The Arty Semite

Meet Drew Friedman, Picasso of 'Old Jewish Comedians'

By Michael Kaminer

Did you hear the one about the old Jewish comedians who got hung on the wall?

Seriously, a new show at the Society of Illustrators gallery in Manhattan is showcasing original paintings from Drew Friedman’s cult trilogy “Old Jewish Comedians” (Fantagraphics), along with a trove of memorabilia from Friedman’s own collection.

Spread across two floors, the 110 nightmarishly funny illustrations also include Friedman’s warts-and-all illustrations for media outlets like The New York Observer, and a terrifying Woody Allen portrait for “He Said/She Said,” a 1996 comic book about the director’s split from Mia Farrow.

Friedman attended New York’s School of Visual Arts from 1978 to 1981, where he studied under legendary comics masters like Will Eisner, Harvey Kurtzman, Edward Sorel, Stan Mack and Arnold Roth, as his bio explains. He launched his career in the 1980s writing and illustrating what he calls “morbid alternative comics,” often collaborating with his brother, writer Josh Alan Friedman. He’s gone mainstream since then, supplying illustrations to everyone from The New York Times to Esquire to The New Republic.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why the old comedians have struck such a chord. “The subject of humor speaks to everyone, and the cultural aspect of Yiddish theater and comedy has huge appeal,” says Anelle Miller, the Society of Illustrators’ executive director. “But I’d also rank Drew with people like Ed Sorel, who did this great satirical work while continuing his illustration practice.”

The Forward caught up with Friedman a week after the show’s opening, where he mugged for photos with OJC subjects like Robert Klein and Abe Vigoda — and future OJCs like Gilbert Gottfried.

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The Forward, 'Blue Bloods' and the Knockout Game

By Curt Schleier

What happens when the New York City Police Commissioner wants his Deputy Commissioner for Public Information to ask the press for restraint?

There’s been an epidemic of the “knockout game,” where young males sneak up on unsuspecting people and punch them, and the commissioner wants to turn down the volume. But only two newspapers are willing to downplay the epidemic of violence: the Village Voice and yes, The Jewish Daily Forward.

It’s unlikely that either paper would bend to the will of a police commissioner, but that’s how the fictional story played out in last Friday’s episode of “Blue Bloods,” where Commissioner Frank Reagan (Tom Selleck) ordered his DCPI Garrett Moore (Gregory Jbara) to muzzle the media.

“Blue Bloods” follows the lives of three generations of the Irish-American Reagan family, all involved in law enforcement.

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Is 'Family Guy' Anti-Semitic?

By Mark I. Pinsky

Sunday night’s episode of “Family Guy,” the long-running animated comedy, included a 25-second segment that illustrated once again creator Seth MacFarlane’s unapologetic anti-Semitism.

In the episode, main character Peter Griffin and his friends are off on a typically absurdist search to find God and to get Him to stop thwarting their favorite football team, the New England Patriots. In a Jerusalem square they spot Mort Goldman, the obviously Jewish pharmacist from their hometown of Quahog, Rhode Island.

Actually, they spot a “flock” of bobbing Morts, whom they attract by tossing pennies, as you might use popcorn to draw pigeons. The message being, Jews love money. MacFarlane used similar imagery in a much earlier episode, in which Peter’s anti-Semitic father-in-law tries to use a dollar bill tied to a string to distract his wife, who has just told Peter’s wife Lois that she was raised Jewish.

Anti-Semitism is a serious charge, made too quickly and too often. But as someone who has followed MacFarlane’s career, I think it is well past time to call him out. His star is clearly on the rise in Hollywood — he has hosted a major awards show, been writing and directing movies and, most recently, produced the Fox series “Cosmos.” And thus far he has been unimpeded by his consistent record of anti-Semitism.

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Suit Against 'McMansion' Director Thrown Out

By Curt Schleier

Lauren Greenfield received a best director nod at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival for her documentary, “The Queen of Versailles.” Now, two years later, she has another victory to her credit, which may ultimately prove more important to her career.

An arbitrator at the Independent Film and Television Alliance ruled that her movie about David and Jackie Siegel was not defamatory. This seems to end Siegel’s effort to punish Greenfield for her film, which centered in large measure on the family’s profligate ways — building a 90,000 square-foot mansion (to replace the 26,000 square-foot home they lived in); spending $1 million a year on clothing, and having a household staff of 19.

It also covered the rise and fall of Westgate Resorts, Siegel’s timeshare empire that funded these extravagances — at least until the 2008 credit crunch.

Siegel charged the film defamed him and his company. His claims were dismissed by a federal court judge, which is how the case ended up in arbitration.

“Having viewed the supposedly egregious portions of the Motion Picture numerous times, [the Arbitrator] simply does not find that any of the content of the Motion Picture was false,” the arbitrator, Roy Rifkin, ruled.


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Theology of 'True Detective'

By Steven I. Weiss

You don’t have to go far to find people utterly disappointed in the season finale of “True Detective.” Many websites have spilled thousands of words expressing upset that the episode didn’t expose any remaining mysteries about the criminal acts driving its plot.

But those upset at the finale weren’t paying attention. This show didn’t follow the standard tropes of criminal drama, avoiding speculation about the crimes themselves. Very large swaths of who did what and why were revealed early on: as show creator Nic Pizzolatto told The Daily Beast, “if someone watches the first episode and really listens, it tells you 85 percent of the story of the first six episodes.” Essentially every major aspect of solving the crime was telegraphed at least an episode ahead of time — as was the case with the finale, because we met the ultimate antagonist at the end of the previous episode. Indeed, rather than focusing on crime-solving as an exploration of criminality, the entire season — and the entire season finale — is an exploration of how people confront criminality and evil.

Those who were disappointed took the wrong cue from the show’s early episodes. The book from which Pizzolatto drew the satanic-style ritual of his serial killer antagonist, Robert Chambers’s “The King in Yellow,” shot up to the #4 slot of bestselling books on Amazon. And yet, Pizzolatto revealed in an interview this week, the real lessons from the series speak to a very different book. Pizzolatto told journalist Alan Sepinwall that “if someone needs a book to read along with season 1 of ‘True Detective,’ I would recommend the King James Old Testament.”

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POEM: 'Late for Work'

By Baruch November

so I tell the man
behind the coffee counter
a made up name,
not my Hebrew name,
which requires gentiles
to practice heavy sounds
of machine gun fire
at the back of the throat
before they get it right.

I could have told him
my name means “blessing,”
but will I ever know
for sure that this is
what my life means?

Soon in the classroom,
I pretend to be blessed
with every answer because
that’s what we must do,
those in my profession —

console a world sunk
in the shadows
of all
it will never know.


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Filming His Refusenik Father's Doppelganger

By Curt Schleier

Writer/director Arie Posin is standing in the lobby of the Paley Center for Media in midtown Manhattan, not far from the red carpet and a dozen or so photographers. Everyone is waiting for Annette Bening and Ed Harris. The two star in Posin’s “The Face of Love” and have come to New York for a post-screening Q&A with media, friends, family and anyone else who can score a ticket.

“The Face of Love” is the kind of small, independent film that, in the face of competition from Superman and Batman, frequently escapes media attention. But Posin doesn’t escape our fascination.

His parents were refusniks lucky enough to get out of Russia and make it to Israel, where Posin was born. Then there was his uncle, Leon Lerman, the famed Russian Yiddish poet. Moreover, his grandmother is seven generations removed from the Baal Shem Tov. On top of all that, the idea for his movie came from his own mother.

“A few years after my father passed away my mother was at a crosswalk outside the Los Angeles County Museum of Art when she looked up and saw a man who looked very much like him. She told me: ‘A very funny thing happened to me today. I saw a man walking toward me who was a perfect double for your father.’ I asked her, ‘What did you do?’ She said, ‘I just stopped in the middle of the road. He had a big smile on his face as he walked toward me and it just felt so nice.’”

That encounter became the basis for Posin’s film, which opened in New York and Los Angeles March 7 and opens in additional cities in the coming weeks.

Posin spoke to the Forward about how that incident sparked his imagination, his family history and, most important, his mother’s reaction to the film.

Curt Schleier: What was your reaction when your mother told you that story?

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Marissa Nadler Isn't Afraid of the Dark

By Michael Kaminer

Boston-based singer-songwriter Marissa Nadler, long a critical darling with a cult following, seems poised to cross over with the haunting “July,” (Sacred Bones) her sixth studio album in ten years. Reviews have been the strongest of her career; UK pop bible NME called “July” “a career high,” and the PopMatters blog dubbed it “one of 2014’s best albums so far… A triumph.” Pundits usually trip over themselves trying to describe Nadler’s dark, wry confessional folk; in just one review, music site Pitchfork name-checked Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Mazzy Star singer Hope Sandoval, German folkie Sibylle Baier — and Edgar Allan Poe.

Newly signed to high-profile music company Sacred Bones, Nadler is now a labelmate of indie royalty like David Lynch, Jim Jarmusch and Fleet Foxes, which makes the acid opening lines of “July” feel a bit ironic: “If you ain’t made it now / You’re never gonna make it.” The Forward caught up with the singer by email between gigs in New England to support her new album. “And I’m doing the driving as well!” she said.

Michael Kaminer: Journalists seem to grasp at descriptions for your music. If you had to introduce yourself and your music to our audience in a couple of sentences, how would it read?

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Painting Pictures of India's Jews

By Leah Koenig

Last month, while researching an article for The Forward about Indian Jewish cuisine, I spent the afternoon in Montclair, New Jersey with Siona Benjamin. A home cook who grew up in Mumbai’s Jewish community, Benjamin demonstrated how to prepare a traditional Shabbat coconut curry and a sweet rice and coconut dish called malida that Indian Jews make in honor of the Prophet Elijah. But, as often happens when I cook in other people’s kitchens, I learned about much more than food.

Benjamin’s home is filled with art — specifically her own technicolor paintings and multimedia pieces, which weave together Jewish and Indian images. A classically trained artist (she has two MFAs in painting and theater set design), who is inspired by “traditional styles of painting, like Indian/Persian miniatures, Byzantine icons, and Jewish and Christian illuminated manuscripts,” her work has been exhibited across the United States, Europe and Asia.

In 2011, Benjamin traveled to India on a Fulbright scholarship to interview, photograph, and document the lives of more than 70 of Mumbai’s remaining 5,000 Jews. Back at home, she transformed these stories into a stunning collection of oversized photo collage paintings called “FACES: Weaving Indian Jewish Narratives.”

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How Jews Became 'White' On Broadway

By Michael Kaminer

Even if you’re not a theater nerd, Warren Hoffman’s “The Great White Way” (Rutgers University Press) makes a fascinating read. The book’s subtitle, “Race and the Broadway Musical,” only hints at its breadth, and the depth of Hoffman’s laser-sharp analysis of an all-American art form. Billed as “the first book to reveal the racial politics, content, and subtexts that have haunted musicals for almost one hundred years,” “The Great White Way” also delves into Jewish contributions to the musical stage, including a kind of myopia around race and ethnicity as Jews fought to fit in themselves. Hoffman, a playwright himself, works by day as associate director of community programming at the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. He spoke to the Forward from his Philly office.

MIchael Kaminer: It’s hard to believe that no one’s explored a topic this ripe. Why is that?

Warren Hoffman: Until recently, musical theater hasn’t been given real attention. People looked at it as a fluffy art form with nothing to say of real significance. “Oh race, that’s too serious, how can a musical be about that?” But it’s all over the place. Because you don’t see African Americans or Asian Americans when you look at show like “Hello Dolly,” people ask how it can be a show about race — there are no people of color present. But that’s almost a misstep. People have missed some of what’s actually in front of their faces.

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Reinventing Israel in Argentina

By Liam Hoare

Every year, of the 75,000 young Israelis who complete their military service, it is estimated that around one third leave everything behind to go backpacking. The nomadic ramble through Southeast Asia and South America in that indeterminate period between youth and adulthood is hardly unique to Israel, but it takes on its own characteristics at the end of mandatory service — a break from order and a getaway from the confines of a small state under siege.

While one can escape Israel, one cannot escape Israeliness. On the road, for linguistic, cultural and emotional reasons, Israeli backpackers have come to constitute their own community. Along the so-called “hummus trail,” as Dor Glick reported for Ha’aretz, there has built up “a chain of laid-back refuges in which the sacred tongue rules in loud tones and the de rigueur item of clothing is a T-shirt signifying the conclusion of an army training course.”

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POEM: 'The Robe: Improvisation on a Theme'

By Jake Marmer

This poem’s “head” (first three lines) are attributed to Rabbi Menachem Nachum Twerski of Chernobyl (1730-1798).


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Netanyahu Plays Tour Guide

By Curt Schleier

Peter Greenberg has what may be the world’s best job. He is travel editor of CBS News, a post he’s held for the last 13 years. Before that he spent a combined 21 years in the same job at the Today Show and Good Morning America. He also has a syndicated radio show on travel and, for PBS, hosts “Royal Tour” specials, where Greenberg visits a nation with an unusual tour guide — the nation’s leader.

On previous Royal Tours Greenberg, 64, visited Jordan, Mexico, Peru, Jamaica and New Zealand. His latest special, which premiered March 6, was to Israel, where his escort was Benjamin Netanyahu. The Prime Minister proves a gracious host and takes Greenberg and his large crew to a host of traditional tourist sites — the Dead Sea, Masada, Caesarea — as well as providing personal insights about his experiences in the military.

Greenberg spoke to the Forward about his job, the show, and the secrets of a frequent flyer.

Curt Schleier: How much traveling do you do?

Peter Greenberg: I travel almost 400,000 miles a year. Today is the only day this week I’m not an airplane.

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The Author as Therapist for her Characters

By Liam Hoare

Literature is in Zeruya Shalev’s genes. Born in Kvutzat Kinneret in 1959 — a kibbutz by the shores of the Galilee where the songwriter Naomi Shemer was also born — Shalev grew up with a father who was a literary critic and an uncle who was a poet. Her cousin is the acclaimed novelist Meir Shalev, author of “The Blue Mountain” and “Four Meals.” Her husband, the writer Eyal Megged, is himself the scion of writers Eda Zoritte and Aharon Megged.

Writing, then, for Zeruya Shalev was practically predestined. “Encounters with pain and sorrow made me want to write. When I was 6, I was already writing sad poems about cats and dogs that had been killed and soldiers that were dying in war,” Shalev said at a recent event at London’s Jewish Book Week. “It’s in my DNA.” During the Six Day War, she composed poetry while cocooned in the bunker at Kvutzat Kinneret, verse that she still remembers to this day.

After failing in her training to be a therapist while conducting her military service, Shalev sees now that her career is to be “a therapist for literary figures. Normally the characters I create are busy in some sort of crisis and, as a literary therapist, it is my job to help them overcome it.”

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When a Toy Is More Than Child's Play

By Michael Kaminer

Toronto isn’t the first place that comes to mind when you think of Pharrell Williams, the peripatetic Grammy winner and Daft Punk collaborator.

But this spring, Williams’ name adorns the marquee of the city’s Design Exchange museum. And it’s Shauna Levy, the museum’s new director, who’s responsible for the coup.

“THIS IS NOT A TOY,” a blockbuster show of toys as art, includes work from Williams’ personal collection, and from artists around the world who blur art, design and street culture. The exhibit, whose centerpiece is a $3 million, diamond-encrusted sculpture by Japan’s Takashi Murakami, is Levy’s latest swipe at clearing the dust from what had been an esoteric gallery with a wonky reputation; last year, she shook up the staid DX with a retrospective of French shoe guru Christian Louboutin.

A Montreal native, Levy founded Toronto’s popular Interior Design Show, which she sold to Chicago’s Merchandise Mart Properties in 2012. “I started to feel restless for a great big new challenge,” she told the Forward from Toronto. “Days after I acknowledged this to myself, I was contacted by a recruiter on behalf of the Design Exchange board. There is something to be said for putting it out there.”

Michael Kaminer: You’ve scored big with Pharrell Williams as guest curator for “This Is Not a Toy.” How did you get him?

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Digging Up Washington D.C.'s Jewish Past

By Michael Kaminer

Washington Hebrew Congregation Flag-Raising, April 8, 1917. // JHSGW Collections.

Zachary Levine may have just landed a curator’s dream job: Conceiving a museum from scratch. The former associate curator at Yeshiva University Museum in Manhattan, Levine this month joined a team that will expand the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington from a smallish non-profit to a major museum dedicated to Washington, D.C.’s Jews. The museum will occupy part of Downtown Crossing, a new neighborhood slated to get built over a sunken highway in an undeveloped part of Washington.

After decamping from Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn last month, he and his wife Allison Farber — program director of a new master’s program in Experiential Education and Jewish Cultural Arts at The George Washington University — have settled in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of D.C. with their 14-month-old, Misha.

Before he joined YUM in 2010, Levine was a PhD candidate at New York University studying Jewish aid to Eastern Europe during the Cold War. For his master’s degree in history from Central European University in Budapest, his thesis covered clandestine Jewish social organizations in Communist Hungary. The Forward caught up with Levine from his D.C. office.

Synagogue being moved in 1969.// JHSGW Collections.

Michael Kaminer: What is the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington, and what will it become over the next few years?

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A Glimpse of Jewish Warsaw

By Jordan Kutzik

A version of this post appeared in Yiddish here

Forward Association

Menachem Kipnis is known to Jewish history as a cultural figure who worked across several fields. Born in Uzhmir, Ukraine in 1878, Kipnis distinguished himself as a singer, ethnomusicologist and journalist. As a singer he was the first Jewish tenor in the Warsaw Opera (1902-1918) and along with his wife, Zimra Zeligfield, he was among the most important early singers of Yiddish folksongs.

As an ethnomusicologist Kipnis collected songs all over Europe and published them in two important pioneering anthologies of Yiddish folksongs. As a journalist he wrote articles about music in various Yiddish and Hebrew newspapers. He was also well-known for his reportages, which recounted the lives of ordinary Jews whom he encountered on the streets of Warsaw. For these articles, which were published in the Warsaw-based newspaper Haynt as well as in the New York-based Tog, as well as occasionally in the Forverts, Kipnis took his own photos of his interview subjects.

Kipnis died in the Warsaw ghetto of a brain-aneurysm in 1942. After his death, his wife Zimra kept his massive archive of papers, diaries, music and photographic negatives with her in the ghetto. She refused to turn her husband’s archive over to Emanuel Ringelblum, who had asked her to let him preserve it as part of the secret archive he administered called “Oyneg Shabbos.” Kipnis’s archive disappeared without a trace after Zimra Zeligfield’s deportation to Treblinka.

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William Klein, Photographer of Fashion and Filth

By Anne Joseph

Copyright William Klein/Courtesy HackelBury Fine Art, London

At almost 86, the pioneering photographer, artist and filmmaker William Klein, continues to draw a crowd. On February 23, Klein was at Jewish Book Week in London discussing his life and work with Alan Yentob, creative director of the BBC and editor and presenter of the television arts series, “Imagine.” The event was a sell-out — a testament to Klein’s extraordinary contribution, influence and sheer range of work.

Klein may have appeared physically frail, but his humor and renowned feisty nature were evident throughout. Yentob described Klein as “a pioneer of the photobook,” a person who refused to be pigeonholed. People are willing accomplices in his pictures, he said, they are participating with him. Klein’s early, raw, energetic and at times, angry 1950-‘60s images of the street are illustrated in his series of books about cities — firstly New York, then Rome, Moscow and Tokyo. These were a dramatic contrast to the classical composition epitomised by the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson. While Bresson kept his distance from his subjects, Klein came after people with his camera, a master of the close-up.

Klein’s work as a filmmaker included the first ever documentary about the fighter Muhammad Ali (1969) as well as a controversial political satire about the fashion industry, “Who Are You, Polly Maggoo?” (1966), which starred his favorite model, Dorothy McGowan. There were “no rules as far as he was concerned,” she has said of Klein’s work.

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3 Non-Jews Playing Jews We Left Out

By Ami Eden

(JTA) — With Christian Bale and Leonardo DiCaprio both in the running for best actor for playing Jews behaving badly — the Forward has released its “11 Best Performances by Non-Jewish Actors Playing Jews in the Movies.”

There is nothing like a movie list to send me down the rabbit hole (see my magnum opus on Tablet’s 100 best “Jewish” films). But it’s late and I have way too much to do.

So I will limit myself to three of the most outrageous omissions, saving the worst snub for last.

Jason Biggs playing Jim Levenstein in “American Pie” (1999): Biggs’ Levenstein is to apple pie what Alexander Portnoy is to liver. I know. Hard to believe. But it’s true. Italian Catholic. Talk about method acting — check out this pic from his son’s bris?>

Brendan Fraser as David Greene in “School Ties” (1992): Fraser plays a working-class scholarship Jewish stud/quarterback capable of kicking the asses of every singly anti-Semitic WASP at his elite prep school. What more could you ask for?

John Goodman as Walter Sobchak in “The Big Lebowski”: Do Polish Catholics who convert to Judaism not count as Jewish characters? After dedicating so many words to the Pew study, how does the Forward ignore one of the greatest calls for Jewish continuity in our time: “Three thousand years of beautiful tradition, from Moses to Sandy Koufax… You’re goddamn right I’m living in the f*cking past!”

And just when you thought there was not much else to add to our glorious tradition, Walter gives us this (warning: more f’ bombs):

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POEM: 'everywhere'

By Jake Marmer


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