Monday, September 26
UCLA’s Freud Playhouse presents the musical, “Working,” a tribute to the work of everyday Americans that stars Ricki Lake, Camryn Manheim, Kathy Najimi and Steven Weber. People from parking lot attendants to corporate executives are celebrated.
8 p.m. $60. Macgowan Hall, UCLA, Westwood. (310) 825-2101.
Tuesday, September 27
Holocaust escapee and artist Eugene Berman’s figurative paintings always evoked nostalgia for the losses of history, and received a good amount of appreciation in Berman’s own time. In the face of more recent devastating events, new admirers of Berman’s works have recently emerged. An exhibition of his work, titled “High Drama: Eugene Berman and the Legacy of the Melancholic Sublime,” is now open at the Long Beach Museum of Art, with various accompanying educational programs scheduled through October.
2300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach. (562) 439-2119.
Wednesday, September 28
Vladimir Levitansky clowns around for your amusement this evening. Known for his fusing of physical comedy, clowning, pantomime and poetry, the entertainer presents, “Fancy: A Clown’s Wondrous Journey Into the Absurd” through Oct. 19.
8 p.m. (Wednesdays). $18. Elephant Asylum Theatre, 6320 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. (323) 874-8216.
Thursday, September 29
It’s no-holds barred, no-limit hold ’em at Hollywood Park Casino tonight. Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters hosts a Texas Hold ‘Em poker tournament to benefit their efforts providing mentors to L.A. Jewish kids. Reserve your spot, show up and prepare to drop some cash.
5:30-10 p.m. 3883 W. Century Blvd., Inglewood. (323) 761-8675, ext. 30.
Friday, September 30
Tobey C. Moss Gallery presents “California Gold,” a group exhibit that focuses on So Cal artists of multiple media with an emphasis on the diversity of L.A. artists. Included are works by Peter Krasnow, who “reveals a search for a ‘life force’ within the source of the wood for his sculpture and the Torah’s teachings through his paintings,” according to Moss.
7321 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 933-5523. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>
7 Days in The Arts
Kilmer’s Moses a Real ‘Ten’
When Val Kilmer talks about his new role in the small, bare room that is his office on the Paramount lot, he sounds more like a Bible class teacher than a participant in a multimillion-dollar extravaganza.
“It’s hard to imagine what a culture is like when a human thinks they’re God,” he said, referring to Pharaoh. “And people react [to that] from a foundation of fear. It’s amazing that Moses was able to do what he did, and that clarity of intensive righteousness that he had, and how selflessly he assumed the role of leader that he didn’t want. That is what characterizes him as extraordinary.”
Kilmer plays Moses in “The Ten Commandments,” the new musical version of the Exodus story, which is set to open at the Kodak Theatre on Sept. 27. His philosophical musings are typical of those of the main players behind the show. While the trend in recent popular musicals has been to give audiences a good time in the most facile way possible, “The Ten Commandments” aims to be wholly entertaining but primarily inspirational and educational.
“It’s so hard to find a story that lends itself to speak to a generation, but people do want to be entertained and they don’t want to be preached to,” said Robert Iscove, the show’s director. “We are trying to get our message across in a highly educated and entertaining way.”
The message of the show, as Iscove describes it, is: “Faith will not divide us, only our fear will. We are all the same underneath the skin, and without all agreeing on a code of behavior, anarchy rules. The only time we don’t grow and follow our spirituality is when our individual Pharaoh is ruling us.”
That message is one of the reasons that producers Charles Cohen and Max Azria decided to launch the production.
Cohen, who was the senior acquisitions adviser for Europe to SFX, the company that is now Clear Channel Entertainment, originally saw the “Le Dix Commandements” in France, where it was the most successful musical ever produced in that country. It ended up playing to audiences of more than 2.2 million over 17 months, and selling 11 million copies of the soundtrack and 1.2 million copies of the DVD.
When Cohen saw the production, he was mesmerized by its scale, extravagant special effects, heartwarming and heart-pumping score and inspirational underpinnings. He loved it so much that he invested in it, and he also started thinking about how he could bring the French production to an English-speaking audience in the United States. He brought his friend, Azria, the designer behind clothing label BCBG, in to see the show in Paris, and together they started a musical production company to get “The Ten Commandments” to America.
In the international exchange, Cohen and Azria ended up revamping the show completely. They recruited Patrick Leonard, who produced the soundtracks to “Moulin Rouge” and “Legally Blonde,” to write the new music, and Emmy-award winning songwriter Maribeth Derry to write the new lyrics.
“In America we knew that it was a different ballgame altogether,” Cohen said. “We decided to change the scenic aspects, the costumes, the designs and the composition of the lyric. A new book [script] was written, we had new choreography, and different, much bigger special effects. It’s the same story, but a new show.”
Cohen won’t disclose the exact figure he and Azria put into the production, except to say that it is “many millions of dollars.”
“We are much over [the budget of] a regular Broadway production,” he said. “We have 52 people on stage, and our show becomes bigger and bigger every day. Two months ago we didn’t know that Kilmer was going to be on board, and we tripled our special effects budget. It is huge. We cannot give numbers, but those numbers are going up every day.”
“The Ten Commandments” is the largest show to originate in Los Angeles. It is booked for 90 days at the 3,400-seat Kodak Theatre, and after that it will travel to Radio City Music Hall in New York, before beginning a national tour.
Of course, “The Ten Commandments” has a long history of being a “big” production.
The original giving of the Ten Commandments more than 5,000 years ago, where 600,000 Israelites saw the revelation of God, is the historical event that for many Jews establishes the authenticity of Judaism.
When Cecil B. DeMille decided to retell the story on screen in 1956, starring Charlton Heston as both Moses and God, it was billed as “The greatest event in motion picture history.”
Iscove said that his musical is significantly different from DeMille’s film.
“A lot of the effects back then were very anachronistic, and the style of acting is different, and the message to a ’50s generation is stricter and more rigid,” he said. “There is also more feminism [in this retelling]. We do a lot about the pain of the women in the story, Ziporrah [Moses’ wife], Yochebed [Moses’ mother] and Bithia [Pharaoh’s daughter who saved Moses from drowning and then raised him in the palace.] Zipporah is a much stronger woman [in this production] than she was in the 1950s.”
The musical tells the story of how Moses was raised in Pharaoh’s house, alongside Ramses (Kevin Earley), who is Pharaoh’s son. Ramses becomes the next Pharaoh who refuses to free the Israelites from their slavery, and Moses is the brave leader who defies him to bring the Israelites to freedom.
“The story is very close to the Bible,” Iscove said. “Two people were raised in the same house, given all the same privileges, and one finds his humanity and follows his spiritual path and the other rejects his humanity and his heart gets hardened by God. It is only by Moses recognizing his humanity that he became the leader of the three great religions.”
Iscove said that Kilmer, who in the past has had a reputation of being difficult with directors, is “terrific” as Moses.
“He is becoming Moses, and the leader of this company,” Iscove said. “He is adopting Moses. Moses is a gentle soul, and he has been very much a gentle soul in this.”
This production is Kilmer’s second turn as Moses. His first was with the 1998 DreamWorks animated film “The Prince of Egypt.”
For Kilmer, the role is an extension of the weekly Bible readings that he does for his local Christian Science congregation in his home state of New Mexico.
“I get a lot of satisfaction from reading the Bible and sharing stories that matter with my community,” he said. “Playing Moses is bound to have some effect on me and anyone else involved in this story, and hopefully the audience will be affected too.”
“The Ten Commandments” opens Sept. 27 at the Kodak Theatre at Hollywood and Highland. Previews begin Sept. 21. For tickets, call Ticketmaster at (213) 365-3500. For more information, visit www.the10com.com or call (323) 308-6363.
Q & A With Yuval Rotem
Consul General — now Ambassador — Yuval Rotem arrived as a 39-year-old career diplomat in Los Angeles in September 1999, with his wife, Miri, and their three children. He will return to Jerusalem Aug. 16, leaving behind hundreds of friends who consider him one of the most popular and effective envoys to have represented his country in Southern California, the Southwestern United States and Hawaii. The Jewish Journal met with Rotem in his office for a farewell interview.
Jewish Journal: What will you miss most about Los Angeles?
Yuval Rotem: Our monthly shopping trip to Costco — there’s nothing more American. I’ll miss the games at Staples Center. That’s the only place I turned off my cell phone to get completely away from everything. Also, taking the car and the family and going from Santa Monica to downtown, to see all the changes of faces and signs. And, of course, the weather.
JJ: How has your five-year stay affected you personally?
YR: I am returning to Israel as a better Jew. I represent the typical secular Israeli, and I was transformed by the flourishing Jewish life here. To pray with Jews in Maui, to buy at a kosher market in Salt Lake City, to see the number of synagogues in Las Vegas go from four in 1980 to 30 now, that’s a whole new horizon.
I have learned about Judaism through the eyes of my kids, who studied at Temple Beth Am. I realize now that we need more of a Jewish curriculum in Israeli schools, but at the same time there has to be more about Israel in Jewish education here. When you see the crisis on college campuses, to some degree that represents a failure to teach young Jews about Middle East history and Israel and to take pride in their heritage.
JJ: What were your goals when you came here and did you carry them out?
YR: When I arrived in 1999, we seemed to be on the road to peace with our neighbors, and I felt that in our relationship with American Jews, we needed a new sense of purpose, a new agenda. But the following year, with the intifada, we were back to the old, crisis-driven agenda. I found The Jewish Federation and its president, John Fishel, very sensitive and understanding to the sudden change of agendas.
JJ: If and when peace comes, what would be the "new" agenda?
YR: Israel and the Diaspora always come together in time of crisis, but perhaps with peace, we can have a less emotional, a more rational approach, focusing on the social fabric and economy of Israel. I think there should be an unofficial task force of American Jews and Israelis of my generation to lay out the new guidelines. But we Israelis are so overwhelmed by crises that the initiative has to come from your side.
JJ: How would you evaluate the Jewish community here. Is it cohesive?
YR: I would hardly use he word "cohesive." You have all the different ethnic tribes and tons of organizations. It’s quite a challenge to the leadership to overcome the divisions and come up with a common agenda.
Overall, though, in time of crisis, The Federation here, unlike federations in many other places, always rose to the occasion. L.A. was the only place where the consulate and Federation worked together to stage a mass public rally in 2001 along Wilshire Boulevard in support of Israel.
JJ: Who are the key leaders in the Jewish community, the ones you would call first if you needed advice or help?
YR: Don’t put me on the spot. I’ll say that I have a list of about 100 people, and it’s not that much different from the one you put together for The Jewish Journal some years ago. This is a very diverse community, which is wonderful, but in the end, Aish HaTorah and Peace Now need to know that we have the same goal to pursue.
JJ: You tried very hard to enlist the Hollywood community to visit Israel during the last few years. How did it work out?
YR: That’s been a definite disappointment. In 2001 and 2002, when there was no tourism, the economy was down and Israelis felt isolated. In that moment of truth, only a very few in Hollywood were willing to extend their hand to Israel. We went from agency to agency and from studio to studio with little success.
JJ: Why wouldn’t they come?
YR: It was partially fear of terrorism, and in general, people in Hollywood try to shy away from conflict. We didn’t ask for propagandists, just some humanitarian gestures, a message of comfort, as Christopher Reeve did during his visit.
But after two years of hard work, some doors are opening, and I hope that in the next few months, more celebrities in the arts and sports will come over and also that Hollywood will again shoot movies in Israel.
JJ: What was your worst moment here?
YR: That was July 4, 2002, the day the El Al counter at LAX was attacked, with two people killed. I said then, and say now, that rather than bring the conflict of the Middle East to Los Angeles, we need to bring the spirit of L.A. to the Middle East.
JJ: What development during your tenure surprised you the most?
YR: The emergence of the Iranian Jews, some 30,000 very committed Jews, as important players in the general Jewish community. I think their participation in pro-Israel causes helped their integration into the Jewish community.
On the other hand, I am surprised that I still meet quite a few American Jews who ask how Israel can accept a Palestinian state. By now, Israel has internalized that fact, it’s basically a fait accompli. Overall, American Jews at all levels need to be more updated and aware of the changes and realities in Israeli life.
JJ: What accomplishment gave you the most satisfaction?
YR: The close relationship we have forged with the Latino community since 1999. Early on, I started going to the Eastside, to Latino events and meetings. It’s a two-way street. We can’t expect Latinos to share our concern about the Golan Heights, if we don’t understand their concern about immigration laws. We have added a special liaison for Latino relations at the consulate, and I think the entire Jewish community has benefited from our effort.
JJ: What did you and your family miss most about being away from Israel?
YR: The sense of brotherhood and togetherness that bonds Israelis. You can’t find that in any other place.
JJ: Quite a number of community leaders asked Jerusalem to extend your stay in L.A. What happened?
YR: I appreciate the efforts of all the people who petitioned the foreign minister, and I’m a little sad that it didn’t work out. But I served as chief of staff to Ehud Barak and Binyamin Netanyahu when they were foreign ministers, so I know the rules and how things work.
JJ: What are your future career plans?
YR: I’ll be reporting to the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, and the general rule is that a returning diplomat stays in Israel for two to four years before being sent abroad again. I’m on a so-called "fast track" in the Foreign Ministry, and that makes it a little harder to find the appropriate position for me.
I may accept a different government-oriented post, and I can’t rule out taking a leave of absence and working in the private sector for a while. The political situation changes all the time in Israel, and, as we say, the only predictable thing in Israel is the unpredictable.
JJ: Any final words?
YR: When you see Los Angeles, you see the whole world, and if you don’t like L.A., you just don’t like the world. I am really going to miss it.
Krayzelburg to Defend Record in Athens
The opening scene of “Gebürtig” is as clever and shocking ascene you’ll see on screen this year: The cold, mist-covered grounds of aconcentration camp. Skeletal Jews in ragged clothes huddle together for warmth.Nearby, SS officers in thick wool coats smoke, laugh and drink. An old Jew slips,collapses. An SS man rushes over, extends his hand, helps him up and offers himhis cigarette.
These are actors in the midst of shooting a major Holocaustmovie, and in the course of “Gebürtig,” set in Vienna during the Waldheimaffair of the late 1980s, we will get to know how they and others deal with thereality of what they are paid to fictionalize.
Gebürtig, Austria’s entry into the competition for BestForeign Film in the upcoming Oscar race, is a clever and mostly engaging moviethat goes after the big questions: Is the Holocaust best told as documentary orfiction? Are its terrors better left to historians or storytellers? Are itstruth found in the courtroom or in poetry? In other words, how do you come to termswith coming to terms with the past?
The movie, based on a 1992 novel by co-writer andco-director Robert Schindel, has a delightfully jaundiced view of the wholeHolocaust movie industry. It’s a Holocaust movie that could, and should, onlybe made in the wake of dozens of more serious Holocaust movies. It has, too, amuch more serious take on how Austrians themselves have or have not come togrips with their history.
The movie tracks a handful of Austrians as they come togrips with how the Holocaust, or the aftermath of the Holocaust, influencestheir lives. A Viennese journalist sets out for New York to convince Jewishimmigrant Hermann Gebirtig, whose name is spelled differently than the film’stitle, to return to the town of his birth and give evidence in court against aformer concentration camp supervisor. A famous German journalist is forced tofinally face the fact that he is the son of a high-ranking SS doctor. Jewishcabaret artist Danny Demant and his circle of theatrical friends — the mixed-togetherchildren of victims and aggressors — vie for parts in a Hollywood Holocaustmovie, even as Demant tries to forget his Jewishness in the arms of a beautifulER doctor.
“Once the world capital of anti-Semitism, Vienna has becomethe capital of forgetting,” Demant sings in his cabaret.
The stories come together in a very European, untidyconclusion, when Gebirtig does return to testify, only to see the defendantreleased for lack of evidence. Was Gebirtig’s journey a waste of time? The oldpoet shrugs.
“Vienna is a beautiful city. To die for,” he says.
So is much of this movie.
The Academy Award nominations will be televised at 5:30 a.m. on Feb. 11 on ABC.
Wearing Your Heart on Your Sleeve
Joining ‘Gangs’ to Work With the Best
When the now-legendary film director Martin Scorsese first discovered Herbert Asbury’s book, "Gangs of New York," in 1970 and decided to make it into a film, Rick Schwartz was a 2-year-old growing up in a modern Orthodox home in Teaneck, N.J.
It took three decades for Scorsese to complete his dream — the much-anticipated epic film just earned five 2003 Golden Globe Award nominations — and it was helped along by hundreds of people. One key figure was Schwartz, the self-effacing vice president of production for Miramax Films, who served as co-executive producer on the movie.
During several recent interviews, Schwartz, 34, who now lives in Englewood, N.J., spoke about the "incredible opportunity" of spending much of the last three years working closely with Scorsese and actors like Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis and Cameron Diaz on the film, an almost three-hour depiction of the brutal and bruising life in Lower Manhattan during the Civil War period, little explored in American movies.
"We all knew that we would never have another experience like this," Schwartz said, given the size, complexity and talent of the assembled cast.
He has some trouble defining just what his job as a producer entails but noted that it is mostly about "problem solving," serving as a buffer between the studio and the creative people, dealing with every aspect of making a film and "a million logistical problems along the way."
Whatever those problems are normally, they surely were multiplied in making "Gangs of New York." In the world of Hollywood hype, the film is known as much for the off-screen monumental struggles between Scorsese and Miramax founder and co-chairman Harvey Weinstein over artistic issues and budget — it took 137 days to shoot, was in post-production for 18 months and cost about $100 million — as it is for its content.
Not given to gossip, Schwartz diplomatically noted that there were "creative tensions and heavy moments" between Scorsese and Weinstein, both of whom he describes as men of great passion, commitment and intellect.
On one level, "Gangs" is the story of a young man (DiCaprio), who as a child witnessed his father’s death in a major gang war between Irish immigrants in the Five Points section of New York and the nativists who resented the newcomers. Years later, the young man returns to the neighborhood to seek revenge against the powerful leader (Day-Lewis) who killed his father.
But the film is also the story of prejudice, class and race in this country, set against the backdrop of the Civil War. The story culminates in the 1863 Draft Riots, the deadliest urban uprising in U.S. history.
For those who don’t mind the sight of gore and blood — there are no gun battles but just about every other form of brutal mayhem is vividly depicted — the story is compelling and the visual impact stunning in its scope and authenticity. Scorsese, celebrated almost as much for his perfectionism as his talent, recreated 1860s New York on the outskirts of Rome, building more than a mile of city life, as well as two huge ships for several harbor scenes.
All of this made life both incredibly difficult and exciting for Schwartz, who was on the scene throughout the shoot, as well as for the post-production process, editing the film down to its final length and getting to see the genius of Scorsese’s filmmaking up close.
He is indebted to Weinstein (the subject of yet another major profile in the Dec. 16 New Yorker, depicted, again, as a highly talented man given to bouts of abusive behavior and deep insecurity), who hired him after the briefest of interviews more than six years ago.
"By the time I met Harvey, I had spent hours with people at Miramax telling me how tough he was, and I was terrified," Schwartz recalled recently while waiting to fly with Weinstein on a private jet to Los Angeles. "They marched me in, the room was small, there were other people there, Harvey was on the phone and he cupped his hand over the phone and asked me why I wanted to be in the movie business."
Schwartz said he was tempted to just say he was delivering pizza and flee. He doesn’t recall his response to the question, but they spoke briefly about family life — "Harvey was trying to find out what kind of a person I was" — and he was hired on the spot.
Schwartz spent the next two-and-a-half years as an assistant to Weinstein and was at his beck and call at all times, attending meetings and flying around the world. Along the way, he worked on various films in a variety of capacities. Then one day (in 2000), Weinstein casually informed him that he had been promoted to associate producer and was to leave for London the next day to work with director Kenneth Branagh on "Love’s Labour Lost."
When he arrived, Schwartz recalled, he told Branagh he had no idea what to do but said if Branagh was patient with him, he’d be willing to learn and help. It must have worked, because Schwartz became increasingly trusted by Weinstein and went on to serve as executive in charge of production for Giuseppe Tornatore’s "Malena" and "Birthday Girl," the Nicole Kidman film, and executive producer of "The Others," also starring Kidman, before and during "Gangs."
"Rick is modest about his talents, but he is especially appreciated for his ability to develop relationships and maintain his composure in challenging moments," said Matthew Hiltzik, Miramax’s senior vice president for corporate communications.
The two men have become good friends. "We come from the same place, literally and figuratively," said Hiltzik, who also grew up in Teaneck and is an observant Jew.
Schwartz said that while the rest of his family is "quite Orthodox, I am still finding my way, but I no longer take my Jewish education for granted." He graduated from the Moriah day school in Englewood and Frisch yeshiva high school in Paramus, N.J., and said he increasingly appreciates the rootedness his traditional Jewish lifestyle gives him.
"I operate in two worlds," he said, "and while Hollywood is filled with Jews, many of them are nominally Jewish. Hollywood is all about fantasy, and it’s very seductive, and I see peers who get lost, searching for something to ground them, whether it’s Buddhism or Scientology or something else."
"So there is an immense benefit for me to come off of Tom Cruise’s private jet and feel very anchored," he said, referring to his family (he and his wife, Heidi, have two young daughters) and the Englewood Jewish community where they live. He attends Ahvas Torah, a modern Orthodox synagogue there, and his oldest daughter attends kindergarten at Moriah, where her father started out.
"It’s exciting," Schwartz said of his professional life, "but literally, you have to know where you come from."
Reprinted from The Jewish Week.
Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of The New York Jewish Week, can be
reached by e-mail at Gary@Jewishweek.org.
Hollywood, History and the Holocaust
The Film No One Wanted
Not far into the arduous journey of making “Max,” Menno Meyjes’ controversial film about the early life of Adolf Hitler, John Cusack debated with his father, a World War II veteran. “He said, ‘John, this is a worthy piece, but it disturbs me,'” said Cusack, who plays a German Jewish art dealer who befriends Hitler during his artist years. “He told me, ‘I just don’t want to see that man as human.’ And that paradox excited me. I also knew intellectually that Hitler was human but emotionally I didn’t want to accept it. It was easier for me to imagine him as Grendel in the cave, breathing fire and drinking blood. And within that discomfort lies the brilliance of the film.”
It’s also the reason the provocative movie — dubbed a “‘Pulp Fiction’ -sized shot of intellectual adrenaline” by the Los Angeles Times — raised ire despite having one of Hollywood’s most popular actors as its star and champion. While cliched or cartoonlike images of Hitler have long graced the silver screen, from Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” to Mel Brooks’ 1968 version of “The Producers,” “Max” breaks precedent by depicting the future Fuhrer as caustic but human.
Shattering the cinematic taboo made the film, and its filmmakers, virtual pariahs in Hollywood and beyond. “No one wanted anything to do with us,” said Dutch-born Meyjes, best known for his Oscar-nominated screenplay for Steven Spielberg’s “The Color Purple.”
Prospective investors avoided the project, going so far as to pretend they were someone else on the telephone, Meyjes said. A number of viewers stormed out of the “Max” premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, according to the Los Angeles Times; the right-wing Jewish Defense League labeled the movie “a psychic assault on Holocaust survivors”; the Museum of Tolerance and the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust declined to host screenings, and a cynical New York Times column lumped the movie in with several other projects on the young Hitler (including a proposed 2003 CBS miniseries, “Hitler: The Early Years).
After reading the column, titled “Swastikas for Sweeps,” Cusack — who took no salary for the film — promptly telephoned columnist Maureen Dowd. “I pointed out that she had mocked ‘Max’ but hadn’t even seen it, like most of the film’s detractors,” said the intense, soft-spoken actor, leaning forward in his chair over a bottle of Pellegrino at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. “But she wouldn’t admit that her comments felt caustic and dismissive. She just said, ‘Oh, I love your work; I’d love to see the film.’ I said I thought her approach was lazy.”
The idea for “Max” began with Meyjes’ childhood in post-war Holland, a milieu “absolutely drenched in Hitler,” according to the 48-year-old writer-director. His father, Johannes, spent his late teens in a German slave labor camp, where a Nazi smashed out his front teeth with a rifle butt. “To my family, the Fuhrer was a one-dimensional beast,” said Meyjes, who became obsessed with the question of whether Hitler was human.
While perusing Ron Rosenbaum’s “Explaining Hitler” around 1998, Meyjes read a quote by Nazi architect Albert Speer: “If you want to understand Hitler, you have to understand he was an artist first.” “Suddenly I had a way into a movie about my [question],” he said. “I decided to make a film about a man who chooses to become a monster.”
After extensive research, Meyjes said he wrote Hitler (played in the film by a riveting Noah Taylor) as a marginally talented, virtually homeless painter who is petulant, self-pitying, puritanical, grandiose, maladroit, with “a tortured relationship with his physical self and the caprices of the body.
“There is almost a sexual element to his artistic failure,” Meyjes said. “Because he loathes himself, he cannot penetrate his paintings.”
The fictional gallery owner Max Rothman, maimed in World War I, meanwhile, is suave and worldly while trying to persuade fellow veteran Hitler to channel his pent-up rage into art instead of politics. Meyjes said Rothman is “loosely based on a Viennese Jewish gallery owner, Josef Neumann, who was always telling Hitler that he had to work harder and that he was lazy.”
The quintessentially assimilated German-Jewish character immediately intrigued Cusack, 36, who grew up in a liberal, activist Irish-Catholic family (the radical Berrigan brothers were frequent guests in his Chicago-area home and his mother has been arrested for her anti-war activities). The secular, casually idealistic Rothman “is Jewish in the way I am Catholic,” said Cusack, who is renown for playing heartsick heartthrobs in films such as “Say Anything” and “High Fidelity.” “It informs who he is but it is not how he primarily defines himself.”
“I also strongly identified with Max because he is an intellectual, a sensualist, a modernist, a man who is flawed but who understands that art can change the world,” the actor said. “In him I saw some part of myself that is damaged and something I would like to be.” Max’s relationship with Hitler, Cusack added, “is like Europe having a conversation with its shadow.”
Leelee Sobieski, 20, who plays Max’s glamorous artist-mistress Liselore, also felt a connection to the project because of her family history. Her French-born father, Jean, a painter, shares bloodlines with the 17th century Polish King Jan Sobieski, for whom, legend has it, the bagel was invented. Her beloved maternal grandfather, the late Navy captain Robert Salomon, was Jewish and attended synagogue near his New Jersey home, sometimes with Sobieski. “I’m sure that relatives on both sides of my family suffered because of Hitler,” said Sobieski, whose role was further informed by her work in the 2001 NBC Holocaust miniseries, “Uprising.” “Liselore is the only character who immediately despises Hitler, and after playing a Warsaw ghetto partisan it was very easy for me to look at Noah Taylor and think, ‘I hate you.'”
Taylor, not surprisingly, was the actor with the most reservations about signing on to “Max.” The slender, affable Australian actor had brilliantly portrayed another tortured artist in the acclaimed 1996 film, “Shine,” based on the life of the mentally-ill pianist, David Helfgott, the son of a domineering Holocaust survivor. But playing Hitler was another matter. “I was debating whether this was a role that I could live with, plus the usual narcissistic concerns of ‘What will this do to my career?'” he sheepishly said during a Journal interview. “But eventually I realized my fear of the role was precisely why I should do it.”
To prepare, Taylor read numerous biographies and studied the Fuhrer’s body language in Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda film, “Triumph of the Will,” which he practiced in front of a mirror. “I wanted to provide little glimpses of what was to come for Hitler — such as the vain gesture he had of smoothing his hair,” said Taylor, 33. “It was like mincy military. Hitler had all these incredibly odd and effete gestures, the hands on hips, for example, which I combined with his rigid body language from having been a soldier. It was like he was so self-conscious that his body didn’t ever relax.”
He felt he’d done his job a bit too well when, on the set in Budapest, he glimpsed himself in a mirror and felt like he was “wearing a horror mask.” At the movie’s premiere in Toronto, Taylor worried, “It could all end up with me being spat on.”
It didn’t happen, although the very idea of a movie about the young Hitler has since disturbed some Jewish leaders. “A film about the young Hitler is only half the story, which isn’t truthful history,” said Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and its Museum of Tolerance. “Next we’ll have the Young Saddam Hussein, which won’t bother to mention the Gulf War.”
Rachel Jagoda, director of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, said the film’s conceit confused her survivor constituents. “They would say, ‘Why should I go see a movie about the young Hitler?'” Jagoda said. “They don’t care that he was once an artist. They just care that he killed everyone they knew and loved.”
Cusack, however, insists “Max” has an important message, one that resonates today. “It would be much easier for me if Osama bin Ladin didn’t have a mother or father,” he said. “‘It would make the world a lot simpler if he arrived on earth in a pink vapor, did his business and disappeared in a puff of smoke. But the reality is more painful. He’s a human being like you and me.”
A Graceless Will?
Hollywood, History and the Holocaust
Two celebrations took place in Los Angeles recently, and "Max," a new film about the young Adolf Hitler, opens today.
In a peculiar way, all three events are related.
The first celebration seems straightforward enough — at least on the surface. Sara and Charles Levin, who preferred not to give their real names, celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in November, along with their three children, their spouses, their grandchildren and about 40 friends.
The guests, aside from sharing their affection and pleasure at being together for the anniversary, were silent about a central fact: Sara Levin and her husband are survivors. When Sara was 13, she and her family were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau where Dr. Josef Mengele stood at the receiving line scrutinizing each person; some he sent directly to the gas chambers, others to the work force.
It is a story whose details Levin sometimes shares with schoolchildren and other visitors to the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance, where she volunteers three days a week as a docent. But it is a story she has never told her three children. She came close years ago when her oldest son, then 10, was watching a television drama about the Holocaust. "That could have been your mother," she told him, pointing to the screen; she was horrified when he burst into tears.
She and her husband decided never to tell the children a word about those dark teenage years in Europe. Instead, she recounts it in a low, calm understated voice to strangers — keeping the memory alive of those who survived, as well as of those who perished.
The second celebration is also a personal story, but in quite a different vein. On Dec. 5, the Shoah Foundation and founder Steven Spielberg celebrated the foundation’s eighth anniversary with a grand dinner that raised more than $500,000.
Today, Spielberg is both Hollywood’s most influential director and one of the city’s leading Jewish figures. It is no exaggeration to say that his film, "Schindler’s List," had a tremendous impact on his own life. He used the profits to establish the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation in 1994 which videotapes and preserves the testimonies of Holocaust survivors and witnesses.
The foundation also produces documentaries — eight thus far, including the Oscar-winning "The Last Days" (1998).
Ironically, Spielberg’s "Schindler’s List," along with other American portrayals, has turned out to be the most effective educational narratives produced about the Holocaust — even though the U.S. relationship was a distant one, while the European connection was far more direct and involved. Nevertheless, such American films as "Judgment at Nuremberg" and "The Diary of Anne Frank," and the television miniseries, "Holocaust," have been far more influential and have made a much deeper impact, here and abroad, than any European film.
"There is a sense, and the reception of Spielberg’s film confirms this, in which one thing doesn’t have reality in this culture until Hollywood says it does," Leon Wieseltier, The New Republic’s literary editor, told a television interviewer.
Years ago, Elie Wiesel registered his objections to the American films about the Holocaust: The experience had been too horrific, and television and movies only led to banality. He denounced the television miniseries, "Holocaust," as soap opera, but then was shocked to discover that a New York Times poll (later declared inaccurate) had shown that 22 percent of American adults had doubts about the genocide. Better to establish the Holocaust as a cultural fact in the American landscape than worry about trivializing it, he concluded.
But now we have a new film, "Max," which presents us with a portrait of Adolf Hitler as a young German war veteran struggling to become an artist in 1918, befriended by a fictitious Jewish art dealer, named Max Rothman.
Historians have objected to the portrait as being sympathetic because it concentrates on Hitler’s personal anguish as a young rejected artist, and not on the destruction he left behind in Europe, or the genocide that followed from his commands. "Max" seems to explain his subsequent behavior and, in the process, comes to rationalize it. Others have complained that the film only serves to distort history and to trivialize the past.
The process of changing Nazi history in films and television actually began some time ago in films and television. From Chaplin’s "The Great Dictator" to "Hogan’s Heroes," from Ernst Lubitsch’s "To Be or Not to Be" to "The Grey Zone," World War II and the Holocaust have been told almost solely from the point of view of the victors and the victims.
Now the story is beginning to shift once again, in a way that is disturbing, but perhaps inevitable. Films like "Max," and the planned CBS miniseries on Hitler’s life, will examine the Holocaust from the point of view of the perpetrators. We, the consumers of mass culture, undoubtedly will have to learn to live with this fact.
The cultural reality of our lives is that we must learn to come to terms with Sara Levin and the Shoah Foundation’s eyewitness tapes, no less than the dramatic Hollywood fictions that inevitably fight to replace history itself.
Gene Lichtenstein is the founding editor of The Jewish Journal.
A Graceless Will?
Tackling the Future
When Steven Spielberg, fresh off the astonishing global impact of his film, “Schindler’s List,” established the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation in 1994, he outlined its mission.
“Our hope is that the archive will be a resource so enduring that 50, 100 or even 500 years from now, people around the world will learn directly from survivors and witnesses about the atrocities of the Holocaust — what it means to survive and how our very humanity depends upon the practice of tolerance and mutual respect.”
Time will tell whether so visionary a task can be realized, but the accomplishments of the past eight years augur well for the future.
During that time, the Shoah Foundation’s interviewers in 57 countries have videotaped the testimonies of close to 52,000 Jews and others who either survived concentration camps, were in hiding during the Holocaust, lived under Nazi rule or rescued Nazi victims.
The total raw record runs 117,000 hours. If a single viewer were to scan the videos 24 hours a day, it would take more than 13 years to finish the job.
With its initial goal accomplished, the Shoah Foundation faces two mammoth tasks, one short-term, the other for the indefinite future.
The first job calls for the cataloguing and indexing of the testimonies, using state-of-the-art technology, 25,000 keywords and scores of researchers familiar with 32 languages. Last year, the National Science Foundation awarded a $7.5 million grant to the Shoah Foundation to help develop advanced speech-recognition software.
So far, 17,000 individual testimonies, each usually two hours long with some running up to five hours, have been catalogued. Douglas Greenberg, president and CEO of the Shoah Foundation, expects that the task will be completed by the end of 2005.
Even as the indexing continues, the Shoah Foundation has culled the hoard of testimonies to produce eight documentaries, including the 1998 Oscar winner, “The Last Days,” an additional five foreign-language documentaries and two educational CD-ROMS, one in German, for high school students.
In recent months, the Shoah Foundation has established partnerships with state archives and museums in Italy, Holland and Germany for the organizing and distribution of testimonies, including those of Sinti and Roma victims of the Nazi campaign against Gypsies.
In the United States, the first regional collection of testimonies available for viewing at a public library opened in Charleston, S.C., and plans are to set up similar centers in 20 other smaller cities.
Greenberg said he hoped to finalize a collaboration with the Anti-Defamation League to tie in with its tolerance education programs in U.S. high schools. A similar cooperation is anticipated with Great Britain’s Holocaust Education Trust to reach students in approximately 2,500 schools in that country.
In October, the Tapper Research and Testing Center was opened to house the foundation’s visual history archive and serve as a high-tech center for scholarly investigations and on-site classroom. Both the foundation and research center are located at Universal Studios.
In line with Spielberg’s centuries-long perspective of its task, the Shoah Foundation last year embarked on a second, and perhaps its most daunting, challenge: “To overcome prejudice, intolerance and bigotry — and the suffering they cause — through the educational use of the foundation’s visual history testimonies.”
Given new global manifestations of anti-Semitism and continuing ethnic and religious strife around the world, Greenberg acknowledged that the new mission goal was akin to “trying to climb Mount Everest barefoot and in my underwear.”
However, he added that “we know that 6 million Jews were killed one at a time, that the survivors survived one at a time and that we collected our testimonies one at a time. I believe we can change the world one person at a time.”
The Shoah Foundation has enjoyed largely unstinting praise in the media and within the Jewish community.
“The gathering of more than 50,000 testimonies is a monumental accomplishment which assures the survivors a certain immortality,” noted Holocaust scholar Dr. Michael Berenbaum, a former president and CEO of the Shoah Foundation.
There are few outspoken critics of the organization, perhaps due to the intrinsic merit of the project, as well as reluctance to cross Spielberg, arguably the most influential filmmaker in Hollywood history and currently its foremost Jewish personality.
Initial concerns by older and smaller centers for Holocaust testimonies in this country and abroad that they would be marginalized by Spielberg’s money and clout seem to have been largely allayed.
However, some off-the-record warnings point to a potential “clash of cultures” between the Shoah Foundation’s announced goal of making the testimonies widely available and the “Hollywood culture” of retaining private ownership of its products.
Another concern is whether the touted technology to fully catalogue and make available the vast material for easy access will prove adequate and affordable.
“This whole field of technology hasn’t taken off as hoped,” said one observer. “They [the Shoah Foundation] hoped to catch the technology on the upswing but are caught in its downsizing.”
Perhaps the most serious reservation speaks to the foundation’s mission “to overcome prejudice, intolerance and bigotry.”
“So its goal is not just to inform people but ultimately to change their behavior and motivation,” said one skeptic. “That’s a pretty highfalutin aim.”
Speaking on the record from a business meeting in Paris, Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, warmly praised the long-standing cooperation between the Shoah Foundation and the Wiesenthal Center, and the “historical achievement” by Spielberg and his professional staff in attaining, through the 52,000 interviews, “a profound reach back in memory.”
However, the Wiesenthal Center, as one of the first designated repositories for the testimonies, has been disappointed that the planned high-speed accessibility and delivery system has not been realized.
Despite the best efforts of everyone involved, the basically low-tech format of the transmission presents difficulties for the average visitor, Cooper said.
As its stands now, he added, the collected material is, and will be, invaluable to researchers and family members, but without major advances in editing and transmission, will be of limited use to the average person.
At its Dec. 5 gala dinner, Shoah Foundation founder Steven Spielberg and host Sir Ben Kingsley honored three board members who were present at the creation and have played leading roles since.
The new Ambassadors for Humanity are Gerald Breslauer and Mickey Rutman, co-founders of the business management firm bearing their names, and prominent Beverly Hills attorney Bruce Ramer.
The fundraiser was expected to yield in excess of $500,000 toward the foundation’s 2003 budget of $10 million. “It’s a rough year for all nonprofit organizations, the whole environment is much more difficult than two years ago,” said Douglas Greenberg, foundation president and CEO.
Since its startup eight years ago, the foundation has received and spent approximately $100 million.
Greenberg said that the cost of cataloguing and indexing the testimonies will run from $8 million to $10 million. He said it would cost $150 million, if not for in-house technological breakthroughs. — TT
Meet the Parents
Tom Rothman, Fox Filmed Entertainment co-chair, honors his folks at Jewish Home for the Aging’s Anniversary Gala.
Fox Filmed Entertainment Chairman Tom Rothman is beaming. The fact that his studio recently ruled the weekend box office with its Steven Spielberg-Tom Cruise collaboration “Minority Report” might have been enough to put some spring in his step. But at the moment, he’s happy because he’s talking about his parents, Donald Rothman and Bette Davidson, both of whom will be honored alongside Marilyn and Monty Hall at Jewish Home for the Aging’s 90th Anniversary Gala celebration on July 9 at Hollywood’s Kodak Theatre.
“They were very socially conscious certainly before it became fashionable,” Rothman says. “Charity was a given in our home.”
Rothman’s father, Donald Rothman, was born the son of a traveling salesman in Baltimore in 1923. He entered Harvard Law School’s class of 1948 and became a trial lawyer who was named to the American College of Trial Lawyers. He fought racist real estate practices, founded the repertory theater Center Stage in Baltimore, which celebrates its 40th anniversary next year, and created a foundation to support the city’s public School for the Arts.
Rothman’s mother, Bette Davidson, earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology the same year that Tom Rothman was born. She later worked as a teacher at an inner-city Jesuit school while getting her master’s degree in education, started a cooperative nursery school, taught a middle-aged friend to read, helped a baby sitter attend nursing school and assisted students in getting scholarships.
“It never came in the sectarian way,” Rothman, 47, says of his parents’ Jewishness. “It was a question of humanity. My parents didn’t distinguish between Jewish causes and non-Jewish causes.”
Nevertheless, Tom Rothman’s Jewish upbringing propelled him far. He left Baltimore to attend Brown University, then taught English in Connecticut before going to Columbia Law School. He was headed for a career in his father’s footsteps as a trial lawyer when he got sidetracked into entertainment law.
“It was fascinating and fun,” Rothman recalls of his participation in the mid-1980s thriving independent film scene that included directors Spike Lee and Jim Jarmusch. Rothman produced some movies, then headed West in 1986 to work for Columbia and Samuel Goldwyn before arriving at 20th Century Fox in 1994.
Rothman rapidly ascended the ladder at Fox, rising from president of production to president of 20th Century Fox Film Group to co-chair of Fox Filmed Entertainment with Jim Gianopulos, as of July 2000.
During Rothman’s tenure, Fox delivered the mother of all gross-out comedies (“There’s Something About Mary”), spawned films that became international phenomena (“Titanic,” “Independence Day”), ushered in the recent big-budget superhero wave (“X-Men” and the upcoming “Daredevil”), released a slam-dunk remake of “Planet of the Apes” and distributed re-releases and new installments of a little franchise called “Star Wars.”
“We lived through the worst and the best,” Rothman says, referring to the $200 million co-production of “Titanic.” “It was the hardest production experience ever and the most satisfying.”
Rothman says he has mixed feelings about Hollywood’s Jews vocalizing their support for Israel. “Whether it’s vocal or not,” Rothman says, “I think it’s an individual decision, but I think that the public as a whole really doesn’t realize how strongly philanthropic the community is.”
The best part of his job is “being part of history. The privilege of working at a major studio, you’re a small part of film history. That’s a great experience and it’s exciting. It’s full of ups and downs. You get knocked to the canvas. But you also get to work with the level of creative people.”
Rothman, who with wife, Jessica Harper, has daughters, Elizabeth, 13, and Nora, 11, admits that he still looks back at his rise from law clerk to studio head with wonder “every day when I drive on the lot. I’m a lucky guy.”
For information on “Reflections: The 90th Anniversary of Jewish Home for the Aging,” with special guest appearances by Ray Romano and Harry Connick Jr., call (818) 774-3334.
Israel Security Experts Advise L.A.
7 Days In Arts
If you don’t know the story of Leo Frank, you probably should. The Anti-Defamation League and the modern Ku Klux Klan were both sparked by Frank’s infamous murder trial in which bigotry won out over justice. See the play, “The Knights of Mary Phagan” at The Space Theatre, tonight at 8 p.m. Runs through May 19. 8 p.m. (Fridays and Saturdays), 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. (Sundays). $15. 665 N. Heliotrope Drive, Hollywood. For more information, call (323) 769-5800.
You gave your mother flowers today, but don’t forget the thousands of mothers and children spending this day in a battered women’s shelter. Send them a bouquet through Jewish Women International’s Mother’s Day Flower Project. For more information, call (800) 343-2823.
For an enchanted afternoon, catch The Museum of Television and Radio’s latest screening in the series, “A Tribute to Richard Rodgers: The Sound of His Music.” Half of the musical team of Rodgers and Hart and Rodgers and Hammerstein, the American composer wrote more than 40 musicals, including “Oklahoma!” and “South Pacific.” See a television adaptation of one of the early Rodgers and Hart musicals, in “Max Liebman Presents: Dearest Enemy” today at 12:30 p.m. 465 N. Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills. For information on other screenings, call (310) 786-1000 or visit www.mtr.org.
Write the great American novel with the help of author Victoria Zackheim. Her “Writing Your Story” workshop may give you the friendly shove you’ve needed to get you started. Today at noon at the Jewish Community Library. Or, if you’re a lover, not a writer (a book lover, that is), you can show up this evening for the signing and discussion of her book, “The Bone Weaver.” 7 p.m. 6505 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. For reservations, call (323) 761-8648.
The hum-drum of everyday life and our personal escapes from it are the sources of inspiration for Deborah Kaplan Evans’ art. Make this exhibit your Tuesday escape by heading over to Tag, The Artists Gallery. Runs through June 8. 11 a.m.-5 p.m. (Tuesday through Saturday), open late on Thursdays. 2903 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica. For more information, call (310) 829-9556.
James Carrollwas once a Catholic priest before he became a writer, and before he got married. It’s an interesting footnote all by itself, but more so because of Carroll’s latest book in which he addresses the Church’s dark history of anti-Semitism. Hear what he has to say about “Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews” at a free reading, discussion and book signing. 7 p.m. Mark Taper Auditorium, Fifth and Flower streets, Downtown Los Angeles. For reservations, call (213) 228-7025.
Hey, lactose intolerants! Feeling left out of the dairy festivities this Shavuot? Take your mind off things with a good play. “Waiting for Betty Friedan” is a comedy about a 1958 suburban housewife with the dreams and the talent to be more, in a time before Friedan or Gloria Steinem had made their marks on society. 8 p.m. (special Thursday performances today and May 30), 8 p.m. (Fridays and Saturdays), 2 p.m. (Sundays). $18 (general). Theatre East, 12655 Ventura Blvd., Second Floor, Studio City. For reservations and information about discounts, call (818) 788-4396.
It’s scarier than any horror movie. “The Believer” is the all-too-realistic story of a young Jewish man who was once the star pupil of his yeshiva, but is now a 22-year-old neo-Nazi. The film won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and opens today at the Landmark Nuart Theatre. 5:10 p.m., 7:30 p.m. and 9:50 p.m. (daily). Additional weekend shows at 12:30 p.m. and 2:50 p.m. $9 (general), $6 (seniors 62+, children 12 and under and weekend bargain matinee). 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles. For more information, call (310) 478-6379.
Or, for some lighter entertainment, check out the Long Beach Playhouse’s rendition of Neal Simon’s “Biloxi Blues.” The play picks up where Simon’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs” leaves off. Eugene Morris Jerome is in the army now, a young recruit during World War II who’s been sent to boot camp in Biloxi, Miss. 8 p.m. (Fridays and Saturdays) and 2 p.m. (Sundays May 12 and 19). $15. Runs through June 1. 5021 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach. For more information, call (562) 494-1014.
7 Days In Arts
In an assembly hall at a Burbank middle school, a Holocaust survivor answers questions from her young audience. The inquiries are thoughtful, and the children serious, some even close to tears. All have been prepared for the visit by their teachers and the readings they have been doing on the subject for several weeks.
On the same day, at a theater across town, a group of high school students is also being taught about the Holocaust with a special screening of “Schindler’s List.” Afterward, they gather in their classroom, but the discussion could not be more different than that of the middle school students. It appears that the movie is their only exposure to the Shoah, and their analysis of this terrible time in history is indifferent at best, even bordering on flippant.
To eliminate the disparity in the way the topic of the Holocaust and other genocides is taught, two state Assembly members are planning the introduction of the Holocaust Genocide Education Act. The bill is scheduled to be introduced this month.
Assemblymen Paul Koretz (D-West Hollywood) and Mark Wyland (R-Escondido) are authors of the legislation, tentatively scheduled as Assembly Bill 2003. Although existing law requires the State Department of Education to incorporate lessons about civil rights, genocide, slavery and the Holocaust into the public school systems’ curriculum, the guidelines for doing so and the resources for training teachers have never been formalized, according to Koretz.
“We wanted to do something dramatic to make California the leader in Holocaust and genocide education. The current legislation took the first step, saying we should be teaching about the Holocaust, but it did not provide enough resources,” Koretz said.
The bill, if passed, would establish a 12-member Holocaust/Genocide Commission that would in turn create “centers for excellence” to provide resources, including teacher training and certificate programs for Holocaust and genocide studies. According to the Assembly counsel’s summary of the bill, the centers would work with the California State University system, as well as with such established organizations as the Simon Wiesenthal Museum of Tolerance, the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, the Northern California Holocaust Resource Center in San Francisco, the Cambodian Center in Stanislaus County and the Armenian Education Institute.
The bill also includes the recommendation that survivor testimony be more central to teaching about slavery, genocide and the Holocaust.
Koretz said he anticipates a positive reception for the legislation. In addition to himself and Wyland, the bill has received support from Assembly members Tony Strickland (R-Moorpark), Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara), Keith Richman (R-Northridge), Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles), Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills), Gloria Negrete McLeod (D-Chino) and Sally Havice (D-Cerritos), as well as from state senators Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica), Richard Alarcon (D-Sylmar) and Jack Scott (D-Altadena).
The lawmakers have also been busy developing community support for the bill. The Southern California Region B’nai B’rith was one of the first Jewish organizations back it, thanks to Koretz’s chief of staff Scott Svonkin, who also serves as the organization’s public policy chair. Other formal supporters of the bill include the Shoah Foundation and the California Federation of Teachers.
“It fit in very nicely with our agenda. We were delighted to back it,” said B’nai B’rith Regional Director Steve Koff. “We have a number of members who are Holocaust survivors affiliated with various outlets like the Simon Wiesenthal Center, who give their time speaking to community groups and schools. In light of their involvement, it’s natural for B’nai B’rith to support the new curriculum.”
The program is being modeled on those of New Jersey and Pennsylvania, the two states with the most prominent government-sponsored programs for Holocaust studies. Koretz also credited California State University Chico professor Sam Edelman for his assistance in creating the program outlined in the bill.
Edelman, who along with his wife, Carol, has taught Holocaust studies courses for more than two decades, said he and his colleagues across the state have long despaired of the lack of support for teachers in this field and the differing, often inadequate results of having no set guidelines for school programs.
“Just to run a movie like ‘Schindler’s List,’ as wonderful a film as it is, isn’t enough,” Edelman said. “The goal here is to provide the teachers with the right resources so they can teach children properly, to put them in touch with survivors and rescuers and academicians who know the histories of the various genocides.”
Edelman said he could not stress enough the importance of these studies in giving children a “moral compass.”
“When students understand the results of hatred and bigotry, that in the extreme result the results are the Shoah and Rwanda and Cambodia, they can begin to understand the implications of hatred in their own lives,” he said.
Court Writes Off Deductions
Todd Solondz says that when he was growing up in a kosher home in Livingston, N.J., "I did well at school, I didn’t get in trouble, I was a good boy."
Since winning the top prize at the Sundance Film Festival for his excruciating 1996 comedy, "Welcome to the Dollhouse" — about a geeky, four-eyed, preteen who strikingly resembles Solondz — the filmmaker has been anything but. "Dollhouse," originally titled "Faggots and Retards," is a kind of anti-"Wonder Years" that dispels myths about childhood sexuality.
His award-winning 1998 film "Happiness," which features an obscene phone caller and a nice suburban dad who is a pedophile, was so scandalous, the studio that financed the movie elected not to distribute it.
If Solondz had to switch to an unlisted telephone number after the release of "Happiness," he may have to move to Alaska in the aftermath of his latest film, "Storytelling," now in theaters. Divided into two unrelated segments, the bleak comedy confronts taboos about racism and the Holocaust as it "explores how storytelling can be a source of redemption and also a source of exploitativeness," Solondz told The Journal.
An African American creative writing teacher humiliates a white female student (Selma Blair) in the classroom and in bed. A Holocaust refugee’s daughter (Julie Hagerty) mouths platitudes about the Shoah, prompting her son to retort, "So you’re saying if it wasn’t for Hitler, none of us would have been born?" (He is promptly banished from the dinner table.) The same Jewish mother solicits tzedakah for a Jewish charity while ignoring the suffering of her Salvadoran maid. When the question is asked, "What does it mean to be a Jew?" it’s clear she has no idea.
Independent filmmakers have agreed that shock sells, as evidenced by the success of Larry Clark’s sexually provocative "Kids" and Michael Cuesta’s 2001 pedophilia-themed drama, "L.I.E." But Solondz, who turned down studio deals to make his 1989 indie debut, "Fear, Anxiety and Depression," insists he isn’t out to shock anyone. By taking on sacred cows like the Holocaust, he says he is being cruel to be kind. "I think sometimes there is a kind of awe and reverence that one has to question when talking about the Holocaust," says the cerebral, 42-year-old Manhattan filmmaker, who has been known to wear Keds and oversized glasses. "If one looks at it as something otherworldly, then one is failing to grasp the fact that it was very sadly not otherwordly but very real. There is a danger of unwittingly exploiting the tragedy in ways that tend to trivialize it, if one doesn’t see it in a proper context. And certainly, the family in the movie doesn’t have strong moral bearings on how to understand or explain the significance and meaning of this black cloud that does in fact hover over post-World War II Jewish history."
That black cloud hovered over the Solondz’ New Jersey split-level, where his mother was haunted by memories of fleeing Nazi-occupied Antwerp as a child. "The Holocaust was very much brought home to me, to the extent that we had relatives who survived or didn’t survive," recalls the director, suggesting a source of his unsettling worldview. "I was taught early on that whether or not I regarded myself as Jewish, Hitler certainly would have determined that I was a Jew."
Solondz, who says he is now an atheist, attended an Orthodox yeshiva for a time during elementary school, then a Conservative religious school to prepare for his bar mitzvah. In the seventh grade, his parents enrolled him in an elite, all-boys prep school, which eventually inspired "Dollhouse." "At 11, I was writing stories and playlets. At 12, I was no longer reading or writing, just counting off days … interested [only] in survival," he wrote in the introduction to his screenplay. Yet Solondz suggests he was an outcast for a different reason than the film’s anti-heroine, Dawn Wiener (a.k.a. "Wienerdog"). "There were only two Jews in my class, and [unlike me] they fit in with the country club set — they were sort of like, ‘The Garden of the Finzi-Continis’ Jews," he says, citing Vittorio De Sica’s Nazi-era film about a privileged Italian family.
Solondz went on to attend Yale and New York University’s film school. After "Fear, Anxiety and Depression" bombed, he fled Hollywood and applied to the Peace Corps as "a kind of tzedakah." He surmises he was rejected, in part, because the interviewer did not appreciate his sense of humor. Undaunted, he taught English to Russian immigrants for two years before writing "Dollhouse" to redeem himself as a filmmaker.
He says that in his own mind, the Wieners of "Dollhouse" and the Jordans of "Happiness" were Jewish, "which gave me a level of familiarity as a jumping-off point from which to explore their psyches." He adds that "Storytelling" is the first time he’s created an overtly Jewish family; he named them Livingston, after his hometown, in part, because they represent a kind of suburban Jew he found there. "One thing that interests me is the way that some Jews perceive assimilation as a way to raise their social standing," says Solondz, who imagines the Livingstons as "nee Leventhal." He notes how the fictional parents nag their slacker son to get into a good college, adding, "That’s emblematic of how the Jewish value placed on education can be confused with the acquisition of status and material success."
Solondz isn’t above some self-criticism in "Storytelling"; his alter ego is a nebbishy failed filmmaker (Paul Giamatti) who redeems himself by exploiting his documentary subjects, the Livingstons. He says he’s surprised that more people haven’t complained about "Storytelling." "Of course, it’s early, so there’s still hope," he adds with a laugh. "I can only tell you that at a screening someone once asked, ‘Do you hate blacks, Latinos and Jews?’ All I can say is if I do, I’m somewhat egalitarian."
Time’s on his Side
7 Days In Arts
Saturday, Oct. 13
Its off to Poland with the Second Annual Polish Cultural Arts Festival today. Enjoy a wide array of Polish culture from art, music, literature, food, dance and films. Today, a champagne reception kicks off a Polish feature film “The Spring to Come” and tomorrow, jazz melodies fill the air with singer Grazyna Auguscik. 5 p.m., Sun., Oct. 14, 2 p.m. Through Oct. 15. L.A. Cultural Affairs, Warner Grand Theater, 478 W. Sixth St. San Pedro.
Sunday, Oct. 1
Domestic violence is no laughing matter. However tonight stand-up comediennes Stephanie Hodge, Karen Rontowski, Sabrina Matthews and Jackie Kashian will Stand Up Against Domestic Violence. Heidi Joyce hosts the comedy show that will donate all proceeds to the Theatre of Hope for Abused Women. $12 (in advance); $15 (at the door). 2 stoitzp.m. The Bitter Truth, 11050 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood. For reservations or more information, call (818) 766-9702.
Revenge is the focus in today’s staged play reading “The Last Laugh,” starring Harold Gould, who is known for his humorous roles on “Rhoda” and “The Golden Girls.” This Anton Chekhov-inspired work is directed by Alexandra More and written by Michael Hardstark. $10 (members, seniors and students); $12 (nonmembers). 2 p.m. Westside Jewish Community Center, 5870 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles. For tickets or more information, call (323) 938-2531 ext. 2225.
Tension-filled silences are playwright Harold Pinter’s trademark, either between estranged lovers or begrudging friends. In “Betrayal”, the same technique is used along with a reverse chronological order to portray the secret love affair between a married woman and her husband’s best friend. The effect is an intense definition of the play’s title and the lessons learned through life’s injustices. $36-$40 (general admission). 4 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. For reservations or more information, call (310) 827-0889.
Monday, Oct. 15
Jewish lawyer Bella Azbug fought hard to clear a black man in the Deep South accused of rape and take a stand against blatant racism. Although she didn’t win the 1949 case, she exhibited the Jewish values of fixing the world. Her tireless efforts are chronicled in “Extraordinary Jews: Staging Their Lives” (A.R.E. Publishing Inc., 2001), a series of plays about inspiring Jewish figures in our nation’s history. The book is targeted towards Jewish youth, the aim being to supply them with much needed role models they can identify with in this age of confusion and mayhem. Written by playwright Gabrielle Suzanne Kaplan, the work illustrates seven other Jewish role models, including the revolutionary Emma Goldman and legendary composer Leonard Bernstein.
Tuesday, Oct. 16
Today, Leo Baeck Temple offers Jewish literature classes, encompassing the works of world-renowned Jewish authors and poets, such as Isaac Bashevis Singer and Sholom Aleichem. Led by Leah Schweitzer, the class of 25 will use the “Oxford Book of Jewish Stories” as a guide. $21 (members); $36 (nonmembers). 11:30 a.m. 1300 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. For registration or more information, call (310) 476-2861.
Wednesday, Oct. 17
These artists are so good, they’ve taught children. “Art Noir” is on display today, exhibiting the works of talented artists such as Tina Turbeville, Betty Green, Zelda Zinn and Melinda Smith Altshuler, who have participated in the Crossroads School program to teach art to children. The subjects of the pieces range from political to social and emotional. Gallery hours: Mon.-Fri., 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Through Nov. 1. Sam Francis Gallery, Second floor, Peter Boxenbaum Arts Building, 1714 Twenty-first St., Santa Monica. For more information, call (310) 829-7391 ext. 231.
Thursday, Oct. 18
Persian singer/percussionist Mitra and flamenco guitarist Rama Morovati kick off tonight’s Interfaith Musical Program for World Peace with Sephardic music. Led by world renowned singer and guitarist Gerard Edery, The Gerard Edery Ensemble mixes Armenian, Spanish, French, Ladino, Hebrew and Arabic music ranging from upbeat celebration hymns to poignant ballads of loss. 8 p.m. University of Judaism, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Bel Air. For reservations or more information, call (310) 476-9777 ext. 201.
Friday, Oct. 19
The Stella Adler Theatre is holding its Annual One-Act Festival tonight, featuring Timothy McNeil’s dark comedy “The Straight Bozo”, Charles Waxberg’s “Marasmus” and Stefan Marks’ “Park”. $7 (general admission). Fri. and Sat., 8 p.m. and Sun., 7 p.m. Through Nov. 4. 6773 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. For tickets or more information, call (310) 855-0498.
7 Days In Arts
Mr. Television Turns Another Channel
Red Buttons almost fell down while approaching the podium. But the master of the one-liner quickly rebounded, both physically and comedically. Buttons took the mike and ad-libbed, "I’ll see you next fall."
If the spontaneous slapstick felt like a variety show from the early days of television, it was only fitting, as the occasion was last Sunday’s birthday gala for Milton Berle, who turned 93 on July 12. Some 250 people attended the black-tie affair, which celebrated the cigar-chomping comedian and his legendary place in the annals of entertainment history.
The wheelchair-bound Berle, recently diagnosed with a small, inoperable tumor in his colon that is not of any immediate threat, held court at the event with wife Lorna ever present at his side.
Known alternately as "Mr. Television," "Uncle Miltie" and "The Thief of Bad Gags" (which in itself, it should be noted, is a bad gag), Berle is no stranger to such tributes. He pioneered television with his blend of sarcasm and sight gags on "The Milton Berle Show" in the late 1940s. The toothy comedian’s wiseacre persona even became one of the inspirations for Bugs Bunny.
Following highlights from Berle’s seminal variety show, Patti La Belle belted out "That’s What Friends Are For," and Little Richard rocked with "Good Golly, Miss Molly." Ed McMahon hosted the star-studded celebration.
There was no shortage of comics — old and new school — to pay homage to the legend: Whoopi Goldberg said a few words; Sid Caesar did his dialects, and Shecky Green did some impersonations. Harvey Korman and Jan Murray were among the many guests. Buttons closed the birthday bash with 20 minutes of zingers: "Jimmy Carter — who said to the pope, ‘Next time bring the missus!’ — never got a dinner."
Buttons’ son Adam said, "I’m not saying this because he’s my dad. I’m saying this as a fan — the man stole the show. He had the biggest standing ovation of the entire night."
By evening’s end, the still-spry Berle, who has a star for radio and for TV on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (6771 and 6263 Hollywood Blvd., respectively), stood from his wheelchair and thanked his well-wishers.
Buttons told Up Front, "Forget Mr. Television, Miltie was Mr. Energy. He was a tremendous performer.
I’m too sexy for my housework
More Bangs for the Buck
Jerry Bruckheimer laughs when you mention the reviews that charge he makes money, not art. “Thanks for reminding me,” he quips. “But I get great reviews from the Bank of America.”
A fitting response for a producer who is the uncontested King of the Hollywood Blockbusters.
His “Pearl Harbor,” the priciest movie ever approved by one studio, opens today with the biggest series of explosions ever recorded on film.
In the 1980s, Bruckheimer and his then-partner, Don Simpson, bought matching black Ferraris, hired identical twin assistants and churned out a string of multibillion-dollar testosterone-fests like “Top Gun” and “Beverly Hills Cop.” Even after Simpson died of a drug overdose in 1996, Bruckheimer continued to reign as cinema’s adrenaline mogul with flicks such as “Con Air” and “Armageddon.” If you do the math, he’s probably the most financially successful producer in movie history, with film, video and soundtrack revenues topping $11 billion.
So what if the critics dump on his movies? Bruckheimer says he personally identifies with the genre. “It’s about overcoming your problems and succeeding,” he says. “I like movies about triumph. It parallels my own life story.”
If Bruckheimer made his own biopic, it would begin with his childhood home in a blue-collar Jewish section of Detroit just after World War II.
Bruckheimer’s house was so small that he could stretch out his arms in any room and touch opposite walls, he has said. His parents were German Jewish immigrants who arrived in the United States in the 1920s; his father was active in a Conservative synagogue. Bruckheimer senior made only $140 a week as a salesman. But Bruckheimer was more ambitious.
When his parents dropped him off at weekly matinees, he dreamed of Hollywood. “I wanted to make movies,” he says. “I fell in love with the magic.”
Bruckheimer studied photography, won some local prizes — and fled Detroit the way his parents had left the Old Country. Hollywood was his goldine medine; he arrived here after giving up a lucrative Madison Avenue advertising job to accept a low-paying 1972 movie gig. By the early ’80s, he was collaborating with Simpson on “Flashdance,” a surprise hit that put the producers on the Hollywood A-list. Over the years, Simpson would describe their partnership as like a good marriage, but without the sex. Bruckheimer gleaned ideas for films by reading four newspapers a day and 90 magazines a month.
He says his drive to succeed was motivated by his parents’ immigrant experience. “They were always scraping together a nickel,” he says. “I didn’t want to be poor, to tell you the truth.”
Given his family history, one would expect Bruckheimer’s World War II movie to be set in Nazi-occupied Europe, not the Pacific. His mother’s half-siblings died in concentration camps, while his uncle, who was fluent in German, served as an interpreter in U.S. intelligence.
Then again, Bruckheimer knows a good story when he sees one. While other producers feverishly developed Holocaust-themed projects in the wake of “Schindler’s List,” he paid attention to a Disney executive who described visiting the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor. The exec noted that the battleship was demolished within five minutes during the Japanese surprise attack on Dec. 7, 1941. “We thought that would make a great backdrop for a movie,” Bruckheimer says. “It was the first time we were ever defeated on our own soil. That’s not something we should forget, because history has a tendency to repeat itself.”
These days, Bruckheimer does not belong to a synagogue, but he is returning to his roots by developing his first Jewish-themed film, “Operation Moses,” based on the mass airlift of Ethiopian Jews to Israel in 1985. It’s a saga worthy of a Bruckheimer movie, with a cloak-and-dagger military operation, a dangerous desert journey and an inspiring ending. Will the movie be an action film? “Absolutely,” Bruckheimer says. “I [envision] a number of explosive sequences.” The producer is so proud of the project that it’s prominently listed in his bio in the production notes for “Pearl Harbor.”
But don’t suggest to Bruckheimer that Jewish action heroes won’t draw big bucks. “If there is a stereotype that Jews aren’t action heroes, you can always get around it,” he says. “What’s important is the storytelling.”
Which brings Bruckheimer back to the subject of the critics. “Even if they don’t like my movies, the public does,” he insists. “That’s why I make my pictures. I’ve gotta take the bright side.”
Through Jewish Eyes
Raven-haired actress Juliet Landau is best-known for playing characters with a dark, wicked edge. In Tim Burton’s "Ed Wood," she was the starlet who out-conned Hollywood’s schlockiest filmmaker. In "Theodore Rex," she was the James Bond-ish vixen Dr. Veronica Shade. On TV shows "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Angel," she is Drusilla, a bloodthirsty addict with an enabler boyfriend named Spike.
"We are the Sid and Nancy of the vampire set," says Landau, the 29-year-old daughter of "Mission Impossible" stars Martin Landau and Barbara Bain.
At Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s Westside campus this month, the actress, who was raised in an assimilated Jewish home, will again take a walk on the dark side, but in a very different kind of play. She’ll appear in Richard Rashke’s "Dear Esther," based on the true story of Esther Raab, one of 300 Jews who escaped the Sobibor death camp in 1943.
The piece is primarily a dialogue between the main character, Esther (Bain), and "Esther 2" (Landau), Raab’s conscience, alter ego and younger self. Landau’s own mother will play the other half of Landau’s character, which might prompt some to envision Dr. Freud stroking his beard and asking a question or two.
During the course of the play, the two Esthers work through the guilt and rage Raab feels about her mother’s suicide during the Shoah.
"It’s strange," admits the younger actress, who, like her mother, is a member of the Actors Studio. "But it’s a good casting choice. Much of an actor’s work is creating a history with the other performers, but with my mother, that is already taken care of. We have a deep knowledge of each other and a history to draw upon when we step onstage."
For Landau, show business is in the blood. During her childhood, her parents’ friends included Carl Reiner and Carroll O’Connor, so Juliet believed that everyone had his own TV show.
Acting, however, was off-limits for Juliet and her older sister, who attended the American School in London while their parents fought off aliens in the TV show "Space 1999." "They didn’t want to subject us to the vagaries of the business," says Landau. "And then I never wanted to be an actress; that was my parents’ world. I was a dancer."
After working as a professional ballerina for five years, Landau became disillusioned with the business and enrolled in an acting class.
Soon after, she began earning positive reviews for performances in plays such as Wendy Wasserstein’s "Uncommon Women & Others."
Burton was so impressed with her audition tape that he hired her even before he cast her father as the aging horror star Bela Lugosi (for which Martin Landau earned the Oscar for best supporting actor in 1995). Father and daughter discussed dailies on the set, though they only appeared together in one scene, a re-enactment of Ed Wood’s "Bride of the Monster." "Dad put my character in a trance, then he took a whip and started beating this other character as I was lying there," Landau recalls. "It was very bizarre."
Since Landau enjoys working with her mother, with whom she has appeared in half a dozen staged readings, she was amenable when director Alexandra More called and asked if she would co-star with Bain in "Dear Esther."
Like her parents, who helped found the Los Angeles branch of the Actors Studio, Landau will approach the role with her usual meticulous attention to detail. She has already gathered a stack of books on the Holocaust, including "I Never Saw Another Butterfly: Children’s Drawings and Poems from Terezin Concentration Camp."
Her DramaLogue and Emmy Award-winning mother will not need to do such in-depth research. While Juliet grew up a generation removed from the Holocaust, Bain, née Millicent Fogel, remembers being terrified of the Nazis as a child. "I looked as blond and corn-fed as everyone around me in my Chicago neighborhood, yet there was an ominousness in the air, and I felt unsafe," she told the Journal.
She will no doubt identify on some level with her character’s main struggle: coming to terms with the death of one’s mother. When Barbara Bain was 18, she was summoned home from school because her own mother was dying of pancreatic cancer. "It was a very, very painful time," she recalls. "I didn’t know what hit me."
Bain, who conducts a workshop in sense memory (the use of personal emotions to fuel a performance), may use some of that technique to bring the fictional Esther to life. When Juliet wondered whether the approach can emotionally crush an actor, her mom provided words of wisdom. "It’s not threatening, but healthy," she said. "It’s a catharsis, a release."
For tickets to "Dear Esther," April 18 and 19 at the Irmas Campus of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, 11661 W. Olympic Blvd., call Rabbi Karen Fox’s office at (213) 388-2401, ext. 269.
People of the Book
Case Lost, Insight Gained
By 1933, Samuel Liebowitz, the assimilated son of Romanian Jewish immigrants, had won fame and fortune defending kidnappers, rapists, corrupt cops and jealous lovers. Fresh from defending Al Capone, he was enthusiastic when Communist Party leaders asked him to represent the most famous defendants in America: nine black youths falsely accused of raping two white women on a train near Scottsboro, Ala.
Not that star attorney Liebowitz cared a whit about civil rights. "Like many mainstream Americans, he was not sympathetic to the black cause," said Barak Goodman, writer-director of the 2001 Oscar-nominated documentary "Scottsboro: An American Tragedy," which airs Monday, April 2, on PBS. "And he hated Communists. He simply wanted to advance his career."
But despite his brilliant defense in Scottsboro at the youths’ second trial (the U.S. Supreme Court had overturned their first convictions), Liebowitz was simply perceived as a Jewish carpetbagger. "Let’s show [people] that the Alabama justice system can’t be bought and sold with Jew money from New York," the prosecutor urged the jury.
"The minute a Jewish lawyer from New York City came to Alabama," one historian noted, "the case was lost."
Liebowitz, who was deeply shaken by the bigotry, learned an important lesson about racism, anti-Semitism and the anti-Yankee feeling that still pervaded the South, and he began to empathize with his African-American clients. "He was able to understand their plight because he was going through some of the same discrimination and hatred," Goodman said. "For the first time in his life, he began to think of himself as a Jew."
Goodman and Daniel Anker, the film’s producer and co-director, were in part drawn to the Scottsboro story because of their own Jewish roots. Friends since childhood, they grew up in homes where Jewish identity was inextricably linked to social justice. Anker accompanied his mother as she registered Blacks to vote near their Maryland home. Barak, whose name means "lightning" in Hebrew, was disturbed by the racial divide in his Philadelphia suburb.
Goodman went on to write his Harvard University thesis on the black civil rights movement in Chicago. Some years later, he hooked up with Anker, a fellow Harvard alumnus and documentarian, to make the Emmy-nominated film "Daley: The Last Boss."
In 1994, Goodman again contacted his childhood friend after he read a nonfiction book about the trials and was mesmerized from the first page. "It was a great courtroom drama," Goodman said –and it had characters worthy of a Hollywood movie.
One of the nine black hoboes accused of rape was only 13 and had never been away from home before. Another defendant suffered from severe syphilis and could barely walk. A third was nearly blind and hoped to find a job to pay for glasses.
Their female accusers were textile workers who could afford to live only in the black section of town — where they occasionally traded sex with men of both races for food and clothing.
Victoria Price, 21, was tough-talking, tobacco-chewing and twice-married, and she had served time in a workhouse for adultery and vagrancy. Ruby Bates, 17, who was quiet and soft-spoken, disappeared after the first trial and re-emerged at the second as a surprise witness for the defense.
Like Liebowitz, she was forever transformed by the trials: "She not only became an advocate for the defendants, she became a lifelong member of the Communist Party," Goodman said. She ended up living in Harlem with a black lover. It was, Goodman noted, one of the stranger journeys in American history.
Litigation in the Scottsboro case dragged on for years, with some of the defendants remaining in prison until the late 1940s.
For the New York-based filmmakers, both 37, the trek South was also a strange journey. When Anker and Goodman arrived in the hilly environs of Scottsboro in the late 1990s, they were initially regarded with suspicion. The white citizens of the sleepy, quaint town perceived them as Yankees — "and a bit like ‘Jew-Commie filmmakers,’" Goodman said. "But it was very understated."
The documentarians, meanwhile, were well aware that time was of the essence. All the main characters of the Scottsboro drama had died, and two of the last remaining witnesses were gravely ill. So the filmmakers were relieved when several Scottsboro residents put their suspicions aside to appear on camera. One of their assumptions shocked Anker: "They still regarded the black defendants as guilty," he said. "For them, the case was merely the story of a rape."
Historians consider the Scottsboro affair an important victory for civil rights in America. The case spurred two key Supreme Court decisions: one mandating integrated juries, the other requiring that indigent clients in capital cases receive adequate legal defense. "During the trials, Whites and Blacks marched together for the first time ever," Goodman noted. "Scottsboro gave birth to an integrated civil rights movement."
From Kataif to Kasha
Tough Dames in a Tough Game
Glamour, betrayal, influence and heartache, all in a day’s work. In her first book, “Is That a Gun in Your Pocket? Women’s Experience of Power in Hollywood,” Rachel Abramowitz, a former writer for Premiere magazine, lays out in impressive detail what the first significant wave of women in the film trade, a wave that hit the studios in the 1970s, had to go through to get women to be taken seriously by the industry.
Abramowitz uses the stories of several women — among them executives Sherry Lansing and Dawn Steel, superagent Sue Mengers and writer-director Nora Ephron, along with production designer-turned-producer Polly Platt and actor-director Jodie Foster — as tentpoles for her narrative, returning to their lives and careers at intervals throughout the book. Other Jewish women she spotlights include Barbra Streisand, Elaine May and executive Paula Weinstein.
What’s striking is that so many of these female movers and shakers are Jewish, represented as disproportionately in Hollywood as Jewish men are, and that so many come from troubled family backgrounds, some with Holocaust connections.
Lansing’s mother fled Nazi Germany as a teenager in the 1930s; Mengers herself arrived in the States as an 8-year-old refugee in 1939. Mengers’ father committed suicide when she was 13, Steel’s family dynamic went south after her father suffered a business failure and a nervous breakdown, Weinstein was a red-diaper baby whose larger-than-life mother was entirely too open about her emotional life, and Ephron’s screenwriter parents were both alcoholics.
Abramowitz shows one woman after another crashing through the glass ceiling — often getting cut up in the process by jealousy, competition and dysfunctional relationships with men, and, even in the highest reaches of power, cracking her head against a new obstacle placed by men.
“I thought they’d enjoy it a lot more,” Abramowitz told The Journal, adding that many sacrificed relationships and even motherhood to their careers. “You’re judged on everything; how you look, how you talk. You can’t just do a good job. They were the most driven people you can imagine.”
“Is That a Gun in Your Pocket?” is a fascinating examination of “a generation in transition,” in Abramowitz’s words, a group of women who made it more possible for younger female Hollywood executives to balance family and work. “They were the ones who stormed the barricades,” Abramowitz said. “The proof of their success is the younger generation of women, who take the business as their birthright.”
Becoming an entertainment reporter was “a little bit random,” says Abramowitz, 35, who had been working for a business magazine in New York when Premiere brought her to Los Angeles. “I’ve been interested in movies not in a particularly intense way, but the way everyone is, in movies as a national pastime.”
“Is That a Gun in Your Pocket?” began as a piece for Premiere back in the early 1990s that was supposed to be an oral history of women in Hollywood. “I was really young, and I just used it as an opportunity to meet everybody in town,” Abramowitz said.
Abramowitz doesn’t have a home town; her father, Morton Abramowitz, is a retired career diplomat who served as U.S. assistant secretary of state and ambassador to Turkey. Her mother, Sheppie, who is about to retire from her work with the International Rescue Committee, an organization that aids refugees and victims of oppression or violent conflict, kept the family Jewishly affiliated among posts in Washington, D.C., Hawaii, London, and Vienna.
Their daughter managed to put together about five years of religious school but didn’t have a Bat Mitzvah because the family moved to Thailand when she was 12. About all the half-Ashkenazi, half-Sephardi Jewish community in Bangkok could manage, Abramowitz said, was High Holy Days services in a private home, using old U.S. Army prayerbooks.
Abramowitz lives in Venice with her husband, a screenwriter, and their toddler son. Since leaving
Premiere, she’s been snowed under with freelance assignments and is mulling over ideas for another book. Although “Is That a Gun in Your Pocket?” is being developed as a film project, Abramowitz isn’t interested in a career as a screenwriter or film executive.
“I don’t really want to be in the business,” she said. “I really like writing books. You have a lot of autonomy to do what you want to do, to say what you want to say — unlike the business.”
Too Jewish? No Way!
On the eve of the new year, there’s plenty to see in the arts around town. At your local cineplex there’s David Mamet’s “State and Main,” a Hollywood satire of what happens when a movie company invades small-town Vermont (hint: there’s matzah in every room). If you’re under the impression that Jews don’t do cinematography, trot out and see Billy Bob Thornton’s “All the Pretty Horses,” lensed by Barry Markowitz, who has a degree in Jewish history from Hebrew University in Jerusalem. It’s Markowitz’s third consecutive film with Billy Bob, and yes, the $60-million Western (dispossessed Texas teen goes to Mexico) is a far cry from the d.p.’s start as an associate producer on a documentary about Jewish immigrants. As Markowitz told Variety: “I know it almost sounds ridiculous, but [there] I was, a child of Holocaust survivors, plotting out shots with Matt Damon riding a horse across the open range.”
On PBS, “The Living Century,” hosted by Jack Lemmon, profiles people who are just that – aged 100 years or older. One segment (Dec. 31, 3:30 p.m. on KOCE, and Jan. 19, 10:30 p.m. on KCET) features Rose Freedman, the last remaining survivor of the infamous 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire and a past Jewish Journal interviewee. At 107, she still lives on her own in Beverly Hills, where she paints, shops and cooks for herself and dresses in high heels every day. Says series creator Steven Latham, “Because longevity is common in the Jewish community, nominate anyone you know who is 100 or older to become a subject of the TV show or to receive a recognition award from ‘The Living Century.'” Just log onto the Web site atwww.thelivingcentury.com.
Meanwhile, at the Ruby Theater at the Complex this Thursday, there’s the world premiere of Eydie Faye’s “The Pages of My Diary I’d Rather Not Read,” which follows the adventures of three disparate career women hoping to find success in the Big Apple (the Jewish one is a wannabe actress from L.A.) For tickets, call (323) 993-8587.
Jan. 4-14 may be your last chance to see Ronald Harwood’s searing play at the Odyssey, “Taking Sides,” which centers on the post-World War II interrogation of German conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler. Call (310) 477-2055 for ticket information.
Also: Don’t miss perhaps the only artist to have exhibitions simultaneously at the Skirball (call (310) 440-4500) and the Museum of Latin American Art (in Long Beach: (562) 437-1689): Jose Gurvich (1927-1974), a Lithuanian shtetl emigre who helped bring modernism to Uruguay and who later lived in Israel. You have exactly three more days to see Gurvich’s watercolors and drawings at the Skirball (through Dec. 31), while the retrospective “Jose Gurvich: A Song to Life” will remain through Jan. 14 at the Latin American museum. Bottom line: Bring in the New Year with a bit of cul-tcha.
7 Days in Arts
Diane Estelle Vicari and Robert Kirk cheered when the Japanese foreign ministry apologized to Chiune Sugihara’s family this month.
The filmmakers’ acclaimed documentary, “Sugihara: Conspiracy of Kindness,” which screens at the International Jewish Film Festival this month, helped build the international pressure that pushed Japan to posthumously acknowledge its greatest Holocaust hero.
“Sugihara” tells of the diplomat who defied his government by issuing thousands of visas to help Jews flee Kovno, Lithuania, on the cusp of the Shoah. For four harrowing weeks in summer 1941, Sugihara worked 16-hour days to complete the visas before the Russians shut down his consulate. He scribbled more on the ride to the train station while leaving the country; still more on the railroad platform while desperate Jews clung to the window of his train compartment. “He was so exhausted, like a sick person,” his widow, Yukiko, recalls in the documentary.
Because of Sugihara’s courage, more than 40,000 Jews, survivors and their descendants, are alive today. But disobeying orders cost him dearly. After the war, the “Japanese Schindler” was dismissed from government service and reduced to menial work. He spent his later years working in Moscow, where he lived alone in a squalid hotel room. “He barely smiled,” Sugihara’s grandson says in the movie.
The attention granted “Conspiracy of Kindness” is helping to right the old wrong. This year, the movie won best documentary at the Hollywood Film Festival; there was a standing ovation at a United Nations screening and Japanese leaders have expressed interest in a private screening. Just last month, the filmmakers won the prestigious International Documentary Association/Pare Lorentz Award.
Producer Vicari, 45, who took up filmmaking eight years ago, accepted her prize while recovering from pneumonia contracted while completing the documentary. “It’s been an incredibly long, difficult journey,” she says,”but also an incredible honor.”
Vicari admits she’s the last person one would expect to obsess for more than four years about a Holocaust-themed film. She grew up French-Catholic in the flat farm country outside Montreal, the daughter of a barn-and-silo painter-contractor. Not a single Jew lived in her town, she says, and not a single word was taught about the Holocaust at her Catholic school.
“There wasn’t any anti-Semitism, but there was terrible racism,” adds the producer, who defied her parents by riding her bicycle onto the Indian reservation or meeting Iroquois friends at a Dairy Queen three miles from home. When her neighbors spewed epithets about Native Americans, she knew they were lying.
That explains why Vicari was riveted when she learned about the horrors perpetrated by the Nazis. In 1994, Vicari, a fashion designer-turned-filmmaker, volunteered to work at Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, where she was appalled to discover she knew next to nothing about the Holocaust. She immersed herself in Shoah research, sat in on interviews and then began to interview survivor after survivor.
But the endeavor took its toll. Vicari suffered nightmares after every interview – until she chanced to learn about Chiune Sugihara.
The scene was a reception honoring the diplomat’s widow at the Museum of Tolerance in February 1995. Tiny, graceful, soft-spoken Yukiko Sugihara recalled the sad crowd outside the Kovno consulate; the Jewish women gazing at her with “great sorrow” or pleading with clasped hands.
“Previously, I had learned only about the victims and the perpetrators of the Holocaust,” Vicari says. “Learning about Sugihara was like a pearl.”
Director Kirk, who is Jewish, admits he previously turned down every Holocaust-themed project that had come his way. “I was chicken,” he says. “I thought it would be too painful. But Sugihara’s story was uplifting.”
“Conspiracy of Kindness” posits that the diplomat dared disobey his government because he was an iconoclast: He defied his father by refusing to enter medical school; he quit his post in Manchuria after witnessing Japanese atrocities there; he spoke fluent Russian and German and was, Kirk says, “an internationalist.”
Vicari, for her part, hopes to dedicate the rest of her career to subjects worthy of Sugihara. Her next film will expose neo-Nazism in the U.S. “We see the Holocaust as something outside America, but we’re wearing blinders,” she says. “We don’t realize that hatred is alive and well among us.”
“Sugihara” screens 7:30 p.m., Nov. 14, at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills. For information, call (818) 786-4000.
Healing the World
It was perhaps the most emotionally potent moment of the evening, as the elderly Rabbi Yedidiah Shofet, addressing his audience in Farsi, broke down and cried, his voice trembling, his frail body shaking.Representing the Nessah Cultural Organization, Shofet was part of a lineup of speakers appearing earlier this week at West Hollywood’s Hollywood Temple Beth El, where – reacting to the July 1 verdict that sentenced 10 of the Shiraz 13 – local Jews met to demonstrate support for the prisoners and to condemn the actions of the Iranian government.
Co-sponsored by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and the Iranian American Jewish Federation, Monday night’s rally attracted a cross section of people, predominantly from the Iranian Jewish community. Onstage, Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky eloquently summed up the “Shiraz 10” injustice.
“Their only crime is that they were Jewish, that they were proud to be Jewish,” said Yaroslavsky. “There is no justice in Iran,” where, as he observed, the situation has violated the principles of every religion, including Islam. “None of us can afford to stand by idly.”
Yaroslavsky echoed the evening’s oft-repeated sentiment demanding the curtailing of economic and diplomatic ties with Iran until the 10 are freed.
Other speakers included Dr. H. Kermanshahchi, leader of the Iranian American Jewish Federation; Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center; Terri Smooke, representing Governor Gray Davis; Antonio Villaraigosa, speaker emeritus of the California State Assembly; Temple Emanuel’s cantorial soloist, Yonah Kliger; and Lori Ferdnand Field on behalf of Congressman Brad Sherman, who was in Washington working on legislation that would implement sanctions against Iran.
During the event, Rabbi Harvey Fields of Wilshire Boulevard Temple linked the “Shiraz 13” saga to past human rights violations, such as the Dreyfus affair, Russian pogroms and Nazi occupation, and blasted the case as “a show trial which convicted 10 of [the accused] on trumped-up charges of espionage.””We are not at war with Iran,” Cooper stressed. “What we want is very simple. We want 10 innocent people to return to their family.”
He illustrated the absurdity of Iran’s actions by telling his audience that the Iranian government had recently contacted Interpol to help track down an elderly Iranian rabbi now residing in Pico-Robertson.”His crime – he knows 12 of the ‘Shiraz 13,'” Cooper said. “If it wasn’t so tragic, it would seem pathetic!”
Also onstage at Hollywood Temple Beth El’s presentation was Federation President John Fishel, who told The Journal that awareness of the situation was the rally’s foremost goal. Added Federation Chairman Todd Morgan, “People keep thinking that anti-Semitism doesn’t happen in the world anymore. It still goes on.”
The “Shiraz 10” assembly in West Hollywood followed last weekend’s Westwood protest, where 7,500 Iranian Americans gathered at the Federal Building to express their outrage over the Tehran regime’s jailing of pro-reform movement student activists (According to one informed source, nearly half of the Iranians at that event – which was not sponsored by Jewish organizations – were Jewish). The Federation assembly was also part of a wider effort coordinated by United Jewish Communities (UJC). It took place in concert with other solidarity rallies held simultaneously across North America, and in Europe and Russia. In New York City, more than 2,000 people converged near the United Nations. Representing the Clinton administration, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Richard Holbrooke said, “We demand that there be a reexamination and a reopening of this process.”
Holbrooke was joined onstage by Elie Wiesel, members of Congress, and both Jewish and non-Jewish community leaders.
In Boston, Mayor Thomas Menino attacked what he called Iran’s “kangaroo courts.” And assembling around the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, a group of speakers comprised of community leaders, clergy, and politicians demanded an end to Iranian Jewish persecution. Each of those cities attracted crowds of about 200.
Solidarity gatherings were also held in Denver, Chicago, Detroit, Miami, San Antonio and Omaha. And in Canada, assemblies were held in Ottawa, Vancouver, and in Toronto, where, before 300 people standing in front of downtown’s Old City Hall, Eddie Greenspan, vice president of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, demanded that Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien recall his ambassador to Tehran and expel Iran’s charge d’affaires from Canada until the 10 were released.
Overseas, demonstrations were coordinated in London, Paris and Moscow. In England, Israel’s Ambassador to Great Britain called on Iran to “let our people go” before 150 people, which included Labor and Conservative members of Parliament.
In Germany, the human rights group Amnesty International joined the European Jewish Congress, the Central Council of Jews in Germany, and Berlin’s Jewish community in vocalizing its dissatisfaction over the “Shiraz 10” situation. Capitalizing on Iranian President Mohammed Khatami’s visit to Berlin, Amnesty International called on the German government to demand that Iran revise its policies in regard to the judicial system and freedom of the press.
Not everyone involved in this issue supports these demonstrations. Some believe such outcries have exacerbated the situation, including Esmail Naseri, lead defense lawyer for the 10 prisoners, who stated in a message last week that “these pressures from abroad, which have taken the form of media onslaughts to incite public opinion, will have a negative effect on the case.”
Los Angeles is home to the largest Iranian Jewish community in North America. Estimates vary, but according to demographer Pini Herman 18,000 Iranian Jews are thought to live here – substantial when compared with Iran’s Jewish population of 27,000.
Emceed by Jewish Community Relations Committee (JCRC) Chair Osias Goren, the Federation’s gathering attracted around 400 people, despite very short notice and little advertising. However, noticeably absent at Hollywood Temple Beth El was George Haroonian, spokesman for the Council of Iranian-American Jewish Organizations, who has commented that no speaker from his group had been asked to participate. According to sources, a long-brewing rivalry exists between the mainstream Iranian American Jewish Federation and Haroonian’s more militant organization.
Nevertheless, unity was on the mind of the local Iranian Jews in attendance Monday night. For Vida Tabibian, showing up to show support was a top priority.
“We should not sit silently,” she said. “There should be more sanctions against the government of Iran, more pressure, economically and politically.”
“I wish there were more American Jews supporting tonight to show unity in the community,” said Shahram Elyaszadeh, a Brentwood-area mortgage banker. “American Jews have to come and support Jews through petitions and putting pressure on the White House.”
And according to Sam Kermanian, secretary general of the Iranian American Jewish Federation, politicians have been very involved in working with the Iranian Jewish community on this issue.
“We’ve received great support from world leaders,” said Kermanian, who believes that the Shiraz affair should not only concern Iranians, but the Jewish community at large.
“I think as a community we need to continue to do whatever we can,” he said. “This is not an injustice perpetrated against 10 individuals. This is an injustice against the entire Iranian Jewish history.”Contributing Editor Tom Tugend and JTA reports contributed to this story.
A Kind Word