For ex-CNN anchor who converted, Judaism sharpens focus on kids


“The public school system in this country is broken,” says Campbell Brown, education-reform advocate and former NBC and CNN news anchor.

It’s this sentiment that led Campbell to create The Seventy Four, a nonprofit, nonpartisan educational news site launching Monday. The name refers to the 74 million school-age children in the United States.

In January, New York magazine dubbed Brown “the Most Controversial Woman in School Reform.” Through her nonprofit, Partnership for Educational Justice, she has helped parents file lawsuits against New York State challenging teacher tenure. She has been critical of the teachers’ union and vocal about her rejection of the status quo.

“Every education law should be based around the question, ‘Is this good for children?’ And it’s not,” she tells JTA.

Brown sees herself as both a journalist and an advocate for the powerless. Critics describe her as a union-busting, pro-charter school mouthpiece for the 1 percent.

“The critics are going to say what they want,” she says. “But I’ll let our journalism speak.”

The site launches with an inspirational profile on Chris Bonner, a search-and-rescue pilot for the Coast Guard who traded military life to become a second-grade teacher at a charter school in Newark, New Jersey. Pulitzer Prize-winner Cynthia Tucker’s debut column is about how presidential candidates should address the relationship between educational inequality and income inequality.

Campbell says that most of her detractors “are part of the education system and the status quo.”

“They have vested interests and don’t want us calling them out — but that’s our jobs as journalists,” she says.

Her opponents — pointing to the fact that her two children attend private school, a Jewish day school in Manhattan — say she is disconnected and not qualified to argue on behalf of the country’s public school students.

“On the contrary,” she says. “I’ve had opportunities that many others don’t have and was able to choose my children’s school. I’m fully aware that many people are stuck with their failing neighborhood school.”

“I care deeply about Jewish education and Jewish values, and chose a school with those values,” she says, but declined to name the school. “But every mother should have a choice when it comes to education.”

Brown was raised Catholic in Louisiana but converted to Judaism more than a decade ago. Her husband, Dan Senor, grew up modern Orthodox in Toronto. (Senor was a political consultant to the George W. Bush White House, former chief spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq and is the author of “Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle.”)

The decision to convert was a difficult one, Brown says — she didn’t know much about Judaism growing up.

“It was something I struggled with — trying to understand why it was so important to my husband and to my mother-in-law that I do it,” she says. “I asked her to try and tell me. I’m a journalist, after all, and I ask a lot of questions.”

Brown’s mother-in-law recounted her family’s story of fleeing Poland during the Holocaust.

“While they were on the run, every Friday night they’d cover themselves up long enough to light Shabbat candles. That was the length they went to to preserve their traditions,” Brown recalls from the story. “How could I not raise my kids with the tradition they worked so hard to uphold?”

Brown underwent a Reform conversion while at NBC. Every week for about six months, her rabbi would come to her office, close the door and study with her.

“I never closed my door, and that was the one time during the week that I would,” she says. “The rumors were flying. People thought she must be my shrink or something.”

That “was one of the most rewarding times of my life,” Brown says.

The family lights Shabbat candles every week and observes many aspects of Judaism.

“We don’t do it to my mother-in-law’s specifications, though,” Brown jokes. Her mother-in-law now lives in Israel (the family visited her there last Passover) and “she is still a mentor to me.”

Asked about her favorite part of Jewish culture, Brown doesn’t hesitate.

“It’s the sense of community,” she says. “My kids went to Jewish preschool, they go to Jewish day school and I’m involved in our Jewish community center. It’s all very kid-centric.”

And so is her professional life, of course. Brown — along with her The Seventy Four co-founder Romy Drucker, who worked at the New York City Department of Education on former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s transformational “Children First” reforms — say they are looking to put children’s education at the forefront of the national conversation, something that’s especially important ahead of next year’s presidential election.

The Seventy Four, they hope, will be a forum where people with different opinions and viewpoints present solutions to what Brown describes as the “current crisis in our schools.”

“Too many children in this country are falling behind at an early age and are never given the help they need to succeed,” Drucker says.

“Research shows that the most significant school-based factor in a child’s learning is the quality of his or her teacher,” she adds. “We must make it a priority that every child, regardless of their ZIP code, background or skin color, has a high-quality, effective teacher in the classroom.”

But The Seventy Four isn’t all doom and gloom. Brown and Drucker also plan to feature success stories, like Bonner’s.  Stories will be both long- and short-form, with a large video component. Brown will contribute editorially.

“I think this is the direction journalism is going in: news sites that go deep on specific issues,” Brown says, pointing specifically to Bill Keller’s The Marshall Project, which covers the American criminal justice system, and the single-topic news site Syria Deeply.

And if there’s controversy, so be it, Brown says.

“That just means we’re relevant and in the heart of it all,” she says. “The role of journalists is to hold people in power accountable.”

You’re fired! NBC dumps Trump over insults to Mexicans


NBC ended its relationship with real estate developer and TV personality Donald Trump and his “Miss USA” and “Miss Universe” pageants on Monday after he made comments insulting Mexicans when he began his run for president.

The pageants, which are part of a joint venture between NBCUniversal and Trump, would no longer air on NBC “due to the recent derogatory statements by Donald Trump regarding immigrants” the company said in a press release.

Trump was already not going to take part in “The Apprentice” on NBC, a show in which he uses “You're Fired!” as his signature command to eliminate contestants. NBC said “Celebrity Apprentice” licensed from United Artists Media Group would continue.

Univision said on Thursday that it would not air the Miss USA pageant on July 12 because of Trump's remarks. Trump's lawyer said the billionaire would sue the U.S. Spanish-language TV network.

Trump said on Monday after the NBC announcement that he was no longer affiliated with the broadcaster but stood by his campaign trail comments.

“Mr. Trump stands by his statements on illegal immigration, which are accurate. NBC is weak, and like everybody else is trying to be politically correct – that is why our country is in serious trouble,” a Trump Organization statement said.

Trump, in announcing on June 16 that he was seeking the Republican Party nomination for the November 2016 presidential election, described migrants from Mexico to the United States as drug-runners and rapists.

“They're bringing drugs, they're bringing crime, they're rapists, and some I assume are good people, but I speak to border guards and they tell us what we are getting,” he said in opening his campaign at Trump Tower on Manhattan's Fifth Avenue.

Trump's provocative comments, including a pledge to build a “great wall” on the border paid for by Mexico if he were elected, were the latest in a series of swipes against the United States's southern neighbor.

Mexicans rich and poor, cabinet ministers and staunch critics of the government alike reacted angrily to Trump. Trump defended his more divisive remarks on the grounds that he was worried about border security, jobs in the United States and trade arrangements.

Univision said it would also sever ties with the Miss Universe Organization, a joint venture between Trump and Comcast-owned NBCUniversal.

On Monday, when Trump spoke at the City Club in Chicago, a crowd of protesters, many of them Latinos, demonstrated outside, Chicago media reported. “Trump is a racist,” they shouted.

Trump spoke to a sold-out crowd of 350 people at the City Club. Hundreds more had tried to get tickets and were put on a wait list, the public policy forum said.

Political analysts have said Trump, despite being one of America's most recognizable figures, is considered a long shot candidate in the field of more than a dozen Republicans.

Trump also made inflammatory comments about fellow Republicans and the administration of President Barack Obama, a Democrat.

Jon Stewart on the confusion surrounding Rachel Dolezal: ‘Whaaaaaat?’


Jon Stewart's initial reaction to the Rachel Dolezal story: “Whaaaaaaaaaat!?”

Watch below:
 

 

NAACP official who resigned says she identifies as black

[Reuters] Washington state civil rights advocate Rachel Dolezal, who has been accused of falsely claiming she is African-American, said on Tuesday she identifies as black and has been doing so since she was 5 years of age.

Dolezal, in an interview on NBC's “Today” television show, said a major shift in her identity came when she was doing human rights work in Idaho and newspaper stories described her as transracial, biracial and black.

“I never corrected that,” she said, “… because it's more complex than being true or false in that particular instance.”

Dolezal, 37, who grew up with adopted black siblings, resigned on Monday as president of the Spokane chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, a leading U.S. civil rights organization, amid reports that her parents are white.

Her own concept of her race began when she was 5 years old, Dolezal said.

“I was drawing self-portraits with the brown crayon instead of the peach crayon and the black curly hair,” she said.

Shown a photograph of herself as a teenager with fair complexion and blond hair in the TV interview, Dolezal said, “I would say that visibly she would be identified as white by people who see her.”

Dolezal took issue with critics who have said that by presenting herself as African-American, she was putting on a black-face performance – an outdated act in which white actors used makeup to portray black stereotypes.

“I have a huge issue with black-face,” she said. “This is not some freak … mockery black-face performance. This is on a very real, connected level. I've actually had to go there with the experience.”

Dolezal had represented Albert Wilkinson, a black man she worked with in Idaho, as her father and she said they had a family-level connection, according to media reports.

“Albert Wilkinson is my dad,” Dolezal said. “Any man can be a father. Not every man can be a dad.”

Dolezal said her two sons, who are black, had been supportive of her identity.

“I actually was talking to one of my sons yesterday,” she said. “He said, 'Mom, racially, you're human and culturally you're black.”

Brian Williams’ punishment: Does it fit the crime?


By now, anyone interested enough to have read about the issue knows the basic facts: Longtime NBC anchor Brian Williams lied about having been on a helicopter that was shot down in Iraq in 2003. In truth, he was on a different helicopter that landed unimpeded about a half hour after the other chopper was forced down by hostile fire.

The apology Williams offered last week when the truth of the matter became impossible to ignore (thanks to a reporter from Stars and Stripes) was deemed insufficient by the commentariat and, eventually, by NBC. Williams essentially said it was an honest mistake – “I made a mistake in recalling the events of 12 years ago,” was how he put it. But critics said it was an outright lie, and his failure to own up compounded the original lie with a dishonest apology.

Now NBC has suspended Williams without pay for six months and is undertaking its own internal investigation to determine what else Williams has said doesn’t hold up under scrutiny.

There are a couple of things that are confounding to me about this whole turn of events.

The first is the most obvious: that a man this likable, this good-looking, this… tall could have peddled this untruth for so long. Who could ever have imagined he was lying through those picture-perfect white teeth? (Except for the ignored military veterans who have been grumbling about Williams’ dishonesty for years, of course.) Shame on you, Williams, for ruining what had been up till now a happy relationship.

Not that I watch “NBC Nightly News,” of course. Though I grew up on Tom Brokaw and still find his South Dakota lilt and peculiar staccato the ultimate authoritative voice in news, as an adult I don’t think I ever sat down to watch the early evening TV news, and now I don’t even own a TV. But I did like Williams’ cameos on “30 Rock,” stints on “Saturday Night Live” and guest appearances on the “Daily Show” with Jon Stewart (whose just-announced retirement from the show is a real tragedy, if we’re already bemoaning the loss of a news anchor).

What really confounds me about the Williams affair is this ill-conceived punishment.

I just don’t get it. If the guy lied and is no longer a credible reader of the news – because that’s really what anchors do these days – then what does a six-month suspension do? It’s long enough for NBC to lose its position as the leader among networks in the nightly newscasts, and for viewers to get accustomed to a new anchor. But then why bring Williams back in six months?

Stories about helicopter-gate (is anyone else using this term?) will just crop up again ahead of his return, and I don’t understand how six months of sitting in the corner facing the wall (and foregoing a paycheck) will make Williams more honest, or trustworthy.

If NBC really wants to take a stand, why not get rid of Williams for good?

If it’s that the network wants to be seen as punishing Williams but doesn’t want to lose an anchor who has been good for business, then wouldn’t a shorter punishment make more sense? A month, say, would be enough time that it would be more than a slap on the wrist but short enough that the broadcast conceivably could move beyond the scandal in a few weeks’ time.

I called a couple of Jewish guys I know who deal in crisis PR, among other things, to see what they thought about NBC’s handling of the Williams affair.

“Six months is shocking,” said Stu Loeser, a former spokesman for New York mayor Michael Bloomberg. “I think it surprised everyone. It’s attention getting. It shows that Brian Williams’ NBC bosses take this seriously. This is a big deal. This is not stepping down for two weeks, this is not taking a vacation.”

Loeser, who now runs a media strategy firm in New York, said he believes six months is perfect amount of time.

“You need something that breaks through. If it’s two weeks, people won’t buy it,” Loeser said. “Six months puts him back in play at the end of summer, before Labor Day, a time of new starts. That’s actually a good time for him to come back into the public consciousness. I don’t exactly know what his path to return is. Does he do it straight in the anchor chair or reporting from wherever the breaking news story of the day is? That remains to be seen.”

In the meantime, Williams has to think hard about he does with his time, Loeser said.

“He is a multimillionaire who has been given six months of penance,” Loeser said. “He can’t be seen in the social scene. You can’t just do rest and relaxation. The pursuit of the narrative matters, and he’s got to have a good answer for what he did in his spring and summer vacation.”

As for NBC, the six months buys the network some important flexibility. NBC executives can see use the time to try out an alternative anchor (or anchors) without locking into a long-term contract. It’s a strategy, Loeser observed, that NBC could have used for “Meet the Press,” which hasn’t really found the right person for the job since the death of Tim Russert.

Steve Rabinowitz, a former media strategist for President Clinton and now president of Rabinowitz Communications, a Jewish-heavy PR shop in Washington, said that, by issuing such a harsh suspension, NBC executives showed how seriously they take the credibility of their news operation and their responsibility to the public.

But Williams’ response fell short, Rabinowitz told JTA.

“The on-air apology was the right thing to do, but then he went into radio silence,” Rabinowitz said.

“What he did wrong was he didn’t make himself available for aggressive interviews, where people could really see his angst, the pain, his remorse, the regret,” Rabinowitz said. “They should have called Letterman or gone on a competitor’s air or done an interview with the media critic for The New York Times.”

As for whether Williams’ original apology for distorting the Iraq War story was dissembling or not, Rabinowitz said he’s not so sure.

“When I read his apology, I thought it was plausible,” Rabinowitz said. “It’s possible that over time he started out telling the story accurately and then it muddled and then it became outright untrue.”

Whether or not Williams can reestablish the public’s trust — and whether NBC will give him the chance — remains to be seen.

NBC photographer with Ebola has Jewish father


An NBC photographer diagnosed with Ebola has a biological Jewish father.

Ashoka Mukpo was expected to arrive at the Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha from Liberia on Monday.

Mukpo was raised in Colorado by the late Tibetan Buddhist leader Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche; his mother was one of his several wives. His biological father, Mitchell Levy, one of Trungpa’s followers, is Jewish, The Associated Press reported. Mukpo’s mother and Levy married after Trungpa’s death.

Levy told the AP that his son was filming inside and around clinics and high-risk areas in Liberia but didn’t know how he became infected. Mukpo returned to the west African nation in August to cover the epidemic.

As an infant, Mukpo was identified as a reincarnated Tibetan lama, a role he did not embrace though he is still a practicing Buddhist.

The day I met Chuck Todd


“The Watergate” was just a name I had read in history books before I actually stepped in that glorious complex in the fall of 2001.

With a folder of papers under my arm and a bag hanging from my shoulder and a… pounding heart, I got out of the elevator into the third floor of that huge building.  A white color grand piano was sitting in the middle of a huge room surrounded by big glass windows showing the beautiful view of Potomac River.  I took a deep breath and tried to focus on what I need to do next.  It was only about a month since I had arrived in the U.S. the land of opportunities, and luckily I ended up in a city (Washington D.C.) that I believed was a perfect place for the job I was interested in as a journalist.

But I wasn’t sure where to go next! I looked around to find someone that could help me. A little farther, a man was standing next to a desk. When I got closer to him, after making sure not to interrupt him, in a very polite manner and clear voice asked:

-I am looking for Mr. Chuck Todd. Do you know where I can find him?

The guy looked at me curiously for second and burst into a loud laughter.  My heart started pounding even harder. Since when I came to this country I was trying very carefully not to do anything against the rules and culture of this new environment I had moved to! The guy did not stop laughing. He was laughing hard when he pointed to me to follow him. I was still confused when he peeked into an office and said: Hey Chuck, someone’s looking for you…

And still laughing, he continued:

-She says she is looking for “Mr. Chuck Todd”!

Chuck looked at me and with a smile said:

-Call me Chuck…

Now I was amazed! In my culture (Iranian culture) you could never call a boss by his first name! And I was surprised to see that an editor in chief can be so humble and down to earth not to mind being called by his first name!

I think I was very lucky to have my first job interview in this county with “Chuck Todd”!  That day Chuck the editor-in-chief of Hotline, online Publication, hired me. It was months after the 9/11 tragedy that the publication, The Hotline, in partnership with the Atlantic Monthly, embarked on a 6-month special daily news briefing on world politics called: Hotline World Extra. And the goal of the publication was to provide news briefs on significant political and military developments from countries the U.S. was going to be dealing with in the war on terrorism; and so I got to compile and translate Persian publications into news briefs.  During the time I worked there, I didn’t even want to leave the workplace after I was done; Chuck was an amazing leader and super friendly boss. He was a hard worker. His writers were a team of enthusiastic young people that cheered when he showed up in the TV news commenting on political issues.

And I was so proud to work with him and even prouder when he once told me: I am “Jewish”, a reform Jew. Years later when I asked him for a recommendation letter he immediately gave me a long note with incredibly nice words, mentioning my abilities as an amazing asset!

A few years later I almost left aside writing, which was my passion, but I could hear and feel Chuck’s continuous success from here and there. One spring day in 2007 I received an email from Chuck. It was a bulk email starting like this: Friends, family (even some foes…

And he continued:

“I have left Hotline and moved over to NBC News as their new political dir. and on-air analyst” and attached was his new contact info.

Chuck’s abilities in journalism and his passion for politics and his courageous interviews, bought him more and more fans. Today Chuck Todd is the host of NBC's “Meet the Press”, which was once the highest rated political talk shows and is the longest running (66 years according to Wikipedia) American TV series.

This past Sunday “September 7, 2014” almost exactly 13 years after 7/11/2001 when America is still dealing with war on terrorism, Chuck Todd, the 12th moderator of this series started his first show of “Meet the press” passionately with a unique interview  in The White House with President Obama about war on Terror.

Among many others, I strongly believe that he is going to make a positive change in the world of politics. And I just want to tell him:

-Mazal Tov “Mr. Chuck Todd”!

From Broadway to cantor, Mike Stein competes on NBC’s ‘The Voice’


Chazzan Mike Stein never really considered himself a singer, but rather, he said, an instrumentalist who sings. But when an agent called and invited him to audition for the upcoming seventh season of NBC’s TV hit singing competition “The Voice,” something within him that had lain dormant since his teen years on the Broadway stage was ignited once again. 

“I don’t think that I would have done it if somebody hadn’t approached me. Up until the day of the audition, I thought, ‘Why am I doing this?’ My wife and sons are the ones who said, ‘Dad, you should do this for yourself.’ ”

And they were right, Stein, 62, admits now: “There is a deep sense of satisfaction in this business that you can’t get anywhere else. It’s a totally different kind of satisfaction than what I get being a cantor — it’s total ego, and I really enjoyed every minute.”  

Bound by contractual silence, in a recent interview Stein, a Grammy winner and, since 2000, chazzan at the Conservative Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills, had to tip-toe around sharing any stories of his TV experience. He is the first cantor to appear on the show — there have been a few music ministers, and a nun once won the “Voice” competition in Italy. Stein entered into the process openly displaying his affiliation, he said. “I was representing the Jewish people. I insisted that I could wear a yarmulke, and I talked about being Jewish a lot, in almost every interview.” At his first audition, Stein sang Romemu from the Friday night service, and he added a yodel to it. “I just want to be the Matisyahu [Jewish rapper] of country music,” Stein said with a laugh.

Stein has been singing since he was a young boy growing up in New York. One of his favorite things was going to the synagogue and listening to his cantor sing in the classical chazzanut style. In third grade, Stein started to play the violin and later picked up the guitar when the Beatles came to America. Even though his mother was a pianist and his great-uncle was the famous Broadway-musicals composer Jule Styne (“Funny Girl,” “Gypsy”), his parents weren’t supportive of his passion. “My parents didn’t want me to be a singer or actor, anything in the entertainment business — for them, that was a failure. The older actors on Broadway that I met became my surrogate parents; they adopted me. … Later, I learned from this, and that’s why my children have 300 percent of my support in the arts,” said Stein. 

At 16, he entered Queens College, majoring in drama. He soon left to pursue a career in acting. It was really tough; he recalled living in a condemned building on the Lower East Side, selling everything in order to eat and sweeping floors in hopes of landing some kind of opportunity. Stein’s first break on Broadway came as part of the chorus in the rock opera “Soon.” Then, at 19, he landed a spot in the original cast of “Jesus Christ Superstar” and toured in the original road show of the rock opera “Tommy.” Then his journey took a detour. 

“I felt that all the things I was doing on Broadway were amazing, but they didn’t have the substance for me. I left my career and went to live on a farm in Pennsylvania with my girlfriend, and we lived like hippies and grew our own food,” he said.

Eventually, Stein moved back to civilization and landed in Washington, D.C., doing street theater, entertaining people as they waited in lines for museums. It was there that he met his wife, Shelley (a trained opera singer); they married and started a family. (They now have three very musically talented, now-adult sons — Jacob, Justin and Jared — and a family band called the “Rolling Steins.”)

While in D.C., Stein also auditioned for the United States Navy Band, which needed a fiddle player at the time. Stein played with that band for 17 years, including numerous concerts at the White House, performing for four presidents, as well as around the world. 

In the mid 1980s, Stein attended a Jewish music festival, where he met Cantor Arnold Saltzman, which turned out to be a pivotal moment in his life. He went on to study with Saltzman, and soon after answered an ad for a synagogue looking for a cantor on Friday nights — Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac, Md. That’s where his career as a cantor got its start, and he moved from there to Temple Aliyah in 2000. 

“Being a cantor is an amazing privilege,” Stein said. “I try to help people find another entrance into the synagogue through music. It helps them look at Judaism as something that they can participate in. … I enjoy being invited into people’s lives, in all stages of life, and being entrusted with their emotions.” 

With the High Holy Days just around the corner, Stein noted, “It’s a great time. When I start on the first night, that first phrase that I sing in front of the ark emotionally opens me up in a place of awe and thankfulness. I work hard [at] not letting it feel like pressure, like work; and it is work. We do avodah — avodah is worship, and it’s the same word for work. Yom Kippur feels like a marathon, because I am very weak by the end; it’s hard.”

A few days before the holidays begin, Stein will be getting another call from “The Voice,” this one to let him know when his performances will be airing during the premiere week of Sept. 22. 

Being on “The Voice,” he said, “gave me a lot of confidence and made me realize that I am worth a lot more than I think I am. It made me feel that I have so much to give, and people are ready to listen and accept what I have to give. … It gave me a big lift.” 

Good luck, Chazzan Stein. We’ll be watching. 

Comic great Sid Caesar of ‘Your Show of Shows’ dies at 91


Comic showman Sid Caesar, a pioneer of American television sketch comedy as the star and creative force of “Your Show of Shows” during the 1950s, died on Wednesday at age 91, according to his friend and former collaborator Carl Reiner.

Reiner told Reuters he learned of Caesar's death from a mutual friend, actor and writer Rudy De Luca, who had recently visited Caesar at his Los Angeles-area home. He said the veteran entertainer had been ill for at least a year.

While he enjoyed a career on TV, film and stage that spanned six decades but was marred by years of substance abuse, he is best-known for his work with comedienne Imogene Coca on the landmark “Your Show of Shows,” which aired on NBC from February 1950 to June 1954.

One of the most ambitious and demanding of all TV enterprises, “Your Show of Shows” was 90 minutes of live, original sketch comedy airing every Saturday night, 39 weeks a year. It is widely considered the prototype for every U.S. TV sketch comedy series that followed, including “Saturday Night Live.”

“He was a unique talent, and he was a pioneer of television and entertainment when television was in its infancy,” said Eddy Friedfeld, who helped Caesar write his 2003 autobiography “Caesar's Hours: My Life in Comedy, with Love and Laughter.”

[Related: Monty Hall remembers Sid Caesar]

“Your Show of Shows” and its successor series, “Caesar's Hour,” became an incubator for some of the greatest comic minds in American show business, with a roster of writers that included Neil Simon, Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Reiner (who also co-starred on the show) and Larry Gelbart.

Nominally hosted each week by a different star (much like “Saturday Night Live”), “Your Show of Shows” also featured a cadre of regular singers and dancers, as well as ballet and opera performances to lend an air of cultural refinement.

But the series became a hit for the comic chemistry between Caesar and Coca, a former vaudeville performer nearly 14 years his senior who died in 2001 at age 92.

TV GOLDEN AGE INNOVATOR

Together they satirized historical events in a recurring bit titled “History as She Ain't,” played marital strife for laughs in the husband-and-wife skit “The Hickenloopers” and poked fun at Hollywood with such parodies as “From Here to Obscurity” (a lampoon of the film “From Here to Eternity”).

By all accounts, the writers' room could be a raucous place. Caesar, a tall, strapping presence, acknowledged he once was so angry at Brooks that he grabbed the diminutive writer and dangled him from a hotel window by his ankles.

Reiner later drew on his experiences with Caesar as material for the TV sitcom classic “The Dick Van Dyke Show.”

Some of Caesar's most popular bits were built around pompous or outlandish characters – such as Professor von Votsisnehm – in which he spoke in a thick accent or mimicked foreign languages in comic but convincing gibberish.

“He was the ultimate, he was the very best sketch artist and comedian that ever existed,” Reiner said of his friend. “His ability to double talk every language known to man was impeccable.”

Said Mel Brooks in a statement: “Sid Caesar was a giant, maybe the best comedian who ever practiced the trade. And I was privileged to be one of his writers and one of his friends.”

Woody Allen saluted him as “one of the truly great comedians of my time.”

[Related: Jewish community remembers Sid Caesar]

In a 2001 interview with Reuters, Caesar said his ear for language grew from frequent boyhood visits to his father's restaurant in a blue-collar neighborhood of Yonkers, New York.

“Men used to come in – there was a French table, a German table, a Russian table and an Italian table,” he recalled. “By taking up dishes during lunch hour, I'd pick (languages) up. You know, the first thing they teach you is the dirty words.”

The son of Jewish immigrants, Caesar got his start playing saxophone in a dance band and performing comedy on the “Borscht Belt” circuit of the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York.

After serving in the Coast Guard during World War Two, Caesar appeared in a Broadway musical revue called “Tars and Spars” and a movie musical of the same name, landing a guest spot on Milton Berle's weekly TV show.

“Your Show of Shows” evolved from an earlier series, “The Admiral Broadway Revue,” which ran briefly in 1949 on NBC and the old DuMont Television Network and first paired Caesar with Coca.

The two parted ways at the end of the “Your Show of Shows” run and never managed to replicate their success, even when reunited four years later on the 1958 show “Sid Caesar Invites You,” which lasted just four months.

The waning of Caesar's TV career coincided with a two-decade addiction to alcohol and pills, although he earned a Tony nomination starring in Neil Simon's 1962 Broadway musical “Little Me” and had a role in the madcap 1963 ensemble comedy film “It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.”

After he conquered his struggle with substance abuse by the late 1970s, Caesar turned up as Coach Calhoun in the box-office hit “Grease,” a role he reprised for a 1982 sequel. He continued to make occasional TV appearances through the 1990s, including a guest turn as Uncle Harold on a 1997 episode of NBC sitcom “Mad About You,” with Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt. 

Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis, writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman; Piya Sinha-Roy also contributed to this report; editing by G Crosse and Matthew Lewis

Calendar: January 4–10


SAT | JAN 4

ILIZA SHLESINGER

She’s the first female and youngest comedian to win NBC’s “Last Comic Standing.” She’s had a half-hour special on “Comedy Central Presents,” she’s worked with “Pauly Shore & Friends” on Showtime, Chelsea Handler on E!, Joel McHale on “The Soup” and NBC’s “Last Call with Carson Daly.” Whether she’s discussing our responsibility to polar bears or what missing teeth can reveal, she discusses it with biting expertise. 18 and older. Sat. 8 p.m. $15 (two-item minimum). Hollywood Improv, 8162 Melrose Ave., Hollywood. (323) 651-2583. ” target=”_blank”>geffenplayhouse.com


WED | JAN 8

DARA FRIEDMAN 

In Dara Friedman’s “PLAY, Parts 1 & 2,” 17 couples — some fictionally paired and some in real-life relationships with one another — develop and play out improvised scenes of intimacy. Filmed during Friedman’s residency with the Hammer, “PLAY” features the actors in poetic, intense and humorous situations that grow from improvisational games. Friedman will participate in a Q-and-A following the screening. Wed. 7:30 p.m. Free. Billy Wilder Theater at the Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 443-7000. THU | JAN 9

“THE ROLE OF THE FORGOTTEN MOURNER”

Rabbi Daniel Greyber returns to Southern California to discuss his most recent book, “Faith Unravels: A Rabbi’s Struggle With Grief and God.” What are the rules for dealing with the loss of a friend, mentor or colleague? Greyber, the former executive director of Camp Ramah in California, speaks to the pain experienced by the forgotten mourners by sharing personal stories of faith lost and regained anew. Kosher lunch served. RSVP required to park in building. Thu. Noon. $18 (nonmembers), $10 (Sinai Temple, Camp Ramah members). Sinai Temple, 10400 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 481-3243. ” target=”_blank”>skirball.org


FRI | JAN 10

N’SHAMA WOMEN’S RETREAT

What better way to start off the New Year than with a renewal of the soul in nature’s beauty? Valley Beth Shalom and Temple Aliyah host a women’s weekend to celebrate Shabbat Shira. Join Rabbi Nina Bieber Feinstein and Cindy Paley Aboody at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute for two days of spiritual prayer, song and learning, dancing, drumming, hikes, a margarita bar and more. You are woman — make some time to roar (and relax). Through Jan. 11. Fri. $225 (double occupancy). Brandeis-Bardin Campus, 1101 Peppertree Lane, Simi Valley. (818) 222-0192. ” target=”_blank”>templealiyah.org

SHABBAT SHIRA — THE SHABBAT OF SONG

Temple Emanuel celebrates 75 years of music and prayer with the help of Los Angeles’ premier Jewish choir, the Los Angeles Zimriyah Chorale, conducted by Nick Strimple. Fri. 6:30 p.m. Free (service only), $18 (dinner, adult), $12 (dinner, child). Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, 300 N. Clark Drive, Beverly Hills. (310) 843-9588. ” target=”_blank”>templejudea.com.

Singer Adam Levine named People’s sexiest man alive


Singer Adam Levine, the frontman of the Grammy Award-winning rock group Maroon 5 and a judge on the hit NBC singing show “The Voice,” was named People magazine's sexiest man alive, the magazine announced on Tuesday.

The 34-year-old singer-songwriter, who is engaged to Victoria's Secrets model Behati Prinsloo, told People magazine he was taken aback by the announcement.

“As a musician, you have fantasies that you want to win Grammys, but I didn't really think that this was on the table,” Levine said.

“I was just amazed and stunned and it almost seemed like they were kidding, but they weren't, so that's cool.”

Levine joins an illustrious list of prior winners of the award including Channing Tatum, Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp, Ryan Reynolds, George Clooney and Matt Damon.

The singer branched into acting last year with his debut role on the television series “American Horror Story.” He also appears in the 2013 film “Can A Song Save Your Life?” with Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo. The movie premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.

“This is just a really interesting time where everything seems to be heading in a certain direction,” he said. “And I'm not taking any of it for granted.”

Levine and Maroon 5 launched their fourth studio album “Overexposed” last year, which received mixed reviews from critics. The group shot to fame in 2002 with their debut album, “Songs About Jane.”

The group's hit singles include “This Love,” “She Will be Loved” and “Moves Like Jagger,” which features Christina Aguilera.

Editing by Eric M. Johnson; Editing by Doina Chiacu

Iran’s Rouhani says wants he peace, blames Israel for region’s ‘instability’


Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, in a television interview, said his country is not seeking war but harshly criticized Israel for bringing “instability” to the Middle East and for questioning his government's intentions toward nuclear arms.

The comments from the new Iranian president came during the second part of an interview with NBC News that aired on Thursday, just days before he travels to New York for an appearance at the United Nations.

Rouhani called Israel “an occupier, a usurper government that does injustice to the people of the region” and said it “has brought instability to the region with its war-mongering policies.”

But when asked further about Israel, Rouhani also said: “What we wish for in this region is rule by the will of the people. We believe in the ballot box. We do not seek war with any country. We seek peace and friendship among the nations of the region.”

In an earlier part of the interview that aired on Wednesday, Rouhani said Iran would never develop nuclear weapons and that he had “complete authority” to negotiate a nuclear deal with the United States and other Western powers.

Rouhani, who took office in August, reiterated that stance when asked about recent comments by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu questioning his motives. Israel, thought to be the only nuclear-armed power in the Middle East, is pushing to halt Iran's nuclear advance, and Netanyahu has called Rouhani a “wolf in sheep's clothing.”

“We have clearly stated that we are not in pursuit if nuclear weapons and will not be,” Rouhani told NBC.

The interview appears to be the latest signal by the centrist cleric – that has included a recent letter exchange with U.S. President Barack Obama — aimed at improving relations between Iran and the West after years of hostility. Rouhani also appeared to signal support for the pro-democracy uprisings sweeping across the region.

OBAMA 'OPEN TO A DIRECT EXCHANGE' — REPORT

The Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday that the Obama administration was preparing for high-level meetings between Iranian and U.S. officials at the U.N. gathering next week and was “open to a direct exchange between” Obama and Rouhani.

The paper quoted the White House officials as saying there were no plans for such a meeting at this stage, but that the two sides had communicated. It would be a significant contact – no American president has met a top Iranian leader since the 1979 overthrow of the Shah and the taking of American hostages at the U.S. embassy in Tehran.

Since his election in June, Rouhani has taken a dramatic shift in tone from the strident anti-Western rhetoric of his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

But some questions, including Rouhani's stance on the Holocaust, which killed six million Jews and spurred the creation of Israel, have remained unanswered. Ahmadinejad had previously questioned the Holocaust before the United Nations General Assembly.

Asked whether he also believed the Holocaust was a myth, Rouhani said: “What is important to Iran is that countries, people in the region grow closer and prevent aggression and injustice.”

The White House responded cautiously on Wednesday to the first part of the interview, saying it hopes the new Iranian government will work to reach a diplomatic solution regarding its nuclear program.

The Israeli Embassy in Washington, in a post on Twitter, called the interview part of Rouhani's “charm offensive.”

Rouhani also appeared to support lifting Iran's Internet censorship, saying: “We want the people, in their private lives, to be completely free.”

“In today's world, having access to information and the right of free dialogue and the right to think freely is a right of all peoples, including Iranians,” he told NBC's Ann Curry, the first Western journalist to interview the new president.

Asked whether that meant Iranians could soon have access to social media websites such as Twitter and Facebook, he said: “The people must have full access to all information worldwide.”

As part of that effort, the government plans to set up a commission for citizen's rights in the near future, he added.

Such social networking websites have played a key role in the recent uprisings that began with the so-called Arab Spring.

Earlier this week, Iranians gained brief access to Twitter and Facebook before a firewall was put back in place. Iranian officials called it a glitch. Recent Iranian greetings marking the Jewish New Year online also caused a stir.

Reporting by Susan Heavey; Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick and David Storey in Washington and Crispian Balmer in Jerusalem; Editing by Vicki Allen and David Brunnstrom

Hillary, helmets, ‘Crossfire’ and cash


Money, they say, is the mother’s milk of politics.  Also of news, sports and the rest of the entertainment industry.  Three recent stories drive that home. 

When Reince Priebus pressured Comcast’s NBC to drop a miniseries starring Diane Lane as Hillary Clinton, the hostage that the RNC chairman threatened to snuff was the network’s access to the 2016 presidential primary debates.  When the NFL forced Disney’s ESPN to pull out of a documentary about concussions jointly produced with PBS’s Frontline, the league’s leverage was its deal with Disney’s ABC to air Monday Night Football.  And when Time Warner’s CNN hired Newt Gingrich for its exhumed edition of Crossfire, its motive wasn’t political journalism in service of democracy; it was stunt casting in service of ratings.

On the surface, the fight between the GOP and NBC is about the effects of media on audiences.  The party’s presumption – based on no evidence – is that the miniseries would put Clinton in a favorable light, and – also based on no evidence – that the halo would translate into votes.  But if a movie could do that, then John Glenn, heroically portrayed in the 1983 movie The Right Stuff, would have been the 1984 Democratic presidential nominee.  The real issue here isn’t the impact of entertainment on audiences, it’s the coup that took presidential debates out of the hands of citizens and handed them to party hacks. 

Once upon a time, groups like the League of Women Voters sponsored the debates, and all cameras were welcome to cover them.  But starting in 1988, the Democratic and Republican parties “>in reality they’ve been run by “>has reported, ESPN’s turnabout came a week after a heated lunch between Roger Goodell, commissioner of the N.F.L., and John Skipper, ESPN’s president.  For more than a year, the ground rules covering editorial authority had been working just fine; Frontline and ESPN each had control over what each aired.  PBS and ESPN executives had even “>giving a certifiable demagogue like Newt Gingrich a regular seat at its table.

When Jon Stewart appeared on Crossfire in 2004, he was the guest from hell.  “Stop, stop, stop, stop hurting America,” he told its then hosts, Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala.  “I’m here to confront you, because we need help from the media, and they’re hurting us…. I would love to see a debate show,” he said, but calling Crossfire a debate show was “like saying pro wrestling is a show about athletic competition…. You have a responsibility to the public discourse, and you fail miserably…. I watch your show every day.  And it kills me… It’s so – oh, it’s so painful to watch…. Please, I beg of you guys, please…. Please stop.”  martyk@jewishjournal.com.

Nutritionist: ‘Eat to Win’


We know that a cheeseburger, fries and a soda are not the healthiest of choices, but what about the sushi rolls you had for lunch? A typical roll contains the carbohydrate equivalent of approximately two and half to four slices of bread. 

Registered dietitian Rachel Beller exposes the real nutrients in food with her “Food Autopsy.” In this case, she suggests going light on the rice, opting for brown rice or no rice at all.

While most diets stress what you can’t eat, Beller emphasizes what you can eat and tries to make grocery shopping easy. 

“I find what is simple,” said Beller, known as the celebrity nutritionist from NBC’s “The Biggest Loser.” “The difference between getting patients there and getting patients there with confidence is the execution. It needs to be simple and as easy as possible for somebody to start.”

Like many Americans, Beller began struggling with weight gain at a young age, in her case around 11. Although it was never anything extreme, she quickly caught on to how subtle changes in eating created a healthier lifestyle. This transformed into a career that approaches diets in what she believes is a healthy and sustainable way, rather than stressing over calories, carbs and diet fads. 

Beller, a Westwood resident, has created a reputation as America’s get-real nutritionist through her work with the Oxygen Channel series “Dance Your A** Off,” “Dr. Drew’s Lifechangers” show and Glamour magazine. She kicked off the year with her new book, “Eat to Lose, Eat to Win: Your Grab-n-Go Action Plan for a Slimmer, Healthier You.” 

“It’s about time, Rachel!” writes Sheryl Crow in the foreword to the book, in which the singer thanks Beller for changing how she eats. The two met before Crow began radiation treatments for breast cancer in 2006 after Crow’s oncologist contacted Beller. 

The book emphasizes what to eat and how to eat with product visuals, recipes, shopping guides and tips acquired from years of clinical research. From experience, Beller says she found her clients are less intimidated by food shopping when they can reference an image.  

“I have been thinking about it for years,” said Beller who refers to herself as a weight-loss expert with no gimmicks. “It was time. It came to the point where my practice was exploding and it was time to give it [information] away. More people need it.” 

In the book, she reveals her key to weight-loss goals, a nutritional strategy that combines science-based advice with a step-by-step plan. She helps readers understand different types of protein options with her Protein GPS. Her “Flip-It Method” focuses on portion control rather than calorie intake; the base of every meal is vegetables, lean protein, a touch of healthy fat and a small serving of complex carbohydrates. There are snacking tips and more, too.  

“Once I put the book out, I realized I had so much more to say,” Beller said. 

Beller, a registered dietitian whose father passed away from cancer, decided she needed to take a proactive stance in translating scientific research into healthy lifestyle solutions. After studying at California State University Los Angeles, Beller conducted extensive research into the roles of nutrition in cancer prevention at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in West Hollywood and the John Wayne Cancer Institute in Santa Monica. She also served for a decade as the John Wayne Cancer Institute’s director of nutritional oncology research and counseling.  

“For me, developing relationships is very important,” said Beller, who strives to nutritionally navigate patients through their treatment and beyond. 

Previously, she says, she had worked as an inpatient nutritionist and struggled with developing such interactions and seeing results. Patients were always in and out of the hospital.  

Her years in research were fulfilling, but eventually she decided it was time to transition to private practice. In 2006, she opened the Beller Nutritional Institute in Beverly Hills. 

It wasn’t until Glamour magazine found Beller’s evidence-based weight-loss approach attractive and contacted her in 2007 to help design the “Body by Glamour” section that she began to become an everyday name. Vogue also interviewed Beller, and before long she was contacted to consult and change the way people eat on several TV series. 

Beller says her work is about changing lives and watching people transform their lifestyles. 

“My deepest passion is working with patients who have heart disease or cancer,” Beller said. “When people are going through a treatment, I see their attitude and how they transition.”

Her “Fiber Insurance Strategy,” for example, is critical for cardiac health, but that means getting real fruits and vegetables, not manufactured forms of fiber. She notes that women should get 30 to 35 grams of fiber each day and men 35 to 40 grams. 

 “It’s not just about losing pounds; it’s about seeing cholesterol being lowered,” Beller said. Because a diet high in fiber has been shown to reduce cholesterol levels, she includes several recipes in her book that ensure breakfast is packed with at least 10 grams of fiber. Her fiber solutions are even simple for those who are constantly on the run, as it is vital for weight loss and disease prevention.  

Beller, a mother of four children who are all under the age of 13, credits her supportive family for helping her along the way, but really understands what it’s like to be on the go. So she creates plans that work with busy lifestyles.

“People will buy and take anything, but when they have too much going on, then they don’t sustain it,” Beller said. “If the plan doesn’t fit within someone’s lifestyle challenges, then its not so easy.” 

Determined to educate others, Beller volunteers every year to speak at several engagements around the country. It’s the culture she is accustomed to from her days working in the hospital. 

She feels Americans are being pulled in so many nutritional directions, but that things don’t have to be so complex. Success can often come down to something as simple as following a set of shopping guidelines.

“This is a reality check; a get-real moment,” Beller tells her patients. “I am here to say that you can do this.” 

Is Syria bluffing on chemical weapons?


As rebel forces move closer to Damascus, there are reports of activity in Syrian chemical weapons sites, raising fears in the region that Syria could use those chemical weapons. NBC News reported that the Syrian army has loaded bombs with precursors of Sarin nerve gas which could then be loaded onto planes.

Syrian officials dismissed the report as ludicrous.

“Syria stresses again, for the tenth, the hundredth time, that if we had such weapons, they would not be used against its people. We would not commit suicide,” Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Maqdad said.

Despite his denials, U.S. officials issued harsh warnings about the consequences if Assad does decide to use them.

“Our concerns are that an increasingly desperate Assad regime might turn to chemical weapons, or might lose control of them to one of the many groups that are now operating within Syria,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told a news conference after a meeting of NATO foreign ministers.

“And so as part of the absolute unity that we all have on this issue we have sent an unmistakable message that this would cross a red line and those responsible would be held to account.”

The warnings come as the 20 months of fighting between Assad loyalists and rebels reached the outskirts of Damascus.

There is little question that Syria has large stocks of chemical weapons, although they have never officially acknowledged them. Syria is not a signatory to the chemical weapons treaty.

Nadim Shehadi, a Middle East expert at Chatham House in London, believes that Syria is trying to send a message to the West that keeping the Assad regime in power means more stability for the region.

“When Syria says it would never use chemical weapons against its own people, the subtext is that they would use it against an invading force,” Shehadi told The Media Line. “They also imply that if the regime falls there is a high risk of these substances falling into the wrong hands. The regime is trying to frighten the West.”

Syria’s neighbors are also nervous. Israel fears Syria could give some of the chemical weapons to Hizbollah, the guerilla group in south Lebanon. Israeli officials admitted they are nervous.

“We are closely following the reports on chemical weapons in Syria,” Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor told The Media Line. “These reports are of obvious concern for all neighboring countries including Israel. Possible use of these weapons is absolutely unacceptable.”

The Atlantic magazine reported that Israel has asked Jordan for permission for a green light to attack Syrian chemical weapons facilities, but Jordan said “no.” The report said Israel could go it alone but does not want tensions with its neighbor.

A senior Israeli official would not confirm the report, but did say “there is close coordination with the Americans over the chemical weapons issue.”

Some Israeli analysts say it is doubtful that Syria would use chemical weapons, even if the regime was on its last legs.

“Assad knew that Western intelligence agencies would pick up the movement at the chemical weapons sites,” Eldad Pardo, an expert on Syria at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem told The Media Line. “The regime is trying to intimidate the insurgents and make it an international issue.”

Video of American gymnast Aly Raisman’s parents goes viral


[UPDATE: Aly Raisman leads U.S. to gymnastics team gold]

A clip from NBC showing Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman’s parents’ reaction to her uneven bar routine has garnered more than 25,000 hits on YouTube.

The clip shows Raisman’s mother and father commenting on Raisman’s routine from the stands. Her mother, Lynn, says, “Let’s go, let’s go,” and “Come on, come on” while shifting in her seat, and her father, Rick, remains silent until yelling “Stick it, please, stick it!” at the end of Raisman’s routine.

Raisman, 18, of Needham, Mass., is Jewish and has been honored by the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. Her performance in the qualifying round in the London Games earned her a spot in the all-around finals on Tuesday.

NBC’s Bob Costas advocates London Olympics moment of silence


NBC sportscaster Bob Costas said he will call out the International Olympic Committee for denying Israel’s request for a moment of silence for the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes and coaches at the 1972 Games.

Costas, according to the Hollywood Reporter, will add his voice to the U.S. Senate, the German Bundestag, the Canadian and Australian parliaments, Italian lawmakers and some 50 members of the British Parliament who are also advocating the moment of silence.

“I intend to note that the IOC denied the request,” he told the Hollywood Reporter. “Many people find that denial more than puzzling but insensitive. Here’s a minute of silence right now.”

Costas intends to make his remarks when the Israeli delegation enters the 80,000-seat Olympic Stadium for the Olympics’ Opening Ceremony, which coincides with the 40th anniversary of the Munich massacre.

“There’s a reality in business; there were times when I thought he got too forceful,” said Dick Ebersol, Costa’s former producer at NBC, reported the Hollywood Reporter. “But I’m very proud of the fact that Bob was able to be Bob.”

The many hats of Mayim Bialik


Mayim Bialik’s career has gone through several phases since she burst onto the pop culture radar as the lead of the 1990s NBC-TV series “Blossom.”

After the show wrapped, she earned her doctorate in neuroscience at UCLA while marrying and becoming the mother to two sons. Now she has returned to the small screen as a regular on the CBS series “The Big Bang Theory.”

If the task of transitioning from child star to working adult actor wasn’t time consuming enough, she also blogs regularly at the Jewish parenting site Kveller.

And she’s added yet another title: social justice activist. On Dec. 19, Bialik will host a fundraiser for Rabbis for Human Rights of North America that will honor clergy members who have stood out for their devotion to justice. Rabbi Israel Dresner, the “most arrested rabbi in America,” is among the honorees.

Bialik acknowledges that she was unfamiliar with RHR until she was contacted by Executive Director Rabbi Jill Jacobs about emceeing the event. Yet after a little online investigation, she discovered that she was already connected to RHR.

“I went to the website and saw that my rabbi from UCLA, Chaim Seidler-Feller, was there,” Bialik told JTA. That sealed the deal.

“We were looking for someone who is known for being deeply committed to Judaism and deeply committed to justice,” Jacobs said.

Bialik credits her Jewish upbringing with her lifelong devotion to performing good works.

“I was raised in a very vibrant Reform community in Los Angeles,” she said. Temple Israel, the synagogue she attended as a youth, was “very tikkun olam based.”

As an adult, Bialik has worked with the Jewish Free Loan Association, helping to found a branch of the organization aimed at encouraging young professionals in Los Angeles to become involved in philanthropy.

“It’s a cause close to my heart,” she said. Yet her involvement has shown her just how difficult it is to get that demographic to participate. “People think, ‘When I’m older I will donate,’” she observed.

In addition to her work in social justice, Bialik also has become something of a spokeswoman for a more observant lifestyle. As a student at UCLA, she began moving toward greater Jewish ritual observance, including an increased emphasis on kosher (not too hard for the mostly vegan actress), Sabbath and modest dress. She explores these topics and others with candor on her Kveller blog.

For religious reasons, Bialik primarily wears skirts, which hasn’t been hard to manage in her current role since her character wears loose-fitting skirts and layers.

“I could’ve been cast as many things in this incarnation of my career. I happen to play a character that producers like to dress modestly,” she said of the bookish Amy Farrah Fowler, who is the love interest of Emmy winner Jim Parsons’ Sheldon Cooper. “Thus far I have not been in a miniskirt.”

Yet despite hewing ever more closely to religious law in her personal life, Bialik refuses to identify fully with Orthodoxy. She has written forthrightly about having to work on Jewish holidays. And a future role might demand a more immodest wardrobe.

Yet when she can, Bialik goes to great lengths—quite literally—to observe. She agonized over her choice of Emmy dress—on her Kveller blog, she described her mission as “Operation Hot and Holy”—before settling on one that met most of her modesty requirements: covered arms and knees, with a hint of collarbone and cleavage.

She felt validated when she later saw Paris Hilton in the same dress in People magazine, with the suggestion that “you don’t have to show tons of skin to be sexy.”

Perhaps the editors at the celebrity magazine have been reading Bialik’s Kveller articles. Or maybe, in addition to being a mom, actor, scientist and activist, she has discovered one more hat to wear: fashion trendsetter.

NBC’s ‘Kings’ Revamps David, Goliath and Saul


Michael Green was walking down a street in Jerusalem in late 2006 when the concept of the new television series “Kings” came into focus.

“The idea had been roiling my brain for a while,” Green said, so he sat down to write the pilot for “Kings,” while working as writer and co-executive producer for “Heroes.”

NBC’s “Kings” starts its regular Sunday evening run at 8 p.m. on March 22, after a special two-hour premiere this Sunday, March 15. The show takes the biblical drama of young David, Goliath, King Saul and the prophet Samuel and transports it to a contemporary city that looks a lot like a gleaming New York after a thorough scrubbing.

Don’t look for a 21st century swords-and-sandals, however. The political intrigues and corporate power plays have a distinctly Washingtonian ring, and part of the fun is to look for parallels to the last year of President George W. Bush’s administration, the Cold War, Vietnam, Iraq, Middle East conflicts and even the kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

Green, who attended a yeshiva in New York, is a bit coy about drawing direct biblical-contemporary comparisons.

“It’s not for me to say what the parallels are,” he commented. “That’s up to each viewer.”

However, any Jewish or Christian viewer who stayed awake in Sunday school should have no trouble identifying the TV protagonists with their biblical counterparts.

We meet King Silas Benjamin (King Saul of the tribe of Benjamin, first king of Israel), David Shepherd (David, the shepherd), the king’s son Jack (Jonathan), his daughter Michelle (Michal), and the Rev. Ephraim Samuels (the Prophet Samuel).

Actors in the two key roles are Ian McShane (“Heroes”) as the king and Australian actor Chris Egan as David.

In the premiere episode, we find the king, in an expensive power suit ruling over the prosperous Kingdom of Gilboa and ensconced with his queen in a mansion in the capital of Shiloh.

He is also at war with neighboring Gath, and when his son is kidnapped during a military skirmish, it is David, a fellow soldier, who frees Jack and earns the gratitude of the king.

To free the hostage, David has to do battle with Goliath, who appears in a rather unexpected form. At home, David becomes an instant media favorite.

Peace is made but soon broken, followed by new negotiations with prickly Gath officers, who look suspiciously like Russian generals, with square faces and jackets full of medals. On a softer touch, David and Michelle (the beautiful Allison Miller) begin to fall in love.

As creator and executive producer of “Kings,” Green makes it even tougher to define the precise genre of the series by introducing touches of sci-fi and fantasy. For instance, the emblem of Gilboa is the orange monarch butterfly, and when a successor to the king is anointed, a swarm of butterflies form a crown around the chosen one’s head.

By contrast, the flag of Gath sports a star, through Green denies that it is modeled on the five-pointed Soviet star.

“King’s” crew has shot 14 episodes —a season’s worth, and the premiere contains two of them—in and around New York, at studios in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint and in a Nassau County mansion.

With a large cast, opulent palace scenes and shooting in New York, this is an expensive production.

Green begged off giving an exact budget figure, but he put the cost of an average prime-time TV episode at between $2 million and $4.5 million, with “Kings” definitely on the high end.

Green, 36, is a native New Yorker, with close ties to Israel. His mother was born in Tel Aviv and came to the United States after finishing her army service, met Green’s father, and “has visited ever since,” Green said, adding, “most of my extended family lives in Israel.

He is optimistic that “Kings” will eventually be seen on Israeli and British television, which usually happens after a new series’ second or third season in the United States.

Green reinforced his boyhood yeshiva studies with a more academic perspective when he took a double major in human biology and religious studies at Stanford University.

After college, his interest turned to story writing, rather than religion or biology.

He noted, “I once created the character of a doctor in one of my shows, but never became one myself – to the disappointment of my parents.”

Anti-Semitism Trumps Sex


A dig about Jews took center stage on “The Apprentice” — again. And once again, it was a loser.

“Apprentice” stars real-life rich developer Donald Trump, who fires one job applicant after another, finally offering a real job to the survivor.

The remark occurred in the Nov. 3 episode, in which the competing aspirants, divided into two teams, had to lead a class at The Learning Annex (where Trump also has taught). Students scored the team of “teachers.” Members of the lower-scoring team risked getting fired.

Team Capital Edge, led that week by 22-year-old Adam, chose the topic of sex in the workplace. During the presentation, Adam, who admitted discomfort with the subject, talked about being a “nice Jewish boy from Atlanta.”

While discussing taking someone to dinner for a first date, he added, “I have to feel really comfortable with the person, and I also have to be willing to spend the money.”

His teammate, 28-year-old Clay, chimed in with, “But remember, he’s the shy, tight Jewish boy.”

Adam — who was stunned by the remark, as were many in the class — later confronted Clay, who insisted his comment was misinterpreted. Later still, Clay denied saying it in front of Trump. In the end, the Adam/Clay team lost to Team Excel, which had chosen the safe topic of “How to Make Your Mark.”

While talking to Trump, Adam made it clear that he didn’t believe Clay was anti-Semitic but that Clay’s crude presentation style hurt them.

Neither Clay nor Adam got fired — yet. That unhappy prize was reserved for their babbling 41-year-old teammate Markus. But the billionaire and his assistant, George Ross, who is Jewish, took Clay to task, telling him there’s no room in the marketplace for anti-Semitism.

This wasn’t the first time an anti-Semitic remark has had repercussions on “The Apprentice.” Last year, Trump fired contestant Jennifer Crisafulli in the same episode that she blamed a loss on “two old Jewish fat ladies” who had given her team a low score on a restaurant task.

The kicker? She was also fired from her job at a real estate agency for making the remark.

“The Apprentice” airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. on NBC.

 

A Graceless Will?


Is Jewish the new gay? That’s how it’s looking this season on NBC’s "Will and Grace." Grace’s (Debra Messing) romance with hunky Jewish doctor Leo Markus (Harry Connick Jr.) has been a source of conflict between her and gay best friend, Will (Eric McCormack), ever since Leo rode in on a white horse in last year’s season finale. On the Nov. 21 episode, Grace and Leo got married, suggesting a threat to the very survival of Will and Grace’s friendship.

Mixed in with the usual bawdy jokes and witticisms has been an unusual amount of seriousness this season, as the two friends have struggled with the changing nature of their relationship. They ended last season thinking they were going to have a baby together, but Grace’s new romance changed everything, causing a bitter fight between them in one episode. The recent wedding episode (filmed in part at Temple Israel of Hollywood) was especially bittersweet. Amid jokes that included Will using kippot as shoulder pads, came heartfelt exchanges between the two, as Will worked through his resentment and tried to be happy for Grace.

Show co-creator and executive producer David Kohan conceded the marriage is a problem for the dynamic between the best friends. "I’d love her to find a Jewish love interest, but that relationship might actually work, and then there’d be no more ‘Will & Grace’" he told The Journal last year. Kohan has since changed his mind.

"They had to move forward in their lives in some way," he said, noting that the writers have had to deal with making the two "vital to one another."

While remaining unspecific, Kohan implies it’s unlikely the Jewish husband will displace the gay best friend. "Let me put it this way, at some point down the road, something is going to have to intervene," he said.

"Will & Grace" airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. on NBC.

‘West Wing’-ing It


Aaron Sorkin has opened his mind to Jewish culture. It’s evidenced in the recent Yiddish-language opener of the Dec. 11 Christmas episode of the "The West Wing," with a 1950s scene of three men in topcoats — who belonged to the Jewish mob.

"I’m not in the community enough," said the creator-writer of the Emmy Award-winning drama, "but there is something in the Jewish faith and the Jewish community that is very good."

Sorkin was being interviewed by Rabbi David Wolpe at Sinai Temple on Sunday night Dec. 15, at its inaugural ATID program — an effort to involve unaffiliated teens, college students and young professionals — which drew some 600 20- to 39-year-olds.

At times, the boyish 41-year-old wunderkind seemed at a loss for words during his hour-long conversation with Wolpe, who challenged Sorkin with probing questions related to Judaism, Israel and Sorkin’s responsibility as an influential Hollywood Jew.

"In the Hollywood community you’re perceived as racist if you support Israel," Sorkin said in response to why there’s no groundswell of support for Israel in Tinseltown.

Up until now, Sorkin has never been to Israel.

"My reason for not going? I’m just chicken," he said.

But he also has not visited Europe since he was 5. Both will change when Sorkin debuts a new play at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, Ireland, in 2004. And he said he will visit Israel after his show enters hiatus.

Sorkin threw Wolpe off track with his admission that he is not really interested in politics as much as good storytelling on his NBC White House drama. He said he taps into controversial issues to make up for the fact that he can’t come up with enough jokes to fill his hour-long episodes.

"I find, for instance, the gun lobby to be a treasure trove of punch lines," he said, adding that such issues fill and fuel his episodes. Sorkin said he finds the pro and con such issues evoke rewarding.

"That’s exactly how the Talmud works," Wolpe said. "It’s constant give and take."

Sorkin was as honest about his lack of connection to Judaism as he was with his struggle with alcoholism. "I was turned off on religion," he said.

Wolpe ended his discussion by asking Sorkin, in effect, if he believed in God. Sorkin said he viewed the myriad religions as "many fairy tales" that "seem hardly to be doing what they intended."

For Sorkin, spirituality is "a meditative thing that has to do with helping others and not waiting for it to come from a divine source."

For more information on ATID, call (310) 481-3243.

The Joys of Rena


Rena Sofer always seems to land ethnic roles. As the newest regular on NBC’s “Just Shoot Me,” Sofer plays Vicki Costa, a hairdresser from Brooklyn, whose name is Greek, but whose ethnicity is undefined. It’s reminiscent of her Emmy-award winning role of Lois Cerullo Ashton, the brassy Italian Brooklynite she played for five years on the soap opera “General Hospital.”

She’s also known for playing journalist Rachel Rose, the stereotypically ideal Jewish woman who goes out with a Reform rabbi (Ben Stiller), in the 2000 film “Keeping the Faith.”

In real life, Sofer doesn’t date a rabbi — she was raised by one, albeit of the Orthodox persuasion. Perhaps it’s her religious background — intermittently attending Lubavitch and Conservative day schools in Pennsylvania and New Jersey — that gives her the edge of authenticity.

For example, when she went to audition for the part of the Orthodox Jewish bride-to-be in the 1992 film, “A Stranger Among Us,” she knew she stood a good chance of getting it. “All these blonde Nordic-looking women are going over their lines,” she said, and they were making eye contact and flirting for their “first time” meeting with the groom. But Sofer knew better. She wouldn’t look him in the eye or touch him. “It’s negiyah,” she said, referring to the Jewish prohibition of men and women touching. Sofer landed the part.

Words like negiyah easily roll off Sofer’s tongue, probably because she was raised in a religious home. Sofer was 2 when her parents divorced, and she moved with her father and brother from California to Pennsylvania and then New Jersey. There, Sofer attended a Lubavitch school.

Sofer said that since an early age she has questioned her religious upbringing. Lubavitch “turned me off to a lot of it, but I love the ritual of Judaism and I love the spirituality of Judaism,” she said.

Although it may seem unorthodox for the daughter of a rabbi, she began modeling at age 15, when she was discovered in New York’s Greenwich Village. Her father was always encouraging and paid all the expenses. “As religious as he is, he’s always been supportive of my life and my choices,” she said. Her father believed modeling would help her since, “when I was younger, he saw me as a child that didn’t have a lot of confidence.”

She quickly decided that modeling was not for her, and went into acting. She got her first steady gig as a teenager in the role of Rocky McKenzie on the ABC soap “Loving,” working her way up to parts in TV shows like “Melrose Place,” “Friends,” “Seinfeld” and a recurring role on “Ed,” as well as in Steven Soderbergh 2000 film, “Traffic.”

The role of Judaism in her life has carried over into at least three parts. In addition to “Keeping the Faith” and “A Stranger Among Us,” Sofer played a Jewish character in an episode of the sitcom “Caroline in the City” titled “Caroline and the Nice Jewish Boy.” She’s also had an appearance on “Politically Incorrect,” with Bill Maher, discussing God and the meaning of life. Sofer sees her casting in these kinds of roles as quite logical. “I’ve been studying to play a Jew my whole life. I can walk in there with an authenticity.”

Sofer’s Judaism may not fit into her father’s mold, but it’s clearly a big part of her life. She refused to wear a cross for her role on “General Hospital,” and a wedding scene that called for her to kneel before a large crucifix had her in tears. And despite her first marriage to a non-Jew (her co-star and husband on “General Hospital,” Wally Kurth), one thing that was always understood was that their daughter would be raised Jewish. Sofer does say that the fact that Kurth wasn’t Jewish “made a difference in my life.” She compares it to her current relationship with fiancé director/producer Sanford Bookstaver (“Fastlane”). “When I go to temple with my fiancé, I don’t have to explain what’s going on.”

Today, Sofer lives in Los Angeles with fiancé, her father and her daughter from her marriage to Kurth.

These days, Sofer’s planning her wedding. “Dad, God willing, will perform the ceremony.”

Of her role on “Just Shoot Me,” she said she’s thankful for the security. “The gift to me is to be able to come in for 22 episodes, as opposed to doing a pilot where you don’t know.”

Her other recent work was in this month’s television remake of Stephen King’s horror classic, “Carrie,” where she played the compassionate gym teacher, Miss Desjarden. Sofer, whose first name means “joy” or “song” in Hebrew, was particularly pleased to get to play this part because of her love of King’s books. Her own idea of joy is a road trip with the “Bag of Bones” book on tape, read by King, playing on the car stereo. “Listening to him scare the crap out of you — it’s fabulous!”

“Just Shoot Me” airs Tuesday nights at 8 p.m. on NBC.

Courageous Acts


On April 18, 1943, as the vaunted German army marched in to liquidate the Warsaw Ghetto, a few hundred Jewish resistance fighters, armed with pistols, rifles and homemade Molotov cocktails, confronted the Nazi soldiers and held them at bay for almost a month.

The ghetto fighters "chose to live and die honorably in a dishonorable world and to take control of their own destiny when the world had abandoned them," says filmmaker Jon Avnet.

Avnet, as director, executive producer and co-writer, has been the driving force behind the miniseries "Uprising," which will air in two two-hour segments on Nov. 4 and 5, from 9 to 11 p.m. on NBC.

The completion of "Uprising" wraps up an intensive seven-year campaign by Avnet, a successful commercial filmmaker, against the "canard" that all 6 million Jews went without protest to their deaths during the Holocaust.

The closest current analogy to the ghetto fighters, in Avnet’s mind, is represented by the passengers aboard United Airlines flight no. 93 on Sept. 11, who rushed the terrorists of their hijacked plane, in the near certainty that they would all die.

Cleaving closely to the facts, the makers of this docudrama have based their story mainly on the memoirs of the few who survived the destruction of the ghetto.

The film’s timeline starts at the beginning of 1943, when the 450,000 Jews once crammed into the Warsaw Ghetto had been reduced to 60,000 by deportations, starvation and disease.

Among this remnant was the nucleus of the Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa (ZOB), the Jewish Fighters Organization.

Except for a handful of "older" leaders in their mid-20s, most of the fighters were between 18 and 21 years old. Their attempts to enlist the help of the Judenrat, the Jewish Council appointed by the Nazis, failed, and the ZOB drew first blood on Jan. 18, attacking German soldiers escorting a column of deportees.

The Nazis returned in force, with tanks and artillery, on April 18, and their commander promised that the entire ghetto would be liquidated by April 20, as a birthday present to Hitler.

During the next few weeks, the surprised Germans were repeatedly beaten back, until they systematically leveled every ghetto building and flushed out holdouts with gas and fire. The last organized stand came at a bunker at Mila Street 18, although some fighters escaped to the "Aryan" side through Warsaw’s sewers and lived to fight as partisans and tell their story later.

On May 16, 1943, German Gen. Jurgen Stroop declared Warsaw "Judenrein" (free of Jews), although a few Jewish snipers remained to harass the Nazi soldiers.

The dominant figure in "Uprising" is ZOB commander Mordechai Anielewicz, a 24-year old teacher, who was killed in the final battle at Mila 18. Anielewicz is portrayed by Hank Azaria, known mainly for his comedic roles, who here displays a forcefulness and intensity that is central to the credibility of "Uprising."

Other resistance fighters are played by Leelee Sobieski (Tosia Altman), Stephen Moyer (Simha "Kazik" Rotem), John Ales (Marek Edelman), as well as Sadie Frost, Radha Mitchell and Israeli actress Mili Avital.

Donald Sutherland gives a finely nuanced performance as Adam Czerniakow, the conflicted head of the Judenrat, while Jon Voight commendably avoids playing General Stroop as a one-dimensional villain.

The only miscasting appears to be David Schwimmer of "Friends" fame, who portrays Yitzhak "Antek" Zuckerman. Even with a willing suspension of disbelief, it is difficult to imagine the well-fed and neatly combed Schwimmer as the ZOB’s chief operative on the "Aryan" side and the organization’s commander after Anielewicz’s death.

"Uprising" has moments of sheer elation, as when the ghetto fighters raise a hand-made flag with the Star of David over one building, in the teeth of Nazi artillery. In counterpoint, educator Janus Korczak, head of an orphanage, tells his charges that they are going on a picnic, and they climb into the cattle cars on the way to Treblinka, singing "The Sun Is Shining."

Among the most harrowing scenes are those of German soldiers pumping water into the rat-infested sewers to flush out the remaining fighters.

"Uprising" is likely to raise protests from Polish American organizations for its unsparingly harsh view of the Polish people.

In one particularly damning incident, an Easter Mass is celebrated in a Warsaw cathedral, while the smoke of the ghetto’s burning buildings and bodies drift into the church. The priest’s response is to close the windows and continue the service.

At other dramatic points, the Polish underground refuses to aid the embattled Jews, and a Polish worker, paid to guide the Jews through the sewers, tries to renege on his bargain.

Avnet remains unfazed by possible negative reactions. "I wasn’t nearly as tough on the Poles as I could have," he says. Without Polish collaboration with the Germans, "many thousands of Jews could have been saved, and we can say the same of the Ukrainians and Latvians."

One of his grandfathers was a cantor in the Ukraine, but he was raised in a "traditional Reform" family in Brooklyn and on Long Island.

He filmed "Uprising" in the Slovakian city of Bratislava. It was a 73-day project he describes as "very difficult — physically, emotionally and financially."

The director praised the dedication of the predominantly gentile cast and crew, who "worked for very little under tough conditions." The shoot has some moments of high emotion, as when Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum, who served as consultant on the film, led cast and extras in the singing of "Hatikvah," the Israeli national anthem.

Avnet hopes that "Uprising" will show the world the courage of many Jews during the Holocaust, and he does not hide his anger at those "who have inflicted the final indignity" on the 6 million by drawing a picture of complete Jewish passivity.

"I cannot understand why [historian Hannah] Arendt perpetuated this image, and shame, also, on the journalistic community, which has really blown it," Avnet says. "This film is a clarion call to unblow it."

Inside Dating


When “Inside Schwartz” creator Stephen Engel was in college, dating was relatively easy. He’d meet a girl in class, hang out — and presto! — he had a girlfriend.

But when Engel’s college flame dumped him when he was 25, the Jewish writer entered alien territory: the singles scene. “I didn’t have a lot of experience formally calling women and asking them out,” he says. “I’d never been ‘fixed up.’ I’d never been on a blind date. I had some horrific experiences.”

At the time, Engel, a self-professed “sports nut,” wished he could bring in sports analysts for advice. “I wished we could do instant replays to examine the body language,” he says. “It would be like, ‘She’s sitting on the couch, her arms are crossed, so does she or doesn’t she want me to make a pass?'”

The now happily married Engel, has turned his past wishful thinking into an NBC sitcom, “Inside Schwartz,” about a recently dumped sports nut with a parrot named Larry Bird and lots of bad dates. Like Engel at 25, Adam Schwartz (played by Breckin Meyer of “Rat Race” and “Road Trip”) imagines sports figures analyzing his love life. When a blind date announces she has four kids, an umpire blows a whistle and shouts, “Too many players on the field!” When Schwartz pines for his ex, Hall of Famer Dick Butkus pops up and advises, “Trust me, Adam, it’s over.” When Schwartz’s Jewish best friend, Julie Hermann (played by Jewish actress Miriam Shor) gazes into his eyes, Butkus razzes him to kiss her (he doesn’t listen).

While the 20-something Engel was a lawyer and wannabe writer, Schwartz is a wannabe sportscaster stuck working for his dad. He doesn’t get much help from his agent, William Morris (Dondre Whitfield), an African American who uses Yiddishisms like bubbaleh, “because that’s how he thinks agents talk,” Engel says.

Engel is not the first Jewish writer to make a gag of his life; but unlike “Seinfeld” and “Mad About You” characters, who were Jewish by innuendo, Schwartz makes his heritage clear in the first couple of minutes of the pilot. And while most TV shows pair Jewish characters with gentile love interests — ostensibly for dramatic conflict — “Schwartz” may be the first sitcom in which two appealing young Jews generate romantic tension.

For Engel, the reason is simple. “I’m Jewish, and the character is basically an exaggerated version of me,” he says.

Growing up Reform in New Rochelle, N.Y., the now 40-year-old Engel was as sports-obsessed as Schwartz. He shot hoops daily, fantasizing that he was a Knicks star and that sports announcer Marv Albert broadcast his every move. Every time a car drove past the hoop in his driveway, he assumed it was a Knicks scout. “If I missed the basket, I was, like, devastated,” says Engel, who at 5′ 9″ was too short to play on his high school team.

At Tufts, the budding comedy writer made the Hillel team and taught a comedy writing course, but decided to attend NYU law school to please his parents. “I spent most of my 20s trying to convince my dad that I didn’t want to be an attorney,” says Engel, who wrote screenplays on weekends and got his first break penning a comedy for producer Joel Silver.

By 1991, he’d snagged a full-time writing job on HBO’s “Dream On,” though he was too terrified to imagine Albert announcing his ditching of law with a trademark “Yessssss!”

Nevertheless, Engel went on to co-executive produce “Dream On,” serve as a consultant for “Mad About You” and create the short-lived CBS series “Work With Me,” about married attorneys who are forced into the same practice.

“Inside Schwartz” came about when Engel decided to experiment with the sitcom format and thought it would be funny to merge the grandiose field of sports with a person’s private life. “Sports coverage is so pompous,” he says, with a laugh. “It’s like they’re talking about gladiators going into battle.”

“Schwartz” also allows Engel to poke fun at his dates from hell — and the talent agency that refused to sign him. Schwartz’s hack agent, named after the William Morris agency, “carries himself like Mark Ovitz but has the client list of Broadway Danny Rose,” Engel says.

To satisfy NBC attorneys, the character must always introduce himself as “William Morris, not affiliated with the William Morris Agency, the largest talent agency in the world.”

Engel’s talent agency is Creative Artists Agency. “I could have named the character that, but it wouldn’t have been as funny,” he says.

“Inside Schwartz” debuts Thursday, Sept. 20 at 8:30 p.m. on NBC.

Jewish and Normal? Oy!


NBC’s hit “Will & Grace,” which is up for 12 Emmys this month, is one of the first network shows to feature an appealing homosexual main character. But the sitcom — which revolves around gay attorney Will and his best gal pal Grace — is a first for another reason: its novel depiction of a young Jewish woman.

Grace Adler, played by Jewish actress Debra Messing, is a gorgeous, kooky interior designer who is neither pushy nor a shopaholic. Forget pathetic Melissa from “thirtysomething” or obnoxious Vicki from “Suddenly Susan.”

“Grace doesn’t fall into any of those categories that have stereotyped Jewish women on TV,” says executive producer Max Mutchnick. “She’s strong, and she’s pretty and she’s a proud Jewish woman.”

One reason the character works is because Mutchnick, 35, and co-creator David Kohan, 36, based her in part on a real Jewish woman. “Will & Grace” is modeled after the gay Mutchnick’s rapport with childhood chum Janet Eisenberg, who now owns a voice-over casting agency in New York. “Like Will and Grace, we are made for each other in every way except the bedroom,” Mutchnick says.

Mutchnick met Eisenberg while rehearsing a play at Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills at age 13. He was the star of the Hebrew school musical; she was a student in the drama department. Mutchnick lived in a modest apartment just one building over the Beverly Hills line; Eisenberg lived in a nicer part of town. But before long they were hanging out together on Beverly Drive, “which in those days was like Main Street, USA,” Mutchnick says.

About three years later, she introduced him to Kohan, the son of veteran comedy writer Buzz Kohan, in the drama department at Beverly Hills High. Kohan promptly became their third wheel — though he found their relationship perplexing. “Max and Janet seemed to have a lovely rapport, but the romantic element confused me, and it confused them as well,” recalls Kohan, who is straight. “They went out for a couple of years, then they went off to different colleges. And Max comes out of the closet, springs it on her — and she was stunned. It was a shocking revelation for her, so I kind of functioned as a liaison between the two of them, because they both still really loved each other.”

As Kohan practiced his shuttle diplomacy, he and Mutchnick began exchanging sitcom ideas and decided they, too, were made for each other — as writing partners. They eventually landed staff jobs on HBO’s “Dream On” and executive produced the short-lived NBC sitcom “Boston Common.” In 1997, they developed an ensemble comedy about six friends, two of them based on Mutchnick and female soulmate Eisenberg.

It was Warren Littlefield, NBC Entertainment president, who suggested they focus on the “he’s gay-she’s straight” relationship, the premise for “Will & Grace.” Kohan and Mutchnick banged out a script and spent four tense months feverishly faxing Littlefield the grosses from hit films with gay characters suxh as , “The Birdcage” and “My Best Friend’s Wedding.”

When the go-ahead finally came, they decided to name the show “Will & Grace” after a concept in Martin Buber’s Jewish philosophy book “I and Thou.” “Buber talks about how in order to have an ‘I-Thou’ relationship in the presence of the Eternal … one needs the ‘will’ to go after it and the ‘grace’ to receive it,” Kohan says.

He and Mutchnick concede that “Ellen,” which featured the first gay prime time TV lead, helped pave the way for “Will & Grace” — though the show crashed and burned after the coming-out episode. Why “Will” escaped that fate, Kohan says, is because “Our agenda is entertainment, not politics.”

Mutchnick agrees: “We never stand on a soapbox.”

But the sitcom has generated a few complaints — largely from Jewish viewers. They’re pleased that Grace reminisces about attending Camp Ramah (Eisenberg went there) and being profiled in the Jewish Forward but gripe that she’s never seriously dated a Jewish man. Kohan, for one, believes she probably never will. “I’d love her to find a Jewish love interest, but that relationship might actually work, and then there’d be no more ‘Will & Grace,'” he says.

Mutchnick faced a similar dilemma when Eisenberg married a Jewish man not long ago. “There’s been a shift in our relationship,” he admits. “But I fly to New York all the time to see her, and we’ve done a pretty good job of maintaining our friendship.” He pauses, then adds, laughing, “Sometimes I even wonder where her husband is in all of this.”

Groopman’s World


Jerome Groopman is a nice Jewish doctor – a 6-foot-5-inch-tall professor of experimental medicine at Harvard Medical School. So how did he turn into Andre Braugher? The answer is Paul Attanasio.

For those who don’t remember, Attanasio is the brilliant creator and writer of “Homicide: Life on the Street,” the former NBC series that was always more beloved by critics and its small but fanatically devoted group of viewers than by the public at large. Among the talents spawned by that show, none made more of an impression than Andre Braugher, a Shakespearean-trained actor of enormous power who, during the show’s run, got himself a cover of TV Guide which asked the question in banner headlines: “Is this the best actor on television?”

Paul Attanasio certainly thinks so. So when he picked up a copy of The New Yorker two years ago and read an excerpt from Groopman’s book “The Measure of Our Days,” about the life-and-death struggles that come his way as a leading researcher in cancer and AIDS, he immediately wanted to turn it into a TV series. There was only one actor, he felt, who had the combination of skills the part required.

Thus, Braugher became Dr. Ben Gideon in “Gideon’s Crossing,” which debuts on ABC Tues., Oct. 10, at 10 p.m.

“The character had to be somebody who had a real toughness and command but who also had a warmth and a depth and a humanity, and those two things are very hard to find in the same human being,” says Attanasio. “And to get Andre, who captures both of those dimensions and is just a joy to write for, was really where that piece of casting came from. We’re really lucky to have him.”

Even though the casting raises the oft-asked question of why Jewish heroes have to be transmogrified into someone else before they become acceptable to the mass television audience, Groopman says he is more than happy to be represented by Braugher.

“The truth is when I saw the pilot, after the first 10 minutes his skin color was immaterial. He captured what I hoped would be captured in a serious TV representation of the kind of experiences I was writing about. It may take a different external form, but the core is still there.”

The core is the essence of Groopman’s book, which is as different from the TV medical fare we’re used to – the soap opera sagas of “ER” and “Chicago Hope” – as “Homicide: Life on the Street” was from a run-of-the-mill cop show.

First, Gideon is a physician with a strong spiritual bent who really gets involved in his patients’ lives, which gives us, the audience, the chance to do so too.

The pilot, which is so good that ABC asked Attanasio to add another half hour to it so as not to lose scenes that would have had to go to bring it in at 60 minutes, is called “Kirk.” It was the subject of the excerpt Attanasio read in the New Yorker that started the wheels turning for the series.

Played brilliantly by Bruce McGill, Kirk – an international tycoon, mega-millionaire and force of nature who is used to riding roughshod over the world and buying and bullying his way to power – is dying of kidney cancer. He is simply too much of a powerhouse to die, but if Gideon doesn’t take him on, he’s finished.

He’s a miserable human being who humiliates his wife, has alienated his children and would not be missed. Also, his case is medically hopeless. Nevertheless, Gideon decides to do battle on his behalf. The duel between the two men is positively biblical.

Attanasio says it was the kind of gargantuan tale that you don’t find any more on television, or anywhere else for that matter.

“It’s the story of a guy who has so much fight to live and of a doctor who responds to that fight by going out on the high wire and taking a chance with a novel treatment. And the guy beats an unbeatable foe, realizes how precious life is and how little in his life he has honored that idea. And now the life that he has fought so hard for is in fact meaningless.”

Groopman agrees. “The truth is, not everyone who comes into your office is necessarily likeable or soft and cuddly or someone who is sympathetic, and yet the mission is to transcend those kinds of personal reactions and really search his or her heart to know whether what you are doing is for the good,” he said. “I perceived in ‘Kirk’ a spark of life, and it wasn’t extinguished. I felt I was obliged to protect that and to try and see if it could be amplified. In some way, I agonized over it. I felt the odds were incredibly long. But I felt I couldn’t play God. I couldn’t dismiss him.” The Kirk story sets the tone for the series, as it did for Groopman’s book.

“The theme of the book is part of what sets the show apart, ” Attanasio explains, “which is that illness changes people’s lives. Sometimes it enhances or deepens their lives. And doctors are privileged to participate in that event. And so it’s very different as a story-telling approach than the other medical shows. You get into really the deeper story of people’s lives.”

There are other differences as well. Groopman and Gideon preside over a teaching hospital in which the doctor as teacher is God to his residents and interns but much less omnipotent when it comes to the deathly ill patients he is trying to save.

“Even with all of the state-of-the-art technology,” Attanasio says, “medicine is still taught the way it was in ancient times – master to apprentice like the medieval guilds.”

The other aspect of the story which is news is that Groopman practices cutting-edge medicine at a time when the technology is taking off. To him come the lost causes, the patients others have written off as terminal, but he practices it in the full knowledge and with a spiritual understanding that healing the body is only part of the deal.

The dilemmas are as much moral as they are medical. The dialogue is Talmudic. Gideon may be African American but his world view, which is Groopman’s, is Jewish to the core.

“My book was very much a spiritual exploration of illness,” Groopman says. “I think it’s important that people not be afraid of that spiritual dimension. It’s such an essential element of the experience. But typically a Harvard professor and high-tech doctor doing experimental medicine – what’s he doing talking about spirituality? He’s supposed to be talking about DNA and proteins and computers and all that. But I see a thirst for it among my colleagues even though physicians are being beaten to a pulp like everyone else in the medical system by HMOs and all that.”

Groopman, unlike his widower-single father TV alter ego, has a wife, who is also a physician, and three children. He is also an observant Jew whose faith infuses his work at Harvard and the books and medical articles he writes.

His book begins with a prayer from Maimonides: “Let me look at a patient neither as a rich man or a poor man, as a friend or a foe, but let me see only the person within.”

If all the stories are as well done as the pilot episode, this show will be the highlight of the new season and many to come.

Seinfeld Borrows a Talmud


‘Seinfeld’ Borrows

a Talmud

By Ruth Stroud, Staff Writer

The Jewish Community Library is used to catering to the literaryneeds of groups of school children, Yiddish scholars and day-schoolteachers. But seldom does it get a call for Talmudic texts to gracethe set of a sitcom. That changed a few weeks ago when librarydirector Abigail Yasgur received a request from the “Seinfeld” artdepartment to borrow a set of the sacred books. The 29-volume redSoncino Talmud filled the bill. The books, borrowed for a week, willappear in an episode scheduled to air next Thursday (Oct. 9) on NBC.

The story line centers around a bar mitzvah to which JerrySeinfeld’s friend Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is invited, apparentlyas a kind of token shiksa. The bar mitzvah boy has a crush onher and, since he is now a man, figures he can grab a kiss. After hekisses her, his dad kisses her, and she ends up seeking the rabbi’sadvice on what to do about her rampant “shiksa appeal.” The rabbi, inwhose office the books appear, assures her that there’s no suchthing.

In the past, the Anti-Defamation League has fielded complaintsabout other “Seinfeld” episodes that Jewish viewers felt traded onwell-worn stereotypes — including a very high-energy mohel ata bris. But ADL-Los Angeles Associate Director Jerry Shapirodidn’t seem too concerned about this one, pointing to episodes thatmake fun of other ethnic groups, the disabled and the elderly. “Ithink everyone is fair game on that show.”

If “Seinfeld” or other TV shows have further requests for propsfrom the library, they may have to wait awhile, since the libraryclosed its doors last week in preparation for the Jewish FederationCouncil’s move to a new location in November. So far, a new spot forthe library’s 30,000-piece collection of books, videos and softwarehasn’t been found. “This is a temporary inconvenience, I hope,”Yasgur said. “We’ll do whatever we can to maintain visibility in thepublic eye.” Maybe they should have the rabbi on “Seinfeld” make apitch for space.