The ambition of Natalie Portman


Natalie Portman, once named Natalie Hershlag, is no stranger to ambition. She played her first critically lauded role at the tender age of 13, and just ascended from there (OK, true, her role in the Star War Trilogy was abysmal, but the whole endeavor was as well) culminating in an Academy Award for her work in “Black Swan.”

Now, she’s chosen to engage in her most ambitious attempt to date: adapting Amos Oz’s prize-winning, internationally beloved memoir “A Tale of Love and Darkness” (ATOLAD). Adaptations of literary work’s generally present more challenges than directing a regular movie, but Oz’s book presents its own set of  daunting challenges.

In ATOLAD, Oz paints a highly impressionistic and vivid world that spans from pre-Independence Palestine to contemporary times. Oz, with his characteristic blend of lyrical romanticism and keen psychological insight tells the story of the Jewish nation in diaspora and Israel, through the prism of the heartbreaking personal story of his extended family. The scope of the book feels like one of a history book, with the personal detail of an expansive family tree. Moreover, the book shifts back and forth through time, circling around Oz’s mother suicide. Portman, if she chooses to create a more linear narrative, will have to piece together the jumbled puzzle of the book, which consists more of tenuously connected anecdotes than a clear narrative.

Portman has never directed a feature-length film, though she has directed a short film, and was elected to serve as the youngest jury member at the Cannes Film Festival. She faces an steep uphill battle to pull this movie off. Yet, despite the challenges this newbie director faces, she can bring a personal insider touch to this compelling story of Israel’s birth. Or maybe she can take some pointer’s from her director, Terrence Malick, whose evocative, non-linear movies, would work well with Oz’s style, but for now I remain skeptical, though excited.

Limmud Oz cancels speakers who support Israel boycott


Limmud Oz, an offshoot of the international festival of Jewish learning, cancelled a panel featuring several controversial Jewish speakers for its upcoming conference in Melbourne.

The Jewish panelists no longer speaking, though they initially appeared on the Limmud Oz website, include Vivienne Porzsolt, a spokeswoman for Jews Against the Occupation who was detained in Israel last year en route to the flotilla to Gaza, and who recently marched in Sydney alongside Hezbollah supporters; Avigail Abarbanel, who renounced her Israeli citizenship in 2001; and Dr. Peter Slezak, a co-founder of the far-left Independent Australian Jewish Voices.

Although Limmud Oz officials have declined to comment on the controversy, they appear to have decided that the panel about “Beyond Tribal Loyalties” – a new book of essays by dissenting Jewish peace activists from America, Israel, Australia and elsewhere – was beyond the pale because many of its speakers support boycotting Israel.

The program, which includes some 200 presentations from about 150 speakers, still includes sessions featuring the president of the Australian Palestinian Advocacy Network, a representative of the Islamic Council of Victoria, as well as a Palestinian academic.

The decision sparked mass debate in the blogosphere, with one blogger describing it as the latest example of a “culture of censorship within the Australian Jewish community,” while another defended Limmud Oz, saying it “includes sessions on the Holocaust, but need not include sessions that promote Holocaust denial.”

Limmud in Australia began in 1999 and now rotates annually between Sydney and Melbourne, drawing about 1,000 participants each year.

TV: Should Jews save the werewolf from extinction?


Although few people in the Jewish community noticed, on May 2, 2000, a watershed event occurred: The last in a long line of Jewish werewolves disappeared when “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” the wildly popular vampire dramedy series, said goodbye to Oz, the character played by Seth Green. Oz left the show explaining that he had to go off to learn how to “control the wolf within.”

With this, a 60-year-long thematic liaison between Jews and werewolves ended. In fact, the whole werewolf myth seems to be in jeopardy. In this age of sophisticated computer graphics, werewolves have become steroid-bulked but ultimately vapid monsters – second fiddles to vampires. (Witness 2004’s pitiable “Van Helsing,” the year’s 16th-place box office finisher.)

The decline of the modern-day werewolf should be of concern, since it is largely a metaphor for being Jewish in the 20th century. Consider the modern werewolf narrative: A hairy young outsider becomes saddled with an identity he doesn’t want or particularly like, the meaning of which is told to him by an old European lady speaking a lot of mumbo jumbo. He is in love with a blonde girl who loves him back, but their love is doomed. Eventually he gets chased and killed by a bunch of peasants with pitchforks and torches. And, oh, yes, he feasts on human blood, but it’s not his fault.

The parallels between Jewish ideas of how non-Jews perceived us and the lifecycle of the werewolf aren’t surprising, considering that Jews effectively created the modern werewolf. Given how much has changed for Jews over the past half-century, should we try to save the werewolf or let him wander off into the California sunset?
From ancient Greece on, there have been stories of people who willingly or unwillingly became wolves. Yet, most of what you know about werewolves comes from Hollywood. In 1940, a producer at Universal Pictures told Curt Siodmak to write a werewolf picture.

Siodmak was a German Jew who had fled his native country in 1933 after hearing a virulently anti-Semitic speech by Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s minister of propaganda. Several silent films as well as one talkie on the subject had been made between 1913 and 1940, but none had been commercially successful. “The Wolf Man” was wildly so, and quickly became the template for future werewolf tales.
Most of the werewolf traits familiar to contemporary readers come from Siodmak’s films — including, most fundamentally, the transformation of the werewolf into not just a sympathetic figure but also the very subject through whose perspective the action is seen.

In fact, Siodmak wrote an early draft of the script in which the lead actor was only seen as the Wolf Man through his own perspective, reflected in ponds of water and so forth so that it would never be clear to the audience whether his transformation was real or psychological. Siodmak made the werewolf into the classic existentialist anti-hero. In later years, Siodmak slipped up in at least one interview and said that “The Wolf Man” was set in Germany, although it is in fact set in Wales. Still, Siodmak kept his Jewish references close to the vest.

By contrast, the most explicitly Jewish treatment of the werewolf by Hollywood is John Landis’s 1981 film, “An American Werewolf in London.” Yet it makes constant reference to Siodmak’s wolf man. In “American Werewolf,” Jewish American kids David Kessler and Jack Goodman (played respectively by David Naughton and Griffin Dunne) are on a European road trip. While in the moors of Wales, Jack is killed and David becomes the titular beast after surviving the attack. In an interview, Landis said that though he used a less Jewishly evocative setting of Wales for his film (at least for the early scenes), the idea for “American Werewolf” came to him while he was in Czechoslovakia. Indeed, despite the setting, Landis did not shy away from the kinds of parallels to European Jewish history that Siodmak left implicit: While David is in the hospital recovering from his wounds, he has a dream in which he is back at home with his family in America; the doorbell rings, and in come Nazi-clad wolf monsters who murder David’s family before his eyes.

What is one to make of the young Jewish man’s transformation into a beast identified with the Jew haters of Europe? Landis called the transformation into a werewolf a metaphor for teenage male sexuality. But there is also a quality of adolescent revenge fantasy found in the werewolf tale. In fact, Landis said that fantasies and nightmares of death at the hands of the Nazis were part of his own psychic landscape as a boy growing up in the 1950s. In the fantasy world of the werewolf movie, the Jew, or Jew surrogate, becomes as dangerous and powerful as his tormentors.

Landis wasn’t the first to see an allegory for adolescence in the werewolf’s transformation. In 1957, Herman Cohen cast a young Michael Landon in “I Was a Teenage Werewolf.” In fact, the teenage werewolf is a subspecies until itself with 1985’s underappreciated movie “Teen Wolf” and the fabulous Canadian film “Ginger Snaps” as prominent examples.

“Buffy the Vampire Slayer” was the apex of the trend that saw adolescence and monstrosity play off each other. Unfortunately, “Buffy,” though marvelous in many ways, shied away from questions of ethnicity. The fictional Sunnydale, Calif., was a multihued but ultimately pareve town, except for the higher-than-average number of supernatural creatures that lived there.

And Oz was the kind of Jewish werewolf that Birthright Israel might be aimed at attracting: If his character was meant to be Jewish, it was strictly an accident of birth. His Jewishness seems to have extended only as far as being sensitive, smart and short. He was good looking, a guitar player and un-Jewishly laconic. And being Jewish no longer qualified him as an outsider. Oz would never have had nightmares of anti-Semitic violence.

Therein lies his failure as a werewolf: North American Jews of the “Buffy” generation are so comfortable in their skins, they don’t need to put on fur. At least not in the presence of non-Jews.

So if the werewolf is no longer a viable metaphor for Jewish life among non-Jews, why should Jews go out of their way to preserve it? Let werewolves join self-help groups where they can learn to be normal members of society, ? la Oz?

Show Celebrates Spectrum of Arlen Songs


It’ll be nostalgia time at the Ford Amphitheatre when Harold Arlen’s greatest tunes come alive again for the concert “The Wonderful Wizard of Song.”

The show’s title is a not-so-subtle allusion to “The Wizard of Oz,” which featured Arlen’s Oscar-winning hit, “Over the Rainbow.”

A prolific composer, Arlen wrote 500 songs featured in 20 Broadway shows and 30 movies, of which more than 20 will be played at the June 1, 2 and 3 evening concerts.

Included in the program are such romantic classics as “Stormy Weather,” “Blues in the Night,” “That Old Black Magic,” “Get Happy,” “I Got the World on a String,” “Come Rain or Come Shine,” and “It’s Only a Paper Moon.”

Putting on the show will be Arlen’s son, saxophonist Sam Arlen; George Bugatti’s Three Crooners; a 12-piece orchestra; and an on-screen tribute to the composer by Tony Bennett.

The concert is part of an extended national celebration of Harold Arlen’s centennial; he was born Hyman Arluck, in Buffalo, the son of a cantor and grandson of a rabbi.

In a storyline akin to that of “The Jazz Singer,” Arlen’s father expected him to follow the family tradition and become a cantor or rabbi, or, at least, a classical pianist.

Young Harold sang in his father’s synagogue in his teens, but after moving to New York he became part of the lively jazz culture of the 1920s, Sam Arlen recalled in a phone interview.

After success on Broadway, Harold Arlen worked in Hollywood for the next 20 years and kept sending his songs to his father, the cantor. Eventually, Samuel Arlen started including snippets of his son’s songs in his prayers, telling his Harold, “I think you’re on to something.”

Another family story recalled by Sam Arlen speaks to his father’s creativity and working style. The composer and his wife were driving down Sunset Boulevard when he suddenly told his wife to stop the car and pull over to the side.

She did so, and within a few minutes Arlen had composed the melody to “Over the Rainbow,” which the American Film Institute recently selected as the No. 1 song of all-time.

“There’s a special meaning to having this show in Los Angeles,” said Sam Arlen. “My father, who died in 1986, was an avid golfer, and he loved the city and its atmosphere.”

“The Wonderful Wizard of Song,” 8 p.m., June 1,2 and 3. $32-$29 (adults) $12 (children). For reservations or information, phone the Ford box office at (323) 461-3673, or visit www.FordAmphitheatre.org.