THE LAST WORD *Movie Review & Director Interview*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Drug abuse, shame and the Holocaust figure in film about family of notorious Dutch lawyers

In a country where 75 percent of Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, the Moszkowicz family of lawyers stood out as a unique Jewish success story.

Descended from Max Moszkowicz, a steel-willed Auschwitz survivor who became Holland’s first modern celebrity attorney, his four lawyer sons took the family business to new heights, turning their name into a household brand here with winning arguments in some of the country’s most famous trials.

Max Moszkowicz himself in 1987 obtained a mere four-year sentence for the kidnappers of the beverage mogul Freddy Heineken. His second son, Robert, in 1976 became Holland’s youngest person to pass the bar exam at 23 (he was a millionaire by 29). Another son, Bram, kept making international headlines – including through the 2010 acquittal of the anti-Islam politician Geert Wilders of hate speech charges.


The Moszkowiczes were widely recognized as legal geniuses in the media and at events held in their honor.

But over the past decade, they have fallen from grace. Three of Max Moszkowicz’s sons were disbarred for improprieties, starting in 2005 with Robert — a former heroin addict and flamboyant womanizer who was accused of cheating his clients — and ending in March with the oldest brother, David.

This month, the Moszkowiczes are again making headlines in Holland because of “We Moszkowicz,” the first revealing documentary film about the remarkable family. Made by the first-born son of Robert Moszkowicz, the television production retraces the Holocaust’s deep effects on three generations that for many represent Dutch Jewry’s struggle to return to normalcy after the trauma of the genocide.

Combining footage from Amsterdam, Jerusalem and Auschwitz, the critically acclaimed work by Max Moszkowicz — a 37-year-old filmmaker who is named for his 89-year-old grandfather — offers an unprecedented insight into the rise and fall of a now notorious family.

The filmmaker describes to his father his own panic as a child at seeing Robert – then still a celebrated and practicing lawyer — collapse into a drug-induced stupor at his mansion near Maastricht. Heroin was in plain sight at the father’s Amsterdam apartment, the filmmaker recalls. Robert told him as a child that the beige powder and tin foil were for making special flu medicine.

Standing opposite his father, Max Moszkowicz confronts him over his shame at elementary school following Robert’s publicized arrest. Over the space of six years, the filmmaker followed his father around, assembling the portrait of a vain, sometimes selfish and ultimately unrepentant man who never apologized for actions that apparently have scarred several of his nine children, whom he had with four women.

But “We Moszkowicz” is no damning indictment, filmmaker Max Moszkowicz told JTA in an interview last week about his film, which the Volkskrant daily described as “confrontational, moving and often painful.”

Rather it’s a story about three generations of a troubled but loving family, and an attempt to examine their dysfunctions in light of secondhand emotional damage in siblings attempting to live up to their fathers’ ideals and legacy. The film reveals that the patriarch, determined to rebuild the Jewish family destroyed by the Nazis, disowned Robert because he married a non-Jewish wife — the filmmaker’s mother.

The rejection was so absolute that in 1993, the elder Max Moszkowicz and three of his sons appeared as a family on a television talk show without ever mentioning Robert.

“Four musketeers,” Bram Moszkowicz told the host in describing his family on the show. “One for all, all for one.”

David concurred, saying with a grin: “I couldn’t have said it better myself.”

Filmmaker Max Moszkowicz said the images, which he saw at 14, “cut like a knife.”

“I wanted to understand what my father had done to be cut from the family as though he never existed,” he said.

Ostracized by his kin, Robert Moszkowicz, a handsome fast talker who enjoyed Italian designer suits and expensive cars — though he struggles with debts, he still owns a late model Jaguar — was driven over the edge following the death of his third child. Jair lived less than one year. Robert had him with his second wife, a heroin addict who kept injecting throughout her pregnancy.

Robert Moszkowicz in Amsterdam in 2015. Photo from Max Moszkowicz
Following his first arrest in the 1990s for drug dealing, Robert received a visit in jail from his father, who despite their harsh disagreements took on his son’s legal case because not doing so “would’ve meant losing my son forever,” as the patriarch said during a television interview.

During the charged jailhouse meeting, the father told his wayward son that the facility reminded him of the concentration camp.

“That’s what I want to experience,” Robert replied in what he explained in the film as “a typical desire to feel what my father felt” in the Holocaust.

It’s a key moment in the documentary for understanding the Moszkowiczes’ self-destructive streak, the best-selling Dutch Jewish author Leon de Winter told JTA.

“It’s no coincidence that three sons of this amazing family were disbarred,” de Winter said.

Bram Moszkowicz’s disbarment for mismanagement of funds was “disproportionate,” de Winter said, noting that it ultimately came from legal transgressions motivated by an insatiable drive to please the family patriarch, who lost his parents and two siblings as a teenager in the Holocaust.

Max Moszkowicz, right, with Bram Moszkowicz in Amsterdam in 1987. Photo from Wikimedia Commons
The patriarch Max “raised his boys to be invincible,” de Winter said. “And they, in their desperate love and dedication to him, felt the only way to get close and equal to him was to follow him into hell.”

And though they built an empire, the Moszkowiczes always remained outsiders in the Netherlands post-Holocaust, separated from the intellectual elites they frequented by their own traumas and weaknesses for flashy cars and expensive clothes.

“It’s as though they overcompensated in a delayed and tragic effect of the hell that Max Moszkowicz went through in Auschwitz,” de Winter said of the family.

For all its tragic retrospection, “We Moszkowicz” also offers a sense of hope and redemption.

The filmmaker and his father are close, their bond cemented on a two-week trip they made to Israel in 2014. In one of the film’s most moving scenes, Robert Moszkowicz, who is somewhat Jewishly observant and recites his prayers in Hebrew, is overcome with emotion at the Western Wall and is hugged by his son as he cries against the ancient stones.

Robert is also a devoted father to his youngest children with his fourth wife. Opening up in this unprecedented manner to his son’s camera, the filmmaker said, “is his way of making up for mistakes.”

It was with an eye to the future that the younger Max Moszkowicz began making the film in the first place, he said, not wanting to repeat his father’s mistakes with his own first son, Ilai, who was born last year.

“Six years ago, I came drunk to a house party with a bloody mouth that I got from falling down en route,” the filmmaker recalled. “I had an alcohol and drug problem. I saw my bloodied reflection in a mirror at the party and I could see my father’s self-destructive pattern.”

That evening, filmmaker Max Moszkowicz decided to take a hard look at his life that resulted in the film.

“I feel I treated my demons,” he said. “I can move on with my life.”

WATCH: The first trailer for the movie Jon Stewart made last summer

A journalist is detained in Iran for more than 100 days and brutally interrogated in prison.

‘Bethlehem,’ a film of spies and intrigue and Oscar possibilities

Foreign-language (meaning non English-language) films from 76 countries, ranging from Afghanistan to Venezuela, are competing for Oscar honors this year, with Israel’s entry, “Bethlehem,” pitting Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, against diverse Palestinian factions eager to blow up the Jewish state.

In Hollywood’s hands, this plot would be a no-brainer, with the guys in the white hats mopping up the floor with the bad guys.

However, it is only fair to warn flag-waving partisans on either side, who see the conflict in terms of unblemished virtue against pure evil, that they’re not going to like the way the film handles its subject.

As the film’s producer, Talia Kleinhandler, writes, “What I think is important about this story is that it never attempts to give a clear answer about right and wrong. All the characters in ‘Bethlehem’ are flawed; all are vulnerable. There is no black and white in this film, only painful shades of gray – like the reality we all live in here.”

If this assessment makes it sound like a namby-pamby movie, full of on-the-one-hand, but on-the-other-hand, agonizing, “Bethlehem,” named for the West Bank city where the action unfolds, is anything but.

Co-written by Yuval Adler, an Israeli Jew who served in an army intelligence unit, and Ali Waked, a Palestinian Muslim and journalist, “Bethlehem” is a nail-biting thriller with enough intrigue and bullets to keep the most demanding action fan satisfied.

The film’s time and setting is the Second Intifada, from roughly 2000 to 2005, and in the opening scene, Palestinian suicide bombers have struck in the heart of Jerusalem, with scores dead and wounded.

The central protagonists are Razi, a veteran Shin Bet (or Shabak) agent, and Sanfur, a 17-year-old Palestinian recruited by Razi as an informer two years earlier.

But Sanfur isn’t just any kid with a hankering for American jeans. He is the younger brother of Ibrahim, the local leader of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, whom Razi has been hunting for more than a year.

Like almost everything in the movie, and in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict it depicts, the relationship between the seasoned Israeli agent and the teenage Palestinian boy is complex and often contradictory.

Adler, who is also the film’s director, quotes a veteran Israeli secret service agent who told him that “the key to recruiting and running informants is not violence, or intimidation, or money, but the key is to develop an intimate relationship with the informant, on a very human level. It’s not just the informant who is confused about his identity and loyalties. The agent, too – and especially the good ones – often experience a blurring of the lines.”

Following this dictum, Sanfur, whose own father clearly favors the militant Ibrahim over his younger son, finds in Razi a kind of surrogate father, and Razi cares personally for the boy – even if that clashes with his professional duties.

While the Palestinian militants hate Israel, they dislike their internal rivals with equal intensity. The secular al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, affiliated with Fatah, contemptuously refers to the fervently Islamic Hamas as the “beards,” who in turn loathe the corrupt bureaucrats of the Palestinian Authority.

Co-writer Waked, interviewed in a Hollywood hotel, draws an analogy between these feuds and the pre-1948 Jewish community in Palestine, when Menachem Begin’s Etzel and David Ben-Gurion’s Haganah detested one another with as much fervor as they did the British soldiers.

Another remarkable aspect of “Bethlehem” is that almost everyone involved in making the movie is pretty much of a novice.

The strong acting lineup, foremost Shadi Mar’i as Sanfur and Tsahi Halevy as Razi, consists almost entirely of first-time actors. Furthermore, for both Adler and Waked, “Bethlehem” is their first feature film.

Adler, 44, said in an interview that his film debut is a major hit in its home country, and won a fistful of awards, including best picture, at the Israeli equivalent of the Academy Awards.

Israel’s media, which have a much higher tolerance for national self-criticism than their American counterparts, have generally come out with complimentary reviews, though the strongest raves have been in the foreign press and trade papers.

Curiously, while in most countries the political right would have condemned the film’s critical take on the national security service, in Israel it has been the left that has slammed the picture for its supposedly distorted view of the Palestinian struggle.

Thus in an article in the daily Haaretz, headlined “ ‘Bethlehem’ is yet another Israeli propaganda film,” critic Gideon Levy terms as “outrageous” what he sees as the movie’s portrayal of Israelis as the good guys and Palestinians as the bad guys.

Adler, who has steadfastly declined to discuss his own political orientation, considers such charges preposterous. His diverse cast of Israeli and Palestinian actors “made it possible to see the world through their eyes,” he said. “As director, I tried to bring their contradictory viewpoints into a single whole, without taking sides, and without judging them.”

For the Israeli Film Academy, picking “Bethlehem” as the country’s official Oscar contender marks an interesting shift in focus from the two preceding entries, “Footnote,” which dealt with academic rivalries at a university, and last year’s “Fill the Void,” which viewed life and love among the ultra-Orthodox.

It will be interesting to see how the famously unpredictable Academy selection committee reacts to the picture, but the film has been touted as a real Oscar contender in a number of Hollywood publications.

A quick glance at submissions from other countries shows that, contrary to frequent predictions, the world’s producers and directors have not lost their interest in movies about the Nazi era, the Holocaust and the conflict in the Middle East.

Argentina’s “The German Doctor” follows the notorious Dr. Josef Mengele, Auschwitz’ “Angel of Death,” as he flees to the South American country and befriends an unsuspecting family there.

In years past, the U.S. Academy wrestled with the proper terminology for the “Palestinian Authority” or “Palestinian Territories,” but apparently everybody has stopped worrying about the problem, so the film “Omar” is credited with coming from “Palestine.”

Omar, the baker, lives on one side of Israel’s security wall, while the beautiful Nadia lives on the other side. But the romantic scenario turns very grim as Omar becomes a “freedom fighter” battling the ruthless Israeli occupiers.

One of the more interesting entries is The Philippines’ “The Transit,” which deals with the lives of Filipinos working in mostly low-paid jobs in Israel.

For World War II buffs, there is Russia’s “Stalingrad,” which chronicles both the epic battle and love among its ruins.

“Bethlehem” will be released in local theaters Feb. 21, 2014. Oscar nominees will be announced Jan.16 and the winners will be crowned on March 2.

Payne’s ‘Nebraska’ a small-town triumph

Imagine what a movie showcasing an ordinary, lukewarm existence might look like. One without mobs or crooked cops and the only color in the characters’ lives is the blue on their collar. Worse still, life is totally ordinary and you live in Billings, Montana. Your great romantic tragedy is a Billings, Montana girlfriend calling it quits because you’re unsure about a Billings, Montana marriage. She’s pushing 250 lbs. You’re content selling Bose speakers in Billings, Montana to “Ja-neece, not Janice” and your physically and socially mangled father convinced you to drive 850 miles because of a promotional scam. Then you drive back to Billings, Montana.

But Nebraska is welcome proof that not every movie demands glorified escapism found in storied timepieces, fluorescent boxing rings and Ryan Gosling. Grounding films that don’t titillate our grandiose visions of a sexy, high-flying fantasy where we’re permanently 32 and going to dinner parties with 40 of our closest friends, or defending Father’s honor by slaying a Smaug with hellfire swords. What about the simple, the archaic, the white bread? What about the stripped down story of people being people? There is a home for the acoustic version, and as the great sushi maestro Jiro says, “There is purity in simplicity.”

Illuminating the subtle details of human framework is a tough skill to hone and a tougher one to sell. Even with his stellar resume, Alexander Payne had some trouble getting the measly $13 million to fund Nebraska, an unassuming movie with immense gratification. Pitching a screenplay about a washed-up alcoholic Korean War vet driving from Montana to Nebraska wouldn’t exactly scream goldmine, and adding his black and white plans for the film certainly didn’t help. But Payne had long wanted to make a black and white movie; in fact he says most of the movies he watches are in black and white. “Chroma” as he calls it, allowed Nebraska’s colors of human honesty to shine through without the distraction of a color scheme pulling from the more subtle senses. Employing non-actors as well as actors for added authenticity, they shot the route – from Billings to Lincoln – in less than six weeks.

Nebraska is a film that appreciates the subdued spots in life, the no-glitz all-salt moments. It’s a place in our hearts everyone knows, whether it’s visiting a great uncle with hearing problems and a 1960 RCA TV or remembering how your grammy pronounced “fooleeshness.” There are only more of those moments to come as the years go by, and a reminder to celebrate the tender silences of egg salad and Miracle Whip sandwiches is appreciated. Nebraska brings us home. It’s also relentlessly funny.

Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), an 80-something malcontent with a passion for trucks, sauce and brevity, is hell-bent on getting to Lincoln, Nebraska to cash in a notice for a $1 million sweepstakes prize he received in the mail. “We are now authorized to pay one million dollars to Woodrow T. Grant, Billings, Montana,” he reads with stubborn pride to his youngest son David (Will Forte). He keeps the winning letter in his front shirt pocket at all times, bearing his dentures to anyone who tries talking him down from his pre-hatched million dollar throne. But his wife (June Squibb) and eldest son (Bob Odenkirk) aren’t interested in entertaining Woody’s naïve delusions (“They can’t print it if it isn’t true!”), so nourishing his father’s wide-eyed hopes of a new truck and new air compressor with cash to spare falls on David’s hesitant shoulders. An impromptu visit to Hawthorne along the way, his parents’ hometown, paves the way for father and son to reconnect … kind of.

A known Payne mantra is that 90 percent of directing is casting, and that percentage really held up its end of the deal. What Forte and Dern lack in on-screen chemistry is made up in the fluidity of and devotion to their performance. It’s not easy for actors to downplay their acting, but you won’t find grand demonstrations of dramatic emotions or outrageous situational gimmicks in Nebraska because they aren’t called for. We’re undersold, which is what closes the deal. Forte drops a couple gleefully sarcastic one-liners to curb tension, but for the most part MacGruber keeps the funny business to a minimum. The revered Stacy Keach as Woody’s boyhood frenemy doles out his usual powerhouse prominence, and Dern won the Best Actor award at Cannes for his role. Squibb as Woody’s harping wife Kate, the self-described “only sane one in this family,” delivers a hoot of a performance, combining endearment and raunch with minimal effort.

One scene, however, garnering a fair amount of attention has her visiting family headstones at a cemetery with Woody and David, gossiping about the late loved ones’ more regrettable qualities. All light and harmless until, while standing over the headstone of a man she claims (as she often does), wanted to get in her knickers, she pulls up her skirt and hollers about what might have been.

All right, I get it. How fun, how silly coming from a cute old woman. And had intuitive subtlety not reigned supreme in Nebraska, the gratuitousness of the scene might not have bothered me. But looking at that scene, then looking at the sensitive acting and directing footwork of David with his dad at the car lot, for example, I felt the chumminess didn’t quite belong. It’s morsels like the disarming “C’mon, have a beer with your old man. Be somebody!” and the damaged “I was there” after Woody is asked about a family loss that epitomize the integrity of Nebraska. It shows a trust in the audience that far too few movies do. The spectacularly candid scene in Hawthorne with the extended family men watching football, humming lazily about the ’79 Buick a brother used to own is another one of many that celebrates the honesty in mundanity.

“Those cars never stop running … what happened to it?”

“Stopped runnin’.”

“Yeah … They’ll do that.”

I’ll just say it, this is one of my favorite movies in a long time. There’s an almost therapeutic quality to it – watching the pair drive down long stretches of black and white road, not saying much; listening to gray-haired Hawthornians talk foot afflictions and court-ordered community service; reveling in Woody’s laughably indignant nature brought on by decades of drinking. (Fortunately he’s not drinking anymore, though. Beer ain’t drinkin’.)

Its patience is calming, and its heart is pure. Amid the Secret Ron Burgundy of Wall Street Hustle, don’t let this one get away.

Q&A with an expert on bullying

Ron Avi Astor, the Richard M. and Ann L. Thor Professor in Urban Social Development at USC, has been studying the epidemiology of school violence for nearly 30 years. In 1997, he moved his family to Jerusalem for one year to run the first-ever large-scale comprehensive school violence survey in Israel, with his partner, Hebrew University of Jerusalem professor Rami Benbenishty. Together they co-authored the book “School Violence in Context: Culture, Neighborhood, Family, School, and Gender” (Oxford University Press, 2005). The study is still considered one of the most rigorous and ambitious ever conducted, and there are plans to replicate it in France, Chile and Taiwan. Here, Astor discusses its findings and what it has to teach Jewish schools in the United States.

Jewish Journal: The term “bullying” means many things. What exactly are we talking about when we’re talking about bullying?
Ron Astor: Bullying covers a wide range of behaviors that are qualitatively really different from each other: name calling, social exclusion, teasing, kicking, hitting, fistfights, weapon use, ganging up on somebody, writing things about people or posting it. It used to be in the bathroom, now it’s using the Internet to upset, humiliate or threaten somebody. Generally, the person who does the bullying needs to be stronger socially and psychologically, and it needs to happen more than once.

JJ: Who are the prime targets?
RA: In general, kids who tend to be more isolated, kids who are weaker in terms of social connection, who the bullies feel [are isolated enough that] they can get away with it.

JJ: Bullying has suddenly become a very hot topic. But, haven’t people always been mean?
RA: Until 2001, we didn’t run studies on bullying in the United States, but after the shootings at Columbine, a theory came out in the media saying that the reason why these kids became shooters is that they were bullied at school. But there is no evidence to show that bullying leads to shooting; if that were true, it would be Armageddon in Los Angeles. 

JJ: Is being part of a minority group an advantage in deflecting bullying, as opposed to those who suffer in isolation? 
RA: It’s too general to say, “I’m part of the Jewish people; I’m not alone.” I could be Jewish, and be on a Jewish campus, and not have any friends and be very isolated. But, if a group becomes cohesive and organized, I think that actually protects people from being harmed. We’ve seen that with civil rights.

JJ: Some adults excuse bullying behavior as a “kids will be kids” developmental milestone. How do you deal with bullying that is really dangerous and bullying that is just part of growing up? 
RA: On the one hand, you don’t want people to go meshuggah about this stuff, where everything a little kid does has to have serious consequences. On the other hand, there have to be consequences that are appropriate. Society tends to speak only in terms of how adults respond, but that’s reactionary. What’s better is a wider belief and philosophy about what a human being should be like. 

JJ: Why did you choose school violence as the focus of your career research?
RA: It has to do, in part, with growing up Jewish. If you look at all our holidays, it’s all about being a victim and how we respond as a society to victimization. Also, growing up in L.A. at the height of Bloods and Crips, gangs in schools … living at a time when there was a lot of racial tension. We lived in a much more violent society than we have right now. So it was the combination of the Jewish questions and what I saw around me growing up.

JJ: In an essay about Jews and school violence, you wrote that American Jews don’t perceive school violence as an American Jewish problem. Why is that?
RA: At the time, Jews were following what the rest of society was saying, and society had branded youth violence as a minority problem and a poverty problem. But what this whole focus on bullying has done has told all of America that this is a problem that cuts across all categories. No group or segment of our society is immune to bullying.

JJ: You also wrote that when you began your research, almost no scientific literature existed about Jews and darker issues, such as child abuse, family violence, drug addiction, mental illness or as suffering from problems such as bullying or school violence. Was this a way of keeping a low profile on ugly issues?
RA: The Jewish community in the United States understands that even though we love to see ourselves as a model community, and I think we are, we have problems like everybody else. We’re al’ kol am [a nation like other nations], and that’s a process partially influenced by Israel.

JJ: After you conducted the study in Israel, you reported that the country saw a 20 to 25 percent reduction in school violence rates, which you believe is related to the fact that the entire educational system made combatting school violence a top priority. Why hasn’t that happened in the United States?
RA: If you looked at the average high school pre-World War II, it had 500 students. After that, when people started moving toward factory models, schools followed. Instead of teachers patrolling hallways and saying hello, they became a math teacher, a history teacher, a science teacher, and the classroom became the domain of their work. But if you look at where bullying takes place, it happens in the hallway, the playground, the bathroom — all the places where a teacher’s professional role doesn’t exist. One idea is to move back to the old view, where a teacher sees the entire child and the entire school as their domain. That’s what the whole mission of education is supposed to be about.

JJ: You’ve complained that it’s been difficult to get exposure for your findings in the U.S. Jewish community. Since this interview is happening because of the release of a movie, would you say you owe a debt to Hollywood?
RA: [laughs] I owe a debt to Hollywood and to you. This is one of most in-depth interviews I’ve done — in 20 years. My stuff has been in Newsweek, Time, NPR, CNN —  the only place I couldn’t crack was the Jewish news.

‘Footnote’ falls, continuing Israel’s Oscar drought

“Footnote” failed to win Israel’s first Academy Award, coming up short in the best foreign-language film category.

The film, directed and written by Joseph Cedar, was beaten out by the Iranian entry, “A Separation” by Asghar Farhadi, at the annual Oscars ceremony on Sunday night at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood.

“Footnote,” the story of the rivalry between two Talmudic scholars who are also father and son, was the second Academy Awards entry for Cedar, 43, a New York native who now lives in Tel Aviv. “Beaufort,” his film about the first Lebanon War, lost its bid in 2007.

Others vying in the best foreign-language film category included “In Darkness,” by Poland’s Agnieszka Holland, which follows the fate of a dozen Jewish men, women and children who hid for 14 months in the underground sewers of Lvov during the Nazi occupation of Poland. Also, “Bullhead” by Belgium’s Michael Roskam, and “Monsieur Lazhar” by Canada’s Philippe Falardeau.

At the Cannes Film Festival, “Footnote” was awarded the top prize for best screenplay, and in the United States the National Board of Reviews of Motion Pictures placed the film among the five top foreign-language features.

Cedar’s first two films, “Time of Favor” and “Campfire,” also were chosen as Israel’s entries to the Academy Awards but did not make the finals. They explored the gulf between observant and secular Israelis.

The making of a Hollywood Maccabee wannabee

Who would have projected that Chanukah could be billed as the festival of lights, camera, action?

Mel Gibson, for one, who in the fall announced that he was working with Warner Bros. on producing a movie about Judah Maccabee.

Not seeing this as a boffo idea was Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, who was quoted on CNN as saying that “Judah Maccabee is one of the greatest heroes in Jewish history. Mel Gibson is an anti-Semite. He has made anti-Semitic remarks in the past. I don’t know what Warner Bros. was thinking.”

A few months later, the Hollywood Reporter made it known that others in Hollywood had taken note of Hier’s criticism when it announced that producer Bruce Nash was planning on making a competing Maccabee movie or TV miniseries, and had even hired a screenwriter.

With two Judah movies in production, I began to wonder: Was there room for a third? A low, low-budget cable version that would exploit the publicity of the other two?

I knew just the guy to do it—me. After all, I had worked for two weeks as a special effects assistant on “China Syndrome” eons ago, and live in sight of the Hollywood sign.

Inspired by the Hasmoneans, I would strike quickly and stealthily against the pop cultural foes, freeing the box office. But without a bankable star—in fact without anything even remotely related to a bank—I needed a miracle: an alternative way of drawing some attention to my prospective production.

What about springboarding my production off a best-selling game? After all, several major films, such as “Street Fighter” and the Laura Croft series, were adapted from games and had grossed $100 million or more.

That was the ticket.

I speed-dialed a board game manufacturer I knew in Long Beach, Calif.—Flaster Siskin, owner of FlasterVenture—to see if he wanted in. I had checked out his Maccabees board game online and saw that he had commissioned a dramatic cinematic illustration: a Greek Seleucid battle elephant being attacked by Maccabee insurgents. I instantly imagined the movie poster.

With the Maccabees very much in the news, and with an inventory of Maccabees games, I thought Siskin would be ready to deal. Not so fast.

Before entering the gaming business, Siskin had tried his hand at screenwriting. He warned, “Working in Hollywood is difficult. A lot of scripts get optioned but never get made.”

“The guy who’s spearing the elephant, is that Judah?” I asked, trying to draw him in.

“No, that’s his brother, Eleazar,” Siskin answered.

“Would we need to change script, then, keeping Judah as the film’s only action hero character?” I asked, thinking about the costs of two stars plus an elephant.

“It doesn’t need a major rewrite. You want to keep Eleazar in the picture,” he answered.

Siskin began to warm to his plot outline.

“The first act would show how a change in Seleucid leadership brought about oppression of the Jews,” he said.

The Eleazar and elephant scene would be the end of the second act. “It was the turning point of the war,” Siskin noted, adding that “Unfortunately, Eleazar, who is under the elephant, dies too.”

Ouch. For a holiday film, everyone wants a happy ending.

“But then, Judah and his warriors take back the country,” Siskin said, rallying for the film’s third act.

“And the climax?” I asked.

“The two miracles,” he answered. “The military victory and the oil burning for eight days.”

Now we moved to casting.

“Who plays Judah?” I asked.

“I would rather see a comedic tough guy like Adam Sandler than Mel Gibson,” he answered.

“We could even have Sandler sing ‘Eight Crazy Nights,’ ” I suggested, feeling the showbiz buzz. “And could we update the title. What about something more box office, like ‘Judah Mac?’ ”

“Very hip,” Siskin responded.

Now that my concept was a go, I needed to audience test it with the Jewish establishment. Since Holocaust museum folks like Hier seemed to be the go-to guys for Jewish reaction these days, I turned to Mark Rothman, director of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, who also was a film school graduate.

For starters, Rothman wanted me to know of his “deep suspicion of Gibson’s telling the Judah story with any Jewish sensitivity,” he said. Then, thinking of how to draw the largest draw for my production, Rothman told me to be mindful of the film’s potential Christian audience.

“This clearly has to be a crossover,” he said.

To cut costs, Rothman thought I should restrict the battle scenes to guerrilla-type actions. “Something like sabotaging chariots,” he suggested.

Suddenly worried that this was sounding too much like a war movie, I asked Rothman if I needed a love interest. Ever the film school grad, he quickly outlined how I could write in a female warrior who gains acceptance by fighting off several enemy attackers.

Then I hit him with my projected title.

“Judah Mac” excited him with tie-in possibilities. “Maybe Apple will come out with a new laptop, or McDonald’s a new burger,” he said, laughing at his cleverness.

However, when I told him about the planned dramatic moment when Eleazer impales the elephant, Rothman blanched.

“You’re only going to get in trouble from PETA and the ASPCA,” he warned.

There went my second act.

“Making ‘Judah Mac’ is going to be much harder than I thought,” I said, frustrated by the new complication.

“Welcome to Hollywood,” said Rothman.

(Edmon J. Rodman, who lives just a couple of miles from Hollywood, writes a JTA column on Jewish life. Contact him at

Connections both technological and personal

Several years ago, San Francisco Bay Area filmmaker Tiffany Shlain was eating lunch with a friend when she felt the sudden urge to text-message and check her e-mail. So, like any tech addict, she faked needing to go the bathroom as an excuse to get up from the table.

“And I’m at this bathroom stall, and I’m texting and Tweeting, and I’m thinking, ‘What have I become?’ ” Shlain says in her recently released film, “Connected: An Autoblogography About Love, Death &  Technology.”

“Connected” is her first feature-length documentary and is also part memoir. It examines the history of technological breakthroughs and how they’ve shaped the world and follows a year in Shlain’s life — starting when her father was diagnosed with brain cancer and, in the same week, she became pregnant with her second child.

“Everything felt out of my control,” Shlain says of the time during her father’s illness. “Except when I was working on the film.” 

The film wasn’t always intended to be about Shlain’s personal story. She had initially planned to collaborate with her father, surgeon and author Leonard Shlain, on a film about technology’s role in our daily lives. Three years into the making of the film, however, after her father was given nine months to live, Shlain rewrote the film and included her personal story.

“Here I was, writing about all these interrelationships, and I had overlooked the emotional one, the one between me and the film,” she says. “It was during that time that I realized I was making a film about connections, but I wasn’t dealing with the most important connection of all: emotional connection.”

“Connected” has its local premiere at the Arclight Hollywood on Sept. 30 and will play at least until Oct. 6, following successful runs in the Bay Area, with San Francisco, Berkeley and Mill Valley all extending the film’s runs. On Oct. 2, a Los Angeles screening of the film will benefit Jumpstart, a local nonprofit dedicated to Jewish innovation.

The film proposes that the left side of the brain – the analytical side – is overused and drives peoples’ addiction to technological devices, and the right side — the emotional part of the brain — helps people form deeper connections with one another. Thus, maybe it’s appropriate that audiences have shown a left brain-right brain response to her film.

During Q-and-A’s that have followed screenings, some “just want to talk about the emotional part of the story, and others want to talk about the ideas of interdependence,” Shlain said, speaking by phone from her home in the Bay Area.

Shlain, 41, grew up in Northern California. In the film, she says her father wanted her to be a surgeon, but she was always drawn to film, which she studied at UC Berkeley and New York University.

Known for short films — including “The Tribe” (2006), about the contemporary American-Jewish identity, and “Yelp: With Apologies to Allen Ginsberg’s Howl,” which, like “Connected,” touches on society’s addiction to technology — and as the founder of the Webby Awards, these days Shlain and her family have “technology Shabbats.” For 24 hours, no screens of any kind are allowed.

“It’s been very life-changing, very profound,” Shlain said. I’ve been “bonding with my daughters and reading a lot of [Abraham Joshua] Heschel.”

“Connected” and “The Tribe” are different, Shlain said, but both have big aspirations.

“If ‘The Tribe’ ” is about what it means to be Jewish in the 21st century, ‘Connected’ is about what it means to be human in the 21st century,” she said.

Both films link two disparate ideas. “Connected” presents two narratives — one tracing the history of broad connections in the world, fueled by technological innovation like the Internet, and the other examining Shlain’s personal connection with her father. Her father is the victim of cancer, and society is a victim of a cancer too, the film argues, one of over-production and over-consumption.

In the film, Shlain describes the process of working toward an interdependent relationship with her dad and how the world can benefit from this mix of self-reliance and sense of responsibility toward others. Upon Shlain learning of her father’s disease, the film shows fast images of a surfer freefalling from a mega-wave, buildings crumbling, flowers wilting. The film presents global conflicts — overpopulation, pollution and war — seemingly unsolvable problems that are, in part, the results of technology.

Fast-moving, the film offers colorful computer graphics and animation as well as archival footage and an occasionally humorous voiceover.

Shlain’s father dies at the age of 71, but Shlain still aims for the uplifting.

“Our survival depends on us connecting to one another,” the film argues. “But connecting broadly is meaningless, unless we connect deeply.”

“Connected” opens at the Arclight Hollywood on Sept. 30. A benefit screening for the Jewish nonprofit Jumpstart takes place at the Arclight on Oct. 2.

A benefit screening for Jewish nonprofit Jumpstart takes place at the Arclight on Oct. 2. For details, visit

Q&A with Yair Hochner — founder of Tel Aviv’s first gay and lesbian film festival

Yair Hochner’s “Antarctica” – which opens Nov.14 at the Regent Showcase – begins with multi-screen images of one-night stands in the nocturnal life of hunky gay businessman Boaz (Ofer Regirer). The sexually graphic montage introduces some of the main characters of the romantic dramedy, which revolves around an interconnected group of queer friends in Tel Aviv. There is Omer (Tomer Ilan), a shy librarian who’s about to turn 30 but hasn’t found love or meaning in his life; Omer’s slutty friend, Micki; a marriage-shy lesbian; and a mom played by Israel’s reigning drag queen, Noam Huberman (a less campy version of the mama portrayed by the late Divine in John Waters’ “Hairspray”), among others. Before the 33-year-old Hochner made “Antarctica,” he shot his award-winning “Good Boys,” for $500; and founded Tel Aviv’s first gay and lesbian film festival. Along with fellow Israeli director Eytan Fox (“The Bubble”), he is fast emerging on the international scene as one of Israel’s premiere (and most daring) queer filmmakers.

JJ: How did you come up with the idea for “Antarctica?”
YH: In 1999, during my last year at Camera-Obscura art school in Tel Aviv, I was inspired by one of my favorite films of the year, Michael Winterbottom’s ‘Wonderland,’ which deals with the solitude of bachelorhood in the big city. I initially wrote my movie as a romantic comedy about a bunch of straight female characters, but when I came out of the closet and moved in with my partner, I decided to change it to a group of young, hot, lesbians and gay men in Tel Aviv with an ensemble cast that reflects familiar archetypes we all know in the queer community: the confused youngster who’s unclear about his life; the stud who only has one-night stands with a different guy every night; the mature lesbian who wants to have a baby and create a family; the shy boy who prefers reading books to going out on the town and thus will never meet anyone. We even meet a Jewish mother (Huberman, aka stage name Miss Laila Carry), who constantly nudges her kids at their jobs. She wants grandchildren, she match-makes, and behind everyone’s backs she…well, you’ll have to watch the film to find out.

JJ: “Antarctica” is deliberately apolitical, but – as the L.A. Weekly noted — “There is a subversive politicking in its insistence on portraying gay life as is, promiscuity and all. Which may be why the only Israeli theater that would show this lovingly goofy tribute to John Waters is a cinematheque. “What happened?
YH: Israeli distributors can be very hypocritical, because they show graphic sex scenes involving straight Israelis – “Late Marriage” had a 20-minute sex scene with erections – and “Antarctica” I think is less graphic. Of course, Israeli commercial distributors almost never screen any LGBT movies. So I took my film to Tel Aviv’s cinemateque, where it’s been screening for four months straight since August. Since then it’s been in 12 countries, everywhere from the Venice film festival to Sao Paolo, where it was the opening night at the gay and lesbian film festival last week. The audience was packed with 800 people; [viewers] came from as far away as Rio to see the movie. I was shocked, but everyone was laughing and crying – I never imagined that in a different culture, in a very different context, it would feel the same as it does at home.

JJ: There have been some Israeli films, like Eytan Fox’s “The Bubble,” a gay love story between an Israeli and a Palestinian – that have received support from the Israeli film establishment.
YH: Yes but those kinds of movies are very mainstream in a way – “The Bubble” involves the Middle East conflict, while others may deal in part with the Holocaust, which are all subjects that Israelis like to watch. My movie is purely about gay and lesbian love stories in Tel Aviv. I didn’t deal with Holocaust memories or Palestinians – which I think is boring to see so many times. I tried to get away from this. I just wanted to make a regular movie about regular people and their romantic lives.

JJ: Here in California gay marriage was struck down by our Proposition 8 this month. The lesbians in “Antarctica” discuss marriage, but same-sex marriage has never been legal in Israel.
YH: In the movie it’s obvious they can’t marry, but that’s not the issue. The ability to marry or not is not the problem, the issue (which is the subject of the movie) is, ‘How open are we to other people around us?”

JJ: Why did you choose to cast a drag queen in a woman’s role?
YH: I wanted to make a totally queer film without any straight actors, and Noam is a great icon in Tel Aviv, he has his own show. I’m a great fan of John Waters and Divine, but I told Noam I wanted to do something that was not necessarily camp, and that was more realistic. I told him, ‘Just act like an old Jewish woman and don’t be too extreme.’ I know many viewers are surprised when they see him because suddenly he jumps into the frame and it changes the vibe of the movie. The movie starts out very sexy, then becomes very realistic and dark, and then romantic and a bit campy. It’s like three films on one ticket.

JJ: Why did you title the film ‘Antarctica?”
YH: It has to do with transformation. The characters start out with very frozen hearts; they need to open themselves up to get warmer experiences in their lives. In Tel Aviv, like big cities such as London or New York, many people feel isolated, so they’re have online dates and one-night stands and they feel alone, and they’re waiting for that light to arrive to give us the opportunity to be open, to love.

JJ: Have you seen straight people in the audience as well?
YH: Absolutely. I think Israelis are tired of all the war movies and Lebanon movies and family dramas that we’ve seen in recent year. They just want to see something different – and they’re looking for something that will tell them something about their own lives.

To see a trailer of “Antarctica” visit

The Hollywood candidate is not Obama

If John McCain wins this election, it will be because of Hollywood.

It’s not that Hollywood is giving him big money (it isn’t); or that big celebrities are attracting attention to him (they’re not); or that star writers and directors are helping him with stagecraft and wordsmithery (again no).

It’s that the gradual appropriation by Hollywood of politics, journalism and practically ever other domain of modern life is reaching its apotheosis in McCain’s campaign.  His persona, and the story he is telling, and the media narrative that frames and delivers it to us, all come straight from the movies. 

Unfortunately, this movie may end really, really badly.

If you want to see how entertainment conquered reality (as the subtitle of Neal Gabler’s “Life the Movie” puts it), don’t look at Arnold Schwarzenegger or Ronald Reagan, or at Oprah or Jane Fonda.  Look instead at the inauguration day of the era we now inhabit: September 11, 2001.

“It was like something from a movie.”  It’s stunning how universal that reaction was, whether from eye witnesses or television viewers.  It is entirely plausible that the terrorists themselves intended us to experience it as a movie—a disaster film, a horror picture, an epic of spectacular destruction and mass helplessness.

From 9/11 until now, we have lived in a state of suspense, wanting to know how it will all turn out.  Are we living through apocalyptic times, heading toward nuclear terrorism and an “On the Beach” ending?  Will the anarchy of “Mad Max” be our fate?  Will the human monsters who hate us ravage us as mercilessly as the monster of “Cloverfield” or the aliens of “War of the Worlds”?  Or will we be rescued by a latter-day cavalry, like the improbable heroes of “Independence Day”? 

George W. Bush told us we were in a Western (“Wanted, dead or alive”), and in a World War II movie (“Bring ‘em on!”).  But the quagmire of Iraq, the persistence of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and the return of Cold War Russia have prevented us from reaching – except in the President’s own mind, perhaps – the ultimate victory of the white hats and the good guys that those genres promise.

At the moment when things look most bleak, in rides John McCain.  Like Rambo, he has returned to rescue us, to make this war on terror end differently than that war in Vietnam.  Like Shane, he is a maverick, a loner, a reluctant gunslinger who arrives out of nowhere, back from political death.  Like Yoda, or the Wise Man of countless other science fiction films, he offers us wisdom and judgment accumulated over lifetimes.

Only that message didn’t work.  The hero of the Hanoi Hilton has used his POW history a dozen times too many to explain everything from not recalling how many houses he owns to charges that he cheated his way out of the Saddleback “cone of silence.”  The maverick who bucked George Bush turned out to vote with him 90 per cent of the time; the loner who denounced the “agents of intolerance” in his own party returned to Liberty University to pay honor to Rev. Falwell; the opponent of torture ended up supporting it; the sage turned out to be a hothead with a hair-trigger temper whose gut instincts are the problem, not the solution.

And then there was his opponent—the true outsider who made him look like Mr. Establishment, the young guy who made him look too much like Yoda, the leader of millions who made his own claims to leadership ring hollow.  Barack Obama, to be sure, has also been the beneficiary of Americans’ inclination to experience life via movie genres.  In Obama’s case, it’s the rags-to-riches saga, the only-in-America tale, plus the crusader quests of Gene McCarthy and Martin Luther King, Jr., of Bobby and Jack Kennedy – stories so burnished by Camelot mythology and an Age of Giants romanticism that the line between legend and life hardly matters.

McCain’s Rovian campaign fought genre with genre, trying everything to recast Obama into a different story.  They depicted him as a false prophet with literally Mosaic pretensions; a traitorous “Manchurian Candidate”; a demagogue, like Lonesome Roads in “A Face in the Crowd”; a rock star egomaniac, a celebrity airhead, a diva, like the characters in the serial melodramas that we call People, Extra! and TMZ.  But for all that, the race remained a dead heat.

In panic, McCain threw a Hail Mary pass—familiar to fans of sports comeback movies—and chose Sarah Palin as his running mate.  What he gets from this self-described hockey mom is a genre lift, the Hollywood fable of the un-politician who comes to Washington to straighten things out. 

She comes from a long line of movie outsiders.  Jimmy Stewart’s Mr. Smith starts out as the head of the Boy Rangers. “The Candidate” played by Robert Redford is a lawyer for hopeless causes. Kevin Kline, who impersonates the president (for the better) in “Dave,” runs a temp agency.  In “Man of the Year,” Robin Williams is a comedian who runs for the White House.  Reese Witherspoon’s Elle Woods, in “Legally Blonde 2,” is the underestimated Delta Nu chick who turns Congress around.

So why not Sarah Palin as Vice President?  To be sure, the notion that women, particularly Hillary Clinton supporters, would vote for her just because she has two X chromosomes, and despite her being on the opposite side from Sen. Clinton on every policy issue facing the country: that cynical tokenism is precisely the kind of affirmative-action-at-its-worst that the right never tires of accusing the left of committing.

But McCain isn’t betting everything on the hope that self-spiting Clinton partisans and undecided younger suburban women will identify with Sarah Palin’s gender.  He’s doing it to tap into the beloved American movie myth of the salt-of-the-earth outsider who ends up in power.  He’s gambling that we just can’t help loving plots like that.

The Labor Day news that Sarah Palin’s 17-year-old daughter is five months’ pregnant adds yet one more genre to the GOP movie arsenal: within minutes of the revelation, one media wag dubbed Bristol Palin “the Juno of Juneau.”

And what about the heartbeat-away issue? As critic Katha Pollitt wrote, “If life were a Lifetime movie, Palin would do just fine running the country should McCain keel over. Girls can do anything! And look great doing it!”

John McCain is 72, and he’s been operated on for malignant melanomas—the most dangerous kind of skin cancer—four times.

At this point in the campaign, it looks as though McCain has a 50/50 chance of becoming President.  And while I wish him 120 birthdays, it is no great stretch to imagine Sarah Palin ending up in the Oval Office.  This is the entirely possible outcome that the Republicans are putting on the table this week. 

Maybe Americans won’t want to take that risk.  But McCain could well win.  More Americans may vote for the real life movie about the moose-hunting Alaskan beauty queen who goes to Washington, than for the one about the charismatic half-black Hawaiian who ends up at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

If John McCain wins, it is entirely conceivable that whatever scares you most in the world, and whatever you care most about doing at home, Sarah Palin will be in charge of it.  But by the time we realize how dystopic such a movie might turn out, it will be too late for any of us to leave the theater. 

Marty Kaplan wrote and executive produced “The Distinguished Gentleman,” in which Eddie Murphy plays a con man who gets elected to Congress.  He now directs the USC Annenberg School’s Norman Lear Center, which studies the impact of entertainment on society, and blogs @

Jewish life in the City of Lights

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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