For your consideration


While missiles are raining down on the Jews of southern Israel, do you know what’s raining down on the Jews of Southern California? Screeners.

That’s right: It’s pre-Academy Award season in Hollywood, a time when everyone involved in the movie business receives free DVD copies of all the Oscar contenders. That way, they can be informed voters in the democracy that is Hollywood.

For those of us not actually in the Industry, there is still a good chance we can borrow some of these screeners — after all, some of our best friends are Jewish.

So while the residents of Sderot have to decide whether a trip to the market for a carton of milk is worth risking their lives, the Jews of Hollywood have to wonder whether “Slumdog Millionaire” will play better on their flat-screen or at the Laemmle.

No one said life is fair.

Complete Gaza CoverageBut the crop of movies out this year actually do shed light on how we react to what’s happening 7,500 miles away in Israel and Gaza.

A remarkable number of this year’s movies traffic in Jewish victimhood. “The Reader,” “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” and “Adam Resurrected” are adapted from books about the Holocaust. “Valkyrie,” in which Tom Cruise doesn’t save the world, features glimpses of Hitler’s Jewish victims, as does “Good,” starring Viggo Mortensen as an unwitting Nazi collaborator.

Two movies attempt to turn our stereotype of ourselves on its head by portraying Jews fighting back. “Defiance” shows how a relative few of Hitler’s victims mounted an armed resistance, and the upcoming Hannah Senesh documentary, “Blessed Is the Match,” eulogizes another martyr. But these are Jews-as-victims stories, as well — one man or woman’s courage notwithstanding, in the end, we mostly die.

What is going on here? Hollywood and the movies still cling to the image of the Jew-as-victim, while in the world beyond Blu-ray the reality is much more … complicated.

There is a yawning gap between how we portray ourselves for the world to see and the reality of the Jew in the world. That gap helps explain why we are so shocked when news reports stress the charnel-house effects of Israeli bombs. Yes, many of these reports are biased, but yes, that havoc is what Jews too can wreak.

It’s clear from my stack of screeners that we Jews prefer to see ourselves as victimized, rather than as all the other adjectives that might apply to Jews since the end of World War II: assimilated, accepted, beloved, cool, aggressive, conflicted, popular, cruel, humane, brilliant, powerful.

I’d add “funny,” but we were always funny.

Movies mirror our heroic selves — and clearly we Jews are most comfortable seeing ourselves as heroic sufferers. No people has been persecuted like us, our stories keep telling us, and that’s the story we keep telling others.

Meanwhile, the roles Jews inhabit have become far more varied and morally complex.

Consider Gaza.

The narrative we are hearing from our leaders thus far could fit comfortably on one of those DVDs: Israel is a victim of Hamas; Israel is just trying to survive.

But of course we live in a more complex world than that, a world that, to my mind, demands we at least wrestle with some murky questions, both practical and moral (and I tend to believe the moral path is, in almost all cases, the most practical).

Some practical questions are: How will Israel’s short-term military success advance its long-term interests? How does it help Israel’s cause to leave Gaza in ruins, Hamas’ fighting force intact, a new generation of Gazan youth terrified and angry at Israel? If Hamas is not destroyed — and it looks like it won’t be — how long before it cashes some more Iranian checks, regroups and rearms?

And if some of Israel’s politicians and supporters aren’t willing to make concessions to more moderate Palestinians like Mahmoud Abbas, why risk Israeli soldiers’ lives trying to dethrone Hamas and put people like Abbas back in power?

Some moral questions are: If it is OK for Israel, in the name of survival, to kill 40 innocent children, is it acceptable for it to kill 400 children? What about 40,000? Where exactly is that line?

For that matter, if it is OK to kill innocent Palestinians because Hamas hides among them, would it be all right to kill innocent Catholics, or Evangelicals, or Jews, if Hamas hid among them?

Make no mistake: Hamas is intransigent, fanatic and violent. As long as it retains power in Gaza, those who want peace for Israel and justice for the Palestinians will be frustrated.

But where Jews have power, they also have the ability to react wisely — and it is wise to be asking these sorts of questions; there is no shame or weakness in it. Just don’t try to make a movie out of it.

Alex Baum: Wheels of a Dream


‘>Alex Baum

‘>Eve Marcus

‘>Marilyn Harran

‘>Rebecca Levinson

‘>Yoram Hassid

Alex Baum, who will be celebrating his 84th birthday on Dec. 30, fought in the French Resistance, survived two and a half years in the concentration camps, and has since dedicated his life to performing good deeds, most notably in his advocacy of amateur athletics.

Yet, when asked if he is a mensch, he says, “You never know.”

Baum is of French Jewish ancestry, but he speaks with a German accent, befitting one who was born in a small town in Lorraine, which along with the province of Alsace was frequently the subject of territorial disputes between the French and the Germans. Concerning the war, he says without embellishment, “We fought the Germans in any possible way we could.”

Although he was caught by the Nazis, he convinced them that he was a resistance fighter, not a Jew. Due to his Algerian passport (his mother was from the North African country), he was treated as a political prisoner in the camps. The Nazis did not question why he was circumcised, because Algerians, being desert dwellers, practiced circumcision for hygienic reasons.

After surviving the Holocaust, Baum vowed that he would be a good role model, like his grandparents and uncles: “I felt a need to do that.”

He moved to the United States shortly after the war and settled in Chicago, where he played semipro soccer for the Chicago Kickers. A center-forward on the team, he scored his share of goals, but his greatest goal has been developing cycling programs and recreational facilities for inner-city kids in Los Angeles.

When not working as a caterer, his living for 30 years, he has been an adviser to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the previous three Los Angeles mayors, but Baum is not simply a cycling enthusiast and fitness fanatic — he has also shown the vision of an urban planner and the determination of a mensch in implementing the now-ubiquitous bike paths throughout the city of Los Angeles, pioneering the Tour of California bike race and building velodromes in Dominguez Hills and Encino.

Of all his projects, he remains most passionate about the creation of bike paths and facilities along the L.A. River. In the next 10 years, he expects to see a 50-mile path bordering the river from the Valley to Long Beach. Speaking with unmistakable enthusiasm, he envisions the following: “You can stop anywhere through the city, enjoy the Sunday or the weekend without using the car; [you can] even ride at night. We have lights and rest stops, parks and a restaurant.”

Although the complete river restoration has not come to fruition yet, Baum says that, due to all the bike paths in recent years, 2.5 percent of people now go to work by bike, as opposed to 0.5 percent in the past.

Despite constant talk of ethanol and hybrid cars, this goodwill ambassador to the city of Los Angeles, who served on the 1984 Olympic host committee, might have the simplest and greenest solution of all for Los Angeles’ gridlock as well as global warming — riding a bike.

In the ring, at the front, boxer Barney Ross packed a punch


“Barney Ross” by Douglas Century (Schocken and Nextbook, $19.95).

To many sports fans, Shawn Green remains the only recognizable Jewish professional athlete. Green follows a relatively short but impressive line of Jewish baseball stars, one every generation so it seems, kind of like the Jewish seat on the Supreme Court in the pre-Clinton era. For every Louis Brandeis, there was a Hank Greenberg. For every Felix Frankfurter, there was an Al Rosen.

But boxing, that most primal of all sports, was once rife with Jews. In “Barney Ross,” a biography of the eponymous 1930s boxing champion, author Douglas Century cites a stunning statistic — in the 1920s and 1930s, one-third of all professional fighters were Jewish. Given that Jews accounted then for roughly 3 percent of the nation’s population, that figure seems almost incomprehensible.

Yet it is true. What African Americans are to present-day basketball, Jews were to boxing in the period between the two World Wars.

Century, whose two previous books dealt with New York’s criminal underworld, is also Jewish. The 41-year-old, Canadian-born author said over the phone from New York that he grew up with “a pride in being Jewish” and heard stories from his uncles about the great Jewish boxers of the Depression era.

When Century was about 12, he said, he got his first pair of boxing gloves. He flailed them about as he watched Muhammad Ali’s classic fights with Leon Spinks in Ali’s waning days as heavyweight champion.

In “Barney Ross,” the third book in Schocken and Nextbook’s new Jewish Encounters Series — after Robert Pinsky’s “The Life of David” and Dr. Sherwin B. Nuland’s “Maimonides” — Century writes about classic fights from a much earlier era, the famous bouts pitting Ross against Tony Canzoneri and Jimmy McLarnin. Century devotes parts two and three of his slim, highly readable book to the legendary matches involving this troika of fighters, each representing his own immigrant community: one Jewish, one Italian and one Irish.

Century explained that he chose to write about Ross rather than, say, Benny Leonard, who is considered by most boxing scholars as the greatest Jewish fighter of all time, because Ross transcended boxing and Jewishness.

Ross was not only a boxing champion. He was a Marine war hero at Guadalcanal, volunteering for the service at the relatively advanced age of 33 and winning a Silver Star for holding off a platoon of Japanese soldiers, while his fellow Marines lay dying or incapacitated. He ran guns to Israel and tried to set up a Jewish-American brigade to fight in the Middle East at the time of Israel’s War of Independence. He went public with a morphine addiction resulting from his war wounds and later, after overcoming his habit, became the poster boy for recovery from addiction. In short, he was both the most overtly Zionist and the most American of all Jewish athletes of that time.

Century has plumbed library archives and combed the Warren Commission report for fascinating testimony from Ross on the subject of childhood mate, Jack Ruby, who, before becoming infamous for shooting Lee Harvey Oswald, grew up with Ross in the Maxwell Street ghetto in Chicago, where they both ran errands for the mob. Century also spent much time interviewing Ross’ late brother, George, another prizefighter, who only recently died.

It is clear that Century loves his subject. That fact came through over the phone when he referred to the boxer almost intimately as “Barney,” as if the late fighter were a relative or long-lost friend. It also comes through in the text itself, which contains wonderfully lyrical passages.

When discussing Ross’ rope-jumping talents, Century writes that Ross was “doing skipping routines so intricate that the jump rope appeared to become a kind of hissing viper.”

He refers to Ross’ decision to join the Marines as “some jagged riddle resting in that smoke-filled interregnum between his championship reign and the return to America as a decorated war hero.”

Though the book features such lapidary strokes, it also seems to have been rushed to print. A good copy editor should have noticed a number of bad misspellings, including the last names of Clifford Odets and Martin Scorsese. Similarly, a good fact checker should have corrected such errors as Mushy Callahan, the junior welterweight champion, being referred to as a welterweight, or Jackie Fields, the welterweight champion, being hailed as champion of the lightweight division.

These mistakes aside, the book will restore the pride of many Jewish boys, who doubtless have no idea that Jews once presided over the lower weight classes of the sweet science.

On the phone, Century suggested that this might be a Zeitgeist moment for bringing back the Jewish fighters. He said this partly because of all the tough Israeli boxers coming to America. As part of his research for the book, Century trained with several Sephardic Israelis running a boxing gym in Hell’s Kitchen. The author, who said he has “delicate hands like a pianist,” could not throw a left hook. “They called me an uncoordinated Ashkenaz goof.”

In addition to the welcome infusion of Israeli immigrants, Century is comforted knowing that the Marines recently inducted Ross into their sports Hall of Fame and that there is talk of another movie based on Ross’ life (the first one, “Monkey on My Back,” was released in 1957). Even two recent books written about the Joe Louis-Max Schmeling fights examine the prevalence of Jews as fighters, fight fans and fight managers in the Depression.

Jews may never again dominate a sport like they dominated boxing in this country in the 1920s and 1930s. However, it is important to note that that was the second great era of Jewish fighters, as Century nicely points out in his book. The first occurred in England in the late 1700s and early 1800s, when Daniel Mendoza reigned. And before that, of course, there was Bar Kochba, Judah Maccabee, Samson and the greatest warrior of all, King David.

When it comes to fighting prowess, Jews may have a greater lineage than many of us ever realized.

‘Cinderella’ Villain Not Such a Bad Guy


The upcoming “Cinderella Man” chronicles the fall and rise of Depression-era heavyweight champion James Braddock, but the movie is as likely to revive the memory of another title holder, “Jewish” boxer Max Baer.

In the climactic scene, the movie depicts the 15-round fight in 1935 between Braddock (Russell Crowe), the victorious underdog, and a menacing, beady-eyed Baer (Craig Bierko).

Baer’s greatest fight was in June 1933, when he faced the heavily favored German, Max Schmeling. Hitler had come to power a few months earlier and the Nazis were busy smearing Stars of David on Jewish-owned stores.

When Baer strutted into the Yankee Stadium ring, his trunks sported a prominent Star of David, and he then proceeded to demolish Schmeling, knocking him out in the 10th.

This pugilistic victory, coming in the depth of the Depression and amid rising anti-Semitism in Europe and the United States, lifted the spirits of Jews throughout the world, regardless of Baer’s actual Jewishness. His father was Jewish, but the boxer was raised in a non-Jewish household — more on that later.

In the Ron Howard-directed film, with a screenplay by Cliff Hollingsworth and Akiva Goldsman, Baer is portrayed as the designated bad guy to deepen the contrast to the gutsy, family-loving, Irish-American Braddock.

Although the boxing scenes are realistically staged, the movie essentially tells the story of a man overcoming defeat and poverty through his own courage and the devotion of a loving wife.

Except for ardent fans of the sweet science, the most wrenching scenes are of Depression-ridden America, with men clawing for a few hours of work and cops demolishing the shantytown in New York’s Central Park.

Despite intensive training and great cinematography, the 41-year-old Crowe is not fully convincing as the younger Braddock. But the actor, complete with New Jersey accent, is at his best as a poor, hungry down-but-not-outer, whose comeback made him the idol of working-class and jobless Americans and earned him the “Cinderella Man” sobriquet from writer Damon Runyon.

Renee Zellweger, as Braddock’s wife, Mae, has little to do but look noble and supportive as she tries to raise three kids while her husband is reduced to asking for handouts from the government and old pals.

The most impressive performance is delivered by Paul Giamatti (“Sideways”) as Braddock’s loyal Jewish manager, Joe Gould.

Bierko has the muscle and face to play Baer, but his character comes across as a playboy and a clown, which Baer frequently was, and as mean-spirited, which he wasn’t.

Baer, who carried the burden of having caused the deaths of two opponents with his lethal straight right, is depicted telling Mae Braddock, just before the fight with her husband, “You’re too pretty to be a widow.”

When Mae shows her shock and indignation, the screen Baer follows up leeringly with, “Maybe I can comfort you afterwards.”

According to sports historians and an interview with Baer’s son, this kind of cruelty was not in the character of the champion.

Except for fleeting glimpses of the Star of David on Baer’s trunks, which the boxer displayed in every fight after the victory over Schmeling, the movie does not touch on his ethnic background.

Baer’s genealogy has been frequently debated and misconstrued, but was clarified by the fighter’s son, Max Baer Jr., better known to 1960s TV audiences as Jethro Bodine on “The Beverly Hillbillies.”

Phoning from Las Vegas, the younger Baer said that the champ’s father, Jacob Baer, was a German-Jewish immigrant, who worked as a butcher, cattle dealer and rancher in Colorado and California. Jacob Baer married a Catholic woman and their children were raised in her faith, though the household wasn’t particularly religious.

“When I was around 10 and living in a Jewish neighborhood in Sacramento, I came across a boy wearing a yarmulke,” recalled Baer Jr. “So I went home and asked my mother why that kid was wearing a beanie without a propeller.”

The idea of wearing a Star of David for the Schmeling fight, Baer said, “came from my father’s Jewish manager. At that time, the great boxers were Italian, Irish or Jewish, and there was a lot of ethnic pride and rivalry among the fans, especially in New York. I think it all started as a publicity ploy, but over time my father might have convinced himself that he was defending the Jewish people.”

The younger Baer described his late father as cocky, “sort of like Muhammad Ali,” who liked to clown around and would rather party than train.

But Baer trained hard for the Schmeling match. After watching that fight, the legendary Jack Dempsey observed that Baer was so good that night he could have beaten anybody in the world.Whatever could be said against Baer, he was never petty or mean-spirited, contrary to the movie depiction, said his son.

“My father hardly ever bore a grudge, and after he and another fighter would beat each other to a pulp, my father would go to the other guy’s dressing room and invite him to a party,” he said. “After he lost the world championship to Braddock, my father said he was glad that the title went to a guy who had to support a large family.”

“Cinderella Man” opens nationwide on June 3.Â

A Tale of Two Fighters


“Maybe heroes should be watched from a distance. They’re important in time of war, but not so comfortable in time of peace,” muses Arnost Lustig toward the end of the documentary “Fighter.”

Lustig is talking about Jan Wiener, the film’s title character and Lustig’s traveling companion in a journey back in time and space to the stations of the Holocaust, which both survived.

The two old men, both full of life and memories, make for an odd couple and a riveting film, which opens Oct. 26 at the Laemmle Music Hall for a one-week run.

Wiener, who was 77-years-old when the film was made in the summer of 1998, is strikingly handsome, with snowy hair and a martial moustache, still works out regularly as a boxer. He is a man of action, straightforward, propelled by enduring loves and hates.

Lustig, then 72, is balding and paunchy, a successful author, academic and bon vivant, who looks for underlying motivations and tries to bend Wiener’s recollections to the literary subtleties of a planned biography.

A New Yorker critic described the two men as “Shakespearean personalities” and as they revisit the sites of Wiener’s wartime odyssey through Czechoslovakia, Slovenia, Yugoslavia and Italy, the protagonists laugh, drink gallons of beer, quarrel, separate in anger and reunite.

Pick any emotion, and “Fighter” has it, often stretched to the limit of human belief and endurance.

At the railroad station in Trieste, Wiener recounts how he clung to the undercarriage of a train for 18 hours, inches above the wheels and inches below a toilet chute spewing excrement.

The men wander through the remnants of the Theresienstadt (Terezin) ghetto and concentration camp, where Wiener’s mother was beaten to death and Lustig survived, while the German propaganda film, “The Fuehrer Gives a City to the Jews,” plays in ironic counterpoint.

There is high drama, when Wiener guides Lustig to the office of a Czech bureaucrat, who humiliated him in 1939 and whom he vowed to kill after the war.

There is humor, as when Lustig recalls the earnest decision of a group of Czech-Jewish teenagers to lose their virginity to the same prostitute before being deported.

And there are incidents even the most fertile imagination could scarcely conceive. Arrived at Auschwitz, and with nothing to do the first three days, Lustig and his companions use a balled-up rag for a soccer game, with one side of the field delineated by a high voltage fence.

Asked by one inmate what they thought they were doing, one boy replied, “We’re playing soccer while we’re waiting to die.”

Wiener eventually made his way to the British lines in Italy and became a bombardier in the Czech wing of the Royal Air Force. He returned to Prague and after the Communists took power, was thrown into a labor camp for five years as a “British spy.”

The difference between the man of action and the man of thought is illustrated in one exchange. While Wiener burns with undying hatred of the Nazis, Lustig reflects, “What would I have done if I had been born a German boy? How many people would I have killed? It makes me happy that I was born a Jew.”

In the early 1950s, Wiener and Lustig came to the United States and have since divided their time teaching in their adopted and native lands.

Amir Bar-Lev, the 29-year old director and co-producer of “Fighter” is a Berkeley-born son of Israelis who came to America in the early 1950s. He was studying at the Prague Film Academy in 1993, when he met Wiener, who was teaching in an exchange program.

Fascinated by the older man’s tales of combat, escape and amorous conquests, he resolved to tell the survivor’s story for his first major film project.

Lustig, an old friend and occasional enemy of Wiener, eagerly joined the trip, and in the summer of 1998 the two “stars” and a five-man crew crammed themselves and their equipment into a minivan and took off.

After their return, Bar-Lev had the mammoth job of editing the 100 hours of film into a 90-minute documentary. Financially, the filmmakers, with a budget of less than $200,000, teetered on a constant tightrope.

“We went without salaries, and I moved back into my parents’ home to save money, and used their basement for a cutting room,” Bar-Lev recalls.

“Fighter” has earned a fistful of award at European and American film festivals, and enthusiastic reviews from the New York Times to Variety.

The Los Angeles screening marks the beginning of the film’s commercial run. It is set for one week, but will be extended if attendance warrants it.

“Fighter” opens Fri., Oct. 26 at the Laemmle Music Hall 9036 Wilshire Blvd in Beverly Hills.

Unintended Consequences


“I tell you, there was never a trip like this before. The motives are terribly sad, but we are going to have a lot of fun. This is another dimension of history.” With these words, Arnost Lustig and Jan Wiener, both Jewish survivors of the Shoah, embark on a trip to the Europe of their childhoods, documented in the film “Fighter.” Premiering at the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival, “Fighter” is a unique exploration of both the Holocaust and the Communist era of Eastern Europe.

The documentary is distinctive, in part, because Wiener and Lustig choose to focus on stories that tend to get soft-pedaled in favor of episodes portraying stoicism, heroic sacrifice and fighting spirit. While “Fighter” was originally envisioned as a historical biography, the focus turns more toward the relationship between Wiener and Lustig, whose friendship deteriorates during their trip as their conflicting personalities and divergent stories of survival give rise to one confrontation after another.

Director Amir Bar-Lev’s first feature-length film, “Fighter” makes intriguing use of the two survivors’ narratives, along with war footage, Nazi and Communist propaganda, and beautiful images of the European countryside to take the viewer on a journey through history and the human mind. It’s an unorthodox treatment of the Holocaust that gives the viewer a unique perspective on the damage exacted by not only by victimization but by heroism.

“Fighter” will have its world premiere on Fri., April 14, 11 a.m., with another screening Sun., April 16, 11 a.m. at the Directors Guild of America, 7920 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles. Tickets are $8.50 at the box office, over the phone at (888) ETM-TIXS or on the Internet at www.etm.com. The “Fighter” Web site is at www.fighterfilm.com.