Two Dark Tales Illuminated at Sundance
Martin Scorsese has famously influenced a whole generation of American filmmakers, from Abel Ferrara and Quentin Tarantino to Rob Weiss and Nick Gomez. But his influence is not limited to filmmakers in this country.
One who has channeled the Gotham-based auteur, albeit subconsciously, is Tony Krawitz, an Australian director, who specializes in short films. Krawitz’s most recent effort is “Jewboy,” a one-hour feature about Yuri, a Chasidic Jew, who comes back to Sydney, Australia, for his father’s funeral and has a crisis of more than just faith.
Although Krawitz says that he refrained from watching Scorsese’s films while making “Jewboy,” his lead character Yuri reminds one at times of Harvey Keitel’s Charlie in “Mean Streets,” as well as Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver.”
Like Keitel’s Charlie, Yuri places his fingers over the flame of a burning candle. He wonders if God will really punish him, if the flame is truly eternal. He also wants to feel something, even if it’s pain. That is why he touches the fire, since his religion prohibits him from touching a woman, from even holding hands with any female other than a family member.
The provocative title of the film “reflects the mentality of the lead character, so marked is he by being an Orthodox Jew 24/7,” says Krawitz, speaking from Australia. “Jewboy” makes a powerful statement about the oppressiveness and sterility of this Orthodox environment. Smothered with extended family whose expectations are that he will follow his father by becoming a rabbi, Yuri sees a future of loveless marriage, platitudes uttered by friends, and constraint.
More than anything else, he wants to connect with other people, and not only figuratively. The tension in the film occurs whenever he wants to touch a woman. There is a moment early on when he and his Lubavitch girlfriend circle their fingers through powdery flour on a table, coming tantalizingly close to touching each other. They both shudder and smile secretly as they part from the exercise, an erotic fillip in their claustrophobic world.
Krawitz, 38, was born in South Africa but grew up in Bondi Beach, a neighborhood of Sydney with a large Chasidic presence. He remembers a high school classmate who told him that he would not be able to touch a woman until he got married. Although Krawitz considers himself a secular Jew, this early exposure to the Orthodox world led to a lifelong fascination with that community.
As a university student, Krawitz drove cabs and on occasion was called “Jewboy” by his fares. Yuri, too, becomes a cab driver, which leads him into Sydney’s demimonde of sleaze, a scaled-down version of the Times Square in “Taxi Driver.”
Ewen Leslie, who gives Yuri’s character a tremendous inner life, bears a physical resemblance to Travis Bickle. Both dark-haired ghosts of the city, Leslie, when he takes off his shirt, reveals a sinewy, bony physique that is very similar to De Niro’s in that film. And Yuri’s small, nondescript one-room apartment calls to mind Bickle’s lodgings.
Yuri’s awkwardness with women and his conflicted feelings about sex are yet another echo.
Tortured as he is by his religion’s restrictions, Yuri goes to extremes to honor them: carrying a drunk, cleavage-displaying rider out of a cab by wrapping her with his jacket; touching the window of a peep show gallery as the topless dancer performs for him; and finally reaches the precipice, holding back his arms as a sexy prostitute presses her breasts against his chest and then fellates him.
After this encounter, Yuri rushes through the neon underworld with what Krawitz terms a “strobe-light effect,” the increased speed and then slow-motion of the camera, evocative of the turmoil in the streets in “Chungking Express,” a film that Krawitz says did influence him. In this case, “messing with speed” mirrors the inner confusion Yuri is undergoing.
At the end of the film, he holds his grandmother’s hand as she, a concentration camp survivor, watches a tennis match and roots for Australia’s Mark Philippoussis.
“I have faith in him,” she says.
“Jewboy,” which was entered into Un Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival, is Krawitz’s first film at Sundance. Although slightly less than an hour long, it will compete in the feature category.
Also competing at Sundance, in the documentary category, is “KZ,” perhaps “the first postmodern Holocaust movie,” says its director Rex Bloomstein. “It explores the subject in a different way.”
Certainly, there is more than an element of postmodern irony about a bunch of present-day, lederhosen-clad Austrian youth, singing roistering tunes about the concentration camp in Mauthausen and hoisting mugs at the very place where SS officers once clinked glasses of Schnapps after massacring their victims.
But that’s just one example of irony. Bloomstein interviews present residents of Mauthausen, including a young, dark-skinned teenage girl, presumably of mixed ethnicity, who wears a T-shirt with the words “New York” running across it and says that living in Mauthausen “is a perfect dream.” In the background, her surly, silent boyfriend, arms folded, leans against a car, impatient for the interview to end.
Bloomstein also interviews older residents of the town who lived there during World War II, one of whom beams with pride over having been married to an SS officer.
“KZ,” an abbreviation for the Austrian name for concentration camp, “Konzentrationslager,” depicts not only the town’s residents, but also the tour guides and the tourists.
One tour guide, an intense young Austrian with a shaved head, speaks to the visitors in staccato tones. He has a defiance about him, so consumed is he with anger at his country and the town’s legacy. Another guide is an older middle-aged man, who admits that he has become an alcoholic after years of working at the camp.
For the first 15 minutes of the film, neither guide mentions the word Jews, because Mauthausen was not exclusively a Jewish concentration camp. It began as a labor camp and later admitted large numbers of Russians and Poles as well as Jews, who were not brought to the camp until 1944, according to the film.
Bloomstein, a 64-year-old resident of England, has made numerous television documentaries with Jewish themes, including the three-part series, “The Longest Hatred.” But “KZ” marks his first time at the helm of a documentary film.
He was making a TV documentary called “Liberation” when he noticed the beer drinking and singing taking place within yards of the former concentration camp. He was “haunted by the disjunction, the reality of people enjoying themselves, and then the reality over there” at the camp, and decided to make a film that would show “the interface of memory and history and the present.”
Using a hand-held camera, Bloomstein finds one man, standing next to a crematorium, who straightens out his trousers after his girlfriend tells him they’re rumpled; then, camera in hand, she takes a picture of him. Bloomstein finds another man visiting the camp, a swarthy fellow, who writes in a book of visitors’ comments that Israel should be ashamed at how it has treated the Palestinians and the Kurds. His daughter simply writes, “Peace.”
Unlike most Holocaust documentaries, this one, as its press materials proclaim, contains no archival footage, no survivor testimonials, no voice-over. Bloomstein points out that there is also “No music.”
He doesn’t want an artificial stimulus for people to feel sad. He wants the filmgoer to be one of the tourists and take in everything as if he were there — the gas chambers, the ovens, and the “Wailing Wall,” the wall in front of which Jews, left to die, stood naked for days in the snow and in the burning heat. For postmodern irony, this is about as gruesome as it gets.
7 Days in The Arts
Saturday, November 19
Keshet Chaim Dancers and the Idan Raichel Project come together tonight to raise funds for some 20,000 Ethiopian Jews awaiting immigration to Israel. Raichel hasn’t made it to L.A. since last February, so this one-night-only concert might be your only chance for a while to see the ensemble voted “Group of the Year 2005” in Israel. Keshet Chaim will open with colorful dance numbers, including one that combines traditional Yemenite dance with hip-hop.
8 p.m. $45-$150. Kodak Theatre, Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue. (213) 480-3232.
Sunday, November 20
Celebrate L.A. Jewish authors today at Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center. Jewish Federation of San Gabriel Valley presents a special multiauthor day as part of its Jewish Book Festival, which begins with a bagel breakfast with Rabbi Abner Weiss, author of “Connecting to God: Ancient Kabbalah and Modern Psychology,” and continuing with a “Mystery Mavens” mystery writers panel and box lunch program featuring authors Rochelle Krich, Jerrilyn Farmer and Robert Levinson. The day concludes with an afternoon appearance by Peter Lefcourt, author of “The Manhattan Beach Project.” Attend one event or all three.
9:45 a.m. $18 (all-day). Individual tickets available. 1434 N. Altadena Drive, Pasadena. R.S.V.P., (626) 332-0700.
Monday, November 21
Now’s your chance to respond in person to Maureen Dowd’s doomsday New York Times column on the state of women today. The Writers Bloc presents Dowd, author of “Are Men Necessary?,” in conversation with her former boyfriend, “West Wing” creator Aaron Sorkin.
Temple Emanuel, 300 N. Clark Drive, Beverly Hills. R.S.V.P., (310) 335-0917. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>
Tuesday, November 22
American Jewish Committee and Temple Beth Sholom join with various Christian, Catholic, Muslim and Sikh organizations for a special Orange County-wide interfaith Thanksgiving service, celebrating the diversity of America’s cultures and faiths. The themes of hunger and homelessness will also be addressed, and participants are encouraged to donate to Orange County’s Second Harvest.
7 p.m. Free. Wallace All Faiths Chapel, Chapman University Campus, University Drive, Orange. (949) 660-8525.
Wednesday, November 23
Now at the Jewish Artist Network (JAN) Gallery is the group show, “Chance,” an exhibition of abstract paintings “for peace and the future.” The seven exhibitors will donate 20 percent of sales to the purchase of art supplies for underprivileged children.
Through Nov. 28. 8 p.m.-midnight (Tues., Thurs. and Sat.) or by appointment. 661 N. Spaulding Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 230-8193.
Thursday, November 24
What’s with Jewish guys wanting to be rappers? One more group for your, um, listening pleasure is Chutzpah, which recently released an eponymous CD. That is, if you can get over the hip-hop posturing and the disturbing image of the hairiest white guy we’ve seen in a basketball jersey.
Friday, November 25
Opening this week is the Hammer Museum’s “Masters of 20th Century American Comics” exhibition. The extensive show features in depth views of works by 15 of the most celebrated American comic strip and comic book creators, including Harvey Kurtzman (Mad Magazine), R. Crumb (Zap Comix contributor) and Art Spiegleman (“Maus”).
10899 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 443-7041.
A Different Brand of Texas Governor
The Real World: Warlord
Imagine an Uzbek warlord who takes time between mortar attacks to remove his clothes and display his manhood in the bunker. Now, imagine that he willingly does this for a camera operator, who films the chieftain and his family for an “Osbournes”-meets-“Sopranos” reality-TV show.
It sounds almost plausible in the age of “The Apprentice” and “Survivor.” But, in fact, this is the setup for a fictional reality-TV show at the heart of Peter Lefcourt’s new novel, “The Manhattan Beach Project” (Simon & Schuster, $24).
Lefcourt, who quips that he is “a card-carrying Jew,” will discuss his latest social satire at the Jewish Book Festival, which will run from Oct. 30 through Dec. 11. The event is organized by the Jewish Federation of the Greater San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys and will feature a wide range of writers.
It will kick off with Bruce Bauman discussing “And the Word Was,” his debut novel about the aftermath of a Columbine-type tragedy on the life of a doctor. Also appearing will be Ursula Bacon, author of “Shanghai Diary,” a memoir about a young girl’s journey from Europe to Shanghai at the time of the Holocaust.
Bookended by scenes at a Debtors Anonymous meeting, “The Manhattan Beach Project” takes off when a bankrupt CIA agent convinces a down-on-his-luck producer — a fellow debtor — to pitch a reality-TV series about the daily activities of a warlord in the former Soviet Central Asian republic of Uzbekistan. The warlord has the typical dysfunctional family: a mistress, an angry wife who never leaves her room, a lesbian daughter, one teenage son who is an onanist and another who joins the Taliban. Unbeknownst to the producer, the rogue agent has turned the warlord’s basement into a safe house for pirated videos, the ultimate no-no in Hollywood.
With or without a Jewish theme, “The Manhattan Beach Project” skewers Hollywood the way Tom Wolfe lampooned Wall Street in “Bonfire of the Vanities.” Lefcourt shows the callowness of these show biz Masters of the Universe.
Over the past 30 years, Lefcourt has written and produced television dramas like “Cagney & Lacey” and miniseries like “The Women of Windsor,” but it’s his novels that most closely reflect his comic sensibility. His best-known prior book, “The Dreyfus Affair,” depicts with dark humor a gay romance set in homophobia-ridden big league baseball.
“The Dreyfus Affair” has been optioned several times by movie studios but never produced, so Lefcourt is intimately familiar with the reptilian nature of Hollywood executives in the mold of Sammy Glick, and the difficulties in getting a project green-lighted.
Lefcourt cites no particular inspiration for “The Manhattan Beach Project,” but says that he was “so attached to” producer Charlie Berns, hero of his first sardonic novel on Hollywood, “The Deal,” that he wanted to bring him back. Berns, an erstwhile Oscar-winning film honcho, resurrects his career in “The Manhattan Beach Project” by entering the world of reality TV, which Lefcourt calls “the crack cocaine of the TV business. It’s addictive, debilitating and noninformative…. It seems to have peaked, but it will be with us, in one form or another, for a long time, like a flu epidemic.”
“The Manhattan Beach Project’s” overarching metaphor, show biz as a top-secret, clandestine society, where anyone can be whacked, has always been apt, particularly in recent times. He’s no fan of Michael Eisner and his ilk, and concludes his acknowledgments by sarcastically thanking Eisner for “going down with the ship.”
Would Mikey have green-lighted “Warlord”? According to Lefcourt, Eisner would have “yellow-lit it” — keeping it at arm’s length “in case it blew up in his face.”
Peter Lefcourt will read and discuss his book on Sunday, Nov. 20, at 2:30 p.m. at Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center, 1434 N. Altadena Drive, Pasadena.
Also at the festival: The Jewish Journal will co-sponsor a Nov. 30 event with author Ruth Andrew Ellenson, editor of “The Modern Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guilt.” For festival information call (626) 967-3656.
Pin Up These Pinups
True Tales of the Tribe’s Rockers
For young American males of a certain generation, catching a Van Halen concert was a coming-of-age experience. So imagine Scott Benarde’s surprise when he learned firsthand that the band’s iconic lead singer shared his rite of passage — in the cultural sense.
Backstage at a 1986 show, Benarde, with his cousin Russell in tow, told David Lee Roth that attending the concert was his bar mitzvah gift to his young relative.
"That’s when I started learning to sing," Roth responded. "When I was studying for my bar mitzvah."
"Roth had said, in effect, that being Jewish mattered," Benarde realized.
Now, nearly two decades later, Benarde has written "Stars of David: Rock ‘n’ Roll’s Jewish Stories" (Brandeis University Press, $29.95), which he will sign at this year’s music-minded Los Angeles Jewish Festival in Woodland Hills on Sept. 7 (see sidebar).
"Every book that exists out there on Jewish celebrities talks about their accomplishments, but not their Jewishness," Benarde, 50, told The Journal from his Florida home, where he resides with his wife and two children. "I became very frustrated and I wanted to take it a step farther: How did being Jewish make that accomplishment happen or influence them in that profession?"
With chapters organized by decades, "Stars" devotes chapters to some shopworn but necessary rock pioneers — Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller, Bob Dylan, Roth — as well as more eclectic entries: late T-Rex frontman Marc Bolan, Lee Oskar of WAR and Phish bassist Mike Gordon, suddenly topical after he was arrested Aug. 16 and charged with endangering the welfare of a minor.
"Stars" is rife with insights on the Orthodox Jewish upbringing of Bon Jovi’s keyboardist; the assimilation of Randy Newman’s family, which included movie composers Lionel, Emil and Alfred Newman; the hanukkiah one of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers packs when he hits the road; how Bruce Springsteen’s drummer loved attending Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange, N.J., as a youth; and observing Shabbat while on tour with members of The Wallflowers, including Fairfax High alum Rami Jaffee.
Brushes with anti-Semitism and ignorance of the Jewish culture abound in many of the rockers’ pasts, whether it was Roth’s childhood years in Brookline, Mass., and Pasadena, or the Florida upbringing of former Heartbreaker Stan Lynch.
"Jews were a big mystery in Gainesville," said Lynch, who in Benarde’s book recalls knowing of only two other Jewish kids in high school.
"When people found out I was Jewish, they stood back in horror and delight," he says. "One guy wanted to shake my hand because he had never shaken a Jew’s hand before."
Roth — who devoted a chapter of his own autobiography to Jewish pride — felt that the social alienation that came with being Jewish made him work twice as hard to succeed.
"The funniest person I interviewed was Phoebe Snow," Benarde said. "If she wanted to retire tomorrow and do stand-up, she could do it."
Benarde was also alternately entertained and fascinated by Wendy Waldman, Kinky Friedman and Carol Kaye, who converted for marriage but, post-divorce, could not return to her original faith. Keith Reid of Procol Harum proved the most tense interview, as Benarde uncovered a man scarred by his parents’ Holocaust experience and his own brushes with anti-Semitism.
"The most surprising thing I learned," Benarde said, "was how many prominent Jewish musicians and songwriters have a connection to the Holocaust. I didn’t expect that."
In the Raphael chapter, it is revealed that the uncle of Willie Nelson’s harmonica player was imprisoned by Nazis for saying, "We Jews got through the Red Sea, we’ll get through the Brown[shirts]."
As with most laundry list books of this ilk, glaring omissions abound. The Beastie Boys (mentioned in passing) and producer Rick Rubin — architect of rap’s commercialization — are absent. MIAs also include KISS’ Israeli-born Gene Simmons; punk architects Jerry Hyman, a.k.a. Joey Ramone of The Ramones; Mick Jones of The Clash (outed as Jewish in Guy Oseary’s 2000 tome "Jews Who Rock"); and late Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist Hillel Slovak.
If certain subjects are missing, Benarde explained that it was not from a lack of trying.
"[Jane’s Addiction frontman] Perry Farrell and I were supposed to do an interview, but it never happened," Benarde said. "I tried to get Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley [of KISS], but I got nowhere. Mick Jones’ people said he really liked this idea, but he declined to do the interview."
Neil Diamond, Paul Simon and Rush singer Geddy Lee also proved elusive. Billy Joel would not give an interview, but did fact-check the material after Benarde wrote it.
"The only feedback I got was that I misspelled his mother’s maiden name," Benarde said.
He makes a few odd choices in his otherwise insightful book. A chapter on producer Don Was evolves into a de facto bio of Israeli singer Ofra Haza, whom Was worked with before her 2000 death. Younger readers might be let down by how incomplete the "Nineties and Beyond" section — the book’s skimpiest — feels.
And while Blood of Abraham never enjoyed a Beasties-level popularity, the militant Jewish rap outfit, discovered by NWA’s Eazy-E, is more revered by rap fans than like-minded, quasi-Wu-Tang Clan affiliate Remedy, which gets an entire chapter.
Nevertheless, books such as "Stars" continue to illuminate Jewish contributions to the pop culture.
"Non-Jewish readers and Jewish readers alike will get insight into what influences great songwriters and musicians," Benarde said. "Behind much of the music, there is a spirituality and morality and a lot of these musicians get it from their Judaism. Even if you don’t know it, behind the rock ‘n’ rolling, Judaism is at play."
Scott Benarde will sign copies of "Stars of David: Rock ‘n’ Roll’s Jewish Stories" at the Young Adult’s Cabana at 2 p.m.
7 Days In Arts
Turning a New Page
When is a city’s Jewish book festival not actually located in that city? When it’s based in Los Angeles. For the first time in five years, Los Angeles’ Jewish Book Festival will not take place in L.A. proper, even as Jewish book fairs in smaller communities nationwide attract thousands of readers each year. So why can’t Los Angeles stage such a festival?
It’s not from a lack of trying. Every November, Los Angeles has hosted some semblance of a festival to commemorate Jewish Book Month — until now. This year’s most comprehensive will be the Jewish Federation of San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys’ fourth annual Jewish book festival, where authors Jonathan Safran Foer (“Everything is Illuminated”), Nicole Krauss (“Man Walks Into a Room”) and Joseph Telushkin (“Golden Land”) will appear in communities such as Pasadena, Ontario, Arcadia, Montclair and Upland. In other words, not the City of Los Angeles.
Until last year, Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles (JCCGLA) held its annual Jewish Book Festival with lackluster results. The 2000 event featured only 10 authors. In 2001, following Sept. 11 and an organizational restructuring of JCCGLA, which has yet to be resolved, the festival amounted to three visiting authors.
Conversely, the festival hosted annually northeast of Los Angeles by San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys’ federation — no relation to The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, but under the same United Jewish Communities umbrella — has been growing. This month, it will host a 19-event Jewish Book Month celebration that organizers estimate will attract 35-200 people for each lecture, signing and family/children event.
Marilyn Weintraub, who oversees the San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys’ book festival, said her organization uses its communities’ assets. In addition to placing ads in area synagogues, libraries and outlets, such as Vroman’s Bookstore, their book festival capitalizes on Pasadena’s wealth of historic homes as backdrops for signings.
“These are unique personal settings that are different than typical venues the authors go to,” said Larry Harris, director of the Jewish Federation of the San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys.
Unlike in Los Angeles, JCC-sponsored book fairs are thriving nationwide. JCC of Louisville, Ky., will welcome Iddo Netanyahu (“Yoni’s Last Battle”) and Foer. The David Posnack JCC in Davie, Fla., will feature Leonard Nimoy (“Shekhina”) and Anne Roiphe (“Marriage: A Fine Predicament”). The Barshop Jewish Community Center of San Antonio will receive Washington Post sportswriter Jane Leavy (“Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy”).
In 2000, about 650 Angelenos attended JCCGLA’s festival. Compare this with the JCC of Metropolitan Detroit-sponsored, 10-day Jewish Book Festival, which attracts 15,000-20,000 readers annually.
So why can’t Los Angeles draw such numbers? West Valley JCC program director Seville Porush, who in 1997 created what evolved into JCCGLA’s Jewish Book Fair, blamed “a difference in communities,” citing geographical and social distance.
It is unlike Detroit, where Detroit Jewish News Editor Robert Sklar considers the Jewish Community Center of Metropolitan Detroit’s annual Jewish Book Fair “an integral part of Detroit’s Jewish community.”
“We have a very cohesive Jewish community on a lot of levels,” Sklar said. “The book fair, unlike other affairs in town, is the major event where Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform [Jews] come together and feel very comfortable in a cultural Jewish setting rather than a religious setting. It has been the most successful and sustained example of that.”
Jewish Book Council Director Carolyn Starman Hessel, who works with 70 Jewish book fairs nationwide, stressed that America’s three largest Jewish populations all lack a formidable Jewish book fair.
“People in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago don’t need a Jewish fair,” she said.
Jonathan Fass, last year’s JCCGLA book fair coordinator, told The Journal that “Los Angeles is on the media tour for every major author. They have offices here.”
Hessel said that in Detroit, “people wait a whole year until the Jewish book fair comes to Detroit. So it’s a cultural experience.”
While Harris admitted that the San Gabriel Valley region “is not as an attractive area for authors to travel to as Los Angeles would be,” his festival fills a void and serves as “a public service announcement for the federation.”
The November timing of Jewish Book Month became a logistical liability for JCCGLA.
“The books would come out here a little later than they did back East,” Porush said. “Nobody had heard of them or their books yet.”
Another factor contributing to Los Angeles’ underfed book fair tradition is limited resources. In 2000, JCCGLA amassed a $10,000 book fair budget, culled from community grants, which shrank to less than $3,000 in 2001. Compare that to San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys, which averages $15,000 for its festival.
Professionalism, Hessel emphasized, is also crucial — cities such as St. Louis, Houston, Miami and San Diego draw big numbers “because they have the best coordinators and festival committees. That will make or break a book fair.”
In Detroit, Sklar credits the guiding hand of Irwin Shaw, founder of Detroit’s Jewish Book Fair and former executive director of JCC of Metro Detroit, for its success. The nonagenarian just suffered a stroke. However, he has attended all 51 Jewish book fairs.
“He’s an unassuming kind of guy who has had his finger on the pulse of this community all 51 years,” Sklar said, “and he’s the reason it’s been able to overcome all the dips over the years.”
So what would it take to mount a large-scale Jewish book fair here? About $70,000-$100,000, according to Abigail Yasgur, the director of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles-based Jewish Community Library.
With the JCCGLA Jewish Book Fair dissolved, West Valley JCC has gone back to holding individual signings. Hessel believes thinking small is not a bad idea.
“I really don’t think there’s a lack of interest [in Los Angeles],” Hessel said. “Smaller venues might be the answer. In New York, we did them for a few years. They are very labor-intensive, difficult to run. It has to be a cooperative, community effort, not just a JCC effort.”
Such an effort is easier when a community is geographically and demographically tightly knit.
“Detroit is the 11th largest Jewish community nationwide,” Sklar said. “Yet from per-capita spending to Jewish education to Jewish culture, we rank a lot higher. That’s directly correlated with the fact that the community goes back 100 years and there hasn’t been a vast amount of turnover, nor a vast influx of new members. We’ve remained steady. It’s helped maintain a sense of community.”
So even as San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys grow their own festival, is there hope that Los Angeles can cultivate a festival tradition deserving of its 600,000 Jews?
“I’m always looking for funds to operate a Jewish book fair,” Yasgur said.
Gady Levy, dean at the University of Judaism’s (UJ) Department of Continuing Education, also champions the idea. The UJ is currently in the early stages of exploring a book festival. “The challenge is a good thing,” said Levy, who led the wildly successful 2002 Public Lecture Series where speakers included President Bill Clinton and former Israeli Prime Minster Ehud Barak. This year, Levy is undeterred by Los Angeles’ checkered Jewish literature fair history. “There is a need in the community, and as long as it’s done well with reasonable expectations and good marketing, I think there’s a great potential. We have a very large community to sustain it.”
“It would be nice if it could ever get going,” a skeptical Porush said. “I don’t know that it would. But I think that it’s important that nobody abandon books.”
For now, a cohesive Los Angeles Jewish book festival remains a chapter yet to be written.
Back to Basics
Once in a great while, a cookbook comes along so utterly gorgeous it practically springs from my kitchen shelf and hurls itself upon my coffee table.
Marlena Spieler’s latest, "The Jewish Heritage Cookbook" (Lorenz Books, $36), subtitled "a fascinating journey through the rich and diverse history of the Jewish cuisine" is so leap-off-the-page lusciously photographed you can practically taste the food. But lest you think this book is just another pretty face, Spieler, author of over 30 cookbooks, includes informative chapters on the history of Jewish cuisine, the holidays and kashrut as well as general guides to the preparation of all foods Jewish, everything from grilling mamaliga to pounding hawaij and berbere (spice mixtures).
"This is my first Jewish cookbook," said the California native on a recent visit to San Francisco from her home in London. "I’ve done theme books, like Mediterranean and olive oil and mushrooms, but I’ve always had a Jewish touch somewhere, including dishes either from Israel or my travels or my Jewish family and friends."
Spieler fondly remembers Sundays in her grandmother’s kitchen, her early inspiration. "My grandmother ran a law firm and worked until a few days before she died at 93. Well, she had to cut back a little — she only worked from 9 to 5 then. But on Sunday morning, people would start coming, and she would start cooking. I couldn’t say they’d come for breakfast, lunch or dinner, because it was all one meal.
"We would smell the chicken soup as we went off to synagogue school, and by the time we got home she’d have matzah brei and kasha varnishkes and meat patties with onions. This went on until late evening. Bachi really gave me the love of cooking."
Spieler traveled widely as a young adult, even lived in Israel for a year, and was working as an artist in Greece when she started including recipes with her drawings of food. A publisher offered to publish the recipes (minus the drawings) launching her career as a food writer, broadcaster and columnist.
These days, Spieler divides her time between San Francisco and London, where she is a frequent guest on the BBC. Her column "The Roving Feast" is carried by the New York Times Syndicate and the San Francisco Chronicle.
"The Jewish Heritage Cookbook" is a truly international celebration of Spieler’s curiosity about Jewish people and Jewish food. "I love meeting Jews from different cultures, because they have different dishes on the table," she said. "I love to cook and hear their stories and find it really exciting that people with such different cultures share the same heritage and holidays."
The book’s section on the festival of Shavuot (literally "weeks," because it occurs seven weeks after Pesach) is accompanied by a magnificent illustration from a 13th century manuscript of the Book of Ruth, the portion read on this holiday.
Shavuot, which began at sundown on Thursday, May 16, commemorates the giving of the Torah as well as the offering of the first fruits of the season. Spieler notes that although Shavuot meals are based on dairy products, "there are no rules that say this must be done."
Why dairy? Scholars differ, she says. Perhaps the tradition evolved because spring grazing produces more milk at this time. Also, in "Song of Songs," the Torah is associated with milk and honey. Some suggest that while the Israelites were receiving the Ten Commandments, they were gone so long their milk turned to cheese; others contend that upon their return they were too hungry for anything but milk to sustain them.
Whatever the explanation, for Ashkenazim it’s bring on the blintzes, while Sephardim enjoy cheese filled borekas.
A typical Shavuot starter in central Europe is Hungarian cherry soup perfumed with cinnamon and almond flavor. "The nice thing about this soup," Spieler noted, "is at Shavuot the days are beginning to get warm, and it is really refreshing. I eat it as often as a dessert as with a meal."
Summer squash and baby new potatoes in warm dill sour cream is a festive Israeli celebration of spring and perfect for Shavuot with its fragrant dill and sour cream or yogurt topping.
While cheesecake is traditional fare for Shavuot, we opted for cheese-filled Jerusalem kodafa drenched with syrup, an unusual dessert popular throughout the Middle East, where it is commonly made with a shredded wheat-like ingredient called kadaif. Spieler substitutes couscous as it is prepared in Jerusalem.
"In the Old City, when things were good and people were more friendly, they would make it in these big metal trays that they’d carry on their heads," she noted. "I’ve had it in the Lebanese community of London as well, but in Jerusalem, all the little tea and coffee shops serve it."
There’s Purim carnivals and Passover seders and Chanukah parties — and now there’s a Shavuot festival.
Temple Beth Am on La Cienega Boulevard in Los Angeles claims to be the first Los Angeles synagogue to celebrate the harvest holiday with a full-fledged festival. On Sun., May 5, the temple closed off its parking lot and brought in booths and games linked thematically to different aspects of the holiday.
A "Biblical Farmers Market" offered items made from agricultural products found in the Bible. Hundreds of attendees sampled cheesecakes, fresh honey, homemade beer (barley) and a sampling of single malt scotch from Vendome Liquors (again, barley), ice cream, artisan cheeses and breads from Maison Gourmet and La Brea Bakery.
There was also a petting zoo with a Swiss cow and baby llama, an inflated "Mt. Sinai" rock-climbing attraction, a butter-churning booth, storytelling and lessons in Hebrew calligraphy.
Rabbi Perry Netter said he was especially proud that the festival taught about the biblical idea of gleaning, or leaving a portion of ones’ fields for the poor. Festival-goers brought items from their homes to give to charity as they entered.
The festival also offered a cheesecake-baking contest. The grand prize went to Fredya Rembaum, who is married to the temple’s senior rabbi, Joel Rembaum. "We know it looks bad," said a judge at the blind tasting, "but what could we do? Hers was the best." — Staff Report
Shedding Some Light
While cities such as Detroit and St. Louis were holding major Jewish book festivals year after year, drawing celebrity authors such as Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, observers here asked, Why isn’t there a Jewish book festival in Los Angeles?
Seville Porush and her colleagues at the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles decided to change all that last year, and proceeded to create a book festival from scratch.
They formed a committee, polled existing festival directors and decided what they didn’t want in a book fair. “Many festivals emphasized selling books, while we wanted to emphasize transmitting Jewish culture,” Porush says. She was rewarded when more than 5,000 participants turned out to last year’s fair.
This year, “People of the Book: The Jewish Book Festival” is back, Nov. 14-22, bigger and better than before. Porush and the JCCs have put together a veritable literary feast.
You can catch Rich Cohen talking about his book, “Tough Jews,” which outlines the personalities and bloody deeds of criminals such as Meyer Lansky.
You can hear Thomas Cahill speaking of his tome, “The Gifts of the Jews”; Rabbi Naomi Levy on “To Begin Again,” her book about faith and loss; and Rochelle Krich on her Orthodox potboiler, “Fertile Ground,” a tale of murder inside a posh Brentwood fertility clinic.
Also among the some 40 speakers will be talk-show host Dr. Laura Schlessinger and Rabbi Stewart Vogel, co-authors of “The Ten Commandments: The Significance of God’s Laws in Everyday Life.”
There will be a family storytelling day at My Jewish Discovery Place Children’s Museum and even a screening of an “X Files” episode involving a golem, with author Howard Gordon on hand for the Q and A.
One hub of the festival will be the Bernard Milken Jewish Community Campus in West Hills, where the lobby is being transformed into a bookstore, with hundreds of titles provided by Barnes & Noble. Watercolor landscapes of the Galilee and the Negev, Dorothy Rice’s travelogue of her trip to Israel (the artist will be on hand for a book signing Nov. 15), will be on display in the boardroom. Also on Nov. 15, the West Valley JCC will house CyberFest, featuring a wide range of computer hardware and software and Judaic Internet web sites. A multicultural day will spotlight authors who have been published in Hebrew, Russian, Farsi and Spanish.
“We want people to become aware of the wealth of Jewish literature that is out there, and is coming out every day,” Porush says.
For festival tickets and information, call (818) 464-3353. To volunteer, call (818) 587-3277.
A family storyelling day is part of festival events. Last year’s festival attracted more than 5,000 participants. Painting by Max Liebermann, “Portrait of the Artist’s Wife and Granddaughter,” 1926 from “Jewish Art,” 1995.
Schedule of Events
Saturday, Nov. 14
Reception: 7:00 p.m.
Program: 8:00 p.m.
Dvorah Menashe Telushkin
“Master of Dreams: Anecdotes and Tales of Isaac Bashevis Singer”
West Valley JCC
Sunday, Nov. 15
“Old Wine, New Flasks: Reflections on Science and Jewish Tradition”
Valley Cities JCC
Live storybook characters & storytelling (ages 3 to 8)
West Valley JCC
11:00 a.m.-4:00 p.m.
Computer hardware, software and Internet demonstrations
West Valley JCC
Screening and discussion of “X-Files” episode with screenwriter
West Valley JCC
Pajama party with storyteller Amy Koss
Storytelling (ages 3 to 8)
Hollywood-Los Feliz JCC
Pajama party and storytelling (ages 3-8)
Bay Cities JCC
“Return From Exile”
Valley Cities JCC
Monday, Nov. 16
North Valley JCC
“Jewish Cooking in America”
Stephen S. Wise Temple
Tuesday, Nov. 17
Jeffrey and Craig Weiss
“I Am My Brother’s Keeper”
West Valley JCC
Rabbis Edward Feinstein, Steven Carr Reuben, Chaim Seidler-Feller, Dr. Elliot Dorff
Moderator: Gladys Sturman
Preserving Judaism in the next millennium
Stephen S. Wise Temple
“Death in a City of Mystics”
Jerry Bobrow, Bea Gordon, Bobbi Yanke
Selecting and Preparing for a Career
West Valley JCC
Phyllis Rose Eisenberg
Bedtime stories for children (ages 6 to 8)
Valley Cities JCC
Wednesday, Nov. 18
“Jewish Women Living the Challenge”
North Valley JCC
“The Gifts of the Jews”
West Valley JCC
Dr. Paul Krivonos
Are Teens Being Censored by Society?
West Valley JCC
Thursday, Nov. 19
11:30 a.m.-1:00 p.m.
Lunch and Learn program
Dr. Ron Wolfson
“First Fruit: A Whizin Anthology of Jewish Family Education”
Dr. Laura Schlessinger and Rabbi Stewart Vogel
“The Ten Commandments: The Significance of God’s Laws in Everyday Life”
Janet Bode with Rabbi Edward Feinstein
“Food Fight: A Guide to Eating Disorders for Preteens and Their Families”
West Valley JCC
Friday, Nov. 20
Rabbi Naomi Levy
“To Begin Again”
West Valley JCC
Saturday, Nov. 21
“Moses: A Life”
West Valley JCC
Rabbi Harold Schulweis, Florence Weinberger, Malgert Cohen, Sam Applebaum, Richard Grosslight, Sherman Pearl
Poetry readings on the Jewish life cycle
Sunday, Nov. 22
Jewish Family Storytelling Festival
Storytelling and related activities
My Jewish Discovery Place
“The Story of the Jews”
Valley Cities JCC
Nouri Kharrazi (Farsi)
“Tattooed Arms — Punctured Souls”
Dr. Zvia Ambar (Hebrew)
Dr. Andrea Labinger (Spanish)
Translator of “Musicians and Watchmakers” by Alicia Steimberg
Marina Genchikmakher (Russian)
West Valley JCC
Creative writing and poetry workshop for children (ages 8-11)
Conejo Valley JCC
Dr. Sam Kunin
“Circumcision: Its Place in Judaism Past and Present”
with Rabbi Brad Artson
“It’s A Mitzvah”
Valley Cities JCC
All events are subject to change. For additional information, contact the festival hot line at (818) 464-3353.
Bay Cities JCC: 2601 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica
Conejo Valley JCC: 5004 Lewis Road, Agoura Hills
Hollywood-Los Feliz JCC: 1110 Bates Ave., Los Angeles
Kol Tikvah: 20400 Ventura Blvd., Woodland Hills
My Jewish Discovery Place: 5870 West Olympic Blvd. Los Angeles
North Valley JCC: 16601 Rinaldi St., Granada Hills
Stephen S. Wise Temple: 15500 Stephen S. Wise Dr., Los Angeles
Temple Aliyah: 6025 Valley Circle Blvd., Woodland Hills
Temple Emanuel: 8844 Burton Way, Beverly Hills
Valley Cities JCC: 13164 Burbank Blvd. Sherman Oaks
West Valley JCC: 22622 Vanowen St. West Hills
Westside JCC: 5870 West Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles
Shall We Send a Fox into the Henhouse?
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