are both fixated on and frustrated by her. That applies to the characters in the novel — Florence’s family, friends and literary peers and acolytes — but may well apply to readers as well. That seems intentional: Morton has created an iconoclastic character who refuses easy categorization and has applied that same unpredictability and veracity to the novel that shares her name.

“Florence Gordon” is set in an intellectual milieu. There are knowing references to the cover of the New York Times Book Review, along with publications like n + 1 and The New Inquiry. Early in the book, the 75-year-old Florence is described by one character as a kind of precursor to writers like “Vivian Gornick, Ellen Willis, Katha Pollitt” — and while Morton will delve more into both Florence’s work and how it was received over decades of life as a public intellectual, that early description works as both useful shorthand and as a kind of suggested reading list for those taken with her dedication to politics, social justice and intellectual rigor.

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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.

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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?

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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?

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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.

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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.”

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'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?

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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.

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When Fashion Gets Political

By Michael Kaminer

Photo: Pascale Richard

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

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

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

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

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

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POEM: 'The Converts'

By Chana Bloch

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

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

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

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

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

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


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