Essays Reflect on Pearl’s Last Words


Three words, among the last uttered by journalist Daniel Pearl before his murder two years ago this month (on Feb. 21, the public learned of the murder), have become a nucleus for thoughtfulness and creativity. "I Am Jewish," edited by his parents, Judea and Ruth Pearl (Jewish Lights), is a collection of brief essays by almost 150 noted contributors who tease out meaning from these words and compose personal statements of Jewish identity.

As Judea Pearl explains in a telephone interview from his office at UCLA where he teaches computer science, the book, with its diverse insights into Judaism, is intended to empower young Jewish people and foster pride in their heritage. It is also meant to send a strong message to the murderers that while they tried to sow humiliation, the words of Danny — as he refers to his late son — would "eventually lead to a stronger, more united Jewish people." And, the book is for Adam Pearl, Daniel’s son, to show him how his father inspired many Jews to come together and reflect on their Jewishness.

The publication of the book marks a turn in the Pearl family’s outlook about the Jewish nature of the tragedy. The work of the foundation they established in his memory is universal in its program. When asked why the family urged the press to downplay Daniel’s Judaism in the aftermath of his capture and murder, Judea Pearl rewords, "There was not an attempt to emphasize that element. The family didn’t want to give ammunition to the defense team, who wished to gain public sympathy in Pakistan."

Now, the family is no longer concerned about anti-Semitic outbursts in the courtroom so they feel like there’s no reason to shield the information.

In fact, Judea Pearl sees that in emphasizing the Jewish element of the tragedy, there are "tremendous opportunities for the Jewish community. For the first in modern times, we have an association between Jewishness and the concept of bridge-building and peace seeking."

"Jews are being portrayed as warmongers and baby killers. It’s about time that our real face will be portrayed with pride," he added

Contributors to the book include people of various political, religious and cultural stripes: Many would rarely be in a room together, let alone a book. They span generations, countries, professions and perspectives, among them Edgar Bronfman, Avraham Burg, Debbie Friedman, Thomas Friedman, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, David Grossman, Larry King, Francine Klagsbrun, Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, Jackie Mason, Thane Rosenbaum, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Kerri Strug, Mike Wallace and Elie Wiesel.

The Pearls, along with the publisher, approached a wish list of journalists, entertainers, authors, government figures, business leaders, scientists, rabbis, scholars, Jewish communal figures and others. Most said yes.

"Danny’s legacy has the magnetic capacity to energize," Judea Pearl explained.

There were a few ‘no’s,’ some of which Judea Pearl managed to turn around. Some people felt that they could write thick books but nothing concise, others expressed reservations about being associated with a project they saw as divisive in its ethnicity. To one reluctant celebrity, he said, "In the same way that you are proud of being part of a community that gave the world Einstein and Chagall, there are Jewish youngsters who would like to be proud of you and what you have achieved. You have a responsibility to them."

The contributors were asked to reflect on what they mean when they say the words, "I am Jewish." "The question is not trivial," Judea Pearl writes in the preface. Contributors were also asked to minimize references to the tragedy.

Some contributors sent tributes to Daniel Pearl, which the editors sent back. Shimon Peres, who sent in a long tribute, was very gracious about rewriting and sent back a poetic narration of his life, emphasizing faith. Others declined to rewrite.

The book makes for compelling reading. Wide ranging in perspective, the entries are mixed in their literary quality, but a rich, bold, meaningful, intense and joyful vision emerges. The effect of reading essay after essay is to begin composing one’s own.

Some essays reveal personal stories; some read like original liturgy; many are full of questions, others use jokes and humor. Their themes may be rooted in family, memory, Jewish texts, conversion experiences and the Holocaust. Certain writers mention God, covenant and Israel; for others, these concepts don’t seem part of their vocabulary. Sometimes it’s the kids who are the most impressive, speaking powerfully in few words.

The only voices that seem to be missing in the mix are more young American Jewish poets and novelists.

For actor Joshua Malina, "the statement, ‘I am Jewish,’ is no different from the statement, ‘I am.’ Judaism is the foundation of my identity."

Leon Wieseltier begins his essay by slightly amending the statement to, "I am a Jew." "There’s nothing adjectival about this dimension of my being. It is not a qualifier of anything else, not a modifier of another essence; it is itself."

He goes on to speak of the significance of words and ideas and offers a traditional Chasidic text "in sorrowful and respectful recollection of Daniel Pearl."

Like Wieseltier, many point out that being Jewish is one part of their identity.

Several contributors, like Israeli novelist A.B. Yehoshua, speak of secular identity. Many, including Natan Sharansky mention anti-Semitism. Journalist Daniel Schorr and others tie their professional life with their Judaism; for him being Jewish relates to searching for truth. Novelist Anne Roiphe and others write about how their humanity is colored by their Judaism. Many speak of being Jewish as a matter of choice.

In several essays, the writers present colorful imagery. Editor David Suissa writes of "80 generations of grandmothers and grandfathers, all holding hands," encouraging him to continue their "eternal mission of lighting up the world."

Actor Shia LeBeouf describes Judaism as "the name of the telephone in my heart that allows me to speak to God."

Judea Pearl sees a connection between his son’s story and that of Anne Frank. "Both symbolized the horror of their era, both were writers who inspire people, Jews and non-Jews, to study anti-Semitism and the consequences of fanaticism. The difference is that Anne Frank’s diary was discovered after the Holocaust and Danny’s tragedy is a warning of another Holocaust."

A Friday night service dedicated to the memory of Daniel Pearl will be held Friday, Feb. 27, at 8:15 p.m. at Valley Beth Shalom, 15739 Ventura Blvd, Encino. Speakers will be Rabbi Harold Schulweis and professor Judea Pearl. For more information, call (818) 788-6000.

‘Raising’ the Bar on Teen Comedies


Peter Sollett’s ebullient romantic comedy, "Raising Victor Vargas," about Hispanic teens in the East Village, began as a short film about, well, himself.

While tackling his NYU thesis film five years ago, Sollett imagined a semiautobiographical piece about a "10- to 13-year-old Jewish boy, whose life was like my own at that age." Like "Vargas," it was to be a "first-kiss story" that started at a neighborhood pool on a summer afternoon. And it was to be set in a Jewish-Italian neighborhood reminiscent of his old block in Bensonhurst.

But when Sollett and his Barcelona-born producer, Eva Vives, tried to cast Brooklyn kids through agencies in 1998, he said they "saw actors who were just mimicking what they saw on TV." To find more natural performers, they hit the streets, plastering their lower Manhattan neighborhood with fliers inviting teens to audition.

"We weren’t thinking about the demographics, so we didn’t realize that most of the kids who would turn up would be Hispanic," the precise, articulate director said from his East Village apartment. "We started seeing actors, most of them nonprofessionals, who really blew us away, so we decided to make the film about them."

One of the most impressive teens to audition was Victor Rasuk, who inspired the filmmakers with an improvisation about confronting a bully who was tormenting his brother.

"I expected him to become threatening and aggressive, but instead he began talking about how much his brother meant to him and how hurt he’d be if anything were to happen to him," Sollett said. "But the subtext was that if anything were to happen, Victor’s behavior would become that of someone with little left to lose. He was complex and unpredictable, and our interest in him was immediate."

Sollett promptly cast Rasuk as Vargas; Rasuk’s brother, Silvestre, as Vargas’ onscreen brother, and the casting director’s 74-year-old aunt, Altagracia Guzman, as their cantankerous grandmother. When the short film, titled "Five Feet High and Rising," won top awards at Sundance and Cannes in 2000, he and Vives expanded the story into "Raising Victor Vargas," which used the same cast and was developed, in part, at the Sundance Screenwriters Lab.

Sollett’s shooting style would be as unusual as his casting methods. "The actors never saw the script," he said. Rather, he used the screenplay as a jumping-off point during a month of rehearsals, throwing out lines or situations to encourage his inexperienced performers to improvise. "I continually asked them, how would you react in a particular situation?" he says. "This put them in a vulnerable position in a way. If an actor looks surprised [in the movie], it’s because he was surprised when we were shooting. They’re not pulling faces on cue."

The script also began incorporating stories from the actors’ real lives: Like Rasuk, the fictional Vargas experiences sibling rivalry and clashes with his grandmother — his legal guardian and an immigrant from the Dominican Republic. The female leads, including Jude Marte as Vargas’ love interest and Melonie Diaz as her best friend, introduced "their own ways of dealing with an environment in which boys can be very sexually aggressive," Sollett said.

The result is the hyperrealistic "Victor Vargas," in which a self-proclaimed stud learns a thing or two about girls when he puts the moves on his wary neighbor, Judy (Marte). According to People, the low-budget comedy is a "rare film about teens that gets them right."

Sollett, for his part, grew up in a Reform Jewish home, where his father, a newspaper photographer, encouraged his interest in moving pictures. As an adolescent, he encountered the movies of Woody Allen, which he said helped him to discover "the culture of Manhattan and the world of art films.

"In Allen’s movies, characters debate about Bergman and Fellini, and if you’re 12, and don’t know who they are, you can pick up on those references and look into them," he said.

By age 16, he had his own Super-8 camera, although he wasn’t as cocky or handsome as the fictional Vargas.

"I wanted to be cool and to fit in, but I didn’t," he said of his high school years. After graduation, he was rejected twice from NYU’s film school before succeeding on the third try.

These days, however, Sollett has reason to be as confident as his "Vargas" protagonist. Among other kudos, "Vargas" was lauded by "About Schmidt" director Alexander Payne as the best American movie he saw last year. Its stellar reception at Cannes and Sundance may place Sollett among filmmakers, such as Darren Aronofsky ("Requiem for a Dream"), whose career kicked off on the festival circuit.

The Jewish director, who has become close friends with his actors, sees parallels between their Latino American background and his own. "There’s always a generation gap with relatives from the old country and a falling away of religious observance," he said. "So it’s not such a distant experience."

"Raising Victor Vargas" opens April 18 in Los Angeles.

Food for Thought


Maybe you’ve noticed that many of the bagel chains today are named after some of the most influential Jewish figures in history — Einstein, Noah. But have you ever stopped to think that maybe it’s the bagels that spurred all of this insight?

Well, the creators of TheBagel.org, a new Web site connecting and inspiring college students in Southern California, seem to think so.

Launched in November 2002, TheBagel.org is an online meeting place where young adults can interact and explore a wide range of topics that are relevant to their lives — as college students and as Jews. Sponsored by Hillside Memorial Park & Mortuary, The Jewish Community Foundation and The Jewish Federation’s Israel Experience Program, the colorful site offers financial aid and internship directories, buddy chat and a college prep section for high school students. There is even an Ask the Rabbi column where students can get advice from an array of rabbis on subjects that range from “Why do we eat latkes on Chanukah?” to “I am in a serious relationship with someone who is Catholic, but I am worried that if we marry I will jeopardize my relationship with my Orthodox grandparents.”

But what makes

TheBagel.org stand apart from other Web sites for Jewish college students is that the majority of the content is written by student contributors. Students can review restaurants and movies, share the news on their campuses, keep a campus diary, or write in about anything that is on their minds. Not only does the site encourage creative expression, but it also offers students an opportunity to be published.

As for the mascot, creators believe that “the bagel” represents the Jewish, yet nondenominational and limitless nature of the site.

“It is identifiable and memorable. Jewish, but not religious or Zionist. What is perfect about this name is that while it is Jewish, it’s not tied to any specific type of Judaism. There is a large variety and many different types of bagels, just like the Jewish community. But most importantly it resonates with the people we want to reach,” said Meirav Ravid, site editor.

Perhaps there’s even a few young Einsteins or Noahs in the bunch.

Students can e-mail stories to submissions@thebagel.org .

+