[WATCH] My delightful meeting with 101-year-old Alyse Laemmle of Laemmle Theatres

As soon as I heard the magic words from my friend Tish Laemmle– “She’s 101 years old”– my immediate reply was: “Can I meet her?” A few weeks later, on a sunny Sunday afternoon, I drove down to Hermosa Beach to chat with Alyse Laemmle, 101-year-old wife of the late co-founder of the theater chain, Kurt Laemmle. Here is a little taste of our delightful rendezvous.


Make ‘Fiddler’ a Christmas Eve tradition

On Thursday night last week, 1,500 Los Angeles area Jews gathered in six Laemmle movie theaters in Beverly Hills, West Los Angeles, Encino, North Hollywood, Pasadena and Claremont for sold-out screenings at the eighth annual Christmas Eve “Fiddler on the Roof Sing-Along.” I was honored to host the event at the Ahrya Fine Arts. It turned out to be a profound experience of Jewish community. 

The most remarkable surprise was who turned out – a veritable tableau of Jewish Los Angeles. As I greeted the 400-plus movie-goers in the lobby, I expected to see mostly baby boomers like me who embraced “Fiddler” when it opened on Broadway, September 22, 1964 and who loved the 1971 movie version. They showed up, but so did whole families with young children, a troupe of high school students who had recently performed in a production of the musical, a scattering of millenials, couples, singles, friends, and a group of 80 organized by the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival (which, full disclosure, is a part of Tribe Media Corp., publisher of the Jewish Journal). There were kippah-wearing Orthodox Jews, leaders of Conservative and Reform synagogues, secular Jews, rabbis, Israelis, Persians and Russians. A few came in costume: a Hodel wearing a sheitl and carrying a broom, a Perchick, a Golde. I was dressed as Tevye – and therein lies a story I told the crowd from my memoir, The Best Boy in the United States of America: A Memoir of Blessings and Kisses (Jewish Lights Publishing).

In 1966, I performed the role of Tevye in a United Synagogue Youth production at Beth El Synagogue in my hometown of Omaha, Nebraska, to standing-room-only crowds. Hardly anyone had seen the show; it was an impossible ticket on Broadway. Only one curious thing about the experience: the synagogue called the performances “A Night of Jewish Music.” I never understood why – until last year. “The whole thing was totally illegal!” John Adam Ross, the director of theater arts at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin told me. “There were no rights for high school productions in 1966. But, you realize Ron, you were probably the first person ever to play Tevye outside of Broadway!” I contacted Alisa Solomon, professor of journalism at Columbia University and author of a wonderful book about the making of the musical, Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof to ask if this could possibly be true. Her answer: correct, there were no rights for high school productions to produce the show in 1966, but by then, there was a national touring company and an Israeli production of “Fiddler.” So, perhaps I was the third actor to play Tevye outside of Broadway. I showed the crowd at the Fine Arts a photo of me, age 16, as “Illegal Tevye.”

After a trivia contest (the question that stumped everyone: “What two actresses who played roles in “Fiddler” went on to star together in a smash TV series?” Answer: Bea Arthur as Yente and Adrienne Barbeau as Hodel in Norman Lear’s magnificent “Maude”) and a warm-up rehearsal led by anyone who had been in a production of “Fiddler,” the movie began to whoops and cheers. With the lyrics to every song captioned on screen, the sing-along commenced in full voice, a choir of 400 Jews of different backgrounds, religious levels, and political beliefs coming together as one community – singing about traditions, romances, dreams of being rich (“it’s no shame to be poor, but it’s no great honor, either!”), miracles, l’chayims, Sabbath prayers, sunrises…and sunsets. We nodded at the clever and insightful lyrics, penned by Sheldon Harnick, now 91 years old and still active: “life has a way of confusing us, blessing and bruising us.” We laughed, we cried, and we resonated with Tevye and Golde as their familial roles are challenged.  We shuddered as pogroms force the families of Anatevka to flee Russia as refugees.

“Tevye was my great-grandfather,” I told the crowd during the intermission. “My zaydie, my grandfather Louis Paperny, emigrated from Minsk to the United States of America in the early 1900’s as did many of your grandparents and great-grandparents. Like many of your ancestors, he left behind everything to seek a better life in America where he could build a family, a business and a community…as did families from Iran and the former Soviet Union more recently.”

When the evening ended, I asked the President of Laemmle Theatres, Greg Laemmle, why he initiated this event eight years ago. “There is something about all of us Jews being together on Christmas Eve. My grandmother left Russia as a young girl during the Revolution, bouncing around Western Europe before coming to Los Angeles in 1939.  And yet, even after forty plus years in the United States, she would still feel a sense of foreboding at Christmas and Easter.  Why?  Because she still lived with the fear that these were the times when a violent pogrom could erupt out of nowhere.  For me, that was part of the motivation in creating a Christmas Eve event.  And obviously, ‘Fiddler’ is a natural choice.”

The themes of refugees and immigration animate the newest revival of “Fiddler on the Roof” on Broadway in a production that opened on December 20, 2015, to rave reviews.  (Spoiler alert!) In a controversial decision by esteemed director, Bartlett Sher, the play is bracketed with a framing device that has Danny Burstein, the talented actor playing Tevye, in a modern red parka telling the story as family history – “A fiddler on the roof? Sounds crazy, no?” Even more stunning is the conclusion of the show which offers an unmistakable nod to the global refugee crisis unfolding before our very eyes.

At American Jewish University this coming semester, I will teach a seminar in “experiential education” to our graduate students in Jewish Education. I cannot think of a more unusual, engaging and moving experience of Jewish community outside of a great prayer service than the “Fiddler on the Roof “ Sing-Along. I encourage you to get your tickets early for next year’s sure-to-sell-out screenings. 

As the crowd filed out of the theater, the comments were universally positive. “Wonderful show!” “I hadn’t seen the film in thirty years – it holds up.” “I wanted my children to see it so they would understand.” “So much fun to sing along!” My response: “Thanks for coming. We’re still here. Shabbat shalom!”

Dr. Ron Wolfson is Fingerhut Professor of Education, American Jewish University and author of The Best Boy in the United States of America: A Memoir of Blessings and Kisses (Jewish Lights Publishing). 

Calendar Picks and Clicks: Oct. 27–Nov 2, 2012


“Seeds of Resiliency”

Documentarian Susan Polis Schutz’s new film introduces us to 12 diverse people who have survived tragedies and challenges by having hope and helping others, including a Holocaust survivor who believes that “the worst can bring out the best in us,” a man who escaped war-torn Uganda and now assists other refugees, and a Korean professor who became a quadriplegic but does not consider himself unfortunate. Sat. Various times. $5. Laemmle’s Music Hall 3, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. Laemmle’s Town Center 5, 17200 Ventura Blvd., Encino. (310) 478-3836. laemmle.com.


“Midrashic Mirrors”

An art exhibition and panel discussion marks the completion of “Midrashic Mirrors: Creating Holiness in Imagery and Intimacy,” a book project developed by a group of female artists and writers at Temple Israel of Hollywood, which illustrates how the creative process animates the nexus between Torah and our personal lives. A wine, cheese and dessert reception kicks off the festivities, followed by a walk-through of the installation. Afterward, Rabbi Michelle Missaghieh facilitates a discussion with the project’s authors and artists. The event concludes with a first-edition book signing and sale, with proceeds benefiting Temple Israel’s education scholarships. Sun. 3-6 p.m. Free. Temple Israel of Hollywood, 7300 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 876-8330. tioh.org.

Propositions Party

Are you confused about the propositions? Temple Kol Tikvah holds a nonpartisan forum for California voters to learn about of the issues on the Nov. 6 ballot. Speakers present the pro and con positions on all 11 of the state propositions, which include tax initiatives to fund schools, labeling of genetically modified food, three-strikes reform, an end to the death penalty and increased penalties for human trafficking. Sun. 3-6 p.m. Free. Temple Kol Tikvah, 20400 Ventura Blvd., Woodland Hills. (818) 348-0670. koltikvah.org.

“Unbroken Spirit”

Former Soviet refusenik Rabbi Yosef Mendelevich, who at the age of 22 attempted to hijack a plane to the West to raise awareness about the desperate plight of Soviet Jews, discusses and signs the newly released English translation of his memoir, “Unbroken Spirit: A Heroic Story of Faith, Courage, and Survival.” Sun. 7 p.m. Free (reservations required). Museum of Tolerance, 9786 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 553-8403. museumoftolerance.com/unbrokenspirit.


“Jewish Values and the 2012 Ballot”

IKAR’s Rabbi Sharon Brous and Rabbi Ronit Tsadok, American Jewish University’s Rabbi Aryeh Cohen and leaders of social justice organization Bend the Arc discuss the November ballot initiatives through a Jewish lens, addressing what Jewish tradition says about the death penalty, criminal justice and income equality. Mon. 7:30 p.m. Free. Westside JCC, 5870 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 634-1870, (323) 761-8350. ikar-la.org, bendthearc.us/events.


Israel Philharmonic Orchestra

Conductor Zubin Mehta leads the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in a performance of Schubert’s Symphony No. 3, Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Brahms’ Symphony
No. 1. Pianist Yuja Wang also appears. Tue. 8 p.m. $47-$156. Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 850-2000. laphil.com.


“Rita in Concert: A Celebration of My Roots”

Israel’s diva reconnects with her Iranian roots and brings a world-music experience to UCLA as part of her U.S. tour. Rita performs selections from her latest album, “My Joys,” which features contemporary renditions of classic Iranian songs, blending Tel Aviv-inspired club music, pop and gypsy sounds with Farsi lyrics. Sponsored by the Iranian American Jewish Federation. Thu. 7:30 p.m. $35-$200. UCLA campus, Royce Hall, 240 Royce Drive, Los Angeles. (310) 825-2101. cap.ucla.edu

Pete Wilson and Gray Davis

Former Govs. Wilson and Davis discuss Propositions 30 and 38, initiatives on the November election ballots that promise to raise additional money for K-12 education and community colleges. Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles and Journal columnist, moderates. Thu. 7:30 p.m. Free. Stephen S. Wise Temple, 15500 Stephen S. Wise Drive, Los Angeles. wisela.org.


2012 Kindertransport Association Conference

The Kindertransport Association, a nonprofit that unites children Holocaust refugees of the Kindertransport rescue movement with their descendants, hosts “Generation to Generation: Honoring the Legacy, Transforming the Future,” a three-day biennial international gathering. Workshops and speakers explore the legacy of the Kindertransports, a rescue movement that took place on the eve of World War II and saved nearly 10,000 German, Austrian and Czech children. Fri. 7 p.m. Through Nov. 4. $330 (Kindertransport Association members), $370 (general). Includes two breakfasts, two lunches, two dinners, programs and complimentary shuttle from John Wayne International Airport. Hotel registration: $99 per night (single or double occupancy). Irvine Marriott Hotel, 18000 Van Karman Ave., Irvine. (516) 938-6084. kindertransport.org

Rescuing Jewish Musicians

When Zubin Mehta takes the stage at the Disney Concert Hall on Oct. 30 to conduct the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO), most in the audience will know that they’re hearing a world-class orchestra. Very few will realize, however, that the IPO’s founding was integral to the origins of the modern Jewish state. That beginning not only inaugurated the arts in Israel, but it was coupled with the saving of untold numbers of Jews from the Holocaust. Now that story is being told on the big screen in director Josh Aronson’s “Orchestra of Exiles,” in first-run screenings at selected Laemmle theaters beginning Nov. 2.

It’s the story of Bronislaw Huberman (1882-1947), a poor Polish Jew who rose to become one of Europe’s leading concert violinists of the early 20th century. As German orchestras began expelling their Jewish members, he had the vision to see the coming Holocaust. He fought the rampant European Jew hatred of the 1930s and ’40s with his greatest weapon: his violin. Huberman then leveraged his rock-star status to attract star Jewish soloists to join him in building a great symphony orchestra in Palestine. In so doing, he arranged for the safe exit of at least 1,000 Jews.

While Aronson has directed fictional screenplays, the 60-year-old filmmaker’s medium of choice is documentary filmmaking. His resume includes “Sound and Fury” (2000), “Beautiful Daughters” (2006) and “Bullrider” (2006). And as a documentarian, he’s used to being buttonholed about a subject.

“Everybody comes to you with the greatest story that’s never been told,” he says with a degree of weariness from his home in New York City. “But a friend of mine was going to Vienna to play with violinist Joshua Bell, to honor this long-dead violinist, Huberman. I’ve been a pianist since I was 5 years old, and my wife, Maria Bachmann, is a concert violinist, so I know classical music. But I didn’t know about Bronislaw Huberman.”

“When I heard who Huberman was and what he did,” Aronson enthuses, clearly energized by the memory, “I got it: one of the most renowned concert violinists of his time, who saved the essence of Jewish European culture from the Nazis and brought it to Palestine. I immediately knew I had to make this movie. How could I not tell this story?”

Aronson grew up in St. Louis. “My family came from Vilnius and Romania,” he says, “before World War I. So there are no Holocaust stories in my family. I’d never much looked into it before I started this project, but because of Huberman’s story, I knew it was time.”

“Orchestra of Exiles” features vibrant on-screen testimony from Mehta (whose history with the IPO stretches 50 years), violinists Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman and Bell. There is no film of Huberman, so historic photographs, newspapers and artifacts supply a sense of the time. Aronson also staged scenes with actors, shot in muted colors and soft-focus. He uses written passages — from Huberman, Adolf Hitler and Arturo Toscanini — to provide effective voice-overs.

Alongside Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud, Huberman was part of the post-World War I Pan-European movement. A utopian precursor to the European Union that was rendered irrelevant by World War II, its adherents thought it would inoculate Europe from war.

“Huberman was not a religious Jew,” Aronson surmises, “that I know of.” Does he make anything of the fact that all three were nonreligious Jews? “I don’t know,” Aronson ponders, “except to say that Jews have hearts; Jews care, and Jews have often known the horrors of war in ways that other people haven’t. I know Huberman spoke very passionately for Pan-Europeanism at his concerts.”

The movie contains some picturesque on-camera descriptions by Perlman, Zukerman and Bell of Huberman’s violin playing. Aronson clarifies: “Heifetz and Paganini were known for their very precise work; Huberman’s style was very different. He was much rougher — very emotional, very passionate and given to playing wrong notes now and then. But he didn’t care. There are recordings of him from the 1930s, but they’re not of good quality, so we really can’t know what the experience of hearing him was like. I suppose Nigel Kennedy would be the closest present-day violinist to Huberman.”

When Hitler assumed power in 1933, German Jews saw their freedom and work activities slowly constricting. German symphonies began to pink slip Jewish musicians, despite the fact that they were often their prize soloists. Third Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels knew the value of showing a benign treatment of Jews to the larger world. When a group of unemployed Jewish actors formed their own theater company, Goebbels loudly trumpeted it as an example of Nazi benevolence. Huberman wasn’t fooled, and he turned down offers to perform in Germany, including a personal plea from Hitler.

The Zionist movement was taking hold in Palestine, and it resonated with Huberman. Like Einstein, Huberman saw the gathering dark clouds in Europe and realized the need for a Jewish homeland. He began putting out a call to out-of-work Jewish musicians and held blind auditions in order to attract the absolute best players. Huberman was able to arrange for many safe passages to Palestine for musicians and even their family members. He moved Jews out of Europe up until 1939.

“There are no records,” Aronson says, “so we don’t know how many people Huberman was personally responsible for. At the very least it was 300, but it may have been as many as 3,000.”

Helgard Field (whose husband, Irwin Field, is a former publisher of the Jewish Journal and serves on the board) is on the national board of the American Friends of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (AFIPO) and is a member of the West Coast Chairmen’s Council of AFIPO. The AFIPO officially began in the 1980s as a support organization. “I heard that Zubin Mehta was conducting the orchestra in Buckingham Palace about 18 years ago, and I thought it was ironic that the concert was taking place right down the hall from where so many people who wanted to destroy Israel so many years ago had gathered,” Helgard Field says.

“This orchestra,” she points out, “was made up of specialists and soloists. It rose like a phoenix up out of the ashes of Europe. It now has musicians who are third-generation IPO members. And this documentary is a fascinating and vital document of what happened in Europe. It’s extremely important that young people everywhere see it.”

Making documentaries is a long-distance runner’s job. It’s not uncommon for biographers and documentarians to so thoroughly dissect their subjects that they lose all affection they once had for them. So, after completing the movie, how does Aronson ultimately feel about Huberman, the man? Pausing a moment to consider, he replies: “He had a lot of eccentricities, the way great artists do. And I already knew a fair amount of negatives about him; he didn’t really father his own son. But that’s a common theme with famous men. I ended up liking him for his dedication. He gave up half of his income when Hitler came to power by refusing to perform in Germany; a lot of great musicians stayed where they were, earning comfortable livings. For a while, anyway. …

“He’d seen real pogroms in Poland as a boy. And out of the anti-Semitism all around him, he saw an opportunity to build something great with, apparently, no interest in any personal accolades or publicity whatsoever. He was so famous by his 40s that I don’t think he cared at all about fame anymore. It’s just impossible that he didn’t see what he was doing as a mission of mercy.”


The film will screen locally at four Laemmle theaters: Music Hall in Beverly Hills, Town Center 5 in Encino, Playhouse 7 in Pasadena, and Claremont 5 in Claremont.

Laemmle to host ‘Fiddler’ sing-along on Christmas Eve

For the fourth consecutive year, Laemmle Theatres is hosting a Christmas Eve sing-along screening of “Fiddler on the Roof,” Norman Jewison’s film adaptation of the long-running Broadway musical. The Dec. 24 event will be held 7:30 p.m. at the Music Hall 3 in Beverly Hills.

The family-owned independent film chain, Laemmle Theatres, organizes the screening each year with Jewish Angelenos in mind.

“We know by tradition it can be a little intimidating being Jewish and figuring out what to do [on Christmas Eve],” said Greg Laemmle, president of Laemmle Theatres.

Last year, approximately 200 people — mothers and daughters, middle-age friends and senior citizens — attended the sing-along screening.

“Matchmaker,” “Sunrise, Sunset” and “If I Were a Rich Man” are among the songs in the film, written by composer-lyricist team Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick — originally for the 1964 Broadway production of “Fiddler.” Upon entering the theater this Christmas Eve, attendees will receive lyric sheets.

In 2008, Laemmle screened “Fiddler” as a way of filling a time slot at Laemmle’s Royal Theater in West Los Angeles after a film there had been bumped. The film has bounced between that location and one of Laemmle’s San Fernando Valley theaters.

This year’s venue is slightly smaller than the Royal — a film playing for an Oscar-qualifying one-week run at the Royal made it impossible to fit “Fiddler” into the scheduling there this year. Laemmle said that if enough people buy tickets in advance, there’s a possibility they will screen “Fiddler” at additional venues.

This year’s event is unique because it takes place during the fourth night of Chanukah, a perfect evening for going to the movies, Laemmle said. “Popcorn is cooked in oil, so that makes it a Chanukah meal,” he said.

Of course, non-Jews are welcome to the screening as well.

“Certainly if you’re Jewish it’s a lot of fun,” Laemmle said, “but if you have some non-Jewish friends who like to sing, they can do worse than come out and join us.”

Laemmle’s Music Hall 3, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. For more information or tickets, visit laemmle.com.

The Pacifist Who Fought Hitler

Early in the Nazi regime, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a rising young Protestant minister and theologian, was asked by his twin sister to speak at the funeral of her Jewish husband.

Bonhoeffer consulted his church superiors and refused. Later, tormented by his decision, he asked himself, “How could I have been so afraid? I should have behaved differently.”

It was perhaps the only time that Bonhoeffer’s natural human fear trumped his moral courage in fighting the Nazi ideology, a stand for which he finally paid with his life.

The acts and religious beliefs of perhaps the most principled German Protestant voice during the Hitler era are woven together in the 90-minute documentary, “Bonhoeffer,” opening Oct. 10 at two Laemmle theaters.

His complex theological thoughts, which emphasized the interconnectedness between traditional Christianity and secular action, might give some viewers pause, but the path leading to his martyrdom is marked by astounding feats of conviction and daring.

Bonhoeffer took the ultimate step by joining the 1944 plot to kill Hitler. But unlike his fellow conspirators in the army officers corps, whose chief aim was to save German honor and lives, the theologian made the persecution of the Jews the main spur for his resistance.

As early as 1932, Bonhoeffer, 26 at the time and a lecturer at the University of Berlin, became one of the first churchmen to criticize Hitler as a “misleader” who “mocked God.”

Bonhoeffer was profoundly influenced by a year spent at the Union Theological Seminary in New York, during which time he befriended the Rev. Clayton Powell Sr. of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem and absorbed some of the black congregation’s emotional faith and social and political activism.

Despite his Nazi opposition, Bonhoeffer largely escaped Gestapo detection until the spring of 1943, when he helped 14 Jews flee to Switzerland and was subsequently linked to a resistance cell embedded in the Abwehr, the German army’s intelligence bureau.

One month before the end of World War II, Bonhoeffer was led naked to the gallows at the Flossberg prison and hanged. Devout to his last breath, his last words were, “This is the end of me, but the beginning of life.”

“Bonhoeffer” opens Oct. 10 at Laemmle’s Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869; and Fallbrook 7, 6731 Fallbrook Ave., West Hills, (818) 340-8710.