The Arty Semite

'Rising Star' Is Surprisingly Short of Stars

By Rachel X. Landes

Now available to stream online: the premiere auditions of the newest reality singing competition, Rising Star, based on an Israeli reality show, HaKovkhav Haba, or “The Next Star” in Hebrew. The first episode of the American version debuted Sunday, June 22.

Now, I’ve seen my fair share of reality television shows. I watched American Idol when it premiered more than a decade ago, and more recently I’ve dabbled with the X-Factor, America’s Got Talent, and The Voice.

Basically, the premise for all these shows is the same. Sing a song, impress a judge or two, and then hopefully garner enough American viewers that the studio executives want to keep your show around.

Rising Star offers a new twist — or new twist to Americans, as it’s essentially a carbon copy of Israel’s original show — the public’s votes are counted via their smartphones. Oh, and there’s something about a two ton wall, too.

Viewers have to download the Rising Star application, and then swipe red for no and blue for yes in real time. If a singer attains at least 70% of yeses while they sing, then they move on to the next round.

Cool in theory, if not so cool in practice. Critics have noticed that some percentages seem staged to give voters on the West Coast a reason to vote. Rising Star airs live in three US time zones, but is pushed back for the West Coast. As a result, viewers in the California area can “save” contestants if they vote when they watch the show an hour later. Many contestants finished with ratings in the high 60s, and so needed West Coast votes to move on.

Celebrity judges Kesha, Brad Paisley and Ludacris counted for 7% if they swiped yes.

Like the case with many other celebrity judges, I am always skeptical in their ability to judge a person’s potential to become a ‘Rising Star.’ From what I’ve gathered from magazines and celebrity interviews, to succeed in the entertainment industry, you need talent, connections, and a whole lot of luck.

Celebrity judges might be able to make connections with contestants, but that’s just about it. On Rising Star, their advice mimics other reality-show judges and relayed the standard, “watch the pitch” and “I loved your attitude.”

As a result, if I ever watch judges’ commentary on these sort of shows, it’s for their anecdotes and jokes. On Rising Star, the judges lack the entertaining camaraderie of The Voice, and don’t have the definitive personalities of the newest season of The X-Factor. But, to be fair, it is Rising Star’s first season, so I’ll give them a little leeway to get their bearings.

As to the talent factor, frankly, most of the contestants were mediocre at best. Nobody seemed like the next Kelly Clarkson or the next Carrie Underwood. Rather, they seemed on par with Danielle Bradbury, who won The Voice two years ago, or Tate Stevens from The X-Factor. Remember them?

I didn’t think so.

One contestant chose a song that was half in Italian, which alienated her from the audience. The others were barely memorable.

Only the last contestant seemed to leave some kind of impact. Macy Kate, 17 from St. Petersburg, Florida, won the highest percentage at 93% of votes. She belted out a good cover of “Me and My Broken Heart” by Rixton.

Kate participated in a nation-wide audition via Instragram. To generate hype for the show, Rising Star, officials asked for people to submit clips showing why they are “Rising Stars.” Kate was told to come to the premiere, but just to watch.

Twenty-five minutes into the show, Kate was picked out from the audience to perform the finale.

Yet, she could have sprouted leaves for how planted she felt to the audience. After all, she seemed incredibly well composed for someone who didn’t know they would be on national television five minutes. Plus, she preformed phenomenally for someone who had maybe an hour to prepare.

I don’t deny that she’s got talent; I do call out the producers for staging the thing.

Overall, my opinion of Rising Star does not match the optimistic title. If you want funny banter from the judges, look to The Voice and if you want more, say, colorful acts, you’re better off with America’s Got Talent.

You can catch up on “Rising Star” at http://abc.go.com/shows/rising-star

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: television, the voice, rising star, reality, israel, jewish, america's got talent

Cracow Crescendo

By Martyna Starosta

“We sing in Yiddish, we sing in Hebrew and sometimes we sing in Polish,” explains Zofia Radzikowska who joined the JCC choir in Cracow when it first opened two years ago.

At the beginning it was uncertain whether the choir would be able to attract enough members. Today the multigenerational ensemble is a lively proof of the small but vibrant local Jewish community.

Each singer has a slightly different reason to sing in this group: Some want to learn more about their Jewish roots whereas others recognize something in Jewish culture that was inextricably linked to Polish culture.

A big sign at the entrance of the local JCC trumpets: “Building A Jewish Future in Cracow.” That seems like a pretty bold undertaking if one considers the bigger historical picture of complicated Jewish-Polish relationships.

But choir member Paulina Skotnicka says the JCC is able to create a “non-judgmental place where nobody is maligned based on his or her background.” This welcoming approach inspires a lot of optimism.

Skotnicka sounds both down to earth and realistic when she says the choir is doing its small part to revive Jewish culture that was all but wiped out in the Holocaust.

“We can’t actually recover what is lost,” she says. “But we can certainly build something new.”

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Only Jews Could Shock Berlin Like This

By Martyna Starosta

Remember New York in the 80’s? Than you can imagine what certain parts of Berlin look like today. Here you can still see entire neighborhoods serving as battlegrounds for graffiti writers and street artists.

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Fracking and the Jews

By Doni Bloomfield

Josh Kuchinsky
Oil Boom: Gregory Zuckerman, author of ‘The Frackers,’ explores the history of fracking, the Jewish players in the industry and how Israel and the United States are shifting away from oil dependency.

Gregory Zuckerman, Wall Street Journal reporter and author of “The Greatest Trade Ever: The Behind-the-Scenes Story of How John Paulson Defied Wall Street and Made Financial History,” has just finished a new book. “The Frackers: The Outrageous Inside Story of the New Billionaire Wildcatters,” tells the story of the oilmen who led the charge in the recent American revolution in natural gas and oil extraction.

Since 2010, partly due to fracking, US oil production has increased, pushing America to surpass Saudi Arabia and Russia as the world’s largest energy producer. This eruption in extraction has U.S. dependence on foreign oil at a 20-year low and declining.

Former Forward intern Doni Bloomfield, who served as a research assistant on the book, spoke to Zuckerman about the surprising role Jews played in the surge, and what decreasing American reliance on Middle Eastern fuels may mean for Israel and beyond.

Doni Bloomfield: As someone who is not an energy reporter, what pushed you into this story?

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Why Philip Roth Is 'Too Jewish' for Nobel

By William Kolbrener (Haaretz)

farrar, straus and giroux

When the Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded, I knew that Philip Roth had not won.

A colleague condescended: “I never liked Roth,” a put-down to me, a Miltonist and teacher of Renaissance literature, who really doesn’t know better. A couple of decades ago, someone would have mentioned the more elegant, supposedly more disciplined and intellectual – and Nobel Prize-winning - Saul Bellow.

Roth, as the story goes, is Bellow’s vulgar counter-part, obsessed, with his body, and when he’s long enough distracted from that, the bodies of women. Woody Allen was a spermatozoa in Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex, and Roth – with a nod to Kafka – becomes a 155 pound “breast.” He’s the modern example of the celebratory, sometimes self-despising , Jew, and the Swedish judges, one can speculate, just find him uncouth.

Roth began his career masturbating in Portnoy’s Complaint. And then there is the persistent obsession of what he calls himself in Operation Shylock that “pervasive, engulfing, wearying topic…the Jews.” For the Nobel committee in Stockholm, Roth is undoubtedly not only too vulgar, but too vulgarly Jewish.

But saying that Roth is too Jewish is like saying the Leopold Bloom of James Joyce’s Ulysses is too Irish, or the London depicted in Eliot’s The Waste Land too English. Roth may not be Joyce or Eliot, but if the latter began to question our ideas of narrative and identity, Roth is their natural inheritor, and it’s not only in the boutique part of the college catalogue called “American Jewish Literature.”

For more go to Haaretz

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A 'God Bless America' Timeline

By Eileen Reynolds

From its creation in 1918 to its unofficial adoption as anthem for the fallen of 9/11, “God Bless America” has had quite a history. Here are some of the highlights.

August 19, 1918 Cut from the finale of “Yip, Yip, Yaphank,” which opened at New York’s Century Theatre.

November 10, 1938 Radio premiere, on “The Kate Smith Hour.”

February 1939 Sheet music published amid a battle between Berlin and Smith over performance rights to the song.

June 1940 God Bless America Fund established by Berlin to distribute the song’s royalties to the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of America.

January–October 1941 Banned from the airwaves, along with all songs licensed by the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, of which Berlin was a founding member. (Broadcasters believe that royalties paid to ASCAP composers were too high.)

February 5, 1941 Performed by Eleanor Roosevelt and 1,200 striking Leviton Manufacturing Co. workers at a union rally in Brooklyn.

1943 Film debut, in “This Is the Army,” in a scene featuring Ronald Reagan playing Johnny Jones and Kate Smith playing herself.

May-June 1963 Performed by Young African-American students at school segregation protests in Jackson, Miss., and Baton Rouge, La.

March 16, 1974 Sung and played on the piano by Richard Nixon at the opening of the new Grand Ole Opry House, in Nashville, Tenn.

January 22, 1982 Sung by anti-abortion marchers at “Right to Life Day” in Buffalo, N.Y.

June 17, 1986 Kate Smith died. The New York Times ran a correction a few days after publishing an initial obituary that claimed Smith had “introduced a new song written expressly for her by Irving Berlin.”

September 22, 1989 Irving Berlin died at 101.

1998 Served as the soundtrack to a propaganda video by the neo-Nazi group Aryan Nations.

September 21, 2001 Performed by Celine Dion in “America: A Tribute to Heroes,” a TV benefit concert for 9/11 victims.

November 5, 2008 Used as Oprah Winfrey’s entrance song for her TV special the day after Obama was elected president. (She yelled “Whoooooooo!” over the music.)

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All About 5 Jewish Drag Queens

By Elyssa Goodman

There is no shortage of Jewish contributions to the arts, even in the world of drag. Drag dates back to the days of Shakespeare, if not before, when women were not allowed to perform onstage and men would appear on their behalf in drag, or “dressed as girl.”

The Kinsey Sicks

Today, of course, women perform onstage and beyond. But drag queens have stayed.

The latest Jewish contribution to the drag world is Jinkx Monsoon — the Seattle-based “narcoleptic Jewish drag queen” who recently won “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” And Jinkx isn’t the only one.

Take a look at this list of other prominent drag queens who prefer kosher lipstick:

Virginia Ham

In Harvey Fierstein’s three plays that make up the legendary Torch Song Trilogy, Virginia Ham is the stage name of Jewish drag queen and main character Arnold Beckoff. Originally played by Fierstein himself, the series of plays follow Beckoff’s life in 1970s New York and offered one of the first theatrical insights into gay life at the time. First produced in 1978 off-Broadway at the now iconic La MaMa Theatre in New York, the play moved to Broadway in 1982. Fierstein consequently won the 1983 Tony Award for Best Play and Best Actor in a Play. In 1988, Torch Song Trilogy became a film, also written for the screen by Fierstein.

The Kinsey Sicks

The Kinsey Sicks, so named for biologist Alfred Kinsey’s designation of level six (homosexual) on his famed Sexuality Rating Scale, is billed as “America’s Favorite Dragapella Beautyshop Quartet.” The comedic acapella group was founded by Irwin Keller and Ben Schatz, two former lawyers who were actively involved in the gay rights movement and in fighting the AIDS crisis.

The Kinsey Sicks are made up of four members who perform in drag: Winnie (Keller), Rachel (Schatz), Trixie (Jeff Manabat), and Trampolina (Spencer Brown). Keller and Schatz play their roles with a comedic Jewish flair (Winnie is said to be releasing a Passover cookbook shortly, delightfully entitled “I Can’t Believe it’s Not Chometz!”). The Kinsey Sicks have performed internationally and been recognized by high-profile nominations with the Drama Desk and Lucille Lortel awards, as well as their famed extended run at the Las Vegas Hilton.

Rebbetzin Hadassah Gross

Rebbetzin Hadassah Gross

The creation of Israeli-born, Jewish educator Amichai Lau-Lavie, the Rebbetzin Hadassah Gross is an elderly Jewish Orthodox widow to six husbands, an expert who teaches traditional Jewish rituals and traditions, “a personal soul-trainer to the ultra-orthodox elite (and elitists from all faiths and backgrounds).” Lau-Lavie designed the Rebbetzin to broaden the scope of the way Judaism was taught, to make it more modern and engaging.

Lau-Lavie has performed as the Rebbetzin, “the first lady of Judeo-Kitsch,” internationally.

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Liz or Dick: Who Was More Jewish?

By Benjamin Ivry

Uni-France

Who was more Jewish — Elizabeth Taylor or Richard Burton? This question was the basis for squabbles between the married Hollywood superstars, according to Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger’s “Furious Love: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and the Marriage of the Century.” Taylor was a celebrated convert to Judaism, but Burton was proud of having a Jewish maternal grandfather in his native Wales. Burton further argued that the Welsh are the “Jews of Britain,” referring to ethnic stereotyping directed against his fellow Welshmen. By contrast, he told his wife, “You’re not Jewish at all. If there’s any Jew in this family, it’s me!”

Further evidence of Burton’s sympathy for Yiddishkeit is to be found in the newly published “Richard Burton Diaries.” (Yale University Press) Burton’s entry for June 6, 1967 reads that a friend had advised him that “war had broken out between Israel and Egypt and other Arab idiots.” On June 12, Burton noted with some hyperbole and underlinings, “The Israeli war is over. The Israelis completely destroyed the forces against them in 3 days with what seems a mopping-up action of two days… That clever idiot Nasser resigned and then ‘at the behest of his people’ returned to office 16 hours later.”

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The Top 10 Jewish Literary Scandals

By Seth Berkman

The controversial works of authors Maurice Herzog and Binjamin Wilkomirski are not the only cases of Jewish writers or subjects that have faced scrutiny for allegedly embellished projects. From inflated Holocaust tales to fake autobiographies, Jewish authors and subjects have been at the center of some of the most heated literary debates.

Earlier this year, Jonah Lehrer used previously published work for posts on The New Yorker website. Months later, an article by Tablet revealed that Lehrer had fabricated quotes by Bob Dylan for his book “Imagine.” Further examples of hoaxes involving Jewish writers include the following:

getty images
Jonah Lehrer

Stephen Glass concocted both quotes and sources in the mid-1990s as a journalist at The New Republic. “Shattered Glass,” a film that recounts the affair, was released in 2003. Earlier that year, Glass published “The Fabulist,” a fictionalized account of his own scandal.

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Joe Kubert, Comic Book Legend, Dies at 85

By Rafael Medoff

Iconic comic book artist and writer Joe Kubert spent most of his life drawing brawny super heroes, lionhearted jungle men and rampaging dinosaurs. But at age 75, Kubert began a journey back to his roots that led him to illustrate Warsaw Ghetto fighters, Holocaust survivors, and ethical mini-lessons for the Chabad-Lubavitch hasidic movement. Kubert, who passed away August 12 in New Jersey at age 85, left behind an enormous fan base in the comic book world as well as a growing audience of admirers in the Jewish community.

Courtesy of the Israeli Cartoon Museum

“I’ve known and interviewed many older comic book artists, and I usually find that their abilities diminish after a certain age,” noted comics historian and publisher Craig Yoe. “But the amazing thing about Joe was that in his 70s and 80s he was at the top of his game, still constantly and passionately drawing new comics and graphic novels of the highest caliber.”

Kubert’s most recent phase was his immersion in his Jewish roots. While keeping up a heavy schedule of comic book illustration he began making time for a number of Jewish projects. He helped design “Cartoonists Against the Holocaust” for the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, a traveling exhibit of 1940s political cartoons from American newspapers about the Jews in Nazi Europe, and served as a judge in a student cartooning contest. For the Lubavitch magazine “Moshiach Times” he drew a series of two-page adventures with moral lessons called “The Adventures of Yaakov and Isaac.” He also wrote and illustrated “Jew Gangster,” a graphic novel about the Jewish underworld figures of yesteryear.

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David Rakoff and the Voice of God

By Jason Diamond

Getty Images
David Rakoff

I can think of three popular ideas about what God actually looks like: the bearded man wearing a white robe who sits on a cloud deciding when to make earthquakes and who sometimes shows up in a burning bush; George Burns in “Oh God!” and, long before he actually played God in “Bruce Almighty,” many of us believed that when we left this mortal coil it would indeed be the voice of Morgan Freeman welcoming us to the afterlife. But I’m of the very tiny minority that believes that when God speaks, he sounds just like David Rakoff did.

Rakoff, who passed away last night at the age of 47 after a battle with cancer, had a distinctly clever voice in his writing and his speech. He was the sort of writer who didn’t need to try and be funny; instead, it came out in his essays like quick flashes of color — albeit dark colors, since his humor could be described as “black.” He didn’t dwell on how witty or intelligent he was, he just kept producing works that proved he had these qualities in spades.

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Reality and Dreams: Michael Feinstein and Dame Edna Together at Last

By Benjamin Ivry

Getty Images

The Ohio-born Jewish entertainer Michael Feinstein opened on Broadway on March 18 in a musical review, “All About Me,” co-starring the Australian comedian Barry Humphries (better known as Dame Edna Everage). As Feinstein explains in his 1995 memoir, “Nice Work If You Can Get It: My Life in Rhythm and Rhyme” (Hyperion), he has devoted his life to preserving and celebrating works by Tin Pan Alley composers, a great many of whom were Jewish. Feinstein’s reedy voice may be wispy, but his piano playing is charmingly fluent, when not overelaborate, in songs famous, forgotten and almost lost to posterity.

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