Boom! Water Shot Through the Beach


I was on the island of Koh Lanta on Dec. 26. Koh Lanta is just east of Phuket and Ko Phi Phi Island and part of the province of Krabi, Thailand.

The island is made up of Muslims, Christians and Buddhists. I had visited this small island earlier in the year, and was blown away both by the kindness of all the inhabitants, as well as its natural beauty.

On the morning of the 26th, I was in the pool at 7 a.m., doing yoga at 8 and breakfasting at 9. By 9:30 a.m. I was on my motorcycle and decided to stop and check e-mails.

I noticed a bunch of people — locals — starting to run to the beach. I figured someone got hit by a car (if you saw the way folks drove, you would know that’s not too irregular) until someone yelled something about a wave.

Now, I am thinking to myself, “What’s the big deal? I mean, haven’t they ever seen a bloody wave before?” and continued typing away.

But more folks kept running to the beach, so I finally got up to go look at some stupid wave, but all of a sudden, everyone started running toward me, and boom. water shot up, through the beach (about 50 yards), kind of like a water cannon into the street.

It honestly did not seem like that big a deal — although certainly a bizarre occurrence. And at that stage it wasn’t. (It was the first of three waves.)

I decided to get back on my bike and head to the other side of the island, which meant I had to go over a mountain. As I crested, I saw the other side of the Andaman Sea. A white line was slowly cutting its way diagonally across the entire ocean. It was mesmerizing.

Meanwhile, all the locals were heading up the mountain — a mile journey from the coast — as I was naively headed down. When I got to the bottom, a boatload of Swedish tourists were being dropped off, because of the peculiar tides and currents.

They were all somewhat put out by the inconvenience, and yet in the background, the natives were all hightailing it out of town, putting old people and their wheelchairs in little pickups and clearing out. Meanwhile, all the non-natives looked at the irregularly cloudy sky and shrugged their shoulders.

Still, I figured something was just too strange, so I decided to cut my ride short and head back to my side of the island. When I returned to where I had been less than an hour before, the restaurant next to where I was standing was destroyed. And most peculiarly, very few people were around.

As I rode down to where I was staying, each place along the beach was ripped apart. I stopped to see the man who rented me the motorcycle, and he was in tears.

I cautiously came to the entrance of my hotel, pushing through the saloon like doors to what was previously some of the most beautiful architecture I have ever seen, now looking as though a bomb had gone off.

The pool I had been swimming in had a 30-foot boat perched just beyond it and was full of rocks, mud and sand. The 10-by-20-foot yoga platform used at an 8 a.m. class on was shattered.

The place I had sat and ate my breakfast: half was in a hole, while the other half had the tables with food still on the plates, glasses half full of orange juice; it was obvious people had recently run for their lives. The entire hotel was in shambles — and empty.

I heard everyone was up the hill, so I immediately ran and bought 24 pints of water and all the sweets I could squeeze into my backpack from a nearby store that was about to close. I figured all the kids were going to go crazy sitting up there without food. By the time I made it to the top, I saw that everyone was there, scared, but surrounded by an incredibly hard-working staff, which had already begun hauling food up.

Down the hill in the kitchen area, the staff fearlessly walked in their sandals through broken glass and other debris, completely focused on helping their panicky guests. The two owners were also there working tirelessly, filling up small pickup trucks with cooking equipment to transport up this huge hill.

We worked for hours and hours. Many of the employees had gashes and bruises, and yet, they were so unbelievably hard working. I never heard a complaint. I never saw a moment of selfishness.

We had to constantly be looking at the horizon, because another tsunami was supposedly on its way — and bigger than the last one. So each time we would go down and quickly fill up supplies, we feared another wave could quite possibly come bombing back in and sweep us away. It is the strangest sensation, and it completely changes your relationship with the beautiful coastline — suddenly it became my nemesis.

Come nighttime, everyone had been fed and was sleeping on the mountain top. My job was to haul blankets endlessly to everyone up there. One segment of the hill was so steep that it required me to have around 30 pounds of blankets on one arm and pull myself by rope with the other. It was easy, because there was a full moon, and because I kept thinking how incredibly lucky I was to be able to be alive to even chip in, so the energy I had was limitless.

When this job was over, I was on watch again. At about 3 a.m., blanket distribution began anew, because the winds started up again, and all the guests were getting very cold with only one blanket. Windiness causes more anxiety, because it is a sign that things may be brewing again. Shortly after, I heard the “call to prayer” for the Muslims. It was 5 a.m.

With everyone asleep, I walked down the beach to see what are now familiar images on the news. The deaths here, comparatively, were minimal. The damage: tantamount.

People I had come to know were devastated, in shock. Their businesses, homes, livelihoods were shattered. This was the high season, too. And as to the workers from the hotel, I never did see or hear them show any signs of their personal needs, even though they, too, had nothing left at this point.

Amazingly, the owners had arranged to evacuate us off the island. We were trucked, then boated, then trucked, then ferried and then trucked to safety. I felt strange leaving. When you see all the non-natives packed up, relieved, driving away from all the inhabitants … well, you do the math.

So as you can tell, I totally lucked out. I was in Phuket the week before, and you are familiar with that catastrophe. Days before that, I had been on Ko Phi Phi — an island that was destroyed. And just hours before I was in the pool, where I would have not heard or seen people running (most were still asleep) and would have immediately been killed by either the sand and water or a huge boat running me over.

It’s strange. We all have friends or acquaintances who have died in tragic events. We continuously say things to ourselves like, “If he only waited five minutes….”

For me, it’s the opposite. The resonating feeling I have is not as euphoric, as one may expect. For some reason, I have a great deal of guilt. I am also terribly curious. I keep trying to figure out how I was so profoundly fortunate.

This spring, Paul Alan Smith plans to return to the island to distribute money to the people in need there.


Baddest Heeb Nails Down Distributor

After months of distribution hell, the Jewsploitation spoof “The Hebrew Hammer” will burst onto the large and small screens this Chanukah season. The saga of Mordechai Jefferson Carver (aka the “baddest Heeb this side of Tel Aviv”) debuts on Comedy Central Dec. 8 before moving to theaters courtesy of Cowboy Pictures.

A preview screening, co-sponsored by The Jewish Journal, takes place at the University of Judaism Oct. 9, followed by a panel discussion with filmmaker Jonathan Kesselman and actors Adam Goldberg and Peter Coyote.

An homage to 1970s “blaxploitation” flicks such as “Superfly,” the farce tells of an Orthodox stud (Goldberg) who battles Santa’s evil son (Andy Dick) to save Chanukah. The film is Kesselman’s response to Hollywood’s “nebbishy and neurotic depiction of Jews,” he said. “Just as blaxploitation films exaggerated the hell out of black stereotypes to take away their power, the Hammer exaggerates every Jewish stereotype.”

While “Superfly” snorts cocaine off a crucifix, Carver sniffs antihistamines off his chai. When Santa pushes bootleg copies of “It’s Wonderful Life” on Jewish kids, the Hammer arranges for videotapes of “Yentl” to hit the streets.

Getting the comedy into theaters proved a mission worthy of a real-life Jewish superhero. Despite the warm reception at Sundance and other 2003 film festivals, potential buyers called the film “too Jewish, too ‘niche,'” Kesselman, 28, said.

“A lot of people were afraid of the racial Jewish tone of the movie, which is the nature of our little beast,” said producer Josh Kesselman, the director’s brother. “If a buyer leaves your screening saying he’s offended, he’s probably not going to distribute your film, and we had a few of those.”

While the director was “distraught and baffled” by the critique, he persisted and, after pounding the Hollywood pavement for eight months, he and his producers hammered out a distribution deal. Sources told Variety the Comedy Central deal could be worth $1 million; a possible TV series and a movie sequel is in the works.

“So now I’m finally relaxing,” Kesselman said. “Very few independent films air on national TV before going to theaters, so even people in Wyoming and Nebraska will be aware of the film.”

And how will those non-Jews respond to the Hammer?

“They’ll laugh,” he said. “The movie is a broad comedy. You don’t have to be a rabbinical student to enjoy it.”

The UJ event, moderated by Journal Editor-in-Chief RobEshman, will be held Oct. 9 at 7 p.m. $10 (including a dessert reception). Fortickets, call (310) 476-9777 ext. 473. For more information about the film,visit   — Naomi Pfefferman, Arts & Entertainment Editor

Power of the Hebrew Press

The Jewish newspaper scene in Los Angeles was recently enlivened by the rise and fall of the short-lived “Jewish Voice,” and it is being invigorated again by the significant changes taking place in the local Hebrew-language press.

Although the combined circulation of the Hebrew weeklies does not exceed 10,000, at a generous estimate, the papers have a ready-made readership in the relatively affluent Israeli community.

The actual size of the community has stumped demographers for years, but it is vaguely put as between 35,000 and 100,000.

Emerging as the apparent top dog in the realignment of the Hebrew weeklies is Shalom L.A., which claims a paid subscription list of around 5,000.

Last year, Shalom L.A. signed an agreement under which nearly all Israeli and international news stories in the paper are supplied by Ha’aretz, Israel’s most prestigious daily.

Local coverage is concentrated in the supplement Israel L.A., which is folded into Shalom L.A. for its subscribers and newsstands. The supplement, which claims a print run of 3,000, can also be picked up for free at restaurants and shops frequented by Israelis.

Shalom L.A. is owned by the Shepher family, which manufactures safety devices for the elderly. The paper has now struck an additional deal with Yediot Aharonot, Israel’s biggest daily, whose bulky weekend (Friday) edition is available to expatriate Israelis.

As of this month, Shalom L.A. is printing a separate supplement of local news to be folded into Yediot Aharonot’s weekend edition.

The new arrangement spells the end of Yediot America, Yediot Aharonot’s previous supplement for West Coast readers.

The parallel ties to both Ha’aretz and Yediot Aharonot represent a unique arrangement, says Shalom L.A. editor and general manager Meir Doron. A rough analogy, allowing for gargantuan differences in scale, would be the Los Angeles Times drawing all its national and international coverage from The New York Times and, at the same time, printing a supplement of Los Angeles news for USA Today.

In a letter to advertisers, Shalom L.A. heralded its triple play, claiming that of its readership, 81 percent are homeowners and 63 percent own or manage businesses, with the average reader’s annual income pegged at $78,000. Adding to these astonishing — if valid — statistics, the letter put the combined purchasing power of Southern California’s Israeli community at $2 billion a year.

Shalom L.A.’s older competitor is Israel Shelanu, which is published in New York but includes a locally produced supplement, Al Hamakom.

Al Hamakom, like its rival supplement, Israel L.A., can also be picked up for free at locations where Israelis gather.

A box displayed prominently on Shalom L.A.’s front page credits its competitor, Israel Shelanu, plus Al Hamakom, with a circulation of only 2,000.

Doron Kooperstein, the Los Angeles editor of Israel Shelanu and Al Hamakom, described this figure as incorrect, but maintained that he did not know the real circulation numbers.

Mirroring the highly competitive newspaper environment in Israel, no love is lost between the two local Hebrew weeklies. Both papers operate with a bare-bones permanent staff, supplemented by free-lance and volunteer contributors and columnists, and both fight hard to survive in their small market.

Each paper accuses the other of plagiarism and copyright infringement, and Doron of Shalom L.A. is threatening to take his rival to court. (In 1990, the Los Angeles Times sued Israel Shelanu for allegedly pirating its photos and articles, and translating the latter into Hebrew.)

Kooperstein of Israel Shelanu accuses his competitor of the same transgressions and faults Shalom L.A. for poor coverage of the local Israeli community.

His charge is seconded by Avi Obligenarz, who writes for Al Hamakom. He is also a correspondent for the Yediot Aharonot in Israel and helps feed his paper’s voracious appetite for Hollywood news.

“Shalom L.A.,” he says, “is an embarrassment; while pretending to be the largest local [Hebrew] paper, it has practically no local community coverage.”

Doron of Shalom L.A. rebuts the charge, saying, “We’re covering local affairs better [than the competition] and are devoting at least as many column inches to it as Israel Shelanu.”