Celebrity Schadenfreude: Hating on the stars


On the flight back from a recent trip to Italy, I took a slight flight risk and decided to watch Madonna’s critically maligned movie “W.E.”  Since I had not heard a single positive thing about it (save for Andrea Riseborough’s performance as Wallis Simpson) I was not particularly excited about my choice. But since the flight was 12.5 hours and it was either that or “Jeff Who Lives At Home” I went for stylized melodrama over modern melancholy.

And reader, I liked it.

The film tells the story of Wally Winthrop, a young, upper-crust New York City housewife whose marital turmoil fuels an obsession with romantic legend: the love affair between the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, otherwise known as King Edward VIII and the American coquette Wallis Simpson. Their romance scandalized a nation; it began when she was married and compelled him to abdicate his throne. The film has its flaws of course, but it was also intense and entertaining. The score, by Polish composer Abel Korzeniowski was a highlight, and though the script was somewhat uneven in its focus on the modern thread (Wally’s affair with a Sotheby’s security guard) and not the classic story, the dialogue was sharp and smart.

Read more at jewishjournal.com/hollywoodjew.

‘Mazel Tov’: Lifecycles of the rich and famous


Whether it’s a powerfully uplifting ceremony, a wicked disco-themed party or a bagels-and-lox Sunday brunch, the b’nai mitzvah experience is a multifaceted event that has the potential to greatly affect a person’s life.

For one weekend, an acne-plagued kid is transformed into an acne-plagued celebrity. There’s an agent (tutor), fans and paparazzi (guests and photographer) and the public apology for wild, offensive behavior (thank-you notes).

For many, the 15-minutes of fame is enough. For some — including many celebrities — the glimpse of momentary stardom becomes a pivotal moment in their lives.

That’s the idea behind Jill Rappaport’s book, “Mazel Tov: Celebrities’ Bar and Bat Mitzvah Memories” (Simon and Schuster, $25). Rappaport interviews 21 celebrities as they describe how the b’nai mitzvah experience brought them to where they are today. With the photographic help of her sister, Linda Solomon, Rappaport provides a joyfully contrasting image of the celebrities and their familiar adolescent counterparts.

The idea for “Mazel Tov” came about five years ago, while Rappaport was watching “The View.”

“I thought it’d be funny if there was a show called ‘The Jew,’ that talked about hip bar and bat mitzvah parties,” said Rappaport in a phone interview from New York.

While a b’nai mitzvah has the potential to bring out your inner celebrity for a weekend, it is also a “humorous, sentimental and emotional experience that involves indelible work,” she said.

It’s a turning point in one’s life, but most of all, because each story is primarily about self-discovery, she said, “you don’t have to be Jewish to appreciate this book.”

Rappaport, who has yet to celebrate a bat mitzvah, explains that she got her taste of the experience through her friends’ ceremonies and parties, much like some of the celebs she interviews.

Featuring more than a few embarrassing photos, this book illustrates that while many celebrities have cultural roots in Judaism (Jewish neurosis, Jewish humor, Jewish appearances), they also have specific religious roots as well. In fact, their early memories of being in the public eye are often related to a b’nai mitzvah experience.

“Entourage” star Jeremy Piven remembers his bar mitzvah as “a rite of passage.” Growing up in Evanston, Ill., Piven recalls how his service was actually in a church, because they belonged to an extremely liberal Reconstructionist congregation. But unlike his character on the hit HBO show, Piven wasn’t that interested in a big, fancy party.

“It wasn’t a big community of people battling each other for the biggest bar mitzvah, like in my movie ‘Keeping Up With the Steins,'” he says.

But the b’nai mitzvah experience isn’t just about the ceremony. The party is still important.

Noah Wyle of “ER,” who never actually had a bar mitzvah, says b’nai mitzvah parties brought out his inner celebrity.

The b’nai mitzvah celebrations were “a significant part of my life because all my friends did, and boy, did they have a huge impact on me.”

Even without all the studying and preparation, Wyle explains that it was actually at a bar mitzvah party where he gave one of his first public performances — lip-synching Bob Seger’s song, “Old Time Rock and Roll.”

“And that was a real confidence boost. It was actually a seminal moment,” Wyle says.

Many of the celebrities featured in the book cherished their b’nai mitzvah experience, and “each one of them showed signs of genius even at that young age,” Rappaport said in a phone interview.

However, just as the b’nai mitzvah experience can lead to self-discovery, it can also provide a road to self-fulfillment involving challenges that must be overcome.

Oscar-winning actress Marlee Matlin shares the difficulties she encountered as a deaf child learning Hebrew.

“I didn’t have the benefit of hearing myself say the words,” Matlin says, adding that the b’nai mitzvah experience is “a great way to teach your children about community and social responsibility.”

Even famed actor Henry Winkler dealt with his fair share of b’nai mitzvah struggles.

“I’m dyslexic, which is a real problem when you’re trying to read and a huge problem when you’re studying Hebrew,” Winkler says. “The words would just swim around on the page.”

Although he panicked in his early years, Winkler is now quite comfortable in front of a crowd and is grateful for the effort he put into his b’nai mitzvah studies.

Many of the actors in this book describe the satisfaction that came from their hard work and effort. But then there’s Howie Mandel. “The Deal or No Deal” host admits that he definitely had some difficulty accepting the idea that manhood is the ultimate product of a bar mitzvah.

“You’re 4-foot-10 and you weigh 70-something and you explain to all your non-Jewish friends that you can’t go out this Saturday because you’re having a party celebrating the fact that you’re a man,” he says. “And this is a guy who had a woman’s voice.”

Mandel gets serious as he explains what a great responsibility the bar mitzvah is, but adds, “the only light at the end of the tunnel was that I didn’t have to go to the Hebrew school anymore.”

A portion of the book’s proceeds are going to the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and the Shoah Foundation.

Abstract eye follows Dali in film at LACMA


Even by the standards of today’s overheated art market, few artists have been as excessively hyped and overexposed as Salvador Dali (1904-1989). There are museums dedicated to his work in Florida and Spain, and in London you can “be transported into a world of melting clocks and anthropomorphic sculpture” at Dali Universe. Add to that the endless reproductions in print and poster shops, lawsuits about fakes, and Dali’s own flamboyant personality, which gave him the notoriety we associate with Andy Warhol — indeed, Dali might well have served as a model for Warhol, with a shelf life far exceeding the cliché about 15 minutes worth of fame.

All this has made some of us tire of Dali’s overexposure, with knee-jerk reactions that make us roll our eyes when we note that Dali still serves as the quintessential modern artist for people who don’t like modern art. He is loved for making recognizable images for those who can’t handle abstraction, for those kinky twists that suck you into thinking this is really “far out stuff.” So, of course, there have been many Dali exhibitions at museums hoping to attract blockbuster-sized audiences, and now comes the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s “Dali: Painting & Film,” opening Oct. 14.

Yet it looks like LACMA’s Dali blockbuster could make those of us who approach the artist with a sense of exhausted cynicism take a much more serious look at this artist whose work in film interacted with his work as a painter. The exhibition will surely interest those who care about film history, reminding us that the borders between media can be very indistinct for our most creative artists. That’s not news, of course — Leonardo da Vinci long ago taught us that creative genius isn’t easily pigeonholed. But today, technology is at everyone’s fingertips, so we almost feel as if we, too, are capable of making those transformations that turn the Governator from a human being to a fantastic metallic creature and back again, just by sitting at our computers. It’s the museum’s responsibility to ask us to reconsider that arrogant stance, to persuade us that there really is such a thing as an artist’s vision, and that no, we wouldn’t have been able to conceive of doing any such thing on our own.

Early in the last century, when film was a newer medium, many artists were intrigued by its kinetic visual possibilities, and for a fantasist like Dali, the opportunities must have seemed especially rich. After all, artists had long sought to convey various states of mobility in the static media of painting, and even sculpture limited the options. Moreover, we still admire earlier art works for their ability to communicate illusions about our actual experiences of the real world.

To that end, Dali collaborated with his countryman and fellow surrealist, Luis Bu?uel, on groundbreaking films (“Un Chien Andalou,” 1929; “L’Age d’or,” 1930), and the experience informed Dali’s paintings as well. The 1920s were especially rich in these efforts at creative filmmaking, and Sigmund Freud’s explorations and their impact were also still relatively fresh, so the imaginative opportunities were endless. To fully appreciate this exhibition will require watching these films, in addition to viewing the paintings, so plan to spend more time than the usual museum show allotment.

“There is a constant triangulation formed by the flow of film, paintings, and text,” Dawn Ades writes in one of several illuminating essays in the catalog accompanying the exhibition. This reminds us, too, of Dali’s role as a writer — manifestos were fashionable in his day, including statements about art and its relationship to everything else; in Dali’s time, artists played the role of forward-thinking visionaries. We no longer trust that sort of bombast, but we ought to remember that after the horrors of the Great War, artists may have seemed more perspicacious and trustworthy than those who conducted affairs of state.

But Dali was not entirely won over by the new medium; he complained that he didn’t “believe that cinema can ever become an artistic form. It is a secondary form, because too many people are involved in its creation. The only true means of producing a work of art is painting, in which only the eye and the point of the brush are employed.” Imagine what he might have done with Photoshop and all the other toys now at our disposal.

Ever the self-aware showman, Dali was lured to Hollywood in the 1940s, by which time he was already a famous artist and therefore a potential asset to filmmakers. As producer David Selznick wrote in a memo regarding the anticipated contract with Dali for Alfred Hitchcock’s “Spellbound” (1945), “if we make a deal for the celebrated artist we have in mind … we should not let this leak out in publicity, as I think we can get some sensational breaks on it.” Only Dali’s dream sequence survived in the legendary Ingrid Bergman/Gregory Peck film, but Dali also tried his hand, with limited success, at a number of other Hollywood film projects, including an once-abandoned and now revived Disney animated six-minute short, “Destino” (1946), and the video, “Chaos and Creation” (1960), directed by Philippe Halsman.

The interplay between film and painting makes this exhibition seem particularly well-suited to Los Angeles’ audiences, and will likely reinvigorate respect for Dali’s inventiveness and unique vision, especially among all the local film folks for whom this experience should provide a major series of discoveries.

Tom Freudenheim is a retired museum director who writes about art and cultural issues.

My Yiddische Mama


What if famous people had Jewish mothers?

That’s the subject of a one-minute Internet film from Aish.com, the Web site of Aish Hatorah, the religious outreach organization based in Israel with branch offices around the world, including Los Angeles.

The one minute “film” — it’s basically pictures with captions — was written for Purim, but is more in tune with Mother’s Day. It presents historical characters and conjectures what their mothers might have said to them — if they had been Jewish mothers.

Take the message from the “Jewish mom” of Christopher Columbus: “I don’t care what you have discovered, you still should have written.”

Mrs. Michaelangelo would whine about the Sistine Chapel: “Why can’t you draw on walls like other children — do you know how hard it is to get schmutz off the ceiling?”

The Beatles’ proud mother reminded the Fab 4 that she’d promised cousin Harold that he could play cello in their band. And Tiger Woods’ mom complained that golf “just isn’t our sport.” How about bingo?

Aish’s “Jewish Mothers” video is among a dozen or so mostly serious videos available at Aish.com. Most of the offerings provoke questions about life, spirituality and religion. The films are sent out to a mailing list of 170,000, according to the Web site.

Actually some of the chosen subjects did have Jewish mothers. So it’s actually possible that Einstein’s real Jewish mother was not amused by that wild-haired genius look: “But it’s your senior photograph, couldn’t you have done something with your hair?” — Amy Klein, Religion Editor

Real Estate Magnate Ready to Play Ball

A group of investors led by real estate magnate Ted Lerner and his family has purchased the Washington Nationals baseball team. Lerner and Major League Baseball wrapped up details of the $450 million purchase Tuesday night following a yearlong competition over ownership. Lerner, 80, was raised in an observant Orthodox Jewish family. One of the largest beneficiaries of his philanthropic work is his Conservative congregation, Ohr Kodesh in Chevy Chase, Md., to which he contributed $505,000 in 2003. The Lerners are partnered with former Atlanta Braves President Stan Kasten, the son of Holocaust survivors. The bid beat one by Fred Malek, a Nixon administration official who carried out an order from the president to purge the Department of Labor of Jewish statisticians.

Revved Up for Paper Clips

It’s not always a cause for concern when a platoon of bikers pulls up in front of your school. Some 400 Jewish motorcyclists turned up recently at the Tennessee school where students collected millions of paper clips to commemorate the Holocaust (the Academy Award-nominated documentary titled “Paper Clips” was made about the project). Members of the Jewish Motorcyclists Alliance visited the Whitwell Middle School to see the display of paper clips, which is housed inside a German railroad car once used to transport Jews to concentration camps during World War II.

 

Q & A With Studs Terkel


In Studs Terkel’s newest book, “And They All Sang: Adventures of an Eclectic Disc Jockey” (The New Press, 2005), America’s preeminent oral historian once again collects his conversations with celebrated people, as he did in his 1999 book, “The Spectator: Talk About Movies and Plays With the People Who Make Them.” This son of Jewish immigrants has covered a broad swath of the 20th century through broadcasting, recording and transcribing in numerous books and Q-and-As. His subjects range from the rich and famous to the broke and anonymous.

“They All Sang” brings together interviews from a half-century of taped conversations with prominent musicians, composers, lyricists and impresarios done for his radio program on Chicago radio station WFMT, with which Terkel has been affiliated since 1951. Reached by phone at the station, Terkel, 93, is as great an interviewee as he is interviewer.

The book includes many Jewish subjects. Bob Dylan noted in 1963 how the Cuban Missile Crisis influenced his lyrics for “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” predicting “there’s got to be an explosion of some kind.” Ukrainian-born impresario Sol Hurok discussed “music for the masses.”

Aaron Copland, who composed distinctly American works, such as “Fanfare for the Common Man” and “Billy the Kid,” told Terkel following a trip to the Soviet Union: “It’s easy for artists of different countries with different political systems to get together and completely forget about the political systems during the time that they’re talking about art. In that sense, music is universal.”

And in an interview with Leonard Bernstein, the maestro muses on music, politics and Broadway, which seemed like a good place to start this interview.

The Jewish Journal: What is the Jewish influence on the American musical?

Studs Terkel: Oh my God! Overwhelming! How can you even discuss it without Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins’ choreography in “West Side Story?” And of course “Candide.” And then you’ve got Lorenz Hart and Yip Harburg, who wrote the lyrics to “Over the Rainbow.” The lyricists and composers — you’ve got yourself a whole testament there.

Marc Blitzstein wrote “The Cradle Will Rock” during the WPA days, when the New Deal saved our society. [The Works Progress Administration] provided jobs in the arts — theatrical, art and music projects. “The Cradle Will Rock” was a pretty tough, pro-labor play, about Steeltown. Blitzstein was very much influenced by Bertolt Brecht and [Kurt] Weill.

I once took part in a Chicago production of “The Cradle Will Rock,” [portraying] Editor Daily, who is owned by Mister Mister, who owns the town. And Bernstein started singing along with me. He knew all the words [and] was always pushing other people.

They were going to celebrate Bernstein’s 70th birthday in New York and make it the biggest celebration since Lindbergh’s trans-Atlantic flight, and he said “no” — he wanted to celebrate in Lawrence, Mass., his hometown, because Lawrence was the hometown of the famous general strike of 1912. Out of it came the song, “Bread and Roses Too.”

JJ: What is the Jewish contribution to classical music?

ST: For Jews in the arts, there’s always been this connecting link. There’s [Lithuanian-born violinist] Jascha Heifetz., [soprano] Rosa Raisa, for whom Puccini wrote the opera, “Turandot.”

JJ: Tell us about your Jewish background.

ST: My mother came from Bialystock, near the Russo-Polish border, a very cosmopolitan town decimated by the Nazis. My father came from a suburb [and was] a tailor. Chicago is the biggest Polish population of any city outside of Warsaw.

JJ: Has Judaism influenced you?

ST: Of course it has. That’s a baby’s question. Of course it played a tremendous role. My father voted for [Socialist Party candidate] Eugene V. Debs for president. Of course, there’s anti-Semitism. Of course, there’s anti-everything. There’s always nativism. At the moment, it seems to be more [about] color, than anything else.”

JJ: You interview the salt of the earth, as well as the celebrated. Where does your compassion for common people come from?

ST: [At my mother’s] men’s hotel, there’d be arguing back and forth. I love the idea of arguments and debates. These were IWW [Wobblies] guys; the anti-union guys in the lobby called them IWW, meaning “I Won’t Work.” Of course, it meant Industrial Workers of the World.

And I loved those arguments. They were heated, full of four-letter words, but at the same time, there was something exciting. There was argument, debate — and we hardly have that these days. We just sit there, paralyzed or catatonic, watching the TV.

The word “couch potato” is a TV-originated word, never heard that in radio days. People would listen. Radio was made for Franklin D. Roosevelt — the Fireside Chat was made for him. He spoke not to millions — that’s the secret — he spoke to one person.

JJ: Like Copland, Harburg and [Zero] Mostel, you had a brush with the House Un-American Activities Committee and McCarthyism. Your 1949 NBC-TV series, “Studs’ Place,” was thrown off the air.

ST: I was blacklisted, but I found out women’s clubs were great. They’d pay me 50 bucks, 100 bucks, to talk about folk songs or whatever. This one Joe McCarthy guy, a legionnaire, threatened them for sponsoring a subversive: me. They all ignored him completely.

But one very elegant old woman was so furious at this guy that instead of paying me my agreed-upon $100 fee, she doubled the payment. I sent [the red-baiter] a $10 check as an agent’s commission, which he never acknowledged.

JJ: During the 1950s, when you worked for gospel singer Mahalia Jackson’s radio program, you refused to sign a loyalty oath a CBS executive presented.

ST: I don’t believe in that stuff — at that time, I was influenced by the American Friends Service Committee, the Quakers, who batted 1.000 on human rights, on everything. Mahalia told the executive: “If you fire Studs Terkel, you tell Mr. So-and-So to hire another Mahalia Jackson.” Nothing happened. We did the whole 26 weeks.

The moral is to say “bugger off” to your public [or] private servant, to disagree with him — no matter how big he is. That’s how our country was founded.

JJ: Throughout the decades, you’ve been associated with progressive causes: The New Deal, unionization, anti-fascism, civil rights, anti-war, etc. What do you think about the Hurricane Katrina catastrophe?

ST: The fact is we were unprepared for this, [we had] no money for this, because it’s going into our military endeavors. Our mal-adventure — I love that — to bring democracy to Iraq. What a joke. But now we’re catching on. It was based upon a lie — weapons of mass destruction.

The New Deal is being hacked to pieces by the current Republican administration; people’s sense of history is being challenged. We’re suffering from a national Alzheimer’s disease.

JJ: What makes you tick?

ST: Curiosity, how do people think. What makes them do certain things. I want to find out what happened way back in the past; how it affects us in the present.

JJ: What is the art of the interview?

ST: My biggest asset is my vulnerability. The fact that I’m called “the poet of the tape recorder” is a joke. I’m very inept when it comes to mechanical things. I’m worse at tape-recording than a baby is. I can’t drive a car. I’m just starting to use the electric typewriter, which is a tremendous advance to me.

The computer age is a mystery to me completely. Sometimes, a shoemaker, truck driver or waitress helps me out, because I may have pressed the wrong button, which I do on occasion.

That’s how I lost Martha Graham, the great dancer; Michael Redgrave, the actor; and almost lost Bertrand Russell [when] I visited him during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 at his cottage in north Wales. He asked to hear my interview with [Summerhill educator] A.S. Neill, and I almost recorded Russell’s interview over Neill’s.

JJ: Any other advice?

ST: Let the guy finish his sentence. You’ve got to listen more. Let there be pauses, silence and then more comes out. Let it ride.

Ed Rampell is the author of “Progressive Hollywood, a People’s Film History of the United States” (The Disinformation Company, 2005).

 

Famous and Jewish


Let us now praise famous Jews.

Bless them, so smart or so accomplished, often both. It makes us swell with pride — we can’t help ourselves — to learn that Gene Wilder is really Jerome Silberman. That Sarah Jessica Parker didn’t have to undergo a reverse nose job to acquire her exquisite profile. That three-thirds of “60 Minutes” — Mike Wallace, Morley Safer, and producer Don Hewitt (originally Hurvitz) — is actually three-tenths of a minyan.

And don’t even get us started on Shawn Green. A Jew who batted .300 — Psalms were written for less.

But stick a microphone in their faces and ask them what Judaism means to them, to their children, and suddenly some of the smartest, most accomplished and articulate people in the world go numb.

That’s what happens often in Abigail Pogrebin’s new book, “Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish” (Broadway).

What’s fascinating about the 62 souls she interviews is that we know so much about them and so little about their beliefs. With notable evangelical exceptions, most Americans are more comfortable talking about their sex lives than their spirituality.

But Pogrebin, a former producer for Charlie Rose and “60 Minutes,” had the tools to push her interviewees beyond their comfort zone. When she presses former U.N. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke on the extent of his Jewishness, he finally snaps: “It’s your book. You decide.”

The book makes an interesting counterpoint to last year’s “I Am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl”(Jewish Lights), in which more than 100 mostly prominent Jews offer their own credos. Here the editors, Daniel’s parents Ruth and Judea, tapped not just headliners, but thinkers and scholars whose insights provide a kind of road map for thinking through issues of identity.

Indeed, Jewish identification has been a hot issue in the Jewish professional world. The 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey counted about 3.9 million Americans who identify themselves as Jewish by religion, and about 5.3 million who identify themselves as Jewish using broader criteria such as ethnicity or ancestry. The former number represents a decline from a decade ago, from 5.5 million Jews. High intermarriage and low fertility rates among Jews are the usual suspects.

“Breed, you Sons of Abraham, breed!” the comedian Bill Maher ranted after the statistics were published. “Without Jews, who’s going to write all those sitcoms about blacks and Hispanics?”

The putative decline sparked a controversy when Jewish Theological Seminary provost Jack Wertheimer published an essay in October’s Commentary lambasting liberal streams of Judaism for not emphasizing fertility. The essay, a Hogwartian blend of social science, dogma and hearsay, also rejected the embrace of intermarried couples and alternate forms of family life.

“Might it be true,” he wrote, “that Jewish men want to marry someone more like their mother than the typical young Jewish woman of today, and that Gentile women happen to fit the bill?”

In the end, Wertheimer calls for a return to Orthodox norms despite the fact that the vast majority of Jews have voted with their feet to reject them, a resolute stand against non-standard Jewish families and intermarriage and, I suppose, for non-Jewish women to stop drinking the polyjuice that shape-shifts them into Jewish mothers.

So why am I not as scared as Jack Wertheimer?

For one, the statistics are of dubious value. On Nov. 3, a new analysis of more than 20 Jewish populations by the Steinhardt Social Research Institute at Brandeis University found that there might be as many as 6.5 million American Jews, depending on how people define Jewishness. Some researchers have put this number of people who identify, even in some inchoate, Pogrebin-like way, as Jews, at 13 million.

The point is, identity in today’s world is not fixed but fluid. It’s also maddeningly individual and it’s never unalloyed: Anyone can choose Jewishness at any point along a life path, and many, many people do. That means institutions that reach out in different ways at different life-cycle moments –preschools, synagogues, camps, mortuaries — must be able to welcome, educate and retain members of the tribe who possess only a vague sense of Jewishness.

At the same time, people are coming to Judaism outside institutions, in new, unusual and, sometimes, unrecognizable ways. Israeli journalist Yossi Klein Halevy, in town this week for a speaking engagement, told me the same phenomenon is happening in Israel.

“We are in a post-Orthodox, post-secular world,” he said.

Tens of thousands of young Israelis congregate for Jewish festivals, listen to spiritual rock ‘n’roll and hip-hop, and dance and pray and blow shofars into the night. It is too early to tell where this movement may lead, what kind of Judaism may evolve from it, and how it will spread around the world.

But the message of such movements is clear, with apologies to Holbrooke and Wertheimer: “It’s our Book. We decide.”

 

Tightrope of Life


In the days of communism’s fierce grip on the Soviet Union, there lived a Chasidic Jew named Reb Mendel Futerfas. Reb Mendel repeatedly put his life at risk with his efforts to promote Jewish education behind the Iron Curtain and for some 14 years was incarcerated in prisons and labor camps for his “crime” of teaching Torah. While in the Siberian gulags, he spent most of his free time studying and praying, but he also interacted and conversed with other prisoners — some Jewish, some not. Among these prisoners was a circus performer whose claim to fame was his incredible skill as a tightrope walker.

Reb Mendel would often engage this man in conversation. Having never been to a circus, Reb Mendel was totally baffled by the man’s profession. How could a person risk his life walking on a rope several stories above ground? (This was in the days before safety nets were standard practice.)

“To just go out there and walk on a rope?” Reb Mendel challenged incredulously.

The performer explained that due to his training and skill, he did not need to be held up by any cables and that, for him, it was no longer all that dangerous. Reb Mendel remained skeptical and intrigued.

After Stalin died, the prison authorities relaxed their rules somewhat and the guards told the prisoners that they would be allowed to stage a makeshift circus on May-Day. The tightrope walker coordinated with other acrobats in the camp, but there was no doubt that his famous tightrope act would be the highlight of the show. The tightrope walker made sure that his friend, Reb Mendel, was in the audience.

After all the other acts finished, the lights came down; everybody waited with baited breath. The tightrope walker climbed the tall pole to the suspended rope. His first steps were timid and tentative (after all, it had been several years) but within a few seconds, it all came back to him. With his hands twirling about, he virtually glided across the rope to the pole at the other end, and then, in a flash, made a fast turn, reversed his direction and proceeded back to the other side. Along the way, he performed several stunts. The crowd went wild.

When he was done, he slid down off the pole, took a bow and went running straight to Reb Mendel.

“So?” he said. “Did you see that I was not held up by any cables?”

A very impressed Reb Mendel replied, “Yes. You’re right. No cables.”

“OK. You’re a smart man. Tell me, how did I do it? Was it my hands? Was it my feet?” the man asked.

Reb Mendel paused for a moment, closed his eyes and replayed the entire act back on his mind. Finally, Reb Mendel opened his eyes and said, “It’s the eyes. It’s all in your eyes. During the entire time, your eyes were completely focused and riveted on the opposite pole.”

“Exactly!” said the performer. “When you see your destination in front of you and you don’t take your eyes off of it, then your feet go where they need to go and you don’t fall. OK, now one more question. What would you say is the most difficult part of the act?”

Again Reb Mendel thought for a moment. “Most difficult was the turn; when you had to change direction.”

“Correct again!” he said. “During that split second, when you lose sight of that first pole, and the other pole has not yet come into view, there is some real danger there. But… if you don’t allow yourself to get confused and distracted during that transition, your eyes will find that pole and your balance will be there.”

This special Shabbat — the bridge between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur — is referred to as “Shabbat Shuva.” In this week’s Haftorah, we hear the words of the prophets — exhorting us, pleading with us, beckoning us to improve the quality of our lives; to even change direction if need be.

It is also noteworthy that this week’s Torah portion — in which we learn about the events that transpired on the last day of Moses’ life on earth — is called “Vayeilech Moshe” (And Moses went). The commentaries point out that even on the last day of his life, Moses was on the move — walking forward, achieving, growing — making the most of every precious moment of life. Moses’ message to us being that so long as we have a breath of life, there ought to be “Vayeilech” — explorations of new horizons, journeys to new frontiers.

How do we walk this tightrope called “life” without stumbling? The answer is: by establishing clear and proper goals and remaining focused on those goals like a laser beam.

The Torah provides us with a road map to a meaningful and fulfilling way of life. It sets down goals and defines purpose.

When you know what your purpose and destination is, and you do not take your eyes off that pole, then you know where to put your feet. Even when things turn, and we momentarily lose sight of the pole, we need not despair. Shabbos Shuva teaches us that a change of direction ought not to send us plummeting. On the contrary, we can and should shift gracefully with changes of circumstances, catch our balance and let the next pole come into view.

Rabbi Moshe D. Bryski serves as the executive director of Chabad of the Conejo and dean of the Conejo Jewish Day School.

 

Yeladim


Days of Smiles, Days of Tears

We know that Adar is a month of great joy. But there is one day, the 7th of Adar, which falls this year on March 18, when we take a small break from joy. On this day, Moses was born; he died on this day exactly 120 years later, but his burial place is unknown. Some Jews fast on this day.
Linking Jewish present to past, Israel has instituted a public memorial ceremony on this day for soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces who have not yet been brought to burial (the unknown soldier). This annual memorial takes place at Mount Herzl Military Cemetery in Jerusalem.

Wonderful Women

March 8, was International Women’s Day. Who are these famous Jewish women?

1. She was born in Jerusalem in 1981 and moved to New York, but paid a visit to the planet Naboo. 2. She was born Oct. 29, 1971, with the last name of Horowitz. 3. She was born in Russia, moved to Wisconsin and then made the Holy Land her home.

Purim is just around the corner!

Send Purim baskets this Sunday, March 20, at 2pm, at the Zimmer Museum.
Fill them with candies and hamentaschen!
Give them to your friends (and save a few hamentaschen for yourself).

Read All About It


 

At this moment, I have no idea if Jennifer Garner is having Ben Affleck’s baby, who Hilary Swank is wearing to the Oscars or what brand of moisturizer Catherine Zeta Jones has shipped in from a nunnery in Peru.

I am no longer binge reading. As of now, I’m out of touch with In Touch.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with reading celebrity gossip magazines. If you can do it in moderation, I applaud you (and please let me know if Lindsay Lohan’s dad ever gets his act together). In my case, however, I was a problem reader and I had to put the magazines down. It started innocently enough. I was working on a morning news show in New York and doing occasional segments with writers from Star Magazine, In Touch, People and other weekly magazines. I’d interview gossip writers about the celebrity news of the day, how Julia Roberts was handling her pregnancy, what new freebies Star Jones was hoarding. This was all part of my job, and it never went to “a bad place.” Soon, the magazines started showing up at my office, sent to me by publicists. They’d sit on my desk, as enticing to me as a fistful of Vioxx. Inevitably, a co-worker would glance down and notice a particularly poignant headline, for example “Celebrity Flaws.”

“No way! That is not Jerry Hall’s thigh,” they would squeal, snatching the glossy from my desk. “Are you telling me those are Paris Hilton’s feet? Those are huge!”

Like children hearing the muted tones of an ice cream truck entering the cul-de-sac, other women would materialize, hungry for cellulite secrets and maybe a scoop of schadenfraude.

“Let me see that. Are those Angelina Jolie’s hands? She has man hands!” someone else would chime in, peering down at the cover. The excitement would build until I’d give the magazine away.

One moment, I was indifferent to celebrity hands, the next they had a choke hold on me. I started smuggling the magazines home in my purse.

Because I worked the early morning shift and kept odd hours, I found a stack of magazines really took the edge off trying to busy myself during the day. I’d climb in bed with dozens of stories about Tara Reid and Ashton Kutcher, a cold Fresca and the compelling desire to disappear into a world of customized crystal cell phone covers and anorexic Olsens.

This went on once a week for nearly six months, until I finally saw the correlation: pop culture binge reading sessions were always followed by fitful naps and waking up with a vague but nasty sense of emptiness. Strangers like Pamela Anderson and Britney Spears wormed themselves deeply into my subconscious and wandered lost like ghosts with excellent teeth and Uggs. No matter how much I devoured their stories, one truth remained. They were on the Red Carpet — I wasn’t even at Red Lobster.

I’d like the say it’s just that simple, that reading about the rich and famous is painful unless you’re one of them, but I doubt that’s it. I’m going to guess that even the rich and famous suffer low-grade ennui after thumbing through the pages of Star. There’s just something about immersion in a sea of other people’s lives — from their handbags to their Oscar parties to their kabbalah bracelets — that drowns out anything real. What’s so dazzlingly distracting is also what’s numbing and uncomfortable.

When you think about it, garden-variety gossiping usually gives you a temporary high but leaves you feeling out of sorts. Binge reading works on the same principle, but it’s even more distressing. It’s gossip without the human interaction, a one-way conversation about people you don’t know, a mindless activity that quietly fosters longing and loneliness, at least for me.

On the subway once, I saw a young woman flipping through an Us Weekly. I was surprised, because she didn’t look the type. She was all no-fuss hair and debutante angles and perfectly fitting khakis. I studied this woman, with her tennis-lesson body and lightly worn monogrammed bag. When the subway stopped at 59th, she was halfway through the magazine. I saw her put it on the seat next to her, and snatch it back up again, and put it down before she gathered her things and stood up. I wanted to tap her and say, “I know.”

As long as life is sometimes uncertain and boring and as long as there are airplane flights and waiting rooms and eating meals alone and afternoons gaping with open spaces, I’ll always be looking for distractions. All I can hope for now is that they involve far less of Melania Knauss.

As it turns out, people who need People are not the luckiest people in the world.

Teresa Strasser is a TV host and Emmy Award-winning writer. She’s on the Web at target=”_blank”>teresastrasser.com.

 

Do I Know You?


I was headed into a pizza joint for a slice when I noticed a guy whose face looked eerily familiar. I couldn’t place him but he gave me a subtle nod, frat-boy style.

Just as I snapped my head back to make sure it actually was the dude from “Average Joe,” he was craning his head back, too.

Perhaps he was thinking, “Is that the girl from the morning news?” Or maybe, “I’ve seen her on that TLC decorating show that runs more than cheap stockings at a job interview.”

Maybe he was just working out a crick in his neck, but I doubt it.

I believe, and it’s happened before, that we were two souls glimpsing each other in the invisible netherworld I call Fame Purgatory.

It’s a place crowded with high-profile criminals, reality show stars and the odd cable decorating show host. Fame Purgatory is packed these days, bustling with weekend anchors from random news networks, losing bachelorettes, rising sitcom actors from sitcoms you’ve never watched, pubescent former child stars and the siblings of Madonna.

Some of us will be truly famous one day, but most of us will slip back into obscurity. For now, we’re in a no-man’s land that oscillates between flattering and fabulously strange. It’s hard to explain but I can tell you this much, when you’re simmering in Fame Purgatory, you are no longer an “Average Joe.”

You may not be on the cover of In Touch, but as my friend Mitzi would say, you are “Googleable.”

I’ll describe it this way. If electricity is measured in watts and height is measured in inches, what is the measure of fame? I offer you, the Jon Cryer.

You might remember him as Duckie from “Pretty in Pink” with Molly Ringwald. Maybe you’ve seen him on “Two and a Half Men” (he’s the not Charlie Sheen one). You’d know his face if you saw him getting a slice, but you might think you just know him from high school.

Jon Cryer is, of course, one Jon Cryer. Paris Hilton is 72 Cryers. I’m a fraction of a Cryer, maybe one-sixth at best.

In Purgatory, there are some nice moments: the teenage girl asking for an autograph; the cop waving hello from his patrol car.

There are also the surreal: “Hello insurance company, this is Teresa Strasser and I just wondered if you could help me with something.”

Insurance phone lady: “Wait. Are you the one from that decorating show?”

“Yes. Um, how many therapy sessions do I have left this year?”

Because most people assume if you’re on TV you’re rich, bank transactions are oddly horrifying, producing a sensation I call Fame Shame, that is, the knowledge that the teller knows your savings account hasn’t broken $700 since June.

I imagine at 10 Cryers, you get a financial manager and a few pseudonyms, but I wouldn’t know.

After more than a year in purgatory, there’s still shock, as in “Me? Least likely to succeed?” There’s paranoia, recalling a description of a porno star I once stumbled upon on the Internet that read, “Think mainstream actress Teresa Strasser, only leaner.” There’s detachment, because that person they know isn’t really you, and you’re already down the street, your TV ghost lingering behind you. There’s dread, because you feel exposed and maybe disappointing and you miss watching the world go by, yourself unnoticed. Worse yet, there’s a strangling fear of enjoying this because you know it will most likely fade until one day you’re a tiny fraction of a Cryer, wishing you had milked that decorating show for all it was worth and wondering where all those free haircuts and fan letters went.

I never thought I’d be quoting Monica Lewinsky, but she once made an excellent point. For her, she said, there’s no such thing as a blind date, “Every date is a half-blind date.”

That’s not true at my current Cryerage, though the guy I’m dating did see me on TV before he met me in person. He was able to Google facts about me both true and not — yes, I won a spelling bee, and no I don’t have a wooden leg.

If you go old school, as in back to the Bible, what gave you notoriety was achievement, bringing down tablets, conquering a people, leadership. In our culture, exposure brings fame. And fame alone is no guarantee of happiness — just check the roster of most fancy rehab clinics if you don’t believe me.

I still need all 26 therapy sessions covered annually by insurance, thank you.

I still feel as insecure as ever, if not more so. I clutch the Cryers I have while wishing people wouldn’t stare at me at airports. I’m confused on a grander scale. I can find myself on Google — and I can lose myself just as easily.

Teresa Strasser writes from Manhattan where she is a
feature reporter for Fox’s “Good Day Live.” She’s on the Web at teresastrasser.com

Shrine of the Book Reopens Displays


"A senator came to Israel as part of a mission to learn more about the country and the issues," recalled Herta Amir at a ceremony for the Israel Museum’s honorary fellows on June 7. "This senator told me that finally she came to the Shrine of the Book. She stood right behind a little Israeli boy who was trying desperately to decipher the Dead Sea Scrolls. She said, ‘If a child in Israel attempts to read a scroll that was written thousands of years ago, then the land belongs to him.’ And so you can see how the past impacts the present and the future."

Herta and Paul Amir, real estate developers in Los Angeles, were the primary donors to the Israel Museum’s project to renovate the Shrine of the Book, closed for a year and reopened June 7, preceding the honorary fellows ceremony. About 300 members of the museum’s International Council attended the invitation-only event, including Alice and Nahum Lainer, Jewish education and arts philanthropists in Los Angeles.

The ceremony began in the courtyard outside the shrine — a white, tear-shaped dome replicating the top of the containers in which the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. James Snyder, museum director, then led the crowd through the dimly lit cavern-like monument, where ancient documents are housed in rectangular glass containers — including eight of the most complete scrolls discovered, as well as the Aleppo Codex from the 10th century C.E., one of the most famous handwritten Bibles.

After council members had time to view the displays on three levels, King David Peace Drummer’s Yagel Har-El, dressed all in white, stood on the top level and blew a long shofar, then recited the Shehecheyanu blessing for new occasions.

The impetus for the renovation, Snyder said, was that the shrine was just short of four decades old.

"It had suffered substantial wear and tear over the 40 years of its life," he explained. "We wanted to make sure we were presenting the Dead Sea Scrolls in a way that was conservationally appropriate — that provided conditions which would not promote the scrolls’ deterioration…. We replaced or renewed every material, updated all the mechanical systems and light systems and installed new showcases that would allow [the scrolls] to be kept and shown in the most environmentally appropriate way."

According to the Israel Museum, the shrine is considered a masterwork of modern architecture and an international landmark. It was designed by architects Frederick Kiesler and Armand Bartos.

"The Dead Sea Scrolls are among the Israel Museum’s greatest treasures, and the shrine where they are preserved and displayed is also one of the truly distinctive architectural jewels of the last century," Snyder said.

Excavated in the Qumran caves in the Judean Desert in 1947, the scrolls represent a turning point in the study of the history of the Jewish people in ancient times, bringing to light an unprecedented trove of biblical literature. The scrolls’ contents fall into three major categories — biblical, apocryphal and sectarian.

The biblical manuscripts comprise 200 copies of books, representing the world’s earliest evidence of biblical texts. The sectarian manuscripts cover a wide variety of literary genres — including biblical commentary, religious-legal writings and liturgical texts. The apocryphal manuscripts comprise works that previously had been known only in translation or had not been known at all.

Scholars have concluded that some of the scrolls were written or copied by an ascetic Jewish sect, identified by most scholars as the Essenes, who existed alongside the Pharisees, Sadducees, early Christians, Samaritans and Zealots. Together, these groups comprised Jewish society in Israel during the late Hellenistic-Roman period, from the rise of the Maccabees through the destruction of the Second Temple (167 B.C.E.-70 C.E.).

Other scrolls were written or copied elsewhere and formed part of the library of the Qumran community. Most of the scrolls were written in Hebrew, with a small number in Aramaic and Greek. The majority of the scrolls were written on parchment, with rare examples on papyrus. Although a few scrolls were discovered intact, the majority survive as fragments.

The Shrine of the Book was designed to evoke the experience of discovering the scrolls, as well as to represent the spiritual messages conveyed in the scrolls’ writing. The monument’s restoration, Snyder said, "ensures the preservation of the scrolls for the benefit of generations to come."

Loolwa Khazzoom is the editor of “The Flying Camel: Essays on Identity by
Women of North African and Middle Eastern Jewish Heritage” (Seal Press). You can
find her on the Web at

Q & A With Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz


Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz has written more than 60 books on Jewish spirituality, but he is most famous for his translation and commentary of the Babylonian Talmud, which made the complicated text accessible to millions of otherwise ignorant Jews.

Recently, Steinsaltz turned his attention to the classic work of Chabad Chasidism — “The Tanya,” first published in 1797 by Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad. In “Opening the Tanya: Discovering the Moral and Mystical Teachings of a Classic Work of Kabbalah” (Wiley, 2003) Steinsaltz translates and comments on the text and explicates the Tanya’s philosophical and spiritual messages.

Speaking to The Journal from Rome, Steinsaltz discussed why the Tanya was groundbreaking when it was published, and what he thinks of today’s obsession with kabbalah.

The Jewish Journal: The Tanya has been translated into English before — why the need for a commentary?

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz: It is a tough text in two ways. It is a very concise and precisely written book. Secondly, it is a very demanding book. So many people really don’t understand it. It is not one of those books that you read and you get all palpitating and emotional. It is a tough book, written in very classic language, very precise and very demanding,

So such a book needs lots of broadening in order to make it understandable and in order to get the ideas across.

JJ: So was the Tanya written for lay people or scholars?

AS: Among many other things, it is a matter of time. The lay people of 200 years ago and more, were possibly more scholarly than the scholars of today, and what they thought about a simple Jew in those times is something that you would think about rabbis in our times.

The general level of Jewish knowledge was much higher. Secondly, the book was written at the beginning for a very well-defined group. It was a group of people that were the followers of the author, so in that sense there was some kind of an understanding of what he is talking about.

When the book is read by somebody who is not of that circle, you have to begin a few miles after.

JJ: How and why was the Tanya revolutionary when it was published in 1797?

AS: In this book are many novel ideas, and possibly the most important and significant idea is … that the basic questions of morality are not coming down to a dichotomy. Morality has the notion of dichotomy: you are either good or evil, you’re either a saint or a sinner — it is an either/or way of looking at the world.

In this book comes the novel idea that there are some people for whom the conflict for good and evil is never solved completely, and there are people for whom the struggle will be permanent and eternal. These people are important people, not failures, and are fulfilling the divine plan, by their permanent struggling.

This book is a very comforting book, because it says as long as you are struggling — conquering your own evil desires — you are a hero, and it is frightening because it doesn’t say that you will ever come to the point where everything will be peaceful in your mind. All your life you are going to struggle.

The hero here is the anti-hero, because the hero here is not the conqueror, but the person who does the hard work. The glory is of a very different kind.

JJ: What do you think of Hollywood’s obsession with kabbalah? Do you think that the Kabbalah Centre has anything to offer?

AS: There is no spirit in it, no message in it. This is part of a general term toward the esoteric that seems to be à la mode for the time being, but it is not important on any real level. At best, it is shallow and unimportant. At worst, it may become slightly dangerous for Judaism and for the people who get involved in it. To get involved in any kind of pseudo-science or pseudo-religion is always slightly dangerous for the religion.

JJ: You have spent a lot of your life’s work making Jewish texts such as the Talmud accessible to Jews of our generation. Do you think that by and large Jews today are ignorant of their heritage?

AS: Yes — and in some ways that is the biggest danger because ignorance, unlike a level of commitment, is something that grows without any special effort. You don’t have to create ignorance, it grows on its own. Every year that passes, every generation means more ignorance. What I am trying to do is keep the roads open, the bridges functioning and the gates open.

JJ: You are also known as a speaker on medical ethics. Now we are moving into an era where questions of medical ethics come up all the time, with genetic engineering and stem cell research, etc. What limits can and should we place on these types of experiments?

AS: My basic advice to researchers is that one has to be extremely cautious, because it is much easier to open gates than to go on and close them.

We are now in an era where the possibilities of medical research are so big, that we have far more power than understanding. Creating anything is opening a door to an unknown hell, so we have to be extremely cautious.

Personally and theologically I am not against research or knowledge. I think that we as Jews are basically progressive. But progressing also means you are treading in something that is much worse than a minefield, so you should remember day and night — be cautious.

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz will be speaking on Nov. 10 at 7 p.m. at Congregation B’nai David-Judea, 8906 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. For more information call, (310) 276-9269.

Jewish Wizard Takes Flight in New Potter Book


Are there Jews at Hogwarts? The world’s most famous School of Witchcraft and Wizardry might be muggle-free, but it is possible that it has an equal-opportunity policy for Jewish wizards.

In "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," the fifth of seven books in J.K. Rowling’s insanely popular children’s series, readers are introduced to one Anthony Goldstein.

The book doesn’t tell us much about Anthony, but we can ascertain certain things. He is in Ravenclaw, which means he is of "the sharpest mind" according to the "sorting hat." Because Anthony is a prefect, he is a considered to be a leader among his classmates. We know that he is one of the good guys, because he joins "Dumbledore’s Army," the defense against the dark arts class that Harry teaches after the unctuous professor Dolores Umbridge removes anything remotely practical from their defense lessons.

Representatives at Scholastic Books, the publisher of the Harry Potter series, said they had "no idea" if Anthony is Jewish or not, and Rowling was unavailable for comment. However, Dr. Raymond Jones, a professor of English at the University of Alberta, who teaches literature courses in "Harry Potter," said that is was highly probable that Anthony is Jewish.

"One of the things that is happening here is that Rowling is making the school contemporary," Jones said. "The school seems quite old-fashioned — they use quills and not computers — but, by populating her school with a variety of ethnic backgrounds, she is admitting to the reality of modern England and modern America."

But even if Anthony and others are Jewish, don’t expect them to start lighting the menorah too soon; according to Jones, religion plays no role of any kind in Harry Potter — where the only miracles are ones done by the wizarding community.

Ozzy’s Father-in-Law Bails Out Synagogue


Rock legend Ozzy Osbourne’s father-in-law has intervened in the Higher Crumpsall/Higher Broughton Synagogue row with the Synagogue Council to settle the shul’s debt with a burial board.

Manchester-born Don Arden (formerly Harry Levy), whose sister Eileen Somers is administrator of the synagogue, was so grieved to hear of the shul’s problems that this week he transferred funds of £3,695 (almost $6,033) to cover the shortfall, plus a significant donation.

Arden — now 77 and living in Los Angeles, where he bought Howard Hughes’ former home — was a member of Higher Crumpsall’s choir and was bar mitzvahed there. His daughter, Sharon, is married to Osbourne and Arden himself is often seen on MTV’s highly rated Osbournes’ family saga.

Arden himself is a legendary name in the music business. Having left school, Arden began his show business career at 13 as a singer and stand-up comic in Manchester. In the 1960s, he began booking American rockers for European tours. Then he started to manage major ’60s acts like The Move and The Small Faces, before reaching a commercial pinnacle in the ’70s as manager of ELO and of singer Lynsey de Paul. He also founded his own Jet record label.

Arden worked as an entertainer on the British variety circuit. He impersonated famous tenors, like Caruso, and movie gangsters such as Edward G. Robinson and George Raft. On weekends, Yiddish-speaking Arden wowed Jewish audiences with his Al Jolson routine. In 1954, he became a showbiz agent and started organizing Hebrew folk song contests, then putting together his own shows. He signed up American rock ‘n’ roller Gene Vincent in 1960 and, for several years, brought American rockers, including Vincent, Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry, to England. — The Manchester Jewish Telegraph

Star Stricken


My ex-boyfriend is a star.

Just when I thought he was securely fastened in my past, he is suddenly and jarringly in my present, whirring by me on the side of a bus, staring at me from the cover of TV Guide, cracking jokes on late night TV.

In short, he is everywhere. As the host of a hugely popular summer television juggernaut, he is unavoidable. The experience of watching my ex become everyone’s punch line or adolescent crush (depending on who you ask) has been nothing short of surreal.

Recently, I saw a sketch comedian doing an impression of him on an awards show, imitating his laugh, his intonation. While my ex was being lambasted, I didn’t know whether to feel defensive or proud, jealous or relieved, impressed or left behind. After all, I was home tending to the chips in my pedicure while he was performing for the masses, hair gel glistening under the lights. I was Art Garfunkel, home alone watching Paul Simon on Grammy night, sipping a fifth of regret; I was the Ike to his Tina.

At first, his fame was no surprise. I don’t want to say he was ambitious but it was a lot like dating Eva Peron.

After a few weeks, the novelty of his big break wore off. I started to feel pangs of the old familiar competition we had, which I was clearly losing. I remembered how I used to describe us as two ships passive-aggressive in the night. Memories of him shuffled into my head at every opportunity.

Like scenes in the documentary of his life I’ll probably be asked to appear in one day, I relived some key moments. There was the time he told me I wasn’t funny, which was just about making me throw my Diet Coke at the TV last week when he opened with a joke I wrote. Actually, it wasn’t really a funny joke, but the point is it was mine.

It also dawned on me that I must be part of a large and sad group whose members are watering their grudge gardens all over the world. I’m sure there’s some guy who went to the prom with Julia Roberts, a girl who once dated Bill Clinton. When you think about it, for everyone who attains celebrity, there are at least a handful of people who aren’t happy about it.

Or are they? At first, I didn’t tell anyone about my brush with pre-fame. After awhile, I was waiting for any excuse to drop it into casual conversation. My mailman knew I dated The Famous Guy. I would feign embarrassment to avoid the appearance of bragging, but something in me had to spread the word.

If The Famous Guy dated me, I must be important, right? I dated him because I thought he was talented and charming, which is why he’s famous, so I must have excellent taste. Check me out.

I’ve had to ask myself some big questions. What’s so great about fame? Does it make life that much richer? Does leasing a BMW make you happy? If here on earth we keep score with fame and money, I lose, but why am I competing? Why can’t I be happy with a few angry Jewish Journal letter writers mocking and demeaning me? Why do I need the whole country to join in? Doesn’t touching a few — albeit, some the wrong way — equal being known by many? And why do poor obscure people always yammer about how money and success don’t make you happy?

Yesterday, my dad called. As with many of my conversations lately, the Famous Guy came up, but my dad insists on being the only person in America who hasn’t seen his show.

As previously reported here, my dad is one of three students enrolled in a beginning Yiddish class at a junior college in the Bay Area. He is obsessed with Yiddish and far more interested in that than in why Famous Guy is so famous. He had talked to a man at a music store on Fairfax about some Yiddish recordings by a singer named Chava. He asked if I could pick them up for him.

“Chava Negilla?” I asked, over the phone.

“No, Chava Alberstein. The owner says the one recorded in Israel is better. Only go if it’s no bother, but it’s Friday so you better leave before they close — but only if it’s no bother.”

That’s how I ended up in a little store cramped with Jewish music. The owner remembered talking to my dad and gathered the CDs. When I signed the credit card receipt, he recognized my name. A large Israeli man behind me chimed in.

“You should write about Israeli folk dancing,” they said. And Sephardic music. And come back again.

I couldn’t help but feel my dad had sent me on this mission to a place I belonged, not on the side of a bus, but in a little storefront crowded with obscure Jewish music, down the street from a falafel shop, across from Cantor’s.

They hadn’t heard of Famous Guy either, but don’t think I didn’t ask.

Teresa Strasser is on the Web at www.teresastrasser.com. You can catch
her as host of a new home-redecorating show on TLC, “While You Were Out,”
premiering Sept. 21 at 10 p.m.

We Need You!


The famous musical, “Fiddler on the Roof,” which celebrates life and Jewish family tradition during turbulent times, is coming to town, and what better time than now?

Originally written by Shalom Aleichem and turned into a film by Joseph Stein and Norman Jewison in 1971, “Fiddler” has withstood the test of time. What happened in the Jewish ghetto of Anatevka, Russia, in 1904 is representative historically of the persecution Jews have faced, from the Nazis in World War II to the ascending tension in the Middle East between the Israelis and Palestinians today. The play is a celebration of togetherness and perseverance; fighting for Jewish pride and keeping the faith even when there is little left to believe in and no one else to turn to.

Marla Gam-Hudson, director of the upcoming play at the Huntington Beach Playhouse agrees. “Every day I listen to the radio and find moments of the play that I relate to the current situation in Israel. This play has lasted for so long because of the passion that all of these characters have, from the villagers to Tevye and his family, to the constable and his band of men. They are all fighting for their homeland. It even applies here with 9/11,” she says. “I think ‘Fiddler’ is a simple yet universal story about people finding balance in their lives. This is what the fiddler represents.” Tevye must learn to balance his personal religious beliefs and his love for his daughters, who have strayed from the tradition by marrying the men of their choices.

According to Gam-Hudson, “Fiddler” has appealed to everyone regardless of race or religion. It just so happens that the play is based on the struggles of a poor Jewish man and his family, but could easily relate to the story of a Muslim, Methodist or Buddhist. “It is a universal story about people finding balance in their lives and their determination to survive in difficult situations. The Jews in the pogrom are brave for standing up for their beliefs and integrity, but then Romeo and Juliet did the same thing as did the Greeks and Romans,” she says. “We find that part of our soul that allows us to see past the differences and find out in how many ways we are all the same.”

Gam-Hudson’s family came to America after being exiled from Prussia shortly after the turn of the 20th century. Born in Los Angeles and now residing in Orange County, Gam-Hudson teaches theater at California State University Northridge and is the producing artistic director for the New Voices Playwright’s Theater at the Chance Theater in Anaheim Hills. She has directed more than 200 plays since age 17, and at age 6 she auditioned for a tour with Zero Mostel, famous for playing Tevye on stage, and regrets not accepting the part. When she was 18, she contemplated the idea of becoming a rabbi but instead attended Cal State Fullerton, where she received her master’s.

Attempting to bring her personal journey into the production, Gam-Hudson says, “I am at a place in my life now where I am finding a great deal of peace, joy, beauty and love. This story is the encapsulation of all those things.”

Tevye will be played by Tim Nowiki of Redondo Beach, who according to Gam-Hudson is a triple threat with his ability to act, sing and dance. Nowiki has played the part before.

Traditionally, most productions of “Fiddler” use dull costume colors to represent poverty and exile. However, Gam-Hudson will use bright colors to symbolize life. “This is an idealized version that will use color to highlight the emotional levels of the story and its characters,” she says.

Yet, throughout history, from the slaves in ancient Egypt up until today’s conflict in Israel, regardless of the freedom and lives lost, Jews have always found a way to bounce back and prevail. Tevye and his family could not fight the approaching army, so, just as Gam-Hudson’s family had done in Prussia, they flee to America in search of a better future.

“They all head off not in different directions but in the one direction that God tells them there is hope for a future,” she says. “America was the hope, and I think, still is.”