A journalist’s perspective


Why are you asking so many questions and wanting to write about our community in the newspaper? Why do people care about Iranian Jews in Los Angeles? Do you really think you’re accomplishing anything by writing about our triumphs and failures in the newspaper?

These and other intense questions were often fired at me by local Iranian Jews, starting about 12 years ago, when I first set out to report on this very special community. It is my community, and traditionally it has been very tight-knit and intentionally private, closed off to outsiders. But it includes an array of individuals with many stories and a very rich background. As a son of this community whose parents fled Iran’s fundamentalist Islamic regime more than three decades ago, I nevertheless felt called to share the beauty of Southern California’s Iranian-Jewish heritage.

In my opinion, the Iranian-Jewish immigration to the United States represents, perhaps, one of the greatest sociological experiments of the 20th century. It is the story of what happens when you uproot one of the world’s oldest Jewish communities, a group that was deeply rooted in Iran for centuries, and then transplant it into the United States — one of the most advanced and dynamic modern societies in the world. Who would have thought that this immigrant community could, in such a short time span, blossom and successfully acculturate as it has in the United States in slightly more than three decades?

I feel tremendously blessed to have had the unique opportunity of sharing some of the local Iranian Jewish community’s incredible accomplishments in business, the arts, philanthropy, literature, politics, education, medicine, real estate and contributions to the betterment of Southern California. For example, if you just venture into downtown Los Angeles’ garment or jewelry districts, you will find that a vast majority of businesses are owned by Iranian Jews. Local elected officials often point to the fact that downtown Los Angeles has gone through a tremendous transformation during the last three decades, with billion-dollar industries thriving in neighborhoods that once were blighted.

This is largely the result of Iranian-American Jewish entrepreneurship. Iranian-Jewish families, such as the Delijanis and others, have invested heavily in downtown’s real estate and the revitalization of the area’s historic Broadway district. And, at the same time, some members of the Nazarian family have shown extraordinary entrepreneurship in the community. The Nazarians are among the major shareholders in the telecommunications giant Qualcomm, and they own major hotels and nightclubs throughout Los Angeles. There’s also the Orange County-based Merage family, which in 2002 sold its privately held corporation, Chef America (maker of the popular Hot Pockets frozen foods), to Nestle for $2.6 billion. These and countless other Iranian-Jewish entrepreneurs have, without doubt, contributed significantly to the economic vitality of Southern California.

Iranian Jews have not been successful only in business; many from the community have also pursued higher education in medicine, architecture, the law, engineering and various sectors of academia. You need only to walk into any of a handful of Los Angeles-area hospitals, including Cedars-Sinai, UCLA, Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center or St. John’s Health Center to encounter Iranian-Jewish physicians in almost any specialty you can imagine. It is no secret that Southern California’s Iranian Jews are perhaps one of the most highly educated immigrant communities because of their families’ strong emphasis on the importance of education.

Area universities also have countless Iranian-Jewish scientists and researchers, among them the prestigious City of Hope medical facility in Duarte, which regularly boasts of having in its ranks Dr. Samuel Rahbar, a leading endocrinologist who is on the brink of finding a cure for some types of diabetes.

In recent years, Iranian-Jewish writers Gina Nahai, Angella M. Nazarian and  Roya Hakakian have received international acclaim for their books in English, which often reveal aspects of the community’s personal struggles in moving from the traditions of Iran into the United States. And, yes, even celebrity Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who is currently a candidate for U.S. Congress in New Jersey, has written countless best-selling books and appeared on television programs, is half Iranian-Jewish.

With Hollywood close by, the community also has entered the entertainment industry, and Iranian-Jewish film producer Bob Yari is one of the success stories. In 2006, Yari’s film “Crash” won the Academy Award for Best Picture. More than a dozen local Iranian-Jewish actors in recent years also have appeared in countless major films and television programs, including the popular suspense drama “24.” 

Local Iranian Jews also have ventured into politics and fully embraced American democracy since their exile. Most notable was Jimmy Delshad, a businessman who became the first Iranian Jew elected to public office in the United States when, in 2003, he became a Beverly Hills city councilman. Then, in 2007, he made national news when he became that city’s mayor. Delshad left public office last year,  but now Beverly Hills has two Iranian-Jewish city commissioners. Likewise, in 2008, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa appointed Iranian-Jewish attorney H. David Nahai to be the general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. For a time, Nahai oversaw one of the largest public utilities in the country.

A new, younger generation of Iranian-American Jews — many of them born in the United States — formed the organization 30 Years After (30YA) nearly five years ago, and it quickly became one of the community’s most successful civic and political nonprofit groups, mobilizing Iranian Jews in Los Angeles and New York to become more engaged in the U.S. political process.

Interestingly enough, the younger generation of Iranian-Jewish professionals in recent years has been at the forefront of sharing their parents’ and grandparents’ countless stories of escape from the persecution of Iran’s fundamentalist Islamic regime. That narrative has been critical in helping other Americans to better understand the threat that the current Iranian regime poses to the rest of the free world.

In 2009, I remember being given the opportunity to interview family members and close friends of Habib Elghanian, the late leader of the Jewish community in Iran, who was executed by Iran’s Islamic regime in 1979 on trumped-up charges of spying for Israel and the United States. Hearing their bone-chilling stories of the circumstances surrounding Elghanian’s execution made me realize how his murder became a primary catalyst for thousands of Jews to flee Iran after the revolution.  

For all of the Iranian-Jewish community’s financial and academic success, local Iranian Jews have, over the last three decades, not forgotten their strong Jewish roots. You cannot walk into any of the major Los Angeles-area synagogues, among them Stephen S. Wise Temple, Sinai Temple, Tifereth Israel Sephardic Temple and Valley Beth Shalom, without encountering local Iranian Jews who make up a substantial portion of these congregations.

I often ask myself what would have happened to many of these local synagogues today if the Iranian Jews had never immigrated to this city? Perhaps Los Angeles’ robust Jewish community would not have been as strong as it is today. For instance, Pico-Robertson and Encino are now among the most vibrant Jewish areas in Los Angeles as a result of a large segment of Iranian Jews living and working there.

And this also has led Iranian Jews living in both West Los Angeles and in the San Fernando Valley to establish more than two dozen synagogues of their own. Both big and small, many of these Iranian synagogues operate from store-front properties all along Ventura Boulevard, while, at the same time, many in the community are still drawn to lavish synagogues, including the Nessah Synagogue in the heart of Beverly Hills. 

Over the last 30 years, Southern California’s Iranian Jews also have set up and funded many of their own nonprofit groups, including the Hope Foundation, the Jewish Unity Network (JUN), the SIAMAK organization, and others, to support Iranian-Jewish families struggling financially. In recent years, younger Iranian Jews have been giving back to the larger community in Los Angeles by donating money, time and energy to nonprofits dealing with the homeless and to local law enforcement, such as a the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.

In 2005, Iranian-Jewish businessman Paul Merage gifted the University of California, Irvine, business school with a $30 million endowment, the largest in university history. The Merage family also donated $3 million to the Jewish Community Center of Orange County, which bears the family’s name, and supported the Orange County Performing Arts Center as well as the Second Harvest Food Bank in Orange County. 

After encountering firsthand the horrors of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, Southern California’s Iranian Jewry has made support for Israel a paramount concern over the decades. A large segment of local Iranian Jews has been involved with a host of philanthropic causes related to Israel, through Hadassah, the Jewish National Fund, Israel Bonds, Friends of the Israel Defense Forces and the many universities based in Israel.

In the late 1980s, it was a group of Southern California’s Iranian Jews that established the widely successful Magbit Foundation, which has since provided millions of dollars in interest-free loans to cash-strapped college students in Israel. The Iranian-Jewish Y&S Nazarian Family Foundation also has donated extensively to an array of higher-education institutes in Israel, and in the last few years, also funded the establishment of an Israel Policy Center at UCLA. The Iranian-Jewish Merage Foundation over the years has provided endowments to universities in Israel, and, since 2004, has helped fund the Ayalim Association’s program in Israel that is slowly establishing various new settlement blocs in the Negev and Galilee regions of the country. In 2010 the SIAMAK organization launched and funded Project Jacob, a revolutionary new program to nurture and develop innovative medical, high-tech and alternative energy research at Israel’s Ben-Gurion University.

Despite Southern California’s Iranian-Jewish community’s success and generous philanthropy, the community has not been immune to an array of problems. Community activists such as JUN’s Dara Abaei will attest to the difficulties some local young Iranian Jews today face with the sale and use of illegal drugs. I remember reporting on the tragic story of three young Iranian-Jewish men who were killed in a West Hollywood apartment during a drug deal that went bad in August 2010.

There are also families struggling with issues of spousal abuse and alcoholism. There are a number of poverty-stricken Iranian-Jewish families, who, over the last four years, were hit hard by the bad economy. Some are on the verge of homelessness. No doubt the few Ponzi schemes allegedly carried out by Iranian-Jewish businessmen in recent years — against their own community members here in Los Angeles — have wiped out the finances of hundreds of families and destroyed the long-standing trust that many Iranian Jews once had in one another. 

Covering these stories of difficulties faced by local Iranian Jews has been personally heart-wrenching for me, and not easy to write about, because the community has a long-standing, albeit unspoken, taboo of not airing its dirty laundry in public. Many feel their reputations in the community will be destroyed, or the “authorities” will come after them for speaking out, as had been the case for them in Iran. 

I will never forget two years ago, when I first reported on the community’s businessmen involved in the alleged Ponzi schemes, and I was approached by a 79-year-old Iranian-Jewish grandmother who overheard me interviewing one of the victims. With tears in her eyes, she grabbed my arm and said to me,  “They’ve stolen $100,000 of my entire life savings, which I brought out of Iran with great difficulty — I am so ashamed because I have nothing and have to live with my children. Why won’t any of the local rabbis or leaders tell them to at least pay back the money they took from us old people?” 

I had no answer for this poor, old woman but I believed it was important to cover this story in order to shed light on the suffering of the victims instead of trying to sweep the issue under the rug, because this community needs to face its demons and find real solutions to help people. The local community also has  struggled in recent years with not having a base of strong leaders and serious activists to properly address the continually evolving issues of Jewish immigration from Iran, social problems within families and creating a closer overall cooperation with the larger Jewish community through the Los Angeles Jewish Federation.

My reporting has focused on many of these significant accomplishments and changing elements within the local Iranian-Jewish community, and as a journalist I don’t mean to boast about them. Yet I cannot help but feel a tremendous amount of pride for how this 2,700-year-old community has remained vibrant in this new world, yet held steadfast to its Jewish identity and continued to grow and thrive. Who would have thought that a Jewish community that once lived for centuries as second-class citizens in Iran, and that faced unimaginable persecution, would one day be thriving in a country that represents the greatest democracy on Earth? The story of the Iranian-American Jews continues to amaze me. With its mix of ancient history and rich traditions, and its embrace of a whole new, modern world, it is a community that I truly love and respect. 

My only hope is to continue to have the opportunity to share Iranian Jewry’s remarkable story in the coming years.


Learn more about L.A.’s Iranian-Jewish community by visiting Karmel Melamed’s blog at jewishjournal.com/iranianamericanjews.


Iranian Jews: The art, culture and history

Award to recognize Jewish Journalist’s 50-year career


The year was 1960. Tom Tugend, living in Israel and working as the temporary head of the Weizmann Institute of Science’s public relations department, had to make a choice: keep his job or return to Los Angeles to a UCLA job he’d had before moving to Israel. He went back to UCLA — and, for the sake of the Jewish media internationally, it was a good decision. Working at UCLA led to writing positions for Jewish newspapers locally, nationally and in Israel.

On March 25, the Benefactors of the Jewish Club of 1933 will recognize Tugend’s work, including his contributions to JTA, the Jerusalem Post, the London Jewish Chronicle and The Jewish Journal. The organization is awarding to Tugend, who was born in Germany in 1925, its 2012 Heritage Award, which recognizes European immigrants’ accomplishments in arts, writing, business and other fields.

“I’m still not sure who initiated it, but anyhow it’s always flattering when somebody thinks well enough of you to put you in [for] an award,” Tugend said. “None of us as journalists are overwhelmed by compliments, so it’s always nice.”

In fact, the board members at the organization chose Tugend from among seven nominees.

“Tom has a very distinguished background, he’s done a lot of wonderful things in the Jewish world, and he was born in Berlin,” Peter Rothholz, a Benefactors’ board member, said. “That combination is exactly what we honor at the Benefactors of the Jewish Club of 1933.” During the 1930s, German-speaking Jews, setting out to assist in the Americanization of German-speaking Jewish immigrants, formed what was then called the Jewish Club of 1933. In the 1980s, the group evolved into a philanthropic organization.

In 1984, toward the end of Tugend’s 30-year career at UCLA, where he worked as a science writer, the Summer Olympics were held in Los Angeles. UCLA ran an international pressroom, and the Jerusalem Post and the London Jewish Chronicle asked Tugend to report on the Jewish athletes. This established his connections with those papers, which he continues to write for today.

Like many journalists, he wrote his first story as an undergraduate student — for UCLA’s campus newspaper. Unike many journalists, Tugend wrote for a U.S. Army newspaper, in his case, during the Korean War. Tugend had also served as a combat infantryman in France and Germany during World War II and as an American volunteer in an anti-tank unit during Israel’s War of independence. After his military stint, he worked as a reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle. Later, he moonlighted as a copy editor at the Los Angeles Times. He has spent more than 50 years as a journalist, many of them while juggling a full-time job at UCLA to support his family. In 1993, he became a contributing editor at The Jewish Journal.

Tugend’s work for Jewish media often has dealt with Jewish figures in Hollywood. He called an interview he did with Stephen Spielberg for The Jewish Journal, prior to the release of “Schindler’s List,” “probably the best interview I ever had in my life.”

The award ceremony for the 2012 Heritage Award will take place during the Benefactors’ annual meeting and brunch on March 25 at the Los Angeles Jewish Home.

Judy Toll is one funny valentine


Groucho Marx said anyone can get old—all you have to do is live long enough. But what can you say about a comedian who lived it all in 44 years, as a breakthrough stand-up, gifted improv actor and writer for the hottest HBO comedy show?

Meet Judy Toll.

“Judy was a Jew; I don’t know if you’re aware of that,” comedian Andy Kindler deadpanned. “She came from a long line of Jews.”

Toll also went and took her mother to the Holy Land, married an Oscar-winning filmmaker from the Simon Wiesenthal Center and was loved by so many friends that she even went to therapy with them.

Now, according to the documentary made by her brother, Gary Toll, Judy was “The Funniest Woman You’ve Never Heard Of.” It’s a labor of love that rushes at you through her characters, her lovers, her sketches from The Groundlings, her episodes from HBO’s “Sex and the City” and her family life in Philadelphia.

“The Funniest Woman” is wrapped in anecdotes from creative pals like Kathy Griffin, Wendy Kamenoff, Taylor Negron and Michael Patrick King who detail the more hellish dramas Toll created to jump on stage and talk about. Friends loved this frenetic personality who struggled to turn her pain into our pleasure before succumbing to cancer in 2002.

“What a thing for her to have this terrible affliction when she had such a profound influence on the comedy business,” comedian Rick Overton said. “Her bold character work, the sort of thing that stars have.”

As a child in the 1960s, Toll starred in her family’s living room—mocking in-laws with perfect mimicry and mad-libbing Hawaiian Punch ads.

“I never laughed as hard with anyone as I did with Judy,” her brother said.

Toll and her siblings would stay up until mom Sandy yelled because their father, Jay, had to get up early to get to the furniture store he ran on Market Street in Philly for 40 years. Sister Joanne (now a producer of HBO’s “In Treatment”) helped shoot Super 8 movies—not normal family nachas but scripted, elaborate spoofs.

“Judy often said she had the most fun in her life making our movies,” Gary Toll said.

Groundlings veteran Jim Doughan remembers the Tolls as “the weirdest family I’ve ever encountered.”

From Samuel Gompers Elementary School (Kevin Bacon’s mother was her teacher), Toll launched her career: Suburban theater trouper and “My Fair Lady” fundraisers for the Philadelphia chapter of ORT.

This was followed by her brilliant, disruptive Hebrew school years.

“She jumped off a sofa and broke her leg two weeks before her bat mitzvah,” Gary Toll said. “Probably an early example of her causing drama. Bat mitzvah was a big showcase for her.”

After theater at U Mass, Toll became the first female comic “in the comedy club surge of the early ‘80s,” according to Steve Young, co-founder of the Philadelphia Comedy Works.

“On stage, she did characters and jokes. Off stage, she did Judy. That’s who you fell in love with,” he said.

Kamenoff remembers meeting “this sweet little blond, Jewish angel” while doing her own act there. “Barely 5-foot-1, with this huge personality. I said, ‘Oh my God, I love you, let’s be friends!’” she said.

Toll and Kamenoff shared the kind of adventures particular to stand-ups on the road in the 1980s.

“Madonna was doing her ‘Blond Ambition’ tour,” recalled Kamenoff, now a writer and teacher. “We did our ‘No Ambition’ tour—Utah, Wyoming, Montana. Honky-tonks with screen doors slamming, the stage the size of a desk. These were cowboys who had never seen a Jewish girl in their life. Or a woman comic.”

Judy won them over.

“She didn’t have a censor,” Kamenoff said. “They loved her.”

After arriving in Los Angeles, Toll rose through the comedy ranks.

“When you were around Judy, you laughed a lot,” said actress Edie McClurg, who performed with Toll at The Groundlings Theatre. “She was a pretty and beautiful soul.”

“She was born to do characters,” Gary Toll added.

After seeing Toll creations like Naomi the B.U. feminist and neurotic Sheila Naselstein, who returns matzah when it’s broken, a critic for The New York Times called her, “a combination of Judy Holliday and Gilda Radner.”

Radner was her idol.

Buzzing around Los Angeles with a CMDYGAL vanity plate, Toll worked part time selling Chipwiches at the La Brea Tar Pits and broke through with Groundlings partner Wendy Goldman on a sketch called, “Casual Sex.”

Ivan Reitman bought and produced their play as the 1988 movie, “Casual Sex?” starring Lea Thompson and Victoria Jackson. Upset she wasn’t cast to play herself, Toll instead found success writing sitcoms, appearing in other films and on shows like “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” During the dulled-down comedy club scene of the ‘90s, Toll found a home at Un-Cabaret, an alternative comedy space for stand-ups stretching into storytellers.

“Audiences witnessed a diary of what was going on in her life,” Kamenoff recalled. “She discovered her voice there.”

“Judy always called Un-Cabaret the ‘comedy of love,’” said Beth Lapides, the venue’s co-creator. “That was one of her major themes. And she loved when there was a small audience, because it was so much more intimate.”

At the Un-Cab, wearing her favorite cherry earrings, Toll read new writings or ranted out her hypochondria—“I live in anxiety and fear!”—detailing her calamities in and out of romance, AA, OA and even Scientology. But when a boyfriend found an irregular mole on her back, she really did get sick. Melanoma.

“Judy and our mother took a trip to Israel and Judy was very affected,” Gary Toll said. “She started going back to services and studying. I don’t think Judy would have dealt with her cancer as courageously as she did if Judaism had not been a part of her life.”

She also got the job of her life with HBO’s “Sex and the City,” writing about what she often talked about on stage: women falling for the wrong men. Writer Liz Tuccillo remembered Toll as being “amazingly upbeat in the writers’ room while battling her illness.” One day though, “she told us that she felt like she had lost her sense of humor. She was crying a bit. Soon, however, she started talking about how her sense of humor had moved to Florida to retire. She went on to write some of the show’s funniest lines that afternoon,” Tuccillo said.

How Hollywood’s Hunt ‘Found’ Elinor Lipman’s novel


Elinor Lipman, writer of smart and often hilarious modern-day social satire, considers herself “the luckiest writer.” Her first novel, “Then She Found Me,” well-received when it was published in 1990 and selling steadily ever since, has inspired the film of the same name — starring, co-written and directed by Helen Hunt — that opens in theaters this Friday.

But fans of Lipman’s novel should be forewarned: Don’t judge the movie by its book. Hunt spent nearly 10 years nurturing this project and in the process changed many of the novel’s particulars — adding and deleting characters and sub-plots, altering motivations. Yet the film is faithful to the heart of the story and retains Lipman’s signature balance of wit and pathos.

In the novel, 36-year-old, never-married high school Latin teacher April Epner, adopted daughter of Holocaust survivors Trude and Julius, is a no-nonsense, plain-Jane kind of gal — but one with a sure, quiet sense of self and a quick wit. Out of the blue, shortly after Trude dies (and less than two years after Julius’ death), a mysterious stranger appears with a message from April’s birth mother, employing stealth and melodrama to tell her, “I represent someone from your past … would that be welcome news?”

Thus begin the misadventures of the shy schoolteacher and her overbearing, confessional-talk-show-host birth mother, Bernice Graves. In Lipman’s novel, April struggles for self-definition — and compassion — in the face of Bernice’s glaringly different personality. Her turmoil is buffered by a blossoming love she shares with the equally retiring yet charmingly wry school librarian, Dwight Willamee.

Lipman, though neither adopted nor an adopter of children herself (she and her husband have one son), had nevertheless long been intrigued by the emotional conflict and drama inherent in birth-parent/adoptive-child reunions. When a friend found his birth mother when he was in his 40s, Lipman decided to further explore the subject and make it the focal point of her novel.

In Hunt’s film version, Bernice (Bette Midler, delivering some of the film’s funniest lines) and April (Hunt) similarly navigate the minefield of their budding mother-daughter relationship, but there’s no shy librarian in sight. Instead, April marries, then is summarily dumped by, her man-child fellow teacher (Matthew Broderick) and subsequently falls in love with the also recently dumped, nurturing father (Colin Firth) of one of her kindergarten students. The film’s April, nearing 40, desperately wants a child; this becomes a central theme in the movie.

Hunt explained that she was drawn to the originality of the novel and to “the way Elinor surprised me in the story.” She initially tried to acquire the film rights in the early 1990s, but the book had already been optioned — before it had even hit bookstores — by Sigourney Weaver’s production company, which rebuffed Hunt’s overtures for involvement.

Several years later, after Hunt had won four Emmys for her role in the NBC hit comedy series, “Mad About You,” and the 1997 Best Actress Oscar for her performance opposite Jack Nicholson in “As Good As It Gets,” she was finally able to secure the rights to Lipman’s book.

Meanwhile, not surprisingly, Lipman had been wondering if the film would ever be made.

“I got a call from Helen Hunt’s manager on the day my mother died [in 1998],” Lipman said; the call “was like a little ray of sunshine in an otherwise sad time.”

Despite Hunt’s fondness for the novel (“the novel is perfect,” she said), she wrestled with the screenplay for nearly five years, trying to translate what she considered a “subtle, internal” story into an external, visible story that would work on screen.

One solution was to have April want a baby; Hunt felt that would externalize a longing that remains inchoate in the novel. It was also a deeply personal addition for Hunt, who said she “wanted a baby very much during the time I was working on the script.” She now has a 3 1/2-year-old daughter with television producer and writer Matthew Carnahan.

When Hunt read an essay on betrayal by Jungian psychologist James Hillman, she finally “found her north star about what she wanted to explore in the film,” Lipman said.

The central theme of the film became, “You can’t really love until you’ve made peace with betrayal,” Hunt said.

So, in the film, April becomes both a victim and perpetrator of betrayal, who at times feels betrayed by God.

Hunt, whose paternal grandmother was Jewish, also made April more of a religously observant Jew, in order to give her protagonist “a deep sense of tradition [and] a specific version of faith that doesn’t back away from the difficult questions,” she said.

Theater: ‘Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson’ — populism through a post-punk prism


“Populism, yea, yea!
Populism, yea, yea!”

Sung to an urgent pop beat, this rousing refrain from “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” is bound to stick in your head. Not just because it’s so catchy, but because the show gets you thinking about populism — what it meant to early 19th century America, and what it means to us today. Written and directed by Alex Timbers, with music and lyrics by Michael Friedman, “Bloody Bloody” is a rollicking, irreverent new bio-musical about Andrew Jackson’s life and leadership — viewed through the lens of “emo” music and 20th century pop culture.

The first American president from humble origins, Jackson pitted himself against authority and privilege. Scarred by early violent encounters, one of which left a bullet in his chest for life, Jackson bled himself in vain attempts to ease his pain. And long before Bill Clinton “felt our pain,” Jackson fashioned his wounds, youthful disappointments and family tragedy into an empathetic persona that appealed to those who felt powerless.

Although this is their first collaboration, Friedman and Timbers each bring impressive credentials to the production. Timbers, 29, is artistic director of the New York-based, Obie Award-winning avant-garde company Les ” target=”_blank”>The Civilians, a New York-based off-Broadway company that conducts extensive interviews to create theater that raises questions about contemporary cultural phenomena. Friedman, composer and lyricist for numerous Civilians productions, most recently penned pop music for the upcoming “This Beautiful City,” an inside look at evangelical Christian churches that probes the intersection of religion and civic life in America, premiering this March at Louisville’s Humana Festival of New American Plays.

Perhaps, then, it’s no surprise that Friedman and Timbers share the conviction that emo — which they describe as hyper-emotional, post-punk rock that’s “so sincere it’s ridiculous, and so ridiculous, it’s heartbreaking” — is an ideal aesthetic to apply to Jackson and his era.

“There’s an entire language of the American presidency that’s invented during Jackson’s presidency,” Friedman said. And the invention of populism, he added, can be seen as “disenfranchised boys who didn’t think they were popular in high school getting their revenge.”

By using contemporary teenage idioms and post-punk music alongside 19th century speech and period details, Friedman believes “Bloody Bloody” highlights qualities of each period that might not otherwise be apparent.

“Often, the most simplistic things we come up with — like introducing Monroe’s cabinet to the strains of a Spice Girls song — are really helpful at focusing in on what the thing itself is,” Friedman said.

These pop culture motifs also add lightness and humor to what is — beneath a gloss of irony and absurdity — a serious subject.

A classically trained pianist who didn’t write his first song until he was 24, Friedman thrives on intensive research — whether it’s the hundreds of interviews that form the basis of The Civilians’ plays, or historical research for “Bloody Bloody” — and draws musical inspiration from a seemingly limitless range of styles.

“I approach my work anthropologically,” Friedman said.

For one project, he immersed himself in Senegalese rap — not expecting to actually write a Senegalese rap song, but instead to absorb the sounds in order to pick up a new trick or two.

“It might be about structure, or rhythm, or the way a melody works,” Friedman said.

Listening to other music also helps him concentrate while composing, and anything he hears might suggest an idea for works in progress: “I’ll be listening to my iPod and finally figure out what I want to do on a song … often it’s not even a direct correlation — I’ll hear a Mahler symphony and I’ll think, ‘Oh, “Trail of Tears” [from “Bloody Bloody”] should have a key change right here.'”

With his wide-ranging forays into musical style and his flair for eclecticism, Friedman has created a style that’s not easy to categorize.

“I’m kind of chameleon-like,” he said. For The Civilians’ “Gone Missing,” which recently completed a six-month run at New York’s Barrow Street Theater, Friedman called his score a “pastiche … there’s a Noel-Coward-esque song, a Mariachi number in Spanish, a big rock ballad….”

Friedman’s upbringing may have planted the seeds for his interest in, and facile navigation of, disparate cultural sources.

Raised in Philadelphia by a Jewish father of German descent and a non-Jewish, “Yankee, New England” mother, Friedman attended a Quaker school until college at Harvard. His father is from a family of “fiercely proud” German Jews who identified culturally, but not religiously, with Judaism.

“I was half-Jewish, half-Christian in a confusing way, both sides a little bit nonobservant, went to a Quaker school in the ’70s, when everything like that was very much up in the air,” Friedman said. This gave him a “sense of religious — and nonreligious — possibility” for his own identity.

Although he doesn’t believe that any particular “faith background” influences his work, Friedman believes he’s got his father’s German Jewish sense of “intellectual questioning, of learning for learning’s sake.”

That said, no one in his father’s family has any connection with their European roots, so they are, more than anything else, “Americans first,” he added.

“At this point — after so many generations — what else are you?” Friedman asked.

A very contemporary question, but one that also harkens back to the Jacksonian era, when the presence of Native Americans, Spaniards and African slaves within our borders challenged our ideals of democracy and raised issues of race and ethnicity in America.

What did we then, and what do we now, make of these “foreigners” on our soil?

Books: Max Apple is a bard of the background


Max Apple’s people are the folks you might see having lunch at a local diner.

There’s Sidney Goodman, the carwash king of Las Vegas, and Jerome Feldman, the outgoing president of the Ohio Association of Independent Pharmacists, along with others who sell scrap metal, industrial tools and trinkets. Apple has somehow eavesdropped over the leatherette booths, followed them out and into their lives, dreams and hearts.

One of the best American short story writers, Apple has just published “The Jew of Home Depot and Other Stories” (Johns Hopkins Press), his first collection of stories in 20 years. He writes with the same playful imagination and comic intelligence as in his earlier stories, layered with irony and an infallible sense of detail.

Now, his people are older; there are several stories that deal with aging mothers with Alzheimer’s, which his own mother suffers from, and he includes “Talker,” his first story about a child with a disability, like his own daughter. Even as Apple takes on some serious subjects, he shows life as it is, full of odd moments and others rich in complexity and possibility.

In “Talker,” the divorced father deals with his daughter Ginny, his ex-wife, a caregiver who has issues with the truth and with her hair and has already been fired once, a fellow teacher who’s interested in him, and an oral motor therapy specialist who’s helping Ginny to make sounds. He writes, “Ginny never complained, never said that it was time to give up. She worked so hard at speech because she wanted the most human thing, words, and I never doubted how much she had to say.”

The story is highly fictional, he explains, but there’s truth in the struggles to learn language and in the way father and daughter are approached by all sorts of unfortunates in their wanderings, “as though they recognize us as part of them. For good reason, I try to keep them away. That’s straight from life.”

The title story features Jerome Baumgarten, an 85-year-old man in Marshall, Texas who doesn’t want to die surrounded by gentiles, so a Chabad family flies in from Brooklyn to be with this stranger. By day, the family’s only son takes on a job at Home Depot, and at night he fights his evil inclination, watching a beautiful young woman at the fraternity house across the street with her boyfriend. The story and the book end with an unforgettable sentence.

Apple, whose first two highly praised story collections are “The Oranging of America” and “Free Agents,” says that short stories are his favorite genre.

“I’m naturally drawn to them. I find that most novels are not good all the way through,” he says, noting, “A story can be good all the way through, every sentence. I don’t always get it, but that’s what I’m looking for.”

In the last two decades, Apple has published a novel and two memoirs, including the best-selling “Roommates,” later made into a film starring Peter Falk, and has written several screenplays. He taught at Rice University in Houston for almost 30 years, including several years of commuting from San Francisco. Now, he lives outside of Philadelphia and teaches at the University of Pennsylvania, where his wife Talya Fishman is a professor of Jewish intellectual and cultural history.

“All this takes up time,” says Apple, who is admittedly not prolific. “I’m not driven. I love writing. My imagination is always working. I write when I have time, and life allows me the time.” He adds, “Nor do I think the world suffers if I don’t produce more. I work very hard at each story, at every sentence.”

For Apple, screenwriting is another skill, akin to carpentry — it hasn’t changed the way he approaches a story. He advises students that for stories to work, they have to have a great interest in what happens to people.

“Things happen to all of us. The writer’s job is to get you interested. There’s complexity in stories — you can juggle several things, you can divert the reader with plot. The real stuff is what’s going on in the background — the background noise, like in life.”

The two oldest of Apple’s four children — often the subjects in “Free Agents” — are writers. Both grew up watching their father at work — that is, when he wasn’t teaching, he’d often be at home, lying on the couch, daydreaming, concocting tales. Sam Apple, who lives in Brooklyn, is the author of “Schlepping Through the Alps: My Search for Austria’s Jewish Past With Its Last Wandering Shepherd” and Jessica Apple is a journalist in Jerusalem.

“How can you figure anyone would be a writer?” he says of his kids’ career choices. About his influence, he says, “I think it all comes from storytelling at bedtime. I never read them stories, I made them up.” He adds, “I should have figured that Sam would be a writer. He’d give me directions about what he’d want to happen.”

Among American Jewish writers who are often asked about their dualities, Apple seems the most comfortable. In an autobiographical essay, “The Jew as Writer/ The Writer as Jew: Reflections on Literature and Identity,” Apple notes that “identity is someone else’s problem,” that he’s always been at home being both Max and Mottele, American and Jew, educated professor and son of Yiddish-speaking immigrants.

He writes that with his formal education behind him, “Max began to write stories, which wanted to sound like the stories he had read in the anthologies. He hoped for British characters who would experience epiphanies, those obscure but luminous moments that reveal the human condition. But all of his people turned out to be Americans, and none of them even knew what an epiphany was. They were good-natured folks, clowns in every shop and office.”

Now, after more than 50 years of co-existence, Max and Mottele are still very much a pair and “understand how much they need one another. Without Mottele, Max knows that he would be a pale imitator, a John Updike without Protestants. And Mottele alone would be exactly that — Mottele alone. Born into Yiddish at the exact moment that murderers were extinguishing it, he would have the language without the people. He needs Americans to populate his shtetl.”

Books: Shmegegis of old, shmegegis of gold


“Old Jewish Comedians,” illustrated by Drew Friedman, edited by Monte Beauchamp. (Fantagraphics Books, $14.95) www.fantagraphics.com .

“Weep before God. Laugh before people.”
— Jewish Folk-Saying.

Who doesn’t love old Jewish comedians? Those mamzers of mirth and halutzim of humor who paved the road from the Catskills to Vegas as first-generation entertainers. Now comes “Old Jewish Comedians,” a book to honor these slapsticklers and ticklemen of the 20th century. Thirty-two pages of funny faces (all guys), the book is “An Illustrated Gallery of Jewish American Comedians, Comics, Comic Actors, Clowns, and Tummlers Depicted in the Sunset of Their Years.” Artist Drew Friedman’s portraits cover the greats and the greatly forgotten, from George Burns and Buddy Hackett, to Benny Rubin and Joe Smith.

Friedman, whom I first enjoyed for his funny illustrations in SPY Magazine, and whose work currently is seen in MAD, the New York Observer, Los Angeles Magazine and other publications, said that none of the comedians posed for him.

“I have a fairly extensive photo file which was very helpful,” he said.

He’s collected pictures of comedians since he was a child. (Bruce Jay Friedman, the author’s father, appears in “Old Jewish Comedians” in a photo from 1940 in the Catskills with comedian Jackie Miles.)

“Rich reality” is how Leonard Maltin describes Friedman’s style in his foreword. Included in the book are the real names for these “show-business survivors” as Maltin calls them: Shecky Green/Sheldon Greenfield, Freddie Roman/Fred Martin Kirschenbaum, Rodney Dangerfield/Jacob Cohen, Henny/Henry Youngman, et al.

Unfortunately, the only writing in “Old Jewish Comedians” is Maltin’s foreword.

“I didn’t want it to be ‘history’ book,” Friedman explained. “There are already those out there. I wanted their styles to be illustrated in their faces and the context of the drawing. Maltin’s intro puts everything into historical context.”

So where to go if you want to learn more about these Jewish jesters? The ones who didn’t make it because comedy was less marketable back then, 50 years before HBO, Showtime, Comedy Central and clubs expanded stand-up venues are described in detail by Betsy Borns in her 1987 treatise, “Comic Lives.” Most never even flashed the free- wheeling coffeehouse style that Gerald Nachman recounts in “Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 60s.” (Shelley/Sheldon Leonard Berman being the exception, appearing in that 2003 book and this one.)

To really evaluate the book, I went to 92-year-old Irving Brecher. After all, Brecher is old, Jewish and he has not only done stand-up, he wrote for some of Friedman’s alter kackers, like Milton Berlinger (Berle, on the cover), Nathan Birnbaum (George Burns, inside cover), and the Marx Brothers (Julius, Adolph and Leonard, middle two pages of book.)

Book open, over split pea soup and half a pastrami on rye at Label’s Table on Pico Boulevard, I quizzed Brecher about “OJC” who never found the fame of a Moses — Harry Horwitz/Moe Howard or Jerome Levitch/Jerry Lewis, a Jack Chakrin/Jack Carter or Archibald Donald Rickles/ Don Rickles, et al.

— Irv, here’s Harry Joachim.

“That’s Harry Ritz of the Ritz Brothers. Harry was the only one who was talented. Al and Jimmy were nothing.”

— Menasha Skulnik?

“That’s his real name. Great Yiddish comedian. The Yiddish theater was a remarkable place. I wish you’d seen it.”

— Joseph Seltzer?

“Joe Smith of Smith & Dale, the famous vaudeville team. They made a movie called “The Heart of New York,” which is a museum piece. For collectors.”

— Abraham Kalish?

“Al Kelly. Al did double talk. That was his style. He spoke gibberish in vaudeville sketches and all the people would try to be polite.

— While he mocked them?

“No, not mocking them. The audience would laugh. But people in the real world he dealt with would be taken in.”

— Sounds like what Borat does!

“Haven’t seen it. But most comedians couldn’t do it like Al Kelly could. He was unique.”

— Here’s a fellow named Ben Rubin…

“Benny Rubin used to work for me! When he was up in vaudeville. I’d give him a part in “The Life of Riley” radio show. In Hollywood, when they wanted a Jew with a long nose, they’d hire him. The lousy Hollywood producers. He’d make $150. I’d never use a character with a Jewish accent. Like Jack Benny [Benjamin Kubelsky] did with ‘Mr. Schlepperman.'”

— He used a thick Jewish accent?

“I hated it, that very stereotypical annoying character.

— Who played him?

“Artie Auerbach. Listen, do they have Jan Murray in this book?”

— No.

“I’m surprised.”

Friedman said not to worry; Jan Murray/Murray Janofsky will appear in the sequel, “More Old Jewish Comedians,” due in 2008.

Brecher said he hopes the sequel has a bit, or routine, a catchphrase, something from each comedian to go with the pictures.

Films: The trials and tribulations of fathers and sons


For so many Jewish men, it always comes back to fathers and sons, despite what Philip Roth might think.
Look at the films of Daniel Burman, the rising young star of the New Argentine Cinema. “Waiting for the Messiah,” “Lost Embrace” and his latest, “Family Law,” which all revolve around a slightly feckless but well-meaning young man, played in all three by Daniel Hendler, and his relationship with an absent or soon-to-be-absent father.

Burman, 33, is a slender, good-looking brunette with long, arching, graceful fingers that he uses to adjust a cup of coffee on its saucer as he sits in the bar/lounge of a hip downtown New York hotel, answering questions for a parade of journalists. He smiles easily, if somewhat shyly, but carries himself with an earnestness that belies the wittiness of his films.

“We’re kind of shy in my family,” he explains through an interpreter when asked about his father’s reaction to the new film, which centers even more than its predecessors on the father-son relationship. “We react with understatement to everything. But when my father saw the film at the Berlin festival, he seemed pleased.”

Burman comes from a family full of lawyers, including his father. Like the father-and-son lawyers who are at the heart of “Family Law,” he worked in his father’s office, and he did go to law school briefly, but abandoned that career after less than a year.

“My family was very supportive of my career choice,” he says. “After all, I was already earning a living from film.”

One way he paid back his family’s support is in the affectionate portrait of Perelman, Sr. (Arturo Goetz) in “Family Law,” which he readily acknowledges was based largely on his father.

Does that mean that Hendler has been Burman’s alter ego through the unofficial trilogy of films on which they have collaborated?

“It’s hard to say,” he says with a slight wince. “There are some things we have in common. But we don’t share the same ego.”

His next project, a comedy about an older married couple who are struggling with the “empty nest” syndrome, will take him away from the trilogy, but he readily acknowledges that he will probably come back to Hendler and to his own growth in a few years, “maybe five, maybe 10.”

It’s an actor-character-director relationship that echoes the odd triangulation of Francois Truffaut, Jean-Pierre Leaud and the fictional Antoine Doinel, the Truffaut-like protagonist of “The 400 Blows,” “Stolen Kisses” and “Bed and Board” among others.

That comparison tickles Burman immensely.

“I like Truffaut very much,” he says, beaming.

He is less sanguine about the frequent comparisons between his work and that of Woody Allen.
“It certainly doesn’t offend me,” he says. “A dream of mine is to present Woody Allen with DVDs of my films. But it’s not a fair comparison. We’re very different filmmakers.”

Certainly Burman’s characters are much less conflicted about their Jewish identity. They wear it with a casualness that is, quite frankly, alien to Jewish-American film.

“I think my parents taught me to enjoy being Jewish,” he says. “It’s not just about following rules or singing songs. It’s not as easy as just not eating ham. In the United States people seem to take a defensive attitude about being Jewish. For me it’s so intimate that I don’t need to express it all the time. It’s not damaged by the banality of daily life.”

Indeed, one might say that by its very nature, Jewish observance is defined by — and defines — daily life. Appropriately, that focus on daily life in all its ordinariness is a large part of Burman’s films, and that points up another place where he parts company with Americans.

“It seems contradictory, but the banality of daily life makes the dramatic incidents invisible,” he opines. “Life is not like it is in most American films, where something dramatic happens every few minutes. [In real life] the big existential themes express themselves in the everyday.”

Burman says that his writing is an outgrowth of that condition.

“When I write I don’t think about those things. It’s reflected in the mirror of the characters.”
“Family Law” opens Friday, Dec. 22 at the Laemmle Music Hall 3 and Laemmle Town Center 5.

Alys Willman-Navarro assisted in this article by translating during the interview.

Books: The middle-American way of death


“For One More Day” by Mitch Albom (Hyperion, $21.95)

At the beginning of “For One More Day,” Mitch Albom’s latest sermon on life, death and the realms beyond, fallen baseball star Charles “Chick” Benetto attempts suicide. One white light later, he finds himself reunited and running errands with his dead mother, Posey. Think of it as The One Person You Meet in Limbo. Out two weeks and already atop the bestseller list, the novel is also conveniently available at Starbucks, along with a bookmark-sized reading guide, as if Albom needed a PR boost to secure his spot as America’s foremost lay leader. The tragedy isn’t that Albom’s a sappy novelist, it’s that his message is so insistently universal as to be nearly meaningless.

I first encountered Albom the way many readers outside of Detroit did — not through his sports columns, but through his 1997 bestseller, “Tuesdays With Morrie,” a memoir of his life-changing reunion with Morrie Schwartz, a Brandeis professor dying of ALS. I saw the movie, Oprah Winfrey’s 1999 ABC adaptation, first; I even got misty-eyed when Hank Azaria’s Mitch, collapsing in a puddle of tears, admitted to Jack Lemmon’s Morrie, “I don’t want you to die.” But that wasn’t embarrassing enough. I went out and bought the book, and encouraged my parents to read it, too.

That was before Albom wrote another bestseller, “The Five People You Meet in Heaven,” about a humble carnival maintenance worker who leaves this mortal coil for the psycho-spiritual coaching of the afterlife. The very title warned of treacly, middle-American, middlebrow morality, and, while purportedly a novel, it was sized and shaped to resemble “Tuesdays With Morrie.”

The differences cut deeper than genre distinctions. Looking back, it’s not hard to see what I liked about “Tuesdays With Morrie”: Albom’s warm portrait of Morrie himself. Raised on the Lower East Side by a Russian émigré turned furrier, sneaking off to synagogue to pray for his mother, teaching Martin Buber and Erik Erikson, holding a “living funeral” after learning of his disease, Morrie was a figure both familiar and unexpected, a model grandfather, funny, wise, hokey and infinitely huggable.

“The Five People You Meet in Heaven” has no such anchor, only an inert cipher divorced from any distinct religion or culture, carelessly sapped of a soul. Albom dedicates the novel to his uncle Edward Beitchman, “who gave me my first concept of heaven,” and sure enough, the novel’s amiable Everyman is named Eddie. We check in just as he checks out — killed, trying to save a little girl from a fluke carnival ride accident — but, fear not, Albom can’t write 10 pages without a flashback. In one, a 17-year-old Eddie sits in his Pitkin Avenue apartment with two recently arrived Romanian cousins who’ve fled war-torn Europe — shorthand, it seems, for Holocaust refugees. But then Eddie’s brother Joe announces that Eddie’s met a girl. “Does she go to church?” someone asks. Turns out Eddie’s family isn’t Jewish, no matter what those Romanian refugees are doing this side of the Atlantic.

For all of his apparent investment in the spiritual enlightenment of his characters and readers, Albom himself is remarkably evasive when it comes to religion. When a reporter for the Boston Globe questioned Albom about making Eddie Catholic, and creating a “goyish” heaven, Albom told him, “You are reading way too much into it,” and “It’s really a fable. I didn’t write this to have religious overtones.” Which makes all that talk about God and the afterlife what — filler? Just because Albom’s Jewish, of course, doesn’t require him to write Jewish characters, or a Jewish heaven, but he could at least try to pick one back story and stick to it.

Religion gets even shoddier treatment in “For One More Day,” despite Albom’s efforts to nail it down. Early on Chick tells us, “My mother was French Protestant, and my father was Italian Catholic, and their union was an excess of God, guilt and sauce,” and proceeds to recall lots of sitcom-style disagreements about baptisms, wearing baseball cleats in “God’s House,” and whether that painting of Jesus belongs outside the bathroom. But even that veneer begins to wear.
At Chick’s mother’s funeral, a minister hands him a shovel. “I was to toss dirt onto my mother’s coffin,” Chick recalls, explaining she “had witnessed this custom at Jewish funerals and had requested it for her own.” The reasoning is mildly ludicrous, and conspicuously defensive. “I could hear my father chiding her, saying, ‘ Posey, I swear, you make it up as you go along.'” Of course, it’s not Posey who invents as she goes — it’s Albom.

The time has come to really jerk our tears, and he just can’t help but fall back on the rituals of his own culture — why doesn’t Chick just say Kaddish already?

Why Albom insists on making his characters Christians, when he seems to have no better grounding in Christianity than a casual follower of “Seventh Heaven,” is up for debate, but the cynic in me suspects it’s mostly a matter of marketing — a perception that vaguely Christian characters will have a more universal appeal than vaguely Jewish ones. How else can you even explain an absurd name like Chick Benetto?

It’s tempting to call Albom’s characters Conversos, but that suggests Albom thinks the distinctions between Judaism and Christianity actually matter. Really, what are Albom’s characters if not Judeo-Christian mythical creatures of the American melting pot, linked by a loosely defined set of values? It’s a tradition lambasted as a lie by Harold Bloom and fully adopted by Kinky Friedman, a sure sign of its marketing potential.

The lessons of “For One More Day” aren’t, after all, so controversial: nothing can ever replace a mother’s love, there’s always time to make amends, family matters more than fame. If you’ve read “Tuesdays With Morrie,” or ever watched a movie on Lifetime, you’ve probably heard this all before. But without a moral center like Morrie, those teachings come off as pandering, saccharine self-help, a low pitch to the middle-American, working-class readers with whom Albom aims to sympathize.

What’s saddest about Albom’s novels is they might be half-decent if he would just quit running away and embrace his obvious calling as a Jewish writer. It wouldn’t make his lessons more surprising, his prose less plodding, or his premises less juvenile — give some comatose tennis player an afternoon with his great aunt, for all I care — but at least the messengers wouldn’t be so muddled.

7 Days in the Arts


Saturday the 4th

Support a local band with Jewish roots and global sounds. “Punky, reggae jungle” band ” border = 0 alt=”Treehouse of Horror XVII”>


“The Simpsons'” annual “Treehouse of Horror” Halloween episode airs tonight, featuring three supernatural tales, including one with a Jewish nod called “You Gotta Know When to Golem.” The story has Bart bringing to life a Golem, voiced by Richard Lewis, to do his evil bidding. The segment also features Fran Drescher in the role she was born to play: the Jewish monster’s bride.

8 p.m. on Fox. ” target=”_blank”>www.lamoth.org.

Tuesday the 7th

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“Girl Culture” photographer and documentarian Lauren Greenfield most recently has snapped shots of girls and women residing in Southern Florida’s Renfrew Center, an eating disorder treatment clinic. Their painful struggles with anorexia and bulimia are depicted in Greenfield’s new book of photographs and documentary, both titled “THIN.” Selected images from the publication are on view at Fahey/Klein Gallery through Nov. 25. The film debuts Nov. 14 on HBO.

” target=”_blank”>www.laurengreenfield.com.

Thursday the 9th
” target=”_blank”>www.ivrilider.com.

Friday the 10th

” target=”_blank”>www.dreamhouseensemble.com.

Secrets of cosmos draw eyes heavenward


The Ultra Deep Field Image from the Hubble Space Telescope is rapturous.

Over the course of four months in late 2003 and early 2004, the orbiting observatory trained its eye hundreds of times on a speck of the heavens just south of the constellation Orion.

Why this minuscule spot? With relatively few stars intervening between Hubble and the edge of the Milky Way, it gave the telescope an almost completely unobstructed view of infinity.

“Like many of the images we get from Hubble, this one inspires awe,” said Mario Livio, a senior astrophysicist at the Hubble Space Telescope Science Institute in Maryland. “In this tiny patch of sky, we can see over 10,000 galaxies. Some of the light reaching us is 13 billion years old. That’s basically a snapshot of the beginning of time.”

” border=0 hspace = ’12’ vspace = ’12’ width = ‘200’ align = right alt=”Michael Hecht”>Hecht studied theoretical physics as an undergraduate at Princeton and as a master’s degree candidate at MIT. Like Livio, the revelations of the first generation of X-ray satellites inspired him to pursue a career in space science.

“But it wasn’t until my teenage son got interested in astronomy that I actually looked at the stars through a telescope,” Hecht said.

Soon after he finished his doctorate at Stanford, Hecht became a member of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. He’s currently managing a team of scientists and engineers that will send a suite of instruments to Mars to assess the potential hazards Martian dust and soil might pose to human explorers.

With a universe of possibilities, what attracted him to the Red Planet?

“Even through a fairly small telescope,” Hecht said, “Mars looks tantalizingly close. And it’s similar enough to earth so that the physical processes are familiar but not quite the same. An apple wouldn’t fall from a tree in quite the same way.”

Hecht’s next Mars project, which will be launched in 2011, will land near the planet’s north pole and deploy a hot-nose drill to extract samples of the Martian ice cap. With any luck, these samples will turn out to be frozen time capsules that reveal the history of climate change on Mars and help us understand changes in the climate on Earth.

This imperative to make a connection between his work on a distant planet and everyday human experience isn’t a sideshow for Hecht; in fact, it’s the main event.

“Scientists are storytellers,” he said. “But often their storytelling lacks imagination. If we can’t get people excited about what we’re learning, what’s the point?”

As the science editor for Parade magazine and the author of over a dozen books on popular astronomy, David Levy is doing his best to make space science exciting for those without advanced degrees in theoretical physics.

Levy’s love affair with space began when he was at summer camp in 1956. On the night of July 4, the homesick 8-year-old was dazzled when he saw a meteor streak across the sky. The sighting was auspicious: Meteor storms occur when Earth passes through the trail of debris left by passing comets, and Levy has made name for himself as a master comet hunter.

“This past Kol Nidre, I discovered my 22nd comet,” he said. “There it was, near Saturn in the early morning sky.”

His most famous discovery was comet Shoemaker-Levy, which spectacularly crashed into Jupiter in July 1994.

Like Hecht, Levy sees an intimate connection between his passion for astronomy and his religious experience. “When I was 11, I was walking home from synagogue on Yom Kippur and noticed the gibbous moon,” he said. “I realized people have been looking up at the same 10-day-old moon on Yom Kippur for thousands of years.”

Levy pointed out that the relationship between Judaism and sky-watching is as old as recorded human history. In a tradition that has been lost in our era of light-polluted skies, a man used to stand outside each synagogue to wait for the darkness at day’s end to reveal three stars — the sign that marked the end of the Sabbath. And the rhythms of the Jewish year take their cue from the moon as it arcs in its orbit around Earth. Thus the lives of ancient Jews were intimately connected to the night sky in ways that are difficult for us perpetually distracted moderns to imagine.

Whether they’re secular or religious, Jewish astronomers are part of a venerable tradition of inquiry and teaching. And the light transmitted by this tradition shines just as brightly in the upcoming generation of space scientists.

It’s Pat — South African queen of kosher cuisine


Smoked duck with papaya salsa. Wild mushroom turnovers. Chicken roulade with sun-dried tomatoes and spinach. Sushi.
Hungry yet? Good.

You keep kosher? Not a problem.

These are just a few of the elegantly presented gourmet dishes created by Pat Fine, of Pat’s Restaurant and Pat’s Catering.
In the nearly three decades since Fine started serving up her dishes in the Southland, the kosher dining landscape has changed dramatically. As David Kamp chronicles in his book, “The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation,” Americans of all stripes have been tutored in fine dining by a string of successful chefs, food critics, cookbook writers and restaurateurs over the last 30 years. This phenomenon has raised the bar for kosher cooking as well, creating demand for chic kosher dining.

Fine has been — and remains — a kosher cuisine pioneer in Los Angeles. Perhaps Rabbi Meyer May, executive director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and frequent Pat’s customer, sums it up best: “She’s the queen of kosher catering, absolutely top of the line.”

Raised in Johannesburg, South Africa, Fine was one of four daughters. Her mother had very little interest in cooking, so Fine and her sisters were given free reign in the kitchen. Her father, a man who loved to eat, proved an enthusiastic recipient of his daughters’ culinary adventures.

Although had she expressed a desire to become a professional cook, Fine is convinced that her mother “would have freaked.” Cooking was thought of as “such an ordinary job, one that simply wasn’t OK for nice Jewish girls,” Fine said.
As a concession to her parents, Fine went on to university to train and work as a pharmacist.

“I was misguided,” she said. “Someone should have said to me ‘Why don’t you go to chefs school?’ I would have loved to go to Cordon Bleu or somewhere like that. But I didn’t, and I regret that.”

Continuing to live and work in Johannesburg, Fine met her husband, Errol. They married in 1970 and soon started their own family. While Fine’s parents were traditional Jews — they lit candles on Friday nights and celebrated the holidays — her in-laws were more observant.

“They kept kosher, so of course when I married I began to [keep kosher] as well,” Fine said.

As massive riots broke out in Soweto near Johannesburg in 1976, the Fines left South Africa with their three sons to start anew in California.

“I had never left the country until we emigrated; I didn’t even have a passport,” Fine said.

The Fines settled in Los Angeles, where Errol was the financial controller for a chain of men’s clothing stores. Pat was busy at home with their children, but still loved learning about food and creating new recipes, so she spent a lot of time “reading and experimenting on my own.”

Over time, more and more of Fine’s friends asked her to prepare food for celebrations and events.

“I was cooking out of my house. I was doing everything myself — the shopping, cooking, delivery, serving. It became too much,” she said.

Since large trucks were prohibited from frequenting her residential neighborhood, Fine would sometimes send deliveries to her children’s school and then transport items with her own car.

Fine expanded her catering with the purchase of a deli on Pico Boulevard in 1982, which she named Elite Cuisine. She soon opened a second Elite Cuisine deli on Beverly Boulevard near Hancock Park. (Although Fine has since sold both delis, the new owner of the Hancock Park location has kept the name.)

As Fine remembers, “When we started out, there were just places like Nosh and Rye. There was nothing else — just some falafel places, kosher hot dogs, deli food. I would tell people that we’ve got pasta salad and they’d say ‘macaroni salad?’ because that was all they knew.”

When she sold the last of her delis about 15 years ago, Fine consolidated her business, opened the fleishig (meat) Pat’s Restaurant on Pico Boulevard near Doheny Drive and expanded the catering operations. Around the same time, Fine said, she offered her accountant husband a job.

With Errol Fine running the business side — from managing 50 employees to handling details for events as far away as in San Francisco — Pat Fine is free to spend her time focused on food.

“He has a lot of charisma, so he meets with people. I prefer to be in the kitchen,” she said.

“It’s a very good partnership,” she added.

As kosher cooking has become increasingly sophisticated and customer’s palettes have become more refined, Fine said she endeavors to stay ahead of the curve. Inspired by her customers’ knowledge and by other creative chefs, Fine said, “Whatever they’re doing out there, say at Spago’s, we’re doing, but kosher.”

Despite her ongoing love for fine food, one shouldn’t expect an invitation for a home-cooked meal at the Fine residence any time soon. At the end of the workday, her home kitchen is the last place Pat Fine wants to be.

She warned, “If you ask me to make coffee at home it’s a big deal — you’re on your own. The most you’ll get in my house is a bagel and cottage cheese.”

51 Birch Street: House of Blocks . . . House of Cards?


We all know about “the generation gap.” The “mother-daughter bond.” Turgenev’s “Fathers and Sons.” Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” or any number of his plays for that matter. Our literature and our language are rife with expressions of the struggles inherent in that most primal bond Doug Block with his fatherbetween parents and children.

In his personal documentary, “51 Birch Street,” filmmaker Doug Block sets out to explore his relationship with his father. His mother has died, and Block wants to document the dismantling of the family home before it is sold. A “baby-boomer” who came of age in the “let it all hang out” ’60s, Block is taken aback when he learns that his parents’ 54-year marriage was not at all what it seemed. Wrestling with disturbing revelations, Block’s film questions how well any of us truly know the people we love, how well we might really want to know them, and perhaps most importantly, what right we have to know.

On the surface, the Block family is a typical, post-war, middle-class suburban Jewish family. Mike Block and Mina Vogel married shortly after World War II, had three children over the course of four years and moved from Brooklyn to a brand-new house in the suburbs to raise their family. They were among the founding families of a Reform congregation that became the center of their social lives. Their children — two girls and a boy — went to (or more accurately “suffered through,” as son Doug describes it) Hebrew school through confirmation. Mike worked long hours as a mechanical engineer while Mina stayed home to raise the children, working outside of the home only as the children grew up. Mike and Mina were “inseparable.”

Mina’s death was shocking not only in its swiftness, but for the maelstrom of unexpected revelations that followed. Three months after his wife’s death, Mike Block traveled to Florida, returning only to announce that he was moving there to live with Kitty, his secretary from 40 years earlier. They wed shortly thereafter. As if this wasn’t enough for the Block siblings to absorb, Mike and Kitty decided to sell the family home on Birch Street. It fell upon Doug and his sisters to help their father sort through the accumulated detritus of 50 years of family life.

Block, a documentary filmmaker by vocation (“Home Page” and “The Heck With Hollywood!”) and an inveterate home-movie-maker by avocation, always felt close to his mother; her death left him bereft. In contrast, he felt both very different than and distant from his father. He hoped to use his camera, as was his wont, to help him get to know his subject — in this case his father — better.

As we travel with Block through his arduous path of discovery, watching long-buried secrets of his parents’ unhappiness slowly come to light, we see his family struggle with their newfound knowledge. And we struggle alongside them, wrestling not only with our own fears about trust and intimacy, but with questions of privacy and disclosure.

These questions come to a head when Block uncovers volumes of personal diaries his mother had written over a three- year period. Pained as his father obviously is by seeing them, he nevertheless tells his son to “save them.” Block is both drawn to and fearful of reading them, and decides to consult an “expert” on the ethical issues involved.

He turns to Rabbi Jonathan Blake, a young rabbi with a warm smile and quick wit, who Block felt was “wise” beyond his years. Asking Blake if it’s “right” to read his mother’s diaries (the mention of which causes an amusing moment of eyebrow-raising by Blake on camera), Blake first answers in true Rabbinic fashion, with another question: “What does your heart tell you to do?” Yet after wrestling a bit with the dilemma, Blake tells Block that learning more about one’s parents can be valuable, if the knowledge is used for “a holy purpose.”

Thus encouraged, Block decided to forge ahead — at times ambivalent, at times stunned.

“From the outside, to us, we thought they were actually wonderfully compatible. They had similar interests, they traveled, they bickered a bit but never argued,” Block said in an interview.

But as his mother’s diaries revealed, she was deeply unhappy in her marriage.
Block searched for ways to reconcile his image of his parents’ “model marriage” with the emerging picture of discord, anger and infidelity.

Although the film contains no explicit explanation of how Block, a “cultural” but non-observant Jew, interpreted the rabbi’s words, Block said he believed the rabbi “meant if I’m using it to honor and celebrate my mother’s life … it’s a holy thing.”
Yet, during the process of making the film, it wasn’t always clear to Block that his work hewed to this “holy” purpose.

“There were many times I thought it was a holy mess! I thought, all I’m going to do is burn in hell,” he said. “My mother will come off looking horribly, and I’ll look even worse for doing this.” He said he spent “many sleepless nights feeling the weight of picking out the right phrases and words of all the volumes of writings, to honor her complexity, her intelligence, to show her as a rounded human being.”

“On one level,” Block said, his film “is a story of assimilation, of city Jews moving to the suburbs and trying to fit in,” the pressures of which were one source of his mother’s unhappiness. Block says it’s also “very Jewish” that his family “covers up a lot of stuff through sarcasm and humor.” And he believes that his film was a profound act of teshuvah, a concept he discussed with Los Angeles Rabbi Judith Halevy while filming. Creating a portrait of his parents’ lives, including their fallibility, was for Block an “act of coming to forgiveness, and somehow getting cleansed in the process.”

Yet “51 Birch Street” is also a universal tale. Ultimately the story is — like the complex lives it reveals to us — a mass of contradictions. On the one hand, it is a truly sad story: of thwarted potential, of betrayal and of the defeat of good intentions. But it is also a story of redemption, of two men who manage to transcend the pain of their lives to forge new relationships: Mike Block with Kitty, and Doug Block with his father.

It’s mayor meets mayor at Temple of the Arts; Women of vision see Jews’ future in Iran


It’s mayor meets mayor at Temple of the Arts
 
Mayor Yona Yahov of Haifa received a standing ovation after his Kol Nidre address at Temple of the Arts in Beverly Hills Sunday night. A few minutes earlier, by way of introducing Yahov, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa spoke candidly about the feeling of disorientation his famously frenetic schedule tends to induce.
 
“It’s almost like not knowing where I am at any given moment,” Villaraigosa confessed.
 
Luckily, the sound of Hebrew prayers and his recollection of a Yom Kippur appointment at a temple in Northridge earlier in the evening helped Villaraigosa get his bearings. During his brief remarks he praised his counterpart from Haifa as a man of peace.
 
In his sermon on the seed of resiliency, Rabbi David Barron spoke more pointedly about Yahov’s aptness as a speaker at Sunday’s service. Citing Yahov’s ongoing efforts to create understanding between Arabs and Jews, Barron called Yahov “a man who is practicing forgiveness, which we are here to reflect on.”
 
“This has been an awkward, unprecedented war,” Yahov said at the beginning of his speech. “It has not been soldiers against soldiers or ships against ships.”Yahov said that when a rocket struck the Carmelite monastery above Haifa at the onset of the conflict, a local investigator at the scene was puzzled to find tiny ball-bearings scattered about the area.
 
“We learned these are often packed into the belts of suicide bombers,” Yahov said, “to widen the effect of the blast.”
 
When it become clear that civilians were to be the targets of Hezbollah’s missile campaign, Yahov said one of his first concerns was to keep life as normal as possible for Haifa’s children, even under the city’s constant curfew.Soft laughter rippled through the audience when Yahov, a big silver-haired bear of a man, asked, “Can you imagine what to do with your kids if they were stuck in your house for a month?”
 
Yahov’s solution was to place his city’s youngest citizens in a very familiar environment. Each day of the conflict, from early morning until late afternoon, thousands of Haifa’s children were sheltered on the lower levels of underground parking garages at the city’s shopping malls.
 
“No enemy can destroy our life,” Yahov said.
 
After he thanked the congregation for its support, he concluded his remarks by saying, “We showed the whole world that the Jewish people are one people.”
 
— Nick Street, Contributing Writer

Women of vision see Jews’ future in Iran
 
Amidst growing tensions between Iran and the United States in recent months, the Iranian Jewish Women’s Organization (IJWO) in Los Angeles is planning a seminar at the Museum of Tolerance focusing on the future security of Jews living in Iran today.
 
The event, scheduled for Oct. 10 and organized by the Women of Vision chapter of IJWO, will include prominent Persian Jewish activists, leaders and intellectuals from Europe and Israel, as well as Los Angeles, and aims to shed light on the political, social, and psychological challenges faced by the approximately 20,000 Jews in Iran.
 
“We didn’t really select this seminar or its topic because we wanted to make a statement about ourselves as women, rather because it is an important topic that has not been addressed by the Iranian Jewish community nor the larger American Jewish community,” said Sharon Baradaran, one of the volunteer organizers of the IJWO seminar.
 
Baradaran said the seminar is particularly significant for opening new dialogue between the various factions within the Persian Jewish community that for years have often been at odds with one another on how to best address the anti-Semitic and anti-Israel rhetoric of Iran’s fundamentalist regime without jeopardizing the lives of Jews still living in Iran.
 
“While every panel member has been very sensitive to safeguarding the best interest of the Jewish community, to address difficult questions about the future of the community in Iran is critical and if that means certain disagreements, then they should be discussed,” Baradaran said.
 
Local Persian Jews have expressed concern for the security of Iran’s Jews in recent months, following false media reports in May that the Iranian government had approved legislation requiring Jews to wear yellow bands on their clothing.In July, Iranian state-run television aired a pro-Hezbollah rally held by Jews living in the southern Iranian city of Shiraz, in what many local Persian Jewish activists believe was a propaganda stunt organized by the regime to show national solidarity for Hezbollah.
 
Maurice Motamed, the Jewish representative to the Iranian parliament, had been slated as a panelist for the seminar but withdrew, saying he will not be arriving in Los Angeles until after the seminar, Baradaran said. Some local Persian Jewish activists have expressed concern over public comments from Motamed during the past year, including his praise for Iran’s uranium enrichment program and his opposition to Israeli military actions against Palestinian terrorists in Gaza and Hezbollah terrorists in Southern Lebanon.
 
In January, Parviz Yeshaya, the former national chairman of the Jewish Council in Iran, issued a rare public statement questioning the logic of Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who had called the Holocaust a “myth”.
 
The Iranian Jewish Women’s organization was originally set up in 1947 in Iran and later re-established in 1976 in Los Angeles with the objective of recognizing the impact of Iranian Jewish women in the community. In 2002, the Women of Vision chapter and other chapters were added to the organization in an effort to reach out to younger generations of Iranian Jewish women.
 
The IWJO seminar will be held at the Museum of Tolerance on Oct. 10 at 6 p.m. For ticket information contact the IWJO at (818) 929-5936 or visit www.ijwo.org.
 
— Karmel Melamed, Contributing Writer
 
Captured soldier’s brother addresses students
 
Gadi Goldwasser — brother of Ehud Goldwasser, one of two Israeli soldiers captured on July 12 and still held by Hezbollah — spoke recently to students at UCLA and USC during a brief visit to Los Angeles. He addressed the business and law schools at USC, as well as Hillel and Chabad student groups during their Shabbat dinners.

Jill Soloway says comedy and tragedy go together


In Jill Soloway’s collection of essays, “Tiny Ladies in Shiny Pants,” the Emmy-nominated writer and co-executive producer of HBO’s “Six Feet Under” recalls the time she lost her virginity at 17 to a 36-year-old with a golden chai dangling from his neck.

“I was running from the bathroom back to his bed,” she writes, “leaving slivers of myself everywhere: The girl who wanted to be here; the girl who didn’t want to be here; the girl who thought the whole thing was exciting; that he was an idiot; that his apartment was tacky, yet sexy; that I was turned on; that I wasn’t; that this was fun; that it wasn’t.”

However traumatizing the experience was then, she jokes about it now.
“If you can laugh with your friends over something, you own it,” said Soloway, lounging in jeans and a T-shirt in her Silver Lake home. “I don’t think it’s a contradiction to find painfulness funny.”

On Sunday, Sept. 17, Soloway will explore the ways comedy and tragedy fit together by moderating a discussion, “Laughter in the Rain: Mining Humor from Pain,” at the West Hollywood Book Fair. She will lead a conversation with Tania Katan, author of “My One-Night Stand With Cancer: A Memoir”; Brett Paesel, author of “Mommies Who Drink: Sex, Drugs, and Other Distant Memories of an Ordinary Mom,” and Tom Reynolds, who wrote “I Hate Myself and Want to Die: The 52 Most Depressing Songs You’ve Ever Heard.”

Soloway said she would ask questions that plague her as a writer. “Has anyone [else] found themselves doing things they otherwise wouldn’t do because they’re writing a book?” Soloway wants to know.

“Years of my life were lived knowing that I’d get a book out of them one day,” Soloway confessed.

And what do these authors do when family and friends get upset at the way the book portrays them? Soloway used pseudonyms in her collection, and when people called her, irate or humiliated, she apologized.

Also, how do other writers deal with having spilled their innermost thoughts and secrets onto the page, for all to see? Soloway comforts herself in this regard by considering that readers may be shocked by some revelation — but only for a moment. Some other newsworthy item in this information age will surely distract them, she reasons.

Plus, the point of writing is to make oneself known, Soloway said. “All writing is propaganda for the self.”

One aspect of herself that Soloway reveals in her book, due out in paperback next month (published by Free Press), is that she, a self-described “Jewess,” feels a sisterly solidarity with Monica Lewinsky, as well as Chandra Levy, the murdered intern rumored to have had an affair with former California Rep. Gary Condit.

When Soloway wrote this chapter of the book – the book that critics and readers have called “hilarious,” “funny” and “fun-filled,” the chapter in which she contemplates why Jewish women are “so sexy” — she was crying. In fact, she cries whenever she reads the chapter.

“It’s this idea that Jewish women are sacrificed; that they can’t win,” she said, trying to explain what was so upsetting.

There it is: comedy and tragedy rolled into one. A story, perhaps, the way one should be told.

“If it’s just funny, who cares; if it’s just sad, who cares,” Soloway said. “But if it’s both,” she added, “then it’s about being human.”

Jill Soloway will moderate “Laughter in the Rain: Mining Humor from Pain” from 3:30 – 4:30 p.m. at The Mixed Bag Pavilion at the West Hollywood Book Fair.

Finding Deeper Truths in Fiction — the Best About Israel


In recent weeks, many of us “Diaspora Jews” kept ourselves neck-deep in news from the Middle East: jumping out of bed to check the front page, keeping the television on all night, refreshing Web sites for the latest headlines. Of course, our routine paled in comparison to many Israelis, who were dashing into bomb shelters, being forced from their homes, arranging funerals. Still, it was a change, part of our anxiety-propelled, bottomless need for information.

But information does not necessarily breed understanding. This is especially true for us who are here and not there, and the distance is a complicating factor. Even those who have planted themselves firmly on one side or another of the political spectrum have been struck by new, different, often uncomfortable thoughts. (“How can I accept the killing of innocent Lebanese civilians, even by Israel?” one asks, while another wonders whether he should up the ante of his support by joining the Israeli army.) Behind these questions is the desire to get a better hold on the exact contours of one’s individual relationship to the State of Israel — not necessarily by figuring out one’s politics as much as by plumbing one’s emotional connection.

The answers to these questions cannot be found on CNN (thankfully). For this, we might be more successfully aided by fiction. One should read Israeli writers, of course — Agnon, Amichai, A.B. Yehoshua, Aharon Appelfeld, Orly Castel-Bloom, Etgar Keret. But the more appropriate template may come from fellow Americans, writers who, by exploring the Diaspora Jew’s relationship to Israel, have gone down this road before.

One of the best of these books is “The Counterlife,” Philip Roth’s 1986 masterpiece. Less a linear tale than five riffs revolving around the same set of characters, the book acts as a kind of narrative kaleidoscope on Jewish identity; with each slight shift of perspective, a whole new picture emerges (think “Sliding Doors,” but smarter). The structure is designed to put the author’s famed alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, face to face with characters who challenge his identity as a Jew — vis-?-vis signature Roth topics (sex, family, psychoanalysis, sex, assimilation, sex) as well as broader ones: the Holocaust, anti-Semitism and, most evocatively here, Israel. Nathan’s good, moderate, American values are challenged — from his resistance to religious ritual and distaste for the political right (“We do not wish to crush the Arab,” a settler leader explains, “we simply will not allow him to crush us”), to his subtle romanticization of Israeli life.

“Whenever I meet you American-Jewish intellectuals,” says his friend Shuki, a wearied Israeli journalist, “with your non-Jewish wives and your good Jewish brains, well-bred, smooth, soft-spoken men, educated men who know how to order in a good restaurant, and to appreciate a good wine, and to listen courteously to another point of view, I think exactly that: We are the excitable, ghettoized, jittery little Jews of the Diaspora, and you are the Jews with all the confidence and cultivation that comes of feeling at home where you are.”
The book is not exclusively about Israel, but those were the sections that moved me. And they are what I’ve found myself rereading over the past weeks.

“The Counterlife” is only one of many, many books about Israel by Americans — from “Yehuda” (1931) by Meyer Levin to “Exodus” (1958) by Leon Uris to “Light Years” (2005) by Tamar Stein (see sidebar). Perhaps it is this kind of reading that can begin to provoke understanding of the conflict a continent away. l

To push fiction as a complement to the newspaper, the television and the Internet in our quest for information and understanding about Israel, we asked readers to help us create a list of the best novels and short stories about Israel written by Diaspora authors:

  • “Yehuda” by Meyer Levin: Based on the author’s own experiences, this book is the first known novel depicting life set on a kibbutz in then-Palestine of 1931 (1931).
  • “Exodus” by Leon Uris: A detailed account of the transition from the ill-treatment of Jews in Europe to the founding of Israel sets up a fictional background for political arguments on issues of the 19th and 20th centuries (1958).
  • “A Weave of Women” by E.M. Broner: A group of very different women band together to save a shelter for wayward Jewish girls (and learn a lesson or two in politics, when they change its official name to “Home for Jewish Future Homemakers”). “Life’s contradictions live throughout this novel,” wrote one reviewer (1978).
  • “Preparing for Sabbath” by Nessa Rapoport: A young woman’s spiritual quest, set in Jerusalem (1981).
  • “The Hope” by Herman Wouk: An epic novel about Israel’s fight for statehood. The author delves into the personal lives of the dramatis personae, including Golda Meir, Moshe Dayan and Anwar Sadat (1993).
  • “Operation Shylock: A Confession” by Philip Roth: An impostor, calling himself “Philip Roth,” causes a furor in Israel by advocating “Diasporism,” the polar opposite of Zionism, encouraging Israelis to return to Eastern Europe (1993).
  • “The Jewish War” by Tova Reich: A radically religious, polygamous man, Jerry Goldberg transforms from a mere social worker in the Bronx to a terrorist leader of a group of American Jews in Israel who secede a portion of the West Bank to form their own nation in this satire (1995).
  • “From a Sealed Room” by Rachel Kadish: The lives of a young woman from New York, a Holocaust survivor and an Israeli housewife intersect (1998).
  • “Damascus Gate” by Robert Stone: A journalist in Jerusalem, reared both Jewish and Christian, feels devoid of a true sense of identity, despite the fact that he is surrounded by some of the most devoutly religious peoples in the world. “The characters in ‘Damascus Gate’ may be ‘God-struck,'” wrote Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times, “they may dream insistently of a better world, but like so many Stone characters, they end up captives of history and their own very human illusions” (1998).
  • “For the Relief of Unbearable Urges” by Nathan Englander: “A debut collection of nine stories that explore the condition of being Jewish with an often hallucinatory, epigrammatic eloquence that is, as advertised, reminiscent of the fiction of Isaac Singer, Saul Bellow, and especially Bernard Malamud,” noted Kirkus (1999).
  • “The Family Orchard” by Eve Nomi: Spanning six generations, this epic follows the lives of one family grounded in Jerusalem (2000).
  • “House of Guilt” by Robert Rosenberg: Police detective Avram Cohen goes on a hunt to find a tycoon’s wayward son, with his search leading him right into the heart of the West Bank (2000).
  • “Strange Fire” by Melvin Bukiet: A dark comedy about a speechwriter for the Israeli prime minister (2001).
  • “Crimes of the City” by Robert Rosenberg: Police detective Avram Cohen must track down the killer of two nuns in Jerusalem while contending with a host of religious and political tensions (2001).
  • “The Ascent of Eli Israel” by Jon Papernick: In seven modern-day stories, the scene is established in Israel, and the plots are mostly driven to underscore hypocrisy, touching on cultural tensions and war (2002).
  • “Quiet Street” by Zelda Popkin and Jeremy A. Popkin: A woman living in the suburbs of Jerusalem must come to terms with reality as she watches her 18-year-old daughter take on the role of soldier instead of farmer (2002).
  • “Seven Blessings” by Ruchama King: Set in an Orthodox community in Jerusalem. King has been described by writer Wendy Shalit as “a writer who writes about a devout lifestyle that she actually lives” (2003).
  • “The Dialogues of Time and Entropy” by Aryeh Lev Stollman: “An expert weaver, Stollman brings together themes of religion, science, and love into an emotional whole,” noted Kirkus (2003).
  • “Welcome to Heavenly Heights” by Risa Miller: A cohort of Jews from the United States ventures to the West Bank to build a new community, but their settlement becomes a primary target of violence (2003).
  • “The Butcher’s Theater” by Jonathan Kellerman: A chief inspector of police who is also a Yemenite Jew begins work on a case involving the death of an Arab woman. After a second killing occurs, the inspector bears witness as Jewish-Arab conflicts ensue (2003).
  • “Ten Thousand Lovers” by Edeet Ravel: A novel, set in the 1970s, about the relationship between a Canadian émigré and an army interrogator. “The tragedy here is both anticipated and inevitable,” said Booklist, “but the textured personal story rises above its political context like a melody soaring beyond the steady rhythm pulsing below it” (2003).
  • “An Hour in Paradise” by Joan Leegant: This collection of 10 short stories covers a breadth of characters — from the secular to Orthodox, young to old — through whom Leegant poses questions about faith, love and change (2003).
  • “The Place Will Comfort You” by Naama Goldstein: In this collection of short stories, American Jews make aliyah and Israelis immigrate to America (2004).
  • “Faith for Beginners” by Aaron Hamburger: An American Jewish family teeters on the edge of collapse. In a last resort, they travel to Israel on a package tour with a mission to reinvigorate their spirituality (2005).
  • “The Task of This Translator” by Todd Hasak-Lowy: According to Publisher’s Weekly, “Hasak-Lowy artfully reveals layers of personal and national identity,” including one story about an Israeli ex-journalist working in the cafe at Yad Vashem who clashes with an American businessman over a stale pastry (2005).
  • “The Covenant” by Naomi Ragen: Set in 2002, a pregnant Israeli woman, her husband and their child are abducted by Hamas (2004).
  • “Light Years” by Tammar Stein: A 20-year-old woman leaves Israel for college in the United States after her boyfriend is killed by a suicide bomber in a Tel Aviv restaurant (2005).

— Compiled by Elisha Sauers

Article reprinted courtesy The Forward

Q & A With Russian Jewish Author Gary Shteyngart


Gary Shteyngart is a literary clown with a frown. His biting satire comments on a multi-cultural America in need of self-examination and reassessment.

“Absurdistan” (Random House, $24.95), his extraordinary new novel, takes us on a no-holds-barred journey from post-communist Russia to a mythical former Soviet Union state he calls Absurdistan, with stop-offs in between to his beloved New York City. This Jewish Russian American writer invites us along for the ride. I caught up with Shteyngart earlier this summer in his Manhattan apartment. Shteyngart emigrated from the former U.S.S.R. with his family when he was 7 years old and grew up in Little Neck, N.Y. He currently resides in Manhattan.

Jewish Journal: Would you call yourself a Jewish atheist?

Gary Shteyngart: I would call myself more of a Jewish agnostic. I’m one of these people who would be very happy if there was a god. It doesn’t matter if it is a Jewish God or a Sufi god, or a Christian god. Do I believe it? I’m more than slightly doubtful.

JJ: How important is being Jewish in your writing?

GS: I would say that I am a Russian Jew, or even a Soviet Jew. We are, in our sensibility, a very specific kind of Jew. We lived in a totalitarian system for 70 years where a lot was lost. Jewish humor interests me the most, and Soviet Jewish humor is Jewish humor taken to the max. It’s Jewish humor from the edge of the grave. What’s amazing to me is how Jewish humor has completely permeated this country. I have Korean friends in L.A. who are using Yiddishisms when trying to be funny. Jewish humor is everywhere.

JJ: How would you describe your work? I like the term Jewish burlesque.

GS: There are many different kinds of fiction. There is a kind of restrained style of fiction, and then there is the kind that likes to run around and bare its chest, have a drink and talk to girls. That’s the kind of fiction I write. But there’s room for both.

JJ: When did you know when you were a writer?

GS: Very early on, when I was in Hebrew school. I wrote a take-off of the Torah. I call it the Gnorah and Exodus was Sexodus. I think I wanted to rebel against the very rigid way we were being taught. Most of us needed an outlet, and I tried to supply it. I showed it around, and it was a way to make friends and meet girls. After that, I started to write stories.

JJ: How often did you get into trouble?

GS: I visited the principal quite a lot. In Russia I was interested in orthodoxy, communism, Lenin, Brezhnev or whoever was in charge. In America, I was interested in Reagan, and Bush One. I guess I always have been fascinated by authority and, at the same time, contemptuous of it. In Hebrew school, we were presented with the ultimate authority, God. I remember the Russian kids would sneak pork kielbasa into the school bathroom, and when the rabbi found us he would be incensed and say, “This is what made the Holocaust.

JJ: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about where we are going?

GS: As a Russian Jew, I am hard-wired to be pessimistic. Pessimism is what I do best. When I wrote my first book, “The Russian Debutante’s Handbook” [2002], it was during the Clinton years, and I was very hopeful. The Soviet Union had fallen, and I thought Russia would rejoin the league of normal nations, but that hasn’t happened. I’m not sure which government, the Russian or ours, has let me down more. I guess there is a confluence of idiocy taking place in the world.

JJ: Where do you think we are headed?

GS: I think we are entering a post-literate age where people are reading less. Reading a novel requires a lot of time and further time for contemplation. I may be na?ve, but I connect literacy with democracy and being informed. I’m worried about our current state of affairs.

The irony is that people may be reading less, but they are writing more. Everyone wants to express themself, but there is a kind of lack of empathy for other people and cultures.

JJ: It’s sort of like one big blog.

GS: Exactly. And in the blog, the person writing is their own hero, or in the video game they want to be the center of action.

JJ: You describe Manhattan as being the world on an island.

GS: I’m worried that Manhattan’s quirky landscape is fading away. I’m worried that Manhattan is becoming an island of millionaires. Where I live on the Lower East Side, you still have a mixed neighborhood. We have the three H’s: the Hassids, the hipsters and the Hispanics. I spend half my day walking around the city. One of the greatest moments of my life was when I started Stuyvesant High School and discovered Manhattan. I looked beyond my Russian and Jewish roots and saw the enormity of life.

JJ: Have you spent any time in Los Angeles, and what is your reaction to it?

GS: I’m absolutely intrigued by Los Angeles and at one point considered living there. I don’t know how to drive a car to save my life and thought better of it. I think in many ways, for better or worse, L.A. is the model for what a future city might look like.

JJ: Final comments on “Absurdistan”?

GS: When I start writing, I write from the perspective of one character. Misha just came to me one day as this big, hulking guy. What I wanted to do with Misha is bring together America and Russia, these two hulking countries. What I love about Misha is his consumerism. He eats his way through the world. He eats sturgeon; he eats women; he eats political ideas; anything that comes along. I wanted to create someone that was much larger than myself and larger than any of the people I know. That was how “Absurdistan” came together.

JJ: What’s next?

GS: Next is a quieter book. I want to calm down a bit, because I feel like I am singing in the same register for too many times in a row. I want to do something more contemplative and more paced. One thing I’m considering is actually writing about other immigrant groups. The Korean American community in L.A. is fascinating, and I’ll probably spend some time in Los Angeles researching my next novel.

Harry Wiland, with partner Dale Bell, was co-executive producer/director/writer of “And Thou Shalt Honor,” a PBS special on elder care and family caregiving. He is currently co-producing and directing “Edens Lost and Found,” a PBS series on urban restoration that will air in early 2007. Wiland and Bell also wrote the companion book (Chelsea Green Publishing), available at

Irreverent Stories You Haven’t Heard


“All your stories are the same,” a British girl in an MFA creative writing program tells the Jewish students in one of the short stories in Elisa Albert’s new collection, “How This Night Is Different” (Free Press, $18). “I just feel like I read the same stories over and over again from you guys. They’re great and all, but….”

The unspoken “but” is: Why are there so many young, hip Jews writing fiction that irreverently pokes fun at their heritage?

Albert, for example calls herself a “lobotomized Philip Roth writing chick lit” in the above MFA story, which, incidentally, is a fictional letter penned to Roth offering him the chance to impregnate her. But Albert, like other sardonic Jewish short story writers, is probably closer to the next millennium’s version of Roth and Woody Allen. Instead of portraying an overwrought Jewish mother and other now-familiar Jewish stereotypes, Albert uses Judaism as a setting for mostly secular characters to air their grievances with each other, or themselves.

Judaism here is a Yom Kippur meal, where one sibling has had an abortion and another has an eating disorder. It’s a bris, where the mother doesn’t want to give up her baby to the mohel (whom the uncle calls “Shaky McSnips”). It’s a themed bat mitzvah, where the aunt gets stoned in the bathroom with her niece’s friends while pondering the state of her own shaky marriage.

In short, these are stories about the next generation of Jews — Jews well-versed enough in their culture to throw around references to Camp Ramah and the search for chametz and Ba’al Teshuvas, but they are so comfortable with it that they have no problem tearing it apart.

“What the f– is your neshama?” Miri asks her best friend Rachel, watching her prepare to cut her hair off before her religious wedding.

The neshama — the one Rachel is saving in the story “So Long” — is the Jewish soul. And the soul of these 10 stories is that Jewish characters find, perhaps, a sense of identity in their Jewishness, but not necessarily any particular spiritual meaning.

“How This Night Is Different,” and other in-your-face expressions of Jewish culture like the popular Heeb magazine, is this generation’s attempt to connect to their heritage, and connect even while they mock.

If sometimes they go too far, if at times they offend, they still expect to be part of the cultural dialogue. As Debra, the convert looking for a shul in Lisbon in the story “When You Say You’re a Jew,” muses: “A Jew could do that, find a home anywhere in the world with other Jews. Wasn’t that the point of the entire freakin’ deal?”

Elisa Albert will be giving reading Sunday, July 23 at 2 p.m. at Dutton’s, 11975 San Vicente Blvd., Brentwood; Tuesday, July 25 at 7:30 p.m. at Skylight Books, 1818 N. Vermont Ave., Los Feliz; and Wednesday, July 26, at 7 p.m. at Borders Books and Music, 6510 Canoga Ave., Canoga Park. On Friday, June 28, at 7 p.m., she will be in Santa Monica as part of the ATID/Sinai Temple’s Shabbat at Home program for young professionals. To R.S.V.P., call (310) 481-3244.

That’s What I Do


If you’re a single 24-year-old gal looking to meet a preferably Jewish single guy in Los Angeles, you’d think a good pick-up line might include the words “I work for The Jewish Journal.” After all, what better way to convey to the guy-of-interest that you’re a fellow MOT? But you’d be wrong. That line’s great for when you meet his parents, and probably exactly why it’s not great for meeting him. The immediate thought bubble above his head reads something like, “Hmmm nice Jewish girl,” basically the Catholic equivalent of dating a nun.

So, when I started at The Journal four years ago, back when I was still single, in addition to the skills associated with my new job duties, there were conversational hurdles I had to learn to jump when meeting eligible guys. I had to be especially agile, since the most likely opening conversation with a new person usually centers on one’s career. To the question of “What do you do?” I came up with the following response strategy:

1. Be intentionally vague
“I’m a writer.” (If he presses for details, ask him about himself. See No. 2.)

2. Deflect
“What do you do?” (Appear fascinated, turn the conversation in another direction, move on to No. 3.)

3. Hook
(Insert clever comment to draw him in. He’ll remember now that you’re a writer. But now you’ve got him. The perfect time for No. 4.)

4. Make the bold statement
“I’m a writer for The Jewish Journal.” (Let it sink in for a second, two, three. “Wow,” he’ll say. “You must be really Jewish.” Quickly move in for step No. 5, or all is lost.)

5. Shame
(Insert clever retort to shame him and make him love you all at the same time. This will take skill to master, but you’re Keren Engelberg, Jewish Girl Reporter. The guilt force is strong within you. You are up to the task.)

 

Risks, Rewards of the Jewish Angle


Jewish journalism has its risks, as veteran newsman Daniel Schorr has pointed out.

Addressing a Jewish audience in Los Angeles some years ago, Schorr recounted that his first professional job, in the mid-1930s, was as a correspondent with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in his native New York.

He eventually quit and moved on to CBS and fame because, he said, “I became aware that I was looking at everything through a Jewish lens.”

There are other dangers in covering the Jewish world. They include indigestion and glazed eyeballs from too many testimonial dinners, the wrath of machers who do not suffer criticism lightly and the unforgiving grudges of VIPs whose names were left out of the story.

“Community leaders” might have overlooked such sins in a goyishe urban daily — what do they know about the suffering and incredible accomplishments of our people? — but to be slighted by a Jewish paper was intolerable.

When I started moonlighting for a Jewish weekly in the late 1950s, I often encountered sneers that implied that if I were any good, why wasn’t I working for a “real” newspaper?

Since I had just come off a number of years at the San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times and the Associated Press in Spain, I naturally resented such slurs.

But looking at the American Jewish press in those days, I had to admit that its viewpoints and professional standards might well frustrate a reporter of Schorr’s abilities.

In the typical Jewish weekly, an inordinate amount of space was given to birth, wedding and death announcements — known in the trade as hatched, matched and dispatched — and, of course, the ever effusive bar mitzvah stories (although in those leaner years, few parents led safaris and rented baseball stadiums to mark their progeny’s passage to manhood).

Most of the remaining space was taken up by large photos of earnestly smiling men and women passing checks to each other for this or that worthy cause, while editorial and rabbinic columns fearlessly exhorted readers to study Torah and support our struggling brethren at home and abroad.

Questioning the competence of communal leaders amounted to heresy and the slightest criticism of Israeli policy meant excommunication.

I toiled on weekends for an upstart weekly, Los Angeles’ now defunct Heritage, which was an erratic exception to the general blandness.

Its founder, publisher, editor-in-chief, reporter, columnist and advertising manager was Herb Brin, who would have felt right at home in the frontier journalism of the mid-19th century, when rival editors settled differences of opinion with horsewhips and six-shooters.

Brin had been raised in the “Front Page” tradition of Chicago’s brawling journalism and was never happier than when scourging communal wimps who did not share his enthusiasm for decapitating real or imagined enemies of the Jewish people and Israel.

But in the last 20 years, Jewish journalism in the United States, particularly in New York and Los Angeles, has undergone a really remarkable transformation.

Its best editors and writers aim for the same professional standards (and frequently come from) leading general dailies, and they regularly hold up our leadership to scrutiny and try to reflect the changing modes and diversity of the Jewish world.

Still, Schorr’s reservation about looking at every problem from the Jewish perspective is still valid, and inevitably so.

As much as we consider ourselves part of the American mainstream, we reflexively look at every happening and ask, “What’s the Jewish angle?”

That “angle,” though, is less parochial and circumscribed than it used to be, reflecting the broadening interests of the American and worldwide Jewish community of which we are a part.

Though we still tend to obsess about every anti-Semitic scrawl and every neo-Nazi rant, we have gained enough self-assurance to look at our people and community with a degree of openness and honesty unthinkable in the past.

 

Nation & World Briefs


Jewish Man’s Murder Angers Parisians

At least 1,200 people demonstrated in Paris on Sunday to show their anger at the murder of a Jewish man. Ilan Halimi, 23, was kidnapped, tortured and murdered. His body was found last week at a train station outside Paris. Halimi apparently was lured into a trap by a woman of North African origin who came into a Paris store where Halimi sold mobile phones. The demonstrators at Sunday’s protest shouted slogans and carrying banners that read “Justice for Ilan” and “Avenge Ilan!”

The French government is considering Halimi’s murder to be an anti-Semitic act. French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin said Monday night that the minister of justice had ordered that Halimi’s death be considered “premeditated murder motivated by religious affiliation.”

Villepin spoke at the annual dinner of the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France, or CRIF, the umbrella organization of secular French Jewish groups. In addition to pledging that the government would do its utmost to find Halimi’s killers, Villepin pledged that the French government would fight anti-Semitism throughout French society. The dinner, which was attended by some 800 ministers, elected officials, ambassadors and religious officials included Muslim representives from Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Mauritania, Pakistan and Tunisia.

Holocaust Denier Sentenced

An Austrian court sentenced David Irving to three years in prison for denying the Holocaust. Irving, a British historian who pleaded guilty to the charges at the opening of the trial earlier on Monday, looked stunned in the crowded courtroom after the jury and three judges returned the sentence. Holocaust denial is a crime in Austria, a country once run by the Nazis. Irving was arrested in November when he came to Austria to give a lecture. The charges against him are based on a speech and interview from 1989 in Austria, in which he denied that there were gas chambers at Auschwitz. After he arrived at the court, Irving told reporters that he had changed some of his views since 1989 and now recognized that gas chambers had indeed existed and that “millions of Jews died, there is no question.”

Israel Cracks Down on Hamas

Israel decided to impose sanctions on the Palestinian Authority as soon as Hamas takes over its government. Interim Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s Cabinet voted Sunday to stop the monthly transfer of tax revenue to the Palestinian Authority, to step up scrutiny over crossing points into the Gaza Strip and the West Bank and to prevent entry into Israel by members of Hamas. The measures go into effect when Hamas, which won last month’s Palestinian Authority elections, forms the new government.

“It is clear that, given Hamas’ majority in the Palestinian Parliament and the fact that Hamas will form a government, the Palestinian Authority is effectively becoming a terrorist authority,” Olmert told fellow ministers.

The measures were not as tough as had been expected, especially after the Defense Ministry recommended a halt on entry to Israel by Palestinian workers. Israel has been under Western pressure to not impose sanctions severe enough to boost Hamas’ standing and increase pan-Arab and Iranian support for the Palestinian Authority.

Jewish Skater Earns a Silver

Jewish ice skater Ben Agosto and his partner, Tanith Belbin, earned a silver medal in ice dancing at the 2006 Olympics. Agosto and Belbin finished second to Russians Tatiana Navka and Roman Kostomarov in the ice dancing competition, which concluded Monday. Agosto’s mother is Jewish and his father is Puerto Rican.

Zionist Congress Election Faces Low Turnout

The Feb. 28 deadline to vote for U.S. representatives to the World Zionist Organization’s (WZO) 35th Congress of the Jewish People is fast approaching, but the majority of American Jews seem largely disinterested. Of the estimated 5 million to 6 million Jews in the United States, less than 100,000 are expected to cast ballots by the deadline in an election that will choose 145 delegates from 12 groups that range from the Russian American Jews for Israel, to Religious Zionist Slate to the ARZA/World Union, the Reform movement’s slate.

If registration trends continue, it appears that fewer Jews will participate this year than in 2002, when nearly 89,000 voted. Five years earlier, almost 108,000 Jews cast ballots. Participation has drifted downward, despite an extensive media campaign by the American Zionist Movement (AZM), the WZO’s U.S. wing, to educate American Jews about the organization and to get the vote out. The WZO, which has an annual budget of $12.5 million, was founded in Switzerland by Theodor Herzl to support the creation of a Jewish homeland and now works to improve Disapora relations, combat anti-Semitism and to strengthen Jewish identity and education around the world, among other initiatives.

In addition, WZO members account for half the board of governors of the Jewish Agency for Israel, which encourages Jews to immigrate to the Jewish homeland and helps them resettle there. The projected low turnout in the current WZO election might reflect, among other things, a diminished emotional link to Zionism among younger American Jews, said Chani Monderer, election manager of the American Zionist Movement.

The 35th Congress meets in Jerusalem June 19-22.

Individuals 18 and older who accept Zionism can register and vote through the AZM at www.congressofthejewishpeople.org. Registration is $7 for the general public and $5 for students. –Marc Ballon, Senior Writer

Anti-Israel Rally in Rome

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators burned Israeli and American flags during a march Feb. 18 through Rome, sponsored by several left-wing groups. Protesters chanted anti-Israel slogans and carried banners equating Israel’s security barrier to apartheid. At one point, three protesters, two of whose faces were hidden by kaffiyehs, burned and spat on an Israeli flag.

Bank Admits Nazi Ties

Germany’s Dresdner Bank helped finance the crematoriums at Auschwitz, according to a study commissioned by the bank. During the Nazi era, Dresdner was part of a construction company that built the crematoriums at the death camp in Poland, according to the report, which was released last week after seven years of research. The company also financed Nazi weapons plants and did business with Nazi-linked authorities in Eastern Europe.

“We accept these truths, even if they are painful,” said Wulf Meier, a Dresdner board member.

New Cartoon Furor in Russia

Russian human rights activists criticized the decision of provincial authorities to close down a newspaper that published a controversial cartoon of religious leaders. The Moscow Bureau on Human Rights said the decision to shut down the Gorodskie Vesti newspaper in the southern city of Volgograd was a show of “incompetence” and epitomized the inability of local officials to deal with interfaith issues. Last Friday, city authorities in Volgograd annulled the license of Gorodskie Vesti, which published a cartoon depicting Jesus, Moses, Buddha and Mohammed in front of a television showing two groups of people about to start a fight. The caption read: “We did not teach them to do that.” The decision to shut down the paper came despite the fact that no local religious community in Volgograd said it was offended by the cartoon. The officials stated the closure of the city-owned paper was needed to avoid “incitement of ethnic hostilities.” According to the Moscow Bureau on Human Rights, a group that monitors anti-Semitism and xenophobia in Russia, Volgograd officials never paid attention to another local newspaper, Kolokol, that over the years has consistently published anti-Semitic and xenophobic articles and published “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” an anti-Semitic forgery.

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

 

Nathan Takes a Bite Out of Boring Fare


“The New American Cooking” by Joan Nathan (Knopf, $35).

A tempeh Reuben sandwich and guacamole made with mayonnaise may sound like sacrilege to food purists, but not to food journalist Joan Nathan. The author of 10 cookbooks, including the award-winning “Jewish Cooking in America” (Knopf, 1994), Nathan’s latest is “The New American Cooking,” which offers recipes for the way Americans eat today.

“I never think of food as something that’s stationary,” Nathan said on a recent book tour stop in Los Angeles. “Things change, neighborhoods change, food changes, we get new ingredients, people get ideas. And when you come to a country you adapt what you knew to that country.”

Nathan makes no judgments on those adaptations, what matters to her is how it tastes. Her openness is expressed through the variety of the 280 recipes she includes in the book, which contains many cross-cultural meldings. She offers up four dishes for public consumption, some new and some old, at a special dinner at the Skirball Cultural Center this week. The diverse menu will include Roasted Squash Soup With Coconut Milk; Georgian Spinach Salad With Pomegranates; Horseradish-Crusted Bass With Borscht Broth, Garlic Mashed Potatoes and Ragout of Wild Mushrooms With Shallots and Thyme; and a Chocolate Torte for dessert. For fans of Nathan, what is perhaps most striking about her newest book is that the word “Jewish” does not appear in the title.

Nathan was raised in Providence, R.I., and after getting her master’s degree in French literature from Harvard, she went to work as foreign press officer to Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek. The experience inspired her to write her first cookbook, “The Flavor of Jerusalem,” and today she is mostly known for her Jewish recipes, with eight of her previous collections focusing on Jewish or Israeli cuisine.

Although this new, broader American focus might seem like a departure for her, Nathan sees it more as a logical extension of her previous work, specifically “An American Folklife Cookbook” (Schocken, 1984) (her only other non-Jewish title) and “Jewish Cooking in America.”

“The Jewish cookbook was one ethnic group, but within that one ethnic group there is so much diversification,” she said. “Look at the Persian Jews here and the Sephardic Jews and the Israeli Jews. There are all kinds within the Jewish population, and it probably made me more aware of other people around America. And I’m American, so I thought it would be interesting to look at the whole country.”

What she was looking for in particular, she said, were the changes American cooking has undergone in the last 40 years.

She found her answers through the recipes of a range of professional and home kitchens across America, from food stands and restaurants to heirloom family favorites.

The dishes are coupled with stories about their origins, so that what emerges is a sort of travel book and cookbook in one, a text that is as much about who Americans are, as it is about what they eat.

Nathan sees America today as a country changed by technological advances like the Cuisinart, the growth of organics and sustainable agriculture, the integration of ethnic foods and ingredients into the somewhat bland American palate of her 1950s youth, and the rise of the celebrity chef.

But Nathan is aware that not everything in today’s American cuisine is positive.

“I’m not sort of Polyanna-ish,” she said. “I know that supermarkets all over the country have all processed food and apples that look like each other and terrible tomatoes. But I’m not looking at that. I’m looking at what people are doing to make changes. I’m looking at farmers markets, at individuals, and I think these small individuals will get bigger.”

Many of the small individuals Nathan mentions in her book are Jewish, including two trailblazing Southern California women. Along with a recipe for Pomegranate, Mango, and Papaya Fruit Salad with Lime, she includes the story of Lynda Resnick, creator of the pomegranate and pomegranate juice company POM Wonderful. Alongside a recipe for Sugar Snap Peas with Red Pepper, Nathan pays tribute to Frieda Caplan, creator of the company Frieda’s Finest, who first brought kiwis and sugar snap peas to the American public.

And her new American cooking is also still influenced by Jewish recipes, like challah and matzah balls and dishes like the Cuban Jewish casserole Plantains with Picadillo.

Nathan said the number of Jewish contributions in her book has little to do with her own roots. She said Jews play a huge role in the food industry.

But it’s not only that.

“There are a lot of good home-cooked recipes in a lot of Jewish families, especially ethnic ones,” Nathan said, “like that Plantains Picadillo, and the date and nut cake with orange. That’s delicious.”

Joan Nathan hosts “Dinner With Joan Nathan: Jewish Cooking in America,” on Thursday, Dec. 15 at 7:30 p.m. $65-$85 (ticket sales end Dec. 12). Book signing follows. Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (866) 468-3399.

 

Rice Weaves Rich Tale of a Young Jesus


“Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt” by Anne Rice (Alfred A. Knopf, $25.95).

Biblical fiction is a perilous business. Having committed not one but two such indiscretions in my time — a 1993 novel titled, “In the Shade of the Terebinth,” and a year later another called, “The Gospel of Joseph” — I know that many authors try to avoid the pitfalls of the genre by approaching the biblical tale from an odd or indirect angle. This is most often done through subsidiary characters, thereby shedding light on the story that everyone knows by telling a tale that no one does.

Anne Rice’s new novel, “Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt,” the first, according to its author, in a projected three- or even four-novel “autobiography” of Jesus, will have none of that. She tackles her story head-on, framing it as a first-person narrative of the thoughts and fears of a 7-year-old Jesus en route from exile in Egypt to his family’s home in Nazareth.

From the first page, this is a Jesus bewildered by the unusual powers he discovers in himself. He can make it snow; he can raise the dead — all of which is material Rice has drawn from the so-called apocryphal gospels, third or fourth century collections of legends and sayings that are often focused on Jesus’ childhood. Most of all, he is haunted by a recurring sense that family members know something about his origins and identity that they’re not yet able to tell him.

“An angel had come,” Rice has her central character muse, “an angel to my mother; and no man had been my father; but what did such a thing mean?”

That, in a nutshell, is Rice’s story, the outlines of which are familiar to most readers, Christian and non-Christian alike. What is not so familiar is the rich tapestry of first century Jewish and family life into which she plunges her characters.

Often pictured in Christian iconography as solitary figures, lost in a unique and incommunicable holiness, Rice’s “holy family” of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, by contrast, is part of a large, boisterous, affectionate Jewish clan, living a full, observant Jewish life together, full of rituals and prayers and the rhythm of the holy day feasts.

“Finally, the Sabbath was upon us. It came so quick. But the women were ready, with all the food prepared ahead of time, and it was a feast of dried fish that had been plumped in wine and then roasted, together with dates, nuts I’d never tasted before, and fresh fruit from the farmland around us, as well as plenty of olives and other splendid things…. We said our prayers of thanksgiving for our safe homecoming and began our study, all together, singing and talking and happy that it was our first Sabbath in our home.”

This is the most persuasive aspect of the book: Jesus lives, sleeps, eats, argues, talks politics and prays with a gaggle of aunts, cousins and near relatives. I was instantly reminded of an Israeli friend in Jerusalem who, when I once asked him to lunch, responded laconically, “You can’t afford it. My family and I, we move in 30s.”

The degree of accuracy of Rice’s account of Jewish life in first century Palestine is less important than the considerable pains she takes to imagine Jesus in that vital cultural and religious context: praying in a synagogue, studying Torah, observing Shabbat, bathing in a mikvah, going on pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

It’s a vitally important effort, and, perhaps, one of the most important services such fictional depictions of the life of Jesus perform for the reader. Such efforts situate Jesus in an authentically Jewish world and help us imagine him in it.

As such, they exemplify one of post-Holocaust Christianity’s most powerful, and salutary tendencies, the ongoing efforts to see Christianity as rooted in ancient Judaism, in common sources, in particular the Hebrew Scriptures and in a vital and living relationship with the Jewish people.

Contemporary Christians are only too aware that the imagination may be religiously misused to catastrophic effect. As the medieval Passion plays or the Oberammergau festival amply demonstrate, it is not a matter of indifference whether Jesus is pictured as a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Aryan, or as divorced from or hostile to his people and culture.

All this is quite a departure for Rice, who for decades has built her career on New Orleans gothic and an epic series of best-selling vampire chronicles. As one reviewer quipped, “What is this? ‘Interviews With the Messiah’?” a reference to Rice’s best-known book, “Interview With the Vampire.”

Rice, of course, is hardly alone in her literary attraction to the life of Jesus. It’s worth noting that the publication of Rice’s “Christ the Lord” coincides with the release of another piece of Christological fiction, “Jesus: The Novel” (Zondervan) by National Book Award-winner Walter Wangerin Jr. In fact, modern authors seem particularly drawn to the story of Jesus. Nikos Kazantzakis, Robert Graves, Japanese novelist Shusaku Endo, Anthony Burgess, the Yiddish writer Scholem Asch, Jose Saramago are a few of the major writers who’ve tried their hand at a Jesus novel or two.

Most of these novelists had axes to grind, however. Kazantzakis’ fiction, regardless of subject, is tormented by the dualism of flesh and spirit. Robert Graves’ “King Jesus” is less a study of the historical figure than a vehicle for the poet’s eccentric, though often entertaining, religious speculations.

Rice’s intentions are purer. As she puts it in her long author’s note at the end of the novel:

“The challenge was to write about the Jesus of the Gospels…. Anybody could write about a liberal Jesus, a married Jesus, a gay Jesus, a Jesus who was a rebel…. The true challenge was to take the Jesus of the Gospels … and try to get inside him and imagine what he felt.”

One of the pleasures of this book — indeed, of this whole genre — is placing the bare bones of biblical accounts into the imagined context of the times, of the sights, smells and rhythms of daily life in the ancient world.

Rice is very concerned to get the details right.

“At last we began dipping our bread,” Rice’s young Jesus relates. “It was so good — not just a sauce but a thick pottage of lentils and soft-cooked beans and peppers and spices. And there were plenty of dried figs to chew after the hot flavor of the pottage….”

She can be more than a little obvious in introducing every possible political actor in Second Temple period Palestine to the child Jesus, as he and his large extended family make their way to Galilee. (Roman soldiers, marauders, brigands, Zealots — Can the group not manage to avoid a single known peril?) Nevertheless, she places Jesus, accurately, in a first century milieu of political instability, rebellion, lawlessness and Roman brutality.

“I was so scared I couldn’t breathe. They [the Roman soldiers] had said ‘crucify,’ and I knew what crucifixion was. I’d seen crucifixion outside Alexandra, though only with quick looks, because we wanted never, never to stare at a crucified man. Nailed to a cross, stripped of all clothes and miserably naked as he died, a crucified man was a terrible shameful sight.”

Finally, it is Rice’s sincere and generally well-informed attempt to place Jesus not merely in plausible first century surroundings but in the rich and vibrant Jewish world we recognize from the ancient sources that make her exercise especially worthwhile.

In view of the long and tragic history of the evils to which a misinformed imagination can be put, Rice’s honest offering is no small thing.

Gabriel Meyer is an award-winning poet, journalist and novelist. He won Catholic Press Association awards for his coverage of the first Palestinian intifada in 1989 and went on to cover the Balkan war for the National Catholic Register in the early 1990s. Since 1998, he has written extensively on the civil war in Sudan and his book War and Faith in Sudan” (Eerdmans), has just been released.

The Lost Words


“Yitgadal v’yitkadash shmei.” Three words into Kaddish, the mourner’s prayer, Yoni stumbled on an unfamiliar vowel. Then, again and again, as he continued reciting the traditional prayer at his mother’s funeral in Jerusalem, he twisted and mangled the words. He frowned in concentration and tried very hard, but the words would not take their proper shape. The life of a secular young man, even in Israel, contains little preparation for the rituals of a Jewish funeral.

I had come to the funeral for Yoni’s sake. He and my son had been best friends when they were in grade school. For me, Yoni was still that tousled-haired kid in the photo squinting into the sun as he stands next to his bike.

It was Yoni who had come to visit his mother one weekend but instead had found only her body. I wanted somehow to comfort this boy turned young man, whose mother had died so young. Instead, I found myself cringing at his tortured recitation.

Why did it matter? After all, religion was not important in Yoni’s home. His mother, an immigrant from the United States, never mastered Hebrew. She certainly didn’t know Aramaic, the main component of Kaddish and Yoni’s stumbling block.

Yoni’s father, a secular sabra, had no use for ritual. Yoni never had a bar mitzvah; possibly never set foot in a synagogue. There was no way he could have been prepared for this moment. And, perhaps, for his family that did not matter.

So why did it matter to me? This prayer that combines Hebrew and Aramaic speaks not of the dead but rather about the God who has created the world “according to his will.” It continues as a thesaurus of hosannas: “Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honored, adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One.”

The language is light years from anything a secular young man in Israel might say or think. For a moment I thought that it might be time for a pop version, one that would roll easily off any Israeli tongue.

One thing I knew for certain: I want my own children to be able to recite the Kaddish without stumbling. That Friday at dinner I told them the story of the garbled prayer, hoping they would get the message without my having to come out and say, “Get it right!”

And it’s impossible to get it right without some practice.

They responded blithely, as if it was no concern of theirs.

“The dead person doesn’t care, anyway,” my youngest son scoffed.

Nevertheless, I sensed they’d gotten the message. But why was that so important? I have so little interest in praising, exalting and lauding any supreme being. And I know that the only afterlife is the memory we keep of the person who is gone. The body at the funeral is but an empty shell.

Perhaps what’s at issue is my own life: I’m a word person. For more than 20 years I’ve made my living by writing and editing. Getting the words right is what I labor to achieve, all day every day. It’s a struggle that often leaves me in despair.

But there’s more to it than that. In the face of the greatest anguish, words fail. Don’t get me wrong. I’m a compulsive sender of messages of sympathy to those far away who have lost someone dear, and I sense that those words give some comfort, if only the reminder that someone on the other side of the planet acknowledges the loss.

But what can one say to the mother of a toddler who has died of cancer; to the father of a youngster who has committed suicide; to the teenager whose father has been killed in a car accident? Words seem an intrusion, a violation of the mourner’s right to grieve undisturbed. Nor can even the most eloquent eulogy offer more than a moment’s balm.

It is here that the ancient formula stands in for mere words, since these can never encompass the loss. The repetition of the set phrases, whose literal meaning escapes most people, is a remedy where words fail. It is a recognition that no words, not even the most beautiful or the most caring, can undo what is done. It is a recognition that at times like these one should not have to seek the words. The mourner has a set role, and the participants have a supporting one, reciting one of the lines with the mourner and completing the prayer with a chorus of amen.

This is how it has been from generation to generation, through the chain of Jewish history. The Kaddish is a way of touching all the mourners who have been and all those who will be. It offers both a sense of community and a sense of continuity.

That’s why we have to get it right.

Esther Hecht is a freelance writer based in Jerusalem.

 

Where India Meets Neil Simon


Michael Schlitt sees a definite connection between his type of Jewishness and his reasons for directing a Neil Simon play in India. Being drawn to India and all things Eastern is Jewish, he says. And so is asking a million questions about everything.

“Basically, my work is very Jewish, even if it’s not about something Jewish,” declares the 44-year-old actor, writer, director and founding member of the Actors’ Gang theater company, now based in Culver City. “I’ve always been a searcher, the wheels in my head always spinning. A rabbi once told me that’s as Jewish as it gets.”

Schlitt spent the past five years transforming a midlife crisis, a professionally disastrous trip to India, and his burning and failed ambition to make a movie about that disaster into a one-man show called, “Mike’s Incredible Indian Adventure.” A play about a film about a play, Schiltt’s work premieres Friday at EdgeFest, the annual Los Angeles festival dedicated to new and experimental theater. His play’s script reads like a page of Talmud, with the central event of the India adventure framed by commentary about the trip itself, the filming of the trip and the questions that inevitably arise from the failure “to create a masterpiece.”

“If someone told me to see some one-man show about a guy’s attempt to make a movie about his trip to India, I’d probably say ‘No thanks,'” says Schlitt over coffee at a Culver City Starbucks. “But on the other hand, there’s a real hook to the show. Neil Simon in India is bound to pique curiosity.”

Directed by Nancy Keystone, who’s also married to Schlitt, the play, at its core, addresses the painful realization that certain youthful dreams will never materialize, “that moment you understand you’re never going to make ‘Citizen Kane,'” Schlitt says. “Rarely is the journey what you think it’s going to be.”

In 1999, a producer of questionable repute invited Schlitt to direct a production in India of Simon’s “They’re Playing Our Song.” In the throes of a midlife crisis, Schlitt, who detests this play, ignored his intuition and accepted the offer to put together a production ASAP and tour it in three Indian cities. His rationale: He’d make a movie about whatever happened because that’s been his dream, even though he despises the movie business.

“All my life there had been this strange tension between working in the theater and working in film. I mean I live in Los Angeles, the film capital of the world,” he writes in the script.

“The whole prospect was so shady,” Schlitt recalls. “I thought I would just bring the cameras and I would have this great film, some kind of cross between ‘Waiting for Guffman’ and ‘Salaam Bombay.’ Instead, I wound up butting my head against the wall for years.”

Unable to complete his film, Schlitt finally listened to the advice of a filmmaker friend and returned to the theater.

“You could say it was the path of least resistance, but it’s where I needed to be,” he says. “I know the theater and that feels great.”

“What I love about Mike’s play is that it’s blazingly honest,” says Keystone, whose directing credits led her to be named as one of 2005’s “Faces to Watch” in the L.A. Times. “He exposes everything, including some unpleasant aspects of himself, and I have a lot of admiration for him.”

Describing himself as “a laid-back neurotic,” which he attributes to growing up first in New York and later in Berkeley, Schlitt says his Jewish education ended after nursery school and until recently, “never thought of myself as Jewish.” Raised by his mother, who once aspired to be an actress, Schlitt also credits his father, who wrote for the 1960s TV show, “The Monkees,” as a considerable artistic influence.

“He was the kind of Jewish father who got me reading Kierkegaard at age 4,” he says.

As a theater major at UCLA, Schlitt met the future famous actor Tim Robbins. And they and other fellow students formed the Actors’ Gang in 1981, a company that rose to prominence in the L.A. theater scene for its often provocative, avant-garde productions.

“We were this group of guys who all hung out together,” he says of the Gang’s origins. “There was a lot of testosterone but we all had this great passion for the theater.”

Standing in as leader of the Gang when Robbins left for a life in New York with actress Susan Sarandon, Schlitt worked on some 40 productions. This included directing the American premiere of George Tabori’s “Mein Kampf,” an adaptation of Gogol’s “The Inspector General” and performing his critically acclaimed solo show, “Drive, He Said.” In 2000, Schlitt essentially parted from the Gang, a move he’d rather not discuss in great detail. It did, however, have something to do with the midlife crisis that led to his current show. “For 16 years, I was the company’s resident Solomon,” he says. “It was time to step away.”

Though Schlitt says he hasn’t completely given up on finally making his movie, the play he wound up with instead “has definitely gotten the monkey off my back. I have fed myself artistically,” he says. “And if it’s between the artistic or the commercial path, I know which one I’d choose.”

“Mike’s Incredible Indian Adventure” runs Oct. 7-23, 9:15 p.m. at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring St., Los Angeles. Tickets are $15 or $8 with EdgeFest Passport. For more information, call (866) 811-4111 or visit www.edgeoftheworld.org.

 

Writer Stepping Out With ‘In Her Shoes’


When Jennifer Weiner attends the premiere of “In Her Shoes” — based on her 2002 chick-lit best seller — she’ll wear a brand new hairdo.

This past summer, the 35-year-old and her younger sister, Molly, an actress, both had identical geometric bobs. But since sis is one of her dates for the premiere, Weiner grew her brown hair shoulder length, added blond highlights and loose waves that she says are very “in” for fall.

“I decided we couldn’t both have the same hair on the red carpet,” she adds with a laugh.

The way sisters compete and relate is the subject of Weiner’s novel and the movie, directed by Curtis Hanson (“8 Mile”) and adapted into a screenplay by Susannah Grant (“Erin Brockovich”). Like the book, the droll but heartfelt film revolves around Jewish siblings who have nothing in common except size 8 1/2 feet and a wicked stepmother. The fictional Maggie (Cameron Diaz), a Size 0 babe, is an irresponsible party girl with dyslexia. Rose (Toni Collette), a frumpy Size 14, is a successful attorney with low self-esteem about her looks and her love life.

Rose collects shoes to make herself feel better; Maggie covets and pilfers the boots and high heels.

It is only when the sisters reconnect with their long-lost grandmother (Shirley MacLaine) that they learn to make peace with each other — and the footwear issue.

The shoes become a metaphor for all the ways the sisters are jealous of each other — “for wanting to inhabit someone else’s skin and get what they get out of life,” Weiner says.

The author is barefoot in her Philadelphia bedroom after her recent haircut, as she insists that the fictional siblings are not versions of herself and her own sister. But their relationship did spark questions that inspired the story. Weiner’s sister didn’t steal her shoes, but she took her clothes, mostly her plus-sized sweatshirts when the 1980s film, “Flashdance,” made oversized sweats fashionable.

“I was the responsible one, saying ‘Mom says we have to be home by 11,’ and she was the one saying, ‘Let’s take the car keys. Mom will never know,'” the writer recalls. “She was always cute, [petite] and bubbly, while I was more, ‘Jenny, get your nose out of that book.'”

As she wrote “In Her Shoes,” she wanted to work through an obvious, but puzzling, conundrum: How can people who grew up in the same house wind up radically different individuals?

The blond, blue-eyed Cameron Diaz looks less like either Weiner sister and more like the gorgeous WASPs both siblings grew up with in Simsbury, Conn. The dark-haired Weiner “felt like an outsider in so many ways,” she told the Journal in 2002. She says she was “funny-looking,” brace-faced and plump. On her youth trip to Israel, where there were four other Jennifers, she was labeled “the fat one.”

Weiner spent the next decade dieting and seeing nutritionists — until she had an epiphany in the late 1990s.

“It had been 10 solid years of trying to get somewhere my body didn’t want to go,” she says. “And I really just got to the point where I thought, ‘How much more nonsense am I going to put myself through, and how much time am I going to waste? And looking at the world and seeing the genuine suffering and injustice, how much more of my life do I want to devote to looking like Jennifer Anniston?’ And I said, ‘I am through with this, and I’m going to work with what I have and try to be happy and take some of this energy and put it someplace else.'”

The energy went into writing her semiautobiographical debut novel, “Good in Bed,” whose troubled, zaftig heroine winds up living happily ever after without shedding a pound. That’s more or less what happened to Weiner, who is now married to a menschy attorney, with a 2-year-old daughter and a stellar writing career to boot.

Her wickedly witty but flawed heroines have made her the biggest chick-lit success story since Helen Fielding burst through with “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” according to Entertainment Weekly. The Jerusalem Post called Weiner the Jewish girl’s answer to Fielding.

Weiner says she enjoys creating Jewish, plus-sized heroines, partly because she is writing what she knows, and partly because such characters are often invisible in the popular culture. Heavy women, especially, are ignored or played for laughs.

“[Take] Kirstie Alley in ‘Fat Actress,’ cutting Lane Bryant labels out of her clothes and sewing Prada labels in instead,” Weiner says by way of example. “Or Sarah Rue in [ABC’s] ‘Less Than Perfect.’ Like, excuse me, Size 10 is less than perfect? The average size for women in America is 12. So there’s a marginalization that goes on, and you don’t ever see that anyone [overweight] can be beautiful and happy.”

Considering Hollywood’s weight phobia, Weiner felt victorious when actress Toni Collette (“The Sixth Sense”) agreed to gain 25 pounds for the film. Collette has admitted she was reluctant to put on the weight.

“But I love my character and I think the extra pounds are pertinent to the way Rose sees herself,” Collette said at a press conference. “She overlooks herself, and I think most people walking past her would probably do the same. But as an audience member, you get to know her and you see her getting to know herself…. Her name is Rose and you really watch her blossom.”

The movie also features amusing, if occasionally cliched, Jewish characters based on residents of the Florida retirement community where Weiner’s grandmother lives. There is a joyous Jewish wedding and a grotesquely caricatured Jewish American Princess, the sisters’ wicked stepmother. Weiner — who finds the character “recognizable” — loves the scene in which the “stepmonster” gets her just desserts. (She discovers that her biological daughter has joined Jews for Jesus.)

If the fictional sisters enjoy their Cinderella-like happy ending, so does Weiner. Her books have sold millions of copies worldwide; Hollywood is snatching up the movie rights, and her latest novel, “Goodnight Nobody” (Atria Books) just hit bookshelves.

And then there’s the “Shoes” premiere, where the author will sashay down the red carpet not in glass slippers, but in strappy Nine West silver stilettos.

Perhaps she’s hoping her sister will wear something else.

The film opens Friday.

 

Wiesenthal Larger Than Life on Screen


Simon Wiesenthal, whose dogged persistence led to the capture of approximately 1,100 accused Nazi war criminals, was the quintessential larger-than-life figure filmmakers crave. While there were some less-than-distinguished films made about him over the years, they were outweighed by fine documentaries, such as “The Art of Remembrance,” Oscar-nominated features such as “The Boys From Brazil” and several thoughtful telepics.

For Rick Trank, director of Moriah Films, the in-house documentary division of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the first film about Simon Wiesenthal “that comes to mind” is “Murderers Among Us: The Simon Wiesenthal Story,” a 1989 HBO picture starring Ben Kingsley as the Nazi hunter.

“It was unusual for HBO to have made the investment without a theatrical release,” said Trank, marveling at the production values and “the care that HBO put into it.” He pointed out that Kingsley “spent time getting to know Simon.”

While some admirers have envisioned Wiesenthal as a Jewish John Wayne or James Bond, the diminutive Kingsley, who has played numerous Jewish characters in his film career, including Meyer Lansky in “Bugsy” and Fagin in the current “Oliver Twist,” depicts him as a much more modest man, frail after the camps, dedicated to his work, not given to swagger or seduction.

Up all night in his dark office surrounded by voluminous files, he almost conjures Bartleby the scrivener. We often see high-angle shots of him, as if we are spying on him.

Told in flashback, the film begins with a closeup of sunflowers in a field on a sunny day, and then we see an image of Wiesenthal, wearing the pinstriped uniform of a prisoner. His back is positioned against the back of a bloodied, bandaged Nazi, and the two men, arms tied to each other, struggle to free themselves. The scene is Wiesenthal’s nightmare, so haunted is he by a memory of visiting a bloodied, bandaged Nazi on his deathbed.

Images of the hospital scene re-surface throughout the film, as Wiesenthal confronts whether he made the right decision in not forgiving a man who gunned down Jews trapped inside a building that had been set on fire. Wiesenthal can never satisfactorily answer the moral dilemma of whether or not he was right in walking away without pardoning a dying, tormented shell of a man.

In Wiesenthal’s troubled dream, the shining sunflowers appear almost grotesque, but they are a reminder that there can still be beauty even in the midst of the Holocaust.

Flowers also play a role in “Max and Helen,” a 1990 TNT production starring Martin Landau as Wiesenthal. Based on Wiesenthal’s memoir, it tells the true story of two young Jews, Max, played by Treat Williams, and Helen, played by Alice Krige, who find each other after 20 years of separation following the Holocaust. The first time we see Helen, she gathers a bouquet of lilies, once again yellow flowers, vibrant and alive, but soon she and Max are taken to the camps, where she remains with her frail sister while Max escapes.

According to Trank, who won an Oscar for “The Long Way Home,” a 1997 documentary about Jewish refugees journeying to Israel after the Holocaust, “Max and Helen” represents the one time that Wiesenthal, who dedicated his life to fighting anti-Semitism, chose not to prosecute a war criminal “because it would harm the living more than bring justice to the dead.”

As it turns out, Helen has been raped by the Nazi commandant and has had a child, who is a dead ringer for the father. The disquieting presence of this seeming Nazi doppelganger initially unnerves Max, when he first sees Helen again.

Ultimately, Max realizes the truth of something Wiesenthal has told him, that nations cannot be blamed collectively; each person must be assessed individually. At the end of the film, Max decides to reunite with Helen and embrace his new life with her and his Germanic stepchild, while Wiesenthal backs off from pursuing the former commandant.

Trank said of Landau, “Physically, he didn’t look like Simon,” pointing out that Landau was “6 feet 4 and skinny, while Wiesenthal was 5 feet 10 and portly, but he captured an essence of him.” He plays him as a kind of Dr. Freud, comforting Max as they engage in an all-night therapy session, in which Wiesenthal slowly extracts bits and pieces of the story, which plays out largely through flashbacks.

By contrast, in the 1978 picture, “The Boys From Brazil,” Sir Laurence Olivier, essaying Herr Lieberman, a character based on Wiesenthal, portrayed the Nazi hunter as a “sort of a bumbling guy. That wasn’t Simon. Simon was very focused, had a photographic memory.” Trank noted that Wiesenthal was “doing his work before people had computers. He had a teeny office, no money,” yet successfully traced all those Nazis.

Based on Ira Levin’s novel, “The Boys From Brazil” shows us Wiesenthal as Mr. Magoo, water dripping from the ceiling of his office, his rent unpaid, chaos all around him. Olivier speaks with an authentic German accent, yet it’s so high-pitched and world weary that he almost sounds like a German version of an older Truman Capote, burnt out after all his friends had abandoned him.

Despite his bumbling nature, Olivier’s character does indeed track down Dr. Mengele, played by Gregory Peck. In the fictional film, Mengele has masterminded a scheme, years in the making, to clone and breed a new Hitler. In order to replicate the environmental surroundings of the young Fuhrer, he must murder 94 Nordic men, all aged 65, who have blue-eyed, black-haired sons who are about to turn 14.

After the film’s suspenseful turns, Mengele is finally killed, and Olivier’s Lieberman refuses to give a young Jewish freedom fighter the information that will enable him to find and kill the boys. The Nazi hunter will not allow innocent people of German stock to be killed.

In reality, Mengele was never captured by Wiesenthal or any other Nazi hunter. His remains were found in South America, where he apparently drowned.

Though Wiesenthal was portrayed by Kingsley, Landau and Olivier — all Oscar winners — the performance that may come closest to the actual legend, who did indeed help the Mossad capture SS leader Adolph Eichmann, is that of lesser-known actor Shmuel Rodensky in the 1974 film, “The Odessa File.”

In that picture, Wiesenthal’s character has a small role, appearing in only two scenes, but Rodensky inhabits him in a way that his more famous colleagues did not. First of all, unlike Kingsley, Landau and Olivier, Rodensky physically resembled the bearish Wiesenthal. Both of them bore a girth that recalls Ariel Sharon, a fullness that suggested fortitude and a life well lived.

But more than the physical resemblance, there’s a poise and savvy, the way his smile conveys that he has seen it all, and that nothing will surprise him. This Wiesenthal understands that all men, even an idealist like Jon Voight’s freelance journalist, have motives and allegiances that may not match his own.

That is why he makes a photocopy of a picture of Roschmann, the film’s villain, rather than turning over his lone copy to Voight’s character. He’s too sophisticated to presume that this well-intentioned writer will finish the job.

Wiesenthal served as an adviser to that film, which is set in Germany in 1963, just after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, a metaphor, perhaps a bit too heavy-handed, for the loss of innocence in the world. The plot is propelled into motion with the suicide that same night of a Holocaust survivor who leaves a diary.

That document prompts Voight’s young German writer to hunt down the one-time butcher of Riga, who murdered not only Jews but also Germans who disobeyed him. Along the way, Voight comes into contact with Mossad agents who train him. With their help, he infiltrates the Odessa, a secret society of former SS officers, who are developing a missile-tracking system for the Egyptians, who plan a nuclear attack against Israel.

Like Mengele, in real life, Roschmann was never extradited or killed. Responsible for murdering perhaps as many as 70,000 Jews, Roschmann reportedly died in Paraguay in 1977.

At the end of the film, Wiesenthal pores over the Odessa file provided to him by a German, which calls to mind a line from earlier in the film that “people are not evil; only individuals are evil.” In the film, the line is not spoken by Wiesenthal’s character, but it echoes the famous mantra of the real-life Holocaust survivor.

Write of Passage


My first crush was the Pikesville library in Baltimore, Md. Every Saturday after synagogue, my parents would usher me into the small, ancient red brick building quietly ensconced along one of the less-developed business roads in Pikesville. I would spend what seemed like hours quietly roaming the young-adult stacks and painstakingly choosing the “friends” I would bring home with me for the week.

One week, I would ambitiously attempt to devour the entire “Box Car Children” series; another I would host a Judy Blume marathon and vigilantly try to sneak the purportedly trashy “Deenie” home in between my “Sheila the Great” and “Blubber.”

After racing through all of the books with still a few days lingering between my weekly trysts, I would start reciting the books aloud, memorizing passages and acting out the various characters. Sometimes, I gawkily went so far as to continue the books in my innumerable journals. I’d imagine my own ending to the “Narnia” books and give the “Bobbsey Twins” new mysteries to solve.

My first audience was my far-too-willing parents and my far-too-unwilling younger brother. At dinner, after my parents asked us how school was and my brother, David, retorted with the perfunctorily pithy “fine,” I immediately glimpsed my window of opportunity and launched into a new playlet. Everyone assumed I would outgrow this “little phase” of needing attention.

The day of my bat mitzvah proved otherwise.

November 1986. It was raining outside Beth Am, one of the only pre-century temples that stood proudly in a yet-to-be-gentrified, fairly unsafe neighborhood. My hair was curled like Farrah Fawcett’s and my bat mitzvah book — yes, book — whose cover I had designed and whose 11 pages I had meticulously written, was ready.

A burnt orange cover, my thematic Thanksgiving color of choice, enveloped the little novella, which proudly stood in nine piles of 11, waiting for people — my people, my audience — to read during the ceremony. As I stood up on the bimah, I took people through my book of poems, stories and Jewish anecdotes.

It was then that I realized an audience of 99 sure beats an audience of three. My dream was to both act and write.

For a while, I put writing on hold, because acting was a lot more glamorous. Yet glamour easily tarnishes and after coming out to Hollywood, the Mecca of the film industry, I acted in a lot of plays, yet somehow felt unsatisfied.

I felt limited by the words the dead male playwrights were giving me. I was Jewish — where was my voice?

It wasn’t until I met Mark Troy, a Jewish playwright who later became my fiancé, that I realized the power of the voice within me. He inspired me to write my first play. He simply put the mirror in front of me and echoed the timeless adage: Write about what you know.

Admittedly, I knew my women inside and out. They were fiercely impassioned, obnoxiously intelligent, a little zaftig and a lot Jewish.

They were me.

My plays are a reflection of my life. My first play, “First to the Egg,” was the classic boy-meets-girl; however, the boy was a nerdy schlemiel sperm and the girl was the self-important conservative egg, whom he was trying to woo. Life reflected art and art reflected life. My genesis as a playwright had fertilized and conceived.

Growing up in a middle-class Jewish neighborhood in Baltimore has given me lots of fodder for my work. Dad’s a specialist on Middle East policy and Mom’s a teacher, so our dinner-table conversations were fraught with arguments, lessons and thought-provoking anecdotes. Of the five plays I have running around the country, all of them employ pseudo-intellectual/quasi-political and far-too-educated characters based on my own Jewish upbringing.

Currently, at the Elephant Theatre, my play, “Ellipses…,” is about two people who can’t finish their sentences; yet they manage to communicate better than most people.

My family rarely finished their sentences because everyone had so much to say, articulate, declare, pronounce, state, verbalize. Dad was always spewing on and on about Arab-Israeli politics, Mom would argue the benefits of communal dressing rooms at Loehmann’s, and I would champion my vegetarian ideals by disputing whether or not an egg should replace the shank bone on the seder plate.

Like the Freedman’s, the couple in “Ellipses…,” including the Jewish saleswoman who tries to help them pick out a wedding dress, are plagued with ellipses. These characters have so much to say, that they can’t finish their sentences because their minds are working too quickly.

I attempt to explore, investigate and play with my voice in various plays. Currently playing in Northern California is “Looking for Atticus Finch,” a play I wrote with Mark Troy, investigates a Jewish girl’s coming of age at Haverford College (my alma mater) and her ultimate search for a real hero. In Pennsylvania, one of my favorite plays is running: “Serial Killer Barbie,” which explores a young Jewish girl’s evolution from kindergarten to high school as she confronts anti-Semitism head on with her wit, anger and strychnine.

Who knew once upon a bimah that my coming of age was truly reflective of my adult coming of age as a writer?

Being a writer is a process. Being a Jewish writer simply furnishes a lot more schtick with which to bless my characters.

Colette Freedman’s “Ellipses…” runs through June 15 in Circus Theatricals One Act festival at the Elephant Theatre, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood. For tickets, call (866) 811-4111 or visit

‘Jubana’ Memoir Rescues Its Author


“Jubana! The Awkwardly True and Dazzling Adventures of a Jewish Cuban Goddess” by Gigi Anders (Rayo/HarperCollins, $23.95).

Three years ago, Gigi Anders found herself down and out in Hackensack, N.J. Her fiancé couldn’t go through with their wedding, she had quit a job at a nearby newspaper and her friends lived elsewhere.

“I was alone and without a safety net,” she recalls. “Then there was my hair, my weight, etc. Writing was the only noninsecurity I had.”

Surviving on cases of TaB and cartons of cigarettes, Anders spent the ensuing years squeezing memoir material out of her childhood, adolescence and Byzantine relationship with her larger-than-life mother. Due out next week, “Jubana! The Awkwardly True and Dazzling Adventures of a Jewish Cuban Goddess” simultaneously reads like a classic coming-of-age tale, Jewish history lesson and stand-up comedy routine. Born in Havana, the now 47-year-old Anders left Cuba and an upper-middle-class life of wealth and privilege before her third birthday. After a brief period in Miami, her family settled in Washington, D.C., where her doctor father and social worker mother tried to rebuild their lives. Though Anders’ tribulations and the legacy of Fidel Castro’s regime certainly loom large in the story, the highly glamorous and opinionated “Mami Dearest” frequently steals the show.

“She’s my best material,” admits Anders about her mother. “If I had a boring mom, I’d having nothing to write about.”

For Rene Alegria, publisher of the HarperCollins’ Rayo imprint that focuses on books by and about Hispanics, Anders’ memoir “was unlike anything I ever read. I hadn’t really seen this type of Hispanic Jewish story before,” he said. “Then there’s the fact that Gigi is just incredibly funny and she really brought her story to life in a way that’s universal.”

On the telephone, Anders speaks exactly like the book she’s written. Candid, passionate and prone to interspersing the conversation with hysterical impersonations of her mother’s Cuban-accented English, Anders also emphasized that she “fiercely loves” her parents, now in their 70s.

“I wanted very badly for no one in my family to feel ambushed,” she says. “I didn’t write the book for axe-grinding and score-settling. I would call my mother every Sunday and we would talk about what I was writing. She never once said, ‘Don’t write that.'”

For Anders, the biggest challenge lay in depicting key tragic events while maintaining the wildly humorous tone.

“I didn’t know whether or not go there,” she says of the traumatic sexual awakening she experienced at 14. “I didn’t want to hurt my parents or have people feel sorry for me. But this was my life and that experience changed me forever.”

Anders claims that the term “Jubana,” meaning “Cuban Jewess,” “has been floating around for awhile” in her family. To be her family’s style of Cuban and Jewish, she says, means there’s no conflict between lighting Chanukah candles and enjoying roasted pork loin afterward.

“But the Jubana thing also means you’re a minority, minority, minority — that no matter what, you’re an outsider,” she said. “Sure I’m white, but not like how other people are white.”

Growing up in Washington, D.C., Anders attended elementary school where she identified with the African American kids.

“I would go to their birthday parties and try to get their parents to adopt me,” she recalls.

Later, when her parents moved to a different D.C.-area neighborhood and could afford private school, Anders attended Sidwell Friends, an elite prep academy. There, she “faced rich, white kids who weren’t Jewish and who seemed to be happy all the time. It seemed like they could just say, ‘I think I’ll go to Harvard’ and it would just happen, while I was at home killing myself,” she said.

At Beaver College, a private school in Pennsylvania now called Arcadia University, Anders had more contact with Jewish kids, but once again, could not relate.

“They were equally as rich as the Sidwell kids, but these girls wanted to get married immediately,” she says. “I had always associated the Jewish side of myself with education and achievement.”

Anders says her “Hispanic side” had more to do with “choosing the right red lipstick and having anxiety about becoming a writer. I got very nervous about being competent and relatives would tell me to dumb myself down or I wouldn’t get a man,” she said. “I had this conflict of beauty vs. brains, this long-term conditioning of if you’re a girl and you’re not married then it’s a double whammy for your Hispanic family.”

Upon graduating from college, Anders briefly worked as a waitress before responding to a job listing from the circulation department of the Washington Post. After a year on the job, she managed to get transferred to an editorial department and eventually became a special correspondent. She also began writing for a variety of other publications, including Glamour, Allure, Latina and The American Journalism Review.

Recently, Anders gave an in-house reading for her publishers and experienced “the best moment of my life. It was the first time that I didn’t feel like an outsider. People were listening to me read and they were laughing but I felt they understood,” she said. “It’s so strange. The things in life that made me feel terrible about myself led to this moment where I thought, ‘This is who I was meant to be.'”

 

Appreciating Saul Bellow’s Jewishness


 

It disturbed me to hear on U.S. public radio and read in The New York Times that Saul Bellow was to be seen as simply an American writer — which, of course, he is — and not significantly a Jewish writer.

Maybe they think they’re doing him a favor? I think they’re bleaching out a lot of the substance of Bellow, who died Tuesday at 89.

The Times quoted him as saying he had no wish to be part — along with Roth and Malamud — of the “Hart, Schaffner & Marx” of American letters. Well, who would? No good writer wants to be pigeonholed or limited in scope. But he is deeply a Jewish writer — not just a Jew by birth.

Jewish culture, Jewish sensibility, a Jewish sense of holiness in the everyday, permeate his work.

As a child, Bellow attended Jewish schools and grew up in a Jewish family, where he learned Hebrew thoroughly and spoke Yiddish as a primary language. It’s a Yiddish that never went away.

Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool” is read today in Bellow’s great translation. Yiddish phrases and syntax are found in many of the novels. In “Herzog,” the protagonist is snobbish about the Yiddish of his wife’s lover.

But more important is a Yiddishkayt sensibility: never a schmaltzy echo of Sholem Aleichem, but a reliance on the Eastern European Jewish heart against which to measure life. I’m thinking, for example, of Schlossberg in “The Victim,” the old Yiddish journalist who makes the beautiful speech that defines the moral vision of the book. It’s a great speech and central to Bellow’s vision.

Attacking those whose suspicions of human life turn it into something cheap and empty, Schlossberg says, “I am as sure about greatness and beauty as you are about black and white. If a human life is a great thing to me, it is a great thing. Do you know better? I’m entitled as much as you…. Have dignity, you understand me? Choose dignity. Nobody knows enough to turn it down.”

Bellow has said of the “Jewish feeling” within him that it resists the claims of 20th-century romanticism, the belief that man is finished and that the world will be destroyed.

The world in Bellow’s fiction is, on the contrary, sanctified. The sanctification is often ironic, often in struggle against the neurotic patterns of characters and the foolish, vulgar, meretricious quality of contemporary life. Herzog, for instance, resists “the argument that scientific thought has put into disorder all considerations based on value…. The peculiar idea entered my [Jewish] mind that we’d see about this!”

Of course, Moses Herzog, like so many of Bellow’s Jewish characters, feels ashamed that he can’t live up to his ideal, his Jewish ideal of a mensch. But it is a Jewish ideal — for Herzog and for Bellow.

In novel after novel by Bellow there are Jewish characters in a significantly Jewish milieu. “The Victim” concerns a character facing anti-Semitism and his own neurotic defenses as a Jew. “Seize the Day” deals with a son who wants love from his cold, un-Jewish father; the novel ends at a Jewish funeral with the protagonist weeping for the dead stranger and for himself. “Herzog” is centered on the complicated world of a Jewish childhood.

Even the late short fictions, especially “A Silver Dish” and “Something to Remember Me By,” are deeply Jewish. “A Silver Dish,” for example, sets a Jewish worldview against a Christian one.

Bellow has given us a rich Jewish American world. But he has also given me as a writer a complex style, a way of handling contemporary reality, which he derived from both Jewish and American fiction.

You find in Sholem Aleichem, in I.L. Peretz, in Isaac Bashevis Singer, a way of finding the beautiful, the holy, the meaningful in the midst of the comic, the ordinary, the tragic. Bellow is a poet who works with laughable, vulgar materials and works them in the service of a noble vision.

Irving Howe quotes these famous lines from the great Yiddish writer Mendele Mocher Seforim: “Israel is the Diogenes of the nations; while his head towers in the heavens and is occupied with deep meditation concerning God and His wonders, he himself lives in a barrel.”

But Bellow has added to this mixture the grace and rhythms of the art novel in English, such as those by Henry James and James Joyce, and the speech rhythms of American writers like Mark Twain. He has given us a new kind of sentence, composed of street talk and philosophy, mixing language of the heart and language of moneymen, machers, American sports and con men.

This new sentence has been taken up by all American writers, Jewish and non-Jewish. If Israel is a blessing to the nations, Saul Bellow has been a Jewish blessing to all writers.

John J. Clayton, a retired professor of modern literature and fiction writing at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, is an award-winning and widely published author of novels, short stories and literary criticism. His work “Saul Bellow: In Defense of Man” won awards in literary criticism. His collection “Radiance” was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award in 1998.