Books: Ruth’s Garden of Secrets


Eva Etzioni-Halevy, a Viennese-born Holocaust survivor, wants everyone to enjoy Bible stories as much as she does.

“At a certain stage in my life I became religious, and I wanted to bring the Bible close to people’s hearts,” said the 72-year-old Israeli academician turned best-selling author.

Etzioni-Halevy has focused her attention on reworking popular biblical stories, making the characters, particularly women, more alive and personable for modern readers.

“The Bible stories are very beautiful but very brief,” Etzioni-Halevy said in a phone interview from her home in Tel Aviv. “They leave a lot unexplained, so you to have to fill out the gaps with your imagination.”

Her most recent book, “The Garden of Ruth,” explores “the smooth, idyllic pastoral story” of Ruth, the widowed Moabite woman who was one of King David’s ancestors and is revered for following her bereaved mother-in-law, Naomi, back to Israel.

As told in “Megillat Ruth,” she is credited for extraordinary modesty and loyalty. It was Ruth who uttered the famous words “Where you go, I will go.”
In Etzioni-Halevy’s retelling, Ruth’s fictional great-grandchild, Osnath, becomes a detective of sorts when she discovers a scrap of a love letter written to Ruth. Osnath investigates her ancestor’s story, even as she deals with her own problems in becoming the paramour of both King David and his brother.

In the book, Ruth is not just the modest woman of tradition, but rather one with a secret, and her journey back to Israel is not simply and act of devotion, but also a journey to rejoin an unnamed lover.

Etzioni-Halevy’s biblical personalities lose their halos.

“The Bible makes it very clear that the heroes are not angels — it is full of descriptions of the weaknesses of the patriarchs,” she said. “It doesn’t detract from the heroes — but it makes them more human. I think the Bible did us a great favor by not presenting people as saints and angels — and we should follow what the Bible says and not sweep it under the carpet.”

Eva Etzioni-Halevy will be in Los Angeles Feb. 8-12.

Spectator – The Theme Park Without a Prayer


Bible Storyland must have a guardian angel. Dissolution by the clergy, dormancy for 45 years and a fatal fire were not powerful enough to erase the plans for this Bible-based theme park from history.

And now, art collector Harvey Jordan is working to inform Californians about this piece of their past in a new exhibition at the University of Judaism titled, “Dream Parks: Artwork From the Bible Storyland Theme Park.”

Nearly five decades have elapsed since Nat Winecoff, former Disney promoter and theme park developer, conceived of a $15 million Bible story-based Disneyland-esque place, which he planned to build on 220 acres of land in Cucamonga (now Rancho Cucamonga). Investors included actor Jack Haley and Donald Duncan of Yo-Yo and modern-day parking meter fame. However, the clergy allegedly quashed the idea and Bible Storyland was never erected.

More than 200 drawings and watercolor paintings of Winecoff’s brainchild, created by former Disney artist Bruce Bushman and a handful of other artists, remained after the deal went sour. Another art collector purchased the artwork from Winecoff’s estate and kept it holed up in his apartment until he and his possessions perished in a fire. Miraculously, 50 paintings of Bible Storyland survived the blaze.

Bible Storyland was a unique concept that mingled Disneyland-type family-oriented rides and attractions with biblical stories. A press release issued in 1960 described the plans at length.

To be constructed in the shape of a heart, Bible Storyland would have included different “lands,” each with its own theme, tied to either pre-Christian times, the Bible or the New Testament. Parkgoers would arrive at a Star of David garden and could then saunter through the Garden of Eden and visit Adam and Eve. Visitors could also venture to Israel and ride animals through Noah’s Ark Carousel, explore the inside of the whale with Jonah and watch Moses on Mount Sinai. Other locales would have included ancient Egypt, Babylon and Rome, as well as Ur, where Abraham began his journey to the Promised Land.

Jordan has assumed the role of promoter and savior of the history of Bible Storyland.

“I am now the holder of Bible Storyland,” he said. “From what I understand, I have the rest of the drawings and nobody else has kept them alive or written about it.”

The art can be seen at the Borstein Gallery at the University of Judaism through Aug. 20. 15600 Mulholland Drive, Bel Air. For more information, call (310) 440-1201 or visit

Television – Bruce Feiler’s Biblical Road Trip


For anyone who’s forgotten that the events of the Bible happened in real places, Bruce Feiler is on hand — and on location — to remind them otherwise. He’s also there for those who haven’t forgotten — for those who find joy, entertainment or even enlightenment in visiting these places through his books.

And now he’s taken his biblical road show to television, through a miniseries airing this month on PBS.

The three-part “Walking the Bible With Bruce Feiler” follows the recent documentary trend of sending a charismatic host to a series of dangerous or hard-to-get-to places. Accompanied on occasion by archaeologists, scholars, Egyptologists, and theologians, Feiler tracks his way through places in the Middle East where the biblical stories of Genesis and Exodus are assumed to have occurred.

Feiler goes to Mesopotamia, to the lush shores of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the legendary location of the Garden of Eden. He also travels to Mount Ararat, the place that the Bible records Noah’s Ark as coming to rest — and speaks to a Turkish pasha-like figure who is cryptic about whether or not he found remnants of the ark itself. And he goes to the deserts where Abraham walked and into the Dome of the Rock, where Abraham supposedly put his son Isaac on an altar with the intent of sacrificing him to God.

He then journeys to Egypt to scale the pyramids — and look at hieroglyphics that might have mentioned Moses. He also hops a ride on a decrepit Red Sea fishing boat, from where fisherman trawl for “Moses Fish” — a flat flounder-like fish that is black on one side and white on the other. It is called Moses fish, the Egyptian fisherman tells him, because when Moses split the sea he also split the fish in half.

Even though the series was filmed within the past two years, it somehow conveys an ancient feel. Scenes are populated by Arabs wearing long robes and kaffiyehs, congregating in marketplaces where cows run amok. Feiler himself camps out in Bedouin tents (there are no five-star hotels in many of these locales) — where he sleeps on the ground and kneels on a blanket to eat flat bread cooked by his hosts over an open fire. It all seems tremendously authentic, as if not much has changed in 5,000 years.

As a writer, Feiler is no stranger to this territory. In 1998 he set out on his first Bible-inspired adventure, trekking through ancient deserts, mountains, rivers and cities — resulting in the best-selling book “Walking the Bible: A Journey by Land Through the Five Books of Moses,” (William Morrow, 2001). That’s the book on which the current series is based. He followed that up with two books of the same hybrid adventure-archeology-travelogue genre, “Abraham, a Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths” (Harper Perennial, 2004) and “Where God Was Born: A Journey by Land to the Roots of Religion” (Harper Collins, 2005).

For the PBS series, Feiler returned to some of the places he had written about, but this time, in September 2004, he was accompanied by a BBC film crew and American producer Drew Levin.

“I really feel that these [biblical] stories happened in real places, and the power of television is that it puts you in those places,” said Feiler in an interview with The Journal from his house in Brooklyn. “For me, part of the goal of ‘Walking the Bible’ is to take the Bible out of those black covers and replant the story into the ground.”

Feiler is not biblical scholar per se. It’s more accurate to cast him as an intelligent, curious, educated, spiritual seeker who takes his readers — and now his viewers — on both a journey through Bible lore and his personal journey.

“When I set out, I was interested in scientific questions: Was this the actual rock or mountain [where the story took place]? I still find those questions fascinating [but] very quickly … I became more interested in the meaning of the story,” he said. “‘Walking the Bible’ is in some ways a reluctant spiritual journey.”

Feiler “is not a trained scholar of the Bible, but that said, he nonetheless offers thoughtful insights into the biblical narratives,” said Carol Bakhos, assistant professor of late antique Judaism at UCLA.

His “take you to where it happened” style has won a following among readers, and PBS is betting the allure will attract television viewers as well.

“We wanted to tell a story that would draw the audience into the region,” said Levin. “What I am hoping will be the result of this production is that people will realize there is a place called the Bible, not just a book called the Bible.”

The first episode of “Walking the Bible With Bruce Feiler” premiered Jan. 4 on KCET. Subsequent episodes will air on Jan. 11 and 18 at 8 p.m. Consult listings for replay times.

Kilmer’s Moses a Real ‘Ten’


When Val Kilmer talks about his new role in the small, bare room that is his office on the Paramount lot, he sounds more like a Bible class teacher than a participant in a multimillion-dollar extravaganza.

“It’s hard to imagine what a culture is like when a human thinks they’re God,” he said, referring to Pharaoh. “And people react [to that] from a foundation of fear. It’s amazing that Moses was able to do what he did, and that clarity of intensive righteousness that he had, and how selflessly he assumed the role of leader that he didn’t want. That is what characterizes him as extraordinary.”

Kilmer plays Moses in “The Ten Commandments,” the new musical version of the Exodus story, which is set to open at the Kodak Theatre on Sept. 27. His philosophical musings are typical of those of the main players behind the show. While the trend in recent popular musicals has been to give audiences a good time in the most facile way possible, “The Ten Commandments” aims to be wholly entertaining but primarily inspirational and educational.

“It’s so hard to find a story that lends itself to speak to a generation, but people do want to be entertained and they don’t want to be preached to,” said Robert Iscove, the show’s director. “We are trying to get our message across in a highly educated and entertaining way.”

The message of the show, as Iscove describes it, is: “Faith will not divide us, only our fear will. We are all the same underneath the skin, and without all agreeing on a code of behavior, anarchy rules. The only time we don’t grow and follow our spirituality is when our individual Pharaoh is ruling us.”

That message is one of the reasons that producers Charles Cohen and Max Azria decided to launch the production.

Cohen, who was the senior acquisitions adviser for Europe to SFX, the company that is now Clear Channel Entertainment, originally saw the “Le Dix Commandements” in France, where it was the most successful musical ever produced in that country. It ended up playing to audiences of more than 2.2 million over 17 months, and selling 11 million copies of the soundtrack and 1.2 million copies of the DVD.

When Cohen saw the production, he was mesmerized by its scale, extravagant special effects, heartwarming and heart-pumping score and inspirational underpinnings. He loved it so much that he invested in it, and he also started thinking about how he could bring the French production to an English-speaking audience in the United States. He brought his friend, Azria, the designer behind clothing label BCBG, in to see the show in Paris, and together they started a musical production company to get “The Ten Commandments” to America.

In the international exchange, Cohen and Azria ended up revamping the show completely. They recruited Patrick Leonard, who produced the soundtracks to “Moulin Rouge” and “Legally Blonde,” to write the new music, and Emmy-award winning songwriter Maribeth Derry to write the new lyrics.

“In America we knew that it was a different ballgame altogether,” Cohen said. “We decided to change the scenic aspects, the costumes, the designs and the composition of the lyric. A new book [script] was written, we had new choreography, and different, much bigger special effects. It’s the same story, but a new show.”

Cohen won’t disclose the exact figure he and Azria put into the production, except to say that it is “many millions of dollars.”

“We are much over [the budget of] a regular Broadway production,” he said. “We have 52 people on stage, and our show becomes bigger and bigger every day. Two months ago we didn’t know that Kilmer was going to be on board, and we tripled our special effects budget. It is huge. We cannot give numbers, but those numbers are going up every day.”

“The Ten Commandments” is the largest show to originate in Los Angeles. It is booked for 90 days at the 3,400-seat Kodak Theatre, and after that it will travel to Radio City Music Hall in New York, before beginning a national tour.

Of course, “The Ten Commandments” has a long history of being a “big” production.

The original giving of the Ten Commandments more than 5,000 years ago, where 600,000 Israelites saw the revelation of God, is the historical event that for many Jews establishes the authenticity of Judaism.

When Cecil B. DeMille decided to retell the story on screen in 1956, starring Charlton Heston as both Moses and God, it was billed as “The greatest event in motion picture history.”

Iscove said that his musical is significantly different from DeMille’s film.

“A lot of the effects back then were very anachronistic, and the style of acting is different, and the message to a ’50s generation is stricter and more rigid,” he said. “There is also more feminism [in this retelling]. We do a lot about the pain of the women in the story, Ziporrah [Moses’ wife], Yochebed [Moses’ mother] and Bithia [Pharaoh’s daughter who saved Moses from drowning and then raised him in the palace.] Zipporah is a much stronger woman [in this production] than she was in the 1950s.”

The musical tells the story of how Moses was raised in Pharaoh’s house, alongside Ramses (Kevin Earley), who is Pharaoh’s son. Ramses becomes the next Pharaoh who refuses to free the Israelites from their slavery, and Moses is the brave leader who defies him to bring the Israelites to freedom.

“The story is very close to the Bible,” Iscove said. “Two people were raised in the same house, given all the same privileges, and one finds his humanity and follows his spiritual path and the other rejects his humanity and his heart gets hardened by God. It is only by Moses recognizing his humanity that he became the leader of the three great religions.”

Iscove said that Kilmer, who in the past has had a reputation of being difficult with directors, is “terrific” as Moses.

“He is becoming Moses, and the leader of this company,” Iscove said. “He is adopting Moses. Moses is a gentle soul, and he has been very much a gentle soul in this.”

This production is Kilmer’s second turn as Moses. His first was with the 1998 DreamWorks animated film “The Prince of Egypt.”

For Kilmer, the role is an extension of the weekly Bible readings that he does for his local Christian Science congregation in his home state of New Mexico.

“I get a lot of satisfaction from reading the Bible and sharing stories that matter with my community,” he said. “Playing Moses is bound to have some effect on me and anyone else involved in this story, and hopefully the audience will be affected too.”

“The Ten Commandments” opens Sept. 27 at the Kodak Theatre at Hollywood and Highland. Previews begin Sept. 21. For tickets, call Ticketmaster at (213) 365-3500. For more information, visit www.the10com.com¬†or call (323) 308-6363.