Menashe Lustig (left) and Ruben Niborski star in “Menashe.” Photo by Federica Valabrega, courtesy of A24

‘Menashe’ director takes unorthodox path for story of ultra-Orthodox single father


Filmmaker Joshua Z. Weinstein has shot documentaries throughout Asia and Africa, but in 2014 he aspired to explore a unique community closer to his home in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Even though Weinstein lives in a predominantly Caribbean neighborhood, insular communities of Chasidic Jews reside just a short walk away.

“I loved that here was a whole society just down the street that I knew nothing about,” Weinstein, a non-religious Jew, said. “Intellectually, I was just endlessly curious about it.”

So the 34-year-old filmmaker donned a yarmulke and began hanging out in the Yiddish-speaking enclave with a notebook in hand. The result is his debut feature film, “Menashe,” which made a splash at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, screened at the Berlin International Film Festival and has earned positive reviews.

With dialogue almost entirely in Yiddish (with English subtitles) and a cast of mostly non-professional Chasidic actors, the movie was shot in the most observant neighborhoods of New York. The plot is based loosely on the experiences of the film’s star, Menashe Lustig, a Skver Chasid who in real life had to give up his son after the death of his wife in 2008.

In the movie, the protagonist, also a widower named Menashe, is being pressured to remarry or allow his brother-in-law and family to raise his 10-year-old son (played by Ruben Niborski, the child of Israeli Yiddish scholars). Menashe’s rabbi and neighbors perceive the likable bachelor as a bumbling, even incompetent parent who works a blue-collar job at a kosher grocery and hardly can care for Rieuven in his tiny apartment. Further, a child must grow up in a family with two parents, the kind-but-firm rabbi insists. But Menashe won’t settle for a marriage of convenience; he fights to keep his son — with sometimes disastrous, sometimes comic results.

The film is one of several movies in recent years shot in the mama loshen, including Eve Annenberg’s “Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish” (2011) and Laszlo Nemes’ Auschwitz drama “Son of Saul” (2015), which won the Oscar for best foreign language film. “Menashe,” for its part, is not a harsh critique of the Chasidic community, unlike some previous films set in that world (think Sidney Lumet’s “A Stranger Among Us” in 1992 and Boaz Yakin’s 1998 drama, “A Price Above Rubies”). The protagonist never loses his piety, despite his ongoing dispute with his rabbi.

 

Filmmaker Joshua Z. Weinstein

But when Weinstein set out to make his film, challenges abounded. The filmmaker had learned Hebrew as a boy while attending a Conservative Jewish day school in New Jersey but didn’t speak a word of Yiddish. Most of his potential performers eschewed watching films on religious grounds, had never seen a movie and even risked excommunication from their communities for participating in such a project. Weinstein didn’t include a number of their names in the credits in order to protect them.

Circumstances improved after Weinstein met Danny Finkelman, a member of the more open Lubavitch Chasidic movement and a producer of music and other videos deemed proper for ultra-Orthodox viewers. It was Finkelman who introduced Weinstein to Lustig on a TV commercial set more than two years ago. Lustig already had made comic YouTube videos in Yiddish and aspired to earn more acting jobs. The filmmaker said he immediately was impressed by Lustig’s performing prowess. Over the next few months, Weinstein became so taken with Lustig’s personal story that he decided to fictionalize it for “Menashe.”

“I wanted to make a film about a father who has to make a decision that seems very complicated and difficult — and that would cause himself pain — to help his son,” he said.

In real life, Lustig’s father practically forced him into marriage in 2001 when he was 23, the actor said during a telephone interview from his home in New Square, N.Y. Yet the union proved peaceful, he said — until his spouse died after suffering an ovarian clot seven years later. “It was a very big tragedy, very sudden, and our son was only 4 years old,” he said.

Lustig and his British wife had lived in London, but upon her death he moved with his son back to his native New Square. While in real life his rabbi didn’t pressure him to relinquish custody, Lustig, who earns his living by working in a kosher grocery, himself came to realize that he could not adequately care for the boy, who is now 14. Eventually, he decided it was best that a neighboring family take in the child.

“But I fought with my feelings because I wanted to have him next to me,” said Lustig, who still manages to see his son often.

Lustig said he had mixed feelings when Weinstein asked him to star in “Menashe.” On the one hand, he already had appeared on YouTube and had more acting aspirations, despite some raised eyebrows in his community. On the other hand, he was concerned that the film’s content wouldn’t be entirely proper for a Skver Chasid, a member of one of the more insular Chasidic groups in the United States.

Lustig was convinced to participate when Finkelman agreed to vet the script. Even so, he did not ask his rabbi for permission to perform in the film.

“It’s better to do something without asking rather than asking; he tells you ‘no’ and you do it anyway,” the actor said. “That would be much more chutzpah.”

During the film’s shoot, Lustig said he focused on performing, not reliving his own painful memories of his wife’s death. “But when I watched it on the big screen the first time, it reminded me back to the bad anxiety and feelings,” he said.

Lustig, who said he hasn’t received much backlash from members of his community over “Menashe,” added that one reason he agreed to make the movie was to encourage the ultra-Orthodox to consider film as a viable, and valuable, medium.

“This movie has a message for every crowd,” Lustig said.

He recalled one non-religious viewer who wondered why the beleaguered Menashe character didn’t commit suicide.

“So, I thought to myself, that’s one of the big messages of the movie: Don’t give up anytime,” Lustig said. “There’s hope. One day, the sun will shine again.”

“Mensahe” opens in Los Angeles theaters July 28. 

THE LAST WORD *Movie Review & Director Interview*


In THE LAST WORD, a retired businesswoman named Harriet (Academy Award winner Shirley MacLaine) confronts her mortality as she sculpts her own obituary.  Harriet targets Anne (Amanda Seyfried), a reporter, to distill her life into its final success story.  The pair take a metaphorical–and literal–journey with Brenda (newcomer Ann’Jewel Lee), a pre-teen who has as much to gain from the relationship as the other two.  The movie also stars Thomas Sadowski, Anne Heche, Philip Baker Hall and Tom Everett Scott.  Mark Pellington (ARLINGTON ROAD, THE MOTHMAN PROPHECIES, COLD CASE) directs.  

I spoke with director Mark Pellington about symbolism and themes in THE LAST WORD.  He sees the film as a study in mortality and what each of us leave behind at the end of our lives.  Pellington says:  “I want these characters to have suffered some degree of loss, yet I don’t want it to be through death.  I want them to be left alone in that they’re searching to become a little more whole, a little more complete.”

Harriet, Ann and Brenda come together as incomplete sides of the same coin.  Each is missing a specific person in their lives within the parent/child relationship, but lacks in other important ways, too.  For example, Harriet appreciates the qualities about Brenda with which she herself identifies.  However, these are the very characteristics she regrets in herself having let them rule her life.  Brenda’s ability to say anything and stick up for herself are laudable, though without a measure of regulation they will overtake her life the same way they have Harriet’s.

The women’s evolution is emphasized during a baptismal scene of cleansing as they go for a late-night swim.  Traditional film analysis looks at water from this perspective, and Pellington does as well.  “By the end, for her to take off her clothes, to let it go, to get messy is a change she was ready to go through because she had achieved these goals of seeing herself differently,” he explains.

The film shows that evolution is possible regardless of age or temperament and nothing is a replacement for personal connection.  Isolation comes in many forms.  The first shot of Harriet is standing in a dormer window looking out at the grounds of her home.  Ann sits in isolation, blaring loud music on her massive headphones, though she’s surrounded by coworkers.  Even Brenda’s first interaction sets her apart as she battles a recreation center supervisor.

The complicated relationship among the trio becomes an unexpected friendship in this coming-of-age story.  True to life, it is sometimes impossible to realize something is missing until you’re confronted by it.

For more about THE LAST WORD, including Shirley MacLaine’s thoughts on labeling women in Hollywood, take a look below:

—>Looking for the direct link to the video?  Click here.

Jack Bender on flying among the stars


Jack Bender has recurring dreams of flying. 

His work life is deeply embedded in the fantasy world — he was an executive producer on “Lost” and he’s directed episodes of “Game of Thrones” — but his dreams are what great TV is made of. 

“I had some dreams where I would go so high, I would go into astro propulsion like a Marvel movie, above the Earth, and see dark space and then start to fall,” he said about his nocturnal flying episodes.

He’s even hit the ground once, even though, he said, “They say you can’t.”

“I remember one time really falling and not jerking out of the dream like I usually do, and I remember thinking, ‘Just hang in there, it’s going to be OK.’ So I willed myself to keep the movie going.”

With lucid determination, Bender stayed in the dream. He kept dropping until he hit the ocean. “At least I think it was the ocean. I can’t remember,” he said.

Bender’s dreams have inspired “The Urban Acrobats,” a short story featured in his new book, “The Elephant in the Room.” “The Urban Acrobats” tells the story of two high-flying individuals who fall in love, have a falling out, and get back together. 

Writer, director and producer Jim Abrahams has always liked pickle relish


This interview originally appeared on Zócalo Public Square.

Jim Abrahams is one-third—along with David Zucker and Jerry Zucker—of the legendary writing-directing-producing trio that gave us some of our most beloved and goofy movies. Before a screening at the Million Dollar Theatre of their 1980 comedy Airplane!—Mayor Eric Garcetti’s pick for Zócalo and KCRW’s “My Favorite Movie” series—he talked in the Zócalo green room about coveting a cameo by Ben-Hur, the sweetness of Charlie Sheen, and his weakness for Love Actually.

Q: What’s your favorite condiment?

A: Well, that’s a no-brainer. Pickle relish. It’s always been a favorite. I’m sort of a connoisseur.

Q: What was the celebrity cameo that got away?

A: Charlton Heston. Actually, we’d always go to him. He was very nice and polite, but never interested.

Q: What salad dressing best describes you?

A: Blue cheese…it’s lumpy.

Q: What’s your favorite thing about the exclamation point?

A: In regards to Airplane!—because there’s an exclamation point in the title? It made us chuckle to put it next to a bland word.

Q: What was the first album you bought?

A: West Side Story—no, it was The King and I.

Q: What was the last movie you saw that totally cracked you up?

A: I enjoyed Bridesmaids a lot.

Q: What word or phrase do you use most often?

A: Bullshit.

Q: What was the best part about working with Charlie Sheen?

A: The truth is he’s really a sweet guy and a tremendous professional. He’s one of these guys who walks onto a set and always goes up to the grips and the sound guy to say hi. He behaved like a regular person—there’s no star stuff to him.

Q: How did you get into trouble as a kid?

A: I’d wake up in the morning! When we started our careers, we were going to incorporate—form a corporation—and we didn’t know what to call it. The Zuckers said we should call it “Abrahams boy.” Because when we were kids, their parents would say to them, “Watch out for the Abrahams boy!”

Q: What movie (other than any of your own) have you seen the most?

A: I can’t pass by The Godfather if it’s on TV. I have to watch. And I have to watch Love Actually if I come across it.

Award-winning American director Mike Nichols dies at 83


Mike Nichols, a nine-time Tony Award winner on Broadway and the Oscar-winning director of influential films such as “Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” “The Graduate,” and “Carnal Knowledge,” died on Wednesday at age 83.

The prolific director passed away at his home of cardiac arrest, his spokeswoman said. A private service for the family will be held this week, followed by a memorial at a future date.

No director had ever moved between Broadway and Hollywood as easily as Nichols, one of the few people to win the Oscar, Tony, Emmy and Grammy Awards.

Nichols, whose career first blossomed with a comedy partnership with Elaine May in the late 1950s, was married to Diane Sawyer, former anchorwoman of ABC's “World News Tonight” broadcast.

ABC News President James Goldston announced Nichols' death in a memo to staff, saying he “passed away suddenly on Wednesday evening.”

“In a triumphant career that spanned over six decades, Mike created some of the most iconic works of American film, television and theater,” Goldston said. “He was a true visionary.”

In memory of Nichols, marquees on Broadway theatres in New York will be dimmed on Friday evening for one minute.

“Legendary director Mike Nichols shared his distinct genius for storytelling through the worlds of stage and film. Throughout his celebrated career in many mediums that spanned decades, he was always in awe of the thrill and the miracle that is theatre,” Charlotte St. Martin, the executive director of the Broadway League, said in a statement.

Fans and colleagues took to Twitter to express their sorrow.

“Funniest, smartest, most generous, wisest, kindest of all,” actress Mia Farrow tweeted. “Mike Nichols, a truly good man.”

Actor Tony Goldwyn said Nichols was the greatest of the great. “What a gigantic loss!” he added.

Nichols was born Michael Igor Peschkowsky in Berlin, where his parents had settled after leaving Russia. He came to the United States at age 7 when his family fled the Nazis in 1939.

He grew up in New York feeling like an outsider because of his limited English and odd appearance – a reaction to a whooping-cough vaccine had caused permanent hair loss. As a University of Chicago student, he fought depression, but found like-minded friends such as May.

In the late 1950s, Nichols and May formed a stand-up team at the forefront of a comedy movement that included Lenny Bruce, Jonathan Winters and Woody Allen in satirizing contemporary American life. They won a Grammy in 1961 for best comedy album before splitting, partly because May liked to improvise and Nichols preferred set routines.

In the mid-1960s, Nichols came to be a directing powerhouse on Broadway with “Barefoot in the Park,” the first of what would be a successful relationship with playwright Neil Simon. Later he would stage Simon's “The Odd Couple,” “Plaza Suite” and “The Prisoner of Second Avenue,” and Time magazine called him “the most in-demand director in the American theater.”

In all, he won best-director Tonys for his four collaborations with Simon, as well as for “Luv” in 1965, “The Real Thing” in 1984, “Spamalot” in 2005 and a revival of “Death of a Salesman” in 2012, and best musical award as a producer of “Annie” in 1977.

TURNING TO HOLLYWOOD

Nichols also made an impact on American cinema with three influential movies in a five-year period.

The first, a 1966 adaption of the Edward Albee play “Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” starred Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. It was nominated for an Oscar in all 13 categories in which it was eligible and won five of them, although Nichols did not take the best director award.

He followed that up a year later with “The Graduate,” starring then little-known Dustin Hoffman as an aimless college graduate seduced by Anne Bancroft as an older woman before falling in love with her daughter. Nichols won an Academy Award for his direction and the movie, which thanks to several memorable lines and the music of Simon and Garfunkel, became a 1960s cultural touchstone.

In 1971, Nichols put out “Carnal Knowledge,” which created a sensation because of its sexual nature. The manager of a movie theater in Georgia was arrested for showing the film and had to appeal his case to the U.S. Supreme Court before being exonerated.

Sometimes Nichols' movies did go off the road. “Catch-22,” “Day of the Dolphin” and “The Fortune” were generally considered commercially unsuccessful and he did not make a feature film from 1975 until 1983, rebounding with “Silkwood,” for which he was nominated for another Oscar.

In the second act of his movie career, Nichols also directed “Heartburn,” Simon's “Biloxi Blues,” “Postcards from the Edge,” “Regarding Henry,” “The Birdcage,” “Primary Colors,” “Charlie Wilson's War” and “Working Girl,” which earned him another Oscar nomination.

He won an Emmy in 2001 for “Wit” and another in 2003 for “Angels in America,” a TV miniseries about the AIDS epidemic.

In the mid-1980s, Nichols suffered a psychotic breakdown, which he said was related to a prescription sedative, that made him so delusional he thought he had lost all his money.

Despite his urbane, intellectual manner, Nichols once had a reputation as an on-the-set screamer. Meryl Streep told The Hollywood Reporter, “He was always the smartest and most brilliant person in the room – and he could be the meanest, too.”

The actress said that changed after Nichols married Sawyer, his fourth wife.

Nichols had three children from his earlier marriages.

Holocaust, Jewish themes remain prominent among foreign Oscar offerings


The long-forecast “Holocaust fatigue” among filmmakers and their audiences has not yet arrived, judging by the entries for 2013 Oscar honors by producers and directors in numerous countries.

Each of a record 71 foreign — meaning non-English-speaking — countries has submitted its top film, ranging alphabetically from Afghanistan to Vietnam.

So broad a representation of the world’s tastemakers and opinion-shapers, though hardly scientific proof, tends to reflect the topics and themes likely to attract home audiences.

So, just as in Hollywood, there are lots of movies on love in all its permutations; high and low comedies; and spy, action and detective thrillers.

But also entered are five movies that deal directly with the Jewish fate during the Nazi era and its aftermath, one film with talmudic roots and one on the wartime clash between Russian and German armed forces.

Also of special interest to Jewish moviegoers are the Israeli entry, and, after an absence, a Palestinian film.

Probably the least-expected entry is “Lore,” submitted by Australia. While the Aussies speak in what might still be considered colonial dialect, that would hardly be considered a foreign language by the standards of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

But “Lore” features an all-German acting and -speaking cast. The title character is a 14-year-old girl, the daughter of a high-ranking SS officer and his like-minded wife, who are arrested by Allied authorities in the closing days of World War II in Europe.

Lore is charged by her mother to take her four younger siblings, one still a baby, across rubble-strewn Germany, pass through the Russian-occupied zone and find the farm of her grandmother in American-ruled West Germany.

Along the way, Lore is befriended and protected by a young man, to whom the adolescent girl is physically and emotionally attracted. To her horror, the Nazi-suckled Lore discovers that her protector seems to be one of the despised and evil Jews she has been taught to hate all her life.

The only Australian part of the film is its director, Cate Shortland, and under the Academy rules, that entitles her country to enter “Lore” as its own.

Shortland, who with the Journal during a visit to Los Angeles, was asked why she would make a film on this particular topic and in a language she doesn’t speak.

“I have long been interested in totalitarianism and, especially, what it does to children,” she said, adding that it was challenging to view ultimate evil from the perspective of the perpetrators.

Her decision was reinforced by her marriage to a man whose German-Jewish parents arrived as refugees in Australia, and by her own conversion to Judaism four years ago.

Aside from “Lore,” the other four entries dealing with the Holocaust were made in Eastern European countries dominated in the postwar decades by communist regimes, which largely ignored the extermination of its Jewish populations during World War II.

One of the entries is from Macedonia and another from Serbia, two countries established by the breakup of the former Yugoslavia.

“The Third Half,” by Macedonian director Darko Mitrevski, has some of the elements of a Hollywood product — poor boy falls in love with rich girl, and the underdog team beats the champion.

In this case, a scruffy, low-class workingman and part-time soccer player pursues the aristocratic daughter of a rich Jewish banker, and his laughable provincial team beats the league’s top team.

What sets “The Third Half” apart is the time — 1941 — and the locale of Macedonia, occupied by Nazi ally Bulgaria. The occupiers introduce all of Hitler’s racial agenda, including the graphically depicted humiliation and deportation of the Jews.

Bulgaria, which saved its own Jews but turned the Jews of occupied Macedonia over to the Germans, has bitterly protested the film as a perversion of history. According to Mitrevski, Bulgarian authorities have retaliated by blocking talks for Macedonia to join the European Union.

The director remains unfazed. “I am fascinated by the individual stories of Holocaust survivors,” he said. “There should be 11 million such movies of Jewish, Gypsy, homosexual and political survivors.”

In Serbia’s submission, “When Day Breaks,” an elderly music professor, who has always considered himself a Christian, discovers that he is the son of Jewish parents, who left him with a farmer’s family and later perished in the Holocaust.

As the stunned professor wanders through present-day Belgrade, he finds that few people remember the war years or that the city’s neglected fairground served as a concentration camp for the city’s Jews. With his musician friends, he set about to establish a memorial on the site.

Like the professor, “I cannot not remember,” said director Goran Paskaljevic in a phone interview. “If we forget the crimes committed during World War II, and later in Bosnia, that opens the door to new crimes.”

The Czech Republic’s entry, “In the Shadow,” starts as a film-noir detective story, but as it evolves, it leads to the anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic show trials of the 1950s, staged by the communist regime in Prague.

The Holocaust targeted not only Jews, but also other “racially inferior” people, particularly the Romas (Gypsies). Hungary, an Axis partner during the war, relives this past in its Oscar entry, “Just the Wind.” The movie depicts the murder of five Romani families in an isolated village and the subsequent trial of the suspects.

“White Tiger” is an enigmatic Russian film that centers on some of the devastating tank battles between German and Soviet forces during World War II. The title character is a massive German tank, which appears suddenly to destroy its Russian opponents and just as suddenly disappears into the void.

Critics have interpreted the film’s underlying theme as pointing to war as a natural part of the human condition or as a representation of the German lust for power and domination, which will fade away for some time and then suddenly reappear.

The Latvian movie, “Gulf Stream Under the Iceberg,” goes back to the biblical and talmudic legend of Lilith, the reputed first wife of Adam, who in subsequent reincarnations controls men through her sexual attraction.

Israel’s contender, “Fill the Void,” wrestles with profound issues of faith within the Charedi (ultra-Orthodox) community of Tel Aviv. Director Rama Burshtein, a New York native who became fervently Orthodox after making aliyah, focuses the film on whether 18-year-old Shira will follow her mother’s wishes to marry the husband of her older sister, who died in childbirth.

Shira is caught between the strictures of her community — whose rituals and lifestyle are depicted in loving detail and not without humor — and personal choice.

In the Palestinian film, “When I Saw You,” Tarek is a precocious 11-year old, who flees his West Bank village after the Six-Day War and ends up with his mother at a refugee camp in Jordan.

Seeking freedom and adventure, Tarek leaves the camp and falls in with a group of militant anti-Israel fighters.

The motion picture academy will winnow down the 71 foreign entries to an initial shortlist of nine semifinalists and is scheduled to announce the results on Dec. 21. Subsequently, five finalists will be made public on Jan. 10. The Oscars will be presented on Feb. 24.

Among film critics, the favorites for the top prize are Austria’s “Amour” and France’s “The Intouchables,” which were both nominated for Golden Globe awards. However, Israel’s “Fill the Void” and Australia’s “Lore” also are considered likely contenders, and the selection committees for best foreign-language film are well known for their often-unexpected choices.

In the meantime, though, the academy has already announced its 15 nominees for best documentary choices. Included are “5 Broken Cameras” by directors Emad Burnat, a Palestinian, and Guy Davidi, an Israeli; and “The Gatekeepers” by Israel’s Dror Moreh. “The Gatekeepers” consists of lengthy and surprisingly frank interviews with six former heads of Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security agency, discussing the past and likely future of the tumultuous regional conflicts.

‘Oy’ bring the past to the present at Culver City’s Actors’ Gang


For Academy Award-winning actor Tim Robbins, who founded Actors’ Gang and serves as its artistic director, presenting plays that are relevant to our time is paramount for the company. To that end, the Culver City-based theater’s current offering is the U.S. premiere of “Oy,” a tale set in 1995 of two German-Jewish sisters, Selma (Mary Eileen O’Donnell), age 89, and Jenny (Jeanette Horn), age 86, who have accepted an invitation to visit Osnabrück, the town in Hanover, Germany, where they were raised and which they left as Hitler was consolidating his power. Because the sisters are among the dwindling number of survivors with recollections of the Nazi era, the town’s mayor has invited them to come to bear witness to that history for the younger generation. 

As the story begins, the two women are back at Selma’s house in Paris, ruminating on their trip and their memories of the past. The question, “Is the past relevant?” is, according to Robbins, the most important theme explored in the play.

“I think there’s something in human nature,” he said, “for some reason, I don’t know why, that wants to make the past irrelevant, that wants to make it ‘another time,’ to say, ‘That would never happen now,’ or ‘It can’t happen here,’ or any number of modifications or compromises. The truth is that until we really understand history and understand the root causes of something as nightmarish as the rise of Hitler, it will continue to happen; it will continue to visit itself upon us. 

“This play, for me, is extremely relevant,” Robbins said. “If you go over to Europe, there is a right-wing strain in the oppositions, the neo-Nazis. The hatred still exists. As long as the hatred exists, this play is relevant. Unfortunately, it’s still relevant today.”

Though the work is basically fictional, playwright Hélène Cixous, 75, speaking from Paris, said the characters were inspired by her 102-year-old mother and her mother’s younger sister. Their family, which was Jewish, had lived in Osnabrück for centuries, and, decades after the war, the sisters were invited back by the mayor.

“My mother and her sister were wondering whether they should accept or not, because it was really an ethical and political decision. So, they decided to accept. Of course, all kinds of things happened, which I excerpted and condensed and turned into metaphors. They really did go back to the city of their childhood, where nothing was left except ghosts.

“It was a way of reconciling the city with its past,” Cixous said. “It’s something that happens in some cities in Germany. In Berlin they do it. It’s not everywhere. Here and there, there are cities that do this type of thing — open or build synagogues where there are no Jews. It’s very paradoxical.”

The paradoxes and the complex layers of meaning underneath what might appear to be a simple surface are part of what attracted director Georges Bigot to the work.

“There is life in the play, because the playwright chooses two old women to transmit the themes about big questions, such as whether or not to forget, the evocation of racism from the beginning of the century and the racism of today, the universality of these two characters and also to forgive or not forgive. These questions are still burning.”

The idea of forgiveness in the play, Cixous explained, is not forgiveness in the Christian sense. 

“It is simply coming to terms with reality and its complexities. It is exactly what happened in South Africa. It’s ‘I’m not going to judge them.’ You can’t be a judge. That would mean, ‘I’m superior morally,’ which is, of course, something that no one is entitled to think,” she said, adding that “those Germans who have invited the sisters belong to another story. Of course, they’re not responsible. The fact that they make these gestures is quite remarkable.”

At the center of the play is the idea that, once the visit is over, the sisters can discuss things they didn’t dare express in Osnabrück. “There is a subtitle,” Cixous said, “which is ‘This, You Mustn’t Say.’

“They refrain from saying what they see — for instance, the brutality — and something that can be murderous in the head of the Jewish community, who beats his wife, [which] leads to her death.”

Another forbidden subject arises from the pun on the title, “Oy,” which in French sounds the same as the word for garlic.

“The Nazis would say that the Jews reeked of garlic. They would walk by and pinch their noses and say that it was horrible, that the Jews were impregnated with garlic,” Cixous said, adding that her own grandmother, whom she called “a very distinguished lady,” didn’t use garlic: “And she would tell me, ‘Only the Polish use garlic,’ which was a way of being innocently racist.”

In the play, Selma says: “Everyone is racist. Jews were the most racist of all. With the Poles. The Poles were always having pogroms; they’d turn up on our doorsteps, a bunch of wretches. That’s a thing you can’t say — no point spitting in our own soup. They’d turn up on our doorsteps, they’d say, ‘We are miserable poor souls.’ They’d come to the Elders. The Elders would offer them tickets to the next city.”

The play’s weighty ideas are leavened with humor, which is at times gentle, as when the two old women clash like children over whose memories are the most valid; at other times, the humor can be quite dark. At one point, the sisters talk about the fact that since there were no Jews left in Osnabrück, the townspeople imported and paid Jews who were “not really Jews” so there would be enough for a service in the rebuilt synagogue.

“They were Russians,” Cixous said, “and they knew nothing about Judaism or being Jewish, but it was important that they make ‘as if.’ It was all a kind of ‘make as if,’ which is, of course, the strategy of comic writing.”

Another example of the play’s dark humor, according to Bigot, is the gift of stones from the old synagogue that the sisters received. “One can say that it’s a nice present,” the director said, “but to receive a present of old stones from the synagogue that was destroyed by the Nazis is, for me, to kill them twice. There is something awful about this, but also something comical.”

As for what the director hopes will emerge from the play, Bigot said, “I would like everyone in the audience to make a little peace with themselves.”

For his part, Robbins would like audiences to come away with “a full heart.” And Cixous wants audiences to think about racism, which she believes is universal and not limited to any particular nationality.

“It’s everywhere. It’s always there; it’s the curse of humanity, and one has to fight it back all the time, everywhere. And when you think that you have put out the fire in one place, it breaks out in another place. It’s unfortunate. It’s most important to realize that no one is innocent, no one.”

“Oy” Ivy Substation, 9070 Venice Blvd., Culver City. 8 p.m. Thursdays, 7 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends July 28. $20. Thursdays are pay-what-you-can. (310) 838-4264 or www.theactorsgang.com.

Israel Project names interim director


The Israel Project named its chief operating and financial officer as the interim chief executive officer to replace the retiring Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi.
Cathy Bolinger joined The Israel Project in 2005 and has been responsible for its day-to-day operations.

In a news release announcing the selection, Israel Project Chairman Len Leader praised Bolinger’s work serving as the “right hand” to Mizrahi, the group’s founder.

“Cathy has played a critical role in TIP’s expansion and in our many successful endeavors,” Leader said in the statement. “It’s a tremendous comfort to know that Cathy’s commitment, enormous capabilities and breadth of knowledge enable her to seamlessly pick up our organization’s reins of leadership.”

Mizrahi helped found The Israel Project in 2001 in response to negative coverage of the second intifada. The organization reaches out to the media to explain Israeli positions and to facilitate access to Israelis and their government.

Bolinger previously served as the COO of the American Red Cross of Greater Chicago and the CFO of the United Service Organizations.

Israeli director wins top documentary prize at Tribeca


Israeli director Alma Har’el took top honors at the Tribeca Film Festival in the documentary category.

“Bombay Beach,” her feature-length film, follows three down-and-out residents of a ghost town on the Salton Sea, a surrealistic landscape in Southern California filled with losers and dreamers.

Har’el, a Tel Aviv native now living in the United States, takes home $25,000 in prize money. She describes herself in her biography as a video artist and music video director.

The judges were unanimous in their decision, which was announced Thursday. They praised the film to reporters for its “beauty, lyricism, empathy and invention.”

Another Israeli, Dor Fadlon of Ramat Gan, also won special mention at the festival for “Eva—Working Title.” Fadlon, a graduate of the film and television department at Tel Aviv University, wrote and directed the 14-minute film.

The 12-day Tribeca Film Festival, founded in 2002, concludes May 1 in New York.

Sidney Lumet, Director, 86


Director Sidney Lumet, who started his career as a child actor in the Yiddish theater and whose films examining social justice in America stand as landmarks of his craft, died April 9 of lymphoma at his New York City home. He was 86.

Both his parents were veterans of the Yiddish stage, father Baruch Lumet as an actor and director and mother Eugenia Wermus as a dancer. In later years, Sidney Lumet attributed his films’ emphasis on conscience and struggle for justice to his Jewish upbringing.

One of his first acting gigs was in Ben Hecht’s 1946 pageant, “A Flag Is Born,” which rallied American public opinion in support of a Jewish state in Palestine.

After serving as a U.S. Army radar repairman in Burma and India during World War II, Lumet got his start in television and hit it big with his first feature film, “12 Angry Men.” The 1957 movie, starring Henry Fonda as a holdout juror, earned Lumet the first of five Oscar nominations.

During a 50-year career, Lumet directed 43 feature films and hundreds of television episodes. Among them were such memorable movies as “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Serpico,” “The Verdict” and “Running on Empty.”

In 1976, his “Network,” about a disaffected TV news anchor, immortalized the phrase “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!”

Lumet repeatedly returned to Jewish themes and characters, first in “The Pawnbroker,” about a haunted Holocaust survivor; followed by “Bye Bye Braverman,” about Jewish intellectuals in New York; “Daniel,” about the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg spy case; and “A Stranger Among Us,” unfolding in a Chasidic community.

Lumet was eulogized as “the last great movie moralist” and by fellow New Yorker Woody Allen, who observed, “Knowing Sidney, he will have more energy dead than most live people.”

He is survived by his wife, Mary; daughters Amy Lumet and Jenny Lumet; stepdaughter Leslie Gimbel; stepson Bailey Gimbel; nine grandchildren; and one great-granddaughter.

Danish filmmaker finds hope despite family’s dark history


Susanne Bier, whose Danish film, “In a Better World,” is a favorite for Oscar honors, is an anomaly.

She is a woman director in an overwhelmingly male profession, and she is emphatically Jewish in a country and industry in which such affirmation is hardly the norm.

After a Golden Globe win for helming the year’s best foreign-language film, Bier, who studied for two years in Jerusalem, is in a strong position to repeat in the same Academy Award category. However, she faces stiff competition from the other four finalists, who represent Algeria, Canada, Greece and Mexico.

Israel, which seemed close to its first Oscar when its entries made the final five cut in each of the last three years, struck out early this year with “The Human Resources Manager.”

Bier, youthful and animated at 50, was born in peaceful Denmark, but the fates and persecutions of forebears in Nazi Germany and Czarist Russia have deeply affected her personal and artistic outlooks.

Her paternal grandfather, a real estate executive in Berlin, was farsighted enough to leave Germany for Denmark in 1933, when his son, Susanne’s future father, was 2 years old.

Three decades earlier, her mother’s family arrived in Denmark in 1903, the year of the infamous Kishinev pogrom.

But the secure refuge in Denmark was shattered in 1940, when Nazi armies invaded the country. Both families were saved in the celebrated 1943 boatlift to Sweden, which saved almost all of Denmark’s Jews.

Susanne’s father, then 12, vividly recalled the experience to his daughter. The car in which the family was driving to the boat rendezvous ran out of gas, next to a German command post. After a very anxious time, a passing Danish motorist supplied the refugees with fuel.

After the Allied victory, both families returned to Denmark, but from their backgrounds and experiences they transmitted two life lessons to Susanne.

“I felt early on that even in the most secure life, there is always the potential for catastrophe,” she said during an interview at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel.

From left: Toke Lars Bjarke as Morten, Mikael Persbrandt as Anton, Markus Rygaard as Elias and William Jøhnk Nielsen as Christian. Photo by Per Arnesen, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

On the reverse side, her parents taught her “to address the world in a positive way,” to look for the good even in evil times, and to deal morally and righteously with others.

Bier grew up as somewhat of a tomboy, preferring soccer scrimmages with the lads to playing with dolls; she was socially awkward, an avid reader and had a creative bent.

But upon finishing high school, she decided to explore her Jewish roots by studying in Israel. She spent half a year at the Hebrew University and one-and-a-half years at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design.

She left Jerusalem, after “two years of partying,” with a working knowledge of Hebrew and a vague sense that she would eventually marry a nice Jewish lawyer and have six kids.

Her religiously observant parents, whom she phones at least once a day, approved of this tentative life path. However, Bier discovered that “all the nice Jewish boys I encountered were just too boring” and she was more attracted to not-so-nice non-Jewish boys.

In her actual marital life, Bier has struck somewhat of a compromise, explaining, “My first husband was non-Jewish, my second husband was a nice Jewish boy, and I am now in a relationship with a non-Jewish man.” She is the mother of Gabriel, 21, and Alice Esther, 15.

Still searching for a fulfilling career, she studied architecture in London and then attended Denmark’s National Film School, graduating in 1987.

After these eclectic preparations, her movie career took off auspiciously with the Swedish film “Freud Leaves Home,” which won critical acclaim.

From left: Mikael Persbrandt as Anton and Trine Dyrholm as Marianne. Photo by Per Arnesen, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Her next effort, “Family Matters,” flopped badly, but Bier recovered, and her subsequent nine films, released at the rate of about one every two years, have been generally popular and well received by critics.

With the beginning of the 21st century, Bier really hit her stride as director and screenwriter. Her 2004 movie, “Brothers,” was a box office and artistic hit and was remade in an English version.

Two years later, she scored even better with “After the Wedding,” which made the final cut for an Academy Award. Now Hollywood came calling, and in 2007 she directed “Things We Lost in the Fire” with Halle Berry, Benicio Del Toro and David Duchovny.

Her current Oscar contender, “In a Better World,” was released in her native country as “Hoevnen,” Danish for “Revenge,” which seems a more pointed title.

The film stars some of the leading Scandinavian actors and a remarkable 12-year-old boy, William Johnk Nielsen, whom Bier discovered.

Like many of the director’s movies, “Better World” deals with complex family relationships, this one between two fathers and their respective sons, and the intense bond between the two boys.

Also typical of Bier’s outlook, the movie ends on a note of hope. “Too many European films celebrate pessimism,” Bier said, “but desolation is no good. It is better to communicate that there’s some hope in the world.”

A few years ago, Bier and her frequent writing collaborator, Anders Thomas Jensen, worked on a project centering on the Holocaust, but couldn’t get the script right and shelved the project.

She hopes to deal with the topic in a future film and rejects the notion of “Holocaust fatigue” among the public and movie producers.

That notion gained some currency this year when not a single feature movie or documentary dealing with the Holocaust, the Nazi era or World War II was submitted in the Oscar and Golden Globe competitions. Nevertheless, Bier is confident that in the future, Hollywood and European producers will return to that subject.

Just a nice Jewish director: Public and private images of Brett Ratner clash


I’ve been cornered downstairs in the gold lamé disco basement at Brett Ratner’s house and he’s hitting on me.

His insistence suggests he’s accustomed to getting his way with this, and I’m trying not to think about the surroundings — a wealthy bachelor’s lavish playpen, which quite conspicuously insinuates sex.

“Can we go on a date?” Ratner asks, drawing closer. “My mom loves you.”

He doesn’t seem to care that I’m a journalist on assignment or that when he offered to give me a tour of his Benedict Canyon manse, I was thrilled to explore the architecture: a Tudor-style estate designed by Hoover Dam architect Gordon Kaufman.

I push him away and tell him I’m seeing someone, but he insists that shouldn’t matter since I’m not yet married.

“I really want to pursue you,” he says in his soft, almost effeminate voice. “When are we going out? I like you. Are you gonna make me wait? Don’t make me wait.”

Not like he made me wait. I first met Ratner at American Jewish University back in March, when he was presenting a lucky screenwriter with the $10,000 Bruce Geller screenwriting prize. He ordered me a cocktail and gave me his phone number. I texted him a few weeks later, asking for an interview. “Do I get a date with that?” he replied. When he guest-edited the summer edition of Heeb Magazine, appropriately titled, “The Notorious Issue” (and, also appropriately, featuring the “first-ever Jewish swimsuit calendar” with Israeli supermodel Bar Rafaeli), I texted again — to no avail.

I had just about given up when, lunching with a few friends, I saw him pacing through the M Café parking lot, talking on his cell phone. He seemed less intimidating, wearing baggy jeans that left half his behind exposed. Choosing not to interrupt his conversation (which he later told me was with Oliver Stone), I sent him one last message, hijacking his favorite mantra as a final plea: “Don’t take no for an answer.” He has often told the story of how in high school he wrangled his way onto Brian DePalma’s “Scarface” set, then into NYU film school and ultimately, Hollywood.

“OK!!” he wrote back. “Be at my house at 7 p.m.” and gave me his address.

Ratner is hardly unusual as a successful Hollywood director with a bad-boy reputation. At just 39, his eight feature films — including the popular “Rush Hour” franchise, starring Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan; “X-Men: The Last Stand,” a Marvel Comics adaptation; and “Red Dragon,” adapted from Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter series — have grossed more than $1 billion and earned their director a $7.5 million-per-picture paycheck. Despite the fact that this feat places him in the company of only a handful of directors who’ve reached this milestone before the age of 40, it’s the slimmer side of Ratner’s renown. To the director’s dismay, he is probably more famous for his jet-setting lifestyle: bacchanalian parties, beautiful girlfriends and power-player comrades. To the press, Ratner is fond of complaining that he is the most misunderstood director in Hollywood.

Ratner is the first to admit his public image trumps his talent profile. “I think I’m probably the most misunderstood person,” he told me when we sat down to talk at his house one night last August. “I don’t drink; I don’t do drugs. Do I like to have fun? Yeah. Do I like to enjoy myself, enjoy my life? Yeah. But I’m not a decadent person. I’m not into dark stuff. I’m just a nice Jewish kid from Miami Beach who loves movies and pretty girls.”

Ratner may think of himself as a nice Jewish boy, but in gossip rags he is routinely depicted as a devil-may-care narcissist with proclivities toward womanizing and decadent behavior. In the mainstream press, his work as a filmmaker is often assailed, criticism that he has categorically dismissed. “Critics are snobs,” he told The Miami Herald in August 2007. “People like [Roman Polanski] know that it’s easier to make a pretentious art movie than a movie that makes f—ing $500 million.”

Despite his grievance with the press, Ratner praises Scott Foundas of LA Weekly as “the only journalist who got me” for his profile that said, “Brett Ratner is a talented filmmaker who deserves to be taken seriously,” suggesting that the ruthless criticism he’s engendered may come because people are jealous of Ratner “enjoying his life too much.”

If Ratner comes off as arrogant, it’s probably because at a young age, he has amassed all the glory Hollywood can bestow — wealth, fame, powerful friends. Still, he is denied the artistic legitimacy that would justify his meteoric rise to the upper echelons of Hollywood. It must hurt that when people hear about the company he keeps — Warren Beatty, Robert Evans, Oliver Stone, Francis Ford Coppola — the typical reaction is, “Why him?”

Before I met him, I had heard all of this. But I also knew about his Judaism — surely the least scintillating part of Ratner’s persona but perhaps the most accessible. Understanding Ratner as a yeshiva-educated, high-school-in-Israel alum, who is also the youngest member of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Board of Trustees, led me to believe there might be more to Brett Ratner than could fit his narrow Hollywood image. Could he be a playboy party animal who secretly craves monogamy? Does he enjoy making blockbusters — or does he dream of directing the next “Schindler’s List”? Is he a self-important megalomaniac or a hard-working artist who is living his childhood dream?

More importantly, does Ratner himself know?

“I always knew I was gonna be making films because it was the only thing I was thinking about 24 hours a day,” he says. “My dream was not to be in Hollywood. My dream was to make movies.”

Producer Arnon Milchan’s goal: Broker Mideast peace


Arnon Milchan, ex-Israeli soldier, soccer star, shadowy arms consultant, international business entrepreneur and big-time Hollywood producer, does not lack confidence.

His next ambition, for instance, is to make peace between Arabs and Jews and take care of the Iranian situation.

In a wide-ranging interview, Milchan (pronounced with a soft “ch” as in “China”) reminisced about his past, discussed the movie industries in Israel and the United States and spoke of his plans for a Jewish-Arab university in northern Israel.

The occasion for the rare interview was last week’s gala dinner and show at Paramount Studios, hosted by the Consulate General of Israel and the Los Angeles-based Citizens’ Empowerment Center in Israel, with Milchan as the guest of honor.

“I usually hate these events. I don’t even go to my own premieres, but this is for a good cause, Israel’s youth movement,” Milchan said. “I’m not personally involved in any way; it’s almost like a surprise party.”

Milchan provided his own surprise for the occasion, when, after accepting the Legacy of Citizens Lifetime Achievement Award, he called tennis champ Serena Williams to the stage and shared the award with her.

Milchan was born in Rehovot, near Tel Aviv, 63 years ago as an 11th-generation sabra on both sides of the family.

“On one family side we go back to [the great medieval Bible commentator] Rashi, on the other side almost to King David,” he said. When he met Yasser Arafat, the late PLO leader, Milchan told him, “I’m more Palestinian than you are.”

During their meeting, Milchan also discovered another side of the old terrorist.

“Arafat told me that he had seen my movie, ‘Pretty Woman,’ at least 20 times,” Milchan said. “A bodyguard took me to Arafat’s bedroom, and there was a cassette of the movie.”

In the early 1960s, Milchan was a star center forward for Tel Aviv Maccabi and the national soccer team.

“I had the choice of becoming a professional soccer player or going to the university,” he recalled. “I made a mistake and went to school.”

He has four children, ranging in age from 5 to 40 and five grandchildren “as of yesterday.”

At age 20, Milchan inherited a debt-laden fertilizer company from his father and turned it into one of Israel’s largest agro-chemical concerns. Today, with worldwide business investments and profitable movies, he confirms Fortune magazine’s estimate of his worth at $3.1 billion.

Milchan served in the Israeli army during the 1967 Six-Day War and the 1973 Yom Kippur War. After getting his feet wet in the Israeli and British movie industries, he was ready to take on Hollywood.

Now the founder and head of New Regency Productions, Milchan is credited as the producer of approximately 120 feature films. Among his best known titles are “Once Upon a Time in America,” “Brazil,” “Pretty Woman,” “JFK,” “Free Willy,” “L.A. Confidential” and “Mr. and Mrs. Smith.”

Although he is involved in many facets of Israeli life, Milchan takes no part in the country’s film industry or, for that matter, in making Hollywood movies on Jewish or Israeli themes.

“I have a high regard for Israeli movies, but you’ve got to specialize,” he said. “You can’t make a ‘Mr. and Mrs. Smith,’ which opened in 3,000 American theaters, and then a Hebrew-language film with English subtitles that plays in a few art houses.”

Milchan doesn’t do documentaries or films on Holocaust themes, he said, “although if somebody brought me a great script, like ‘Schindler’s List,’ I might make it. But I’d rather give money to someone else who can do a better job than I could.”

He does give money to Israeli causes, such as $1 million to the Yitzhak Rabin Center in Tel Aviv, for which he also served as chairman.

Milchan said he put up $100 million for a pet project to establish a doctorate-granting university in the Galilee, with a top faculty (“I wished that teachers were the highest paid people in Israel”) to attract Jewish, Muslim and Christian students.

The project has been stalled for two years, which Milchan blames on “government changes, academic opposition and bureaucracy,” but if it doesn’t take off, he plans to initiate a major hydraulic energy scheme instead.

Milchan is not involved in the L.A. Jewish community “because I only live here, in Malibu, three months each year,” he said. The rest of the time he spends in Israel, where he has houses in Herzliyah and Bet Yanai, near Caesarea, or in his London residence.

In the mid-1980s, Milchan’s name frequently popped up as an “arms merchant” in a criminal case involving the illegal shipment to Israel of 800 krytrons, small electronic devices that can be used for triggering nuclear weapons. Milchan was never charged in the case, but he acknowledges that one of his companies served as a front in the transaction, “with the full knowledge of the Israeli and American governments.”

Milchan follows Israeli politics closely and is fond of dropping the names of his high-level friends, particularly Shimon Peres (“his first letter he wrote as president went to me”), but also Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Likud Party leader Binyamin (“Bibi”) Netanyahu.

ALTTEXTHe recalled that in 1965, he put up $3,000 to help David Ben-Gurion, Moshe Dayan and Peres form the short-lived Rafi Party.

As always, he said, he likes to operate behind the scenes and asserted that he helped then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon persuade Peres to join the new Kadima Party. Currently, Milchan said, “I’m trying to make peace among the left, right and center.”

He is more circumspect about playing any role in American politics. “If I did, I wouldn’t tell you, except in private, but I know the players,” he said.

Toward the end of the interview, Milchan mentioned a just-published 25-page cover story on him in Cigar Aficionado magazine written by its publisher, Marvin R. Shanken. Milchan, who said he no longer smokes stogies, offered to hand-deliver the magazine to the interviewer’s home, via his chauffeur. He emphasized that he had vetted the article before publication and that every word was true.

Milchan closes out the Cigar interview with some introspective thoughts.

“I really, really believe that I have the skills, the courage, the conviction and the know-how to make a difference in the peace process in the Middle East,” he said.

“I think I can get in a room, no different than I got into a room with Arafat,” Milchan said. “I can get in the room and work out a deal…. I can get with the Iranian guy. I think if I really want something, it is to work with the next administration in Israel and the United States, whoever is the president here, whoever is the prime minister in Israel, and get myself hired to be the go-between, between Arabs and Jews.

“I will deliver this one,” he added. “The point I’m making here, I’m the most qualified person I’ve ever met to make peace. It will be my best movie, and I can do it. That’s my big dream.”

Going home again is truly a family affair for filmmaker Azazel Jacobs


“I remember at an early age being told in school that Jews were a minority in the world,” filmmaker Azazel Jacobs mused. “And I remember just not believing that because I lived in New York City and thinking they must have things wrong because I was surrounded by so many Jews. That was the whole world to me.”

Jacobs left that world 11 years ago to study at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. But each time he returned home, he noticed more and more changes to his old world.

In an effort to document his birthplace and find some reconciliation with those differences Jacobs returned once again, but this time with a script and camera in hand. Almost 70 years after Thomas Wolfe’s classic American novel, “You Can’t Go Home Again” was published, writer-director Jacobs echoes Wolfe’s oft-quoted title with his new film, “Momma’s Man.”

“Absolutely, you can’t go home again,” said Jacobs, 35. “I think this film is proof of that and it underlines it once more. If there’s any doubt ever, I can always go back to the film and remind myself that it’s really not a good idea.”

“Momma’s Man,” which opens at select Laemmle Theaters on Sept. 5, is the story of Mickey, a young man who stops by his parents’ loft in New York City while on a business trip and finds himself unable — or unwilling — to leave his childhood nest and return home to his wife and newborn child in California.

After moving back into his old room, Mickey becomes lost in his past as he rifles through boxes of memorabilia that include old love letters, songs he had written and comic books. The idea for “Momma’s Man” started as a “what if …” scenario that Jacobs began to fantasize about.

“It was a natural idea to wonder what it would be like to get away from the bills and everything else that’s going on in my life,” he explained. “But the more I got involved in it, the more seriously I started taking it and the more I started writing about somebody else. I didn’t believe that I would do such a thing so I came up with somebody who could.”

Although Jacobs considers his film a work of fiction, there are some similarities between himself and the character of Mickey, played by Matt Boren, who also appeared in Jacobs’ first feature, “Nobody Needs to Know.”

“There are a lot of qualities that Mickey and I share in terms of what’s in his room and what he’s going through,” Jacobs said. “That’s my old bed, my old love letter and my real old best friend playing my best friend in the movie.”

But what really blurs the lines between art and life in “Momma’s Man” is that besides shooting the film in the same loft where he grew up, Jacobs cast his real parents, avant-garde filmmaker Ken Jacobs and painter Flo Jacobs, as Mickey’s parents.

“I just couldn’t picture anyone else in their bed or kitchen,” Jacobs said.
Still, the director points out differences between the parents we see in his film and the parents who raised him.

“In reality my mom would not allow me to stay there for a day without realizing there was something wrong and confronting it,” he said. “My father plays kind of a quiet type in the film but that’s not the kind of household that I grew up in. He’s definitely a thinker and he plays with these toys but there was always a lot of discussion going on in that home.”

Those discussions served as the basis for much of what was instilled in Jacobs by his artist parents. Although the Jacobs are Jewish, they were not a religious family.

“We’re classic artist, Jewish, intellectuals,” Ken Jacobs said. “Aza was not raised with a sense of religion, but he was raised with a sense of morality.”

The senior Jacobs says he recognizes his son’s moral sense not only in his life, but his work as well: “Ever since he was a small child, Aza has always been very concerned about honesty and honest expression. He’s always interested in reality — what is real, and that’s what his films are about.”

One of the things that excites Azazel Jacobs about his new film is that he was able to include things he holds dear on a personal level, including some of his parents’ work. In what is supposed to be an early home movie of Mickey as a child, Jacobs crossed the art/life line again by using a shot of himself.

“There’s a clip in there from one of my father’s films, [the 1976 short] ‘Spaghetti Aza,’ which is from a longer piece called ‘Star Spangled to Death,'” Jacobs said. “I felt that in some ways I resembled Mickey enough for them to be the same person. And I love the fact that they’re sitting at that table now, and it’s the same table where this footage was shot when I was 4 years old. There are a few pieces of my father’s work in there and my mother’s paintings around the house, and these are things that I love. To have any chance of sharing the stage with what my folks have been doing is a great honor for me.”

As the son of a filmmaker and artist, Azazel Jacobs naturally had a love of cinema that began at an early age. One of his favorites was the surrealistic 1953 musical fantasy, “The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T,” based on the works of Dr. Seuss.

“Aza had a tape recording of the soundtrack, and he would fall asleep every night listening to it,” his mother, Flo Jacobs, recalled.

Film played such an important part in the family’s life that when Aza turned 13, instead of a bar mitzvah, his parents took him to see “Shoah,” Claude Lanzmann’s nine-hour 1985 documentary about the Holocaust.

“We thought that was a good way to bring Aza into manhood,” his father said.
Jacobs attributes most of what he’s learned about his heritage to the things his parents exposed him to.

“My exposure and education of Judaism came from a lot of different places,” he said. “Lenny Bruce was a big influence on me growing up. Fanny Brice came from my folks, listening to my father’s records of old radio shows. A lot of the education I received came through art and politics.”

But his parents’ work and their commitment to it also made an indelible impression on him.

“I really loved how much they loved their work,” Jacobs said. “From a pretty early age I saw that it was something special and how much they put into it and got out of it. They weren’t making art primarily for money or interested in anything commercial. Their audience was each other.”

As for his own work, Jacobs would like it to reach a wider audience than his father’s experimental films attracted, but still maintain the personal integrity of his parents’ creations.

“Ultimately, I want to look back and feel a strong connection with each piece and feel like that’s a good, telling document of where I was and an honest depiction of things that were going on in my mind or at that particular point of my life,” he said. “If I can look back and see that the work all attempted to do something new and alive and respectful — then I’ll be really happy with it.”

“Momma’s Man” opens Sept. 5 at the Laemmle Theaters’ Sunset 5 in West Hollywood, Playhouse 7 in Pasadena and Town Center 5 in Encino.

Jewish life in the City of Lights


Fortunately I traveled to Paris before Pesach, because missing buttery croissants and oven-fresh French baguettes would have been ruinous to my experience. Indeed, France is most famous for its delicacies — wine, cheese, pastries, foie gras — but it is also home to a vibrant Jewish community; one that has prospered for the better part of 2,000 years, but currently suffers from a malaise of bad press.

Despite the historic turbulence of Jewish French life, current population statistics suggest there are between 500,000 and 600,000 Jews living in the region, the majority of whom reside in the cultural capital of Paris. The figure is surprising, considering frenzied media depictions of French anti-Semitism, recent waves of Jewish French immigration to Israel and also because the population was estimated at 300,000 prior to World War II, which suggests that, even though France is depicted as less than empathetic to the Jewish community, the Jewish population there has actually grown.

However, the aftermath of Nazi occupation in France left the country scarred, with a visibly guilty conscience, which I investigated during my stay in a 16th century walk-up on the Ile St. Louis.

In a bustling student cafe on Rue Saint-Guillaume just across from the elite French university Sciences Po, a young Parisian typed on his laptop before striking up conversation about the thesis he is writing on generational divides. He seemed well informed, so I asked, “Is it true that the French are hostile to their Jews?”

He laughed, and said that too many people argue politics about the Arab-Israeli conflict without knowing the history, essentially implying that if there’s hostility toward the Jews it’s related to Israel. But it also begged the question: Is argumentation or even Palestinian empathy what the world perceives as hostile to French Jews?

The following night, Israeli filmmaker Amos Gitai attended a screening of his new film, “Disengagement” at an artsy independent theater in Place Saint Germain. The film, a French-Israeli co-production (and a good sign of comity in the arts), depicts a woman’s search for the daughter she abandoned, set against the backdrop of the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza. The film was, in short, riveting; and the Q-&-A that followed revealed French cineastes. were provoked by its content.

Dressed in black with a white scarf draped around his neck, Gitai, 58, stood aloof at the front of the room, fielding question from critics and fans, brooding during one man’s rant about the film’s lack of a Palestinian portrayal.

“This is an Israeli story,” Gitai said, explaining that the conflict in the film was not between Palestinians and Israelis, but between Israeli soldiers and the Israeli citizens they were ordered to remove from their homes; a conflict between secular Jews and religious Jews.

Scrubbing aside content and politics, there was still the idea that an Israeli filmmaker — telling an Israeli story — had been invited to screen his film at a distinguished arts venue, in a city ensconced in highbrow cultural snobbery. Perhaps more importantly, a famous and beautiful French actress (Juliette Binoche) figured prominently on the theater’s marquee, wrapped in an Israeli flag.

Whether fueled by guilt or regret or just plain reparation, Jewish culture is pervasive almost anywhere you go in Paris: There’s the sophisticated bookstore, Librairie Gallimard, which contains shelves full of books about the Holocaust, French resistance fighters and Nazi occupation, along with a special section devoted to Israeli literature; there’s the Holocaust Memorial on the Ile de la Cite, just behind the Notre Dame cathedral, certainly one of Paris’ most popular destinations; there’s the Jewish quarter, Rue de Rosiers, undeniably well situated in the trendy Le Marais, with some of the city’s best shopping, and near the historic Place des Vosges, an opulent 17th-century manse built for royalty.

So for the few-thousand French Jews who have made aliyah since 2004, there emerges new hope, like Gitai’s crosscultural storytelling or the Paris-born, Israeli-raised pop singer Yael Naim whose shows sung in Hebrew, French and English sell out among young, bourgeois Parisians.

In the song “Paris,” Naim’s enchanting ode to her beloved birthplace, she best captures the conflicting sentiments Jews feel for the City of Lights: I came here / A bit disenchanted / This beautiful illusion of mine / The country is so good to me here / So why do I cry and get upset?

Well, because it’s hard choosing between Paris and Israel. But still, it’s delightful to have that choice.

Spurlock embarks on a cinematic quest for Osama


When writer/director Morgan Spurlock (“Super Size Me”) discovered he was going to become a father two years ago, he was concerned about the tumultuous state of the world into which his child was being born. Spurlock’s wish was to give his child a safer and more harmonious place to live. So, after a crash course in combat survival, the filmmaker set off on a journey through the Middle East to find the one man who has shaped the world’s perception of that region in recent years: Osama bin Laden. The results of that quest are documented in his new film, “Where in the World Is Osama Bin Laden?”

Spurlock’s cinematic search included stops in Egypt, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Israel. He employed producers/guides in each country to help him get around and into neighborhoods where the people — not the media or politicians — could share their feelings about their lives, bin Laden, America and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Along the way he discovered a great commonality between the people of those regions and an America that is rarely portrayed in the media.

“One of the things I wanted to do was take the film out of these two-minute sound bites that we get on the news,” Spurlock said. “On TV, we always see these shots of people who scream and yell, and we don’t get to hear from everybody else. The thing that I really love about the film is that it shows that there really is a tremendous amount of humanity.”

Spurlock’s film also paints a vivid portrait of the devastation and violence in those regions.

“One of the goals of this film, for me, was to show what people face on a daily basis,” the director said. In parts of Israel, “there are rockets falling from Gaza every day. There are people in the Palestinian territories who are trying to maneuver through there, but between the wall and the checkpoints, it makes it almost impossible for them.”

Jeremy Chilnick, who co-wrote and co-produced the film (along with producer Stacy Offman), was profoundly moved by the footage of war-torn Israel that Spurlock was sending back to him at his New York production office.

“One of the most powerful scenes in the film is when Morgan is sitting in a bombed-out school, and you see the look on his face, probably thinking about his own child,” Chilnick said.

Among other things, one of Chilnick’s key jobs, according to Spurlock, is to play the role of pragmatist.

“Jeremy is a great ‘no’ man. So when I say I want to do this, this and this, he says, ‘no, no, no,'” Chilnick added. “Except for when Morgan said, ‘I want to go looking for Osama bin Laden.’ That probably should have been a no right there.”

Spurlock and his crew faced constant dangers during filming. They traveled with the U.S. military in Afghanistan, and while there was some comfort in having the protection of trained soldiers, there was an additional liability in being embedded with them.

“The most frightened I was over the course of this trip was with the military — because those guys are targets,” Spurlock said.

“Every day they’re targeted by the Taliban and Al Qaeda or militant extremists. One day we got called out of the camp because there was an ambush on the governor’s convoy. Another day there was an IED that was discovered in front of our convoy as we were rolling along, and they diverted us back to the base. There are scary things that happen when you’re out there.”

One of the more confrontational moments Spurlock faced in the film was not in the war zones of Afghanistan but inside an Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem. While walking the streets looking for someone to interview, Spurlock and crew were surrounded by a hostile crowd, demanding that they “get out!”

“I think it was distrust of the media and of outsiders,” Spurlock said. “I think the greatest part of that scene is when the people are confronting us, and one guy makes it a point to come up to us and say ‘These people who are screaming and yelling at you — most of us don’t think like them.’ That was such a beautiful thing to have happen. That one little bit mirrors and parallels a lot of the same voices that we hear in the film.”

This film has left Spurlock more optimistic about the world and its future, he said. His journey taught him that people everywhere share the same hopes and dreams for themselves and their children. And that one of the great little-known commonalities between east and west is a love of professional wrestling. Now that his son, Laken, has been born, Spurlock has hopes that the lessons he learned from his film will be passed on to his child.

“One of the things that was instilled in me by my parents was the idea that you should try to make the world a better place for your kids than what was given to you,” the proud father said.

“And one of the things that I hope I can give to my son is to expose him to people and cultures and ideas that will broaden his horizons,” he added. “That will cause him to question things not only in our country, but outside our borders. I hope that in some ways I can inspire him to want to seek out answers on his own. I think that would be the greatest hope that I have.”

“Where in the World Is Osama Bin Laden?” opens in theaters April 18.

William Castle makes spine-tingling return in Jeffrey Schwarz docupic


Aside from overrated CGI explosions, deafening sound systems and validated parking, the movie-going experience isn’t exactly as thrilling as it once was.

That’s why director Jeffrey Schwarz wants to remind audiences of cinema’s earlier pleasures with the documentary “Spine Tingler,” which highlights the career of horror director and crazed ’50s and ’60s film marketer William Castle.

“[Castle] was as famous as Alfred Hitchcock…for a few years” Schwarz said.

Scheduled for a screening at the SlamDance Film Festival on Jan. 22 in Park City, Utah, “Spine Tingler” won the Audience Award for Best Documentary during the 2007 AFI Film Festival.

Many recognize William Castle (ne William Schloss) as one of the last great American showmen for the publicity stunts that accompanied his horror genre B-movies.

For “Macabre,” a $1,000 insurance policy was handed to each audience member in case he or she died of fright while watching the film. His “Percepto!” gimmick for 1959’s “The Tingler” had electric buzzers going off under the seats during the scariest part of the film. Other stunts included a skeleton flying overhead during “House on Haunted Hill,” a money-back “fright break” for “Homicidal,” if you were too scared to stay until the end of the film, and special ghost-vision glasses for “13 Ghosts.”

Schwarz said it became clear that people were coming to Castle’s films more for the gimmicks than the movie itself, as portrayed in the John Goodman film, “Matinee.” But that didn’t bother Castle, who just wanted reassurance that the seats would be filled, he added.

Castle died in 1977 without much praise, but “Spine Tingler” heaps it on with commentary from fans, including Joe Dante, Leonard Maltin, Stuart Gordon, Jon Landis and John Waters.

“When he passed away, he thought he was a failure,” Schwarz said. “Yet in revivals of his films, people are still receiving joy.”

” target=”_blank”>http://www.spinetinglermovie.com/

” target=”_blank”>http://www.automatpictures.com/index.html

Theater: Davidson’s retirement leads to ‘Lessons’


Gordon Davidson is back where he belongs, in the director’s chair.

The man whose name is practically synonymous with Los Angeles theater, who raised the city’s reputation from a provincial backwater to the breeding ground for innovative and controversial plays, retired in the summer of 2005 as founding artistic director of the Center Theatre Group.

Now he has resumed his craft, not at the Mark Taper Forum, the site of many of his triumphs and some failures for 38 seasons, but at the more modest venue of the Strasberg Creative Center’s Marilyn Monroe Theatre in West Hollywood.

Davidson has taken an hour off from the final rehearsal of Wendy Graf’s “Lessons” and, sitting in a hastily borrowed office offstage, he appears physically little changed from our last interview seven years ago.

At 73, he remains lean and distinctive, and his signature prominent black eyebrows continue to set off his enviable shock of white hair. Davidson seems weary as our conversation begins, but he becomes more animated as he talks about his new play, the joys and sorrows of retirement, and his ongoing exploration of what it means to be an American Jew in the 21st century.

“Lessons” is a two-character play about Ben, a man in his 70s, played by Hal Linden, and a 40-something rabbi, Ruth, portrayed by Larissa Laskin.

“Ben remembers his Orthodox grandfather, how as a boy he was drawn to and also repelled by his constant davening,” Davidson explains.

“Ben’s father returns from World War II, suffering from post-traumatic stress, and rejects all religion. Ben’s mother is mainly interested in being an American; she’s a ‘watered-down Jew,’ who has both a Christmas tree and a menorah,” he continues.

Ben enjoys dancing and baseball, has no connection to Jewish life, but one day someone convinces him to take a trip to Israel and suggests the name of a teacher for some basic Hebrew lessons.

The teacher is Ruth, a rabbi, who has lost her calling and her faith after her daughter, in Israel to celebrate her bat mitzvah, is killed in a terrorist attack.

Ruth now makes a living teaching Hebrew, but her new elderly pupil soon grows bored with the lessons. One day, Ben announces that he wants to have the bar mitzvah he missed as a boy and asks Ruth to prepare him for the rite of passage.

“It’s a provocative play,” Davidson says. “It’s about the nature of faith and the mystery of religion, the mystery of God and Torah. The play doesn’t preach; it has no easy answers.”

Davidson says that he has discovered some parallels to his own heritage in the play.

“I guess we’re the prototype of the American Jewish family,” he reminisces. “My paternal grandfather, born in a small town near Kiev, was Orthodox, my father was Conservative, and I’m Reform.”

He remembers vividly as a Brooklyn-born youngster visiting his grandfather in Hartford, Conn. One of young Gordon’s tasks was to tear a roll of toilet paper into individual tissues, so that the old man wouldn’t have to desecrate Shabbat by performing menial chores.

There is another family angle to how Davidson came to direct “Lessons.” His son Adam, who won an Oscar with his first short film (“The Lunch Date,” in 1989), had directed an earlier version of the play in 2005 for the West Coast Jewish Theatre, which is co-presenting the current production.

Two years later, the Jewish Theatre and The Group at Strasberg suggested a revival with the same director, but the younger Davidson was tied up with a television series and sent the script to his father for consideration.

The elder Davidson was fascinated by the play’s concept, but both he and playwright Graf felt that the drama needed major surgery, particularly in the character of Ben.

“The result is that we now have an entirely new play,” Graf says.

How does a famous father feel about coming off the bench to pinch-hit for his son?

“I was very proud that he asked me to take over,” the father replies.

When Gordon Davidson retired after 38 years and 300 productions at the Taper, later adding the Ahmanson and Kirk Douglas theaters, he was hailed as much for his personal characteristics as his professional achievements.

“Gordon is just a huge mensch,” playwright Tony Kushner said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. “He’s what the word means. And he’s haimish.”

Kushner’s “Angels in America” was one of the most celebrated works nourished by Davidson at the Taper, but it was only one in a long list of distinguished plays he produced or directed in Los Angeles, as well as on Broadway.

Among them are “The Kentucky Cycle” which, with “Angels in America,” won back-to-back Pulitzer prizes for drama; “In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer,” “The Trial of the Catonsville Nine,” “Zoot Suit,” “Children of a Lesser God,” “I Ought to Be in Pictures” and “QED.”

He also met with less rapturous receptions — well, he bombed — with two Shakespearean plays, as director of “Hamlet” and producer of “Julius Caesar.”

Davidson sees himself as an integrated human being, who does not like to compartmentalize himself as a Jew, an American or an artist.

But given his own heritage, the prominence of Jewish playwrights and his large Jewish core audience, inevitably a considerable number of his productions touched on Jewish themes.

Among them were “The Deputy,” his first play at the UCLA Theatre Group, the Taper’s forerunner; as well as Taper productions, “The Dybbuk,” “I Ought to Be in Pictures,” “Number Our Days,” “Tales From Hollywood,” “The American Clock,” “Green Card,” “The Immigrant” and “Ghetto.”

Davidson’s own Jewish connection has been strongly reinforced by his wife, Judy, who was raised in an observant and Zionist family and who heads her own arts-oriented public relations company.

The couple lives in Santa Monica, in a house once owned by émigré screenwriter Salka Viertel and the one-time social center for such illustrious exiles as Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Bertolt Brecht, Lion Feuchtwanger, Arnold Schoenberg, Bruno Walter, Franz Werfel and others.

Sex and The 30-Something Professional


Before David Rouda became a stage director and writer, he was an internationally ranked rower who placed 17th in the 1999 World Rowing Championships. Rouda, who started training as a sculler at 13, won six Gold Medals at the Maccabee Games and just missed qualifying for the 2000 Olympics.

The discipline he brought to rowing informed his years as a lawyer and his current work as a dramatist, whose plays “Pomp & Circumstance” and “Sperm Warfare” are being staged at the Matrix Theater. While these two one-acts do seem to go on a bit long, they both feature a great deal of humor and revolve around the issues of 30-something men as they attempt to make it in the worlds of law and business.

The set of “Pomp & Circumstance” is a courtroom, surrounded by two law offices. Like David E. Kelley and many lawyers before him, Rouda knows his way around a trial scene, but he also knows his way around the Bible and Jewish law. Perhaps the funniest part of “Pomp & Circumstance” is the denouement when an Orthodox Jew who has been victimized by Viagra becomes entranced by the Song of Songs, which he recites for his sex-starved wife.

Rouda says he grew up “Reform, meaning I had a Christmas tree,” but he understands the Talmudic distinctions regarding a Jewish marriage. He also understands what it’s like being a single guy dating older women in San Francisco, where he lives as a fourth-generation San Franciscan.
“Sperm Warfare” focuses on a couple seeking in-vitro fertilization. Like “Pomp & Circumstance,” it deals with phallic concerns. At one point, the lead refers to himself as “an emasculated hermaphro-dad.”

Rouda might overdo it on occasion when his characters complete each others’ sentences with a flourish of alliteration, but he will make you laugh with lines like, “You’re not just a sperm dispenser to me.”

The 40-year-old playwright, who has a degree in rhetoric from UC Berkeley and a law degree from the University of San Francisco, says that one of his frustrations with law was spending “two years of drudgery” and then “right before the premiere” the other side settles out of court and “you don’t get to show” your work to anyone.

Rouda is now based in Los Angeles and the Matrix shows mark his Hollywood premiere. He still has a home in San Francisco but he says that being a writer isn’t so easy in the Bay Area: “In San Francisco, it’s outside the scope of what other people are doing.”

“Pomp & Circumstance” and “Sperm Warfare” play through April 15 at the Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles. For reservations, call (800) 838-3006. For more information, visit the Matrix Theatre
” target=”_blank”>www.davidrouda.com

Maestro’s mission is to restore banned composers’ music


After conducting a performance in Germany of the Cologne Opera in 1993, James Conlon turned on his car radio and was riveted by a symphonic poem awash in wave-like melodies. He was so mesmerized that he sat in his car with the motor running, long after he arrived home, to hear the announcer reveal the name of the lush work and its composer.

He learned that the piece was “Die Seejungfrau” (“The Mermaid”), and that the Austrian-Jewish composer, Alexander von Zemlinsky, had been a major figure in pre-World War II Europe. But then the Nazis banned his music, and Zemlinsky was forced to flee to the United States, where he fell into obscurity, suffered a series of strokes and ceased composing.

The story proved ear-opening for Conlon, the new music director of Los Angeles Opera.”I became passionate about this subject [of composers persecuted by Hitler],” he says in an interview in his second-floor office at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. “In the course of learning and studying about Zemlinsky, I became familiar with other names … and realized that there is a whole era of music about which we know very little.”

Conlon became a maestro with a mission: to help revive the music of composers banned (and often murdered) by the Nazis.

His crusade will continue with a new production of the Kurt Weill-Bertolt Brecht opera, “The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny,” Feb. 10-March 4 for the Los Angeles Opera. Also in March, Conlon will unveil a new L.A. Opera project, “Recovered Voices,” with two concerts of music by Zemlinsky and other banned composers.

One of them, Erwin Schulhoff, died of tuberculosis in the Wulzburg concentration camp, and Viktor Ullman wrote his last, defiant opera in Theriesienstadt — the “model” camp the Nazis created to deceive the International Red Cross — before being sent off to be gassed.

Weill was luckier, escaping Berlin by car just after the Nazis assumed power in 1933. The musician topped Hitler’s musical hit list because he was a popular Jewish composer and because his operas incorporated agitprop with the “entartete [degenerate] Musik” of jazz.

Nazi thugs disturbed performances of his “The Threepenny Opera,” also with text by dramatist Brecht. In 1930, Brown Shirts staged a riot during the premiere of “Mahagonny,” causing fistfights in the aisles that spread to the stage.

“Mahagonny” is sardonic opera, a parable of Weimar Germany on the brink of Nazi rule. It follows three fugitives who establish a town where everything is legal, so long as it can be paid for. This morally bankrupt city soon attracts a community of lowlifes, criminals, prostitutes and the occasional hapless proletarian.

Weill’s jazz-meets-neoclassical score punctuates scenes in which residents revel in an orgy; a glutton stuffs himself, then drops dead from a heart attack, and a lumberjack is executed for the town’s only crime — running out of cash.

Although “Threepenny” (and Weill) eventually became hits on Broadway, “Mahagonny” didn’t fare so well. This “towering masterpiece hasn’t entered the standard repertoire,” the Dallas Morning News noted in 2000 in a discussion at the time of Weill’s centenary celebration.

Conlon hopes to increase the profile of this social and political satire, which he believes resonates today.

“We see humanity in all its foibles,” he said of the opera which will be performed in an English translation of the German. “We see the rise and fall of a civilization in this tiny microcosm of a small town.”

At press time, Conlon had agreed to set his “Mahagonny” in another Sin City — Las Vegas — during a period that spans the entire 20th century. With opera officials, he cast Audra McDonald as Jenny, the prostitute; Patti LuPone as Mrs. Begbick, the madam; and hired as director John Doyle, winner of the 2006 Tony Award for his revival of the musical, “Sweeney Todd.” Conlon sees “Mahagonny” as a cross between opera and musical theater.

“In that cabaret style, there lies its genius,” he says.

Although “Recovered Voices” is part of a musical trend — a cause taken up by institutions such as the Jewish Museum of Vienna — Conlon is perhaps the most prominent artist to champion the repertoire.

“He is giving it a great profile,” says Bret Werb, a musicologist at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

“Among the American conductors, he is really doing things,” says E. Randol Schoenberg, grandson of banned composer Arnold Schoenberg. “He really wants to devote a big part of his time here in Los Angeles to this music.”

Conlon — named a top U.S. conductor by Opera News — says his motivations are multifold.

“The moral imperative is very simple,” he begins. “You cannot undo the injustice of these ruined lives, but you can undo the one thing that would have meant more to them than anything else, which is to play their music.”

His project isn’t meant to be just a memorial, however. “This music has to be of artistic importance, so I’m not remembering every person who ever put a pen to paper,” he says.

“Next there is the historical perspective. Because of the Nazi suppression, people fell off the map…. So we have written out history and made analyses of history from a musicological standpoint which is incomplete.”

So why was this music ultimately forgotten?

“After the war, you had a population that had been thinned out of its greatest talent,” Conlon says. “You do not have persons who have direct contact with that music or those composers, and you do not have people who had any particular sympathy for many of these victims.

“Arnold Schoenberg was one of the greatest geniuses who was lucky enough to have survived and come to America, where he had a forum for his ideas,” Conlon continues.Schoenberg’s atonal serial music took the classical world by storm.

“Composers whose music did not completely fall into that category got lost,” he said. “Then, with electronic music in the picture, there was no interest in those composers who had gotten lost in the shuffle in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s.”

I Ate the Whole Thing!


I Ate the Whole Thing!

Rap music and matzah balls? Hey, Jews can rap. Just ask the group, Chutzpah, which showed up in full rapping gear for the weighing of the 26-pound-matzah ball at Canter’s Deli last week to celebrate the DVD release of “When Do We Eat?” The weights and measures officials arrived in uniform to record the official weight to send to Guinness, and guests and regulars ogled the giant treat. Not exactly like grandma used to make, but in this case bigger was better.

The matzah ball weigh-in was all part of the 75th anniversary celebration for the legendary L.A. deli, with Assemblyman Paul Koretz doing the honors of presenting an official proclamation from the state of California. Alan Canter, representing the second generation of family ownership, accepted the honor; he has spent practically his whole life keeping Canter’s one of Southern California’s most beloved and long-lasting dining establishments.

Koretz saluted the restaurant for its many years of great food, legendary service and extensive community involvement.

Two longstanding employees, head waitress Jean Cocchiaro and manager and main sandwich man George Karkabasis — considered by many to be the fastest and best sandwichmaker in town — were also surprised with certificates of commendation.

Together, they have worked at Canter’s for more than 100 years! Jacqueline, Gary and Mark Canter were on hand to celebrate their family’s famous fressing history with Dad, Alan.

The Canters reminisced about old times with Koretz, noting the table where Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller sat on Friday nights, the visits from sports stars like Wilt Chamberlain and Hank Aaron, the joking of regulars like Jack Benny and Buddy Hackett.

Solidarity Brother

Responding to the crisis in Israel, Rabbi Eli Herscher, senior rabbi of Stephen S. Wise Temple, and the synagogue’s director of education, Metuka Benjamin, quickly organized a solidarity mission to Israel. The group of 21 congregants met with high-level military and political leadership for a crisis update, visited military bases directly involved in the conflict and experienced first-hand the mobilization of essential services for Israelis in the north who were directly affected by this war. Herscher and Benjamin led the temple’s leadership as they brought gifts to wounded soldiers at Rambam Hospital in Haifa. They also visited a summer camp organized by the Joint Distribution Committee to serve children affected by the bombings in the Haifa area and met with handicapped Israelis who were evacuated to hotels in the center of the country. The temple has scheduled three other Israel missions for the coming year and raised $1.4 million dollars toward meeting Israel’s immediate crisis needs.

Zev on the Mount

Mount Sinai Memorial Parks and Mortuaries named Bob Zev director of marketing. Zev, who has a bachelor’s from CSUN and an MBA from USC, has more than 15 years of marketing and communications experience serving as the vice president of marketing for a financial institution.

Zev grew up in Los Angeles, became a bar mitzvah at Sinai Temple, and attended Hillel Hebrew Academy, Hebrew High School, Camp Ramah and spent a year in Israel at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

‘Lost’ in the Art World

Even though Jack Bender didn’t win the best director Emmy Sunday night for his work on “Lost,” he was very much a winner at the premiere of his one-man show, “Found” at the Timothy Yarger Fine Art Gallery in Beverly Hills on Aug. 26. The exhibition was a “lost and found” of sorts for Bender’s friends, colleagues and admirers, who all converged onto the swanky gallery floors to view his colorful, explosive mixed-media paintings and, of course, to socialize.

The paintings could hardly be viewed through the talkative crowd of well-dressed art lovers, gallery clients and Bender’s circle of friends, who were sipping vodka-based cocktails named in Bender’s honor, such as “On a Bender” and “Castaway.” Across from “The Hatch Painting,” made famous for its appearance in “Lost,” students from View Park Prep in South L.A. played smooth jazz for the guests.

Among the celebs present to gush over Bender’s artwork were actress Blythe Danner; Jacqueline Bisset; J.J. Abrams, creator of “Lost”; Carlton Cuse, “Lost” producer; “Lost” star Evangeline Lily (who plays Kate) and “Sex and the City” actor Evan Handler (Charlotte’s Jewish husband).

“I don’t know how he did all of these,” Danner enthused to Entertainment Tonight, at the gallery.

Works exhibited are those he completed during breaks from filming “Lost” in Hawaii these past two years. Bender has been painting ever since he was a teen.Lilly, however, wasn’t surprised by Bender’s creative output on display: “It’s an expression and extension of himself,” she told The Journal in the gallery’s backroom, where Bender shared exhibition space with Chagall and Picasso. “He’s very spontaneous as a director and doesn’t like to premeditate things.”Bender summed up the evening: “It’s wonderful to be in this extraordinary environment. Hopefully it’s the beginning of a long ride.”

— Orit Arfa, Contributing Writer

Beit T’Shuvah’s New President Honored

Brindell Gottlieb recently opened her home to celebrate Nancy Mishkin as the new president of Beit T’Shuvah. Mishkin’s two-year term with the Westside congregation and rehabilitation center began in July. The annual Steps to Recovery Gala on Jan. 28, 2007, honoring Ron Herman, Dr. Susan Krevoy and Diane Licht, will be the first event highlighting Mishkin’s presidency. Beit T’Shuvah’s mission is to insure the physical, emotional and spiritual health of individuals and families within a supportive Jewish community. For more information, call (310) 204-5200, ext. 211.

Jack Bender: ‘Lost’ and ‘Found’


Just as he has in so many past years, TV veteran Jack Bender will attend the Emmy Awards this Sunday. He’s nominated again this year in the category of Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series for his work on the hit ABC show “Lost,” for which he is also an executive producer. But after some 25 years working in television, Bender has finally gone public with his other occupation.

This weekend also marks the opening of his first major art exhibition, titled “Jack Bender FOUND,” at Timothy Yarger Fine Art, a gallery in Beverly Hills.

The themes of “lost and found,” of seeking and finding, and of faith, play a major role in “Lost,” a drama about a group of plane-crash survivors stranded on a mysterious island. But these are equally apt themes for Bender personally. He is the husband of a rabbinical student, but says his own faith is not as easily defined. And he is an artist who describes his work, both behind the camera and on canvas, as having a life of its own.

“If you’re good at directing, you let life happen,” he says, and similarly, “you have to let the painting have its voice.”

Bender tends to work quickly on his paintings, favoring bold colors and brush strokes, layering on paint as well as objects, such as Perrier bottle caps, blue jeans and vintage photographs.

In many cases, he is commenting on American society. But Bender also explains that in most of his pieces, “it’s not as much of an intellectual statement as a visceral one.”

He goes for raw emotion, creating pieces that conjure artists from Basquiat to Gauguin or Picasso.

One of his works, “Jazz Man” will be auctioned off at Saturday’s opening reception, with proceeds benefiting Friends of Washington Prep Foundation, an organization that supports and develops arts programming at George Washington Preparatory High School in South Los Angeles.

“It’s a remarkable place…. They have taken guns out of kids’ hands and given them instruments,” Bender said.

Also scheduled at the opening is a performance by The View Park Prep Jazz Combo, and one more highlight.

Bender’s “The Hatch Painting” is a mural that was featured on “Lost” last season, and has been the subject of much chat room conversation by show groupies attempting to decode its many symbols. Fans can see it in person at the gallery, but as far as secrets hidden within the work, Bender offers only this: “There are definitely Hansel and Gretel breadcrumbs in the forest there. So people should come see it.”

The 58th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards air on NBC, Sun., Aug. 27, at 8 p.m.

The opening reception for “Jack Bender: FOUND” takes place Sat., Aug. 26, at 7:30 p.m. 329 N. Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills. R.S.V.P., (310) 278-4400.

Education Giant Simha Lainer, 100


Simha Lainer
Simha Lainer, a diminutive centenarian who cut a towering figure in Jewish education in Los Angeles, died Tuesday, Aug. 8. He was 100.

“He was a giant,” said Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE) Executive Director Gil Graff. “What he did was singularly remarkable: he established scholarships for children to attend Jewish schools, he created a program fund to recognize excellence in Jewish education. The Bureau of Jewish Education sits on the Sara and Simha Lainer floor of the Jewish Federation building, and it couldn’t be more fitting than that. Everything you envision in Jewish education, this is what Sara and Simha Lainer were all about.”

Lainer was born in Ukraine in the town of Bar in 1906. He moved from Ukraine to Palestine in 1925, then to South America and to Mexico until settling in Los Angeles with his wife Sara and three children in 1951.

In Los Angeles, Lainer founded Lainer Development, specializing in industrial warehouse type properties in the San Fernando Valley. Lainer’s sons Mark, Nahum and Luis joined him in business.

“Simha once told me his three rules for business success,” Graff recounted. “His first rule was, ‘Treat your workers like family.'”

From establishing funds through the Jewish Community Foundation in Los Angeles to starting the Simha and Sara Lainer Fund for Jewish Education through the BJE of Greater Los Angeles to supporting Israel, Lainer and Sara were key supporters of the Jewish community.

The Simha and Sara Lainer Fund for Jewish Education, which Simha and Sara Lainer established in 1989, has awarded close to $1 million in scholarships to more than 1,000 children at 37 Jewish day schools of all denominations across the city.

“When you do something for Jewish life, you do it for the good of the Jewish people,” Lainer told The Journal in a 2003 interview. “For 3,000 years the Jews have lived. Other people have disappeared in that 3,000 years, but we Jews have continued to survive primarily because of Jewish education. We need to continue our existence. Not that many Jewish families understand that Jewish education is critical for the continued existence of the Jewish people.”

Lainer is survived by his sons, Mark, Nahum and Luis; daughters-in-law, Ellie, Alice and Lee; nine grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren. Funeral services are scheduled for Thursday, Aug. 3 at 2 p.m. at Mt. Sinai Memorial Parks and Mortuaries.

‘Superman’ Director Lives Out His Dream


“Whether you’re an immigrant or you’re born in the heartland, at some point we all feel like an alien.”

Those are not the words of an immigration rights attorney but rather of filmmaker Bryan Singer, whose last three films, the first two editions of “X-Men” and the upcoming “Superman Returns,” which opens on June 28 nationwide, all present parables on the current state of xenophobia pervading this country.

Of the famed Man of Steel, first introduced to comic book readers in the 1930s, Singer said, “He’s kind of the ultimate immigrant. He comes from a foreign place, adapts to the value system and has a special relationship with his heritage.”

Singer sees Superman, created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster — two Jews who were sons of immigrants — as a Judeo-Christian hero, part Moses, part Jesus. Like Moses, Superman is the boy dispatched down the metaphoric river to be discovered in the cornfields, if not the reeds, of the Midwest. Like Jesus, he has a kind of doubling with his father, voiced in the new film as in the 1978 “Superman” by the late Marlon Brando, who says, “The son becomes the father, and the father becomes the son.”

If Superman first entered popular culture when the Nazis were beginning to assert their power in Germany, he “never cleared up the problems in Europe,” Singer said. “He handled small problems; he served by example.”

Over the decades, however, through numerous incarnations in comic strips, animated shorts, television shows and films, Superman began tackling worldwide catastrophes, as he does in Singer’s new film, though he does not rescue Jews per se.

That does not mean that Superman lacks a Jewish pedigree.

As Michael Chabon suggested in his novel, “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” Siegel and Shuster, in conceptualizing Superman, may very well have been inspired by the Golem, a mythic figure in Jewish folklore, who could be built from mud and clay, according to strict rabbinic instructions, and could vanquish all evil.

Yet “Superman Returns” never implies that its protagonist, played by Brandon Routh, is of any ethnicity other than Kryptonian. If he resembles any mythological creatures, they would seem to be Greek ones. Like Atlas, Superman lifts, if not the entire planet, a huge nefarious landmass, which he hurls into space. He also catches the ornamental globe that sits atop the Daily Planet Building, a structure modeled after the art deco former home of the New York Daily News. Of course, Superman’s strength is matched by his speed as he flies through the sky like Hermes, easing a plane carrying Lois Lane, played by Kate Bosworth, into an emergency landing on a ball field.

Superman may have been in drydock for five years, as we are told in the film, but unlike Roger Clemens, he doesn’t get the benefit of a trip to the minors. He must perform at a big league level from the start, although we do see flashbacks to his youth, when he runs through the cornfields and learns how to fly, a nice touch since Superman did not fly in his early comic strips.

The 40-year-old Singer calls “Superman Returns” a “dream project” and said “it was a fantasy of mine to have Kryptonian blood,” not surprising for a man who in the 1970s loved watching reruns of the “Superman” TV show starring George Reeves. But Singer did not read the comics as a child. To this day, he suffers from dyslexia, which still impedes his efforts at reading. He likes to read short stories, but he did not even know about the “X-Men” until he was assigned to direct the first movie of that franchise.

While “X-Men” and “X2,” which came out in 2000 and 2003, respectively, predate the current illegal immigration crisis, they, like all of Singer’s films, deal with the human capacity for evil and for persecuting outsiders, whoever they may be.

Like Superman, the mutants in the “X-Men” movies are not simply stand-ins for illegal immigrants. They are heroic, if in some cases demonic, fantasies of the other — the outsider in all of us.

As a gay, adopted, agnostic Jew, Singer has always been drawn to the otherness of these superheroes, though he chuckles when asked about a recent Los Angeles Times article that highlighted Superman’s gay appeal. “If you look at my career,” he said, “I’ve probably never made a more heterosexual movie before.”

None of his previous studio movies may have had an explicit gay theme to them, but “The Usual Suspects,” his 1995 breakthrough film, which received much buzz for its plot twists, subversion of the noir genre and brilliant ensemble cast, may be best remembered for the Oscar-winning performance of Kevin Spacey, essaying Verbal Kint, a criminal mastermind of dubious sexuality.

Singer followed that with 1998’s “Apt Pupil,” in which Brad Renfro plays a high school student obsessed with the Holocaust and with a former Nazi living in his neighborhood. The film featured some baroque horror touches, such as when Ian McKellen’s Nazi tries to stuff a cat in an oven, and Singer even framed a few longing looks between the 16-year-old boy and his Nazi mentor, cut next to a shot of the boy’s indifferent response to the sexual advances of his girlfriend.

Then came “X-Men” and “X2,” McCarthyite allegories that among other provocations featured McKellen, the Nazi in “Apt Pupil,” as a Holocaust survivor, who like Darth Vader has turned to the dark side.

“X2,” in particular, showed us non-Geneva-friendly torture taking place in prison cells that but for their high-tech gadgetry might remind one of Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo. There are also congressional and presidential calls for mandatory mutant registration, prescient in the wake of today’s immigration legislation proposals, and, of course, a teenage son coming out to his parents that he is a mutant, prompting the altogether familiar reply from his mother, “Can’t you just not be a mutant?”

While Singer wants as broad an audience as possible to enjoy the film, he particularly wants “older people and women to have an emotional experience,” he said. Unlike his past films, “Superman Returns” is, Singer said, “a romantic picture.”

It is also a film with a long and troubled past. Over the last decade, numerous actors and directors were attached to the film, whose budget, like its superhero, seemed to know no bounds. None of that history worried Singer, who got a chance to reshape the storyline and, indeed, has a story credit on the film. It also helped that he used some of his regular repertory of actors, such as Spacey, playing yet another notable villain: Lex Luthor.

Singer’s first real understanding of evil came when, as a boy of 9 or 10, he dressed up as a Nazi one day while playing a World War II game with his German neighbors in Princeton Junction, N.J. He came home wearing a swastika.

Singer’s mother admonished him, but it wasn’t until a few years later, when his junior high school teacher, Miss Fiscarelli, taught an entire unit in social studies on the Holocaust, that he gained a greater understanding as to why his mother had been so troubled. That class changed Singer’s “whole perception of what people are capable of anywhere,” he said.

“Superman Returns” is not directly about Nazis, and its diabolical antagonist is more over-the-top than menacing, yet Singer does not discount the possibility of future genocides.

“The German culture [at the time of the Holocaust] was extremely artistic, extremely sophisticated and extremely advanced,” he said, proving that “anywhere, any place, any century, it’s possible, and any person is capable of it.”

“Superman Returns” opens nationwide on June 28.

 

Schools Give Prum-Hess High Marks


Last year, two Los Angeles schools applied for and won MATCH grants, which are awarded each year by a consortium of Jewish education foundations that reward day schools for cultivating new donors. The grants brought in more than $100,000.

This spring, 13 day schools were awarded the same grant, bringing in $1.5 million.

What changed?

Miriam Prum-Hess, director of day school operations for the Bureau of Jewish Education, entered the Los Angeles Jewish day school picture, and she alerted schools to the opportunity and guided them through the process.

Prum-Hess, an experienced and admired Federation executive, took on a new role working on behalf of day schools last year, an effort to increase the level of professionalism and efficiency in all nonacademic areas. She has become the central address for day schools looking for expertise on operational issues — fundraising strategies, legal advice, business decisions, purchasing, and human resources. During the past 18 months she has examined the big picture of what the city’s 37 days schools — of all denominations — need, and has run seminars, consulted with the school administrators and lay leaders and opened up new resources to meet those needs.

Since Los Angeles’ Federation is the first to fund such a position, national Jewish leaders have trained their eyes here to see how things turn out.

“The whole model that undergirds Miriam’s position, which is that a central agency should have a professional dedicated to helping day schools build their capacities, is from our perspective just 100 percent sound,” said Rabbi Joshua Elkin, executive director of the Boston-based Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE), which works off a similar model on a national scale. “It is a very important strategy in enabling day schools to grow themselves from the inside by focusing on all the things they need to be strong.”

Local educators have welcomed Prum-Hess, who visited all of Los Angeles’ Jewish schools in her first few months on the job, which she started in December 2004.

“I have been involved with the Bureau [of Jewish Education] as a head of school here for 20 years, and for me adding Miriam was the most significant change in the entire time I’ve been here,” says Lana Marcus, head of school at Adat Ari El, a Conservative kindergarten through eighth grade day school in Valley Village. Marcus credits Prum-Hess for enabling her to win a MATCH grant worth $275,000.

One of Prum-Hess’s primary goals is to bring more money into the schools to bring relief both to parents struggling to pay tuition and administrators struggling to make the budget. She is working with The Federation, the Jewish Community Foundation and BJE Executive Director Gil Graff to set up a $20 million community endowment fund.

But while that is in the works, she is helping schools tap into government and foundation money they can access immediately.

To qualify for the MATCH grants, funded by a consortium of foundations under the leadership of PEJE, the Jewish Funders Network and the Avi Chai Foundation, schools had to generate gifts of at least $25,000 from donors who had not previously given a major gift to a day school.

A BJE-sponsored seminar in November 2005 helped schools gain enough confidence and expertise to approach new donors. Twenty-three schools attended, and more than half of those received one-on-one coaching as a follow-up.

Thirteen schools — of all denominations and sizes — were able to raise a combined $1 million, and the foundations matched 50 cents to the dollar.

In addition, 12 schools this year brought in more than $1 million in grants from the Department of Homeland Security.

Schools credit the BJE-sponsored seminars for giving them the information and know-how to pursue these opportunities.

“It forced a lot of the schools to go outside of their comfort zones and look for new donors or push people they were working with before to go above and beyond what they were doing,” said Alain R’bibo, a lay leader at Or Hachaim Academy, a 3-year-old Sephardic elementary school in North Hollywood. The school, affiliated with Adat Yeshurun Congregation, qualified for the MATCH grants. “Miriam reaches out to make sure we get information and find out about what programs are available.”

In December 2004, the Federation transferred Prum-Hess, then vice president of planning and allocations, into the BJE, where she took on the newly created portfolio of Day School Capacity Building to deal with operational issues for 37 schools, which have a combined budget of $138 million. The Federation funded her salary for two years and BJE funded her expenses such as office support and travel. A Jewish Community Foundation grant of $50,000 provided much of the programming fund.

Federation President John Fishel said that senior Federation leadership has asked the planning and allocation committee to continue funding Prum-Hess’s position past the initial two-year commitment.

“Her work is extremely important and she’s making a difference in the day schools,” Fishel said. “She has accomplished more in a year and a half then I would have anticipated. It’s very impressive.”

Prum-Hess says that every one of the day schools in the L.A. area has participated in at least one of her programs over the past year, most of them in more than one.

“The really exciting thing for me is how open and hungry for this the schools are,” said Prum-Hess, who herself has two kids in day school.

The BJE has hosted seminars on board development, fundraising, legal and tax issues, management training and grant-getting. All of these came with follow-up one-on-one consulting, providing the schools enough expert guidance to implement what they learned at the seminars.

Prum-Hess has also negotiated joint purchasing for items such as copier contracts — a huge budget item for schools — and is looking into jointly purchasing employee benefits. A consortium of lawyers specializing in school issues is now available at a minimal cost.

She has launched a marketing campaign, starting with research aimed at decoding why so many parents who send their little ones to Jewish preschool pull them out for grade school.

These are questions that all Jewish schools share, and Prum-Hess is happy to be there to answer. For the first time, principals and directors say, they feel like they know whom to call with questions unrelated to pedagogy or curriculum. They know they have someone who can take a step-back and evaluate objectively.

“What she has done in 15 months for a system with 37 schools is remarkable,” PEJE’s Elkin said. “At PEJE we see this as one of the really outstanding models for helping to grow and sustain strong and excellent Jewish day schools in North America.”

 

‘Steins’ Skewers Simcha Rivalry


“Keeping Up With the Steins” proves that you don’t have to be Jewish to make a funny, insider Jewish film, or that if you grow up in the Bronx or went to school in North Hollywood, you become a Jew by osmosis.

Case in point is the son-father team of Scott and Garry Marshall, with the younger one directing the movie and the older one just about stealing the show as a hippie Jewish grandfather, who teaches his yuppie descendants that there’s more to a bar mitzvah than throwing the most lavish party in Brentwood.

The film opens with an aerial shot of a Queen Mary-sized cruise ship, whose bow displays a giant banner “Mazal Tov, Zachary.” The theme of the modest celebration is the last voyage of the Titanic, complete with a huge iceberg mockup, from which emerge a bevy of scantily clad mermaids — and that’s just for the appetizer.

Hosting the simcha is Arnie Stein (Larry Miller), “agent for the stars” and his trophy wife, who met at a Texas wet T-shirt contest.

Among the guests, and gnashing his teeth, is Adam Fiedler (Jeremy Piven, also slick agent Ari Gold in the HBO series “Entourage”), Stein’s business competitor, accompanied by his wife Joanne (Jami Gertz) and nerdy-looking son Benjamin (Daryl Sabara), whose own bar mitzvah is coming up in a few months.

Driving home from the Titanic bash, Adam Fiedler starts obsessing about his own heir’s bar mitzvah party. It’s not enough to keep up with the Steins — he has to put on a bash that will crush and humiliate his rival.

Safaris are so 1990, but renting Dodger Stadium is a possibility. At night, Adam dreams about a line of yarmulke-wearing Laker Girls as a bar mitzvah highlight.

As Adam’s fevered mind nears the breaking point, up pops his father, Irwin (Garry Marshall), pony-tailed and hippie-clad, along with his spaced-out blonde girlfriend Sandy (Daryl Hannah), whom he met on an Indian reservation, where her name is Sacred Flower.

Irwin deserted his wife, Rose (Doris Roberts), and young family 26 years ago, and Adam, who hasn’t seen or talked to his father since, has never forgiven him.

Father-son relations go from bad to worse when Irwin and Sandy go skinny-dipping in the family pool (in public view but backsides only), although the old hippie has better luck bonding with his grandson Benjamin.

Gradually it dawns on the boy, his parents and his up-to-date rabbi (who is busy preparing for his “Bill O’Reilly Show” appearance to discuss “The Passion of the Jews” and is portrayed by Richard Benjamin) that maybe, just maybe, the religious and spiritual aspects of the rite of passage are more important than the prize for the most ostentatious party.

Garry Marshall, born 72 years ago under the good Italian family name of Marscharelli, said that his son, the director, picked him for the grandfather role as “his 10th choice.”

In truth, agreed Scott Marshall, 37, he had first tried to cast Carl Reiner or Mel Brooks, but both balked at the skinny-dipping part. When he finally approached his father, the latter asked who would be his pool partner. Told it would be Hannah, Garry Marshall quickly agreed.

During a joint interview at the Marshall family-built and run Falcon Theatre in Burbank, father and son noted their qualifications as honorary Jews.

Garry, whose credits as comedy writer, producer, actor and director (film, television and now opera) stretch from “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” of the 1960s, through TV’s “Mork and Mindy” to such films as “Pretty Woman” and the recent “The Princess Diaries 2,” pointed to his Bronx boyhood and accent.

However, his real education came as decades-long comedy writer, when he was thoroughly indoctrinated with Jewish and Yiddish humor by his fellow scribes.

Scott, directing his first full-length feature film, passed the ethnic test when he had to convince “Steins” producer A.D. Oppenheim that he could do justice to the script by Mark Zakarin, even if he wasn’t Jewish.

“I told the producer that I married a Jewish woman, and therefore, in a way, I have a Jewish mother,” Scott Marshall said. “Luckily, that was close enough.”

He further strengthened his case during the interview by referring to “bubbe’s latkes” and his education at the Oakwood School in North Hollywood.

“When I was in seventh grade, I went to over-the-top bar mitzvahs all the time,” Scott Marshall recalled. “At that age, it was about the only place you could meet girls and socialize.”

He met his future wife at the school and even tried his hand at writing a youthful bar mitzvah party script.

“Steins” was shot in 25 days in Brentwood and other parts of Los Angeles, with the synagogue scenes filmed at Adat Ari El in Valley Village.

After shooting three separate bar mitzvah ceremonies or parties for the movie, Scott Marshall noted “Through this experience, I feel I have finally become a man.”

“Keeping Up With The Steins,” a Miramax film, opens May 12 at selected theaters.

 

9/11 Museum Head Uses Shoah Lessons


Alice Greenwald vividly recalls touring the Auschwitz concentration camp with a Holocaust survivor and watching how the woman shared her story with her children and grandchildren.

It was as if she was trying to instruct her heirs as to the kind of people she wanted them to become, Greenwald remembers.

“What struck me about that experience was that in a world that exists after something like Auschwitz happens, every one of us is her grandchildren,” she said. “We all are obligated to understand what it means to be a human being and the kind of people our parents and grandparents want us to be.”

For more than two decades, Greenwald has been helping to give people a palpable understanding of the Holocaust through her work with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

Beginning this month, she will turn her attention to another terrible atrocity: Greenwald was named in February as the first director of the World Trade Center Memorial Museum in New York, which will commemorate the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and their nearly 3,000 victims.

“Where the two [events] intersect for me in my professional life is in the area of memorialization,” she said recently in her Holocaust Museum office in Washington. “We deal with great loss here at this museum, incomprehensible loss. And we deal with trying to integrate that loss into our collective understanding of history, our personal history of what it means to be a human being.”

Greenwald was a member of the Holocaust Museum’s original design team, working from home as a consultant after stints with Jewish museums in Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Chicago. She joined the museum full-time in 2001 as its associate director for museum programs.

Gretchen Dykstra, president and CEO of the World Trade Center Memorial Foundation, said Greenwald immediately understood the memorial’s goals.

“What struck us so quickly was how immediately she understood the sensitivity of what we were doing,” she said. “She’s not somebody who comes knowing a lot about 9/11, but she knows a lot about memorializing and education.”

The hardest part in designing the New York museum, Greenwald said, is that “there isn’t a human being on the face of the planet who doesn’t have a 9/11 story.”

Greenwald herself was unpacking boxes in her new Washington home on that day, having just moved from Philadelphia. Her husband, on an Amtrak train bound for New York, had called to ask if she knew why he and his business associates weren’t moving.

The carpenter working in her home heard her gasp when she turned on the television. They watched the second tower fall together, and immediately embraced.

“This was a man I knew for 10 minutes,” she said. “And we hugged each other in an embrace, watching the television in complete disbelief, because we needed to be with another human being in that moment.”

Emotions are still very raw for those who survived the Sept. 11 attack, and for the families of those who died. But Greenwald has experience dealing directly with survivors and families who may visit the museum.

“Other museums have other constituency issues, but I don’t think they have to deal with the sensitivities we have [at the Holocaust Museum],” she said. “We are immensely fortunate to have the voice of authentic witnesses.”

The proximity in time to the event will be one of her biggest challenges in New York, she said.

“The institution will have to be flexible, because the world will keep moving forward and we don’t know what events will re-characterize our understanding of 9/11,” she said.

She has watched the Holocaust Museum evolve, noting that it was built before “Schindler’s List” and other mass-media portrayals of the Shoah.

The Sept. 11 museum will be part of several structures planned for the area where the World Trade Center stood. The foundation is constructing the museum and a separate memorial, Reflecting Absence, that will honor those killed on Sept. 11 and in a previous attack at the World Trade Center on Feb. 26, 1993.

A visitor’s center and performing arts building also are being planned. Half the site has been zoned for new office buildings, which are being erected separately.

The museum will highlight the magnitude of the attacks, as well as the global response and civic rebuilding.

“You are dealing with a site that is a burial site. People died there. That gives it a sacred quality one has to respect,” Greenwald said.

She compared it to the Holocaust Museum, which she said garners its power from its proximity to other memorials and buildings of power in Washington.

Dykstra said she has been struck by the Holocaust Museum’s impact on visitors, and hopes to replicate that.

“I think what the Holocaust Museum does so beautifully is it takes a historic series of events and personalizes them in a way that universalizes them,” she said. “It’s overwhelming but not didactic.”

The Sept. 11 museum is slated to open on the eighth anniversary of the attacks, in 2009. Greenwald said there is much to be done before then, and she is excited to be a part of this “thrilling” stage of a museum’s birth.

“Each stage will have its own challenges and its own rewards,” she said. She calls it a “Dayenu situation,” saying that if she can at least advance the plans, it would be enough — although she hopes to see the museum built and operating.

“We have to remember that it’s about people,” she said. “There’s a tendency to want to memorialize the building, and there is some significance to that. But this is not a memorial to a building; it’s a memorial to people.”

 

Misguided Passion About Gibson’s Film


The great 20th century philosopher, Martin Buber, had an uncanny ability to speak to ecumenical gatherings. He would often begin his lectures highlighting the many theological tenets shared by Jews and Christians.

“Jews,” he said, “believe the Messiah has yet to come.” To which he added, “Christians believe the messiah has come, and they are waiting for his — Jesus’ — return.”

Concluding his introduction he quipped, “Let us pray and work together for the Messiah’s arrival, and when he gets here, we’ll ask if he’s been here before!”

In anticipation of Easter, a slightly modified version of “The Passion of the Christ,” the film by actor and director Mel Gibson, and screenwriter Benedict Fitzgerald, has been re-released. The second coming if you will. This re-cut version is widely available in a DVD gift format.

In light of the film’s reappearance, it is worth recalling what happened before the movie’s initial debut back on Good Friday of 2004. At the time, much of the Jewish community was in shock — panic struck — worried the film would stir-up anti-Semitic feelings. The Anti-Defamation League, under the direction of Abe Foxman, led the charge.

Newspapers and magazines were filled with articles largely condemning the work. Opinions were cast like stones, often expressed by those who had not even seen the movie. From Jerusalem, Rome, New York and Los Angeles, and all points in between and beyond, comments flew every which way. Even ailing Pope John Paul II at the time allegedly uttered an opinion on the film that sounded more like a papal edict. “It is as it was.”

After people started seeing the film in huge numbers, another shock was in store for many Jews, who continue to hold a medieval understanding of Jewish-Christian relations: Anti-Semitism did not re-surface or intensify as a result of the film’s release.

In fairness to those who continue to hold anachronistic points of view, such fears about Christianity were not always unjustified. Throughout history, mainly European history, the passion plays’ depiction of deicide generated horrific hatred against Jews. Such performances were banned in Rome in 1539, because they led to murderous rampages on the Jewish ghetto. Much later, in 1934, Hitler himself referred to the plays as: “precious tools.”

Now, with a perspective on Gibson’s film that comes with experience, hardly a sound can be heard from Jewish leaders: no outcries; no expressed, projected worries of accelerated anti-Semitism. But there also have been no apologetic retractions of the earlier aspersions. Given all the negative reactions and expressed fear prior to the film’s original release, an open re-evaluation by Jews is in order.

All along, “The Passion of the Christ” ought to have been seen as a t?te-?-t?te opportunity, a chance to inaugurate a dialogue to elucidate and clarify the similarities and differences of these two great, monotheistic religions. The movie understandably targets a largely Christian viewing audience, but its platform is derived from Judaism. Jesus was born a Jew, lived as a Jew and, yes, died a Jew. Over time, like Judaism, Christianity evolved. For any number of reasons, it parted with conventional Jewish thought and theology.

Consider the following three examples from “The Passion of the Christ” and the theology it embodies.

1 — Original Sin.

Derived from the Bible’s Garden of Eden narrative, most Christian interpretation holds human beings inherently sinful because of Adam’s (and Eve’s) initial disobedience of God. Unlike Christianity, Judaism holds the human soul is born pure and unadulterated. The Jewish perspective grows out of the ideal that holds individuals accountable for their actions — not their ancestors, biblical or otherwise.

2 — Faith vs. Law.

The apostle Paul — also a Jew by birth — had an all-or-nothing perception of Jewish law: If you have not fulfilled all of the Bible’s laws perfectly, then you are a sinner. But think about it: It would be a virtual indictment of God to suggest that God would create less-than-perfect human beings and then condemn them for being imperfect.

3 — The Messiah.

This subject is, of course, the thematic crux of the blockbuster film. The substantive difference between Jew and Christian on this issue revolves around the divinity of Jesus. “The Passion” has generated so much passion because it tells not merely of the death of Jesus the man, or even Jesus the messiah. Far more significant for Jews is the indictment in the film — drawn from the New Testament — that some Jews collaborated in the death of God. Call it what it was: an unadulterated deicide.

As a Jew, what is baffling to me is how anyone thinks you can actually kill God. Ignore God — yes; disbelieve in God — of course that happens. But if there is one area where Jews and Christians ought to agree, it is this: God is infinite, omnipotent and transcendent. Further, all human beings are created by God and in God’s image — no matter one’s faith.

These are just three important points of discussion the film raises. Their consideration can and should lead to honest, inspiring, open, soul-searching questions. Maybe that is why so many Jews feel threatened by the devout Christians who championed this movie, as well as by the film’s several incarnations. Some Jews remain suspicious of Christian friendship; they suspect that Christians’ love for Israel and the Jewish people is for another motive: to convert unknowing Jews away from their faith.

But Jews have no one to blame but themselves if they are so increasingly unaware of and despondent regarding their great, age-old religious tradition that they cannot even debate and discuss these theological divides. In the meantime, movies like “The Passion” will continue to generate wonderful opportunities for Jews and Christians who are eager to engage in an ongoing spiritual dialogue. Perhaps this exchange will bring the Messiah sooner to the world if, for nothing else, to set us straight on whether he’s been here before.

Michael Gotlieb is rabbi of Kehillat Ma’arav Synagogue in Santa Monica.

 

Director Pays Price in Making ‘Capote’


Truman Capote, the legendary writer and subject of the eponymous Sony Pictures Classics release that has been nominated for five Academy Awards, spent six years writing “In Cold Blood,” the book that would cement his literary legacy while also leading to his spiritual downfall.

If the writing of “In Cold Blood” proved a Faustian bargain for Capote, the making of “Capote” has not left its principals unscathed. Bennett Miller, 39, who has received an Oscar nomination for best director, speaks over the phone with the world weariness of a much older man, one who has weathered many crises.

“I can’t imagine anything that’s going to prove as difficult,” he said about directing “Capote.” “It took everything out of me, and it took everything out of Phil [actor Philip Seymour Hoffman], as well.”

Caroline Baron, the film’s producer who worked with Hoffman on “Flawless” and has known screenwriter Dan Futterman and Miller for a number of years, said that all films present challenges, but that from the outset, she had “100 percent confidence in Bennett as a director and Phil as an actor.”

Hoffman’s presence in the project helped her convince investors to pony up $7.5 million for a movie to be directed by a first-time feature filmmaker.

Where Capote never forgave himself for betraying, or at least manipulating, Perry Smith, the murderer with whom he had bonded in writing “In Cold Blood,” Miller said that collaborating on “Capote” brought him, Futterman and Hoffman, who have known each other since they were teenagers, “even closer. Something like this challenges you.

“In the natural course of a friendship,” he continued, “it doesn’t always happen that one’s wants are up against another’s. Not just any wants. Deeply felt wants.”

Miller, who like Futterman is Jewish, met the latter in junior high in Westchester County, N.Y. He spent much time at Futterman’s house, even occasionally celebrating Passover together. If Miller is not very religious, he has been obsessed with filmmaking since he got his first camera, a Super-8, when he was 11.

He got some strong reviews but little recognition for “The Cruise,” a 1998 documentary that follows the quirky life of a homeless Manhattan tour guide who rattles off statistics about the Big Apple while riding a double-decker bus. “Capote” marks his entree into the A-list, just as “In Cold Blood” made Capote an international literary phenomenon.

Capote was already a darling of cafe society, renowned since the late 1940s for his short stories and later novels like “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” when he saw the potential for creating a nonfiction narrative using techniques traditionally associated with fiction writing — interior monologue, differing points of view and voice. He wanted to get the reader so deeply into the heads of two murderers that the reader would not only be chilled but also feel a modicum of empathy for Dick Hickock and particularly Smith.

Miller, Futterman and Hoffman have honored the man some view as the greatest postwar writer by making a film that, like the best of Capote’s prose, has both a spareness and beauty. One of the frequent images in the film is a shot of barren trees in the early Kansas morning; they stand alone like sentinels that have failed to protect the Clutter family from violence.

Without a word of dialogue, these shots tell us what we have to know about Kansas, that it is a lonely part of the country with a lot of open space, and that there is something austere, even a little sinister, that could be lurking in this land.

If Capote disarmed people with his self-deprecating wit, his effeminate mannerisms and above all his bizarre voice, he also disarmed them with his surprising toughness, the kind that allowed him to brave a foray into Middle America, where few had encountered an eccentric like him before.

Still, it took its toll on him, just as it has on Miller, who relates a story from kindergarten. All the kids were asked to take those colorful, big blocks, known to all kindergarteners, and to construct “a kind of needle, a pyramid.” Miller hid underneath a desk and watched as the other kids assembled their structures.

“Finally, I ventured out to do it. I did it deliberately upside down.” With characteristic fatigue in his voice, he said, “That is how this movie feels to me.”

 

The ‘Munich’ Concern Is Us — Not Film


Lyndon Johnson once famously observed, “The difference between liberals and cannibals is that cannibals don’t eat their friends.” His aphorism is no less apt today in discussing Jews and their treatment of one another. Since early December, there has been a disturbingly venomous campaign directed at Steven Spielberg’s new movie, “Munich,” by machers, opinion molders and self-appointed pundits in the Jewish community.

Of course, there is room for different opinions about the complex issues raised in the movie, as there is with virtually anything written or produced about the Middle East. We recognize that there are those who may view the questions the movie poses differently than we do. However, many of these critical voices have chosen to assault, not critique, the movie and its director in a series of vitriolic ad hominem attacks on Spielberg.

Here is a sampling of what has appeared:

  • “…. Munich is about not upsetting terrorists … [it is] filled with fakery … made me sick to my stomach … thanks for blaspheming these murdered athletes’ lives, Spielberg … the memories of these innocent victims of terrorism are desecrated … Abu Spielberg — minister of disinformation.” (Debbie Schlussel, syndicated columnist)
  • “An anti-Zionist epic … not the expression of Jewish values but the contradiction of them.” (Samuel G. Freedman, Jerusalem Post)
  • “By naming his movie ‘Munich,’ he advances the message of appeasement. It’s as if the writers and director were intent upon ignoring the questions of interest in favor of creating a politically correct ‘Mein Kampf’ for our time.” (Kate Wright)
  • “No, let’s overanalyze ‘Munich’ for what it is. It’s dangerous…. Steven you are naively taking on the role of ‘Tokyo Rose,’ and you don’t even realize it…. Spielberg is no friend of Israel. Spielberg is no friend of truth….” (Joel Leyden, Israel News Agency)
  • “Spielberg smears Israel … a falsehood at its core … cinematic manipulation rooted in lies.” (Andrea Levin, Camera)
  • “Spielberg is too dumb, too left and too Hollywood (or is that redundant?) to tackle such complex and polarizing themes as Islamic fundamentalism and Jewish survival….” (Andrea Peyser, New York Post)
  • “It takes a Hollywood ignoramus to give flesh to the argument of a radical anti-Semitic Iranian.” (Charles Krauthammer, Washington Post)

What could provoke such venom against the man who brought the world “Schindler’s List” — as important a film on the Shoah as has yet been made? The man who chronicled the visual histories of 50,000 survivors for posterity, and who, through the Righteous Persons Foundation, supports creative Jewish endeavors throughout America.

Were Spielberg another too-left Hollywood type who cavalierly flirted with the tough issues posed by “Munich” with no previous record of involvement or concern about Jewish matters, one might begin to fathom the nastiness of the attacks and the gratuitous personal barbs. But he comes to the movie with a distinguished, if not unparalleled, track record of achievement vis a vis the Jewish community, Israel and its image.

One has to ask: Why such vitriol?

There is a common subtext in these attacks that betrays a worldview that is anachronistic and fatalistic.

The critics seem to share a view that by portraying ambivalence on the part of the Israeli avengers or by allowing the terrorists to briefly enunciate their claim, the movie will encourage audiences to be equivocal in their understanding of terror and its perpetrators. Filmgoers will conclude, “A pox on both your houses, all you violent fanatics!”

It is hard to imagine that in a post- Sept. 11 world most audiences won’t have in their minds and guts a very clear view as to who today’s terrorists are and how they brazenly act in violent, irrational and heartless ways. The massacre at Munich is characterized as the original sin, distinct in its wantonness and brutality.

Any thinking American understands that responding to terror, even if violent and brutal, is qualitatively different than indiscriminately and purposefully targeting innocents. If you don’t get that message from “Munich,” you aren’t watching the film.

Equally mistaken, the critics fear that filmgoers will weaken their support for Israel because they will no longer see Israel as a victim. If its avengers commit violence, while betraying some ambivalence about the acts they carry out, the case for Israel, the critics fear, is weakened.

Americans’ support for Israel is not contingent upon being perceived as either infallible or as a victim. Israel is one of the world’s leading military powers; its armed forces have very few equals, certainly none in the region.

Americans respect its achievements and successes. An honest discussion of the issues surrounding terror won’t change the reality of with whom most Americans identify.

Losing the victim label does mean greater scrutiny. Greater scrutiny means occasional self-doubt and open, democratic questioning of how one acts. Israel was created precisely to give Jews power over their own fate, to act and not to quiver. Neither the Israelis nor we are powerless victims.

Like other democracies, Israel has its debates in the open. Anyone with an Internet connection can read and marvel at them. Spielberg hasn’t created those debates, he reflects them. The fear of washing our linen in public ought to be gone; Israel is a nation like others.

There is no need for a mentality of fear, for the embrace of victimhood or for the nastiness that permeates much of the anti-“Munich” diatribes. We can ask questions, we can worry about what we do, we can challenge each other in public and we need not fear for Israel’s security or our safety.

What we should fear is becoming like President Johnson’s former friends and devouring each other.

David A. Lehrer is president of Community Advocates Inc., a Los Angeles-based human relations agency. Dr. Michael Berenbaum is professor of theology and the director of the Sigi Ziering Institute at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles.

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