Coen brothers on #OscarsSoWhite: We write what we know – Jews and Minnesotans


Asked about diversity in Hollywood last week, the Coen brothers defended to the Washington Post their history of making movies about Jews and Minnesotans.

The Oscars So White controversy, #OscarsSoWhite, may reflect a real problem, the film writing-directing-producing duo agreed: Money drives commercial movies, people who invest money want more of what has worked in the past and it’s daunting for minorities to break into that cycle.

But the brothers balked at the notion that film creators bear personal responsibility for promoting diversity, arguing you write what you know.

“Take any particular actor or writer or filmmaker, and you go, ‘Your movies should be more this or more that or more the other thing,'” Joel Coen said. “The only sane response is that you can only write what you can write. You can’t sit down and say, ‘I’m going to write something that follows the dictates of what the culture thinks should be happening, in terms of cultural diversity in storytelling.’ To be honest with you, that’s completely lunatic.”

Ethan Coen added: “We actually write movies in which the characters are Jews or Minnesotans.”

True enough. They’ve done Jews (“Barton Fink”), wannabe Jews (“The Big Lebowski”), Minnesotans (“Fargo”) and Minnesotan Jews (“A Serious Man”).

Even sticking to what they know has gotten them into trouble.

“You say, ‘Look at the work.’ And then they go, ‘Well, this character is Jewish and is a bad guy.’ Somehow in their minds, that’s implying that in our minds the Jewish characters stand in for all Jews,” Joel Coen said. “Like I say, you can only write what you can write. If the question is whether or not there should be more people involved in the process, with more diverse backgrounds, so that what they write reflects a greater amount of diversity — that the business itself should be more open to people of different backgrounds, so that those stories come in — that’s a legitimate thing to talk about. The other thing is crazy.”

“Hail, Caesar!” focuses on another community the Coen brothers have come to know — the Hollywood film industry. The film focuses on the making of a film, also called “Hail, Caesar!” starring Kirk Douglas-like actor Baird Whitlock (George Clooney). Unsurprisingly, there are some Jews on set.

In an exquisite Jew-out-of-water scene, studio executive Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) convenes a group of clergy to review the “Hail, Caesar!” script and make sure it doesn’t offend any religious sensibilities. There’s a Roman Catholic priest, a Protestant minister, a Greek Orthodox priest — and a rabbi.

The rabbi struggles at length to politely explain that however Jesus is portrayed in the film, Jews won’t be offended because to Jews, the Christian messiah is simply the “Nazarene.” The acutely funny five minutes encapsulate what it is to be a Jew in the Diaspora.

AIPAC vs. Oscars


Anti-Semites say that Jews control Hollywood. And they say that Jews control Washington. But can we control both at once?

The biggest event in pro-Israel Israel advocacy — the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual policy conference — kicks off this Sunday, the same day as Hollywood’s biggest night, the Academy Awards.

According to the AIPAC conference schedule, the day’s big speakers (Secretary of the Treasury Jacob Lew, Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog and AIPAC President Bob Cohen) will have wrapped up by 7 p.m. — early enough for them to catch the red carpet broadcast from Hollywood.

AIPAC evening events going head-to-head with the Oscars include an offsite dinner for AIPAC leaders, a campus awards program titled “Sunday Night Live” and unspecified “special events.”

This isn’t the first time that a major Jewish organization has had to compete with a major television event.

In 1998, the American Jewish Committee scheduled its annual meeting opposite the series finale of “Seinfeld.”

“What the hell are you all doing here? Don’t you know what tonight is?” show co-star Jason Alexander asked AJC attendees  in a video-taped message.

This year’s AIPAC conference continues on Monday and Tuesday, starring Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Secretary of State John Kerry, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and musician David Broza.

Seth MacFarlane: Not an anti-Semite


No one sends out press releases to announce that something is not anti-semitic. 

That’s why this morning’s media is full of reports that host Seth MacFarlane’s Oscar performance last night was just shy of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s U.N. speech. 

The Anti-Defamation League was first out of the gate, calling MacFarlane, “offensive and not remotely funny” — which in and of itself is funny, the idea that the ADL is not just the arbiter of anti-semitism, but of humor.

Then came a press release from the Simon Wiesenthal Center, seeing the ADL’s umbrage and raising it to world-historical levels.

“It is unfortunate that at a time when anti-Semitism is so prevalent throughout the world,” said the Center, “that Seth MacFarlane used the pulpit of the Oscars, before an audience of more than a billion people to contribute to the myth that Jews own Hollywood.”

[ANOTHER TAKE: Oscars win awards for sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism and racism]

I found these reactions more annoying than MacFarlane’s comments, which varied from the very funny to the remotely funny, but never came close to anti-semitism. 

Seth MacFarlane was joking.  He was poking fun.   He was mocking the widespread understanding that Jews are disproportionately represented in the entertainment business.  This fact comes as a shock to exactly no one, and the idea that joking about it “feeds” anti-semitism misunderstands both the nature of humor and of anti-semitism.

One thing humor does well, even better than press releases, is difuse prejudice.  It does that through mockery, exaggeration and sometimes by just bringing prejudice to light.  That explains everything from Charlie Chaplain in “The Great Dictator” to Sascha Barron Cohen’s character of Borat,  who got hundreds of Arizonans at a rodeo to sing the “famous” Kazhakstan folksong, “Throw the Jew Down the Well.”   Cohen wasn’t out to whip up Jew-hatred, he was out to expose human — hmm, what’s the word? — stupidity.

MacFarlane doesn’t really believe you have to change your name or give to Israel to make it in Hollywood, he was riffing on the simplistic belief that that’s all it takes.

Billy Crystal could make a dozen Jewish references at the Oscars and no one would do anything but kvell. Granted, MacFarlane’s humor is more in-your-face — but it goes nowhere that Crystal, or Adam Sandler in his “Chanuka Song,” or Lenny Bruce in his Jewish/Gentile rift, or a hundred other comedians, haven’t gone before.

So why the outrage?  Maybe because against the backdrop of increasing anti-semitism in Europe and elsewhere, Jews are extra sensitive.  Maybe because an older generation of Jews is unfamiliar with a newer brand of Family Guy/South Park humor.  Even Amy Davidson, writing on the New Yorker blog, took offense — this from a magazine whose editor David Remnick once wrote a much-deserved, flattering profile of Howard Stern.  Stern's brand of satire paved the way for comedians like MacFarlane.   

Or maybe the outrage arises because Jews are still uncomfortable with the notion of being powerful.   But here's the fact: Jews are disproportionately represented in Hollywood.   The Jewish state has over 200 nuclear weapons and a hegemony of power in the Middle East. Jews are also disproportionately represented in government, finance, law, publishing and medicine.   Only Jews can read these factual statements and think, Oy!  I often wonder if our instinct to cringe and keep quiet, to not publicly own our power, as a self-help guru might put it, is also a way of avoiding having to think about what the responsibilities of that power are, what our true potential is, and what it means to be both Jewish and powerful.  

The ADL and the Simon Wiesenthal Center not only miss the humor, they are missing the opportunity.  MacFarlane’s jokes, like all good comedy can get people thinking, can open a conversation:  Why are Jews so prevalent in Hollywood?  How does their Jewish identity inform their creative choices?   How would Hollywood look if it were composed, disproportionately, of WASPs, or Thais, or anti-semites?

Hollywood is one of the Jews' greatest gifts to the world — why else would 2 billion people tune in to see “Lincoln” get robbed of Best Picture?   There is nothing to hide, and plenty to joke about.


Rob Eshman is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of the Jewish Journal. You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism.

Documentary traces changes in kibbutz life


Back in the 1930s and ’40s, when Diaspora Jews desperately needed a symbol of Jewish strength and pride, the brawny, sunburned kibbutznik became the poster image for the new Jew emerging in Palestine.

Two generations further on, the straightforward picture has become blurred. The kibbutznik astride a tractor has been largely replaced by the high-tech entrepreneur as the face of modern Israel, and most kibbutzim have had to drastically change their outlook and functions in order to survive.

The history and contradictions of this social, ideological and economic movement are explored in the 79-minute documentary “Inventing Our Life: The Kibbutz Experiment.”

The film, richly studded with black-and-white footage of early kibbutz labor and celebrations, provides a useful, unsentimental look at kibbutz life, from the founding in 1910 of Degania Alef, the flagship commune, to a more recent phenomenon, the urban kibbutz.

Toby Perl Freilich, the film’s director, producer and writer, discovered kibbutz life in the 1970s, while visiting her younger sister, who, to the horror of her immigrant parents, had decided to chuck the American dream and live in a kibbutz.

For her documentary, Freilich visited some 25 of the existing 270 kibbutzim and selected five for closer examination.

The first is Kibbutz Ein Shemer, between Haifa and Netanya, founded in 1927 along the pure ideological lines of a communist commune, a realization of a vision that the Soviets never accomplished.

All property and assets belonged to the kibbutz; children were, for the most part, raised in a group away from their parents; and committees regulated lifestyles and settled disputes. In return, members received all of life’s necessities, from food and clothing to education and health care.

Among the original settlers was Aliza Amir, who proudly declares, “Without the kibbutz there would be no Israel.”

This is no exaggeration. Although in 1948, the year of Israel’s independence, kibbutz members made up only 5 percent of the then-600,000 Jewish population, their ranks were the source of the new nation’s political leaders, ideological shapers, the shock troops of the Palmach and the officers of the defense forces.

Yet another veteran pioneer, David Ben Avraham, is less upbeat. None of his five children has stayed in Ein Shemer, and, voicing the fears of fellow old-timers, he asks plaintively, “How will we survive if our children and grandchildren leave us?”

Ben Avraham has put his finger on the kibbutz’s sorest spot. As Israel has turned from a socialist to an entrepreneurial capitalist society, most of the second and particularly the third generation are abandoning the egalitarian dream for the challenges and rewards of a freer, more competitive and individualistic outside world.

In this sense, the kibbutz history parallels the fate of the utopian communities in America built before and during the 19th century. Few such enclaves could retain the fervor and idealism of their founders beyond one or two generations.

In the late 1960s, the stability and image of the kibbutz movement started to disintegrate. There were bitter internal political splits and growing dissatisfaction with the collectivized lifestyle.

Kibbutzim built large swimming pools, much envied by city dwellers, and many assumed large debts, which they could not repay when the economy soured in the 1980s.

The kibbutzim that have best met the challenges of survival are those that adapted to the new social and economic realities of Israel. These days, almost all kibbutzim have added an industrial and manufacturing component (frequently high-tech), reward managers with higher salaries and have returned responsibility for child rearing to the parents.

There are some cautiously encouraging signs for the movement’s survival. Recent statistics puts kibbutz membership at an all-time high of 140,000, though the figure is somewhat deceptive — considering the tenfold increase in the country’s Jewish population since 1948, the percentage of kibbutz members has actually dropped from 5 to 2.3 percent.

Over time, many kibbutzim have transformed themselves from purely collective to semi-privatized communities. This change, for instance, allows many young couples who work in outside jobs to live and raise their children in the open kibbutz spaces.

Another interesting development is the formation of a few urban kibbutzim, such as Kibbutz Tamuz in the city of Beit Shemesh, west of Jerusalem. Its members hold a range of city jobs but pool their resources and strive for the equality and social cohesion of the old rural kibbutz model.

As the film’s subtitle indicates, Freilich considers the kibbutz an ongoing “experiment,” the outcome of which is yet to be determined. “My film ends with a question mark,” she said. “The jury is still out on the final verdict.”

Freilich’s resume includes numerous awards for the documentaries “Secret Lives: Hidden Children and Their Rescuers During WWII” and “Resistance: Untold Stories of Jewish Partisans.” Her largest financial support for the kibbutz film came from the Foundation for Jewish Culture.

“Inventing Our Life” opens June 8 at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills and Town Center in Encino.

For top stars like Madonna, Israel gig becoming more common


Madonna managed to sprinkle some of her fairy diva dust on Israel during her recent tour, calling the Jewish state the world’s “energy center,” wrapping herself in the flag on stage and even lighting Shabbat candles with Sara Netanayahu.

Audiences, local promoters and officials are hoping her magic will linger and boost an already emerging trend in which Israel is becoming a draw for big-name artists in relatively large numbers.

“Anytime you have a successful concert or artist of that caliber here, people will take notice,” said Jeremy Hulsh, a concert promoter who also founded Oleh Records, a company that promotes Israeli artists abroad.

“This year was particularly strong and next year looks to be strong, too. There are lots of newcomer promoters willing to take risks because they are seeing great potential,” he said, noting that Israelis are willing to pay top dollar for tickets and thus help the bottom line. “Israelis are both excited and grateful to see any big names coming to Israel.”

September alone is seeing the likes of Madonna, Leonard Cohen, Julio Iglesias, Dinosaur Jr. and Faith No More performing here. Earlier this summer, the Pet Shop Boys played, as did the new pop sensation Lady Gaga.

Madonna played two concerts last week to a total of some 100,000 fans, while Cohen’s performance for 47,000 sold out in 17 hours—faster than his shows anywhere else in the world.

As promoters and agents talk among themselves, word seems to be spreading that Israel can be a lucrative and successful new stop for performers. Logistics and facilities are top rate, fans pay as much as $400 for good seats for a big name and, despite an uncertain security situation, artists realize when they arrive that the country belies its image as a war zone.

In an age where Israelis feel particularly besieged by international criticism amid calls for cultural and other boycotts, the celebrity acts and the glamorous star power they emit feel especially welcome.

“Madonna is the best ambassador for the Jewish people,” gushed Liav Mizrahi, a 31-year-old art teacher from Tel Aviv who saw her first of two concerts here and was still breathless the next day.

Andy David, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, said he hoped the message that Israel is a “normal” country was a happy by-product of high-profile acts like Madonna coming to the country.

“We are a normal country where people enjoy music and performers understand there is a market here for their music, he said, adding later that “it’s good business and a good place to come.”

“We are not some crazy corner of the world where everything is upside down,” David said.

Madonna in particular has forged a unique connection with Israel following her involvement with the Kabbalah Center in Los Angeles. Although her last performance here was 16 years ago, she has been to Israel several times in recent years on private visits that included the Western Wall in Jerusalem and the graves of mystics in Safed.

Although the average Israeli seems a bit befuddled by the Queen of Pop’s interest in Jewish mysticism, especially the Kabbalah Center’s version—serious Jewish scholars have dismissed it as a flashy and inauthentic New Age perversion—they have embraced her all the same.

Officials also have embraced the celebrity fawning with enthusiasm. Madonna dined with Tzipi Livni, a prime ministerial hopeful and leader of the opposition, at a trendy Tel Aviv restaurant. Last Friday evening the singer met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara. Madonna, who reportedly knows some Hebrew, recited the blessing over the Sabbath candles with the first lady.

One major paper featured Madonna’s arrival on its front page, overshadowing news that former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had been indicted on corruption charges the day before.

In a column in the weekend magazine of the daily Ha’aretz titled “You Really Like Me,” Gideon Levy described the history of Israeli politicians seizing photo ops with stars. A photo spread showed Golda Meir shaking hands with Kirk Douglas, Menachem Begin kissing Elizabeth Taylor’s hand and Shimon Peres visiting Jaffa with Sharon Stone.

“We have always longed for the world’s love, or at least the love of those of its stars who bothered to come here,” a sarcastic Levy wrote.

The occasional big-name music act certainly isn’t new to Israel. Paul McCartney performed last year, and Roger Waters, the late Michael Jackson and Elton John also made their way here over the years.

What is new, industry insiders say, is the volume of such performances, due in part to Israel’s sound track record as a place where fans will pay relatively high prices for tickets.

Performing in Israel involves not only security considerations and the extra insurance necessary to cover them, but the expense of flying in equipment, crew and backup musicians from Europe, as most performers include Israel as part of their larger European tours.

“It’s easier now because promoters are not afraid of Israel and the insurance companies are covering the risks of such shows,” said Perla Mitrani, a project manager for Israstage.com, a site that features Israeli concert dates. “Israel is now becoming a market like anywhere else, a normal stop on people’s tours. The question is how much people are ready to pay for this or that performer.”

According to Avisar Savir, a promoter who is arranging an upcoming concert here of the Chasidic reggae musician Matisyahu, the world economic crisis also has provided an opportunity for Israel.

“People need to open new markets,” he said, “and Israel is seen as a legitimate place to come in a way it wasn’t before.”

For your consideration


While missiles are raining down on the Jews of southern Israel, do you know what’s raining down on the Jews of Southern California? Screeners.

That’s right: It’s pre-Academy Award season in Hollywood, a time when everyone involved in the movie business receives free DVD copies of all the Oscar contenders. That way, they can be informed voters in the democracy that is Hollywood.

For those of us not actually in the Industry, there is still a good chance we can borrow some of these screeners — after all, some of our best friends are Jewish.

So while the residents of Sderot have to decide whether a trip to the market for a carton of milk is worth risking their lives, the Jews of Hollywood have to wonder whether “Slumdog Millionaire” will play better on their flat-screen or at the Laemmle.

No one said life is fair.

Complete Gaza CoverageBut the crop of movies out this year actually do shed light on how we react to what’s happening 7,500 miles away in Israel and Gaza.

A remarkable number of this year’s movies traffic in Jewish victimhood. “The Reader,” “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” and “Adam Resurrected” are adapted from books about the Holocaust. “Valkyrie,” in which Tom Cruise doesn’t save the world, features glimpses of Hitler’s Jewish victims, as does “Good,” starring Viggo Mortensen as an unwitting Nazi collaborator.

Two movies attempt to turn our stereotype of ourselves on its head by portraying Jews fighting back. “Defiance” shows how a relative few of Hitler’s victims mounted an armed resistance, and the upcoming Hannah Senesh documentary, “Blessed Is the Match,” eulogizes another martyr. But these are Jews-as-victims stories, as well — one man or woman’s courage notwithstanding, in the end, we mostly die.

What is going on here? Hollywood and the movies still cling to the image of the Jew-as-victim, while in the world beyond Blu-ray the reality is much more … complicated.

There is a yawning gap between how we portray ourselves for the world to see and the reality of the Jew in the world. That gap helps explain why we are so shocked when news reports stress the charnel-house effects of Israeli bombs. Yes, many of these reports are biased, but yes, that havoc is what Jews too can wreak.

It’s clear from my stack of screeners that we Jews prefer to see ourselves as victimized, rather than as all the other adjectives that might apply to Jews since the end of World War II: assimilated, accepted, beloved, cool, aggressive, conflicted, popular, cruel, humane, brilliant, powerful.

I’d add “funny,” but we were always funny.

Movies mirror our heroic selves — and clearly we Jews are most comfortable seeing ourselves as heroic sufferers. No people has been persecuted like us, our stories keep telling us, and that’s the story we keep telling others.

Meanwhile, the roles Jews inhabit have become far more varied and morally complex.

Consider Gaza.

The narrative we are hearing from our leaders thus far could fit comfortably on one of those DVDs: Israel is a victim of Hamas; Israel is just trying to survive.

But of course we live in a more complex world than that, a world that, to my mind, demands we at least wrestle with some murky questions, both practical and moral (and I tend to believe the moral path is, in almost all cases, the most practical).

Some practical questions are: How will Israel’s short-term military success advance its long-term interests? How does it help Israel’s cause to leave Gaza in ruins, Hamas’ fighting force intact, a new generation of Gazan youth terrified and angry at Israel? If Hamas is not destroyed — and it looks like it won’t be — how long before it cashes some more Iranian checks, regroups and rearms?

And if some of Israel’s politicians and supporters aren’t willing to make concessions to more moderate Palestinians like Mahmoud Abbas, why risk Israeli soldiers’ lives trying to dethrone Hamas and put people like Abbas back in power?

Some moral questions are: If it is OK for Israel, in the name of survival, to kill 40 innocent children, is it acceptable for it to kill 400 children? What about 40,000? Where exactly is that line?

For that matter, if it is OK to kill innocent Palestinians because Hamas hides among them, would it be all right to kill innocent Catholics, or Evangelicals, or Jews, if Hamas hid among them?

Make no mistake: Hamas is intransigent, fanatic and violent. As long as it retains power in Gaza, those who want peace for Israel and justice for the Palestinians will be frustrated.

But where Jews have power, they also have the ability to react wisely — and it is wise to be asking these sorts of questions; there is no shame or weakness in it. Just don’t try to make a movie out of it.

Survey: Fewer Americans think Jews control Hollywood


Forget Spielberg. Forget the Weinsteins. Forget “Seinfeld.”

The majority of Americans no longer believe that Jews control Hollywood. This is the news from a new poll released by the Anti-Defamation League that also suggests there remains a widespread conviction that there is an organized campaign by Hollywood and the national media to undermine religious values.

In the October 2008 survey of 1,000 American adults, “American Attitudes on Religion, Moral Values and Hollywood,” conducted by the Marttila Communications Group, 63 percent of Americans said they do not believe that the movie and television industries are “pretty much run by Jews.” This finding contradicts not only the prevailing myth, but also a 1964 survey in which half of the respondents agreed that Jews controlled Hollywood. It seems the era depicted in Neil Gabler’s book, “An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood,” is over.

“It’s interesting that it’s fallen that much; it’s a mark of the decline of anti-Semitism in this country,” said Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University. However, Sarna was quick to point out that the statistics may not be entirely reliable. Telephone polls, he said, tend to skew older because they are the ones who are at home to answer calls, and because the prohibition against cold-calling cellphones precludes most younger perspectives.

Sixty-one percent of those polled said they believe religious values are under attack, and 63 percent said religion as a whole is losing its influence on American life.

Fifty-nine percent of respondents do not believe Hollywood shares the religious and moral values of most Americans. Of those, 70 percent identify themselves as religious Americans who attend religious institutions one or more times each week. Conservative Protestants agreed with this statement most strongly (68 percent), followed by traditional Catholics (60 percent) and moderate Catholics (55 percent).

Forty-three percent of respondents said they believe there is an organized campaign by the national media to “weaken the influence of religious values”; 62 percent of that group said they attend religious institutions one or more times per week. Among them, those who identified themselves as traditional Catholics agree most strongly (65 percent), followed by Protestants (56 percent) and liberal Catholics (41 percent). However, 59 percent of non-affiliated people surveyed disagree with this statement.

The idea that certain forms of entertainment are antithetical to religious values predates Hollywood. In early American history, Protestant groups were deeply opposed to theater. When motion picture “talkies” were introduced to America in the 1930s, the Production Code (also known as the Hays Code) was quickly created, establishing explicit censorship guidelines for the film industry.

“Ambivalence towards entertainment is a bit like ambivalence towards sex,” Sarna said. “And they’re related; things that give one joy are often deemed to be suspect, and I think we’re seeing that.”

The poll also revealed some support for censorship. While a clear majority does not think books containing dangerous ideas should be banned from public school libraries, 38 percent support censoring books.

The study’s data indicates that people who attend religious institutions regularly are decidedly more conservative in their cultural views. They are also more likely to vote Republican. While the majority-vs.- minority groupings do not surprise Sarna, he is skeptical of the poll’s numerical conclusions.

“If 43 percent of Americans decided not to go to the movies, the movie industry wouldn’t be the size it is in this country,” he said.

In a statement accompanying the poll’s release, ADL director Abe Foxman said, “The belief that religion is under attack underlies the drive to incorporate more religion into American public life.”

Yet, Sarna countered that if the majority of Americans really believed religion was under attack, Sen. John McCain and Gov. Sarah Palin would have won the election.

“The very fact that Obama’s ticket won — and won big — reminds us that there are all sorts of other issues that are important. Nobody voted for Obama because they thought he would inject more religion into public life,” Sarna said.

How to answer the most common anti-Israel charges


Some charges criticizing Israel are distortions and slanted, based on faulty information and half-truths, animus, and even classic anti-Semitism.
However, the situation and history are complex, and unfortunately, Israel is not perfect.

Here are some answers in a nutshell:

The establishment of the Jewish state violated the right of Palestinian Arabs to self-determination

In 1947, the United Nations had offered self-determination to both Arabs and Jews in western Palestine, and both had been offered their own separate state. Palestinian Arabs could have created their own state in the portion allotted to them under partition at any time. The Arabs unanimously rejected this offer, and the partition boundaries were erased by the Arab invasion in 1948. It was the Arab states — not the Jews — who destroyed the proposed Arab Palestine as they sought to grab all the territory for themselves. Part of what was designated as Arab Palestine was seized by Transjordan in the east (the West Bank and East Jerusalem) and by Egypt on the southwest coast (Gaza). Israeli forces captured western Galilee, which had been used as a base by Arab irregulars. Ironically, in 1947, the only group in the area supporting a separate Arab/Palestinian state was the State of Israel.

Israel expelled the Palestinians in 1948 and has consistently taken over Palestinian land

From the Israeli left to the right, there is agreement about mass expulsion, that many were, in fact, forced to leave. The only question is what proportion of the 700,000 Palestinians who left in 1947-48 were forcibly expelled, and what proportion left voluntarily. About 300,000 were likely forcibly expelled by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), and 100,000 to 200,000 left because they were “encouraged” by rumors, bombing of empty buildings by the IDF or frightened that Israeli atrocities like the Deir Yassin massacre would be repeated.

There’s no doubt that David Ben-Gurion and others were very concerned about the large number of Palestinians in the land, and talked openly of “transfer,” going back to the 1930s (in 1936 Jews were only 28 percent of the total population). There’s also no doubt that once Palestinians started leaving, the political and military leaders of the Yishuv were eager to “facilitate the situation.” The debate was over Tokhnit Dalet (Plan D), the military plan that called for expulsions near or behind enemy lines, in hostile villages, etc.

Historian Benny Morris argues that the evidence doesn’t show an intentional program designed ahead of time, but rather a spontaneous response to military conditions by low-level commanders in the field. Others argue (using Morris’ own evidence) that documents clearly show a plan for mass expulsions from above, that is, that Tokhnit Dalet was the realization of the “transfer impulse” under the cover of military language.

Still other scholars take a middle position, arguing that Tokhnit Dalet was originally intended as a purely military and small-scale operation, but that once Palestinians were “encouraged” to leave and the IDF had attained military superiority, the understanding became that the long-term interests of the state would be served by having as few Palestinians as possible. So the argument goes, military commanders were given a “wink and nudge” to expel and Tokhnit Dalet served as an appropriate cover/rationale.

Most of the area of Israel was once Arab owned

According to British government statistics, prior to the establishment of the state, 8.6 percent of the land area now known as Israel was owned by Jews; 3.3 percent by Arabs who remained there; 16.5 percent by Arabs who left the country. More than 70 percent of the land was owned by the British government. Under international law, ownership passed to Israel once it was established and approved as a member nation by the United Nations in 1948. The public lands included most of the Negev — half of Palestine’s post-1922 total area. (Source: Survey of Palestine, 1946, British Mandate Government).

Arabs formed a majority of the population in Palestine, and the Zionists were colonialists from Europe who had no claim to or right to the land of Israel

Jews have had a continuous emotional, religious and historic connection to the land of Israel for the past 3,300 years.

At the time of the 1947 U.N. Partition Resolution, the Arabs did have a majority in western Palestine as a whole. But the Jews were in a majority in the area allotted to them by the U.N. Partition Resolution (a very small but contiguous area mostly along the coast and in parts of the Galilee — much smaller than the borders after the 1948 war).

Israel humiliated Palestinians during the second intifada (2001-2005) and continue to treat them inhumanely

It is true that Palestinians felt humiliated by the series of checkpoints and searches throughout the West Bank. However, to cite the feelings of humiliation, as legitimate as they are, out of context belies the greater truth. Israelis have had good reason to fear their Palestinian neighbors because of the relentless terrorism, bombings of public buses, restaurants, university cafeterias, kibbutzim, children’s houses and the deliberate murder of Israeli civilians. Israel’s series of checkpoints and searches, while at times excessive, are done not to intimidate or humiliate but for security. The erection of the security fence roughly the length of the Green Line was hotly debated in Israel until it became clear to the government that political considerations aside, the fence was a security necessity. It has proven successful in drastically reducing infiltration of Palestinian terrorists. Even Shalom Achshav (Peace Now) acknowledges the importance of the fence as a security measure.

Israel’s settlements are illegal

Technically, they are not illegal because there has been no peace agreement delineating borders between Israel and the Arab nations. Consequently, Jews have the right to live anywhere they wish. However, from a political point of view, many believe that many of these settlements are obstacles to peace. Current Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has promised to remove the vast majority of these settlements subsequent to undertaking the unilateral evacuation of Gaza by Israel in 2005.

Palestinians are victims of Israeli aggression

Undeniably, Palestinians are victims — but of whom? For decades the despotic Arab nations used the Palestinians for their own purposes and kept them in squalor in refugee camps. They are also victims of former Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat’s well-documented corruption and inability to take the final step to make peace with the Jewish state. They are now victims of Palestinian terrorist movements (e.g., Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, etc.) that have refused to accept the existence of the State of Israel and therefore to compromise over land. The Palestinians are victims of retaliatory raids by the Israeli military against terrorist leaders who deliberately operate out of civilian areas and draw fire from Israel.

You don’t have to be Hungarian, but it helps


“One Must Also Be Hungarian” by Adam Biro, translated by Catherine Tihanyi (University of Chicago Press, $20).

After the death of his 95-year-old father, Imre, and the birth of his first grandchild, Ulysse, Hungarian-born French writer Adam Biro decided to write a book about his family. He called it “Les Ancetres d’Ulysse” (“Ulysses’s Ancestors”); fearing, however, that the American reader knows little of the glories of the Hungarian past — and worried, perhaps, that an unknowing bookstore clerk might shelve the title alongside Homer’s “Odyssey” — Biro added a new introduction to the English edition and changed the title.

The new title comes from Hollywood’s Golden Age, a time when Tinseltown was lousy with Hungarian emigres. So profound was the Hungarian presence that — according to one, perhaps apocryphal, story — a sign above the door to one movie studio read: “It’s not enough to be Hungarian to make films. One must also have talent.”
Italian-born director Frank Capra supposedly turned the phrase on its head.

“It’s not enough to have talent,” he allegedly sniffed. “One must also be Hungarian.”

Biro’s attitude toward his ancestral land is complex. He is enchanted by its mysteries, disgusted by its villains and, ultimately, bereft in the face of what he sees as its disappearance.

The part of Europe “from where I am so proud of hailing,” he writes, “is no longer the source of dark geniuses like Kafka, of Hungarian suicides and musicians, of Dr. Sigmund and other Austro-Hungarian kindred spirits…. It has now joined the chase for the buck, and this is so sad, so lonely.”

The book, elegiac yet witty, gains in complexity as Biro grapples with the fact that his ancestors were not only Hungarian but also Jewish, or, as the author puts it, “Jewish but Hungarian.” And nowhere is the complexity of this dual existence more fully on display than in the stories that Biro tells of his maternal grandfather, a man who was born Jewish, became a Catholic and died a Jew once more, albeit a nonbelieving one.

Biro, who in 2001 published a well-received collection of reworked Old World anecdotes under the title “Two Jews on a Train” (University of Chicago Press), opens here with an early 19th-century great-great-grandfather, but he quickly shifts his focus toward the maternal grandfather, who was born Jeno (Hungarian for Eugene) Finkelstein to a poor seltzer deliveryman in 1883. The family doesn’t have the means to support the boy, so he is adopted by a Catholic widow who has him baptized. The boy, now named György (George) Luy, becomes a lawyer. At trial one day, he meets a charming Jewish witness whom he ultimately marries and for whom he converts back to Judaism.

Strong, cultured and fun loving, Luy emerges a larger-than-life figure — a virtually indestructible one, to boot. He’s hit by a bullet during World War I and by a car during the ’50s, and though an eye and an ear were lower on one side of his head than on the other, and his right arm stayed numb from the bullet wound, he remained vital till the end.

The contrast with Biro’s paternal grandfather could not be starker. A school principal who changed his name from Markus Braun to Mark Biro (Hungarian for judge), he was murdered just a few weeks before Budapest’s liberation in 1945. Following their torture by members of the Hungarian Nazi party, the Arrow Cross, Mark and his son, Jozsi (the author’s uncle), were tied together on the shores of the Danube and shot.

After offering portraits of some more-distant relatives — a cigar-chomping great uncle who moved to San Francisco in 1905, a tragic aunt who never found a place for herself in the world — Biro turns to his parents. Unlike his more-distant relatives, who are drawn in epic style, Biro’s father and mother emerge muted and small — as if viewed through a telescope’s wide end. The two are certainly survivors: They remain in the same Budapest apartment from 1937 until the century’s end, but, emotionally speaking, they are victims of the century’s vicissitudes — and the emigration, in 1956, of their only son.

Throughout his mournful and evocative book, this émigré son, who left Hungary when he was 15, tries to come to grips with why his unhappy heritage continues to have such a hold on him. Amid his discussion of his father’s father — a great patriot betrayed by the country he loved — Biro offers a possible explanation.

“One day,” he writes, “my father told me, ‘Jews are very intelligent, Hungarians very creative, so, a Hungarian Jew is the apex of the human species.’ I believed him for a long time. And, all shame set aside, I must confess that I might still believe it.”

Gabriel Sanders is the associate editor of the Forward.

Oscar 2007: A good year for the Jews!


After a slow start in the initial Oscar contests, Hollywood’s Jewsreaffirmed their tribe’s historic resilience with a credible finish atSunday’s Academy Awards.

Host Ellen DeGeneres set the stage by noting the diversity of this year’snominees, concluding that without “blacks, Jews and gays, there would be noOscar .. or anyone named Oscar, when you think about that.”

Alan Arkin beat out the likes of Eddie Murphy and Mark Wahlberg to win thebest supporting actor award for his role as the heroin-addicted, womanizinggrandfather in “Little Miss Sunshine.”

The 72-year-old actor, director, author and musician had waited a long timefor the honor. He was first nominated for his 1966 screen debut, “TheRussians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming,” and again in 1968 for hisrole in “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter,” but lost both times.

“An Inconvenient Truth,” Al Gore’s wake-up call on the threat of globalwarming, captured the documentary feature Oscar. Sharing the stage and theplaudits with the former vice president were the film’s exuberant directorDavis Guggenheim and producer Laurie David, wife of TV personality andwriter Larry David.

Perhaps the most surprised winner of the evening was Ari Sandel, whose “WestBank Story” made off with the Academy Award for best live action short film.

Created as a student project at USC, the 21-minute musical comedy depictsthe rivalry between the Israeli and Palestinian owners of adjoining falafelstands on the West Bank.

Their conflict is resolved with singing, dancing and a lot of hummus when anIsraeli soldier on one side falls in love with a Palestinian girl on theother side. In his acceptance speech, Sandel pointed to the more seriousaspect of his little allegory,

“This film is about hope and peace between Israelis and Palestinians,” saidthe 32-year-old director, whose father is Israeli. “So many other peoplesupport this notion, so perhaps hope is not hopeless.”

Later in a backstage interview, Sandel said, “My intention was to make amovie that Israelis and Jews would watch and find themselves liking the Arabcharacters, and that Arabs would watch and like the Israeli characters.”

“[Is the film] going to change the world or do anything else? Probably not.But you know, if you can change just a few minds…. I get e-mails from allover the world, from Israelis and Arabs, talking about how much the moviemeant to them. That’s hopeful, because otherwise there is such a sea ofnegativity out there,” Sandel said.

Israeli composer Yuval Ron wrote the songs and score for “West Bank Story.”

In the audience was British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, but the worldwideaudience was deprived of one of his patented shticks as a faux Kazakhjournalist, since his nominated adapted screenplay for “Borat” was trumpedby the script for “The Departed,” which went on to snag the Best PictureOscar.

The Academy’s Humanitarian Award was presented to Sherry Lansing, formerhead of Paramount Studios and long active in civic and Jewish charities.

–Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

Jews get short shrift at Oscar nominations


If, as they say, a “Jewish cabal” runs Hollywood, it sure did a lousy job in promoting its own Jewish-themed films during Tuesday’s Academy Award nominations.

Whereas in past years one could at least count on Steven Spielberg or a Holocaust documentary to provide a snappy lead for a story in the Jewish media, this year the pickings were slim, indeed.

Alan (middle name Wolf) Arkin got an Oscar nomination for his role as Grandpa, the heroin-snorting, womanizing family patriarch in “Little Miss Sunshine.”

The 72-year-old actor, director, author and musician holds the distinction of having been nominated for an Oscar in his very first screen appearance in 1966 in “The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming.”

Two years later he was nominated again for his role in “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.”

In a past interview, Arkin observed, “Well, I’ve always been a character actor, I’ve never been a leading man. It gave me an opportunity not to have to take my clothes off all the time.”

Jewish filmmakers dominated the feature-length documentary category, with fare that often tackled controversial social and political issues. The five docs nominated include Davis Guggenheim’s “An Inconvenient Truth,” about global warming, produced by activist Laurie David (wife of Larry); Amy Berg’s “Deliver Us From Evil” about pedophilia charges against the Catholic Church; and “Jesus Camp,” co-directed by Rachel Grady.

Despite a flood of shrewd publicity, “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” won only one nomination for the faux journalist’s creator Sacha Baron Cohen.

The British comedian was named in the Adapted Screenplay category (who knew there even was a screenplay?), along with his co-writers Anthony Hines, Peter Baynham and Dan Mazer. The largely improvised film had previously qualified as an adapted screenplay for the Writer’s Guild Awards since it was based on the character Cohen featured on HBO’s “Da Ali G Show,” Variety reported.

And finally, there’s the real dark horse nomination of “West Bank Story” in the Short Film-Live Action category.

Director Ari Sandel tags his work as “A little singing, a little dancing, a lot of hummus.”

A review in The Journal two years ago lauded “the very funny film featuring an all-singing, all-dancing cast. In it, the Israeli boy and the Palestinian girl join hands and hearts to settle a bitter rivalry between their families’ competing West Bank falafel stands.”

The 79th annual Academy Awards airs Feb. 25 on ABC.

‘The Good Shepherd’: I was a young man for the CIA


Eric Roth’s impressive resume as a Hollywood screenwriter includes an Oscar (for adapting “Forrest Gump”) and a string of reality-based screenplays about the difficulties important people face choosing between realpolitik and personal morality.

These include shared credits on 1999’s “The Insider,” about a tobacco-company whistleblower and the problems CBS “60 Minutes” had broadcasting his story; 2001’s “Ali,” a biopic about Muhammad Ali; and 2005’s “Munich,” Steven Spielberg’s film about an Israeli hit squad charged with punishing the Arab terrorists who killed 11 athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. (Both “The Insider” and “Ali” were Michael Mann films.)

And the theme is continued in the new drama “The Good Shepherd,” for which Roth has sole writing credit and on which he has worked for more than a decade. The Robert DeNiro-directed film follows Edward Wilson (Matt Damon) as he moves from college into the shadowy, treacherous world of American espionage during World War II and afterward, at the expense of good relations with his wife (Angelina Jolie).

It also tells the story of the Central Intelligence Agency’s formative years and is loosely based on the career of James Angleton, the late CIA counter-intelligence chief. Roth recalls one early influence was reading Norman Mailer’s “Harlot’s Ghost,” a 1,000-plus-page novel about the CIA published in 1992.

“I was interested in the notion of an organization devoted to secrecy and how that affects people’s lives, particularly their personal lives,” said Roth, via telephone. “And what the burden of carrying around those things is.”

The film includes references to actual Cold War confrontations, such as the overthrow of Guatemala’s leftist president, Jacobo Arbenz, in 1954, intrigue in the Belgian Congo, an effort to enlist the Mafia in overthrowing Cuba’s Fidel Castro and the thwarted 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba.

One intriguing reference in the movie is to a proposed trade between American intelligence agents and the Soviets in occupied post-World War II Berlin. The Russians propose trading Jewish scientists found in Nazi concentration camps for Nazi rocket scientists captured by U.S. troops. Roth said such trading was confirmed to him by the CIA sources he consulted in preparing his screenplay.

Roth, 61, credits his Jewishness with his screenwriting interests. “I think it comes down to my heritage and sense of values as to what is the sense of purpose on this earth,” he said. “I think it’s nice to have some kind of legacy and to do things that are worthwhile. There’s a value to doing something good and to have people thinking about things. I think it comes from the Jewish tradition within me and what my parents handed down to me.”

Born in Brooklyn, his father was a film publicist for United Artists and then, after moving to Los Angeles in Roth’s senior year of high school, taught film at University of Southern California. His mother wrote for radio quiz shows in New York and, in California, was a reader and head of the story department at UA. (Roth also grew up with a brother and sister; he and his wife today have six children and four grandchildren.)

After high school, Roth headed back east to Columbia University to study English. But he returned to study film and folklore at UCLA, where he won the Samuel Goldwyn Screenwriting Award. That led to his first feature film — in Israel.

“The movie was being financed by a group that took Christians to Holy Land tours, and they knew the director, a nice man named Jim Collier, who went on to make a film [“The Hiding Place”] about a Dutch family who hid Jews during World War II, Corrie ten Boom,” Roth said.

“It had two or three titles — one was ‘Catch a Pebble,’ I think. It was released here for like two seconds. The man who made it was a very religious Christian who made documentaries for Billy Graham, and this was a lay project, just a love story.

“It was his story,” Roth explained. “A stewardess was escaping a bad relationship and working for an airline that goes to Israel. She was barely pregnant at the time and decides not to come back to the States. She decides to hide out and get her life together in Israel. She meets an Israeli who takes her to his kibbutz, and they fall in love.”

Roth vividly remembers when the playwright Lanford Wilson, who already had the successful “Balm in Giliad” and was soon to write “The Hot L Baltimore,” was visiting an actor friend during that film’s shoot. “He came over and I remember him helping me write a scene I was having trouble with,” Roth said. “That was a lovely moment.”

From there on, Roth’s career has only gotten better — he wrote screenplays for such movies as “Suspect,” “Memories of Me,” “The Horse Whisperer” and “The Nickel Ride,” besides those previously mentioned. He also shares a screenplay credit (with Brian Helgeland) for one of Hollywood’s great recent stinkers, Kevin Costner’s three-hour-long “The Postman,” from 1997.

“I had written that as a satire for Tom Hanks many years before the movie got made — well before ‘Forrest Gump,'” Roth recalled. “That’s how I met Tom, through ‘The Postman.’ It was not meant to be taken seriously.

“Later, Kevin Costner developed it, and he made a more earnest version,” he continued. “And the guy who rewrote me went on to win an Oscar, Brian Helgeland [‘L.A. Confidential’]. So it goes to show that sometimes things just don’t work.”

“The Good Shepherd” opens Dec. 22.

And Get Thee Out: Jews and Hollywood


Rob Eshman, whom I admire a lot, and who argued strenuously — even pleaded — for his name not to be mentioned in this (but clearly lost), was nice enough to ask if
I would write something for this special issue of The Journal (which I admire — and read — a lot), and I was very flattered.

He suggested, as a general topic, Jews in Hollywood. Being a Jew in Hollywood myself, this sounded dandy to me.

Since life in general (as I’m sure you’ve noticed) is more or less constantly ironic, it made me shake my head to think how odd it is that every single person around the world, from Europe to Africa to the remotest parts of Asia, even to places there has never been electricity, let alone movies, would feel instantly and unshakably certain the words “Hollywood” and “Jews” were not only synonymous, but interchangeable.

You could find a tribe of 30 short, naked, isolated people near the Amazon (the river, not the bookseller), who don’t speak English and have never even seen another human for 700 years, and who are pretty sure the entire world actually ends at the edge of their forest; and if you parachuted into their village in the middle of the night, woke them up and screamed, “Quick! Who runs Hollywood?” every confused one of them would look at each other, shrug, and say, “Why, the Jews, of course. Everyone knows that.”

You could probably do the same thing on Mars.

Only we Jews would say, “Actually, that’s not true.”

Ah, well. Not the first time, eh?

I remember when the movie “The Last Temptation of Christ” came out. Now, there wasn’t one element of this movie that involved Jews. The book (a beautiful story, by the way, by Nikos Kazantzakis) and the screenplay were not written by Jews, the stars were not Jews, the director (Martin Scorsese) was not a Jew, the producer was not a Jew, the cinematographer was not a Jew — well, you get the idea. But the head of Universal at the time, Lew Wasserman (who has since passed on), was Jewish, and that was enough to get lots of folks saying, “Aha! The Jews in Hollywood have done it again.”

Done what? I don’t know. I guess we just did it again.

I’ll bet if you went to the bar Mel Gibson got drunk at that night and looked hard enough, you could find a guy — three landlords and two owners and seven property managers ago — whose daughter’s old freshman roommate took an adult education pottery course in the ’70s from a Jew. Close enough. “The Jews did it to Mel!”

The only thing I know about being a Jew in Hollywood is that, to me, they are two completely separate and distinct things. Whatever the word “Hollywood” actually means, I’m an actor, a writer and a comic, and I love it all. I love show business. I’d be a hand model if anyone ever asked. (No one has, so far, but then again it’s only Monday morning.)

Being a Jew is different, and that’s why I titled this column, “And Get Thee Out.” As many of you know, we just read Lech Lecha this past Shabbos. (I still pronounce it “Shabbos,” because it reminds me of my parents.) This part of the Torah, with Vayerah coming right after, is some of the most shatteringly powerful Jewishness in my life, year in, year out. The Torah, and the Psalms, and so much else in the liturgy is often so moving to me I have to put it down and take a breath. It seems so real, so clearly “of God.”

I’m bringing that up because it was still so strongly with me this morning, I really wanted to talk about it with someone, even for just a couple of minutes; someone in my work, my world, the creative life. The Business. Someone I deal with all the time. Someone who would get it, who feels the same way I do, who hears the same music.

Well, my agents are Jews, and my manager is a Jew, and my entertainment lawyer is a Jew, and my publicist is a Jew, and the agent in New York who negotiated my book deal with Regan for “Spoiled Rotten America” is a Jew (Come on, folks, you didn’t expect me to go a whole article without getting a plug in, did you?) and the producer, director, stars and writers of a movie I’m in that screened Saturday night are Jews, and I really, really like them all, and respect them all, and admire their work and their families and their hearts very, very much.

But I couldn’t talk to them about Lech Lecha. They would have politely listened if I insisted, but have had no idea what I was so lit up about.

So I called my friend Jonathan Last in Washington, a great writer. He’s Catholic and religious, but I can talk to him about God and Jewishness in the greatest depth, and he always gets it. There are folks I could call around here, of course, and they’re Jews. Like my rabbi. But they’re not in show business.

This morning, I dropped my kids off at school but had to miss the minyan, because one of them had a thing in class he was doing. It’s a Jewish school, so I had my tallis and tefillin with me and figured I’d daven in the chapel alone. This happens a lot.

As I was going in, Cantor Judy Aronoff was coming out, someone I admire immensely, whose Jewishness and knowledge and kavanah shine like a sun. We talked for a moment, and then I went in and stood before the ark and davened. Then I got a cup of coffee at the cart Crystal runs out front every day, and drove to Universal.

So if someone asks me what it’s like to be a Jew in Hollywood, I swear I don’t know. I know what it’s like to be a Jew, and how far I’d like to go. I know what it’s like to be in “Hollywood,” and how far I’d like to go. But I don’t have the slightest idea of how the twain shall meet; unless, as Lou Costello once said, it’s “the twain on twack twee.”

So every day, as long as God gives me life, I’ll listen to His order, and “Get thee up, and get thee out.” Like today: I davened and came to work.

And decided to write this and tell you about it.

Actor, writer and comedian Larry Miller, whose next movie, “For Your Consideration,” opens Nov. 17, is the author of the new book, “Spoiled Rotten America” (Regan Books), but I guess you already know that.

New Queen Esther flick is whole ‘nother megillah entirely



“‘Christian Money Makes Jewish Film,’ that’s the headline I’d like to see above your article,” Matthew Crouch, producer of “One Night With the King,” suggested in an interview.
 
The film, based on the biblical Book of Esther, “brims with adventure, intrigue, romance and wonder … it’s vision is to inspire a generation to embrace the destiny God has for them,” according to Crouch, the son of megatelevangelists Paul and Jan Crouch.
 
“A pumped-up Purim story,” observed a rather less enthusiastic Rabbi Richard Levy, Los Angeles director of the School of Rabbinic Studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR).
 
“One Night With the King,” which, despite its somewhat titillating title, contains nary a hint of sexual abandon or even suggestive cleavage, opens Oct. 13 at close to 1,000 theaters across the United States.
 
As a warmup to the premiere, Crouch and his co-producer/wife, Laurie Crouch, barnstormed 21 cities in 16 days, pitching the film and its message to clergy of all faiths.
 
The movie has aroused considerable advance interest in Hollywood and elsewhere, particularly as a major entry in the burgeoning genre of Christian-produced films aimed at “faith families,” in particular some 75 million Christian evangelicals in the United States.
 
Crouch himself is one of the pioneers in the field, who mortgaged his house to make the 1999 “Omega Code.” Launched without the usual mass-marketing campaign, the film found an astonishingly large audience among churchgoers.
 
But what really rang Hollywood’s bell was the phenomenal box office success of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.”
 
“It took Hollywood a few years to catch up,” said Kris Fuhr, vice president of Provident Films, but “Passion’s” $612 million worldwide gross did wonders to speed up the process.
 
Fuhr’s own company has just released “Facing the Giants,” billed as an inspirational film about a small town high school football team, whose six-year losing streak is reversed through faith in God.
 
“Giants” was made for $100,000 by an all-amateur company of writers, cast and crew from a Baptist church in Georgia, but expects to find its audience by mobilizing a national network of pastors.

The first major studio to finally get the message is Twentieth Century Fox, which has created FoxFaith, a new division that plans to produce around a dozen Christian-themed movies this year.
 
Significantly, major studios and distributors are joining up with the independent producers of faith movies, with Samuel Goldwyn Films partnering with “Giants” and Rupert Murdoch’s Fox studio handling the DVD sales for “One Night.”Up to now, Jewish organizations have not weighed in on the rapid growth of the Christian films phenomenon, either because it’s not yet on their radar screens or because of the fervent support of Israel by the evangelical community.

An exception is Rabbi Haim Dov Beliakof the Los Angeles-based www.JewsonFirst.com, who sees in the faith films a further encroachment by the Christian right on every aspect of American life, especially schools and popular culture.
 
On the other hand, Rabbi Daniel Lapin, president of Toward Tradition, sees a “positive impact” by “One Night” and urges potential Jewish critics to “stop being so prickly.”
 
Lapin, a Seattle-based ally of Christian conservatives, said he was consulted by the filmmakers on whether certain depictions in “One Night” might upset Jewish sensitivities.
 
Among other rabbis and Jewish spokesmen who had seen previews of all or part of the movie, opinions varied on the film’s artistic merit. But the general consensus had it that while the storyline departs in some details from the biblical original, the film provided a positive portrayal of Jews.
 
Most enthusiastic was Rabbi Harvey Fields, a veteran leader in Los Angeles interfaith relations, who praised the movie as “beautifully done and artistically and emotionally very satisfying.”
 
He lauded the filmmakers for omitting the final portions of Megillat Esther, in which the newly empowered Jews take bloody revenge on their enemies.
 
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said he liked the film and “felt comfortable with it.”

Foxman, who had been one of the sharpest critics of “The Passion of the Christ,” said that “One Night” “is not the gospel and it’s not a documentary, but I found nothing offensive or troubling.”

Michael Berenbaum, professor of theology at the University of Judaism, gave the film a mixed review.
 
On the plus side, he liked the “compelling and wholesome beauty” of Esther, portrayed by newcomer Tiffany Dupont, and the movie’s emphasis that Jew-hatred is often motivated by a demagogue’s financial and political interests.
 
But Berenbaum, a scholar and author on the Holocaust, questioned whether “we need a movie on an incomplete genocide at this time,” or a film which “transformed a biblical story into a not terribly exalted love story.”
 
Most critical was Rabbi Levy of HUC-JIR, who described “One Night” as “a dull movie that has little to do with the Book of Esther.”

He strongly objected to a promotional flier attached to the preview DVDs, which described Esther as “an orphan minority,” but never mentioned her Jewishness.
 
“I find that offensive,” Levy said.
 
The American Bible Society, a Christian group that encourages biblical literacy and which rarely endorses a movie, has put its weight behind “One Night.”
 
“The film is consistent with the Bible and an inspirational story with a relevant message that will appeal to Christian and Jewish viewers alike,” said Robert Hodgson, dean of American Bible Society’s Nida Institute for Biblical Studies. “Films like this, with meaningful biblical messages, will soon become more mainstream as Hollywood recognizes their values.”
 
The 44-year old Crouch, who founded Gener8Xion Entertainment company in 1993, promotes his picture and message with biblical fervor, but is not without a sense of humor.
 
At one point in a lengthy interview, he pithily summarized his movie as “Cinderella Meets the Lord of the Rings.” Later on, he told of his futile attempts to persuade Hollywood moguls to make more pictures reflecting “family values.”

Pain and Pleasure and Guilt, Oh My!


Late last Saturday night, a thin strip of indoor/outdoor red carpet led from the parking lot of the Magic Castle in Hollywood to a small, close-ceiling function roombehind the glamorous house of tricks.

Inside, 100 or so young Jews gathered to celebrate the third issue of Guilt & Pleasure, a literary quarterly out of New York whose first issue featured a cover photograph of a border collie smoking a cigarette. Stacks of the summer 2006 issue lay about, but it was too dark in the small, nightclub-like space to read anything but the turquoise-colored title: “The Magic Issue.”

A bar anchored the back of the narrow room, featuring no-host, all-you-can-afford $10.50 cocktails, and several rows of folding chairs faced a teensy stage.

The young man next to me, a writer with darkly alert eyes and a sardonic smile, said the magazine serves a young, hip, intellectual Jewish audience “not quite being served” by Heeb, another magazine out of New York.

It seems to me the distinction is perhaps the Gen Y equivalent of the differences among the AJCommittee, AJCongress and the ADL — that is to say, indecipherable to outsiders. As near as I can tell, both publications are aimed at young Jewish men with darkly alert eyes and sardonic smiles, and the women who hope to marry them.

All around me were plenty of examples of both: dressed up (the Magic Castle has a coat-and-tie policy, even in its dungeon), animated and about as cool as Jews who aren’t Leonard Cohen can possibly be.

The emcees, Jill Soloway and Jessica Chaffin, took the stage, having won the thankless job of trying to figure out exactly what kind of Jewish jokes would make these particular Jews laugh. Both were trying hard for laughs, which of course is the death of cool.

They brought on the magician, Andrew Goldenhersh, who looks like Rasputin but otherwise seemed very nice. He held two raw eggs, had volunteers strap him into a straight jacket, and said he would wrestle his way out without cracking the eggs. When he had freed himself, he reached inside the white coat and pulled out two fully alive chickens.

It was brilliant, but that’s not magic, of course; that’s tricks.Out came a contributor to the issue, Gregor Ehrlich, who read his essay on how his life has intersected with the lives of various chickens. After a few very dry, very sardonic minutes, a heckler called out, “What’s this about?”

“It’s about chickens,” Ehrlich said — unflappable — and continued.

Indeed, what is it about?

Ever since national studies back in the 1990s showed a marked decline in the numbers of young Jews affiliated with Jewish life, along with a rise in intermarriage rates, Jewish professionals and the foundations they hit up have made it a priority to captivate this precious demographic — aka, the future of our people.

No one knows what works, so everything gets a try. Salons? Here’s a couple grand. Yiddish rappers? Here’s another thou. Leadership seminars in a snowy resort town? Here’s $100K.

Both Guilt & Pleasure and Heeb are nonprofit publications that required substantial donations to get them going and keep them afloat. The former distributes 20,000 copies of a 154-page, four-color journal on heavy stock. That’s a lot of cholent for the poor. Heeb received its tens of thousands from foundations established by Andrea and Charles Bronfman and Steven Spielberg, and G & P has tapped many of the same resources. The idea is that publications will reach and give voice to a generation of Jews otherwise cut off from their roots, thus drawing them back to the fold.

They cost a lot. But do they work?

There is no hard evidence. But the media echoes Heeb produces make Judaism palatably hip to the youth market, at a time when Israel, that other noticeably Jewish product, has been less than beloved by college kids. And every Jewish generation needs a safe place for its intellectuals to play among themselves, whether it was the original Yiddish Forverts or Commentary, Lillith or G&P.Back at the Magic Castle, the comedians finally took hold of the night.

Jeffrey Ross, a standard fixture at celebrity roasts and my favorite un-famous comic, got up and killed. He insulted the venue — “I had to put on a tie for this s—hole?” — insulted the organizers and insulted the audience.

When he called the cheeky Times columnist Joel Stein “just like Tom Wolfe, but without the talent,” some in the audience gasped at the audacity, because Stein, like Jon Stewart, is Jewish hipster royalty — the court jester with mainstream media exposure. Plus Stein was sitting in the front row. (No worries, he has a sense of humor.)

Ross got big laughs with well-told Jewish jokes. “The other night my girlfriend and I rented a Jewish porn movie,” he deadpanned. “It was called, ‘I Don’t Do That’ … which I think was a remake of ‘Eeeew.'”

Rewind 40 years, clean it all up a bit and you’re back in the Catskills.Same with the next comedian, Jeff Garlin. The co-star of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” turned out to be a real Falstaff in the faux-English venue, one-upping Ross in viciously insulting the hosts, the Castle, the audience, then improvising a set that ranged from anti-Semites trying out their accents to comedian Dane Cook.As I left, an embarrassed magazine promoter pulled me aside. “Write about the magazine,” he said, “not the evening.”

OK: Guilt & Pleasure is good, often very good, and the magic issue is its best.But the evening wasn’t all bad, either.

What seemed to work was what Ross and Garlin did, which, really, was the stuff that worked for Mason and Rickles and Groucho, and no doubt for generations of tummlers and badchanim before them. Insults. Self-deprecating humor. Mockery. Screwing with the status quo, even when the status quo are hip Jews who think they’re the ones screwing with the status quo.

Every generation of Jews thinks it is the revolutionary one, the one that will upturn the traditions and set the old ways. But we are a people with a long, valued tradition of invective and obstreperousness. This week’s Torah portion makes a point of singling out the wayward son for punishment, but centuries of rabbis afterward found a way to soften the harsh decree, and bring him into the fold.

The strength of Jewish culture is its ability not just to give birth to its own critics, rebels and jesters, but to set an honored place for them at the table. To think there is a status quo that Jews will not attack, or to think any one generation is the first to attack it — now, that’s illusion. l

Circuit


For the Children

Emunah of America held a West Coast fundraiser recently to raise money for the residential homes and after-school programs to help Israel’s needy children .One of those children, Dvora, attended the elegant buffet dinner and silent art auction at the Bel Age Hotel in West Hollywood.

Dvora, now a student of speech therapy at Tel Aviv University, grew up in Beit Elazraki in Netanya, a residential home for 180 children whose own parents couldn’t or didn’t want to care for them.

“I have broken the cycle of need,” Dvora told the crowd after a moving video that showed the children at the home and at Emunah’s other children’s programs. “I have managed to come out of this situation mature and successful, free of the terrible circle. My children will not have to suffer like me. They will not grow up in other people’s homes but in my own warm, loving home.”

Yehuda Kohn, director of Beit Elazraki, spoke of the baby brought in at 1 week old, with no name. He and his wife Ricky named him, and like they do with other children, will be surrogate parents, taking him to school, doctor appointments and birthday parties and tucking him in every night.

The Emunah benefit the first on the West Coast honored Celia Shire, who paid tribute to her late husband Harold.

The honorary chair of the event was Dr. Leila Bronner. Event chairs were: Dr. Gita Nagel, Marlene Einhorn, Sharon Katz, Rivki Mark, Mia Markoff, Fran Miller, Gittel Rubin and Elana Samuels. Emunah national president Heddy Klein attended.For more information or to volunteer, call (310) 837-1225 or visit www.emunah.org.

Julie Gruenbaum Fax, Education Editor

Music to Our Ears: A True Hacham

Roughly 1,000 members of the local Iranian Jewish community crowded the main sanctuary at the Nessah Cultural Center in Beverly Hills on June 11 for prayers marking the first anniversary of the passing of Hacham Yedidia Shofet, the late spiritual icon for Iranian Jews both in Iran and the United States. For nearly seven decades, Shofet, who died at 96, served both as a religious leader and as the liaison representing Iran’s Jewish community before the shah’s government in Iran. Shofet joined the thousands of Jews who left Iran following the 1979 Iranian revolution and in Southern California continued to serve as a religious leader for Iranian Jews living in America. Community leaders and close friends spoke of Shofet’s remarkable speaking ability and compassionate leadership style.

“Hacham Yedidia proved that he had the leadership ability to help maintain our sense of Judaism and the community warmly accepted him,” said Dr. H. Kermanshahchi, one of the founders of the Iranian American Jewish Federation.Last October, nearly 90 religious and social leaders from Southern California’s Iranian Jewish community formally recognized Shofet’s son, Rabbi David Shofet, as the community’s new spiritual leader.

Karmel Melamed, Contributing Writer

Heroes Among Us

June 7 was a time to honor two community heroes as University Synagogue hosted its “Heroes Among Us” event honoring Susan Corwin with the inaugural Margaret Zaas Avodah Award for Community Service.

The award is named after Zaas, a local and beloved resident who dedicated her life to helping others and spent 16 years at New Directions, a residential rehabilitation program for homeless and addicted veterans.

Corwin initiated the Mitzvah Corps program at University Synagogue in 2002 and created programming that extends into the community, including a Shabbat shuttle and bikur cholim program. She has launched support groups for people with aging parents, a cancer survivors network, parents of special needs children and the gay and lesbian social outreach. Corwin is also the regional representative for the Los Angeles Area and Pacific Southwest Council of the Union for Reform Judaism.

The evening also honored Richard Weintraub as Educator of the Year for his long-standing history of working with and on behalf of youth at University Synagogue. Weintraub was the president of the California Council on Children and Youth and supervisor of the Dare Plus Program, an after-school program for at-risk youth.

The Sporting Life

One of the best things about the Cedars-Sinai Sports Spectacular event are the faces of the kids who attend the dinner. They can hardly contain their excitement at rubbing elbows with all their favorite athletes and more than 100 came to help.

Over the past 21 years, the event, which this year grossed more than $1.5 million, has raised more than $16 million in support of the Sports Spectacular Endowed Medical Genetics Institute at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. The VIP event before dinner allows the kids to meet their favorite sports heroes up close and personal and the goody bags, well they are indeed legendary. (Take it from someone who met Sandy Koufax there, I am still excited by the memory.)

This year’s honorees were Jerome Bettis of the Pittsburgh Steelers, tennis champion Jimmy Connors and professional surfer Kelly Slater. Al Michaels and John Salley were among the evening’s hosts. l

Shocking Discovery


I was cross when I arrived at The Jewish Journal on Oct. 9, 1986. I had earned a master’s degree in journalism at Northwestern University and had fantasized about becoming an arts writer (at least eventually) for, say, The New Yorker. Also, I was a bad Jew, having been turned off by lackluster synagogue services.

So after I settled down at my Journal IBM Selectric, I was shocked to discover I liked — no, loved — working at a Jewish newspaper. I learned that there are all kinds of Jews, including many I liked, and that I was covering stories I would never have landed at a metropolitan daily. For the first 16 years, there were news assignments along with the arts stories: I found myself interviewing victims of the Northridge earthquake, as well as actor John Cusack (who played Hitler’s art dealer in 2002’s “Max”), for example.

Along the way, I discovered that asking Jewish questions affords me an intimacy with subjects I might never achieve at a mainstream newspaper. Ben Stiller told me he felt pressured to assimilate, because he hates when people typecast him as “ethnic.” Winona Ryder described her Jewish spirit guide: a Russian cousin, also an actress, who looked like her and died in the Holocaust. And Robin Williams (who played a Polish ghetto inmate in “Jakob the Liar”) said he loved Yiddish, because it’s a great language for comedy: “There are so many great words, and ‘nu’ is the greatest word of all,” he enthused. “It encompasses everything: ‘What? How are you? Everything good? Bad? Hmmmm? Nu?'”

FAVORITE PROVOCATEURS

Sandra Bernhard and Roseanne Barr
I expected to be verbally eviscerated by these two Queens of Ascerbity, especially Bernhard, who is known for slaughtering the sacred cows of celebrity and politics with a sneer on her Mick Jaggeresque lips. Instead, she spoke of eviscerations of a Jewish kind, vacuuming out the lungs of kosher chickens during her teenage stay at a kibbutz, a job she actually enjoyed.

As I recovered from the “eew” factor, she breezed on about the Shabbat dinner she was preparing as we talked: kosher steak, potatoes, vegetables and homemade challah. Sounding more like a balabusta than comedy’s reigning loudmouth, she described attending synagogue every Saturday and her daily kabbalistic meditations.

In a separate interview, her fellow Jewish mysticism enthusiast, Roseanne Barr, confessed that she once became so incensed by her then-husband’s hair transplants, she “just, like, pulled a whole handful of ’em out.” Alarmed by her rage attack, she called her rabbi, and wondered if, as teshuvah (repentance), she should “give money to f—- — crippled children or something.” Instead, he advised her to just try to be nice — which Barr found to be “a walk through hell.”

This approach sounded sensible to me, but then Barr began talking about how she asked kabbalistic “face-readers” to help her select the executive producer of her 2003 reality series, “The Real Roseanne Show.” On the show, they made remarks such as, “The nose is about the honesty of the person.” Like one observer, I wonder how this works if the candidate had had a nose job.

Paul and Chris Weitz
I caught up with filmmakers Paul and Chris Weitz, directors of the raunchy teen classic, “American Pie,” several months after the death of their father, legendary fashion designer John Weitz. Instead of focusing on their film’s iconic sequence, involving a libidinous youth and a pastry, they wanted to talk about dad, who had fled Hitler’s Berlin and served as an OSS spy at 19. When the filmmakers were growing up, John Weitz overtly “identified as Jewish almost out of spite toward [anti-Semites],” Chris said.

The brothers inherited their father’s subversive streak, tormenting their German nanny (at ages 7 and 11, respectively) by repeatedly asking what she thought of Hitler until she blurted, “He made the country work.”

“We were like little OSS guys, undermining her authority and her politics until she got so aggravated that she left,” Paul said. Dad was chagrined, as he was with his sons’ preference for shlumpy jeans rather than twin navy blazers.

But the classy designer cheekily stuck up for his boys two decades later, when someone called “Pie” vulgar.

SAD CLOWNS

David Arquette
“Where’s the chartreuse suit with the polka dots?” I asked actor David Arquette during a conversation about his 2002 Holocaust film, “The Grey Zone.” The actor was known for his outrageous off-screen outfits and for portraying goofy dufuses onscreen. But he was wearing a three-piece herringbone suit to discuss his “Zone” role as a Sonderkommando, one of the prisoners who ran the gas chambers and crematoria at Birkenau.

Arquette played Hoffman, the most fragile and guilt-ridden of his squad; he said he was drawn to the role as a way to connect to his late Jewish mother, Mardi. She had died five years earlier, after battling breast cancer; Arquette experienced a stinging flashback when he lifted a naked, bald extra, whose body was painted to look like a corpse, evoking memories of when she was suffering from the effects of her cancer and chemotherapy.

“I felt I was looking at my mother,” he said.

Jason Alexander
When I met Jason Alexander in 2000, he had just directed a sexual coming-of-age-film, “Just Looking,” set in the Bronx in 1955. The actor was diversifying to shake his pop culture image as the cantankerous George from “Seinfeld.”

“If I were to walk onstage as Hamlet, everyone would go, ‘Look, it’s George,” he quipped. But his voice began trembling as he discussed his own sexual coming of age, which would now be legally defined as child abuse. As a young actor, he had had his first experience at 13 with a woman in her 30s in a wing of a theater during rehearsal.

“The show ended and so did the relationship,” Alexander recalled. While the affair had been physically gratifying, it was emotionally confusing for the bar mitzvah-age boy. Referring to his “Just Looking” protagonist, Alexander said, “I didn’t quite have his period of innocence.”

GIRLTALK

Eve Ensler
“I just love talking about my vagina,” Eve Ensler said of her taboo-busting feminist global hit, “The Vagina Monologues.”

The playwright-performer also frankly discussed how her Jewish father had raped her and ridiculed her weight as a child. The abuse, in part, inspired “Monologues” and her latest play, “The Good Body,” was sparked by her midlife midriff crisis.

In light of all this personal talk, I was shocked by what the actress wouldn’t reveal.

“You’ll discuss incest but not food,” I incredulously asked.

Finally she said that during her drinking years, she went through periods when she would stop eating or subsist solely on marinated mushrooms.

“I’ve never, ever felt relaxed with food until the last [several] years,” she said.

The change came when she began wondering how a radical feminist like herself could become so obsessed with her post-40s stomach (she even fantasized about contracting a parasite). She wrote “The Good Body” to explore how societal pressure to look like Britney Spears distracts women and keeps them disenfranchised.

I told her that women want to look good because men lust after attractive women of breeding age. “Men won’t change, but we can change things by creating positive images of older women,” she responded.

I felt somewhat cheered, but continued to wonder exactly when I would need Botox.

Julie Davis
Independent filmmaker Julie Davis (“I Love You, Don’t Touch Me,” “Amy’s Orgasm”) is known for stories about neurotic Jewish virgins holding out for Mr. Right. But she’s incredibly candid about sex for a woman who’s only slept with one man: her husband.

She told me her self-imposed chastity began when classmates called her a “slut” in junior high for dressing “really sexy,” like her movie star idol, Marilyn Monroe. In response, she kept the clothes but carefully guarded her virginity, preaching abstinence to anyone who would listen. She remained virtuous even when her first full-time job — editing erotic promos for the Playboy Channel — made her squirm lustily in her seat.

So she felt like a “fraud” when she met her husband-to-be, a hunky film executive, at 28, and immediately jumped in the sack. She poked fun at her own hypocrisy in “Orgasm,” in which a know-it-all author preaches celibacy until she meets a studly disc jockey.

MOST FUN

Ron Jeremy
Ron Jeremy told me he’s just a nice Jewish boy with one vice: more than two decades of porn films. Yes, he’s nicknamed the Hedgehog because he’s short, fat and hairy, but he’s been paid huge sums to bed more gorgeous women than James Bond.

“If a shlub like me can get lucky, there’s hope for everyone else,” he said of his popularity.

His family’s response to his career choice illustrates why so many Jews are in porn, he said. His physicist father didn’t tell him he’d burn in hell when Playgirl published his first nude photograph in 1978. But dad was chagrined when potential suitors began calling Jeremy’s grandmother, Rose, at all hours (she was listed under the family name in the directory).

“[Grandma] had to move out of her apartment for a month,” Jeremy (actually the actor’s middle name) sheepishly recalled. “My father told me, ‘If you want to get into this naked, crazy business, so be it, but if you use the family name again, I’ll kill you.'”

MOST MEMORABLE

The Persian Gulf War
I was on a press tourism junket in Israel on Jan. 17, 1991, when a fellow journalist banged on my door and shouted, “Get the hell up. This is it!” We all ran to the mezzanine level of our Tel Aviv hotel and fumbled to put on our gas masks, as an employee ushered us into a sealed room, slammed the door shut and stuffed a wet towel under the doorjamb.

The radio informed us that the five loud booms we’d heard were five Scuds. Over the next 72 hours, I dashed six more times to the shelters as I slept in my clothes and bonded with the some 40 remaining guests in the vast, eerily empty hotel. In this surreal world, politics didn’t matter: Israeli Arabs tenderly helped infirm Jewish guests down to the shelters.

I also bonded with the international journalists who raced outside every time the sirens sounded. Following one such sojourn, two videographers were tired but cheerful at having captured valuable footage of the second attack. “If it happens again, we ‘Ghostbusters’ will be there,” one of them said, looking like a character from that movie in his plastic chemical-protection suit.

I thought about the blind senior citizen, with his seeing eye dog, who had come to our hotel so as not to brave the Scuds alone. I felt guilty about the excitement I was experiencing as an accidental war correspondent.

MEETING MY HUSBAND

Given my penchant for good horror stories, I was intrigued when I received a press release in late 1992 for a play called, “Dracula Tyrannus: The Tragical History of Vlad the Impaler.” I noticed that the author, Ron Magid, had a Jewish surname and wrote for Monsterland magazine, so I phoned the publicist to inquire if there were any Jewish angles to the play.

The PR guy replied that Vlad was a metaphor for genocidal dictators such as Hitler — and that the playwright had long hair and “looked like a rock star.” I had previously written about dozens of men, but had never dated any of them — although I was single and looking. But as I prepared for this interview, I had a strange premonition: “Am I going to meet my husband?” Just in case, I put on a nice outfit.

At the Tiffany Theatre, a tall man emerged from stage right, looking dazed amid the fake impaled corpses and severed head props. He explained that he’d slept in the building the night before in his rush to prepare for opening night.

Ron proved fascinating and articulate, so I was thrilled when he offered to show me my own private screening of Dracula movies. I knew he really liked me when he phoned me the morning after opening night. I laughed when he told me how he had once left a realistic-looking corpse dummy in his car and the coroner had come calling.

These days, our 18-month-old son, Harrison, is a chip off the old block: He grins broadly when his Darth Vader toy intones, “You don’t know the pow-ah of the dark side.”

 

The Circuit


‘Ruffing’ It

Poochies in Guccis? It was all about what the well-dressed doggy will wear as the Animal Alliance, in cooperation with Animal Fair Media, held its sixth annual Paws for Style at Loew’s Beverly Hills Hotel. Only one catfight erupted behind the scenes in what was otherwise a “purrfectly” pleasing event. Humans nibbled on hors d’ouvres and desserts and pooches dined out of silver dishes.

Celebs were in attendance to support their favorite animals, including Hugh Hefner, who has long been the leading advocate for bunnies.

Paula Abdul led her trio of dogs across the runway sporting Jackrocketwear as the more social of the canine contingency showed off their Playboy doggy duds.

Jeanne Buss and her dog, Princess, paraded the latest in Laker wear and courtside couture. Also featured were designers Diane Von Furstenberg, Donald Pliner, Nicole Miller, Theory among others.

Although the evening was a fun romp, the Animal Alliance takes their job of caring for and rescuing animals very seriously and does great work.

To learn more about the fashions or the funding for Animal Alliance, call (310) 859-7626.

Good for Gady

Dr. Gady Levy was selected as one of only three Americans among an elite field of 37 young, Jewish professionals around the world for a prestigious Nahum Goldmann Fellowship.

The fellowship is a summer institute aimed at nurturing a new generation of Jewish communal leadership. The program provides an intensive experience of Jewish learning, living and leadership for Jews under the age of 40 who demonstrate the potential to make a change in their communities. The conference will take place in Sweden from Aug. 22 to Sept. 1.

Levy has led the department of continuing education at the University of Judaism for five years serving as vice president.

For more information about the University of Judaism or the department of continuing education, visit www.uj.edu or call (310) 476-9777.

Health and Wellness

Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector and distinguished professor of philosophy at the University of Judaism, was appointed by the California Department of Health Services (DHS) to convene a Human Stem Cell Research Advisory Committee. This committee has been charged with developing minimum standards for institutional review boards to use in reviewing and approving human embryonic stem cell research projects. The committee will begin meeting in August.

In spring 1993, Dorff served on the Ethics Committee of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s Health Care Task Force. In March 1997 and May 1999, he testified on the subjects of human cloning and stem cell research before the President’s National Bioethics Advisory Commission. From 2000 to 2002 he served on the National Human Resources Protections Advisory Commission, charged with reviewing and revising the federal guidelines for protecting human subjects in research projects. He is currently working on a project on Judaism and genetics for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and he is a member of that organization’s Dialogue on Science Ethics, and Religion Advisory Committee.

Dorff teaches a course on Jewish law at UCLA School of Law as a visiting professor and was awarded the Journal of Law and Religion’s Lifetime Achievement Award. He is vice chair of the Conservative Movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards.

A Sweet Time

Smiles were abundant last week as Vista Del Mar sponsored a screening of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” at the Goldwyn Theatre in Beverly Hills. More than 900 adults and kids downed chocolate and sweets and with endorphins flowing, ate up every moment of the new Johnny Depp flick and raised $122,000 for Vista Del Mar.

Proceeds from the event will help support Vista Del Mar’s residential treatment facility, private adoption agency, foster-care program, nonpublic school and its four affiliated divisions: Family Service of Santa Monica; Home-SAFE; Julia Ann Singer Center; and Reiss-Davis Child Study Center.

Each year, Vista’s programs and services provide a safe haven for more than 5,000 children from throughout the Los Angeles area whose lives have been interrupted by abuse, neglect or abandonment.

Hero in the Sky

A celebration of life event was held recently to honor the late Robert Maguire Jr. Maguire Jr. was the chief pilot of the covert mission “Operation Magic Carpet,” which saved 40,000-50,000 Yemenite Jews from persecution and danger after World War II by secretly flying them to Israel over hostile territories. Maguire’s father, Robert Francis Sr., was a judge at the Nuremberg war crimes trials.

Wishes Come True

As part of Disneyland’s 50th anniversary weekend celebration July 15-17, the Disney Cruise Line made a wish come true and kept the Disney Magic cruise ship at the Port of San Pedro one additional night as it hosted “An Evening of Magic” to benefit the Make-a-Wish Foundation. Visiting a Disney theme park is the No. 1 request the 25-year-old organization, which fulfills the wishes of children with life-threatening illnesses, receives.

The July 16 event kicked off with a sunset ceremony, where outgoing Disney CEO Michael Eisner presented a $1.04 million check to Make-A-Wish Foundation of America President and CEO David Williams.

“As the foundation’s largest sponsor, Disney is proud to [play a role] in this extraordinary organization,” Eisner said. “Disneyland knows a thing or two about granting wishes.”

Then Disney CEO-elect Bob Iger surprised Williams when Minnie Mouse came to the stage with a surprise second check-for another $1 million.

“A wish is very simple idea,” Williams said. “The impact it has on a child and the family is absolutely profound.”

“At the end of the day, it is all about the kids,” Jeff Germain, chairman of the board of Make-a-Wish, who has been with the organization for four years, told The Journal. “It’s not just what’s in the eyes of the children; it is in the eyes of their families — the look in their eyes and the impact it has on them is immeasurable. It helps them get healthier.”

“I Wish to Have A Dance Party” came alive in Rockin’ Bar D where pictures of “fulfilled wishes” flashed on the screen and the Radio Disney street team kept the preteens busy prior to the arrival of “That’s So Raven” star Raven Simone, who has helped grant more than 30 wishes. When the actress-singer arrived, she had a friend with her — 12-year-old Ashley Gullap, whose wish was to meet Raven and attend a red carpet with her. Ashley and Raven took the stage, meeting fans and signing autographs.

After teaching the crowd how to dance the “Cotton Eye Joe” during the dance party, 14-year-old Travis Flores, whose wish was to be an author, autographed his book, “The Spider Who Never Gave Up,” in the Oceaneer Club.

The evening ended on a truly magical note under the stars at the Goofy Pool stage when “American Idol”‘s Kimberly Locke and Peabo Bryson sang “Wishes” off the compilation CD of the same name ($5 of every CD sale goes to Make-a-Wish). After which, the two sang “A Whole New World” and were joined on stage by an assortment of Disney characters who hugged each Make-a-Wish child.

At the end of the night, the only wish that hadn’t come true was the one everyone had of being able to stay on the ship just a bit longer.

For more information on Make-a-Wish, visit www.wish.org. — Shoshana Lewin, Contributing Writer

Net Gains

Hustle over to the UCLA Tennis Center to catch rising Jewish stars at the Mercedes-Benz Cup. This year’s line-up features top world players-with more than the usual amount of Jewish stars among them. Paul Goldstein, 29, a wildcard entry from San Francisco, has battled his way into another round, aiming to beat his career high ranking of 69. Israeli Amir Hadad will also fight for advancement into the quarters, while Playa del Rey wunderkind Zack Fleishman, a promising up-and-comer, will also compete. Rounding out the field are top Israeli doubles team of Yoni Erlich and Andy Ram. Last year the team made it all the way to the finals, and wowed spectators with their intensity and perseverance. This year, who knows, they could go all the way.

For tickets and information, www.mercedes-benzcup.com.

 

An Affair to Remember: Hollywood and the Jews


Oscar night is almost upon us, and there is considerable talk (and pride) about three of the chief contenders — Halle Berry, Will Smith and Denzel Washington — all of whom are black. But don’t be fooled: Hollywood and the film industry is still primarily a Jewish story, no matter who deserves and carts off the evening’s prizes.

No one ever said the story itself — about American Jews and Hollywood — was not complex. Founded by East Coast Jewish immigrants at the turn of the 20th century, the movie industry had looked at first like a nickel-and-dime nickelodeon enterprise that catered to working-class American newcomers. By the time the movie entrepreneurs pulled up stakes and relocated to Los Angeles (roughly between 1907 and 1918) it was too late for the gentile business establishment to elbow its way to an insider’s place at the table.

By the 1930s, the industry was generating great profits, despite the Depression. It had also become highly personal for the Jewish moguls running Hollywood. There’s a story Neal Gabler recounts (in his book "An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood") about Louis B. Mayer, the head of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, holding movie star Mickey Rooney by the lapel and shaking him. Mayer was furious: "You’re Andy Hardy," he shouted. "You’re the United States. You’re the stars and stripes. Behave yourself. You’re a symbol."

Part of Mayer’s anger, of course, had to do with business. Rooney, still in his late teens, was the star of the "Andy Hardy" series of films, the No. 1 box office draw at MGM. Rooney’s escapades with women were liable to tarnish his image and send ratings down. But much of the anger also had to do with Mayer’s vision of America as an innocent, pure nation.

It mattered little that he was a ruthless studio head and businessman. The America he was projecting in films, and that he idealized, was a glorified land of promise and happy endings, of small-town family life brimming with virtue and filled with a mythic Western past. And it contained no Jews.

In the late 1930s, Mayer’s salary was the highest in the nation. However, he was still considered an outsider by the wealthy non-Jews of Los Angeles. He joined the Hillcrest Country Club, all of whose members were Jewish, because no other club would admit him.

Mayer and his fellow studio heads took this to heart. They bought into the rejection, viewing themselves as somehow socially inferior to the upper-class gentiles they longed to join. But in business, they prided themselves on being a step ahead, very much attuned to the popular culture. Except for the first talkie film, "The Jazz Singer," which was seen as a bold experimental gamble, Jews were considered bad for the box office and were excluded as characters in films and in the portraits of America that were projected, while Jewish actors were forced to Americanize their names.

When "Gentleman’s Agreement," a film dealing with anti-Semitism, was finally made after World War II, neither its producer, Darryl F. Zanuck, nor its director, Elia Kazan, was Jewish.

All that changed in the middle of the 20th century, both with the demise of the studio system and with the advent of television. Today, actors and actresses keep their own names, even when they sound Jewish (e.g. Alicia Silverstone, Adam Sandler, Richard Dreyfuss). Some, Gwyneth Paltrow for example, even make a point of extolling their Jewish heritage; in her case, on her father’s side of the family.

Many films today contain Jewish characters, often military officers, doctors, lawyers, judges and academics, as well as upper-middle class couples; some films have Jewish themes or central characters (e.g. "The Royal Tenenbaums" and "Schindler’s List") and three documentaries about Jews, produced by Rabbi Marvin Hier’s Museum of Tolerance, have won Academy Awards in the past six years.

It is no secret today that many agents, writers, entertainment lawyers and film producers are Jewish. British screenwriter William Cash lashed out at what he identified as "Jewish Hollywood" in the 1990s. He claimed that writers he knew attempted to pass as Jews hoping this would give them an inside edge. No one disputed the story, though most critics indicated that Jews and non-Jews competed on an equal playing field. It was craft and talent, not ethnicity, that secured a writing assignment.

Nevertheless, it has been this sense of a Jewish presence, a Jewish sensibility, within the popular culture that has helped reshape attitudes toward Jews in America. The themes of television’s sitcoms and dramas, while not Jewish, are often reflections of a modern, urban liberal point of view (think "The West Wing," "ER" and "Friends" today; "All in the Family," "Seinfeld" and "Brooklyn Bridge" in the past). It is no accident that Dan Quayle and Pat Buchanan attacked television and films for debasing our culture. Violence and sex made the headlines, but they believed the point of view they were assailing was one held by liberal and secular Democrats. Some Jews in Hollywood saw the attacks as thinly disguised anti-Semitism.

Buchanan and Quayle aside, it is interesting to chart the path that led to the turnabout in attitudes toward Jews in America, to analyze what caused the 180-degree turn that propelled Jews from being outsiders to insiders in America. There is certainly the Holocaust and the horror and guilt that accompanied it; the end of university quotas, both for students and professors; the emergence of Jews as lawyers in major firms and as law school deans in prominent universities. All of these played a role in admitting Jews to the American establishment.

But the imprint of culture — both popular and high culture — on a society that turns often to entertainment and art for both leisure and class status cannot be overestimated. During the second half of this century, we have seen the rise of Jewish writers in America — Saul Bellow, Arthur Miller, J.D. Salinger, Philip Roth, Cynthia Ozick and Rebecca Goldstein — all of whom have functioned as our nation’s Mark Twains and F. Scott Fitzgeralds, our successors to Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner. We are, after all, a nation that proudly exports culture — along with Coca-Cola and jeans — to the rest of the world.

Domestically, the impact has led to a different outcome. Films and television have affected all Americans and, in the process, have helped integrate Jews into America. They have also introduced Jewish words, style and feelings into our national identity. Ironically, it is the last thing in the world that Mayer and the other Hollywood moguls desired. They wanted their America simple and small-town innocent — and without any tribal relatives.

Come Oscar night, we might recognize the unintended consequences of the world they helped create. We Jews are perhaps the greatest beneficiaries of the dream industry. And whether or not Washington, Judi Dench or Ron Howard are Oscar winners, it does not alter the profound role that Hollywood has played — and continues to play — in the lives of America’s Jews.

Holy Days in Hollywood


"My mind’s going to be closed all day."

  • Mort Sahl, Comedian

"I think my girlfriend and I are going to be in town. My brother will come in from school. It’s a great time of the year, and it’s always nice to reflect on yourself and to spend it with family. We fast, we get cranky, but it’s nothing a little pickled herring can’t cure."

  • Fred Savage, Actor


"Spending services at Kehilla Community Synagogue [in Berkeley]. We lost a baby right before the holidays around Rosh Hashana last year. This year, I’m really looking forward to the High Holy Days because last year was so hard, and it was about getting over the loss of the baby, and this year it’s going to be all about our new baby."

  • Ayelet Waldman, Author and wife of novelist Michael Chabon


"I’ll be running the services at UCLA at the Chabad House, which will have close to 1,000 people."

  • Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin, Chabad leader


"I’m going to run off to Europe to get married to a good Jewish lawyer."

  • Apollonia, Singer


"I have several options, I still have to decide. I’ll give you a clue: someone will be blowing a shofar."

  • Elliot Gould, Actor


"I never know when they’re coming up."

  • Woody Allen

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.

Hollywood Jews and the FTC Report


Leading Jewish Hollywood executives and directors responded with a sense of shame this week to the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) report criticizing the marketing of media violence to minors. Reached by phone, they spoke with The Jewish Journal about how they struggled to reconcile their sense of social and moral responsibility with the demands of the marketplace. Many felt the challenge of balancing the task of self-regulation from within the industry against the evil of censorship from the outside. Others spoke of a more personal balance, played out against a highly charged political atmosphere: deciding how much of the entertainment industry’s product their own children can watch.

Jeff Sagansky, CEO of Paxson Communications and former president of TriStar Pictures and CBS Entertainment, was outspoken in his criticism of the media for injecting children on a daily basis with what he dubbed “a very toxic cocktail of violence and general irresponsibility.”

He pointed to a score of studies over the past 20 years that link media violence with violent behavior. “You can quibble with any single study,” Sagansky stated, “but the net effect, if you read all these studies, is a direct correlation between violent behavior and the amount of violence the kids consume in the media. For 15 years we’ve been fighting cigarette advertising to minors. But I think this is just as harmful, maybe more harmful.”

Sagansky called for a self-policing policy on media violence. “I don’t believe,” he said, “that any government board can necessarily sit there and determine things for us. But on the other hand, there have got to be very, very frequent reviews to see how the industry is coming along. Because we’ve talked about this self-restraint now for seven or eight years. I don’t see any change whatsoever in what’s coming out; in fact, it seems to be worse.”

Even getting executives to speak about the issues as Jews proved difficult, as most of the executives reached preferred not to comment.

“One, they’re a part of the system that propagates all this,” Sagansky said. “And two, I think everyone in Hollywood is very, very afraid of government censorship. Which, by the way, they should be.”

Sagansky mused that the best thing Washington might do would be to mandate that every executive in the entertainment industry be required to have their children watch “all the TV programs and movies and music videos that they’re putting out. That would put a real quick end to it.”

In fact, Sagansky does not permit his children to watch any programs or films with violent content. He and his wife screen every program beforehand.

Robert Greenwald, prominent producer and director of the new film biography of Abbie Hoffman, “Steal this Movie,” also emphatically criticized the level of violence in media and called for self-regulation on the part of the industry.

“For me, it certainly is an issue of responsibility and influencing people with our work,” he said. “I would like to think that in the film and television world we hold ourselves to a higher moral responsibility than the cigarette industry or the Firestone people.”

Opposing government regulation or censorship, Greenwald stated that government could not create “the perfect set” of rules and regulations.

“But we can’t on the one hand argue that in our movies we should depict somebody recycling garbage and say this character will affect audiences positively, and then argue that when we have a character who shoots people, that doesn’t also affect audiences,” said Greenwald. “It has to. I believe our work does have an effect. And because of that, there is a sense of personal responsibility that we all have to have about where we draw the line in terms of influence and profits.”

Greenwald pointed to a moral schizophrenia in the culture that extends far beyond the entertainment industry: “It’s not just film,” he said. “There are decent people who make cigarettes that kill people. There are decent people, I think, who go to work for HMO’s.”

In his own home, Greenwald said that he monitored the amount of film and TV his children are allowed to watch.

“If it’s excessively violent,” he said, “I don’t let them watch it at all. I’m very, very strict about it.”Veteran film director Lionel Chetwynd, whose forthcoming movie, “Varian’s War,” is an account of a rescuer in the Holocaust, Varian Fry, also spoke out for self-regulation. “Regardless of what the FTC can or cannot do, the larger reality is that anything the popular culture can do to try and help restore civility to American public life, they should at least seriously consider and examine doing,” he said. “As a First Amendment absolutist, I’m not looking to my government to cure society. Because the evidence is that it really cannot, no matter how well-intentioned it is. It’s absolutely up to us. Only we can make the difference by doing the right thing.”

But there is a longer view, one that usually goes missing in the politically charged debate over family values and entertainment. “A lot of this is in the eye of the beholder,” said Neal Gabler, author of “An Empire of Their Own,” an account of the history of Jewish participation in the creation of Hollywood, and the new book, “Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality.”

Gabler pointed out that many gangster films of the 1930’s that were once singled out for excessive violence now seem “highly moralistic and very, very tame.”

Popular culture, he said, “is a kind of contrarian form. It challenges the status quo. I, for one, believe that when you really cross the line, the moral boundary, that those kind of movies, songs and television programs tend to be ghettoized and marginalized.

“There’s a kind of self-regulation to all this,” he continued. “And it all depends on where you set your own meter in terms of what you find offensive or not. Because popular culture is always offensive to somebody. It is always a form of rebellion, of outlawry.”

Gabler cited Elvis Presley as an example. “Twenty years after Presley first appeared, he was singing in Las Vegas, and his audience was not young people any longer,” said Gabler. “They were middle-aged types from the Midwest. And that’s the nature of popular culture. What begins at the margins gets domesticated in the middle. I guarantee you there will be rap singers in Vegas 10 years from now. Their music will have become so domesticated that their audience will be essentially middle class.”

Nevertheless, as a Jewish father, Gabler was less than sanguine about exposing his own children, ages 13 and l5, to violence in the media. “This is my responsibility,” he said passionately. “You watch your children. I know what movies they go to. I know what TV programs they watch. When they’re on the Internet, their computer is across the desk from mine. I’m not sitting there confining them to Walt Disney fare, but what I am trying to do is keep them from seeing things that I know are ugly and heinous. I do not want to raise my children to be callous.”

More Thana Villain


When Jason Isaacs went in to audition for the Royal National Theatre’s production of Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America,” he knew exactly what role he wanted. He insisted upon portraying the anxiety-ridden character of Louis, who is somewhat based on the life of the gay Jewish playwright.

The London producers raised their eyebrows. They had a slightly larger role in mind for Isaacs, the rising British stage and screen actor. But the thespian was not interested. “Look, I play all these tough guys and thugs and strong, complex characters,” he told the producers. “In real life, I am a cringing, neurotic Jewish mess. Can’t I for once play that onstage?”

Isaacs earned stellar reviews as Louis, but he remains best known, at least in the press, as an elegant brand of villain. He was Kurt Russell’s futuristic foil in “Soldier,” Dennis Quaid’s nemesis in “Dragonheart,” a sadistic ex-IRA terrorist in “Divorcing Jack” and a psychopathic soldier in the controversial BBC miniseries, “Civvies.”

Of late, he is all over the screen in the Revolutionary War epic, “The Patriot,” killing children in front of their parents, burning villagers alive in their churches and bludgeoning Mel Gibson in scenes of gruesome hand-to-hand combat.

His redcoated Col. Tavington is so nasty, in fact, that the British press saw red: An irate June 14 article in London’s Express, headlined “Hollywood’s Racist Lies About Britain,” railed against Tavington and other English characters as “cowardly, evil [and] sadistic,” according to Entertainment Weekly.The New York Times put it differently. “Screen evil may not have reached quite such well-spoken proportions since Ralph Fiennes delivered his career-making performance in the 1993 film “Schindler’s List,” the Times suggested of Isaacs.

During a Journal interview, the actor, who is in his late 30’s, was hardly villainous. He was witty, chatty and self-deprecating as he regaled a reporter with stories illustrating how he is not a “tough guy” but a “total wimp.”

There was the time he was flying home from visiting his parents, who now live in Israel, when the soldier in the next seat recognized him as “that bloke from ‘Civvies.'” “Oi, you were great, you were so bloody ‘ard,” the man gushed. “He was horrified, however, when I cried all the way through the in-flight film, ” ‘Mr. Holland’s Opus,’ ” the actor reveals.

Then there was Isaacs’ audition for “The Patriot,” when the producers asked him, point blank, if he knew how to ride a horse. “I said, ‘Oh, Olympic standard!’ but I lied,” he admits. “I was terrified.” And when Isaacs sobbed all the way through his first screening of “The Patriot,” his girlfriend reminded him to dry his eyes, because the lights were coming up and he was the bad guy.

“I’m a terrible coward; I’ve been hit all the time, but I’ve never hit anyone,” he says, his chatty tone turning serious. “So I think these extreme parts that I play offer some kind of therapy, some catharsis for me. Maybe one of the reasons I do them well-ish is because I was always the bullied, never the bully.” The actor pauses, then laughs. “They are my revenge.”

Watching Isaacs in “The Patriot,” swashbuckling and dapper in his red uniform, his blue eyes glittering as he slashes his saber, it’s hard to believe he became an actor, in a way, because of the residual fear of anti-Semitism he felt as a Jew in Britain.

The fear, he says, was handed down to him by his parents and by others in the closely-knit Jewish community of Liverpool, of which his Eastern European great-grandparents were founding members. The community was insular, Isaacs recalls, and young Jason attended a Jewish school and cheder twice a week. Then the family moved to London, and the anti-Semitism Isaacs had learned about in theory became a reality. There were attacks on his local synagogue and, in the late 1970s, the National Front’s racist rhetoric spurred a rash of skinhead violence in his neighborhood. “Battles ensued,” Isaacs says, “and I was occasionally involved in things that were unsavory.”

One such “battle” took place when Isaacs’ older friends decided to confront the skinheads who were harassing the Jewish children at their hangout near the local Underground station. Isaacs, then 15, was reluctant to participate but agreed to tag along. “We grabbed sticks and bricks and … suddenly these cars came screeching around the corner, and skinheads with pickaxes and chains jumped out. They chased us off, but they followed us, and when we stopped at a red light, they all ran out of this big old Jaguar with more chains. We were all yelling, ‘Drive, for f–‘s sake.’ And the boy who was driving kept saying, ‘But it’s my mother’s car!’ “

Most of the time, however, Isaacs was low-key about being Jewish. “I feel very vulnerable telling you this, because I’m an English actor and I don’t really want to see this in the English press, because it’s damaging,” he confides. “But there is the sense that Britain can be a very xenophobic country; it’s not just directed at Jews but at anybody who isn’t the perceived version of what ‘Englishness’ is.

“Of course, England is an extraordinarily multicultural society, and the notion of what’s perceived as English is a relic, a fossil,” he continues. “The result is that people are not ‘loud’ about being Jewish. They don’t stick their heads above the parapet.”

Neither did Isaacs, as he pursued his acting career. “I don’t talk about being Jewish,” he admits. On the one hand, he believes it’s important for any actor to be “as neutral a being as possible.” In “The End of the Affair,” for example, he plays a priest, and he doesn’t want viewers to be watching and thinking, “How ironic, this actor is Jewish.” Of his “Patriot” role, he says, “There were not too many Jewish officers in the British army, I suspect, in the late 1700s.”

He points out that “everyone is a ‘hyphenate’ in America, whether Jewish-American or Italian-American. … I’m not a religious person, but I’m very Jewish, and I feel a great weight off my shoulders being a Jew in Hollywood.”

While Isaacs’ parents reacted to the feelings of unwelcome by making aliyah in 1988, along with his three brothers (two subsequently returned), the actor responded in another manner.When he entered Bristol University, he says, “There were lots of very upper and upper-middle-class people with accents I had never heard before, and I felt very strange being a Jew from North London, completely out of sorts.”

Then he attended his first play rehearsal, and “I suddenly felt that my background was irrelevant, and income was irrelevant and accent was irrelevant, because there was just this ready-made family of rehearsal group. I took to it and I became totally addicted to it, and I did plays and plays and plays every term.” Onstage, Isaacs wasn’t an outsider. He felt that he belonged.

After graduating from the prestigious Central School of Speech and Drama in London, Isaacs began working in British television and, over the years, the roles kept coming.

Yet, he insists, he was shocked when he was actually hired after submitting a two-minute audition tape to “Patriot” director Roland Emmerich.

To prepare for his role, he immersed himself in research (“British schools don’t teach the Revolutionary War,” he says), and learned that the real Tavington, actually a lieutenant colonel named Banastre Tarleton, was, like himself, the third of four sons from Liverpool.

Tarleton, known as “The Butcher” or “Bloody Ban” was apparently quite a piece of work: He carried a map of the Carolinas with him, and after every victory he slightly enlarged the area he intended to claim as his property once the war was over. He also carried a tract on polygamy, having selected several of many wives he hoped to keep in the New World. Emmerich and producer Dean Devlin were receptive to Isaacs’ research and incorporated some of the information into his character.

Today, Isaacs’ Hollywood career appears to be kicking up a notch; recently he was in San Francisco to film “Sweet November,” in which he plays the drag-queen best friend of actress Charlize Theron. He dieted a bit for the role, he confides: “It’s hard enough walking in high heels up and down those San Francisco hills without bursting out of your sequined frock,” he explains.

Yet despite the steady work and the comfort level of being Jewish in Hollywood, Isaacs has no plans to move to Los Angeles. The environment is just too unstable, he suggests. “When I was here doing ‘Armageddon,’ I had the key to the kingdom, but when ‘Soldier’ came out, I felt like I had professional and social leprosy,” he recalls. “And so I continue to live in London. I just need to look in people’s eyes who’ve known me for 20 years.”

An Eye for Talent


Donna Isaacson, the highest-ranking casting executive in Hollywood, has long pondered how Jewish actresses are cast in the movies. “It’s been a major struggle for me,” says Isaacson, executive vice president for feature talent at 20th Century Fox. “If I’m casting a lead in a film, and a Jewish woman doesn’t get the part, the question I ask myself is, ‘Is it anti-Semitism, or is it a result of the many other decisive factors that go into casting a role?’ “

When Isaacson worked in New York, there was an old joke about the way Neil Simon and Woody Allen cast non-Jewish actresses as Jews. “We used to say, ‘It’s like casting white bread to play pumpernickel,'” recalls Isaacson, who will appear at a Jewish Federation-sponsored panel discussion and dinner, “Through the Looking Glass: Women Shaping Our Future,” at the Four Seasons Hotel May 2.

(The Business and Professional Women’s dinner of the Women’s Campaign, United Jewish Fund, will also feature author Amy Ephron, Jennifer Roth of Sothebys.com and screenwriter Andrea King, who will moderate the discussion.)

Today, Jewish and non-Jewish actresses face a different problem: “They are often considered grandmothers by the time they are 40,” Isaacson laments. “They have a shorter career span than athletes.”

That statement may seem surprising, coming from the executive who cast 29-year-old Catherine Zeta-Jones opposite 68-year-old Sean Connery in the 1999 caper film “Entrapment,” an age disparity that raised eyebrows. Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan labeled the film “Grampy kisses the girl;” the age difference, observed another reporter, was “the big white elephant in the room that no one [was] supposed to notice.”

Isaacson, for her part, agrees that the age gaps between leading men and women in films such as “Entrapment,” “A Perfect Murder” and “Six Days, Seven Nights” deserve some of the criticism they receive in the media. Nevertheless, she says, Fox was sensitive to the controversy, which had already broken by the time she cast “Entrapment.” Connery’s character alludes, in the movie, that he is old enough to be Zeta-Jones’ grandfather; and the talented Zeta-Jones, who went on in real life to marry a man exactly 25 years older than herself, more than held her own in the film.

“If I could have paired Sean Connery with an older woman and had the movie gross $100 million, it would have helped my case,” Isaacson says. “But that hasn’t happened in recent box office history. The public’s acceptance of older women is not as great as it needs to be. And studios look to the public for what it wants to see. It’s a societal thing: We’re told that men age well and that women get old.”

Isaacson’s journey to the casting field was a circuitous one. Growing up in a Conservative Jewish home in Queens, the daughter of a divorced mother, she first aspired to become an actress. But after earning a master’s degree in theater from New York University, she found that the road was not easy.

“I was hard to cast because I was not a typical ingenue,” she says. “I was considered ‘regional,’ which at the time I interpreted as a kinder way of saying I was ‘too Jewish.’ ”

After Isaacson was cast as a character with a Jewish surname in her first Broadway show, she found herself rummaging through her mother’s liquor cabinet. She believed that she needed to “Anglicize” her name, and the words on the liquor bottles seemed to offer ideas: Beam, Walker, Gibson. It was producer Arthur Cantor who set her straight. You’re going to play a character named Eunice Blaustein,” he noted, wryly. “What are you going to do, change your name to Mary Christ?”

The actress stuck with “Isaacson,” and when the show closed three weeks later, she waited tables and typed scripts to support herself. Then came the unexpected break that led her into the casting business.

Isaacson was working as an assistant to a writer and producer whose play wasn’t doing well on the road. “They had to blame somebody,” she says, “so almost every Saturday night, some poor actor would get fired.” Isaacson, for her part, was sent back to New York to organize auditions to replace the actor. A casting director was born.

By August 1980, Isaacson was in charge of casting at the renowned Manhattan Theatre Club, where she met “absolutely everybody” in the business, she says. “Everyone passed through those doors,” she recalls, and she cast them all: Holly Hunter, Glenn Close, John Goodman, James Woods and a very young, very talented Kevin Spacey, whom Isaacson cast in an Athol Fugard play.

Eventually, she formed a company with a partner and began to work with filmmakers, notably Philip Kaufman and Joel and Ethan Coen, who were in their 20’s when they hired her to cast “Raising Arizona” in the mid-1980s. The brothers had just completed “Blood Simple”; they were always meticulously prepared and terribly clever, Isaacson recalls.

In those days, she says, Joel did all the talking, while Ethan paced; both brothers chain-smoked. But they were surprisingly easygoing. On their first few films, they tended to write a character with a particular actor in mind, but that actor didn’t necessarily get the part. Sometimes the performer wasn’t available for a movie; sometimes the Coens simply changed their minds. In the end, it was Isaacson who introduced them to many of the actors they would later cast in film after film, including Steve Buscemi, John Goodman and John Turturro.

Isaacson went on to cast “Barton Fink,” “Miller’s Crossing” and “The Hudsucker Proxy” for the Coens before she was selected to create Fox’s casting department in 1993. For Fox, she cast a relative newcomer, Kate Winslet, in “Titanic,” and another relative newcomer, Cameron Diaz, in “A Life Less Ordinary” and “There’s Something About Mary.”

“Donna has a keen eye for young talent and has been instrumental in our breaking several new stars,” Fox Film Group President Tom Rothman told The Hollywood Reporter.

During a recent interview in her large, sunny office on the Fox lot, Isaacson offered a theory about why so many casting directors are women. “It’s a service-oriented, nurturing, ‘taking-care-of’ kind of job,” she explains, “and, sad to say, women tend to accept that role more easily.”

One myth about casting, Isaacson continues, is that actors always beat down your door to sign on to a movie; sometimes, the reverse is true.

A case in point is Cameron Diaz, who was dubious when Isaacson took her to lunch at Orso’s several years ago to pitch her on “There’s Something About Mary.” Diaz wasn’t familiar with the work of the Farrelly brothers, and she was aghast when Isaacson tried to explain the comedy’s over-the-top plot. How, after all, does one convey the merits of a scene in which a character appears at the door with sperm hanging from his ear? “Cameron responded with sheer horror,” Isaacson recalls. Only after meetings with the filmmakers and studio executives did she realize that the comedy was innovative and accepted the role.

Today, Isaacson believes, top female executives such as Amy Pascal, Sherry Lansing, Laura Ziskin and Elizabeth Gabler (all of whom happen to be Jewish) are helping to change the face of film. “If you look at ‘Erin Brockovich’ or ’28 Days,’ you see female characters at the center of a movie,” says Isaacson, who recently finished casting “Quills,” about the Marquis de Sade, for director Philip Kaufman. Of course, signing male actors for supporting roles in those films is another matter. “It’s hard, because men are so used to being the driving force in a movie,” she explains. “They’re not all that anxious to be supporting players, even when the roles are great.”

For information about the UJF dinner, call (310) 689-3680.


Changed My Life


If you look really closely you can see me in the new movie “Isn’t She Great?” the Jacqueline Susann biopic starring Bette Midler. It’s the scene in Central Park when a young career woman on a bench near the lake is voraciously reading Harold Robbins’ “The Carpetbaggers,” nearly licking each delicious page. She’s not the real me of course. She comes awfully close enough.

For a time, I loved Harold Robbins, just as I loved the novels by Jacqueline Susann. When I was 13, and then 14 and 15, I read their low-brow books as a Real Life 101. I read Robbins’ “A Stone for Danny Fisher” and learned how a man looks at a woman. I read “The Valley of the Dolls” to learn how a woman looks at a man. I read Robbins and Susann to discover how a Jew, an American Jew, looks at life.

I know what you must think of me. Gloria Steinem described the appeal of Jacqueline Susann novels to Susann’s biographer Barbara Seaman this way: “‘Valley of the Dolls’ is for the reader who has put away comic books but isn’t yet ready for editorials in the Daily News.” I guess that was me.

But I had ambitions. For a long time I thought that the proper role of a Jewish novelist was to write stories of ambition and decay. In such stories, heroes and heroines rose from desperate beginnings, fired with desperate ambitions to have desperate love affairs, before they reached their desperate ends. I was ready, desperately. I knew that I’d have to camouflage my heroine’s ethnic background; to keep the Jewishness subtle, if not excised. Being Jewish was a writer’s permit, I believed, not her subject matter. After Jacqueline Susann, I found literature, which to me was Leon Uris. Philip Roth, who came next, was, in comparison, next to Proust who, though not being Jewish, was next to God.

I say all this to explain what Andrew Bergman’s new movie, “Isn’t She Great” gets right. The desperation part. Jackie Susann, who died in 1974 of breast cancer, was so desperate for success at the time she met Irving that she was even willing to write a book. She knew nothing about literature, but had failed in everything else, including demonstrating cookware in the grocery store.

It’s this mixture of ambition and desperation that has been part of the Jewish experience. It’s the part that most of us are now eager to forget. We’ve arrived, and our children all go to universities. We forget that once upon a time we lacked pretenses and read for experience and fun. And we wrote out of personal destiny, because we must.

Bergman makes the most of this. He reminds us that once upon a time, not so long ago, Jews were outsiders, and outsiders, with nothing to lose, tell the truth. That outsider status was the major reason, as opposed to our erudite literary sensibility, for our success in the media. We knew how to speak directly from the gut. (Today there are a few of these genre-benders left: Judith Krantz and Sidney Sheldon. But as I say, I’ve moved on to God.)

Jackie, along with her husband/publicist, Irving Mansfield (Nathan Lane), transformed the marketing of books, creating the national book tour. The success of the book tour, as “Isn’t She Great?” makes clear, is that it brought vulgar, Jewish commercial sensibilities to the American heartland. Do not be embarrassed, the movie thinks this is a good thing. The movie (based on an article by her one-time editor Michael Korda) takes us back to where it all began, when the book business was an effete WASP enterprise. Visiting the rarefied cloister of book publishing in the ’50s, few of us would ever go back.

When Jackie and Irving take the fey Korda surrogate, called here Michael Hastings (David Hyde Pierce ) to Sardi’s for another overstuffed lunch, they literally vacuum the pomposity out of the air. Midler announces to the maitre d’ that they want seats for “two adults and a gentile.” Why does that line ring so true? It’s the excess, stupid. Midler, playing Susann in all her New York-Jewish glory is undaunted by Hastings’ disapproval, unfazed by America in all its pretenses. It is Hyde Pierce, the classic WASP who is transformed by the Jews. He’s Pygmalion in reverse.

Bergman and screenwriter Paul Rudnick have merciless fun at the expense of the American heartland on the book tour itself. Jackie and Irving barge into quiet bookstores bombarding pasty-faced “American Gothic” clerks; Susann is a whole circus in a tight-fitting dress. Still the film insists, the whole country is better for the journey the Mansfields were on.

The irony, of course, is that Susann, for all her truth-telling about the world of ambitious Hollywood, could not tell the truth about herself. Her autistic son, her fight with cancer, even her Jewish heritage, were all secrets unknown by the public until after her death. Her limited foray into first person was a biography of her dog, Josephine.

Still, for all her limits, Jacqueline Susann is now part of a venerable pantheon of the Jewish low-brow. Deny them if you want, but what’s the point? America was eagerly awaiting what Jews had to offer, from burlesque and vaudeville to movies and novels. It’s a short leap from Jacqueline Susann to Lenny Bruce and then to the political activists who brought us the civil rights, Vietnam and feminist movement. It’s a stretch, you think, but not all that much.

As for me, I’ve found that writing bad, compulsively readable literature is hard work. I’ve tried to duplicate her voice, her irony and her bitterness on several occasions. Maybe I haven’t lived enough.


Marlene Adler Marks, senior columnist of The Jewish Journal, is author of “A Woman’s Voice: Reflections on Love, Death, Faith, Food & Family Life.”


Her website is www.marleneadlermarks.com.

Her e-mail address is wmnsvoice@aol.comHer book, “A Woman’s Voice” is available through Amazon.com.

Violence in the Media


When 20th Century Fox released the controversial movie “Fight Club” this fall, they took a gamble that the public would flock to a film that depicted self-selected alienated young men taking out their pent-up anger by beating up on one another. Having cost a reported $68 million just to produce, the film is only anticipated to gross a mere $35 million at the box office domestically.

As demonstrated by the lackluster performance of “Fight Club,” the public knows how to self-censor films that may be overly violent. Still, with every act of senseless violence that rocks our nation, Hollywood is increasingly blamed. And just when the studios begin to breathe a collective sigh of relief that the punishing rhetoric will end, another random act of violence rattles the country — and Hollywood is made the scapegoat.

While there is no doubt that the big screen often glorifies violence, there is less agreement on ways to minimize the amount of mayhem in the movies.

Recently, some members of the Jewish community who make their living writing for Hollywood ventured to answer this question. The Writers’ Torah Study Group held a symposium entitled “Violence In The Media: A Jewish Response.”

As David Weiss, a screenwriter whose credits include “The Rugrats Movie” and “All Dogs Go To Heaven,” opened the panel, he proclaimed that it would be “absurd” to pinpoint “the Jewish response” to violence in the media.

Rather, he asserted that there were many different Jewish responses to this phenomenon. While Weiss may be correct that the Jewish community has yet to coalesce around a single response, if any viewpoint carried the day with members of the creative community both on the panel and in the audience, it was the notion that the Jewish community should unify behind one response — government, stay out.

During the symposium, Stephen Rohde, president of the Southern California American Civil Liberties Union, asked the panel whether there was a Jewish counterpart to the freedom of speech protection found in the First Amendment to the Constitution. Rabbi Levi Meier responded that while Jewish law does not per se provide that government should not impinge on free speech rights, our Creator has endowed us with free will. Rabbi Meier later cited Deuteronomy’s passage that “I set before thee life and death, the blessing and the curse, therefore choose life.” The Talmud similarly pronounces that “all is forgiven, but free will is given.” The corollary to this concept — that we have been given free will to make our own personalized choices regarding the entertainment we create and consume — was subsequently championed by panelist Bruce Sallan, president of Davis Entertainment, who exclaimed, “it’s our choice as human beings and as Jews.”

While many in the Jewish community are as passionate as Sallan about this stance, others are not so willing to take a completely hands-off approach.

For example, Arlene Sarner, a screenwriter who penned “Peggy Sue Got Married,” and “Blue Sky,” noted that while she “does not agree with censorship,” she asked “what about self-censorship?” In fact, she indicated that she has made the choice that her writing “would never include violence.” Nevertheless, her decision remains a laudable exercise of her free will and one that was not mandated by the government.

In Washington, various federal entities are spearheading separate investigations into violence in the media that may result in such mandates.

President Clinton has asked the Office of the Surgeon General to investigate the impact of violent programming on children. As part of the pending juvenile justice bill in Congress, we may witness the creation of “The National Commission on Youth Violence,” intended to evaluate popular culture’s impact on our nation’s teens.

Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) had been trying to garner support for a special Senate inquiry on “violent and vulgar” entertainment entitled “The Senate Committee on American Culture.” Although his attempt to form such a committee failed, he has been pushing to create a different body called “The Task Force on the State of American Society.”

Potentially more meddling is the ongoing inquiry by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) into violence in the media. The FTC has already asked to review the Motion Picture Association’s ratings board files. Now, the FTC has set its eyes on documents prepared by the major studios that outline their marketing strategies. While the government couches these investigations as a way to combat the marketing of violent fare to children, the consequences of the government riffling through studio files seem obvious and chilling.

These practices would only seem to intimidate Hollywood into producing entertainment products that line up with the government’s slanted view of the world. How else can Weiss or Sallan or Sarner interpret these investigations as anything other than a roundabout way to discourage their creative freedom?

Robert Avrech, a screenwriter best known for “Body Double” and “A Stranger Among Us,” noted that if you are concerned as a parent about the effects of violent programming, you should take responsibility for what your children are watching. You do not need the government to investigate or legislate what you or your children watch on television or see in the movie theaters.

The last time Hollywood was investigated in this way, the blacklist was formed and Joe McCarthy destroyed countless lives. It is not such a stretch to envision the Office of the Surgeon General, the National Committee on Youth Violence, the Task Force on the State of American Society or the Federal Trade Commission devising blacklists of producers and writers who create what they subjectively deem to be violent entertainment.

Will the Jewish community exercise its collective free-will and oppose the efforts of a government that would rather dictate the type of entertainment we create and consume? What should the Jewish response to violence in the media be? Government, stay out.


Entertainment lawyer Brad Pomerance is a correspondent for “Larry Mantel’s Airtalk” on KPCC.

Jew and Hinjew


“Here we have perhaps one of the greatest representatives of the Hindu faith with one of the most vertically challenged representatives of the Jewish faith.” So said Rabbi Shmuely Boteach, the best-selling Orthodox author of “Kosher Sex” Mon. night, Nov. 8, as he introduced Dr. Deepak Chopra to a sold-out crowd of 500 people at Park East Synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

Self-help guru Chopra accepted Boteach’s invitation to meet for an evening of “East Meets West” to discuss what Gary Rosenblatt, the publisher of the Jewish Week, which co-sponsored the event, described as “concepts important to all of us seeking meaning in our lives.” Chopra discussed a mystical tradition that he said is shared by Hindus and Jews.

Calling himself a “Hinjew,” the black-clad Chopra drew conceptual and linguistic parallels between Jewish biblical and mystical traditions and the Vedanta, philosophy based on the Hindu sacred text.

One theme common to Vedanta and Kabbalah, Chopra said, is an awareness of different realms of reality — physical, intellectual/emotional and spiritual — and the concept of an eternal domain of infinite power, known to Jewish mystics as the Ein Sof.

He even noted an etymological parallel between Brahma, the creator of the cosmos in Hinduism, and the Jewish patriarch Abraham.

Boteach started his energetic oratory by discussing the human quest for happiness, which he described as a state of “having external deeds match internal convictions.”

Philosophy, he said, often divides the world into opposites: dark and light, form and substance, yin and yang. Mysticism sees a unifying source behind all being.

Both speakers were received enthusiastically by the multireligious audience of hip, leather-clad young adults and polished Upper East Side matrons, couples and singles. –By Julia Goldman, JTA


When It’s 40 to Love,

The Whole World is Jewish

Hard on the heels of the blockbuster news that Pete Sampras, the world’s top-ranked tennis player, is… uh… sort of Jewish, comes the revelation that German tennis great Boris Becker is the son of a Jewish mother.

Becker, a three-times Wimbledon champion, told Inside Tennis magazine that his mother, born Elvira Pisch in Czechoslovakia, had “slept in a tent for years” in a postwar displaced persons camp in Germany.

As reported in the London-based Jewish Chronicle, Becker said that “I have from my mother’s side a Jewish background, from my father’s side a very Catholic background… so, therefore, I’m a little bit of everything. That’s probably why I am more open-minded than most people.”

Becker lives with his African-American wife, Barbara, in Munich with their 5-year-old son, Noah Gabriel.

According to the interview, Pisch fled her German-occupied hometown when Soviet troops advanced on Czechoslovakia. It does not explain how she survived during the war under Nazi rule.

Earlier, the Jewish Chronicle ran an interview with Sampras, in which the American ace revealed that “Not too many people know that I’m Jewish.”

The claim might not pass halachic inspection, but Sampras said that his father, Sherwin, also known as Sam, was Jewish. Sam, in turn, had a Jewish mother but a Greek father, hence the family name Sampras.

At his parents’ behest, said Sampras, “I was raised as a Greek Orthodox and I went to a Greek Orthodox church.” He added that he had never been inside a synagogue. — Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor


Happy Hana-Jah

A musicologist and Fulbright scholar named Alan Eder drew together a dozen or so talented friends — Israeli singers with enchanting voices, Rastafarian drummers, West African dancers and a couple of cantors — and put them in a recording studio in Valencia.

The result: “Reggae Chanukah,” one of the finest Chanukah albums in recent memory. The new and reinvented traditional songs blend ska, reggae, samba, Hebrew folk and liturgical music with spoken word and rock in a wonderfully upbeat and spiritual style. If Eder’s “Reggae Passover” of two years ago was a sort of experiment, Reggae Chanukah is the proof that the preeminent musical style of the Carribean can enliven and intensify the Jewish experience.

From the opening track, “Be All That You Can Be (Join the Maccabee Army)” to the final drum-laden groove, the music gets children and adults moving. Our advice: fire up a latke, crack open a Red Stripe, and hit it. We can’t imagine what kind of magic was taking place in that Valencia recording studio, but we’re sure, as the singer says, “A great miracle happened there, mon.”

You can find “Reggae Chanukah” in some local music stores, on the web at www.reggaechanukah.com, or by calling (661) 297-0374. –Robert Eshman, Managing Editor


Once is Not Enough

Actor Kirk Douglas will celebrate his second bar mitzvah Dec. 9, on his 83rd birthday.

According to tradition, man’s allotted lifespan is 70 years, so in his “second life” Douglas’s bar mitzvah would be due 13 years later.

Douglas is currently traveling abroad, but his spokeswoman, Marcia Neuberger, said that the ceremony will be held in Los Angeles. Although he has been studying for many years with Orthodox Rabbi Nahum Braverman of Aish HaTorah, Braverman said he is not slated to officiate.

The actor, born Issur Danielovitch, the son of illiterate Russian-Jewish immigrants, celebrated his first bar mitzvah at the Sons of Israel synagogue in his home town of Amsterdam, in upstate New York.

He so impressed the congregation that it offered to subsidize him if he would enter a yeshiva and become a rabbi. He informed his would-be benefactors that he planned to become an actor.

In the following decades, as his star rose in Hollywood, Douglas married twice, both times to non-Jewish women, and generally ignored his faith.

A near brush with death in a 1991 helicopter crash revived his interest in Judaism and he embarked on a course of Torah studies.

Though still suffering from spinal injuries sustained during the plane crash, and his speech slowed by a stroke, Douglas has set out on a successful writing career. His output includes two well-received autobiographies, and, most recently, “The Broken Mirror,” a Holocaust-themed story for children.

Due next month is another youth-oriented book, “Young Heroes of the Bible.” To be released at the end of the year is a new movie, his 83rd, titled “Diamond,” which explores the relationship between a grandfather, his son and his grandson.

Douglas has some post-bar mitzvah plans. In an interview with this reporter two years ago, he mused that he had few friends outside his family.

“That sometimes depresses me,” he said. “People will ask, ‘who is your best friend?’ and I have to think. Somehow, I have been a loner all my life… I have friends, but my wife says I don’t nourish them, and she is very right. After my second bar mitzvah, I will address myself to that problem.” — Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

A (Defiantly) Jewish Film by Barry Levinson


In a pivotal scene in “Liberty Heights,” the fourth film in Barry Levinson’s semi-autobiographical “Baltimore” series, three Jewish teenagers crash a country club that excludes Jews.

They tear down the sign that says, “No Jews, Dogs or Coloreds Allowed” and throw it in the trash. Then they stride to the lakeside, where they reveal that one boy has painted a large letter “J” on his chest, the second, the letter “E,” the third, a “W.” As the startled sunbathers look on, the teens defiantly stand together to spell the word, “J-E-W.”

It was the same kind of defiance that led the Oscar-winning director to reach back into his Baltimore youth to create “Liberty Heights” last year.

The movie was born after Levinson read a review of his sci-fi thriller, “Sphere” that he perceived to be anti-Semitic in tone. The critic wrote that Dustin Hoffman’s character wasn’t ‘officially Jewish,’ but was ‘noodgey and menschlike.’ “The implication is that if the character has all these traits, he must be Jewish,” Levinson says. “And I felt really angry about the notion that there’s one kind of Jew, or one kind of anyone.”

Music That Heals


Whenever John Mauceri conducts the Israel Philharmonic, Israeli reporters ask him why an Italian Catholic is so preoccupied with Holocaust refugee composers.

During a concert of Broadway music, Mauceri may speak of the great German theatrical composer Kurt Weill, who fled the Nazis and made a new career in New York. During a tribute to Universal’s film music, he may breezily mention the Holocaust refugee composers who resettled in Hollywood.

“I like to remind people about the emigre composers, because the level of ignorance about them is terrifying.” said Mauceri, principal conductor of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. “They have virtually been eliminated from the history books. For complex and fairly dark reasons, I think, their music has not been played.”

For the past decade, internationally-renowned Mauceri, 53, has become an activist for the lost music. He has recorded CD’s of Weill’s work and of the entartete musik banned by Hitler. He has made the performance of film music a mandate of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. And next year, he will complete an expose of the Holocaust’s effect on 20th century music that will no doubt raise eyebrows.

As the recipient of the prestigious Berlin Prize from the American Academy in Berlin, Mauceri will spend his time at the Academy’s historic, lakeside villa finishing a book, “The War on Music.” The tome will explore how anti-Semitism and other forces changed the face of classical music after World War II. Yes, the book will be controversial, Mauceri admits; yes, it may hurt his conducting career. “The topic is dangerous,” he says, “but in a way, I’ve been chosen to pursue this music. No one else is doing it, so I truly know I can’t stop.”

Mauceri was born in 1945, his soul “conceived at a time when so many people were losing their lives in the Holocaust.” He was only four when he first saw images of concentration camp victims on TV; images that burned into his brain.

His obsession with refugee composers began while he was a student at Yale, where he discovered that the film music he had loved as a child was conspicuously absent from the curriculum. “Then, accidentally, I would come across a composer like Wolfgang Erich Korngold, whose music was conducted by Richard Strauss and Bruno Walter in Europe before the war,” Mauceri said.

But the work that Korngold composed in Hollywood after fleeing the Nazis was spurned as “kitch,” as was all the music composed for the movies by the exiles Max Steiner and Franz Waxman. Even many of the works composed by Weill and Arnold Schoenberg in America were dismissed as inferior and hardly ever played. Mauceri studied the refugees’ “American” works and found many of them to be wonderful. “So why, I wondered, hadn’t I ever heard any of this music or, in many instances, even learned the composers’ names?”

To discover why, Mauceri became a musical sleuth, conducting interviews with music professionals around the world. Their responses were telling. In Austria, one director of a concert hall referred to the exiles’ American work as “inconvenient music.”

“Many people who were active in the Nazi party or who found a way to live within the Nazi regime were still running symphony orchestras, conservatories and radio stations after the war,” Mauceri explains. “During the Reich, they had not played certain music for racial reasons. And after the war, the refugee composers were still alive and living in America, the country that had vanquished Germany. Do you think these people were going to call up Kurt Weill in New York and say, ‘please bring us the music you’ve been composing since you left?’ Not at all.”

“I believe there was a ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ to dismiss all the music written in America by saying it was not particularly good. … You didn’t have to call it ‘Jewish’ music; you could call it ‘kitch.’ It was a way of removing something painful and embarrassing from the concert hall.”

The American musical establishment, which has always looked to Europe for trends in classical music, followed suit, and the music disappeared.

The post-war “gentlemen’s agreement,” Mauceri believes, was one reason it took him 15 years to bring Weill’s epic opera, “The Eternal Road,” to the stage, a career-long ambition. Written not long after Weill fled Germany, the opera tells of a synagogue congregation huddling together in the face of impending doom. “It is Weill’s unknown masterpiece,” says Mauceri, who “felt fear and a terrible sadness” the first time he perused the score. But opera companies everywhere declined to produce the piece-until the city of Chemnitz in the former East Germany took on the expensive production last month.

Mauceri, of course, was the conductor during the sold-out performances, which concluded with cheers and ovations. “It was so unbelievably moving,” he recalls. “My cast was mostly German and non-Jewish, and they had to don pais and learn how to kiss the tallis. You could see the tremendous pain and catharsis they felt as Germans portraying Jews in a city that had had its own Krystallnacht in 1938.” Mauceri will conduct the opera in Israel and New York later this year.

While in Chemnitz, he also conducted a benefit concert for the synagogue the city wants to build for its small but burgeoning Jewish population; the repertoire consisted of music composed by German exiles in the U.S. During the concert, Mauceri made a speech about “bringing German music back to Germany;” thundrous applause followed the performance. “I believe this music has the power to bring people together,” he says. “It has the power to heal.”

For information about Mauceri’s concerts at the Hollywood Bowl this summer, call 323/ 850-2000.


The Anti-Seinfeld Comes to L.A.


A few years ago, at the age of 24, Brooklyn-born Danny Hoch got the kind of phone call most struggling actors dream of. It was his agent, telling him that the people from “Seinfeld” had called: they wanted Hoch to get on a plane the next morning to tape a guest-starring role on the hit television series.

The thing of it is, Hoch — a mesmerizing and chameleonic stage performer-writer who exploded onto the New York theater scene at age 21 with his Obie-winning one-man show, “Some People” — is decidedly not most young actors. From the very beginning of his career, one got the sense that Hoch wasn’t going to sell his soul to TV anytime in the future. A raucous delight in (and a deep and abiding respect for) non-white urban culture are hallmarks of his work. So is an uncompromising political sensibility, apparently immune to the Faustian bargains of showbiz.

For the Seinfeld episode, Hoch was to play “the pool guy,” a comically annoying attendant who wanted to befriend Jerry. The character’s name — Ramon — made Hoch wary that the producers were after some sort of buffoonish Latino stereotype. They assured him that wasn’t the case (he could even change the name if he wanted), so the next day he found himself sitting at a table with Jerry, Elaine and the gang for a Seinfeld read-through.

Despite previous assurances, the Ramon character was to be exactly what Hoch dreaded. He refused to play it that way, infuriating the cast and producers. Hoch left the show — and the city — on the next available plane. Last March, at the height of the national Seinfeld mania, a piece by Hoch on that experience appeared in Harper’s magazine. It was received by many as a bracing (and hilarious) antidote to the bloated and treacly press coverage the series was getting for its swan song season. Now titled “Danny’s trip to L.A.,” it has worked its way into his new one-man stage show, “Jails, Hospitals & Hip Hop,” which opens at the Actors’ Gang for a 24-performance run through Dec. 13.

Almost all of the characters Hoch inhabits in “Jails” are beautifully realized, startlingly authentic portraits of the kinds of lives we rarely see onstage. The Seinfeld story is the only one in which he steps out of character and speaks to the audience as himself. “That piece does get a lot of attention,” Hoch told The Journal in a recent interview. “After all, it’s sort of the gossipy part of the show, in a way… After the story came out, people were actually in pain about it. For some people, it was like I had committed treason.”

Hoch’s talents may not be suited for the mainstream, formulaic landscape of prime-time television, but they make for electrifying theater. With just a few spare props, a gift for self-transformation and an empathy that is beyond his years, Hoch brings to life an entire rainbow of memorable characters, which range from a white Montana teen-aged boy who manufactures a fantasy alter-ego for himself as a black rap star named Flip Dog, to an embittered corrections officer squirming in a therapist’s office.

To get a rough idea of Hoch’s range and power onstage, picture the sharp, satirical talents and stage presence of Eric Bogosian (to whom Hoch has often been compared). Add to that the morphing skills and political sensibilities of Anna Deveare Smith. Throw in the physical expressiveness and good humor of Lily Tomlin, the searing honesty of Lenny Bruce and the rubbery, expressive face of a young Ed Wynn, and you begin to get the picture.

While Hoch’s boyhood in Brooklyn and Queens included requisite gigs at Hebrew school and Sunday school that culminated in a multicultural, hip-hop bar mitzvah celebration (“my friends and I were break dancing at shul,” he recalls), it was also characterized by an easy familiarity with the hodgepodge of cultures and dialects that surrounded him. As a result, Hoch has a well-developed sense of place that informs his choices. So far, critically acclaimed HBO specials, Obie awards and movie deals have done nothing to diminish it.

Because Hoch attended New York’s High School for the Performing Arts, “The idea of success was either Broadway, or L.A. So right away, success inherently meant leaving your community. It also means getting a role in a Broadway show that has nothing really to do with the people of New York City, shown to people who aren’t from New York City… What I didn’t see onstage were the kind of people I saw in my own life every day. In the media, they were considered to be on the margins, but not in my neighborhood. You know, I don’t come from a place where 10 Jews sit around a table, deciding about a Latino character. I come from a place where it’s five Latinos, five blacks and one Jew. That’s me.”

“Jails, Hospitals & Hip-Hop,” directed by Jo Bonney, runs Wed. – Sun. at 8 p.m. at the Actors’ Gang, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Tickets: $25, $10 students, are available through the Center Theatre Group box office at the Ahmanson Theatre, or by calling (213) 628-2772. Tickets are also available on-line at www.TaperAhmanson.com

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