September 23, 2018

Moving & Shaking: Film Fest Finale, Holocaust Education

The Israel Bonds luncheon drew (top row, from left) Nancy Sloan, Rochelle Boren, Ambassador Danny Danon, Talie Danon, Sharona Nazarian, Daniel Nazarian and Dalia Farkas and (bottom row, from left) Ghazal Rokhsar, Vera Liebenthal, Jacqueline Burdorf, Myrtle Sitowitz and Ruth Low. Photo courtesy of Israel Bonds.

The Israel Bonds Los Angeles’ Women’s Division Council held its 2018 Golda Meir Luncheon on May 1 at the Four Seasons Hotel.

Husband-and-wife Talie and Danny Danon, Israel’s permanent representative to the United Nations, served as the event’s guest speakers. Talie discussed “The United Nations: A Women’s Perspective.”

Gina Raphael, the Los Angeles co-chair on the Israel Bonds L.A. Women’s Division Council, led an awards presentation honoring Abigail Kedem Goldberg; Georgette Joffe; Vera Liebenthal; Jennifer Meyers; Sharona Nazarian; Hannah Niman; and Ghazal Rokhsar.

Additional speakers included Karin Eliyahu-Pery, the consul for public diplomacy and culture at the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles; Mark Goldenberg served as master of ceremonies; Jean Friedman, women’s division council chair, delivered welcoming remarks; Sinai Temple Cantor Marcus Feldman sang the national anthems; and Jerry Friedman led the invocation and hamotzi.

The event acknowledged Israel’s 70th anniversary since its founding in 1948.

Israel Bonds is a broker dealer that underwrites securities issued by the State of Israel. It ranks among Israel’s most valued economic and strategic resources.

Producer and talent manager George Shapiro (left) and film composer Alan Bergman attended the screening of “If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast” on the closing night of the L.A. Jewish Film Festival. Photo courtesy of RozWolfPR.

“We were focusing on what the spirit of life is and what makes them live,” Gold said.

The work features more than showbiz folks. Ida Keeling, one of the individuals profiled in the film, is a 100-year-old woman who, after losing two of her sons while in her late 60s, takes up running.

Classic film and music expert Michael Schlesinger moderated the discussion, which also featured film composer Alan Bergman (“Yentl,” “Toostie”).

LAJFF Director Hilary Helstein introduced the film in front of a nearly sold-out audience. She expressed gratitude to those who had turned up throughout the week to the various films screening around the city.

Holocaust survivor Joe Alexander showed his tattoo from Auschwitz to high school students Eli Sitzman, Sara Schechter and Adora Dayani during a Witness Theater: Voices of History production. Photo by Michael Canon.

Holocaust education program Witness Theater: Voices of History staged a student-led Holocaust remembrance program on April 16 at the Norman Pattiz Concert Hall at Hamilton High School.

More than 30 students from 11 local high schools wrote, directed and acted in dramatic vignettes inspired by the stories of Holocaust survivors Mary Bauer, Eva Wartnik, Tomas Kovar and Joe Alexander. Alexander, born in Poland, survived 12 camps during the war.

Ann Noble and Talya Waldman directed the performance, which culminated with the students and survivors appearing together onstage in front of an audience of more than 500 people.

This marked the first year that Witness Theater has staged a production in Los Angeles.

The Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust and Beth Jacob Congregation served as partners on the production.

From left: Friends of Sheba Medical Center supporter Marilyn Ziering and 2018 Marjorie Pressman Legacy Award recipient Dvorah Colker attend the Friends of Sheba Women of Achievement luncheon. Photo courtesy of Friends of Sheba Medical Center.

Friends of Sheba Medical Center held its annual Women of Achievement Luncheon at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel on April 26, raising more than $350,000 to benefit Sheba Medical Center, Tel HaShomer.

Drawing 450 attendeees, the event honored Judy Flesh Rosenberg with the Women of Achievement Award and Dvorah Colker with the Marjorie Pressman Legacy Award. Helene Boston and Parvin Djavaheri co-chaired. Lynn Ziman served as the honorary chair and Beverly Cohen the vice chair.

Serving as the emcee, Israeli-American actress Moran Atias (“Tyrant”) highlighted Sheba Medical Center’s position at the forefront of the fight against cancer. Sheba patient Tamir Gilat discussed his battle against an aggressive form of cancer under the care of Sheba Medical Center, thanking Sheba’s remarkable staff for providing world-class treatment, hope, and support to him and his entire family.

“We were very happy to welcome so many new friends to our community and together make a direct impact on cancer treatment worldwide,” Friends of Sheba Medical Center President Parham Zar aid after the event.

Sheba Medical Center, Tel HaShomer is the largest and most comprehensive medical center in the Middle East. It combines an acute care hospital and a rehabilitation hospital on one campus, and it is at the forefront of medical treatments, patient care, cutting-edge research and education. As a university teaching hospital affiliated with the Sackler School of Medicine at Tel-Aviv University, it welcomes people from all over the world. ”

Esther Kustanowitz, Contributing Writer

Aziza Hasan, executive director of NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change, and human relations consultant Lloyd Wilkey speak at the Museum of Tolerance screening of Katie Couric’s new National Geographic series. Photo courtesy of Museum of Tolerance.

The Museum of Tolerance on April 25 screened “White Anxiety,” the fourth episode of Katie Couric’s new documentary series, “America Inside Out,” which is airing on the National Geographic Channel this month.

Couric’s six-part series is about social upheaval across the United States, which is why the Museum of Tolerance was interested in screening the film for the Jewish community of Los Angeles, Museum of Tolerance communications director Michele Alkin told the Journal.

“The Museum of Tolerance plays a crucial role in bringing people together for solutions-oriented community dialogue that has a call to positive action,” Alkin said. “We are working with people with whom we have worked many times in the past on films with a social action message.”

The audience of 300 at the Museum of Tolerance enthusiastically  embraced the theme of Couric’s series.

Speakers included human relations consultant Lloyd Wilkey and Aziza Hasan, executive director of NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change.

“White Anxiety,” which premiered on May 2, is about large numbers of immigrants pouring into small, insular communities often dominated by a single industry, and about technology taking over traditional working-class jobs. Both developments ignite social and labor upheaval.

The Couric series carries titles including “Re-Righting History” and “The Muslim Next Door.” The series’ finale, “The Age of Outrage,” will air May 16 on the National Geographic Channel.

Ari Noonan, Contributing Writer

Moving & Shaking: LAJFF, Friends of IDF and More

From left: Stan Taffel; Tom Dreesen; L.A. Jewish Film Festival Founder and Director Hilary Helstein; Hal Linden and Manny Davis attend the opening night of the L.A. Jewish Film Festival. Photo by Todd Felderstein.

The 13th annual Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival (LAJFF) kicked off with a sold-out opening night gala on April 25 at the Ahrya Fine Arts theater.

The event paid tribute to the legendary African-American and Jewish entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. and featured a screening of “Sammy Davis Jr.: I’ve Gotta
Be Me.”

The Sam Pollard-directed documentary examines the life and career of Davis, who was a child star, member of the Rat Pack and civil rights activist before his death in 1990 at the age of 64. Those interviewed in the film include Whoopi Goldberg, Billy Crystal, Kim Novak and Jerry Lewis.

Speaking from a podium in the theater, LAJFF Director Hilary Helstein welcomed the crowd to the festival.

Beverly Hills Vice Mayor John Mirisch and Los Angeles City Councilman Paul Koretz presented Helstein with proclamations on behalf of Beverly Hills and Los Angeles, respectively.

In an interview on the red carpet, Ken Davitian, co-star of the film “The Samuel Project,” said Davis transcended racial boundaries.

“He broke the barriers of these Black guys who could hang around with white guys [such as Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin] and they were actually having a ball,” Davitian said. “They had a fun time; they all had the talent; they were able to do stuff other people can’t do and they liked doing it with each other and it didn’t matter if it was an Italian guy or a Black guy.”

“Or a Jewish guy,” Helstein said, standing alongside Davitian.

“A Jewish Black guy,” Davitian said.

Rabbi Jerry Cutler of Creative Arts Temple described Davis as a “great man and a great entertainer.”

Local comedian Avi Liberman, whose film, “Land of Milk and Funny,” screened at the festival, said he has always appreciated Davis’s contributions to the arts. He called Davis “one of the greatest all-around performers ever.”

Additional attendees included actor Hal Linden, star of “The Samuel Project,” which premiered at the festival on April 28; George Schlatter, who produced the breakthrough series “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In”; Manny, Davis’ son with his widow, Altovise; and Kat Kramer, the daughter of acclaimed filmmaker Stanley Kramer.

After the screening, Hollywood historian and Davis archivist Stan Taffel moderated a panel discussion.

The LAJFF is co-sponsored by Tribe Media Corp., parent company of the Jewish Journal.

Friends of Israel Defense Forces Western Region President Tony Rubin and IDF Sgt. Yaniv attended a Yom HaZikaron celebration at the Saban Theatre. Photo by Positive Vibes Productions.

Approximately 1,000 members of the Los Angeles community gathered on April 17 at the Steve Tisch Cinema Center at the Saban Theatre to commemorate Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day for fallen soldiers and victims of terror.

Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF), the Temple of the Arts and the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles organized the community-wide night of remembrance, ahead of Israel’s 70th Independence Day.

“Over the last 70 years, we have faced countless challenges threatening our existence as an independent sovereign country,” Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles Sam Grundwerg said. “In the face of current threats stands the Israel Defense Forces and the resilient nature of the Israeli people. Their courage and spirit guarantees the security and the continuity of our nation. We bow our heads because we know that Israel is here because of them.”

More than 50 local schools, synagogues and organizations partnered for this community event. The ceremony honored the memories of Israel’s fallen service members and paid tribute to the men and women in uniform who defend Israel and Jews around the world.

“As we prepare to celebrate 70 years of a strong and independent Israel, we must acknowledge that we are able to do so because of the bravery and sacrifice of the men and women of the IDF,” FIDF National Board Member and Western Region President Tony Rubin said. “Seven decades later, these heroes must continue to fight for the survival of the Jewish state. We are forever in their debt.”

An Israel Defense Forces sergeant led the community in praying for the safety of those in Israel and the men and women of the IDF. He mourned the 26,780 fallen soldiers and victims of terror by reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish.

Additional guests included L.A. Councilman David Ryu; Rubin’s wife, Linda; Temple of the Arts President James Blatt and FIDF Western Region Executive Director Jenna Griffin.

From left: Noah Pollak; Leah Yadegar; Yael Lerman; StandWithUs (SWU) President Esther Renzer; Professor Robbie Sabel and Jonathan Bell attend the inaugural SWU Legal Dinner. Photo by Dustin Thompson Photography.

Hebrew University of Jerusalem law professor Robbie Sabel delivered a lecture about how international law is on Israel’s side at the StandWithUs inaugural Legal Dinner on April 26.

Appearing at The Mark on Pico boulevard, Sabel told the audience that the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement is rooted in “a hatred of Jews” and that while the likes of Syrian President Bashar Assad, Hamas and Hezbollah may not care about international law, international law does play an important role when it comes to defending Israel.

One such role for international law is that it gives Israel international legitimacy, as Sabel pointed out that it was a League of Nations agreement that helped lead to the Balfour Declaration in 1917.

“You won’t find a mention of this League of Nations agreement by propagandists,” Sabel said.

Sabel added that international law is important for negotiations, especially when it comes to particular phrases in agreements, citing particular wording in an agreement between Israel and Egypt that basically left the Gaza Strip as part of Israel during the time of the British Mandate.

On the issue of settlements, Sabel argued that they were actually legal under international law because international law states that occupation applies only when a country is occupying an “enemy state,” and there is no official Palestinian state.

“We’ve got to try and combat this attempt… to undermine Israel’s legitimacy,” Sabel said.

Also, StandWithUs thanked the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles for providing a three-year grant of $75,000 each year to StandWithUs’s JD Fellowship program, which educates participants on how to use legal advocacy to advance the pro-Israel cause.

Pro-Israel activist Noah Pollak, StandWithUs President Esther Renzer and Director of StandWithUs’ J.D. Fellowship Program Leah Yadegar spoke at the dinner as well. Among those in attendance included Israeli-American Council Chairman Adam Milstein. 

Aaron Bandler, Contributing Writer

From left: On the occasion of Israel’s 70th birthday, Beverly Hills Vice Mayor John Mirisch; Beverly Hills Mayor Julian Gold; Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles Sam Grundwerg; and Beverly Hills City Councilmembers Lili Bosse, Lester Friedman; and Robert Wunderlich celebrated the Israel-Beverly Hills partnership at Beverly Hills City Hall. Photo by Vince Bucci.

The city of Beverly Hills projected the U.S. and Israel flags on Beverly Hills City Hall in honor of Israel’s 70th Independence Day and in celebration of the city’s strong ties and support for the state of Israel.

“We thank the city of Beverly Hills for the amazing show of friendship and the unwavering support throughout the years,” Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles Sam Grundwerg said during the April 18 ceremony.

Those in attendance included Beverly Hills Vice Mayor John Mirisch; Beverly Hills Mayor Julian Gold; and Beverly Hills City Councilmembers Lili Bosse, Lester Friedman and Robert Wunderlich.

The relationship between the city of Beverly Hills and the State of Israel is multifaceted, including on water preservation, security and arts and culture. The city also has helped push back against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel.

That same day, a Yom HaAtzmaut celebration organized by Bnei Akiva of Los Angeles at Santa Monica High School drew 1,100 people, including students from Gindi Maimonides Academy, Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy, Yavneh Hebrew Academy, Emek Hebrew Academy, Shalhevet High School, YULA Boys and Girls High Schools and Harkham-GAON Academy.

“It is a privilege to speak to this audience in particular, because you are the next generation,” Grundwerg said, addressing the students. “You are the Jewish leaders of tomorrow.”

American Jews Bat for Israel in ‘Heading Home’

Infielder Cody Decker #14 of Israel holds team mascot The Mensch after the World Baseball Classic Pool A Game Five between Netherlands and Israel at Gocheok Sky Dome on March 9, 2017 in Seoul, South Korea. (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

Every four years, 16 countries compete in the World Baseball Classic (WBC). In 2017, Israel wasn’t expected to qualify, let alone win any games. But led by 26 Jewish-Americans with Major League and minor league experience, Team Israel became the underdog success story of the tournament.

“Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel,” which screens April 29 during the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival (LAJFF), documents the miracle on the field as well as the players’ personal journeys as they connect to Israel and their Jewish roots.

Since having at least one Jewish parent or grandparent was the only criterion for joining the team, many of the players had little or no connection to Judaism. All but two had never been to Israel before they donned blue-and-white uniforms and Magen David-emblazoned caps.

“I was really curious what it meant for these guys to not only discover their faith and Israel late in life but also what it means to be a Jewish athlete, experience anti-Semitism and deal with your Jewish fan base,” filmmaker Daniel Miller told the Journal. “Do you acknowledge it? Are you proud of your Jewish identity? Do you flaunt it? I was curious about how they were as Jews now and what this experience would make them become.”

The film shows how the players are affected by visits to Yad Vashem and the Western Wall in Jerusalem, and by the challenges of suddenly becoming part of an international news story while trying to focus on winning each game.

Miller, who co-directed and produced the film with Jeremy Newberger and
Seth Kramer, said the focus expanded from the initial question of how Israel would change the men “to how it feels to represent Israel on the world stage, in terms of politics and anti-Semitism. Everyone now knew they were Jews. It wasn’t just a personal journey, but a
public one.”

“Heading Home” has been a crowd-pleaser at Jewish film festivals and a hit with younger audiences.

“Heading Home” also “shatters the myth of Jews as nonathletes,” Miller said.

Santa Monica native Cody Decker, who grew up idolizing Jewish players Sandy Koufax and Shawn Green, suggested that the Mensch on a Bench doll he’d seen on an episode of the “Shark Tank” TV show would make the perfect mascot. He brought the plush figure to practices and games, much to the public’s delight. When Team Israel qualified for the WBC, the company made it a life-size version.

“The Mensch captured the silliness of the situation and the sense of humor underlying it so nicely,” Miller said. “Now we have a guy in a Mensch costume at screenings. People love it.”

“Heading Home” has been a crowd-pleaser at Jewish film festivals and a hit with younger audiences at Hebrew schools, yeshivot and Little League gatherings, Miller said, and he anticipates a similar response at the LAJFF.

“We’re very excited to play L.A. for a bunch of rabid Jewish baseball fans,” he said. The film will be released in theaters in late summer, with online and on-demand availability
to follow.

Miller, who received an Emmy Award nomination for his 1997 documentary “The Trial of Adolf Eichmann,” said he has always felt “very connected to Israel and to my faith.” While that might not have always been true of the American Jews on Team Israel, he believes they benefitted from their shared experience.

“I’m not sure if they’re lighting candles on Shabbat or fasting on Yom Kippur, but all of them have sworn to visit Israel again,” he said. “As a result of doing well in this tournament, their
pride has grown, reinforced by the acceptance of their peers that they’ve done something great.”

“Heading Home” will be screened at the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival on April 29 at Laemmle’s Town Center 5, 17200 Ventura Blvd., Encino.

What’s Happening in Jewish L.A. April 21-25: L.A. Jewish Film Festival and Walk to End Genocide

"Seeing Allred."

SAT APRIL 21
FESTIVAL OF BOOKS

Writers, poets, artists, musicians and filmmakers appear at the annual Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, a weekend celebration of the written word. Ed Asner discusses his 2017 book, “The Grouchy Historian”; religious scholar Reza Aslan appears in conversation with Jewish Journal Book Editor Jonathan Kirsch; actress, neuroscientist and author Mayim Bialik explores the nexus of science, geek culture and girl power; author Steven Ross (“Hitler in Los Angeles: How Jews Foiled Nazi Plots Against Hollywood and America”) and Journal contributor Bill Boyarsky examine “History: Telling Hidden Stories”; Berkeley Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky weighs in on “Our Endangered Constitution” and L.A. Times film critic Kenneth Turan participates on a panel titled “The Entertainment Industry.” Through April 22. Saturday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Free. USC’s University Park Campus, Los Angeles. latimes.com/festivalofbooks.

JEWISH FEMINISM IN THE FACE OF RACIALISM

Amanda Berman, co-founder and president of Zioness, a group that seeks to empower Jewish women to participate in progressive spaces, discusses “Jewish Feminism in the Face of Racialism.” Berman previously worked on Democratic campaigns, and in law school she served at the Bet Tzedek Legal Services Clinic. Her lecture follows a Saturday morning Shabbat service. 11:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Free. Beverly Hills Hotel, 9641 Sunset Blvd., Beverly Hills. (310) 276-4246. beverlyhillsjc.org.

KNOW YOUR REPS, WITH CONGRESSMAN ADAM SCHIFF

Over lunch after Shabbat services, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) discusses the latest goings on in Washington, D.C. Schiff is the ranking member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, which oversees the nation’s intelligence agencies. Sponsored by IKAR. Free. 12:30 p.m. Shalhevet High School, 910 S. Fairfax, Los Angeles. (323) 634-1870. ikar-la.org.

“BAD JEWS”

“Bad Jews.”

In Joshua Harmon’s scathingly funny play “Bad Jews,” two cousins clash ferociously over who has the right to inherit the chai necklace that belonged to their beloved grandfather, “Poppy,” which Poppy preserved during the Holocaust by hiding it under his tongue. Through June 17. Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m.; Wednesday, May 9 and May 30, 8 p.m.; Thursday, May 17 and June 14, 8 p.m. $25–$35. 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 477-2055. odysseytheatre.com.

SUN APRIL 22
WALK TO END GENOCIDE

Seeking to influence the end of deadly conflicts in Syria, Sudan, Myanmar and the Democratic Republic of Congo, Jewish World Watch stages its 12th annual Walk to End Genocide. The three-hour event brings together a broad range of advocates sending the message, “We will not stand idly by while genocide and mass atrocities occur.”  The walk raises funds to underwrite support programs in affected communities. 9 a.m.-noon. $36 adults; $28 students, ages 12-22; $18 children, ages 5-11; toddlers, free. Pan Pacific Park, 7600 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles. (818) 501-1836. jww.org.

BACKGAMMON TOURNAMENT

A 5,000-year-old board game that originated in the Middle East receives a fresh airing when JIMENA (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa) and Kahal Joseph Congregation co-host an all-ages backgammon tournament. Prizes will be awarded to the top players, and players who bring their own backgammon boards will receive a free raffle ticket. 10 a.m. Before April 20: tournament entry fee, $20; general admission, $10 adults, kids free. At the door: entry fee, $30; general admission, $10 adults, $5 kids. Kahal Joseph Congregation, 10505 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 474-0559. kahaljoseph.org.

ANNIE KORZEN AND MARK SCHIFF

Whizin’s Stand-Up Comedy Showcase presents comedians Annie Korzen and Mark Schiff. Korzen played the recurring role of Doris Klompus on “Seinfeld.” Schiff, who recently opened for Jerry Seinfeld in Israel, appeared many times on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” and “Late Night With David Letterman.” He has starred in HBO and Showtime specials, and written for “The Roseanne Show.” 4 p.m. $25. The David Alan Shapiro Memorial Synagogue Center, American Jewish University, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Bel Air. (310) 476-9777. wcce.aju.edu.

“THE HEBREW HILLBILLY”

Singer-songwriter Shelley Fisher performs her musical one-woman play, which chronicles her growing up Jewish in the Deep South with a flamboyant mother who frowned on her dating the local boys, and her dreams of bright lights and show business. 6:30 p.m. $20. Santa Monica Playhouse, 1211 4th St., Santa Monica. (310) 394-9779. santamonicaplayhouse.com.

UNCABARET

UnCabaret, the downtown Los Angeles home of original alternative comedy for nearly 25 years, holds an evening of laughter, featuring Kira Soltanovich, James Adomian, Lauren Weedman, Zach Sherwin, Paige Weldon and the Frogtown Serenaders. Beth Lapides, who appeared on the series “Sex and the City,” “Will & Grace” and “Politically Incorrect,” hosts this weekly program. 8 p.m. $10-$30. The Showroom at Au Lac, 701 W. First St., Los Angeles. (213) 706-3630. uncabaret.com

MON APRIL 23
“BELIEF: THE CHALLENGE OF OUR TIMES”

During this annual Yom Iyun evening of learning, two leaders of Ohr Samayach International explore “Belief: The Challenge of Our Times.” Rabbi Akiva Tatz speaks on “Faith in a Faithless World” and Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb identifies “Reasons to Believe.” For men and women. Refreshments served. 7:30-11:55 p.m. Advance, $10. After April 22, $15. Students free. Nessah Synagogue, 142 S. Rexford Drive, Beverly Hills. (718) 677-6200. nessah.org.

AUTHOR ABIGAIL POGREBIN

Abigail Pogrebin.

Abigail Pogrebin, author of “My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew,” embarked on a year of research and writing about every Jewish ritual, fast and festival in one Jewish year. In a book infused with humorous details, Pogrebin imparts the wisdom of more than 60 rabbis she interviewed. In conversation with Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom. 7:30 p.m. $10. Burton Sperber Jewish Community Library, American Jewish University, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Bel Air. (310) 476-9777. wcce.aju.edu

“RUSSIAN ROULETTE” AUTHOR

Investigative journalist Michael Isikoff, co-author of “Russian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin’s War on America and the Election of Donald Trump,” shares his conclusions about Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election. The book, which he wrote with journalist David Corn, argues that the attempted sabotage of American democracy brought Trump to the presidency. 7:30 p.m. $20, admission; $42, book and admission. Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, 8844 Burton Way, Beverly Hills. (310) 288-3737. writersblocpresents.com.

TUE APRIL 24
“MAIMONIDES AND THE MERCHANTS”

The advent of Islam in the seventh century brought profound economic changes to Jews living in the Middle East. The Talmud, written in and for an agrarian society, was in many ways ill-equipped for the new economy. Not previously noticed, however, in the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides made efforts to update the halachah to make it conform with Jewish merchant practices. Author Mark R. Cohen talk about his book, “Maimonides and the Merchants: Jewish Law and Society in the Medieval Islamic World.” Cohen is a professor emeritus at Princeton University. Sponsored by the UCLA Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies. Free and open to the public. 4-6 p.m. UCLA Royce Hall, Room 314, 10745 Dickson Court, Los Angeles. (310) 267-5327. cjsrsvp@humnet.ucla.edu.

“LEONARD BERNSTEIN AT 100”

Leonard Bernstein.

On the centennial of composer Leonard Bernstein’s birth, the Skirball Cultural Center presents an exhibition celebrating the life and work of the great American composer and conductor who dedicated his life to making classical music a vibrant part of American culture. The Grammy- and Tony Award-winning Bernstein (1918–1990) wrote landmark scores for musical theater (“West Side Story,” “Candide”) and film (“On the Waterfront”). Organized by the Grammy Museum and curated by its founding executive director and renowned music historian, Robert Santelli. Through Sept. 2. Included with museum admission. Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4500. skirball.org.

DEEPER LOOK AT THE EXODUS

Inspired and educated by her father, who headed a rabbinical court in the United Kingdom, Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, a lifetime Torah scholar, discusses her book “Exodus: Narrative or Anti-Narrative?” The London-born former National Jewish Book Award winner has taught Torah in Jerusalem for 30 years. 6 p.m. dinner, 7:30 p.m. lecture. $15, lecture. $40, dinner and lecture. UCLA Hillel, 574 Hilgard Ave., Los Angeles. (310) 208-3081, ext. 108. hillelatucla.wufoo.com.

“ISRAEL AS A JEWISH DEMOCRACY”

Tal Becker, a renowned expert in Israeli political thought, delivers an informative, measured and scholarly lecture on “Israel as a Jewish Democracy: A Conversation Through Case Studies.” He discusses the idea of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, using case studies taken from the headlines, and explores the complex relationship between these two aspirations. 7:45 p.m. Shalhevet High School, 910 S. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 930-9333. shalhevet.org.

WED APRIL 25
THE LOS ANGELES JEWISH FILM FESTIVAL

“Seeing Allred.”

From saluting the late entertainment giant Sammy Davis Jr., in “Sammy Davis Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me,” on opening night, to celebrating living icons past 90 years old in “If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast” on closing night, the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival celebrates the tapestry of Jewish experience. Old friends of Davis, including “Laugh-In” creator George Schlatter, actor Tom Dreesen and Davis’ son Manny appear onstage for the Los Angeles premiere of the opening film. Then, over eight days at Laemmle theaters across Los Angeles, the festival showcases films from around the world, including “Seeing Allred,” featuring an in-person appearance by Gloria Allred, and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” the 1935 classic that captured two Academy Awards. On April 28, actor Hal Linden accepts the Marvin Paige Hollywood Legacy Award before the world premiere of his new film, “The Samuel Project,” at Laemmle’s Music Hall, Beverly Hills. On April 29, David Suissa, publisher and editor-in-chief of the Jewish Journal, receives the Visionary Award ahead of the North American premiere of the Israeli television series “Commandments.” Through May 2. Opening night: 7:15 p.m., $40. Ahrya Fine Arts Theatre, 8556 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. (800) 838-3006. lajfilmfest.org.

“ISRAEL AND DIASPORA”

Daylong conference “Israel and Diaspora: Peoplehood in Crisis?” marks Israel’s 70th birthday by exploring how to develop a compelling narrative that holds Jews from different backgrounds, beliefs and politics together in a meaningful way. Key speakers include Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America; Tal Becker, a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute and Jewish Journal Senior Writer Danielle Berrin. Light breakfast and lunch included. 9 a.m.-3 p.m. $36 general, $18 students. UCLA Hillel, 574 Hilgard Ave., Los Angeles. shalomhartman.org/laiengage18.

It’s Our Film Fest’s Bar Mitzvah

From left, Carl Reiner, George Shapiro, Mel Brooks and Norman Lear in “If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast.” Photo courtesy of LAJFF.

The 13th annual Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival launches April 25 with more than two dozen feature, documentary and short film selections celebrating Jewish experience, tradition and culture.

“It’s our bar mitzvah, and we want to celebrate it,” said the festival’s executive director, Hilary Helstein. “It’s extraordinary to see something we started 13 years ago become an anticipated annual event. With the support of community organizations, consulates, individuals, council members, family foundations and the Jewish Journal, we’re proud to have made it to 13 years.”

The festival will take place at 14 venues in and around the city, including theaters, synagogues and community centers. “We deliver films to every part of the community,” Helstein said. “People don’t have to go farther than their neighborhood.”

The opening-night gala features the Los Angeles premiere of the documentary “Sammy Davis Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me,” which will air on PBS’ “American Masters” later this year. “We wanted something uplifting for opening night, and nothing could be better than paying tribute to this iconic, legendary entertainer,” Helstein said. Davis’ son, Manny, and friends including producer George Schlatter and comedian Tom Dreesen will be in attendance. “Since it is a bar mitzvah, we want to have all these people do aliyahs and say something about Sammy.”

The festival has several themes. “For Israel’s 70th birthday, we have documentaries focused on what America has done for Israel,” Helstein said. In “The Land of Milk and Funny,” stand-up comic Avi Liberman takes fellow comedians to Israel to perform and see the sights, and Jewish Americans play baseball for Team Israel in “Heading Home.”

Audiences will get to see the first two episodes of the Israeli series “Kipat Barzel” (“Commandments”), about Charedi soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces. “It addresses such a timely issue,” Helstein said. The series focuses on how secular Jews resent the ultra-Orthodox for not serving in the military, but when they do serve — against the wishes of the Charedi community — they’re not welcome. “It’s a really important show and will trigger a tremendous amount of discussion,” Helstein said.

Jewish Journal Publisher and Editor-in-Chief David Suissa will moderate a Q-and-A after the screening and receive the Visionary Award for his contributions to the Jewish community.

Dolev Mesika and Roy Nik in “Commandments.” Photo courtesy of LAJFF.

Helstein emphasized the importance of including Holocaust-related films, and there are nine this year. “The Last Suit” is an Argentine feature about a Holocaust survivor on a mission to find the friend who saved his life in Poland. It’s paired with “The Driver Is Red,” an animated short about the manhunt for Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann.

The German feature film “The Last Supper,” a world premiere, takes place at the Glickstein family dinner in Berlin on the day Hitler comes to power. With the patriarch insisting the Fuhrer won’t last, and his equally misguided young son ready to join the Brown Shirts, the only voice of reason is the Palestine-bound daughter’s.

“Above the Drowning Sea” chronicles the experience of Jews who escaped Europe and found refuge in Shanghai, thanks to a Chinese diplomat. Each of the documentary shorts “Dieu Merci: The Story of Michele Rodri,” “116 Cameras” and “A Call to Remember” tells a personal story of survival and will be screened together, followed by a Q-and-A led by the latter’s producer, Michael Berenbaum.

The screening of “Reinventing Rosalee,” a world premiere documentary, in which Lillian Glass chronicles the remarkable life of her Holocaust-survivor mother, will feature a Q-and-A with both women.

The festival’s centerpiece program is “The Samuel Project,” about a teenager whose school project forces his grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, to confront the past he hasn’t spoken about in 75 years. A world premiere, the family-friendly feature stars Hal Linden, who will receive the festival’s Martin Paige Hollywood Legacy Award.

Also this year, Helstein said, “We have a focus on women’s stories: feminism, activism, ageism, sexism — all very current themes.” The biographical documentaries “Heather Booth: Changing the World,” about a community organizer and activist, and “Seeing Allred,” about women’s rights lawyer Gloria Allred, address these issues. Allred and the filmmakers will participate in a post-screening Q-and-A session.

In conjunction with the Austrian consulate, the 1935 film version of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” will be shown as a tribute to Jewish émigré and director-producer Max Reinhardt, commemorating the 75th anniversary of his death. “Rising Sons,” a documentary about efforts to break the cycle of rape and violence in the war-torn Congo, will be shown in association with Jewish World Watch, with a discussion to follow.

Other notable selections include the shorts “Stitchers: Tapestry of Spirit,” about a project to  re-create the entire Torah in  needlepoint; “Heaven Is a Traffic Jam on the 405,” which won the Oscar for best documentary short this year; and “Tzeva Adom: Color Red,” a tense story about a fateful encounter at the border between an Israeli soldier and a Palestinian boy. Filmmakers and cast members will attend.

The festival’s closing-night presentation is “If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast,” a lighthearted documentary featuring Carl Reiner and his nonagenarian and centenarian friends — Mel Brooks, Norman Lear and composer Alan Bergman among them — sharing their insights on life and longevity. A Q-and-A with Bergman and the filmmakers will follow.

“We’re paying homage to these Hollywood guys who are still working and vital and who have created so much in our L.A. community,” Helstein said. “It’s an uplifting, lovely film about keeping going through the aches and pains.”

The Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival runs April 25-May 2. Visit lajfilmfest.org for the screening schedule and more information.

Defending Ed Asner, and Israel

Matthew Modine, Ed Asner, actress Ruby Modine and Hilary Helstein, executive director of the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival. Photo Credit: James Franklin at RozWolfPR

The defenders of Israel fought a noble battle last week on behalf of the survival Jewish state. They forged a united front, raised their voices and rallied their troops. They charged into battle and came close, very close, to defeating their common enemy: Ed Asner.

Yeah, really. Ed Asner. The actor from “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “Lou Grant.” The voice of Carl Fredricksen in “Up.” Santa Claus in “Elf.”

The Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival was all set to honor Asner with a Lifetime Achievement Award at its gala opening on April 26. Days before the event, two self-appointed defenders of Israel sent out a mass email denouncing the festival for choosing Asner, and calling on advertisers and attendees to boycott the event.

Their issue was that Asner, who is 87, is listed on the advisory board of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), an advocacy group that supports the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.  BDS seeks to protest and reverse Israel’s policies, including its occupation of the West Bank, by boycotting all Israeli products and services, including its academic and cultural institutions. As I’ve written many times, it is a deeply anti-Israel movement under the guise of an anti-occupation movement. 

The connection between Asner, BDS and JVP — which, spoiler alert, turned out to be far more tenuous than it first appeared — raised the defenders of Israel to DEFCON 5.  Immediately, they sent out an email whose subject line read, “SHAME ON THE LOS ANGELES JEWISH FILM FESTIVAL.”

Because TRIBE Media, which produces the Jewish Journal, is the sponsoring organization of the festival, we found ourselves at the bizarre end of a very small but very noisy pro-Israel advocacy effort.

As the events of the week played out, the experience gave me time to reflect on how the Jewish community decides who is inside and outside the tent, who is kosher and who is treif

In Israel, this has become a policy issue with diplomatic implications. The same week two well-meaning L.A. Jews were trying to take down a third for not meeting their standards of “pro-Israel,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu snubbed the German foreign minister because the minister refused to cancel his meeting with the anti-occupation groups B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence.

And since at least 2010, Netanyahu’s government has passed laws against not just those who support BDS, but those, like many Israeli artists, who support in principle a boycott on goods from the West Bank.

The aim of these actions is to normalize Israel’s now 50-year occupation and criminalize opposition to it. Those who oppose it went from being dismissed as doves to being persecuted as outlaws.

BDS poses a unique threat to Israel, though not necessarily an existential one. But one could easily make the argument that the occupation, if it results in a single chaotic binational state or apartheid rule over Palestinians, poses a far greater, truly existential threat to a democratic Jewish state.

The point is, we can have an argument over this without criminalizing, demonizing or ostracizing those who take one position or another. Some BDS folks really do want to erase Israel. But the (mostly) young Jews who are attracted to the movement see it as a way to redress an injustice. I think they’re wrong, but I want to engage them.

Similarly, those who think annexing part or all of the West Bank is the best way to manifest Jewish destiny or achieve security are wrong — and possibly even more dangerous to the state’s future — but I want to speak with them, as well.

Ed Asner, it turns out, doesn’t support BDS. In an interview with Avishay Artsy before the festival, he told the Journal he was rethinking it. Later, he flatly denounced it.

“I just want peace,” he said.

That didn’t quiet the defenders of Israel. They called him and the festival frauds because Asner was still listed as an adviser to JVP. Because at 87, after receiving more Emmy Awards for acting than any male in history, after standing up for the rights of workers, the oppressed and the disabled his whole life, after donating endless time and money in support of Jewish and non-Jewish causes, after playing an active role in his own Jewish community — in other words, after doing more for humanity and the Jewish people than the vast majority of us — Asner still wasn’t kosher enough.

Ridiculous.

It’s important to note that not one of the major groups that support and defend Israel — StandWithUs, the Zionist Organization of America, the Anti-Defamation League, American Jewish Committee — signed on to the anti-Asner campaign. They cut the guy some slack — maybe because they assumed he heard the word “peace” and said, “Sure, use my name.” Or maybe because the Jewish people and Israel have real enemies to fight, and Lou Grant isn’t one of them.

The night of the gala, the Ahrya Fine Arts Theater in Beverly Hills was packed. Asner stood and received his award to a standing ovation.

And, I’m happy to report, somehow Israel survived.


ROB ESHMAN is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. Email
him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @foodaism
and @RobEshman.

Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival Opening Night

Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival April 26, 2017

Last night I had fun at the Opening Night Gala of the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival in Beverly Hills.  First I hung out around the Red Carpet, where Ed Asner, Ed Begley, Jr., Aaron Wolf and many others passed through.  They also had a reception in the lobby of the Ahrya Fine Arts Theatre where the event was held, with delicious snacks, wine and beverages.  Next they presented an award Ed Asner for his outstanding work as an American actor and activist.  Many of his friends and colleagues took the stage to thank him for his contributions.

Then they screened a hysterical short film Super Sex, starring Ed Asner; following by a screening of the wonderful film My Friend Ed which explores Mr. Asner’s tireless work over the years as an actor and activist.

The Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival continues on through May 3, with a well-curated selection of films exploring the Jewish experience.  For more information and tickets visit lajfilmfest.org.    More photos from the evening are available on my Flickr page here:flickr.com/joybennett.

Ed Asner honored for lifetime achievement at L.A. Jewish Film Festival [VIDEO]

Matthew Modine, Ed Asner, actress Ruby Modine and Hilary Helstein, executive director of the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival. Photo Credit: James Franklin at RozWolfPR

Ed Asner, the 87-year-old Hollywood actor and liberal activist, was the center of attention last night during the opening gala of the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival (LAJFF).

The event honored Asner — star of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “Lou Grant,” and, more recently, “Elf” and “Up” — with the Lifetime Achievement Award, in recognition of his “commitment to Jewish values and humanitarian causes.”

“I’m always pleased to show up somewhere where there’s popcorn,” Asner said in typical curmudgeonly fashion upon receiving the award, addressing a crowd assembled in the Ahrya Fine Arts Theater in Beverly Hills.

His colleagues were more traditional in their praise. “There couldn’t be anyone in Los Angeles who is more deserving of this honor than my friend Ed Asner,” said actor Matthew Modine, who directed Asner in the 2016 short film, “Super Sex.” That 8-minute comedy screened last night along with the 2014 documentary, “My Friend Ed.”

A red carpet event kicked off the evening. Escorted by a small group of family and friends, Asner walked with a cane along the sidewalk of Wilshire Boulevard toward a group of eager photographers waiting in front of the theater to take the honoree’s picture. As reporters snapped photographs of Asner, a man in a car passing shouted, “Ed!”

The actor soaked it in, telling the Journal he was proud of being honored. Asked what Jewish historical figure he’d like to play onscreen one day, Asner said the late Zionist leader Vladimir Jabotinsky or the late Israeli military leader and politician Moshe Dayan.

 

A cocktail reception in the lobby of the theater followed the red carpet, which also drew actor Ed Begley Jr.; director Aaron Wolf,” whose documentary film “Restoring Tomorrow” spotlights the restoration of Wilshire Boulevard Temple; Ruby Modine, Matthew Modine’s daughter and co-star of the film, “Super Sex”; Shelley Fisher, who stars in the forthcoming theater show, “The Hebrew Hillbilly”; Aimee Ginsburg Bikel, widow of the late stage actor, Theodore Bikel; comedian Avi Liberman; veteran actress and Hollywood blacklist victim Marsha Hunt, and others.

“Ed is a treasure because he cares so deeply about bringing the past into the present and keeping the values he absorbed throughout his life,” Ginsburg Bikel told the Journal.

Everyone gathered inside the theater for the award presentation, which included comments from Hilary Helstein, LAJFF director; actress Sharon Gless; Zane Buzby, actress and founder of the Survivor Mitzvah Project; director Sharon Baker; and Matthew Modine. Los Angeles Councilmember Paul Koretz offered words of praise as well. The speakers emphasized Asner’s longevity in an industry where staying power is a rare thing, his unique commitment to standing up for the marginalized, and his warmth — underneath all that curmudgeonly-ness.

“That’s quite a grope,” Matthew Modine said as Asner posed for a photo with him, the latter’s hand invisible to the audience. “I’ve just had my prostate checked.”

“He doesn’t have long,” Asner quipped.

Buzby, who works with Holocaust survivors, described Asner as a “champion of compassion.”

A screening of “Super Sex” followed. The short film features Kevin Nealon and Elizabeth Perkins as grown-up siblings who buy a prostitute (Ruby Modine) as a birthday gift for their elderly father (Asner).

“My Friend Ed,” directed by Baker and produced by Asner’s daughter, Liza, features interviews with Asner, actor Paul Rudd, Begley Jr., Valerie Harper, his co-star on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and others. It offers a glimpse into Asner’s life and career and the inevitable ups-and-downs of working 50 years in show business.

The film examines how Asner’s sometimes unpopular political activism related to unrest in Latin America, the compensation of actors in the Screen Actors Guild and other issues during the Reagan era led to his being ostracized by some in the Hollywood community. The challenges peaked in 1982 when CBS canceled the award-winning show “Lou Grant,” an hour-long drama about journalism. In the film, Asner and others say the show had high ratings and the studio canceled the show because of Asner’s political views.

“I try to do good. I try to do effective work. It could be better,” Asner says in the film.

Asner’s views engendered a touch of controversy the night of the gala, when a lone woman protester stood outside the theatre wrapped in an Israeli flag to protest Asner’s views on Israel. The actor sits on the advisory board of Jewish Voice for Peace, an organization that supports the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. However, in a statement released to the Jewish Journal earlier this week, Asner said he “does not support the BDS movement.”

The festival, a program of TRIBE Media Corp., the parent company of the Jewish Journal, continues until May 3.

Henry Jaglom’s ‘Train to Zakopané’ carries an unexpected love story

For three decades, Henry Jaglom interviewed his father, Simon, about his past, including his privileged childhood in czarist Russia and his imprisonment as a “capitalist” under the Bolsheviks.

But the younger Jaglom’s new film, “Train to Zakopané,” captures the story that Simon was most reluctant to recount: How he met a charming Polish nurse in 1928 on a train to the ski resort of Zakopané, but was repelled when she began spewing virulent anti-Semitic remarks. (“I can smell a Jew a kilometer away,” she repeatedly said.)

As revenge, Simon vowed to seduce the young woman before telling her that he was Jewish. What he didn’t expect was that during their rendezvous, he would fall in love with her.

The world premiere of the film will take place April 29 as part of the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival. The festival, which is a program of TRIBE Media, the parent company of the Jewish Journal, runs through May 3.

The feature film is bookended by videotaped interviews Henry Jaglom (“Festival in Cannes,” “Just 45 Minutes From Broadway”) conducted with his father three years before his death in 1993 at age 96. After the opening interview, the movie flashes back in time to tell the story, with actors playing the real-life characters, in vivid black and white.

“This has haunted me all my life,” Jaglom, 79, said of why he made the drama. “My father always said it was the one story he didn’t like to tell, because he did something he didn’t think was right. He was planning to sleep with a girl and then reveal something that would be very upsetting to her.

“My father was elegant, a gentleman, so this was very different than he had ever behaved when I knew him,” the filmmaker added. “I never could have made this film when he was alive.”

Five years ago — prompted by the resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe — Jaglom first wrote the story as a play in order to avoid the technical distractions of filmmaking. The show, also titled “Train to Zakopané,” premiered in 2014 at the Edgemar Center for the Arts in Santa Monica, where it ran for a year and a half.

After the play closed, Jaglom began writing his movie version, which stars his wife, Tanna Frederick, as the nurse Katia. Digital images help create the atmosphere in the idyllic village of Zakopané. And unlike the play, the film begins and ends with real-life interviews with Simon Jaglom.

How does the filmmaker regard his father’s long-ago plans for revenge?

“I feel that it was almost biblical, and that he was justified,” the filmmaker said.

For tickets and information about “Train to Zakopané,” visit lajfilmfest.org.

There’s no backing down for Ed Asner, film festival honoree

The new documentary “My Friend Ed” will be screened at the opening night of the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival on April 26. Graphic courtesy of Julie Pfeifenroth

Ed Asner has enough friends.

At least that’s what the veteran actor says in the new documentary “My Friend Ed,” when an interviewer tells him his political activism isn’t winning him many pals.

Asner is beloved for playing curmudgeonly characters in film and TV, from news editor Lou Grant on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and its spinoff series “Lou Grant,” to Santa Claus in “Elf,” to the voice of widower Carl Fredricksen in the animated film “Up.”

But the winner of seven Emmy Awards also is known for championing a wide variety of liberal causes — some that have landed him in hot water. He’s been a labor leader and autism activist who has taken stands on everything from U.S. foreign policy to Israeli settlements.

Asner will be celebrated at the opening night of the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival (LAJFF) on April 26 with a screening of “My Friend Ed,” which includes interviews with the likes of Elliott Gould, Paul Rudd, Valerie Harper and Betty White. It will be followed by a Q-and-A with Asner and director Sharon Baker, moderated by Rob Eshman, Jewish Journal publisher and editor-in-chief.

The film festival is a program of TRIBE Media, the parent company of the Journal.

The actor — who recently presented Survivor Mitzvah Project founder Zane Buzby with an award from the Anti-Defamation League — is being honored for his accomplishments onscreen and for his humanitarian efforts, according to LAJFF founder Hilary Helstein. She had no comment about his political views and activism.

In a phone interview with the Journal, the sharp-witted actor was true to form. When this reporter said he didn’t want to take too much of Asner’s time, Asner retorted, “Then why’d you call?”

Asner said he’s happy to be recognized for his Jewish roots at the LAJFF’s opening night.

“I certainly have had times in my life when I was younger, where I tried to keep a low profile,” he said. “I regret the times I wasn’t proud to be a Jew, but those days are way past.”

Asner was born and raised in Kansas City, Kan. His father, a Lithuanian immigrant, started a junkyard and helped found an Orthodox synagogue in Kansas City. His mother was a housekeeper. Neither of his parents, he said, were social activists.

“In those days, you worried about the Jews. You worried about making your money, feeding your kids, housing your kids, educating them if possible,” Asner says in the film.

Asner’s two brothers also were focused on business, but his two sisters were social workers.

“I saw their treatment of peddlers and of those who were less fortunate,” he said, and that influenced his desire to speak out on social justice issues.

Long before he achieved fame and success, Asner was a blue-collar worker, as a crane hooker’s assistant in a steel mill in Gary, Ind., and as an assembly line worker for General Motors and Ford. He drove a cab in Chicago, sold TV advertising over the phone and sold shoes. He even trained to be an encyclopedia salesman but said he “quit that because I was nauseated with the techniques.” His empathy for the struggles of everyday Americans stuck with him.

Asner moved to New York to pursue an acting career, where, he said, “I was fortunate to get jobs fairly quickly, so I didn’t have to scour the want ads that much.” He became a rising star on stage and screen. After six years, he moved to Los Angeles, where “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” rocketed him to stardom in the early 1970s.

Activism always was an important part of his life. “My Friend Ed” includes photographs of Asner speaking at AIDS charities, Latin-American solidarity fundraisers and union rallies, appearing alongside the likes of Fidel Castro, Jimmy Carter, Jesse Jackson and Cesar Chavez.

His labor activism earned him two terms as president of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) from 1981 to 1985, where he lobbied for higher compensation for the bulk of actors who struggled to make a living wage. He also engaged in a public feud with former SAG president Charlton Heston, who criticized Asner’s efforts to merge SAG with the Screen Extras Guild.

Asner’s Emmy-winning show “Lou Grant” was taken off the air in 1982, despite high ratings. Asner argues that his opposition to U.S. policy in Central America, and his work with the nonprofit group Medical Aid for El Salvador, led to the show’s cancellation. Sponsors of the show, including Kimberly-Clark, Vidal Sassoon and Cadbury, withdrew their support, and Asner received death threats.

“It was truly a challenge to the freedom of the artist to express his opinion. I was being humanistic, so to speak, and people weren’t interested in hearing about humanism,” Asner told the Journal.

Asner identifies himself as a socialist and has spoken out on controversial issues. He has called for a new investigation into the 9/11 attacks, suggesting the World Trade Center may have toppled with the help of explosives placed inside the building. And he was among more than 150 theater and film professionals who signed a petition, organized by the national left-wing group Jewish Voice for Peace, backing Israeli artists refusing to perform in the settlements.

While Asner still considers himself part of the 9/11 Truth movement, he no longer has a position on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel.

“I’m not sure where I stand now on that,” he told the Journal, “although I’m certainly not a flag waver for [Israeli Prime Minister] Bibi Netanyahu.”

Asner, who does not discuss the Jewish state in the film, criticized Netanyahu for his hostile relationship with former U.S. President Barack Obama and his campaigning against the Iran nuclear deal in his interview with the Journal.

“I think that Israel is tremendously in debt to the United States. It’s almost been a protectorate all these years,” he said. “And I think that to constantly try to sway American opinion to their way of thinking denies us an independent thought of our own, such as the Iranian solution, and I have big problems with that. Especially the manner, the insulting manner.”

Asner has visited Israel once, as a guest of the Middle East Children’s Alliance.

“The Israeli government had nothing to do with it at the time. Once I got there and they saw me going around visiting Arabs as well as Jews, they got involved and wanted me to see their version of Israel, and not some suspect version, and I did that, as well,” he said.

The Israeli government added him to a military-led trip through Nablus, he said. “I expressed no opinion. I was merely keeping an open mind.”

While in Israel, he also watched an Arab theater company’s dramatic production about Arab history.

“I met some of the actors afterward and found out that they all learned several different roles. I asked, ‘Why are you multitasking?’ They said, ‘Because we get picked up from time to time by the police and we’re held over, so we never know when that’s going to happen. And when it does happen, then somebody has to take over.’ And that’s why they learn multiple roles,” he said. “And I thought, well, that’s not that kosher, either.”

Less provocative among Asner’s causes is raising awareness of autism. He has an autistic son, Charlie, and three autistic grandsons, and he hosts a charity poker tournament to support the group Autism Speaks. His son Matt Asner is vice president of development at the Autism Society of America and started the AutFest film festival.

Before “My Friend Ed,” LAJFF — which will run April 26 through May 3 — will screen the eight-minute short film “Super Sex.” Directed by actor Matthew Modine, it’s based on a classic joke in which a pair of siblings (Kevin Nealon and Elizabeth Perkins) get their elderly father (Asner) a surprise birthday gift: a prostitute (Ruby Modine). She knocks on his door and says, “I’m here to give you super sex!” Asner responds, “I’ll take the soup.”

So at the ripe young age of 87, what does Asner still hope to achieve?

“To make more money. I hate to be so mercenary, so mundane. But I still have debts,” he said. “I want to leave my four kids an estate worth keeping. And I want to keep acting until I’m lowered in the box.”

Ed Asner will be celebrated at the opening night of the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival on April 26 with a screening of “My Friend Ed” at the Ahrya Fine Arts Theater in Beverly Hills. Tickets are $36. More information is at lajfilmfest.org.

Director’s ‘Wedding Plan’ depicts hope and romance — ultra-Orthodox style

Noa Koler in “The Wedding Plan.” Photo courtesy of Roadside Attraction
Rama Burshtein. Photo by Lea Golda Holterman

Rama Burshtein. Photo by Lea Golda Holterman

Reflecting on the years before she became religious, American-born Israeli filmmaker Rama Burshtein said, “I was very wild and very curious. I was wild then, and I am wild today.  But today I have rules that make me very healthy.”

It is Burshtein’s knowledge of both the secular and observant worlds that has propelled her to become perhaps the first female ultra-Orthodox writer-director to cross over successfully into the cinematic mainstream.

Her acclaimed 2012 drama, “Fill the Void,” spotlighting a teenager struggling with whether to marry her sister’s widower, won seven Ophir Awards, Israel’s equivalent of the Oscars, including best film and best director. The movie premiered at the Venice International Film Festival, where its star, Hadas Yaron, won for best actress.

Burshtein’s highly anticipated new film, “The Wedding Plan,” originally titled “Through the Wall,” is a comedy-drama about a religious woman who is desperate to get married. It screened at the Venice and Telluride Film Festivals last year, and  its female star, Noa Koler, won a best actress Ophir.

On April 27, the Hebrew-language movie with English subtitles will have its Los Angeles premiere at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills as one of 27 features, documentaries and shorts at the 12th annual Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival, which will run April 26 through May 3. The event, sponsored by the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles, will include a Q-and-A with Burshtein.

The film festival is a program of TRIBE Media, the parent company of the Jewish Journal.

Other festival highlights will include the world premiere of Henry Jaglom’s “Train to Zakopane,” based on his play about his Jewish father’s involvement in the 1920s with a Polish nurse who turns out to be anti-Semitic; a restored print of Charlie Chaplin’s classic “The Great Dictator”; the Yiddish-language drama “Menashe,” about a Brooklyn widower fighting for the right to raise his young son; and “Restoring Tomorrow,” a documentary spotlighting the $150 million renovation of Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

“The Wedding Plan” revolves around Michal (Koler), who had longed to get married since becoming observant in her 20s. Now in her early 30s, she finally has found a fiancé. But her hopes are dashed, just a month before their wedding, when he reveals that he does not love her. Even so, Michal refuses to cancel the date at her rented wedding hall, praying that God will provide her with an alternative groom in time.

“What we really lack in life and need to have more of is hope,” Burshtein, 50, said of her impetus for the film by telephone from Tel Aviv. “I wanted to widen the ability to feel that everything is possible, because it’s so necessary in this world.  People are depressed, in despair, and they cannot even envision a good outcome anymore.”

The observant male and female characters in the film never touch, per Jewish law, but that does not mean they do not experience love and sexual longings, Burshtein said.

The Orthodox community “is very sexual, and desire is so big in our lives,” she said. “But [Judaism knows] how to work with them within the restrictions.” In fact, Jewish laws separating men and women increase an individual’s private desire, she said.

Burshtein acknowledged that some viewers might criticize her films because they reflect a view that a woman remains incomplete without a husband. “I’m not even hiding that,” she said. “In the secular world, women are not complete without love. … But this is only my point of view.”

It wasn’t always. Born in New York City, Burshtein grew up in a secular Jewish home in Kfar Saba, the daughter of an Israeli father and an American-born mother.  Her father, a chief engineer in the shipping industry, often took his family with him on sea excursions.

Burshtein always had been a spiritual seeker, dabbling in Buddhism and other Eastern traditions. But Judaism meant little to her until, after graduating from the Sam Spiegel Film & Television School in Jerusalem, she visited a film festival in Munich.

“The minute I got there, it was like a nightmare,” she recalled.  “I felt a bit paranoid and it was a weird experience of thinking that the fact I was Jewish might be a problem, as if I were in danger,” she said. “It wasn’t that the Germans gave me this feeling, but … I couldn’t wait to get back home. And from that point, something happened in my heart.”

Burshtein went on to join the Breslov sect of Chasidism, and some months later noticed the handsome man who would ultimately become her husband.

“He was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen,” she said, and was eager when a matchmaker eventually got them together. “The butterflies [in my stomach] were the thing that made me decide to marry him. I think God works with everyone separately and personally, and I wouldn’t have been able to go under the chuppah without falling in love.”

They wed a month and a half later — 23 years ago — and Burshtein put aside filmmaking as she established a household and raised their four children, currently ages 15 to 20. She unabashedly refers to her husband, Aharon Burshtein, a therapist and mohel, as “my king.”

“I feel that if my partner is not a king, then I cannot be in love,” she said. “He’s got to be strong, he’s got to be successful, to have authority. To be in love, I have to look up. [In the secular world], it’s very mixed and very confusing, because the genders don’t have the distinctions of who they are and the true power of who they are. And to me, it’s very important that they do.”

Then, more than a decade ago, “I saw a film that portrayed the Orthodox world in a very … untrue and awful way, and that really hurt me,” Burshtein said, declining to name the movie.  “This kind of voice can exist, but if it’s the only voice, then it’s problematic. So I just knew it was time for me to go and make a film. I knew it was going to be about a man and a woman, which is what interested me when I was secular, as well as when I became religious.  This is what makes my heart beat — the enigma between a man and a woman.”

“Fill the Void” began when Burshtein chanced to meet a young woman who was about to marry her sister’s widower. “What fascinated me was: How do you make that kind of transition within a family,” she said.  “It’s easy to fall in love with your big sister’s husband, because he’s the first man inside your family who is from the outside. But how do you work that out with [memories of] your dead sister — that was something I couldn’t really understand.”

Burshtein interviewed 11 such women in order to comprehend the nuances of their decision. Yet she had trepidations about opening up, on film, “this thing between a man and a woman that is very private in Judaism.” And so she sought the guidance and the supervision of her rabbi, as well as her husband, while writing “Fill the Void.”

But dealing with both Orthodox and secular actors, as well as interacting with her male performers and crewmembers “was very hard,” she said of both her films.

“I have a problem with myself, which is that I’m very open … and then I sometimes lose my boundaries. I kind of mix myself too strongly and too personally with everyone. … The tension is crazy for me. I have a problem, not them. Of course, I never touch anyone. But when you’re open, you can feel the potential for trouble.”

Her solution was to keep a female assistant with her at all times “who could tell me if I crossed a line.” Burstein’s husband also was on set and has closely collaborated with her during every step of making both her movies.

Most people in her community have not seen her films — even her own two oldest sons declined. But then again, Burshtein said, she “only makes films for a secular audience.” She hopes to show those viewers a realistic view of the religious community from the inside out. And she is beyond pleased that her husband approves of the final products.

“He’s got to love them, to agree with them, because there’s no separation between him and me.”

“The Wedding Plan” will screen at 7:30 p.m. April 27 as part of the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills, and will have its theatrical release in Los Angeles starting May 12. For tickets and information about the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival, visit lajfilmfest.org or call (800) 838-3006, or (213) 368-1661 for group sales.

LAJFF celebrates 50 years of Kuni Lemel

Not one but two Kuni Lemels are coming to town, hoping that a new generation of filmgoers will welcome the ultimate shtetl shlemiel as warmly as its parents and grandparents did a half-century ago.

Also on hand at the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival for the 50th anniversary revival screenings of “Shnei Kuni Lemel” — “Two Kuni Lemels,” aka “The Flying Matchmaker” — will be actor Mike Burstyn, who made Kuni Lemel a household name in Israel.

The character of Kuni Lemel also launched Burstyn’s career, so the two are linked forever to each other, much as Marlon Brando and “The Godfather” are joined in the public mind.

The plot of the film, directed by Israel Becker, is so convoluted that it’s hard to unravel without giving too much away.

Max (Burstyn) is the handsome French tutor of Caroline (Rina Ganor), daughter of the wealthy Reb Pinchas (Shmuel Rodensky) in the shtetl of Kabtzansk, a name that loosely translates as Pauperville.

Between grammatical conjugations, Max and Caroline embrace passionately, but are interrupted when her father gives Max the boot not only for his amorous advances, but because he is the son of the shtetl atheist.

However, Reb Pinchas still needs to find a bridegroom for Caroline and tasks the resident shadchen, or matchmaker, Reb Kalman (Raphael Klatchkin), to find a suitable candidate.

Max, though, hasn’t given up on marrying Caroline, and with the help of four confederates, cooks up a dastardly scheme.

In another shtetl lives Max’s cousin, Kuni Lemel, a pious young Chasid who, as a key selling point, counts a prominent rabbi among his ancestors. Kuni Lemel is also played by Burstyn, so he looks exactly like Max, with a few minor variations — he stutters, limps and is blind in one eye.

Nowadays, no filmmaker in his right mind would make fun of such a handicapped character, but when “Kuni Lemel” premiered in 1966, such disabilities were often the stuff of comedy.

In any case, after various plots and counter-plots, the pious Kuni Lemel arrives in Kabtzansk after a two day-ride on a horse-drawn cart (with Burstyn’s father, famed Yiddish actor Pesach Burstein, as the driver).

However, to win Caroline’s hand in marriage with her father’s consent, Max now pretends to be Kuni Lemel, after pasting on some convincing sidelocks.

To add to the confusion, the triangle becomes a quartet when the real Kuni Lemel hitches up with Libelah (Germaine Unikovsky), the shadchen’s daughter.

Finally, the two Kuni Lemels/Burstyns confront each other, quite a feat with the split-screen technology then available. Ultimately, the real Kuni Lemel starts to doubt his own existence in the lament “I’m Not Me” in the film’s lilting musical score, which climaxes with a double wedding that has the whole shtetl singing, dancing and leaping.

The film was Israel’s entry for the Academy Awards in 1966 and spawned two sequels, “Kuni Lemel in Tel Aviv” (1976) and “Kuni Lemel in Cairo” (1983).

The character of Kuni Lemel was created in 1880 by Abraham Goldfaden, generally credited as the progenitor of Yiddish theater. Burstyn made the film — and the film made him — when he was 19.

Burstyn was born in New York City, but followed his show biz parents to spend many years in Argentina and Israel respectively. He made his stage debut at age 3, stealing the show, by his own admission, from both his Yiddish-speaking parents. His first Hebrew-speaking role was as Kuni Lemel, and he subsequently dubbed the role in English.

While the name Kuni Lemel has become a synonym for shlemiel, Burstyn said during an interview at his home that he tried to infuse his portrayal with some of the sweet naiveté of Forrest Gump.

The success of the film also marked the revival in Israel of Yiddish as a “respectable” language, after having been cast aside during the “Hebrew-only” campaigns of Israel’s first decade.

“I remember that in the 1950s, the Israeli government expressly forbade performances of Yiddish plays,” Burstyn recalled.

As the present revival of the film shows, Kuni Lemel is alive and dancing at 50 and remains a vivid memory to those who saw it during its original release.

“Whenever I meet an Israeli of a certain age, he’ll greet me like a long-lost brother and tell me, ‘I grew up on you,’ ” Burstyn said.

At 70, the youthful-looking Burstyn can look back on a busy and many-sided career in theater, film and television. In two of his most impressive stage roles, he portrayed Roy Cohn of McCarthy-era notoriety and mob financier Meyer Lansky.

Currently, Burstyn plays an elderly rabbi in an eight-part Israeli TV series about a Jewish vampire.

At 8 p.m. May 21 at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills, Burstyn will be honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award, presented by veteran game show host Monty Hall, following the screening of “Shnei Kuni Lemel.” He will also participate in a Q-and-A session the same evening, as well as after a second showing of the film on at 7:15 p.m. May 22 at the Town Center in Encino.

To find tickets and scheduling information for the L.A. Jewish Film Festival, directed by Hilary Helstein and sponsored by the Journal, visit

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Laemmle family to be honored at film festival

The Laemmle Theatre chain has been bringing art-house films to the Los Angeles area since 1938. To honor its commitment to independent cinema, the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival (LAJFF) is paying tribute to the company at the festival’s opening night gala May 18 at the Saban Theatre.

“They still run a mom-and-pop family business, yet they’re competing with the corporate theaters,” said Hilary Helstein, the festival’s director. “It’s impressive, and they deserve to be recognized for what they’ve been able to give to the L.A. community.”

The patriarch of the family of cinephiles was Jewish-German-born Carl Laemmle, founder of Universal Studios, one of the original major Hollywood movie studios. In 1938, his nephew Max Laemmle left Paris, where he had been running Universal’s distribution office, and came to Los Angeles. Max’s brother Kurt had been working for Universal in Chicago while running a theater in Indiana. The siblings leased two small neighborhood theaters in Highland Park, where they showed films two or three weeks after they’d premiered in larger theaters. They later acquired the Los Feliz Theater in 1946.

When television came along, many theaters across the country closed, and it was no different for the Laemmles. After owning six theaters, Kurt Laemmle left the business and Max ran just the Los Feliz Theater. 

But in the 1960s, Max and his son Bob invested in single-screen theaters to show art-house films. The Laemmles opened theaters in Pasadena, West L.A. and Westwood, and later took over operations of the Music Hall and Fine Arts theaters in Beverly Hills. Locations in Santa Monica and Encino opened in the 1970s.

Among the strategies Max and Bob Laemmle, and Max’s brother-in-law, George Reese, pioneered was creating festivals to show foreign films, from Italian neo-realist to French New Wave. They also rented out the theaters for weekend classes, opera screenings and concerts.

Bob Laemmle eventually took over the company, and his son Gregory Laemmle took his place as head of the family business in 2004. His first job was while he was in high school, selling popcorn and changing the marquee at the family’s Monica Film Center in Santa Monica. He currently serves as president of the chain and selects the films to be screened.

“There’s not a certain type of film that I believe in more than another,” Laemmle said. “It’s the importance of film, both for the people watching it and for the filmmakers.”

The screens also are for rent. Laemmle allows filmmakers to pay to screen their movies, sometimes to an empty theater, in order to qualify them for Academy Award consideration.

“I think in many respects, the bigger service to filmmakers is that your film isn’t going to get reviewed unless it plays a one-week engagement,” Laemmle said, “In many cases, for a first-time filmmaker whose film, for whatever reason, didn’t get picked up by a distributor, the opportunity to at least have your film play and be judged by the critical community and get those potentially good reviews, that could be amazingly important for someone’s career. Because the trick isn’t always making your first film. The trick is being able to make your second and third and fourth film.”

For example, Laemmle screened the 1997 narrative short “Visas and Virtue,” a film inspired by the true story of Holocaust rescuer Chiune “Sempo” Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat who issued travel visas to thousands of Jews despite his government’s orders. It went on to win the 1998 Academy Award for live action short film.

Laemmle also has supported the LAJFF since its inception 11 years ago as a location for screenings and providing publicity and help with distributors. The festival will screen at least one film every night at one of the Laemmle locations this year, except opening night.

“We like hosting festivals. It’s a lot of work and effort to do so. It’s a lot easier to pick one movie and put it on a screen five times a day for a week than to work with festival organizers, and the expectations and demands of a festival,” Laemmle said. “But they’re key to creating that opportunity, because not every film has the ability to play commercially in a standard engagement format. Without festivals, it would be difficult to bring all these pictures to Los Angeles.”

A former Laemmle employee, Melody Korenbrot, will participate in the LAJFF gala. The movie publicist has represented Oscar-winning foreign films and actors, and got her start working at Laemmle when she was 23 years old. She credits Max and Bob Laemmle and George Reese with introducing her to foreign film.

“They were the mentors. They were the teachers. They were the people who cared and let us learn and let us spread our wings,” Korenbrot told the Journal.

As the chain’s first publicist, Korenbrot remembers trying new approaches to getting more media attention for a film. For example, when the 1977 film “Why Shoot the Teacher?” opened at a Laemmle theater, she found out the co-star of the film, Samantha Eggar, lived in Los Angeles. They looked up her address and decided to ask her to do interviews for the film.

“Today, you couldn’t do what we did. We drove to her house on Mulholland and banged on her door,” Korenbrot recalled. “She was so nice and gave us her phone number. That was the beginning of getting a piece in the L.A. Times and different publications. We just did it by the seat of our pants and we enjoyed it so much. And I think that’s why I still enjoy what I do.”

Laemmle has survived with the help of local communities. Cities have subsidized rent or construction costs, and devoted film fans donate to keep theaters running. But the demise of community redevelopment agencies complicated the process of getting new theaters off the ground, and it’s always possible that landlords could evict a theater for a more profitable tenant. 

Despite the odds, the chain has been expanding since 1964. It currently has eight locations with 37 screens. Laemmle opened a complex in the North Hollywood Arts District in 2011, and renovated theaters in West L.A. and in Santa Monica. There are plans to open a new theater in Glendale in 2017, and in the Old Town Newhall district of Santa Clarita in 2018.

“People want art-house cinema all over town. They don’t just want it in the cool, bohemian section,” Laemmle said.

Helstein said the Laemmle chain represents the best of independent film and of community-focused business.

“They have an amazing history in the cinema world, and they started at a time when there was no television. People socialized and went for their entertainment, sometimes three times a week, to the cinema,” Helstein said. “In this day and age, you can watch virtually any movie you want in your home theater. And they’re still going strong in the face of so many art-house theater closures.”

This article was made possible with support from California Humanities, a nonprofit partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Visit

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Documentary asks: Just what is Israeli cuisine?

Meir Adoni at his Mizlala restaurant. He also owns the upscale Catit and kosher Blue Sky

In the opening sequence of the documentary “In Search of Israeli Cuisine,” chef Michael Solomonov walks into a Yemenite grill in Tel Aviv and asks for “something grilled, something special” in American-accented Hebrew.

As a starter, the waiters bring him 17 small plates with different salads.

“Notice,” he says to the camera, pointing at one dish after another. “Yemenite, Palestinian, Iraq, Moroccan, Moroccan, this is Russian … Turkish, Moroccan, I don’t even know. Greek. How many countries are represented in one place?”

The film asks a question Solomonov has been asking nearly his entire life: “What exactly is Israeli food?”

Solomonov, who co-owns two Israeli restaurants in Philadelphia and in 2011 won a prestigious James Beard Award, traveled up and down Israel to pose that question to a diverse group of restaurateurs and cooks.

“I don’t pretend to have all the answers,” he said in an interview. “I’m constantly educated or intrigued or humbled by Israeli cuisine.”

The documentary, which claims the Jewish Journal as a sponsor, will air on PBS next year. In the meanwhile, it’s being shown at dozens of film festivals around the world.

On May 19 and May 22, the film can be seen in Beverly Hills and Encino, respectively, as part of the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival. Panels will follow both screenings, the first moderated by Jewish Journal Publisher Rob Eshman along with cookbook author Amelia Saltsman, and the second featuring Jewish food blogger Elana Horwich and Israeli chef Ofir Arbel.

The panels will address the same issue as the film: How can a hodgepodge of cuisines from around the world, brought together within the last century, become a unique and coherent food tradition?

“Depending on who you talk to, and how you count it, 100 to 150 cultures have either come to Israel or never left Israel and are informing and influencing the food that is there,” Roger Sherman, the film’s director, said in an interview.

“The food scene is, I would say, the most dynamic food scene in the world.”

The documentary is a frenetic tour of that scene, interspersed with serious interviews attempting answer the film’s central question in all its controversy.

“Yes, there is Israeli cuisine,” journalist and farmer Hedai Offaim says five minutes into the film. “Yes, there is an Israeli kitchen.”

“Israeli cuisine is a nonexistent idea,” culinary journalist Gil Hovav asserts in the very next shot. “We’re too young to have our own cuisine. That would be just ridiculous.”

“It’s not a cuisine yet,” food writer Janna Gur concludes in a third consecutive interview. “It’s perhaps a nascent cuisine, a baby cuisine — but a very precocious baby.”

One thing the interviewees seem to agree on is that Israel offers a variety of delicious food — whether it’s Israeli in origin or not — and the film has the feel of a 97-minute Anthony Bourdain special.

“Warning: don’t watch hungry,” Sherman wrote in an email.

Sherman, who was raised a Reform Jew in New York, had no intention of going to Israel before he was invited by Joan Nathan, author of a number of Jewish cookbooks, to join a press trip she was leading.

“Israel was not on my top 10 list,” he said. “It was not on my top 20 list. I wanted to go to Paris.”

Nonetheless, he consented to go. “I didn’t have a project [at the time], and I said, ‘Oh, well, let’s go check it out,’ ” he said.

What he saw truly impressed him.

“We’re so hot on ‘locavore’ and sustainable and a small footprint and everything like that,” he said. “To them, that’s just natural.

“Couple that with incredible olive oil, with world-class, award-winning wine and cheese, and you’ve got the makings of this remarkable place.”

In some cases, Israeli cuisine takes the idea of local eating to an extreme. One of the interviewees, Rama Ben Zvi, a restaurateur in the Judean Hills, is militantly local: For many years, she refused to serve fish, because it had to be shipped from Tel Aviv.

“It’s 45 minutes from here, it’s not local,” she says in the film, laughing. “Then I understood that, you know, I can be a little bit more flexible, and we started serving also fish. But this is the farthest we go.”

As with any topic in the Middle East, food in Israel can be political, and the film doesn’t avoid controversy.

“The falafel is ours, the maqluba is ours, the hummus is ours,” Husam Abbas, a Palestinian chef who runs a restaurant in the village of Umm al-Fahm, says in the movie. “What do you have? Where is it from?”

“Where is the kitchen that you call the Israeli kitchen?” the stocky, mustachioed cook demands. “Where is it? Come, let’s create an Israeli kitchen together.”

But perhaps the greater controversy the film addresses, at least for some viewers, is about Ashkenazi food: Can a culinary tradition historically associated with guilt, penury and Polish blandness actually be tasty?

For Solomonov, the answer to this question is a solid yes. After eating kugel in the Jerusalem kitchen of food guide Shmil Holland, he decided to add the traditional noodle dish to the menu at his flagship restaurant, Zahav.

It’s not your grandmother’s kugel: After vermicelli noodles are cooked in chicken stock with egg, sunflower seeds, ground coffee and orange rinds, the dish is baked and served with green almonds.

Solomonov, soft-spoken with close-cropped gray hair, sees the blurred lines of Israeli cuisine as liberating rather than limiting, enabling him to adapt dishes to whatever ingredients are found locally in eastern Pennsylvania.

The film turned him and Sherman into unwitting ambassadors for Israeli culture.

“The ministry of tourism is jumping up and down about this, because they say this is the [best] brand ambassador[ship] you could possibly imagine,” Sherman said. “And I don’t mind that at all.”

Starting this month, Florentine Films, Sherman’s production company, will be offering food tours of the country led by Avihai Tsabari, a guide who’s featured in the documentary. The next trip leaves in January.

For his part, Solomonov is an earnest evangelist for the supremacy of food over politics.

“It’s so cliché, saying, like, peace through food,” he said in the interview. “On the other hand, traditional means of diplomacy have not worked very well.”

In the film, Abbas, the Palestinian restaurateur, speaking in broken English, sums up what may be the film’s most uplifting message: “Food make peace.”

Moving and Shaking: Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival, David Myers and Richard Sandler

A red carpet ceremony and a screening of “The Outrageous Sophie Tucker” kicked off the 10th annual Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival (LAJFF) on April 30 at the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills. 

The opening gala, which drew approximately 700 people, was just the beginning of a week of 25 films — including feature-length movies, shorts and documentaries — at theaters citywide.

Among those seen on the red carpet on opening night were Hilary Helstein, LAJFF executive director; philanthropist Daphna Ziman; and actors Radha Mitchell (“Finding Neverland”), Beverly Todd (“The Bucket List”), Max Ryan (“Death Race”) and Ken Davitian (“Borat”). Helstein spotlighted how far the festival has come since its founding a decade ago.  

“Why is this year different from all other years? We finally made it to our 10th — and what a milestone it is!” she said in a statement.

LAJFF founding co-chairs Kim Cavallo and Michele Kaufman were honored “for their creative vision and dedication to the Jewish community,” Helstein said. 

Annette and Robert Lichtenstein co-sponsored the opening night of the festival. 

TRIBE Media Corp., parent company of the Jewish Journal, is the nonprofit sponsor of the LAJFF.

The opening night event’s centerpiece was “The Outrageous Sophie Tucker,” a documentary about the iconic 20th-century superstar who made a name for herself in vaudeville, Broadway, radio, television and Hollywood. A discussion followed with the film’s producers, husband-and-wife team Lloyd and Susan Ecker.

Later during the festival, E. Randol Schoenberg, board president of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust and art restitution lawyer, participated in a Q-and-A after the May 2 screening of “The Art Dealer,” a movie involving Nazi-looted art. Filmmaker Melissa Donovan participated in a discussion after  screenings of her film about an Ethiopian and an American doctor, “Zemene,” on May 3 and 4. 

The closing night ceremony at ArcLight Cinemas in Sherman Oaks featured the first two episodes of the dramatic Israeli television series “Prisoners of War” (“Hatufim”), which inspired the award-winning Showtime series “Homeland.” A Q-and-A followed with Rob Eshman, the Journal’s publisher and editor-in-chief interviewing series creator Gideon Raff, whose latest show, “Dig,” is now on American television network USA. 



David Myers, the incoming inaugural UCLA Sady and Ludwig Kahn Chair in Jewish History. Photo courtesy of UCLA

UCLA professor David Myers has been named the university’s inaugural Sady and Ludwig Kahn Chair in Jewish History, UCLA announced May 19. 

The chair will provide funds for research, graduate student support and more for Myers, the current Robert N. Burr Department Chair in the history department (a position from which he will step down at the end of June).

 “It is a great honor to be the first holder of this chair, which will ensure that the poignant and powerful story of Sady and Ludwig Kahn — and of so many other Jews from the near and distant past — will be taught to generations of students at UCLA,” Myers said. “The Kahn Chair affirms UCLA’s place as a major center for the study of Jewish history in the United States and the world.” 

The late Sady and Ludwig Kahn were German Jews who fled Germany in the late 1930s before starting a successful hat-making business in Los Angeles. Sady, according to a UCLA press release, did not have any children and felt that UCLA, given its role in educating young people, was a deserving beneficiary of the Kahns’ money. She died in 2009. 

Myers has a bachelor’s degree from Yale and a doctorate from Columbia. He has edited eight books and authored several others, including “Re-inventing the Jewish Past: European Jewish Intellectuals and the Zionist Return to History.”


An architecture contest is underway — and may be nearing completion — at Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s (WBT) Koreatown-based Erika J. Glazer Family Campus, in which four major architectural firms have submitted proposals to create a new, 55,000-square-foot event and meeting building, dubbed The Gathering Place. 

The competing architecture firms are Kengo Kuma and Associates, Morphosis Architects, Rem Koolhaas’ OMA and Steven Holl Architects, according to an April 23 press release. Susan Gordon, WBT director of communications and marketing, told the Journal on May 19 that the contest jury committee has recommended architect Koolhaas for the job and that the synagogue is working with the firm to make its plans work financially. She did not provide a cost estimate.

“We didn’t officially announce the choice because we are in a period of due diligence, finding out if what they proposed could be done with a budget we can afford. … In effect, we are working with them to try to come to an agreement,” she said in a phone interview. 

The “inspiring architectural setting … will include a banquet hall with a commercial kitchen, as well as a cafe, meeting and conference rooms, and administrative space,” a press release said. The hope is for groups and individuals both from WBT and from the greater community to hold meetings, programs and other events there.

WBT Senior Rabbi Steven Leder, a jury committee member, said in a statement that architecture holds an important place in the hearts and minds of his worship community. 

“Architecture is a form of prayer. With this building, the temple brings another strong, radiant landmark to our local community, and the larger city of Los Angeles, to further our role as an institution of learning, gathering and giving,” he said.

Among the others on the jury are philanthropist and famed art collector Eli Broad; Hyatt Hotel heir Anthony Pritzker; Lauren Taschen, wife of art-book publisher Benedikt Taschen; philanthropist Erika Glazer; and Richard Koshalek, former head of the Museum of Contemporary Art. 

The completion of the building, expected in 2020, will represent the final phase of the synagogue’s ambitious, three-phase construction effort, the first phase of which focused on the Byzantine-Revival sanctuary that sits on the northeast corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Western Avenue. That construction was completed in 2013. 

The synagogue is in the midst of its second phase of construction — a 6,000-square-foot Karsh Family Social Services Center. 

WBT already has raised more than $100 million, but additional money will be needed for the new building. Its Koreatown campus is one of two of its campuses in Los Angeles. The Audrey and Sydney Irmas Campus is located in West Los Angeles, at Olympic Boulevard and Barrington Avenue. 



Richard Sandler, incoming Jewish Federations of North America board chair. Photo courtesy of Milken Family Foundation

The Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) has nominated Richard Sandler — immediate past chair of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles — as its next chair of the board.

The organization’s board of trustees nominating committee, led by Lori Klinghoffer, will vote on the nomination in November during the JFNA General Assembly, according to a May 14 email from JFNA to its constituents.

Sandler is a past vice chair of the JFNA board and current executive vice president and trustee of the Los Angeles-based Milken Family Foundation. He will succeed Michael Siegal as chair at JFNA, which represents more than 150 federations across the continent.

“As Jewish Federations look to build a strong future for our children and grandchildren, we need a national leadership that will inspire others and help them connect to our critical work,” Siegal said in a statement. “The nominating committee has identified an outstanding slate of individuals that includes a diversity of experience and leadership skills.”

Moving and Shaking highlights events, honors and simchas. Got a tip? Email ryant@jewishjournal.com.

L.A. Jewish Film Fest: From grave to whimsical all in one week

This year’s Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival, running May 1-8, features more than a dozen feature films and a number of shorts, all touching on major topics in Jewish contemporary life; many focus on self-preservation and conflict, but there’s also lighter fare mixed into the programming.

One whimsical entry, “Cupcakes,” is a musical comedy about a group of young Tel Aviv neighbors who compose a song that goes viral and lands them on a Eurovision-like television contest. In the romantic comedy “One Small Hitch,” a young woman agrees to fake an engagement with her old friend to please his dying father, but the charade leads to some genuine feelings. 

A standout is “The Life of the Jews in Palestine: 1913.” The festival will screen historical footage of Jewish immigrants building settlements in Ottoman Palestine, as it was then called, on the eve of World War I, 35 years before the founding of the State of Israel. The footage disappeared for 80 years, and this will be the first time the newly restored digital copy will be seen outside of Israel.

While all the selections this year are fascinating, here are three highlights:

“The Sturgeon Queens” 

Even if you don’t go meshugge for the taste of smoked salmon, you’ll still get a kick out of this one-hour documentary that follows four generations of the Russ family and their iconic Russ & Daughters lox and herring market on New York’s Lower East Side.

Director Julie Cohen discovered the shop while producing a PBS documentary in 2007 called “The Jews of New York” and interviewed patriarch Joel Russ’ daughters, Hattie Russ Gold and Anne Russ Federman. They’re now 101 and 93, respectively, and retired in Florida, yet their enthusiasm for the store and its history radiates. That original interview is paired with cameos by longtime clientele and by celebrity customers, including actress Maggie Gyllenhaal, chef Mario Batali and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

The film also marks the centennial of the store’s opening in 1914, and looks to the future as the new owners, the great-grandchildren of the founder, plan to open a Russ & Daughters cafe, organize a “Herring Pairing” and other events, and create buzz-worthy delicacies like the “Super Heeb,” the store’s most popular sandwich. Cohen says the name raises fewer eyebrows among film audiences than what goes on the sandwich: wasabi flying-fish roe. “When they see the green wasabi caviar, there’s a gasp,” she said with a laugh. “People seem very concerned about the very nontraditional idea of putting wasabi on a sandwich with cream cheese and white fish.”

But those tensions pale in comparison with the difficult decisions made by Joel Russ in the 1910s and ’20s, when he chose to keep the store open on Shabbat and to serve nonkosher fish. Other tensions arose in the 1970s, when Latinos began working behind the counter. Some customers left in protest, but Herman Vargas, now the store’s general manager, recalls winning them over by greeting them in Yiddish. Now, Cohen says, Vargas “speaks better Yiddish than most members of the Russ family.” And his skill at turning a hunk of salmon into perfect, paper-thin slices has even earned him the nickname “The Artistic Slicer.”

In the film’s credits, Cohen includes photographs of the film crew’s ancestors and the years in which they first immigrated to America, be it from Italy, Pakistan or pre-Israel Palestine. “The Russ family story is echoed by generations of so many Jewish families who came from Europe to the Lower East Side and pretty much everywhere else,” Cohen said. “Their family story — moving from poverty to education and success, and also the tensions between tradition and assimilation — it’s a story that a lot of Jewish-Americans and other groups of immigrants can relate to.”

May 3, Laemmle Town Center, May 4, Laemmle Music Hall

“Operation Sunflower” 

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Two comedy kings celebrate another

The curtain-raiser for the 2014 Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival is an explosion of humor that will bring tears to the eyes of old-timers and introduce younger folks to the progenitors of today’s star comedians.

Two of the greatest Jewish comic performers and writers of the postwar decades will be featured: Sid Caesar, who died in February at 91, will be present in spirit and on screen, and Carl Reiner, in person, just catching his second wind at 92.

The centerpiece of the May 1 opening night will be the screening of “Ten From Your Show of Shows,” a compendium of some of the sitcoms and comedy sketches starring Caesar extracted from the most celebrated TV show of the early 1950s.

Caesar’s partners and foils were the likes of Imogene Coca, Howard Morris and Reiner, the latter also among the stable of the show’s writers, which included Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Woody Allen and Larry Gelbart.

Reiner will be the guest of honor at the festival’s opener and will be interviewed onstage by his friend Phil Rosenthal, best known as the creator of the TV show “Everybody Loves Raymond.” 

The early days of television did not include canned laughter, only the response of a live audience, which likely will be echoed by contemporary viewers.

“Sid’s humor is as relevant today as it was more than half a century ago because he did not try to be hip and trendy or rely on shock value,” Rosenthal said in a phone interview. “His sketches are timeless.”

One of the 10 sketches features a noisy boor who keeps interrupting a soprano’s salon recital; another features a wife trying to explain to her husband how she smashed up the family car.

A third segment sends up a silent movie, in which a villainous manager hits on a sewing-machine worker (Coca) until she is rescued by a brawny laborer (Caesar). Still another sketch has Caesar as a know-it-all German scientist, demonstrating the comic’s ability to make utter gibberish sound like an actual language.

The final episode, “This Is Your Story,” is a masterpiece of its kind, and show-biz veterans, including Reiner and Rosenthal, avow that they have never seen anything to match it.

Parodying “This Is Your Life,” a forerunner of today’s reality shows, “host” Reiner picks out an unsuspecting member of the audience and escorts him to the stage. Then, from the wings, he brings out old girlfriends, former teachers, scout leaders and distant relatives to re-create the subject’s life.

In the Caesarian version, the comedian himself is the unsuspecting foil, and the last thing he wants to do is be part of the show. It takes four husky ushers to abort any escape attempt, and, finally, emotional huggers overwhelm Caesar, piling on top of him and each other.

The sketch, of course, must be seen to be appreciated, but Rosenthal testified, “I fell off my chair when I saw it — and I was sitting in a theater at the time.”

In Reiner’s judgment, “Sid was the greatest sketch comedian who ever lived … he created the template for all others.”

Reiner himself — writer, director, producer and actor – will be fêted during the evening “for his extraordinary contribution to Jewish humor,” Jewish Film Festival director Hilary Helstein said. (The festival is a program of TRIBE Media Corp., which produces the Jewish Journal.)

Caesar hired Reiner as a writer in 1950. They remained close friends and lunch companions until Caesar’s death.

Caesar never went to acting school; he was a natural and knew instantly whether a skit would work, Reiner reminisced during a phone interview. “He used to sit on a big chair facing the writers, and when he liked something, he would nod his head. When he didn’t like an idea, he took an imaginary machine gun from his lap and, pointing to the ceiling, shot the idea down.”

When not inhabiting one of his characters, Caesar could be quiet and glum, Reiner recalled. “He was a solitary drinker, and after the show, when he got into his limousine, he’d start drinking — though he never drank at work.”

As a child, he was frequently bullied by his older brother and “had a lot of demons,” Reiner said. In later years, the demons led Caesar to years of alcoholism and deep depression, but eventually he overcame them.

Rosenthal, now 54, was 16 when he saw Caesar perform for the first time, and was smitten.

“Sid’s humor had an underlying sweetness, there was nothing mean about it,” Rosenthal said. “ ‘Your Show of Shows’ and the subsequent ‘Caesar’s Hour’ pioneered the format for just about all subsequent comedy shows, including ‘Saturday Night Live,’ ” he said.

A recent article by David Margolick in Tablet magazine noted that “Your Show of Shows,” produced, directed, written and performed almost entirely by Jews, studiously avoided any Jewish references, dialogue or jokes. The article points to the irony that the show was entirely Jewish yet proved it by trying to pass as non-Jewish.

Reiner acknowledged the criticism, but noted, “You have to remember that the show was on only a few years after the end of the war and the Holocaust, and that Jews were still being maligned.”

Reiner and fellow writer Brooks found outlets for their Jewish sides and intonations in their famous dialogue “The 2,000 Year Old Man,” though they never performed that skit on “Your Show of Shows.”

Now that Jewish wit and soul is ubiquitous on stage and screen, the more pertinent question is why so many of America’s funny men and women are Jews.

“Maybe it’s genetic,” Rosenthal pondered. “And maybe it’s how we deal with the world. When I went to high school in the 1970s in suburban New York, I was always picked on. When you’re a small, skinny Jewish kid, you disarm the bullies with laughter.”

Reiner and Rosenthal, a generation apart, are keeping busy. Reiner’s autobiographical book, “I Remember Me,” came out last year and was so well received that he wrote a sequel, “I Just Remembered,” which will be available in a couple of weeks.

Rosenthal, proving that even wimpy Jewish kids can grow up to be tough guys, is playing a Jewish James Bond on the comedy Web site Funny or Die. He is also in the early stages of putting together a Broadway musical and working on a Henry Winkler pilot for BBC and on a food and travel show.

For more information and tickets for the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival, visit this story at jewishjournal.com. 

Yom HaShoah: The boy who ran, the man who lived

Every survivor of the Holocaust has a distinct story, and among the most remarkable is the one told in the movie “Run Boy Run.”

It’s the tale of an 8-year-old boy who escapes the Warsaw Ghetto and survives on his own for three years in Nazi-occupied Poland; the story could easily defy belief if the survivor were not still alive and ready to detail his experiences.

At the center of “Run Boy Run” — to be screened May 4 as part of the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival — is the lad born as Israel Fridman but nicknamed Srulik, the son of a baker in the Polish village of Blonie.

In 1942, the 8-year-old Srulik is smuggled out of the Warsaw Ghetto and hunkers down — wet, cold and hungry — in a vast Polish forest.

He first falls in with a band of orphaned Jewish youth who raid Polish farms for food and wood, but when that falls apart, Srulik again strikes out on his own.

Knocking at the doors of Polish farmers to ask for shelter in return for work, Srulik encounters rejections and even beatings until finally he is taken in by Magda (Elisabeth Duda, in a stellar performance), the wife and mother of Polish partisans.

Magda is warm-hearted and brave, but above all, practical. Knowing that Srulik will have a better chance of survival as a Catholic boy than as a Jew, she renames him Jurek, teaches him the Hail Mary prayer, gives him a crucifix and, most important, warns him never to take down his pants or relieve himself in front of a Pole.

Despite all precautions, word spreads in the village that Magda is hiding a Jew. The SS raids and torches her home, and after some heart-stopping escapes, the boy is again on the run.

In one of the film’s few light episodes, Jurek earns extra food from sympathetic adults by spinning wild stories about how he lost his arm, first blaming a German tank and finally assuring his listeners that Hitler personally cut off his arm.

In 1948, he is tracked down by a Jewish search agency and, despite the boy’s initial denials of being Jewish, he eventually returns to his ancestral roots.

The film essentially ends there, but in a phone call to his home in Shoham, a Tel Aviv bedroom community, Yoram Israel Fridman — formerly Srulik and Jurek — told the rest of the story.

With his daughter, Michal, translating from Hebrew and filling in for her 79-year-old father, Fridman continued his life story from his aliyah in 1948 to the present.

After arriving in Israel as a functional illiterate, Fridman took an intensive six-month ulpan course in Hebrew, then started his formal education and eventually earned a master’s degree in mathematics.

In 1963, he married Sonia, who was born in Russia during World War II, and the couple now has two children and six grandchildren.

Fridman retired from his position as a math teacher 11 years ago and now enjoys life as family patriarch, an ardent basketball fan and helping his grandson with math homework.

Some years ago, he told his wartime story to Israeli author Uri Orlev, who wrote the book on which the film is based — in the form of a thriller for young readers, in the same way Fridman has recounted his experiences for his children and grandchildren, Michal said.

Fridman’s children attribute his survival to considerable luck, and even more so to his inherent resourcefulness — a trait he also displays in diapering and tying the shoelaces of his youngest grandchildren with one hand, after rejecting a prosthesis following a short test-run.

In January, the family attended the premiere of “Run Boy Run” at the Jewish Museum in Warsaw, liked the film and deemed it 90 percent factually correct.

Veteran German director Pepe Danquart was attracted to the film’s theme because it viewed the Holocaust through the eyes of an innocent yet adventurous child.

“The Holocaust is still topical, still relevant,” Danquart said in a phone call from Germany. “But 6 million dead Jews is an abstract figure, especially to kids. Yet, they can be reached through a well-told adventure story.”

Danquart, who won an Oscar in 1993 for his short film “Black Rider,” had considerable difficulty finding the right actor for the central role of Srulik/Jurek.

“Two weeks before we were to start photography, I had interviewed 700 youngsters without finding the right one,” he said. Just then, he discovered not only the one actor he was looking for, but two, in identical twins Kamil and Andrzej Tkacs.

With the huge physical and psychological effort the role demanded, the twins could spell one another in front of the cameras.

North Germany’s fields and forests largely stood in for the Polish landscape, impressively rendered by cinematographer David Gottschalk.

One notable aspect of the movie is the depiction of Poles and Germans. There are Poles who risk everything to help Jurek, and others, like a Polish doctor, who refuse to treat a Jew whose arm was ripped off in a farm accident.

In contrast, there is not a single good German in the German director’s movie. Danquart explained that he didn’t want to diffuse the film’s central theme by including an Oskar Schindler or a music-loving Nazi officer as in Roman Polanski’s “The Pianist.”

“Run Boy Run” will be presented by the L.A. Jewish Film Festival at 7 p.m., May 4 at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills. The screening is sponsored by the L.A. Museum of the Holocaust, Goldrich Family Foundation and Anti-Defamation League. For information and tickets, visit www.lajfilmfest.org, or phone Brown Paper Tickets at (800) 838-3006.

Roman Polanski gives his side of the story

“People that don’t know me have an opinion of me that comes from the media. And that’s so far remote from what I am that I can’t even try to straighten it out.” These words from the controversial film director and provocateur Roman Polanski about his public image are the basis of a new documentary, “Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir.” 

The film, which will be shown on June 2 as part of the 2013 Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival, was produced by Andrew Braunsberg, a longtime friend of Polanski who also produced three of the director’s films, “Macbeth” (1971), “What?” (1972) and “The Tenant” (1976). Braunsberg came up with the idea of filming a conversation between himself and his friend while Polanski was under house arrest in Gstaad, Switzerland. At the time, Polanski was fighting extradition to the United States for an outstanding bench warrant linked to his infamous 1977 arrest for allegedly drugging and raping a 13-year-old girl. Polanski was arrested at the Zurich airport in September 2009 on his way to receive a lifetime achievement award at the Zurich Film Festival. A Holocaust survivor whose pregnant wife was murdered in 1969, the Oscar-winning director is known as much for his personal dramas as he is for his film work. “The goal of the film is to show Roman at a very stressful time of his life while being under house arrest,” the film’s director, Laurent Bouzereau, said in a phone interview. “It’s Roman at his most vulnerable and most open, talking about his entire life and career during a very difficult time.”  

Bouzereau was asked by Braunsberg to look at the footage he shot of his conversations with Polanski to see if there might be a movie there. “I said, ‘Yes!’ ” Bouzereau recalled. “But it’s missing part of act two and, ultimately, a resolution. There were 30 hours of conversation to go through, and you want to make sure you tell the story in 90 minutes. I thought we should start the narrative while he was under house arrest, with Roman reflecting back. And then the last third of the film would be about what happened after he was freed and looking back at this entire experience.”

From left: Adrien Brody and Roman Polanski on the set of “The Pianist.” Photo by Guy Ferrandis

As Polanski noted, much of the public’s perception of him has come from outside sources. Innumerable articles have been written about Polanski, and two earlier documentaries focused on his legal problems, but, as Bouzereau pointed out, this film is the only firsthand account from the subject. “It’s a film that’s from the point of view of Roman Polanski, and this is the first time that he got to express himself,” Bouzereau said. “And it could only happen if he was surrounded by friends. It would have never happened if it was a reporter or someone out to get dirt. It was in his own words and what he was willing to share with the world about what he’s gone through. So, for better or worse, it is Roman in his own words about all of those different situations. The Holocaust, for one, Sharon Tate being another, and the situation with the American girl being the third.”

In the film, Polanski’s reflections begin with his catastrophic childhood. Born Rajmund Roman Thierry Polański in Paris in 1933 to a Jewish father and Russian-born Catholic mother — both said to have been agnostic — Polanski and his family relocated to Krakow, Poland, three years later. When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, they were subjected to the horrors of living under Nazi occupation and the Holocaust. Eventually, his family was sent to concentration camps, leaving the young boy alone until he was taken in by another family. 

Years later, Polanski was reunited with his sister and father. His mother, however, did not survive the camps. Many of Polanski’s memories of that dark period were re-created in his 2002 film, “The Pianist,” for which he won an Academy Award for best director. In 1969, Polanski was once again beset by tragedy when Tate, his young, pregnant actress bride, was brutally murdered by members of Charles Manson’s cult. Polanski was in London working on a script with Braunsberg when he got the devastating news.  

 Of all of the events in Polanski’s life, however, it’s his 1977 arrest for allegedly drugging and then having sex with a 13-year-old girl — charges that through a plea bargain arrangement were reduced to the lesser charge of engaging in unlawful intercourse, before he fled the United States hours before being sentenced — that long ago turned the filmmaker into a polarizing figure. And that notoriety has now spilled over to Braunsberg and Bouzereau’s film. 

The documentary made its debut at the 2011 Zurich Film Festival, the same festival that Polanski was trying to attend when he was arrested. The premiere took place with little fanfare, but when it was shown at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, the critics took issue with the film’s one-sided point of view as well as with the subject’s relationship with the filmmakers. 

Roman Polanski and wife Emmanuelle Seigner in “Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir.” Photo courtesy of Eclipse Films

“It’s already controversial from the way it was received by the press,” Bouzereau said. “I think a lot of people felt that it was a very subjective view of the man, which is stating the obvious. It is subjective, in that it’s his best friend talking to him and it’s a friend of his — me — putting it together, so it is subjective. But at the same time, it’s clearly from his voice. There’s no third-party voice advancing the story. It’s really Roman guiding the discussion, so the viewers should take away that this is a firsthand account of what Roman thinks about himself, his life and the different episodes, as opposed to hearing it from other people judging him. 

“I think it allows for people who knew those stories and judged him to understand the person and make up their own mind on where they stand about his character.” Bouzereau also pointed out an example of achieving that goal with his film. 

“At one screening, a woman came up to me and said, ‘I walked into this movie hating him, and I came out understanding him. And I want to thank you for this movie.’ I thought that was a great way to explain what we were trying to accomplish. We’re not trying to change people’s minds about their view of Roman, but at least understand what he has to say and what his side of the story is.” 

“Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir” will screen on June 2 at 7 p.m. at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills.

‘La Rafle’ recalls Vichy sins

The biblical book of Exodus begins the ominous story of the Israelites’ descent into slavery with the following words: “A new generation arose” in Egypt that did not know Joseph. Well, a new generation has arisen in France, and they, unlike their parents and certainly their grandparents, are willing to remember and to confront the past.

There is a paradox in the Holocaust: The innocent feel guilty and the guilty feel innocent. There is a vast literature of survivor guilt, but a scant literature of perpetrator guilt. In France, the new generation may not feel guilty — they have no reason to feel guilty — but they certainly feel a responsibility to confront the French past.

“La Rafle” (“The Round Up”), a film by Roselyne Bosch that stars Jean Reno and Melanie Laurent, won the audience award for best film when it had its L.A. premier at the 2011 Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival. The film begins with the statement that the events portrayed happened. And so they did.

A word of historiography: In the aftermath of World War II, France developed two comforting myths, the myth of résistance and the myth that Charles De Gaulle and his forces actually liberated France. The truth was rather different: French police had rounded up Jews, deported them to transit camps and from there to death camps — it was French police, not the Germans. And French men and women collaborated, participating in both the persecution of the Jews and their roundup. French leadership in collaborationist Vichy France, headed by World War I hero Marshal Henri-Philippe Petain, were willing collaborators with the German regime and not, as they had been depicted, reluctant participants in the murder of their Jews.

The myth of résistance collapsed, in part, when the full history of former French President François Mitterrand was revealed; the trials of Klaus Barbie and Maurice Papon made French collaboration undeniable.

This set the stage for the moving new film “La Rafle,” which depicts the Parisian roundup of Jews on July 16 and 17, 1942, and their confinement in the Vel d’Hiv, a French sports stadium, before their deportation to a transit camp and from there to the “East.” The specific death camp remains unmentioned, but the destination — death by gassing — is an ever-present shadow throughout.

Like the best of French films, the work is textured. We get a wonderful feel for life in Paris, and an even better sense of Jewish life under German occupation. Jewish children become the dramatic center of the film, and their lives in the early days of occupation are portrayed in school, at home and in the street through a series of small vignettes, showing them seemingly oblivious to their new and constricted circumstances. The texture of the film is also reflected in the response of the French population, first to the persecution and later to the deportation. Even within the Vel d’Hiv, we don’t have a one-dimensional portrayal of the French. Some French men and women internalize Nazi anti-Semitism and use the occupation as a welcome opportunity to express their own anti-Semitism without restraint. Others are protective of their Jews — some effectively so, most ineffectively.

Sensitively portrayed by Laurent, the heroine of the story is a French non-Jewish nurse who comes into the Vel d’Hiv to treat the Jews. She is first introduced to us at the early stages of the film when the dean of the nursing school instructs her students to allow the Jews to escape should the Germans enter the premises. She volunteers to work  in the Vel d’Hiv, and it is through her innocent eyes that we encounter the inhumanity of the French confinement of the Jews.

We are taken inside the roller rink, where Jews are hungry and dirty, their nerves at the cracking point. Children play, parents fret, the pious pray and study and the thousands of Jewish prisoners swing between despair and hope, resignation and lethargy, defiance and self-help. For a moment, the peace of Shabbat descends on the Vel d’Hiv, as some Jewish women light their candles, but one can transcend such impossible conditions only for a moment. Some French firemen give water to the parched Jews; their fire chief covers for them and allows them to call in sick so that they can distribute the last notes of the desperate Jews who have trusted them to carry their messages forth. Their calls for help go unheeded.

And while there are heroes and villains, there is also what students of Holocaust literature and historians call the “gray zone.” A collaborationist policeman, who previously was enthusiastic at the deportation and tried to force himself on an aristocratic beautiful young Jewish woman, shades his eye as she seeks to escape the stadium.

“La Rafle” does not shade the painful truth of the experience. The conditions in the Vel d’Hiv are horrific; the mood of the Jews swings wildly, and we witness firsthand the filth and violence of their condition as they wait for the ordeal to end. Their deportation to the transit camp appears a welcome relief, as the Jews think that they have survived the worst, only to encounter more horrific conditions in the camp.

“La Rafle” avoids giving the audience a simple love story. The nurse is infatuated with an older Jewish doctor (played by Reno) who struggles valiantly but in vain to provide medical care to the prisoners. There is no time for love; admiration, affection and a joint sense of mission must suffice. She volunteers to go to the transit camp; he will not permit her to go to the death camp. She is gentile and can live; he is Jewish and will die.

And the children whom we have seen before in the Jewish quarter and in the Vel d’Hiv come center stage in the camps, as first their mothers are deported, and then their fathers. When they are left behind, because French leaders do not want to have it perceived that they kill children, the children form a supportive community among themselves.

We go with these Jews to the transit camps, with their own set of horrific conditions. We witness the separation of husbands from wives, the confinement of children in separate barracks and, ultimately, the shipping out of women followed by men and, only later, by children, which the French officials describe as a humanitarian gesture that will unite mother and child — albeit in the ovens of Auschwitz.

French officialdom is seen in its glorious vanity looking for a way to cast off responsibility, precisely as they are not just compliant, but cooperative, in the murder of their own Jews. 

While all the details of the film may not be precisely historically accurate, the true ethos of their acts and the nature of their pretense is brought to life on the screen.

The film does not take us inside the gates of Auschwitz, for it is there that French history ends and German history begins — and Bosch is interested in French history, French actions, French hypocrisy — but she does take us to postwar Paris and the desperate search by survivors for someone of their past, and by Jewish children for some knowledge of who they were and where they came from, even their true names. 

The drama of reunion is not played up, as it might be in an American film, as a moment of triumph, because we see that, for every reunion, there are thousands who did not return. There is a deep and subtle power to the film; characters are developed and then we return to them, themes are presented and then refined. Each scene is striking; no moment seems superfluous, none inauthentic. But there is no subtlety to what is presented — the horror is layered, the intensity builds from scene to scene. And in the end, we have a powerful film that presents the truth of how the French treated their Jews.

Roselyne Bosch has done her job. It is a film not to be missed.


Michael Berenbaum is professor of Jewish studies and director of the Sigi Ziering Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Ethics at American Jewish University. Find his A Jew blog at jewishjournal.com/a_jew.

Priest, born Jewish, is ‘Torn’

In the opening scene of the documentary “Torn,” an official asks an elderly man for his name, and he replies, “Romuald-Jakub Weksler-Waszkinel.”

This name encapsulates the fate of Jakub (Yankele) Weksler, born 1943 in Lublin, Poland, to Jewish parents during the Holocaust years and adopted by a Christian Polish family to save his life. At 17, the one-time Yankele enters a seminary and eventually becomes Father Romuald Waszkinel, a Catholic priest.

As his Polish mother lies dying, she tells the 35-year-old priest that — like thousands of other Jewish children hidden by Catholic families and in convents during the war — he was born a Jew.

In the remainder of “Torn,” Israeli filmmaker Ronit Kertsner documents a man’s struggle to reconcile two faiths that he sees as one, but which the Christian and Jewish outside worlds view as mutually exclusive beliefs.

The man’s internal struggle is given external expression in his small bedroom, where a painting of Jesus is flanked by an engraving of the Shema prayer and a small menorah. Adjacent are faded photos of his Jewish and Christian mothers.

Over the years, the priest’s conviction grows that he must go to Israel to study Hebrew, and in his mid-60s he arrives at Sde Eliyahu, an Orthodox kibbutz, to enroll in its ulpan (intensive Hebrew-language program).

But here, as in Poland, Weksler-Waszkinel’s insistence that he is both Jewish and Catholic stumps even the generally sympathetic kibbutzniks and Israeli bureaucrats.

For one, Israel’s Law of Return, which grants automatic entry to any Jew, does not apply to those practicing a different faith, and no Christian monastery in Israel will accept him in their own ranks.

Weksler-Waszkinel, now known as Yaakov, is at first indignant (“You mean secularists like Marx and Trotsky are Jews, but not me?”), then agrees to forgo saying Sunday Mass at a church in Tiberias, but he refuses to take the final step.

“I can deny everything [about Catholicism], but not Jesus,” he proclaims, but adds later, “I am convinced the God of Israel loves me, as I love Him.”

As Yaakov continues his struggle, his great friend is the American-born chief rabbi of Poland, Michael Schudrich, who becomes the mediator between Yaakov and his would-be Israeli compatriots.

One unforgettable picture symbolizes Yaakov’s duality. As he approaches the Western Wall in Jerusalem, he carefully adjusts his priestly Roman collar, and then his embroidered kippah.

Currently, Yaakov works as an archivist at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem and appears happy, filmmaker Kertsner said. He has been officially classified as a “permanent resident,” which allows him three years to decide whether to apply for Israeli citizenship.

Kertsner said that of the many thousands of Jewish children saved by Poles during the Holocaust, she knew of no other instance of a born Jew becoming a priest.

She brings a special empathy to the subject of her documentary. “When I was around 35, I learned that I had been adopted as a child, and then I went through a severe identity crisis,” she said.

Her American parents moved after World War II to Israel, where Ronit was born in 1956. She started, and continues, her career as a film editor, partly due to the influence of her uncle, the American actor David Opatoshu. As producer of “Torn,” she decided to also direct it when no one else wanted the job.

Her other documentaries — “Menachem and Fred,” “I, the Aforementioned Infant” and “The Secret” — also deal with identity crises. Asked if she plans on doing any feature films, she answered, “Why should I, when real life is so fascinating?”

The Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival will screen “Torn” on Aug. 10 at the Museum of Tolerance as part of its “Midsummer Night’s Film Festival” series. The film starts at 7:30 p.m., followed by a panel discussion with Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center; the Rev. Alexei Smith, director of the Office of Ecumenical and Interfaith Affairs of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles; and director Kertsner. Rabbi Mark S. Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, will serve as moderator.

For tickets or information about the screening, please call (800) 838-3006 or visit www.lajfilmfest.org. For more background on “Torn” and its director, visit www.go2films.com.

New Valley Festival Accentuates ‘Festive’

At the heart of Los Angeles’ Jewish community lies a paradox. As the community grows and spreads into different areas in the Southland, can it still be a community? It is this very question that Hilary Helstein, executive director of the latest incarnation of the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival, has had to confront.

Her predecessors, like Greg Laemmle, whose theater chain ran the Cinema Judaica for a number of years, were never able to build a truly successful franchise in the past.

Helstein, a documentary filmmaker, says of the previous festivals, “They didn’t know their audience.” She points out that they often showed “films released in years prior, like ‘Frisco Kid’ and ‘Exodus.’ My goal is to not show ‘Schindler’s List’ again, but to take a fresh approach.”

That means fewer Holocaust films, a greater mix of comedy and other offbeat genres, such as animation, and several world premieres, including the opening night film, “When Do We Eat?” which she calls a “wacky Passover comedy” starring Lesley Ann Warren and Jack Klugman, and the closing night film, “Keeping Up With the Steins,” another comedy, this one from Miramax, directed by Scott Marshall, son of Garry Marshall.

She hopes these two films will “create a buzz with something light and uplifting.” She adds that it is important “to be able to incorporate Hollywood-type films into the mix,” along with the more traditional fare of documentaries, such as “Only in America,” directed by Ron Frank and produced by Ann Benjamin, which follows 2000 vice presidential candidate Joe Lieberman around on the campaign trail.

Kenneth Turan, film critic for the Los Angeles Times, echoes the need for more spectacle in a Los Angeles film festival. In order for a “film festival of any type to succeed in L.A.,” he says, “it needs to have a jazzy element, a show biz component.”

He notes that the L.A. festival that most successfully adhered to this “playful and unconventional” marketing strategy was Filmex, back in the 1970s, before the AFI festival and all the others.

Unlike Toronto, which has only one festival, Los Angeles has many including the Sephardic Film Festival, which did not take place last year, and the Israel Film Festival. There are so many, Turan says, that festival directors must avoid so-called “Field of Dreams” marketing: “You can’t just take for granted, ‘If you build it, they will come.'”

In a push for irreverence and frivolity, Helstein has scheduled a night of three comedy shorts at the Knitting Factory in Hollywood, including “Chutzpah, Is It?” a “hip-hop-umentary” about a Jewish rap group. She is also targeting Latinos with “Only Human (Seres Queridos),” a Spanish-subtitled film about a Palestinian-Jewish love affair.

The festival is the brainchild of Jack Mayer, head of the Jewish Community Center at Milken in the Valley. It will kick off on April Fool’s Day and run through April 6, with screenings at the center, Valley Beth Shalom and Sinai Temple, as well as at the Laemmle Theaters in Encino and Fallbrook.

When asked why there will be no screenings at Laemmle’s theaters in Pasadena and downtown, Greg Laemmle said, “It’s a numbers game. The Valley will do two to three times as much business as Pasadena.”

Calling L.A.’s Jewish community “Balkanized,” Laemmle said, “there may be an asset in being a smaller Jewish community.”

He points to the success of Jewish film festivals in San Diego and Washington, D.C., as well as the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, the world’s oldest Jewish film fest.

According to Peter Stein, the San Francisco festival’s executive director, its success has rested partly on the recognition that, in an age of numerous, convenient leisure options, the festival has to “bring media to the people.” Celebrating its 26th year this July, the San Francisco festival now screens not only at its flagship Castro Theater, but also in Berkeley, Mountain View and Marin County.

In addition to extending its venues across the Bay Area, Stein says that the festival makes a concerted effort to attract non-Jews, who comprise 25 percent to 30 percent of its audiences. The festival has distributed catalogs in cafes and made strategic partnerships, for example, with churches and other African American community organizations when it screened “Strange Fruit,” about a Jewish communist and Billie Holiday.

Laemmle concurs about the importance of developing community partnerships.

“Most film festivals do not succeed on ticket sales alone,” he said. “There is a need for sponsors and donors.”

Helstein says that she has enlisted the aid of a number of synagogues, high schools and other organizations. Volunteers like Kim Cavallo have helped Helstein partner with Gold Graphics, which produced street banners for the L.A. Jewish Film Festival, and Glyphix, whose owner, Larry Cohen, has designed the logo, a palm tree with a reflection of the Star of David.

As vital as the partnerships are, Stein also stresses the necessity of making the festival “different than an ordinary film experience. There must be a human-interactive experience,” so “it’s not just turning out the lights and watching a movie.”

Panel discussions with filmmakers are a standard means of drawing an audience, and Helstein will have several, including panels with the cast and director at both the opening and closing night films.

But Helstein will also appeal to the whole family on Sunday, April 2, with animation workshops, tricycle races and bagel breaks. While the film to be screened, “39 Pounds of Love,” about a sickly child, may not be suitable for young children, Helstein realizes she must present a lively and entertaining festival.

In a city with numerous film festivals and competing Jewish cultural organizations like the Skirball Cultural Center and the Museum of Tolerance, Helstein is trying to differentiate her product in the marketplace: “We’re focused on new films with relevance to today’s topics.”

The opening night film, “When Do We Eat?” screens at 8 p.m. at the WGA Theater, 135 S. Doheny Drive, Beverly Hills. For more information on the festival or to buy tickets, call (818) 464-3300 or visit

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