Remembering Woodstock: Max Said Yes!


When Jewish dairy farmer Max Yasgur died in 1973, he became one of few non-musicians to receive a full-page obituary in Rolling Stone magazine. That’s because Yasgur said “yes” to organizers of the Woodstock Music and Art Fair 40 years ago this week, allowing half a million young people to camp out on his land in Bethel, N.Y., after neighboring towns refused to grant access to the flower children.

Now one of Yasgur’s relatives, Abigail Yasgur and her husband, Joseph Lipner, an attorney and novelist, both of Los Angeles, are celebrating the late farmer’s historic decision with a new children’s book, “Max Said Yes—The Woodstock Story” (Change the Universe Press). The book describes how Max hosted the festival—despite threats from his conservative neighbors—in rhyming verse and vibrant illustrations by artist Barbara Mendes.

“Some boys and girls got the inspiration/To hold a giant celebration/Where drums, pianos and electric guitars/Would play beneath a million stars,” the book recounts. A farmer in the book says, “There’s no way/I’d let hippies camp out in my hay…One farmer did not think the same/And Max Yasgur was his name./He raised cows, sold milk and cheese./He liked kids with big ideas like these.”

And so the festival took place in Yasgur’s cow pastures as “music blared from a giant stage/To celebrate the Aquarian age. /Rock songs and incense filled the air/The men who were dancing had long, long hair.”

Abigail Yasgur – who for 12 years served as director of the Jewish Community Library of Los Angeles – is Max’s second cousin: They share a great-grandfather, Ezekiel, who immigrated to the United States from the Ukraine in the early 1900s. Abigail was just 14, living in Greenville, Penn., and too young to attend the concert when it took place Aug. 15-18, 1969. “But when it started and the newspapers were full of reports there was great excitement in our family,” she said.

She learned that Max had made a savvy business deal with festival organizers. But this didn’t sit well with some of the townspeople, who demanded a boycott of his dairy business, posting signs that read “Don’t Buy Yasgur’s Milk. He Supports the Hippies.”

Story continues after the jump

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Abigail Yasgur never got to meet Max. At the time of the festival, he was already suffering from a heart condition; he died several years later, at age 53, after selling his farm (which had been rendered untillable by the concertgoers) and moving to Florida. Even so, Max remained a legend in the counterculture and was even feted in Joni Mitchell’s song, “Woodstock,” which speaks of a traveler “going on down to Yasgur’s farm.” Over the decades, hardly a week went by when people didn’t ask Abigail Yasgur if she was related to Max.

Abigail Yasgur, went on to become a librarian with a good knowledge of children’s literature; she noted that while numerous adult books analyzed the festival, hardly anything existed for children, and vowed to write a book about Max one day.

Several years ago, she began researching the project by reading numerous historical volumes, interviewing Max’s widow, Miriam, and attending a reunion of Woodstock officials, including festival organizer Michael Lang and Wavy Gravy, a member of the Hog Farm commune that helped feed the concertgoers.
“The most surprising thing I learned about Max was that he wasn’t particularly liberal; in fact, he wasn’t against the war in Vietnam,” the author recalled. “But everyone said he was a very generous person, a gentle spirit who really cared about kids.

At the end of ”Max Said Yes,” the farmer – who is shown smoking his beloved pipe – waves goodbye to the exuberant young people, who go on to “spread the songs of joy and charm/That they had learned on Max’s farm./And teach the world it should relax/And welcome all. Just like Max.”

The authors will discuss “Max Said Yes” on Oct. 18, 4 p.m., at Village Books in Pacific Palisades.  For more information on Max Yasgur, visit www.maxsaidyes.com.

‘Yippee’ — Paul Mazursky documents Chasids gone wild


In all his 76 years, filmmaker Paul Mazursky had never seen anything like the 25,000 Chasidim singing, swaying, blowing shofars and dancing around a lake.

“It’s like the old days at the Apollo in Harlem, with the crowd going wild,” the irreverent Mazursky said. “Can you dig it?”

The scene is from his documentary, “Yippee: A Journey to Jewish Joy,” which had its Southland premier this week at the Palm Springs International Film Festival. The film is quite a change of pace for the creator of such quirky social comedies and dramas as “Bob”&”Carol”&”Ted”&”Alice,” “Harry and Tonto,” “Next Stop, Greenwich Village,” “An Unmarried Woman,” “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” and “Enemies: A Love Story.”

Despite his artistic reputation and string of Oscar nominations, Mazursky has found it increasingly difficult to find backing for his iconoclastic movies, which are infused with his wry take on the human condition.

During the past decade, after a quadruple heart bypass operation, Mazursky has gone back to his roots as an actor and comedian, including parts in HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “The Sopranos,” while looking for the right combination of film and financing.

But last year, he and his two camera crews found themselves in Uman, a Ukrainian town of 80,000, whose population swells every Rosh Hashanah during an invasion of ecstatic Chasidim dressed in white kitels (robes), black suits or streimels (fur hats).

They come to pray at the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, the great Chasidic master, disputatious tzadik (learned scholar) and great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Chasidic movement. Nachman was buried in Uman in 1811 at the age of 38.

What had brought the insistently secular Mazursky to Uman were the urgings of three disparate Angelenos: David Miretsky, his optometrist; Shmuel Levy, a devout Moroccan-born rock musician; and Rabbi Ezriel Tauber.

All three regularly participated in the pilgrimage to Uman, and they promised Mazursky that he would witness an event unlike any he had ever experienced.

Putting up $50,000 of his own money, and with his broken arm in a sling, Mazursky embarked on the adventure with his friends and a six-man crew, including his son-in-law.

During a brief layover in Munich, he warmed up by filming the beer-swilling Oktoberfest, before stopping in Kiev, where his grandfather is buried, and then reaching Uman after a three-hour drive.

In the run-up to the climax of the three-day celebration, Mazursky meets and talks with Chasidim, policemen, scholars and peasants, combining the roles of an innocent abroad, travel guide and self-described “wise guy from Brooklyn.”

Typical is his encounter with two local peasant women selling fruit from a sidewalk cart. They, like all the other Uman natives, know about Rosh Hashanah, which enriches the town by $2 million each year.

Despite the windfall, one woman is not entirely happy.

“Jews are not cultured people,” she complains. The other woman disagrees.

“They are cultured,” she insists, “they are just different.”

Mazursky’s camera lingers on other happenings. There is a rustic folk festival with pretty dancing girls in costumes and later, Vodka Appreciation Day, during which the filmmaker digs into his bottomless reservoir of jokes, many unprintable.

His favorite joke, told at least three times in the film, goes something like this: Cohen meets Schwartz in New York’s old garment district and Cohen says, “I heard about the fire.” Schwartz puts his fingers to his lips and whispers, “Shhhh, tomorrow.” (The joke dates back to at least the Great Depression, when some storeowners facing bankruptcy would set fire to their shops to collect insurance money.)

The film climaxes on the evening of Rosh Hashanah, when the 25,000 Chasidim throw their sins into the lake and pray, dance and sing through the candle-lit night.

“Madonna and Woody Allen should be here,” Mazursky murmurs.

Before leaving, Mazursky organizes a bull session with Tauber and Dr. Julian Unger, a British neurologist, to explore the meaning of what he has seen.

“We come to Uman because on the day of judgment, Rabbi Nachman will be our lawyer, pleading our case before God,” Tauber explains.

Unger has a darker observation. “You know, 37 years before Rabbi Nachman came to Uman, there was a great pogrom here and thousands of Jews were drowned in the lake.

“When the Nazis came, they again murdered Uman’s Jews,” Unger continued. “It is a great irony that in 2005, we should be dancing in the streets of Uman. We are dancing on the graves of our martyrs.”

Mazursky, the wise guy from Brooklyn, drew his own lessons. “I could never think like a Chasid,” he ruminated during a two-hour interview in his crowded Beverly Hills office.

“I think of life as a cosmic joke, which keeps getting bigger all the time. But I’ve learned tolerance and maybe affection for the Chasidim. They are real people, who can see light in the darkest things,” he said.

The title of the film comes from another Mazursky observation. “It is better to wake up in the morning and instead of kvetching, say ‘Yippee.'”

“Yippee” is available on DVD through the National Center for Jewish Film at Brandeis University and will be included in a retrospective of Mazursky’s works at New York’s Lincoln Center, May 4-10.Paul Mazursky

Get on down to ‘Funkel Town; Middle Eastern humor; Accordians! Accordians! Accordians!


Saturday the 6th

Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts takes you to “funkel town.” It’s Art Garfunkel in concert this evening, singing American tunes from his days with Paul Simon, as well as solo pieces from days since.

8 p.m. $32-$57.50. 12700 Center Court Drive, Cerritos. (562) 467-8818. ‘ TARGET=’_blank’>www.levantinecenter.org.

Monday the 8th

The subjects and media of Susan Soffer Cohn’s art have varied over the course of her career. Focusing in on two of her series is the Pauline and Zena Gatov Gallery at the Alpert JCC. Their first exhibition of the year will present her colorful biblical paintings, with titles like “Miriam Led the Women” and “In the Beginning,” as well as her horse portraits, under the title, “Inspired by New Circles.” The exhibit opens this week, with an artist reception scheduled for Jan. 14.

3601 E. Willow St., Long Beach. (562) 426-7601. ‘ TARGET=’_blank’>www.lmangallery.com.

Wednesday the 10th

The new year means more new art on view — in fact, three times as much at UCLA Hillel’s Dortort Center for Creativity in the Arts. It debuts a trifecta of new exhibitions simultaneously today. “American Jewish Legacy” features a collection of historical documents chronicling the Jewish experience in America, from 1654’s arrival of immigrants to New Amsterdam, through today. Also on view are two divergent photographic exhibitions: “Pure Faith” presents images by Israeli photographer Harel Stanton of religious ceremonies from around the world. “Jewish Musical Icons of the 20th Century” displays the photographs of cellist and photographer Jim Arkatov, who, in the course of his distinguished career in various orchestras, also snapped photos of leading musical icons.

574 Hilgard Ave., Westwood. (310) 208-3081.

Thursday the 11th

The Skirball takes a giant leap in making the accordion cool again with the concert series, “Compressing the World.” Tonight’s third installment features the squeeze box stylings of Rob Curto’s Forró for All. The New York-based band plays northeast Brazilian forró pé de serra dance music, known for its use of accordion, triangle and zabumba drum.

8 p.m. $15-$25. 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. R.S.V.P., (866) 468-3399.

Friday the 12th

Box-office politics




Trailer for ‘Suicide Killers.’ Click on the big arrow to play.

The first person I met at the Liberty Film Festival preview was a riled up Asian American man with a pompadour, who quickly explained to me what was wrong withHollywood: It is a vast liberal conspiracy.

“But the founders of the studios were conservative,” I said, thinking of the Goldwyns, the Warners and the Mayers.

“Yes,” he said. “But their children are communists.”

The Liberty Film Festival, now in its third year, aims to present and promote the work of conservative filmmakers who, according to the organizers, are ignored, persecuted and otherwise absent from “Hollywood.”

I put Hollywood in quotes because its meaning, as the evening at the Luxe Bel Air Hotel wore on, was elusive.

The Festival, said Mike Finch, executive director of the David Horowitz Freedom Center that sponsored the event, “is a voice for sanity. [Hollywood’s] not just for the far left. All these viewpoints deserve to be heard in Hollywood.”

For him, Hollywood seemed to mean Westsiders who work in the entertainment industry and read the Huffington Post.

“It’s really important that we have films going out with the conservative viewpoint,” said actress Govindini Murty, who organized the festival with her husband Jason Apuzzo. “Because Hollywood is making a major effort on the left to undermine the war on terror.”

For her, Hollywood seemed to mean documentary filmmaker Michael Moore. But Moore himself railed against “Hollywood” when Disney refused to release his controversial documentary “Fahrenheit 9/11.”A bit later, Murty referred to “Hollywood’s” love of documentaries “that undermine the military. They are all extremely radical, very anti-Israeli.”

Here she had me stumped. This clearly wasn’t the Hollywood of “Saving Private Ryan” and “The Marine,” which opened this week. And I couldn’t think of any anti-Israel Hollywood films. Which made me think that for Murty, “Hollywood” means anyone who won’t make movies she likes, or, perhaps, that she’s in.

This is the festival’s third year, and it has grown substantially since its founding, last year attracting some 3,500 viewers. This year’s event will be held Nov. 10-12 at the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood.

About 100 people gathered at last week’s preview to meet the organizers and get a taste of the 28 films on offer.

If the trailers are telling, I suspect there will be a lot of documentaries and some uneven features with a kind of look-ma-I-have-an-Apple quality. There will be some violence — I saw terrorist body parts splattered in something resembling POM — but no sex or nudity. At Liberty, “conservative” means Christian, and Christian means Family Research Council.

The most promising documentary appears to be “Suicide Killers,” by the Algerian-born Israeli filmmaker Pierre Rehov. The Arabic-speaking Rehov infiltrated a terrorist cell to provide a firsthand look at the people who perpetrate such inhuman crimes.

But the night’s preview was less about these movies and more about why “Hollywood” would never want to make them.

It took me a beat — as they say in Hollywood — but eventually I realized where I’d heard that same complaint: from liberals in Hollywood, from Asians in Hollywood and Latinos in Hollywood. From screenwriters and actors and union members and women and newcomers and old-timers in Hollywood.Heck, I’d even heard it from Jews in Hollywood.

Because here’s the truth: Hollywood doesn’t make anybody’s film.

Zillions of people dream of making a movie. But the studios only release a couple of dozen each year.

Chances are excellent your film — whether it’s about a Chinese lesbian dockworker who stands up to a right-wing corporate conspiracy, or about a blogger from Duluth who brings down a left-wing Washington conspiracy — isn’t going to be one of them.

The five top-grossing films of 2005 were “Star Wars-Episode III,” “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” “The War of the Worlds” and “King Kong.” There’s not a political plotline in the bunch — unless you count Narnia’s Christian polemic.

Hollywood’s primary, overriding focus is on making movies that do big box office. That explains how this week, Paramount Studios tapped Oliver Stone, the bane of the Michael Medved School of Wholesome Cinema, and Cyrus Nawasteh, whom Clintonites despise for writing “The Path to 9/11” to make a movie version of “Jawbreaker,” about the CIA in Afghanistan. Ideology, shmideology — go make us a hit.

But none of this realmovietik puts conservative tushies in the Liberty Festival seats, so Murty and the other speakers resort to victimhood and conspiracy. Several speakers referred to left-wing Jewish billionaire investor George Soros’ reported interest in buying the 59-film library of Dreamworks. “Soros has taken over the Democratic Party,” said Finch, “and is now making a major play to take over Hollywood. But [Murty and Apuzzo] are gonna beat George Soros.”

Since when is buying the DVD rights to “Gladiator” “taking over Hollywood”?

All these ill-defined, overheated intimations of evil Hollywood are where the Liberty folks lose me. They begin to join thematic forces with the Internet cuckoos, for whom “Hollywood” means only one thing: the Jews. For centuries Jews were kept outside society’s gates. But in the industry they created and in which they are still heavily represented, Jews are often the gatekeepers. And though the Liberty folks stand with Israel and against anti-Semitism, their antagonism toward an amorphous, conspiratorial “Hollywood” has a discomfiting resonance.

The conservatives at Liberty should ease up on the rhetoric. The twin gods of Hollywood are talent and a track record. If you have those, you’re in, no matter how repellent your ideology, or your actions. Just ask Mel Gibson.

British theater group Stan’s Cafe uses piles of rice to bring statistics to life


It’s nearly impossible to comprehend very large numbers. Take the 6 million Jews who died in the Holocaust. How does one go about understanding the magnitude of 6 million?

One way would be to visit the Skirball Cultural Center, where the British theater company, Stan’s Cafe (pronounced “kaff”), will perform its latest piece, “Of All the People in All the World,” from Sept. 26 to Oct. 1.

Upon entering the museum, visitors will receive a grain of rice, representing themselves. Then, they will walk into a room filled with 300 million grains of rice – one for every person in the United States. The rice will be divided into piles, each one illustrating a statistic, such as the number of people who have walked on the moon or the millions of immigrants who passed through Ellis Island. One grain of rice will stand for one person.

And there it will be, among all the piles: a large mound with 6 million pieces, representing each individual Jewish life lost in the Holocaust.

The performance piece will take place during the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, a time of reflection known as the Days of Awe.

“We specifically chose to do it in the Days of Awe,” said Jordan Peimer, director of programs at the Skirball. “What better way to understand your place in the world, your role in life, than to begin to understand the fabric of life on earth?”

The piece will open with 150 labeled piles of rice, illustrating serious statistics, such as the millions of people with HIV in Africa, as well as pop culture trivia, such as the number of people who watched the last episode of “Cheers.”

Over the course of the show, five actors, dressed as factory workers, will manipulate the piles to illustrate various truths, including the number of passengers on the Mayflower and the number of people per police officer in Los Angeles.

Visitors will be encouraged to interact with the actors, to share their own stories and discuss the demographics to which they belong. Occasionally, the performers will measure statistics suggested by visitors on the spot.

Peimer said he had been following the innovative Stan’s Cafe troupe for a while, waiting for the right time and the perfect piece to bring to the Skirball. When he saw the rice performance at a festival in Edinburgh, Scotland, last year, he knew he had to bring the show to Los Angeles.

The performance will be the second stop, after Portland, on the troupe’s first U.S. tour. Since premiering in Coventry, England, in 2003, the show has toured throughout the United Kingdom. It has also traveled to Ireland, Canada, Italy, Spain and Germany, whose daily newspaper, Süddeutsche Zeitung, praised the show, saying “The knowledge gained is astonishing.”

The actors tailor each performance to the country, city and building in which they perform. They decided the Holocaust representation would be just right for the Skirball.

“To hear the statistic of the number of people who died in the Holocaust is one thing,” Peimer said. “To see all of those people represented and to have you [represented as a single grain of rice] in relation to them is a very potent thing.”

The troupe will also lead workshops for students from Brawerman Elementary School, Robert Frost Middle School, La Ballona School and Thomas Starr King Middle School. The children will research statistics and build mounds of rice to illustrate their findings.

James Yarker, artistic director of Stan’s Cafe, who co-founded the group 15 years ago, said he came up with the idea for the piece when he was on tour with another performance in 2002.

“Each time we touched down, we found another city full of people bustling about their business, for whom it would be no appreciable loss if the U.K. and its 59 million inhabitants, including Stan’s Cafe, didn’t exist,” Yarker wrote in an essay on the group’s Web site.

“This parochial small island boy was beginning to get a sense that the world was far, far bigger than he had ever imagined it to be,” Yarker continued, speaking about himself in the third person, “and he was starting to wonder if he would ever be able to understand how many people he shared the planet with.”

After considering sand, sugar, salt, pebbles, peppercorns, spices and more as a way to represent large numbers of people, Yarker settled on rice. “We needed grains that were small, cheap, robust and which wouldn’t roll around,” he said on the Web site. Rice “also has powerful resonance, being a staple food for much of the world and looking vaguely humanoid in close up.”

For piles with fewer than 200 grains, the group typically counts each grain. For larger piles, it weighs the rice. The Skirball will provide not only the scales for weighing the five and one-half tons of rice that will be used during the performance but also the rice, which it bought for less than $2,000 from local wholesalers. The grains will be recycled for animal feed when the exhibit concludes.

“We’ve never done anything like it,” said the Skirball’s Peimer. “I hope it makes people think about their place in the world, and I hope it makes people pause to remember the grain of rice that they are.”

The exhibit will be open during regular museum hours (12 to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday; 12 to 9 p.m. Thursday; 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday). Admission will be free on Thursday and Sunday. Other days, general admission will be $8, $6 for seniors and free for members, students and children under 12. For advance tickets call (866) 468-3399.

7 Days in the Arts


Saturday, July 1
In time for summertime, the Skirball has rekindled its weekly Café Z live music series. Take advantage today, and head down to groove to Elliott Caine Quintet’s Afro-Cuban jazz beats. According to Caine’s Web site, KCRW’s Bo Leibowitz described him as a “terrific trumpet player, bandleader and composer … deserving of wider recognition.”

Noon-2 p.m. Free. Zeidler’s Café, Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4500.

 

Sunday, July 2
Miami City Ballet whoops it up for its 20th anniversary, with its tour of performances of signature pieces by Jerome Robbins, George Balanchine and Twyla Tharp. Included are Robbins’ classic “Fancy Free,” which was the inspiration for the musical, “On the Town,” and Tharp’s “Nine Sinatra Songs,” accompanied, as you might’ve guessed, by songs by the blue-eyed crooner.

June 30-July 2. $25-$95. Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. (213) 365-3500

Monday, July 3
Shaken or stirred, the martini is more than a drink today. It is a symbol. Sculptor Thomas Mann asked artists to riff on it, reinterpreting the conical glass’ shape and context. “The Martini Show” premiered in New Orleans as a benefit for Craft Emergency Relief Fund. It runs here at Altered Space Gallery, through July 24.

Contemporary art+craft+design, 1221 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice. (310) 452-8121

Tuesday, July 4
What goes great with burgers and dogs? Your radio dial tuned to 89.9 KCRW-FM. Its special Independence Day programming features “a day of music by American artists who embrace the spirit of independence.” The lineup of musical patriots includes Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Roy Orbison, Patti Smith and the Dixie Chicks. The presentations feature music as well as interview clips and other materials.

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Wednesday, July 5
Collapsing just moments after a performance of his stirring trio, “In memoriam Dmitri Shostakovich,” at the Jewish Music Commission concert last month, professor Joseph Dorfman was unable to be revived. He died at age 65. In his memory, a concert will be held this evening at Valley Beth Shalom, to benefit the newly founded fund in his name.

7:30 p.m. Free (general), $15 (reserved seats). 15739 Ventura Blvd., Encino. R.S.V.P., (818) 788-6000.

Thursday, July 6
Gay lovers struggle to deal with their oppressive societies against the backdrop of World War II France in the case of “A Love to Hide (Un Amour à Taire),” and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in the case of “Zero Degrees of Separation.” The two films are part of this year’s Outfest 24th Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, which begins today.

Times, prices and screening venues vary by film. Abovementioned films screen at Directors Guild Theatre, 7920 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles.

Friday, July 7
More lovers caught on opposite sides of the political fence emerge in the film, “Only Human.” Opening today, the Spanish production tells the farcical tale of Jewish Leni, who brings home her boyfriend, Rafi, to meet the folks. But madness ensues when they find out Rafi is Palestinian.

Laemmle Town Center 5, Encino. (818) 981-9811. Laemmle One Colorado, Pasadena. (626) 744-1244. www.laemmle.com” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>

Next Year in Cannes


It’s a tough thing trying to arrange a Shabbat dinner at the Cannes Film Festival.

My friend, Scott Einbinder, had gotten the idea two years ago, during my first trip to the festival. At first, I was hesitant. I was focused on business, a filmmaker obsessed with my career. Plus, I was perfectly happy to twiddle my thumbs alone in my hotel room all Shabbat.

Einbinder, who is less observant, had to convince me, a “Young Israel” Jew, that this was a good idea. What better way to escape the madness and deal-making of the festival, he argued, than by joining together with friends for a Shabbat Friday night dinner?

I stayed skeptical. Would people be willing to spend $90 to attend a dinner without music, when they could instead be dancing it up with Paris Hilton at the MTV party?

We sent out e-mails, hired a five-star party planner and lo and behold, 42 people showed up. Einbinder flew in Rabbi Mendel Schwartz and his wife, Esther, of the Chai Center for spiritual leadership, and we invited the local Chabad rabbi to welcome the crowd. Steve Kaplan, our co-host, arranged free use of a magnificent villa, and our inaugural event was a great success.

This year, we wanted to do it bigger and better. Our goal was to double the number of guests. The rabbis joined as hosts, as did Hollywood heavyweights Craig Emanuel and Joan Hyler.

Unfortunately, the villa was not available. Rumor had it that Lenny Kravitz was staying there, and although Jewish, Shabbat dinner was not on his itinerary. Our party planner spent several months trying to find an alternate venue and eventually found a quaint, beachfront restaurant a few minutes walk from the hustle and bustle of the festival. The Chabad rabbi worked his kosher magic, and we hired one of the best chefs in town.

The response was great, everything was set and we were on our way to Cannes — then the bad news came. The restaurant bailed. Seems it wasn’t thrilled with the sweetheart deal we had negotiated and was talking to another party with a fatter wallet. Welcome to Cannes.

Our dream dinner was turning into a disaster. Fortunately, Einbinder was already in Cannes. Along with the Chabad rabbi — who no doubt threatened the wrath of God — they convinced the restaurant owner to honor the negotiated price. We were back in production.

Cannes is hard to describe. Its beauty is unparalleled, its ambiance is magical, full of romance and excitement. Most of all, people who travel there have a sense of jubilation.

We spent Friday recruiting a few more guests to the Shabbat dinner. I bumped into veteran producer Arthur Cohn, who unfortunately couldn’t make the walk to the restaurant but was so excited, he wrote a check for two seats just so he could somehow participate.

On my way to the dinner, I pulled aside two eager, young British paparazzi who were hanging out in front of the Carlton Hotel. I told them that although Tom Hanks and Penelope Cruz would not be attending, our Shabbat dinner was a unique party not to be missed. For a nominal fee and the promise of delicious kosher food and wine, they agreed to shoot the event until sundown.

As the sun started to set, guests trickled into the party. Twilight in Cannes is always beautiful, the calm waters adding to the tranquility of the Shabbat. About 15 guests huddled for a quick prayer service, while others circled the hors d’oéuvres and posed for photos. Shabbat candles were lit and Kiddush recited. Then it was off to the requisite buffet.

More than 80 studio executives, producers, directors, lawyers, agents, distributors and rabbis all enjoyed a Shabbat dinner together in the south of France. For some, Shabbat was a new experience. For others, a weekly ritual. Still for others, it was simply another networking event.

But amid all the business talk, I couldn’t help but notice that this Shabbat experience was transforming business acquaintances into friends, strangers into family — from all over the globe, Jew or non-Jew, Reform or Orthodox, Sephardic or Ashkenazi, it didn’t matter. In a town that evokes images of Bridget Bardot in a bikini and Pamela Anderson in “Barb Wire” leather, we were infusing Cannes with Kiddush, conversation and tranquility — the very essence of Shabbat.

After a few short speeches and probably a few too many l’chaims, the delicious dinner was over. Everyone was happy and vowing to bring more friends next year. One woman came up to me and proclaimed that she would return to Cannes next year “if only to experience such a Shabbat again.”

One guest was so moved that he said he was making plans to throw his son a bar mitzvah party so he can share with him the experience of his Jewish tradition.

The next few days were very gratifying for all of us. We were the talk of Cannes. As we walked the Croisette, familiar Hollywood faces stopped us and promised they’d come next year

I even found myself next to Paris Hilton at a party. She’d heard all about the dinner. “I’ll attend if I have a Jewish boyfriend next year,” she told me.

I’m available!

I got into the movie business because I thought movies could change the world. I’m not sure if my movies will ever change the world, but I know that our Shabbat dinner certainly affected a few people.

There may be a lot of stress and aggravation in planning a Shabbat dinner in Cannes, but I know it was biggest Kiddush Hashem, sanctification of God’s name, I had ever been involved with. Next year, we plan to have an even more spectacular event. Who knows? Maybe Lenny Kravitz will sing with us.

Max Gottlieb is a film producer living in Los Angeles. If you would like to be placed on the invitation list, e-mail snowmax@comcast.net.

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7 Days in The Arts


Saturday, May 20

High school teacher Eddie Friedman has made it his mission to take students on the March of the Living, as a way of teaching them about the Holocaust. Over the years, he accumulated a collection of photographs depicting the experience. UCLA Hillel’s Dortort Center for Creativity in the Arts has mounted an exhibit of his work, titled, “From Destruction to Rebirth: A Photographic Journey by Eddie Friedman.” It is on view through June 29.

10 a.m.-4 p.m. (Mon.-Fri.). Free. 574 Hilgard Ave., Westwood. (310) 208-3081.

Sunday, May 21

We’re not sure what Thai massage has to do with celebrating your Jewishness, but don’t let that stop you from attending today’s Santa Barbara Jewish Festival. Event organizers also have plenty of traditional activities and entertainment, including musical performances by the Moshav Band and Kings on Holiday, kosher food vendors, children’s carnival rides and Israeli dancing.

11 a.m.-5 p.m. Oak Park, 300 W. Alamar Ave., Santa Barbara. (805) 898-2511. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>

Monday, May 22

Opening this week, the thriller film, “Hate Crime,” tells the story of Robbie Levinson (Seth Peterson), a young, gay CPA targeted for harassment by his new next-door neighbor. When Robbie’s lover is brutally murdered, he becomes a suspect, and must investigate the case himself to be exonerated.

Laemmle Sunset Five, 8000 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 848-3500. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>

Tuesday, May 23

It’s a CBS kind of night, over at the JFS gala. The Jewish Family Service annual fundraising dinner honors three community leaders this year, among them, CBS exec Deborah Barak. And keeping the evening all in the CBS family, this year’s masters of ceremonies are actors Rob Morrow and David Krumholtz, of the series “Numb3rs.”

5:30 p.m. Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel, Beverly Hills. R.S.V.P., (323) 761-8800, ext. 1220.

Wednesday, May 24

Opening this week is another exhibit that challenges us not only to never forget, but also to act. “Rwanda/After, Darfur/Now: Photographs by Michal Ronnen Safdie” presents some 40 black and white and color images taken in 2002 post-genocide Rwanda and in a 2004 Chadian Bahai refugee camp, where exiles of the Darfurian genocide take shelter. The exhibition is presented by the Skirball Cultural Center, with a number of related programs scheduled during its run.

$6-$8 (general), Free (members, students and children under 12). 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4500.

Thursday, May 25

We’d hoped “paloozas” would die with the ’90s, but here’s one worth checking out, despite the hackneyed name. “Identi-palooza” is a five-week comedy series at the Skirball, in which top comedians and writers present their unique points of view. It begins tonight with Beth Lapides, Kevin Rooney, Cindy Chupack, Rob Cohen and Stephen Glass commenting on “The Ish Factor.”

Ages 21+. 8 p.m. $8-$15. 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. R.S.V.P., (866) 468-3399.

Friday, May 26

When Mark Goffman’s grandfather’s wife of 50 years passed away, he suffered a heart attack, a stroke and then fell into a coma. As he lay in the hospital bed, he was visited by the cellist in his quartet, who came to say a private goodbye, and confessed her love for him, which she had kept secret all the years he’d been married. He awoke within minutes of her visit, and married her soon after. The story inspired Goffman, a television writer and producer, to write a play incorporating his grandfather’s story, as well as his own stories of dating and falling in love. “Me Too” runs through June 25.

8 p.m. (Thurs-Sat.), 7 p.m. (Sun.). $23-$28. Stella Adler Theatre, 6773 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. R.S.V.P., (323) 960-7745. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>

Darfur Seder Raises Awareness, Funds


Alula Tsadik, a lithe black man in dreds, wearing a red-and-black-striped poncholike tallit, pounded his chest and moaned, “Mama,” as he slowly circled the room at UCLA’s Hillel.

His tuneless melody, meant to capture the pain and horror of genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan, was the first of many performances in last weekend’s Seder for Darfur. The Sunday pre-Passover event was held both to raise awareness and to raise money for Jewish World Watch on behalf of victims.

“Sometimes I feel like a motherless child/a long way from home,” the Gwen Wyatt Chorale somberly sang, its singers dispersed throughout the standing-room-only crowd of about 300 people.

“We need for America to speak out and really do something,” said Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, one of the many high-powered guests in attendance. “Where to start, of course, is in the faith community.”

Others on hand for the 90-minute program included actor Mare Winningham, Danny Glover, Ed Asner and Forest Whitaker, as well as Jewish community notables, such as Valley Beth Shalom’s Rabbi Harold Schulweis, UCLA Hillel director Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller and singer Debbie Friedman. The event had few speeches; instead, the message was conveyed by readings, music and the firsthand accounts of students from Jewish World Watch who have gone to the Darfur region.

One of them, Lauren Gasparo, told of meeting a man who had just run away from his village, leaving behind his pregnant wife and his four children, ages 3 to 12.

“The Janjaweed will rape and kill my family, and there is nothing I can do,” the man said to her.

A slide show illustrated the crisis, using Ron Haviv’s photos from his “Children of Darfur” exhibit. The slides depicted displaced people, burning refugee camps and emaciated and dead victims of the genocide, which has claimed more than 300,000 people and displaced millions since 2003. Observers say most of the atrocities have been committed by Janjaweed militias, acting with the tacit approval and support of Sudan’s government.

“At every seder it’s our tradition to call, ‘Let all those who are hungry come and eat’ … in Darfur, their voices call out and remind us that in every generation we must see ourselves as if we left Egypt,” Seidler-Feller said. “Why is this seder different from all other seders? What has changed this year? Why are we gathering? Why do we care? Egypt is not a place and slavery is not a condition of the past.”

“Some nations are still ruled by present-day pharaohs,” he said. “Are you a freedom fighter? Then you believe in the Exodus. Today we are all freedom fighters.”

Seder participants were encouraged to use their own Passover seder to motivate their guests to help victims of oppression in Darfur. Inside orange “gift bags” were green postcards to mail to President Bush and contribution envelopes made out to Jewish World Watch, with the address line “Do Not Stand Idly By.”

The L.A.-based Jewish World Watch was formed in 2003 to educate and activate the community to decry genocide, as well as to bring humanitarian relief to victims in the form of water wells, medical clinics and sanitation. The organization has raised some $300,000 since its inception.

The gift bag also contained instructions for making the Passover seder different by adding a fourth matzah to the traditional three: “The Matzah of Hope.”

“We raise this fourth Matzah to remind ourselves that slavery and genocide still exist,” states the accompanying reading, “that people are being bought and sold as property, that ethnic people are being persecuted and slaughtered, that the Divine image within them is yet being denied….”

“We have suffered much for daring to be different. But we do not own suffering,” Asner read. “We live our lives in pursuit of justice…. We must not stand idly by….”

People were encouraged to attend an April 23 rally at the Federal Building in West Los Angeles. On April 30, Jewish World Watch is sponsoring a march on Washington and one in San Francisco, as well.

“It is easy to feel discouraged and say, what can I do?” director Robert Townsend said. “It is not helpless. By joining us today you are making a difference.”

The musical interludes used both traditional seder music — with saxophonist Dave Koz playing “Let My People Go” and Todd Herzog playing the Elijah song — and nonseder music — with Debbie Friedman singing, ” I still believe in people/and I still believe in you…” and Winningham on guitar, singing, “Hard times come again no more.”

Whitaker and Ahavat Shalom’s Cantor Patti Linksy mixed the two forms, as she read the closing “Chad Gad Ya” from the haggadah and the actor-director interspersed readings.

“What has changed? I have changed,” he read. “When will this circle of terror continue? When will this madness stop?”

“Our struggle must not stop,” said the seder’s executive producer, Janice Kaminer-Resnick. Just before the event, she announced, a donor had offered an $18,000 matching grant to the day’s contributions.

Craig Taubman, the writer of the seder, and producer of “Let My People Sing,” the nine-day Passover festival of which this was a part, ended the show on a jaunty note, playing with his band and Laurence Juber.

“Dayeinu,” they sang. Enough!

As people streamed out the door, Kaminer-Resnick announced that she had just received another check for $18,000, bringing the day’s pledges to $100,000.

 

A Young Violinist With a Lot of Pluck


Her name is Camilla Tsiperovich. But, growing up in Azerbaijan, there were times she wasn’t allowed to use it. As a 9-year-old violinist performing for world-renowned cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, she was told to call herself Camilla Gadjieva. Her headmaster at the Azerbaijan Conservatory considered this a more suitable name, one that reflected the Muslim heritage of her country. While representing Azerbaijan in international music competitions and spending her first year of high school at the famed Moscow Conservatory, she always understood that “there was something wrong because you were Jewish.”

Tsiperovich no longer needs to hide who she is. A year ago, her talent was noticed by Anita Hirsh, whose work with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee has given her a deep commitment to the Jews of the former Soviet Union. Hirsh, the widow of The Jewish Journal’s late publisher, Stanley Hirsh, sponsored Tsiperovich’s entrance into the Idyllwild Arts Academy. Now, at age 17, Tsiperovich is flourishing as a full-time student who divides her days between academic subjects and an intense focus on her chosen instrument.

Idyllwild Arts Academy, a boarding school nestled in the mountains above Palm Springs, is home to 270 high school students who are preparing for careers as artists, dancers, actors, filmmakers and musicians. The atmosphere is international, with about one-third of the student body hailing from Europe, Asia and Latin America. As an entering student with shaky English skills, Tsiperovich is enrolled in a basic course in English as a Second Language. She introduced herself to her classmates by saying, “I’m from Azerbaijan. None of you know where that is.”

The course has required her to write and speak often about the homeland she’s left behind. Todd Bucklin, the school’s ESL teacher, commends her for being frank and responsive: “It’s great having her strong presence in the class.”

He also admires her social progress. In her dormitory she’s been spotted watching Korean-language movies with her new Asian pals, reading the subtitles to understand what’s going on.

At Idyllwild, all academic classes are held in the morning, to leave afternoons free for lessons, rehearsals and practice sessions. Life is so busy that Tsiperovich finds time to practice her violin only five or six hours a day. Back home, her passion for the instrument led her to practice 12 hours daily. Such devotion had its downside: she was prone to developing injuries in her hands, wrists and feet.

Her family, though always supportive, is not especially musical. In fact, a career in music was completely Tsiperovich’s idea. She was only 3 when she saw a televised concert of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G and became obsessed with learning the violin. She began lessons before she turned 4, and it wasn’t long before she was winning competitions and presenting public recitals. She is also a gifted visual artist, who received her current instrument from an American oil company after it used one of her paintings in an advertising campaign.

Tsiperovich admits that in Azerbaijan it’s almost impossible to follow the rules of religious Judaism (her family’s tiny synagogue is now defunct). Nonetheless, she learned from an early age to respect Jewish tradition. She was active in her local chapter of the World Jewish Agency, also known as Sochnut, an organization that encourages Diaspora Jews to feel connected with the State of Israel. It was Sochnut that paved the way for her to participate in an Israeli music festival, where her violin performance won first prize. Because her stay in Israel coincided with her 13th birthday, she was able to celebrate an impromptu bat mitzvah in a local synagogue. Though her parents were far away, she was by no means lonely.

In Israel, Tsiperovich says in her careful, accented English, “I felt like I am at home. I felt so warm. People were so close to me.”

Now she’s learning to feel at home in the United States. She says Hirsh often acts as “my parent in America” and sees her during holidays. Hirsh took Tsiperovich to Utah over winter break for her first attempt at skiing. Still, it’s hard for her not to miss all that she has left behind. When her school took its spring break in late March, she flew to her home city of Baku, on the Caspian Sea, to reunite with her family for the first time in five months. As luck would have it, she was able to share in the festivities of her favorite holiday, Azerbaijan New Year.

Tsiperovich is determined to follow high school with four years at a major American music conservatory. Because her long-range goal is to forge a career as a soloist, it’s likely she won’t be spending many more New Years in her native land. The life of a professional musician can be heartbreakingly tough, but it offers one great reward.

“When you play music,” Tsiperovich says, “you feel really free.”

 

Vienna Glories in Past and Present


Sixty years after the end of World War II, Vienna has reclaimed its roots as a city of culture. Not the culture of stoic monuments to faded glory or landmarks illuminated by historical plaques, but in a living, breathing, heart-still-pumping way. Grand-yet-graceful music, art and architecture are the lifeblood of this city and those fortunate enough to live here.

Strolling along the wide pedestrian mall of the Kartnerstrasse, you cannot help but feel swept up in the art and culture of this elegant city. The impressive architecture rises up and surrounds you as the beauty of the city embraces you.

As the sun sets on the Kartnerstrasse, Viennese girls window shop Euro chain stores for platform shoes and designer scruff denim, shadowed by elegant palaces that line the cobbled street. A girl plays Strauss on a grand piano. Down the street, a man plays a symphony on crystal glasses of water, as students in black tie and spiked hair saunter past with cellos. The street comes to life with people who seem to not be in a hurry to go anywhere in particular.

Music is at the heart of Vienna, and since 2006 is being celebrated as the Mozart Year in Austria, the most rewarding Mozart experience is the city that inspired him. By all means, visit Mozart’s statue and the house he lived in, but to really experience Mozart’s Vienna, wander the cobbled lanes like the Blutgasse, where Mozart lived and worked. While away a morning by lingering over café and strudel in a plush coffee house (complete with charmingly polite tuxedoed waiters).

The best way to discover Mozart here might be a night at the Vienna Opera. I was lucky enough to attend a performance of “The Magic Flute” during my visit, which was sponsored by Austria Tourism. This was classical Mozart through and through in terms of the music, but the performance was strikingly modern.

A minimalist industrial set was the backdrop for bearded ladies painted blue and dressed in 18th-century industrial corsetry, while the priests of Sarastro were done up in white, minimalist hazmat suits. Not everyone’s cup of tea, I’ll concede, but that completely sums up a city that glories in its past but revels in its modernity.

Lets remember that Mozart was cutting-edge cool in his day. It’s fitting that this city still pushes the artistic envelope while embracing its artistic history. Vienna is a place where the elegant Hofburg Palace can stand alongside stunning Hundertwasser House.

Vienna’s influence as a cultural center also drew such Jewish composers as Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schoenberg and Alexander Zelimsky, in addition to numerous Jewish writers, actors, artists and doctors. And while the city’s Jewish history has been a tumultuous one — only 2,000 of the city’s pre-World War II population of 183,000 Jews survived the Shoah — Vienna today boasts a very active community of about 7,000 Jews.

The city features 15 synagogues (including a Sephardic congregation), a yeshiva, a Jewish museum and an office of Jewish Welcome Service. Most of Vienna’s Jews live in the city’s Second District, where you’ll find kosher supermarkets, butchers and restaurants.

The other must-see on any Austrian Mozart tour is the quaint city of his birth, Salzburg, where the Hohensalzberg fortress looms over the Salzach River, and the pastel shades of the shops in the Aldstadt are undeniably photogenic.

In Salzburg, you’ll have the opportunity to see the house where Mozart was born and visit the Mozart museum, which struggles to understand the composer’s genius. Both are worth a look, but the truly hot ticket in Salzburg is the Marionetten Theater, which regularly stages Mozart’s operas.

Appreciating the preservation of a centuries-old art is the key to enjoying Salzburg, a town that seems content to linger in its past. And provided that a look into a time capsule is all you expect, you may not be disappointed.

Jewishly speaking, Salzburg never fully recovered following the Holocaust. Only about 100 Jews inhabit the city, which features a single synagogue at Lasserstrasse 8. But despite its anti-Semitic reputation, the city was host to such Jewish luminaries as dramatists Max Reinhardt and Carl Zuckmayer, who were drawn to its Salzburg Festival and its cultural scene.

However, Mozart himself preferred the energy and vibrancy of cosmopolitan Vienna. Like a deep breath of fresh air, it’s a city that will make you sigh.

 

A Blizzard of Flicks for Jewish Eyes


At the Sundance wintertime festival, which began Jan. 19 and runs through Jan. 29, Jewish viewers can check out a blizzard of flicks, including:

Opening night film, “Friends With Money” (Jennifer Aniston, Jason Isaacs), spotlighting successful adults approaching midlife crisis. It’s the latest feature by Jewish writer-director Nicole Holofcener, whose self-deprecating comedy-dramas have been compared to the work of Woody Allen — not surprising, because her stepfather produced all of Allen’s films, and she virtually grew up on his sets.

Paul McGuigan’s “Lucky Number Slevin,” revolving around a Jewish mobster, “The Rabbi”; his arch rival (Morgan Freeman), and the chaos that ensues when the Jew declines to pick up his phone on Shabbat.

Tony Krawitz’s “Jewboy” (Australia), about an Orthodox youth searching for his place in the world (See last week’s story at www.jewishjournal.com).

Anders Thomas Jensen’s “Adam’s Apples” (Denmark), a black comedy spotlighting a disgruntled neo-Nazi sentenced to community service at church

Yoav Shamir’s documentary, “Five Days” (Israel), on the historic evacuation of 8,000 even more disgruntled Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip.

Frieda Lee Mock’s “Wrestling With Angels: Playwright Tony Kushner,” which profiles the Pulitzer Prize winner who was raised Jewish on a bayou and channels Jewish themes into his work.

Alan Berliner’s “Wide Awake,” a self-portrait of the odd filmmaker’s insomnia, manias and obsessiveness.

Lian Lunson’s “Leonard Cohen I’m Your Man” (See main story).

Rex Bloomstein’s documentary, “KZ” (United Kingdom), about contemporary Germans living in the shadow of the Mauthausan concentration camp (See last week’s piece).

Tiffany Shlain’s short documentary, “The Tribe: An Unorthodox, Unauthorized History of the Jewish People and the Barbie Doll,” on how the busty blond figure — created by a Jewish American — serves as a metaphor of Jewish assimilation and identity

For film schedules and information, visit festival.sundance.org/2006.

Simultaneously, the sixth annual SchmoozeDance and KidzDance festivals — the Jewish counterpart to Sundance on Jan. 20-21 — kick off with a screening of Amos Gitai’s “Free Zone at Temple Har Shalom” in Park City, Utah. The Israeli film focuses on a confused American (Natalie Portman) on a road trip with a bickering Israeli and Palestinian. For information, visit www.jewishfilm.com.

 

Leonard Cohen Film Toasts Songwriter


“He’s the man who comes down from the mountaintop with tablets of stone,” says U2’s guitarist, The Edge, in “Leonard Cohen I’m Your Man,” a documentary on Cohen, one of the greatest living songwriters, that is screening at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Comments on Cohen’s many biblical references in his songs and his almost mystical authority are sprinkled through out the film, which is slated for a May theatrical release from Lionsgate, even as the many interviewees also point out that Cohen can also be droll and erotic in his work.

The film’s director, Australian-born and L.A.-based Lian Lunson, expanded upon The Edge’s comments in a telephone interview:

“I think with great writers like Leonard Cohen, the gift they have has so much weight behind it, that even if the lyric isn’t religious, it takes on a religious aspect because of the great amount of contemplation that has gone into it.”

The film interweaves interviews with various subjects with a wry, introspective 71-year-old Cohen — his face creased and hair gray but both his mind and his wardrobe sharp. Interspersed, too, are performances at the “Came So Far for Beauty” concert tribute to Cohen at the Sydney Opera House.

At that show, produced by American Hal Willner (who also produced UCLA Live’s Randy Newman tribute), such musicians as the McGarrigle Sisters, Rufus Wainwright, Beth Orton, Nick Cave, Linda Thompson and Antony (of Antony & the Johnsons) perform versions of songs from throughout Cohen’s career. Eventually, late in the film, Cohen sings — in his gravely rumble of a voice — “Tower of Song,” in a surprising special performance staged just for the film by Lunson, a longtime music video director.

As Cohen and others recall, his youthful influences included the Jewish liturgy he heard in synagogue. Cohen was born in 1934 in Montreal to an influential English-speaking family. His father was a clothing manufacturer, his paternal grandfather helped lead numerous Jewish civic and religious institutions and his maternal grandfather was a rabbi and Talmudic scholar.

Cohen became first an accomplished poet and then, starting with 1967’s “Songs of Leonard Cohen” (which contained the oft-recorded “Suzanne”) a singer-songwriter. According to Ira Nader’s Cohen biography, “Various Positions,” Cohen’s Judaism has influenced his songs greatly — “Who By Fire” is based on the melody of a Yom Kippur prayer, “Mi Bamayim, Mi Ba Esh,” and “If It Be Your Will” is derived from a “Kol Nidre” phrase.

Cohen talks movingly in the film about how his father’s death — when he was just 9 — galvanized in him a compassionate but unsentimentally mature view about the limitations of life on earth.

“It was in the realm of things that couldn’t be disputed or even judged,” he tells Lunson.

And he explains he’s been searching for other such things to give his life structure and discipline — truth — ever since. He describes himself as drawn to “the military and the monastery.”

While remaining Jewish, he has pursued an interest in Zen Buddhism for some 30 years at the Mt. Baldy Zen Center with a Japanese master, Joshu Sasaki Roshi.

“He was someone who deeply didn’t care about who I was, and the less I cared about who I was the better I felt,” Cohen tells Lunson.

Speaking quietly but unguardedly, Cohen appears amused when discussing his lifelong dislike for blue jeans, his following among young “punksters” and his regrets about once revealing that “Chelsea Hotel” was written about a sexual encounter with Janis Joplin. “She wouldn’t have minded, but my mother would have minded,” he says of his indiscretion.

“Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man” was produced by Mel Gibson’s Icon Productions, which arranged distribution with Lionsgate. Lunson and Gibson are longtime friends, and she helped him put together the album, “Songs Inspired by ‘The Passion of the Christ,'” which included Cohen’s “By the Rivers Dark.”

“I took the idea of the film to Mel because he’s a huge Leonard Cohen fan, always has been, and he said, ‘Let me put it out there and see,'” Lunson said. “He loves Leonard Cohen.”

 

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.

For more information on the Sundance, visit

‘Thin’ Exposes Hefty Secrets and Lies


Alisa, a 30-year-old Jewish divorcee, consumed 200 calories most days. But every few weeks, she repeatedly binged on gargantuan amounts of junk food, then purged by vomiting, swallowing diuretics and Ipecac. After several days, the mother of two usually landed in the hospital.

“I remember at one point thinking … ‘This is the one thing I want so badly, to be thin. So if it takes dying to get there, so be it,'” she says.

Alisa is one of several severely ill eating disorder patients profiled in “Thin,” the film debut of renowned photojournalist Lauren Greenfield. The raw documentary also profiles Polly, who slit her wrists after eating two slices of pizza; Brittany, a goth teenager determined to lose 40 pounds, and Shelly, who was force fed through a surgically implanted stomach tube for five years. Handheld cameras follow their rocky physical and emotional journeys at the Renfrew residential treatment center in south Florida.

The movie joins an expanding body of work on female dietary obsessions, including the PBS documentary, “Dying to be Thin”; Eve Ensler’s play, “The Good Body,” and Greenfield’s own 2002 book and exhibit, “Girl Culture.”

Her documentary focuses less on the complex causes of eating disorders than the Herculean task of recovery for patients who use food the way addicts use drugs. Polly, a shy psychiatric nurse, weighs in at 84 pounds, but blissfully talks about the days when she sucked food out of her feeding tube with a syringe. Brittany reminisces about the “chew and spit” game she used to play with her mother: “We’d buy bags and bags of candy and just chew it and spit it out. We just thought of it as a good time.”

During 10 intense weeks at the center, Greenfield learned that while societal pressures often trigger eating disorders, they are actually mental illnesses with grim statistics. Anorexia is the deadliest of all psychiatric disorders, according to the American Journal of Psychiatry, with mortality rates of up to 20 percent. No statistics exist on Jewish women, but experts say they may be particularly vulnerable, in part, due to more zaftig body types and the drive to look all-American (i.e. svelte).

All seriously ill patients are tough to treat: “Secrets and lies are a big part of eating disorders, because you have to hide your habits from friends and family,” Greenfield explains from her Venice, studio. “At Renfrew, women would clandestinely jog in place in the shower, or conceal weights in their clothing to cheat the scale.”

The center’s rules, therefore, are strict. When Polly arrives at the clinic, staff members promptly search her luggage and whisk away “contraband” such as cigarettes and prescription drugs. In another scene, the usually feisty Polly is obliged to eat a cupcake for her birthday, which she consumes slowly and with disgust. Afterward, she cries bitterly.

Alisa also appears pained when required to sketch a silhouette of herself, which she draws as an obese figure — though after a month at Renfrew she is healthily trim, with an uncanny resemblance to Natalie Portman. She traces her eating disorder to age 7, when her pediatrician declared her fat and she was placed on a 1,000 calorie per day diet.

On camera, she does not discuss how her Reform background fueled her disease, but she answered e-mailed questions through Greenfield.

“Alisa believes that Jews are a proud people; they are very concerned about self-image and there is a strong emphasis on education and money,” the director says. “She thinks that makes for more of a need to overachieve and be perfect, which can drive an eating disorder. So her sense is that being Jewish contributed a lot to her [illness].”

The filmmaker, who is also Jewish, relates to her subjects because she was once obsessed with the scale. At 12, she began physically comparing herself to the other girls at Camp JCA Shalom in Malibu and went on to become a chronic teenage dieter. At Harvard University, she “went on a crash diet and lost 26 pounds, in the process gaining so much confidence that I threw myself into my first serious relationship,” she says.

Eventually Greenfield — named one of 25 top photographers by American Photo magazine — dedicated much of her career to chronicling how the Barbie-doll culture scars women. But her 2002 book only touched upon the life-threatening topic of eating disorders, save for several pictures snapped at Renfrew. The artist remained haunted by one of a gaunt patient standing backwards on a scale so as not to see her weight gain.

In June 2004, Greenfield returned to Renfrew with cinematographer Amanda Micheli to further explore the subject, this time in a cinema verite-style film. But she found that earning patients’ trust proved difficult.

After many setbacks, Greenfield won them over by showing she would turn the camera off whenever she was asked to do so. Polly made the request while on a suicide watch, but changed her mind after the director spent the night talking with her. She allowed Greenfield to shoot her purging her breakfast the next morning, an act that is almost always done in secret and is forbidden at the center.

Alisa also purges on camera, but expresses a moment of hope during one group therapy session.

“For a fleeting moment I imagined a better life,” she says. “And maybe — pun intended — I can taste recovery.”

“Thin” will screen at the Sundance festival Jan. 19-29 and on HBO this fall.

 

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.

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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.

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.

Spectator – Sweet Music Amid Turmoil


Those who have followed the documentaries produced by the Simon Wiesenthal Center know what to expect: Films like “Genocide,” “Liberation” and “In Search of Peace” that hit you right between the eyes and in the solar plexus.

Thus, it is more the surprise that its Moriah Films division’s latest documentary, “Beautiful Music,” a 39-minute film narrated by Brooke Shields, proves to be sensitive and understated. “Beautiful Music,” directed and written by the Wiesenthal Center’s Richard Trank, was based on original material by Trank and Rabbi Marvin Hier.

It’s about a blind and autistic Arab girl who blossoms into a musical savant under the tutelage of a caring Jewish piano teacher.

Rasha Hamad, who is deaf and blind like her younger sister, is locked into a small room with her sibling by their parents and later abandoned. Traumatized and helpless, the girls are given a warm home in the Arab village of Beit Jala by a Dutch missionary couple, Edward and Helene Vollbehr.

The girls seem unable to respond to human contact, they beat themselves on the heads and they scream endlessly. But then the Vollbehrs notice that Rasha calms down when listening to classical music and shows an amazing aptitude for playing the piano.

The Vollbehrs turn to the Jerusalem Conservatory of Music, where Rasha is entrusted to Devorah Schramm — although the task is daunting even for this devoted teacher. While Rasha’s piano playing keeps improving, and she even starts to compose her own music, it takes two or three years of daily lessons before Rasha shows any signs of bonding with her teacher. Rasha also suffers when the larger world around her goes awry, when Scuds fall during the 1991 Gulf War or during the terror of the two intifadas.

With calmer days, Rasha picks up again, The last scene shows her performing a Chopin sonata, joined by Jewish classmates, to the applause of the Jewish audience, which had pitched in to pay for her lessons.

Summing up her experience, Schramm observes, “If we look at the headlines, we see generalities. But when we look at one individual, we see more deeply.”

The film will screen at the Hollywood Film Festival on Sunday, Oct. 23 at 3:30 p.m. at the Arclight Theatres, 6360 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles. For information visit www.hollywoodawards.com/screenings.

 

Sacred Sounds All Over Town


There’s an inescapable irony in vocalist Vanessa Paloma performing Ladino songs at the San Gabriel Mission, which was founded by Spanish Catholics. It was, of course, Spanish Roman Catholics who expelled Ladino-speaking Jews from Spain in 1492. Paloma called the venue “emotionally charged,” but she hopes the music and ambiance will prove to be healing as well as musically appealing.

“Just the fact of sitting in that room and listening to that music will be an interesting experience, and hopefully a powerful one,” she said.

Paloma’s performance at the 200-year-old mission is one highlight of the 2005 World Festival of Sacred Music, which will be spread out among many Los Angeles locations over a two-week period beginning Saturday.

The festival, directed by Judy Mitoma, will show Angelenos how cultures from around the world find spiritual sustenance through music. Jewish cultures of the Iberian peninsula, Eastern Europe and the Middle East are well represented. Here are some of the notable events:

Wed., Sept. 21 — Yuval Ron Ensemble. 7 p.m., Alfred Newman Recital Hall at USC; $20. For tickets, call (213) 740-2167 or visit www.usc.edu/spectrum

Ron, an Israeli composer and record producer, pulls together traditions of Judaism, Islam, and the Armenian Church in music and dance. In this program, Ron’s troupe, which includes artists from Israel, Lebanon, Armenia, Iran, France, and the United States, explore the mystical teachings of different Middle Eastern cultures and the deep connections among them.

Thurs., Sept. 22 — Flor de Serena, with vocalist Vanessa Paloma and guitarist Jordan Charnofsky. Noon, San Fernando Mission, 15151 San Fernando Mission Blvd., Mission Hills; free. For tickets, call (818) 361-0186 or visit www.flordeserena.com.

The ensemble, which includes percussion and bass, will play music composed and performed by Sephardim after arriving in the Americas as well as tunes originating in Spain and Portugal. Historian Arthur Benveniste will narrate the musical journey of Spanish Jews after their expulsion from Iberia in the 1490s.

Paloma, who grew up in Colombia, traces her Sephardic heritage to the north of Spain. She formed Flor de Serena with Charnofsky after a trip to Israel, where she discovered music for many obscure Ladino songs.

Sephardic music, she told The Journal, “integrates the Spanish-speaking and Jewish aspects of my life.”

Charnofsky, who began playing with klezmer bands in the early 1990s, isn’t Sephardic but describes Sephardic music as a natural bridge between his instrument, the guitar, which was developed on the Iberian peninsula, and his growing involvement with Jewish music.

Sun., Sept. 25 — Cantori Domino. 7:30 p.m., John Anson Ford Amphitheater, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East, Hollywood; $25. For tickets, call (323) 461-3673 or visit www.fordamphitheater.org.

This 50-voice choir, will sing Leonard Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms” accompanied by musicians on harp, timpani and two pianos. The selection of psalms encompass themes of joy, innocence, war, trust, hope and unity.

Conductor Maurita Phillips-Thornburgh, though not Jewish, has been music director for the High Holidays at Stephen S. Wise Temple for 14 years.

“I don’t know of a time when this [work] wouldn’t be timely, but it seems particularly timely now,” she said.

Mon., Sept. 26 — The Psalms of Ra. 6 p.m., 8 p.m. and 10 p.m., Alchemy Building, 5209 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles; $25. For tickets: (323) 769-5069 or visit www.psalmsofra.com

Jim Berenholtz, who has traveled widely in the Middle East, uses his “neo-ancient” music to illustrate the creative and spiritual cross-fertilization he says existed between the New Kingdom Egyptians and the Jews who lived in Egypt for centuries. He sets ancient Egyptian and Hebrew texts to contemporary sacred music, according to the billing. Some of his works interweave mystical Hebrew incantations with Egyptian mantras; his settings of Hebrew texts include Psalm 116, which speaks of being lifted up after hitting life’s bottom.

Oct. 1 — World Jewish Music Fest. Noon, 200 Santa Monica Pier, Santa Monica; free. Information: (310) 434-3431 or www.smc.edu/madison.

Westsider Stefani Valadez will perform Ladino songs from Spain and North Africa, and Russian clarinetist Leo Chelyapov will appear with his Hollywood Klezmer Trio. The family-oriented afternoon will also feature Israeli dancing.

The Moscow-born Chelyapov, who first heard klezmer music when his grandfather took him to Jewish weddings in Kiev, had made playing it his “calling” by the time he arrived in Los Angeles in 1992.

“It touches my Jewishness, and it feels natural to me,” he told The Journal. Not only is klezmer music historically identified with weddings, which Chelyapov called “a mystical point of life,” but it often employs liturgical texts and, most importantly, he said, “it’s supposed to elevate your spirit.”

For a complete schedule, visit www.festivalofsacredmusic.org or call (310) 825-0507.

 

Project Shabbat a ‘Go’ in Cannes


Every year in May, a phenomenon occurs in the South of France — the Cannes Film Festival. Like showy, migrating birds, “Zee American Show Beez people” make their annual flight to the Riviera convention of Hollywood deal-makers. Clinging to their cell phones, they stuff themselves with French food, ogle the topless Euro-hotties on the beach and swarm the narrow streets with fistfuls of business cards.

At the grand hotels along the Croisette (the promenade along the beach), desperate show biz climbers dart from one hospitality suite to the next, making frantic attempts to get on guest lists for parties where there might be celebrities or “money people” who might fund their movie project. Very few people go to Cannes for love of the art of filmmaking. They go to make money and connections. Most of the conventioneers are so busy trying to cut deals that they never even see the films competing for the Palme D’Or.

Months before the Cannes Film Festival, Scott Einbinder, producer of “The Velvet Side of Hell” and Steven Kaplan of Rainstorm Entertainment (an L.A. production company), decided to host a Shabbat dinner and invite people of all religions to enjoy an evening of Jewish spirituality in Cannes. In America, religion and business are like peanut butter and jelly, but “Jewish spirituality” on the Riviera? It seemed out of place at a film market in France, a country so proud of being secular.

At first I thought the Cannes Shabbat dinner was another clever networking angle. Religion is big at the box office these days. And what better way for a couple of young producers to rub shoulders with some of Hollywood’s big movers and shakers than to invite them to a Shabbat dinner?

But I was wrong about the angle. As soon as I got to the Rococo Villa on Boulevard Montfleury and met Scott and Steve, I knew they were just a couple of nice Jewish boys. They had a tiny budget, but because of their good will and good luck, their Shabbat dinner fell into place.

Miraculously, they secured a sumptuous Belle Époque villa in the hills above the Croisette and some colorful local rabbis to lead the service. Rabbi Mendel Schwartz, executive director of the Chai Center in Los Angeles, flew in to help out with the Maariv service. A generous kosher caterer came through with saumon fumé and a cassoulet de poulet aux herbes, more elegantly served than at a restaurant along the Croisette.

My friend Frédéric, a handsome Corsican who had given me a ride to the party from Nice, panicked when a rabbi offered him a kippah.

“I’m not Jewish! I can’t wear this hat,” he said. “I’m starving, there’s all this food but no one’s eating! Can I eat, or is that bad form for a Jewish party? And where are the stars? Aren’t there any Jewish stars coming?”

It’s difficult to explain to a French party-boy who is “doing Cannes” why he can’t eat or drink until the sun has completely gone down over the Mediterranean and that even Christian stars might not show up.

I introduced myself to the rabbi and automatically reached to shake his hand. He scooted backward.

“I cannot give you my hand but I can give you my heart,” he said.

A guest in a low-cut dress overheard.

“He didn’t shake your hand? How rude,” she said. “We have another party on the Croisette if you want to go. We’re leaving right after we eat.”

I explained to her that the rabbi hadn’t been rude, that he was actually being polite. (Orthodox men don’t touch women who are not related to them.) She quickly lost interest and walked to the other side of the pool where the people looked more important.

At 7 p.m., a group of serious-looking men wearing long beards climbed up to the balcony overlooking the Grecian-style swimming pool and began maariv, the evening prayers. It was all very cinematic, the men in black holding their prayer books, singing and rocking back and forth toward the Bay of Cannes. We stood below them, a group of around 50 Festivaliers surrounded by faux, naked, marble statues of Michaelangelo’s David (uncircumcised).

During the prayer, someone’s cell phone rang — loudly. The ring tone was more Compton than Cannes. Just above the rabbis’ heads, a large banner belonging to yet another company renting the villa read, “FILMLINELA.COM.” Above the banner, on the balcony, several scantily clad starlets leaned out of a window. They were drinking.

“We need female energy,” Schwartz yelled from the men-only prayer balcony. He hadn’t seen the girls giggling in the window above him and wanted us (female Shabbat guests) to chime in from pool area below. Many blank faces turned to each other. Few guests knew the prayer.

An Israeli woman next to me whispered, “It’s so divisive, this kind of Orthodox thing. In Israel, these people scare us. All the dividing of women and men — it’s terrible.”

After the Kiddush, people, about 40 in all, rushed to their tables to eat. I saw some hesitation on French faces about the single glass of wine being passed around.

“I feel completely dépaysé [out of one’s country],” Frédéric said.

At our table, there were American bankers, lawyers and publicists as well as a French economist, a French rabbi and an attractive Asian woman who worked for an American production company. She was continually pulling up the spaghetti straps of her skimpy dress and blabbing on her cell.

“I’m hanging with the Jews tonight,” she slurred into her Nokia. “Tomorrow, we’re having a big party at our villa. I’m a little drunk right now.”

She was having a hard time sitting in her chair.

A banker at the table told me about the “Velvet Side of Hell,” which was produced by our host. “It’s about a three-way with an American ambassador. It’s got extortion and Hungarian porn stars.”

“Are the Hungarian porn stars real actresses playing porn stars?” I asked.

“No,” said the banker, “the Hungarian porn stars are playing themselves.”

(Scott, the producer, later explained that his film, set in Hungary, was a thriller, not a three-way, and that the banker’s description was all wrong: “None of the lead actors or even smaller role actors are porn actors.” The banker apparently had been carried away by Cannes’ decadent atmosphere, while also figuring that porn stars could be a selling point for “The Velvet Side of Hell.”)

Then the French economist asked me very directly about where I invest.

“Have you heard of Israel Bonds,” he asked. “I can get you 5 and a half-percent interest.”

I’m always interested in a financial tip and everybody at the table seemed to be breaking Sabbath rules, so I asked him how long I had to keep the money in to get the 5 and a half percent.

“Can you remember a number?” the kippah-wearing economist asked.

“No,” I said, “I’ll write it down. I’ve got a pen right here.”

“No,” he yelled. “It’s the Shabbat! You have to remember the number! I can’t give you a card. I’m not working!”

Across the table, the Israeli woman was arguing with a pro-Palestinian banker.

“Have you ever been to Israel?” she demanded.

He hadn’t.

“Well then you don’t really know what you’re talking about,” she said. “Come to Israel and see how tiny it is and see who is right!” Like he had touched a live wire, the banker swiveled in his chair toward me and away from her. “Have you seen ‘Hellboy,'” he asked me.

“I loved ‘Hellboy.’ He’s so shy and sweet.”

I know our hosts meant well by trying to bring a little spirituality to the Cannes Film Festival, but mixing morality with show biz is no easy task. It’s like trying to inject water into oil. Still, I enjoyed the party. The food was good, the view was great, the religious ceremony was uplifting and the business chatter was predictably ridiculous. When I left, I couldn’t help thinking that I had just experienced the real velvet side of Hell.

Carole Raphaelle Davis lives in Nice and Los Angeles. She can be contacted at cdavis6029@aol.com.

A Cannes-Do Triumph for Israeli Actor


Naomi Pfefferman, Arts & Entertainment Editor


When Hanna Laslo won best actress at the Cannes Film Festival for her role in Amos Gitai’s “Free Zone” May 21, she made Israeli cinematic history. It was the first time an Israeli actor has received the prize — perhaps second in prestige only to the Oscar — since Oded Kotler won for Uri Zohar’s “Three Days and a Child” in 1967.

Laslo, 51, plays a brassy cab driver who sets out to conduct business in Jordan’s “Free Zone,” a customs-free region where nationalities mingle in a giant auto bazaar. Along for the ride is an American Jew (“Star Wars'” Natalie Portman, who was born in Jerusalem) and a Palestinian woman (Hiam Abbass) who joins the Middle East road trip.

During her Cannes acceptance speech, the moon-faced Laslo — known in Israel for her edgy one-woman shows — proved as feisty as her character when she demanded that presenter Ralph Fiennes kiss her on the cheek. She then said she wanted to share the award with her mother, an Auschwitz survivor and with “victims in general, notably Arabs and Palestinians.” She also suggested the film’s true subject is Israeli-Palestinian dialogue.

“It’s high time we come together and try to work out solutions to this problem,” she said, prompting thunderous applause from the star-studded audience.

In a press conference, Laslo said she identified with her character because she, too, loves her country and wishes for peace, while acknowledging that political strife makes life economically and emotionally rough for Israelis.

Her character is a metaphor of Israeli existence and the struggle to survive, she told the Jerusalem Post.

“It’s not for nothing that I mentioned Auschwitz in my [acceptance] speech,” she said.

Sunrise, Sundance, Swiftly Fly the Films


 

“When you’re a falafel king/you’re a falafel king all the way/from your first alef-bet/till your last dying day…” OK, maybe that’s not exactly how the musical spoof, “West Bank Story,” begins, but the short film indeed opens with a cadre of snapping dancers taking on the guys on the other side of the tracks. Yet, in this 22-minute film, instead of Maria and Tony, we have David and Fatima, and the war is not between the Jets and the Sharks, but between the Jewish Kosher King and the Palestinian Humus Hut next door. You can probably guess the rest, but hopefully, since the short was directed and co-written by L.A. native Ari Sendel, you’ll get a chance to see it here soon.

“West Bank Story” was one of a handful of Jewish-themed films screened at the Sundance Film Festival, which ended Sunday night in Park City, Utah. With the deafening chatter around this small town about which studio picked up which film for how many millions of dollars, it’s hard to sniff out, not the hottest films — but the most Jewish. While hordes of ecstatically friendly moviegoers snaked around the corner hoping to get into a screening of “Hustle and Flow,” the feature about a pimp-cum-rap star from Memphis (which Paramount got in a $16 million deal), I’m desperately trying to sell my extra ticket to a midnight showing of “Odessa Odessa” (I’d take $5-$10), a documentary that follows elderly Ukrainians in Odessa, Brighton Beach and Ashdod. A six-minute short from Israel, “Meet Michael Oppenheim,” which, through photographs and sweet narration, attempts to trace filmmaker Roni Aboulafia’s family history in Israel, preceded the 96-minute doc.

All roads seem to lead to Israel in the Jewish films at Sundance, even those not directly about the Holy Land. Take “Protocols of Zion,” documentarian Marc Levin’s personal journey to uncover the resurgence of this anti-Semitic screed since Sept. 11. He starts off at the site of the World Trade Center, talking to people who blame the Jews for the tragedy, and then goes to Middle America and the home of the White Supremacists and other Holocaust deniers. Levin veers away from the “Protocols” to Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ,” and then to the streets of Patterson, N.J., to speak to the Palestinian street kids, he ends up — where else? — at the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, finding the “Protocols” at the root of all these problems (not without the help the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Rabbi Abraham Cooper and the Anti-Defamation League’s Rabbi Abraham Foxman). “Protocols” has been picked up so far by HBO, with an airdate as yet undetermined (they’re hoping to sell it to the big screen first).

Perhaps it’s a paranoia arising from “Protocols” that I begin to see Jews everywhere at Sundance (well, we are running all of Hollywood, aren’t we? When Levin tries to get someone on the phone to discuss Jews in Hollywood, he gets passed around from Norman Lear to Larry David to Rob Reiner and back to Lear again). When I randomly attend “Palermo Hollywood,” a feature from Argentina, I am surprised to discover that one of the main characters turns out to be Jewish (nicknamed by his friends “the Jew”), and is running away from his wealthy political family that maintains its standard of living despite the financial crisis.

But the most prominent Jewish film here at Sundance is “Wall,” a French/Israeli documentary about the security “fence” being built in Israel.

“I was surprised to find that there are many Jews that are pro-peace in Israel,” one foreign journalist told me when she exited the film. Indeed, director Simone Bitton presents a moderate look on both sides of the concrete and barbed wire structure, as she interviews “regular” Palestinians and Israelis, i.e. not the fanatics, the leaders and the spokespeople, but those who live adjacent to the $1 billion project that is meant to bring security to Israel. Bitton is half-Arab and half-Jewish, which is probably why — with her fluent Hebrew and Arabic — she is able to have frank conversations with both sides. The picture won a Special Jury Prize in the World Cinema Documentary category, so I’m sure it will be available for viewing soon.

In searching out films with a Jewish or Middle East subject matter, I came across “Planet of the Arabs,” a six-minute compilation of clips portraying the Arabs in American film and television.

Dr. Emmett Brown: “Oh my God, they found me, I don’t know how, but they found me. Run for it, Marty.”

Marty McFly: “Who?”

Dr. Emmett Brown: “Who do you think? The Libyans!”

Filmmaker Jacqueline Salloum shows this clip from “Back to the Future” and more — from “Lawrence of Arabia,” to “The Muppet Show,” to (Gov.) Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “True Lies” — to tell audiences to “turn off your televisions,” to avoid these negative stereotypes.

Perhaps the fictional and real characters in the “Planet of the Arabs,” “The Wall” and “Protocols of Zion” will one day be like Ahmed and Mahmoud, and David and Fatima from “West Bank Story,” who, after their stores burn down, realize how much they have in common, and make falafel sandwiches together.

 

Through God’s Eyes


 

We call it the Festival of Lights, but Chanukah starts in a very dark place.

It begins with two stories, each very serious. One

tells of a severely outnumbered band of Jews who fought a powerful enemy for religious freedom.

And there’s the other, even more painful tale of Jew vs. Jew, of the Macabees struggling with widespread Jewish assimilation into the culture and religion of that enemy.

In many ways, Chanukah represents the most painful aspects of Jewish history in one full account: the Jewish community facing threats both from outside and within.

The tales are so painful, in fact, that thinking about them can be depressing. And what’s worse, many aspects of Chanukah — bloody battles, inner fighting, treacherous choices between life and death — have been reenacted over and over again, throughout the centuries.

But despite the seriousness, despite the painful, dark history of Chanukah, we spend eight days in lightness. We play, we sing, we eat — we remember the tales of the Maccabees with latkes, gelt, songs and games. For us, Chanukah is a party — bright, sweet, joyous. It’s serious, but we’re playful.

The stories — dark and sobering — are recalled with light and celebration. How do the bloody battles of Chanukah translate into a ritual of fun?

The answer can found in the dreidel.

The Hebrew letters on each side of the toy — nun, gimmel, heh, and shin — famously serve as an acronym for neis gadol haya sham — “a great miracle happened there” — a reference to the miraculous eight-day staying power of the little bit of oil lighting the menorah in the Holy Temple when it was re-taken by the Maccabees.

Like Chanukah, the dreidel is a combination of intensity and lightheartedness. Historically, it was initially adopted by Jews not as a game or toy but as a front, a ruse used by persecuted Torah scholars who were forbidden by non-Jewish authorities from study. Pretending to play a game, rabbis would actually teach their students Torah, enabling the traditions to be passed to each new generation.

How fitting then to have those same toys in the hands of happy, free Jewish children today, spinning the dreidel as a simple game after learning Torah in security. The dreidel represents that same relationship between terror and confidence, between threats and joy, darkness and light.

The spinning top is actually even more than just a reminder of persecutions past and more than a simple game for happy children. The Jewish mystical tradition teaches that the four letters on the sides of the dreidel have a wholly different significance. The nun is for neshama (soul); the gimmel is for guf (body); the shin is actually a sin, for sechel (mind); and the heh is for ha-kol (everything).

The playful little toy is a miniature but complete person: body, mind and soul — everything wrapped up together. And like the dreidel, we are also a combination of the playful and the serious. On one hand, we are light and fun and lively. But on the other hand, we spin out of control. We live in chaos.

A human being is a dreidel: busy, moving. We reach near vertigo, tilting and spinning until at last we finally drop.

Like the Chanukah tales, our personal narratives are marked by difficult choices and numerous battles, both external and internal. A human being is a dreidel: spinning and falling, spinning and falling. Yet we come up, again and again. How can that be?

Because, as the dreidel tells us: neis gadol haya sham. Great miracles happen, not just in ancient times but now, constantly, for us every single day. We spin and fall, but thanks to God’s miracles, we stand up to try again — as a nation and as individuals. That’s serious stuff. But it’s also worth celebrating.

This column originally appeared in The Journal on Dec. 14, 2001.

Rabbi Shawn Fields-Meyer is instructor of Bible and liturgy at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism and creator of Ozreinu, a spiritual support group for special-needs families.

 

Robbo to Sing at Center Gala


Songwriter and performer Robb Zelonky tangos to the lyrical subject of cleaning up a messy room and morphs into an Elvis impersonation when he sings, "Don’t Wanna Share My Toys."

Zelonky, known to kids as Robbo, brings his family-oriented songfest to the stage as part of the Irvine Jewish Community Center’s grand opening events on Aug. 17.

"I was a theater major. My show is very visual and theatrical and participatory," Zelonky said. "Even dads like it, which is saying something."

Zelonky is scheduled to appear in Irvine after a two-month tour of California, bringing a special show with songs tailored to Jewish culture. He has also produced four secular CDs.

His most recent recording, "Kid’s Life," features celebrity voices including Teri Garr, Linda Gray, Steve Harris, Henry Winkler and Vanna White. Zelonky puts his own stamp on classic Jewish songs in his 1997 CD titled "A Part of a Chain."

Zelonky started entertaining through concerts for kids in 1990, making appearances at Jewish camps and school music programs in more than 70 cities. He has performed at the White House and the Cincinnati Folk Music Festival. His CDs earned Parent’s Choice gold awards for both 2000 and 2002.

After 32 years of guitar playing, Zelonky samples from a variety of musical styles to create his original mix of music and positive messages that inevitably have his audience singing and dancing along.

"I perform 80 shows or so a year, half Jewish, half secular," Zelonky said. "No Christian music though. Just stuff about monsters and owies."

Robbo’s Concert for Kids takes the JCC stage Aug. 17, 4:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. l

Israeli Fest Crowd Feels the Heat


Brutal heat was the dominant feature of the May 2 Israel Independence Day Festival in Van Nuys, as 99-degree temperatures kept thousands indoors and away from the sprawling Woodley Park celebration.

"I think it was the heat," said festival organizer Jerome Goodman, who added that Israel being more secure this spring — compared to last spring’s suicide bombings — also may have kept attendance low. "[Last year], everybody felt we need to do something to identify, to show support."

Goodman estimated the Sunday crowd was at least 22,000, compared to 45,000 Israel supporters at the 2003 festival.

"It didn’t feel as busy as it usually does," said Jewish giftmaker Rama Beerfas, a vendor from San Diego. "I think the heat kept people away. This is my fifth or sixth year. This was OK. The [festival] staffers told me they made the aisles wider this year. It still doesn’t feel as crowded."

In the late afternoon, the festival’s popular Miss L.A. Israel Pageant was slowed down when one of its young contestants fell ill backstage. It quickly became a Fellini-esque mélange of police, gawking kids, Israeli boyfriends, bikini-clad contestants and Orthodox Hatzolah paramedics.

"It was a little heat exhaustion," said Goodman of the woman driven away in a Hatzolah golf cart and given water.

A popular vendor booth was run by Chabad of California, which promoted its Jewish-questions Web site, www.askmoses.com, on thousands of free bottles of cool water.

"We have 30,000 bottles of water," said Chabad’s Rabbi Simcha Beckman, as pair of yeshiva students unloaded more water. "In Torah, water is knowledge. I don’t think people are thinking as much as, ‘I’m very hot.’ So I give them water."

Appearing on the festival’s main stage were Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn, Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and Sheriff Lee Baca, who wore a large cowboy hat. The sheriff’s Golden Stars Skydiving Team entertained the crowd by landing near the stage with American and Israeli flag parachutes.

Radio talk show personality and festival host Larry Elder attracted a continuing line of fans at the KABC-AM booth, where he signed books while sitting next to his mother. Elsewhere, numerous festivalgoers brought their dogs — large and small — and Israeli immigrants danced and sang. The day’s uncompromising heat did not dampen support for the 56-year-old Jewish state.

"As long as you’re Jewish, you have a connection to Israel," said Long Beach resident Hila Yerushalmi, one of the festival’s many Persian celebrants. "Even if you’ve never been there, you know it’s your homeland."

Lessons From a Film Festival


Three Jews, four opinions — right? Of course right. Now mix in something as subjective as one’s taste in movies. Now imagine the folly of putting together a committee to organize a short Jewish film festival. Crazy. No?

From the plumber to the U.S. Court of Appeals justice, everyone’s a movie pundit ready, willing and able to debate the acting style of Sean Penn vs. those Hilton girls with Ebert and Roper.

Nevertheless, and forsaking all rational argument, we decide that what our small Ventura County Temple Beth Torah — 400 plus families — really needs is it’s very own Jewish Film Festival.

Maybe it was all the ballyhoo over “The Passion,” maybe it was that we spend our life writing about movies that are very often antithetical to Jewish values. Or maybe we just ate something that didn’t agree with us.

But saying you want a festival and actually pulling it off is a whole different kettle of gefilte fish. When word gets out — as word is wont to do in our still comparatively small community — the congregation’s movie fans start calling. Everyone has their favorites, and everybody knows exactly what constitutes a Jewish movie, which is more than we do. And everybody wants to put in his or her two cents worth.

We decide we don’t want to stage our festival in the local movie palace. We want a state-of-the-art big screen and projector in our very own Meister Hall. The bar and bat mitzvahs, the lady’s luncheons and the brotherhood brunch will have to wait as for one glorious weekend only, our social hall becomes The Bijou or The Majestic.

Everyone responds and donations for the new system are swiftly rounded up. Ventura folks support their temple and the Jewish Federation — bless ’em — kicks in a small grant.

And then a small problem.

Jews know all about movies, but when it comes to technology — electronic or otherwise — we somehow missed those classes in high school.

So when the new projector needs to be lowered, the focus checked and the screen creases removed, who you gonna call? Somehow, with a little help from our friends, we, too, get by.

Now comes the hardest part: Picking the flicks.

This brings up a philosophical question comparable in weight to the nature of matter and the strength of the double helix: Namely, what constitutes a Jewish movie.

Herewith some selected opinions:

\n

• Anything that has at least one Nazi in or out of uniform.

\n

• Anything where somebody wears a kippah or sings “Havah Nagilah.”

\n

• Anything set in Israel.

\n

• Anything with an old bubbe — it could be a zayde but bubbes are better, particularly if they have a smattering of Yiddish.

\n

• Anything that shows us how well we lived in Europe before the Holocaust. (In these films all the Jews lived in grand estates and had concert violinists in the family — could be a pianist but violins are better — or learned professors, preferably in the medical field and several extremely competent servants who’ve been with the family for several generations.)

So everybody lobbies hard, resulting in this dialogue from the film committee archives:

“Haven’t we seen enough Holocaust movies already?”

“The Federation gave us money so we’d better show some Israeli films.”

“A documentary on the Rosenbergs! Who wants to dig up all that painful stuff again?”

“I loved ‘Gloomy Sunday’ but the actress is naked and having relationships with two men at the same time. How can we show that in a house of worship?” (Well, strictly speaking the house of worship is across the hall. This is our social hall and people do all sorts of things socially that they wouldn’t — let us hope — do in front of the Aron Kodesh.)

“I can’t sit on those hard seats for two hours.” (Of course we sit on them all day every Yom Kippur, but you’re supposed to suffer then.)

“What food are we going to serve?”

“For opening night how about a ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ sing-along?”

Instead, we’re opening on Saturday, March 27 with “Fiddler” director Norman Jewison’s new thriller, “The Statement,” starring Oscar-winner Michael Caine (definitely not Jewish ) — based on the late Brian Moore’s superb short novel (He was also not Jewish but he was practically local since he lived just down the road in Malibu). The subject, however, couldn’t be timelier. Caine plays Pierre Brossard, loosely based on the real live Vichy collaborator Paul Touvier, who was responsible for killing French Jews and sending scores to the gas chambers. Before his final capture, decades after his foul deeds, he was hidden in abbeys all over France by ultraconservative elements in the Catholic Church. (See what we mean by timely?)

On Sunday morning we’re screening “Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary” a provocative documentary about the last hours of Hitler’s life as observed by Traudl Junge, one of the Fuhrer’s private secretaries. Provocative stuff. And to put it in context we’ve got a “film scholar in residence”: The Journal’s own contributing editor, Tom Tugend, who will be with us for the entire weekend, and a visiting scholar, Michael Meyer, professor of history at California State University, Northridge, an expert on Nazi-era Germany, who will participate in a panel discussion following the Hitler documentary. Midday we have a short program for our Torah school teens with titles like “Today, You Are a Fountain Pen” from L.A. filmmaker Dan Katzir and “Bat Mitzvah Blues” by Shira Sergant.

The festival finishes with an Israeli film, “Yana’s Friends,” which won 10 Israeli awards and is a sad-funny tale of Russian emigrants, gas masks and falling missiles during the first Iraq war.

In the end it was tough, but it was fun.

OK, Mr. De Mille, Ventura is ready for its close-up. Lights, cameras, action — oh yes, and food, of course.

The festival runs from March 27-28. Tickets are $18 for
a festival pass or $10 per film at the door. Call Ventura’s Temple Beth Torah at
(805) 647-4181 or check out the festival on www.templebethtorah.com .

New Writers Lack Roth Shock Value


"Lost Tribe: Jewish Fiction From the Edge" edited by Paul Zakrzewski (Perennial, $14.95).

It’s official. American Jews are now the People of the Book Festival.

Not so long ago, in a simpler America, there were Jewish-themed books and there were people who read them. Reading was an intimate enterprise, and authors spent long years of their careers as hard-working nobodies. Nowadays, literature in general — and Jewish literature in particular — have become much more public entertainments. Every season brings new book-world celebrities, book fairs, book clubs, book cruises and all manner of literary happenings.

What does this phenomenon mean for Jewish literature? For one thing, it makes possible the profession of "literary event curator," which is how Paul Zakrzewski, editor of a new anthology called "Lost Tribe: Jewish Fiction From the Edge," defines his job as coordinator of book-related programs for the JCC in Manhattan. Zakrzewski assumes similar curatorial duties in "Lost Tribe," assembling a collection of 25 short stories by new-ish authors, hoping to "gather together the provocative fiction of a new breed of Jewish writer — and showcase tomorrow’s great Jewish writers today."

In his introduction, Zakrzewski describes this new breed as the "post-Roth generation," by which he means contemporary writers who are attempting to shock readers as Philip Roth shocked his audience with "Portnoy’s Complaint" back in 1969. It’s silly, though, to designate a generation as "post-Roth" when Roth himself is still very much in the game. In fact, he offered the best writing of his career in the 1990s, when many of these young writers were themselves getting their start, and for all we know he’s now at work on something even better.

It must be said also that, while some of the stories in "Lost Tribe" are undeniably distasteful, sprinkled with the occasional Nazi fetish and a smattering of lackluster violence, none of them can be called shocking in the way that "Portnoy’s Complaint" managed to be. The reasons for this are too complex to examine here, but it’s safe to say that a fictional world’s ability to shock has declined in direct proportion to the multiple shocks administered these days by real-life current events.

What, then, is the "edge" on which this new Jewish fiction is purportedly teetering? Interestingly, it’s the edgier stories here that are the least compelling. "Knitting One," by Suzan Sherman, is the banal assessment of a Jewish girl’s obsession with WASPy men, while Gabriel Brownstein’s "Bachelor Party" is a vague, lazy story about a Jewish young man’s affair with his ex-Nazi mentor’s daughter. Meanwhile, Binnie Kirshenbaum’s "Who Knows Kaddish" takes a smug look at an assimilated daughter who takes up with an older German man while deploring her inability to mourn for her dead mother.

Less edgy but far more diverting are the harmless middlebrow entertainments on offer, including Tova Mirvis’s "A Poland, A Lithuania, a Galicia," about a 19-year-old New Jersey boy’s conversion to ultra-Orthodoxy, and Ben Schrank’s "Consent," in which a perpetual graduate student wrestles with divorce, new love and Jewish mysticism. The truly dreadful rears its head here also, in the form of Simone Zelitch’s kitschy historical melodrama, "Ten Plagues," about which the less said the better.

Book-club enthusiasts may be discouraged to find that many of the better selections here are far from new. Novelists Myla Goldberg, Jonathan Safran Foer and Dara Horn, for instance, offer passages from their popular first novels "Bee Season" (2000), "Everything is Illuminated" (2002), and "In the Image" (2002).

Similarly, Nathan Englander, Aimee Bender and Judy Budnitz weigh in with excellent stories that are by now quite familiar, having appeared in their much-ballyhooed debut collections, "For the Relief of Unbearable Urges" (1999), "The Girl in the Flammable Skirt" (1998), and "Flying Leap" (1997). For his part, Gary Shteyngart delivers "Several Anecdotes About My Wife," a witty variation on the immigration-comedy shtick he dispensed so hilariously in his novel "The Russian Debutante’s Handbook" (2002).

Other remarkable stories here include "Ordinary Pain" by Michael Lowenthal, a small but effective tale about a 13-year-old who invents a Holocaust story about his grandfather in order to gain popularity at school; Rachel Kadish’s "The Argument," in which a memory-haunted old man resents his rabbi’s enviable slide into dementia; and Joan Leegant’s "Seekers in the Holy Land," the lyrical account of a young American in Safed who becomes consumed by a less than benevolent mystical experience.

Talented as these young writers are, however, the only real edge that this Jewish fiction exhibits is a marketing edge. "Lost Tribe" is a volume whose real reasons for existing are to endorse the careers of its editor and contributors, and to join the noisy pageant of book festivals, readings and other promotions. The anthology itself doesn’t answer many questions about the future of Jewish literature. The more relevant question for these "post-Roth" aspirants is this: will they, 40 years down the line, be able to say they fulfilled their early promise with a career as consistently dazzling as that of Philip Roth?

Valley Festival Draws Thousands


It was a sunny day in Woodland Hills — perhaps a little too sunny — but the heat did not stop the 11th biennial Los Angeles Jewish Festival from creating some heat of its own.

"More booths, more vendors, more of everything" is how festival co-chair Nancy Parris Moskowitz described this year’s gathering, sponsored by The Jewish Federation/Valley Alliance and a host of Jewish organizations and corporate sponsors, which attracted a multiethnic group of some 30,000 people throughout the day. Moskowitz also welcomed the festival’s return to the Pierce College campus, where attendees benefited from "good parking, lots of access and lots of shade."

Ken Warner, Valley Alliance president, was proud that the festival’s $125,000 price tag "is not costing The Federation any money. We did this by asking businesses to contribute."

In keeping with this year’s social action theme, "World Jewry," Becquie Kishineff, who went on a mission to Argentina last November, enlisted the graphic art services of an unemployed Argentine Jew she had met for a special Jewish unity-themed jigsaw puzzle project sponsored by the Valley Alliance.

"He spent hundreds of hours working on it but he didn’t want to accept any money," Kishineff said. "There are people out there who still want to give."

And the festival gave its all in reflecting the diversity of Jewish Los Angeles. Among those occupying booths: Assemblyman Paul Koretz (D-West Hollywood) and Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks); organizations and nonprofits of every stripe from the Anti-Defamation League to StandWithUs and Million Mom March; Yiddish and Jewish culture societies; and grass-roots clubs, such as the Pomegranate Guild of Judaic Needlework.

"Part of our mission is to have a visible presence in the community," said Bill Rice of GaySantaBarbara.org, which hosted the Gay Cafe alongside food kiosks Klassic Knishes and Kosher Connection.

Judaica and art vendors ranged from a Shop for Israel shuk to local artists. The Main Stage showcased live music all day long, and kids had plenty of activities to choose from — everything from rock-climbing and Family Stage entertainment, to the Temple Beth Torah of Mar Vista booth, which offered kids a respite from the heat with some storytelling. Keith Levy, director of programs at Congregation B’nai Emet of Simi Valley, showed children such as Abby Leven, 10, of West Hills, how to play the shofar just in time for Rosh Hashanah.

Abby’s father, Paul Leven, who also brought his wife, Saralyn, and 12-year-old son, Aaron, summed up the festival’s appeal: "We like to see our friends and to check out the booths."

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.

Israel Fest Crowd Smaller, but Solid


Rides, kabobs, Mother’s Day and the Los Angeles Lakers made the 15th annual Israeli Festival an interesting experience this past Sunday. The combined forces of the holiday and the NBA playoffs brought the attendance rate at the May 11 event down to about 35,000 festival-goers — about 9,000 people less than the previous year, according to Adee Glazer-Drory, festival spokeswoman.

The unexpectedly hot weather at Woodley Park in Encino might also have been a factor in the 20 percent drop in attendance. By midday, singer Pini Cohen faced a wilting audience — despite the singer’s lively and enthusiastic performance.

The crowd rallied, however, when the parachuted members of the Los Angeles County Sheriff Department’s Golden Stars Skydiving Team performed and speakers, from event emcee and KABC-790 talk show host Larry Elder to Gov. Gray Davis, proclaimed their support for and commitment to the Jewish State.

Davis said that whatever the political differences of the people on the dais, "We are all united behind the view that we must support the only democracy in the Middle East."

Also in attendance were Reps. Howard Berman (D-Van Nuys) and Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks); Los Angeles City Councilmembers Wendy Gruel, Antonio Villaraigosa and Dennis Zine; California Assemblyman Paul Koretz; Los Angeles Unified School District Boardmember Julie Korenstein; Jewish Federation President John Fishel; and representatives of the Los Angles Police Department and Los Angeles Fire Department. Representing the State of Israel were Knesset member Natan B. Sharansky and Yuval Rotem, consul general of Israel in Los Angeles.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky was detained on a plane and his wife, Barbara, had to accept his award for "distinguished friend of the Israeli community."

Festival Chair Itzik Glazer said he was pleased by the number of people willing to come out to the festival, despite it falling on Mother’s Day.

"People have told me it’s the best festival yet," said his wife, Mikki Glazer.

For attendees, there were as many reasons to come out for the festival as there are ways to be Jewish. Marcie Elkin and her father, Robert Loring, came to the festival to "feel closer to my sister who made aliyah," Elkin said, adding that she was amazed by the crowd. "I was at the festival years ago, when it was in the city, and it’s tripled in size."

Vered Henn, who moved here from Haifa about eight years ago, said she missed the festival as it was when it was held at Pan Pacific Park in Los Angeles, but she felt it was too important an event to miss.

"This is the only thing we really have that connects us to Israel," Henn said.

Songs of Power


On a December day in 1993, an anxious Lee Hirsch sat on a747 bound for riot-torn South Africa with $600 and a small video camera.

The 20-year-old filmmaker didn’t know a soul inJohannesburg, but he had two telephone numbers and a mission: To make adocumentary about the protest music that had spurred the anti-apartheidmovement. To buy his ticket, he had sold his car and ignored the StateDepartment official who had called about the travel advisory.

“It was months after [American student] Amy Biehl had beenmurdered in Cape Town, and the plane was empty,” said Hirsch, a politicallyprogressive Jew from Long Island. “I was very scared, and I was prepared toturn around and go home the next day.”

Instead, he struggled for nine years to make “Amandla! ARevolution in Four-Part Harmony,” which won the audience and Freedom ofExpression Awards at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival and opens today in LosAngeles. Named for the Xhosa word for power, the exuberant movie explores the historyof apartheid and the music that helped overturn it. While some of the songshave previously been featured on the soundtracks of fictional films such as”Cry Freedom,” the documentary is the first to explore the phenomenon ofprotest music itself.

For the energetic Hirsch, who punctuates conversation withyouthful invectives such as “awesome,” one inspiration was the Jewish mandateof tikkun olam (repairing the world).

“I learned about it in a college class on the earlyChasidim, the Jewish radicals of their day,” said Hirsch, whose previous filmprofiled his godfather, the Holocaust survivor. “Coming out of the Jewishhistory of oppression, I feel we have the responsibility to stand up and makethe world a better place. In ‘Amandla!’ I wanted to show the power of music toaffect this kind of social and political change.”

Hirsch has been preoccupied with anti-apartheid music sincesuccessfully lobbying his Vermont boarding school to divest its South Africanholdings in the 1980s.

“I’d watch a news broadcast about unrest in a township andrealize that people were singing, because I could hear it under thenewscaster’s voice,” he said. “I started becoming obsessed with the music, andI vowed to learn more.”

Easier said than done. No studies or books existed on thesongs, which were largely undocumented. And the white, Jewish filmmaker didn’tknow any of the black activists or performers. His first break came when hecalled one of his telephone contacts two days after arriving in Johannesburgand reached a Zulu family whose son was prominent in the MK, the military wingof the African National Congress. Before long, he was tagging along tounderground meetings in the townships, which he describes as “row after row ofunpaved streets and garbage burning in overstuffed receptacles.”

“Suddenly, I was in the middle of things,” he said.

By the mid-1990s, Hirsch had partnered with “Amandla!”producer Sherry Simpson, an African American TV music producer based in LosAngeles, and had relocated to Johannesburg to develop the film. Over the nextfive years, he criss-crossed the country with his video camera, filling 12notebooks with research and persuading activists to appear in his film.

Parliament member Thandi Modise described how she sang tocomfort herself when her water broke during a prison beating and she was dumpedin her dank cell to give birth. An ex-death row warden stood in the former”hanging room” at Pretoria Central Prison and recalled leading shackledactivists to the gallows (they sang, too).

At a 1995 rally, Hirsch filmed a beaming President NelsonMandela dancing to a victory song before the country’s first democraticelections. 

He believes he was granted the access because he was aneager American, not a white South African; it didn’t hurt that he was Jewish.”It’s well known that most of the white anti-apartheid activists were Jews,” hesaid by telephone from his publicist’s office in Manhattan. “These people wereloved by the black community as if they were black, as if they were one of theirown.”

For two years, Hirsch lived in the guest bedroom of one suchactivist, Dr. Paul Davis, a “struggle doctor” who cared for detainees when theywere released from prison. Hirsch grew to love the multicultural Shabbatdinners Paul held with his wife, Allison Russell, a chief physician at thelargest black hospital in South Africa. “They were a tremendous inspiration tome,” Hirsch said of the couple. “We talked a lot about tikkun olam and what ourresponsibilities are to the world as Jews.”

Ten years after Hirsch set off on that empty flight forJohannesburg, he still considers directing socially-conscious films to be oneof those responsibilities. “I want to make movies that fuse my activism with alarger audience,” he said.

“Amandla!” opens Feb. 28 at Laemmle Sunset 5, 8000 SunsetBlvd., West Hollywood, (323) 848-3500; and in March in Orange County. 

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