Crooners celebrate Canuckia’s Cohen and a first for our very own Greenberg
Saturday the 24th
A Leonard Cohen love fest takes place at Royce Hall this evening. The enigmatic genius poet/songwriter is paid tribute in an event titled “The Gospel According to Leonard Cohen,” which is presented by Perla Batalla, a vocalist with whom he has frequently worked. While surprise guests are promised, confirmed performers include Jackson Browne, Michael McDonald, Howard Tate, Bill Gable, Bill Frisell and Don Was.
Tuesday the 27th
Despite what we feel is a terrible title, “Melanoma My Love” may be worth your attention. The interesting premise of this Israeli film is a tragic tale about a young dancer who is diagnosed with melanoma at age 30, and given only three months to live. Not wanting to shatter her spirit with such precious time left, her husband chooses to hide the prognosis from her. The film screens — with a conversation with star Sharon Zukerman to follow — at UC Irvine tonight, and Pomona College tomorrow.
Feb. 27, UC Irvine.
Thursday the 1st
Local author T Cooper signs her new acclaimed novel, “Lipshitz Six, or Two Angry Blondes” at Malibu’s Diesel bookstore on Wednesday, and Skylight Books today. To quote Publisher’s Weekly’s assessment of her latest, “[Cooper] takes apart the usual Jewish heritage tale and the themes of assimilation, touching them with postmodern parody and Chagallesque folk magic.”
Feb. 28, 7 p.m., Diesel, A Bookstore, 3890 Cross Creek Road, Malibu. (310) 456-9961.
March 1, 7:30 p.m. Skylight Books, 1818 N. Vermont Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 660-1175.
Friday the 2nd
A Shabbat service with vocal resonance awaits at the Wilshire Theatre, this evening. The 50-voice Tabernacle Gospel Choir led by Justin White joins the Tova Marcos Singers of Temple of the Arts in an interfaith, intercultural “Shared Heritage of Freedom” service. They will be led by Rabbi David Baron and Bishop Charles Blake of the West Angeles Church of God in Christ.
8 p.m. Wilshire Theatre Beverly Hills, 8440 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. (323) 658-9100. IFF: Engaging in disengagement — five horrible days in Gaza
Students Draw on Movie for Tolerance Mural Inspiration
In a hallway of Oscar de la Hoya Animo Charter High School in downtown Los Angeles, a three-part canvas mural covers a wall, portraying the transformation of society from one plagued by hate to one free of it.
The mural’s creators are at-risk Latino high school students who spent their Saturdays envisioning a better world, and then painting it.
The students participated in a mural workshop based on a simple principle: Art can change the world.
The engineer of the workshop is Kids for Peace, a children’s art program initially begun to help combat terrorism in Israel by providing artistic and creative guidance to youngsters.
Gayle Gale started Kids for Peace after she returned to Los Angeles from a series of trips to Israel as a visiting artist at Ben-Gurion University, Beersheba in 1994 and 1995. With assistance from the local Israeli consulate and a grant obtained with help from the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity from the Jewish Community Foundation, she set out to teach youth about Israel through artistic means. In the years since, Gale has found herself doing much more.
Gale has traveled around the world conducting Kids for Peace workshops, working with groups to create artworks for all variety of venues, including the United Nations headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, where kids made a mural to commemorate the celebration of the 50th anniversary of human rights in 1998. In 2001, Gale received the Fete d’Excellence gold medallion for Youth from the coalition of nongovernmental organizations that are a part of the United Nations.
After Sept. 11, 2001, Gale expanded the Kids for Peace focus beyond terrorism and Israel to include issues of hunger, gang violence and AIDS, depending on the location of the workshop and the most relevant issue in the part of the world she was attempting to reach. In the process, Gale sought to avoid making Kids for Peace a politically charged initiative.
“I don’t consider this a political project,” she said. “I consider it a way of bringing people together using the creative process for harmony and to make social statements that educate people because I believe that we’ll have peace when there’s education.”
Run in conjunction with Barnsdall Arts, which has worked with Kids for Peace since 2003, the Oscar de la Hoya workshop allowed 20 students to create a series of murals to adorn their campus in the Los Angeles World Trade Center.
After viewing a documentary called “The Devil’s Miner,” about a young Bolivian boy forced to work in a mine to support his family, the students agreed upon the images they sought to portray after performing yoga and participating in a discussion of social justice led by Gale, who routinely uses such methods to get students thinking and feeling. Then they get painting.
The particular focus of the workshop was the importance of education to the achievement of peace.
When Gale discovered the “The Devil’s Miner” at a special screening at the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood in April, she realized it was a tool she could use to further emphasize the relationship between education and peace in her workshops. Its protagonist dreams above all of saving enough money to one day attend school.
“I thought that if kids in America could see this film, they would appreciate what they have, and they would take their educations more seriously,” Gale said. The students at Oscar de la Hoya Animo devoted three Saturdays in May and June to working on the murals.
Gale and her patrons are hoping that it will be the first of many “Devil’s Miner” workshops she will conduct.
“My goal is just to travel around the world and keep doing workshops,” Gale said.
A Small Man With Big Dreams
Thirty-seven year old Ami Ankilewitz weighs just 39 pounds; he suffers from a rare disease called spinal muscular atrophy, which has prevented his muscles from growing and functioning. As a result, his body is skeletal; his small, fragile bones seem mangled and twisted, thinly covered by skin pulled tight. His eyes stare out dark and black from a gaunt, bony face, which appears too large and too animated for Ami’s debilitated body.
But what is clear in “39 Pounds of Love,” the wonderful Israeli documentary film about Ami that is winning awards in festivals all over the world, is that while his body is crippled, his soul is not. Ami is a party boy who frequents Tel Aviv bars. His humor is sarcastic and bawdy. Although he is dependent on others for the most basic tasks, including washing and eating, he has many friends. He is also, as much as possible, self-sufficient. He works as an animator, using the one finger on his left hand not affected by his disease to shift a computer mouse to create incredible animated images that move in ways he cannot.
Ami is a dreamer and a romantic. The film tells the story of his unrequited love for Christina, the beautiful, vibrant, Romanian nurse who tends to him with the sincerity of a lover, but whose heart stays elsewhere. Not only does Christina brush his teeth, carry him from the bath and take him for walks in the park — where people stare and run away — at parties she inhales smoke from Hookahs, and, using her lips, transfers it to Ami’s mouth.
Christina does not love Ami, so, his heart torn asunder, he asks her to leave. He decides to do what he has always wanted to do — travel to the United States, take a cross-country road trip, ride a Harley-Davidson and confront the doctor who told his mother when he was an infant that he would live only until the age of 6.
“[The doctor] just didn’t take into account that I have the soul of a Harley-Davidson,” Ami says in the film.
“39 Pounds of Love” is about Ami’s journey, literal and spiritual.
“The cross country for me is like for you climbing Mt. Everest,” Ami says. He and his band of attendants, including his best friend and caretaker Asaf; Dani Menkin, the film’s director; producer Daniel Chalfen; various other sound and camera guys; and, at certain points, Ami’s Mexican-born mother and his brother, make their way across the States in an RV, forming a fraternity of sorts. They stop in the Arizona desert, where they commune with Native Americans and cowboys. In New Mexico they enter a healing church, where Ami lies down on the pews and is blessed by the pastor. In Texas, they go into a sex shop, where the assistant asks Ami if he is into “bondage.” In California, Ami is blessed by a biker, who lays his hands over Ami’s face, right before Ami gets the ride of his life in the sidecar of a motorcycle.
In the course of his journey, Ami comes to terms with his past and confronts people who, in various ways, have wounded him. In Texas, he visits his estranged brother Oscar, now married with children. Growing up, and even as an adult, Oscar resented the attention Ami received from their mother, and on Oscar’s last trip to Israel, the brothers fought and from then on did not speak. They make up on camera. In Florida, in a somewhat anti-climactic encounter, Ami finally meets Dr. Cordova, now an old man in a Miami apartment, who seems bemused but patient with the person he gave a death sentence to so many years ago.
Throughout, Ami continues to yearn for Christina. And, punctuating the real-life drama, we see Ami’s animation work, a passionate story of two birds. One is blue and skinny like Ami, the other plump and lush with full red lips, like Christina. The birds flirt, and the blue bird, clearly besotted, brings the other gifts of worms. She rejects him nonetheless, and he flies away, dejected, then sets out to climb a mountain so he can reach the sky and steal the moon for his beloved.
“39 Pounds of Love” is a film about dreams. It is a film about the curious manner in which things we long for fulfill themselves in ways we never anticipated. It is also a film about hope, which soars eternal, even after what we hope for ebbs away from us.
For the filmmakers, Ami’s story is almost as remarkable as the story of the film itself.
Menkin met Ami in a Tel Aviv bar and was immediately drawn to him. He started filming Ami, and then, while participating in the 2002 filmmakers’ master class program of the Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership, showed a three-minute promotional video of Ami to the instructors. Receiving enough encouragement and support from executive producer Lynn Roth, then teaching the master class, Menkin and Ami came to the States and started making their film.
In the process, Menkin invested more than $100,000 of his own money to make the film. He also convinced much of his crew to work for free.
“There are films with budgets of $60 million,” said Menkin, who spoke to The Journal by phone from New York. “But we have $60 million of heart.”
And the efforts paid off. Not only did Ami get to go on his journey of a lifetime, but the film won the 2005 Israeli Academy Award for best documentary and is now on the Oscar short list for films eligible for a best documentary nomination. It was also picked up by HBO/Cinemax, which is supporting its U.S. release.
“When we started making this film, everyone thought we were stupid or crazy,” Menkin said. “But now we are on the short list and everyone wants to interview us.”
The film has brought Ami a degree of fame. Ever since it won the Israeli Academy Award, Ami has been receiving e-mails from people interested in his story, and he has been in demand as a lecturer, even giving a presentation to the Israel Defense Forces.
“He is inspiring people — he is talking about his feelings and how to overcome obstacles,” Menkin said.
He has also found a new love — his caretaker, Vika.
“Ami set goals, and his next goal was being in love again, and she is the one who replaced Christina,” Menkin said. “And this time they are together, so there is a happy ending.”
Dani Menkin and Asaf (Ami’s best friend) will be participating in a question-and-answer session after the evening screenings of “39 Pounds of Love” on Dec. 2 (opening night), 3 and 4 at the Nuart Theater, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd. The evening screenings take place at 7:30 p.m. and 9:40 pm. For more information, call (310) 281-8223 or visit
‘Syrian Bride’ Weds Simple Tale, History
The guests at this Middle Eastern wedding were more mournful than joyous. But even more troubled was the Druze bride herself. All dressed up, she was stuck at a border crossing in the dusty demilitarized zone between Israel’s Golan Heights and Syria.
It wasn’t clear if she’d be allowed to cross for her wedding. And if she did, she might never see her family on the other side again.
Israeli filmmaker Eran Riklis witnessed and filmed the incident, which became part of his 1999 documentary, “Borders.”
Now, the director has returned to this material in his searing, new feature film, “The Syrian Bride,” which is loosely based on that stressful 1998 day at the border. The film also confronts personal and psychological limits, especially those faced by women in traditional societies. And it’s generated controversy and won awards across many borders. The film will screen at this year’s Israel Film Festival in Los Angeles.
In the real-life episode, the bride from a village that became Israeli after the 1967 War was to marry a Druze from Damascus. The Druze religion is a medieval offshoot of Islam, and the Druze people have been divided among several countries in the region.
The bride’s listed nationality, like that of many former Syrians in the area, was listed as “undetermined.” This designation meant that once she crossed into Syria, she would never be allowed to return to her village; nor would her relatives be allowed to visit her.
Riklis lingered with his camera, hoping to shoot the nuptials. But the Syrian border official balked at the Israeli stamp on the bride’s passport, while his Israeli counterpart refused to erase the stamp. So the bride sweated for hours in the sun as her taffeta gown wilted.
“It was just a short sequence, but it obsessed me,” Riklis said. “It was the image of a bride in a white dress, in an almost Western setting, and having to deal with politics and bureaucracy, when all you want to do is get married.
“I quickly realized I had everything I needed to make a successful movie,” he added. “There was Israel, there was Syria and the people caught in the middle.
“What I’ve tried to do in all my films is to tell simple stories of simple people, set against the backdrop of local, regional and even world politics,” he said. “And this had all the ingredients to tell the story of the whole history of the Middle East.”
And that’s precisely what he attempts in his new, fictional work, “The Syrian Bride.” The title character is Mona (Clara Khoury) from the village of Majdal Shams, whose wedding day is the saddest of her life. Her arranged marriage to a Syrian actor, whom she has never met, will mean utter isolation in a strange city.
Her father, a recently released political prisoner, will be unable to see her off because he is prohibited from going near the border. Her brother, who was excommunicated after marrying a non-Druze, is also banned from the wedding.
Above all, Mona dreads losing her sister, the feisty Amal (Hiam Abbass), who is unhappy in an arranged marriage to a man who refuses to allow her to become a social worker. But while Mona silently broods throughout the film, Amal gradually speaks up, defying village convention, as well as bureaucrats threatening the wedding.
“Bride” joins the burgeoning trend of Israeli films — such as Amos Gitai’s “Free Zone” — that tackle Middle East strife through intimate human dramas. It won 16 awards on the festival circuit, making it perhaps the most honored film in Israeli history.
“It’s hard to imagine a recent film that presents a more nuanced portrait of Israelis and Arabs, of Jews and Druze, of their equal capacity for heartlessness and generosity,” The Forward said.
Riklis, who calls himself a “filmmaker without borders,” spoke to The Journal from the central Bolivian city of Cochabamba, where he was researching a movie on globalization. The easygoing director said he felt completely at home in the foreign milieu, having crossed borders all his life. The son of a scientist who worked internationally, Jerusalem-born Riklis spent his youth, respectively, in Montreal, New York, Beersheva, New Haven, Rio de Janeiro, London and Tel Aviv.
Attending an American high school in Brazil helped shape his world view in the late 1960s, he said in unaccented English. Israeli pride was high after the 1967 victory, but Riklis’ American classmates fiercely argued over their own Vietnam War.
“This opened my eyes to a more nuanced approach to world politics, and made me aware that there is always another way of looking at things,” he said. “That later shaped my approach as a democratic filmmaker who tries to show all points of view.”
To reflect his heroines’ viewpoints in “Bride,” Riklis said he sought “an open-minded woman with a traditional Arab background” to co-write the drama. Because the Druze do not have a tradition of theater or cinema, he was unable to find a suitable Druze partner.
Instead, he pursued Palestinian Israeli Suha Arraf, who grew up in a Christian village in the northern Galilee, worked as journalist for Haaretz newspaper and won kudos for her documentaries on Arab life. Thirty-six and unmarried, brash and outspoken, she refuses to make documentaries on subjects such as female suicide bombers because she perceives them as cliched — the kind of film critics might expect her to direct — and “I am not a puppet,” she said from her Haifa apartment.
Although Riklis had tactfully depicted Arabs in his 1991 soccer film, “Cup Final,” Arraf was initially cautious.
“I don’t agree to work with just any Jewish filmmaker,” she said, briskly. “A lot of Jews want to make movies about Arabs, and there are a lot of stereotypes.”
Actress Haim Abbass had an even stronger response: “I thought, ‘Who … is this guy who is so interested in such intimate stories of Arab culture,'” she said from New York.
Riklis won over both women by stating that he did not represent Syrians, Israelis or Druze, but rather the truth. He added that he wanted to tell the story because “everyone knows about the Palestinians, but few realize the Druze were also occupied in 1967.”
While Riklis researched the film by spending time in the real village of Majdal Shams, Abbass prepared in a more private manner.
“I found I identified with my character on almost every level — on both feminist and political fronts,” she said.
The actress had grown up in a traditional Muslim village near the Lebanese border. While her parents were modern, the villagers weren’t. Abbass was severely criticized for refusing to wed her cousin in an arranged marriage at 18, for smoking and for planning to attend university to study theater and photography, which was not perceived as a woman’s profession.
She also related to the fictional Amal because the border had separated her own family.
“I knew that my mother’s sister was in Syria, and that my mother and aunt could never see each other,” she said. “I grew up acutely aware of the exile and distance caused by war.”
Jewish-Palestinian hostilities eventually led Abbass to relocate to Paris, where she won roles in Arabic language films, such as 2002’s “Satin Rouge.” “The Syrian Bride” is her first made-in-Israel movie, although the dialogue is mostly in Arabic.
While Palestinians and Jews worked well together on the set, the movie initially drew ire from both Arabs and Israelis. Druze viewers resented the depiction of how their tradition treats women. A Palestinian director dismissed the movie as “an Israeli liberal token job” and all but one Arabic film festival refused it.
Meanwhile, Jews complained that the Israeli characters are villainous. (Riklis insists they’re well-rounded border types.) The film became a critical and commercial success in Israel only after it won accolades and audiences in Europe; even so, it did not win a single Israeli Oscar.
Riklis said he wasn’t upset about the Oscars, because “Bride” has proven its universal appeal. Although inspired by that 1998 Druze wedding, “the movie transcends geography, because its really about all people at a crossroads, living with physical and emotional borders.”
Yom HaShoah Events
Friday, April 16
Laemmle Theaters: Release of the Academy Award-nominated documentary, "Prisoner of Paradise," about German Jewish actor Kurt Gerron, sent to a concentration camp and forced to write and direct Nazi propaganda. Laemmle Music Hall, Beverly Hills. (310) 274-6869. Laemmle Theatres Town Center, Encino. (818) 981-9811.
Congregation B’nai Emet: 8 p.m. Shabbat and Yom HaShoah service. Dachau survivor Bernie Simon speaks. 4645 Industrial St., Simi Valley. (805) 581-3723.
Saturday, April 17
Adat Ari El: 7 p.m. Mincha and discussion on "Understanding the Shoah and Human Atrocity: Moving Beyond God as Punisher, Enigma or Absentee." 12020 Burbank Blvd., Valley Village. (818) 766-9426.
Southern California Warsaw Ghetto Anniversary Committee: 7:30 p.m. "A Song to the Unsung: Heroines and Heroes of Resistance." Warsaw Ghetto uprising annual commemoration and tribute to the Holocaust martyrs. In Yiddish and English. Institute of Jewish Education, 8339 W. Third St., Los Angeles. (310) 552-2007.
Sunday, April 18
Congregation Mishkon Tephilo: Yom HaShoah Service. 206 Main St., Venice.
Museum of Tolerance: Screening of "The Long Way Home." 9786 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. R.S.V.P., (310) 553-9036.
Temple Sinai: 10:15 a.m. Yom HaShoah Commemoration. Survivor Robert Geminder speaks. 1212 N. Pacific Ave., Glendale. R.S.V.P., (818) 246-8101.
Hillside Memorial Park and Mortuary:
11 a.m. Service honoring resistance fighter Hannah Szenes on the 60th anniversary of her death. 6001 Centinela Ave., Los Angeles. (800) 576-1994.
Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust/ Jewish Federation/Los Angeles Holocaust Monument/Second Generation: 1:45 p.m. Community Commemoration. See above.
City of West Hollywood: 6:30 p.m. Candle lighting and klezmer music. Writer Suzan Hagstrom speaks. Plummer Park,
7377 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood. (323) 848-6307.
B’nai David Judea: 7 p.m. Yom HaShoah Seder. Memories, ritual and song. Workmen’s Circle, 1525 S. Robertson Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 276-9269.
Colburn School of Performing Arts:
7:30 p.m. "Concert of Remembrance" featuring music by four composers, all survivors or victims of the Holocaust. $15. Herbert Zipper Hall, 200 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. (310) 890-0276.
Monday, April 19
Simon Wiesenthal Center: 10:30 a.m. Annual commemoration. Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Natan Sharansky discusses "The Resurgence of Anti-Semitism Worldwide" and Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs Laszlo Kovacs speaks in honor of the 60th anniversary of the deportation of Hungarian Jewry to Auschwitz. Posthumous honor will be given to Abdol Hossein Sardari, whose work as an Iranian diplomat in Paris during World War II saved Iranian Jews from deportaion. Museum of Tolerance, 9786 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. R.S.V.P., (310) 553-9036.
Thursday, April 22
Adat Ari El: 7:30 p.m. "Commemoration of Our Six Million." "Kaddish," candle lighting, readings and songs . $2-$4. 12020 Burbank Blvd., Valley Village. (818) 376-1640.
Friday, April 23
Temple Adat Elohim: 7:30 p.m. Shabbat and Yom HaShoah service. Survivor Marthe Cohn speaks. 2420 E. Hillcrest Drive, Thousand Oaks. (805) 497-7101.
Film Fest Fun
The succession of subtitles onscreen was riveting and jarring: “The biggest singer in France is Israeli…. Mike Brant looked relaxed and beautiful, except his head was lying in a pool of blood.”
The text flashed across the screen during a teaser for “Mike Brant: Laisse Moi T’aimer,” an Israeli documentary exploring the stormy, short-lived starburst of Brant, an Israeli singer who didn’t even speak fluent French when he took France by storm with his pop hits in the early 1970s. By 1975, at age 28, he fell to his death from the sixth floor of his Paris apartment building in an apparent suicide.
“Mike Brant,” an Israeli 2003 Cannes entry, was one of more than two-dozen cinematic offerings at the 19th Israel Film Festival, a film anthology spotlighting the latest crop of feature-film fiction and documentaries coming out of Israel.
Erez Laufer, director of “Mike Brant,” was one of the honorees at the opening-night gala, held at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills. Laufer, during his acceptance speech for the Cinematic Award, told the audience that he was pleased to be at Cannes 33 years to the date of Brant’s first performance on a French TV show.
Israeli filmmakers were, naturally, the focus of the fete, but they weren’t the only ones being honored on opening night. The festival also saluted a couple of local yokels who are doing all right for themselves. Richard Riordan, former L.A. mayor and prospective newspaper publisher, introduced Humanitarian Award-recipient Larry King. Marvel Entertainment’s Avi Arad presented the Visionary Award to Laura Ziskin.
Ziskin, who previously had a hand in “Pretty Woman” and “Fight Club,” said, “I work under the motto that movies aren’t made. They’re forced into existence.”
Meir Fenigstein, festival founder and executive director, shared his incredulity over his event reaching the big 19. He spoke highly of the “challenge bringing the unique films and creativity of Israeli filmmakers to the U.S.A.”
“The festival allows us to see Israel without the politics,” said Kobi Oshrat, the Israel Consulate’s cultural attaché. “It shows what Israeli society is all about.”
This year’s festival, which runs through June 8, highlights films like “Slaves of the Lord,” another Cannes entry; and festival opener “All I’ve Got,” a macabre romantic comedy written and directed by Keren Margalit, which was screened at the gala opening and underscored the special “Reflections of Women” category.
Following the screening of “All I’ve Got,” The Circuit chatted with Ronit Reichman, a Tel Aviv University graduate and the producer of “Under Water,” who is in the process of relocating her Tamuz Productions to Los Angeles, where she will produce a three-part documentary on Islamic terrorism. The Circuit also caught up with Laufer, also a Tel Aviv University alum.
“In France, there’s a big ’70s revival right now, so people were ready for this film,” Laufer said of his Cannes reception. For Laufer, chronicling the life of the late Brant was “a journey to try and piece it together from what people say, from archive footage. You try to find the person.”
Also in attendance: L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky; “Wisdom of the Pretzel” producer Shai Werker-Option; “In the Ninth Month” writer-director Ali Nassar and star Nissrin Faour; “Return From India” producer Evgeny Afineevsky; “Local Hero in Jerusalem Beach” director Natali Eskinazim; David Lipkind, Israel Film Fund executive director; Meital Dohan, star of “God’s Sandbox,” and the film’s producer, Yoav Halevy; and Arthur Hiller, director of the original “The In-Laws,” who — with Arnon Milchan, Mike Medavoy, Michael Fuchs, Peter Chernin, Sumner Redstone, Sherry Lansing, Ron Meyer, Joe Roth, Terry Semel, Haim Saban, Steven Spielberg, Ted Turner and Jack Valenti — comprised the impressive roster of honorary chairs and co-chairs for 2003’s Festival.
For more information on the 19th Israel Film Festival, call (877) 966-5566 or visit www.israelfilmfestival.com .
Looking for Truth in Documentaries
A Palestinian boy, about 8 years old, dressed in a red T-shirt and missing his two front teeth, is yelling in Arabic: “I foresee my death and I run toward it. On your life, this is a hero’s death and he who seeks the death of a suicide warrior, this is it.”
The scene, which aired on Palestinian Authority television in 1998 appears again in “Relentless: The Struggle for Peace in Israel,” a documentary recently released by the media watchdog organization Honest Reporting. The documentary, which examines both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and evaluates each side’s commitment to the peace process by comparing how each held to its obligations as outlined by the Oslo accords, addresses the perpetuation of incitement as only one Palestinian violation.
Based on a PowerPoint presentation that the film’s executive producer, Raphael Shore, developed while teaching a political science class in Israel, “Relentless” uses TV clips, polls, analysis and newspaper articles to make Israel’s case.
Adopted by Jewish organizations, including American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the Jewish National Fund, Aish HaTorah, and various JCCs, “Relentless” has been viewed by more than 10,000 people (both Jewish and non-Jewish) since its February release. As such, it is one in a slew of recent films that organizations and individuals have developed in order to promote the Jewish State, offer insight into Israel’s position in the conflict, and ultimately, “to get Jews behind Israel,” Shore told The Journal.
The question of whether such films can be considered documentary or propaganda largely depends upon whom you ask.
“We feel, and I don’t think we’re unique, that Israel is going to be facing a lot of international pressure in coming years,” Shore said. “The Palestinian and Arab world has won the media battle and, as a result, Jews are finding it difficult to come to the support of Israel. Our goal is to get Jews back supporting Israel and understanding that Israel has a higher moral ground.”
While the filmmakers hope that their documentaries will initiate further support for Israel, they insist that their motivation for making their film was not to push a particular political agenda. Instead, each felt it was important to show a side of the story that had been left untold.
In “Jenin: The Battle for Truth,” scheduled for completion in July, writer and political commentator Avi Davis attempts to set the record straight regarding the controversial battle of Jenin.
“The headline that stays in people’s minds when they hear the word ‘Jenin’ is ‘massacre,'” Davis said. “It’s very difficult to take that word back.”
Through interviews with media experts, eyewitnesses and reporters that covered the event, Davis hopes his documentary will create awareness of the partiality that exists in reporting today.
AIPAC and the Jewish Television Network (JTN) have taken a more emotional approach. Limited only to private showings, AIPAC’s “A Soldier’s Story” and “When War Is in Your Backyard” attempt to give a voice to those individuals on the front line of the conflict. Through personal interviews, AIPAC’s “A Soldier’s Story” examines the moral conflict that Israeli soldiers face on a daily basis, while “When War Is in Your Backyard,” tells the stories of individuals struggling for normalcy despite the constant threat of terror.
In the JTN production, “No Safe Place: Six Lives Forever Changed,” executive producer Jay Sanderson and producer Harvey Lehrer have set out to acknowledge the human toll of terror.
“We felt there wasn’t a human face on the suffering of innocent Israelis,” Sanderson said, adding that the film is expected to be picked up by major television networks in the near future. “We wanted to put a human face on this side of the struggle because we didn’t feel it existed.” “No Safe Place” does that through six heart-wrenching testimonials of Israelis whose lives have been drastically altered by acts of terror, including that of a woman whose mother and 5-year-old daughter were murdered in a suicide bombing attack, a boy who suffers from extreme trauma as a result of witnessing the murder of his father during the Passover massacre and a bus driver who lives in fear as a result of the high risk involved in riding buses in Israel today. Lehrer hopes the documentary motivates people to action.
Some, however, question how a documentary will be accepted in the mainstream when it is affiliated with an organization or individual that is known to support Jewish causes. Richard Trank, executive producer of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s film division, Moriah Films, encounters such a problem on a regular basis. He believes that it is more likely that independent filmmakers and media outlets will be taken seriously in the mainstream than an organization or individual who has a known political agenda.
“It could be a great film, totally balanced, but there’s this hump they have to get over,” said Trank, who produced “The Long Way Home,” the 1997 Academy Award-winner for Best Documentary Feature.
Davis paid particular attention to the challenge of objectivity, he said.
“I went to Jenin as a journalist and I am very pro-Israel, but I went there to conduct a documentary that is balanced and fair. I wanted to present both sides of the story,” Davis said. “I made great pains to give everybody a fair shake which is why I allowed the correspondents to defend themselves.”
Trank acknowledges the challenges that those like Davis encounter in addressing such controversial subjects and supports any efforts being made to educate and to support Israel.
“The reason why organizations are coming out with these is that there’s been a concern about how Israel’s position has been portrayed during the intifada — people should be upset,” Trank said.
While Jewish documentarians seem to be concerned about appearing overly sympathetic, Jewish leaders are concerned that notoriously provocative director Oliver Stone’s new documentary on the Middle East, “Persona Non Grata,” will not be sympathetic enough (see story, above).
Mark J. Harris, professor at the USC School of Cinema-Television, realizes that one man’s propaganda may be another man’s truth, and he applies a rule of thumb to films concerning the controversial situation in Middle East:
“Any film that attempts to demonize the other side would, in my view, be propaganda,” Harris said. “But if people are sympathetic to the point of view expressed in these films, they may be more inclined to see them as documentary truth.”
‘Terrorist’ Helped Israeli Heal
In August 1978, El Al stewardess Yulie Cohen Gerstel stepped off the bus at London’s Europa Hotel and saw a man hatefully staring at her.
“I think he’s going to start shooting at us,” Gerstel, now 46, told a supervisor.
Seconds later, she was cowering behind a car while the man and an accomplice opened fire on the rest of her El Al flight 016 crew. Shrapnel pierced her arm as one stewardess bled to death, another lay comatose and an attacker blew himself up with his own grenade. Police captured the other terrorist, Fahad Mihyi, of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), the man who had hatefully stared at Gerstel.
“The piece of shrapnel was removed from my arm and kept as evidence for [his] trial,” she recounts in her powerful one-hour documentary, “My Terrorist.”
The film explores the deeper psychic injuries Gerstel endured and how she overcame them by meeting Mihyi in 2000 and campaigning for his release from prison. The straightforward but intensely personal piece stands out amid the flurry of third-person documentaries emerging on the Middle East crisis, including Ilan Ziv’s 2002 suicide bombing expose, “Human Weapon,” and Oliver Stone’s “Persona Non Grata” (see page 26). Gerstel’s film has been controversial in Israel, where one columnist called the director a traitor.
In a phone in interview from Tel Aviv, Gerstel said, “Of course when I read these things I feel upset. But I have to raise my daughters in a war zone. And I want to show my little girls there is another way.”
Back in the late 1970s, however, Gerstel was overwhelmed by negative emotions. Around the time she testified in Mihyi’s trial, she said she “gained 20 kilos [44 pounds], my eyes were swollen … my heartbeat disordered. The diagnosis was hyperthyroid, [caused by] post traumatic stress disorder.”
While a daily pill stopped the physical symptoms, Gerstel continued to suffer from fear and survivor’s guilt. Every year, she scrupulously avoided the memorial service held for her slain El Al colleague.
Nevertheless, she began sympathizing with the Palestinian cause after the 1982 massacre at Sabra and Shatilla; by 1999, she was shooting a documentary about an exiled PFLP activist, Imad Sabi.
She said she was sitting in the Nablus living room of some Palestinian friends in 2000 when “suddenly I thought, ‘My terrorist could be sitting here in this room and I wouldn’t recognize him….’ After the Camp David agreement, I felt, ‘If Barak and Arafat can shake hands, everyone should find it within himself to meet his enemy. And Fahad Mihyi was my enemy.”
The filmmaker began tracking him down and, after locating him at Britain’s Dartmoor prison, she sat down to write him a letter in July 2000.
“Fahad, Salaam,” the letter began, “Are you aware of the Camp David agreement? I’ve been trying to figure out what happened to you personally and to Palestinians in general that turned us to be enemies.”
To her surprise, Mihyi responded with a deeply remorseful letter and in September 2000, Gerstel nervously waited to meet him at Dartmoor prison. The muscular, youthful-looking Arab who greeted her looked familiar, “except the hatred was gone from his eyes,” she said.
Over the next hour, Gerstel was mostly silent as he talked nonstop, profusely apologizing for his terrorist activities and touching on topics such as his childhood.
“The whole encounter was so emotionally loaded,” she said. “I looked at the window, trying to get oxygen.”
As she left the prison, however, she felt as if a weight had been lifted from her shoulders.
“I had felt so much fear and hate and guilt and trauma, that to meet the person who had created these emotions was to let go of them,” she said.
Gerstel agreed when Mihyi’s attorney asked her to write a letter to the parole board on his behalf. She learned that while he should have already been released from Dartmoor, he could not be deported, as required under British law, because he was stateless.
“So he was rotting in prison,” she said.
But Gerstel vacillated when the second intifada broke out two weeks later — and when terrorists attacked the World Trade Center in September 2001.
“I felt I could not go on helping Fahad, because everything was destroyed inside of me,” she said. “But then I realized that he believes in nonviolence, which is completely the opposite of the Sept. 11 attackers.”
Gerstel finally wrote to the parole board, and then gave up corresponding with Miyhi.
“His attorney told me that he was expected to be released, and that he wanted to disappear, to live a normal life, and I’ve respected that,” she said.
Assisting Mihyi has helped Gerstel return to a more normal life.
“Facing your worst fears is a difficult journey, but it’s worth it,” she said.
“My Terrorist” screens May 30, 8:30 p.m. at theDirectors Guild, 7920 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, as part of the AmnestyInternational Film Festival. For information, call (310) 815-0450. To purchasethe videotape, contact the U.S. distributor, Women Make Movies, at
Arab-Israeli Tension, Love Focus of Fest
The 19th annual Israel Film Festival will showcase 33 movie features, television films, documentaries and student shorts from the Jewish State from May 28 through June 8.
CNN talk show host Larry King, Hollywood producer Laura Ziskin (“Spider-Man”) and Israeli director Erez Laufer will be honored during the May 28 gala opening night at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, 8949 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills.
The featured film of the evening will be “All I’ve Got,” part of the festival’s “Reflections of Women” series.
A dozen Israeli producers, directors and actors will attend the festival and participate in panel discussions and symposia.
Originally scheduled for early April, the festival opening was postponed because of the war in Iraq. The film fest originated in Los Angeles but now also plays in New York, Chicago and Miami.
Meir Fenigstein, founder and executive director of the festival, estimates that some 500,000 Americans have gotten a close-up of Israeli life and culture through the festivals’ 500 theatrical and TV films over the past 19 years.
Of special interest, in light of the hostilities and brutalities engendered by the long-running intifada, are a number of films focusing on relations between Israel’s Jews and Arabs.
Where, in times of terrorism and warfare, Hollywood might produce a series of super-patriotic, John Wayne-like action movies, Israeli filmmakers have opted for sympathetic, even romantic, depictions of relations between two peoples, generally seen as antagonistic in news stories.
In “A Trumpet in the Wadi,” a Russian Jewish immigrant musician and an Arab woman slowly fall in love.
Genders and nationalities are reversed in “2 Minutes From Faradis,” when a rebellious Jewish teenage girl and an Arab boy start romancing each other.
“In the 9th Month,” by Arab director Ali Nassar, tells a darker story of Arab-Jewish suspicions through a folk tale dating back to the days of the Ottoman Empire.
“Dugit Over Troubled Water” is a documentary on a business partnership between Jewish and Arab fishermen in the Gaza Strip, ultimately split apart by the intifada.
The TV film “Two Minutes From Faradis” is of much fluffier stuff, but shows another little-seen aspect of Israel — the life of the upper class. At the center of the film is Yuli, a 17-year-old girl, who feels it’s her teenage duty to rebel against her parents. The trouble is that her psychologist mother, spouting the clichés of her profession, and her wild-haired, pot-smoking father are so laid back and permissive that nothing she does can shock them.
Then Yuli encounters Amir, the handsome son of the family’s Arab maid, and the girl figures that romancing him will finally shake up her parents. The ploy works, but is Amir actually a terrorist using Yuli to smuggle explosives past a checkpoint? Stay tuned.
“A Trumpet in the Wadi” is one of the most sensitive and accomplished films to come out of Israel in a long time. Updated from the novel by Sami Michael, familiar to every Israeli high school student, the film is directed with a sure touch by Russian-born Lina and Sava Chaplin.
The protagonists are Alex (Alexander Senderovich), a newly arrived Russian trumpet player, and Hooda (Khawiah Hag Debsy), a 30-year-old Arab woman, working in a Jewish-owned travel agency. Both live in the Wadi Nisnas section of Haifa, but despite their wildly disparate backgrounds — and the fact that Alex is short and homely and Hooda is stately and beautiful — the two share an offbeat sense of humor and gradually fall in love.
What is striking at a time when Israeli Arabs are usually pictured as hassled second-class citizens is that Hooda’s extended family lives a quite normal, middle-class life.
Hooda’s mother kvetches constantly about the pickiness of her two unmarried daughters, brings in unsuitable suitors and cooks up a storm — in other words, like the stereotypical Jewish mother.
Not all is sweet harmony — Hooda’s family explodes in anger against the Jews when a cousin is killed during a demonstration, and there’s a bitter scene between the lovers when Alex reports for reserve duty — but one leaves the theater with a slightly more hopeful outlook.
“Wadi” opened the recently concluded Chicago leg of the festival circuit. Despite earlier concerns that the Israeli-Arab romance theme might upset some American Jewish viewers, Fenigstein said that the film was received enthusiastically.
Fenigstein has no answer why, precisely at this time, Israeli filmmakers are creating works that center on the common humanity, rather than the antagonisms, of the two people.
Maybe, just maybe, it’s an augur of better times to come, he ventures hopefully.
One tip for history buffs: The documentary “Moledet” (Homeland) resurrects footage of Jewish and Arab life in Palestine, shot between 1927 and 1934 by the country’s first movie company, happily named Moledet. The film becomes a bit repetitive, but it’s a cheerful antidote to those who picture the early yishuv (the Jewish community of the time) consisting solely of sweating pioneers constantly tilling the soil or draining swamps.
From the documentary’s evidence, the Jewish population rarely missed a chance to stage a lively parade, Purim or otherwise. Interspersed are commercials of the era shown in movie theaters, and hard as it is to fathom, they were even more terrible then than now.
After the opening night, all screenings will be at theLaemmle Fairfax Theatres, 7907 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles (corner of BeverlyBoulevard and Fairfax Avenue), and at the Laemmle Town Center 5, 17200 VenturaBlvd., Encino. For information and ticket reservations for all events, call(877) 966-5566, or visit
“Promises” is a beautiful documentary and, in light of thedaily body count of Israeli and Palestinian victims, a heartbreaking film.
A nominee for best documentary at last year’s AcademyAwards, “Promises” was filmed in and around Jerusalem between 1997 and 2000,while the Oslo treaty hopes for peace were still flickering.
Its “stars” are seven kids, four Israelis and threePalestinians, between the ages of 9 and 13, whose normal childhood pursuits andproblems are overlaid by the suspicions and hatred of the “other,” transmittedby parents, teachers and religious guides. The children live in West and East Jerusalem, in a religious Jewish settlement and in a Palestinian refugee camp.And although their homes are within a few miles of each other, none has evermet a youngster from the other side.
As the 106-minute film introduces us to the homes, schoolsand playgrounds of each of the children, it dawns on the American Jewish viewerhow little is known, not only of the lifestyle of an Arab family, but even ofthe daily ritual in a strictly Orthodox home.
Co-director B.Z. Goldberg (with Justine Shapiro), a youngAmerican raised in Jerusalem, has a rare knack of bonding with the youngsters,and they reciprocate by unaffectedly telling their stories, often with brutalhonesty. We meet Sanabel, a lovely Arab girl, whose journalist father has beenheld for two years in an Israeli prison as a security risk; Mahmoud, a blond,blue-eyed Hamas supporter, and Faraj, who lives in the Daheishe refugee camp.
Their Israeli counterparts are Yarko and Daniel, bright andhandsome twins living in a secular home; Shlomo, a fervently Orthodox yeshivastudent, and Moishe, who grows up in a Jewish settlement surrounded by Arabs.
Though separated by generations of hostility, some of thekids express a natural curiosity to meet the fabled bogeymen on the other side.With Goldberg as the intermediary, Yako and Daniel visit Faraj, and, speakingin halting English, the boys soon find a more common language in their sharedenthusiasm for soccer and volleyball. This scene was shot in 1997 and during arevisit two years later, the small spark of tentative friendship had all butatrophied, more by neglect than animosity.
Looking at the situation in Israel today, the precariousmoment when the children saw each other as human beings, rather than enemies,has passed again.
It may well take another generation to rekindle the spark,but “Promises” is a needed reminder that there can be an alternative in the Middle East to hatred and bloodshed.
“Promises” will be screening Sunday,Feb. 23, at 12:30 and 3:30 p.m. at Tarbut V’Torah, 5200 Bonita Canyon Drive,Irvine. For more information, call (714) 755-0340, ext. 134, or visit
"Promises" is a beautiful documentary and, in light of the daily body count of Israeli and Palestinian victims, a heartbreaking film.
Considered a favorite for best documentary at this year’s Academy Awards, "Promises" was filmed in and around Jerusalem between 1997 and 2000, while the Oslo treaty hopes for peace were still flickering.
Its "stars" are seven children, four Israelis and three Palestinians, between the ages of 9 and 13, whose normal childhood pursuits and problems are overlaid by the suspicions and hatred of the "other," transmitted by parents, teachers and religious guides. The children live in West and East Jerusalem, in a religious Jewish settlement and in a Palestinian refugee camp. And although their homes are within a few miles of each other, none has ever met a youngster from the other side.
As the 106-minute film introduces us to the homes, schools and playgrounds of each of the children, it dawns on the American Jewish viewer how little is known, not only of the lifestyle of an Arab family but even of the daily ritual in a strictly Orthodox home.
Co-director B.Z. Goldberg (with Justine Shapiro), a young American raised in Jerusalem, who also narrates the film, has a rare knack of bonding with the youngsters, and they reciprocate by unaffectedly telling their stories, often with brutal honesty. We meet Sanabel, a lovely Arab girl, whose journalist father has been held for two years in an Israeli prison as a security risk; Mahmoud, a blond, blue-eyed Hamas supporter, and Faraj, who lives in the Daheishe refugee camp.
Their Israeli counterparts are Yarko and Daniel, bright and handsome twins living in a secular home; Shlomo, a fervently Orthodox yeshiva student, and Moishe, who grows up in a Jewish settlement surrounded by Arabs.
Though separated by generations of hostility, some of the kids express a natural curiosity to meet the fabled bogeymen on the other side. With Goldberg as the intermediary, Yarko and Daniel visit Faraj, and, speaking in halting English, the boys soon find a more common language in their shared enthusiasm for soccer and volleyball. This scene was shot in 1997, and during a revisit two years later, the small spark of tentative friendship had all but atrophied, more by neglect than animosity.
Looking at the situation in Israel today, the precarious moment when the children saw each other as human beings, rather than enemies, has passed again.
It may well take another generation to rekindle the spark, but "Promises" is a needed reminder that there can be an alternative in the Middle East to hatred and bloodshed.
"Promises" opens March 22 at Laemmle’s Music Hall Theater, 9036 Wilshire Blvd. Beverly Hills. Call (310) 274-6869 for times.
How Cookie Crumbled
To his mates in the New York prison where he awaits sentencing for a drug-smuggling conviction, the bearded, soft-spoken Israeli, who Customs Department officials say regularly ministers to a small flock of religious Jewish prisoners, is known as "Rabbi Ya’akov."
The rest of the world, however, knows the "rabbi," a former Los Angeles resident, as Jacob "Koki," or "Cookie" Orgad. Until his arrest in April 2000, he was the biggest Ecstasy, or MDMA, trafficker ever to be convicted in this country.
According to the 23-count indictment issued by a federal grand jury in the Central District of California in July, Orgad was the leader of an Ecstasy-smuggling organization accused of engaging in a continuing criminal enterprise, conspiracy to import and distribute narcotics, and other violations. His sentencing, scheduled for October, could cost him 20 years and $1 million in criminal fines.
In the world of drug smuggling, groups from many countries have made their mark. Israelis, according to drug enforcement officials, were prominent in one of the first rings — their presence in Europe and connections in the diamond industry allowed them to stake out a big piece of the market. The Israelis also involved Chassidic couriers and others in the Jewish community, drug enforcement officials say.
Within the last year, law enforcement officials have arrested dozens of people tied to these rings, including 25 in connection with Jacob Orgad.
On Monday, witness after witness confirmed to the Senate Government Affairs Committee, led by Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., that Ecstasy’s popularity has mushroomed.
An investigation into the life and times of Cookie Orgad provides some of the reasons why.
Orgad’s name first reached the public’s attention in 1995, when HBO screened British documentary filmmaker Nick Broomfield’s exposé, "Heidi Fleiss, Hollywood Madam." Broomfield, who got his start with the BBC, had come to Los Angeles in mid-1994, about a year after Fleiss, born into an affluent family, had been arrested for pandering. Broomfield’s inquiries centered on why someone of Fleiss’ privileged background had operated a brothel.
Interviewing Ivan Nagy, depicted in the documentary as Fleiss’ sometime lover, Svengali and ultimate betrayer, Broomfield noticed several bullet holes in Nagy’s apartment ceiling and asked where they came from. Nagy told him that a person named Cookie was responsible for them. Nagy alleged that Cookie worked for Fleiss as "an enforcer and procurer," and that he operated a beeper store called J&J Beeper.
Later, having pursued the shadowy Orgad around various beeper shops, Broomfield interviewed a woman who alleged that Orgad beat her. He also obtained a tape recording of a conversation between Nagy and Cookie in which Orgad urged Nagy to harm the woman. Finally, Broomfield obtained Orgad’s beeper number, and called it. Orgad answered, declined to comment on whether he shot up Nagy’s apartment, and suggested that Broomfield might end up with "a bullet in his ass."
"Orgad," Broomfield told The Journal, "was Ivan’s [Nagy’s] enforcer, and then he defected to Heidi. After the film came out, I actually ran into him at Heidi’s lingerie store in Santa Monica. He was quite charming, a little jittery. He hadn’t seen the film yet, but he had seen our surveillance cameras. The rumor around town — and certainly Heidi believed it — was that Cookie had been a Mossad agent."
According to a U.S. Customs agent familiar with the Orgad investigation, there was no such evidence of such an association. But Orgad, a.k.a. Tony Evans, a.k.a. Cookie, a.k.a. "The Keebler Man," had succeeded — certainly in the two years prior to his arrest and probably for several years before that — in creating an Ecstasy-trafficking organization of breathtaking efficacy and sophistication.
Orgad’s credit card statements, say Customs investigators, show that he spent hundreds of thousands of dollars a month flying from homes in Los Angeles, New York and Miami, to tend to his business interests in Las Vegas, Phoenix and Austin, and as far afield as Paris, Luxembourg, Amsterdam and Tel Aviv.
Recruiting strippers and, later, lower-middle-class suburban couples in their 30s and 40s, Orgad outfitted them at malls, trained them as couriers, and pumped millions of Ecstasy (or E) pills manufactured in the Netherlands into virtually every major city in this country, say Customs and Justice Department spokesmen.
The main measure of Orgad’s sophistication was the degree to which he had managed to remove himself from most of these transactions, Customs officials say.
During the ’90s, Orgad owned a fleet of Mercedeses and BMWs, outfitted his living rooms with the hottest big-screen TVs and designer furniture, and stocked his closets with Armani suits. Orgad was wont, moreover, to drop $5,000 or $6,000 dollars a pop entertaining entourages at the Key Club or Café Maurice.
In Los Angeles, law enforcement officers had linked Orgad to prostitution, pandering, money-laundering and cocaine dealing, but for the last decade or so, he had fallen off their radar screen.
About two years ago, though, after debriefing various Orgad couriers, Law Enforcement identified a man named Kevin McLoughlin as one of Orgad’s lieutenants. When police arrested McLoughlin for drug smuggling, he confirmed his relationship with Orgad, and helped flesh out what law enforcers had managed to piece together about Orgad’s dealings.
Ironically, Israeli émigrés were perhaps the first to achieve dominance in both markets, although one can argue as to which of the markets ultimately had the greater impact on illicit drug use in the United States.
Expected to go to jury this week in L.A. Federal Court is the case of Gilad Gadasi, 26, of Woodland Hills, who was arrested May 6 and charged with conspiracy to distribute more than 118,000 Ecstasy tablets.
And last week, police in New York arrested two Israelis, David Roash, 28, and Israel Ashenazi, 25, for possession of 450 pounds of E, more than a million tablets packed into eight duffel bags and a suitcase.
Also earlier this month, New York prosecutors secured a guilty plea from another Israeli, Sean Erez, who, according to Justice Department documents, had used Chassidic couriers to import more than a million tablets between late 1998 and June 1999.
In May, DEA agents arrested Oded Tuito, another major trafficker ostensibly based in Los Angeles and New York.
Cookie Orgad, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, had forged ties with the New York-based trafficking group led by organized crime figure Ilan Zarger, who had sold 40,000 pills to the Arizona-based organization led by Salvatore (Sammy the Bull) Gravano, a former underboss of the Gambino crime family.
Zarger, Gravano and dozens of compatriots have pleaded guilty to trafficking charges in recent weeks.
Fordham Law School Professor Abraham Abramovsky, who has studied Israeli organized crime both in Israel and in the United States, told The Journal that Israelis may have become aware of Ecstasy use in Europe, as well as in Israel, long before Americans. Hence, not only were Israeli youngsters among the first to use the drug at raves, but Israeli criminals were quick to recognize an opportunity to exploit a new market, and to work out the mechanics of manufacturing, smuggling and distributing the drug. "Some of this [involvement] may be related to the former diamond smuggling operations," Abramovsky says. Ecstasy tablets, he explains, are quite small, lending themselves to the same smuggling techniques long reserved for diamonds. In addition, he says, "The drug seems to move along the same routes as the diamond smuggling trade."
Ecstasy, a chemical (methylenedioxymeth-amphetamine or MDMA) made in drug labs, is produced for the most part in Holland and Belgium, at a cost of pennies per tablet. Sold to wholesalers for about $2 a pill, they retail, in the United States, Canada and Australia, where demand has virtually exploded during the last few years, for between $20 and $30 a pill.
The pills, moreover, are marketed rather ingeniously, often with designer labels or pop culture icons imprinted on them. (One batch of E even had Jewish Stars on them.)
Ecstasy acts on those parts of the brain that produce the neurotransmitter serotonin, causing a six-hour high characterized by enhanced feelings of empathy and sociability. Certainly there is no comparing it to crack, which often causes frequently hyper-violent mood swings among users. If anything, Ecstasy achieves the opposite effect — users are more impelled to reach out and tongue someone to death than to kill them outright.
Ecstasy was first synthesized in 1912 as an appetite suppressant, but attracted little interest until the 1970s, when psychotherapists began to explore its potential to enhance empathetic understanding and emotional release.
Although not believed to be physically addictive, the drug is, in fact, a stimulant, a mild hallucinogen, and a hypnotic. It is also a neurotoxin, whose side effects include elevated blood pressure, heart rate and body temperature. Teenagers who have used it at all-night raves have experienced dehydration, heat stroke, and even heart attack. Researchers, meanwhile, believe that long-term use can cause significant cognitive and mood impairment.
There is mounting evidence, moreover, that however benign the high, the trade in Ecstasy, which has become wildly profitable, is also increasingly beset by violence. According to The New York Times, police first became aware of the propensity for bloodshed about 18 months ago, when an Israeli drug dealer was found dead inside a locked car trunk at LAX. Drug Enforcement Administration officials attributed the hit to a couple of hired hands from Israel.
"It’s certainly becoming a free-for-all," says Dean Boyd, a Customs Department spokesman based in Washington. "We’re beginning to see murders among rival trafficking groups. Now, we’re seeing suburban kids getting in over their heads, with the result that 21-year-olds are being found shot in the head for suspected Ecstasy thefts. Although the Israelis were among the first, we now see many different people chasing more and more money, including Russians, Eastern Europeans and Dominicans."
According to U.S. Customs, however, Cookie Orgad enjoyed a certain pride of place within the trade. Since he was older than most of the newcomers and was recognized as a fixture and a force to be reckoned with, he was rarely challenged.
"Given his reputation," said an agent familiar with the case, "I was pretty surprised when, after two years of investigations, I finally met up with him. I was expecting to see I don’t know what, and here was this soft-spoken little guy, somewhat arrogant and uncooperative, but not at all what I envisioned."
The scion of a family of Moroccan immigrants to Israel, Orgad arrived in the United States about two decades ago, becoming a U.S. citizen under the name of Tony Evans in 1995. Investigations of his background in Israel turned up evidence of a brother, Zohar, with a police record in Israel, but nothing on Orgad per se, leading Customs to suspect for a time that perhaps the name Jacob Orgad might have been an alias as well.
During court appearances since his arrest in April 2000, Orgad purportedly put his Armanis in mothballs, sporting a yarmulke and giving the impression he led a pious existence. In prison, "Reb Ya’akov" has grown a beard, eats glatt kosher food and leads prayer services and Torah study.
As part of his plea agreement with the government, Orgad waived his right to contest his extradition to France, where he faces separate charges. If convicted there, Orgad could end up where glatt may be even harder to come by than a hit of Ecstasy.
If I should Forget Thee
The ancestors of Israeli filmmaker Ron Havilio arrived in the Holy Land shortly after their expulsion from Spain in 1492, and in "Fragments: Jerusalem" he pays loving tribute to the city of his birth and the history of his forebears.
Keeping to a leisurely pace, the six-hour documentary will screen on four evenings on the Sundance Channel, starting March 5.
Havilio mines a treasure-trove of historical paintings, etchings, still photos, postcards and various artifacts, mixed with interviews of aged relatives, to recreate the Jerusalem of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Given current religious tensions among Jews in Israel and deadly confrontations with Arabs, some of the historical photos and reminiscences are startling.
For example, a sharp mid-19th century photo of the Western Wall shows men and women, intermingling freely and praying together.
Grandparents recall how, during the 1921 anti-Jewish disturbances in Jerusalem, an Arab neighbor lent her garb and even her own baby to a Jewish woman so she could safely pass through the Arab mob and seek police help.
By bitter contrast, there are photos of Jewish corpses, victims of the deadly 1929 riots in Hebron, lined up in long rows.
But most of the scenes illustrate and celebrate the daily life of Jerusalem’s citizens and neighborhoods. One wonderful segment shows the official neighborhood "caller" making the rounds and waking up the faithful at 3 a.m. for Selichot services at the Kurdish, Persian and Greek synagogues.
The scene is shown in the documentary’s seventh and final "chapter," titled "Abba" and devoted to Havilio’s father.
The elder Havilio incorporates the transition between the old and modern Israel as he is sworn into the underground Haganah, Bible in one hand and pistol in the other. One casualty of this process is the family’s old Mamila neighborhood, which becomes a no-man’s land in the heart of Jerusalem after the 1948 war and is then "renewed" by urban construction following the reunification of the city in 1967.
"Fragments" has won a number of international awards but is regrettably marred by jerky sequences that jump from one time epoch to another and from general to detailed family chronology. The series is billed as a "mosaic" of Jerusalem, but kaleidoscope would be more apt, and some tight editing would add considerably to the enjoyment of the six-hour experience.
"Fragments: Jerusalem" will air on the Sundance Channel in four Monday installments at 9 p.m., starting March 5 and continuing March 12, 19 and 26.
Jewish Films Tapped for Oscars
A film on the 1972 Olympic Games massacre of Israeli athletes has received an Oscar nomination for best documentary, while a Welsh film about the romance between a Jewish boy and a Welsh girl is in the running for best foreign film.
The documentary “One Day in September” recreates the bloody 24 hours at the Munich Olympics, when Arab terrorists took 11 members of the Israeli team hostage. Two of the Israelis were killed outright and the remaining nine died in a bungled rescue attempt at the Munich airport.
Included in the 90-minute film is extensive testimony by the only survivor among the eight terrorists.
The driving force behind the film is Swiss-based producer Arthur Cohn, who has won an unprecedented five Oscars, including one for “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis.”
The Welsh film “Solomon and Gaenor” is a takeoff on “Romeo and Juliet,” in which Solomon conceals his Jewish identity until forced to reveal the truth. The film’s dialogue is in Welsh, English and Yiddish.
The Oscars will be presented on March 26.
The Israeli Olympic Team at their arrival in Munich in August 1972.
Even for an international film producer and inveterate traveler, Arthur Cohn has covered a lot of territory recently.
During the last week in October, the winner of a record five Oscars and producer of “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis” and “Central Station” was feted in Shanghai at his very own “Arthur Cohn Day” by the Chinese government and film industry.
He used the occasion of a retrospective of his works at the Shanghai International Film Festival to premiere his latest documentary, “Children of the Night.”
Conceived as a cinematic memorial to the 1.3 million Jewish children who perished in the Holocaust — and their rescue from the anonymity of statistics — the film resurrects the faces of its subjects, sometimes at play, more often ragged and starving.
Although the film is only 18-minutes long, Cohn spent three years scouring archives across the world for material, of which only six yielded scraps of usable footage.
For the feature film to follow the documentary at the Shanghai festival, Cohn had originally selected his 1995 movie “Two Bits” with Al Pacino. However, government officials in Beijing insisted on “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis,” the 1971 classic about an aristocratic Italian-Jewish family that is ultimately destroyed by the fascists.
Cohn says that he took the Beijing fiat as a signal that “the theme of the Holocaust has been openly recognized by the Chinese government for the first time.”
His reception in Shanghai was remarkable, as press and public mobbed him like some rock star. More than 130 journalists covered his press conference, during which a giant banner above his head proclaimed “World Famous Producer Arthur Cohn” in Chinese and English.
For the screening itself, Chinese fans fought for tickets to the 2,000-seat theater. When the two films ended, the audience sat, as if stunned, for three-minutes, before quietly leaving.
For most Chinese, it was their initial introduction to a Holocaust theme. Said a young hotel manager, “Six million dead … that’s as if they murdered every bicyclist in this city.”
A reporter for the Shanghai Star perceived that “Cohn seems to cherish a special feeling for the Jews.” Indeed, the producer’s next release will be “One Day in September,” referring to the terrorist attack on Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich.
The production will be a “thriller with documentary footage,” says Cohn, with Michael Douglas in the central role of the commentator.
“One Day in September” will have its world premiere on Jan. 18 in Los Angeles, under the auspices of the American Film Institute.
A couple of days later Cohn arrived in Hollywood to report on his Shanghai triumph and participate in the first annual International Jewish Film Festival here.
He officiated at the American premiere of “Children of the Night” and presented an award to veteran actor Gregory Peck.
Cohn, who stands a rangy six-foot, three inches, is a third generation Swiss citizen and resident of Basel.
His father, Marcus, was a respected lawyer and a leader of the Swiss religious Zionist movement. He settled in Israel in 1949, helped to write many of the basic laws of the new state, and served as Israel’s assistant attorney general until his death in 1953.
The family’s Zionist roots go even deeper. The producer’s grandfather and namesake, Rabbi Arthur Cohn, was the chief rabbi of Basel. He was a friend of Theodor Herzl and one of the few leaders in the Orthodox rabbinate to support the founder of modern Zionism.
It was because of this support, says Cohn, that Herzl chose Basel, rather than one of Europe’s more glittering capitals, as the site of the first Zionist Congress in 1897.
Of the filmmaker’s three children, two sons have served in the Israeli army and studied at Israeli universities.
A Cinematic Salute to Israel
For the next five Tuesdays, Sephardic TempleTifereth Israel will commemorate Israel’s 50 years of independence,with free screenings of films produced in the nation or celebratingmoments in its history. The series begins this week with “Hanna’sWar,” the inspiring true story of Hanna Senesh, a Hungarian freedomfighter and paratrooper in pre-indepen-dence Palestine. Ellen Burstynstars in the 1988 feature.
On March 10, “Exodus 1947,” a new documentaryabout the infamous immigrant journey, will screen. The film includesfootage from the actual crossing. Showing the following week will be”Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer,” Israel’s first feature film in English. Itis the story of Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, from the point ofview of four Israeli soldiers during separate cease-fires inJerusalem. The provocative 1955 film is considered by many to be aclassic.
Screening on March 24: “Clear Skies,” adocumentary about Israel’s air force, including its missions duringthe Six-Day War, the Yom Kippur War, Lebanon, freeing the hostages inEntebbe and the raid on Iraq’s nuclear facilities. The series willconclude on March 31 with “Two Warriors: The Lives of Moshe Dayan andYitzhak Rabin,” an episode from the A&E cable network’s”Biography” series that originally aired a few weeks after Rabin’sassassination.
Rabbi Daniel Bouskila of Sephardic Templecertainly had much to choose from when he made his series selections.”I tried to pick a diverse mix of feature films and documentariesthat show the birth and rise of the State of Israel,” he said.
All screenings will begin at 7:45 p.m. in thetemple’s Maurice Amado Hall, 10500 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood. (310)475-7311.
The Long Way to Oscar
The Simon Wiesenthal Center-produced “The Long WayHome” has returned for a weekend-morning engagement leading up toOscar night. The film about survivors of the Holocaust and how theyhelped settle Israel is up for an award in the best documentaryfeature category. See it at Laemmle’s Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd.,West Hollywood, Saturdays and Sundays, 10:30 a.m. (213)848-3500.
“Burn Hollywood Burn,” Please
Usually, I use this space for movies worthrecommending, but as a public service, I must warn you of a film toavoid. “Burn Hollywood Burn, An Alan Smithee Film” opens this week; Ihad the misfortune of seeing it a few months ago. It is a crude,self-congratulatory waste of time, concocted by overpaid screenwriterJoe Eszterhas, with a host of celebrities as themselves. Eric Idlestars as Smithee, a director who hijacks the print of his filmbecause he doesn’t like the studio’s plans for it. Fair enoughpremise, but the mock documentary style of the film is nothing but asuccession of talking heads, their language littered within-your-face, inflated expletives. It is a bankrupt film and, thoughearly, a safe bet for worst-of-the-year status.
At area theaters, if you dare.
Philosophers and Fools
Above, Suheil Hadad (left) and Muhamed Bakri (right) in “TheMilky Way”; Below, Arik Sharon in Jerusalem’s Machane Yehuda.
‘The Milky Way’
This earthy, lyrical film by writer-director Ali Nassar is easilyone of the festival’s brightest highlights. Fresh, impassionedperformances and a solid script are enhanced by painterly, almostfable-like images. For the lilting, lovely score, Nahum Haiman’soriginal music is interwoven with traditional Arabic melodies. “TheMilky Way” reinforces some of the best reasons to go to “foreign”films. We’re drawn into an unfamiliar and fascinating world where weend up recognizing large parts of ourselves.
The year is 1964. The setting is an Arab village in the Galileeduring the last year of military rule. There, on rocky, sunlithillsides dotted with goats, and in modest, candlelit rooms, work,love and social ritual coexist with deep unhealed wounds — a legacyfrom the war in 1948, when many of the villagers fled or were killedin the fields where they stood.
Those left behind are a diverse bunch: There’s the opportunisticvillage mukhtar and his brutish, hotheaded son. The film’staciturn hero is a metalsmith named Mahmoud (Muhammed Bakri –chiseled and compelling as always), who shares a tender friendshipwith Mabruq, the town’s tragicomic fool. As the childlike Mabruq,actor Suheil Haddad is incapable of duplicity, and he wears theentire village’s emotional landscape on his rubbery, expressive face.
The central narrative is a neatly developed story about whatensues after the area’s Israeli military command discovers one of thevillagers has been issuing forged work permits. But linear plotsummaries don’t do justice to what filmmaker Nassar has achievedhere. “The Milky Way” is a richly knowing portrait of a worldbrimming with bawdy humor, petty cruelty, derailed dreams and smallsensual pleasures.
The rangy and reserved Mahmoud pokes his head flirtatiouslythrough the classroom window of the village schoolteacher, chidingher for the politically utopian songs she passes along to her youngstudents. Mabruq and a gaggle of boys play raucous games that reflectthe everyday reality of the adults — including the staging of akangaroo trial in which Mabruq, wearing a tattered, makeshiftmilitary uniform and holding one boy by the scruff of the neck, askshis court with mock outrage, “How did this dirty Arab threaten statesecurity?” “He pissed without a permit!” a boy shouts back amid awave of wild giggles.
Several times in the film, Mabruq shares tenderly romantic lookswith the orphaned Jamila, another badly damaged innocent herecognizes as a kindred spirit. The two are emblematic of life inthis village, where brutal realism and impossible poetry are intimateneighbors.
(Screens at the Music Hall on Nov. 9, 13, 15, 16 and 19, and atthe Writers Guild on Nov. 6.)
‘How I Learned to Overcome My Fear and Love Arik Sharon’
Is there a festival award for best title? The ostensible subjectof this video documentary is that (in)famous lightning rod, armygeneral-turned-pol Ariel Sharon. Director-editor-producer Avi Mograbidoggedly follows the rotund ex-general down the Likud campaign trailduring that volatile period between Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination andBinyamin Netanyahu’s election victory.
But as the playful title intimates, the movie is less about Sharonhimself than the place he occupies in the lives of Mograbi and otherdisaffected leftists like him. Mograbi’s eventual “love” for hissubject is, of course, a tongue-in-cheek falsehood. “Arik Sharon,”the filmmaker tells us at the outset, “is the only politician whosedoings, so I felt, had a direct effect over my life. And it wasscary.” Mograbi (who served jail time rather than serve during theLebanon War) proceeds to elaborate on the nature of his lifelongobsession with Sharon and the emotional havoc it has caused him.
It’s a funny, faux confessional delivered gloweringly into thecamera. Mograbi’s lumpy, affable face and bushy eyebrows are apicture of comic intensity as he relates how his childhood heroworship of the daring combat veteran gradually mutated into a fearand loathing that peaked with the bloody episode that occurred at theLebanese refugee camps Sabra and Shatila under Sharon’s indirectwatch. Mograbi’s documentary is film-as-therapy: He hopes to conquerhis complex obsession with the charismatic, seemingly likable manbehind the left-wing’s ongoing nightmare.
His initial failed attempts to gain access to Sharon are funny andtelling. They recall American provocateur Michael Moore’scat-and-mouse battle of wits with the head of General Motors in hisown satiric documentary, “Roger and Me.” Unfortunately, the parallelsend there. Although Mograbi’s resourcefulness and persistenceeventually gain him a limited kind of access to his cagey, powerfulsubject, unlike the brasher Moore, he’s not as certain of what to doonce he gets it. This proves to be the film’s undoing. Sharon’sentourage embraces Mograbi as one of them, and we see that theirdevotion to their leader is simultaneously discomfiting and touching.As for the fox-like Sharon (who repeatedly tells the filmmaker toshut down the cameras when he wants to eat), he tolerates Mograbiwith a wary affability when he’s not handily dismissing him as aminor logistical annoyance.
Mograbi may not love Sharon after all, but the bigger, unintendedirony is that he hasn’t overcome his paralyzing fear of him either.
(Screens at the Music Hall on Nov. 8, 13, 15 and 18.)
‘Jenny & Jenny’
Seventeen-year-old cousins Jenny Suissa and Jenny Guetta are bestfriends. They’re also cousins — third-generation North African Jewsgrowing up in the crowded, working-class seaside town of Bat Yam.Both are resolutely bored with high school, charmed by theirprovincial grandmother, exhilarated about boys and mightily alienatedfrom their blunt fathers. With empathy and insight, filmmaker MichalAviad tracks the two as they drift through their lives during thatseminal summer between girlhood and womanhood. The end result is adecidedly unslick video documentary that captures the way growing upfemale is done in this time and place.
This sort of material could easily end up a predictable fugueabout teen angst, sort of a low-budget version of MTV’s “Real World.”But Aviad avoids superficiality. Simple and complex truths emerge ontheir own, recalling the spirit of “Hoop Dreams” and — with itscinéma vérité scenes of domestic conflict– the raw candor of “An American Family.”
Ultimately, this is a very Israeli story. There’s poignancy inwatching these girls negotiate a blue-collar Middle Eastern worldrife with contradictions. Their cultural milieu is steeped inSephardic folkways and saturated with pop Western images. Theirparents invoke tradition but are confused about their ownincreasingly ineffectual familial roles. Religion as a spiritualresource is absent. Despite the Jennys’ penchant for sexy,midriff-baring tops, late-night club-hopping and enough finger andear jewelry to short-circuit a metal detector, their aspirations aresolidly retro: marry young, have kids, fade to black.
At times, their naiveté is painful to watch. Jenny Guetta’splan for the future pretty much consists of escaping from herdomineering father’s house into a husband’s. Her marriage celebrationwill have to be large and lavish, she says, because “if we have anunforgettable wedding, that will make sure we never stop loving eachother.”
It’s her smarter cousin, Jenny Suissa, who expresses a restlesshum of discontent. Her tentative, heartfelt search for the meaning oflife beyond Bat Yam’s figurative parameters provides this film withits best moments. To make that journey, she’ll need extraordinarycourage and imagination. During filming, her father abandoned thefamily for a new life in Las Vegas. Her older female relatives areloving, but of another era. Her swa
ggering male classmates (“My idealspouse? A virgin, a good girl who knows her place,” says one) areunlikely sources of salvation. This Jenny is poised uncertainly onthe brink of self-discovery. How it will all turn out for her is aquestion we’ve come to care about by film’s end.
(Screens at the Music Hall on Nov. 8, 12, 15 and 18.)