November 14, 2018

Filling a Gallery With Faith

As you approach the Barbara Mendes Gallery on South Robertson Boulevard, you know you’re in for an experience. The brightly colored, psychedelic exterior of the little gallery in the SoRo neighborhood doesn’t cry out Jewish art, and neither does the gallery’s proprietor at first glance. Barbara Mendes looks every bit the ex-hippie, from her tie-dyed clothes to her funky glasses, but when she opens her mouth and starts chattering about kashrut and the Tehillim, you realize that you’re speaking to a woman who’s been on a journey to finding her very Jewish self and her Jewish art.

“My life is a thread of miracles,” Mendes said, smiling broadly. “I was always an artist … by the time I got to kindergarten, I was, like, take me to the art corner.” Her first miracle, she said, was that her parents recognized her talent and enrolled her in art schools, where she thrived. Although her parents were Jewish, they didn’t give her much of a Jewish education, and religion wasn’t stressed in her household.

After graduating from high school, Mendes embarked on a career as an independent comic-book artist under the nom de plume Willy Mendes. Her comics, now included in numerous anthologies, show the groundwork of the style, with its intricate details, psychedelic motifs and bright colors that now mark her paintings.

“What’s interesting is, searching for spirituality, look how mystic this is,” Mendes said, pointing to one of her early comics, “but shame on me … Hindu!”

So how did Mendes move from a self-described spiritual seeker who leaned toward Buddhism and embraced hippie culture to become a practicing Orthodox Jew? According to Mendes, it started with a wall. “I was painting a mural on Fairfax, and a guy said, ‘Excuse me to stop you, but I want you to paint my synagogue.’”  

Mendes was intrigued. She’d never painted a synagogue, never really done much in the way of Jewish art, but she figured that because she was Jewish, she’d accept. When Mendes found out the synagogue she’d be painting was the Pinto Torah Center — a Sephardic congregation dedicated to outreach and Torah study in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood — she knew that a strange force was at work. “The Mendeses and Pintos are like this,” said Mendes, weaving her hands together to show the closeness of two of the most prominent Sephardic families in the Americas.

After getting reacquainted with her Judaism, Mendes, who’d had two children with her first husband before divorcing, met her second husband and started going to yeshiva on her own four nights a week.  “I became religious late in life, at age 45,” said Mendes, now in her 60s.

 “Once I began learning and once I attended a year of the Torah cycle in the synagogue, I did a Bereshit mural to celebrate.” That mural started Mendes on a path that took her through painting out Shemot, and now to Vayikra, a mural-sized oil painting that serves as a centerpiece in her gallery’s current exhibition, “Jewish Art in Elul and the New Year.”

Mendes’ Vayikra mural is stunning in its size and detail. Stretching 16 feet wide, it illustrates pictorially every passage of the Torah portion. Everything from the laws of kashrut to the rules about whom the High Priest can marry is sketched out in intricate vignettes. The painting took nearly three years to complete, Mendes said.  

Several other artists join Mendes in the exhibition. Sarah Devora Podolski created two variations on the Star of David. Rae Antonoff shows off some very impressive micrography, creating scenes featuring biblical women drawn by writing words from their stories in tiny Hebrew. Rae Shagalov’s work is mainly calligraphy, much of it drawn from inspirational teachings from different rabbis. Aharon Aba ben Avraham’s work draws heavily from rabbinic tales. And Freda Nessim has some clever takes on God.  

Most interesting, other than Mendes’ work, is that of Yorum Partush. One piece, a sculptural wall-hanging dedicated to Partush’s deceased brother, includes a tallit and more than two dozen real shofars. Partush’s other piece, which references the Holocaust, includes tefillin boxes, barbed wire and working lights, weaving them into an installation that evokes the trains that were used to transport Jews to concentration camps.

“Jewish art is not like contemporary art,” Mendes said.  “Contemporary art is saying, ‘These are my deepest feelings; I hope you’re interested enough to want to have them in your house.’… We’re offering interpretations of the religion that we share a love for.”

Mendes is proud that the majority of artists in this show are women. “Judaism is the royal road,” she said. “However, 5,000 years ago there was a different perspective of women, and I do not submit to that view of women. 

“As a woman-run gallery, you’d better believe I give a voice to women,” Mendes said. “I’m also interested in being a role model to young women because I’m deeply disturbed by the larger culture,” she said, referring to the world outside her Orthodox community.

“I’m a fan of pop music. Some of these songs I just love, and I belt them out when they come on the radio. Love ’em!  ‘Starships!’ ” said Mendes, referring to the hit song by Nicki Minaj.  

“But, oh my God, when I saw that woman performing on the video, I was horrified, because this is burlesque. … It’s fine, but not for my granddaughter.”

Mendes hopes that her current exhibition portrays a much more positive image. “I wanted to start the holiday season going and involve the whole Jewish community in ‘Jewish Art in Elul,’ ” she said, smiling. “Since each Jewish artist is giving a visual expression to how they feel about Judaism … maybe it will inspire the viewer to see that their own take on Judaism and the religious process is also valid.”

“Jewish Art in Elul and the New Year” continues at the Barbara Mendes Gallery, 2701 S. Robertson Blvd., through Oct. 12 For hours and other information call (310) 558-3215 or (323) 533-6021.

The Hollywood treatment

“Fundamentally, your job is not that different from my job,” screenwriter Alex Litvak told a room full of rabbis assembled at American Jewish University for the annual High Holy Days conference sponsored by the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.

While most of the 165 attendees were off attending sermon workshops on topics ranging from social media to Mussar, about 20 opted to touch-up their Torah with insights from film and TV. Rabbi Jon Hanish from Temple Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills began the session by asking a panel of eight Hollywood writers what was on their minds this year.

“Why am I here?” one said. “Materialism,” another said. “Political and social divisiveness,” a third added. 

It was a fun but unorthodox match, bringing Hollywood currency to holy categories. 

“I’d want to know what King David’s approval rating would be in the digital age,” said Seth Kurland, a sitcom writer and producer best known for his work on “Friends.” “You think of him probably as courageous and compassionate, but he kills Bathsheba’s husband! Even he must have had a Yom Kippur day; he must have asked, ‘Do I want to define my life by moments of weakness or moments of strength?’ ”

This second annual Professional Writers Workshop, which paired some of Hollywood’s finest with the rabbinate’s most fastidious, looked like an episode of “In Treatment,” offering the best sermon therapy money can buy (and for the bargain conference price of $150). In cross-denominational groups of three, the questions ranged from the practical (“Should I start with a question, crack a joke or tell a story?”) to the philosophical (“What would you say you’re trying to say in this sermon?”) to the political (“This is the time to go for it — make the big point!”). It was classic Freudian role-reversal, with the rabbis in the hot seat and the writers going righteous.

“I don’t know if by the end [of this session] we’re gonna pitch you sermons or you’re gonna pitch us TV shows,” said David Kendall, creator of ABC Family’s “Melissa & Joey” who also worked on older hits like “Growing Pains” and “Boy Meets World.” 

In one group, Rabbi Elie Spitz of Congregation B’nai Israel in Orange County puzzled over how to make a trite topic like tzedakah sexy. He worried about sounding “canned” and “predictable,” but even more so, Spitz said, “There is discomfort in asking for money on High Holy Days, when people want to be spiritual.” To which Kendall offered straightforward advice on the merits of truth: “Say, ‘It feels horrible to talk about this,’ ” Kendall said. “In writer’s terms we’d say, ‘Let’s hang a lantern on it,’ which means you’re going to do something obvious. If something is unavoidable in the plot or exposition, you ‘hang a lantern on it.’ ”

Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills’ Rabbi Laura Geller suggested that Spitz tell a story about an event that changed his relationship to money. “That takes people to very personal places,” she said.

But just how deep can you go, she wondered. “How personal can you get?” she asked Kendall. “My sermon is about growing older; about how we devote so much energy and resources to youth. Well, what about me? I’m not dead yet. How vulnerable do I get in speaking about my own fears about aging; how my mother’s getting older? How much do congregants really want their rabbi to reveal?”

Get intimate, he said. A message becomes more memorable if tied to a resonant or relatable story.

Things were less fraught for Rabbi Mark Kaiserman, who will serve this year as interim rabbi at Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Fountain Valley after the retirement of 36-year-veteran Rabbi Stephen Einstein. 

“Which gives me the luxury of reusing sermons,” Kaiserman joked to his Hollywood helper, Sam Baum, creator of Fox’s “Lie to Me.”  

“And,” Baum added guilefully, “you can swing for the fences.” 

Rabbi Daniel Feder was more interested in milking Baum for entertainment tips. “I always try to have one or two chuckle moments,” Feder said. “Maybe you could suggest, ‘Put Humor Here.’ ” 

Baum rejoined his request with plot-development 101: “I try to force myself to write a single sentence that gets at the core of the story,” he began. “The first couple of minutes are crucial to creating the feeling that there is a hand quietly guiding you.” And, as Hollywood proverbs go, action must follow inspiration. “It is crucial that in the last two minutes there is something actionable — you have to give the character something to do, not just something to think about.”

It is telling that the people who usually do the teaching were so willing to be taught. And perhaps a little bit ironic that those who often self-protect from congregants felt safe among storytellers with the world’s largest soapbox.

But as writer and producer David Sacks, known for shows “3rd Rock From the Sun” and “Malcolm in the Middle” encouraged, be fearless! Don’t be cowed into feel-good Torah. Although this hardly compelled Rabbi Miriam Hamrell of Ahavat Torah in Brentwood: “Last year I gave a sermon on Israel, and people had a hard time with it,” Hamrell said. “People said, ‘We’re not here to hear politics. We’re coming here to heal, to listen, to open our hearts.” In the wake of that, she said, she had to lead a decompressing discussion circle.

Monica Henderson Beletsky, a Harvard graduate who writes for NBC’s “Parenthood” got a kick out of the strange and wonderful convergence of Hollywood and holy themes. 

“It’s so funny,” she said, “one rabbi wrote about being in a personal prison and another wrote about happiness, and they both came to the same conclusion. And, you know, we’re working with a similar theme on our show, but I can’t tell you about it.”

Hanish, an organizer of the event, said the confluence of high-minded rabbis with highly accomplished writers is a good fit.

“Rabbis know a thing or two about writing, but rabbinic school is about academic writing, and we end up writing things that are too intellectual and not connecting on a human level. Film writers understand how to write to the general populace and get deep messages across.”

And, of course, Hollywood is always seeking good material, a plentiful resource in the life of a rabbi.

“The writers get just as much out of it as the rabbis,” Hanish said. “They come for fun, but they get rejuvenated. Afterward, they’ll say, ‘I was on the fringe of my Judaism, but these rabbis understand today’s world’ —and some consider returning to Judaism.”

For Dahvi Waller, who won an Emmy for her work on “Mad Men,” things got a little too close for comfort. Last year, after a Jewish Journal article covered her session at the workshop, she was bombarded by requests for help from rabbis all over the country. “I can’t say ‘no’!” she gushed, explaining why she didn’t want her session to be written up this year. “They wanted way more than an hour of my time.”

Faith, not just gayness, informs filmmaker’s works

This has been a good year for filmmaker Ira Sachs. His new feature, “Keep the Lights On,” received a nomination for the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and won the prestigious Teddy Award at the Berlin International Film Festival. And while the intensely personal, autobiographical film centers on a tumultuous love affair between two men, Sachs believes audiences will relate to the human experience of relationships shared by all couples.

During a phone interview from his New York City home, Sachs attributed his ability for universal affinity to his cultural heritage. “I feel that I live and breathe my Judaism as an individual, and it is how I connect to people here every day.”    

Sachs has been living in Manhattan since 1987, but his roots stem from the Deep South city of Memphis, Tenn., where he was raised in what he described as a Reform Jewish household. 

“My maternal side was German Jews who came to Memphis in 1850, and, on my father's side, Eastern Europeans who came in 1900; two major Southern immigration times for Jews, so I grew up in a mixed Jewish family,” he said.  

Sachs also points to the era of social change, in which he grew up, as an influence on his formative years. 

“I was in Memphis in the '60s, and that was obviously a very complicated time,” he explained. “One of the things about growing up Jewish in the South was there was a lot of assimilation going on among Southern Jews. And one of the things that did was create a greater interest in social action there. For example, there was a great connection between our rabbi and the civil rights movement, so I've always been interested in how people live and how difference is a part of one's experience. And growing up in the South as a Jewish person, and as a gay person, I think there were certain ways in which the two identities would overlap because it was a place in which I was an outsider. But I felt more of an outsider being gay.”

Keep the Lights On” target=”_blank”>keepthelightsonfilm.com.

Stage dramedy tackles interfaith marriage taboo

If you take Israel out of the equation, there’s little in the Jewish world that gets people as riled up as the idea of intermarriage. For most secular and liberal Jews, intermarriage, which once carried a huge social stigma, has become more acceptable. Visit any Reform synagogue in Los Angeles, and you’re bound to come across all kinds of intermarried families. Indeed, in the liberal Jewish world, intermarriage has even begun to be seen as an opportunity to bring more people into the Jewish community. But in the Orthodox world, the stigma of intermarriage is as strong as ever, and Maia Madison’s new play “Nobody Likes Jews When They’re Winning,” explores exactly what happens when a girl from a traditional family falls in love with guy who happens to be non-Jewish.

“The play is about an interfaith couple who want to get married and live happily ever after, as long as her Jewish family doesn’t find out,” said Madison, during a phone interview between rehearsals. Her main character, who draws a little from Madison’s own life story, “goes on a quest to find out the real meaning of her Jewish identity and the real meaning of family.”

Madison grew up in an observant home in New York City. Her parents were both from Orthodox backgrounds and kept kosher, to an extent, but Madison was also the first girl in her family to have a bat mitzvah.

“I’m a very strong-minded woman, I went to Northwestern University,” said Madison, noting that some in her family were disappointed she didn’t go to Stern College.

The idea that became “Nobody Likes Jews When They’re Winning” came to Madison when she watched a close friend’s relationship fall apart after her ill father moved in with her and her partner. “She picked her family over her relationship.”

The experience made Madison realize that sometimes we’re forced into tough situations where we have to choose between family and love.

“Now if you’re 30, you can’t get a job, even though you have an MBA,” said Madison of the economic situation that’s left many post-college grads living at home. According to Madison, that new dynamic has wreaked havoc with the notion of “leave and cleave” that’s presented in Genesis 2:24: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined (cleave) to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.”

An additional topic explored in Madison’s play is how Hollywood and the world at large sees Jews. Madison recalled getting a call from a non-Jewish friend at CBS who’d just been pitched a show that he described as “ ‘The O.C.’ meets Temple Beth Israel,” and wanted Madison’s opinion as a Jew as to why it felt “off” to him. “Nobody likes Jews when they’re winning,” Madison told him.

“There are no shows where likable Jews drive around in fancy cars, live in million-dollar homes and spend a $100,000 on a bar mitzvah at the Beverly Wilshire, the same way that the people on ‘Revenge’ do, for example,” Madison said. The question of why that’s so is one that dogs her, and she explores it thoroughly in the show.

But lest anyone think the play appeals only to Jews, the director, Diana Basmajian, a non-Jew, says that’s just not so.

“No matter what a person’s background was, they were still talking in that lobby,” Basmajian said of the audience from the show’s staged readings.

Basmajian and Madison have been friends for more than 20 years. “I’m half Armenian, and I think as I got to know more of my Armenian heritage that I was drawn to plays about the human struggle, and particularly the Holocaust,” Basmajian said. “I was always teased by Maia, because my early work as a director was all Holocaust plays and plays on Jewish families.”

Basmajian jumped at the chance to work with Madison on her latest piece, because she realized it was something that was close to Madison’s heart. “It kind of bridges that beautiful gap between drama and comedy. That’s real life — some things are hilarious and some things, you’re on the verge of tears at the same time.”

Producer Laetitia Leon was also eager to work with Madison, and coming from an intermarried family, the piece was particularly poignant for her. “I felt like I wish I’d had this story when I was younger. It’s not that I don’t appreciate religion, I just wasn’t raised with it,” said Leon, whose parents raised her as an atheist. She believes the play will spark dialogue, no matter a person’s background. “If you don’t want to talk about it, I don’t think you were listening,” said Leon, laughing.

“You don’t want to write a play that only has meaning for one section of the population,” Madison said. “All of my gay friends came to me and said, oh my God, this is a coming-out story. I didn’t even realize. Every one of my gay friends had to face going to their parents and knowing that they may turn their backs on them forever.”

Basmajian, for one, is bullish on the piece, and she hopes it will touch audiences of all backgrounds who come to see it at the Open Fist Theatre Company. “We need that other voice out there that watches and listens and says, ‘Oh wait, I agree, I disagree, here’s my opinion, here’s what happened to me.’ ”

“Nobody Likes Jews When They’re Winning” will be playing at the Open Fist Theatre Company through Sept. 8. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit openfist.org.  A scene from the play will also be performed as part of the Temple of the Arts’ (www.templeofthearts.org) Friday night service on Aug. 17.

Shlomo Carlebach’s life comes to the stage in ‘Soul Doctor’

As he researched the complex life of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach for a new musical, playwright Daniel Wise found a surprisingly candid source.

Neshama Carlebach, a successful recording artist and popular performer of her father’s compositions, openly revealed his many struggles as “a lonely and conflicted” Orthodox rabbi—both rock star and spiritual shepherd.

“When someone collaborates on a show and at the same time is the daughter of the subject matter, and she is serving of the show rather than her own perspective, it helps make the show what it is,” Wise says. “It was also very brave.”

As Neshama explains, her father’s message is that everyone “can surpass their own walls. Some people say he was an angel. He was a person. But he was a strong person. He made beautiful choices and that should be a inspiration for the world.”

Some of Carlebach’s followers aren’t so pleased with the candor.

“Reb Shlomo was a soul on fire who was a rebbe to thousands,” says Shy Yellin, president of the Carlebach Shul on New York City’s Upper West Side. “He was a tzaddik rooted in the love of God and His Torah and whose purpose, like other great rebbes, was to connect us to ‘Hashem yisborech’ in the deepest way. Because he was human, with all the challenges one faces, Shlomo could relate to his flock and we to him. If he made any mistakes, they were long ago expiated. He was beloved by all.”

During his lifetime and perhaps even more since his death in 1994, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach—known widely as Reb Shlomo or simply Shlomo—is credited with reinvigorating Jewish life with uplifting song and spiritual teachings. His fascinating trajectory is the basis of a Broadway-bound show, “Soul Doctor: The Journey of a Rock Star Rabbi,” the first new Jewish hit musical in decades.

Neshama shares an official “creative credit for additional material” for the show, which is carried by more than 30 Carlebach melodies, often with new lyrics by David Schechter. “Soul Doctor” sold out in test runs in Florida and New Orleans, and opened to a limited engagement July 24-Aug. 19 at the New York Theatre Workshop. Again, the show rapidly sold out.

Producers are negotiating with a New York theater for an open-ended run. 

As a cultural phenomenon in the 1960s music scene, Carlebach’s songs grew wildly popular. He performed on stage with Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Jerry Garcia, Pete Seeger, the Grateful Dead and Nina Simone, among others. He played venues from Carnegie Hall to hippie coffeehouses, prisons to ashrams. He even performed spontaneous midnight concerts under New York City’s West Side Highway for the local homeless, whom he often knew by name.

Carlebach died suddenly when his heart failed on airplane at LaGuardia Airport in New York. His annual yahrzeit triggers memorial concerts around the world. In a category all his own, his music now captivates Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, gay and lesbian, Orthodox and Chasidic communities.

Cross-over Jewish reggae sensation Matisyahu coined himself a “Bob Marley-Shlomo Carlebach fusion.” Even Pope John Paul II used Carlebach’s composition “Brothers and Friends” to open his last Mass at Giants Stadium in New Jersey.

“Soul Doctor” reveals how Carlebach’s music and heart-centered teachings of “boundless love and joy” touched disillusioned hippies and dropouts, says Wise, who also directs the show.

The musical riffs on the successful formula of “Rent,” which Wise took on tour around the world. Both employ actors playing multiple roles and doubling as stage hands, gracefully transforming sets through scenes.

“Soul Doctor” travels from contemporary Vienna back to Carlebach’s childhood there under Nazi occupation, from a New York home and a dynamic musical beit midrash to the psychedelic House of Love and Prayer in 1960s San Francisco and more, in the multiple loops of Carlebach’s explorations of Jerusalem. Caracas. Nepal. And beyond. 

As his newly published commentary on Genesis reveals, Carlebach also was an innovative Torah scholar. As a Chasidic figure and composer of niggunim—wordless, expressive tunes infused with spirituality—Carlebach bridges Old World and new, pre-war Orthodoxy and the post-war establishment he realized wasn’t reaching America’s rapidly assimilating Jews.

Despite its rabbi protagonist, “Soul Doctor” attracts diverse audiences because “It’s about how we are spiritually all the same,” says veteran Broadway composer and orchestrator Steve Margoshes, who wove together the score for “Soul Doctor” and previous Broadway smashes such as Elton John’s “Aida,” “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” and “The Who’s Tommy.”

In the 1950s, the thirtysomething Orthodox rabbi searches American counterculture and becomes intimate friends with Simone, a then-unknown jazz singer who introduced him to gospel music and R&B.

Carlebach suddenly finds himself “torn between his deep traditional roots and his dream to create a Jewish revival through his joyous and soulful melodies,” Margoshes explains. “He wakes up one day and decides the Jewish experience is bankrupt and he is going to reinvigorate it, no matter the personal cost.”

Their unusual connection—Simone later became the musical voice of the civil rights movement—helped Shlomo shape contemporary Jewish music and reinvigorate the American Jewish experience in the aftermath of the Holocaust, Wise says.

With composite characters and scenes, “Soul Doctor” is not a strictly factual presentation of Carlebach’s life. Rather than pure hagiography, it is a gripping exploration of the many challenges and controversies encountered by Carlebach.

“It is more the idea of Shlomo than what historically happened,” says Rabbi Naftali Citrin of the Carlebach Shul and Carlebach’s grand-nephew. “It’s a version of Shlomo’s life that can’t possibly contain everything.”

“Soul Doctor” reflects the humanity of this larger-than-life personality leaving an Orthodox dynasty to become Chasidic while attempting to reach the young and unplugged through conventional rabbinic teachings. The methods prove ineffective, so Carlebach struggles again to break out of the mold of previous Orthodox leaders and “become Shlomo,” the recording star, performer, spiritual minstrel and friend still both treasured and criticized.

Carlebach grapples with questions of modernity and how to heal young broken souls who expect a hug and won’t dance with a mechitzah.

“Soul Doctor” doesn’t shy away from Carlebach’s struggling with his upbringing’s Orthodox restrictions against even casual physical contact with women and intense condemnation from the establishment and his own father. Audiences watch him find love, attempt to balance family with touring, and ultimately encounter a devastating divorce when his wife takes their children—Neshama and her sister, Nedara (now a married mother of two living in Israel)—to Toronto.

Today, the sisters honor their father’s rich contributions to Jewish tradition through the Carlebach Legacy Trust, which collects his teachings, compositions, photographs and bootleg recordings. Neshama, also a mother of two, is working on her ninth album celebrating her father’s music, despite Orthodoxy’s concerns of kol isha, or halachic rulings regarding men hearing women sing. She also is trailblazing interfaith concerts with the Rev. Roger Hambrick and members of the Green Pastures Baptist Church Choir of the Bronx. Their album, “Higher and Higher,” was a sixth-time Grammy entrant last year.

“There is work to be done,” Neshama says, “and not everyone is down for the work.”

This is Lisa Alcalay Klug’s third article in a JTA series about Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach’s legacy. Klug is the author of two humor books, “Cool Jew: The Ultimate Guide for Every Member of the Tribe,” a National Jewish Book Award finalist, and “Hot Mamalah: The Ultimate Guide for Every Woman of the Tribe,” a celebration of Jewish women debuting in October.

Rothko’s passion, tragedy galvanize Molina’s portrayal in ‘Red’

John Logan’s two-person play, “Red,” which spotlights the legendary Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko, is set a decade before the notoriously prickly painter committed suicide in 1970. The drama, which opens at the Mark Taper Forum on Aug. 12, begins as Rothko (Alfred Molina) has accepted a hefty commission to create a series of murals for the swanky Four Seasons restaurant in New York’s iconic Seagram Building. He intends his luminous, contemplative paintings to transform the space into a “temple,” while his initially timid new assistant, Ken (Jonathan Groff), grows bolder and insists that the work will merely serve as décor for pricey boozing and dining.

Rothko ultimately can’t stomach the project; he changes his mind upon visiting the elitist watering hole where, he says, he felt “underdressed … fat … too goddamn Jewish for this place.” He promptly cancels his commission, returns his paycheck and eventually donates nine of the murals — transcendent floating color fields in russet and darker hues — to the Tate Gallery in London. A year later, Rothko slashed open his arms with a razor in his New York studio and died at the age of 66. “His body was discovered the same day that the Seagram murals arrived at the Tate, which shocked everyone,” Molina, 59, said before a recent rehearsal at the Taper. “You can see a correlation between his evolving [palette] and his downward spiral,” Molina added. “As he says in the play, his great fear is that “ ‘one day the black will swallow the red.’ ”

Read more at jewishjournal.com/the_ticket.

Documentary traces changes in kibbutz life

Back in the 1930s and ’40s, when Diaspora Jews desperately needed a symbol of Jewish strength and pride, the brawny, sunburned kibbutznik became the poster image for the new Jew emerging in Palestine.

Two generations further on, the straightforward picture has become blurred. The kibbutznik astride a tractor has been largely replaced by the high-tech entrepreneur as the face of modern Israel, and most kibbutzim have had to drastically change their outlook and functions in order to survive.

The history and contradictions of this social, ideological and economic movement are explored in the 79-minute documentary “Inventing Our Life: The Kibbutz Experiment.”

The film, richly studded with black-and-white footage of early kibbutz labor and celebrations, provides a useful, unsentimental look at kibbutz life, from the founding in 1910 of Degania Alef, the flagship commune, to a more recent phenomenon, the urban kibbutz.

Toby Perl Freilich, the film’s director, producer and writer, discovered kibbutz life in the 1970s, while visiting her younger sister, who, to the horror of her immigrant parents, had decided to chuck the American dream and live in a kibbutz.

For her documentary, Freilich visited some 25 of the existing 270 kibbutzim and selected five for closer examination.

The first is Kibbutz Ein Shemer, between Haifa and Netanya, founded in 1927 along the pure ideological lines of a communist commune, a realization of a vision that the Soviets never accomplished.

All property and assets belonged to the kibbutz; children were, for the most part, raised in a group away from their parents; and committees regulated lifestyles and settled disputes. In return, members received all of life’s necessities, from food and clothing to education and health care.

Among the original settlers was Aliza Amir, who proudly declares, “Without the kibbutz there would be no Israel.”

This is no exaggeration. Although in 1948, the year of Israel’s independence, kibbutz members made up only 5 percent of the then-600,000 Jewish population, their ranks were the source of the new nation’s political leaders, ideological shapers, the shock troops of the Palmach and the officers of the defense forces.

Yet another veteran pioneer, David Ben Avraham, is less upbeat. None of his five children has stayed in Ein Shemer, and, voicing the fears of fellow old-timers, he asks plaintively, “How will we survive if our children and grandchildren leave us?”

Ben Avraham has put his finger on the kibbutz’s sorest spot. As Israel has turned from a socialist to an entrepreneurial capitalist society, most of the second and particularly the third generation are abandoning the egalitarian dream for the challenges and rewards of a freer, more competitive and individualistic outside world.

In this sense, the kibbutz history parallels the fate of the utopian communities in America built before and during the 19th century. Few such enclaves could retain the fervor and idealism of their founders beyond one or two generations.

In the late 1960s, the stability and image of the kibbutz movement started to disintegrate. There were bitter internal political splits and growing dissatisfaction with the collectivized lifestyle.

Kibbutzim built large swimming pools, much envied by city dwellers, and many assumed large debts, which they could not repay when the economy soured in the 1980s.

The kibbutzim that have best met the challenges of survival are those that adapted to the new social and economic realities of Israel. These days, almost all kibbutzim have added an industrial and manufacturing component (frequently high-tech), reward managers with higher salaries and have returned responsibility for child rearing to the parents.

There are some cautiously encouraging signs for the movement’s survival. Recent statistics puts kibbutz membership at an all-time high of 140,000, though the figure is somewhat deceptive — considering the tenfold increase in the country’s Jewish population since 1948, the percentage of kibbutz members has actually dropped from 5 to 2.3 percent.

Over time, many kibbutzim have transformed themselves from purely collective to semi-privatized communities. This change, for instance, allows many young couples who work in outside jobs to live and raise their children in the open kibbutz spaces.

Another interesting development is the formation of a few urban kibbutzim, such as Kibbutz Tamuz in the city of Beit Shemesh, west of Jerusalem. Its members hold a range of city jobs but pool their resources and strive for the equality and social cohesion of the old rural kibbutz model.

As the film’s subtitle indicates, Freilich considers the kibbutz an ongoing “experiment,” the outcome of which is yet to be determined. “My film ends with a question mark,” she said. “The jury is still out on the final verdict.”

Freilich’s resume includes numerous awards for the documentaries “Secret Lives: Hidden Children and Their Rescuers During WWII” and “Resistance: Untold Stories of Jewish Partisans.” Her largest financial support for the kibbutz film came from the Foundation for Jewish Culture.

“Inventing Our Life” opens June 8 at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills and Town Center in Encino.

Garcia Lorca’s art, death inspire genre-expanding opera

When Federico Garcia Lorca was a child, long before his ascension to the heights of Spanish literary circles, he idolized his mother’s gift for playing the piano. The young Garcia Lorca studied piano, hoping that he shared some of his mother’s talent, but Garcia Lorca would never become an influential musician. It was through the pen that he found his voice. Nevertheless, Garcia Lorca’s first works, with titles like “Nocturne” and “Sonata,” drew heavily upon his musical background, and throughout his short life, his poetry and prose would reflect an obsession with music and rhythm, with Beethoven and Chopin. So it seems natural that nearly a century later, a man who was inspired by Garcia Lorca’s words would turn his life into music. 

When Osvaldo Golijov was a child growing up in La Plata, Argentina, he read Garcia Lorca’s plays and poems and found himself entranced. When the composer was commissioned to write an opera for the Tanglewood Music Center, in 2003, he turned back to his childhood hero for inspiration.

“I grew up with his poems and loved them, and also his plays, so they were a part of my life for as long as I can remember,” Golijov said in a phone interview from his home in Massachusetts.

“When looking for a subject for an opera, I realized that he [Garcia Lorca] had predicted his own death in his first serious play, ‘Mariana Pineda,’ and I thought together with David [Henry] Hwang, who wrote the libretto, that it would be a very dramatic and operatic idea.” And so, “Ainadamar” was born.

“Ainadamar,” meaning “Fountain of Tears” in Arabic, tells the story of Garcia Lorca’s life, and his death at the hands of the Falangists, through the eyes of the actress Margarita Xirgu, his onetime lover and colleague. “The idea is that the entire opera occurs while Margarita hears the ballad of Mariana Pineda, this folk ballad,” Golijov said. “And while she hears, she remembers her entire life together with Garcia Lorca, his death and so forth. It’s like a moment that explodes three times.” 

Compacting the narrative was paramount to Golijov in constructing the piece. “The idea is that in music … you listen to a song that is three minutes, and within three minutes you can relive your entire life. That’s the power of music.”

Much has been written of Golijov’s casting a woman in the role of Garcia Lorca, but according to Golijov, it was more a matter of convenience than a conscious choice. “The truth is, there was not any ideological statement or anything; it was a very practical thing. I was commissioned by Tanglewood, and I was working on a different opera that was an all-women cast, and then things were not cooking, so I decided to contact David [Henry Hwang] and start a whole new project, but we were stuck with all women because the women had already been chosen,” Golijov said, laughing.

In fact, according to Golijov, the original idea was that Garcia Lorca wouldn’t even appear in “Ainadamar.” “The idea was to do an opera … about [Garcia] Lorca, but without [Garcia] Lorca. But, then I went to review the audition tapes for the young singers from Tanglewood, and I was really struck by Kelley O’Connor’s voice. … She had this incredibly mysterious and dark voice that was both a woman and a man. And I called David, and I said there’s this woman that actually sings in a very dangerous way. And he said, if you want to reconsider, we can have [Garcia] Lorca played by her.”

O’Connor’s performance was widely praised, and “Ainadamar” ended up winning two Grammy awards in 2006. This month, the work is being restaged by the Long Beach Opera as part of its 2012 season, again with a woman as Garcia Lorca, this time Peabody Southwell, who made her debut with the Long Beach opera in Leos Janácek’s “The Cunning Little Vixen.” “Ainadamar” will have its second of two performances in Long Beach on May 26.

If “Ainadamar” seems a natural choice of subject for a Spanish-speaking Jew who grew up idolizing Garcia Lorca, the piece that brought Golijov his first big international exposure would seem a much more puzzling piece for a man of his background to tackle: “The Passion of St. Mark.”

“It was clearly a very difficult choice for me, and my first reaction when asked to do it was ‘no,’ ” Golijov said. “But then I reconsidered.” The idea of challenging himself was appealing, but he had absolutely no idea where to start.

“I froze in fear for a couple of years, and then I remembered this great painting of Rembrandt’s, ‘Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem.’ My great-grandmother had a reproduction of the painting in her kitchen, and I always thought, looking at her face and looking at the painting, that Rembrandt had captured the Jewish soul in the truth that evaded every Jewish painter that I knew. And Rembrandt was not Jewish but was living among the Jews. I was not Christian, but I grew up among Christians in Argentina, so I said, well, obviously, I’m not Rembrandt, and I don’t have that talent, but if part of ‘The Passion’ would have a truth about Christianity that would be comparable to the truth about Judaism that Rembrandt’s paintings had, that would be a good enough reason for me to do it.”

Golijov’s work on “The Passion of St. Mark” brought him acclaim from around the world and opened up doors for him in the world of classical music. But for a man whose early work heavily reflected his Jewish upbringing, he never forgot his roots.

Asked whether he feels there’s such a thing as Jewish music, Golijov paused before answering. 

“The problem with answering that question is that if I say yes, there’s such a thing as Jewish music, it will be misinterpreted, because people will immediately try to associate it with surface things in the music — does it sound like my bar mitzvah? But it’s not anything like that; it has to do with an attitude, with a perspective, with a point of view. It can be as diverse as Mahler and Gershwin, to Bernstein.”

Golijov, who spent several years in Israel studying at the Rubin Academy under Mark Kopytman in the 1980s, credits his experience in the Holy Land with much of his musical awakening. “It was like a second childhood. … I mean childhood as the time of discovery, not only of life, but also of music or whatever else will occupy you later in life.” 

He said his time there was spent “discovering all the Sephardic music that I didn’t know in Argentina … most Jews there are Ashkenazi … but also the Arab music, the Christian music, and also the culture. This collision of civilizations was seminal in my life.” 

The Jewishness of his own music is subtler. “It’s not noticeable when people look for those melodies or harmonies or rhythms, it’s noticeable because of the way in which things unfold,” Golijov said. “Jewish music is a point of view, it’s a way of experiencing the world that is translated into the music. It’s so diverse that it’s impossible to give a definition.”

Golijov said he often draws on ethnic music from around the globe for inspiration. “All those cultures are part of the human experience. If you think of us having a soul and the soul having a map, like the world has a map, that’s what I try to do. If I’m going to a melancholy region, what music aches [with] that melancholy better than any other? So I study it and I try to make it part of my palette.”

And unlike Garcia Lorca, who often felt more deeply connected to theater and music than writing, Golijov feels secure in his art. “There is something about music that transcends any need for explanation. I always feel that music is sort of a philosophy that’s understood without a need to read the book,” Golijov said. “Not all music is universal, but all good music is universal.”

“Ainadamar” will be performed by the Long Beach Opera on May 26.

“Ainadamar” will be performed by the Long Beach Opera on May 26. For more information, visit www.longbeachopera.org

Intro to Israel considers what ‘Matters’

Much heated conversation is conducted in these pages and elsewhere in the media about Israel. We debate every aspect of Israel’s present and future — the ups and downs of its political leadership, the role of religion in the Jewish state, the path to peace with the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world, the security risks that threaten its very existence, and much else besides.

The conversation assumes that we already possess a depth of knowledge about Israel. But we need to pause here and ask: What do young people, Jewish or not, actually know about Israel? After all, anyone under the age of 40 will have no personal recollections about the founding of the state, the wars that have shaped the status quo of the Middle East, or the men and women who played such a crucial role in these events.

That’s the problem to be solved in “Israel Matters: Understand the Past, Look to the Future” by Mitchell Bard (Behrman House: $22.50), a short and friendly introduction to the history, culture and politics of Israel that is clearly directed to younger readers but has something important to offer everyone.

Historian and political scientist Bard is executive director of the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise and the author of numerous books about Jewish history, including “The Arab Lobby,” which I recently reviewed in The Journal. His newest book was developed with the support of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and represents an earnest effort to familiarize readers with both the origins and destiny of Israel.

“When most people talk about Israel, they talk about the pressing issues of the moment,” Bard explains. “Yet it is impossible to understand the context of the issues without looking at all the dimensions of this small country: its historical and religious significance, its technology achievements and its archaeological wonders.”

Indeed, Bard styles his book as a conversation with the reader. He acknowledges that the media is preoccupied with controversy and criticism when it comes to Israel, but he addresses a challenge to those who open his book: “This book was written to help you sort out these complex questions and help you form your own relationship to Israel.”

“Israel Matters” is eye-catching and eye-pleasing, full of sidebars, maps, charts, photographs and drawings, if only because an image is often worth a thousand words — Bard shows us that the entirety of Israel is a small fraction of the size of California and only slightly larger than New Jersey, which silently makes the point that the embattled little Jewish state sits on a tiny sliver of the Middle East, as we see for ourselves on a page that shows a snapshot of the region taken from space by Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon.

We meet young people who represent “Faces of Israel” in all of its ethnic and cultural diversity. We are offered the opportunity to “Look Closer” in a series of sidebars that highlight some fascinating details of Israeli life. Source documents from crucial points in history are quoted or presented in their entirety. Now and then, Bard invites the reader to answer a provocative question about an event in history: “What Would You Do?”

“You are a Palestinian living in the refugee camp in the city of Jenin in the West,” goes one such exercise. “You have several paths you can follow in your life, including joining a group that interacts with Israeli peace organizations or choosing to stay out of politics … [b]ut you could also join a group that advocates armed struggle that may ask you to try to attack Israelis.” Many of these sidebars tell the reader what actually happened in a real-life incident, but this one ends provocatively: “This episode in history hasn’t closed. Young Palestinians face these types of choices every day.”

“Israel Matters” has a point to make, of course, and the sharper edges of Jewish history and politics are buffed off. While Bard writes respectfully about the other faiths that claim the Holy Land as a place of significance, for example, he emphasizes the spiritual and historical Jewish linkages that “helped sustain Jews during long centuries of exile and nurtured them in times of persecution.” By contrast, he pauses to make the argument that “[t]he Arab connection to Palestine did not begin until after the death of Muhammad in the seventh century, and most Palestinian Arabs arrived in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.”

Even so, Bard provides enough of the raw material of history to allow the discerning reader to reach his or her own conclusions. For example, a series of maps show the various proposals for the division of Palestine between Arabs and Jews, starting with the original British mandate, continuing through the armistice lines drawn after the various wars between Israel and its Arab enemies, and including more recent peace proposals, all of which puts in perspective the current argument over the boundaries of Israel.

Some of the incidental details that enliven the text are clearly meant to enable young people to identify with Israel even if they have no strong Jewish connections. On one page, for example, we are introduced to violinist Itzhak Perlman, a native of Tel Aviv, and on the opposite page we meet Natalie Hershlag, a native of Jerusalem better known as the Oscar-winning actress Natalie Portman. By the end of the book, however, it is clearly the hope of the author that the reader will not only be more knowledgeable but also more sympathetic toward Israel.

“[M]aybe Israel is too abstract right now, a faraway place that is only familiar from the news, the Bible, or from discussions with friends and family,” he concludes. “One’s feelings may be conflicted: it is possible to admire some aspects of Israel’s history and culture, yet feel uncomfortable with particular policies.” To his credit, Bard acknowledges that his book is only “a starting place,” and he insists only that “the conversation about Israel is never-ending, passionate, and meaningful, and it always matters.”

Author’s note: I have business dealings with the publisher of “Israel Matters” but played no role in the content of the book. Irwin Field, a former publisher and current board member of The Jewish Journal, played a leading role in developing “Israel Matters” for publication.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. He blogs at www.jewishjournal.com/twelvetwelve and can be reached at books@jewishjournal.com.

Filmmaker writes from experience for post-Holocaust drama ‘Mighty Fine’

Filmmaker Debbie Goodstein has taken to heart the adage, “Write what you know.” Her 1989 Holocaust documentary, “Voices From the Attic,” recounts her mother’s years of hiding in a garret where snow descended through slats in the roof, a baby died and food was scarce.

The film also chronicles Goodstein’s own journey as a member of the “Second Generation” — a daughter who inherited her mother’s fear of cramped spaces as well as the drive to re-enact her family’s experience by hoarding food.

Now Goodstein has written and directed a semi-autobiographical drama, “Mighty Fine,” opening May 25, which explores the second half of her childhood equation: how her father’s unpredictable rage terrorized the family as his garment business foundered — it was not until he sought psychotherapy that healing could take place.

In an interview from her New York home, Goodstein, 49, said she embarked upon the film only after seeking her father’s permission. “I had been intrigued by the film ‘The Great Santini’ because the father was such a great, complex character, and the effect he had on his children was so complicated, horrific, but also wonderful on another level,” she said.  “My father was, on the one hand, a very strong and courageous person — even the fact that he’s supporting the film — but on another level he was very scared and vulnerable. He had been abandoned for a time by his parents during the Depression and grew up dirt-poor with strangers,” she added. “I think his rage came from a deep fear that he would not be able to care for his family in the way he wanted to, and not be the man he hoped to be.”

“Mighty Fine” follows Joe Fine (Chazz Palminteri) as he moves his wife   (Andie MacDowell) — a Holocaust survivor — and his two daughters from Brooklyn to New Orleans in the 1970s. Even as he showers his family with lavish gifts, he is domineering and manipulative, responding to perceived challenges to his authority with bouts of explosive temper. His edginess escalates as his business declines and he seeks loan money from the Mafia; while his oldest daughter, Maddie (Rainey Qualley), rebels against Joe’s iron fist, his younger daughter, Natalie (Jodelle Ferland), internalizes his anger to the point that she becomes painfully introverted and fearful. Joe’s wife, Stella,  meanwhile, is paralyzed between supporting her husband — the man who gave her a new life after the Shoah — and protecting her children.  “It was almost as though if she said anything against him, she’d wake up back in her hiding place in Europe,” as Natalie says.

In real life, the shadow of the Holocaust amplified the tensions within Goodstein’s childhood home: As in the film, her mother viewed her father as her protector, and Debbie, also protective of her mother because of her wartime experiences, was loath to speak up lest she cause additional pain. “My mother had been so used to living with danger that the sense that anything could happen at any time was ‘normal’ to her,” the filmmaker said.

Goodstein’s father never dealt with Mafiosi — that part of the film is fiction — but Goodstein did develop such an intense fear of authority figures that, as a student at Columbia University film school, she shrunk away from the visiting film luminaries. 

She was inspired to make “Voices From the Attic”  when her aunt brought her to Poland, where a farmer hid 16 members of her family in the low-slung attic of a cottage, without plumbing or electricity.

“It was a much more sympathetic tale to tell than my father’s story,” Goodstein said.

Because “Mighty Fine” was so close to her own life story, she could tackle it only after she was married with two children and had numerous television movies under her belt. Four years ago, memories flowed onto the page, and, Goldstein said, her first draft “came out like a cork” over the course of a two-week period.

MacDowell quickly signed on to play Stella and Palminteri to play Joe; MacDowell — whose real-life daughter, Rainey Qualley, plays Maddie in the film — said she has been fascinated and horrified by the Holocaust since perusing a book on the subject on the sly in her family’s living room when she was 4.  “I remember the images so clearly of the victims: the piles of people, the emaciated bodies, the bones,” she said during an interview at the Four Seasons Hotel recently. 

“My own mother was bipolar and an alcoholic, and my role in the family was to keep the peace — I could draw on that for my character,” MacDowell added.

Palminteri, who told his own story of coming of age amid Mafiosi in his play and film “A Bronx Tale,” has played his share of tough guys. “I’m good at going from zero to 60 in two seconds,” he said of the scenes in which Joe’s temper erupts. “I’d ask for a five-minute warning before each scene, and that’s when I’d start working on it —I would just sit there and brood. Even in scenes where I was not outwardly angry, the rage was always there, underneath.”

“Mighty Fine” has already received attention for tackling the issue of emotional abuse and bullying within the home: Last week, Goodstein was scheduled to be interviewed by a psychiatrist on MSNBC, and reviewers praised the film during an interactive session with 100 “mom bloggers” this month.

“My hope is that my family’s experience can shine light on a subject that’s not often enough discussed,” Goodstein said.

“Mighty Fine” opens on May 25.

Choreographer debuts morality tale on dangers of jealousy

Barak Marshall didn’t want to be a dancer. A lawyer, a singer, a scholar — anything but a dancer. “It was what she did,” Marshall says of his Yemenite mother, Margalit Oved, the one-time prima ballerina of the Inbal dance company, a giant of the dance world. And so he resisted. He sang in a choir; he went to Harvard and studied social theory and philosophy. But like most stories in which a man tries to flee his destiny, the world had other plans.

In 1994, Marshall moved to Israel where his mother had been offered the leadership of the Inbal, and tragedy struck. His beloved aunt died, leaving Marshall in a deep funk. He found himself working out his frustration in an empty dance studio. A friend saw him and suggested that he “build a piece” in honor of his aunt. And so “Aunt Leah” was born.

“Aunt Leah” won the newly minted artist acclaim and first prize at the Suzanne Dellal Centre’s Shades of Dance Choreography competition in 1995. And from there on out, Marshall began choreographing and performing his own work in earnest, garnering even more acclaim and recognition in Israel and Europe. Pretty soon some big names were knocking at his door. “Ohad Naharin from the Batsheva Dance Company invited me to be the house choreographer.”

By 2000, Marshall was on top of the world — young, successful, a great career ahead of him, and a prestigious job with one the world’s top dance companies. And then it all fell apart. In an instant, with one snap, Marshall’s career crumbled faster than the weight of his body upon his broken leg.

“I couldn’t work in my field, I couldn’t make any money,” said Marshall, now 43, of the dark days after his accident. The break was serious, the recovery took two years, and he couldn’t dance. His livelihood taken away, Marshall returned to his hometown of Los Angeles and humbly began waiting tables and offering academic tutoring to make a living.

After his leg healed, Marshall tried to make a comeback. “I was knocking on doors, pounding on doors, trying to get back into dance,” Marshall said, but no one would have him. “Once you’re off the map … it’s very hard [to get back].”

It was a tough transition but Marshall began to prepare himself for a life after dance. He turned to singing. He worked with Yuval Ron Ensemble and even went on tour with Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble. He said he was “at peace.” For the second time, the man who never wanted to dance had gotten his wish, but once again, the world conspired against him.

In 2007, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles asked Marshall if he’d be willing to choreograph a dance for its exchange program with Tel Aviv. Marshall developed a piece called “Monger,” and suddenly the dance world rediscovered Barak Marshall. (His troupe performed the work at UCLA’s Royce Theatre in 2010.) Calls came in, as well as commissions, and pretty soon, Marshall was a choreographer again.

Tina Berkett, co-founder of BodyTraffic, a Los Angeles-based dance company, recalls meeting Marshall in an odd way, through the husband of her co-founder, Lillian Barbeito. “We know Barak, because Lillian’s husband met him at the locker room at their gym.”

“Los Angeles has such a gem in Barak,” Berkett said. “He has a movement vocabulary that’s so distinctive and so different. His works are so obviously Barak Marshall.”

And so, in early 2011, BodyTraffic and Marshall hooked up for a performance at REDCAT’s “The A.W.A.R.D. Show” and ended up winning a $10,000 prize to create new piece together. Their luck got even better when the Joyce Theater in New York, impressed with their work, gave them an additional $25,000 toward the partnership.

Berkett couldn’t have been more thrilled. “The reason that we love Barak and love working with him and are so interested in performing his work is that his work appeals to audiences. There are theatrical elements, and the music is always so fabulous that even non-dance lovers find his work entertaining and enjoy watching it.”

The result of those prizes is a work that will preview at American Jewish University (AJU) on May 31, in advance of its premiere at the Joyce. The title remains in flux but will undoubtedly be a mouthful if the original title, “And as the Rooster Crowed the Green Bride Floated Through the Village Square,” is any indication. The piece draws heavily upon his mother’s Yemenite roots.

“It’s a morality tale about these nine children whose parents had so much jealousy of others, and so much envy and greed that they cursed their children to a life of rage and loneliness and unhappiness. They passed that down to them, and these once very beautiful, beautiful children became increasingly, as the years went by, uglier and uglier. And it’s really a story about the danger of jealousy.”

The story is actually based on his mother’s real neighbors in Aden. The people on the street used to call the neighbors’ home “The Burning House,” because screaming would emanate from it at all hours as the family members fought with one another. “Most of my pieces are set in some nostalgic past,” Marshall explained. “This piece is about 10 broken and hopeless people trying to find hope.”

The piece also draws from “Yiddish, Ladino and Yemenite Jewish texts and songs,” Marshall said.

Berkett and Barbeito set out to find some companion pieces for Marshall’s composition. “We knew that Barak’s work would be highly gestural, a lot of theater, a bit of comedy, very fast-paced,” Berkett said. To create a contrast, Berkett chose to stage a piece with a much different tone by Stijn Celis, a Belgian choreographer. “Stijn’s work is very beautiful, has balletic qualities; it’s a bit more ethereal.”

To complete the program, Berkett and Barbeito commissioned a new work by choreographer Richard Siegal. “We wanted a third work that would maybe show a lighter side of BodyTraffic,” Berkett said. Siegal’s work is heavily jazz influenced, lighter and more technical.

The three pieces will have their official premiere at the Joyce Theater in NYC on June 6 and 7, as part of the Gotham Dance Festival, but they’ll be previewed together at AJU on May 31.

“I just can’t think of a better place to do it than the AJU,” said Berkett, whose husband sits on the school’s board. The AJU has shown itself to be an inventive patron of dance over the last couple of years with its “Dancing with the Rabbis show,” and its association with Glorya Kaufman, one of the dance world’s greatest philanthropists. “I feel like … we’re opening up the world to the ability of the Jewish people to produce and create art,” Berkett said. “These men are among the finest choreographers in the world, and they happen to be Jewish.”

For his part, Marshall said he is excited to see his new work performed.

Asked why he’s used the word “rooster” in the titles of multiple pieces, Marshall became reflective. “I think I have a sense of affinity with the rooster,” he said. “Like the rooster, a man is very, very proud, and has this very seemingly strong and beautiful exterior, but can be killed just like that … gone just like that.”

Barak Marshall and Bodytraffic will preview their new work at American Jewish University on May 31 in advance of its New York premiere at the Joyce Theatre. For ticket information, http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/239961

Child Holocaust survivors speak up for those who can’t

Only a precious remnant of Holocaust survivors is alive today, and many of them were just children when they went into hiding or ended up behind barbed wire. Indeed, there’s a heartbreaking irony in the fact that the last survivors are the ones who were the most at risk, precisely because the Germans had no use for youngsters who could not perform heavy labor.

The story is told in the first person in “How We Survived: 52 Personal Stories by Child Survivors of the Holocaust,” a publication of an organization called Child Survivors of the Holocaust Inc. ($30, ” title=”www.jewishjournal.com/twelvetwelve” target=”_blank”>www.jewishjournal.com/twelvetwelve and can be reached at books@jewishjournal.com.

Lust, spectacle on a biblical scale: Why we love silent films

Sure, you’ve heard of old movies, but one highlight of this year’s Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival reaches back 88 years, reviving the silent film “The Moon of Israel.”

The revival fits right in with the rediscovery of the silent film genre, kick-started by the Oscar best-film win for “The Artist.” While this art form might seem to have died when the studios brought sound to the cinema in the late 1920s, the ghosts of movies past are stirring again.

“Moon of Israel” was the creation of Hungarian-Jewish director Mihaly Kertesz, who shot the Austrian production in Vienna and released it in 1924 under the title “Die Sklavenkönigin” (The Queen of the Slaves).

The European success of “Moon” and the preceding “Sodom and Gomorrah” impressed Hollywood mogul Jack Warner, who invited the director to come to America and make a biblical epic for his studio.

Kertesz arrived in 1926, Anglicized the spelling of his name to Michael Curtiz, and obliged his new employer by making “Noah’s Ark” in 1928.

Curtiz’s script for “Moon of Israel” was based on the book of the same title by H. Rider Haggard, who, in turn, was “inspired” by the biblical story of the Exodus from Egypt.

Such inspiration jazzed up the original version by introducing as a central theme the torrid romance of an Israelite slave girl Merapi (aka The Moon of Israel) and Prince Seti, slated to succeed his father as pharaoh.

By his nature, Seti is what nowadays might be considered a bleeding-heart liberal. Although quite the bare-chested hunk, he prefers to consort with poets rather than compete in horse races, and he tells his father, Pharaoh Menapta, that he should really listen to Moses and let the Israelites go.

For this impertinence, Seti is stripped of his succession to the throne, which leaves him free to pursue his courtship of Merapi in earnest.

Even in a somewhat blurred DVD copy of “Moon,” the film’s scale is impressive, particularly in depicting the massive flight of the Israelite men, women, children and cattle. The elderly men are draped in prayer shawls, women stumble under their burden, and even the commanding Moses leans heavily on his stick.

In one of the most expensive Austrian films up to that time, the producers spent lavishly on thousands of extras, costumes and special effects, knowing that in America, director Cecil B. DeMille was shooting his own biblical extravaganza, “The Ten Commandments” (not to be confused with the 1956 Charlton Heston movie) in such California locations as Nipomo Dunes near Pismo Beach and in Seal Beach.

According to most critics — now and then — “Moon” beat “Ten Commandments” handily in the climactic parting of the Red Sea spectacle.

By present standards, the acting appears rather florid and exaggerated. But by the norms of the time, most of the film’s actors do not descend into caricatures and succeed in creating believable human characters.

The success of “Moon” on the continent quickly led to an export version with English intertitles and premieres in England and the United States.

Print ads in American newspapers hailed “Moon” with such superlatives as Daring Romance! Swift Action! Breath-Taking Thrills! A Succession of Stupendous Spectaculars!

On the other hand, Britain’s Board of Film Censors objected strongly to scenes showing arrows quivering in the chests of Egyptian soldiers, as well as to too much skin exposure of the heroine’s back and excessive passion in the final kiss between the Israelite maiden and the Egyptian prince.

On the film set.

However, due to Hollywood studio rivalries and skullduggery, “Moon” was shown in a badly truncated version on American screens and had limited success, according to film historian Alan K. Rode, whose biography “Michael Curtiz: A Man for All Movies,” will be published next year by the University Press of Kentucky.

After its initial run, “Moon” apparently was never revived in America and footage of the complete film was lost for many years until a restored version was screened in Vienna in 2005.

Hilary Helstein, the executive director of The Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival, said she discovered the existence of “Moon” during a business trip to Austria two years ago and was immediately taken by the movie’s subject and form.

“I thought it was a unique film which, among other things, illustrated a period in cinema history when the discovery of King Tut’s tomb led to a fascination with all things Egyptian,” she said.

During the 28 years following his American arrival, Curtiz directed more than 100 feature films, frequently turning out four in one year.

His movie career was marked both by a prolific output and by the wide range of themes and moods, ranging from the melodramatic “Moon” to the stirring “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and the sentimental “White Christmas.”

Although he was nominated for Academy Awards five times as best director and his films were up six times for best picture, he scored only once, when “Casablanca” won best director and best picture Oscars in 1943.

According to contemporary accounts, Curtiz was hyper-energetic and a hard taskmaster, considered arrogant and callous by many colleagues. He was contemptuous of “lunch bums” — actors who had the temerity to take time off to eat lunch.

On the other hand, actresses like Joan Crawford, whose career Curtiz revived in “Mildred Pierce,” and Doris Day, who was discovered by Curtiz, thought of him as one of the greatest directors, Rode said.

Curtiz was most admired for his highly visual style of filmmaking, though at the cost of character development of his actors’ roles, according to critics. One surviving quote has it that when asked about this weakness, Curtiz replied, “Who cares about the character? I make it go so fast nobody notices.”

True to silent-film tradition, the May 6 screening of “Moon” during The Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival will be accompanied by the noted Austrian pianist and composer Gerhard Gruber, now 61, who has composed and performed the music for some 450 silent movies during his career.

During a phone interview from his home near Linz, Austria, Gruber noted that in his music he tries to express “the motion and emotion” of a film, rather than of a particular historical era.

“My music changes with the moods of different audiences,” he said. “I prefer to compose for silent movies because there’s no director who tells you what to do.”

Gruber caught the silent-movie bug as an 11-year-old in a Catholic boarding school, where harsh routine was relieved once a week with the showing of old Buster Keaton or Laurel and Hardy comedies.

“That was my window to freedom that allowed me to travel to a land of fantasy,” Gruber recalled.

“The Artist” did not enchant Gruber or such American film critics as David Denby of The New Yorker and Peter Rainer of the Christian Science Monitor. All three suggested the film had the glossy feel of a 1940s Hollywood production, rather than of a silent movie of the first two decades of the last century.

Whatever its merits, “The Artist” is just one sign that silent films have returned to the public consciousness.

Another is the continuing popularity of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, now in its 17th year. Most recently, the highlight was a revival of Abel Gance’s 1927 masterpiece “Napoleon.”

The five-and-a-half hour film (eight hours with snack and dinner breaks), accompanied by a 46-piece orchestra, attracted some 3,000 patrons, some of whom came from as far as Holland and the Czech Republic, cheering the film to the rafters.

Back in 1981, the local Shrine Auditorium screened an abbreviated four-hour cut of “Napoleon.” My then-22-year old daughter and I saw the epic and have never forgotten it.

For a considerable time, this city’s Silent Movie Theatre on Fairfax Avenue was the only one of its kind in the United States, and for decades it brought back the glory days of Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Harold Lloyd, Rudolph Valentino and the Keystone Kops.

After a number of ownership changes and a year-long closure, the venue reopened as the Cinefamily theater in 2006. In its reincarnation, the theater is a popular place for bar mitzvah and wedding parties but also maintains an eclectic mix of movie screenings, including occasional silent films with live music accompaniment.

Another sign of renewed interest in silent films is a five-page article in the Feb. 27 issue of The New Yorker, subtitled “Notes on a lost style of acting.”

Writer David Denby observed that “[s]ilent film is another country. They speak another language there — a language of gestures, stares, flapping mouths, halting or skittering walks, and sometimes movements and expressions of infinite intricacy and beauty.”

His article cites the reaction of the French literary critic Roland Barthes to a silent film starring Greta Garbo:

“Garbo still belongs to that moment in cinema when capturing the human face still plunged audiences into the deepest ecstasy, when one literally lost oneself in a human image as one would in a philter, when the face represented a kind of absolute state of the flesh, which could be neither reached nor renounced.”

“Moon of Israel” will screen May 6 at 7 p.m. at the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills, as part of The Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival, presented by The Jewish Journal. Actress Penelope Ann Miller of “The Artist” will introduce the film. For tickets and other information, call (800) 838-3006.

Pianist Gerhard Gruber will perform at the American Cinematheque screening on May 3 of “Café Electric,” starring Marlene Dietrich and commemorating her death 20 years ago. The film starts at 7:30 p.m. at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica. For tickets, visit

-->

‘Modigliani’ paints moving portrait of tormented artist

An artist’s angst over personal demons and the vicissitudes of the marketplace is depicted with a mixture of humor and pathos in the upcoming revival of “Modigliani” at the Open Fist Theatre in Hollywood. The story, set in the Montparnasse area of Paris in 1916, covers three days in the life of the celebrated Italian-Jewish painter Amedeo Modigliani, who, like numerous other artists, became an icon only after his death. He is particularly noted for his renderings of elongated figures, mask-like faces and erotic nudes.

The play, by the late Dennis McIntyre, was produced off-Broadway at the Astor Place Theatre in 1980, where director Bjørn Johnson saw it when he went to New York as a young actor to study. He was so taken with the material that, years later, he decided to play Modigliani as a project for his acting class in Los Angeles. Now he is helming a professional production of the work for a midweek offering at the Open Fist.

“ ‘Modigliani’ is really the genuine starving-artist story,” Johnson remarked. “He was a guy who was recognized by everybody but just couldn’t get it off the ground.”

He was also recognized for his alcoholism, his addiction to hashish and absinthe, and his womanizing. 

“He was a wild guy,” Johnson said, “very eccentric and so open. And that’s what’s so attractive about the play, what’s so attractive about the characters. What else is attractive to me about the material is that it’s a great acting opportunity. The scenes are detailed, and they’re deep, and they get to completion. They go to very deep places, not all of them dark. But it’s just kind of a great, human opportunity for an actor, and a director.”

Johnson and Matt Marquez — who plays the title role — both say that they, as artists in another medium, can relate to Modigliani’s struggles.  Marquez describes the three days depicted in the play as a particularly crucial point in Modigliani’s life. The artist is burned-out; tired of buyers, collectors and dealers; has not been painting; and wants money to fulfill his fantasy of running away to Martinique.

“He’s somebody who has begun to doubt his own talent,” Marquez explained, “and he has reason for that. He’s basically come to a crisis in his life where he doesn’t know what to do or if he’s made the right choice. So, he’s filled with doubt, like many of us are at times in our lives.”

Marquez added: “What makes it even harder to deal with is the fact that he has tuberculosis and he’s dying. In those three days, he’s struggling to find something of substance in his life and a way back into what he loved so much in his art. He’s uninspired, and he’s trying to find inspiration, and he knows his time is finite. He doesn’t know if he’ll make it to the next day.”

The art world of Modigliani’s day in Paris was teeming with such movements as Cubism, Post-Impressionism, Dadaism and Futurism, among others, but Modigliani didn’t fit the mold. Marquez feels it’s a problem for artists that never changes.

“It has to do with culture and what’s popular and what’s not. They say artists are ahead of their time, but it’s more about everyone else having to catch up. They’re right where they need to be, but everyone else has to catch up,” Marquez said.

“There’s a line where one of the dealers tells my character that there’s no demand for a certain kind of painting that I’m doing, and I say, ‘Demand? But demand can’t change something that’s beautiful.’ And, of course, he rejects what I’ve just said,” Marquez added.

The tragic underpinning of the play is leavened with hilarity, particularly in the characters of Modigliani’s fellow artists Chaim Soutine (Nasser Khan), also Jewish, and Maurice Utrillo (Daniel Escobar).

Utrillo wants Soutine to help him kill his mother’s lover, while Soutine wants assistance in stealing a dead cow so that he can watch the side of beef change and paint the colors that emerge. He worries that they won’t get to the carcass in time. “What if they throw out the beef? Butchers aren’t very sensitive. They don’t understand reds or greens.”

Modigliani, or Modi, as he was called, also has his comedic moments. At one point he explains his injured hand to his agent, Leopold (Jeff Lorch and Peter Lewis,  double-cast), by recounting his escapade in an upscale restaurant that he had entered from the back.  When the staff realized he had drunk two bottles of wine, and probably couldn’t pay, they started chasing him. He describes leaping over tables, stepping in dinners, introducing himself and sampling desserts when he found himself at the table of a French general and his wife.

“And you know what I think about French generals,” he says. He then describes how he dropped his pants and bent over, adding, “And Jews don’t drop their pants on very important generals.”

The fact that Modigliani was Jewish definitely informs the work and is a significant element of the story, according to Johnson.

“I don’t think it’s an isolated thing. I think it ties into his sense of being held outside, of being excluded, of being repressed. And I think it couples with his frustrations. Utrillo is his best friend, and yet he sort of laughingly calls him a Jew bastard and sarcastically calls him a kike. But it definitely ties into the gestalt of the society in which they’re living.” 

Modigliani’s sense of being alienated explodes in the play’s devastating, pivotal scene, which finds him meeting with art dealer Guillaume Chéron (Jon Collin Barclay), who trivializes the artist’s efforts, is disrespectful, dismissive and somewhat contemptuous, offering an insultingly paltry sum for some of the artwork. The dealer says, “You have a talent — but I doubt you’ll ever develop it. You’re good — no — more promising than good, but you’re not that good.”

In reaction, Modigliani goes on a rampage, destroying many of his paintings. His self-destructive behavior finally provokes his mistress and model, Beatrice Hastings (Nicole Stuart), into leaving him.

It seems that Modigliani has nothing left, but then his inner core bursts forth. It is a quintessential expression of tenaciousness, which, for Johnson, is at the heart of this play.

“He’s got so much behind him; he’s got so much fire in his belly; he’s got so much genuine artistic inspiration; and he’s flying in the face of incredible obstacles. He’s got tuberculosis; he’s out of money; he’s in questionable company; he doesn’t have two cents to rub together; he doesn’t have any food; it’s incredibly cold, and it’s raining. He’s got some hard knocks and close calls, and he just won’t take ‘no’ for an answer. I think the universal theme is tenacity.”


“Modigliani” at the Open Fist Theatre Company, 6209 Santa Monica Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90038. 323.882.6912. Mon. April 30 (preview) – Thurs. May 24, 2012. Reservations: https://openfist.secure.force.com/ticket

Gala Opening:
Tuesday, May 1st @ 8pm 
Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday at 8pm

Gala Opening Tickets- $30.00
Preview tickets: $15.00
VIP Tickets $34.00 ~ Includes Wine
Regular tickets $20 ~ Students & Seniors – $15

The soul of Monique Benabou

Monique Benabou might be a guy’s ideal woman. The 23-year-old former contestant on NBC-TV’s reality singing competition show, “The Voice,” handpicked by pop star Christina Aguilera, is beautiful and equipped with soulful pipes, along with being adventurous, compassionate and proud of being Jewish.

Her big moment, featured on the second season of “The Voice” this year, came when she sang Kelly Clarkson’s “Mr. Know It All” during the show’s blind-audition round: Production cuts cycled back and forth between her belting out lyrics like a diva, her nervous parents watching backstage with host Carson Daly, and close-ups of Aguilera — the show’s only female judge and a vocal star herself — itching to press the button that would signal she wanted Benabou to join her team.

You could do something with her,” country artist and judge Blake Shelton whispered to Ag-
uilera, prompting the pop queen to finally hit her button.

In the next round, paired head-to-head against the show’s favorite, operatically trained Chris Mann, Benabou was eliminated from the competition. She says she learned from the experience, however briefly, especially from being coached by Aguilera, and she will apply what she’s learned when she’s one of the headliners at Sunday’s Israel Festival at Rancho Park.

Born in Oakland, Calif., in 1988, Benabou stayed home from school when she was 12 to take care of her mother, who’d been diagnosed with cancer and survived the disease. During her junior year of high school, tired of being bullied due to the color of her skin — she’s a mix of Moroccan and Israeli descent and stuck out on the mostly white campus — she dropped out of school to pursue her love of singing. While living in the Bay Area, she auditioned for “American Idol” twice, at 16 and 20, but both times failed to advance beyond the first audition. Four years ago, she moved to Los Angeles and performed at open-mics and bars in Ventura County and West Hollywood, often playing in a cover band, before auditioning for “The Voice.”

Benabou talks to The Jewish Journal about how she went from teaching Hebrew school to performing in front of millions of people on national television, why participating in “The Voice” is worthwhile even though it can be painful, her teen challenges and what to expect from her first album, tentatively titled “Ride the Wave,” a collection of six songs she plans to release digitally and without a record label in July.

Jewish Journal: Describe your connection with Israel.
Monique Benabou: I feel better when I’m in Israel. Something about the land, the air, the culture, the way of life, it hits so much closer to home, it just makes me feel that’s where I’m supposed to be. I have family in Tel Aviv, in Herzliya, in Jerusalem, in Sderot.

JJ: In Sderot? Where the Katusha rockets are falling from Gaza?
MB: That’s where most of my family is, actually. Luckily, thankfully, no one in my family has died from the bombs there. The bombings, it’s scary. It’s definitely like when we hear something on the news we’re holding our breath and calling everyone and making sure we’re all accounted for. It’s so nerve-wracking, and all we can do is pray and go about our lives and not live our lives in fear because of the unfortunate circumstances that are there.

JJ: How much family do you have in Sderot?
MB: A couple hundred [relatives]. We’re Israelis; we procreate. I have cousins, two aunts and uncles that live there, and they each have about 13 children, and their children have children at this point.

JJ: Tell us about your upcoming album.
MB: I’m very, very excited. I want it to be such a well-rounded album that is commercially viable, that sells some records but still maintains the artistry of songwriting and my vocal ability. 

JJ: We hear so much about the hopeless state of the music industry today. How do you find encouragement in the face of that?
MB: It is a cutthroat business. There are so many ‘nos’ you have to get through. Even when you do get your break, there’s still ‘nos’ ahead. You have to keep working hard.

JJ: Does a show like ‘The Voice’ help or hurt an artist’s chances of succeeding in the industry?
MB: ‘The Voice’ is a great opportunity on many levels. You learn so much, but you also emotionally go through this up-and-down roller coaster. Sometimes you’re left pretty empty and pretty drained and not knowing where to pick up the pieces from. That’s personally how I felt afterward. But there are always two sides. ‘The Voice’ definitely gave me the most realistic glimpse of what the industry is like.

Photo by KevinThomasPhotography.com

JJ: What are your goals outside of music?
MB: Are you familiar with the term tikkun olam? That is my No. 1 thing that I promote, and it’s very important to me. I’m really supportive of the anti-bullying foundations that are starting to come up. I want to help our youth understand that bullying is not OK and it’s not cool.

JJ: Has bullying personally affected you?
MB: I grew up in a predominantly suburban area, and I was a poor kid out of all the rich kids. The school I went to was predominantly white and Asian. From being beat up every day, from not being able to keep friends because they would get made fun of if they befriended me, I had a conversation with myself one day and said, ‘I want to sing, no matter what; this is what I want to do.’ I dropped out my junior year, took my GED, and I enrolled in a junior college.

JJ: So, that was the moment when you decided that a music career is what you wanted out of life?
MB: I’ve always kind of known. Since I was 3, that’s all I did was sing.

JJ: What motivated you to audition for ‘The Voice’?
MB: It took my cousin pushing me. I thought about auditioning prior to my cousin telling me to do so, but there was that phobia of dealing with the rejection. I didn’t want to do it — because I had such a bad experience on ‘Idol,’ I thought ‘The Voice’ was going to be the same thing, but it wasn’t. It was actually quite the opposite.

JJ: What was it like working with Aguilera?
MB: Going onto Christina’s team, it was an amazing experience working with her. She is so filled with knowledge, and she knows herself, she knows the stage and that specifically is [what she worked on] with me, on my confidence and stage presence and stage performance. I’m very excited for the Israel Festival, because I get to showcase everything I learned from Christina.

JJ: What was your thought process the day of your elimination, before and after you were eliminated?
MB: I was convincing myself that I was going to win, even though I knew I was going home.

JJ: How did you know?
MB: Because I didn’t see from a business standpoint, from a television standpoint, and from a marketing and record level standpoint, I did not see [Chris Mann] leaving. He’s very talented, and he’s one-of-a-kind on the show.

I said, ‘F it, I’m going out there to perform for myself, for my family, to make myself proud and give the performance of my life, because, at the end of the day, this will be televised.’ I felt like I took it, but that’s not how the cookie crumbled, and I’m grateful for the experience.

JJ: The bio segment of the show revealed that your mom was diagnosed with breast cancer when you were 12 years old, and that you took care of her. What was it like to have that exposed to the world?
MB: For all that to come out was a little unnerving, but I am a pretty open book.

JJ: Were you able to have a bat mitzvah at the age of 12, or was life too crazy at the time, given your mom’s sickness?
MB: I did not have a bat mitzvah. My parents are Sephardic, and how they grew up is that the boys are getting bar mitzvahs and the girls not really.

JJ: How do you go about writing songs?
MB: Lyrically, I’m writing the songs, and then I have co-writers who accompany me either on piano or guitar and put a supporting instrumental or melody behind it or help me create that vocal melody behind it. I cannot read music — I’ve learned what I’ve learned from working with musicians. Thank God I have a natural ear and good music intuition.

JJ: Where do you record your music?
MB: Right down from Simi Valley, there’s a home studio where I had an internship for the last three years. It’s called Rock City Studios, and it’s in Camarillo. The man who owns it, Dan Peyton, has also been my mentor for the last three years. He took me under his wing, taught me about songwriting and the industry, helped me find my voice. I went from laying vocals down over beats to working with live musicians. It was a completely different feel, and I loved it.

JJ: Without the support of a record label, how are you financing the creation of the album?
MB: My parents are helping me out a great deal, and Dan doesn’t charge me for recording as of right now. I’m also in the process of working on a promo and putting it on [crowd-funding site] Kickstarter. Hopefully anyone who believes in the project will be able to help us out and help us raise money to put out a great album.

JJ: What can we expect from your upcoming performance at the Israel Festival?
MB: Put smiles on faces and further my place in the Jewish community.

Benabou performs on Sunday, April 29, at the Celebrate Israel Festival, which commemorates Israel’s 64th Independence Day. For additional information and to purchase tickets, visit celebrateisraelfestival.com.

Israeli authors, screenwriters featured at Buenos Aires book fair

Israeli authors and screenwriters are being featured at the 38th Book Fair of Buenos Aires.

The book fair, which runs through May 7, reportedly is the most visited book fair in the Spanish-speaking world; last year more than 1.25 million people attended.

Joseph Cedar, the Academy Award-nominated director and screenwriter, participated over the weekend in a panel with Argentinean Jewish filmmaker Daniel Burman, who received the Silver Bear Award at the 2004 Berlin Film Festival and will present his first book.

A special Israel Day will be held May 3 that will include a public interview with award-winning Israeli author David Grossman in the fair’s main hall.

At the Israeli stand, sponsored by the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, visitors will be able to read a paragraph of a story from an Israeli author or poet that will be recorded on video. This collective production will be edited by the Film Research Center and posted on YouTube.

The Israeli stand also will screen Israeli movies. “A lot of people like the movies, so we try to show them also the writing side of the movies and the books behind the movies,” Daniel Gazit, the Israeli ambassador to Argentina, told JTA.

Romanian Norman Manea, who won the National Jewish Book Award in 1993; economist and author Bernardo Kliksberg; and Israeli poet Amir Or also will participate in the book fair.

With Tony Curtis profile, docs shine at Jewish fest

For its opening night on May 3, the Jewish Film Festival appropriately returns to one of Hollywood’s golden ages and to one of its most celebrated Jewish stars, Bernie Schwartz, aka Tony Curtis.

The documentary “Tony Curtis: Driven to Stardom” covers a lot of ground, much of it rocky, in 96 minutes.

Born in the Bronx to Hungarian-Jewish immigrant parents, Bernie had a difficult childhood. His schizophrenic mother beat him regularly, his father flitted from job to job, the family was evicted when it fell behind in the rent, and Bernie blamed himself for the accidental death of his younger brother.

His escape was the neighborhood movie theater, where his idols were Errol Flynn and Cary Grant, and the boy modeled himself on the Dead End Kids.

At 15, he falsified his age and enlisted in the Navy, serving in the Pacific on a submarine tender. After discharge, with the help of the GI Bill, Curtis enrolled in the theater workshop of The New School for Social Research.

His classmates were the likes of Marlon Brando and Harry Belafonte — the latter a lifelong friend and co-star of the color-barrier breaking “The Defiant Ones” — who narrates much of the documentary.

After a slow start in Hollywood, Curtis became a megastar and sex symbol of the 1950s and early ’60s; his bouffant hairstyle was imitated by Elvis Presley, James Dean and millions of teenage boys.

With changing tastes and advancing age, Curtis transformed himself from just a pretty boy into a character actor (“Sweet Smell of Success,” “Spartacus”), but, as time went on, his career arc turned south. He started freebasing cocaine, married and divorced five wives and had six children, who mostly disliked him.

Eventually, he sobered up and, in a lengthy interview, an older and wiser Curtis acknowledged his missteps and his lifelong addiction to fame. He died in 2010, at 85.

Bernie Schwartz’s Jewishness comes up in the film, such as the anti-Semitism of his Bronx childhood and the mandatory name change when he arrived in Hollywood (he first opted for “Anthony Adverse”), but it is not a major theme emphasized by director Ian Ayres.

Late in life, Curtis rediscovered his Hungarian-Jewish roots and spent generously to help restore the Great Synagogue in Budapest and other synagogues and cemeteries in Hungary.

“Tony Curtis: Driven to Stardom” screens at 8 p.m. on May 3 at the Writers Guild Theater in Beverly Hills, and reprises May 6 at 7 p.m. at Laemmle’s Town Center in Encino.

Israeli violin maker profiled in ‘Wartime’

Amnon Weinstein is a third-generation violin maker in Tel Aviv, a man with a rugged face, white shock of hair, handlebar mustache, and the heart and soul of “Violins in Wartime.”

“Wartime,” in this case, is the Second Lebanon War, starting in 2006, during which Haifa came under repeated rocket attacks and children in northern Israel were evacuated to safer parts of the country.

One mile south of the Lebanon border and six miles inland from the Mediterranean coast lies Kibbutz Eilon.

Founded in 1938 by immigrants from Poland, the kibbutz is now best known for its Keshet Eilon Music Center and annual master course, drawing 50 talented students from around the world.

Weinstein was one of the founders and is a continuing catalyst of Keshet Eilon, so when the fighting started at the border, he and musical director Shlomo Mintz were asked whether the three-week course should be called off.

No way, said Weinstein and Mintz, although they agreed to move out of rocket range to Beit Berl in central Israel. Soon the students arrived, as did 83-year-old master violinist Ida Haendel, who flew in from Miami to teach and perform.

But Weinstein was also wrestling with some personal problems. His son Avshi, carrying on the family trade into the fourth generation, had been called up for army duty, and his parents worry constantly about his safety.

The interplay of the war’s canon fire and the violin’s small voice is a curious one, but then the violin has deep roots in Jewish tradition.

One reason may be that during pogroms and expulsions, the violin could be easily carried and would always be in demand at weddings and bar mitzvahs. This may explain why 90 percent of all great violinists are Jews, as one musician maintains in the film.

The statement seems unduly boastful but may be validated by scanning such names as Heifetz, Menuhin, Stern, Perlman, Milstein, Zuckerman, Oistrakh, Shaham and many others.

Director, producer and writer of “Violins in Wartime” is multitalented Yael Katzir, a Tel Aviv native and UCLA graduate. Executive producers are her son, Dan Katzir, and Ravit Markus, who will participate in a Q-and-A exchange with the audience at the film’s screening on May 8 at 7:30 p.m. at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills.

‘Rescuers’ pays tribute to World War II gentile diplomats

“The Rescuers” documents the powerful stories of 12 gentile diplomats from 11 countries, who, against the orders of their governments, and along with other envoys, helped save an estimated 200,000 European Jews during World War II.

The film is the work of three unlikely collaborators: The British historian Sir Martin Gilbert, biographer of Winston Churchill; Michael King, an African-American documentary filmmaker; and Stephanie Nyombayire, a Rwandan human rights activist, who lost more than 100 family members in her country’s genocide.

Among the rescuers, only the name of Sweden’s Raoul Wallenberg is widely known, but the group includes a member of the Nazi party and a Turkish Muslim, as well as two Britons, two Americans and former envoys from China, Japan, Poland, Holland, Switzerland, Portugal and Italy.

King is a film teacher and producer, best-known for his documentaries on inner-city teenagers. He won an Emmy for the PBS special “Bangin’, ” which dealt with youth violence.

It may be quite a stretch from Los Angeles’ mean streets to Holocaust rescuers, but the 53-year-old, dreadlocked King quickly makes the connection.

“I’ve always made socially conscious films and I have always been fascinated by the mystery of goodness,” he said.

“The story of the rescuers, who risked their careers by choosing God over their government, has universal significance,” he added. Besides, he added, “If Steven Spielberg can make ‘The Color Purple’ (on the lives of black women in the South), why can’t I make a film about the Holocaust?”

“The Rescuers” will screen May 8 at 7:30 p.m. at Laemmle’s Town Center in Encino. Director King will participate in a panel discussion.

Choicest of the choice

Much has changed in the book business since the Los Angeles Times launched its Festival of Books 17 years ago, but the FOB — as it is fondly known — remains the premier event of the literary calendar for the more than 100,000 readers and writers who never miss it.

The 2012 outing will be held April 20-22 on the campus of USC, a venue that was adopted last year after the festival’s many years on the campus of the Trojans’ cross-town rival, UCLA. USC may have seemed a bit distant for Westsiders, but last year’s inaugural outing at the new location turned out to be rich, lively, diverse, accessible and well-attended.

Admission is free, and parking is $10. For tickets and a complete list of events and participants, visit the Festival of Books Web site at events. ” title=”jewishjournal.com/twelvetwelve” target=”_blank”>jewishjournal.com/twelvetwelve and can be reached at books@jewishjournal.com.

Music transcends darkest hours in ‘Willesden Lane’

Malka and Abraham Jura faced a Solomonic decision in late 1938, as the Nazis were tightening the vise on the Jews of Vienna. The couple hoped to send their three daughters to safety but were able to wrangle only one place on the Kindertransport ferrying a limited number of Jewish children to London. After much agonizing, the Juras decided to give the spot to 14-year-old Lisa, a remarkable piano prodigy.

So begins the story leading up to “The Pianist of Willesden Lane,” whose world premiere is set for the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood.

Once in London, Lisa found shelter with 30 other young Jewish refugees in a Quaker-run hostel on Willesden Lane, later enduring intense German aerial bombardment during the London Blitz.

Playing the role of Lisa Jura in the one-character play is her daughter, Mona Golabek, carrying on her mother’s and grandmother’s musical family tradition.

Golabek wrote of her mother’s travails and musical triumphs in her book “The Children of Willesden Lane” (with Lee Cohen), on which the show is based.

But the real message of the play is the power of music to uplift our spirits in the darkest of times, Golabek observed during an interview at the Geffen Playhouse, and her performance is permeated with some of the world’s most enduring piano compositions.

Unlike many survivors of the Holocaust era, who never spoke about their experiences with their children, Lisa Jura shared her stories freely with her daughters Mona and Renee.

“My mother would be giving us piano lessons and suddenly a passage would remind her of some childhood event and she would talk about it,” Golabek said.

One such incident was Lisa’s heartbreaking separation from her family at the Vienna train station, when her mother’s final words to her were, “Hold on to your music; it will be your best friend.”

The advice has become the family’s leitmotif through succeeding generations and is perpetuated in their Hold On To Your Music Foundation, supported by the Milken Family Foundation and the Annenberg Foundation.

There is one other dimension to Golabek’s performance in the play. “My role allows me to pay homage to my parents,” she said. “How many people ever get that opportunity?”

After the war, Lisa, now married, moved to Los Angeles, where Mona was born and grew up to become an acclaimed concert pianist.

Her honors include the Avery Fisher Prize and the People’s Award of the International Chopin Competition, as well as a Grammy nomination.

She has appeared with the world’s leading orchestras and at the most prestigious concert halls, and is both the creator and the voice of the syndicated radio program “The Romantic Hours,” which combines classical music with readings of poetry, letters and stories.

Three years ago, Golabek met Hershey Felder, best known as the piano-playing alter ego of George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein, Ludwig van Beethoven and Frederic Chopin, while he was performing at the Geffen Playhouse.

She asked Felder whether the story of her mother could be transferred to the stage. He said yes and set about writing an adaptation of the book.

Felder is now behind the scenes, as the play’s director, an unusual position for him. Actually, his friends are so used to seeing him at the center of the stage action, he said, “They suspect I may be playing Mona’s role in drag.” It has been a busy few months for Felder. Besides rehearsing for “The Pianist,” he has been on stage in solo performances of “Monsieur Chopin,” “Maestro: The Art of Leonard Bernstein” and “Lincoln — An American Story,” at the Pasadena Playhouse.

If “The Pianist” is successful, Golabek hopes to take it on a national tour and then overseas, where her book has proved popular. She said that she has received numerous offers for the film rights, but is “waiting for the right one.”

Golabek’s Jewish heritage is an inextricable part of her life. “I’m proud of Israel, and I’m proud of our Jewish history,” she said. “But today, being a Jew is also a responsibility. I have to earn what my parents and grandparents did for me.”

“The Pianist of Willesden Lane” will be at the Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater of the Geffen Playhouse, with previews starting April 17. The official opening night is April 25 and closing night June 24. For tickets and information, call (310) 208-5454 or visit www.geffenplayhouse.com.

Loss, survival — cue the music

“When I told my son I was going to write a musical about the Holocaust,” playwright and Holocaust survivor Lucy Deutsch recalled, “he raised both arms and screamed, ‘Mother, how can you do that? Those two words don’t belong together!’

“I answered, ‘Yes they do, if you look at the full circle.’ My musical takes you from the happy times before the Holocaust, through the Holocaust, and then to my life after the Holocaust. Somehow the world forgot that the Holocaust stories that are written and made into movies depict only the Holocaust. What happens to the people after the Holocaust? How did they break through that pain and everything else? This musical goes full circle and includes the beautiful songs I wrote.”

Deutsch’s musical, “No Time to Weep,” opens this weekend at the Matrix Theatre. The songs in the show are particularly appealing to Caitlin Gallogly, who plays Deutsch from ages 14 to 28, because of how they facilitate the action.

“Instead of having soliloquies the way you would have in ‘Hamlet,’ you have these beautiful, heart-wrenching numbers, some of which are very innocent and some of which are really dark and harrowing, and I just thought that was amazing. It was completely avant-garde and crazy, and I thought, ‘Yes, yes, I want to do this.’ ” 

Gallogly described her character at age 14 — before Auschwitz — as a somewhat naive young girl with simple, typical teenage concerns, who is experiencing the first rush of puppy love, and whose life is filled with love and laughter. 

“She hasn’t been exposed yet to the sort of trickling story coming in of what happened to Jews when they were taken away. But she was wearing the yellow star. She was aware of restrictions on her life, and, I think, importantly, those concerns, which were always in the background, until suddenly they were not, those things were informing the way that she developed as a person.”

Deutsch grew up in the Carpathian Mountains, in an area that was taken from Czechoslovakia by Hitler and given to Hungary, a German ally during World War II. She said that Miklós Horthy, Regent of the Kingdom of Hungary, was able to resist Hitler’s persecution of the Jews until 1944.

But then, one morning, Deutsch’s family was abruptly arrested by Hungarian gendarmes, taken to a ghetto and then transported to Auschwitz. Although she didn’t realize it until much later, her mother and younger siblings, who were sent “to the left” upon arrival at the camp, were immediately exterminated. Her father and older sister ultimately died as well. 

“I’m not camouflaging the Holocaust,” Deutsch said, “because many things happened to me in Auschwitz which I couldn’t include in the musical; my life hung in the balance every day. I was afraid the German soldiers who came to count the prisoners would pull me out and send me to the crematorium because I was a child. I was the shortest of them all. The women always hid me behind them. Once a soldier pulled me out of the line, and I fell to his knees and begged him not to take me.”

Refusing to succumb, Lucy managed to survive. Many of the women did not.

“Some of the women gave up, and they became very weak and sick, and everybody knew they would not survive,” Deutsch said. “Those who stood up, and those who took life as it was and knew they had to fight for it to stay alive, they survived. And I learned early to do that. I couldn’t give up. I was a child. Naturally, I was beaten up also, because the German women and the kapos all had sticks as they walked about. And I always opened my mouth, telling them that they shouldn’t do that, and then I got hit.”

After liberation she met Mickey Deutsch, who is now her ex-husband. The two fled to Germany and a Displaced Persons camp, married, and, in 1948, set sail for Israel. As soon as they landed, Mickey was taken into the Israeli army. Lucy went into the Air Force and worked as a hostess in a cantina for the pilots.

Ten years later, she moved to America, where she became successful in business. She created a clutch bag for women that had artwork on it and was known as the “magazine clutch.” She subsequently manufactured leather bags, briefcases and binders that sold around the country. Then, when she broke her leg in 1987 and was confined to bed, she began to write her autobiography, “Shattered Childhood,” which ultimately inspired her musical. Since that time, writing has been a constant pursuit for her. 

Deutsch stressed that by dramatizing her life, she intends to present what she considers a different perspective on the Holocaust. “This story shows how, from the Holocaust, beauty is born. It’s inspirational. Something beautiful can develop, as one can see from my last song in the play, which is about planting a seed for salvation, so we can see it grow. ‘From its cradle it will know liberty.’ I wrote that song from my heart.

“I want the audience to come out feeling that it’s OK, people can survive. People can make a good living, a good life. People can love again.” 

It was this indomitable spirit that captivated Christopher Callen, who portrays Deutsch at age 65, during the height of her career as a manufacturer.

“We see many, many things about the Holocaust, and, as Lucy says, so often they just end it at the crematorium, and they don’t go further about those who did survive,” Callen said. “I think that’s a most important story to tell, because I feel we always need to be reminded, and maybe more so than ever in this day and time, that the human spirit can survive anything, even something as horrendous as the Holocaust.” 

Callen feels her task is to capture Deutsch’s larger-than-life personality and her spirit.

At 82, Deutsch says she still finds daily challenges in life. “If I give up, I will feel completely empty, with nothing to live for. So, I embrace every challenge, and I’m going to follow up on each one, particularly now that I’m doing my musical, which is a big challenge, and I greet it every morning the same way. I’m still alive, still vibrant, and still going strong.”

“No Time to Weep” runs Saturday, April 14 through Sunday, June 3 (Red Carpet Premiere — April 14th). Showtimes are Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m.
Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90046 (Ample Street Parking).  $30.00 General Admission. Seniors and Students with proper ID use Promo Code 007 for $5 off.  Reservations: (323) 960-7780

Painting lives: Artist helps clients mark pivot points, from bar mitzvah dreams to a dying wish

Lori Loebelsohn enters other people’s lives at pivotal moments: a marriage, a milestone birthday, a bar mitzvah. Armed with a pen and a notebook, she discusses intimate details about the inner lives of those she has just met: their passions, their most significant memories, their dreams.

She’s not a rabbi, nor is she a therapist or a life coach. Loebelsohn is an artist whose specialty is what she calls “life-cycle portraits”: personalized works of art that commemorate a special day while also reflecting upon an individual’s lifetime. Loebelsohn draws upon influences as varied as early American quilts, medieval Jewish papercuts, Celtic imagery and 17th-century ketubahs to create an original work rich in personal symbolism.

“I end up having these deep, enlightening discussions with these people I work for,” said Loebelsohn, of Glen Ridge, N.J. “I really feel like I’m a transmitter; I’m trying to transmit what they think is important.”

Loebelsohn, who has decades of experience, recently completed her biggest project: illustrating a 20-page Haggadah created by an 85-year-old man with the intent to create a family heirloom. The project presented many challenges, the artist said, including interpreting her client’s specific ideas in a visual form and keeping a consistent style over a series of some 13 images.

But the biggest obstacle proved to be the rapidly deteriorating health of the family patriarch.

“This had been on his bucket list for years and years,” Loebelsohn said. “It gave him a sense of purpose in his old age.”

Over the course of their collaboration, which began in March 2011, the elderly man grew increasingly weak. The project became a race against the clock, as Loebelsohn worked tirelessly to finish the illustrations before the man’s final hour. He signed off on the final images last November and passed away the following month.

Loebelsohn met the extended family for the first time at the funeral. They used the Haggadah the first time this Passover.

“There was something very spiritual and deep in that relationship,” said Loebelsohn, noting the dual purpose of the Haggadah. “It’s a way of keeping the Jewish Passover story alive; it’s a way of keeping this man’s memory alive.”

It’s an extreme example, to be sure, but Loebelsohn is seasoned at working with families at momentous junctures in their lives. In addition to creating custom ketubahs, one of her more popular commissions is for bar and bat mitzvahs. For a fee starting at $700 for an original painting, she will meet with her young clients (and their parents) and discuss the most meaningful aspects of their lives.

Over the course of about six weeks, Loebelsohn creates an original painting. Typically a central image depicts that week’s Torah portion, and the painting is adorned with numerous personal symbols. Over the years she has incorporated images as diverse as musical notes and family pets, and once a Pittsburgh Steelers logo.

Looking back on her own life, Loebelsohn, 51, says that art—painting, in particular—was an early passion. Growing up in the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn, “art was a big thing in my house,” she said.

Loebelsohn’s father, Joseph, was a police officer, and her mother, Carol, an artist. (Her twin sister, Alise, is a decorative painter.) Carol worked as an illustrator for high-end fashion magazines and retailers such as Vogue and Bergdorf Goodman. Loebelsohn recalls that couture evening gowns often were present in their home, even though the family was of modest means.

In 1982, Loebelsohn earned a degree in painting at Cooper Union in New York and embarked on a career as both an art teacher and an artist, working primarily on abstract paintings and, later, more realistic illustrations. In 1989 she earned a master’s degree in special education from Hunter College; since then she has worked part time as a learning specialist.

“I’m very passionate about my other career—teaching kids to read,” she said. “It’s not like I’m doing my other job like a waitress. I love both my careers.”

An artistic turning point came in 1991, when Loebelsohn was commissioned to create an overmantel painting for the Lefferts Historic House—a homestead built during the American Revolution, now a museum in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. Her task was to paint what the farm had looked like in the 1700s in the folk-art style of the era.

The project “liberated” her, Loebelsohn says, and turned her on to a more symbolic style of painting. Folk art, she realized, “was more about a story rather than getting the likeness of a person. This was more about the narrative.”

Loebelsohn has been experimenting with the format. She began with what she calls “quilt paintings”—paintings inspired by traditional American quilts in which each square evokes an image or symbol. By the time her children reached bar/bat mitzvah age—Loebelsohn has two children with her husband, lawyer David Goldstein: Rachel was born in 1991 and Alex in 1994—she found new inspiration amid historic Jewish manuscripts, particularly the layout of 17th-century ketubahs.

“It was still the same idea of using symbols and things, but the format had changed,” she said. “There was a kind of structure; a central image and the words, and all this decorative stuff around the image.”

The artist is hoping to complete a children’s book project, but acknowledges it’s been put on the back burner. She says she’s been steadily working on commissions since 2004.

“I have hardly had a moment when I haven’t had a backlog of paintings to do,” she said.

Loebelsohn, a Reform Jew who was raised in a non-observant home, says her work has been a way to connect with her religion.

“I’ve learned so much,” she said. “It’s been an evolution for me as an artist and a Jew.”

Her connections to her clients usually endure long after the painting is delivered, Loebelsohn says.

“It’s amazing, they’ll include me in their weddings and bar mitzvahs,” she said. “They tell me everything. I’m talking to them at these pivotal moments in their lives; I’m a part of the process.

“The true meaning of what I do is over time. When that day is long gone, this image lives on.”

Probing the mysterious fate of the Romanovs

Over the many years I’ve spent bumping around the book business, I have introduced my wife, Ann, to a great many literary lions and lionesses, but nothing quite compares to the evening when we first met Dora Levy Mossanen at a book-signing for John Rechy at Dutton’s in Brentwood.

Not long before that memorable event, Ann had taken along a copy of Dora’s superheated historical novel, “Harem,” on a Hawaiian vacation, and our hours by the pool were punctuated with the lively passages that Ann read aloud to me. By the end of the trip, Dora was among her favorite authors, and soon afterward, when it was my turn to read “Harem” — and then another Mossenen novel, “Courtesan” — she was one of mine, too. And so, when I happened to meet Dora at Dutton’s, I immediately steered her across the crowded courtyard and presented her to my wife: “Meet the author of ‘Harem,’ ” I was proud to say.

I later learned that Dora’s literary gifts are coded in her DNA — her grandfather, Habib Levy, was a distinguished scholar and the author of a comprehensive history of the Jews of Iran. She was born in Israel, and among her earliest memories are the singing and dancing in the streets that greeted the declaration of the Jewish state. Her family returned to Iran when she was 9 years old, and they arrived in the midst of the coup against Mossadegh. With the Islamic Revolution and the fall of the shah in 1979, she was forced to leave Iran and settled with her children in Los Angeles, where she enrolled in the writing program at USC and later established herself as “an Isabel Allende of Persia,” in the words of Amy Ephron. It’s no surprise that history marks her fiction as it has marked her life.

We have since become close friends of Dora and her husband, Nader — I could write a separate paean to him! — and their whole beautiful family. At my invitation, Dora agreed to contribute book reviews to The Jewish Journal on a regular basis. A couple of years ago, when my office co-workers and I sat down for our holiday lunch at Spago, Dora was seated at the next table with the members of her long-time writer’s group, and that’s when I first learned she was hard at work on another historical novel.

Dora Levy Mossanen’s new book is “The Last Romanov” (SourceBooks: $14.99). Like the best-sellers “Harem” and “Courtesan,” Mossanen’s latest novel is deeply rooted in an exotic time and place, ornamented with the observed detail that comes from her exhaustive but discerning research, suffused with authentic historical drama, and populated with irresistible men and women who come fully alive on the page, all of which are her trademarks as a novelist. For those of us who have been waiting for Mossanen’s next book with pleasure and anticipation, our patience has now been rewarded.

“The Last Romanov” focuses on Darya Borodina Spiridova, a richly imagined character set among the real-life figures who populated the court of the last Tsar of Russia. The unforgettable Darya is adorned with a miniature Fabergé egg that contains both a scent and a secret, attended by butterflies who may be the restless spirits of murdered Romanovs, and equipped with one eye that resembles “an orb of cracked opal” — “Not the type of milky opal mined from the crevices of the earth,” Mossanen writes, “but a lucid golden shade, defiant and full of mystery.”

These qualities, of course, are found in Darya herself, whom we first meet at the age of 104 as she is summoned to a convocation of Russian aristocrats who, like her, are still haunted by the slaughter of the imperial family during the Bolshevik Revolution. We are soon transported back in time to the embattled Romanov court and the origins of the mystery that Darya will spend her life trying to solve — the fate of the Tsar’s son, heir to the throne of Russia, who may or may not have died along with his parents and siblings on that bloody day in Ekaterinburg.

Darya, in fact, is an eyewitness to history, but she sees the events and personalities at close hand and in intimate detail. As a young woman, she is summoned to the Romanov palace to attend to the Tsarina. “Darya seems to possess a healing touch,” the empress observes. “Perhaps she might heal me, too.” As we are drawn back and forth between contemporary Russia and the turn of the 20th century, we come to realize that Darya possesses a unique ability to see glimmers of light in the thickets of invention and fabrication that have come to surround the Romanovs: “There’s so much myth surrounding your life, Darya,” one character tells her. “You need to tell me the truth.” Thus begins Mossanen’s contemplation of one of the great and enduring enigmas of the troubled 20th century, the destiny of the royal family of Russia.

Mossanen embroiders and embellishes the historical mystery with fascinating details, some real and some imagined — high ceremony, court intrigue, sexual adventure and the rhythms of what passes for ordinary life in an imperial court. She conjures up sights and smells that are sometimes strange and eerie, sometimes sensual and intoxicating, sometimes comical. At moments, Mossanen manages to do all of it at once, as when she describes the ornate baptismal ceremony for the Tsarevich and pauses to observe how “the screaming Tsarevich lets loose a stream of urine on the ecclesiastic pendant of rubies and emeralds Father Yanishev wears on his habit,” and then quotes the cleric: “He is now doubly sanctified.”

She introduces a few inventions of her own to “The Last Romanov.” Darya befriends a Jewish artist named Avram Bensheimer and introduces his work to the Tsar and Tsarina, who are so impressed by his artistry that they overlook his Jewishness and commission him to paint a portrait of the Tsarevich. It’s a romantic subplot that strikes sparks between Darya and Avram, but it also allows Mossanen to show us one of the uglier aspects of imperial Russia, a place where anti-Semitic violence was state policy and Jewish lives were always at risk. “I could call you Opal-Eyed Queen,” says Bensheimer, “since like the biblical Queen Esther, you, too, came to our defense.” The scene is set for a sly joke that Darya plays on the royal family — Bensheimer has painted a Madonna and Child for them, and Jesus is modeled after the Tsarevich, but they do not suspect that his model for the Madonna is “White Thighs Paulina, an unknown proletariat whore.”

Mossanen brings the tale she tells in “The Last Romanov” to a grand resolution, and it would be cruel of me to spoil the reader’s pleasure by hinting at the denouement. Suffice it to say that more than one mystery is solved as a master storyteller works her powerful magic yet again.


Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is book editor of The Jewish Journal. He blogs on books at books@jewishjournal.com.

Home movies reveal cultural history of SoCal Jews

Home movies have long played an important role in the lives of American Jews. Backyard barbecues, baby namings, bar mitzvahs — few are the events that haven’t been captured on film by the Jewish parent or grandparent. Home movies contain our memories, our inside jokes, our first steps, but for the people behind a new exhibit at the Skirball Cultural Center, they contain something far grander: history.

For Marsha Kinder, the director of USC’s Labyrinth Project, home movies offer a glimpse into the world of our past, both personal and communal. “The idea that you participate in making history, and that history is an ongoing process, that’s what we really hope to emphasize,” said Kinder, sitting in the lobby of the Skirball on a recent Monday morning. 

When Kinder started the Labyrinth Project in 1997, she hoped to use new media and technology to help bring history alive. Among her collaborators was the noted Hungarian filmmaker Péter Forgács, who was known for his use of home movies in his work. Together, they created an exhibition for the Getty in 2002, called “Danube Exodus,” incorporating amateur footage from a captain who helped ferry Jewish refugees down the Danube to the Black Sea in the 1930s.

“We were influenced by Péter in terms of the value of home movies, because that’s what he specializes in,” Kinder said. Fogács’ use of amateur footage intrigued Kinder. If home movies could be used to illuminate the history of European Jews, how could they help shine light on the lives of Jews in California? 

“We actually started talking about and planning this in 2006,” Kinder said of the project that would become “Jewish Homegrown History: Immigration, Identity, and Intermarriage.” “We had a really good board, and any plan we made, we ran it through them.” 

But turning the idea into reality took time. First, there was the problem of getting funding. Once that was accomplished, the real work needed to be done. They needed home movies, and so they advertised. They put notices in The Jewish Journal and other places, asking people to bring their home movies in for a special selection day. “We had it at USC, and we had all the projectors there, and you could just come and show whatever you had,” Kinder said. Some of the movies were good, and some were blurry and boring, but in the end they found the material that became “Homegrown History.”

The main films in the exhibit are projected on three screens, which work in concert to deliver an immersive experience. While one screen displays images from a home movie, another might show a quote from one of the film’s subjects, or an entirely different image from the sequence.  The topics of the films range from intermarriage to growing up in a Hollywood family, to vacationing at Murrieta Hot Springs.

“Increasingly … our generations … we’re relying so much on the visual as a mode of history,” Kinder said. “We’ve been very interested in how we use multimedia and archival materials to dramatize these projects.”

For Kinder, the idea of showing the interaction of Jews and other ethnic minorities in Southern California through home videos was very appealing. Included are home movies from a family that was part Mexican and part Jewish, and a piece on the melting pot of Boyle Heights. “A lot of these films documented the relationship between the Jewish community and other ethnic communities,” Kinder said.

The idea of cross-cultural experience definitely appealed to Skirball director Robert Kirschner. “It speaks to the larger audience that the Skirball engages,” Kirschner said, “because we have for many years now realized that the Jewish story we tell here is also a broader story of the American experience of a pluralistic society, one that values equality and freedom and dignifies the various ethnicities and ancestries and faith communities that make America the flourishing society it is.”

And while Kirschner likes the exhibition’s use of touch screens and interactive media as an interface, he’s also aware that museums are merely catching up to the world at large in that regard. “Tablets and laptops are ubiquitous these days. … I think, for us, it’s the content that’s compelling,” Kirschner said. “The Skirball Cultural Center is all about the American-Jewish experience … because this project speaks so directly to that experience and also grounds it locally … that makes a very obvious and significant connection to our purposes as an institution.”

It all boils down to building a stronger connection between us and our very real, now visible, past, Kinder explained. Like many Jews, she says she regrets never having asked her grandparents more questions. Many of the contributors to the exhibition had never even seen their home movies before bringing them in to USC for the collection day. “That’s the thing; they’re in a box,” hidden away. Now the Labyrinth Project is bringing them into the light.

But the work is far from done. “We hope to add others of these, what we call homegrown movies … for example [from] the Jewish and the Korean community,” said Kinder. “We also haven’t found the Iranian-Jewish home movies.”

More than anything, Kinder hopes people will “walk away with a sense that their own heritage is really important.” And if “Homegrown History” proves anything, it’s that one person’s home movies are another person’s treasure.

“Jewish Homegrown History: Immigration, Identity, and Intermarriage” continues at the Skirball Cultural Center through Sept. 2. “Jewish Homegrown History: Immigration, Identity, and Intermarriage” continues at the Skirball Cultural Center through Sept. 2. For more information about the exhibition, visit www.skirball.org/exhibitions/jewish-homegrown-history.

From L.A. to Casablanca and back again

On May 16, 2003, a series of suicide bombings struck Casablanca. The target: Jews. Luckily, the suicide bombers were not particularly savvy, and the Jewish targets they struck were empty for Shabbat. Although no Jews were killed, nearly 30 Muslims died as a result of the blasts. In response to the bombings, Morocco’s King Mohammed VI staged a rally to demonstrate his support for the Jewish community; this was right in the middle of the Second Intifada. That’s Morocco for you — a country that in turn enchants and surprises, according to the Jewish-American singer Vanessa Paloma. When Paloma visits Los Angeles this week to perform with Noreen Green and the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony, she’ll be bringing a musical taste of the country she loves and now calls home.

“I moved to Morocco in 2007,” Paloma said, speaking on the phone while sitting under a tree on the campus of Indiana University, her alma mater, on a warm spring day. Paloma, who’d just finished performing, recounted the journey that took her from a mostly secular life in the United States to an observant Jewish one in Morocco. 

The impetus for her journey, she said, was the time she spent in Los Angeles after college, when she founded a musical group, Flor de Serena (Siren’s Flower), which performed Sephardic music. As she dug deeper into the music, she started to see that “maybe there’s actually something a lot deeper going on here.” After spending some time in Israel, she said, she decided it was time “to make my life more whole, to practice what I was singing, in a way.” And so she applied for and received a Fulbright Scholarship and headed off to Morocco.

The first thing you have to understand about Casablanca, she said, is that “it’s a huge city. Casablanca is really a metropolis. … There are about 7 million people.” And sprinkled among those millions of Moroccans is a small but thriving community of Jews. “It’s a city that has kosher restaurants, many synagogues, three Jewish clubs and four Jewish schools,” she said.

Nevertheless, Paloma soon found that integrating herself into the Jewish community was harder than she expected. “It’s a pretty insular community,” she said. “Fifty or 60 years ago, there were 350,000 Jews in Morocco, and they existed on all different levels of the society.” Today, the community numbers one-hundredth of that.

Paloma found it easier to be accepted outside the Jewish community. “I have a project that I’ve been doing with a Moroccan woman singer and with a Spanish woman; we do the three … women and three religions, and we’ve performed that all over Morocco. … It’s actually been easier for me to have friendships in the Muslim community and in the foreign community,” she said.

But she didn’t give up. As a feminist, it was hard for her to deal with the fact that “all the communal organizations are completely run by men,” she said, but she soon learned that the women of Morocco held a hidden power. “The women might not have a lot of formal power, but they have a significant amount of informal power. … Many times people try to get to a decision-maker through the female side of [their] family.”

The songs of these Moroccan-Jewish women particularly appealed to Paloma. They apparently had also appealed to the 19th century painter Eugene Delacroix. “Delacroix … stayed in a Jewish house in Tangiers when he came to Morocco,” said Paloma. “He has a very famous painting of a Jewish mother and daughter in Tangiers, it’s this family Ben Shimon, who were a very prominent family.”

Paloma also learned to love her new country despite the difficulties. She told one tale of having to communicate with a blind oud player who only spoke Arabic, and how they eventually learned to make music together. “Even when you have seemingly nothing that can connect you to somebody else, you can actually really communicate in a very beautiful and powerful way.”

Noreen Green, artistic director of the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony and music director of Valley Beth Shalom, plans to put Paloma’s talents and Spanish skills to use during her March 31 performance with the symphony. “We use Sephardic music as a bridge between the Latino population and the Jewish population,” Green said. The concert Paloma will be performing in kicks off a celebration of the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony’s 18th anniversary. 

“We’ve really made a mark on L.A. in the last 18 years, and it’s a wonderful celebration,” said Green. “We’re doing other Mizrahi songs, I have a Persian woman singing some Persian songs and the choir singing some Ladino songs.”

Paloma will also perform a piece about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. “It turns out that the show is on … the anniversary of the signing of the edict of expulsion from Spain,” said Paloma. When Paloma realized the significance of the date, she asked her friend, composer Michelle Green Willner to compose a piece, which will be premiered that night.

Paloma married a Moroccan Jew, and their child attends a Jewish academy in Casablanca. She’s also busy at work trying to build a Jewish music legacy in her new home. “I’m actually in the process of founding a Moroccan-Jewish sound archive in Morocco, because I feel like its very important for Moroccans to have access to these memories, the music and also the oral histories,” said Paloma, who’s simultaneously doing doctoral studies at the Sorbonne.

“I really feel that Morocco can be a very important example for the whole world, not just toward the Arabs, but toward the West to show a different way of understanding Jewish-Muslim relations,” Paloma said. “Any relationship has moments of tension, so I think that realizing that there is a place today where people still live in this coexistence that we always look back to” — the Golden Age of Spain — “we’re still living it in Morocco.”

Hershey Felder’s two Los Angeles theater turns

Hershey Felder is a prolific performer, writer and composer, but he is setting a new personal record with world premieres of two plays at different Los Angeles venues.

Best known as the piano-playing alter ego of George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein and Frederic Chopin, Felder is exploring new territories in both productions

He is currently on stage at the Pasadena Playhouse in “Lincoln – An American Story,” tripling as author, symphonic composer and solo actor.

Felder portrays Dr. Charles Leale, an actual, though largely unknown, historical figure. Leale, then a 23-year old army surgeon, was at the Ford’s Theatre on the night Lincoln was assassinated and rushed to the stricken president’s side.

Across the mountains at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood, Felder, staying for once behind the scenes, is the adapter and director of “The Pianist of Willesden Lane,” with previews starting April 17.

Concert pianist Mona Golabek is the solo performer of the show, which, like “Lincoln,” is taken from life, but in a vastly different time and setting.

Golabek portrays her own mother, Lisa Jura, who inherited her musical virtuosity from her own mother and, in turn, passed it on to her daughter.

A gifted young Jewish pianist in Vienna, Lisa was sent by her parents to safety on a Kindertransport to England, following the Nazi takeover of Austria in 1938.

There she found shelter, along with 30 other young Jewish refugees, in a Quaker-run hostel on Willesden Lane, all enduring intense German aerial bombardment during the London Blitz.

Golabek wrote of her mother’s travails and musical triumphs in her book “The Children of Willesden Lane” (with Lee Cohen), on which the show is based.

But the real message of the play is the power of music to uplift our spirits in the darkest of times, Golabek observed during an interview at the Geffen Playhouse, and her performance is permeated with some of the world’s most enduring piano compositions.

Unlike many survivors of the Holocaust era who never spoke about their experiences with their children, Lisa Jura shared her stories freely with her daughters Mona and Renee.

“My mother would be giving us piano lessons and suddenly a passage would remind her of some childhood event, and she would talk about it,” Golabek said.

One such incident was Lisa’s heartbreaking separation from her family at the Vienna train station in 1938, when her mother’s final words to her were, “Hold on to your music; it will be your best friend.”

The advice has become the family’s leitmotif through succeeding generations and is perpetuated in their Hold On To Your Music Foundation. There is one other dimension to Golabek’s performance. “My role allows me to pay homage to my parents,” she said. “How many people ever get that opportunity?”

After the war, the family moved to Los Angeles, where Mona was born and grew up to become an internationally acclaimed concert pianist. Her honors include the Avery Fisher Prize and the People’s Award of the International Chopin Competition.

She, in turn, is passing on the legacy to her late sister’s four children, of whom Michelle, Sarah and Rachel are pianists, and Jonathan is a violinist.

Golabek met Felder three years ago, while he was performing at the Geffen Playhouse, and she asked him whether the story of her mother could be transferred to the stage.

Felder said yes, wrote the adaptation, and for the last few weeks has been in rehearsal with Golabek. At the same time, he has been performing nightly at the Pasadena Playhouse, first in “Monsieur Chopin,” then “Maestro: The Art of Leonard Bernstein,” and is now appearing in “Lincoln.” Joel Zwick (“My Big Fat Greek Wedding”) is the director of all three plays.

Felder juggles his responsibilities “by performing in the evening and preparing for the next show during the day,” squeezed into a daily 7:30 a.m. to 1 a.m. schedule, he said during a phone interview.

Turning to the Lincoln play, he noted that Leale, the young surgeon who rushed to Lincoln’s side, talked about his historic encounter only once, during a convivial evening 44 years later.

“This is a fascinating story about what can happen to an ordinary man who is suddenly thrust into a historical event,” Felder said. “Lincoln” also features Felder’s symphonic compositions, performed by a 45-piece orchestra.

As to his role as behind-the-scenes director of “The Pianist of Willesden Lane,” Felder said that his friends are so used to seeing him at the center of the stage action, “that they suspect I may be playing Mona’s role in drag.”

His next project will be set in Paris, where Felder, when not on the road, lives with his wife, Kim Campbell, a former Canadian prime minister.

“Lincoln” is playing at the Pasadena Playhouse through April 7. For tickets and information, call (626) 921-1161, or check http://www.pasadenaplayhouse.org.

“The Pianist of Willesden Lane” will be at the Audrey Skirball Kenis Theatre of the Geffen Playhouse, with previews starting April 17. The official opening night is April 25, and closing night May 27. For tickets and information, phone (310) 208-5454, or visit http://www.geffenplayhouse.com.

Ben Marcus’ story of heartbreak and violence

An epidemic that started among the forest-dwelling Jews — “genetic in nature … a problem only for certain people” — is spreading to other communities and threatening to impose an ominous silence upon the world.  The culprit is the toxic language of children.  This is the ingenious premise of “The Flame Alphabet,” a novel By Ben Marcus (Knopf. $25.95).

Marcus, the author of “The Age of Wire and String” and “The Father Costume,” is an inventive novelist, and “The Flame Alphabet” is no exception.  Marcus brings to life, in startling details, an apocalyptic landscape (reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road”), a devastated community plagued by the lethal virus of language.  Children are immune to their own poisonous words that ravage the adults, shrink their faces, harden their tongues, and shrivel their skin until they wither away.  What is a parent to do under such circumstances?  Abandon an only child and flee to safety?  Or stay put and feast “on the putrid material because our daughter made it.  We gorged on it and inside us it steamed, rotted turned rank.” 

The narrator is Sam, whose daughter, Esther, is an angry teenager who seems bent on destroying her father and mother, Claire.  Their only partial relief occurs when Esther is away or asleep and silent.  Why Ester would harbor such exaggerated rage is not explained, alas.

Forest Jews live in an anti-Semitic world.  They worship in hiding.  Their synagogues are small, private huts concealed under leaves and branches, in which a “Jewish hole” with all types of conductive wires broadcast sermons.  Sometimes the “Jewish hole” works, often it doesn’t.  There’s a listener, too, some type of a wet, slimy contraption that must be kept humid and manipulated, or it will shrivel and become inoperative—make what you may of this metaphor. 

In the end, a decision is forced upon the adults.  The authorities impose quarantine and an evacuation is ordered.  “Health officials counsel seclusion, even from loved ones.”  Children are rounded up—“captured”—Sam and Claire attempt to sneak away in order to avoid the sight of their daughter as she is being “Trapped in a net, twitching from a jolt they fired at her.”

Sam finds himself at Forsythe, a concentration-camp-like place, where Murphy or LeBov, a frightful man, reminiscent of Hitler, is attempting to discover a vaccine for the language disease.  Sam, having been assigned the task of inventing a different language to replace the toxic one, comes up with creative ways to accomplish this task without exposing himself to the virus, which has spread to the written word.  Will he succeed and if so will it prove to be a cure?

A plethora of questions are raised.  In particular, the importance of language in our lives, its necessity or lack of, its power to elevate or destroy: “There were only so many words you could stand before you were done.” A metaphor for life, perhaps, and a measure of our respective thresholds to bear pain, not any run of the mill pain, but the most damaging kind—pain inflicted by our own children.

The story is rich with metaphors, Biblical and otherwise: the Tower of

Babel and the breakdown of language, horrors of the holocaust—“Volunteer, test subject, language martyr.”  Clair is hosed down at Forsythe as if in preparation to enter a gas chamber, children are required to carry name labels on their coats; Burk is involved in horrific Mengele-like experiments on children.

This is a brilliantly rendered story of heart-break and violence, an exploration of language, the costs and rewards of silence, societal and familial conflicts, the unconditional love of parents and, above all, whether it is possible to salvage a semblance of humanity when a community is accosted by an existential threat.


Dora Levy Mossanen, author of “The Last Romanov” and other historical novels, is a contributor of book reviews to The Jewish Journal.

Connie Rice and the Ayecha challenge

“Where are you?” This is the first question in the Torah. Asked by God, directed to Adam, this foundational question — ayecha in Hebrew — echoes as more than mere inquiry about physical location. Ayecha is a piercing question about character: “What matters to you?” “What do you stand for?” “What do you do about what you see?”

Los Angeles civil rights icon Connie Rice recounts a version of her own ayecha moment in her gripping new book, “Power Concedes Nothing: One Woman’s Quest for Social Justice in America, From the Courtroom to the Kill Zones” (Scribner, $26). But her context is a world away from the Garden of Eden. Attempting to intervene amid deadly tensions between African-American and Latino residents in a Watts housing project, Rice introduces herself at a community meeting as a lawyer for the venerable NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which, led by Thurgood Marshall, successfully argued the landmark Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation case. She is immediately interrupted by a furious African-American woman who shouts, “NAACP ma’ ass! … Where the f*** was you when they gunned down both of ma’ sons in a gutter? Where the f*** was you when the bullets was flying through our walls so bad we had to put our babies to bed in the damn bathtub? TELL ME …WHERE THE F*** WAS YOU?”

Rice’s response? “Yes ma’am you’re right. … You have a right to be angry at all of us who’ve left you in a war zone with no help. But I am here now.” Faced with an ayecha challenge, Rice delivered a hineni — here I am — response. It would not be too much to speculate that Rice’s remarkable career — winning billions of dollars of legal settlements on behalf of the poor and marginalized, dozens of civic awards, a reputation as one of the savviest social justice strategists in Los Angeles — has been driven in part by her determination to make sure she would never again be without a good answer to the question “where was you?”

Rice, a second cousin of former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, chronicles the myriad ways she and her often unlikely allies — including former gang members, police, civil rights lawyers, public health experts and military leaders — have fought to loosen the grip of the steel traps of gang violence, police brutality and educational dysfunction that have marred Los Angeles for generations.

Her war stories reveal perversions that all of us have tolerated and which should make anyone claiming to live in a civilized society unbearably ashamed: children forced into gangs or murdered when they refuse to join; police shooting unarmed people and planting guns on them; seventh-grade drop-out rates used to forecast future prison populations; the City of Los Angeles investing 24 cents a day per child for gang prevention in violent neighborhoods while, she writes, they are spending $1 million per elephant at the L.A. Zoo’s new elephant preserve. And lest you think these are just somebody else’s problems, Rice is forthright in warning that “tacit destruction of the underclass inevitably leads to middle class destruction” and notes the billions of dollars violence and destitution among the despised and the dispossessed cost our entire state.

Rice’s book should not be read to induce a paralyzing guilt or to indulge in empty gestures of vicarious atonement. It is best understood as a call to action and as a reminder that the kind of fearless, creative and compassionate action demonstrated by Rice and her colleagues can actually make a difference. We read of a gang truce modeled on the Israeli-Egyptian Sinai accords; “search and destroy” cops evolving into genuine public servants; a program of wraparound social services for youth in a gang “hot zone” producing a violence-free summer in a neighborhood that had suffered dozens of deaths, shootings and rapes during the previous summer.

Reading the book called to mind the lesson I heard most often repeated by my rabbi growing up, a Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel teaching: “In a free society where terrible wrongs exist, some are guilty, all are responsible.” And while the book is free from sanctimony, and Rice counts herself as among those who have stood idly by the blood of our neighbors, the question of our unmet moral responsibilities looms large over its pages. As does that most ancient of questions: Ayecha?

Connie Rice will discuss and sign her book, “Power Concedes Nothing,” during an event sponsored by Progressive Jewish Alliance & Jewish Funds for Justice on March 19, 7 p.m. at Congregation Beth Chayim Chadishim.

For more information visit jewishjustice.org.


Eric Greene is the Southern California director of Progressive Jewish Alliance & Jewish Funds for Justice. He once served as a paralegal to Rice at the Legal Defense Fund.

Family-focused stories at forefront of Israel Film Fest

It’s springtime in Los Angeles, which means raising the curtain on the 26th Israel Film Festival, this year displaying a colorful palette of more than 30 feature movies, documentaries, TV shows and student shorts.

The March 15 opening-night venue is the main theater on the Paramount studios lot, where celebrities, honorees and film buffs will view the award-winning feature “Restoration.”
Subsequent films will be shown through March 29 at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills and Fallbrook 7 in the San Fernando Valley.

“Restoration” is a tightly focused film, both in its examination of family relationships and its setting in a rapidly disappearing south Tel Aviv of old-time craftsmen in shabby shops.

Yaakov Fidelman (Sasson Gabay), his face permanently etched by a deep frown and three-day beard stubble, has been restoring antique furniture in his little store for decades, while his partner, Max, runs the business end of the operation.

When Max dies suddenly, apparently from over-exertion with a neighborhood prostitute, Fidelman discovers that the shop is in deep debt.

He starts waging a desperate and futile fight to obtain a bank loan, and then against his lawyer son Noah (Nevo Kimchi), who wants to tear down the shop and erect an apartment building on the property.

At this point, a mysterious young man, Anton (Henry David), shows up and is hired as a helper by Fidelman.

From left: Lior Ashkenazi as Uriel Shkolnik and Shlomo Bar-Aba as Eliezer Shkolnik in “Footnote.” Photo by Ren Mendelson, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Things look up when Anton discovers in the cluttered shop an 1884 Steinway grand piano, worth a fortune if it can be restored properly.

On the other hand, the scene darkens as Anton falls in love with Noah’s pregnant wife, Hava (Sarah Adler), and she with him.

The film owes its emotional veracity mainly to veteran actor Gabay’s affecting portrayal of Fidelman, and to the unhurried, well-paced direction of Yossi Madmoni, a versatile director, writer, actor, producer and editor, who has worked mainly in the TV medium.
There are some interesting similarities between Madmoni and his “Restoration” and Joseph Cedar, director of “Footnote,” Israel’s 2011 Oscar entry.

Both men are in their early 40s, grew up in deeply religious homes, and in their respective films this year have forgone broad themes of war, ethnic divisions and deep social divisions to focus instead on intimate family confrontations.

Speaking from his home in Tel Aviv, Madmoni was asked about a possible shift by Israeli filmmakers toward smaller, personalized movies, perhaps reflecting a growing preoccupation by Israelis with personal, rather than national, problems.

“It’s too early to define a trend,” he replied. “Even our war and social films tend to be personalized … and I do see a widening gap between the Israeli public and its leaders.”
In Hebrew, the film’s title is “Boker Tov, Adon Fidelman” (Good Morning, Mr. Fidelman), but that sounded too much like a comedy, Madmoni was told by the Sundance Film Festival, which conferred its screenwriting award on Erez Kaf-El for “Restoration.”

“Dolphin Boy.”

Earlier, the film was nominated for 11 Ophir awards, Israel’s equivalent of the Oscars.
Also on the festival’s screening schedule are “My Lovely Sister,” a triple love story within a poor Moroccan-Jewish family; “My Australia,” a look at the struggles of a Jewish family in Poland during the 1960s; “Man Without a Cell Phone,” starring an Israeli-Arab slacker; and “2 Night,” about a guy and a girl “looking for the impossible” — a parking space in Tel Aviv.

Documentary titles include the well-received “Dolphin Boy” and “When Israel Went Out,” chronicling the arduous journey of Ethiopian Jews to Israel. Additional presentations are “Viva España,” on the life of Israeli singer Hannah Aharoni, and “Schund,” a mock documentary on the Yiddish theater.

Honorees at the March 15 opening night will include actor Jonah Hill (“Moneyball”), David Nevins, President of Entertainment, Showtime Networks Inc and producers Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa for the Showtime television drama “Homeland,” based on an Israeli hit show.

“Footnote” will open at Laemmle theaters in West Los Angeles, Pasadena, Encino and West Hills between March 16-30, leading Meir Fenigstein, founder and executive director of Israfest Foundation Inc. and the Israel Film Festival, to observe that “outside of Israel itself, never before have there been so many Israeli films playing at one time in so many theaters.”


Tickets can be purchased online at www.IsraelFilmFestival.com or at Laemmle theater box offices. For information, call (877) 966-5566.

The last words from Tony Judt, an English, intellectual, Jew

Imagine a private conversation — at moments, an intimate conversation — between two public intellectuals whose careers have been devoted to understanding the wider world in which we find ourselves. One is facing imminent death, and the other is recording the conversation in a valiant effort to preserve the dying man’s final thoughts.  That’s what you will find in “Thinking the Twentieth Century” by Tony Judt with Timothy Snyder (Penguin, $35), a unique and poignant book that is, as Snyder puts it, “a book about the life of the mind, and about the mindful life.”

Timothy Snyder will be speaking about “Thinking the Twentieth Century” in the ALOUD series at the Los Angeles Central Library, 630 W. Fifth Street, Los Angeles, CA 90071, at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, March 6.  It will be my honor to act as Snyder’s interviewer at the event.

The late Tony Judt, author of “Postwar” and other highly regarded books of intellectual history, was at work on what was to be his memoir and magnum opus when he realized that the onset of ALS — better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease — would make it impossible for him to finish the manuscript.  His colleague, Yale history professor Timothy Snyder, author of the recent and widely praised “Bloodlines: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin,” came to his rescue. 

The book turned into the transcript of an extended conversation between Judt and Snyder that ranges from the details of Judt’s rich and colorful life in England, France, California, and other venues — including not a few romantic entanglements — to the great historical events, personalities and phenomena that shaped the 20th century, all of which were raw material for Judt’s scholarship.

The conversations began in January, 2009, and Snyder describes how he prepared for each day’s conversation at a café near Judt’s apartment in New York City. “I washed my hands in very hot water in the café and again in Tony’s apartment,” he recalls. “Tony suffered terribly from colds in his condition, and I wanted to be able to grasp his hand.”

The focus of the book, and its principal author, is Judt, but Snyder deserves credit for being much more than a good friend and an expert interviewer.  “Thinking the Twentieth Century” is a potent blend of autobiography and intellectual history, and both elements were patiently extracted, shaped and polished by Snyder.

“In some sense the intellectual history is all inside Tony: a reality that each week, speaking with him, I absorbed in a starkly physical way,” Snyder explains. “Everything on these pages had to be in his mind (or in mine).  How history came to be inside the man, and how it came out again, are questions that a book of this kind can perhaps address.”

Judt, as he explains about himself, was the child of immigrant Jews from East Central Europe who settled in London.  “Neither of my parents was interested in raising a Jew,” Judt recalls. “Yet we could never be like our non-Jewish friends, simply because we just were Jewish.” He grew up among men and women who had experienced firsthand the great events that he would later study and write about: “Well into the mid-1950s, the other guests at my grandfather’s Friday-evening meals were often the Auschwitz survivors my grandfather referred to as ‘the boys.’” This ambivalence, in a sense, is writ large in Judt’s life and work: “The Jewish question was never at the center of my own intellectual life, or indeed my historical work,” he explains. “But it intrudes, inevitably, and with ever greater force.”

Now and then, Snyder “breaks the narrative” with a pointed question or comment, and his intrusions are always provocative and illuminating. “Both in private and in professional life, you are a rebel on the Left, but not a rebel against the Left,” Snyder says to Judt at one point. As we eavesdrop on their conversation, we come to realize that we are witnessing the encounter between two intellects of dazzling brilliance and extraordinary subtlety. Sometimes the discourse soars into the stratosphere of theoretical speculation, and sometimes it drills deep into the sources and texts, but Judt and Snyder never fail to shed light on the biggest questions of history and politics.

Ironically, Judt is probably best known outside academic circles for a 2003 article in the New York Review of Books in which he called for a “one-state solution” to the conflict between Arabs and Jews, a position that earned him much abuse from his fellow Jews. The book allows us to understand how he reached the conclusion that “a peculiarly Jewish social democratic idealism,” which attracted him to Israel in the first place, was a projection rather than a reality. As a teenager, he lived and worked on a kibbutz, and he was aboard the last plane to reach Lod Airport in before it closed at the outbreak of the Six Day War in 1967. “Zionism was for me without question an adolescent revolt,” he explains. “What I revolted against was . . . being at once altogether English and at the same time unmistakably the child of east European Jews. In Israel in 1963 I resolved the ambiguity and became Tony Judt, Zionist.”

The Six Day War, in which he served as a translator for the Israeli army, persuaded him that his idealism was misplaced. “For the first time I came to appreciate that Israel was not a social democratic paradise of peace-loving, farm-dwelling Jews who just happened to be Israelis but were otherwise like me,” he told Snyder. “This was a very different culture and people from the one I had learned to see, or had insisted upon imagining to myself.”  The makers of the “real Israel,” Judt insists, was “full of scorn for what they called the ‘heirs of the Holocaust,’ Jews who lived outside of Israel and who did not understand or appreciate the new Jews, the native-born Israelis.”

Such passages are bound to excite the passions of some Jewish readers — and Snyder deserves credit for challenging Judt on his harsher judgments on “American Jewish preoccupations with Auschwitz and Israel” — but it would be tragic if they dismiss Judt’s final book because they disagree with his controversial ideas about Zionism.  As we learn from this exceptional book, Judt’s ideas and values are the end-product of a lifetime of serious scholarship and profound thought, and they deserve to be preserved in a book as impressive and rewarding as “Thinking the Twentieth Century.”

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. He blogs on books at books@jewishjournal.com.

Author of Bernstein bio wins Jewish book honors

Susan Goldman Rubin, the Los Angeles-based author of many nonfiction books for young people, has won the 2012 Sydney Taylor Book Award for her engaging biography “Music Was It: Young Leonard Bernstein” (ages 10 and up). Presented by the Association of Jewish Libraries, the award honors new books for children and teens that exemplify the highest literary standards while authentically portraying the Jewish experience. The award memorializes Sydney Taylor, author of the classic “All-of-a-Kind Family” series. This biography is also one of five finalists for the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction from the American Library Association.

The book focuses on Bernstein’s drive to succeed in the world of music in spite of great opposition from his family. It covers his early childhood life and ends with his astonishing Carnegie Hall debut at the age of 25.  Although Bernstein was often stymied by his father’s concern about his choice of career, any young person watching popular shows like “American Idol” knows that when a talented person wants to achieve success, obstacles can often be overcome through sheer determination. Rubin states that she deliberately chose this focus instead of trying to cover Bernstein’s later life and successes because she felt his struggle to pursue his dream as a young adult would be more meaningful to her readers.  “The conflict between doing what you want to do and following a parent’s wishes is a universal theme.  And I thought that if readers didn’t know who Lenny was, they might relate to the arc of the story and be drawn into listening to his music.”

Rubin is aware that 21st century kids may never have heard of Leonard Bernstein. Even those who know about “West Side Story” may not have heard the great composer’s name. She aims to change that. She also hopes that the growing popularity of her book will encourage students and teachers to locate the New York Philharmonic’s televised “Young People’s Concert Series” that Bernstein made so popular in the 1960s, and which is now available on DVD and YouTube. “His music was so wonderful,” the author said. “He was one of the most recorded conductors of all time.”

Of particular interest to today’s readers is the eye-pleasing format of the biography. Children do not have to be assigned a “biography book report” to want to pick up this title. The cover shot of the handsome and youthful conductor in his white T-shirt conducting with his slender body (and no baton) is striking. The engaging photos and musical scores, larger type and white space, attractive chapter headings and inclusion of all sorts of additional relevant information (timeline, discography, quotation sources, plus extra short bios of people important to Bernstein later in life) virtually assure that this biography will not be sitting on the library shelf waiting for the teacher to assign that dreaded book report on a famous person.

The Jewish aspect of his story is also strong. Along with issues of discrimination that Bernstein experienced because he was a Jew, he was quite influenced by the melodies and songs he heard in shul, and he rewrote many of them. Bernstein’s father, Sam, often said to him disappointedly that he should at least become a rabbi as he clearly had no interest in the family business, the Bernstein Hair Co. The author also writes that at the height of his career, he sent a letter to Solomon Braslavsky, the organist and choir master of the synagogue of his youth, and wrote, “I will never forget the tremendous influence you and your music made on me when I was a youngster.”

Rubin said that the biggest thrill of her long odyssey of writing and researching this book came when she found a comment that Sam Bernstein made to reporters after his son’s spectacular debut at age 25 conducting the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall.  When asked why he had ever objected to his son becoming a musician, Sam replied, “How could I know my son was going to grow up to be Leonard Bernstein?”

The Sydney Taylor Awards will be presented in June at the Association of Jewish Libraries convention in Pasadena.

To view the other gold medal and honor winners, go to jewishlibraries.org.


Lisa Silverman is the director of the Sinai Temple Blumenthal Library and former children’s editor of Jewish Book World magazine.