Edgy 80’s Director Takes A Walk on the Mild Side


At 15, director Susan Seidelman set her alarm for 2 a.m., and sneaked out her bedroom window to party. At her suburban Philadelphia high school, she was suspended more than once for wearing oh-so-short miniskirts.

At her Reform synagogue, she and her pals ditched confirmation class for socials in a rough part of town.

“We’d dance like crazy for two hours but return in time for carpool,” the quirky, affable filmmaker said from her Manhattan home.

No wonder Seidelman grew up to direct rebellious punk classics such as “Desperately Seeking Susan” as well as the pilot and early episodes of HBO’s taboo-busting “Sex and the City.”

“Boynton Beach Club,” opening Friday, seems an unexpected turn for a filmmaker best known as a chronicler of hip 1980s youth culture. The comedy-drama revolves around a grieving Jewish widower, Jack Goodman (Len Cariou), who experiences a personal and sexual awakening in his Florida retirement community, where he encounters singles preoccupied with “early bird specials, sex [and] sex after early bird specials,” as Fort Lauderdale’s Sun-Sentinel said.

Goodman gets his share of both as one of few males in this demographic. (Women show up on his doorstep with casseroles or bang on his car window to ask him out). So why did the edgy filmmaker, now 53, spend years scraping together the funding for this movie about 60- and 70-somethings?

“Part of me is a nice Jewish suburban girl, but the other part is a free-spirited nonconformist who wants to perpetually reinvent myself,” she says.All her characters also reinvent themselves, from “Susan’s” bored Jewish housewife-turned-bohemian to “Boynton’s” reserved widower-turned-ladies’ man.

Seidelman’s new movie marks what is perhaps her most dramatic transformation — from wild-child to good girl — at least for those familiar with her early work. She closely collaborated with her mother, Florence, on “Boynton,” avidly listening when mom suggested the story several years ago. Seidelman’s now 75-year-old mother proposed a film loosely based on her shy widower friend, David Cramer, who became extroverted after he joined bereavement groups run by Alpert Jewish Family & Children’s Service in Florida. Florence was tickled by his descriptions of senior dating rituals: For example, the phrase “I can drive at night” was a major turn-on in personal ads, and women handed men their “card” as a demure way of offering their phone number. (Cramer, now 79, received stacks of such cards: “I felt like a teenager,” he told The Journal.)

The filmmaker was so taken with the idea that she suggested mom buy a screenwriting book and write a first draft of the movie. While the director ultimately re-wrote the script with a partner, she made her mother a producer and harmoniously lived with her during the Florida shoot. Seidelman says that as she has aged, so have her characters (note the 30- and 40-somethings in her 1989 film, “She-Devil,” and TV’s “Sex and the City.”) Her punk heroines would now be in their 50s, perhaps seeking sex with their early bird specials at this very moment. And if Seidelman’s 1980s movies have become somewhat iconic, she’s hoping “Boynton” will, too — at least by joining the smattering of recent films (think “Something’s Gotta Give”) that depict seniors in bed.

Seidelman says most producers reacted “with horror” when she pitched “Boynton,” perceiving the over-50 set to be commercially unviable (despite the fact that they’ve bought more than 20 percent of movie tickets since 2001, according to the Motion Picture Association of America).

“So I think my latest film is, in its own way, as subversive as the others,” Seidelman says.

Rebellion, whether subtle or overt, has always been in the filmmaker’s blood. Her mother, Florence Seidelman, recalls that while the young Susan was popular and creative, she simply couldn’t be trusted.

“I knew she could tell a good story, because she told so many to me,” Florence says with a laugh.

When Susan was 19, she was supposed to spend just the summer abroad, but finagled a longer stay when she phoned her mother from Israel. “She said, ‘I’m spoiled, so the [kibbutz] life would be good for me. And as Jewish girl, I should get closer to my roots,'” her mother recalls.

Mom promptly sent more money — only to learn that Susan had traveled to Turkey and that she would not return home until December.

It’s a hustle one might have expected of one of the director’s early protagonists, who were inspired by people she met while attending Ramones concerts, in tight black spandex and observing the East Village arts scene. After her 1982 debut feature, “Smithereens,” made it to competition at Cannes, she received offers to direct “lots of dopey Hollywood teen films, but declined everything until she read “Desperately Seeking Susan” around 1984.

At the time, she says, she was desperately seeking her own inner Susan, confused about her direction and identity as an artist. The story’s fictional Roberta Glass (Rosanna Arquette) gets knocked on the head, develops amnesia and adopts the persona of a bohemian hustler played by Madonna.

Seidelman underwent her own hard knocks when “She-Devil” fizzled at the box office and her film career flagged for a time. Fifteen years later, potential buyers snubbed “Boynton.” Rather than give up, the scrappy director decided to market the movie herself in heavily senior neighborhoods; as she called newspapers to place ads, her mother handed out flyers and plastered delis with posters, the Hollywood Reporter said. Festival screenings in cities such as Sarasota, Fla. and Palm Springs ensued, along with mostly good reviews. When the comedy outgrossed blockbusters at a Florida mall, distributors came around and bought the film, Seidelman says. So was the director rebellious while living in her parents’ Florida vacation home during production?

“My mother sometimes had to tell me to make my bed,” the director recalls. “But she actually asked me to leave the house one weekend because my presence was interfering with her sex life.”

The movie opens Friday in theaters.

Jewish Ethical Views Differ on Schiavo


 

As a federal court considers whether to reconnect Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube, Jewish scholars are turning to halacha, or Jewish religious law, for guidance on the issue.

Schiavo, the severely brain-damaged Florida woman whose parents and husband have been battling in state and now federal courts for more than a decade, is the insensate center of a swirl of emotion and legal action.

Religious leaders have been involved as well. Schiavo and her parents, Mary and Robert Schindler, are Roman Catholic, and many of their most fervent supporters are fundamentalist Protestants.

The Schindlers want to keep their daughter’s feeding tube in; Michael Schiavo, her husband, wants it removed so his wife can die a natural death.

Jews, like others caught up in the debate, have a range of beliefs, and their understanding of how to apply halacha varies accordingly. Virtually all the rabbis interviewed, though, told JTA that they did not agree with attempts by some conservative Christians to tie Schiavo’s case to the public debate about abortion.

At the traditional end of the spectrum, Rabbi Avi Shafran of the ultra-Orthodox Agudath Israel of America said the Schiavo case is “straightforward from a Jewish perspective: The most important point from a halachic standpoint is that a compromised life is still a life.”

“In the Schiavo case, you’re not dealing with a patient in extremis,” he said, noting that until her feeding tube was removed, Schiavo was not dying.

In halacha, there is a category for a person at the edge of death; the rules for such a person, called a goses, are complicated.

“There are times when certain medical intervention is halachically contraindicated,” Shafran said. “There may be times when it’s OK not to shock a heart back into beating, not to administer certain drugs. You do not prolong the act of dying.”

However, Schiavo was not a goses, Shafran said. Instead, he added, before the tube was removed, she “had the exact same halachic status as a baby or a demented person. Like a baby, she was helpless, could not feed herself and was not able to communicate in any meaningful way. But a life is a life.”

Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, executive vice president of the Orthodox Union, the central arm of modern Orthodoxy, agreed that from a halachic perspective, the Schiavo case is straightforward.

“It’s not permitted to do anything actively that would stop the process of a person’s staying alive,” he said. “In this case, that would be withdrawing a feeding tube, which is tantamount to starving a person to death.”

Like Shafran, Weinreb said the wishes of the patient or the family are not relevant.

“It might have a bearing on whether new measures are undertaken, but once a person is on a support system, removing it is not possible,” Weinreb said.

“Doing something to actively interfere with a person’s ability to continue to live technically is murder,” he said. “I can’t imagine a scenario that would make removing the feeding tube permissible.”

Rabbi David Feldman, who had an Orthodox ordination and defines himself as “traditional,” is rabbi emeritus of the Conservadox Jewish Center of Teaneck, N.J.

“There’s a dispute here between a husband and parents, but none of that makes any difference as far as halacha is concerned,” said Feldman, author of “Marital Relations, Birth Control and Abortion in Jewish Law” (Schocken, 1975) and the dean of the Jewish Institute of Bioethics. “You can’t hasten death yourself, with your own hands. If death comes, you can thank God because it’s a relief, but you can’t decide yourself that it has to be done.”

The only time it would be acceptable to remove a medical device, Feldman said, would be if “something worse would happen — if leaving it in would cause infection or more pain.

“You can kill someone pursuing you, you can kill the soldier in the enemy army, maybe very cautiously you can kill if there is a death penalty, but you can’t kill an innocent person because of illness,” he said.

Rabbi Joel Roth is a member of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly’s Law Committee. In 1990, when he was the committee’s chair, the group studied end-stage medical care and accepted two opposing positions on artificial nutrition and hydration.

One, by Rabbi Elliot Dorff, “would permit withholding and withdrawing” the tube; the other, by Rabbi Avraham Reisner, would not.

The divide comes from how the tube that provides food and water is defined. If it is seen as a medical device, as Dorff does, it may be removed, Roth said. If it is seen as a feeding device, as Reisner does, it may not be removed.

Dorff puts a person dependent on a feeding tube “in the halachic category of ‘treifah,’ which, he argues, is a life that does not require our full protection — an animal that is treifah is one that has some kind of physical defect that will prohibit it from having a prolonged life. So he argues that a treifah is a life that does not require our full protection,” Roth said.

Reisner, on the other hand, “treats these people as goses,” Roth said.

“And even in the end stage,” he noted, “there is the value of ‘chaya sha’ah,’ the life of the hour.” In other words, Roth said, even when there is very little life left, that life still matters.

The Conservative movement accepts both decisions, but Roth, a professor of Talmud and Jewish law at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, sides with Reisner, and with Schiavo’s parents.

“She should be kept on the feeding tube,” he said. “She’s not being medicated, and she’s breathing on her own.”

Rabbi Mark Washofsky teaches rabbinics at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, and he sits on the movement’s responsa committee.

The movement does not speak with one voice on the issue, Washofsky said, but in 1994 it issued a responsa on the treatment of terminally ill patients.

Like the Conservative decisions, the Reform rabbis base their view of whether a feeding tube can be removed on their understanding of the tube’s function.

“We cannot claim that Jewish tradition categorically prohibits the removal of food and water from dying patients,” Washofsky said. “But we consider food and water, no matter how they are delivered, the staff of life. So what we ultimately do is express deep reservations about their withdrawal, but in the end, we say, nonetheless, that because we cannot declare that the cessation of artificial nutrition and hydration is categorically forbidden by Jewish moral thought, the patient and the family must ultimately let their consciences guide them.”

Rabbi David Teutsch, director of the Center for Jewish Ethics at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia, agrees that the question is how a feeding tube is defined.

“If it were a form of eating, a position held by a number of more traditional halachic authorities, then you’re required to feed those who are hungry,” Teutsch said. “But if it’s medicine –a position held by Conservative authorities like Rabbi Elliott Dorff, and by me as well — then you serve the interests of the patient, which may involve not providing medicine.”

He believes that a feeding tube is a medical device, and so it can be removed, Teutsch said.

“It’s pretty clear that it’s closer to regular intervention than to eating,” he said.

 

Tight Races


Initially, one cannot help but think that the surge of retired, elderly Jews to Florida, augmented by this year’s Lieberman Factor, has redefined Florida politics into an Israel-style method of governance. While the rest of America was voting and deciding on Tues., Nov. 7, Florida was telling us – just as Israel runs under Barak – “Wait 48 hours, and then we’ll decide.” Two days later, as the last recount came in from Seminole County with Bush a nose ahead, Florida essentially told us, “Well, wait 48 more hours, and then we’ll really decide.” Even today, Nov. 17, with all the incoming mail ballots from those Floridian voters stationed out-of-state in the military and on campuses tallied, we still have the proverbial 48 hours and more. Recounts. Manual recounts. Just like Barak’s Israel.

Critically, the deadlock that marked the presidential voting also spilled over into splitting the United States Senate and the House of Representatives. An interesting quirk, as the Senate totters on a 50-50 split – and that possibility will continue as Americans monitor the health of two elderly Carolina Republicans in the upper chamber – is that if Bush ultimately emerges the uncontested winner, then Vice President Dick Cheney could be in the Senate casting tie-breaking votes until the next election. The impact of such a situation cannot be underestimated, although everyone in the meantime is underestimating it. Traditionally, vice presidents stay in the shadows and bide their four or eight years until they get to run for president. But if Cheney casts tie-breaking votes in the Senate, he will become a powerful force. Imagine if he casts the deciding vote to confirm a Supreme Court justice – or an arms sale to Saudi Arabia.

Another impact of the close Senate result is that, at least for the next two years, every Republican Senator will have great, inordinate power. That is, as long as the GOP holds the Senate by 51-49, or if it goes 50-50 with Cheney casting tie-breakers, all it takes to switch the majority is for one or two Republicans to “vote their consciences” on a bill. So, liberal Republican senators will become a major nuisance for Trent Lott and will have huge power, as will the Democrat conservatives in their party.

As a result, presidential leadership will be minimized, avoiding dramatic initiatives, and that will redound to Israel’s benefit, especially if James “F— the Jews” Baker III is back in the equation. In Israel’s time of great crisis, in the era of Oslo’s collapse, the gridlock will make it difficult for an American president to impose brutal concessions on Israel. Look for adherence to the polls. As a result, these will be the years of cautious moderation, and that will help Israel. Ironically, the necessarily practical course will make the new president wildly popular over the next two years, artificially reassuring independent voters that he can be trusted to “steer the course.”

Jews lost a few good friends and a few enemies in this election, as we usually do. Florida’s Sen. Connie Mack had been a strongly supportive Republican voice in support of Israel; he has retired, and we shall see whether and hope that Senator-elect Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, takes care not to offend Florida’s Jewish Democrats on Israel. Jim Rogan of California was a top-drawer Republican Congressional supporter of Israel. He is replaced by Adam Schiff, a liberal Jew, who will follow other liberal Democrat Jews in Congress – backing whatever the Israeli government does or fails to do, whether it be Oslo or whatever. In New York, Rick Lazio already had been named by Arabs to their “Congressional Hall of Shame,” so we lose a good friend in the House. On the other hand, Hillary Clinton is a political mercenary, so she may very well become a strong “friend of Israel” in the coming months. The bad news on Hillary has been that she was among the first to back an independent Palestinian State, that she hugged Suha Arafat while the Palestinian First Lady was accusing Jews of horrible things, and that Hillary had received lots of bucks from Hamas supporters. But the good news is that she easily backtracks on her principles as the situation requires. Consequently, Arabs have lost a friend, at least until she seeks a higher office, when she no longer will need to rely on Jewish voters in New York, much as former New York Gov. Franklin Roosevelt progressed once his constituency expanded. She has begun her White House march by quickly proposing to abolish the Electoral College.

In addition to Hillary’s temporary conversion to Israel, the Arab side apparently has lost another friend with the fall of Republican Spencer Abraham in Michigan. Abraham, a Lebanese American, was one of only two senators who refused to sign the recent Senate letter supporting Israel.

Sen. Jon Kyl’s huge reelection numbers in Arizona are encouraging because he has been a wonderful friend of Israel. Dianne Feinstein’s victory in California was good news, too, because Republican Tom Campbell overtly supported Arab aspirations against Israel during his campaign. We have friends and ill-wishers in both parties. The election results demonstrate as much.

As for the electoral college, I kind of like it. It allows states like Florida, Oregon, New Mexico, Iowa and Wisconsin to be taken seriously. It also forces national candidates to make promises on Israel to Jews in New York. That is a powerful motivator for the candidates and their advisors to learn about Israel early, to study the issues and to make informed decisions as to where they will aspire to stand. Ultimately, their views change, in the face of Arab oil pressures, the sheer number of Arab countries, and the United Nations factor. But the electoral college system forces them to come out for Israel early because there are lots of Jewish votes in New York, in California, in New Jersey, in Pennsylvania – and in Florida. Therefore, like every Jew who values higher education, I endorse that college. I am not married to it, but I like it.

Nevertheless, we may remain concerned – especially if Oregon still goes to Gore – that, with Bush coming out of Florida with 271 electors, one or two of his electors may decide to show Mom and Dad back home how famous he can be, or try to impress Jodie Foster with how powerful she is, and decide to vote for Gore, making it a tie, or otherwise throwing the results askew. It just may happen -because this is America, where tabloid papers sell briskly at supermarkets and where everyone in the country except me watched “Survivor.” If such a thing happens and the Bush elector who throws the election to Gore-Lieberman turns out to be a Jew, it will not be funny at all. So if Dubya wins Florida, may he win New Mexico, too.

Rabbi Dov Fischer, a board member of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ Jewish Community Relations Committee and national vice president of the Zionist Organization of America, practices complex civil litigation and First Amendment law at the Los Angeles offices of Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld.