‘Bethlehem,’ a film of spies and intrigue and Oscar possibilities


Foreign-language (meaning non English-language) films from 76 countries, ranging from Afghanistan to Venezuela, are competing for Oscar honors this year, with Israel’s entry, “Bethlehem,” pitting Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, against diverse Palestinian factions eager to blow up the Jewish state.

In Hollywood’s hands, this plot would be a no-brainer, with the guys in the white hats mopping up the floor with the bad guys.

However, it is only fair to warn flag-waving partisans on either side, who see the conflict in terms of unblemished virtue against pure evil, that they’re not going to like the way the film handles its subject.

As the film’s producer, Talia Kleinhandler, writes, “What I think is important about this story is that it never attempts to give a clear answer about right and wrong. All the characters in ‘Bethlehem’ are flawed; all are vulnerable. There is no black and white in this film, only painful shades of gray – like the reality we all live in here.”

If this assessment makes it sound like a namby-pamby movie, full of on-the-one-hand, but on-the-other-hand, agonizing, “Bethlehem,” named for the West Bank city where the action unfolds, is anything but.

Co-written by Yuval Adler, an Israeli Jew who served in an army intelligence unit, and Ali Waked, a Palestinian Muslim and journalist, “Bethlehem” is a nail-biting thriller with enough intrigue and bullets to keep the most demanding action fan satisfied.

The film’s time and setting is the Second Intifada, from roughly 2000 to 2005, and in the opening scene, Palestinian suicide bombers have struck in the heart of Jerusalem, with scores dead and wounded.

The central protagonists are Razi, a veteran Shin Bet (or Shabak) agent, and Sanfur, a 17-year-old Palestinian recruited by Razi as an informer two years earlier.

But Sanfur isn’t just any kid with a hankering for American jeans. He is the younger brother of Ibrahim, the local leader of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, whom Razi has been hunting for more than a year.

Like almost everything in the movie, and in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict it depicts, the relationship between the seasoned Israeli agent and the teenage Palestinian boy is complex and often contradictory.

Adler, who is also the film’s director, quotes a veteran Israeli secret service agent who told him that “the key to recruiting and running informants is not violence, or intimidation, or money, but the key is to develop an intimate relationship with the informant, on a very human level. It’s not just the informant who is confused about his identity and loyalties. The agent, too – and especially the good ones – often experience a blurring of the lines.”

Following this dictum, Sanfur, whose own father clearly favors the militant Ibrahim over his younger son, finds in Razi a kind of surrogate father, and Razi cares personally for the boy – even if that clashes with his professional duties.

While the Palestinian militants hate Israel, they dislike their internal rivals with equal intensity. The secular al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, affiliated with Fatah, contemptuously refers to the fervently Islamic Hamas as the “beards,” who in turn loathe the corrupt bureaucrats of the Palestinian Authority.

Co-writer Waked, interviewed in a Hollywood hotel, draws an analogy between these feuds and the pre-1948 Jewish community in Palestine, when Menachem Begin’s Etzel and David Ben-Gurion’s Haganah detested one another with as much fervor as they did the British soldiers.

Another remarkable aspect of “Bethlehem” is that almost everyone involved in making the movie is pretty much of a novice.

The strong acting lineup, foremost Shadi Mar’i as Sanfur and Tsahi Halevy as Razi, consists almost entirely of first-time actors. Furthermore, for both Adler and Waked, “Bethlehem” is their first feature film.

Adler, 44, said in an interview that his film debut is a major hit in its home country, and won a fistful of awards, including best picture, at the Israeli equivalent of the Academy Awards.

Israel’s media, which have a much higher tolerance for national self-criticism than their American counterparts, have generally come out with complimentary reviews, though the strongest raves have been in the foreign press and trade papers.

Curiously, while in most countries the political right would have condemned the film’s critical take on the national security service, in Israel it has been the left that has slammed the picture for its supposedly distorted view of the Palestinian struggle.

Thus in an article in the daily Haaretz, headlined “ ‘Bethlehem’ is yet another Israeli propaganda film,” critic Gideon Levy terms as “outrageous” what he sees as the movie’s portrayal of Israelis as the good guys and Palestinians as the bad guys.

Adler, who has steadfastly declined to discuss his own political orientation, considers such charges preposterous. His diverse cast of Israeli and Palestinian actors “made it possible to see the world through their eyes,” he said. “As director, I tried to bring their contradictory viewpoints into a single whole, without taking sides, and without judging them.”

For the Israeli Film Academy, picking “Bethlehem” as the country’s official Oscar contender marks an interesting shift in focus from the two preceding entries, “Footnote,” which dealt with academic rivalries at a university, and last year’s “Fill the Void,” which viewed life and love among the ultra-Orthodox.

It will be interesting to see how the famously unpredictable Academy selection committee reacts to the picture, but the film has been touted as a real Oscar contender in a number of Hollywood publications.

A quick glance at submissions from other countries shows that, contrary to frequent predictions, the world’s producers and directors have not lost their interest in movies about the Nazi era, the Holocaust and the conflict in the Middle East.

Argentina’s “The German Doctor” follows the notorious Dr. Josef Mengele, Auschwitz’ “Angel of Death,” as he flees to the South American country and befriends an unsuspecting family there.

In years past, the U.S. Academy wrestled with the proper terminology for the “Palestinian Authority” or “Palestinian Territories,” but apparently everybody has stopped worrying about the problem, so the film “Omar” is credited with coming from “Palestine.”

Omar, the baker, lives on one side of Israel’s security wall, while the beautiful Nadia lives on the other side. But the romantic scenario turns very grim as Omar becomes a “freedom fighter” battling the ruthless Israeli occupiers.

One of the more interesting entries is The Philippines’ “The Transit,” which deals with the lives of Filipinos working in mostly low-paid jobs in Israel.

For World War II buffs, there is Russia’s “Stalingrad,” which chronicles both the epic battle and love among its ruins.


“Bethlehem” will be released in local theaters Feb. 21, 2014. Oscar nominees will be announced Jan.16 and the winners will be crowned on March 2.

‘Walk’ changes a life


For Aaron Wolf, an anecdote sparked a personal memory that inspired a film. The same day he read reflections by Rabbi David Wolpe about the Sinai Temple rabbi’s father, Rabbi Gerald Wolpe, and about the kindness of a stranger, Wolf went to his keyboard and banged out the first draft of what would become “The Walk.”

“I tend to think very visually,” said Wolf, an actor and director as well as a writer. “I read Rabbi Wolpe’s paragraphs — maybe three brief, very cool paragraphs — and I said, ‘This has to be a film.’ ” 

And now it is. Clocking in at 20 minutes and starring Peter Riegert (“Crossing Delancey,” TV’s “Dads”) and newcomer Sawyer Barth, the short, fictionalized story received its Los Angeles premiere before a hugely appreciative audience at the Skirball Cultural Center. (At that same event, the filmmaker showed a teaser of his next project, “Restoring Tomorrow,” a full-length documentary about the renovation of Wilshire Boulevard Temple.)

From the Skirball, “The Walk” moves on to festivals around the country and in Canada.

“The Walk” hits close to home, the 32-year-old filmmaker said. Wolf drew on conversations he’d had with his own grandfather, Rabbi Alfred Wolf, when the two would walk in the hills of Los Feliz. Aaron was a boy of 8 when these walks/talks started.

“He loved taking hikes and being at one with nature,” Wolf recalls of his grandfather, who passed away in 2004 at 88. “We would talk about life, but I never felt like he was pounding me with information. I was his equal, and we were having conversations.”

Wolf channels these talks in crafting his tale of Danny (played by Barth), who, following the death of his rabbi father, returns alone to the synagogue where his father officiated. Danny is befriended by a goodhearted congregant named Alfred, who takes him into services and then returns the following day so that the two can walk to shul together. Danny’s apartment, Alfred says, is on his way.

“I don’t like to be alone,” Alfred tells the boy, knowing full well that companionship is what his new young companion desperately needs. Over the course of a year, Alfred and Danny share walks, food, stories and wisdom. The story has a heart-warming twist that will not be revealed here.

Wolpe, who is recognized as a producer of the film as well as its inspiration, says he was touched by the “bare bones” appeal of the film.

“It’s such a beautiful, moving and human story,” Wolpe said. “And it has a relationship that I thought felt genuine, and that was just a wonderful thing to see.”

Wolpe’s own story — recounted in his book “Why Faith Matters” — tells of how his own father, Gerald Wolpe, lost his father when he was 11. En route to the synagogue to say Kaddish, young Gerald encountered an older man, the temple’s shammas, named Mr. Einstein, who subsequently made a practice of walking with the boy to shul for the 11 months of his mourning. As in the film, Einstein told the boy his house was on his way. Years later, Gerald Wolpe introduced his first-born son to Mr. Einstein.

“The lesson of it is an old man sees a young man in need, and mentors him, and then, later, the young man goes to see him and presents him with his own child,” said David Wolpe, whose father died in 2009. “I think my father would have been thrilled to see that his story inspired this film.”

Following the Skirball screening, Wolf and Riegert shared stories of the film’s genesis. It was shot over just four days in and around Brooklyn. As if the challenges of shooting a low-budget independent film weren’t substantial enough, the crew worked around the tail end of a blizzard that dumped 10 inches of snow on the city. 

Riegert, who was sent the script by his agent, said he and Wolf discussed the project over dinner at an Italian restaurant in New York, and the actor admired Wolf’s courage as much as his writing abilities. 

“It’s not everyday that I get to play an old Jew,” deadpanned Riegert, who is doing exactly that on the Fox series “Dads.” “I was really flattered to be asked, and Aaron has got a very tasty look at life. It’s fun to meet new talent, obviously, so I’m hoping he’ll be running Paramount Pictures in three years.” 

When Wolpe recounts the story, he emphasizes the ripple effect of an act of kindness. 

“Because Mr. Einstein did [what he did], my father told the story. Because he told the story, I told the story,” Wolpe said. 

“Because I told the story, the film was made and other people will see the story. It’s a beautiful thing how such a selfless act can have endless ripples in people’s lives.”

Is Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s ‘Don Jon’ bad for the Jews?


Apparently lots and lots of sex isn’t the most potentially offensive thing about Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s latest film “Don Jon.”

The Italian American One Voice Coalition has accused the Jewish actor/director of promoting “racist stereotypes” in the movie, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

“Here we go again with the same shop-worn, racist stereotypes of Italian Americans in movies,” said organization founder Emanuele “Manny” Alfano. “It never ends. Levitt, himself the son of proud parents who once founded the Jewish Progressive Alliance and fought for social justice causes, should be ashamed of himself for the negative portrayal of Italians and Jews in his movie.”

In “Don Jon,” Gordon-Levitt plays Jon Martello, a “Jersey Shore”-esque porn addict who falls for a Jewish (and also very Jersey-fied) chick named Barbara Sugarman, played by real-life Jew Scarlett Johansson.

As no specific scenes were cited and we haven’t seen the film ourselves, at this time we here at 6NoBacon will abstain from weighing in. But we’re guessing it probably can’t be much worse stereotype-wise than “Jewtopia,” right?

Watch: Woody Allen as a pimp in ‘Fading Gigolo’ trailer


It’s hard to decide what seems more unlikely: Woody Allen playing a pimp, or Woody Allen starring in someone else’s film.

Believe it or not, in “Fading Gigolo,” the legendary Jewish director does both. John Turturro wrote and directed the film, in which Allen plays a bookseller who picks up some work pimping out Turturro’s character. Clients include Sharon Stone and Sofia Vergara, two women looking for a threesome.

That seemed juicy enough until we saw the third client featured prominently in the trailer, who appears to be… Hasidic. Thanks to Tablet for confirming that the movie does, in fact, have “A Stranger Among Us” meets “Hung” thing going on.

See for yourself here.

Jewish roots of the ‘Man of Steel’


Seventy-five years after bursting into the world of comic books, something still feels Jewish about Superman.

That’s not just because he was created by two Jewish teens from Cleveland, writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster, who debuted comic books’ first costumed superhero in the June 1938 issue of Action Comics No. 1.

From his Kryptonian name to biblical similarities, Superman and his story — which will be mined again for box office gold in Zack Snyder’s “Man of Steel,” opening June 14 — offered plenty to discuss during a June 2 panel discussion at the Skirball Cultural Center, “Superman at 75: A Jewish Hero for All Time”

The event featured Richard Donner, director of the beloved 1978 original film starring Christopher Reeves; actor Jack Larson, who played Jimmy Olsen of TV’s “Adventures of Superman” (1952-1958); and Geoff Johns, chief creative officer at DC Comics. Larry Tye, author of the 2012 book “Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero,” moderated.

“Our program was just what I’d hoped,” Tye told the Journal a week later. “Having three of Superman’s most eloquent and passionate defenders, from three different generations, explain why they love him, and why the world does.”

The discussion came just as Warner Bros., parent company of DC Comics, the publisher of Superman comics, prepared to unspool yet another incarnation of that familiar tale about the Man of Steel. It’s the story of a humanoid alien — survivor of the dying planet Krypton — who arrives on Earth, where he gains superpowers from the sun, assumes the secret identity of journalist Clark Kent and engages in a love triangle with fellow reporter Lois Lane and, well, himself.

[Related: Six reasons Superman is Jesus in “Man of Steel”]

At one point during the Skirball event, Tye — fresh off a lecture tour that included Temple Beth El in San Pedro and Shomrei Torah Synagogue in West Hills — asked the audience what religion Superman is. He answered that all faiths read their own interpretation of him.  

In his later conversation with the Journal, the Boston-based Tye discussed the Judaism encoded in the Superman mythos.

“The evidence of Superman’s ethnic origin starts with Kal-El, his Kryptonian name,” Tye said. “ ‘El’ means God. ‘Kal’ is similar to the Hebrew words for voice and vessel. Together, they suggest that the alien superbaby was not just a Jew, but a very special one; like Moses.”

Tye also sees parallels between the Torah and Siegel and Shuster’s groundbreaking creation, originally drawn on a breadboard the latter’s mother rolled her challah dough on for Shabbat. For example, he compares the superhero’s rocketship escape as an infant from Krypton to the story of baby Moses floating down the Nile in a basket in Exodus.

Larry Tye. Photo by Elisabeth Frusztajer

Even Superman’s “American” ideals are very Jewish.

“The three legs of the Superman myth — truth, justice and the American way — are straight out of the Mishnah,” Tye said. “ ‘The world,’ it reads, ‘endures on three things: justice, truth and peace.’ ”

“Man of Steel,” the cinematic version of the superhero’s story that flies into multiplexes this weekend, is already tracking to deliver a $100 million opening weekend, with Snyder’s interpretation of Krypton’s last son appearing to embrace the Siegel and Shuster era’s sci-fi roots.

But back in the ’70s, Donner said he initially balked at the script that arrived at his home with a Superman costume.

“I was brought up with Superman, and this was a parody of a parody of a parody,” he told the Skirball audience.

One scene, he said, involved Superman seeking the bald villain Lex Luthor, but the person he finds turns around revealing himself to be Telly Savalas, offering him a lollipop and quipping his trademark, “Who loves ya, baby?” 

Donner said his reaction was: “God! What are they doing? They’re destroying Superman!”

He insisted on rewriting the script, but his writing partner, Tom Mankiewicz, hung up on him the first time Donner told him the “perfect project.” After much convincing, Mankiewicz came to Donner’s house to discuss the project.

“In those days, I had a little bit of weed in the ash tray,” Donner recalled. “It was Sunday after all. I lit up and put on the costume.” 

He greeted Mankiewicz while wearing the outfit.

“I had to pull him out of his car, he wouldn’t get out!” Donner said, laughing.

After Mankiewicz agreed to the project, they knew what they had to do.

“This was sacrilegious,” Donner said. “You don’t mess with Superman.”

“Verisimilitude” became Donner’s buzz word: “It had to have a sense of reality,” he said regarding the secret to pulling off the movie’s mix of comic book action and humanity. “You could laugh with it but not at it.”

Johns said that the movie changed his life.

“I don’t think there would be any superhero movies [without ‘Superman’],” he said. “Everyone cites it as the birth of the modern superhero movie. It’s actually still the best.”

Tye said he is optimistic about the chances of this year’s reboot to outperform 2007’s lackluster “Superman Returns,” “even if [the star, Henry] Cavill, is a Brit playing an all-American hero, and even if Superman has, heaven forbid, stopped wearing his underpants on top of his tights.”

As for Superman’s late creators, they were famously cut out of the billions their creation raked in for Warner Bros. via comics, movies and merchandise, and spent their lives fighting in the courts, trying to right the lopsided work-for-hire contract they had signed. Last October, a federal district judge ruled that Shuster’s heirs had signed away their rights to Superman in 1992. Three months later, a U.S. appellate panel said Siegel’s heirs must adhere to the agreement they made with Warner Bros. in 2001, which made them give up claims to the character.

Tye believes he knows why Superman, as his book’s title suggests, continues to entertain and inspire.

“He is neither cynical like Batman nor fraught like Spider-Man,” Tye explained. “For the religious, he can reinforce whatever faith they profess; for nonbelievers, he is a secular messiah. The more jaded the era, the more we have been suckered back to his clunky familiarity. So what if the upshot of his adventures is as predictable as with Sherlock Holmes? The good guy never loses. That’s reassuring.

Summer Sneaks calendar


SAT | JUNE 1

LOS ANGELES JEWISH FILM FESTIVAL 

More than 20 dramas, documentaries, comedies, foreign language films and shorts will be shown at seven venues from Thousand Oaks to Beverly Hills. Highlights at the eighth annual L.A. Jewish Film Festival include tonight’s star-studded opening-night gala celebration with the premiere of the comedy “Putzel,” starring Susie Essman (“Curb Your Enthusiasm”) and Melanie Lynskey (“Two and a Half Men”); “Neil Diamond: Solitary Man,” a documentary on the music icon; “Becoming Henry/Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir,” with Polanski addressing every aspect of his celebrated and controversial life; “My Father and the Man in Black,” the untold story of Johnny Cash and his talented but troubled manager; and “When Comedy Went to School,” the closing-night film, which presents an entertaining portrait of the country’s greatest generation of comedians. A program of the Jewish Journal. Sat. Through June 6. Various times, locations. $40 (opening night gala), $7-$12 (films). (213) 368-1661. lajfilmfest.org.

ORIT HOFSHI 

Based out of Mishkan Omanim (The Artists’ Studio) in Herzliya, Israeli artist Hofshi returns to Los Angeles with her latest exhibition, “Cessation,” which explores the relationship between the artist, topographical patterns and her perception of the environment and man through works on paper, installations and woodcutting. Sat. 7-9 p.m. (opening reception). Through July 27 (Tuesday-Saturday 10 a.m.-6 p.m.). Shulamit Gallery, 17 N. Venice Blvd., Venice. (310) 281-0961. shulamitgallery.com


MON | JUNE 3

MOSH BEN-ARI 

One of Israel’s foremost singer-songwriters and co-founder of the world music ensemble Sheva, Ben-Ari combines traditional Jewish ethnic chants with rock, soul, reggae and pop. Guest artist Mooke, an Israeli rapper and former frontman of Shabak Samech, also performs on the last stop of Ben-Ari’s U.S. tour. Mon. 7:30 p.m. $45 (advance), $55 (door). Avalon, 1735 N. Vine St., Hollywood. (323) 462-8900. avalonhollywood.com.


SUN | JUNE 9

MANDY PATINKIN

Mandy Patinkin

Beloved for his Broadway turns in “Evita” and “Sunday in the Park With George” as well as numerous roles on screens big (“The Princess Bride,” “Yentl”) and small (“Homeland,” “Criminal Minds,” “Chicago Hope”), the Tony and Emmy winner performs popular standards and Broadway classics while backed by the Pasadena POPS, conducted for this concert by Eric Stern. Sun. 8 p.m. $81-$153. John Anson Ford Theatres, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. E., Hollywood. (323) 461-3673. fordtheatres.org.


FRI | JUNE 14

BARRY MANILOW 

Direct from Broadway, following a critically acclaimed sold-out run, the pop singer-songwriter brings hits like “Mandy,” “Copacabana,” “Looks Like We Made It,” “I Write the Songs” and “Can’t Smile” to adoring Fanilows during a three-night engagement at the Greek. Fri. 8 p.m. Through June 16. $9.99-$249.99. The Greek Theatre, 2700 N. Vermont Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 665-5857. greektheatrela.com


TUE | JUNE 18

“THE JUDY SHOW — MY LIFE AS A SITCOM”

Judy Gold, the 6-foot-3 Jewish mother of two, is bringing her big, critically acclaimed off-Broadway hit to the Geffen. A one-woman show and homage to the classic sitcoms of Gold’s youth, including “The Brady Bunch,” “The Partridge Family” and “Facts of Life,” “The Judy Show” covers life, love, show biz and ultimately her quest for her very own show. Through July 28. Tue. 8 p.m. $57. The Geffen Playhouse, Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater Season, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Los Angeles. (310) 208-2028. geffenplayhouse.com.


SUN | JUNE 23

GUSTER 

The road warriors from the East Coast jam band scene blend the sounds of Simon and Garfunkel and the Beach Boys with tribal drumming. Led by nice Jewish boys Ryan Miller and Adam Gardner on guitars and vocals and Brian Rosenworcel on percussion, the band joins groups Barenaked Ladies and Ben Folds Five for the “Last Summer on Earth 2013” tour.  Sun. 7 p.m. $37.75-$77.75. The Greek Theatre, 2700 N. Vermont Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 665-5857. greektheatrela.com.


THU | JUNE 27 

NEIL GAIMAN

The acclaimed author of “Coraline,” “The Graveyard Book,” the comic book series “The Sandman” and the award-winning fantasy novel “American Gods” discusses his well-received new novel, “The Ocean at the End of the Lane,” with Entertainment Weekly’s Geoff Boucher. Gaiman’s first work for an adult audience in eight years, “The Ocean at the End of the Lane,” follows a middle-aged man who returns to his childhood home, where he is confronted by a past too strange, too frightening and too dangerous to have happened to anyone, let alone a small boy. Thu. 8 p.m. $40-$103. Alex Theatre, 216 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale. (818) 243-2539. alextheatre.org.


SUN | JUNE 30 

FRED WEINTRAUB 

The Hollywood legend you’ve never heard of — who guided the careers of celebrities Woody Allen, Bill Cosby, Neil Diamond and Joan Rivers; championed the making of the “Woodstock” film, saving Warner Bros. in the process; and discovered martial arts sensation Bruce Lee — discusses his memoir, “Bruce Lee, Woodstock and Me.” “I’ve pretty much seen and done it all,” writes Weintraub. “Or at least as much as any nice, Jewish, Ritalin-deprived, Depression baby could ever hope to see and do.” Sun. 2-4 p.m. Museum admission rates apply: $10 (adults), $6 (students, seniors), $4 (children, 3-12), free (children under 3). Autry National Center, Griffith Park, Los Angeles. (323) 667-2000, ext. 326. theautry.org.


WED | JULY 10 

“A PARALLELOGRAM”

Pulitzer- and Tony-winning playwright Bruce Norris follows up his monster hit “Clybourne Park” with this mind-scrambling comedy that distorts the audience’s perspective and poses profound questions about the choices we make. Directed by Tony-winning director Anna Shapiro (“August: Osage County”), “A Parallelogram” follows Bee, for whom the past, present and future collide when strange new revelations rock her seemingly normal suburban life and take her down a rabbit hole. Through Aug. 18. Wed. 8 p.m. $30-$50. Mark Taper Forum at the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown. (213) 628-2772. centertheatregroup.org.


FRI | JULY 12

Beth Lapides

BETH LAPIDES’ “UNCABARET” 

Idiosyncratic blends with the conversational to form actress, writer and producer Lapides’ weekly stand-up showcase. Over its 25 years of existence, “Uncabaret” has fostered the careers of stars Kathy Griffin, Margaret Cho and Jeff Garlin. This time the magic happens at the summer series Grand Performances. Fri. 8 p.m. Free.  Grand Performances, 300-350 S. Grand Ave., downtown. (213) 687-2159. grandperformances.org.

“INTO THE NIGHT: SECRETS AND TRUTH” 

Celebrate the creative universe of artist, illustrator, animator and toy designer Gary Baseman, whose whimsical exhibition, “The Door Is Always Open,” is currently on display at the Skirball. The festive “Into the Night” soiree features live bands, DJ sets, gallery explorations, art making, film screenings and a special appearance by the artist himself. Ages 21 and over. Fri. 9 p.m.-1 a.m. $15 (advance), $20 (door). Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4500. skirball.org.


SAT | JULY 13

“SONGFEST SINGS AMERICA: CELEBRATING LEONARD BERNSTEIN” 

Celebrating America’s great composer, SongFest 2013 partners with Grand Performances to present a concert, the centerpiece of which will be the unpublished “Songfest: A Cycle of American Poems for Six Singers and Orchestra,” a 1977 song cycle by Bernstein. Other works include favorites from “Candide” and “West Side Story.” Bernstein’s daughter, Jamie Bernstein, will recite the poems. Sat. 8 p.m. Free. Grand Performances, 300-350 S. Grand Ave., downtown. (213) 687-2159. grandperformances.org.


SUN | JULY 14

“BECOMING LOS ANGELES”

Featuring contemporary design, exceptional objects and multimedia, this 14,000-square-foot permanent exhibition offers a unique take on Los Angeles: Inside a suite of four galleries, a visually striking canopy symbolizes the sweep of history and leads visitors through major sections or historical eras: the pre-Spanish landscape, the Mission Era, the Mexican Rancho Era, the early years of the American Period, the emergence of a new American city in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and L.A. as a global city of the 21st century. Sun. 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. $12 (adults), $9 (seniors, college students, ages 13-17), $5 (ages 3-12). The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, 900 Exposition Blvd., Los Angeles. (213) 763-3466. nhm.org.

“THE NEWSROOM”

In the season two premiere, the staff of “News Night,” led by anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), producer Mackenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) and cable news president Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston) chase a mysterious tip, which leads to a story that ultimately spins out of control. New arrivals to the Aaron Sorkin series include actress Marcia Gay Harden, who plays a litigator defending the station from a termination suit. Sun. Free. 10 p.m. hbo.com.


THU | AUG 1 

SHYE BEN-TZUR

The acclaimed Israeli composer and musician resets Hebrew prayers and poetry to Indian devotional music. Part of the Skirball Sunset Concert series, presenting musical traditions from around the world. Thu. 8 p.m. Free. 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4500. skirball.org.


SAT | AUG 10 

MOSTLY KOSHER 

Southern California-based klezmer band Mostly Kosher’s bandleader and singer Leeav Sofer and Janice “Rachele the Matchmaker” Mautner Markham on violin celebrate Jewish culture. They perform songs and stories from across the globe as part of the family series “Big!World!Fun!” at the Ford. Sat. 10 a.m. $5 (adults), free (ages 12 and younger). John Anson Ford Theatres, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. E., Hollywood. (323) 461-3673. fordtheatres.org.

“AN EVENING OF DANCE” 

The Zev Yaroslavsky Signature Series continues with the Complexions Contemporary Ballet. Led by Dwight Rhoden and Desmond Richardson, Complexions troupe brings its athletic, lyrical, technically proficient and seasoned choreography and dancers to the Ford stage. The evening also includes local favorite Lula Washington Dance Theatre, a creative outlet for dancers in South Los Angeles. Sat. 8 p.m. $45-$85. John Anson Ford Theatres, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. E., Hollywood. (323) 461-3673. fordtheatres.org.


TUE | AUG 20 

Itzhak Perlman

ITZHAK PERLMAN

The melding of the Israeli-American violinist’s soulful tone and virtuosic technique with Cantor Yitzchak Meir Helfgot’s tenor highlights tonight’s concert performance, “Eternal Echoes: Songs and Dances for the Soul.” This program includes beloved Jewish liturgical and traditional works in arrangements for chamber orchestra and klezmer musicians. The Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Klezmer Conservatory Band and conductor Russell Ger also appear. Tue. 8 p.m. $1-$136. Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 850-2000. hollywoodbowl.com.


SUN | AUG 25

LOS ANGELES JEWISH SYMPHONY 

Encompassing dance and music from Russia, Argentina, Israel and the United States, the orchestral ensemble’s performance, “Cultural Collaborations,” features the orchestra and Argentinian tango dancers Miriam Marici and Leonardo Barrionuevo performing the U.S. premiere of “Go Tango!” along with a musical look at the familiar story of Tevye the Milkman (“Fiddler on the Roof”) in the symphonic suite “Reb Tevye.” The evening continues with violinist Kobi Malkin, who is featured in the world premiere of Sholom Secunda’s “Violin Concerto,” and closes with a return to dance with the world premiere of “Israeli Country Dances Suite,” which highlights 10 different forms of dance popular in Israel over the years, ending in a rousing horah. BODYTRAFFIC dance ensemble acts out the interpretation. Sun. 7:30 p.m. $30-$50 (general), $20 (students). John Anson Ford Theatres, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. E., Hollywood. (323) 461-3673. fordtheatres.org.


SAT | SEPT 7

GARY BASEMAN

Baseman’s solo exhibition, “Base Man” — featuring the works of the artist, illustrator, animator and toy designer — runs through the fall at the Venice-based Shulamit Gallery. Born in 1960 to Polish-born Holocaust survivors, Baseman began his career as a successful illustrator in the 1980s, then transitioned into fine art in 1999, gaining wide recognition for his whimsical work. Gallery hours: Tuesday-Saturday. 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Shulamit Gallery, 17 N. Venice Blvd., Venice. (310) 281-0961. shulamitgallery.com.

Slavery’s horrific shadow lives on — and so does Hitler’s


Quentin Tarantino’s “Django” is sparking controversy — and not just for its flagrant use of the n word. According to African-American film critic Tim Cogshell (quoted by Erin Aubry Kaplan in the Times), “The surreal liftoff that happens at some point in ‘Basterds’ [Tarantino’s take on the Holocaust] doesn’t happen here, because of the weight of what’s still real. For example, there’s a certain racial backlash to Obama that’s still going on. Quentin wants this to be a dark comedy, but with [black] history the way it is, you can’t get from here to there in a movie.”

There are two problems with Cogshell’s comment. First the after-effects of slavery experienced by African Americans are part of a global phenomenon of anti-black racism. Hardly anybody noticed, but just this past November the U.S. State Department issued a travel advisory for Greece because of of “a rise in unprovoked harassment and violent attacks against persons who, because of their complexion, are perceived to be foreign migrants.” Africans, especially “illegal immigrants,” are the main target of Greece’s far-right Golden Dawn Party, but there are also “confirmed reports of US African-American citizens detained by police conducting sweeps for illegal immigrants in Athens.”

Second, Hitler may be dead, but his noxious influence persists in the twenty-first century. A case in point: the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s new list of 2012’s top anti-Semites. Greek Golden Dawn’s founder Nikolaos Michaloliakos appeared to give a Nazi salute in the Athens City Council. He claims that it was merely “the salute of the national youth organization of Ioannis Metaxas.” In May, 2012, he told an interviewer that six million did not die in the Nazi Holocaust. He called the figure an exaggeration. “There were no ovens. This is a lie . . . there were no gas chambers, either.”

Artemis Matthaiopoulos, elected MP for the town of Serres, was the front man of the Nazi punk band Pogrom. One of the band’s songs, “Auschwitz” included anti-Semitic lyrics such as “f*** Wiesenthal”, “f*** Anne Frank”, “f*** the whole tribe of Abraham”, “Juden raus” and “The Star of David makes me vomit.” Matthaiopoulos is the second neo-Nazi rocker to represent Golden Dawn in the Greek Parliament.

Greece incubated democracy—but, of course, it’s not the only modern democracy with an anti-Semitism problem. Here at home, the phenomenon of Jew hatred crosses racial and religious lines. Case in point: perennial anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan who in 2012 said: “Jews control the media. They said it themselves. . . . In Washington right next to the Holocaust museum is the Federal Reserve where they print the money. Is that an accident? . . . Did you know the Quran says that Jews are the most violent of people? I didn’t write it, but I’m living to see it.”

Public opinion polls vary, but roughly 15 percent of Americans harbor hard-core anti-Semitic beliefs—about the same percentage who say they would never vote for an African American presidential candidate. Fortunately, these levels of prejudice are only a fraction of the large majorities throughout the Arab and Muslim world who profess hostility toward Judaism and Jews.

Still, we’ve still got a real problem with prejudice right here in America—and African Americans and Jews should collectively make a New Year’s Resolution to combat it!


Dr. Brackman is a Senior Consultant for the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Museum of Tolerance.

Holocaust, Jewish themes remain prominent among foreign Oscar offerings


The long-forecast “Holocaust fatigue” among filmmakers and their audiences has not yet arrived, judging by the entries for 2013 Oscar honors by producers and directors in numerous countries.

Each of a record 71 foreign — meaning non-English-speaking — countries has submitted its top film, ranging alphabetically from Afghanistan to Vietnam.

So broad a representation of the world’s tastemakers and opinion-shapers, though hardly scientific proof, tends to reflect the topics and themes likely to attract home audiences.

So, just as in Hollywood, there are lots of movies on love in all its permutations; high and low comedies; and spy, action and detective thrillers.

But also entered are five movies that deal directly with the Jewish fate during the Nazi era and its aftermath, one film with talmudic roots and one on the wartime clash between Russian and German armed forces.

Also of special interest to Jewish moviegoers are the Israeli entry, and, after an absence, a Palestinian film.

Probably the least-expected entry is “Lore,” submitted by Australia. While the Aussies speak in what might still be considered colonial dialect, that would hardly be considered a foreign language by the standards of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

But “Lore” features an all-German acting and -speaking cast. The title character is a 14-year-old girl, the daughter of a high-ranking SS officer and his like-minded wife, who are arrested by Allied authorities in the closing days of World War II in Europe.

Lore is charged by her mother to take her four younger siblings, one still a baby, across rubble-strewn Germany, pass through the Russian-occupied zone and find the farm of her grandmother in American-ruled West Germany.

Along the way, Lore is befriended and protected by a young man, to whom the adolescent girl is physically and emotionally attracted. To her horror, the Nazi-suckled Lore discovers that her protector seems to be one of the despised and evil Jews she has been taught to hate all her life.

The only Australian part of the film is its director, Cate Shortland, and under the Academy rules, that entitles her country to enter “Lore” as its own.

Shortland, who with the Journal during a visit to Los Angeles, was asked why she would make a film on this particular topic and in a language she doesn’t speak.

“I have long been interested in totalitarianism and, especially, what it does to children,” she said, adding that it was challenging to view ultimate evil from the perspective of the perpetrators.

Her decision was reinforced by her marriage to a man whose German-Jewish parents arrived as refugees in Australia, and by her own conversion to Judaism four years ago.

Aside from “Lore,” the other four entries dealing with the Holocaust were made in Eastern European countries dominated in the postwar decades by communist regimes, which largely ignored the extermination of its Jewish populations during World War II.

One of the entries is from Macedonia and another from Serbia, two countries established by the breakup of the former Yugoslavia.

“The Third Half,” by Macedonian director Darko Mitrevski, has some of the elements of a Hollywood product — poor boy falls in love with rich girl, and the underdog team beats the champion.

In this case, a scruffy, low-class workingman and part-time soccer player pursues the aristocratic daughter of a rich Jewish banker, and his laughable provincial team beats the league’s top team.

What sets “The Third Half” apart is the time — 1941 — and the locale of Macedonia, occupied by Nazi ally Bulgaria. The occupiers introduce all of Hitler’s racial agenda, including the graphically depicted humiliation and deportation of the Jews.

Bulgaria, which saved its own Jews but turned the Jews of occupied Macedonia over to the Germans, has bitterly protested the film as a perversion of history. According to Mitrevski, Bulgarian authorities have retaliated by blocking talks for Macedonia to join the European Union.

The director remains unfazed. “I am fascinated by the individual stories of Holocaust survivors,” he said. “There should be 11 million such movies of Jewish, Gypsy, homosexual and political survivors.”

In Serbia’s submission, “When Day Breaks,” an elderly music professor, who has always considered himself a Christian, discovers that he is the son of Jewish parents, who left him with a farmer’s family and later perished in the Holocaust.

As the stunned professor wanders through present-day Belgrade, he finds that few people remember the war years or that the city’s neglected fairground served as a concentration camp for the city’s Jews. With his musician friends, he set about to establish a memorial on the site.

Like the professor, “I cannot not remember,” said director Goran Paskaljevic in a phone interview. “If we forget the crimes committed during World War II, and later in Bosnia, that opens the door to new crimes.”

The Czech Republic’s entry, “In the Shadow,” starts as a film-noir detective story, but as it evolves, it leads to the anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic show trials of the 1950s, staged by the communist regime in Prague.

The Holocaust targeted not only Jews, but also other “racially inferior” people, particularly the Romas (Gypsies). Hungary, an Axis partner during the war, relives this past in its Oscar entry, “Just the Wind.” The movie depicts the murder of five Romani families in an isolated village and the subsequent trial of the suspects.

“White Tiger” is an enigmatic Russian film that centers on some of the devastating tank battles between German and Soviet forces during World War II. The title character is a massive German tank, which appears suddenly to destroy its Russian opponents and just as suddenly disappears into the void.

Critics have interpreted the film’s underlying theme as pointing to war as a natural part of the human condition or as a representation of the German lust for power and domination, which will fade away for some time and then suddenly reappear.

The Latvian movie, “Gulf Stream Under the Iceberg,” goes back to the biblical and talmudic legend of Lilith, the reputed first wife of Adam, who in subsequent reincarnations controls men through her sexual attraction.

Israel’s contender, “Fill the Void,” wrestles with profound issues of faith within the Charedi (ultra-Orthodox) community of Tel Aviv. Director Rama Burshtein, a New York native who became fervently Orthodox after making aliyah, focuses the film on whether 18-year-old Shira will follow her mother’s wishes to marry the husband of her older sister, who died in childbirth.

Shira is caught between the strictures of her community — whose rituals and lifestyle are depicted in loving detail and not without humor — and personal choice.

In the Palestinian film, “When I Saw You,” Tarek is a precocious 11-year old, who flees his West Bank village after the Six-Day War and ends up with his mother at a refugee camp in Jordan.

Seeking freedom and adventure, Tarek leaves the camp and falls in with a group of militant anti-Israel fighters.

The motion picture academy will winnow down the 71 foreign entries to an initial shortlist of nine semifinalists and is scheduled to announce the results on Dec. 21. Subsequently, five finalists will be made public on Jan. 10. The Oscars will be presented on Feb. 24.

Among film critics, the favorites for the top prize are Austria’s “Amour” and France’s “The Intouchables,” which were both nominated for Golden Globe awards. However, Israel’s “Fill the Void” and Australia’s “Lore” also are considered likely contenders, and the selection committees for best foreign-language film are well known for their often-unexpected choices.

In the meantime, though, the academy has already announced its 15 nominees for best documentary choices. Included are “5 Broken Cameras” by directors Emad Burnat, a Palestinian, and Guy Davidi, an Israeli; and “The Gatekeepers” by Israel’s Dror Moreh. “The Gatekeepers” consists of lengthy and surprisingly frank interviews with six former heads of Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security agency, discussing the past and likely future of the tumultuous regional conflicts.

Filmmaker explores dark family saga in ‘The Flat’


“The Flat,” a documentary directed by Israeli writer and filmmaker, Arnon Goldfinger, uses a vacant Tel Aviv apartment as a jumping-off point for a journey through history, and a unique look at the way different generations view the Holocaust.

The film, which opens on Friday in New York followed by Los Angeles on Oct. 24 and a subsequent national roll out, grew from a highly personal saga that Goldfinger never set out to document.

The result is a documentary about family secrets and the unlikely friendship between a high-ranking Nazi SS propaganda officer and his stylish wife, and a cultured German Jewish family who fled from Germany to Palestine before World War Two broke out.

“After my grandmother, Gerda, died at 98, I felt the urge to document her flat, because it was like a little Berlin in Tel Aviv, and I knew it would all vanish very quickly,” Goldfinger, best known for his 2000 documentary “The Komediant,” told Reuters in an interview.

“So I just set out to make a little short film as me and my mother and siblings went through all her belongings. It was just going to be a document of what someone leaves behind.”

But as the family slowly sifted through decades of memorabilia, photographs and letters, Goldfinger discovered a Nazi newspaper that proved to be the key that unlocked a dark family secret.

“There was this story in it, 'A Nazi in Palestine,' written by a Baron von Mildenstein, who turned out to be (Adolf) Eichmann's boss and who worked for (Joseph) Goebbels, and who had toured Palestine with my grandparents in the thirties,” he recalled.

“They were good friends, even after the war, and I was a bit shocked,” he said.

Goldfinger said he was even more shocked when his own mother, Hannah, who he said “didn't really want to be part of this film anyway,” expressed little curiosity about her own parents' strange and curious past.

“It seems to be a generational thing,” Goldfinger mused.

“While I wanted to find out the truth about our family, her generation – and it's the same in Germany – had never asked any questions of their parents, about what had really happened. But maybe, psychologically, they didn't want to find out.”

In his quest for discovery, Goldfinger traveled to Germany where he met Edda von Mildenstein, the baron's daughter, who, like Hannah, was happy not to confront the past.

The filmmaker discovered that Gerda's own mother – Goldfinger's great-grandmother – was transported to a concentration camp, where she was murdered.

“That was the most shocking thing of all,” he said.

“I knew our family was originally from Germany, but I never thought there was any connection to the Holocaust – that my own great-grandmother had perished in it. And no one ever asked about it, or talked about it.”

Although the expulsion and eradication of German Jews provides the film's underpinnings, Goldfinger said he feels that his documentary's “universal themes and emotions” touch all of us.

“After all,” he asked, “what do you really know about your family's past? And what do you want to know?”

Reporting By Iain Blair; editing by Chris Michaud and Carol Bishopric

Sam Raimi’s latest horror flick draws on ‘true’ tale, Jewish exorcism


Back in 2004, the horror-flicks mogul Sam Raimi was riveted by a Los Angeles Times article headlined “A Jinx in a Box?” which recounted the strange history of a wine cabinet brought to this country by a Polish concentration camp survivor. The box contained “allegedly, one ‘dibbuk,’ a kind of spirit popular in Yiddish folklore,” the article said — as well locks of hair, a rock, a dried rosebud, a goblet and coins.

Intrigued, Raimi — who grew up in a Conservative Jewish home in Detroit — perused a Web site devoted to the so-called “Dibbuk Box,” where, he learned, the Holocaust survivor had warned her family never to open it. That warning was disregarded by the furniture dealer who bought the box at the survivor’s estate sale in Portland, Ore., in 2001, and, so the story goes, five minutes after the dealer gave it to his mother as a gift, she suffered a paralyzing stroke, and that wasn’t all — light bulbs inexplicably imploded, the dealer and others began having nightmares about a “gruesome, demonic-looking hag” and were seeing shadowy beings in their peripheral vision. Desperate to be rid of the box, the dealer sold it on eBay, whereupon subsequent owners also reported the onset of mysterious illnesses, as well as petrifying paranormal events.

Read more at jewishjournal.com/the_ticket.

After Mel Gibson-Joe Eszterhas spat, Hollywood Jews standing by Gibson on ‘Judah Maccabee’


Jews run Hollywood, the old cliche goes.

So an outsider might find it strange that one of Hollywood’s biggest studios, Warner Bros., agreed to make a movie about one of the Jewish world’s greatest heroes with a star known for going on anti-Semitic tirades.

And when the plans to film “Judah Maccabee” fell apart this month, igniting a feud between producer Mel Gibson and screenwriter Joe Eszterhas that involved more accusations of anti-Semitism, Hollywood again went for Mel.

A number of industry figures interviewed by JTA, including lawyers, studio execs and publicists—all of them Jewish and a number of whom come from families who survived the Holocaust or fled the Nazis—defended Gibson over the Hungarian-born Eszterhas. Almost to a man, however, they declined to be quoted by name—as is typical in Hollywood.

Veteran producer Mike Medavoy, whose parents fled to Shanghai in the 1920s to escape the Russian pogroms, has known Gibson and Eszterhas for decades. Both have “issues,” he said, but he has a softer spot for Gibson.

“I really believe that everyone deserves a second chance,” Medavoy said. “I want to give Mel the benefit of the doubt. I think Mel’s problem is he’s a little immature and can’t handle his anger.”

Alan Nierob, Gibson’s longtime publicist and the son of Holocaust survivors, has always stood by his client.

The loyalty to Gibson of some in Hollywood comes despite the controversy over his controversial portrayal of Jews in the 2004 film “The Passion of the Christ,” his rant against Jews following a drunk driving arrest in 2006, and his violent threats and accusations against an ex-girlfriend that were leaked online in 2010. Also that year, Jewish actress Winona Ryder said that Gibson had called her an “oven dodger” at a party in the mid-1990s.

The latest flap erupted when Eszterhas, who once was one of Hollywood’s flashiest screenwriters but hasn’t had a hit since 1997, accused Gibson of only pretending to be developing a movie about Judah Maccabee to help Gibson’s own image in the Jewish community. Eszterhas accused Gibson of setting him up—hiring him to write the script and then rejecting it not because it wasn’t good, but because Gibson actually “hates Jews” and never wanted to make the movie in the first place.

In his detailed nine-page letter that was leaked to TheWrap.com, Eszterhas said that while working with Gibson, the star “continually called Jews ‘Hebes,’ and even ‘oven dodgers’ and ‘Jewboys.’

“You said most gatekeepers of American companies were ‘Hebes’ who ‘controlled’ their bosses,” Eszterhas wrote to Gibson.

He also described Gibson as erupting in almost psychotic rages in which he railed about his ex-girlfriend, Oksana Grigorieva, intimating he wanted her dead.

Gibson wrote a letter back to Eszterhas saying that his claims were “utter fabrications” and threatened to sue Eszterhas for releasing the audiotapes. Gibson’s defenders suggested that Eszterhas’ attacks were exaggerations or lies meant to deflect from Gibson’s claim that Eszterhas’ script wasn’t any good and that’s why it was rejected by Warner Bros.

Through Nierob, Gibson declined to be interviewed for this story.

Eszterhas told JTA that he “stands behind the letter I wrote to Mel.”

Not everyone in Hollywood’s Jewish establishment has stood by Gibson. After Gibson’s anti-Semitic tirade in 2006, Sony Pictures co-chairwoman Amy Pascal spoke out against him and powerful agent Ari Emanuel called for a Gibson boycott.

When they were the only big names to speak out, former AOL Time Warner Vice Chairman Mel Adelson took out a large ad in the Los Angeles Times protesting the silence of many top Jewish Hollywood executives.

But by 2011, when Warner Bros. agreed to do “Judah Maccabee” with Gibson, it seemed all was forgiven.

Despite their support of Gibson, however, many in Hollywood also said they didn’t know why Warner Bros. had decided in the first place to let Gibson make a film about Judah Maccabee, the great Jewish warrior who fought and prevailed against a Hellenistic ruler who wanted to force the Jews to renounce their faith.

Sharon Waxman, a veteran correspondent for the Washington Post and The New York Times who now runs TheWrap.com, said she confronted a senior Warner Bros. executive when she first heard about the planned film.

“I said to him, what were you thinking?” said Waxman, who was raised as an Orthodox Jew and whose site is where Eszterhas’ letter and an audiotape of Gibson’s most recent rants were leaked. “He said something about the studio believing in forgiveness. But it’s still a mystery to me.”

Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, said last September that letting Gibson direct “Judah Maccabee” would be “like casting Bernie Madoff to be the head of the Securities and Exchange.”

Now, he says simply, “everyone should have known.”

“This is the story of an unrepentant anti-Semite who’s a world-renowned actor,” Hier told JTA. “How did he get Warner Bros. to agree to do this film? I think he reached out to rabbis and used them to soften up the studio. There are some who felt his 2006 apology was sincere. I never thought it was sincere.”

For now, Warner Bros. spokesman Paul McGuire said the studio is “analyzing” what to do with the “Judah Maccabee” project. But studio sources say privately that the film has been shelved.

A source in Gibson’s camp told JTA that Gibson is determined to move forward with “Judah Maccabee” on his own, financing and developing it the way he did with “Passion of the Christ,” which became an unexpected hit. Gibson has said that he’s been working on the “Maccabee” project for more than eight years and that it predates the 2006 DUI scandal.

Jay Sanderson, who spent 25 years as a TV and documentary producer in Hollywood before becoming president of the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles, said he didn’t believe that Gibson has been developing the film for a long time.

“I would make a large wager that he’s not going to make this movie,” Sanderson said. “Of course, the people close to Mel are going to say that he’s going ahead and will make it just to show his supposed sincerity.”

Sanderson said Gibson’s anti-Semitism is “legendary” and “no one could have been more inappropriate” to make a film about Judah Maccabee.

“But I also understand in some ways why it happened,” he said. “It’s a great story and this is the man who made ‘Braveheart.’ Mel’s always had a great relationship with Warner Bros. And don’t forget Hollywood is a place where people want to avoid making the wrong enemies. Mel is more of a wrong enemy.”

There is no star arguably less likely than Gibson to direct a film about Judah the Maccabee. Gibson belongs to a conservative sect called traditionalist Catholic that is not recognized by the Vatican in part because it adheres to Catholicism as it was practiced before the reforms instituted by Vatican II in the early 1960s. During Good Friday services in the old liturgy, traditionalists still read a prayer in which they pray that Jews will “recognize Jesus Christ as the savior of all men.”

In 2003, Gibson said there is “no salvation for anyone outside the Church,” including his then-wife, Robyn, a devout Episcopalian, in that category.

Gibson’s father, Hutton Gibson, is also a traditionalist but is associated with an even more extreme group within the sect, Sedevacantism. He is also a Holocaust denier. Gibson has never renounced his father’s views or specifically said whether or not he is a Sedevacantist, but he has said that the Holocaust did happen and that it was “an atrocity.”

In 2006, the Southern Poverty Law Center released a report based on a three-year investigation into so-called “radical traditionalist Catholics” that focused on Hutton Gibson, whom they called an “important player” in this “shadowy world.”

“These Catholic extremists, including the Gibsons,” wrote investigator Heidi Beirich, “may well represent the largest population of anti-Semites in the U.S.”

“Hutton Gibson does the circuit and he’s featured at a lot of events,” Beirich told JTA. “He’s beloved by anti-Semites, Holocaust deniers and extreme anti-government activists.”

Mel Gibson built his own traditionalist church in the Malibu hills that is so private and secretive that no one knows what goes on inside it, Beirich said.

“But we do know his views are anti-Semitic, even if they don’t line up with his father’s,” Beirich said of Mel Gibson. “The alcohol defense is ridiculous. You don’t bash Jews just because you get drunk.

“This idea of forgiveness and giving second chances to him is bad one. When you start OK’ing anti-Semitism and racism, you end up in a very bad place.”

An indelible film, ‘Shoah’ also reflects an extraordinary artist


Surely the most unpromising premise for a film ever conceived is this: Nine and one half hours of people speaking in languages you do not understand about mass murder.  Yet “Shoah” offers an experience unlike any other film, and its creator has written a memoir introducing us to the extraordinary man responsible for its existence. 

The Hammer Museum recently sponsored a showing of “Shoah” over two nights. One does not watch this film; one subjects oneself to it. Its director, Claude Lanzmann, has done something remarkable: He has used film as a medium to provoke rather than stifle imagination. Usually screen images are so concrete that they rob the viewer of his internal portraits.  Unlike radio or reading, the screen is a visual tyrant, insisting on what you must see.  You can read the Torah 1,000 times without forming a mental image of Moses; yet one viewing of Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments” and Charlton Heston will always nag at the edge of your awareness.  In “Shoah” there is no archival footage. One never sees the emaciated bodies, the haggard faces staring through barbed wire, the storm troopers arrayed in arrogance, strutting through the streets of Berlin. We just hear people talk.

As Claudia Bestor, director of public programs for the Hammer, pointed out when introducing the museum’s presentation, “Shoah” portrays three categories of people: the victims, the perpetrators and the bystanders. Part of the film’s genius is that in several interviews we do not know which is which until the speaker reveals it him- or herself. Talking to some Polish workers, as they remember how the Jews were taken away, we wonder how to feel.  Are they “good” Poles or “bad” Poles? In the course of the film, we meet both. They could not resist the Nazi onslaught, and some of them express what seem to be appropriate sentiments for anyone whose neighbors and presumed friends have been corralled into trains bound for what most understood would be a horrible fate. Yet then the camera captures a surreptitious smile and we see, in all its demonic clarity, the grinning face of hate. That brief, fleeting smile shows everything that made the Shoah possible. 

There is no voice-over and no editorializing. The camera and the interviewees speak for themselves. Some scenes are clearly carefully arranged: The opening sequence begins at the Chelmno camp, on the Narew River. There we see Simon Srebnik, one of only two survivors of Chelmno, riding in a boat. We learn from the opening credits that he now lives in Israel but returned to Chelmno, where, as a boy, he survived in part because he sang to the Nazi officers.  Now, on the river, Simon is, as an older man, singing again the songs that saved his life as a boy. The villagers remember the sweet-voiced child. The scene is unutterably idyllic and peaceful. Each note reminds us of his childhood, this boy who witnessed his father’s murder in Lodz and whose mother was gassed in the specially rigged vans at Chelmno. We think of all the sweet-songed children whose voices were silenced. And we imagine what the villagers did or did not do the first time they heard that German lieder.

Again and again we are shown the landscape as it now exists (as of 1985, when the film was first shown). What does hell look like when the paving company arrives and the gardeners have at it?  Can we still conjure the image of writhing, burning bodies, twisted and humiliated spirits, as we see the full grass bend to the breezes?  Somehow the beauty and implacability of nature form a frame for the full weight of human suffering.  Here are skies that did not darken.  Here the trees that bore mute witness.  Here the crystalline sky, with victims recalling that “some days were even more beautiful than this.” There is no theological speculation in the movie. Nobody speaks about an absent God or loss of faith.  Sensitized as a child to the phrase “Gott in himmel” — God in heaven — I noticed that the only mentions of himmel were when we are told that the road to the gas chamber was called himmelweg, “the road to heaven,” or when we hear that the smoke from the ovens went up to the himmel.  That is all the theology needed.

Claude Lanzmann

The man who made this assaultive, extraordinary film just released the English translation of his book “The Patagonian Hare: A Memoir” (first published in France in 2009.)  A filmmaker, adventurer, philosopher, writer, editor, prolific lover, Claude Lanzmann was, from the beginning, not destined for a pedestrian life. His father, unbeknownst to him, was in the Resistance.  Lanzmann found out about his father’s activities when he himself joined the Resistance. He began to fight against Nazi influences in France and was beaten, chased and repeatedly injured.  Barely a page of the book goes by without a sharply etched and telling description of an extraordinary adventure, a celebrity or a beautiful woman — sometimes all three in one.

Lanzmann was born to mismatched parents who never met before their arranged marriage.  After years of threats — involving weaponry, shouting and shoving — they divorced. Lanzmann’s sister, an actress, committed suicide in her 30s. His fiery drive was not forged in ease and joy.

But he is clearly a gifted man. On each page we witness his charisma, intelligence and a certain fearlessness. Indeed, the one time he does give way to fear — abandoning his mother in a shoe store in the face of anti-Semitic sentiment — haunts him for his entire life. But whether on the ski slope or in romantic pursuit, Lanzmann, in his memoir, evinces almost no self-doubt. A figure in French society, he was a longtime friend of Sartre (though he broke with him over Israel) and a longtime lover of Simone de Beauvoir.  His gift for friendship and strategic alliances is evident in the broad coalition of people necessary to drive forward his extraordinary cinematic project.

He is a man whose vanity drips off the page.  But it is curiously inoffensive because it is an impersonal vanity. He is seized by a woman or a mission and simply has to conquer, possess, achieve — and seems never to doubt that he shall. It is all done with such verve and preternatural determination that the reader is carried along with him. 

On top of everything else, “The Pantagonian Hare” is both riveting and revelatory.  The revelation is the peak toward which his entire life has moved. Its very title recalls a quasi-mystical experience he had in Patagonia when he spotted a white hare. His affinity for rabbits leads him to remember the hares at Birkenau, and how they slipped under the fence that imprisoned people.  And the epigraph to the book is a parable by the Argentinian poet Silvina Ocampo. In it Jacinto, the hare, is being chased by dogs.  “‘Where are we headed?’ cried the hare in a voice that quavered like a lightning flash. ‘To the end of your life’ howled the dogs in dog voices.”

So it is no surprise when the book opens as follows: “The guillotine — more generally, capital punishment and the various methods of meting out death — has been the abiding obsession of my life.” We know as we read that “Shoah” is Lanzmann’s great life work. He describes its origins and creation here as he does everything in the book — in scenes, without a linear narrative, enabling the reader to feel much of the struggle and disappointment and ultimate achievement that mark his life. He mastered an enormous amount of material, technical and historical, to make this film, and it is all traceable to the alchemical combination of a strong Jewish identity, a mystical sense of purpose and an obsession with death.

His pursuit of Abraham Bomba — the man who miraculously survived, who served as a barber in Treblinka and cut women’s hair while they stood in the gas chamber — alone testifies to his commitment. Having heard about Bomba, he tracks him down through continents and years, meeting, losing, finding him again. The sound of that voice is needed, Lanzmann knows, to carry the film forward. 

What does he need to convey? In capsule, what the great Russian-Jewish writer Vasily Grossman wrote in his essay, “The Hell of Treblinka”: “The conveyer belt of Treblinka deprived human beings of everything to which they have been entitled, since the beginning of time, by the holy law of life — of their freedom, home and motherland, of their belongings, personal letters and photographs, of their families and loved ones, of their clothes, of their names and finally of life itself.” All this must be understood without any genuine pictures of the horror. For, as Lanzmann explains, “[N]ot a single photograph exists of Belzec extermination camp where 800,000 Jews were asphyxiated, nor any of Sobibor (250,000 deaths), nor of Chelmno (400,000 victims of the gas vans). Of Treblinka (600,000) there is one image, of a distant bulldozer.” He burns the absent image in our mind’s eye.

Certain moments freeze hatred and horror in unforgettable ways. Frau Michelson, the wife of the Nazi schoolteacher in Chelmno, who witnessed the gas vans coming and going each day, could no longer remember how many Jews had been gassed, whether it was 4,000, 40,000 or 400,000. When Lanzmann tells her 400,000, what is her response? “I knew it had a four in it.” And then there is the loathsome Franz Suchomel, the Treblinka guard who agreed to be audiotaped (and was secretly videotaped) for money. As he says, interspersed between sympathetic comments that one never believes, “There was always a fire in the pit. With rubbish, paper and gasoline, people burn very well.”

We are privileged to see people’s eyes, the haunted eyes and the hunter’s eyes. And in the eyes of some, like the Polish scholar and resistance fighter Jan Karski, whose interview is one of the greatest sequences ever filmed, the eyes of humanity.

Scenes of unbearable pathos in the recounting remind us that dignity was in some ways the most precious possession and the one people struggled to keep until the end. In his diary, Adam Czerniakow, the president of the Jewish council in the Warsaw Ghetto, tells of a petitioner coming to him for money, not for food — though like everyone in the ghetto, he was desperately hungry — but for rent, because, “I don’t want to die in the street.”

The 11 years that he took to create “Shoah” were the climb to the peak toward which his gifts were pointed. He was ruthless and ingenious in its creation. Lying easily to funders, to governments, to anyone who was reluctant or stood in his way, this is the same man, we remember, who, as a college student, confessed, “I only stole philosophy books.” And, when he was brought up on charges, was defended by the philosopher whose books he stole. Ruthlessness, nobility and resource all jostle within him.  Yet, he says truly, “I betrayed no one.”  “Shoah” was made the way it had to be made.  The film premiered with François Mitterand, then president of France, in the audience. One cannot help but agree with journalist Jean Daniel, who said to Lanzmann after the premiere, “That justifies a life.”

Never shouting, never overstating, almost stately in its progression, the incomprehensibility is driven deeper and deeper in each sequence of the film.  Simply showing us the placid lake of Birkenau and reminding the viewer that it is called “the Lake of Ashes,” or showing the trains, always the trains, plowing their way through the Polish winter, we know. We remember, even though they are not our own memories. 

And we understand, to the extent possible, the unforgettable words of Itzhak (Antek) Zuckerman, the deputy commander of the Warsaw Ghetto fighters: “Claude, you asked for my impression. If you could lick my heart, it would poison you.”


“Shoah: the Unseen Interviews,” a collection of outtakes from the film, will have its Los Angeles premiere during the L.A. film Festival next month, along with a Q&A with Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum and Raye Farr, director of the Steven Spielberg Film and Video Archive of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. American Jewish University, May 7, 7 p.m. For tickets, please visit www.lajfilmfest.org or call (800) 838-3006.

David Wolpe is the Rabbi of Sinai Temple. You can follow his teachings at facebook.com/RabbiWolpe.

The making of a Hollywood Maccabee wannabee


Who would have projected that Chanukah could be billed as the festival of lights, camera, action?

Mel Gibson, for one, who in the fall announced that he was working with Warner Bros. on producing a movie about Judah Maccabee.

Not seeing this as a boffo idea was Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, who was quoted on CNN as saying that “Judah Maccabee is one of the greatest heroes in Jewish history. Mel Gibson is an anti-Semite. He has made anti-Semitic remarks in the past. I don’t know what Warner Bros. was thinking.”

A few months later, the Hollywood Reporter made it known that others in Hollywood had taken note of Hier’s criticism when it announced that producer Bruce Nash was planning on making a competing Maccabee movie or TV miniseries, and had even hired a screenwriter.

With two Judah movies in production, I began to wonder: Was there room for a third? A low, low-budget cable version that would exploit the publicity of the other two?

I knew just the guy to do it—me. After all, I had worked for two weeks as a special effects assistant on “China Syndrome” eons ago, and live in sight of the Hollywood sign.

Inspired by the Hasmoneans, I would strike quickly and stealthily against the pop cultural foes, freeing the box office. But without a bankable star—in fact without anything even remotely related to a bank—I needed a miracle: an alternative way of drawing some attention to my prospective production.

What about springboarding my production off a best-selling game? After all, several major films, such as “Street Fighter” and the Laura Croft series, were adapted from games and had grossed $100 million or more.

That was the ticket.

I speed-dialed a board game manufacturer I knew in Long Beach, Calif.—Flaster Siskin, owner of FlasterVenture—to see if he wanted in. I had checked out his Maccabees board game online and saw that he had commissioned a dramatic cinematic illustration: a Greek Seleucid battle elephant being attacked by Maccabee insurgents. I instantly imagined the movie poster.

With the Maccabees very much in the news, and with an inventory of Maccabees games, I thought Siskin would be ready to deal. Not so fast.

Before entering the gaming business, Siskin had tried his hand at screenwriting. He warned, “Working in Hollywood is difficult. A lot of scripts get optioned but never get made.”

“The guy who’s spearing the elephant, is that Judah?” I asked, trying to draw him in.

“No, that’s his brother, Eleazar,” Siskin answered.

“Would we need to change script, then, keeping Judah as the film’s only action hero character?” I asked, thinking about the costs of two stars plus an elephant.

“It doesn’t need a major rewrite. You want to keep Eleazar in the picture,” he answered.

Siskin began to warm to his plot outline.

“The first act would show how a change in Seleucid leadership brought about oppression of the Jews,” he said.

The Eleazar and elephant scene would be the end of the second act. “It was the turning point of the war,” Siskin noted, adding that “Unfortunately, Eleazar, who is under the elephant, dies too.”

Ouch. For a holiday film, everyone wants a happy ending.

“But then, Judah and his warriors take back the country,” Siskin said, rallying for the film’s third act.

“And the climax?” I asked.

“The two miracles,” he answered. “The military victory and the oil burning for eight days.”

Now we moved to casting.

“Who plays Judah?” I asked.

“I would rather see a comedic tough guy like Adam Sandler than Mel Gibson,” he answered.

“We could even have Sandler sing ‘Eight Crazy Nights,’ ” I suggested, feeling the showbiz buzz. “And could we update the title. What about something more box office, like ‘Judah Mac?’ ”

“Very hip,” Siskin responded.

Now that my concept was a go, I needed to audience test it with the Jewish establishment. Since Holocaust museum folks like Hier seemed to be the go-to guys for Jewish reaction these days, I turned to Mark Rothman, director of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, who also was a film school graduate.

For starters, Rothman wanted me to know of his “deep suspicion of Gibson’s telling the Judah story with any Jewish sensitivity,” he said. Then, thinking of how to draw the largest draw for my production, Rothman told me to be mindful of the film’s potential Christian audience.

“This clearly has to be a crossover,” he said.

To cut costs, Rothman thought I should restrict the battle scenes to guerrilla-type actions. “Something like sabotaging chariots,” he suggested.

Suddenly worried that this was sounding too much like a war movie, I asked Rothman if I needed a love interest. Ever the film school grad, he quickly outlined how I could write in a female warrior who gains acceptance by fighting off several enemy attackers.

Then I hit him with my projected title.

“Judah Mac” excited him with tie-in possibilities. “Maybe Apple will come out with a new laptop, or McDonald’s a new burger,” he said, laughing at his cleverness.

However, when I told him about the planned dramatic moment when Eleazer impales the elephant, Rothman blanched.

“You’re only going to get in trouble from PETA and the ASPCA,” he warned.

There went my second act.

“Making ‘Judah Mac’ is going to be much harder than I thought,” I said, frustrated by the new complication.

“Welcome to Hollywood,” said Rothman.

(Edmon J. Rodman, who lives just a couple of miles from Hollywood, writes a JTA column on Jewish life. Contact him at edmojace@gmail.com.)

It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane — Oy Gevalt, It’s a Jewish ‘Watchmen’


SAN FRANCISCO (JTA)—Who watches the watchmensch? Yes, you read that right—the comic book “Watchmen” is getting a Yiddish makeover courtesy of a British comic writer.

And in fitting with “Watchmen’s” trademark plot twists and surprising revelations, “Watchmensch” has one of its own: Although it’s crammed with Yiddish dialogue, Jewish in-jokes and black hats, its creator isn’t Jewish.

Rich Johnston is known in the comics world as a sort of gossip columnist—he writes a news and rumors column called “Lying in the Gutters.” He also has written several comics of his own, including one about a 17th-century Italian monk combined with elements from the TV show “Smallville.”

Johnston, 36, came up with the idea for “Watchmensch” at a comic book convention.

“I was messing around with friends about titles of comics, and ‘Watchmensch’ is just one that got stuck in my head,” he said in a phone interview from his home in southwest London, where he lives with his wife and two children.

He had an idea for the comic as well: A parody about the murder of a Jewish lawyer. After he wrote about it in his column, Johnston received positive feedback, including an e-mail from Swedish comic artist Simon Rohrmuller, who ended up drawing the book based on Johnston’s script.

The original “Watchmen” follows a group of former superheroes in 1980s America as they investigate the murder of one of their own, the Comedian. The series deconstructs the superhero genre with groundbreaking narrative techniques and an intricate alternate-history plot.

Originally published in a 12-part series from 1986 to 1987, “Watchmen” was a major hit, and is still considered one of the greatest comics of all time. It was named one of Time magazine’s top 100 English-language novels in 2005, and the highly anticipated “Watchmen” movie opened March 6.

It was the No.1 film in America on its opening weekend, bringing in $55.7 million—the most successful opening in 2009.

Thus, it’s no surprise that the series has been parodied in works like “Botchmen,” made by Mad magazine, and now in “Watchmensch.”

“Watchmensch” follows a similar trajectory to its predecessor, starting with the death of the Comedian—known in “Watchmensch” as Krusty the Klown, in homage to the famous Jewish character on “The Simpsons.” Investigating the murder are Spottyman (a takeoff on “Watchmen’s” Rorschach) and Jewish lawyers Nite Nurse (Nite Owl) and Silk Taker (Silk Spectre).

Along the way are numerous insider references to the history of “Watchmen” and comics in general, with particular emphasis on the industry’s Jewish roots.

“It’s a parody of ‘Watchmen,’ the comic book and the movie, and also a satire on the comic book industry, how the artists and the industry worked together for the past 70 years,” Johnston says.

The Jewish theme worked perfectly, he adds, because the history of the comic book is filled with Jewish names—among them Captain America creators Joe Simon and Jack Kirby (born Jacob Kurtzberg), Superman’s Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, and Batman’s Bob Kane (born Robert Kahn).

Siegel and Shuster even make an appearance in “Watchmensch,” in a flashback to the day when they famously sold the rights to the Superman character to DC Comics for a mere $130.

Because Johnston isn’t Jewish, he wanted to be sure he was making an accurate portrayal.

“Once I got [a Jewish element], I’d go online and make sure I got it right,” he says. “I was also able to run skits past a few [Jewish] friends.”

The Jewish elements include Yiddish terms and Chasidic-style clothing, with Spottyman sporting payes and a black hat, and Silk Taker in a modest, high-necked dress. A pet named Balabusta also has a cameo, as does a can of Dr. Brown’s black cherry soda, a classic Jewish icon.

Johnston says the irony is that “I give the most Jewish lines to Spottyman, who’s not Jewish. It’s this secret identity he’s put on.”

Keeping things hidden, he says, is a common theme in comic-book history.

“Even in the early days of superhero comics, Judaism was there but it was disguised,” Johnston explains. “Even the Thing in the Fantastic Four—he was Jewish, but it was never actually said. Only within the last few years was it finally said, ‘Ben Grimm is Jewish.’ It’s long overdue.”

Rachel Freedenberg is a staff writer for the j. weekly.

Fight or flight? A Jewish Cuban mom wonders


Melinda Lopez’s “Sonia Flew,” which opens at the Laguna Playhouse on Sept. 16, depicts the parallel struggles of a Cuban girl in 1961 and a half-Jewish, half-Cuban American boy just after Sept. 11.

Of Cubans and Jews, Lopez says, “These are two cultures that have experienced Diaspora, two cultures that are disconnected from their homeland, two cultures that stress education, family, food, laughter. When you go to Thanksgiving in a Jewish household or a Cuban household, you’ll talk about politics, tell jokes.”

Speaking from Boston, where she lives with her Jewish husband, Lopez, who was born in this country to Cuban parents, says with a chuckle: “Two Cubans in a household is just trouble.”

The first act of her new play takes place during Chanukah/Christmas vacation in 2001. To emphasize the seeming harmony of this “blended family,” Lopez indicates in stage directions that the Christmas tree is decorated with Stars of David.

Yet we sense that something may be wrong when Sonia, the protagonist, and her daughter forget to make the traditional 7-Up Jell-O salad, a symbolic failure that suggests a rift in the family, similar to what occurs in Barry Levinson’s “Avalon” when a guest, arriving late for Thanksgiving, complains, “You cut the turkey?”

In Levinson’s movie, the discord is over the relative climb up the financial ladder of the differing family members, while in Lopez’s play Sonia is distressed over her son’s decision to leave college and join the Marines.

In making a parallel between the aftermath of Castro’s revolution and Sept. 11, Lopez seems to posit that history doesn’t repeat itself but it can overwhelm families and tear them apart. Like Stephen Dedalus, who famously says in “Ulysses,” “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake,” Sonia feels she has been doomed twice by history, once in 1961 when her parents forced her to flee to the United States, the second time in 2001 when her son, Zak, heads off to fight in Afghanistan. Like Daedalus, the namesake for Joyce’s character, who flies from the island of Crete to safety but loses his son, Sonia escapes from Castro’s oppression but never gets to see her parents again, and 40 years later she fears losing her son, too.

One of the ironies of “Sonia Flew” is that flight, which should signify freedom, comes to mean betrayal to Sonia — abandonment and a manipulation of patriotism.

With the subtext of the two hijacked airplanes flying into the Twin Towers, Lopez broaches the forgotten history of the Pedro Pan children, whose parents sent them away from Cuba on falsified student visas in the early 1960s; the play ponders why the parents never left the windows open so the children could return to their homeland.

Unlike Peter Pan and the lost boys, the Pedro Pan children don’t live in Never Neverland; they live very much in the real world, in a new country, the United States, where they have to start all over, learn a new language, make new families. In that regard, Sonia shares a bond with Sam, her father-in-law, a World War II veteran who emigrated from Europe to the United States at the time of the Holocaust.

While there is no suspense in the first half of the play about Zak’s joining the Marines, the act ends with Zak involved in an explosion in Afghanistan, followed by a blackout. Lopez leaves us uncertain for nearly the entire second act as to whether Zak lives or dies. For a scene or two, she also effectively withholds from us the key point that Sonia’s parents hated the revolution under Castro.
Occasionally, Sonia tips us off with Shakespearean-style soliloquies. Lopez began her theatrical career as an actress for Shakespeare & Company, a troupe in Western Massachusetts, and she says that when she first started acting, “I imagined myself exclusively performing Shakespeare’s plays.”

For years, she was primarily an actor. However, she enjoyed “contributing to someone else’s artistic vision” to such an extent that she decided to write her own plays. She obtained a masters in playwriting from Boston University, where she studied with Nobel laureate Derek Walcott, and wrote her first play about 10 years ago, a one-woman show, “Midnight Sandwich,” which was staged in Boston and in which she played all the parts of her bicultural family.

Since then, she has written several other short works, as well as a number of full-length plays. In addition to Shakespeare, whose Ariel is a precursor to Sonia in that she can fly, yet lacks freedom until the end of “The Tempest,” Lopez cites August Wilson as an influence. Lopez doesn’t write the way Wilson does with his flowing jazz-like riffs and authentic dialect. At times, Lopez’s dialogue veers toward cliché, such as when young Sonia, in a line uttered countless times since the dawn of movies, tells her mother, “I’m not going to end up like you, I know that much. I’m going to do something with my life.”

Despite the occasional, overly familiar line, Lopez creates characters who are inhabited with the kind of dedication and idealism we expect of pioneers. Given the waves of Jewish immigration in this country, it may not be surprising that after Lopez staged her one-woman show, “Midnight Sandwich,” her mother-in-law said to her, “You’re Jewish, and your whole family is Jewish.” Her mother-in-law then began asking Lopez if her family lit candles on Friday nights, like Marrano Jews who conducted ancient Jewish rituals in the basements of their homes after the Spanish Inquisition.

“You came over with Columbus and stopped off at Cuba,” theorized her mother-in-law.

Lopez took her mother-in-law’s comment as a compliment, though she has no idea whether she actually descends from Jews. While her protagonist, Sonia, is very attracted to Castro, whose surname, according to tradition, is a Jewish surname, Lopez does not have fond words for the aging Cuban leader.

“I don’t think he’s going to die. He’s too stubborn to die,” she said. “Nothing will change. When he does die in another 50 years, things will get worse. Scarcity will be greater. I’m not very optimistic.”

Spectator – ‘Devil’ Is in the Details


The film adaptation of Lauren Weisberger’s 2003 New York Times best-selling novel, “The Devil Wears Prada,” which hits theaters on June 30, follows recent college grad Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway) as she takes on the dubious job of assistant to the editor-in-chief of the most prominent fashion magazine in New York: Runway. Her job, as it turns out, is not at all about journalism, but rather catering to the boss from hell, Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep), who makes absurdly vague demands and expects immediate results. After nearly a year, Andy must decide whether succeeding at her career trumps keeping her sanity.

An enjoyable chick-lit book, “The Devil Wears Prada,” in movie form follows the novel’s storyline, with slight modifications to the plot that only enhance our understanding of Andy’s dilemma. And for the fashion buff, the insider’s view of the inner workings of a haute couture, albeit fictional, fashion magazine are amusing.

One dramatic difference, however, is that in the film, Andy is no longer identified as Jewish. Ditto for the Miranda Priestly character, rumored to be based on legendary Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, who was born Miriam Princhek into an Orthodox Jewish family. Despite the importance of Judaism to the main characters in the book version, Fox 2000 opted to exclude any religious references.

Hollywood is actually quite adept at changing Jewish literary characters into generic, unaffiliated characters on screen. “In Her Shoes,” for example, a 2005 film based on the book of the same title by author Jennifer Weiner, successfully glossed over the fact that the protagonist and her sister were Jewish. The only glimpse of explicitly Jewish content was the kippot worn at a wedding.

Although unavailable for comment at press time, in a 2005 interview with the Jerusalem Post, Weisberger noted how Jewish characters are a necessary element to her work.

“I can’t imagine constructing a single’s life and her family’s life without them being Jewish,” Weisberger explained.

And despite the producers’ efforts, the on-screen character of Andy Sachs remains true to her roots and comes across as a Jewish girl all the same.

“The Devil Wears Prada” opens this week in theaters.

 

Quartet of Movies to Tell Pearl’s Story


Filmmakers are currently wrestling with four different projects to document or dramatize the story of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter beheaded by Islamic extremists in Pakistan in early 2002, leaving behind a pregnant wife.

Pearl’s life and tragic death would seem a natural for the Hollywood treatment, but the delays and uncertainties of most of the projects are now raising two concerns.

When will the films be completed? And will they reflect the complex nature, Jewish heritage and true legacy of the slain journalist?

At this point, only one project is finished, a 90-minute documentary titled, “The Journalist and the Jihadi: The Murder of Daniel Pearl,” narrated by CNN correspondent Christine Amanpour and to be broadcast by HBO.

The film was directed by AlluTamal, a Pakistani, and Ramesh Sharma, an Indian, and was briefly screened — but not reviewed — at the Tribeca Film Festival in April.

An HBO spokeswoman said that the 90-minute documentary is to air sometime in October, but Judea and Ruth Pearl, Daniel’s parents, said they have been given a specific date of Oct. 10, when their son would have marked his 43rd birthday.

A fair amount of publicity has surrounded the feature film, “A Mighty Heart,” in part because it is based on a book by Daniel Pearl’s widow, and because the project has been inadvertently caught up in the Brad Pitt-Jennifer Aniston-Angelina Jolie saga.

When Mariane Pearl completed her book, “A Mighty Heart: The Brave Life and Death of My Husband Daniel Pearl” in late 2003, Warner Bros. reportedly paid more than $500,000 for the film rights.

The production company, Plan B, was designated to actually make the film under the direction of Plan B owners — the then-married couple — Pitt and Aniston — and film executive Brad Gray, now head of Paramount Pictures.

At that time, media reports had it that Aniston would play the part of Mariane Pearl. But, soon after, the actress and Pitt severed their marital and professional relationships.

Pitt then entered into a well-publicized relationship with Jolie, and that actress is now reportedly in line to essay the role of Pearl’s wife.

Dede Gardner, president of the reclusive Plan B, would disclose only, through a spokeswoman, that the film “is in development and we are currently working on the script.”

None of the others involved in “A Mighty Heart” have publicly commented, but screenwriter John Orloff’s script is expected to follow the book’s focus on the young couple’s romance and marriage, followed by the wife’s agonizing vigil after Daniel Pearl was kidnapped.

Looking at the same topic with a different perspective and approach is “Who Killed Daniel Pearl?” which is “inspired” by the book of the same title by Bernard-Henri Lévy, in which the French philosopher-novelist describes his yearlong investigation into the reporter’s death.

Producer Charlie Lyons has teamed up with up with executive producers Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, director Tod “Kip” Williams and screenwriter Peter Landesman, a New York Times Magazine foreign correspondent, to make the film for Beacon Pictures.

They are a bit farther along than the “Mighty Heart” project. Lyons, who is in New Zealand shooting another movie, e-mailed that he hopes to start filming the Pearl story in the fall.

According to the studio, the script will differ from the book to avoid infringement on the “Mighty Heart” movie, or, as Lyons wrote, “Some elements of the story will allow for literary inspiration.”

For one, the movie will be mainly a political thriller in which author Lévy will be transformed into an American celebrity television reporter, portrayed by actor Josh Lucas.

Daniel Pearl himself will be fictionalized to some extent, “but the symbol and inspiration of Daniel is core” to the film, Lyons wrote.

Finally, there are one or two references on Google to a film project billed as “Infinite Justice.” The title is not to be confused with a German effort, “Operation Infinite Justice,” which was the code name for the American buildup preceding the current war in Iraq, later renamed “Operation Enduring Freedom.”

According to skimpy reports, that film is to deal with “an American reporter (named Arnold Silverman), who is held hostage by Muslim fundamentalists in Karachi against the release of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay.”

The Pearl parents say that they have been unable to learn anything more about the project.

Judea Pearl, Daniel’s father, is a UCLA professor and widely known authority on artificial intelligence. Ruth Pearl is an electrical engineer; they both expressed mixed sentiments about the rash of film projects.

“I don’t think they will be able to capture my feelings,” said the father, while his wife added, “They [the filmmakers] are probably doing their best, but how can they express the emotions of a mother for her son?”

Hoping for that degree of empathy may be asking for the impossible. But the Pearls, who have been consumed in finding a meaning for their son’s death, also fear that his legacy might be ignored in favor of the more dramatic details of the last weeks of his life.

For the past four years, the Pearls have poured their thoughts and energies into the Daniel Pearl Foundation, “to further the ideals that inspired Daniel’s life and work.”

The broad aim of the foundation (www.danielpearl.org) is to address the root causes of his murder by promoting “cross-cultural understanding,” particularly between the Muslim and Western worlds, through journalism, music and innovative communication.

“We would like the films, and other media coverage, to express the deeper significance of Daniel’s life and death and to concentrate on the legacy and inspiration he left behind,” Judea Pearl said.

 

This Week – Not Our Movie


By launching a public, pre-Oscar campaign against the movie “Paradise Now,” Jewish activists all but guaranteed that people who might not otherwise see the movie would now be curious to give it a chance.

I was among the curious.

“Paradise Now,” written and directed by Hany Abu-Assad, follows the lives of two would-be Palestinian suicide bombers as they embark on their final mission. The movie was nominated for an Academy Award for best foreign film.

The weeks prior to Oscar night saw a concerted publicity campaign organized by some Jewish groups to protest its nomination. The most plaintive voices were those of the fathers of three Israeli victims of suicide bombers. One of them, Yossi Zur, whose 16-year-old son Asaf was killed in a Haifa bomb attack, saw the movie and wrote an online commentary accusing the movie of legitimizing the kind of attacks that killed his son.

“The movie,” Zur wrote, “attempts to explain away the actions behind mass-murderers. This mere act in effect legitimizes this type of mass-murder and portrays the murderers themselves as victims.”

The letter spawned an online petition campaign that garnered almost 40,000 signatures from around the world. The movie lost last week to the South African film “Tsosti,” but something tells me the controversy surrounding it won’t go away any time soon.

I don’t know Yossi Zur, and I can’t begin to fathom his pain and his loss. But many people I do know, whose opinions on art and politics I respect, believe that “Paradise Now” is a dangerous movie, a piece of anti-Israeli — even anti-Semitic — propaganda.

I watched the movie last week, and I disagree.

In fact, if the Jewish protests against “Paradise Now” draw more attention to the movie, and encourage more people to watch it — as is usually the case with such protests — that is all to the good.

The crucial thing to keep in mind when you see the movie is that it’s written and directed from a Palestinian point of view. An Israeli movie about suicide bombing would no doubt begin where this one ends — after the screen flashes to white and freezes, indicating that the murderer has set off his bomb, obliterating himself and the Israeli bus passengers around him.

The Israeli movie would track those passengers’ lives, the little dramas and comedies that filled their days leading up to that moment. Or it would dramatize the aftermath, when their families and friends are left to pick up the pieces — literally at first, then figuratively — of lives cut sickeningly short.

A Palestinian couldn’t make that movie.

A Palestinian can make a movie that helps us to understand how it is that humans turn themselves into bombs.

That’s what Abu-Assad has done. The reality he portrays is, of course, highly critical of Israel, but it is not as simplistic or one-sided as the film’s critics argue.

Critics have said Abu-Assad doesn’t just explore the phenomenon of suicide bombers, he justifies it. I would urge them to reexamine the movie.

We meet the two main characters after they have already agreed to their mission. They are impoverished, willful losers, empowered by religious belief.

But as much as the movie charts their commitment, it records their doubts.

The filmmaker clearly believes there is something absurd and wrongheaded in their decision. The terrorist leaders who control the bombers munch humus sandwiches as the men each prepare their last will and testimony.

The moral center of the movie is a woman, one of the bombers’ love interest, the articulate daughter of a Palestinian leader.

“Don’t you see what you’re doing is destroying us!” she screams at her lover during a climactic car ride.

Her words echo those of the filmmaker.

“I make films to resist,” Abu Assad said in an interview with journalist Jordan Elgrably. “There is a civilized way to resist, by using art to tell your story, or the uncivilized, violent way. I don’t believe in bullets. I make films to tell stories, and to have a dialogue, but without denying the rights of others to have their stories.”

I’ve seen all of this year’s issue-oriented movies, and “Paradise Now” is by far the most gripping, the most challenging. If it weren’t, I doubt its critics would bother to raise their voices against it.

This movie is not a justification for terror. It’s a justification for movies.

 

Letters


GOP ‘Munich’ Event

In his review of the Republican Jewish Coalition’s “Munich” event (“‘Munich’ Still Topic of Debate,” Briefs, Feb. 24), Robert Jaffee feigns surprise when he states, “Even with Republican sponsors and a largely Republican audience, the panelists at a recent discussion on Steven Spielberg’s ‘Munich’ covered most of the spectrum from left to right.”

As moderator, I opened the event by stating the two conditions under which we agreed to co-host the event with Pepperdine. First was that it should be held as a nonpartisan event, since I do not believe there is an established Republican or Democrat position on the movie — nor should there be. As evidence, I cited critics of the movie on the left, such Alan Dershowitz, as well as defenders of it on the right.

My second condition was that I would not allow the discussion to devolve into ad hominem attacks on either Steven Spielberg, for whom I hold admiration (and as a guardian of the memory of the Holocaust, gratitude), or Tony Kushner, whom I do not particularly admire.

To the audience’s credit, they abided by these admonitions. And when two (out of almost 200) participants engaged the panelists with debate from their seats — as Jaffee noted with condescension — I reminded them of our agreement to submit questions on cards, and they also responded respectfully.

It is curious that Jaffee would leave out all mention of these comments by me.

Readers of The Jewish Journal should be reassured that if they choose to sample one of RJC’s thoughtful events, they will be greeted with respect, not with cream pie in the face, a fate that has befallen conservative speakers at some venues.

Dr. Joel Geiderman
California Chair
Republican Jewish Coalition

Jack Abramoff

Two recent articles in the Los Angeles Times have undermined David Klinghoffer’s impassioned statement on Jack Abramoff (“In Defense of Jack Abramoff,” Jan. 27). One demonstrated that Abramoff used charities as a place to park money, which he subsequently used as if it was his own, and from another, we learned that this self-described Orthodox Jew advanced the interests and facilitated a meeting for the president of Malaysia with the president of the United States. His client had made such well-publicized anti-Semitic statements that they were broadcast throughout the world.

I wonder if Klinghoffer’s op-ed should not be withdrawn by the author or at least by the papers which published it. We now know it was contrafactual and verifiably untrue when it was written.

I do not claim that Klinghoffer knew that his defense — or his attack on the so-called attackers — was untrue, but his failure to withdraw the story leaves such an impression on this — and I presume other readers. If he does not withdraw it, The Jewish Journal should.

Michael Berenbaum
Director
Sigi Ziering Institute
University of Judaism

David Klinghoffer responds:

This correspondent missed the point of my article. That Jack Abramoff broke the law, abused the system and the trust of others was the premise of and occasion for the article I wrote. Once again: What I asked was, given that Abramoff has admitted serious criminal activity, that he’s publicly abased himself, that he’s now going to receive a hefty and deserved prison sentence, how appropriate is it for the Jewish community to continue to pour scorn and, indeed, hate upon him?

The lack of pity and compassion from so many of his co-religionists, the venom I’ve seen in numerous e-mails sent to me directly, is the real desecration of God’s name in this case. The fact that the writer of this letter can’t understand such an elementary point illustrates, rather than contradicts, what I tried to say.

Shameful Cover

On our trips to Israel we have seen Ethiopian Jews in modern dress, integrated into modern Israeli society. It was heartening. Your Feb. 24 cover showing a primitive Ethiopian and questioning whether such a person can be a Jew is a shameful dig or racist bigotry. It would be more appropriate for a Ku Klux Klan publication than for The Jewish Journal.

Marshall Giller
Winnetka

Not Made Clear

The Bush administration and the Israelis should have made it clear before the Palestinian elections that democracy does not mean that a people has the right to vote for “Nazis” (“U.S. Must Refocus Democracy Building,” Feb. 24). No fair-minded person would deny that Germany is a democracy, but certainly the Allies would never have let the people of (West) Germany govern themselves if they had elected Nazis, and if this happened, the Allies would not be called “hypocritical.

Another point of common sense. Now that everyone is aware how sensitive Muslims are about certain things, should the world not demand not only that Hamas recognize Israel and denounce terrorism, but that it end all hate speech against Jews.

Obviously, Jews certainly have the right to feel more sensitive about Holocaust denial, the blood libel and being called “pigs” and “dogs” than Muslims do about cartoons that truthfully depict their behavior.

Ronnie Lampert
Los Angeles

Questions

I hope someone asked Elias Khoury at his book reading why the people who started the war against Israel with the intent of wiping it and it’s inhabitants off the face of the earth have the chutzpah to call themselves victims, after they lost their attempted genocide of Israel (“‘Gates’ Hold Key to Palestinians’ Pain,” Feb. 24). I hope someone also asked Khoury why the Arab perpetrators of the “nakhba” didn’t take care of there own refugees.

Robert Miller
Sherman Oaks

Shlomo’s World

Howard Blume’s piece is precisely the kind of self-righteous equivocating that keeps the Jewish people off course and susceptible to attack (“Shlomo’s World,” Feb. 24). How dare he go on and on about one, count ’em: one person named Goldstein who killed Arabs while over the past five, 50, 100 and more years how many Arabs have killed how many innocent Jews?

Blume demonstrates that he has very little accurate knowledge of the history or purpose of his own people. A child of the civil rights movement, he does not see a religious Jew’s world as [Blume’s] own world — and therein lies the problem.

Blume was raised with the American civil rights movement as his religion. Has he or others like him really taken the time to see what the roots of that movement were and how it relates to Israel? It was and is the heroic story of the people of Israel that fuels and informs the struggle of black Americans for their freedom.

But Blume apparently refuses to see the cold, hard realities of the Middle East. He doesn’t believe it that when someone says they’re coming to kill you, they actually mean it. If Blume knew the history of his own people and understood what is truly his own world, he would have a very different view.

But, alas, he and others wish to remain in their give peace a chance/we are the world cloud, while denigrating the very religious Jews, who by the courage and devotion, continue to live and maintain the land of Israel. Give a thoughtful reading to from time immemorial will ya?

Read about some of your heroic brothers and sisters on israelnationalnews.com. And you are welcome to contact me for a thorough discussion of the real story of Israel in the Middle East.

Joshua Spiegelman
Sylmar

Kudos to Howard Blume for his article, which clearly states that the fundamentalists of any religion can be quite evil. They believe that anyone who does not believe exactly as they do are fair game.

In 1977, my wife and I gave ourselves a 25th wedding anniversary gift by touring Israel. My first purchase was a blue-and-white Israeli hat that I wore throughout the tour.

Our guide took us through West Bank communities without any fear. There were soldiers around, but we comfortably fraternized with Arabs in their shops and on their streets. I was delighted to witness Arabs and Jews praying simultaneously in different rooms at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron.

I constantly wonder what the situation would be today if subsequent Israeli governments had chosen to separate synagogue and state and not encourage religious Zionists, like the murderer Baruch Goldstein, to settle in the West Bank and Gaza.

Martin J. Weisman
Westlake Village

Betty Friedan

Blu Greenberg’s eloquent tribute to the late Betty Friedan reminds us how much courage it took for Friedan to stand up against American society’s treatment of women in the early 1960s (“Friedan: Universal Woman, Particular Jew,” Feb 10). Less well known is that more than 20 years earlier, Friedan spoke out for another unpopular cause — bringing German Jewish refugees to the United States.

Friedan was a freshman at Smith College in Massachusetts in the autumn of 1938, when Hitler unleashed the Kristallnacht pogrom. A debate soon erupted on campus over whether the United States should aid Jewish refugees.

On one side stood Smith President William Allen Neilson, a deeply principled humanitarian who believed America should be true to its tradition of welcoming the downtrodden. He urged the students to sign a petition asking President Roosevelt to let German Jewish girls enter the United States outside the immigration quotas, in order to enroll at Smith.

On the other side in the debate were most of the students, whose opposition to the refugees mirrored the bigotry and isolationism that was all too common in American society then. To Friedan’s surprise and dismay, some assimilated Jewish students joined the anti-refugee side.

Each student house held its own discussion on whether or not to sign the petition. “A number of girls spoke against it, about not wanting any more Jews at Smith,” Friedan later wrote.

There were four older, well-to-do Jewish girls in her house — “the type that spoke in whispery voices and became utterly anemic because they did not want to be known as Jews,” as she put it. “I expected them to speak up [in favor of the petition], but they didn’t. Finally, despite being only a freshman from Peoria, I spoke, urging that we open our doors to those girls fleeing persecution.”

Sadly, her plea fell on deaf ears — the petition was rejected by a large margin. But it is to Friedan’s credit that she stood up for what was right, even when it was unpopular to do so.

Dr. Rafael Medoff
Director
David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies Melrose Park, Pa.

To read more letters this week, visit www.jewishjournal.com.THE JEWISH JOURNAL welcomes letters from all readers. Letters should be no more than 200 words and must include a valid name, address and phone number. Letters sent via e-mail must not contain attachments. Pseudonyms and initials will not be used, but names will be withheld on request. We reserve the right to edit all letters. Mail: The Jewish Journal, Letters, 3580 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1510, Los Angeles, CA 90010; e-mail: letters@jewishjournal.com; or fax: (213) 368-1684

Too Jewish to Play Myself


People see me as your “typical Jewish woman,” and maybe it’s true: I’ve got curly hair, opinions on every subject and I do not go camping. Plus, even after years of speech classes, I still have an identifiable New York nasality in my voice. When I walk into a room, someone always greets me in a Yiddish accent: “Velkom, dollink hev a seat, enjoy!”

(The last person who did that was a Chinese friend, who ought to know better!)

This Jewishness has often been an obstacle in my professional life. My agent submits me for a movie, but the director — Harold Shlomansky — won’t see me because he feels I’m too Jewish. I hear that all the time, but this is for the part of a rabbi. Shlomansky is only seeing non-Jewish actresses because — as he puts it — he wants to be sure that the character is likeable!

A while back, I read for a commercial, which I knew I would book. I had worked with the director, Stu Lefkowitz, before and my agent told me he was looking for an “Annie Korzen type!” Wow! Talk about a sure thing! Well guess what? I do not get the job. Stu Lefkowitz hires a perky little blonde. I am too Jewish to play myself!

So I guess I am a living stereotype, and the worst thing about it is having to suffer through the never-ending barrage of jokes about me and my kind. Some of them are funny, and relatively benign: Why do Jewish women watch porno films until the very end? Because they want to see if the couple gets married.

The jokes I object to are not so kind: “A guy has a heart attack. His doctor tells him to avoid any excitement, so he marries a Jewish woman.

The jokes are lies. And lies hurt.

And who is it that tells these lies? Who is it that has such loathing for Jewish women? Who is that writes the jokes? It’s those nice Jewish boys I grew up with, that’s who. They are the guys, like Philip Roth’s Portnoy, who dream of a blonde goddess who will help them enter mainstream America, who will help them seem less “ethnic.” It doesn’t work. They still are who they are.

It’s like the old joke about about Hymie Greenblatt, who changes his name to Standish Merriweather III to get into the country club, but on the application, when asked his religion, he fills in “Goy.”

The great film director Sidney Lumet, who started out in Yiddish theater, proudly describes his wife as “WASP heaven … whose people literally came over on the Mayflower.” I’ve never understood what’s so special about the Mayflower. My people also came over on a boat. But the Sidneys don’t see it that way.

Last year I interrupted a comedy act because the Jewish comic was doing a bit about Anne Frank — describing her as an “ugly little JAP.” She was writing letters home from camp, complaining about the bad food and unflattering uniforms. The big joke was that the camp was called Auschwitz. Get it?

In the midst of all this hilarity I lost my cool and told the comic to get off the stage. I called him an “abomination,” which is weird, because I didn’t even know I knew that word. It sounds so biblical. The crowd shushed me, and someone told me not to be so rude. The comic finished his act to rousing applause and I crawled home, depressed and humiliated.

I got many hate mails the next day from the comic and his friends. One of them said, “You are the living personification of why Jewish men have contempt for Jewish women.” Oh, great! So now it’s all my fault!

There’s only one thing that consoles me when I ponder how unfairly women like me are maligned by our own men. There was one piece of good news for Jewish women in the last century, and his name was William Jefferson Clinton. He risked his marriage, his career and the stability of the United States government: all for a sexual obsession with a dark-haired, zaftig, Jewish girl. For this reason alone, he got my vote!

Annie Korzen is a comedy writer-actress who is best known for her recurring role of Doris Klompus on “Seinfeld,” and her humorous essays on NPR’s “Morning Edition.”

What, Meryl Worry?


In the new movie “Prime,” Meryl Streep is wearing a lavender button-down shirt, a red shawl draped comfortably around her broad shoulders and a brown hairdo that manages to have bangs, wings and flips all going at the same time. But somehow it’s the double strand of big red beads dangling around her neck like a loose noose that manages to convey the high state of suffering — boy does she suffa — of a guilt-ridden, guilt-giving Jewish mother.

That’s right, 56-year-old actor extraordinaire Streep of “Out of Africa,” “Sophie’s Choice,” “Kramer vs. Kramer,” “Postcards From the Edge,” “Angels in America,”etc. and 13 Academy Award nominations fame has taken on the comi-tragic role of a Jewish mother.

And oy! what a Jewish mother she is. Streep plays Lisa Metzger, M.S., C.S.W., an Upper West Side therapist who loves too much: She loves patients like Rafi Gardet (Uma Thurman); her eldest son, David Bloomberg (Bryan Greenberg); and her religion (Judaism). When Lisa discovers that her 37-year-old patient has been dating her 23-year-old son, she is beset by a professional concern that is the classic stuff of comedic conflict: Should she continue to treat this patient and how? But her character also is more deeply plagued by a concern that is tragedy for her: Her son is dating a woman who is not Jewish.

To be sure, interfaith dating is not the only theme or conflict in the film. “Prime” is a New York-based romantic riff on love and what happens when obstacles are placed in the way — obstacles like age, family, religion or the fact that your therapist is the mother of the man you’re in love with (a situation that’s probably less likely to happen in real life than in the movies).

But at its core “Prime,” which opens this Friday in theaters, is also a movie about the not very cinematic subject of religion — and the threat of intermarriage.

“I thought it was really unusual to have a script that had as one of its central dilemmas the question of faith,” Streep said. “That’s just amazing. That’s not edgy at all, but it’s something people contend with.”

It is a subject that writer/director Ben Younger (“Boiler Room”) contends with personally: He was raised Modern Orthodox in Brooklyn and Staten Island. While the 33-year-old New Yorker is no longer part of that community he still feels emotionally connected to it.

“I think it’s important for all people to be open,” Younger said. “It’s that exclusionary nature of religion that I do have a problem with.”

If it’s true that artists make a statement in their work — consider Jewish artists like Chaim Potok, Philip Roth, Woody Allen — then perhaps “Prime” is Younger’s way of sending a message in a bottle to the Jewish community.

Consider this heart-to-heart conversation between the characters David and his mother Lisa (Streep, at this point, is wearing a khaki-ish floral shirt and a thick rope of olive bead strands secured by red stones).

Lisa: “So you’re still planning on marrying someone Jewish.”

David: “Ye-e-s. Sure. OK?”

Lisa: “But then I don’t understand why you need to go down this road. You may end up getting hurt for nothing, or worse — hurting her. Don’t you value your culture and your history?”

David: “Mom, it’s not one or the other, Mom.”

Like “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” the struggles in “Prime” are probably applicable to any insular ethnic or religious group in America. But with intermarriage, the stakes are especially high for Jews.

“Once a Jew intermarries, he or she as an individual remains Jewish, of course, but the likelihood of that person having any Jewish descendants is close to nil,” concludes a self-published study on intermarriage called “Will Your Grandchildren Be Jewish?”

Once Jews understand the cost of intermarriage ramifications, said Antony Gordon, a co-author of the study, “most decide that they do not want to be the person who breaks the link in the chain that spans about 110 generations back to the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai.”

The National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS) 2000-1 indicates that intermarriage held steady overall at 47 percent from 1995 to 2000, and has increased 4 percent from 1990. Of all Jews currently wed, the 2000 NJPS study found, one-third are intermarried.

Experts note some statistical flaws in the more recent data, but it has nonetheless sparked debate over intermarriage: Everyone agrees that it’s a problem, but how big a problem — or priority for Jewish funding and programming — is it? And more importantly, what is the best way to deal with intermarriage?

Rabbi Kalman Packouz at Aish Hatorah in Florida, takes a direct approach to the problem. Packouz is the author of “How to Stop an Intermarriage: A Guide to Preventing a Broken Heart” (Feldheim, 1984) a book for “Jewish parents who want their child to marry a Jew but don’t know how to articulate it,” Packouz said. His book provides a 10-part questionnaire for interfaith couples considering marriage, covering topics such as personal, financial and religious compatibility as well as “Latent Anti-Semitism” and “Conversion” and “What is the Likelihood of Divorce?” The extensive 159-question survey asks sensible queries such as “Do you think that your potential spouse might be painting an unrealistic picture of him or herself and that you might be marrying an illusion?” There also are blatantly loaded questions: “Do you or your potential spouse think it is wrong to aid in the destruction of an endangered species? How do you feel about aiding in the destruction of the Jewish people?” In that light, even a question about data can become tilted toward a viewpoint: “Are you aware of the higher rate of divorce amongst intermarried couples?”

The point, Packouz said, is that, statistically, intermarriages have a higher rate of failure. And that is just the type of tactic that Streep’s fictional character takes talking to her son. Lisa tells her son: “If you’re smart enough to know that it makes sense to marry someone from the same background — and it does, any of the studies will show you that in as far as the divorce rates go, then you should be smart enough to know not to start something where nothing can come of it. You’re only going to make a mess.”

David, like many kids who were raised with some Jewish tradition in a primarily American culture, is outraged at his mother’s sudden springing of her “Fiddler on the Roof” issues at him.

Packouz offers a line of argument for parents who are accused of suddenly bringing up their Jewish values. He said that a parent should tell a child who is considering intermarrying: “Right now I understand what I really believe. I thought about golf and stock, and how you did in college, but I never really thought about how important it is to be Jewish. I go twice or once a year to services, but now I realize that it really matters to me. It’s who I am in life.”

In the film, David does not come from an extremely assimilated family — in fact, he is trying to break out of their bourgeoisie mores, such as trying be in an artist rather than the standard professional — and he calls his mother out on the double-standard of her Jewish vs. American values.

David: “You’re a therapist, you would never tell that to a patient.”

Lisa: “Not true, not true, I encourage patients to have relationships within their respective faiths. It’s easier. I encourage them to go to mosque or church or whatever. I think religion is paramount in a person’s life.”

David: “OK, yes. But encouraging them is not discouraging them. And I know that you draw the line there. Would you tell your patient not to date someone that they don’t think they’re going to marry?”

Lisa: “Oh quit asking me what I tell my patients. They’re not my children.”

Therein lies the dilemma. Parents teach their children to love everyone equally, to not discriminate, to help the poor, heal the sick, defend the weak — but only date within the faith?

“We can have all sorts of rules in the world, but when it’s our own children the rules go out the window,” Streep said. “You know, what’s objectively best is different from what’s subjectively understood to be the best for your own kids.”

In real life, of course, Streep is not Jewish, and she does not believe in marrying within the faith: “I believe in diversity. And mixing up the DNA — I think it’s very good. I believe in making a mess in life. And as for my daughter’s husband I have one demand: He better be nice!”

Even so, Streep did not find it difficult to play Lisa.

“I wanted her to be kind of momish, roundish,” Streep said. “We picked clothes that were a little bit too tight so that everything looks lumpish. She’s nicely groomed and everything but she doesn’t care about the style label and I’m sure she goes to Loehman’s and tries to get a bargain. She spends a lot of money on her jewelry basically [because] they don’t make clothes for women her age, her size, her style — that’s not what fashion is about anymore, so you sort of compensate with interesting necklaces.”

Streep said her character has a universality beyond Judaism: “At base we all feel the same things: You want to protect your kid. You want them to move out, but you want them to come around all the time — I mean you’re very conflicted as a parent and it goes forever.”

But Streep also understands her character’s concern about intermarriage: “When you marry outside of your religion, you set up a whole different bunch of difficulties and challenges.”

Within Judaism itself, the perspective on intermarriage varies depending on the denomination.

In the old days, parents sat shiva for a child who intermarried. Not much has changed, in spirit, in the Orthodox world.

“[Intermarriage] is absolutely discouraged,” said Rabbi Daniel N. Korobkin, the West Coast Orthodox Union’s director of Community and Synagogue Services.

At the other end of the spectrum, while Reform rabbis don’t encourage intermarriage, they do perform the wedding ceremonies and invite non-Jewish partners into their religious communities.

In the middle, as usual, the Conservative movement forbids its rabbis from performing an intermarriage, but more Conservative congregations are taking steps to be inclusive to non-Jewish spouses.

But here’s the funny thing about fighting intermarriage with facts and figures, the threat of excommunication or community approbation: It doesn’t necessarily work.

“The general evidence seems to be that nothing that any movement does or nothing that any part of the [Reform] movement does affects the mixed marriage rate,” said Rabbi Richard Levy, the director of the School of Rabbinic Studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. “What I think is happening is that Jews are so integrated in the population … much of the sense of difference between Jews and non-Jews has been polished away.”

It’s the flip side of Jews’ comfort in America; there is no isolating ghetto or shtetl — and Jews are mixing with and marrying their non-Jewish neighbors.

“People are doing it. And in huge numbers. And have resisted all of our efforts to beat them down with demographics,” said Rabbi Dan Shevitz, of the Conservative Mishkon Tephilo synagogue in Venice. “Very few people date or make choices for marriage on what’s best for the Jewish people. If they find someone they think is their soul mate, very few people are willing to give that up for the sake of Jewish demographics. Some are, and I think that’s great.”

Shevitz believes in the Conservative position that Jews should marry Jews, but the facts on the ground dictate flexibility toward outsiders.

“It’s important for us not to tell people that non-Jews are dangerous and ‘other’ or alien, and that we need to stay away from them,” he said. “The notion of making our children afraid of non-Jews is counter-productive and is not working and is false.”

At this stage, he added, Jews need to be promoting the concept of Jewish families.

“It’s neither racist or sinful or illiberal [to be] in favor of continuing our community. But that shouldn’t translate into a fear and hatred of the other. And traditionally it has…. We have a good product — if we can articulate it clearly and proudly.”

Perhaps that is the message — or one message — that filmmaker Younger is trying to get across in “Prime.” Although only a movie, and only one 33-year-old’s religious and artistic take, perhaps such pop-culture works are a better indicator of the cultural zeitgeist than proclamations from on high.

Like Conservative Rabbi Shevitz, Younger believes that the Jewish community — the religious community — needs to be more open to the “other” in the world, when it comes to the arts and when it comes to dating as well.

“If Judaism is so wonderful — and it is — then why close yourself off?” said the tall New York hipster. “Anyone who knows me knows it’s so ingrained, I am Jewish through and throughout, and it’s how I am, so why not share that with someone else?”

Younger could have been quoting the David character when he said, “If it’s as good as we say it is, why is it threatening to speak to someone who isn’t Jewish?”

It is a great religion; it is a great way of life. It touches on your daily life in a way that I haven’t seen any other religion — so why this fear?” Younger said. “Why immediately close off someone from your world? Maybe they’ll love it, too.”

“Prime” (www.primemovie.net) opens in theaters Friday, Oct. 28.

 

Jewish Weddings in Space


Joss Whedon’s quirky space Western, “Serenity,” features outlaws who act like Wild West gunslingers, an assassin who forces his victims to commit hara kiri, a telepath who inexplicably goes berserk, a Buddhist planet — and Jewish nuptials in space.

Based on Whedon’s short-lived 2002 TV series, “Firefly,” whose fan base helped spur the movie, “Serenity” revolves around the outlaws’ attempts to discover the telepath’s true identity after she beats up everyone in a bar.

Enter hacker broadcaster Mr. Universe (David Krumholtz), who plays the bar’s security tapes for the renegades — as well as a video of his wedding to a bimbo android. In one of the film’s funniest moments, she looks on robotically as Krumholtz (CBS’s “NUMB3RS”) ecstatically stomps on a glass at the end of the Jewish ceremony.

Mr. Universe is not the first member-of-the-tribe character the non-Jewish Whedon, has created, says Jewhoo Editor Nate Bloom; his titular Buffy the Vampire Slayer had a sidekick named Willow Rosenberg, among other multicultural pals.

Whedon said he created “Serenity,” which opens Friday, as a kind of “Wagon Train” in space. That’s about how Gene Roddenberry described his conceit for the original “Star Trek” series. But unlike “Trek” and many other sci-fi works, “Serenity” depicts real, rather than invented, human religions. So while a Jewish wedding in space may sound offbeat, hey, just think of it as the final frontier for the Diaspora, though don’t expect bubbe to approve of the intermarriage android thing.

525,600 Minutes


I was sitting in the AMC theater in Woodland Hills, a captive of a dull series of pre-movie advertisements, when I started to think about my next column. I considered writing about fasting (argue that a tall Starbucks latte might be an acceptable fasting exception, compared to a venti latte which is clearly a fasting faux pas); sitting with your kids in the adult service (discuss pros and cons of having children with shpilkes join you in the main sanctuary); and High Holiday attire (assert that Macy’s should have a High Holiday clothing department comprised of conservative yet fashionable clothes that come in textures appropriate for 100 F temperatures, but in fabrics that say “fall”).

These thoughts were interrupted by a preview for the movie version of the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical, “Rent.” A bunch of hip, actors and actresses with soaring voices and dazzling smiles appeared on the screen singing the opening lines to “Seasons of Love”: “525,600 minutes; 525,000 moments so dear; 525,600 minutes; how do you measure, measure a year?”

I mentally deleted my other potential topics and began thinking how as Americans and Jews we take stock of those 525,600 minutes in two very different ways. As Americans, we anticipate the upcoming 525,600 minutes with unbridled optimism, making big, bold resolutions. As Jews, we examine the year that has just passed, searching those 525,600 minutes for wrongs that we may have caused, or mistakes that could have been avoided.

But the differences in the Jewish approach and the secular approach to marking a new year aren’t just philosophical.

On New Year’s Eve 2005, we will make a slew of resolutions that will be kept for a week or two, dress in party clothes that rarely see the light of day, drink like Prohibition might make a comeback and eat like the calories are on hiatus. The most that many of us will contemplate on New Year’s Day, the first day of 2006, are the instructions on the child-proof cap guarding the Tylenol.

For Rosh Hashanah, we will dress conservatively, visit our synagogues in huge numbers, and eat our meals at home. It is a time for introspection, not partying.

What is the best way to move toward a new year? The Jewish method that calls for an intense review of the past year, or the American approach of entering each new year with a sort of reckless optimism oblivious to what has come before? It seems that the answer depends on whether or not one is a parent.

If you have children, you need to approach each and every new year with one eye on the past and the other eye on the future. To look only backward ignores the reality that our children are constantly changing: the baby that was just on our lap is now a toddler painting pictures; the kindergartener who raided our lipstick to play dress up is now a middle-school kid asking for makeup of her own. The child who screamed at us to stay when we dropped them off at preschool now screams at us to leave them alone when their friends are around.

But even though our children are constantly moving forward toward adulthood and a life of their own, we still must look back and consider our past parenting errors, and figure out how to fix them. The punishment for failing to look at our past parenting mistakes is to make them again; the punishment for failing to make plans for our parenting future is to parent a child that no longer exists. We must face each year with the optimism of New Year’s Eve, and the introspection of Rosh Hashanah.

During the Days of Awe that begin with Rosh Hashanah and end with Yom Kippur, I will consider how I spent last year’s 525,600 parenting minutes. Was I too lenient, or too strict? Did I try to shape my child into my image, or was I respectful of my child’s attempts, however shaky, to design her own identity? Did my child spend more time with me, or with his GameBoy? Did I cheer as loud when he did a random act of kindness as when he scored the game-winning point in basketball?

But I will also consider the gift of a new 525,600 minutes, minutes that are fresh and untouched. How will I respond when my daughter begs for a cellphone, asks for a razor to shave her legs or is dumped by a friend? How many minutes a day should she be allowed to IM? What will I do when she finally talks back? How will I make time every day to actively listen to my son and daughter when so many other things seem to get in the way?

The song from “Rent” continues with this verse: “525,600 minutes; 525,600 journeys to plan.”

This year, lets plan our parenting journeys with the exuberance and optimism with which we approach the American New Year, but with the thoughtfulness with which we approach the Jewish New Year. Let’s keep one eye on our parenting past, and the other eye focused on our parenting future so that we may experience 525,600 minutes of Awe.

L’Shanah Tovah.

Wendy Jaffe can be reached at wjaffewrite@aol.com.

Jerusalem Becomes Queen of ‘Kingdom’


In 1986, Oscar-nominated production designer Arthur Max (“Gladiator”) visited Jerusalem in the midst of the intifada.

“People told me not to go almost everywhere, but I went everywhere,” said Max, who is Jewish. “Of course, some of the Old City was closed off for security reasons, but I went to the Western Wall and into the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. And I stood on top of the Jaffa Gate and I looked out over what to me always had been a name, and suddenly I felt connected to my heritage, a close connection to all the Jewish history I had studied as a bar mitzvah.

Max drew on those feelings to recreate medieval Jerusalem for “Kingdom of Heaven,” in which the protagonists also journey to Jerusalem to connect to their religious roots. The Ridley Scott film revolves around a crusader (Orlando Bloom) swept up in the 12th-century battle between Christian King Balian and Muslim leader Saladin.

If Scott is known for dissecting heroes braving fierce odds in movies such as “Alien” and “Gladiator,” Max’s Jerusalem is an epic (and besieged) character in its own right. While Jews are relegated to extra roles, the city itself is stunningly depicted in detailed close-ups and otherworldly vistas.

Scott, for his part, wanted Jerusalem to appear as “the romantic, golden city,” not because of the color of its stone but because the film’s characters “saw it as a metaphor for idealism,” he told The Journal.

“The message is that for our heroes, Jerusalem is a symbolic, iconic place that represents God’s city,” Max said. “Because of my background I felt compelled to ‘get’ the city, not so much scholastically as emotionally correct.”

As he began researching his production design, Max again visited the Old City and snapped photographs from atop the perimeter walls.

“But there was too much intrusion from later periods; too much commercial and industrial clutter,” he said.

For inspiration, he instead turned to 19th-century romantic painters, such as David Roberts, who had depicted the city using dramatic lighting and visual exaggeration. An 1853 work by the German artist Auguste Loeffler became a key image for the film: “It’s a wide view of distant Jerusalem under stormy skies but with sunlight breaking through,” he said. “You see these whitewashed and golden walls of the city gleaming in the light, but all around the landscape is forbidding. And I showed this painting to Ridley and he said, ‘That’s it, the golden city on the hill under siege, threatened by all the dark forces around it.'”

To recreate this romanticized Jerusalem, Scott agreed the real city wouldn’t do — not just because of the commercial clutter but because of the congestion and the political unrest. Instead, he decided to build his set outside the Moroccan town of Ouarzazate, at the foot of the Atlas Mountains, an area in which he had shot segments of “Gladiator.” He and Max spent days bouncing around the desert in an SUV until they discovered a wide plain upon which they could construct “Kingdom’s” centerpiece set: the exterior of Jerusalem.

Over five months in 2003, Max and his 350-person crew molded 6,000 tons of plaster into more than 28,000 square meters of wall on the arid plateau.

“We modeled our physical set on the oldest military structures of Jerusalem, such as those located in the Citadel, also known as the Tower of David,” he said. “But while we built large sections of walls and ramparts, with computers we digitally added the rest of the city, based on scanned images of ancient ruins, iconic Jerusalem structures such as the Dome of the Rock — all inspired by the 19th century painters.”

Max, 59, led his multinational crew with ease, in part because of his own diverse background. Speaking precisely in an accent that is half-American, half-British in a phone interview, he said his Sephardic family fled Spain during the Inquisition, spent centuries in Belarus, and eventually landed in New York, where Max grew up in a Reform family but was bar mitzvahed in an Orthodox synagogue. Since then he has lived in Rome and London, and calls himself a “Wandering Jew.”

On the set, he regaled his crew with tales, remembered from his childhood religious studies, of how Jerusalem had been conquered and reconquered since the destruction of the First Temple.

In contemporary Jerusalem, the conflict continues, prompting Max and Scott to draw parallels between the film and current events.

“It’s like we keep replaying history,” Scott said. “The holy wars are the fundamental basis of Jerusalem today.”

“Kingdom” itself has been under siege from various factions. Scott received death threats from extremist Islamic groups while on location in Morocco; Christian conservatives in the United States will reportedly protest the film, which they feel depicts crusaders as less than chivalrous, and some Jews will dislike one character’s observation that in Jerusalem, “no one has claim and all have claim.” (Scott, too, feels “the city should be shared, not belonging to one country or another.”)

Max, for his part, believes the movie does not take sides.

“Surely the film is a plea for tolerance, and against extremism of all kinds,” he said.

“Kingdom of Heaven” opens today in Los Angeles.

‘Guess Who’ Can’t Look Jewish?


 

Apparently, Demi Moore is the only thing people will be seeing on Ashton Kutcher’s arm these days. In the actor’s new film, “Guess Who,” Sony Pictures spent some $100,000 to digitally remove a red string kabbalah bracelet from his wrist, according to a recent article by MSNBC.com’s Jeanette Walls.

While Sony execs declined to comment on the matter, Walls quoted an anonymous source who said that test audiences who watched the film “were really annoyed” by the bracelet.

The movie, which debuted at No. 1 in its opening weekend, is an adaptation of the classic, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” in which a Caucasian girl brings her African American boyfriend home to meet her parents. This time around, they’ve reversed the roles. Kutcher plays the Caucasian boyfriend meeting his African American girlfriend’s parents (played by Bernie Mac and Judith Scott) for the first time.

On a related note, Kutcher also told the Web site Zap2It.com that he originally conceived of his character as being Jewish, too.

“I decided that I wanted to play my character Jewish, to have another difference because Bernie is Christian in the movie and I decided that I wanted to play my character Jewish just to have another difference,” Kutcher told Zap2it.com.

But like the red string, other small references to his Jewishness, like his character saying “Shabbat Shalom,” were cut from the film before its release.

Director Kevin Sullivan told the Web site that the movie’s conflict was supposed to be about racism, not about religion.

“I didn’t want people to think it was about Christianity or Judaism,” Sullivan said.

 

Foreign Oscar Hope High in Nom Run-up


 

When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announces its Oscar finalists on Jan. 25, millions of Americans will be tuning in to learn who has been nominated for best actor, actress, director and picture.

But in 49 countries around the globe, from Afghanistan to Venezuela, local film buffs will wait anxiously to find out whether their country’s entry has made the cut by placing among the five finalists.

For most foreign movies, an Oscar nominations offers the best chance of attracting an American distributor for screenings in commercial U.S. theaters.

This year, four entries touch closely on the Jewish experience. They are Germany’s “Downfall,” Argentina’s “Lost Embrace,” the Palestinian Authority’s “The Olive Harvest” and Israel’s “Campfire.”

In face-to-face interviews, three directors and one actor commented on the making of the films.

‘Downfall’

“Downfall” recreates the last 10 days of Adolf Hitler and, for an instant, when Swiss actor Bruno Ganz makes his entrance, it feels as if the Führer himself has been reincarnated, such is the resemblance between the two men.

But this is not the ranting, strutting Hitler of 1,000 newsreels and photos. This is a cornered man, holed up in his elaborate Berlin bunker, with sunken eyes and cheeks, trying to hide his uncontrollably shaking hand behind his back.

In the streets above the bunker, Soviet troops, fighting the last die-hard Nazis and Hitler Youth, are reducing the capital city to rubble, block by block.

It is April 20, 1945, Hitler’s 56th birthday, and in a ghastly imitation of a jolly party, his still-loyal followers lift their champagne glasses in a toast.

The mood in the bunker wavers between frenetic fantasy and desperate reality. One moment, Hitler orders his generals to move nonexistent divisions to counterattack the Russian enemy. An hour later, he calmly discusses with his doctor the surest way to blow out his brains.

There are wild drunken parties among the bodyguards, with Eva Braun, Hitler’s mistress, jitterbugging on a table, counterpoised to a somber Hitler staring at the portrait of his idol, Frederick the Great of Prussia.

Leaders of the short-lived “Thousand Year Reich” drop by to pay their respects or farewells. Dreaded SS chief Heinrich Himmler swears undying fealty to the Führer and then consults an aide whether on meeting Allied commander Dwight Eisenhower for imaginary negotiations he should greet the American general with a Nazi salute or a handshake.

None is more fanatical than Magda Goebbels, wife of propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. She brings her six children to the bunker and, declaring that life is not worth living without National Socialism, methodically poisons them one by one.

In appreciation, Hitler confers his own swastika lapel pin on her and she declares herself the happiest woman in all of Germany.

Hitler’s paranoid anti-Semitism is unshaken to the end, and he takes pride that “I have cleansed Germany of the Jewish poison.”

He dictates his political testament to his secretary, concluding that “We owe all our problems to international Jewry.”

While Hitler hates and fears the Jews, he now has nothing but contempt for his Aryan master race. “I won’t shed a tear for the German people,” he declares, “They are to blame [for the defeat].”

Yet, the Hitler of the film is not a lunatic. He knows the fate in store for him if he is caught by the Russians, and he can carry on a fairly normal conversation with Albert Speer, his favorite architect.

“Hitler would not have achieved such power if within his crazy concept there hadn’t been a rational person,” said Ganz, Hitler’s film persona.

Interspersed in “Downfall’s” Wagnerian Twilight of the Gods are small homey touches. In gratitude to the loyal Eva Braun, he marries her in a brief, bureaucratic ceremony, in which both affirm their pure Aryan descent.

Just before the couple retires to commit suicide, Hitler formally thanks the cook for their last, delicious, lunch. And to his young secretary, Traudl Junge, on whose recollection of the last days much of the film is based, he remains mainly a kindly father figure.

Such “normal” touches in a man who laid Europe waste have aroused fears and criticism that the film “humanizes” Hitler, especially among the post-war generations.

Ganz said he had no such concern when he accepted the role.

“The film clearly explains that Hitler was responsible for the deaths of 50 million people, including 6 million Jews, and even young people know of his murderous deeds.”

But Ganz wrestled with himself on whether to play Hitler for other reasons.

“I’ve been given more to playing thoughtful, even melancholy, characters, such as Hamlet and Faust,” the 63-year-old actor said.

“My son and friends advised me not to accept the role. They worried that it would affect me as a human being and that thereafter I would be known just as the man who played Hitler.”

After considerable reading and thinking, Ganz concluded that playing the part was just too big a challenge to pass up, despite the risks.

“Besides everything else, Hitler was an actor who fed off his audience and knew how to play a crowd,” Ganz said. “As an actor myself, I finally told myself, ‘I know how to get into that man.'”

‘Lost Embrace’

If the Nazi era has been endlessly researched and reported, little is known, outside of South America, of Jewish life in Argentina, except when terrorists or vandals strike at the community.

Yet Argentina has the has the seventh-largest Jewish community in the world, predominantly living in Buenos Aires, and it is a welcome sign that the Argentine film industry chose “Lost Embrace” (“El Abrazo Partido”) as the country’s entry in the Oscar stakes.

Written and directed by Daniel Burman, the grandson of Polish Jewish immigrants, the film is set in the Once neighborhood of downtown Buenos Aires.

At one time an all-Jewish enclave, Once, like similar semi-ghettos in New York and Los Angeles some decades ago, is gradually changing with the influx of other minorities and newer immigrants.

Burman, still only 31, grew up in Once and among the dozen films he has directed or produced, has twice before visited the old neighborhood in “Seven Days in Once” and “Waiting for the Messiah.”

“Lost Embrace” is set in a rundown shopping mall, where young Ariel (Daniel Hendler) helps his mother Sonia (Adriana Aizenberg) in her lingerie shop, when he isn’t indulging in some quick sex with the blonde at the Internet hangout or observing the noisy Italian and quiet Korean storekeepers and their families.

Absent is the father, who disappeared one day in 1973 to fight in Israel’s Yom Kippur War, for reasons Ariel’s mother and grandmother refuse to discuss.

In quick-changing segments, we get other glimpses of Jewish life. Mother Sonia dances in an amateur show at the local Teatro Hebraica; the grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, unexpectedly sings an old Yiddish tune; and the neighborhood rabbi announces that he is leaving for Miami.

Life in Once has a certain multiethnic warmth, but what the rather aimless Ariel wants is to get away. Like many other young men in changing and uncertain Argentina, he looks for his ancestral roots and wants to move to Europe.

In the end, when his father returns, Ariel finally gets the answers he’s been seeking and the paternal embrace he has been yearning for.

The problem of “constructing an identity” has long obsessed Burman and he says that “Lost Embrace” embodies that search in Ariel’s seemingly casual daily experiences.

Yet Burman, both of whose parents are lawyers, apparently doesn’t share Ariel’s problem. Sounding like many of his contemporaries in the United States, he says, “I have no hang-ups about my Jewish identity, but it is part of my background.”

Similar to many descendants of Lower East Side residents in New York, or the Fairfax district in Los Angeles, Burman has moved away from Once, has married a non-Jewish woman, but still draws on the Jewish experiences of his youth for creative sustenance.

‘The Olive Harvest’

Last year, there were raised eyebrows and scattered protests, when, under the Academy’s liberal rules, the country of “Palestine” entered the movie “Divine Intervention” for foreign-language film Oscar honors.

No such objection has been raised to “The Olive Harvest,” the current Palestinian candidate and an unorthodox production in many ways.

For one, director-writer Hanna Latif Elias, an Israeli Arab and graduate of the Hebrew University and UCLA, shot the film, in the midst of the intifada, with an all-Arab cast and an all-Jewish Israeli crew.

For another, the picture’s core is a love triangle, and although the Israeli-Palestinian conflict looms threateningly in the background, more tension is produced by generational and sibling rivalries among the inhabitants of a rural Arab village in the West Bank.

The villagers earn their livelihood by harvesting olive trees planted in terraces along the gently rolling hills, among them family patriarch Muhamad, his wife Samiah, and their daughter, the beautiful Raeda.

As the film opens, Raeda is scattering rose petals to welcome the return of her childhood friend, Mazen. He has just been released after 15 years in an Israeli prison for setting fire to a new settlement encroaching on the olive groves.

During Mazen’s absence, his younger brother, Taher, has been courting Raeda, but their engagement remains a secret in deference to the tradition that a younger brother cannot marry before the older one.

Given the slow, indirect and nonphysical courting procedures in the village, it takes some time before the rivalry between the brothers breaks out into the open.

The brothers also differ in their political outlook. The impetuous, hot-headed Taher works for the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, tasked with warning of any new Israeli settlement activity.

In contrast to Taher’s militancy, the more sensitive and poetic older brother urges an end to the cycle of violence between Jews and Arabs.

Raeda’s dying father, exercising his absolute paternal authority on the ambivalent Raeda, chooses for her husband the brother most likely to remain in the village and care for the land.

As the wedding party assembles, the enraged losing brother torches a massive, 2,000-year-old tree, which symbolizes the villagers’ connectedness to the land.

“Olive Harvest” is in many ways, a beautiful film, both in the vistas of the biblical landscape and in the sensitive depiction of relationships between husband and wife, parents and daughter, sister and sister, and between the young lovers.

The excellent cast includes veteran actor Muhamad Bacri as the father; Raeda Adon, a Palestinian Julia Roberts, as his daughter; Mazen Saade as the older brother; and Taher Najeeb as the younger one.

Director Elias drew on his own childhood, growing up in an Arab village in the Galilee, for the atmosphere and social norms of the film’s farmers.

“My parents still live in my birthplace and the social life, the relationship between men and women, is the same as it has been for generations,” he said.

The movie has been screened before Jewish audiences in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and Arab audiences in Ramallah, Cairo and Dubai. Reactions have been generally favorable, but with one notable difference.

“The Jewish audiences questioned why the only Israelis shown were rude soldiers at checkpoints, while the Arab viewers complained that there wasn’t enough about Palestinian suffering,” Elias said.

One angry patron in Cairo confronted Elias about using an Israeli crew for the film, to which Elias responded that the highly professional Israelis made him look good.

Yet, the realities of Israeli-Palestinian hostility were never completely absent from Elias’ mind.

“When we were shooting in Ramallah, we needed guards to protect the Israeli crew, and when we filmed at a checkpoint, we had to protect the Arab actors,” he said. A projected scene of a confrontation between settlers and villagers was scuttled for fear of physical violence.

However, Elias sees it as a promising omen that during the filming a romance ignited between an Israeli makeup woman and a Palestinian actor.

“She supported settlements, he didn’t accept Israel’s existence, but once they got to know each other, they realized that the ‘other’ was also a human being,” Elias said.

Financing for the $1 million film came from producer Kamran Elahian, a Silicon Valley-based Iranian American venture capitalist, who said that he has invested some $10 million in Israel’s high-tech industry.

“I liked the idea of a film that portrayed Palestinians as normal persons, instead of suicide bombers,” Elahian said.

‘Campfire’

In “Campfire,” American-born Israeli director Joseph Cedar continues his unblinking exploration into the mindset of the religious Zionists who form the backbone of the settlers’ movement in the West Bank and Gaza.

Cedar, himself an Orthodox Jew who grew up in the same environment as the film’s protagonists, earlier looked at the religious right in the acclaimed “Time of Favor.”

In “Campfire,” which dominated the Israel Oscar awards, the central character is Rachel (Michaela Eshet), an attractive 42-year-old widow with two teenage daughters.

A year after her husband’s death, Rachel is desperate for a communal support network and wants to join the founding group of a future religious settlement in the Samaria region of the West Bank.

Ideologically in tune with the movement, Rachel is taken aback when settler leader Motke doubts that as a single woman she will be acceptable, unless she remarries.

Toward that end, Motke’s wife casts about for suitable candidates. One is a cantor-singer (veteran musical star Yehoram Gaon), the other a friendly 50-year-old bus driver (Moshe Ivgy), who can’t seem to hook up in a lasting relationship with a woman.

Meanwhile, Tami, Rachel’s 15-year-old daughter, hangs out with her friends at B’nai Akiva, the religious Zionist youth movement. Amidst the singing and dancing, Tami is sexually molested by some of her nastier comrades at a Lag B’Omer bon fire and then publicly slandered.

What has made “Campfire” such a popular and critical success in Israel is that Cedar, as screenwriter and director, has made his characters no mere ideological mouthpieces, but fallible and struggling human beings.

After “Time of Favor” and “Campfire,” many of Cedar’s former friends from the settlements and B’nai Akiva are now among his more vocal critics, but he denies that his movies are anti-religious.

“All the characters in ‘Campfire’ are religious, some are ‘good’ and some are ‘bad.’ But the critics just see the ‘bad’ ones,” he said.

The Oscars will air live on Feb. 27, at 5 p.m. on ABC. For more information, visit www.oscars.com.

 

Calendar


The Jewish Journal is no longer accepting mailed or faxed event listing information. Please e-mail event listings at least three
weeks in advance to: calendar@jewishjournal.com.

By Keren Engelberg

Calendar

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SHABBAT

Temple Beth Torah: 9:30 a.m. Shabbos at the Shul pancake breakfast. 7620 Foothill Road, Ventura. R.S.V.P., (805) 647-4181.

LECTURES

Aish L.A.: 8 p.m. Rabbi Noach Orlowek on “God: The Real Deal.” Motzei Shabbos and dessert. $10. Boxenbaum Family Aish Outreach Center, 9100 W. Pico Blvd.,
Los Angeles. (310) 278-8672, ext. 303.

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ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

AhmansonTheatre: 7:30 p.m.

Final performance of “Caroline, or Change.” $35-$90. 601 W. Temple St., Los Angeles. (213) 628-2772.

City of Hope Singers: 1:30 p.m.

“Music of the Magi” at the Richard Nixon Library. 18001 Yorba Linda Blvd., Yorba Linda. (714) 993-3393.

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EVENTS

OASIS: 1:30-3 p.m. Weekly Yiddish conversation group for seniors. 8838 Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 446-8053.

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Brandeis-Bardin Institute: Dec. 21-Dec. 26. Camp Alonim winter experience for kids in grades 2-11. (805) 582-4450.

ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

Los Angeles Master Chorale: 7 p.m. Latin holiday music celebration featuring jazz and vocal artists. $10-$79. Walt Disney Concert Hall,
111 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles.
(800) 787-5262.

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LECTURES

Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring:

Workmen’s Circle: 6:30 p.m. “Jewish Vegetarianism” vegetarian potluck and talk with Gene Gordon. Bring a dish or beverage to serve eight to 10 people. Free. R.S.V.P., (310) 552-2007.

OPEN HOUSES

Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring:

Shalhevet Middle School: 10 a.m. Open house for grades 5-8.
910 S. Farifax Ave., Los Angeles. R.S.V.P., (323) 930-9333, ext. 230.

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EVENTS

Jewish Family Service and Friendship Circle: 7:30-9 p.m. Support group for parents of children with special needs. Meets on first and third Thursdays of each month.
The New JCC at Milken,
22622 Vanowen St., West Hills.
(818) 464-3333.

Orthodox Union: Dec. 23-Dec. 26. West Coast Torah Convention. For more information, see article on page 19.

Sunshine Seniors Club: 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Weekly meeting at new location. Valley Cities JCC, 13164 Burbank Blvd., Sherman Oaks. (818) 764-4532.

Jewish Family Service and Friendship Circle: 7:30-9 p.m. Support group for parents of children with special needs. Meets on first and third Thursdays of each month. The New JCC at Milken, 22622 Vanowen St., West Hills. (818) 464-3333.

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DECEMBER 31/FRIDAY

Singles

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Jewish Outdoor Adventures: 10:30 a.m. Christmas Day Hike to Eagle Rock with the Sierra Club. Topanga State Park, 20825 Entrada Road, Los Angeles. hikergirl50@yahoo.com.

Jewish Singles, Meet! (30s-40s): “What’s a nice Jewish guy or gal doing on Dec. 25?” party. $10. Sylmar residence. R.S.V.P., (818) 750-0095.

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Harbor Jewish Singles (55+): 1 p.m. Lunch and a movie at Metro Point. (714) 633-8878.

Chai Center: 2-5 p.m. “Not a Christmas Party” for all ages at private outdoor location. $10. Hancock Park. R.S.V.P., (310) 391-7995.

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Israeli Folk Dancing: 8 p.m.-12:30 a.m. Classes by Israel Yakove meet Mondays and Thursdays. $7. 2244 Westwood Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 839-2550.

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West Valley JCC: 8-11 p.m. Israeli folk dancing with James Zimmer. $5-$6. Salsa, swing and tango lessons for an additional $3 (7-8 p.m.). (310) 284-3638.day

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Nexus (20s-40s): 6 p.m. Volleyball and
no-host dinner at a local restaurant. End of Culver Boulevard, near court 15,
Playa del Rey. www.jewishnexus.org.

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Conversations at Leon’s: 7 p.m. “First Dates, What They Say About You.” $15-$17.
639 26th St., Santa Monica. (310) 393-4616.

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New Age Singles (55+): New Year’s Eve party with bus to Glendale, dinner and the play, “Come Blow Your Horn.” $60-$62. R.S.V.P., (818) 347-8355.

Playwright’s Alter Ego Returns Home


For Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Donald Margulies, “Brooklyn Boy” represents both a return and a departure.

Like several of his early plays, the drama explores obsessions culled from his Brooklyn boyhood: “The legacies parents instill in their children, the continuity of wounding that occurs from generation to generation, the relationship between fathers and sons in particular,” the 49-year-old author said.

“But while my previous Brooklyn plays have involved the coming of age of various Marguliesian figures, I’ve never really let myself be a man in Brooklyn,” he continued. “This is the first time I’ve placed a middle-aged alter ego on that turf.”

“Boy” revolves around 40ish novelist Eric Weiss, who returns home — actually to the hospital where he was born — to visit his dying father, Manny, a shoe salesman. It’s his first trip back in a while, and he’s ambivalent: “I saw what Brooklyn did to my parents, and I knew I had to get the hell out of here,” he tells a friend. “I saw … the fear, the xenophobia, the suffocating double grip the Holocaust and the Depression had around their throats.”

Yet Eric has just had his first literary success with a semiautobiographical novel.

“So he’s at a juncture where he’s realizing that Brooklyn isn’t just a place he has to keep himself in exile from,” actor Adam Arkin (Eric) said. “He’s coming to see that whatever he has to offer as an artist is going to have to embrace who and what he was there. And what he had regarded as a kind of purgatory now can be a kind of key to his being whole.”

It appears that Margulies made a parallel journey. Before a recent rehearsal at South Coast Repertory, he described growing up surrounded by Holocaust survivors who “instilled in me a kind of fatalism and morbid fascination for recent Jewish history.” His American-born father, meanwhile, was an overworked wallpaper salesman, “physically affectionate but prone to mysterious silences,” who lived in fear of losing a job he loathed.

These twin shadows of the Holocaust and the Depression “instilled certain fears in me, legacies I had to shake,” Margulies said.

The playwright did so, in part, through his work. “The Model Apartment” (1984) is a kind of “Frankenstein” story in which Holocaust survivors have created a monster in their schizophrenic daughter; “What’s Wrong With This Picture?” (1985) features an artsy kid named Artie who spars with his father; “The Loman Family Picnic” (1988) tells of a downtrodden salesman whose son is writing a musical comedy version of “Death of a Salesman.”Margulies’ intensely personal (but not strictly autobiographical) work places him in a unique niche.

“[He] does not have the master work plan of an August Wilson … or the political urgencies of a Paula Vogel or Tony Kushner to shape and drive his work from play to play,” said Jerry Patch, dramaturg of South Coast Repertory. “Instead, his theatrical output, now more than a dozen plays, six of which have enjoyed prominent lives on American stages, has come from assessing his own changing vision of himself and the world in which he lives.”

So it makes sense that Margulies eventually left Brooklyn — and tales of restless, artist sons — to explore midlife concerns. “Sight Unseen” (1991) describes a painter, catapulted to superfame, who struggles with his identity as an artist and a Jew. The Pulitzer-winning “Dinner With Friends”(1999) was inspired by Margulies’ observations of “a succession of domestic catastrophes” in his circle

“Brooklyn Boy” began with another observation several years ago.

“My wife and so many of our contemporaries were dealing with failing and dying parents,” he said. Since Margulies’ own parents had died by the time he was 32, inventing the fictional Manny was “an opportunity to create a fantasy of what an aged version of my father might have been like.”

The character also “embodies so many of the generation who are now failing and dying; very often first-generation American Jews who were battered by the war and the Depression; who married and did all the traditional things and are now at the end of their lives with their generally overpsychoanalyzed children.”

It was the late playwright Herb Gardner (“Conversations With My Father”) who persuaded Margulies to set the piece back home: “I’d steadfastly steered clear of Brooklyn for a time in my work, because I feared I’d tread familiar ground,” he said. “But Herb convinced me it was an exciting prospect to revisit Brooklyn at this stage of my life, not as a boy but as a man.”

Perhaps the play is Margulies’ way of acknowledging Brooklyn as a source of creativity, as well as shadows.”‘Brooklyn Boy’ feels to me like the work of a more mature writer, so I’m glad I made the trip,” he said.

The play runs Sept. 10-Oct. 10 at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa (previews are Sept. 3-9); for tickets, call (714) 708-5555 or visit www.scr.org. Margulies will speak Sept. 9 as part of Chapman University’s Visiting Writers Series at Kennedy Hall. For more information, call (714) 997-6750.

Death Doesn’t End ‘Morrie’ Phenomenon

“Death ends a life, not a relationship.” So says Morrie Schwartz in the signature line from Mitch Albom’s “Tuesdays With Morrie,” the best-seller about how workaholic Albom learned life lessons from his dying former Brandeis University professor.

Death apparently has not ended the Morrie phenomenon, either. Since the Jewish Schwartz succumbed to Lou Gehrig’s disease in 1995, Albom’s book has spent seven years on the New York Times best-seller list and has been reborn as a TV movie and a play, to have its West Coast premiere at The Laguna Playhouse Sept. 11.Like the 192-page book, the play is based on Albom’s weekly visits to the colorful Schwartz during the final months of his life in late 1995. The Jewish sportswriter had reconnected with his favorite sociology professor after seeing Schwartz impart aphorisms on “Nightline.”

For 14 Tuesdays, teacher and student met for what both called “a final thesis,” which Albom ultimately wrote up as a book to help pay Schwartz’s medical bills.

Although he was more reluctant to turn “Morrie” into a stage production, he “grew intrigued by the theatrical legacy a play might create,” according to the New York Daily News. The challenge was to transform the book into a two-character piece with dramatic conflict — including the journalist’s change from Type A dynamo to a more smell-the-roses kind of guy.

While the play (co-written with Jeffrey Hatcher) opened to some mixed reviews off-Broadway in 2002, critics also noted viewers’ intense emotional response to Schwartz and his homiles (sample: when he tells Albom, in Yiddish, “Don’t hide your light under a bushel.”

So it’s likely that Morrie’s light will continue to shine, when the play has its first preview in Orange County this month — appropriately, on a Tuesday.

Previews are Sept. 7-10; the play runs Sept. 11-Oct. 10. For tickets and information, call (949) 497-2787, ext. 1. –NP

‘Mammy’ Over the Marx Brothers?


What’s the best way to celebrate 350 years of Jewish life in America? If you’re the National Foundation for Jewish Culture, you fete one of the top cultural achievements of American Jews — the movie business — with that favorite all-American pastime, the top 10 list.

Participants have until Sept. 10 to vote for their favorite Jewish features at www.jewishculture.org; visitors can choose from approximately 100 movies listed by decade — from 1922’s “The Jazz Singer” to 2002’s “The Pianist” — or type in their own suggestions. The results will be announced at the foundation’s Jewish Image Awards ceremony Oct. 11: “They’ll remind people of the great heritage Jews have as filmmakers in this country,” the foundation’s David Tausik said.

Not that choosing 100 “semi-finalists” for the Web site was easy.

“We argued a lot,” Tausik, a 43-year-old writer-director, said of the selection committee. “It’s tough to define what makes a great film, let alone what defines a film as Jewish.”

While movies such as “Schindler’s List” proved to be no-brainers, debate raged over flicks such as 1933’s “Duck Soup.” Sure, the Marx Brothers were members of the tribe, but their films weren’t Jewish-themed, some committee members said. Others countered that Groucho’s “mixture of pride and self-deprecation” felt Jewish. The result: “Duck Soup” was in.

OK, so one could argue that the Marx Brothers have a Jewish sensibilty. But the Jesus saga “Ben Hur”? Or Danny Kaye’s “The Court Jester”? Why are they on the list? Tausik, for his part, replied that the character of Judah Ben Hur was Jewish (unusual for films of the 1950s) and that the Jewish Kaye was “like the Hank Greenberg of actors” in his day.

When pressed, he admitted these films could be construed as a stretch, but then again, Top 10 lists themselves are iffy.

“They’re silly, because they’re arbitrary,” he said. “But our goal isn’t to create a definitive list. It’s to draw attention to Jewish films people may not have seen, to help foster pride in our accomplishments, and to teach non-Jews a bit more about us. After all, a great deal of American Jewish experience resides in these films. They say something about who we are.”

To find out more about events celebrating the 350thanniversary of Jewish life in America, visit www.celebrate350.org .

One Tough Room


As a Los Angeles Unified School District teacher of world issues for seniors in Los Angeles, I began yesterday’s class by playing a taped interview of Michael Moore talking about his movie, “Fahrenheit 9/11.” I had suggested that the class go see the film, so we could discuss it.

Tillie seemed particularly interested, nodding her head up and down as she listened, so I thought I’d start with her.

“Tillie, dear, what do you think?”

“She can’t hear you,” said the woman next to her. “She’s deaf!”

“Then what did you think?”

“I ain’t saying. I don’t have to say.”

“Anyone else?”

“Excellent!” Fred said.

“OK. And…?” I asked, hoping for a more lively discussion.

“That’s it. I liked it. Period,” he said, with finality.

A hand goes up. “Yes, dear?”

“It left me disheartened,”

“OK. Can you say more?”

“I’ve said enough.”

Great — 10 minutes gone, one hour and 50 to go. I changed the subject. “Where’s Margaret today?”

“She’s in the hospital.”

“Why?”

“She fell down yesterday and broke her hip.” I changed the subject again. “Where’s Matilda?”

“She died.”

“She died? She was here last week! When did she die?”

“Two days ago.”

“So what are you telling me? She won’t be coming back?”

“Not unless she’s a Buddhist.”

I change the subject again. “Who has some good news for us?”

Ethel raises her hand.

“Yes, dear?”

“A man comes up to me yesterday, sits at my lunch table; I can tell he’s a goy and he says, ‘You’re Jewish, right?’ I says to him, ‘I don’t like you either, go to hell, I spit on you.'”

I try to use this as a discussion point. “Well, all right, that’s a nice thing to do…what could she have said to this gentleman, instead?”

Silence.

“So?” Ethel demanded. “What should I have said to him?”

“Well, you might have asked why he felt that way, you know, open a dialogue, maybe make a new friend?”

“With that goy?” sputters The Diplomat. “To hell with him!”

The woman next to Ethel raises her hand. “Can I ask a question?”

“Please!”

“What’s the problem with the Palestinians?”

Ethel answers: “I spit on the Palestinians! I am a Jew!”

“Yes, Ethel, we know that,” I say, “and I’m a Jew myself, but don’t you think we need to find a way to live together?”

“They blow themselves up!”

“Yes, darling, but that’s because they watch too much television.”

“Who watches television?”

“He said we should watch television?”

“No, I didn’t. That’s just a joke gone awry.”

“Rye bread? It’s dinner time?”

“No Fred, not yet,” I say. “I was just saying, what about the Palestinians who are doctors, lawyers and merchants and just want to raise their families and live in peace?”

“Lawyers are the problem!”

“Shut up, Murray! The teacher’s talking!”

“Actually, we’re all supposed to be talking here about world issues and I’m doing all the talking….”

“That’s what you get paid for!”

Suddenly, the distinct sound of snoring.

“What’s with Mary here?” I ask. Mary is asleep in her chair, her head thrown back, her mouth wide open, snoring.

“She takes Darvicet for her arthritis,” says Olga. Apparently Darvicet eases Mary’s pain but knocks her out. I have a microphone in my hand because half the seniors are hard of hearing so I put the mike by Mary’s mouth and from the public address system now comes the rumbling of Mary’s snoring. Two old wiseguys wink at me and giggle. One old gal’s mouth drops open in horror. The rest are oblivious.

Quality shtick. One tough room. Oy.

“Look, I’ve been talking nonstop for over an hour. I’m supposed to get you guys to talk!”

“We don’t want to talk. We want to listen to you.”

“But I’m tired of telling you bad news. Who has some good news for us? Yes, Martin?”

“I heard today the interest rates are going up.”

“And how is that good news, sir?”

“I don’t know.”

“I have some good news.” It’s The Diplomat. “This goy says to me, ‘You’re Jewish, no?’ So I told him, I says, ‘I don’t like you either.'”

“You told us that already, Ethel!” Ann reprimands .

“Leave me alone!” Ethel pleads. “I was in the camps!”

“Maybe you could share with us some of your experiences under the Nazis, darling,” I say. “What camp were you in? Auschwitz? Buchenwald?”

“I don’t remember. I want to forget.” Her voice trails off.

Who am I to pry into something like that? Especially if she doesn’t want to talk? The room is silent, except for the air-conditioning.

“What time is it?”

“It’s six past three.”

“We’re supposed to be done at three.”

“We know,” Sophie laughs. “We like being with you.”

“I like being with you, too. See you next week.”


Wildman Weiner is credentialed teacher of older adults.

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