Well Versed

The Jewish Questions Meets The Shostakovich Question

My colleague George Robinson wrote an insightful piece on the upcoming "Babi Yar" symphony being performed by the New York Philharmonic this weekend.  I've never heard the symphony in full, but I look forward to hearing it this Thursday night.

The Agony and Ecstasy of Jewish Book Awards

After Howard Jacobson won Britain's premier literary award, the Man Booker Prize, last year, for his very Jewish novel, "The Finkler Question," I celebrated with a heavy heart.  On the one hand, it was thrilling to see such a thickly-themed Jewish book--and an extremely good one--win Britain's highest award, especially at a time when even liberals are getting a little anxious about how much casual anti-semitism passes in polite company these days. 

Notes from the Grave: Saul Bellow's Unpublished Jewish Lecture

“Saul Bellow: Letters” had plenty of un-read Jewish material in it when it appeared last year. But apparently it didn’t have the astounding lecture “A Jewish Writer in America,” published for the first time in the New York Review of Books this week.

Maurice Sendak: On Jews, Death, and "The Bulls--t of Innocence"

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the author of the classic, sepulchral children’s book “Where the Wild Things Are” has something of a potty-mouth.  But still it feels like one.  Maurice Sendak, the 83-year-old author of “Wild Things, as well as a new children’s book, “Bumble-Ardy,” his umpteenth, gave what is to my mind one of the best interviews I’ve read in a long time. Anywhere.

"Who Shall Live and Who Shall Die" -- And Who Wrote the Greatest Prayer Ever?

Most people look forward to the "Kol Nidre" prayer as the high point of the High Holy Days.  Not me.  I'm an "Unetanah Tokef" fan, the central prayer of the Rosh Hashanah service.  You probably know it -- it's the one with lines like "Who shall live and who shall die," "Who shall perish by water and who by fire / Who by sword and who by wild beast." (I'll past the whole thing at the end of this blog.) But few people pause to consider its origins or its real meaning.  To be honest, I haven't ruminated on those things

Humanism: Or, What's Missing From Orthodox Judaism

When you hear the word "humanism" today, you probably think it's coming from some secular leftist.  But you'd be wrong, or at least, you should be wrong: Orthodox Judaism once had a healthy humanistic vein that Jews would do well to remember.  That is the argument put forward by Rabbi Shai Held in a provocative article last month.

Lars von Trier: Artist and Anti-Semite, Another Look

Lars von Trier is back in the news again, and for the same reason: his idiotic comments about Hitler.  This week GQ published a lengthy profile of von Trier, the revered art-house filmmaker, who was thrown out of Cannes earlier this year. The reason was for his interview at a press conference, in which, in attempt to be ironic, coy, flip and provocative, he said: "What can I say? I understand Hitler, he did some wrong things, but I sympathize with him."

T.S. Eliot: The Poet and Anti-Semite, A New Look

Yale University Press recently published the letters of T.S. Eliot, who, many argue, was the most influential poet of the last century.  The problem for us Jews, as ever, is that Eliot was an incorrigible anti-semite.  So what do we do?

Are Rabbis Giving Up on Israel? A Provocative New Study

The Conservative movement recently conducted a survey of hundreds of its rabbis and the results are in: on the whole, they're as committed to Israel as they've ever been, although younger rabbis have more liberal views about the state than they've used to.  The purpose behind this survey is clear: to assure anxious Jewish leaders that, contra the skeptics, Israel remains as vital a part of Jewish life as ever.

Rabbis and Rubble: Talmudic Responses to Sept. 11

Like most of you, I've been overwhelmed with 9/11 coverage the last few days.  But I couldn't resist posting this sharp review of a recent book of Orthodox rabbinical responses to the tragedy.  Based on the reviews, it gives a revealing look at how Orthodox Jews, from haredim to Modern's, have addressed both the deeper theological meanings of the attacks, as well as practical halakhic concerns.

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