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.
A French-language tome by a hard-line Quebec separatist doesn’t seem like a typical candidate for a Canadian Jewish Book Award. But in June, Denis Vaugeois’s “Les Premiers Juifs d’Amérique” won the 2012 prize for history, crowning what the Montreal Gazette called the historian’s ”55-year quest” to rescue the story of Quebec’s pioneering Hart family ”from the dustbin of history.”
Now, Montreal publisher Baraka has released an English-language translation, “The First Jews of North America.” An exhaustive illustrated history of Quebec’s pioneering Hart family, the book has generated praise and some controversy; Vaugeois himself gained notoriety as the sovereignty hardliner who quit politics in 1985 “to protest the party’s decision to put independence on the back burner,” as the Gazette wrote. The Arty Semite caught up with Vaugeois in Montreal by email. His publisher translated responses from the French.
Michael Kaminer: In the course of researching your book, what surprised you the most about the Harts, or about Quebec at that time?
For “Home on Native Land,” a beautifully presented show of provocative new work by Indigenous and Aboriginal artists at Toronto’s Bell Lightbox cultural center, curator Steven Loft channeled his Mohawk heritage. But the exhibit’s dominant themes — home, roots, historical injustice — might also speak to Loft’s Jewish identity. Aboriginal on his father’s side, Loft is the son of a Jewish mother whose parents escaped Germany before the Holocaust. By day, Loft is a Trudeau National Visiting Fellow at Ryerson University in Toronto, where he researches Indigenous art and aesthetics; until 2009, he was the Curator-In-Residence of Indigenous Art at the National Gallery of Canada, in Ottawa. He talked to The Arty Semite about the intersections of Jewish and Aboriginal culture, First Nations art and how his parents met.
Michael Kaminer: First of all, can you talk about your background? Even in New York, we don’t often meet Mohawk Jews.
Steven Loft: My mom was a bit of a rebel, and was a bit of a handful for my grandparents. At 16, she met a dashing young man at a local dance. His name was Howard Loft, and he was a Mohawk, living in Hamilton [Ontario], but originally from the nearby Six Nations Reserve. I was born the following year.
Did each side of your family accept the other? Did the Jews embrace the Mohawk, and vice-versa?
Unless you live in Toronto, it’s difficult to grasp the cultural, commercial, and Jewish significance of Honest Ed’s. Opened in 1948 by Ed Mirvish — the American-born son of Lithuanian immigrants — the 160,000-square-foot discount emporium has become a kind of landmark for its casino-like exterior, mind-numbing array of goods, and retail showmanship epitomized by trademark signs touting irrationally low prices.
For mid-20th-century Jewish immigrants who lived nearby, Honest Ed’s was a kind of beacon, melting pot and shopping destination rolled into one; for Asian, African, Caribbean, and other newcomers now, its role hasn’t changed. With that in mind, the Koffler Centre of the Arts — a Jewish arts institution whose mission is “to bring people together through arts and culture to create a more civil and global society” — invited six Canadian artists to mine Honest Ed’s history and identity through “interventions” throughout the store.
“Summer Special,” which opened this week, isn’t an explicitly Jewish show; in fact, only one of the artists, Sarah Lazarovic, is Jewish herself. “We like the fact that sometimes our exhibitions are about implicit or inferred Jewish content and we like our viewers to try to decipher and determine it for themselves,” said Lori Starr, the Koffler’s executive director and the vice president for culture at the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto. The exhibit is the 13th in the Koffler’s series of off-site exhibitions, which has inserted sometimes-provocative art in venues as diverse as a condemned building, disused photo-processing hut, and an old synagogue. (Full disclosure: the Koffler presented my Forward-sponsored show, “Graphic Details: Confessional Comics by Jewish Women,” at the Gladstone Hotel gallery in 2011.)
“THE STATE OF ISRAEL IS UNDER ATTACK,” blares the headline in May’s Rue Morgue magazine. But the threat’s not coming from the usual suspects. This time, it’s zombies, serial killers and apocalyptic plagues that have the country on high alert. And it’s happening on the big screen.
Israeli horror is finally coming into its own as a genre, according to the popular Canadian journal of “horror in culture and entertainment.” After decades without “a single, proper Hebrew horror film,” no fewer than five Israeli horror movies have splattered across screens recently, with many more on the way.
The catalyst was 2011’s “Rabies,” which Rue Morgue calls a seminal moment — “the release of [Israel’s] first real horror film.” Until “Rabies,” the magazine notes, most of Israel’s cinematic output consisted of dramas dealing with political or social issues, or portraying dysfunctional families.
Nearly a half-century after making his first film — the Hasidic-inspired “Goldstein” — director Philip Kaufman is having a moment. MoMA recently hosted a weeklong retrospective of his work, from brainy pop (“The Right Stuff”) to high art (“The Unbearable Lightness of Being”). Film scholar Annette Insdorf just published “Philip Kaufman” (University of Illinois Press), the first complete study of the filmmaker’s oeuvre. And his first production for HBO, the biopic “Hemingway & Gellhorn,” will premiere May 28.
While Kaufman may not enjoy brand-name status with the movie-going public, he’s an icon among Hollywood literati for thoughtful adaptations of impossible-to-translate works, like 2000’s “Quills,” his Oscar-nominated portrayal of the Marquis de Sade. “Philip was astonishingly generous and included me in the making of the movie; for me, it was a master-class in the art of film direction,” Doug Wright, the playwright and screenwriter behind “Quills,” told the Forward in an email. While in New York to promote “Hemingway & Gellhorn,” Kaufman corresponded by email with The Arty Semite about Martin Buber, San Francisco and the hidden afikomen of his dreams.
Michael Kaminer: There’s a bright spotlight on you, 48 years after your first film. Why now?
Philip Kaufman: You tell me. I try to resist the “overview,” and to leave that to others. I just want to make films, live the life of making films, to dream constantly of films. Thinking about the consequences — reviews, box-office, retrospectives, etc. — wakes me from the dream, like waking from a nightmare. Maybe a better alternative answer: Why not? Another answer: I love Annette Insdorf.
Since moving to Manhattan to launch his performing career 17 years ago, composer, playwright and actor Taylor Mac has graced stages from Sydney to Spoleto to San Francisco. But the Obie Award-winning artist has never been invited to perform uptown — until now. On May 24, at The JCC in Manhattan, Mac will premiere “Sleep Fast! We Need the Pillow!” an exploration of Jewish popular music and “tenement songs” from 1900 to 1910. It’s one slice of Mac’s insanely ambitious “A 24-hour History of Popular Music,” in which he plans to sing 300 songs from different eras for 24 consecutive hours sometime next year. The Arty Semite caught up with the bearded Mac — who’s been known to appear bewigged, painted blue, dressed as a giant flower, or all of the above — in the coffee bar of Manhattan’s Classic Stage Company, where he was performing as Puck in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” The Downtown doyen carried a copy of “Songs of Generations: New Pearls of Yiddish Song” under his arm.
Michael Kaminer: Can you explain the title of your JCC performance, “Sleep Fast! We Need the Pillow”?
Taylor Mac: It’s about the Lower East Side tenements. What interested me was that this was the first time I was being asked in 17 years to perform uptown. I perform all over the world. But in New York City, I feel very stuck in my ghetto, very segregated. My ghetto just happens to be the East Village and Lower East Side, where Jews all used to live in tenements. It’s ironic and beautiful that the first time I’m being asked to go outside my neighborhood is by a community that used to live in my neighborhood.
What distinguishes the work of Jewish songwriters in the period you’re covering?
Daniel Okrent has a punch line ready when he’s asked how he discovered “Old Jews Telling Jokes,” the Web-video-series-turned-book that became a viral sensation in 2009. “I became an old Jew,” said the esteemed historian, inventor of the fantasy game Rotisserie League Baseball and first public editor of The New York Times.
Now, Okrent can add “playwright” to his résumé. With co-creator Peter Gethers, the 64-year-old writer has broadened the site’s premise into a full-blown off-Broadway production — and won backing from the heavyweight producers of shows like “Company,” “A Little Night Music” and “Sweeney Todd.” The stage version of “Old Jews Telling Jokes” opens May 20 at Manhattan’s Westside Theatre. After casting was completed, The Arty Semite caught up with Okrent at his Manhattan home.
Michael Kaminer: You were the first public editor of The New York Times, and your most recent book, “Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition,” is an acclaimed history of Prohibition. “Old Jews Telling Jokes” sounds like a bit of a departure.
By choosing Philip Kaufman (“Quills,” “Henry and June”) as the subject of her latest book, Columbia University Film School professor Annette Insdorf hasn’t just given his films an extreme close-up. With “Philip Kaufman” (University of Illinois Press), the first book-length study of the impossible-to-categorize director, Insdorf has also nominated Kaufman to the pantheon of cinema greats like Francois Truffaut and Krzysztof Kieslowski — the subjects of her other acclaimed studies. Insdorf spoke to The Arty Semite about Kaufman’s versatility, quixotic characters, and what makes him a world-class director. Kaufman’s latest film, “Hemingway & Gellhorn,” premieres on HBO May 28.
What drew you to Philip Kaufman as a subject?
Annette Insdorf: I’ve been appreciating his films for over 20 years, always surprised and disappointed at the lack of sustained, serious study of his superb work. When I showed his movies to my Columbia students — especially “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” and “The Right Stuff” — their enthusiastic respect confirmed my sense that Kaufman’s films deserve more attention. The problem has been a lack of recognizability; because he is so versatile and is drawn to different kinds of material, even cinephiles don’t realize that the same person directed films as disparate as “The White Dawn,” “The Wanderers,” “Henry and June” and “Rising Sun.”
Kaufman is the grandson of Jewish immigrants from Germany and Poland. Is there anything you’d characterize as a Jewish sensibility to his work?
“Circumcision has been least challenging part.”
“God chose. Said no. Now what?
“Sunday night? Yes, lobster is kosher.”
Millions of words, over thousands of years, have been written about the nature of the Jewish soul. But the most precise distillation of our people’s essence may have finally arrived in fewer characters than a tweet.
“Six Words on the Jewish Life,” a book to be published this week by the online magazine Smith, collects 360 nano-essays on “the wild, weird and wonderfully complex world of Judaism today,” according to editor Larry Smith, founder of the online “home for storytelling” that bears his name. The book is the latest in a series of popular six-word-memoir collections from Smith, including slim volumes on work, love and adolescence, and the first in which Smith tackles the faith of his fathers. (Full disclosure: My own six words, “Lapsed, cultural, and now professional Jew,” appear in the book.)
“I did a Jewish book first because I’m Jewish, and you go with what you know,” said the boisterous Smith, 43, over lunch near his office in Manhattan’s Union Square neighborhood. “But we’re also a people who love to discuss. And I thought the book would be an amazing catalyst for discussion. The book is 360 different ways of looking at Judaism. It’s a perspective that’s at once super-universal, but quite singular.”
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