The Best Offense Is a Funny Movie


If you feel that life is losing its edge because no one has offended you recently, Sacha Baron Cohen’s next movie is for you.

Baron Cohen stars as his third incarnation (after Ali G and Bruno) in “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.”In it, Borat, the intrepid Kazakhstani TV reporter, is sent off to make a documentary of America, where he becomes obsessed with finding and marrying Pamela Anderson.

The film opens Nov. 3, but according to advance hints, it is guaranteed to enrage Jews, gays, blacks, women, cowboys, Christians and college boys — not to mention Kazakhstanis.

In the meanwhile, you can catch Baron Cohen now in “Talladega Nights,” where, as France’s Formula One champ Jean Gerard, he challenges NASCAR idol Ricky Bobby (Will Ferrell) for the trophy.

Baron Cohen sports the thickest French accent this side of Paris, and in his first meeting with good ‘ol Southern boy Ricky Bobby, offers to drop out of the race on one condition.

“Eeef you keess me,” Gerard says.

The movie is a lip-to-lip competition between two very different comic improvisational styles, and on the track as on the laugh meter, it’s a bumper-to-bumper race.

In real life, the 34-year-old Baron Cohen was born into an Orthodox Jewish family in London, the son of a menswear shop owner and an Israeli mother. He remains a religious, kosher-observant Jew.

He studied history at Christ’s College, Cambridge, showing real potential for an academic career, and wrote his thesis on Jewish involvement in the American civil rights movement.

Coming up for the actor after “Borat” is “Dinner for Schmucks,” in which “an extraordinarily stupid man possesses the ability to ruin the life of anyone who spends more than a few minutes in his company.”

After that, it’s “Curly Oxide and Vic Thrill,” in which our hero plays a young Chasidic Jew who forms a band with an aging rock ‘n’ roller.

Who Are You?


Even in the best of families, relationships are enormously complicated. Some of the stories rabbis hear, all too frequently, of families in crisis are excruciatingly painful: parents who disown their children because of radical disappointment with the life choices their children have made; siblings who refuse to be in the same room with each other because their anger is irreconcilable; courts clogged with family members fighting over contested wills, and so forth. The possibilities for family chaos are almost endless. When things go wrong, they often go very wrong.

That is just simply a given of social life and structure, and even our patriarchal ancestors were not immune from the challenges of keeping families together, as we have been reading in the Genesis narratives these past few weeks: Abraham sends away his concubine wife and his son with her, and the family separates after the episode of the Akedah. Isaac sees his twin sons in a homicidal fight over the birthright, and one of his sons has to leave home. Jacob loses his favorite son to a diabolical plot launched by his sons against their brother. These are hardly thes tale of a happy, well-adjusted family.

But in this week’s parsha, there is the beginning of a reconciliation among the sons of Jacob; a glimpse of hope for future family life. The brothers are to be reunited in Egypt. Ten sons of Jacob come to Egypt in search of food; they meet their younger brother Joseph, now the vizier of Egypt, and the second-most powerful man in the known world.

When the brothers are brought before Joseph, in what seems like a throwaway line, the Torah gives us a glimpse into what is arguably the most important verse in the entire Joseph narrative, in what is a key to understanding the source of the tension in this family dynamic — and the key to strengthening the dynamic in every family:

“For though Joseph recognized his brothers, they did not recognize him” (Genesis 42:8). How is it possible they didn’t recognize their own flesh and blood, the object of their earlier jealousy and their resentment and their homicidal rage?

One answer, perhaps, is that Joseph recognized his brothers because they had not changed, but they did not recognize Joseph because he had. The 11th century commentator, Rashi, indicates as much, as he quotes the Midrash in the Talmud (Bava Metzia 69b) that states that when Joseph left home as a 17-year-old kid, he was clean-shaven. Now, more than 20 years later, Joseph was standing before them as a grown man with a full beard, and he was unrecognizable to his brothers. But more than just the beard, I suspect, had changed in Joseph; the brothers, on the other hand, had not changed at all from the time they were young men. None of the experiences of life had much of an effect on them. They talked about the same things they had always talked about. They dressed the same. They looked the same. It was easy to recognize them.

Joseph, on the other hand, had seized every opportunity he could to grow. He accepted every challenge put before him as a way to learn life’s lessons, as a way to develop skills and wisdom and to grow into a mature adult. The man standing in front of these shepherds from the hill country of Israel was not, by any definition, the same young man who was thrown into the snake pit so many years ago.

Some two centuries after Rashi, the 13th century commentator, Ramban, is skeptical of this answer. He notes that Issachar and Zevulun were not that much older than Joseph; if the difference in age between them was not that great, the difference in a beard would not have made that much of a difference. How could they not recognize him?

A second answer is suggested, one more troubling than the first, an answer that has to do with a basic character flaw we see in each of us: an innate inability to recognize our brothers, to see them separate from us, in their own autonomy, with their own matrix of needs, desires, hopes and motivations. That was the problem in Jacob’s family all along: the inability of brothers to recognize each other’s humanity.

When Joseph was 17, all he was to them was an exasperating nuisance. Their jealousy, anger and rage at his adolescent arrogance blinded them to who he really was, and allowed them to behave with violence. If they had been able to see Joseph for who he truly was, the way the Torah and God see him, it is highly unlikely they would have sold him to a passing caravan of Ishmaelites.

And so it is with us. When we are able to see each other’s humanity and recognize the dignity in each other, holiness and kindness prevail. Families have the chance of staying together, where everyone nurtures each other, and love dominates. The inability to recognize our brothers (and sisters, of course) is the beginning of enmity and strife, often times leading to family divisions.

And if we can do this in our own families, can we not do this as well with our communal families? Have we not all one Father?

Two Women Rabbis Will Fill Pulpits


When Rabbi Johanna Hershenson set off from Orange County for Alaska’s sweeping vistas and majestic peaks, she was eager for a new congregational experience and professional challenges.

She discovered that most Alaskan Jews are exiles by choice who sought the wilderness of the nation’s largest state rather than institutional life.

Apart from the 175 member families she served at Anchorage’s Congregation Beth Sholom, Hershenson found little other Jewish life. As the only non-Orthodox rabbi in Alaska, she became a long-distance consultant to lay synagogue leaders in even more isolated areas, such as Homer and Fairbanks. A local Chabad rabbi and his wife were welcome colleagues, she said.

"It became clear there wasn’t a lot of room for me to grow professionally," said Hershenson, who left Alaska after three years and spent the last 12 months in Madison, Wis., for a self-imposed sabbatical. She considered pursuing a doctorate by researching the juncture of spirituality and psychology but ended up filling in for vacationing colleagues.

On July 1, Hershenson, 35, along with her family, will return to Aliso Viejo’s Temple Beth El, where she will serve as the assistant rabbi to Allen Krause for a second time. Then, like now, the senior rabbi is departing for a sabbatical, although this time Hershenson will not be on her own but helped by a temporary replacement rabbi.

"Jewish life is thriving there," Hershenson said, pointing out the congregation’s growth since 1998, the start of her first Beth El stint, from 425 families to 700. "It’s demography that changes; it’s not that the synagogue has magic pills."

Another female rabbi will also start work locally in July. Westminster’s Temple Beth David is Rabbi Nancy Myers’ first solo pulpit. She previously served for six years as associate rabbi of the 900-family Temple Chai of Long Grove, Ill. With a two-year contract at the smaller, 350-family Beth David congregation, Myers is the permanent replacement for Robert Klensin, who served a year as interim rabbi.

The opening arose because of the unexpected resignation of Beth David’s 13-year spiritual leader, Michael Mayershon, who stepped down in spring of 2002 (see story, page 9).

Myers, 34, impressed the Beth David search committee, which observed during a daylong trial as each finalist taught an adult education class, led a tot Shabbat service and offered pastoral counseling advice to a congregant struggling with teenagers, said Mark Sklan, the congregation’s past president.

"She was magnificent," he said.

Myers, along with her husband, Paul Prunty, and two toddlers, relocated last month to Cypress.

Carlyle Discusses Dangers of ‘Hitler’


Robert Carlyle, of "The Full Monty" and "Angela’s Ashes" fame, gives a striking performance in the title role of the CBS miniseries "Hitler: The Rise of Evil." The film, which airs Sunday and Tuesday (May 18 and 20) at 9 p.m., focuses on Hitler’s life from Munich beer hall orator in 1920, through his political machinations within the Nazi party and against the Weimar Republic, ending in 1934 with the consolidation of all state power in his hands. Speaking with a pronounced Scottish burr (which he suppresses in the film) from his home in his native Glasgow, the 42-year-old actor discussed the challenges and rewards of his role with The Jewish Journal.

Jewish Journal: What were your thoughts when you decided to take the role of Hitler?

Robert Carlyle: At first I was frightened because I realized the potential dangers and pitfalls. But I decided I wouldn’t do a carbon copy of Hitler. I would do my own interpretation, that I could explore him like any other character. Then a window opened up and I wasn’t frightened any more.

JJ: One of your fellow cast members, Peter Stormare, said, "I can’t imagine being Bobby [Carlyle] and having to look at himself as Hitler every day because of all the images that flash before your eyes, all the time." What were your feelings?

RC: Once shooting began, in my quiet moments, I tried to empty myself of the character on a daily basis, rather than store it up for four months. Also, as Hitler, I didn’t look at all like myself. I had the mustache, a false nose, cheek pieces and more weight as Hitler got older.

JJ: What was your working day like when you were shooting the film in and around Prague?

RC: It took around one-and-a-half hours for the makeup and I worked 14-15 hours on an average day. As we went further along, the days got even longer.

JJ: I understand that you were offered the role of Hitler three times before you took this one.

RC:Yes, the first time was about three years ago but it didn’t come to anything. Another time was for the film "Max" [in which Hitler was played by Noah Taylor]. Five months before I started the CBS job, I worked for three months on a BBC television production which started with Hitler in the bunker and we flashed back to his earlier life. So I had already learned a good deal about the character.

JJ: I believe the BBC project was canceled, partly due to strong Jewish protests.

RC: I’m not sure. I heard that there were funding problems because the American studio partner backed out. I don’t know about Jewish protests, but if there were any I would understand that.

JJ: One of the concerns raised when CBS announced the project was that any good actor would try to find the human elements in Hitler and therefore make him more sympathetic.

RC: It wasn’t a question of searching for the human traits. I didn’t have to find that to get close to the character. I thought Hitler was very cunning and had a belief of you’re-either-for-me-or-against-me. I tried to focus on these things.

JJ: Were you aware of the objections raised by some Jewish spokesmen and organizations in the early stages of the CBS project?

RC: Not at all. I didn’t know what was going on behind the scenes. But I knew from the beginning that if I gave as honest a portrayal as I could, it would be all right. I didn’t want to upset anyone.

JJ: After you finished shooting, did you go through a decompression stage?

RC: Yes, I took off and spent a month in the country. A few weeks ago, I went back to London for some final dubbing and suddenly saw "my" Hitler on the monitor. And I said to myself, "Jesus, what a pompous little prick" and then, "You’ve done your job."

A Look Back


When I was 16, my family moved from Santa Monica to Sacramento. I had just finished my first year at Santa Monica High School and had been selected to play drums with the school’s jazz band in the Hollywood Bowl (which I did the night before we moved). I was certainly not looking forward to leaving all my friends behind — and everything I had grown up with — to move to a strange new place where I knew no one. But my dad had a new job, so move we did.

What I could never have known at the time, as I sat glumly in the back seat of my parents car on that long drive to a new, unknown life, was that Sacramento would provide me with some of the greatest experiences of my life. Because I moved to Sacramento, I became very involved with the local synagogue youth group so I could meet new friends and ended up being elected president, going to leadership institutes at Jewish camps in California, and then in New York, and started on the road that led me to become a rabbi.

Because I moved to Sacramento, I found a remarkable drum and percussion teacher, through whom I got my first professional job as a drummer at 16. A year later, I was invited to join the Sacramento Symphony Orchestra, where I soon became the youngest principal percussionist in its history. I also had the privilege of performing all over California on tour with Germany’s leading electronic composer, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and became involved with some of the leading avant-garde composers in America. I remember looking back on the move to Sacramento later in life and saying, “I guess there really was a plan for my life, and I just didn’t know it at the time.”

This week’s Torah portion tells a similar tale about Joseph and his forced relocation to Egypt. Of course in Joseph’s story, his brothers are so jealous that they throw him in a pit and then sell him into slavery. After a series of ups and downs, Joseph rises to become second-in-command of all Egypt, and is responsible for saving his country and others from starvation during the great seven-year famine. The famine forces his brothers to seek food in Egypt, where they end up standing in front of Joseph — whom they don’t recognize — and pleading with him for their lives.

In one of the most poignant moments in the Torah, Joseph can’t hold back the emotion that is welling up inside of him and finally reveals himself — to their great shock and fear. In doing so, he tells them what human beings have so often said: “There was a purpose to what happened to me, and none of us knew it at the time.” And in so saying, Joseph extended the hand of forgiveness to his brothers.

But it’s more than that. Joseph, in this passage, did what we humans probably do best. He took the otherwise random experiences of his life, and he created a sense of meaning and purpose out of them. All of us do that. We look back at our experiences with a kind of spiritual 20/20 hindsight, and we choose what those experiences mean.

Joseph is a beautiful model for each of us. Each of us has the chance, over and over in our lives, to transcend difficult experiences of the past and to find a renewed sense of purpose and meaning in our relationships, struggles, triumphs and even tragedies. Perhaps that is the real lesson of this portion: that we are not trapped by the past; that we are not doomed to attach only one set of meanings to what happens to us and to the choices that we make.

As you look back over the past year and accept the challenge to find new meanings, perhaps you can forgive those who were the cause of petty hurts and injuries and find a renewed sense of your own vision of who you are and why you are here in the first place.


Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben is senior rabbi of Kehillat Israel Reconstructionist Congregation in Pacific Palisades and president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.