In ‘Adam Resurrected,’ Jeff Goldblum reanimates controversial Shoah survivor


In order to play the lead in “Adam Resurrected,” Jeff Goldblum said he spent “months crying and crawling around on all fours.”

In the movie — which makes its Los Angeles premiere at the AFI Film Festival and is adapted from Yoram Kaniuk’s controversial 1969 novel — Goldblum portrays a German circus clown who survives the Holocaust by entertaining his concentration camp’s commandant: specifically by pretending to be a dog and even sharing a pen with the officer’s German shepherd. The fictional Adam Stein also proves useful by serenading Jews on his violin as they march to the gas chambers.

After the war, the character is suave and sexually voracious (albeit with a sadistic streak), but eventually suffers a mental breakdown. He begins to heal only when he bonds with an abused boy in a rehabilitation hospital in Israel.

While the film has received mixed reviews, critics have so far praised Goldblum for what many are calling a “tour de force” performance.

Director Paul Schrader has said that Goldblum was the only actor he ever had in mind for the role, due to the performer’s ability to simultaneously radiate vulnerability and a cavalier, almost glib charm. Goldblum has demonstrated these qualities in the roles that have made him iconic in the popular culture: a genius who morphs into an insect in David Cronenberg’s “The Fly”; a geeky Jewish cable guy who saves the world in “Independence Day”; and a mathematician with the charisma of a rock star in “Jurassic Park.”

Although he has not made a blockbuster since the 1990s, Goldblum said he has been content with his smaller film and theater roles, recently earning stellar reviews for his turn in David Mamet’s “Speed-the-Plow” in London. (He will replace Chris Noth in USA’s “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” starting on Nov. 8.) “What’s the word from the Passover seder? Dayenu — if nothing else happened it would be enough,” he said.

The trailer

Then, several years ago, the script of “Adam Resurrected” arrived at his Hollywood Hills home. “I was quickly, entirely, wildly mesmerized,” he recalled of his first reading. “The character is so complicated and contradictory, full of towering grief and rage and poetry and majesty. And the story, of course, is moving and provocative and disturbing.”

Goldblum read and reread Kanuik’stream-of-consciousness novel — which was among the first to depict the Holocaust and its aftermath with biting sarcasm — with some trepidation. “The Holocaust is delicate, hallowed ground, so, yes, I felt nervous about the subject matter and was aware of some of the pitfalls,” he said, stammering and pausing in his idiosyncratic way. “A lifetime is not enough to really understand or know the events, so I spent a year immersing myself in the era.”

Goldblum visited the Museum of Tolerance, spent a month in Germany to perfect his character’s accent and interviewed survivors in Berlin and in Los Angeles at Café Europa, a support group at the Westside Jewish Community Center. At 6 feet 4 inches, he towered over the elderly Jews with whom he talked and danced at a Purim party. He visited the concentration camp Majdanek, where he peered into the gas chamber, and he spoke frequently to author Kaniuk, who laughed when the actor said he was taking violin lessons for the role.

“He said I had better learn to bark like a dog,” Goldblum recalled. The actor promptly emitted “yips and yaps” into the receiver — but he took the author’s advice seriously, going so far as to meet with Cesar Milan, of “The Dog Whisperer,” and to “spend time with German shepherds.”

Lest one think this was overkill, he pointed out that his character loses virtually everything in the Holocaust — not only his family and his circus, but also his very humanity. “Paul [Schrader] describes the film as a story about a man who was once a dog, who meets a dog who was once a boy,” Goldblum said.

The 55-year-old actor is as renowned among directors for his background research as he is for his quirky, awkward but charming repartee. He spoke to The Journal from his “Law & Order” dressing room in Manhattan, where he was studying a new script on his day off. When Goldblum made “The Fly,” he reportedly caught a fly in a bag in order to observe its habits.

Goldblum said he received only a “smattering” of Holocaust education while growing up the son of a physician in suburban Philadelphia. He attended an Orthodox synagogue, where he became bar mitzvah, and went on to pursue Transcendental Meditation and other Eastern pursuits. Goldblum said he lost no relatives in the Holocaust, although an uncle he closely resembles was a pilot who was shot down and killed in World War II. The actor, too, has experienced his share of losses, including the deaths of his father (in 1983) and a brother, Rick, who succumbed to a virus contracted in North Africa when Jeff was 19.

By that time, Goldberg had been performing piano professionally for five years, finagling gigs by telephoning numbers listed under “cocktail lounges” in the directory. He studied acting with the legendary Sanford Meisner and landed the role of a rapist in 1974’s “Death Wish.”

“The Big Chill” proved to be his big break in 1983.

But “Adam Resurrected,” so far, has proved to be his biggest challenge as an actor. Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum was impressed when he met with Goldblum to talk about survivors and the Nazi era. “It was quite stunning how seriously he prepared,” Berenbaum said. “He wanted to get the feel and tension of the character and to enter his inner world. And he read every book I gave him, from Eli Wiesel’s, “The Town Beyond the Wall,” which deals with how a man used his madness to heal from existential despair, to Victor Frankel’s ideas about the aftermath of the Holocaust — that for some, liberation came much later than the physical liberation.”

“I also remember him down on his hands and knees as a dog — Jeff Goldblum in his Hollywood Hills home as a g-ddamn dog. He had lost a lot of weight for the movie, and I was struck by how tall and thin he was.”

“I wanted to get as much a feel for the real thing as I could,” Goldblum explained. “I just hope I was worthy enough for the role.”

For information about the AFI festival, which runs Oct. 30-Nov. 9, visit www.afi.com.

Math wiz clowns around to ‘serve God with joy’


Yehuda Braunstein always knew he wanted to be a clown.

Not a class clown — the kind who makes trouble in school and gets thrown out of class (although he did like to walk into walls) — but an actual clown.

“As a kid, I went to Ringling Bros. circus, and they had a parade, and they pulled kids into the parade — I thought clowns were so cool; they’re funny, and I like to horse around.”

Braunstein wasn’t one of those kids whose childhood aspirations (to be a fireman, astronaut, actor) never came true. Even though he studied to be a mathematician at MIT and earned a doctorate at UC San Diego, and he also became religiously observant — a ba’al teshuvah, through Chabad. Now, at 39, he’s a mathematician, an active Chabad member — and a clown.

YoYo the Clown, to be precise. One of the world’s few frum clowns. (Not to be confused with the owner of the Web site yoyotheclown.net, who is a “Clown for Christ” in Georgia.)

Braunstein even looks like a clown, or a religious clown in nerd’s clothing. In his civvies, he has a long, scraggly beard with errant strands of gray, and he puts his roly-poly body into a short-sleeved, checked engineer shirt.

But when he becomes YoYo, he dons a wig, a nose, full costume and, depending whether his audience is religious, secular or non-Jewish, he might roll up his beard and paint it to match his wig to become YoYo.

But don’t call him YoYo, especially if you’re not a kid: “Hello, this is Yehuda Braunstein calling for YoYo the clown,” is how he puts it on the telephone when introducing his alter ego.

“My rabbi says that I’m more than just a clown,” Braunstein said. “I’m a parent [of three kids], a mathematician [consultant] and a member of the shul [Chabad of the West Hills],” he said.

His rabbi plays a big role in his life.

For example, he explained, “My rabbi said I’m not allowed to do magic. Only God can do magic.”

It wasn’t a big deal to him to refrain from doing clown magic tricks, like changing a scarf’s color, because “I was never really good at magic,” Braunstein said.

What he is good at is other clown-foolery, like balloon-making, face-painting, bubble-blowing, parachute games — all of which he learned while apprenticing as a clown while he was a grad student at UCSD.

He was out with friends at an all-you-can-eat buffet (this was before he was kosher), and he noticed a clown going to all the tables but the one where he and his friends were sitting. He called Sparkles over and realized she worked for tips, so she avoided students and focused on kids. But she got him six-month’s training with her company, and a clown was born.

Around this same time, he started to become interested in his Judaism. It was Purim, actually, the most clownish of all Jewish holidays, when the world is turned upside down, and people dress up and are commanded to be merry.

“Purim got in my heart at a very young age,” he explained. When he was a child, his Reform congregation in the Valley brought in the local Chabad to run Purim. They gave each kid a mishloah manot package, the customary food treats one is meant to give to two people on the holiday, “and in it were two pennies to give tzedakah after the megillah reading,” he said, referring to the custom of giving charity after reading the Book of Esther.

“To this day, I give two pennies in my mishloah manot,” he said.

Braunstein had fallen away from Judaism until he got to grad school, when he saw a flier for — what else? — a Purim megillah reading being given by Chabad.

Slowly he returned to his faith and became observant. Now divorced, with three kids, he has managed to balance clowning with a religious life — they fit together, he said.

“Ibdu et Hashem Vsimcha,” his business cards say in Hebrew, quoting the Psalms passage, “Serve God with joy.”

Braunstein said that people look at observance differently, through the lens of mussar (morality or obligation) and through the Chasidic viewpoint: “Do I have to do this mitzvah, or am I lucky to get to do this mitzvah?”

Braunstein feels this way about being a clown and making people happy. “I help people enjoy their simchas [events] with happiness and joy,” he said.

He performs about once a month at birthday parties, upfsherin (cutting of the hair at age 3), weddings and shul events — especially on Chanukah and Purim.

“I help everything become more leibedik,” he said, using the Yiddish word for festive.

“Get their attention and make them laugh,” is his motto. “Get them in the mood, trip, honk the horn, pretend to shake hands” and other silly behavior, and you will disarm a kid.

Are children ever scared of him?

“Kids are afraid of clowns until they find a toy they like — as soon as I do bubbles, they’re interested,” he said.

In Jewish circles, they’re less afraid of him, especially when they see his beard.

“Oh, you’re a tatti clown,” a kid might say, using the word for father.

He is proud to be a religious clown.

“It’s good [for people] to see there are frum clowns, that not every frum Jew has to be a rabbi or teacher,” he said. “It’s also good to be proud of one’s Jewishness in the outside world.”

While his work in mathematics may be difficult, clowning is simple. “I just like to see smiles,” he said. “There’s enough shuts going on in the world,” he said, using the Yiddish phrase for stupidity. “We need happiness to counteract it.”

YoYo the clown will perform on Purim night, Thursday, March 20, at Chabad of West Hills, and on Friday at Chabad of Brentwood. For more information call (818) 970-0013.

Singles – Painted Clowns


As part of our stroll down memory lane, it seemed fitting to reprint a column by one of our most popular writers. Teresa Strasser, now a regular on prime-time television and morning radio, generated stacks of reader mail with pieces such as this one.

I’m drinking at a bar called the Dirty Horse on Hollywood Boulevard. Well, that’s not the real name, but I never got a look at the sign and that name seemed right.

It fits the place, with its plastic pitchers of beer, painted clowns on black velvet, bowls of peanuts and the fast-talking, baseball-hat-wearing guy at the end of the bar who clutches a clipboard and swears he can hook you up with tickets to a taping of “Yes, Dear.”

That’s the nature of the place, a bar — where as you can probably imagine — a half-pretty girl in a three-quarters-dark room gets served a pretty stiff drink. I’m drinking martinis for the simple reason that they work fast and I’m on a bit of a schedule. I’ve been on the road working for all but four days of the past six weeks and I’m wound up tight. I keep thinking about my perpetually overheating Taurus, the way the mechanic’s gloved hand slowly loosens the radiator cap and lets the steam out.

At some point, the line between Mickey Rourke and me blurs. I slur. I buy drinks for strangers. I spill the contents of my purse onto the floor. By the end of the night, I have no cash, none.

In the interest of making sure the cliché train doesn’t miss a single stop, I make out with my ex-boyfriend, who is my designated driver and seated on the stool next to mine. It is later reported to me that without warning, I burst into tears and had an impassioned discussion about not much in said ex’s ear.

Hold that thought.

Several months before the Dirty Horse, I was out with a guy my girlfriend dubbed Sexy Pete. Pete’s in the music industry, dresses well, appears to take his workout regime very seriously and would never let you pay for dinner. Sexy Pete has been around. Normally, I’d never go out with a guy who exudes more sex appeal than mensch appeal, but my friend talked me into it.

“Now that you’re 30, things are different. In your 30s, you don’t worry so much. You just have fun,” she explained.

Not to shock you, but it turns out Sexy Pete just “wasn’t into a relationship right now.” Still, we went out a couple times before that last date, which ended up with me back at his place, very late at night. We talked on his couch. It got late, then early. He fell asleep and I was stuck there, not knowing whether to extricate myself from Sexy Pete’s sleepy grip or stay.

I thought to myself, “I’m in the apartment of a guy who couldn’t care less about me. He barely speaks. He has no interest in a relationship, a sentiment I finally understand has no hidden meaning for men. This is about to get really sad if I don’t leave now.”

Out I went. Pete, with all the enthusiasm of a catatonic patient at a hospital square dance, muttered, “Don’t leave.”

The door was already half shut, and it closed. I was out on an unfamiliar street in last night’s boots and skirt. I spotted my car in the harsh light of early morning and the old Taurus had a brand new ticket.

This is what I call a Karma Ticket, the kind you get when you are where you shouldn’t be. It never fails. You may also be familiar with the Nobility Ticket, the kind you get when you couldn’t move your car because you were working and didn’t want to lose your flow, listening to a friend discuss her divorce or otherwise doing good in the world. You feel good when you pay these and almost want to write in the memo line of your check, “Fee for being such a good person.”

Because I’m 30, I don’t cram the Karma Ticket in the glove compartment and forget about it until it doubles. I pay it.

Now back to painted clowns.

I wake up after my evening at the Dark Horse. In my 20s, I would have had a series of concerns, sort of a self-administered shame questionnaire: Why did I do that? Should I still be dating that ex? What does it all mean? Why do I have to be such a jackass?

But now, it’s about slack. Just like my friend predicted, I don’t worry so much. I’m old enough to know what it costs to get wrapped up with a guy like Sexy Pete, which doesn’t mean I don’t get close, but it’s three dates and out. I don’t need to interpret what’s wrong with him or with me. I just move on with the mollifying impact of slack easing the way. I call the ex and we go over the highlights of the Dark Horse. It was the most fun I’ve had in a long time.

Here’s the thing, if you spend the night where you shouldn’t or get crazy on martinis once a year, there’s no need to judge yourself. When it comes down to it, a few painted clowns do not make your life a circus.

 

Clowning Around With Cancer


After Stanford University graduate Jonna Tamases survived two different cancers in the 1980s, her life took an unexpected turn: She ran off to join the circus.

She recounts her experience in her quirky, one-woman show, "Jonna’s Body, Please Hold," now through Sept. 28 at the Odyssey Theatre.

Don’t expect a straightforward comic narrative like "God Said Ha!" Julia Sweeney’s 1998 monologue about her cervical cancer.

"The play is the story of my body as a hotel-like entity filled with these darling characters who are my body parts, personified," said the winsome Tamases, 37.

Drawing on her two years with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, the ex-clown uses exaggerated physical comedy to characterize each limb.

"What I really hated about having cancer was watching my identity narrow down to just being sick," she said of her inspiration. "So I didn’t want to create a ‘woe is me,’ kind of play."

Although Tamases loved playacting while growing up in a culturally Jewish home in Palo Alto, the assumption was that a nice Jewish girl should "go to an Ivy League college, get a fancy-schmancy degree and become a professional."

She was planning to do just that as a Columbia University freshman when a routine X-ray revealed Hodgkin’s disease. A year later, other tests showed a large-cell lymphoma. Radiation treatments later caused her to develop a third type of cancer and to undergo a double mastectomy.

"We all know the cliché that life is short, but experiencing cancer really puts that knowledge in your body," she said.

Tamases scrapped the professional job route to return to her childhood love, playacting; eventually she applied to Barnum’s Clown College with a letter featuring her face superimposed on a daisy and the words, "pick me." One of 30 people selected among 2,000 hopefuls, she learned circus requisites such as stilt-walking and was hired in 1994.

Tamases, who brings her goofy, innocent clown persona to "Jonna’s Body," said "the pressure and the possibility of death is still with me. I’m a lot more anxious than other people. The flip side is that I’m acutely aware of the preciousness of life and how much I love it. And I want that joy to come out in the play."

$22.50-$25. 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. For tickets, call (310) 477-2055.

Send in the Clowns


Girl meets clown.

Girl is fascinated by clown, who is a bona fide graduate of clown college and can walk on stilts. Girl also can’t help but notice clown is tall and handsome and can stick a long nail all the way up his nose. Girl makes it obvious that she wouldn’t be adverse to the idea of a little “clowning around.” Clown rejects girl. Clown just gets on his emotional unicycle and rides away.

If this sounds like the setup for a joke, it isn’t. It’s my life. Yes, I was rejected by an actual circus clown, and that can really bruise a girl’s ego. And I think I blame the clown for my latest bout of “dialing down memory lane.”

If you don’t know what I’m talking about — and probably all but the most well-adjusted of you have done it — I mean getting home at 3 a.m. and taking out the little black book and calling every one of your ex-boyfriends who doesn’t totally hate you.

Maybe it wasn’t entirely the clown’s fault that I was drinking and dialing. Maybe it’s February. What a miserable, cloudy, useless Seasonal Affective Disorder-causing month this is. February is like one long month full of Sundays, and I hate Sundays, especially Sundays that coincide with a certain romantic holiday designed to underscore the loneliness of us single folks.

So, maybe the clown, who I barely knew, was really just the catalyst. Still, everyone I woke up from a deep sleep this weekend, you can blame him. Or perhaps just chalk it up to human nature.

Why do we do it? What are we looking for when we dial into in the past? I don’t really know. I have only a couple of half-baked theories.

The first guy I called I haven’t spoken to since we broke up four months ago. It was a terrible relationship. We hated each other so much by the end that we were just like two ships passive aggressive in the night. But at that moment, phone in hand, all I could think about was the candy he scattered across my floor last Valentine’s Day, the little notes he would leave under my door, the fact that he learned to love televised figure skating.

Nostalgia is like the mind’s own photo retoucher, blurring the wrinkles and blemishes and leaving a picture of the past that’s as inaccurate as Kathie Lee Gifford’s face on the cover of Good Housekeeping.

Luckily for me, he didn’t answer the phone. His answering machine picked up, and, as I listened to him jovially refer to himself using his own cheesy, self-styled nickname, I remembered in an instant why I didn’t miss him that much after all.

So I went long distance. I called an ex from San Francisco. No luck, just another machine.

I called a third guy, who I stopped talking to when I realized he had cracked the code to my answering machine and was checking my messages to erase the ones he didn’t like. Yes, you could call that “stalking,” but, when dialing down memory lane, you don’t think so much about the felonious nature of such actions; you just want to talk to someone who, at one time, cared about you.

When he answered, his voice sounded angry and scary. I hung up, but he called me back, barking, “What is so important that you have to call me at this hour?”

“Sorry, wrong number.”

I put down the little black book and decided that it might be better to fall asleep watching a Taibo infomercial.

What made me do it? Why do we go backward, sometimes only dialing, but often rekindling an old relationship in person for a night or a week or month?

There is something so compelling about revisiting a person, even an old friend, who at one time knew us, really knew us. Even if only momentarily, something that is broken is whole again, and that creates a feeling of safety and comfort. It didn’t work out, and, for all those same reasons, it still won’t, but the fantasy of connection, of reunification, is powerful.

That little black book is filled with people who loved us, laughed at our jokes, watched us cry. The past is magical in that anything that could go wrong already has.

The present? That’s rife with uncertainties. And the future? Well, it’s not unlike how I felt about the circus as a little girl: The toys are too expensive, the experience a little overwhelming, and there’s always too many clowns. n


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