Yamashiro: The mountain palace built by Jews

Yamashiro, the famous Hollywood restaurant with a Japanese-style building and name, served its last meal by its longtime owners recently, before changing hands and reopening under a new operator. The venue has long been known to generations of Angelenos and tourists as an Asian-fusion restaurant with a hilltop view of Hollywood and beyond, but what is less known is that the building and terraced grounds, both historic cultural landmarks, were the creation of two German Jewish middle-aged bachelors, Adolph and Eugene Bernheimer.

Walking the paths and stairs of Yamashiro’s surrounding gardens, stopping to take a photo of the site’s more than 600-year-old imported Japanese pagoda, or its giant golden Buddha, a visitor wonders how this “mountain palace,” as the name Yamashiro means in Japanese, came to be. Originally the Bernheimer residence, it was completed in 1914, when Hollywood still had orchards and fields. The Los Angeles Times, describing the main villa in 1914 as both a “Wonder-house of California,” and a “feudal fortress with a metropolitan setting,” noted the “striking strangeness of it all.”

The Bernheimer brothers, Eugene Elija (1865-1924) and Adolph Leopold Avraham (1866-1944), were born in Ulm, Germany, and came to the United States in 1888. Their father, Leopold, was in the dry goods business. Along with their brother Charles (1864-1944), at the turn of the century they were the principal owners of Bear Mill Manufacturing Company of New York, a maker of cotton products and an exporter-importer of “Oriental goods” for the American market, which made them wealthy. In 1904, a list of members and contributors of United Hebrew Charities of New York includes Eugene and Adolph in both categories.

Adolph Bernheimer 1943

Traveling extensively throughout Asia, Adolph and Eugene developed a taste for Chinese and Japanese art and began to collect it. Much of their history was entered in the National Register of Historic Places in 2012, and the building is also on the list of Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monuments. 

The brothers arrived in Los Angeles in 1911, and in 1913 they purchased from prominent developer Hobart J. Whitley seven acres of hillside property overlooking the former Rollins estate, which today is the site of the Magic Castle. The brothers hired New York architect Franklin M. Small (with supervising local architect Walter Webber) to design an appropriate house to exhibit their growing collection of Asian art. Completed in 1914, it preceded the nearby Asian-inspired Chinese Theatre, which opened in 1926.

Japanese craftsmen lived in tents on the property’s hillside while helping to build the house and gardens, according to Tom Glover, whose father bought the building and surrounding property from Leo Post and Bernard Brown in 1948, and whose family only recently sold it. The building was authentically Japanese, Glover said, and designed after a temple near Kyoto. The Department of the Interior application notes “the design [is a] prominent example of orientalism as applied to architecture,” and “is based on seventeenth-century Japanese architectural traditions.”

Yet, it also had touches that were modern for its time, including hot water and vacuum systems. “A lot of the interior,” selected by Adolph Bernheimer, “was supplied by a Kyoto art dealer,” Glover added.

In an article in the Times on Nov. 15, 1914, a writer exhorts the charms of the “Japanese Villa.” Adolph’s den is described as “done in red silk, with a dazzling painting of a woman” predominating. There was also a bedroom light (we don’t know whose) and an electrolier in the form of an “inverted athlete swinging from a trapeze.”

The main house was square and two stories high, with its exterior clad in Japanese-inspired half-timbering and smooth white stucco. There were two wings with living quarters — one for each brother. In a touch of what the Times in 1914 called “sinister romance,” the newspaper reported it was “rumored” that the brothers had “made a pact that no women shall ever enter the place as an invited guest.” Dispelling that rumor, however, the Aug. 11, 1915, edition of the Los Angeles Herald reported that “Marcus M. Marks, president of the borough of Manhattan, Greater New York City, and his wife and family” and “[Los Angeles] Mayor and Mrs. [Charles] Sebastian” were invited as “guests of Eugene and Adolph Bernheimer, at their Hollywood villa.”

Creating for their mountain palace a movie-like setting, the terraced grounds were filled with lush gardens, waterfalls, goldfish and a private zoo of exotic birds and monkeys. Miniature bronze houseboats floated along tiny canals and through a miniature Japanese village.

The Bernheimers had succeeded in raising the flag of Asian art and design in L.A., but their own foreign backgrounds flagged a different kind of attention. With the rise of strong anti-German sentiment during World War I (a rise in anti-Semitism may have played a role, as well), the German-born brothers were suspected of some kind of espionage up in their serene foreign-looking retreat. “For weeks, ever since war was declared,” read a piece in the Herald on April 25, 1917, “it has been a favorite pastime of rumor circulators to proclaim the home as an arsenal. … A thorough search at the request of Mr. [Adolph] Bernheimer disclosed nothing of more importance than the usual appurtenances of a well-ordered home.”

Perhaps to stop the suspicions, in 1918 each brother bought a $5,000 Victory Bond. In 1921, their home was “thrown open to the public,” as the article in the Times put it, for the Committee of Foreign Relief to conduct an afternoon and evening benefit “for the children of Poland and Serbia.”

Around 1924, apparently still upset over the war-time suspicions, as well as the city’s building an unsightly water tower behind their home, the Bernheimers sold their palace.

In 1924, Eugene, living in San Francisco as a “retired capitalist,” died unexpectedly. (Both brothers are buried in the Salem Fields Cemetery in Brooklyn along with other prominent Jewish families like the Guggenheims and Shuberts). In Eugene’s will, the millionaire, in addition to leaving bequests for family members as well as his nurse, left $5,000 to the Jewish Philanthropic Society of New York. In 1925, with much of the brothers’ art collection and furnishings having been auctioned off, Adolph’s attention turned to the Pacific Palisades, where he had purchased from Alphonso E. Bell an ocean-view property for another Asian-themed project called Bernheimer Oriental Gardens, turning it into a tourist attraction where, as the brochure said, “the Orient Meets the Occident.” But this project lost favor during World War II due to anti-Asian feelings and because Adolph was of German heritage. By the early 1950s, all of the structures were demolished.

In the 1920s, the Yamashiro property became headquarters for the “400 Club,” whose members included Hollywood’s motion-picture elite, such as actors Lillian Gish and Ramon Novarro. Later in the ’20s, it became a brothel, and during the Depression, tours of the garden were offered for 25 cents.

During World War II, after Pearl Harbor and with the rise in anti-Japanese sentiment, the Yamashiro house and gardens were vandalized and many of the decorative elements were stripped. Yamashiro’s distinctive Asian architecture was disguised and the estate became a boys military school.

By the time Glover’s father purchased the property, the house had been turned “into an apartment house,” according to Tom Glover. “He began to tear off all the coverings; he was going to tear it down, but when he started to pull off all the sheetrock, underneath was silk wallpapers and carved wood,” said Glover, who recalls at age 9 helping to dig sewer lines on the property. Eventually, his father won a liquor license in the state’s lottery, opened a little bar, and as the place grew in popularity, he opened up more rooms.

 “Gray Line tours, sometimes six buses a night, would come up,” recalled Glover, who for several years lived in an apartment on the property that had been fashioned from the monkey house. By 1972, Tom Glover had taken over and started serving food along with the drinks.

This year, Yamashiro was sold for nearly $40 million to the JE Group of Beijing, “a hotel operator known for refurbishing historic properties on its home turf,” according to the Times. There will be few changes to the site, except for sprucing up the aging buildings, Kang Jianyi, chairman of JE, told the Times.

Yet, on June 12, the restaurant closed. Glover said it “will be taken over by another operator.” 

“I didn’t want to sell,” said Glover, who managed the restaurant for 50 years. His extended family had gone to court and forced the sale.

Over the years, he added, Yamashiro has also “been the location for many bar mitzvah parties and Jewish weddings.”

It’s “been heartbreaking to leave,” he said.

Have an idea for a Los Angeles Jewish history story? Contact Edmon J. Rodman at edmojace@gmail.com.

How Tinseltown shaped the world’s view of the Holocaust

Hollywood movies and television have shaped the way most of the world perceives the Final Solution, narrator Gene Hackman observes at the beginning of “Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust.”

It is a statement that may not sit too well with generations of historians and authors, but the evidence validates the conclusion.

When the NBC mini-series “Holocaust” aired in 1978, one of every two Americans watched. The effect was even stronger in Germany, where the film, with an assist from the Wiesenthal Center, persuaded the German government to cancel the time limit on the prosecution of Nazi war criminals.

Elie Wiesel might heatedly object that the TV series, and indeed all dramatic representations, “trivialized” the extermination of the Six Million, and that only those who actually survived the concentration camps had a right to speak.

He was answered, indirectly, by the sardonic German joke of the time that the television “Holocaust” had more of an impact on the German mind than had the original.

As a documentary, “Imaginary Witness” does a remarkable job of presenting the history and moral ambiguities in Hollywood’s treatment of the Holocaust, from the early Nazi days to “The Pianist,” and the chapter is far from closed.

The studios, headed mostly by Jewish immigrants conflicted about their identity, generally treated the new Nazi rulers of Germany with kid gloves. In this, they were driven as much by the bottom line (in the 1920s, Germany accounted for 10 percent of Hollywood’s foreign profits) as by the Hays Code. This self-censorship code protected audiences not only from excessive cleavage but also mandated that movies could not demean the people or rulers of a foreign country.

One exception to the general timidity was MGM’s “The Mortal Storm” (1940), about the persecution of a Jewish family. Though the word “Jew” was never uttered, with “non-Aryan” serving as a substitute, Goebbels banned all future MGM films from both Germany and occupied Europe.

‘Jewish’ excerpt, Charlie Chaplin’s ‘The Great Dictator’

“Jew” was first spoken on the screen later, in 1940, in “The Great Dictator,” which could be made only because Charlie Chaplin financed and produced the brilliant satire by himself.

Hollywood’s appeasement didn’t save it from retribution. The U.S. Senate’s Nye Committee investigated the “Jewish conspiracy” to slander Germany, and Joseph Kennedy, father of JFK, warned the nervous Jewish moguls that they would be held responsible if America were drawn into war.

All that changed on Dec. 7, 1941 with the attack on Pearl Harbor, and Hollywood was harnessed to the war effort, with Warner Bros. leading the way with the Looney Tunes cartoon “The Ducktators.”

The first real inkling the American public had of the Holocaust was through newsreel footage of the liberation of the death camps, but the Cold War courtship of Germany and the heavy hand of the McCarthy era discouraged any follow-ups.

While “Crossfire” and “Gentleman’s Agreement” broke new ground in probing anti-Semitism in America, neither film alluded to the Holocaust.

Finally, in 1959, a sanitized version of “The Diary of Anne Frank” began to deal directly with the fate of European Jewry, followed in the same year by the Playhouse 90 TV production of “Judgment in Nuremberg” (in which this reviewer launched and closed out his acting career).

By the 1980s and early ’90s, movies reached a new level of realism and depth with “Sophie’s Choice” and ABC’s 30-hour “War and Remembrance,” crowned by “Schindler’s List.”

Director Daniel Anker of “Imaginary Witness,” the son of German Jewish refugees, augments clips from 20 films by introducing some astute analysts, foremost among them Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum and author Neal Gabler, and leading filmmakers, to discuss the moral complexities of dealing with Holocaust themes.

Both Sidney Lumet (“The Pawnbroker”) and Steven Spielberg (“Schindler’s List”) acknowledge their fear of seeming to exploit the immense tragedy.

Berenbaum notes that in many such films, the viewer is guided to identify neither with the Jewish victim nor the Nazi perpetrator, but rather with the good gentile who helps the Jews.

Despite Hollywood’s shortcomings, Berenbaum concludes, “in a relative world, these films have set for the world a standard of absolute evil.”

“Imaginary Witness” opens April 4 at Laemmle’s Town Center 5 in Encino and Grande 4-Plex in downtown Los Angeles. For more information, visit http://www.shadowdistribution.com and http://www.laemmle.com

Think you know ‘The Jazz Singer’? You ain’t heard nothin’ yet!

On Oct. 6, 1927, audiences attending the premiere of “The Jazz Singer” at New York’s Warner Theatre witnessed a revolution that gave voice to a medium that had lived in silence since its birth, more than 30 years before. With his double-barrel delivery of the improvised line, “Wait a minute. Wait a minute. You ain’t heard nothin’ yet. Wait a minute, I tell ya. You ain’t heard nothin’!” Al Jolson fired the ad-lib heard around the world, signifying the death of the silent era and the birth of the “talkies.”

It’s been 80 years, and now the American Cinematheque is celebrating the anniversary with a three-day tribute to Jolson that includes a screening of a new digitally restored print of “The Jazz Singer,” screening Oct. 5 at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills. In addition, Warner Bros. plans to release a special three-disc DVD set including the restored film plus several of the first shorts produced by Vitaphone, Warner’s pioneer sound division.

“The Jazz Singer” tells the story of Jakie Rabinowitz, a cantor’s son who rejects his father’s wishes to follow family tradition and serve in the synagogue, pursuing instead a career in show business as a jazz singer. The music-based story afforded Warners the opportunity to produce a feature film using the sound-on-disc Vitaphone process they had recently licensed from Bell Telephone. Up to that point, Vitaphone had been used only experimentally on short subjects.

The Warners predicted, correctly, that “The Jazz Singer” would be “without a doubt, the biggest stride since the birth of the industry.” But the film’s importance may not rest solely on the fact that it was the first sound film. It was also the first film to boldly address the assimilation of immigrant Jews into American culture.

“It is basically a showbiz story, but in back of it is the big question of assimilation and, of course, the conflict of the generations,” Herbert Goldman, author of the book “Jolson: The Legend Comes to Life,” said in an interview. Goldman, who will be a guest panelist at the Cinematheque event adds, “There was a special appeal to the Jewish people, but the national audience was not Jewish, and yet it went over with them too. When you think about it, it’s amazing that for the first talking picture Warner Bros. chose a theme that was so overtly Jewish for a national audience.”

It may not be so amazing, considering the parallel between Jakie Rabinowitz and the Warners themselves. Like Jakie, the Warner brothers left home to enter show business, and like so many of the other Jewish studio moguls, they assimilated themselves into secular American culture. In his book “An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood,” author Neal Gabler points out ‘”The Jazz Singer’ did something that was extremely rare in Hollywood; it provided an extraordinary revealing window on the dilemmas of the Hollywood Jews generally, and the Warners specifically.”

“The Jazz Singer” began as a short story called “The Day of Atonement,” published in Everybody’s Magazine in 1922. The author was Samson Raphaelson, who would go on to become a top writer in Hollywood, known for witty and sophisticated screenplays, many of which were directed by the legendary Ernst Lubitsch. Jolson, already a popular entertainer, read the story and was drawn to it because he felt the story’s conflict between an aging cantor and his “Americanized” son who yearned to be in show business mirrored his own life.

Jolson brought the story to DW Griffith, who rejected it because he felt it was too racial. The other studios in town passed for the same reason. Apparently, Raphaelson was unaware of Jolson’s efforts. When Jolson met the writer at a nightclub, he told him he wanted to turn the story into a musical revue. Raphaelson dismissed the idea and instead adapted his story into a straight dramatic play. Ironically, Raphaelson had been inspired to write his story after seeing Jolson perform in “Robinson Crusoe, Jr.” in 1917 at the University of Illinois, while the young author was a student there. Raphaelson recalled, “I shall never forget the first five minutes of Jolson — his velocity, the amazing fluidity with which he shifted from tremendous absorption in his audience to a tremendous absorption in his song … when he finished I turned to the girl beside me, dazed with memories of my childhood on the East Side … my God, this isn’t a jazz singer, this is a cantor!”

The original title of Raphaelson’s play was “Prayboy” but it was changed to “The Jazz Singer” before its Broadway opening on Sept. 14, 1925. The star of the show was vaudeville comedian George Jessel. Reviews of the show were lukewarm, and it got off to a slow start. But since the audiences were 90 percent Jewish, it picked up momentum around the High Holy Days and ran for 38 weeks, closing only because Jessel had signed a contract with Warner Bros. The day before closing, Warner Bros. purchased the rights for $50,000, presumably with the intention of having Jessel reprise his stage role. According to Jessel, in Neal Gabler’s book “An Empire of Their Own,” Harry Warner thought, “It would be a good picture to make for the sake of racial tolerance, if nothing else.”

The story of why Jessel was replaced by Jolson is a film history “Rashomon.” One version is that Jessel’s contract with Warner was for silent films, but when Jessel discovered it was going to be a Vitaphone production, he demanded $10,000 extra. Jessel would later claim the reason he did not do the film was not over money differences, but because he objected to the revised ending. In the play, the son abandons the stage and becomes cantor of his father’s synagogue, but in the film, he remains an entertainer. Jessel demanded they keep the original ending, but Jack Warner refused. Another version is that Jessel was upset over the casting of two non-Jews, Warner Oland and Eugenie Besserer, as Jakie’s parents. According to Neal Gabler in his book, “Jessel was probably too Jewish for the kind of assimilation story that Jack and Sam Warner wanted to make. To them ‘The Jazz Singer’ was more of a personal dramatization of their own family conflicts than a plea for racial tolerance, and they would want to cast a Jew that was as assimilated as they were.” Losing the film role plagued Jessel for the rest of his life.

The opening of “The Jazz Singer” lived up to the film’s tag line “Warner Brothers’ Supreme Triumph!” According to The New York Times, it received “The biggest ovation in a theater since the introduction of Vitaphone.” Variety called the film “Undoubtedly the best thing Vitaphone ever put on the screen.” But Miles Kreuger, president of The Institute of the American Musical, attributes the film’s success solely to its star: “It was Al Jolson, even more than the film itself, or even the content of the film that made it an international success. Just the fact that the whole world, which had heard Jolson on phonograph records, could finally see him in a movie, that is the key to the success of ‘The Jazz Singer.'”

Abstract eye follows Dali in film at LACMA

Even by the standards of today’s overheated art market, few artists have been as excessively hyped and overexposed as Salvador Dali (1904-1989). There are museums dedicated to his work in Florida and Spain, and in London you can “be transported into a world of melting clocks and anthropomorphic sculpture” at Dali Universe. Add to that the endless reproductions in print and poster shops, lawsuits about fakes, and Dali’s own flamboyant personality, which gave him the notoriety we associate with Andy Warhol — indeed, Dali might well have served as a model for Warhol, with a shelf life far exceeding the cliché about 15 minutes worth of fame.

All this has made some of us tire of Dali’s overexposure, with knee-jerk reactions that make us roll our eyes when we note that Dali still serves as the quintessential modern artist for people who don’t like modern art. He is loved for making recognizable images for those who can’t handle abstraction, for those kinky twists that suck you into thinking this is really “far out stuff.” So, of course, there have been many Dali exhibitions at museums hoping to attract blockbuster-sized audiences, and now comes the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s “Dali: Painting & Film,” opening Oct. 14.

Yet it looks like LACMA’s Dali blockbuster could make those of us who approach the artist with a sense of exhausted cynicism take a much more serious look at this artist whose work in film interacted with his work as a painter. The exhibition will surely interest those who care about film history, reminding us that the borders between media can be very indistinct for our most creative artists. That’s not news, of course — Leonardo da Vinci long ago taught us that creative genius isn’t easily pigeonholed. But today, technology is at everyone’s fingertips, so we almost feel as if we, too, are capable of making those transformations that turn the Governator from a human being to a fantastic metallic creature and back again, just by sitting at our computers. It’s the museum’s responsibility to ask us to reconsider that arrogant stance, to persuade us that there really is such a thing as an artist’s vision, and that no, we wouldn’t have been able to conceive of doing any such thing on our own.

Early in the last century, when film was a newer medium, many artists were intrigued by its kinetic visual possibilities, and for a fantasist like Dali, the opportunities must have seemed especially rich. After all, artists had long sought to convey various states of mobility in the static media of painting, and even sculpture limited the options. Moreover, we still admire earlier art works for their ability to communicate illusions about our actual experiences of the real world.

To that end, Dali collaborated with his countryman and fellow surrealist, Luis Bu?uel, on groundbreaking films (“Un Chien Andalou,” 1929; “L’Age d’or,” 1930), and the experience informed Dali’s paintings as well. The 1920s were especially rich in these efforts at creative filmmaking, and Sigmund Freud’s explorations and their impact were also still relatively fresh, so the imaginative opportunities were endless. To fully appreciate this exhibition will require watching these films, in addition to viewing the paintings, so plan to spend more time than the usual museum show allotment.

“There is a constant triangulation formed by the flow of film, paintings, and text,” Dawn Ades writes in one of several illuminating essays in the catalog accompanying the exhibition. This reminds us, too, of Dali’s role as a writer — manifestos were fashionable in his day, including statements about art and its relationship to everything else; in Dali’s time, artists played the role of forward-thinking visionaries. We no longer trust that sort of bombast, but we ought to remember that after the horrors of the Great War, artists may have seemed more perspicacious and trustworthy than those who conducted affairs of state.

But Dali was not entirely won over by the new medium; he complained that he didn’t “believe that cinema can ever become an artistic form. It is a secondary form, because too many people are involved in its creation. The only true means of producing a work of art is painting, in which only the eye and the point of the brush are employed.” Imagine what he might have done with Photoshop and all the other toys now at our disposal.

Ever the self-aware showman, Dali was lured to Hollywood in the 1940s, by which time he was already a famous artist and therefore a potential asset to filmmakers. As producer David Selznick wrote in a memo regarding the anticipated contract with Dali for Alfred Hitchcock’s “Spellbound” (1945), “if we make a deal for the celebrated artist we have in mind … we should not let this leak out in publicity, as I think we can get some sensational breaks on it.” Only Dali’s dream sequence survived in the legendary Ingrid Bergman/Gregory Peck film, but Dali also tried his hand, with limited success, at a number of other Hollywood film projects, including an once-abandoned and now revived Disney animated six-minute short, “Destino” (1946), and the video, “Chaos and Creation” (1960), directed by Philippe Halsman.

The interplay between film and painting makes this exhibition seem particularly well-suited to Los Angeles’ audiences, and will likely reinvigorate respect for Dali’s inventiveness and unique vision, especially among all the local film folks for whom this experience should provide a major series of discoveries.

Tom Freudenheim is a retired museum director who writes about art and cultural issues.

Director Zwick excavates the bloody price of ‘Diamonds’

Edward Zwick, director of the new film, “Blood Diamond,” believes his Jewishness has played a role in his desire to make social issue movies.

“Glory” was about black soldiers fighting in the Civil War, “The Siege” about the threats of domestic terrorism, “Courage Under Fire” about the aftermath of the first Iraq War and “Last Samurai” about warrior societies. He first gained Hollywood status as the executive producer of the influential “thirtysomething” TV series about boomer rights-of-passage.

“Blood Diamond,” among other subjects, focuses on how the worldwide demand for diamonds allowed violent, inhumane rebels in the West African nation of Sierra Leone to fund their atrocities through a smuggling scheme.
“As a very young kid, at Passover my grandparents would bring in people from the world who needed a place to go,” recalled the Chicago-born Zwick, during an interview at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills. “It doesn’t sound like a political act, but it turned out to be one – the idea you are part of something larger than yourself.

“Certainly, something central to what I understand about Judaism has to do with social conscience and being aware of the world one lives in,” continued the 54-year-old director.

He has a quick, concise way of answering questions in a soft voice that does not waste time: “That is something very important to me, and to find a way to get it into my work has always been central.

“And I’m also a child of 1960s,” he added. “To have gone to university in the late 1960s-early 1970s and be part of any number of moments of political history forged whatever consciousness I have.”

The action in “Blood Diamond” — which stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Connelly and Djimon Hounsou — occurs during the late 1990s, when Sierra Leone rebels attack the capital city and slaughter and maim civilians on a massive scale.

There are many fictional elements to the plot, in which DiCaprio plays a South African-“Rhodesian” diamond smuggler-arms supplier, Connelly a crusading reporter and Hounsou an innocent Sierra Leonean forced by rebels to work a diamond field. Zwick developed the story with screenwriter Charles Leavitt.

But Zwick based his grueling, terrifying depictions of the war on research into what actually happened. Among other things, Sierra Leone’s Revolutionary United Front rebels forced kidnapped children to become killers. Its soldiers also intimidated civilians by amputating their limbs.

The film, in one of its most controversial elements, depicts a British diamond company that knowingly purchases smuggled stones. Zwick acknowledged, without making accusations, that it is modeled on De Beers, the British-based worldwide leader in the mining and supply of rough diamonds.

Sierra Leone is now at peace, achieved with the help of international intervention, and trying to recover from its strife. But its recent history makes for many harrowing scenes in “Blood Diamond.” The fact that the rebels sold diamonds to support their monstrous acts, relying on a worldwide “lust for bling,” might make some moviegoers wonder about their own unwitting complicity in all this.

It is an issue directly tied to the Jewish community. The diamond industry has traditionally employed many Jews in all its manufacturing and sales aspects. Here in Los Angeles, Jews — including many who are Orthodox — are well-represented as merchants in the downtown Jewelry District.

On its Web site, the Israeli Diamond Industry claims to manufacture two-thirds of all gem-quality diamonds in the world, and the World Diamond Congress held its annual meeting in Israel this year. The German-Jewish Oppenheimer family led De Beers to become the worldwide leader in the mining and sales of rough diamonds, although its patriarch reportedly converted to the Anglican Church in the 1930s. De Beers also has a worldwide retail operation, including a store on Rodeo Drive.

According to author Edward Jay Epstein, who wrote “The Rise and Fall of Diamonds,” Jews turned to diamonds as an asset during the Spanish Inquisition, because they could be easily concealed and instantly redeemed wherever they were forced to move. When they fled Lisbon and Antwerp, for instance, they moved to Amsterdam and established diamond-cutting factories.

“One of the great historical ironies is the fact Jews needed a currency for the Diaspora — something small, something that can be taken with them — and that led to roles within this industry,” Zwick said. But he also added that the “conflict diamond” problem “is more about an industry than a religion.”

Or is it?

“Yes, it’s a Jewish issue because [so many] of the diamond dealers in the world are Jewish,” said a Jewish Los Angeles diamond merchant, who asked not to be named for security reasons. “Think of how many people are employed in the diamond industry in Israel and how vital it is to that economy.”

Well ahead of “Blood Diamond’s” release, the diamond industry moved to address the problem of “blood diamonds” used by rebels in Sierra Leone, Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo and other nations with insurgencies in the 1990s. The Congo still has problems. At the same time, it wants to protect the economies of African nations like Botswana, where legitimate trade in diamonds is an important means of jobs and growth.

The World Diamond Council was created in 2000, the same year that the diamond industry — along with governments involved throughout the diamond-business pipeline — set up a UN-mandated voluntary self-policing effort called the Kimberley Process to stop this trade. It was implemented in 2003. De Beers is a member of the council.

Among other Kimberley Process activities, African nations attest to warranties attesting that their exported rough diamonds are “conflict-free.” This was implemented in 2003 and the World Diamond Council said the flow of such diamonds has declined from 4 percent of the world market in the late 1990s to less than 1 percent today.

“It’s been now seven years since the Kimberley Process was created and the industry has made huge strides in this,” said Carson Glover, the World Diamond Council’s U.S. spokesperson. “We’ve gone from a small percent of world diamond supply to virtually no percent” [being of “conflict” origins].

From pioneers, peddlers and politicians to cutting-edge community

Tell most visitors that L.A. Jewish history dates back before the Gold Rush, or that Southern California is home to the second-largest Jewish community in the world outside of Israel, and they usually look at you in astonishment.

But however entrenched the notion that Jewish life ends at the eastern banks of the Hudson River, Los Angeles has a rich, colorful Jewish past, an impressive Jewish present and a hopeful Jewish future. A unique confluence of climate and geography, unbounded economic and cultural opportunities and a seemingly unending flow of newcomers has created a region both nurturing and challenging to Jewish life.

El Pueblo de Nuestra Se?ora la Reina de Los Angeles, the Shtetl of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels, was founded in 1781 by the Spaniards.

Exactly 60 years later, Jewish life here began with the arrival of Jacob Frankfort. Frankfort, a 31-year-old tailor-merchant, single and native of Germany, lived in Taos, N.M., in 1841. Frankfort suddenly left town, along with others suspected of conspiring with a group of Texans to seize New Mexico. Making up the historic Rowland-Workman party, the group of 40 included an eight-member scientific expedition and three Mexican families and was the first American overland wagon train of settlers to come from New Mexico to Southern California.

Following the Santa Fe Trail used by trappers and traders before them, and crossing perilous desert lands, they first came to Mission San Gabriel and continued on from there to Los Angeles, population 1,100, arriving in December 1841. Because of his name, occupation and birthplace, Frankfort is believed to be the first Jew in Los Angeles.

Ten years later, after a year in Honolulu and some time spent in San Francisco and elsewhere along the coast, the itinerant Frankfort was back among the less than a minyan of Jews living in Los Angeles and counted among the 1,610 inhabitants in the first federal census taken following California’s admission to the Union in 1850.

Of the eight, all but one were merchants; Frankfort, at 41, was the oldest; six were from Germany and two from Poland; all were unmarried men, and, like everyone else, armed. They lived and had their stores in the city’s preeminent commercial building, a two-story skyscraper called Bell’s Row, constituting Los Angeles’ first Jewish neighborhood. One of them, Morris L. Goodman, from Germany by way of Cincinnati, was elected to the first City Council, convened in 1850, and was the only American citizen among them.

Gradually, a few other adventurous Jews arrived to seek their fortunes in the rough-and-tumble town. Significantly, unlike most other times and places in Jewish history, Jews came to Los Angeles and the West because they wanted to. Their sense of exploration, discovery and innovation, their adventurous spirits, their exuberance, adaptability and openness to their new environment — and the welcome they received, for the most part, from their non-Jewish neighbors, who appreciated their education, facility with languages, business skills and civic participation — make the Los Angeles Jewish experience unique in the annals of Jewish civilization. These qualities continue to distinguish Jewish Los Angeles today.

Amid the frontier chaos, the tiny Jewish community of Los Angeles, following the pattern set in towns throughout the West, in 1854 established the Hebrew Benevolent Society (today’s Jewish Family Service), the city’s first all-purpose Jewish organization and the city’s first charitable group of any kind. From the very beginning, as set forth in its charter, the founders were dedicated to providing for specific Jewish needs and also to helping all, no matter their belief or background.

In 1855, for the sum of $1, the city fathers deeded to the society slightly more than three acres of land for a cemetery near present day Dodger Stadium, in Chavez Ravine (or “Shabbos Levine,” as the late Jewish historian Dr. Max Vorspan couldn’t resist dubbing it).
From the beginning, another indicia of Jewish Los Angeles was its diversity, mirroring the population of the city at large. The founders of the Hebrew Benevolent Society were from France, Germany and Poland, both Sephardim and Ashkenazim. The first president, Samuel K. Labatt, and his brother Joseph, were the first Sephardic Jews and among the few American-born Jewish adults in town.

During the pioneer period, anti-Semitism was the exception, rather than the rule. From 1850 to 1890, Jews were among the dominant group in the city, participating in every political and civic effort and heavily represented on the City Council and County Board of Supervisors.

The first religious services are believed to have been held in the front parlor of Ernestine and Ephraim Greenebaum’s home, among the few Jewish married folks here. Because of his age, demeanor and religious training, Joseph Newmark served as patriarch and lay rabbi from his arrival in 1854 until he became first president of Congregation B’nai B’rith (now known as Wilshire Boulevard Temple, one of the largest Reform congregations in the world) upon its founding in 1862.

That year, Rabbi Abraham W. Edelman, a native of Poland and a San Francisco Hebrew teacher, was called to Los Angeles to become the city’s first rabbi.

Congregation B’nai B’rith’s first permanent synagogue was dedicated in 1873 on Fort Street, now Broadway, between Second and Third streets, following a decade of worshipping in such places as John Temple’s saloon and Judge Ygnacio Sepulveda’s courtroom. The Jewish population had reached 200. Fundraising was spearheaded by the women of the congregation, aided by a $1,000 contribution from the Jews of San Francisco, then the state’s preeminent Jewish community.

And, setting a pattern that has continued to bedevil the L.A. Jewish community ever since, many chose not to participate in the benevolent society or the synagogue at all.

Notwithstanding some severe but temporary setbacks due to drought and economics, Los Angeles between 1880 and 1910 began to change from cowtown to boomtown.

Bittersweet symphonies: the Pearls struggle to find life after Daniel’s death

Eight days after Yom Kippur, Judea and Ruth Pearl will commemorate what would have been the 43rd birthday of their son, Daniel. As on every Oct. 10 for the last five years, it will be a day of intensely personal reflection and remembrance by the couple and their daughters, Tamara and Michelle, intensifying their emotions of the other 364 days.
By contrast, the date also will be marked by public worldwide concerts celebrating the life of Daniel Pearl, an accomplished violinist, equally passionate about the classical, jazz, country and bluegrass musical idioms.
As of a week ago, the master calendar showed 166 different performances scheduled in 24 countries — from China to El Salvador and Kenya to Egypt — on and around Oct. 10. It is expected that the numbers will reach last year’s record of 300 concerts in 41 countries.
Music was Daniel Pearl’s avocation, but journalism was his profession. In pursuit of a story on Al Qaeda’s financial ties, the then-38-year-old Wall Street Journal reporter was kidnapped in early 2002 in Pakistan and beheaded by Islamic extremists.

The life and death of Daniel Pearl on HBO
It has a handsome, brilliant, fun-loving reporter, who kisses his beautiful, pregnant wife goodbye as he goes off to track down an Al Qaeda financial network in Pakistan. His nemesis is Omar Sheikh, a man not unlike Pearl in background — intelligent, well educated, but who has become a fanatical terrorist.
Sheikh lures Pearl into a trap, where kidnappers abduct The Wall Street Journal reporter and withhold news of him for almost a month, while Pearl’s parents and wife, and much of the rest of the world, hold their breath.
The Pakistani police search everywhere for Pearl, while the same country’s intelligence service apparently shields the terrorist. Finally, the kidnappers release a grisly video in which Pearl is decapitated by a sword.
No wonder four different film projects on the case have been announced, although only one is actually ready for prime time.
On Oct. 10, the day on which Pearl would have celebrated his 43rd birthday, HBO will air “The Journalist and the Jihadi: The Murder of Daniel Pearl,” a 90-minute documentary, which will be hard to beat for drama and intensity by subsequent movies.
The film was produced and directed by Ahmed A. Jamal, a Pakistani, and Ramesh Sharma, an Indian, with the full cooperation of Pearl’s wife, Marianne, and his parents, UCLA professor Judea Pearl and Ruth Pearl, both raised in Israel. It is narrated by CNN’s Christiane Amanpour.
What gives the film much of its emotional impact are lovely home videos of Pearl’s childhood in Encino, his passion for music, a makeshift seder conducted on a trans-Siberian railroad train, and the joyous wedding joining him to his Cuban Dutch wife.
The life of the secretive Omar Sheikh is, of necessity, less well documented, and at times the directors have to stretch quite a bit to force the two protagonists’ backgrounds into parallel lines.
There remain a number of yet unanswered questions, both in the film and in the actual investigations:

  • Did Pearl’s kidnappers sell him to an Arab gang that then murdered him?
  • What was the role of the Pakistani government?
  • Why has the death sentence, imposed on Sheikh by a Pakistani court in July 2002, never been carried out?

Until such questions are answered, the documentary serves as a riveting history of a case that has gripped the world’s attention.
“The Journalist and the Jihadi” airs at 8 p.m. on Oct. 10. It will be repeated on various dates in October on HBO and HBO2.

Check www.hbo.com for details.
— TT

Yet the wake of this tragedy is an extraordinary story of renewal in itself. Ruth and Judea Pearl are both high-achieving professionals. He is an emeritus professor of computer science at UCLA and internationally recognized for his pioneer research on artificial intelligence. She is an electrical engineer and for years was a highly paid industry consultant. Although quieter than her more exuberant husband, in the immediate days after the tragedy, “she was the captain and ran a tight ship,” her daughter wrote.
Both parents cherish their privacy and still shudder each time an inquiring reporter thrusts a mike in their face and asks, “Well, and how did you feel when you first heard that your son had been murdered?”
But on the day before Rosh Hashanah this year, sitting in the living room of their pleasant Encino home, they agreed to talk openly about their agonizing experience and how they transformed their lives by transmuting private grief into public good.
The story begins on the morning of Jan. 23, 2002, an ordinary day when life seemed especially good for Daniel Pearl. He was a highly respected and popular foreign correspondent for a leading American daily, married to fellow journalist Marianne, and the couple were expecting their first child.
That evening, Daniel went to a restaurant in the Pakistani port city of Karachi to meet a supposed source who could provide a break for his investigative story on the financing of the Al Qaeda terrorist network.
That was the last time his family saw Daniel, except for videos released by his shadowy captors, one showing the journalist in chains with an unknown hand pointing a gun at his head.
It was the beginning of 28 days of hope and despair for the Pearl parents, and their six new houseguests from the FBI.
Repeatedly during that period, the Pearls were informed their son was dead and his body had been found, and each time the report turned out to be wrong.
Throughout the ordeal, Daniel’s colleagues and editors at The Wall Street Journal were in touch with the parents, lending moral support and advice. One of the editors’ main concerns was that other media might leak the fact that both parents come from an Israeli background, thus increasing the threat to Daniel’s life.
Judea was born in suburban Tel Aviv in the fervently Orthodox enclave of B’nai Brak, co-founded by his grandfather, and he had served in the Israeli army.
Ruth was born in Baghdad, when one-quarter of the Iraqi capital’s population was Jewish, and emigrated with her parents to Israel in 1951. She and Judea met as college students at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa.
In a rare display of professional solidarity in the competitive media, no one raised the Israeli angle until after Daniel’s death.
During the torturous waiting period, Barney Calame, a Wall Street Journal editor, phoned the Pearls daily with a situation report. “He was a slow, deliberate speaker and each time our hearts kept sinking until, at the end, he would report that there had been no new developments,” Judea recalled. “We finally taught him to open each conversation with the sentence, ‘I have no news.'”
In the last days before Daniel’s death, the Pearls were fairly hopeful.
“Danny was a careful professional, not a Don Quixote type, and he had always gotten himself out of any trouble before,” his mother said. “Besides, his goodness shone through, and we couldn’t believe that his kidnappers could live with him for weeks and not be affected by it.”
Adding to the hopefulness was the history of other journalists abducted in Parkistan previously, who had always been returned after a few days in exchange for enemy prisoners or ransom.
On the morning of Feb. 21, 2002, the last glimmer of hope was extinguished. “We were having breakfast when three FBI agents, two women and a man, walked in,” Ruth remembered. “One woman had tears in her eyes, and she asked me if I had anything cooking on the stove. Then she told us that she had bad news and that Danny had been killed.”
After the previous false alarms, the Pearls refused to believe the report. They phoned the American consul in Karachi, who confirmed that he had seen the gruesome video showing the decapitation of their son.
Pakistani police did not find Daniel’s mutilated body until May 16, and it took another three months until the remains were returned to the United States. Hours before the funeral, the FBI stopped the proceedings on the grounds that the agents needed four more days to perform an autopsy.
Finally, after the burial and the memorial service, the Pearls were left to ponder their loss and their future.
“I felt that my life was over,” Ruth said. “We would never again have a normal life. I still cannot comprehend it; I try not to comprehend it; there’s a mental mechanism blocking it.”Added Judea, “As human beings, we don’t have the software, the computational machinery, to comprehend the logical contradiction that such a beautiful person, who tried so hard to explain the Muslim world to the West, would be killed by people who elevated their grievance above all norms of civilization.”
But rather than the sad ending that might have happened, this is where the story takes a surprising turn. The Pearls faced three obvious options. One was to retreat into their private grief, another to resume their professional lives as best they could, and a third to do whatever they could to exact revenge on their son’s murderers.
They chose a fourth way. “We refused to accept the idea that Danny’s contributions to the world as a journalist, as a musician, as a gentle human being was ended forever,” Judea said.
“We decided on a different kind of defiance,” he added. “We would fight hatred with everything in our power, but we wouldn’t seek physical revenge — that’s what his murderers wanted.”
The parents found the vehicle to turn thoughts into action a few days later, as a steady stream of condolence cards, flowers and envelopes with $20 bills and other small donations arrived at the house.
“We didn’t know how to cope with all that,” said Ruth, so The Wall Street Journal arranged for a team of lawyers to advise the family.
The first decision was to set up a trust fund for Marianne and her soon-to-be-born son, Adam. As the discussions continued, all agreed that the most relevant way to honor Daniel’s life and death was to establish a foundation to perpetuate his work and ideals.
Exactly one week after the FBI agent reported Danny’s death, the legal papers establishing the Daniel Pearl Foundation were signed by Judea Pearl as president and Ruth Pearl as chief financial officer.

Three Generations of Pearls

Three Generations of Pearls. back row: Tosha Pearl (center) is flanked by her daughter-in-law, Ruth, and son, Judea, during a Tel Aviv family reunion. front row: Tamara Pearl and her brother, Daniel Pearl. Photo courtesy Ruth and Judea Pearl

“We wanted to fight the tsunami of hatred engulfing the world and we had a powerful weapon — the memory of Danny, respected by millions of Muslims, Christians and Jews, and through the three fields in which he excelled, journalism, music and dialogue.”
Working with a miniscule staff and a $400,000 annual budget, raised mainly through small contributions (“We don’t get any celebrities,” Judea said), the foundation has transformed Daniel’s legacy and the parents’ vision into reality.
In journalism, reporters and editors from Muslim countries annually travel to the United States for six-month working fellowships on American newspapers, including The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles.
Through the Web-based World Youth News, students at 20,000 high schools in 109 countries develop professional skills, unbiased reporting and respect for cultural differences.
In music, World Music Days will be celebrated this year Oct. 6-15. Among the hundreds of performers and performances will be Sir Elton John, world premiere of Steve Reich’s “Daniel Variations,” symphony orchestras in five different countries, neo-soul artist Nya Jade, Bo Diddley and Friends, Hollywood Interfaith Choir and Hardly Strictly Bluegrass.
Judea Pearl and professor Akbar Ahmed, a leading Islamic scholar from Pakistan, have engaged in dialogues before multiethnic audiences throughout the United States and in the British House of Lords.
“We have only two rules,” Pearl said. “No topic is taboo and both speakers and audience must maintain civilized tone.”
The foundation has promoted publication of books of Daniel’s own writings and about his beliefs. Among a number of projected films, HBO will air “The Journalist and the Jihadi” on Oct. 10.
Somewhat to their own surprise, Judea and Ruth have become accomplished and passionate public speakers and are constantly busy promoting and running the Daniel Pearl Foundation.They have also evolved into skillful interviewees, with Judea as the more animated and gesticulating responder, while Ruth is quieter on the surface and occasionally corrects her husband’s recollections.
But, Judea said, “I resist the idea that I’m doing all this for therapeutic reasons. If I didn’t believe that our work makes some difference, I would quit tomorrow.”Added Ruth, “Some days we are encouraged and on other days we are down. But we are doers and we don’t quit.”

Daniel Pearl

7 Days in the Arts

Saturday the 19th

Now extended through Sept. 30 is the Marvin Chernoff play, “Chaim’s Love Song.” In it, a 74-year-old Jewish man tells his life stories, tall tales and musings to a young blonde Iowan girl, whom he meets on a Brooklyn park bench.

Lonny Chapman Group Repertory Theatre, 10900 Burbank Blvd., North Hollywood. (818) 700-4878. ” TARGET=”_blank”>www.historychannel.com.

Monday the 21st

We can’t resist a clever promotion, nor free matzah balls for that matter. Head to Canter’s Deli today to partake in both. In honor of the DVD release of the Passover comedy, “When Do We Eat?” they’ll be setting the Guinness Book record for making the largest matzah ball ever. Moreover, those wishing to view the gargantuan ball may also partake of their own. There will be free matzah ball soup for all, between the hours of 10 a.m. and noon, and the band Chutzpah will also perform.

10 a.m.-noon. 419 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles.

Tuesday the 22nd

Enjoy live acoustic music by David Shepherd Grossman at the Sportsmen’s Lodge Muddy Moose Bar Tuesday nights. The guitarist plays Cat Stevens, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, as well as his own Grossman tunes. Then go for a stroll among the swans.

Tuesdays, 7-10 p.m. 12825 Ventura Blvd., Studio City. (818) 755-5000.

Wednesday the 23rd

Judging the album by its cover is encouraged at Tobey C. Moss Gallery. “We’ve Got You Covered” is their new exhibition (curated by RockPoP Gallery) of iconic album cover art. More than 40 works by prominent graphic artists and photographers in the music business are on view, including covers created for Pink Floyd, Bob Dylan and Greenday.

Opening reception is Aug. 19. Through Sept. 7. 7321 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 933-5523.netflixroadshow@bwr-la.com. 8 p.m. 1126 Queens Highway, Long Beach. “>www.soundNet.org.

The Circuit

Clothes That Care

The Family Violence Project of Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles (JFS) launched its first Clothesline Project exhibit in recognition of National Domestic Violence Awareness Month. The exhibit, on view at the Bell Family Gallery of The Jewish Federation at 6505 Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, is co-sponsored by JFS, The Jewish Federation and the Gabe Kapler Foundation.

Colorful T-shirts hanging on a clothesline, once a symbol of domesticity, have become an unusual but powerful call to join the fight to end domestic violence. This exhibit is a collection of T-shirts, each designed by a survivor or child-witness of domestic violence, that tell the artists’ stories through pictures and words.

The opening reception on Oct. 10, attended by more than 100 people, featured Lisa Kapler, wife of Boston Red Sox player and Los Angeles native Gabe Kapler, who was also in attendance. Lisa Kapler grew up in Southern California and was abused by a violent boyfriend when she was a teenager.

“One of the strongest messages of the Clothesline Project is that this kind of brutality can happen to anyone, anywhere,” she said.

The Clothesline Project originated when 31 shirts were displayed on a village green in Hyannis, Mass., in October 1990. Since then, more than 7,000 women and children have created artwork exhibitions worldwide, with exhibits in 41 states and five countries.

The Clothesline Project exhibit will be open to the public until Dec. 31. Admission is free. For more information, contact Sherri Kadovitz at (323) 761-8800, ext. 1250 or visit

7 Days in The Arts

Saturday, September 24

Easiest mitzvah opportunity of the week award goes to “One Night Only: A Concert for Autism Speaks” tonight at the Kodak. For the bargain price of $52 (and up), you get laughs and music care of Jerry Seinfeld and Paul Simon, respectively (or so we hope). And as you might’ve already guessed, your fun will also benefit the Autism Speaks organization, which raises funds for autism research and works to raise public awareness of the disorder.

8 p.m. $52-$502. Kodak Theatre, Highland Avenue and Hollywood Boulevard. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>

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Paul Simon

Sunday, September 25

Just in time for the most guilt-inducing period of the year, otherwise known as the High Holidays, comes the book that offers guidance on that most-Jewish of all emotions. "The Modern Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guilt" is on the bookshelves, but for some personal assistance, head over to Dutton’s tonight to hear contributors like the Journal’s own Amy Klein and Lori Gottlieb read from their stories. Or don’t…. It’s not like they could use the support…. And they wouldn’t want you to go to any trouble.
2 p.m. Dutton’s Brentwood, 11975 San Vicente Blvd. (310) 476-6263.

“Entourage” lovers get another HBO show about the industry with tonight’s debut of the UK’s “Extras.” Ricky Gervais, creator and star of another Brit hit, “The Office,” has followed up that success with this comedy, in which he stars as a 40-year-old man who quits his job to pursue acting. A host of celebs have cameos, including Kate Winslet, who in one scene admits that she’s accepted a role in a Holocaust movie so she can finally win an Oscar.

10:30 p.m. (Eastern), 1:30 a.m. (Monday, Pacific). ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>

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Ricky Gervais, standing, and Stephen Merchant.
Photo by Ray Burmiston/BBC

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=””>

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.

Offbeat Austrian

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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.

Foundation Honors

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.

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.

Changing Course

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.

Unwelcome Storyteller

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."

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.

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.

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.”

Family Affair

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.

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."

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.”

What’s Playing

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.

Sugihara’s Mitzvah

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.

Global Gatherings

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.