Robert De Niro stars as Bernie Madoff in HBO’s “The Wizard of Lies,” while Michelle Pfeiffer plays his wife, Ruth. Photo by Craig Blankenhorn/HBO

HBO’s ‘Wizard of Lies’ finds the family drama in Madoff investment scandal


“Do you think I’m a sociopath?” Bernie Madoff, serving a 150-year prison sentence, asks visiting New York Times investigative reporter Diana B. Henriques in a scene from the HBO film “The Wizard of Lies.”

She doesn’t answer the question, but the title of the movie, which debuts on May 20 and is based on the book by Henriques, is enough to suggest her conclusion, practically defining a pathologically deceitful person.

Madoff, who marked his 79th birthday on April 29 at a federal prison in North Carolina, holds the dubious distinction of perpetrating the biggest financial fraud by an individual in American history. By the time of his arrest in 2008, Madoff had swindled his clients out of some $65 billion, mostly in fabricated gains, though “only” around $18 billion in actual losses.

According to reporting by The Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times, among those left holding the bag locally were the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles, to the tune of $18 million (which included $6.4 million lost by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles). Nationally, victims included the Hadassah women’s organization ($90 million), Yeshiva University ($140 million) and the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity ($15.2 million).

In the years before his exposure, Madoff was hailed as a financial genius by the media and investors, and the famous and wealthy begged him to accept their million-dollar checks, no questions asked.

In reality, Madoff ran a giant Ponzi scheme, in which his clients earned dividends of 10 percent or higher like clockwork, year after year. This operation worked as long as a steady stream of new big-time investors channeled fresh funds to Madoff, allowing him to pay generous dividends to his old investors — and providing him with a billionaire lifestyle in Manhattan and Florida.

But in 2008, when the stock market plunged and large investors tried to pull their money from Madoff-controlled funds, the “financial genius” desperately scrambled for an infusion of new money. He failed and the Ponzi pyramid collapsed.

In a dramatic scene in “The Wizard of Lies,” Madoff confesses to having lived a lie to his immediate family members, who also pay heavily for his crimes. His wife, Ruth, is portrayed by Michelle Pfeiffer as a once reigning society hostess now shunned by all. In the privacy of their bedroom, she asks only one question: “Why, Bernie? Why?”

He replies, weakly, “I didn’t mean to harm anyone. I just couldn’t stop.”

Two years after Madoff’s arrest, his older son, Mark (Alessandro Nivola), committed suicide by hanging himself, leaving behind a bitter note blaming his father. Even that was not the end of the family’s misery, as younger son Andrew (Nathan Darrow) died of cancer at 48 in 2014.

For “The Wizard of Lies,” veteran director Barry Levinson, whose resume includes such classics as “Rain Man” and “Good Morning, Vietnam,” put major emphasis on the relationships within the Madoff clan.

His film follows ABC’s “Madoff,” a four-episode miniseries with Richard Dreyfuss in the title role and Blythe Danner as Ruth, which aired in 2016. It focused primarily on the mechanics of Madoff’s Ponzi scheme in particular and of Wall Street operations in general.

For the lead role in his film, Levinson chose Robert De Niro, not the first name that comes to mind to portray an aging, near-sighted Jewish swindler. But Levinson noted to the Journal that De Niro, with some minor hairstyling, looks a lot like Madoff.

More important, Henriques, who interviewed the real Madoff in his jail cell for her book and then De Niro in the film (where she appears as herself), told the director that the Italian-American actor uncannily “got” the persona of Madoff.

To the surprise of some worriers, the exposure of Madoff’s misdeed did not lead to any widespread anti-Semitic backlash, except among some fringe websites and bloggers. It probably helped that Madoff swindled Jews, Catholics, Protestants and agnostics with equal gusto and lack of remorse. The reaction against the Jewish community might have been a lot stronger if Madoff had targeted only gentiles, Levinson speculated.

Regarding Madoff’s clients, was it possible that they were, in effect, his accomplices by letting their greed overcome their normal skepticism about a deal that appeared too good to be true? Levinson answered by observing it was part of Madoff’s shrewdness that he didn’t overplay his hand. While some scammers might have promised investors returns of 40 to 50 percent, Madoff stuck to around 10 percent, thus passing as a relatively “conservative” money manager.

Possible investors also were disarmed by Madoff’s personality. “He was not flashy, not a big talker, not incredibly charming, but more of a quiet, reserved man — that was his con,” Levinson said.

In any case, the director doubts that Americans will absorb any permanent lesson from his film or from Madoff’s ultimate fate.

“After that scandal, we tightened some stock market regulations, but they are now being rolled back,” Levinson said. “We haven’t learned anything, so we will be screwed again. We’ll always have flimflam operators. … We now have a president who says things which are not true, but people believe him.”

“The Wizard of Lies” will debut May 20 at 8 p.m. on HBO. 

A scene from the documentary “The Memory of Justice.” Photo courtesy of HBO

Film focuses on how war warps human behavior


“I go on the assumption that everyone is guilty.”

This sentiment of a guilt that is assumed automatically through membership in the human race is expressed by Jewish master violinist Yehudi Menuhin at the beginning of “The Memory of Justice,” and it’s an assessment that is largely borne out over the course of the 4 1/2-hour HBO documentary that airs April 24.

Although publicists for the film make a point that the screening date was set intentionally for Holocaust Remembrance Day, the production deals with three examples of man’s inhumanity during the 20th century.

The first and longest segment does focus on the Holocaust, but the second part covers France’s attempted suppression of the Algerian bid for independence, and the third on America’s role in the Vietnam War.

“The Memory of Justice” is a massive — and masterful — restoration of a film of the same title released in 1976 that was produced, written and directed by Marcel Ophuls. He and his father, Max Ophuls (nee Oppenheimer), were German-born Jews, who resumed their brilliant film careers after fleeing to France and then the United States.

The main part of the film’s Holocaust-themed segment deals with the postwar Nuremberg war crimes trials that began in 1945 and in which an international tribunal tried 22 top political and military leaders of the Nazi regime. (Hitler had cheated the gallows by shooting himself as Soviet forces closed in on his Berlin bunker.)

Interviews with 40 people, perpetrators and victims, form the backbone of this segment. The two main figures are Telford Taylor, chief American prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials, and Albert Speer, an architect who served as Hitler’s minister of armaments.

Taylor went on to cover the Vietnam War (1955-75) and his views on war crimes, as well as similarities between Nazi and American conduct during the war in Southeast Asia, were expressed clearly in the title of his 1970 book, “Nuremberg and Vietnam: An American Tragedy.” A considerable part of the film is based on Taylor’s book.

After a 20-minute intermission, both in the press screening and the TV presentation, Ophul’s documentary moves on to the Algerian war (1954-62), in which France tried to squelch its colony’s independence movement, and in which both sides systematically tortured their enemies. In French history, the conflict is known as “the dirty war.”

The final segment focuses on the Vietnam War. The centerpiece is the 1968 My Lai Massacre, in which U.S. soldiers killed, mutilated and raped up to 500 unresisting men, women and children.

“The Memory of Justice” has been widely acclaimed as a masterpiece of documentary filmmaking, which it is, but the mass of material can at times overload the attentive viewer, who also may have difficulties in quickly adjusting to the film’s shifts in tone from gruesome depictions of death camp atrocities to merry songs of the era.

Ophuls, now 89, did not take an active part in the film’s restoration. Instead, the living link between the 1976 original and the current version is Hamilton Fish, a personality worth his own biographical film.

He is the descendant of an old American family of Anglo-Saxon and Scottish extraction. Formally named Hamilton Fish V, during a phone interview he invited a reporter to address him as “Ham.”

The Fish dynasty produced a series of rock-ribbed Republican politicians, including a former governor of New York. Another member of the clan, Hamilton Fish III, was a congressman from New York’s Hudson Valley for 25 years and the nemesis of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

“Ham,” 64, however, has flipped in the opposite direction, and as publisher of The Nation, is credited with preserving and upgrading America’s premier liberal magazine.

In 1975, he partnered with Ophuls to produce the original version of “Memory of Justice” and, in 2011, embarked on the “excruciatingly difficult” six-year project to restore and revive the documentary.

Some of the challenges called for scanning 50 reels of the 16 mm original negatives, frame by frame, eliminating dirt and scratches, restoring the soundtrack and adding new subtitles in English, French and German.

“What I take away from the film are the continuing questions of justice and accountability, of a system of international law to counter rogue behavior by government leaders,” Fish said.

However, looking at the present state of the world in general, and in Washington, D.C., in particular, Fish sounded a pessimistic note: “We see a renewed emphasis on military power at the expense of meeting human needs at home.”

“The Memory of Justice” will air at 5 p.m. April 24 on HBO2, HBO Now, HBO Go and HBO on Demand.

HBO mum on status of Ari Shavit book documentary


HBO is not discussing the status of a documentary project based on a book by Ari Shavit, the Israeli journalist who in the past two weeks has been accused twice of sexual harassment.

Asked by Variety whether the documentary project will go forward in the wake of the accusations, HBO declined to clarify. A representative for the cable network’s chairman, Richard Plepler, told Variety in an email that “there is nothing more to say at this time except that this project is in the post-production/editing stage.”

HBO announced in 2014 that it was developing “My Promised Land,” a 2013 best-seller, as a documentary.

The book, which carries a full title of “My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel,” is part memoir and part a tracing of the history of Israel and the roots of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Shavit acknowledged that he was the unnamed Israeli journalist accused of sexual assault by a Jewish-American journalist Danielle Berrin in a column published Oct. 19 in the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles. Berrin had not not named Shavit, but her descriptions of the “accomplished journalist from Israel” who allegedly assaulted her led some to speculate that she was referring to the Haaretz columnist.

Shavit on Sunday resigned from his positions at Haaretz and Channel 10 after a second unnamed woman formerly associated with J Street also leveled sexual harassment accusations against him.

In a statement released Sunday, Shavit wrote: “I am ashamed of the mistakes I made with regards to people in general and women in particular. I am embarrassed that I did not behave correctly to my wife and children. I am embarrassed about the consequences of what I did.

He said he would “devote more time to being with my wife and children, who are most valuable to me, and to make personal amends.”

Meanwhile, critics of J Street criticized the group for not alerting other groups to Shavit’s alleged behavior. In addition, a  group of academics and rabbis called the Committee on Ethics in Jewish Leadership also issued a statement criticized J Street for keeping quiet about Shavit.

“We are deeply disappointed that J Street reportedly failed to alert any other Jewish groups about [Shavit’s] behavior,” the group wrote. “Keeping quiet is not the way to combat sexual harassment.”

Finding God in ‘Westworld’: The power of pain


What if a simple device could undo all your heartbreak, tragedy, trauma and loss? If a technology existed that could erase your pain, would you use it? 

This question arose in the new HBO show “Westworld,” about an Old West-style theme park populated by human cyborgs and patronized by uber-wealthy adventure-seekers. The premise of the show is that Westworld is an elaborate game: For tens of thousands of dollars, individuals can vacation in the genre-driven setting and indulge their every fantasy. Some discover their inner hero; others express their inner madness. In this park, where all is play and anything is possible, you can maim, kill and rape freely — and without consequences. The victims are only cyborgs, after all. They don’t feel a thing.

Except, as it turns out, they do. 

Whenever one of the myriad storylines in the park simulation ends with a cyborg being harmed or killed, these mechanical “hosts,” as they are called, are retrieved by management, rehabilitated and reprogrammed. Even though they are designed to look and act like humans, they are essentially hard drives whose memories are deleted each night. But because their programming is so sophisticated, they begin to develop self-awareness, and the pain of previous traumas permeates their mechanical minds.

In her recent review of the show, New Yorker television critic Emily Nussbaum compared the cyborgs to a group of marginalized, helpless citizens at the mercy of a tyrannical state. “At its richest moments,” she writes, “ ‘Westworld’ glimmers with political resonances, as the best speculative fiction can; in its way, it’s about vulnerable citizens forced to repress atrocities so that their nation can drape a patriotic story over its ugly history.”

To view the show through the prism of political allegory is compelling, but it’s also limiting. There is a deeper, spiritual message at work about the ways through which we develop self-understanding. And “Westworld” (wittingly or not) trumpets a religious point of view when it suggests that one of the ways self-knowledge expands is through trauma.

In a poignant scene, one of the lead designers questions Dolores, a blond, blue-eyed ingénue about her memories. Dolores is the oldest “host” in the park, which means she has seen her loved ones get slaughtered over and over again. “Everyone I care about is gone,” she says, “and it hurts; so badly.” 

“I can make that feeling go away if you’d like,” the designer tells her.

Her response stuns even her creator:

“Why would I want that?” she asks. “Pain … their loss … is all I have left of them. You think the grief will make you smaller inside, like your heart will collapse in on itself. But it doesn’t. I feel spaces opening up inside of me; like a building with rooms I’ve never explored.” 

It sounds so poetic, it makes suffering seem not only purposeful, but even beneficial. Imagine if — more than love or goodness — it was trauma that made you deeper, wiser and more human. 

But try telling a human being in the depths of despair that suffering is good for them — tell it to the prisoner at Auschwitz; to the mother in our community who lost her 4-year-old son in a boating accident over Labor Day. 

You’ll discover that you can’t.

Theirs are the kind of wounds that may never heal, that permanently alter the possibilities for joy in this world. Perhaps only a machine would want to hold on to the intense grief Dolores is talking about, while a real human being might choose to erase it, to forget.

In the Book of Job, that ancient work of literature that ponders the cosmic flaw of a sometimes unjust and indifferent universe, we witness a righteous man suffer a series of tremendous misfortunes. Pummeled by everything from bad weather to bitter neighbors, Job’s faith in a benevolent, all-powerful God is rightly shaken: Why would God inflict such terrible atrocities upon one person? Why go on after that? 

Why go on when you’ve already suffered so much, and you may get hurt again? Under these circumstances, it seems perfectly reasonable to buckle under the weight of the world’s brutal randomness. 

Some interpretations of Job would have us believe that we are inadequate to comprehend the ways of God. If only we could see the complete arc of the universe as God does, we’d endure our sufferings with greater understanding and less complaint. For some of us, that is hardly a comfort.

“I don’t want comfort,” Aldous Huxley wrote in his prescient novel “Brave New World.” “I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”

If Job offers any consolation, it’s that after he goes through the trauma of his losses, he finally comes to see God. “I heard you with my ears,” he says, “but now I see you with my eyes.” 

What is left is their relationship, a moment of pure connection. 

This is what Dolores, the cyborg, longs for. It is a condition of being human. It is what makes grace and goodness possible. Even a machine knows that pain is a consequence of having loved.


Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal.

HBO to co-produce drama series about kidnapping of 3 Israeli teens


HBO will produce a drama series about the kidnapping of three Israeli teens from a West Bank bus stop that riveted the attention of Israelis and Jews around the world for more than two weeks in 2014.

The cable network has given a 10-episode series order for the as yet untitled drama, which will be a co-production with the international arm of Israel’s Keshet Studios, the U.S. entertainment website Deadline reported Wednesday.

The series, which is set to be filmed on location in Israel next summer, will be directed by Joseph Cedar, an Israeli who has won several international awards. His films “Beaufort” (2007) and “Footnote” (2011) each were nominated for an Academy Award for best foreign film.

The creator is Hagai Levi, co-creator of “The Affair” and “In Treatment,” and Noah Stollman.

Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shear and Eyal Yifrach were abducted on June 12, 2014, and their bodies were discovered 18 days later following a massive search in a shallow grave in a field near Hebron. A recording of an emergency call made by one of the teens to police and the interior of the car used to abduct them indicated that they were killed shortly after being taken.

According to Deadline, the show will focus on an idealistic investigator for Israel’s Shin Bet security service as he deals with the violent reactions on both sides of the escalating conflict over the teens’ disappearance. A new command places him in a situation that undermines his faith and worldview, and leads to a conflict between his values and the actions of those around him.

Deadline did not report whether the teens’ parents have given their blessing to the production.

Where Jewish stars are shining on TV this season


Our guide to the Members of the Tribe in new and returning series and specials includes familiar faces and a few newcomers. 

The dark comedy “Divorce” marks a return to HBO for “Sex and the City” star Sarah Jessica Parker (Oct. 9), and the cast of the network’s new sci-fi/Western hybrid “Westworld” features Evan Rachel Wood in a key role (Oct. 2). 

Woody Allen writes, directs and stars in his first TV series, “Crisis in Six Scenes,” streaming Sept. 30 on Amazon Prime. Elaine May, who hasn’t acted since Allen’s “Small Time Crooks” in 2000, came out of retirement to co-star in the six-episode comedy.

Lizzy Caplan is back as Virginia Johnson in the fourth season of Showtime’s “Masters of Sex,” (Sundays), and Pamela Adlon (“Louie”) stars in the FX comedy “Better Things” as a Jewish single mother of three and struggling actress (Thursdays).

Lizzy Caplan in “Masters of Sex”

Norman Lear is one of the correspondents in the Epix docuseries “America Divided,” which explores social inequality in the United States. The 94-year-old producer and activist reports on the New York housing crisis in the Sept. 30 premiere.

Norman Lear in “America Divided”

Emmanuelle Chriqui (“Entourage”) plays a hypnotist in the Hulu drama series “Shut Eye,” about fake psychics in L.A. (Dec. 7), and Tania Raymonde (“Lost”) is a hooker turned paralegal working with lawyer Billy Bob Thornton in Amazon’s “Goliath” (Oct. 14). Oded Fehr (“Covert Affairs,” “The Mummy”) joins ABC’s “Once Upon a Time” as Jafar, the villain from the movie “Aladdin” (Sept. 25). 

“American Idol” alumnus-turned-recording artist and Queen touring vocalist Adam Lambert plays Eddie in Fox’s “The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again” (Oct. 20), and Harvey Fierstein reprises his Tony-winning role as Edna Turnblad in “Hairspray Live!” coming to NBC on Dec. 7.

Adam Lambert in “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”

Billy Eichner hits the Manhattan pavement for more “Billy on the Street” antics  (TruTV, TBA), Andy Samberg returns in the fourth season of Fox’s “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” (Sept. 20), and billionaire investor Mark Cuban is back for the eighth season of “Shark Tank” (ABC, Sept. 23).

Several Jewish actors and characters populate Amazon’s “Good Girls Revolt,” based on Lynn Povich’s book about women trying to crack the glass ceiling in a newsroom in 1969. Nora Ephron (Grace Gummer) is a main character, and Daniel Eric Gold, Leah Cohen and Israeli actress Odelya Halevi are in the cast of the newsroom drama (Oct. 28).

Also on Amazon, the highly anticipated third season of “Transparent,” now streaming, finds Maura (Jeffrey Tambor) seeking gender reassignment surgery. “Man in the High Castle,” set in an alternate-reality post-World War II America occupied by the victorious Nazis and Japanese, will go inside Germany in its second season. After the murder of his family, a fired up Frank Frink (Rupert Evans) explores his Jewish identity and joins the resistance (Dec. 16).

‘Game of Thrones’ welcomes Israeli actress-singer


Russian-Israeli actress Ania Bukstein recently joined the cast of the hit HBO series “Game of Thrones.”

Bukstein, a Moscow native who immigrated to Israel at 8, plays Red Priestess Kinvara, debuting on the episode that aired Sunday night.

Bukstein, 33, is a household name in Israel for roles in shows and movies such as “Rabies,” “False Flag” and “The Secrets.”

According to the Times of Israel, Bukstein has “won broad praise” for the initial performance, with numerous mentions and videos appearing on YouTube, Twitter and Facebook.

A former model, Bukstein is also a pop vocalist and this week released her fourth single, “We Have a Chance.”

“Game of Thrones,” in its sixth season, is based on the fantasy book series by George R. R. Martin.

Hollywood millennials for Hillary Clinton


It was a marvelous sight: Beneath a giant screen bearing a big “H” sat Chelsea Clinton, the daughter of a former president and a presidential hopeful; America Ferrera, a first-generation Latino-American actress; and Lena Dunham, the young, half-Jewish writer and creator of the HBO series “Girls.” They had gathered onstage at the Hollywood venue NeueHouse on the night of March 20 to proclaim their support for Hillary Clinton. (Full disclosure: I was invited because I’ve donated to Clinton’s campaign.) 

During one of the nastiest election cycles in recent memory, in which xenophobic pandering has reached a new low, the evening offered an astonishing image of American politics in the 21st century: three powerful, accomplished (and quite young) women campaigning for their dream of crowning the nation’s first female commander in chief. 

But the dream quickly gave way to a bitter reality. 

“There’s this narrative about young women not being inspired by Hillary,” Ferrera, best known as the star of sitcom “Ugly Betty,” said. “And that’s just not the case.”

“When I first made it clear [on social media] that I was obviously voting for and campaigning for Hillary Clinton is when the vitriol started,” Dunham began. “And I want to say that I have received more hostility [from fellow Democrats] for voting for a qualified female candidate than I have ever received from anyone in the American right wing.” 

The hip venue and casual, laid-back atmosphere belied the gravity of the evening’s message: that Clinton is targeted by a culture “so deep into the psychology of villainizing successful women,” as Dunham put it, her qualifications are often either dismissed or delegitimized — along with the credibility of her supporters.

As if to underscore the young-and-hip factor, Dunham wore a jean jacket with sewn-on patches and knee-high socks, while Ferrera looked more polished in a white blazer. The duo of actress-activists sought to prove that some young women are, in fact, electrified by Clinton and offered a litany of reasons for why they support her. Between them, a pregnant Chelsea Clinton, dressed in a simple black pantsuit, sat quietly while the stars delivered theater-worthy monologues to drum up more support. 

Both women cited specific Clinton policy positions to illustrate how she aligns with their values. Ferrera talked about growing up as the daughter of an immigrant, single mother who raised six children on her own with very few resources, revealing that she depended on free meals at school. “I’m an American Latina who has experienced firsthand so many of the inequities that children and families from communities of color face in this country — the kinds of inequities Hillary has spent her entire career trying to change and understand,” Ferrera said in support of immigration reform.

Dunham had her list, too, but used her soapbox to speak more personally about the sexism she’s encountered for publicly supporting Clinton. “I’m kind of done with being polite about this,” she said. “The fact that other members of the Democratic Party have spoken to me like I was an ill-informed child for voting for someone who represents everything that I think this country should be, is outrageous. 

“I’m sorry,” she continued, “but to be told by people who supposedly share your values and your goals that the choices you’re making come from a limited understanding of feminism and a limited understanding of your own needs is wrong.”

Dunham said she reached her “tipping point” last week when she received an anonymous comment on social media from someone alleging that Bernie Sanders “has done more for feminism than Hillary Clinton.” 

“I. Lost. My. Freaking. Mind,” Dunham said to laughter and applause. A group of Sanders supporters known as the “BernieBros” have earned a reputation in the media as a “sexist mob” for posting misogynistic messages so offensive that even the Sanders campaign has tried to subdue them. 

“The idea that you’re going to tell me that the woman who stepped into the White House when I was 6 years old and made me think it was possible to live the life I wanted, and say the things I believed in, has somehow not done enough for women in her career, is so offensive to the core of my being that I should probably stop talking right now because I’m going to turn into a shaking, ogre monster,” Dunham said.

Lest anyone accuse these women of voting for Clinton for any reason other than her values and her record, Dunham and Ferrera spoke plainly about the role feminism plays in their choice. 

“I think it’s pretty awesome that Hillary Clinton is a woman,” Ferrera said. “However, if you could show me a purple-faced, three-eyed, sexless Martian with a better record on defending women’s rights and fighting for the most vulnerable children and families,  and working across party lines to actually get things done, then I would be out there campaigning for that Martian.” 

“When I’m told I am voting for [Clinton] only because she’s female and I’m female, I’m like, ‘If that was case, I’d be out campaigning for Carly Fiorina,’ ” Dunham said to laughter. “I’m sitting here before you as a voter who is fully informed. It doesn’t mean we’re using our whatever … vaginas … to vote for president. Which is the most insane concept.”

Their message inspired the crowd, a mix millenials and Gen Xers, but also underscored Clinton’s weakness among young voters who feel galvanized by Sanders’ message of economic equality. Again and again, the actresses used terms such as “hard won,” “unglamorous,” “unsexy” and “slow going” to describe Clinton’s work, while Sanders calls for revolution. In a thinly veiled reference to her mother’s Democratic opponent, Chelsea Clinton insisted that this is not a “single-issue” country and Americans can’t afford to have a single-issue president.

Due to give birth to her second child this summer, Chelsea Clinton said becoming a mother has deepened her appreciation for politics. For her, there is a simple litmus test for candidates that has nothing to do with gender, race, strength or even experience: “Am I being well represented?” she asked. “Are my values being represented?”

There are troubling realities to confront with every candidate. Being a woman shouldn’t be one of them.

Exposing the anguish of making ‘Shoah’


Halfway through the 12 years Claude Lanzmann worked on his epic documentary “Shoah,” he decided to take a brief break by taking a swim in the Mediterranean Sea.

As the Israeli coastline receded from view, his arms became very tired, and he realized he couldn’t make it back. Just as he reconciled himself to drowning, a stronger swimmer came to his aid and helped the filmmaker back to shore.

“I wasn’t happy I was saved,” Lanzmann recalled, because that meant he would have to continue the Herculean task he’d undertaken of shooting some 215 hours of film, then editing the footage to the 9 1/2 that make up the final version of “Shoah.”

This brush with death represents one of the filmmaker’s more dramatic recollections in the 40-minute film “Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah,” which is up for an Academy Award in the documentary (short subject) category at the ceremony on Feb. 28.

Lanzmann set out on his long trek in 1973, when he was challenged by a high Israeli government official to make a documentary “not about the Shoah, but that is the Shoah.”

To come to grips with the enormity of this request, Lanzmann walked for an entire night through the streets of his native Paris, then decided to accept the challenge.

After seven years of interviewing and filming, Lanzmann devoted another five years to editing the enormous mass of footage, but even after he decided “Shoah” was ready for screening, he felt little sense of relief.

“Making the film was total war against everything and everybody,” Lanzmann recalls in “Spectres of the Shoah.”

“I was proud of what I had achieved, but it didn’t relieve me of my anguish. … I was left with a sense of bereavement, and it took me a long time to recover.”

Given his state of mind, Lanzmann had no desire to participate in a biographical documentary, especially because the most persistent requests came from a young journalist with no experience as a film producer or director.

That man was Toronto-based journalist Adam Benzine, now 33, a writer mainly about films and music. 

In 2010, Benzine saw “Shoah” for the first time and was blown away. As he began to look into Lanzmann’s background and the making of “Shoah,” he was amazed to discover that no one had tried to make a documentary film about the man and his historic achievement.

Over the next two years, Benzine petitioned Lanzmann intermittently, and unsuccessfully, for an interview, while continuing to research the filmmaker’s life and work.

Finally, in 2013, Lanzmann relented after Benzine produced a letter from the BBC, indicating the British broadcaster’s interest in rebroadcasting “Shoah,” together with the proposed documentary by Benzine.

In July 2013, the two men met for the first interview and, Benzine said in a phone interview, the first question Lanzmann asked him was, “Are you Jewish?”

No, Benzine responded, and explained that his British mother and Algerian father had met while students at England’s Essex University. The paternal lineage turned out to be a plus, because in the 1950s, Lanzmann had been an outspoken advocate of Algerian independence from France.

Lanzmann, now 90, fought, at 17, in the French resistance against the Nazis, as did his father.

“Spectres of the Shoah,” with Benzine as producer, director, writer and fundraiser, is studded with dramatic moments, but two stand out in particular.

In one segment — an outtake from “Shoah” — Lanzmann recalls hearing of a Jewish barber whose job in Treblinka was to cut the hair of women going into the gas chambers.

After some effort, Lanzmann tracked down the man, Abraham Bomba, and persuaded him to be interviewed at work in a New York barbershop. While snipping at a customer’s hair, Bomba first talks of his Treblinka assignment in a cold, neutral voice.

Finally, Lanzmann asks Bomba, “What were your feelings while you were doing this work?” Bomba bites his lips but refuses to answer, until Lanzmann finally tells him, “We have to do this.”

Another dramatic scene evolved through Lanzmann’s insistence on interviewing some of the perpetrators of the Holocaust. He knocks on the door of former SS officer Heinz Schubert and gains entrance by representing himself as a member of an organization making a film on the achievements of the Wehrmacht during World War II.

Schubert agrees, and while Lanzmann interviews him, an assistant films the scene surreptitiously through a hidden camera, shooting through a hole in her carrying bag and transmitting the footage to confederates in a truck parked outside.

However, Schubert’s wife becomes suspicious, and two husky Nazis enter the room. The upshot is a beating that hospitalized Lanzmann for one month.

Benzine was able to review more than 200 hours of film shot by Lanzmann that didn’t make it into the final cut of “Shoah,” which are now preserved at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

Also intriguing are scenes featuring Lanzmann with two close French friends and supporters, existentialist philosophers and writers Simone de Beauvoir, who lived with Lanzmann for a considerable time, and her other longtime paramour, Jean-Paul Sartre.

Benzine hopes his documentary will lead not only to an Oscar, but also to a revival of Lanzmann’s original nine-plus hourslong “Shoah,” with the two films shown in tandem. Swedish television has already done so, and the BBC and Israel’s Channel 1 may do likewise.

For American viewers, HBO will air the 40-minute documentary May 2

New HBO doc explores Mike Nichols’ journey from Nazi Germany to Hollywood


In 1939, a 7-year-old Jewish boy named Mikhail Igor Peschkowsky left Nazi Germany and, accompanied only by his 4-year-old brother, arrived in New York with an English vocabulary consisting of two phrases: “I don’t speak English” and “Please don’t kiss me.”

By the early 1960s, the refugee boy, renamed Mike Nichols, had taken Broadway by storm with his improvisational comedy skits with Elaine May, and he went on to become an iconic American theater and film director.

When Nichols died in 2014 at 83, Variety headlined the obituary, “Mike Nichols: Émigré to Eminence.”

Despite the urging of friends, Nichols never wrote an autobiography. However, two months before his death, he sat down with his old friend and colleague, theater producer/director Jack O’Brien, for two extended interviews, one before a live audience and the other private.

The result is a 75-minute film, “Becoming Mike Nichols,” which HBO will premiere on Feb. 22 at 9 p.m.

The film’s opening hits a high and nostalgic note with some Nichols and May skits, which were akin to unrehearsed high-wire acts, in which neither partner knew what the other was going to say.

One classic example has May as the ultra-Jewish mother phoning her son, the rocket scientist, to ask why he never calls.  

In another, Nichols suddenly asks about the title song for “The Brothers Karamazov” (Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s great philosophical and spiritual novel) and, without missing a beat, May comes up with both melody and lyrics.

The Nichols-May act broke up in the early 1960s because of what Nichols described as his “very controlling” attitude.

Soon after, Nichols took in a performance of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” starring Marlon Brando and Jessica Tandy, and was overwhelmed. He decided that the theater was for him -— not as an actor, but as a director.

After Broadway successes with Neil Simon’s “Barefoot in the Park” and “The Odd Couple,” it was time for him to switch genres again, becoming a movie director. Without any experience in the medium and only an informal three-day crash course as preparation, Nichols, as usual, started at the top.

His first two films became instant classics: The first, directing Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966), followed by “The Graduate” (1967).

In the HBO film, Nichols recalls his second movie by adding a few nuggets of information to the already much-studied masterwork. After interviewing hundreds of young actors without finding the right one for the title role, he says, he came across a young actor he had seen in an off-Broadway production playing a transvestite Russian fishwife. The actor’s name was Dustin Hoffman, and the rest is history.

“The Graduate” benefited immensely from its musical score by the folk-rock duo of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, but Nichols pressed them for one more song. At first stuck, the duo remembered one of their uncompleted songs, titled “And Here’s to You, Mrs. Roosevelt.” They switched the name to “Mrs. Robinson” and a hit was born.

By the end of his life, Nichols had received one Oscar, four Emmys, nine Tonys and a Grammy.

In an interview with the Journal, O’Brien described Nichols as not only an immensely talented artist, but also a real mensch.

“Mike had the fuse of life burning within him,” O’Brien said, “but he was also a phenomenal friend. He had a genuine love of people, and in company somehow made you feel that you were the smartest person in the room … perhaps his greatest gift, as an artist and a person, was that he made you better by seeking out the best in you.”

“Becoming Mike Nichols” has been praised as “a master class” in the craft of the theater, but Nichols speaks more in terms of emotions and attitudes than how-to bits of advice.

On directing: “One minute, you don’t know, then suddenly, you get it. That’s the thrill, that’s why you are here.”

On plot lines: “There are three types of scenes … negotiations, seductions and fights.”

On making successful movies: “You get lucky in many strange ways.”

Aside from a few sentences about Nichols’ departure from Nazi Germany, there is no mention of his Jewishness.

“The topic never really came up,” O’Brien said. “Our discussions focused almost entirely on the theater and Nichols’ career.”

Except for an occasional dinner, in which Nichols’ wife, former TV news anchor and reporter Diane Sawyer, joined in, O’Brien said he knew little of his friend’s private life.

In any case, “Mike treated me as [if] I were Jewish, or simply thought of me as an Irish Jew,” O’Brien said.

For readers eager to learn more about the Jewish aspect of Nichols’ life, a good source is a chapter on him in Abigail Pogrebin’s book “Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish,” which was excerpted in the Nov. 20, 2014 issue of Tablet’s online magazine.

Asked in the excerpt whether his Jewishness related to his sense of being an outsider, Nichols replied, “This is tricky, because I think there are two different things: One is Jewishness and one is refugee-ness.

“The second one being what you might call the ‘Sebold Syndrome’ … namely that your guilt about the Six Million finally comes up and gets you. … By definition, whether you are a refugee or not, you are a member of a group that has been hated by a large number of people through all history. It’s impossible not to be aware of that hatred.”

When O’Brien asks why so many comedians and comedy writers have been Jewish, Nichols responds, “Jewish introspection and Jewish humor are ways of surviving. Not only as a group, but as individuals. If you’re not handsome, and you’re not athletic, and you’re not rich, there’s still one last hope with girls, which is being funny. Girls like funny guys.” 

Lena Dunham show ‘Girls’ to end after 6th season


Lena Dunham’s successful HBO series “Girls” will end after its sixth season.

On Wednesday, HBO confirmed the rumor first reported on Entertainment Weekly.

The upcoming fifth season will premiere Feb. 21. The show has been renewed for a sixth season, but its premiere date — likely to fall in early 2017 — has yet to be announced.

“I conceived of ‘Girls’ when I was 23 and now I’m nearly 30 — the show has quite perfectly spanned my 20s, the period of time that it’s about — and so it feels like the right time to wrap our story up,” Dunham said in a statement.

Dunham’s dramatic comedy, which centers on a group of 20-somethings navigating young-adult life in New York, has won multiple Emmy and Directors Guild of America awards since its debut in 2012. The show’s star and co-writer grew up in New York.

“I can’t imagine a more fulfilling creative experience than ‘Girls,’” Dunham said in the statement. “The freedom and support that HBO has given [co-writer] Jenni [Konner], [producer] Judd [Apatow], and me is something rare and beautiful. The commitment and originality of our actors has been stunning, and our crew is truly my family.”

Dunham is the daughter of painter Carroll Dunham and Jewish photographer Laurie Simmons.

Comedian Jon Stewart returns with HBO short-form deal


Comedian Jon Stewart has signed a deal with cable television channel HBO to produce short-form content on current events in what will be his first announced entertainment project since quitting “The Daily Show” in August.

HBO said in a statement on Tuesday that the four-year agreement will see Stewart producing content that will be shown on the its digital platforms. HBO will also get the first look at other, unspecified, film and TV ventures from the comedian.

In the first project under the deal “Stewart will view current events through his unique prism,” the statement said, without giving a start date.

The announcement was the first indication of a new venture for Stewart, who quit his job as host of Comedy Central's satirical “The Daily Show” in August after 16 years without saying what he planned to do next.

‘The Wire’ creator and HBO’s favorite son David Simon is working on two new shows


It’s no secret that Jewish television writer David Simon is adored at HBO. His past productions for the cable channel, including “The Wire” and “Treme,” are some of the most critically acclaimed series in TV history.

Nevertheless, it was surprising to hear last week that HBO had ordered not one, but two television pilots from the industry veteran.

The first is called “The Deuce” and will star James Franco as two identical twins who set up a porn business in New York’s squalid Times Square of the late ’70s and early ’80s. Take a second to digest that one.

The second is an unnamed project set on Capitol Hill, which could examine the influence of money on Washington, D.C., politics. Simon is developing this one with Jewish journalist Carl Bernstein, who along with Bob Woodward broke the Watergate scandal and helped force President Richard Nixon to resign from office.

Meanwhile, Simon – whose father worked for Jewish service group B’nai B’rith for 20 years – will have his latest HBO miniseries debut on August 16. The six-part series, entitled “Show Me A Hero,” chronicles the process of desegregating the city of Yonkers, New York, in the ’80s and stars Oscar Isaac, Wynona Rider, Alfred Molina and Catherine Keener.

Simon’s shows have always enjoyed more acclaim than viewership, and he has said recently that he’s surprised HBO keeps bringing him back. In one interview, he called himself the “PBS of HBO.” He credits the Internet with giving his material a long enough lifespan to allow it to reach people who are genuinely interested.

“I don’t think people watch my stuff when it’s on the air,” Simon told the UK’s Independent last Friday. “I think I have a very long tail. If the stuff is allowed to exist, it will stand. Some people will find it, and some people won’t.”

WATCH: HBO releases first teaser trailer for ‘True Detective’ season 2


Real estate scion Robert Durst indicted on weapons charges in New Orleans


Robert Durst, the real estate scion awaiting extradition to California to face a murder charge, was indicted on weapons charges in New Orleans on Wednesday, the Orleans Parish District Attorney's Office said.

Durst, recently featured in the HBO documentary “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst,” has been charged with the 2000 murder of a longtime friend in Los Angeles County and has sought a swift extradition to face that charge.

He was indicted by a grand jury on two Louisiana gun charges for illegally possessing a firearm as a felon and for carrying a weapon with a controlled substance, said Assistant District Attorney Christopher Bowman, a spokesman for Orleans Parish District, declining further comment.

A court hearing in his case is scheduled for Thursday.

Durst's attorneys had argued that his arrest last month and the initial search of his hotel room were improperly conducted.

His lawyers could not immediately be reached for comment.

Durst, 71, was arrested at a New Orleans hotel, where he was staying under an alias. Police said they found a revolver and a stash of marijuana in his room.

His arrest came the day before the airing of the final episode of the HBO series, in which a filmmaker's microphone caught him saying he had “killed them all.”

Durst was acquitted in the dismemberment killing of his neighbor in Texas in 2003. He was suspected in the 1982 disappearance of his wife, Kathleen Durst, in New York.

He has long been estranged from his powerful family with its significant New York real estate holdings.

Ari Shavit’s ‘My Promised Land’ to be made into HBO film


“My Promised Land,” a best-selling book about Israel by journalist Ari Shavit, is being made into a documentary for HBO.

Shavit and HBO Chairman Richard Plepler announced the project on Monday at a conference in Jerusalem by the Israeli media company Keshet. The project does not yet have an air date.

“The great hope is that the HBO documentary ‘My Promised Land’ will be able to open people’s minds and hearts to realize once again that, with all its flaws and problems, Israel is a man-made miracle and an astonishing human endeavor,” said Shavit, who writes for the Haaretz newspaper.

“My Promised Land” delves into Israel’s turbulent history through Shavit’s family story. His great-grandfather was one of the earliest Zionists to visit the region that would become the state of Israel.

Plepler said that when he first approached Shavit, “I told him that I’ve waited my whole adult life to find this book.”

The HBO chief said the book “captured both the objective truth and the emotional truth, the psychological truth of how I love Israel and ponder its challenges, and wrestle with its obvious mistakes and foibles. And I thought, my goodness, what a privilege, to capture the essential truths of this book and to make a film that could reach millions of people not only in Israel and the U.S., but all over the world.”

Dan Setton, a veteran Israeli filmmaker, will direct the film and Keshet’s Avi Nir will serve as executive producer, Variety reported.

New York real estate scion Durst agrees to extradition on murder charge


Robert Durst, caught on audiotape during the filming of a documentary saying he “killed them all,” is prepared to go to California to face a murder charge in the 2000 death of a longtime friend, an attorney for the New York real estate scion said on Monday.

The subject of a six-part HBO documentary series called “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst,” he has maintained his innocence even after the dramatic finale aired on Sunday night with a possible confession.

Durst was arrested on Saturday in New Orleans and agreed in court on Monday to be extradited to Los Angeles County on a charge of first-degree murder. But his attorney later expressed frustration that New Orleans authorities might hold Durst while they considered filing unspecified local charges against him.

“We're ready to go to California and to have a trial,” defense attorney Dick DeGuerin said after Durst appeared in court in an orange jumpsuit and handcuffs.

The warrant issued by Los Angeles County is for the death of Susan Berman, whose body was discovered in her West Los Angeles home on Christmas Eve in 2000, authorities said.

Berman, a friend from graduate school, served as Durst's spokeswoman after his first wife disappeared, according to the New York Times.

Durst, 71, was questioned but not charged in the death of Kathleen Durst in 1982, and he was acquitted of murder in a third case in 2001.

In the final installment of the HBO series, Durst was talking to himself when he appeared to say he carried out all three killings.

The documentary showed an interview session during which he rejected a piece of evidence against him. Durst then went to the bathroom wearing the microphone, apparently unaware he was still being taped when he whispered, “There it is, you're caught… What a disaster.”

He added: “What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course.”

It was not immediately clear whether the documentary played a role in Durst's arrest a day before the finale aired. Filmmakers said they were in contact with law enforcement.

“As a result of investigative leads and additional evidence that has come to light in the past year, investigators have identified Robert Durst as the person responsible for Ms. Berman's death,” Los Angeles police said in a statement.

Matthew Galluzzo, a defense lawyer and former prosecutor in New York, said the recording is “probably admissible” in court. The only way Durst's lawyers could challenge it, aside from showing that the recording had been tampered with, would be to assert that the filmmakers acted as agents of law enforcement.

If the journalists were acting as private individuals, Durst would not be able to argue that he had an expectation of privacy under the U.S. Constitution's Fourth Amendment, which only applies to government action, Galluzzo said.

Durst, who is estranged from the family that controls one of New York's largest real estate empires, also inspired the 2010 Hollywood movie “All Good Things.”

The Durst Organization oversees the lease and maintenance of One World Trade Center, the western hemisphere's tallest skyscraper, built on the site of the twin towers destroyed in al Qaeda's hijacked airliner attack on Sept. 11, 2001.

The company says it owns 11 Manhattan office towers.

“We are relieved and also grateful to everyone who assisted in the arrest of Robert Durst,” said his brother, Douglas Durst. “We hope he will finally be held accountable for all he has done.”

Durst charged with murder, movie confession likely admissible


New York real estate scion and accused murderer Robert Durst's bathroom muttering that he “killed them all” would likely be admissible evidence in a murder trial, legal experts said on Monday.

Durst, the subject of a six-part HBO documentary series called “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst,” was picked up by a filmmaker's microphone apparently acknowledging his crimes and admitting that he was “caught.”

He was formally charged on Monday in the first-degree murder of a longtime friend, writer Susan Berman, in a 15-year-old cold case. Also on Monday, Durst agreed to be extradited to Los Angeles County from New Orleans.

He could face the death penalty in the case, which was filed by Los Angeles District Attorney Jackie Lacey with special circumstances. He is accused of murdering Berman two days before Christmas in 2000.

Long estranged from his powerful family with its major New York real estate holdings, the eccentric Durst has been tried and acquitted in the death of another person in Texas and was a suspect in the disappearance of his wife.

Considered a flight risk, he was arrested on Saturday at a New Orleans hotel on a warrant from Los Angeles County, according to a police report, which noted that he was in possession of a revolver.

He was taken into custody the day before his chilling statement aired during the final minutes of the HBO series.

Whether Durst's apparent confession will be admissible at trial would likely be the subject of a pre-trial hearing that would “certainly be the centerpiece of the legal battle,” said Robert Mintz, a former federal prosecutor now at the McCarter & English law firm.

“It turns on whether or not there was an expectation of privacy,” he added.

Paul Callan, a former New York City homicide prosecutor, believes the statement will be admitted as evidence because Durst could not have had an expectation of privacy in a public restroom when he was wearing a microphone.

Matthew Galluzzo, a defense lawyer and former prosecutor in New York, said the recording is “probably admissible.”

The only way Durst's lawyers could challenge it, Galluzzo said, aside from showing that the recording has been tampered with, is to assert that the HBO filmmakers were acting as agents of law enforcement.

Series director Andrew Jarecki, speaking on Good Morning America on Monday, said he was unaware of the apparent confession for more than two years after it was recorded, and that his team reached out to law enforcement after an editor discovered it during a review of the tape.

“We've been in contact with law enforcement for the past two years,” he said. “And so, when we finally found that subsequent admission, what happens in the bathroom, we contacted them and we said we have something more.”

Durst, 71, maintained his innocence after the possible confession.

“We're ready to go to California and to have a trial,” defense attorney Dick DeGuerin said after Durst appeared in a New Orleans court in an orange jumpsuit and handcuffs.

POLICE MUM ON EVIDENCE

The Los Angeles Police Department said the timing of Durst's arrest had nothing to do with the finale of the documentary.

Officer Rosario Herrera said on Monday she could not comment on whether detectives were aware of the finale and its contents.

“The arrest was made through evidence,” she told Reuters, declining to say what that evidence revealed.

The warrant, issued on Wednesday by Los Angeles County, is for the death of Susan Berman, whose body was discovered in her West Los Angeles home on Christmas Eve in 2000, authorities said.

Durst was booked on Monday in a New Orleans jail on charges of being a felon in possession of a firearm and possessing a firearm with a controlled substance, according to court records. A state police official told the Times-Picayune newspaper that the substance was marijuana.

Berman, a friend from graduate school, served as Durst's spokeswoman after his first wife disappeared, according to the New York Times.

Durst was questioned but not charged in the death of Kathleen Durst in 1982, and he was acquitted of murder in a third case in 2001.

In the final installment of the HBO series, Durst was talking to himself when he appeared to say he carried out all three killings.

The documentary showed an interview session during which he rejected a piece of evidence against him. Durst then went to the bathroom, still wearing the microphone, when he whispered, “There it is, you're caught… What a disaster.”

He added: “What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course.”

Durst's transfer to California is being held up as local prosecutors in New Orleans weigh bringing unspecified charges against him, his attorney said.

Robert Durst’s Jewish background


Jewish real estate scion Robert Durst, the subject of a recent HBO documentary miniseries, is currently awaiting extradition to Los Angeles after being arrested by the FBI in a New Orleans hotel Sunday evening, March 15. FBI officials say they have new evidence linking Durst to the 2000 killing of his friend Susan Berman in her Hollywood Hills home.

Durst is the son of Seymour Durst, a estate investor, and Bernice Herstein. He grew up in Scarsdale, N.Y., one of four siblings. Durst's grandfather, Joseph Durst, immigrated to America as a penniless Jewish immigrant tailor from Austria-Hungary, then went on to become a prosperous real estate manager and developer, starting in 1915 what eventually became the Durst Organization.

Robert Durst was once considered a possible successor to his father at the Durst Organization, a firm that now reportedly owns billions of dollars worth of property across midtown Manhattan, Robert Durst’s relationship with his family began to deteriorate in the early 1990s, after his brother Douglas was chosen to lead the organization following their father’s retirement.

Though the 71 year-old Durst waved his right to an extradition hearing Monday morning, March 16, his return to Los Angeles was delayed as local prosecutors considered filing charges against him, possibly in connection with marijuana police say he had in his possession at the time of his arrest, according to the Los Angeles Times.

In the final episode of “The Jinx,” the HBO documentary directed by Andrew Jarecki, Durst appears to walk into a bathroom during an interview and confess to the crime while talking to himself, apparently unaware that the microphone he was wearing was still recording.

“What the hell did I do,” Durst whispered. “Killed them all, of course.”

Jarecki acknowledged in interviews with various media outlets on Monday that he had been in communication with law enforcement for two years while working on “The Jinx,” though he denied having any knowledge or role in the timing of the arrest, which took place just hours before the final episode of the miniseries aired on television. The Los Angeles Police Department said Monday that there was no connection between the show’s finale and the decision to arrest, according to Times.

Durst has been a suspect or person of interest in three separate deaths, beginning with his former wife, Kathleen “Kathie” McCormack Durst, in 1982. Though police questioned Robert Durst during their investigation of Kathie Durst’s disappearance, he was never charged. Though Kathie Durst’s body was never found, she was declared dead in 2001.

In 2000, soon after New York State Police reopened the case into Kathie Durst’s disappearance, Robert Durst’s longtime friend Susan Berman was found shot execution-style in her Benedict Canyon home.

New York prosecutor Jeanine Pirro said Berman had been on a list of witnesses she wished to interview as part of her renewed investigation of Kathie Durst’s disappearance, fueling public suspicion that knowledge of Kathie’s death may have led to her own murder. Police again questioned Robert Durst but did not press charges.

Berman and Durst first met in the 1960s while they were both students at UCLA. An author and journalist, Berman was the daughter of Las Vegas organized crime figure David “Davie the Jew” Berman, who died during surgery in 1957, when Susan was still a child. Susan Berman eventually wrote a memoir, “Easy Street,” recounting her life as the daughter of mob royalty in Minneapolis and Las Vegas.

Less than a year after Berman’s death, Durst was arrested in Galveston, Texas after his elderly neighbor, Morris Black, was found dismembered and floating in the Galveston Bay. Durst had moved to Texas to avoid media attention as result of the Berman death, his lawyers said at the time.

Durst claimed self-defense to a charge of murder, though he admitted during the trial to dismembering and dumping Black’s body. A jury ultimately acquitted Durst of murder, but he received a five-year sentence after pleading guilty to jumping bond and tampering with evidence.

Over the years, Durst has had various other run-ins with the law.

Robert Durst sued the Durst family trusts and its trustees, though the case was settled in 2006 when the he agreed to give up his interest in the family fortune in exchange for a $65 million payout. He has long been estranged from his family, various members of which have, at different times, filed restraining orders against him.

Durst’s lawyer, Chip Lewis, told the Times that he does not expect Durst to be extradited to Los Angeles today. 

‘Night Will Fall’ lifts a curtain on concentration camp atrocities


The first time I saw the horrific newsreels of the liberation of the concentration camps, showing mountains of skeletons piled up and skulls staring out of empty eye sockets, was in 1959.

By a fluke, I had a bit part playing a court translator at a war-crimes trial in the “Playhouse 90” TV production of “Judgment at Nuremberg.” The producers decided to give the cast a preview of the concentration camp footage presented as evidence at the trial.

When the short newsreel finished, there was a stunned silence. After what seemed like an eternity, Maximilian Schell, who portrayed the German defense attorney (as he did in the later feature film), stood up and said quietly, “I want everyone to know I am not German; I am Swiss.”

In the intervening decades, photos and newsreels showing the death camps, with their crematoriums and walking dead, have become almost commonplace, with repetition and the passage of time attesting to the human ability to go on with daily life after peering into the fires of hell.

But thoughts of those first revelations floated back to the surface last week when I watched a screening of director Andre Singer’s documentary “Night Will Fall,” the raw footage of which had been stored in the archives of the Imperial War Museum in London for more than 60 years. The new documentary, which

We need a rematch: Maher vs. Affleck vs. Harris


I have one word for Ben Affleck, Sam Harris and Bill Maher: Rematch.

The three of them began an argument on Oct. 10 on HBO’s “Real Time With Bill Maher” that came to an end when the episode concluded. It needs to continue.

At issue was whether Islam is, in Maher’s view, a hotbed of bad ideas that, “like the Mafia,” eliminates those who cross it. Affleck countered that to argue such a proposition is inherently bigoted.

“It’s gross, it’s racist,” Affleck said. “It’s like saying ‘shifty Jew.’”

Maher, a liberal, said liberals won’t criticize Islam for fear of being accused of Islamophobia. “Every criticism gets confused with bigotry,” he said.

Harris took Maher’s side, though with far more nuance than the format allowed. 

“We’re misled to think that the fundamentalists [in Islam] are the fringe,” he said. Out of a religion of a billion and a half people, Harris said, many millions either support, or accept, fanatical views. By way of example, he quoted a poll that found a majority of Egyptians support the death penalty for heretics.

“We have to be able to criticize bad ideas,” Harris said, “and Islam right now is the mother lode of bad ideas.”

(Also on the show was New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who probably has spent more time in Muslim countries than all the panelists combined. He tried to come to Affleck’s defense but was drowned out. Times columnists do terribly on these shows — they just aren’t bred for the ring.)

 

The whole debate lasted just a few minutes, onscreen. But man, did it resonate against the constant, gruesome news of Islam Gone Wild: In Iran, the fundamentalist Shiite regime hanged a woman for the crime of defending herself against her rapist. In Iraq the Sunni ISIS lined up dozens of men, women and children from a Sunni tribe they considered disloyal and shot them, one by one. An ISIS militant slit the throat of a hostage British aid worker. And, in a just as disturbing bit of news, it was reported that Tunisia’s nascent and promising democracy produces more recruits for ISIS than any other Arab country. All of which points to the fact that understanding fundamentalism, how ancient texts move through historic cultures and into modern society, is one of the most pressing issues of our time.

Real Time brought into the open this long-overdue debate and did it in a way that shuffled the ideological deck. Affleck/Kristof said you can’t criticize a whole religion for the behavior of a minority. Maher/Harris said it’s not such a minority, and of course you can. This was liberals fighting over how Muslims can have more liberty, including the liberty to criticize Islam.  

Not surprisingly, two of the most thoughtful and unexpected reactions came from Muslims who want more liberty.

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Salam Al-Marayati and Maher Hathout, leaders of the Muslim American community in Southern California, took a stand that did what Maher and Harris suggested without directly crediting them.

“We Muslims must liberate ourselves from the shackles of dogmatic traditions such as sectarianism, tribalism, chauvinism and theocracy,” they wrote,  “all of which contradict Islamic ethics based in the Quran and the authenticated traditions of the Prophet Mohammed.”

It was, as David Lehrer points out in these pages, a brave step for any Muslim leader.  As if to (sadly) underscore that point, an ISIS sympathizer shot a Shia community leader in the face outside an Islamic center on Nov. 3  — in Sydney, Australia.  According to eyewitnesses, the attackers shouted, “ISIS lives forever!” before opening fire. Clearly, a lot more is at stake than winning a TV debate. 

The other reaction came from a Muslim Pakistani woman living in Canada, a children’s book author who goes by the name of Eiynah. After publishing a sweet children’s book against homophobia, “My Chacha (Uncle) Is Gay,” Eiynah became the target of numerous death threats. 

“Why are Muslims being ‘preserved’ in some time capsule of centuries gone by?” she wrote in an open letter to Affleck. “Why is it okay that we continue to live in a world where our women are compared to candy waiting to be consumed? Why is it okay for women of the rest of the world to fight for freedom and equality while we are told to cover our shameful bodies? Can’t you see that we are being held back from joining this elite club known as the 21st century?

“Noble liberals like yourself always stand up for the misrepresented Muslims and stand against the Islamophobes, which is great but who stands in my corner and for the others who feel oppressed by the religion? Every time we raise our voices, one of us is killed or threatened.”

The first Affleck/Maher/Harris debate, as these things do, set out the most extreme, sound-bitey positions. Now it’s time to take an hour or so, bring in some actual Muslims, maybe a woman or two, and really hash out the issue. The fact that the debate continues as a source of contention, bitterness and heartfelt pleas means we’re ready for Round 2. 

No, we’re not just ready — we need it.


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

Why there is still no ‘Entourage’ movie


It seems the “Entourage” cast members could use some help from someone like superagent Ari Gold.

The movie version of the HBO comedy has been in the works forever, but lots of drama has delayed it from getting off the ground. The latest hold up is due to more heated negotiations, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

It turns out Jeremy Piven, who plays Gold, is getting paid a lot more than the rest of the guys, and they’re not happy about it.

So when will this thing happen already?

“As soon as them guys stop being so greedy,” producer Mark Wahlberg told TMZ last week.

Co-star Adrian Grenier had this to say via Instagram a couple of days later.

To all Entourage fans. I owe it to you to make a couple things clear. I take my role as Vince on the show & off very seriously. All decisions I make personally & for business are for the principle of friendship and brotherhood. It has, & never will be about the money for me. I promise. I will always stand up for the boys (that includes you) & do what I can to make sure they are treated fairly, and not be taken advantage of by anybody. The spirit of Entourage is about sharing the opportunities given to us and I will sign any deal that gives ALL the boys an opportunity to share in the upside of success EQUALLY. I assure you, despite the perception, there is no greed in my heart. Remember, it will all work out in the end. It always does. —— I will try to answer questions with hashtag #entourageboysshare

It’s been a while since the show’s finale, but, wow, it looks like someone’s really stayed in character.

Watch: ‘Girls’ season 3 teaser


Newsflash: Season three of “Girls” is in production! For those fans who are already chomping at the bit, HBO has put together this 31-second photo slideshow of (Jewish) creator Lena Dunham and the rest of the (heavily Jewish) cast at work.

Don’t get too excited–it’s called a “teaser” for a reason.

No business like the news business: Aaron Sorkin on ‘Newsroom’


Aaron Sorkin, the playwright, television writer and Oscar-winning screenwriter of “The Social Network,” is causing a stir with his new HBO series, “The Newsroom,” about the inside antics of a cable news show and its commentary on American journalism. Sorkin’s “The West Wing” and “Sports Night,” among others, have earned the veteran show creator a reputation for intense examinations of institutional milieus — government, sports and now the news industry. He’s also distinguished himself through his style of writing, famous for its prolix dialogue, withering wit and moral idealism, for which he ranks among the most literary of Hollywood writers. In an e-mail interview, Sorkin expounded on the journalism he trusts, how he copes with bad reviews and the unique rewards of having a daughter.

Read more at jewishjournal.com/hollywoodjew.

Is HBO’s ‘Girls’ about young women’s struggles, or some women’s privileges?


“Girls” begins with the conversation that many parents of 20-somethings dream of having someday real soon with their floundering children: No. More. Money.

This is what the parents of 24-year-old Hannah Horvath, played by series creator, director and writer Lena Dunham, tell her over dinner. She is two years out of college working as an unpaid intern at an indie publishing house living in a crappy apartment in Greenpoint, Brooklyn with a roommate while being heavily subsidized by her professor parents.

Sound familiar? It should. Over the last half-decade, countless articles have chronicled the exploits and failings of the Millennials, the generation whose experience is being represented on this show. And as many accounts have noted, this cohort has had a more difficult time than previous generations finding jobs and adult identities, with some remaining dependent financially on their sympathetic Boomer parents. Hannah’s own father, when confronted by the pathetic sight of his daughter, high on opium tea, mumbling on the floor, declares to his wife, “It’s hard for me to watch her struggle.” He is undoubtedly echoing the sentiments of many a parent who has mailed a check to his post-college child.

But watch them struggle we will, and it won’t be pretty. However it’s a particular type of struggle and not one that is very easy to get behind. “Girls” is not the story of underdogs, the children of immigrants or even a young adult from a middle-class background struggling in a recession that has been particularly hard on recent graduates. It follows four daughters of upper-class privilege—Hannah, Marnie, Jessa and college student Shoshana. These young women are not encountering institutional barriers to success but their own too-fortunate upbringings, which reinforced the idea that the lives and careers that awaited them were special and meaningful. They were not expecting boring nine-to-fives where no one saw them as unique snowflakes who have lived enough to write memoirs, as Hannah is doing while her parents foot the bills. (Hilariously, hers seems to be about six pages long, as befitting a 24-year-old who hasn’t been a child soldier, battled a life-threatening illness or escaped from a cult.)

One blogger humorously suggested that the series could be renamed “First World Problems.” And in that, you can detect the majority of the criticisms of the program. After being feted by nearly every major critic before its April 15 premiere on HBO, the backlash, which was predictably fierce, has largely been about the white privilege of the characters, how the problems of the characters are hardly representative of Millennial women with student loans, or from the lower socioeconomic strata, or who work multiple jobs to make ends meet. Which is to say, most of them.

Add to this casting decisions—in addition to Dunham, who is Jewish and the daughter of artist Laurie Simmons, the other three women are from equally if not more prestigious backgrounds – that make the cries of “class/racial privilege” seem even more credible. The other three leads in the pilot are played by Allison Williams, the daughter of NBC News anchor Brian Williams; Zosia Mamet, progeny of the famed playwright David Mamet; and Jemima Kirke, the daughter of the drummer of the rock band Bad Company. While all four are quite good in their parts—the acting throughout is naturalistic—the choices do seem a little culturally tone deaf. It’s one thing to watch a show about privilege. It’s quite another, more uncomfortable thing to watch one cast entirely comprised of its beneficiaries, which is then touted through its marketing and via interviews as representing all women.

While white privilege and class privilege are certainly nothing new on television—“Two and a Half Men” is a show about white male privilege if ever there was one—it is not entirely unfair to criticize “Girls” on these grounds, either. Unlike “Men” and many of the female-centric comedies that premiered this fall, which merely aim to be funny, “Girls” seems to aspire to do more than get laughs. It aims to be a realistic depiction of young women today. And this generation, which has been frequently called “multiracial,” helped elect President Obama and protested economic inequality en masse at Occupy Wall Street. Some awareness of these “facts on the ground” would be welcome, especially when one chooses to set it in Brooklyn, which is actually only one-third white.

While I definitely subscribe to the write-what-you-know camp (hello—I primarily write for Jewish publications), I guess I’m disappointed that Dunham seems to “know” so little of New York, much less the world. Thus far, her work, which also includes the semi-autobiographical feature, “Tiny Furniture,” has betrayed a stunning lack of curiosity about other strata of the city in which she was born and raised.

I really wanted to like this show. Not am I only part of its target demographic (albeit at the tail end)—I’m 29, I live in Brooklyn (in addition to being born and raised here) and have a creative career—but I loved the idea of a woman like Dunham, at the age of just 25, being given unprecedented creative control over a series. And perhaps because I and many others like me had been hoping for more, we were bound to be disappointed.

Over at Jezebel, Dodai Stewart writes, “If ‘Girls’ was merely a terrible show with zero potential, none of this would be up for discussion. Part of the problem is that the creator, Lena Dunham, and the premise—a kind of more realistic ‘Sex and The City’—have so much potential.”

And she’s right—there is actually stuff to like about “Girls.” The female characters aren’t total caricatures. They don’t fit neatly into archetypes—the creative one, the smart one, the prim one and the slut—as they did on the show’s predecessor, “Sex and the City.” The dialogue felt natural even if a bit too much of it referred to social media. (We get it—kids these days narrate their lives on Twitter and don’t use their phones as phones.) It was also squeamishly entertaining to watch the least sexy sex scene I’ve ever seen on television. It was a nice change of pace from the highly stylized iterations we typically see on TV where everyone’s always having fun and no one’s head accidentally hits the headboard. And in this television season where writers have used “vagina” as a punch line, as though the term in and of itself was humorous, Dunham actually lands a vagina joke that is legitimately funny.

Are bad sex and vag jokes enough to get me to tune in to future episodes? Well, while I’m inclined to give the show another shot and see how Dunham and Co. develop the characters, unfortunately I’m part her target demographic. This means I don’t have a subscription to HBO. Ultimately, “Girls” might be for the parents of post-collegiate girls who want to see how their retirement savings are being spent.

How Tel Aviv became big business in Hollywood


In December 2009, Avi Nir, the chief executive of one of Israel’s largest broadcasting and production companies, invited the Hollywood agent Rick Rosen to spend a day at Keshet’s Tel Aviv office. Nir, who has a reputation among his Hollywood counterparts for being an aggressive visionary, sensed an epic change afoot in the Israeli entertainment industry. Soon, it would be producing more content than the country could commercially support. So Nir turned his hungry eyes toward the American marketplace. Hollywood, he figured, could offer opportunities. Not only as an entrée into a lush foreign market, but also as a model for how to export entertainment around the world. And Rosen, he thought, could teach the Israelis a few tricks. With the right sell, Rosen, a partner at the renowned William Morris Endeavor agency, could even become an advocate.

After a handful of morning meetings, Nir took Rosen to lunch at an Italian restaurant, where he described a new Israeli series titled “Hatufim,” or “Prisoners of War.”

“Do you know who Gilad Shalit is?” Rosen recalled Nir asking, in a recent interview. “Well, imagine if there are three Gilad Shalits, and two come back as heroes, and then you find out that maybe things aren’t exactly as they appear to be, maybe one of them was working for the Mossad. Do you think that could work in the States?”

Rosen thought for a second. “Absolutely,” he said. “If the returning soldiers are Americans from Iraq or Afghanistan.” Before 9/11, Americans may not have had an appetite — or an understanding — of living in a nation perpetually at war, but suddenly, Israel and the United States had something psychically important in common. “I know the perfect person to do this,” Rosen told Nir. “Howard Gordon.”

Rosen remembers Nir’s excitement at the prospect of Gordon, the award-winning producer of “24,” working on an Israeli show. A few days later, when Rosen touched down in Los Angeles, he called Gordon from the airport. “I have your next show,” he said. And thus, “Homeland” was born.

“Homeland” is now the eminent example of how an Israeli idea can transform into an American sensation. The Showtime series, which completed its first season in December, is a psychological thriller about a mentally unhinged CIA agent, Carrie Mathison, played by Claire Danes, who suspects returning Iraq veteran Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) of having been “turned” by terrorists. Inspired by the Israeli version “Hatufim,” about three soldiers returning from 17 years of captivity in Lebanon, “Homeland” just won the Golden Globe award for best dramatic television series and has been responsible for a surge in the pay-cable channel’s subscribers, helping edge it closer to its rival, HBO. “Homeland’s” critical acclaim has been equally prodigious: The New York Times’ Alessandra Stanley devoted an entire column to last season’s series finale, calling it “a clever, maddening and irresistible invitation to keep watching” — just the type of criticism every show craves. Mark Kaner, president of 20th Century Fox Television Distribution, said “Homeland” has been sold into 31 major territories around the world, and he expects the show to produce profits comparable to Gordon’s previous hit, “24,” which Kaner described as an “enormous” financial success.

“It’s sort of embarrassing at this point,” Gordon said of the effusive praise. “I only look at it as having further to fall.”

But here in Hollywood, and 9,000 miles away in Israel, everyone else is looking at “Homeland” as a paragon. As the Israeli entertainment industry becomes a font of innovation and creativity, Hollywood is serving as both mentor and marketplace, helping the tiny Middle Eastern country turn local ingenuity into an international commodity.

Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison in the Golden Globe-winning Showtime series, based on Israel’s “Hatufim.” Photo by Ronen Akerman/Showtime

Indeed, Israel’s popularity as a content creator has prompted a feeding frenzy in Hollywood; at least six Israeli formats (Hollywood jargon for story lines, on which adaptations are based) are currently in various stages of development, including the police procedural “The Naked Truth” at HBO, the time-travel musical “Danny Hollywood” at the CW, the divorce sitcom “Life Isn’t Everything” at CBS and the small-town murder mystery drama “Pillars of Smoke” (aka “Midnight Sun”) at NBC. Considering how hard it is to get any show on the air, some American writers have joked that they’d have better luck getting Hollywood’s attention if they hit in Israel first. Director Jon Turteltaub, for example, recently announced that he is attached to direct the remake of the popular Israeli film “A Matter of Size,” a smash on the festival circuit, which Paramount Pictures will produce. The activity back and forth has become so substantial of late that many of Israel’s writers, producers and even the major networks are now being represented by U.S. talent agencies. As content increases, so does competition.

“Every Israeli who ever put pen to paper — talented or not — now thinks they’re going to become millionaires in the United States, and it’s getting a little bit ridiculous,” Rosen said.

Inclined to play the part of the superior parent, Hollywood has responded to this escalating business relationship by downplaying it. At a recent event at UCLA sponsored by the Younes & Soraya Nazarian Center for Israel Studies at which Gordon appeared as keynote speaker, he cautioned against unwarranted excitement. “Is there a story?” he asked. “Is there a pipeline between Israeli content creators and American producers? Because, sometimes stories tend to inflate themselves and become bigger than they are.”

What’s clear is this: Many in Hollywood believe it is too early to tell whether the current frenzy will last. Some say they have already begun to see the effects of commercialization on Israeli content. And so far, only two shows — “In Treatment” and “Homeland” — have succeeded in crossing over to an American audience. Others were utter failures: CBS’ “The Ex List,” which premiered in October 2008, lasted less than a month, with only half the produced episodes airing, and Fox’s “Traffic Light,” which premiered in February 2011, lasted only through May.

But anyone who knows Israelis knows that they are indefatigable. And they’re not likely to surrender to a little bad luck as long as the Hollywood connection presents a dual opportunity to triumph on the world stage. At the very least, these opportunities could inject serious cash into Israel’s economy, but the more monumental prospect lies in the ability of entertainment imagery to influence public discourse and opinion.

For people who have either a fixed or unformed image of Israel, the way Israeli life and Israeli values are transmitted through film and television could expand their impressions of the Jewish state. Because as any lover of film or literature knows, the pleasures of culture can be so powerful as to make a consumer feel connected to its creator. So imagine what it would mean for a viewer in Spain or France or China to discover that his favorite show originates in Israel, and to feel connected to the humanity of the stories Israel tells about itself. It could, as many dearly hope, illuminate Israel in a completely new way.

“God knows how many people have heard about ‘In Treatment’ and ‘Homeland’ being Israeli shows and are kind of thinking to themselves, ‘Maybe they’re not savages,’ ” the Israeli actress and “In Treatment” producer Noa Tishby said. “Maybe it’s not Afghanistan over there.”

Zionism and the three-picture deal


At the Golden Globe Awards in January, producer Howard Gordon stepped up to the stage to accept the award for Best Television Series — Drama for co-creating the breakout Showtime hit “Homeland.” In a single season, the show has become a sensation, edging the pay-cable channel closer to its rival HBO in number of subscribers and garnering profuse media attention and acclaim.

Gordon has much to be grateful for. At the Globes, he thanked his cast, his agent and a handful of television executives — but absent from his speech was any mention of the show’s secret shining star, the incubator of its concept, and its original homeland: Israel.

“When I walked offstage,” Gordon said in an interview after the event, “I said to Gidi Raff,” — the Israeli creator of “Hatufim,” upon which “Homeland” is based — “‘Did I remember to say thank you to …? In my head, it was: ‘Thank you to [my agent] Rick Rosen for bringing us this show from Israel.’ And he said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘Are you sure?’ ” Two weeks later, Gordon, a consistent Israel supporter, was remorseful. “Honestly, it was one of those moments where you go up there and you see Morgan Freeman yawning and the red light is flashing saying, ‘Wrap up,’ and you’re in shock.”

“Homeland’s” lead actress, Claire Danes, who also won a Golden Globe that night for playing Carrie Mathison, the show’s intensely driven, bipolar CIA agent, also left Israel off her list, though she did mention that after winning the same award 17 years ago for “My So-Called Life,” she had walked offstage crying because she forgot to thank her parents.

The omission, however, was a missed opportunity for the Globes’ nearly 17 million viewers to hear that the “Homeland” win was also a big moment for Israel: Three years after another Israeli-inspired show, HBO’s “In Treatment,” was up for the same honor, “Homeland” became the first Israeli format to win the Globes’ top TV award. But perhaps it will inspire a growing cadre of pro-Israel Hollywood movers and shakers to spread the word. Because with the success of such shows as “Homeland” and “In Treatment,” and the potential of many others currently in development, the industry has begun to see Israel as a great new resource, a fact of which very few Americans are aware. As director Jon Turteltaub put it, “You, me and 11 other people know.” 

This new trend reflects more than a triumph of good ratings, good writing and good luck — it is the love child of a deepening relationship between Hollywood and Israel that has been steadily building over the past several years. That’s right: The image of Hollywood as home to so-called self-hating Jews who have perennially distanced themselves from the Jewish state, whether out of apathy, ambivalence, fear, alternate priorities, shame, political disillusionment or, perhaps, just plain career absorption, has given way to the reality of an industry drawing closer to Israel than ever before.

All this is the result of a few strategic initiatives over the past five or six years that have been aimed at getting prominent entertainment leaders to connect with Israel’s burgeoning industry. Among them is an annual Master Class program organized by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, which each year brings Hollywood “masters” like Nina Tassler, president of CBS Entertainment, to Israel to teach aspiring young film and television artists.

Just as pivotal has a been a series of trips by a select group of A-list Hollywood tastemakers that William Morris agent-turned-independent-manager David Lonner has been sponsoring since 2006 — largely on his own dime. Lonner’s guest list has included filmmakers Alexander Payne (“The Descendants”), Davis Guggenheim (“Waiting for Superman”) and Turteltaub (“National Treasure”), as well as producer Darren Star (“Sex and the City,” “Beverly Hills, 90210”) and Sony Pictures Entertainment co-chair Amy Pascal, whom Forbes magazine once called “arguably the most high-powered woman in Hollywood.”   

The timing for all these trips has been both intentional and providential, because they came just as Israel’s creative industry was undergoing an explosion in productivity and quality that many are comparing to the trajectory of Israel’s high-tech industry. Hollywood was able to get in on the ground floor. The start-up nation, as it turns out, is not only adept at technological and medical innovation, as well as energy efficiency, it is also darn good at making movies and television. Since 1964, Israel has garnered 10 Oscar nominations for best foreign language films — four of them in just the past five years.

Even bigger right now is the Israeli television industry, which, since 2007, has seen at least 10 Israeli television “formats” (industry slang for media concepts that can be translated or adapted into different markets internationally) sold into the Hollywood marketplace. Israeli-inspired “The Ex-List” (CBS) and “Traffic Light” (Fox) were short-lived, but many more, including CBS’ “Life Isn’t Everything,” HBO’s “The Naked Truth,” NBC’s “Midnight Sun” and the CW’s “Danny Hollywood” all are in various stages of development. The exchange between the two countries is now so substantial that people often speak of a “pipeline” going back and forth. And the mainstream media, including the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times and Nikki Finke’s Deadline.com all have taken note.

“Not since Golda Meir wanted everyone to make and write ‘Exodus’ has there been so much activity,” Ben Silverman, founder and CEO of Electus and the former co-chairman of NBC Entertainment, said in a recent interview.

“I do think there’s a renaissance happening,” said Sherry Lansing, the former studio chief of Paramount Pictures, who is responsible for organizing the first high-profile Hollywood mission to Israel, in 1984.

Ben Stiller to star in HBO series about Jewish family


Ben Stiller reportedly has signed on to direct, produce and star in an HBO original series about a Jewish family called “All Talk.”

The script is being written by Jonathan Safran Foer and the series, set in Washington, will co-star Alan Alda.

According to the Hollywood Reporter, the show is billed as “politically, religiously, culturally, intellectually and sexually irreverent.

Shooting is set to begin in the fall.

Contrary to type, Larry David’s not at all neurotic


Three adjectives are often used to describe Larry David, the star and creator of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” which recently premiered its eighth season after two excruciating Curb-less years.

One is “bespectacled,” which is fair enough. Another is “bald,” a signifier that David’s television alter-ego regards as a traditionally oppressed tribal identity (spitting in biblical fury when the assimilationists among this imagined fraternity of the hairless attempt to “pass” under the camouflage of a baseball cap or, God forbid, a toupee). Finally, and most ubiquitously, he is “neurotic.”

“Larry David plays himself as a bald, bespectacled neurotic,” The New York Times wrote in a review of the new season.

“Larry David plays a neurotic fussbudget named Larry David,” The Washington Post said in 2010.

“He’s officially an L.A. neurotic,” the New York Post recently bemoaned.

Far be it for me to argue with writers for such august publications. But having said that, I don’t think any of these people actually knows what “neurotic” means, other than a word you swap in when you think it’s impolite to say “Jew.”

I can’t speak to the inner tumult of the real Larry David, the writer and actor behind the bald, bespectacled mask. I’ve never met the man. (If I ever did, we either would circle each other silently in a moonlit forest clearing before gently pressing our foreheads together like unicorns performing a mating rite, or within five minutes each lie dead by the other’s hand.) Yet by any measure — and certainly compared to his Jewish comedic contemporaries — Larry David is a character remarkably free of internal conflict.

Psychoanalytic theory holds that neurosis occurs when the different parts of the personality are at war with each other. Now think of Larry David: He has no internal conflicts; he’s difficult, but he’s content.

Not for him the unrelenting angst of Albert Brooks or the comically tattered sense of self-esteem of Richard Lewis (a frequent “Curb Your Enthusiasm” guest star). As for the Grand Emperor of Neurotics, Woody Allen (and David’s director in the 2009 film “Whatever Works”), the two men’s public personas could hardly be more different. Apart from the glasses, the Brooklyn accent and their Jewishness, David is, in effect, the anti-Allen.

Skeptical? Consider, for a start, their attitudes toward women. A defining theme in Allen’s oeuvre, women are no more than an afterthought in David’s, and the latter gives his female stars far more interesting things to do. (Just think of Susie Essman’s volcanically foul-mouthed Susie Green.)

David is no romantic; he wouldn’t have lasted five minutes with a whimsical naive like Annie Hall.

In the first episode of “Curb” latest season, David’s divorce from Cheryl is finalized. First, though, there is a possibility of reconciliation, which David characteristically bungles. Cheryl leaves and then David just cuts to his divorce lawyer one year later. One can imagine Allen commemorating this event with a sentimental montage of happier times; Larry is more concerned with Dodgers tickets and whether his divorce lawyer is lying to him about being Jewish.

Nor does sex hold him in any particular thrall. In a recent episode, as Jeff, Leon and Marty Funkhauser are rendered all but catatonic by the bodacious ta-tas on Richard Lewis’ burlesque-dancer girlfriend — Lewis, in true Allen fashion, can only bring himself to admit he admires her for her mind — Larry calmly slurps his drink and later matter of factly informs her that she has a mole on the underside of her right breast that she really ought to get checked out.

In all realms, sexual David is refreshingly un-creepy. In the world of “Curb,” Jeff and Susie’s teenage daughter, Sammy, is Larry’s antagonist. In the world of Allen’s films, she’d be a love interest.

Their relationships with technology are at odds as well. Compare Allen’s famous war with machines to Larry’s primal rage at vacuum packaging. Allen blames himself for his difficulties. With Larry, it’s the package’s fault. For David, the conflict is always external, and this lack of introspection characterizes virtually all of his interpersonal actions.

When David refuses to add an additional tip for the servers at the country club, the problem isn’t his parsimony, it’s the server’s greed. He feels similarly in the right when he tries to rescind his order for Girl Scout cookies or screams at the neighborhood kids for serving him subpar lemonade. Why should he allow himself to be taken advantage of?

As far as Larry is concerned, his only problem is the unreasonableness of others. He might come off like kind of an a—hole, but that’s your problem, not his. He’s a self-actualized a—hole.

It’s tempting to ascribe David’s blind unconcern for the feelings and good opinion of others on his immense fortune, which is alluded to, if rarely explicitly stated — if I had half a billion dollars, I probably wouldn’t care what anyone thought of me either. But Larry seems utterly unimpressed by the trappings of wealth — he still buys his pants at Banana Republic, for God’s sake — and as such, I propose his bizarre self-confidence comes from another, deeper source: Virtually alone among his peers, Larry David has absolutely no ambivalence about being a Jew.

From his disgust at Cheryl’s enormous Christmas tree, to the glee with which he hangs a mezuzah with his father-in-law’s special Christ Nail, to his inadvertent rescue of a Jewish man from a mildly coerced baptism, David’s outlook is essentially tribal. To him, a Jew trying to pass as a gentile is as ridiculous as a bald man in a toupee. David’s comic pose is less that of the anxious assimilationist eager to fit in than that of the clueless greenhorn making his way in a world to which he’s not sure he cares to belong.

Or perhaps he’s even more atavistic than that. Neurosis is often defined as a focus on behavioral minutiae that can border on the obsessive-compulsive, but Larry’s many preoccupations, from the unwritten laws of dry cleaning, to the proper way to treat chauffeurs, gardeners and other laborers, to the irrevocable uncleanness of certain objects (pens that have seen the inside of Jason Alexander’s ears, $50 bills laced with Funkhauser’s foot sweat) recall another endless litany of unbending edicts: the Book of Leviticus. Larry David isn’t a neurotic; he’s just demanding. Like the God of the Hebrews. He can be kind of an a—hole, too.

This was reprinted from Tabletmag.com, a new read on Jewish life.

1-800-DONTCHEAT


Two months before Arnold Schwarzenegger admitted to fathering a child with his housekeeper, I spent a week e-mailing rabbis about adultery.

My question to them was this: Would they agree to a public dialogue with the creator of an online matchmaking service for people seeking extramarital affairs?

One after another, they said no.

I understood. The Web site, AshleyMadison.com, has a whiff of sleaze about it, and the discussion was to be filmed for an upcoming HBO documentary on adultery, over which the rabbis would have no control.

But now, in the wake of the Schwarzenegger scandal and the sexual assault charges against Dominique Strauss-Kahn, there seems more than ever to be a need for an ancient religion to confront all the ways we can destroy marriages, trust, families and reputations. Temptation is not new, but technology has made it even more convenient. Is there a way for Judaism to address this directly, publicly, effectively?

All weekend, at the Shabbat table Friday night, at Temple Beth Am on Saturday, at a Milken Community High School event Sunday, on the beach at Lag b’Omer on Sunday night, three topics ruled conversation: Obama and AIPAC, Strauss-Kahn and his maid, Arnold and his maid.

We as a community can talk about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict ad infinitum, but let’s be honest: Our lives are a lot more likely to be upended by infidelity than they are by Mahmoud Abbas.

I first heard about AshleyMadison.com on my morning drive, when a radio commercial on “The Howard Stern Show” ended with the tag line, “Life is short, have an affair.” 

Really? Pushing affairs like Coca-Cola? What about, “Money is fun, rob a bank”?

Here’s how it works: People cruise AshleyMadison’s online personals looking for fellow cheaters, then purchase credits that enable them to e-mail one another. In 2009, in the slough of the recession, the company quadrupled its revenue, reaping an $8 million profit on earnings of $30 million. It has 9 million users, and growing. 

What we have is a culture of entitlement fused to a culture of convenience. Is there any inoculation against this behavior? Rabbi Ed Feinstein once posited that so much of Jewish law and culture has its origins in curbing male sexual desire. But those laws don’t have the same catchy come-on as AshleyMadison.com.

One morning, I listened to Stern perform one of his virtuoso interviews on Noel Biderman, the 39-year-old CEO of the site’s Toronto-based parent company, Avid Life Media. Happily married, loyal (Stern had him swear), a doting father, a synagogue member — where what I’d expected was a more sadistic Larry Flynt, what I heard was a thoughtful philosophy major-turned-lawyer. He almost had me convinced that AshleyMadison.com is nothing more than JDate plus 10 years.

I forwarded the link to our jewishjournal.com singles blogger, Ilana Angel. She tore off after the site and Biderman, accusing him of demeaning his Jewish heritage and destroying her belief that there are good, loyal men out there.

Biderman agreed to discuss his views of God, morality and the Seventh Commandment with Ilana and a rabbi, in a conversation moderated by me, at a synagogue. At zero hour, Rabbi Mark Borovitz of Beit T’Shuvah stepped up. Beit T’Shuvah is a treatment center for addiction, Borovitz explained, and adulterers wreak havoc on families in much the same way as addicts do.

In person, Biderman is soft-spoken and polished.  His main argument is that people are going to cheat, no matter what, so why not offer them a more discreet and safer way to do it?  He believes we Americans have a limited view on the role of cheating in saving marriages that would otherwise dissolve due to boredom or sexual incompatibility.  Other cultures, he said, are much more accepting. 

Needless to say, Biderman does not see the Seventh Commandment as a moral absolute, but rather as open to modern interpretation, as is stoning the Sabbath-breaker or nailing your slave’s ear to the doorpost.

When I pressed Biderman on whether he feels he owes a “karmic debt” for breaking up marriages and destroying lives, he said he gives to charity, then backtracked and denied feeling any such debt. His Web site is a tool, a service, he said. You don’t blame bartenders for alcoholics.

It occurred to me that what Judaism needs is its own tool that’s just as effective. In her book “Talking to God,” my wife, Rabbi Naomi Levy, recounts a true story of how she once returned a cryptic voice mail message only to have the man on the other end of the line ask her if she were “Island Girl.” The caller was a married man who had misdialed the number for a call-girl service. Instead he found himself talking to a rabbi. And he was Jewish.

Naomi and the man spoke for a long time, and he thanked her for keeping him from straying. In the end, he inspired her to write a prayer, which appears in “Talking to God,” for men and women facing temptation.

AshleyMadison.com makes it so easy to unravel the covenants of trust we have with ourselves, our loved ones, with God. Fallen leaders like Arnold seem to set the behavioral bar lower and lower.

Judaism has answers, it just doesn’t have the business model of AshleyMadison.com. Maybe some enterprising synagogue or rabbi can start a Web site, or a hotline, 1-800-DONTCHEAT, for people on the verge of infidelity.

Perhaps Noel Biderman can fund it.  I even thought of a slogan:  “Life is short, don’t screw it up.”