The Arty Semite

Jews of the Civil Rights Movement

By Menachem Wecker

The Honorable Emanuel Celler, chairman, Judiciary Committee U.S. House of Representatives. From the Emanuel Celler Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Among the more than 200 items which are slated to appear in the Library of Congress exhibit “The Civil Rights Act of 1964: A Long Struggle for Freedom” in Washington, D.C. — which will be on view until September 12, 2015 — are documents written by civil rights leaders, newspaper clippings, legal briefs and artwork.

According to a library release it constitutes “some of the most important materials in [its] collection,” and it “will highlight the legal and legislative challenges and victories leading to its [Civil Rights’] passage, shedding light on the individuals — both prominent leaders and private citizens — who participated in the decades-long campaign for equality.”

What there won’t be are troves of artifacts tying Jewish activists to the struggle for civil rights. “It’s not a show that specifically deals with the role of Jews in the Civil Rights movement,” said Betsy Nahum-Miller, one of three directors of the exhibit. But, she added, Jewish elements exist.

Nahum-Miller thought right away of Arthur Spingarn, the Jewish civil rights activist who is profiled in the exhibit. A photograph of Spingarn, who held leadership roles at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, addresses the early days of the organization. And upon further reflection, other connections surfaced.

Read more


Behind the Firehouse Doors

By Curt Schleier

Filmmaker Liz Garbus is responsible for numerous powerful and award-winning documentaries: “The Farm: Angola USA,” about Louisiana’s infamous maximum security prison; “The Nazi Officer’s Wife: How One Jewish Woman Survived the Holocaust”; and “Killing in the Name,” an Academy Award-nominated documentary about Islamic terrorism.

Therefore, the emotional intensity of her latest, “A Good Job: Stories of the FDNY,” doesn’t come as a surprise. The title has nothing to do with salary or benefits. In fact, “a good job,” according to one of the fire fighters interviewed, is “a really tough fire.” And “good jobs” are a recurring theme in the film: a 1966 conflagration in which a dozen fire fighters died; the Happy Land Social Club fire (87 victims), and of course 9/11.

A number of fire fighters — including early women and African American members of what until recently was an almost exclusively male and white fraternity — are interviewed. What’s surprising is how little swagger or arrogance they display. Despite the constant peril of the job, they don’t look at their work much differently than an office worker whose greatest risk is a paper cut. Their answers to interesting questions posed by the filmmakers are thoughtful, intelligent and moving.

Garbus partnered on the project with actor Steve Buscemi, who worked as a New York City fire fighter for five years before pursuing a career as an actor. Garbus, 44, spoke to the Forward about how the two met, Buscemi’s contribution, and how making her first documentary got her kicked out of her high school physics class.

Curt Schleier: How did you get involved in the film?

Read more


Art Spiegelman Breaks His Silence on Israel

By Mira Sucharov

Photo: Nadja Spiegelman

Art Spiegelman — celebrated comics book artist, illustrator and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Maus” — has broken his silence on the subject of Israel. At least that’s how he put it to his Facebook followers last week when he shared a collage he designed for a recent issue of the magazine The Nation.

Prefacing the social media post by saying that he has spent a “lifetime trying to NOT think about Israel,” Spiegelman went on to say that “Israel is like some badly battered child with PTSD who has grown up to batter others.”

Captioned “Perspective in Gaza (The David and Goliath Illusion),” the Biblical-style art image consists of two panels. On the left is a traditional rendering of David facing Goliath. The right-hand panel presents a shrunken Goliath brought closer to the foreground. Using the tricks of size and perspective to make what is surely not an original political point, it’s a clever play on Spiegelman’s life’s work as an illustrator.

At least two important questions arise from this. First, what does it say when The Jewish Museum in New York mounted a Spiegelman retrospective which overlapped with the controversy over Israel critic Judith Butler’s slated talk there on a subject unrelated to Israel? (Butler later pulled out amidst the pressure.) Had Spiegelman spoken up against Israel earlier, might the museum’s donors and critics have applied similar tactics?

Read more


Yiddish Supergroup Pays Homage to Nathan 'Prince' Nazaroff

By Jon Kalish

Photo: Fumie Suzuki

So, there in a gazebo on the boardwalk in Coney Island are The Brothers Nazaroff, taking refuge from the steamy afternoon sun. It is 92 degrees and horribly humid outside as the five Nazaroffs start playing and singing. A Hungarian documentary crew is shooting with two cameras as the brothers sing “Lucky Jew,” so I have to be on my toes to stay out of the camera shots. My t-shirt is drenched with sweat but I realize that as awful as it is being outside in the heat and humidity, watching these spirited Yiddish musicians play their raucous repertoire does indeed make me a lucky Jew.

Billed as a “Yiddish supergroup,” The Brothers Nazaroff is a tribute band to an obscure Russian immigrant in New York known as Nathan “Prince” Nazaroff. The man is known mostly by hardcore Yiddish music lovers. He is called an outsider, though he did record an album for Moe Asch’s Folkways label in 1954 and Nazaroff promoted himself as an established entertainer. None of The Brothers Nazaroff are actually brothers or Nazaroffs. Danik Nazaroff, Pasha Nazaroff, Meyshke Nazaroff, Zaelic Nazaroff and Yankl Nazaroff are in fact Daniel Kahn of Painted Bird fame, genuine Russian Psoy Korolenko, Michael Alpert of Brave Old World, Bob Cohen of the Budapest-based Di Naye Kapelye and Jake Shulman-Ment, widely regard as one of the best working klezmer fiddlers on the planet.

Thanks to Cohen’s connections in the Hungarian arts scene, a well-funded documentary on the Nazaroff project was begun. Various Nazaroffs were flown to New York for the film, which will also shoot in Paris and Berlin, where 35 year-old Daniel Kahn is based.

Read more


Shattering the Glass Ceiling: An Interview with Lynn Sherr

By Curt Schleier

Courtesy of Lynn Sherr

Lynn Sherr spent more than 30 years with ABC News, reporting on everything from national political campaigns to social issues. But it was her time covering the space program that provided the grist for her latest book, a biography, “Sally Ride: America’s First Women in Space.”

Following a career in print journalism, primarily at The Associated Press and then a career in local broadcast TV in New York. Sherr, 72, was one of the first hires when the iconic Roone Arledge, famously of ABC Sports, took over and revolutionized the news division. She was at ABC from 1977 to 2008.

At a time when the already few women in network news were generally not assigned a science beat, Sherr was assigned to the shuttle program in 1981 and met Sally Ride shortly thereafter.

In many ways, Sherr was as much a pioneer as Ride. In her 2006 memoir, “Outside the Box,” she wrote about being asked in 1980 by one of her ABC bosses to address the Radio-Television News Directors Association, which had specifically requested a woman. This upset her because they had not requested her but just a woman, as though women were all interchangeable. Sherr went on to deliver a blistering speech.

Recently she spoke to the Forward’s Curt Schleier about that assignment, her best story ever and her basketball playing dad, a 6-foot Jew who jumped center.

Curt Schleier: Do you think you got the job because the ABC powers-that-be felt you’d be able to relate to Sally Ride?

Lynn Sherr: I don’t know. I actually asked the guy who assigned me why I got that wonderful assignment. He said it was because he liked the way I explained things. I was a good explainer.

Read more


Leonard Maltin's Last Movie Guide

By Curt Schleier

The word is out. Leonard Maltin’s annual movie guide has fallen into what, in Hollywood speak, would be called “developmental hell.” First published in 1969 and annually since 1986, the new 2015 edition is its last. Like newspapers and other print media, it has fallen victim to the Internet, where much of the information is readily available, easily accessible and free.

The story behind the series is probably more interesting than the average “Transformers” film, however. Maltin was a high school student who published a fanzine. An English teacher impressed with his work put him in touch with a publisher, who was similarly awed.

The first edition of was to become “Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide” was called simply “TV Movies.” It “is a terrible title,” Maltin said in a telephone interview. “A competitor used up a better title, “Movies on TV.” It was actually Maltin’s suggestions for improving that book that convinced the publisher to sign the high school senior.

“I suggested adding a more extensive cast list, the director’s name, and indicating if it was in color or black and white, which was more important then.”

Maltin spoke to the Forward about being a high school nerd, his favorite (and least favorite) films, and davening with Theodore Bikel.

Curt Schleier: Were you a nerd in high school?

Read more


My Dad and the Garment Business

By Curt Schleier

“Dressing America,” which debuts September 2 on WNET, is a nostalgic look back at the largely Jewish history of the New York City garment business, replete with interviews of mostly old Jews fondly recalling a bygone era.

Some of those interviewed head well-known fashion brands including Perry Ellis, Nicole Miller and Leslie Fay. (Notably, though they are mentioned, there’s no Donna Karen or Ralph Lauren.) We meet present and former executives of smaller firms, as well as the button, bias and trimming manufacturers that used to dominate the area.

It’s a documentary likely to evoke sentimental reminiscence from viewers old enough to have worked in the garment center, or perhaps their children.

One anecdote from the film is told by a salesman for a start-up. Early on at his company he got a sizable commitment a prominent retailer. The store’s owner insisted on giving the salesman a check immediately — not 30 days after delivery. “He knew how desperately I needed the money,” the salesman recalls.

Can you imagine such a thing happening today? That level of generosity has vanished, as has much of the garment industry in New York. By concentrating on the headquarters — the sales rooms and design centers — the filmmakers leave the false impression that the garment industry still exists. While there is still a segment of the business in Manhattan, it’s not the same industry the filmmakers memorialize.

Read more


An Escape Artist With Daddy Issues

By Curt Schleier

It’s a bit presumptuous of me to suggest that the History cable network scheduled its two-part “Houdini” mini-series over Labor Day weekend on the theory that most folks will be away from their television. But, if by some chance, that turned out actually to be the network’s strategy, kudos to them.

Houdini is played by Adrien Brody, but not even the Academy Award winner can drum up a performance magical enough to make his character seem real.

He is burdened by Nicholas Meyer’s script, which paints a one-dimensional portrait of a man with daddy issues and who seems to talk exclusively in aphorisms. What could even the greatest thespian do with dialogue like this:

“I love my father. But he was a nobody. I’m not going to be like him.”

And:

“Fear is how I know I’m alive. Not like other people. I don’t escape life. I escape death.”

And:

“The only way to beat death is to put your life on the line. Why was I so compelled to beat death? What was I trying to escape?”

Read more


The Clothes We Carried

By Michael Kaminer

Musician Rosanne Cash reminisces about a purple shirt that once belonged to her legendary father. Designer Cynthia Rowley rhapsodizes about the Girl Scouts sash that helped ignite her entrepreneurial spark. And an octogenarian Holocaust survivor named Dorothy Finger shares memories of a suit made with a bolt of cloth she took from her childhood home — her only possession touched by her late mother.

Their stories are among 67 “sartorial memoirs” in “Worn Stories” (Princeton Architectural Press), a new book inspired by the blog where visitors share their stories about clothing and life experiences. A stark, simple image of an article of clothing — many in an advanced state of wear — accompanies each testimonial.

“Most of the garments aren’t particularly extraordinary by themselves,” says Worn Stories creator Emily Spivack. “It’s only by hearing each story that you recognize the significance. And even though the memories are all very specific, the themes they touch on are universal — family, relationships, a funny moment. They’re all moments in time from a personal and cultural perspective.”

Read more


Old Letters With New Messages

By Curt Schleier

“Shadows From My Past” is a strange amalgam of a documentary. Though it is often amateurish (it has the feel of a home movie) and dated (it includes interviews of people long dead), it is powered by its subject matter and evokes strong emotion.

Gita Weinrauch Kaufman escaped Vienna with her parents and two brothers in 1940. Luckily, the family received U.S. visas on the day they were scheduled to be deported to Dachau. Most of the rest of her relatives, including numerous uncles, aunts and cousins, did not survive. She knew them only as the titular shadows who came alive in a treasure trove of correspondence discovered among her parents’ belongings.

These letters were from desperate people describing their tenuous situations, often begging their kin for help securing visas and money for transit to anywhere but Wien. The missives were sufficiently moving that Gita and her late husband, Curt Kaufman, secured a grant from the Bruno Kreisky Foundation to create an audio-visual presentation about them, leading to an invitation to speak about the correspondence at the University of Vienna.

Gita was at first undecided about returning to the city of her birth, but ultimately did, hoping to discover if Austria had come to grips with its past, so she could come to grips with hers.

According to the production notes Gita and Curt subsequently made multiple trips to Europe.

Read more


Bergen-Belsen Scarred Alex Colville for Life

By Michael Kaminer

Image courtesy Canadian War Museum

The hazy images take up just one small corner of a massive new exhibition on revered Canadian artist Alex Colville at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto.

But his depictions of corpses at Bergen-Belsen, where a young Colville was dispatched to document World War II atrocities, hold the key to understanding the artist’s worldview and work.

“Seeing that really marked Colville for the rest of his life,” Andrew Hunter, the AGO’s curator of Canadian art, told the Forward. “More than just seeing war, what he saw at Belsen really cast a shadow over his view of the world and of what people are capable of doing.”

The experience also shaped the signatures that came to define Colville’s painting, said Hunter, who curated the exhibition. “He thought a lot about the chaos that lies under the surface of order,” Hunter said. “It sounds simple, but those who ran the camps did it in a way that was very structured. On the surface, it was all highly rational. He was conscious of how order could also lead to great evil.”

In Colville’s iconic 1967 painting “Pacific,” a shirtless man, visible from the back, stares at the ocean while a gun rests on an old sewing table in the foreground. The gun, Hunter explained, represents the possibility of chaos; the ruler built into the sewing table presents a symbol of order.

Read more


For 25 Years, 'The Simpsons' Has Been Good for the Jews

By Mark I. Pinsky

“The Simpsons” 25th anniversary marathon on cable network FXX — now airing every episode, plus the 2007 feature film — includes a surprising insight for careful observers: The award-winning cartoon sitcom is one of the Jews’ best friends.

For millions in North America and globally who have never actually met a Jew, “The Simpsons” has showcased us in a knowing, sympathetic, yet realistic way. The series has portrayed numerous important aspects of modern (and ancient) Jewish life in brilliant 23-minute bites. If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on “The Simpsons,” they — and we — would be well served.

Jews are part of the fabric of Springfield (The Simpsons’ home town), arguably a modern American version of Chelm, Yiddish folklore’s fabled village of nitwits. On the show, a Conservative synagogue (or Orthodox; it’s deliberately vague, like much in the series) has the unlikely moniker of Temple Beth Springfield. There’s a preserved-in-amber “old neighborhood,” straight out of New York’s Lower East Side (“Tannen’s Fatty Meats”), plus a Jewish “Walk of Fame,” featuring Sandy Koufax, Joan Rivers, Albert Einstein and Lorne Michaels.

Still, Springfield has lots of clueless gentiles, beginning with Protestant minister, Reverend Lovejoy, who keeps the local rabbi in a separate “non-Christian Rolodex,” and an elementary school principal who thinks Yom Kippur is a made-up holiday. No doubt in observance of the High Holy Days, the marquee of Lovejoy’s neighboring (but unneighborly) church reads: “No Synagogue Parking.” On a visit to New York, bad boy Bart Simpson mistakes three bearded rabbis for the Texas rock group ZZ Top. Homer, the family’s lovable doofus dad, is shocked to learn from his daughter that Mel Brooks is Jewish. He is so confused, he asks, in another episode, “Are we Jewish?”

Read more


Down the Mystical Rabbit Hole

By Curt Schleier

“Kabbalah Me” is a fascinating and inspiring story about a man’s spiritual journey into the complex world of Jewish mysticism. But on another level, it is also a sad and revelatory documentary about how faith and religious observance are marginalized in our society.

Steven Bram is a successful filmmaker and chief operating officer of a New York City-based company that produces sports films. His brother was on the 102nd floor of the World Trade Center on 9/11 and, though he doesn’t say it, presumably died, leaving behind a wife and children.

This is what started Bram’s soul-searching pilgrimage, his hunger for what he calls “a deeper kind of spirituality.” Both Steven and his wife, Miriam, were raised in secular households. His father came from — and rejected — what Steven calls an Orthodox background, but is apparently Hasidic.

As part of his quest, Bram travels to Brooklyn to meet his Hasidic cousins for the first time. He spends Sukkot with them. Initially, he feels like a visitor from another planet. Soon, however, he feels another emotion: “Part of me is a little jealous that they have this intense spirituality,” he says.

Bram begins regular meetings with a rabbi about Kabbalah and begins, Madonna-like, to immerse himself in it — at least superficially. Because of the pop star’s interest, Kabbalah has become something of a rage, attracting far more dilettantes than serious students.

Bram seems to fall somewhere in between. He seeks guidance from numerous rabbis, attends large religious gatherings in Madison Square Garden and Met Life Stadium in New Jersey, and even travels to Safed, Israel, in his odyssey.

Read more


David Gregory Writing Jewish Memoir

By Curt Schleier

David Gregory is writing a book about his Jewish faith, something that was presumably tested in recent weeks.

The long-time NBC newsman, who was just dumped from his job hosting “Meet the Press,” is also known in D.C. for hosting the Jewish holidays. He’s reportedly studied with a Jewish scholar.

Jonathan Karp, who heads the Simon & Schuster Publishing Group, told Politico’s Mike Allen that he met David in 2011 and the two have been working on the project ever since.

Karp said Gregory is “a natural story teller,” and the book will be published sometime next year.

“This book has always been intended as an exploration of an aspect of David’s life that viewers rarely see in his journalistic work,” he added

“[It] was never intended as a memoir about his career. That objective hasn’t changed and will not change. This book will be about the inner spiritual journey many of us take in our lives.”

Gregory may find solace in the fact that “Meet the Press” ratings decreased in its first week without him. Also, when one door closes another opens up. He will have a window this fall to speak about the political landscape and upcoming elections to a number of companies and trade associations. As a journalist, he was restricted from these lucrative possibilities by NBC.


Looking for Kabbalah at a Rangers Game

By Elyssa Goodman

“I was going through a quote-unquote midlife crisis to some extent,” says documentary filmmaker Steven Bram, whose spiritual journey is the focus of new documentary “Kabbalah Me,” which he co-directed. A series of traumatic events, among them losing his brother-in-law on 9/11 and the financial crisis of 2008-2009, caused Bram, a born-and-bred New Yorker who runs a sports film production company, to have some seemingly unanswerable existential questions. “I kept asking, is there more to life than just going through the motions?”

One day, a friend who took him to a New York Rangers game suggested seeking out a rabbi for help. “I never really thought of a rabbi as a therapist like that,” says Bram, who had lived a secular life to that point. One rabbi followed another, and today, he is actively spiritual and has a documentary to show for it. Elyssa Goodman spoke with Bram about documenting his quest for spiritual enlightenment in “Kabbalah Me,” and the role Judaism and Kabbalah now play in his life.

Elyssa Goodman: Why did you decide to make a documentary out of this experience?

Read more


YA Romance and 'Hasidsploitation'

By Mordechai Lightstone

Like No Other
By Una Lamarche
Razorbill, 352 pages, $17.99

In her new young adult novel, “Like No Other,” author Una Lamarche explores the racial and religious tensions in Crown Heights through the chance encounter of a West Indian boy and a Hasidic girl and the relationship that blossoms between the two.

When a hurricane traps Devorah Blum and Jaxon Hunte in an elevator, the two Crown Heights teenagers find themselves drawn into a forbidden romance that forces both characters to re-examine their roles and communal lives. Lamarche paints Jaxon as a book-smart nerd with a heart of gold and Devorah as strong and inquisitive. Both characters speak with young, fresh voices and try to balance their own personal dreams with the values of their families.

Sadly, the narrative fails to subvert the tropes to which it falls prey. There is little reason given for why Devorah and Jaxon fall so madly in love, and Devorah’s brother-in-law, an uptight, misogynistic and racist Hasid and member of the Shomrim community patrol, is unforgivably outlandish.

Read more


The Murder Trial Will Be Televised

By Dorri Olds

“Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart” is a documentary about the 1990 media spectacle of the first televised murder trial. Reality TV was in its infancy. Pamela Smart, 21, was accused of plotting the murder of her husband. The young men who carried out the murder got reduced sentences for serving her up as a black widow. The film explores the impact of TV on the case and on public opinion. The jury was not sequestered and it seems Smart was tried and convicted in the media.

Filmmaker Jeremiah Zagar investigated Pamela Smart’s trial and questions arose about the nature of justice, fame and storytelling. Was this trial fair? We talked to Zagar about the role the media played in the outcome of the trial.

Dorri Olds: What was it like visiting Pamela Smart in prison?

Jeremiah Zagar: Meeting her convinced me to make the film. She was different in person than any of the archival footage I’d seen. She’s incredibly smart, funny and warm, not that wooden, cold person on TV. I thought I’d make a film about this person you’ve never met before. The film became about how the camera changes people and changed her trial.

Do you mean she had stage fright?

Read more


Getting It Right: How Hollywood Does Haredi

By Miriam Moster

(JTA) — When it comes to Hasidic characters in movies, film consultant Elli Meyer believes that the real deal trumps a random actor in costume.

But that approach isn’t without its challenges.

Meyer, a New York-based Lubavitcher Hasid, recounted one occasion when he was hired to cast extras for a film but refused upon learning that shooting would take place on Yom Kippur.

“Who told you to hire Jews?” one of the producers said, according to Meyer, though ultimately the shooting was postponed.

Meyer is among a handful of Jews from haredi Orthodox backgrounds who have carved out an unusual niche in show business as occasional consultants on films and TV shows aiming to authentically depict Hasidic life.

These consultants often find themselves having to dispel misconceptions about Hasidim as they advise on language, costuming and plot, sometimes even stepping into rabbinic roles as explainers of Jewish law.

Meyer, 59, has been doing this kind of work for a decade. In 2014 alone he has acted in, consulted on or done casting work for more than half a dozen TV shows or movies.

He said he was motivated to get into the consulting business because he was appalled by the sloppiness of many depictions of Hasidic Jews.

“They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid,” he said of directors and producers in general.

Read more


POEM: 'BRUJA'

By Adeena Karasick

From “Salome Libretto”

Through the fercockte gawk-stalkin’ hack stackers
of antiquity trickery lexically-licked sticky flickering

Salomé, you are bringing in the big guns
Opening the sluice gates
with your hyper dramatic excess
Flexed with swishy riffs, pithy spiff grifters
Like a shattered chatter box schadenshow

like a discordant accordion
like manna from mayhem

you are ebullient as you blow
like a feisty
zeitgeist, a forever riviera

and i say hula lily hillbilly, billiard bombast
ho-hum hum de lilah bruja hoo-ha slap trap
of schizmatic revisionism

And take your slinky hijinx, pixie
fixity of prurient lure of twirly whirlers
a contretemp tempestuous extempora & lay me down in
an elixir mixer of lexically robust postulates
which say ce soir bette noir,
of gnarly parlors
in a coughing scoffed cacophony of
acrostic biscuits

a miscued skew of super cinder cendre
slippery ceiling singing
in the flotsam frayed refrain. stay


Lenny Abrahamson, Ireland's 'Third Most Famous Jew'

By Curt Schleier

Irish director Lenny Abrahamson concedes that his latest film, “Frank,” is eccentric. The movie is inspired by British comedian and musician Chris Sievey, who adapted the stage persona of Frank Sidebottom and toured Britain with a band.

Not well known outside the U.K., Sievey was similar to — but never quite as successful as — artists like Andy Kaufman, Pee Wee Herman and Tiny Tim, who also adopted stage guises.

“Frank” stars Michael Fassbender as the title character, Maggie Gyllenhaal as band member Clara and rising star Domhnall Gleeson as a keyboard player and wannabe composer. The band of oddballs composes esoteric music, but finds unexpected popularity via You Tube — popularity that inevitably dooms the group.

It’s not likely to be this summer’s blockbuster, though a laughing Abrahamson says, “That would be nice. Let’s not give up on it.” He quickly added, “It’s more strange when you see it on paper than when you see it in the theater.”

Abrahamson spoke to the Forward about this new film, his first film, and about being the third most famous Irish Jew ever.

Curt Schleier: “Frank” is kind of, well, a weird film. What drew you to it?

Read more


Would you like to receive updates about new stories?






















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.