Anything-goes Comikaze expo has its serious side


Stormtroopers, the Joker, Gandalf the Grey, Data from “Star Trek” — no, this wasn’t West Hollywood on the night of Oct. 31, although it looked pretty similar. It was “Stan Lee’s Comikaze” — a sort of Comic-Con for Los Angeles, which recently held its fifth annual expo from Oct. 30 to Nov. 1 at the Los Angeles Convention Center, virtually assuring its attendees an early start and a late finish to Halloween.

Devotees — children and up — of comic books, sci-fi, fantasy, horror, video games and various corners of the pop culture world descended upon downtown Los Angeles dressed in cosplay that ranged from the hilarious to the revealing to the scary and downright bizarre.

There was even a weapons-check booth, and it wasn’t a joke. Attendees had to follow a strict “costume weapons policy,” which prohibited, for example, swords that could be removed from their sheaths. One official sign humorously informed parents that lost children would “be taken to the show office, and given to the goblin king.”

It also was, well, just a little bit Jewish — above and beyond the fact that Lee, the world’s most famous comic producer, is a Jew. In Sunday’s panels covering diversity in comics and entertainment, and also the religious bases behind some well-known heroes and villains, Jews, Christians, Muslims and atheists in the industry included Phil LaMarr (“Pulp Fiction,”  “Futurama”), Aly Mawji (“Silicon Valley”), David Sacks (“The Simpsons,” “Third Rock From the Sun”), Jeffrey Alan Schechter (ABC Family’s “Stitchers”) and moderator Jordan Gorfinkel, a Jewish comic book artist and cartoonist who managed the Batman franchise for DC Comics for nearly a decade.

During a panel titled “Heroes, Villains & Faith,” Gorfinkel kicked off the discussion by relating an experience where he was concerned that the dietary choices of one of his superheroes would make the character less relatable for
some readers.

“The idea behind these superheroes is that we want the maximum number of people to be able to relate to them,” Gorfinkel said, describing a situation in which a draft scene had Nightwing, from the Batman series, in a cave with Batman eating a pepperoni pizza. “I’d rather make it a vegetarian pizza, so that way, if somebody’s halal or kosher or vegetarian, they won’t feel like, ‘Oh, well, he eats salami on pizza. I can’t relate to that character anymore.’ ”

He added that agnosticism “seems to be the better approach” in order not to alienate any readers.

Mawji, who’s an Indian Muslim, when asked how he feels about being cast as a Muslim terrorist for any shows or films, said he feels “a lot of responsibility representing minorities in general on screen,” and that if he does agree to such a role — which he suggested would be a tough sell — he would need to try to “humanize” the character so that he’s not just a “cardboard cutout.”

He said he would have to weigh the impact that playing the role would have on him and his religious community against the benefit that the money would have for him and his family. 

“[A] million dollars is a lot of money but I don’t know if I could live with myself,” Mawji said. “Everybody has a price, and I’m no different, because we all have needs, and we all need to provide.”

In the previous panel, “Comics and Diversity,” the main issue, as Gorfinkel said, was whether the industry should pursue diverse casts and characters as an end, “because it reflects the real world more, because it’s what the audience demands on the business side,” or if the attitude should be a “post-racial” one that focuses solely on merit, even if “the most talented person that comes into the audition room happens to be white for 15 years in a row,” referring to a comment by Asian comic artist Joyce Chin, who said a well-known local comedy troupe hasn’t had one minority comic in its main company in 15 years.

“I know plenty of intentionally funny Asians,” Chin said. “There are lots of unintentionally funny Asians.”

“Do you feel, then, that there should be an enforced racial diversity?” Gorfinkel asked.

“Oh no, I don’t think it’s that,” Chin said. “I think they need to switch who’s doing the hiring or who’s doing the casting.”

LaMarr, an original cast member of “Mad TV” and the voice of Hermes Conrad on “Futurama,” said people could “eliminate the dynamic of racial issues” by not “identifying it as such an issue.” 

“It doesn’t have to be one,” LaMarr said.

Abdul H. Rashid, a graphic illustrator and Muslim who is Black, agreed that “it’s about the merit of the person, not the color of the skin,” then stopped himself and added as a joke, “I sound like a cliché after-school special.”

BDS backer bumped from Heroes contest


The Jewish Federations of North America bumped a leader of a Jewish pro-Palestinian group from its Jewish Community Heroes competition.

Cecilie Surasky, the deputy director of Jewish Voices for Peace, was removed because her organization is a supporter of the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign targeting investment in Israel, JFNA officials said.

Surasky had received 1,462 online votes out of more than 100,000 cast—good for 11th place—when she was removed.

“A central value of The Jewish Federations of North America is to support Israel, and the Jewish Heroes rules preclude us from accepting any nominees whose aims run counter to that mission,” Joe Berkofsky, the Federations’ managing director of communications, said in a statement.

“Our Israel Action Network is working to challenge the boycott, sanctions and divestment movement and other efforts to isolate and weaken the Jewish state. We cannot therefore support a group that seeks to harm Israel through its support for BDS.”

Surasky on her blog criticized Jewish Federation for her removal from the competition. She also rapped the group for retaining Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Manis Friedman of Minnesota in the contest, pointing to the rabbi’s widely criticized 2009 comments in Moment Magazine in which he called for the destruction of Arab holy sites, as well as the killing of “men, women, and children [and cattle],” as “the Jewish way” to fight “moral war.”

One of the country’s most prominent Chabad rabbis, Friedman later retracted his statement, calling it “irresponsible,” and suggested he was referring to the use of human shields to protect attackers. Friedman stands in fourth place in the Jewish Heroes contest.

Holocaust’s untold heroes


Shahzada Irfan was a Daniel Pearl Fellow for The Houston Chronicle and JewishJournal.com

When no other European country dared to withstand the wrath of Nazi Germany, it was the Muslims of Albania who saved a large number of Jewish people from extermination.

Albania, a Muslim majority country in Europe, opened its borders during World War II and took in thousands of Jews fleeing from different countries. They were treated like honored guests, and many were given fake names and even passports.

Read the full story at The Houston Chronicle.

The Circuit 06-30-2006


All About Aviva
It was a night of stargazing…and trying unsuccessfully to spot any flaws on the amazing “Desperate Housewife” Teri Hatcher, when Aviva Family and Children’s Services presented its annual Triumph of the Spirit Awards Gala at the Regent Beverly Wilshire. The evening sparkled as honorees recognized with Aviva Spirit of Compassion awards included Carolyn Strauss, president of HBO Entertainment; actress Raven; restaurateur and architectural designer Barbara Lazaroff, president of Imaginings Interior Design and partner and co-founder of the Wolfgang Puck group of businesses; and community leader and philanthropist Susan Casden. Hatcher served as honorary dinner chair, Jeff Garlin emceed and Macy Gray and Melissa Manchester performed.

Aviva is a nonprofit, nonsectarian, multiservice agency that provides care and treatment to abandoned, neglected, abused and at-risk youth in the greater Los Angeles community.

For more information, visit

A Nod to Heroes of Past and Present


The holiday of Passover celebrates the liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt, but the Haggadah doesn’t mention

Nachshon ben Aminadav.

Who was this man?

According to the biblical account of the Exodus, the people have no sooner left Egypt than they encounter a seemingly insurmountable obstacle — the Red Sea. As Pharaoh’s army pursues them from behind, God performs a miracle and divides the sea in order that the Israelites may walk through on dry land.

In the rabbinic retelling of this story, the crossing of the Red Sea becomes a test of the Jewish people’s faith. According to one midrash, as the people stood on the edge of the sea, each tribe said, “I’m not going in first.”

As each tribe waited for another group to take the plunge and as Moses stood praying to God, one man — Nachshon ben Aminadav — jumped into the water. This action prompted God to split the sea in order that the rest of the people could walk through safely.

Nachshon is a biblical profile in courage. Without his faith and determination, the Exodus story might have ended before it even had begun.

Even today, we are often still inspired by a contemporary Nachshon to take the first step, to lead us through uncharted waters. Within the last year, we lost two women who fulfilled that role profoundly: Rosa Parks and Betty Friedan.

Their stories are well known. Parks, who lived in Montgomery, Ala., was a civil rights activist with the NAACP in the 1940s and 1950s. Parks was an educated woman — she was among only 7 percent of blacks with a high school diploma at the time — who had been involved in desegregating the South.

On Dec. 1, 1955, Parks boarded a public bus and took an empty seat next to a black man. When told to vacate their row of seats for a white man, the man next to Parks complied. Parks did not and was arrested.

The next day, she agreed to be the plaintiff in a lawsuit by the NAACP challenging segregation on public buses. At the same time, leaders of the local Women’s Political Council took action, making 35,000 handbills calling for a bus boycott in Montgomery. It would last for more than a year and help the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. become the nation’s preeminent civil rights leader.

Friedan was a housewife earning money on the side by writing for women’s magazines, when, in 1963, she produced one of the most important books of the 20th century. “The Feminine Mystique” took aim at a central myth of postwar America: Women were happy to give up their career ambitions to be housewives. The book was based on and inspired by interviews Friedan conducted with — and surveys she distributed to — alumnae of prestigious women’s colleges.

Her surveys and interviews with women across the country made it clear that discontent with household drudgery — “the problem that has no name” — was pervasive. Yet 18 years after World War II, no one had been able to articulate this problem in a way that could galvanize an entire women’s rights movement.

In the years after “The Feminine Mystique” was published, Friedan helped to found several of the most important women’s organizations in the United States, including the National Organization for Women and the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws.

Parks was not the first black to be arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus. Friedan was not the first woman to recognize and stand up to the daily oppression suffered by women in their role as housewives. Like Parks and Friedan, it is unlikely that Nachshon was the only one willing to step into the unknown, to step into the Red Sea. But each of them was the first to inspire multitudes to follow them on what appeared to be a fool’s errand.

Nachshon looked at the sea, heard God’s command to cross and saw potential where others saw debilitating peril. He was driven by his determination to reach the Promised Land and his certainty that the Israelites were but one step behind him.

Contemporary Nachshons like Parks and Friedan inspire us because they saw potential where we remain transfixed by peril.

Our hopelessness often leads us to dismiss challenges like the ones confronted by Parks and Friedan as lost causes. Their faith, courage and hope compel us to improve conditions that are too often ignored.

In the biblical story, it would not have been enough for Nachshon alone to step into the Red Sea. The community needed someone to go first, but Nachshon needed a community behind him to walk with him toward the Promised Land. Similarly, it is not enough to celebrate the courage of leaders like Parks and Friedan. Their example should be a challenge for us to follow closely behind and to walk together into the Promised Land.

This Passover, I hope we accept their challenge to confront hopelessness with righteous action.

Simon Greer is President and CEO of Jewish Funds for Justice, a national public foundation dedicated to mobilizing the resources of American Jews to combat the root causes of domestic social and economic injustice.

 

Making Show Business Our Business


It has almost risen to the level of obsession, this concern about Hollywood Jews and Israel. Why aren’t they speaking out on Israel’s behalf? Why aren’t they flying to Israel to show their support? Why aren’t they sending gobs of money to help out?

In Los Angeles, the questions arise soon after any conversation about the Mideast conflict starts. We might not be able to calm the racket in Gaza or Jerusalem, but can’t we ratchet up the noise in Beverly Hills and Burbank?

Throughout this recent intifada, The Journal has tracked how Jews in the entertainment industry have reacted to the conflict. What we found and reported is what Rachel Abramovitz, writing in the Los Angeles Times last month, also discovered: Various and sometimes innovative efforts on Israel’s behalf by a younger generation of Hollywood Jews are not mirrored in the actions of the entertainment industry’s most powerful Jews. The foot soldiers have mobilized while their generals remain, for the most part, immobile.

Those critical of Hollywood’s reaction maintain that an A-list celebrity stepping onto the tarmac at Ben-Gurion Airport would do more for Israel’s image these days than yet another English-challenged spokesman from the Foreign Ministry on CNN.

These critics may be right, but they have chosen a glass-half-empty approach. The strong, silent studio heads and big-name celebrities make an easy target. They are a source of constant frustration to those activists who have recently tried, in a concerted and behind-the-scenes way, to push them into a more public role.

But focusing on the top billing shouldn’t blind us to the names below the title, including young-ish agents, writers, producers and directors for whom this crisis has been a watershed in their Jewish involvement. It’s true they don’t have studio-boss clout. But they are grappling to find their voice in difficult times — launching some innovative projects, raising money, organizing speakers and outreach for their peers (three such programs that I know of in the past two weeks). And they are no less frustrated than their non-entertainment industry friends at the silence of other Jews in the business. To tar these people with the brush of apathy is uninformed and shortsighted.

But what about the big names at the top of the marquee? I have three theories on why we’re not hearing more from them.

Some are already giving plenty in their own way. Take Steven Spielberg. The founder of The Righteous Persons Foundation and the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation and the creator of a movie called "Schindler’s List" is working on a movie about the birth of the Israel air force, which will probably do for Israel what "Saving Private Ryan" did for World War II veterans.

Some love Israel, but don’t support its current government. On the one hand, it is unfair to chastise American Jewish celebrities for not falling in lockstep behind Israel when many Israeli celebrities feel just as uneasy with Ariel Sharon. On the other hand, how hard is it to craft a message in support of democracy and against terror that any Jewish celebrity would be proud to stand behind?

Those celebrities who do speak out in support of Israel but against some of its government policies, such as Richard Dreyfuss, are pilloried by political opponents who want only their pro-Israel message delivered. For these Hollywood Jews, it’s damned if you don’t, more damned if you do.

Finally, this: some, maybe most Hollywood Jews just aren’t all that Jewish. Muslim, Christian and Jewish zealots all share the belief that Hollywood is home to a latent Zionist strike force ready to be mobilized the moment some top-secret, high-frequency shofar is blown. Sure, there are a lot of Jews who work in Hollywood (although even that is changing faster than the stereotype). But most of them are no more passionate about their Judaism than their Christian counterparts are about their Christianity.

Headlines don’t create a passionate and outspoken Jewish identity; upbringing and education do. It is no coincidence that the Hollywood Jews who are most outspoken on these issues have a history of Jewish involvement predating the current crisis. Some are the sons and daughters of Holocaust survivors, others were raised in culturally or religiously Jewish homes and still others entered Jewish life as part of spiritual search. As Neil Gabler documented in his seminal "An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood" (Anchor, 1989), the men who created the film industry rushed to assimilate into an America that they idealized and that their movies mythologized. But the Goldwyns and Warners had a Jewish identity ingrained by an immigrant past and anti-Semitism. New generations of Jews in Hollywood have lost that particular birthright. In the long run, creating Jewish activists, whether in Hollywood or Agoura, means building Jewish community.

The other lesson, which Americans of all creeds are quickly forgetting, is that celebrities are not heroes. As the late Joseph Campbell pointed out, the difference is clear as day: celebrities live primarily for themselves, heroes act to redeem society. Very few of us can ever be celebrities, and we ought not to wait for them to show any of us how to be heroes.

Light Eight Candles to Honor our Heroes


On the nights of Chanukah, Dec. 9-16, Jews around the country will remember a little pitcher of olive oil.
In particular, we will recall a moment from the second century BCE when one of the Temple priests searched through the rubble
of the vandalized sacred house. In the midst of the chaos wrought by the attackers, he found a single, miraculously undisturbed,
container of oil. Surrounded by the wreckage in an hour of despair, simply pouring the oil into the tarnished menorah
and pausing to relight it was an act of hope and renewal.

For years to come, people around the world will remember the image of the American flag waving in an enormous pile of twisted metal and debris in the heart of Manhattan. One rescuer, finding the flag in that rubble, broke free from the collective sense of anguish to affirm life. Like the first lights of Chanukah, the raised flag emerged as a symbol that the attack would not succeed in defeating the spirit of a resilient and determined people.

These nights of Chanukah are a perfect time for all Americans to recall the actions of the past months that returned us to an affirmation of life — stories of bravery; phone conversations with friends and family; walks in the woods or by water; personal reflections read or heard; music; and moments of silence, meditation and prayer.

We also might recall the public gatherings — the moving benefit concerts, the interfaith vigils, and the meetings and gatherings in our local communities which expressed our collective grief and our desire to move forward.

On Chanukah, we have eight days to dedicate ourselves to sustaining this renewed sense of public engagement and to continue the quiet acts that matter: caring for one another with sensitivity, pausing to appreciate our daily sustenance, and loving life in a way that will give us strength through the times ahead.

At CLAL – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership in New York, we gathered an interdenominational team of rabbis and scholars to create the following ways in which we can dedicate each night of Chanukah to an act of heroism. We began with the simple premise that Chanukah lights remind us of those who sowed light in dark times. This year, as we reflect on countless acts of courage, determination, and perseverance, we dedicate each night to a set of heroes.

First Night:

Fire fighters, police officers and everyday citizens who gave their lives to save others.

Second Night:

Doctors, counselors, volunteers with the Red Cross and others who were called on to heal, comfort and support those individuals and families who have suffered unbearable loss.

Third Night:

Government and community leaders who transcended ideological differences to build national strength and unity.

Fourth Night:

Parents and teachers who with calm and empathy, helped children cope with new fears.

Fifth Night:

Rabbis, priests, ministers, imams and other religious leaders who used their traditions to bring people together, to affirm our common humanity, and to nurture life.

Sixth Night:

Men and women who have been called up to national service, who will not be with their families for the holidays this year so that they may protect us all.

Seventh Night:

Allies around the world, who have been outspoken in their condemnation of terror.

Eighth Night:

All of us who, through our daily actions, have insisted that we will valiantly move on, strengthening America’s commitment to diversity and pluralism, ensuring that the religious and intellectual freedoms that we have fought for will continue to be a light unto all nations.

In one of the classic retellings of the Chanukah story, we read: “They entered the sanctuary, rebuilt the altar, repaired the walls, replaced the sacred vessels, and were engaged in the rebuilding for eight days.” May we, as a nation, celebrate this Chanukah as a time of both spiritual and communal rebuilding.

Honoring the Righteous


When the atrocities of the Holocaust came to public light, many unsung heroes remained in the shadows.

In a ceremony at the United Nations on Monday, some rescued Holocaust survivors met their unknown heroes, or those heroes’ family members, for the first time since the war.

The international community honored government diplomats who risked their careers and lives to save thousands of Jews fleeing Nazi terror.

The meeting took place in a ceremony before the opening of a traveling exhibit to be on display at the United Nations.

“Visa for Life: The Righteous Diplomats” was created to honor the actions of more than 65 diplomats, representing more than 22 countries, who issued thousands of visas for Jews escaping Nazi terror.

The exhibit includes never-before-seen Holocaust-era photographs and tells the stories of diplomatic rescues.

Attending the ceremony were survivors who escaped to Japan thanks to visas issued by wartime Japanese Consul Chiune Sugihara. Stationed in Kovno, Lithuania, Sugihara issued thousands of visas during the summer of 1940.

“There’s a story” that Sugihara’s wife “rubbed his hands at night because they hurt from signing all of the visas,” said Meryl Fischoff, daughter of Ben Fischoff, who received a Sugihara visa.

Fischoff’s father was a student of the Mir Yeshiva in Poland and sailed to Japan on the “Boat of 72,” named for the 72 passengers who were denied permission to disembark in Japan. They were sent back to Russia but eventually sailed back to Japan and successfully disembarked. Fischoff was the only one of six children in his family to survive the war.

Sugihara “is a real Righteous Gentile,” Meryl Fischoff said. “He could have been killed as a traitor.”

“The visa was the difference between life and death, no question,” said Rabbi David Baron, project coordinator for the New York arm of the exhibit. Collectively, he said, these diplomats issued more than 200,000 visas throughout World War II to help Jews escape to friendlier territory, despite clear government prohibitions.

Dr. Sylvia Smoller’s family was also able to escape to Japan and then to America because of Sugihara.

“The Jews somehow knew Sugihara was issuing these visas,” she said of why her father traveled to the Japanese Consulate. She received visa number 459 out of 2,000, she said.

“Everything was sheer luck,” Smoller said.

Smoller created an essay contest in honor of her rescuer called, “Sugihara — Do the Right Thing,” where high school students submit essays on moral decisions they have had to make.

“I didn’t want to be a professional survivor,” Smoller said. “It’s important to do something to honor Sugihara and make this refugee and rescue experience a living thing.”

Other diplomats honored are less well-known than Sugihara, though their contributions are no less significant.

“People ask, ‘Why would a man from China save Jews in Austria?’

“If you knew my father, you wouldn’t have to ask,” said Manli Ho, daughter of Dr. Feng Shan Ho, Chinese consul general in Vienna from 1938-1939.

Ho issued innumerable visas to Jews escaping Austria after the 1938 Nazi takeover there. With his help, Jews were able to escape to Manchuria, Shanghai and elsewhere in China — and from there to Palestine and America.

Harry Fiedler was born in China after his father and almost 20 members of his extended family received visas from Ho.

“You didn’t need a document to get into China, but you needed one to get out of Austria,” Fiedler said. His father and cousin were arrested during the 1938 Kristallnacht pogrom after obtaining the necessary documents, but were released on the strength of Ho’s visas and subsequently sailed to China.

“My father was a man who believed it was natural to feel compassion and want to help,” said Ho, who said her father hardly ever spoke of his actions during his lifetime. Ho died in 1997 at the age of 96.

“You know how many words there are mentioning the rescue activities” in his memoirs, his daughter asked. “70. That’s three lines out of 700 pages.”

“There’s a Chinese saying,” said Ho, “that if you do something good and talk about it that much, it’s not so good.”

“It’s within the Jewish character to remember our friends,” said Rabbi Arthur Schneier, president and founder of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation. Schneier escaped because of a safety pass issued by Carl Lutz, consul for Switzerland in Budapest from 1942-1945.

“They were unsung heroes by their own government in a way that defied the silence of their government,” Schneier said. “I was given the opportunity to survive because of their humanitarian efforts.”

Lutz is credited with being the largest single issuer of visas during the Holocaust, according to Baron, saving more than 60,000 Jews by inventing the Schutzbrief, or protective letter, and by helping to establish 76 safe houses throughout Budapest.

The “Visas for Life” exhibition is a collaborative effort sponsored by international and national Jewish and Holocaust organizations.

As an outcropping of the exhibition, Baron said the History Channel has announced plans to create a program about these diplomats.

Besides showing gratitude, Baron hopes the exhibit serves another purpose. “It allows Christians to come and see that there were men and women who acted on their beliefs and value systems to rescue.

“We need to recognize goodness. We need to acknowledge acts of heroism,” Baron said. “We need these models in our society.”