What’s bothering Rashi about Noah?

While Paramount’s “Noah” movie has sold plenty of tickets, audience reaction has been mixed. Yet whether people love the film or loathe it, one reaction seemed universal. Viewers have had lots of questions, particularly about how far the movie strays from the biblical text and where the screenwriters, Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel (both Jewish, though professed atheists), got their ideas.

Rabbi Shlomo Yizhaki, the French medieval scholar and commentator better known as Rashi, also had questions about the Noah story, for his writings provide a great many answers. To this day, Rashi is still accepted as the Bible’s most authoritative commentator, and he drew upon the breadth of rabbinic literature (including some no longer extant), to clarify the plain meaning of a text so even a bright child could understand it. At the same time, his work is the basis for many profound legal analyses and mystical discourses. 

For almost a thousand years, Jews have begun their Torah studies by asking, “What’s bothering Rashi?” 

So what is bothering Rashi about the Noah story? Starting with the simple and concluding with the sublime, let’s look at how he explains some of the difficulties with Noah.

Q: People have children when they’re young; why didn’t Noah father any until he was 500 years old? 

A: Because the Holy One restrained him, saying, “If Noah’s descendants are wicked, they will perish in the flood, and it will grieve him. But if they are righteous, he will have to trouble himself by building several arks.”

Q: There are many ways the Holy One could have saved Noah; why did He burden him with constructing an ark? 

A: So the wicked might see him building the ark and ask about it, and thus confronted with their impending destruction, they might repent.

Q: Noah saved seven pairs of clean animals and two unclean ones. How did he know which animals were clean before Moses received the Law?

A: Obviously, Noah was acquainted with Torah even before Moses. After all, Torah existed before the Earth was created.

Q: It rained for 40 days and 40 nights, but how long did Noah and all the animals stay in the ark altogether?

A: The rain began to fall on the 17th day of the second month, and one year later, on the 27th day of the second month, the earth had dried sufficiently that the ark’s inhabitants could leave.

Q: How could they stay on the ark so long? 

A: Before the flood, the Holy One made a covenant with Noah and the animals such that the fruit and grain to feed them would not spoil, the carnivorous animals would not eat their vegetarian fellows, and the wombs of the females were closed so no babies would be born on the ark. 

Q: The Torah says that Ham was cursed because he saw his father’s nakedness after Noah became drunk and uncovered himself. Is this a euphemism for an illicit act, as some scholars insinuate? 

A: Ham looked at Noah’s exposed naked body, while his brothers walked backward so they could cover him without gazing at his nakedness.

Now we come to more challenging problems, along with Rashi’s explanations.

Q: What does it mean that Noah is called a righteous man in his generation?

A: Some say to his credit that Noah was righteous even in a generation of wicked men, that he would have been considered still more righteous in a generation of good men. Others say, to his discredit, that in comparison to his own generation he was righteous, but had he lived in the generation of Abraham he would have been of no importance.

Q: Were all the people so wicked that they deserved to be destroyed, even little children?

A: Whenever you find a society of lewdness, idolatry, robbery and corruption, then punishment of an indiscriminate nature comes, hurting both the guilty and the innocent. 

(That last answer still resonates today)

Like modern Bible scholars, Rashi noticed that God’s name changes during the narrative. While they postulate the different schools of authorship, Rashi gives us the following explanation: Sometimes, like when the Holy One tells Noah to make an ark because He is going to destroy the Earth along with its corrupt and violent inhabitants, He is Elohim, God of Strict Justice. At other times, like when His heart is grieved and He regrets creating mankind, He is Adonai, God of Divine Mercy. 

This brings us to one of the most troubling questions, one that has vexed generations of believers in an omniscient God. How could the Holy One regret that He had made humanity and have it grieve His heart? Surely He knew when He created Adam and Eve what would happen to their descendents?

Here Rashi confirms his reputation as appealing to both learned scholars and beginning students, and we see why his commentaries remain a centerpiece of Jewish study. “When a man fathers a son, he rejoices and makes others rejoice with him, even though he knows that his son will sin and grieve him, and that someday his son will die. So too is the way of the Holy One. Although it was clear to Him that in the future men would commit evil deeds and be destroyed, for the sake of the righteous who were to issue from them, He still created humanity.”

Maggie Anton is the author of the historical fiction trilogy “Rashi’s Daughters” and the National Jewish Book Award finalist “Rav Hisda’s Daughter: Book 1 — Apprentice.” Her upcoming book, “Enchantress: A Novel of Rav Hisda’s Daughter,” will be published in September.

Docents of downtown’s dark side

Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler did not get along. At all.

Paired at Paramount to create the screenplay for Wilder’s 1944 film adaptation of the classic James M. Cain novel, “Double Indemnity,” these icons somehow managed to conquer the script at Wilder’s office, despite a mutual enmity.

Chandler, the novelist and screenwriter, griped about the Jewish filmmaker’s chain-smoking and phone calls to women during creative sessions. The tension between the two escalated while about a dozen pages of the script remained unwritten just two weeks before production was to begin.

In the end, after receiving a list of demands from Chandler regarding Wilder, producer Joseph Sistrom got the latter to apologize, and the pair were able to finish the script.

Such lore derived from L.A.’s rich commingling of cinema and literature is what Richard Schave, co-founder of Esotouric literary and true crime bus tours in 2007 with wife Kim Cooper thrives on.

“Our job at Esotouric is to capture this transitory, fleeting, ephemeral experience of the urban metropolis that is Los Angeles,” Schave said. “Crime and sex is a great lens to look through at these things.” 

To Schave and his wife, that means covering the crime, public policy, architecture, cinema, literature and food culture shaping 20th century Los Angeles — and, by extension, America. But where to begin?

Earlier this year, the Jewish couple from El Sereno led 50 people through downtown and Hollywood on Esotouric’s “Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles: In a Lonely Place” tour. Stops included the Los Angeles Athletic Club, where Chandler played bridge after working at Dabney Oil Syndicate’s legal department in the Giannini Building across the street, and the Mayfair Hotel.

With 15 Saturday tours on rotation, Chandler is not the only downtown-centric author to whom Esotouric devotes itself: Cain, Charles Bukowski and Italian-American John Fante, father of Los Angeles literature, are among them, as well. (Schave lobbied City Councilwoman Jan Perry for three years to get a street named after Fante, finally succeeding when John Fante Square was unveiled in 2010 at Fifth Street and Grand Avenue.)

Schave said downtown has always been one of his favorite places.

“I always have loved L.A. architecture,” he said. “I memorized the Thomas Bros. Guide, page 634, when I was 15 in order to prepare to learn to drive and explore downtown better. I had always gotten older friends to drive down to Broadway as a teen.”

Schave grew up in Cheviot Hills, the son of a clinical psychologist mother and a psychoanalyst father. His maternal grandmother had moved to West Los Angeles from Boyle Heights, where his great-grandmother kept a kosher home.

He met Cooper when the two were art history majors at the University of California, Santa Cruz. 

“We hated each other on sight,” Cooper recalled. 

Still, Schave said, “We had the same adviser who told us we were soul mates.”

After UC Santa Cruz, Schave joined L.A.’s bricklayer’s local, got a truck and lived out of it for a few years with his girlfriend at the time while he did some soul searching. Eventually, Schave’s paternal grandfather invited the couple to fix up his vast rental property empire in Oakland. 

After splitting up with his girlfriend, he returned to school in 2002 at California State University, Los Angeles, creating his own blogging engines for class projects and receiving a degree in computer science. Two years later, Schave reconnected with Cooper. 

Cooper was an L.A. native who had ended up in San Francisco, where she started Scram, a funky music/comics magazine that moved with her to Silver Lake during the early ’90s. Her meeting with Schave was decidedly sweeter this second time around. Schave, 44, married Cooper, 46, in 2006.

It didn’t hurt that Schave had become a technical expert at blog engines, and he realized that Cooper’s passion for post-World War II Los Angeles history could have great possibility as a blog. Her crime-a-day 1947project retro blog (with Nathan Marsak) became an impetus for Esotouric.

It turns out, the couple decided, that crime and literature provide a great way to view the world.

“People are drawn to these topics,” Schave said. “Crime and literature both, in very different ways, illuminate fundamental truths about human nature.”

The Schave-Cooper marital dynamics are on display during Esotouric’s tours around the region as Schave taps his wife for sultry readings of noir passages or to help wrangle floating Esotourists. Cooper hosts “Weird West Adams,” “East Side Babylon,” “Pasadena Confidential,” “Blood and Dumplings,” and Esotouric’s most popular crime tour, “The Real Black Dahlia.” 

Leanne Brown of Victoria, British Columbia, said she found her Chandler tour guides inspiring. 

“Their passion comes through,” she said.

Schave has been involved in attracting visitors downtown through more than Esotouric’s tours. In 2009, five years into downtown Los Angeles Art Walk’s run, he became executive director at the request of event founder Bert Green. It didn’t last long, though, Schave said, as his attempt to expand the Art Walk’s scope beyond the Main Street/Fourth Street bar scene backfired. Schave and Cooper left the board in a mist of acrimony. 

Shortly after leaving Art Walk, they created the Los Angeles Visionaries Association, a free monthly salon offering guest lectures and downtown walking tours. 

While too purist to derive satisfaction from them, Schave believes recent kitsch — think the movie “Gangster Squad” released earlier this year and 2011’s period video game “L.A. Noire” — motivates people to seek out local lore. He only hopes that they see what he does.

“I’ve come to an understanding of what 19th [and early 20th] century Los Angeles is — an unimaginable world of wonder.”

‘Defiance’ celebrates Jews’ daring acts of WW II resistance

“Every day of freedom is like an act of faith,” says Tuvia Bielski, one of three brothers who led a partisan group battling Nazi troops in the forests of Belarus.

Tuvia (Daniel Craig), Zus (Liev Schreiber) and Asael (Jamie Bell) are the heroes of “Defiance,” which chronicles not only their daring acts of sabotage, but also how they established behind enemy lines a self-contained community of a thousand Jewish men, women and children.

Unlike Russian, Polish or French resistance groups, the Bielski Otriad (detachment) had to face, in addition to German soldiers and tanks, frequently hostile local populations, anti-Semitism among “allied” Soviet partisans and opposition by Jewish community elders who feared Nazi mass reprisals.

To make matters worse, there were bitter quarrels about strategy and methods between the more militant Zus and the more idealistic Tuvia.

Nechama Tec, whose book is the basis for the film, has described the Bielski Otriad as “the largest armed resistance by Jews during World War II.” As such, the exploits of the three brothers and their followers have given heart and pride to Jews burdened by the common misconception that all European Jews went passively to their doom.

One who gained new self-esteem was Edward Zwick, who, growing up in the Midwest, felt shamed by the supposed meekness of Jews during the Holocaust.

Once he became a well-established television and film director/producer (“The Last Samurai,” “Blood Diamond,”) Zwick spent 12 years trying to bring “Defiance” to the big screen.

The long delay was due partly to the reluctance of Hollywood’s Jewish honchos to tackle the subject, but even more by their reluctance to gamble their money on so complex a story.

“Studio chiefs fear anything that smacks of complexity,” Zwick told an Anti-Defamation League audience at an advance screening.

Paramount finally backed the movie, with Craig, the current James Bond star, in the lead. Zwick commented, “My greatest hope for the film is that another 15-year-old boy in the Midwest will see it and never feel the shame I did.”

Abraham Foxman, national ADL director and himself a child Holocaust survivor, praised “Defiance” as the first American film to tell the truth about the collaboration of many Lithuanians, Poles and Ukrainians in the extermination of their Jewish neighbors.

The trailer

But surprisingly, Foxman was unsure how “Defiance” would be judged by Jewish viewers. “I am not certain whether we are ready to embrace fighting Jews,” he said.

After shooting of the film was completed, a brief media flurry brought some unwelcome publicity.

A Polish government agency, the Institute of National Remembrance, charged that the Bielski detachment might have joined Soviet partisans in an attack on the village of Naliboki, in March 1943, in which 128 civilians were shot.

ALTTEXTThe agency, known by its Polish acronym IPN, deals with “crimes against the Polish nation” and is generally considered right wing. Even in its own brief report, IPN stated that participation of the Bielski partisan in the killing “is merely one of the versions of the investigated case.”

Descendants of the Bielski brothers have categorically denied the charge, as has Mitch Braff, director of the San Francisco-based Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation (www.jewishpartisans.org).

“For one, it’s been clearly established that no Bielski partisans were in the vicinity of Naliboki at the time of the shooting,” Braff said. “Furthermore, it would have been stupid to kill civilians whom the partisans needed for food supplies.”

Based on extensive research and interviews, Braff believes that between 20,000 and 30,000 Jewish partisans, mainly from Russia and Poland, fought the Nazis during the war.

American Jewish University scholar Michael Berenbaum and Braff are collaborating on a teachers’ guide to accompany release of the film and the subsequent DVD.

“Defiance” will open at selected Los Angeles theaters on Dec. 31, before a later national rollout.

Image: Director Edward Zwick, right, with Daniel Craig and Alexa Davalos on the set of “Defiance.” Photo by Karen Ballard/Paramount Vantage

Hollywood hot for Israel at Paramount gala; AJCongress honors human rights advocate

Hollywood Hot for Israel at Star-Studded Paramount Gala Marking Anniversary

There were Hollywood stars and powerful studio heads, politicians, multinational rappers, Israeli Cabinet ministers, the Keshet Chaim dance ensemble, two-dozen Israeli Boy and Girl Scouts, a 3-D film segment, a tennis legend, professional and amateur comedians, resounding shofars, electronic fireworks and tables groaning with biblical fruits.

It was, in the view of Republican stalwart Larry Greenfield, an “eclectic” evening.

Last week’s venue was the Paramount Studio, complete with red carpet, an array of TV news cameras, entertainment reporters thrusting microphones into the faces of the famous and not-so-famous and lovely ladies in designer dresses and an occasional tattoo.

Circuit might have missed a few of the celebrities in the crush, but we spotted Warren Beatty and Annette Bening, Kiefer Sutherland, U.S. Open champ Serena Williams, rapper Seal, Shaun Toub, studio chiefs Sumner Redstone and Terry Semel, music producer David Foster and L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

We’re talking, of course, about the celebration of Israel’s 60th anniversary, under the banner of “From Vision to Reality,” hosted by the Consulate General of Israel, represented by its top man, Yaakov Dayan, and the Citizens’ Empowerment Center in Israel (CECI), represented by its founder, Izak Parvis Nazarian and his talented family.

Each of the 740 guests paid $1,000 to attend the festivities and to honor Israel-born Arnon Milchan, producer of some 120 movies, including “Pretty Woman,” “L.A. Confidential” and “Mr. and Mrs. Smith.”

Nazarian, who established CECI to promote democracy and voting rights among Israeli citizens and youth, took a back seat at the glittering evening, as did his daughter, Dora Kadisha, the chief organizer of the full, full program.

The lovely face of the family was Dina Kadisha, Dora’s (and Neil’s) daughter, who kept things rolling as mistress of ceremonies.

Israel was well represented by rapper Subliminal and such dignitaries as Education Minister Yuli Tamir, Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik, former Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and, via video, Tzipi Livni, current foreign minister and potential prime minister.

Peter Chernin, president of News Corp, introduced and semiroasted the guest of honor and presented Milchan with the Legacy of Citizens Lifetime Achievement Award for his services to Israel and the film industry.

In an advance interview with The Journal (see story, page 33), Milchan said he anticipated a “surprise party.” As it turned out, Milchan, a friend of the tennis-famed Williams family, provided his own surprise by calling Serena to the stage to share his own award with the champ.

Milchan used his response to voice some serious thoughts on the Middle East situation. “I am older than the State of Israel itself,” he started. “First we had our neighbors throwing stones, then the stones became rockets and then they became missiles … then we all got more toys and more people died.

“We are all hostages … just imagine if we all helped each other. Maybe we can learn from Warren Beatty, who told me, ‘Keep asking them, maybe one of the girls will say yes.'”

The evening ended late but on a high note with cast and guests belting out the popular Israeli song, “Yachad” (Together).

— Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

AJCongress Honors Human Rights Advocate

Tucked into the elegant dining room at the Four Seasons Hotel, 150 supporters of American Jewish Congress gathered to salute former Ambassador Pierre-Richard Prosper with the Louis D. Brandeis Award for his work combating war crimes and fighting genocide on an international scale.

Currently an employee of Arent Fox LLP, Prosper was appointed U.S. ambassador by President Bush in 2001 and has an extensive history in high-level diplomacy. As a war crimes prosecutor for the U.N. International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, Prosper most notably influenced international law to formally recognize rape as an act of genocide. At the event in his honor, Rabbi Sharon Brous delivered the invocation followed with remarks by Larry Greenfield of the Republican Jewish Coalition and a representative from the office of Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks). Gary P. Ratner, executive director of AJCongress’s Western Region, presented Prosper with the award.


(From left) Robert O’Brien of Arent Fox LLP; Gary P. Ratner, executive director of American Jewish Congress’ Western Region; former Ambassdor Pierre-Richard Prosper; and Claude Alexandre, president of Opportunities Without Borders