When you realize that Bat Mitzvah money is coming. (Photo by Christopher Polk/Getty Images)

Jessica Biel discovers that she’s a little bit Jewish


The celebrities who appear on genealogy shows are almost invariably in for a surprise, like a criminal in their family tree or a British royal in their web of relatives. Some, like Dustin Hoffman — who broke down in tears on “Finding Your Roots” last year — delve into their Jewish ancestry deeper than they ever have before.

Others, like actress Jessica Biel, who appears on this Sunday’s episode of TLC’s “Who Do You Think You Are,” discover Jewish roots they didn’t know they had.

Biel — who is also Mrs. Justin Timberlake — achieved fame at age 14 when she was cast in the long-running TV series “7th Heaven.” She has appeared in a number of films since, receiving acclaim for roles in “Ulee’s Gold” and “The Illusionist,” among others.

She and Timberlake had a child in 2015, and she says her status as a new mom intensified her interest in her own family — which she didn’t know much about. Family lore on her mother’s side was that Jessica was part Native American, either Chippewa or Cherokee. There was also a legend about a Civil War soldier shot in the back by his commanding officer while wading across a river.

Jessica was also under the impression that the Biels came from a German town named Biel. After investigating with TLC’s genealogists and historians, she discovered she was the great, great granddaughter of Morris and Ottilia Biel, who emigrated from Hungary (then the Austro-Hungarian Empire) to Chicago in 1888.

The Biels were Jewish, and Morris at first found work as a cloak cutter in the garment business.

Jessica Biel

Jessica Biel found some surprises in her family tree on the show “Who Do You Think You Are.” (Courtesy of TLC)

To say that Jessica was surprised is putting it mildly. She also seemed moved.

“I felt my whole life I’ve really not had any religious community at all,” she says.  “I want something. Interestingly, we’re talking about a people with a really, really rich cultural community.”

Biel has plenty to discover about Jewish culture. Later in the episode, she notes: “My friends are really into this. They say they’re going to throw me a bar mitzvah.” (A bat mitzvah is the correct term for a girl’s coming of age ritual.)

There was another surprise awaiting her. Morris eventually went to work for a bank and became prominent enough in his community that the Chicago Tribune ran a photo of him and Ottilia on the occasion of their 50th wedding anniversary.

To follow up on all of this, Jessica had a DNA test, which proved she was eight percent Jewish.

“I’m really interested into diving into this Jewish culture a little more,” she says at the end of the episode.

The cast of Nebsu. Photo courtesy of Yosi Vasa.

Groundbreaking TV comedy introduces Israelis to their Ethiopian neighbors


TEL AVIV (JTA) – Last week, Israelis for the first time saw a black lead character on a homegrown, primetime television show.

Nebsu,” a half-hour comedy, focuses on an Ethiopian man who is married to an Ashkenazi Jewish woman. Misunderstanding ensues.

“There is definitely a lot of cultural confusion in the show,” Yosi Vasa, the star and co-creator of the show, told JTA. “But the great thing about comedy is when the audience laughs, that means they get it. So that’s progress.”

Following a series of sometimes violent protests between Ethiopian Israelis and police in recent years, the creators of the new show think comedy is called for. They hope that by making light of the frictions between Ethiopian immigrants and the broader society, they can promote mutual understanding.

“People went out to [the highway] Ayalon South and demonstrated with anger. People wrote columns,” co-creator Shai Ben-Atar said in a promotional video, referring to 2015 demonstrations protesting police brutality against Ethiopians. “Our demonstration is a demonstration of love. We come to the audience with love. We come with characters full of love.”

In the March 9 premiere, Vasa’s character, Gili, steps out of his suburban house to run an errand. A police officer driving by stops and demand his ID, which he has left inside the house. Moments later the officer is aggressively frisking Gili against the trunk of his car.

Vasa, 41, said such incidents are part of his reality, which many Israelis find difficult to believe. But one evening last year, the show’s third co-creator, Liat Shavi, had a firsthand look. After saying goodnight to Vasa, who had stopped outside the office in Tel Aviv to smoke a cigarette, her cellphone rang.

“Suddenly he’s calling me, and I don’t understand. He’s speaking unclearly, and he says, ‘Come here for a second,’” Shavit recalled in the promotional video. “So I look across the street and I see him standing there with a police officer.”

Ben-Atar adds: “He didn’t care about the fact that he was arrested. He just really wanted us to see that it actually happens, and that was really comedic.”

Roni Akale, the director-general of the Ethiopian National Project, said most Israelis don’t get where Ethiopians are coming from because they live largely separate lives.

Ethiopians, who make up just 1.5 percent of the population, tend to be clustered in poor areas of the country, with many living on the periphery. They have the highest poverty rate among Jews in Israel, and are stopped, arrested and incarcerated at much higher rates. Their children perform worse in school and finish fewer years than the general population.

“Nebsu” co-creators Yosi Vasa, left, and Shai Ben-Atar. (Reshet)

“Israeli society doesn’t know us because we are not in their environment. They don’t see how we live,” Akane said. “Maybe this show can highlight the good things that happen in the Ethiopian community.”

What Israelis have seen in recent years is Ethiopians protesting in the streets alleging widespread discrimination. The April 2015 demonstrations were a response to video footage showing a seemingly unprovoked police assault on an Ethiopian Israeli soldier. Thousands of members of the community joined demonstrations across the country, sometimes clashing with police officers.

“Nebsu” brings Ethiopian culture into Israeli living rooms, and mashes it up against mainstream culture to comedic effect. Gili has had the kind of life that taught him how to pick locks and hot-wire cars while his blond wife, Tamar, played by Merav Feldman, comes from a privileged background.

Although Gili and Tamar are simpatico, their families and the rest of society are another story. Tamar cannot believe that Gili’s mother wants to slaughter a goat that her daughter has adopted as a pet. And Gili struggles to eat his mother-in-law’s bland Ashkenazi cooking.

Tamar is often outraged by the injustices Gili faces and wants to set them right, whereas he has learned to keep his head down. An exception in the first episode is when Gili explodes at the neighbors, accusing them of changing the locks on their doors because they fear him. Worn out after a racially charged day, Gili turns out to have misjudged the situation.

“There are a lot of times you find yourself in a very white environment, so you see things you would probably see differently if you were surrounded by Ethiopians,” Vasa said.

Vasa’s family came to Israel from a remote Ethiopian village as part of Operation Moses in 1985, one of several daring government operations to rescue Ethiopian Jews. The eight of them settled in coastal Netanya, and he bounced between government boarding schools for Ethiopians. As a theater and education student at the University of Haifa, he and a classmate created a series of videos that went viral in the Ethiopian community.

“All they had for media was some videotapes of TV from Ethiopia, which were sold at grocery stores,” Vasa said. “So we started selling our tapes at the same stores. The tapes started getting copied and passed around, so they didn’t show us the money, but it was a great thing to do for us and for our community.”

Reversing the usual Israeli order, Vasa joined the army after university, performing in the storied theater unit that entertains troops. After his three years of service, he developed a one-man comedy show with Ben-Atar called “It Sounds Better in Amharic,” which he still performs. He met his now-wife at an English-languge  version of the show in San Francisco. Like Tamar, she is a non-Ethiopian Israeli, but her ethnic background is half Ashkenazi and half Mizrahi Jewish.

Vasa sees the Ethiopians as just “another Israeli immigration story,” and thinks racism toward his community will fade, as it has toward Mizrahi Israelis. Attitudes toward Arabs, he said, is a separate issue.

“Arab Labor,” a comedy that ran for three seasons between 2007 and 2012, similarly broke down cultural barriers in Israel, in its case between Jews and Arabs. Nevertheless, its Arab-Israeli creator, Sayed Kashua, eventually left the country, despairing that “an absolute majority in the country does not recognize the rights of an Arab to live.”

Vasa started working on “Nebus” in 2012. After he shopped the show to production companies for several years. Reshet picked it up two years ago. Tamar Morom, who heads the Israeli production company’s scripted series department, said the pitch immediately struck everyone as a “good idea.”

She also said the timing was right.

“Probably it wouldn’t have worked five years ago,” Morom told JTA. “There were a lot of demonstrations and not very pleasant issues between Ethiopians and police in the last two years. So it’s not that it’s calm now. I think it’s just the right time to criticize our society.”

Fauda is currently streaming on Netflix. Photo courtesy of Netflix.

Podcast – FAUDA: the Israeli Netflix TV hit with co-creator Avi Issacharoff


From HBO’s In Treatment to Showtime’s Homeland, Israel has become a prominent exporter of quality content for the American television industry. As an emerging studio, Netflix wasn’t about to miss out. They set their eyes on Fauda.

Fauda is one of the most successful and critically acclaimed Israeli TV shows in recent years. It tells the story of Doron, a member of a covert anti-terror unit in the Israeli military, whose world is split in two, between his undercover identity and his life back home.

Three months ago, Netflix acquired Fauda for global distribution. Avi Issacharoff, Fauda’s co-creator and an analyst of Middle Eastern affairs for Walla News and The Times of Israel, joins 2NJB to tall about the show and its worldwide success.

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Billy Crystal attending the Samsung Studio at SXSW 2015 in Austin, Texas, March 15, 2015. Photo by Rick Kern/Getty Images for Samsung.

Billy Crystal on being Jewish, playing ball and more


The inimitable Billy Crystal is back on the road. The six-time Emmy Award-winning comedian, actor, producer, director and writer — most recently of a book of essays, “Still Foolin’ ‘Em: Where I’ve Been, Where I’m Going, and Where the Hell Are My Keys” —  is currently touring the U.S. with his new show, “Spend the Night with Billy Crystal.”

The show, scheduled to tour through April, promises to feel like an intimate chat with the audience  — a blend of standup with a “sit-down” interview with Crystal, moderated at many shows by comedian and actor Bonnie Hunt. Crystal, who lives in Los Angeles, will tell stories, talk about the world as he sees it, reflect on his life and show some film clips from his long career.

Of course, the popular nine-time Oscar host has numerous iconic films and roles to choose from: The title character in the quintessential rom-com “When Harry Met Sally;” the grouchy “miracle worker” in “The Princess Bride;” Mitch, a New Yorker heading toward a midlife crisis who goes on a cattle drive with his buddies in “City Slickers;” and in “Analyze This,” a shrink to Robert De Niro’s mob boss.

But before he was charming millions, Crystal, 68, was entertaining his family and friends while growing up in the quaint beach town of Long Beach, New York. Then a predominately Jewish and Italian town, Crystal describes it as the “perfect place to grow up.” He often references his beloved hometown in his act, and in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy’s battering of New York in 2012, Crystal and his wife of nearly 47 years, Janice, helped raise more than one million dollars to help Long Beach rebuild and rebound.

Crystal’s early childhood, back in the 1950s, was filled with music and laughter. His mother, Helen, was a talented tap dancer and singer. His father, Jack, worked six days a week at two jobs — as a jazz promoter and manager of the family’s popular New York City record store. Jazz greats like Billie Holiday — who were friends of his parents — would frequent their home.

Crystal and his dad would spend most Sundays together watching baseball games. Their relationship was chronicled in Crystal’s Tony Award-winning one-man show “700 Sundays” (also adapted into a book and HBO special), named for the number of Sundays he spent with his father before his dad died of a heart attack when Crystal was only 15.

The only thing Crystal ever aspired to do as much as comedy was play baseball for his beloved New York Yankees — in fact, he says the highlight of his long career came in 2008 ,when he signed a one-day contract with the team in honor of his 60th birthday.

In a phone interview with JTA, Crystal looked back on his family, his Jewish identity, his long career and the “one thing” that keeps him going.

JTA: You seem to be a celebrity who wears your Judaism as a badge of honor, and not in a self-hating sort of way. Would you agree?

Billy Crystal: I do. I mean, I still make fun, but it’s not about Jews — it’s about my Jews, it’s about my relatives. It’s not generalizations.

What are some of your favorite parts about being Jewish?

You mean, besides the circumcision?

You remember that, huh?

Yeah, oh yeah, that’s why I’m an insomniac. I’m waiting for that guy to come back in the room.

What else do you love about being Jewish?

The storytelling, the warmth, the sense of humor. My dad was strict about the holidays. We honored them, we went to temple. I like the ritual, and the caring for our planet that’s written into so many of the works I read in Hebrew school.

How do you compare when you were just starting out in showbiz 4o-plus years ago to touring with your new show today?

It all feels the same. I don’t think I’ve stopped working since the eighth grade. Backstage, when I was on Broadway, felt the same as it did backstage when I was getting ready to do a school play in high school. It’s that same energy of confidence, a little bit of nerves … The moment you go out, you release and say, ‘OK, I’m ready, here I come.’ It’s kind of an intoxicating feeling to go out and entertain people.

That’s why, after all these years, I’m going back on the road with this show … At this age and this point in my career, to still have the hunger I did as a young man is a great feeling.

Besides signing to a one-day contract with the New York Yankees, what’s another of your proudest professional achievements?

I was the first American comedian to perform in the Soviet Union back in 1989 in an HBO special called “Midnight Train to Moscow.” It was a Russian-speaking audience [with] some Americans. Gorbachev was in power, the [Berlin] Wall had not come down yet, and [I felt honored] that HBO trusted me. I found all these relatives that I didn’t know I had there [in Russia]. But performing there and being an ambassador, if you will, for American humor in that country is something I look back on with great pride.

What did your father teach you during those “700 Sundays,” before he passed away?

Besides teaching me a love for comedy, a love for reading, a love for baseball, he also taught me about doing the right thing. My dad was a civil rights giant in his own quiet way, in that he was one of the first promoters to integrate jazz bands. So the house, yes, was filled with Jewish relatives with stories, but sitting next to them was Zutty Singleton, who was a great jazz drummer, or Tyree Glenn, who was Louie Armstrong’s trombone player, or any of these other great musicians. They were all just friends. My family label — Commodore Records — produced “Strange Fruit,” which is Billie Holliday’s epic song about lynching. It took a Jewish family to produce that record, to write that song.

How did your father’s premature death shape your life and your relationship with your mother?

I was 15 and was dealt a bad hand. You can’t help but be angry, and I was angry and had to learn to live with that, and to deal with my mother, who was suddenly widowed and forced back into the workforce. [Being] back home alone with her, while my brothers were away at college, made me grow up really fast. I admired her strength — at the age of 50 she was suddenly back in the workforce. Three sons in school and we all graduated college because of her. You watch that and learn what parenting is really about, and what being a son is really about. My mom sent me on a path of trying to do the right thing in my life and also valuing every moment that you live.

What’s your secret to your happy, healthy and long marriage?

We still feel that we’re dating. After all these years, and all the things that we’ve been through, and all the joys and sadness that we’ve shared together — right from the beginning: You’re 18 and you have to tell the in-laws [that] you’re going to be a comedian.

But Janice’s faith in me, her trust in me, her strength when things aren’t going well. Our key is we keep laughing, we keep talking and we keep loving.

I’m going to remind you about a scene from your own movie, “City Slickers.” Curly, a cowboy, asks your character, Mitch, if you know the secret to life. Then, Curly holds up one finger and says “One thing.” What I took Curly to mean is that each of us have to find that one thing that give our lives meaning. What is that one thing, or maybe a couple of things, that give you purpose?

The purpose is Janice and the kids, and continually doing right by them and right by myself. That’s the most important thing … and in my job, I have a purpose. I have a mind that still loves to create and I follow that deeply.

Cindy Sher is the Executive Editor of Chicago’s JUF News.

Disability inclusion faces long road in Hollywood


If there is one thing that Jews love, it’s films. And with this being Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month, it is a great time to look at disability themes in the latest hot movies. Of the nine films nominated for best picture, four have themes or sub-plots related to disability.

For example, “Manchester by the Sea” features themes of mental health, alcoholism and drug use. Likewise, “Moonlight” includes story lines surrounding drug addiction. “Arrival,” a science-fiction film, includes a child who has cancer.

Fences,” a film that has received multiple accolades for its racially diverse themes, also includes a disability storyline. The older brother of lead character Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington), Gabe Maxson (Mykelti Williamson), sustained a traumatic brain injury (TBI) during World War II. Children in the neighborhood often torment Gabe. When Troy bails Gabe out of jail for disturbing the peace, Troy unknowingly signs a paper that routes half of Gabe’s pension to a psychiatric hospital, forcing Gabe to be institutionalized.

Williamson does not have a disability himself, which is quite common when it comes to casting actors portraying people with disabilities. The Ruderman White Paper on Disability in Television found that non-disabled actors play more than 95 percent of characters with disabilities on television. When asked by the Los Angeles Times about playing the role of someone with a TBI, Williamson acknowledged the many variables and “different levels of injury and effect” of someone with a TBI.

In the full-length documentary category, “Life, Animated,” a film about Owen, a boy with autism (who happens to be Jewish), is nominated. The film shows how Owen, a young man who was unable to speak as a child, and his father are able to connect through Disney animated films.

One film that exemplified the positive portrayal of disability this year is the animated “Finding Dory,” but it was not nominated for an Oscar. It was the No. 1 film at the domestic box office last year. Financial successes like this film show that positive portrayal of disability is a winning theme. In “Finding Dory,” disability is not something Dory needs to overcome, but something she needs to learn to live with, accept and work with to accomplish things “in her own Dory way.”

But while these films include disability themes, no known actor or other individual with a disability was nominated for an Oscar. As previously noted, more than 95 percent of characters with disabilities on television are played by non-disabled actors. When a non-disabled actor mimics someone from any minority group, whether it be racial or disability, he takes a job from an actor who genuinely has that characteristic and perpetuates that group’s under-representation in the industry.

Including disability in diversity

Fences,” “Moonlight” and “Hidden Figures” are nominated for best picture and have been noted to be racially diverse. In addition, six Black actors have received nominations, which is a record high.

“The studios and major film distributors really gave it to us this year,” said Gil Robertson, the African American Film Critics Association’s co-founder and president. “By any measurement, it’s been an exceptional year for Blacks in film. From comedies to high-quality dramas and documentaries, 2016 will forever represent a bonanza year for Black cinema, and all cinema really.”

In a statement, Robertson also spoke of the importance of other minority communities, listing out the “Asian, Hispanic, Native American and LGBT communities,” but he failed to include the disability community — a common occurrence even among the best intentioned.

People with disabilities are the largest minority in America, with almost 1 in 5 Americans having a disability. Yet the disability community often is forgotten in diversity conversations.

According to GLAAD (formerly the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), fewer than 2 percent of scripted television characters (15) have disabilities. In addition to the lack of representation in general, what does exist is misleading. Almost all portrayals of people with disabilities in media are white, despite the fact that disability impacts all ethnicities. According to a recent report by the Media, Diversity, & Social Change (MDSC) Initiative at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, only 2.4 percent of all speaking or named characters in film in 2015 were shown to have a disability and none of the leading characters were from underrepresented racial or ethnic groups. “Depictions of disability are not only marginalized,” the report says, “they also obscure the true diversity of this community.”

It is important to note that anyone can join the disability community at any point in time and that people with disabilities come from all communities — including the African-American, Asian, Latino, Native American and LGBTQ communities.

Advocating from within

Meryl Streep, who spoke out about the importance of not mocking people who have disabilities during her Golden Globes lifetime achievement award speech, has marked another lifetime achievement — her 20th Academy Award nomination.

Our group, RespectAbility, previously called on Streep to “walk the walk” when it comes to full inclusion of people with disabilities. Actors with influence like Streep’s have the power and influence to ensure that television and movies include people with disabilities that feature accurate and positive portrayals. This includes not only characters but the actors themselves — as well as employment positions on the other side of the camera.

Streep is a three-time Academy Award winner who has been nominated for a record 20 Oscars and 30 Golden Globes. Change takes a lot more than pointing fingers at someone else’s shortcomings. It takes personal action and leadership. As one of the world’s finest artists and actors, she has tremendous power. How great would it be if the next time she was cast in a film or television show she simply asked the script writers to ensure that the diversity of the roles, including people with disabilities, reflected society at large?

Brad Sherman

Brad Sherman

Thankfully, Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks) is doing something about it. On Feb. 21, his office is hosting a series of meetings to help us inaugurate a Community of Practice comprising key stakeholders to move the needle on two important core issues: inclusion and diversity in Hollywood and employment of people with disabilities. Sherman will gather leaders in philanthropy, workforce development and the entertainment industry who care about diversity, inclusion and employment in Hollywood for people with disabilities. If you want to be a part of this, please email me at JenniferM@RespectAbilityUSA.org. Your help is needed.

Think about it — only 37 percent of Los Angeles residents ages 18 to 64 who have disabilities are employed, compared with 71 percent of people without disabilities. Los Angeles has an opportunity to improve employment outcomes for people with disabilities through sustained partnerships across the public, private and philanthropic sectors. We know from other states and localities that sustained leadership and best practices can empower more people with disabilities to enter the workforce. For example, in the Dakotas, Wyoming and Montgomery County, Md., more than 50 percent of working-age people with disabilities have jobs or are pursuing careers. There is a critical opportunity for leaders from Los Angeles to team up and learn what can be done about this critical challenge so that people with disabilities in the greater Los Angeles area can have a better future.

What people see and hear affects what they think and feel — and what they think and feel has life-and-death consequences. People with disabilities lack access to health care, education and employment opportunities. Medical professionals withhold treatments due to valuing people with disabilities less than those without disabilities. This ranges from OB/GYNs recommending abortions for fetuses with nonfatal, prenatally diagnosed conditions to orthodontists not placing braces on patients because of prejudice. Women who use wheelchairs are many times more likely to die from breast cancer because so few mammogram machines are ADA accessible.

A major Princeton study showed that people with disabilities are seen as warm, not competent. Similarly, a Cornell Hospitality Quarterly study revealed companies are concerned that people with disabilities could not do the required work. Thus, employers who are largely impacted by what they see out of Hollywood do not want to give people with disabilities a chance.

An increase in positive, diverse and accurate portrayals of people with disabilities on television and film can significantly help end stigmas that limit their health and lives. Award-winning actors, producers and directors can use their immense talents to help fight stigmas and advance opportunities for the 22 million working-age Americans with disabilities, only 1 in 3 of whom has a job today.

RespectAbility wants to see many more great shows come out of Hollywood like A&E’s Emmy-winning and stigma-busting docuseries “Born this Way,” starring diverse young adults with Down syndrome who achieve in education, employment and good health. There should be more role models like those in ABC’s “Speechless,” NBC’s “Superstore” and “Finding Dory.”

In addition to television shows and movies highlighting disability, RespectAbility calls on Hollywood to include people with disabilities in all television shows and movies like Dr. Arizona Robbins, an accomplished doctor on “Grey’s Anatomy.”

There is good work being done by SAG-AFTRA, GLAAD, the Media Access Awards, and other key leaders from the television, film and disability community. However, much more must be done to tear down stigmas that undermine people with disabilities’ chances to receive the education, training and employment opportunities we need to succeed, just like anyone else.

Big stars can do a lot. But so, too, can showrunners, creative executives, writers, casting agents, actors and others. Changing hearts, minds and behaviors takes great messages, delivery systems and message repetition. Diversity and inclusion processes also are needed inside networks and studios so that diversity and accurate portrayals become natural and consistent.


Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, who has a disability and is the mother of a child with disabilities, is the president of RespectAbilityUSA.org, a nonprofit fighting stigmas and advancing opportunities for people with disabilities. She can be reached at JenniferM@RespectAbilityUSA.org.

Play about Chaplin’s ‘Great Dictator’ echoes politics of today


In the late summer of 1939, Europe’s statesmen and generals were worrying about whether and when Adolf Hitler would launch his military to start World War II.

In Hollywood, the gossip mills were grinding about Charlie Chaplin. The beloved tramp of the silent movie era, it was rumored, was embarking on his first speaking role. And not just in any movie, but in a biting anti-Nazi satire called “The Great Dictator.”

Both events, one world-shaking, the other less so, come together in the Theatre 40 production of “The Consul, the Tramp and America’s Sweetheart,” which bears some resemblance to current events in America. It will run through Dec. 18 at the Reuben Cordova Theatre in Beverly Hills.

The title characters are, respectively, Georg Gyssling (played by Shawn Savage), the German consul in Los Angeles, tasked with pressuring Hollywood moguls from making any movies that might reflect badly on the Third Reich (or include Jewish actors); Chaplin (Brian Stanton); and Mary Pickford (Melanie Chartoff), America’s sweetheart of the silent screen and now the most powerful woman in Hollywood as co-founder (with Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith) of the United Artists studio.

There is a fourth character in the play, Miss Hollombe (Laura Lee Walsh), Pickford’s sassy new secretary, who provides for the audience background on ’30s  Hollywood

In the opening scene, gossip columnist Hedda Hopper has just revealed that Chaplin plans to direct and star in “The Great Dictator,” with United Artists as producer and distributor.

Gyssling arrives at Pickford’s office to stop the project. He points out that Germany, including the recently absorbed Austria, is Hollywood’s third-largest market, after the United States and England. Of course, any insult to the Führer would result in a German boycott of all Hollywood films.

Pickford immediately calls in Chaplin, and while the actor and consul exchange a few insults, she phones some other Hollywood moguls, all of whom urge her to kill the project, rather than offend Hitler and lose the German market.

That part of the play touches on the still-controversial issue of whether Hollywood’s studio chiefs and power brokers, predominantly Jewish, were complicit in vetoing anti-Nazi movies during the ’30s to maintain a low profile and continue the screening of their films in German theaters.

To execute the film’s death warrant, the principals scheduled a meeting for Sept. 1, 1939, which turned out to be the day Germany invaded Poland. Though the United States officially was neutral, President Franklin D. Roosevelt let it be known that he expected Hollywood to turn out strong anti-Nazi films to buck up the Allies’ fighting spirit — and nobody was willing to go against the commander in chief.

 “The Great Dictator,” released on Oct. 15, 1940, became a huge critical and commercial success, as well as a high point in Chaplin’s career. His opponent, Gyssling, returned to Germany and was put in charge of anti-American propaganda after the U.S. entered the war following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. 

Jules Aaron, the play’s award-winning director, noted in an interview with the Journal that the play would open nine days after the U.S. presidential election, and he pointed to some analogies between the main characters in the 1939 and 2016 settings.

 “The Mary Pickford persona is that of a very smart, very powerful woman, often resented for holding a powerful position usually reserved for men, certainly a problem that Hillary Clinton has had to deal with,” Aaron said.

On the other hand, Nazi consul Gyssling seems unable to censor himself or keep from making nasty cracks (“I’ll wring your little Jewish neck,” he tells Chaplin at one point). In a director’s touch, Gyssling keeps circling Pickford during their encounter, similar to President-elect Donald Trump walking around and in front of Clinton during their second debate.

In that sense, Aaron observed prior to the U.S. election, the play is “unfortunately” still relevant.

John Morogiello, the author of “The Consul” and 28 other produced plays, got the idea for his current drama after reading an article about Gyssling, a regular at Hollywood parties, long after the latter’s death. An ardent fan of old movies, Morogiello said that by the late ’30s, Chaplin felt he wanted to make an impact beyond his film persona as a silent clown and risked his career on his first talkie.

The actual circumstances surrounding the near death of “The Great Dictator” differ from those of the play but in a sense are as dramatic as the playwright’s imagination. All the characters in the play, aside from the secretary, actually existed, but their interactions were rather different.

For one, there never was a meeting between Chaplin, Pickford and Gyssling, Morogiello said. The consul’s job was, indeed, to keep Hollywood from making anti-Nazi films, but in real life, he would have turned to the man powerful enough to censor or abort movie projects — Joseph Breen, enforcer of the movie industry’s Hays moral code and a notorious anti-Semite. One clause in the code forbade any Hollywood film to insult the head of a foreign state, and in real life Breen himself would have confronted Pickford and told her to scuttle any idea of producing “The Great Dictator,” Morogiello said. (In actuality, Breen did not get involved in this particular case.) 

There is one more Jewish aspect in the play, but Morogiello asked it not be revealed so as to not spoil the surprise for audiences.

“The Consul, the Tramp and America’s Sweetheart” runs through Dec. 18 at  the Reuben Cordova Theatre in Beverly Hills. For tickets and more information, visit Theatre 40.

Lessons from a summer of sexual assault


I remember driving home from a high school party one night during junior year while my best friend vomited in the back seat. In so many ways, it was a quintessential portrait of youth: one lanky 17-year-old sprawled over the back seat, throwing up alcohol into a bucket, while another tried not to get pulled over by the police for driving after curfew. 

When we got back to my house, my mother was waiting up to help me with Caroline (not her real name), who was so sick we considered taking her to the hospital to have her stomach pumped. She was totally out of it: eyes closed, mumbling incoherently, unable to walk on her own or dial a phone number. My mother, being the tireless caretaker that she was, insisted I get a good night’s sleep while she stayed up until 4 a.m. holding Caroline’s head over my bathtub.  

By late morning, Caroline was awake and had climbed into bed with me. She had a very distressed look on her face. “I need to talk to you,” she said. “I don’t remember what happened to me last night. Did I hook up with someone?”

The only clue Caroline had that some sort of sexual activity occurred was the fact that when she woke, her underwear was on inside-out. She remembered making out with someone early in the night, but not much else. When she called that person, he said, “Yes, we had sex.” But she knew it was rape. 

Before a single word of this was repeated to anyone, the guy enlisted a squadron of friends to intimidate her into silence. Besides, his friends said, he was a really bright student and “a good guy.” He “never meant any harm.” 

The drama of the episode died down pretty quickly and was never reported. But I imagine the trauma of having been violated while passed out never entirely faded for Caroline, whom I lost touch with after college. 

I thought about this episode countless times in recent months, because the summer of 2016 will be remembered, at least in part, as a time when the national conversation focused on sexual assault and may have even shifted in the direction of redemption for some of its victims.

For far too long, perpetrators of sexual assault have gotten all the attention, all the benefit of the doubt, and all the best lawyers, so to honor this summer’s awakening, I want to instead focus on four examples of women who have reclaimed their voices and helped redirect America’s culture of impunity toward a culture of accountability.

1. On June 3, a female reporter for BuzzFeed posted the wrenching letter to the court written by the 23-year-old woman sexually brutalized by Stanford University freshman Brock Turner. When her message went viral, a woman who had found herself beaten down and betrayed by the system was empowered to realize her strength as an engine of moral conscience. 

“Nobody wins,” she read aloud in the courtroom the day the judge sentenced her attacker to a measly six months in prison (in the end, he was released after serving only three). “We have all been devastated; we have all been trying to find some meaning in all of this suffering.” 

“Your damage was concrete,” she said to her attacker, “stripped of titles, degrees, enrollment. My damage was internal, unseen. … You took away my worth, my privacy, my energy, my time, my safety, my intimacy, my confidence, my own voice, until today.”

Her voice, full of outrage and humanity, articulated a story so vivid it read like poetry, and so truthful it held all perpetrators of sexual assault and their enablers to account where the U.S. justice system had failed.

2. A month later, on July 6, former Fox News host Gretchen Carlson announced she had filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against then-Fox News chairman and CEO Roger Ailes. This triggered a volcanic eruption at Rupert Murdoch’s media company, with scores of women coming forward to tell their stories of having been harassed, exploited, manipulated and belittled by Ailes, who had presided over the network with an iron first and silver spoon for two decades.

Laurie Luhn, Marsha Callahan, Kellie Boyle and Shelley Ross are just a handful of the women who took their stories to the press and refused to be cowed into silence any longer. After being pressured by Murdoch and sons, Ailes resigned in disgrace (but with a reported $40 million in severance) on July 21.

3. In August, as Hollywood multi-hyphenate Nate Parker stood to gain increased status and acclaim ahead of the October release of his film “The Birth of a Nation,” about the Nat Turner-led slave rebellion that took place in Virginia in 1831, the writer and activist Roxane Gay took to the pages of The New York Times with an op-ed on “The Limits of Empathy” — especially when it comes to Hollywood stars (think: Woody Allen and Bill Cosby).

In 1999, Parker and his roommate at Penn State University, Jean McGianni Celestin (who would become a writing partner on “The Birth of a Nation”), were accused of raping a young woman. The details are ugly and too complicated to list here, but it’s worth noting that the victim attempted suicide twice before finally ending her suffering in 2012. She left behind a son.

“I have my own history with sexual violence, so I cannot consider such stories with impartiality, though I do try,” Gay wrote in the Times. “It is my gut instinct to believe the victim because there is nothing at all to be gained by going public with a rape accusation except the humiliations of the justice system and public scorn.

“I want to have empathy for [Nate Parker], but everything he says and does troubles me,” she continued. “We’ve long had to face that bad men can create good art. Some people have no problem separating the creation from the creator. I am not one of those people, nor do I want to be. … I can no longer watch ‘The Cosby Show,’ for example, without thinking of the numerous sexual assault accusations against Bill Cosby. Suddenly, his jokes are far less funny.”

4. This new openness hit closest to home, however, when a friend and leader in our community came out as a sexual assault survivor at a public gathering in May. The event was organized by California State Sen. Ben Allen, who chose to honor Oscar-winning filmmaker Amy Ziering with a “Woman of the Year” award for her change-making documentary films “The Invisible War” and “The Hunting Ground,” both of which focus on the scourge of sexual assault — in the military and on college campuses. Ziering had invited her friend, Samara Hutman, executive director of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust at Pan Pacific Park, to introduce her, and for the first time, Hutman told her story publicly of having been molested by a neighbor as an 8-year-old girl. 

“For somebody who has had an experience of sexual assault, violence, abuse, I have a very thin sensitivity to people being wronged and it not being talked about,” Hutman told me when I called her afterward to talk.

She decided to speak out because she was inspired by the courage of all the women in Ziering’s films who shared their stories at great personal risk. 

“Her movies are literally doing the thing that we talk about with students in our [Righteous Conversations] workshops, which are about using media and film to shine a light on things that are hidden and broken,” Hutman said. “We teach them that if you can use your camera and your voice to shine a light, you can change the culture. And Amy was a pinnacle example of somebody who had done exactly that — she kind of shattered the silence.”

There is almost never an upside to a woman telling her story — whether to the world or to the police. As Gay points out in her op-ed, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, “out of every 1,000 rapes, 344 will be reported to the police, 63 of those reports will lead to an arrest, 13 cases will be referred to a prosecutor, seven of those cases will lead to a felony conviction and six of those perpetrators will serve prison time.”

It is nothing less than an act of spiritual resistance and moral courage for a woman to come forward with her truth about sexual assault. And so I celebrate all the brave women of the summer of 2016 and beyond, who speak out in the face of great peril; I also celebrate the women who have been unfairly bullied into silence, including my high school best friend who suffered greatly and never saw justice.

“You’re never going to have a world in which there is not brutality,” Hutman said. “We’ve never seen a time in history where it is a utopian, cruel-free world. So if you take that as a given, that there’s going to be trouble between people, it seems like the best thing we can do is be vigilant against the possibility.”

And let us say, Amen.


Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal.

Los Angeles history: Jews shined among stars on Hollywood minor league team


While the Dodgers battle for a playoff spot with a Jewish player, Joc Pederson, patrolling center field and a Jewish president of baseball operations, Andrew Friedman, heading the front office, let’s turn from the pennant race to recall that the franchise is not Los Angeles’ first baseball team to have Jews in such prominent roles.

In 1938, Herbert Fleishhacker was the Jewish owner of the Hollywood Stars, a minor league team in the Pacific Coast League (PCL) that, beginning in 1939, played at Gilmore Field, near the sites of the Grove and CBS Television City today. He was responsible for bringing the team back to L.A. from San Francisco. (The Stars’ first incarnation played here from 1926-1935.)  Through the team’s run, which ended in 1957, Jews filled key roles on the field, with players such as infielder Murray “Moe” Franklin, outfielder Herb Gorman, pitcher Herb Karpel and former longtime catcher for the New York Giants Harry Danning, who, after his playing days were over, served briefly as a coach.

Off the field, Jews also played an important role in promoting the team.

The stadium, which opened in 1939 and seated nearly 13,000 fans, was located in the heart of the emerging Jewish Fairfax district and drew many Jewish fans, including attorney and local judge Stanley Mosk, who would go on to fame as a long-term associate justice of the California Supreme Court. On the other side of the law, “mobster Mickey Cohen occupied a box right behind the Stars’ dugout,” the Los Angeles Times reported in 2009.

From the late 1930s until the Dodgers arrival from Brooklyn in 1958, L.A. fans were caught up in the rivalry between the Hollywood Stars and their PCL archrivals, the Los Angeles Angels, who played in Wrigley Field, located near USC and now site of the Gilbert Lindsay Recreation Center. To gain access to better players, the Stars worked out an affiliation agreement with the Brooklyn Dodgers for the 1949 season, and after the 1950 season, had one with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

​A 1950 Hollywood Stars team photo includes, in middle row, Murray “Moe” Franklin (far left) and Herb Gorman (fourth from right). Photo courtesy of Mark Macrae Collection

Happily watching many of the Stars’ home games was 9-year-old Bruce Littman.

“We sat in the cheap seats,” Littman said, remembering making the drive with his family from their Compton home to Gilmore Field. “Often, we would go with the CJCC [Compton Jewish Community Center] Men’s Club.” At some games, Littman said, he would even get to see a fellow congregant on the field

“Moe Franklin was a member of the temple,” he said.  “On occasion, [Moe also] played on the [shul’s] men’s club team, but to be honest, the other synagogues objected, understandably,” he said with a laugh.

Franklin (1914-78) was born in Chicago, where, at Schurz High School, he lettered in baseball and soccer. At the University of Illinois, from which he graduated, he was a star player and member of the Jewish fraternity. He was 27 when he played in his first major league game with the Detroit Tigers in 1941. The last game in his brief Tiger career was in 1942. 

“My dad would have had a bigger career [in the majors], but he spent his prime years, ages 28 to 32, in the Navy during the war,” said his son, Dell Franklin, who has written about Moe’s years in baseball.

After World War II, Moe Franklin played for several minor league teams, but his favorite, according to his son, was the Stars: “He thought the team,” which had several other former big leaguers, “was a great mix of guys. They all loved each other.” Exemplifying that relationship, when the elder Franklin wanted to add a room addition onto his Compton home, it was some of his teammates, offseason workers in the building trades, who helped him, the younger Franklin said.

“When I was 7 or 8, my dad would take me to the ballpark,” especially on Saturdays and Sundays, Franklin said, recalling the days spanning the 1949 and ’51 seasons, when his father played for the Hollywood Stars.

A timely team addition, when the Hollywood Stars won the PCL title in 1949, Moe Franklin “had the game-winning homer to clinch the pennant,” his son said, remembering how, during the home games, he got to live out the dream of many boys his age — hanging in the dugout. “The guys all taught me how to play baseball. By the time I was 9, I was playing baseball with 12-year-olds,” he said.

“I couldn’t wait to get down there,” Franklin said. The players nicknamed him “Little Meat,” and, after his dad, “Little Moe.” Though not a batboy, he did help out by cleaning the players’ spikes and conditioning their bats in a process called boning. 

“You get a big bone, almost like a Coke bottle, and you knead the barrel of the bat to get it firm,” explained Franklin, who remembers doing it for Gorman, his father’s roommate on the road and best friend on the team.

Moe Franklin sports the early-’50s “shorties” uniform worn by the Hollywood Stars players. Photo courtesy of Dell Franklin

That friendship was cut short in a shocking manner. In 1953, during a day game, the first of a doubleheader after both Franklin and Gorman had been traded to the San Diego Padres of the PCL, Gorman “had a heart attack out in left field and he died,” Dell Franklin said. “The whole stadium just went hush. My dad and somebody else carried him in. He had a young wife, named Rosalie,” who was at the game. “It was a terrible, terrible day.” 

While with the Stars, Moe Franklin, who never played on Yom Kippur, only experienced anti-Semitism once, Dell Franklin said. When his father was playing third base, “there was a guy who popped off on the Sacramento team. He was in the bullpen and he was getting on Gorman,” who was playing outfield. “When the Sacramento player came in, my dad got up out of the dugout and knocked him on his ass,” Dell said of his father, who was also a championship boxer. 

The elder Franklin also threw the first punch in 1953 when a player for the Stars, attempting to steal third base, where Franklin was playing for the Angels, came in high with spikes — touching off a legendary brawl, broadcast live and later covered in Life magazine, in which 50 police officers were called in to break up the fight.

However, for most of the games, especially those at Gilmore Field, Dell Franklin has more pleasant memories, like seeing at the ballpark the other Hollywood stars, such as Milton Berle, Bob Hope, Kim Novak and Anne Bancroft.

After the 1938 season, Victor Ford Collins, Fleishhacker’s attorney along with Robert H. Cobb, owner of the Brown Derby restaurants, bought the team. “In order to raise funds, the two men formed the Hollywood Baseball Association, and to promote their Hollywood Stars baseball team sold small amounts of stock to numerous Hollywood civic leaders and movie stars,” including George Burns and Grace Allen, Harry Warner, Cecil B. DeMille, William Frawley, Robert Taylor, Barbara Stanwyck, Bing Crosby, Gary Cooper and Gene Autry, according to Stephen M. Daniels, writing for the Society of American Baseball Research.

Helping to get the word out to Los Angeles about the stars, both on the field and off, was their publicity director, Irv Kaze. As part of his job promoting the team, Kaze would get on the phone to stars such as Groucho Marx to let them know when their favorite Stars were going to play, reported Jim McConnell for MILB.com, Kaze, who had a weekly talk show on KRLA (formerly KIEV) from 1992 until his death in 2002. The morning he died, according to a story in the Jewish Journal, “Kaze had attended services at the Congregation Ohev Shalom, where he was a longtime active member.” Kaze was also an inductee and board member of the Southern California Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.

The team is still remembered for its “cool” uniforms. “The Hollywood Stars would play in Bermuda shorts,” remembers Littman of the team’s experiment with “shorties” in the early 1950s. 

“I used to wonder what they did when they slid into base,” Littman said. “That’s gotta hurt.”

Hollywood classic ‘Ben-Hur’ gets modern remake


“Ben-Hur”, the 1959 movie epic that won 11 Oscars, has received a Hollywood revamp — but its makers say the famed chariot race still relies on humans and horses, not special effects.

“Boardwalk Empire” actor Jack Huston takes on the role for which the late Charlton Heston was named Best Actor, playing the young Jewish noble Judah Ben-Hur, who is sent into slavery by Roman occupiers but returns to take his revenge.

“If you think about the climate of the world today — and this movie is set 2,000 years ago — you realise the world hasn't changed that much,” Huston said at the film's Tuesday premiere.

“Being a beautiful action movie with all of the thrills and excitement, it's still a very serious movie for our time.”

Producer Mark Burnett said that for the chariot-racing sequence — nine minutes long in the original — special effects had been used only for crash scenes.

“The actual horses were ridden and driven by the actors. It was 32 horses, eight chariots round and around that arena at full speed, sometimes on one wheel,” he said.

“When the horses have crashes, that's all special effects — but the rest of the racing is all the real horses with the actors.”

“Ben-Hur” hits cinemas worldwide from Wednesday.

Key nominees for the 2016 Emmy Awards


The nominations for the 68th Primetime Emmy Awards, the highest honors in U.S. television, were announced on Thursday by the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. 

The following is a list of nominations in key categories for the Emmy Awards. Winners will be announced at a ceremony in Los Angeles on Sept. 18:

BEST DRAMA SERIES

“The Americans”

“Better Call Saul”

“Downton Abbey”

“Game of Thrones”

“Homeland”

“House of Cards” 

“Mr. Robot”

BEST COMEDY SERIES

“black-ish”

“Master of None”

“Modern Family”

“Silicon Valley”

“Transparent”

“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”

“Veep”

ACTOR IN A DRAMA SERIES

Kyle Chandler, “Bloodline”

Rami Malek, “Mr. Robot”

Bob Odenkirk, “Better Call Saul”

Matthew Rhys, “The Americans”

Liev Schreiber, “Ray Donovan”

Kevin Spacey, “House of Cards”

ACTRESS IN A DRAMA SERIES

Claire Danes, “Homeland”

Viola Davis, “How to Get Away with Murder”

Taraji P. Henson, “Empire”

Tatiana Maslany, “Orphan Black”

Keri Russell, “The Americans”

Robin Wright, “House of Cards”

ACTOR IN A COMEDY SERIES

Anthony Anderson, “black-ish”

Aziz Ansari, “Master of None”

Will Forte, “The Last Man on Earth” 

William H. Macy, “Shameless”

Thomas Middleditch, “Silicon Valley”

Jeffrey Tambor, “Transparent”

ACTRESS IN A COMEDY SERIES

Ellie Kemper, “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”

Julia Louis-Dreyfus, “Veep”

Laurie Metcalf, “Getting On” 

Tracee Ellis Ross, “black-ish”

Amy Schumer, “Inside Amy Schumer”

Lily Tomlin, “Grace and Frankie”

BEST LIMITED SERIES

“American Crime”

“Fargo”

“The Night Manager”

“The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story”

“Roots”

ACTOR IN A LIMITED SERIES OR MOVIE

Bryan Cranston, “All The Way”

Benedict Cumberbatch, “Sherlock”

Idris Elba, “Luther”

Cuba Gooding Jr, “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story”

Tom Hiddleston, “The Night Manager”

Courtney B. Vance, “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story”

ACTRESS IN A LIMITED SERIES OR TV MOVIE

Kirsten Dunst, “Fargo” 

Felicity Huffman, “American Crime”

Audra McDonald, “Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill”

Sarah Paulson, “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story”

Lili Taylor, “American Crime”

Kerry Washington, “Confirmation”

VARIETY TALK SERIES

“Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee”

“Jimmy Kimmel Live”

“Last Week Tonight with John Oliver”

“The Late Late Show with James Corden”

“Real Time with Bill Maher”

“The Tonight Show”

REALITY COMPETITION PROGRAM

“The Amazing Race”

“American Ninja Warrior”

“Dancing with the Stars”

“Project Runway”

“Top Chef”

“The Voice”

Getting ‘UnREAL’ with Shiri Appleby: Actress dishes on playing a Jewish, feminist antihero


In the world of television, Rachel Goldberg is a rare character: a Jewish, female antihero.

She’s the main character in “UnREAL,” a scripted drama on Lifetime about the behind-the-scenes world of a “The Bachelor”-type reality show called “Everlasting.”

Rachel is played by Shiri Appleby, who’s best known for her lead role as Liz Parker on “Roswell”; more recently she played Adam’s nice Jewish girlfriend, Natalia, on “Girls.” Rachel is complex in the way that all humans are complex — though she masterfully encapsulates the neuroses commonly found in highly driven people in certain industries. She’s manipulative yet self-sabotaging, vulnerable yet strong and, perhaps most of all, extremely good at her job.

Like its main character, “UnREAL” smacks of authenticity — that’s because one of its co-creators, Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, spent three years as a producer of “The Bachelor.” Shapiro based “UnREAL” on her experiences there — from the punishing hours to producers being rewarded for making contestants cry on camera

The first season of “UnREAL,” which aired last June and is now streaming on Hulu, was met with acclaim, with many praising its feminism and originality.

“UnREAL” offers a singular meditation on stardom, media mendacity, sexism, and competition among women,” D.T. Max wrote in The New Yorker.

Jewish references are sprinkled throughout the series, such as the time Rachel memorably said, “sheket b’vakasha,” Hebrew for “be quiet” — or, more aptly, “shut up.” And, this being about “the industry” there are loads of Jewish characters, too, from this season’s Jewish contestant, Yael (Monica Barbaro) — called “Hot Rachel” by the crew, thanks to her passing resemblance to Appleby’s character — and Rachel’s new love interest, Coleman Wasserman (Michael Rady), who was brought on to replace Rachel as the show’s on-set boss, or showrunner.

Next week’s episode, the mid-point of the second season, was directed by Appleby herself — something she’s long wanted to do. (In fact, Appleby got the “Girls” gig because she was shadowing a director of the show.) Appleby tells JTA that this episode will find Rachel dealing with the aftermath of a disturbing assault by her ex-boyfriend, as well as follow a Confederate flag-bikini wearing “Everlasting” contestant as she brings the African-American suitor to her Southern hometown.

In addition to directing more episodes next season,  “I’m trying to get other directing [jobs] on other shows,” Appleby says.

JTA spoke to Appleby about her own Jewish background, playing a complex antihero and more.

JTA: What was your Jewish upbringing like? I’ve read that your father is Ashkenazi and mother is Sephardic. Did you grow up with traditions from both?

Appleby: I grew up going to Hebrew school. We celebrated all the holidays. I was bat mitzvahed. My parents are involved in the temple. Judaism has been a huge part of my life.

Is it still?

Yes, it is. Our family is still very close. We still celebrate everything. I still have a Jewish identity.

Is it important to you to play Jewish characters?

It’s not something that I actively seek out, but when it is a Jewish character, I can definitely relate to it.

Do you know if the character of Rachel was always written as Jewish, before you landed the part?

I think she was Jewish, but I don’t think it was for her to be as Jewish as she’s become. I think that has a lot to do with me just improvising and throwing things out, and the writers liking it.

We’re seeing more female antiheroes like Rachel on television. As a woman, what’s it like to get a part like this?

It’s incredible. It’s best-case scenario, obviously. I didn’t realize that it was as groundbreaking as it is, but it’s interesting to be a part of it and to be a part of the conversation.

Do you always agree with what Rachel does?

I don’t agree with everything that she does, but at the same time, I understand why the writers are doing it and I’m playing a character. You don’t need to agree with everything that she does to tell the story.

What do you think of her as a person?

I feel for her. I feel empathy for her. I don’t think she knows what would make her happy. She obviously has a hard time trusting the world and that’s a really unfortunate way to navigate life.

What are your hopes for Rachel going forward?

I hope that she learns to trust, quite honestly. Just to trust the world around her. I think that would be a huge step.

Yamashiro: The mountain palace built by Jews


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

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

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

Adolph Bernheimer 1943

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Improv booker has thriving lab for humor experiments


When Jamie Flam arrives at the Hollywood Improv at noon every day, he’s prepared to spend the next 12 hours booking and producing shows, negotiating deals with talent and agents, and watching live comedy. 

A soft-spoken 39-year-old from Granada Hills, Flam always wanted to be in entertainment. However, he never thought that becoming the artistic director and booker of the club would be in his future.  

“I was afraid of the Improv, to be honest,” he said. “It seemed like it was difficult to get booked at and an impenetrable force.” 

Since 2010, Flam has worked to revitalize the now-thriving Lab, a side room at the club where up-and-coming comedians can get stage time and show producers are able to experiment. When he was first brought on, the space was empty, so Flam started reaching out to producers at his former gig at the Westside Eclectic (now the Westside Comedy Theater in Santa Monica). Soon enough, the Lab was hosting 50 shows a month. 

While the main room will feature headliners like Dane Cook, Joe Rogan and Maria Bamford, the Lab hosts live podcast recordings, a comedy show that’s also a spelling bee, and Comedy Living Room, which started in a house in Hollywood. 

“I like shows that bring people to a different world and universe,” Flam said.

Aside from making sure that the Lab is up and running, he also books comedians for the other shows in the main room. It’s not easy, as he once tweeted: “Booking a comedy club is 1 percent booking, 99 percent apologizing.” 

 “I really don’t like having to say no, which is something I have to do all day, every day,” he said. “There is only so much stage time for hundreds and hundreds of amazing performers in the city. I’m constantly having to tell comedians and the industry that, unfortunately, I’m not able to get them and their acts up onstage.”

When Flam isn’t handling the bookings and producing other people’s shows, he works on his own. He’s one half of the comedy duo the Spanglers, with Vanessa Ragland. Together, they’re a fake husband and wife who wear flamboyant vests and riff off each other onstage. It’s in the vein of Andy Kaufman, Neil Hamburger, and Marty and Bobbi Culp, the fictional singing husband and wife that Will Ferrell and Ana Gasteyer played on “Saturday Night Live.” The Spanglers perform at Van Jam, their show at the Improv that features comedians, a live band and storytellers. 

The artistic director also hosts Gatekeeper, a podcast in which he interviews the decision-makers in comedy. Episodes have included talks with Adam Eget, who books the Comedy Store in Los Angeles; Zoe Friedman, the daughter of the Improv founder Budd Friedman and senior vice president of development at Blue Ribbon Content; and Bart Coleman, booker of “@midnight” on Comedy Central. On a recent installment, Flam chatted with Todd Glass, a stand-up comedian who performs at the Lab once a week.

 “I love everything Jamie has done,” Glass said in a phone interview. “He makes comedy an event. From the minute you walk into the Lab, you see that the room is artistically appealing. That’s everything in comedy. It’s not just a little bonus.”

Comedian Sarah Silverman, a regular at the club, also had praise for Flam’s work. “Jamie Flam has created this jazzy, alternative safe haven with the Improv Comedy Lab, and I love it,” she said. 

Flam developed his talent for booking and producing shows when he was in his 20s at Westside Eclectic. Although that was his first official job in comedy, he knew from a young age that he wanted to be involved in show business. 

“I was a musical theater nerd in elementary school,” he said. “That exposed me to performing and producing shows and being comedic onstage. I played Mr. MacAfee in ‘Bye Bye Birdie.’ It was my big moment.”  

The Flam family has been in L.A. since 1905, but he’s the first to work in entertainment. His parents own Flam’s Lock & Key in Sherman Oaks, and his grandmother had a shop called Angela’s Typewriter. 

Flam, who celebrates the Jewish holidays, grew up going to Hebrew school and had his bar mitzvah at Temple Ahavat Shalom in Northridge. He enjoyed watching “SNL,” along with the comedy of Phil Hartman, Dana Carvey and “Weird Al” Yankovic. 

These days, he said his favorites are Silverman, Glass, Pete Holmes, Louis CK, Chelsea Peretti and other “performers who lay it all on the line onstage. I like authenticity and performers that take chances and do weirder material.” 

While having to say no to comedians and industry professionals is difficult, Flam said that seeing great comedy live at the club is inspirational. “I love watching an audience that is totally out of their own heads and connecting with the performers, and creating unique experiences that people can’t get anywhere else.” 

One day, Flam hopes to own a production company, write and produce for television, have a musical on Broadway and open up a theme park. 

“I want it to be called Flamtasia,” he said. 

Although he was only half-joking, Flam said that, realistically, he strives to continue putting ideas out into the world. 

“To always be creating is the main thing,” he said. “I want to create things and take people to another place that is enchanting and magical.”

Filming Jewry’s greatest stories


Hollywood was largely founded by Jews, who to this day constitute a large percentage of America’s mainstream filmmaking community. Perhaps more than anywhere else, Jews are conspicuously powerful in the moviemaking industry and have been since its inception over a century ago.

Consider our Jewish screenwriters, whose outstanding talents emerged and/or flourished in every decade in the last hundred years:

In the 1920s, Ben Hecht (The Front Page); in the 1930s, Robert Riskin (It Happened One Night) and Julius J. & Philip G. Epstein (Casablanca); in the 1940s, Adolph Green (Singin' in the Rain), Melvin Frank (White Christmas), and Lillian Hellman (The Little Foxes); in the 1950s, Ernest Lehman (The Sound of Music), I. A. L. Diamond (Some Like It Hot), Budd Schulberg (On the Waterfront), Norman Corwin (Lust for Life), and Paddy Chayefsky (Network); in the 1960s, William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid); in the 1970s, Woody Allen (Annie Hall); in the 1980s, Lawrence Kasdan (Raiders of the Lost Ark), Lowell Ganz & Babaloo Mandel (City Slickers), Nora Ephron (When Harry Met Sally), Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (The Remains of the Day), and Robert J. Avrech (A Stranger Among Us); in the 1990s, Aaron Sorkin (A Few Good Men), Akiva Goldsman (A Beautiful Mind), and Joel & Ethan Coen (O Brother, Where art Thou?); and in the 2000s, David Benioff (Troy) and Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation).

These are perhaps Hollywood's most noteworthy Jewish screenwriters, though they are hardly all of them. Moreover, the abundance and ability of Jewish studio executives, producers, directors, performers, agents, and managers are similarly impressive throughout Hollywood’s history.

It is therefore all the more confounding that an overwhelming majority of the Jewish People’s greatest tales have yet to be given the full silver screen treatment.

An objective observer would perforce conclude that, according to Hollywood, there have been just two seminal events in 4,000 years of Jewish history: the Exodus (our greatest triumph) and the Holocaust (our greatest trauma), with nothing doing in between. Both the Exodus (c. 1250 BCE) and the Holocaust (1933-1945) are historic events of the first magnitude and obviously deserve telling and retelling. But these are far from the only dramatic episodes in the raveled scroll of Jewish history, and it would be a tremendous disservice to our collective heritage and identity to focus solely on them to the exclusion of many other dramas worthy of their own limelight.  

What rationales account for this glaring reluctance to produce Jewry’s many remarkable stories? Two explanations come to mind, one psychological and the other commercial: a) the Jewish filmmaking community’s desire to downplay its influence in Hollywood; b) profitability concerns.

From a communal perspective, the first issue is a real problem. Dead or suffering Jews have never lacked onscreen depiction; living Jews—let alone proud, traditional, thriving Jews—haven’t fared anywhere near as well. This pathological fetishization of victimhood—appeasement through displays of weakness—is a salient aspect of the exile mentality. Diasporic Jews are only ever supposed to be persecuted and oppressed, never strong, confident, heroic, or patriotic. Never victors.

Thus, if actual Jews succeed and attain prominence, they instinctively yet misguidedly seek to minimize this earned feat by emphasizing the helplessness and misery in Jewish history, as repeatedly portrayed on the big screen.

This is a key factor which helps explain why the saga of the Maccabees, for instance, has been indefensibly deprived of filmic rendering. It took Mel Gibson, of all people, just to get their story in development (ultimately to no end). Naturally, for authenticity’s sake, a people’s greatest stories should be told by its own members, and not forsaken by them so as to be culturally appropriated by outsiders. Orphaned narratives may be adopted by unsympathetic caretakers.

But the Maccabees’ story is only one among very many awaiting the cinematic spotlight. What about the eventful reigns of Hezekiah or Josiah, or the transformational Babylonian Captivity, or the momentous struggles of Ezra and Nehemiah to rebuild the Jewish state, or the legendary and faraway Khazar kingdom? Where are the compelling biopics about Queen Helena of Adiabene, Meir Baal HaNess, Saadia Gaon, Rashi, Bishop Bodo, Nahmanides, Pablo Christiani, Don Isaac Abravanel, Joseph Karo, Isaac Luria, the Maharal of Prague and the Golem, Shabbetai Zvi, the Baal Shem Tov, the Vilna Gaon, Moses Montefiore, Henrietta Szold, Hannah Szenes, or lovebirds David and Paula Ben-Gurion, to cite but a sample?

To be perfectly clear, these stories should be told neither because of the strident self-centeredness of identity politics, nor for propaganda, nor to meet any Jewish content quota in the movie marketplace, but simply because they are captivating and memorable stories that deserve mass audiences.

A few historical Jewish films (non-Exodus, non-Holocaust) have managed to surpass the Hollywood gauntlet over the decades, most notably Samson and Delilah (1949), David and Bathsheba (1951), Solomon and Sheba (1959), Esther and the King (1960), Norman Corwin’s The Story of Ruth (1960), Melville Shavelson’s Cast a Giant Shadow (1966), King David (1985), and One Night with the King (2006), although several of these were generated outside of Jewish Hollywood and all of these generally represent exceptions to the rule. They also tend to revisit the same Jewish personages to the exclusion of myriad others never represented in feature films.

As for the question of profitability—the primary concern of commercial producers—precedents proving financial viability exist, validating the further production of Jewish stories. Among the major Jewish stories that have been filmed, The Ten Commandments (budget: $13 million/domestic gross: $80 million), Schindler’s List (budget: $22 million/worldwide gross: $321 million), The Prince of Egypt (budget: $70 million/worldwide gross: $218 million), Munich (budget: $70 million/worldwide gross: $130 million), and Exodus: Gods & Kings (budget: $140 million/worldwide gross: $268 million), for example, convincingly attest to the lucrative possibilities.

Until Jewry’s untold tales are given their due, Jewish Hollywood will be unjustifiably marginalizing its own and perpetuating excessive self-effacement, missing opportunities in so doing.

Until then, Jews the world over will continually hope for the cinematic recognition of their rich heritage, and privately wonder of their kindred in Hollywood, “Ayekah? Where are you?”

Japanese corruption, greed are spilled in ‘Blood’


“Blood,” a new play currently at the Complex on Theatre Row in Hollywood, dramatizes an actual Japanese legal case that unfolded over many years and came to be known as the tainted blood scandal.

Playwright/director Robert Allan Ackerman said his script blends fact and fiction. “The general facts of it are all true,” he said. “Some of the characters are fictionalized. They’re actually condensations of many characters.”

The details of the case are complicated, but, in the end, it was proven that the heads of several Japanese pharmaceutical companies, with the collusion of Japanese government ministers, knowingly imported and sold HIV-contaminated blood products from the United States, all the while assuring the public the products were safe. This continued even after a heating process that killed HIV was developed in 1983 by drug companies in the U.S. 

Some 2,000 Japanese hemophiliacs in need of blood are believed to have contracted AIDS from infected agents during the 1980s.

By 1985, some heated blood products were being imported into Japan; however, the companies apparently wanted to profit from their existing stock of untreated product and continued to sell the tainted materials. They also wanted to develop their own heating process to diminish competition from America. In 1996, a newly appointed Japanese health minister uncovered nine hidden files, which he said were definite proof of the conspiracy. 

Ackerman who worked in Japan intermittently over a 20-year period, said he was there directing a play as the scandal was breaking. He recalled being approached by a Japanese film company that asked if he would be interested in making a movie about the subject. They provided him with extensive research, and he eventually wrote a treatment.

“My friends told me, ‘You’d better not do this. You’re going to get a bullet in your head.’ And so I put the thing away, and I didn’t look at it for years, until just recently, when I thought maybe I could turn it into a theater piece,” he said. “I mentor this Japanese group of actors [the Garage]. And they wanted to do a play, so I said, ‘I have this in my drawer.’ ”

Early in the play, a Jewish-American reporter (Alexa Hamilton) reunites with a Japanese friend (Takuma Anzai), who becomes mysteriously ill and dies. The reporter learns from a Japanese-Korean lawyer (Sohee Park) that her friend was a hemophiliac and regularly injected himself with blood products. She and the lawyer hear about other hemophiliacs in Japan who are dying, and they begin to suspect that blood infected with HIV is the cause. They continue probing, learn from witnesses about the wrongdoing, and eventually encourage AIDS-infected patients to file a lawsuit against five drug companies, the health ministry and the AIDS research committee. 

When the lawsuit begins, the plaintiffs are shielded from view in a tent. They are loath to reveal their identity because of the shame in Japanese culture of having AIDS. Several years into the suit, a teenage plaintiff, who contracted AIDS as a child of about 10, and who wants an apology even more than a financial settlement, takes his boom box out in the street and announces that the government gave him AIDS, thereby making the court case public and attracting a great deal of media attention. The character is based on a real young man who, seemingly miraculously, went from being infected with AIDS to being disease-free. He is now a 40 year-old husband, father and member of the Japanese Parliament.

The musical numbers in the play that feature the government ministers are set to the score of “The Mikado” and contain sharply humorous lyrics. “My idea of making the villains into buffoons and, sort of vaudeville comics, I feel, is a very good choice given what’s going on now in the Republican primary.

“And I think by making them comedic, it reveals their evil without having to write this malicious dialogue that I wouldn’t really know how to write. I was doing it really for theatrical effect.”

Like the reporter in his play, Ackerman is Jewish. Though he said he is not observant, he does feel his heritage, which includes religious grandparents, informs his work.

“I would think my sense of humor — I would think a certain amount of human kindness, if you want to call it that, compassion … has a lot to do with having been brought up Jewish. In most all of my work, I can see that. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt that consciously, but I certainly see it as a theme in all of my work. I’m usually drawn to stories that are about somehow repairing the world — speaking truth to power.”

For information about production dates and tickets, visit plays411.net.

The most beautiful women in the world


On my mother’s vanity table, all smooth mahogany and beveled mirrors, the pancake powder smelled like ball gowns and midnight music. The lipstick, crimson velvet in a lacquered tube, left a telltale stain on my hands no matter how many times I washed them before my parents came home. The top drawer was filled with wire rollers and hairpins, bottles of Clinique skin cream and cases of Max Factor eye shadow. The middle drawer was stuffed with faded paperbacks and blue airmail envelopes that carried letters from my mother’s older sister in New York. In the bottom drawer there was only a booklet of 5-by-7 postcards, attached at the edges so that they folded into a 3-inch pile or fanned out accordion-like, and that bore pictures of what my mother called, almost reverently, “The Most Beautiful Women in the World.” 

Rita Hayworth. Lauren Bacall. Grace Kelly. Elizabeth Taylor. I learned their names years before I was allowed to see any of the films they starred in. Not every face on those postcards looked especially beautiful to me, but they all exuded a kind of strength, some of which, no doubt, I projected onto them, that seemed eternally beyond the reach of any wives or mothers I’d ever know. It wasn’t the movies that interested me so much, or the characters these actresses played. To this day, I think I’ve seen but a fraction any of these actors’ work. 

It was their stories that enchanted me — the fact that they were famous in their own right, not for being someone’s wife or mother; that they made and spent their own money; that they married any man they wanted, as often as they wanted. A prince in exile, a sitting king. A man who picked a teenage girl out of an Italian slum, another who gave his wife a diamond known as the Taj Mahal. Powerful men who wielded authority over so many others but who became, in the write up of these movie stars’ lives, not much more than a footnote. In the world I knew, even the queen, Farah Diba, whose husband at one point bestowed upon her the title “Empress,” didn’t have any of the latitude or independence I imagined in those movie stars. 

Then I grew up, and the “pictures,” in the immortal words of Norma Desmond, “got small.” 

In Los Angeles, I would see a whole new generation of movie stars up close. By then I knew enough to separate the myth of those early movie stars from their reality. I realized that the new crop wielded much greater control over their own fates than the studio creations of old could have dreamed of; that many of these younger stars were more skilled and talented than their predecessors; that they managed to do more personally and professionally. Any one of them was more “real,” less of an image constructed by a few old, cigar-chomping men, than a dozen “most beautiful women” put together. And yet.

Anjelica Huston having lunch at a Bel Air restaurant. Meryl Streep picking up her children from a Santa Monica preschool. “Hanoi” Jane Fonda having her nails painted in a Beverly Hills salon by a recent immigrant from Vietnam, a girl named Iris. I’d see them in the flesh and watch them on the small and large screen and wonder what it was that they lacked, why neither their face nor their name ever evoked the millisecond of awe and envy I had experienced every time that old paper accordion fell open in my parents’ Tehran bedroom. 

The same thing happened, I realized soon enough, with woman practitioners of other arts. A dozen perennially brilliant writers, no matter how refined their work, didn’t hold a candle to one lesser-known Marguerite Duras. All the Madonnas and Lady Gagas of the world didn’t measure up to one Billie Holiday. It was more than a factor of the democratization of the field, the relative ease of access to that once miraculous quality called stardom. It was more, too, than familiarity piercing fantasy. 

The day of the South Carolina primaries last week, I was having lunch with my three best friends from college. We all started out as die-hard Hillary Clinton supporters in 2008. One of us is now a Bernie Sanders voter, another is undecided. I and the other holdout love everything we hear from Sanders, believe he’s well-meaning and honest, not nearly as compromised by divided loyalties and backroom deal-making as Clinton. We agree that Clinton is no Snow White, would probably not win any Grandma of the Year, Best-Dressed or Sexy at 60 awards. But to us, she’s still a rock star, which sounds funny, I know, and utterly incomprehensible to her many detractors, even some Democrats. 

I thought about this all weekend — why a person like Hillary, Goldman Sachs speeches and other warts and all, holds a rank for me I doubt any other female politician will ever reach. I thought about it Sunday night as I watched the Oscars. I’ve never been a film buff — I watch the show for the gowns and speeches. Afterward, I went online and looked for footage of “The Most Beautiful Women in the World” making their speeches in their gowns. The younger actors have done more, I thought, and have fewer warts and scars to show for it. And yet. 

And yet, I finally realized late Sunday night after the screen went dark on the election coverage and the Oscars telecast, it’s that quality of being an early pathfinder, the courage it takes to invent the wheel instead of improving its performance, that subsequent generations will inevitably lack. It’s the scars and warts — the failed marriages, the substance abuse, the children who write “Mommy Dearest” memoirs when they’re finally able to speak for themselves, the dying with 70 cents in the bank — that make their battles epic. It’s being the betrayed wife, the despised-by-half-the-country former first lady, the carpet-bagging to New York, the loss of the nomination once, maybe twice, that makes Hillary a rock star. It’s that she dared, and is good enough to be a serious contender, in a field in which a woman can’t have it all — at this time or probably ever — that she realized she was going to pay the price and did so willingly and through hard work. 

That scent of pancake powder and Givenchy’s L’Interdit around my mother’s table, those stories of found and lost fame and fortune, staged-to-hide-the-bruises-and-black-eye close-ups, fairy-tale beginnings and mostly tragic ends — they’re what made those women, and Hillary Clinton, stars.

Gina Nahai’s most recent novel is “The Luminous Heart of Jonah S.”

Hollywood should engage with Israel


The BDS campaign (Boycott, Divestment Sanctions) is against a lot of things.  It is against the Jewish State of Israel, its government, institutions and civil society.  It is against engagement and dialogue with the people of Israel.   And it is against other people experiencing the beauty, contradictions and complexities of Israel first hand. 

These are the motivations behind the current effort by the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation and Jewish Voice for Peace, prominent leaders in the BDS campaign who are against Oscar nominees accepting an Israeli invitation to visit Israel.

While each recipient of this gift bag will decide whether to take Israel up on the offer, they should not decline it because of what those who only stand “against” say.

In their demonization of all things Israel, and the spurious and incendiary labeling of Israel as “apartheid,” this campaign is presenting one extreme view of Israel.  Yet as anyone who has traveled anywhere in the world knows, seeing the on-the-ground reality with your own eyes offers insights that underscore how superficial and simplistic second hand reports – and allegations – are.

Travel to Israel, China, India, Spain, or even the United States does not represent an endorsement of every policy of that country’s government.  Tourists are able to get the perspectives of the locals they meet in cafes and bars or in the back of a taxi — and as we have all experienced, much of it critical — and through this  gain insight into the politics and realities of the place.

The most memorable Oscar-winning films and performances are those that offer the audience a new and personal way of looking at a story, predicament or event.    It opens people’s mind to different perspectives.  So too does personal engagement with Israel.

A few months ago, British cultural figures published an open letter calling for cultural bridges, not boycotts, to bring about Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation.  As these luminaries, including Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling wrote:  “Open dialogue and interaction promote greater understanding and mutual acceptance, and it is through such understanding and acceptance that movement can be made towards a resolution of the conflict…Cultural engagement builds bridges, nurtures freedom and positive movement for change.”

It is this message of openness and engagement which Hollywood – even those who are not Oscar nominees – should get behind.

Amanda Susskind is the Pacific Southwest Regional Director of the Anti-Defamation League

New HBO doc explores Mike Nichols’ journey from Nazi Germany to Hollywood


In 1939, a 7-year-old Jewish boy named Mikhail Igor Peschkowsky left Nazi Germany and, accompanied only by his 4-year-old brother, arrived in New York with an English vocabulary consisting of two phrases: “I don’t speak English” and “Please don’t kiss me.”

By the early 1960s, the refugee boy, renamed Mike Nichols, had taken Broadway by storm with his improvisational comedy skits with Elaine May, and he went on to become an iconic American theater and film director.

When Nichols died in 2014 at 83, Variety headlined the obituary, “Mike Nichols: Émigré to Eminence.”

Despite the urging of friends, Nichols never wrote an autobiography. However, two months before his death, he sat down with his old friend and colleague, theater producer/director Jack O’Brien, for two extended interviews, one before a live audience and the other private.

The result is a 75-minute film, “Becoming Mike Nichols,” which HBO will premiere on Feb. 22 at 9 p.m.

The film’s opening hits a high and nostalgic note with some Nichols and May skits, which were akin to unrehearsed high-wire acts, in which neither partner knew what the other was going to say.

One classic example has May as the ultra-Jewish mother phoning her son, the rocket scientist, to ask why he never calls.  

In another, Nichols suddenly asks about the title song for “The Brothers Karamazov” (Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s great philosophical and spiritual novel) and, without missing a beat, May comes up with both melody and lyrics.

The Nichols-May act broke up in the early 1960s because of what Nichols described as his “very controlling” attitude.

Soon after, Nichols took in a performance of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” starring Marlon Brando and Jessica Tandy, and was overwhelmed. He decided that the theater was for him -— not as an actor, but as a director.

After Broadway successes with Neil Simon’s “Barefoot in the Park” and “The Odd Couple,” it was time for him to switch genres again, becoming a movie director. Without any experience in the medium and only an informal three-day crash course as preparation, Nichols, as usual, started at the top.

His first two films became instant classics: The first, directing Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966), followed by “The Graduate” (1967).

In the HBO film, Nichols recalls his second movie by adding a few nuggets of information to the already much-studied masterwork. After interviewing hundreds of young actors without finding the right one for the title role, he says, he came across a young actor he had seen in an off-Broadway production playing a transvestite Russian fishwife. The actor’s name was Dustin Hoffman, and the rest is history.

“The Graduate” benefited immensely from its musical score by the folk-rock duo of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, but Nichols pressed them for one more song. At first stuck, the duo remembered one of their uncompleted songs, titled “And Here’s to You, Mrs. Roosevelt.” They switched the name to “Mrs. Robinson” and a hit was born.

By the end of his life, Nichols had received one Oscar, four Emmys, nine Tonys and a Grammy.

In an interview with the Journal, O’Brien described Nichols as not only an immensely talented artist, but also a real mensch.

“Mike had the fuse of life burning within him,” O’Brien said, “but he was also a phenomenal friend. He had a genuine love of people, and in company somehow made you feel that you were the smartest person in the room … perhaps his greatest gift, as an artist and a person, was that he made you better by seeking out the best in you.”

“Becoming Mike Nichols” has been praised as “a master class” in the craft of the theater, but Nichols speaks more in terms of emotions and attitudes than how-to bits of advice.

On directing: “One minute, you don’t know, then suddenly, you get it. That’s the thrill, that’s why you are here.”

On plot lines: “There are three types of scenes … negotiations, seductions and fights.”

On making successful movies: “You get lucky in many strange ways.”

Aside from a few sentences about Nichols’ departure from Nazi Germany, there is no mention of his Jewishness.

“The topic never really came up,” O’Brien said. “Our discussions focused almost entirely on the theater and Nichols’ career.”

Except for an occasional dinner, in which Nichols’ wife, former TV news anchor and reporter Diane Sawyer, joined in, O’Brien said he knew little of his friend’s private life.

In any case, “Mike treated me as [if] I were Jewish, or simply thought of me as an Irish Jew,” O’Brien said.

For readers eager to learn more about the Jewish aspect of Nichols’ life, a good source is a chapter on him in Abigail Pogrebin’s book “Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish,” which was excerpted in the Nov. 20, 2014 issue of Tablet’s online magazine.

Asked in the excerpt whether his Jewishness related to his sense of being an outsider, Nichols replied, “This is tricky, because I think there are two different things: One is Jewishness and one is refugee-ness.

“The second one being what you might call the ‘Sebold Syndrome’ … namely that your guilt about the Six Million finally comes up and gets you. … By definition, whether you are a refugee or not, you are a member of a group that has been hated by a large number of people through all history. It’s impossible not to be aware of that hatred.”

When O’Brien asks why so many comedians and comedy writers have been Jewish, Nichols responds, “Jewish introspection and Jewish humor are ways of surviving. Not only as a group, but as individuals. If you’re not handsome, and you’re not athletic, and you’re not rich, there’s still one last hope with girls, which is being funny. Girls like funny guys.” 

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Actor Abe Vigoda, known for ‘Godfather’ role, dies at age 94


Abe Vigoda, an American actor best known for roles in “The Godfather” and the 1970s sitcom “Barney Miller,” died on Tuesday at the age of 94, after spending three decades jokingly refuting rumors of his demise.

Vigoda's daughter, Carol Vigoda Fuchs, said her father died at her home in New Jersey. “He died in his sleep, of natural causes. He was not sick,” she told Reuters.

Vigoda, who was adept at drama and comedy with a hang-dog face, slouched posture and slow delivery, played mobster traitor Salvatore Tessio in “The Godfather” in 1972, his first credited movie role. His character was doomed for betraying the Corleone family in the film but had a cameo role in the flashback scenes of “The Godfather Part II” two years later.

His most famous role was as the grumpy and deadpan Detective Sergeant Phil Fish in the “Barney Miller” police comedy series. He picked up three supporting-actor Emmy nominations for the part.

Vigoda spent years amiably proving he was still alive after People magazine mistakenly declared him “the late Abe Vigoda” in 1982, when he was 62. The question of his mortality became a running gag that he learned to live with.

To disprove the People report, he posed for a photo sitting in a coffin. His alive-or-dead status became an often-revisited joke in his appearances on Conan O'Brien's late-night show and in a skit on David Letterman's show, he curtly advised the host, “I'm not dead yet, you pinhead!”

Vigoda also had roles in films where his longevity was the joke and appeared with the equally well-seasoned actress Betty White in a commercial during the Super Bowl in February 2010.

The website www.abevigoda.com was set up simply to give his status – “Abe Vigoda is alive” – above a photo of the actor and a date/time stamp. On Tuesday, that was changed to “Abe Vigoda is dead.”

Born in New York City on Feb. 24, 1921, Abraham Charles Vigodah was the son of Jewish immigrants from Russia. His father was a tailor.

He had his first role on stage at age 17 and, dropping the “H” from his last name along the way, had modest success in theater and on television through the 1960s.

Vigoda was already past 50 when he got his break in “The Godfather.” In an interview with CNN, Vigoda recalled being summoned to the office of director Francis Ford Coppola in an open casting call.

“It seems he'd seen me in a play or plays,” Vigoda said, adding that one of the reasons Coppola “was interested in me was that nobody knew my face.”

Vigoda said the role opposite stars like Marlon Brando, Al Pacino and James Caan in one of Hollywood's greatest movies changed his life.

From there, Vigoda moved to the “Barney Miller” series.

“I got the role because the producer thought I looked tired,” Vigoda said. “But I looked tired because I had been jogging earlier that day.”

In a typical line from “Barney Miller,” Fish bemoaned the effects of age: “Do you know what it feels like to be running down 43rd Street and your partner is cornering a guy on 52nd? Do you know how I found out what happened? I asked a reporter. Four radio stations beat me to the scene of the crime.”

Unlike the creaky, lethargic Fish, Vigoda was a vigorous man who played handball regularly and was still jogging into his 80s.

Vigoda worked in TV and movies well into his 80s. His other work included the films “Good Burger,” “Joe Versus the Volcano,” “Look Who's Talking” and “Cannonball Run.” He also appeared on television series such as “Soap,” “The Rockford Files,” “Wings” and the vampire soap opera “Dark Shadows.”

Oscars red carpet preview: Is modesty the new sexy?


Pity Jennifer Lopez. As far as memorable red carpet moments go, she set such a high bar at the 2000 Grammys with her now-legendary plunging green Versace dress that she seemed destined to never top it.

But many fashion insiders (and followers) have been buzzing about the actress-singer’s Golden Globes gown earlier this month. That’s not because of how much of her body she showed off, but precisely the opposite: The caped, marigold-colored Giambattista Valli dress covered her shoulders, most of her arms and even much of her legs.

J.Lo was hardly the only celeb on the red carpet taking a (relatively) modest turn. Cate Blanchett rocked an elbow- and knee-covering flapper-inspired fringe dress from Givenchy, while Julianne Moore wore a long-sleeved blue sequin Tom Ford gown that would have been appropriately gorgeous attire for a black-tie synagogue event. And all three women landed on many a best dressed list.

Julianne Moore wearing a glamorous, full-coverage Tom Ford gown to the Golden Globe Awards, Jan. 10, 2016. Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images

“Modesty has very much found its niche within the fashion world, and not just for religious women,” says Adi Heyman, founder of the Jewish fashion blog Fabologie. “There’s an empowerment to owning your look and not having to put everything out there.”

Granted, only a few of these red carpet gowns actually adhere to Orthodox rules of modesty — varying among communities, that typically means covering necklines, backs, elbows and knees. Blanchett’s Golden Globes dress had an open back, after all, and J.Lo’s frock had a slit up to her thigh (and she seemingly spared no opportunity to flaunt said thigh). But compared to the typical trajectory of ever more revealing designs — after all, 2015 showcased the super-bare “naked dress” favored by La Lopez herself — this year’s red carpet represented a shift toward a more covered-up kind of chic.

“You’re not seeing that same in-your-face sex appeal you saw in the late 1990s and early 2000s,” Heyman says. “Even when a dress is sleeveless, you’re often getting a cape or a higher neckline. Modern fashion is taking a modest spin.”

As such, many fashion insiders are predicting the chaste leanings on display at the Globes are just a taste of what’s to come at the upcoming Academy Awards and eventually, in true trickle-down “fashionomics,” a high-street shop near you.

Esti Burton, owner of Esti’s, a boutique specializing in modest couture with locations on Long Island and in Brooklyn, New York, says she wouldn’t be surprised to see more modesty at the Oscars, which will be held Feb. 28. While her team is often asked to build sleeves and higher necklines onto more revealing dresses, she says her stores also carry dresses from couture designers like Lanvin, Valentino and Carolina Herrera that meet religious clients’ needs. Even Alexander McQueen, a design house known for outrageous style, has “covered-up dresses,” she says.

“The red carpet fashions tend to come in cycles,” Burton says. Now there’s a “been there, done that” feel when it comes to the completely bare look, she says.

“The red carpet will always reflect what’s happening in fashion, and over the past two years or so we’ve seen a definite increase in looks that feature more material and more draping,” says Mimi Hecht, a Hasidic designer who with sister-in-law Mushky Notik runs Mimu Maxi, which has been featured in Vogue. The line specializes in oversized casual clothing, but Hecht says they have plans to roll out some eveningwear in response to requests from religious Jews and Muslims.

“Fashion is always about rebelling, and younger women are now rebelling against the idea that they have to show their skin to be sexy,” Hecht says. “It used to be empowering to show what you have, but now more is more.”

Plus, at the biggest-ticket events in the celebrity circuit, it makes sense that women would want to wear more material, says Heyman — after all, the gowns are works of art.

“When you’re talking in terms of design aesthetic, I say the more the merrier,” she says. “It’s always best when there’s more to look at.”

Heyman credits actresses like Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, Michelle Williams and Emma Stone — as well as fashionistas like Olivia Palermo and Alexa Chung — for giving a fresher, cutting-edge feel to a more traditional style of dress, both on and off the red carpet.

In some ways, the Olsen twins have become the patron saints of high-end modest fashion. The two women, who are often photographed in layers of voluminous, flowing clothes, have their own high-end line of ready-to-wear clothing with ankle-length skirts, long-sleeve shirts and coats as staples. Called The Row. the line is described by The Council of Fashion Designers of America as “simplistic shapes that speak to discretion.”

“I’ve always been obsessed with them,” Hecht says of the star siblings. “It’s simplicity done so regally and luxuriously. People always talk really highly about their clothes without talking about how modest they are, which just shows you that you can have clothes that are completely fashionable without the modesty aspect being so obvious.”

But when it comes to red carpet designers that really nail the look, “Valentino is the epitome of modern modesty,” Heyman says. Even labels like Dolce & Gabanna — known for some outrageous, show-stopping looks — have more conservative dresses, she says. (In fact, D & G recently launched its very own line of high-end hijabs and abayas.)

Mayim Bialik, an Emmy nominee for “The Big Bang Theory” and an observant Jew, says her self-imposed red carpet dress code (nothing too short, nothing sleeveless) is a mix of social and religious modesty  — and a way to demonstrate her “second-wave feminist side.” The thinking, according to Bialik, is that she doesn’t need to show everything — that keeping parts of your body private is empowering.

Mayim Bialik at the 21st Annual Critics’ Choice Awards in Santa Monica, Calif., Jan. 17, 2016. Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images

“There’s a resurgence of younger women who are rebelling against the idea that they have to show skin to be sexy,” she says. “In fact, the more you’re covered up, the more you can show your attitude. It used to be just older women or larger-sized women who dressed modestly, but even the most petite actresses are doing it.”

Bialik has also perfected the art of covered-up chic, such as the green Oliver Tolentino dress she wore on Sunday to accept her Critics’ Choice Award for Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series. She’s learned some tricks over the years, too.

“When you dress modestly, you need to keep jewelry, makeup and hair sleek, modern and sexy, or risk looking matronly,” Bialik says.

It’s a lesson that some stars will likely put into practice at the upcoming Oscars. Heyman, for one, predicts that we’ll see stars wearing more covered-up, sparkly frocks, like what Moore wore to the Globes.

And while there will undoubtedly be lots of “strapless and low-cut looks” at the Academy Awards, Hecht expects to see a good showing of modest dresses, too.

“Modesty isn’t considered a matronly, archaic, biblical way of dressing anymore,” she says. “And that creates an opening for a lot of designers.”

Woody Allen’s sidekick shares all


There’s a memorable scene in “Annie Hall” when Woody Allen’s character, Alvy Singer, rants about finding anti-Semites everywhere he goes.

“You know, I was having lunch with some guys from NBC and I said, ‘Did you eat yet?’ and [they] said, ‘No, Jew?’ Not, ‘Did you,’ but ‘Jew eat? Jew?’ Not ‘Did you,’ but ‘Jew eat?’”

To which his pal Rob — played by the prolific stage and screen actor Tony Roberts — replies, “Max, you see conspiracies in everything.”

It’s an exchange that sums up a quintessential relationship in Allen’s oeuvre: the nervous, insecure schlemiel (played by Allen himself) and his level-headed, self-assured friend.

In several of Allen’s films in the 1970s and ’80s — including “Play It Again, Sam,” “Hannah and Her Sisters” and “Stardust Memories”— that role belonged to Roberts.

Roberts’ confident onscreen presence — not to mention his tall frame, broad shoulders and brown curly mane — was the perfect foil for Allen’s various neurotic characters, making them more funny and enjoyable to watch.

Still handsome at 76, though his curls have long since turned cloud white, Roberts says today that his comedic interplay with Allen was nothing less than serendipitous.

“I don’t even know what chemistry we lucked upon,” Roberts tells JTA. “[Woody] said to me, ‘You know, people like our schmoozing.’”

“Well, clearly people liked it because he made use of it in six films,” he adds.

Those films with Allen have been on Roberts’ mind quite a lot in the past year. The actor has published a new memoir that entertainingly dishes on his decades in film, theater and TV, and explores how he built a successful career while teetering somewhere between fame and anonymity.

In “Do You Know Me?,” Roberts writes that he could star in Broadway shows and hit films and receive critical praise  — yet people would approach him on the street wondering where they had seen him before.

Aside from providing a peek inside his celebrity-filled life — the memoir is filled with anecdotes about working legends like Sidney Lumet, who directed him in “Serpico” opposite Al Pacino, and Julie Andrews, with whom he co-starred in the Broadway production of “Victor/Victoria” — Roberts hopes the book will be a guide for young actors. He offers advice on preparing for auditions, inhabiting characters and observing human behavior as a conduit to understanding narrative.

And of course, there’s a lot about Woody Allen. Roberts calls Allen “Max” throughout the book, a nod to the personal nickname that started when the perennially introverted Allen told Roberts not to call out his name in public. In fact, the nickname “Max,” used in “Annie Hall,” is a direct reference to their off-screen joke.

Robert’s fame never reached the height of a Robert Redford, whom Roberts replaced in the 1963 Broadway hit “Barefoot in the Park.” And in films, he typically plays the sidekick rather than the lead. But his nearly 60-year career reveals the strengths of a supporting actor who continually brought the main character’s desires and conflicts into greater relief.

As the legendary comedian Milton Berle once told him, “When I get a laugh, it’s our laugh.”

Today, Roberts looks back with a sense of pride, but he’s reluctant to call himself an artist. Sitting in Lexington Candy Shop, the classic Upper East Side diner he’s frequented since he was 7 years old, Roberts contemplates how to define his work.

“I’m like a musician in an orchestra,” he suggests. “An interpreter, not a creator.”

Roberts credits his Manhattan upbringing for providing a fascinating spectrum of characters to observe.

“It was like the whole world was here,” he says of city life. “There were ethnic collisions between newly arrived immigrants; there were Irish kids who went to school in ties but, after school, would see a weakling Jew and take it out on him.

“But on the other hand, I had Irish friends,” he adds. “I learned tolerance.”

His parents were secular Jews who raised their son to love culture and uphold a moral code of behavior. In his memoir, Roberts writes that though he was raised without religious observance, he grew curious about his heritage and took a trip to Latvia where his grandfather had lived before immigrating to the United States.

Roberts got an early start as a professional actor, landing a part on the soap opera “The Edge of the Night” just after college in 1966. Soon after he was cast in his first Broadway play, and the roles multiplied from there.

He first met Allen backstage when he was starring in “Barefoot in the Park.” It was around the time that Roberts unsuccessfully auditioned — four times — for Allen’s first Broadway play, “Don’t Drink the Water.” Seeing Roberts perform in “Barefoot in the Park” convinced Allen that Roberts was talented and worth casting. According to his memoir, Allen told him, “You were great. How come you’re such a lousy auditioner?”

Roberts talks comfortably about all facets of Allen’s work — but on the topic of the director’s romantic and personal scandals, he eschews commentary. In fact, several publishers told him they would only publish the memoir if it included details about Allen’s personal life, Roberts says, so he decided to publish the book independently. There’s no dignity in divulging gossip, he says, and he maintains that the off-camera memories with Allen are more interesting anyway.

Today, Roberts and Allen are still good friends. And though they haven’t acted together in some time, Allen still screens his new films for him and seeks his feedback.

Thinking back on their most famous film together, “Annie Hall” — which won four Academy Awards in 1978, including best picture — Roberts says, “I don’t think Woody wants ‘Annie Hall’ to be his signature achievement. He would much prefer if it were one of his more obscure, experimental films. Like ‘Zelig’ — that’s the one they should put in the time capsule.”

As for Roberts, like all working actors, he’s excited about his next role, whatever it is.

“I wrote the book about the things I want to be my legacy — a love of acting and a love of performers,” he says. “The trick is to figure out what you love to do and then get paid to do it.”

Golden Globes 2016: ‘Son of Saul,’ ‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’ star claim trophies


The Hungarian Holocaust movie “Son of Saul” and the star of the Jewy show “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” Rachel Bloom, won Golden Globe Awards.

“Son of Saul” won for best foreign film and Bloom was named best actress in a television series, musical or comedy when the awards were handed out Sunday night. Aaron Sorkin won in the best screenplay category for the film “Steve Jobs.” Bloom and Sorkin are Jewish.

The televised ceremony included host Ricky Gervais roasting presenter Mel Gibson, who made anti-Semitic slurs to a sheriff’s officer during a widely publicized DUI arrest in 2006.

In “Son of Saul,” a film funded in part by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, the character of Saul Auslander is a member of the Sonderkommando at Auschwitz-Birkenau who is forced to cremate the bodies of fellow prisoners gassed by the SS. In one corpse, Saul believes he recognizes his dead son. As the Sonderkommando men plan a rebellion, Saul vows to save the child’s corpse from the flames and find a rabbi to say Kaddish at a proper funeral.

Bloom, along with being the star of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” is the creator of the CW series about a successful New York lawyer, Rebecca Bunch, who follows her summer camp ex-boyfriend to small-town California, even though he has a serious girlfriend. Rebecca’s Judaism is a major element of the show.

Gibson was presenting for the best picture nominee “Mad Max: Fury Road” when he felt the wrath of Gervais, who also had insulted Gibson at the 2010 Golden Globe Awards ceremony.

“A few years ago on this show I made a joke about Mel Gibson getting a bit drunk and saying a few unsavory things,” Gervais said Sunday night. “We’ve all done it. I wasn’t judging him, but now I find myself in the awkward position of having to introduce him again. Listen, I’m sure it’s embarrassing for both of us, and I blame NBC for this terrible situation. And Mel blames … well, we know who Mel blames.”

Gibson later apologized for the anti-Semitic remarks he made to the police officer.

Gervais ended the show by saying: “From myself and Mel Gibson, shalom.”

Lena Dunham show ‘Girls’ to end after 6th season


Lena Dunham’s successful HBO series “Girls” will end after its sixth season.

On Wednesday, HBO confirmed the rumor first reported on Entertainment Weekly.

The upcoming fifth season will premiere Feb. 21. The show has been renewed for a sixth season, but its premiere date — likely to fall in early 2017 — has yet to be announced.

“I conceived of ‘Girls’ when I was 23 and now I’m nearly 30 — the show has quite perfectly spanned my 20s, the period of time that it’s about — and so it feels like the right time to wrap our story up,” Dunham said in a statement.

Dunham’s dramatic comedy, which centers on a group of 20-somethings navigating young-adult life in New York, has won multiple Emmy and Directors Guild of America awards since its debut in 2012. The show’s star and co-writer grew up in New York.

“I can’t imagine a more fulfilling creative experience than ‘Girls,’” Dunham said in the statement. “The freedom and support that HBO has given [co-writer] Jenni [Konner], [producer] Judd [Apatow], and me is something rare and beautiful. The commitment and originality of our actors has been stunning, and our crew is truly my family.”

Dunham is the daughter of painter Carroll Dunham and Jewish photographer Laurie Simmons.

Actress Rachel Bloom’s ‘Ex-Girlfriend’ is the love of her life


While growing up in Manhattan Beach, Rachel Bloom sang along with show tunes and dreamed of being on Broadway. “I felt like a neurotic little New Yorker living in Southern California. I never fit in,” Bloom said. 

Not surprisingly, she headed east to New York Univeristy’s Tisch School of the Arts for college, where she majored in musical theater and did sketch and improv comedy. But these days, she’s back in California and starring in her first series, the CW’s “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” as a lovelorn New York lawyer who chases her teenage crush all the way to West Covina.

Bloom plays Rebecca Bunch, a single Jewish Harvard grad on the partner track at her law firm who, after a chance encounter with her old summer-camp boyfriend, Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III), drops everything and follows him to his hometown. The show, originally developed for Showtime, is essentially about a stalker. But Bloom makes the neurotic, obsessed character lovable, especially when she bursts into song, which happens at least twice per episode. 

What sets “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” apart from other romantic comedies is that it’s a musical, with production numbers such as “West Covina” (shot on location in that city) and “Sexy Getting Ready Song” featured in the premiere. Along with Adam Schlesinger and Steven M. Gold, Bloom co-writes all the songs, which range from pop and R&B to rock and Bollywood.

While performing live sketch comedy here in Los Angeles, Bloom earned some notoriety — and millions of page views — for the often risqué music videos she made and posted online, such as “F— Me, Ray Bradbury” and “Historically Accurate Disney Princess Song.” Producer Aline Brosh McKenna took notice and invited her to collaborate, which led to the two co-creating the series.

Although Bloom, 28, admits to having had a romantic obsession of her own, she says she didn’t fixate as much as her fictional counterpart does. “Unlike Rebecca, I’ve gotten to pursue my passions throughout my life. She’s way more emotionally disconnected than I am. She’s intelligent but very unhappy. She really did need a change, but even she knows moving across the country for a guy sounds crazy,” Bloom said.

Her TV alter ego reflects the duality of her personality, she said. “My sense of humor has always tended toward either really, really dark [or] really, really happy,” she said. Bloom believes this is because she and her family “were a bunch of neurotic Jews living a five-minute walk away from the beach. I think a lot of my neuroses, in kind of a Woody Allen-y way — thinking about death and these existential anxieties that I have — are very much East Coast Jew, and they contrast with the Southern California lifestyle.”

This Jewish sensibility also infuses her comedy, she said. “It’s just in your bones to be self-deprecating. Even when you’re a little kid, you laugh at the Jewish stuff. I remember seeing ‘Robin Hood: Men in Tights’ when I was a little kid, and there’s a circumcision joke, and I was a child but I got it,” she recalled. “There’s something intangible that oppressed people have, a glorification mixed with self-loathing. It’s an Ashkenazi thing, the idea of using your words as knives.”

Bloom said that as an only child, she “was always hamming it up for the attention. My grandfather was an amateur stand-up comic. He got Catskills jokes from a book and delivered them well, and would perform at convalescent homes. I’d go with him and sing. My mother played piano. We were, in a very loose sense, a performing family,” she said.

Although her family was not religious, Bloom said she was “raised with a very strong Jewish identity. I think that people who aren’t Jews don’t understand that you don’t have to go to temple every week to be Jewish. My mother doesn’t know a word of Hebrew but can tell you the name of every celebrity who has said anything remotely anti-Semitic. My grandfather was an outspoken atheist but if you ask him what [religion] he is, he’d say ‘I’m Jewish.’ ”

Her husband, writer Dan Gregor, is a Long Island, N.Y., native who was raised in a Conservative Jewish home. “We were friends before we started dating, and I would go to his family’s house for Passover every year. That’s how I got to know him,” Bloom said. 

After being together for six years, they were married earlier this year by her cousin, a rabbi at Texas A&M University. They’re currently “practicing on the dog” in preparation for having children. “I like the idea of exposing my kids to the culture and traditions. It’s separate from spirituality for me,” she said.

A Hebrew school dropout who did not have a bat mitzvah, Bloom does have fond memories of family Chanukah celebrations. In 2013, she and her husband recorded “Suck It, Christmas!!!” an album of Chanukah songs including “Chanukah Honey,” which became an online video hit.

But, for Bloom, whose credits include “How I Met Your Mother” and “Robot Chicken,” “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” is her highest-profile project to date. “This show was my game plan,” she said. “Right now, everything that I have is going into it.” 

Kosha Dillz raps your Back to the Future Day theme song


It's been 30 years since Back to the Future came out.

Today marks the day that the movie's main character, Marty McFly, traveled to the future in the 1989 “Back to the Future” sequel.

When we look back on today from the future, let's be proud of what we “give back” to our world to provide a better future.

For now, I've come up with a song that every geek needs in their future, or at least for today; October 21, 2015.

Check out the song below, along with a message from Doc brown himself.

Producer: Nate Greenberg
Sample: Huey Lewis and the News “Power of Love”

And a special message from Doc Brown!

James Franco’s bar mitzvah spectacular


Rabbi Brian Zachary Mayer has helped plenty of students prepare for bar or bat mitzvah ceremonies, and, in some ways, the one he officiated on Oct. 3 was no different. It involved months of serious study, a special bar mitzvah speech and even a mitzvah project.

“It was like any other bar mitzvah — except not,” the Portland-based rabbi said in a phone interview with the Journal.

The “not” is because the bar mitzvah boy in question was 37-year-old actor James Franco (“127 Hours,” “The Interview,” “Pineapple Express,” “Freaks & Geeks”). The actor’s belated coming-of-age ceremony was a prelude to what may have been one of the biggest mitzvah projects in history, serving as a massive fundraiser for Hilarity for Charity, a movement led by comedian, actor and frequent Franco collaborator Seth Rogen to inspire change and raise awareness of Alzheimer’s disease among the millennial generation.

A sold-out Oct. 17 variety show-style event at the Hollywood Palladium, which has a capacity of 4,000 people, was a hot ticket and included a performance by Miley Cyrus. In a phone interview with the Journal after the event, “Conan” writer Rob Kutner, who wrote material for the event, said Franco referenced the week’s Torah portion (Noach) in his speech, saying that as he’s only now become a man, he shouldn’t be held accountable for anything he did before. (Franco is known for some eccentric behavior, especially in social media.)

Another segment featured Rogen requiring Franco to have a “circumcision.” It was performed by actor Jeff Goldblum (going by the moniker “Rabbi Jeff Goldblum”), and — in a bit Kutner came up with — actor Zac Efron played Franco’s about-to-be-severed foreskin, uttering its last words, which included, “While you have the mohel, why don't you have him cut away some of your eyelids so you can finally see?” referring to the star’s famously squinty smirk.

Malina Saval, an editor for Variety who was covering the event, called it “spirited, sweet and meaningful in places that one would not necessarily expect.”

“The crowd rocked out and danced the horah to Haim's guitar-heavy rendition of 'Havah Nagilah,' Seth Rogen, dressed as Tevye, sparked a sense of nostalgia for anyone who grew up starring in their Hebrew school production of the play [“Fiddler on the Roof”] and over $2 million was raised for Hilarity for Charity, which provides care and support for those suffering from Alzheimer’s. Talk about tikkun olam!” she told the Journal via email.

While the event was a spectacle of a fundraiser, it also proved to be a chance for Franco — whose mother is Jewish — to connect to a tradition that he never really felt a part of before, according to Mayer (aka Rabbi Brian). Two weeks before the media-filled fundraiser, the actor stood with the rabbi in front of a Torah and chanted in Hebrew and English before a small crowd of people from Franco’s production company.

James Franco and Rabbi Brian (courtesy of Rabbi Brian Zachary Mayer)

How did this particular rabbi get there? At the intersection of Hollywood and Jewish geography, it’s all about who you know. In this case, it was Suzi Dietz, one of the Hilarity for Charity event producers. Nearly two decades before, while still a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Mayer, now 45, had presided over Dietz’s son’s bar mitzvah.

The two talked to “figure out what would be meaningful and make sense,” Mayer said, noting that the original plan was to have the religious ceremony and the fundraiser the same night. But he suggested a way to “do it with a little bit more kavod [honor]” would be to have the ceremony first — which took place at Dietz’s house — so that it could be taped and edited into a version that they could share at the Palladium. The idea was to make the experience itself “much more intimate — a real bar mitzvah — as opposed to a goofy thing on the stage,” he said.

Franco is known for his voracious appetite for learning, having studied in programs at schools including Columbia University, New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, Brooklyn College, Rhode Island School of Design and Yale University.

“The image that he has of being a mensch, that he’s a serious student, I can vouch for that,” the rabbi said. 

About nine months passed between the first conversations and the bar mitzvah. The rabbi and actor started by exchanging detailed emails, in which the rabbi outlined choices and asked for responses. Then they moved to phone calls.

“Then, like every other bar mitzvah boy, he sent me a speech, which was really adorable,” Mayer said.

“It’s a whole other world with a celebrity — but it was also like every other bar mitzvah. If he did more or less Hebrew reading than some 13-year-old is not important to me,” the rabbi said. “That his heart was in the right place was paramount.”

Franco did recite the Shema — in Hebrew — while holding a Torah, a moment that the presiding rabbi proudly described as emotional and beautiful.

“It was kind of like a renewal of vows,” he said. “He always knew he was Jewish and now he's officially proclaiming it and officially standing at Sinai.”

In his speech commemorating the occasion, Franco said: “Here I am, finally, 25 years after I turned 13. But what I realize is that I didn’t need to go to any mountaintop or across the sea to find my place that I have been connected all along. Judaism has been a part of me my whole life. And like the scarecrow in Oz, all I’m doing now is getting a little reminder that I have been here all along.”

While celebrity bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies aren’t his bread and butter, Mayer, who held a pulpit at Temple Judea in Tarzana for two years as a student rabbi and then another three after ordination, does specialize in outside-the-box Jewish observance and connection. According to his website, he “left organized religion” in 2000, and since 2005 has run an organization called Religion-Outside-The-Box (rotb.org), whose mission statement is “Nourishing the spiritual hunger.” There are more than 3,000 subscribers to his Wisdom Biscuit newsletter, which contains material that he described as “filling, digestible and yummy.”

It makes for serving a different kind of congregation, he said, citing as examples a woman who lives on a yacht, a priest from Malta and a same-sex couple from Australia who flew to Palm Springs so they could legally marry. “Whoever wishes spiritual nutrition, I'm going to feed them. I don't care about age or affiliation. If there's a need, I'm glad to be there.”

In Franco’s case, Mayer, who attended the Palladium party as well, said he’s learned from the experience of working with this most prominent student.

“No matter the circumstances, meaningful ceremonies can be done. I’m really proud to have been able to take what probably started as a pipe dream way of doing a fundraiser and help that thing of meaning to come out,” he said. “The world is weird and awesome and I'm glad to be part of it.“

Mayim Bialik visited her father’s grave before Emmys


Actress Mayim Bialik visited the grave of her father before the Emmy Awards ceremony.

Bialik, who plays Amy Farrah Fowler on the popular sitcom “The Big Bang Theory,” told People in an article published on the magazine’s website Sunday that she would visit the grave of her father, Barry, who died in April, because it is traditional to visit the graves of loved ones on the Sunday between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

“But it’s really nice because it gives perspective for everything we’re doing,” she said. “There are things so much bigger than anything that goes on [with the Emmys].”

The 67th Primetime Emmy Awards were held at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles on Sunday evening. The host was Adam Samberg, who also is Jewish. Bialik received her fourth Emmy nomination for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series, but did not take home the award.

She said she would visit the grave with her mother, her children and her ex-husband.

Bialik is a columnist for Kveller, which with JTA is a 70 Faces Media property.

A Polish spy named Magda


“I don’t know how I did it, but I did it,” declares 93-year old Magda Kasprzycki, a West Hollywood resident, in the eponymous documentary “Magda.”

The “it” unwinds gradually in the 60-minute film, starting with a sheltered childhood in an affluent, scholarly family in the Polish city of Lwow, through the Nazi conquest of her hometown, her recruitment as a spy for the Polish underground, and marriage to an American soldier.

Both Magda’s father and paternal grandfather were university professors and members of the distinguished Catholic Krzemuski family.

Her mother was a beautiful Jewish woman, but since Polish law required a child of a mixed marriage to follow the father’s religion, Magdalena (her birth name), was raised as a Catholic.

The girl inherited her mother’s good looks and grew into an attractive teenager, with blue eyes and reddish-blonde hair, attributes which provided the key to her later role as a “German” woman, while working for the Polish underground.

On Sept. 1, 1939, the German army invaded Poland, setting off World War II.

Within 10 days, Nazi troops conquered Lwow, but Magda’s family had already taken off for Krakow, and, from there, for Warsaw.

Magda’s father was sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp, while her older brother, Adam, joined the resistance movement against the occupiers and was later sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp. One of the family’s main concerns was to hide the mother’s Jewish identity from the Nazis.          

In early 1944, Adam recruited his sister to serve as courier and liaison between resistance forces in major Polish cities, and with sympathizers in Vienna and even Berlin.

Magda was perfectly qualified for this assignment. In addition to her “Aryan” looks, she spoke German, Polish and Russian fluently, and under the nom de guerre Magda Heiss, she moved fairly easily through Nazi-dominated Europe.

According to the film, she had a couple of close scrapes with the Gestapo, such as one instance in which an alert agent became suspicious of her Polish-made boots. She bluffed her way through these encounters, once even daring her interrogators to arrest her.

The war’s end found Magda in Berlin, which was quickly divided among the Russian, American, French and British occupation sectors. Magda was fortunate enough to live in the American sector.

Her luck continued when she met Capt. Matthew Kasprzycki, a U.S. Army combat officer of Polish descent. They married, and the happy couple moved to Los Angeles, and the captain managed to bring his wife’s parents and brother, who had survived the Nazi regime, to America.

The Warsaw Uprising on May 12, 1943. Photo courtesy USHMM/Steven Spielberg Archives

The greatest asset of “Magda” is the title character herself, who, during three days of intense interviews, shows considerable charm, wit and recall. Since the film evolved over a four-year period, Magda was a mere 89 during the interviews.

Her life since moving to Los Angeles has not been easy. Her husband, whom she described as “the kindest man in the world,” developed a war-related post-traumatic stress disorder and died some years ago. Magda herself survived breast cancer.

The couple had no children, and Magda’s only living relative is her grandnephew Paul Krzemuski, who is also her caretaker.

Jason Rem, 47, the writer, director and executive producer of “Magda,” is a man of varied interests who has made documentaries on electronic music, the International Medical Corps, Rett Syndrome neurological disorders, the Duke and North Carolina Universities basketball rivalry, and other topics.

He met Magda four years ago through a mutual friend and, he said, was instantly inspired by her story. Nevertheless, it took him three years to complete the project, partially to raise funds while continuing his day job as head of TV productions for the World Surf League.

Rem, who is Jewish, brought in “Magda” for a very modest $24,000, with the volunteer labor of relatives and Hollywood friends. For the film, he mixed various cinematic techniques, generally to good effect. The interviews with Magda are the backbone of the story, but they are augmented by historical newsreel footage (with Hitler regularly popping up giving the Nazi salute), re-creation of certain scenes by young actors, and even cartoon drawings..

The extensive footage of war and concentration camp scenes was obtained from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum through Michael Berenbaum of the American Jewish University, who also served as the film’s historical consultant.

Fortunately, Rem said, Magda herself managed to save most of the documents tracing her life’s stages, including swastika-stamped papers, which allowed her to pass as a German during her underground days.

It would have strengthened the film if it had included more concrete details about Magda’s activities as a courier for the Polish resistance.

But on balance, “Magda” adds one more astonishing chapter to the unending saga of horror and heroism during the Holocaust. In the future, Rem hopes to turn “Magda” into a full-length feature movie.

“Magda” will have its world premiere during the Hollywood Film Festival at the Arclight Cinemas on Sunset Blvd. in Hollywood.

The initial screening will be on Thursday, Sept. 24 at 3 p.m., and repeated Saturday, Sept. 26 at 3:45 p.m. For tickets and additional information visit www.facebook.com/MAGDAthedocumentary or www.hollywoodfilmfestival.com.

Magdalena Kasprzycki herself is slated to attend the Saturday screening, during which the producers will also celebrate her 93rd birthday, which fell on Sept. 18.

Regina Cameron and Linda Collins served as the film’s co-executive producers, and composer Gavin Keese as musical director.

Ask Google: Who runs Hollywood? Answer: The Jews


Google says it is fixing a bug wherein users who type “Who runs Hollywood?” end up with the following search result: “the Jews.”

Google search results are the product of complicated algorithms that sometimes return unwanted or offensive results. Many consider the notion that the Jews run Hollywood to be offensive.

A Google spokesman told the U.K. Daily Mail, “This has been flagged to us, we are working to get it removed as quickly as possible.”

After news of the issue made headlines, the top Google search result for “Who runs Hollywood” became an article for Re/code titled “Please Don’t Ask Google ‘Who Runs Hollywood.”