‘Rabbi-Averse’ biographer takes on rabbi who works with Evangelicals

“I should say, right off, that I am not generally an admirer of rabbis,” journalist Zev Chafets writes in “The Bridge Builder: The Life and Continuing Legacy of Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, An Authorized Biography” (Sentinel). “Like a great many irreligious Israelis, I became — and have remained — rabbi averse.”

This frank admission reveals Chafets’ dilemma as the official biographer of a highly controversial figure in the Jewish world. Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein’s “ministry,” as the rabbi himself puts it, is to raise money for Jewish charities from Evangelical Christians through the organization he founded, the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ).  For his efforts, Anti-Defamation League (ADL) leader Abraham Foxman once characterized Eckstein’s project as “perverse” and condemned him for “selling the dignity of the Jewish people.” So Chafets, an experienced journalist and biographer, knew that the credibility of his biography would always be in question.

What’s more, Chafets announces at the outset that the book is sponsored by the IFCJ, which helped pay his advance and which will receive his royalties from sales of the book. Although the author insists that Eckstein did not control or censor the book — only a single “unflattering” remark about one of his relatives was deleted at his request — Chafets readily concedes that the biography cannot be wholly objective: “I can’t say this book is unbiased,” Chafets writes. “After countless hours with him, I like and admire him more.”

Eckstein started out as “a rabbi’s son, a big, good-natured jock who had played basketball for the Yeshiva University High School team.”  He took a job in the Chicago office of the ADL, where he specialized in “interfaith activism.” In 1983, he focused on his self-chosen mission by founding the so-called Holyland Fellowship of Christians and Jews, the original name of the IFCJ. The Christians whom he addressed were not only Evangelical Christians, but also “Republican Christians, Reaganites, full of Jesus talk.” His goal was not conversion, of course, but recruitment of new donors to Jewish causes.

From the outset, Eckstein’s particular kind of missionary work has drawn criticism from both highly observant Jewish clergy and Jewish secular leaders such as Foxman. The chief Ashkenazic rabbi in Israel, for example, once ruled that any Jew who accepts donations originating with Christians will “lose both their worlds, this and the next.” But Eckstein has always remained a true believer in himself: “It didn’t even occur to me to quit,” he tells Chafets. “I have a personal relationship with God … and I had a moral certainty that came from God. That’s what has guided my work and my life, from the beginning until today.” 

To his credit, Chafets does not overlook the ironies that can be found in Eckstein’s biography. While enrolled in a graduate program at Columbia, Eckstein ate lunch at the kosher dining hall of the nearby Jewish Theological Seminary, “the flagship of Conservative Judaism.” He understood that it was “a form of culinary apostasy,” because Conservative Judaism is not recognized by Orthodox Judaism.  “I felt like I was committing a sin every time I had lunch,” Eckstein tells Chafets. As it happens, he was accused of even greater apostasies when he started visiting churches to raise money for the IFCJ: “Yechiel Eckstein has left Judaism and he must be excommunicated by the rabbis of the Land of Israel,” demanded one of his Orthodox critics.

Another irony is that Eckstein quickly discovered that Evangelical Christians did not ask the troubling questions that the Jewish world, both secular and observant, has been debating for decades. The issue of trading land for peace in the Middle East, for example, simply never arose. “These folks would sometimes get angry when they heard Israelis or Jews talking about ‘giving back land to the Palestinians,’” Eckstein says. “Ministers would say to me, ‘This land was given to the Jews by God; they don’t have the right to give it away.’ ”

One point of friction between Eckstein and his Christian constituency was the mission undertaken by proselytizers to convert Jews to Christianity, but Eckstein claims that his project actually defused this hot-button issue. “The novelty of what I did was to give Christians a tangible, meaningful, and orthodox way to deal with Jews without trying to convert them,” he says. But he never won over his critics among those who seek to convert Jews to Christianity, including Jews for Jesus. “Christian missionary groups who target Jews hated me for that,” he explains. “I hurt their business.”

As I read Chafets’ fluid and lucid prose, I had the sense that Rabbi Eckstein was looking over my shoulder, just as he looked over the author’s shoulder. But even if “The Bridge Builder” is not a conventional biography, it is not exactly a hagiography, either. Chafets, in fact, provides us an item of evidence that supports the integrity of the book: “I can turn into a monster,” Eckstein confesses. “When I get upset by incompetence or lack of attention to detail, I intimidate people.” Thus does Eckstein inadvertently pay tribute to his plainly unintimidated biographer.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal. 

A Gehry biography with in-depth detail, but lacking in passion

I generally approach a new biography by attempting to shut out competing noise.  I focus on the biographer and his subject; in this case, Paul Goldberger’s masterful but frustrating new work, “Building Art: The Life and Work Of Frank Gehry” (Knopf).  But this time I didn’t start with the book.  I began by watching Sydney Pollack’s documentary, “Sketches of Frank Gehry.”  I confess I knew little about Gehry before approaching this project other than the fact that he was an 86-year-old world-renowned architect who had created some of the most striking structures of our time.  Among them the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, and the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, and the skyscraper on Spruce Street in Manhattan, and the Fondation Louis Vuitton in  Paris, and so many others.  But Gehry disappointed me.  I wasn’t sure what it was.  He seemed distracted and self-centered and disinclined to engage with the filmmaker in any form of psychological discourse that might help us understand him better.  Pollack, genial as ever and a friend of Gehry, seemed amused by the architect’s distractedness; but I wasn’t and hoped that Paul Goldberger’s biography would fill in some of the blanks. 

The future Frank Gehry was born Frank Goldberg in Toronto.  Growing up, he had a turbulent relationship with his father, who was a violent man troubled by his repeated failures in business.  Gehry’s mother instilled in him a love of art and music.  His parent’s marriage was combustible, and Gehry’s best memories are quieter moments with his maternal grandmother, who would bring him wood carvings and play with him on the floor.  His father’s poor health prompted the family to move to California when Gehry was 18.  It was an instant love affair: Gehry saw California as his own promised land.   He studied architecture at the University of Southern California and opened his practice in 1962. 

Gehry’s personal life was often a messy affair.  Goldberger outlines for us his failed first marriage and his almost nonexistent relationship with the two daughters it produced.  Gehry married again later on; to a much younger woman who seemed to be able to telepathically sense his needs.  This union, still ongoing, has produced two sons, one of whom now works with his father.  Throughout his adult life, Gehry was in therapy with an unconventional therapist named Milton Wexler, who played a pivotal role in his development.  He encouraged Gehry to end his first marriage, and prompted him to go through with a second one years later, even though Gehry was resistant.  He worked with Gehry on dealing with clients and friends and relatives.  Gehry could often be shy and awkward while giving presentations to important clients, and Wexler worked with him on smoothing out some of his rough edges.    He also encouraged him to channel his persistent angst into his fabulous creations.  Wexler got him to participate in group therapy sessions, where Gehry admits he spent the first few years completely silent until others in the group finally confronted him on his ongoing passivity and judgmental demeanor.  But one senses that work and his creative life were always his main sustenance.  Gehry left a trail of broken friendships behind him seemingly oblivious to what he had done.  Goldberger presents this less attractive side of Gehry to us clearly and factually, but seems a bit starry-eyed about Frank and cuts him too much slack.  Gehry’s failings are often whitewashed away with explanations that are less than convincing. 

Goldberger had unprecedented access to Gehry for this biography.  He met with him for countless hours at Gehry’s home, and at his office, and even on Gehry’s beloved boat.   He tells us that Gehry often experienced periods of doubt and seems to still crave acceptance and fear rejection and wants and needs to feel loved.   But even Goldberger seems to sense that he didn’t get where he wanted to with Gehry.  He writes “Our conversations always had substance to them, although I am struck, looking back at the transcripts, by how rarely I succeeded in my intentions of having our interviews proceed in orderly fashion throughout his life.  Frank Gehry lives in the present, and talks most comfortably about what he is doing now-or, more to the point, what he hope to be doing next week, next month, and next year.  Looking back is not his favorite thing to do.” 

Goldberger spends many of the best chapters of his book outlining for us the challenges Gehry faced as he approached each of his projects.  He explains to us how Gehry’s work was greatly enhanced by the new computer software that allowed Gehry to take his scribbled pen and ink sketches which he drew on small sheets of paper and turn them into viable models.   The book is sprinkled with replicas of these drawings and the reader marvels at the raw and imaginative talent that drove Gehry throughout his career.  Before the software was available, Gehry would work by assembling simple wood blocks that represented the layout of his project’s components and then play incessantly with the forms that he would eventually place upon the existing structures.  It was often an excruciating and exhilarating process of adding things and taking them away until Gehry saw something that looked right to him.  But he admitted that even after his buildings went up, he would look at them disappointedly, seeing only the changes he would still like to make, and feel frustrated that he could no longer do so.

Gehry saw himself as a modernist but grew tired of the constraints of modernism.  He experimented with new materials like corrugated metal, chain links, titanium plates, and other industrial materials.  His buildings often have the feeling of the fluidity of movement moving through them.  Goldberger believes his work combines “modernist lightness and solid monumental weight without having these two things feel contradictory.”

In 1998, writing for the Los Angeles Times, architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff wrote about Gehry, claiming that his “architecture is often a painful psychological struggle, a balance between the competing impulses of freedom and anger that define his life.  It is, ultimately, about control…One of the surprises of Gehry’s work is his violence.  Each of his famously euphoric and sensual designs-for the Guggenheim, for the Disney Hall-emerges not only from a sense of joyful chaos but also from a mind seemingly tearing apart both a fragile inner world and our shared culture history, and then carefully piecing them back together his way.”  Ourousssoff’s critique sheds some light on what is missing from Goldberger’s analysis.  Ouroussoff seems able to simultaneously analyze Gehry’s architectural work while integrating this analysis within a larger portrait of who Gehry is as a person and the competing forces that drove him.   Goldberger never gets this close and relies too heavily on generalities.   He never connects the dots.  One senses Gehry intimidates him. 

Even the late Herbert Muschamp, the former architecture critic of The New York Times, tapped into something about Gehry that Goldberger misses.  Muschamp was so overwhelmed after seeing the Guggenheim in Bilbao that he described it euphorically as “the reincarnation of Marilyn Monroe…What twins the actress and the building in my memory is that both of them stand for an American style of freedom.  That style is voluptuous, emotional, intuitive, and exhibitionist.  It is mobile, fluid, material, mercurial, fearless, radiant and as fragile as a newborn child.  It can’t resist doing a dance with all of the voice that say ‘No.’  It wants to take up a lot of space.  And when the impulse strikes, it likes to let it fly up in the air.”  Muschamp, like Ouroussoff, wrote about Gehry’s work in a way that allows us to view the complexity of his architecture and how it intersects with the complexity of the man.  We find ourselves wishing author Goldberger had allowed himself the same freedom to do so.

Elaine Margolin is a regular contributor of book reviews to the Jewish Journal and other publications.

David Kertzer wins Pulitzer for biography detailing Pius XI-Mussolini ties

Historian David Kertzer won a Pulitzer Prize for his biography detailing how Benito Mussolini’s secret relationship with Pope Pius XI influenced the Italian dictator’s persecution of his country’s Jews.

Kertzer, a professor of anthropology and Italian studies at Brown University, was recognized in the biography-autobiography category for “The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe.”

Also recognized, for fiction, was Anthony Doerr for another book on World War II, “All the Light We Cannot See,” a complexly woven and emotionally powerful novel set in occupied France and Nazi Germany.

The prestigious journalism and literature awards were announced on Monday.

Kertzer based his book on research into papal documents from the inter-war years released by Pope John Paul II and other material.

The Pulitzer committee called it “an engrossing dual biography that uses recently opened Vatican archives to shed light on two men who exercised nearly absolute power over their realms.”

Kertzer told The Brown Daily Herald, “The ‘eye-opening’ revelation constitutes a concrete example of Pius XI provoking state-sanctioned anti-Semitism in the years leading up to and during World War II.”

Kertzer’s 1997 nonfiction book, “The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara,” won the National Jewish Book Award and was a finalist for the National Book Award. It is being made into a film by Steven Spielberg based on a script by Tony Kushner.

‘Paper Love’: Paving the way for post-survivor storytelling

As the last generation of Holocaust survivors ages and dies, efforts to capture their final, untold stories have abounded. But in her new book “Paper Love: Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind,” Sarah Wildman has turned instead to the future, asking what it means bear witness in a world without Holocaust survivors.

“Paper Love” chronicles the author’s long and labyrinthine search for the fate of the woman whose black-and-white photos she finds amid her late grandfather Karl’s belongings. Wildman knew only the woman’s name, Valy, scrawled across the back of the photos, and that her grandmother bitterly called the mysterious dark-haired woman “your grandfather’s true love.”

It is only after her grandmother dies that Wildman discovers a trove of letters that her grandfather, a dashing physician who fled Vienna in 1938 for the United States, kept hidden and mislabeled.

“Correspondence: Patients A-G” reads the carton containing Valy’s letters, written in German from war-torn Berlin, as well as angry correspondences from extended family members who would never make it out of Hitler’s Europe.

Wildman’s hunt for Valy’s story takes her to far-flung cities, tiny villages and concentration camps throughout Europe, as well as to Ann Arbor, Mich., searching for people who may have known Valy, for documents that might refer to her, for experts who might shed light on her fate. She combs the archives for information and walks the streets of Vienna and Berlin in search of scraps of information about Valy’s life.

But “Paper Love” branches out at every turn — enfolding into its net more historical details, more stories, more locations, more human lives that vanished into World War II, never to be heard of again until now.

The book weaves together the historical with the intensely personal, redefining what counts as appropriate archival material and elevating intimate aspects from Valy’s life, and Wildman’s own, to new importance.

In the six years it took to complete “Paper Love,” Wildman, a journalist, gave birth to two daughters. The transition into new motherhood accompanied the one from consumer of Holocaust history to producer of it.

It’s a transition that took place in the shadow of loss — specifically the death of her grandparents, and also the gradual loss of the last generation of survivors.

“It’s been a very poignant thing for me that my kids won’t know them,” Wildman told JTA over the phone, her breast pump whirring in the background. “I am very much thinking of what comes next, in part because my children won’t have the opportunity of that visceral connection of listening to the story from the source.”

But “Paper Love” is revolutionary precisely because it could not have been written during the lifetime of Wildman’s grandfather.

“He never told us about the letters,” Wildman said, by way of explanation, “and my grandmother wouldn’t have been too pleased.”

Faced with the lack of stories “from the source” that her daughters’ generation encounters, Wildman chose to create something that could exist only in a world without Karl. It’s the kind of art bound to grow in the coming, post-survivor era — now that Wildman is paving the way.

Equal parts history, detective story, memoir and romance, Wildman’s book provides an absorbing account of what it was like to live in (and write from) Berlin as the Nazi grip tightened and conditions for Jews became increasingly worse — city by city, day by day.

Valy’s letters smolder with desperation, both to see her lover again and to survive the horrors that have befallen her city, country and continent. Most of the letters are reproduced in the text, alongside which Wildman decodes the writer’s attempts to fool the censors who were reading trans-Atlantic correspondences.

But they are also magical, magnetic and playful. Indeed, Wildman saw something of herself in the letter writer.

“She’s obsessed with her career, she’s not so super certain about kids, she’s incredibly well educated,” Wildman said. “She sounds like someone you might want to be with or hang out with. She doesn’t sound like someone far away. And she doesn’t sound perfect either. I think that’s important, too.”

Valy writes to Karl from Berlin in April of 1940, “I lead my life the way I’ve been doing for the past 2 years: in a spirit of waiting, without much joy or hope. But, my darling, don’t feel sad for me; I want you to know that I have people around me — women, — you know that only women are left here?!, who still have something to say, who like me, who help me and who want to make life pleasant for me. But I do not succeed very often, and they never will be able to replace you, my boy! You are and remain far, far away, out of my reach, you exist only in my memories, wonderful, beautiful ‘sunny past.’ … You are no longer even a letter, such as tiny, modest piece of the present. Why don’t you write?”

Why didn’t he write?

Among the things Wildman discovers is how sanitized the story she had been told of her grandfather’s miraculous escape and instantaneous success in America. And “Paper Love” is also its author’s attempt to come to terms with her grandfather’s actions and the guilt that she suspects plagued him for the rest of his life.

And although her grandfather never spoke to his granddaughter about Valy, he unwittingly created an archive for her to plunder, turning himself into a partner in the creation of “Paper Love.”

As Wildman asked herself, “If the Nazi project was to erase these people, to render them unmemorable, to be wiped away from the rolls of history, was there some way that my grandfather had thwarted that by saving these letters, and was there some way I, with the privilege of having stumbled on them, could give this woman back her voice?”

Indeed, Valy comes to life on the page, and her story will haunt those who read “Paper Love” for a long time to come.

When asked what her grandfather would make of her book, Wildman answered, “I think he would be pleased to still be talked about. … Of course it exposes a vulnerable side of him that I don’t think he’d be thrilled with, but I do think ultimately he would be happy to be thought of.”

The making of a real spy

Our idea of what spies actually do is deeply tainted by a century or so of novels and movies, some better than others but all of them fictional. “The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames” by Kai Bird (Crown, $26), by contrast, is the real thing.  And yet, for all of its careful attention to facts, “The Good Spy” is fully as colorful and compelling as the very best imaginary spy stories on the bookshelf or the screen.

A Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer (“American Prometheus,” co-authored with Martin J. Sherwin) and a gifted memoirist (“Crossing Mandelbaum Gate”), Bird allows us to see how the real-life exploits of CIA clandestine agent Robert Ames figure in the vast and tumultuous history of the modern Middle East. With a novelist’s eye for the telling detail and a scholarly commitment to telling the whole truth, Bird has produced a masterpiece.

The story opens on the day in 1993 when President Bill Clinton welcomed Yitzhak Rabin and Yasir Arafat to the White House lawn for the signing of an historic (if also ultimately futile) peace accord. “It had all started decades earlier when a young CIA officer named Robert Clayton Ames had cultivated the first highly secret contracts between the United States and the Palestinians,” Bird explains. “Ames paved the way for the peace accords — and for his dedication to his spy craft and his work as an intelligence officer, he’d been murdered in Beirut on April 18, 1983, in the first truck bomb assault on a U.S. embassy.”

The making of a spy, as it turns out, is more akin to the subtleties and contradictions of a John Le Carré plotline than to the stylish fantasies of Ian Fleming. “[Ames] was self-effacing and not afraid to speak up, a cynic and an idealist, a good old boy and an intellectual, a moralist and a problem solver,” one diplomat who knew him said. “Put it together and he was one of the best spooks I ever met.”

Among the insights Bird provides is how little a real-life spy resembles James Bond.  Ames was a married man with young children at home, and he shunned the carnal temptations of the exotic places where he was stationed, “[preferring] to spend his free time either practicing his Arabic in the souk or doting on his girls.” He declined the 9-mm Browning pistol that was offered to field officers in the CIA station in Aden: “If they get you here,” he wrote to his wife, Yvonne, “it is in the back or when you’re not looking, and a gun wouldn’t do much good.”

Then, too, Ames excelled at what really counts in espionage, which has little or nothing to do with gadgetry or derring-do. “Getting to know the right people was the definition of good spy craft,” Bird explains. “It was all about getting close to influential or powerful actors. … Good spying was all about empathy.”

Bird is capable of making distinctions between a “Palestinian patriot,” a “guerilla fighter” and a “terrorist,” even when he applies all three terms to the same man — Ali Hassan Salameh, chief of intelligence for the Palestine Liberation Organization’s (PLO) Force 17 and a leader of Black September. (Readers of “Crossing Mandelbaum Gate,” which describes Bird’s childhood as the son of an American diplomat in East Jerusalem, will understand the origins of his point of view.)  Indeed, “The Good Spy” reveals how Ames, who was “ambivalent about Israel,” acted on his own initiative to open a channel of communication with some of the most consequential figures in the PLO. “You Arabs claim your views are not heard in Washington,” was the gist of Ames’ message. “Here is your chance. The president of the United States is listening.”

Bird is frank about Ames’ perspective on the Middle East. At best, Ames was “ambivalent about Israel,” according to Bird, but the author also quotes a source who thought Ames “had an overt pro-Palestinian prejudice.” Bird also acknowledges that Ames’ admiration for Salameh is “hard to explain.” Writes Bird: “He knew Salameh had done some terrible things.” But Bird credits Ames with an earnest and principled support for Palestinian nationhood: “When I see some of these so-called ‘nations’ in Africa like Uganda and Idi Amin, I don’t think it is fair,” Ames wrote. “Here a very educated people are denied a home, while the Ugandese eat each other and have a vote at the U.N.!  Something’s wrong somewhere.”

More important, Bird insists that Ames’ success in opening a clandestine back-channel to the PLO was regarded as “an intelligence coup” at CIA headquarters in Langley, even if Nixon and Kissinger “blew hot and cold” on the initiative. The endgame, Bird argues, was the opening of direct negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis for a peaceful solution to the conflict, and the whole point of “The Good Spy” is that Bird regards Ames as one of the American visionaries who made those negotiations possible. 

Yet, the overtures Ames made to his contacts inside the PLO were especially treacherous at the time. The Palestinian activists were adopting ever more violent tactics, including a civil war in Jordan and the creation of Black September, “a clandestine force to bring the war to the West.” Salameh was both the intelligence chief of the PLO’s Force 17 and an activist in Black September, and Ames tried to caution him against “carry[ing] out operations in our territory.” The caution did not prevent Black September’s notorious operations, including the murder of the Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Nevertheless, Bird asks us to regard both Ames and Salameh as peacemakers at heart.

 “Arafat could see that the channel that went through Bob Ames to the CIA leadership and ultimately to the White House, offered him the potential opportunity to gain America’s recognition for both the PLO and the rights of the Palestinian people to self-determination and nationhood,” Bird argues. “In this sense, Ames and the CIA had planted the seeds of a peaceful settlement.”

Not surprisingly, neither Ames nor Salameh lived to see even the first doomed shoots from the seeds of peace that Bird describes. Mossad, which had tried and failed to assassinate Salameh on previous occasions in revenge for the massacre at the Munich Olympics, finally caught up with him in Beirut in 1979. (Bird’s account of the mission is fully as suspenseful as anything we’ve seen on “Homeland.”) And Ames, who was regarded as “Mr. Middle East” and “the ghostwriter of the Reagan peace initiative” during the early 1980s, died in the terror bombing of the American embassy in Beirut in 1983, which is attributed by Bird to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. 

Not every reader will regard Robert Ames as a hero. After all, he cultivated some of the PLO’s most bloodthirsty terrorists as contacts and sources. But Bird makes a good case that “Ames’ calculation was a moral one.” As Bird puts it, “Dealing with bad guys is part of the spy craft.” Ames himself is the best example of the price that sometimes must be paid in doing so. 

Gandhi loved Jewish architect, biography says

Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi left his wife for a German-Jewish architect and weight lifter, a new biography says.

The new book, “Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India,” by former New York Times executive editor Joseph Lelyveld, reports that Gandhi was in love with Hermann Kallenbach, for whom he left his wife in 1908.

Kallenbach was born in Germany but moved to South Africa, where he became a busy architect. He reportedly lived with Gandhi for two years in a house he built in South Africa, according to the Daily Mail. The men remained in touch by letters after Gandhi returned to India in 1914, and Kallenbach was denied entry.

The book says that Gandhi wrote to Kallenbach: “How completely you have taken possession of my body. This is slavery with a vengeance.”

The book also alleges that Gandhi tested himself by getting into bed with young women, including his great niece, to see if it would affect him.

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.

Rahm Emanuel is a fighting policy wonk with a Jewish soul

Political insight, killer in a fight, Yiddishkayt — it’s an inseparable package when it comes to Rahm Emanuel, say those who know President-elect Barack Obama’s pick to be the next White House chief of staff.

Since his days as a fundraiser and then a “political adviser” — read: enforcer — for President Bill Clinton, Emanuel has earned notoriety as a no-holds-barred politico. Accept the good with the bad because it’s of a piece, said Steve Rabinowitz, who worked with Emanuel in the Clinton White House.

“He can be a ‘mamzer,’ but he’s our mamzer,” said Rabinowitz, using the Yiddish term for “bastard,” speaking both as a Democrat and a Jew. “Sometimes that’s what you need.”

The apocrypha is legendary, if somewhat hard to pin down: Jabbing a knife into a table screaming “Dead!” as colleagues shout out the names of political enemies, sending a dead fish to a rival, screaming at friends and enemies alike for no good reason.

Even his allies acknowledge that Emanuel, 48, can be on edge at times.

“He’s not running for Miss Congeniality, ever,” said U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), who has known Emanuel since they worked at Illinois Public Action, a public interest group, in the early 1980s. “He is relentless; he doesn’t give up, but in a strategic way. He’s good at figuring out other people’s self-interest and negotiating in a way that comes out in his favor.”

Emanuel, an Illinois congressman who boasts strong ties to his local Jewish community and the Jewish state, also can be seen as embodying Obama’s stated commitment to Israeli security and diplomacy: During the first Iraq War, Emanuel flew to Israel as a volunteer to help maintain military vehicles. Two years later, he was an aide to Clinton, helping to push along the newly launched Oslo process.

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Ari, Rahm recalled, “beat the crap out of him” — not because of the bike, not to protect his brother, “but because of what he said about black kids.”

Rahm defended his brother in terms he might have applied to himself: “Where others see fierceness, I see loyalty. Where others see intensity, I see passion.”

In general, Emanuel is fiercely loyal to his family, and they were a consideration in his hesitation to take work he’s always dreamed of having — he waited two days to say yes. Obama, in his statement announcing the pick, recognized the pain it would cause Emanuel’s wife, Amy, and “their children, Zach, Ilana and Leah.”

Emanuel, born to an Israeli doctor who married a local woman after he moved to Chicago in the mid-1950s, speaks Hebrew and fondly recalls summering each year in Israel as a child — including just after the 1967 Six-Day War. He attends Anshe Sholom, a Modern Orthodox synagogue in Chicago, and sends his children to Jewish day school.

His rabbi, Asher Lopatin, recalls Emanuel approaching him just before Rosh Hashanah this year, telling him that an effort to put together a bailout package for the hard-hit stock market before the holiday had failed and asking whether it was permissible to take conference calls on the holiday in order to salvage the bill.

“I asked, ‘Is it as serious as people say it is?'” the rabbi recalled. “He said, ‘Without this bill there could be a meltdown of the financial system.'”

Lopatin considered the effect such a failure would have on children and the poor.

“I felt it was a case of pikuach nefesh, the commandment that places the saving of life above all other commandments,” Lopatin said, and gave Emanuel the OK.

The somberness of the request couldn’t quell Emanuel’s acerbic wit. Lopatin recalled Emanuel’s teasing, wondering whether the status of the rabbi’s 401(k) investments wasn’t also behind the heksher.

“He kibitzed with me about that,” the rabbi said.

Emanuel repeated the story, to raucous laughter, in caucus meetings on the Hill — an example of how he will skid in the same sentence from Judaism to a liberal commitment to social reforms to hard-nosed politics, Schakowsky said.

“There’s barely a caucus meeting where he doesn’t make some reference to being Jewish, often in a humorous way,” she said.

But his Jewishness does more than inform his sense of humor, Emanuel’s rabbi said.

“He has a very deep commitment and feel for Yiddishkayt,” Lopatin said, “and it’s a Yiddishkayt that’s about tikkun olam, having a positive effect on the world.”

Bob Saget: Clean-cut and filthy (uncensored version)

Bob Saget was pondering his status as comedy’s reigning filth monger at a Santa Monica cafe recently.

“You play a guy who’s clean-cut and never curses for eight years, like I did on ‘Full House,’ and people think that’s who you are,” said Saget, who will be roasted on Comedy Central Aug. 17. “And then you talk really dirty in your act, and people think that’s who you are.”

The 52-year-old pauses, and a sheepish look crosses his still-boyish face. “Ah, I’m still doing it,” he admits. “I talked to Don Rickles last week, and he said, ‘So I watched your HBO special; I really liked it, but you left out two f-words.’ My response was, ‘I know. If I had only put in 200 less.'”

This is the uncensored version of this story. For the G-rated version, click here.

It’s a surprisingly repentant statement from a comic whose stand-up has quashed his wholesome TV image as “Full House” dad Danny Tanner and as the grinning host of “America’s Funniest Home Videos” in the late 1980s and 1990s.

During the 13 years since “Full House” wrapped its last episode (only to continue in endless syndication), neither Saget nor the Olsen twins, who shared the role of his youngest TV daughter, have lived up to the expectations of some.

While Mary-Kate and Ashley have become billionaire moguls and the targets of vociferous tabloid reportage, Saget has mocked his own sugary image with joke songs, such as “Danny Tanner Is Not Gay” and “My Dog Licked My Balls.”

“For the record, he made the first move,” Saget said.

Saget’s stand-up, in his words, has always been “perverted,” but that did not become widely known until he was asked to appear in the 2005 documentary, “The Aristocrats,” in which he out-raunched 100 other comedians. Since then, Saget has sold out stadiums and college theaters with an act so over-the-top nasty that it is outrageous even in a comedy zeitgeist already pushed to Sarah Silverman extremes.

His stream-of-consciousness riffs about incest, date rape, snuff films, bestiality and every possible bodily fluid are “a word salad of language so blisteringly blue that a potential diagnosis, as Saget freely admits on HBO, of Tourette’s syndrome cannot be ruled out,” the Washington Post said.

The promos for his Comedy Central roast feature Saget admonishing a donkey for trying to sniff his privates.

Even when he’s riffing about his synagogue, Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades, an animal somehow enters the picture.

“We have a great synagogue the rabbi will marry a man to a goat,” he said. “It’s Reconstructionist they’ll do gay marriage if you need it, they’ll do interfaith and interfaith’s nothing after a goat.”

Saget also has the reputation, among those who know him, to be as kind as he can be crude. A few days after the taping of his Comedy Central roast, he publicly protested the vulgar Olsen jokes proffered by roast master John Stamos (another “Full House” co-star) and dais participants, such as Gilbert Gottfried.

“Anybody who talks about my TV kids that upsets me,” Saget said in a statement. “I am very protective. I love them very, very much.”

Saget was more measured about the roast several days later: “Some of the comedy for sure crossed the line,” he said in an e-mail. “It’s a roast, and they went for it. I also believe in freedom of speech, and the comedians meant no harm.”

Saget said he gets to look at the final edit and that “Comedy Central has been incredibly collaborative. The director-producer, Joel Gallen, is very talented … and also has helped to talk me off of ledges over many aspects of this roast.

“I think it’s a very funny show, but it’s not for everyone,” he added, delicately.”

Saget’s Kehillat Israel shows are far cleaner. He joined the congregation with his ex-wife, Sherri, in 1990, and their three daughters (now ages 15 to 21) had their bat mitzvahs there.

The synagogue’s rabbi, Steven Carr Reuben, is a fan: “Bob has appeared at almost every major event we’ve hosted in the last 15 years,” he said. “He once admitted to me that temple shows are the hardest to do, because he has to censor himself.

“Bob is particularly funny because he has this dual, schizophrenic reputation from the G-rated family shows to the X-rated stand-up show,” the rabbi added. “I appreciate his humor, because I know where it comes from: a sweet and loving way of communicating with people.

“Some comedy is cutting, but Bob’s humor is always designed for us to see the funny side of ourselves in difficult situations. He’ll be in the hospital visiting someone and making a joke about people’s catheters. It’s uncomfortable but funny, too.”

In person, Saget is warm and approachable; wears jeans and sneakers and speaks in the same stream-of-consciousness style he uses in his act. Over the course of two hours, he veers from a critical dissection of his neuroses (“I’m ADD for sure,” he said during the interview. “I’ve been Uri Gellering this spoon for half an hour.”); to his 2007 HBO special, “Bob Saget: That Ain’t Right”; to his recent shift to “actor mode,” with a Broadway turn in “The Drowsy Chaperone” and a new CW sitcom, “Surviving Suburbia,” in which he plays a disgruntled family man.

‘My dog licked my balls’ — Bob Saget in concert

I’ve never had real heroes

If you grew up as I did, on more than one continent and surrounded by people of different faiths, you know what I mean when I say I’ve never had real heroes: For every truth in one place, I’ve encountered doubt in another; for every icon in one culture, I’ve met iconoclasts in another.

As I look back, I realize that the only public figures I have admired and perhaps trusted were authors — those authors, that is, who wrote about the time and place they lived in, whose purpose was to discover the truth, bear witness, unveil secrets, no matter what the cost to themselves or others. Most of these authors — Albert Camus, Marguerite Duras, Oriana Fallaci — lived through World War II. Most of them explored the mysteries of the human soul — how it’s at once capable of great kindness and unspeakable cruelty, how it tends to shy away from taking ownership of its sins.

Among them, of course, was Gunter Grass, Germany’s greatest author since World War II, who wrote “The Tin Drum” and a dozen other books; who has dedicated his career and his public life to exposing the dark corners of his nation’s psyche, making sure it doesn’t forget, doesn’t rationalize, minimize or move on from — the Holocaust.

Grass has been quick to denounce hypocrisy and deceit anywhere he has found it, and he has done so with a vigor — some would say brutally — that has not softened with his advancing age. He has pointed a finger at the mighty and the weak; deplored the lack of moral righteousness in Europe and the United States. Most of all, he has held his own people accountable for crimes against humanity. As recently as 2002, he wrote, in “Crabwalk”: “History, or, to be more precise, the history we Germans have repeatedly mucked up, is a clogged toilet. We flush and flush, but the shit keeps rising.”

Born in 1927 in the then-German city of Danzig (now Gdansk in Poland), Grass had, until this year, always maintained that he was recruited by and served in the German army in the last days of the war, but that he was not a part of the SS. He made a point of this, in fact, when he spoke in Israel in 1967: “You can tell by the date of my birth that I was too young to have been a Nazi but old enough to have been molded by [the Nazi] system. Innocent through no merit of my own, I became part of a postwar period that was never to be a period of real peace.”

That he refused to take credit for not having joined what he calls the “Nazi system” is one reason he was admired the world over — enough to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. It’s also one reason he has been denounced so vehemently in some circles by what he revealed this year in his memoir, “Peeling the Onion,” that he had, in fact, willfully joined and served in the Waffen SS during the war, that he did so in spite of opposition from his parents, that he had admired Hitler and never believed the stories about concentration camps until later, during the Nuremberg trials.

Suddenly, the man who has made a career out of digging for truth in other people’s lives turns out to be a liar himself.

In the memoir, he speaks movingly of the suffering of the German people during the war, while admitting that it paled in comparison with that of Jews and other victims of the Holocaust. He talks, with not a trace of self-pity, about how he suffered from hunger and loss and fear, how he lived as a refugee for years after the war, how he learned later that his mother had been raped repeatedly by Russian soldiers.

Perhaps, understandably, he stands at a safe distance from the young man whose story he has set out to tell, reminding the reader often that he is not — doesn’t even recognize — the 15-year-old who joined the Hitler Youth. He says he was called up by the SS only when Germany had lost the war and never actually fired a shot. He says he kept silent about his past because he was ashamed. He says that his confession now, when he is 84 years old and near the end of his life, is impelled by a conscience that has weighed on him from the start.

Publicly, Grass has insisted that his books and his involvement in German politics for over half a century should serve as proof that he had learned the lessons he has tried to teach others; that he should be judged for all the good he has brought to the world through his work and not for his personal conduct.

No wonder he wrote in “The Tin Drum”: “I expected more from literature than from real, naked life.”

Do I believe him?

I’m not sure. But I don’t think it matters. Too old, perhaps too cynical myself to look for heroes anywhere, I think Grass has taught us, through his own life, a lesson that transcends his influence as an individual.

Asked to comment on the Grass controversy, Italian playwright Dario Fo, also a Nobel laureate, responded: “Pity the land that needs heroes.”

It is true that Grass has brought much good into the world by his writings. It is also true that his late-in-life revelation calls into question or, depending on your point of view, entirely invalidates his right to the high moral ground he has for so long occupied. But in doing so, he has proven to those of us who have followed his life and career what he says he learned as a POW after the war: That no truth is ever entirely true, that what we revere today may become indefensible tomorrow, that the wisest path through life is to distrust certainty and instead to walk, in Grass’ own words, “the long route, paved with doubts.”

Gina B. Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel, “Caspian Rain,” was published this fall. Gina Nahai’s column appears monthly in The Jewish Journal.

Books: Nusseibeh ‘Once Upon a Country’ memoir ends in disillusionment

“Once Upon a Country: A Palestinian Life” by Sari Nusseibeh with Anthony David (Farrar Straus and Giroux, $27.50).

Sari Nusseibeh’s political memoir is a monumental achievement both in breadth and boldness. There is little like it on the Palestinian side, certainly nothing from Columbia University Palestinian academic Edward Said, now deceased, who found only the holes in Zionism but never the heart. Nusseibeh reminds me most of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine’s spokesman and novelist, Ghassan Kanafani, who before a Mossad car bomb obliterated him in Beirut in 1972 wrote seminally honest short stories and novels, such as the symbolic “Men in the Sun,” whose Palestinian protagonists die in a water carrier in route from The West Bank to Basra, lacking help from their Arab brothers.

Nusseibeh never obfuscates, grandstands or justifies Palestinian excess. In a way no Palestinian has ever risked in print, he castigates the corruption of Yasser Arafat’s leadership in the territories:

“Politically, the center shifted suddenly from the intifada activists on the ‘inside’ to returning PLO functionaries, and geographically from East Jerusalem to Gaza and the West Bank, where the ‘outsiders’ now lived. Needless to say, the bulk of the ministers were ‘outsiders,’ whereas their undersecretaries were, by and large competent local people, many of whom had worked in the technical committees and hence had two years of preparatory work behind them…. Unfortunately, they faced the reality of working with the returning apparatchiks. The new ministers, dazzled by the trappings of power — the cars, the adulation — had little inclination to study reports or listen to local underlings. Ignoring the multiple volumes already on their desks, our potentates preferred commissioning new reports, which is after all what ministers do. One favorite pastime of many ministers was to gather around Arafat’s desk in Gaza, watching him conduct business and wanting to get their instructions directly from the Old Man. Some ministers, who behaved like demigods to the people under them, journeyed to Arafat’s desk in Gaza, to get his permission to hire an office secretary.”

Nusseibeh details the financial fraud of the ring around Arafat with painful precision — automobiles bought abroad with public funds then sold to the local populace the profit pocketed, collusion with unscrupulous local Jews in smuggling in gasoline. He argues persuasively that Arafat gained no personal financial benefit and was not squirreling away millions as has been charged. However Arafat read every report, knew everything and turned a blind eye to the corruption. Nusseibeh characterizes Arafat as someone “playing the trapeze act, carefully balancing himself between moderates and militants, unwilling and perhaps unable to come down firmly on either side.” Like many of us, his greatest strength was simultaneous his destructive weakness.

Painful for a Zionist like myself to read are the depictions of life in the West Bank and Gaza, something I frequently witnessed myself prior to the first intifada: roadblocks with yellow license plated settlers cars waved through while blue-plated Palestinians cars were stopped in a seemingly endless line at checkpoints; the squalor of the Dehasisha Camp near Bethlehem, where children were chased by soldiers for hurling a Palestinian flag in the electrical wires; the endless dusty dirt roads through the Gaza refugee camps in sight of the high chain-link fences of the settlements with sprinklers rotating over lush green grass. Failure to find sympathy for the Palestinians’ human suffering is as impenetrable a roadblock to peace as any.

The scion of an aristocratic Jerusalem family, Nusseibeh traces his roots back 1,300 years to one of the tribal leaders who joined Mohammad on his seventh century pilgrimage to Jerusalem. A family member still shares jurisdiction over the entrance key to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and twists the lock on those doors open each morning.

The idea for this memoir sprang from his reading Amos Oz’s memoir, “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” as Nusseibeh discovered that they had grown up 100 yards apart in Jerusalem separated by the uncrossable “no man’s land” that partitioned the city from 1948 to 1967.

Oxford educated, a philosopher by training, happiest teaching and in metaphysical reverie, Nusseibeh is repeatedly forced into the political fray by its concrete existence around him. A good man in a turbulent sea, he is relentlessly tossed around, beaten by radical Palestinians for his moderate stance and jailed by the Israelis in Ramle Prison, charged with being an Iraqi spy who guided undirectable Scud missile launchings while in reality he hid under his kitchen table with his wife and children as the errant rockets regularly fell short and landed in Arab territory. To the Israeli right wing he was far more dangerous than an Iraqi spy; he is a thoughtful, passionate and fair-minded moderate.

Probably the most tragic segments of the book detail the Camp David accords and how the dual egotism of Ehud Barak and Arafat prevented an accord “by a whisker.” Nusseibeh’s political trajectory moved from support of a binational state to a two-state solution to a sadly disillusioned stance. He no longer finds the erection of a Palestinian state preeminent and now focuses on the achievement of freedom and human dignity. The politician has returned to philosophy but I suspect only the politicians can ultimately bring the freedom and human dignity he and his people seek.

Howard Kaplan is the author of three novels on the Middle East.

Books: Too fond of Jews

“I cannot conceive why this martyred race, scattered about the world, and suffering as no other race has done at this juncture, should be denied the satisfaction of having a flag.”
— Winston Churchill, July 26, 1944

By the age of 26, Winston Churchill had fought in several wars, become a hero by daringly escaping prison during the Boer War, been elected to Parliament
and written several popular books (including “My Early Life,” which dramatically recounts his escape). Already he was well on his way to becoming what we now know him to be, the most extraordinary character of the 20th century.

Yet at the conclusion of World War II, while in the hospital for appendicitis, Churchill was voted out of office. “In the twinkling of an eye” he later wrote, “I found myself without an office, without a seat, without a party, and without an appendix.” The depression that had plagued him throughout his life (he called it his “black dog”) was partly the product of many genuine setbacks. Few historical figures had as rocky and uncertain a career as Churchill, an unevenness that persisted even after he became simultaneously the historian and hero of the western world.

Almost as variable as his fortunes were his political allegiances. He shifted party affiliation more than once and had his share of political opponents who reviled him as an opportunist. (A famous exchange with a constituent: “Vote for you? I’d rather vote for the devil!” To which Churchill answered, “I understand, but as he is not standing for office at this time, might I count on your support?”)

Yet in the midst of his seeming inconstancy, certain principles were unshakable for Churchill, no matter how unfashionable. One of those is expressed vividly in the story with which Churchill biographer Martin Gilbert begins his newly released “Churchill and the Jews” (Henry Holt and Co., 2007). Interviewing Gen. Sir Edward Louis Spears while working on Churchill’s official biography, Spears, who admired Churchill, confided to Gilbert: “Even Winston had a fault. He was too fond of Jews.”

Not long ago, an anti-Semitic passage written by Churchill made its way across the frictionless terrain of the Internet. Except it was not, in fact, by Churchill, and no reader of the books under discussion would have been deceived in the first place. For though Churchill’s romantic vision of Jewish history and his instinctive affection for the Jewish people was not undiscriminating, it was unwavering. His father, Lord Randolph Churchill, was known for his friendship with Jews, and even in childhood Churchill would bristle at remarks by adults that could be construed as anti-Semitic.

Throughout the debate over a Jewish homeland, Churchill walked a fine line between encouraging Jewish immigration and declaring a state by fiat. He knew the intensity of Arab opposition and British skittishness. Moreover, Britain was reliant on Egypt for control of the Suez Canal and on Iran for the security of the Anglo-Persian Oil Co.’s production. In the Middle East, then as now, nothing is simple.

Despite his record of powerful support, there were moments when Churchill disappointed his Zionist friends. In 1921, Churchill’s White Paper vaguely encouraged gradual development and growth of the Jewish community in Palestine. That weak and amorphous support, a retreat from the Balfour Declaration, infuriated Chaim Weizmann, then the leader of the World Zionist Organization, and others, but in the end it turned out to be a dispiriting episode in Churchill’s support, not a sustained diminishment of it.

According to Michael Makovsky in “Churchill’s Promised Land” (Yale University, 2007), although Churchill publicly supported the Balfour Declaration, in private his feelings were for a brief while quite different, and he wished Britain could just rid itself of the problem. Speaking of Mesopotamia and Palestine, he said he wanted to “resign them both and quit at the earliest possible moment.” But even this frustration gave way to his fundamental sympathy, and, as Makovsky notes, “There is no record of Churchill privately disparaging the pro-Zionist policy again for the rest of his term as colonial secretary.”

Churchill’s sympathy was tested. When two Stern Gang terrorists assassinated Lord Moyne and his driver, Churchill was stung and furious. Here Makovsky gives a picture of Churchill far more ambivalent than that in Gilbert’s “Churchill and the Jews.” In particular, Makovsky speaks of Churchill’s anger at Jewish attacks on British personnel in Palestine, which led to him tack back and forth after the war in ways that suggest his weariness and frustration.

More than a decade later, with war looming, Churchill proposed a 10-year plan that included limiting Jewish immigration to 30,000-35,000 people a year. Although this was much higher than the usual yearly immigration (in 1937 Gilbert cites a figure of just over 10,000), it was far lower than the Zionists had hoped for. Still, as with previous maneuvers, Churchill did not forget the ultimate goal. In 1939, when the White Paper was adopted, which Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain explained was to ensure that the Arabs would always maintain a majority over the Jews in Palestine, Churchill responded with one of his magnificent rhetorical bursts: “Now there is the breach; there is the violation of the pledge; there is the abandonment of the Balfour Declaration; there is the end of the vision, of the hope, of the dream.”

Chamberlain, by the way, commenting on the persecution of the Jews of Germany, wrote the following charming lines to his sister: “No doubt the Jews aren’t a lovable people; I don’t care about them myself; but that is not sufficient to explain the pogrom.” That was the social world in which Churchill too often moved.

Churchill refused to commit himself to any particular scheme of statehood until the end of the war, when the allies would be victorious and the peace negotiations under way. Weizmann and David Ben-Gurion were bitterly disappointed. Shortly after the end of the war, when the King David Hotel was bombed, Churchill was again personally offended and outraged. Still he tried to calm his colleagues, because he knew that the leaders with whom he had developed a relationship, Ben-Gurion and Weizmann, were in no way responsible for the bombing. As he said in 1948, “I will never forgive the Irgun terrorists. But we should never have stopped immigration before the war.”

Even before the war, Churchill’s support was not motivated only by an historic sympathy, but also by his appreciation for the Jewish achievement in Palestine. “Nothing will stand in your way,” he told the farmers of Rishon Lezion in 1921. “You have changed desolate places to smiling orchards and initiated progress instead of stagnation. Because of our belief in you, we are supporting the Zionist movement.” He called the Zionists “splendid open air men and beautiful women” who made “the desert blossom like a rose.”

Leonard Cohen Film Toasts Songwriter

“He’s the man who comes down from the mountaintop with tablets of stone,” says U2’s guitarist, The Edge, in “Leonard Cohen I’m Your Man,” a documentary on Cohen, one of the greatest living songwriters, that is screening at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Comments on Cohen’s many biblical references in his songs and his almost mystical authority are sprinkled through out the film, which is slated for a May theatrical release from Lionsgate, even as the many interviewees also point out that Cohen can also be droll and erotic in his work.

The film’s director, Australian-born and L.A.-based Lian Lunson, expanded upon The Edge’s comments in a telephone interview:

“I think with great writers like Leonard Cohen, the gift they have has so much weight behind it, that even if the lyric isn’t religious, it takes on a religious aspect because of the great amount of contemplation that has gone into it.”

The film interweaves interviews with various subjects with a wry, introspective 71-year-old Cohen — his face creased and hair gray but both his mind and his wardrobe sharp. Interspersed, too, are performances at the “Came So Far for Beauty” concert tribute to Cohen at the Sydney Opera House.

At that show, produced by American Hal Willner (who also produced UCLA Live’s Randy Newman tribute), such musicians as the McGarrigle Sisters, Rufus Wainwright, Beth Orton, Nick Cave, Linda Thompson and Antony (of Antony & the Johnsons) perform versions of songs from throughout Cohen’s career. Eventually, late in the film, Cohen sings — in his gravely rumble of a voice — “Tower of Song,” in a surprising special performance staged just for the film by Lunson, a longtime music video director.

As Cohen and others recall, his youthful influences included the Jewish liturgy he heard in synagogue. Cohen was born in 1934 in Montreal to an influential English-speaking family. His father was a clothing manufacturer, his paternal grandfather helped lead numerous Jewish civic and religious institutions and his maternal grandfather was a rabbi and Talmudic scholar.

Cohen became first an accomplished poet and then, starting with 1967’s “Songs of Leonard Cohen” (which contained the oft-recorded “Suzanne”) a singer-songwriter. According to Ira Nader’s Cohen biography, “Various Positions,” Cohen’s Judaism has influenced his songs greatly — “Who By Fire” is based on the melody of a Yom Kippur prayer, “Mi Bamayim, Mi Ba Esh,” and “If It Be Your Will” is derived from a “Kol Nidre” phrase.

Cohen talks movingly in the film about how his father’s death — when he was just 9 — galvanized in him a compassionate but unsentimentally mature view about the limitations of life on earth.

“It was in the realm of things that couldn’t be disputed or even judged,” he tells Lunson.

And he explains he’s been searching for other such things to give his life structure and discipline — truth — ever since. He describes himself as drawn to “the military and the monastery.”

While remaining Jewish, he has pursued an interest in Zen Buddhism for some 30 years at the Mt. Baldy Zen Center with a Japanese master, Joshu Sasaki Roshi.

“He was someone who deeply didn’t care about who I was, and the less I cared about who I was the better I felt,” Cohen tells Lunson.

Speaking quietly but unguardedly, Cohen appears amused when discussing his lifelong dislike for blue jeans, his following among young “punksters” and his regrets about once revealing that “Chelsea Hotel” was written about a sexual encounter with Janis Joplin. “She wouldn’t have minded, but my mother would have minded,” he says of his indiscretion.

“Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man” was produced by Mel Gibson’s Icon Productions, which arranged distribution with Lionsgate. Lunson and Gibson are longtime friends, and she helped him put together the album, “Songs Inspired by ‘The Passion of the Christ,'” which included Cohen’s “By the Rivers Dark.”

“I took the idea of the film to Mel because he’s a huge Leonard Cohen fan, always has been, and he said, ‘Let me put it out there and see,'” Lunson said. “He loves Leonard Cohen.”


A Hard Rain


In the winter of 1861-1862, the skies in California let loose, unleashing torrents of water around the state. In Los Angeles, rain fell for 28 straight days, pushing the Los Angeles River higher and higher until a waist-high wall of water jumped its banks, ripping away everything in its path.

My great-great-grandfather, Isaias Hellman, who was 19 at the time, got caught in the turgid waters. He had arrived from Bavaria three years earlier — part of a group of Jews who left their small town in Reckendorf — to work as a clerk in a dry-goods store owned by his two older cousins. The store was set in a row of shops in Bell’s Row, a two-story block-long commercial building on the southeast corner of Aliso and Los Angeles streets. The Row had long been the favored location for the pueblo’s sizable group of Jewish merchants. Many early settlers who would later play crucial roles in transforming the small town into a modern American city had their first stores there, including Isaiah and Samuel Hellman, Solomon Lazard, Philip Sichel, Wolf Kalisher, Henry Wartenberg and others.

The surging waters from the Los Angeles River rushed through the small downtown, carrying driftwood, mud and sand as it enveloped the row of shops. Hellman, who not long before had made his home in the store’s back room, rushed with his two cousins to salvage any goods they could. As the three men started to grab shoes, books, tobacco and other goods, the saturated adobe walls started to crumble and they were forced to flee.

When the floodwaters receded, Los Angeles had been transformed. The façade of the Our Lady Queen of Angels Catholic Church, which had stood sentinel in the Plaza for 40 years, melted away, its straw and mud bricks unable to withstand the water’s onslaught. The cascading river ripped out thousands of grapevines. Sand lay a foot thick over once-fertile orchards. Roads became so impassable that Los Angeles went without mail for five consecutive weeks.

The entire state suffered that year. From early November to the end of January, 37 inches of rain fell in San Francisco. Rain and melting snow turned the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys into an inland sea, 250-300 miles long and 20-60 miles wide. When the rain stopped, it made the news: “On Tuesday last the sun made its appearance,” The Los Angeles Star noted. “The phenomenon lasted several minutes and was witnessed by a great number of persons.”

The heavy rains were followed by two years of drought, years of sun and wind so relentless the grasses that covered the valleys and gentle hills running from Los Angeles to the ocean 20 miles away turned a brittle brown. Most of the cattle that roamed the hills began to die and travelers taking the stage from the port of San Pedro to Los Angeles saw hills heaped with decaying carcasses. The number of cows in the county dropped from 70,000 to 20,000.

Weather has always been an important determinant in Los Angeles’ history. The twin effects of floods and drought from 1861-1864 completely finished off whatever remained of the rancho way of life, where dons reigned over thousands of acres of land and huge herds of cattle. Many of the Spanish Californios were forced to sell their land to stay solvent, opening the way for the rise of the Yankee economy. The disasters also ruined many small businesses, including that of Hellman’s cousins. It changed the city’s architecture as businessmen replaced adobe buildings with brick structures.

But those living in Southern California regarded the disasters as aberrant and moved quickly to repair the damage. The Hellman cousins and other affected merchants relocated their businesses and learned an important lesson about frontier life: to succeed, one had to be flexible and change with the ever-evolving economy. Soon boosters began promoting the region as a place like no other, blessed by sun and fertile soil and ease of life. The rains hit hard again in 1884, when more than 38 inches caused widespread flooding, but by that time most of America thought of Los Angeles as a Mediterranean paradise. Trainloads of settlers poured in, lured by the promise of a golden life. By 1890, more than 50,000 people lived in the city.

By that time my great-great-grandfather had spent 31 years in Los Angeles and had watched it transform from a dusty pueblo where fewer than 300 people spoke English to a bustling city. As the city grew, he prospered, eventually becoming one of the region’s largest landowners and a major investor in the city’s water and gas companies. He was president of the Farmers and Merchants Bank for 45 years, lending funds to Harrison Gray Otis to buy the Los Angeles Times and to Henry Huntington to build the trolley cars that eventually crisscrossed Los Angeles. He helped build the city’s first temple, B’nai B’rith.

But from the time of the 1862 rains, he always kept a close eye on the weather, frequently noting it in his letters and diaries. He knew that living in Los Angeles meant floods and droughts and even earthquakes, but he didn’t let those threats defeat him. California had become his home and he refused to let nature push him away.

Frances Dinkelspiel has been delving into the history of Jews in California for the past few years as part of her biography of Isaias W. Hellman. A former reporter for the San Jose Mercury News, Dinkelspiel’s freel-ance work has appeared in the New York Times, People, San Francisco Magazine and other venues. She can be reached at FDinkelspiel@yahoo.com.


Finding a Kindred Spirit in a Patriarch

"The Discovery of God: Abraham and The Birth of Monotheism" by David Klinghoffer (Doubleday, $26).

David Klinghoffer’s biography of the patriarch Abraham rides on a new wave of interest in the Bible, and a growing sense of the Abrahamic heritage that Christians, Jews and Muslims share.

Many books on biblical subjects have recently been published. In addition to Kinghoffer’s "The Discovery of God," there is Norman Podhoretz’s "The Prophets" (Free Press), Bruce Feiler’s "Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths" (HarperCollins) and James Kugel’s "The God of Old" (Free Press). Also, forthcoming is Leon Kass’ "The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis" (Free Press). Literary analyses of the Bible have long been with us, but undoubtedly the current trend has also been influenced by the ascendancy of the Religious Right in American politics, and the high visibility of Bible study in the White House.

Klinghoffer, however, has written his biography of Abraham out of a deeply felt personal affinity. As a convert born to a non-Jewish mother but adopted by Jewish parents — he discusses his spiritual odyssey in "The Lord Will Gather Me In: My Journey To Jewish Orthodoxy"(Free Press, 1999) — Klinghoffer sees himself as the spiritual son of Abraham in a very immediate way. He feels they both grew up in a spiritual vacuum.

"In [Abraham’s] case, it was the decaying roots of Mesopotamian paganism," Klinghoffer explains in an interview. "In my case, it was secular liberalism," which was found to be spiritually dissatisfying.

Klinghoffer had to reach out beyond his milieu as Abraham went beyond his father, Terach. Perhaps, as a consequence of his personal history, there is much in his Jewish piety that finds common ground with a Christian evangelical approach. He has no problem in depicting Abraham as an evangelist and missionary, a description that might make many Jews cringe.

At the same time, his personal history has made him particularly sensitive to the religious psyche, as he traces Abraham’s awakening to God. Abraham emerges not unlike the contemporary Klinghoffer, with a strong moral sense, as when he bargains with God for the righteous of Sodom, but he is also beset by much self-doubt.

There are no archaeological inscriptions relating to Abraham, or scientific proofs of his existence. Klinghoffer uses the shards of information about the ancient Middle East to piece together the context in which Abraham lived, advancing the theory that Abraham was born at a time of upheaval, a window of opportunity for new views to emerge. Sumerian civilization was in decline. Amorite nomads had swept over Sumer, and it is surmised that Abraham’s ancestors were among these Amorites, who were eventually integrated into Sumerian civilization.

As far as the Abraham story itself, the biblical style is very spare in the information it presents. There are also repetitions and excisions, typos and poor literary structures. Klinghoffer is hypercritical of the secular scholars who attribute this to the fact that the Bible is a composite of various texts from different times, which a redactor pieced together. He proposes instead the traditional view that the Bible was divinely given, and encoded in the Bible are interpretations of the biblical stories, later collected in what is called Midrash. They flesh out the cryptic dialogue of the Bible, and expand upon the context in which events are happening.

It is from the Midrash that we learn that Abraham faced 10 tests. Nimrod, who represents the ruling class of Mesopotamia at the time, throws him into a fiery furnace when he refuses to accept paganism — and God himself rescues Abraham. Klinghoffer explains that until that time, his recognition of God was an intellectual one. But once God saved him, Abraham’s faith becomes grounded in an actual relationship.

Sensitive to the vagaries of the religious psyche, Klinghoffer traces the relationship of Abraham and God through all its vicissitudes: Abraham’s willingness to follow God’s command to leave his homeland for the unknown territory of Canaan; God’s promise that he will create a nation from him; the influence of the Egyptian Hagar upon Abraham. The stakes are high.

According to Klinghoffer, Abraham’s pilgrimage "was all about either losing or securing the future of his monotheism."

That is why the final and tenth test, the Akedah (Binding of Isaac), answering God’s call to sacrifice his son Isaac, is so incomprehensible.

Abraham had stood up to many challenges, but according to the Midrash, he is plagued by self-doubt, that he has not sufficiently expressed his love of God. It gives lie to the view that the religious person lives in the smug certainty of his belief system.

Through the Akedah, God wants to teach Abraham about himself.

"Abraham did not know what the course of his emotions would be … his inner response," Klinghoffer writes. "To slay Isaac would mean rendering his whole life’s work absurd…. Also, it would nullify the virtue of chesed (kindness) for which he was known."

Nevertheless, the Akedah was necessary, according to Klinghoffer, to demonstrate to Abraham his dedication to God.

Klinghoffer is insistent that Abraham was a historical figure. And yet it is difficult to reconcile this assertion with his literal approach to Midrash. At times, he uses the Midrash as a springboard to a deeper understanding of Abraham and monotheism. But he often relates to Midrash as literal reality, rather than symbolic or dreamlike, the "Unconscious of the Bible," as the biblical interpreter and teacher, Dr. Aviva Zornberg has suggested.

Klinghoffer is not a fundamentalist. But he uses Midrash in a fundamentalist manner. He is a personable writer, with a large range of voices: biblical interpreter, religious psychologist, commentator on contemporary culture. A former editor of the right-wing journal, The National Review, and educational director of "Toward Tradition," an educational movement of Jews allied with Christians, he is very much aware of Abraham, not only as the founder of the Jewish people, but as the prophet of a monotheism from which Christianity and Islam emerged. Unfortunately, there has been much sibling rivalry among the heirs of Abraham, with the Jews, the original people of Abraham, particularly suffering Christian persecution. Klinghoffer feels that in recent years, this has begun to change. There is greater rapprochement, at least among Jews and Christians, as many Christians support Israel, returning to the basic biblical story.

At a time when the conflict with Islam is particularly felt, he holds out the ecumenical hope that someday all the heirs of the Abrahamic heritage, including Islam, will be able to live in peace, and the "household of Abraham can become a paradigm of mutual understanding."

Rochelle Furstenberg is a Jerusalem-based journalist and critic writing about social, cultural and religious issues. She’s a columnist for Hadassah Magazine and a regular contributor
to the Jerusalem Report.

Silence Speaks Volumes

On the Web page of Marcel Marceau, whose appellation as “the world’s greatest mime” is so universal that it seems part of his name, his biography begins in 1946, when he enrolled in a theater arts school in Paris.

Marceau was then 23, and what happened during those past formative years — though seemingly a biographical blank — has influenced his career and may be the most dramatic chapter of his life.

In the persona of his trademark “Bip” character, Marceau, 79, is now performing at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood.

The artist was born Marcel Mangel, the son of a kosher butcher with socialist leanings, in the French city of Strasbourg, hard by the border with Germany.

With the Nazi conquest of France in 1940, he and his older brother, Alain, escaped to the south-central city of Limoges, where the boy studied decorative arts.

The training proved valuable two years later, when the brothers joined the Maquis, the French resistance movement, and Marcel was put to work forging new identity cards for young Frenchmen trying to avoid the German forced labor draft. To hide their own Jewish backgrounds, young Marcel created IDs for his brother and himself, adopting the last name of Marceau, made famous by a general who fought in the French Revolution.

In 1943, at the initiative of a cousin, Marceau joined a ring for smuggling Jewish children out of France and into Switzerland.

“I went disguised as a boy scout leader and took 24 Jewish kids, also in scout uniforms, through the forests to the border, where someone else would take them into Switzerland,” Marceau recalls during an interview.

He undertook the perilous journey three times, helping to save more than 70 children.

Marceau moved to Paris following its liberation in 1944, and joined the French army. Because of his knowledge of English, he was attached as a liaison officer to Gen. George Patton’s army and there scored his first “professional” success.

“I entertained the GIs in pantomime and my first ‘review’ was in the U.S. Army paper Stars and Stripes,” he says.

At war’s end, Marceau returned to his native Strasbourg. “Our house was empty, but all the furniture had been stolen,” he recalls. He also learned that his father had been deported in 1944 and murdered in Auschwitz.

The artist later incorporated this experience in one of his most elaborate sketches, “Bip Remembers.”

In it, Marceau says, “I go back in memory to my childhood home, how my father took me on a carousel. I show life and death in war. I show Hitler and waves of soldiers being mowed down by machine guns.”

“Bip Remembers,” not included in his current show, is the only performance in his vast repertoire that consciously draws on his childhood experiences.

“Bip is not a Jewish character,” Marceau says. “I respect our history and suffering, and I am sure that the fact I was born a Jew and was in the underground has had an influence. But in my art, I belong to the world, beyond religion, to Jews, Christians and even Muslims.”

He expresses whatever religious feelings he has in his “Creation of the World” act, based on Genesis.

“When I was once performing in America, 35 priests came to see ‘Creation of the World’ and then asked me, “Are you religious?'” Marceau says.

“I answered, ‘I do not practice religion, but when I do “Creation of the World,” God enters in me.'”

Marceau has performed in Israel three times, the first in 1949 and most recently in 1995. He is currently reading David Shipler’s “Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land,” and insists: “We have to find peace.”

He is also concerned about a surge of anti-Semitic incidents in his native France, but is certain that “we will overcome it.”

He takes confidence from the response of France’s young people to the recent presidential bid by extreme right-winger Jean-Marie Le Pen.

“The young people came out in the streets in opposition,” Marceau says. “I am sure fascism will not succeed in France.”

Marceau’s face, without Bip’s white makeup, has naturally aged, but his body is still taut and agile.

“As time goes on, my art deepens,” he says. “I know I will die some day, but until then, I will continue to work with all my power.

“What counts for me now is humanity. We must have peace — even with Islam — or we will be destroyed.”

Preaching Tolerance

Can religious leaders be devout but not fanatic? Can fervent belief and tolerance coexist? Such questions are hardly academic these days: the results of religious fanaticism now consume headlines, and lives. One set of reassuring answers can be found in the life of Rabbi Benzion Uziel. Uziel served as the Sephardic chief rabbi of Palestine and then the State of Israel from 1939 until his death in 1953.

In “Loving Truth and Peace: The Grand Religious Worldview of Rabbi Benzion Uziel” (Jason Aronson, Inc., $30) author and rabbi Marc Angel tells the story of this remarkable man.

The book is not straight biography. Rather, it discusses the rabbi’s writing and teachings on a variety of topics. Most topically, it examines Uziel’s desire to strike for a nonextremist balance between the secular and the religious.

Uziel was a traditional and religious man. Yet he was also a centrist and nonextremist in the classical Sephardic mode. (Indeed, unlike our Ashkenazi brothers, the Sephardim have never split into Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist movements.) Uziel deplored fanaticism and intolerance by both the right wing and the left. While loyal to the traditional halachic system, Rabbi Uziel was unafraid to make controversial and innovative decisions.

In the early 1930s, for example, Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook, the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi, and Rabbi Uziel needed to consider whether it was permissible to perform autopsies as part of the training of doctors in medical school in then-Palestine. The concern was over the laws of nivul ha’met, the disgracing of a dead body. While both realized the need for Jewish medical students to perform autopsies, the two rabbis came up with different solutions. Kook ruled that nivul ha-met only applied to Jewish bodies and that the laws governing the treatment of dead bodies did not apply to non-Jews. Uziel concluded, however, that the prohibition only applied when the dead body is treated disrespectfully. Autopsies performed in a respectful manner for a valid medical training purpose, did not constitute a desecration of the body. “In a situation of great benefit to everyone, where there is an issue of saving lives, we have not found any reason to prohibit [autopsies], and on the contrary, there are proofs to permit them.” Uziel also saw no difference between Jews and non-Jews in this area since all human beings were created equally in God’s image.

In contradiction to the images we are seeing of fundamentalist Muslim madrassas, or religious schools, Uziel believed that it was important for Jewish schools to teach both secular and religious subjects. He pointed to the intellectual tradition in medieval Spain where Moses Maimonides and the other great sages were conversant in science and philosophy as well as Torah. Maimonides and the others studied Torah and all other wisdom that contributed to the understanding of truth. Knowledge was not classified as religious or secular, but rather as true or false. Uziel believed that the apparent conflict between religious and general studies vanished when they were both viewed as part of a unified search for truth. Uziel’s guiding principle in Torah interpretation was that its ways are “ways of pleasantness and all of its paths are peace.”

Such a centrist, unifying approach in the last century is a reproach to the fanatics of our current one.

“Loving Truth and Peace” is available on the Jason
Aronson Web site at www.aronson.com .

The Pope and the Jews

According to Rabbi Harold Schulweis, the present pope, John Paul II, has reached out to the Jews of the world in ways that far exceed any acts of his predecessors. He has begun a re-examination of the church’s treatment of Jews, long overdue, but hitherto unacknowledged. Moreover, he has gone a step further and extended an olive branch to us by asking forgiveness for such wrongs as forced conversions and silence during the Holocaust.

Here is the pope speaking to a weekly general audience last month at the Vatican: “She therefore wishes to ask pardon for the sins and weaknesses of her children down the ages.” I suppose it is more than fair, given these gestures, to view John Paul II as the philo-Semitic pope.

Anyway, that was my reasoning until last week, when I read John Cornwell’s new biography of Eugenio Pacelli — Pope Pius XII — titled “Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII.” It is Pius whom the present pope is pushing for beatification and, eventually, for sainthood. And therein lies my puzzlement.

Eugenio Pacelli, of course, had served as the Vatican’s secretary of state in 1933, when he negotiated an infamous treaty with Germany to silence any Catholic political opposition to Hitler. Later, when he became pontiff in 1939 (serving until his death in 1958), he adopted a policy of silence as Germany systematically liquidated Europe’s Jews.

Beyond ‘Schindler’sList’

“He was a satyr, a black marketeer, a drunk and a savior.”

The pithy description by author Thomas Keneallyrefers, of course, to Oskar Schindler, the flawed but ultimatelyheroic German businessman who saved his 1,200 Jewish employees duringthe Holocaust.

The man and the myth will be re-examined in “OskarSchindler: The Man Behind the List,” which airs on the A&Enetwork’s “Biography” series on Friday, May 8, at 5 p.m. and 9p.m.

Although the hour-long documentary does not changeour basic perception of the man portrayed indelibly in StevenSpielberg’s “Schindler’s List,” the new production certainly broadensour perspective.

While the movie focused on the six years of WorldWar II, the documentary serves as both prologue and epilogue bytracing Schindler’s life from his birth in 1908 to his death in1974.

For hisportrait of the young Schindler, Martin Kent, left, the documentary’sproducer, director and writer, drew on the family albums andrecollections of a hitherto undiscovered Schindler niece, stillliving in Germany.

The postwar Schindler evolves partly through arare interview on German television, but mainly through the words ofthe “Schindler Jews” he saved and who stayed with him and by himthrough his last decades as an unsuccessful entrepreneur.

Among the eloquent survivors are two Angelenos,Leon Leyson and Leopold (Poldek) Page, whose close friendship withSchindler will be the subject of a future documentary by Kent.

Although the documentary dwells on Schindler’ssexual conquests perhaps more than necessary, it is dotted withstriking black-and-white photos and intriguing bits ofinformation.

There is an unforgettable photo of Amon Goeth, thesadistic SS labor camp commandant, as a shirtless fat slob — in noway resembling the trim figure of actor Ralph Fiennes in theSpielberg movie.

Long before Spielberg, we learn, MGM optioned therights for a feature film in 1963, after an article on Schindler byHerb Brin appeared in his Heritage weekly. Fortunately, inretrospect, MGM dropped the project after paying $50,000 toSchindler, who promptly squandered the money on fancy hotels andwomen.

Filmmaker Kent is the son of Holocaust survivorsfrom Poland, and like many of similar family background, he distancedhimself from his parents’ tragic experiences for many years.

“I thought I could deal with the Schindler projecton an impersonal level, but once I got into it, it affected me moreand more,” Kent said in an interview.

So strong was the impact that Kent and hispartner, Pavel Vogler, recently formed Kunstler Films (derived fromthe family name of Kent’s parents). The new company will devoteitself to producing “documentaries on Jewish topics, but withuniversal appeal,” said Kent. He also hopes to form a “strategicalliance” with a large Jewish organization or institution.

The first project of Kunstler Films is “The LastJews of Poland,” which will depict the struggles of the country’s35,000 remaining Jews to survive and retain their identity.

Kent, a resident of Calabasas, is a prolificdocumentary maker, whose first production, in 1983 on “Carl Reiner:The Light Stuff,” won an Emmy. “I was raised in the cable industry,where the motto was ‘keep the costs down, but make it look good,'” hesaid.

Two other Kent documentaries, one on famouskidnapping cases, the other the quest for a sunken Spanish galleon,will air on A&E during the last two weeks in May.