Israel at the Oscars, Rove at AJU, Matisyahu at Jewlicious 4.0

Matisyahu Keeps Us Guessing

If Matisyahu once seemed spiritually self-contained, embodying a rigid religious observance, he is quickly shedding that image. This past weekend at Jewlicious 4.0 Matisyahu announced the need to “return to myself a little bit,” according to a report from JTA.

What exactly does that mean? Simply that the 28 year-old reggae star is embracing his rebellious side. A string of incidents suggest the enigmatic musician plans to keep everyone guessing: from abandoning JDub Records for the bigwigs (and big money) at Sony, to severing ties with Chasidism, to keeping Jewlicious organizers on edge as to whether he would show up for his scheduled appearance. His wife, Tahlia, was debuting her new documentary “Can’t Touch This” and the couple were scheduled to lead a spirituality session. But the daring musician could not resist an adoring audience.

During an impromptu performance at a small cafe, Matisyahu did a short set and waxed poetic on his evolving spirituality. He also discussed his disillusionment with the Chabad-Lubavitch movement (namely his disbelief that Menachem Schneerson is the messiah) and casually referenced his pot-smoking days, at age 14, when he discovered his passion for reggae. When a fan asked him how it felt to make a living singing Jewish music, he said, “It’s f—ing awesome.”

In the past, his neatly cultivated role as a devout reggae-star was edgy because it evinced a contrast — the marriage of religious discipline and artistic freedom gained him international renown. But after eight years of being frum, Matisyahu is shaking it up — unafraid of breaking the mold — especially with a minyan that says the Shema “as if there’s a firing squad in the room, and they’re saying it with their last breath. That’s the way I like to kick off my morning.”

Israel at the Oscars

Not all the glamour and excitement of Oscar night was at Hollywood and Highland’s Kodak Theatre. A few blocks away at Sunset and Vine, the Israeli consulate, Jewish Federation and StandWithUs rolled out the blue-and-white carpet at the Avalon for some 350 guests to cheer on the Israeli film, “Beaufort,” in its foreign-language Academy Award bid.

The Israeli-style buffet and open bar made for a convivial atmosphere, and we ran into a few old friends and made some new acquaintances. Israel’s Consul General Yaakov Dayan brought along his wife, Galit, who holds a doctorate in Egyptology from Hebrew University, as well as two of their three youngsters, Daphne and Tal. Consulate spokesman Gilad Millo also mixed business and pleasure by appearing with his wife.

Among those present from the entertainment industry were Dan Katzir, director of “Yiddish Theater: A Love Story,” and Broadway actor Mike Burstyn with his wife, Cyona. Burstyn recalled his part in the first Israeli film to garner an Oscar nod, the aliyah comedy “Sallah Shabbati.”

Among the stars of the evening were 10 teenagers from Sderot, here to tell the story of their rocket-bombarded town. Two of the youngsters, Osher Hen, 16, and Sagi Amar, 15, described Los Angeles as “an amazing place” and voted Venice Beach as the favorite sightseeing spot on their tour.

Sharing the table with us were Israeli television interviewers, a crew from the entertainment channel E! and some American colleagues, including Ori Ziv, Natalie Rotman, Abigail Schwartz and her husband, film composer Aaron Symonds.

Jewish Federation President John Fishel chatted about the growing strength of the Israeli film industry, and we exchanged pleasantries with Yoram Gutman, in charge of the upcoming Israel Independence Day festivities in the park; Noam Niv of Woodland Hills, who reminisced about his own infantry service in Lebanon; and Clay Epstein, vice president of the Little Film Company.

— Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

Crazy About Karl Rove

Only the Israeli consulate and LAX have tighter security than American Jewish University’s Public Lecture Series, which featured the provocative and polarizing Karl Rove on Feb. 25.

Two consecutive metal detectors greeted guests on their way in to hear a political strategist who has been compared to the devil more times than he’s been called a patriot.

It’s hard to out-charm Gady Levy, whose cute accent and facetious humor bring levity to otherwise charged intellectual environments, but a coolheaded Karl Rove may have done just that when he wooed an initially ambivalent audience.

During his opening remarks, Levy asked any Democrats in the house to clap their hands, then he asked attendant Republicans to do the same. “It sounds like 50/50, or what Karl Rove would call a mandate,” Levy joked. “And that ladies and gentlemen, concludes tonight’s audience participation.”

The audibly bipartisan crowd of 4,000 people laughed as Rove, the architect behind George W. Bush’s two successful campaigns for president and his former deputy chief of staff, charmed the L.A. audience with cracks about Ann Coulter, Hillary Clinton and the Guantanamo Bay detention camp.

In an hour and a half, Rove zipped through a 41 line-item instructive on “how to run for president,” gushed over the wonders of his iPhone and responded to well-researched questions posed by moderator and AJU President Rabbi Robert Wexler during a Q-and-A session.

The audience didn’t seem to care that Rove referred to the reputed torture chamber of Guantanamo as blithely as he might talk about Disneyland and demonstrated the same nonchalant ease when Wexler insinuated his alleged misdeeds in national politics, which he breezily dismissed.

During the VIP reception afterwards, California produce overflowed on white tablecloths and glass flutes effervesced … with apple cider? After so much talk about the Bush presidency, we needed champagne.

While the notorious strategist surprises because he’s actually likable, a woman on her way out was heard to say, “He’s absolutely brilliant, but I hope he’ll do good works, because he’s done a lot of bad works.”

Federations and Israeli leaders converge on L.A.

The 75th annual General Assembly (GA) of United Jewish Communities, which begins Sunday and continues through Wednesday, will feature prime ministers, award-winning journalists and celebrated academics, among the nearly 4,000 Jewish leaders expected to attend.

But the event’s biggest star will be Israel, a country nearly 8,000 miles away.

This year’s theme is “Together on the Frontline: One People, One Destiny,” which is meant to suggest the connectedness of Israelis and Diaspora Jews, as well as their shared concerns about Israel and the Jewish people. The most prominent Israeli officials are expected to appear, including Prime Minister Ehud Olmert; Foreign Affairs Minister Tzipi Livni; Tourism Minister Isaac Herzog; Education Minister Uli Tamir; and Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu.

The spotlight will also shine, to a lesser extent, on the local Jewish community and the city of Los Angeles, which is hosting the conference for the first time in 26 years.

An estimated 750 local volunteers have signed up to work the GA, and several prominent Jewish leaders, including West Coast Chabad head Rabbi Shlomo Cunin, talk show host Dennis Prager and Jewish World Watch co-founder Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis, are slated to speak. To get a flavor of Jewish Los Angeles, tours are planned for the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance and the Skirball Cultural Center. The Federation will also co-host a concert of Jewish music at the Walt Disney Concert Hall on Nov. 13.

“People are really pumped and excited about showing L.A. off as a world-class city and as a center of Jewish life,” said John Fishel, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, who will join Schulweis and American Jewish World Service Executive Director Ruth Messinger in a session about the genocide in Darfur.

The conference will be staged at the Los Angeles Convention Center downtown and is among the largest Jewish events in North America. In the aftermath of the summer’s conflicts, it will focus on all things Israel: the future of the Jewish state, its enemies, its relations with the Diaspora and the way that Israel is perceived on college campuses, among many other subjects.
Session topics include: “Israel on the North American Campus”; “What’s Next for Israel and the Palestinians?”; “Iran: What Are the Options?”; “Anti-Zionism as the New Anti-Semitism”; and “The Israel Economy: Investing in Israel Today.”

“There’s a greater need for the people of North America to connect with Israel and for the people of Israel to connect with North America,” said Michael Kotzin, the GA’s lead consultant for Israel programming and executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.

Originally, the GA had been planned with a lighter theme, “Be With The Stars,” a reference both to the glitz and glam of Hollywood and to the Jewish big-wigs expected to attend the event. However, the war against Hezbollah and Hamas changed all that.

As a reflection of North American Jews’ concern about Israel, the United Jewish Communities’ (UJC) Israel Emergency Campaign has raised nearly $350 million since its creation in July. Equally important, Kotzin said, the Middle East crisis has reminded American Jews of their deep concern for the Jewish state. For Israelis, the Diaspora’s heartfelt reaction to their suffering has made them more appreciative of their special relationship with American and other Jews, he added.

Kotzin anticipates that the GA will inspire North American federation leaders to increase the number of missions to the Jewish state and to support new programming there. Given American Jews’ response to Israel’s difficulties this summer, he said, communal executives might raise more money in future annual campaigns by spotlighting how communal charitable dollars support overseas programming in Israel.

GA participants will discuss issues other than Israel during the four-day conference, including Jewish education, Ethiopian Jewry, ways to reach young philanthropists and the challenges facing Jews in the former Soviet Union. Non-Israel sessions include: “Working to Save Darfur,” “The Jewish Advocacy Agenda in Canada,” “What to Do When the Bucks Stop,” and “Connect to a Career with Meaning, Connect to Federation.”

The UJC represents 155 federations and 400 independent communities across North America. All events, including the concert at Disney Hall, are open to registered delegates and volunteers only.

“All of us will return home with new approaches, tools and inspiration for engagement, leadership and community building,” UJC Chair Robert Goldberg said.

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