The Holocaust, the Mideast, cons and Americana

Scattered amid this year’s more traditional holiday fare are some ambitious, profound and illuminating films that should intrigue the discriminating audience.

Among these is “The Last of the Unjust,” a rabbi accused of collaborating with the Nazis, from noted French-Jewish filmmaker Claude Lanzmann. When the director was gathering material for his acclaimed work “Shoah” in 1975, he spent several days shooting interviews with Benjamin Murmelstein, a Viennese rabbi who became the third, last and only one to survive as chief of the Jewish Council of Elders at the concentration camp/ghetto in Czechoslovakia known as Theresienstadt. The camp was promoted as a model community for Jews and used for propaganda by the Nazis, when, in reality, conditions were harsh, many inmates died of disease or were killed, and numerous others were transported to death camps in the east.

The Murmelstein footage didn’t appear in “Shoah,” but Lanzmann said he always knew he would use the material at some point. “I was the heir of something so important that I had not the right to keep it for myself alone. 

“The issue of the Jewish councils had never been comprehensively addressed before, not by me, not by anybody. It did not fit in ‘Shoah,’ ” he said. “It was now the moment to deal with it.”   

The Nazis set up Jewish councils in camps like Theresienstadt to administer basic services, carry out orders from the Germans and communicate or mediate between the Germans and the prisoners. The council chiefs frequently had to implement brutal orders, such as to choose who would be transported, or for rationing food. Many of Murmelstein’s decisions were deeply resented, and he was accused of being a collaborator. After the camp was liberated, he was tried by Czech authorities and imprisoned for 18 months before being found innocent of all charges.  

Lanzmann explained that Murmelstein referred to himself as “the last of the unjust,” giving this film its title, a take on André Schwarz-Bart’s masterful novel, “The Last of the Just.” 

“I have to make it clear,” the director noted, “genuine collaborators — meaning people who shared Nazi ideology — did not exist amongst Jews, and Murmelstein was certainly the absolute opposite of a collaborator. Yet, Benjamin Murmelstein survived the war.

“In the film,” Lanzmann continued, “he recalls that the first question he was asked in prison after the war, was: ‘Why did you survive?’ Frightening question. People couldn’t understand why all of the others were dead and Murmelstein was alive. If you don’t dig deeper, it is easy to draw a conclusion: He must have been a collaborator then; he must have been a traitor. 

“Murmelstein managed to bring an answer during our meeting. He survived because he understood that his survival — and the survival of all the ‘inhabitants’ of the ghetto — and the survival of the ghetto were completely linked. Therefore, he worked hard to keep the ghetto working, to keep it exposable and useful for the Nazis. When some saw there a deliberate action to hide what Theresienstadt really was from the Western countries, he explains that this was a way to hamper the Nazis from exterminating the whole ghetto. If the ghetto were to be useless, it would have been destroyed! Like so many others.

“Besides,” Lanzmann said, “his whole situation that he described in the film — ‘between the hammer and the anvil, between the Jews and the Nazis’ — was unbearable and made him take tough decisions that were un-understandable for the Jews at that time.”

Lanzmann said his film also explores more universal issues, beyond Murmelstein. 

“The aim of ‘The Last of the Unjust’ is summarized by that sentence of the writer Isaac Bashevis Singer, quoted by Murmelstein: ‘If, in 50 years, it is said that all the Jews from the ghettos were saints, there won’t be (a) greater lie,’ and Murmelstein adds, ‘They were all martyrs, but not all martyrs are saints.’ 

“This is what I try to explain in this film. I try to expose the complexity of the human soul. This film is an invitation to think.”

“The Last of the Unjust” opens for an Oscar-qualifying run Dec. 13 and goes into wide release in early 2014.

Moving from the Holocaust to the Mideast, we have the documentary “It’s Better to Jump,” in which Palestinian residents of Akka, the walled seaport in northern Israel that is home to Muslims, Jews, Christians and Baha’i, voice their complaints about Israel’s influence on their culture and their economic conditions. They cite gentrification, through which Israelis pay inflated prices for properties so that the poor inhabitants leave, and they charge that the process is a concerted effort to replace the Palestinians with Jewish occupants in order to change the demography. The interviewees express their fear that the ancient city will become a tourist town. They also decry what they perceive as discrimination in education and employment against the Arabs and in favor of the Jews.  

The film’s title refers to a rite of passage that has young people stand on top of a 40-foot wall, which has endured for centuries, and jump into the treacherous waters at the bottom. The children describe the experience as one of exhilaration and liberation.

Patrick Alexander Stewart, his Palestinian wife, Mouna Stewart, and Gina Angelone served as the movie’s directors/producers.

“It’s Better to Jump” opens Dec. 6.

A complex domestic situation involving Middle Easterners in Paris is the subject of Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi’s (“A Separation”) latest effort, “The Past.”

The story focuses on Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa), who returns to Paris after four years in his native Tehran to help his French wife, Marie (Bérénice Bejo — “The Artist”), complete their divorce proceedings. Marie wants to marry her lover, Samir (Tahar Rahim), whose child she is carrying, but their relationship causes intense friction between Marie and her teenage daughter, Lucie (Pauline Burlet). The girl has learned that Samir’s wife is in a coma after a suicide attempt and believes Samir’s affair with her mother was the cause. Although Ahmad is not her father, Lucie relates to him as a father figure, and he tries his best to broker a peace between his soon-to-be ex-wife and his stepdaughter. His attempts lead to the revelation of a secret from the past, hence the title. Meanwhile, Samir is torn between guilt over his wife’s condition, uncertainty about whether she will live or die, and his desire for Marie.

Rather than dealing with cultural conflicts, the film focuses on personal dilemmas that could occur in any culture. “One of my guidelines was not to define my characters by their nationality or their flag,” Farhadi states in the press notes. “Their behavior is determined by the situation they are experiencing.  In a crisis situation, differences tend to disappear.”

“The Past” opens Dec. 20.

We now travel to America, where two of the upcoming films depict Jewish con men.

In “American Hustle,” scam artist Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) is compelled to aid FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) in a sting aimed at uncovering political corruption. The story is inspired by the Abscam sting operation of the late 1970s and early ’80s, in which undercover FBI operatives offered bribes to politicians, resulting in the convictions of U.S. Sen. Harrison A. Williams and six congressmen, among other public officials, on charges of bribery and conspiracy. To help run Abscam, the FBI hired swindler Melvin Weinberg, on whom the character of Rosenfeld is based.

During a “Good Morning America” interview in July, director David O. Russell talked about what audiences can expect from his film.

“They can expect a wild world of amazing characters, people with their passions and their arts, that was inspired by this wild event that happened back then. You’ve got con artists — Christian Bale playing a con artist from the Bronx, Amy Adams his partner in crime — so good, they get so good at what they do as con artists that the government asks them to work for them.”

He added, “And you’ve got the economy, like today, in a tough place, people very eager, if not desperate, to make something happen.” 

“American Hustle” opens Dec. 13.

The other swindler-themed movie is Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street, adapted from the memoir of the same title by Jordan Belfort, a notorious trader who became hugely successful by marketing penny stocks through his brokerage firm, Stratton Oakmont, during the 1990s. In a Wall Street Journal article, Leonardo DiCaprio, who plays Belfort, is quoted as saying the film portrays “the real epitome of American greed.”

The film also marks DiCaprio’s fifth with Scorsese, who, in the same article, characterizes Belfort as a man bent on “making as much money as possible, as quickly as possible. He enters this world, masters it brilliantly, has a great time and spins out of control. Jordan was a guy who got around every obstacle and every regulation and then, because of drugs and the sheer addiction to wealth and what it brings, couldn’t bring himself to stop. Jordan risks a lot, but he does it because that’s part of the enjoyment — he’s so brilliant that he always tests the limits. ‘I got away with this, so how about trying to get away with that?’ And then he got caught.”

In 2003, Belfort was convicted of money laundering and securities fraud and was sentenced to four years in federal prison but served only 22 months. He was also ordered to pay $110 million in restitution to people he defrauded, but, according to the New York Daily News, Belfort so far has forked over only $11.6 million, and Brooklyn federal prosecutors are asking the court to hold him in default. The article also cites  Belfort’s response: “An irate Belfort — who plans a 2014 motivational speaking world tour to teach people how to ‘not just create wealth, but to use it for the greater good’ — called the U.S. attorney’s accusations ‘all lies … a complete fabrication.’

“ ‘When I saw the deadbeat accusation, I almost started crying,’ said Belfort, his eyes welling with tears. ‘I can’t believe something like this is happening in America.’ ”

“The Wolf of Wall Street” opens Dec. 25.

A very different American tale is told in a new movie from the Coen brothers. “Inside Llewyn Davis” re-creates the folk music scene in Greenwich Village during the late 1950s and early ’60s, an era that coincided with the beat generation and just predated the more commercially successful figures of the genre such as Bob Dylan or Peter, Paul and Mary.

The fictional character of Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is a struggling folk singer trying to make it as a solo act after his partner commits suicide. Essentially homeless, he crashes on friends’ couches and scrounges from anyone who will give him a handout, all the while trying to practice his art with uncompromising authenticity. But his singlemindedness makes him his own worst enemy as he alienates friends and strangers, sabotaging the few opportunities that come his way.

In the Village Voice, Alan Scherstuhl wrote, “While often funny and alive with winning performances, ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ finds the brothers in a dark mood, exploring the near-inevitable disappointment that faces artists too sincere to compromise — disappointments that the Coens, to their credit, have made a career out of dodging. The result is their most affecting film since the masterful ‘A Serious Man.’ ”

“Inside Llewyn Davis” opens in limited release Dec. 6 and in wider release Dec. 20.

The story of Walt Disney’s (Tom Hanks) battle to acquire the rights to film his daughters’ favorite book, “Mary Poppins,” from author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) is told in “Saving Mr. Banks.” Travers was actually the pen name used by Helen Goff.

The film goes back and forth in time between the novelist’s youth (Annie Rose) in early 20th century Australia and  the year 1961, when Disney invites her to his studio, hoping he will finally get permission to film her novel after four decades of being rebuffed by the writer. She accepts his invitation because, by this time, sales of her book have dwindled, along with her finances.

Disney presents her with creative storyboards and upbeat songs by the gifted Sherman Brothers (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak), sons of Russian-Jewish immigrants, who scored more films than any other musical team.

But despite Disney’s efforts, Travers is still unyielding. She relents only after he is able to relate to her on a deeper level and address the pain over her relationship with her father (Colin Farrell), depicted as a loving, but irresponsible parent, given to drink and to tall tales, who served as the inspiration for the character of Mr. Banks, the father of the family that hires Mary Poppins as a nanny. 

In the production notes, director John Lee Hancock explains what turns the tide for the relationship:

“He needs to find out more about her, who she is, and what her relationship with her father was, and that becomes the key. He realizes that they have a somewhat shared past in their relationships with their fathers. He must convince her that the idea of turning something dark or even tragic into something that has a message that lives on and saves you from that dark past is the stuff of storytellers. And that’s what they have in common.”

“Saving Mr. Banks” opens in select cities Dec. 13 and goes into wide release Dec. 20.

Finally, there is Ben Stiller’s remake of the 1947 hit film, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” which was based on a James Thurber short story about an inveterate daydreamer. Stiller directs and stars in the new version, taking on the role originally played by Danny Kaye.

The updated Walter Mitty is the photo editor of a magazine who escapes his humdrum existence by fantasizing about heroic deeds and steamy romances. But when his job and that of his secret crush are threatened, he is forced to action in the real world. Underlying the humor are issues arising from the explosion of new, often impersonal technologies that render many people’s way of life outmoded and irrelevant.

“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is scheduled for a Dec. 25 release. 

Little-known stories live large on screen

Several tales largely unknown to mainstream audiences are brought to the fore in many of this fall’s cinematic offerings.

Among these is “Kill Your Darlings,” a coming-of-age film about the celebrated beat generation poet Allen Ginsberg during his time as a student at Columbia University in 1944. The movie blends the theme of youthful counter-culture activity with issues surrounding sexual identity and a sensational murder that is rarely discussed today.

Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe) is a shy Jewish boy from New Jersey helping to care for his mentally ill mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh). When he arrives at Columbia, he meets the beautiful, magnetic and rebellious young Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan), who jumps on a table during a tour of the library for new arrivals and recites a lurid passage from Henry Miller. Ginsberg is mesmerized by the sophisticated, androgynous rebel and becomes part of Carr’s fast-living circle that includes William Burroughs (Ben Foster), another beat poet slated for celebrity, and David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall), an older man who is obsessed with Carr. Into the mix comes Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston), a former football player and merchant marine who would also become a noted beat generation writer.

The group engages in a series of outrageous pranks, and, as Ginsberg and Carr draw closer,  Kammerer feels excluded and becomes intensely jealous. Events reach a crescendo when Kammerer confronts Carr hysterically and Carr stabs him to death. Ultimately, Carr claims that the murder was an honor killing, because he was defending himself from Kammerer, who was a homosexual. In 1944, that was an acceptable defense, and Carr receives a light sentence.

Director John Krokidas, who makes his feature film debut with this effort, said he has admired Ginsberg’s daring since he was a teenager.

“Like many an adolescent who grew up in a pretty regular family in the suburbs, reading the beats for the first time was extremely attractive, because they presented an alternate way of living your life, a more authentic life, a life full of spirit and rebellion and living for your art. What potential artist doesn’t romanticize that dream at the age of 16 or 17? Plus, at that time in my life, I was closeted, so imagine reading the works of Allen Ginsberg, where he’s so up front and honest about his sexuality.”

Ginsberg’s character is heavily influenced by the fact that he was Jewish, Krokidas added. “When he got to school for the first time — not just because of his sexuality, but because of his Jewish heritage — he was seen as ‘the other,’ was seen as different.

“I remember reading interviews with him, and when people asked, ‘Are you a Jewish poet?’ he said, ‘I am a Jewish poet. I’m Jewish. I am a poet. I’m also a gay poet, but, yes, I’m a Jewish poet. I wrote a poem called ‘Kaddish.’ You might have heard of it.’ ’’

Krokidas said his own mother is Jewish, but he is also of Greek-Orthodox and Italian-Catholic heritage. However, he grew up mainly in the Jewish community, and he considers his Jewish roots part of his artistic identity. In fact, several members of his cast and crew are Jewish.

“This was a very Jewish production,” Krokidas said. “That wasn’t a conscious decision, but you find out it’s in the people that you belong with, and in an artistic endeavor like a low-budget independent film, a lot of the instinctual decisions you make on who to work with are based on an idea of shared vision, academically, of course, but also a common emotional and personality shorthand and understanding.” 

“Kill Your Darlings” opens Oct. 16.

“A.K.A. Doc Pomus.” Photo courtesy of Clear Lake Productions

Another gem is the documentary “A.K.A. Doc Pomus,” which chronicles the rarely publicized life of Jerome Felder, a Jewish boy from Brooklyn who contracted polio as a child and remained dependent on crutches and a wheelchair but became one of the most admired and successful songwriters in the music business.

Felder’s daughter, Sharyn, spearheaded the project and serves as one of its producers. “I always knew, from the time I was a little girl, that my father’s dramatic life story was unparalleled,” she said. “His story just had to be told, and I was obsessed to make a documentary about him. I began working on this film about eight years ago.”

Felder’s story is filled with pain, joy, struggles, triumphs, heroism and a great deal of heart. He loved the blues, and, although disabled, managed, as a youth, to worm his way into singing blues songs in nightclubs. He changed his name to Doc Pomus so his mother wouldn’t see his real name on the marquees.

He came into his own as a songwriter with the advent of rock ’n’ roll, amassing an abundance of hits, including such standards of the era as “Save the Last Dance for Me” (even though he could never dance), “This Magic Moment,” “A Teenager in Love,” “Viva Las Vegas,” “Can’t Get Used to Losing You” and numerous others.

Felder married the woman of his dreams, had two children, divorced and then found another love. As he grew older, he became a mentor to aspiring songwriters and helped further several careers. He died of lung cancer in 1991 at the age of 65.

The movie about his life is replete with music, archival material and sections from Felder’s journals read by singer Lou Reed. There are also interviews with Felder and many of his colleagues, including Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, B.B. King, Dion, Dr. John and Joan Osborne, among other notables.

Asked why her father’s story is not more widely known, Sharyn Felder replied, “The songwriter in general is often largely unknown. You know the songs, but not the songwriter’s name. In addition, my father may not be well known because he didn’t travel and shmooze extensively, thus not making himself known all over, largely due to his disability.”

Ruminating on her father’s success against such great odds, she commented, “My father believed that you have to persevere. In his own words, ‘Some days the world owns you, but other days you will own the world, so you just have to push and shove, and there is a place for you.’ He was a very determined man. His entire family was that way. He would say to me when I was hemming and hawing about something, ‘Just do it!’ ”

She added, “My father had struggles his entire life that I was well aware of. But he was incredibly productive, a very loving father, a brilliant mind and hysterically funny. His struggles seemed minor in many ways.”

As for what she hopes audiences will take away from the documentary, “I want people to be inspired by and enlightened by my dad, the man, and, also, to become educated about his music and its impact on the music world.”

“A.K.A. Doc Pomus” opens Oct. 11.

Dorothy and Herb Vogal from “Herb & Dorothy 50X50.” Photo courtesy of Fine Line Media

From music, we segue to art with “Herb & Dorothy 50X50,” the sequel to Megumi Sasaki’s 2008 documentary “Herb & Dorothy,” about retired postal worker Herb Vogel and his librarian wife, Dorothy. The couple began collecting contemporary art by young, as-yet-unknown painters soon after their wedding in the early 1960s. The paintings they bought had to be affordable and fit into their one-bedroom Manhattan apartment.  

Over the years, they assembled a collection of some 2,000 works by artists who would go on to international fame, such as Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Richard Tuttle, Robert Mangold, Sylvia Plimack Mangold and Robert Barry.  

In 1992, they gave their collection, worth millions, to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The Vogels continued to buy art even after the gift, and the collection came to include about 5,000 paintings, more than the National Gallery could handle, so the Vogels decided to take 2,500 paintings and give 50 to one museum in each of the 50 states.

“50X50” is something of a travelogue as it follows the Vogels to 11 of the museums and shows them consulting on the hanging of the art, being entertained at the various institutions and appearing on panels and at openings.

The movie goes through the summer of 2012, when Herb died and Dorothy announced the closing of the collection. She is shown sifting through Herb’s effects and taking paintings off the walls of her apartment.

“Herb & Dorothy 50X50” opens Sept. 13.

Howard Lutnick at the missing-persons wall in “Out of the Clear Blue Sky.” Photo courtesy of Asphalt Films

As Sept. 11 approaches, we segue to the documentary “Out of the Clear Blue Sky,” which depicts the devastation of the bond trading firm of Cantor Fitzgerald and the families of its employees who died during the terrorist attack. Cantor, which was a hugely prosperous firm and occupied the top five floors of the World Trade Center, was not widely known to the public before the events of that day. The firm suffered the greatest number of casualties of any one company, as 658 members of its staff were obliterated by the terrorists.  

Filmmaker Danielle Gardner was in the neighborhood and an eyewitness to the catastrophe. Tragically, her brother, Doug, was among the Cantor victims. The filmmaker recalled it as such a chaotic, confusing and highly emotional time that she was compelled to document what was going on around her. 

 “I was a documentary filmmaker before that,” she said, “and I never made anything about my life personally. Before this, I liked to go out into other worlds and other subcultures and learn about them, but, as I said at one time, all of a sudden I became the subject rather than the outsider.”  

Gardner, who happens to be Jewish, described her film as encompassing the twin worlds of both the grieving families and the business. She explained that the CEO of Cantor, Howard Lutnick, who is also Jewish, figures prominently in the documentary because he was part of both worlds: He ran the company, and his younger brother was killed in the attack.  

Lutnick was taking his son to the boy’s first day of kindergarten and was among the few staff members who happened to be out of the offices. People may remember the CEO, reputed to have been a cutthroat businessman, being interviewed numerous times and sobbing uncontrollably over the deaths of his brother and so many close associates. 

At first there was great sympathy for him as he tried to salvage the company and help the bereaved families. But very soon, when he hadn’t paid the salaries of those who were lost, the families and the media turned against him, and he became an outcast.

“People in the first week,” Gardner said, “would ask me, ‘Why isn’t Cantor doing this?’ and, ‘Why isn’t Cantor doing that?’ And I was thinking, ‘There’s a tremendous disconnect here. There is no Cantor. There’s a couple of people sitting in a living room frantically trying to figure out who’s alive.’ I remember thinking, ‘There’s no office. There are no people. I don’t know where you guys have been.’ ”

Lutnick regained favor when he subsequently announced that the firm would give the families medical coverage for 10 years and donate 25 percent of its profits to them for five years. A Cantor Relief Fund, run by Lutnick’s sister Edie, was also organized to gather donations, coordinate volunteer efforts, hold events for the families and their children, and provide other forms of assistance.  

Gardner said she found the support groups that were formed particularly helpful.

“The most help everyone received was from ‘fellow travelers,’ as it were,” she said. “I definitely needed to be around people who were going through what I was going through, because it was a uniquely horrible experience. The community that was formed was absolutely helpful. There was a memorial for the first five years. Then they said, ‘Let’s do that for the first 10 years.’ And now I don’t know if we’re ever going to stop doing it, because, honestly, you need a place to go. And the best place to go is where you know you’ll be understood.

 “Nothing’s ever OK again, and nothing’s the same,” she concluded. “I don’t accept what happened here at all, but you live. I don’t think we’ve moved on. We’ve made it part of us; it’s always there, but we chose to live.”

“Out of the Clear Blue Sky” will be screened one night only, on Sept. 11, in theaters around the country.

Dr. Warren Hern listening to a patient in “After Tiller.” Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope

Veering off in a completely new direction, we come to the subject of late-term abortion with the film “After Tiller.” Dr. George Tiller, who practiced at his clinic in Wichita, Kan., was one of only a few doctors in this country who performed abortions after the third trimester, defined as beginning at 28 weeks of a pregnancy. Having survived a couple of attempts on his life, Tiller was murdered in 2009 by an anti-abortion extremist, leaving only the four doctors featured in this documentary to carry on his work.

The four include Dr. Warren Hern of Boulder, Colo., who talks of being lonely after his first marriage ended due to threats on his life because of his work, until he met and married his second wife, who once performed abortions in Cuba; Dr. LeRoy Carhart, who had to leave his practice in Nebraska when the state outlawed abortions after 20 weeks, with limited exceptions, and relocate to Maryland, where he was again confronted by anti-abortion activists; Dr. Susan Robinson, who trained under Tiller; and Dr. Shelley Sella, a former midwife, who alternates with Dr. Robinson at their practice in Albuquerque, N.M.

According to the nonprofit Guttmacher Institute, an organization that advocates for reproductive rights, third-trimester abortions account for less than 1 percent of all abortions performed in the United States. The film illuminates many of the reasons women, some of them actually anti-abortion, seek to terminate a late-term pregnancy, including fetal abnormalities, rape or incest and, sometimes, failure to realize or accept they are pregnant.

The film also makes clear the doctors, far from cavalier about their work, struggle with the complex issues and decisions they must make.  

At one point, Dr. Sella, who is Jewish and a lesbian, says she realizes that third-trimester abortions involve the delivery of a stillborn baby, and that she can’t think of the babies merely as fetuses.

In another section, Dr. Robinson, after contemplating one woman’s reasons for wanting an abortion at 28 weeks, decides not to perform the procedure.

“After Tiller” opens Oct. 4.

From left: Waad Mohammed and Abdullrahman Al Gohani in “Wadjda.” Photo by Tobias Kownatzki © Razor Film, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

We travel now to Saudi Arabia, where movie houses are banned and women are not supposed to mix with men at work. Nevertheless, Haifaa Al-Mansour defied tradition to become the first female filmmaker from that country. Her movie “Wadjda,” centers on a 10-year-old girl living outside Riyadh, the Saudi capital, who also defies her culture’s rules by attempting to raise money to buy a bicycle in a society that considers bike riding a threat to a girl’s purity. 

Wadjda (Waad Mohammed), wants to win a race with her friend Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani) and enters a school contest for Quran recitation in which the winner will get money. As she masters verses from the Quran, she begins to impress her teachers with her seeming piety. The competition is difficult, but the girl perseveres.   

Director Al-Mansour is quoted in the press notes as saying, “I hope I have made a film that is close to the lives of Saudi women and inspires and strengthens them to challenge the very complicated social and political encumbrances they are surrounded by. Although it is hard to deconstruct the deeply rooted traditions that deny women a dignified existence, especially since they are mixed with narrow interpretations of religion, it is a purpose that is worth striving for.”

“Wadjda” opens Sept. 13.

A still from “Salinger.” Photo courtesy of The Weinstein Company

J.D. Salinger, the elusive author of the iconic novel about adolescence, “Catcher in the Rye,” is the subject of a new biopic. Advance promotion promises that the film, “Salinger,” will include interviews with many of the writer’s friends and associates who have never before spoken publicly about him. Salinger was the product of a Jewish father and a mother of Scotch, German and Irish heritage.

Following the enormous success of “Catcher in the Rye,” the author became reclusive, moving from Manhattan to Cornish, N.H., where he died in 2010 at age 91. In the film, he is reportedly called “a modern-day Howard Hughes.”  To this day, he remains a figure about whom there is a great deal of myth and speculation.

In a New York Times interview published June 13 of this year, filmmaker Shane Salerno said, “Salinger is a massive figure in our culture and yet remains an extraordinary enigma. The critical and popular game over the last half-century has been to read the man through his work because the man would not speak, but the untold story of his life is more dramatic than anything he ever wrote. And that’s the story I wanted to tell: his life. Not the myth that has burned so brightly for nearly 50 years. I had three questions when I began this project nine years ago: 1. Why did J.D. Salinger stop publishing? 2. Why did he disappear? 3. And what has he been writing for 45 years?”

“Salinger” opens Sept. 6. 

“Jewtopia,” from left: Jon Lovitz, Rachel Fox, Rita Wilson, Joel David Moore, Jamie-Lynn Sigler, Camryn Manheim and Tom Arnold. Photo courtesy Jewtopia

Finally, we end with the comedy “Jewtopia,” adapted from the long-running off-Broadway play. Childhood friends Chris O’Connell (Ivan Sergei), who is not Jewish, and Adam Lipschitz (Joel David Moore), who is reunite as adults. Chris is determined to marry a Jewish girl, because he wants someone else to make all his decisions. He persuades Adam to train him to pass as a Jew so he can marry Alison Marks (Jennifer Love Hewitt). Meanwhile, Adam is engaged to the gynecologist Hannah Daniels (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) but is uncomfortable in the relationship.

The film is a satire on the clash of cultures and abounds with over-the-top stereotypes; the non-athletic, intellectual, asthmatic Jewish boy; the materialistic, controlling Jewish woman; the guilt-inducing, smothering Jewish mother; the militaristic, blue-collar gentile addicted to hunting, etc. 

Rita Wilson, Tom Arnold, Jon Lovitz, Wendie Malick and Rachel G. Fox round out the all-star cast.

“Jewtopia” open Sept. 20.

Seth Rogen waltzes to a dramatic beat in new movie [Q & A]

He’s better known for big studio comedies like “Superbad” and “Pineapple Express”, but Seth Rogen strays from his beaten path when he stars in the low-budget comedy-drama “Take This Waltz.”

Directed by Canadian actress/filmmaker Sarah Polley, and opening in U.S. theaters on Friday, the movie sees Rogen starring opposite Michelle Williams, who is better known for dramatic roles in films like “Blue Valentine”.

Rogen plays a cookbook author with an alcoholic sister (Sarah Silverman) who doesn’t seem to notice that his wife (Williams) has fallen for the handsome artist (Luke Kirby) that lives across the street.

Rogen, 30, talked with Reuters about working with Williams, and his upcoming directorial debut in “The End of the World”.

Reuters: “Take This Waltz” is about a woman’s marriage failing because she’s in love with someone else. Not exactly a subject matter you’re associated with. How did this project come about?

Seth Rogen: “I’m not one of those actors where filmmakers that I admire ask me to be in their movies. I meet them at parties and they’re nice to me, but they never ask me to work with them. Sarah Polley is one of the first filmmakers that I’ve really liked that asked me.”

R: There is no trace here of the man-child roles you often play in your other movies. It’s probably your most serious role to date, wouldn’t you say?

S.R.: “It’s probably closer to what I am in real life. I think I’m one of those people that when fans meet, they’re often very disappointed because I’m kind of quiet and shy. I think they expect me to have one of those hats with two beer cans strapped to my head and strippers on either side of me. So it was nice to do something where I didn’t have to be really funny all the time.”

R: How did you enjoy working with Michelle Williams?

S.R.: “She was very impressive. A lot of our scenes were emotionally demanding. The emotional turmoil that actors put themselves through at the drop of a hat is not the type of stuff I normally do.”

R: We seem to know more about Michelle Williams’ character than yours. What’s the back story you gave him?

S.R.: “I think a lot of people aggressively stay stagnant, almost like a gauntlet that’s thrown down. For Lou, the test of the relationship is ‘Can we not change.’ He thinks if it’s strong enough to not change, that means it’s strong enough to last. But that’s not realistic or how real relationships are.”

R: You’re currently making your feature directorial debut with writing partner Evan Goldberg on the comedy “The End of the World” that you also star in. How do you like directing?

S.R.: “It was a little daunting because the movie itself is technically complicated. The story is something we’ve been working on for years and years. There have been several moments where I feel like, ‘I can’t believe we pulled this off!’ But those wonderful moments have been shattered by the stress of ‘We’re not going to finish what we need to shoot in time!’”

R: In that film, everybody plays a heightened version of themselves. You’ve got a lot of your friends in there like James Franco, Jonah Hill and Jason Segel. But also people like Rihanna and Emma Watson who seem unlikely to hang with your crowd in real life.

S.R.: “It’s James Franco’s party in the movie. And the truth is, sometimes you go to a party and you can’t believe who’s there…I’ve had random famous people show up at my parties where I’m like, ‘What the heck is this person doing here?’ That’s what we wanted to tap in to.”

R: How did you nab Rihanna?

S.R.: “I read in an interview once that she was a fan of some of our movies. When we were working on this film, we thought, ‘She seems not to hate us. She could be a good person to ask.’ We got her on the phone, explained it to her and she agreed to do it. She was really funny, she improvised and did everything we asked her to do. And she seemed to have a good time.”

R: You act, write, direct, produce and are considered to be on Hollywood’s A-list. Ever feel like you’re on top of the world?

S.R.: “As a Jewish person, you generally hate yourself, but there’s moments where I feel that way.”

Reporting by Zorianna Kit, editing by Jill Serjeant and Carol Bishopric

A woman’s world?

It’s hard to tell, what with the requisite girdles, supervised weigh-ins and protocol panty hose (“not too dark; this isn’t a cabaret”), that the 1960s world depicted in “Pan Am” is supposed to be about the era’s most worldly women.

ABC-TV’s new hour-long drama, which premieres Sept. 25, is set at a lush airport popping in Pan Am’s signature blue. Stewardesses walk in a perfectly synchronized horizontal line (like at a cabaret), each leg in kick-line step as they ascend their version of a stage — the tarmac. The women talk like this: “I get to see the world,” one stewardess, Maggie (Christina Ricci), tells her boyfriend. “When was the last time you left the village?” And the men, awed by the Pan Am breed of beauty and brains, say things like: “Get your fanny to midtown, Sweetheart!”

It’s not exactly the milieu remembered by Nancy Ganis, one of the show’s creators and executive producers, who was a Pan Am stewardess more than 30 years ago. Ganis took to the skies for the first time in 1969 as a wide-eyed 21-year-old in search of the world. Back then, she said, becoming a stewardess was an indication of ambition and intelligence, and many of the women hired were well educated and from privileged backgrounds. On the show, a woman gets props for being “trilingual.” 

“Pan Am hired people to be like the girl next door,” Ganis said by phone from the show’s New York set. “We were supposed to have very high moral standards. We were considered ambassadors of good will, sort of a quasi-diplomatic corps. You came to the job with certain innate skills — how to be gracious, good manners, poise.”

But, even with Ganis at the show’s helm, truth can get lost in translation.

The current cultural fixation on retro fantasies of the ’60s (think “Mad Men”) portrays women as beautiful and submissive. Last May, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd quoted an anonymous entertainment executive suggesting that amid great economic uncertainty, men find comfort in Hollywood chimeras of female subjugation: “[I]t’s not a coincidence that these retro shows are appearing at the same time men are confused about who to be. A lot of women are making more money and getting more college degrees. The traditional … dominant and submissive roles are reversed in many cases. Everything was clearer in the ’60s.”

Ganis thinks the clear-cut gender roles of yore permitted more social graces. “When those lines got blurred in the so-called sexual revolution, I don’t think it liberated women; I think it gave men license to disrespect. There’s been a denigration of how women have been presented in the media; they’ve become more objectified than they were then.”

“Pan Am,” at least on its shiny surface, portrays women eager for opportunity. Working for the world’s most prominent airline was the way — often their only way — to see the world. “It was the best education I could have had,” Ganis said. Having grown up in Detroit “rather comfortably,” as she put it, Ganis had planned on teaching in an inner-city school, but realized she lacked a certain cultural proficiency. 

“How could I teach kids whose life experience is so removed from mine?” she said she wondered at the time. Being a flight attendant was illuminating. “When I ventured out into the larger world, it helped me begin to understand diversity and to appreciate differences,” she said.

Nancy and Sid Ganis. Photo by Phil McCarten/Reuters

The dawn of the airline industry, as depicted on the show, plays out as a nostalgic fantasy. Travel is glamorous and exciting — a world filled with dignitaries, movie stars and wealthy businessmen. Travelers dress up for air travel. Notably absent are today’s cumbersome security measures and ubiquitous TSA uniforms; then, the only acceptable pat-down for a stewardess was a little smack on the behind by a female superior, just to ensure proper girding by the girdles.

Other aspects of air travel are unrecognizable, too. Flights were sparse, and international travel often involved multiple-day layovers, allowing crews to kick back and explore cities. Ganis remembers decamping to the village of a prominent Maasai warrior in Kenya, hiking the Khyber Pass in Afghanistan, partying in Karachi, and boarding a houseboat to Srinagar in Kashmir.

In the show’s opening moments, a fictional Life magazine cover declares this “The Jet Age,” heralding opportunity as much as uncertainty. A real 1968 Life cover featuring Pan Am stewardesses, titled “Aboard the First Flights,” reported on the first direct flights between New York and Moscow, signaling an incipient economic partnership between Russia and the West. In those days, Pan Am travel was so groundbreaking that cities eager for tourism rushed to build runways and hotels. “New Caledonia brought in yachts to put up the crew when women started flying, because they couldn’t put us in Army barracks,” Ganis said. At that time, about half of Pan Am’s flights were special charters, serving an elite clientele that included the White House Press Corps and members of the State Department. The airline ran diplomatic missions to the Soviet Union during the Cold War, helped evacuate American troops from Vietnam and, according to Ganis, secretly airlifted special parties out of Israel when the Six-Day War broke out. “I had a couple of friends who were on those flights,” she said.

The women in charge of the passengers had to be cool in a crisis. “One of the primary reasons you’re on the airplane is to save lives in case of an emergency,” Ganis said. “You had to be prepared for any situation and know how to get out of a burning aircraft in under 90 seconds, with all your passengers.”

The stewardesses’ success hinged on the confidence and trust of those in the traveling class. “We were treated as equals,” Ganis said. “Passengers invited us on their journeys. You never thought of yourself as being subservient.”

Ganis’ husband, Sid, a well-known film producer and president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences from 2005 to 2009, is also a producer on “Pan Am,” mostly in an advisory role. During a three-way conference call with the pair, he said he’d much rather sit back and relish his wife’s success — after all, she lived the life depicted in the show.

“My wife is in the lead, she’s in the spotlight,” Sid said, en route by train to meet Nancy in New York. “In our lives, throughout 25 years of marriage, she is my equal. At this point in my career, this brand-new thing is happening, and it’s about Nancy. And it’s very, very gratifying for me.”

To which Nancy cooed: “I’m much more comfortable with you in the spotlight.” And then they hung up.

What’s Up for 2007?

YeLAdim will be mixing it up next year with more movies, books, music and TV reviews than ever before. If you have a review you’ve written (or want to write) or have heard of something that you want us to know about, e-mail You’ll be famous, and your parents and grandparents will have something to hang on their fridge.

See ya in 2007!!!

On Oct. 30, students ages 4-12 from local schools including Hawthorne, Stephen S. Wise, Pressman, Maimonides and Hillel participated in the Jewish Community Library of Los Angeles’ third annual Lego Bible Scene Creation event.

Leading honors go to Daniel Pereg and Jacob Zeitzew for their interpretation of Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt, above, and Raphael Elspas for his menorah. All participants received certificates and prizes, including books and munchies gift cards.

Hope for the New Year

Fourth-graders Avi Berman and Jordan Stern, along with their classmates at Sinai Akiba, created these poems about Israel:

“Peace,” by Avi Berman

Children praying
Hand in hand.
Praying for peace
In all of Israel’s land.
As soldiers stand
In the night.
Keeping Israel
From a fight.

“My Prayer for Israel,” by Jordan Stern

I hope Israel will have peace.
No homeless people or robbers.
Lots of space for kids to play.
And praying for soldiers every day.
Peace for Israel is like flying in the sky.
It doesn’t matter how high, how high.
Peace for Israel is like riding a boat,
While you’re trying to stay afloat.

Elliott Gould Thrives as Work in Progress

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Barbra will always love me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


My Friend, Shelley Winters

The movie house was dark. A beautiful blonde actress smiled at me from the screen in the small Duluth, Minn., theater.

“She’s Jewish,” my grandma Goldie whispered as we watched “Knickerbocker Holiday.”

That was my introduction to Shelley Winters, a “Jewish movie star.” The very concept was inconceivable to my 7-year-old mind. Not only was she Jewish, but she kept it no secret. That was very rare in the anti-Semitic years following World War II.

Fast forward to 1975, when I found myself newly relocated to Los Angeles and working as a theatrical agent. I had made friends with an up-and-coming actress named Sally Kirkland, who brought me with her to the Strasberg Actors Studio and introduced me to Lee Strasberg, the famous proponent of the “method” school of acting. Lee’s wife, Anna, asked Sally if she would circulate a petition among her show biz friends, requesting support for Israel be to allowed to stay in the United Nations.

“Sorry Anna,” Sally said, “but I’m starring in a film and I don’t even have time to brush my teeth.”

“I’ll do it,” I volunteered.

Anna looked at me: “You’re new in town, you don’t know anybody.”

“Don’t worry,” I said.

That evening, a friend and I were having dinner at Dan Tana’s restaurant in West Hollywood.

“That’s Shelley Winters over there,” I said, nudging my friend excitedly as I made my way over to her booth.

“Excuse me,” I said, introducing myself and telling her about the petition. Her sharp blue eyes appraised me in a totally analytical manner. Then she smiled broadly: “Sit down, kid. Do you like chicken salad?”

“Yes,” I managed to say.

She was writing something on a napkin.

“This is my address on Oakhurst. Blanca, my housekeeper, is making chicken salad tomorrow, be there at 12:30 sharp!”

She reached over and took the petition: “I’ll get names on this for you by tomorrow.”

The next day I ate chicken salad and I got to know Shelley, who proceeded to call me “kid” for the next 31 years. When I returned the petition to a shocked Anna Strasberg, she looked at the 37 names.

“How did you do this?” she asked.

“It was easy,” I said with a laugh. “I met Shelley Winters.”

Shelley was born Shirley Schrift, in St. Louis, Mo. After relocating to New York with her family, as a young woman Shelley moved to Los Angeles, hoping to get into films. She studied with Charles Laughton and later with Strasberg. Her wit, perception and uniqueness resulted in her performing in 130 movies in a 50-year span, winning two Oscars and numerous other awards. Most people know about her public accomplishments, but I want to tell you about Shelley Winters, the person.

Over our 31 years of friendship, we gathered not just for chicken salad, but vacations, Oscar parties, birthdays, lunches (West Hollywood’s Silver Spoon was her favorite restaurant) and even a ladies night out to Chippendales in the 1980s.

Shelley was magnanimous when it came to dedicating her time and talent to worthwhile causes. My brother Louis was involved in putting the Chabad Telethon together and asked me if I could think of any big-name celebrities who would lend their support. My eye twinkled as I phoned her up: “Shelley … have you heard of Chabad?”

“Of course,” she said.

For the next two decades, Shelley became a regular participant in their program, the only two-time Oscar-winner to do so.

Shelley’s generosity was also revealed to the world when she won the best supporting actress Oscar for her work in the film “The Diary of Anne Frank.” While most actresses wait their whole life for such an honor and would never even think of parting with the ultimate validation of their life’s work, Shelley donated her Oscar to the Anne Frank museum in Holland. And it sits there to this day. She did win another Oscar for her work in “A Patch of Blue,” and that one she kept.

A lesser-known fact was that Shelley molded the careers of some now-famous actors, having taught at Strasberg’s Actors Studio for more than 33 years.

“Developing young talent excites me,” she confided. Her energy was boundless, as was her dedication to her students. She was responsible for starting numerous careers, including casting Robert De Niro alongside her in “Bloody Mama,” his first major film role.

This past Aug. 18, Shelley celebrated her 85th birthday by entertaining 300 people, including many past acting colleagues and friends like Martin Landau, Jane Russell, Red Buttons and Elliott Gould, among others. The crowning event of the evening was when Shelley took the stage with a band, threw on a pair of dark sunglasses and sang a few jazz numbers — Blues Brothers style!

Shelley and I attended many Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services over the past 25 years at Jerry Cutler’s Creative Arts Temple. This past Yom Kippur, I called her at 10 a.m. to go to shul.

“I’m not feeling well, kid,” she said.

She had her first heart attack later that afternoon.

She died on Jan. 14; on Jan. 16, in a private ceremony conducted at Hillside Memorial Park, a small group of family and friends said goodbye to Shelley. The theatre is dark.

So you loved the world Shelley … and so loved by the world were you.

Sharon Kemp has run a successful talent agency in Beverly Hills for more than 30 years. Aaron Kemp is an attorney and business representative for the Screen Actors Guild. She can be reached at


Outspoken Asner’s Activism Is No Act

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Once Upon a Time in a Midlife Crisis


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Exactly,” he says.

The film opens this month in Los Angeles.


7 Days In Arts


Aaron Samson wrote and stars in “Not Dead Yet,” a piece inspired by his grandfather’s memoirs of his Russian past: working for Leon Trotsky, the consequent threat of execution by Russia’s communist regime and his quick escape to the United States where he began a new life. The one-man show follows the journey of a grandson, Jacob Samson, back to Russia to find his roots and the missing pieces of the story his grandfather Leo wrote down. It plays today at the Elephant Lab.Runs Saturdays, through Sept. 18. 8 p.m. $10. 1078 Lillian Way, Los Angeles. (323) 878-2377.


Might wanna throw some buttered popcorn into the picnic basket tonight for the Hollywood Bowl’s movie night program, “The Big Picture.” John Mauceri conducts the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra in selections from MGM/UA movie scores, as scenes from the films are projected on the Bowl’s giant screen. The James Bond series, “Rocky,” “The Pink Panther” and “West Side Story” are some of the featured films.7:30 p.m. $3-$88. 2301 N. Highland Ave., Hollywood. (213) 480-3232 (for tickets).


Horn in on High Holiday fun with shofar-making activities this week. The Hebrew Discovery Center holds a Shofar Factory Party on Sunday for kids ages 5 and up, while Calabasas Shul holds a shofar-making workshop at the local Albertsons today.HDC: Sept. 5, Noon. $7 (per child, include slice of pizza and refreshments). (818) 348-4432. Calabasas Shul: Sept. 6, 5-6:30 p.m. $5 (per shofar). (818) 591-7485.


The Mexican Jewish community isn’t one that gets much ofa spotlight, but for filmmaker Guita Shyfter, it made sense to focus on her ownroots and community. “Like a Bride” (“Novia Que Te Vea”) is the result. Thefilm’s uncommon subject matter is made more unique by its treatment: the storyof two women friends coming of age in 1960s Mexico City is told primarilythrough dialogue in Ladino and Spanish, with some Hebrew and Yiddish, as well.It is newly released on DVD. $17.96.



Klezmer goes upbeat in the latest CD by Yiddishe Cup,”Meshugeneh Mambo.” Six parody tracks pay tribute to klezmer comedian MickeyKatz, with the rest offering up original or reworked “neo-Borscht Belt klezmercomedy” tunes, and the titles say it all: “K’nock Around the Clock,” “I Am A Manof Constant Blessings” and “Second Avenue Square Dance.” $15. .


Sports nuts despair not. With the close of this summer’s Olympic Games also comes the opening of “Game Face: What Does a Female Athlete Look Like?” at USC Fisher Gallery. The exhibition features photographs of women from the 1890s to today participating in sports from hunting to ping-pong to soccer. Creator Jane Gottesman has compiled images from myriad sources, including the Associated Press and various renown photographers including Ansel Adams, Robert Mapplethorpe, April Saul and Annie Leibowitz.Runs through Oct. 30. Noon-5 p.m. (Tues.-Sat.). Harris Hall, 823 Exposition Blvd., Los Angeles. (213) 740-4561.


The Nuart goes behind the music tonight, presenting the L.A. premiere of “End of the Century,” a documentary about the seminal punk rock band, The Ramones. From their interpersonal disputes to their struggles for fame, the doc takes a hard look at the hard-living band that arguably failed to achieve the recognition they deserved until long after they’d split.11272 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 281-8223.

Lessons From a Film Festival

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then a small problem.

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

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

Now comes the hardest part: Picking the flicks.

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

Herewith some selected opinions:


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


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


• Anything set in Israel.


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What food are we going to serve?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doing Chinese Food and Mitzvahs

Christmas Day found some Southern California Jews
volunteering at social service agencies, some working and still others marking
the holiday with a Jewish tradition — eating Chinese food and going to movies.

Conservative Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive director of the
Board of Rabbis of Southern California, said that Jews volunteering to work the
holiday for Christian co-workers, especially at emergency service agencies,
“was a fairly common mitzvah that Jewish people did when I was growing up in Chicago.”

“Lots of my parents’ friends routinely spent Christmas doing
a job for a Christian so that that person could celebrate his holiday,” Diamond
said, noting that today “we find fewer examples of this.”

The rabbi and his family, though, planned to continue the
holiday tradition by serving meals to the poor at Pasadena’s Union Station,
which he said attracts many Jewish volunteers.

“There are fewer jobs on Christmas that people can do,” he
explained, “such as volunteer at a hospital [due to] insurance regulations,
privacy of patients.”

Twenty years ago at Providence St. Joseph Medical Center in Burbank,
so many Jewish nurses and doctors worked the Christmas shifts that “we used to
call it ‘The Jew Crew,'” said Carol Rozner R.N., the hospital’s emergency
department manager, who attends Valley Beth Shalom. “Now, it’s not that way. I
could probably count on my hands the number of Jewish nurses I know.”

However, Rozner’s Christmas Day plans were to take her three
teenagers to the hospital to meet a needy family that the St. Joseph staff
adopted for the holidays. “I’m going to let them see how other people live,”
she said.

Not so for her husband, Charles, a broadcast engineer at
KTTV Channel 11, who planned to show up for work as usual. Greg Laemmle, vice
president of the family-run Laemmle Theaters, also anticipated going to the
office on the holiday, “because it’s quiet, and I can get a lot of work done.”

The Sinai Temple young leadership group, ATID, renamed
Christmas “Mitzvah Day.” The group made plans for about 100 volunteers to fan
out Christmas morning to Santa Monica, West Los Angeles and downtown. The group
scheduled a variety of activities, including beach cleanup, feeding homeless
children and visiting Christians in nursing homes.

For Leslie Klieger, ATID director and an East Coast
transplant, being Jewish on Christmas Day in Los Angeles is a little easier,
because Los Angeles’ normally balmy weather does not lend itself to the winter
wonderland fantasies often tied to Dec. 25.

“Christmas in Los Angeles is much easier to deal with in
general, because it doesn’t feel as Christmasy here,” she said. “You’re not as
inundated here with the decorations and the stores and the music. You don’t
feel that intense ‘Everybody’s Christian’ feeling.”

And as if to underscore that point, ATID members planned to
gather after they concluded their activities and partake of some Chinese food
and take in a movie.

Why Chinese food on Christmas?

Diamond explained, “There’s some strange, mystical
connection we have to Chinese food.”

Tune In to Israel

A newly formed Israel-based television network has begun transmitting programs around the clock to expatriates in the United States and Canada and to anyone else who want to stay in touch with news, education, music, sports and sitcoms in the Jewish State.

The Israeli Network will feature three eight-hour segments every day — except Yom Kippur — drawing its programs from Israel’s Channel 1, Channel 2, Sports Channel and Educational Television, as well as movies and documentaries from Israel’s Broadcasting Authority.

The primary target audience consists of Israelis in North America, which Shlomo Wolfhart, the new company’s founder and CEO, pegs at around 600,000.

“We also hope to reach American Jews through daily English-language newscasts, children’s programs geared toward teaching Hebrew, general cultural events and some Hebrew programs with English subtitles,” Wolfhart said, speaking by phone from his studio in Kfar Saba.

If American tourists are worried about traveling to Israel, the new network can bring Israel into their living rooms, Wolfhart suggested.

“We’ll bring you the Israeli perspective, so you don’t have to rely on CNN,” he said. The service is available through the Dish Network, a digital broadcasting satellite company (

Subscribers can sign up for the Israeli package alone at $19.99 per month, or combine it, at a higher fee, with a selection of American channels. (Homes with cable television alone cannot receive the programs.)

The Israel Network’s U.S. office is in New York and can be contacted by phone at (212) 925-9907, or through the Web site at Commercials will advertise both Israeli and American products, with sales representatives in New York and Los Angeles.

Wolfhart lived in Los Angeles from 1984 to 1993, first as a college student majoring in film and video, then as head of his own company, Ivory Video Productions, specializing in promotional videos.

Because of the time difference between the United States and Israel, most programs will be by delayed transmission, except for soccer games and breaking news, which will air live.

The Israeli Network was officially launched Sept. 14 with full-page ads in Hebrew-language newspapers in North America, three days after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. As a result of the disaster, phone calls were erratic, and the New York office had to close down for its first four days. It is now up and running, said manager Anat Weinstock.

During its first full year, the network expects to sign up between 20,000 and 25,000 subscribers. Future plans include expanding the satellite feed to Europe (including Russia) and South America, and originating some programs from the Israeli enclaves in Los Angeles, New York and Miami.

Financial backers of the new venture include New Regency Productions in Hollywood, headed by Israeli-American producer Arnon Milchan, as well as a number of Israeli investors.

Wolfhart declined to give an exact figure for his company’s total assets, but said that they ran into the millions of dollars.

Yeshiva Bocher Goes Animalistic

If you make a movie with animals in the post-"Babe" era, the critters had better do more than talk. "They have to, like, do kung fu," says Larry Guterman, director of "Cats & Dogs," about a secret war between man’s best friends.

In the effects-laden live-action flick, canines detonate bombs and operate doggy espionage equipment. Felines throw knives and perform ninja moves. "It’s like James Bond meets Loony Tunes," says Guterman, who waged his faux war with a nearly seamless mix of live animals, puppetry and computer graphics.

The 30-something director, who coyly states his age as "between 4 and 5 in dog years," says he didn’t have any pets while growing up in an observant Jewish home in Montreal and Toronto. But he did direct spy thrillers with his Super-8 camera and yeshiva bocher classmates. His dad, Monty Mazin, was a professional fundraiser for Jewish groups like Israel Bonds.

Guterman later studied physics at Harvard, impressed Jeffrey Katzenberg with his USC film grad school thesis, directed segments of "Antz" and was signed to direct the ill-fated "Curious George" for Universal. In summer 1999, he created a "Cats & Dogs" test reel that helped convince Warner Bros. to greenlight the movie.

During principal production in Vancouver last year, kosher food was trucked in for Guterman’s lunch every day.

The trickiest sequence: A pooch Pentagon scene that involved more than 21 dogs and "got pretty hairy," he says.

Guterman concedes that cats are the bad guys of the movie, but hey, felines are aloof and haughty — perfect qualities for film villains, he insists.

For example, the movie’s dastardly white Persian, Mr. Tinkles, would never deign to wear a blue satin kippah, like Guterman’s Golden Retriever does on the occasional Shabbat.

Next up for Guterman: a couple of pet projects, both Jewish-themed. "One’s a coming-of-age-movie, the other’s a historical drama," says the director, who shul-hops around Los Angeles.

Neither will be a Shaggy Dog story.