Not-So-Nice Jewish Boy

When Israeli producers came to America to audition Jewish men to star in “Nice Jewish Boy,” their upcoming Bachelor-type reality show, I decided to throw my hat in the ring. After all, who better than me — a commitment-phobic, ardently secular, anxious, heavily medicated, pale glass of short Jewish water — to represent the American way?

This could be a chance for me to make a real difference in Israeli-American relations. I began to fantasize about my very own harem of glistening Israeli chicks in sweaty army fatigues, and all that we could do to and for one another in the name of world diplomacy. I’d learn invaluable lessons that only these gorgeous Israelis could teach me: how to shoot an Uzi, how to chain smoke and how to have zero respect for someone’s personal space. I, on the other hand, would pass on such valuable American skills as: driving a block away to Starbucks to spend $3 on a cup of coffee, how to say the words “excuse me” and, most importantly, how to apply underarm deodorant.

So, after my initial inquiry and some e-mail exchanges with the producer, I received a phone call from the show’s production coordinator in Israel at 6 a.m. No. You heard that right. Six. In the morning.

So anyway, in my groggy, disoriented state, the production coordinator (who we’ll call “Galit”) gave me my flight information. Coming to, I finally asked Galit, “So, who’s picking me up from the airport, and where will I be staying?”

There was dead air on the other end of the line. Then Galit responded: “Emmmmm, you can take a taxi, no? And, emmm…. We cannot put you up. OK?”

The thought of being stranded in Queens at 1 a.m. had me suddenly wide awake. Galit sensed my panic, and said that she was going to check with the producers, and that she would call me back in a half hour (read: 6:30 a.m.). Before getting off the phone with me, however, she asked if I could call some people in New York and see if they wouldn’t mind putting me up. I told her that I’d call everyone I knew. She hung up. I went back to sleep.

A half hour later, the phone rang. It was Galit: “Did you find anyone to put you up?”

I deadpanned, “Nope. I called 20 of my closest New York friends. Everyone’s all booked up for the summer.”

This clearly went over her head as she pushed on: “Not to worry, because I am a magic worker! I got you a hotel to stay! I work magic, no?”

Now we were talking! Clearly, all that needed to have happened was a little negotiation on my part. It looked like my American capitalist negotiation skills had trumped her primitive shuk haggling.

Galit said cheerfully, “We’ll put you up for one night at the Howard Johnson. This is good, yes?”

Emmm, no! Any hotel that is more famous for its flapjacks than it is for its, well … hotel, I’m gonna have a problem with. I don’t care how good their breakfast is — 11 hours of flying for six hours in New York was a deal that I was not going to make. There was some more dead air on the other end of the line.

“Hello?” I asked.

And then, out of the blue, Galit said six words that absolutely floored me: “C’mon, what angle can we work here?”

Angle! What angle can we work here? I was appalled. How about the angle of human decency? Or, an angle that doesn’t involve maple syrup and butter? I told Galit that either they were going to fly me out, pick me up and put me up for two full days, in a non-pancake-themed hotel, or I wasn’t coming. Period.

Well, my good-old American tenacity worked, because she finally acquiesced. Well sort of. Because when I landed at JFK on Friday night, there, of course, was no one to pick me up. The next morning, after showering, shaving, gelling, and sucking in my gut, I was off to meet the producers of the show.

The questions were probing and personal, and mainly focused on my past relationships. Here is a quick sample:

Israeli Producers: What sorts of things do you do to relax?

Me: I like to drink a little.

Israeli Producers: (Blank Looks)

Me: Um, well, okay, more than a little. Oh yeah, and I frequently like to get in touch with myself….

Israeli Producers: (More blank looks. And then….) What’s the most expensive gift you’ve bought one of your past girlfriends?

Me: You’re supposed to buy them gifts?

Israeli Producers: (Additional blank looks.)

Me: Does dinner count as a ‘gift?’

Israeli Producers: (See above.)

Me: (Slightly uncomfortable, and then taking a bold swing.) I gave them the gift of … the joy of being in my company?

That’s about where they wrapped up my audition. The next day, I flew home to L.A. with a promise from the producers that they’d let me know the following week if I made the cut. A month has passed since, and I still haven’t received any 6 a.m. telephone calls. Not that I’m waiting by the phone for an answer or anything. I mean, who’d want to be on some stupid reality TV show where 20 women fight over you? Not me, that’s for sure!

God, I’m pathetic.

Anyway, a week ago, I read in the Jerusalem Post that a “nice Jewish boy” had finally been chosen. Apparently, his name is Ari Goldman, and he lives in Manhattan where he runs a highly successful vintage comics enterprise. In other words, I lost out to a guy who collects comic books for a living. I always knew I’d rue the day my mom threw out my Green Lantern collection. I hope you’re happy, mom. The Green Lantern could have gotten me some serious tuchus.

Jonathan Kesselman created and directed “The Hebrew Hammer.”


‘Raising’ the Bar on Teen Comedies

Peter Sollett’s ebullient romantic comedy, "Raising Victor Vargas," about Hispanic teens in the East Village, began as a short film about, well, himself.

While tackling his NYU thesis film five years ago, Sollett imagined a semiautobiographical piece about a "10- to 13-year-old Jewish boy, whose life was like my own at that age." Like "Vargas," it was to be a "first-kiss story" that started at a neighborhood pool on a summer afternoon. And it was to be set in a Jewish-Italian neighborhood reminiscent of his old block in Bensonhurst.

But when Sollett and his Barcelona-born producer, Eva Vives, tried to cast Brooklyn kids through agencies in 1998, he said they "saw actors who were just mimicking what they saw on TV." To find more natural performers, they hit the streets, plastering their lower Manhattan neighborhood with fliers inviting teens to audition.

"We weren’t thinking about the demographics, so we didn’t realize that most of the kids who would turn up would be Hispanic," the precise, articulate director said from his East Village apartment. "We started seeing actors, most of them nonprofessionals, who really blew us away, so we decided to make the film about them."

One of the most impressive teens to audition was Victor Rasuk, who inspired the filmmakers with an improvisation about confronting a bully who was tormenting his brother.

"I expected him to become threatening and aggressive, but instead he began talking about how much his brother meant to him and how hurt he’d be if anything were to happen to him," Sollett said. "But the subtext was that if anything were to happen, Victor’s behavior would become that of someone with little left to lose. He was complex and unpredictable, and our interest in him was immediate."

Sollett promptly cast Rasuk as Vargas; Rasuk’s brother, Silvestre, as Vargas’ onscreen brother, and the casting director’s 74-year-old aunt, Altagracia Guzman, as their cantankerous grandmother. When the short film, titled "Five Feet High and Rising," won top awards at Sundance and Cannes in 2000, he and Vives expanded the story into "Raising Victor Vargas," which used the same cast and was developed, in part, at the Sundance Screenwriters Lab.

Sollett’s shooting style would be as unusual as his casting methods. "The actors never saw the script," he said. Rather, he used the screenplay as a jumping-off point during a month of rehearsals, throwing out lines or situations to encourage his inexperienced performers to improvise. "I continually asked them, how would you react in a particular situation?" he says. "This put them in a vulnerable position in a way. If an actor looks surprised [in the movie], it’s because he was surprised when we were shooting. They’re not pulling faces on cue."

The script also began incorporating stories from the actors’ real lives: Like Rasuk, the fictional Vargas experiences sibling rivalry and clashes with his grandmother — his legal guardian and an immigrant from the Dominican Republic. The female leads, including Jude Marte as Vargas’ love interest and Melonie Diaz as her best friend, introduced "their own ways of dealing with an environment in which boys can be very sexually aggressive," Sollett said.

The result is the hyperrealistic "Victor Vargas," in which a self-proclaimed stud learns a thing or two about girls when he puts the moves on his wary neighbor, Judy (Marte). According to People, the low-budget comedy is a "rare film about teens that gets them right."

Sollett, for his part, grew up in a Reform Jewish home, where his father, a newspaper photographer, encouraged his interest in moving pictures. As an adolescent, he encountered the movies of Woody Allen, which he said helped him to discover "the culture of Manhattan and the world of art films.

"In Allen’s movies, characters debate about Bergman and Fellini, and if you’re 12, and don’t know who they are, you can pick up on those references and look into them," he said.

By age 16, he had his own Super-8 camera, although he wasn’t as cocky or handsome as the fictional Vargas.

"I wanted to be cool and to fit in, but I didn’t," he said of his high school years. After graduation, he was rejected twice from NYU’s film school before succeeding on the third try.

These days, however, Sollett has reason to be as confident as his "Vargas" protagonist. Among other kudos, "Vargas" was lauded by "About Schmidt" director Alexander Payne as the best American movie he saw last year. Its stellar reception at Cannes and Sundance may place Sollett among filmmakers, such as Darren Aronofsky ("Requiem for a Dream"), whose career kicked off on the festival circuit.

The Jewish director, who has become close friends with his actors, sees parallels between their Latino American background and his own. "There’s always a generation gap with relatives from the old country and a falling away of religious observance," he said. "So it’s not such a distant experience."

"Raising Victor Vargas" opens April 18 in Los Angeles.