Arts & Culture

Remembering Israel’s James Joyce

By Menachem D. Rotstein

With the August 21 passing of Yizhar Smilansky, Israeli literature lost a voice of moral conscience and modern Hebrew lost one of its most gifted virtuosos. (He wrote under the name S. Yizhar, as he was and is universally known in common parlance as Samekh Yizhar.) Dubbed the James Joyce of Hebrew literature, Smilansky — who received numerous literary awards, including the prestigious Israel Prize — died one month shy of his 90th birthday.Read More

Climbing the Family Tree

By Mark Oppenheimer

Although he had begun teaching himself ancient Greek when he was 10, Daniel Mendelsohn was not interested in the Hebrew he had to memorize for his bar mitzvah in 1973, nor in the Jewish faith that the Hebrew conveyed. It was the reception after the bar mitzvah ceremony that changed his life: “For as I was passed from relative to relative to be kissed and slapped on the back and congratulated, the confused mass of unknown and similar-looking faces bothered me, and I began to wonder how it was I came to be related to all those people, to the Idas and Trudys and Juliuses and Sylvias and Hildas, to the names Sobel and Rechtschaffen and Feit and Stark and Birnbaum and Hench.” Young Daniel became the gardener of the family tree, learning and tending to its roots and branches, interviewing relatives and keeping notes on index cards, and later with genealogy software. He always had an especially keen interest in his maternal grandfather’s brother Shmiel and in Shmiel’s family, the ones that, Mendelsohn knew, had been killed by the Nazis. In 1980, after his grandfather’s death, Mendelsohn and his mother found letters from Shmiel to his brother, the grandfather. The letters’ heartbreaking quality, with their desperate, futile pleas for help to get to America, enhanced Mendelsohn’s curiosity about the fate of Shmiel’s family.Read More

Tevye, Today and Beyond

By Alisa Solomon

Earlier this year, an unidentified video clip made its virtual way around the world. The recording — which soon turned up on the Web site YouTube — shows professional actors in Tokyo rehearsing “Shikitari,” or “Tradition,” the opening number in “Fiddler on the Roof.” The clip typically arrived in my email inbox accompanied by a terse comment of amusement: LOL — Internet shorthand for “laughing out loud.” What was so hilarious? Nobody said, but the answer was implied: How funny to see Japanese people as shtetl Jews, circling around in Jerome Robbins’s famous choreography in their tzitzit and babushkas.Read More

Hip Hop as Conflict Resolution

By Alexander Gelfand

If the only rap you’ve heard is of the gangsta variety, and the only MCs you recognize are those whose mug shots you’ve seen on television, you’re not likely to think of hip hop as a vehicle for conflict resolution. But think again. Because thanks to one intrepid, peace-loving DJ, the world is about to get its first hip-hop sulha.Read More

One Rapper Who Can't Seem To Blend In

By Rachel Breitman

Yitzchak Jordan can’t seem to blend in. In the Baltimore Baptist church he occasionally attended as a child, his passion for Judaism was an oddity. Now a convert to Judaism, the African American rapper known as Y-Love feels at home in the Hasidic community of Brooklyn’s Flatbush area, but his dark skin and leftwing politics keep him outside the mainstream.Read More

Kafka in the Countryside

By David Kaufmann

In the summer of 1917, Franz Kafka suffered the first symptoms of tuberculosis. Paradoxically enough, the onset of the disease liberated him. It freed him from his agonized and agonizing engagement to Felice Bauer, from the oppressiveness of his job, from the anxieties of life in Prague. It freed him to write.Read More

How ‘Fiddler’ Became Folklore

By Alisa Solomon

Last February, I attended the Bet Shira Congregation in Miami during the synagogue’s official celebration of Tu B’Shvat, or the New Year for Trees. Festivities for this particular Jewish holiday usually involve the planting of trees, a discussion about the environment or some other similarly agriculturally themed event. But at Bet Shira, synagogue president Ron Rosengarten put on an old vest and a short-brimmed cap. Rabbi Micah Caplan pasted a long gray beard to his chin. And congregant Martin Applebaum donned a puffy-sleeved peasant shirt and stuffed his pants cuffs into the top of his socks. Applebaum also brought 20 rubber chickens to distribute among the audience so they could throw them into the air on the appropriate cue. This was no tree planting. It was a singalong to “Fiddler on the Roof.”Read More

Happy Is as Happy Does

By Darrin McMahon

Amid the otherwise maudlin confessions of her 1994 best-seller, “Prozac Nation: Young and Depressed in America” (also published by Houghton Mifflin), Elizabeth Wurtzel stumbled on a happy insight: Tolstoy’s famous first line from “Anna Karenina” — “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” — is a crock. “He’s got it totally wrong,” Wurtzel observed, “completely ass-backward. Happiness is infinite in its variety, and happy people, happy families, can find their joy in so many different ways.”Read More

A Century Later, A Jewish Pioneer Gets His Due

By Glenn C. Altschuler

Moses Levy has waited more than100 years for his biographer. Levy died in 1854, virtually unnoticed. Pilgrimage, his utopian colony in Florida and the first Jewish communitarian settlement in the United States, was long gone and forgotten. His anti-slavery pamphlet, “A Plan for the Abolition of Slavery, Consistently With the Interest of All Parties Concerned,” the earliest anti-slavery document written by an American Jew, was published anonymously and had disappeared without a trace. And Levy’s pro-slavery son, whom he disinherited, dismissed his father as impractical, irascible and insane. The son would later become the first person of Jewish descent to serve in the United States Congress, but not before changing his name to David Yulee.Read More

A Different Kind of Kosher

By Rebecca Reich

In the opening pages of her new book, “Soviet and Kosher: Jewish Popular Culture in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939,” Anna Shternshis introduces us to Sara F., an elderly Soviet Jewish émigré living in Brooklyn. Born in the Ukraine around 1917, Sara loves Yiddish songs and Yiddish theater, trembles at the thought that her 25-year-old American grandson might marry a gentile and judges all current events according to the question, “Is it good or bad for the Jews?” At the same time, she celebrates Soviet holidays rather than Jewish ones, considers a religious education “fanatical” and insists that, contrary to the religious taboo on pig, making pork “kosher” is actually quite simple: All it takes is a cook with a “Jewish soul.”Read More

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