What do Dennis Prager, Jimmy Carter, Mel Gibson and General Motors have in common?

Understanding Prager

Your Dec. 8 edition of The Journal had two prominent headlines regarding recent comments made by Dennis Prager. These headlines stated: “Prager Won’t Apologize After Slamming Quran in Congress” and “Prager Opposition to Quran in Congress Rite Draws Fire.”

Since I previously read Prager’s commentary regarding the new Muslim congressman wanting to use the Quran, instead of the Bible, during his upcoming swearing-in ceremony, it was difficult to reconcile both your headlines and the related article. Nowhere did we see Prager “slam” or “oppose” in a practical sense. Rather, his commentary sought to perpetuate American values for this traditional congressional swearing in ceremony. Our courts also use a similar process to swear in witnesses and assure truthful testimony. Will our court system be next in line?

Your paper was quite transparent in editorializing against, not reporting, Prager’s position. Moreover, some of the same Jewish leaders named as Prager’s critics have also been at the forefront of keeping religious and Jewish symbols out of our secular society.

In this latter instance, the constitutional separation of church and state argument is invoked. Interesting how they now cloak their argument against Prager with another constitutional position, i.e., the First Amendment.

You also cite an Islamic advocacy group, which vehemently attacks Prager both personally and via his position on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council.

Instead of overreacting to political correctness, we would be better served by pursuing the real facts and premise here.

Steven Fishbein

Talented Mel

I pay tribute to Mel Gibson … and believe that the word police are alive and well out there. (“Skip Into Mel Gibson’s ‘Apocalypto,’ Now,” Dec. 8).

How many of us are innocent of never making a racial or ethnic slur? Because he is who he is, the media goes after him, waiting for him to mess up and nail him. So what — they are only words. I believe he is a most talented actor and director no matter what anyone says … and will probably go back and see [“Apocalypto”] again.

J. Sklair
Via e-mail

General Motors

The series, “Hitler’s Carmaker,” by Edwin Black examines once again the role of Adam Opel AG, GM’s German subsidiary, in the period before and during World War II (“Hitler’s Carmaker: How General Motors helped jump-start the Third Reich’s military machine,” Dec. 1).

It has been well documented that, like all German companies, Opel participated in the rebuilding of German industry during the 1930s. As Germany rearmed, Opel sold trucks and other vehicles to the German military, as did all other German vehicle manufacturers.

In independent research supported by GM, historian Henry Ashby Turner Jr. concluded that GM executives in charge of Opel strove to evade Nazi demands to convert the firm’s main factory for production of dedicated war material. His book, “General Motors and the Nazis” (Yale University Press, 2005), documents that by mid-1940, soon after the invasion of Poland, the Nazis had taken complete control of operations at Opel.

It was during this later period, from 1940 though 1945, that the Nazis turned to forced labor to bolster Germany’s manufacturing industry, and that sanctions against Jews and others grew into the horrors of the Holocaust.

During this period, GM had no role in supporting the Nazi regime. In fact, GM became a key part of the American war effort, without which the Nazis might have remained in power for many years longerGeneral Motors finds the atrocities committed by the Nazi regime abhorrent and among the darkest days of our collective history. General Motors deeply regrets any role the company or its vehicles played in the Nazi era.

While “Hitler’s Carmaker” makes for compelling reading, it is not news. It covers a period of history that has been extensively researched. For example, following in-depth investigations in 1999, Opel made a $15 million contribution to the German multicompany Trust Fund Initiative to compensate forced labor workers and their survivors.

Nor does it reflect the General Motors of today, which is firmly committed to basic human rights. These principles, spelled out in GM’s Human Rights and Labor Standards, the Global Sullivan Principles and related documents, are proudly supported by the men and women of GM around the globe.

Steven J. Harris
Vice President, Communications
General Motors Corp.

Playing With the Facts

Perhaps President Carter’s latest book is not “Mein Kampf” or “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” but give his supporters more time to play with the facts (“With Friends Like These…” Dec. 15). For example: The response to [Theodor] Herzl’s gentle diplomacy was “Protocols of Zion”; the Palestinian response to Jewish immigration of legally purchased land where the Jews did their own labor, at slave level, were pogroms (called riots); Palestinian Nazification erupted with Hitler’s ally in genocide, the grand mufti of Jerusalem, and blossomed with Arab Ph.Ds in Holocaust denial; currently there is mass Nazi education for Palestinian youth.

Don’t worry, give Carter’s book time.

Meanwhile, I hereby nominate his book for the “Janjaweed Martyrs of the Year” award.

Charles S. Berdiansky
West Hollywood

Vegan Versions

My mouth was watering as I read about Follow Your Heart’s annual all-vegetarian Chanukah feast (“Follow Your Heart to a Vegetarian Chanukah Feast,” Dec. 15). But are latkes and vegetarian liver really that foreign to us? Indeed, there are tons of vegan dishes that are common Jewish foods, from falafel and hummus to blintzes and vegetarian cholent.

My favorite part about Chanukah and other Jewish holidays is getting together with loved ones and chowing down on the easily vegan versions of virtually all Jewish staples. Not only is it easy to be vegetarian, it’s easy to be vegetarian and eat Jewish foods.

Michael Croland
Norfolk, Va.

Correction:The Dec. 15 Journal cover illustration should have been credited to Steve Greenberg. The Journal regrets the error.

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Michael Richards: Still not a Jew

There’s a civil war brewing in Lebanon, missiles sizzle on their launch pads in Gaza; death and doom stalk Iraq; the earth’s climate speeds toward collapse; andIran is five days closer to going nuclear than it was before my Thanksgiving holiday began.

And when I return to work, what does the whole world seem to be wondering?Hey, is Michael Richards Jewish?

Richards is the former “Seinfeld” star who was videotaped at the Laugh Factory in West Hollywood lashing out at hecklers using the N-word.

He’s been making the usual Stations of the Media Cross, apologizing ever since.And from the beginning, somehow Richards’ Jewishness, or lack of it, became an issue.

Comedian Paul Rodriguez held a press conference at the Laugh Factory, saying that Richards should know better, because the Hollywood community defended Jews against actor Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitic tirades.

The implication was that Richards, a Jew, should not be launching racist attacks.

Black leaders, self-proclaimed and otherwise, told journalists that they’d be watching to see whether Hollywood reacted as strongly to Richards’ racist outburst as they did to Gibson.

How proud Mel must be that the intensity of Hollywood hate speech is now measured in Gibsons.

But if Gibson himself set the standard at 10 Gibsons, Richards is probably closer to a 5. He never made a full-length feature film shot through with vicious stereotypes. He never stood by a kooky Holocaust denier. And when he vented, he vented onstage in the course of an act.

I happened to catch Richards’ act at the Improv back in September. Richards showed up unbilled and stole the evening. He didn’t have punch lines — he had riffs, rants and characters — and he wasn’t close to offensive. At one point, he channeled the conversation of two dogs barking to each other across a suburban neighborhood. You needed to be there, and maybe you needed a drink in you, but it was hysterical. But channeling a racist without sounding like one is a much taller order, and best left to someone not as untethered as Richards.

That said, there’s also just a touch of hypocrisy in roasting a guy for using a word that a great many black comedians from Chris Rock on down use like … a noun. He may have gone too far, in character or not, but he certainly went where other comedians, not to mention hip hop artists, have gone before. How ethnic groups speak among themselves is one thing. But to maintain that the N-word is okay only when black comedians say it in public is a perverse kind of racism of lower expectations, as if they can’t help it but we should know better.

A lot of people in this affair should know better. How goofy is it that Richards must genuflect in apology to the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who, for all his good works, is hardly pure in these matters? Evidently, people who live in glass houses can throw stones, so long as the houses are outside “Hymietown.”

And how obscene that attorney Gloria Allred immediately tried to shake Richards down for money on behalf of her clients, the hecklers. How inspiring to see the foot soldiers of the civil rights movement looting the headlines for ratings and cash.

But what interests me about Richardsgate is not black hypocrisy, but Jewish pathology. What tribal chain of ours is yanked the moment someone of indeterminate ethnicity hits the headlines?

The second the brouhaha erupted, there was an atavistic rush to get to the bottom of Richards’ identity. On Nov. 20, The Journal posted a story at reporting that Richards, contrary to the intimations of Rodriguez and others, is not Jewish.

By Tuesday night we had tens of thousands of hits from around the world.

By the following Monday, after a period of Thanksgiving reflection led people to realize what really matters most in life, our Web site had hundreds of thousands of hits, and the piece had been picked up and echoed and blogged on ad infinitum.

Monday morning I had several phones messages and two dozen e-mails demanding confirmation that Richard is not, in fact, Jewish.

What happened is that over the holiday, two more aggrieved audience members came forward and accused Richards of launching into an anti-Semitic rant on the Laugh Factory stage April 22.

Richards’ New York publicist Howard Rubenstein tried setting the record straight. It was preposterous to accuse Richards of anti-Semitism because, Rubenstein told Yahoo News last week, “He’s Jewish. He’s not anti-Semitic at all. He was role-playing, he was playing a part. He did use inappropriate language, but he doesn’t have any anti-Semitic feelings whatsoever.”

That quote was good for another tens of thousands of Web hits. Thanks to Rubenstein’s one man beit din, our original story was under attack.

But our sources were entertainment industry people who’d known the actor his entire professional life.

“Not a Jew. Never was. Take him off the list for a minyan,” e-mailed one comedy writer by way of reassurance. “Rubenstein should be wasting his time on real Jews, like David Beckham.”

(For many in Hollywood, what matters is that Richards’ outburst doesn’t cripple the “Seinfeld” franchise. There are tens of millions of dollars to be lost if fans can’t separate Michael Richards from Cosmo Kramer.)

Hollywood Jews may not know much Mishna or give to Hadassah, but at the tribal level they are sharper than Abe Foxman at knowing who’s in and who’s out.

Rubenstein knows, too, of course. The man Inc. magazine called “PR’s top dog” started his career servicing the Menorah Home and Hospital for the Aged and Infirm in Brooklyn and got his first Manhattan real estate tycoon publicity by arranging for him to sing to little Jewish orphans on Jewish holidays. So I called him and asked how, suddenly, Michael Richards is a Jew.

“Well, he wasn’t born with Jewish blood,” Rubenstein tells me in a voice that is silky, deep and confidential — with just a shmear of Flatbush. “It wasn’t an inherited religion. But after studying some of the other religions, he believes in Judaism, and that’s what he’s adopted for himself.”

The Best Offense Is a Funny Movie

If you feel that life is losing its edge because no one has offended you recently, Sacha Baron Cohen’s next movie is for you.

Baron Cohen stars as his third incarnation (after Ali G and Bruno) in “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.”In it, Borat, the intrepid Kazakhstani TV reporter, is sent off to make a documentary of America, where he becomes obsessed with finding and marrying Pamela Anderson.

The film opens Nov. 3, but according to advance hints, it is guaranteed to enrage Jews, gays, blacks, women, cowboys, Christians and college boys — not to mention Kazakhstanis.

In the meanwhile, you can catch Baron Cohen now in “Talladega Nights,” where, as France’s Formula One champ Jean Gerard, he challenges NASCAR idol Ricky Bobby (Will Ferrell) for the trophy.

Baron Cohen sports the thickest French accent this side of Paris, and in his first meeting with good ‘ol Southern boy Ricky Bobby, offers to drop out of the race on one condition.

“Eeef you keess me,” Gerard says.

The movie is a lip-to-lip competition between two very different comic improvisational styles, and on the track as on the laugh meter, it’s a bumper-to-bumper race.

In real life, the 34-year-old Baron Cohen was born into an Orthodox Jewish family in London, the son of a menswear shop owner and an Israeli mother. He remains a religious, kosher-observant Jew.

He studied history at Christ’s College, Cambridge, showing real potential for an academic career, and wrote his thesis on Jewish involvement in the American civil rights movement.

Coming up for the actor after “Borat” is “Dinner for Schmucks,” in which “an extraordinarily stupid man possesses the ability to ruin the life of anyone who spends more than a few minutes in his company.”

After that, it’s “Curly Oxide and Vic Thrill,” in which our hero plays a young Chasidic Jew who forms a band with an aging rock ‘n’ roller.

Elliott Gould Thrives as Work in Progress

Elliott Gould appeared for our interview at the Chabad House near UCLA, his venue of choice, wearing a baseball cap over his unruly salt-and-pepper locks, an open-necked shirt and glasses.

That’s quite a change from the three-piece, pin-striped suit and neatly combed hair he sports as Rufus Van Aldin, the fabulously wealthy American oil magnate in Agatha Christie’s thriller, “The Mystery of the Blue Train.”

The episode, one in the British television series on the adventures of that canny Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot (David Suchet), will air Sunday, Feb. 12, on the Biography Channel at 9 p.m. and again at 1 a.m.

The 67-year-old actor obviously enjoyed the role and the locations in Nice and London.

“The British have always been very supportive of me,” he said, a feeling that goes back to 1963, when he starred in the London production of the musical, “On the Town.”

For the West End stage run, Gould brought along his new bride, the rising young singer Barbra Streisand, and he later spoke frankly of their relationship, which has since filled reams of tabloid columns.

Elliott Goldstein grew up in a two-and-a-half room apartment in a section of Brooklyn populated by Jews, Syrians and Italians, the only child of a garment industry production manager and his wife. Both parents were born in the United States, but his grandparents emigrated from Russia, the Ukraine and Poland.

Gould has total recall of his childhood, a mixed blessing, at best.

“My parents didn’t know how to love each other, and that devastated me,” he reminisced. “I’ve been in shock and denial of this most of my life, and as a boy, I was repressed, inhibited and very withdrawn.”

On Passovers, the Goldstein family visited Uncle Louie, and young Elliott got to ask the Four Questions. The future actor found it “stressful to get it right. I was very sensitive and insecure.”

In 1944, when Elliott was 6, his father was drafted into the Army, became a sharpshooter but broke his ankle just before he was to be shipped overseas. It was a lucky break, since most of his unit was wiped out in the Battle of the Bulge later that year.

Encouraged by his doting mother, Elliott auditioned for a “country-style” TV show, got a part and was told by the producer, “‘From now on your name is Gould,’ and I just accepted it.”

His stage career accelerated at age 12, when he made his debut as a tap dancer at the Palace, and at the same time, he started studying for his bar mitzvah at a Hebrew school. “On my first test, I cheated and got a 100,” he recalled.

At 18, he made it onto the Broadway stage in the chorus line of “Irma La Douce” and supplemented his meager earnings by selling vacuum cleaners, running a hotel elevator and working as a plumber’s helper.

His first breakthrough came as the lead in “I Can Get It for You Wholesale,” the same musical that first brought Streisand to public attention. The two young Jewish actors struck up a romance and married within the year.

The marriage proved difficult almost from the beginning. As his wife rocketed to superstardom, Gould, despite his promising performance in “Wholesale,” had trouble advancing his career.

Snide columnists took delight in referring to Gould as “Mr. Streisand” and in chronicling his real and alleged frustrations, depressions, therapy sessions and nervous breakdowns. Even the birth of their son, Jason Gould, in 1966, couldn’t reverse the downward trajectory of the couple’s marriage, and they were divorced in 1971. Gould also has two children with Jennifer Bogart, whom he married twice, divorced once and from whom he is now separated.

It became obvious during our long interview that Gould’s feelings about his marriage to Streisand are still acute and mixed. Again and again, he interrupted our conversation on other topics to break in with comments, such as:

“It is not true that I was traumatized because Barbra’s career went up and mine didn’t.”

“Barbra and I will always be connected through our son, Jason, but we only communicate when necessary.”

“Life is a challenging and painful journey. Barbra was part of it, and our love has not been destroyed.”

“Barbra will always love me.”

As his marriage gradually unraveled, Gould’s professional fortunes took a sudden turn upward. The breakthrough came in his role as Ted in the 1969 movie, “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice,” about two sexually liberated but confused couples, which the ’60s generation adopted as the iconic reflection of itself.

Gould, who was nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar for his performance, was at the time described by The New York Times as “Tall, curly-haired, more homely than handsome, laid back, unconventional, sensitive and unabashedly Jewish.”

Over the following four years, Gould seemed to be everywhere on movie and television screens, and his photo graced the cover of Time magazine as “the star for an uptight age.” He was especially popular among young adults, who identified closely with the often-neurotic anti-hero he depicted.

He scored again as Trapper John in Robert Altman’s black comedy, “M*A*S*H,” and as private eye Philip Marlowe in “The Long Goodbye.”

Then, in the mid-70s, what had been the hottest property in Hollywood went cold. Gould continued to act in movies and television but mostly in forgettable productions and roles.

In the 1990s, he began to regain his reputation as a character actor through frequent appearances on the phenomenally successful TV series, “Friends,” and in the past few years he has been lauded for his movie roles in “Ocean’s Eleven” and “Ocean’s Twelve.”

He remains as unabashedly Jewish as ever, though in his own way.

“I feel connected by the branches of the Jewish family tree,” he observed. “I belong every place where there is one of us…. Not only do I not deny my Judaism, but I am aware how unorthodox and unconventional I have been.”

Although “conditioned to question everything, the concept of faith seems right to me, and I have found my faith,” he added.

At 67, Gould considers himself “still a work in progress,” but he seems to have found a measure of equilibrium in a life during which “I never had problems with drugs, but I’ve had problems with reality.”

He lives in an apartment with a picture of Sigmund Freud on the wall and is re-reading the works of Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud.

“I have nothing more to prove,” he said in concluding our interview. “I now look on myself as a happy and healthy grandfather.”


Wiesenthal Larger Than Life on Screen

Simon Wiesenthal, whose dogged persistence led to the capture of approximately 1,100 accused Nazi war criminals, was the quintessential larger-than-life figure filmmakers crave. While there were some less-than-distinguished films made about him over the years, they were outweighed by fine documentaries, such as “The Art of Remembrance,” Oscar-nominated features such as “The Boys From Brazil” and several thoughtful telepics.

For Rick Trank, director of Moriah Films, the in-house documentary division of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the first film about Simon Wiesenthal “that comes to mind” is “Murderers Among Us: The Simon Wiesenthal Story,” a 1989 HBO picture starring Ben Kingsley as the Nazi hunter.

“It was unusual for HBO to have made the investment without a theatrical release,” said Trank, marveling at the production values and “the care that HBO put into it.” He pointed out that Kingsley “spent time getting to know Simon.”

While some admirers have envisioned Wiesenthal as a Jewish John Wayne or James Bond, the diminutive Kingsley, who has played numerous Jewish characters in his film career, including Meyer Lansky in “Bugsy” and Fagin in the current “Oliver Twist,” depicts him as a much more modest man, frail after the camps, dedicated to his work, not given to swagger or seduction.

Up all night in his dark office surrounded by voluminous files, he almost conjures Bartleby the scrivener. We often see high-angle shots of him, as if we are spying on him.

Told in flashback, the film begins with a closeup of sunflowers in a field on a sunny day, and then we see an image of Wiesenthal, wearing the pinstriped uniform of a prisoner. His back is positioned against the back of a bloodied, bandaged Nazi, and the two men, arms tied to each other, struggle to free themselves. The scene is Wiesenthal’s nightmare, so haunted is he by a memory of visiting a bloodied, bandaged Nazi on his deathbed.

Images of the hospital scene re-surface throughout the film, as Wiesenthal confronts whether he made the right decision in not forgiving a man who gunned down Jews trapped inside a building that had been set on fire. Wiesenthal can never satisfactorily answer the moral dilemma of whether or not he was right in walking away without pardoning a dying, tormented shell of a man.

In Wiesenthal’s troubled dream, the shining sunflowers appear almost grotesque, but they are a reminder that there can still be beauty even in the midst of the Holocaust.

Flowers also play a role in “Max and Helen,” a 1990 TNT production starring Martin Landau as Wiesenthal. Based on Wiesenthal’s memoir, it tells the true story of two young Jews, Max, played by Treat Williams, and Helen, played by Alice Krige, who find each other after 20 years of separation following the Holocaust. The first time we see Helen, she gathers a bouquet of lilies, once again yellow flowers, vibrant and alive, but soon she and Max are taken to the camps, where she remains with her frail sister while Max escapes.

According to Trank, who won an Oscar for “The Long Way Home,” a 1997 documentary about Jewish refugees journeying to Israel after the Holocaust, “Max and Helen” represents the one time that Wiesenthal, who dedicated his life to fighting anti-Semitism, chose not to prosecute a war criminal “because it would harm the living more than bring justice to the dead.”

As it turns out, Helen has been raped by the Nazi commandant and has had a child, who is a dead ringer for the father. The disquieting presence of this seeming Nazi doppelganger initially unnerves Max, when he first sees Helen again.

Ultimately, Max realizes the truth of something Wiesenthal has told him, that nations cannot be blamed collectively; each person must be assessed individually. At the end of the film, Max decides to reunite with Helen and embrace his new life with her and his Germanic stepchild, while Wiesenthal backs off from pursuing the former commandant.

Trank said of Landau, “Physically, he didn’t look like Simon,” pointing out that Landau was “6 feet 4 and skinny, while Wiesenthal was 5 feet 10 and portly, but he captured an essence of him.” He plays him as a kind of Dr. Freud, comforting Max as they engage in an all-night therapy session, in which Wiesenthal slowly extracts bits and pieces of the story, which plays out largely through flashbacks.

By contrast, in the 1978 picture, “The Boys From Brazil,” Sir Laurence Olivier, essaying Herr Lieberman, a character based on Wiesenthal, portrayed the Nazi hunter as a “sort of a bumbling guy. That wasn’t Simon. Simon was very focused, had a photographic memory.” Trank noted that Wiesenthal was “doing his work before people had computers. He had a teeny office, no money,” yet successfully traced all those Nazis.

Based on Ira Levin’s novel, “The Boys From Brazil” shows us Wiesenthal as Mr. Magoo, water dripping from the ceiling of his office, his rent unpaid, chaos all around him. Olivier speaks with an authentic German accent, yet it’s so high-pitched and world weary that he almost sounds like a German version of an older Truman Capote, burnt out after all his friends had abandoned him.

Despite his bumbling nature, Olivier’s character does indeed track down Dr. Mengele, played by Gregory Peck. In the fictional film, Mengele has masterminded a scheme, years in the making, to clone and breed a new Hitler. In order to replicate the environmental surroundings of the young Fuhrer, he must murder 94 Nordic men, all aged 65, who have blue-eyed, black-haired sons who are about to turn 14.

After the film’s suspenseful turns, Mengele is finally killed, and Olivier’s Lieberman refuses to give a young Jewish freedom fighter the information that will enable him to find and kill the boys. The Nazi hunter will not allow innocent people of German stock to be killed.

In reality, Mengele was never captured by Wiesenthal or any other Nazi hunter. His remains were found in South America, where he apparently drowned.

Though Wiesenthal was portrayed by Kingsley, Landau and Olivier — all Oscar winners — the performance that may come closest to the actual legend, who did indeed help the Mossad capture SS leader Adolph Eichmann, is that of lesser-known actor Shmuel Rodensky in the 1974 film, “The Odessa File.”

In that picture, Wiesenthal’s character has a small role, appearing in only two scenes, but Rodensky inhabits him in a way that his more famous colleagues did not. First of all, unlike Kingsley, Landau and Olivier, Rodensky physically resembled the bearish Wiesenthal. Both of them bore a girth that recalls Ariel Sharon, a fullness that suggested fortitude and a life well lived.

But more than the physical resemblance, there’s a poise and savvy, the way his smile conveys that he has seen it all, and that nothing will surprise him. This Wiesenthal understands that all men, even an idealist like Jon Voight’s freelance journalist, have motives and allegiances that may not match his own.

That is why he makes a photocopy of a picture of Roschmann, the film’s villain, rather than turning over his lone copy to Voight’s character. He’s too sophisticated to presume that this well-intentioned writer will finish the job.

Wiesenthal served as an adviser to that film, which is set in Germany in 1963, just after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, a metaphor, perhaps a bit too heavy-handed, for the loss of innocence in the world. The plot is propelled into motion with the suicide that same night of a Holocaust survivor who leaves a diary.

That document prompts Voight’s young German writer to hunt down the one-time butcher of Riga, who murdered not only Jews but also Germans who disobeyed him. Along the way, Voight comes into contact with Mossad agents who train him. With their help, he infiltrates the Odessa, a secret society of former SS officers, who are developing a missile-tracking system for the Egyptians, who plan a nuclear attack against Israel.

Like Mengele, in real life, Roschmann was never extradited or killed. Responsible for murdering perhaps as many as 70,000 Jews, Roschmann reportedly died in Paraguay in 1977.

At the end of the film, Wiesenthal pores over the Odessa file provided to him by a German, which calls to mind a line from earlier in the film that “people are not evil; only individuals are evil.” In the film, the line is not spoken by Wiesenthal’s character, but it echoes the famous mantra of the real-life Holocaust survivor.

Actor’s Missing Dad Takes Center Stage

In his raw, autobiographical monologue, “Who Is Floyd Stearn?” actor Michael Raynor struts onstage with a swagger reminiscent of James Caan. Raynor, playing himself, jabs a finger at a faded photograph.

The photo was taken on 185th Street in Queens, on his grandmother’s lawn. In the photo, an athletic, brawny man embraces a 3-year-old. The man is Raynor’s father, Floyd Stearn. The smiling boy is young Michael, who clutches a toy banjo, his blond bangs peeking out from a cowboy hat.

Raynor tells the audience that, even at 40, he cannot discuss the photo; should anyone pressure him, he angrily departs.

“Every time I see the picture I cry,” he adds quietly. “That’s why I can’t look at it. I see the happiness in my face, and it scares me. I’m hoping it won’t go away.”

His father’s sudden departure at age 7 cost him much happiness for years, and this macho-yet-tender one-man show is Raynor’s attempt to re-connect with his father and to understand the man who abandoned him.

The 2004 off-Broadway success is among a slate of recent plays to explore dysfunctional Jewish families in crisis, notably Tony Kushner’s Broadway musical, “Caroline, or Change,” which had a run in Los Angeles late last year. Raynor’s piece is a “Rashomon”-style mystery, with the actor portraying himself at various ages, as well as his mother and grandparents, who offer conflicting theories about his late father.

Was Stearn a nice Jewish boy who loved his children, but was kowtowed by a hostile ex-wife and a domineering second spouse? Or was he a heartless deadbeat who sent Michael birthday cards with no return address signed by himself, his new wife and children?

Because his relatives were tight-lipped, all Raynor knew until five years ago was that Stearn had been a burly jock.

Of his penchant for Caan, he says: “I looked for my dad in tough Jew father figures in films, like Caan, Kirk Douglas and John Garfield. I emulated the qualities I imagined my father might have had.”

In fact, the actor arrives at an interview on the Westside with that Caan-esque saunter and the tough-but-senitive guy persona he projects onstage.

At 18, he said, he adopted his stepfather’s surname, because he had been more a father to Raynor than Stearn. But Stearn’s absence continued to wreak havoc in his life. In relationships, he says, he was “programmed to disconnect,” cutting off friends and girlfriends “to create perceived emotional safety.”

Because arguments over child support, in part, had kept his father from him, financial concerns haunted Raynor. Though he had played the leads in his Jewish summer camp plays, he did not initially pursue theater, because he worried that actors lived hand-to-mouth. Instead, he worked in the financial field, on the floor of the commodities market, until he finally accepted a role in an off-off Broadway play in his late 20s.

Also in his 20s, Raynor received a notice of disinheritance, stating that his father had died of bone cancer at 42.

“I went shopping and stocked up on food, because I knew I wasn’t going to be leaving the house for a while,” he recalls in the play. “I cried and fell asleep and cried and fell asleep for two days straight. And the worst part is, I thought I had finally forgotten him.”

The actor’s anguish apparently hits a nerve for some viewers. After seeing the show in 2002, radio’s Howard Stern wrote Raynor: “Not many men could openly confess before an audience the intense father hunger they had…. It’s very easy as a man to show anger, but a lot more difficult to tap into the longing and desire for a caring, loving father.”

Despite his father hunger, Raynor built a busy career, playing leads in independent films such as “The Waiting Game” and the HBO miniseries, “From the Earth to the Moon.” He continued to know almost nothing about Stearn — until he chanced to pick up his own cousin at a party eight years ago (he hadn’t seen her since she was a girl). Once recognition set in, she told him Stearn’s mother was alive and living in Florida.

On the “Moon” set in Orlando, Fla., six months later, Raynor finally mustered the courage to call his grandmother, whom he had not seen in a quarter century.

“I showed up on her doorstep on what happened to be her 87th birthday,” he recalls. “I felt like I was walking into a psychedelic flashback.”

The emotional visit turned out to be “more healing than 1,000 years of therapy,” he says. “I learned what I had previously kept from myself because it was too confusing: That my father had loved me, even though he left.”

Raynor discovered more by tracking down his half-siblings and convincing sometimes-reluctant relatives to conduct more than 50 hours of taped interviews. He decided to turn the material into a play, though the writing process was so painful it kept him up at night.

Yet performing the piece — and saying “Kaddish” for Stearn onstage — proved cathartic for Raynor, who is considering parenthood for the first time in his life.

“I was severed from my father, so what I do in the play is to resurrect him and reconnect with him, if only in spirit.”

“Stearn,” runs through Sept. 27 at the Pilot Light Theatre. (323) 960-4418.


Outspoken Asner’s Activism Is No Act

Yitzhak Edward Asner vocally opposes the war in Iraq, a position that has probably angered some fans of the 76-year-old actor. But that’s nothing new for Asner, whose political activism, years earlier, may have cost him the best acting job he ever had — the role of journalist Lou Grant in two separate award-winning television series.

Asner’s unshrinking activism, his willingness to use his fame as a platform for causes he considers vital, made him a logical choice for Women’s American ORT’s Tikkun Olam Award to be presented at a luncheon on Sunday, Aug. 7, at the Beverly Hilton. The goal of the award is recognize those who honor the concept of tikkun olam, or repairing the world.

“Our Tikkun Olam Award is given to an individual who has demonstrated commitment to strengthening the community,” said Judy Menikoff, the charitable organization’s national president. “Ed Asner has consistently dedicated himself to the rights of the working performer and labor rights issues, as well as advocating for human rights, world peace and political freedom. We feel he represents our ideals and commitments.”

Asner is the only actor to receive an Emmy for playing the same character on two different television series. He first created Lou Grant on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” (1970-1977), in which he typically played his gruff news director character for laughs. By the time he reprised the role, in a drama, on “Lou Grant” (1977-1982), the character, who’d become a newspaper editor, had evolved to be staunchly principled and humane, despite his rough edges. More recently, Asner, who’s always been busy, got good notices for his interpretation of a weary Santa in 2003’s “Elf.”

Throughout his halcyon years as Lou Grant, Asner was evolving and emerging as an activist. During the 1980 actors’ strike, Asner’s outspoken comments and visible presence on the picket lines during the hot summer days raised his profile.

In 1981, the Screen Actors Guild nominating committee selected Asner as its presidential candidate, a first for a candidate with no previous service as a board member or guild officer. Asner was guild president from 1981 to 1985.

During his term, he and several other prominent actors, including Howard Hesseman and Lee Grant, presented a $25,000 check for medical aid to the guerrillas in El Salvador, who were fighting the U.S.-backed right-wing military government, in 1982. The money, collected through a fundraising campaign, made Asner a target of widespread criticism and negative media coverage. Published reports and Asner himself suggested that Asner’s politics played a part in CBS’s decision to cancel “Lou Grant.”

The experience did not silence Asner, as his current anti-war position demonstrates. He said the affairs of the entire world ultimately impact our lives at home.

“I think just as we are learning in Iraq now, that the greatest power on earth can’t necessarily command peace,” he told The Journal. “Imposing a peace is not as precious as winning by compromise and peaceful, cooperative talks.”

Asner also has taken a public role in the debate over the future of Israel and the Middle East. He’s an advocate for Americans for Peace Now, an American Zionist organization whose goal is to achieve a secure peace between Israel, the surrounding Arab states and the Palestinians. He’s active, too, in Meretz USA, a nonprofit organization that supports a negotiated land-for-peace solution that includes a Palestinian state.

“I’m amazed by Israel’s militaristic achievements and accomplishments,” he said, “and yet I think I gloried more at the Jewish image of the Children of the Book. I can only hope that when a peace is finally arrived at in the Middle East, Israel can beat some of those swords into plowshares and return to being the great light of the world the Jews have always been.”

Asner also has served causes that are less in the spotlight, acting as a spokesman this year for a national autism foundation. His teenage son has an autism spectrum disorder.

“My experience with autism has done so much to pull me out of my normal state of selfishness and egoism,” Asner said. “It’s an affliction that forces us out of our box if we wish to aid, comfort and teach the autist. It teaches us that the usual perseverance on our part is not enough.”

Born in Kansas City and reared in a non-Jewish community, Asner was shaped by parents who viewed religion and community involvement as inseparable.

“We were Midwestern Orthodoxy,” he said. “My mother didn’t wear a sheitel and my father drove to shul. I was raised to believe that giving back to your community is the good and right way above all, and that we were needed to uphold the faith, and if we upheld it, we would be doing right.”

Asner’s father was in the junk business. “We were the first recyclers,” he quipped.

Asner starred in football in high school and organized a basketball team that toured most of liberated Europe. He began performing while working for his high school radio station, and moved to Chicago in the ’50s, where he was a member of the Playwrights Theatre Club.

“I discovered acting in college,” he recalled, “but if I had chosen to go into my father’s business, I would have been proud to be a junk man.”

After starring in an off-Broadway production of the “Threepenny Opera” and gigs in movies and industrial films, he eventually became established for his skill playing villains. He moved on to a regular stint on “Slattery’s People” in 1964.

In 1969, he played a police officer in the Elvis Presley movie, “Change of Habit.” It was his first time on screen with Mary Tyler Moore. A year later, he began his run as Lou Grant, head of the WJM newsroom on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” He won three Emmy awards in the role, and another Emmy for his work in the miniseries, “Roots.”

His parents never encouraged his acting, but they accepted it: “It was amazing for foreign born, uneducated people that they were so gentle about my choice and didn’t create a lot of obstacles.”

Once, years later, after his father had died, “I called home to tell my mother about my guest shot on some TV show after a few years here,” Asner said. His mother then confided to him. “‘Vell,'” said Asner, imitating her accent, “‘I just want to tell you we was wrong and I’m glad.'”

As a Jewish parent himself, Asner said, it’s important “to pass on this legacy of ‘giving back’ to my children, to fill the vacuum in this sector of Judaism I will leave with my passing.”

He added: “Our contributions to art and literature, the Nobel and Pulitzer prizes and the literature Jews have created, particularly in the 20th century, are something to be very proud of. However, I am saddened the references made to Jews of old as Children of the Book do not occur that often these days.”

There is nothing Asner would rather do than act, but if he had to choose another profession, it would be archeology.

“I love history,” he said, “and I believe every time someone digs up a relic or bone, it’s like finding gold.”

Looking forward, he said, “My hope is that people will tire of looking for the great ‘leader,’ tire of expecting government to heal the wounds and tire of feeling the media will give them all the information they seek.”

He’d like to see more people “begin to band together to learn from themselves and accomplish for themselves.”


Once Upon a Time in a Midlife Crisis


Yvan Attal huddles on a velvet couch in a corner of the cavernous Chateau Marmont lobby, a study in nervous energy. The Israeli-born French actor-director, who is charming if energetic, furrows his brow and runs his fingers through his tousled black hair. It’s not hard to believe that one of his film idols is Woody Allen (“I identify with his neuroses”) or that he makes films that serve as personal therapy.

Consider his new dark comedy, the frenetically paced “Happily Ever After,” which explores his midlife crisis. He got the idea in 2003 when he dropped his son off at preschool and noticed most of the other parents were divorced.

“I began thinking about my own life and the choices I have made, and they felt enormous and scary,” he said.

Not that anything was amiss in his own household. Since the 1990s, Attal has lived with the French movie star, Charlotte Gainsbourgh, daughter of the late Jewish pop icon, Serge Gainsbourgh. They have two children, ages 7 and 2, and thriving careers. Gainsbourgh, 33, is a popular actress who has appeared in approximately two dozen films, including Franco Zeffirelli’s “Jane Eyre.” Attal, 40, is less renowned as an actor, but he has won the Cesar, the French equivalent of the Oscar, for 1989’s “Un Monde Sans Pitie,” and since 2002 he has made a name for himself as the director of romantic comedies starring himself and Gainsbourgh.

Despite his own domestic harmony, those single parents spooked the director at preschool.

“The love was still there,” he said of his relationship. “But you realize you can meet somebody else; that maybe it can be difficult to stay together. Then you realize that you are not free, and not only with other women; you cannot make a [snap] decision because it engages other people. So I got really frightened and I just started writing.”

“Happily Ever After,” follows three male friends and the women in their lives as they navigate midlife crises and ponder the pros and cons of commitment. Attal portrays Vincent, a car salesman who takes a mistress when his marital routine becomes blasé, while his wife, played by Gainsbourgh, fantasizes about a stranger. The narrative shifts from everyday scenes to dream sequences and poses the question: Can a relationship survive infidelity? Is it unrealistic to remain faithful? As one character puts it, “I can choose my wife, or all other women.”

If “Happily Ever After,” according to The New York Times, suggests a Parisian answer to Mike Binder’s short-lived HBO series, “The Mind of the Married Man,” Attal’s 2002 debut film, “My Wife Is an Actress,” is more reminiscent of the jealousy comedies of Allen. The film stars Attal as a sportswriter married to a sexy actress (Gainsbourgh) who is desired by every man in France.

The movie wasn’t only prompted by Attal’s amusement (and annoyance) at his own wife’s star treatment: the restaurant tables that suddenly became available for Gainsbourgh and not for Attal, for example, or the nightclub bouncers who rejected him until she showed up.

As a performer, Attal had become obsessed with the realization that an onscreen kiss perhaps isn’t just a kiss, and a nude scene isn’t simply another day at the office. “Actors like to say, ‘Oh, we’re just doing a job, but when you spend all day in bed with an attractive person there is bound to be some desire,” he says. “Look at all the romances that begin on the set. And if you’re doing that job and your wife is doing that job … it’s a risk every time.”

In a “Wife” subplot, the protagonist’s pregnant sister is married to a Catholic who cannot understand her preoccupation with circumcising their son; her shrill obsession evokes the pressure Attal feels being Jewish in the hostile French body politic. “Since 9/11 the anti-Semitism has increased, and for the first time in my life I don’t feel like the other French,” says the director, whose next film will excoriate French anti-Semitism.

“Happily Ever After” focuses on more personal than societal concerns, although the prickly subject matter initially caused tension on his home front.

“When Yvan [first] spoke to me about … some scenes, I was very uneasy with the subject,” Gainsbourgh said. “The idea obviously came from something in his life, and I’m part of that. I had a right to be worried. A couple falling apart — that scared me and I was trying to find the reality in it.”

The resolution of the onscreen couple helped to assuage her fears — as did discussions with the director.

So is Attal’s midlife crisis over? Is he still worried about his relationship falling apart?

“I don’t know,” he says. “But maybe I feel more free. It’s like I realize we don’t have to be frightened of what happens in our lives because we can’t escape. If your wife meets somebody and she falls in love, what can you do? Also you can’t be scared by what could happen to yourself either.”

And then there is always cinema as therapy. One of Attal’s next films will be based on a short story, “Les Sabines,” about a woman “who has the gift of ubiquity,” he says. “She can be in many places at the same time.”

Does that mean she could tryst with her lover at the same time as with her husband?

“Exactly,” he says.

The film opens this month in Los Angeles.


A Quick Trip to Evangelical ‘Hell’

Born-again Christian youth pastor Shari Putney is standing at the top of a stairway outside a theater in Hollywood presiding over a group of young adults, decked out in a sequined, pale-blue mother-of-the-bride dress and a huge diamond cross. Clearly subscribing to the theory that the higher the hair, the closer to God, Putney pats her silver bouffant wig and sings a hymn about loving Jesus. A voice from the crowd waiting on the stairs calls out: “Very funny, Jill.” Putney stops and turns on her heel. “I am not Jill!” she announces. “Jill Soloway is a Jew!”

Actually, Putney is Soloway, a writer on the HBO show “Six Feet Under” and one of the creative forces behind a biting new parody of evangelical Christianity called “Hollywood Hell House,” which will be playing at the Steve Allen Theater through Oct. 31.

You may be feeling guilty contemplating your bad deeds from the past year as Yom Kippur approaches, but things could be worse. You could be an evangelical Christian teen who’s taught about the horrors of sin through what’s known as a Hell House. Finding traditional Halloween ghosts and goblins too satanic, thousands of Christian teens and young adults participate in a haunted house that, instead of featuring witches and zombies, depicts the horrors of living a sinful life and not accepting Jesus as your savior.

Begun in the 1970s by the Rev. Jerry Falwell, there are now some 3,000 Hell Houses across the country every year. Visitors are led through a series of rooms where skits are performed about school shootings, people dying of AIDS, the horrors of abortion and performing human sacrifices, among other topics. They are then lead into hell, where they find the tormented souls of suicide victims, Satan worshippers, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and other nonbelievers of Jesus. Visitors are then asked if they accept Jesus. If they do, they are let into a party. If not, they are booted out into the street.

With the help of Jewish actors and comedians like Richard Belzer, Sarah Silverman and David Cross, Soloway and her co-director, Maggie Rowe, are parodying the phenomenon, using the actual scripts provided in Hell House how-to kits created by the Rev. Keenan Roberts of the Destiny Church of the Assemblies of God, located in Broomfield, Colo. In using evangelicals’ own words to lampoon the evangelical Christians, Soloway and Rowe hope to give a much-needed kick in the tuchis to a phenomenon they see as narrow minded and moralistic.

To procure the scripts, Rowe called Roberts directly and told him she was using them for a teen ministry in Los Angeles.

“I had heard about Hell Houses for years, and then I saw a documentary about them,” Rowe said, referring to the 2001 film “Hell House,” which was released by 7th Art Releasing. “I felt Hell Houses crystallized in such a theatric, visceral way what is wrong with fundamentalism, and I thought the scenes were just so damn funny in their awful absurdity.”

Some Jewish cast members were reticent to poke fun at a religion not their own, Rowe said, but her response always was that the parody was aimed “not at Christianity, but at fundamentalism of all stripes.”

Soloway also felt the skits — including one in which an abortion is being performed on a fully conscious woman who is nine months’ pregnant while the doctor screams at her: “Shut up, Christy! You pay the money. I do the killing and the talking!” — were so outrageous they begged to be mocked.

“You would never think you could watch a rape scene or an abortion scene and laugh, but when you realize you’re watching the creative output of some very closed-minded people, it becomes funny,” Soloway said.

And, Soloway argued, the plays border on the anti-Semitic. “When you get down to hell, there is a Jew [saying], ‘I was stupid enough to wait for my messiah. I wish I had known. Get me out of here!'”

While crowds eager to join in the parody of evangelical morality will no doubt flock to the play, Soloway hopes it does inspire something other than laughs.

“I would at the very least love for it to open a conversation about religion,” she said. “Some of the lapsed born-again Christians in our production tell me that as children, at 6 or 7 years old, they were told in Bible class to imagine the very worst thing they could think of — perhaps their parents dying — and to imagine that over and over again with it never ending, and that is what hell feels like. And that’s what’s in store for them if they don’t ‘love God enough.’ This seems pretty cruel to me, so I would be happy if even within the Christian community, some started to question the concept of presenting hell as a literal reality instead of a metaphor.”

The threat of a literal hell was one that actor and writer Andy Corren, who plays a demonic tour guide in the spoof, said he had to face growing up gay and Jewish in a small North Carolina town.

“It was the age of Jesse Helms, and we were a Jewish family surrounded by extremely fundamentalist Christians,” Corren told The Forward. “As a child I was kidnapped by my neighbors and sent to Bible camp and told if I didn’t repent for being a Jew, and accept Jesus as my savior, I was damned for all eternity. Participating in this parody is my personal act of revenge.”

For more information about

“Hollywood Hell House,” visit www.hollywoodhellhouse.com .

Young Creator Spells Success ‘O.C.’

Josh Schwartz has been having trouble sleeping.

Ever since his new show, "The O.C.," began airing on FOX this summer, he’s faced insomnia Tuesday nights, anxiously awaiting the public’s response to each new episode. He got a brief reprieve in late September and October when the show went on hiatus for Major League Baseball playoffs and the World Series, but as of Oct. 29, "The O.C." is back, and restlessness now comes Wednesdays.

Over coffee one morning in September, Schwartz, the 27-year-old who’s being touted as the youngest person ever to create his own television network drama, discussed his recent starburst. The biggest change in his life?

"I got a job," he said, looking disheveled by design in vintage green T-shirt, powder blue cords and sneakers. "It’s just being immersed in something seven days a week, 16 hours a day and just having that be this all-consuming event. But it’s great."

There’s no sign of that changing, either. Fox has picked up a full season of his teen drama — "it’s not a soap" — about a tony Newport Beach gated community. While at press time the numbers were unavailable, if the extensive promotional campaign is any indication, the show seems likely to resume its summer spot as the highest-rated drama with teens, as well as pulling in the key coveted demographic of 18-49-year-olds.

"The O.C." is centered on the Cohen family and Ryan, the troubled teen from Chino they adopt (Benjamin McKenzie). Schwartz has infused a little bit of Jewish soul into the predominantly white-bread "O.C.," with Sandy Cohen (Peter Gallagher), a liberal Jewish pro-bono lawyer, and his son, Seth, a nerdy and sarcastic high school senior (played by the unlikeliest of geeks, Adam Brody). Kirsten Cohen (Kelly Rowan) is the WASPy mom who has garnered them entree into this exclusive world — she has the money from working in her father’s real estate development business. And of course, there’s Marissa (Mischa Barton), the Neutrogena girl next door.

So far, hints at the characters’ Jewishness have been limited to throwaway lines. Explaining why he can’t get along with Kirsten’s über-WASP dad when he comes to visit, Sandy says, "I’m still Jewish." In two others, Seth makes reference to studying the Talmud and to his Jewfro, and Schwartz has promised a season finale involving "Chrismakah," wherein Ryan has to make the little money he has to purchase one gift last for eight.

Explaining this choice, Schwartz said, "For Sandy it just felt like one more thing to add…. But it felt like it was a natural thing for his character, coming from his background and how it would make him sort of feel a little bit even more out of place in Newport, and for Seth, as well."

Much of the basis for "The O.C." is autobiographical, Schwartz told The Journal. Raised Reform in Providence, R.I. to parents who were Jewish toy inventors, Schwartz says he based his characters on people he knew in Providence or at USC, where he majored in film. Of all the "O.C." characters, he said Seth Cohen’s take on the world is closest to his own: "Sort of a smart -ass, but with an underlying sweetness."

"I remember when I was a kid I was always looking for someone like that, that was cool, to kind of get behind, and hopefully Seth Cohen will be that to inspire more kids to be proud of their background," Schwartz said. "But it’s not gonna be a Star of David burning on the Cohens’ front lawn or anything inflammatory like that. I think we just want to sort of weave it into the background of these characters and have it be part of their personal culture."

Brody, for one, is pleased with this decision. As a secular Jewish actor playing a Jewish character, he said, "I like the way Josh does it. It’s self-deprecating. I never want to be on ‘Seventh Heaven,’" he said, referring to the moralizing WB show about a reverend’s family.

Unlike Sandy and Seth, it’s doubtful whether being Jewish in Orange County makes real O.C. Jews feel like outsiders.

"I think if Jews feel isolated, they isolate themselves," said Elsa Goldberg, 39, of Laguna Beach. She said there were many Jewish organizations available to people looking to meet fellow Jews.

She finds other aspects of the show off the mark as well, a sentiment expressed by quite a few who live in O.C. One thing she thinks Schwartz got half right: "I think that there’s probably a lot of intermarriage out here," she said, "but Jews always seem to find each other."

Schwartz isn’t reading all of the criticism, but he admitted to perusing the message boards online. Despite the aforementioned insomnia, it’s clear he’s not taking any of it too seriously.

"I find if anybody starts to rag on a certain element of the show then I have to go in and make fun of it in the next episode," he said. "But it’s interesting … as soon as the show airs, five minutes later you can go online and see what people thought about the show and that’s really exciting. Then sweat over it next week."

"The O.C." airs Wednesday nights on FOX at 9 p.m. n

Shoah for Sale

In “Turnaround,” the third play in Roger Kumble’s sardonictrilogy about Hollywood, Jewish hack Jeff Pelzman gushes over a sure-fire hitmovie. Compiled by combining the plots of Oscar-winners, the fictional scriptopens as the camera pans down through the worried faces of Jewish Poles “untilwe find Moishe, a 12-year-old mentally challenged boy, skipping through theghetto.”

“A retard in the Holocaust,” Pelzman says. “That’s f–kingbrilliant!”

The cringeworthy scene is typical of the hystericallymordant play, starring “Friends” star David Schwimmer as a leech who’d swindlehis mom (or trivialize the Holocaust) for a “go” film or a hot babe. JonathanSilverman, Schwimmer’s old pal from Beverly Hills High, plays the equallydepraved Jewish producer, Richie Tolchin. Kumble wrote the black comedy for thetwo actors, who each portrayed Pelzman in the trilogy’s first two plays, whichhave been called a Generation X take on a subject addressed in more matureplays, such as David Rabe’s “Hurlyburly.”

Although staging the satire at the Coast Playhouse has beena labor of love for the Jewish artists, each feels nervous about theprovocative subject matter.

Schwimmer warned underage “Friends” fans to stay away;Silverman begged a Journal reporter, “Don’t hate me!” while Kumble said he was”terrified” his motivations could be misconstrued.

At a Larchmont Boulevard cafe recently, the edgy butconvivial writer-director (“Cruel Intentions,” “The Sweetest Thing”) said heconceived the “Moishe” script partly as an homage to Mel Brooks’ Holocaustspoof, “Springtime for Hitler,” in “The Producers.” Another motivation was”noticing that every Holocaust-themed film seemed to get nominated for anOscar,” he said. “But I wanted to comment on people who use the Holocaust as ameans to an end, not to skewer my own people.” Kumble also wanted to continueskewering a real-life, reformed Hollywood creep: himself.

He said he invented Pelzman — “definitely an alter-ego ofmine” — for his 1993 comedy-drama “Pay or Play” (starring Silverman) after afriend suggested, “write what you know.” To create the character, he thoughtabout the life path that began when he was a Northwestern University movie geekdreading law school in 1988. Then he saw a newspaper photograph of some USC hotshotswho were selling spec scripts for big bucks and figured he could, too. The dayafter graduation, he drove out to Los Angeles, began the Hollywood hustle and,in 1989, moved into a studio apartment next door to Northwestern aquaintanceSchwimmer. “I was driven by envy and ambition,” he said of his first years inLos Angeles. “It was the ‘you-have-it-I-want-it’ mentality.”

If Kumble brought those qualities to his protagonist in “Payor Play,” he wasn’t above a Pelzman-esque maneuver to cast Schwimmer in its1997 sequel, “d-girl.” “It was New Year’s Eve at SkyBar, I was drunk and Davidsaid he wanted to see the play,” he recalled. “So I said, ‘F–k you, Schwimmer,you’re a huge TV star now, you’re not going to read my little one-act.'”

Schwimmer’s response: “Jackass, I will, too!”

Five years later, Kumble, 36, wrote “Turnaround” forSchwimmer and Silverman, after undergoing his own personal turnaround. Fearingthat his lifestyle would lead to an early death, he said he stopped drinking,smoking cigarettes and compulsively focusing on his career. He got married andstarted praying daily. He said he identifies more with the spiritually inclinedcharacter of Seth (John Di Maggio), who’s aiding a drug-addicted screenwriter(Tom Everett Scott), than the sleazeballs Jeff and Richie.

Silverman — sounding less like a Hollywood shark than thenice Jewish boy he played on TV’s “The Single Guy” — said he was drawn to”Turnaround” because he “craved the opportunity to play such a lecherouscharacter.”

“[One impetus] goes back to the days when I was the rabbi’sson at Sinai Temple and everyone expected me to behave properly,” he said.Acting gave him the chance to behave badly, if only onstage, as well as to meetSchwimmer in drama class his first day at Beverly Hills High. The two bondedbecause “We were short, gawky drama geeks the girls found cute but not trulydatable,” Silverman said.

“[Jonny] is a nice Jewish guy and I think we had similarvalues that we were … raised with,” Schwimmer, who grew up Reform, told TV Guidein 1996.

The two friends were in rehearsals for “The Diary of AnneFrank” their senior year when Neil Simon tapped Silverman to replace MatthewBroderick in “Brighton Beach Memoirs” on Broadway. For the next decade,Silverman worked regularly while Schwimmer struggled — until “Friends”catapulted him to superstardom in 1994. Yet unlike their “Turnaround”characters, the actors said, jealousy has never been an issue.

More on their minds during recent “Turnaround” rehearsalswas: what will our parents think? After all, their characters swear,masturbate, and grope a hooker (Jaime Ray Newman) — who, in typical Hollywoodfashion, also attends Kabbalah class. And then there’s that “Moishe” script.

“Opening night was a little uncomfortable,” said Silverman,whose character calls Steven Spielberg “Mr. Holocaust.” “But our parentsunderstand that this is a morality tale. I mean, these kinds of people actuallyexist. There are people in this town who would kick their grandmother in thetooth to make a movie. I don’t think it comes across as a smear of Jews inHollywood so much as it does on certain people who have just lost theirperspective.”

The show runs thru March 2 at the Coast Playhouse, 8325 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood. For tickets and more information, call(866) 468-3399.

Silverman on Screen

February is a schizophrenic month for actor JonathanSilverman. While he’s playing the despicable producer Richie in “Turnaround,”he’s also portraying an idealistic civil rights attorney in Showtime’s “Deaconsfor Defense,” to air Feb. 16.

Silverman got the role when Showtime’s Jerry Offsayapproached him at Valley Beth Shalom last Yom Kippur and whispered “Call metomorrow,” the actor recalled. The next day, he was on a plane to Toronto toshoot “Deacons,” based on the true story of African Americans who chose to takean armed stand in the civil rights movement. While his character, MichaelDeane, is a composite of real-life activists, Silverman used a renowned Jewishcivil rights attorney as inspiration.

“I read Peter Honigsberg’s autobiography, ‘Crossing Border Street: A Civil Rights Memoir,’ in which he describes why he was willing torisk his life for the movement,” Silverman said. “He said his parents escapedthe Nazis because American strangers vouched for them and helped them obtainvisas. And if strangers helped his family to live in peace and safety, whyshould he feel any differently?” — NP

Meyer: Hero or Anti-Hero?

“A Jewish friend of mine loves ‘The Sopranos,'” Italian American actor Joe Bologna said with a groan. “I told him, ‘How’d you like to see a show called “The Goldsteins” about white-collar criminals and the biggest shyster is Izzy Goldstein?”

Bologna isn’t about to play Izzy, but he is the co-author and star of a monologue he said breaks ethnic and gangster stereotypes. In “Meyer,” he portrays Jewish mobster Meyer Lansky — previously depicted in films such as “Bugsy” (1991) — as both a ruthless thug and a pathetic alter-kacker. At the beginning of the play, the character sips Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray Soda and kvetches about Israel denying him citizenship under the Law of Return.

While Bologna usually eschews mobster roles, he was receptive when Richard Krevolin asked him to co-author “Meyer” in the 1990s. The 38-year-old Jewish author (“King Levine”) told Bologna he’d interviewed Las Vegas hoteliers who’d described Lansky as “ice-cold” and others who remember him passing out candy while walking his Shih Tzu. He said his fascination with the gangster began when a con-man bilked his Connecticut neighbors by posing as Lansky’s nephew around 1980. “This guy played into the Jewish reverence for the tough Jew,” Krevolin said. “So I began wondering, was Lansky an American Jewish hero or was he an anti-hero?”

Audience members were so divided on the issue that they screamed at each other after “Meyer’s” debut in San Diego several years ago. But Bologna — best known for writing and performing comic plays with his wife, actress Renee Taylor — sees the mobster as poignant. Lansky’s persona reminds the actor of his gruff father, who also grew up in a cold-water tenement but chose the family shoeshine business over the mob. “Lansky decided not to ‘carry a lunch pail’ and ultimately paid the price,” said Bologna, 67. “And that’s tragic. It’s Shakespearean.”

JAKKS Jumps for Children

In the movie "Little Nicky," Adam Sandler played the son of the devil, but for many Israeli children today Sandler is an angel.

When the Jewish actor-comedian wanted to do something to help brighten the lives of Israeli children wounded in suicide bombings, he contacted his friend Stephen Berman, president and COO of JAKKS Pacific toy company.

The collaborative effort resulted in a donation and shipment of more than 500 toys to hospitals in Tel Aviv, each with a personal note from Sandler included. However, while the celebrity’s name was probably the most recognizable to the children, it was the lesser-acclaimed Berman whose massive donation made the whole thing possible.

"I sincerely hope the toys helped to put smiles on the faces of children in Tel Aviv who have endured much heartache," Berman said.

Children in Tel Aviv are not the only ones who are smiling as a result of Berman’s efforts. Ever since Berman and CEO Jack Friedman co-founded JAKKS Pacific seven years ago, philanthropy has been one of the company’s main objectives. Now, as the third largest toy company in the nation, JAKKS’s mission to help children in need has only intensified.

Every holiday season, JAKKS donates truckloads of toys to needy children and families throughout Los Angeles and across the nation. The company is financially and actively involved in furthering the efforts of numerous children’s organizations, including Hollygrove Children and Family Services, Special Olympics, The Boys and Girls Clubs, the Starlight Children’s Foundation and Toys for Tots, in addition to several Jewish organizations, such as the Museum of Tolerance and The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. Last holiday season, JAKKS donated toys and art supplies to children affected by the tragedy of Sept. 11.

In December of 2001, JAKKS Pacific received the City of Los Angeles proclamation from Mayor James Hahn, honoring its commitment to public service. "Giving toys and art supplies to children who need them most, in good times, and especially during challenging times, is the best way we know of to show but a fraction of our gratitude for our good fortune," Berman said. — RB

The ‘Kid’s’ Staying Power

Every day during the summer of 1942, 12-year-old Robert Evans set out with a copy of Radio Registry under his arm and hit every audition room in New York.

"I [made] up one story after another about my brilliant career," the legendary producer recalls in "The Kid Stays in the Picture," a juicy new documentary based on his 1994 tell-all memoir. After months of rejection, he capitalized on his uncanny knack for accents and landed a gig that appalled some members of his Jewish family: playing a Nazi concentration camp colonel on "Radio Mystery Theater."

"[There] I was, a 12-year-old Jewish kid … labeled the top Nazi in town," he says with a laugh.

It’s the kind of outrageous chutzpah hijinks one would expect of Evans, whose roller coaster of a life is chronicled like a Hollywood epic in "Kid." The doc recounts his discovery as an actor by silent movie star Norma Shearer, his ascension to Paramount production chief in his 30s, his penchant for bedding actresses such as Ava Gardner and Raquel Welch and greenlighting such hits as "Love Story" and "The Godfather." It also describes how Evans — perhaps the last great producer of the pre-Jerry Bruckheimer era — was busted for cocaine and linked to the notorious Cotton Club murder case in the 1980s (he was never indicted). And how his very public fall from grace bankrupted him and made him a pariah, though he’s since reclaimed the spotlight with his memoir and the documentary, directed by Oscar nominees Brett Morgen and Nanette Burstein.

"I’ve been from royalty to infamy and back again," the 72-year-old says in his famous purr-growl while reclining on his fur-covered bed at his Woodland Drive mansion.

Morgen agrees: "Bob’s life is like a movie. He’s also a tragic figure in the sense that he almost lost everything because of his transgressions." Morgen, 32, who attended Jewish studies classes at Amherst, adds that the producer "in a way reminds me of King David. Just as David had his love for Bathsheba, which was his big transgression, Bob had his addiction to excess and to cocaine."

Even the way the producer (ne Shapera) became Robert Evans sounds like a scene from a Hollywood melodrama. Evans says it happened late one night in 1942 when his dentist father, Archie, tearfully asked young Bob and his brother, Charles, to adopt Archie’s dying mother’s maiden name. "It was a means of exacting revenge against [Archie’s] father, a gambler who would step out for a newspaper and return home, broke, three weeks later," the producer says.

Cut to 1956, when the strikingly handsome Evans — then a millionaire partner in Charles’ clothing firm, Evan-Picone — caught Shearer’s eye while sunning himself by the pool of the Beverly Hills Hotel. Shearer said his confident manner reminded her of her late husband, the Jewish movie mogul Irving Thalberg, and would Evans like to play him in the James Cagney flick, "Man of a Thousand Faces"?

Evans did, and some months later — in a completely unrelated incident — he was "discovered" by mega-producer Darryl Zanuck while dancing the tango with a countess at a posh supper club. Zanuck decided to cast him as Ava Gardner’s Latin lover in the 1957 film version of Ernest Hemingway’s "The Sun Also Rises" — but the author (and Evans’ co-stars) disagreed. "Everyone on the set knew [Hemingway’s] thoughts about how this Jewboy would ruin the film," Evans says. "But he couldn’t convince Zanuck."

Instead, the stogie-smoking Zanuck observed Evans’ bullfighter shtick, put a bullhorn to his lips and proclaimed, "The kid stays in the picture. And anybody who doesn’t like it can quit."

Evans recalls: "It was then that I realized I didn’t want to be some actor sh–ing in his pants to get a role, but the guy who gets to say, ‘The kid stays in the picture.’" After finagling a three-picture deal at Fox, he was named head of production at Paramount in 1966.

During his tenure there in the late ’60s and early ’70s, Evans hired the Polish-born Holocaust survivor Roman Polanski to direct the classic films "Rosemary’s Baby" (1968) and "Chinatown" (1974). He resorted to a typically Evans-esque stunt when Polanski wanted to leave the "Chinatown" set to attend a seder in Poland.

"Bob said, ‘Roman, I’ll throw you the best Passover you ever had,’" Morgen says. "He ended up with Kirk Douglas leading the seder with Polanski and Walter Matthau in attendance."

Evans went on to bring the quintessential 1960s Jewish American film to Paramount, though not without his share of tsuris. He wanted a Jewish actress to star in "Goodbye Columbus," based on Philip Roth’s biting novella, and was appalled when filmmakers instead cast Ali MacGraw. "Ali MacGraw, an 18-year-old spoiled Jewish American Princess?" he shouted incredulously at producer Stanley Jaffe on the telephone. "She’s a 28-year-old over-the-hill shiksa." The actresses’ luminous screen test convinced him otherwise, however, and, "I fell in love with her while watching the dailies," Evans recalls. In October 1969, they were married.

But the producer didn’t want to talk about MacGraw — who left him for Steve McQueen three years later — or the Cotton Club case when Morgen and Burstein arrived to film him in early 2000. It didn’t matter that Morgen had studied Evans’ movies as a cinema-obsessed kid (the poster to Evans’ "Popeye" hung over his bed) or that he had attended Crossroads School in Santa Monica with the producer’s son, Josh. ("There were rumors that Josh’s dad was possibly involved in a murder," Morgen recalls.)

Evans, who narrates the film, says, "It’s difficult to make a picture that shows your life, warts and all, and we had very big fights about it."

Not that Evans didn’t try to put on the charm, instructing his butler to prepare caviar omelets for Morgen and Burstein and regaling them with stories beside a vast swimming pool. "We knew that Bob was trying to ‘seduce’ us," says Burstein, 30, who grew up Reform but attended an Orthodox grade school in Buffalo, N.Y. "And we, in turn, were trying to ‘seduce’ him."

Evans is glad they did. During the "Kid screening at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival, he received a 12-minute standing ovation and he’s now back on the Paramount lot, making movies with directors such as Wes Anderson. "I hope the film inspires people to know that when you’re down, it ain’t over," he says, sounding like the chutzpah kid who reinvented himself as the "Jewish Nazi" in 1942. "Sometimes it hurts, but you’ve gotta stay in the picture.

Mobster Makes Good

"It’s a blessing to be able to work in this business. I don’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth," says busy actor David Proval.

Best known for playing lunatic would-be mob boss Richie Aprile on "The Sopranos," Proval’s "ethnic" look has led the Jewish actor to numerous Italian — often mobster — roles, from his film breakthrough in "Mean Streets" (1973) as Robert DeNiro’s friend Tony, to his recurring guest appearances as Signore in "Everybody Loves Raymond."

"The neighborhood I grew up in was predominantly Italian and Jewish, so there is within my heritage some Italian influence," he says of his East New York, Brooklyn, upbringing, where he attended Yeshiva Toras Chaim.

But the self-described yeshiva bocher rarely got to play what he knows best, until recently. Taping an 1999 episode of "The West Wing" in which he played Rabbi Glassman was, according to Proval, "a very funny experience. I had just got off ‘The Sopranos’ playing a mobster, and two days later I’m in a synagogue on Wilshire Boulevard."

It was his Jewish heritage that got him involved with his latest project, Richard Krevolin’s play "Seltzer-Man." Introduced by a theater producer in 1994, "Richard and I have been working on this for seven years," the actor says. While Krevolin worked on the script, Proval contributed his own memories, especially of his relationship with his mother, and of one of his yeshiva teachers.

"Seltzer-Man," which debuts at Hollywood’s Tiffany Theatre on Sept. 15, tells the sad, but funny, tale of hard-drinking, raging poet Seymour Cohen, who daylights as a seltzer delivery man on the Lower East Side, and his occasional alter ego Yonkl Schwartz. He is, according to Proval, "a New York Jew on fire, burning with the accumulated rage of three thousand years of suffering."

"It’s a gem," Proval says, "This is the most personal role I’ve ever played."

Incidental Intelligence

British actor Ben Kingsley has played a number of Jewish characters with such authenticity that questions frequently pop up about his possible Jewish background.

He was unforgettable as the accountant Yitzhak Stern in "Schindler’s List" and earlier had the title role in the TV movie "Murderers Among Us: The Simon Wiesenthal Story."

He portrayed a less inspiring Jewish figure, mobster Meyer Lansky, in "Bugsy" (1991) and will play father Otto Frank in the ABC miniseries "Anne Frank" (May 20-21).

Kingsley (born Krishna Banji, the son of an Indian physician and a British model and actress) phoned me this week from England to draw attention to a PBS reprise of "Schindler’s List," so I asked him about possible Jewish antecedents.

"I am not absolutely certain, but to the best of my knowledge, I am one-quarter Jewish on my mother’s side," he said. Then he added, with a touch of irritation, "It gets a little ludicrous to quantify such things. It’s liking counting chromosomes or measuring the shapes of noses."

After George

Jason Alexander is having a “George” moment. “I don’t fast on Yom Kippur, but then I do this,” he says, looking heavenward and mock-cringing. “No offense!” he blurts.

It’s a scene right out of “Seinfeld,” but then again, the 41-year-old actor shares more than a few neuroses with the hapless shlep he portrayed for nine years on TV.

Forget Alexander ever playing a traditional leading man: “I’m short and bald,” he says. Never mind the millions he made on “Seinfeld”; he’s still convinced he could end up penniless. Then there’s the fallout from playing George Costanza, one of the most popular characters ever on television. “I can’t push George away, because it’s like pushing a mountain away,” Alexander confides. “If I were to walk onstage as Hamlet, everyone would go, ‘Look, it’s George.'”

So the Emmy-nominated actor has a ruse to help George fade from public memory: He’s diversifying. Since “Seinfeld” went off the air, he’s starred in Lee Kalcheim’s “Defiled” at the Geffen Playhouse; he’s played Boris Badenov in “Rocky and Bullwinkle” and his production company, AngelArk Inc., has signed a deal with Fox TV.

Alexander is also stepping behind the camera, most recently as director of the comedy-drama “Just Looking,” which opened last week in Los Angeles. Set in 1955, it’s the tale of a 14-year-old Bronx Jewish boy named Lenny (Ryan Merriman), who is obsessed with witnessing “an act of love” on his summer vacation. For Alexander, it’s a familiar milieu, one that takes him back to his childhood in middle-class Jewish-Italian neighborhoods in New Jersey.

Alexander, né Jay Greenspan, says he was a fat kid who used comedy to put off his tormentors at school. “It was a preemptive strike against cruelty,” explains the actor, who memorized every comedy album in his parents’ home. His Woody Allen and Jackie Mason impressions mollified the bullies. “But I didn’t look at it as performing,” says Alexander, who won a 1989 Tony for his role in “Jerome Robbins’ Broadway.” “It was just survival.”

At 13, he discovered the theater and knew he had found his calling. He felt powerful onstage, he says, at a time when he felt powerless everywhere else in life. He took tap dancing lessons from two 80-year-old ex-Ziegfeld girls, four towns away so his classmates wouldn’t find out and taunt him. By the time he finished junior high, he had a manager, a union card and a stage name (Alexander is his father’s first name).The actor’s sexual coming-of-age, meanwhile, was far more dramatic than fictional Lenny’s in “Just Looking.” “I didn’t quite have his period of innocence,” Alexander says ruefully. “I actually had my first experience at 13 with an actress who was in her 30’s in the wings of a theater during the rehearsal of a show.” The show ended, and so did the relationship. “Then I had this four-and-a-half year hiatus [from sex],” the director recalls. “I went around to every girl I knew, trying to sell her on this great thing I’d found, but I couldn’t close the deal.”

Alexander says he toned down the originally titillating “Just Looking” script so the protagonist could enjoy some of the childhood innocence he missed. Then he has another George moment: “I just think about my poor parents going, ‘We knew we shouldn’t have let him do theater!'”

Also at 13, Alexander completed his Bar Mitzvah, turned to his parents and said, “Are we done?” His Jewish education had been less than inspiring: “What had been offered me as religious training was a lot of form and no content,” he says. “I could read Hebrew right to left, left to right, upside down, no vowels, but I didn’t know what one word meant.”

Over the years, Alexander remained a strictly cultural Jew – until he and his wife, Daena, accepted an invitation to visit Israel on an Anti-Defamation League (ADL) trip in 1991.

The actor went reluctantly. “My impression of Israel was that the whole country was going to be carrying Torahs, swinging payes, and that I was going to feel incredibly isolated,” he says. “I thought everyone would look on me as worse than a Nazi, as if I were single-handedly destroying the religion.”

Instead, Alexander had one of the most amazing spiritual experiences of his life: “Suddenly, every previously meaningless thing they’d been yakking about in Hebrew school was right in front of me,” he says. “I was standing on the place where the Temple was. I was swimming in Lake Tiberias. I was standing on top of Masada and looking down at the remnants of the Roman camps.”

The 10-day trip, he says, prompted his Jewish reawakening; while he and Daena remain mostly nonobservant, they have vowed to join a synagogue so they can educate their two sons. Alexander, for his part, routinely appears at ADL and other Jewish functions and donated $11,800 from a “Jeopardy!” charity appearance to ADL.

He even convinced “Seinfeld” co-creator Larry David to tone down an episode that featured a bumbling mohel: “The fact that the mohel was nervous was funny,” he explains. “The fact that he hated children was not.”

But don’t tell Alexander that “Seinfeld” is “self-hatingly Jewish,” in the words of TV critic Tom Shales. Sure, there was the episode called “Shiksappeal,” in which Elaine discovers Jewish men like her because she’s not Jewish. Sure, there was the show in which a mean chef is dubbed a “Soup Nazi.” “But we made fun of everyone,” insists Alexander, who landed the “Seinfeld” role by doing a Woody Allen impression on his audition tape. “We were equal-opportunity insulters.”

The actor, for his part, is all but insulted when a reporter suggests that George is a meeskayt (ugly). “George is dear,” he corrects. “I have trouble understanding how he could ever be seen as unlikeable. Of course I’m aware that ‘Seinfeld’ is based on the relationships of four of the most selfish people who reveled in each others’ misery. But to me, it was always so clear that George was just a victim of his own insecurity. He’s the guy who always turns around and goes, ‘Am I an idiot?’ He’s constantly trying to overcompensate because he knows he’s not enough for anyone, including himself.”

One criticism of Seinfeld is that the seemingly Jewish characters were never declared Jewish. So, The Journal had to ask: Was George or wasn’t he? Alexander pauses before replying. “He wasn’t in my own mind until they cast his parents three-and-a-half seasons in,” he reveals. “Estelle Harris played George’s mother, and she can’t be anything but Jewish. So I thought his folks must have had a mixed marriage, and you can make up your own mind as to how they raised George.”

What Makes Henry Tick?

As far as episodes of “E! The True Hollywood Story” go, the Henry Winkler installment is pretty dull. Not because Winkler is uninteresting, but because the actor has avoided all the tabloid-relished pitfalls that have felled many a superstar. Given the great heights of celebrity he has scaled, his 30-year career begs the question: what made Winkler last?

Recall just how big he was. For 10 seasons, he portrayed Arthur “The Fonz” Fonzarelli on ABC’s “Happy Days,” the leather-clad ladies’ man who was cool incarnate. Originally scripted as a fringe character with six lines, the character was expanded on, due to popular demand, and from 1974 -1984, it brought Winkler much recognition, including three Emmy nominations and two consecutive Golden Globe victories (1976-1977). The show didn’t merely put Winkler on the map — it put him on the globe, in a way that few TV actors — John Travolta, Farrah Fawcett — could really fathom. The Fonz’s trademark leather jacket was even placed in the Smithsonian Institution.

Spotlighting a Neglected Disease

When Pam Acosta’s mother, Rose, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in June of 1996, Acosta was at a loss. The only thing she knew about the disease was that it claimed actor Michael Landon’s life. “The doctors offered no answers, no hope. Only a three- to six-month sentence,” says Acosta. In anguish, she wondered, “If Michael Landon couldn’t save himself, how can I save my mother?”

Acosta promptly jumped on the Internet to learn about the disease. What she discovered was discouraging. Symptoms generally do not occur until the disease is in advanced stages; life expectancy is three- to six-months. According to the American Cancer Society, little is known about the causes and prevention of pancreatic cancer, which will claim close to 29,000 lives this year in the U.S.

While searching the Internet, Acosta found herself on the Johns Hopkins Medical Institute’s website, which included a posting board for pancreatic cancer patients and family members. She soon became part of a geographically far-flung support group that shared information, frustrations and grief. She continued to participate in the chat room, even after her mother passed away, six months after being diagnosed.

One thing Acosta learned was that Ashkenazic Jews, such as Landon himself, are at greater risk of getting this cancer. Carriers of the BRCA2 cancer gene, inherited by 1 percent of all Askenazi Jews, have a 10 percent chance of developing pancreatic cancer.

From the moment Acosta started learning about pancreatic cancer, she couldn’t help but feel that too little attention was focused on the disease, which is the fourth highest cause of cancer deaths in the U.S. among both men and women. Part of the reason, she surmised, is that it “hits so hard and fast, those left behind are left speechless.”

She noticed that other diseases seemed to get attention — and ultimately, research funding — through affiliation with high-profile celebrities. She did some research and found that a number of celebrities, in addition to Landon — Henry Mancini, Donna Reed and Juliet Prowse, to name a few — had died of pancreatic cancer. She started contacting celebrity families and others to see if they would get involved in raising the profile of this seemingly neglected disease.

Soon, she had a growing list of people willing to lend their names to her cause, including Michael Landon, Jr., Tommy Lee Jones, Patti LaBelle, Samuel L. Jackson and Nancy Wilson.

With those names to work with, Acosta and her nationwide network of Internet contacts found themselves planning a Beverly Hills dinner to raise awareness and research funding for pancreatic cancer. Last November, they held an “Evening With the Stars,” which attracted 450 guests and grossed $165,000.

The group gave the money to Dr. Michael Goggins of Johns Hopkins, who, through his laboratory, was concentrating on early detection of pancreatic cancer. Early detection can increase survival rates for pancreatic cancer by up to 40 percent, but there are currently no effective tests available.

Pleased with the dinner’s results, Acosta wanted to broaden her group’s focus. She formalized the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PanCAN) as an advocacy organization, along with co-founders Terry Lierman and Paula Simper. Acosta serves as the organization’s president while maintaining a full-time job as vice president of a metal recycling company.

For this years successful dinner, which was held Nov. 7 at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, Acosta had a secret weapon in organizing: an enthusiastic volunteer named Stephanie Davis.

An attorney and mother of two from Sherman Oaks, Davis, like Acosta, was devastated when her mother, Helen Pollak, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in March of this year.

“I never knew what a pancreas was,” says Davis, who, also like Acosta, promptly got on the Internet to learn more about the disease.

Davis’s search, too, led her to the Johns Hopkins website, where she found a link to PanCAN. She e-mailed the organization to ask for help, and promptly got a response from Acosta.

Soon, said Davis, she had found her “mission.” She has helped organize fundraisers, review contracts between PanCAN and celebrities who will be appearing in public service announcements for the organization, and answer the group’s phone line when the executive director is unavailable.

While Davis waits for these developments to come to fruition, she will continue to fight for PanCAN’s mission and hope for the best for her mother.

“If I’m not doing all I can to make people aware of this disease,” says Davis, “I’m not doing her justice.”

For more information , call PanCan at: (877) 2-PANCAN or visit www.pancan.org

“Anne Frank” for Teens

Contemporary Holocaust literature for young adults seems to favor a theme: transport unaware teenagers to German-occupied Europe and, together with the characters, the readers will emerge as more sensitive, aware young adults.

The book, and recent Showtime drama, The Devil’s Arithmetic, takes Hannah, a Jewish teenager apathetic to Judaism, on a journey through a ghetto and concentration camp. “Anne Frank and Me,” a contemporary one-act play performed this past week by participants of the Teenage Drama Workshop at Cal State Northridge (CSUN), follows the protagonist, Nicole, through a similar experience.

Unlike Hannah, however, Nicole is not a spoiled Jewish teen. Her non-Jewish parents are Holocaust deniers, and they attempt to teach their daughter that the Holocaust was a lie. Before she can fully accept their theory, Nicole is knocked unconscious in a car accident and wakes up as a Jew in war-torn Europe. By trying to make sense of her surroundings, and eventually meeting Anne Frank, Nicole comes to recognize the horrific truths of the Holocaust and gains an appreciation of the Jewish people.

Written by Cherie Bennett for teen-age actors of all faiths, “Anne Frank and Me” is an effective educational tool against Holocaust denial because it targets two audiences: young viewers and actors themselves.

“I thought is was a terrific play, first and foremost, and an important play for our community, given the strong Jewish presence here, and the fact that we are experiencing more hate crimes,” said Doug Kaback, Executive Director of the full-time Teenage Drama Workshop, now in its 42nd year. “Anne Frank and Me” was one of the three productions put on by the young workshop crews.

In addition to rehearsing — a lesson in both drama and Jewish history in itself — the acting crew visited the Museum of Tolerance. For many of them, the experience boosted awareness and knowledge they had already begun to cultivate.

Fifteen year-old Stephanie Blaze, the Christian-Catholic who played the lead, is nothing like pre-transformation Nicole. She keeps clear of racist company. “I have no friends like that,” she said. “I don’t know if I’d want to have any friends like that.”

Thirteen year-old Rachel Garcia, a Mexican American, was enamored with Anne Frank even before she heard of the play. Since playing the part of her newfound role model, she recommends “The Diary of Anne Frank” to her friends.

“To me she was a hero,” she enthused.

Over 50 percent of the young actors happen to be Jews of various backgrounds. For them, the play reinforced their Jewish identity and taught them more facts about the war.

“It made me a little more proud of my Jewish heritage,” said 14 year-old Jesse Reiss, who admits to being “not very Jewish.”

The play moves adults as well. After a successful performance, Director Irene Silbert could be found with tears in her eyes. A child of a survivor, directing and watching the play has aroused heartfelt emotions, a sign that the actors played and understood their roles with maturity and grace.

“I feel we have an obligation to make sure the truth is always known,” she said. “Especially when there are so many deniers out there.”

For more information on the Teenage Drama Workshop at CSUN call (818) 677-3086.

Hoffman on Hollywood, Judaism and the Holocaust

What moviegoer can forget the scene: a graduation party around a Beverly Hills swimming pool, where a callow, young graduate named Benjamin Braddock gets a little career advice — one word: “Plastics.”

Plastics have done pretty well, and the young graduate (circa 1967) even better. So well, in fact, that Dustin Hoffman — no longer callow — has joined such film legends as Elizabeth Taylor, Orson Welles, John Wayne, John Huston in receiving the American Film Institute’s prestigious Life Achievement Award.

This one is well deserved. It is difficult to think of another actor who, in one compact package, so well articulates on film the complicated, angst-ridden, ego-driven, urban, late-20th-century man. He didn’t invent the antihero, but he sure refocused him for our times.

Tom Pollock, AFI board chairman, puts it this way: “His versatility, range and uncanny ability to embody the characters he plays has amazed audiences across the globe since his arrival on the scene more than 30 years ago. Time and again, he has displayed seemingly limitless talents by taking on roles that are more challenging and distinct than the last.”

The son of a West Los Angeles furniture salesman, Hoffman was the younger brother of a good-looking, athletic, A student. (“The first time I saw ‘Death of a Salesman,'” he said, “I thought they were invading my family’s privacy.”) He dropped out of Santa Monica City College, aged 19, to attend the Pasadena Playhouse. He dumped plans to be a concert pianist and made the inevitable pilgrimage to New York, paying the rent with jobs in a mental hospital, as a waiter, dishwasher — even a janitor.

As it turned out, it was a comedy, “Eh,” in the mid-1960s that changed his fortunes forever. Mike Nichols had strolled in to see the play one night at the Circle in the Square, remembered Hoffman, and screen-tested him for “The Graduate,” a part originally written for a blond WASP. Their first call had been to Robert Redford.

Rebel with Another Cause

Think Jean-Claude van Itallie, and you think, “icon of the 1960s.”

He is a legendary figure in the downtown New York theater scene and the author of “American Hurrah,” considered to be a watershed political play of the Vietnam War era.

Of late, the 62-year-old playwright has also become an actor and the author of his first one-man show, “War, Sex & Dreams.” It is the first time van Itallie has specifically written about the Holocaust, though the Shoah permeates much of his work.

You’ll find it in “the violence, the paranoia, the explosive breaking of the fourth wall,” says the artist, who has penned more than 30 plays and translations, including acclaimed versions of Chekhov’s major plays.

In “War, Sex & Dreams,” which opens on Jan. 21 at Highways in Santa Monica, van Itallie recalls how he was awakened in the middle of the night upon the German invasion of Brussels two weeks before his fourth birthday. A coat was hastily thrown over his pajamas, and he was bundled into the family car, which sped off for the coast, with his mother at the wheel.

Meanwhile, van Itallie’s father, who was in the Belgian army, escaped by swimming out to the British ships at Dunkirk. The family reunited in France, then fled from Spain to Portugal to the United States.

As a result of the Holocaust, van Itallie says, his parents craved safety and protection. The family moved to Great Neck, N.Y., “which was something like Disneyland: manicured, clean, careful,” says van Itallie, who attended an Episcopalian Sunday school.

Ultimately, he rebelled against his parents’ fear and paranoia: While they craved respectability, he determined to live beyond the fringe of the mainstream. After graduating from Harvard, he moved to Greenwich Village, where he became an experimental playwright and, eventually, a seminal figure of the American avant-garde. He lived an openly gay lifestyle and practiced Tibetan Buddhism.

Van Itallie began improvising “War, Sex & Dreams” about two years ago, around the time of his father’s death. In a way, he says, the piece is another rebellion, “against the childhood denial of my Jewishness and the horrors of the Holocaust.”

“As a survivor, I am the only one left in my family to tell the tale, and, as such, I have an obligation to tell it,” he says.

“War, Sex & Dreams” runs from Jan. 21 through 30 at Highways, 1651 18th St., Santa Monica. For tickets, call (323) 660-TKTS.

UJ Stages ‘The Quarrel’

About 10 years ago, give or take a year, I was invited to director Arthur Hiller’s home to attend a reading of a work in progress. About 80 to 100 people turned out and listened raptly as two wonderful actors, script in hand, read the work in progress. It was a play called “The Quarrel,” written by two friends, David Brandes and Rabbi Joseph Telushkin and based on a short story by Yiddish writer Chaim Grade. I mean no exaggeration when I say that everyone seated in Hiller’s spacious living area knew they were listening to a play that was special.

On the one hand, it was a character sketch of two quite different Jewish men who encounter one another by accident in the middle of a city park. On another, it was a powerful drama about two Holocaust survivors who knew one another as children and who now grapple with one another over such matters as faith, disillusionment and belief or the lack thereof.

It came as little surprise to hear, several years later, that the script had become a small independent film, and that it had won 8 international awards. And it comes as no surprise again to discover that it had also been cast as a play. That play will be performed locally at the University of Judaism, Tuesday through Thursday, Jan. 26-28, and on Saturday, Jan. 30.

The stage production is part of the UJ’s Dortort Writers Institute, which brings eminent novelists, poets, playwrights and screenwriters to the university. The institute is named after David Dortort, the television producer of “Bonzana” and “The High Chaparral” who will himself be honored at a pre-theater dinner on Tuesday, Jan. 26.

For tickets and information, call (310) 476-9777, ext. 201.

Hasta la Vista, Yentl

Goodbye, Columbus.

And goodbye Portnoy, Tevye and Yentl, too.

A glance back at the films of 1998 reveal Jewish characters who break the mold, overturn the stereotype, and stretch the image of Jews on-screen.

Instead of bubbes, hausfraus and pickle men, there were Jewish junkies, gangsters and wild women in the quirky arena of independent film. The striking roles drew striking actors: Ben Stiller was a Jewish heroin addict and TV writer in “Permanent Midnight”; Renee Zellweger played a sexually frustrated Chassid in “A Price Above Rubies”; Ally Sheedy portrayed a tormented artist and the daughter of a Holocaust survivor in “High Art; John Turturro starred as the Holocaust author Primo Levi in “The Truce”; and Minnie Driver was a Sephardic Jew and gothic heroine in the 19th-century drama, “The Governess.”

Forget the traditional movie images of Jewish urban or suburban life. “The Cruise” is a documentary about an eccentric, homeless New York tour guide, “Speed” Levitch; “Safe Men” spotlights some bumbling Jewish gangsters; and Peter Berg’s debut film, “Very Bad Things,” reveals some nice Jewish boys who do some not-so-nice things in Las Vegas and beyond.

Most mind-bending of all is Darren Aronofsky’s debut feature, “Pi,” a Jewish sci-fi flick about a paranoid mathematics genius who is pursued by shadowy Wall Street figures and Chassidic Kabbalists.

Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan has a theory about the range of Jewish outsiders who are protagonists these days. “The popular culture seems to be pushing everything toward the extremes, and we’re seeing that reflected in the movies, especially in independent film,” he says.

The Jewish films of 1998 are mostly the work of young filmmakers, in their 20s and 30s, who are making first or second features, capitalizing on multicultural chic to express who they are. Nowhere was the trend more apparent than in the work of women directors, who mined their pasts to create bold heroines struggling with issues of Jewish identity.

In Brit Sandra Goldbacher’s “The Governess,” a Sephardic orphan disguises herself as a Gentile in 1840s England to find work in the larger world. Feeling as if a Star of David is emblazoned on her forehead, she journeys to a remote manor house and begins a torrid affair with the master.

Tamara Jenkins creates a very different, iconoclastic Jewish heroine in “Slums of Beverly Hills,” her semi-autobiographical tale of a female Portnoy, whose adolescent angst is exacerbated by the fact that she’s poor in the quintessentially wealthy Jewish suburb.

Filmmakers such as Jenkins and Goldbacher “feel more emboldened to deal with Jewish issues than in the past,” says Neal Gabler, author of “An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood.” “It’s part of a continuing trend of ethnic awareness. Artists are more comfortable asserting their ethnicity.”

If 1998 was the year of the bold Jewish heroine, it was also the year of the standout Holocaust-themed film. Besides “The Truce,” there was the poignant “Life is Beautiful,” Roberto Benigni’s Cannes-winning, Chaplinesque tragicomedy about a sweet, sad man who protects his son in a concentration camp. The liberation documentary, “The Long Way Home,” won the Academy Award. And Nazis and neo-Nazis were the focus of Bryan Singer’s “Apt Pupil” and Tony Kaye’s “American History X,” starring Edward Norton.

In 1998, we also had plenty of Woody Allen, not only in Barbara Kopple’s documentary, “Wild Man Blues,” which follows the reclusive director around Europe with his paramour, Soon-Yi, and the upcoming Allen feature, “Celebrity.” The animated DreamWorks film, “Antz,” stars Woody’s voice as the rebellious, Central Park worker ant Z, who tells his analyst it’s tough to be the middle child in a family of 5 million.

For Leonard Maltin, the film critic for “Entertainment Tonight,” the proliferation of Jewish characters is a positive thing. “It asserts that we exist,” he says, “and that we are part of the fabric of American life.”

Hollywood’s Boy

Looking studiously at the floor during a recent interview, Ben Stiller came off less the Hollywood “It” dude than the cute, shy guy you had a crush on at Jewish summer camp. The slight 5’7″ actor has intense, crystalline blue-green eyes, three days’ growth of beard, graying temples, black clothing, white sneakers and a thoughtful, serious demeanor. “I’m shy,” admits the 32-year-old actor, who is appearing in no less than three films now on the big screen.

He is the sleazy drama teacher in “Your Friends & Neighbors,” the summer’s best independent film; the nerdy hero searching for his high school dreamgirl in “There’s Something About Mary,” the year’s biggest comedy;” and a Jewish junkie TV writer in “Permanent Midnight,” based on screenwriter Jerry Stahl’s 1995 memoir. Entertainment Weekly even dubbed him the 44th-funniest person alive.

But for all his screen success, Stiller had a revelation for The Journal: He feels typecast as neurotic-New York-Jewish.

“You get termed ‘ethnic,’ and that cuts you off from many roles,” says Stiller, who portrayed a Jewish TV exec dumped by Winona Ryder in “Reality Bites” and a nudgy Jewish adoptee in “Flirting With Disaster.” “That’s why I really enjoyed working on ‘There’s Something about Mary.’ My character doesn’t have a specific background. He is just who he is.”

Stiller says he was drawn to “Permanent Midnight” because, like Stahl, he is “funny and Jewish and not particularly confident or comfortable” in his own skin. He feels “somewhat of an outcast in the WASP culture;” and he has felt pressured to assimilate not because he is self-hating, but because he hates when people typecast him.

Arts Briefs

British director Tyrone Guthrie, a non-Jew, oncesaid: “If all the Jews were to leave the American theater, it wouldclose down about next Thursday.”

Maybe that explains why there’s so much Jewishtheater now in Los Angeles. Here’s a roundup of the offerings: Wecan’t guarantee they’re good, but we can

guarantee they’reJewish.

The ladies of “Backstreet,” at the SantaMonica Playhouse.


* “Backstreet,” at the Santa Monica Playhouse,through April 26. You can find patrons arguing in the lobby over theeyebrow-raising premise of this musical: It’s set in a Jewishbrothel, circa 1905. The authors based the play on a story by theYiddish author Sholom Asch, and, yes, they say, there were Jewish brothels in New Yorkat the turn of the century. “Backstreet” follows the lives and lovesof an émigré family of Backstreet Ladies, offering adifferent vision of the American dream. Admission is $16 to $20. Forinformation, call (310) 394-9779, ext. 1.

* “Sing! A Musical Journey,” at UCLA’s FreudPlayhouse, through March 15. In his one-man show, actor-pianistHershey Felder plays the piano and tells stories of survival.

* “When the Rabbi Lied,” at the Lee StrasbergTheatre Institute, through March 15. Hildy Brook’s comedy-drama abouta woman wrestling with spiritual dilemmas as she explores her Jewishroots.

* The West Coast Jewish Theatre’s “YiddishkeitIII,” at the University of Judaism, on March 25. This Borscht-Beltkind of an evening features Catskillian comics, a cabaret act,Yiddish songster Hale Porter and more. Tickets are $25. (310)476-9777, ext. 535.

* “A Different Springtime,” at the Actors’Playhouse in Long Beach, March 14 through April 19. In this play by87-year-old Joseph Stein, the protagonist wants his mother, a PolishHolocaust survivor, to get married, and, thus, he arranges for her tomeet a Landsmann. Problem is, she thinks Mr. Sakamoto, the youngapartment-building manager, is trying to seduce her. Everything getsmore confusing when Myriam the Matchmaker enters the picture. Ticketsare $15. (213) 660-8587.

* “Dinner at Grandpa’s,” at the Wooden-O Theatrein West Los Angeles, opens March 20. Bobby Wittenberg’s comedy is setat an annual family dinner that celebrates Grandpa Sidney’s heartattack, when grandson David asks about the family history. Grandpainsists that he lived the American dream — until David inadvertentlycalls up the ghost of his late grandmother. Tickets are $15. (213)612-5229.

* “Chaim’s Love Song,” at the Bitter TruthTheatre, North Hollywood, through April 26. An Irish-American facultywife from Iowa, in culture shock since moving to Brooklyn, finds anunusual friend in an elderly Jew. Tickets are $15. (818)755-7900.

* “Labor Pains,” at the Victory Theatre, Burbank,opens April 3. In Lisa Diana Shapiro’s comedy, Rose (aka Jake) ispregnant via artificial insemination by her guy best friend. She’sstraight and Jewish; he’s gay and Italian. So how will they raisetheir child? Tickets are $18 to $20. (818) 841-5421.

* “I Know You Are, But What Am I?” at the TiffanyTheatre, through April 21. Jason is Jewish, smart, twentysomething,attractive, when he meets Susan on a blind date. Thereafter, you’llfollow their dating hell as they do anything to avoid the word”relationship.” Tickets are $15. (310) 289-2999.

The King of Klezmer

By Skip Heller

Naftule Brandwine is the Louis Armstrong ofAmerican klezmer. He didn’t invent the style, but he crystallizedevery element of it, to the point of embodying it. Just as everybluegrass banjoist comes out of Earl Scruggs, so does every klezmerclarinetist come from Brandwine.

Of course, jazz sells more, so while Armstrong wasanthologized often and well in his lifetime, Brandwine’s recordedlegacy waited until the corpse had been 34 years cold for acomprehensive collection, “King of the Klezmer Clarinet NaftuleBrandwine” (Rounder Records).

Brandwine arrived on these shores in 1913,bringing with him a clarinet style modeled after the Jewishviolinists he had heard. “Heisser Bulgar” opens the disc, and is aperfect introduction to Brandwine’s trick bag — bent notes,chirping, a nearly vocal vibrato, and a command of the clarinet thatremains impressive even today.

The tunes are, predictably, mostly fast-paced OldWorld-styled bulgars and freilachs, seemingly uninfluenced by American music. Surprisingly,little here sounds noticeably dated, which is more than one can claimfor most prewar instrumental music. Largely, this is because klezmeritself resists change. But, also, it is because this music stilleffectively telecasts its conviction, and is still excitinglistening.

Brandwine’s antics are often given more attentionthan his music. His ego-and-alcohol-laden exploits make for greatanecdotes. Brandwine would often wear a red-white-and-blue Uncle Samcostume, and would hang around his neck a small neon sign that read”The Naftule Brandwine Orchestra.”

Legend has it that, one night, he sweat so muchthat he was nearly electrocuted by the sign. His drinking,unreliability, egomania, temper and inability to read music cost himin the long run. In fact, by the mid-1920s, his standing as “king ofthe Jewish clarinet” was becoming questionable.

Rival clarinetist Dave Tarras eclipsed Brandwine.He carried himself with more dignity, could read music and was a morereliable citizen. Tarras’ style of klezmer clarinet was more refined,his tone less rough, his ability to read music making him eligiblefor more kinds of employ-ment, and he recorded well into the 1950s.Also, Tarras was alive and able to play during the late-1970s klezmerrevival. This conspiracy of elements did much to assure recognition.But Brandwine is the more exhilarating of the two. (Tarras wasanthologized definitively in 1992, with the essential”Yiddish-American Klezmer Music 1925-56″ disc, available on YazooRecords).

Also, Brandwine recorded first, and he almostsingle-handedly made klezmer an American-Jewish expression. He wasthe first major, defining soloist.

Although his 1963 death went largely unnoticed,his vibrant, sparkling playing is still much of the template forklezmer music. These 25 cuts on the anthology are dinosaur tracks.The beast himself may be gone, but the footprints are just too big tobe filled by anything that now stalks our terrain.

“King of the Klezmer Clarinet” is not onlyindispensable to every Jewish music library, but also any party. Thatis what klezmer music intended to be for in the first place.

Skip Heller is a Los Angeles-based writer andmusician.

Kirk Douglas’ Greatest Role

Douglas in “Cast a Giant Shadow.”

After surviving a 1991 helicopter crash, Douglas,80, has taken a greater interest in Judaism.

Kirk Douglas’ Greatest Role

The legendary actor rediscovers and redefines his Jewish side

By Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

When Kirk Douglas was in his mid-70s, he started to study theTorah. The actor in him immediately detected a professionalrelevance.

“The Torah is the greatest screenplay ever written,” he says. “Ithas passion, incest, murder, adultery — really everything.”

It has been a long road back to Judaism for the veteran of 82movies, who began life as Issur Danielovitch, the son of poor,illiterate Russian-Jewish immigrants, became college wrestler Isadore(Izzy) Demsky, and achieved great fame and success as actor KirkDouglas — often starring as a Nordic-looking hero or antihero.

His trademark dimple chin jutting out — for his first movie role,Paramount honchos wanted to obliterate the million-dollar dimplethrough plastic surgery — Douglas reminisced about his life andfaith during a 75-minute interview in his art-filled, but relativelymodest, Beverly Hills home.

Today, Douglas is an 80-year-old man with an implanted pacemaker,who has been sorely tested in the past few years by severe injuriessustained in a 1991 helicopter crash and, more recently, by a stroke.But don’t think that his glories lie behind him.

Having passed his biblically allotted life span of 70, Douglas islooking forward to his second bar mitzvah, in Israel, at age 83. Hisfifth and sixth books, the autobiographical “Climbing the Mountain:My Search for Meaning” and “The Broken Mirror,” a Holocaust-themedstory for children, are coming out this month.

He is planning for his first collaboration with his oldest son,Michael Douglas, in the movie “A Song for David,” which centers onthe relationship between a father, who rediscovers his Judaism in oldage, and his workaholic son. Waiting in the wings, “if Hashem willsit,” is another joint film project, tentatively titled “Josiah’sCannon,” also on a Jewish theme.

Then he has his carefully selected collection of modern, not yetfashionable painters and his pet charitable projects: Childrenplaygrounds for poor neighborhoods in Los Angeles and Israel; anAlzheimer’s unit at the hospital for retired show-biz folks; AIDS andhomeless projects; the Access Theater for the Handicapped; and a $2million theater that’s rising opposite the Western Wall, whereworshipers will watch films on the history of the Wall, Judaism andJerusalem.

He has a date at the White House on Dec. 23, together with PrimeMinister Binyamin Netanyahu, to watch President Clinton light thefirst Chanukah candle, which will also symbolize the beginning ofIsrael’s 50th anniversary year. Douglas hopes to revisit Israel,where he has made three films, next year.

Unfulfilled, as yet, is his ambition to climb Mount Sinai andgreet the sunrise at the pinnacle.

Finally, there is his family. His countless love affairs andone-night stands — with movie queens and casual pickups alike –well behind him, Douglas speaks often and proudly of his 43-yearmarriage to his second wife, Anne, and of his four sons, Michael,Joel, Peter and Eric.

The first two sons are from his first marriage, to actress DianaDill; the two younger ones from his present marriage. Despite theirfather’s dire warning, all four sons work in the film industry asactors and/or producers.

Douglas still remembers, with undiminished pain, growing upalongside six sisters with a loveless and unresponsive father, and hemakes it a point to show emotion and affection toward his ownchildren. “Whenever we meet, we embrace and kiss each other on themouth — Russian style,” he says.

Douglas has always been aware of his Jewishness. When he was 12,the Sons of Israel congregation in his native Amsterdam, N.Y.,offered to send him to a yeshiva to become a rabbi. Young Issurdeclined, informing his would-be benefactors that he planned tobecome an actor.

For most of his life, he has been an indifferent Jew, at best. Atone point in his college career, though a popular student bodypresident and champion wrestler, he tried to pass himself off as ahalf-Jew.

He dates his

‘I am Tateh’

After months of rehearsal as a poor immigrant struggling to protect his daughter, Rubinstein has forged a close bond with Danielle Weiner, the young actress who plays Little Girl
In “Ragtime,” the part of Tateh, a widowed, immigrant Jew who comes to New York with a young daughter in tow, is in many ways a role that is especially close to the heart of actor John Rubinstein.

“Twenty years ago, I wanted that part,” said Rubinstein, who was “thrilled” to be approached for the role in the new musical. “I am Tateh. Like him, I have artistic aspirations. I enjoy the art of acting, but, ultimately, I’m Daddy.” (He is the father of four children who range in age from infancy to adulthood.)

Both as a father and as a son, Rubinstein had plenty of material from which to build this character. His father, world-renowned pianist Arthur Rubinstein, was a Jewish immigrant from Poland who first visited the United States in 1906, the year that “Ragtime” begins.

“My parents were older, particularly my father, who was 61, when I was born,” he said. “They both had such vivid memories of that period. My mother remembers fleeing Lithuania after the Russians took over. She and her family moved to Warsaw, where her father — a conductor — founded the Warsaw Opera. She was Catholic, so for her, it was all about nationality, about Russia confiscating her family’s property…. Their estate was on a rather large piece of land. It was almost Chekhovian.

“For my father, being a Polish Jew was the flip side of that experience. It wasn’t about Polish nationalism in the least. They left in ’38 or ’39, before I was born — first to Paris and then to the U.S. When they fled Hitler, the Gestapo took over their Paris house and robbed it of everything, including a portrait of my father by Picasso.”

Years later, the Rubinsteins traveled back to Poland. It was then when the enormity of the Holocaust began to take shape in the young actor’s mind.

“We went back in 1958, when I was 12 years old,” he said. “A huge swarm of people came to meet us from my mother’s side. ‘I’m your granduncle,’ this one was saying. That one is your second cousin, and so on. Amid this mass of people, just one young man approached my father — a nephew of some sort who had survived. Just him. It was then that I really got it.”

Rubinstein said that while his father was never particularly religious, “he was a proud Jew and a staunch Zionist” who remained tremendously involved with Israel. “You know, after 1914, my father said he’d never play again in Germany, and he never did.”

After months of rehearsal as a poor immigrant struggling to protect his daughter, Rubinstein has forged a close bond with Danielle Weiner, the young actress who plays Little Girl, Tateh’s mostly silent daughter.

“I adore her,” he said. “After every show, I get down on my knees and thank her for her energy. She’s my partner. Eighty percent of my role, in a sense, is addressed to her. Her support and good acting make it work. And sometimes, she tells me to remember my props.” — Diane Arieff Zaga, Arts Editor

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