A ‘Frank’ assessment
Now and then, a politician comes along who is both cantankerous and somehow lovable, highly principled and yet open to argument, possessed of both a sense of honor and a sense of humor. The late New York Mayor Ed Koch was one example, and Arizona Sen. John McCain is another. And so is the inimitable Barney Frank, the long-serving (and now retired) congressman from Massachusetts, whose own publisher sums him up as “a disheveled, intellectually combative gay Jew.”
Unlike most other political autobiographies, “Frank: A Life in Politics From the Great Society to Same-Sex Marriage” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) is much more than a manifesto, a self-advertisement or an attempt to cash in on a long career in elective office. Rather, it is a vivid and candid account of a life, both private and public, that is told in the gruff, wry and blunt voice that is literally unique in American politics — the inimitable voice of Barney Frank.
Frank always has been sharp-eyed and sharp-tongued. When a journalist described his suits as “ill-fitting,” Frank retorted: “My suits were in fact very fitting, I just didn’t happen to be the one they fit.” When Bill Clinton faced impeachment because of his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, Frank summed up the question: “What did the president touch, and when did he touch it?”
Frank applies the same sharp wit to himself in the first paragraph of the book, when he observes that he knew at the age of 14 that he was “attracted to the idea of serving in government” and “attracted to other guys.” Frank cracks a dry joke: “I also realized that these two attractions would not mix well.” Indeed, one of the fascinating and affecting themes of “Frank” is how he moved, slowly and painfully, out of the closet while serving in Congress.
“Tip, Bob Bauman has just written a book that says I’m gay,” Frank told House Speaker Tip O’Neill in 1986.
“Aw, Barney, don’t pay any attention. People are always spreading s–t about us.”
“But, Tip, the problem is that it’s true.”
At the same time, Frank remains a politician who cares deeply about policy. He leads us through the labyrinthine politics of Massachusetts, and he gives us detailed accounts of the political battles that he fought on Capitol Hill over the course of three decades. As if to demonstrate his credentials as a policy wonk, Frank appends a couple of detailed documents to his biography: “Who Did What on Subprime Lending and Regulating Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac” and “Conservative Support for Subprime Loans to Minority and Very Low-Income People Before the Economic Crisis.” These documents are considerably less effervescent than the text of the book, but are very much a part of the subtext.
Frank was raised in a “very Jewish but largely secular household” where “the nearest thing to a Bible was the then very liberal New York Post.” His Jewishness, too, was a political liability in many places around America in the 1950s: “While I planned to keep my sexual orientation a secret, it was too late to conceal my Jewishness — I had already outed myself with a bar mitzvah.”
Frank does not dodge the 1989 scandal that dogged his distinguished political career, a relationship with a male prostitute that led to a censure (but not expulsion) by Congress. But it is a measure of his toughness and tenacity that he survived the scandal and served as an ever more visible and effective advocate for LGBT issues, even if some LGBT activists, he writes, “decried my lack of ‘militancy.’ ” History proved him right: “In Massachusetts and elsewhere, the LGBT community turned its strong emotions into disciplined political action,” and today we live in a very different world than the one Barney Frank knew as a closeted bar mitzvah boy.
One illuminating moment in his remarkable career came when Frank stood at the balance of power in Congress on two issues that mattered to him — not only gay rights, but also the regulation of banks and brokerages in the aftermath of the 2008 economic meltdown. When he advocated for a new hate-crimes law, he made the point clear to friends and adversaries alike: “I’m chairman of the Financial Services Committee of the U.S. House, and a lot of very important people are now being very nice to me,” he said. “Even if this bill becomes law tomorrow, it will still be legal to call me a fag. I just wouldn’t recommend it to anyone in the banking business.”
Frank characterizes his book as “a personal history of two seismic shifts in American life” — the decline in prejudice against LGBT people and “the sharp increase in anti-government opinion.” Clearly, he continues to believe that the issues of public policy are what really matter in life, and not just in his life. But it is also true that “Frank” is an intimate, courageous and revealing book about what the political landscape looks like from his unique perspective.
Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.
Stormin’ da castle: Tony Curtis in Hollywood
In “Cultural Amnesia,” Clive James’ eccentric encyclopedia of modern culture, the Australian critic devotes some of his most enthusiastic pages to Tony Curtis.
One might not think that Curtis, whose fame rests more on his beauty and outsized personality than on the quality of his movies, deserves to be ranked as one of the essential figures of the 20th century, alongside Thomas Mann and Margaret Thatcher.
But to James, who saw Curtis’ movies as a teenager in postwar Australia, the actor — with his frank sexiness, his adolescent intensity, his comic zest — seemed to incarnate the glamour of the American century.
The irony, of course, is that to Americans, Curtis looked like anything but an all-American boy. Gary Cooper and Henry Fonda, with their WASP uprightness, were the kind of actors chosen by Hollywood’s Jewish filmmakers to be icons of American heroism. Curtis, on the other hand, was undisguisably ethnic. There may have been Jewish movie stars before Curtis, from Emmanuel Goldenberg (Edward G. Robinson) to Issur Danielovitch (Kirk Douglas). But none of them sounded like Bernie Schwartz, who even after he changed his name was unmistakably a Jewish street kid from the East Side of Manhattan. It’s no coincidence that the one line of Curtis’ that everybody knows is “Yonda lies da castle of my fadda” — a silly phrase given an ethnic mangling, it seems to encapsulate his whole career and persona.
In “American Prince” (Harmony, $25.95), his utterly synthetic, deeply unreliable yet fascinating new memoir, Curtis does not fail to defend himself against that infamous line. In the first place, Curtis, who will appear at American Jewish University on March 15, insists what he really said in “Son of Ali Baba” — the 1952 film he describes, with admirable directness, as a “another sand-and-tits movie” — was “Yonder in the valley of the sun is my father’s castle.” More important, his accent was not especially notable in the movie — no more so, at any rate, than in “Some Like It Hot” or “The Defiant Ones” or “Sweet Smell of Success,” to name some of his more enduring films.
The line didn’t become notorious, Curtis says, until Debbie Reynolds made fun of it on a talk show: “Did you see the new guy in the movies? They call him Tony Curtis, but that’s not his real name. In his new movie, he’s a got a hilarious line where he says, ‘Yonder lies the castle of my fadda.'”
“You could chalk her ridicule up to my New York accent,” writes Curtis (as channeled by Peter Golenbock), “but when she mentioned the issue of my real name on television, I began to wonder if there was something anti-Semitic going on there.” And while immersed in “American Prince,” this roiling stew of Curtis’ grievances and boasts, the charge of anti-Semitism does seem plausible. Everybody changes their name in Hollywood — after all, Janet Leigh, Curtis’ first wife, was born Jeannette Morrison — so why should Bernie Schwartz’s fake name be especially noteworthy? And why should a Jewish accent be considered more inherently anachronistic than, say, the plummy English of Laurence Olivier, with whom Schwartz played a famously suggestive scene in “Spartacus”?
The answer, Curtis has no doubt, is that Hollywood in the 1950s was a closed caste that had no place for a Jew — at least for a Jew like him. Curtis, born in 1925, had grown up in one of those very poor, very troubled immigrant Jewish families whose miseries you can read about in the fiction of Delmore Schwartz and Daniel Fuchs, or the memoirs of Alfred Kazin. His mother was frustrated, vindictive and unstable — later in life, Curtis writes, she would be diagnosed with schizophrenia — while his father, a tailor, struggled to stay afloat during the Depression. The family would sometimes have to squat in the tailor shop. On one traumatic occasion, when Curtis was 10 years old, his parents deposited him and his younger brother in an orphanage for two weeks.
As a young boy, Curtis writes, he was constantly bullied — by non-Jews for being a Jew and by other Jews for being poor. The worst blow came when Curtis was 13 years old, when his younger brother, Julie, was killed by a truck at First Avenue and 78th Street. His parents sent Curtis to the hospital, alone, to identify Julie’s body.
No wonder Curtis dropped out of high school and joined the Navy when he was just 16 years old, forging his mother’s signature on the parental consent form. And no wonder that, when he came back to New York at war’s end — never having seen combat — he immediately found another kind of escape in acting. His first professional job involved touring the Catskills in a “a play about anti-Semitism and the Jewish experience in America,” whose bathetic title — “This Too Shall Pass” — Philip Roth would have been proud to have come up with. Curtis also worked briefly in the Yiddish theater in Chicago, where he kept himself entertained in schlocky roles by ad-libbing lines like “I would rather be in the movies!”
Soon enough he was, thanks to a Universal talent scout named Bob Goldstein. And here begin the reader’s doubts about the anti-Semitism that, according to Curtis, froze him out of Hollywood’s A-List. Bob Goldstein discovered Curtis; Jack Warner befriended him on the plane to Los Angeles (one of the many moments where Curtis’ story conforms a little too perfectly to Hollywood archetype); Abner Biberman was his studio-assigned acting coach; Lew Wasserman and Swifty Lazar were the agents who made his career; Billy Wilder gave him his best part. All of these men, of course, were Jewish, as were the moguls who built the studio system in the first place, and many of the producers, directors and writers who still ran that system when Curtis was signed as a contract player in 1948.
Curtis never remarks on this obvious fact, which rather undermines his insistence that being a Jew “was a strike against you in Hollywood — as it was in most places.” Yet “American Prince” makes it possible to understand why Curtis could believe this. He was not looking at the whole ecosystem of Hollywood, he was only concerned about the intricate status hierarchy of Hollywood’s stars, and in that hierarchy, it is true, WASPs held the highest places. Curtis writes feelingly about ancient snubs from stars like Debbie Reynolds and Henry Fonda and Ray Milland: to him, a New York Jewish dropout, such people seemed like prom kings and queens.
Yet Curtis doesn’t fully appreciate how much his on-screen allure owed to his being Jewish. Like Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift and James Dean, who arrived in Hollywood at the same time he did, Curtis was a new kind of Hollywood leading man whose appeal flowed from his neurotic intensity and exotic, almost feminine beauty — a whole different type from the Jimmy Stewarts and Cary Grants of the past. And it was Curtis’ Jewishness, including the wounds that resulted from it, that allowed him to fit this new image of American masculinity so perfectly.
To the teenaged Clive James, watching “Son of Ali Baba” in Sydney, even “Yonda lies da castle of my fadda” sounded quintessentially American: “Nothing mattered except the enchanting way that the tormented phonemes seemed to give an extra zing to the American demotic.”
Tony Curtis will appear in conversation with radio talk show host Bill Moran at American Jewish University on Sunday, March 15. A book signing of “American Prince” will follow. $25. For more information, call (310) 440-1246.
Reprinted with permission from Nextbook.org, a new read on Jewish culture.
Adam Kirsch is the author of “Benjamin Disraeli,” a new biography in Nextbook’s “Jewish Encounters” series.
Doctor with ‘healing hands’ helps kids from Iran to L.A.
When Ralph Salimpour was six years old in Esfahan, Iran, he had malaria — a blood disease spread by infected mosquitoes that kills millions of people in the developing world every year.
After his parents took him to “The English Hospital” for a prescription of anti-malarial drugs, a guard at the hospital gate looked at the boy and told his mother, “He has healing hands.”
The man’s words in 1937 might as well have been prophesy. Seven decades later and across two continents, Salimpour is now a top pediatrician in Los Angeles. and will be honored by the UCLA Health Services Alumni Association in May.
In his self-published memoir, “Silent River, Empty Night” (Outskirts Press, $15.95), the 76-year-old Salimpoor recounts his journey in medicine and with patients in Iran, England and America.
Salimpour decided to become a doctor at an early age, after hearing stories about how two doctors saved his father’s life as a teenager from cholera and malaria.
“I owe my life to these two righteous people.” Salimpour’s father said.
“I think this night had an eternal impact on me. I worried at times if I could get accepted to medical school or if I could stand seeing blood or a child in pain. But then I remembered my father — who had lost his father at 2 and managed to raise a family — and reassured myself.”
If Salimpour worried about getting into one of two medical schools in Iran, it doesn’t much show. While no one would say his life was “charmed” — he was an Iranian Jew who fled the country at 48 to start life from scratch in America — the man makes it sound easy.
“I think my life is success story — it doesn’t matter what you go through as long as you see that you succeed,” he said in an interview.
And succeed he did. Salimpour graduated medical school at 23 years old, later becoming an expert in malaria and continuing his studies in England.
His sweet and meandering stories about pre-revolution Iran often have lessons. For example, when he was a medical student, a 16-year-old girl who cleaned his house and shopped for him suddenly became sick with joint pain and a fever. It turned out she had been drinking some of his milk, but didn’t know to boil it beforehand to kill the germs.
Salimpour treated her, and writes: “A lot of young children who should be at school learning, work to make a living in the developing countries. We now go to a supermarket, pick up our milk of choice, in size, fat content and even with our without lactose for taste and need, without remembering or appreciating that in just one generation before us, and in many parts of the world even today, milk, if available, is contaminated.”
Involved as he was in medicine — he became the director of the Research Institute of Child Health — Salimpour didn’t realize how bad things were getting in Iran.
“When you live in a revolution, it’s hard to comprehend what’s going on day by day and you don’t feel it, but when you look back you are surprised,” he said. “When you’re a doctor you’re surrounded by people who praise you and compliment you, and you tell yourself, ‘Everyone loves me, how can any harm come to me?'”
But his wife knew better. In 1979, when they went to visit their oldest son, Pejman, at medical school in the United States, though they had return tickets, they took a few possessions with them.
“I knew that there was no way to go back, that there was no future for the children there, that there was no choice,” his wife Farah said.
She convinced him to start over in America.
“I knew that he was a hard worker and he could do whatever he wants,” she said.
But it was strange to leave everything behind, Salimpour writes: “I often wish I had had another look at our home before we got into the car, and had viewed Tehran better from above when we flew away, to better remember what I missed for the rest of my life.”
After a year in Cleveland, Salimpour convinced the head of UCLA medicine to give him an internship there, and he eventually opened up the Salimpour Pediatric Medical Group in Los Angeles, joined by his two sons, Pedram and Pejman.
Today, with three centers (Sherman Oaks, Van Nuys and Panorama City), they treat some 200 patients per day. But the patients are different from the ones he treated from infectious diseases in Iran.
“I haven’t seen a malnourished child since I was in Iran,” he said, smiling. Today, the problem is the opposite — obesity.
But he hopes his stories will help people put things in perspective.
“I tell the teenagers I see every day, I remind them they shouldn’t take it for granted they can have running water; they should not take it for granted they can eat whenever they want to. They can dress the way they want to, wear their hair the way they want to, and no one can tell them why,” he said. “We take it for granted here. I love every breath I take in, and I can do anything I like. I love it and I appreciate it much more.”
Dr. Ralph Salimpour with his grandchildren
He’s Wandered the Earth an Exiled Man
“Chronicles: Volume One” by Bob Dylan (Simon & Schuster), $24.
Toward the end of last year’s rambling, barely coherent film “Masked and Anonymous,” Bob Dylan, its masked and anonymous star, spoke in voice-over one of his most direct and self-revelatory addresses. Fittingly, it was about the limits of what we are allowed to know:
I was always a singer — maybe no more than that. Sometimes it’s not enough to know the meaning of things. Sometimes you have to know what things don’t mean as well. Like, what does it mean to know what the person you love is capable of?
Things fall apart, especially all the neat order of rules and laws. The way we look at the world is how we really are: See it from a fair garden, everything looks cheerful. Climb to a higher plateau and you’ll see plunder and murder. Truth and beauty are in the eye of the beholder. I stopped trying to figure everything out long ago.
Remember, this is Bob Dylan talking: the prophet of a generation, the bard of the age. Truth is in the eye of the beholder? From the man who wrote “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”? No more than a singer — the person who sang “Masters of War” and wrote “Desolation Row”? I was reminded, as I sat in the theater, of Dylan’s recent Oscar-winning song, “Things Have Changed,” from the soundtrack to the 2000 film “Wonder Boys.”
He had sung, “I used to care, but things have changed.”
The fact is, Dylan never was a prophet, and, in an oft-quoted passage from his new autobiographical book, “Chronicles: Volume One,” he says. “I had very little in common with and knew even less about a generation I was supposed to be the voice of…. My destiny lay down the road with whatever life invited, had nothing to do with representing any kind of civilization.”
“Chronicles” is an elliptical book — nonlinear, but also not opaque. It’s like a front-porch chat with a 63-year-old man who’s young enough to still be making vital music, but old enough to reflect on the long view. Its structure — episodic, rambling, digressive — parallels Dylan’s consciousness. He might seem adrift, or even lost, but he is always aware.
There’s a fascinating juxtaposition in “Chronicles” of roots and rootlessness. Dylan is steeped in the folk songs and traditions of America — he goes on for pages about wobbly martyr Joe Hill, and about the songs of Robert Johnson and Woody Guthrie. His latest album, “Love and Theft,” is an old-time record, either overtly — as in the song “High Water (for Charley Patton)” — or subtly paying homage to American popular music of 60 and 70 years ago. And yet, as the time-jumping structure of “Chronicles” evokes, Dylan is a wandering Jew. He leaves Minnesota for New York. He leaves the folk world for rock ‘n’ roll. He leaves the city for the country. And, for the last 15 years, he’s been on tour almost all the time. (It used to be called The Neverending Tour, but, as Dylan wrote in the liner notes to 1993’s “World Gone Wrong,” the never-ending tour ended in 1991. Since then, he has just been touring.) There’s a sense of connection that Dylan has to America — absent among most of us reared in the anti-culture of Wal-Mart and Blockbuster. And yet, he’s always winking, because we all know that it’s a bit of a con.
After all, as many readers of this newspaper know, he’s really Robert Zimmerman, right? A nice Jewish boy from Minnesota. He can deny it, he can sing songs for Jesus, but he is one of us, right? It’s such an interesting phenomenon — the tenacity of Jewishness, the paradox, embodied by Dylan himself, of diasporism and identity. We wander, we wear masks, we change our names as did Dylan — but there’s always that thrill when we see a landsman.
As to the name itself, Dylan resorts to cryptic parable: “As far as Bobby Zimmerman goes, I’m going to give this to you right straight and you can check it out.” (In other words, we know we’re about to be conned.) “One of the early presidents of the San Bernardino Angels was Bobby Zimmerman, and he was killed in 1964 on the Bass Lake run. The muffler fell off his bike, he made a U-turn to retrieve it in front of the pack and he was instantly killed. That person is gone. That was the end of him.”
A reference to Dylan’s fabled motorcycle crash of 1966? An allegory for his having left behind his own identity? Dylan doesn’t explain. But, as in the Zohar, or Maimonides’ Guide to the Perplexed, the answer may lie in another passage: “What I was going to do as soon as I left home was just call myself Robert Allen. As far as I was concerned, that was who I was — that’s what my parents named me. It sounded like the name of a Scottish king and I liked it. There was little of my identity that wasn’t in it.”
So, Jewish identity is left behind — and yet, it isn’t. You won’t find much about Dylan’s religiosity in “Chronicles: Volume One” — unless, of course, you’re one of those Dylanologists who notices that the title itself may be a biblical reference. If you’re one of them — OK, one of us — you’ve been noticing these coincidences for a long time. The biblical allusions in “All Along the Watchtower,” on an album named after John Wesley Harding. (JWH? Who knows?) The prophetic voice in “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” and, of course, “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Dylan’s “religious phase” might have taken some people by surprise, just as U2’s recent hymn, “Yahweh,” has, but anyone who’s followed either artist knows that images of God — whether as “Father of Night” or “Solid Rock” — always have been at the center of Dylan’s work.
Mostly, though, “Chronicles” is indeed about roots and rootlessness, about breaking down and starting over. Its first two chapters, if you can call them that, are about Dylan’s beginnings. The next is about the period in 1969-70, after Dylan had deliberately self-imploded the mythic image being built up for him — to “demolish my identity,” in his words, and start over. The fourth chapter is about the making of the 1987 comeback album “Oh Mercy,” after years of lousy records. And then we’re back to the early 1960s, when Dylan realized that the folk scene, too, had become too constricting for him.
One is struck by the dissonance between Dylan’s public persona and his private desires.
“I don’t know what everybody else was fantasizing about,” he writes of his life in the late ’60s, “but what I was fantasizing about was a nine-to-five existence, a house on a tree-lined block with a white picket fence, pink roses in the backyard.” And yet he moves around constantly: “Like the Merle Haggard song, ‘I’m on the run, the highway is my home.'”
Dylan’s efforts at dismantling his image worked. In 1968, he undermined his image as a political radical by, of all things, visiting Israel.
“I went to Jerusalem, got myself photographed at the Western Wall wearing a skullcap,” he said. “That image was transmitted worldwide instantly and quickly all the great rags changed me overnight into a Zionist. This helped a little.” (Fifteen years later, Dylan would record the Zionist song “Neighborhood Bully.”)
And then he dismantled his music.
“I quickly recorded what appeared to be a country-western record [“Nashville Skyline”] and made sure it sounded pretty bridled and house-broken…. I released one album (a double one) [“Self-Portrait”] where I just threw everything I could think of at the wall and whatever stuck, released it, and then went back and scooped up everything that didn’t stick and released that, too. I missed out on Woodstock — just wasn’t there. Altamont — sympathy for the devil — missed that, too.”
And of course, years later, when yet another comeback had put Dylan back in the spotlight, he alienated just about everybody by embracing born-again Christianity, and writing such songs as “Gotta Serve Somebody” and “Property of Jesus.”
Of course, Dylan is not the first Jewish prophet to deny that he is a prophet. Jeremiah questioned God; Jonah defied him. In fact, one might say, the surest sign that someone is a charlatan is that he pretends to be a prophet. One wonders, then, about Dylan’s insistence that he is a “singer, maybe no more than that.”
Indeed, if there is any anchor throughout Dylan’s wanderings, it is music. “Chronicles” is replete with studio stories, acknowledgement of influences and musical commentary. Dylan complains that his words eclipse his music. And he seems most joyful when he’s riffing on, listening to and writing great American music. Perhaps it’s the music that is the real “message” of Dylan’s work — and the moment of inspiration itself that is most redemptive. In his words: “I can’t say when it occurred to me to write my own songs. You don’t just wake up one day and decide that you need to write songs…. Opportunities may come along for you to convert something — something that exists into something that didn’t yet. That might be the beginning of it.”
Reprinted courtesy The Forward.
Jay Michaelson is a writer living in upstate New York.
Comic Book Icon Battles Everyday Life
In the biopic "American Splendor," cranky comic book icon Harvey Pekar frets in the supermarket. "This may be the shortest line, but I’m taking a risk because it’s an old Jewish lady," he says. When the woman argues with the manager, he storms out of the store.
The banal but frustrating scenario is typical of Pekar’s autobiographical comics, the source for the well-received film. The movie chronicles his miserable life as a working-class intellectual in Cleveland, his dead-end job as a file clerk, his prickly third marriage, his weird friends, his cancer scare, his unplanned parenthood and his struggle to turn his life into a comic, although he can’t draw. An edgy hybrid of cartoon, drama and documentary, the film — by Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman — won this year’s top prize at Sundance.
While previous comic book superheroes counterbalance their Jewish creators’ fear of anti-Semitism, Pekar empowers people in a different way. "By recording the average person’s mundane struggles, he elevates the ‘little guy,’" Pulcini, 38, said.
Pekar’s wry observations about these unsung heroes make him "the ultimate mensch of the comic world," Tikkun magazine wrote in 1992. In the tradition of Yiddishist-socialist authors of the early 20th century, he is "the self-educated, militantly egalitarian Jew in a world of pedigreed deceivers."
Not that Pekar, 63, has escaped his own case of Jewish paranoia. "His pessimism feels like Jewish immigrant angst," said Paul Giamatti, who plays the artist in the film. "That was crucial for me in approaching the role: his family’s Holocaust legacy and the financial instability of his childhood home."
At the Four Seasons Hotel recently, Pekar — looking incongruously cheerful in a Hawaiian shirt — described growing up with Polish parents who lost relatives in the Shoah. His mother, the daughter of a schochet (kosher slaughterer), was a communist who read the Daily Worker and refused to attend synagogue. His father, an Orthodox talmudic scholar, agonized over having to work Saturdays to eke out a living in the family grocery store.
"Every night he would play cantorial records, the last thing before he went to bed," Pekar said, quietly. "A lot of it was so mournful … I wouldn’t be able to sleep."
His 1992 comic, "Sheiboneh Beis Hamikdosh" ("That the Temple Will Be Rebuilt"), describes how he tried to like the music, but couldn’t until he was asked to review a cantorial record as a freelance critic in the 1970s. "Then I could see the beauty of it," said Pekar, who by then had lost his father. He named the ’92 comic after the most famous song of his father’s favorite cantor, Moshe Koussevitzky.
While Pekar now considers himself a champion of Jewish music, he preferred jazz albums in his youth. It was while scouring a 1962 garage sale for LPs that he met underground comic book artist Robert Crumb: "His work got me thinking that comics didn’t have to be just about superheros, but about wage slaves like me," Pekar said. When Pekar showed him the storylines he had created, Crumb agreed to illustrate them.
The result, in 1976, was "American Splendor," which made Pekar a godfather of autobiographical comics. Recurring characters included his nerdy co-worker, Toby Radloff (Judah Friedlander in the film), and an elderly pal who recalls pushcart peddlers in 1987’s "Pa-aypr Reggs!"
Other comics describe Pekar’s complex relationship with his wife, Joyce Brabner, who alternately praised and grumbled about her husband during an interview.
"I’m supposed to be the balabusta while the house is falling down around us," she said, wryly. "And there’s Harvey … with his elbows sticking through his sleeves, reading and reading because Jews are supposed to be the ‘People of the Book.’ It’s like ‘Knowledge is golden but money, well, that will take care of itself.’"
In fact, financial concerns were a reason Pekar sought to turn "Splendor" into a film starting in 1980. Two decades later, he finally enlisted producer Ted Hope and filmmakers Pulcini and Berman, known for lively documentaries such as "Off the Menu: The Last Days of Chasen’s."
"Our first point of bonding with Harvey was that we come from ethnic backgrounds he can relate to: Jewish and Italian," said Berman, 39. "The second point was that we were not going to turn him into some fake, Hollywood hero."
The writer-directors cast Giamatti ("Big Fat Liar"), known for precise portrayals of losers, to play the gloomy Jew. One of Giamatti’s techniques: "I found a CD of cantorial music and listened to it to evoke a melancholy mood."
Pekar, in person, transitions from melancholy to fretful — the kind of guy who’d agonize over the supermarket checkout line.
"I’m obsessive compulsive and unhealthily pessimistic, and the success of the film hasn’t changed that," he said.
"American Splendor" opens today.
The Holocaust and Rock ‘n’ Roll
One of the first things Gene Simmons reveals in his new autobiography, "Kiss and Make-Up," is that he is the child of a Holocaust survivor. The co-founder and bassist for Kiss, one of rock’s most commercially successful bands, writes that his mother, Flora Klein, a Hungarian Jew, was sent to concentration camps at age 14, "where she saw most of her family wiped out in the gas chambers."
The ghostly grasp of the Holocaust has reached farther and wider than perhaps realized, even casting its shadow on rock music. Simmons is but one of a number of prominent rock and pop musicians whose families suffered during the Holocaust. That flesh-and-blood connection to such cataclysm has colored their lives and music.
Piano man Billy Joel, Procol Harum lyricist Keith Reid, WAR harmonica player Lee Oskar and Ten-Wheel Drive lead singer Genya Ravan are the children of those who survived the Holocaust, or fled before the Final Solution became official Nazi policy.
Longtime stars Jackson Browne and Linda Ronstadt; bass player Bob Glaub; Justine Frischmann, leader of the British band Elastica; singer-songwriter Dan Bern; and the late Enrico Rosenbaum, guitarist, singer and songwriter for the ’70s band Gypsy, share similar histories.
Former Blues Project and Seatrain bassist-flute player Andy Kulberg still remembers his Austrian-born father Siegfried, who escaped the Nazis in 1939, telling him long after coming to the United States to "always keep about $5,000 in cash in a safety deposit box."
Mickey Raphael, longtime harmonica player for Willie Nelson, is fortunate that his father and uncle were wise enough and lucky enough to escape Germany by 1936, especially since his Uncle Arno had insulted a group of Hitler’s Brown Shirts and been thrown in jail.
Billy Joel, whose resumé lists more than 30 Top 40 hits from 1974 through 1993, developed resilience, toughness and determination from his father, a WWII refugee, who though absent much of Billy’s life, was an example of fortitude. (His mother, Rosalind, who raised Billy as a single parent also served as an example of dogged determination.)
Joel’s grandparents and father, Howard, barely got out of Germany in 1939 before the Nazis implemented their plan to exterminate the Jews of Europe. The blows of losing their business and their Nuremberg home, being forced to flee, and spending three years as refugees in Cuba may have caused the Joels to keep their Jewish roots under wraps when the family arrived in the United States in 1942.
In one of life’s great ironies, Howard Joel was drafted in 1943, sent back to Europe, fought in Italy and was among the troops who liberated Dachau, the infamous Nazi concentration camp in southern Germany. "I had relatives that were in concentration camps — although not Dachau — and some of them were put to death. But at Dachau … it was terrible. We were too late to help," Howard Joel told Billboard’s Timothy White in 1994.
It’s no coincidence that so many of Joel’s songs champion the underdog. He has paid tribute to unemployed steelworkers in "Allentown," disparaged Vietnam veterans in "Goodnight Saigon," and to Long Island fishermen struggling to make a living in "The Downeaster ‘Alexa,’" illuminating the dignity and resolve in each.
In a song title, Joel’s 1985 hit "Keeping the Faith" sums up the nature of his work.
Bass player Bob Glaub may not be a household name, but check the credits on Rod Stewart’s album "Atlantic Crossing" and John Lennon’s "Rock & Roll." He has also accompanied Browne, Ronstadt, Stevie Nicks, John Fogerty, Dave Mason — and most recently, Dwight Yoakam — on concert tours. He’s the bass player on Adam Sandler’s "Hanukkah Song." He is also one of the biggest mensches in the business.
And it’s not easy being a mensch when you grow up hearing horror stories of Ravensbruck and Mauthausen, especially when they come from your mother.
A Hungarian-speaking Czech, Glaub’s mother, Edith, was working as a nanny in Budapest when Hitler’s troops swept through Hungary in 1944. His father, from the same Czech village as his mother, spent the war in a series of slave labor camps in the Ukraine. Glaub’s parents were reunited after the war and immigrated to the United States in 1949. (His father, Zoltan, paid their way by helping to paint the ship.)
While his parents eventually were able to speak of their Holocaust experiences and regain a sense of humor and an upbeat outlook on life, the specter of the Holocaust hung over their home.
"I can’t say that [being a child of Holocaust survivors] hasn’t been filled with a lot of negativity. I have to constantly fight to overcome that. Hearing throughout your whole life about the genocide that happened doesn’t give you a positive outlook on the world." Nonetheless, he says, "My perspective on life is of extreme thankfulness for all I have and all that has come my way."
Singer-songwriter Dan Bern wrestles with the horror of the Holocaust more often and more directly than any other contemporary songwriter. In a new song, "God Said No," from his 2001 album, "New American Language," Bern asks God to send him back in time to Berlin to take out Hitler. "I will stalk him. I will bring him down," the Iowa native sings. In the song "Hannibal" from his 1996 album "Dog Boy Van," Bern takes on Holocaust deniers: "Hitler never hurt a soul./ I read it in a book/ That I just finished up this morning./ I was happy and I just couldn’t wait to tell the good news/ To all of my dead uncles."
In June 1999, several years after his father’s death, Bern visited Skuodas, his father’s birthplace in Lithuania, to make peace with the family ghosts. His father, Julian Bern, born Yehuda Bernstein, and one brother, Leon, were the only two members of a family of seven to survive the Nazi invasion of Lithuania in 1941. They left Lithuania in 1939 after Hitler’s pact with the Soviet dictator Stalin. Yehuda eventually made it to Palestine, while Leon joined partisans in the forests of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.
Bern, along with an Israeli cousin, arrived in Skuodas searching for a part of his past he never knew and a part of his father’s past he wanted to better understand.
"I went back to get my house in order, to make peace with my past, to face it and look at it," Bern says. A result of the trip was the reclamation of his family name. "A women we met in Skuodas knew the name Bernstein, and from that moment I felt I was Bernstein [pronounced Bern-stine]."
Upon returning home, Bern simply began referring to himself as Bernstein. It strengthened his identity and connection to his family. "Now," he says, "when I say ‘Bernstein,’ I feel something every time."
Still a ‘Hero’
Robert Clary doesn’t really enjoy sitcoms.
Even though he played the French sidekick on one of television’s most unusual sitcoms, "Hogan’s Heroes," the POW situation comedy (1965-71) set during World War II.
"I prefer more dramatic shows," said Clary, 75, who enjoys watching "The Practice" and "The West Wing."
His just-released autobiography, "From the Holocaust to Hogan’s Heroes" (Madison Books, $26.95), not only retraces his career from Capitol Records recording artist to sitcom star but also an ominous part of his life many did not realize he had survived: the Holocaust.
"When the show went on the air, people asked me if I had any qualms about doing a comedy series dealing with Nazis and concentration camps," Clary said. "I had to explain that it was about prisoners of war in a stalag, not a concentration camp … they were not guarded by the SS, but by the Wehrmacht."
"I was an actor who was asked to play the part of a French corporal prisoner of war and not a little Jew in concentration camp, and I never felt uncomfortable playing Louis Lebeau."
Of Polish Jewish descent, Clary (ne Robert Max Widerman) was born and raised in Paris. In his memoir, he recalls with vivid detail his life of living hand-to-mouth after being taken to Drancy and then to concentration camps — Blechhammer, Gross-Rosen, Buchenwald — not knowing when death would come for him.
"I tried to write it the way I talk," said Clary of the book.
And he’s not paying lip service. "From the Holocaust to Hogan’s Heroes" isn’t a sugar-coated, selective hagiography. Clary is brutally frank about every facet of his life, such as his own developing teenage sexuality while interred in a concentration camp.
"My sex was a piece of bread," Clary said.
As an actor in postwar Hollywood, Clary never dwelled on his Holocaust past. "I didn’t want people to feel sorry for me," Clary said. "I wanted them to love me for what I brought to my craft."
Clary enjoyed his long marriage to his soul mate and his late wife, Natalie, whom he was introduced to by his friend, Merv Griffin. She died in 1997, and last year, Clary also lost his most enduring friendship from "Hogan’s Heroes" when Werner Klemperer (Colonel Klink) lost his struggle with throat cancer.
Today, Clary prefers the chirping birds and sunshine at his quiet Beverly Hills home over the smoky Parisian piano bars of his youth.
"I don’t like big cities anymore," Clary said. "New York, London, Paris. They’re all great cities, but I don’t enjoy living in the rat race."
If there’s one message that Clary wants readers to extract from his memoir, it’s to "stop wasting time hating. Do something with your life that’s positive, not negative."
Which is exactly what Clary has done in his post-"Hogan’s Heroes" years. With the help of Simon Wiesenthal Center, Clary fell into an unintended role as lecturer, taking his Holocaust experience and turning it into a relative positive by using it to enlighten public school students. Clary even ends his book with an appreciative letter from a Spanish teacher who heard Clary speak.
Despite recently losing his wife, Clary’s appetite for life continues undiminished. Aside from promoting his book this year and the occasional Holocaust lecture, Clary enjoys his off-camera existence.
"All I want to do is paint and do a CD every year," Clary said. "I always said I will not be in the business unless somebody calls me with a great part."
"All my life I’ve been close to death," he continued. "Either you join them or you’re going to live. I just live."
Robert Clary will sign copies of his book on Feb. 26 at 7:30 p.m. at Barnes & Noble, 10850 W. Pico Blvd.,Los Angeles, (310) 475-4144; and on March 20 at 8 p.m. at Book Soup, 8818 W. Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (310) 659-3110.
With the demise of the former Soviet Union and the fall of communism in the early ’90s, the story of Soviet Jewry’s battle for survival appears to be ancient history. Yet one of the truly remarkable books of our time is the autobiography of one of the famous refuseniks, Yosef Mendelevitch, who struggled valiantly for his right to be Jewish in Communist Russia. Mendelevitch titled his autobiography "Mevzah Hatunah," which translates from Hebrew as "Operation Wedding."
Mendelevitch, together with a group of refusenik friends, tried to escape from the USSR in the early ’70s on a plane they had hoped to fly to Israel. But the KGB uncovered their plan, and they were arrested. At the trial they said that they were planning to go to a wedding. That story served as the basis for the book’s title.
Mendelevitch records how, during his prison sentence, he was often sent to solitary confinement in a 3-foot by 5-foot room with no heat or blanket, with a light that never turned off and a slop pail that was only emptied every 10 days. One stint in solitary lasted 90 days, but he sneaked in a Bible. He was caught reading his Bible a few days later, and the interrogator offered him the following deal: "If you give up the Bible, I will reduce your solitary confinement by 30 days. But if you keep it, I will add 30 days." He answered, "With my Bible there is no solitary confinement; without it, solitary confinement is unbearable."
This very thought is found in this week’s Torah portion. At the very start of the reading, the Torah records the commandment about which oil should be used for the lighting of the menorah in the tabernacle. After telling us that pure olive oil was needed, the Torah states that it was used "to lift the perpetual light." This expression is most unusual, for we would have expected the word to be "to kindle." The rabbis in the Talmud (Yoma 45b) suggest that "to lift" teaches us that the fire for the menorah came from an already existing fire that was continually burning. The Talmud remarks, "A fire about which continually has been stated: It is the one with which they light the lamps of the menorah … from the fire which is on the altar." It was, if you will, lifted from that source and transferred to the menorah, in order to ignite the flames of the candelabrum.
In this piece of ritual information lies a great insight that has profound moral value. Light, in all literature, is a metaphor for gladness, which uplifts the heart of man. Indeed, in all universal languages, every form of fulfillment is compared to light. What the Torah teaches us via this law of the menorah’s lighting is that the source of our happiness is crucial. If there is to be light-happiness in our lives, then it must come from a source of holiness. When this occurs and one’s light-happiness is grounded in the correct source, that person then is "uplifted," and the fire burns eternally.
Mendelevitch found his source of light-happiness in the Bible, and it illuminated the darkness of his prison cell. Our challenge is to find our holy source of light and illuminate our lives accordingly.
Let’s Make a Difference
Monty Hall is guiding a visitor past the fine artwork in the foyer of his Spanish-style Beverly Hills home, where you don’t see a single memento from the game show that made him a TV icon.
People mostly remember Hall from “Let’s Make a Deal,” the landmark show that ran intermittently from 1963 to 1991, featuring prize-hungry contestants in chicken costumes or bunny suits vying to see what was behind doors number one, two or three. Audience members traded knickknacks for refrigerators, and strangers still chase Hall down the street, yelling that they have a bobby pin in a purse, a hard-boiled egg in a pocket.
While “Deal” made the emcee a household name, his life’s passion is less known to the general public — so much so that he wanted to call his autobiography, “There’s More to My Life.” What many don’t realize about Hall is that he has raised almost a billion dollars for dozens of charities, at least half of them Jewish, from Israel Bonds to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center to the Israel Children’s Centers.
Today, three hospital wings bear his name, and so do two city streets, in Cathedral City, CA, and in his native Winnipeg, Canada. Even at age 78, Hall makes more than 100 appearances a year around the world, speaking and performing gratis at benefit shows, and enlisting the help of his celebrity friends.
“If you left it up to Monty, I wouldn’t have a dime,” Don Rickles teased on an A & E Biography of Hall. “I’d just be on a bus, doing everything for free.”
This weekend, between events for the Venice Family Clinic and Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger, Hall will appear with friends Carl Reiner, Shelley Berman, Hal Kanter and Sherwood Schwartz in a panel discussion about Jews and TV comedy. The panel is a highlight of the national King David Society weekend, an event for major donors to the United Jewish Appeal Federation Campaign of United Jewish Communities, organized by the UJC and the Los Angeles Jewish Federation (see box).
Although he’s proud of the show, don’t tell Hall that “Let’s Make a Deal” will be his epitaph. “You put that on my tombstone,” he has quipped, “and I’ll kill you.”
Hall’s charitable roots go back two generations, to his Ukrainian maternal grandfather, David Rosenwasser. When the greenhorn stepped off the train at Winnipeg, Canada, in 1901, he was greeted by “a big voice ringing off the platform in Yiddish, –‘Are there any Jews here?’,” Hall says. “This man took my grandfather home, where he proceeded to give him a hot meal and a hot bath, his first in months. The next morning he got my grandfather a rooming house, a $5 loan from the Jewish free loan society, bought him a pushcart, taught him the money system and showed him where the farmers brought in produce from the provinces. And my grandfather was in business.”
Rosenwasser, in turn, ultimately became president of his Orthodox synagogue and brought over as many Jews from his shtetl as possible.