Hip Cynics for Export
Bigamist vs. Agunah
It is with horror that I read the article, “The ‘Bigamist’ Versus the ‘Agunah’ (March 24), by Amy Klein. Given Rabbi [Avrohom] Union’s devastating error, which he claims was unintentional, it is clear that this head of the beit din should resign immediately. Imagine if he committed the same error regarding kashrut. There is not a person, rabbi or otherwise, who would tolerate his remaining in so powerful a position. If his creating yet another agunah happened “by accident,” as Rabbi Union claims, what is to prevent it from happening again in the future? A rabbi unable to foresee and take responsibility for his actions should not be the head of a beit din.
Clara F. Zilberstein
Jewish women deserve fair and equal treatment when a couple seeks divorce and settlement. No woman should be left an “agunah” — chained to her husband against her will. A modern beit din does not have to be rigid and sexist. The Sandra Caplan Community Bet Din of Southern California includes conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis, both men and women. It rules on matters of conversion to Judaism, and it models compassionate pluralism.
Rabbi Jerrold Goldstein
Sandra Caplan Community Bet Din of Southern California
I truly believe that the man was required to give a bill of Jewish divorce — the get — as a way of making him conscious of the seriousness of divorcing his wife. He could not just send her out, but had to legally release her. Now this lovely protective get has turned into an ugly misogynistic chain.
This halachic demand needs rethinking. When interest payments were forbidden and debts were to be canceled on the sabbatical year stopped the flow of commerce, laws were changed so that business could move forward. Again, not charging interest, and debt release were wonderful laws that no longer benefited society.
We, the people, need to demand that the get laws be changed. When laws — yes even Jewish laws — no longer work, change is mandatory.
Let me get this straight, Orthodox law mandates that a man, who is remarried to another, can emotionally torture his first wife and forbid her to remarry until she consents to be financially raped by the rabbinical court. What God would have decreed such a law — certainly not the one I pray to. It makes me ashamed to be a Member of the Tribe.
I was very impressed with Alice Ollstein’s thoughtful reaction to her attendance at an [American Israel Public Affairs Committee] AIPAC conference (“Propaganda for the Insipid,” March 31). It is very inspiring to see that young people can reject the preachy one-sidedness of organizations like AIPAC and still remain committed Jews. AIPAC does not do Israel any good by constantly whipping up false anxiety that the state is about to be destroyed, in order to promote its narrow, right-wing views.
Fortunately, Ollstein saw through the organization’s orchestrated charade and realized that there are plenty of ways to support Israel and the Jewish community, such as the religious school teaching she is doing. We are a diverse people, whose loyalty cannot be captured by fear-based cheerleading or buying Israel Bonds after the end of a Yom Kippur sermon.
Peter L. Reich
Professor of Law
Whittier Law School
AIPAC’s near-obsession with an equally balanced lineup of speakers and plenary sessions at Policy Conference reflects that bipartisan support that the U.S.-Israel relationship (and AIPAC) enjoys. Alice Ollstein’s labeling of the conference as the “belly of the conservative beast” says less about AIPAC and more about her own preconceived notions. With so many challenges facing Israel, especially Iranian nuclear weapons proliferation, our community can hardly afford such luxuries.
The U.S.-Israel relationship can thrive only when it is seen as a bipartisan issue. My hope is that friends of Israel such as Ollstein, whose own political views lean left, will join Rep. [Nancy] Pelosi (D-Calif.), Sen. [Harry] Reid (D-Nev.) and other decidedly nonconservative thinkers in their support of AIPAC and a strong U.S.-Israel relationship.
Alice Ollstein states she was “manipulated, disturbed and disgusted” with the AIPAC Policy Conference. Ollstein was offended by a “conservative slant of the conference” based on her hearing John Podhoretz speak. I read her remarks with a smile as I often hear the opposite criticism. Last year Hillary Clinton addressed the conference and many were offended by the liberal slant of the conference.
Today, Israel can rely on the U.S. in the face of dangerous and dire times, thanks to AIPAC. Regarding Ollstein’s comments how AIPAC made everything “black and white.” “That you are either for Israel or against it.” You are right. With the threat of annihilation by Iran, Hamas in Palestine, anti-Semitism and war mongering by many Arab and Muslim nations — you are either with Israel or against it. Where else could you be?
Joel A. Bertet
Bertet Investment Group, LLC
Having just returned from my first AIPAC Conference, it was interesting to read a high school student’s perspective.
As one of this year’s 5,000 participants, the highlight, for me, was the number of high school and college students who attended. I was seated with two of them. They listened with interest as speakers like John Edwards, John Bolton and Dick Cheney addressed us. They clapped with excitement and stood up with conviction. Our faces lit up as over 100 college student body Presidents walked across the stage.
Those were not the only inspirational young people. In one incredible session, I heard a wonderful speaker, a student in Florida from a historically black college. She created “I Fest,” a campus celebration of Israeli culture. It was planned for 200 — and 600 people showed up.
From the motivating speeches to the thought provoking panels, the AIPAC Policy Conference gave me a sense of confidence that there are many people standing up for Israel. I am proud to be one of them.
Robert Jaffee writes: “Unsophisticated Jews may have once viewed [filmmaker Spike] Lee as anti-Semitic based on some of his statements about Ed Koch and the film industry….” (“Crime Scribes Do First ‘Inside’ Job,” March 24).
Criticizing Koch does not make a person anti-Semitic, something that Koch himself is the first to acknowledge. (I know that, because I called him up and asked him, before writing this letter.) But Lee’s statements about Jews in the film industry are certainly troubling.
In 1990, for example, Lee told ABC-TV that “a large part of the people that run Hollywood are Jewish. I mean, that’s a basic fact.”
In 1998, he strongly intimated that the number of Jews in the top echelons of the film industry was the reason that a Holocaust film, rather than his latest film, won that year’s Oscar for best documentary: “When the film is about the Holocaust and one of the producers is a rabbi and it comes from the Simon Wiesenthal Center … that was a sure thing when you consider the makeup of the voting body of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences” (Washington Post, May 1, 1998).
In a 2001 conversation with “Ain’t It Cool News,” Lee complained about Hollywood’s portrayal of African Americans, and then “began to discuss how Jews are the only minority that seems to be protected from slurs,” as the interviewer put it.
Nor can one ignore the fact that Jewish characters in Lee’s films have been portrayed in extremely negative and offensive ways. With good reason, the author and critic Nat Hentoff has compared some of Lee’s Jewish characters to “the coldly vicious caricatures of Jews in the works of Father Coughlin and Gerald L. K. Smith.”
The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies
“Hineni” (March 24) by Anne Brener zeroed right in on it so clearly, so heartfelt and terrifically moving. I wish her all the best in the world.
Hineni v’kadimah (in the old sense of the word!).
Jews for Jesus
I am compelled to respond to David Klinghoffer’s article (March 31, “A Tenuous Claim as a Jew for Jesus”) not because he takes issue with the Jewishness of the leader of Jews for Jesus — in my opinion a Jew for Jesus is a Christian regardless of his birth — but rather to challenge some of the basic assumptions that are presented in his essay.
First: Genetic Judaism. The Reform movement’s position is not that a person is Jewish merely if either his mother or his father is Jewish. It is that if that child is born of one Jewish parent and raised as a Jew with positive, affirming Jewish life experiences, such as religious education leading to bar/bat mitzvah and a life dedicated to Jewish living, then we consider that person Jewish. It is not about genetics, it is about commitment. To be a Jew one must have connections to the Jewish community through a parent and live as a Jew. We live in a world of shrinking Jewish populations, what good does it do our community to circle the wagons and challenge the Jewishness of people who live within our community and declare their commitment daily through life choices? How will one more committed Jew threaten the integrity of the Jewish community? Far from it, that person will bring his or her commitment to our synagogues and enrich Jewish life, regardless of which parent is Jewish. It seems to me that we need to bring them in, not figure out ways to keep them out.
Second: The “Jewishness” of our biblical ancestors and their marriage choices. For the record, King David married many non-“Jewish” women, as did Moses and Abraham for that matter. There simply is no mention of conversion as we know it today anywhere in the Bible; any assumptions to the contrary are ahistorical projections. Yet their children were certainly members of the Israelite community and carried on their fathers’ traditions. King Solomon, the son of Batsheva and David who was a non-“Jew” previously married to the non-“Jewish” Uriah the Hittite comes to mind as one example.
Finally, we dignify Jews for Jesus when we challenge their claims with Jewish texts and traditions. There is simply no Jesus in Judaism. Though Jews for Jesus may assume the outward appearance of Jews and quaintly use Yiddishims while referring to their Jewish ancestry it is all irrelevant in the face of one reality: Christians believe in Jesus, Jews don’t. End of story.
Rabbi Ron Stern
Stephen S. Wise Temple
An advertisement for Classique Raphy kosher catering contained an unfortunate, obvious typo. Raphy offers Cornish Hen in a Wine Sauce for Passover, not Cornish Ham.
THE JEWISH JOURNAL welcomes letters from all readers. Letters should be no more than 200 words and must include a valid name, address and phone number. Letters sent via e-mail must not contain attachments. Pseudonyms and initials will not be used, but names will be withheld on request. We reserve the right to edit all letters. Mail: The Jewish Journal, Letters, 3580 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1510, Los Angeles, CA 90010; e-mail: email@example.com; or fax: (213) 368-1684
“After reflecting for a few painful and difficult days, I feel I should address some mistatements I made (“Uncertain Time for Likud in America”, 1/13/06).” Rather than spending precious resources on the symptoms of intermarriage, I was trying to focus attention on support for Israel as a basis of instilling Jewish identity.
The Jewish lay leaders and rabbis I know wholeheartedly love and support Israel and are instilling Jewish identity in our entire diverse community. In addition, all Jews, no matter what their sexual orientation, as well as Jews by choice, are sincere and dedicated Jews and should be respected. I sincerely apologize for the comments reflecting otherwise.
Myles L. Berman
I applaud your great cover of Jan. 6 (“L.A.’s Top 10 Menches). It does not matter to me if you call these outstanding examples “menchen” or “menches.” What I find very important is that your cover and inside story focused on people doing great things for others.
Many times I find that the covers reflect a sensational aspect more in keeping with a magazine at a market checkout stand, than a vibrant Jewish community. Keep covering positive issues. Thank you
Wow! What a great choice for your [Jan. 6] cover. The Orthodox Jewish community is grateful to you for highlighting Avi Leibovic and the extraordinary work he does. The other community lights were an inspiration, and choosing among these heroes for the cover must have been a challenge.
Nevertheless, your choice was much appreciated as the Aish Tamid program has truly established itself as a essential and effective community resource.
Rabbi Meyer H. May
As Amy Klein reported, the Friday night panel of the OU convention indeed featured a robust exchange concerning the place of women within Orthodoxy (“Orthodox but Not Monolithic,” Jan. 6). Though my views on the issue were described by as being “far left,” I would imagine that many readers would find them to be quite consistent with mainstream ethical and Jewish religious thought.
These views (all of which have been translated into practice at B’nai David-Judea) are a rooted in the fundamental idea that women should be able to exercise all of the religious opportunities that the halacha provides them with.
These include the opportunity to carry, dance with and (in a women’s service) read from the Sefer Torah; to pray in a women’s section that is an exact mirror image of the men’s section; to study Talmud without restrictions or limitations; to recite Kaddish for a deceased parent, and to be chosen for any position of lay leadership for which they are qualified.
If indeed there are “far left” views, then I suppose I must humbly accept this label.
Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky
I write in response to Amy Klein’s thoughtful article on “Orthodox but Not Monolithic.” While your reporter generally presented both the spirit and the substance of my remarks on the issue of women in Orthodox Jewish communal life, I was misquoted as stating that no women currently serve on the board of the Orthodox Union.
While I noted that there are currently no women officers in the Orthodox Union, I did not suggest that there aren’t any women board members. I know better than that. My wife, Vivian, is one of the most active members of the Orthodox Union’s board of governors.
National Vice President
Westchester’s Bright Future
While I thank The Jewish Journal for commenting on B’nai Tikvah’s commitment to the Westchester community, I have to take issue with the statement: “The expanding airport and white flight reduced the once-thriving synagogue to a skeletal congregation” (“Still Strong in Westchester,” Jan. 6).
Our congregation is tightly woven with 100-plus families. We have actually bucked the trend by increasing our membership by over 10 percent since Reb Jason joined us. Our award-winning nursery school is going strong, and our religious school boasts over 40 children. The future is very bright for this “skeletal congregation.”
Thank you for your very brave and truthful article, “Too Jewish to Play Myself” (Dec. 16, 2005). Hollywood’s weak link to reality is driving Jewish and non-Jewish actresses nuts. There seems to be a general dislike of what is really female, even including female old age. So go forth and be a strong link and seek other strong links; create a new Hollywood. There are many of us on your side.
Thank you. Each week when I take The Jewish Journal, I always begin by reading the back page singles section. The singles section is my corner, even when I don’t like what someone writes, it still gives me food for thought about my own experiences of “singlehood” in Los Angles. While I often relate to the experiences of the columnists, I don’t often relate to their philosophies.
How refreshing it was to read Mark Miller’s thought (“Unhappy New Year!” Jan. 6). No, I am not desperate. Yes, I am living. Dating is about feeling comfortable in our own skin, leading an active social life, which can include, but is not limited to, attending cultural events and volunteering opportunities and meeting people along the way.
So thank you for the fresh perspective. It’s nice knowing that I am not alone in how I live out my “singlehood.”
Reaction to Rosove
Rabbi John Rosove in his opinion, “IRS Errs on Endorsing Candidate Charge” (Jan. 6), commits an error of omission in not sharing with your readers how most of his congregants reacted to his extraordinary erev Rosh Hashanah sermon. Yes, undoubtedly a few congregants were alarmed that his “speaking truth to power” could threaten the temple’s 501(c)(3) status.
But the vast majority in the sanctuary responded very differently. They heard his prophetic reminder that Jewish values and traditions speak to our communal responsibility for caring for “those who are in the shadow of life.” They understood it to be a call to action, and they applauded!
Marjorie B. Green
Rob Eshman seems bewildered by the rehabilitation of Sharon’s legacy (“Scheinerman/Sharon,” Jan. 13). He doesn’t clarify that Sharon was truly despised by the Muslims and the European, as well as the Jewish left. History has proven that Sharon was ahead of the curve: He was the first true counterrorist leader, and worst of all, he was successful.
Though Eshman considers the Lebanon incursion to be a “disaster,” he is only viewing it from the point of view of Israeli public relations. The true reality was, in fact, a disaster for the PLO, whose murderous rampages in the Lebanese civil war against Christian, as well as Muslim Shiite Arabs, and cross-border rocket attacks against northern Israel came to a crashing halt as Sharon exiled Arafat and the Palestinian leadership to Tunisia.
It is no coincidence that bin Laden has repeatedly harped on this fact in his diatribes. Ariel Sharon was more accurate in his assessment of future threats to Israel than the Western world was to the threat of Islamo-fascism. He should be credited for this in his legacy,
Bais Chaya Mushka School for Girls
The Lady Vanishes
I’m sitting between the two most different women imaginable here at Temple Emmanuel in Beverly Hills: a matronly lumpish type who is well past her 50s, unmade up with short, graying hair and long triangular earrings — her only testament, of sorts, to fashion; and on the other side of me, a plasticized lady of the same indeterminate age, wearing a black leather miniskirt and crocodile skin yellow boots and an expression on her face — if one can call the pearly botoxed look an expression — of disbelief and shock.
We three strangers are sitting in the way back of the temple, in that second room they open up only for special occasions like the High Holidays or this Writer’s Block event featuring Maureen Dowd, who is being interviewed tonight by Aaron Sorkin, “West Wing” creator and more relevantly, for this evening, Dowd’s ex-boyfriend.
Thousands have turned out on this late November evening to hear the redheaded New York Times columnist talk about her new book, “Are Men Necessary?: When Sexes Collide” (Putnam), which had been recently excerpted in The New York Times Magazine.
About three-quarters of the people in the audience are women — for the most part, women in their late 30s and older; in other words, not the generation of women Dowd is writing about in this book when she says they are turning back the clock on feminism, reverting to traditional gender roles, rejecting all that the women generations before them — probably like the women in this audience — had fought for.
It’s an odd setting for this type of discussion: Hanging over the stage are the two tablets of Moses bearing the Ten Commandments in Hebrew. My eyes rest on Lo Tin’af — Thou Shalt Not Covet (thy neighbor’s wife) — as Dowd and Sorkin, flanked by the Israeli and American flags, talk about matters far from holy.
Well, talk is an exaggeration. Spar is more like it. Sorkin, an expert TV writer (“he’s the guy who put the president we wish we had in the White House,” as he was introduced) is self-admittedly no expert interviewer. But still, he cannot get Dowd to straightforwardly answer many questions about her book. Actually, he can hardly get a word in edgewise.
In person, Dowd is like her columns: a coy, witty one-liner queen.
“That’s why I wrote this book,” she explains. “Because when you cover the White House, you never get to write about sex.”
She says how Bush Sr. didn’t know what a bikini wax was and our current president didn’t realize “Sex and the City” was a TV show. But beyond these witticisms, it’s hard to get at the depth of what Dowd is trying to say.
Each time Sorkin tries to ask her a question — Does she think men aren’t necessary? Is feminism really over? — she, Jewishly, answers a question with a question, and interrupts with a question of her own. Why is Sorkin one of the only men in Hollywood who can write a strong woman character (like C.J. Cregg on “The West Wing”), Dowd wants to know. Why are there never any compelling roles for women on the screen, she asks. Compelling questions, for sure, but not ones we’ve come for tonight. Nor is Sorkin getting what he wants, as he tries to turn the interview back on the subject herself. Yes, we’re in Hollywood — OK, Beverly Hills — but just for once could we not discuss the industry? Can we discuss Karl Rove and Presidents Bush and the topic at hand, “Are Men Necessary?” and its subtext, “Is Feminism Over?”
But Dowd practically won’t let that happen.
Which leads me to question her original theory, that men don’t like smart women, that men only want to marry their secretaries and assistants, that men want to go back to the 1950s. Maybe men don’t like women like her. Women who interrupt. Women who talk over them. Women who have to prove how smart they are in the most succinct way possible. Women who make mean and snarky comments — women who are more than challenging: These are women who need to win. Always.
That’s why the woman next to me — the plastic surgery one, the one who probably looks less like a feminist than the plastic surgeon who recreated her, is shaking her head in frustration. Her manicured nails are tapping her folded arms, a defensive posture as she nods her head, tsk tsk tsk. We don’t speak but we catch eyes, and then I turn to my right and see the short-haired woman with the same expression on her face: We are all united in our antipathy, three women of different generations, economic backgrounds and certainly fashion sense. We thought we’d be united here tonight in a rallying call to revive feminism, to get back in touch with our values, to take back the night, to be empowered, but instead it’s just another celebrity event, interesting but insubstantial, a possible role model — oh how we wish Dowd could be who we hoped her to be — fallen from on high.
Sure, at the end of the Q & A — where many Qs are asked and not many As are given — there will be a line snaking out the door of the temple to sign books and get a smile from the famous columnist. Sure, many women on their way out are glad they got to eavesdrop on such a private public conversation. But right now, in the middle of the event, the three of us are all crossing our arms, tapping various parts of our bodies. That is, until Ms. Beverly Hills stands up, pulls down her leather skirt and excuses herself past us. She’s leaving in the middle, and barely glances at the stage — Dowd, Sorkin, Ten Commandments and all — on her way out.
Lincoln’s Party Parties
A Roll in the Snow
The central theme of "Yossi & Jagger" is a love affair between two gay Israeli officers, but — straights please note — the film’s impact goes well beyond the sexual motif.
Seldom has the boredom, tension and camaraderie of men and women at war been portrayed more realistically and economically than in this film, which has been a surprise hit among Israeli moviegoers, soldiers and civilians.
Strikingly, the film takes place not in Israel’s hot, humid coastal plane, but entirely on a freezing, snow-covered mountaintop on the Israeli-Lebanese border, where a small IDF unit mans an isolated outpost against unseen infiltrators and terrorists.
Commander of the unit is Yossi (Ohad Knoller), a career soldier. His lieutenant is Jagger, so nicknamed because his buddies see in him the aura of a rock star. Jagger is played by Yehuda Levi, billed as the "Israeli Tom Cruise" and the nation’s number-one heartthrob.
Carrying on their secret affair in the macho and privacy-deprived confines of their platoon, Yossi and Jagger are limited to an emotional — but sensitively depicted — roll in the snow.
The situation is complicated by the arrival of a colonel, accompanied by two attractive female communication operators, one of whom falls hopelessly in love with Jagger.
The overbearing colonel (Sharon Reginiano) pulls his rank for sex with the other girl and to send the exhausted soldiers on a night ambush, despite Yossi’s protests.
Director Eytan Fox, who said the film was based on an actual incident, made "Yossi & Jagger" for an astonishingly low $200,000, barely enough to pay for a wrap party at a Hollywood studio.
Fox is a native of New York City and joins other American-born directors who have created some of the most challenging films to come out of Israel, including Joseph Cedar’s "Time of Favor" and, currently, "The Holy Land" by Eitan Gorlin.
"Yossi & Jagger" opens Oct. 24 at the Laemmle Fairfax Cinema in Los Angeles (323) 655-4010 and the Town Center in Encino (818) 981-9811. For more about the film, visit www.yossiandjagger.com. — Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor
Cooking Middle Eastern Memories
"One land, one people, one bond."
A powerful slogan for any organization, but all the more powerful coming from State of Israel Bonds, which held its "Women of Power" annual spring luncheon, organized by Israel Bonds’ Golda Meir Club, at the Four Seasons Hotel.
This year’s gifted females in the spotlight: Grammy-nominated pianist sister act Mona Golabek and Renee Golabek-Kaye, overachieving Jewish community volunteer Annette Shapiro and Michele Bohbot, who with life partner and business partner Marc Bohbot, forged a fashion empire with their Bisou Bisou label.
More than 200 people packed the luncheon, which was a who’s who of Mrs. Hollywood: Marilyn Hall, wife of "Let’s Make a Deal" host Monty, and Shirley Turtletaub, wife of veteran TV producer Saul Turtletaub and mother of feature film director Jon Turtletaub. And, of course, there was the grand dame herself, beloved emcee Rhea Kohan, wife of veteran TV writer Buzz and mother of "Will & Grace" co-creator David, who kept the crowd in stitches with her verbal sleight of hand.
Kohan wasted no time skewering the other end of women with power: Heidi Fleiss, Monica Lewinsky and Anna Nicole Smith.
Shapiro, who has contributed to the Los Angeles Jewish Community Foundation, The Jewish Federation and Beit T’Shuvah, was visibly moved by her honor. She thanked husband, Leonard, for supporting her volunteer efforts in the Jewish community over the years.
"My husband and I," Shapiro said, "we share our 55th anniversary within a month of the State of Israel."
The Fez, Morocco-born Bohbot, who moved to Los Angeles from Paris in 1987 and helped build a company that nets $80 million annually and has 350 employees, touched on the anti-Semitism she encountered in both Morocco and France. The mother of seven shared her Jewish pride with the room and her glee with her husband, who was in the audience waiting with a bouquet.
Before performing at the function, Golabek and Golabek-Kaye told the poignant story of how parents Michel and Lisa, through good fortune, survived the Holocaust to find each other. The sisters said that their mother, before she passed away, urged them to always use their talents, as Mona put it, "In service of your people, in service of Israel and for the betterment of mankind."
Carole Shnier, who is on the committee to organize Israel Bonds’ fall mother-daughter fashion show, has enjoyed being active with the organization since 1997.
"It’s been rewarding in terms of meeting interesting people," Shnier said, adding that she believes in the cause — supporting Israel.
Investing in Israel Bonds is an investment in Israel’s economy, stressed organizers. The champions of State of Israel Bonds — the Western region’s own women of power, including club President Beverly Cohen and Women’s Division Director Myrtle Sitowitz — explained the mechanics of how contributing to the organization multiplies financial support for Israel. For example, buying bonds at a $750 annual investment over five years translates into $100,000 windfall for various areas of Israel’s infrastructure.
Also in attendance: Iris Rothstein, luncheon co-chair with Hall; Joyce Black; Diane Glaser; Marilyn Ziering; Rosalie Zalis; Beverly Hills Courier publisher March Schwartz; and Mr. Blackwell, whose introduction made everybody in the room just a tad fashion conscious.
The American Jewish Committee’s (AJC) Los Angeles chapter honored John Mack, the Los Angeles Urban League’s president since 1969, with the C.I. Neumann Lifetime Achievement Award at its 58th annual meeting at the Four Seasons Hotel.
Both organizations have been "successful in making Los Angeles a more livable city for all people," said Peter Weil, AJC chapter president.
During his acceptance speech, Mack emphasized that no one group has a monopoly on virtue or vice. Reducing the city’s growing violence is not just a "problem for African Americans or the poor," he said. "We need everyone to be involved."
Mack believes that geographic divides compound Los Angeles’ problems and that there is a need to redouble efforts to get to know each other.
"Mutual respect can get us through the difficult times," Mack told The Circuit, adding that he would like to see Angelenos "reinvigorate the enthusiasm of the Tom Bradley era."
Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector of the University of Judaism, delivered the keynote address on the future of interfaith work. He said that while religious pluralism challenges us on a deep philosophical level, it’s crucial to learn the traditions of others in a city with such tremendous diversity.
"You need to learn to get along," Dorff said. "Interfaith relations are not just a matter of not killing each other."
Also in attendance: City Council members Bernard Parks, Jack Weiss and Wendy Gruel; City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo; Police Chief William Bratton; Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s Rabbi Harvey Fields; Julie Korenstein, Board of Education president; KTLA reporter Larry McCormick, and Dr. Steven Windmueller, director of the Irwin Daniels School of Jewish Communal Service at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. — Adam Wills, Associate Editor
‘Inside the Cult of Kibu’
On my first day as editor-in-chief of a heavily financed Bay Area Internet startup whose mission — its mostly female staff of trendy 20-somethings recited like a mantra — was to "empower" young women, I realized I had a big problem.
My hair was all wrong.
It wasn’t that my shoulder-length dark ringlets were unstylish. It’s just that, as I gazed at my new Kibu.com colleagues with their sleek, stick-straight blond tresses, I knew that I was different.
Besides a fellow curly-haired brunette named Lisa, I was the only Jew at the 60-person company.
In the scheme of corporate America, this ratio hardly seemed skewed. But for an L.A. native who’d previously worked only in Hollywood — an industry where to be a goy bordered on the eccentric, if not the decidedly disadvantageous; where colleagues kvelled over a writer’s new script; admonished difficult directors to "act like a mensch," and doled out judgments worthy of an elder Jewish mother atop Mount Sinai — ("Would it kill him just once to put a lunch on his expense account? Oy gevalt, that one’s a schnorrer") — I felt like a complete outcast in my new environment.
Experience seemed to bear this out. My second day at the startup, I attended the company-wide staff meeting which, strangely, consisted of going around the room and sharing "your most embarrassing story" (most had something to do with wrap-around skirts falling off at church); and, like a sorority pep rally, applauding ourselves for how great we were.
Yet the editorial meeting I called the next day turned out to be not another love-fest, but the most frustrating meeting I’d ever run — and this includes the time I volunteered to lead a group of troubled teens in prison. After a failed attempt at witty introductory remarks (my Sarah Silverman routine bombed), I handed out production schedules and deadlines, which were met with blank stares and dead silence. The only noise in the room came from a dropped metal hair clip that a Chanel "Face," a preppy producer named Slick, was using to braid her colleague Shannon’s flaxen hair. Hmm.
Not sure what to make of this inauspicious reception, I decided to check in with the CEO (think: Britney Spears with crow’s feet) who didn’t like to get "bogged down with details."
I gave her the broad strokes: the Face of Horoscopes didn’t "believe in astrology"; the Face of Fashion, who drove a Porsche, kept forgetting that teen girls shop at The Gap, not Gucci; the Face of Wellness, an earnest Martha Stewart-like ophthalmologist, was interested exclusively in sharing recipes (when I suggested that her content could be a bit more "fresh," she thought I was asking her to post a salad recipe); the Face of Beauty used the word "luscious" so incessantly (luscious lipstick, luscious liner, luscious lids) that when I did a search for "luscious" and left "replace with" blank, her word count shot down by 30; and the Face of Guys, a 20-year-old Backstreet Boys doppelgänger, called me "unreasonable," because I wouldn’t let him wax poetic about his favorite magazine, Maxim, on a site providing "insight" and "inspiration" to teen girls. And, I added, we’d just launched with virtually no sponsors, users, or a feasible business plan.
Something had to change.
Apparently, our CEO also needed a change. She announced that, in order to prevent burn-out, she and Molly, our co-founder, would chill out on a beach in Hawaii.
With our bosses MIA, it became increasingly difficult to separate out the world of our teen audience from the world of our business. Two cliques formed, composed of those who tried to keep the company on track ("the studious kids" — the two Jews, me and Lisa) and those who just wanted to have fun ("the popular kids" — almost everyone else). I felt like I was trapped in "Heathers" meets "Lord of the Flies." Soon I began having flashbacks to high school, and if there’s one thing I gleaned from that adolescent political arena, it was that if you wanted to exert any power at all, you had to belong to the popular crowd. So what if at my West Los Angeles high school, the Jews were the popular crowd?
I called an emergency meeting with our Face of Hair.
The effects of the flat iron, a hair-straightening device that allowed me to look like a clone of my Kibu kin, were instantaneous. My colleagues complimented me on my fashionable new locks. They asked me to join them for lunch. They confided their imaginary cellulite problems.
Now that I was one of them, they showed up for most of their story meetings, appreciated my suggestions and turned in their work on time. Being overtly Jewish, I concluded, had been my liability.
Or so I thought.
Two months later, Lisa and I were "unhired" from the company because of religious differences — not Jewish vs. Christian, but heathen vs. believer. We stood out in the startup culture not because of our ethnicity, but because we declined to bathe in the sickly sweet baptismal keg of Kool-Aid. We refused to become embroiled in a Jonestown-style New Economy mass delusion that led to no one questioning the viability of their business models. So I wasn’t surprised when, by autumn, the Wall Street Journal dubbed Kibu "a poster child for mismanaged Web companies" and announced that the doomed dot-bomb was shutting its doors.
Sipping my Kibu-branded "chai energy tea," I stared at the article and thought about all I’d learned from my startup experience: trust your instincts, not the hype; create the product before you launch; bigger isn’t necessarily better; work for people who have a clear vision; if you jump on a bus, make sure you know its destination; and finally, becoming a shiksa to fit into a workplace is as idiotic as joining a dot-com in the first place.
Everyone’s a Critic
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) closed out its four-part Ralph Tornberg Lecture Series at the Wyndham Bel Age Hotel in West Hollywood with a crackling discussion on an evergreen topic: to what extent, as Marty Kaplan put it, “entertainment and its values have permeated all aspects of society.” Kaplan is director of the USC Annenberg School and its Norman Lear Center (the event’s co-sponsor).
The panel: perennial Hollywood Square and award show jokemeister Bruce Vilanch; Entertainment Weekly movie critic Lisa Schwarzbaum; television screenwriter Lionel Chetwynd (“Nixon and Kissinger”); and Los Angeles Times media critic Greg Braxton. (Braxton’s colleague at the Times, Brian Lowry, sat in the audience).
After opening remarks by Kaplan and Amy Levy, ADL’s associate director, Meryl Marshall Daniels, Academy of Television Arts and Sciences chairman and CEO, moderated a discussion on whether today’s television merely reflects or actually exacerbates society’s amorality. The latter seemed to be the overwhelming audience consensus.
“I like ‘The Sopranos,’ but America has fallen in love with a guy who is amoral,” said Braxton, before lambasting “Survivor” and “Temptation Island” as lucrative shows that inspire verbal contortions from the networks trying to rationalize them.
Vilanch, in his trademark Muppet facial shag and a jocular “Betty Ford Alumni Association” T-shirt, said cable shows live and die by depicting graphic sex, violence, and vulgarity to separate themselves from network TV and justify their subscription rate.
Chetwynd received applause when he dismissed “The West Wing” as equally culpable “moral Novocain” that amounted to “mind-numbing, soft-core political pornography.”
“The dialogue is just a bunch of proselytizing jargon they substitute for ideas,” Chetwynd continued. “I hate it.”
Such a panel would be toothless without some audience participation, and the Q&A portion didn’t disappoint. Two men in the audience attributed an increase in homosexuality among youth to palatable depiction of gays on TV.
“Watching homosexuality on TV didn’t make me gay; seeing Betty Grable made me gay,” Vilanch quipped.
An attorney stood up to comment that the panel had minimized media responsibility and spoke of a teen-age killer she had prosecuted who was influenced by the “Scream” trilogy. She also expressed concern that her own 15-year-old had embraced “Fight Club” (a film with a strong R rating). Another audience member questioned why the parent allowed her son to watch that movie in the first place.
No boob tube program, “Media and Morality” served as a lively, thought-provoking closer to an excellent series.
And Speaking of the ADL
Tessa Waxman-Hicks has joined the organization as assistant project director for the ADL’s “A World of Difference Institute.” Waxman-Hicks will help coordinate and create anti-bias education workshops designed to help educators work with students and parents. Waxman-Hicks arrives fresh from her work as Youth Programs director at the National Conference for Community and Justice, where she created the “Black/Brown Leadership Training Program” for at-risk African-American and Latino youth.
Les Williams, who since 1995 has served in an administrative capacity in the ADL’s Civil Rights, Community Service and Development divisions, was recently promoted to event coordinator. Williams will oversee event production for ADL’s Development Division.
Congratulations to both of you!
WIZO L.A. made a donation to Community Counseling Service/Amanecer, an agency that provides mental health services for underprivileged children and their families.
Put Away the Kleenex
Our friends at American Associates of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev report that the university has developed an unusual pressure-sensitive bandage that is assisting victims of severe automobile accidents, battle wounds, and terrorist bombs. The Elastic Adhesive Dressing, or ELAD, stops bleeding without the use of a painful tourniquet, which itself can cause tissue damage. The new bandage, developed by Dr. Sody Naimer of the Department of Family Medicine at the university’s Faculty of Health Sciences, was the subject of an article in a recent issue of the American Journal of Emergency Medicine.
Another Kol Call
Barton Kogan has been named executive director of Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood. Kogan previously worked in the same capacity at Temple Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills and has been very active in the Jewish community.
Dr. Yzhar Charuzi was presented with the “Humanitarian of the Year” Award at the American Red Magen David for Israel’s 2001 Gala, held at the Regent Beverly Wilshire.
Call Him Rabbi
Lomita resident Boruch Hecht was among the graduates ordained by the Rabbinical College of America in Morristown, N.J.
A Secure Future
Israel Humanitarian Foundation (IHF) and The Edelstein Family Charitable Foundation have donated $15,000 toward the Home Secure Program of Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles (JFS). The program provides free home-safety equipment for the elderly.
The Pacific Southwest Branch of the Women’s League for Conservative Judaism Torah Fund Campaign explored “The Jewish Family: Changing Times, Changing Roles” during “Ahavat Torah — A Study Day” at the University of Judaism.
A reception at the Beverly Hills Hotel’s legendary Polo Lounge honored major donors whose gifts went toward the Paul Goldenberg and Daphna and Richard Ziman Special Care Center. The building, made possible by the Los Angeles Jewish Home for the Aging’s $72-million capital campaign, is due to open in early 2002. In addition to the Zimans and Goldenberg, major donors include Ruth Ziegler; Audrey and Martin Appel; Barbara and Leonard Bernstein; Jacqueline and Jules Fogel; Eleanor and Harold Foonberg; Marion and Ernie Goldenfeld; Bari and Steven Good; Toba and Earl Greinetz; Gertrude Maier; Lila Meyers; and Janet and David Polak.
Leaders of the Shul
Judith and Stan Podolsky, leaders of Shomrei Torah Synagogue in West Hills, were honored at an event benefiting the Masorti Movement, an institution promoting Conservative Judaism and religious pluralism in Israel.
Tough Dames in a Tough Game
Glamour, betrayal, influence and heartache, all in a day’s work. In her first book, “Is That a Gun in Your Pocket? Women’s Experience of Power in Hollywood,” Rachel Abramowitz, a former writer for Premiere magazine, lays out in impressive detail what the first significant wave of women in the film trade, a wave that hit the studios in the 1970s, had to go through to get women to be taken seriously by the industry.
Abramowitz uses the stories of several women — among them executives Sherry Lansing and Dawn Steel, superagent Sue Mengers and writer-director Nora Ephron, along with production designer-turned-producer Polly Platt and actor-director Jodie Foster — as tentpoles for her narrative, returning to their lives and careers at intervals throughout the book. Other Jewish women she spotlights include Barbra Streisand, Elaine May and executive Paula Weinstein.
What’s striking is that so many of these female movers and shakers are Jewish, represented as disproportionately in Hollywood as Jewish men are, and that so many come from troubled family backgrounds, some with Holocaust connections.
Lansing’s mother fled Nazi Germany as a teenager in the 1930s; Mengers herself arrived in the States as an 8-year-old refugee in 1939. Mengers’ father committed suicide when she was 13, Steel’s family dynamic went south after her father suffered a business failure and a nervous breakdown, Weinstein was a red-diaper baby whose larger-than-life mother was entirely too open about her emotional life, and Ephron’s screenwriter parents were both alcoholics.
Abramowitz shows one woman after another crashing through the glass ceiling — often getting cut up in the process by jealousy, competition and dysfunctional relationships with men, and, even in the highest reaches of power, cracking her head against a new obstacle placed by men.
“I thought they’d enjoy it a lot more,” Abramowitz told The Journal, adding that many sacrificed relationships and even motherhood to their careers. “You’re judged on everything; how you look, how you talk. You can’t just do a good job. They were the most driven people you can imagine.”
“Is That a Gun in Your Pocket?” is a fascinating examination of “a generation in transition,” in Abramowitz’s words, a group of women who made it more possible for younger female Hollywood executives to balance family and work. “They were the ones who stormed the barricades,” Abramowitz said. “The proof of their success is the younger generation of women, who take the business as their birthright.”
Becoming an entertainment reporter was “a little bit random,” says Abramowitz, 35, who had been working for a business magazine in New York when Premiere brought her to Los Angeles. “I’ve been interested in movies not in a particularly intense way, but the way everyone is, in movies as a national pastime.”
“Is That a Gun in Your Pocket?” began as a piece for Premiere back in the early 1990s that was supposed to be an oral history of women in Hollywood. “I was really young, and I just used it as an opportunity to meet everybody in town,” Abramowitz said.
Abramowitz doesn’t have a home town; her father, Morton Abramowitz, is a retired career diplomat who served as U.S. assistant secretary of state and ambassador to Turkey. Her mother, Sheppie, who is about to retire from her work with the International Rescue Committee, an organization that aids refugees and victims of oppression or violent conflict, kept the family Jewishly affiliated among posts in Washington, D.C., Hawaii, London, and Vienna.
Their daughter managed to put together about five years of religious school but didn’t have a Bat Mitzvah because the family moved to Thailand when she was 12. About all the half-Ashkenazi, half-Sephardi Jewish community in Bangkok could manage, Abramowitz said, was High Holy Days services in a private home, using old U.S. Army prayerbooks.
Abramowitz lives in Venice with her husband, a screenwriter, and their toddler son. Since leaving
Premiere, she’s been snowed under with freelance assignments and is mulling over ideas for another book. Although “Is That a Gun in Your Pocket?” is being developed as a film project, Abramowitz isn’t interested in a career as a screenwriter or film executive.
“I don’t really want to be in the business,” she said. “I really like writing books. You have a lot of autonomy to do what you want to do, to say what you want to say — unlike the business.”
Too Jewish? No Way!
Why do most people want to believe that a successful career in show business happens by luck? Maybe it’s because for people who haven’t made it, that’s a good explanation or excuse. And maybe successful people want it to seem as if it were easy for them, as if they were chosen to receive such blessings because they are so very special.
But it’s not an accident or magic, and it’s never just a lucky fluke, not if you have any staying power. People succeed in show business just as they succeed in any business, step by small step.
Exhibit A: Bonnie Bruckheimer.
Bruckheimer is one of Hollywood’s most successful producers. The fact that she’s a woman is not incidental; it’s remarkable, especially in a business where few women make it to the top.
Bruckheimer is Bette Midler’s business partner. Midler may make you laugh, but Bruckheimer is the woman who makes her laugh.
The two have been business partners and great friends for more than 20 years, quite a record in or out of show business. They formed All Girl Productions together in 1985, with the 1988 feature “Beaches” as Bruckheimer’s producing debut. Since “Beaches” she’s produced three more Midler movies, “For the Boys,” “Hocus Pocus” and “That Old Feeling.” She co-produced the comedy hit “Man of the House,” starring Chevy Chase and Jonathan Taylor Thomas, and executive produced Midler’s HBO concert film “Diva Las Vegas,” as well as Midler’s television production of “Gypsy” for CBS, both of which won Emmy Awards.
Currently Bruckheimer is producing “Bette,” a new sitcom on CBS, remarkable for its ability to combine broad physical comedy and smart, sophisticated wit. Perhaps even more remarkable is that it has a recognizably Jewish female character, the lead no less.
Not bad for a high school graduate from Brooklyn who started as a secretary in the garment business before she knew how to type. Not to mention a mother who told her to “marry a nice guy who’ll take care of you,” and a father who told her to “get a job in civil service so you can’t be fired.”
Bruckheimer credits working in the garment industry as her training ground. “I talked a good game,” she explained in an interview at her bungalow on the Culver Studios lot. “I didn’t always keep the jobs, but I could talk my way into them” — which happens to be the No. 1 qualification for a show business career.
“The garment center is a lot like the movie business and I think I was lucky to work there. I was able to pick up things that were really important,” said Bruckheimer, who had men’s clothing designer John Weitz as an early boss. “He was a tough task master,” she said. “I was his assistant, and if anything ever went wrong, I would always find an excuse. I would say things like, ‘Well, uh, you know, it wasn’t my fault because, the … you know …’ He hated that! And he drilled into me that you must own up to your mistakes. It took a long time, but I left there knowing how to take responsibility. It has served me in everything I do.”
“And I was personable” — she actually does purr as she rolls the word off her tongue: purrrr-sonable.
“Once I had the job, I started to learn secretarial skills. I created my own shorthand, which I called ‘Bonniewriting.’ It was basically scribbling and remembering,” she says with a laugh. It’s easy to see how she kept those jobs. Not only is she a hard worker, she’s funny and unpretentious; anyone would want her around.
After she became, as she put it, “a really great secretary,” Bruckheimer landed a job as executive secretary to the treasurer of Columbia Pictures Industries. She was still in New York and at the time was married to Jerry Bruckheimer, who, as she said decided he wanted to be a producer,” she said. “Little did I know he would be the most successful producer of all time.”
They moved to Los Angeles, and Columbia gave her a job at the studio. That’s when she started learning about film production. Not from Jerry Bruckheimer, though. He was just starting out when they were married, and they were divorced before he hit his stride.
Bruckheimer met Midler in 1979, when she was working as a producer’s assistant on “The Rose,” and went on to be Midler’s personal and professional assistant. “I took care of e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g,” Bruckheimer said, becoming, in the process, she added, the world’s best assistant. The relationship grew into their partnership.
What’s kept them together so long in a business notorious for contentious breakups? Bruckheimer credits their mutual respect for each other’s abilities.
“We each have our strong suit,” Bruckheimer said. “I’m much more business-oriented, and Bette trusts me with that. But if you ask Bette, she’d say [that] I make her laugh. We both really love to laugh. We’ve been in a lot of tough situations, and we’ve managed to keep our sense of humor.”
For example, Midler had been offered the leading role in the film “Misery,” but she didn’t want to do it. Bruckheimer thought she should, but ultimately Midler just wouldn’t do the part — a role that won Kathy Bates the Academy Award. When asked if Midler admitted she had been wrong, Bruckheimer giggled triumphantly, “Absolutely, oh, absolutely! And I played it for all it was worth.”
But Midler, Bruckheimer said, taught her the importance of perfection. “She taught me many years ago that you don’t look at your watch and say, ‘Uh-oh, time’s up. It’s good enough.’ ”
As producer of “Bette,” Bruckheimer is definitely feeling the pressure. “We are trying to find our way, to look at our shows and see what worked and what didn’t, but we’re so visible because of its being Bette,” she said.
But after making it to the top, Bruckheimer has found an important way to stave off the pressure and gain perspective: her children. “I was good at what I did before I had children,” she said, “but I learned patience from my kids. And I’ve learned that none of it, businesswise, is life or death. Sometimes the work is great, and sometimes it doesn’t work at all, but your family is what really matters.”
As she put it, “I am more a mom than I am a producer. My kids come first, and they always will. I have no social life: no business dinners, no screenings or parties.” What many consider the glamorous perks of show business, the stuff that’s in People magazine, Bruckheimer has given up.
“When I go home at night, I spend the evening with my kids,” she said. “I’m helping with homework, I’m putting them to bed or I’m just hanging out with them. If I go anywhere on the weekend, it’s to a soccer game or with other parents, and we go to kid-friendly restaurants, like the California Pizza Kitchen.
“Since I’ve been doing ‘Bette,’ they come to the tapings and we watch the show together on Wednesday nights,” she continued. “They feel very much a part of what I do. That’s one of the ways I do it. And the other way is I pull my hair out.”
In addition to producing a prime-time television show — a full-time job for anyone — Bruckheimer is also deep in preproduction for her new Warner Brothers feature, “The Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood.” Awed, I asked how she could possibly do so much. Her answer was a nonplused “I don’t know.” Then she added, “When you’re the busiest, everything happens. But you manage to do it.” She pauses for a self-effacing moment. “Well, we’ll see.”
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.
Schlock & Schtick
When Silent Was Golden
“The First Picture Show” at the Taper Forum resembles the early silent movies whose creators the play celebrates — sometimes fuzzy, sometimes jerky, but moving the action, and the audience, right along.
Billed as “a play with music, rather than a musical,” this world premiere production opens in Ohio before the turn of the century, where Anne Furstmann, a nice but restless Jewish girl, packs up and takes a train to Hollywood, the just emerging center of the amazing moving pictures.
Like hundreds of subsequent co-religionists, the new arrival changes her name to Anne First, and, true to her new name, becomes one of the first female producers and directors in the new medium.
Anne First is the creation of the play’s co-authors and directors Ain and David Gordon (“Shlemiel the First,” “The Family Business”), but she is co-mingled with some of Hollywood’s real women pioneers, such as Lois Weber, Gene Gauntier and Alice Guy Blache.
These women, among them dozens of talented screen writers, made their mark during Hollywood’s infancy and childhood, when anything seemed possible and “movies were an idea one week, before the camera the next, and in the theaters within a month.” Brooding auteurs like Stanley Kubrick wouldn’t have had a chance.
We’ve barely been introduced to actress Ellen Greene as the young, ambitious Anne First, when she reappears in 1995 as her own great-grand-niece Jane, who has reclaimed the old family name of Furstmann.
Jane has come to a retirement home for ancient movie folk to shoot a documentary on the now 99-year old Anne First (are you still with me?), played as a wonderfully cantankerous and wheel chair-bound crone by Estelle Parsons.
This plot ploy allows the play to conduct a tour of Hollywood’s entire history, from the days of “little studios where big things happened to big studios where little things happened,” as Anne puts it.”
With the help of Anne’s fellow retirement inmates, we learn about the rise and fall of “race movies,” by and for blacks only, the coming of expensive talking pictures that decimated the small independent studios, and the early appearance of the self-appointed censor — the Rev. Wilbur F. Crafts, a spiritual ancestor of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, proclaims that Hollywood must be wrested from “the hands of 500 un-Christian Jews.”
Much of the play’s enjoyment comes from the cleverly choreographed recreation of the silent pictures milieu, complete with title cards, portable picture frames, wildly gesticulating actors, and not one, but two, piano players.
With 14 actors essaying 46 characters, and with liberal swapping of ethnic and gender identities, there are moments when you’re not quite sure who’s on First, but the show’s energy surmounts the occasional bumps.
“The First Picture Show” continues through Sept. 18 at the Mark Taper Forum. For tickets and information, phone (213) 628- 2772.
Journey to America
Joan Hyler’s Class Acts
Joan Hyler sees her life in five acts. A bit like Shakespeare.
It’s a dramatic arc that’s taken her from working as a top agent in Hollywood to setting up shop as a high-powered manager and producer with three offices around town. Smack in the middle of Act III, the woman who’s represented everyone from Meryl Streep to Brendan Fraser has turned her laser-like focus on a new group of “clients”: Jewish women. Hyler is the chair of Hadassah’s Morning Star Commission, dedicated to overturning stereotypes and encouraging diverse, positive portrayals of Jewish women in the media.
Wearing black and electric blue during a recent interview, Hyler said she wasn’t surprised by the results of the commission’s recent focus group research. When Jewish women characters appear onscreen, which isn’t often, they are mostly yentas and nagging mothers, the report found. The only “positive” image cited by Jewish men was leggy, blond Dharma Finkelstein of “Dharma & Greg”-because she doesn’t look Jewish.
“I find that so sad and disappointing,” says Hyler, who’s using her considerable clout to make a difference. She’s already brought Hollywood top brass to the commission’s advisory council, such as CBS President Leslie Moonves, Paramount Chair Sherry Lansing and Producer Lili Fini Zanuck. She’s working on involving Roseanne. Her best friend, Bruce Vilanch, who writes the Oscars, is writing the commission’s annual comedy show and awards ceremony June 29 (see sidebar). And Hyler is making plans for the commission to reach out to young women at university Hillels.
The idea came to her when six UCLA students fervently asked the former agent whether looking Jewish impedes a woman in Hollywood. “These young Jewish women need role models,” Hyler concluded. “Unless they can speak to others who have made it, it feels so hopeless for them.”
If anyone can convince Roseanne to speak at Hillel, it is Hyler. “Joan is an enormous presence in Hollywood, and everyone in town knows her,” says Ellen Sandler, a commission member and co-executive producer of the CBS sitcom, “Everybody Loves Raymond.” “If Joan approaches you, you return her telephone calls.”
Growing up in Dayton, Ohio, Hyler recalls, images of Jewish women were largely invisible in the popular culture. There was only Golda Meir, Bess Myerson and the ugly stereotypes. “It broke my heart that Jewish women weren’t considered attractive,” Hyler, now 50, recalls. “It made me feel different, and that I had something to prove…. I wanted to be an object of desire, a femme fatale. But I didn’t want to have blond hair and blue eyes. I wanted to be me.”
The emergence of Barbra Streisand delighted the teenager, a cheerleader who dreamed of starring in “Gypsy” on Broadway. Instead, Hyler dropped out of the theater doctoral program at Ohio State, hopped a bus for Manhattan and began working as a secretary at William Morris in 1971.
When it became clear that William Morris had no job track for women, Hyler went to work for the legendary Audrey Wood, Tennessee Williams’ agent, at what is now International Creative Management. On a snowy Washington’s birthday, the day before her first official day on the job, Hyler entered the agency’s closed offices on the 29th floor of the J.C. Penney building. There, she was surprised to see the elderly Wood arrive schlepping shopping bags overflowing with scripts. “I got her coffee, and learned a lesson,” Hyler once told the L.A. Times. “Being an agent means…you read the scripts…and care as much about the spear carrier in Act III as you do about Lord Olivier.”
Within the year, Hyler had become Meryl Streep’s first movie agent, securing the actress her first bit part and eventually her Oscar-winning role in “Kramer vs. Kramer.” For her work with Julian Barry, author of the play and film versions of “Lenny,” Hyler herself ended up at the Oscars in 1975, whirling around the dance floor with Fred Astaire.
Faye Dunaway was a client, and so was Andy Warhol, with whom Hyler lunched at the Russian Tea Room. Warhol, whose book, “The Andy Warhol Diaries,” describes Hyler as “a real champ,” asked the agent to arrange for him to appear on “The Love Boat.” The show, Hyler explains, was the TV equivalent of the artist’s lowbrow, pop-culture renditions of Campbell’s soup cans. Warhol had a delightful time playing himself. “I had to turn away all the other TV offers,” Hyler recalls. “Love Boat” was the only TV he ever wanted to do.”
In the 1980s, when William Morris made Hyler the first female senior vice president to rise through the ranks in its 100-year history, Hyler put Candice Bergen in “Murphy Brown” and represented Bob Dylan during his “Rebbe” period.
All the while, she was rediscovering her own Jewish roots, finding the ruach (spirit) that had been missing in her childhood shul. Richard Dreyfuss introduced her to Rabbi Shlomo Schwartz of The CHAI Center, and Hyler studied Torah with Rabbis Laura Geller and Chaim Seidler-Feller in the class Barbra Streisand had created to prepare for “Yentl.” Hyler took classes at the (Orthodox) Yeshiva of Los Angeles, joined Rabbi Mordecai Finley’s congregation, Ohr HaTorah, became bat mitzvah and started a Torah fund in honor of her family. She met David Hartman and Adin Steinsalz in Israel and met her husband and business partner, Larry Scissors, around a Shabbos table in L.A.
On a day Hyler will always remember in 1990, Hyler sat beside Omar Sharif and eccentric client Peter O’Toole during a screening of the reissue of “Lawrence of Arabia.” In the middle of the film, O’Toole suddenly shouted, at the top of his lungs, “God, we were beautiful, weren’t we, Omar?” The entire audience burst into applause.
It was a thrilling moment for Hyler, who in the early ’90s also spoke out against ageism and sexism in Hollywood as the president of Women in Film. Empowering other women helped her empower herself, she says. In 1995, Hyler left William Morris when she perceived that the agency would not break tradition and appoint a woman to the board. She founded Hyler Management and a production company, MHS, which stands for the initials of the partners and also for Emes (“truth” in Hebrew).
Today, Hyler seamlessly merges the agenda of the Morning Star Commission with her professional life. At MHS, where Rabbi Deborah Orenstein leads a Torah class each Tuesday, Hyler is developing a film about a Holocaust survivor who encounters the McCarthy blacklist. She hopes to persuade a Jewish actress like Debra Winger to star in the movie. Also in the works is a documentary and a feature film about Edith Stein, the controversial German Jew who became a nun and was murdered at Auschwitz.
As Hyler’s Act III segweys into Act IV, no doubt, she will continuing recruiting powerful Jews to the Morning Star Commission. “I really believe we can change things,” she says. “There is victory in numbers.”
Former Synagogue President (and Mob Lawyer) Elected Mayor of Las Vegas