The Arty Semite

I.B. Singer and the Problem of Surviving

By Karen Loew

Herman Broder is a gangly loser who’s won the biggest prize of all: his life. After surviving the Nazi onslaught in Poland by hiding in a haystack, he emigrates to America — specifically, Coney Island — with the gentile Polish woman who hid him, and who is now his wife. This is the setting of “Enemies: A Love Story,” a play performed for four nights last week by the Gesher Theater Company at the Frederick P. Rose Theater in New York.

This adaptation of a novel by Isaac Bashevis Singer (published serially in the Forverts in 1966) unfolds as Herman reels from one agitation to another. It seems his one noble act — protecting his savior, who endangered her own life by saving his — is all he’s got. Now he is hurled between his wife Yadwiga and his mistress Masha on bumpy inter-borough subway rides that, amid the atmospherics of striking lighting and set design, comprise some of the play’s most affecting moments. That’s when actor Israel Demidov embodies the more sympathetic side of his anti-hero. Otherwise, he is an indecisive liar. (And beds ladies with his tie on, twice.)

Herman is by turns perplexed, lusty and suicidal. Then his wife Tamara shows up. He thought she was killed in the Holocaust along with their two children. But she reappears in New York, and although they are unnerved by meeting again, it seems there is no great love to rekindle. As the realization that he has two wives and a mistress sinks in for Herman — and eventually for all three of them — he reels ever more out of control, pinging between his home life with a now-pregnant wife so devoted to Herman that she wants to convert; the Bronx apartment where his demanding mistress, another Jewish survivor, lives with her elderly mother; and conversations with his undead wife, who transmits an odd mix of reproach and caring.

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Yiddish, Theater, Karen Loew, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Gesher Theatre, Enemies A Love Story

Can Despotism Be Good for Art?

By Curt Schleier

In 1991,Yevgeny Arye, a prominent Moscow stage director as well as a member of the Russian Academy, decided to emigrate to Israel. When they heard his plans, about a dozen of his Jewish students decided to accompany him.

They called themselves “Gesher” — Hebrew for “bridge” — and arrived in the midst of the Gulf War. Now the Gesher Theatre is on the road again. To help celebrate Israel’s 65th birthday, the company is coming to New York to perform “Enemies: A Love Story,” a theatrical adaptation of the novel by Isaac Bashevis Singer. It will performed June 6 to 9 at Lincoln Center’s Frederick P. Rose Hall.

The group’s director general, Lena Kreindlin, spoke by telephone from Jaffa with The Arty Semite about the problems of adjusting (and rehearsing with gas masks on), Jewish life in Russia, and how a little despotism may be a good thing for art.

Curt Schleier: It must have been difficult making the transition from Russia to Israel.

Lena Kreindlin: Everything was a problem. First of all, we didn’t speak the language of this country. Second, we didn’t know anybody. Third, we didn’t have a house or anything. We didn’t have money. We didn’t have friends. And we didn’t have a vision for our lives. But we were stubborn and two weeks after we came we put on gas masks (when the air raid siren sounded) and continued rehearsals of our first show, “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern [Are Dead]” by Tom Stoppard.

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Yevgeny Arye, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Theater, Lena Kreindlin, Interviews, Gesher Theatre, Curt Schleier, Enemies a Love Story

Where Diamonds Are A Londoner's Best Friend

By Benjamin Ivry

What 47th street is to New Yorkers, Hatton Garden, a street and area in the district of Holborn, has long been for Londoners a place to buy and sell jewelery. “Diamond Street: The Hidden World of Hatton Garden,” an anecdotally discursive, impressionistic history, was published by Hamish Hamilton. Its author, artist and writer Rachel Lichtenstein, was born in 1969 to a family of Polish Jewish origin. Lichtenstein is the daughter and granddaughter of jewelers, and her husband Adam currently manages the family shop. These close ties make for an unusually empathetic narrative, which might be expected from her previous books likewise inspired by London’s Jewish East End, “On Brick Lane”, also from Hamish Hamilton, and from Granta, “Rodinsky’s Room,” an homage to David Rodinsky, an ill-fated Jewish scholar.

“Diamond Street” cites generic similarities among jewelry districts worldwide, and indeed Hatton Garden welcomes Jews from “Israel, Iran, America, Holland, Britain, and many other countries,” notes Lichtenstein; she observes of the 1944 novel “Diamonds” by Esther Kreitman – the sister of Isaac Bashevis Singer — about gem merchant jewelers in Antwerp: “Kreitman could have been describing a scene today, such is the timeless quality of the Jewish diamond trade.” Yet since the Middle Ages, Hatton Garden has also boasted specifically British attributes as a jewelry center, as Lichtenstein underlines by citing Charles Dickens, who was familiar with the neighborhood. In Dickens’ novel “Bleak House”, one character describes Hatton Garden as a “poor neighbourhood, where they uses up the kettles till they’re past mending.”

Lichtenstein pauses with loving attention at such landmarks as a private synagogue designed by the 19th century British Jewish architect David Mocatta for Sir Moses Montefiore, which she describes as a “now derelict Grade II listed building” with an “abandoned exterior” that still somehow boasts a “pristine and grand” interior. More humble landmarks have now vanished, such as “Mrs. Cohen’s Kosher Café,” once a local meeting place, as has a sense of patient craftsmanship and mutual trust within a tight-knit community. As a transcriber of enthused and warm-hearted interviews, Lichtenstein strikes a tone somewhere between the Victorian Henry Mayhew and 20th century Manhattan’s unsurpassed characterful reporter Joseph Mitchell. In one telling moment, Lichtenstein removes her own wedding ring to examine a tiny craftsman’s mark made by its goldsmith, before recounting the latter gentleman’s wistfully monomaniacal life, entirely dedicated to workmanship rather than profit or self-seeking. Thanks in part to Lichtenstein, there’s life in the old area yet.

See Rachel Lichtenstein hosting a literary evening in London here

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'Shlemiel the First' Just as Good the Second Time

By Gwen Orel

Courtesy of Bruce Cohen Group LTD

Is there room for a klezmer musical on Broadway? I think so. The band for “Shlemiel the First,” led by the Folksbiene National Yiddish Theatre’s Zalmen Mlotek, is so good that during the exit music a sizeable portion of the audience drifted down toward the pit instead of up to the exits. Costumed as an Old Country klezmer band, they even march onstage sometimes, but it’s at intermission and afterward that they really wail. And that is terrific stuff, particularly Dmitri “Zisl” Slepovitch’s clarinet, Yaeko Miranda Elmaleh’s violin and Mlotek’s keyboard. Hoo boy, good.

When the show travels — and it should, if tweaked a bit — the creators should put in more places for the band to strut their stuff. The show by Robert Brustein, with lyrics by Arnold Weinsten and music by Hankus Netsky, is intact from the version we reviewed in Montclair in 2010 (read that review here, and our interview with Brustein and Mlotek, which highlights the Yiddish theater sources, here).

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Yiddish Theater, Yiddish, Shlemiel the First, Theater, Robert Brustein, Musical Theater, Klezmer, Gwen Orel, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Folksbiene

Generations of Tradition, and Rare Books

By Katherine Clarke

From Ten copper plate etchings by Ira Moskowitz (1912-1985) for Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “Satan In Goray.”Courtesy of Cantor Bob Scherr at the Jewish Religious Center

An exhibition of rare Jewish books, now on display at the Jewish Religious Center at Williams College, Massachusetts, marks the center’s 20th anniversary. Alumnus and Jewish art collector Sigmund R. Balka loaned the books — part of his own personal Judaica collection — to the center as a means of honoring its contribution to his alma mater and passing his love of Jewish heritage on to the next generation.

Balka had a different experience from the current Jewish students at Williams: “When I began at Williams there was no Jewish center. In fact, there were very few Jewish students and certainly no place they could worship. There was compulsory chapel,” Balka, who graduated in 1956, told the Forward.

The passing of multiple new administrations since Balka’s college years has rendered the college more accepting and multi-faith, he says. Balka feels an emotional connection to the Jewish center as a symbol for Jewish students and a focal point for religious and cultural activity; “It was moving,” he remembers, “to be at the initiation of the Jewish center 20 years ago, when the prior history of the college, which was not empathetic to Jewish students, was frankly spoken about. Jewish students were able, for the first time, to have a home on campus, to be part of the student body instead of outsiders.”

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Ze'ev Raban, Williams College, Saul Raskin, Sigmund R. Balka, Satan in Goray, Robert Voltz, Katherine Clarke, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Ira Moskowitz, Exhibits, Chapin Library

This Week in Forward Arts and Culture

By Ezra Glinter

Yuri Dojc
  • Leigh Kamping-Carder tells the story of the Mexican Suitcase, a collection of photographs from the Spanish Civil War by Robert Capa, Gerda Taro and David Seymour that got lost in Mexico for almost 70 years.

  • Ilan Stavans wonders why we can’t escape from Harry Houdini.

  • Shoshana Olidort reviews Avi Steinberg’s “Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian.”

  • Marla Brown Fogelman reviews “The Jews of San Nicandro,” a book about a remote Italian town whose 80-odd inhabitants all converted to Judaism after World War II.

  • Philologos is on the make.

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Rodger Kamenetz, San Nicandro, Spanish Civil War, The Magician of Lublin, This Week in Forward Arts and Culture, Robert Capa, Richard Dreyfuss, Michael Feinstein, National Museum of American Jewish History, Mexican Suitcase, Isaia Sheffer, Harry Houdini, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Gerda Taro, Ezra Glinter, David Seymour, Avi Steinberg, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Yuri Dojc

Café Culture in Weimar Berlin

By Benjamin Ivry

www.zlb.de
The terrace at the Romanisches Café, circa 1925.

In the 1920s, Yiddish was more than just a lingua franca for East European Jewish émigrés; it was also a language of high culture, as demonstrated by a brilliant new book, “Yiddish in Weimar Berlin: At the Crossroads of Diaspora Politics and Culture” (Legenda Books), edited by New York University Yiddish scholar Gennady Estraikh and University of Michigan professor Mikhail Krutikov.

“Yiddish in Weimar Berlin” describes street scenes in the ironically named “Jewish Switzerland,” a slum northeast of Alexanderplatz, which housed arrivals from Poland. Though poverty-stricken, the area boasted theatrical performances by the touring Vilna Troupe, while Yiddish writers clustered at the Romanisches Café, nicknamed the Rakhmonisches (Pity) Café by its regulars to evoke its “poor food and run-down interior.”

Catty jokes as well as sardonic puns were rampant among the writers at the café; Isaac Bashevis Singer once reportedly claimed that if Sholem Asch ever “wrote in a grammatically correct Yiddish, his artistic breath would evaporate.” Hersh Dovid Nomberg, a tubercular Yiddish author and disciple of I. L. Peretz, said that the Romanisches Café was an ideal sanatorium, since the air was so “filled with tobacco smoke that not a single [tuberculosis] bacillus can survive here.”

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Weimar Republic, Vilna Troupe, Sholem Asch, Romanisches Café, Legenda Books, Mikhail Krutikov, Moyshe Kulbak, Jacob Lestschinsky, Isaac Bashevis Singer, I. L. Peretz, Hersh Dovid Nomberg, Gennady Estraikh, Berlin, Alfred Döblin. Johannes Pohl, Abraham Cahan, Yiddish, Yiddish Literature




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