7 Days in the Arts


Saturday the 19th

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

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

Monday the 21st

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

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

Tuesday the 22nd

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

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

Wednesday the 23rd

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

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

Another Braff Tale of Jewish Ennui


“The Unthinkable Thoughts of Jacob Green” by Joshua Braff (Algonquin Books, $22.95).

While fidgeting at Shabbat dinner, Jacob Green decides to play a game he calls “The Unthinkable” — imagining blasphemies that would infuriate his super-strict father. Like hurling the challah football-style at the fridge. Or making it drop from his tush. Or putting it in his mouth and thrashing his head like a doberman.

“Or if I molded it into a big breaded schlong and bumped it repeatedly against [my brother’s] forehead,” he says to himself.

If Green sounds like every teenager who’s hated mandatory Shabbat dinners, he’s also the protagonist of Joshua Braff’s viciously witty and poignant new novel, “The Unthinkable Thoughts of Jacob Green.” It’s a thorny coming-of-age story set in New Jersey suburbs, a trend recently proffered by Jewish artists such as filmmaker Todd Solondz (“Welcome to the Dollhouse”) and writer-director Zach Braff (“Garden State”).

Zach, also the star of NBC’s “Scrubs,” is Joshua’s younger brother, so it’s perhaps not surprising the siblings’ debut efforts share emotionally repressed youths and ambivalent attitudes toward Judaism. In “State,” Zach Braff’s character ridicules the moveable walls shuls erect to accommodate High Holiday Jews and professes, “I’m Jewish, but I’m not really Jewish.”

“Unthinkable” is Joshua Braff’s edgier answer to a childhood in which ritual wasn’t a choice, but an obligation.

“Although Abram Green wasn’t my father, luckily, there were certain rules,” the 36-year-old novelist said. Churlish rabbis supervised tzitzit inspection at his Orthodox elementary school yeshiva; bar mitzvah thank-yous had to be written and proofed; the teenage Braff had Conservative Hebrew school three times a week and an older brother who scribbled sardonic drawings behind the rabbis’ backs.

“His bitterness toward it all was kind of attractive,” the mild-mannered Braff said. “I was kind of the middle, sensitive child, so I looked up to my brother and was proud of his ability to rebel.”

Although Braff repressed his own rebellious thoughts as a boy, he lets loose in “Unthinkable,” which he describes as “perhaps a bit of a primal scream, albeit highly fictionalized.” His protagonist imagines bar mitzvah thank-yous detailing his lust for the nanny.

“I had no idea that they made bookends out of Jerusalem stone,” another imaginary note says. “We were able to hoist them up on my bookshelf yesterday. They looked really great up there before my shelving collapsed into a cloud of snapped particleboard.”

Green’s older brother, meanwhile, gets busted for the “disturbingly accurate pencil drawing of Rabbi Belahsan … found pinned-up in the yeshiva library. In it, the rabbi was in a consensual threesome with a lobster and an erect pig.”

How have readers responded to the lobster and the pig?

“I’ve gotten a lot of reaction to that — so far, all good,” Braff said.

Yet, he concedes others may not be amused when he participates in an upcoming Jewish Book Council tour.

“I wrote the novel, especially the religious stuff, with a certain amount of reckless abandon,” he said. “If I offend anyone, I’ll certainly apologize, but I don’t think the book is self-hating. It’s just kind of rebellious, kind of a shout out — like that Woody Allen scene where the rabbi is on a game show and his wife force feeds him bacon. It’s twisted, and out of context, ridiculous, but at the same time kind of shocking and funny.”

The darkly comic novel began, innocuously enough, with musings about Braff’s yeshiva lunchbox several years ago. Having written myriad short stories also featuring “unheard, precocious children,” he hoped to create a book “that was not a memoir but that drew on real emotion and memory,” he said.

Stream-of-consciousness writing exercises helped, notably a drill in Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird” that suggested jotting items remembered from one’s grade school lunchbox.

Braff’s thoughts drifted back to his yeshiva’s cafeteria and to his kosher lunch ensconced in a “Waltons” box. Of why he preferred that treacley drama to “The Incredible Hulk,” he says in an essay, “Sensitive and troubled middle child of early 1970s New Jersey vintage stares longingly at the sleepy ease of this unconditionally ‘normal’ 1940s family.”

“I certainly had warmth and affection in my home,” he told The Journal, “but I would have loved to have had the freedom of being on Walton’s Mountain at times instead of being in a place in which there was quite that much ritual. At yeshiva, I always felt like I was fumbling those rituals, and that there was always a rabbi who was not interested in explaining anything but who just kind of barked at me.”

Braff dropped Judaism when he left home to attend New York University; he began his return during a college trip to Israel in which the culture “for the first time was on my terms,” he said. “I remember being at the Wailing Wall and absorbing in a different way than I had before.”

Now he has a Jewish wife and children: “We have fun with the holidays,” he said. “It’s been reinvented, in a way.”

Since Braff revisits touchier years in “Unthinkable,” he was understandably nervous about showing a draft to his parents before publication. Turns out he need not have worried: “They’re supportive, so they were encouraging.” he said. “My dad did say, ‘The father figure is terrible,’ and he wanted to know if it was him. I told him, ‘Certainly not.'”

Yet that character and others are so vividly drawn, Kirkus Reviews noted that “Unthinkable” is “compulsively readable, in a horrifying sort of way. What will Braff do next now that he’s gotten that off his chest?”

The author’s answer isn’t unexpected.

“I think I’m probably going to write about a family, and I think they’re going to be Jewish,” he said.

Braff’s “Unthinkable” launch party is Sept. 18, 7 p.m. at Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (310) 659-3110. He’ll also appear Oct. 17, 7:30 p.m., at Fais Do-Do, 5253 West Adams Blvd., Los Angeles as part of First Fiction 2004, a reading by five debut novelists. For information, call (310) 659-3684.


When I get to my classroom, my stomach begins to clench. I put my books and lunch box by my desk and move slowly into the [tzitzit] inspection line behind Ari Feiger. Ari has a glandular issue that gives him breasts and makes him smell like wet skin. He also has striped pajama bottoms that creep out the back of his pants and a dirty blond afro that can actually hold pencils. When I ask him if he has an extra tzitzit he says, "Yes, but not for you," and walks away from me.

"Ari," I say, following him, "I’ll pay you for it."

"I put on a clean one after lunch," he says. "It’s not for sale."

"But I forgot mine," I whisper.

When he hears this he turns to the other six boys in my class and starts singing the word tzitzit to the tune of "The Flintstones." "Tzitzit, meet the tzitzit, have a yabba-dabba tzitzit, a yabba tzitzit, you’re gonna be so screwed. Ya’akov’s got no tzitzit!" he yells and points at me.

"Shhhh! Shut up, Ari. The rabbi will hear you."….[Now] Rabbi Mizrahe moves toward the lineup and touches each of Gary Kaplan’s tassels. Gary sings along to "Torah Torah" but stops completely when the rabbi steps past him. I feel a sour and tingly stomach-burning climb up my throat. I try to swallow but I have no spit. Michael Bornstein is next. His yarmulke needs centering but his tzitzit has never hung better. And then I see him. I see my brother, [Asher]. He’s hopping in the hallway, trying to find me. I shake my head. "Too late," I say without sound. Too late.

As the rabbi moves closer, our eyes meet. I sing with him, "…tziva lanu Moshe." I watch his fingers touch Ari’s tassels. I watch him finish and step up to me.

"Excuse me, Rabbi Mizrahe," says Asher.

The rabbi stops his song and turns to the door. Asher keeps his eyes from me and takes a step closer.

"I need to tell my brother something. May I see him for a second, please?"

Rabbi Mizrahe faces me and nods his head. Asher steps up and grabs me by the elbow. He leads me back toward the door.

"Do not leave this classroom," the rabbi says. "Torah, Torah, Torah…"

Asher holds my shoulders and turns my back to my classmates. He reaches in his pocket for his balled-up tzitzit and crams it down the front of my pants."

"No time to put it on," he whispers. "Untuck your shirt and let the fringes just hang over your belt." — From "The Unthinkable Thoughts of Jacob Green" © 2004 by the author. Reprinted by permission of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, a division of Workman Publishing.

Kilmer’s Moses a Real ‘Ten’


When Val Kilmer talks about his new role in the small, bare room that is his office on the Paramount lot, he sounds more like a Bible class teacher than a participant in a multimillion-dollar extravaganza.

“It’s hard to imagine what a culture is like when a human thinks they’re God,” he said, referring to Pharaoh. “And people react [to that] from a foundation of fear. It’s amazing that Moses was able to do what he did, and that clarity of intensive righteousness that he had, and how selflessly he assumed the role of leader that he didn’t want. That is what characterizes him as extraordinary.”

Kilmer plays Moses in “The Ten Commandments,” the new musical version of the Exodus story, which is set to open at the Kodak Theatre on Sept. 27. His philosophical musings are typical of those of the main players behind the show. While the trend in recent popular musicals has been to give audiences a good time in the most facile way possible, “The Ten Commandments” aims to be wholly entertaining but primarily inspirational and educational.

“It’s so hard to find a story that lends itself to speak to a generation, but people do want to be entertained and they don’t want to be preached to,” said Robert Iscove, the show’s director. “We are trying to get our message across in a highly educated and entertaining way.”

The message of the show, as Iscove describes it, is: “Faith will not divide us, only our fear will. We are all the same underneath the skin, and without all agreeing on a code of behavior, anarchy rules. The only time we don’t grow and follow our spirituality is when our individual Pharaoh is ruling us.”

That message is one of the reasons that producers Charles Cohen and Max Azria decided to launch the production.

Cohen, who was the senior acquisitions adviser for Europe to SFX, the company that is now Clear Channel Entertainment, originally saw the “Le Dix Commandements” in France, where it was the most successful musical ever produced in that country. It ended up playing to audiences of more than 2.2 million over 17 months, and selling 11 million copies of the soundtrack and 1.2 million copies of the DVD.

When Cohen saw the production, he was mesmerized by its scale, extravagant special effects, heartwarming and heart-pumping score and inspirational underpinnings. He loved it so much that he invested in it, and he also started thinking about how he could bring the French production to an English-speaking audience in the United States. He brought his friend, Azria, the designer behind clothing label BCBG, in to see the show in Paris, and together they started a musical production company to get “The Ten Commandments” to America.

In the international exchange, Cohen and Azria ended up revamping the show completely. They recruited Patrick Leonard, who produced the soundtracks to “Moulin Rouge” and “Legally Blonde,” to write the new music, and Emmy-award winning songwriter Maribeth Derry to write the new lyrics.

“In America we knew that it was a different ballgame altogether,” Cohen said. “We decided to change the scenic aspects, the costumes, the designs and the composition of the lyric. A new book [script] was written, we had new choreography, and different, much bigger special effects. It’s the same story, but a new show.”

Cohen won’t disclose the exact figure he and Azria put into the production, except to say that it is “many millions of dollars.”

“We are much over [the budget of] a regular Broadway production,” he said. “We have 52 people on stage, and our show becomes bigger and bigger every day. Two months ago we didn’t know that Kilmer was going to be on board, and we tripled our special effects budget. It is huge. We cannot give numbers, but those numbers are going up every day.”

“The Ten Commandments” is the largest show to originate in Los Angeles. It is booked for 90 days at the 3,400-seat Kodak Theatre, and after that it will travel to Radio City Music Hall in New York, before beginning a national tour.

Of course, “The Ten Commandments” has a long history of being a “big” production.

The original giving of the Ten Commandments more than 5,000 years ago, where 600,000 Israelites saw the revelation of God, is the historical event that for many Jews establishes the authenticity of Judaism.

When Cecil B. DeMille decided to retell the story on screen in 1956, starring Charlton Heston as both Moses and God, it was billed as “The greatest event in motion picture history.”

Iscove said that his musical is significantly different from DeMille’s film.

“A lot of the effects back then were very anachronistic, and the style of acting is different, and the message to a ’50s generation is stricter and more rigid,” he said. “There is also more feminism [in this retelling]. We do a lot about the pain of the women in the story, Ziporrah [Moses’ wife], Yochebed [Moses’ mother] and Bithia [Pharaoh’s daughter who saved Moses from drowning and then raised him in the palace.] Zipporah is a much stronger woman [in this production] than she was in the 1950s.”

The musical tells the story of how Moses was raised in Pharaoh’s house, alongside Ramses (Kevin Earley), who is Pharaoh’s son. Ramses becomes the next Pharaoh who refuses to free the Israelites from their slavery, and Moses is the brave leader who defies him to bring the Israelites to freedom.

“The story is very close to the Bible,” Iscove said. “Two people were raised in the same house, given all the same privileges, and one finds his humanity and follows his spiritual path and the other rejects his humanity and his heart gets hardened by God. It is only by Moses recognizing his humanity that he became the leader of the three great religions.”

Iscove said that Kilmer, who in the past has had a reputation of being difficult with directors, is “terrific” as Moses.

“He is becoming Moses, and the leader of this company,” Iscove said. “He is adopting Moses. Moses is a gentle soul, and he has been very much a gentle soul in this.”

This production is Kilmer’s second turn as Moses. His first was with the 1998 DreamWorks animated film “The Prince of Egypt.”

For Kilmer, the role is an extension of the weekly Bible readings that he does for his local Christian Science congregation in his home state of New Mexico.

“I get a lot of satisfaction from reading the Bible and sharing stories that matter with my community,” he said. “Playing Moses is bound to have some effect on me and anyone else involved in this story, and hopefully the audience will be affected too.”

“The Ten Commandments” opens Sept. 27 at the Kodak Theatre at Hollywood and Highland. Previews begin Sept. 21. For tickets, call Ticketmaster at (213) 365-3500. For more information, visit www.the10com.com or call (323) 308-6363.

Israeli Movies Break in With Self-Criticism


The news that three Israeli movies are about to open at local commercial theaters may not shake the foundations of Hollywood, but for the small Israeli film industry, it’s a big breakthrough.

For years, Israeli producers have been trying to show their wares to American audiences, beyond the limited Jewish film festivals. With few exceptions, American distributors, the crucial middlemen, have not been willing to risk their time and money on Hebrew-language pictures.

Distributors usually cite the alleged American public aversion to subtitled movies and, truth be told, the production values and storylines of most Israeli films haven’t been all that great.

The opening of “Broken Wings” on March 12, “James’ Journey to Jerusalem” on March 26 and “Alila” in April may not yet herald a new era, but surely it is an encouraging sign for the younger Israeli directors coming to the fore.

One aspect is common to all three films. They focus on family, neighborhood or domestic social problems, with only the most tangential references to terrorism, suicide bombers and other events that define the image of Israel for most of the world. The films are also, at least in Diaspora eyes, unsparing in the criticism of their own society.

“Broken Wings,” which won awards at international festivals in Berlin, Tokyo and Jerusalem, is being released by the prestigious Sony Pictures Classics.

A first feature by 34-year-old director-writer Nir Bergman, it chronicles the dissentions and, ultimately, loves of the Ullman family of Haifa, whose father died recently after a prosaic bee sting.

The tragedy leaves it up to the 43-year-old mother Dafna, superbly played by Orli Zilbershatz-Banai, to keep her family afloat by working nightshifts as a hospital midwife. During the day, she deals with her two teenagers and two younger kids, who have all been traumatized, in one way or the other, by the father’s death.

Much of the responsibility for looking after her siblings falls on 17-year-old Maya, who is torn between a budding career as a singer-composer and her unwelcome home duties.

Frequently agonizing, in the end the film finds the family healing and coming together.

“James’ Journey to Jerusalem,” which might be subtitled “An Innocent Abroad” or “Candide Meets the Israelis,” is likely to be enjoyed most by American audiences.

The title character is a young black from a remote and devoutly Christian village in Africa, who is chosen by his tribe to journey to the heavenly Jerusalem of the Bible and report back on the wonders he has seen.

Starry-eyed and wild-haired, James arrives in the Holy Land only to be clapped into jail as an illegal immigrant. He is bailed out by the boss of a house-cleaning service for wealthy Tel Avivians, but as a fast learner, James quickly organizes his fellow Africans into his own service crew.

Despite the film’s humor, Diaspora Jews are bound to wince as James makes his way in an Israel where everybody cheats a little and the greatest fear is to be played for a frayer, or sucker.

“Alila” is by veteran filmmaker Amos Gitai, who has been getting under the skin of his countrymen for 20 years with movies that dissect their warts, prejudices and insecurities.

Set in a shabby apartment building in a rundown Tel Aviv neighborhood, “Alila” is populated by a dozen characters who battle each other and their surroundings for survival and a small share of happiness.

As Israelis of many backgrounds, they fight and stick their noses in each other’s businesses, but when the chips are down they come together and lend a hand.

Why are Israeli films beginning to enjoy greater exposure in the United States? Why do they seem to focus on personal problems, in contrast to such recent political Palestinian movies as “Divine Intervention” or “Rana’s Wedding,” which deal, quite cleverly, with life under the occupation?

We put the question to director Bergman of “Broken Wings,” during his visit to Los Angeles last week; Ra’anan Alexandrowicz, the young director of “James’ Journey”; and Dan Fainaru, a veteran Israeli movie critic and editor of the magazine Cinematech.

Bergman believes that Israeli films are getting better, thanks largely to directors who trained in Israel’s many university film schools and who cut their teeth on television productions.

A second factor is money. Practically all Israeli producers draw their budgets from national, municipal or private support funds, and despite the harsh economic conditions, the subsidies have been going up.

As a result, more feature films are being made — close to 20 this year compared to half that number a few years back — increasing the chances that a few will be first rate.

The second question, on the personal focus of Israeli films, is harder to answer.

“In the 1980s, we had a lot of movies on Jewish-Arab relations, usually from a left liberal perspective, and Israeli audiences stayed away,” Fainaru said.

“We see news about terrorism and politics on television every hour on the hour, while our documentaries deal with the same subjects,” he added. “We don’t need any more of that when we pay a babysitter to go to the movie theaters.”

When Israelis really want to get away from it all for two hours, they go to see foreign films, overwhelmingly American, which account for a staggering 95 percent of attendance and box-office receipts, Fainaru said.

Alexandrowicz doesn’t think that Israeli pictures are too self-critical. “It’s my country and I love it,” he said. “But I think it’s healthy to put a mirror in front of your own society.”

Bergman defends his own focus on family life. “Since Rabin’s assassination, Israel has become a different country,” he said. “Now every family is a country of its own.”

From a Los Angeles perspective, Paul Fagen, the chief programmer for the upcoming Israel Film Festival, sees a quality improvement in the pictures he is checking out now.

“There have been a few lean years,” Fagen said. “But now the stories are more universally human and we have a very strong lineup.”

“Broken Wings” opens March 12 at Laemmle’s Music Hall inBeverly Hills and the Town Center in Encino. “James’ Journey to Jerusalem” opensMarch 26 at the same venues and the Playhouse in Pasadena. The exact April dateand location for “Alila” will be announced soon. For more information, visit www.laemmle.com .

Q & A With Darren Star


Darren Star doesn’t want you to know that he spent a portion of his bar mitzvah money to buy himself a subscription to Variety, the entertainment industry’s bible. It’s been written about before, he claims. But it’s just too good a story not to include it. Because somehow it sums Star up perfectly: The sweet 13-year-old bar mitzvah boy with his eye on the prize — Hollywood — even then. A far better investment than a pen set.

Star, the creator and executive producer of three of the last decade’s most popular television phenomena — "Beverly Hills, 90210," "Melrose Place" and the three time Golden Globe and Emmy Award-winning HBO comedy series "Sex and the City" — is being honored Monday night with the Tisch Industry Leadership Award at the National Foundation for Jewish Culture’s third annual Jewish Image Awards.

As co-creator and executive producer, Star is currently in production on "Miss Match," a romantic "dramedy" starring Alicia Silverstone, which makes its debut Friday, Sept. 26 on NBC. He is also adapting the memoirs of Jewish photojournalist Deborah Copaken into a feature film for DreamWorks.

Hollywood screenwriter Andrea King, a former journalist who grew up in Potomac, Md., with Star, spoke to him about — what else? — Jewish images in Hollwyood.

Andrea King: What impact do you think the depiction of Jewish characters on TV or in film plays in shaping our views of ethnic or religious groups?

Darren Star: It’s easy to fall into a stereotypical depiction of a Jewish person. And when characters are identified as Jewish, it broadens peoples concepts and awareness of who Jewish people are. Living in large cities, I think we’re under the assumption or misconception that these stereotypes are a joke, but in fact I think in areas where people don’t know Jewish people their ideas of who Jewish people are often formed by the media.

AK: What are the hallmarks of a successful Jewish character?

DS: I think the hallmark of a successful Jewish character is not to think or define that person as Jewish. First, you want to create a well-rounded character whom people can identify with and find areas of commonality with so they realize that they have similarities as well as differences.

I think people are very familiar with the "Jewish stereotype." The challenge now to creating a Jewish character is to go beyond the stereotypes and try to define what identifies that person as being Jewish in a unique way (i.e., their values, etc.). To me the trick is to create an interesting character whose religion is another layer to who he or she is.

AK: Which Jewish characters in film and television do you think have been great?

DS: I like Tom Cruise in "Mission Impossible." That’s my favorite Jewish character. I assume anyone that good-looking, smart and athletic has to be Jewish.

AK: Why do you think it is that film and TV seem better at conveying Jewish ethnicity than Jewish spirituality?

DS: Very little spirituality of any kind is conveyed in film and television. People are basically uncomfortable dealing with religious themes in entertainment. Entertainment is something that brings people together, thus spirituality in film and TV is presented in a broader context without being religion-specific. Unless we’re talking about "The Exorcist."

AK: When you write or create Jewish characters are you more conscious of helping to define the "Jewish Image" in culture?

DS: I try to think about creating a good character first. It think it’s dangerous to get too wrapped up in creating an archetypal Jewish character. Successful Jewish characters are successful Jewish characters. Period. I go out of my way to avoid creating stereotypical characters, but being Jewish myself, my values and my sensibilities inhabit the characters I create. And just because characters aren’t necessarily identified as Jewish doesn’t mean that they can’t be Jewish. Your family, your past is always part of the characters you create. I came from a close family that has a great sense of humor, told a lot of stories, and I think that sense of family definitely is infused through my work…. Also, classic Jewish comedy of Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Neil Simon, Jim Brooks has a huge influence not only over my work, but over everybody working in TV today.

AK: Why do you think the Jewish Image Awards are important?

DS: It’s easy to fall into a stereotypical depiction of a Jewish person, and when characters are identified as Jewish it broadens peoples concepts and awareness of who Jewish people are. Living in large cities, I think we’re under the assumption or misconception that these stereotypes are a joke, but in fact I think in areas where people don’t know Jewish people, their ideas of who Jewish people are often formed by the media.

AK: Is there any Jewish content on "Miss Match?" [Samantha Daniels, whose life it’s based on and Alicia Silverstone, the star, are both Jewish.]

DS: There’s a universality about this character, she could be Jewish, but we’ve chosen not to make her religion a factor in the story.

As a storyteller, identifying a character’s religion becomes an important part of what you are telling the audience about your character — thus, sometimes it’s relevant and sometimes it’s not.

I don’t think I win the award for creating the most Jewish characters, but growing up in an area where there were a lot of Jewish people, it feels very normal for me to populate my world with Jewish characters. I see them in my world and in my life, so it feels odd not to have them around.

AK: Carrie in "Sex and the City" seems Jewish because she’s played by Sarah Jessica Parker, but she has no ethnicity. Was that a conscious choice?

DS: Yes, I feel that definitely, Carrie Bradshaw, in many ways, can be considered a Jewish character. She wasn’t specifically written as a Jewish character, because there was a universality to her, but a lot of her qualities people would attribute to someone who is Jewish. But it wasn’t necessary to define her as any religion.

The character I have most tried to break Jewish stereotypes with is Kim Cattrall’s character on "Sex and the City" — sex-crazed and blonde…. Now, there’s a Jewish stereotype broken!

Offbeat Austrian


The opening scene of “Gebürtig” is as clever and shocking ascene you’ll see on screen this year: The cold, mist-covered grounds of aconcentration camp. Skeletal Jews in ragged clothes huddle together for warmth.Nearby, SS officers in thick wool coats smoke, laugh and drink. An old Jew slips,collapses. An SS man rushes over, extends his hand, helps him up and offers himhis cigarette.

These are actors in the midst of shooting a major Holocaustmovie, and in the course of “Gebürtig,” set in Vienna during the Waldheimaffair of the late 1980s, we will get to know how they and others deal with thereality of what they are paid to fictionalize.

Gebürtig, Austria’s entry into the competition for BestForeign Film in the upcoming Oscar race, is a clever and mostly engaging moviethat goes after the big questions: Is the Holocaust best told as documentary orfiction? Are its terrors better left to historians or storytellers? Are itstruth found in the courtroom or in poetry? In other words, how do you come to termswith coming to terms with the past?

The movie, based on a 1992 novel by co-writer andco-director Robert Schindel, has a delightfully jaundiced view of the wholeHolocaust movie industry. It’s a Holocaust movie that could, and should, onlybe made in the wake of dozens of more serious Holocaust movies. It has, too, amuch more serious take on how Austrians themselves have or have not come togrips with their history.

The movie tracks a handful of Austrians as they come togrips with how the Holocaust, or the aftermath of the Holocaust, influencestheir lives. A Viennese journalist sets out for New York to convince Jewishimmigrant Hermann Gebirtig, whose name is spelled differently than the film’stitle, to return to the town of his birth and give evidence in court against aformer concentration camp supervisor. A famous German journalist is forced tofinally face the fact that he is the son of a high-ranking SS doctor. Jewishcabaret artist Danny Demant and his circle of theatrical friends — the mixed-togetherchildren of victims and aggressors — vie for parts in a Hollywood Holocaustmovie, even as Demant tries to forget his Jewishness in the arms of a beautifulER doctor.

“Once the world capital of anti-Semitism, Vienna has becomethe capital of forgetting,” Demant sings in his cabaret.

The stories come together in a very European, untidyconclusion, when Gebirtig does return to testify, only to see the defendantreleased for lack of evidence. Was Gebirtig’s journey a waste of time? The oldpoet shrugs.

“Vienna is a beautiful city. To die for,” he says.

So is much of this movie.

The Academy Award nominations will be televised at 5:30 a.m. on Feb. 11 on ABC.

Q & A With Steven Spielberg


Prior to the Shoah Foundation’s annual banquet on Dec. 5, Contributing Editor Tom Tugend conducted an e-mail interview with its founder, director Steven Spielberg.

Tom Tugend: Why have there been so many Holocaust-themed books and films in recent years?

Steven Spielberg: I think with the passing of time, and with current world events, survivors of the Holocaust are compelled to share their stories. Racism and terror are not isolated to World War II Europe, and atrocities continue to occur around the globe.

I think Americans came to realize this on a much more personal level after Sept. 11. I remember many people saying, "Why would they do this to us?" The Jews said the same thing back in the 1940s.

I hope that each book and film about the Holocaust brings us closer to understanding why such horrific events continue to take place, and how to prevent them in the future.

TT: Do you feel the success of "Schindler’s List" helped pave the way for these projects?

SS: "Schindler’s List" introduced the Holocaust to a new generation of filmgoers, and for this I am grateful. I’m delighted that films, as well as television miniseries, can continue to examine this part of history. There has also been a string of independent films produced in Europe about the Holocaust, and these films have also been well received throughout Europe, as well as in the U.S.

TT: Is there a danger that too many such films will cause people to become uninterested in the subject?

SS: Every time these films are shown, they reach a whole new audience — children, teens and adults. They encourage young viewers to ask questions, and this leads to dialogue.

There is a term called "Holocaust fatigue," which is slightly offensive, but I understand it. Most of us don’t want to hear about things that are disturbing and upsetting. On the other hand, the stories of survivors are hopeful stories … of people triumphing over oppression and racism and rebuilding their lives.

TT: What are you proudest of vis-à-vis the Shoah Foundation?

SS: I had no idea the Shoah Foundation would evolve into such an amazing global organization. We have collected almost 52,000 eyewitness testimonies around the world, and I am inspired by the courage these individuals have shown by sitting in front of a camera and reliving these events. To have this archive is, indeed, a gift to all of us.

And, I have seen students watch testimonies and become transformed by the experience. This is very rewarding. To affect one person at a time. To change a life in even the smallest way, so that they might stop and consider the consequences of their actions or choices. This is why the Shoah Foundation exists.

I want the Shoah Foundation to make a difference in the world. I want to someday look back and be able to say, "The survivors came from the ashes to change the world."

At the foundation, we continue to index the testimonies so that they will be available for research, and we are currently disseminating the archive in a variety of ways: through collections in museums and other institutions and through educational products, such as documentaries and educational CD-ROMs.

It is vital the testimonies be returned to the countries and communities from which they came, and we are establishing partnerships with institutions across the globe to do this. Our President and CEO, Douglas Greenberg, has just returned from Australia, where he met with potential partners and supporters to help bring the Australian collection to that community.

TT: Are you concerned about the rise of anti-Semitism in places like Eastern Europe and in the Arab world? Do you feel this means people have not learned from the example of the Holocaust?

SS: Everyone should be concerned about anti-Semitism and all forms of hatred throughout the world. That’s why the mission of the Shoah Foundation is to work toward understanding among all people, so that hatred and bigotry can be diminished.

TT: Is the Shoah Foundation planning to do anything to reach out to people in the Arab world?

SS: The Shoah Foundation’s mission is to bring its message of tolerance to underserved populations throughout the world. We are currently focusing on communities throughout Europe and parts of the United States, and this is a mammoth task to undertake. While there are no current plans, I’m sure there will come a time when the foundation will reach out to the Arab world.

TT: Do you have any plans to revisit the Holocaust in a future feature film project?

SS: I think the global educational work of the Shoah Foundation is the most effective way I can reach an audience about the history of the Holocaust and the consequences of hatred and violence.

"Schindler’s List," while based on facts and historical incidents, is a feature film with actors and sets. There is nothing more powerful than watching a survivor look the camera — and you — in the eye and recall the personal events that occurred in his or her life.

TT: What is the Jewish content of your life today?

SS: We observe the High Holidays and the prime holidays throughout the year. My wife, Kate [Capshaw], bakes challah for the Sabbath, which is something the whole family observes to honor our tradition.

Last year, one of the proudest and happiest moments of my life was my son Theo’s bar mitzvah. Kate and I and our family are looking forward to other joyous celebrations.

TT: Have Jews in Hollywood been outspoken enough in support of Israel at this time? If not, please explain your theories as to why they have not been outspoken enough. How do you personally feel about the situation in Israel?

SS: We know there is a crisis that has been devastating to innocent victims, but it would be inappropriate for me to make a generalization about the Jews of Hollywood.