An appreciation to summers spent in paradise

In the classic male-bonding film “Stand By Me,” based on a Stephen King novella, there is a line of dialogue at the end that I have never forgotten: “I never had friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12 … does anyone?”

In my case, however, five of the friendships that remain mainstays in my life and that I continue to cherish “later on” are precisely the ones I had nearly 40 years ago, going back to the time when I was 12.

My relationships with these fellows — along with many of the values that define our respective Jewish identities — were forged during idyllic summers spent as campers, and later counselors, at the Wilshire Boulevard Temple Camps in Malibu — Hess Kramer and Hilltop. The camps turn 60 this year and, over that time 45,000 others have enjoyed the same experiences as my friends and I, including most of our group’s own children, who have followed us, l’dor v’dor (from generation to generation), as campers and counselors. I am not so naïve as to think that mine is the only nucleus of life-long friendship to emanate from Hess Kramer and Hilltop. I am personally aware of countless others from our camps, in addition to extended webs of connections and acquaintances, which continue to endure. And likely, these bonds are no different than those forged at other Jewish summer camps.

However, I can only speak to my own childhood and adolescent slice of paradise, and how Hess Kramer and Hilltop became, in countless ways, a tie that binds. Yet, little did any of us realize at the time we were deep in these “Malibu moments” — engaged in hiking, sports, song sessions or arts and crafts — that many of the ethics and beliefs that would subsequently become our compasses subtly were being shaped. For that, the 45,000 alumni — and arguably Jewish campers elsewhere — owe a debt of gratitude to the late Rabbi Alfred Wolf, the longtime spiritual leader of Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

As a young associate rabbi new to Los Angeles in the late 1940s, Wolf envisioned summer camping for Jewish youth based on his own joyful outdoor experiences in pre-Hitler Germany. By 1952, through an indomitable will and spirit, Wolf, more than any other individual, brought this dream to fruition, pioneering a Jewish camping paradigm that influenced what followed on the West Coast, if not the nation as a whole. Two generations later, numerous sociological studies on the beneficial impact of Jewish camping on later religious identification have provided empirical validation for what Wolf seemed to know from instinct and personal passion.

With respect to my five friends and me, I used to think we were connected by nostalgia for place, shared experiences and inside jokes from the years together at camp. And granted, our repressed adolescent humor manages to brim to the surface in each other’s company in ways that make those on the periphery question our political correctness, if not our sanity. However, as the six of us reached adulthood, married wonderful women and began to raise families of our own, it occurred to me that these connections were part of something deeper and far more meaningful. It was not campfire jokes but common tenets and principles. First and foremost, our own parents and upbringings shaped these belief systems and values. But I also appreciate — as do my dear friends — how our Jewish camping experiences factored into that upbringing, as well.

I recall an article a few years ago, recapping a study of professional men that found the ages from mid-30s to mid-50s are the most solitary, as we devote ourselves to building careers and raising families often to the exclusion of our personal support networks and a sacrifice of socialization needs. While probably more pronounced in some than others, I don’t question the accuracy of the inquiry and have heard firsthand from others around my age about the toll extracted.

Thankfully, I have mostly sidestepped these effects owing to a loving immediate and extended family and a career that continues to bring me immense satisfaction. But I also don’t discount the beneficial impact and solace I get from this core circle of five men. I classify them as “3 a.m. friends” — the kind you can call at any hour of the day or night and know they will be there in an instant. We tease each other mercilessly and with abject cruelty that no outsider could possibly comprehend. Once, in fact, after a particularly brutal exchange of e-mail quips, I offered up an apology for my offenses to my worthy adversary. “Are you kidding?” he responded. “Sometimes this abuse is the only thing that gets me through the day.”

And, for the friends that I had when I was 12 — who remain friends to this day — along with countless life lessons, Rabbi Wolf and Camp Hess Kramer will always have my profound gratitude.

Gerald Freisleben is the president of FoleyFreisleben LLC, a Los Angeles-based strategic communications consultancy.

Where in the World Is ‘Paradise’?

When the controversial film “Paradise Now” is introduced at the March 5 Oscars ceremony, the live and television audiences may wonder not just whether it will win, but exactly where it came from.

In the listing by countries of the five nominees for foreign language film honors, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gives the origin of “Paradise Now” as “Palestine.”

In various Academy news releases, the designation has been “Palestinian Authority.”

The final word isn’t in yet, but Academy decision makers are “leaning toward” the term “Palestinian Territories,” said John Pavlik, the academy’s director of communications. The alternatives reflect the geopolitical uncertainties and sensitivities of the Middle East, as well as the flexibility of Academy rules. As in the Olympic Games, only internationally recognized countries are eligible to enter the foreign language film competition, but this year’s list of 58 entries includes such entities as Hong Kong, Puerto Rico and Taiwan.

On the basis of such inclusiveness, the Academy two years ago accepted the film “Divine Intervention” as the entry of “Palestine.”

The Israeli consulate in Los Angeles has been caught up in the controversy about the film, which explores the motivations and doubts of two would-be suicide bombers assigned to blow up a Tel Aviv bus. Its director, Hany Abu-Assad, and the leading actors are Israeli Arabs.

Yediot Acharonot, the Israeli mass circulation daily, published a story summarized in a paragraph below the headline:

“Powerful Israelis and Jews in Hollywood exert pressures on American Academy members in a bid to prevent ‘Paradise Now’ from winning Oscar. Meanwhile, Israeli diplomats get academy’s commitment not to present film as representing Palestinian state.”

The article got more fanciful as it was picked up by the foreign media, such as the Turkish online newspaper, Zaman. It reported that two Israeli diplomats “have already been guaranteed by the Academy that it will not show the Palestinian film at the Oscar ceremony,” apparently referring to brief clips used to introduce nominated movies.

The original Israeli article identified the Israeli diplomats as Consul General Ehud Danoch and Gilad Millo, consul for public affairs. It also cited sources at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, who “condemned attempts to hinder ‘Paradise Now’s’ chances in the Oscars, saying these efforts may tarnish Israel’s international reputation as state that advocates freedom of speech.”

Millo categorically denied the report.

“We have had no contact or involvement with the Academy on this film,” he said. “We are focused on more important matters.”

Pavlik said that no “communications” had been received from the Israeli consulate or Jewish organizations regarding “Paradise Now.”

However, Pavlik did not dismiss the possibility that interested individuals had passed on their views on the film to Academy leaders and members in social settings, adding that clips of all foreign language nominees will be screened, including “Palestine Now.”

American Jewish organizations, with few exceptions, have stayed away from the controversy. One reason may be that few persons, Jewish or otherwise, have actually seen the film. Furthermore — and politics aside — the film is generally considered to be of high quality, has received excellent reviews, and was crowned with a Golden Globe as best foreign film of the year by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.

According to a survey by The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, neither the Simon Wiesenthal Center nor the Anti-Defamation League, usually quick to react to any anti-Israel slights, have mounted any protests.

The film and its director were warmly received at a sold-out audience of nearly 500 at the University of Judaism.

However, there has been criticism by StandWithUs, a Los Angeles-based advocacy group, as well as by the American Jewish Congress and the Republican Jewish Coalition. Most active has been the U.S.-based Israel Project, which has widely circulated a letter by Yossi Zur, whose 16-year-old son was killed by a suicide bomber. The letter urges the academy not to award an Oscar to “Paradise Now.” A petition to withdraw the nomination of the film entirely has been signed by 24,000 people, according to the Israel Project.

One observer noted that Israel’s official Oscar entry, “What a Wonderful Place,” presents a considerably worse picture of Israelis than does the Palestinian film. The Israeli entry did not receive a nomination.


Two Tickets to ‘Paradise’


There was a time in the 1930s and ’40s when Los Angeles, until then considered a barbarian desert outpost by effete Eastern snobs, became the European culture capital in exile.

An influx of the greatest Jewish artists from Berlin, Vienna and Budapest, fleeing Nazi persecution, settled in Brentwood and Santa Monica, attracted equally by employment in the movie industry and the balmy (smog-free) climate.

The journeys of 11 of the brightest names who left the Old for the New World are chronicled and visualized in the Skirball Cultural Center exhibit, “Driven Into Paradise.”

Represented are filmmakers Billy Wilder and Michael Curtiz; composers Arnold Schoenberg and Ernst Toch; writers Vicki Baum, Lion Feuchtwanger, Salka Viertel and Franz Werfel; and artists Otto and Gertrud Natzler and Emilie “Galka” Scheyer.

Through interactive graphic panels displaying musical scores, manuscripts, novels, letters, photographs and film and music clips, curator Tal Gozani encapsulates the cultural ferment of the decades and the émigrés’ contributions to the Golden Age of Hollywood.

It boggles the mind to recall that one ex-Hungarian, Michael Curtiz, directed such classics as “Casablanca,” “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and “White Christmas,” while Austrian-born Billy (Samuel) Wilder created “The Lost Weekend,” “Double Indemnity,” “Stalag 17,” “The Apartment,” “Sunset Boulevard” and “Some Like It Hot.”

While the works of authors Baum (“Grand Hotel”) and Werfel (“The Song of Bernadette”) became hit movies, other artists were too avant-garde for their time and place.

“Driven Into Paradise,” an expression coined by Schoenberg, is being shown in tandem with the Skirball’s “Einstein” exhibit, a tribute to the most famous refugee of all and an occasional Southern Californian.

The émigré exhibit is complemented by special programs, including “Kaffee und Kultur” (March 20), “Memories of Jewish Refugee Women” (May 1), the “Paradise Found Film Series” (March 22-April 19) and the six-session course “I’m Not From Here: Creative Encounters for Newcomers to Los Angeles” (April 4-May 23).

“Driven Into Paradise” runs through May 8 in the Skirball’s Ruby Gallery. Admission is free. For information, call (310) 440-4500, or visit