In Krakow, night of the synagogues bolsters Jewish pride

For the sixth year in a row, the seven synagogues in Krakow’s historic Jewish district, Kazimierz, opened their doors for 7@Nite – or the Night of the Synagogues, a one-night mini-festival aimed at bolstering Jewish pride and promoting Jewish awareness among the public.

Each synagogue – from the Gothic Old Synagogue, now a Jewish historical museum, to the ornate 19th century Tempel Synagogue, used for both services and cultural events – hosted an exhibit, concert, film or other event illustrating contemporary Jewish culture in Poland and around the world.

“The most important message is that this is an open event, carried out by Jews — for everybody,” said Karina Sokolowska, the Poland director of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

Organized by the JDC, the Krakow Jewish Community Center and the Krakow Jewish Religious Community, 7@Nite first took place in 2011.

Since then it has become an annual event that begins with an open-air Havdalah ceremony ending Shabbat conducted from the roof of the JCC.

From the conclusion of Havdalah – at around 10:30 p.m. Saturday — until 2:30 a.m. Sunday, thousands of people troop off to visit the synagogues, all of which are located within a few blocks of each other.

Organizers estimated that this year’s Havdalah, on Saturday, drew a record 1,400 people who crowded into the JCC courtyard.

“Go and enjoy the synagogues,” JCC Executive Director Jonathan Ornstein told them. “The Jewish heritage of Krakow does not just belong to the Jews but to all of us. As Cracovians, be proud.”

The event was advertised with posters throughout the city, and a constant flow of people moved in and out of the synagogues throughout the opening hours. The overwhelming majority were young, non-Jewish Cracovians.

With only about 20,000 Jews, Poland has experienced a public fascination with Poland’s Jewish heritage, including dozens of Jewish museums and culture festivals often run by non-Jews.

Some said they had made it a point to come to Kazimierz to take part.

“It’s the only day of the year that you can see all the synagogues, and I came last year and two years ago, too,” said Natalia Giemza, 23, who is not Jewish but said she had taken university courses on Jewish history.

Other visitors made a quick visit to a synagogue or two part of a Saturday night out. In recent years, the Kazimierz district has become the city’s liveliest center of youth-oriented nightlife, and pubs, clubs, cafes and restaurants were crowded on a warm night.

“We were just out drinking and thought, why not?” said Mateus, 22, who joined a group of friends visiting the baroque Izaak Synagogue after 1 a.m.

Built in the 17th century, the Izaak has a towering vaulted ceiling and frescoed decoration and is used for regular services. For 7@Nite it hosted an exhibit on Ethiopian Jews with a hummus and pita snack bar in its courtyard.

“I’ve been in other synagogues, but never the Izaak,” Mateus said. One of the reasons he had wanted to visit, he said, was “to gain knowledge about our roots.”

“I’m not Jewish or Catholic, but I think there is some Jewish blood in my ancestry,” he said. Mateus said he did not, however, plan to join the JCC or take any other steps toward affiliation.

His friend Jakub said he was Catholic, but he and his parents “have always been interested in Jewish things.”

The 7@Nite event was staffed by volunteers who managed crowds, handed out kippot to visiting men and kept head counts of visitors. Most were not Jewish and, according to the JDC’s Sololowska, some had come from as far as the northwestern city of Szczeczin, hundreds of miles away, to take part.

“I’m Catholic and I started volunteering at the JCC two years ago,” said graduate student Anna Wilkosz, who said that by midnight well over 1,000 people had visited the Kupa synagogue. “I felt it was urgent to be involved.”

Not everyone who turned out for the event, however, demonstrated a positive interest in Jewish and Judaism.

Outside the Tempel Synagogue, where young Poles danced wildly to freestyling by the American Jewish rapper Kosha Dillz, a bald man in his 30s said he was “mad at the Jews.”

“I’m mad at the Jews because Jews all say that the Poles killed them in World War II, but I know history — Poles saved them,” declared the man, who said he was a tour guide.

His remarks appeared to reflect a campaign in recent months by Poland’s new hard-right government to absolve Poles of charges of complicity in the persecution of Jews during the Holocaust.

Much of that campaign centers on the Polish-American historian Jan Gross, the author of several books since 2000 that examine episodes during and after the Holocaust, including the murder of Jews in the village of Jedwabne, in which Poles killed their Jewish neighbors or targeted Jews with violence.

In October, soon after coming to power, the government opened a libel investigation against Gross based on an article he wrote asserting that “Poles killed more Jews during the [Second World] war than they did Germans.” Prosecutors questioned Gross for five hours in April.

The investigation was based on an article in the Criminal Code that punishes those who “insult” Poland.

Yet most visitors seemed to take part in the Night of the Synagogues in a spirit of good will. At midnight, Giemza and a friend entered the 17th-century Kupa Synagogue, which is decorated with colorful frescoes. It hosted a special photo and interview exhibit about contemporary Polish Jewish identity.

They carried hamsas, the hand-shaped Middle Eastern good luck charm, that they had made in an art workshop taking place at another of the synagogues.

“I hope to get to all the synagogues tonight,” Giemza said. “It’s really great for me.”

Calendar Picks and Clicks: Oct. 20-26, 2012


“Six Million and One”

When Israeli documentary filmmaker David Fisher discovers the memoir of his late father, a Holocaust survivor who was interned in Gusen and Gunskirchen, Austria, Fisher decides to retrace his father’s footsteps. Realizing it’s unbearable to be alone in the wake of his father’s survival story, David convinces his sister and two of his brothers to join him on what becomes an eloquent, intense and surprisingly humorous quest to uncover their father’s past, a journey filled with joking, kibitzing and quarreling between siblings seeking meaning in their personal and family history. Sat. Various times. $11 (general), $8 (children under 12, seniors). Laemmle’s Town Center, 17200 Ventura Blvd., Encino. (310) 478-3836.




The Jewish County Fair

Join musicians, artists, nature lovers and families for this annual celebration of the fall harvest. Set on 220 wooded acres in Malibu, this day of food, fun and unity offers a Jewish twist on the county fair, featuring food trucks with glatt kosher options, carnival games, wine tasting, live music, nature hikes, children’s activities and more. Co-produced by Craig ’N Co. and Shalom Institute as part of the Big Jewish Tent initiative, which aims to build bridges through community events. Sun. Noon-5 p.m. $6 (online), $10 (door), free (children, 3 and under). Shalom Institute, 34342 Mulholland Highway, Malibu. (818) 889-5500.


“Challenges and Choices in the Jewish Media Today”

Presented by the University of Southern California’s Casden Institute for the Study of the Jewish Role in American Life, the 32nd annual Jerome Nemer Lecture examines the role of Jewish media, which serves a community that is more prosperous and powerful than ever before but is also struggling to maintain its Jewishness. Jane Eisner, editor-in-chief of the Forward and the first woman to hold the position at the influential Jewish newsweekly, lectures on this evolution of the Jewish community and the editorial choices it demands. Sarah Benor, associate professor of contemporary Jewish studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, adds commentary and reflection on the topic. Sun. 4:30-7 p.m. Free. USC campus, University Park Campus-Davidson Conference Center, Embassy Room. (213) 740-1744.



Harry Shearer

The acclaimed funnyman (“The Simpsons,” “Le Show”) appears in conversation with Grammy Museum executive director Bob Santelli to discuss his versatile career and the making of his latest album, “Can’t Take a Hint.” Shearer also performs selections from his new release, which features musical sketches that pair him with giants of pop, r&b and jazz while tackling issues of the day, including the foibles of celebrity, the Bridge to Nowhere, the cost of war and weather extremes. Mon. 7:30 p.m. $20. Grammy Museum, 800 W. Olympic Blvd., downtown. (213) 765-6800.



Rami and the Piano

Called Israel’s Elton John and Billy Joel, chart-topping Israeli pop singer Rami Kleinstein performs at American Jewish University as part of his U.S. concert tour. The intimate show will feature a selection of original pieces, including songs about political unrest and love, and covers of American classics. Proceeds benefit educational programs at Keshet Chaim, a nonprofit organization dedicated to celebrating Israeli culture and Judaism throughout the world. Tue. 8 p.m. $50 (advance), $60 (door), $100 (VIP, includes post-concert reception with Kleinstein). American Jewish University, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Los Angeles. (818) 986-7332.



“It’s All for the Breast”

As part of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, the National Council of Jewish Women/Los Angeles, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and the City of West Hollywood hold an educational community program that provides breast cancer awareness information for women and men. A panel discussion features breast cancer experts, including breast surgeons Drs. Alice Chung and Jerrold Steiner, radiologist Dr. Steve Frankel, plastic and reconstructive surgeon Dr. Betty Kim, and oncologist Dr. Monica Mita. Moderated by Heidi Shink, the City of West Hollywood’s commissioner for human services. Wed. Noon-2 p.m. Free. NCJW/LA Council House, 543 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 852-8503.



“Triple Art Opening”

A reception at the Dortort Center for Creativity in the Arts at UCLA Hillel celebrates the opening of three art exhibitions, and a musical tribute in memory of late reporter and musician Daniel Pearl takes place as part of Daniel Pearl World Music Days. Presented in conjunction with the Fowler Museum at UCLA’s “Light and Shadows” exhibition, “What Remains: The Iranian Jewish Experience” includes sculptures, photography and a video installation; “Where the Past Meets the Future” features an installation of 140 wooden boxes that depict the history of Poland and its Jews; and “Frozen Music” presents Gil Garcetti’s black-and-white photographic study of Walt Disney Concert Hall. Thu. 7-9 p.m. (opening reception). Through Dec. 14. Free. Hillel at UCLA, 574 Hilgard Ave., Los Angeles. (310) 203-3081, ext. 108.

Rob Eshman: The appraisal

Last April, just inside the entrance to the “Salute to Israel” Festival at Rancho Park, the National Council of Jewish Women set up a large tented area where it sold all sorts of secondhand items from its thrift stores: clothes, Judaica, kitchenware, art.

I was rushing by when a painting of a pipe caught my eye. I stopped and looked down at the canvas it was painted on, and noticed who was smoking the pipe: Albert Einstein.

Einstein looked haimish and mythic, impish and wise and — something else. 

“How much is it?” I said to the salesman.

“Eight hundred,” he said.

In the upper-left quadrant there was a gash, and a smaller, pencil-tip-sized hole beside it. “But it’s ripped,” I said. “Two hundred.” 

Impulse buy? In a minute I’d just bought a damaged oil painting by an artist I never heard of, from what was essentially a junk shop at a street fair. And it was huge — at least 3 feet by 2 1/2 feet.

A few hours later, I walked with Einstein, awkwardly, down Motor Avenue.

“I give you $500 for that.”

A man, speaking in a Persian accent, was now walking beside me.

“I think,” I paused. “I think I’m in love with it.”

The man said he was an antiques dealer, and he knew where I could get it repaired.

“There is a guy,” he said. “I know he’s on Melrose. His name, Meir, I think? You tell him I send you. Yosef.”

Yosef helped me fit the painting into my car. It took a half hour.

While we were wrestling with it, I noticed a small black laminate plaque on the bottom of the frame. It read:

Albert Einstein

Painted by

Paul Meltzner

Acquired by Mr. H.W. Kramer and Mr.

N.A. Mier in the Fifth War Loan Campaign and presented to the federation of Jewish welfare organizations and gratefully
accepted by the board on July 18, 1944.

The date explained Einstein’s expression.  It was painted at least a year before Hiroshima and Nagasaki, before Einstein would have to come to terms with the darkest uses of his genius. In this portrait, he looked innocent.

The plaque read “Meltzner.” But in the lower-right corner of the canvas the artist himself had signed his name, in straight capital letters: “PAUL MELTSNER.”

Whoever chose to discard Albert may have done a quick Google check based on the misspelling. There is no Paul Meltzner. But Meltsner with an “S”?

Bingo. Thank you, Internet.

Paul Meltsner was a renowned American Social Realist artist.

He was born in New York in 1905 and studied at the National Academy of Design. He sold his first painting to the government of Palestine in 1925. During the Depression, he toured the United States for the Works Progress Administration, painting farmers and factory workers. His 1937 self-portrait, “Paul, Marcella and Van Gogh” — Van Gogh was a terrier — was purchased by the Luxembourg Museum in Paris. The Nazis confiscated it during the German occupation because Meltsner was a Jew. Meltsner painted a copy in 1940 that now hangs in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City.

When he learned that the Hermitage in Moscow had acquired the original, he demanded its return: Meltsner didn’t want the oppressors of Soviet Jews to enjoy his painting.

Meltsner’s Depression-era oils, woodcuts and lithographs depict workers with respect and dignity, and without pity. He interspersed these with sensual paintings of Martha Graham dancers and joyous paintings of New York street life.

In the ’40s, Meltsner turned to celebrities. His portrait of a fruit-bedecked Carmen Miranda became her iconic image. And he painted Einstein, twice.

In midlife, Meltsner left the city for Woodstock, N.Y., where he continued to paint in solitude, with no phone and no car.  Just before he died, in 1966, a story turned up about him in an art journal. It was titled, “America’s Happiest Artist.”

Today, Meltsner’s paintings hang in the White House — Franklin Roosevelt collected him — and in dozens of museums, including the Smithsonian, the Hermitage, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of Modern Art and the National Portrait Gallery. And there was one jammed like a bad coin into the slot behind my back seat — what about that one?

More Internet searching. In 1943, Meltsner donated eight of his portraits to be auctioned as part of a war bond drive. The auction was held at the I. Magnin department store in Beverly Hills. According to an archive report:

“A single painting of Meltsner’s — a portrait of Albert Einstein — caused a million dollars’ worth of war bonds to be sold in 1943 in Hollywood.”

That explained the plaque below my painting. The two men who acquired the portrait by purchasing a million dollars in war bonds donated the artwork to the Jewish Welfare Fund, the organization that would eventually become the Jewish Federation.

It hung on the wall at the old Federation building, then was removed to a basement or closet, then turned over to the National Council of Jewish Women as, essentially, junk.

I got back on the Internet, hunting for a painting restorer named Meir on Melrose. There was none. But I did find an art restoration place on Santa Monica Boulevard, and the name was Merab. Meltsner/Meltzner, Meir/Merab — does anybody sweat the details? I called.

The accent was thick. “How you get this number?” a gruff voice demanded.

“Are you Meir?” I asked. “Yosef gave me your number.”

“Call back other number,” the voice said, and hung up.

There was another number listed. I dialed.

“Yosef. The Persian. Yes, yes, yes, I know him,” the man said.

I explained I had a painting with a hole, and —

“You come!” he said, cutting me off.


“Now! Come now!”

I read out his address and asked him if it was the right one.

“How you get my address?!” he demanded.

“The Internet.” I was stammering now. “Everything is there.”

He hung up.

I pulled up in front of a storefront I had passed a million times and never noticed. It was low and dirty white. There was no address, no sign, no windows, and an unmarked white door, with no bell. I knocked. Einstein stared off at a boxing gym and a car leasing lot, puffing on his pipe. I knocked again.

The door flew open. A half-naked man with purple hands began waving at me.

“Come come come come COME!” he yelled.

I stood frozen. His torso was a tangle of gray hair and sweat. Giant goggles perched just over his eyes; his sparse gray hair shot up on his balding head, and his baggy pants were streaked in a thousand colors of paint. It was Einstein’s mad cousin.

“Paint dry paint dry paint dry!” he ordered, then spun around and raced away.

I followed him inside — and into one of the most remarkable places I’ve ever seen. A split second earlier, I had been on a drab L.A. street. Now Christopher Lloyd was showing me Marie Antoinette’s attic.

Every square inch of this dimly lit, cavernous space was filled with oils and sculptures and lamps and ceramics and watercolors and china. Art filled shelves and racks that reached to the ceiling. Paintings and pots and sculptures leaned up against one another on the floor. Some of it looked precious, some buried in dust, some gilded and resplendent.

I followed the man to the back, which was lit by an overhead lamp. He stood over a basin of thick purple paint and used a stiff brush to stir it furiously. Then he loaded the color on the brush and smeared it across a ceramic platter. 

“Stand there!” He pointed me to a corner. “Paint dry.”

The man leapt from his seat, ran back to the bowl of paint, swirled it, then went back to the dish.

I stood, holding my painting, watching this man’s intense, focused labor. 

“OK, dry.” He stepped back from the platter, excused himself and returned, wearing a shirt. 

He examined the painting, told me how he could fix the tear so it would be unnoticeable, tighten and clean the frame, and, most importantly, take 80 years of dust and smoke and crud off the picture.

“Everything brighter,” he assured me. “Same color, what came from his brush, like original.”

He could see I was nervous — I kept using the word “patina” in a way I’m sure no art expert ever would. The man took my hand and pulled me through his room of art. He showed me paintings in the process of restoration, before and after. He named a price and wouldn’t budge.

I did the math. The man looked to be near 70 years old. He had a small warehouse of pricey art entrusted to him. He didn’t advertise.

“OK,” I said.

“OK,” he said, and took the painting. “Two weeks. Goodbye.”

“That’s it?”He now had Einstein; I had nothing.

“Two weeks.”

I stood there, not wanting to insult him, but definitely wanting something to show when — my imagination was running wild — the authorities busted the longest-running art theft ring in L.A. history.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

I took out my iPhone to spell it. 

“K-h-a —” he started.

“K-h-a,” I repeated.

“K-h-a —” he said again.

“Yes,” I said, “K-h-a.”

“Khakha!” the man said, exasperated.

“Caca?” I said.

“Khakhanashvili. K-h-a-k-h-a —”

“Oh!” I said. “Georgian.”

“Yes!” he said. Merab Khakhanashvili shook my hand quickly, then closed and locked the door.

I returned two weeks later. He pulled Einstein out of a corner, and moved him to the light.

Whatever colors Meltsner dipped his brush into were now there to see. Einstein leaned across his modest desk, a wall of books and his beloved violin behind him. Light fell on one long-fingered hand, which rested on an open text. His brown sweater now glowed in shades of russet and gold. His white-and-gray hair was a crown. Merab had worked magic.

“I tell you,” Mr. Khakhanashvili smiled. “Much better.”

After I brought the painting home, I made a few calls to get it appraised. After all, even though history records that Meltsner’s Einstein was sold for $1 million in war bonds, no one until me had ever actually paid a penny for the painting itself.

I’d like to be able to tell you it’s worth millions, but the truth is, I have no idea. Appraisers e-mailed and called, but I never followed up.

“Few are those who see with their own eyes and feel with their own hearts,” Einstein once said.

But Einstein led me to two such people: a driven, dedicated art restorer, laboring in obscurity behind an unmarked West Hollywood door; and Paul Meltsner, devoted to justice and to art, one of the most remarkable Jews I’d never heard of.

I look at Einstein and think of them, three exalted guests, permanent ushpizin in our home.

That, I’ve decided, is my appraisal.

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism.

Calendar Picks and Clicks: Sept. 21-27, 2012


“Wtf Live!” @ Riot 
Marc Maron’s refreshingly honest — not to mention popular — podcast features one-on-one interviews with some of the biggest names in entertainment. Tonight, the stand-up comedian hosts “WTF With Marc Maron” before a live audience as part of Riot: L.A.’s Alternative Comedy Festival. Sat. 8 p.m. $20. Downtown Independent Theater, 251 S. Main St., downtown. (312) 730-4000.



“Visual Variations”
This new exhibition at American Jewish University features the versatile work of artists Lorraine Bubar, Ellen Cantor and Silvia Wagensberg. Bubar’s paper cut scenes of lily ponds, vines and trees express the struggles and coexistence of nature; Cantor’s photographs of fruits and vegetables impaled with wires and screws confront the hardships of living with disabilities and thoughts of mortality; and Wagensberg explores her interest in communication and perception with paintings of pictorial language, including gesture drawings and the forms and symbols of the written word. Sun. “Meet the Artists” reception. 3-5 p.m. Gallery hours: 10 a.m.-7 p.m. (Sunday-Thursday), 10 a.m.-2 p.m. (Friday). Through Dec. 16. Free. American Jewish University, Platt and Borstein Galleries, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Los Angeles. (310) 476-9777, Ext. 201.

“The Exodus of Ethiopian Jews”
Micha Feldmann, former Israeli consul-general to Ethiopia and one of the chief architects of Operation Solomon — which rescued 14,000 Ethiopian Jews from shocking conditions and brought them to Israel in 1991— discusses his new book, “On Wings of Eagles: The Secret Operation of the Ethiopian Exodus.” Told through diary entries and the stories from Ethiopian Jews in their own words, “On Wings of Eagles” follows Feldmann’s decade-long effort to free a besieged people. Sun.10 a.m.-noon. Free (RSVP requested). Jewish Federation of the Greater San Gabriel & Pomona Valley, 550 S. Second Ave., Arcadia. (626) 744-9904.

Elliott Yamin
The soulful r&b singer and second runner-up on the fifth season of “American Idol” performs at Hotel Cafe. Expect to hear material from his latest album, “Let’s Get to What’s Real,” featuring the lead single, “3 Words.” 21 and older. Mon. 9 p.m. Tickets available at door only. Hotel Café, 1623 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 461-2040.



Yom Kippur
Click here for a list of free services. 




Just in time for the election season, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Mamet brings his satirical take on presidential politics to the Mark Taper Forum. Ed Begley Jr. (“Arrested Development”) plays Charles Smith, an unpopular president whose prospects of a second term are looking grim a week before the election. His funds are drying up, his poll numbers are in the single digits, his lesbian speechwriter (Felicity Huffman) seems to have defected, and his chief of staff (Rod McLachlan) has given up, but Smith isn’t ready to throw in the towel just yet. Excoriating politics in general, Mamet’s “November” is an equal-opportunity offender that tackles issues like gay marriage, campaign finance, terrorism and presidential pardons. In previews through Oct. 6. Opens Oct. 7 and runs through Nov. 4. Mark Taper Forum at the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. (213) 628-2772.



“Vote for My Story: Political Narratives and the 2012 Election”
Marty Kaplan, Jewish Journal columnist and the Norman Lear professor of entertainment, media and society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, moderates a panel discussion on whether a better understanding of political narrative can help make sense of the current political culture. Featured speakers include Joyce Appleby, professor emerita of history at UCLA; George Lakoff, professor of cognitive science and linguistics at UC Berkeley; and writer-producer John Romano (“Hill Street Blues,” “L.A. Law”). A reception follows. Thu. 7 p.m. Free. The Ray Stark Family Theatre, George Lucas Building, USC School of Cinematic Arts, 900 W. 34th St., Los Angeles. (213) 740-0483.



Israeli artists Adam Berg, Ofri Cnaani, Dor Guez, Nir Hod, Reuven Israel, Gilad Ratman and Rona Yefman join local and international artists in showcasing their work at this contemporary and modern art fair. Now in its second year, the three-day event attracts dealers, collectors, museums and art enthusiasts. Fri. Through Sept. 30. 11 a.m.-6 p.m. (Friday, Saturday and Sunday). $20 (adult, one-day pass), $15 (students and seniors, one-day pass), $30 (adult, three-day pass), $25 (students and seniors, three-day pass). Barker Hangar, Santa Monica Airport, 3021 Airport Ave., Santa Monica. (213) 763-5890.

American Jewish Committee (AJC) co-sponsors a nonpartisan forum to address the issues facing the 2012 U.S. presidential election. Noted speakers and writers — including Journal columnists David Lehrer, president of human relations group Community Advocates, and Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles — debate the significant domestic and global issues of the day and what they mean for Jews, Israel and the world. Rabbi Marc Dworkin, director of AJC in Orange County, moderates. Rabbi Arnold Rachlis of University Synagogue deliveries introductory remarks. Fri. 7 p.m. Free. University Synagogue, 3400 Michelson Drive, Irvine. (949) 553-3535.

Video: Israel celebrated at Rancho Park

West Bank shorts added to L.A. Israel Film Festival

In a small Israeli jail cell, a 17-year-old settler hears the air raid siren that signals the beginning of the Sabbath. From her pocket, she pulls out two travel-friendly candles. When the last of the matches in her small box breaks, her cellmate, a vegan left-wing activist who was on the other side of that morning’s protest, hands the young religious girl her lighter.

The settler hesitates for a moment; the lighter is emblazoned with the Palestinian national flag. Finally, she takes it and lights the Shabbat candles.

This only-in-the-movies moment is part of a student short, titled “Chaotic,” that will be shown at an event affiliated with this year’s Israel Film Festival, which began in Los Angeles on March 15. But what is perhaps most unusual about this and two other short films to be shown on March 25 in Beverly Hills is that they were made by students in a film and television program at Ariel University Center (AUC), the largest public college in the West Bank.

“Coming with films from Ariel is a little surprise, because of the traditional thinking of film and television as a left-wing industry,” said Eyal Boers, a documentary filmmaker who is the head of the nearly five-year-old television and film track at AUC’s School of Communication.

That the Israeli film industry leans left — and has a particular problem with Ariel, a city-sized settlement located deep in the West Bank — is more than just perception.
In 2010, when a group of 36 Israeli actors announced that they would boycott the Ariel Regional Center for the Performing Arts, which opened later that year, dozens of artists, including some of the best-known Israeli film directors, signed on to support them.

Ariel has been a flashpoint of contention since shortly after it was established in 1978, but the settlement’s size (population 20,000) and location (more than 10 miles east of the pre-1967 borders of Israel) have recently made it the focus of particular attention for those on the left and right.

So while Peter Beinart, in a recent New York Times op-ed piece urging Zionist Jews to boycott settlements, singled out Ariel as an obstacle to achieving a peaceful two-state solution to the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) became a patron of the Israel Film Festival this year for the express purpose of showcasing the work of AUC students in Los Angeles.

“Ariel is actually a consensus city in Judea and Samaria,” said Orit Arfa, executive director of the ZOA’s Western region, using the biblical terms for the West Bank preferred by those wishing to emphasize its Jewish roots. “I don’t believe any prime minister has ever put Ariel on the table as an area to be ceded in any peace negotiation.”

ZOA and American Friends of Ariel, an organization that supports the development of Ariel and is also a patron of this year’s Israel Film Festival, are screening the three films by students in the AUC’s film and television track at a midday event they are calling “The Ariel Breakfast Club.”

After watching nine of the best films from the program’s students, “We chose these three films because they have the same theme,” Arfa said, “young people of different backgrounds coming together and working out their differences.”
To an extent, anyway. While one of the shorts — a romantic comedy that pairs a spoiled rich boy from Tel Aviv with a young, studious and feisty Ethiopian immigrant — ends as happily as any film coming out of Hollywood, the protagonists of the other films are left with more questions than answers.

Yael Gruber, who wrote and directed “Chaotic,” said she was interested in how young people on the political fringes in Israel live out their ideologies in parallel, albeit opposing ways.

“It was amazing to see how someone from the far-left fringe of the political map and someone from its rightmost edge speak about almost the same things,” Gruber wrote in an e-mail. “The establishment, the country — they sometimes even use the same phrases.”

Gruber, 27, is a religious mother of two who grew up and lives in a settlement near Ariel, and she describes herself as on the right politically, but Boers said that students in the AUC’s film and television track are a diverse bunch. The film and television track now even has a few Arab students, Boers said, and is drawing students from around the country.

“Application specifications become more and more difficult every year, and that’s in our interest,” he said.

Attracting faculty to work in Ariel is another matter, though.

“One of the main difficulties I face is attracting teachers, lecturers, directors to become a part of the track or collaborate with us,” Boers said. Of those he approaches about the possibility of coming to teach his students, three out of four turn Boers down right away.

Avi Zimmerman, executive director of American Friends of Ariel, would prefer to focus on those individuals and groups who have come to Ariel, despite the unwillingness of some in the theater community and film industry to perform or work there.

“All of the leading theaters in Israel perform in Ariel consistently,” Zimmerman wrote in an e-mail, noting that pop star Eyal Golan, who will be performing in Los Angeles in April, waived his fee when he played the opening concert at Ariel’s new cultural center.

Boers is expected to travel to Los Angeles for the March 25 screening of the AUC students’ shorts, and he said he hopes people who come to see them also pay attention to the films as films.
“I hope it’s not going to be too political,” Boers said. “But I’m an Israeli — I’m very realistic.

Tu B’Shevat fest branching out

What do Grammy-winning band Ozomatli, tree planting and a bungee trampoline have in common? This year, they’ll all be part of a festival celebrating Tu B’Shevat, the Jewish holiday of nature and abundance.

On Jan. 29, Ozomatli, known for fusing Latin music with hip-hop and rock, will headline a concert bill at the Tu B’Shevat Nature Fest.

An expected 2,000-2,500 people likely will turn out for the festival, according to Craig Taubman, founder of Craig N’ Co. and an organizer of the festival. Taubman, a musician in his own right, handpicked the artists.

“If your goal is quality and to represent as many people, support as many people as possible, then your talent has to reflect that,” Taubman said.

Veteran songwriter Cindy Paley, folkie Billy Jonas and the MATI Kids Choir round out the versatile lineup.

Taubman says that it’s no small thing that Ozomatli is performing. In addition to the 2004 Grammy win and the high-profile gigs, the U.S. State Department selected Ozomatli to be cultural ambassadors on a series of government-sponsored musical tours overseas in 2007.

“By having Ozomatli there, it also makes a statement,” Taubman said, “…we’re having an outdoor festival, and it’s not just a Jewish value, nature, it’s a universal value so why not get a group that represents universal symbols.”

Craig n’ Co is new to the Tu B’Shevat festival. For the past 14 years, the Shalom Institute has been the presenter. This year, Taubman and Bill Kaplan, executive director of the Shalom Institute, teamed up to boost the profile of the festival, making it more community-oriented, bringing it under the umbrella of the Big Jewish Tent. Founded in 2011, the Big Jewish Tent facilitates themed, large-scale recreational community events, hoping to build bridges. More than 60 local synagogues and nonprofits, including The Jewish Journal, are sponsors of Big Jewish Tent events, Taubman said.

Two of the four Big Jewish Tent events, including an outdoor Shabbat celebration with Israeli musician Idan Raichel, were held in August and October last year. The final one, a health and wellness retreat in celebration of Shavuot, which marks the giving of the Torah at Sinai, will be titled “Spavuot” and held in May.

The Big Jewish Tent’s Tu B’Shevat festival takes place at the Shalom Institute’s 135-acres Malibu campus. Activities at the Tu B’Shevat festival — suitable for all ages — go from 11 a.m. until 4 p.m. 

Activities at the festival will reflect the environmental spirit of the holiday, including tree planting on an organic farm, a green-themed scavenger hunt and a seder hike. If that’s not enough, a bungee trampoline, a petting zoo, tomahawk throwing, pita cooking and a climbing wall should keep the kids busy.

Tu B’Shevat’s actual date is Feb. 8. Other holiday events taking place in the coming weeks include the Friendship Circle Tu B’Shevat Festival on Feb. 5, as well as the Westside JCC’s Annual Tu B’Shevat Festival and IKAR’s community-wide 3rd Annual Tu B’Shevat Seder and Celebration, both on Feb. 12.

Still not convinced to attend on the 29th? Perhaps you need some encouragement from Taubman, who exclaimed that he lives and breathes events like these.

“I love community,” he said. “It’s what turns me on.”

Big Jewish Tent’s Tu B’Shevat Nature Fest takes place at the Shalom Institute, 34342 Mulholland Highway, Malibu. $5 (advance), $10 (door), free (kids 3 and under). Visit for more details.

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