So, you want to be famous?


A thought for the new year.

The Talmud has a profound, almost amazing, statement: “Whoever denies all false gods is considered as if he observes the entire Torah.”

That’s how important denying false gods is.

So every Jew who cares about Judaism needs to ask: What are the false gods of our time?

We can all name a few. But here’s one to consider — especially if you are raising a child:

Fame.

For decades, I have asked young people what they want to be when they get older, and more and more of them now respond, “Famous.”

I then follow up with a second question: “Famous for what?’

Most have no answer. They don’t care about “for what.” 

Presumably, it doesn’t matter if it’s for becoming a reality TV star or conquering cancer.

And not only young people. It seems that most Americans ache for fame. To be on TV — or radio, or to have even a tiny part in a movie, or see one’s name in print or on screen — is to validate one’s worth.

Before explaining why the pursuit of fame is a bad idea, it is important to acknowledge that the desire to make a name for oneself is not in and of itself a bad thing. Wanting to be known for achieving a worthwhile goal is often a spur to pursuing one. And as long as a person is focused on that goal, becoming well known is not likely to distort the person’s values.

But when the primary goal is to be famous, fame is a god. And like all false gods, it can be dangerous — because a false god, by definition, is something higher than morality. Therefore, a person might do anything to become famous.

Now aside from theological and moral considerations, here’s why the pursuit of fame is pointless and often self-destructive:

First, in almost every case, whatever fame a person achieves will die with him — if his fame even lasts that long. Take, for example, the presidents of the United States. To the vast majority of Americans, most of their names mean nothing. Yet to Americans living during those presidents’ lifetimes, those presidents were the most famous people alive. 

You don’t need to go back in history to see this. We can see it in our own lifetimes. As we get older, we all come to the often unexpected, and always sobering, realization that almost every person who was a “household name” when we were younger is completely unknown to the next generation. 

Second, fame is fleeting for the vast majority of those who attain it. It is almost guaranteed that those who are famous at 30 will not be famous at 60.

Third, when people who have pursued fame lose it, they often end up emotionally and psychologically depressed. The more you value fame, the more you lose your purpose for living when you lose that fame.

Fourth, even if you do achieve fame, the more you value it, the more you will devote your life to keeping it. And few things are more pathetic than watching a person trying to stay famous.

Fifth, unlike other things people desire, fame is available only to an extremely small number of people. Theoretically, almost everyone can be rich, healthy and happy. But by definition, only an infinitesimally small number of people can be famous.

Sixth, other than mind-altering drugs, nothing seems to distort a person’s thinking, values and even personality as much as fame. Most young people who become famous become almost entirely different people.

Seventh, the greater the fame, the greater the inclination to think that one is better than others. That’s one reason the more you value being famous, the fewer friends you will have (though you will have many sycophants).

Given the powerful appeal of fame, is there an antidote?

One obvious antidote is to realize how pointless, fleeting and self-destructive the pursuit of fame is.

Another is to take religious faith seriously. Then God becomes more and more important — and the more important God becomes, the less important fame becomes. A real faith in God puts things into perspective like nothing else.

Finally, and most important, the key is to remember this rule of life: The famous are rarely significant, and the significant are rarely famous.

The caretaker of an invalid is very significant — but hardly famous. On the other hand, many of the very famous are hardly significant.

The vast majority of us, therefore, have to choose which we would rather be — significant or famous.


Dennis Prager’s nationally syndicated radio talk show is heard in Los Angeles on KRLA (AM 870) 9 a.m. to noon. His latest project is the Internet-based Prager University (prageru.com).

Amidst celebrity, Daphne Merkin is wishing still for mother’s love


If you were the wild child among more submissive siblings, who refused to be silenced and cried continually, and fought with all the others about their glaring hypocrisies; chances are you were not your parents’ favorite child.  If you sometimes made disturbing comments about wishing to harm yourself while broadcasting to anyone who would listen your opinion about your parents’ deficiencies, you were probably the cause of much familial stress.  If the confusion that swirled around in your head escalated to the point where your parents sent you to a psychiatric facility when you were only 8 years old, you probably only grew more despondent.  By the time adolescence beckoned, the die was cast: You were known only as the anxious and nervous one, a little troubled girl who simply needed too much.

But what if you’re not.  Maybe you were just an exquisitely sensitive and creative little girl who was able to disarmingly articulate your family’s massive dysfunction.  Maybe not getting enough love from your mother and father was simply too much for you to bear.  Maybe you’re Daphne Merkin. 

Merkin, author of  “The Fame Lunches: On Wounded Icons, Money, Sex, the Brontes, and the Importance of Handbags” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), is an extremely engaging and empathetic writer.  She doesn’t allow herself to form fixed notions about others, but instead wrestles with how most of us choose to present ourselves to the outside world, along with the forces that have shaped our individual self-presentations.  She is acutely aware of the difficulties involved in all human relationships but also sees tenderness and beauty where others don’t even think to look.  Brought up in a Modern Orthodox, wealthy Jewish home in Manhattan, Merkin struggled with a father who had little patience for her and a mother who seemed overly concerned with the aesthetics of their home while ignoring the emotional turbulence lurking beneath it.  There was little talk about God or spiritual matters of any sort.  Their Judaism was expressed mostly by rituals and celebrations and life at the synagogue, which Merkin disliked since it seemed to her the men had all the good parts.  What she did enjoy was studying the Talmud, which stimulated her active mind with its never ending labyrinth of puzzling arguments.  But she studied privately and eventually gave it up.  As for God, he always either ignored or eluded her.

Mostly, she tried to get her mother’s attention, an exercise that resulted in repeated frustration and disappointment.  But Merkin never stopped trying.  She writes about her mother with an almost uncomfortable intensity, one that seems to elude her in other relationships.  Her mother passed away years ago, but is still dominant in her thoughts and misgivings.  She misses her. Perhaps misses what she never had.  They shared a turbulent relationship, but one that Merkin counted on, even though her mother continually disappointed her. The only possible gift bestowed upon Merkin from this ferocious attachment is that it seems to have imbued Merkin with the ability to look at others through a psychological lens that is filtered by kindness and compassion.

In “The Fame Lunches,” her new outstanding collection of essays, Merkin offers us her take on everything from the allure of lip gloss and its relationship to the demise of civilized society to vividly personal and perceptive essays that resulted from her lengthy interviews with everyone from Madonna to Kate Blanchett.  She tries to dissect the enduring legacy of Marilyn Monroe and Princess Diana and Courtney Love while offering up thought-provoking pieces about the Bronte sisters, Bruno Bettelheim, and Henry Roth.  She allows space for her own meditations on mental illness, psychoanalysis and the hardships of mothering after divorce.  She is equally adept at highbrow and lowbrow subjects, because she is fascinated by both, and brings an observational sharpness to whatever she is writing about.  Some of the best pieces here have to do with the hunt for a perfect handbag, reality television, and the obsession women have with holding on to their beauty.

What amazes the reader about Merkin is how open her heart has remained, even with age and after several extreme episodes of emotional distress.  Her heart has not hardened, and that is truly a writer’s greatest asset.  She has written at great length in the New York Times about her over 40-year participation in psychoanalysis and its disappointments for her, but the miracle of Merkin is really her resilience in spite of her duress. She perseveres. She writes. She travels. She teaches. She mothers her beloved daughter. She confides in friends.  And, for the most part, she remains afloat.

In one of the most revealing pieces, she tells us about sending a letter to Woody Allen telling him about her adoration for him.  She included a poem for him that ended with these two short sad lines: “You are my funny man.  You know you can be sad with me.”  Woody wrote her back and encouraged her to keep writing.  This led to a friendship of sorts, where they would occasionally meet for lunch.  At one meal, she told him that she was feeling more depressed than usual.  Woody asked her all the appropriate follow-up questions in a clinical fashion and suggested she consider electroshock therapy.  She was furious with him.  She thought, “I don’t know what I had been hoping for — some version of come with me and I will cuddle you until your sadness goes away, not to get hooked up to electrodes, baby — but I was slightly stunned.  More than slightly, I understood he was trying to be helpful in his way but it fell so far short. …Shock therapy?  It wasn’t as thought I hadn’t heard of it or didn’t know people who benefited from it.  Still, how on earth did he conceive of me?  As a chronic mental patient, someone who was meant to sit on a thin hospital mattress and stare greyly into space.  Didn’t he know I was a writer with a future, a person given to creative descriptions of her own moods?  Shock therapy, indeed; I’d sooner try a spa.  It suddenly occurred to me, as I walked up Madison Avenue, that it might pay to be resilient, if this was all being vulnerable and skinless got you… .Indeed, maybe it was time to rethink this whole salvation business.  Or maybe I was less desperate, less teetering on the edge than I cared to admit.  Now that was a refreshing personality.”

There is a steeliness about her that allows her to see things clearly even in the throes of despair.  Merkin’s capacity to analyze her response to Allen’s well-intended advice demonstrates an inner resilience that has undoubtedly saved her many times over.  She knows firsthand the dark forces that can invade your psyche, but she also understands healing and reinvention and transformation.  There is no malice or bitchiness or vengeance present in her work; even towards those whom she knows have caused her the greatest harm.  Even when she senses people are being deceptive or manipulative, she does not castigate them. Instead, she seeks answers as to why she believes they feel they need to be inauthentic at a certain point in time.  She wants to understand, not attack.

For example, when writing about Mike Tyson and his new wife, she senses that Tyson is playing her.  She believes this is simply another incarnation of his continual act, which she describes as a “construction every bit as deliberate as he claims his Invincible Iron Mike persona was.”  Merkin does not challenge him directly about her perception but instead writes about how impressed she is that he is attempting to create a persona that is less violent and self-destructive than he has been in the past.  She wants him to succeed, although she recognizes the fragility of his battle.  Merkin reaches similar conclusions about Marilyn Monroe.  She wonders at first if Monroe was really the victim she is often portrayed to be, or a manipulator of the finest order.  She reviews her background, which includes severe maternal and paternal deprivation, mental illness, and bouts of terrible instability and depression.  She offers up compassion, as she does for Princess Diana, whom she describes as a “knot of contradictions: impossibly glamorous, yet disarmingly self effacing, bold, yet riddled with self-doubt, worldly yet naïve.” 

There are times when Merkin seems to get swept up in a dreamy romantic longing for a world that is less cruel and more forgiving.  On Charles and Diana’s failed union, she writes, “I find myself wondering how Diana’s life might have turned out if she and Charles had bonded over their shared lack of childhood, their virtual abandonment as children. …What would have happened if they had the patience (on his side) and endurance (on hers) to address their mutual longings for love and nurturance in each other?”

And I find myself wondering what Merkin’s life might have been like if she had received more of the nourishment she craved?  Would she have been a writer?  Would she have had an emotional radar as sharp and perceptive as hers is now?  Would she have been happier?  Does her exquisite artistry only come from having experienced such acute pain?  It’s hard to know.  What is clear is that she is one of our best narrative nonfiction writers.  Merkin’s voice is secular and modern and yet filled with some sort of ancient wisdom, and coupled with intellectual and emotional honesty, while maintaining a pureness of heart.  That is no easy feat. 

She once wrote this about her mother in her semi-autobiographical novel “Enchantment”: “I want ­­– have always wanted — her to listen to me forever.”  I don’t think her mother could, or did, for reasons that remain mysterious, but we listen and will continue to do so. 

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

Dunham doubles up at Globes, Israeli docs’ double Oscar nomination, Sandler’s countless Razzies


The 70th annual Golden Globe Awards kicked off the Hollywood awards season on Sunday, and it was in television that the Jewish people stood tall — notably Lena Dunham, the new queen and unchallenged ruler of television comedy.

Dunham, the creator of “Girls,” brought home two awards — for best actress as Hannah Horvath and for the HBO show itself, which won best comedy.

The Golden Globes are widely seen as a bellwhether for the Academy Awards (doubtful, since “Argo” beat Spielberg's Oscar favorite, “Lincoln”).

In her acceptance speech, a shaken Dunham said, ”This award is for every woman who felt like there wasn’t a space for her. This show has made a space for me.”

In addition, Dunham thanked a man named Chad Lowe. The reason for the random nod? During the 2000 Academy Awards, Lowe's then-wife, Hillary Swank, forgot to thank him as she accepted the best actress award for “Boys Don't Cry.” Dunham, the sweetheart that she is, promised Lowe she would mention him if she ever won an award — and so she did.

Another TV topper was “Homeland,” the Showtime CIA thriller based on the Israeli show “Prisoners of War.” The show won best drama, in addition to best actor for Damian Lewis and best actress for Claire Danes.

Daniel Day-Lewis, who portrays Abraham Lincoln in “Lincoln,” won best actor in a drama.

Oscar nods for Spielberg and Israeli documentaries

A few days prior to the Golden Globes, the nominees for the 85th Academy Awards were announced, and Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” led the way with 12, including for best film and best director. Spielberg is still expected to take both awards despite falling short in the Golden Globes to Ben Affleck of “Argo.”

On the Israeli side, the lack of presence in the Best Foreign Film category was compensated by a heavy presence in the Best Documentary field, with two nominees: “5 Broken Cameras” and “The Gatekeepers.” The former tells the story of a Palestinian farmer who tries to document Israeli settlers building homes and a barrier wall in the West Bank village of Bil’in.

“The Gatekeepers” is a series of interviews with former heads of Israel's counterterrorism agency, the Shin Bet, who describe their role carrying out operations against Palestinians.

“Family Guy” creator Seth MacFarlane will host the 85th Academy Awards on Feb. 24.

More Razzies expected for Sandler

In addition to celebrating Hollywood's best, the worst of showbiz is also recognized this season with the annual Razzies. As in past years, Adam Sandler is set to clean up, leading the way in nominations for his 2012 film ”That’s My Boy.”

Sandler’s film is nominated for worst picture, worst screen ensemble, worst director and worst screenplay. Sandler, 46, is nominated for worst actor and worst screen couple with Leighton Meester.

Sandler also dominated the Razzies last year for his horrendously unfunny comedy “Jack and Jill.”

This year, the tribe gets another Razzies shot with Barbra Streisand, who was nominated for worst actress for “Guilt Trip.”

Day-Lewis needed coaxing to play Abe

More about Spielberg's “Lincoln.” Ten years ago, when Spielberg was starting to work on his film about the 16th American president, he asked the Jewish actor Daniel Day-Lewis to star as the protagonist. Day-Lewis said no.

On Monday, Spielberg shared the rejection letter for the first time with the crowd at the New York Film Critics Circle Awards.

“It was a real pleasure just to sit and talk with you,” the letter reads. “I listened very carefully to what you had to say about this compelling history, and I’ve since read the script and found it in all the detail in which it describes these monumental events and in the compassionate portraits of all the principal characters, both powerful and moving. I can’t account for how at any given moment I feel the need to explore life as opposed to another, but I do know that I can only do this work if I feel almost as if there is no choice.”

Day-Lewis also writes, “I’m glad you’re making the film, I wish you the strength for it, and I send both my very best wishes and my sincere gratitude to you for having considered me.”

But Spielberg being Spielberg wouldn't take no for an answer. He sent Day-Lewis a second and third version of the script, both of which he declined as well. Spielberg then turned to Tony Kushner, the screenwriter with whom he collaborated for “Munich,” and Day-Lewis finally complied.

With a Golden Globe and possible Oscar, Day-Lewis likely has no regrets.

And then there's Maude

For those who have ever doubted the legitimacy of the acting of Maude Apatow, the daughter of celebrated filmmaker Judd Apatow, here’s reason to confirm you're a fan. In a deleted scene from Apatow’s recent film “This is 40,” Maude demonstrates that she is able to perfectly impersonate all three of the Kardashian sisters, even at the age of 15. First she mocks Khloe, whom she calls the smartest (“Well, out of all of them”) and then nasally mimics her ”Lamaaaaar.”

Maude then moves onto Kourtney, the sister she calls the most responsible, and puts on a typical Valley girl drawl to talk about Scott Disick, who is “so out of control.” Finally, she deadpeans into Kim in a higher pitched voice and whines about not having butt implants.

When Seth met Mindy

If anyone fits the role of a summer love at Jewish camp, it's Seth Rogan. The “Knocked Up” actor is set to guest star as Mindy Kaling’s childhood sweetheart from Jewish camp in Fox’s “The Mindy Project,” the network announced. In an episode titled “The One That Got Away” that is set to air Feb. 19, Mindy will reunite with Rogan’s character, Sam, who was the first boy she ever kissed, and the two will rekindle their romance after reminiscing about all those good times at Jewish camp.

Samberg is back

Like him or not, Andy Samberg is back. The Jewish comedian who left “Saturday Night Live” last year is planning to return to television soon. According to Entertainment Weekly, Fox ordered an untitled pilot about “a diverse group of detectives at a New York precinct.” The project will be executive produced by Dan Goor and Mike Schur of “Parks and Recreation.” This will be Samberg’s second television project since his departure from SNL. Last summer, Samberg starred in the successful British comedy “Cuckoo” as a hippie American who marries a British woman.

For more Jewish entertainment news, visit 6nobacon.com, the illegitimate child of JTA.

Celebrity Schadenfreude: Hating on the stars


On the flight back from a recent trip to Italy, I took a slight flight risk and decided to watch Madonna’s critically maligned movie “W.E.”  Since I had not heard a single positive thing about it (save for Andrea Riseborough’s performance as Wallis Simpson) I was not particularly excited about my choice. But since the flight was 12.5 hours and it was either that or “Jeff Who Lives At Home” I went for stylized melodrama over modern melancholy.

And reader, I liked it.

The film tells the story of Wally Winthrop, a young, upper-crust New York City housewife whose marital turmoil fuels an obsession with romantic legend: the love affair between the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, otherwise known as King Edward VIII and the American coquette Wallis Simpson. Their romance scandalized a nation; it began when she was married and compelled him to abdicate his throne. The film has its flaws of course, but it was also intense and entertaining. The score, by Polish composer Abel Korzeniowski was a highlight, and though the script was somewhat uneven in its focus on the modern thread (Wally’s affair with a Sotheby’s security guard) and not the classic story, the dialogue was sharp and smart.

Read more at jewishjournal.com/hollywoodjew.

Celebrity stylist Vidal Sassoon dead at 84


Celebrity hairstylist Vidal Sassoon, who was committed to fighting anti-Semitism and fought in Israel’s War of Independence, has died.

Sassoon died Wednesday in his Los Angeles home. He was 84. He had been battling leukemia, according to the Los Angeles Times.

In 1982, he established the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He toured the United States to raise funds for the center.

[Read our coverage of “Vidal Sasson: The Movie” here OR read “Vidal Sassoon—hero of the Jewish people”]

Sassoon, a London native, from the age of 3 grew up in a Jewish orphanage after his father left the family. He left school at 14 to become an apprentice hairdresser.

In 1948, at the age of 20, he joined the Haganah and fought in Israel’s War for Independence.  In the book, “I Am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl,” a collection of memories and tributes from various notable figures, Sassoon wrote, “I am Jewish, humble yet proud of a heritage that has dignified me even as others have tried to destroy my race.  I was twenty years old when the Palmach/Haganah accepted me as a soldier in Israel’s War of Independence in 1948. The experience changed the course of my life.  I am a Jew who believes that though small in numbers we have a powerful moral influence on the world and in the words of Hillel, ‘If not now, when.’”

He opened his first salon in London in 1954, and became known for his modern and low-maintenance hairstyles that used geometric cutting and layers to achieve a sleek and natural look.

Sassoon opened more salons in England and then in the United States. In 1973 he debuted a line of shampoos and styling products, gaining fame appearing in TV commercials using the slogan “If you don’t look good, we don’t look good.”

His philanthropy included the Vidal Sassoon Foundation.

Sassoon was married four times and had four children.

Mila Kunis goes to the ball


Mila Kunis became the latest celebrity to make it to the 236th annual Marine Corps Ball this week. Fresh off being named GQ’s Man of the Year, Kunis was the distinguished date of Sgt. Scott Moore at the Greenville, N.C., soiree.

A few months ago Moore, of the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, posted a short YouTube clip asking Kunis to accompany him to this year’s ball. It took a few months until the clip went viral, but eventually it created an interesting trend of people asking out celebrities online. Justin Timberlake and Kristin Cavallari wound up attending the balls. Scarlett Johansson and Betty White had to pass.

According to People magazine, a fellow Marine said that Kunis “was very nice and very respectful.”

The event focused on the troops that couldn’t make it to the ball. Moore’s unit lost seven men earlier this year, as Moore tweeted about it shortly beforehand: ”Tonight is for you 7 Betio Bastards!” Apparently Kunis, who was wearing a black dress, seemed to be really into the traditions and ceremonies. Marine spokesman Capt. Scott Sasser said before the ball that “She’s going to get a chance to learn about the Marine Corps, and we’re all going to have a great time celebrating the Marine Corps birthday.” After the event Sasser said only that the two were “enjoying the night.”

Circumcision — the Ed Hardy way [VIDEO]


Adam Saaks doesn’t consider himself particularly religious, except when it comes to custom “cuTour,” his term for circumcising T-shirts. For Saaks, custom designing T-shirts by nipping and tucking the hems, cutting and lacing-up the sides, and netting and looping the front — using only scissors and tweezers — isn’t a mere fashion upgrade, but a religious experience.

Saaks is the exclusive T-shirt mohel (circumciser) for the fashion lines of French designer Christian Audigier. He specializes in Ed Hardy, the line incorporating designs of American tattoo artist Don Ed Hardy. The T-shirts are known for their colorful skulls, hearts, crossbones and flowers intertwined with messages like “Love Kills Slowly” and “Death or Glory.” They are a status symbol of “coolness” for young and old alike.

Saaks travels the world, making appearances at fashion shows, nightclubs and department stores, eight-inch chrome blades in hand, ready to transform — in a matter of minutes — already eye-catching, provocative T-shirts into sexualized form-fitted tops and dresses.

The final products might make the parents of any nice Jewish girl blush, even though Saaks counts among his devoted clients Jewish women — and their mothers.

“I went to Hebrew school on Saturday or Sunday — I don’t remember — and became a skateboarder and outcast,” Saaks said.

The Journal met with the 36-year-old artist at the flagship, multiroomed Christian Audigier store on the corner of Melrose and Fairfax avenues, a day before his trip to Egypt for the wedding of former Spice Girl Melanie Brown. Why not make a stop in Israel?

“I don’t have time,” he said, although it’s likely he’d be a big hit at the Ed Hardy store in Tel Aviv.

Saaks’ assimilation was preceded by that of his grandfather, who shortened the family name from “Isaaks” to “Saaks” when he came to America from Romania. The change was prophetic: Saaks’ girlfriend, a Croation-Swedish model, pointed out that sax means “scissors” in Swedish.

By the time his older siblings celebrated their bar mitzvahs, his parents grew less strict with tradition, not that he cared much.

Lately, though, he has developed a renewed Jewish pride, thanks in part to his belated bar mitzvah in Paris last year by a rabbi he met at a fashion showroom.

“This rabbi told me, ‘You weren’t bar mitzvahed? We’ll bar mitzvah you now!’ He put those straps on my arm and the box on my forehead, and I recited stuff.”

Normally he wears a Star of David consisting of a white gold chain, a white gold star and a charm of white platinum scissors studded with diamonds.

A wardrobe stylist for 10 years before moving to Los Angeles in 2001, Saaks said his talent was revealed to him at a trade show in Las Vegas in 2001. While he was helping a friend launch a T-shirt line, “one girl passing by wanted a shirt cut like something on the rack. I pulled her aside, did two cuts and drew a crowd of 50 people. They didn’t leave until I finished the shirt.”

Now he charges anywhere from $350 for a single brit milah (circumcision) to $5,000 for a booked event. His designs are sold off the rack at the Melrose store, but there is nothing like getting the T-shirt personally sliced on the wearer. All the wearer needs is a little faith.

Saaks’ promotional tours have surely helped the Ed Hardy line get more exposure (or shall we say, “overexposure”). Billboards dominate Los Angeles, celebrities prance around town wearing Audigier designs, but there may be another Jewish twist to Audigier’s success.

“We have mezuzahs all over the place. Christian has them on his house, on his office,” Saaks said, referring to the ritual boxes placed on doorposts of Jewish homes and businesses enclosing the sacred Jewish prayer to love God. “It’s not a Jewish-run company at all, but his mentors are pretty religious, people he grew up with, so they’re always guarding him.”

Indeed, all of the doors at the store had mezuzahs on them — but the cheap, uninspiring plastic variety the sofer (scribe) usually gives for free with the scroll. Audigier, with the help of Saaks and his Jewish friends, might want to think about a mezuzah line — minus the skulls and crossbones, but preserving the florals and the message, “love.”

This would certainly promote another mitzvah (commandment), in addition to circumcision — the Hardy way.

Beverly Hills Peninsula Hotel gets Israeli flair


Like many good-looking newcomers to Los Angeles, Offer — with two F’s — Nissenbaum has a burning ambition.

It’s not to become a marquee idol, but rather, at age 50, to play goalie for one of the city’s amateur hockey teams.

That is, if he can break loose from his day (and frequently night) job as the new managing director of the Peninsula Hotel Beverly Hills, which is within shouting distance of the Beverly Hilton Hotel, owned by fellow Israeli army veteran Beny Alagem.

With 200 guest rooms, the Peninsula — one of an international group of five luxury hotels owned by Hong Kong and Shanghai Hotels, Ltd. — is certainly not the largest hotel in the city, but it hosts more than its share of celebrities and A-list events.

“We are the only hotel in Los Angeles and Beverly Hills with a rating of five diamonds from Mobil and five stars from AAA,” said Nissenbaum, who came to the hotel nine months ago.

Like any other top executive in the hotel business — Nissenbaum prefers the term hospitality business — one of his key jobs is to sell the uniqueness of his enterprise to the community.

So his public relations consultant recently invited a reporter to drop in and meet both the managing director and his father; the latter was in town for a visit from Israel.

Joseph Nissenbaum is 80 years old, a survivor of the Holocaust and three Israeli wars, whose life and experiences have marked the outlook and careers of Offer and his two siblings.

“I think one aspect is that we were more driven and we matured earlier than most children,” the younger Nissenbaum observed.

Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Foundation videotaped Joseph Nissenbaum’s story some years ago in Israel, and one purpose of this visit was to take a look at the four-hour interview.

To condense his long and dramatic story, Joseph was born in the East German city of Leipzig, and when he was 10 years old, his life was upended by Kristallnacht.

His father, a native of Poland, was arrested and sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp, and the following month young Joseph was spirited out of the country via the Kindertransport to find shelter in a Belgian orphanage.

There he lived in relative safety, even after the German conquest, until 1943. But as the Nazi vise tightened, Joseph first worked in a factory and then lived underground with the help of the Belgian resistance movement.

Liberated in late 1944, the 17-year-old Joseph made it to Palestine, worked in a kibbutz, and in 1947 joined the underground Haganah. Fighting as a rifleman in the War of Independence, under the command of a young officer named Ariel Sharon, Joseph was shot in the leg.

The medic who bandaged his wound felt sorry for the family-less young soldier, invited Joseph to his home and introduced him to his sister, Judith. As in all good stories, Joseph and Judith were married shortly afterwards.

In 1956, Joseph was called up again, fought as a sharpshooter in the Sinai campaign, and picked up his rifle once more for the Six-Day War.

By that time, in 1967, Offer was 10 years old and he remembers vividly digging trenches and taping up windows in anticipation of the Arab onslaught.

Finally out of uniform, Joseph started to work for El Al Airlines, became a controller and was transferred to Toronto.

“The Holocaust shaped my character,” Joseph said. “I’m not completely sane; there’s a sense of guilt in surviving when so many others died. I find solace in being alone.”

In Canada, Offer picked up his accent-free English and passion for hockey, but knew nothing about his father’s experiences under Nazi rule. However, when his sister, Orna, now a television and movie producer, started questioning her father about his past, the story gradually came out and had a deep impact on young Offer.

“Being the son of a survivor, seeing your father’s struggles, affects you emotionally,” Offer said. “I once had to go to Germany on business, but to this day I will not buy anything German.”

In 1978, after studying hospitality management at an American college, it was Offer’s turn to join the Israeli army for three years with an elite intelligence unit.

After discharge, he left for New York to start his career. On arrival, a U.S. immigration official with an odd sense of humor made young Nissenbaum an offer he couldn’t refuse and added an “F” to the given name, “Ofer.”

In his first American hotel job, he worked for two years under the tyrannical Leona Helmsley, the “Queen of Mean,” notorious for terrorizing her employees. From that experience, Nissenbaum drew the lesson that “management by fear and intimidation doesn’t work.”

Nissenbaum, now a boss himself at the Peninsula, is a strong believer in a cooperative, counter-Helmsley management style.

“I think of myself more as a mentor than a boss,” he said. “I meet monthly with 25 different employees, from the managers to the dishwasher, to see how we can improve operations. Every employee has a special insight and I believe if you treat your staff right, they will treat the guests right.”

Last month, he personally barbecued all the steaks at an outing for his 420 employees.

In New York, Nissenbaum was active — and recognized by — the American Jewish Committee, Friends of the Israeli Defense Forces and American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

He intends to become equally involved in the Los Angeles community once he’s settled in and has organized his workaholic working hours. Nissenbaum, his wife and their three children, ranging in age from 3 to 12, live in the Benedict Canyon area and are members of Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills.

Asked about the effect of the floundering economy on his business, Nissenbaum responded that while no one was immune to the downturn, the impact on the Peninsula has been minimal so far.

“Most of our guests are of high net worth,” he said. “They may be a little more careful about ordering a $1,000 bottle of wine, but they’re not going to fly coach or stay at a motel.”

Looking for a Shining Star


 

As every political and charitable organization knows, there is nothing like access to Hollywood stars and influential players to collect crowds and hefty donations.

So when American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) supporters arrive in Los Angeles Sunday for a national meeting to listen to policymakers and pundits, their agenda also includes a visit to the Warner Bros. Studios and a chat with television producers and writers.

But AIPAC officials want more than a good time out of Hollywood. They want broader support, lots of money, and, if needed on occasion, celebrity cachet.

In other words, AIPAC is like every other Jewish organization worth its man of the year plaque. The strange thing is that AIPAC has to work so hard to make Hollywood inroads, given that AIPAC’s clout in official Washington is legendary.

AIPAC officials insist they are making progress.

“We are seeing significant number of people in the Hollywood community involved in AIPAC,” said its national spokesman Josh Block. As evidence, he cites increasing attendance by entertainment industry people at Los Angeles and national AIPAC events.

Block’s appraisal was endorsed by some enthusiastic AIPAC members in Hollywood, but the organization doesn’t provide membership lists or totals so the anecdotes cannot be verified.

The most optimistic estimate put Hollywood membership in “the hundreds,” but even that figure was questioned by some outside observers.

One of the best-connected political analysts of Jewish Hollywood, who, like most respondents, did not wish to be identified by name, pointed to a basic problem.

“It is always a real challenge getting Hollywood people involved in organized Jewish life or Israeli causes, except through synagogue membership,” the observer said. This fact-of-L.A.-life applies to AIPAC as well as to other Jewish groups.

One difficulty is the “idiosyncratic” nature of the entertainment industry, which is not easily understood or penetrated by outsiders seeking the help of show-business Jews, the observer said. This analyst added that many creative people come to Hollywood to get away from the “stale traditions” of New York and other East Coast cities.

As a final point, the observer noted, Hollywood Jews tend to fall on the liberal side. Thus, the few who are Jewishly involved are more likely to support Americans for Peace Now, the Israel Policy Forum or American Jewish Committee, while AIPAC is perceived as “conservative.”

The latter perception is strenuously contested by AIPAC officials and supporters.

“We cut across all lines and partisanships in terms of U.S. politics. That’s why we are successful,” said Joel Mandel, a Hollywood business manager and AIPAC member.

Practically speaking, AIPAC traditionally either supports the current Israeli government or sits on the sidelines steadfastly supporting Israel even as that nation’s factions battle over control, policies and ideas.

Mandel acknowledged that AIPAC could do a better job at communicating with the entertainment industry, but also cited recent improvements.

“We are talking to politically sophisticated people,” he said. “If we provide with them facts, they’ll get it.”

A similar positive assessment was given by Joan Hyler, former senior vice president at the William Morris Agency and enthusiastic AIPAC advocate.

“We’re small, but we’re growing,” she said, “and the field is wide open.”

What AIPAC lacks in Hollywood is a high-profile celebrity to draw attention and colleagues with open wallets. In the past, Peace Now has benefited from the active presence of actor Richard Dreyfuss, while the Anti-Defamation League and American Jewish Committee are generally able to “honor” some bright star at their annual events.

However, AIPAC can now point to influential multimedia mogul Haim Saban, who is backing the organization’s Saban National Political Leadership Training Seminar. The semiannual seminars in Washington each draw some 300 college student activists for three days of intensive pro-Israel advocacy training. Saban is no Streisand, nor even Madonna, but he’s got the resources to back up his politics.

As for the future, a Hollywood executive who requested anonymity, sounded a hopeful note.

“I think AIPAC is making progress, especially among the younger people in the industry,” he said. “We’ll see a lot of growth over the next couple of generations.”

All About AIPAC

AIPAC Is Guilty — But Not of Spying

How to Polish a Tarnished Image

Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad AIPAC?

Summit Tackles Iran Nukes, College Strife

TV Probes Kaballah


Is the celebrity-studded Kabbalah Centre bringing the benefits of age-old Jewish mysticism and learning to the masses, or is it a multimillion-dollar family enterprise scamming the gullible?

That basic question, raised with growing frequency and ever-larger headlines in recent years, was given a surprisingly well-balanced national airing last week on the ABC-TV newsmagazine, “20/20.”

Founded in 1971 in Los Angeles by Philip Berg, addressed as The Rav by his followers, the Kabbalah Centre is an American success story, with 40 branches around the world, many thousands of faithful students and followers and a thriving commercial enterprise. The center’s recent explosive growth and fame can be largely credited to an enviable Hollywood roster, led by Madonna. The celebs testify that they have found spiritual renewal and insight through Kabbalah Centre studies.

Celebrity titillations aside, the most useful aspect of the 40-minute segment for the open-minded viewer was a rare question-and-answer session between co-anchor Elizabeth Vargas and members of The Rav’s family: Karen Berg, The Rav’s wife, and their sons, Michael and Yehuda. The three Bergs have been running the center network since the founder suffered a debilitating stroke last year.

The Bergs insisted that all their teachings, however popularized, are based on the Zohar, the authoritative kabbalist text, and that even glancing at the book would infuse the practitioner with God’s energy.

“We teach a hipper, user-friendly form of kabbalah,” Karen Berg said.

The Bergs made no apology for the commercial portion of their ministry. The center sells a range of items that are supposed to be spiritually beneficial, such as red strings, candles, T-shirts, shot glasses and bottled water. They tout their merchandise as being able to cure diseases, dispel radiation and bring prosperity.

“You can do with kaballah what you want,” Berg said. “We are not God’s policemen.”

The mainstream rabbinical view was presented by Yitzchok Adlerstein, an Orthodox rabbi who teaches Jewish law and ethics at the Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. Adlerstein, who consulted a lawyer before venturing on the program, proved a restrained but witty commentator.

He compared the “real” kabbalah to the Bergs’ version as like “taking astrophysics and reducing it to ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.'”

When shown a photo of Britney Spears with one of God’s 72 names in Hebrew tattooed on her neck, Adlerstein commented dryly that this would contribute to Spears’ prosperity as much as it would help him to tattoo “Britney’s name on my neck.”

Although there were snippets of Madonna in her “Kabbalists Do It Better” T-shirt and also video cameos of red-string wearers Ashton Kutcher, Demi Moore, Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan and others, the only celebrity interview was with Roseanne Barr.

“Kabbalah gets you off yourself and your ego,” she said. “I am now a calmer, gentler person than I used to be.”

Neither the TV program nor other pro-and-con arguments are likely to sway those who believe in the Kabbalah Centre’s power to effect spiritual and physical healing.

The poster boy for the center featured by “20/20” was not a lost-and-found Jewish soul, but Don Ellis, a Southern Baptist, ex-FBI agent and lawyer in a small Texas town. He has spent thousands of dollars buying a complete set of the Zohar in Hebrew and Aramaic from the Kabbalah Centre. He cannot read a word of the languages, but no matter.

“That’s my telephone line to God,” he declared, pointing to the books. “All I have to do is plug it in.”

 

Diva Sings Out About Her Tour, Fans


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In America, celebrity divas are instantly recognizable by their first names: Madonna. Britney.

Israel has its own diva: Rita.

Known only by her first name, Rita is as dramatic and flamboyant as a diva should be, but also soulful, with an intensity in her voice and performances that packs an emotional punch.

Her style embodies an eclectic mix of Middle Eastern sounds, with distinctive Persian tones combined with Western influences. Her muses include husband Rami Kleinstein, who was born in the United States but moved to Israel as a small boy, eventually becoming a famous Israeli musician in his own right.

For the first time in two years, Rita will bring her sultry performance style and amazing vocal range to the United States in a minitour, with an L.A. date at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre on April 7.

While Rita’s invariably sold-out shows are usually highly stylized, over-the-top productions, that’s not true of this tour.

“It’s very touchable, very intimate,” she said in a telephone interview with The Journal from her Tel Aviv home. “I want to be very attached to my audience. To be able to talk to them and to hear them.”

And she has millions of fans here.

“It’s very flattering,” said the 43-year-old singer. “I feel that I have a long but healthy relationship with my audiences, because I see my work as a celebration, because I get so much love.”

The Iranian-born songstress, who moved with her family to Israel at 6, burst onto the Israeli music scene in November, 1985. Her first two singles went to No. 1.

Over the years, Rita’s albums have reached gold and platinum status, has been named Israel’s “Singer of the Year” on several occasions and represented Israel at the Eurovision Song Contest. She’s also acted in films and performed on the Israeli stage — a few years ago in “My Fair Lady” and most recently in “Chicago” — and said she hopes to do more theater work.

Almost 20 years after her debut, she’s still considered Israel’s leading female vocalist, and has shown no signs of slowing down.

A self-confessed workaholic, Rita said that she always tries to improve on her work and that she approaches every show as if it’s the first and last of her life.

“The audiences are smart,” she said. “They know if you’re giving them all of you or not, and I always give all of me.”

Rita describes her career highlight as “always the most recent thing.” She sang at the March opening of Yad Vashem’s new Holocaust museum, in front of 41 dignitaries from around the world.

“It was such a moving, emotional experience to be there, singing ‘Yerushalayim Shel Zahav’ in Jerusalem, surrounded by all those photos of all those terrible things that happened to our people,” she said. “But there we were on top of this high mountain in Jerusalem, with everyone sitting there. It was an incredibly emotional experience.”

So much so that Rita’s rendition of “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav” is being incorporated into her tour.

Her North American performances are rare, but Rita does many concerts in Israel and Europe. She said she’s very excited about this upcoming tour, saying how important it is for her to meet “my family” — how she refers to her U.S. fans. Besides Los Angeles, the minitour will stop in San Francisco, New York and Montreal. Now that her two daughters are older (13 and 4), she added, she hopes to tour the United States at least once a year.

Rita said she feeds off the dedication of her fans.

“I received a letter and flowers from a fan recently, who wrote that he loved my concert because, ‘It’s not what you give the audience, or what you say to them, but what you cause them to feel.'”

Rita said her mission is “to touch the souls of people. I think that’s an amazing opportunity that we have as artists, to cause people to feel. “

Rita will perform at 8:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 7, at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre, 4401 W. Eighth St., Los Angeles. For tickets and information, call (310) 273-2824

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Nevis’ Jewish Past a Tropical Treasure


 

Savvy travelers in need of a getaway come to the Caribbean island of Nevis to relax at restored sugar plantations, like the Montpelier Inn, or the opulent Four Seasons. Celebrity visitors have included Michael Douglas, Oprah Winfrey and Princess Diana, who immediately fled to the island to relax after her breakup with Prince Charles.

Tourists soak up the sun on the island’s beaches and watch for whales, snorkel in the crystal-clear turquoise sea and hike its lush hills listening to the chatter of green vervet monkeys. Nevis is home to 10,000 people, and charming Caribbean gingerbread-style buildings along downtown Charleston’s tiny main street evokes the feeling of “Gulliver’s Travels” as tourists visit area shops and restaurants.

This Leeward Island destination, known as the “Queen of the Caribbees,” was also once home to dozens of hard-working Jews whose story makes up a little-known chapter of Caribbean Jewish history. It’s been centuries since a Jewish community has called Nevis home, but references to the “Jews’ School” and the “Jewish Temple” remain a colorful part of island folklore.

“Nevis has a remarkable story to tell of a community that used to be,” said David Rollinson, a local historian who conducts Jewish tours of the island. “The cemetery is all that’s left now and it continues to give us valuable insight into the lives of the Jews of Nevis.”

Sitting southeast of Puerto Rico, Nevis is the smaller sister island to neighboring St. Kitts (a 20-minute ferry ride), which tends to be more rough and tumble. Nevis is nearly 7 miles in diameter and was first spotted by Christopher Columbus in 1493 on his second voyage to the New World. Columbus called the island Nieves, the Spanish word for “snows,” because the islands volcanic peaks reminded him of the snow-capped Pyrenees.

By the mid-1600s, Nevis’ sugarcane industry made it a Caribbean powerhouse. Sephardic Jews expelled from Brazil by the Portuguese were drawn to the island. And by the early 1700s, one-quarter of the Caucasian population in Charleston were Jewish.

The Colonial period brought about a synagogue, but the exact date of its construction is unknown. A school followed, which was attended by the non-Jewish son of U.S. founding father Alexander Hamilton, who was born on the island in 1757.

By the end of the 18th century, the sugar industry went bust and the Jewish families moved away in search of new jobs, leaving behind their stores and homes. The synagogue and school were closed. Today, the only visible reminders of that once-vibrant community are the 19 surviving grave markers in the Nevis Jewish Cemetery.

Scholars and archaeologists from the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom have long been fascinated with Nevis’ Jewish history. Funds from various organizations, like the Commonwealth Jewish Council, have been able to piece together a picture of what Jewish life was like from the clues in the cemetery.

Located on Government Road, a few minutes from the pier in Charleston, the cemetery stands in the middle of what once was the Jewish neighborhood. Grave markers, inscribed in Portuguese, Hebrew and English, date from 1650 to 1768 and bear names like Marache, Pinheiro, Mendez, Lobatto and Cohen. However, on some the writing is barely legible. Forty more burial sites, without markers, were identified some 20 years ago by a survey done on the grounds.

Rededicated in 1971 after a Philadelphia couple organized the cleanup and restorations of the gravestones, today the cemetery’s sacred grounds are carefully manicured by the Nevis Historical and Conservation Society.

“It’s a very emotional experience for people who come here,” said Rollinson, who watches as tourists quietly place stones on the above ground tombstones as a show of respect. “It’s an emotional experience for me, too.”

Across the street is a narrow vine-covered laneway the locals still call “Jews Walk” or “Jews Alley” which may have led to the Jewish school and kitty-corner from the cemetery is a typical Caribbean clapboard house that was built on the land where the synagogue once stood. Details about the school are sketchy but Dutch archives indicate the synagogue was built in 1684. Sadly, not an artifact has been recovered; historians believe the congregants took the valuables with them when they left the island.

Nevis’ library features some of the best local history books, including books on the area’s Jewish history, and offers the cheapest Internet connections on the island.

To the Nevisians, this area will always be “the Jewish neighborhood.” Some old-timers even remember their great-great-grandparents talking about the Jews who used to live there.

“It’s important none of us forget about those families all those years ago,” said T.C. Claxton, a British expat who has been driving a taxi on the island for 30 years. “Future generations have a lot to learn from this past.”

For more information about Nevis, visit

Read All About It


 

At this moment, I have no idea if Jennifer Garner is having Ben Affleck’s baby, who Hilary Swank is wearing to the Oscars or what brand of moisturizer Catherine Zeta Jones has shipped in from a nunnery in Peru.

I am no longer binge reading. As of now, I’m out of touch with In Touch.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with reading celebrity gossip magazines. If you can do it in moderation, I applaud you (and please let me know if Lindsay Lohan’s dad ever gets his act together). In my case, however, I was a problem reader and I had to put the magazines down. It started innocently enough. I was working on a morning news show in New York and doing occasional segments with writers from Star Magazine, In Touch, People and other weekly magazines. I’d interview gossip writers about the celebrity news of the day, how Julia Roberts was handling her pregnancy, what new freebies Star Jones was hoarding. This was all part of my job, and it never went to “a bad place.” Soon, the magazines started showing up at my office, sent to me by publicists. They’d sit on my desk, as enticing to me as a fistful of Vioxx. Inevitably, a co-worker would glance down and notice a particularly poignant headline, for example “Celebrity Flaws.”

“No way! That is not Jerry Hall’s thigh,” they would squeal, snatching the glossy from my desk. “Are you telling me those are Paris Hilton’s feet? Those are huge!”

Like children hearing the muted tones of an ice cream truck entering the cul-de-sac, other women would materialize, hungry for cellulite secrets and maybe a scoop of schadenfraude.

“Let me see that. Are those Angelina Jolie’s hands? She has man hands!” someone else would chime in, peering down at the cover. The excitement would build until I’d give the magazine away.

One moment, I was indifferent to celebrity hands, the next they had a choke hold on me. I started smuggling the magazines home in my purse.

Because I worked the early morning shift and kept odd hours, I found a stack of magazines really took the edge off trying to busy myself during the day. I’d climb in bed with dozens of stories about Tara Reid and Ashton Kutcher, a cold Fresca and the compelling desire to disappear into a world of customized crystal cell phone covers and anorexic Olsens.

This went on once a week for nearly six months, until I finally saw the correlation: pop culture binge reading sessions were always followed by fitful naps and waking up with a vague but nasty sense of emptiness. Strangers like Pamela Anderson and Britney Spears wormed themselves deeply into my subconscious and wandered lost like ghosts with excellent teeth and Uggs. No matter how much I devoured their stories, one truth remained. They were on the Red Carpet — I wasn’t even at Red Lobster.

I’d like the say it’s just that simple, that reading about the rich and famous is painful unless you’re one of them, but I doubt that’s it. I’m going to guess that even the rich and famous suffer low-grade ennui after thumbing through the pages of Star. There’s just something about immersion in a sea of other people’s lives — from their handbags to their Oscar parties to their kabbalah bracelets — that drowns out anything real. What’s so dazzlingly distracting is also what’s numbing and uncomfortable.

When you think about it, garden-variety gossiping usually gives you a temporary high but leaves you feeling out of sorts. Binge reading works on the same principle, but it’s even more distressing. It’s gossip without the human interaction, a one-way conversation about people you don’t know, a mindless activity that quietly fosters longing and loneliness, at least for me.

On the subway once, I saw a young woman flipping through an Us Weekly. I was surprised, because she didn’t look the type. She was all no-fuss hair and debutante angles and perfectly fitting khakis. I studied this woman, with her tennis-lesson body and lightly worn monogrammed bag. When the subway stopped at 59th, she was halfway through the magazine. I saw her put it on the seat next to her, and snatch it back up again, and put it down before she gathered her things and stood up. I wanted to tap her and say, “I know.”

As long as life is sometimes uncertain and boring and as long as there are airplane flights and waiting rooms and eating meals alone and afternoons gaping with open spaces, I’ll always be looking for distractions. All I can hope for now is that they involve far less of Melania Knauss.

As it turns out, people who need People are not the luckiest people in the world.

Teresa Strasser is a TV host and Emmy Award-winning writer. She’s on the Web at target=”_blank”>teresastrasser.com.

 

Roasting Woody Allen — Gently


One could call “Who Killed Woody Allen?” a “benign revenge comedy.” Co-authors Tom Dunn, Dan Callahan and Brendan Connor wrote the whodunit after Allen allegedly withdrew the rights to his play, “Death,” from their theater company in 2001. The playwrights say they had already rented a theater, hired 15 actors and were a week into rehearsal when they received the news. “So we decided to move from Woody Allen’s ‘Death’ to Woody Allen’s death,” Dunn said.

The black comedy is set at Allen’s funeral, with his celebrity friends as suspects. But it’s more of an homage than a roast. (Number of Soon-Yi gags: one.)

“We’re huge Woody fans, and we respect him too much to take potshots,” Connor said.

“We’re comedy writers in large part because of his influence,” Dunn said.

In fact, the 32-year-old authors have been in love with Allen’s films since they attended Holy Trinity High while growing up in Levittown, N.Y. The childhood friends viewed Allen movies together such as “Mighty Aphrodite” and “Manhattan Murder Mystery.”

Of why these Irish Catholics admire the Jewish auteur, Connor said, “It’s hysterical the way he captures uniquely New York neuroses.”

Dunn, for his part, said, “We really connected to Woody’s thoughtful absurdist humor. We drew on that when we started doing improvisational comedy together in high school.”

The friends moved from improv to sketch comedy to founding their Empty Stage Theatre Company around 2000. The goal was to produce lesser-known works by well-known authors; after staging an obscure David Mamet piece, the Allen fans set their sights on “Death.” According to Dunn, Allen granted the rights to one production but declined when the opening dates changed. “We were totally shocked,” Dunn said.

Eventually the “Death” rights issue inspired a play about Allen’s last rites; but the piece doesn’t dis Allen. In fact, the authors invited the filmmaker to opening night, assuming he’d get a kick out of the tribute. Instead, they received a letter from Allen’s attorney, Irwin Tenenbaum: “Mr. Allen appreciates your invitation but is unable to attend,” states the letter, which The Journal viewed on a Web site. “Since I have not read the play and am unfamiliar with its contents, I trust that you have adhered to and stayed within the parameters of applicable law with regard to the use of my client’s name and character. I reserve all of my client’s rights with regard to this project, should events prove otherwise.”

Actually, the play makes relatively few references to Allen. Rather, it focuses on the shenanigans of the funeral’s self-absorbed celebrity guests, who include a stammering Diane Keaton (Jillann Dugan), a kvetchy Alan Alda (Ed Moran) and a creepy Christopher Walken (Peter Loureiro). The stars pay their last respects rather disrespectfully, treating the service like a photo-op, a chance to glean publicity and promote their films.

The funeral itself is structured like an awards ceremony, with Oscar host Billy Crystal (Christopher Wisner) as emcee. “Sitting shiva, cover the ‘mirra,’ it’s going to be a Jewish funeral tonight,” Crystal sings in an Oscar-style medley. The stars continue their shameless mugging even as a detective arrives to interrogate them (we’re told Allen’s ex, Mia Farrow, has been cleared because she was in Angola at the time of the murder, “auditioning children to adopt.”)

“The play is a satirical take on celebrity culture,” Dunn said. “Of course, we’re spoofing what we want the most — celebrity — and the irony isn’t lost on us.”

“Who Killed Woody Allen?” is apparently moving the authors closer to that goal. The play ran for eight months off-Broadway, earned rave reviews and will have its Los Angeles debut Sept. 22, directed by Dunn, with most of the original cast in tow.

The co-authors, meanwhile, are pitching TV and film projects, including the movie rights to “Who Killed Woody Allen?” “We even asked Woody if he was interested in directing,” Dunn said. “But we haven’t received a response.”

“Who Killed Woody Allen?” runs Sept. 22-Oct. 3 at the Improv Olympic West Theater, 6636 Hollywood Blvd., in Hollywood. For tickets, $18, and information, call (323) 960-4412 or visit www.plays411.com/wkwa.

For more information about the play, visit www.whokilledwoodyallen.com .

3 Minutes With Brad


Brad Pitt may have sustained an injury during the filming of his new movie, "Troy," but I sustained an injury during the viewing of the film.

With 15 minutes left of the special preview screening, I had to go to the bathroom. I had been able to hold on through at least three battles for the kingdom of Troy, but finally my bladder surrendered to an army of Diet Cokes.

Desperate not to miss the end of the film, I ran to the restroom, which was mobbed. I needed a new battle plan, so I flew up the jumbo escalator to the floor above me, ran to the empty bathroom and sprinted back down the escalator, victorious. Too bad my pant leg got caught on the heel of my boot.

The downward momentum of the steps combined with my lost footing had me toppling forward, clutching the railing. My shin slammed into the moving metal steps below me, which made for a very stylish striped bruise. I can only piece together from a forensic reading of my wounds what happened next; there’s a black and blue on my right shoulder, a few nicks on my left hip and one pant cuff that will never be the same.

Somehow, fueled by the need to catch the end of the movie so that Brad Pitt wouldn’t hate me, I righted myself before somersaulting to certain destruction below.

As I was falling, so was Troy. I got back just in time to see the city burning and feel the shin bruising, but I got the idea.

Why the hurry? Why the intense, irrational fear that if I missed a moment of the film I would be removed from the television industry and perhaps the planet? It has to do with three minutes: the three I was scheduled to spend with Brad Pitt the following day.

As part of a "Troy" press junket at a New York City hotel, I was to interview the "Sexiest Man Alive" for exactly three minutes.

The day after the screening, journalists were lined up in the hotel hallway, perusing their notes, schlepping their purses and notebooks and waiting for an audience with Brad.

When it was my turn, I tried to act normal. This is just a guy, I told myself, reaching out my hand.

"I’m Teresa with ‘Good Day Live,’" I said, as a sound guy clipped a microphone to my lapel.

"I’m Brad," he replied quietly.

Well, duh! I wanted to shout.

I talk to people for a living. And before I went pro, I had many conversations on the amateur level. It’s not that difficult.

Still, the pressure of not saying anything stupid to offend his Royal Pittness, of leaving that three minutes without a decent interview, of letting down my employer, it all got to me. In the film, Pitt plays Achilles, and my weakness was never more apparent than strolling into that well-lit room. For me, it wasn’t the deification of a celebrity that brought me down; it was the worshipping of that golden calf named perfection. Fear of failing had me blade to neck without a shield. My vision went blurry. A muscle in my neck stiffened.

I’m not sure how it went. I remember "Brad" laughing. I sensed some understandable boredom. I recall making the game-time decision to scrap my "Did you ever suffer from helmet head?" question.

By the time you read this, my interview will have aired, just another three minutes in the barrage of publicity about "Troy."

When I left Brad, competing thoughts speared my brain like angry Spartans: Brad hated me, Brad was amused by me. I couldn’t process the experience. And that’s where alcohol can be very useful.

Safely at the hotel bar with a scotch in my hand — just one, because as mediocre as I am at chatting up celebrities, I’m just as half-baked at self-destruction — I noticed another reporter swigging down her per diem. A former reality TV star, she seemed as confused and out of place as I did, but with better skin.

I wanted to corral her and start a post-junket support group.

"My name is Teresa and I doubt and dissect everything I do. The thought of turning in a sub-par performance makes me feel like there are bugs crawling all over my lungs. Is this seat taken?"

My interview, even if it had been the best celebrity suck-up in modern history, would not have healed the sick or raised the dead. I know I won’t get thrown off the planet for being bland. I know that most of us mortals spend our lives in the middle ground, doing our best, neither shattering land speed records nor standing stock-still. That’s life. It’s that muscle in the back of my neck that knows nothing.

Luckily, if I forget I’m only human, I have those bruises on my Achilles shins to remind me.

Teresa Strasser writes from Manhattan where she is a feature reporter for
Fox’s “Good Day Live.” She’s on the Web at teresastrasser.com.

Dude, Where’s My Kabbalah?


It’s official. The Kabbalah Centre has usurped the Church of Scientology’s status as Hollywood’s hottest creed of choice. These days, it seems like every celeb looking to add meaning to his or her glittering but empty life of fame and fortune is joining the red-string-wearing, holy-water-selling, quasi-Jewish group.

Earlier this week, the New York Post reported that Madonna — fresh from French kissing Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera at the MTV Music Awards — was seen with Rosie O’Donnell and an unnamed "Kabbalah Centre crony" at The Box Tree, New York’s most expensive kosher restaurant. This just after the Material Girl and husband Guy Ritchie reportedly donated about $3.5 million to buy a London house for the controversial organization, of which they have been longtime supporters.

This week, the center got something even more important — a figurative Tiger Beat seal of approval when hunky obsession-of-the-moment Ashton Kutcher ("My Boss’s Daughter," "Dude, Where’s My Car?," "That ’70s Show") went with his much older, recently rejuvenated girlfriend Demi Moore to the Kabbalah Centre on Robertson Boulevard, where they bought a $78 poster of the names of God.

Billy Phillips, a spokesperson for the center, said that the study of Kabbalah has attracted celebrities for centuries, pointing out that 2,000 years ago philosophers Plato and Pythagoras studied kabbalah.

Phillips wouldn’t give any details of Kutcher’s visit to the center (and a call to the center’s bookstore had the clerk asking "Who is Ashton Kutcher?") but Phillips did say that the most popular course for newcomers like Kutcher is the ten-week "Power of Kabbalah Course," which is taught on Wednesday nights.

"For the first time in history we are seeing people from all walks of life studying Kabbalah, which is the way that it is meant to be," Phillips said. "But it is the celebrities who make the newspapers."

The Match Game


When B’nai B’rith International needs a headliner to attract
people to a fundraising dinner, it knows where to turn.

Los Angeles-based Celebrity Connection, founded 20 years ago
by Barry Greenberg, is the exclusive coordinator for all of B’nai B’rith’s fundraising
dinners in the United States.

Greenberg, 51, is a pioneer in the celebrity brokering
business, which involves finding, matching and hiring celebrities to make
appearances on behalf of organizations.

While celebrity brokering is still a small industry, it’s
growing fast as America becomes ever more obsessed with celebrity. Curiously,
virtually all the major players in the field are Jewish.

“Initially, Celebrity Connection was conceived as a
clearinghouse for celebrity participation in charity,” recalled Greenberg, who
previously worked for Jewish nonprofit organizations, including B’nai B’rith
and the Jewish National Fund, and currently is vice president of Temple Israel
of Hollywood. Greenberg teaches a course titled “The Role of Celebrity in
Public Relations” at the USC Annenberg School of Communications.

Celebrity Connections brokers deals for celebrities and
receives 10 percent on top of the contracted price. The company has experienced
dramatic growth, especially in the last six years, with satellite offices in Germany
and Spain in addition to its Los Angeles headquarters.

“We spend a lot of time educating prospective clients not
only about the specialized service we provide, but about the entire process of
matching the right celebrity with the right client,” he said.

For example, efforts to fight Parkinson’s disease saw
funding increase after actor Michael J. Fox got involved, while AIDS awareness
benefited from the advocacy of actress Elizabeth Taylor. Some actors,
musicians, comedians and sports stars may appear for charities for a nominal
fee, while others charge tens of thousands of dollars for commercials or
endorsements.

While Celebrity Connection is the oldest and biggest firm in
the industry, another key player is Celebrity Source in Los Angeles.
Established in 1988 by Rita Tateel, who has a background in Jewish communal
service, Celebrity Source also is a full-service firm, which often arranges
video or satellite celebrity if celebrities can’t attend an event in person.

Another player in the field is Mark Goldman, founder and
principal of the Oxnard-based Damon Brooks, a boutique firm in the niche market
of celebrities and athletes who have overcome disabilities. Goldman books them
for charitable appearances, public relations promotions and motivational
speaking engagements.

Celebrities’ managers and agents appreciate the role
celebrity brokers play in pairing their clients with worthy causes — and
earning their clients some publicity to boot.

Movie producer Larry Brezner, who also manages Billy Crystal
and Robin Williams, lifts a stack of letters, invitations and requests that
clutters the desk of his Beverly Hills office.

“This is just one day’s mail,” Brezner said, shaking his
head as he fanned the solicitations from charitable organizations that range in
size from local medical clinics to well-known national associations.

For the most part, however, Brezner already knows his stars’
predilections and preferences. He also estimates that if celebrities agreed to
support every worthy cause that came their way, “they would spend 90 percent of
their time doing nothing else.”

Crystal, for example, “throws his energy into big projects,
like the planned Performing Arts Peace Center at the Hebrew University, to
which he has personally donated $1.5 million,” Brezner said. “He is the
recipient of the Scopus Award, and was also the guest of honor this [month] at
the Simon Wiesenthal [Center’s] Museum of Tolerance annual dinner, which was
attended by every major studio head in the business.”

He added: “Virtually every celebrity with whom we work has a
big heart. Most of them are very grateful for the good fortune they have had in
their careers, and for getting paid to do what they love to do anyway. So they feel
an obligation to give back to the community.” Â

Am I Annoying?


I knew better. I had about as much business being there as an elderly tourist has of being on Skid Row after midnight with a map in his hand and a blank cashier’s check taped to his forehead. I was in grave danger of a psychological mugging, and I knew it.

I kept telling myself to walk away, hail an emotional cab and get out fast, but I couldn’t. The pull was too strong. I had to know.

Am I annoying?

As the host of a television show on The Learning Channel, I have been graced with my own page on a little Web site called AmIAnnoying.com. On it, thousands of celebrities are displayed, each with their own page and listing of reasons why they might or might not be annoying. Visitors can vote, a tally runs, thousands participate. It’s picking teams all over again, but nastier, more anonymous, cyberstyle.

I hadn’t heard of this site, but it seems to be very popular, a raw sore on the ugly underbelly of the Internet. The Web site wrote to inform me of my inclusion, and I told myself I’d just check out the site but not my own page.

At the time, I was about 53 percent annoying, based on 27 votes. That’s not bad, I guess — if you choose to see the glass as half annoying.

I couldn’t help noticing my tally on the site’s front page, but I knew I really shouldn’t open my own page, see what annoying qualities they had laid bare. Looking at the grotesque photo of me they’d created from pausing my show and digitally capturing the moment in time when I intersected with Bea Arthur, I knew it was time to go. If there’s one thing I know about myself, it is that my need to be liked is both paralyzing and persistent.

I should just sign off, go to CNN.com, find out what’s happening in the world, maybe e-mail a friend, I thought. Instead, I decided just to peruse the site, see just how annoying others are. I got sucked in.

The pages were sort of funny. I scrolled around. Something terrible happened on the mean streets of AmIAnnoying.com. I had the overwhelming urge to start voting.

A sinister slice of me wanted to cast my vote, a drive-by hurting, a stone thrown at Jenna Elfman or Carson Daly. The equation seemed to formulate in my head: the more annoying they are, the less annoying I am.

And I got it. I’m one of “them,” the evil “them” I’m always railing against, the people who write critical letters to the editor, the people who post incredibly insulting missives on message boards. I know how they feel, anyway.

The magic of this site is that it taps into the universal question we ask ourselves. Do people really like us? Or do they just pretend to? Is there something wrong with us? Are we broken and the world is afraid to say it to our face?

The site distills it beautifully, really. We all want to know if we’re annoying. To that end, they could start amifat.com, amistupid.com, doesmymotherreallylikemybrotherbetter.com, doesmyboyfriendreallyloveme.com. These are the types of questions we can never truly answer, but we all ponder from time to time.

I didn’t vote. Well, OK, I did place one vote for myself as “not annoying.” This may be one of the most annoying things I’ve ever done, and there are plenty.

Just as I was about to leave, I clicked on my photo. I had to. This can’t break me, I thought, inhaling deeply. I’m stronger than this. I have to thicken my skin. I have to stare my fear right in the Bea Arthur face and beat it.

There it was. Not bad really. There were a few annoying things listed, but way more reasons that I’m not annoying. It was sort of flattering, actually.

And I reminded myself that I should be grateful I have a job in my chosen field that has even deemed me worthy of this sort of humiliation. I’m at the bottom of the celebrity barrel, but I’m in there, for better or worse.

And maybe one of the worst parts is one of the best. Maybe the more I’m exposed to judgment, the less I’ll feel the sting. It’s my greatest wish in life just to be happy, to be of service to others, to laugh more than anyone else at movies and to do all of this without ever checking my vote count.

It occurred to me that to be annoying at times, self-absorbed, stupid, inconsiderate, insecure, is to be human. So the syllogism follows that if we’re all human, and to be human is to annoy, we’re all annoying.

Is that the worst thing to be? Maybe the effort to not be annoying is worse than the embracing of it.

Take the case of Sabrina, a girl I haven’t seen since I was 12. I think of her now only because she was nothing if not a bouquet of traits her peers found annoying. She was a child actress; she and her mom wore the same hairstyle — an odd configuration of one-too-many braids. Sabrina wore only red and black, donned leg warmers long after they were out of style and spoke in the overly annunciated fashion one might expect from Madonna. Adults loved her. Kids hated her.

Last time I saw her was at a school dance. She was in the zone, dancing by herself, a frighteningly uninhibited blur of red and black. For some reason that image of her stays with me, at least 92 percent annoying, but 100 percent alive.

Teresa Strasser can be seen Saturdays at noon and 10
p.m. on The Learning Channel’s “While You Were Out” and is on the Web at www.teresastrasser.com .

Actor Casts His LotWith Jewish Ideals


When Joshua Malina arrived at his first Jewish Federation event, a 2001 pro-Israel rally, he received an unpleasant surprise. The boyish, 36-year-old actor — expected to become a regular on NBC’s White House drama “The West Wing” — had a respectable career going. “But I was appalled that bigger stars hadn’t turned out to support Israel,” he said, sounding as passionate as his new “West Wing” character, campaign manager Will Bailey.

“It just drives me nuts that there are so many high-profile Jews in Hollywood, yet we can’t get anybody to say, ‘Yes, I defend Israel,'” the actor said. “It’s not that I expect people to sign off on everything the Israeli government does. I just don’t think it should be considered a radical thing for celebrities to say that the Jewish State has a right to exist in peace. But I think the general feeling is, ‘God forbid I should associate myself with such a political firecracker.'”

Malina, who grew up in a traditional, Zionist household, doesn’t mind being a firecracker for Israel and other Jewish causes. He’s served on a young leadership committee of the New Israel Fund, which is devoted to enhancing democracy in Israel.

The actor has also read to children at the Central Library to support Koreh L.A., The Federation’s literacy initiative. And on Dec. 4 he’ll serve as a celebrity chair of the fourth annual Vodka Latka event, benefiting Federation-supported services for at-risk children.

The event, at the Hollywood Palladium, will include a fashion show by Sharon Segal of Fred Segal, cocktails by Campari and a performance by the musical group Pink Martini. “I like being associated with a Jewish group that addresses the needs of the entire community, regardless of race or religion,” Malina said of The Federation.

For Vodka Latka, Malina convinced friends such as Hank Azaria and Rebecca Romijn-Stamos to serve as celebrity chairs. “I’m not deluded enough to consider myself an actual celebrity,” he said matter-of-factly. “What I consider myself is a conduit to bring bigger stars to an event.”

Other celebs scheduled to attend include Christina Applegate, Mili Avital, Evan and Jaron Lowenstein and Jonathan Silverman.

Malina grew up in a kosher home in New Rochelle, N.Y., where charity was de rigueur. One of his earliest memories was dropping coins into his first-grade tzedakah box, savoring the “plunking” sound as his teacher, Mrs. Rosenblatt, encouraged him to recite the phrase “mitzvah gedola latet tzedakah” (it’s a great mitzvah to give charity).

Meanwhile, his parents, Robert and Fran, founding members of Young Israel of Scarsdale, N.Y., read to the blind, donated bags of food to the poor and a significant amount of their income to charity.

“My father never walked past a [panhandler] without giving him something,” Malina recalled. “I remember once suggesting that a particular man might not make the best use of the money. My father quoted the Talmud, stating that if a person is reduced to asking for money, you don’t ask questions.”

Robert Malina, who has worked as an attorney, investment banker and Broadway producer, told The Journal that his son was a quick study. “Joshua was always sensitive to other people’s feelings,” he said. “I remember situations when he was at camp and he befriended children who were not befriended often. He very quickly took to the notion that Judaism is an action-oriented religion.”

During Joshua Malina’s childhood, his father’s best friend was Neil Simon’s producer, Manny Azenberg. Young Josh grew up attending his plays and dreaming of replacing Matthew Broderick as Jewish protagonist Eugene Morris Jerome in “Brighton Beach Memoirs.”

Closer to home, he starred in plays at his yeshiva, Westchester Day School, and watched his cousins perform with their Jewish pal Aaron Sorkin at Scarsdale High. His favorite Sorkin role: Jesus in “Godspell.”

After Malina graduated from Yale with a theater degree in 1988, it was his mother who suggested that he look up Sorkin, by then a 28-year-old wunderkind taking the New York theater scene by storm.

“It was the best advice I could have received,” said Malina, who soon became Sorkin’s good friend and poker buddy. He was surprised, however, when the writer-producer asked him to audition for his Broadway play, “A Few Good Men” — and equally surprised when he got the part. “Within a year of graduating college, I had achieved my dream of acting on Broadway,” he said.

Sorkin later cast Malina as a Jewish producer in his ABC series, “Sports Night,” writing him a juicy Passover seder scene and sequences in which his character argued with a non-Jewish girlfriend.

When Sorkin recently cast Malina as Will Bailey, an Orange County Democratic campaign manager in “The West Wing,” he braced the actor for some bad news. “He said, ‘Now your character is not going to be Jewish,’ as if I might object,” Malina recalled.

The plan is for Bailey to be considered for a presidential speechwriting job in the fictional White House.

“Josh is the player you always want to pick for your team,” Sorkin said. “There’s never a false note and he has world-class comedy skills. And everybody likes him in the huddle. When you have an opportunity to cast Josh, you do.”

While the “West Wing” production schedule is hectic, Malina, a husband and father of two, makes time for Jewish life. He attends Temple Beth Am and keeps a kosher home, a mitzvah he likes because “it reminds me, three times a day, that I am Jewish.”

When his father noodged him to give more to charity, he complied — but not out of guilt. “I give because that’s how I was raised,” he said. “You don’t achieve this level of lifestyle without sharing it. I’d feel guilty if I earned this kind of money without sharing it.”

He also continues serving as a spokesperson when called upon for The Federation and other groups and hopes to participate in a Hollywood mission to Israel. “It’s rare that I wish I were more famous, because that’s never been a motivating factor for me,” he said, recalling that pro-Israel rally a year and a half ago. “But to support Israel, I do wish I were a more recognizable face.”

Sephardic ‘Luck’


Neil Sheff was shocked to find himself something of a celebrity at a conference of North American Jewish film festival directors a couple years ago. Of the 75 festivals in the United States and Canada, his Los Angeles Sephardic Film Festival is the only one dedicated to showcasing the Sephardic experience. "I was literally surrounded by people who wanted to pick my brain," he said, incredulous.

It’s a testament to how far the festival — scheduled Nov. 10-17 — has come since Sheff and fellow Sephardic Educational Center leader Sarita Hasson Fields founded it as a fundraising tool in 1996. While the Laemmle Theatres gave up stewardship of its Jewish film festival due to poor ticket sales, Sheff’s event has thrived, drawing almost 2,000 patrons and raising $75,000 in 2001. Along the way it has hosted U.S. premieres of European hits such as Alexandre Arcady’s "K" — a French thriller that has since been picked up by other North American Jewish fests.

Sheff’s 2002 program will continue the tradition with the U.S. debut of "A Bit of Luck," a poignant Moroccan family saga starring popular Israeli singer Zehava Ben, at the opening night gala Nov. 10. The seriocomedy "Desperado Square," about movie-obsessed Greek Jews near Tel Aviv, generated buzz in Israel and received a good review in Variety. A seminar devoted to the importance of ethnic filmmaking, inspired by the success of "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," will draw panelists such as "Ghost World" producer Lianne Halfon, John Malkovich’s producing partner. Meanwhile, documentaries such as "Adio Kerida," in which filmmaker Ruth Behar traces her family history in Havana, will further Sheff’s goal of "highlighting as wide an array of Sephardic communities as we can."

Another goal, according to Sheff, is "to help Sephardic Jews catch up to the Ashkenazi world. As our event becomes more successful, we hope the message is come to the festival and learn about the ‘other’ Jews."

My Mental Celebrity Database


Sandra Bullock, get out of my head.

Look, it’s nothing personal. I’m sure you’re a really nice person, and it’s not like you’re untalented. And despite the fact that I’m not particularly a fan of yours, I seem to know everything about you. The other day, your name came up by the proverbial “water cooler,” and I realized, to my horror, that I know more about you, a person I’ve never met, than I do about many of my own relatives.

I know you live in Texas, I know what movies you’ve made, and I even know that you starred in an awful sitcom version of the movie “Working Girl.” I can chronicle your dating history over the past few years, and, after listening to you on Howard Stern the other morning in my car, I even know your sister broke your nose when you were a kid. That is not a nose job, Sandra. I know that now.

I know way, way too much about you.

And it’s not just you, Sandra. Sure, the “Bullock” file in my mental celebrity database is pretty full right now, but there are others. In fact, when I think about the sheer volume of biographical information I have about celebrities, it’s astounding. Listen to the radio, flip through a magazine in a waiting room somewhere, catch a little VH-1 “Behind the Music” some Sunday night, and, next thing you know, you can list what body parts Sandra Bullock least likes about herself and what kind of pizza toppings she prefers.

What concerns me is that some little factoid, Sandra’s favorite moisturizer, for example, will push out more important information stored in my memory. Here’s a frightening thought: Sandra’s shoe size, in; the smell of my grandmother’s cookies baking, out.

Living in Los Angeles, it’s not surprising that we’re all saturated with information about famous people. Many of us know them, work with them, serve them, want to be like them, or at least stand behind them in line at Rite Aid. Still, I had to make sure it wasn’t just me.

I called my friend Stan to administer the McConaughey/Hemingway test.

“What do I know about Matthew McConaughey?” Stan paused. “Well, he was discovered by a casting agent in a bar in Austin, he appeared in the movie “Contact” with Jodie Foster, and he recently cut his hair off for some war movie. I could go on,” he said.

“No, please don’t,” I answered. “What about Ernest Hemingway; what would you know about him?”

“He’s a writer,” Stan said. “But I don’t think I could tell you what he’s written exactly.”

I went to a coffee shop to try the Danes/Dickinson test on a couple of young women who were conversing over scones on their lunch break. Their knowledge of Claire Danes was encyclopedic. They knew she had starred in an episode of “Law and Order” before appearing on “My So-Called Life.” They could list every movie she had made and even her curriculum at Yale University. My Sandra knowledge paled in comparison.

“Do you know who Emily Dickinson is?” I asked.

Stares.

“Didn’t she kill herself?”

I explain they were probably thinking of Sylvia Plath, but close enough.

I went up to order a latte, and, while trying to figure out what was going on with the coffee guy’s facial hair, I realized I had to come up with a more obscure celebrity. Someone not on magazine covers or Howard Stern.

“Excuse me, would you happen to know anything about John Cryer?”

Coffee guy stopped mid-foam. “Sure. He was Duckie in ‘Pretty in Pink,’ starred in some movie with John Cusack, and wasn’t he on that Channel 11 sitcom with Vivica Fox?”

“That’s impressive,” I said, shocked. “Would you know anything about a guy named Alan Greenspan?”

“No. It does sound kind of familiar. Is he in the government?”

I really couldn’t be too smug. Frankly, I know a lot more about Dennis Rodman’s relationship with his father and Shania Twain’s Nashville years than I do about Mr. Greenspan. And that just can’t be good.

I suppose the only way to neutralize the effect of all this trivia is to counter it with meatier mental pursuits. With that in mind, I sat on a bench and attempted to power through my dense book-group novel, a Pulitzer Prize-winner called “Shipping News,” about a widower in a Newfoundland fishing outpost.

For two hours, I navigated a complicated world of knots and sailors and sophisticated prose. Sure, the newsstand beckoned, calling me with splashy covers and seducing me with Marilu Henner’s manicure tips, but I stayed on the craggy shores of Newfoundland. Sipping my latte and struggling through the small print, I was momentarily footloose and Sandra free.


Teresa Strasser is a twentysomething contributing writer for The Jewish Journal.

Looking for the Genius in


One of the strangest anomalies in thetheater is that of the successful turkey — plays that areessentially trivial, gauche and insubstantial, but still manage toachieve a certain kind of notoriety and even commercial success.”Shear Madness,” which has been playing for 15 years in Boston, issuch a play; so was “Kvetch,” which completed a seven-year run in LosAngeles, the same city in which “Bleacher Bums” ran for 11 years.”Abie’s Irish Rose” racked up 2,854 performances on Broadway –although it’s depth could be measured with the first digit of one’spinky. “No Sex Please, We’re British,” which was the closest the WestEnd theater could came to eroticism, had a phenomenal run in London.”Ten Nights In a Barroom” started in 1858 and was a staple of stockand touring companies for decades afterward, and one of Hollywood’slongest recorded runs was a crude melodrama called “TheDrunkard.”

Steve Martin’s “Picasso at the Lapin Agile,” nowrevived at the Wilshire Theater, does not yet qualify for the PrimeTurkey Award, but it is strongly in the running. It is a play inwhich mindlessness pays homage to mind and is essentially a testamentto Los Angeles’ slavish devotion to celebrity hype — not only SteveMartin’s but, in this case, Pablo Picasso’s, Albert Einstein’s andElvis Presley’s as well. It is the kind of entertainment thatcomforts nonthinking people into believing they are indulging in highintellectualism.


From left, Paul Provenza asPicasso and Mark Nelson as Einstein in “Picasso at the LapinAgile.” Photo by Joan Marcus

In 1904, at the legendary Lapin Agile, anassortment of geniuses and would-be geniuses gather to celebrate thebirth of modernity and the unbounded promise of the 20th century.(The great irony of this convocation is that we, at the end of thecentury, know just how ruinously it will end.) It is a time whengeniuses loom behind every glass of absinthe. Einstein is whimsicallyphilosophic; Picasso, fervently artistic; and Schmendiman, thepseudo-genius, ebulliently effusive. Each character has his littleturn and then cedes the stage to the next, belying the adage that onegood turn deserves another. In Martin’s play, the quality of the turnis irrelevant; the main thing is its ability to pass the time anddispense lighthearted patter.

It is a world very reminiscent of Saroyan’s “TheTime of Your Life,” in which a different set of bar-habituésgo through a similar round of unconnected episodes, alsophilosophizing about the vagaries of existence. But since Saroyan issomething of a genius and Martin only a jumped-up gag writer, thecomparison collapses about 20 minutes into the piece. The play,without being wired into some kind of developing character structure,is simply at the mercy of its gags, and no matter how surreally cutesome of them are, rootless comedy — like rootless drama — witherson the very bough from which its finest blossoms sprout.

To take seminal figures such as Einstein andPicasso and proceed to demonstrate how their influence affected theartistic and scientific character of the 20th century is atantalizing subject for a play — as is a dramatic exploration intothe nature of genius (both the real and the specious variety), butsuch a task assumes a philosophic grasp and intellectual edge, whichis wholly lacking in Martin. Failing to make any relevant connectionsbetween genius, art, science and postmodernism, the play dwindlesinto high-class graffiti — a doodle around ideas that the authorhasn’t the skill either to develop or to focus.

As if dragged down to his natural level, Martin,at the close, introduces a time-traveling Elvis Presley, and,although irrelevant to the play’s premise, his appearance is relevantto the author’s inescapable show-biz orientation. He is much morecomfortable in Elvis’ society than he ever was in the Left Bank worldof French bohemia. After the singer’s arrival and the detonation of afew striking special effects, the play stops, rather than resolves,like a man so confused by his own circular argument that he finallyopts to jump off the merry-go-round because even he has hadenough.

Randall Arney’s production is, if anything, moreintolerable than the one I originally saw at the Geffen (thenWestwood) Playhouse in 1995. Then, the piece was chewed, aerated andpopped like the squiggly wad of bubble gum it actually was. But, now,after engagements in Boston and New York, it returns to Los Angeleslike a minor masterpiece, full of meaningful pauses and strainedattempts at sentiment and pathos. Originally a protracted “SaturdayNight Live” sketch about geniuses, it is now convinced that it isitself a work of art and, unfortunately, treats itselfaccordingly.

Mark Nelson, as Einstein, confers more comicnuance and subtle characterization than the piece deserves; he’s asterling example of how a chewed-up sow’s ear, in the hands of atalented actor, can be turned into a silk purse. Paul Provenza seemsto feel that the only way to express the gem-like flame of Pablo’sPicasso genius is to use it to launch flares. His performance, likethat of Michael Oosterom’s Schmendiman and Ken Grantham’s Sago, theart-dealer, are monotonously exuberant throughout. Susannah Schulman,in three contrasting roles, mercifully manages to vary and refine hergusto.

Ultimately, the play is another prime example ofLos Angeles’ unique alchemy — the city’s unfailing ability to turncrocks of manure into crocks of gold.

Charles Marowitz, a regular contributor for In

Theater magazine, writes fromMalibu.

All rights reserved by author.

From the Tube to the Big Screen


Veteran television writer/producer Saul Turteltaub had to wait 44 years for his first film credit, “For Roseanna,” starring Mercedes Reuhl and Jean Reno.
Saul Turteltaub, a name-brand television comedy writer and producer for 44 years, remembers submitting his first movie screenplay.

“I showed it to [producer] Irwin Winkler, who loved it. He showed it to United Artists, and they didn’t love it. So, instead, Winkler went ahead with another low-budget film, called ‘Rocky.'”

That was more than two decades ago. The 65-year-old Turteltaub is only now celebrating his first movie credit, as the writer of “For Roseanna,” a.k.a. “Roseanna’s Grave.”

The film deals with a trattoria owner (French actor Jean Reno) who desperately tries to keep alive all the residents of his Italian village in an effort to save one of the few remaining plots in the local cemetery for his ill wife (Mercedes Ruehl).

Despite the somewhat somber subject, and mixed reviews, Turteltaub’s comic flair predominates, and the film winningly alternates between tender middle-age romance and robust humor.

In any case, Turteltaub himself is now being acclaimed as the poster boy of the geriatric set — in a town and industry rife with age discrimination, where 30-year-old writers and producers are often considered past their prime.

Producer Norman Lear says of his old colleague: “I know a lot of guys who are 35 and who are far older than Saul. He’s a life force. If this doesn’t send a loud message to an industry that needs a loud message, I don’t know what would.”

Turteltaub is also notable for a less-recognized achievement. While it is not uncommon for Hollywood personalities to write generous checks for Jewish causes or to accept plaques at star-studded testimonial dinners, Turteltaub is one of the few members of the entertainment industry to enlist in the less glamorous, foot-slogging work of daily Jewish community life.

He has done so while writing and/or producing some 1,500 episodes for more than 30 TV comedies, including “Kate and Allie,” “What’s Happening,” “Sanford and Son,” “Love American Style,” “That Girl,” “The Carol Burnett Show” and “The Jackie Gleason Show.”>

Shortly after moving to Los Angeles in the 1960s, Turteltaub and his wife, Shirley, joined Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills.

“I am not as strongly Orthodox as most of the congregants [among them a high percentage of writers],” he says. “I’m more of an ‘Orthodox-style’ Jew.” Although Turteltaub maintains that he “doesn’t feel worthy” of playing a prominent role in the congregation, Beth Jacob honored him and his wife for their contributions to the synagogue some years ago.

His most consistent involvement has been with the Entertainment Division of the United Jewish Fund, the money-raising arm of the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles. He served as the division’s chairman in the late 1980s and continues as a member of its cabinet. He has been equally active in promoting Israel Bonds, and he currently serves as vice president of the regional chapter.

Turteltaub appreciates his status-raising role as a screenwriter, though he is not too enchanted with the finished product.

“‘For Roseanna’ is the longest thing I’ve ever written,” he says during a phone interview from New York, where he is in the midst of a two- year stint as executive consultant to the “Cosby” show. “It’s nice to have friends call you with congratulations and to see your name in the papers. But it’s also frustrating because, in the end, the film isn’t really yours. I had to make a lot of changes to please the director (Britain’s Paul Weiland). In films, the writer is very unimportant, while the director is god.”

Turteltaub can cast an equally sober eye on some of the less elevating moments of his illustrious TV career, particularly the short-lived “Chicken Soup.”

That 1989 sitcom, with Turteltaub as writer and producer, played off the ethnic and religious differences between Jewish comedian Jackie Mason and the non-Jewish Lynn Redgrave.

In the original version, Mason was to have been married to Redgrave, but Turteltaub refused to go along with the concept. He said that he could accept a Jew and non-Jew falling in love — “that’s an emotional reaction” — but he couldn’t endorse intermarriage.

The show lasted a mere eight weeks, partially because Mason was wrong for the part, Turteltaub says. “Jackie is a reactor, not a pro-actor; he’s best when he’s kibitzing.”

“Chicken Soup” also drew the ire of the militant Jewish Defense League, whose national chairman, Irv Rubin, attended one of the tapings, eyed by nervous security men.

“Irv was sitting in the front row, and, after a while, he fell asleep,” says Turteltaub. “So I woke him up and told him, ‘You can hate the show, but you can’t sleep through it.'”

As for now, Turteltaub’s belated screenwriting career is taking off. He has finished a script for Mel Gibson, who will direct the romantic adventure story, also set in Italy, while another feature deal has been sealed with Miramax.

Coming up is a joint venture with his son, 33-year-old Jon Turteltaub, currently one of the hottest young directors in Hollywood.

Saul as writer and Jon as director will collaborate on an American version of the recent Japanese release “Shall We Dance?”

Father and son, who run a mutual-admiration society, expect nothing but harmony on the set.