A Blizzard of Flicks for Jewish Eyes


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Israel Is Smaller in Size But Stronger in Spirit


The withdrawal from Gaza, scheduled to begin in mid-August, is one of the most important events in the history of the State of Israel. It will determine whether Israel can continue to be a Jewish and democratic state.

In an Alert Paper published in June 2003 by the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, titled “Jewish Demography: Facts, Outlook, Challenges,” a renowned demographer, professor Sergio DellaPergola, makes the following prediction: Sometime around 2014, there will be between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea more Arabs than Jews. My interpretation of this chilling statistic is that in less than 10 years, if Israel keeps the West Bank and Gaza and still wants to remain Jewish, then it will become an apartheid state; and if it wants to remain a democracy, then it will lose its Jewish nature. Or, in the words of a Palestinian poet-in-exile, Mahmud Darwish, “If you don’t want a Palestinian state on 22 percent of the land today, in 20 years there will be a Palestinian state on the whole land.”

Pulling out of Gaza, then, is the beginning of a long journey, which will hopefully bring Israel back to its senses. But is it indeed? Many Sharon mavens believe he wants to get rid of Gaza only to strengthen Israel’s grip on the West Bank and thus coerce the Palestinians into accepting some kind of “autonomy.” The trauma of the Gaza pullout, with the ugly scenes expected to flood TV screens, should supposedly convince the Israelis and the world community that further withdrawal is impossible. Sharon even went to Ariel (a West Bank city of 18,000) recently and promised it would forever be ours.

If I were living in Ariel, I would start looking for a moving company, just in case. Not only because Sharon said something and maybe meant the opposite, but because the basic analysis of DellaPergola remains unchanged. Whether Sharon meant it or not, he has just started a process bigger than he had envisioned — namely, bringing Israel to its viable borders. It remains to be seen if in due course he will be the one to break the bad news to the West Bank settlers or if someone else will lead us in the next painful phase. Either way, it has to be someone from the right, because in Israel, only the right can carry out the policy of the left.

Settlers and opponents of the evacuation claim that the way Sharon brought about this plan was undemocratic: He dismissed his campaign promises, disregarded his reluctant Likud party, fired two right-wing ministers and refused to hold a referendum on the evacuation plan. His conduct reminds one of the Jewish woman, who, in the darkness of the shtetl, mistakenly prepared the cholent (traditional Shabbat stew) in the night pot. The worried woman asked the rabbi if it was kosher. It is kosher, he told her, but it stinks.

It stinks, indeed, yet it’s kosher. It was repeatedly approved by the Knesset, the body representing all Israelis, and by the Israeli Supreme Court. As for Sharon’s sudden U-turn, wasn’t Menachem Begin elected in 1977 on the slogan of Greater Israel only to give Sinai back to the Egyptians when the historic opportunity presented itself? And anyhow, the settlers, who for decades benefited from Sharon’s talents when those helped them in cunningly maneuvering all governments in their favor, should be the last to be surprised and cry gevalt when he suddenly turns against them. As for a referendum, I don’t recall ever being asked if I agreed to settling the West Bank and Gaza. I didn’t.

At stake is not only the future of the settlements, it’s the future of Israel’s democracy. Sharon’s plan to pull out of Gaza is actually about the ability of Israel to turn the will of the people into political action in a democratic way. The execution of the plan will determine whether the Israeli democracy is still a functional one or a democracy in name only, incapable of implementing its most important decisions because veto power has been surrendered to a few extremists.

In the coming days, many of us will watch agonizing scenes coming from Gaza. However, we shouldn’t lose sight of the wider perspective. Stepping into an operating room in a hospital while a patient is being operated on might be a disheartening experience. Yet it is a vital act in the road to recovery. Pulling out of Gaza — and later, out of the West Bank — is likewise vital to the survival of Israel. With self-defined borders at last, the State of Israel, democratic and predominantly Jewish, might be smaller in size but stronger in spirit, ready to defend itself if attacked or to give a helping hand to the Palestinians once they embark on a peaceful track.

Uri Dromi is the director of international outreach at the Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem. From 1992 to 1996 he was the spokesman for the Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres governments.

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Gaza’s Ties to Jewish History


Modern Israeli settlement in the Gaza Strip resumed only after the 1967 Six-Day War, but even with those settlements set to be evacuated, Jewish roots in the sandy strip of land where Egypt, Israel and the Mediterranean Sea meet run deep.

Opinions differ on whether the area was or was not included in the Land of Israel conquered by the ancient Israelites in the Bible.

Samson is the only biblical Israelite noted for having set foot there. In the 17th century, false messiah Shabbatai Zevi gave the area a bad name when he launched his movement from its shores.

After a contentious debate, Israel’s Knesset voted last year to unilaterally withdraw from the Gaza Strip and evacuate the 9,000 or so Jewish settlers who live in suburban-style communities there, where sprawling green lawns and playgrounds are protected by wire fences and military towers.

The settler population is dwarfed by the 1.3 million Palestinians who live in densely populated Gaza, which is 25 miles long and just 6 miles wide.

During biblical times, Gaza was part of the land promised to the Jews by God but never part of the land actually conquered and inhabited by them, said Nili Wazana, a lecturer on Bible studies and the history of the Jewish people at Hebrew University.

Wazana, who is currently writing a book on the borders of the biblical Land of Israel, said there are contradictory references to Gaza in the Torah. One passage in Judges — often cited by Jewish settlers and their supporters — says the tribe of Judah took control of the area. But other biblical stories contradict this — a pattern typical of the Bible, she said.

“On almost everything, you will find an opinion and an opposite opinion. It was not a homogenous text. It was not written at same time, and there are competing ideologies,” Wazana said.

Most Israelis saw neither historic nor strategic reasons for staying in Gaza. But to Yigal Kamietsky, the rabbi of Gush Katif, the main Jewish settler bloc there, Gaza is an integral part of biblical Israel.

“Gaza is part of the Land of Israel, no less than Tel Aviv and Bnei Brak,” he said. “There is no doubt it is part of the borders.” He said that not only was it considered a mitzvah to settle there, but that “if we were not here, I am not sure the State of Israel would still be there.”

Kamietsky said Jews in the Gaza settlements act as a buffer for those Jews living within Israel’s pre-1967 borders.

He added that historically Gaza was often caught in the crossfire of war.

“Always in history, Gaza seemed more problematic,” he said, pointing to the fabled enemies of the Israelites, the seafaring Philistines, who controlled the area in biblical times.

The one period when Jews appeared to have sovereignty over Gaza was during the time of Hasmonean rule, when the Jewish King Yochanan — whose brother was Judah Maccabee — captured the area in 145 C.E.

Haggai Huberman — who has written extensively on the history of Jewish settlement in Gaza over the centuries and is writing a history of the Jews in Gush Katif — says that Jews have lived on and off in Gaza since the time of Roman rule, their settlement following a pattern of expulsion during times of war and conquest and return during more peaceful periods. The remains of an ancient synagogue found in Gaza date to around 508 C.E. Its mosaic floor, unearthed by archeologists, is now displayed in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

There reportedly was a large Jewish community living in the area when Muslims invaded in the seventh century. The Jews were noted for their skills as farmers and for making wine in their vast vineyards.

After the Spanish Inquisition in 1492, some Spanish and Portuguese Jews fled to Gaza. They abandoned the area when Napoleon’s army marched through but later returned.

When the first wave of Zionist settlers arrived in the region at the end of the 19th century, a group of 50 families moved to Gaza City. According to Huberman, they established good relations with local Arabs.

The settlers stayed until they were expelled in 1914 — along with Gaza’s entire Arab population — by the Ottoman Turks during World War I. The Jews returned in 1920. But tensions simmered with Arab and Jewish nationalism on the rise, and the relations with local Arabs began to sour, Huberman said.

The major Jewish presence in Gaza on the eve of Israel’s War of Independence in 1948 was a kibbutz called Kfar Darom, set up in 1946. It was evacuated during the war and was among the first places to be resettled by Jews after 1967. Initially inhabited by Israeli soldiers from the Nahal brigade, it soon evolved into one of several civilian settlements established in the 1970s as the settler movement gained strength. Present-day debates over territory mirror those in the Torah, said Wazana of Hebrew University.

“Descriptions of borders reflect different ideologies even back then,” she said. “People have put words in the mouth of God even in biblical times. If you have an ideology, you will find the right words to support it.”

 

A Hard Rain


 

In the winter of 1861-1862, the skies in California let loose, unleashing torrents of water around the state. In Los Angeles, rain fell for 28 straight days, pushing the Los Angeles River higher and higher until a waist-high wall of water jumped its banks, ripping away everything in its path.

My great-great-grandfather, Isaias Hellman, who was 19 at the time, got caught in the turgid waters. He had arrived from Bavaria three years earlier — part of a group of Jews who left their small town in Reckendorf — to work as a clerk in a dry-goods store owned by his two older cousins. The store was set in a row of shops in Bell’s Row, a two-story block-long commercial building on the southeast corner of Aliso and Los Angeles streets. The Row had long been the favored location for the pueblo’s sizable group of Jewish merchants. Many early settlers who would later play crucial roles in transforming the small town into a modern American city had their first stores there, including Isaiah and Samuel Hellman, Solomon Lazard, Philip Sichel, Wolf Kalisher, Henry Wartenberg and others.

The surging waters from the Los Angeles River rushed through the small downtown, carrying driftwood, mud and sand as it enveloped the row of shops. Hellman, who not long before had made his home in the store’s back room, rushed with his two cousins to salvage any goods they could. As the three men started to grab shoes, books, tobacco and other goods, the saturated adobe walls started to crumble and they were forced to flee.

When the floodwaters receded, Los Angeles had been transformed. The façade of the Our Lady Queen of Angels Catholic Church, which had stood sentinel in the Plaza for 40 years, melted away, its straw and mud bricks unable to withstand the water’s onslaught. The cascading river ripped out thousands of grapevines. Sand lay a foot thick over once-fertile orchards. Roads became so impassable that Los Angeles went without mail for five consecutive weeks.

The entire state suffered that year. From early November to the end of January, 37 inches of rain fell in San Francisco. Rain and melting snow turned the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys into an inland sea, 250-300 miles long and 20-60 miles wide. When the rain stopped, it made the news: “On Tuesday last the sun made its appearance,” The Los Angeles Star noted. “The phenomenon lasted several minutes and was witnessed by a great number of persons.”

The heavy rains were followed by two years of drought, years of sun and wind so relentless the grasses that covered the valleys and gentle hills running from Los Angeles to the ocean 20 miles away turned a brittle brown. Most of the cattle that roamed the hills began to die and travelers taking the stage from the port of San Pedro to Los Angeles saw hills heaped with decaying carcasses. The number of cows in the county dropped from 70,000 to 20,000.

Weather has always been an important determinant in Los Angeles’ history. The twin effects of floods and drought from 1861-1864 completely finished off whatever remained of the rancho way of life, where dons reigned over thousands of acres of land and huge herds of cattle. Many of the Spanish Californios were forced to sell their land to stay solvent, opening the way for the rise of the Yankee economy. The disasters also ruined many small businesses, including that of Hellman’s cousins. It changed the city’s architecture as businessmen replaced adobe buildings with brick structures.

But those living in Southern California regarded the disasters as aberrant and moved quickly to repair the damage. The Hellman cousins and other affected merchants relocated their businesses and learned an important lesson about frontier life: to succeed, one had to be flexible and change with the ever-evolving economy. Soon boosters began promoting the region as a place like no other, blessed by sun and fertile soil and ease of life. The rains hit hard again in 1884, when more than 38 inches caused widespread flooding, but by that time most of America thought of Los Angeles as a Mediterranean paradise. Trainloads of settlers poured in, lured by the promise of a golden life. By 1890, more than 50,000 people lived in the city.

By that time my great-great-grandfather had spent 31 years in Los Angeles and had watched it transform from a dusty pueblo where fewer than 300 people spoke English to a bustling city. As the city grew, he prospered, eventually becoming one of the region’s largest landowners and a major investor in the city’s water and gas companies. He was president of the Farmers and Merchants Bank for 45 years, lending funds to Harrison Gray Otis to buy the Los Angeles Times and to Henry Huntington to build the trolley cars that eventually crisscrossed Los Angeles. He helped build the city’s first temple, B’nai B’rith.

But from the time of the 1862 rains, he always kept a close eye on the weather, frequently noting it in his letters and diaries. He knew that living in Los Angeles meant floods and droughts and even earthquakes, but he didn’t let those threats defeat him. California had become his home and he refused to let nature push him away.

Frances Dinkelspiel has been delving into the history of Jews in California for the past few years as part of her biography of Isaias W. Hellman. A former reporter for the San Jose Mercury News, Dinkelspiel’s freel-ance work has appeared in the New York Times, People, San Francisco Magazine and other venues. She can be reached at FDinkelspiel@yahoo.com.

 

A Settler in Favor of Disengagement


This is a soul-wrenching time for all of us who love the Land of Israel. Jewish homes and villages, farms and factories — the settlement work of three decades — are soon to be uprooted in Gaza. We know that more demolitions may be coming.

Politically — for the first time in the history of the Jewish people — the State of Israel is apparently working toward establishing foreign sovereignty over a part of our land. If George Bush and the European Union think this is a swell idea, that’s partly because they can disregard the moral, historical and emotional ramifications to us, as Jews are rousted from their homes, as well as the potential security implications of giving Gaza to our enemies.

Nonetheless, and though I’m a "settler," I find myself reluctantly supportive of disengagement — an opinion that makes me a minority of one in my West Bank village. Here are six reasons why.

1) Reorder the demographics, or start to. Nearly as many Arabs as Jews live in the Land of Israel already, whereas a Jewish state requires a large Jewish majority. That’s a cliché but true. Getting rid of Gaza unloads 1.3 million Arabs for — relatively — a small price, relocating just 7,000 Jews.

2) Consolidate Jewish gains. Forget about "peace in our time"; that’s Peace Now’s delusion. The war with the Palestinians, Syrians, Hezbollah, Hamas and Iran is far from over. But leaving Gaza will shorten Israel’s defensive lines while allowing us to secure the gains of the last three decades by bolstering the settlement blocs near Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and the Green Line. The security fence now being built to incorporate those communities will mark new borders for Israel.

3) Return to pragmatism. A part of Israel’s population is being driven mad by the dream (which I admit I share) of a Jewish state stretching from the river to the sea, the entire Land of Promise. But right now — as in all previous generations — it has proved impossible for us to inhabit the whole land. Only God knows why, but let’s acknowledge that the Messiah didn’t come and meanwhile gratefully accept the great gift we’ve been given: the world’s only self-governing Jewish state. A firm connection to reality always improves one’s survival possibilities. And meanwhile there’s work to do.

4) Doing the work. While we’re waiting for God to give us the rest of the land, there’s much to build and heal in the large portion we possess. If disengagement succeeds, the hostile friction between left and right, often following the fault line between religious and secular, will be muted. That energy can then be directed to projects to improve Jewish life, such as feeding the hungry, educating Jews to Judaism, cleaning Israel’s polluted rivers, lending a hand to Diaspora communities and so forth.

5) Strengthening the center. The real news in last month’s Likud Party vote against disengagement was that 40 percent of Israel’s largest right-wing party voted for it. As the party of Jabotinsky transforms itself, we’ll see a strengthening of centrist government, with its stability, its preference for slow change and its responsiveness to the sensible center that makes up most of the country’s electorate. Gen. Ariel Sharon, a military mastermind, turns out to be a political genius, too.

6) Improve Israel’s international position. By far. The world is sick of us and the Palestinians. Even we’re sick of us and the Palestinians. Sharon has warned that Israel will not be able to resist much worse plans for bringing peace, quiet and a good business environment to the Holy Land in the absence of "a plan of our own." Even though he’s a politician, I believe Sharon on this one. Israel has to get off the dime for its own sake, rather than be left fighting a rear-guard, negative battle against an imposed solution that will endanger us.

Am I unworried? Hardly. Disengagement raises security fears, in particular. But no military withdrawal has to be permanent, and the Palestinians know that. And in any future round of fighting, at least the Israeli army will be unencumbered by the need to protect Jewish civilians.

Israel has, for years, lived inside a conundrum: We can’t drive the Palestinians out of the country (neither the nations nor the Jews will permit it) or magically "disappear" them or, apparently, convince them to live in peace beside us. To me, even more confounding is the possibility that neither withdrawing from Gaza nor staying is the correct path — that, given the Arabs’ limitless hostility, Israel has no really good options except remaining heavily armed and vigilant.

But I think we can do that at least as well from outside the fence that surrounds Gaza. Let the Palestinians eat the bread they’ve buttered for themselves. Until they come to their senses (or the Messiah arrives at last), we have the Jewish people to protect and the Jewish state to build.

David Margolis is a journalist
and novelist who made aliyah from Los Angeles in 1994 and now lives in a village
in the Judean hills. He can be reached through his Web site,

www.davidmargolis.com.