In defense of optimism

When I was learning Hebrew, I asked an Israeli friend the word for “optimistic.”

Optimi,” he said.

“There’s no native word?” I asked.

“Well,” he asked back, “why would we need one?”

It doesn’t come easy to us Jews, this thing called optimism. And this year we seem to be in a particularly dark mood. Anti-Semitism is rising in parts of Europe (again). A quarter of America’s Jewish college students report having been harassed because they’re Jewish. Terrorists continue to seek out Jewish targets here and abroad.

So it’s easy to look forward with dread, to gather in our nice homes and fine restaurants, in our safe neighborhoods and ornate banquet halls, and speak to one another about how we’re doomed and it’s all going to hell. 

But our predisposition to pessimism clouds our ability not just to see what is working, but to focus and build on it. You want to know the four words that will get you instantly ostracized from a Jewish conversation? “Things aren’t so bad.”

Go ahead, try saying them one day at your cocktail party or conference. Heads will turn. You’ll hear stifled laughter. People will whisper: “Who let that child out of his room?”

But here’s what you might point out about the year that was, in defense of optimism:

Big oil is hurting

For those of us who have been saying for decades that our dependence on foreign oil is the single greatest threat to our security and environment, this has been a very good year.

A year and a half ago, oil was selling for more than $100 a barrel. Now it is hanging on at $40. That has thrown exporters such as Venezuela, Russia and Saudi Arabia into dire straits, and it couldn’t happen to a nicer bunch of countries.

This week, Saudi Arabia released a 2016 budget that showed an $87 billion deficit. At this rate, the country will blow through its foreign currency reserves by 2020. The country that, as columnist Douglas Bloomfield has pointed out, has fewer female drivers than Israel has female fighter pilots, either will have to modernize or go back to the Bronze Age.

Alt energy is booming

One reason for the oil bust is the bull market in domestic production and alternative energy. The Climate Change Agreement signed in December in France by major powers and developing countries — one of the most hopeful stories of the decade, let alone the year — will energize an already flourishing market in wind, solar and other sustainable energy sources. 

Iran is stopped — for now

This week, Iran completed shipping the majority of its enriched uranium stock to Russia, fulfilling the first part of last summer’s historic agreement to deprive the Shiite theocracy of nuclear weapons. That means Iran’s breakout time to a nuke has gone from almost zero to nine months, and is expected to extend further. Yes, it also means Iran will get back $100 billion in frozen assets and can sell oil on the international market, but see No. 1 above.

And true, Iran might still cheat and wreak havoc, but so far we are safer than if the deal had fallen through and Iran raced to the bomb.

ISIS is losing

The publishers of Dabiq magazine were run out of the Iraqi city of Ramadi this week, and experts predict ISIS will not be able to hold on to the larger city of Mosul. Nothing is worse for recruitment than humiliating defeat. That inexorable march to the caliphate? Kaput.

Love is winning

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that all states must allow same-sex marriages. From Ireland to Mexico to Japan, something that seemed so unlikely in 1990 has become so inevitable in 2015 (same with legalized pot, just saying). Popular culture has proudly led the way toward greater acceptance. Ten years ago a lesbian kiss on TV was groundbreaking; now television’s best show, “Transparent,” is expanding society’s embrace even more.

Terror is temporary

The year began badly. On Jan. 7, 2015, two Muslim terrorists in Paris killed 12 people and injured 11 others at the Charlie Hebdo satirical newspaper. The reaction was a display of unity across France and around the world. Terror has never and will never fully go away, but “Je suis Charlie” — “I am Charlie” — proved that societies have the power to survive and face it down.

The gun lobby is on the ropes

Up to and including San Bernardino, there were 57 mass shooting across the United States in 2015, incidents in which three or more people died in a spasm of gun violence. But these mass shootings have also invigorated the long-dormant gun control movement. “We’re seeing much more forceful political mobilization on the gun control issue than we had seen in decades,” Second Amendment expert Adam Winkler told me after the San Bernardino killings.

To recap: Things aren’t all bad. By any objective standard, Israel is stronger militarily and economically, and American Jews are more successful, free and influential today than at any time in our history. So let’s take a breath, relax and recite together in Yiddish:

Ven me zol Got danken far guts, volt nit zein kain tseit tsu baklogen zikh oif shlechts.

“If we thanked God for the good things, there wouldn’t be time to weep over the bad.”

Here’s to 2016.

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @foodaism.

Optimism, Concern Among Jewish Donors

As more than 200 major funders of Jewish nonprofits gathered in Phoenix this week, most of the signs of the economic carnage of the past 18 months appeared to be waning.

They came for the annual conference of the Jewish Funders Network, held Sunday through Tuesday at the Arizona Biltmore Hotel. The meeting was accompanied by a general sense that financial markets had stabilized and, with them, charitable giving. Many coming off difficult years appeared optimistic.

“We certainly hit a low tide, but I am not gloomy and pessimistic,” Evan Schlessinger, former chairman of the now-defunct Jewish Family & Life, said. “The tide is coming back in, and this has helped us focus.”

There were other signs at the Biltmore that the darkest of days for nonprofits may be over. According to JFN’s polling, 33 percent of participants said they would increase their giving to Jewish causes this year, while 61 percent said they haven’t reduced giving to Jewish causes over the past year.

But there remained concern that more Jewish nonprofits may be at risk of collapse. For some of the major players in the Jewish nonprofit world, last year was disappointing, and there is fear that this year could be just as bad — or worse.

Phyllis Cook, who advises a number of the country’s largest givers, said this year may be “tougher and more painful.” Nonprofits have seen a 20 to 30 percent decrease in funds, she estimated. And there is still work to be done making up for years of misspent charitable dollars.

“We let too many flowers grow,” Cook said, “and there may have to be a weeding out.”

Jeff Solomon, president of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Family Foundation, said money set aside for charity is akin to discretionary money, and thus spending it is largely tied to confidence in the economy. Now that the economy is bouncing back, many at the lower end of the large donor spectrum — those who give between $25,000 and $100,000 — are feeling more confident than they have since the recession began.

But on the spectrum’s high end, those who have seen foundations with hundreds of millions of dollars take huge hits are probably not going to increase their allocations over the next year, Solomon predicted. In fact, he said, the Council on Foundations predicted that foundations will not reach their 2007 levels of giving — their peak before the recession — until about 2017.

Despite lingering concerns, the mood at the conference was far more optimistic than last year, when the Jewish world’s major donors — those who give anywhere from $25,000 to upwards of $25 million per year — gathered in St. Petersburg, Fla., just weeks after Wall Street saw the bottom of the recession, and just months after Bernard Madoff admitted to bilking billions from investors. The big news then was not who had given money over the previous year, but who would not give money in the following year, as rumors swirled of foundations being shut down and of major philanthropists cutting back on giving.

One of the country’s largest Jewish foundations — the Jim Joseph Foundation, worth about $800 million — tried to inspire other mega donors to step forward with emergency funding by making available an $11 million emergency gift to help five communities deal with the high cost of Jewish education. A year later, the foundation’s president and CEO, Chip Edelsberg, said there had been only “modest response” to its laying down of the philanthropic gauntlet.

“There is a bundle of money out there sitting on the sidelines,” Edelsberg said. “The market just had the best first quarter it has had in 10 years, there are signs of recovery, and there has been a recuperation of funds. It is an empirical fact. And the conventional wisdom is that foundations might have recovered a significant portion of what they lost.”

In the meantime, organizations are suffering.

Last week, a Jewish day school in Memphis closed. Not long ago, the Jewish Federation of the Silicon Valley had to collateralize a $1.2 million loan to keep open another day school.

In his annual address, JFN President Mark Charendoff pushed donors to free up money.

“At this moment, $550 billion is sitting in private foundations in America, and yet we are using only 5 percent of it,” he said. “We need to figure out how to change this equation. How can we get the other 95 percent of our money working for us?”

Charendoff suggested that foundations don’t necessarily have to give out more grants. Rather, they can look for ways to use their endowments, such as extending loans to Jewish groups to help them expand and providing growth capital to young organizations that they would pay back when they mature.

Habonim spirit influences work of director Mike Leigh in ‘Happy-Go-Lucky’

Director Mike Leigh may be known as a bit of a curmudgeon, but he refuses to see his new film, “Happy-Go-Lucky,” which revolves around a relentlessly optimistic teacher, as a departure.

The 65-year-old British writer-director is famous for gritty realism in movies such as “Naked,” about a strangely metaphysical angry young man, and “Vera Drake,” about a 1950s illegal abortionist, for which he received one of his five Oscar nominations. He’s also known for working without a script, instead encouraging his actors to improvise. A comedy sketch apparently has parodied his movies by depicting characters sitting around and grunting.

Leigh has little patience for such parodies and even less for critics who marvel about “Happy-Go-Lucky” as “a change of pace” for the director.

“Rubbish,” he says of such reviews, hunching in his chair and folding his arms during an interview at the Four Seasons Hotel here. “This movie has all the elements of a ‘Mike Leigh’ film because I cannot get away from making a Mike Leigh film. All my work combines a balance between the humorous and the pathetic.”

He says he traces this point of view to his Jewish upbringing in Manchester, though he now leads a secular life and eschews organized religion.

The idea for “Happy-Go-Lucky” began when Leigh was pondering the gloom-and-doom atmosphere after Sept. 11.

“I thought, ‘Now’s the time to make an “anti-miserablist” film about people who are living their lives and getting on with it,'” he says.

The main character, Poppy (Sally Hawkins), gets on with her life even as she encounters a seething driving instructor (Eddie Marsan), who eventually stalks her; a mentally ill transient; a bullying student; and her dour sisters.

“She is an optimistic character, but more importantly, she is a ‘positivist,'” Leigh explains. “Poppy is someone who looks things in the eye, who deals with difficult matters as they arise, who is open and nonjudgmental. She cares and is motivated by her love for people … but none of these things in a soppy, sloppy or sentimental way.”

The movie received good reviews when it premiered at the 2008 Berlin International Film Festival, where Hawkins won the best actress award, and it marks a milestone of sorts for Leigh. At 65, he has some 20 plays and almost as many films under his belt, of which 10 have been released in a DVD box set this year (some for the first time).

A series of conversations with Amy Raphael make up the new book, “Mike Leigh on Mike Leigh,” which will hit stores in the United States this month. In the interviews, Leigh reveals previously guarded secrets about his filmmaking techniques, as well as candid reflections on his heritage, including comments on how some Jews pretend not to be Jewish.

Fear of being singled out as Jewish is more pronounced among British than American Jews, he suggests in person.

The trailer

“I was in New York recently, and if you come from London and you’re Jewish, it is remarkable to be somewhere where Rosh Hashanah is virtually a public holiday. Everything closes down…. It’s like a version of the ‘Yiddish Policemen’s Union,'” he says, citing Michael Chabon’s novel about a Jewish settlement in Alaska. “The point is that we are used to being this relatively closeted minority, but I have to qualify this statement by reminding you that I have spent so much of my life not really being a part of the Jewish scene.”

Leigh’s Yiddish-speaking paternal grandfather was born Meyer Lieberman (later Anglicized to “Leigh”) in what is now Belarus and arrived in England as “part of the great Jewish emigration west,” the director says. “Actually he had a ticket to New York, but he stopped off to see some people in Manchester and decided to sell the remainder of his ticket, and he stayed — how dramatic that sounds! Had he not done that, he wouldn’t have met my grandmother, and therefore I would not exist in the form that you now meet me.”

Leigh’s physician father and midwife mother met through Habonim, the Labor Zionist youth movement, in 1936. Mike Leigh, in turn, became a Habonim leader and traveled with the group to Israel on a ship as a teenager. The experience had a dramatic effect on his future work as an artist: “The atmosphere was one of chevrah, of sharing, openness and coming together — of making things happen by colluding — which describes the spirit of how I work with actors and the atmosphere of my rehearsals.”

But when Leigh returned to the United Kingdom, his overriding goal was to immerse himself in the theater. While attending the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, he played down his background to escape being stereotyped.

“If you’re perceived as the ‘Jewish’ filmmaker — particularly since that was not the agenda I was concerned with — it could only get in the way, so therefore, I was not interested in talking about it,” he says matter-of-factly.

Leaving the chevra of Habonim wasn’t difficult, he suggests, because he had never intended to pursue Jewish religion or culture.

“I walked away from the Jewish world at 17 — I couldn’t wait,” he says. ” I was eating bacon and pork at an early age; I lived a completely secular existence.”

Leigh directed his first feature film, “Bleak Moments,” in 1971, and in the 1990s made a splash on the international scene with movies such as “Naked” and “Secrets & Lies.”

“Mike Leigh’s work, as filmmaker and playwright, has always seemed to be about Englishness, about the turmoil and pain that lies beneath the veneer of ordinary lives,” an article in the Guardian said of him.

So it came as a shock to some when his comedy-drama, “Two Thousand Years,” which opened at the National Theatre in London in 2005, revolved around members of a Labor Zionist family as they argued about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and what it means to be Jewish.

“Here’s my Jewish play,” he wrote in his introduction to the published script. “I’ve been threatening to do it for years, but I haven’t felt ready until now.”

Leigh had been commissioned to write something for the company, which he perceives as “a forum for ideas,” and used that as an opportunity to reflect upon his upbringing and his disappointment with Israel and its policies.

Like all of Leigh’s work, the script was created in an atmosphere of secrecy, via conversations with individual actors, who were told as little as possible about the other characters until improvisations began. The topic of the play remained unknown to the public (and even to theater officials) until the production went into rehearsals. Nevertheless, Leigh’s fame ensured that tickets sold out within minutes of going on sale.

Leigh says he selected only Jewish actors for “Two Thousand Years” so they could bring their personal experiences to the table.

“That kind of casting is central to the way I work,” he explains. “You can’t just say, ‘Well, anyone can do this; you just have to learn the lines and stand in front of the camera.’ It’s a creative process where an actor comes in with nothing, and I work with them, and we create a character from scratch.”

Critics were so surprised by the play’s content that headlines referred to the author’s Jewish background as Mike Leigh’s “secret.”

“It was like, ‘Hey, he was a closet Yid,’ which is nonsense,” the director says with a laugh.

These days, he has a dual take on his heritage: “I am fundamentally upset by religion; I think it’s deeply unhealthy,” he says. “I’m a totally spiritual person but entirely unreligious. But I have Jewish roots; I am Jewish, and that’s why I dealt with it in ‘Two Thousand Years.’ And indeed there is an unquestionably tragicomic dimension to my work, which it would be disingenuous to not own up to being pretty Jewish.”

“Happy-Go-Lucky” opens Oct. 10 in Los Angeles.

The Six-Day War changed Israel’s film industry forever

Consider Thorold Dickinson’s 1954 film, “Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer,” and Baruch Dinar’s landmark 1960 drama, “They Were Ten.”

Each film has a tragic ending in which the death of Zionist patriots is a necessary prelude to the founding of a Jewish state.

Then look at Uri Zohar’s “Every Bastard a King” and Joseph Millo’s “He Walked Through the Fields,” both made late in 1967 (although the latter is set in 1948), both guardedly upbeat, with heroic protagonists who cheerfully rush through shot and shell to victory.

That, in a nutshell, is the difference that the Six-Day War made to some Israeli filmmakers.

Of course, this is a gross oversimplification that does an injustice to both Zohar and Millo, but in essence, the remarkable and swift victory of Israeli forces in 1967 tore a veil of insecurity off the standard cinematic discourse around issues of Zionism and personal self-sacrifice and gave the nation’s filmmakers the right to a certain heroic panache without-guilt. It was a sunny day that lasted only a short while, ended by the storms of the Yom Kippur War a mere six years later, but it was quite real.

Amy Kronish, in her useful book, “World Cinema: Israel” (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1996), offers those two films and Gilberto Tofano’s “Siege” as primary examples of the treatment of post-war issues in films of the period. As she observes, “These three dramas, produced in the wake of the war, are thematically dissimilar — one portrays a swashbuckling Israeli hero, one is a psychological study of the loneliness of a war widow and one examines the pioneering generation of the War of Independence. However, all three reflect the post-war obsession with military and security issues and the societal need to come to terms with the new feelings of both euphoria and ambivalence, which were a result of the war.”

It would take the disaster of the Yom Kippur War, compounded by the trauma of ministering the occupied territories and the increase in levels of terrorist violence against Israelis at home and abroad, to change the tone to something darker. A film as bleak and as pointedly anti-violence as Ilan Moshenson’s “The Wooden Gun” probably couldn’t have been made before 1979, just as a triumphalist action film like Menachem Golan’s “The Big Escape” (1970) would have been inconceivable 10 years later.

However, there was another, less noticeable, effect on Israeli film in the aftermath of the war, one with a longer-lasting impact. With Israel suddenly looking like the greatest upset winner in the history of modern warfare and, for the moment, a vastly more secure nation, foreign filmmakers came to shoot in the country in abundance.

While the political winds were still favorable, Susan Sontag, Claude Lanzmann and Frederic Rossif each made documentaries about the future direction of the Jewish state. Hollywood, Cinecita and Paris rolled in their big guns, shooting Westerns like “Billy Two-Hats” and “Deadlock” or biblical epics like “Moses the Lawgiver” and “Jesus Christ Superstar” in Israel.

The overwhelming majority of these films are rightly forgotten. On the other hand, John Flynn’s underrated 1972 thriller, “The Jerusalem File,” is probably worth another look, and its assistant director, Yitzhak Yeshurun, would go on to direct one of the best Israeli films of the 1980s, “Noa at 17,” 10 years later.

Clearly, having professional crews with the best available technology working in Israel had to be an eye-opener for a lot of young men and women who were thinking about a career in moviemaking, and a few of them even found work on those sets. In addition to Yeshurun, there is Dov Seltzer, who composed the music for dozens of Menachem Golan’s films, wrote dance music for “Moses the Lawgiver,” and Ken Globus, who wrote several of Golan’s films, was a dialogue director on that miniseries. Eli Yarkoni was a boom operator on the sound crew of “Jesus Christ Superstar;” today he runs sound on dozens of Israeli films every year and has won four Israeli Academy Awards.

Perhaps the most important change in the Israeli film industry to follow in the wake of the Six-Day War, however, was not directly caused by that event but followed quickly on its heels: the establishment of Israel Television (ITV). In fact, Alan Rosenthal, an Anglo-Jewish documentary filmmaker who subsequently made aliyah and was instrumental in the formation of ITV, believes that its creation was a direct result of the war.

David Ben-Gurion had been a consistent and powerful opponent of a state-run television network, but with the Arab nations watching the war unfold in their living rooms (and the footage being used as a blunt instrument of propaganda by their governments), while Israelis were relying on radio, print and gossip, it became inevitable that even the most old-fashioned of Israeli leaders would have to bow to the inevitable technological change. With the war creating a hunger around the world for footage of the Middle East, independent production companies sprang up in Israel to fulfill that desire; the result was that Israelis were rapidly dragged into the last third of the 20th century.

Inevitably, for better and worse, television has become both a training ground for young talent and a source of employment for the veterans. If you look at the list of actors, directors, writers and technicians working on any major Israeli TV series, you will find the very top of the industry on display, more so than in most of the major film and television industries around the world. That is a function of the relative smallness of the Israeli industry compared to, for example, Italy’s or France’s, rather than a reflection of the comparative quality of Israel’s film and television productions.

Regardless of the cause, however, it is not at all farfetched to say that without the changes brought about by the Six-Day War, the glorious explosion of Israeli film in the past decade would not have happened. The winds of political change blow constantly, especially, it seems, in the Middle East, but there is no substitute for building an infrastructure, as Israeli filmmakers have found.

Light and Thanks

I spent most of this past week at the United Jewish Communities (UJC) General Assembly (GA), the annual gathering which, this year, brought nearly 4,000 Jewish communal representatives (and journalists) from North America, Israel and elsewhere overseas.

The GA is part sales seminar, part pep rally, part continuing education, and major schmoozefest. This year, it was also something else: befuddling. Spend a half-hour in the hallways between sessions and you get a sense of the intensity and vigor of contemporary Jewish life. A charged-up communal leader from Knoxville, Tenn., told me the Jewish community there is strong and active. The rabbi from Austin, Texas boasted of a beautiful, multimillion dollar new Jewish Community Center campus. The lay leader from Tulsa, Okla., said Jews there were active and involved, and activists from Boston, Chicago and New York talked a mile a minute about new projects, new organizations, new ventures.

But then there are the actual, big lectures, the plenary sessions that are meant to rally and inspire the troops. They are lugubrious: anti-Semitism in Europe, on campus, in Canada. Terror here and abroad. Crisis in Israel, in Argentina, in the economy. Outside the meeting rooms, strength and vigor; inside, doom and gloom. Outside, Candide; inside, Cassandra.

As one speaker went on (and on) about the tragedies confronting the Jews, I ducked into the hallway, where I bumped into Mort Klein, the head of the Zionist Organization of America. "What is this guy talking about?" said Klein. "On and on and on, all these tales of woe." He wasn’t being callous — he’s as aware of the tragedies as we all are — he just wanted to hear a call to action. Ease up on the hysteria and give it a little inspiration — and a little reality check.

The very people listening to the tales of woe are the very same lay and staff leaders whose fundraising efforts place UJC as the highest-ranking Jewish philanthropic organization in the United States, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy. They have access to the worlds of media, government and business unprecedented in the history of the Jewish people. They are, by almost any measure, stronger and more vibrant than at any other time in their history. As I write this it’s past midnight on the third day of the convention, the hotel lobby is still noisy with animated GA conversation, and a giant electronic scroll board over Center City reads, "WELCOME UNITED JEWISH COMMUNITIES!" Hardly the signposts of imminent doom.

Events are terrible, as the brutal Jerusalem bus bombing that Thursday morning showed. Israelis suffer daily under the fear and the reality of terror.

But even that reality doesn’t begin to describe the remarkable fact of Israel, its resilience and the daily achievements of its people. To cement Israelis in the American Jewish mind as nothing but victims-in-waiting is to demean the country and its people. To worry ourselves silly about media bias when the vast majority of news outlets editorialize in favor of Israel is almost indecently ignorant. To demand Jewry uncritically support Israel in these times, as some speakers did, negates Jewish and Zionist history. After all, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon couldn’t address the GA in person not because of pressing security concerns but because he is locked in a fierce election battle.

My sense is that most of the participants gathered information in the meeting rooms — and some of it was hopeful and upbeat — but a sense of perspective in the hallways.

The Thanksgiving/Chanukah doubleheader arrives then just in time. "Judaism is the religion of optimism," Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, author and spiritual leader of The Temple in Atlanta, told our contributing writer Rahel Musleah. "It’s about increasing the light." He reminds us that we’ve fashioned a holiday in which each night, we bring more light into the world. "The light gets stronger and serves as a weapon against the darkness," he said.

It demeans no one’s suffering — and there has been too much this past year — to also count our blessings. Happy Thanksgiving, and Happy Chanukah.