Sharif Import Takes Boy on Trip to Islam

"I was filming ‘Funny Girl’ with Barbra Streisand in 1967, when the Six-Day War broke out, and the Arab press called me a traitor for kissing a Jewish woman," actor Omar Sharif reminisced.

"When I told Barbra about it," Sharif added, "she said, ‘You should see the letter my aunt wrote about kissing an Arab man.’"

Sharif was in town to promote "Monsieur Ibrahim," the latest of his more than 70 movies and a different kind of relationship — between an elderly Muslim and an abandoned Jewish boy.

Sharif’s title character is the owner of a small food market on a seedy Paris street, where Orthodox Jews do their best to ignore the parade of prostitutes and their customers.

In a small apartment above the street lives 16-year-old Moise (Moses), nicknamed Momo, portrayed by Pierre Boulanger. Abandoned by his mother, Momo lives with his morose father, cooks his meals and drives him crazy with ear-splitting rock music on a transistor radio.

Momo also does the shopping for the truncated family at Ibrahim’s market and rationalizes his petty thievery there because it’s all right to steal from an Arab.

Ibrahim is actually not an Arab, but a Turkish Muslim, who imparts philosophical musings from his personalized interpretation of the Quran to the boy.

Momo is nominally Jewish, but he links the faith of his ancestors mainly to his father’s depression, and little else.

When the father walks out on the boy to find a job, Momo’s only friend, outside the hookers whom he has started to patronize, is Ibrahim.

Eventually, Ibrahim adopts Momo and together they embark in a sporty convertible on a long trip to Ibrahim’s small village in Turkey. At the end, an older and wiser Momo inherits the little market in Paris, still known to local residents as "the Arab store."

Despite moving performances by Sharif and Boulanger, and director Francois Dupeyron’s description of the picture as "a hymn to tolerance, a cry for hope," the French film suffers from an excess of sentimentality and of Ibrahim’s pearls of wisdom, uttered even on his deathbed.

Jewish viewers may also feel uneasy by the contrast between Ibrahim’s strong Muslim faith, though tolerant and philosophical rather than ritualistic, and the utter meaninglessness of the boy’s Judaism.

Sharif seemed taken aback by the last observation.

"The only objections I heard from French Jews was that no Jewish mother would ever abandon her child," he said.

At 71, Sharif is grayer and more pensive than when he broke women’s hearts from Cairo to Los Angeles, but he is still a handsome and well-built presence.

Already a star in his native Egypt, he came to Hollywood in 1962, and during the following six years won international fame in the three movies for which he is best remembered. He played an Arab desert warrior in "Lawrence of Arabia," the title role of "Dr. Zhivago" and a Jewish gambler in "Funny Girl."

In Hollywood, his two main activities were filmmaking and gambling, and in both circles he socialized almost entirely with Jews. The long association has rubbed off, and when asked what his son was doing, Sharif replied matter-of-factly, "He is in the shmatte business."

Born a Catholic but later converting to Islam, Sharif is widely read and has followed the Arab-Israeli conflict with great interest and sorrow.

He still considers Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s 1977 peace mission to Israel as "the greatest moment in television history, greater than man stepping on the moon."

Sharif met then-Gen. Ariel Sharon in Cairo in the late ’70s, who urged the actor to visit his many fans in Israel, but Sharif does not plan to take up the invitation until there is "a glimmer of peace."

His views on an Israeli-Palestinian settlement parallel those of such dovish Israelis as Yossi Beilin, but Sharif holds out little hope for its realization.

"I see no hope for peace in my lifetime or my son’s lifetime," he said. "Maybe my grandchildren will see it."

He is proud of "Monsieur Ibrahim," following a long string of second-rate movies after retiring to Paris. He thinks that but for the constant Israel-Palestinian headline friction, the Muslim-Jewish relationship would constitute only a minor aspect of the film.

If viewers take anything away from the movie, he hopes it will be the lesson that "we can live together and can love each other." He expects that the message will resonate in Israel, where local distributors purchased the film at the highest price they ever paid for a French import.

"Monsieur Ibrahim" opens Dec. 5 at Laemmle’s Sunset 5 theaters in West Hollywood.

Kerry’s Heritage

Seven years ago, then U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright discovered that more than a dozen of her relatives had perished in the Nazi concentration camps because they, like Albright, were born Jewish.

Albright’s discovery raised an even larger question: How many other American leaders have actually been of Jewish descent, but because of records and memories eroded by time, they never knew it?

In the case of Massachusetts senator and Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry — thought by many to be a Boston Brahmin — the answer to the question is a convoluted one. It follows a path from a small Czech village near the Polish border to a long-forgotten suicide in a posh Boston hotel. It is the story of a young man who abandoned his Jewish faith, his nation and his name to pursue the American dream.

The Village

In 1873, in the Czech hamlet Bennisch, there were not enough Jews to form a synagogue. But anti-Semitism and pogroms were still a fact of life, and it was into this world on May 10 that year that Fritz Kohn was born.

The son of Benedikt and Mathilde Kohn, he became a simple brewer. He married a Jew named Ida Lowe but grew dissatisfied with his place in Moravian society.

Most of the population were Catholic and spoke German. Jews often found themselves the victims of discrimination, and many posed as non-Jews under pressure to assimilate.

“It was easier to do business as a Christian,” said Prague genealogist Julius Miller. “But many Jews just stopped being Jewish during this period and had no belief at all.”

On March 17, 1902, Kohn took his wife and infant son, Erich, to a government office in Vienna, changed his family name to Kerry and renamed himself Frederick. On May 4, 1905, the family traveled to Genoa, Italy, and boarded a ship bound for the United States.

The steamer was configured to carry nearly 2,000 passengers in steerage. However, the Kerrys did not make the typical immigrant crossing. Instead, they traveled in first class, with only 29 other passengers who had names like Hale, Walker and Bridgeman.

The ship’s records suggest that Kohn was already actively obscuring his roots. Ellis Island records note that he identified his family as Austrian Germans, rather than as Jews from Bennisch. By the time he arrived in New York on May 18, 1905, he had left his Jewish heritage behind.

A New Life

By January 1906, the Kerrys had settled in Chicago. Once there, Kohn — now Kerry — quickly set out to live the American dream.

On June 21, 1907, he filed his initial citizenship papers. By 1908, he appeared in a business directory with an office in Chicago’s Loop and, in 1910, he made it into the Blue Book, a catalogue of notable Chicago residents.

He filed his naturalization petition on Feb. 6, 1911, listing an address in the tony Uptown district. Signing as a witness was famous State Street merchant Henry Lytton.

Kohn’s second petition witness, Frank Case, worked as a manager at Sears & Roebuck, and was also regarded as a well-known member of society. Kohn had been involved in the reorganization of Sears and, by 1912, ran an ad in a directory as a “business counselor” under the name, Frederick A. Kerry & Staff.

However for unknown reasons, Kohn left Chicago, settling in the prominent Boston suburb of Brookline where, in 1915, his wife gave birth to Richard, father of Sen. Kerry. He continued life as a merchant in the shoe business, seeing enough success to hire a live-in German servant girl, who appears in his household’s 1920 U.S. Census record.

The census offers a glimpse into lengths to which Kohn had hidden his lineage. Both he and his wife listed their native tongues as German — when, as Czech Jews, their first language would have been Yiddish. At this point, both had been devout Catholics for nearly 20 years — a fact that adds greater mystery to the events that were about to unfold.

On Nov. 15, 1921, at the age of 48, Kohn wrote his last will and testament. Six days later, he walked into the lobby washroom of the posh Copley Plaza Hotel in Boston, put a revolver to his head and pulled the trigger.

Probate records show he was virtually bankrupt. Other reports suggested that Kohn may have been in failing health — he suffered from severe asthma — and that he may have recently received an inheritance, which he transferred to his wife before his suicide.

The gunshot that took Kohn’s life also silenced a family history for more than 50 years. It would take the notoriety of a U.S. senator running for president to bring the story back to life.

A Rising Star

Unlike Kohn, a peasant who climbed the social ladder into America’s privileged class, John Kerry was to the manner born. His father served as an Army pilot during World War II, before becoming a noted U.S. diplomat. His mother descended from two dyed-in-the-wool Massachusetts blue-blood families: the Forbes and Winthrop clans.

Kerry’s early years were the transient life of a diplomat’s son at exclusive boarding schools in Europe and New Hampshire. He attended Yale at about the same time as President Bush, but while Bush lived the fraternity life, Kerry became president of the school’s political group.

Upon graduation in 1966, Kerry followed his father’s military footsteps, volunteering for Vietnam. He was mustered out in 1969, after receiving the Silver Star, Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts. However, he soon became a vocal antiwar protester, using his military experience to criticize the war, including testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in April 1971.

After graduating from law school in 1976, Kerry launched his political career, becoming Massachusetts lieutenant governor in 1982 under Michael Dukakis. He eventually ran for Senate in 1984, winning the seat vacated by Paul Tsongas.

The mystery of his family history continued. He learned from a relative that his grandmother had been born Jewish, but he knew virtually nothing about his grandfather. He eventually became so fixed on the subject that once, on a visit to Europe, he stopped in Vienna and called every Kerry in the phone book.

His office even contacted the regional Czech archives that, unknown to him, actually contained the original record of Kohn’s birth, but the senator never heard back. The bureau had stopped conducting searches for foreigners two years earlier.

The Mystery Revealed

In late 2002, rumors began to circulate that Kerry would seek the Democratic nomination for president. The Boston Globe’s editors solicited reporters for articles on Kerry’s life, and journalist Michael Kranish volunteered.

Kranish’s experience gave him a significant edge: He had recently spent four years piecing together his own family history. He knew that he’d need an overseas collaborator to check European records, so he hired prominent genealogist Felix Gundacker, an Austrian from the Institute for Historical Family Research.

Gundacker had developed a specialty in tracking the bloodlines of Jews in parts of what is now the Czech Republic. Eventually, he uncovered the document that detailed Frederick Kerry’s name change — the clue that would enable him to search for Fritz Kohn, the man’s birth name and the key to his past.

Had Kohn’s name been changed at Ellis Island, like so many other immigrants, it might have been lost in the fog of time. Because Kohn had changed his name before he immigrated — perhaps, ironically, to conceal his background — his origins could now be traced.

Gundacker only needed to find Kohn’s birth records. That took him to the Czech city of Opava, where vast regional records remained stored. One recordkeeper there, Jiri Stibor, opened letters each day from people around the globe seeking genealogical aid.

On June 20, 2002, Stibor received a letter in English from a man he only remembers as “Samuel C.” It carried the seal of a high-ranking Washington, D.C., official.

The letter related that Kerry was running for president and asked about a “Fritz Cohn.” However, the archives had stopped processing foreign requests, and the misspelling would have sidelined the search.

Stibor never forgot about the letter, the first he’d received from a prominent U.S. government official. So when Gundacker eventually visited his office, Stibor immediately remembered the request.

Both men began scouring the archive’s records, playing on Gundacker’s hunch that Kohn had been born Jewish. That meant extra time pursuing an additional, essential step.

“The Catholics at the time weren’t interested in keeping good records [of the Jews],” Stibor said. “I took note to find any entry in the books, and I couldn’t find him in the Catholic section. But if there were Jews in the town, they would be the last entries, at the end of the book.”

And that’s where it was — revealing a secret that Kohn had sought to hide a century earlier: the senator’s grandfather had been born a Czech Jew, in what is now the town of Horni Benesov. Gundacker phoned The Globe and told them he was “1,000 percent sure of it.”

No Trace of a Past

Kranish gathered the evidence and presented it to Kerry a short time later. Kerry could not contain his surprise.

“This was an incredible illumination,” Kerry explained. “It really connected the things I’d talked about for years but now understand even more personally.”

“I never really knew why my grandfather left Austria or why he underwent such personal transformation, but we do know many of the things that were happening under the old Hapsburg Empire,” the senator said. “We know what life was like for too many of them, and the ultimate turn for even greater tragedy it would take not much later.”

The Czech town’s current mayor said he has considered extending an invitation to Kerry to visit, although he added that there isn’t much to see. A box-shaped apartment building sits on the lot where Kohn’s house once stood. A small Jewish cemetery, where Benedikt and Mathilde Kohn were possibly buried, has vanished over time and the Kohn brewery is now the location of a discount sauna.

Such absence of history is typical of the Jewish immigrant experience, genealogist Miller said.

“People who left for America left all of their history,” he explained. “Grandparents and great-grandparents sometimes didn’t tell anything to anyone. In the 18th and 19th century, they wanted to leave their past behind.”

Mom, Can We Keep Him?

If your kids are out of the house and you’re experiencing empty-nest syndrome, how about considering adoption? Don’t worry though, this adoptee will be pretty low-maintenance — all he needs is a caring family, food, water and, of course, plenty of fly-repellent gel.

The adoptees are donkeys that are a part of the Israel-based charity, Safe Haven for Donkeys in the Holy Land (SHADH). The U.K.-registered organization was founded to rescue and protect abused and abandoned donkeys and mules in Israel and the Palestinian Territories.

Apparently, the beasts of burden are so greatly burdened in the Middle East that they have captured the attention of SHADH, animal rights activists and concerned families around the globe. Sold for as little as 100 shekels (approximately $20) in Israel and the disputed territories, there is very little value attached to a donkey’s well-being. As a result, when donkeys are injured, sick or too old to work, they are often abandoned and left to starve; many suffer from abuse.

Founded by Lucy Fensom, a former

airline stewardess, SHADH is dedicated to the rescue of these oppressed animals and committed to improving their plight through community-wide education. Abandoned donkeys are taken to SHADH’s “Safe Haven,” located 40 minutes from Tel Aviv at Moshav Gan Yoshiya, where they can live in a safe and protected environment. There are currently 29 donkeys at Safe Haven and all are up for adoption for only $6 per month.

While the animals must stay at Safe Haven — they don’t make great house pets — families will receive a photograph of their donkey, an official certificate of adoption — and full visitation rights.

For more information on adopting a donkey, visit