Examining a shared history through a festival lens

Last fall, I was invited to show my documentary “Raquel: A Marked Woman” in Eastern Europe, including Poland, Romania and Ukraine. I wondered whether the gap left by the annihilation of local Jewish communities, followed by decades of silence and secrecy behind the Iron Curtain, is the same in each country.

My documentary tells the story of a young Jewish-Polish mother, Raquel Liberman, who left Warsaw in 1922 with her two young children to follow her husband to Argentina. What happened next is an ordeal many young women suffer today. An international crime organization, made up of Jewish-Polish immigrants, entrapped and enslaved her into the sex trade. These men recruited young Jewish women from the shtetls (small Jewish villages) in Eastern Europe in the early 20th century. The organization, headquartered in Argentina, ensnared Raquel in its web and destined her to a life of suffering.

In my film, the “bad” guys are Jews. I ask audiences to move past the familiar demonization or idealization of Jews and see them as human beings with all their human foibles. This exercise is challenging for a conventional Jewish-American audience. Because these East European countries are only now beginning to reconcile their shared pre-World War II history with Jews, I was curious about their reaction. 

It was a great opportunity to present subject matter that local audiences could relate to — given its historic and present-day relevance to the Eastern Europe sex trade. I realized that bringing Raquel back to her home country of Poland would also be a chance to engage with local audiences and understand the cultural and environmental landscape from which my heroine came — a culture that had been fertile ground for the Holocaust. 

Before embarking on my mini-tour, I thought I would experience the consequences of the Russian propaganda machine — a generation too old or too complacent with its secrets. But the opposite seemed to be true. Most young people feel a kinship to Jews and Jewish culture. Yes, it’s now “hip” to be a Jew. This led me to ask: Is the recent resurgence of interest in Jewish culture and traditions in Eastern Europe based on curiosity or atonement? 

“Raquel” was scheduled for two film festivals and two community screenings, all run by non-Jews. These audiences are trying to come to grips with their history and the reformulation of their identity. In Warsaw, a city that was leveled during the war and eerily rebuilt by the Communists, the audiences’ surprising focus was not on the “bad” Polish Jews, but on Raquel’s courageous journey from enslavement to heroine.

Krakow’s Jewish quarter of Kazimierz, an old town dating back to the 12th century, is seeing a Jewish revival of sorts. Many young Polish people are finding out that their grandparents converted to Catholicism and never spoke about their origins — either for fear of persecution or guilt by association.

This unique population was represented in the questions it raised: “Did the Catholic neighbor, who became the foster parent to Raquel’s two young boys, ever tell them that they were Jewish?” “Why did Raquel leave her children with a non-Jew?”

In Bucharest, Romania, the event planners were eager to educate Romanian non-Jews about Jewish life, culture and Israel. Why? The new generation of Romanians is completely unaware of its relationship to its Jewish past, and Israelis run many of the country’s mid-level businesses. The focus of the audience was twofold. First, was I afraid for my life in exposing this Jewish mafia? Did I have the mafia’s list of members and was I going to publish it? Second, the audience deeply identified with Raquel’s story and shared how its country is living through what was depicted in the film: girls being trafficked in and out of Romania for sex.

The final screening took place in Lviv, Ukraine. All but one of the synagogues is still standing, and years of Soviet rule obliterated the population’s enmeshed history with the Jews. In Ukraine, the truth is hard to find and its re-creation is a feeding machine of propaganda and fears. The questions that surfaced were about what happens when there’s a gap in knowledge, as in Raquel’s story. For 70 years, her children and grandchildren remained completely in the dark. How does the gap in knowledge get filled when much of the information has been buried or is dismissed? Was it possible for Raquel’s descendants to make sense of her story even if the information was buried? 

At the end of my trip, both as Raquel’s storyteller and as a second-generation Holocaust survivor, I asked myself questions similar to what my audiences asked. How do you build a story when there’s a gap in history? How do you create an identity when much of your history is buried in secrecy or dismissal? In my films, I have explored the notion of active recalling, engaging and, ultimately, taking responsibility for our past. What happens when those who held the memories die off, as in the case of Raquel? Who is responsible for the telling of their story? 

The new generation in these countries surprised me. What at first seemed such a peculiar reality — Eastern Europeans hungry to find their connection to Jewish history — has now made me realize that we might be struggling with a similar goal. 

The journey through these lands has opened my heart to a past we share. We are forever tied to a communal history. It is no longer about victims and perpetrators. It is about our humanity. It is about a world that requires us to see beyond our fears, to question our lessons, and to open our hearts — as I know Raquel’s story has opened audiences’ hearts to the reality that too many young women are still being trafficked today. 

Gabriela Bohm is a filmmaker in Los Angeles.

70 years on, Hitchcock Holocaust doc finds an audience

“This was a woman,” the narrator explains, as the camera pans over a figure so emaciated and burnt that it’s barely recognizable as human.

It’s one of the more arresting scenes in “German Concentration Camps Factual Survey,” a highly unusual Holocaust documentary shot and scripted 70 years ago, and crafted with the help of the legendary director Alfred Hitchcock. But it almost didn’t see the light of day.

The recently completed film is set to have its New York premiere on Tuesday night at Manhattan’s Museum of Jewish Heritage-A Living Memorial to the Holocaust.

“German Concentration Camps” draws heavily on the footage taken at Bergen-Belsen, Auschwitz and Dachau by combat and newsreel cameramen in the weeks after liberation. It shows those who had managed to survive gas chambers, typhus epidemics and starvation conditions taking the first steps toward rebuilding their lives. They are deloused. They get hot showers for the first time in years and hot meals. There are piles of clean clothes, and women rejoicing in trying on the donated dresses, pumps and wide-brimmed hats.

“Some of the most touching parts show the restoration of what I can only call humanity,” said Jane Wells, a documentarian and the daughter of the film’s producer, Sidney Bernstein.

An Englishman, Bernstein led the film division of the Allied forces’ propaganda effort and was tasked with chronicling the Nazi’s crimes for the German public. To this end, the film includes copious footage of former camp guards carrying the dead bodies of their victims to mass graves and tossing them, with callous disregard, into the giant pits.

Bernstein enlisted Hitchcock, a close friend, as the film’s treatment adviser. Hitchcock’s influence can be seen in the long, panning shots that leave no room for doubt that what the audience is seeing is no fabrication. Bernstein and his team worked on the film through the spring and summer of 1945.

But by later that year, many Germans had toured the concentration camps and seen newsreels of what had happened there. There was a sense that the film’s time had passed, and the British government shelved the project.

In recent years, however, Britain’s Imperial War Museum restored the footage and set out to finish the film using the original script and shot sheet. The words are lyrical (“They say a dead man’s boots bring bad luck; what of dead children’s toys?”) and they are judgmental. (“Germans knew about Dachau but did not care.”)

Hewing to the original vision meant making a film that contained some factual inaccuracies (the number of dead) and omissions (about whom the Nazis targeted).

“It didn’t emphasize how disproportionately the Jews had suffered,” Wells said of the film, which refers to victims by their nationality rather than their religion. “It showed it as more of a universal Holocaust than one that was predominantly Jewish.” (In a short film that follows the documentary and attempts to correct the record, scholars surmise that the filmmakers did not want to portray Jews as a people apart.)

An HBO documentary about the long-delayed Hitchcock project, “Night Will Fall,” aired in January. The title is a line from “German Concentration Camps”: “Unless the world learns the lesson these pictures teach, night will fall. But by God’s grace, we who live will learn.”

The film only recently began to make the rounds. Bruce Ratner, a real estate developer and a minority owner of the Brooklyn Nets basketball team, was instrumental in bringing the film to the Museum of Jewish Heritage, where he serves as chairman of the board. A discussion with New York Times columnist Roger Cohen and Wells, whose company, 3 Generations, specializes in films about human rights abuses, will follow the screening.


Oren says ‘Gatekeepers’ makes his job harder

Israel's U.S. ambassador,  Michael Oren, said the Oscar-nominated documentary “The Gatekeepers” complicates his mission.

The movie compiles interviews with six former leaders of the Shin Bet, Israel's internal security service, and records their perceptions of how successive Israeli governments missed opportunities for peace.

“This is a good movie that presents a narrative of 45 years of occupation but is completely devoid of information on Israel's peace plan offers — (Ehud) Barak's Camp David attempts, then [Ehud] Olmert, from the unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and the rocket fire on us,” Oren told Ynet in a story posted Sunday. “Whoever views the movie without knowing the background can leave feeling that Israel is to blame and didn't do a thing.”

Oren said he hesitated to criticize the movie for fear of being attacked as limiting speech freedoms, but added that he felt that Israel was “on the defensive” in its effort to explain its right to exist.

Filmmaker writes from experience for post-Holocaust drama ‘Mighty Fine’

Filmmaker Debbie Goodstein has taken to heart the adage, “Write what you know.” Her 1989 Holocaust documentary, “Voices From the Attic,” recounts her mother’s years of hiding in a garret where snow descended through slats in the roof, a baby died and food was scarce.

The film also chronicles Goodstein’s own journey as a member of the “Second Generation” — a daughter who inherited her mother’s fear of cramped spaces as well as the drive to re-enact her family’s experience by hoarding food.

Now Goodstein has written and directed a semi-autobiographical drama, “Mighty Fine,” opening May 25, which explores the second half of her childhood equation: how her father’s unpredictable rage terrorized the family as his garment business foundered — it was not until he sought psychotherapy that healing could take place.

In an interview from her New York home, Goodstein, 49, said she embarked upon the film only after seeking her father’s permission. “I had been intrigued by the film ‘The Great Santini’ because the father was such a great, complex character, and the effect he had on his children was so complicated, horrific, but also wonderful on another level,” she said.  “My father was, on the one hand, a very strong and courageous person — even the fact that he’s supporting the film — but on another level he was very scared and vulnerable. He had been abandoned for a time by his parents during the Depression and grew up dirt-poor with strangers,” she added. “I think his rage came from a deep fear that he would not be able to care for his family in the way he wanted to, and not be the man he hoped to be.”

“Mighty Fine” follows Joe Fine (Chazz Palminteri) as he moves his wife   (Andie MacDowell) — a Holocaust survivor — and his two daughters from Brooklyn to New Orleans in the 1970s. Even as he showers his family with lavish gifts, he is domineering and manipulative, responding to perceived challenges to his authority with bouts of explosive temper. His edginess escalates as his business declines and he seeks loan money from the Mafia; while his oldest daughter, Maddie (Rainey Qualley), rebels against Joe’s iron fist, his younger daughter, Natalie (Jodelle Ferland), internalizes his anger to the point that she becomes painfully introverted and fearful. Joe’s wife, Stella,  meanwhile, is paralyzed between supporting her husband — the man who gave her a new life after the Shoah — and protecting her children.  “It was almost as though if she said anything against him, she’d wake up back in her hiding place in Europe,” as Natalie says.

In real life, the shadow of the Holocaust amplified the tensions within Goodstein’s childhood home: As in the film, her mother viewed her father as her protector, and Debbie, also protective of her mother because of her wartime experiences, was loath to speak up lest she cause additional pain. “My mother had been so used to living with danger that the sense that anything could happen at any time was ‘normal’ to her,” the filmmaker said.

Goodstein’s father never dealt with Mafiosi — that part of the film is fiction — but Goodstein did develop such an intense fear of authority figures that, as a student at Columbia University film school, she shrunk away from the visiting film luminaries. 

She was inspired to make “Voices From the Attic”  when her aunt brought her to Poland, where a farmer hid 16 members of her family in the low-slung attic of a cottage, without plumbing or electricity.

“It was a much more sympathetic tale to tell than my father’s story,” Goodstein said.

Because “Mighty Fine” was so close to her own life story, she could tackle it only after she was married with two children and had numerous television movies under her belt. Four years ago, memories flowed onto the page, and, Goldstein said, her first draft “came out like a cork” over the course of a two-week period.

MacDowell quickly signed on to play Stella and Palminteri to play Joe; MacDowell — whose real-life daughter, Rainey Qualley, plays Maddie in the film — said she has been fascinated and horrified by the Holocaust since perusing a book on the subject on the sly in her family’s living room when she was 4.  “I remember the images so clearly of the victims: the piles of people, the emaciated bodies, the bones,” she said during an interview at the Four Seasons Hotel recently. 

“My own mother was bipolar and an alcoholic, and my role in the family was to keep the peace — I could draw on that for my character,” MacDowell added.

Palminteri, who told his own story of coming of age amid Mafiosi in his play and film “A Bronx Tale,” has played his share of tough guys. “I’m good at going from zero to 60 in two seconds,” he said of the scenes in which Joe’s temper erupts. “I’d ask for a five-minute warning before each scene, and that’s when I’d start working on it —I would just sit there and brood. Even in scenes where I was not outwardly angry, the rage was always there, underneath.”

“Mighty Fine” has already received attention for tackling the issue of emotional abuse and bullying within the home: Last week, Goodstein was scheduled to be interviewed by a psychiatrist on MSNBC, and reviewers praised the film during an interactive session with 100 “mom bloggers” this month.

“My hope is that my family’s experience can shine light on a subject that’s not often enough discussed,” Goodstein said.

“Mighty Fine” opens on May 25.

‘Bully’ documentary to land in theaters unrated

The Weinstein Co. on Monday said it has decided to release its documentary “Bully” without a U.S. film rating after failing to persuade the Motion Picture Association of America to change to one that is less restrictive.

“Bully,” set for release on March 30, has drawn controversy over the MPAA’s “R” rating that means people under 17-years-old must be accompanied by adult to see it. The group gave it the rating due to strong language used by kids in the movie.

Opponents of the MPAA’s decision, including Weinstein Co., argue that many youth need to see the film in order to tackle the problem of bullying, and the “R” rating will bar kids not only from theaters but also from watching it in schools.

The MPAA, which represents Hollywood’s major movie studios in governmental matters, rates films for content such as sex, violence and language to give audiences an idea of what will be in the movies they see.

Releasing “Bully” unrated means anyone will be admitted where it is screened, but in the past many major theater chains have spurned films without an MPAA rating. As a result, distributors such as Weinstein Co. seek the ranking.

“We believe theater owners everywhere will step up and do what’s right for the benefit of all of the children out there who have been bullied or may have otherwise become bullies themselves. We’re working to do everything we can to make this film available to as many parents, teachers and students across the country,” Weinstein Co. marketing president Stephen Bruno said in a statement.

Weinstein Co. had appealed the “R” earlier this year and sought a less-restrictive rating, but the MPAA refused to budge. Director Lee Hirsch could edit out the objectionable words, but has declined to make changes arguing the language is essential to the story.

“The small amount of language in the film that’s responsible for the R rating is there because it’s real. It’s what the children who are victims of bullying face on most days,” Hirsch said in a statement. “All of our supporters see that, and we’re grateful for the support we’ve received across the board. I know the kids will come, so it’s up to the theaters to let them in.”


Reporting By Zorianna Kit; Editing by Bob Tourtellotte

The battle to get ‘Bully’ seen by those who need it most

At Sioux City Middle School in Iowa, 12-year-old Alex Libby is the odd-man-out. Seen by his peers as different, he has golden hair, gentle eyes, a wide, flat nose and permanently puckered lips. Together, they might seem to express something both pouty and vulnerable, sweet and sad. Kids are not so kind. “People call me fish face,” he blankly tells the camera in the new documentary “Bully” by filmmaker Lee Hirsch. “I don’t mind.”

Hirsch’s camera follows Alex to the bus stop. He breathes heavily and loiters sort of aimlessly until another boy his age begins to taunt him, “I’ll break your Adam’s apple, which will kill you!” the boy shouts. On the bus, yet another boy tells Alex he plans to bring a knife to school. “I’m gonna f—- you up,” he taunts. “You’re gonna die in pain.”

The documentary, which hits theaters on March 30, comes at a time when the prevalence and perils of bullying are thick in national consciousness. Last week, former Rutgers University student Dharun Ravi was found guilty of a hate crime, convicted of 15 criminal charges including invasion of privacy, bias intimidation and tampering with evidence for using a Webcam to spy on his roommate having sex with another man. Engaging in a practice commonly known as cyberbullying, Ravi used his Twitter and Facebook accounts to invite others to join him. “Roommate asked for the room till midnight,” Ravi Tweeted on Sept. 19, 2010. “I went into molly’s room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay.” A few days later, Ravi Tweeted a second time, “Anyone with iChat, I dare you to video chat me between the hours of 9:30 and 12. Yes it’s happening again.”

Three days after the initial incident, Ravi’s roommate, Tyler Clementi leaped to his death off the George Washington Bridge.

Although Ravi was not charged in relation to Clementi’s death, the case has widely been seen as a watershed moment because, for the first time, an act of cyberbullying has been successfully prosecuted. But the phenomenon of bullying is nothing new. The word is simply a modern catchall to describe an ancient behavior; even before “Lord of the Flies,” there were Joseph and his brothers. Yet bullying covers such a broad range of behaviors — from teasing and name-calling, to threats and even physical violence — and affects an even wider swath of ages, starting as early as preschool and continuing through adulthood, when, in the workplace it’s called harassment, it could probably hold rank as one of the most challenging social problems in human history.

[Q&A with an expert on bullying]

Before bullying became a buzzword and a subject of serious scientific study, it was widely but erroneously believed to be an affliction of race or poverty. For Jews, victimization that comes from being different from the dominant culture is a familiar theme. But while a minority status determined by race, religion, gender, social status or sexual orientation often becomes a factor in discrimination, bullying is not restricted to minority groups. Nor is it believed to be more or less prevalent within one group over another.

Today, sociologists generally agree that the phenomenon is universal and that it happens on a global scale. In 2010 in the United States, 828,000 nonfatal victimizations at schools were reported among students ages 12-18, according to a survey conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics and the Bureau of Justice Statistics on behalf of the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice. The same study found that nearly half of those were considered “violent victimizations,” and more than 91,000 incidents qualified as “serious violent victimizations.” It was also reported that the majority of all childhood victimizations occurred at school, including 17 homicides and seven suicides.

All this makes it likely that you, your child or someone you know has experienced some type of bullying at some point during adolescence. And more than any sociocultural identification — black, Jewish, gay, wealthy — the single most powerful determinant in whether an individual is susceptible to bullying behavior is social isolation. How strange, then, to perceive minority status as a happy accident of fate; sometimes it is precisely affiliation with a group that can be lifesaving.

“The thing I think about a lot is, ‘What are the activators of pain?’ ” Lee Hirsch, the 40-year-old filmmaker of “Bully,” said during a phone interview from New York. “I love movements and politics and platforms, but the thing that interests me the most is, what can compel people to move off the sidelines?”

All photos from “Bully,” courtesy of the Weinstein Co.

Whether there are genetic incentives for altruistic behavior is a perennial query of evolutionary biology. A recent article in The New Yorker magazine by Jonah Lehrer illuminated a scientific debate about the genetics of altruism. Is it actually biologically good to do good? “Charles Darwin regarded the problem of altruism — the act of helping someone else, even if it comes at a steep personal cost — as a potentially fatal challenge to his theory of natural selection,” Lehrer writes. “And yet, as Darwin knew, altruism is everywhere, a stubborn anomaly of nature. Bats feed hungry brethren; honeybees commit suicide with a sting to defend the hive; birds raise offspring that aren’t their own; humans leap onto subway tracks to save strangers. The ubiquity of such behavior suggests that kindness is not a losing life strategy.”

As more students report having witnessed bullying than experiencing it, converting bystanders into altruistic defenders could prove transformative. It is the message conveyed by Hirsch’s film, and it is his hope that the film will seed a social revolution — a battle against bullying, so to speak, that would make prevention and containment a permanent part of America’s educational culture.

“Tackling this idea of bullying as a nation, in a really deep way,” Hirsch wondered, “does that get at a bigger truth or bigger transformation than bullying itself? Does confronting [this issue] help us see more about life and the choices that we make?”

Hirsch urgently believes that now is the time to seize upon the spotlight and influence public discourse. “There’s something so universal and collective in the experience of bullying. There is a conversation to be had that hasn’t yet been had, and I think that’s why I’m so committed to classrooms seeing this film; what could come out of that is thrilling to think about.”

It’s too bad, and just a tad ironic, then, that Hirsch is also having to battle for his movie to be seen. When the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) scarlet-lettered the film with an “R” rating for explicit language, it complicated the filmmaker’s plans to screen the movie in schools for students. Because, while the film is reliably entertaining, it’s not exactly a choice pick for a Saturday afternoon. It was designed to be consciousness-raising and educational.

“Bully” tells the story of five students and their families as they confront the real-life consequences of school-day torment. For a year, Hirsch and his camera traveled to five cities to observe the effects: To follow Alex, the documentary’s default star, Hirsch was given unprecedented access to three schools in Sioux City, Iowa — an elementary, middle and high school — where his cameras were allowed full access in hallways, classrooms and on the playgrounds. Given the many discomfiting scenes that emerge in the film — Alex is shoved, stabbed, ridiculed and threatened — it seems either miraculous or insane that the school agreed to participate. Hirsch attributes this to their desire for change. “They want to be part of the solution,” he said.

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.

Priest, born Jewish, is ‘Torn’

In the opening scene of the documentary “Torn,” an official asks an elderly man for his name, and he replies, “Romuald-Jakub Weksler-Waszkinel.”

This name encapsulates the fate of Jakub (Yankele) Weksler, born 1943 in Lublin, Poland, to Jewish parents during the Holocaust years and adopted by a Christian Polish family to save his life. At 17, the one-time Yankele enters a seminary and eventually becomes Father Romuald Waszkinel, a Catholic priest.

As his Polish mother lies dying, she tells the 35-year-old priest that — like thousands of other Jewish children hidden by Catholic families and in convents during the war — he was born a Jew.

In the remainder of “Torn,” Israeli filmmaker Ronit Kertsner documents a man’s struggle to reconcile two faiths that he sees as one, but which the Christian and Jewish outside worlds view as mutually exclusive beliefs.

The man’s internal struggle is given external expression in his small bedroom, where a painting of Jesus is flanked by an engraving of the Shema prayer and a small menorah. Adjacent are faded photos of his Jewish and Christian mothers.

Over the years, the priest’s conviction grows that he must go to Israel to study Hebrew, and in his mid-60s he arrives at Sde Eliyahu, an Orthodox kibbutz, to enroll in its ulpan (intensive Hebrew-language program).

But here, as in Poland, Weksler-Waszkinel’s insistence that he is both Jewish and Catholic stumps even the generally sympathetic kibbutzniks and Israeli bureaucrats.

For one, Israel’s Law of Return, which grants automatic entry to any Jew, does not apply to those practicing a different faith, and no Christian monastery in Israel will accept him in their own ranks.

Weksler-Waszkinel, now known as Yaakov, is at first indignant (“You mean secularists like Marx and Trotsky are Jews, but not me?”), then agrees to forgo saying Sunday Mass at a church in Tiberias, but he refuses to take the final step.

“I can deny everything [about Catholicism], but not Jesus,” he proclaims, but adds later, “I am convinced the God of Israel loves me, as I love Him.”

As Yaakov continues his struggle, his great friend is the American-born chief rabbi of Poland, Michael Schudrich, who becomes the mediator between Yaakov and his would-be Israeli compatriots.

One unforgettable picture symbolizes Yaakov’s duality. As he approaches the Western Wall in Jerusalem, he carefully adjusts his priestly Roman collar, and then his embroidered kippah.

Currently, Yaakov works as an archivist at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem and appears happy, filmmaker Kertsner said. He has been officially classified as a “permanent resident,” which allows him three years to decide whether to apply for Israeli citizenship.

Kertsner said that of the many thousands of Jewish children saved by Poles during the Holocaust, she knew of no other instance of a born Jew becoming a priest.

She brings a special empathy to the subject of her documentary. “When I was around 35, I learned that I had been adopted as a child, and then I went through a severe identity crisis,” she said.

Her American parents moved after World War II to Israel, where Ronit was born in 1956. She started, and continues, her career as a film editor, partly due to the influence of her uncle, the American actor David Opatoshu. As producer of “Torn,” she decided to also direct it when no one else wanted the job.

Her other documentaries — “Menachem and Fred,” “I, the Aforementioned Infant” and “The Secret” — also deal with identity crises. Asked if she plans on doing any feature films, she answered, “Why should I, when real life is so fascinating?”

The Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival will screen “Torn” on Aug. 10 at the Museum of Tolerance as part of its “Midsummer Night’s Film Festival” series. The film starts at 7:30 p.m., followed by a panel discussion with Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center; the Rev. Alexei Smith, director of the Office of Ecumenical and Interfaith Affairs of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles; and director Kertsner. Rabbi Mark S. Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, will serve as moderator.

For tickets or information about the screening, please call (800) 838-3006 or visit www.lajfilmfest.org. For more background on “Torn” and its director, visit www.go2films.com.

Israeli director wins top documentary prize at Tribeca

Israeli director Alma Har’el took top honors at the Tribeca Film Festival in the documentary category.

“Bombay Beach,” her feature-length film, follows three down-and-out residents of a ghost town on the Salton Sea, a surrealistic landscape in Southern California filled with losers and dreamers.

Har’el, a Tel Aviv native now living in the United States, takes home $25,000 in prize money. She describes herself in her biography as a video artist and music video director.

The judges were unanimous in their decision, which was announced Thursday. They praised the film to reporters for its “beauty, lyricism, empathy and invention.”

Another Israeli, Dor Fadlon of Ramat Gan, also won special mention at the festival for “Eva—Working Title.” Fadlon, a graduate of the film and television department at Tel Aviv University, wrote and directed the 14-minute film.

The 12-day Tribeca Film Festival, founded in 2002, concludes May 1 in New York.

‘My Brother’s Keeper’ keeps soldiers’ story alive

When Israel fought its War of Independence, there were no embedded TV cameramen, and even combat newsreel photographers were practically nonexistent. The newly created state had more important matters to worry about.

More surprisingly, there have been hardly any movies celebrating the near miraculous victories of 1948-49, and, later, of the Six-Day War in 1967.

Unlike Hollywood, which would have turned out dozens of macho movies showing Yossi Wayne-stein single-handedly wiping out five Arab armies, Israelis have just let the facts speak for themselves.

Hollywood made one try at plugging the cinematic hole with “Cast a Giant Shadow,” starring Kirk Douglas in the role of Col. David “Mickey” Marcus, an American World War II officer who went to Israel in early 1948 to aid the country in its struggle. Predictably, the picture was long on drama and short on reality.

Actually, though, there were some Americans and Canadians, mostly Jews, but also a fair number of Christians, who put their lives on the line to realize the dream of creating a Jewish state.

First came the crew members of Aliyah Bet, who manned the rust-bucket ships that ran the British blockade to bring some remnants of European Jewry to Palestine in 1947 and early 1948.

While the state was being established, about 1,500 Americans and Canadians, together with men and women from 43 other countries, made their way to the nascent Jewish state, mostly by illegal means, to fight alongside their Israeli brothers and sisters.

They were called Machal, the Hebrew acronym for “volunteers from outside Israel.” They fought in all branches of the service, but their greatest impact was in applying their World War II experiences to build up the Israeli air force and navy.

In doing so, the American Machalniks clearly broke U.S. laws and risked loss of their citizenship, but surprisingly little is known of their deeds in either their home country or Israel.

One of their number was Ira Feinberg, a 17-year-old New Yorker, who joined the elite troops of the Palmach.

Sixty years later, in 2008, Feinberg returned to Israel for a reunion of some of the remaining Machalniks. Realizing that this was likely to be the last gathering of the aging veterans, he brought along a camera crew to save their reminiscences for posterity.

The result is a 40-minute DVD, “My Brother’s Keeper,” which re-creates a real sense of those long-ago years and will screen at the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival on May 10.

Nowadays, when Israeli military prowess is taken for granted, it beggars the imagination to hear the veterans talk of fighting, at the beginning, with World War I rifles and dropping hand grenades from open cockpits.

Feinberg enlivens the testimony with some historic newsreel footage and photos of bare-chested Machalniks posing fiercely with Browning Automatic Rifles, but, of necessity, the film is somewhat static.

The volunteers came to Israel for many and diverse reasons, but what shines through is their pride in having been part of a climactic moment in Jewish history.

Looking back, Canadian Joe Warner observed, “If we failed to have a state, being a Jew anywhere in the world wouldn’t be worth a nickel.”

Feinberg himself concluded, “No other experience in my life had such meaning as this period serving in the first army to fight for the Jewish people and for the independence of the State of Israel. This was the pinnacle of my life’s experiences. Nothing comes close to it.”

“My Brother’s Keeper” is produced by Cinema Angels and can be ordered by going to irafeinberg.com.

VIDEO: Israeli documentary director Elan Frank shoots Sarah Palin

Jerusalem Online spoke with director Elan Frank about his documentary footage of Gov. Sarah Palin that Frank sold to Fox

David Suissa’s column about Frank has the back story.

Shooting Sarah Palin

I was visiting with a friend and Israeli war hero the other day, a guy with great stories named Elan Frank, and all we could talk about was Sarah Palin.

Let me explain. Frank was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1982 after he rescued 25 Israeli soldiers caught in a nighttime terrorist ambush deep inside Lebanon. The conditions were so risky that Frank’s co-pilot suggested they abort the mission. Frank ignored the advice, and under intense enemy fire, he made a daredevil 360 degree move to speed up the helicopter’s landing and rescue the troops.

That was 26 years ago. Now Frank is a busy filmmaker.

Earlier this year, he called the office of the governor of Alaska to ask permission to shoot Sarah Palin for his new film, a documentary about powerful women of the world. Because he had spent a lot of time in Alaska, he’d heard about the feisty Palin and thought she’d be a natural.

Well, guess what? She said yes.

So there he was in Alaska a few weeks later, with his camera practically glued for several days to the eight-months-pregnant governor as she went about her daily business.

As fate would have it, soon thereafter Palin became the most talked-about woman on the planet, and Frank became the proprietor of film footage everyone wanted to see.

While I sat in his office last week, he took several calls from the press, including one from a producer at Fox television, who’s flying him to New York this week to appear on Fox News’ “On The Record With Greta Van Susteren.”

Frank hasn’t yet decided what to do with all the footage. Eventually, he hopes to make it part of his “Great Women” series and air it on a major television network.

I couldn’t wait that long, so he gave me a sneak preview of several hours of raw footage, including lots of private, off-the-cuff moments.

Here’s my conclusion after observing Palin in action: If you’re rooting for Obama-Biden this November, there’s reason to be nervous.

I don’t say this because I discovered something new and extraordinary about Palin. Rather, it’s that everything I saw reinforced the attributes that make her a winner.

For starters, she’s a likeable adrenalin junkie who doesn’t shy from public exposure. Palin gave Frank unusual access, so we got to see, on a typical day: Palin discussing legislative strategy with her chief of staff; reviewing the bidding process for the $40 billion Alaskan gas pipeline; making jokes about having to dust her office; schmoozing with lawmakers; asking pointed questions of her aides; inviting Oprah, on camera, to visit Alaska; speaking emotionally about fighting for oppressed women around the world; rushing under a snowfall to greet her 7-year-old daughter at a school bus stop; flirting with her husband and calling him “the boss”; playing the flute by a window; and, while talking to an aide on the phone in her kitchen and making dinner for her daughter, reminding the daughter not to stuff herself on potato chips.

Through it all, Palin was upbeat and cheerful — but you can sense an underlying edge. Frank’s camera captured some of that edge by showing the forceful movement of her hands when she felt strongly about something, or the occasional subtle glare when something didn’t please her.

There’s little doubt about Palin’s competitive streak; she couldn’t have succeeded in the rough world of Alaskan politics without one. Yet, unlike other driven politicians like Hillary Clinton, whose steely demeanor and exaggerated enthusiasm can turn off or intimidate people, Palin uses her folksy charm to disarm people. It’s the proverbial fist in the velvet glove.

Beyond that, there’s one sobering thought for sophisticated liberals who are aghast at the possibility that this caribou-hunting evangelical supermom will snatch defeat from their jaws of victory.

She’s a quick study.

Unlike a well-known current resident of the White House, she’s not intellectually lazy or impatient with details. What I saw was a probing, engaged woman who’s always on — and is anything but a naïve, small-town hick.

I wouldn’t be surprised if she looks more and more savvy as the campaign heads to the finish line. Unlike her critics who see her as a shooting star who will flame out, I see an ambitious newcomer to the big time who’s got enough street smarts to quickly improve herself. (The question, of course, will be how quickly she can catch up and make up for her lack of national experience.)

Frank saw all of those things and more when he hung out with Palin in Alaska. Frank himself is an independent who’s staunchly pro-Israel, and whose primary concern as a voter is the global threat of nuclear-based terrorism.

He’s not overly worried about Palin’s lack of experience on the world stage. He’s seen too many “experienced” and worldly politicians fall flat on their faces, and he sees in Palin a “natural-born leader” with good intuition who knows how to ask the right questions.

He thinks Palin is the opposite of what they call in Israel a “freyer” (a sucker or a fool), meaning that she’ll see right through the deceptive tactics of sneaky lizards like Ahmadinejad of Iran or Assad of Syria, who he believes would outmatch a well-intentioned and articulate diplomat like Barack Obama.

So yes, Frank seems to have fallen under her spell. But Frank is no freyer himself. This is a war hero who spent seven years in the Israeli army fighting a wily foe. He knows all about deception. He doesn’t trust easily. He can tell real from fake and tough from soft.

If Sarah Palin is anything, he says, she’s real and tough.

And in a dangerous world, Frank sees the appeal of a lioness who’s real and tough. Especially a lioness who learns quickly, loves her country and hates to lose.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Ads4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

Documentary goes behind the music video with Chutzpah

Tor Hyams was startled to discover that his Jewish rap group, Chutzpah, had become the subject of an arty short documentary — Juliet Landau’s “Take Flight” — which will be the centerpiece of The Hollywood Hill’s inaugural BigBrainBoy Mobile Media Summit that takes place on Sept. 12 and 13.

“But at the same time I also wasn’t so surprised, because there’s something very strange about our group: We call it ‘The Legend of Chutzpah,'” he said. “Wacky things have always happened to us that we never planned — and that we didn’t particularly try for because Chutzpah is a pet project, not the main part of our lives.”

Hyams, a veteran TV composer and record producer, was working with artists such as Lisa Loeb and Perry Farrell when he began writing Jewish rap on a lark back in 2005. Within months, Chutzpah had released “Eponymous,” its debut CD; a DVD “hip-hop-u-mentary,” featuring celebrity cameos by Gary Oldman and Sharon Osbourne, which screened at the HBO and Aspen comedy festivals; a music video, “Chanukah’s Da Bomb” which played on MTV, and write-ups in myriad publications (The New York Times calls it “a cross between Eminem and Woody Allen”). Now a second album, “Hip Hop Fantasy,” is slated for release Nov. 11, along with a new music video, for the song, “Red Rover,” directed by Oldman. And that video is the subject of “Take Flight,” which is already earning buzz in media circles.

Hyams, who is originally from Larchmont, N.Y., said he was “working on five projects at once” several years ago when a friend asked him to help write a Yiddish rap song.

‘Take Flight’ trailer

“I absolutely loved it,” he recalled. “It was like I was possessed, and I started creating hip-hop beats and writing lyrics.”

Hyams enlisted the help of his cousin, David Scharff, and together they “busted out five tracks” in just two weeks in the producer’s Los Feliz studio. The songs included “Old School Jew” (“I was going really ‘old school,'” he says of the rap term. “We’re talking an abridged history of the Hebrew bible.”) and “In the Shtetl,” a riff on “In the Ghetto” by Oakland rapper Too Short.

“My big idea for the CD was, ‘Let’s give this to our families for Chanukah,'” Hyams said. “I never thought we’d get a record deal, because I figured ‘This is stupid and Jewish and no one cares except us.'”

Later, during a tense business meeting, Hyams joked that if the deal at hand didn’t work out, the executives could sign his Jewish rap group. “Everybody laughed,” Hyams recalled, “but when I got home, there was an e-mail saying that if I was serious, I should contact this new label, the Jewish Music Group [JMG], which was looking for talent.” Shout Factory’s JMG signed the group on a handshake.

When the company ordered a music video, Hyams played lead rapper “Master Tav,” Scharff was the Jewish rastafarian philosopher and an actor friend, Jerran Friedman, portrayed the deranged MC Meshugenah, who often appeared in a straightjacket.

2006 music video ‘Ask the rabbi’ — note straightjacket

Many reviewers subsequently lauded Chutzpah, which billed itself as “the first Jewish hip-hop supergroup” (never mind Matisyahu or 2 Live Jews). But some described it as a novelty act — a label that chagrined Hyams. He said he intends his music to be serious and that he is inspired by rap greats such as LL Cool J and Snoop Dogg.

Chutzpah’s second CD, he added, is a “concept album” in which each song describes the saga of how the bandmates have unexpectedly lived out their hip-hop fantasies. Oldman — who has been Hyams’ friend since their children attended the same preschool — raps on one of the songs and asked to direct Chutzpah’s new music video. “Gary thinks being Jewish is cool for some reason,” Hyams said. “He’d always say, ‘You know, Tor, I could be Jewish; I could change my name to Larry Goldman” (which is how he is credited on the new music video).

The video is shot entirely on Nokia cell- phones and features the song, “Red Rover,” a “battle rap” challenging Chutzpah’s critics (including Matisyahu, who reportedly told Hyams that Chutzpah disgraces Judaism.) It depicts the group members wearing Speedos and Jewish bling while playing the children’s game red rover with bikini-clad babes. Hyams dons a clown nose to dis Matisyahu, and MC Meshugenah attempts to snorkel in a wading pool emblazoned with a Star of David.

While Oldman was shooting Hyams et al, Landau (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Angel”) was filming a “making of” documentary about the video — which turned into a lyrical film about Oldman’s creative process. “I could see Gary coming up with ideas and carrying them out with great precision,” Landau said. “I wanted viewers to feel like they were inside his head.”

For Hyams, watching the film brought one more surprise.

“I thought the movie would be kind of dumb, because we’re kind of dumb,” he said. “But it was so moving, I actually got a little choked up.”

Juliet Landau and “Red Rover” director of photography Deverill Weekes will conduct a Q & A after “Take Flight” screenings, on Sept. 13.

Documentary explores UCLA alumna’s past as a child prostitute

In David Sauvage’s documentary short, “Carissa,” a 31-year-old graduate of UCLA’s law and business schools visits a rundown hotel on Fresno’s “motel drive,” where underage girls work the streets. “I feel so torn up that I come back here and it’s still the same, or worse,” Carissa Phelps says. When she herself was 12, and homeless and hungry, a man brought her to this motel after buying her a hot dog and a Pepsi. So began her life as a prostituted child, when she was exploited by a number of men, including a pimp who brutally raped her.

The 23-minute film, which screens with other shorts during DocuWeek Aug. 22-28 at the ArcLight Hollywood, also recounts how a juvenile hall counselor saw potential in Phelps and encouraged her to keep a journal. It recalls how the counselor and other teachers praised Phelps when she taught herself algebra from a textbook and how they encouraged her to turn her life around. The short also describes how Phelps eventually earned an MBA and a law degree in order to help prostituted children and how she now works as an activist and fundraiser to clean up motel drive and transform the surrounding neighborhood.

The powerful but unsentimental movie, which was executive produced by Davis Guggenheim (“An Inconvenient Truth”), is one of four shorts to screen at DocuWeek, the International Documentary Association’s showcase of qualifying films for Academy Award consideration. Another short, “Baghdad Twist,” chronicles a Jewish family’s past in Iraq.

In a phone interview from Fresno, Phelps — whose mother is of Jewish descent — said she had never told the entirety of her story to anyone before she met Sauvage in a study group at UCLA’s graduate business school three years ago.

“I would start shaking, and couldn’t speak,” she said of past efforts. “But I knew I wanted to go back to motel drive with a camera. Somehow, I needed to have my story documented.”

Her chance came when she heard Sauvage say he intended to create financing for a movie as his summer MBA project in 2005. “You should make your movie about me,” she told him. Sauvage, who at the time did not know she had been abused, cavalierly replied that unless she had been a child prostitute, he wasn’t interested.

It was a flip response, but Phelps said, she nevertheless intuited that Sauvage was the right person to tell her story.

“I thought David was essentially kind, a great storyteller, and that he was coming from the right place,” she said. “And a big part of that had to do with his family background.”

The director is the son of filmmaker Pierre Sauvage, whose 1988 documentary, “Weapons of the Spirit,” describes the town in France where 5,000 Christians saved 5,000 Jews from the Nazis, including Pierre and his parents. When David was growing up, the Holocaust and rescuers were frequent topics of discussion at home. As a teenager, David found the conversations all too frequent, which gave him a kind of cynicism but also a moral prism through which to view the world.

The childhood discussions “awoke me … to the horrors of which people are capable, [and they] probably had a lot to do with my reaction when Carissa came to me with her story,” Sauvage said. “I was moved, yes, but I was not entirely shocked. In fact, it was my nonchalance that I think enabled us to move forward. Carissa knew she had in me someone who could understand the darkest parts of her story without flinching.”

Phelps said that because her mother was “adopted out” to a non-Jewish family, getting to know the Sauvages “was a chance to connect to a culture I never got to be a part of.” Going back to Fresno for production, however, proved challenging for Phelps. She said the film’s cinematographer had to drive her to the motel drive location because she physically couldn’t force her body to steer in that direction.

Eventually, she was able to speak on camera (Sauvage said he modeled his interviewing techniques on those of his father, “who knows how to let a moment breathe”). Phelps described how her mother dumped her at juvenile hall when she was 12 and how caring staff at another facility helped her start to believe in herself.

Sauvage also interviewed one of Phelps’ pimps, who said johns didn’t care that Phelps was 13; as well as the woman who recruited Phelps to work for an even more violent pimp (who is now serving 144 years in prison).

Both Phelps and Sauvage believe the film focuses less on Phelps’s victimization than her rescuers and her own desire to help at-risk girls. “In a very real and strange sense, I was tackling my father’s theme on a much smaller scale,” Sauvage said.

For more information about “Carissa,” which screens as part of the Program B Shorts at ArcLight Hollywood, and DocuWeek programs at the ArcLight Hollywood and Sherman Oaks, visit http://www.documentary.org/content/docuweek-los-angeles andwww.carissaproject.com

The trailer

Judy Toll is one funny valentine

Groucho Marx said anyone can get old—all you have to do is live long enough. But what can you say about a comedian who lived it all in 44 years, as a breakthrough stand-up, gifted improv actor and writer for the hottest HBO comedy show?

Meet Judy Toll.

“Judy was a Jew; I don’t know if you’re aware of that,” comedian Andy Kindler deadpanned. “She came from a long line of Jews.”

Toll also went and took her mother to the Holy Land, married an Oscar-winning filmmaker from the Simon Wiesenthal Center and was loved by so many friends that she even went to therapy with them.

Now, according to the documentary made by her brother, Gary Toll, Judy was “The Funniest Woman You’ve Never Heard Of.” It’s a labor of love that rushes at you through her characters, her lovers, her sketches from The Groundlings, her episodes from HBO’s “Sex and the City” and her family life in Philadelphia.

“The Funniest Woman” is wrapped in anecdotes from creative pals like Kathy Griffin, Wendy Kamenoff, Taylor Negron and Michael Patrick King who detail the more hellish dramas Toll created to jump on stage and talk about. Friends loved this frenetic personality who struggled to turn her pain into our pleasure before succumbing to cancer in 2002.

“What a thing for her to have this terrible affliction when she had such a profound influence on the comedy business,” comedian Rick Overton said. “Her bold character work, the sort of thing that stars have.”

As a child in the 1960s, Toll starred in her family’s living room—mocking in-laws with perfect mimicry and mad-libbing Hawaiian Punch ads.

“I never laughed as hard with anyone as I did with Judy,” her brother said.

Toll and her siblings would stay up until mom Sandy yelled because their father, Jay, had to get up early to get to the furniture store he ran on Market Street in Philly for 40 years. Sister Joanne (now a producer of HBO’s “In Treatment”) helped shoot Super 8 movies—not normal family nachas but scripted, elaborate spoofs.

“Judy often said she had the most fun in her life making our movies,” Gary Toll said.

Groundlings veteran Jim Doughan remembers the Tolls as “the weirdest family I’ve ever encountered.”

From Samuel Gompers Elementary School (Kevin Bacon’s mother was her teacher), Toll launched her career: Suburban theater trouper and “My Fair Lady” fundraisers for the Philadelphia chapter of ORT.

This was followed by her brilliant, disruptive Hebrew school years.

“She jumped off a sofa and broke her leg two weeks before her bat mitzvah,” Gary Toll said. “Probably an early example of her causing drama. Bat mitzvah was a big showcase for her.”

After theater at U Mass, Toll became the first female comic “in the comedy club surge of the early ‘80s,” according to Steve Young, co-founder of the Philadelphia Comedy Works.

“On stage, she did characters and jokes. Off stage, she did Judy. That’s who you fell in love with,” he said.

Kamenoff remembers meeting “this sweet little blond, Jewish angel” while doing her own act there. “Barely 5-foot-1, with this huge personality. I said, ‘Oh my God, I love you, let’s be friends!’” she said.

Toll and Kamenoff shared the kind of adventures particular to stand-ups on the road in the 1980s.

“Madonna was doing her ‘Blond Ambition’ tour,” recalled Kamenoff, now a writer and teacher. “We did our ‘No Ambition’ tour—Utah, Wyoming, Montana. Honky-tonks with screen doors slamming, the stage the size of a desk. These were cowboys who had never seen a Jewish girl in their life. Or a woman comic.”

Judy won them over.

“She didn’t have a censor,” Kamenoff said. “They loved her.”

After arriving in Los Angeles, Toll rose through the comedy ranks.

“When you were around Judy, you laughed a lot,” said actress Edie McClurg, who performed with Toll at The Groundlings Theatre. “She was a pretty and beautiful soul.”

“She was born to do characters,” Gary Toll added.

After seeing Toll creations like Naomi the B.U. feminist and neurotic Sheila Naselstein, who returns matzah when it’s broken, a critic for The New York Times called her, “a combination of Judy Holliday and Gilda Radner.”

Radner was her idol.

Buzzing around Los Angeles with a CMDYGAL vanity plate, Toll worked part time selling Chipwiches at the La Brea Tar Pits and broke through with Groundlings partner Wendy Goldman on a sketch called, “Casual Sex.”

Ivan Reitman bought and produced their play as the 1988 movie, “Casual Sex?” starring Lea Thompson and Victoria Jackson. Upset she wasn’t cast to play herself, Toll instead found success writing sitcoms, appearing in other films and on shows like “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” During the dulled-down comedy club scene of the ‘90s, Toll found a home at Un-Cabaret, an alternative comedy space for stand-ups stretching into storytellers.

“Audiences witnessed a diary of what was going on in her life,” Kamenoff recalled. “She discovered her voice there.”

“Judy always called Un-Cabaret the ‘comedy of love,’” said Beth Lapides, the venue’s co-creator. “That was one of her major themes. And she loved when there was a small audience, because it was so much more intimate.”

At the Un-Cab, wearing her favorite cherry earrings, Toll read new writings or ranted out her hypochondria—“I live in anxiety and fear!”—detailing her calamities in and out of romance, AA, OA and even Scientology. But when a boyfriend found an irregular mole on her back, she really did get sick. Melanoma.

“Judy and our mother took a trip to Israel and Judy was very affected,” Gary Toll said. “She started going back to services and studying. I don’t think Judy would have dealt with her cancer as courageously as she did if Judaism had not been a part of her life.”

She also got the job of her life with HBO’s “Sex and the City,” writing about what she often talked about on stage: women falling for the wrong men. Writer Liz Tuccillo remembered Toll as being “amazingly upbeat in the writers’ room while battling her illness.” One day though, “she told us that she felt like she had lost her sense of humor. She was crying a bit. Soon, however, she started talking about how her sense of humor had moved to Florida to retire. She went on to write some of the show’s funniest lines that afternoon,” Tuccillo said.

How Tinseltown shaped the world’s view of the Holocaust

Hollywood movies and television have shaped the way most of the world perceives the Final Solution, narrator Gene Hackman observes at the beginning of “Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust.”

It is a statement that may not sit too well with generations of historians and authors, but the evidence validates the conclusion.

When the NBC mini-series “Holocaust” aired in 1978, one of every two Americans watched. The effect was even stronger in Germany, where the film, with an assist from the Wiesenthal Center, persuaded the German government to cancel the time limit on the prosecution of Nazi war criminals.

Elie Wiesel might heatedly object that the TV series, and indeed all dramatic representations, “trivialized” the extermination of the Six Million, and that only those who actually survived the concentration camps had a right to speak.

He was answered, indirectly, by the sardonic German joke of the time that the television “Holocaust” had more of an impact on the German mind than had the original.

As a documentary, “Imaginary Witness” does a remarkable job of presenting the history and moral ambiguities in Hollywood’s treatment of the Holocaust, from the early Nazi days to “The Pianist,” and the chapter is far from closed.

The studios, headed mostly by Jewish immigrants conflicted about their identity, generally treated the new Nazi rulers of Germany with kid gloves. In this, they were driven as much by the bottom line (in the 1920s, Germany accounted for 10 percent of Hollywood’s foreign profits) as by the Hays Code. This self-censorship code protected audiences not only from excessive cleavage but also mandated that movies could not demean the people or rulers of a foreign country.

One exception to the general timidity was MGM’s “The Mortal Storm” (1940), about the persecution of a Jewish family. Though the word “Jew” was never uttered, with “non-Aryan” serving as a substitute, Goebbels banned all future MGM films from both Germany and occupied Europe.

‘Jewish’ excerpt, Charlie Chaplin’s ‘The Great Dictator’

“Jew” was first spoken on the screen later, in 1940, in “The Great Dictator,” which could be made only because Charlie Chaplin financed and produced the brilliant satire by himself.

Hollywood’s appeasement didn’t save it from retribution. The U.S. Senate’s Nye Committee investigated the “Jewish conspiracy” to slander Germany, and Joseph Kennedy, father of JFK, warned the nervous Jewish moguls that they would be held responsible if America were drawn into war.

All that changed on Dec. 7, 1941 with the attack on Pearl Harbor, and Hollywood was harnessed to the war effort, with Warner Bros. leading the way with the Looney Tunes cartoon “The Ducktators.”

The first real inkling the American public had of the Holocaust was through newsreel footage of the liberation of the death camps, but the Cold War courtship of Germany and the heavy hand of the McCarthy era discouraged any follow-ups.

While “Crossfire” and “Gentleman’s Agreement” broke new ground in probing anti-Semitism in America, neither film alluded to the Holocaust.

Finally, in 1959, a sanitized version of “The Diary of Anne Frank” began to deal directly with the fate of European Jewry, followed in the same year by the Playhouse 90 TV production of “Judgment in Nuremberg” (in which this reviewer launched and closed out his acting career).

By the 1980s and early ’90s, movies reached a new level of realism and depth with “Sophie’s Choice” and ABC’s 30-hour “War and Remembrance,” crowned by “Schindler’s List.”

Director Daniel Anker of “Imaginary Witness,” the son of German Jewish refugees, augments clips from 20 films by introducing some astute analysts, foremost among them Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum and author Neal Gabler, and leading filmmakers, to discuss the moral complexities of dealing with Holocaust themes.

Both Sidney Lumet (“The Pawnbroker”) and Steven Spielberg (“Schindler’s List”) acknowledge their fear of seeming to exploit the immense tragedy.

Berenbaum notes that in many such films, the viewer is guided to identify neither with the Jewish victim nor the Nazi perpetrator, but rather with the good gentile who helps the Jews.

Despite Hollywood’s shortcomings, Berenbaum concludes, “in a relative world, these films have set for the world a standard of absolute evil.”

“Imaginary Witness” opens April 4 at Laemmle’s Town Center 5 in Encino and Grande 4-Plex in downtown Los Angeles. For more information, visit http://www.shadowdistribution.com and http://www.laemmle.com

Calendar Girls picks and clicks for March 22-28

” border = 0 vspace = ‘8’ hspace = ‘8’ align = ‘left’ alt=”pick gif”>We know. March has been one long Purimpalooza with parties, megillah readings, carnivals, face paint and ubiquitous bounce houses. But, this party promises to be different: “Wet Hot American Purim” may not be as titillating as its title would imply, but it will certainly make you laugh. JDub records presents a screening of “Wet Hot American Summer,” the classic cult mash-up of summer camps starring Michael Showalter, Paul Rudd, Janeane Garofalo and David Hyde Pierce, who will reunite on the silver screen of WeHo’s Silent Theater followed by a wet, hot party on the patio with Israeli D.J. Soulico spinning all night long. If you wear a camp T-shirt, you get a free Michael Showalter CD — now that’s the holiday spirit. Sat., 7:30 p.m. $20. Silent Movie Theatre, 611 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 655-2520. For tickets, visit ” target=”_blank”>http://www.levantinecenter.org.

A fabulous Purim Ball will be hosted by Second Generation, an organization founded in 1978 that serves children of Holocaust survivors and is dedicated to Holocaust education and remembrance. Enjoy wine and vegetarian refreshments while exploring the unique setting that features Judaica and sports memorabilia in a two-story venue. Costumes are optional. Sat., 8 p.m.-midnight. $40 (members), $50 (general). Elm Collection, 150 S. Elm Drive, Los Angeles. For reservations, call (310) 277-4438 or e-mail sodawater52@gmail.com.

Spice up your Purim with a fragrant hookah, an elaborate henna tattoo and the mesmerizing gyrations of an authentic belly dancer at the steamiest O.C. party of the season, “Hookahs and Hamantaschen.” Sip cocktails with single and not-so-single young professionals, ages 21 to 45, and indulge in Middle Eastern cuisine while enjoying a live band and ogle fellow partygoers’ funky costumes (guests are encouraged to come dressed up!). Celebrate with the Young Leadership Division in an event sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Orange County, Taglit-Birthright Israel, Chemers Gallery and The Buddy Group. Sat., 8 p.m. $40. Dotlot Studios at The Buddy Group, 7 Studebaker, Irvine. (949) 468-0042. ” border = 0 vspace = ‘8’ hspace = ‘8’ align = ‘left’ alt=”pick gif”>Ever wondered what makes music particularly Jewish? Award-winning composer Michael Isaacson, recently honored as one of the 10 most distinguished Jewish sacred music composers in America, will delve into this topic during his book launch of “Jewish Music as Midrash: What Makes Music Jewish?” The Juilliard School of Music and Hebrew University trained composer has written and published more than 500 sacred and secular works, conducted and produced more than 50 CDs and albums and is the founding music director of the Israel Pops Orchestra and the Milken Archive of American Jewish Music. Sun., 2 p.m. $5 (suggested donation). The Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring, 525 S. Robertson Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 552-2007. ” border = 0 vspace = ‘8’ hspace = ‘8’ align = ‘left’ alt=”pick gif”>Our old “friend” David Schwimmer has left Central Perk and now makes his directorial debut with “Run, Fat Boy, Run,” a raucous comedy about an overweight fellow who decides to get in shape and compete in the London Marathon. The new auteur will appear at “Reel Talk With Stephen Farber” and presumptively get grilled on what it was like to make his very first film — oh, and what it was like to kiss Jennifer Aniston. Mon., 7 p.m. $20. Wadsworth Theatre, Veterans Administration grounds, building 226, 11301 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (213) 365-3500. ” border = 0 vspace = ‘8’ hspace = ‘8’ align = ‘left’ alt=”pick gif”>In 1980, autism affected one in 10,000 U.S. children. Less than 30 years later, one child in every 150 is diagnosed with the disorder. However, the gloomy statistic is no match for the uplifting new HBO documentary, “Autism: The Musical,” a day-by-day chronicle of a remarkable woman, Elaine Hall, herself the mother of an autistic child, who gathers a group of autistic children and teaches them to channel their emotions through the power of theater. The film focuses on the Los Angeles-based Miracle Project , which was designed to foster the writing, rehearsing and performing of autistic children’s own musical productions. Director Tricia Regan documented this powerfully cathartic process for six months, and the result is a moving tale of triumph over tragedy. Tue., 8 p.m. on HBO. For more show times, visit

Picks and clicks for March 15-21


” target=”_blank”>http://www.komenlacounty.org.

Sometimes it helps to laugh away the pain. Political smarts and cunning wits come together in Stand Up for Peace, a comedy group that humorously unites Jewish and Arab portrayals of an age-old conflict. Scott Blakeman and Dean Obeidallah will bandy jokes, politics and storytelling as the headliners tonight at The J’s “Comedy Cabaret.” 8 p.m. $30-$36 (includes two drinks). Merage JCC, One Federation Way, Irvine. (949) 435-3400. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.ipcri.org.

Calling all eco-warriors to battle in Malibu Creek! Heal the Bay will be commander-in-chief for dozens of volunteers who will help restore the Malibu Creek State Park watershed by removing harmful plants and manmade litter, as well as planting beneficial native species during a four-hour eco-program. All volunteers are welcome (14+); no previous restoration experience is required. The knowledgeable Heal the Bay folks will teach you everything you need to know, and will also provide the tools and refreshments needed to aid you in the mildly strenuous activity. No R.S.V.P. required — just show up! 9 a.m. Lower parking lot of Malibu Creek State Park, 1924 Las Virgenes Road, Calabasas. (310) 451-1500. ” border = 0 vspace = ‘8’alt=”chinese dragon”>

Celebrate Purim with the Friendship Circle, an organization dedicated to providing Jewish children with special needs social, recreational and Judaic programs. The Friendship Circle of Los Angeles is hosting a Purim concert and festival with Rabbi Michy and friends. The theme is Chinese, so dress your kids up as dragons, warriors or egg rolls (Queen Esther is fine, too!) and come partake in the arts and crafts, Chinese buffet, games and activities. Volunteers from Sinai Akiba Academy will be assisting the children if necessary. 1-3 p.m. $5. Friendship Circle of L.A., 9581 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 277-3252;
“>Prayers for Women, by a Woman.” ). Berland will discuss the history of these prayers and how she adapted them into poems in “Hours of Devotion: Fanny Neuda’s Book of Prayers for Jewish Women.” 2 p.m. Free. Santa Monica Public Library, Main Library’s Multipurpose Room, 601 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica. (310) 458-8600. “>” target=”_blank”>http://museumoftolerance.com.

Along with the usual festivities — pony rides, face painting, clowns, raffle contest — Temple Beth Haverim’s cool carnival boasts a loyal yearly crowd of 1,000 people and raises $10,000 for temple programs. 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Free admission. Red Oak Elementary, 4857 Rockfield St., Oak Park. (818) 991-7111.

Join the communitywide Long Beach fifth annual Community Purim Celebration, which will include performances by local youth jazz bands and a unique mezuzah auction in which the highest bidder will snag one designed by Bette Midler. Noon-3 p.m. Free admission; activity tickets available for purchase on site. Alpert JCC, 3801 E. Willow St., Long Beach. (562) 426-7601. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.eretzsiamak.org/.

Friends of Valley Cities JCC is throwing a fun-filled Purim festival in honor of this frolicsome holiday. Stock up on plenty of raffle tickets because your kids will be itching to win the grand prize Nintendo Wii with “Guitar Hero.” 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Free admission. $1 activity tickets. Friends of Valley Cities JCC, 13164 Burbank Blvd., Sherman Oaks. (818) 786-6310.

Calendar Girls picks and kicks for March 8 -15


” target=”_blank”>http://www.kcdancers.org. Tickets also available through Steimatsky (818) 205-1650.

Israeli Rachel Levy and Palestinian Ayat al-Akhras had a lot in common. The teens, with similar dark hair and dark complexions, went to the same grocery store on March 29, 2002. But the similarities — and their lives — ended there. Levy, 17, was a victim of a suicide bombing, and Al-Akhras, 18, was the terrorist who carried out the attack. “To Die in Jerusalem” by Israeli filmmaker Hilla Medalia explores the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through these young women and their families’ struggle to cope with the aftermath of their deaths. This screening, sponsored by the Temple Ahavat Shalom Judaism Beyond Our Boundaries committee. 8 p.m. $10 (temple members), $15 (general). TAS, 18200 Rinaldi Place, Northridge. (818) 360-2258. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.stagela.com.

Purim is right around the corner, so don’t forget to buy your tickets to “Purim on the Strip” at The Roxy Theatre, a citywide gathering sponsored by ATID, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ Young Leadership Division and other Jewish groups. Shake your groggers and your tushes while sipping cocktails and nibbling on hors d’oeurves and desserts. Please bring school supplies for the Gramercy Place Homeless Shelter. 8 p.m. $36 (online), $54 (at the door). The Roxy Theatre, 9009 W. Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. (310) 481-3244. info@atidla.com.

Treat yourself to a double scoop of Jerry’s — one sweet and one tangy. For nine weeks, two of Jerry Mayer’s staged works will appear at The Other Space at the Santa Monica Playhouse. After writing and producing for hit TV comedies like “All in the Family” and “The Facts of Life,” Mayer turned to the stage. In “Black & Bluestein,” an African American family in 1963 St. Louis wants to buy a home in a Jewish neighborhood, while “Dietrich & Chevalier — the Musical” recounts the true romance of the Hollywood stars torn apart by World War II but later reunited. “Black & Bluestein” plays Saturdays starting March 8. “Dietrich & Chevalier” plays Sundays starting March 9. Through May 4. $25. Santa Monica Playhouse, 1211 Fourth St., Santa Monica. (800) 838-3006. ” border = 0 vspace = ‘8’ hspace = ‘8’ align = ‘left’ alt=”pick gif”>Author and Jewish Journal columnist Gina Nahai possesses an important voice in the Iranian American community, and her experience as an Iranian Jew colors her novels with poignant social and political undertones. This immigrant experience is one facet of L.A. Jewry that the Autry Museum wants to represent in their upcoming exhibit on Los Angeles’ populous and diverse Jewish community. Nahai will discuss “Creativity, Los Angeles and Its Persian Jewish Community” with Journal editor-in-chief Rob Eshman and sign copies of her newest book, “Caspian Rain.” 2 p.m. Free with advance reservation. Autry National Center, Heritage Court, 4700 Western Heritage Way, Los Angeles. (323) 667-2000 or egreenberg@autrynationalcenter.org. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.duttonsbrentwood.com.

If you’re ready to satisfy that deep craving to dig into your family’s history and discover long-buried details about that great-grandmother who was a Maori Jew from New Zealand, then you need to learn the twists and turns of navigating Internet resources. In a one-day seminar, “It’s Online! Internet Sleuthing for the Family Genealogist,” Pamela Weisberger of the Jewish Genealogical Society of L.A. will reveal the secrets of sifting through online archives, periodicals and record databases. Guest presenters will explain how to access and use prison records, national archives and historical documents to aid you in your search. 1:30-5:30 p.m. $15-$25. Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (877) 722-4849.

Films: Director examines healing from surgery, grief

Seated at his office in Beverly Hills, Ben Mittleman, 57, doesn’t have a trace of gray in his sandy-brown hair. He says his mother used to kid him that he must have had a “facelift or something,” but despite the fact that this veteran TV actor turned director-producer looks 10 years younger than his age, he underwent heart surgery in 2001.

That experience is the subject of “Dying to Live,” along with his response to the cancers that later took the lives of both his mother and his wife, Valerie. The film premieres Thursday, March 13, at Laemmle’s Music Hall, where it will screen for two weeks.

The twin cancer diagnoses occurred right around the time that Mittleman had his heart surgery, forcing him to endure almost unbearable grief, and he worked through the experience through this film, not unlike Joan Didion, who wrote the prize-winning book, “The Year of Magical Thinking,” to help her to make sense of the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne. He died from a sudden heart attack, as their daughter was in the hospital in a coma.

Just as Didion’s marriage to Dunne was famously close, Mittleman shows in “Dying to Live” just how sublime his romance was with Valerie, whose lithe dancing in the film illustrates the free spirit he loved.

“Dying to Live” is Mittleman’s second directorial effort, following a 2004 video, “The Youngest Guns,” about L.A. Clipper players Quentin Richardson and Darius Miles. In this new documentary, Mittleman turns the camera on himself and reveals extremely private moments, including sessions with his doctors and even his therapist.

After Valerie dies, Mittleman honors her by scattering her ashes in Los Angeles, England and in Israel at the Mount of Olives. The once-hulking, 6-foot-2, 200-pound former athlete, whose TV credits include appearances on “Frasier,” “Cheers” and “Dynasty,” cries often in the documentary.

Mittleman became a stage actor in the early 1970s, shortly after his father’s death from heart disease. On the stage, he says, he learned that “theater could be a vehicle for social change, “which resonated with him, particularly because his mother, “a prefeminist feminist,” as he says in the film, had always been an activist. Later in 1988, Mittleman founded an organization called Action for Kids, dedicated to creating educational programming for children.

In a corner of his office, Mittleman has a poster of Captain America, whom he portrayed in a drug abuse program he produced in conjunction with the FBI. Mittleman also developed programs with the Anti-Defamation League and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, among other organizations, to raise awareness about the environment and to foster racial tolerance.

Mittleman, who often drops Hebrew words into conversation, grew up in a Conservative Jewish household, and Jewish influences infuse his film. He begins “Dying to Live” by singing “Letichala Riba,” a Chasidic niggun (tune) that he says is about soaring over adversity. Then he shows photos and home movies of his family at Jones Beach and Rockaway.

Later in the film, he visits the grave of his father, bowing and praying while robed in a tallit and kippah. A scene of him wrapping tefillin mirrors hospital scenes in which he has tubes coiling out of his body.

Mittleman says he never told his mother about his surgery for fear it would have consumed her. Near the end of the film, she tells him that the secrets to life lie in music and humor and from giving and receiving love. Mittleman’s father, a violinist, played professionally and constantly entertained his family at home. As an homage to his father, Mittleman says, he included the music of Jascha Heifetz and Pablo Casals and other classical musicians in the film.

Although he has not acted since his operation, Mittleman says that he would like to perform Shakespeare again. He played Barnardo and Marcellus, two guards in the opening scene in “Hamlet,” but never played the Danish prince.

“You always see yourself as Hamlet,” he says, smiling, and in the film he recites one of Hamlet’s soliloquies while standing on a rooftop, just days before his surgery.

Mittleman says he has an idea about doing a documentary in Europe. He stands up from his desk and picks up framed photos of Valerie, his mother and Catherine, the new woman in his life, a Belgian expatriate living in Paris.

Although he often cites the adage, “Man makes plans, and God laughs,” Mittleman says he is thinking of moving to France to be with her. He is likely to do so, one can gather not only from “Dying to Live” but also from a note on a board in the office adjoining Mittleman’s. Written in magic marker, it reads, “Capture your precious moments now.”

“Dying to Live” will open at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills on Thursday, March 13, where it will screen for two weeks. For more information, visit

Movies: ‘Chicago 10’ finds modern parallels to 1968 trial

“I have a strong kinship with Abbie Hoffman,” admitted Brett Morgen, writer and director of the semidocumentary film, “Chicago 10.” “I haven’t seen anyone in my lifetime that spoke to me the way he did.”

Hoffman, for those too young to remember, was a civil rights activist and founding member of the Yippies (Youth International Party) who became a counterculture icon for his role in the 1968 Chicago riots during the Democratic Convention and the highly publicized trial that followed.

It was during the 1969 Chicago conspiracy trial that Hoffman and his co-defendants were dubbed “The Chicago 8.” The radical group also included Yippie co-founder Jerry Rubin and Tom Hayden, a future California assemblyman and state senator.

While researching his film, Morgen found an interview with Rubin that said they should be called the Chicago 10 because their lawyers, William Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass, were charged and sentenced for contempt. Taking his cue from Rubin, Morgen named his film “Chicago 10.”

“A number of principles in the Chicago 10 were Jewish, and I reacted to Abbie in a very visual and emotional way, rather than intellectual or cultural,” Morgen explained.

The director sees a connection between Hoffman’s formative years during World War II and his political views.

“I don’t think you can separate his experiences as a young Jewish American growing up in the shadow of Nazi Germany and his actions in Chicago and as a demonstrator in the civil rights movement,” Morgen said. “I think that the need to speak up against an oppressive government and the need to fight for those who are being oppressed had a big part to do with the era that he grew up in. He refused to allow the authority to silence him.

“I think he took his cues a lot from what was happening around him during his youth, and I think he set a wonderful example for those of us who came after him,” Morgen continued. “That sense of community and social activism — I don’t want to say is uniquely Jewish, but it certainly is a huge part of our heritage and culture as well as comedy and laughter, and I think Abbie really combined those two worlds.”

The idea for the film came from a discussion the filmmaker had with producer/Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter while they were working on Morgen’s documentary, “The Kid Stays in the Picture,” based on movie mogul Robert Evans’ autobiography. But their vision was not to make a film about what was, instead choosing to relate those events to what is happening today.

“I describe it as a movie that’s about [the present], that takes place in 1968,” Morgen said. “The U.S. had just gone into Afghanistan and was preparing to go into Iraq, and we noticed that there wasn’t a lot of vocal opposition against the impending war.

“We decided to make a film,” he continued, “to tell the story in a contemporary way that would make it accessible to people who weren’t around at the time, with the intent of hopefully inspiring people and at the same time challenging them to ask themselves, ‘Are you doing everything you can to support the causes you believe in or to protest the policies you don’t believe in?'”

Many films have been made about that turbulent time, but Morgen said “Chicago 10” is different. “Most films about the ’60s have been made by people from that era,” he explained. “There’s something liberating about being able to approach it with an outsider’s perspective.”

Morgen chose not to do the obvious and interview any of the surviving members from the period.

“Memory is a very interesting thing,” he said. “Memory is entirely subjective, and you and I might have been at the same event in 1968, and you remember it differently than I do.”

He also wanted to maintain a contemporary viewpoint to the film.

“I didn’t want this to be the story of Chicago as seen through the prism of a 70-year-old man,” he said. “I didn’t want this to speak to nostalgia on that level about ‘how great we were then.’ I wanted the film to have the vitality and visual impact that only a youth movement can have.”

Even if Morgen had decided otherwise, it would have been a difficult task to get firsthand accounts from those who lived through the events. Many of the original participants of the Chicago conspiracy trial are dead, including the perceived leaders, Rubin, who was killed while jaywalking in Los Angeles in 1994, and Hoffman, who died of an apparent suicide in 1989. Fortunately, there is an abundance of written and visual documentation available, as Morgen discovered.

How the West was funny

We haven’t kept up with Ari Sandel since the nice Jewish boy from Calabasas came out of nowhere last year to win an Oscar for his hilarious short film “West Bank Story.”

Sandel, now a mature 33, shot the film about rival Israeli and Palestinian falafel stand owners while a student at USC. His takeoff on “West Side Story,” with its love-conquers-all theme, conquered the hearts of Academy judges and of Jewish and Arab audiences throughout the world.

“West Bank Story” was shot on a $74,000 budget, but with fame, if not fortune, Sandel is now backed by three agents, a lawyer, manager, publicist and part-time assistant.

His second venture, “Vince Vaughn’s Wild West Comedy Show: 30 Days and 30 Nights — Hollywood to the Heartland,” has opened to excellent reviews and is now playing in general release.

The documentary follows actor Vince Vaughn (“Wedding Crashers”) as he takes his live show with four young comedians to mainly small and middle-sized towns from the West Coast to Georgia and through the Midwest.

The Oscar win has also opened up a new speaking career for Sandel, mainly before Jewish audiences. When not discussing peace prospects for the Middle East, elderly moms try to buttonhole Sandel to “set me up with their daughters,” the filmmaker reports.

He has also become somewhat of a folk hero in Israel, where a newspaper rated his Academy Award as 18th among 50 of “Israel’s Proudest Moments in 2007.” Another paper reported his triumph under the headline “Israel Wins an Oscar (Almost).”

Coming up next, Sandel will direct the comedy “Brad Cutter Ruined My Life … Again.” It’s about a successful businessman who is forced to relive his miserable teens when the cool kid from his high school days starts working at his company.

Ari Sandel and comic Bret Ernst visit DJ Bob Rivers

Film shows Down syndrome no obstacle to prayer

Lior Liebling davens everywhere: in the backyard, in school and on the swing set. Some congregants at his synagogue, Mishkan Shalom of Mount Arie, Pa., call him the “little rebbe.”

“The Zohar tells stories of miracle children who were spiritual geniuses,” one synagogue member said. “Well, that’s what Lior is.”

Lior is the 13-year-old featured in the new documentary, “Praying With Lior,” which highlights the bar mitzvah of a Jewish child living with Down syndrome. The character study of this boy tells of how Lior’s community successfully integrates him into communal life — a challenge many Jewish communities face with mentally and physically disabled members.

Several Jewish institutions, including the Union for Reform Judaism, run programs to improve service to the Jewish disabled, but experts say most Jewish institutions do not do enough to meet their physical, religious and social needs.

“There are people sitting on the outside who desperately want to come in,” said Shelly Christensen, the co-chair of a Reform task force that creates “inclusion committees” for disabled Jews in synagogues, community centers and other Jewish institutions.

While the Jewish community has made progress in recent years, Christensen said, it still has a long way to go in providing disabled members with places to pray, learn and participate.

Down syndrome is of particular concern to Ashkenazim, who are predisposed to the disease; approximately one in 27 carries the gene for Down syndrome.

In “Praying With Lior,” producer-director Ilana Trachtman follows the teenager from his pre-bar mitzvah haircut to the bimah and beyond, checking back with him two years later.

Though he struggles with baseball and schoolwork, Lior is able to pray with sincerity, a feat encouraged by those close to him. Like Lior’s Reconstructionist community, the children and teachers at Lior’s Orthodox day school admire and accept him.

“There is no such thing as a disabled soul,” said Besie Katz, principal at Lior’s school, Politz Hebrew Academy.

Katz said the students at Politz accepted Lior because while they understood that he had certain limitations, he also had strengths.

“God makes every person with a different test in this world,” one of Lior’s classmates says in the film. “We don’t know what God’s doing. When God made it that Lior has Down syndrome, it also became a test to us — how we treat Lior, if we do things with Lior.”

Politz was able to accommodate Lior in part because of Orot, a special-education initiative that places children with disabilities in Philadelphia’s Jewish day schools. Orot participants typically begin in a special learning environment, and in time, they experiment with integrated classrooms.

“It is geared for the children to be successful in the mainstream environment,” said Beverly Bernstein, the program’s educational director.

Orot is modeled on a program called Keshet, which was started 26 years ago by a group of parents frustrated by the lack of Jewish opportunities for their disabled children. Now those children are adults, with some participating in Keshet’s transition program for 18- to 22-year-olds. It sets up participants with jobs if they are able to work and provides recreational programming for young adults.

Orot and Keshet’s biggest challenge, like many Jewish organizations dedicated to inclusion, is funding, organizers say. They have been helped somewhat by Americans’ growing awareness of people with disabilities, which in turn has raised the consciousness of the issue in the Jewish community.

Birthright Israel and the National Jewish Council for the Disabled, which is part of the Orthodox Union, run a free trip to Israel for disabled Jews. The council also runs summer and work programs for special-needs children and adults.

In the Reform movement, Christensen’s task force encourages synagogue leaders to include disabled members. About half the synagogues in the Minneapolis area, where Christensen lives, now have inclusion committees, she said.

And Jewish communities in Toronto, Los Angeles, Houston and elsewhere are prioritizing the issue by designating staff members to make their institutions more welcoming for people with special needs.

Rabbi Dan Grossman, who spoke on a panel that followed a screening of the film in January at the New York Jewish Film Festival, said he has worked to make his Reconstructionist synagogue, Adath Israel of Lawrenceville, N.J., welcoming by offering seeing-eye dogs, a wheelchair-accessible bimah and half a dozen reserved wheelchair spots in the pews — and not in the back.

Providing a welcoming physical environment is only half the battle, said Grossman, whose hearing impairment made it a struggle for him to become a rabbi.

“Whoever takes the lead role in the congregation needs to take the position that this is important to the identity of the community,” Grossman said of the need to accommodate special-needs members. “Moses stuttered; Isaac was blind; David was probably hyperactive.”

While the Jewish community has made progress accommodating special-needs children, as Lior’s community did for his bar mitzvah, Lior’s father, Mordechai Liebling, who is a Reconstructionist rabbi, worries that his son will face a tougher environment as he becomes an adult. Judaism places a high value on scholarliness and education, Liebling said, but it’s equally important to value people with other abilities.

“I really have a lot of hope,” he said, “that the community will take responsibility and do the right thing.”

“Praying With Lior” is scheduled to open on March 14 in Los Angeles.

Yiddish theater documentary opens, thanks to WWW

The trailer
For independent filmmakers Dan Katzir and Ravit Markus, making “Yiddish Theater: A Love Story” was the easy part; booking the documentary into a commercial venue where people could see it was the real struggle.

After two years of rebuffs, the director and producer of “Yiddish Theater” can now pop open the champagne. The feel-good, feel-sad film is opening this month in Tel Aviv, New York and Los Angeles, thanks to persistence and the Internet.

Katzir, a non-Yiddish speaker and former Israeli paratroop officer, fell in love with New York’s Folksbiene when its ensemble was trying desperately to keep the longest-running Yiddish theater in America open with a production of “Grine Felder” (“Green Fields”).

For eight days during the brutal New York winter of 2000, Katzir followed the venerable producer-star Zypora Spaisman and her cast during rehearsals, performances and the cliffhanging maneuvers to save the place from foreclosure.

Despite a glowing review in the New York Times and appeals to six Manhattan millionaires to come up with the needed $75,000, the play and the theater closed down on New Year’s Eve.

It seemed that the same curse afflicted the completed film. Although “Yiddish Theater” won plaudits and awards at Jewish film festivals, professional distributors, who could book the film into commercial theaters, wouldn’t even look at the picture.

“As soon as a distributor heard the word ‘Yiddish,’ he hung up the phone,” Katzir said.

PBS, which loves films on ancient Chinese and Etruscan cultures, was equally uninterested.

Almost broke, Katzir and Markus hit on an idea. They put the film’s trailer and some information, for free, on MySpace.com, then on YouTube.com, and inquiries started coming in.

One was from the program director for the Pioneer Theater in New York, an art house usually featuring edgy movies attracting mostly younger audiences.

With New York booked, Tel Aviv and Los Angeles followed in short order.

Katzir draws two conclusions from his experience.”

The Internet has changed the landscape dramatically for independent and foreign movies, which are no longer at the mercy of distributors,” said Katzir, speaking from Israel where he is putting Hebrew subtitles on the film for its Tel Aviv premiere.

“Secondly, Yiddish has jumped two generations,” the 37-year old director observed. “When I talk to people in their 50s and 60s, I get rejections, but we’re drawing in younger audiences.”

“Yiddish Theater: A Love Story” opens Nov. 30 at Laemmle’s Grand 4-Plex in downtown Los Angeles. American Friends of Tel Aviv University will sponsor a reception for the filmmakers and audience on Dec. 2 after the 1 p.m. show at the theater.

Films: Romantic triangle survives in the midst of hell

“I’m a very special Holocaust survivor,” Jack Polak says. “I was in the camps with my wife and my girlfriend, and, believe me, it wasn’t easy.”

This may sound like a line from the new genre of Holocaust films with humor, but Polak (who is Jacob on his birth certificate, Jack in America, Jaap to his Dutch friends and Jab to his wife) is just stating the facts in the documentary feature, “Steal a Pencil for Me.”

Another shorthand way of summarizing the storyline: Jack, an accountant in Amsterdam in the early 1940s, is married to Manja, but falls in love with Ina. All three are deported to Bergen-Belsen, where Jack and Ina carry on an intensive romantic correspondence.

The three survive, Jack divorces Manja, marries Ina and they move to the United States.

The story doesn’t end there. We caught up by phone with Jack, who will be 95 on Dec. 31, and Ina, 80, at their home in Eastchester, a New York suburb, shortly after they celebrated their 62nd wedding anniversary.

Not slowed down by some hearing problems, Jack recalled his odd experiences with gusto, though, as with most old married couples, Ina had to correct him occasionally on a few historic points.

Fame has come late to the Polaks, but both obviously enjoy starring in their own life story.

“I’m the oldest-working actor in America,” Jack remarks proudly.

Their story, and the film, begins during the Nazi occupation of Holland in 1940. While many Jews were deported and, like Jack’s parents, subsequently murdered, the young accountant manages to keep going, though locked into an incompatible marriage.

At a birthday party in 1943, he meets Ina, a 20-year-old beauty raised in a wealthy diamond manufacturing family, and it’s love at first sight.

The looming love affair appears aborted when a couple of weeks after Jack meets Ina, he and his wife are deported to the Dutch transit camp of Westerbork.

As fate would have it, two months later Ina is deported to the same place, where the rules allow Jack to spend some time with both wife and girlfriend until the 8 p.m. curfew.

Soon the trains started rolling from Westerbork to the concentration camps, and in February 1944, Jack and Manja are sent to Bergen-Belsen. Jack says goodbye to Ina, with the words, “I hope you will soon follow me.”

Three months later, it’s Ina’s turn and she is put in a boxcar headed for Auschwitz. At the last minute, orders are changed, and the train is routed to Bergen-Belsen in northwest Germany.

Though the regime there is much stricter and more brutal than in Westerbork, Jack and Ina manage to see each other occasionally, and, under the circumstances, they are fortunate in other ways.

Jack is assigned to work in the camp kitchen, and Ina, who knows German shorthand, to office work at a diamond plant set up by the Nazis.

At every opportunity, the two write long impassioned letters to each other, to the point that Jack’s one pencil stub is soon worn down to the nub. Since Ina works in an office, Jack begs her in one letter, “steal a pencil for me.”

Manja becomes increasingly suspicious and annoyed with Jack’s liaison, but is generous enough to share some of her scarce bread with Ina when her rival falls ill.

Most concentration camp recollections speak of unbearable filth, degradation and, foremost, the constant hunger that obliterated all other thoughts.

But for Jack and Ina, their love was even stronger.

“It was this love that kept us alive,” they say.

As the British army neared the camp in early April 1945, the lovers’ luck seemed to run out. The Nazis put Jack on a train going east, and Ina on a train going in the opposite direction.

Ina’s train was liberated within a week by American troops, and she remembers marveling at the great teeth of the GIs, wondering “whether they all went to the same dentist.”

Russian soldiers freed Jack’s train a week later, and by summer, husband, wife and girlfriend were back in Amsterdam.

In August 1945, Jack divorced Manja, he and Ina became engaged two months later, and married in January 1946.

“Like any good Dutch Jewish girl, Ina came to her wedding night as a virgin,” Jack said .

They moved to the United States in 1951, and have three children, five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

The family maintained friendly relations with Manja, who never remarried and died two years ago in Holland.

A fellow prisoner in Bergen-Belsen was Anne Frank, and although the Polaks never met her, Jack headed the American support group for the Anne Frank Center for many decades. He was knighted for his services by the Dutch government.

Eventually, the Polaks decided to write down their experiences, and their book, “Steal a Pencil for Me,” was published in the United States in 2000. Manja had asked that the original Dutch version of the book not be published in Holland in her lifetime, and Jack and Ina honored her request.

“I never thought our story would be made into a movie,” said Ina, but life had yet another surprise in store for the Polaks.

Their daughter, Margrit Polak, had become an artists’ manager in Los Angeles, and an active member of Temple Israel of Hollywood. Her daughter attended the synagogue’s day school and was in the same class as the daughter of filmmaker Michele Ohayon.

Born in Casablanca and raised in Israel, Ohayon is a noted director of offbeat documentaries, whose 1997 film, “Colors Straight Up,” received an Oscar nomination.

Margrit, who had helped translate her parents’ book into English, mentioned their story to Ohayon. Although she was working on another project, Ohayon put everything aside for the next five years to research and film “Steal a Pencil for Me.”

In directing the film, Ohayon lets her two lively and expressive narrators, Jack and Ina, carry the action, while never stooping to sly winks or cheap humor. Historical footage of the concentration camps and 1940s Holland complement the narration.

The Polaks are among the film’s most ardent fans.

“We have seen the picture six times, and we always have our handkerchiefs ready when we go,” said Ina. Added Jack, “I like it better each time I see it.”

The film opens Nov. 9 at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills and the Town Center in Encino. For additional background information, visit http://www.stealapencil.com.

Books: ‘Primo Levi’s Journey’ traces the path of a survivor

“Primo Levi’s Journey” defies neat categorization. It’s part travelogue, part Holocaust remembrance, part philosophical reflection.

The documentary’s roots lie in the Italian Jewish writer’s long journey after his liberation in January 1945, from Auschwitz to his hometown of Turin on a train trip escorted by Russian soldiers for a 10-month zigzag course across much of Europe. It seems guided, or rather misguided, by an unknown hand and could have been mapped out by Kafka himself.

Levi and 600 other Italian camp survivors and ex-prisoners of war crossed from Poland to Ukraine, laid more than two months in Belarus, then traveled through Moldavia, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, Austria and Germany, finally reaching northern Italy thousands of miles later.

He wrote down the recollections of these wanderings in “The Truce” (published in the United States as “The Reawakening”) many years after describing his one year in Auschwitz in his major work, “If This Is a Man.”

In 2005, Italian filmmaker Davide Ferrario decided to mark the 60th anniversary of Levi’s liberation by retracing the route with a camera crew. Intercutting footage from the 2005 journey with Levi’s earlier observations on the same places, the film is disorienting in the beginning. Only gradually does it become clear that Ferrario is contrasting how much — and how little — has changed in the 60-year interval.

In the cities, Americanization and globalization have left their obvious marks. Intimate pubs, and corner stores have given way to McDonalds and supermarkets patronized by jean-clad natives and foreign immigrants. But, to his surprise, Ferrario found that in rural and farming areas, time has often stood still.

In Belarus, he encounters a perfect replica of the 1930s Soviet Union, as if preserved in amber. After being arrested as a suspicious foreigner, Ferrario is proudly treated by the local KGB to a grainy agitprop film of peasants celebrating the joys of working on a communal kolkhoz.

Old hatreds remain, as in Lvov, where young Russians beat a young singer to death for performing patriotic Ukrainian tunes, and in Munich, where neo-Nazis mourn the good old days.

Levi’s 1945 observation of a planet “that prefers disorder to order and stupidity to reason” seems as apt as ever.

There are some truly Kafkaesque sights along the way. In Budapest, it is the Cemetery of Communist Statues, displaying huge sculptures of Lenin, Stalin and muscular workers with a sign, “We accept credit cards.”

Like most Italian Jews, Levi grew up thoroughly assimilated and really awoke to his Jewishness only in Auschwitz. In one scene from his 1945 travels, Levi encounters two Yiddish-speaking girls and introduces himself as a fellow Jew. The girls reject him outright, saying, “You don’t speak Yiddish, you can’t be Jewish.”

When Levi returned to Turin after the war, he resumed his profession as a chemist, writing intermittently. In 1987, he fell down a flight of stairs in his home and died. The coroner classified the death as a suicide, though Levi’s family and some friends protested that he had died accidentally.

Ferrario believes that the writer took his own life, but, hesitating to use the word “suicide,” simply states in the film that “he threw himself down the stairs.”

Perhaps Elie Wiesel had it right, when, hearing of Levi’s death, he remarked, “Primo Levi died 40 years earlier in Auschwitz.”

“Primo Levi’s Journey” opens Nov. 2 at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills.

Briefs: Cancer helps Olmert poll numbers, Mrs. El Presidente in Argentina — still good for the Jews

Olmert’s Popularity Buoyed by Cancer

Ehud Olmert’s disclosure that he has prostate cancer edged up his approval ratings. A poll commissioned by Yediot Achronot after Olmert’s surprise announcement Monday found that 41 percent of Israelis “appreciate” his performance as prime minister, up from 35 percent last month.

Olmert, whose popularity plummeted after last year’s Lebanon war and amid ongoing corruption allegations, also got high marks in the survey for his “bravery” in coming forward, an act that 61 percent of respondents said they found moving. Eighty-seven percent of respondents agreed with Olmert’s decision to stay in office. But asked which among Olmert, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu is most fit to be prime minister, 14 percent said Olmert, 17 percent said Barak and 35 percent said Netanyahu. Yediot did not say how many people were polled. The margin of error was 4.3 percent.

Argentine Vote Means No Change for Jews

Argentina’s new president likely will not change government policies toward the Jewish community.

The victory by current first lady and senator Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner in national elections Sunday will be a continuation of official policies regarding Jewish interests, according to Aldo Donzis, president of the DAIA, Argentina’s Jewish umbrella organization. The government of her husband, Nestor Kirschner, was active in seeking justice for the terrorist attack on the Jewish community building in Buenos Aires in 1994, and initiated projects to fight anti-Semitism, discrimination and xenophobia.

The first lady and now president-elect was active in these efforts, according to Donzis. On Monday morning, with 97 percent of the election results calculated, Fernandez de Kirchner had garnered 45 percent of the vote. She needed at least 40 percent to avoid a runoff. In the capital city of Buenos Aires, where most of the Jewish community resides, she received 23 percent of the vote.

Alleged Syrian Reactor in 2003 Photo

A 2003 photo shows the alleged nuclear reactor Israel bombed in Syria last month under construction. The Sept. 16, 2003 photo, released by GeoEye, an aerial image archive in Dulles, Va., and published in Saturday’s New York Times, suggests that Syria’s nuclear weapons program long predates the Sept. 6 Israeli attack. Initial reports suggested that the reactor Israel allegedly targeted was in its nascent stage. Israel, Syria and the United States will not confirm the nature of the attack.

Rabin Killer Can’t Attend Brit

Yitzhak Rabin’s jailed assassin lost an appeal to be allowed to attend the circumcision of his first son. Israel’s High Court of Justice on Tuesday turned down a petition by Yigal Amir for a special furlough on Nov. 4, when his son is to be circumcised. Amir had argued that he should not be denied leave rights granted to other convicted murderers in Israel.

Amir’s wife, Larissa, became pregnant during a conjugal visit to the prison where Amir is serving a life sentence in isolation. She gave birth on Sunday. The fact that the circumcision will take place exactly 12 years after Amir gunned down Prime Minister Rabin at a Tel Aviv peace rally has stoked the ire of Israelis opposed to seeing the assassin enjoy any jailhouse leniency.

Terrorism Led Portman Into Activism

The anguish of a friend grieving over a terror victim in Israel led actress Natalie Portman to become an activist.

“When I was at Harvard, a very close friend lost someone to the violence in Israel,” the Israeli-born movie star says in a first-person essay that appeared this weekend in Parade magazine. “I felt so helpless watching her pain. I really wanted to do something, but I didn’t know where to begin. Coming from Israel, I know how polarized that part of the world scene can be.”

Portman called Jordanian Queen Rania, a Palestinian, who told Portman about the Foundation for International Community Assistance. The group, Portman says, “grants loans, mostly to women, to start small businesses. Rather than donate food, it helps people earn the money to buy their own food and gives women the opportunity to better their lives.”

Portman has since traveled to Central America and Africa for the foundation.

“It’s impossible to know the outcome of anything,” she writes. “You have no idea whether the life you impact will go on to bring peace to the Middle East or will go blow up a building. All you can do is act with the best intention and have faith.”

Israeli Film Takes Top Prize in Kiev

An Israeli film took the top prize at a Kiev film festival. “The Band’s Visit” received the Grand Prix and $10,000 at the 37th Molodist (“Youth”) International Film Festival on Sunday.

It was the first feature-length film by 34-year-old Israeli filmmaker Eran Kolirin. The whimsical tale, which has won other awards, follows the iconoclastic adventures of a band of Egyptian musicians who are lost in a small town in Israel’s Negev Desert. Ukrainian President Viktor Yuschenko participated in the festival’s opening.

‘The Tribe’ Hits No. 1 on iTunes

A documentary about Jewish identity is in the No. 1 spot of most downloaded short films on iTunes. Tiffany Shlain, director of “The Tribe,” a humorous look at American Jewish identity through the lens of Barbie, says she launched her film on iTunes Oct. 2, hoping to crack the top 10 list. It is now the first independent documentary to hit No. 1, Shlain notes.

“This says there’s an audience that wants to watch documentaries about American Jewish identity,” says Shlain, who lives in Mill Valley, Calif. “This opens the doors for other filmmakers and expands the options of what is available to download.” The other films in the top 10 are all by major studies such as Disney and Pixar, except for the indie “West Bank Story,” in the No. 7 spot, which won this year’s Academy Award for Best Short Film.

“The Tribe,” released in December 2005, was shown at 75 film festivals, including Sundance and Tribeca, and won nine awards. It is available at

Religious riot act, deaf in Africa, small sculptures, kid paint


Tissa Hami is a Muslim Iranian American comic. Her blog profile says, “People who disapprove of her act will be taken hostage.” Chad Lehrman is as Jewish as gefilte fish: He’s geeky and meeky, eats bagels, sells insurance and is in show business. Lifelong Hindu Tapan Trivedi hails from the land of cow worshipping. While traveling through the Deep South, he read the entire Christian Bible, one billboard at a time. White, Christian and straight Keith Lowell Jensen wanted very badly to be a minority. His only way was through religion. He is now a member of the most hated minority of all, the atheists. John Ross, a Christian, found Jesus at age 14. They’ve been together ever since. See these five comics wage holy war on each other in a hilarious show, “The Coexist? Comedy Tour.” Bring a poncho, because there will be some serious mud slinging, but in the end everyone will smile and hug and carpool home together.

9:30 p.m. $10. Westside Eclectic at the Third Street Promenade, 1323-A Third St., Santa Monica. (310) 451-0850. Check out the tour’s very witty blog, ” target=”_blank”>http://www.westhollywoodbookfair.org.


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American Jewish University is scaling things down. And we’re not talking about their enormously ambitious plans for the future of the recently merged institution. We’re referring to their latest art exhibit of small-scale sculptures by artists Annette Bird and Dan Van Clapp. “Go Figure!” includes Bird’s miniature figurines depicting the complex relationships between conflicted lovers, parents and children, loving friends and passionate partners. Van Clapp uses found materials with a rich former life to assemble his figures. Antique doll parts, hardware and worn fabrics infuse his work with a mysterious air.

Sun.-Fri. Through Nov. 11. Platt Gallery, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Los Angeles. (310) 440-1201. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.pacificresidenttheatre.com.


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New film foams with the soap story of Dr. Bronner

Emanuel Bronner, creator of the company Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, was not your typical boardroom suit.

Third-generation soap-maker, escaped mental patient and son of Orthodox Jews and Holocaust victims, Bronner, who died in 1997, is the subject of a new documentary, “Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soapbox,” and in the film, the only suit Bronner wears is a swimsuit. That’s because his pool is one of the many pulpits from which Bronner preaches his messages of “All-One-God-Faith” and “The Moral ABCs,” both of which he pasted on every soap bottle he produced.

In the film, Bronner’s black sunglasses and passionate, Germanized speech make him a cross between mad scientist and preacher on a mission. He employs feverish, often religious rhetoric, invoking such names as Moses, Hillel, Confucius, Jesus, Muhammad, Buddha and Olympic swimmer Mark Spitz as prophets of one God. “All one! All one! All one!” Bronner insists throughout the movie.

“Dad’s intensity could drive you away,” Bronner’s son, Ralph, said in an interview, “because he also couldn’t control stopping.” Even when the camera turns to someone else, Bronner continues to rant in the background.

The film, which opens July 13 in Los Angeles, mythologizes Bronner but does not canonize him. His tragic flaw is his intense devotion to his mission, which caused him to neglect his children. Even though Bronner’s speech is intelligible, his ideas are so strange that subtitles had to be used. Clearly, it was hard for him to articulate his thoughts in a way that was understandable to other people.

Yo! This week it’s Yatzpan, YULA and Yelchin

Saturday the 24th

Opening today is mixed-media artist Marcie Kaufman’s exhibition “Beyond the Line,” which “explores the idea of line in the context of Israel.” Painting, photography and digital media are merged to raise questions about physical lines — such as borders, boundaries, walls, gates, wires and trees — as well as conceptual lines and limitations.

Los Angeles Art Association/Gallery 825, 825 N. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 652-8272. ‘ TARGET=’_blank’>www.yulagirls.org.

Tuesday the 27th

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Beginning this week, USC Hillel Art Gallery presents “Sleepwalking: An Exhibition of Paintings by Eugene Yelchin.” Included are works from two of the Russian Jewish artist’s series, “Sleepwalking” and “Section 5,” both of which explore his feelings of displacement, first as a Jew in Russia, and later as an immigrant in America. An opening reception and conversation with Yelchin takes place March 25.

Opening reception: Sun., March 25, 4-6 p.m. Through May 14. 3300 S. Hoover St., Los Angeles. (213) 747-9135. ‘ TARGET=’_blank’>www.dreamhouseensemble.com.

Friday the 30th