The tunnel entrance in Lithuania through which a dozen Jewish prisoners on burial duty escaped in 1944. Its story is told in “Holocaust Escape Tunnel” on PBS. Photo courtesy of PBS

‘Escape Tunnel’ digs up proof of WWII prison break


There were about 250,000 Jews in Lithuania in 1939, nearly half in the capital city of Vilna, where the population was 40 percent Jewish. Today, there are only 3,500 Jews left in the city, but the remains of 70,000 Jews lie in the burial pits in the nearby forest of Ponar, victims of Nazi bullets before gas chambers became the preferred method of extermination. Gone is Vilna’s Great Synagogue, which dated back to 1644, destroyed by the Germans and later razed by the Soviets in the 1950s.

In June of last year, a team of archaeologists and geoscientists arrived in Vilna to virtually excavate both the Great Synagogue and the Ponar mass burial sites with non-invasive technology that combines ground-penetrating radar and electrical resistivity tomography. Not only did they make significant finds at both sites, they confirmed the existence of a rumored escape tunnel that a dozen of the 80 Jewish prisoners on the burial detail used to escape on April 15, 1944, the last night of Passover.

These important discoveries are the subject of the “Nova” documentary “Holocaust Escape Tunnel,” which premieres on PBS stations on April 19. It combines footage shot in Lithuania and interviews with children of the surviving escapees.

Abe Gol’s father, Shlomo, was the ringleader of the prisoners who spent 76 days digging the tunnel with spoons and their bare hands.

“The people of Lithuania and the Ponar area thought that this was a legend and, with no proof that it existed, discounted it. I knew the tunnel existed from what my father told me over the years. There was no doubt in my mind. Now the world knows it too,” Gol said in a telephone interview.

Although his father, who died in 1986, was reluctant to discuss it, Gol would hear bits and pieces of the story as a boy when some of the survivors gathered for an annual reunion on the last night of Passover. At 15, he read an account of the escape based on his father’s testimony in the book “Escape From Ponar,” published in Hebrew. “It corroborated everything I’d heard,” he said.

Shlomo Gol lost most of his family in the Holocaust, including his wife, child and a brother whose body he uncovered while burning corpses at Ponar. At a displaced persons camp in Germany after World War II, he met and married Abe’s mother; they sailed to Israel after Abe’s birth in 1948, and moved to the United States in 1962.

Shlomo had testified at the trials of two Nazi commandants in Nuremberg, bringing the ragged clothes he wore in captivity as evidence. “They were so imbued with the smell of tar and burning corpses that he couldn’t wash it out,” his son said, noting that the “bitter memories” of the ordeal also lingered. “He always told me, ‘Don’t ever forget and don’t ever forgive.’ ”

For Paula Apsell, “Nova’s” senior executive producer, telling the stories of Shlomo Gol and his fellow survivors came with a big responsibility. “You hold the memories of so many people in your hands and you want to give it the respect it deserves and communicate how important this is historically and scientifically. We knew if we told it well, it would have a lot of resonance,” she said. “The challenge was to balance the science and the history and give each its due.”

Initially, Apsell intended to focus the documentary on the Great Synagogue and the artifacts that might lie beneath the school that now sits on its former spot. Evidence of a mikveh was uncovered under the playground. But when the crew unexpectedly found the 100-foot escape tunnel while calibrating the detecting equipment, she shifted gears. “We knew we had a really important story on our hands,” she said.

Shlomo Gol (kneeling, at left) with Vilna partisans. Photo courtesy of Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum

Richard Freund, professor of Jewish History at the University of Hartford and co-leader of the team, was instrumental in telling that story with his “MRI for the ground,” using equipment, software and techniques developed by the oil and gas industries to locate underground reserves.

“Archaeology is the most destructive science on earth, the only science where you can never repeat the experiment,” Freund said. “Instead of blindly excavating, it allows us to see inside without disturbing or violating anything.”

That, he explained, is crucial at sacred sites and burial grounds.

Over the last 25 years, he has used his high-tech, non-invasive methods on 30 projects, including Qumran, Yavneh, and Nazareth in Israel; a synagogue in Rhodes, Greece, that was destroyed by the Nazis; and the death camp Sobibor in Poland.

He plans to return to Lithuania this summer to further investigate the Great Synagogue, as well as a Jewish cemetery in Kovno, several forts that the Nazis turned into killing fields, and a labor camp where the commandant Karl Plagge rescued more than 1,200 Jews.

For Freund, whose Jewish great-grandfather came to the U.S. from Vilna in 1903, the discoveries he made on this latest project had particular resonance.

“There’s not a moment where I don’t think, ‘But for the grace of God.’ If my family had stayed, where would I be?” he wondered.

In addition, he deems the find of the tunnel “fantastic, because you bring closure. There were grandchildren who didn’t believe their grandparents’ stories. In another 20 years, there won’t be anyone to tell the story, and I’m happy that science can tell it.”

Abe Gol, now retired and living in Pembroke Pines, Fla., hopes to accompany Freund to Lithuania this summer. For him, the documentary serves as both a validation for the survivors who experienced the horrors of the Holocaust and ammunition against those who insist it never happened. “This will tell the deniers that it did,” he said.

For Apsell, whose Jewish ancestors were from Russia and Austria-Hungary, the story resonates on several levels. “It gives a good picture of what European Jewry was really like, and you begin to see the even greater depth of the tragedy of the Holocaust. It killed people, but also a fantastic community,” she said, pointing out that Vilna was a “vibrant, cosmopolitan, learned” center for Jewry before the war.

“This was the darkest of all dark times in history and we can never hear enough stories about it because there’s such a danger it will be forgotten,” she said. “Not only does it shed light on a part of the Holocaust we didn’t know, it’s a story of hope and an amazing testimony to the will to survive. At a time when you have so much Holocaust denial and as survivors and memories die, it’s really important to have documented proof that this happened, to make sure that it’s never forgotten.”

McVeigh documentary examines the rightward path of extremists


In the wake of dozens of recent bombing threats to synagogues and Jewish institutions throughout the United States, Barak Goodman’s new documentary, “Oklahoma City,” seems particularly relevant. The film traces how the deadliest domestic terrorist attack ever committed on American soil sprang from roots in the white supremacist movement.

The film includes familiar and not-so-familiar imagery of the April 1995 blast that destroyed Oklahoma City’s Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building and killed or injured more than 800 people: charred bodies being removed from the structure’s mangled remains; a surgeon amputating the leg of a trapped young woman, using his pocket knife to finish the job after his other blades break; a bystander remembering the children’s bodies lined up on the sidewalk as a nurse placed toe tags on their feet.

Bomber Timothy McVeigh, who acted with limited help from two accomplices, was executed by lethal injection in June 2001. “But you cannot exonerate the white supremacist movement for the Oklahoma City attack,” Goodman, who lives in New York, said in a telephone interview. “McVeigh was deeply influenced by the ideas and literature of the radical right.”

Groups such as Aryan Nations have long asserted that Jews run the U.S. government and that whites must save America by asserting their white Christian identity. In the 1980s, a paramilitary offshoot of that organization, The Order, named itself after the terrorist cell described in William Pierce’s novel “The Turner Diaries.” The book’s heroes violently overthrow an American government they perceive to be dominated by Jews. Members of The Order in real life robbed banks and armored cars to fund their attacks, and in 1984 four of them murdered Denver Jewish radio host Alan Berg.

McVeigh did not grow up in a white supremacist milieu, but he did develop from his grandfather an enthusiasm for guns and gun owners’ rights while growing up in Pendleton, N.Y. Tall and thin, McVeigh was often bullied by his classmates, who called him “Noodle McVeigh,” leading him to develop what the film describes as his lifelong hatred of bullies.

McVeigh began to see the federal government as the most extreme of bullies while serving in the Army in Iraq, the documentary asserts. Back in the U.S., he became increasingly hostile toward the establishment after he was rejected from an elite Army training unit. His stridency grew even stronger when he was unable to find work despite his military experience. McVeigh then discovered far-right government conspiracy theories and became enamored of “The Turner Diaries,” which he began selling at gun shows around the country. It was at these shows that he met members of white supremacist groups and eventually visited some of their paramilitary sites.

The documentary details how McVeigh became livid upon learning of the deadly confrontations between antigovernment groups and law enforcement in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in 1992 and at the compound of the apocalyptic Christian Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, the following year. When the Brady Handgun Violence Protection Act passed in November 1993, an enraged McVeigh was spurred to action.

He built a five-ton fertilizer bomb, placed it in a Ryder rental truck, parked the vehicle in front of the Oklahoma City federal building and lit two fuses. Moments later, the explosion killed 168 people and injured 675 others.

While McVeigh’s primary motivation was his hatred of the U.S. government, whether he was also racist “has been a controversial area,” Goodman said. The filmmaker said he agrees with Leonard Zeskind, author of “Blood and Politics: The History of the White Nationalist Movement From the Margins to the Mainstream,” whom he interviews in the documentary. “[Zeskind] argues that McVeigh was quite racist and quite anti-Semitic,” Goodman said. “I don’t think you can possibly go around sharing ‘The Turner Diaries’ and touting it as a great book unless you also harbored some of those beliefs.”

Goodman, 53, grew up in a Philadelphia-area home where Judaism was inextricably linked to social justice and civil rights. That philosophy, he said, has strongly influenced the more than 30 documentaries he has produced since attending Harvard and the Columbia School of Journalism. Goodman earned an Academy Award nomination for his 2001 film, “Scottsboro: An American Tragedy,” which recounts how nine African-American teenagers were falsely convicted of raping a white woman in Alabama in the 1930s.

When Mark Samels, an executive producer of PBS’ “American Experience” series, approached Goodman to write and direct “Oklahoma City” about two years ago, the filmmaker quickly signed on. He was intrigued by Samels’ idea to trace McVeigh’s roots to the far right, and he also remembered his shock upon seeing television images of the bombing.

“So much terrorism has happened since in this country, but at the time, this was utterly new within our shores,” Goodman said. “We’d seen these kinds of things happening in Lebanon, but nothing remotely like this had ever happened here in my lifetime. So what we really tried to get across in the film was how people had no context or experience with anything like this.”

As research for his documentary, Goodman conducted about 100 interviews throughout the country, including conversations with an Anti-Defamation League expert, law enforcement officials, first responders, survivors and others. He also perused 65 hours of audiotaped jailhouse interviews with McVeigh, some of which are heard in the film.

Regarding why McVeigh committed his crime, Goodman said, “I think he had a grandiose notion of his own destiny that was totally at odds with the reality of his life. His anger was partly because his circumstances didn’t match his self-regard. He was a smart guy — he had a high IQ — but he had washed out of the military, he was unemployed, and he had had no success with women, even though he thought he was a hot deal. I think a lot of guys who fall under the sway of these right-wing ideologies are looking for something to match their sense of grandness in the world.”

These days, the American public’s focus may be on radical Muslim terrorists, but more than 400 militant white supremacist groups now exist across the country, Goodman said. “The FBI will tell you that they are as aware of the domestic as the foreign terrorists,” he added. “They’re very frightened by them.”

President Donald Trump’s racist, xenophobic rhetoric “has provided a kind of catalyzing effect for their ideas … now there’s a kind of license for them to come out and talk more openly,” Goodman added. “[White supremacists] have exchanged their camouflage for suits and ties, but they’re the same people with the same ideas…. We ignore the terrorists in our midst at our own peril.”

“Oklahoma City” will open Feb. 3 in Los Angeles theaters and air Feb. 7 on PBS.

‘Can Alzheimer’s Be Stopped?’ NOVA documentary says we’re making progress


Every 66 seconds, someone in the U.S. develops Alzheimer's disease, the progressive form of dementia that causes memory loss and cognitive decline.

By 2050, that rate will double, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. More than five million Americans are living with it now, and with a rapidly aging population of baby boomers, those numbers are skyrocketing.

There is no cure, and drugs on the market thus far have had limited effect. But the war against Alzheimer’s is being waged on many fronts, with drugs in development to treat or prevent what is now the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S.

Those efforts are the subject of “Can Alzheimer’s Be Stopped?” a NOVA documentary airing Apr. 13 on PBS. It presents the latest theories and clinical trials that some day may lead to prevention or cure.

Dr. Reisa Sperling, a professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School and director of the Center for Alzheimer’s Research and Treatment at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, appears in the program in conjunction with the study she’s conducting on a drug designed to halt Alzheimer’s before symptoms develop.

“We’ve learned that changes in the brain begin a decade, maybe two decades, before the dementia stage, before people have symptoms. Now, with PET (positron emission tomography) scans we have the ability to detect the amyloid plagues that build up in the brain,” Sperling said. “In heart disease, we give statin drugs to lower cholesterol and prevent buildup of plaques in the heart and arteries. We hope to do the same kind of thing with Alzheimer’s.”

Her trial involves an anti-amyloid antibody developed by Eli Lilly & Co. ‘We need 1,000 people for this trial, and we’re about halfway enrolled,” she said of the multinational, three-and-a-half year study, in which centers at UCLA, USC and UC Irvine are participating. “If we finish enrollment in 2016 or early 2017, I hope we’ll have results in 2019 or early 2020,” Sperling added, encouraging people 65-85 to sign up to participate at A4study.org. “The only way we’re going to get answers is if people join us in this fight.”

As presented in the documentary, other studies in the works target later-stage Alzheimer’s, some by targeting amyloid plaques and others by targeting tau, another protein that builds up inside brain cells and causes what are called “tangles.” Merck will soon test a BACE (enzyme) inhibitor. “I think we should be doing combination trials, more than one medicine, hit it with everything we can, like we do in cancer,” Sperling said. “I want us to try lots of different avenues of treatment but start them at a point that we can still rescue the brain.”

She’s hopeful that there will be an effective drug on the market in 10 years or less, but is sad that it will come too late to help her father, who recently died from Alzheimer’s, as did his father before him. “That’s part of the reason I study Alzheimer’s disease. It’s all very real to me,” Sperling said.

The fact that one in nine people over 65 will become afflicted makes it real for many families, “and it has the potential to bankrupt our health care system,” Sperling pointed out.

“Alzheimer’s disease is non-discriminatory. It affects people of all ethnicities, races and religions. The only way that it affects Jews specifically is that Jews have a long lifespan, and many live to the age of risk” and tend to be more educated and work to an older age in professional jobs, Sperling, who is Jewish, said. “Education protects people initially from showing their symptoms, but once educated people start to decline, they decline more rapidly. They may have a cognitive reserve that hides their Alzheimer’s disease for a long time, but [it] doesn’t protect them from getting the disease.”

Although there is a gene that is linked to Alzheimer’s, Sperling doesn’t recommend testing for it because the test “tells you your increased risk but it doesn’t guarantee whether you will or won’t get Alzheimer’s disease. Some people with the gene live to 90, and 40 percent of people who get Alzheimer’s do not have the gene.”

Amid all the bad news and daunting statistics surrounding Alzheimer’s disease, Sperling has some good news. “There is some evidence that the rates of dementia are getting lower or at least slowing the rate of increase because of good health care and diet. What a heart-healthy diet and exercise seem to be doing is making people more resistant to developing the Alzheimer’s pathology,” she said. “Living heart-healthy is good for the brain, too.”

But it’s not enough, she said. “It will be a combination of healthy lifestyle and biologically active agents that will tip the odds in our favor. I do think we’re making progress. I wish it could go faster. It’s incredibly sad for me that we couldn’t in time to help my dad, but I hope that my kids won’t have to go through what I and my mom did,” Sperling stated. “I hope that people who watch the film get excited and motivated to join the fight.”


NOVA’s “Can Alzheimer's Be Stopped?” premieres Apr. 13 on PBS.

PBS revisits notorious Leopold and Loeb case in ‘The Perfect Crime’


It was a time of unease for middle-aged Middle Americans. They were worried about their sons and daughters — the weird music, the scanty clothing — and also about the way the super-rich were getting away with everything.

The headlines told of the strange case of teenagers, convicted killers, who got off easy through their lawyer’s novel defense that the boys were victims of affluent parents who hadn’t taught them right from wrong.

Sounds like today, but it was actually 1924, when two 19-year-olds, both from wealthy Jewish families in Chicago, committed a horrendous crime but cheated the hangman’s noose thanks to a novel defense by their famous lawyer.

The trial of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, which riveted the nation and the world, will be re-examined Feb. 9 when PBS airs “The Perfect Crime” as part of its “American Experience” series.

Both Leopold and Loeb, raised by governesses in the lap of luxury, came to visualize themselves as incarnations of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s Ubermensch — as supermen so brilliant and exceptional as to be bound by neither law nor morality.

The two became lovers, with the handsome and charismatic Loeb as the dominant partner. They initially tested their theory with petty crimes, but then, at 19, went for the big time.

They decided to commit the perfect crime, one they believed would never be traced to them, by picking up Bobby Franks — a second cousin of Loeb — in their car, first killing him with a chisel and pouring acid over his face and body to obscure distinguishing marks, then stuffing the corpse into a culvert.

The “perfect,” untraceable crime collapsed almost immediately. Franks’ body was discovered by a passerby, a pair of nearby glasses was traced to Leopold, and the murderers’ alibis quickly fell apart.

Both men confessed that they had committed the murder for the thrill of it, while Leopold compared his deed to an entomologist dissecting an insect for further study.

At the trial, the two defendants, elegantly dressed, were unrepentant, smiling and smirking. A death penalty seemed inevitable. At one point in the process, when the prosecution hinted that the defendants had sexually molested Franks before killing him, the judge, John Caverly, ordered all female reporters to leave the court room so as not to soil their delicate ears — even though the word “moron” or “sex moron” was frequently substituted for “homosexual” at the time.

Desperate, the parents of Leopold and Loeb hired Clarence Darrow, the country’s top criminal lawyer and an ardent opponent of the death penalty, to defend their sons and, specifically, to spare them from hanging.

With world attention focused on the case, Darrow pleaded his clients guilty to avoid a jury trial, thereby leaving the final verdict to the judge. He then proceeded to offer a groundbreaking psychological defense, arguing that his clients were not perpetrators but victims of stunted emotional growth, that Leopold had been sexually abused by his governess, and, for the first time, introducing Freudian concepts in an American trial.

Darrow called a string of psychiatrists (then called “alienists”) to the witness stand and 2,000 Chicagoans lined up hoping to hear Darrow’s final three-day summation.

Surprisingly, in an era of rampant anti-Semitism fueled by the KKK and Henry Ford, the defendants’ Jewishness, accompanied by their arrogance, was rarely mentioned in reports of the trial.

In a phone interview, Cathleen O’Connell, producer and director of the hourlong documentary, said that she and her staff spent much time checking coverage of the trial in the general and Jewish media and found hardly any allusions to the defendants’ ethnicity and religion.

However, she did come across one article in the Chicago Tribune quoting a Jewish “spokesman” as observing that Loeb and Leopold’s crime was due to their neglect of Judaism, O’Connell said.

One explanation may be that their victim, Franks, was Jewish himself, although his parents had converted to Christian Science.

What made O’Connell’s research most difficult, she said, was the absence of any newsreel coverage of the trial, and the judge, believing the testimony would be too salacious for the general public, aborted any radio broadcasts of the trial.

O’Connell contrasted this lack of firsthand material to the extensive coverage of the “Scopes Monkey Trial” one year later, in which Darrow defended a schoolteacher accused of violating Tennessee law by teaching evolution to his students. It was the first trial that allowed Americans to follow the proceedings by radio.

The documentary fills much of the gap through extensive use of still photos and by actors conveying the voices and personas of the main participants.

“The Perfect Crime” premieres at 9 p.m. Feb. 9 on KOCE, the PBS SoCal station. 

Producer of Netanyahu documentary: March speech revealed Bibi’s true self


The debate between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama over the Iran deal, the clash between the two when they came into office in 2009, and Netanyahu’s rise to power in the early ’90′s was the topic of “Netanyahu at War” – a two-hour documentary from veteran filmmaker Michael Kirk aired on PBS Tuesday night.

Ahead of the program airing on TV, Kirk revealed what he found most compelling about Benjamin Netanyahu the man – his past and upbringing – while working on the 2-hour documentary, based on interviews with 40 individuals over the past 9 months since Netanyahu’s controversial speech to a joint session of Congress.

In an interview on Huffington Post Live, Kirk said the reason he decided the make the film was because he had watched the speech and thought that he would find a way to tell the story of the peace process and the relationship between Netanyahu and Obama through the eyes of “these two characters – the Prime Minister of Israel, a forceful and very different guy than Barack Obama, who’s sort of a more optimistic person and a guy who believes everyone should sit around the table and talk.”

As he dove into Netanyahu’s past, Kirk says he came to realize that Netanyahu was an American, basically. “English is really his first language in lots of ways. People in Israel tell us that when he gets into an argument, he starts in Hebrew but when he wants to really make his points he, automatically, switches to English,” Kirk told host Caroline Modarressy-Tehrani.

According to Kirk, Benzion Netanyahu, the father, brought up his children to believe that they were on a mission to save Israel from eradication. But with Yoni’s tragic death during the Entebbe rescue mission, “Bibi was apparently given the job” and placed with the burden of “shouldering what Yoni was going to do,” which was to run for the job of Prime Minister. That prompted Netanyahu to embark on a political career that will be based on fighting terrorism.

The effect the death of Yoni had on Netanyahu was “profound,” says Kirk, basing it on the many conversations he had working on the documentary. “I think in memory of his brother, his actions are even more forceful at times. He operates, really, in the world sphere as a man with a grudge; as a man who has something formidable to protect, and as a man who’s unafraid of stepping up and taking on whatever challenges there are.”

Kirk also makes a point that while a peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians is nowhere in sight, there is reason to believe that Netanyahu is the one capable of signing a peace deal. “The other part of Bibi Netanyahu is a really pragmatic politician. It’s a surprising part of him. But he’s gotten reelected over and over again by making some political concession,” he asserted. “His willingness to shake Yasser Arafat’s’ hand” despite the heat he got from the right, “tells you something about the potential willingness inside this man to cut a deal.”

In the film, Netanyahu’s former political adviser Eyal Arad, is quoted as saying that Netanyahu believes he is “a person called to save the Jewish people.” Haaretz journalist Ari Shavit adds, “He wants to be the new Churchill, to stop Iran in the way Churchill stopped the Nazis, and believes he will go down in history as the person who warned us all it would come true.”

The 2nd segment describes Netanyahu leading a coalition of the ultra-right and conservatives (Likud) and becoming the face of the opposition to the Oslo Accords. Netanyahu found himself at the center of the anger against Rabin, and as the intensity grew, the film compiles footage of the rally on Kikar Zion, where protesters raised poster of Rabin dressed in Nazi uniform, and Netanyahu addressing the crowd with a vow never to allow the division of Jerusalem. Netanyahu knew how to channel the outrage on his way to power, says Chemi Shalev. The Likud leader took it as a given and knew what was coming, Ross tells Frontline, as he recalls a private conversation he had with Netanyahu at the time. Indyk also recalls a conversation with Netanyahu after the murder of Rabin expressing regret that he didn’t get the chance to defeat Rabin at the polls.

After Rabin’s murder and Netanyahu eying the premiership, Ross admits Clinton “probably went overboard” in helping acting Prime Minister Shimon Peres win the election. As the election season kicked off, Netanyahu was trailing Peres by 31 points. People who spoke to him at the time said he thought his political career was over, Shalev says. But Netanyahu returned to center stage and starts to recover and climb up in the polls as bombs set off across Israel and Israelis lose faith in the peace process.

The next step was Netanyahu trying to block the implementation of the Oslo Accords and defy President Clinton’s demands to continue the process. The documentary describes Netanyahu’s first meeting with Clinton at the White House a month after he won the election as the start of a clash between two conflicting interests. But at the same time, Netanyahu gave into some demands by meeting with Arafat, shaking his hands and withdrawing from Hebron. Nonetheless, that was described as an attempt to slow-walk the process, which made him appear stubborn and impossible to deal with. Erekat recounts hearing President Clinton shouting and screaming “from the depths of his stomach” at Bibi at 4 o’clock in the morning during the Wye River Plantation peace talks. “It was 4:00am, I hear shouting, real shouting – screaming 4:00am in the morning. President Clinton shouting from the depths of his stomach, and head, and ears, and eyes, and nose, and mouth and legs at Bibi Netanyahu.”

Towards the end of the first hour, the program focuses on Netanyahu’s 2nd attempt to return to power at the same time Barack Obama emerged as the favorite to win the presidency. Marvin Kalb describes meeting Netanyahu – then Israel’s opposition leader – at a coffee shop inquiring about Obama’s background, Muslim roots and worrying about the kind of objectivity he would bring to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Peter Baker and David Axelrod describe Obama’s first moves on the Middle East peace process as an attempt to bring the two sides together, bridge the gaps and bring them to agree to a final settlement. But Obama’s admiration of progressive Jewish ideals and his relationship with Jews on the left was exactly what Netanyahu was against, Peter Beinart described the beginning of the clash between the two leaders. “What Obama is admiring in the Jewish tradition and in the Jews he knows is exactly what Netanyahu fears,” Beinart explains. “It is the sense that Jews have this instinct towards making the world better that may make them in Netanyahu’s eyes too idealistic to deal with the actual threats that they really face, especially in a place like the Middle East.”

The 2nd hour starts with the first meeting between Netanyahu and Obama with the President insisting on a settlement freeze – making the demand in public. At one point, the camera turns to show Rahm Emanuel smirking and whispering something into George Mitchell’s ear “This shocked Netanyahu, and it gave proof to the people that have been whispering to Netanyahu in the ear that this guy is up to no good,” says Shalev. “He recognized that Obama was hell-bent as setting up a Palestinian State.” The Israeli Prime Minister came back home angry and feeling he was under siege. “With people like Netanyahu, you don’t get a second chance,” says Ari Shavit.

The 2nd incident took place when Obama flew to the Middle East to deliver his Cairo speech but skipped Israel, a move which angered the Israeli government and sent a signal to Israelis that he didn’t like them. Ben Rhodes and Denis McDonough were the two who advised Obama to skip Israel, says Ross. Rhodes defended the decision in an interview to Frontline. “I’ve lived in this job for seven years and have learned repeatedly that you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t,” said Rhodes. “Frankly, I see it as a lose-lose proposition. Whatever we were going to do was not going to be the right thing for this particular Israeli government.” Mitchell and Axelrod, however, admitted it was a mistake. The move insulted Israelis, Obama’s reputation took a hit and Netanyahu capitalized this incident to show Israelis he is the only one that could stand up to the U.S. President.

The next clash, which ultimately buried the peace process, came as Obama called for the creation of a Palestinian State on the 1967 lines. Netanyahu was convinced it was an ambush, says Ross. Dore Gold recalls Netanyahu calling him, sounding furious and ordering him to enter his office for emergency consultations while speaking with Hillary Clinton on the phone.

The last hour shifts to Netanyahu’s media blitz against the Iran deal and the WH fearing Israel would strike Iran’s nuclear facilities. Netanyahu then crossed the line by actively supporting Mitt Romney for president in the fall of 2012. Remnick says the champagne bottles in Netanyahu’s residence were on ice on election night as the assumption was Romney would win.

The final part of the program is a recap of the debate over the Iran nuclear deal, Netanyahu insisting Obama told him the military option is off the table, and his aggressive attempt to block the deal in Congress. Indyk calls Netanyahu irrational. “I think this is for him the fight of his life – he’s no longer rational about it,” Indyk stated. “A rational Prime Minister of Israel, understanding the importance of the U.S.-Israel relationship, would not confront the president on the most important agreement that he has managed to negotiate in his presidency.”

In new show, ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’ creator samples the globe with famous friends


Next year in Jerusalem. At least that’s Phil Rosenthal’s plan.

Rosenthal is best known as the creator and behind-the-scenes genius of “Everybody Loves Raymond,” the successful sitcom starring (and based on the comedy of) Ray Romano. But now Rosenthal is in front of the camera and the star of a new show: “I’ll Have What Phil’s Having.”

It’s a six-part, unscripted series on PBS that features him sampling local fare in exotic ports around the globe — including Hong Kong, Barcelona, Paris and Tokyo. He visits markets, artisans, vineyards and restaurants. Rosenthal’s usually accompanied by family, famous foodies and friends — Romano and Martin Short among them — with whom he shares his enthusiasm and jokes.

And, yes, assuming the show is renewed, “I would love to go to Israel,” he tells JTA in a telephone interview. “What I loved most was the people I met, and the food was spectacular. I can’t wait to go back to Tel Aviv, which is such a happening scene. I had the best chicken pita of my life there.”

And while gelato and steak were on the menu during his recent sojourns, he also sampled rare delicacies like pond loach, an eel-like fish that live in East Asian rice paddies. As a result, Rosenthal acknowledges he just might be confused with a Jewish Anthony Bourdain (who, incidentally, has one Jewish parent).

“My life is exactly like Anthony Bourdain — if he was afraid of everything,” he says. “But when we watch Bourdain — whom I love, by the way — we’re not going to do what he does. I’m not going to vacation in Beirut to be shot at. I’m not eating insects. I’m not eating the parts of animals that make you sick.

“When we watch Bourdain, we live vicariously. I’m trying to encourage people to travel. I want them to watch and say, ‘If that putz can go outside …’ Maybe that should be the name of the show.”

Rosenthal admits to having a love-hate relationship with food. He loves food — now — but not so much when he was younger. As he says in a voiceover at the start of each episode, there were “things I never tasted growing up, like food with any flavor. In our house, meat was a punishment.”

In retrospect, Rosenthal doesn’t blame his mom — it was her source material.

“My mother made recipes from a cookbook that I swear had to be anti-Semitic,” he says.

Still, Rosenthal acknowledges the importance of food in Jewish culture.

“Jackie Mason had a fantastic line that after a show, in the street, the gentiles all say, ‘Let’s have a drink.’ The Jews say, ‘Did you eat yet?'” he says.

“Food is a huge part of who we are. It’s celebratory. It’s family time. It’s maybe also celebrating abundance. In or history, there was time food was in short supply. The fact that we can eat is a symbol of personal freedom and calls for celebration.”

Of course, no matter what your religion or ethnicity, good food leads to a kind of bonhomie that fosters conviviality and creativity. Rosenthal has said, only half-jokingly, that he owes the success of “Everybody Loves Raymond” in large measure to good craft services — the food that’s put out for the people working on set.

“If there’s just crap out, you’ll grab it and go on with your day,” he says. “But if the table is suddenly filled with nice things, you’ll grab a bite and turn to the person next to you, and right away you’re talking and you’re friends.”

“These are the things I care about: food, family, friends, laughs and travel,” Rosenthal says. “And they are all included in this show. That’s why — and don’t tell PBS — I would pay them to do it.

“It’s all combined with my love of show business. I love every aspect: writing, directing, producing, performing. I love every aspect of the business — except the business.”

Rosenthal had ample time to test the limits of that love during the nine highly successful seasons of “Raymond.” Still, in the midst of the show’s success, Rosenthal admits he always feared the other shoe was going to drop at any moment.

“I can always find the downside,” he sighs.

“As I’m experiencing this wonderful success, this wonderful camaraderie, [but] as a Jew I’m thinking, ‘You’ll never have this again.’ But in a way, that’s good to know, so you can appreciate the moment while it’s happening.”

It’s not as if Rosenthal has been a recluse since the show ended. He won a Peabody Award (and earned an Emmy nomination) for co-writing “America: A Tribute to Heroes,” a benefit concert and fundraiser for victims of the 9/11 attacks that was broadcast simultaneously on 35 TV channels.

He also traveled to Russia to help produce a local version of “Raymond” that was eventually called “The Voronins.” That became the subject of a hilarious documentary, “Exporting Raymond,” which had a 2010 theatrical release and debuted on Netflix this month.

The film — which he wrote, directed and starred in — deals with Rosenthal’s frustration when he discovered that comedy doesn’t always translate well. A highlight of the documentary is when Rosenthal drinks and dines with an extended Russian family. The camaraderie he experienced there is a theme that comes up again and again in conversation.

“We’re attracted to people with a similar sense of humor and by eating with them,” he says.

In fact, it’s how Rosenthal met his wife, Monica Horan — she played Amy MacDougall Barone in “Raymond.”

“I saw her in a play and thought she was really funny,” he says. “The next time I saw her was by accident at a street-food fair. I was eating a giant rib with the juice dripping on my T-shirt and she was approaching with a mutual friend.

“When we were introduced, I told her I was a big fan of hers and she said she was a big fan of mine, which was not true. She had no idea who I was. I’ve since reminded her that our entire relationship is based on a lie. I think she liked the look of the rib in my hand.”

Rosenthal arranged to cast her in a play he was in and the rest is history.

“You know what happens when you’re in a play together,” he quips. “Before you know it, she took advantage of me.”

“I’ll Have What Phil’s Having” debuts on PBS on Sept. 28; check local listings.

PBS documentary shows how Mayor Tom Bradley changed L.A.


Tom Bradley became Los Angeles’ first African-American mayor in 1973 by bringing together a multiracial coalition of Blacks, Jews, white liberals and Latinos in the years after the Watts Riots. He opened City Hall to people of all racial backgrounds, brought the Olympic Games to the city (again), and fought a racist and recalcitrant police department. 

And, as a new PBS documentary, “Bridging the Divide: Tom Bradley and the Politics of Race,” explains, Bradley laid the groundwork for President Barack Obama to take the White House in 2008.   

The two filmmakers, Lyn Goldfarb and Alison Sotomayor, screened their work Aug. 10  at CSU Los Angeles. The film was followed by a panel discussion on Bradley and race relations that included Lorraine Bradley, the eldest of the late mayor’s three daughters; Rep. Judy Chu of the San Gabriel Valley; Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas; former L.A. County Supervisor and City Councilmember Zev Yaroslavsky; and Maria Elena Durazo, the general vice president for immigration, civil rights and diversity at Unite Here. Radio host Warren Olney of KCRW moderated. 

“The most vexing issue in American society is the issue of race. It is persistent, and it defines significantly Tom Bradley’s tenure,” Ridley-Thomas said. 

The son of a sharecropper and the grandson of a slave, Bradley was raised in a tradition of African-American excellence in Los Angeles. As a sergeant in the Los Angeles Police Department — the highest rank an African-American could achieve at the time — Bradley resisted a violent police culture. 

As a city councilmember, he became a vocal critic of Police Chief William H. Parker and his alliance with Mayor Sam Yorty. 

After Yorty won re-election against Bradley in 1969 by appealing to racist tropes, Bradley spent four years building a coalition with Latino labor groups and Jews on the Westside and in the South San Fernando Valley, ultimately winning in a landslide in 1973. He served five terms and remains the longest-serving mayor in Los Angeles history. 

“The coalition never really frayed. He was extraordinarily respected in the Jewish community, and he earned that respect over a long period of time,” Yaroslavsky said during the panel discussion. “Ultimately, he had that respect in virtually every part of the city.”

Although Bradley, known for his quiet and resolute manner, ultimately left office after watching the city burst into flames during the 1992 Rodney King Riots — the result of continued police brutality and economic oppression in Los Angeles’ African-American communities — Bradley’s legacy is evident in multiracial coalitions across the city, state and country, according to the documentary.

In addition to highlighting how they, personally, had benefited from Bradley’s legacy, the panelists highlighted the similarities between unrest in African-American and minority communities in 1992 and in the past year.

“We are very fortunate in Los Angeles to have a whole generation of multiethnic leaders who believe in group coalition building, who believe that that is the best way to address our issues,” Durazo said. “We have got to keep that going, but we have to expect more, as well. We have to demand more and expect more. We can’t hold off another 1992 rebellion unless we really use that strength and that coalition to address the poverty and the other issues of racism in our community.”

‘Downton Abbey’ and the Jews


Much more than a highbrow soap opera about a family of British aristocrats and their servants, “Downton Abbey” has been deeply rooted in the history and social issues of the early 20th century. Themes of class divides, changing morals and tradition versus progress have provided the backdrop for melodramatic storylines involving secrets, betrayals, liaisons and tragic deaths. In its fifth season, currently airing on PBS’ “Masterpiece,” the series has ventured into the issue of anti-Semitism for the first time with the introduction of an upper-crust Jewish family.

Young Lady Rose (Lily James) meets and falls in love with Ephraim Atticus Aldridge (Matt Barber), whose Jewish family fled pogroms in Russia 60 years before and have risen to the heights of British society. His father, Daniel Aldridge (James Faulkner), holds the title of Lord Sinderby, and the lord’s less-than-progressive attitudes emerge during a get-acquainted family dinner at the abbey. Robert and Cora Crawley (the abbey’s Lord and Lady Grantham, played by Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern) have no issue with the interfaith relationship, because Cora, after all, has a Jewish father. But Lord Sinderby opposes his son marrying outside the Jewish faith — Rose is a cousin with no Jewish blood — and his future grandchildren having a “little shiksa” for a mother.

“I have always been interested in the anti-Semitism of the British upper classes,” Julian Fellowes, creator, writer and executive producer of the series, said in an interview. Fellowes, 65, is not Jewish, but has witnessed anti-Semitism and had personal experience with it in his youth.

“I did see quite a lot of it,” he said. “My mother had no prejudice about that sort of thing — race or color or religion — she just tried to avoid people she thought boring. But my father had a trace of the slight anti-Semitism of his kind. Paradoxically, he had a lot of Jewish friends.” 

Fellowes revealed that Lord Sinderby’s disapproval of the match “even though Rose is well-born and suitable, because she is not Jewish, is from my own experience. My first real girlfriend in London came from a very prominent Jewish family, and it was my only experience of being seen as a thoroughly undesirable suitor. They very definitely did not want her to marry out of the faith, and so they did everything they could to discourage the match. Actually, I liked them very much, and later, when my ex had married a nice boy they approved of, we became good friends. But, in ‘Downton,’ I always like to show both sides, and I wanted to demonstrate that prejudice can exist in either social group.”

Fellowes went on to explain a bit about the history of British anti-Semitism. “The championship of Edward VII and his queen brought prominent Jews into society from the 1870s on. To some extent, [Benjamin] Disraeli [a 19th-century British prime minister] had broken through before that, but even he had to convert. One mustn’t overstate the speed with which peace and harmony was achieved. People like Sir Ernest Cassel, one of the king’s best friends, were still converting in order to be accepted, but some were brought into society despite remaining true to their faith, more so as the [19th] century drew to its close. I saw it as a young man, although there is no doubt that (World War II) and the aftermath made a lot of people rethink their prejudices, but such things take a long time to die.”

Although interfaith marriages were not common in British society, “There were a few,” Fellowes said. “The most famous was probably the heiress Hannah Rothschild, who married the Earl of Rosebery in 1878. “There were others,” he continued. “Viscountess Battersea was Jewish, and although Maud Cassel’s father had converted, she was still considered Jewish when she married Wilfred Ashley, later Lord Mount Temple. I don’t think it was an easy berth for any of them, any more than it would be for the American heiresses who married into the British upper classes at the turn of the century, as they were all, to a degree, on foreign territory. But the majority of them just got on with it, which I suspect, then or now, is the best way to deal with most of life’s problems.”

In Season 5’s eighth episode, Lady Rose and Atticus encounter a potential roadblock on the way to the altar. Rose’s mother, Lady Flintshire (Phoebe Nicholls), who is estranged from her husband and fearing she’ll “be an outcast,” attempts to break the younger couple up by fabricating a scandal, ultimately thwarted by Lord Flintshire (Peter Egan). They marry in a civil ceremony and return from their Venice honeymoon as the Christmas episode, which is set in December 1924, begins.

Airing March 1, the season finale marks Atticus’ first exposure to Christmas. But the storyline “is more about the resolution of the relationships within the family, rather than dealing with the Jewish/Christian marriage issue,” Fellowes said. 

The anti-Semitism plotline met with approval in Britain when the series aired there last year. “People seemed to get involved with it and, rather movingly, I was thanked by a Jewish peer in the House of Lords because he and his family felt we had put forward a very truthful account of what it is like to be a Jew in British society,” Fellowes said. “There can be no question that the tone of the show is against any kind of anti-Semitism, and so nobody seemed to take offense at a pretty truthful display of it.”

Fellowes stressed that, as a non-Jew, he doesn’t set himself up as an authority. “I like to think that these themes provoke conversation and discussion, just as I hope people examine the way they treat their own employees, or members of their family, or whatever, as a result of the drama. I have witnessed that genteel anti-Semitism for myself, and I think today, when such feelings — and rather less genteel ones — are on the rise, in Europe at any rate, I think it a good idea to pull back the curtain and let people look at it in all its ugliness.”

Although mention is made of a job offer in Boston that will send the newlyweds across the Atlantic, “I think we will see Rose and Atticus again,” said Fellowes, who is gearing up for the sixth and final season of “Downton Abbey.” 

“More than that I could not say.”

The season finale of “Downton Abbey” airs March 1 at 9 p.m. on PBS. 

PBS documentary traces 350 years of Jewish migration


“You survive, you honor us by living,” Martin Greenfield’s father told him. Greenfield, now a New York master tailor, recalled the words after his liberation from the Buchenwald concentration camp.

The quote could be taken as the theme of “The Jewish Journey: America,” a PBS documentary that tracks the migrations over 3 1/2 centuries of Jews fleeing the Latin American Inquisition, czarist Russia, Nazi Germany and Islamic nations.

Although many Jews came to America seeking refuge from persecution by authorities in those and other countries, millions more came for economic reasons — to build better lives for themselves and their children in the New World.

The one-hour program, which opens with a majestic rendition of “America the Beautiful,” is produced, directed and written by Andrew Goldberg, who has become the semi-official Jewish chronicler for PBS, with such previous productions as “The Yiddish World Remembered,” “Anti-Semitism in the 21st Century: The Resurgence” and “Jerusalem: Center of the World.”

The first Jews to arrive in the future United States, in 1654, were 23 Sephardim fleeing the Portuguese-imposed Inquisition in Brazil. They settled in New Amsterdam, which would later become New York.

More would come to the U.S. after failed revolutions in Germany and other European countries in the 1840s, and then later by gold rush fortune seekers. Yet by the 1870s, Jews in the United States numbered no more than 200,000.

The number skyrocketed to more than 4.2 million by 1927, spurred by a massive influx of 1.5 million Jews from Eastern Europe, predominantly Russia, between 1880 and 1910.

The film also speaks to the Jewish penchant for founding communities, then splitting and re-forming into even more separate groups — some 17,500 Jewish organizations existed in the U.S. in 1927.

The mass immigration from the czarist Pale of Settlement gives the film an opening, drawing upon on various archives, to illustrate the lives of poor Jews — the wealthy ones mostly stayed put — both in the shtetl in the old country, and then in New York’s crowded Lower East Side.

Often overlooked in the triumphant rendition of the American dream is the emotional price depicted in the film that was paid by emigrants as they separated from the families and traditions that had bound them together for generations.

Although the new immigrants went through hard times in the New World, they usually wrote glowing letters of their success to the folks they’d left behind, which triggered even more immigration.

With the post-World War I recession and fear of the communist revolution in Russia came growing xenophobia, culminating in the Immigration Act of 1924, which narrowed the once wide-open entrance to the United States, especially to applicants from Eastern and Southern Europe.

A small but steady trickle of Jews arrived after World War II from displaced-persons camps. More came after establishment of the State of Israel, fleeing hostility to Jews in Islamic countries in North Africa and the Middle East.

Another wave arrived after the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, followed by Soviet Jews in the 1990s.

Integration of these new immigrants was rarely easy. In an illuminating interview, New York Rabbi Marc Angel recalled the dual pressure from his grandfather to strive for success in the new country, but to also retain the Jewish traditions.

Yet, Angel concluded, the real miracle was that after so many generations in America, Jews have remained Jews.

Producer-director Goldberg, who founded and heads Two Cats Productions, ascribes much of his interest in Jewish-themed films to his own heritage but says there are other reasons, as well.

“For one, PBS likes our work, and also there is a community that is willing to fund such documentaries,” he said.

It should be noted that only about one-third of Goldberg’s productions focus on Jewish themes, and his interests extend to many other areas. Now in the pipeline are a documentary on animal cruelty and another on the interpretation of classical music.

“The Jewish Journey: America” airs March 5 at 8 p.m. on KVCR and March 18 at 7:30 p.m. on KOCE (PBS SoCal). The program will be repeated in subsequent weeks. 

Join globetrotter Bruce Feiler on a journey through Jerusalem


Every religion has its pilgrimage, and PBS’ “Sacred Journeys” provides a lively visual guide to six of the best-known destinations for the devout.

On Dec. 23, series host Bruce Feiler visits Jerusalem, and while the date might indicate a link to Christmas, the focus is on Sukkot, one of three Jewish pilgrimage festivals.

In biblical times, Jews were commanded to worship at the Temple in Jerusalem during Sukkot, though following its destruction by the Romans and the dispersion of the Jewish inhabitants, few were able to follow the tradition.

With the rebirth of the State of Israel, the number of pilgrims has swelled, with Jews joined by Christians, Muslims and even Buddhists converging on Jerusalem’s Old City, which contains the Western Wall, Al-Aqsa mosque and Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

“This is the most contentious quarter-mile in the world,” notes Rabbi David Rosen of the American Jewish Committee, and is contested not only by different faiths but also frequently by competing factions within the same religion.

The tension erupts at times into confrontations between local Arabs and Jews, who Feiler likens to “a couple in a bad marriage living in the same home.”

For observant Jews, the Sukkot pilgrimage starts at the outdoor market to select the most perfect lulav (palm branch) and etrog (citron), which are inspected with the care of a jewelry dealer seeking the perfect diamond.

At the Western Wall, men, many clad all in white, chant prayers and, in one vivid snapshot, an Orthodox worshiper records the scene on his cell phone, combining ancient ritual with modern technology.

Locals and foreign visitors join in the building of a sukkah, an experience which Ahava, a young woman from Philadelphia, describes as “celebrating Judaism in a physical way.” An outdoor dinner in the sukkah lends itself to introspective conversation, with Ahava debating whether she should stay in Israel or return to the United States.

The camera and Feiler join Christian pilgrims at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where, according to their faith, Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected. The hardiest then travel to the Galilee, retracing Jesus’ steps in a 40-mile hike.

One of the more unusual visitors is Brian Kwon, whose Buddhist parents emigrated from their native Thailand and settled in Colorado Springs, Colo. Kwon, like many others, has come to Jerusalem as a faith seeker, and eventually converts to Christianity and is baptized.

Feiler, the 50-year-old best-selling author and the narrator of “Sacred Journeys,” is somewhat of a pilgrim himself, having traveled and worked in 65 countries, at latest count.

Born in Savannah, Ga., he is the descendent of five generations of Southern Jews, among them men who fought for the Confederacy in “The War of Northern Aggression,” as the Civil War was known in the South. Feiler now makes his home in the Yankee enclave of Brooklyn.

As a Jew, he cannot visit Mecca, but otherwise his ethnicity has not proven any barrier to filming in Muslim countries or any other. It took him five years “to raise the money, shoot and edit” the six segments of “Sacred Journeys.”

Asked if he believes that the world’s different faiths could ever live peacefully together, particularly in the Middle East, Feiler answered, “If I didn’t believe that, I couldn’t get up in the morning.”

However, he thinks that now and in the future the struggle will be not among opposing faiths, but primarily between the religious and the nonreligious.

But even among believers, Feiler said, traditional religious practice, such as “sitting in the pew while someone preaches at you,” is on the decline, while pilgrimages are on the upswing as “an expression of religious activism.”

He cited a recent United Nations study that one-third of the world’s tourists are primarily motivated to travel by pilgrimages. “It used to be that a pilgrimage meant going from Tiberias to Jerusalem on foot, but with discounted air fares, it’s easy to fly from Los Angeles to Israel,” he said.

“Sacred Journeys” airs in six one-hour segments, presented in two-hour blocs for three consecutive Tuesday evenings, and can be seen locally on KOCE (PBS SoCal).

The earlier Dec. 16 premiere presentation featured visits to the French town of Lourdes, sacred to Roman Catholics, and to Shikoku, Japan, popular with Buddhist worshipers. The Jerusalem segment will air on Dec. 23 at 8 p.m., followed by a pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia at 9 p.m.

On Dec. 30, the journey will start on the banks of the Ganges River in India, followed by a visit to Osogbo in Nigeria and a festival in honor of the river goddess Osun. 

‘Finding Your Roots’ explores Jewish genealogy


Singer-songwriter Carole King’s Russian grandmother barely escaped a pogrom that killed 32 of her neighbors. 

Playwright Tony Kushner lost many relatives in a 1941 massacre of Polish Jews. 

Criminal defense attorney and former Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz’s grandfather got 28 relatives out of Czechoslovakia in 1939 by guaranteeing them employment in the basement synagogue he ran in the Williams-burg section of Brooklyn, N.Y. The ones left behind were never heard from again. 

These shocking truths are part of the family histories that are revealed to each of these Jewish celebrities for the first time in the Nov. 4 episode of the PBS series “Finding Your Roots With Henry Louis Gates Jr.,” now in its second season on PBS. 

Titled “Our People, Our Traditions,” the episode’s theme is strength and survival in the face of religious persecution. Each of the revealed histories includes stories of pogroms and the Holocaust. 

“We found firsthand accounts of the massacre of Tony Kushner’s ancestors in the Bukowinka Forest in 1941, including rare accounts by survivors and by a German officer who participated in the killings,” Gates, a Harvard professor and the series’ producer and host, told the Journal in an email. “We also found the original affidavits that Alan Dershowitz’s grandfather, Louis Dershowitz, used to help his relatives escape Czechoslovakia right before the Nazi invasion.” 

Admittedly, Gates got lucky in finding that evidence, and in obtaining Russian marriage records that enabled his research team to trace King’s family back to the 18th century. 

“It’s always very challenging to trace Eastern European Jewish ancestry because there are so few documents. These are a people who were oppressed for centuries and seen as less than human. Many were illiterate. As a result, very few records of their lives were kept, and very few of those records were saved,” Gates explained. “Also, they lived in a region marked by shifting borders and countless wars, which made written records even harder to trace. A few townships actually have excellent records, but not many. And the tragedy of the Holocaust erased even more evidence of their lives.” 

However, Gates added, “I liked challenges, especially challenges that yield meaningful content. And Jewish genealogy is just that: a huge, meaningful challenge. If you can succeed in finding those lost ancestors and their stories, it’s deeply rewarding, both for the guest and for me as a scholar. 

“Jewish history is fraught with struggle and suffering, and I always find that so moving. And, of course, each of my guests did as well,” Gates continued. “Though their Jewish identity means something very different to each of them, for all three it was also an important part of their sense of self. Tragedy and loss deepen our connection to our roots, and especially to the history that was stolen from us. All three of our Jewish guests wept when we showed them the original documents that recorded what their ancestors endured.” 

Such revelations deeply affect the series’ participants, Gates consistently finds. 

“They’ll call me or email me weeks later and tell me that they’re still thinking about what they learned, or that they want to know more. They are very proud of what their ancestors accomplished, even if their accomplishment was just to survive. And they are very grateful that their ancestors made sacrifices that laid the groundwork for their own success. They understand that their ancestors endured things that we probably could not endure. This was very true of the Jewish episode.” 

For example, Gates said that Dershowitz was humbled when he saw the names of his ancestors and heard all of their accomplishments. The legal scholar talked about how honored he was to have carried on their struggle — even though he himself never faced the challenges they did. 

Sometimes, Gates’ findings give participants new insights into a side of their relatives they never saw before. 

“Carole King remembered her grandmother as a tight-lipped, severe woman — someone she had never felt close to as a child. When she learned that her grandmother lived through a vicious pogrom that killed over 30 Jews in her hometown, she felt like she understood her better. It meant a lot to her.” 

King, born Carol Joan Klein in Brooklyn, also learns that her paternal grandparents had eloped and arrived at Ellis Island illiterate and with $2 between them. With no means of support, they were detained and would have been denied entry had a cousin, Sam Kline, not vouched for them. 

The Nov. 4 episode doesn’t represent the only time “Finding Your Roots” has revealed Jewish connections. Earlier this season, former WNBA basketball star Rebecca Lobo learned via DNA analysis that she has more than 10 percent Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry from one of her great-grandparents (it couldn’t be established which one). Actress Gloria Reuben got confirmation that her Jamaica-born father, who died when she was a child, was Jewish: His forebears had fled the Spanish Inquisition and its persecution of Jews.

“She was very moved because she knew so little about her family. It was very exciting for her,” Gates said of Reuben. “I don’t know if she’s attended a synagogue yet, but I can see it happening.” 

In the Nov. 25 finale episode, which focuses on DNA, actress Jessica Alba is surprised to discover that she has Sephardic Jewish ancestry on her father’s side. “I don’t think she’d ever even considered the possibility before that she had Jewish ancestors, but I can say that she was very intrigued,” Gates confirmed. He has already lined up such celebrities as Jamie Foxx, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Jimmy Kimmel and Gloria Steinem for season three. 

Complicated genealogy research can easily cost $50,000, depending on the availability of records and the amount of original research required, he noted. “But we’ve done people for a lot less.” Gates suggests that people who want to investigate their own roots start with Ancestry.com, which sponsors the series, by searching for their grandparents’ names. 

For Jewish genealogy, he said a good starting point is a website called JRI Poland (JRIPoland.org). 

“They are indexing and digitizing new documents every day. You should also reach out to local researchers in the towns where your ancestors lived,” Gates advised. “You never know what might be hidden in a tiny town archive or a newspaper archive. And, if you can, go there yourself. Visit the towns where your ancestors lived. Walk those streets. At the very least, you will get a sense of place to attach to your ancestors. Even that alone can be very meaningful.” 

Calendar: January 18-24


SAT | JAN 18

PINCHAS ZUKERMAN

The acclaimed violinist conducts one of the United Kingdom’s most prestigious orchestras through some Bach, Schoenberg and Brahms. Born in Tel Aviv, Zukerman trained at Juilliard before playing with the London Symphony Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic. After a successful career in recording, he began conducting in 1970. Since then, he has been a global musical leader, player and teacher. Forget the sounds of silence — bring on Zukerman! Sat. 8 p.m. $40-$65. Valley Performing Arts Center, 18111 Nordhoff St., Northridge. (818) 677-3000. ” target=”_blank”>elephanttheatre.org.

“HOLD ME, HEAL ME”

A little kindness goes a long way. The Jewish Women’s Theatre has an all-new salon show that will remind you how kindness can heal even our most broken moments. With poems, stories, music and plays, the evening offers laughter and reflection. Eve Brandstein directs Annie Korzen, Lisa Cirincione, Kate Zentall and Michele Brourman in this touching and honest acknowledgement of the lives we lead. Sat. 7:30-9:30 p.m. $30 (door). Through Jan. 31 (locations vary). National Council of Jewish Women, 543 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles. ” target=”_blank”>jewishwomenstheater.org.


SUN | JAN 19

“A RADICAL FRIENDSHIP”

It’s a friendship that can inspire us all. Ed Asner (“The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “Lou Grant”) and Jason George (“Grey’s Anatomy”) play Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., respectively. Jane Marla Robbins’ play explores the personal side of historic events, looking at how a Polish-born rabbi and a black Baptist minister formed an unlikely friendship and marched arm in arm together in their quest for social justice. San Pedro’s Temple Beth El presents this staged reading in commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Sun. 7:30 p.m. $36, $54. Harlyne J. Norris Pavilion, 501 Indian Peak Road, Rolling Hill Estates. (310) 544-0403. MON | JAN 20

“THE SEVEN HABITS OF DE-STRESSED PEOPLE”

L.A. rush hour got ya down? Are people bringing 15 items into the 12-item express lane? Don’t sweat the small stuff — a de-stressed life is in your future. Rabbi Laibl Wolf is a psychologist and best-selling author who uses ancient Jewish wisdom and positive psychology to get people feeling better. Retrain your brain with mindful living and reclaim your life. Mon. 8 p.m. $15 (advance), $20 (door). Laemmle Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. (424) 333-0006. TUE | JAN 21

“SALINGER”

PBS’ “American Masters” kicks off its 28th season with a special director’s cut of Shane Salerno’s documentary. Maybe the most intimate and comprehensive investigation into the author yet, Salerno spent 10 years exploring the “why” and the “who” of J.D. Salinger, the man who brought us “The Catcher in the Rye.” From his experiences in World War II, to his love affairs, to his retreat from the public eye, “Salinger” follows the mysteries of an American master. Tue. 9 p.m. (check local listing). Free. PBS. WED | JAN 22

“WHAT’S SO JEWISH ABOUT CHANGING THE WORLD?”

Maybe the better question is what isn’t Jewish about changing the world? Panelists Rabbi Ed Feinstein, David Myers, Julie Platt, Adlai Wertman and Journal writer Danielle Berrin take part in a TED-style discussion and debate on religious, historical, philanthropic, civic and cultural responses Jews have had to making change. Drinks and appetizers will be provided, as will a post-debate Q-and-A. Sponsored by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, YALA and PresenTenseLA. Wed. 7 p.m. $10. Jewish Federation, 6505 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 761-8161. THU | JAN 23

HOUSE OF JEWS AND ISRAELI BREWS

Leave your mittens at home! With heat lamps, Israeli beers and soulful tunes, the Temple Beth Am Pilch Rooftop is gettin’ hot. Grab a cozy couch spot and listen to some organic pop from singer-songwriter Adam Stern. The acoustic evening will also feature musician Josh Warshawsky, Temple Beth Am artist-in-residence, and mixed-media painter Ilan Laks. RSVP encouraged. Thu. 8 p.m. Free. Temple Beth Am, 1039 S. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 652-7354.

Jewish version of ‘Downton Abbey’


After numerous complaints about the hit PBS show “Downton Abbey” not having any Jewish characters, Downton makers Carnival Films has confirmed it is developing a similar show with a Jewish family, U.K.’s Jewish Chronicle reports.

The new show will be based on Francesca Segal’s book “The Innocents,” which is loosely based on Edith Wharton’s classic novel “The Age of Innocence.”

The book, which won the 2012 Costa First Novel award and the 2012 National Jewish Book Award, is set in modern-day, upper-crust Temple Fortune, a tight-knit Jewish community in northwest London. The book opens with a scene during Kol Nidre and follows 28-year-old Adam Newman, who is destined to marry his girlfriend of 12 years, Rachel Gilbert, but ultimately succumbs to the attraction of her younger cousin, Ellie Schneider.

PBS’ Iranian-American Story


Following more than three decades of Iranians flourishing in the United States, a documentary titled “The Iranian Americans” offers a nostalgic look at how tens of thousands of immigrants resettled in America following the 1979 revolution in Iran. It will air Dec. 18 at 9:30 p.m. on PBS.

After quickly establishing the circumstances behind the political upheaval in Iran during the late 1970s, the film features interviews with various Iranian-Americans who shed light on the difficulty they experienced in leaving their homes in Iran and coming to a land of freedom in which they were unfamiliar with the language or culture. Whether Muslim, Jew, Baha’i, Christian or Zoroastrian, the Iranian-Americans in this film reveal the duality of their cultures and how they succeeded in their new home.

Numerous prominent Iranian-Americans are featured, including former Beverly Hills Mayor Jimmy Delshad, who is Jewish; Citicorp vice chairman Hamid Biglari; the former head of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, Firouz Naderi; and former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs Goli Ameri. All discuss how they were able to achieve high levels of success due to their pursuit of higher education and hard work.

“I think Iranians living in the U.S. are so misunderstood by average Americans, who do not know the tremendous contributions they’ve made to our country and the pride they have for being Americans,” said Andrew Goldberg, the Emmy Award-winning filmmaker behind “The Iranian Americans.”

The documentary shows how Iranian-Americans live bicultural lives by keeping alive some of their music, food, poetry and other traditions — such as Nowruz, the Iranian New Year — while at the same time taking on new American traditions, such as Thanksgiving. This cultural juggling shows up in language, too. Citicorp’s Biglari points out that Iranian-Americans today “sometimes speak Farsi and sometimes speak English or sometimes count in English and sometimes count in Farsi.”

Captured in the film is the sense of nostalgia some older Iranian-Americans have for their former homeland — and with it the desire to visit there one day. But at the same time, it highlights the tremendous pride they have in being U.S. citizens.

Numerous Iranian-Jewish scholars, journalists and writers explore the acculturation of Iranian Jews into American society and how a large segment of Iranian Jewry was embraced by Jews already living in the United States.

Despite showing the trials and tribulations of the immigrant experience, the film also has several lighthearted moments, thanks to Iranian-born stand-up comedian Maz Jobrani, a Muslim who pokes fun at the behavior of certain older Iranian-Americans. Jobrani even recites famous Iranian poetry in Farsi and jokes at how some would not approve of his Farsi accent.

For his part, Goldberg said he wanted to educate the public about the Iranian-American community while at the same time celebrating its tremendous achievements and successes over the last three decades. Yet making the film wasn’t always easy, he said.

“I think the two biggest challenges we had [were] obtaining financial support for making this documentary from the community and also interviewing certain people who were afraid that the Iranian regime may take what they say out of context and possibly create problems for their family members still living in Iran,” Goldberg said.

In the past Goldberg has produced similar documentaries for public television about other immigrant groups, including Armenians, Jewish-Americans and a 2007 film regarding anti-Semitism in the 21st century.

While the film accurately showcases the various Iranian-American religious groups and their achievements in the United States, it omits the tremendous sense of friendship, mutual respect and camaraderie Iranians of all religions living in the United States share for one another. 

And even though the documentary discusses the dictatorial nature of the government of the late shah of Iran, it fails to mention the advances in education, prosperity and social tolerance all Iranians experienced for one another in the country prior to the revolution. 

Another element that is missing is how many non-Muslim Iranians, including Jews, Christians and Baha’is, still struggle to live with the significant trauma resulting from persecution they experienced at the hands of Iran’s current brutal regime. 

Overall, though, the “The Iranian Americans” documentary is a fairly good representation of the larger Iranian community living in the United States and how its members struggled to become acculturated into American society over the years. 

Is cutting Big Bird kosher?


When Governor Mitt Romney talked about ending funding for PBS – and Big Bird – during his first debate with President Obama, he was describing only one of the deep cuts in Romney-Ryan budget.

But it’s not just Big Bird. And it hits us hard, at home, in the Jewish community.

Governor Romney’s budget plan would affect us – dramatically. Calling for unprecedented budget cuts, a Romney Administration would negatively impact the elderly, the disabled, the poor, and yes, Jews who span each of these categories and more. As a community committed to tikkun olam, bettering the world, we have a responsibility to protect those in our community as well as those outside it and voting for a Romney-Ryan ticket would make that virtually impossible.

Jews across the country rely on federally funded social services every day. Just ask the thousands of the elderly living in Section 202 housing, a program run by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development used by both the Jewish Federation system and the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty to provide house assistance to low-income seniors. Or what about seniors who benefit from Supplemental Security Income (SSI), without which we would be “leaving our most vulnerable residents behind,” the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society told Congress in 2010.

Federally funded social services are not just relegated to the elderly. One program that the Jewish Federations of North America helped pioneer is the Emergency Food and Shelter Program, an extension of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and a program developed to supplement the work of local social service organizations who serve those in need of emergency assistance. This program, which helps hundreds of thousands of low-income individuals across American, Jewish and non-Jewish, has been threatened ever since Republicans have taken control of the House.

And the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) – a program designed to provide nutritious food and other services to low-income pregnant and postpartum women, infants, and children under the age of five – has slowly been chipped away at since Republicans took over the House in 2011. According to the non-partisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, proposed cuts to the program in the fiscal year 2012 appropriations budget would result in over 700,000 eligible low-come women and children being turned away. Cuts to programs like these are guaranteed to increase under a Romney Administration.

What’s more, those benefiting from federal funds are sometimes the last people you would suspect. What about those among us suffering from Tay-Sachs, which almost exclusively occurs among Jews, and Crohn’s Disease, which disproportionately impacts our community. In 2009, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) awarded a $3.5 million four-year grant to the Tay-Sachs Gene Therapy Consortium to aid in research of therapies for the disease. And according to the NIH, Crohn’s disease research received grants totaling $67 million in 2011. Think these are important? Well Congressman Ryan does not, as his budget demonstrates by cutting funding for biomedical research by NIH, which would result in fewer and fewer grants each year.

In the 2012 Jewish Values Survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute, 72% of respondents listed tikkun olam as important in shaping their political beliefs and actions. The Jewish community feels a responsibility to better the world and many support the use of federal funds for social services to accomplish this gain. But we forget that many in our own community not just use but desperately need these funds – funds that would most likely be cut or drastically reduced if Governor Romney were to become president.

We, as a community and as citizens of the United States, cannot afford a Romney Administration. We want to better our country, not make it worse for those who need help the most. President Obama and his administration’s policies have embodied this tenet of our religion, helping those in need and gaining my vote.

And when it comes these kinds of draconian cuts to much needed social service programs, the Romney-Ryan budget is definitely treif.


Marie Abrams, Lynn Lyss, and Andrea Weinstein are all former chairs of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), the united voice of the organized Jewish community.

UCLA doctor focuses on children’s health In new PBS series


For the first time in U.S. history, the lifespans of today’s children will be shorter than those of their parents, thanks to the American way of unhealthy living.

So predicts Dr. Richard Jackson, chair of UCLA’s Department of Environmental Health Sciences, who warned in an interview that the country’s economic, social and urban planning policies “are robbing five years from the lives of our children.”

The result, he added, is “a pandemic of diseases,” such as obesity, diabetes, asthma, heart problems, cancer and depression. Jackson cites somber statistics, such as 78,000 diabetes-related amputations last year, and notes that three-quarters of American youth can’t pass simple physical fitness tests.

Among contributing factors, for example, are urban roadways designed to force just about everyone into cars, discourage walking and prevent neighborly bonding, said Jackson, who has held top leadership positions in federal and California public health agencies.

He is now bringing his message to television in a four-part series, “Designing Healthy Communities.” The first two hours will be broadcast over independent public station KCET on May 5 and May 12 at 4 p.m.

In the first episode, “Retrofitting Suburbia,” Jackson investigates the link between the nation’s rising obesity rate and the current Type 2 diabetes epidemic. He also draws examples from various communities to counter the ominous trends, such the redesign of Boulder’s streets to make bicycles a safe form of transportation.

In the second episode, “Rebuilding Places of the Heart,” he looks at Rust Belt cities, such as Elgin, Ill., which is transforming itself into a greener, more sustainable community.

In subsequent episodes, Jackson will look at acute health problems in low-income neighborhoods in Oakland and Detroit and what groups of young activists are doing to change the situation.

Finally, on a note of hope, Jackson will visit communities of different sizes that have managed to establish healthy environments for their residents.

Jackson has written a companion book for the TV series, with the same title.

Despite daunting political and corporate obstacles, Jackson is not discouraged. He cites the overwhelming desire of young couples to establish themselves in livable communities, including the establishment of community gardens and safe bicycle road networks.

Co-producers of the TV series are Dale Bell and Harry Wiland of the Santa Monica-based Media Policy Center, with editor and writer Beverly Baroff.

For more information, visit

Shoah week on PBS


The Public Broadcasting Service will offer U.S. television viewers a concentrated history lesson during Holocaust Remembrance Week, with seven films and documentaries on Jewish death and defiance in the past and on the genocides of the present.

Four main films will be aired in prime time by 365 member stations, starting April 11 with a British version of “The Diary of Anne Frank” at 9 p.m. (check local listings to confirm date and time).

The story of the high-spirited Jewish girl in hiding from the Nazis for two years in a crowded Amsterdam attic, while at the same time facing the highs and lows of adolescence and first love, is too familiar and revered to permit tampering with the plot. However, director Jon Jones does allow himself to vary the relationships among the key characters.

Ellie Kendrick (one of the young school girls in “An Education”) gives us an Anne with all her exuberance, as well as occasional orneriness and chutzpah. But the major surprise is Otto Frank, Anne’s father, as portrayed by Iain Glen.

In her intimate diary, Ann was not uncritical of her parents, and Otto has been frequently pictured as cold and ineffectual.

By contrast, in the current production, Otto is very much the central and dominating figure, who keeps his family and their friends from falling apart amid the crowded tension and boredom of their tight quarters.

It is also Otto who enforces a degree of normalcy in the most abnormal of circumstances. The three adult men in the attic dress in jacket and tie, and in the celebration of a joyous Chanukah the actors seem to convince themselves and the viewers that all is (or soon will be) alright with the world.

“Among the Righteous,” airing April 12 at 10 p.m., documents the dogged search by historian and writer Robert Satloff to track down and verify any instances in which Arabs aided their Jewish neighbors while Hitler’s Afrika Corps swept across North Africa.

Satloff, the executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, embarked on his quest after noticing during a visit to Yad Vashem that there was not a single Arab listed among the Righteous Christians and, mainly Albanian Muslims, who sheltered or saved Jews during the Holocaust.

His research turned up evidence of 100 forced labor and concentration camps in Tunisia and Morocco, one so notorious that it was known as the “Buchenwald in the Desert.”

Satloff finds his hero in Khaled Abdul-Wahab, a prosperous Tunis businessman, who, like Oskar Schindler, entertained Nazi officials to cover sheltering Jewish families on his family farm.

There is also a brief testimony by Tunisian-born Sivan Shalom, Israel’s former foreign minister, on the help extended to his father by Arab friends.

“Blessed Is the Match,” scheduled for April 13 at 10 p.m., recounts the bravery of Hannah Senesh, a young poet and diarist. In 1944, Senesh joined an elite group of Palestinian Jews to parachute behind Nazi lines and rescue Jews in her native Hungary.

Senesh was caught, tortured and executed by the Germans, but her name lives on in the annals of Israeli heroism.

Turning from the horrors of the past to the bloody present (and future), historian Daniel Goldhagen (author of “Hitler’s Willing Executioners”) premieres his book and documentary feature, “Worse Than War,” on April 14 at 9 p.m. on PBS.

Looking at the sorry record of the last 100 years, Goldhagen counts 100 million civilians, mostly women and children, killed in genocides—from 1 million Armenians in Turkey, to 99 million in the Ukraine, and on to China,  Guatemala, Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur.

That staggering figure, he says, exceeds all the military deaths in all the wars of the century.

Followed by a camera crew, Goldhagen last year went to 10 countries in Asia, Africa, the former Soviet Union and Central America, interviewing survivors, perpetrators and families of victims.

Amid horrifying footage and testimony, Goldhagen tries to make some sense of it all, seeking the causes—and possible solutions—to prevent future “ethnic cleansings.” or, the term he prefers, “eliminationism.”

Also during Holocaust Remembrance Week, a limited number of public broadcasting stations will carry two more documentaries, “Holy Lands: Jerusalem & The West Bank” and “House of Life: The Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague,” as well as a play-within-a-play, “Imagine This.”

The cinematic version of a recent London stage musical, “Imagine This” is arguably the most startling and complex of the week’s offerings.

It opens with a group of bourgeois Jewish families in Warsaw enjoying an outing at a merry-go-round, when Nazi dive bombers interrupt the idyll.

Next, crammed into a ghetto, Daniel, the leader of the Jewish inmates, decides to buck up their spirits by putting on a play.

The presence of a flourishing theater, and even an orchestra and library, most notably in the Lodz Ghetto, is historically correct and was dramatized in Joshua Sobol’s memorable “Ghetto.”

For his production, Daniel chooses the last stand of the Jews against the Romans at Masada, with obvious similarities to the “actors’” present situation.

In parallel, the characters as ghetto inmates and Masada resisters are faced with the choice of surrender or defiance.

Film on Jerusalem Explores Beating Heart of 3 Faiths


In a medieval German map of the then-known world, the continents of Europe, Africa and Asia resemble a three-leaf clover whose leaves fuse at the navel of the universe, the holy city of Jerusalem.

PBS has adopted this concept and expanded it to a two-hour history lesson and travelogue, titled, “Jerusalem: Center of the World,” to air April 1.

The film is subtitled, less loftily but accurately, as “The World’s Most Contested Piece of Real Estate.”

Indeed, for more than 40 centuries, no other place has been the object of so much longing and worship and the scene of so much bloodshed and neglect as Jerusalem, and the last chapter has not yet been written.

The guide for this film is Ray Suarez, Jim Lehrer’s senior correspondent on the PBS “NewsHour,” and, backed by a battery of scholars, he packs an astonishing amount of verbal and visual history into the program.

Suarez is careful to apportion equal respect to Jews, Christians and Muslims, who all consider the city sacred, which tends to make this story one of many heroes but few villains — except, maybe, the Romans.

The film, and the history, begins at Mount Moriah, where, according to tradition, God instructed Abraham to sacrifice his son, and which later became the site of the First and Second temples.

Other highlights include, for Christians, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where Christians believe Jesus was crucified and buried before ascending to heaven.

During some six centuries under Muslim and Ottoman rule, Jerusalem became largely a neglected backwater, only to rise again in the late 19th and 20th centuries with the influx of Jewish immigrants.

“Jerusalem” was produced and directed for Oregon Public Broadcasting by Andrew Goldberg, whose previous productions include “Anti-Semitism in the 21st Century” and “A Yiddish World Remembered.”

KCET will broadcast “Jerusalem” on April 1, from 9-11 p.m.

PBS presents ‘God on Trial’ in Auschwitz


The prosecutor reads the charges against God: murder, collaboration with the enemy, breach of contract with His chosen people.

Setting: A barrack in Auschwitz, with some 20 Jewish prisoners, half of whom will be gassed in the morning.

Time: evening, sometime during the Holocaust.

So opens “God on Trial,” an intellectual and emotional masterpiece, airing on PBS stations on Sunday evening, Nov. 9, the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht.

A half-Jew, once a respected judge in Germany, presides over the trial. A young prisoner is the prosecutor, while his father speaks for the defense. A rabbi, who has committed the entire Torah to memory, cites chapter and verse. Other inmates break in occasionally, drawing on their own experiences to accuse or defend the Almighty.

In his opening statement, the prosecutor recites the history of Jewish persecution, from Babylon to the Romans to Czarist Russia, to show that God has habitually broken his covenant with the children of Israel.

No, counters the defense, it is the Jews who are the contract breakers, because they forgot the Torah.

Prosecutor: Why did God disperse the Jews?

Defense: To spread knowledge of His word throughout the world.

The defense argues that God, like a surgeon, must occasionally remove the gangrene to purify the body and usher in the golden age.

Are you saying that Mengele and Hitler are doing God’s work? the prosecution asks. Do you say that only the righteous will survive? Not true. Only the cunning and shameless will survive — and will these build the nation of Israel?

A former physicist from France asks for rational reasoning. It’s not about faith, it’s about who has the power, he argues.

A cynical inmate notes that the buckles on the belts of German soldiers carry the motto “Gott Mit Uns” — God Is With Us — and suggests that the Almighty has decided to transfer his covenant to someone else.

The nonreligious judge tells the “jury” that the Nazis want to strip them not just of their lives, but also their dignity, and warns that “Now they also want to take away your God, even a foolish god.”

These few examples only hint as the depth and conviction of the give-and-take, which make our customary debates about the existence and belief in God sound like high-school exercises.

It would be wrong to give away the final verdict, or the heart-stopping closing scene, but suffice that both atheists and believers will find some satisfaction and solace.

“God on Trial” was first aired by the BBC and features a superb cast of mostly British actors, including Antony Sher, Rupert Graves, Dominic Cooper, Stellan Skarsgard and Jack Shepherd.

Persistent reports over 60 years have it that something resembling such a trial actually took place in Auschwitz, with Elie Wiesel frequently cited as the authority for the report.

Wiesel himself, speaking from New York, set the record straight.

“When I was in Auschwitz, the former head of a yeshiva and I worked together for about two weeks, carrying bricks,” Wiesel recounted.

When they had a chance to talk together, the rabbi would speculate on the idea of bringing God before a rabbinical court on charges of abandoning his people.

The verdict might be guilty or, at least, that God owed the Jews an explanation for the Holocaust, said Wiesel, who lost track of the rabbi, but presumes he was killed by the Germans. Wiesel doesn’t know whether the rabbi was ever able to realize his idea.

Executive producer Mark Redhead (“Bloody Sunday”) and writer Frank Cottrell Boyce (“Welcome to Sarajevo”) are Christians and, speaking from London, admitted to some trepidation in tackling so sensitive and Jewish a subject.

Cottrell Boyce, a devout Catholic, said, “I first talked to a number of rabbis and was assured that Jews had a long tradition of arguing with God. That impressed me, because Christians would never put God on trial.

“One point I wanted to make is that the spirit of the Jews was not completely crushed by the Holocaust, that they were more than walking skeletons.”

But, essentially, the teleplay is not about the Holocaust, but about God, he said. “Since 9/11 and the tsunami, God seems to be back on the scene again.”

Asked whether the arguments about God’s guilt had shaken his own Catholic faith, he responded, “Sure, it’s shaken all the time, but what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

Redhead went one step further, proposing that the drama is not about the existence of God, “but more about the nature of faith, how we conduct ourselves in the face of savagery, how we try to find solid ground in a bottomless swamp.”

He added, “We are asking about the meaning of life, because if the Holocaust had no meaning, then nothing has any meaning.”

KCET will air “God on Trial” on Masterpiece Contemporary at 9 p.m. on Nov. 9.

PBS documents struggles and successes of U.S. Jewry


Jewish life in North America was nearly aborted before birth when the governor of New Amsterdam sought to expel 23 Brazilian Jews, who landed at the southern tip of Manhattan in 1654.

In a petition to his superiors at the Dutch West India Company in Amsterdam, Peter Stuyvesant urged “that this deceitful race … be not allowed to further infest and trouble the new colony.”

Fortunately for posterity, Stuyvesant was overruled, and how Jews and the United States changed each other over the following 353 years is the study of “The Jewish Americans,” a six-hour PBS series.

The series will air on three successive Wednesdays, Jan. 9, 16 and 23, from 9-11 p.m. on KCET.

Producer/director/writer David Grubin has packed enough historical data, anecdotes and sidelights into the series to impress the expert and astonish the layman, without ever losing the thread of the narrative.

Basically, the documentary traces the Jewish struggle, from colonial merchant to the most recent immigrant, to become a fully integrated and accepted part of American society, while still retaining ethnic and religious identity.

“In the broad sweep of history, the Jewish experience in America has been a remarkable success story,” said Grubin in a phone interview from his Manhattan office.

The beginning was hard, however, and colonial Jews readily adopted the old Diaspora strategy of being like everyone else on the outside, and like a Jew on the inside.

Even when Jews felt that they were well on their way to acceptance and equality, their sense of security could be shattered by Ulysses S. Grant during the Civil War, the 1915 lynching of Leo Frank in Georgia, an anti-Semitic Henry Ford and his Dearborn Independent or a Charles Lindbergh before World War II.

With all their hard-won self-confidence, today’s Jews can still be rattled when, for instance, Jewish neocons and Israel are blamed for pushing America into war with Iraq and confrontation with Iran.

But in prescreening the series across the country, Grubin said he found that while older Jews might express such concerns, they were hardly on the radar screen for younger Jews.

So especially for this younger generation, Jewish or not, the PBS series offers a striking lesson on how far America and its “Israelite” component have come.

Here, then, are some of the highlights in the vast panorama of Jewish characters and experiences:

“They Came to Stay” is the opening segment on the first evening (Jan. 9) and rapidly covers two centuries, from 1700 to the early 1900s. At the beginning of this era, New York City’s population of 5,000 included about 200 Jews, and in 1730 this tiny community consecrated its first synagogue, Shearith Israel.

This auspicious event was followed shortly by the beginning of the perennial intermarriage problem, when the upper-class Abigail Levy Franks cut off her daughter for marrying a Christian.

In the 1820s, German and East European Jews arrived, working initially as walking peddlers. Within a generation, they had graduated from the “Harvard School of Jewish Business” by acquiring a horse, later a wagon and then opening a store.

In the Civil War, 7,000 Jews fought for the Union, 3,000 for the Confederacy, and Charleston, S.C., had the largest Jewish population in the country. Judah P. Benjamin, as the Confederacy’s secretary of state, was the first Jew to rise to high office, and when the South, lost he was scapegoated as Judas Iscariot.

The evening’s second part, “A World of Their Own,” opens in the first decade of the 20th century, when some 500,000 immigrant Jews were packed into New York’s Lower East Side and soon dominated the garment industry as owners and sweatshop employees. Further uptown, the German Jews of “Our Crowd” formed their own high society.

Jews organized labor unions, hospitals, philanthropic institutions and Yiddish theaters which drew 2 million ticket buyers a year.

It was “The Best of Times, The Worst of Times” in the second two-hour part (Jan. 16), roughly spans the period from World War I through the end of World War II.

Irving Berlin and George Gershwin wrote the nation’s songs; Hank Greenberg batted for the Detroit Tigers; Louis Brandeis became the first Jewish Supreme Court justice; Molly Goldberg was everyone’s favorite radio mother; and America’s future top comedians honed their skills at Catskills resorts.

But in parallel, anti-Semitism rose across the nation, country clubs, private universities and corporations largely barred Jews and one could encounter signs with the subtle message “Hebrews, Consumptives and Dogs Not Allowed.”

The Depression hit the Jewish community twice, as economic victims and as scapegoats for the country’s miseries. Jews rallied behind President Franklin D. Roosevelt and served in World War II, but were conflicted about how far to push in trying to help their desperate European brethren.

The third part of the series (Jan. 23) picks up in the mid-1940s and brings the ever-evolving story up to the present.

The era started on a note of triumph as Bess Myerson became the first Jewish Miss America, and continued as old restrictions and prejudices slowly faded away.

Jews found a new pride in the birth of Israel and the Six-Day War victory; fought for black civil rights; moved to the suburbs; largely sparked Hollywood’s and Broadway’s golden ages, and invented new forms of religious and spiritual expressions, up to Chasidic rapper Matisyahu.

Yet, the old insecurities were never completely buried. Jews and their organizations were profoundly shaken by the executions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg as atomic spies, and quickly went about purging their own radicals during the McCarthy period.

After six hours of words and images, the last sentences wrapping up the series belong to Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Encino’s Valley Beth Shalom. He concludes that at this point, freed largely of outside antagonisms, Jews are at liberty to decide what it means to be a Jew and how to express their Judaism.

“We are all Jews by choice,” he says, “and to embrace that choice is to enlarge Judaism.”

PBS: ‘Los Angeles — Dream of A Different City’


Sick of traffic? Sick of smog? Sick of urban sprawl?

Don’t just complain about it. See what’s being done to change it.
On Jan. 11, KCET will air a Los Angeles-focused segment of its acclaimed series “Edens Lost & Found.”

This one-hour installment of the multipart series titled, “Los Angeles: Dream a Different City,” will focus on community leaders and groups in the greater L.A. area who are finding solutions to what a century of almost unchecked growth has wrought on our landscape and our lives.

The segment begins with host Jimmy Smits providing a quick overview of a familiar litany of problems besetting Los Angeles. There are traffic-choked interchanges, vast tracts of unchecked development, a trickle of water to slake a thirsty city and brownish air.

“If Southern California can solve these problems, there just might be hope for the rest of the world,” Smits says.

Producer and director Harry Wiland and Dale Bell track down the people and groups who have found ways to confront these problems. To watch the documentary is to find much reason for hope:

  • TreePeople founder Andy Lipkis, who talks of discovering the importance of trees during summers at a Jewish camp in the San Bernardino Mountains, shows how urban forestry and water recovery projects throughout the city can provide shade, lower electricity usage and replenish groundwater.

    The 35-year campaign has gained powerful allies. TreePeople’s main on-screen advocate is L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, whose first act as mayor was to plant a tree. And County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky says of the groundwater recovery efforts, “If it works it will revolutionize the way we do flood control.”

  • Lewis MacAdams of Friends of the Los Angeles River and Melanie Winter of The River Project show how the battle to re-green the 58-mile cement ditch will reshape the city.
  • Darrell Clarke and Presley Burroughs of Friends 4 Expo Transit speaks of his 21-year struggle to get a light-rail line from downtown to the beach.

“It’s a ladder for upward mobility,” Burroughs says.

That last theme is crucial to the filmmakers. A good amount of the program looks at how economically depressed areas in Boyle Heights, the north San Fernando Valley and El Monte benefit from re-connecting and fighting for Los Angeles’ environment. “Improving L.A.’s natural environment,” says the mayor on screen, “will improve families and the economy.”

“Eden’s Lost and Found” is part of a series that also looks at innovative solutions in Seattle, Philadelphia, Chicago and other American cities. A companion book and DVD provide ample information for would-be activists.

Wiland, a Venice resident and Jewish activist, sees the effort as part of a larger educational and social campaign. “We want everyone to be involved in dreaming a different city,” he said.


PBS ‘Resurgence’ documentary explores reappearance of anti-Semitism


The PBS documentary, “Anti-Semitism in the 21st Century: The Resurgence,” will discomfit viewers of all stripes.

Airing Jan. 8 at 10 p.m. on KCET, the film will annoy those who believe that rising anti-Semitism is a myth fueled by Jewish paranoia and self-serving Jewish defense agencies.

Equally upset will be those who argue that anti-Semitism, particularly in the Islamic world, is just using the same old stick to beat up on a blameless Israel.

In addition, fervent believers in a global Jewish conspiracy, if any tune in, will be enraged at seeing their worldview demolished and ridiculed.

Within one hour, the documentary, narrated by veteran broadcast journalist Judy Woodruff, covers a lot of territory in a graphic and efficient manner.

We are given a capsule history of Jew hatred both in the Christian West and Muslim East, accompanied throughout by horrifying cartoons across the centuries depicting the Jew as “Christ killer,” blood sucker, ravisher of virgins and plotter of world domination.

Numerous experts weigh in on the Middle East conflict and its impact on the resurgence of anti-Semitism. On the whole, the arguments balance each other out, with perhaps a slight edge to our side, thanks to Woodruff’s narration.

Considerable airtime is given to New York University professor Tony Judt, often denounced for his harsh criticism of Israeli policy and leadership. In this program, however, he limits himself mainly to exploring the growing Muslim immigration and influence in Europe.

Israel’s Natan Sharansky and the American Jewish Committee’s David Harris effectively lay out the Jewish role in the fight against anti-Semitism.

A telling analysis of the corrupting effect of anti-Semitism on the Arab masses is given, surprisingly, by Salameh Nematt, Washington bureau chief for Al Hayat, an independent Arab daily published in London.

Princeton historian Bernard Lewis draws a useful distinction between Christian and Muslim anti-Semitism over the centuries.

In the Islamic world, the Jew, though not equal, was tolerated and did not carry the satanic aura painted in medieval Europe, said Lewis, who “credited” British and other Christian theologians with introducing modern anti-Semitism into the Arab world.

Perhaps the most surprising emphasis in the film is on the deep and persisting impact of “The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion” in shaping the prejudices of European anti-Semites and the convictions of Arab leaders and masses.

The “Protocols,” a Czarist forgery of the early 1900s, has proven particularly useful to Muslim presidents and clerics to rationalize how the “inferior” Jews of Israel could repeatedly outfight proud Arab nations.

While the Arabs have never gotten over their defeat in the 1967 Six-Day War, their humiliation is lessened if they can believe that they were beaten by the cosmic evil power portrayed in the “Protocols.”

The one point of agreement among the experts is that anti-Semitism will not disappear, because “it serves so many purposes,” notes professor Dina Porat of Tel Aviv University.

Added Woodruff, “Israel is used as a coat hanger” by Arab leaders, who can attach all their problems on it and divert their people from their poverty and corrupt regimes.

The PBS production was produced, written and directed by Andrew Goldberg, who recently documented “The Armenian Genocide,” in association with Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Israeli Producer’s Election-Day Risk


It’s little more than a week to the airdate, March 28, and Ofra Bikel is still putting the final touches on her hourlong documentary, “Israel: The Unexpected Candidate.”

That’s not like Bikel, a meticulous professional, described by critic Howard Rosenberg in the Los Angeles Times as “one of television’s premier documentary filmmakers … whose camera wields the power to mobilize public opinion through exposure.”

“Usually, I take seven to eight months to make a documentary, but in this case I had only six weeks,” Bikel said in an hourlong phone call from Tel Aviv, her speech a medley of Israeli, French and American accents.

One reason for the rush is that PBS wanted to release “Israel: The Unexpected Candidate” on the day of the Israeli elections, March 28.

Another reason was that Bikel (no relation to actor-singer Theodore Bikel) thought this was going to be an easy job.

The film would focus on Ehud Olmert, a close associate and likely successor to the stricken Ariel Sharon as prime minister of Israel.

Bikel is a long-time personal friend of Olmert’s wife, Aliza, knows the family well and had been assured of full cooperation. In addition, Bikel was born in Tel Aviv as a sixth-generation sabra and knows the country like the back of her hand.

“I thought it would be easy,” she said. “But nothing is ever easy in Israel. You learn that over and over again.”

Bikel focused on Olmert both as an individual and as the personification of profound political and ideological shifts in Israel.

“Early in Olmert’s career, no one could have been more right-wing,” Bikel said. “Remember, he voted against the peace treaty with Sadat’s Egypt and against his own party chief, Menachem Begin.”

Today, as acting prime minister and head of the Kadima Party, Olmert is at the center, or left of center, in the political spectrum. He supported Israel’s disengagement from the Gaza Strip and has announced that he will dismantle most West Bank settlements if elected.

Bikel is not certain what caused Olmert’s transformation, but even while on the far right wing he always surrounded himself with friends and family of different viewpoints.

“Most of his personal friends are politically center to left,” Bikel said. “His four children went to progressive schools and are left- wingers.”

Bikel has boundless admiration for Olmert’s wife.

“She is a painter, a sculptor, a playwright and a wonderful, open woman,” Bikel said.

Olmert, 60, and his wife have been married for 35 years and also have four grandchildren.

After years of friendship and many hours of interviewing, how does Bikel view Olmert?

“He is a lawyer with degrees in philosophy and psychology, very intelligent, a warm person, he thinks very fast, a loyal friend and an astute politician,” she summarized.

One criticism of Olmert is that he acts too fast and makes decisions too quickly. “He counts to two, rather than to 10,” Bikel said.

Will Olmert make a good prime minister, if he is elected?

“I think he is up to the job,” Bikel replied. “But being prime minister of Israel is a mad job for normal people.”

Bikel studied in the 1960s at the University of Paris and the High Institute of Political Science in the French capital and then moved to the United States.

“My big ambition was to be a researcher for TIME magazine,” she recalled. “Then I wanted to be a journalist and wear a trenchcoat.”

But the only work she could get was as a production assistant, “the lowest of the low,” at the ABC network, though she soon switched to public television as a producer.

In the late 1970s, she returned to Israel and produced more than 30 films on political, economic and cultural subjects.

Some 25 years ago, she switched jobs and countries again, settled in New York, and started making films for Frontline. As voluble as she is about her professional activities, she is guarded about her personal life and preferred not to discuss her motivations for coming back to the United States.

Bikel came to national attention in the 1990s with the trilogy, “Innocence Lost,” which meticulously detailed charges of sexual abuse at a day care center in a small North Carolina town, and the subsequent trial of seven defendants. As a result of her dogged detective work, the guilty verdict and prison sentence of the seven were reversed and they were set free.

The three films won Bikel a raft of awards, including an Emmy. She scored another Emmy for her “Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill: Public Hearing, Private Pain.” Her most recent production was “The O.J. Verdict,” which aired last October on the 10th anniversary of the O.J. Simpson trial.

Described by The Times as a “petite, blond-frosted, elegant, expensively turned out woman (we’ll call her ‘mature’),” Bikel does not consider herself a political activist or crusader.

“It’s just that injustice drives me nuts,” she said. “I get extremely angry when I see how people without voices are treated in our legal system.”

Despite her decades of experience and success, Bikel is still terrified before every new project.

“I love my job, but I suffer for it,” she said. “I take pressure very badly and I am sure that each new film is going to be my Waterloo.”

Frontline’s “Israel: The Unexpected Candidate” airs at 9 p.m., March 28, on KCET.

 

The Man Who Knows Too Much


“American Jihad: The Terrorists Living Among Us,” by Steve Emerson (Simon & Schuster, $26).

It began by happenstance

CNN reporter Steve Emerson was stuck in Oklahoma City on Christmas 1992 with nothing to do and wandered by the city’s convention center, where a gathering of the Muslim Arab Youth Association was taking place.

Inside, he found “books preaching Islamic jihad, books calling for the extermination of Jews and Christians, even coloring books instructing children on subjects such as ‘How to Kill the Infidel.'”

Later, after listening to speeches urging jihad against the Jews and the West from luminaries such as the head of the Hamas terrorist group, Emerson called his contacts in the FBI to inquire whether they were aware of this bizarre meeting.

They were not.

A year later, Emerson attended a similar Muslim conference in Detroit that included representatives from Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and other terror groups. It also included an appearance by a befuddled senior FBI agent.

When a member of the hostile audience asked the agent for advice on how to ship weapons overseas, Emerson relates that the G-man said, matter-of-factly, that he “hoped any such efforts would be done in conformance with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms guidelines.” Apparently, the FBI official had attended the radical conference under the mistaken impression that it was “some kind of Rotary Club.”

That anecdote demonstrates the ignorance and passivity shown by the government on the threat from Islamic extremists in the United States.

Investigator of terror

In 1993, the reporter left the cable network and struck out on his own as an investigator of terror networks in this country. Working with a small staff, he founded The Investigative Project, which has specialized in bringing to light the facts about the ways these dangerous extremists have used our open society as a staging ground for international terrorism.

His award-winning 1994 film, “Jihad in America,” broadcast over PBS, introduced the topic to a wide audience. Emerson amassed a vast library of vital information about the activities and ideology of these terror groups and became one of the country’s leading experts on the topic. But, as he tells the story in his new book, “American Jihad: The Terrorists Living Among Us,” the path he has trod has not exactly been smooth.

The broadcast of his film sparked death threats that the FBI took seriously. And the sizable number of domestic apologists and fellow travelers of these terror groups soon made Emerson the focus of their misinformation efforts.

Emerson was smeared as being anti-Muslim by some Islamic and Muslim groups. The mainstream press often treated the charges as true.

Emerson did stumble in 1995 when, responding to inquiries about the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, he said the crime fit the profile of Islamic groups. When that was proved untrue, Emerson wound up with egg on his face.

That mistake proved to be what Emerson admits is “an albatross around my neck,” but it did not stop him from continuing his research and regularly appearing in The Wall Street Journal and as an expert witness for congressional committees. Long before most Americans had ever heard of Al Qaeda, Emerson warned that its members were planning attacks on the United States.

The FBI was barred by law from snooping on domestic groups hiding behind the facade of charitable organizations. But Emerson went where the government feared to tread.

This information made him invaluable, but it also gave him the air of a Cassandra. Though he was able to keep The Investigative Project going, his warnings were largely ignored.

Banned by NPR

In 1998, for example, critics who accused Emerson of being an anti-Muslim bigot were able to pressure National Public Radio (NPR) to ban him from its airwaves. An NPR producer promised an Arab group “he won’t be used again.”

After this outrage was exposed, NPR falsely claimed there had been no blacklisting of Emerson. But he has yet to be heard on NPR since.

The Sept. 11 attacks vindicated Emerson, but that hasn’t stopped the torrent of abuse directed his way. Although he has become something of a media celebrity in the last few months as a regular on the talking-head news shows (he’s become a paid consultant for NBC), for many in the Muslim world and on the American left, he remains a target.

On Nov. 14, The Washington Post published a profile of Emerson that rehashed every misleading attempt to discredit him. The Post’s John Mintz never questioned the credentials of some of Emerson’s critics, and took an “evenhanded” approach to their accusations that he was anti-Muslim. He also brought up ridiculous charges that Emerson works for the Mossad, although the only evidence for that seems to be that he is Jewish. No wonder the reporter does his best to play down his religion.

The trendy Webzine Salon.com also took up the cause of trying to discredit Emerson. In a disingenuous piece posted on Jan. 19, the site accused Emerson of ruining “an innocent professor’s life.” The case involved Sami Al-Arian, a Palestinian professor of engineering at the University of South Florida in Tampa, whom Salon claimed was merely an ardent supporter of Palestinian rights.

In fact, Emerson’s book details Al-Arian’s leadership of the American wing of Palestinian Islamic Jihad — a group that is responsible for the murder of scores of Israelis and Americans. He used his tenured position at the Tampa college to set up a nonprofit organization that became a clearinghouse for the group’s fundraising (including the “sponsoring of martyrs” — in reality, suicide bombers) and propaganda in this country.

Al-Arian, who is an American citizen, was able to evade prosecution, but subsequent exposés by The Tampa Tribune inspired by Emerson’s work led to the closing down of Islamic Jihad’s Tampa branch. And after his story was aired on Fox News and NBC’s “Dateline,” the university finally fired the professor.

Despite the slander, Emerson has persisted. And though his new book gives the impression of being something of a quickie post-Sept. 11 effort, the slim volume has a lot to offer for the general reader who wants an introduction to the topic of Islamic extremists on the loose in America.

In its discussions of Osama bin Laden’s American connections and the vast support networks set up here for the benefit of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, Emerson provides a concise analysis of this phenomenon and the clear dangers it poses for our national security.

Emerson also spends a chapter talking about moderate American Muslims who oppose terror. That information is heartening, but it is tempered by the fact that these moderates themselves admit that extremists dedicated to jihad have taken over “80 percent” of American mosques and most American Muslim organizations.

He knows the war against terror is one that will go on for a long time without a clear-cut victory. More than 3,000 deaths testify to the truth of the picture that Emerson has painted for us of the danger from Islamic radicals. But in spite of threats and slanders, he continues to voice warnings about our vulnerability.

But even after Sept. 11, are we truly listening?

PBS Pope Profile


There is a haunting image in the early part of the PBS “Frontline” documentary on Pope John Paul II. As the Warsaw ghetto goes up in flames, just outside the wall and within sight and sound of the remaining Jewish resistance fighters, a carousel goes round and round, full of carefree, frolicking, young Poles.

It was in the Poland of that era that Karol Wojtyla, the future pope, grew up and inevitably absorbed the pervasive anti-Semitism of the Catholic church. But he also played soccer with Jewish friends who later would perish in the Holocaust.

The evolution of the pope’s relationship to the Jewish people is traced in the second segment — of seven — in the television biography of “John Paul II: The Millennial Pope.”

The 2 1/2-hour program will air Tuesday, Sept. 28, at 9 p.m. on KCET and other PBS stations.

Straight Talk About Blacks and Jews


Issac Bitton meets Peter Noel, the man who saved his life during the Crown Heights riots.

Among Jews, the subject of black-Jewish relations inevitably brings to the surface two impassioned, if not unrelated sentiments: a liberal nostalgia for the integrated social activism of days gone by and an embittered cataloguing of the latest anti-Semitic soundbites to come out of the mouths of black leaders.

In “Blacks and Jews,” filmmakers Deborah Kaufman, Bari Scott and Alan Snitow explore the events that have given rise to resentment on both sides and trace the freefall of this once solid friendship with intelligence and a rigorous avoidance of platitudes. The documentary will air nationwide on Tuesday, July 29, the latest offering in PBS’s excellent “P.O.V.” series, a showcase for independent, non-fiction films now in its tenth year. (Locally, it airs on KCET.)

Those looking for some kind of upbeat closure will not find it here, yet there are some moments of inspiration: A black West Indian journalist rescues a bloodied Hasidic father and his son during the Crown Heights street rioting of 1991. After a reuinion much later, the journalist describes discovering the Morrocan immigrant and ex-hippie behind the Jewish man’s beard and black garb. In that same beleaguered section of Brooklyn, a black-Jewish rap group called “The Cure” belts out positive messages with affable swagger. There is also the story of how Chicago Rabbi Robert Marx joined in protest with black homebuyers in 1969 to protest racist bank practices and the cynical manipulations of local real estate speculators (many of whom were Jewish) when the city’s Lawndale area was making it’s rocky transition from a Jewish neighborhood to a black one. Few current Lawndale residents, the film points out, are old enough to remember those united efforts now.

These episodes are cheering, but they are like faint solos, easily drowned out on the larger stage of black-Jewish relations, which the filmmakers describe at the outset as having degenerated into “a public ritual of mutual blame.”

From the Crown Heights riots to the Million Man March on Washington in 1995 to the media circus that ensued after a group of predominantly black high school students in Oakland laughed disruptively during a screening of “Schindler’s List,” the filmmakers do not shy away from the deep wounds and facile stereotypes that shape the interactions of these two communities.

Much of what fuels the conflict portrayed so ably here is a microcosm of what ails the country at large: a climate of tribalism and victimology, the brutishness of public discourse and endless battles over language as a way to define and claim events. Hours after a Hasidic driver accidentally ran over 7-year-old Gavin Cato in Crown Heights that fateful day in August 1991, Hasidic student Yankel Rosenbaum was fatally stabbed. Many blacks called the eruption of violence an uprising. Jews called it a pogrom.

Nowhere in the film is the complexity of the failed relationship between blacks and Jews captured more vividly than in the final segment. In 1994, when 69 students from Oakland’s prediminantly black Castlemont High School went on a Martin Luther King Day field trip to see “Schindler’s List,” they were kicked out of the theater before the film was over. Their constant laughter — even during brutal execution scenes — got other movie patrons so upset that they stormed into the lobby to protest to the theatre manager. The real drama, however, happened later, after the news media had all gone home. Responding to student complaints that they were forced to learn about the Jewish Holocaust at the expense of their own history, Castlemont set aside a day for invited speakers to focus on the African-American experience. In one classroom a presenter is seen telling students, “This whole society’s job is to make you feel bad about being black.” Another tells them that Jews dominated the slave trade.

It’s a disturbing spectacle, but strangely enough, the most depressing moment in the entire film comes moments later, during an interview with a pair of youngish Castlemont teachers — one Jewish and one black –whose comments are interspersed throughout this segment. When the black teacher is asked about the objectionable material presented by these guest speakers, her response is dishearteningly noncomittal: “Well, out of 27 presenters, two raised some issues that the students challenged.” The Jewish teacher counters that propagating blatantly anti-Semitic lies is hardly the same as “raising some issues.” His black colleague smiles faintly and says nothing. Watching this telling scene play out like a subdued piece of cinema verité, one can’t help but feel that there remains a great deal that we shall not overcome.