New Setting Could Bring New Faces

There is an old Jewish saying that if you change your place, you change your luck. The organizers of the 21st annual Israel Film Festival are putting it to the test.

Which means that this year, if you head out to Laemmle’s on Fairfax hoping to see a new crop of Israeli films, as in years past, you might be disappointed. The majority this year will screen at Sunset Five, another Laemmle cinema, on the corner of Sunset Boulevard at Crescent Heights Boulevard. Other films are scheduled for the Laemmle Fallbrook in West Hills.

Festival organizers want the films to reach a wider audience, including the more avant-garde types who troll Sunset Boulevard.

“Sunset Five has a different, more open audience, that we hope we can bring,” said Meir Fenigstein, the festival director. “And the Valley has a very strong audience for the festival, since there are a lot of Israelis there. But I am not looking for Israelis. I know it is hard, it is difficult, to bring Americans [as an audience] but that is the challenge.”

Other new ideas pertain to the filmmakers. The festival’s winning film will earn for the director and producer the use, for one month, of a $50,000-$80,000 package that includes a 35-millimeter Panavision camera.

The festival is also sponsoring travel for 40 Israeli directors to attend, the largest contingent ever.

The program itself will include a number of films that deal with issues of Jewish identity, such as “A Green Chariot” (directed by Gilad Goldschmidt), “Wasserman — The Rain Man” (directed by Idit Shechori) and “Catching the Sky” (directed by Roni Ninio and Yankal Goldwasser). The films will be followed by a program called “Jewish Identity in Israeli Films.” In previous years, panel discussions have focused on the state of Israeli cinema, so this sort of subject matter is new ground.

“The idea is to bring together different kinds of teenagers, Reform, Conservative and Orthodox, and watch a film that has a strong Jewish identity,” Fenigstein said.

Fenigstein and festival program director Paul Fagen generally pick films that have made their mark in Israel, either by winning awards there or in festivals elsewhere. The opening night film “What a Wonderful Place” (directed by Eyal Halfon), won the best film award at the Israel Film Academy, Israel’s equivalent of the Oscars, and will be Israel’s entry to the foreign film category at the 2006 Academy Awards.

“The Israeli film industry has a kind of foothold in America right now, and I believe that the festival had a hand in that,” Fenigstein said.

The film, “Ushpizin,” is currently playing in cities all over America. Last year, the Israeli film, “Walk on Water,” made about $3 million at the box office. And, slowly but surely more people are going to see foreign films. Last year at the Miami sector of the Israel Film Festiva,l there was a 100 percent increase in ticket sales.

“The films are getting a little bit better, and the distributors are starting to become more savvy and they see the niche market for these films,” Fagen said.

This year, about 20 film distributors are expected to attend the festival. About two to four films are likely to be picked up. For most of the films, however, the festival will be their only showing in the United States.

“It is very difficult for non-American films to get recognized in the States,” said Dan Fainaru, an Israeli film critic. “American audiences are not that interested in them. Compare an Israeli film that has done very well in the States — like “Walk on Water” — the income [generated] is maybe enough to cover the limousine budget in a big American production.

Nevertheless, organizers see their festival as an important tool for Israeli cinema.

“It gives an opportunity for the films to be seen by American audiences. It helps them to find distributors. It gives the Hollywood community a chance to connect with the Israeli community, and it gives the filmmakers an opportunity to come and meet the audience,” Fenigstein said.


New Year, New Changes

Last week I was driving to a family celebration at Leisure World in Laguna Hills when I noticed something very odd about the weather: Fall was in the air.

It’s a subtle thing in Southern California, but those of us who have lived here long enough recognize the slight change in temperature, the almost imperceptible newness in the air.

For us it also means summer camps and summer trips give way to the High Holidays — Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. And this new year brings new developments here at The Journal.

One should be obvious by now: We’ve changed formats, and changed titles. Last month, The Jewish Journal of Orange County became Jewish Family of Orange County. We’ve changed size, shape and paper. But more importantly, the stories reflect the lives so many of us live — working to bring Jewish values and practice into our homes and communities.

A Jewish publication is a place where all the diverse expressions of Jewish life can find common ground on a regular basis, and we look forward to continuing to provide the kind of award-winning, thoughtful coverage we have in the past.

Of course, this is a community publication, which means we need you to be a part of it. Please send us ideas, suggestions, stories, complaints. Please read us and help us grow.

It’s a New Year, but it wouldn’t be as sweet without you.

Shana tova u’metuka from all of us at Jewish Family of Orange County.

Westside Jews Divided on Recall

Exploring the Pico-Robertson neighborhood, where Republicans once were the smallest of minorities, I happened upon a nest of recall supporters who were also great admirers of President Bush. Talking to them, I got a sense of the changing politics of Los Angeles’ Jewish community, where votes can no longer be taken for granted.

They were students of Netan Eli High School, seated around a table in the lunch-room, talking politics. I’d happened on the school the previous afternoon while looking for people to interview about the Oct. 7 election. I introduced myself to Rabbi Sholom D. Weil, the principal, and general studies principal Avi Erblich, and they were nice enough to set up a meeting with students.

Eight students were in the group: Yaakov Kurtzman, Yoni Celnik, Akiva Leyton, Mordechai Moadeb, Yosef Cohen, Michael Cohen, Daniel Mayer and Sam White. Joining us were the rabbi and Erblich.

Their school, with a student body of 30 young men, is traditional and Orthodox in its orientation. It was founded seven years ago by members of the Persian community, but in recent years has enrolled students from all parts of Jewish Los Angeles and now represents what Weil said is a cross section of the community.

Some had watched at least part of the debate the night before. "A lot of yelling," said White. "It made [Gov. Gray] Davis look good and that’s hard to do," Kurtzman said. "I liked how Arnold did," Maadeb said. "He’s an actor," Leyton replied. "He can play any role."

Remembering when Pico-Robertson was just as much a cinch to vote Democratic as the New York Yankees were to make the American League baseball playoffs every year, I was struck by the support of the recall by some of the more vocal members of the group, and the hostility toward Davis and Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante.

They seemed particularly riled over the way the full extent of the state’s budget crisis was not revealed by Davis until after the election. "There’s no excuse to lose that much money," Maadeb said.

Weil said, "after the election, he pulls something on us, this big, big deficit. He hid it during the election campaign. It was not a criminal act but morally speaking, it was immoral."

When I asked what they thought of Bustamante, the Democrats’ leading candidate for governor if the recall wins, the response was negative. "Do you want to vote for someone who wants to give California back to Mexico?" Mayer said.

He was referring to Bustamante’s association when he was a young man with MEChA, the Spanish acronym for Chicano Student Movement of Aztlan. Aztlan is a term used by some activists to describe the American Southwest, once part of Mexico, and MEChA rhetoric has spoken of reclaiming it.

When one student said the association occurred in Bustamante’s college days, Layton replied that people don’t "change much in 20 years."

What was most striking was the complete support for President Bush. There was no wavering, no doubts about the president. He was their man.

Elsewhere, I ran into other opinions. At Starbucks at South Robertson and Pico Boulevards, I chatted with Gary Manacher, an actor who does voice-overs. He was reading the morning papers — the Los Angeles and New York Times — when I interrupted him.

"I am categorically against the recall," he said. "If I have to live with Bush, I can certainly live with Gray."

A few days before, I visited Rabbi Robert Gan of Temple Isaiah in Rancho Park, west of Pico-Robertson. We talked in his study, where he was beginning to prepare his sermons for the High Holidays. The American Civil Liberties Union suit to delay the election until March was still alive and the rabbi was concerned with the issues it had raised.

If the recall moves ahead so swiftly, he said, it "leaves people out of the process and it is something we should be concerned with." Moreover, he said, "if you don’t like a person … vote him out next time." The recall process, he said, is "very scary."

Obviously, opinion in the once largely Democratic Los Angeles Jewish community is divided on the recall. Since I’m writing this more than a week before the election (we have early deadlines here at The Journal), I’m not going to be stupid enough to guess about the outcome.

But think beyond the recall. My conversation with the eight young men at Natan Eli High School indicated something. They were smart and well-informed. Their convictions were well-rooted and, as demonstrated by their feelings about President Bush, most friendly to the Republicans.

They may very well carry their beliefs through life, probably spreading them, as they move on to college, jobs, family and community life. Is this what Ronald Reagan used to call a prairie fire?

Bill Boyarsky’s column on Jews
and civic life appears on the first Friday of each month. Until leaving the Los
Angeles Times in 2001, Boyarsky worked as a political correspondent, a metro
columnist for nine years and as city editor for three years. You can reach him

War Marks Defining Moment for Jews

The current war with Iraq marks a defining moment in the
lives of American Jews and their lives in this country. For generations, Jews
have lived, for the most part, on the left-wing edge of the
American commonwealth.

They have been — in Hollywood, in the political world,
academia and the media — generally hostile to the idea of the projection of
American power and the idea of a new American empire.

This may soon be changing. Although initially somewhat less
supportive of the Iraq invasion than other Americans, Jews are far more behind
the projection of American power, arguably, than at any time since World War
II. Over half of Jews strongly supported the Bush policy before the outbreak of
hostility, according to the Pew Research Center; that percentage has likely
increased more recently, as has occurred in the rest of the population.

How should Jews deal with the fact that America, by invading
Iraq, has become in many ways an openly more assertive kind of empire?

This is no exaggeration. The utter failure of the European
“allies” and the U.N. to stop Iraq’s weapons programs has forced the United
States, with whatever allies it can muster, to operate largely without NATO,
E.U. or U.N. approval.

Yet is becoming an empire necessarily bad?

It depends, clearly, on the nature of the empire. Given the
current world chaos, not only in the Middle East but in North Asia as well,
some power needs to assert itself over the outlaw regimes that seek to gain
weapons of mass destruction.

The U.N. is useless for this; France too interested in
selling its products; Germany too shell-shocked by its past; Russia still
resentful of its decline. Only America can, or better, will, provide a
counterweight for order.

Jews, for many reasons, need to rally to this notion, not
only because of Iraq’s lethal anti-Semitic and anti-Israel stance, but because
Jews, as an exposed minority, need a legal, responsible ordered world system.
The alternative — a world controlled by the likes of Saddam Hussein or Kim Jong
Il — is terrifying.

This support should not be simply couched in terms of
support for Israel. The latent anti-Semitic elements on the left and right —
from Arab activists to Democratic Rep. James Moran and Pat Buchanan — can
easily make the point that Jews pushed the Iraq war simply for Israel’s sake.
Would they, for example, back a possible strike at North Korea or somewhere
else that could be launched for the same principles?

In a sense, we need to transcend two now powerful notions of
Jewish identity. The first, now largely predominant, is one tied up with the
current State of Israel.

This loyalty is understandable but not sufficient for
American Jews’ political identity. As great an idea as the Jewish State may be,
it is only a comparatively small force or ideal compared to that projected by
the might of diverse American republic.

The other is what could be called the “perpetual shtetl”
notion of Judaism. In this, we are always victims and must associate with those
forces — minorities, Third World nations, oppressed genders and sexual groups —
no matter what the consequences to ourselves or the nation. This view
represents a kind of nostalgic identification with either czarist oppression of
the last century or with the experiences of the 1960s.

Neither of these views takes into account the new world
situation. Today it is only America — in Iraq today, in Bosnia before and
perhaps North Korea tomorrow — that stands between global disorder, including
the eventual destruction of Israel and any hope for progress in the 21st

This American empire represents something new and worth our
loyalty. It was designed, as Thomas Jefferson suggested, as “an empire for
liberty.” We do not seek to conquer Iraq like scores of invaders leading up to the
Turks or British, most recently.

After our victory in 1945, we did not occupy permanently
Germany or Japan. Indeed, we even endure strong dissent from these countries
and those we saved from conquest, like France and South Korea. We acknowledge
that dissent is a testament to our national virtues.

But is this new empire good for the Jews?

Throughout our history, Jews have flourished under strong,
and at least basically just, empire. This was true under Cyrus the Great of
Persia, under Alexander and the Ptolemies of Egypt, where Jews constructed
their greatest centers of learning, first in Babylon and then Alexandria. By
the time of the birth of Christ, and before the collapse of the Judaic State,
two-thirds of all Jews already lived outside Palestine, mostly in areas under
some form of strong imperial control.

Even under Rome, which extinguished Jewish independence,
many of our scholars, teachers, craftsmen and traders found a comfortable
existence. Many became citizens, perhaps most famously, Saul of Tarsus, later
to be known as St. Paul. Indeed, after the Second Revolt and the expulsion from
Jerusalem, Jews largely benefited from Pax Romana.

This was particularly true under the enlightened Antonine
emperors. Jewish cultural and community life flourished from the Galilee —
Tiberius alone boasted 13 synagogues — to Mesopotamia, in Alexandria, Spain,
France and Rome, itself.

It was under Roman rule, for example, that the Mishnah was
written. Synagogues were even established and named after emperors like Severus.
Under Rome, we became, for the first time, a truly Diaspora people with global

This was no accident. At its best, Rome, like America, posed
an ideal of breathtaking scope and cosmopolitan vision. It sought to be a
transnational empire open to diverse races and, in exchange for loyalty,
allowing a wide breadth of religious practice and philosophical practice.

“Rome,” wrote Areistedes, a Greek writer in the second
century, “is a citadel which has all the peoples of the earth as its villagers.”

This universalist notion was perhaps best expressed by
Marcus Aurelius, the emperor and philosopher, who assumed the principate in 161
C.E. at the death of highly regarded Antoninus Pius. Aurelius claimed that he
arose each morning to “do the work of man.”

“For me, Antoninus,” Aurelius wrote, “my city and fatherland
is Rome, but as a man, the world. “

When the order of this empire came about, it was a disaster
for the Jews. As cities declined, commerce waned and superstition, including
within both Christianity and Judaism, waxed, our civilization declined. It was
only with new and healthier imperial structures — notably the Persian
Sassanians and, ironically, the early Islamic empire — that Jewish culture
began to revive again, most notably in Muslim-controlled Spain.

Today’s American empire, not surprisingly, now serves as the
primary center of Jewish culture, creativity and commerce. Israel is important,
but it is essentially a dependency of the American empire.

The connections of Israel to Europe, so beloved by many
liberal Israelis, are likely to weaken further as anti-Semitism and
pro-Islamicist force grow, particularly in France. Israelis, likely in the
hundreds of thousands, gravitate here.

The question is what do Jews owe as citizens of this empire?

I think we have much to offer. To survive, America must keep
its moral compass. It is right for us to question unjust acts and also require
virtue, particularly in areas such as overconsumption of fossil fuels. Our
intellectual and commercial sharpness, and history-shaped experience, represent
an important asset to America.

Will this mean a new American Jewish identity?

Yes, to some extent. Clearly the war in Iraq will accelerate
the gradual shift of Jews toward the center and, to a lesser extent, even to
the right.

Both the old shtetl mentality and that of the 1960s will
also fade, particularly among the young and more recent newcomers to the
country. Recent Russian or Persian immigrants are not likely to be as
enraptured by an old Stalinist like Castro or willing to cut a break to an
anti-Semitic monster like Saddam, as those Jews still romantically attached to
the spent utopianism of the left.

At the same time, the left, the traditional home for many
Jews, seems destined to become increasingly inhospitable to Jews. We have
already seen the marginalization of pro-Israel leftists.

The antiwar movement, with its powerful links in both Europe
and America, with those sympathetic or even supportive of terrorists, places
the opposition uncomfortably in bed with those who want to kill Jews, simply
because they are Jews, in Tel Aviv, Buenos Aires, Tunisia and New York — or LAX
and Sherman Oaks.

Does this mean all Jews will become conservatives after the

No, although most will become further to the right on
foreign policy, as the fact that few Jews in Congress, including liberals, have
been prominent in the opposition to the war. But they will not, I believe,
become a bunch of Rush Limbaugh or even Dennis Praeger “dittoheads.” There are
simply too many issues — abortion, school prayer and economic justice — that
separate most Jews from the Republican mainstream.

But, Jews, like other Americans, will emerge from this war a
changed people. We will come, I believe, with an enhanced notion of connection
to the American empire and to our critical place within it.  

Senate Shocker

The stunning change in the U.S. Senate triggered by Sen. James Jeffords’ switch from GOP to independent status means a seismic shift in the war over a host of domestic issues, including the church-state skirmishes that have preoccupied Jewish groups.

The change is less likely to impact U.S.-Israel relations, although several strongly pro-Israel lawmakers will ascend to chairmanships — and one, Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), who has been consistently hostile, is slated to become chair of the powerful Appropriations Committee, which plays a major role in Israel’s foreign aid allotment.

But the mid-session shakeup does not change some of the fundamentals underlying the 107th Congress, including the harsh reality of gridlock.

The newly Democratic Senate will have to fight a Republican House whose leaders are likely to dig in their heels to avoid any retreat from their conservative social agenda.

Still, “you can’t minimize the importance of controlling the calendar, running committees and setting the day-to-day agenda in the Senate,” said Richard Foltin, legislative director of the American Jewish Committee.

Conservative Republican leaders have used that power to bury Democratic proposals for six years; Democrats, now that they are in the saddle, will try to do the same with many GOP proposals.

For liberal Jewish groups, the shift is more important for what it may prevent than what lawmakers may pass.

“The result is likely to be more gridlock,” said an official with a major Jewish group here. “Split government may be even less likely to deal seriously with long-term problems like Social Security and health care. But it also makes it less likely Congress and the administration will ram through dangerous legislation like school vouchers and other threats to church-state separation.”

In fact, vouchers and another administration priority, charitable choice — which cuts back restrictions on religious groups seeking government money to provide vital services — were on life support even before Jeffords switched parties on Thursday. Vouchers were stripped from the main education bill in both Houses; the chief Senate sponsors of charitable choice legislation had already decided to delay their proposal in the face of opposition from both sides of the political spectrum.

Jeffords’ switch represents a huge blow to the religious right, which had hoped to use the GOP’s control of both Congress and the White House to advance its social agenda. But it will make it only marginally easier to pass legislation Jewish groups want, such as a long-stalled hate crimes bill.

But in one area, the change will have an immediate and dramatic impact: nominations, and especially the judicial nominations that have the potential to affect the nation for years to come.

“Looking ahead, this is the Senate that could advise and consent on one or two Supreme Court nominations,” said Sammie Moshenberg, Washington director for the National Council of Jewish Women — which was celebrating this week because the Democratic takeover could thwart administration plans to appoint more conservative judges and justices who oppose abortion rights.

President George W. Bush recently began making nominations to the federal bench; the specter of a Judiciary Committee headed by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) instead of Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) may force the administration to veer toward the center in its choices, she said.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) is poised to play a major role in that process as the likely head of the Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on administrative oversight and the courts.

Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), a longtime leader on immigration and refugee policy, is expected to take over the Judiciary Immigration subcommittee from Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.). Brownback has been supportive of Jewish immigration and refugee concerns, but he has not had much support from his party. Kennedy “may give the issue considerably more traction,” said an official with a Jewish group here.

Kennedy, one of the last old-time liberals in Congress, will also retake the chair of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee.

Several Jewish groups hope the shift will boost a stalled hate crimes bill that survived votes in both houses in the last Congress only to be blocked by the GOP leadership. The new Senate leaders will work for its enactment; Leahy, the presumed new chair of the Judiciary Committee, has been a strong supporter.

“Until this happened there was a real question about whether this would ever come to the floor as a separate bill,” said Michael Lieberman, Washington counsel for the Anti-Defamation League, a leading backer of the bill. “Now we will press to have it taken up as a separate bill; this is one of the issues that could be significant affected.”

But the GOP House leadership remains largely opposed, as is the President.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) is likely to chair the Judiciary subcommittee dealing with terrorism — taking over from the conservative Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.).

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) is due to get the Armed Services Committee. Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) is expected to get the nod as chair of the Government Operations Committee — which several observers pointed out could help boost his 2004 presidential ambitions by keeping him in the limelight.

Gridlock, a major problem in the last few sessions of Congress, could reach epic proportions in the newly split 107th.

House-Senate conferences to resolve differences in legislation will be major battlegrounds as the Democrats now have a fighting chance to kill legislation they dislike.

Bush, facing a dramatic change in prospects for his domestic agenda, “will have to show he can govern from the center, as he promised to do,” said Gilbert Kahn, a Kean University political scientist. “On the domestic side, it will force more centrist policy — which will benefit the Jewish community.”

But Kahn warned that the GOP House leadership “will not roll over; that’s not the personality of the leaders there.”

On the foreign policy front, Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) is slated to be replaced by Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) as chair of the Foreign Relations Committee.

Helms, a recent convert to the pro-Israel cause, has become a strong supporter of Likud policies, but he remains hostile to foreign aid and dislikes U.S. involvement around the world — a position many pro-Israel activists see as worrisome.

Biden has been a supporter of the peace process, but his top foreign policy interests are Europe and Asia, not the troubled Middle East.

The Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs could go to Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.), who is Jewish. Wellstone may be the most liberal member of the Senate, and he is considered dovish on Mideast matters; he will replace Brownback, who has generally supported Israeli hardliners.

And Leahy, in addition to the Judiciary Committee chair, is likely to resume his old role as chair of the Foreign Operations Appropriations subcommittee — which he used in 1990 to demand punitive cuts in Israeli loan guarantees because of the government’s settlements policies.

But with strong, bipartisan support on the committee, pro-Israel lobbyists do not expect Leahy or Byrd, the incoming Appropriations chair, to do much more than huff and puff periodically.