The National Jewish Book Council has announced the winners of the 2013 National Jewish Book Awards.
The Award, now in its 63rd year, is given in 17 categories including fiction, history, poetry, scholarship and the Everett Family Foundation Award for Jewish Book of the Year.
Honorees this year include Yossi Klein Halevi for “Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation”; Richard Breitman and Allan J. Lichtman for “FDR and the Jews”; Ari Shavit for “My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel,” and Amos Oz for “Between Friends.”
The prizes will be awarded March 5 at a ceremony at the Center for Jewish History in Manhattan. Read a complete list of winners and finalists here, and an excerpt from ‘Like Dreamers’ in the Forward, here.
British pop-culture monthly Uncut excited music fans this month with its review of what may be the world’s first Finnish-Jewish blues trio. Trouble was, the magazine got it wrong. Talmud Beach may have a Jewish name, but none of its players are members of the tribe. The band’s moniker, though, bears a Semitic connection. Bearded, hat-wearing guitarist Aleksi Lukander nearly got beaten for his “Jewish” looks, “and the experience led to the phrase Talmud Beach,” says their label’s website.
The band also draws on Jewish inspirations for its stripped-down, nearly sepulchral tunes; Lukander cites sources as far-flung as Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, Saul Bellow and Woody Allen for Talmud Beach’s textures and colors. The band got its start in 2006 on Mannerheimintie — one of Helsinki’s main drags, and a hub for buskers — where Lukander and drummer Petri Alanko both lived and played. Bassist Milko Siltanen joined in 2011. The Forward talked to Lukander by email from Helsinki about mistaken identity, the musical potential of the Talmud, and a pointed Jewish response to the band’s name.
Michael Kaminer: You adopted the name Talmud Beach after a few scary incidents where you were mistaken for a Jew — and violence ensued. Can you explain?
Aleksi Lukander: Me and the drummer Petri were traveling around Eastern Europe and playing on the streets a few years back. For the first time I had grown a long dark beard. I’d bought a black hat for the trip, because all the old bluesmen wore hats. At the time I usually wore a black blouse and black pants — so I was wearing black pants, black blouse, black hat and I had long dark beard. I didn’t realize it myself, at first I was stunned, why do people think I’m jewish? Then my friend took a photo of me and it was only then, when I saw the connection.
There’s never been any kind of publicity author Gary Shteyngart hasn’t liked, but it seems the same cannot be said about Canadian fiction.
The Russian-American writer, currently making the rounds on a book tour for his new memoir, “Little Failure,” managed to dis the oeuvre of writers north of the border while being interviewed by Vulture in New York.
In response to a question about whether literary creativity should be financially subsidized, Shteyngart replied, “Let me say this. I was the judge of a Canadian prize, and it’s subsidized, they all get grants. Out of a million entries, we found four or five really good ones, but people just don’t take the same damn risks! Maybe they want to please the Ontario Arts Council, or whatever it is.”
Canadians, earnest as they are, took this off-the-cuff insinuation that Canadian fiction is well, boring, far too much to heart. The National Post ran a piece on January 9 titled, “Canadian fiction dull? Blame government: Grants creating ‘a lack of funny in this country.’”
Amiri Baraka, the New Jersey poet laureate whose works were celebrated by blacks but often condemned by Jews, has died.
Baraka’s writings, lectures and poetry brought him national renown beginning in the 1960s, and the one-time black nationalist was celebrated by many African Americans as a voice of the disenfranchised. He was a winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award. But Baraka, who died Thursday at age 79, also could be hateful.
In September 2002, not long after he was named the poet laureate of New Jersey, Baraka penned a poem called “Somebody Blew Up America” that suggested Israel knew in advance about the 9/11 attacks. He wrote, “Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed/Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers/To stay home that day/Why did Sharon stay away?”
The poem prompted called for Baraka’s dismissal as New Jersey’s poet laureate, including by then-governor James McGreevey. Baraka refused. After it became clear that there was no way to force him to resign, New Jersey’s legislature voted in 2003 to eliminate the position entirely.
Baraka was born Everett Leroy Jones in Newark, N.J., in 1934. He later attended Howard University, but was expelled from the historically black college he derided as “an employment agency” where “they teach you to pretend to be white,” according to The New York Times. After spending several years in the Air Force, Baraka moved to New York, joined the beatniks and began writing, publishing his first major book, “Blues People,” in 1963. He won acclaim the following year for his play “Dutchman,” about a white woman who stabs a black man to death aboard a subway train while the passengers sit idly by.
The documentary “Ain’t Misbehavin’” — which received its American premiere January 8 at the New York Jewish Film Festival — is a significant change of pace for its director, Marcel Ophüls. Previously, Ophüls has given us magisterial inquiries into 20th century moral outrages, including his pre-eminent “The Sorrow and the Pity,” a disturbing exploration of French collaboration during the Nazi occupation, and “The Memory of Justice,” which examined the postwar world’s legal and ethical sense in the wake of the Nuremberg trials.
In “Ain’t Misbehavin’” — a terrible English title for what should have been a direct translation from the French, “A Traveler” — Ophüls is up to something decidedly more mischievous: He offers a self-portrait in late age, a memoir of youth, the tale of a family’s diaspora in the face of the Nazi menace, and a distinguished filmmaker’s tribute to his father, Max Ophüls, who himself had a legendary career in Germany, France and Hollywood, with films of dark romanticism including “Letter from an Unknown Woman,” “The Earrings of Madame de,” and “Lola Montès.”
Using still photographs, clips from his father’s films and his own, and interview footage shot in various world capitals and resorts, Ophüls fils presents himself as a travel guide of his family’s enforced peregrinations, a self-styled failed roué whose adored wife has separated from him, and a filmmaker whose nearly two-decade retirement this film ends.
A Holocaust documentary by Alfred Hitchcock will be screened in theatres and at festivals later this year, and on television in early 2015 to mark the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Europe at the end of World War II.
It was not widely known that Hitchcock was enlisted in 1945 by his friend and patron Sidney Bernstein to assist with the making of a documentary on German atrocities. The Guardian reports that Hitchcock was so traumatized by the footage shot by British and Soviet film units at liberated concentration camps that he stayed away from Pinewood Studios in Buckinghamshire, where he filmed some of his films, for a week. “Hitchcock may have been the king of horror movies but he was utterly appalled by ‘the real thing.’”
The idea was to produce and show the film to the Germans to make them face and take responsibility for what they had done. However, production was delayed, and by late 1945, there was less interest. Apparently, “the Allied military government decided that rubbing the Germans’ noses in their own guilt wouldn’t help with postwar reconstruction.”
The fuzzy guitars, pulsating bass,and incomprehensible lyrics intrigued me. So I looked up the song that was streaming on KEXP, the Seattle indie-rock station I broadcast at home. The band’s name seemed Finnish or Icelandic, until I realized the words were actually phonetic Hebrew.
Vaadat Chirigim, it turns out, is that rarest of musical animals — an Israeli rock band poised to break big stateside. The Tel Aviv noise trio is having a huge year. Along with an album release on California-based Burger Records for “The World Is Well Lost” — a slightly awkward translation of [“Haolam Avad Mizman”] — Vaadat Chirigim have become darlings of trendspotting media like Spin, Paste, and Filter. KEXP, a hugely influential station, even made Haolam Avad Mizman’s title track its song of the day — a bullseye for a new band. The Forward caught up with guitarist and singer Yuval Haring from Tel Aviv.
Michael Kaminer: Your songs have Hebrew names. Is there anything inherently Jewish or Israeli about the music you write and play?
Yuval Haring: Our songs are completely in Hebrew, not just the names. We sing about the end of the world. The end of Tel Aviv bohemia. About apocalypse. About not being able to let go of the past. It is nostalgic. It is about hopelessness and at the same time it is about moving forward. It is about everything that Israeli youth today is concerned with (and I mean the youth that I’m surrounded by; not everyone, of course). The fact that there is no future in sight that isn’t controlled by fat pinkish rich politicians who are only concerned with old-school ethics and maintaining financial face.
The life and times of the late rocker Lou Reed will be detailed in a biography that will be penned by Rolling Stone magazine writer Will Hermes, publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux said on Wednesday.
Reed, the frontman of the 1960s influential band The Velvet Underground, died of liver disease last October at the age of 71, months after receiving a liver transplant.
“Over six decades, the sound of Lou Reed’s voice defined everything that’s smart and streetwise about New York City, while his songs set the standard for what can happen when popular music takes artistic risks,” said Alex Star, senior editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
“His influence is everywhere, but the full story of his life remains to be told,” he added in an email.
The book is tentatively titled “Lou: A New York Life.” No publication date has been set, but a spokesman said it is about two to three years away.
The Brooklyn-born Reed, whose solo songs include “Walk on the Wild Side,” and “Perfect Day,” formed The Velvet Underground with musician John Cale as an experiment in avant-garde rock. The group was managed early on by pop artist Andy Warhol, who spotted them after they performed in New York clubs.
Somewhere in the universe of critics, a Broadway purist will dismiss “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” as just another jukebox show.
But don’t mention that to Jarrod Spector, 32, who portrays Barry Mann: “A jukebox musical is something like ‘Mamma Mia,’ where you take a bunch of songs and make up a story around them. ‘Beautiful’ is a bio-musical. Rather than a story out of context, you’re actually getting a look at the genesis of these songs. You’re getting a look at the music industry in the ‘60s, when a bunch of Jewish teenagers sat in little rooms and wrote songs for black singers and soul groups.”
Jake Epstein, 26, who plays Gerry Goffin, adds: “This is a show about how these songs came to be.”
The music of King and Goffin, her writing partner and former husband, and Barry Mann and his wife and writing partner Cynthia Weil, with songs such as “Take Good Care of my Baby,” “Up on the Roof,” “On Broadway” and “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” among others, helped define the baby boomer generation.
Spector and Epstein spoke to the Forward about the music they listened to growing up, Jewish mothers, and playing drums in a Rage Against the Machine cover band.
Curt Schleier: Were you a fan of this music growing up?
It’s easy to see why “Friends From France” (“Les interdits”), a film about the freighted history of Jewish “refuseniks” in the Soviet Union, was chosen to open this year’s New York Jewish Film Festival. In the story’s foreground are two young Parisian Jews, Carole and Jérôme, on a group tour in Brezhnev-era Odessa. They are smuggling in contraband such as books and sweets while posing for their fellow French tourists as a newly engaged couple who just happen to be taking an eccentric rather than romantic trip. In fact, they are cousins, and they are struggling with their attraction to each other. Traipsing around to see the sights by day, and under cover by night as “friends from France,” they have arranged meetings with Soviet Jews living in dire circumstances and desperate to leave the country, with Israel as their goal.
While the young couple’s passing through customs to enter the USSR provides a moment of early suspense, it is their meeting with Viktor, an aging physicist whose wife and son managed to emigrate 10 years earlier, which provides Jérôme with a greater moral quandary than whether or not to bed Carole. While Carole’s commitment to the cause of Soviet Jewry seems pure, if naïve, Jérôme’s seems reflexive, something he may be doing to prove his manhood to his beautiful cousin or to himself. With large framed glasses and a head of thick curls, he has the look of an Ashkenazi nerd, and his dour countenance, combined with an evident chip on his shoulder, hardly endears him to the audience. For Carole, Jérôme’s goofiness may be the charm. Yet something in his intelligent gaze makes Jérôme a person in whom Viktor invests his faith.
In early 2013 singer-songwriter David Broza spent a little over a week in an East Jerusalem recording studio working on his new album. The Israeli superstar says it has been a life-long dream to have Israeli and Palestinian musicians work together on a project. The resulting album is “East Jerusalem/West Jerusalem” (S-Curve Records), recorded in the studio that is the home base of Palestinian group Sabreen. It was produced by two Americans, Steve Greenberg and Steve Earle, and features a cameo by the Haitian-American star Wyclef Jean on the title track.
Broza and Jean, who co-wrote “East Jerusalem/West Jerusalem,” sing, “Same face in the Haifa Is the same face out in Nevada / Same face in Nablus Is the same face out in New Orleans singing the blues.” In the chorus they croon “shalom/salam.”
Israeli musicians Gadi Seri and Yossi Sassi ventured into East Jerusalem for the recording sessions, where they were joined by Palestinian musicians Elias Wakileh, Said Murad and Yair Dallal. The Palestinian Hip Hop duo G-Town, Palestinian-Israeli singer Mira Awad and the Jerusalem YMCA Youth Choir also recorded with Broza. The choir, which is described as half-Palestinian, half-Israeli, is seen in the music video of Broza’s rendition of Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding.” The video opens with images of an Israeli soldier, piles of litter in East Jerusalem streets, and Broza interacting with Palestinian teenagers.
Broza also does covers of songs by Elvis Costello and Pink Floyd. Costello and Roger Waters, the Pink Floyd front man, are known for supporting the boycott, divestment and sanctions of Israel. In a recent interview, Waters spoke of the “systematic racist apartheid Israeli regime.” But Waters’ take on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict didn’t phase Broza, who calls Water’s song “Mother” “one of the most anti-boycott, boundary-breaking songs ever.”
For nearly 20 years, Rabbi David Cooper has been among the pioneers of Jewish meditation. Through his bestselling books and popular retreats, Cooper and his wife Shoshana have helped to create the hybrid of Buddhist and Jewish meditation practices that is now commonplace at synagogues across the country. Love it or hate it, the “BuJu” phenomenon continues to grow, influencing clergy and laypeople, the religious and the secular, traditionalists and innovators.
But now the Coopers are scaling back. This winter’s retreat will be their last at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center. There are no more books in the pipeline. And the Coopers are passing the baton to a new generation of teachers, which includes me.
Part of the reason for this quasi-retirement is simply that the Coopers are getting older, and it’s tiring to travel across the country and teach a hundred students at a retreat. But a primary motivation is Rabbi Cooper’s recent diagnosis of Lewy body disease, a degenerative form of Parkinson’s that can cause severe dementia. The diagnosis is a serious one, and, of course, bitterly ironic for someone who has spent his career teaching others how to develop and strengthen their minds. Yet for now, Cooper insists, “I’m really fine.” While the diagnosis is clear, the prognosis — how the disease will actually unfold — is not.
“Handle With Care” starts with a loud monologue unintelligible to most audience members because it’s in Hebrew. True, that’s not how plays typically begin — at least outside of Tel Aviv — but somehow it all works. In fact, The New York Times called the show “hilarious and heartwarming.”
While top billing goes to Carol Lawrence, the main character and screamer, Ayelet, is played by Charlotte Cohn, in real life a former Israeli tank commander who, as it happens, is married to the playwright, Jason Odell Williams.
What Ayelet is yelling about is that the body of her deceased grandmother Edna (Lawrence) has somehow disappeared. The two were vacationing in the U.S. when grandma passed. The body was in an airport-bound package delivery truck that was stolen with its contents. In the process of recovering the truck, fate and love eventually triumph.
Cohn was born in Denmark to a Danish father and an Israeli mother, but was raised in Jerusalem. She served in the military for five years as tank commander and in intelligence. She saw action, but “can’t really talk about it.”
Williams says his background “is not as interesting,” but his present certainly is. In addition to having his first play produced, he’s a writer/producer of the Emmy-nominated children’s show, “Brain Game,” and his first novel, “Personal Statement,” published last August, was promptly optioned by a film studio.
Cohn and Williams spoke to the Forward about how her parents met cute, how they met themselves, and how the play came about.
Curt Schleier: Your father is Danish. Your mother is Israeli. How did they meet?
Jonah Hill has reached a new high. The 30-year-old comic actor is co-starring with Leonardo DiCaprio in Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street,” which opened December 25. On December 19, Hill spoke at “Reel Pieces,” the Annette Insdorf series at the 92Y. Hill comes across as a man with integrity, intensity, intelligence, and someone you just want to hug.
What led up to you landing the role of Donnie Azoff?
Jonah Hill: Leo DiCaprio was promoting a film in Mexico and by chance I was too. He was the producer of “The Wolf of Wall Street” so I thought “I want to meet with him before I meet Martin Scorsese.” We sat down for a meeting. When we met I said “I have to play this part, so I’m sorry if you have anyone else in mind. That’s just not going to happen.” [Grins]
Why were you so sure you should play this part?
I recognized that person in society. I had to be a part of illuminating what’s wrong with that kind of excess and valuing money over everything else.
When did you hear you got the part?
Of the many great classical music events this year in New York, seven with some Jewish content particularly stood out:
1: Mozart collaborated on three operas with librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte, who was born to a Jewish family in the Ghetto of Venice. All three are among the greatest ever written, and explore issues of identity and disguise — subjects familiar to Jews throughout history. Jewish Hungarian conductor Ivan Fischer specializes in making familiar music fresh, and he certainly delivered with his brilliant, playful, semi-staged version of “The Marriage of Figaro,” the first of the three, at Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival.
Figaro, which Napoleon called “the first cannon shot of the revolution,” is a comedy about class and entitlement (or the lack thereof). Da Ponte helped Mozart distill the layers of deception in the original Beaumarchais play. For this semi-production, Fischer distilled them further, eliminating sets and scenery entirely, except for costumes hanging overhead. One by one each “disguise” descended, spotlighting each character’s transitions.
The Budapest Festival Orchestra, which Fischer created and is now widely considered one of the finest in the world, in this production mixed authentic 18th century with modern instruments to create a remarkably vital realization of the score. Focused by these spare suggestive choices, one felt as if hearing the work as it must have felt the first time it was played.
The performance easily equaled Fischer’s thrilling bare-bones staging of “Don Giovanni” from a couple of years ago and artistic director Jane Moss is trying to convince Fischer to take on the third of the Mozart / Da Ponte trilogy, “Cosí Fan Tutte.”
At this time of year, I’m confronted with the many books published in 2013 that I haven’t yet managed to read. It seems that every day another “best-of” list materializes to remind me of the recurrent truth: There’s just never enough time to get to all of the books that I’d like to read, not even if I limited myself to books of Jewish interest, or to novels and short-story collections. And yet, as we approach the new year, publishers’ 2014 catalogs promise a new array of tempting titles. Here are just five of the notable “Jewish books” that I’m already anticipating.
By Molly Antopol
I’m not the only one with high expectations for this debut collection of short stories. Anointed by the National Book Foundation as one of its “5 Under 35” honorees, Antopol and her book (which W.W. Norton will release in February) have received plenty of pre-publication buzz. “My stories move from McCarthy-era Los Angeles to modern-day Jerusalem to communist Prague,” Antopol has said in an interview, adding that many of the stories were inspired by her family history.
“Falling Out of Time”
By David Grossman (translated by Jessica Cohen)
Anytime this acclaimed Israeli author publishes a book it’s newsworthy. Coming in March from Knopf, “Falling Out of Time” is being billed by its publisher as “a genre-defying drama—part play, part prose, pure poetry—to tell the story of bereaved parents setting out to reach their lost children.” As was the case when Grossman’s “To the End of the Land” was published in the U.S. in 2010, it may be hard to separate the work from the author’s life: One of Grossman’s sons, Uri, was killed while in IDF service during the Second Lebanon War in 2006.
The only thing wrong with the latest American Masters profile is the title.
Officially it’s “Marvin Hamlisch: What He Did For Love.” More accurately, it should have been “Marvin Hamlisch: Mensch.”
Hamlisch was a musician of almost unrivaled accomplishment. He provided the music for numerous plays (“A Chorus Line,” “They’re Playing Our Song”) and films (“The Way We Were,” “The Spy Who Loved Me”). He wrote pop songs (his first hit was “Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows”). He conducted major symphonies and, famously, was musical director for Barbra Streisand’s concert tour.
His work made him an EGOT — the term given to someone who’s won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony. Only 11 people have ever done that. But Hamlisch also added a P — a Pulitzer. The only other person to do that was Richard Rodgers.
Hamlisch was the son of Jewish immigrants from Vienna who, fortunately, saw the storm clouds early and left. Much of the rest of the family perished in the Holocaust. His widow, Terre, said: “He used to say, ‘Do you know how lucky you are to have your grandparents?’ That’s why he loved family and appreciated the things he did have.”
His father, Max, was a professional musician and his mother, Lily, was the prototypical Jewish mom. Marvin’s cousin, Rabbi Paul Kushner, tells a story that proves that point.
Alex Borstein interrupts her stint as a horticultural voyeur to take a phone call. “I’m standing on something to see my neighbour’s deck and her new flower pots,” she explains. “They’re really fancy and kind of put my deck to shame.”
It’s hard to believe that Borstein has time to smell or look at the flowers. She is a veteran of the sketch comedy show MADtv, on which she appeared for five seasons (1997-2002). She voices Lois Griffin (and has written and produced episodes) on “Family Guy,” written for and appears in the Showtime series, “Shameless,” and currently stars in the new HBO series “Getting On.”
The last is a very — make that extremely — dark comedy set in an extended care facility. Borstein plays Nurse Dawn, an insecure RN whose obsession with finding a boyfriend sometimes undermines her job performance.
Landscaping — or, more accurately, deckscaping — envy aside, Borstein spoke to the Forward about her still popular MADtv character, Miss Swan, why she took a role so different from anything she’d done in the past, and how she decided whether or not her son should attend Hebrew school.
Curt Schleier: I assume you are aware that thanks to You Tube, your character, Miss Swan, lives on. My grandchildren delight in showing me a new video of you every time I see them. I moved up a notch on the cool scale when I told them I was going to interview you.
Alex Borstein: I’m aware that it’s still out there, and I’m glad I could make your life better.
“A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” is easily the best reviewed musical of the season. It marks the Broadway debut of Robert L. Freedman (book and lyrics) and Steven Lutvak (music and lyrics), who were praised by The New York Times for a score that “establishes itself as one of the most accomplished (and probably the most literate) to be heard on Broadway in the past dozen years or so.”
The play is based on a 1907 novel by Brit Roy Horniman that was turned into a 1949 film, “Kind Hearts and Coronets,” starring Alec Guinness.
It’s a simple tale. Poor Monty Navarro (Bryce Pinkham) is visited by a friend of his late mother, who informs him that he is related to the Earl of Highhurst. It seems his mom was banished when she married Monty’s dad, a Castillian. Now Monty is just eight (soon to be dead) relatives away from an earldom.
Freedman (from Los Angeles) and Lutvak (in New York) spoke to the Forward about the long road from concept to Broadway, the plot’s Jewish antecedents, and creating underdog characters.
Curt Schleier: How did this project begin?
Thirty years ago, boxers Billy “the Kid” McDonnen and Henry “Razor” Sharp split two hard-fought light heavyweight contests. But for reasons soon revealed, there was never a rubber match, despite the personal animosity between the two.
Now, three decades years later, a young promoter has convinced them to participate in a “Grudge Match,” which will be released nationally December 25. Obviously, two overweight, over-the-hill fighters going at it offers delicious comic possibilities. Take two veteran — that is, geriatric — gladiators: Sylvester Stallone as McDonnen and Robert De Niro as Sharp, and the laughs increase exponentially.
The man in charge of the literal and figurative mayhem is Peter Segal, a successful veteran of comedies that starred everyone from the late Leslie Nielsen (“Naked Gun 33 ⅓”) to Adam Sandler (“The Longest Yard,” “Anger Management”) to Steve Carell (“Get Smart”).
Segal, 51, spoke to the Forward about why there are jokes in the trailer you won’t see in the movie, his first film, a super 8 version of “Lost in Space,” and his grandfather, the man in black.
Curt Schleier: There’s a show business saying: “Dying is easy, comedy is hard.” How did you wind up making the hard choice?