Sam Raimi’s latest horror flick draws on ‘true’ tale, Jewish exorcism


Back in 2004, the horror-flicks mogul Sam Raimi was riveted by a Los Angeles Times article headlined “A Jinx in a Box?” which recounted the strange history of a wine cabinet brought to this country by a Polish concentration camp survivor. The box contained “allegedly, one ‘dibbuk,’ a kind of spirit popular in Yiddish folklore,” the article said — as well locks of hair, a rock, a dried rosebud, a goblet and coins.

Intrigued, Raimi — who grew up in a Conservative Jewish home in Detroit — perused a Web site devoted to the so-called “Dibbuk Box,” where, he learned, the Holocaust survivor had warned her family never to open it. That warning was disregarded by the furniture dealer who bought the box at the survivor’s estate sale in Portland, Ore., in 2001, and, so the story goes, five minutes after the dealer gave it to his mother as a gift, she suffered a paralyzing stroke, and that wasn’t all — light bulbs inexplicably imploded, the dealer and others began having nightmares about a “gruesome, demonic-looking hag” and were seeing shadowy beings in their peripheral vision. Desperate to be rid of the box, the dealer sold it on eBay, whereupon subsequent owners also reported the onset of mysterious illnesses, as well as petrifying paranormal events.

Read more at jewishjournal.com/the_ticket.

Anne Frank diary resonates with Cambodians


PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (JTA)—As a young girl in the early 1990s, Sayana Ser often spent the night cowering in fear with her family in an underground shelter her father had dug beneath their home on the outskirts of this capital city.

Outside, marauding bands of Khmer Rouge guerrillas battled it out with government forces. Meanwhile, brutal mass murder was still fresh on civilians’ minds.

A decade later, as a 19-year-old scholarship student in the Netherlands, Sayana chanced upon the memoirs of another girl who had feared for her life in even more dire circumstances.

It was “The Diary of a Young Girl” by Anne Frank, the precocious Jewish teenager who hid from the Nazis in occupied Amsterdam until her family’s hiding place was discovered and she was sent to her death in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

“While reading the book I couldn’t hold my tears back,” Sayana recalls. “I wondered how Anna must have felt and how she could bear it.”

Sayana now is the director of a student outreach and educational program at a Cambodian research institution that documents the Khmer Rouge genocide. Between 1975 and 1979, up to 2 million people—a fourth of the population—perished on Pol Pot’s “killing fields” in one of the worst mass murders since the Holocaust.

Sayana, who wrote her master’s thesis about “dark tourism,” or touristic voyeurism at genocide sites in Cambodia and elsewhere, also visited several Holocaust memorials and death camps.

“I couldn’t believe how one human being could do this to another, whether they were Jews or Khmers,” she says.

On returning home, she sought permission to translate the Anne Frank diary into Khmer.

The Holocaust classic was published by the country’s leading genocide research group, the Documentation Center of Cambodia. It is now available for Khmer students at high school libraries in Phnom Penh alongside locally written books about the Khmer Rouge period. Such books include “First They Killed My Father” by Loung Ung, which recounts the harrowing experiences of a child survivor of the killing fields.

“I have seen many Anna Franks in Cambodia,” says Youk Chhang, the head of the documentation center and Cambodia’s foremost researcher on genocide.

A child survivor himself, Chhang lost siblings and numerous relatives in the mass murders perpetrated by Pol Pot and his followers.

“If we Cambodians had read her diary a long time ago,” he says, “perhaps there could have been a way for us to prevent the Cambodian genocide from happening.”

Anne Frank’s message, he adds, remains as potent as ever.

“Genocide continues to happen in the world around us even today,” Youk says. “Her diary can still play an important role in prevention.”

Although the story of Anne and her resilient optimism in the face of murderous evil has touched millions of readers around the world, it may particularly resonate with Cambodians, Sayana adds.

“Under Pol Pot, many children were separated from their families. They faced starvation and were sent to the front to fight and die,” she explains. “Like Anna, they never knew peace and the warmth of a home.”

Inspired by Anne’s diary, she adds, some Cambodian students have begun to write their own diaries to chronicle the sorrows and joys of their daily lives.

Children in Laos, too, can soon learn of Anne’s story and insights.

In the impoverished, war-torn communist country bordering Cambodia, almost a million people perished during the Vietnam War, while countless landmines and a low-level insurgency continue to take lives daily.

Yet with books for children almost nonexistent beyond simple school textbooks, Lao students remain largely ignorant of the world and history. In a private initiative, an American expat publisher is now bringing them children’s classics translated into Lao, including Anne Frank’s diary.

“I was describing the book to a bright college graduate here and gave him a little context,” says Sasha Alyson, the founder of Big Brother Mouse, a small publishing house in Vientiane, the Lao capital, which specializes in books for Lao children. He recalls the student asking, ‘World War II? Is that the same as Star Wars?”

Anna Frank’s “Diary of a Young Girl,” he says, will provide Lao children with a much-needed lesson in history.

Master of horror Cronenberg ‘Flies’ into opera


Director David Cronenberg has created some of the most viscerally repulsive and disturbing images ever on film — the most famous of them “marked by shocking images of the body made fantastic,” The New York Times says.

In his 1979 film, “The Brood,” a psychotic woman gives birth to mutant children; in “Scanners,” humans with mind-controlling powers make peoples’ heads explode; in “Videodrome,” a VCR gapes like a vaginal slit in a character’s stomach; and in 2007’s “Eastern Promises,” linoleum knives slash Viggo Mortensen’s nude body.

This month, from Sept. 7-27, the modern master of celluloid horror will bring his cringe-worthy visions to a new and perhaps unexpected venue: the Los Angeles Opera and the stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Cronenberg will direct the United States premiere of the opera based on what is perhaps his best-known work: his 1986 remake of the 1958 film, “The Fly,” which in turn was based on a 1957 George Langelaan short story.

Like Cronenberg’s film, the opera should be both gut churning and heartbreaking — the saga of a scientist, Seth Brundle (Daniel Okulitch), who accidentally splices his own DNA with that of an insect and morphs into the vomit-spewing “Brundle-Fly.”

The opera reunites Cronenberg with three-time Oscar-winning composer Howard Shore (“The Lord of the Rings”) and playwright-screenwriter David Henry Hwang (“Yellow Face”), who all collaborated on the film version of Hwang’s Tony Award-winning play, “M. Butterfly,” in 1993.

Shore’s composition, performed by a 75-piece orchestra and conducted by the opera’s general director, Placido Domingo, echoes the late romantic qualities of Shore’s cited influences, Richard Wagner, Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Bernard Herrmann. As the doomed scientist Brundle descends into an arthropodan hell, the lush elements of the music give way to a harsher orchestration.

If the music and libretto reflect the predilections of Shore and Hwang, respectively, the Brundle-Fly costume, designed by the director’s sister Denise, is pure Cronenberg — which means possibly the most hideous, slimy creature ever to appear (and sing) in an opera house. The production design — including Brundle’s teleportation pods — is by Oscar-winner Dante Ferretti (“Sweeny Todd”), who is also making his opera debut.

“The Fly: The Opera” — which was commissioned by Los Angeles Opera — received a standing ovation in March at its debut at the Theatre du Châtelet in Paris; audiences reportedly loved the production, though reviews proved mixed. French critics were particularly harsh, calling the opera “boring” and “unimaginative,” according to New York magazine — which nevertheless ran a photograph of the hairy antihero and queried, “Wouldn’t you go see that?”

Cronenberg is part of an ongoing trend of movie directors to work with the Los Angeles Opera; also on the program this season, William Friedkin and Woody Allen will direct one-acts of Puccini’s trio, “Il Trittico” (Sept. 6-26). (Allen said a relative nagged him into the endeavor: “I was very reluctant, because I don’t want to disappoint everybody, which I’m sure I will,” he told the Village Voice.)

As Cronenberg transformed “The Fly” into an opera, he drew, as he often does, on his preoccupation with the Jewish existentialist author Franz Kafka — especially Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” in which a man morphs into “a monstrous vermin” and thereafter finds himself reviled and ostracized.

While hardly reviled nor ostracized himself, Cronenberg said he has felt himself to be a kind of “double-outsider” as an atheist and existentialist. He grew up in a Jewish neighborhood in Toronto, but in a home where there was no religious upbringing or content; he did not attend Hebrew school, and he did not become bar mitzvah; his parents were staunchly secular, and, he added, he did not believe in a deity from an early age.

“The school that I went to in Toronto was about 95 percent Jewish,” he recalled. “And my Jewish friends would talk to me about their experiences in Hebrew school, and that was interesting but foreign to me.”

As for the iconic grotesquerie that would become a hallmark of his work, he said: “Some of the things that are horrific are quite beautiful to me. It’s the entomologist in me that finds insects and the alien life forms that we find on earth, that many people find disgusting and repulsive, I find are incredibly fascinating and beautiful. That’s one of the reasons that those things are disturbing, because they’re attractive at the same time. I think that’s why people are freaked out by my movies, like ‘Crash’ and ‘Dead Ringers,’ because there’s attractiveness to things that are considered dangerous or politically incorrect. The [horror] genre itself deals with primordial things and its view of death tends to be extremely physical, and as an atheist existentialist that seems like the truth.”

Cronenberg has known Shore, who is also Jewish, since the two were teenagers in Toronto; they have collaborated as director and composer more than a dozen times, starting with “The Brood” in 1979, “The Fly” and as recently as “Eastern Promises.” It was Shore who initially suggested Cronenberg turn “The Fly” into an opera, which, Shore has said, “seemed like a classic story for opera” with its tangled relationships involving Brundle, his girlfriend, Veronica, and her ex-lover.

Cronenberg said the idea of a “Fly” opera had never previously occurred to him: “I had mixed feelings at first … I was not interested in remaking a movie of mine — or rewriting it. But Howard said, ‘Let’s get David Henry Hwang to write it — it’ll be different.'”

The story, Cronenberg added, is “an interesting combination of science fiction and emotional intensity. It’s a love triangle, basically, and when I made the movie I thought it had a power that would have made it difficult to make as a straight drama. You have two attractive, eccentric people who fall in love — one of them, Brundle, [essentially] contracts a horrible wasting disease and gradually deteriorates until his lover helps him commit suicide — and that’s the story.

“If you did it as a straight drama it would be very depressing and hard to take. The fact that it was protected by the genre of horror and sci-fi suddenly made it quite possible to make that movie and have it be very popular and yet not lose any of the emotional impact or resonances.”

The opera version reflects the film in terms of its structure, but the libretto is original. At one point, Brundle sings to Veronica: “I see myself, I see something new, something hideous, unspeakable. A fly in the pod, confused the computer. Two genetic patterns it spliced us together, mated us, me and the fly.”

Cronenberg created the character of Brundle when he wrote the screenplay for “The Fly”; the chance to rework the story was his condition for agreeing to direct the film. Although Cronenberg said it was not a conscious decision to make the film’s scientist Jewish, the casting of actor Jeff Goldblum in the role did give the character a definite ethnicity. “Brundle became quite Jewish without it being pushed in any particular way,” Cronenberg recalled.

The Jewish sensibility (and the Kafkaesque paranoia) is far more blatant in Cronenberg’s four-minute film, “At the Suicide of the Last Jew in the World at the Last Cinema in the World,” which premiered last year at Cannes (along with “Eastern Promises”). He envisioned the movie when the Cannes Film Festival asked him, along with some 30 other directors, to create a short on the occasion of the festival’s 60th anniversary.

“At the Suicide of the Last Jew” is a satire, with Cronenberg sitting in the bathroom of the last remaining cinema, pointing a revolver at different parts of his head as a cable news network covers the event live. As the last Jew ponders the best angle for his fatal gunshot, newscasters comment casually to each other about the demise of the man and the medium: “It’s been a long time coming. You know, they say the Jews invented the movies, and we know the horrific cost of that little creation.”

The short, which Nextbook.com calls “a raised third finger,” is described by the director as a response to worldwide anti-Semitism and, in particular, political parties and cultures that advocate the annihilation of Jews.

“When you’re hearing calls from the leader of Hezbollah saying that ‘it’s our goal to kill every Jew in the world,’ of course I take that personally,” Cronenberg said. “Then it makes me think, ‘What if that was happening, what if we were down to the last Jew in the world? Here he is, about to kill himself, so that will be it. What is the attitude of the world as reported by the international media?'”

The movie isn’t specifically about French anti-Semitism, he insists. “You could just as well say it’s a slap at America or, in fact, my suggestion that the world might be quite indifferent to the disappearance of the Jews,” he says.

Even with this short film, Cronenberg admitted to having lived up to his reputation as a master of the disturbing: “A critic who saw it at a screening said she never expected a four-minute film could shock a Cannes audience, which is certainly one of the most jaded in the world.”

The U.S premiere of “The Fly: The Opera” will run for six performances only at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion from Sept. 7 – Sept. 27.

Cronenberg’s 1986 film of “The Fly” will be shown at the Arclight Hollywood Cinerama Dome on Wednesday, Sept. 3 at 8 p.m. A question-and-answer session with David Cronenberg and Howard Shore will follow the screening.

Cronenberg’s short film, “At the Suicide of the Last Jew,” is viewable at www.nextbook.com.

ALTTEXT

Horror in the court: Nuremberg trial documentary film finally reaches U.S.


Auschwitz has become universally synonymous with the horrors of the Holocaust and man’s infinite capacity for evil. But how did Auschwitz-Birkenau function as a 24/7 death camp, and who were the men who operated the gears and levers of the killing machine?

The answers, or better, a glimpse of the answers, are found in the 1993 documentary “Verdict on Auschwitz: The Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial, 1963-1965,” which is being shown for the first time in the United States.

The film lasts three full hours, but it is a mere capsule of the longest trial in German history. It lasted 20 months and included 22 defendants, 360 witnesses from 19 countries, batteries of lawyers, and was covered by 200 journalists. The mere reading of the verdict by the presiding judge took 11 hours.

Filmmakers Rolf Bickel and Dietrich Wagner culled their material from 430 hours of original audiotapes of the trial, which they discovered in the basement of the Frankfurt building where the trial was held.

On the defendants’ bank sat 22 former SS men, now paunchy and middle-aged in sober civilian suits. These were not the big shots like Auschwitz commandants Rudolf Hoess or Arthur Libehenschel, who had been executed in Poland shortly after the war. Rather, they were the middle- to low-level functionaries, the hands-on torturers and killers, who had distinguished themselves by their brutality and dedication to the job at hand.

The documentary complements the audio from the trial with visuals of the Nazi era and death camps and features extensive in-person interviews with prosecutors and others involved in the trial.By the nature of the subject, this is a difficult, often agonizing, film to watch, with few lighter moments. One is inadvertently supplied by defense attorney Hans Laternser, who gives new meaning to the word chutzpah.

Laternser argues that the SS men who took part in the selection process as the trains pulled into the camp actually saved lives by assigning some of the men and women to forced labor. If his clients hadn’t done so, he proposes, all the arrivals would have been killed right away.

The protracted jury trial of the 22 defendants ended with six life sentences, three acquittals and the rest handed prison terms ranging from three to 14 years.

For all its historical and educational value, the trial, and by extension the film, lacks one important dimension. While Auschwitz-Birkenau was certainly a killing field for vast numbers of Roma (gypsies), Soviet prisoners of war and political offenders, the vast majority of victims were Jews.

Yet, in focusing on the nuts and bolts on how Auschwitz functioned, the presence of the victims, particularly the Jewish ones, fades into a kind of amorphous background.

“Verdict on Auschwitz” opens Jan. 26 at Laemmle’s downtown Grande 4-Plex, 345 S. Figueroa St.

Marilyn Harran: A Modern Righteous Gentile


Marilyn Harran

Barri Evins

Alex Baum

Betty Neymark

Eve Marcus

Fran Rosenfield

Marilyn Harran

Noah Bleich

Rebecca Levinson

Yehoram Uziel

Yoram Hassid

As a young assistant professor at New York’s Barnard College in the mid-1970s, historian Marilyn Harran befriended one of the school’s maintenance workers. One day the man asked Harran to look at some of his wife’s artworks.
“Why not?” she remembers thinking.

Unbeknownst to her, his wife was a Holocaust survivor whose charcoal drawings depicted the horrors she had witnessed. A rendering of dead babies’ bodies being stacked like lumber underscored for Harran the Holocaust’s horror and brutality. From that moment on, she made a personal mission of bringing the Shoah to light out of the dark recesses of hidden nightmares. For Harran, who is Protestant, keeping these memories alive is nothing less than a human imperative.

“I want to create a generation that never believes some people are more human than others,” she said.

A diminutive woman with an easy laugh, Harran, now 58, is a professor at Chapman University in Orange, which is affiliated with the Disciples of Christ. Over the past two decades, largely through her efforts, Chapman has come to offer several courses on the Holocaust; it also hosts annual lectures on the subject and even offers a minor in Holocaust history.

In 2000, Chapman opened the Rodgers Center for Holocaust Education and established the Stern Chair in Holocaust Education, which Harran holds.

In April 2005, again at Harran’s instigation, Chapman opened the Sala and Aron Samueli Holocaust Memorial Library. The renowned Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate Eli Wiesel, after two years of coaxing by Harran, attended the library’s dedication ceremony.

With the help of her supporters, Harran “has been able to place awareness of the Holocaust at the center of Chapman’s intellectual life, and, perhaps even more remarkably, as a topic of regular attention and concern in Orange County,” said David N. Myers, a professor of Jewish history and director of the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies.

William Elperin, an attorney and president of the “1939” Club, an organization for Holocaust survivors and descendants that has supported many of Harran’s endeavors, goes even farther in his praise.

“She is the person most responsible for transforming Orange County from a Holocaust denial center to a Holocaust education center,” Elperin said.

Sitting in her Chapman office surrounded by books and a photo of Wiesel, her hero, Harran said she spends about 100 hours per week on Holocaust-related activities. She teaches three classes on the subject, arranges for guest lecturers and oversees her students’ work on an ambitious survivor project she hopes will lead to publication of a book detailing survivors’ experiences. She also participated in the publication of “The Holocaust Chronicle: A History in Words and Pictures,” which has sold 200,000 copies.

Looking forward, Harran dreams of establishing a visiting scholars’ program at the university and growing the Holocaust library’s small collection, although raising the needed money might prove difficult, she said, given her distaste for fundraising.

Harran admits her “obsession” with the Holocaust has taken a toll on her personal life, but she believes it’s a small price to pay. She hopes that maintaining a focus on the Holocaust might encourage students and others to speak up against present-day atrocities in Darfur and elsewhere.

Still, she wonders whether she has done enough.

“I hope I’ve made a contribution,” Harran said.

Burton’s ‘Corpse’ Has Jewish Bones


Once upon a time, a bridegroom jokingly recited his marriage vows over a skeletal finger protruding from the earth. After placing his ring on the bone, his mirth turned to horror when a grasping hand burst forth, followed by a corpse in a tattered shroud, her dead eyes staring as she proclaimed, “My husband!”

This chilling Jewish folk tale hails from a cycle of stories about the great 16th-century mystic, Rabbi Isaac Luria of Safed, in what is now northern Israel, said Howard Schwartz, a top Jewish folklorist and professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

It also apparently inspired Tim Burton’s charmingly ghoulish animated film, “Corpse Bride.” Yes, the film features a bridegroom who accidentally weds a cadaver. But the feature eschews the folk tale’s grotesquerie for romanticized gloom and Halloweeny fun — a trademark of Burton fare such as “Edward Scissorhands” and “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” “Corpse Bride” is among more than a dozen fantasy films slated to open this year, including Peter Jackson’s “King Kong,” which some analysts attribute to the yen for escapist cinema during wartime.

“Bride” revolves around a shy, bumbling groom, Victor (voiced by Johnny Depp), who is practicing the wedding ceremony when he impulsively slides his ring on what he assumes is a stick. The corpse who emerges (voiced by Burton’s real-life fiancée Helena Bonham Carter) is not a hideously disintegrating cadaver, but a lovely, if unearthly heroine.

“When she gently takes off her veil and we see her for the first time, it becomes a glamour-girl shot,” cinematographer Pete Kozachik said.

The cadaver claims her husband, but does not emit bloodcurdling shrieks or insist upon the consummation of the marriage, like her folk-tale counterpart. Her mild flaws include a tendency toward petulance and an understandable proclivity for dropping a limb or having her eyeball pop out. On these occasions, a maggot pal pops out of her exposed eye socket. This damsel-past-distress whisks Victor off to the Land of the Dead, a lively place where skeletons party, forcing Victor to leave his living fiancée (voiced by Emily Watson) bereft.

So why did Burton — who is known to dress like a mortician — brighten the Jewish tale?

“We wanted to make a version that wasn’t so disturbing that you couldn’t put it in a family movie,” said co-screenwriter John August, who also wrote Burton’s “Big Fish” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”

“The parts that are ‘scary’ are really parodies of classic horror-film moments, such as when our bride’s detached hand crawls after Victor.” The characters are non-Jewish, he added, “because Tim gravitates toward universal, fairy-tale qualities in his films.”

Burton got the idea for the movie when his late executive producer, Joe Ranft, brought him excerpts from the 16th-century legend.

“It seemed right for this particular type of [stop-motion] animation,” Burton said in an interview with studio publicists. “It’s like casting — you want to marry the medium with the material.”

The director saw elements in the tale that he could transform to match his love of protagonists who seem bizarre but who are actually tragic and isolated. In interviews, Burton has traced this preoccupation to his lonely childhood as an eccentric, artistic boy growing up in Burbank. No wonder his characters have included the titular disfigured innocent in “Edward Scissorhands,” the reclusive Willy Wonka in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and now the corpse bride.

“On the surface, she appears to be a monster but in fact she is kind and sweet and misunderstood,” screenwriter August said.

The Jewish folk obsession with the macabre — encompassing tales such as the corpse bride — comes from strikingly different cultural sensibilities than Burton’s obsessions, said Rabbi Pinchas Giller, professor of Jewish thought at the University of Judaism.

“Over the centuries, the Jews were very helpless and very beset by outside forces,” Giller said. “Bad luck could always come about, and it was a real act of Providence that bore a couple to the wedding canopy.”

Schwartz, author of “Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism” (Oxford University Press, 2004), retells the corpse tale in his 1987 book, “Lilith’s Cave: Jewish Tales of the Supernatural” (Oxford University Press), in a story titled, “The Finger.” His source was the 17th-century volume, “Shivhei ha-Ari,” which collected earlier stories about the alleged feats of the real Rabbi Luria. The stories are hagiographic legends — tales about a master that show his great powers. In the corpse-bride narrative, Rabbi Luria confronts the cadaver, who accepts his authority. He is a member of the rabbinic court (the beit din) that eventually rules against the corpse, stating that she is not married because the dead have no claim upon the living, among other reasons.

The real Luria lived in the 16th century, but the origin of tales about nuptials with supernatural entities is far earlier. Schwartz traces them to a biblical commentary that suggests Adam had an insubordinate first wife, Lilith, who became a seductive demon. Later variations on this storyline include “the forced or accidental marriage of a man to a demon; an attempt to be free of unwanted vows and a decision reached by a rabbinical court,” Schwartz wrote in “Lilith’s Cave.” The unearthly characters “perhaps represent the fear of marriage to gentiles and hybrid offspring,” he said.Like the supernatural fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm (also the subject of a new movie), the corpse bride of folk tradition also serves as a cautionary tale, warning about the consequences of bad behavior.

“It tells us, ‘Be careful, don’t ever take an oath in vain. Don’t take it lightly,'” said Peninnah Schram, a professional Jewish storyteller and associate professor of speech and drama at Stern College in New York.

In “The Finger,” the wayward bridegroom gets lucky. After the rabbis rule against the validity of the corpse’s marriage to the careless suitor, the would-be bride — after emitting one last shriek — collapses in a pile of bones and dies, this time for keeps.

The movie has a more Hollywood kind of ending, with that Tim Burton twist.

“Tim’s characters tend to wear darker colors and some, like the corpse bride, are no longer living, but they have a pluck and a spirit that makes you fall in love with them,” August said.

“Corpse Bride” opens Friday in theaters.

 

7 Days In Arts


Saturday

The Yiddish Culture Club’s going on summer vacation. Before they do, catch their end of the season concert. Actor and singer Hale Porter discusses and performs Yiddish folk songs tonight — your last chance for a dose till fall.7:30 p.m. $5 (members), $10 (nonmembers). Los Angeles Yiddish Culture Club, 8339 W. Third St., Los Angeles. (310) 275-8455.

Sunday

Jewish music season finale week continues today with the last in Temple Israel of Hollywood’s Nimoy Concert Series. Dr. Noreen Green conducts “Sweet Strings of the Los Angeles Symphony” featuring 18-year-old solo violinist Lindsay Deutsch. The playlist features works by recently deceased Jewish composers Leon Stein and Srul Glick, as well as classics by Ernest Bloch, Robert Strassburg and Felix Mendelssohn.3 p.m. $8-$25. 7300 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. (310) 478-6332.

Monday

Thank the American Cinematheque this week for perhaps the only reunion you won’t dread attending. “The Right Stuff” Cast and Crew Reunion takes place tonight, in conjunction with its 20th anniversary two-disc special edition DVD release on June 10. The itinerary calls for an introduction by director Philip Kaufman prior to the film’s screening. Also confirmed are actors from the film, including Dennis Quaid, Scott Glenn, Barbara Hershey, Kathy Baker and Veronica Cartwright, plus producer Robert Chartoff, pilot Gen. Chuck Yeager and astronaut Col. Gordon L. Cooper. Perhaps you’ve heard of them?7 p.m. $6-$9. The Egyptian Theatre, 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. (323) 466-3456.

Tuesday

Reading may be its own reward, but the Jewish Community Library knows a little bribery doesn’t hurt either — especially where kids are concerned. Thus, the Summer Reading Club 2003 was created. And it was good. Every kid who reads six Jewish-themed books this summer wins a certificate, a prize — and the enrichment that only a book can bring, of course.(323) 761-8648. www.jclla.org.

Wednesday

Erstwhile rabbi and cantor Jackie Mason brings his shtick to Los Angeles this week. For some Jewish insult comedy that’ll keep you regular, the five-performance engagement of “Prune Danish” plays tonight through Sunday. And while the sometimes dated, sometimes right-wing material is “not everyone’s taste,” as one review title emphasized, Mason’s show, and particularly his showmanship, have won significant praise in other cities and garnered a Tony Award nomination in the Special Theatrical Event category.8 p.m. (Wednesday-Saturday), 3 p.m. (Sunday). Runs June 11-15. $35-$100. Wilshire Theatre, 8440 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. (213) 365-3500.

Thursday

Playing hookie? Pick up fluffy page-turner “The Room-Mating Season” by Rona Jaffe on your way to the beach today. This newest novel by the New York Times best-selling author tells the story of four best girlfriends: Cady, the passionate Jewish girl; Leigh, the sensible one; Vanessa, the beautiful free spirit; and Susan, the mysterious one. The four young women share an apartment in New York City in 1963 — “Everything would happen here, whatever everything was.”E P Dutton, $24.95. amazon.com

Friday

Do Friday the 13th right. Screening tonight as part of the IFP Film Festival, indie filmmaker Eli Roth’s “Cabin Fever,” is a sexy, gory, horror flick guaranteed to scare the bemoses out of you. Think sex, blood and a flesh-eating virus. Pretty much everything you want, and nothing you don’t.11:45 p.m. $10. Laemmle Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. (866) 345-6337. www.lafilmfest.com.

The Big Fake Guy


Bruce. Bruce Goldman.

On my machine, he sounded like a cross between Super Fly and Tony the Tiger. Infusing “This is B.G.” and “What’s the d-low?” with a closing trilled, “Have a grrrrreat day.”

I wondered, did he mean “hope you had a grrrrreat day” or “have a grrrrreat day, tomorrow”? This would haunt me through the last trowel of the pooper-scooper that evening, and make me yearn for bygone days of Frosted Flakes and no frets about dating.

B.G. was a bit hefty, goateed, with a cell phone appendage. Within moments, he displayed the continuous habit of pulling his black, cotton, untucked, button-down shirt away from his body, to a place where it would snap back against his mild corpulence in a wave-like motion. He was sticky — sticky as thigh flesh against vinyl boothing on a hot summer day. Shortly, “what’s the d-low” was uttered live by The Beeg (“B.G.” I deduced, was assigned to others, while “The Beeg” was his own term of endearment — to himself).

“Is d-low in any way related to J.Lo?” I asked in my sweetest aren’t-I-funny-and-not-at-all-condescending voice.

“J.Lo. Man, I like ‘er,” he said, the drool nearly escaping the side of his now slightly intoxicated grin.

“Yes,” I said, “she is beautiful.”

He got this wild, beady-eyed, smirky look of a 4-year-old on Ritalin and replied, “I totally want to do ‘er.”

Concealing revulsion, I aimed to seamlessly mesh “big whoop, you just said that you inappropriate freak” with “anyway, while Jenny from the block may be beautiful, she is morally reprehensible — what with being practically naked all the time and having dated a felon,” which came out: “It’s pretty tacky that she had a gigantic, elaborate second wedding when her gigantic, elaborate first wedding was, like, only a few years ago. And now she’s getting divorced again. Jeez.”

“Are you angry about that?”

Why would I be angry about J.Lo’s weddings, divorces or that she was recently on the cover of GQ in the same ruffled panties my 1-year-old niece wears as part of a Baby Gap romper set? Him asking me if I was angry made me angry. Angry to the extent that I wanted to tell him that his vulgar verbal desecration of females, in the presence of a female — a female he did not even know — was a sure sign that he was a self-loathing goat.

B.G. turned to me, “So, what’s the most important thing to you in a relationship?”

Huh? This is the segue? Did this interminable shlub really feel so displaced in the modern world, so baffled as to his role, so consumed with impression management, that he traveled the extreme regions of conversation like a castaway trying desperately to reach civilization?

Has all the political correctness of our age left men at one moment straining toward a belligerent and contentious version of machismo and at another tapping into their yin and endeavoring to emulate female bonding through profound discourse?

I wanted to scream, “Gadzooks! Don’t verbally regurgitate! Don’t feed me this tuna casserole of a guy you’ve concocted! Absorb your actual surroundings and respond accordingly, instead of performing some rehearsed nonsense.”

He went on. “It’s really important, I mean totally, totally important, the most important thing that someone is spiritual. If they’re not spiritual, forget it. They have to be totally spiritual.”

You slay, Bruce.

In case any doubt remained, I now knew for sure that this B.G., this Beeg, was totally vapid. The word “spiritual” had found its place as my most hated irrelevant groovy spew. The word has been so truly diluted — signifying anything from davening every morning, to practicing yoga during Tuesday and Thursday lunch, to worshipping at the 3 p.m. “Temple of Oprah.” It’s used so frivolously that it almost has ceased to have any meaning at all.

So I wanted to tell him, that while I understood that characterizing yourself as “spiritual” is truly hip, most often it is used as a catchall phrase used by those who want to appear evolved, but are not the least bit interested in actually defining their belief system — for fear it will be discovered they really don’t have one.

But before I was forced, by a power greater than myself, to go there, his cell phone rang. He gave me the finger — as in the index “hold tight while I take this” finger.

At the same time it occurred to me that the phrase “one date, you never know” had become “staying still in the presence of lunacy.”

So before his Motorola had flipped shut, I had flipped outta there.


Kate Axelrod is the story editor on HBO’s “The Mind of the Married Man.”

Respite From Terror


It is Monday afternoon at Universal Studios, and the place is swarming with camera-toting tourists, screaming children, beleaguered adults and bored-looking park staff. Prison-garbed Beetlejuice is flashing his blackened teeth as he amuses tourists with his banter, and the cheerful strains of the Universal Studios theme music are being piped loudly through the sound system, camouflaging upsets and distress with ersatz melodic joy.

In the midst of all this, Mashiach Kashi, 72, is showing pictures of his family. "This is my son-in-law — he came to help the people on the bus, and he was murdered. This is my wife. They murdered her also. They shot a bullet through her head at close range. This is my daughter who was in the bus. The bullet went through her head and took out her eye.

"These are my grandchildren," he continues. "This grandchild was shot — the bullet made a hole like this," he says as he holds up a fist. "This other grandchild was shot in the head and died. This little girl’s name is Galia Esther, and my wife saved her by putting her between her legs, but when the terrorists shot my wife, the blood from her head fell on my granddaughter, and they thought she was also murdered."

Kashi’s voice rises, passionate, but despondent. "What do they want? Do you know what they want? Nobody knows what they want. Master of the universe! They make our lives so bitter. Today I am a shattered vessel. I am not a man."

Kashi’s words, and the company he is with — 21 other Israeli victims of terror, some physically scarred, all emotionally wounded — seem out of place in the tourist attraction that is Universal Studios. The 22 Israelis are there as part of their visit to Los Angeles, which was sponsored by the Southern California Jewish Center. The trip is meant to both educate the Los Angeles public about the Israeli casualties of the intifada and to give the victims a vacation of sorts.

At Universal, they are meant to be having a day of fun, some time out to relax a bit and, if possible, to move their minds away — even if just for a short while — from the horrors they have been through.

Yet despite being thousands of miles away from their homes, in a place where the admission fee generally guarantees some form of escapism, the most this group can hope for is to be mildly distracted.

"This is the first time since I came that I am enjoying myself," says Jakov Shefi, 32, whose 5-year-old daughter, Danielle Bat El, was murdered in her bed. "But every time that we are having fun, we think about our little daughter, and we want her to be with us and to have fun with us."

As other members of the group start to laugh while they shoot each other with water guns, Shefi’s wife, Shiri, 29, talks about her daughter’s murder.

"It was on Shabbat," she says, "when the terrorists came to our yishuv [settlement], and I was with the children in the room, and my daughter was murdered in front of my eyes."

Jakov Shefi continues, "There is a song that says, ‘You have to live the fear and the pain, and look it in the eyes.’ And that is what we do every morning, every day, every evening. You hurt. You pain. But you survive."

At another table, Shoshana and Hadas Katzav, a mother and daughter who were wounded in an attack on the Machaneh Yehudah Market in Jerusalem, sit and eat their Metro Glatt burgers. Hadas Katzav, 17, has prominent scars on her forehead; her mother, 52, has her arm in a bandage, which she takes off, revealing a mangled forearm on which the shiny, scarred flesh sinks into a hole near her wrist.

"This is nothing," says Shoshana Katzav, who needed to be hospitalized for eight months after the attack. "My whole body is scarred like this."

"We came for hasbara [public relations]," Hadas Katzav says, "to tell the people what happens in Israel. They are killing us stam cacha [just like this]. We are sitting in our houses, and they go into our houses, in the streets, all the places that we go, and they kill us. We are afraid to go in the streets."

Three feet away, a newly acquired Bugs Bunny stuffed toy sits in 10-year-old Tehila Cohen’s wheelchair as she sits at a table finishing a hot dog with her father, Ofir, 35. The girl’s legs, along with those of two of her siblings, needed to be amputated after terrorists blew up her school bus.

"The terrorists knew it was a school bus, they knew what a school bus looks like, and what time it takes off in the morning," says Ofir Cohen. "And they used a bomb like they used in Lebanon, and although the bus was armed, it was a big explosion, and two people died on the bus, and the others were terribly wounded."

Cohen says that Tehila, who didn’t want to talk to the press, was doing well. "She is doing the best she can in this situation. She is very optimistic, and she is looking forward."

Although these victims are in the West, their hearts are in the East. "I want to tell the people in Los Angeles to come to Israel," Shefi says. "Here you are living in a beautiful dream, because you have beautiful cars here, and peaceful streets, and the houses are beautiful. But this is not reality of the Jewish people. The reality of the Jewish people is Israel, and we can’t escape from that."

Evil as a Day’s Work


“There was no shouting or wailing,” recalls a Nazi army veteran in wonder after watching Polish Jews digging their own graves before being machine-gunned. “There was a deadly silence.”

The observation is among the hundreds of telling remarks and casual asides by ordinary German soldiers and their officers who participated in or witnessed the day-by-day unfolding of the Final Solution, as documented in the History Channel’s “Hitler’s Holocaust.”

The six-part miniseries, starting Monday, June 18, was made by German television producers for German audiences and is remarkable on two accounts.

“Hitler’s Holocaust” lets the perpetrators — not the masterminds but the little “willing executioners” — tell their stories.

The documentary also illustrates how even the greatest horror ultimately becomes part of a daily routine, not just for the murderers but also, in some measure, for the victims.

As one Latvian collaborator puts it, after a while, the killing of Jews “just became work to be done.”

Besides death and starvation, the victims faced a constant, degrading psychological pressure. One survivor recalls: “We started to believe ourselves that we were really Untermenschen [subhumans] and that they were really the Herrenrasse [master race].”

The six segments, some shown in tandem on the same night, are “Invasion,” “Decision,” “Ghetto,” “Mass Murder,” “Resistance” and “The Final Toll.” The History Channel made available only two tapes, “Invasion” and “Ghetto,” but even they provided numerous telling samples of the killing machine in action, together with rare incidents of repentance and humor, German style.

No less a witness than Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal recalls that while imprisoned he was one day called to the bedside of a fatally wounded SS officer, who demanded to see a Jew before he died.

When Wiesenthal entered the hospital room, the SS man grabbed his hand and asked him, as a Jew, for forgiveness. “I withdrew my hand and walked out,” Wiesenthal says.

The show also examines the lifestyle of some Nazi bigwigs, who benefited hugely from the conquest of Poland. For instance, Hans Frank, the governor-general of occupied Poland, was so notoriously corrupt that his subordinates came up with a pun: “Im Westen ist Frankreich, und im Ostem wirt Frank reich.” [In the West there is France, and in the East, Frank is getting rich].

While it may seem at times that television provides a new program on the Shoah every other week, the History Channel miniseries is recommended for serious students of the Final Solution and of the mindset of its perpetrators.

“Hitler’s Holocaust” will air nightly June 18-21, starting at 9 p.m.

Kabbalah: Scary Jewish Stories


At one point in the play, “Kabbalah: Scary Jewish Stories,” a yeshivabocher and a severed talking head careen across the Abyss. The Baal Shem Tov battles a werewolf. And a hapless youth accidentally marries a re-animated corpse, which nonchalantly re-adjusts an eye-socket while pleading its case before the rabbinical court.

Welcome to “Kabbalah,” the kind of tongue-in-cheek macabre fare one might expect from director Stuart Gordon, best known for the horror cult classic film, “Re-Animator.” When Gordon explores his Jewish roots, you get tales of debauched Kabbalists, shtetl zombies and water demons in the mikvah. But because these are Jewish scary stories, the director notes, there is always a moral, a battle between good and evil, and a wise rabbi to make everything right.

Gordon first thought up the play not long after his adult bar mitzvah in 1997, when he chanced upon folklorist Howard Schwartz’s edition of scary Jewish folk tales, “Lilith’s Cave,” at a Temple Beth Hillel book fair. The amiable Gordon, director of “Dolls” and “From Beyond,” had previously read Midrashim about the supernatural and had even researched a script about the demon-queen Lilith for “Hellraiser IV” — until the producers nixed the idea. “They said it was too far afield,” Gordon recalls, wryly. “But it started to bother me that demonic possession movies were always Catholic.”

With the tales in “Lilith’s Cave,” Gordon saw the potential for a Jewish horror movie and also a play; the piece would be performed in the style of his mentor, Paul Sills, a founder of Second City and the Story Theatre, in which the actors narrate their own action. Enter comedian Avery Schreiber, a veteran of both Second City and the Store Theatre, who brought actors from his own improv workshop and, with Gordon and the other performers, improvised the script from Schwartz’s translations. An elderly Yiddishist, a Holocaust survivor, was on set to consult with the thespians. And when Gordon saw the Golden State Klezmers perform with a mariachi group at Temple Isaiah, he knew he had found the perfect live incidental music.

What is surprising about Gordon, who grossed out his “Re-Animator” actors by taking them to the county morgue, is that he actually has a horror of horror films. When he was a child, his parents did not allow him to watch any scary movies; thus he sneaked out of the house to see “The Tingler” or “House on Haunted Hill,” only to suffer grievous nightmares and insomnia afterwards. Gordon recalls a “wild escape from the drive-in” mid-way through a David Cronenberg movie; he slept with all the windows locked, one summer, after reading Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.” “I would rather have sweltered,” he says, dryly, “than let a vampire in.”

Directing scary movies, he concedes, is a way of mastering his fears. “When you make horror film, you’re controlling them,” he explains. “You know how everything is done.”

Gordon’s career began at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where his anti-Establishment Screw Theater made the national news (and brought obscenity charges) after he staged a nude version of “Peter Pan.” When the university informed him that a professor would have to sit in on any future productions, he dropped out and moved to Chicago, where the Screw transformed into the acclaimed Organic Theater. It was there that Gordon co-created the long-running “Bleacher Bums” and met a cocky young David Mamet, who kept pestering him with scripts he assured everyone would win the Pulitzer Prize. Gordon went on to stage the world premiere of Mamet’s “Sexual Perversity in Chicago.”

Thirty-five original plays and adaptations later, Gordon moved to Hollywood, directed films like “The Pit and the Pendulum” and co-created “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” when his daughters clamored for him to make a movie he would actually let them see.

Now he’s hoping to direct a film based on Schwartz’s book, perhaps a Lilith trilogy or something about the fallen Kabbalist Joseph della Reina, who chants the “Shema” backwards to conjure up lovely women in his bedroom. Joseph, after all, rivals the creepiest of contemporary horror characters. “He is,” Gordon says, “the ultimate stalker.”

“Kabbalah” plays on Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. Jan. 7 through Feb. 13 at the Lex Theater, 6760 Lexington Ave, Hollywood. For tickets and information, call (323) 957-5782.

Concerned Christians


Strains of somber organ music resonated in the large sanctuary as the eight Holocaust survivors told their stories. As each spoke about horrors endured, loved ones lost and, ultimately, faith reclaimed, the congregation punctuated their speeches with murmurs of “Thank You, Jesus.”

Clearly, this was no ordinary Holocaust memorial. The survivors spoke as part of the First Annual Varian Fry Committee of Concerned Christians Awards at the Church on the Way, a prominent Pentecostal church located in the San Fernando Valley. Co-sponsored by Stephen S. Wise Temple, the educational gathering brought together more than 900 Christians of seemingly every color and age, as well as some Jewish guests, to honor Holocaust survivors and their rescuers.

“I was blown away,” said Dean Jones, one of the event organizers. “I never expected the survivors to be so spiritually dynamic and to bring so much hope to that congregation.”

Jones, a veteran actor (his credits include “The Love Bug” and “Clear and Present Danger”) and member of the Church on the Way, said that he expected the event to serve as a model for similar ones nationwide. As spokesperson for the 8-year-old Committee of Concerned Christians (CCC), he sees Christian awareness and involvement as critical in the fight against anti-Semitism. Recognizing the history of Jewish persecution and noting that much of it came from people professing to be good Christians, Jones firmly believes in the work of the Committee in curbing anti-Semitism worldwide.

“It’s mind-boggling that the Holocaust happened in this century,” said Jones. “I believe that Christian people who really want to follow Christ have a lot of credibility to regain with Jewish people the world over.”

The CCC’s main goal is education. Most of the organization’s efforts are directed toward providing instructional materials for schools and churches throughout the country. These include “The Diary of Anne Frank” as well as educational videos on the Holocaust. Funding comes from private donors.

Co-founded by Los Angeles Jewish businessman Ben Friedman, CCC has enlisted more than 2,000 Christian priests and ministers of all denominations. These clergymen have agreed to devote at least one sermon a year to teach about the Holocaust and the dangers of anti-Semitism.

Acknowledging the limitations of the organization, Jones said: “It’s true that the skinheads are not going to be sitting in church, hearing a sermon on the dangers of anti-Semitism. However, if the religious community is sensitized and united, and they take a firm stance against any outbreaks of intolerance, I believe that anti-Semitism can be contained.”

According to Friedman, the organization’s biggest obstacle today is the indifference of Jews. Friedman said that Jewish media and organizations have been resistant to publicizing his group.

Indeed, many in the Jewish community wonder why Jews should bother lauding steps that should have been made long ago.

“How much Jewish blood had to be shed before a major figure in Christianity finally debunked a belief that has been either implicitly or explicitly passed on for centuries?” said one local Jewish activist, who did not wish to be named.

“The beneficiaries of this are the Jews,” countered Friedman. But he stressed that “the real goal of CCC is for Christians to understand that they have to appeal to Christians to solve the problems of Christians hating Jews for the last 1,600 years.”

Ebi Gabor, one of the survivors who spoke at the church gathering, concurred. She was 16 years old when she was taken to Auschwitz from her upper-middle-class home in Hungary. “Churches are the most influential, and the most convincing. We need their help to educate people about what happened,” she said.

Almost every seat was filled in the church on June 4. A large gospel choir stood at the back of the pulpit, while a five-piece band played on the side. The stage was flanked by two large video screens that projected words to hymns and psalms.

In his opening prayer, Dr. Jack Hayford, senior pastor of the Church on the Way, invoked, “the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God, and Ruach HaKodesh.” As he spoke, many congregants murmured words of praise or raised their arms and heads upward in prayer.

Throughout the evening, the mood was somber yet uplifting. The attendees were clearly disturbed by an intensely graphic 15-minute clip from the miniseries “War and Remembrance,” of the journey from the cattle cars to the gas chambers of Auschwitz.

Cantor Nathan Lam of Stephen S. Wise Temple, who helped initiate plans for the event a year ago, sang “Sim Shalom.” After the proceedings, Lam recalled that his initial concern about the group’s intentions were unnecessary. “It was truly an evening of spiritual brotherhood, with everyone respecting the other’s religious beliefs and being moved by the other person’s sincerity.”

There are tentative plans between the two congregations for a “thanksgiving” event, either during Sukkot or during the actual November holiday.

Rabbi Eli Herscher spoke about his own background (his family left Germany in 1935) and noted that the key to the evening lay in the fact that “we are here, Jews and Christians, as partners in memory.” Both he and Lam received standing ovations.

Named for the first American to be given recognition by Israel as Righteous Among the Nations, the Varian Fry awards were presented to Barbro Osher, Consul General of Sweden, in recognition of her country’s work in saving the lives of thousands of Jews during the Holocaust, and to Dr. Marcel Verzeano, an associate of Varian Fry who helped smuggle thousands of people out of Vichy France.

Hayford spoke of how only “halfway into the 40 years of [his] ministry” did he learn about the history of anti-Semitism in Christian tradition. “I didn’t know that the viciousness of the Inquisition, the Crusades or other pogroms were often conducted in the name of Christ.”

He stressed the importance of education and awareness in combating intolerance, ignorance or just apathy, especially by those who consider themselves true Christians.

“The Bible teaches us that repentance is what you do when you finally understand. And that’s what we’re trying to do, now that we finally understand,” he said.

For more information on CCC, call (818) 848-3442.


Shlomit Levy is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer.

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