City Voice: We’re not who we think we are


There is a preconceived notion about the Los Angeles Jewish community being affluent, increasingly conservative and preoccupied with Israel to the exclusion of other issues.

There is some truth in this, as is the case with all preconceived notions and stereotypes. There is also some untruth.

Before the 2004 election, for example, we pundits wrote much about an anticipated Jewish shift to the Republican Party. But on Election Day, Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic nominee, received 78 percent of the Jewish vote, according to a post-election study conducted for the Solomon Project by five established political pollsters.

“This number has been remarkably stable over the last three presidential elections,” they said in their report.

And there’s poverty among us. In November 2004, Jewish Journal senior writer Mark Ballon reported on a Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles study that found one in five local Jews earn less than $25,000 annually. In greater Fairfax, with its large senior and immigrant population, the figure was one in three.

Aiming to puncture more stereotypes, I visited the single-room office of the Jewish Labor Committee and talked to the western executive director, Cookie Lommel, an African American woman, a journalist and the writer of books on famous people for young adults. She is, to her knowledge, the first African American woman to head a Jewish organization.

“Stereotypes are hard to kill,” she said. “That’s why I’m here.”
The liberal Jewish Labor Committee was founded in 1934 on the Lower East Side of New York by unionized Jewish garment workers organizing a movement against Hitler’s assault on independent trade unions. The Los Angeles operation began eight months later. Soon their efforts expanded to try to rescue German and East European Jewry. Today, the committee works closely with unions representing teachers and other public employees, supermarket workers, janitors and other elements of the labor movement in Los Angeles.

“We are the link between the organized Jewish community and the labor movement,” Lommel said.

In 1991, as a journalist, she became interested in the airlift of Ethiopian Jews to Israel. She wrote about it for black publications.

Afterward, she started Operation Unity, bringing African American and Latino high school students to Israel, where they worked on a kibbutz. Eventually, that led her to the small Jewish Labor Committee office on the second floor of the Institute of Jewish Education building, a few blocks east of the Beverly Center. Shifting from computer to desk to work table, answering the phone and my questions, Lommel was commander of her one-woman show. Her door was open, and the sounds of a preschool in the yard below provided the background to our chat.

I had called Lommel because it had occurred to me that the news media was not telling the entire Jewish story. We see Jewish Hollywood, Jewish business tycoons and Jewish political contributors, all of them at the top of the economic ladder.

Lommel knows a blue-collar side to Jewish life.

“There is a high percentage of Jews in the membership and leadership of unions,” she said.

Not all of Hollywood’s Jews are studio execs. Plenty are members of IATSE, the union representing technicians, crafts people, artists and stagehands.

Another place where you find large numbers of Jewish members is in the fast-growing unions representing government employees. I can’t think of a grittier, more blue-collar job than being a Los Angeles County social worker, driving through the poorest neighborhoods, checking up on dysfunctional homes, always worried that one wrong decision could leave a kid in the hands of a brutal parent.

Another tough job is being a school teacher. Jews are also supermarket checkers, as Lommel discovered while on the picket line during the 2003-2004 market strike. She told me about a striking checker encountering a longtime Jewish customer, who was shocked at seeing a nice Jewish woman carrying a picket sign. The customer’s surprise reflects how much of the Jewish community accepts stereotypes about itself.

Accepting these stereotypes takes the Jewish community out of the game on important issues vital to poor, working class and middle class Jews.

Certainly Israel is of great importance. The Jewish Labor Council was quick to join other Jewish organizations in protest when the United Teachers of Los Angeles’ (UTLA) 25-member Human Rights Committee planned a meeting at UTLA headquarters to discuss economic sanctions against Israel. The union, which has a total membership of 48,000, decided to deny the use of its headquarters for the event.

But there are issues besides Israel, including one of tremendous importance: the public schools. The people I’m writing about — the teachers, the social workers, the movie industry artists and technicians who don’t work in slow months — can’t afford private schools. They are entitled to send their children to good public schools. It is their right, just as it is the right of every American.

The influential, high-profile elements of the Jewish community are missing in action on this issue. To them, the public schools are a Latino thing or an African American thing. Actually, public education has always been a Jewish thing. And, considering what our community is really like, it still is.

Until leaving the Los Angeles Times in 2001, Bill Boyarsky worked as a political correspondent, a Metro columnist for nine years and as city editor for three years. He can be reached at bw.boyarsky@verizon.net.

Enemy Ties


 

I hadn’t been to a Tel Aviv bar for a while, and I was craving one. I had recently returned from a vacation to Los Angeles, where there were no worthwhile singles bars. Last call for alcohol in Los Angeles is 2 a.m., and a good Jewish girl like me prefers to pick up and be picked up by Jewish men.

That’s why Eliezer, a new bar on Ben Yehuda Street, was a relief for me and also for my friend, Tali, who had just returned from her native Melbourne. Inhaling the smoky air and swaying to the rock music, we reveled in the dozens of masculine men around us.

“Welcome to Israel,” we proudly toasted. “Where you know the men in the bars are Jewish.”

A beer and two vodka shots later, I let my guard down and scoped the scene, looking for hot prospects. Gradually a group of short, stubby men surrounded us. I sighed. None of them had been on my radar, but, nevertheless, we all danced and laughed and flirted.

Suddenly, a man in a gray shirt and gray tie walked in. I was not particularly attracted to him, but I noticed that his tie was practically strangling him. I gestured to him to take it off. We were in a bar, not a conference room.

Tali and I continued to dance and flirt, and the man in the tie passed us by, stiff-necked. I motioned to him again to take the thing off.

Finally, we headed out to go salsa dancing, and I noticed the man in the tie had taken it off and began waving it like a flag, signaling me over.

“Congratulations,” I said. “That’s much better.”

“Where are you from?” he said in an unidentifiable accent.

“I’m from Israel, but originally from L.A.,” I said. “Where are you from?”

“I’m Palestinian.”

“Oh,” I said. “Palestinian.”

No wonder he wore a tie to a bar. Israelis just don’t do that.

“Are you Jewish?” he asked.

“I’m very Jewish,” I said proudly.

There I was. Face to face with the enemy, in a Tel Aviv bar. I immediately recalled the Stage nightclub bombing in Tel Aviv a week earlier, and I looked for a backpack strapped to his waist, but he was strapless. I was safe, but I couldn’t help but provoke confrontation. I wasn’t about to be fake or polite or cordial just because he was Palestinian. A Tel Aviv bar, to me, did not provide sanctuary.

“You know, I’m very right wing,” I said.

I didn’t think he understood what I said or what I meant, or maybe he didn’t want a bar brawl, because he ignored my comment and instead asked me where I lived.

I almost made myself more explicit by adding: “If I were a soldier with a gun, and this were a battle line, I would shoot you. By the way, I entertain the idea of transfer.”

But I stopped myself. This was a bar, I reasoned. He wasn’t the enemy, he was a descendant of Abraham who wanted to break Islamic law and have a drink. I had to respect him for that. So I dropped the politics and told him I lived in Tel Aviv.

“Israeli women are hotter than Palestinian women, aren’t they?” I said, trying to find some common ground.

“No, no.”

“Why, do you like it when they are covered from head to toe, with those veils?”

“Well, women in Ramallah are not so hot. Yes, Israelians are hot,” he said awkwardly.

It seemed like that was the first time he used “hot” in that context.

I told him I had to go, and he presented his tie and said: “For you.”

“What?” I said. “I can’t take this.”

At first, I felt bad. It looked expensive, and don’t most Palestinians live in dire poverty?

Then I thought about the implications: I take this tie, and my hands are tied. I’d forever have to remember that one night a Palestinian gave me an expensive tie, and that he was nice to me. I’d have to question all my stereotypes and generalizations, and recognize that there are good, normal, generous Palestinians who just want peace, who just want to be my friend, who just want some fun.

I couldn’t take the tie.

But then I looked down at its elegant striped pattern. It would look smashing with a white tank and hip hugging jeans, I thought. He insisted, so I gracefully accepted.

“Thank you,” I said, smiling, and blew him a kiss.

As we sauntered out, Tali, a pro-peace activist, said, “You see, they’re not all bad. You’ll switch sides.”

“Hmm,” I said. “Maybe.”

As long as I felt good and stylish with the tie on, I couldn’t resent the fashion benefactor or his people.

I woke up the next morning, both me and the tie hungover in bed, alone.

I glared at it, frightened. Is this the first step toward my own private reconciliation with the Palestinians? If I keep it, is it a personal symbol of possible peace? Or should I just burn the thing?

Eventually, I hung it in my closet as the accessory that will forever go down in my wardrobe as “the tie the Palestinian gave me.” It’s not an enemy tie I’m ready to make, but it’s an enemy tie I’m ready to wear.

A friend told me that wearing a tie is a proven pick-up technique. It worked well for Abbas. Maybe it’ll work for me.

I’ll wear it next time I go to a bar. And when I do, I’ll use it to pick up and tie up a hot Jewish Israeli man, and I’ll have a Palestinian to thank for it.

Maybe then we could start talking about reconciliation.

Orit Arfa is a writer living in Israel.

 

Sunrise, Sundance, Swiftly Fly the Films


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marty McFly: “Who?”

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

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

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

 

That ’70s Fro


Where can you see all-in-good-fun Jewish stereotypes spoofed alongside 1970s kitsch, such as waterbeds, fondue parties, disco, leisure suits and bad perms? Check out the movie remake of the ’70s cop series, "Starsky & Hutch," Hollywood’s latest TV overhaul, which stars Ben Stiller as uptight but righteous David Starsky.

The Jewish cop is so intense, he’ll destroy cars to catch a purse snatcher; apparently, he’s overcompensating due to a weird Jewish mother complex (his late mom was a revered cop). The film spoofs Jewish custom when he places a donut, rather than a rock, on her grave.

Many of the other laughs stem from his odd-couple pairing with Ken "Hutch" Hutchinson (Owen Wilson), a charming, rule-bending blond (read: WASP) slacker. If the story unwinds like "a romantic comedy between two straight men," according to director Todd Phillips, it’s clearly an interfaith romance, a marriage of opposites.

When a corpse washes up on the beach, the gung-ho Starsky pounces on the case; Hutch suggests they push the body back "and hope it floats to the next precinct." During a visit to "ghetto snitch" Huggy Bear (Snoop Dogg), Hutch requests a cocktail; Starsky wants "seltzer with a little lime." Hutch chooses bland undercover disguises; Starsky hams it up as in-your-face "Morrie Finkel, of Finkel’s Fixtures," whose shag is fiercer than Farrah Fawcett’s.

Eventually the partners narrow in on cocaine wheeler-dealer Reese Feldman (Vince Vaughn), who is part-wannabe mobster, part-nouveau riche suburban Jew. His family’s upcoming simcha is more tsuris-provoking than Starsky and Hutch: "Like I don’t have enough problems," he kvetches to an associate. "My daughter’s bat mitzvah is turning into a total nightmare."

The nightmare escalates when the cops crash the bat mitzvah at Feldman’s faux Tudor estate, where the reception is one of those garish ’70s affairs (Feldman’s wearing pink polyester with his yarmulke).

The Jewish Stiller, for his part, was drawn to the film because as a kid he idolized the streetwise, chutzpahdik Starsky (Paul Michael Glaser). "Every Jewish kids’ hero," he has said.

Growing up in New York, the dark-haired Stiller would pretend to be Starsky while some blond kid on the block was Hutch.

Starsky’s Jewfro is the butt of a joke in the movie when Hutch sneers, "Why don’t you go get another perm?"

The Jewish cop’s reply bristles with indignation: "For your information, my hair is naturally curly."

"Starsky & Hutch" is in theaters now.

Q & A With Darren Star


Darren Star doesn’t want you to know that he spent a portion of his bar mitzvah money to buy himself a subscription to Variety, the entertainment industry’s bible. It’s been written about before, he claims. But it’s just too good a story not to include it. Because somehow it sums Star up perfectly: The sweet 13-year-old bar mitzvah boy with his eye on the prize — Hollywood — even then. A far better investment than a pen set.

Star, the creator and executive producer of three of the last decade’s most popular television phenomena — "Beverly Hills, 90210," "Melrose Place" and the three time Golden Globe and Emmy Award-winning HBO comedy series "Sex and the City" — is being honored Monday night with the Tisch Industry Leadership Award at the National Foundation for Jewish Culture’s third annual Jewish Image Awards.

As co-creator and executive producer, Star is currently in production on "Miss Match," a romantic "dramedy" starring Alicia Silverstone, which makes its debut Friday, Sept. 26 on NBC. He is also adapting the memoirs of Jewish photojournalist Deborah Copaken into a feature film for DreamWorks.

Hollywood screenwriter Andrea King, a former journalist who grew up in Potomac, Md., with Star, spoke to him about — what else? — Jewish images in Hollwyood.

Andrea King: What impact do you think the depiction of Jewish characters on TV or in film plays in shaping our views of ethnic or religious groups?

Darren Star: It’s easy to fall into a stereotypical depiction of a Jewish person. And when characters are identified as Jewish, it broadens peoples concepts and awareness of who Jewish people are. Living in large cities, I think we’re under the assumption or misconception that these stereotypes are a joke, but in fact I think in areas where people don’t know Jewish people their ideas of who Jewish people are often formed by the media.

AK: What are the hallmarks of a successful Jewish character?

DS: I think the hallmark of a successful Jewish character is not to think or define that person as Jewish. First, you want to create a well-rounded character whom people can identify with and find areas of commonality with so they realize that they have similarities as well as differences.

I think people are very familiar with the "Jewish stereotype." The challenge now to creating a Jewish character is to go beyond the stereotypes and try to define what identifies that person as being Jewish in a unique way (i.e., their values, etc.). To me the trick is to create an interesting character whose religion is another layer to who he or she is.

AK: Which Jewish characters in film and television do you think have been great?

DS: I like Tom Cruise in "Mission Impossible." That’s my favorite Jewish character. I assume anyone that good-looking, smart and athletic has to be Jewish.

AK: Why do you think it is that film and TV seem better at conveying Jewish ethnicity than Jewish spirituality?

DS: Very little spirituality of any kind is conveyed in film and television. People are basically uncomfortable dealing with religious themes in entertainment. Entertainment is something that brings people together, thus spirituality in film and TV is presented in a broader context without being religion-specific. Unless we’re talking about "The Exorcist."

AK: When you write or create Jewish characters are you more conscious of helping to define the "Jewish Image" in culture?

DS: I try to think about creating a good character first. It think it’s dangerous to get too wrapped up in creating an archetypal Jewish character. Successful Jewish characters are successful Jewish characters. Period. I go out of my way to avoid creating stereotypical characters, but being Jewish myself, my values and my sensibilities inhabit the characters I create. And just because characters aren’t necessarily identified as Jewish doesn’t mean that they can’t be Jewish. Your family, your past is always part of the characters you create. I came from a close family that has a great sense of humor, told a lot of stories, and I think that sense of family definitely is infused through my work…. Also, classic Jewish comedy of Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Neil Simon, Jim Brooks has a huge influence not only over my work, but over everybody working in TV today.

AK: Why do you think the Jewish Image Awards are important?

DS: It’s easy to fall into a stereotypical depiction of a Jewish person, and when characters are identified as Jewish it broadens peoples concepts and awareness of who Jewish people are. Living in large cities, I think we’re under the assumption or misconception that these stereotypes are a joke, but in fact I think in areas where people don’t know Jewish people, their ideas of who Jewish people are often formed by the media.

AK: Is there any Jewish content on "Miss Match?" [Samantha Daniels, whose life it’s based on and Alicia Silverstone, the star, are both Jewish.]

DS: There’s a universality about this character, she could be Jewish, but we’ve chosen not to make her religion a factor in the story.

As a storyteller, identifying a character’s religion becomes an important part of what you are telling the audience about your character — thus, sometimes it’s relevant and sometimes it’s not.

I don’t think I win the award for creating the most Jewish characters, but growing up in an area where there were a lot of Jewish people, it feels very normal for me to populate my world with Jewish characters. I see them in my world and in my life, so it feels odd not to have them around.

AK: Carrie in "Sex and the City" seems Jewish because she’s played by Sarah Jessica Parker, but she has no ethnicity. Was that a conscious choice?

DS: Yes, I feel that definitely, Carrie Bradshaw, in many ways, can be considered a Jewish character. She wasn’t specifically written as a Jewish character, because there was a universality to her, but a lot of her qualities people would attribute to someone who is Jewish. But it wasn’t necessary to define her as any religion.

The character I have most tried to break Jewish stereotypes with is Kim Cattrall’s character on "Sex and the City" — sex-crazed and blonde…. Now, there’s a Jewish stereotype broken!

7 Days In Arts


Saturday

Laemmle Theatres serves up more Jewish documentariesthis weekend under the banner of their cleverly titled screening series “Bagelsand Docs.” At Laemmle Monica, early risers can catch “Undying Love,” a film thatrecounts the stories of young couples whose relationships were affected by WorldWar II. “Nicholas Winton: The Power of Good,” and “Ruthie and Connie: Every Roomin the House” will also be shown as part of the morning screening series thisweekend, at the Laemmle Fallbrook and Sunset 5, respectively. Bagels notincluded. www.laemmle.com

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Sunday

Short and stout? Think again. Encouraging a reexamination of such houseware stereotypes, Long Beach Museum of Art unveils its new exhibition today, “Teapots Everywhere.” Designs by Roy Lichtenstein and Keith Haring are just two of the more than 250 mold-breaking variations featured in the show. Other contributors include Cindy Sherman, Ron Nagle and Tony Marsh, promising kettles in every size, shape and material imaginable.11 a.m.-5 p.m. (Tuesday-Sunday). Runs through Sept. 14. $5 (general), $4 (students and seniors), free (children under 12 and for everyone on the first Friday of the month). 2300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach. (562) 439-2119.”Mona Lisa/Van Gogh” by Noi Volkoy.

Monday

Zehava Ben lends her unique voice and singing style totwo new CDs that manage to feature many of the same Israeli standards and, atthe same time, sound completely different. In “Beit Avi” (“My Father’s House”)Ben is accompanied by the Symphonic Orchestra of Hadera, lending a soulful,classic Mediterranean sound to songs like “Hanasich Hakatan” (“The LittlePrince”) and “Zemer Noge” (“Sentimental Tune”). In “Laroz Variations,” Ben’spairing with top Israeli electronic music producer Haim Laroz adds trance beatsfor a world-fusion treatment of those same melodies and others. $15-$17. www.israel-music.com

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Tuesday

The tale begins when Ivy League-educated Richard Rubin takes a job as a reporter in the small Mississippi town of Greenwood. Part coming-of-age story, part courtroom drama, “Confederacy of Silence: A True Tale of the New Old South” dispels some assumptions about the New South just as it corroborates others, and is out in paperback this month.Atria Books, $14.

Wednesday

Do you aspire to hobnob, but can’t afford thegrand-a-plate dinners quite yet? Benefiting Lifeline to Argentina, an emergencyrelief project that helps Argentine Jews, Charity Stars sponsors an artexhibition and wine tasting on the beach in Santa Monica. At $25 a ticket (inadvance), it’s a good deed you can afford, plus excellent preparation forplayers-in-training. 7:30-10:30 p.m. $25 (in advance), $35 (at the door).Hamilton Galleries, 1431 Ocean Ave., Santa Monica. R.S.V.P., (310) 936-5674 orcharitystars@yahoo.com

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Thursday

Grab a date and head out for good jazz and good food tonight. Steve March Torme (as in Mel Torme’s offspring) performs at The Vic in Santa Monica, the upstairs part of the romantic Victorian. Expect some old standards like “Blue Skies” and “Stardust,” both from his new album “The Essence of Love.” Just be sure to make a reservation. That’s the only way you’ll find out the password required to gain entry to this modern-day speakeasy.8 p.m. and 10 p.m. $10 (cover). 2640 Main St., Santa Monica. R.S.V.P., (888) 367-5299.

Friday

Jennifer Maisel’s “The Last Seder” tells the story of a family’s last gathering before the father, suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, will be placed in a care facility. Through the course of the play, the ritual of the seder becomes a channel for the family’s healing. Having helped launch the careers of playwrights like Christopher Durang and Wendy Wasserstein, the Ensemble Studio Theatre (through their West Coast branch, “The L.A. Project”) presents a staged reading of this new play tonight and Sunday.8 p.m. (June 27 and 29). $10. Theatre/Theater, 6425 Hollywood Blvd., fourth floor, Hollywood. (213) 368-9552.

Meyer: Hero or Anti-Hero?


“A Jewish friend of mine loves ‘The Sopranos,'” Italian American actor Joe Bologna said with a groan. “I told him, ‘How’d you like to see a show called “The Goldsteins” about white-collar criminals and the biggest shyster is Izzy Goldstein?”

Bologna isn’t about to play Izzy, but he is the co-author and star of a monologue he said breaks ethnic and gangster stereotypes. In “Meyer,” he portrays Jewish mobster Meyer Lansky — previously depicted in films such as “Bugsy” (1991) — as both a ruthless thug and a pathetic alter-kacker. At the beginning of the play, the character sips Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray Soda and kvetches about Israel denying him citizenship under the Law of Return.

While Bologna usually eschews mobster roles, he was receptive when Richard Krevolin asked him to co-author “Meyer” in the 1990s. The 38-year-old Jewish author (“King Levine”) told Bologna he’d interviewed Las Vegas hoteliers who’d described Lansky as “ice-cold” and others who remember him passing out candy while walking his Shih Tzu. He said his fascination with the gangster began when a con-man bilked his Connecticut neighbors by posing as Lansky’s nephew around 1980. “This guy played into the Jewish reverence for the tough Jew,” Krevolin said. “So I began wondering, was Lansky an American Jewish hero or was he an anti-hero?”

Audience members were so divided on the issue that they screamed at each other after “Meyer’s” debut in San Diego several years ago. But Bologna — best known for writing and performing comic plays with his wife, actress Renee Taylor — sees the mobster as poignant. Lansky’s persona reminds the actor of his gruff father, who also grew up in a cold-water tenement but chose the family shoeshine business over the mob. “Lansky decided not to ‘carry a lunch pail’ and ultimately paid the price,” said Bologna, 67. “And that’s tragic. It’s Shakespearean.”

When Worlds Collide


Much has been written about Jewish talent working in the entertainment industry. But what happens when you’re a sought-after Jewish writer who also happens to be observant?

"When worlds collide" might as well have been the subtext of a recent panel hosted by Sinai Temple’s Kesher Sinai group, which engaged David Sacks ("Third Rock From the Sun"), Ilana Wernick ("King of Queens"), David Weiss ("Clockstoppers") and Marv Silbermintz ("The Tonight Show with Jay Leno") on the subject of Hollywood values and pressures conflicting with Jewish ethics and ritual. The evening — the first union of the Congregation Mogen David-based grass-roots singles group Aaron’s Tent and Kesher Sinai (formerly Sinai New Leadership) — included a java-fueled, post-panel singles mixer, courtesy of Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf.

Aaron’s Tent founder Aaron Kemp moderated the evening, which took place in April and was co-chaired by Kesher Sinai’s Faranak Rostamian and Cindy Stogel. Kemp, a Screen Actors Guild contractual lawyer, opened the discussion on a facetious note.

"I thought I would grow up to love my gentile partner and have comedic episodes with my non-Jewish in-laws," said Kemp, mocking the historical portrayal of Jews on television sitcoms.

Responding to the influence of such stereotypes, Weiss said that he was more impacted by Rat Pack-era celebrities like Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. than network television’s tendency to put Jewish males in interfaith relationships with WASPy women.

"I did not want to grow up to be a one-eyed black Jew, but I did want to marry Meredith Baxter-Birney," admitted Weiss, an observant Jew who, for a brief spell, converted to Christianity on his quest for spiritual satisfaction.

"I thought the entire world was Jewish growing up," said Silbermintz, raised on 79th Street and Broadway in Manhattan. "I thought Popeye and Batman were Jewish." Silbermintz became a staff gag writer on "The Tonight Show" in 1992, after years of sending Leno unsolicited jokes.

Wernick was not aware of Jewish representation on television while growing up, but added, "I was really excited to find out that the actor who played ‘The Fonz’ was Jewish in real life."

Panel members told personal anecdotes about the lines of sensitivity toward Jewish content drawn behind the scenes. Wernick touched on the inherent Jewishness of Jerry Stiller’s character on "King of Queens," which portrays characters of Italian heritage. She also said that behind the scenes, she has become the arbiter of what is and is not Jewish.

"It’s like I’m a rabbi on the show," Wernick said. "By default, I become that because I’m the most Jewish one there."

Sacks, a veteran of two long-running sitcoms — "The Simpsons" and "Third Rock" — set the record straight regarding his connection to Jewish-themed episodes on both series. He came onboard as a writer on "The Simpsons" after completion of the episode in which Krusty the Clown is revealed to be Jewish. But Sacks did have a hand in the "Third Rock" episode in which the alien family adopted the surname of the Solomons and declared their human alter egos Jewish. However, the idea was not his.

Weiss summed up his working relationship with his non-Jewish writing partner this way: "I’ll write on Christmas and Super Bowl Sunday, you’ll write on Shabbos and yontif." The pair, which penned a "Rugrats" Chanukah special, is currently scripting "Shrek 2."

The panel also discussed the line between homage and stereotype onscreen. Weiss lamented the day when Nickelodeon jettisoned the overtly old country Grandpa Boris from the "Rugrats" after the character raised the ire of the Anti-Defamation League, which deemed Boris too stereotypical. Silbermintz, whose father is Columbian and mother Dominican, became hardened to people referring to him as Puerto Rican. He dislikes the air of sensitivity and political correctness.

"You think the Italians are offended by ‘The Godfather,’" he said, laughing, "they love it. It’s like the Torah to them, and ‘The Sopranos’ is like the New Testament."

Wernick spoke of having to overcompensate in all areas and devote 110 percent in all areas in order to justify leaving work early to observe Shabbat on Friday evenings, when "King of Queens" tapes.

"My bosses are all nonobservant Jews, and they’ve been fantastic about the whole thing," she said.

During the question-and-answer period, an audience member asked the panel to comment on why so many Jews in Hollywood do not publicly back Israel. Silbermintz observed that the sole celebrity not mincing words about his support of Israel is Howard Stern, to which Kemp interjected, "Yeah, except he won’t admit that he’s a full Jew on his own show."

The Name Game


When we were little, my brother and I realized that whenever we asked if someone was Jewish, my mother would answer by simply repeating their name, as if that said it all.

“Irving Fishbaum? Ira and Esther Lefkowitz? C’mon.”

We decided to see if we could induce this behavior and selected the perfect test case. When she came home one day, we ambushed.

“Mom, are Simon and Garfunkel Jewish”?

She looked at us, lowering her head and raising her eyebrows. “Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel? C’mon.”

That was before we understood that names could be obviously Jewish, that any name containing “gold,” “silver,” “green,” “fish,” “blatt,” “baum,” “stein,” “feld” or “witz” was usually a dead giveaway. That was before we knew that Shapiro was Shapiro and Kaplan was Kaplan. Kaplan? C’mon. This is still a family joke and if she’s distracted, you can sometimes get her to do it to this day.

“Mom, is Itzhak Pearlman Jewish?”

“Itzhak Pearlm — oh, stop it.”

If Jewish names are on a scale of one to Hadassah Lieberman, mine may be a one.

It’s possible I’m the Jew with the least Jewish name ever. Teresa is misleading enough — the name of more than one Catholic saint. Strasser just takes it on home. You may remember Major Heinrich Strasser, a Gestapo officer in the film, “Casablanca.” Yes, the only Strasser anyone’s ever heard of is one of film’s most famous Nazis.

I may as well be named Noelle or Brandy. In fact, I once had a Hebrew-school teacher that was so vexed by my name she just took to calling me Rachel. I stopped correcting the poor woman and simply answered to the name Rachel for the next three years.

When I was 20, an editor at a Jewish newspaper walked up to my desk on my first day of work, didn’t introduce himself, didn’t shake my hand, just looked at me and asked, “What’s a Jew doing with a name like Teresa?” I told him he could call me Rachel if it would make him feel better.

My parents insist they did me no wrong by not calling me Jodie or Debbie or Stacy. Teresa is a good Hungarian name they say, my great-grandmother’s name, although she was called Tess.

Until recently, I’ve always appreciated having an ambiguous name. It’s nice to reveal your ethnicity only when you feel like it, when it feels safe, when it’s your choice. Now, however, I wonder what it would have been like to be called Ruth Oppenheimer or Shoshana Hirshfeld. My life would have been totally different as Mona Moskowitz, who isn’t kidding anyone.

Growing up, I never really liked the sound of Jewish surnames, their Germanic bite, all the connotations and stereotypes from which I was happy to distance myself. I planned to do away with my own surname, vague as it may be, and fantasized about becoming Teresa Willis or Teresa McBride. I figured I’d marry a guy with a nice vanilla moniker, and that would be that. I could monogram my way into belonging. I’d have a name people could spell and pronounce.

I tell you, I must be undergoing some major self-acceptance because out of nowhere, Jewish names are starting to sound downright … sexy.

As an adult, I’ve always planned to keep my last name if I got married, but I still play the dating name game, taking surnames out for a spin. Teresa Cohen? Teresa Goldstein? I still enjoy the sheer, unabashed WASPiness of Teresa Tyler or the incredible misdirect of Teresa Puccinelli, but I no longer cringe from Teresa Saperstein.

I once dated three guys named Todd in one year. Today, I say bring on Daniel, Abe, Gabe and Isaac. A David is just plain hot, a Joshua even hotter. And as I write this, with only the rarest exception (Lipschitz isn’t easy for anyone, is it?), a last name cannot be too Jewish. The more Jewish, the more texture, the more history, the more character.

Think about it, if America’s most famous “alleged” shoplifter were still Winona Horowitz, would she be any less gorgeous? What if Sarah Michelle Gellar, another ambiguously named Jew, had a different name? What if America’s sweetheart was Sarah Michelle Greenbaum? I think I like it.

As a Jew, your name identifies you. I never wanted to run from that, but I welcomed the option to “pass.” Now I wonder what it would be like to remove all doubt. “I’m Teresa Blumenfeld, nice to meet you. Yeah, Blumenfeld.”

When my stepdad was rushed to the hospital one New Year’s Eve, the ER doctor introduced herself as Dr. Wallerstein. When she left the room, my mother and I looked at each other, comforted for no good reason really, and whispered in unison, “Dr. Wallerstein? C’mon.”

Messing Up Stereotypes


When Debra Messing heard she’d been cast as Woody Allen’s girlfriend in his new romantic romp, “Hollywood Ending,” she shrieked.

“I was in my car, and I almost caused an accident,” gushes the spunky, green-eyed redhead, best known as the kooky Jewish gal pal to a gay lawyer on NBC’s “Will & Grace.” “I come from a Jewish family from New York, so Woody Allen is almost mythological to me. To star in one of his movies — I was over the moon.”

Messing plays Lori, a ditzy tart of an actress dating a washed-up director (Allen) with one last shot at success. Never mind that the pairing is, well, ironic: Allen’s known for depicting not-so-nice Jewish women (think the nagging mom from “New York Stories”), while Messing’s overturned every Jewish female stereotype on television. Forget pathetic Melissa from “thirtysomething” and obnoxious Vicki from “Suddenly Susan.” The fictional Grace Adler is a hip, gorgeous, lovably klutzy interior designer with way-cool clothes and an unabashedly Jewish sensibility. The character spouts Yiddishisms, reminisces about Camp Ramah, confesses to eating a burger on Yom Kippur and describes her excitement at being profiled in the Jewish Forward. When Grace breaks up with her latest inappropriate beau, she chants, “Baruch Atah Adonai, I’m gonna die alone.”

You could call her the anti-Seinfeld: “I remember thinking Jerry’s friend Elaine was Jewish, then learning she wasn’t,” the Emmy-nominated Messing, 33, told The Journal. “Then I thought, Seinfeld’s friend George must be Jewish, but his last name was ‘Costanza.’ It’s like the sensibility was Jewish but the characters weren’t. Which is why I encouraged the ‘Will & Grace’ writers to include more Jewish references for my character. I thought it would be great if Grace were open and unapologetic about being Jewish; if her Jewishness were just a fact, the way it’s a fact that Will is gay. I thought it would be neat and an inside joke for my family if we could have smart jokes that revealed Grace’s Jewishness, while at the same time making her endearing to the audience.”

“Will & Grace” co-creator Max Mutchnick, agrees: “Grace doesn’t fall into any of those categories that have stereotyped Jewish women,” he told The Journal in a 2001 interview. “She’s strong, she’s pretty and she’s a proud Jewish woman.”

If Messing projects a certain vulnerability as Grace, it’s because she’s had some practice. “I never felt beautiful growing up,” confides the 5-foot-8 actress, who was born in Brooklyn but raised in rural Rhode Island. “I didn’t think my big hair was attractive. It took me a long time to come to terms with my looks.”

It didn’t help that Messing — the daughter of a jewelry executive active in the Rhode Island Jewish Federation — was one of only a few Jews at school. When she was in the third grade, a boy pushed her and called her a “kike” (around the same time, a swastika was painted on her grandfather’s car). “I felt the desire to lie and say I was sick on Yom Kippur, because kids got mad and thought it was unfair I got the Jewish holidays off and Christmas, too,” Messing recalls. “I did feel different being Jewish. I felt like an outcast throughout elementary school.”

She escaped into the Jewish milieu of Woody Allen’s films, which were de rigueur in her childhood home. Messing also nursed a wicked crush on actor Dustin Hoffman, became a bat mitzvah at a Reform temple and trekked to Brooklyn to visit her Jewish relatives. During one such visit, her mother, Sandy, a onetime professional singer, took her to see “Annie” on Broadway. Messing, then 7 years old, leaped out of her seat and declared, “I’m going to be Annie one day.” By the age of 16, she was playing the role in a high school production, though her parents insisted she attend college before drama school.

So Messing was off to Brandeis University, where she says the heavily Jewish population proved “shocking but, ultimately, a relief. It was amazing to not feel ashamed, to not have to make excuses for my holidays and to meet people who’d had similar family experiences.”

After graduating summa cum laude from Brandeis, Messing earned a master’s degree in theater from New York University and became the quintessential struggling actress — until her father revealed he’d invested her bat mitzvah money and parlayed it into $30,000. The funds helped sustain her until she began landing roles such as a scheming sister on “NYPD Blue” and Jerry’s elusive ideal girlfriend on “Seinfeld.”

In 1995, Messing snagged the lead in the Fox series, “Ned and Stacey,” though she bombed her initial audition. “They said I was too wholesome,” she recalls, with a groan. “They wanted a neurotic Jew from New York, and I said, ‘Hello, I’m right here.'”

If Stacey was Jewish in name only, Grace Adler is anything but. While “Will & Grace” broke ground in 1998 as one of the first network series to feature an appealing gay main character, it was a first for another reason: “There [hasn’t] been a more positive role model for Jewish women on television in the past 50 years,” as the Forward put it.

Messing, oddly, expresses surprise when told about the Jewish community accolades. “No one’s articulated that to me, but I consider it a huge honor and a privilege,” she says. “I had hoped Grace would be to Jewish people what Will is to gay people.”

While Grace has never seriously dated a Jewish man, Messing wed Daniel Zelman, an actor-screenwriter, in a ceremony conducted by a rabbi in September 2000. The couple attended High Holy Day services in Los Angeles last year (they live in the Hollywood Hills), though Messing describes her Jewish identity as “more cultural than institutionalized.” She performs her share of tzedakah by supporting charities such as the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and Best Friend’s Pet Sanctuary.

Another Messing contribution to the Jewish zeitgeist: “Will & Grace” director James Burrows calls her “Juicy,” the Jewish Lucy, because of her prowess for physical comedy. Anyone who remembers the exploding water-bra episode understands why critics agree she’s a sexier, contemporary incarnation of Lucille Ball. Even Allen noted Messing’s comic ability and cast her in a cameo in his 1998 film, “Celebrity.”

The audition, she recalls, was unorthodox: Before asking her to read, she says, “Woody stared at me for 30 seconds, and I stared back.”

Starring in “Hollywood Ending” also proved daunting. “Woody doesn’t give you the entire script, which is the actors’ bible, so that’s very disarming,” Messing says. “Then he sort of leaves you alone for a long time and doesn’t say anything and just lets you find your way. Often you don’t rehearse and you get only one take; it’s so fast it makes your head spin.”

Messing’s career trajectory has been equally head-spinning. She’s appeared on every magazine cover from Cosmo to Glamour and recently flexed her dramatic muscles by portraying Richard Gere’s doomed wife in the “The Mothman Prophesies.” She says her goal is “to work within all mediums and to switch genres as often as possible.”

Playing the very un-Grace-like Lori in “Hollywood Ending” has helped. “It’s been an amazing experience,” she says. “To star in a Woody Allen movie — as his girlfriend, no less — has been a real-life Hollywood ending for me.”

The film opens today in Los Angeles and May 15 at the Cannes Film Festival.

Jewish Girls Rule


I have a pint-sized Jewish ex-girlfriend named Lori who once asked if I thought that Jewish girls were better lovers. It was a funny question. Better than what? I had to think about it. It never occurred to me that there was some kind of tacit competition going on, pitting the home Jewesses against the visiting teams from the other major religions.

Who judges this contest? How do I get in on that action? Do the other girls even know that this is a medal sport? Are the gentile girls honing their seductive skills at cotillions — ballroom dancing with those little white gloves and learning how to be courtesans — while our princesses are at Hess Kramer summer camp playing softball? Who’s in charge here?

“You’re miles ahead of the Muslims,” I said, “but I think the Hindus have a lot going for them with that ‘Kama Sutra.'”

There is little reliable research in this field. Still, I felt it was important to get a statistical sampling that would stand up to the scrutiny of the most pedantic scholars, so I asked my friend Mickey.

I know Mickey from Hebrew school in the old country, Encino, so he ought to know about this stuff. He said there are two ways you can look at this thing:

(a) There’s no difference at all, at least none associated with religious affiliation, or

(b) Jewish girls are either better or worse, and it has everything to do with the Jewish part.

“It depends on what you want,” he said. “If you just want to fool around, anyone will do. breaking up with non jewish girl is easier to do. Breaking up with a Jewish girl is like that song ‘Hotel California’: ‘You can check out anytime you’d like, but you can never leave.'”

“Score that round to the gentiles,” I said.

“But when you’re done having fun, and you want to settle down, marry a nice Jewish girl. All things being equal, they make for better partners.”

“Aren’t you stereotyping?” I asked.

“Yes, I am,” he said. “But doesn’t that make it so much easier to understand?”

Let’s confront those stereotypes: We only half-jokingly refer to our girls as “princesses.” We treat them like princesses and expect them to make a reservation for dinner — just like mother used to make. All the snide, inside jokes about them being hard-to-please, diet-obsessed shop-a-holics? Consider that the alternative is someone who gladly accepts mediocrity and doesn’t care about how she presents herself. At least our team came dressed to play.

Don’t believe me? Go to one of those fly-over states (any of the states in the middle that Bush won) where we are conspicuously absent, and take a look for yourself. Those broads look horrible!

Hair? Wrong. Clothes? Wrong. Shoes? Wrong. Jewish girls kick their tuchis. Why? Because our gals are hard-to-please, diet-obsessed shop-a-holics. You go, girls!

As for the perception that they’re pushy, I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. They let you know where you stand. I’ll take an aggressive JAP over a passive-aggressive WASP any day. Less covert manipulation makes for a fair fight.

Jewish girls are much more business-like. They call you back. Gentiles are working off a whole different deal. I don’t know if it’s a part of the gospels or “The Rules,” but somewhere in their religious training was the idea that they should not call boys on the telephone, except under extreme duress. (Think of Annie Hall and the spider.)

Jewish girls know what’s what. They have great doctors, or they are great doctors. They know whom to call. They’re resourceful. They know when things go on sale, which is important because they buy a lot of stuff.

But the best thing about Jewish girls: they get it. They’re in on the joke (like, for instance, this column). You don’t have to explain stuff to them. You start the book in the middle. You say “Dayenu,” and they know what you mean. Say “Ma Nishtana,” and they nod. Their mother is exactly the same as yours, only different. They understand us and our mishegas better than the other gals do. Their nurturing side may lean toward smothering, but there are worse things, like indifference.

It’s hard enough getting any two people together, and when you put qualifiers on it that they have to be thus and so, it gets harder still. But even if Jewish girls aren’t demonstrably better, they’re at least as good as the competition, and, given a toss-up, I’d give them the edge.

Then, factor in that they’re on my side, in my tribe, and that makes them better. As if there were ever any doubt, Lori.

Smith is rooting for the home team @ www.lifesentence.net.