Fighting ‘Gravity’ and other motion picture musings

Some chalk talk on the 86th annual Oscar tournament.

Best Picture 

Winner: Dallas Buyers Club 
Wild Card: 12 Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave has all the ingredients for best picture pie; it’s a deep-pocketed period piece that forces painful retrospection of our own harsh and often bloody societal truths. The palpable heft never waivers and evokes visceral reactions to the unimaginable evils depicted, all while looking like a series of history book photos. Not those Clipartsy factoid boxes chucked to the side, those beautiful full-page, full-color, lose-your-spot-in-the-chapter murals. It’s safe to say the tasks at hand were more than accomplished, and John Ridley will almost definitely win best adapted screenplay. But there’s an x-factor to the Buyers Club committee that hasn’t been solved for. Maybe they’re born with it, maybe it’s Matthew. This one is taking it.

Little films with giant ambition like Her and Nebraska might still be a long way away from the Big O, but the recognition is nice. They were my top picks of the pack by a mile, with Gravity at the bottom by two.

Serial film pee-yewer Armond White (God rest his soul) summed up his thoughts with: “[Alfonso] Cuaron plays with philosophy in a shallow, juvenile way, the same as he misuses technology—he even throws in a 3D teardrop. His teasing, tormenting style is just green-screen busyness; though set in space, Cuaron’s Earth-bound “Esperanza” in Gravity could be anywhere, nowhere.” 

Yeah. The space thriller’s technical achievements are mighty and the team deserves many badges of Oscar honor; I’ve tried and failed to understand how so many people wound up in their corner. Film of the year revelry continues and it’s unsettling. (Though frankly, I don’t think even the most influential Academy lobbyists have the clout to silence the Twitter echoes of space authority Neil deGrasse Tyson, whose live-tweeting of his Gravity experience all but obliterated any realistic hopes of contention in most of the big fish categories.) Gravity will not win best picture; Sandra Bullock will not win best actress. Though the certainty ends there.

Maybe the Academy will throw a collective middle finger to the world and tap The Wolf of Wall Street, at which point thousands of expired Quaaludes will be mercifully released from the Dolby ceiling, seeking to dull the A-listers’ pain of missing True Detective's penultimate episode. Maybe.


Best Actor in a Leading Role

Winner: Matthew McConaughey 
Wild Card: Chiwetel Ejiofor

DBC with two big ones in a row? Yes. The word “transformation” sees a lot of playing time in these conversations, and while Christian Bale’s rollercoaster belly is a force to be reckoned with, there are few words more appropriate for describing the path to an age now known as “The McConaissance.” His portrayal of the layered HIV lonestar Ron Woodroof is inspiring as it is heartbreaking, and as a staunch supporter of the Give Leo a Statue movement, saying justice will not have been served should Matthew McConaughey fall to him, or any of his fellow nominees, is not easy.

As for the wild card, after typing “Bruce Dern” and deleting, typing “Chiwetel Ejiofor” and deleting, typing “Bruce Dern” and deleting, typing “Shia LaBeouf” and deleting, I settled on Steve McQueen’s leading man. Here’s why: I can’t bring myself to recognize the chance of Nebraska walking away empty handed, and I’m feeling much better about June Squibb’s standing for best supporting actress than her on-screen husband’s. This is a game of strategy, after all, and Ejiofor was a powerhouse.


Best Actress in a Leading Role

Winner: Cate Blanchett 
Wild Card: The Woody Allen curveball

This performance will be celebrated by fans and actors alike for years to come. Watching her unravel the already loose stitches of this delusional, tragic character was a rare treat. She’s absolutely fascinating. Judi Dench was a doll and seeing Amy Adams venture into bombshellism was fun, but this is no contest. No contest, assuming the Academy doesn’t decide to either condemn Woody, reward Dylan or reprimand the public peanut gallery for that Thing. Useless reopening the what and why; there are plenty of think pieces from people obviously far more equipped/knowledgeable/qualified to speak on that subject than I.

Best Actor in a Supporting Role

Winner: Michael Fassbender 
Wild Card: Jared Leto

Maybe this pick is idealistic; Leto is the clear favorite in this category and to say it’s undeserved would be a stretch. He was committed, and it showed. But there’s been too little talk about the lack of inhibition, the sheer ferocity with which Fassbender explored every angle available to him in his role as the turbulent plantation owner in 12 Years a Slave. The fact he was able to draw the slightest amount of sympathy through the corners of his face, even as he mercilessly flayed the skin off a defenseless girl’s back, should not be forgotten come Oscar night.

Though a perfectly adequate accessory to DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort in Wolf (the Quaalude/lobby/kitchen sequence carved its own class of bizarre genius), Jonah Hill is outright outmatched.

Admittedly, if it were left to blind personal preference, Bradley Cooper and his hair curlers get the win. But there are rules.


Best Actress in a Supporting Role

Winner: June Squibb 
Wild Card: Lupita Nyong’o, Jared Leto

There are a couple newbies this year in Squibb and Nyong’o, both of whom have enjoyed favorable positioning in this group. Sally Hawkins also falls into that category since this is her first Academy Award nomination, but as delightful as she was, she may have fallen victim to Blanchett’s performance so ruthlessly overpowering everyone else’s. The woman was a tyrant. Come the final scene on the park bench, I couldn’t have listed another actor in the movie. Had there even been any? Why does Sally Field look so young? That sort of thing.


Squibb gave the performance of a lifetime in Nebraska as Kate Grant, Woody Grant’s (Bruce Dern) lovably raucous wife. The winds seem to be headed in the direction of Ol’ Kate, though the Kenyan beauty has a chance to make a late break as she’s seen a recent push through the press after her Vanity Fair spread. And that dress. 

For a minute, the plucky bebosomed J. Law would have made sense, and even now people would hardly be mad about it. But nothing would make me happier if, in an unprecedented character acting demonstration, J. Let shows up at Dolby Theatre draped in a “it’s cranberry mocha” gown and six-inch stilettos. If so, wipe the ballots and give that girl a statue.


Best Original Screenplay

Winner: American Hustle 
Wild Card: Her

A universe of constants would see American Hustle taking home best original screenplay for the same reasons 12 Years takes best picture. Both are far from undeserved, and probably the most correct choice. Bear in mind strategies; Hustle hasn’t seen much playing time in these final rounds, and chances are low the cuddly con outfit leaves with nothing. Appropriately, they’ll collect where they can. 

Blue Jasmine won’t win either because there are rules.

Nebraska was my

Why be Jewish?

It seems the recent Pew poll is all the Jewish community can talk about, and most of the conversation is a doom-and-gloom perseverance on the possible extinction of Judaism.  I’ve heard much moaning, a fair measure of denial and a handful of creative “solutions.” But in his recent editorial (Gravity, October 11-17, 2014), Rob Eshman posed a salient question no one else seems to be asking: So what?  Why do you care that young American Jews are less and less Jewish?  What is it that makes this religion, this culture, worth continuing?

My gut reaction to this question was completely personal. I don’t want the Jewish people to die out because, well, I’m Jewish. Because I like Jewish things and I know all the songs.  Because Judaism makes me feel good and all my memories are wrapped up in my Aunt Trudy’s sweet kugel, the smell of my Bubbe’s house on Shabbat, the poetry of Rachel and Yehuda Amichai, the stunning silence of the Negev, the vision of my three preschool-aged daughters covering their eyes behind the glow of alabaster candles.  These, though, are the comforts of tribalism. Emotionally compelling, sure, but not an answer to Eshman’s essential question. 

One week after the release of the Pew poll, Arieh Warshel, Michael Levitt and Martin Karplus—a Kibbutz-born Israeli-American, a South African native who served in the IDF and splits his time between Palo Alto and Israel and an Austrian born to a secular Jewish family that escaped the Nazis, respectively—won the Nobel Prize in chemistry. They’re in good company: 193 of the 855 Nobel winners since the prize’s inception have been Jewish.  That is 22% of total Nobel recipients, although Jews make up only about .2% of the world’s population. It’s a staggering set of statistics, embedded in which is one answer to “So what?” 

The world is founded on three things, Pirke Avot tells us. Al ha-Torah, al ha-avodah v’al g’milut chasadim: on study, on work and on acts of loving-kindness. The values and responsibilities taught in even the most loosely observant Jewish homes, the critical thinking skills developed by Jewish text study and the empathy for those on the fringes of society (engendered by our own storied history) create a rich incubator for aspiration, ingenuity and work ethic. The disproportionate number of Jewish scientists, humanitarians, writers, artists and medical world-changers is no coincidence.  

Why? Because Judaism is a practice rooted in, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks puts it, the ethics of responsibility.  Judaism teaches that moral responsibility between human beings exists. Throughout our four-thousand year history, Jews have been an intellectual and spiritual force, preserving our culture and teachings while helping to shape the civilizations in which we live. Beginning in the Talmudic age, our rabbis were the early and relentless champions of universal primary education. The word tzedakah appears 157 times in the Tanach, our most ancient text and a foundational piece of literature in the Western world. Education and tzedekah are obligations, not laudable suggestions. Our history and the history of the world attest to the value of this premise.

The 21st century is defined by challenges so vast and interconnected that they seem beyond resolution: poverty and illiteracy, famine and disease, nuclear warfare and genocide, global warming and drought, bigotry and fanaticism.  It would be easy to throw our hands up in helplessness or point our fingers at political impotence, but our tradition directs us instead to take personal responsibility, to engage in tikkun olam (repair of the world), and tzedakah (justice), even if we cannot complete the work we start. Responsibility is the greatest inoculation against the sense of powerlessness and futility in the face of great challenge. 

There is work to do in the world.  It needs to be made better for human beings now and for generations to come. Is Judaism the only path? Of course not. In addition to vast challenges the world is also full of righteous people, valuable cultures, intellectual vibrancy and vital diversity. I am not suggesting that we are alone in our desire and capacity to light the future.  I am suggesting that across time and place the Jewish people have made significant and unique contributions to bettering the world.

The great Jewish thinker Rav Soloveitchik wrote that our “task in the world, according the Judaism, is to transform fate into destiny, a passive existence into an active existence, an existence of compulsion, perplexity and muteness into an existence replete with a powerful will, with resourcefulness, daring and imagination.”

That’s why Judaism is worth continuing. That’s why I work in Jewish education. That’s why I’m ready to join with other Jewish leaders and buckle down to do the hard work of helping ensure Jewish continuity without losing sight of the other important work that needs doing in this world.

It is no more or less than our tradition and our future demand.

Sarah Shulkind, Ed.D., Head of School, Sinai Akiba Academy

‘Gravity’ and the Pew study

I have one big answer to the depressing findings of the Pew poll, but you’re not going to like it.

The Pew Research Center’s landmark new survey of American Jews came out last week, and the American Jewish community reacted about the way Sandra Bullock does when her tether snaps in “Gravity.” Except our “Oy vey!” probably could have been heard in space.

The bottom line of the study: Jews are becoming less … and less … and less Jewish. We are drifting away from religion like, well, Bullock from that space station. 

The long-awaited Pew study, initiated with admirable foresight by Jane Eisner, editor-in-chief of the Jewish Daily Forward, found that only 32 percent of these Jews say their Jewishness is a matter of religion. Fifty years ago, that number was close to 70 percent.

“That is a big and significant number,” said Greg Smith, the Pew’s director of U.S. religion surveys, in a statement accompanying the report. “The generational pattern suggests that it’s growing, and that’s very important, because the data show that Jews of no religion are much less connected to the Jewish community, are much less engaged and involved in Jewish organizations and are much less likely to be raising their children Jewish as compared to Jews who describe themselves as Jews by religion.”

We all know many Jews who are bagels-and-lox, “Curb Your Enthusiasm” types — what you might call Brunch Davidians. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But Jewish law and practice is the scaffold on which Jewish culture and identity are built. Without Judaism, Jewishness disappears.

To add to the worries, the Pew study found that 71 percent of younger, [non-Orthodox Jews] are marrying out. Before 1970, the number of Jews with a non-Jewish spouse was only 17 percent. Intermarried Jews, Pew found, like Jews of no religion, are much less likely to be raising their children in the Jewish faith.

So, does this mean there won’t be any Judaism in the future? The short answer is: That’s up to us. 

There are three things we can, and must, do to stop the handwringing and reverse these trends.

First, we need to be very clear in our hearts why this matters. Each one of us who expresses concern has to be able to answer, clearly, this question: “So what?”

Now don’t skip ahead. Stay with that question. Why do you care that young American Jews are less and less Jewish, and if trends continue, their children and grandchildren will be even less so, or not at all? What is it that makes this religion, this culture, worth continuing? Funny how none of the discussions of the Pew study start with that question — because its answer is key to the solution.

Second, we must improve the experience of liberal Judaism. Not all synagogue services are boring, obscure and infantilizing, but too many are. Congregations that have innovated in their use of liturgy and music have been more successful in drawing people in than those that have not. This year, livecast the Kol Nidre service of Nashuva, the outreach congregation founded by my wife, Rabbi Naomi Levy. At least 60,000 people around the world watched all or part of the service, and judging by their comments, the experience was anything but boring. When you rebuild it, they will come.

That leads me to my one, big suggestion: conversion.

When I made this argument in the past, people looked at me like I was saying we should establish a Jewish state in Uganda. True, we have not been, for historical reasons, a proselytizing faith, but it’s time to rise above our history.

According to the Pew poll, 2 percent of Jews said they had formally converted to Judaism, 1 percent claimed to have informally. That’s 100,000 people. Say we double it. Triple it — or even add a zero. 

Can we?

Of course. We have the money and expertise to fund a creative and consistent marketing campaign aimed at conversion. Web sites and social media offer a low barrier to entry. Virtual engagement would be reinforced by actual outreach and education on the local level.

 This isn’t brain surgery — it’s branding, marketing and education. These are three things Jews happen to excel at. Jewish marketing ingenuity brought the world Polo, GAP and Levi’s. Jews turned pomegranates and hummus from foods to phenomena. Hey, three Jews — Plouffe, Axelrod and Emanuel — even sold America on electing a black president. We can sell the world anything. Why not Judaism?

If we don’t invite the rest of the world to experience the beauty, meaning and connectedness of Jewish life, we will never truly flourish. 

“Jews are losing such an opportunity to enrich their lives,” Rabbi Harold Schulweis once told me. “Converts are the most articulate and dedicated Jews I have met in a long time.”

The stories told by Jews-by-Choice reaffirm the opportunity to reach more like them.

“Judaism,” one once told me, “is the best-kept secret in the world.”

Meaning, connectedness, community and beauty — these are the essence of Jewish life, and they are what so many people long for. 

My suggestion: Put Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Lynda Resnick, Axelrod, et al. in a room and have them come up with a marketing plan for the world’s best-kept secret. Put Judaism out there, and just watch people gravitate toward it. 

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

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