A Russian chief rabbi stands by his strongman, aka Putin


Rabbi Berel Lazar’s mother was eager for grandchildren. So she gave her 25-year-old son an ultimatum: He could return to his beloved Jewish outreach work in Russia if — and only if — he got married.

His yeshiva classmates jokingly said he was already wed, “to the idea of going to Russia,” said Lazar, the son of Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries in Milan, Italy.

A few months after his mother put her foot down in 1989, Lazar wed his American-born wife, Channa, and the couple settled in Moscow, where they raised 14 children.

An emissary for Chabad, Lazar, 51, would go on to become one of Russia’s two chief rabbis, a major and controversial force in the dramatic revival of Russian Jewry following decades of Communist oppression and mass immigration to Israel, the United States, Germany and elsewhere.

Lazar’s work, his Russia boosterism and his ties to the Kremlin — he is sometimes called “Putin’s rabbi” — has helped Chabad’s Russian branch eclipse all the Jewish groups vying to reshape the country’s community of 250,000 Jews. Now Lazar heads a vast network that comprises dozens of employees and plentiful volunteers working in hundreds of Jewish institutions: schools, synagogues, community centers and kosher shops.

“I am amazed at what became of a community that had been stripped of everything, even its books,” Lazar said, referring to Soviet Jewry before the fall of communism, when religious practice was suppressed.

Today, Lazar said, Russia has in Vladimir Putin its “most pro-Jewish leader,” whom he credits with “fighting anti-Semitism more vigorously than any Russian leader before him.”

But criticism of Lazar’s partnership with Putin persists as the Russian president makes use of his pro-Jewish credentials in justifying his policies. The strongman has repeatedly cited the alleged anti-Semitism of Ukrainian nationalists in justifying Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Ukraine-controlled Crimea. In January, Putin inveighed against Ukrainian nationalists — he called them “Banderites,” a reference to the Ukrainian Nazi collaborator Stepan Bandera — during a speech he delivered on International Holocaust Memorial Day, when he was Lazar’s guest at Moscow’s Jewish museum.

Lazar has also been criticized for his presence at Kremlin events, like the one last year celebrating Russia’s Crimea annexation. (“Like other clerics, my duties include officiating at state events,” Lazar said in an interview with JTA.)

To Roman Bronfman, a former Israeli lawmaker and author of a book about Russian-Jewish immigration to Israel, the relationship between Putin and Lazar is a “beneficiary symbiosis.” Lazar’s support for Putin, Bronfman said, “is a constant and the basis of his claim to the title of chief rabbi.”

Lazar was Chabad’s chief envoy to Russia before staking claim to the title of chief rabbi in 2000. That’s when he quit the Russian Jewish Congress, an umbrella group, after the organization’s founder, Vladimir Gusinsky, and Russia’s other chief rabbi, Adolf Shayevich, criticized Russia’s war in Chechnya and its alleged human rights abuses — including the alleged targeting, by anti-corruption authorities, of political dissidents.

“Challenging the government is not the Jewish way, and [Gusinsky] put the Jewish community in harm’s way,” said Lazar, noting that the chief rabbi should be apolitical, not a government critic. “I wanted to have nothing to do with this.”

Shayevich, who has been chief rabbi since 1993, heads the Keroor religious congress, a body responsible for religious services at affiliated synagogues. In March, Keroor and Lazar’s Federation of Jewish Communities of the CIS, or FJC — both are Orthodox bodies — signed a nonaggression pact in which the groups committed to not speak ill of one another in public. The agreement ended years of acrimonious exchanges in the media, but Keroor to this day does not recognize Lazar’s claim to his title of chief rabbi.

In recent years, however, Lazar’s federation eclipsed Keroor in prominence and reach. FJC operates in 160 cities, compared to Keroor’s 34. In addition, FJC has departments in other former Soviet countries, which means Lazar also has considerable clout in the Jewish communities of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, and elsewhere.

In 2012, Moscow opened a $50 million Jewish museum that is headed by Lazar’s top aide, Rabbi Boruch Gorin.

Putin’s support for the Jewish community, Lazar said, “flows from his respect for religion and warm sentiments” to Judaism, not out of political calculation. Russian Jews, Lazar added in reference to Putin’s time in office, “have a duty to use this golden hour and press ahead with community growth.”

Still, Putin was quick to leverage the new Jewish museum for his needs.

In 2013, the space became Putin’s answer to an international legal dispute involving the Schneerson Library — composed of texts by Joseph I. Schneerson, a late leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, which have been held by the Russian state since Communist authorities confiscated them in 1917. A U.S. federal judge in 2013 ruled in favor of Chabad lawyers in the United States who are seeking the return of the library to Brooklyn, where the Hasidic group is based.

Lazar reluctantly agreed to Putin’s request that the texts be housed in the museum as a form of compromise. The claimants in New York refuse to see it as such, but the move showed Putin’s influence over Lazar.

“He wanted to solve a problem,” Lazar said of Putin’s so-called compromise, “though it may have caused a problem for me.”

But Lazar and Putin’s relationship seems to go deeper than political expediency. In 2012, Lazar led the Russian leader on a tour of Jerusalem’s Western Wall. And last year Putin made Lazar a member of Russia’s prestigious Merit to the Fatherland order, the country’s highest civilian decoration and one that is rarely conferred on people who were not born in Russia. (Lazar became a Russian citizen in 2000.)

Lazar’s prominence has a powerful effect on his constituents. At a recent brit milah in Moscow, men from a Sephardic family from the Caucasus lined up to shake his hand at a shul that fell silent when Lazar stepped in. After the shake, they kissed their own palm as a show of their reverence for Lazar, whom some in attendance described as a great sage.

Many Russian-Jewish leaders are happy to bask in the warmth of such adoration. But to Lazar — who has armed guards, a chauffeur and several assistants — his congregants’ reverence is an unwanted byproduct of a title he neither coveted nor particularly enjoys, he said. If not for his current position, Lazar said, he would have preferred to be a teacher like his father in Milan.

Dovid Eliezrie, a Chabad rabbi who recently completed writing a book on the movement’s global outreach efforts, said Lazar for months resisted pressure by other Chabad leaders to accept the title of chief rabbi. Lazar acquiesced only after a former Israeli chief rabbi revealed that Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the revered Chabad leader who died in 1994, had said Lazar would be a good candidate for becoming Russia’s chief rabbi one day.

The title, as Lazar has come to see it, is nothing more than “a tool that allows me to achieve certain goals for my community.”

U.N. Failing in Conflict-Resolution Role


In Indiana in the 1960s, billboards proclaimed a central message of the John Birch Society: “U.S. Out of the U.N.”

The United Nations, the right-wing crusaders believed, was part of a communist plot to undermine our sovereignty. Soon, Americans would be slaves to the puppet masters in Moscow.

Decades later, that fear looks almost comic. The United Nations is too inept to undermine anything expect itself and, perhaps, any movement toward peace in the Middle East.

The plain fact is, the world needs an international body for conflict resolution more than ever, but the United Nations is a pitifully inadequate vehicle for it.

All of this comes to mind in the face of this week’s effort by the Palestinians to generate anti-Israel resolutions in the General Assembly in response to the recent ruling by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) — the judicial but injudicious arm of the United Nations — that Israel’s controversial new security barrier is illegal and must be torn down.

There are many reasons to object to the fence as planned by the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. In fact, Israel’s high court has done just that, forcing changes in its path.

But the ICJ proved itself a kangaroo court — and that may be an insult to marsupials. The United Nations’ preoccupation this week with using the ruling to strike more blows against Israel is deeply revealing of why this is a failed institution.

In an international organization that is supposed to transcend mere politics, everything at the United Nations is political, even the black-robed justices of its court.

Some U.N. abuses border on the obscene. Its Human Rights Commission has proudly counted some of the world’s most notorious human rights abusers among its members, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Libya is a former chair. This year, Sudan joined the commission — even as other U.N. agencies were hand-wringing (a U.N. specialty when faced with catastrophe) over that country’s continuing genocide in the Darfur region.

But the commission can always agree on one thing: That Israel is just about the worst human rights abuser in the world. Who cares about genocide, when you have a security fence to worry about?

The United Nations set back the worldwide fight against racism by allowing its conference on the subject in 2001 to be hijacked by anti-Israel racists who turned it into a festival of outright anti-Semitism. Its refugee agency in the Middle East has perpetuated the misery of displaced Palestinians to suit the political needs of local despots — and in the process helped breed generations of terrorists.

The ICJ decision, in which some justices announced their views even before the case was even heard, was just another chapter in the same old story.

Instead of addressing both Palestinian concerns about the disruptions the fence is causing and Israel’s concerns about terrorism and the Palestinian Authority’s refusal to quell it, the court just took another political swipe at Israel that will inevitably make it harder to bring the two sides back to serious negotiations. It was an act of judicial vandalism, not an effort to give a fair and balanced ruling.

The United Nations has sowed suspicion and bitterness among Israel’s friends. Even many who agree Israel must give up all or most of the land captured in 1967 and who abhor its treatment of the Palestinians are frequently appalled by its actions.

Its Israel obsession is the flip side of the United Nations’ persistent unwillingness to act against genuine horrors in the world.

During the 1994 crisis in Rwanda, the United Nations, apparently unwilling to judge a Third World member the way it routinely judges Israel, was mostly mute. It’s reaction was “willful ignorance and indifference,” according to one member of the U.S. mission to the United Nations at the time.

In the case of Sudan, it had to be dragged kicking and screaming by the United States into even acknowledging there is a problem. Having acknowledged it, the General Assembly will no doubt quickly forget about it as it addresses Israel’s security barrier — a case of misplaced priorities that would be farcical, if it wasn’t so tragic.

The smugly timid U.N. leadership (“Kofi Annan” may someday become a synonym for high-toned cowardice) and a General Assembly that gives the worst despots and rights abusers the same rights as the most representative democracies are forever part of the Mideast problem, not part of the solution.

The results have made Israelis of all political persuasions rightly suspicious of international involvement in their country’s troubles.

And the biased, unhelpful United Nations is a perpetual boost to the Israeli extremists who make political hay from their claim that the whole world is against Israel — a claim that the United Nations, sadly, does its best to reinforce.

The Birch Society was wrong. We need a strong international body to promote peace in a time of escalating danger. Unfortunately, the biased, weak-willed United Nations doesn’t fit the bill.

Gibson Film Stirs Up Variety of Reactions


Rabbi Eli Spitz

This masterfully crafted film deals with a troubling event and could lead to trouble. The film fails to portray a larger context for Jesus and the Jews.

As recorded in the New Testament, Jesus lived as a faithful Jew and had Jewish crowds who loved him. The film focuses on only the last hours of his life, where the Jewish mob calls for his blood.

As a people, we have reason to feel nervous about the label “Christ-killers.” The film could lead to anti-Semitism, both in America and abroad.

Eli Spitz is senior rabbi at Congregation B’nai Israel in Tustin.

Rabbi David Wolpe

I believe that the intent of this movie is not to stir up hatred against the Jewish people. But will it give aid and comfort to anti-Semites? Will it be something that those who hate the Jewish people can show their children with an easy conscience? I’m afraid so. And we do not live in an age when hatred should be given nourishment.

….In recent times, however, Jews and Christians have begun speaking to each other, reaching out, seeking to understand the other…. Christianity is a great world tradition whose cradle is my faith.

The greatest sin of this movie would be if the vision of a single Hollywood star overrode, even for an instant, the efforts of so many rabbis, pastors, churchmen, ministers and countless laypeople to understand each other, embrace each other, seek each other’s heart.

I hope that a movie, which, with a spurious literalism, veils the remarkable message of love at the heart of the Christian tradition, will paradoxically enhance that love and so bring closer the time for which all pray, a time of peace.

This excerpt is from a sermon Wolpe delivered to his congregation, Sinai Temple, on Feb. 28. A complete version is at www.beliefnet.com.

Ron Austin

In all fairness, I think Gibson has attempted to depict the responsibility for [Jesus’] suffering and death as a guilt universally shared, as the Gospels, themselves, do.

The Jewish mob shouts for crucifixion, and the Roman legionnaires are monstrously cruel. Both Caiaphas and Pontius Pilate are corrupt, self-serving and lawless.

Differing interpretations of aspects of the film are inevitable, and, undoubtedly, some will find offense where others don’t. It is, nonetheless, clear that Gibson made an effort, which some may find inadequate, to avoid the scapegoating of which he’s been accused in the media.

….However painful and divisive the immediate response to the film has been, if there is reasonable goodwill, a greater understanding might yet emerge from the controversy…. In the context of our times, therefore, the repentance that “The Passion of the Christ” seeks to elicit and an understanding of the fears expressed by many in the Jewish community about the film’s possible unintended effects are, finally, not separate matters.

The sober truth that calls for repentance within Gibson’s film demands a sober response that goes far beyond our reactions as moviegoers. We must not fail to use the opportunity “The Passion of the Christ” has providentially given, whatever one thinks of the film, to proclaim our love of [Jesus], who died for us, and to demonstrate that love by cherishing and defending our neighbors.

Ron Austin is a veteran writer and producer, a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and a founding member of Catholics in Media. This excerpt reprinted from The Tidings.

Rabbi John Rosove

The film suffers, frankly, from Gibson’s embarrassing ignorance of 50 years of new Christian scholarship on the subject of what led to Jesus’ death. Instead, we get an immature and amateurish pre-Vatican II selectivity and interweaving of whatever Gospel texts have struck Gibson’s fancy, along with extrabiblical source materials no sober Christian scholar would deem worthy to examine….

Gibson’s denial, as well, that this film is anti-Semitic betrays his unawareness of the historical cause-and-effect interrelationship of Passion productions in Europe, with ensuing psychological and physical trauma, if not death, to countless Jews….

The disclaimer in the film that God intended Jesus to suffer and that guilt should not be laid at the door of the Jews is meaningless in light of the film, itself, and the effect that it leaves, Gibson’s public statements notwithstanding. Long after his statements are forgotten, the film will speak for itself….

John Rosove is senior rabbi at Temple Israel of Hollywood.

Dr. Robert Wexler

So often I have read books or seen movies about Jewish suffering throughout the ages, but none of these has ever inspired me to greater devotion. On the contrary, I see these stories as direct challenges to my belief in a God of love and mercy. More often than not these books and films filled me, at least temporarily, with anger, helplessness and confusion.

Herein lays the most important difference between the Christians and any others who might see this movie. For many Catholics and Protestants, “The Passion” will probably be a moving experience and even a call to faith.

For Jews, however, it will be difficult to appreciate a level of graphic violence that seems almost gratuitous. Although we do believe that pain and affliction can, at times, be ennobling, we have never embraced the idea of vicarious atonement achieved through the suffering of another.

My concerns about anti-Semitism in the film were at least somewhat allayed. True to a literal reading of the New Testament text, “The Passion” does blame the Jews for the death of Jesus, but I am now convinced that this was not intended to be the central theme of the movie.

Those who enter the theater with anti-Jewish biases will undoubtedly find reinforcement for their hostility, but most Christians will simply be inspired by the suffering and martyrdom of the man whom they believe died for their sins.

An excerpt from a review by Dr. Robert Wexler, president of the University of Judaism.

Michael Tolkin

The only reasonable response left to Jews now that the film is out is to find a Righteous Gentile and see if he’s got any room left in his root cellar, or if you’re lucky, his wine cellar. Any religion that uses this much blood as an affirmation of faith is scary, while any religion that uses “Fiddler on the Roof” as an affirmation of faith is probably not up to the task of fighting what’s scary.

After “The Prince of Egypt” came out, DreamWorks licensed a seder plate. With this film, Mel Gibson licensed a necklace made of crucifixion nails.

You can’t make up absurdity fast enough to compete with reality anymore. I guess in some mixed marriages this year, both the seder plate and the torture jewelry will be at the same table. I want pictures.

Michael Tolkin is the author of several works including “Under Radar” (Grove Press, 2003).

Amanda Susskind

We have never called Mel Gibson or the movie anti-Semitic. We have never sought to boycott the movie or to censor it. Although speaking out is not all we do, it is, after all, a pivotal part of our mission “to stop the defamation of the Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment for all….”

The day after the movie opened, the notorious neo-Nazi group known as National Alliance started distributing recruitment fliers at theaters showing the movie. The fliers, which quote Gibson and denounce the ADL, openly recruit fledgling white supremacists.

As an organization devoted to eradicating bigotry of all kinds, the ADL stands together with people of all faiths to denounce victimization and stereotypes…. This is a time for Christians and Jews to reaffirm our work together and to empathize with each other’s perspective.

Amanda Susskind is the Pacific Southwest regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, www.adl.org.

Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz

The film is pure propaganda seeking to convert nonbelievers. This is a concern for a Jewish community already confronted by an avalanche of proselytizing campaigns.

Its theme, “the suffering of Jesus Christ for the sins of mankind” is based on the 53rd chapter of Isaiah, which is so central to the movie that Gibson begins by projecting it on the screen.

Isaiah 53 is one of the most distorted texts, read out of context and replete with mistranslations. Evangelicals use it as a proof of the suffering of the Messiah.

Isaiah 53 is not speaking about vicarious atonement. This is an important point, since, despite Christian misinterpretations, the Torah teaches that each individual is able to repent directly to God without an intermediary and without the Jewish Temple or sacrifices.

Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz is the West Coast director of Jews for Judaism.

Michael Berenbaum

It was worse than I imagined, perhaps even worse than I could have imagined.

….Will this increase anti-Semitism? ….One can hardly leave this film more sympathetic to Jews, but one can well imagine that there will not be a linkage in many minds in the United States — though not elsewhere — between those Jews of the first century and you and me today in the 21st.

For Gibson, “The Passion” is the story of [Jesus]…. I remain far more interested in the teachings of Jesus and their relationship to the Jewish community in which he was raised, educated and in which he died.

In short, this is Hollywood at its most compromised. A man of considerable talent and significant means brings his own uninformed and personalistic vision to the giant screen, claiming all along that his own idiosyncratic reading is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Michael Berenbaum is director of the Sigi Ziering Institute at University of Judaism.

Opinions Conflict on Ending Life Support


The Florida case of a woman on life support for 13 years has put issues of how we die and when and how doctors and others should intervene on the front page. Whatever the courts say about that case, however, will only apply to federal and Florida law.

What would Jewish law say about such a case? That question is important because the issues raised in that case confront Jews often as they care for their parents, spouse and other loved ones and as they contemplate their own dying process.

The basic Jewish principle about these matters is clear: We are, on the one hand, not allowed to hasten the dying process, but on the other, we are not supposed to prolong it either.

Until just a few decades ago, it was easy to adhere to that prescription, because there was little, if anything, that doctors or anyone else could do to prolong or reverse the dying process. Now, however, we are faced with the old Kantian problem: specifically, as Kant pointed out, as soon as one can do something, then one has to ask whether one should.

Our ancestors, of course, could never have contemplated these new powers that we have. As a result, we cannot just look up the answer as if we were looking up a recipe in a cookbook. We, instead, must use judgment in applying Jewish laws, principles and sensibilities to the new situation.

When we examine the tradition, we find that there is a strong imperative to save life and health when we can, but there is also a clear recognition that we are not immortal, that Adam and Eve could not eat from the Tree of Life and that, in the words of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), "There is a time to be born and a time to die."

Medieval Jewish sources also announce that we must do what is in the best interests of the patient, and while they assumed that that always meant trying to save the patient’s life, in our own day, when that can mean years in a coma supported by machines, that is not always as clear.

Most Jewish authorities from all movements would agree that we may and, in some cases, should remove machines or medications that are not curing the patient, whether dying or earlier in life, for every medical intervention has side effects and both emotional and financial costs.

Rabbis differ, however, regarding artificial nutrition and hydration. Some — for example, Conservative Rabbi Avram Reisner and Orthodox Rabbi Moshe Tendler — understand them to be the equivalent of food and liquids, for they function to nourish the patient. These rabbis assert that if a person cannot eat normally, we need not insert feeding tubes but may rather let nature take its course. If we do insert feeding tubes, however, we may not remove them.

I, however, maintain, as I did in a ruling approved by the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, that artificial nutrition and hydration should be classified as medicine. That is because it does not come into the body in the usual way food does and thus lacks all the qualities associated with food, such as taste and varying temperatures and textures. Furthermore, one of the natural features of the dying process is that the person stops eating, and so by using tubes, we are effectively force-feeding a patient and thus prolonging the dying process.

Thus when Jews face these issues, they should think carefully about whether they should permit feeding tubes to be inserted into their loved one in the first place. If they do and the patient does not recover, they may, in my view, take the tubes out and let the person die a natural death, making sure that comfort care is administered.

In such cases, it is not the person removing the feeding tubes or the one who authorizes that who is killing the person; the underlying disease is. And they should do this as soon as it becomes clear that nothing can be done to bring the person back to independent functioning — long before the 13 years that it has taken the Florida courts to resolve this issue.

That is not only the wisest way to spend our limited health care dollars; it is also the most humane and theologically correct way to acknowledge that God has made us mortal.


Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff, rector and distinguished professor of philosophy at the University of Judaism, is the author of "Matters of Life and Death: A Jewish Approach to Modern Medical Ethics" (Jewish Publication Society, 1998).

Dollars and Sense of Jesus Films


Despite Mel Gibson’s solid box office reputation, a major Hollywood studio stepping forward to distribute his $25 million Jesus film "The Passion" is not a certainty. The film falls long after Hollywood’s era of Bible epics and outside the trend of Jesus movies finding safe homes on television (e.g., NBC’s Jesus of "Nazareth" miniseries in 1977 and 1999’s "Jesus" on CBS).

Movie studios release very few historical or period films each year, much less a film like "The Passion," which is in Aramaic and Latin with subtitles. The film’s subject matter — the last 12 hours of Jesus’ life and then death by crucifixion — is hardly the kind of popcorn fare studios want for next April.

In 1965, the $20 million Jesus film "The Greatest Story Ever Told" grossed $8 million at U.S. theaters. And Martin Scorsese’s 1988 "The Last Temptation of Christ" proved that religious controversy does not promise a strong box office. Despite the picketing that surrounded Scorsese’s $7 million film, it grossed less than $8.4 million at U.S. theaters.

However, Monty Python’s $4 million Jesus parody "Life of Brian" earned more than $19 million at U.S. theaters in 1979, and 1999’s controversial $10 million Catholic-themed comedy "Dogma" earned about $30.6 million.

In 1973, theaters unspooled two Jesus movies — "Godspell" and Norman Jewison’s "Jesus Christ Superstar" — but both were produced after enjoying solid Broadway success as popular musicals. Unlike Gibson’s "Passion," the impetus to turn those musicals into films was not religion (or art) but just converting theater revenues into movie grosses. "Superstar" earned $13.2 million but lives on primarily as a traveling musical. (A "Superstar" musical starts a five-day run at the Orange County Performing Arts Center on Sept. 16 and then heads to San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre.)

The same evangelical Christian movie patrons now eager to see "The Passion" saw a Hollywood breakthrough with 1999’s Christian millennium movie "The Omega Code," which was distributed outside the studio system. Budgeted at $8 million, "Omega’s" $2.3 million opening weekend stunned movie executives, but its final U.S. box office was only $12.6 million (or about half the "Passion" production budget).

In 2001, "Omega Code 2" was released. Like "The Passion," both "Omega" films had solid promotional campaigns in churches and Christian bookstores. But the fall 1999 millennium fever that fueled the first "Omega’s" success did not carry over to "Omega Code 2," which by its fall 2001 release lacked the premillennium cache. Opening 12 days after the Sept. 11 attacks, the $22 million sequel saw U.S. ticket sales at just under $6 million.

Far From ‘Divine’


“Divine Intervention” by Israeli Arab filmmaker EliaSuleiman is going to delight some people, anger others and put still others tosleep.

It has been embraced by European and most American criticsas a brilliant absurdist comedy, recalling the style of French director JacquesTati, and the silent movie performances of Buster Keaton and the early CharlieChaplin.

On the other hand, the New York Post described the film as”less profound than tedious,” and, judging from a living room screeningattended by my wife and two visiting, left-leaning Israelis, the Post’sappraisal will be shared by many viewers, regardless of ethnic and ideologicalaffiliation.

The 89-minute movie was scripted and filmed just before theoutbreak of the current intifada. It unfolds as an impressionistic journeythrough present-day Israel, as viewed through the eyes of Suleiman, a highlyindividualistic, secular Arab, born and raised in Nazareth, the largestpredominantly Arab city in pre-1967 Israel.

The series of blackout sketches are tenuously held togetherby a plot involving three characters: E.S., a thoroughly modern, but utterlysilent, resident of Jerusalem (portrayed by writer-director Elia Suleimanhimself); his beloved, defined only as The Woman, a strikingly beautiful journalist(Manal Khader), living on the other side of the Green Line in the West Bankcity of Ramallah; and E.S.’s dying father (Nayef Fahoum Daher) in Nazareth.

Dividing the lovers, as the incarnation of Israelidomination, is a checkpoint between Jerusalem and Ramallah, manned by soldiers.Arriving in their cars from different directions, the lovers tryst at an emptylot next to the checkpoint, where they spend a great deal of time in intricatehand-holding and utter silence.

They have plenty of time to stare at the checkpoint, whereIsraeli soldiers (played by actual army veterans) halt, pass and humiliate Arabmotorists, more or less arbitrarily.

Other scenes edge into sheer fantasies of Palestinianrevenge. E.S., who logs a lot of miles between Jerusalem, Nazareth and thecheckpoint, tosses an apricot pit out of the car window, which spectacularlyexplodes an adjacent Israeli tank.

In another scene, The Woman, looking every centimeter aFrench fashion model, flounces across the checkpoint line in front of theopen-mouthed soldiers, with their guard post collapsing as she passes.

In the final, most spectacular, scene, The Woman istransformed into a whirling Ninja, deflecting the bullets of an Israeli platoonwith a gleaming shield in the shape of pre-1948 Palestine, and casuallydestroying a helicopter.

While Suleiman has no love for the Jewish occupiers, histake on his fellow Arabs is hardly more flattering.

Speaking of his fellow Nazareth residents, Suleiman hasdescribed them as “occupied, not militarily, but psychologically. There is atotal disintegration of any form of social communication or harmony amongthem.”

Indeed, they spend a great deal of time throwing garbageinto each other’s backyard, chain-smoking cigarettes, and cursing each other(and, according to connoisseurs, Arab curses are the most pungent of all).

“Divine Intervention,” in Arabic with some Hebrew and withEnglish subtitles, is billed as a “France/Palestine co-production,” and hasbeen received with high praise by European critics and cineastes.

The movie won two of the top prizes at last year’s CannesFilm Festival and another at the European Film Awards, beating out “My Big FatGreek Wedding.”

“Divine Intervention” has also been the focus ofcontroversy. Its promoters claim that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts andSciences rejected it as a contender for best foreign-language movie honors onthe grounds that Palestine is not a recognized country.

Academy spokesman John Pavlik noted that the film was neversubmitted for Oscar contention, and therefore was never considered or rejected.

The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee has hinteddarkly that pro-Israel forces in Hollywood may have been behind thecontroversy.

Shown at various film festivals in this country, the moviehas been praised by most critics, less for its political message than for itsminimalist style and black comedy. It is questionable whether these attributes,as well as the film’s glacial pace, will appeal to less aesthetic moviegoers.

Interestingly enough, Suleiman’s previous film, the alsosemiautobiographical “Chronicle of a Disappearance,” was banned in Arabcountries.

That film’s final, and offending, scene, which the42-year-old director said was misinterpreted, showed an old Palestinian mansleeping in front of a TV screen with an Israeli flag flying high to thestrains of “Hatikvah.”

“I was termed a collaborator and a Zionist,” Suleimanrecalled. “I was booed in the screening room and tabooed in the Arab world.”

In an earlier interview, Suleiman, who now makes his home inParis and Jerusalem, had this to say about his work: “My films are first anexpression of who I am — a little distant, a little alienated, very sad. And,at the same time, very humorous. Very Jewish, really.”

“Divine Intervention” opens March 14 at the Laemmle MusicHall Theatre in Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869; Laemmle’s Playhouse in Pasadena,(626) 844-6500; University Cinema in Irvine, (949) 854-8811; and MetropolitanTheatres in Santa Barbara, (805) 963-9503. 

Sharon Vows More Targeted Killings


Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is vowing to step up targeted killings of suspected Palestinian terrorists. Israel’s practice of targeted killings is not new, but Sharon’s statements again threw a spotlight on the controversial policy.

He made the comment following a terror attack Dec. 27 at a West Bank yeshiva, in which four students were killed and 10 others wounded. Reflecting the odd vagaries of Middle East politics, his vow also came as Israeli and Palestinian officials began reviewing the latest draft of a U.S. "road map" for achieving peace in the region.

Speaking at a Cabinet meeting Dec. 29, Sharon said that he and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz had agreed to strike at terrorists, those who help them and those who send them. Also speaking at the meeting, Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein criticized the targeted assassinations policy, saying it must only be used as a last resort, when all other attempts to arrest wanted Palestinians have failed.

In the deadly yeshiva attack, two Palestinian gunmen dressed in Israeli army uniforms and armed with rifles and hand grenades infiltrated the settlement of Otniel south of Hebron. They entered the yeshiva through the kitchen, firing at students and guests who had gathered for Shabbat dinner.

One of the students on kitchen duty managed to lock the door leading from the kitchen to the dining room, preventing the terrorists from entering the dining room. All four of the students who were in the kitchen were killed.

One gunman was killed in a half-hour shootout with Israeli troops. The second terrorist fled but was found later and killed by Israeli soldiers. Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it came in retaliation for the slaying a day earlier of one of its leaders in the Jenin area.

The four Israelis killed in the attack were buried Dec. 29. They were identified as Pvt. Yehuda Bamberger, 20, of Karnei Shomron; Zvi Zieman, 18, Re’ut; Gavriel Hoter, 17, Alonei Habashan, and Staff Sgt. Noam Apter, 23, Shilo.

In another development, an Israeli undercover unit arrested three members of Islamic Jihad near Hebron on the same day the four Israelis were buried, Army Radio reported. Mofaz said soldiers have arrested more than 1,200 Palestinians in the past two months in what he described as an unprecedented campaign against suspected terrorists.

The leader of Hamas on Dec. 27 called for additional attacks against Israel. During a rally of 30,000 supporters in Gaza City, Hamas founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin said discussions between Hamas and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement about temporarily suspending attacks on Israeli civilians will not prove fruitful.

"The march of martyrs will move forward," Yassin said. Activists at the rally blew up a model of an Israeli tank and burned U.S., British and Israeli flags.

Israel blamed Arafat for the Otniel attack, saying the Palestinian Authority has failed to clamp down on terror. A Palestinian official said Israel’s policies, including the targeted killings, were to blame for the ongoing attacks.

Meanwhile, Israeli and Palestinian officials began reviewing the latest draft of an international diplomatic initiative aimed at ending more than two years of violence. The draft of the road map was given to the two sides after President Bush met in Washington in December with other members of the so-called diplomatic "Quartet" — Russia, the European Union and the United Nations.

Israel persuaded Bush to agree not to publish the draft until after Israeli elections are held Jan. 28. In the meantime, each side was expected to review the draft and draw up responses.

According to the Jerusalem Post, which published details of the road map, there were few changes in the revised draft. According to the newspaper, the first stage of the road map calls for both sides to call for an end to violence and commit to stopping incitement.

The plan also calls for a complete freeze on Israeli settlement activity and for visible steps by the Palestinians to fight terror. The Palestinian Authority is called on to undertake political and security reforms.

The second stage begins with Palestinian elections and concludes at the end of 2003, with the establishment of a Palestinian state with provisional borders. It also calls for an international conference convened by the Quartet.

The third stage, lasting until the end of 2005, calls for a second international conference that would include final-status talks on borders, refugees, settlements and Jerusalem, the Jerusalem Post reported.

Political sources in Jerusalem were reportedly satisfied with the latest version, Israel Radio reported. Though Israel has begun drawing up its response, it is not expected to be submitted until after the elections, the report said.

Terrors of the Resistance


The highly controversial French documentary film, “Terrorists in Retirement,” offers a striking revelation that, on reflection, should come as no surprise at all — Eastern European Jews played a prominent role in the most daring exploits of the World War II French resistance movement. This truth comes as a jolt only because French popular myth and official histories have so thoroughly suppressed it, considering it harmful to the nation’s heritage to admit that stateless immigrants, facing deportation and almost certain death, fought harder for France’s freedom than did many citizens who were content to collaborate with their German conquerors.

The film, produced in 1984, sparked a huge uproar in France when a state-television network initially banned it. Now Los Angeles audiences can see for themselves what the brouhaha was all about when “Terrorists in Retirement” — in the original French title, the word “Terroristes” was placed in ironic quotation marks — screens at the Laemmle Theatres this month.

In 1980s France, the basic facts about Jewish resistance fighters were only the beginning of the film’s disturbing disclosures. The most contentious news that the documentary delivered concerned the 1943 betrayal of the main Jewish resistance group based in Paris — the public execution of 23 men arrested by the Gestapo and French authorities. (For propaganda purposes, the Nazis put up a red poster with the dead men’s pictures on it, asserting that France was well rid of these despised foreign troublemakers.) The film’s claim, in few words, is that the French Communist Party was responsible for their deaths.

It’s a complex story, but also a simple one. Much of it is told by a small number of Jewish resistance survivors, men who were in their teens during the war — mainly Polish Jews whose families had fled to France in the 1930s — and who had strong ties to the Communist Party through their parents or because it appeared to be the most militant opponent of fascism.

When the film’s director, Mosco Boucault, an Armenian Jew, found them 40 years later, they were working in obscurity in garment trades. Boucault filmed them at their sewing machines, or with scissors or needle and thread in hand, and somewhat incongruously presents the 60-year-olds re-creating several of their wartime exploits, with extras awkwardly standing around in makeshift uniforms representing German guards or assassination targets.

One of the film’s most important charges maintains that the party’s first betrayal of Jews in France came through the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939, the non-aggression treaty that was in place when the Nazis overran France and set up the Vichy regime. When Jews were ordered to register and even when the first roundups occurred, the resistance survivors recall, the party’s advice was to acquiesce. By the time the Nazis invaded Russia and the Communists resumed the struggle, it was too late: The apparatus for deporting Jews to the camps from France was firmly in place. (At that time, the film suggests, the Jews’ dire situation served as an effective recruiting device for the resistance — fight or die, or at least die fighting.)

After nearly an hour of filling in the background, the film abruptly opens the debate over the 1943 betrayal. A fighter who had been captured and tortured had revealed many details about the Jewish group to the Germans. Communist leaders were aware for some time that police and Gestapo agents were tracking the Jews (as well, as Spanish, Italian and other foreign segments of the resistance organization). The question is, why were the endangered fighters not sufficiently warned or hidden or sent to other regions? (Among the survivors interviewed, several had chanced to go out of Paris at the time of the mass arrests.)

The film — bolstering its grim argument by interviewing several French historians — contends that the Communist resistance needed to get rid of its foreign fighters at just that time. Maneuvering had already begun toward post-liberation political alignments: With Charles de Gaulle’s Free French movement either a potent rival or a potential ally, the Communist resistance wanted to ready itself for postwar power struggles by refashioning itself as quintessentially, patriotically French. That its fiercest and most effective fighters were Jews and other foreigners was a major handicap that the roundup conveniently took care of. In fact, if it hadn’t been for that red Nazi propaganda poster, about which the literary surrealist Louis Aragon later wrote a poem, the significance of the non-French role in the resistance might have been almost completely lost.

The battle over the film back in the 1980s took place while the French Communist Party was still a viable political force. Reports at the time suggest that the party began agitating against the film as soon as it heard about the production, several years before the work had been completed. As one of his narrators, Boucault enlisted actress Simone Signoret, who had recently broken with the Communists after having been a longtime supporter — a casting choice that surely increased the film’s potential damage to Communist mythology.

Some 16 years after it was made, “Terrorists in Retirement,” if at times unpolished, tells a tragic and compelling story.


“Terrorists in Retirement” screens Nov. 23-Dec. 8 as part of the Laemmle Theatres’ “Bagels and Docs” A Jewish Documentary Series.” For information, call (310) 478-1041.

Tinseltown Exposed


When Bernard Rose first met superagent Jay Moloney, the inspiration for his controversial new film, "ivansxtc," he was a hot young director courted by every agent in town. "I was staying at the Mondrian, and gifts would suddenly appear in my room," says the 41-year-old Jewish Brit, who had just made an acclaimed 1988 drama, "Paperhouse."

"There was champagne from William Morris, and limousines would come to take me to parties, and people would say outrageous things like, ‘We’re going to make you a star.’" It was really corny — it all sounded like bad versions of ‘Mephisto’ — but to be ‘hot in Hollywood’ was heady stuff for a man in his 20s."

One agent stood apart from the rest. Jay Moloney, then in his mid-20s, was boyish, charming, personable, a "good flatterer," Rose recalls. The heir apparent to Michael Ovitz at Creative Arts Agency (CAA), he also had a reputation for reeling in clients such as Martin Scorcese and Steven Spielberg. He promised Rose he could get his movies greenlit, and he delivered, pushing through the deal for his horror flick, "Candyman," and securing actor Gary Oldman for the 1994 Beethoven biopic, "Immortal Beloved."

At a glittering industry gala in 1995, the director recalls Moloney sitting at the head table next to Ovitz, Spielberg and late movie mogul Lew Wasserman. "At one point, Jay came over and said that Ovitz was about to leave CAA and that he was going to take over the agency," Rose recalls. "No one doubted him for a moment. And then the next thing I heard was that Jay had been fired for cocaine addiction."

Moloney all but disappeared, eventually resurfacing as a janitor at a Caribbean resort. "The speed with which he had fallen from grace struck me as chilling," Rose says during an interview in the Laurel Canyon home he shares with his wife, Lisa Enos, "ivansxtc’s" producer, co-writer and female lead. "He had been like the dauphin who was going to be the new king, yet within a matter of months he was gone, banished, forgotten, might as well be dead."

Not long thereafter, Moloney came to mind when Rose decided to write and direct a contemporary version of Leo Tolstoy’s novella, "The Death of Ivan Ilyich" — about a social-climbing bureaucrat who achieves redemption on his deathbed. In Rose’s operatic adaptation, czarist Russia becomes Hollywood and Ivan Ilyich becomes Ivan Beckman (Danny Huston), a Jewish agent who speedily ascends the company ladder. It’s a world where Armani-suited powerbrokers betray clients, snort blow off women’s thighs and dis scripts they haven’t read.

Rose says he shot "ivansxtc" (pronounced "ecstasy") as an inexpensive independent film, using a high-definition digital camcorder, after Warner Bros. banned him from the editing room and "severely butchered" his previous Tolstoy adaptation, "Anna Karenina" (1996). He says he wanted to sidestep the studio system and to tackle the ultimate Tinseltown taboo: "Everything in Hollywood is designed to deny the reality of our mortality. People get face lifts and they go to the gym, but no one’s gotten out alive yet."

The morning of the first "ivansxtc" screening in November 1999, life eerily imitated art. Rose’s CAA agent, Adam Krentzman, called to say that Moloney had committed suicide by hanging himself in a hotel room. He was 35. "We watched the movie in stunned silence," Rose says of the screening.

The director alleges that while CAA had previously helped with the movie, even allowing him to film its weekly staff meeting, things changed after Moloney’s death. He says the agency began a campaign against the film that prevented it from securing a distributor for a couple years. In the aftermath, he says he lost his house, his car and assorted possessions. "We don’t even have a couch," he adds, gesturing around a living room that is bare, save for some old furniture and posters of Rose’s films.

A CAA spokesman denied Rose’s allegations.

If the babyfaced Rose demonstrates an air of defiance while discussing "ivansxtc," it’s clear the trait is genetic. His mother, a British aristocrat, the granddaughter of the Earl of Jellicoe, married his observant Jewish father and subsequently became a Jew by choice (their children were converted in the 1960s).

When a London shtiebl refused to bar mitzvah the director’s older brother, citing problems with his conversion, Rose’s father founded a Conservative shul that now boasts more than 1,000 members. The young Rose regularly attended services until age 13, whereupon he purchased a 16mm camera with his bar mitzvah money. Two years later, he won the BBC young filmmakers’ contest and went on to make MTV videos for bands such as UB40 and the Bronski Beat.

When he arrived in Hollywood around 1989, he says he was surprised to discover how open people were about being Jewish. "It’s not something you really advertise in England," he explains. "But it’s the dominant culture here, which is why I decided to make the character of Ivan Jewish." He pauses, then adds with a laugh, "I also had ‘ivansxtc’ yarmulkes made up for the crew rather than the requisite T-shirts."

On the set, life also imitated art. During Ivan’s funeral sequence, a rabbi intones the "Kaddish" as a director lambastes his agent for selling him down the river for a more important client. The day Rose shot that scene, Krentzman, who portrays the aforementioned agent in the film, pulled him aside to say Universal had fired Rose from a project he had worked on for three years. "He said they loved my script so much they wanted a more important director," Rose wryly recalls.

The filmmaker hopes to avoid such problems by continuing to make indie flicks on inexpensive digital video. "I don’t wish to work for hire anymore," he says.

Jews in the Nazis’ Ranks


"Hitler’s Jewish Soldiers: The Untold Story of Nazi Racial Laws and the Men of Jewish Descent in the German Military" by Bryan Mark Rigg (University Press of Kansas, $29.95).

Bryan Mark Rigg’s most controversial assertion is "Hitler’s Jewish Soldiers’" least relevant matter. In a complicated opening chapter, he claims that 150,000 individuals (almost exclusively male) served in the German military who were, by Nazi racial standards and laws, Jews of some quantity. By his calculations, perhaps as many as 6,000 "full" Jews (with four Jewish grandparents) were in the Wehrmacht — but the greater number comes, of course, from the highly assimilated, aggressively nationalistic, and thoroughly acculturated "quarter" and "half" Jews, those with one or two Jewish grandparents, respectively. (The mathematics is darkly amusing: two half-Jewish parents make up one half-Jewish child.)

His numerical assertions aside, Rigg tells a deeply disturbing story. His 430 interviews with still-living Nazi-defined Jewish Wehrmacht veterans and a wealth of both primary and secondary research reveal both a willing naiveté on the part of "ordinary" Germans, and Germany’s enthusiastic collaboration and participation in unadulterated evil. Hitler’s pseudoscientific racial madness co-existed with a cumbersome yet efficient bureaucratic death machine. Careful gradations of Jewish racial profiling and extensive discussions concerning the disposition of the various degrees of partial Jews occupied the minds of Nazidom’s leadership. More time was devoted, for example, at the Wannsee Conference to the status of the mixed Jews (the so-called Mischlinge) than any other element of the "Final Solution."

An entire bureau was created to deal with the Mischlinge. The one "hero" in this sad story is Bernhard Losener, the desk officer for racial law at the Reich Ministry of the Interior. Until overruled by Martin Bormann in December 1941, Losener consistently advocated a separate status for the Mischlinge that would exempt them from the more arduous and deadly Nazi racial legislation.

Those same laws addressed the peculiarities of an assimilated Jewish population. Converts to Judaism were treated legally as Jews, and formally documented as such. SS Gen. Curt von Gottberg, a notorious commander in White Russia who supervised the unbridled massacre of both partisans and Jews, and was an early and avid Nazi, lobbied on behalf of his "half-Jewish" nephews. Consequently, they received a "German Blood Certificate" in 1940, the highest form of exemption from the racial laws. But, as was Hitler’s prerogative, the certificate was conditional, and to be reconsidered at the war’s end.

Hitler personally reviewed and signed the various instruments of exemption. As the war wound on, his demands for documentation grew more complex, and his attitudes toward the Mischlinge hardened. He would review the military records, read the letters of recommendation and carefully study the photographs that partially Jewish aspirants to the Wehrmacht would submit in the hopes of gaining rank and protecting family members, but usually to little avail. Mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers would be either drafted into forced labor battalions, shipped East or, if from a military background, into the "Straight to Heaven Detachments."

The ordinary German of Jewish extraction just wanted to be like everyone else, only more so. They wanted to live, love, be patriotic Germans, and earn distinctions. However, even with protective documents, they were still Jews. Early on, Rigg sets the tone of his story:

"After I interviewed half-Jew Heinrich Hamberger in Munich, his girlfriend recommended that he take me with him that evening. He immediately tried to hush her, but she insisted, saying, ‘The young American would find it interesting.’ He explained that his army buddies met in a pub once a month. After discussing the matter, he agreed to take me there, but only on two conditions: first, under no circumstance would I tell anyone about his Jewish descent, and second, I would tell them I studied something else besides Mischlinge who fought in the Wehrmacht. I agreed.

"A few hours later, we entered the pub. Loud voices greeted us, and the smell of smoke smarted our nostrils. I felt odd sitting among these old men singing, drinking and telling war stories. I watched the years melt away as they relived the ‘good old days.’

"After a while, Hamberger left me alone and I started to talk with his former company commander. He wanted to impress upon me how honorable the Wehrmacht had been. I just listened. During our conversation, I told him that during my studies I had come across an anomaly that Jews and men of Jewish descent had fought in the Wehrmacht. ‘Have you ever heard about this?’ I asked.

"The commander looked around, spotted Hamberger on the other side of the room, and nodded his old, scarred head. He lowered his raspy voice to a conspiratorial tone: ‘Don’t tell Hamberger, but we know he’s a Jew.’ I acted surprised and promised not to tell. This event illustrates the universal fear present among many Mischlinge who feel insecure about their ‘Jewishness’ and cower at being labeled ‘Jewish.’"

Many important insights issue from the grasping of the obvious. Obviously, there were many nationalist, militant Germans with partial Jewish backgrounds. Some, like half-Jew Field Marshall Erhard Milch, and quarter-Jew and Nazi Party member Franz Mendelssohn (a descendent of the famous Moses) participated at the highest levels in German military life. Most however, like the pseudonymous Hamberger, just tried to survive their own little part of hell. And in "Hitler’s Jewish Soldiers," Rigg maps out for us more of the contours of Lucifer’s domain.

Suit Filed to Stop MTA Busway


The busway is back.

Opponents of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) East-West Transit Corridor, which was approved by the MTA in February, filed a lawsuit April 2 challenging the MTA’s Environmental Impact Report (EIR), alleging that the report "understated the serious effects of the busway on Valley residents and ignored alternative transit projects that could have avoided these effects."

The controversial busway is slated to run along a 14-mile route through neighborhoods from Warner Center in Woodland Hills to the Metro Red Line subway station in North Hollywood. Supporters say it is a necessary and welcome means of improving mass transit. Opponents contend that the estimated $330 million project is too dangerous and expensive and that expanding the MTA’s popular Metro Rapid Bus service would provide almost as many buses at 10 percent of the cost and with far fewer safety concerns.

"What we are basically contending is that the alternative we proposed, the expansion of the rapid bus system, was not given proper consideration," said Diana Lipari, a local real estate agent and head of Citizens Organized for Smart Transit (COST), the group that brought the suit. "This busway is a very bad use of tax dollars, a very bad use for people along the busway and creates problems for people who have to drive through the busway."

In its legal challenge, COST also declares that "the EIR failed to fully analyze the potential of the busway’s physical impacts to severely disrupt an established Orthodox Jewish community along Chandler Boulevard." Members of the North Hollywood Jewish community, the second largest Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Los Angeles, have long voiced their concerns about the effect of the busway, which they say would divide the community almost down the middle and make walking to and from the various synagogues and religious schools along Chandler difficult, and even dangerous.

However, according to sources, members of the Jewish community elected not to enter into the litigation as an organized entity in order to prevent any distractions from the main focus of the lawsuit. A community leader, who asked to remain anonymous, told The Journal there were concerns about anti-Semitic attitudes that arose at public hearings held last year prior to the MTA vote on the busway and that the community felt the mainstream media focused too much attention on the Orthodox community’s concerns, instead of general opposition to the project.

MTA spokesman Ed Scannell said the agency is reviewing the lawsuit and in the interim, has issued the following statement: "We were very careful in following all the environmental processes set down by the state of California during our environmental review of the San Fernando Valley East-West Busway Project and are confident that the lawsuit recently filed will not be successful."

A date for a hearing has not yet been set.

The Porn Star and the Rabbi


Did you hear the one about the rabbi, the porn star and the adult magazine editor? They don’t walk into a bar, they walk into a synagogue.

Adult film star Nina Hartley and her fiancé, Taboo Magazine editor Ira Levine, will speak on “Love and Sex in the 21st Century” at Temple Beth Ami in Santa Clarita. The seminar, to be held Tuesday, Feb. 19, at 7:30 p.m., is part of the Reform congregation’s ongoing adult-education series.

Beth Ami’s Rabbi Mark Blazer, 33, recognizes the seminar may be controversial. “People will say, ‘You can’t do that at a synagogue,’ but why not? It’s a mitzvah to make your wife happy,” he says.

The rabbi believes his monthly seminars give congregants access to relevant topics that otherwise remain unexplored in a Jewish setting. Blazer says the oft-taboo sex education class is a timely Purim lesson. “Purim is a sexualized tale. I want people to read the Megillah not as they teach it to young children, but as the adult story it is,” Blazer said. “Esther really pushes the limits of what a Jewish woman can do. So we’re presenting Nina Hartley, who does the same. She’s a passionate Jewish hero for sexuality,” he adds.

Hartley, who stars in over 570 adult films, produces an adult video series and lectures at college campuses across the United States, said she is looking forward to bringing her seminar to a Los Angeles synagogue. “I want to share my sexual knowledge and experience with a Jewish audience. While Ira and I are nonpracticing Jews, we both identify with the religion and our history,” Hartley says.

The discussion will probe the role of sexuality in relationships from traditional, religious and adult entertainment perspectives. “Properly used, sexuality and adult materials help maintain a healthy relationship and a successful marriage,” Hartley says. For this adult-film star, sexuality is the ultimate expression of emotion. “It’s called ‘making love’ for a reason,” she notes.

The class is free of charge and open to the general
public. For more information, call Temple Beth Ami (661) 255-6410 or visit

Unwelcome Storyteller


Todd Solondz says that when he was growing up in a kosher home in Livingston, N.J., "I did well at school, I didn’t get in trouble, I was a good boy."

Since winning the top prize at the Sundance Film Festival for his excruciating 1996 comedy, "Welcome to the Dollhouse" — about a geeky, four-eyed, preteen who strikingly resembles Solondz — the filmmaker has been anything but. "Dollhouse," originally titled "Faggots and Retards," is a kind of anti-"Wonder Years" that dispels myths about childhood sexuality.

His award-winning 1998 film "Happiness," which features an obscene phone caller and a nice suburban dad who is a pedophile, was so scandalous, the studio that financed the movie elected not to distribute it.

If Solondz had to switch to an unlisted telephone number after the release of "Happiness," he may have to move to Alaska in the aftermath of his latest film, "Storytelling," now in theaters. Divided into two unrelated segments, the bleak comedy confronts taboos about racism and the Holocaust as it "explores how storytelling can be a source of redemption and also a source of exploitativeness," Solondz told The Journal.

An African American creative writing teacher humiliates a white female student (Selma Blair) in the classroom and in bed. A Holocaust refugee’s daughter (Julie Hagerty) mouths platitudes about the Shoah, prompting her son to retort, "So you’re saying if it wasn’t for Hitler, none of us would have been born?" (He is promptly banished from the dinner table.) The same Jewish mother solicits tzedakah for a Jewish charity while ignoring the suffering of her Salvadoran maid. When the question is asked, "What does it mean to be a Jew?" it’s clear she has no idea.

Independent filmmakers have agreed that shock sells, as evidenced by the success of Larry Clark’s sexually provocative "Kids" and Michael Cuesta’s 2001 pedophilia-themed drama, "L.I.E." But Solondz, who turned down studio deals to make his 1989 indie debut, "Fear, Anxiety and Depression," insists he isn’t out to shock anyone. By taking on sacred cows like the Holocaust, he says he is being cruel to be kind. "I think sometimes there is a kind of awe and reverence that one has to question when talking about the Holocaust," says the cerebral, 42-year-old Manhattan filmmaker, who has been known to wear Keds and oversized glasses. "If one looks at it as something otherworldly, then one is failing to grasp the fact that it was very sadly not otherwordly but very real. There is a danger of unwittingly exploiting the tragedy in ways that tend to trivialize it, if one doesn’t see it in a proper context. And certainly, the family in the movie doesn’t have strong moral bearings on how to understand or explain the significance and meaning of this black cloud that does in fact hover over post-World War II Jewish history."

That black cloud hovered over the Solondz’ New Jersey split-level, where his mother was haunted by memories of fleeing Nazi-occupied Antwerp as a child. "The Holocaust was very much brought home to me, to the extent that we had relatives who survived or didn’t survive," recalls the director, suggesting a source of his unsettling worldview. "I was taught early on that whether or not I regarded myself as Jewish, Hitler certainly would have determined that I was a Jew."

Solondz, who says he is now an atheist, attended an Orthodox yeshiva for a time during elementary school, then a Conservative religious school to prepare for his bar mitzvah. In the seventh grade, his parents enrolled him in an elite, all-boys prep school, which eventually inspired "Dollhouse." "At 11, I was writing stories and playlets. At 12, I was no longer reading or writing, just counting off days … interested [only] in survival," he wrote in the introduction to his screenplay. Yet Solondz suggests he was an outcast for a different reason than the film’s anti-heroine, Dawn Wiener (a.k.a. "Wienerdog"). "There were only two Jews in my class, and [unlike me] they fit in with the country club set — they were sort of like, ‘The Garden of the Finzi-Continis’ Jews," he says, citing Vittorio De Sica’s Nazi-era film about a privileged Italian family.

Solondz went on to attend Yale and New York University’s film school. After "Fear, Anxiety and Depression" bombed, he fled Hollywood and applied to the Peace Corps as "a kind of tzedakah." He surmises he was rejected, in part, because the interviewer did not appreciate his sense of humor. Undaunted, he taught English to Russian immigrants for two years before writing "Dollhouse" to redeem himself as a filmmaker.

He says that in his own mind, the Wieners of "Dollhouse" and the Jordans of "Happiness" were Jewish, "which gave me a level of familiarity as a jumping-off point from which to explore their psyches." He adds that "Storytelling" is the first time he’s created an overtly Jewish family; he named them Livingston, after his hometown, in part, because they represent a kind of suburban Jew he found there. "One thing that interests me is the way that some Jews perceive assimilation as a way to raise their social standing," says Solondz, who imagines the Livingstons as "nee Leventhal." He notes how the fictional parents nag their slacker son to get into a good college, adding, "That’s emblematic of how the Jewish value placed on education can be confused with the acquisition of status and material success."

Solondz isn’t above some self-criticism in "Storytelling"; his alter ego is a nebbishy failed filmmaker (Paul Giamatti) who redeems himself by exploiting his documentary subjects, the Livingstons. He says he’s surprised that more people haven’t complained about "Storytelling." "Of course, it’s early, so there’s still hope," he adds with a laugh. "I can only tell you that at a screening someone once asked, ‘Do you hate blacks, Latinos and Jews?’ All I can say is if I do, I’m somewhat egalitarian."