Japanese corruption, greed are spilled in ‘Blood’


“Blood,” a new play currently at the Complex on Theatre Row in Hollywood, dramatizes an actual Japanese legal case that unfolded over many years and came to be known as the tainted blood scandal.

Playwright/director Robert Allan Ackerman said his script blends fact and fiction. “The general facts of it are all true,” he said. “Some of the characters are fictionalized. They’re actually condensations of many characters.”

The details of the case are complicated, but, in the end, it was proven that the heads of several Japanese pharmaceutical companies, with the collusion of Japanese government ministers, knowingly imported and sold HIV-contaminated blood products from the United States, all the while assuring the public the products were safe. This continued even after a heating process that killed HIV was developed in 1983 by drug companies in the U.S. 

Some 2,000 Japanese hemophiliacs in need of blood are believed to have contracted AIDS from infected agents during the 1980s.

By 1985, some heated blood products were being imported into Japan; however, the companies apparently wanted to profit from their existing stock of untreated product and continued to sell the tainted materials. They also wanted to develop their own heating process to diminish competition from America. In 1996, a newly appointed Japanese health minister uncovered nine hidden files, which he said were definite proof of the conspiracy. 

Ackerman who worked in Japan intermittently over a 20-year period, said he was there directing a play as the scandal was breaking. He recalled being approached by a Japanese film company that asked if he would be interested in making a movie about the subject. They provided him with extensive research, and he eventually wrote a treatment.

“My friends told me, ‘You’d better not do this. You’re going to get a bullet in your head.’ And so I put the thing away, and I didn’t look at it for years, until just recently, when I thought maybe I could turn it into a theater piece,” he said. “I mentor this Japanese group of actors [the Garage]. And they wanted to do a play, so I said, ‘I have this in my drawer.’ ”

Early in the play, a Jewish-American reporter (Alexa Hamilton) reunites with a Japanese friend (Takuma Anzai), who becomes mysteriously ill and dies. The reporter learns from a Japanese-Korean lawyer (Sohee Park) that her friend was a hemophiliac and regularly injected himself with blood products. She and the lawyer hear about other hemophiliacs in Japan who are dying, and they begin to suspect that blood infected with HIV is the cause. They continue probing, learn from witnesses about the wrongdoing, and eventually encourage AIDS-infected patients to file a lawsuit against five drug companies, the health ministry and the AIDS research committee. 

When the lawsuit begins, the plaintiffs are shielded from view in a tent. They are loath to reveal their identity because of the shame in Japanese culture of having AIDS. Several years into the suit, a teenage plaintiff, who contracted AIDS as a child of about 10, and who wants an apology even more than a financial settlement, takes his boom box out in the street and announces that the government gave him AIDS, thereby making the court case public and attracting a great deal of media attention. The character is based on a real young man who, seemingly miraculously, went from being infected with AIDS to being disease-free. He is now a 40 year-old husband, father and member of the Japanese Parliament.

The musical numbers in the play that feature the government ministers are set to the score of “The Mikado” and contain sharply humorous lyrics. “My idea of making the villains into buffoons and, sort of vaudeville comics, I feel, is a very good choice given what’s going on now in the Republican primary.

“And I think by making them comedic, it reveals their evil without having to write this malicious dialogue that I wouldn’t really know how to write. I was doing it really for theatrical effect.”

Like the reporter in his play, Ackerman is Jewish. Though he said he is not observant, he does feel his heritage, which includes religious grandparents, informs his work.

“I would think my sense of humor — I would think a certain amount of human kindness, if you want to call it that, compassion … has a lot to do with having been brought up Jewish. In most all of my work, I can see that. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt that consciously, but I certainly see it as a theme in all of my work. I’m usually drawn to stories that are about somehow repairing the world — speaking truth to power.”

For information about production dates and tickets, visit plays411.net.

Sugar, Spice and a Binary Device


 

“The Seventh Beggar” by Pearl Abraham, (Riverhead, $25.95).

A key dropped down a drain by a brother later proves to be an exit sign for his sister lost wandering in the sewers. A boy faints and it is unclear if he has suffered an epileptic seizure, or experienced a vision admonishing him against studying kabbalah. Jewish men attempt to create women and robots out of Hebrew letters and computer codes. Stories and symbols intersect in unexpected places in Pearl Abraham’s intricate and complex third novel, “The Seventh Beggar,” a vivid meditation on the nature of creation.

Abraham, 44, grew up in Jerusalem and New York as one of nine children in a devoutly Satmar Chasidic household where Yiddish was her first language. In her childhood home, dolls had their noses cut off and photographs had to be sliced off in corners to prevent the depiction of graven images. Her previous novels, including the bestselling “The Romance Reader” (Riverhead, 1995), chronicled the struggles between modernity and tradition faced by Orthodox Jewish women. Although Abraham no longer lives in the Orthodox world, she remains engaged in it through her writing.

“I have been asked why I left so often and I don’t truly have an answer. It remains something of a mystery even to me,” said Abraham from her home in New York. “My relationship to Chasidism is an intellectual one at this point. I’m interested in its foundations, texts, ideas and also in its continued development. I think of Chasidism as very much a part of who I am; it formed me, and remains with me and gives me a particular angle of vision.”

“The Seventh Beggar” is being released hot on the heels of a controversy sparked by an essay in the New York Times Book Review about the state of Orthodox Jewish fiction. Abraham, as someone who has left the chasidic world, but is still attached to it, offers a window into an otherwise closed existence with absolute authority. While an insider’s portrayal of chasidism is nothing new for Abarham, in “The Seventh Beggar,” she expands her storytelling scope by delving into the mysteries of into Kabbalah and the creation of stories themselves, all set against a background of the stories of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav (1772-1810).

Nachman was the great-grandson of the Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of Chasidism, and the creator of the stories collected in “Book of Tales,” which consists of 13 stories that Nachman told his followers that were then written down and are still studied to this day.

Drawing heavily from Ukrainian folk tales and kabbalah, the stories are enigmatic creations that deliberately do not contain endings. Abraham’s book takes its title from one of Nachman’s most complex stories, “The Seven Beggars,” which tells of the wedding of two lost children who are visited by seven beggars, but the story ends before the seventh beggar appears. The waiting for the seventh beggar is often interpreted as the waiting for the messiah. Nachman’s tales have been studied by Jewish writers like Kafka, Sholom Aleichem and Der Nister, and are still studied devoutly by Nachman’s followers, the Bratslav Chasidism, for a deeper mystical understanding of the world.

The novel begins with Joel Jakob, a 17-year-old Satmar Chasid, who is an exceptional student and expected to become a great rabbi like his grandfather. Joel’s sister, Ada, helms a booming business adapting designer clothing for more modest Chasidic standards. Joel begins reading the “Book of Tales” covertly, and as he does so he pulls away from the yeshiva and the community and becomes fixated on a kabalistic idea of creating a woman out of Hebrew letters.

Twenty years later his nephew, JakobJoel, Ada’s son, is studying artificial intelligence at M.I.T. and attempts to create a woman robot out of binary code. The spiritual wonders these men encounter are as illuminating as they are dangerous, and ultimately one survives and one does not. The book reads as a parable about the joy and danger of creation, and the analogy between the power of letters and numbers is intentional.

“The Spanish kabbalists believed that God created the world with the Hebrew alphabet,” Abraham explained. “This idea that the world was made with letters gives the letters themselves much power. Chasidism’s exegetic use of the Gematria, in which every letter stands in for a numeric value, continues giving the letters great value. That artificial intelligence uses the digital 0s and 1s to create beings, or robots, furthers the notion of the power of the alphabet or numbers.”

“You could also say with some certainty that all novels are made with the alphabet,” she continued. “And that will lead you to ask whether the world as we know it is any more real than the fictive worlds we know, say Tolstoy’s world of St. Petersburg.”

With “The Seventh Beggar,” Abraham takes on these ideas of reality and creation of worlds both literary and mystical, and offers an insider’s perspective of the closed world of the very religious.

Ruth Andrew Ellenson is a journalist and the editor of the forthcoming anthology, “The Modern Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guilt” (August 2005, Dutton).

 

Divorced-Dad Dater


For the past two years I’ve been swimming exclusively in the dating pool of divorced dads (DDs). This makes me a Divorced-Dad Dater (DDD).

I love DDs because they will always make sure you’ve had enough to eat and have gone to the bathroom before long car rides. To me, DDs are more colorful than single men, with greater complexity to their lives, navigating sanity, maturity and alimony coupled with the juggling capabilities of a high-wire performer.

My first date with a DD usually begins with his “last marriage soliloquy” delivered with a frown. Then that face transforms into beaming delight as he shares the names and ages of his kids. I always ask to see a photo, because I can see how proud he really is of his offspring. Also, when I see his children’s faces I get an idea of how pretty and/or non-Jewish his ex-wife is. I ask a DD a lot of questions about his kids, because how he treats his children is a lesson in how he’ll treat his date — namely, me. This I learned from my rabbi and Dr. Phil.

Last summer I was seeing two DDs, eager to choose one. Dad A said, “My son came home from summer camp crying because he didn’t have his bathing suit today. It was drying at his mom’s house, so I sent him without it.”

“Why don’t you get your son another bathing suit?” I asked.

“I pay enough child support so that she can go out and get him a swimsuit,” he groused. I felt sad for Dad A’s son.

I called Dad B and said, “How many bathing suits do your kids have?”

“I think they each have five. But today my youngest was pulling at her suit like it was too tight for her. So we ran to the store and got her a new one,” he explained. “It took five minutes and 10 bucks.”

Dad A was history.

Don’t get me wrong, being a DDD is quite complicated, and not for everyone. Many DDs have shared custody of their kids, which includes a major part of every other weekend. That means you’ll have dateless nights and weekends without him — unless you date two DDs who have custody on alternate weekends.

Another downside to DDs is they have other mouths to feed besides yours. Money (and the lack of it) is a frequent topic of conversation, as well as the reason for less-extravagant dates around holidays, birthdays and the back-to-school season. Also, newly DDs often live in small cramped places, where a child may share their bed on custody nights. In the past, when I’ve slept over at a single guy’s house, I’ve turned the pillow on occasion and found another woman’s thong. As a DDD, I’ve turned the pillow and found their 5-year-old daughter’s drool.

Every Sabbath and Jewish holiday that I sit in synagogue with dear friends but without a life partner, I’m reminded that I’m an only child with deceased parents who is alone way too often. What better way to fill those empty places than with the laughter of kids I never diapered?

The allure of DDs for me is that their life experience is more multifaceted than carefree, never-married single men or childless divorced guys. Some of their emotional baggage can walk and talk. I like the thought of getting close to children after they’ve been toilet trained. Having a relationship with a DD gives me the opportunity to build a loving relationship that could lead to a full family, instantly: a loving husband and children to share nightly dinners, summer vacations, Rosh Hashanah, Passover and everything in between.

Still, DDs have just as much dating anxiety, fear of commitment and intimacy issues as single men. One twice-DD canceled a New Year’s Eve date stating, “I can’t get too close to anyone while my kids are still young. When I look at you I see alimony in your eyes. Three strikes and I’m out.”

Yet DDs work hard, play hard and try to please everyone. At the end of the day DDs need an adult to curl up to. According to my guy’s child-care agreement, this Saturday and Sunday is a nonparenting time. I look forward to my visitation weekend.


Arlene Schindler is a writer for numerous national publications and was a relationship expert/guest guru for AOL’s Love-on-Line.

The Mouse Hawks Mezuzot


Looking for the perfect gift for that upcoming wedding or bat mitzvah? If you’re in the Anaheim area, you may want to check out Downtown Disney, the new shopping/dining/entertainment complex just outside Disneyland and the new California Adventure park. Make your way to the New Agey objets d’art store near the entrance (just follow the John Tesh music), turn to the right when you enter, and you’ll feel as if you were transported by Disney magic to an upscale temple gift shop. A glass case of doorpost-ready mezuzot is prominently displayed; a variety of menorahs and tzedekah boxes fill several shelves.

When I came upon the Judaica display, my first inclination was to look for Disney’s inevitable stamp.

Maybe Snow White and the seven dwarfs on the branches of a menorah, or Scrooge McDuck’s face on a tzedekah box. But no, these were straightforward, traditional-with-a-modern-twist religious/cultural items. More Westside than Fairfax, this was colorful, artisan-crafted, high-end merchandise with plenty of shelf appeal.

After looking things over, I hung back to watch the multinational tourists inspect the goods. Most seemed to register admiration and curiosity. One woman speculated that a tzedekah box was “Some sort of Jewish piggy bank.” Not exactly flattering, but a good guess nonetheless. The Asian American sales clerk did a reasonably good job of fielding the shoppers’ questions.

I must admit it was a little odd to see traditional Jewish items marketed alongside the aromatherapy candles and feng shui manuals. I suppose Disney figures some tourists are interested in a spirituality other than the type offered at the Haunted Mansion. I’m sure some vacationing shoppers will snatch up these items, if not for the spirituality factor, for the craftsmanship, or maybe just because the colors match their living room decor.

For me, getting a taste of different cultures has always been a big part of the Disneyland experience. I visited there often as a kid, and it was the first place I saw folks in traditional African dress, families speaking European languages, Orthodox men and boys in yarmulkes, Muslim women with faces covered. So maybe it’s appropriate that tourists bring a little bit of Judaica home to Kentucky or Korea, even if it does end up on a mantle between the mouse ears and the Sleeping Beauty’s Castle glitter globe.

It’s a small world, after all. The Mouse Hawks Mezuzot