On the heels of its pioneering Holocaust-themed “motion comics,” Washington D.C.’s David Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies is launching a major initiative enlisting comics luminaries to educate Americans about the Shoah and other genocides.
Comics Creators for Holocaust Education is bringing together artists, writers and editors from the worlds of comic books, animation, and science fiction, according to its fundraising material. And the response — from towering figures like Stan Lee, Joe Quesada, Harlan Ellison, and Art Spiegelman — has been “overwhelmingly positive and enthusiastic,” said Rafael Medoff, the Wyman Institute’s director.
The initiative will let the Wyman Institute expand its program of creating Holocaust-themed cartoons for print and online media, which have included work by Spiegelman in The Washington Post and Sal Amendola in The New Republic; artists will also explore new ways to disseminate cartoons across platforms. And Medoff plans to use Comics Creators for Holocaust Education as a platform to reach a much broader audience.
“Now that we’ve created an initial body of work — including editorial comic strips for major newspapers and the ‘They Spoke Out’ DVD with Disney — we’re going to be introducing these materials to the comics world, to teachers, and to the general public,” he said. “We’re holding workshops and panel discussions at major comic conventions, such as the recent San Diego Comic Con, which 150,000 people attended, and the upcoming New York Comic Con, which will have over 100,000. At the same time, we’re actively networking with teachers around the country to have these materials used in classrooms. And we’ll be communicating to the public as well, in the same way that the daily editorial cartoons in major newspapers use cartoon art as a vehicle for commenting on serious issues.”
The latest collaboration between Holocaust educator Rafael Medoff and comics giant Neal Adams is their most moving — literally.
“They Spoke Out: American Voices of Protest Against the Holocaust” uses “motion comics” — panels with scrolling text, voiceovers, and archival newsreel footage — to tell the stories of Americans “who raised their voices, marched in protest, or even helped smuggle Jewish refugees out of Hitler’s Europe.”
Medoff, the founding director of David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies in Washington, D.C., has written extensively on the American response to the Holocaust. He and Adams, the legendary illustrator whose portfolio includes Batman and X-Men books, teamed on an acclaimed 2009 comic about Dina Babbitt, a Warner Brothers animator and Holocaust survivor.
Educational-video giant Disney Educational Products is distributing “They Spoke Out” as a DVD series; episodes are viewable online at TheySpokeOut.com.
The Arty Semite caught up with Medoff by email from Washington, D.C., where the Wyman Institute is based.
Michael Kaminer: After “Maus,” comics by Holocaust survivors like Miriam Katin, and other graphic work that deals with the subject, what are you hoping to bring to the table with this body of work?
A song he composed 17 years ago has come back to bite a Toronto jeweler — but in a good way.
Sam Rosenbaum made pop history this weekend when his ditty “Why Did You Leave Me Now” made the soundtrack rotation on Sunday night’s episode of True Blood.
Rosenbaum, 61, told the Toronto Star that lyrics for “Why Did You Leave Me Now” came to him after a dream about his father, who had died seven years earlier. “The words came, the melody came, I couldn’t even explain it,” he claimed. “It was a song that expressed a loss.” The tune played this weekend over the closing credits of season six, episode nine, called “Life Matters.”
A onetime music manager, Rosenbaum recorded the song with Liz Rodrigues, one of his artists, on vocals. The song was promptly forgotten; when his entertainment business faltered, Rosenbaum made a career switch, becoming a jewelry salesman.
But last month, “out of nowhere,” “True Blood” musical director Gary Calamar called to request rights to the song. “At first, I didn’t believe it,” Rosenbaum told the Star. “But I Googled him and found out he was the Real McCoy. He was a Grammy nominee.” Rosenbaum called it “a gift from my father… Divine intervention. How else can something like this happen?”
But Calamar’s explanation was a bit more down to earth. “The title, “Why Did You Leave Me Now?” got the attention of the producers, as each episode title of “True Blood” is named after a song that appears in the episode,” he told the Star. “We came across it on an iTunes search, and we thought it worked perfectly in the scene.”
A plump, cherubic bar-mitzvah boy beams from the cover the new memoir “Oy Vey! I’m Glad I’m Gay!” (Intracoastal Media). That’s Barry Losinsky, the book’s author, a retired Maryland school psychologist and one of many unsung pioneers in a generation of gay men who came out when it still felt dangerous.
Born to Russian-immigrant parents, Losinsky grappled with his sexual identity — and weight issues — as the Vietnam war raged and race riots roared through Baltimore; with raw humor and disarming candor, the book details Losinsky’s journey from awkward fat kid to sexually confident, happily partnered activist. The Arty Semite caught up with him by email in suburban Baltimore, where he lives with his partner George.
Michael Kaminer: We’re talking just a few weeks after the DOMA ruling. Did you ever think you’d see something like it in your lifetime?
Barry Losinsky: I never in my wildest dreams ever thought that gay and lesbian individuals would be allowed to marry in my lifetime. My major concern, and that of my life partner of 46 years, had been the inheritance tax when one of us was no longer around. We’ve worked hard over the years for what we’ve got, and the inheritance tax in our state is the 10%. That’s a lot of money. So years ago, he legally adopted me as his son to avoid that 10%. It’s been a marvelous conversation piece.
A memorial to Austrian poet Josef Weinheber (1892-1945) stands in Vienna’s First District, the city’s business and historic core. While it honors his literary contribution to his homeland, there’s no mention of his Nazi past – or pro-Hitler works. But that may soon change.
A team of Vienna-based artists launched an “intervention” June 28 aimed at “recontextualization and artistic reconfiguration” of the monument, according to Eduard Freudmann, an instructor at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts and one of the instigators.
“Weinheber wrote very explicit Nazi propaganda poems,” Freudmann told The Arty Semite by email. “We aim at sparking a debate about how to proceed with the contextualization and artistic reconfiguration of a Nazi monument. And we are prompting the City Secretary for Culture to launch the official procedure for an artistic reconfiguration.”
The “intervention” will mark the first public demand for changes to the monument and its accompanying text, Freudmann said. “Weinheber is a very polarizing figure in Austria, and many people are extremely apologetic about him and his Nazi activities,” said Freudmann, who is spearheading the “intervention” with Vienna artists Chris Gangl and Tatiana Kai-Browne. “We expect a large public discussion by austrian artists, writers, intellectuals to follow our intervention.”
Michael Kaminer: Why are Austrians more forgiving about Weinheber than other Nazi figures?
Eduard Freudmann: Austria has a long history of overlooking Nazi biographies. In the 1980s we even elected a former Nazi stormtrooper as our president, Kurt Waldheim. Nowadays Nazi crimes are not considered minor offenses anymore. The international pressure on Austria, specifically from the U.S. and from Israel, contributed to that change. However, cultural figures seem to be a protected species and Weinheber is one of them. Apologists across the political spectrum advocate for a strict separation of the art work from its author.
A Star of David carved into the chest of a murdered journalist signals this is no ordinary crime. Which means Jonah Geller, the world-weary private investigator hired by the victim’s family in “Miss Montreal,” is the right man for the job.
A Jewish atheist as tough as he’s sharp, Geller is the creation of Howard Shrier, a Montreal-born, Toronto-based writer who shares more than a little of Jonah’s DNA. After forays to Chicago and Boston, the third Jonah Geller mystery takes the investigator to Montreal, where a childhood friend has been brutally slain. The city’s French/English and Arab/Jewish tensions take center stage in the book, which beautifully evokes Montreal’s complex cultural textures — and nails the city through deeply etched characters and locations.
Shrier, who now teaches writing at University of Toronto, spoke to The Arty Semite from his home.
Michael Kaminer: What does a Jewish private investigator bring to the genre that, say, a Presbyterian PI wouldn’t?
Howard Shrier: Were I Presbyterian, I’d be writing books from that point of view. Were I Irish Catholic, like Dennis Lehane or Ken Bruen, I might have made my PI a tortured drinker. But my world view, my voice — Jonah’s voice — are what I have to offer. I don’t think a non-Jewish hero would have a voice like his, and I doubt a non-Jewish writer could create a consistent Jewish hero like him.
It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s… Beta-Sigma-Rho Man?
The recent discovery of a 75-year-old pencil sketch by Superman creator Joe Shuster hints that Man of Steel’s origins have roots in a Toronto fraternity.
The Ontario Jewish Archives in Toronto recently released an image of the circa-1937 drawing, which depicts a familiar caped figure with a “BSR” logo emblazoned across his chest in place of the more recognizable “S.”
“This superhero is not saving the citizens of the fictitious Metropolis from evildoers,” the OJA said in a tongue-in-cheek press release. “Rather, he is a mascot for the University of Toronto’s Beta Sigma Rho fraternity.”
While Joe Shuster wasn’t a member of the frat, whose Toronto chapter launched in 1930, his first cousin Frank, a University of Toronto student, did belong. Joe Shuster would leave Cleveland often to visit his Toronto cousin; the two would spend days watching movies in downtown theaters. Frank Shuster would go on to form the legendary Canadian comedy duo Wayne & Shuster with Johnny Wayne.
On the back flap of his new book, Victor Navasky is portrayed in a kinetic caricature by the illustrious Edward Sorel. It’s one clue about Navasky’s deep connection to political cartoons explored in “The Art of Controversy,” a personal history as well as learned survey of the form.
The former editor and publisher of The Nation, Navasky first published political cartoons as editor of Monocle, a “radical sporadical” satirical journal he founded in the late 1950s. More recently, he engaged with the infamous “Muhammad” cartoons that sparked rioting across the Muslim world, choosing not to run them in this very book, a decision he explains at length. With lucid, funny takes on artists from William Hogarth to Ralph Steadman to Doug Marlette — and an entire chapter on Der Sturmer, the Nazi propaganda magazine whose vicious cartoons demonized Jews — Navasky brings the art form’s power to life. The Arty Semite spoke to him from Manhattan.
Michael Kaminer: What is it about cartoons that spark such emotional reactions?
Sorel Etrog’s sculptures adorn Toronto street corners. He designed the Genie, Canada’s equivalent of an Academy Award. He collaborated with giants of 20th-century culture, from Samuel Beckett to Eugene Ionesco to Marshall McLuhan.
Still, the 79-year-old artist has never won the attention or acclaim of his contemporaries. But a beautifully presented, carefully curated survey at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto makes a case for changing that. With sculptures, paintings, graphic projects, and even a rarely seen film, Sorel Etrog presents the artist as a boundary-breaking thinker and a blazing intellectual foil for his marquee-name collaborators.
“Etrog’s career took off in Toronto, and he found support here, but he never had a breakthrough moment in an art-world center like New York or London,” said AGO curator Greg Humeniuk, who organized the multimedia exhibit – the first comprehensive look at Etrog’s work in a half-century. “And in the 1960s, with pop and minimalism beginning to hold sway, some of Etrog’s work looked not quite ‘with it’.”
But Etrog “is a one-man school, a one-man genre,” Humeniuk said. “As a sculptor, painter, draughtsman, filmmaker, and writer, he’s one of the most multifaceted artists of his generation.” Today, Humeniuk notes, collectors are buying Etrog’s work “avidly,” and younger artists “are looking toward his work as a strong part of the lineage of modern sculpture.”
Only in New York could a troupe of Jewish and Dominican kids team up with a Broadway legend on a musical production about a Latin dictator’s rescue of Jews during the Holocaust.
But it’s a true story. And a new documentary called “Sosua: Make a Better World” chronicles the collaboration of 20 prickly teens in Washington Heights with stage giant Elizabeth Swados on a play about the unlikeliest of subjects: The 1938 rescue of 800 German Jews by Dominican strongman Rafael Leonidas Trujillo. Sosua was the Dominican town where the refugees eventually settled.
For Sosua co-director Renee Silverman, the film’s setup mirrors real-life challenges in Washington Heights, the uptown neighborhood where the kids live and where she herself settled in 2008. “I live on Bennett Avenue, which is 60% Jewish and 40% gentrified,” she told The Arty Semite. “On the other side of Broadway lives the largest population of Dominicans outside the Dominican Republic. And we rarely interact.”
But by the end of the film — with self-evident symbolism — the kids are singing in unison. “It’s a tremendous story,” she said. The Forward caught up with Silverman in Manhattan, where she works as a freelance producer for the German television network ARD.
Michael Kaminer: The film draws out the contradiction between Rafael Trujillo’s rescue of Jews and the murder of thousands of Haitians under his rule. Did most of the kids you worked with consider him a hero or a villain?
Long Island bands Soft White Underbelly and Travesty didn’t make much of an impact. But when they reformed as Blue Öyster Cult in 1971, the group grew into a global juggernaut, with earworm hits like “Don’t Fear the Reaper,” “Burning for You” and “Godzilla.”
The band was also immortalized in an endlessly viral Saturday Night Live sketch in which Christopher Walken, as a leather-jacketed producer, demands “more cowbell” during the “Don’t Fear the Reaper” recording session. As if to prove BÖC’s staying power, countless websites still flog “More Cowbell” t-shirts.
Now, more than 40 years after the band’s debut album, founding frontman Eric Bloom is about to take BÖC on its first tour of Australia as part of a circuit of live gigs promoting a 16-CD “Complete Columbia Albums Collection” boxed set released in January.
Though Queens-born Bloom is the only Jewish member of “the thinking man’s rock band” (as critics have called BÖC), other Jews helped engineer the band’s success, including songwriter Richard Meltzer and producer Sandy Pearlman. As he prepared to perform Down Under, Bloom spoke to The Arty Semite by email from Florida. “It’s a cliché, but I’m a snowbird,” he joked.
Michael Kaminer: Jeffry Hyman became Joey Ramone. Chaim Witz became Gene Simmons. Did Eric Bloom, Richard Meltzer, and Sandy Pearlman ever get pressured to change their names?
A talk at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival on April 14 will recall Jewish movie greats — like Sulochana, Pramila, and Nadira.
They were towering stars of Bollywood, the century-old Mumbai-centered film industry that still cranks out 800 films a year, more than double the output of the U.S. And Danny Ben-Moshe, a research fellow at Deakin University in Australia, has spent six years piecing together their fascinating and largely forgotten stories for “Shalom Bollywood,” a documentary set for release later this year. The film “tells of the 2,000-year-old Indian Jewish community and its formative place in the Indian film industry,” according to its web site.
Peppering his presentation with rare film clips, Ben-Moshe will “tell the tale of how I stumbled on the story, how it unfolded, and the trials and tribulations of trying to make [the film].” He corresponded by email with The Arty Semite before boarding a plane for Toronto.
Michael Kaminer: How did you get into this subject, and what compelled you to make a movie about it?
Danny Ben-Moshe: An Indian student of mine gave me an obituary of Nadira, the last of the great Jewish Bollywood actors to pass away. I knew there were Indian Jews but had no idea there was such a prominent Jewish on screen star. I went to India to do some research to see if there was enough material to make a film about Nadira but I found out she was the tip of the iceberg.
Miriam Katin appears naked in one panel of “Letting It Go,” her new graphic memoir about coming to terms with her past as a Holocaust survivor. But the rest of this novel-length confessional comic is even more revealing.
Her first full-length work since 2006’s award-winning Holocaust memoir “We Are On Our Own,” “Letting It Go” chronicles Katin’s emotionally charged visit to Berlin after her son and his girlfriend relocate there. Katin’s fury over the move mellows to resignation, and finally acceptance, though her emotions surrounding her own history remain ambiguous. The book spares no one, least of all Katin, who unflinchingly depicts her self-doubt, angst, and bodily functions. Her cartooning style is masterful, maintaining classical elements while subverting genre conventions into a singular work that’s fluid, vibrant, and potent. It’s also hilariously funny.
Katin’s work is part of the exhibit “Graphic Details: Confessional Comics by Jewish Women,” which I co-curated and which the Forward is sponsoring. The traveling exhibit will open at the Jewish Museum of Florida in Miami Beach in October. Katin spoke to The Arty Semite from her home in New York.
Michael Kaminer: “We Are On Our Own” was published in 2006. Why so long between books?
How busy is Hannah Moscovitch? A mini-festival of her plays, including two world premieres, opened February 20 at Toronto’s prestigious Tarragon Theatre. She’s juggling commissions for theater, television and opera, along with film work like an adaptation of Alison Pick’s Holocaust-themed novel “Far to Go.” And she holds down a day job writing a popular TV cop show.
At 34, Moscovitch has also become Canada’s “most produced young playwright,” according to a Tarragon press release. The child of a Jewish father and an English-Irish Catholic mother, Moscovitch has made Jewish history, memory and experience a central part of her work. The plays she debuted last week include “Other People’s Children,” about a child’s relationship with her nanny, and “Little One,” a “stylish lullaby-nightmare thriller” about a pair of adopted siblings. The Arty Semite spoke to Moscovitch from her Toronto home early on a recent Sunday morning — the only time her schedule permitted.
Michael Kaminer: When you’re not preparing for a festival of your plays, what would you normally be doing on a snowy Sunday morning at 9 a.m.?
Who is Narcissister?
It’s a simple question that’s impossible to answer, especially since the acclaimed 41-year-old performance artist never discloses her real name. In character, she obscures her identity further by performing in wigs and masks — and by covering herself in armor-like plastic body parts.
Trained at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Narcissister warps traditional dance, art, theater, fashion and identity politics into a funny-scary persona that confronts audiences with extreme images, like pulling Russian matryoshka dolls out of her private parts.
But there’s a fierce intelligence and thoughtful agenda behind Narcissister’s work. The Huffington Post described the Downtown star as “part Cindy Sherman, part Pinocchio”; The New York Times characterized her practice, admiringly, as “avant-porn.” Narcisisster’s first solo show, “Narcissister Is You,” is currently running at Envoy Enterprises gallery on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. She spoke to The Arty Semite by email from Los Angeles, where she was rehearsing for a series of appearances.
Michael Kaminer: The New York Times used the word “weirdness” to describe your work. But you’re very matter-of-fact about your practice. Do audiences and media receive your performances in the way you intend?
A wacky, coincidence-laden plot. Super-saturated colors. Over-the-top, emotion-drenched songs. And even Spanish superstar Carmen Maura.
“Let My People Go!” opening January 11, has everything a Pedro Almodovar picture should have. Except Almodovar.
Instead, it’s helmed by 29-year-old French filmmaker Mikael Buch, here directing his first full-length feature. Buch transports Almodovar-esque high drama and low comedy to Paris — and, probably for financing, Finland — to tell the story of a dysfunctional Jewish family’s nearly shipwrecked Seder one overly eventful Passover.
The journey, unfortunately, isn’t worth the schmaltzy payoff, which feels predictable from the film’s opening frames.
In a bucolic Finnish village, where fussy French transplant Ruben (Nicolas Maury) and beefy blond boyfriend Teemu (Jarkko Niemi) share a cozy cottage, the couple is starting what seems like another workday.
They don’t look related. But iconic movie monsters like the Mummy, The Wolf Man, Dracula, and Frankenstein’s creature share parentage. Carl Laemmle, a Hungarian-Jewish immigrant, founded what became Universal Studios in 1912; under the aegis of his son, Carl Jr., the studio went on to introduce the most memorable monsters in moviedom. Another Jewish refugee, Curt Siodmak, wrote screenplays for Universal creature features including “The Wolf Man,” “I Walked With a Zombie,” and “The Beast With Five Fingers.” To celebrate the studio’s centennial, horror-culture bible Rue Morgue dedicated a special issue to Universal Studios and its founders. The Arty Semite caught up with Dave Alexander, Rue Morgue’s Toronto-based editor-in-chief, about the Laemmles’s legacy, the Jewish DNA of Universal’s monsters, and why so many Jews seem to make their bloody mark on the horror genre.
Michael Kaminer: Do you think the Laemlles’s identity as Jewish refugees played a part in their creation of so many iconic monsters? Did the monsters represent something bigger?
Dave Alexander: That’s a bit of a tough question, because it’s not always known for sure how much the producers had a hand in shaping the screenwriters’ story. What we do know is that Carl Laemmle wasn’t interested in the horror genre, but Carl Laemmle Jr. loved it and was the driving force behind the Universal monster cycle.
The Black Star Collection’s journey to Toronto hasn’t quite been as dramatic as the flight of its Jewish creator, Ernest Mayer, from the Nazis. But its recent landing at Ryerson University — which acquired nearly 300,000 Black Star images with the help of an anonymous donor — caps a colorful history.
Ryerson will unveil the collection, and a $70-million “Image Centre” purpose-built to house it, at a grand opening September 29. The collection is “the single largest gift of cultural property ever made to a Canadian university,” according to a Ryerson press release. Ryerson — which launched Canada’s first graduate program in Photographic Preservation and Collections Management — wouldn’t identify the donor, but did note “no Jewish connection” to the gift.
It’s hard to picture in an age of smartphones and Pinterest, but Black Star looms large in the history of 20th-century journalism — and of the century itself. Its photographers included Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, Britain’s Bill Brandt and Germaine Krull, a pioneering female lenser. Black Star photo essays documented century-defining events from World War II to the Vietnam War to the Civil Rights movement, and iconic news-portrait subjects ranged from Marilyn Monroe to Muhammad Ali to Marc Chagall to Fidel Castro.
Real estate investor Joy Tomchin never imagined her name on a movie marquee. But a phone call from a stranger changed that. David France, a journalist and author, had found Tomchin through mutual friends; would she consider producing his film? “I said, ‘Who is this guy? He’s just asking for money,’” she told the Forward. “But we met, and he was so smart he blew me away.”
Their documentary, “How to Survive a Plague,” opens in more than 30 cities nationwide this month. It uses archival footage and new interviews to tell the story of activists who confronted the government and medical establishment during the darkest days of the AIDS crisis. It’s a devastating, infuriating, and inspiring piece of work. Tomchin talked to The Arty Semite from her home in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood.
Michael Kaminer: This is your first experience as a producer. What surprised you about getting a movie made?
Joy Tomchin: I didn’t expect it to take three-and-a-half years. I didn’t expect to get so emotionally involved. And I didn’t expect to have such good times. David and I are now talking about making another movie. I’m not a creative person, but I can raise some money and get some people excited about it.
“How to Survive a Plague” is a story of survival amidst enormous tragedy. Do you see any parallels to the Jewish experience?
In a “grizzled, laconic drawl,” wrote Gregory Cowles in The New York Times, Gregg Allman’s recently published autobiography, “My Cross to Bear,” provides a “rambling backstage account of five decades with the Allman Brothers Band.” But it’s Allman’s Jewish co-author, Alan Light, who translated the rock legend’s rough-hewn tall tales of excess into “crisply ironed” prose. A music journalist since high school, Light, 46, was founding editor of Vibe magazine, served a stint as editor of Spin, and has written acclaimed books on the Beastie Boys, hip-hop history and Tupac Shakur. A go-to pop-music correspondent for outlets like The New York Times and Rolling Stone, Light is also director of programming for the PBS concert series “Live from the Artists Den.” He lives on the Upper East Side with his wife, Suzanne MacElfresh, and their nine-year-old son Adam. The Arty semite caught up with him in New York City.
Michael Kaminer: Your immersion in hip-hop doesn’t make you seem like a natural fit for a book by Gregg Allman. How did the gig come about?
Alan Light: When I was at Rolling Stone, before I went to work on the Vibe launch, I wrote the Ice-T cover story, but I also wrote cover stories about Neil Young and U2. As I’ve grown older, and felt like a lot of hip-hop really is directed at a younger audience, I’ve found myself feeling more comfortable writing about older artists — and also, that there’s often more chance to write about them, because the staffers at places like The New York Times and Rolling Stone are more eager to write about the hot new thing.