Class Notes


New Yeshiva Flying SCY High
Founding board members of the new Southern California Yeshiva High School (SCY High) for boys in La Jolla knew that with a history of failed yeshiva high schools in the area, they had to offer the community something new and innovative. So they, along with headmaster Kevin Cloud, developed a school that utilizes high-tech project-based learning to integrate all disciplines — from science to literature to Gemara.

The school, the only Orthodox boys high school in the San Diego area, attracted 17 boys in ninth and 10th grades last year, its first year of existence, and next year between 25 and 30 are expected to be enrolled in the ninth through 11th grades. One Los Angeles boy boarded with relatives, and next year several families are opening up their homes to students who want to board.

As a school starting from scratch, teachers were able to take novel approaches to study.

The ninth graders, for example, read Goethe’s “Faust,” then rewrote it as short film. They created sets — some using “South Park”-style puppets, some using stop-action dolls and action figures — set it to music, and filmed short movies. The 10th graders read Christopher Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus,” then rewrote a modernized version then studied and debated the moral implications of making Faustus Jewish.

“What you do in project-based learning is you take the ability the students have in one subject and you bring that enthusiasm into another subject,” Cloud said.

The students also get traditional instruction, but even there things tend to blend.

In Rabbi Moshe Adatto’s Gemara class, students had to present talmudic arguments in a PowerPoint flowchart. Each student is given a Dell laptop when they enter, and the school is wired for high-speed wireless Internet access.

To Adatto, who previously was a teacher at the Valley Kollel, it’s all part of making kids love school and love Judaism.

“We’re trying to create lifelong learners, and to me that has two components: They have to know how to learn, and they have to want to learn,” said Adatto, who organized Shabbatons and other events to build school spirit.

All but one student has reenrolled for next year, and an anonymous survey that all of the parents filled out brought back astonishing results for a Jewish school: No one — not one family — reported being anything less than satisfied.

For more information on SCY High School, contact (858) 658-0857 or visit www.scyhigh.org.

Follow the Fellows to Israel
Three Southern California teens were among 26 selected nationally to visit Israel on a five-week Bronfman Youth Fellowship this summer. Priscella Frank of Calabasas High School and Benjamin and Mitzi Steiner of Shalhevet were selected following a rigorous application process. They will participate in an intensive program of study and travel in Israel designed to develop leaders committed to Jewish unity.

The fellows participate in seminars and dialogues with diverse rabbinic faculty and spend a week with a group of Israeli peers who have been chosen through Amitei Bronfman, a parallel Israeli program. Bronfman Youth Fellows are asked to complete 40 hours of community service when they return home at the end of the summer.

3 Books = 31 Flavors
Students at Temple Beth Am’s Pressman Academy have another reason to pick up a good book — to satisfy their sweet tooth. As part of the Be a Star Reader program, elementary and middle school kids who read three books this spring were awarded a free ice cream cone at any Baskin-Robbins. Arna Schwartz, the school librarian, has run the Be a Star Reader program for several years, purchasing Baskin-Robbins gift certificates. This year, Robert Schwartz, who owns the Baskin-Robbins on Kinross Avenue in Westwood, offered to sponsor the program. Other Schools or youth organizations interested in participating in the Baskin-Robbins Reading Rewards Program can contact Robert Schwartz at (310) 208-8048.

To Bee or Not to Bee
More than 150 boys from Chabad schools across the world gathered in Los Angeles in April for a battle of wits on Maimonides’ Sefer Hamitzvot. Cheder Menachem in Los Angeles was the host school of the chidon, or bee, which attracted 1,000 spectators to the finals held at Emerson Middle School. The girls’ competition was held the week before in New York. Local winners were Sender Labkowsky, first place, older division; Mendel Mishulovin, third place, older division; and Shmully Lezak, third place, younger division.

ADL Reaches 700,000 Students
As part of LAUSD’s Live Violence-Free Day, 35,000 teachers in the district were urged to use materials and activities they received from the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) A World of Difference Institute, impacting more than 700,000 K-12 students in one day. The activities and lesson plans were designed to assist educators in addressing issues of bias, discrimination, bullying and violence, and focused on empowering students to become agents of change on their campuses. For more information on ADL education programs, contact Jenny Betz at (310) 446-8000, ext. 233.

 

Misguided Passion About Gibson’s Film


The great 20th century philosopher, Martin Buber, had an uncanny ability to speak to ecumenical gatherings. He would often begin his lectures highlighting the many theological tenets shared by Jews and Christians.

“Jews,” he said, “believe the Messiah has yet to come.” To which he added, “Christians believe the messiah has come, and they are waiting for his — Jesus’ — return.”

Concluding his introduction he quipped, “Let us pray and work together for the Messiah’s arrival, and when he gets here, we’ll ask if he’s been here before!”

In anticipation of Easter, a slightly modified version of “The Passion of the Christ,” the film by actor and director Mel Gibson, and screenwriter Benedict Fitzgerald, has been re-released. The second coming if you will. This re-cut version is widely available in a DVD gift format.

In light of the film’s reappearance, it is worth recalling what happened before the movie’s initial debut back on Good Friday of 2004. At the time, much of the Jewish community was in shock — panic struck — worried the film would stir-up anti-Semitic feelings. The Anti-Defamation League, under the direction of Abe Foxman, led the charge.

Newspapers and magazines were filled with articles largely condemning the work. Opinions were cast like stones, often expressed by those who had not even seen the movie. From Jerusalem, Rome, New York and Los Angeles, and all points in between and beyond, comments flew every which way. Even ailing Pope John Paul II at the time allegedly uttered an opinion on the film that sounded more like a papal edict. “It is as it was.”

After people started seeing the film in huge numbers, another shock was in store for many Jews, who continue to hold a medieval understanding of Jewish-Christian relations: Anti-Semitism did not re-surface or intensify as a result of the film’s release.

In fairness to those who continue to hold anachronistic points of view, such fears about Christianity were not always unjustified. Throughout history, mainly European history, the passion plays’ depiction of deicide generated horrific hatred against Jews. Such performances were banned in Rome in 1539, because they led to murderous rampages on the Jewish ghetto. Much later, in 1934, Hitler himself referred to the plays as: “precious tools.”

Now, with a perspective on Gibson’s film that comes with experience, hardly a sound can be heard from Jewish leaders: no outcries; no expressed, projected worries of accelerated anti-Semitism. But there also have been no apologetic retractions of the earlier aspersions. Given all the negative reactions and expressed fear prior to the film’s original release, an open re-evaluation by Jews is in order.

All along, “The Passion of the Christ” ought to have been seen as a t?te-?-t?te opportunity, a chance to inaugurate a dialogue to elucidate and clarify the similarities and differences of these two great, monotheistic religions. The movie understandably targets a largely Christian viewing audience, but its platform is derived from Judaism. Jesus was born a Jew, lived as a Jew and, yes, died a Jew. Over time, like Judaism, Christianity evolved. For any number of reasons, it parted with conventional Jewish thought and theology.

Consider the following three examples from “The Passion of the Christ” and the theology it embodies.

1 — Original Sin.

Derived from the Bible’s Garden of Eden narrative, most Christian interpretation holds human beings inherently sinful because of Adam’s (and Eve’s) initial disobedience of God. Unlike Christianity, Judaism holds the human soul is born pure and unadulterated. The Jewish perspective grows out of the ideal that holds individuals accountable for their actions — not their ancestors, biblical or otherwise.

2 — Faith vs. Law.

The apostle Paul — also a Jew by birth — had an all-or-nothing perception of Jewish law: If you have not fulfilled all of the Bible’s laws perfectly, then you are a sinner. But think about it: It would be a virtual indictment of God to suggest that God would create less-than-perfect human beings and then condemn them for being imperfect.

3 — The Messiah.

This subject is, of course, the thematic crux of the blockbuster film. The substantive difference between Jew and Christian on this issue revolves around the divinity of Jesus. “The Passion” has generated so much passion because it tells not merely of the death of Jesus the man, or even Jesus the messiah. Far more significant for Jews is the indictment in the film — drawn from the New Testament — that some Jews collaborated in the death of God. Call it what it was: an unadulterated deicide.

As a Jew, what is baffling to me is how anyone thinks you can actually kill God. Ignore God — yes; disbelieve in God — of course that happens. But if there is one area where Jews and Christians ought to agree, it is this: God is infinite, omnipotent and transcendent. Further, all human beings are created by God and in God’s image — no matter one’s faith.

These are just three important points of discussion the film raises. Their consideration can and should lead to honest, inspiring, open, soul-searching questions. Maybe that is why so many Jews feel threatened by the devout Christians who championed this movie, as well as by the film’s several incarnations. Some Jews remain suspicious of Christian friendship; they suspect that Christians’ love for Israel and the Jewish people is for another motive: to convert unknowing Jews away from their faith.

But Jews have no one to blame but themselves if they are so increasingly unaware of and despondent regarding their great, age-old religious tradition that they cannot even debate and discuss these theological divides. In the meantime, movies like “The Passion” will continue to generate wonderful opportunities for Jews and Christians who are eager to engage in an ongoing spiritual dialogue. Perhaps this exchange will bring the Messiah sooner to the world if, for nothing else, to set us straight on whether he’s been here before.

Michael Gotlieb is rabbi of Kehillat Ma’arav Synagogue in Santa Monica.

 

Humor in ‘Eat’ an Acquired Taste


When Rabbi Mordecai Finley, leader of the nondenominational congregation Ohr HaTorah, saw the new Passover comedy “When Do We Eat?” — he loved it.

“I laughed and laughed and laughed,” he said. He saw the movie three more times, and each time he liked it better.

Hap Erstein, the film reviewer for Florida’s Palm Beach Post, had a different reaction.

Since seeing the movie about a dysfunctional family trying to make it through a Passover seder, “a bad taste has been left in my mouth,” Erstein said.

Where Finley saw a story about the “redemptive power of a seder,” Erstein saw “mean-spirited and low-targeted humor.”

By now, the creators of the film, which has played in film festivals around the country and opens in theaters today, have come to expect such polarized reactions to their movie. Viewers either love it or hate it.

“When Do We Eat?” centers on the Stuckman family, which includes grandfather Artur (Jack Klugman); father Ira (Michael Lerner), who tries to lead “the world’s fastest seder”; his neglected wife, Peggy (Lesley Ann Warren); and their children.

Daughter Nikki (Shiri Appleby) works as a sex-surrogate. Son Ethan (Max Greenfield) recently became Chasidic, but has a hard time resisting the wiles of his sexy cousin, Vanessa (Mili Avital). Youngest son Lionel (Adam Lamberg) is an autistic obsessed with the number seven. Jennifer (Meredith Scott Lynn), Ira’s daughter from a previous marriage, is a lesbian and brings her African American girlfriend, Grace (Cynda Williams), to the seder. Zeke (Ben Feldman), a teenage stoner, slips his father some ecstasy halfway through the meal.

Salvador Litvak, the film’s 40-year-old director and producer, co-wrote the screenplay with his wife, Nina Davidovich, 38. The way they see it, “When Do We Eat?” fits into a current trend of “in-your-face, proud-to-be Jewish” cultural statements, from Matisyahu, the Chasidic reggae singer whose latest album topped the charts last month; to “Go for Zuker,” the recent German Jewish comedy about a dysfunctional family; to the irreverent, New York-based Heeb magazine.

“Some people get it, some people don’t,” said Litvak, an observant Jew who wears tzitzit and wakes up at 6 a.m. everyday to study Talmud. While “When Do We Eat?” opened the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival, it did not make it into the Boston or New York Jewish film festivals.

“The people who get it,” he said, “are the people who can laugh at themselves.”

Erstein, in his review in The Palm Beach Post, labeled the movie “lowbrow sitcom” and charged Litvak with “trafficking in broad caricatures and ethnic stereotypes.” In an interview, Erstein said the movie reminded him of “Meet the Fockers” and “There’s Something About Mary,” comedies that use crude jokes to target the lowest-common-denominator viewer.

What bothered him about this movie, Erstein, 56, said, was the way it portrayed Judaism.

“It’s taking cheap shots at it,” he said.

Here lies the central contention, the age-old question: Is this movie, ultimately, good for the Jews?

“Some people seem to have a reaction that it isn’t good for the Jews,” said Davidovich, who co-wrote the film. “I think that’s a short-sighted reaction, because the cause of anti-Semitism through the years — well, a large part of it — has been people’s perception that we think we’re better than them. In this movie, we’re portraying Jews as no better than anybody else.”

But no worse than anyone else, either, Litvak added, explaining that the family was made to be outrageously dysfunctional for comedy’s sake.

Davidovich stressed that she went out of her way to contradict stereotypes.

“What drives me nuts,” she said, banging a fist on her skirt, “is in popular culture, Jewish women are always portrayed as unattractive, big-mouthed, annoying, bossy women” and “Jewish men are always portrayed as dorky, nerdy, nebishy, insecure, self-effacing.”

So, she chose an all-Jewish, good-looking cast.

Davidovich and Litvak insisted that in the end, their film comes down on the side of Judaism. The movie shows that the Jewish religion, and the Passover seder in particular, can provide a framework for personal redemption, Litvak said.

Rabbi Mark Blazer, the 38-year-old leader of Reform Temple Beth Ami in Santa Clarita, agreed: “This [movie] can really show people what the Passover seder can do, that it can be a really transformative experience.”

Blazer also sees the movie as part of a trend toward Jews’ opening up about Judaism in popular culture. For years, Jews who produced TV shows and movies shied away from discussing their Jewishness on screen, he said. But today, Jews are finally willing to explore the essence of their religion in their art.

Blazer attributed the opposing reactions to the movie to “a generational gap.” Younger Jews do not feel as anxious about seeing Jews portrayed in a negative light as those born closer to the time of the Holocaust, he said.

“Some see this movie, and they worry about the message that it sends,” he said. “They’re worried that it’s going to contribute to anti-Semitism.”

But “for us,” he added, “we don’t have that same level of discomfort.”

For more information on showtimes, visit ” target=”_blank”>http://www.jewishjournal.com/home/preview.php?id=15595

 

My Jewish King Kong


It’s a sunny winter day and a friend and I fear for our lives as my husband, Ron Magid, screeches our oversized Chrysler east down Sunset Boulevard. We’re speeding toward the ArcLight Cinemas and a press screening of Peter Jackson’s “King Kong.”

The usually amiable Ron swears at traffic, and when we arrive an hour early, he leaves our pal, Freeman, and me in the dust.

“He’s running ahead, like a little kid,” Freeman muses as we breathlessly catch up, only to find the cinema’s massive glass doors locked.

It’s not surprising that my husband is the first in line at one of the earliest “Kong” press screenings. He’s loved the giant simian since he first watched the 1933 classic film on TV when he was 7. And not just because the giant ape kicked dinosaur a–, trashed Manhattan and chewed up both island natives and a native New Yorker.

“Kong in his own realm was king of the jungle, just like a little kid is king in his own imagination,” Ron recalls as we stand in the sunshine. But he was dethroned when he was captured, and tormented in the urban jungle of Manhattan. Ron relates because he was picked on in the urban jungle of school.

“I felt pigeonholed as a nerd who liked monsters and hated sports,” he says.

As a child, Ron didn’t understand that there also was something distinctly Jewish about his bond with monsters and Kong.

Jews have also been reviled and accused of unspeakable crimes, such as murdering babies for their blood. Ron reminds me that while Bela Lugosi’s Dracula does kill for blood, the vampire considers this predilection (and his immortality) a curse. “To be dead, to be truly dead — that would be glorious,” he says in the 1931 film.

In the here and now, it’s a revenge of the nerds for 44-year-old Ron, as for so many other film geeks who grew up to help shape popular culture. He’s considered a top journalist on special effects and genre movies; Premiere hired him to write about why the original Kong is still king.

Not that Ron has anything against the new film or its director Peter Jackson. A few years ago, he personally bonded with the noted director, a fellow “Kong” enthusiast, after a Writers Guild screening of Jackson’s epic “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King.” Jackson looked exhausted when viewers rushed him after the Q-and-A. But he brightened when my husband shook his hand, recalling how Ron and a friend had restored a 2 1/2-foot-long stegosaurus puppet from the original “Kong.” Jackson had later purchased the puppet for a rumored $250,000.

Back at the ArcLight for the press screening, we wait more than 20 minutes before the cinema’s doors finally swing open and we snag the best seats in the house. Before long, a regiment of movie journalists surround Ron, because he co-authored (with Phil Savenick) the documentaries that are included on Jackson’s restored DVD versions of 1933’s “Kong.”

“I just geeked out,” Chris Gore, the founder and former editor of Film Threat magazine, gushes about the documentary featurettes. “I thought I knew everything about ‘King Kong,’ because I’ve been reading about it since I was a kid, but I was wrong.”

Clearly in his element, Ron promptly regales this mini-throng with tales about the original movie. He recounts how the 1933 film’s producer and director were themselves intrepid explorers who shot documentaries in distant lands. A fellow explorer inspired them to make the giant ape flick when he captured a Komodo dragon and brought it back, Kong-style, to New York, where it languished and died in captivity in the Bronx Zoo.

The original Kong may appear to be an uberbeast, but he was in reality an 18-inch-tall stop-motion puppet — a fact the studio kept secret to ensure viewers were properly terrified.

Despite special effects that are crude by today’s standards, the original Kong arguably reigns supreme because of his “performance,” which renders him an iconic tragic hero. Animator Willis O’Brien was somehow able to channel his personal angst into the character. His unstable wife — who had attempted suicide twice in the 1920s — suffered from cancer and tuberculosis as well as ongoing mental illness during the production. (Soon after the release of “Kong,” she fatally shot the couple’s two children at her Westwood apartment.)

At this point, the ArcLight conversation turns to movie child murderers, such as Peter Lorre’s creepy character in 1930s “M,” as everyone munches oversized buckets of popcorn.

“Ron finds monsters like Kong comforting because the real-life ones are far worse,” says Freeman, offering some freelance psychotherapy between bites.

But he’s on to something. Ron was shaken, as a child, to learn of the pogroms endured by his Polish and Latvian grandmothers; one had witnessed her mother being pushed down the stairs. And he happened to learn about the Holocaust, at Sinai Temple’s religious school, around the time he first saw “Kong” at age 7.

“I had a bit of a persecution complex to begin with and then I found out that being Jewish would make me even more of a target,” he says. Just as Jewish artists created Superman during the Shoah, Ron wished for a Kong-like superhero to stomp out anti-Semites (as well as the schoolyard bullies).

Kong, like many classic monsters, was “unloved and misunderstood,” Ron adds. His blue eyes tear up as he describes Frankenstein’s monster as “an abused child.”

Frankenstein was the first model kit he built, at age 5; two years later came Kong, who was bigger, more intricate and expensive ($1.49 instead of $.99 at a hobby shop on Pico Boulevard). After completing the figure, he scoured the TV Guide for a screening of the film, which helped spur him to meticulously research monster movies and moviemaking. He’d pull a book from under his covers at bedtime, and read with the help of light filtering into his dark bedroom from the hall. At the same time he was parlaying his allowance into what would become a prodigious collection of horror and science fiction memorabilia.

His therapy was his obsession; his obsession became his outlet; his outlet became his professional art and craft. How Jewish is that?

Ron is happy that the new “Kong” is getting Oscar consideration. And he drinks up the good notices for the DVDs of the 1933 version.

Nothing, though, will change him from the boy who loved to collect monsters.

Freeman, a movie poster and prop dealer, wants to know how Ron got his “Kong” props: spears, drums and shields as well as fellow simians from “Planet of the Apes” (Zira and Cornelius figures stand in our bedroom).

Ron replies that he bought them for bupkis two decades ago from propmasters at Culver Studios, who were about to throw them in the trash. Ron will never part with them, nor the luridly colorful press-book cover of 1933’s Kong rampaging across Manhattan, which dominates our dining room.

Ron is sure he’ll like the Jackson film, but for him, nothing will dethrone the original.

“The hat trick of that movie is that the filmmakers don’t do the clichéd things to make the character beloved to the audience,” he says as the theater lights dim. “He rages, has no regard for humanity, and every character despises him, even Fay Wray. The only people who love the original Kong are the audience members.”

And Ron perhaps most of all.

The 1933 “King Kong Two-Disc Special Edition” DVD and the “Collector’s Edition” are available in stores.

 

‘Beggars’ Can Be Choosers


The scene and the babel of voices was half Tel Aviv and half Hollywood at the Writers Guild Theater last Sunday for the world premiere of “The King of Beggars.”

One notable aspect was that “King” is not only a new Israeli film, but the first to open not in its homeland but in Los Angeles, which is also known for producing occasional movies.

There were some other firsts, as Israeli Consul General Ehud Danoch and Public Affairs Consul Gilad Millo proudly announced. “King of Beggars” has the added distinction of being the first Israeli film post-produced in Hollywood and the first world premiere to be hosted by the local Israeli consulate.

Based on the character of Fishke der Krumer (Fishke the Lame) created by the great Hebrew and Yiddish writer Mendele Mocher Sforim, the film follows the adventures of Fishke from humble bathhouse attendant in a 16th century Russian shtetl to leader of a fighting brigade of Jewish outcasts.

Fishke is a reluctant warrior who would rather study Torah than fight. But goaded by Polish and Cossack pogroms, he organizes his ragged band into a fierce fighting force.

There are some fine set scenes of battles, a la “Braveheart,” with Fishke wielding the tree branches used to whip bathhouse customers like a sword and spear.

Attending the premiere were rugged, long-haired actor Shahar Sorek, who triples as star, co-producer and fight choreographer, and director-writer Uri Paster. Co-executive producer is Jerry’s Deli owner Ike Starkman.

Joining the hundreds of guests at the cookie-laden refreshment tables after the show was Israeli American actor Oded Fehr, soon to star as a Muslim terrorist leader in the Showtime TV series, “Sleeper Cell.”

For additional information about the film, visit www.kingofbeggars.com.

 

Wiesenthal Larger Than Life on Screen


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Books – ‘Love’ Tries to Solve Mystery of the Heart


“The History of Love” By Nicole Krauss (W.W. Norton, $23.95).

“The History of Love” is the name of a book within Nicole Krauss’s remarkable new novel of the same name, “The History of Love” (Norton). The inner novel has had a life of its own, written in Yiddish in Poland and thought to be lost, translated into Spanish in Buenos Aires, unbeknownst to the author, and later into English in New York; it drew on real love and also inspired love. If this were a love letter rather than a novel, it would be a chain letter, broken but ultimately reconnected.

Leo Gursky, a retired locksmith living alone in New York City, who makes a daily commotion in some public place to be sure that he doesn’t die without being noticed, is the unlikely romantic who’s the original author of “The History of Love.” He wrote it while living in Poland, when he was very much in love with a girl named Alma. Jews weren’t safe in their town of Slonim, and he lost Alma, who left for America before he did, and he gave the manuscript to a friend for safekeeping.

Years later at age 57, Gursky, after a heart attack curtails his work; he begins a new book, writing daily. He muses: “At times I believed that the last page of my book and the last page of my life were one and the same, that when my book ended I’d end, a great wind would sweep through my rooms carrying the pages away, and when the air cleared of all those fluttering white sheets the room would be silent, the chair where I sat would be empty.”

Gursky is a man whose suit doesn’t quite fit, who’s always late (“I’ve always arrived too late for my life”). A magnet for small mishaps at inopportune times, he’s cranky and lonely, although still a poetic observer. “Story of my life: I was a locksmith. I could unlock every door in the city. And yet I couldn’t unlock anything I wanted to unlock.”

Also living in New York is a young girl named Alma, who understands that she’s named after every female character in a Spanish novel her late father gave to her mother. Her parents would read to her from the book, inscribed with the words that this would have been the story her father would have written for her mother had he been a novelist. Years later, Alma’s mother is hired to translate the novel into English. Excerpts of it appear throughout the book.

Masterfully, Krauss ties together the stories of Gursky and the young Alma as each searches for clues about “The History of Love.” For Gursky, the manuscript oddly reappears, with the names changed into Spanish. The far-reaching literary puzzles involve Alma’s younger brother, who has messianic impulses; Gursky’s son, a well-known writer who doesn’t know of his father’s existence; Alma’s young friend Misha, an immigrant from the former Soviet Union who learns English by memorizing Beatles songs; and ghosts from Gursky’s past. Krauss’s overarching “The History of Love” is about loss and the transformative force of love; it’s also playful, wise and funny.

Her highly praised first novel, “Man Walks Into a Room,” published in 2002, is about a man who loses his memory. That was a daring first novel, not the more usual coming-of-age story. Beginning the book when she was 25, she wrote from the perspective of a 36-year-old man. Here she inhabits the voices of an old man and a 14-year-old girl, portraying each with convincing power.

Memory is still a theme for Krauss, and as she says, it’s probably one of the things she’ll be writing about as long as she writes. In “The History of Love,” Leo Gursky is overflowing with memories; in many ways, he lives in his memories. But he has no one to share them with.

Krauss has spoken of being really in love as she wrote this, and how that feeling is evident on the page. For her, writing is “a kind of reflex.” She says that her writing has evolved from the tightly-reigned-in prose of her first novel, where she cared a lot about the sentences, to greater expansiveness. Gursky’s voice, she explains, “allowed a kind of openness and honesty felt in the moment.”

Krauss, who began publishing poetry when she was 19, still writes beautiful sentences; her pages are full of energy.

The 30-year-old author, who lives in Brooklyn, is married to the novelist Jonathan Safran Foer, whose second novel, “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” is also recently published. Although several critics see parallels between their work, she declines to talk about him, preferring to keep their professional lives separate.

Film rights to “The History of Love” have been optioned by Warner Bros., with David Heyman set to produce and Alfonso Cuaron (known for “Y Tu Mamá También) as director.

On Monday, June 13, at 7 p.m., Nicole Krauss will read from “The History of Love” at Dutton’s Beverly Hills Books, 447 N. Canon Drive, Beverly Hills. For more information, call (310) 281-0997.

Sandee Brawarsky is the book critic for the Jewish Week.

 

Nimoy’s New Trek


In a recent Tel Aviv seminar, Leonard Nimoy — famous as “Star Trek’s” logical Mr. Spock — described the Vulcan way he behaved while playing Golda Meir’s husband in a 1982 TV movie.

“I had a question and the director blurted, ‘It doesn’t make any difference, you’re wrong for this part anyway,'” the 74-year-old actor-director said. “But I just walked away, let it fizzle out and went back to work.”

Nimoy — who was Emmy nominated for that role — was back in Israel as part of the Jewish Federation’s Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership film master class program. During his five-day trip, he conducted two “Inside the Actor’s Studio”-style seminars for student actors and directors.

Nimoy said he was eager to participate because he finds current Israeli cinema to be “fresh, well-executed and relevant to the culture,” compared to the “primitive” films he viewed in the early 1980s. He was equally impressed by students at the Beit Zvi drama school, who asked questions such as “How did you approach your work?” and “How did you find your way into a character?”

Nimoy, in turn, described his use of Stanislavsky’s Method, as taught by the late Jeff Corey, in which an actor uses personal experiences to emotionally tap into a scene. The technique also emphasizes finding major themes in a piece to determine a character’s connection to them. Spock, for instance, drew on “Trek’s” dissection of individuals simultaneously “exploring outside of themselves and achieving self-discovery.”

“I also talked a lot about subtext,” Nimoy recalled. “For example, what does a character mean when he says the simple words, ‘I love you’? Is he saying, ‘I love you,’ meaning the other person doesn’t, or ‘I love you,'” because he feels unloved?”

Eventually someone asked why Nimoy gave up acting and directing in favor of photography and philanthropy eight years ago. The artist traced his decision to sitting, for hours in a hot trailer in Morocco, flies buzzing about, while playing the prophet Samuel in the TV movie, “David.” “I decided, ‘I’m done with this,'” he said, in decidedly un-Spock-like tones. “‘There’s no need to continue, because I’ve had all the creative expression a person could ever have dreamed of in a career that’s spanned more than 50 years.”

The Nimoy Concert Series presents Sheshbesh, The Arab-Jewish ensemble of the Israel Philharmonic, June 26, 3 p.m., at Temple Israel of Hollywood. For more information, call (213) 805-4261. For more information about the Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership, visit www.jewishla.org/html/io_partnership.htm.

 

Pacino Adds Depth to ‘Merchant’ Villain


 

There is little doubt that the first film version of William Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” will find its detractors.

Literary purists may be horrified by liberties taken by director-screenwriter Michael Radford, including a 50-minute cut in the play’s original three-hour length.

Champions of family values may object to the rather obvious homosexual relationship between Venetian noblemen Antonio (Jeremy Irons) and Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes).

And Jews may wonder what good is served, in this day and age, by reviving the most famous anti-Semitic stereotype in Western culture.

Yet this is a movie well-worth seeing for the fine performances of its Anglo-American cast, its colorful, teeming recreation of 16th century Venice and, most, for the complex and heart-wrenching portrait of Shylock, the Jewish moneylender, evoked by Al Pacino.

I first encountered “The Merchant of Venice” in 1939 as a brand new immigrant and sole Jew in an eighth-grade class at Lower Merion Junior High School, outside Philadelphia, and the traumatic impact has stayed with me since.

For those who were deprived of this experience — and of the visceral American anti-Semitism of that time — here’s a brief refresher on the plot line.

In the Venice of 1594, then the most powerful and liberal city-state in Europe, the profligate young Bassanio needs money to woo and marry the lovely and accomplished Portia. He turns to his older friend, the merchant Antonio, who, temporarily short of cash, asks Shylock to lend him 3,000 ducats. The moneylender, who has been consistently humiliated by Antonio, demands no interest but instead a pound of flesh should the merchant not repay the debt on time.

When Antonio defaults, Shylock appears before the duke to execute the penalty but is foiled by Portia, disguised as a young lawyer, who turns the tables on Shylock. He leaves the scene as a broken man, the more so since his daughter, Jessica, has run off with a Christian, taking along much of her father’s fortune.

A New Yorker cartoon in the 1940s showed Hitler bestowing a Nazi medal on Shakespeare for writing the play, but as times have changed, so has the villainous caricature of Shylock.

Nevertheless, to make a film of so embedded a stereotype is a challenge, as even the daring Orson Welles learned when he had to abandon an identical project.

In the present case, director Radford and his cast have done well. On a technical level, the intimacy of the camera conveys facial closeups and character expressions not perceived in a stage play, while the beauty and bustle of Venice form a handsome backdrop.

While it would be condescending to label the film as politically correct, a great deal of care has been taken to place Shylock within the context of his time and place.

An on-screen prologue, accompanied by an elegiac Hebrew melody and the burning of prayer books, explains that Venetian Jews were confined to a district containing a cannon foundry (“getto” in Italian), restricted to the occupation of money-lending, forced to wear a distinctive red hat and were frequently brutalized.

In the very first scene, Shylock civilly greets Antonio in a market square, who responds by spitting in Shylock’s face.

But ultimately, it is the talent of Pacino (who played another reviled Jew, Roy Cohn of McCarthy infamy, in HBO’s “Angels in America”) who elevates Shylock from a two-dimensional, vengeful villain to a fully fleshed, tortured and humiliated human being.

In the classic monologue, “Hath not a Jew eyes?” to the closing, “The villainy you teach me I will execute,” Pacino conveys centuries of hurt and persecution.

And in the final scene, a distraught, impoverished Shylock, forced to convert to Christianity, stands bareheaded outside a synagogue — as always, the eternal outsider.

“The Merchant of Venice” opens at theaters nationwide on Dec. 29.

 

Doc Links Teacher to Mysterious Death


Czech officials plan to shelve an investigation into the mysterious death of a top American Jewish official nearly 40 years ago, despite suspicions that he may have been murdered.

The Office for the Documentation and Investigation of Communist Crimes is considering dropping the case of Charles Jordan for lack of evidence — even though officials say they are now "investigating the suspicion of the crime of murder."

The move comes as a team of Czech investigative journalists claims to have uncovered fresh evidence since they made a television documentary about Jordan’s death last year.

The body of Jordan, vice president of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), was found floating in the Vltava River close to the Charles Bridge on Aug. 20, 1967, four days after he disappeared from the Esplanade Hotel in central Prague.

Jordan apparently had told his wife he was going to buy a pack of cigarettes, but no one saw him leave the hotel.

Investigators decided to focus on the murder theory last October, three weeks after the documentary presented new leads.

They concluded that it’s unlikely that Jordan — who had a fear of water and was unable to swim — chose to commit suicide by throwing himself into the Vltava. It was "highly improbable" that Jordan’s drowning was the result of an accident, they said.

The documentary, "Father of the Refugees," claimed that the Czech secret service was heavily involved in Jordan’s death, which came two months after Israel’s stunning victory over several Arab armies in the 1967 Six-Day War.

Jordan, an expert on refugees, allegedly was trying to make secret deals with Arab and Communist regimes, buying freedom for Jews who lived there.

The documentary suggests that Jordan may have made enemies because of a groundbreaking plan to rehabilitate Palestinian refugees, which he was due to present at the United Nations a week after his death.

The documentary makers have presented new evidence to the Office for the Documentation and Investigation of Communist Crimes suggesting a strong Arab link to Jordan’s death.

Martin Smok, co-author of "Father of the Refugees," said the evidence emerged when a new witness came forward after the documentary.

According to Smok, the new witness said that his former schoolteacher, Marie Podloucka, with whom he had a "strong relationship," had told him repeatedly that on the night of Jordan’s disappearance she allowed some Arab "commandos" to access the Esplanade Hotel via her apartment, which was next door.

She also allegedly claimed to have helped drag Jordan’s unconscious body out of her flat.

Smok said the witness also claimed Podloucka told him she had hidden "the Arab students who participated in the murder at her country house," and that "the Egyptian embassy had something to do with the whole action."

Smok said a subsequent review of the criminal investigation file from 1967 showed a reference to a disturbance involving some Arabs at Podloucka’s home, which was described as having "direct access to the Esplanade Hotel."

Smok said investigators apparently showed no interest in following up the lead, instead threatening him for not revealing his source’s name.

"I am being punished for sharing information with them, which if they were willing to perform any work on it could lead to the names of Jordan’s murderers within a couple of weeks," Smok said.

But Jan Srb, a spokesman for the Office for the Documentation and Investigation of Communist Crimes, or UDV, said the case would be shelved for lack of evidence.

"The case should have been shelved last year," Srb said. "On orders of the state prosecutor, the UDV examined some information from the film. It didn’t bring anything new."

The JDC’s country director for the Czech Republic, Yechiel Bar-Chaim, said in a statement that the committee "is keenly interested in seeing all new leads in this case vigorously pursued. We believe that the current status of this investigation for the murder of one of our top officials continues to be worthy of public interest."

But documentary director Petr Bok said he was not surprised by Czech authorities’ apparent lack of enthusiasm to continue investigating Jordan’s death.

"This case is perhaps a Pandora’s box involving secret-service games and the Middle East. It’s still a hot topic today," he said.

"Father of the Refugees" screens May 5, 7:30 p.m. at the University of Judaism’s Gindi Auditorium, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Bel Air. To R.S.V.P., call (310) 440-1222.

Israeli Movies Break in With Self-Criticism


The news that three Israeli movies are about to open at local commercial theaters may not shake the foundations of Hollywood, but for the small Israeli film industry, it’s a big breakthrough.

For years, Israeli producers have been trying to show their wares to American audiences, beyond the limited Jewish film festivals. With few exceptions, American distributors, the crucial middlemen, have not been willing to risk their time and money on Hebrew-language pictures.

Distributors usually cite the alleged American public aversion to subtitled movies and, truth be told, the production values and storylines of most Israeli films haven’t been all that great.

The opening of “Broken Wings” on March 12, “James’ Journey to Jerusalem” on March 26 and “Alila” in April may not yet herald a new era, but surely it is an encouraging sign for the younger Israeli directors coming to the fore.

One aspect is common to all three films. They focus on family, neighborhood or domestic social problems, with only the most tangential references to terrorism, suicide bombers and other events that define the image of Israel for most of the world. The films are also, at least in Diaspora eyes, unsparing in the criticism of their own society.

“Broken Wings,” which won awards at international festivals in Berlin, Tokyo and Jerusalem, is being released by the prestigious Sony Pictures Classics.

A first feature by 34-year-old director-writer Nir Bergman, it chronicles the dissentions and, ultimately, loves of the Ullman family of Haifa, whose father died recently after a prosaic bee sting.

The tragedy leaves it up to the 43-year-old mother Dafna, superbly played by Orli Zilbershatz-Banai, to keep her family afloat by working nightshifts as a hospital midwife. During the day, she deals with her two teenagers and two younger kids, who have all been traumatized, in one way or the other, by the father’s death.

Much of the responsibility for looking after her siblings falls on 17-year-old Maya, who is torn between a budding career as a singer-composer and her unwelcome home duties.

Frequently agonizing, in the end the film finds the family healing and coming together.

“James’ Journey to Jerusalem,” which might be subtitled “An Innocent Abroad” or “Candide Meets the Israelis,” is likely to be enjoyed most by American audiences.

The title character is a young black from a remote and devoutly Christian village in Africa, who is chosen by his tribe to journey to the heavenly Jerusalem of the Bible and report back on the wonders he has seen.

Starry-eyed and wild-haired, James arrives in the Holy Land only to be clapped into jail as an illegal immigrant. He is bailed out by the boss of a house-cleaning service for wealthy Tel Avivians, but as a fast learner, James quickly organizes his fellow Africans into his own service crew.

Despite the film’s humor, Diaspora Jews are bound to wince as James makes his way in an Israel where everybody cheats a little and the greatest fear is to be played for a frayer, or sucker.

“Alila” is by veteran filmmaker Amos Gitai, who has been getting under the skin of his countrymen for 20 years with movies that dissect their warts, prejudices and insecurities.

Set in a shabby apartment building in a rundown Tel Aviv neighborhood, “Alila” is populated by a dozen characters who battle each other and their surroundings for survival and a small share of happiness.

As Israelis of many backgrounds, they fight and stick their noses in each other’s businesses, but when the chips are down they come together and lend a hand.

Why are Israeli films beginning to enjoy greater exposure in the United States? Why do they seem to focus on personal problems, in contrast to such recent political Palestinian movies as “Divine Intervention” or “Rana’s Wedding,” which deal, quite cleverly, with life under the occupation?

We put the question to director Bergman of “Broken Wings,” during his visit to Los Angeles last week; Ra’anan Alexandrowicz, the young director of “James’ Journey”; and Dan Fainaru, a veteran Israeli movie critic and editor of the magazine Cinematech.

Bergman believes that Israeli films are getting better, thanks largely to directors who trained in Israel’s many university film schools and who cut their teeth on television productions.

A second factor is money. Practically all Israeli producers draw their budgets from national, municipal or private support funds, and despite the harsh economic conditions, the subsidies have been going up.

As a result, more feature films are being made — close to 20 this year compared to half that number a few years back — increasing the chances that a few will be first rate.

The second question, on the personal focus of Israeli films, is harder to answer.

“In the 1980s, we had a lot of movies on Jewish-Arab relations, usually from a left liberal perspective, and Israeli audiences stayed away,” Fainaru said.

“We see news about terrorism and politics on television every hour on the hour, while our documentaries deal with the same subjects,” he added. “We don’t need any more of that when we pay a babysitter to go to the movie theaters.”

When Israelis really want to get away from it all for two hours, they go to see foreign films, overwhelmingly American, which account for a staggering 95 percent of attendance and box-office receipts, Fainaru said.

Alexandrowicz doesn’t think that Israeli pictures are too self-critical. “It’s my country and I love it,” he said. “But I think it’s healthy to put a mirror in front of your own society.”

Bergman defends his own focus on family life. “Since Rabin’s assassination, Israel has become a different country,” he said. “Now every family is a country of its own.”

From a Los Angeles perspective, Paul Fagen, the chief programmer for the upcoming Israel Film Festival, sees a quality improvement in the pictures he is checking out now.

“There have been a few lean years,” Fagen said. “But now the stories are more universally human and we have a very strong lineup.”

“Broken Wings” opens March 12 at Laemmle’s Music Hall inBeverly Hills and the Town Center in Encino. “James’ Journey to Jerusalem” opensMarch 26 at the same venues and the Playhouse in Pasadena. The exact April dateand location for “Alila” will be announced soon. For more information, visit www.laemmle.com .

Gibson Film Doesn’t Star Anti-Semitism


Before saying what is wrong and what is right with Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” let’s get out of the way the question that is on everyone’s mind. Now that the film has opened, it will become clear to regular moviegoers who have heard of the controversy — furiously fanned by those enterprising fundraisers at the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) — that no, the film is not anti-Semitic.

It does not show Jews per se in a uniquely nasty light. Depicting the final 12 hours of Jesus’ life, it portrays all humanity, except for the few earnest followers of Jesus, in an exceptionally ugly fashion.

The Roman soldiers who mercilessly, endlessly scourge Jesus with clawed whips, laughing and wiping drool from their mouths the whole time, are no less disgustingly portrayed than the proud, callous, foolish Jewish priests who demand that the Roman governor take the torture to the next level: crucifixion.

When Gibson has the crucified Jesus cast an eye up to heaven, the director orients the camera so that the big, round chocolate-brown eye is looking straight at us all in the audience, accusing humanity. Moments later, when Jesus is taken down from the cross, his mother cradles him in her arms, and she looks directly at us in the audience, again casting the accusing eye.

But the fact that “The Passion” isn’t anti-Semitic doesn’t make it an effective piece of filmmaking. The bad news is that Gibson’s motion picture manages to be sadistically violent and somewhat boring at the same time.

It would be hard to know, just from the portrayal in this film, what it was that made Jesus a personality so special as to inspire one of the world’s great religions. The fact that he died in agony? That’s it?

In a quick flashback to the Sermon on the Mount, he is shown endorsing love of one’s enemy, and in a flashback to the Last Supper, he commands his followers to love each other. That exhausts Gibson’s depiction of Jesus as teacher of timeless spiritual truths.

The whole rest of the movie is taken up with depicting Jesus’ grotesque and minutely shown final agonies. When in the course of the very long scourging scene, a claw on one of whips wielded by his Roman tormentors gets stuck in his bloodied flesh and has to pulled out, I thought: OK, enough. But that was only about halfway through the movie.

It is very hard to see how anyone is going to be uplifted by this. Frankly, I’m a little worried about a non-anti-Semitic lunatic getting it into his head to bludgeon some innocent person of any or no religion like Gibson’s Romans do to Jesus.

This alone isn’t a reason not to have made his movie. Who could have predicted that “Taxi Driver” would inspire John Hinckley to try to assassinate Ronald Reagan?

But Gibson ought to have known that there’s a good reason why sensitive people avoid violent films: Watching this stuff, however noble or spiritual or religious the filmmaker’s intentions, coarsens the soul.

Specifically, contrary to Gibson’s intent, “The Passion” seems unlikely to inspire personal repentance. For all the realism of the violence, the rest of the film is highly unrealistic, in such a way that no one who sees it — unless he’s a psycho killer — is going to recognize himself in Gibson’s narrative and feel moved to control himself and stop hurting other people.

The cruelties in our lives, the hurts we inflict, the acts of unfaithfulness to others and to God are many, but they are simply of a different character than nailing a man’s hands to a cross.

As for the part the Jewish priestly establishment plays, arresting Jesus and turning him over to the Romans, their villainy is unrecognizable, because it makes no sense. We’re supposed to believe the Temple priests are after Jesus because he’s got some big, dangerous following that’s going to crown him Messiah, but nowhere do these massively numbered followers ever make an appearance.

From all the evidence of “The Passion,” Jesus had about 10 disciples, 20 max. So why were certain Jews in the New Testament’s telling so intent on seeing him dead? Gibson has no idea.

I mentioned that there is something right about “The Passion.” In at least trying to make a film that depicts his own faith not as a golden dream fantasy but as a reality — an event that actually happened in history, complete with dialogue in the ancient language Jesus really spoke (Aramaic) — Gibson has done something daring, even heroic. The juxtaposition of the Aramaic dialogue in particular, beautifully achieved, with the Caravaggio-esque spooky atmosphere of certain scenes is genuinely thrilling. There is art here, and that fact will move other artists. The importance of his movie lies in the new wave of religiously and even biblically inspired films it will help launch.

He has shown other filmmakers it can be done, and not even the ADL can stop you. This is going to be interesting.


David Klinghoffer is a columnist for The Jewish Journal and The Forward and author of the forthcoming “Why the Jews Rejected Christ: In Search of the Turning Point in Western History” (Doubleday).

Hitler’s Conductor: Man or Monster?


On opening night of Ronald Harwood’s "Taking Sides," revolving around Hitler’s favorite conductor, viewers accosted the playwright. A woman said, ‘How could you do this to such a great artist?’" Harwood recalled. "Then a man grabbed me and said, ‘Wilhelm Furtwängler was an absolute s—.’ So I thought I’d done my job rather well."

His 1996 play, now an Istvan Szabo film, pits Furtwängler against a brash fictional American interrogator out to nail "Hitler’s bandleader" in denazification proceedings.

In the film, Furtwängler (Stellan Skarsgård) insists he remained in Germany rather than cede his culture to the Nazis and that he used his clout to save Jews.

Maj. Steve Arnold (Harvey Keitel) counters that Furtwängler made only token efforts at resistance while supporting the murderers, including performing at Hitler’s birthday. In return, the maestro enjoyed a lavish lifestyle and numerous mistresses.

Speaking from his London home, the droll, precise Harwood — who won a screenwriting Oscar for "The Pianist" — said he tried not to take sides while writing the play and the film.

"I attempted to make both arguments compelling because I want viewers to ask themselves what they would have done in Furtwängler’s place," he said. "’Was protesting from the inside a legitimate moral response to Hitler? Can art remain separate from politics?’ These are some of the questions I want people to explore."

The film is the latest in a body of work on the moral ambiguities of the period, including Michael Frayn’s play, "Copenhagen" and Tim Blake Nelson’s Auschwitz-themed drama, "The Grey Zone."

Harwood’s analysis of an artist’s responsibility under a dictatorship personally resonated for the Hungarian Szabo ("Sunshine"), who survived the communists and won a 1981 Oscar for "Mephisto," about a Nazi-era actor.

"The audience must be able to pick up on the contemporary dilemma in the conflict," he said of "Taking Sides." "Is it right and justifiable to survive a dictatorship by compromises?"

Harwood continued to field criticism as the film opened in New York earlier this month.

"I still get angry letters from people saying I’ve got it all wrong," he said. "Many Americans in particular can’t bear Maj. Arnold, whom they regard as a caricature, a bully, a Philistine. But I always point out that he’s the only character in the entire piece who talks about the dead. Everyone else talks about art and music and culture, but Arnold has seen the carnage at Belsen and it haunts him."

Harwood (né Horwitz), 68, was similarly haunted by concentration camp footage he saw in his native South Africa at age 12.

"The Reform synagogue took all the Jewish children to see these awful newsreels, and it had a terrible effect on me," he said. "I had nightmares, and it’s scarred me all my life."

Meanwhile, Harwood’s father, who had fled Lithuanian pogroms, regarded apartheid as someone else’s problem.

"He’d say, ‘Just thank God it isn’t us,’" the author said. "It was a prevalent sentiment among Jewish refugees in Cape Town after the war. But it seemed to me that oppressed people should care about the fate of other oppressed people."

Harwood, for his part, wrote several anti-apartheid novels after moving to England to attend the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in 1951. After his 1980 play, "The Dresser," was made into an Oscar-nominated film, he served as president of the human rights organization International PEN.

But eventually, he began to feel uneasy about taking sides from a distance.

"It was quite fashionable and risk free to criticize South Africa from London," he said wryly. "I was extremely brave, from 6,000 miles away."

Harwood wondered how outspoken he would have been had he lived in a totalitarian society — which is why he was riveted by a 1994 book on Furtwängler’s dilemma.

"I loved the ambiguity of his case," said the author, who views Hitler’s favorite filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl as an "unabashed Nazi."

He went on to comb archives for denazification transcripts and to interview officials who had supervised such proceedings.

"They were morally brutal," he said. "They bullied people, and they did behave in an extreme way. But they had just seen the camps, and no one in the world had seen that before."

After director Roman Polanski saw "Taking Sides" in Paris, he asked the author to write another film involving music and the Holocaust, 2003’s "The Pianist." But even Polanski doesn’t know which side Harwood personally takes regarding Furtwängler.

"Look, I won’t even tell my wife," Harwood said.

"Of course, I might leave a little note to be opened after my death," he added, coyly. "But I want audience members to make up their own minds. I don’t want them to think I’m plugging a line."

The film opens today in Los Angeles.

The Circuit


Family Man

“There are three major religions and they all say the same thing: ‘You honor others and you will have others honor just as you do.'”

So sayeth Spartacus himself — Kirk Douglas — during a one-on-one discussion with Rabbi David Wolpe following a benefit screening on April 9 at Sinai Temple of his latest film, “It Runs in the Family.”

Douglas, 87, has played in more than 80 movies. Of those, Douglas said he liked only 22, and among them he ranked David Miller’s 1962 drama, “Lonely Are the Brave,” as his best.

“It Runs in the Family” — the story of three generations of a dysfunctional New York family coming together — signals several firsts: Douglas got to co-star opposite his son, Michael Douglas, and grandson, Cameron, 14, appearing in his first acting role. Douglas also got the opportunity to act once again with his ex-wife, Diana Douglas.

“It was very easy to play with Michael. Michael is a very good actor,” said proud papa Douglas, who also called Cameron “a natural talent.”

Actingwise, Douglas has led a charmed life, working with such legendary directors as Billy Wilder and Stanley Kubrick. His life off screen, however, has been marred by tragedy that has fueled his recent gravitation toward his Jewish faith. With Wolpe, he openly discussed his love of Torah, surviving a helicopter crash and a stroke, and the subsequent memoir, “Stroke of Luck,” those experiences informed.

“I think I am very lucky,” Douglas said. “In the helicopter crash, two young people were killed and I survived. I said to myself, ‘Why am I alive?’ Then my stroke happened, but I survived. I think that the most important thing that has happened to me is what my mother and my father did to come from Russia to America and give me the chance to do something. I am grateful for what they did.”

So grateful, Douglas named his production company after his mother, Brina.

“I was born in poverty,” Douglas said. “We did not have enough to eat; my parents were peasants from Russia. My son, Michael, was born in a much better situation. Now my grandson is in a much, much better situation.”

Douglas even weighed in on politics, noting that he did not vote for President Bush, but admitting that he supported the war effort.

“I think people already have forgotten Sept. 11,” Douglas said, “when we were attacked and 3,000 people were killed. America is the only superpower. It must make it happen to get rid of terrorism. And I think this war has only been the start of it.”

Overall, he said, making “It Runs in the Family” was a positive, bonding experience for the Douglas clan.

“I was very pleased to make the movie,” Douglas said, “because with all that is happening in the world today, with our troops far off, and while we waited for them to come back to their families, I thought it was very appropriate to make a movie about family, about the love that there is within a family and to show how important it is.” — Mojdeh Sionit, Contributing Writer

Building in the ‘Bu

The Malibu Jewish Center, which offers religious schooling, adult education and other services at the affluent beachside community, honored Jack Friedman for his support of the center at its 23rd annual Hard Hat Ball at the Hotel Casa Del Mar in Santa Monica on May 4. Friedman has been instrumental in helping the trailer-based center, which has never had its own permanent temple or offices, build a new temple, currently in progress.

His and Hearse Drawing Praise

David Rose, veteran illustrator and media graphic artist with numerous one-man shows on his resume, was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Society of Illustrators of Los Angeles. Rose was cited for “outstanding contributions to the graphic arts and print media of the world, and in exemplifying the highest tradition of excellence in his field.” — Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

Broadcast News

Jewish Television Network (JTN) appointed Jayne Braiman Rothblatt as its new vice president of development. Rothblatt recently served as director of development and public relations for Vista del Mar Child and Family Services. At Vista del Mar, Rothblatt was responsible for the $2 million annual appeal. JTN was founded in 1981 as an independent, 501(c)(3) nonprofit production and distribution company — the only producer of Jewish television in the United States.