Rosenbergs’ Granddaughter Tackles Washington ‘Hill’


What do you do for an encore when your first work is a powerful, heart-wrenching documentary about the life of your notorious grandparents, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg?

The Rosenbergs were executed for spying for the Soviet Union in June 1953. Their personal story was told 51 years later by their granddaughter, Ivy Meeropol, in the powerful 2004 documentary, “Heir to an Execution.”

Ivy Meeropol
Now the 36-year-old filmmaker has followed her ground-breaking and very personal film with a six-part cinema verite-style political series, “The Hill,” which begins airing on the Sundance Channel on Aug. 23. It gives viewers an unprecedented look into what goes on in the office of Florida Jewish Congressman Robert Wexler and the way in which his young staff dictate his actions.

At the Ritz-Carlton Hotel and Spa in Pasadena, Meeropol talked easily about her new film, in which she takes a “fly-on-the-wall” approach capturing the behind-the-scenes intrigue and intimacies of the office of the Democrat Wexler, who is a strong supporter of Israel.

Meeropol lives on the East Coast with her husband, Thomas, a production designer in films and commercials, and their 15-month-old son, Julian. She is the first to admit that it was the emotionally stirring documentary about her grandparents that was instrumental in persuading the congressman to allow her and her all-seeing cameras into his inner sanctum.

Meeropol said she discovered her love of politics after working in Washington as a legislative aide and speech writer for Democratic Rep. Harry Johnston, Wexler’s predecessor.

“It makes sense that I would want to do ‘The Hill.’ I was feeling some nostalgia for my time in Washington,” she said. “I loved working there. And I was always amazed that people really don’t know what goes on. They don’t know that it’s all these very young people who are advising members of Congress — for better or for worse — on how to vote. It’s a compelling story.”

Wexler and his team gave her the green light after viewing “Heir to an Execution.”

“They all felt I had dealt with the subject very sensitively and I wasn’t someone who would exploit things,” Meeropol said. “And they quickly forgot that I was in the room with a camera. Since I had worked in the same capacity as some of the people you see in the film, I was able not just to gain access but tell the story in a way that others wouldn’t be able to do.”

The first episode, set in November 2004, focuses on Wexler’s support for the Kerry-Edwards presidential ticket. He and his staff go to a Boca Raton temple — along with actor Mandy Patinkin — to try to sell a “why I trust John Kerry on Israel” message to voters. Wexler discusses attending an American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference and refusing to deliver a soft speech. But all of his staff are utterly devastated when Kerry loses.

Wexler, his foreign policy adviser, Halie Soifer, and his staff come across loud and clear on their strong support of Israel, their opposition to Supreme Court nominee John Roberts and President Bush’s Iraq policy — although Wexler originally supported the war.

Meeropol, an open, friendly young woman talked enthusiastically about her new film series, as well as her pedigree. While she had come to Pasadena to talk about “The Hill,” the conversation inevitably turned to “Heir,” her critically acclaimed film that humanized but didn’t lionize the grandparents she never met.
That first documentary gave her career as a fledgling moviemaker a huge boost. It was the calling card the young filmmaker needed, but it came with some built-in insecurity.

“I was essentially elevated immediately to the status of successful filmmaker on my first one out of the gate, and I wondered if that had more to do with who I am — that kind of celebrity status that came with it — or was it a good film as I thought,” she said.

Though she didn’t start out life to be a documentary filmmaker, her future was almost dictated by her history.

“I had been grappling with the story of my family for years as a writer, trying to figure out what I would contribute that would really demonstrate what I would have to say about it,” she said.

The documentary idea evolved, she said, “in part because I realized there were people out there who knew my grandparents who weren’t going to be around much longer. I knew if I didn’t get these people’s stories, then they were going to be gone, and I’d never forgive myself. So that’s how it started.”

After her grandparents were arrested during the height of the Cold War, the ensuing scandal stunned and rocked Jews in America. Her father, Michael, was only 7 when his parents were arrested, and he and his 4-year-old brother, Robert, soon discovered that their relatives didn’t want to have anything to do with them. In 1957, the boys were legally adopted by Anne and Able Meeropol, who were not related to the family.

Growing up, Meeropol said, “We were quite cultural Jews, not religious, very secular. Passover was the only Jewish holiday we celebrated, because it was kind of cultural, historic. So we had seders. But I was never bat mitzvahed. Ironically, though, I’m very identified as a Jew because of the Rosenbergs. You can’t get rid of it. You’re Jewish royalty, even though my mother is a Lithuanian-Irish Catholic,” she said with a laugh.

The fly-on-the-wall approach to “The Hill,” she said was a direct result of the personal nature of her first film.

“I wanted to do something very different,” she said. “I wanted to do the political series as pure verite as possible.”

Meeropol now says she feels comfortable about revisiting other periods of her life.

“I worked as a nursing assistant at a nursing home because my other grandfather, Abel Meeropol [who died at 78 when she was a freshman at college], ended up in a home suffering from Alzheimer’s.

She visited him regularly and said she wanted to work in the home to make sure her grandfather was well cared for: “I had no idea what that really entailed. They were so desperate for nurses’ aides they hired me without any experience, and I was thrown right into that.”

Now Meeropol said she’s interested in making the nursing home experience the topic of her next film.

“I’d like to tell the story about life in a nursing home — focusing more on the people who work there,” she said. “It’s a very contemporary issue, and more and more people are going to have to deal with it. It’s a fascinating world — just like ‘The Hill.'” l

Ivor Davis writes for The New York Times and Los Angeles Times syndicates.

Jamie McCourt Proves She’s an Artful Dodger President


Bougainvillea and vines curl around a pergola at the Bel Air Hotel’s outdoor patio restaurant, a lunch spot for Westside powerbrokers. It’s 10:30 a.m., and powerbrokers are scarce at this hour, except for Jamie McCourt, vice chairman and president of the Los Angeles Dodgers, who is seated under a canopy at a private table. She smiles when asked what humanitarian work she and her husband, Frank, have done to earn the Scopus Award, an honor from the American Friends of Hebrew University, which they will receive in a ceremony at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in December.

“You don’t think saving the Dodgers is enough?” she quips.

Indeed, she is right, for the Dodgers, a legendary name in professional sports, a franchise once associated with excellence on the playing field, stability in the front office and a commitment to progressive causes, most notably the breaking of baseball’s so-called color barrier, fell on hard times during the Rupert Murdoch era.

Perhaps the beginning of the Dodgers’ decline dates back farther, to that moment in 1987 when longtime Dodger executive Al Campanis, given multiple opportunities by Ted Koppel to atone for his ignorance, nonetheless continued to deny the leadership qualities of African Americans on “Nightline.”

The Dodgers went on to win the World Series in 1988, but the architect of that team, Fred Claire, another longtime company man who had replaced Campanis as general manager, later made a number of unpopular trades, such as dispatching young pitching phenomenon Pedro Martinez for the forgettable Delino DeShields. Claire and manager Bill Russell were ultimately fired by Murdoch, whose cable apparatchiks inaugurated their tenure by trading slugger Mike Piazza, a future Hall of Famer, for five players who do not play any longer for the Dodgers.

Since 2004, when the McCourts purchased the team from News Corp, the Dodgers have had a mixed record. They won their division that first year, though they lost in the first round of the playoffs. By the next year, they had parted with clubhouse leader Paul LoDuca, most valuable player runner-up Adrian Beltre and local hero Shawn Green, three players who were critical to the team’s first win in a playoff game since 1988.

After a dismal season last year, which culminated in the firing of neophyte GM Paul DePodesta, the severing of ties with manager Jim Tracy and the hiring of their respective replacements, Ned Colletti and Grady Little, the team has rebounded surprisingly well. Although Eric Gagne, who is out for the season, is the only player who has been with the ball club for as many as three years, the Dodgers have jelled better than might have been expected.

Colletti spent an active winter acquiring a strong group of veterans, including Rafael Furcal, Kenny Lofton and comeback player of the year candidate Nomar Garciaparra, who have combined with some productive rookies and holdovers like Jeff Kent and J.D. Drew to lead the team to a spot near the top of the National League West Division.

So, Jamie McCourt, an attractive, petite woman with blond hair and an easy smile, has every right to argue that in resurrecting the Dodgers she and her husband have performed a public service worthy of the Scopus Award.

McCourt, who as president of the Dodgers handles much of the club’s business side, as opposed to its baseball operations, once attended the Mount Scopus campus of Hebew University. A native of Baltimore, from the same neighborhood as filmmaker Barry Levinson, she is Jewish and has raised her four sons as Jews.
On this midmorning at the Bel Air Hotel, she wears a brown suede jacket over a white top, sporty attire that gives one the impression that she has just come from working out. In fact, she swims every day and typically climbs the stairs at Dodger Stadium instead of taking the elevator.

She may be remarkably slim, like one of the social X-rays in Tom Wolfe’s “Bonfire of the Vanities,” but she is also athletic and looks like she might have been a coxswain on the college crew team. That is befitting a woman whose husband, Frank, rowed crew at Georgetown, where they met.

Like Levinson’s characters in his Baltimore-set movies, she speaks with a spirited yet soft voice, but she doesn’t accentuate her double O’s as Danny DeVito did when pronouncing words like “food” in Levinson’s “Tin Men.” Despite her Baltimore lineage, she says she has not seen “Diner,” Levinson’s iconic film about her hometown, because she feared that Levinson “wouldn’t get the diner right.”

McCourt’s father, an appliance discount king, worked near that diner, and she fears that her own memory and her father’s experiences have not been honored accurately.

She has, however, picked up on her father’s sloganeering, which included the priceless couplet, “Jack, you know, will save you dough.” She utters one-liners almost effortlessly.

When Danish pastries are brought to the table, McCourt cracks, “It’s all health food.”

When she recounts her first trip to Israel, in which she traveled around the country for several months on a bus, a mode of travel she abhors, she says, “That cured me of touring.”

When asked about her avid swimming regimen, she says, “There’s no talking to me if I haven’t gone swimming.”

If she is quick with a quip, she is no “screaming meanie,” as L.A. Times sports columnist T.J. Simers refers to her.

“I never scream,” she says. “If you want to pick a nickname, at least pick one that’s true.”

Especially during the McCourts’ first year of ownership, the Times sports section for the most part depicted Jamie and Frank McCourt, the latter known by Simers as the parking lot attendant, as carpetbaggers who have little interest in or knowledge of Los Angeles, social climbers who lack the financial resources to run the team and public relations novices. More recently, Times columnist Bill Plaschke expressed mock distaste for their smooching in public.

Although McCourt and her husband have indeed kissed in public, the rest of the charges don’t appear so valid.

On the issue of funding, Jamie McCourt says that no solo purchaser in the history of Major League Baseball has spent as much money by himself in purchasing a team as her husband did in buying the Dodgers. Unlike Yankee honcho George Steinbrenner and owners of other teams, the McCourts purchased the Dodgers without partners, she says, a statement that is not completely accurate, in that News Corp was a “minor, noncontrolling partner” at the outset of the deal, according to the Boston Globe.

While the purchase price, anywhere from $421 million to $431 million based on reports, may be higher than that paid by any one individual for a baseball team, the McCourts borrowed heavily in order to finance the acquisition. The structure of the deal, in which the McCourts put up their South Boston real estate property as collateral and assumed significant debt, including a loan of more than $100 million from News Corp, led some to speculate that they were arbitrageurs looking to game the market and sell the property after a year or so.

Though such speculation may have been unfounded, there was no denying that the deal was highly leveraged. No less than Andrew Zimbalist, a Smith College professor and authority on baseball economics, has stated that Major League Baseball likely waived its debt percentage rule for the McCourts. That rule would have required the McCourts to have at least a 50 percent equity stake in the team at the time of purchase.

Now, more than two years after the purchase, the financing seems more sound. Earlier this year, the McCourts sold News Corp the family’s prized 24-acre waterfront property in the Seaport District of Boston. That sale reportedly satisfied all of their financial obligations to Murdoch’s company.

This past winter, the team also invested roughly $45 million, according to McCourt, in renovating the stadium, putting in new seats and restoring the original color palette to the famed venue that the New Yorker’s Roger Angell once called the “pastel conch.” The Dodgers also acquired numerous free agents during the off season to boost its payroll to a competitive level.

Nor have the McCourts shied away from personal expenditures. They purchased a home and the adjacent property in pricey Holmby Hills and send their youngest of four sons to the elite Harvard-Westlake private school.

In short, they do not look like they are on the verge of bankruptcy or about to leave town, particularly since McCourt says she loves Los Angeles and all its diversity: “There are so many immigrant populations. It’s sort of the way New York must have been once. It’s a place of opportunity. Every day you wake up, it’s ‘today’s the day I’m going to succeed.'”

Oozing optimism, McCourt and her husband have taken a leadership role in Los Angeles and in the Jewish community, joining the Temple of the Arts, where they were recently named founding members, as well as many civic organizations like the Leadership Council of the Literacy Network of Greater Los Angeles.

She cares deeply about literacy and education, holding a bachelor’s from Georgetown, a law degree from the University of Maryland and a master’s from MIT’s Sloan School of Management. She also studied at Hebrew University for a semester of law school and at the Sorbonne while she was in college.
“Education is the great equalizer,” she says. “Everyone should have a fair shot.”

With the Dodgers’ Dream Foundation, she has helped award college scholarships named after Jackie Robinson to minority youth.

She has also reached out to women in the community. The highest ranking woman in Major League Baseball, McCourt says that women comprise 40 percent of the Dodgers’ fan base. “The female consumer,” she says, ruminating for a moment, “is critical.”

To tap into that critical base, the team has created the Dodgers WIN (Women’s Initiative & Network). Last year, the team held four events for women in the community. This year, there will be 11 events, McCourt says, where women and teenage girls can learn about the game and receive baseball clinics from players and coaches on the Dodgers.

She says that second baseman Kent, often characterized by the media as being gruff, is “an ardent supporter of our women’s initiative.” She adds, “If you have 150 women between 18 and 34 gawking at you, who could complain?”

Despite such good cheer, not all women have enjoyed a welcome in baseball. One woman in the Dodgers front office, Kim Ng, a vice president and assistant GM, was insulted a few years ago by Bill Singer, a former Dodger pitcher who was at the time a broadcaster for the New York Mets. More recently, a San Diego Padres employee was criticized by Keith Hernandez, also a Met broadcaster and a former National League MVP, for being in the dugout.

If the atmosphere for women in baseball remains less than optimal, McCourt still sees opportunity for prospective distaff employees. She has added several women to the Dodgers payroll, including chief financial officer Cristine Hurley and Camille Johnston, head of communications.

“You don’t have to just be a statistician,” she says.

You can even be an owner like McCourt, who wanted to write her thesis at MIT on buying a ball club or a new ballpark. With Wall Street the craze at the time, she had to settle for writing about “naked short selling,” but her interest in baseball goes back to her childhood, when she played shortstop in games in her neighborhood: “I’d come home when I was 7 years old and announce that I was buying a baseball team and a camp.”

Of course, that mirrors her husband’s interest. Frank McCourt’s grandfather owned a piece of the Boston Braves. As Jamie McCourt says, a love of baseball is “in his blood,” all of which runs counter to the skepticism of some critics who said that the McCourts, with their real estate background, would raze Dodger Stadium and build condos.

While the McCourts are showing that they care for baseball and Los Angeles, Boston has not completely left them.

Jamie McCourt says that she has to leave for lunch. Who is she meeting? Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who is in town and whom she knew back in Beantown.

When asked if it’s a fundraiser for 2008, she flashes a smile that suggests more than she’s telling, and then she strolls out of the posh surroundings for her next engagement.

Overcoming Germanophobia During the World Cup


It was more than six decades ago that the Germans were trying to kill me on a nightly basis. Every evening, my family and I would stand at the bottom of our garden in London and listen to the buzz bombs approaching.

Many were shot down, but many more pierced the defensive guns. And when those flying bombs — progenitors of the guided missile — ran out of fuel, they fell to earth, destroying houses, killing neighbors and turning streets into rubble. They whined, and then they were suddenly silent. It was that terrible silence that indicated they were about to drop.

During the heaviest bombardments, we would spend the night in the concrete shelter we’d built at the bottom of the garden. And this went on throughout the blitz.

Now more than 60 years later, I had finally plucked up enough courage to visit Germany for the first time. Once again, they tried to kill me, but this time it was with kindness.

I must admit that in countless trips to Europe, I had carefully avoided visiting Germany, having no desire whatsoever to see the Fatherland that had left me with such dark memories. But then came the summer of 2006, and as a football (soccer to you) devotee, I headed to Germany to cover the World Cup for a Southern California radio station.

At the airport, everything was ultramodern, well lit, clean, efficient — “Like a giant Ikea,” one of my companions quipped. All pretty run of the mill until my entry into Nuremberg.

I’m a dual citizen with U.S. and British nationalities, so when I travel in Europe I do so on my Euro-British passport. It’s less complicated.
Not this time. The German passport control officer smiled, took one look at my British passport and politely asked me to step into a private room, where I was confronted by two British policemen in uniform.

With thousands of British fans expected in Germany for the “fussball,” the police were ready. English soccer fans have been known to imbibe alcohol excessively and then behave in a most disorderly fashion.

Some 70 British police officers had been loaned to Germany for the duration of the World Cup to help the local cops identify and detain the names on England’s “1,000 most-wanted thugs” list, who were to be made decidedly unwelcome in the Rhineland.

A few minutes later the constables admitted I was not an “undesirable” and then politely sent me on my way. And so I headed into the medieval city of Nuremberg, whose name carries such freight for anyone who was around in World War II — and for Jews so much more.

Bavarian history is steeped in anti-Semitism. Hundreds of Jews were massacred in the 13th century. And in the 20th century, the Nuremberg name was placed on a restrictive set of laws that marked the beginning of the end of life and liberty for Germany’s Jews.

In the ’30s, it was the place where Hitler displayed his might to the world, the scene of his most fervent rallies — the Nazi national shrine where filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl captured the frenzied Fuhrer in her 1934 propaganda movie, “Triumph of the Will.”

It was also in Nuremberg that from 1945-1949 the most heinous war criminals had their day in court. Where the “I was following orders” henchmen — Hess, Ribbentrop, Goring, etc. — tried to defend their bestial behavior. And finally, it was also a city that was totally decimated by British and American bombers. Now it had risen from the ashes to act as a World Cup host city.

Here we were in a downtown area known as “The Fan Zone,” and on a gorgeous summer’s afternoon, thousands of young Americans strolled happily through the streets, their faces painted red, white and blue, wearing the Stars and Stripes as a cloak, with some dressed as Capt. America, George Washington and a handful sporting Nixon and Elvis masks.

It was as if I had walked into a bizarre fancy dress party — an unreal carnival as the fans marched through the streets chanting, “U.S.A., U.S.A.,” before the American team took on Ghana. (They lost, in case you didn’t hear.)

It was hard to realize that 70 years ago, these self-same streets were filled with strutting, swastika-clad Germans in a preamble to what turned out to be the bloodiest chapter of a bloody century.

This summer, the Germans were on their best behavior, acutely aware of the need to project the image of the new Germany — friendly, hospitable, open, tolerant — greeting all comers, no matter their race or color, trying their best to demonstrate that at last, Germany is a nation just like any other: little Germany, normal at last.

German flags hung from houses, shops and car windows. Germans unselfconsciously sang their national anthem before their games. Germans painted their faces in their national colors, just like the Americans, the Brits, the Portuguese and the French, and they appeared to be enjoying themselves extraordinarily with good spirits and a complete lack of über-nationalism.

A local journalist explained: “There is such a history with our flag. Before the World Cup if you had a flag in your window, it meant you were a right-winger, possibly even a neo-Nazi. This is the hot topic being discussed on local talk radio every day.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel told The New Yorker that the World Cup had finally enabled Germany to “reflect a beautiful sense of normalcy.”
A Jew can visit Germany today without that nasty feeling that a greater percentage of the population here wishes him ill than in any other European country.

It was impossible not to share in the Germans’ newfound delight in their relaxed position in Europe and their new image in the world. Unlike their former ally, Austria, which has somehow managed to sell the world on the idea that it too was a victim of Nazism, rather than an enthusiastic participant, Germany has confessed its sins, made its mea culpas and paid its reparations to the victims worldwide and to Israel.

Germans have made an attempt to educate their children about their awful history in the last century, and they have the most stringent anti-hate laws in the world. Expressions of racism, supernationalism or discrimination are jumped on quicker here than in any other country in Europe, certainly more than France and more than England.

In 2006, Germany is a beautiful country with nice people. Go and enjoy. While Germany didn’t win the World Cup, it reached the semi-finals, quite an achievement. But a far greater one was to run a World Cup without serious scandal or unpleasantness and to show the world that Germans know how to have fun.

“We were so serious before,” a German fan told me before I left, “but now we’ve shown that we can party. And we’ve surprised the world.”

Museums and Memorials Can Be Found Across Nation

I had limited time to check out Jewish museums in Germany, but there are many. There are museums and memorials around the country in Frankfurt, Munich, Buchenwald, Dachau, Wannsee and Bergen-Belsen.

What should not be missed is the Jewish Museum in Berlin (www.jmberlin.com) at Lindenstrasse 9-14, which tells the entire history of Jews in Germany. The subterranean museum designed by American architect Daniel Libeskind, who was born in Poland and is the child of Holocaust survivors, offers a unique underground series of hallways that house the Axis of Death, the Axis of Exile and the Axis of Continuity, chronicling the history of Jews in 20th century Germany. It also offers rocking horses and crawl spaces for kids, and an exhibition of household goods and personal family photos supplied by survivors of pre-war Jewish families, along with recordings of the voices of Max Reinhardt and Albert Einstein.

During the World Cup, there was even a special tribute in the museum garden to Walther Bensemann, a German Jewish businessman who brought soccer to Germany. He died in l934.

The museum is closed for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Christmas Eve.
Back on the streets of Berlin you can wander everywhere with a Jewish cultural map in hand, pinpointing memorial sites, shuls and cemeteries. You can also simply be a normal tourist and partake of the goodies at Gabriel’s Heimisch Bakery and Cafe on Konstanzer Strasse, Bagels and Bialys on Rosenthaler or the Kosher Beth Cafe on Potsdamer Platz Arkaden on Alte Potsdamer.

9/11 Museum Head Uses Shoah Lessons


Alice Greenwald vividly recalls touring the Auschwitz concentration camp with a Holocaust survivor and watching how the woman shared her story with her children and grandchildren.

It was as if she was trying to instruct her heirs as to the kind of people she wanted them to become, Greenwald remembers.

“What struck me about that experience was that in a world that exists after something like Auschwitz happens, every one of us is her grandchildren,” she said. “We all are obligated to understand what it means to be a human being and the kind of people our parents and grandparents want us to be.”

For more than two decades, Greenwald has been helping to give people a palpable understanding of the Holocaust through her work with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

Beginning this month, she will turn her attention to another terrible atrocity: Greenwald was named in February as the first director of the World Trade Center Memorial Museum in New York, which will commemorate the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and their nearly 3,000 victims.

“Where the two [events] intersect for me in my professional life is in the area of memorialization,” she said recently in her Holocaust Museum office in Washington. “We deal with great loss here at this museum, incomprehensible loss. And we deal with trying to integrate that loss into our collective understanding of history, our personal history of what it means to be a human being.”

Greenwald was a member of the Holocaust Museum’s original design team, working from home as a consultant after stints with Jewish museums in Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Chicago. She joined the museum full-time in 2001 as its associate director for museum programs.

Gretchen Dykstra, president and CEO of the World Trade Center Memorial Foundation, said Greenwald immediately understood the memorial’s goals.

“What struck us so quickly was how immediately she understood the sensitivity of what we were doing,” she said. “She’s not somebody who comes knowing a lot about 9/11, but she knows a lot about memorializing and education.”

The hardest part in designing the New York museum, Greenwald said, is that “there isn’t a human being on the face of the planet who doesn’t have a 9/11 story.”

Greenwald herself was unpacking boxes in her new Washington home on that day, having just moved from Philadelphia. Her husband, on an Amtrak train bound for New York, had called to ask if she knew why he and his business associates weren’t moving.

The carpenter working in her home heard her gasp when she turned on the television. They watched the second tower fall together, and immediately embraced.

“This was a man I knew for 10 minutes,” she said. “And we hugged each other in an embrace, watching the television in complete disbelief, because we needed to be with another human being in that moment.”

Emotions are still very raw for those who survived the Sept. 11 attack, and for the families of those who died. But Greenwald has experience dealing directly with survivors and families who may visit the museum.

“Other museums have other constituency issues, but I don’t think they have to deal with the sensitivities we have [at the Holocaust Museum],” she said. “We are immensely fortunate to have the voice of authentic witnesses.”

The proximity in time to the event will be one of her biggest challenges in New York, she said.

“The institution will have to be flexible, because the world will keep moving forward and we don’t know what events will re-characterize our understanding of 9/11,” she said.

She has watched the Holocaust Museum evolve, noting that it was built before “Schindler’s List” and other mass-media portrayals of the Shoah.

The Sept. 11 museum will be part of several structures planned for the area where the World Trade Center stood. The foundation is constructing the museum and a separate memorial, Reflecting Absence, that will honor those killed on Sept. 11 and in a previous attack at the World Trade Center on Feb. 26, 1993.

A visitor’s center and performing arts building also are being planned. Half the site has been zoned for new office buildings, which are being erected separately.

The museum will highlight the magnitude of the attacks, as well as the global response and civic rebuilding.

“You are dealing with a site that is a burial site. People died there. That gives it a sacred quality one has to respect,” Greenwald said.

She compared it to the Holocaust Museum, which she said garners its power from its proximity to other memorials and buildings of power in Washington.

Dykstra said she has been struck by the Holocaust Museum’s impact on visitors, and hopes to replicate that.

“I think what the Holocaust Museum does so beautifully is it takes a historic series of events and personalizes them in a way that universalizes them,” she said. “It’s overwhelming but not didactic.”

The Sept. 11 museum is slated to open on the eighth anniversary of the attacks, in 2009. Greenwald said there is much to be done before then, and she is excited to be a part of this “thrilling” stage of a museum’s birth.

“Each stage will have its own challenges and its own rewards,” she said. She calls it a “Dayenu situation,” saying that if she can at least advance the plans, it would be enough — although she hopes to see the museum built and operating.

“We have to remember that it’s about people,” she said. “There’s a tendency to want to memorialize the building, and there is some significance to that. But this is not a memorial to a building; it’s a memorial to people.”

 

Memories and Music


Before going inside, every visitor had to sign a waiver agreeing not to sue in case, say, a stray piece of wood or plaster fell on them. It felt, for a moment, like myself and the other members of the audience were embarking on a risky enterprise. But Boyle Heights’ Breed Street Shul, though a hardhat area nowadays, held no such dangers.

We were here, on this April Sunday for a noon performance by The Cuarteto Latinoamericano. Three of the four members of the string quartet are Mexican Jews — adding a fitting resonance to this location in a neighborhood that was once filled with Jews (living side by side with Japanese, Molokan Russians, Latinos and others) and is now a Latino enclave.

For many, the air was filled with nostalgia as well as music.

Gary Platt, 80, whose company manufactures casino furniture in Nevada, walked around the old shul — now in the midst of reconstruction — breathing it in, looking at it as if each piece of folk art and stained glass held a personal history.

“There were other, smaller shuls,” Platt said, “but this was the queen bee. We moved to Boyle Heights in 1934, and I had my bar mitzvah here in 1938. I have wonderful memories of this place. We had all these big social events here. The place was jumping during those years. [This neighborhood] was a fun place in which to grow up.”

Many Los Angeles Jews, often recently arrived immigrants, settled in Boyle Heights and surrounding areas in the 1920s and 1930s. Eventually, most would move to the Fairfax district, then to the San Fernando and San Gabriel Valleys and the Westside, as wealth and resources permitted, leaving Boyle Heights to other immigrants, often Latino, also seeking their fortune and future in America.

In Los Angeles, as in other American cities where Jews have moved out en masse from their old neighborhoods, they not only left dwellings behind, they also left behind synagogues, social centers, stores and street corners that connected them to a certain time in their lives and to a particular era in their collective past.

The Jewish community, it seems, is always wandering, though it’s part of the human condition, as well — always moving to the next area, the next neighborhood, always thinking that a better life awaits us, while at the same time remembering with profound nostalgia the old neighborhood we left behind.

Some Jews who once lived in Boyle Heights, or whose forebears did, and others want to preserve and celebrate those memories, which is the impetus behind the renovation going on at the Breed Street Shul, whose official name was the Congregation Talmud Torah. Even after nearly all Jews moved out of Boyle Heights in the 1950s, the shul continued to function.

“My bubbe and zayde were members of this shul,” said Ethel Kaplan, 63, a member of the Jewish Historical Society. “Even after my family moved to the Westside, we would come here for High Holidays and sometimes for other holidays and Shabbat, as well.”

But finally — in 1996 — the shul closed its doors. In subsequent years, it was subject to vandalism and decay.

Now the shul, the last remaining building in the neighborhood under Jewish auspices, is being rebuilt by the Breed Street Shul Project, a subsidiary of the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California. Both organizations are headed by Steve Sass, vice president at HBO.

The project is funded by government and foundation grants, as well as by private donations. Supporters still need to raise $3 million to complete the restoration.

“In reconstructing the Breed Street Shul,” Sass said, “we want to build bridges with the existing community. We want to bring in volunteers to teach English or do other community work, but we don’t want it to be that it’s all one way: We want to not only help the Latino community that lives here now, we also want to learn from them, to have them help us.

“That way we can engage one another and jointly learn from one another,” he continued. “We want to be supportive neighbors, and we really don’t have any models for this. So we have to devise our own models as we go along.

“In other cities where Jews moved out and left shuls behind, the old shuls, the historic ones, have sometimes been demolished, or else they’ve been renovated and turned into museums. We don’t want either of those things to happen here….

“We want this place, the Breed Street Shul, to live again, not as a functioning shul, not as a museum, but as a space that respects its Jewish past [while also serving] the cultural and educational concerns of those who live in the community now. We want it to become an important gathering place for both communities.”

With that in mind, Sass and MaryAnn Bonino, head of Da Camera Society’s Chamber Music in Historic Sites series, devised a program to bridge the gap between Boyle Heights’ Jewish past and its Latino present.

“Steve Sass and I are friends,” said Bonino, “and we’ve talked about doing an event together for some time.”

The Cuarteto Latinoamericano was scheduled to play a concert elsewhere in East L.A. in the middle of the afternoon on that same Sunday, April 9, so Sass and Bonino folded into the day’s events — in Sass’s words — a “forshpeiz,” or appetizer: a miniconcert performed by the group in the Breed Street Shul.

The result was astonishingly, heartbreakingly beautiful.

The Cuarteto Latinoamericano played David Stock’s “Sue?os de Sefarad,” which means “Dreams of Spain” in Ladino, and the music did indeed weave traditional Ladino/Sephardic melodies into its musical fabric. The acoustics were lush and rich in the historic synagogue.

The sounds evoked the nostalgia felt by Sephardic Jews remembering the Spain from which they had been ejected. The crowd consisted of more than a few like Platt and Kaplan, for whom the walls resonated with their own nostalgia for the Boyle Heights neighborhood where they and their families had once lived.

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‘Gates’ Hold Key to Palestinians’ Pain


In 1929, novelist Franz Werfel, during a stay in Damascus, caught sight of some maimed and famished-looking refugee children working in a carpet factory. He soon learned that they, and thousands of others like them, were survivors of the 1915 Turkish massacre of Armenians. Werfel, though a Central European and a Jew, went on to write what today is still considered the definitive fictional treatment of the Armenian tragedy in his epic novel, “The Forty Days of Musa Dagh.”

In an analogous way, with “Bab al-Shams,” or “Gate of the Sun,” Lebanese Christian novelist, journalist and playwright Elias Khoury may well have written the first great Palestinian novel, a sprawling fictional account of the mass Palestinian displacement that began with the 1948 war. Khoury will read from “Gate of the Sun” at the Levantine Cultural Center in Culver City on Feb. 25.

Born in Beirut in 1948, Khoury became deeply attached to the Palestinian cause in the 1960s through Palestinian school friends who introduced him to the grim refugee camps that still surround the Lebanese capital. He worked at the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Research Center in Beirut in the mid-1970s before launching a distinguished journalistic career with Su’un Filastiniya (Palestinian Affairs) and, more recently, serving as publisher and editor-in-chief of the culture and literature supplement to Beirut’s influential daily, An-Nahar. In 2004 he was appointed Global Distinguished Professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at New York University.

“Gate of the Sun,” was originally published in Beirut in 1998 to great acclaim. Subsequently, translations appeared in French and Hebrew, and an epic four-and-a-half-hour film version, “The Gate of the Sun,” directed by Egyptian film director Yousry Nasrallah, was released in 2004. The just-released English edition was translated from the Arabic by Humphrey Davies for Archipelago Books.

Khoury’s “outsider” status plays a major role in the formation of his novel and may also be a key to its greatness. Unlike Palestinian novelists Emile Habibi and Ghassan Kanafani, for example, Khoury could not write out of his own memories of Palestinian life, but had to make use of the memories of others. He researched Palestinian oral accounts of the period as well as Israeli chronicles of the war that followed the creation of the state, including Ben Gurion’s memoirs. He also spent five years listening to the stories of Palestinian refugees in squalid Lebanese camps like Shatila, the beginning and the end of the novel’s swirling journeys.

“I try to identify with refugees as much as possible,” Khoury told a Chicago Palestine Film Festival audience last year, “and give them a voice to speak with.”

The narrator of the novel is a peasant doctor, Khalil, who spends his time in a makeshift house in Shatila refugee camp, telling stories and reminiscing at the bedside of a comatose, aging fighter in order to keep him alive. Swirling out of this apparently hopeless and frequently digressive monologue comes a thousand and one stories of Palestinian bravery, foolishness, passion, devotion and defeat.

The black humor of the premise is intentional, as are the allusions to Scheherazade and “A Thousand and One Nights.” Whereas her stories prevented her own death, Khalil’s tales attempt to forestall the death of another — to provoke, cure and redeem his dying friend.

The comatose patient, Yunes (Jonah), is from Galilee, and it is his love for his wife, Nahilah, that forms the novel’s central tale. Through Khalil, the storyteller, we follow Yunes and Nahilah as they meet secretly in a cave called bab al-shams in Arabic, or “gate of the sun” where they eat, make love and discuss the children.

“‘Palestine is not a cause,'” Khalil recalls Yunes telling him, “‘because the land doesn’t move from its place. That land will remain, and the question isn’t who will hold it, because it’s an illusion to think that land can be held. No one can hold land when he’s going to end up buried in it. It’s the land that holds men and pulls them back toward it. I didn’t fight, my dear friend, for the land or for history. I fought for the sake of a woman I loved.'”

Not surprisingly, Khoury’s narrator tells vivid and disturbing tales of Palestinian victimization and Israeli cruelty in the context of the 1948 war. But the novel also explores Palestinian complicity in the tragedy and the reality of deep personal connections between the two peoples.

“The story of the Nakba, the ‘catastrophe’ of 1948,” Khoury said in a recent interview, “hadn’t really been told. The emergence of these memories is a way of creating a new vision of Palestine. Since the image of the Palestinian portrayed in literature and the dominant ideology was a heroism and martyrdom, I think the novel [helps] liberate people by telling the stories of humiliation and interior defeat that they never told.”

Speaking about the Holocaust, Khalil tells Yunes: “You and I and every human being on the face of the planet should have known and not stood by in silence, should have prevented that beast from destroying its victims in that barbaric, unprecedented manner. Not because the victims were Jews but because their death meant the death of humanity within us.”

As Ammiel Alcalay aptly summed it up in a 2002 Village Voice article on Khoury’s work:

“In tracing these maps of the interior [of Palestinian and Israeli experience], Khoury opens up a whole new territory, envisioning a place where confronting pain and suffering might lead, if not to reconciliation, then at least to recognition of the other in oneself, even as it gets harder every day.”

The Levantine Cultural Center presents Elias Khoury reading from “Gate of the Sun,” along with a concert headlined by vocalist Naser Musa on Feb. 25 at 8 p.m. 5920 Blackwelder St., Culver City. $25. For information, call (310) 559-5544.

Gabriel Meyer is an award-winning poet, journalist and novelist. He won Catholic Press Association awards for his coverage of the first Palestinian intifada in 1989 and went on to cover the Balkan war for the National Catholic Register in the early 1990s. Since 1998, he has written extensively on the civil war in Sudan and is the author of “War and Faith in Sudan” (Eerdmans, 2005).

 

Cowboy Cupid Bares His Horse Sense


The “woman business” is a heck of a lot like the horse business, says rancher-turned-matchmaker Ivan Thompson. You’ve got to treat them right to ensure obedience.

The politically incorrect but charismatic Thompson is the star of “Cowboy Del Amor,” the latest documentary by acclaimed Israeli filmmaker Michele Ohayon, which opens today at the Nuart Theatre. With cinematic tongue planted firmly in check, she profiles this self-professed “cowboy cupid” as he lassos Mexican brides for older gringos who find American women too demanding.

It all began when the rancher sought his third (and now ex) wife from Mexico because he “couldn’t get to Afghanistan,” he says in the film. But she got “too Americanized” after being allowed her own car and cellphone.

“Pretty soon, she was the boss of the house — of my business, and that only left me the pissants and the tumbleweeds,” he laments.

So the horseman dumped wife No. 3 and in 1989, placed a personal ad in a remote Mexican town where he hoped the women might be tamer. He received 80 responses and realized he could rustle himself up a new career.

Filmmaker Ohayon’s career previously highlighted serious (and politically correct) subjects, such as oppressed Palestinians and homeless women. She won a 1997 Oscar nomination for “Colors Straight Up,” her profile of urban youth in the aftermath of the L.A. riots.

So why did she choose to profile the less-than-enlightened Thompson?

“I’ve always regarded this film as an exercise in tolerance, my own and others’,” she said in her Hollywood Hills home, which is decorated with modern art and Moroccan Jewish crafts. Sure, she said she wanted to “smack” Thompson for his sexist remarks, but she also found him to be honest, endearing and dedicated to his work peddling marriage.

“I hoped to show that if you disagree with someone, you don’t have to hate them,” she said. “Human beings are complex, and what I love to do in all my films is to break stereotypes, to show all sides of a story.”

Ohayon, now in her early 40s, learned that lesson early. In 1965, 5-year-old Michele watched Arab extremists torch her father’s Casablanca bookstore, the front for his illegal operation smuggling Moroccan Jews to Israel. In the family flat across the street, her parents barricaded the door as the mob searched the shop’s basement and discovered forbidden documents.

When the thugs came for the Ohayons, their Arab concierge pretended they no longer lived in the building. As the family fled to Israel that night, Michele noted that not all Arabs hate Jews. She made that point on camera in 1984 with her controversial Israeli feature, “Pressure,” about a doomed Jewish-Palestinian romance.

While working on a documentary about Palestinian artist Kamal Boulata that same year, she “clicked” with her future husband, Dutch Catholic cinematographer Theo Van de Sande, as Israeli soldiers held them at gunpoint under a military watchtower in Ramallah. When the officers demanded that they hand over their footage, Ohayon and Van de Sande exchanged a meaningful glance. The cinematographer calmly gave the soldiers footage of children playing that he had previously shot, per Ohayon’s instructions, to deceive them about the true content of the film.

Although she barely knew Van de Sande, she promptly gave up her budding career to live with him in Amsterdam, where she could not work or speak the language.

“I was this really tough, straightforward Israeli, and the Dutch are all but that, so Theo would get really hurt, and I’d have to learn to tone it down,” she said. Her experience led her to strongly identify with the Mexican women in “Cowboy” who impulsively abandon their culture for love.

She and Van de Sande solved their early problems, in part, by moving to the neutral turf of Los Angeles in 1987. Ohayon immediately began searching for a film project and found it upon reading an article on a relatively unknown subgroup of the homeless population: formerly affluent women ravaged by illness or divorce. Her ensuing documentary, “It Was a Wonderful Life,” is both intimate and searing. The same personal approach will grace her upcoming documentary, “Steal a Pencil for Me,” an unusual Holocaust story.

“Many filmmakers tend to be observational and removed, but Michele draws you into the hearts and minds of her subjects,” said Betsy A. McLane, author of 2005’s “A New History of Documentary Film.” “It makes sense that several of her documentaries have been optioned as feature films. In a way, she’s like a novelist, because she takes the time to select and develop her characters.”

Ohayon recognized another great character in Thompson when she first heard him speak on National Public Radio several years ago.

“He embodied the classic comic theme of a matchmaker who can’t manage his own love life,” she said with a laugh.

Eager to tackle lighter fare after her previous documentaries, she contacted Thompson and arranged to meet him in Texas with her digital camera in tow (later Van de Sande came aboard as cinematographer). There, the cowboy introduced her to Rick, 48, a truck driver seeking true love in a demure package.

Ohayon followed the men as they walked across the border; endured a bumpy, 11-hour ride to Torreon; placed an ad in the local newspaper; and screened prospects who called their shabby motel room (anyone heavier than 120 pounds was out).

Although critics praised the film on the festival circuit, Thompson’s matchmaking techniques sparked some debate.

“The success of the arrangement seems to depend less on true love and more on the women being skinny, attractive and content to be regularly intimate with an older American male of questionable virtue,” efilmcritic.com said.

Ohayon, too, was initially skeptical of Thompson’s tactics and said she often lashed out at his sexist remarks. But then she noted how carefully he screened his male clients. And that he found women — many of them middle class — who wanted to marry Americans for their perceived loyalty, not to obtain green cards. She saw Rick and Francis fall in love and filmed two weddings on camera.

Eventually, Ohayon developed great affection for Thompson and even grew to appreciate his horse analogy: “When you understand how much he loves horses, you see that’s the biggest compliment in the world.”

The film opens Feb. 10 at the Nuart in Los Angeles. Ohayon and Van de Sande will conduct Q-and-As Feb. 10-12 after the 5:10 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. screenings.

 

‘Munich’ — a Risky Move for Spielberg


The billboards for Steven Spielberg’s new film “Munich,” which opens Dec. 23, will soon be sprouting on buses, benches and boulevards around the nation. The image is simple and stark. A lone man sits gloomily in a dark, heavily draped hotel room, his body sparely illuminated by the light of a single window. His shoulders are hunched disconsolately and a pistol dangles from his hand. He seems very much alone.

The legend notes: “The world was watching in l972 as 11 Israeli athletes were murdered at the Munich Olympics. This is the story of what happened next.”

What happened next is at the heart of what could be Spielberg’s most daring, provocative and politically charged movie. Munich presents a fictionalized account of Israel’s decision to track down and kill the perpetrators of the Olympic massacre — quietly, systematically and ruthlessly. Something very much like this happened in reality, and that’s what happens in the film, too, which is loosely based on “Vengeance,” the nonfiction book by George Jonas, first published in 1984.

Five years in the making “Munich” presents Spielberg, who has pulled off blockbuster entertainments such as “Jaws” and “Raiders of the Los Ark” as well as critically acclaimed dramas with a formidable challenge, such as “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan.”

The subject matter virtually guarantees that the film will satisfy almost no one with deep feelings about the subject or the politics of the Middle East.

Dramatically, Universal Studio and DreamWorks SKG are marketing the film as “a gripping, suspense thriller,” but the work is more than that for Spielberg personally and also for his reputation. Spielberg is a hero to many Jews and Israelis for creating the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, which preserved the memories of 49,000 Holocaust victims. Spielberg has taken on a tailor-made talmudic dilemma: On the one hand if he painted the Israeli assassins as avenging heroes he would invoke the wrath of not only the entire Arab world but Europeans whose leftist governments and the people they serve, hold pro-Palestinian, anti-Israeli positions.

On the other, if he attempts to make the Arab killers of the Israeli Olympic team in any way understandable as human beings (as for example in “Paradise Now,” the movie about Palestinian suicide bombers), if he ascribes to them motives that could make them seem less than monsters, Israelis and Jews around the world would be outraged.

“Munich for us was comparable to America’s Sept. ll,” said Reuven Merhav, one-time director of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, who served in Israeli intelligence during the events portrayed in the film. “It’s Steven’s ‘Passion of The Christ,'” said a studio executive who worked on the movie in Europe. “He’s damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. But he was determined to get the picture made and perhaps only he could have pulled it off.”

Spielberg based his movie partly on the book by the Hungarian-born, Toronto-based Jonas. This much-debated, dramatically told nonfiction account relates the story of “Avner,” the young Mossad agent recruited to head a team of five assassins tasked with killing 11 Arabs implicated in the Olympic killings.

Jonas’ primary source was Avner himself, who was the cr?me de la cr?me of the Israeli military, a young man who as a crack army officer had been unafraid to kill in battle. Turning himself into an assassin, however, almost destroyed him and his family, and it led him to profound moral questioning that eventually prompted him to leave the task unfinished and reject outright the concept of personal vengeance. Since its publication, critics have challenged whether Jonas got either the story right or its implied moral. Jonas’ book was the basis of a l986 television miniseries “Sword of Gideon,” starring Rod Steiger as the Mossad boss, Steven Bauer as the reluctant liquidator and Colleen Dewhurst as Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir.

In the movie the lead roles are played by two Australian actors: Oscar-winner Geoffrey Rush (“Shine”), who plays the assassin’s Mossad handler, and Eric Bana (“The Hulk” and “Troy”) as the guilt-ridden young Israeli recruited to set up a small team of experts in skills such as using explosives and forging documents.

The movie’s production was shrouded in secrecy, partly to avoid possible disruption to on-location shoots in Malta, which doubles for Israel, and Budapest, which stands in for Munich. In Manhattan, as part of the low-profile approach, the movie was called by the benign temporary title “Kings Cross.” In Paris (where Holocaust survivor Roman Polanski visited his set) and the rest of Europe, it was “Red Wine.”

Early previews of the film have simply not been available for reviewers, forcing scribes, including this one, to speculate about the movie’s content based on the trailer and on whatever other sourcing they can pry loose. For this article, a source close to the production provided information on a not-for-attribution basis. Spielberg, for his part, has offered some carefully worded official comments, as have some others associated with the film. Universal said the trio most responsible for the film — Spielberg, producer Kathleen Kennedy and screenwriter Tony Kushner — were unavailable for interviews.

One thing, though, seems clear: Spielberg has vied to turn the tale into a personal crisis of conscience, trying to avoid glorifying one side or the other. At the same time, he believes that the lessons of the Munich attack and Israel’s revenge have relevance to today’s climate of unending bombings and targeted reprisals in the Middle East.

“Viewing Israel’s response to Munich through the eyes of the men who were sent to avenge that tragedy adds a human dimension to a horrific episode that we usually think about only in political or military terms,” Spielberg said in a statement. “By experiencing how the implacable resolve of these men to succeed in their mission slowly gave way to troubling doubts about what they were doing, I think we can learn something important about the tragic standoff we find ourselves in today.”

Spielberg became so caught up with the film that he abandoned the idea of directing “Memoirs of a Geisha,” allowing “Chicago’s” Rob Marshall to helm that film although Spielberg retains an executive producer credit.

He hired Pulitzer prizewinning playwright Kushner (“Angels in America”) to rework the original scripts of Eric Roth (“Forrest Gump”) and Charles Randolph (“The Interpreter”). Kushner’s assignment was reportedly to “soften” the image of the Black September terrorists.

“Nobody’s going to admit that they wanted to soften things — and maybe that’s the wrong word,” said the source who worked on the Spielberg film. “But it was very clear to many that the earlier version of the Arabs was too simplistic and negative. So Kushner’s job was to make them more articulate and maybe even allow them to express their viewpoints — however distasteful — and to try and understand their motivations.”

“Steven wanted to know who he could get to make them human,” the source added. “Someone who understood and could posit the Palestinian point of view as well as articulate that with strong dialogue. He felt the early scripts dwelt too heavily upon the action — and not enough on the raison d’etre.”

In today’s political climate, Spielberg knew he couldn’t get away with making the terrorists one-dimensional heavies. The nasty Nazis of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” wouldn’t cut it.

Kushner, who is Jewish, co-edited 2003’s “Wrestling With Zion: Progressive Jewish American Responses to the Israeli Palestine Conflict,” a book of essays by leading liberal Jewish lights including Arthur Miller and Susan Sontag, which expressed concern about the plight of the Palestinians. It was this reputation, along with his ability to write pungent theatrical dialogue, that convinced Spielberg that he was the person for the delicate job.

Although the movie credits Jonas’ l984 book, which is being re-issued, Spielberg publicist Marvin Levy insisted in an interview, “The book is not the book of our movie.”

In a phone conversation from his home office in Canada, “Vengeance” author Jonas emphasized that he had no involvement or creative control with “Munich.” He’d previously sold his movie rights. Jonas commented that the Spielberg film comes out in a world that has changed since his book was published in the early 1980s.

“It wasn’t until the 1990s that some governments actually began to acknowledge [that they engaged in covert counterterrorism],” he said. “Some 30 years ago the morality of counter-terrorism violence might have been questioned, and governments concealed their actions in that area…. By 2005 matters are more equivocal. Terrorists and counterterrorists came out into the open. Security forces’ assassinations are on CNN. Beheadings of hostages are shown on Al Jazeera [the Arab satellite TV news channel] and now terrorists routinely claim justifications for their acts. Political murder has started to be respectable.”

Spielberg’s retelling uses real live footage of ABC television’s spot coverage of the Black September massacre, complete with Jim McKay’s solemn wrap up: “They’re all gone.”

That is prologue, closely followed by the recruitment of the Israeli secret agent; the make up of his five-man team of experts, including British actor Daniel Craig (the screen’s new James Bond); and Irish actor Ciaran Hinds, last seen as Julius Caesar in HBO’s “Rome.” The agent’s assignment is clear: “You have 11 Palestinian names. Each had a hand in planning Munich. You are going to kill them — one by one,” his Mossad boss tells him.

In Spielberg’s movie, Prime Minister Golda Meir, who sits in her Jerusalem home, sipping tea and sharing fruit with the man chosen to lead the mission justifies the action by noting: “Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values.”

In “Munich” the revenge squad obsess about making sure only their targets are hit — and meticulous care is taken to avoid collateral damage. Yet in one shootout an innocent man is also slain.

(In reality the Israeli hit team, reportedly in pursuit of Palestinian Ali Hassen Salmeh, one of the key Munich plotters, mistakenly killed a Moroccan waiter named Ahmed Bouchiki in Lillehammer, Norway, in July l973.) The intense moral contortions the agents experience as the corpses pile up makes up the substance of the movie.

Before shooting began, Spielberg went to great lengths to vet the text, reportedly lining up a bevy of illustrious advisers, including former Middle East envoy Dennis Ross and former President Bill Clinton. Another evaluator was apparently Rabbi Levi Meier, the chaplain at Cedars-Sinai Hospital, who is close to the director and helped him when Spielberg’s actress wife Kate Capshaw converted to Judaism. Meier declined to confirm or deny his role.

The New York Times reported that Spielberg, also spoke with Clinton’s White House spokesman Mike McCurry as well as Los Angeles PR consultant Allan Mayer whose company specializes in crisis management, on how to cope with the expected firestorm.

Some critics didn’t wait for the movie’s release. Retired former Mossad chief Zvi Zamir questioned the film’s credibility — particularly if it was based on Jonas’ book.

“I am surprised that a director like Spielberg has chosen, out of all the sources, to rely on this particular book,” he told Israel’s Haaretz newspaper.

Spielberg has said Jonas’ book was not his compass: “The film is based on multiple sources including the recollections of some who participated in the events themselves.”

Retired Israeli diplomat David Kimche, a former Mossad agent in the aftermath of Munich, expressed similar misgivings.

“It’s very difficult to pass judgment about rumors, Kimche said. But “I find it repulsive to even try to condone the actions of the Black September terrorists. I think there’s been an effort to change the truth and the facts. You cannot whitewash murderers and, as far as I’m concerned, the people who did what they did in Munich were murderers — and no amount of painting them in a humane way can make any difference.”

Kimche called Jonas’ “Vengeance” “a negative book.” “I lived through that period,” he said, “and I know in my heart what was right and what was wrong. I say to hell with Mr. Jonas.”

An especially ironic critique was datelined Gaza, courtesy Reuters. Mohammed Daoud, believed by some to be the mastermind of the Munich massacre, was reported to be upset that Spielberg never called: “If someone really wanted to tell the truth about what happened he should talk to the people involved. Were I contacted, I would tell the truth.”

The Jonas book, he claimed, “is full of mistakes.” He added: “They carried out vengeance against people who had nothing to do with the Munich attack — people who were merely politically active or had ties with the PLO. If a film fails to make these points it will be unjust in terms of truth and history.”

Retired diplomat Kimche acknowledged that it matters that Spielberg, rather than someone else, made this film.

“Spielberg is a name one can’t ignore,” he said. “I have a vested interest in the story, of course, and when I see the film I will probably come out very angry because I know the reasoning behind the reasoning that went into what was done.”

Jonas, the author of “Vengeance,” is as curious to see the result of Spielberg’s vision as anyone.

“Spielberg is one of the most influential filmmakers in the world,” he said, “and I am naturally extremely curious on what his take on it is. I am prepared to pay my $10 to see it in my local cinema.”

Ivor Davis writes for The New York Times and Los Angeles Times syndicates.

 

Buckeye State Gets a Jewish Museum


Stroll in the shadow of Jewish-owned factories like Glick Neckwear and Favorite Knitting Mills in Cleveland’s long-vanished garment district. Take a seat in an art deco theater where Ethel Merman belts out a song. Round a corner to see Superman bursting through a wall. These are among the sights, sounds and experiences visitors encounter in the new Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage.

Using state-of-the-art audio, visual and computer technologies, the museum illuminates Jewish history, both local and worldwide, setting these traditions and achievements against the backdrop of U.S. and world events. Within its walls, one meets a host of colorful characters whose personal stories are brought to life in film, interactive activities and exhibits of precious artifacts.

Cleveland media mogul Milton Maltz and his wife, Tamar, pledged $8 million toward the construction of the Beachwood, Ohio museum, and to begin an endowment. The Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland contributed the remaining $5.5 million to the museum, which opened Oct. 11. Research support was provided by the Western Reserve Historical Society, and many of the historical documents and artifacts in the museum came from its Jewish Archives.

“Although this is seen through Jewish eyes, it is really an American story,” said Maltz who, with his wife Tamar, was the visionary behind the museum. Beyond chronicling Jewish history, the museum pays homage to the immigrant spirit that, nourished by freedom, built Cleveland and this country.

Although it illuminates large themes, the Maltz Museum is compact. The permanent exhibit occupies 7,000 square feet of the 24,000-square-foot minimalist building, which is faced in luminous Jerusalem limestone. Elsewhere, exhibits throughout the meandering rooms and alcoves engage and inform museum-goers.

The museum experience begins in a light-filled, high-ceilinged lobby hung with eight huge iconic images representing the museum’s major themes. These include dramatic photos of Cleveland Rabbi Arthur Lelyveld, his head bloodied during the 1964 civil rights march in Mississippi, and the smiling face of astronaut Judith Resnick, an Akron native, paired with the Challenger space shuttle in which she lost her life.

Superimposed on these, a multilevel timeline shows the history of the Jews from Abraham onward, placing it in the context of world civilizations and historical events.

In the 60-seat Chelm Family Theater, a short film sets the tone — literally — for the visitor’s tour. A hazy close-up of a man blowing a shofar on a deserted hillside gradually dissolves into a sharply focused shot of the Cleveland Orchestra’s principal clarinetist, Franklin Cohen, playing Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” Actor Peter Strauss narrates this film, which provides an overview of the museum.

Exiting the theater, one encounters a floor-to-ceiling photo of immigrants disembarking on Ellis Island. They hold tightly to their children, bundles and valises. Anxiety, loneliness and hope are etched on their faces. This tableau ushers one into “They’ve Arrived!” — the first section of the core exhibit, which focuses on Cleveland’s first Jewish families and the immigrant experience.

Prominently displayed is the Alsbacher Document, the handwritten “ethical will” addressed to the small band of villagers from Unsleben, Bavaria, who settled here in 1839. In it, their rabbi urges the immigrants to remember their Jewish faith amidst the temptations of the New World.

To better understand the experience of those setting out for a new land, an interactive station allows a visitor to assume the identity of an immigrant, faced with numerous decisions and problems. Further along, exhibits show how schools and settlement houses enabled Americanization. Here, an interactive display challenges visitors to try to pass the citizenship test.

“Building a City” transports museum-goers to Cleveland at the turn of the 20th century. One side of the “street” looks back at the mom-and-pop shops that dotted the old Jewish neighborhoods. The other highlights Cleveland’s once-thriving garment district and pays tribute to Jewish-owned commercial firms like Forest City Enterprises, Rose Iron Works and American Greetings Corp., which all got their start here.

At the end of the street, “To Serve” focuses on the military experience of Jewish servicemen and women from the American Revolution to the war in Iraq.

A film loop shows a re-enactment of a seder held during the Civil War. Photos of soldiers appear on screen, narrated by excerpts from their poignant letters home. A Marine reservist who served in Iraq, Josh Mandel, also speaks.

Other multimedia exhibits highlight the last century of Jewish history. Dark events such as the Holocaust and the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre are covered, as is the creation of the State of Israel. Lighter trends are not ignored — in one section, a larger-than-life Superman bursts through a wall into the gallery, drawing attention to the story of the comic book superhero’s creation by local artists Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Even Jewish gangsters have their stories told.

The final area, “From Generation to Generation,” showcases Jewish achievements from 1950 to the present in science, medicine, business, industry, literature and the arts. Alongside photos of contemporary Jewish landmarks, filmed interviews address the question on of what it means to be a Jew today.

Off the main lobby is The Temple-Tifereth Israel Gallery, which showcases treasures drawn from the collection of The Temple Museum of Religious Art. The Temple’s collection includes ancient ritual objects, sacred books and scrolls from around the world, textiles dating from the 18th century, Holocaust art, Israeli stamps, paintings, lithographs and sculpture by renowned Jewish artists such as Marc Chagall, Jacques Lipschitz and Isidor Kaufmann.

While the museum has generated much initial excitement in the Cleveland Jewish community, its success will depend on drawing a wider audience and offering reasons for visitors to return. Maltz and Carole Zawatsky, the museum’s executive director, say they expect the museum to have regional appeal, drawing 45,000 to 75,000 visitors a year.

The changing exhibition space should be a magnet for repeat visits. The first of these temporary exhibits is “The Jewish Journey: Frederic Brenner’s Photographic Odyssey” which opens Nov. 12.

Just as he hopes people from other ethnic backgrounds will see some of their own stories reflected in the museum, Maltz also hopes they will want to use its open space to mount exhibits showcasing their own heritage.

Special events and ongoing activities will also bring people to the museum, said Zawatsky, who was formerly director of education at the Jewish Museum in New York. She and her staff have created a full schedule of activities for museum-goers of all ages.

“It’s wonderful to have this in our own backyard,” said Cleveland-area resident Ruth Mayers, who attended the Oct. 11 preview gala. “This will bring an understanding of our history to Jew and non-Jew alike; it is a gift to our children.”

For more information about The Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage, visit

Hitler’s Favorite Book Ignites Feud


A mounting Internet feud has led to the expulsion of a public leader of the Holocaust revisionist movement from Amazon.com and triggered a slew of threatening e-mails against a Jewish communal official.

The trouble started soon after Allyson Rowen Taylor, associate director of the Los Angeles office of the American Jewish Congress (AJCongress), ordered one of Hitler’s favorite books, “The Riddle of the Jew’s Success,” Sept. 10 from a seller on Amazon.com’s marketplace. Only afterward did she find out that she had purchased the book from Holocaust revisionist Michael Santomauro, who runs an e-mail list called, ReportersNotebook, that is dedicated to Holocaust denial, as well as to anti-Jewish and anti-Israel material.

When Amazon banned Santomauro from its marketplace a few weeks later — due to e-mails he had sent to Taylor — he distributed her home address and e-mail account to his thousands of subscribers. Taylor was immediately hit with a barrage of threatening e-mails — one of which led her to contact the Los Angeles police: “Since you support Zionists,” the anonymous e-mailer wrote, “I’m sure you won’t mind having your family members shot and your house bulldozed.”

The Internet has been a boon for Holocaust revisionists, who have found few other mainstream outlets for their ideas and products. Earlier this year, Santomauro began selling “The Riddle of the Jew’s Success” on the Amazon marketplace, which serves as a middle man between Internet buyers and sellers.

The book, which was written by Theodor Fritsch, was first published in 1887 and became one of Hitler’s favorites. In an e-mail to supporters, Santomauro wrote that the book explained how “Judaism is a conspiracy against non-Jews. Its aim is to fulfill the covenant and gain dominion over mankind by controlling wealth.”

He reprinted 1,000 copies of a translation of Fritsch’s book, and by September, he had sold more than 100 of them. Taylor came across the book as part of her work with the AJCongress, where she said she is “in charge of monitoring anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism on high school and college campuses.”

Taylor has posted a number of online reviews of books relating to Israel and Judaism on Amazon.com. In a review of a book edited by prominent left-wing Israeli historian Tom Segev on Israeli political dissent, she wrote, “If you like lies, revisionist history, falsehood and numbers without statistics to back them up, then this is the book for you.”

The same day that Taylor bought “Riddle” from Santomauro, she posted a review of the book. In it, she wrote, “Shame on Amazon and shame on you if you purchase this trash.” Santomauro wrote to Taylor using the e-mail address he had received through the order, and asked her why she had written a bad review before reading the book. (Taylor said that she had read excerpts before purchasing it.)

Amazon prohibits sellers from having any contact with customers that is unrelated to the transaction. Taylor said that soon after, she received two more e-mails from Santomauro’s personal e-mail account, one of which, she said, “talked about Jews masturbating over body parts.” When Amazon asked for a customer review of her experience, she sent along the e-mails from Santomauro.

In an interview with The Forward, Santomauro said he sent the e-mails only after Taylor asked to join his ReportersNotebook e-mail list. Taylor countered that she did request to join his list — for monitoring purposes — but only two days after receiving the first batch of e-mails. Neither claim could be confirmed, because both Santomauro and Taylor told The Forward that they had deleted their e-mails from the relevant time period.

Amazon.com has already taken steps to avoid any possibility of a repeat occurrence, at least one involving Santomauro. Amazon spokesman Craig Berman confirmed that Amazon.com will no longer allow the Holocaust revisionist to sell books through its Internet Marketplace.

The Marketplace allows third parties to sell “new, used, refurbished and collectible items” through Amazon facilities, in exchange for a fee equal to 15 percent of the proceeds.

Santomauro violated his participation agreement with Amazon, which prohibits information about a book buyer from being misused “for sending unsolicited e-mail, harassment, invasion of privacy, or other objectionable conduct,” said Berman.

However, as a basic principle, Berman added, “Amazon believes in providing access to all reading material, however controversial or distasteful. Anything else, we believe, is censorship.”

Santomauro and various pro-Nazi groups have urged their followers to protest Amazon’s alleged censorship in cutting off sales of “The Riddle of the Jew’s Success.” Berman said he had no information on how many protest e-mails Amazon had received.

This is not the first time that his various e-mail lists have gotten crossed. He also runs a roommate-matching service on the Internet and in 2003, was swamped with complaints after his Holocaust revisionist e-mails accidentally were sent out to his real estate clients.

Amazon wrote to him Oct. 11, telling him that he was “no longer able to sell on our site,” because of “inappropriate e-mail contact that originated from your e-mail address.”

Santomauro told a different story in e-mails that he sent out to his supporters after he was banned by Amazon. He immediately wrote to his ReportersNotebook list, proclaiming that he was the target of a “professional campaign to smear booksellers that deal with the ‘Jewish Question.'” He told his readers to protest to Amazon.

Then he sent out a separate e-mail with Taylor’s home and e-mail addresses. Santomauro told The Forward that he sent out Taylor’s personal information to help journalists who wanted to write about the story.

Since then, Taylor said, she has received about 50 threatening e-mails. A friend helped Taylor track down the person who sent the most threatening e-mail, and she reported it to the domestic terrorism unit of the FBI.

While two additional neo-Nazi groups — Mein Kampf and Der Leibstandarte — have joined the campaign against Taylor, she has received no further hate e-mail following the initial flurry, Taylor reported this week.

“Apparently, they have been scared off by learning that the FBI is on the case,” Taylor said.

An FBI spokeswoman declined to comment, citing agency policy, but The Journal has learned that the FBI is actively investigating the threats against Taylor as a domestic terrorism case.

Santomauro said he saw nothing wrong with his decision to publicize her address: “For somebody who is trying to destroy my livelihood, and saying things in derogatory ways — I didn’t see what was wrong to announce her address.”

About the threatening e-mails, Santomauro said, “How do I know it’s not a campaign being fabricated in cahoots with the [Anti-Defamation League]?”

Neo-Nazi Internet magazine National Vanguard picked up Santomauro’s story and reprinted his telling of it, without including a response from Taylor. The magazine identified her as an “alleged operative of the ADL,” because of an e-mail she wrote to one of Santomauro’s supporters, saying she intended to pass along the book to the ADL. An ADL official said that the organization has had no contact with Taylor about the incident.

Taylor has written to Amazon, asking the site’s operators to display prominently the fact that sellers on the site will receive buyers’ contact information.

“Had I known I was giving all my information to Santomauro,” Taylor said, “I would have done things differently.”

Reprinted courtesy of The Forward (

A Picture of Hate


Quite possibly the curators missed it entirely. Or maybe they noticed it, and included it without comment as a quiet reminder that we, and they, are perhaps not entirely different after all.

I always try to go to Mass on the anniversary of my mother’s untimely death 26 long years ago. But this year I decided to do something different. I attended the “Liberation!” exhibit at the Museum of Tolerance — photos and objects and footage from the moments in the spring of 1945 when the doors of the Nazi concentration camps were thrown open to the world, and when those few remaining within were set free.

I was immediately drawn to a photograph of a couple dozen dazzling young Jewish women … in prison stripes, in Bergen-Belsen, liberated by the British on April 15. I did some quick arithmetic, and concluded that my mother had been a dazzling young Irish Catholic woman in Brooklyn on that day, busily tormenting the young Irish Catholic men of Brooklyn who hadn’t yet been sent off to war. Most of the young women in this photo, I suspected, had only been in the camps a short while — they looked too healthy, too well-fed, too unbowed to have been there very long. And all were flashing the most glorious, breathtaking, resplendent smiles — saved, miraculously, from certain and immediate doom. Now, suddenly, they had decades not hours of life ahead; their fates were so different from the unfortunate Anne Frank and her sister, Margot, murdered in this very charnel house only a few weeks earlier.

I poked around the exhibit, looking at letters home from liberators, a huge Nazi flag autographed by American soldiers, photos of Gens. Eisenhower and Bradley and Patton — all rather pale and sickly as they toured the Ohrdruf camp on April 12, 1945 (the day Franklin Roosevelt died).

I moved on to a set of nine pages from one soldier’s personal photo album, delicately laid out inside a glass case, taken by “a U.S. Army medical officer” at the Gusen and Ebensee camps. Somehow these seemed more real than the official historical photographs enlarged on the walls — pictures snapped by an ordinary GI with a cheap camera who happened to be in the presence of history.

The medical officer clearly had sympathy for victims of Nazi cruelty. “A very pathetic case,” he wrote. “A 24-year-old German lad [half-Jewish] died of tuberculosis.” “A previously wealthy Hungarian businessman — gone berserk in concentration camp.”

My eyes moved on to four U.S. soldiers posing side by side — hale, hearty, on the side of the righteous and embarked on the adventure of a lifetime.

Then, suddenly, I stopped. I wasn’t sure I had seen what I thought I had just seen. I rubbed my eyes. I looked again.

The medical officer’s caption read: “Abe — Myself — Nigger — Stanislaus.”

I peered more closely at the tiny snapshot. Indeed, the third soldier from the left did appear to be African American. An African American, apparently for the medical officer, with no name. An African American, apparently for the medical officer, who was not so much a man as a thing. An African American, apparently for the medical officer, whose primary characteristic was not his individual identity, but his racial origin.

Why could this man so plainly see the Nazis for what they were, yet so utterly miss the roots of the same attitudes in his own heart? How could he be so eager to remove the log from his brother’s eye, yet be so oblivious to the speck in his own eye? And shouldn’t this stunning incongruity cause us to ask ourselves whether we, in other times and other places, might find ourselves lured down a similar road?

The late American diplomat and historian George F. Kennan, posted to Moscow in 1944 and watching a long column of haggard, hungry and humiliated German POWs on forced march through Red Square, felt compassion for the young captives (likely destined to starve to death in Soviet camps) and observed that “they are no more responsible for the accident of birth that brought them to this place than are the young Russians who fight against them.”

What if I’d been born in Dresden in 1920, rather than in Detroit some decades later? By 1937 I would have been young, impressionable and desperate to prove my manhood. Hitler would have whispered to me that I was the vanguard of a master race. He would have implored me to eradicate the subhuman elements from our superior civilization. He would have demanded that the humiliations suffered by the fathers in 1918 now be avenged by the sons.

Would I have been able to view what was going on from the perspective of some detached, universal morality? Or would I instead have devoured the führer’s demagoguery, fallen under his spell … and found myself seven or eight years later sporting an SS Death’s Head insignia, and shoving a pregnant teenage Jewish girl that I myself had raped into a cage filled with ravenous dogs?

I’d very much like to believe that had I been born at that place at that time, I would have mustered the courage to at least ask some hard questions of Hitler’s foul henchmen before joining them on their one-way excursion to the gates of hell.

But I really don’t know.

Do you?

Tad Daley (tad@daleyplanet.org), issues director for the 2004 presidential campaign of Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), is now peace and disarmament fellow in the Los Angeles office of Physicians for Social Responsibility, the Nobel Laureate anti-nuclear organization.

 

Movie’s Journey Mirrors Director’s


In 1993, actor Liev Schreiber stood at his grandfather’s bedside in the blue-collar, Lower East Side apartment where he had spent many happy hours during an otherwise turbulent childhood.

In his prime, Schreiber’s grandfather, Alex Milgram, had been a tough but cultured proletarian who drove a meat delivery truck, briefly served as a bodyguard for the Communist Party, played the cello and painted in oils. But the 87-year-old Ukranian Jew had become frail and shrunken, and Schreiber, then 26, could only watch helplessly as his grandfather succumbed to complications from lung cancer.

“I didn’t know how to begin to mourn him,” said the actor, who is now 37. “He had been the pivotal figure in my life.”

Schreiber considers his film directorial debut, “Everything Is Illuminated,” a tribute to Grandfather Milgram. The film is based on the acclaimed literary novel by Jonathan Safran Foer. It’s also about a search for a Ukrainian grandfather and for meaning.

The lushly photographed film, like the book, is a kind of tragicomic, surreal nightmare that works its way to a devastating but ultimately transcendent denouement. The movie focuses on a fictional young American who is searching for his grandfather’s shtetl, as well as for the woman who had saved him from the Nazis. The character collects family artifacts in Ziploc bags during madcap travels with a malaprop-prone tour guide, Alex; Alex’s anti-Semitic grandfather, and a schizoid dog by the name of Sammy Davis Junior, Junior.

“It’s really about a man who wants to learn about his family, which happened to be swept up in disastrous historical events,” Schreiber said. “He doesn’t deal with those events from a social or political perspective, but from an individual one. He represents a new generation’s processing of history in a distinctly personal way.”

Schreiber has traveled a similar road in coming to terms with his personal history, the loss of his grandfather and the mystery — the unspoken family history his grandfather embodied.

Milgram had been Schreiber’s primary male role model after his parents divorced when he was 4 and his father left during a bitter custody battle. The grandfather spent his life savings to ensure that Schreiber’s bohemian mother, Heather, received custody of young Liev.

Although poor, Milgram provided whatever financial assistance he could as the destitute mother and child moved into a series of squatters’ apartments on the Lower East Side, without electricity or running water. The boy was often left alone all day while she drove a cab; his grandfather helped by taking him to the circus and to baseball games, buying him clothes and introducing him to Judaism via seders at his home.

Yet Milgram wasn’t a talker; he declined to discuss his childhood in a Ukrainian shtetl or his teenage years in Lodz. Nor would he talk about why he immigrated to the United States in 1914 or about his relatives who died in the Holocaust.

After Milgram’s death, Schreiber felt tormented by unanswered questions.

“Because of the poverty and isolation of my childhood,” he said, “I had grown into a detached, neurotic adult, afraid of new relationships, and those feelings intensified after my grandfather died. But I knew I had felt deeply connected to him, and I intuited that exploring those feelings might be a good way to begin feeling connected to everyone else.”

He began by writing a screenplay about Milgram. He wasn’t satisfied with the result, however. That’s where things stood in 2001, when he chanced to read a pre-publication excerpt of Foer’s dizzyingly imaginative “Illuminated” in The New Yorker. Schreiber immediately felt a personal connection to the loosely autobiographical piece about a withdrawn young American seeking to understand his grandfather’s life.

“The protagonist felt like me: This odd, very introverted character who has become obsessed with his grandfather’s history,” Schreiber said.

The actor (“The Sum of All Fears,” “The Manchurian Candidate”) identified with the story so much that he invited then 24-year-old Foer for a drink to talk about movie rights.

“I really trusted [Liev] right away,” Foer said in an interview with studio publicists. “I had no idea of what he was going to do with the book, but I knew that he cared about it and whatever he did would be a reflection of that caring.”

After hours of schmoozing about their grandfathers and what it means to be Jewish, Foer gave Schreiber the go-ahead and handed him his agent’s number. Before long, the actor was adapting a book that went on to become one of 2002’s most hyped (and best-selling) novels. It was proclaimed the first 21st-century Jewish masterpiece by a reviewer for The Forward.

Although a first-time director, Schreiber wasn’t such an unusual choice for the perfectionistic, Princeton-educated Foer. A graduate of the Yale School of Drama, Schreiber is considered one of his generation’s finest Shakespearean actors, having performed acclaimed turns as Hamlet and Othello at New York’s Public Theater. During a recent interview from his home, not far from his grandfather’s old apartment, he mentioned that he was still wearing the sleazy mustache required for his role as a real estate shark in David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross,” for which he won a 2005 Tony Award.

Schreiber is an intense student of words as well as a speaker of them. During an interview, he peppered his speech with references to Russian literature and also to classical music, as he spoke quietly and seriously about his life and career.

His acting work also included conscious efforts to connect with his late grandfather, he said. He pursued the role of Marty Kantrowitz in 1999’s “A Walk on the Moon” because the character — a working-class Jew who sacrifices everything for his family — reminded him of Milgram.

The actor also portrayed a scrappy boxer in Peter Kassovitz’s Holocaust-themed “Jakob the Liar” because the movie was to be shot in Lodz, where Milgram had lived for a while.

“There for the first time I felt the presence of my grandfather’s relatives and realized what they had endured,” he said. The revelation was so traumatic that Schreiber suffered what he thinks may have been a psychosomatic breakdown: He developed bronchial pneumonia for the entire shoot, but recovered immediately upon returning to the United States.

He was more prepared to tackle scenes involving the Shoah with “Illuminated,” in part because he did not see the drama strictly as a Holocaust movie.

After all, Foer’s novel had begun as a family quest: His grandfather had died when he was a boy, but his relatives had refused to discuss his past in a shtetl called Trachimbrod. On a whim, around 2000, Foer again asked his mother for details. All she could provide was a photograph of his grandfather and the woman who had saved him from the Nazis. The author immediately bought tickets to Eastern Europe, but where Trachimbrod once stood, he found only an empty field.

“I would not have written a book had I had an experience that was as profound as the kind that I tried to write,” he told the Evening Standard.

The result was his postmodernist “Illuminated,” told through the fictional Alex’s letters to Foer’s alter ego (also named Jonathan Safran Foer), Alex’s written account of Jonathan’s journey and Jonathan’s novel in progress, a fanciful history of Trachimbrod.

After purchasing the movie rights, Schreiber — who took much of the dialogue directly from the book — transformed the sprawling, complex book into a trim road-trip movie, excising the elaborate historical passages to focus more on the relationship between Jonathan and Alex, and dramatically changing the finale.

The film is among several book adaptations (including Gary David Goldberg’s “Must Love Dogs,” based on Claire Cooke’s novel) that veer from the summer trend of sequels and re-workings of television shows.

During pre-production, Schreiber cast 24-year-old Elijah Wood (“The Lord of the Rings”) as the fictional Jonathan because he felt the actor’s expressive blue eyes could convey the character’s rich inner life.

“I loved the idea of playing a person who is coming into who and what he is,” Wood, who is undergoing a similar transition, told The Journal. “And I loved what the story ultimately became: this beautiful illumination for each character as they reached some sort of epiphany.”

Schreiber, too, experienced illumination during the 42-day shoot in Eastern Europe, although he did not ultimately find his grandfather’s shtetl. He cited a scene in which one character tells another that World War II is over.

“The war for me had been a metaphor for so many things: my inner turmoil and the mourning of my grandfather, for example,” he said. “But that scene taught me that, yes, the ‘war’ can be over, because we can contain our stories and the little things in our lives, like the pieces of Jonathan’s collection that remind him of the constant companionship of his family in his memory.”

While filming the sequence in which the fictional grandfather is buried, Schreiber felt as if he were finally laying Milgram to rest.

“Because I was not ready at the time to deal with his death, I felt that, in a way, I needed to experience it again,” he said. “The movie allowed me to do so.

“My ‘illumination’ was that my grandfather is such an integral part of who I am that I don’t need to mourn the loss of him, because he hasn’t really gone anywhere. He is inside of me.”

The movie opens Sept. 16 in Los Angeles.

 

Private Author’s Public ‘Memory’


“Omaha Blues: A Memory Loop” by Joseph Lelyveld (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $22).

As a child, Joseph Lelyveld’s parents called him “memory boy.” He was the family’s institutional memory, paying attention and recalling with ease events and people — a useful skill for someone who would reach the top of his profession as a journalist.

Lelyveld, the former executive editor of The New York Times who spent almost 40 years at the newspaper, has written an unconventional and compelling book about his family, “Omaha Blues” (Farrar, Straus Giroux). He describes the work as a memory loop rather than a memoir, as he traces a particular circuit of connections, using his reporting skills to research family mysteries and events he seeks to better understand.

“History may be linear but memory, at least mine, isn’t; it runs in loops,” he writes.

The loop circles his heart. The book delves into personal history, which might seem surprising for someone who has a public reputation as a private man. As he told The Jewish Week in an interview in his Upper West Side home, he began this as a personal exploration, unsure whether he would show it to anyone.

In 1996, when his father was dying, a family friend led him to a trunk filled with family memorabilia stored in the basement of the Cleveland synagogue, where his father served as rabbi. He had the contents shipped to his country home, and it took years before he began sifting through it, but he finally found the seeds of this book. He began writing after he retired from The Times in 2001, some months later showed it to an agent and had a contract by the time he completed what he calls his little encore, his return to The Times in 2003.

Lelyveld is the son of Rabbi Arthur Lelyveld, a prominent Reform leader, and Toby Lelyveld, who was less interested in the role of rabbi’s wife than in her own literary studies. His father was kind but largely absent, showing the same warmth to his family as he did to his congregants. His mother preferred independence to family life, and struggled. Their marriage ultimately dissolved. For the memory boy, childhood was neither easy nor happy, as he was often left with grandparents, and once with Seventh-Day Adventists on a Nebraska farm. Early on, he developed a sense of self-sufficiency.

The family lived in Omaha, Neb., where Rabbi Lelyveld led a congregation, before moving to New York, where he took on organizational rabbinic roles, including heading up the national Hillel organization. Although Omaha faded quickly from the author’s memory as a real place, it had symbolic meaning as somewhere he was from, rather than Manhattan. He would go on to have a career as a foreign correspondent, living and working in places that were briefly home, but where he didn’t altogether belong.

He doesn’t have many memories of carefree father/son moments, but this one stands out: The summer he was 16, he and his father were driving on the highway in a new, powder-blue convertible, wearing only sunglasses above their waists, taking in the sun. When they were stopped by a state trooper for speeding, the officer noticed his father’s clerical title on his driver’s license and let them go, saying something about his being “a man of the cloth,” without commenting on how little cloth was visible.

Lelyveld also focuses on a family friend and rabbi named Ben, who gave him the devoted attention he didn’t get from his parents. Before working with Rabbi Lelyveld in New York, Ben was driven from his Montgomery, Ala., congregation for his outspoken support of the Scottsboro Boys, and he was eventually fired by Rabbi Lelyveld for his communist affiliations. Through tracking down family members, combing FBI files and other archives, Lelyveld frames Ben’s biography, weaving his friend’s story into his own.

In an endnote, he tells of how his father, as a Zionist official, would call on the publisher of The Times to advocate for the Zionist cause. He notes the irony that a half-century later “representatives of Jewish groups who wanted to talk about the paper’s coverage were usually steered to his son.”

In conversation, he mentions a visit by Rabbi Haskel Lookstein: The rabbi asked if he was Arthur Lelyveld’s son, and the editor asked the rabbi if he was Joseph Lookstein’s son. Lelyveld recalls that the senior Rabbi Lookstein, who served on his father’s Hillel Board, was at his bar mitzvah at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue.

But readers won’t hear about that bar mitzvah in this book. It’s not amnesia but a disinterest in certain coming-of-age details — usually found in memoirs — that makes the author selective in reporting.

Lelyveld, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his first book, “Move Your Shadow: South Africa, Black and White” (Viking, 1986), recognizes that memory is neither truth nor history, but a kind of storyteller. He carefully shapes the narrative, in language that’s precise and poetic, powerful, too. When he might sound whining, he catches himself, grateful for his gifts: He moved from a downcast family life into a strong and joyful marriage and to an illustrious career.

In person, he’s articulate, manages to be both confident and modest, sometimes funny, like the voice of the book. Like his father, he has a firmness of purpose.

Sandee Brawarsky is the book critic for the Jewish Week.

 

Local Writers Recall Times of Tyranny


 

In a tale rooted in personal experience, Dr. John Menkes explores the themes of loss and recovery in his novel “After the Tempest” (Daniel & Daniel, 2003). A Holocaust survivor, Menkes returned to his hometown of Vienna after the war and found that not only was his family and his home gone, but his very identity had been irrevocably lost.

Now an internationally recognized pediatric neurologist based in Los Angeles — as well as a published author and playwright — Menkes alternates between past and present to tell the story of childhood best friends in pre-war Vienna: Judith Berger, a Jew, and Anton Kermauner, a non-Jew. As the forces of Nazism take hold, the pair are separated. Judith’s parents send her to Ireland, while they stay behind and eventually perish. Anton joins the Hitler Youth. But neither Judith, who ends up in the United States, nor Anton, who is eventually stationed at Auschwitz, forget one another.

After the war, Judith returns to Vienna hoping to resume her life and find Anton. Her experience unfolds in an emotionally charged narrative that explores how its characters deal with memory, blame, guilt and forgiveness.

While these next two tales of peril, escape, capture and ultimate redemption might sound like the stuff of fiction, two Los Angeles women have written about experiences that were altogether real: life under national socialism and communism.

In “I Held the Sun in My Hands” (Authorhouse, 2004), Erika Jacoby recounts her odyssey from idyllic childhood in Hungary to the horrors of Auschwitz to the circuitous path that brought her to Los Angeles. Jacoby, who lost her grandparents and many other relatives in Auschwitz, managed to remain with her mother and aunt first in Auschwitz and then in numerous slave labor camps.

Jacoby’s straightforward narrative is a quick and compelling read. A clinical social worker, she examines her experience through a professional lens, realizing that she gained purpose from acting as her mother’s protector.

“I knew in the camps that I would not give up and become a Musulman, one who lost all will to live, because I had to stay alive for my mother…. I couldn’t let her lose another child,” she writes.

Jacoby devotes about half the book to what happened after liberation — first scrounging for food and eluding menacing Soviet soldiers; then returning to her native Hungary where she joined a Zionist youth organization and met her husband, Emil. She lived in the United States as a fugitive and then under threat of deportation before finally gaining legal citizenship.

In 1953, Jacoby and her husband moved to California, where Emil spent the next 23 years as Hebrew school principal at what is now Adat Ari El. (He later became director of the Los Angeles Bureau of Jewish Education, and continues to work there as a consultant.) Erika became a social worker, bringing compassion and understanding to others who had experienced similar horrors.

Born just six days before Hitler invaded Hungary, Susanne Reyto was too young to recall the Nazi era. Yet she, too, has stories of imprisonment, separation of families and life under a ruthless regime: communism.

“Most people believe suffering in Europe ended [after World War II],” she writes. “However, it is the farthest thing from reality.”

Reyto, a Beverly Hills resident, retired travel agent and member of the governing cabinet of Hadassah Southern California, penned her memoir after being invited to speak to her grandson’s eighth-grade class about this time in history. Interweaving her childhood memories with the recollections of her mother, Reyto’s “Pursuit of Freedom: A True Story of the Enduring Power of Hope and Dreams” (Jet Publishing, 2004) chronicles the family’s arduous journey from communist Hungary to freedom in America.

The book recounts her parents’ experience during the Holocaust, and how their happiness after Hungary’s liberation soon turned to dread as they witnessed the rise of state-controlled domination. In December 1949, her family attempted to flee the country, but were caught and imprisoned. Five-year-old Susanne was separated from her parents for months. The family’s assets were seized and, as known “troublemakers,” they were among the first families to be deported from Budapest and sent to a communist internment camp.

Reyto’s story is laced with gratitude — for the kindness of friends and strangers who helped her family along its journey, and for the freedoms she found in the United States. At the same time, she asserts that we must be ever vigilant against future threats to liberty.

“In this time of terrorism and religious tyranny,” she says, “it is our obligation to learn from the past to better prepare ourselves for the future.”

 

Create a Bridal Look That’s Made for You


The ornately beaded gown spent decades wrapped in a sheet from the time grandma was a bride until her granddaughter walked down the aisle.

Both brides were beautiful and the dress was a focal point each time, thanks to the loving restoration work by dressmaker Camila Sigelmann, who made it possible for Amee Huppin Sherer to be married in Grandma Marian Huppin’s 1925 wedding gown.

It took Sigelmann about 40 hours and a lot of luck to find beads to match the originals, to repair and reinforce the gown, to make some modifications and to create a matching head piece.

“It was a real honor for me to work on the dress,” Sigelmann said. “I understood that not only was I working on a dress for a very important occasion but that it had a lot of family history. That gives the project a whole other dimension.”

Sigelmann, who teaches apparel design at Seattle Central Community College, has run her own dressmaking business for about six years. She is one of a number of seamstresses across the country who restore antique wedding dresses and create new, custom gowns for brides. Amee found her in the Yellow Pages.

It is a special and honorable profession for the dressmakers who have the opportunity to participate in some of the most joyous moments of family life. They speak of their work with pride and enthusiasm.

Victoria’s Bridal has been in the business for more than 20 years, making everything from contemporary to traditional gowns to theme weddings.

Choosing to have a custom-made wedding dress is more a matter of style and personal service than of price, said Denise Mahmood, store manager of designer Victoria Glenn’s shop Mahmood. She said formal gowns from Victoria’s start at $1,000 and tea length dresses start at $600. Prices vary considerably, however, based on fabric and style. The cost of a custom-made gown includes fittings and alterations, which can cost up to $200 extra when buying a manufactured dress.

Another dressmaker, Laure Rancich-Flem, cautions brides not to look at custom-made gowns as a way to save money.

“If someone comes to me and has found a dress in a magazine … I cannot make it cheaper,” Rancich-Flem said, unless the bride wants to make changes in the dress such as using satin instead of silk.

The dressmaker said the best reason to call a seamstress is because you want a special gown tailored to your body and your taste.

“If you’re going to do custom work it’s usually because you cannot find what you want in ready-to-wear. Maybe you don’t want a traditional gown, or you’re hard to fit … or you just want something very untraditional in fabrics, colors or styling,” Rancich-Flem said.

She recommended trying on some manufactured gowns and looking at bridal magazines before deciding to talk to a dressmaker. A trip to a bridal store will give a woman a chance find out what dress details she likes and what looks good on her.

All three women agreed on suggestions about how to find a custom dressmaker. The first thing to do is ask for recommendations from friends who have had custom gowns made or who have hired a seamstress to create other clothing. Brides without personal recommendations can ask at a fabric store for a list of dressmakers who specialize in bridal gowns.

The next step is to call some dressmakers, talk to them about their experience and see some of their work. This process should start about six months before the wedding.

Mahmood said brides should ask a dressmaker how long she has been in business, how many dresses she averages a month, if she’s overloaded with work and if there are other seamstresses working for her on contract. Ask to see the dressmaker’s portfolio book and some actual dresses she made and request a list of references.

Rancich-Flem said that once you and a dressmaker have talked about the details of your actual project, you should request a bid, including creation and design time and materials cost.

Sigelmann said the dressmaker and the bride, and possibly her mother, need to be able to forge a good personal relationship because they may be working together for up to six months.

Her clients tend to be working women and mature brides who have clear ideas about wanting something a little different in a wedding dress.

The dressmaker found the Huppin gown an interesting challenge; it was also an emotionally and intellectually intriguing project.

“It was a very special dress,” Sigelmann said. “I found myself wondering what her grandma was like and how did she feel when she wore the dress.”

Donna Gordon Blankinship is a freelance writer living in Seattle.

Playwright’s Alter Ego Returns Home


For Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Donald Margulies, “Brooklyn Boy” represents both a return and a departure.

Like several of his early plays, the drama explores obsessions culled from his Brooklyn boyhood: “The legacies parents instill in their children, the continuity of wounding that occurs from generation to generation, the relationship between fathers and sons in particular,” the 49-year-old author said.

“But while my previous Brooklyn plays have involved the coming of age of various Marguliesian figures, I’ve never really let myself be a man in Brooklyn,” he continued. “This is the first time I’ve placed a middle-aged alter ego on that turf.”

“Boy” revolves around 40ish novelist Eric Weiss, who returns home — actually to the hospital where he was born — to visit his dying father, Manny, a shoe salesman. It’s his first trip back in a while, and he’s ambivalent: “I saw what Brooklyn did to my parents, and I knew I had to get the hell out of here,” he tells a friend. “I saw … the fear, the xenophobia, the suffocating double grip the Holocaust and the Depression had around their throats.”

Yet Eric has just had his first literary success with a semiautobiographical novel.

“So he’s at a juncture where he’s realizing that Brooklyn isn’t just a place he has to keep himself in exile from,” actor Adam Arkin (Eric) said. “He’s coming to see that whatever he has to offer as an artist is going to have to embrace who and what he was there. And what he had regarded as a kind of purgatory now can be a kind of key to his being whole.”

It appears that Margulies made a parallel journey. Before a recent rehearsal at South Coast Repertory, he described growing up surrounded by Holocaust survivors who “instilled in me a kind of fatalism and morbid fascination for recent Jewish history.” His American-born father, meanwhile, was an overworked wallpaper salesman, “physically affectionate but prone to mysterious silences,” who lived in fear of losing a job he loathed.

These twin shadows of the Holocaust and the Depression “instilled certain fears in me, legacies I had to shake,” Margulies said.

The playwright did so, in part, through his work. “The Model Apartment” (1984) is a kind of “Frankenstein” story in which Holocaust survivors have created a monster in their schizophrenic daughter; “What’s Wrong With This Picture?” (1985) features an artsy kid named Artie who spars with his father; “The Loman Family Picnic” (1988) tells of a downtrodden salesman whose son is writing a musical comedy version of “Death of a Salesman.”Margulies’ intensely personal (but not strictly autobiographical) work places him in a unique niche.

“[He] does not have the master work plan of an August Wilson … or the political urgencies of a Paula Vogel or Tony Kushner to shape and drive his work from play to play,” said Jerry Patch, dramaturg of South Coast Repertory. “Instead, his theatrical output, now more than a dozen plays, six of which have enjoyed prominent lives on American stages, has come from assessing his own changing vision of himself and the world in which he lives.”

So it makes sense that Margulies eventually left Brooklyn — and tales of restless, artist sons — to explore midlife concerns. “Sight Unseen” (1991) describes a painter, catapulted to superfame, who struggles with his identity as an artist and a Jew. The Pulitzer-winning “Dinner With Friends”(1999) was inspired by Margulies’ observations of “a succession of domestic catastrophes” in his circle

“Brooklyn Boy” began with another observation several years ago.

“My wife and so many of our contemporaries were dealing with failing and dying parents,” he said. Since Margulies’ own parents had died by the time he was 32, inventing the fictional Manny was “an opportunity to create a fantasy of what an aged version of my father might have been like.”

The character also “embodies so many of the generation who are now failing and dying; very often first-generation American Jews who were battered by the war and the Depression; who married and did all the traditional things and are now at the end of their lives with their generally overpsychoanalyzed children.”

It was the late playwright Herb Gardner (“Conversations With My Father”) who persuaded Margulies to set the piece back home: “I’d steadfastly steered clear of Brooklyn for a time in my work, because I feared I’d tread familiar ground,” he said. “But Herb convinced me it was an exciting prospect to revisit Brooklyn at this stage of my life, not as a boy but as a man.”

Perhaps the play is Margulies’ way of acknowledging Brooklyn as a source of creativity, as well as shadows.”‘Brooklyn Boy’ feels to me like the work of a more mature writer, so I’m glad I made the trip,” he said.

The play runs Sept. 10-Oct. 10 at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa (previews are Sept. 3-9); for tickets, call (714) 708-5555 or visit www.scr.org. Margulies will speak Sept. 9 as part of Chapman University’s Visiting Writers Series at Kennedy Hall. For more information, call (714) 997-6750.

Death Doesn’t End ‘Morrie’ Phenomenon

“Death ends a life, not a relationship.” So says Morrie Schwartz in the signature line from Mitch Albom’s “Tuesdays With Morrie,” the best-seller about how workaholic Albom learned life lessons from his dying former Brandeis University professor.

Death apparently has not ended the Morrie phenomenon, either. Since the Jewish Schwartz succumbed to Lou Gehrig’s disease in 1995, Albom’s book has spent seven years on the New York Times best-seller list and has been reborn as a TV movie and a play, to have its West Coast premiere at The Laguna Playhouse Sept. 11.Like the 192-page book, the play is based on Albom’s weekly visits to the colorful Schwartz during the final months of his life in late 1995. The Jewish sportswriter had reconnected with his favorite sociology professor after seeing Schwartz impart aphorisms on “Nightline.”

For 14 Tuesdays, teacher and student met for what both called “a final thesis,” which Albom ultimately wrote up as a book to help pay Schwartz’s medical bills.

Although he was more reluctant to turn “Morrie” into a stage production, he “grew intrigued by the theatrical legacy a play might create,” according to the New York Daily News. The challenge was to transform the book into a two-character piece with dramatic conflict — including the journalist’s change from Type A dynamo to a more smell-the-roses kind of guy.

While the play (co-written with Jeffrey Hatcher) opened to some mixed reviews off-Broadway in 2002, critics also noted viewers’ intense emotional response to Schwartz and his homiles (sample: when he tells Albom, in Yiddish, “Don’t hide your light under a bushel.”

So it’s likely that Morrie’s light will continue to shine, when the play has its first preview in Orange County this month — appropriately, on a Tuesday.

Previews are Sept. 7-10; the play runs Sept. 11-Oct. 10. For tickets and information, call (949) 497-2787, ext. 1. –NP

A Great Beginning


When Ed Block’s father died three years ago, he and his siblings were left to look for keepsakes while disposing of the contents of his Florida home. When opening a large, flat box stored in a closet, they were flooded by memories of their father, ever eager to show off a possession prized for 30 years: an unframed lithograph series by Abraham Rattner, a contemporary Jewish American painter.

"He loved to show them," said Block, of Laguna Hills. "But he never figured out what to do with it," he said of the collection. "He didn’t want to split them all up" between his three children.

In vivid primary colors with figures drawn in bold, black strokes, the 12 large pictures in the series titled, "In the Beginning," depict seminal moments of Jewish biblical history, along with an appropriate citation and quote. Several suggest the dreamy fantasies of Chagall; others are painted with a dark, foreboding cubism in a style reminiscent of Picasso. Just 200 were printed in the early ’70s.

Among the biblical characters portrayed are Moses at the burning bush, Adam and Eve and Sampson and Delilah. The abstract lithographs mounted in contemporary frameless Lucite will be permanently displayed on the second floor of the synagogue under a vast skylight.

The collection can be viewed through Aug. 27 in the current exhibit at the Kershaw Museum in Aliso Viejo’s Temple Beth El. The modernist series aptly fits Beth El’s contemporary architecture, reborn after an extensive remodeling from its original industrial use. The congregation relocated from trailers in 2001.

Block’s father owned the lithograph collection, because he was a childhood friend of Rattner’s publisher, New York art dealer Bill Haber.

After his father’s death in February 2001, neither Block nor his two siblings, Cheryl Gelber and Marilyn Harvey, were ready to hang the collection in their homes. Eventually, they decided to celebrate their father by making the collection a gift to Beth El. Jo Anne Simon, whose family helped establish the synagogue, served as an intermediary.

"I wanted it close to home so I could go and visit it," said Block, a physician. He and Lori, his wife, are 15-year synagogue members. His own artistic preference favors the realism of Israeli artist Tarkay, who sentimentally portrays women in vibrant scenes.

Recent appraisals valued the collection, one of Rattner’s lesser known works, at about $15,000, Block said. "It’s not that valuable. Its value is that it’s intact."

Individual prints from the series can be found for sale but not the entire collection, he said. Alan Wofsy Fine Art in San Francisco acquired Rattner’s portfolio a decade ago and currently lists signed and numbered lithographs made by the artist in the last decade of his life for $400 each.

In the decade that preceded Rattner’s biblical series, the artist’s work began reflecting religious themes and his Jewish heritage. One of his best known from that era is "Victory — Jerusalem the Golden," honoring Israel’s 20th anniversary of independence.

Rattner was born in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. His parents were immigrants who came to the United States to flee anti-Semitism and czarist Russia. Work by the artist, who died in 1978, was widely exhibited in his lifetime and is included in several museum collections.

His personal papers and those of his second wife, Esther Gentle, are archived in the Smithsonian’s collections, in part because of Rattner’s friendships with some of the century’s most creative luminaries. After serving in World War I, where duty included painting camouflage, Rattner spent 20 formative years in Paris, a cultural center for disillusioned expatriates. He experimented with cubism, futurism and expressionism, which would inform his later work that pushed the boundaries of artistic tradition.

During that period in Paris, he was part of a group that included Picasso, Dali and Miro and writers such as Henry Miller, a friend for 40 years who would join the artist on a road trip in the United States.

The introduction to "In the Beginning" is by the artist’s dealer. Haber wrote, "The 12 scenes symbolize man’s aspirations, his triumphs and defeats, his wisdom, his folly, his hopes and his prayers. There is no end to ‘In the Beginning.’"

Miller, too, added an introductory comment: "I’m so happy to see that with the advance of time, my dear old friend, Abe Rattner, continues to reveal that exaltation of spirit. He has the uncommon faculty of combining wrath, biblical wrath, with ecstasy. His work speaks of a living God, a God of infinite compassion and understanding. It belongs not in the museum, but in the cathedral of a new and promising world."

At least by one measure, Miller’s comments proved prophetic. For sure, Beth El’s remodeling transformed a secular environment into a public space with cathedral-like qualities.

Removing Theology


"Resisting History: Historicism and Its Discontents in German-Jewish Thought" by David N. Myers (Princeton University Press, $29.95).

It is a rare exception to find a scholarly volume penned by an academic that speaks with such a resoundingly relevant message to the popular community at large. Professor David N. Myers’ "Resisting History: Historicism and Its Discontents in German-Jewish Thought" is one of those pleasant exceptions.

What does it mean to "resist history"? What is "historicism," and why would there be "discontents" toward historicism in German Jewish thought, or in any intellectual society? Myers refers to the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard as having been opposed "to the kind of historical thinking that reduced human experience to a long series of disconnected moments." In Jewish terms, "historicism and its discontents" means that when a Jew enters a synagogue on Tisha B’Av (the Ninth of Av), the day that is traditionally fixed as a day of mourning over the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, and the rabbi tells his congregants that "today’s mourning includes the destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem, plus the expulsion from Spain in 1492, plus the Holocaust," and that all of these tragedies are linked as part of God’s "Divine plan for the Jewish people," the traditionalist (anti-historicist) takes solace in knowing that "in every generation, they seek to destroy us, but the Holy One Blessed be He saves us from them."

The historicist in the congregation understands that while it is religiously enticing to view these tragedies as part of a larger "divine picture," the proper academic understanding of these events involves studying each one as an independent event, each with its own unique set of social, political and economic circumstances, void of any theological implications. To a traditionalist, the rabbi’s interpretation of Tisha B’Av is deeply inspirational, while the historian’s explanations would seem cold and void of any spiritual message. To the historicist, the rabbi’s interpretation is theology, not history, and a proper academic analysis of the various "Tisha B’Av tragedies" would ultimately make more sense to the rational mind.

Myers writes of four German Jewish intellectuals who each, in his own unique way, resisted the strong wave of historicism that was capturing the minds of intellectual German Jews during the 19th century. Philosophers Hermann Cohen and Franz Rosensweig, political leader Leo Strauss and Orthodox Rabbi Isaac Breuer were each passionate opponents of historicism.

I write a review of Myers’ book not as a professional historian with the academic qualifications of adequately critiquing the particulars of his arguments, but as a community rabbi and educator who is continuously challenged with the tension of maintaining Judaism’s traditional theological beliefs in the face of modern academic and scientific research. I write this review as a teacher of Torah who faces the challenge of merging the midrashic wisdom of Rashi with the modern insights of academic Bible scholars and archaeologists. Within my mind, the rational historicist prevails, but within my soul, I hear the voices of Cohen, Rosensweig, Strauss and Breuer.

By examining the lives and writings of these four particular thinkers, whose styles, philosophies and religious orientations are so diverse, Myers demonstrates that the tension between historicism and anti-historicism crosses all denominational and political lines. The fact that three of the four are not Orthodox (Cohen, Rosensweig and Strauss) shatters the conveniently prevalent myth that this tension is limited to a struggle between Orthodox and liberal Jews. Thanks to Myers’ book, we now understand that this tension is not between opposite poles of Jewish theology, rather it is between those who wish to view Jewish history through spiritual lenses — e.g., Max Dimont’s book "Jews, God and History" (Mentor Books, 1994) — versus those who wish to study Jewish history through the less than spiritual lenses of sociology, politics, economics and archaeology.

As a recent manifestation of this tension, Myers cites Rabbi David Wolpe’s now-famous sermon about the historicity of the exodus. Wolpe’s sermon, delivered from his Sinai Temple pulpit on Passover 2001, and the controversy that it generated, serve as a lucid reminder that the tension between historicism and its discontents is alive and well within current Jewish circles.

Like all scholarly volumes, Myers’ book is a challenging read but, in this case, one that is well worth the effort. The intricacies of scholarly lingo are softened by the author’s bold admission in his introduction that his interest in this subject is not a matter of dispassionate scholarly concern, but a reflection of his own personal tensions of living within "the academy and the shul," so to speak.

Myers’ book brilliantly addresses the tension that many Jews — scholar, rabbi, educator and lay person alike — face every day. This is therefore an important read for all of us, as it will continue to help facilitate the important dialogue on how we honestly live with and address these theological tensions within our congregations and classrooms, and within our minds and souls.


Daniel Bouskila is rabbi of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel.

The ‘Secret Lives’ of Shoah’s Hidden


In 1993, filmmaker Aviva Slesin traveled to Lithuania to meet Matilda Salenekas, the non-Jew who hid her from the Nazis when she was a small child. She had no memories of Salenekas, whom she had not seen since 1945, and the two women did not speak the same language.

"But the feeling between us was so powerful," Slesin said by phone from her Manhattan home. "We both wept, and I understood that in some strong way we were connected. I began wondering whether the experience was similar for other hidden children, and if they had memories of their rescuers, what the relationship was about."

Slesin’s curiosity led her to produce and direct a documentary, "Secret Lives: Hidden Children and Their Rescuers During World War II," which joins a particularly heartwrenching subgenre of Holocaust cinema: documentaries about child survivors by filmmakers with a family connection to the subject. Examples include Pierre Sauvage’s "Weapons of the Spirit" (1987) and Deborah Oppenheimer’s Oscar-winning "Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport" (2000). The films are especially poignant because only 10 percent of Jewish children survived the war.

Slesin’s affecting but unsentimental documentary focuses on the psychological aftermath of hiding, such as the sense of abandonment child survivors carried into adulthood and the difficulty rebonding with parents.

Alice Sondike, who was sheltered on a farm in Poland, describes the revulsion she felt when her mother, Julia Melcer, returned from Auschwitz.

"I was covered with lice, and she was trying to clean me up," Sondike says on camera. "What she looked like when she came back…. I didn’t believe she was my mother."

Melcer, sitting next to Sondike, nods and adds that her daughter said, "Don’t touch me with your Jewish hands."

Other relationships also proved strained.

"Hidden children are generally very adaptable, but for some of us, the bonding mechanisms are altered or broken," Slesin said. "I think that children have only so many bondings in them. At some point, they don’t ‘take’ anymore."

The filmmaker speaks from personal experience. Born Aviva Leibowitch in 1943, she was smuggled out of a Jewish ghetto in a suitcase before being placed with Salenekas and her husband, Juozas, when she was 9 months old. Slesin, who has never married or had children, vaguely remembers that when her mother returned from Stutthof concentration camp two years later, "she was a stranger and I didn’t want to go with her."

Like most survivors who had hidden their children, Slesin’s mother had been greatly altered by the war.

"Many of the returning parents were themselves orphans and they were grieving," the director said. "They looked like hell because they had been to hell and back."

Over the next decade, Slesin lived a nomad’s existence, relocating to Munich, New York and Montreal as her mother married, was widowed and remarried.

"It was not a happy time for me," she said of the years with her second stepfather. "That was one bonding too many I was asked to do, and it just didn’t work."

In 1965, Slesin moved to Manhattan, she said, "To start my grownup life in a place with no history or baggage from my family." Because of her refugee experience, she was "never a joiner," but she was a good observer — which in part led her to become a filmmaker.

Over the next 30 years, Slesin made movies that were anything but personal, winning the Oscar for her 1987 documentary, "The Ten-Year Lunch: The Wit and Legend of the Algonquin Round Table."

The change came after she attended a convention of hidden children in 1991; two years later, she set off for Salenekas’ Kovno, Lithuania, home with a translator.

"I wanted to see if I could get some memories or any kind of clues into my character," she said. I also wanted to find out why she risked her life to save me, but she just sighed a lot when I asked her that. She wasn’t really able to answer."

Slesin hoped to learn more by quizzing survivors who, like herself, had been hidden by rescuers without apparent ulterior motives.

"Her questions were penetrating," the film’s co-producer and writer, Toby Appleton Perl, recalled. "Aviva was very much driven by her need to understand certain things about her experience."

During interviews, conducted in Israel and Europe, Slesin said, she was deeply touched by a Dutch woman who also had been hidden as a small child. Erica Polak recounted the "difficult relationship" she had with her mother and the great joy she had experienced upon reuniting with her rescuer.

"She moved me enormously because she had no memory either of this woman, yet her feelings about her were so strong," the director said. Interviews like Polak’s were revealing for Slesin.

"What I have come to understand is that our rescuers were also our parents," she said. "When you are a child, the people who feed you, protect you and care for you in essence are your parents. That explains why the bonds are so emotional and lasting, even after more than 50 years."

"Secret Lives" opens June 20 at Laemmle’s Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869.

Lawyer Takes on Looted Art, Austria


In one of the most complex legal battles in the annals of Holocaust restitution, centering on the return of art looted by the Nazis to their rightful owners, E. Randol Schoenberg is stationed on the front lines.

The stakes are enormous. In the biggest collective art theft of all time, Hitler’s minions seized up to 600,000 important works between 1933 and 1945, according to a recent report in The New York Times.

If one includes all art objects, books, Judaica, silver pieces and other valuables, the Nazis stole 10.7 million items in all of Europe, worth more than $37 billion today, the same article estimates.

A current case, which has drawn wide attention, pits Schoenberg against the government of Austria. There is some historic irony in the confrontation, since the 36-year old Brentwood lawyer is the grandson of the pathbreaking Austrian Jewish composer Arnold Schoenberg, often dubbed "the father of modern music."

Schoenberg, the lawyer, represents Maria V. Altman, an 87-year-old resident of Cheviot Hills, who is seeking to recover six paintings by the early 20th century Viennese painter Gustav Klimt. The paintings, valued at $150 million, include a stunning portrait of her aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer.

The Austrian government, which holds the paintings, is contesting the claim. Last year, Schoenberg scored a major victory when an appeals court in San Francisco ruled that a foreign government could be held to answer in the United States for a Holocaust-based claim.

But the two-and-a-half year old case is far from over. The Austrian government is appealing the decision and, to Schoenberg’s dismay, the U.S. administration is backing the Austrians on the grounds that a sovereign foreign state is immune to lawsuits in American courts. The case might end up in the U.S. Supreme Court.

Last December, Schoenberg opened up another front by seeking to recover a $10 million Picasso oil painting for the Berkeley-based grandson of a Berlin woman who owned it before World War II.

The 1922 painting, "Femme en Blanc" ("Woman in White"), was "confiscated" by the Nazis in 1940. After the war, by a circuitous route via French and American art dealers, the Picasso eventually became the property of a Chicago art patron, who is fighting the grandson’s claim.

Besides these headline cases, Schoenberg has advised hundreds of Jewish families from Austria on their restitution rights, usually as a free service, but he earns his bread and butter through more mundane business litigation.

"It is enormously time-consuming to pursue the art recovery cases — I received my first call from Maria Altman in the Klimt case in 1998 — and enormously expensive, running into millions," said Schoenberg, sitting in his high-rise office on Wilshire Boulevard. "So you can only initiate an action if the paintings are immensely valuable. You’re not going to sue over a looted $50 mezuzah."

"Randy" Schoenberg has the rare distinction of being the grandson of two eminent 20th century composers, both of whom fled the Nazis and settled in Los Angeles.

On his mother’s side, his grandfather was Eric Zeisl, best known for his "Requiem Ebraico," composed in 1945 when he learned that his father had perished in a concentration camp. Zeisl also wrote music for a number of Hollywood movies.

But because Randy’s last name is Schoenberg, the young lawyer is most closely identified with his other grandfather, fervently admired, and sometimes damned, for his development of atonal music and the 12-tone technique.

Arnold Schoenberg, who spent the last 17 years of his life in Los Angeles and taught at UCLA and USC, was largely ignored by the classical music world in the 1930s and ’40s. But since his death in 1951, there has been a major rediscovery and appreciation of his works.

"I run into people who are ecstatic to meet Arnold’s grandson and who worship and love him," said the lawyer, who was born well after his grandfather’s death. "There are others who hate his music, but I doubt if they know all his works. He wrote so much, 15 hours worth if you play it all, there’s something a music lover is bound to like.

"It’s funny, people who would hesitate to give an opinion on paintings or literature will instantly pronounce judgment on a piece of music."

Arnold Schoenberg had a stormy relationship with his ancestral faith. As a young man, he converted to Lutheranism and then reconverted to Judaism in 1933, when Hitler came to power.

He predicted the Holocaust with prophetic clarity and eventually became a utopian Zionist, whose opera, "Moses und Aron," expressed his faith in his people’s destiny.

Randy Schoenberg himself grew up in a nonobservant environment, but since his marriage to Pamela, and the birth of their two young kids who attend Sinai Temple preschool, the family has established a kosher home.

"Being Jewish has played such a major part in the history of my family," mused Schoenberg, an ardent genealogy researcher. "I am deeply involved in our culture, history and philosophy and I try to incorporate them in my personal and professional lives."

7 Days In Arts


11/SATURDAY

If you don’t know the story of Leo Frank, you probably should. The Anti-Defamation League and the modern Ku Klux Klan were both sparked by Frank’s infamous murder trial in which bigotry won out over justice. See the play, “The Knights of Mary Phagan” at The Space Theatre, tonight at 8 p.m. Runs through May 19. 8 p.m. (Fridays and Saturdays), 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. (Sundays). $15. 665 N. Heliotrope Drive, Hollywood. For more information, call (323) 769-5800.

12/SUNDAY

You gave your mother flowers today, but don’t forget the thousands of mothers and children spending this day in a battered women’s shelter. Send them a bouquet through Jewish Women International’s Mother’s Day Flower Project. For more information, call (800) 343-2823.

For an enchanted afternoon, catch The Museum of Television and Radio’s latest screening in the series, “A Tribute to Richard Rodgers: The Sound of His Music.” Half of the musical team of Rodgers and Hart and Rodgers and Hammerstein, the American composer wrote more than 40 musicals, including “Oklahoma!” and “South Pacific.” See a television adaptation of one of the early Rodgers and Hart musicals, in “Max Liebman Presents: Dearest Enemy” today at 12:30 p.m. 465 N. Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills. For information on other screenings, call (310) 786-1000 or visit www.mtr.org.

13/MONDAY

Write the great American novel with the help of author Victoria Zackheim. Her “Writing Your Story” workshop may give you the friendly shove you’ve needed to get you started. Today at noon at the Jewish Community Library. Or, if you’re a lover, not a writer (a book lover, that is), you can show up this evening for the signing and discussion of her book, “The Bone Weaver.” 7 p.m. 6505 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. For reservations, call (323) 761-8648.

14/TUESDAY

The hum-drum of everyday life and our personal escapes from it are the sources of inspiration for Deborah Kaplan Evans’ art. Make this exhibit your Tuesday escape by heading over to Tag, The Artists Gallery. Runs through June 8. 11 a.m.-5 p.m. (Tuesday through Saturday), open late on Thursdays. 2903 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica. For more information, call (310) 829-9556.

15/WEDNESDAY

James Carrollwas once a Catholic priest before he became a writer, and before he got married. It’s an interesting footnote all by itself, but more so because of Carroll’s latest book in which he addresses the Church’s dark history of anti-Semitism. Hear what he has to say about “Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews” at a free reading, discussion and book signing. 7 p.m. Mark Taper Auditorium, Fifth and Flower streets, Downtown Los Angeles. For reservations, call (213) 228-7025.

16/THURSDAY

Hey, lactose intolerants! Feeling left out of the dairy festivities this Shavuot? Take your mind off things with a good play. “Waiting for Betty Friedan” is a comedy about a 1958 suburban housewife with the dreams and the talent to be more, in a time before Friedan or Gloria Steinem had made their marks on society. 8 p.m. (special Thursday performances today and May 30), 8 p.m. (Fridays and Saturdays), 2 p.m. (Sundays). $18 (general). Theatre East, 12655 Ventura Blvd., Second Floor, Studio City. For reservations and information about discounts, call (818) 788-4396.

17/FRIDAY

It’s scarier than any horror movie. “The Believer” is the all-too-realistic story of a young Jewish man who was once the star pupil of his yeshiva, but is now a 22-year-old neo-Nazi. The film won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and opens today at the Landmark Nuart Theatre. 5:10 p.m., 7:30 p.m. and 9:50 p.m. (daily). Additional weekend shows at 12:30 p.m. and 2:50 p.m. $9 (general), $6 (seniors 62+, children 12 and under and weekend bargain matinee). 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles. For more information, call (310) 478-6379.

Or, for some lighter entertainment, check out the Long Beach Playhouse’s rendition of Neal Simon’s “Biloxi Blues.” The play picks up where Simon’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs” leaves off. Eugene Morris Jerome is in the army now, a young recruit during World War II who’s been sent to boot camp in Biloxi, Miss. 8 p.m. (Fridays and Saturdays) and 2 p.m. (Sundays May 12 and 19). $15. Runs through June 1. 5021 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach. For more information, call (562) 494-1014.

Rabbis With a Mission


As if they were recapitulating the last half-century of Jewish history, a group of 13 Southern California rabbis undertook a nine-day mission that began in Germany with Holocaust remembrances and ended in Israel with Israeli Memorial and Independence Day commemorations.

The trip’s sponsors, the tourism ministries of Germany and Israel and Lufthansa airline, conceived the mission as a way to increase tourism, but the rabbis found deeper meaning in it. The mission’s organizer, Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive director of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, called the journey a "rabbinic version of the March of Living."

Diplomatically avoiding mention that March of the Living dropped Israel from its itinerary this year, Diamond acknowledged that many of the rabbis had encountered "pressure" from family and congregants to do the same. "God forbid that we should feel safe to go to Germany and not Israel," objected Diamond, some of whose extended family were murdered by the Nazis.

Despite the security situation in Israel, he said, "if the Israel leg of the journey had been canceled, I would have canceled the trip completely." In the end, he added, none of the rabbis canceled.

Their six days in Germany included visits to the Jewish communities in Munich and Berlin, a memorial service at Dachau and a tour of the site of the 1972 Munich Olympics where Palestinian terrorists murdered 11 Israeli athletes.

Standing in the square in Munich where Hitler was arrested in 1923, Rabbi Joel Rembaum of Los Angeles said the group of rabbis could feel the bittersweet combination of what had been destroyed with the fact of Jewish survival. "Wearing kippot, we had a beer in the hall where Hitler founded the Nazi Party," Rembaum said. "But we’re here and he’s not. The Jewish people still live."

Paradoxically, Diamond pointed out, Germany, with the fastest growing Jewish community in Europe, due to immigration from the former Soviet Union, remains probably Israel’s staunchest friend on the Continent. "A Foreign Ministry official told me after a briefing we received, ‘Please tell the people of Israel that we care about them,’ and I think he really meant it."

For Rabbi Larry Goldmark of La Mirada, the emotional high point in Germany came at the square the Nazis used for book burnings, when "we got a cell-phone message about the bombing in Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda. My body was in Germany, but my soul was in Israel, with the deeds of Hitler replaced now by the atrocities of the terrorists."

Coming to Israel from Germany was "a shot of adrenaline" for Rabbi Rebecca Schorr of Long Beach, whose father, Rabbi Steve Einstein of Fountain Valley, was also on the trip. "After all, this is where the survivors came to rebuild."

Three rushed days in Israel included a visit to wounded Israeli soldiers at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, where the rabbis distributed gift baskets purchased on the downtown pedestrian mall. A series of Palestinian terror bombings has greatly reduced traffic on the Ben Yehuda mall, and the merchants, according to Diamond, were both glad for the business and personally moved that the rabbis had made the trip to express their concern for Israel.

"Everywhere we went, in hotels and stores, Israelis said to us, ‘Thank you for coming.’ We deeply felt the existential loneliness of Israel now," he said.

The patients in the hospital included a soldier, whose father told the group that his son was injured "because Israeli soldiers don’t indiscriminately shoot people — the world needs to know that"; an injured girl, who, when she emerges from her coma, will discover that she is blind, and a Druse soldier, wounded while performing an act of heroism and whose Jewish comrades were keeping up his spirits.

In addition to the gift baskets, the rabbis brought with them a shipment of toys donated by the Mattel Toy Corp. in Los Angeles, which will be distributed by mail to families of terror victims around the country by Sela, the Israel Crisis Management Center, as part of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ $12.25 million special fund for Jews in jeopardy.

In Tel Aviv, the rabbis participated in a Memorial Day service at the Zeitlin School, which is twinned with two Los Angeles schools as part of The Federation’s "partnership" program. They also participated in a meeting with Israeli rabbis and received briefings by agency heads and municipal officials, including Tel Aviv’s deputy mayor, on other aspects of the Los Angeles-Tel Aviv partnership. Then they returned to Jerusalem for a Yom haZikaron/Yom HaAtzmaut ceremony at the Har Herzl national cemetery and another commemoration at the Western Wall.

"The juxtaposition of Memorial Day, which is taken very seriously in Israel, and Independence Day is a very powerful experience," said Diamond. "It contains the lesson that we would not have one without the other. The events of this year added a special urgency to that."

Given the current situation, would the rabbis go back with their families for a longer visit? Opinion was divided, with some of the rabbis pleading security concerns as a reason for postponing a fuller visit or for leaving spouses and children behind. Others insisted that, with reasonable planning, a trip to Israel now is "as secure as driving around L.A." or urged a visit at a later time to "show support."

Rabbi Joshua Berkowitz of Hancock Park, who has children studying in Israel, struck a different note. "Israel is not Disneyland," he said, paraphrasing Rabbi Shlomo Riskin of Efrat in the West Bank. "You don’t come home only when times are good. In fact, sometimes you come home especially when times are bad."

Participating rabbis, many of them former officers of the Board of Rabbis, represented all denominations and all corners of the Board of Rabbis’ authority, which runs from Long Beach to San Luis Obispo.

The rabbis who participated in the trip were: Diamond (Conservative); Berkowitz, Shaare Tefila Congregation, Los Angeles (Orthodox); Denise Eger, Congregation Kol Ami, West Hollywood (Reform); Einstein, B’nai Tzedek, Fountain Valley (Reform); Goldmark, Temple Beth Ohr, La Mirada (Reform); Michael Gotlieb, Congregation Kehillat Ma’arav, Santa Monica (Conservative), and Eli Herscher, Stephen S. Wise, Los Angeles (Reform). Others were Gil Kollin, Pasadena Jewish Temple & Center (Conservative); Elazar Muskin, Young Israel of Century City (Orthodox); Rembaum, Temple Beth Am, Los Angeles (Conservative); Steven Carr Reuben, Kehillat Israel Reconstructionist Congregation, Pacific Palisades (Reconstructionist); Schorr, Temple Israel, Long Beach (Reform), and Stewart Vogel, Temple Aliyah, Woodland Hills (Conservative).

Six Months Later


Sept. 11 was a watershed event in American history. Every decent person felt shock and revulsion to the very core. But human nature cannot maintain such a heightened sense of trauma indefinitely — life goes on. Six months later, The Journal interviewed several local Jews and discovered how even now, the Sept. 11 attacks continue to touch their lives, in ways large and small.

Sharon Mendel, a native New Yorker who has lived in Los Angeles “for too long,” said that the attacks “absolutely changed me. It made every moment count more than it had in the past, realizing that life could be taken instantaneously.” Mendel, an actress, had been slowly edging closer to traditional Jewish observance over a period of several years, and eventually became shomer Shabbat last year. But after Sept. 11, she felt added urgency to her spiritual growth.

As a result, she became more consistent in waking up early to daven the morning “Shacahrit” prayers. “You can’t fight evil with evil,” she said. “God needs our prayers, and we need to pray in a meaningful way, not just saying things by rote.” Mendel also tried to live up to other Torah values, such as being more tolerant of other people and greeting people with a pleasant demeanor. And, whereas prior to Sept. 11 a day off from work might have meant taking in a movie, she now tries to use that time to find a Torah class.

“All the other things we worried about are nothing compared to what is happening now,” Mendel added. “You’re defeated if you give up optimism, but you also have to put in the effort. It’s not enough to be a better person, you have to be a better Jew.”

Although they have never met, Tom Eisenstadt, a financial advisor with Merrill Lynch, agrees. The Calabasas-based family man and founding member of The Calabasas Shul felt a shift in priorities after Sept. 11. Some things seemed less important: He slacked off on his previously strict exercise regimen and even, to some extent, his diet.

Eisenstadt admits to being frustrated by this lessening of resolve to exercise, and is trying to get it back. He attributes this in part to increasing stress at work, since his business is affected by the slumping economy. However, like Mendel, he has been more motivated in spiritual matters, and has also been more consistent in davening each morning. “Relationships are all about communication, and the more you communicate the better the relationship,” he says. “Davening is a way to building that relationship with God.”

People could choose to look at Sept. 11 in one of two ways, Eisenstadt said: Either God was involved or He was not. “As Jews, we learn that everything God does is for the good, even if we can’t understand it. Understanding that somewhere, somehow, this was good makes it easier to live with this horrific tragedy.”

Very shortly after Eisenstadt and his wife moved into their new home last October, they hosted a class by Rabbi Avrohom Czapnik, director of the Jewish Learning Exchange, on Jewish responses to Sept. 11. Czapnik, who taught several well-attended classes on the subject, noted, “People wanted understanding, and still do, but I don’t see people wearing Sept. 11 on their sleeves. As Americans it has been hard for us to grasp the concept of pure evil. We always want to understand the other perspective, but the Torah teaches us that there is such a thing as raw evil, as well as objective good. People can hear this now easier than before, that certain things are simply transcendent.”

Czapnik noted that Sept. 11 helped many people appreciate what Israel has been enduring for so long. “Just as Americans don’t want to negotiate with Al Qaeda, they can more easily see why Israel doesn’t want to negotiate with the PLO.”

Many local Jews found that Sept. 11 fostered an even stronger alliance with Israel. Ira Mehlman, a Marina del Rey public relations consultant, ramped up his involvement with the Israel Emergency Alliance (IEA), a media watchdog group that also runs the web site StandWithUs.com. Mehlman, already a member of the IEA, became a board member after Sept. 11, and worked to help organize the Solidarity Walk for Israel held last December, as well as other IEA activities.

“I’m trying to educate myself as best as possible regarding threats to Israel and the U.S.,” Mehlman said. “The alliance tries to confront anti-Israel activism on college campuses and in the media, and we’ve had growing visibility and impact.” Mehlman views his work with the IEA as an important mitzvah. “I find this more meaningful than if I just picked another ritual to practice, even though the rituals have their own value.”

A native New Yorker, Mehlman knows of several people who died in the attacks; they were from his old neighborhood of Neponsit. At one time, his mother worked on the 86th floor of one of the towers. “I think everyone was affected in some way,” he said. Mehlman plans a solidarity visit to Israel over Pesach, where he will meet up with family members, some of whom live in Israel.

Family, and the need to feel closely connected to them, was probably the biggest reaction that Denise Koek, an actress and writer, had after the attacks. Koek said, “I had a realization that I wanted to be with my family more than ever, especially my two children. It just felt more pressing. If after a week or so I don’t hear from my brothers or father, who live out of town, I call them or start e-mailing like crazy.” She also felt more motivated to move ahead in her career, trying, as she said, “to seize the day.”

Koek also stepped up her involvement in her synagogue, Congregation Beth Shalom in Santa Clarita. Before Sept. 11, Koek and her family may have attended services monthly; now it’s at least double that. “It feels like a tonic to go to shul, and to have that sense of community there,” she observed. Koek joined the membership committee, where she helps plan recruitment activities, and also applied her comedy-writing skills for the shul’s Purim program.

Immediately after the attacks, nearly all shuls were packed to capacity, but that ebbed in most cases. However, Koek observed that people seem quicker to come to shul now even after vague threats, such as when the FBI issues its occasional warnings. She also credits the shul’s rabbi, Steven Conn, for being “really attuned to people’s more intense needs for spiritual leadership.” Overall, Koek said, “I’m sad that what happened occurred, but I’m very encouraged that more people acknowledge that there is more to life than material things, and place more emphasis on interacting with your religious community.”

Conn is still trying to nurture the closeness and strength felt so keenly among his congregants after Sept. 11. Conn said, “I do see that people still look at family in a new light, and some people have made life changes that may be subtle, but have important impact. We always think there will be tomorrow, but we don’t have forever to make our lives what we want them to be, and what God wants them to be.”

Similarly, Deborah Goldberger, a “professional volunteer” whose previous career experience included children’s television production and development, business consulting and even translating (from Arabic) for the Department of Defense, found that Sept. 11 reconfirmed her decision to retreat from the professional world in favor of being a stay-at-home mother to her 11-year-old twin daughters. In fact, at the time of the attacks, Goldberger was chaperoning her girls’ class trip to Colonial Williamsburg, Va. Although they couldn’t fly back, they took a bus straight through for nearly 50 hours to return home, just in time for Rosh Hashana.

While trying to reassure the children (and even some of the other chaperones), Goldberger said, “I learned that I was much stronger and more independent than I thought I was. The hardest thing was worrying about being on the road over Rosh Hashana, which was a very distressing thought. All this made it clear that it was right to focus on my family, that I shouldn’t feel torn about not being so involved in the work world.”

Goldberger’s relief at arriving home just before Rosh Hashana was immense. “My Judaism grounds me,” she said, and since that time, she has lit Shabbat candles more often, and taken her family to shul more often, too. “It took a long time to recover from that trip, but it did validate my need for spirituality. It’s okay to reprioritize, and this idea has really stuck.”

Reprioritizing values, and reinforcing others, also felt urgent to Richard Fauman, an observant Jew in the television industry. On the Shabbat immediately after Sept. 11, Fauman was seized by an idea offered in shul by Rabbi Nachum Braverman of Aish HaTorah in Los Angeles. “He said that it was time for us to wake up to our spiritual obligations, and that we need to stay awake to respond in an appropriate and elevated fashion,” Fauman recalled.

Inspired, Fauman followed the rabbi’s advice and found a chevruta, a partner with whom he could study Torah and also foster one another’s personal growth. Fauman did this with a few different people, and would either meet or phone each of them weekly. They exchanged lists of goals in personal, spiritual and even financial areas. They checked on one another’s progress and offered encouragement when needed.

“We all had a sense of urgency and immediacy right after Sept. 11,” Fauman recalled, explaining how he and some other volunteers were able to organize the “Spiritual Responses to Sept. 11” conference in only five weeks, drawing nearly 400 participants as well as renowned speakers from around the country. Unfortunately, Fauman believes that in the past few months, he and others have been “falling back asleep” again.

“My sense is that there has been little practical action in the city as a result [of Sept. 11],” he said, and noted particular disappointment in the Orthodox community, whom he believes were among the most likely to view Sept. 11 as a wake-up call from God for enhanced spiritual development.

“Six months later, I’m fighting to regain that sense of urgency that I had before, even though I’m doing more Jewishly than ever. But I don’t think it’s enough. Each day, though, I add the prayer that Braverman suggested we say during davening: ‘Hashem, please give me the time I need to the make the changes I need to make in my life.'”

Despair vs. Joy


Last week in New York, I attended one bar mitzvah, one 80th birthday party and, it seems, several hundred funerals.

That’s what it means these days, to be a Jew in post-Sept. 11 America. We must live in two worlds at once, the personal and the communal: shepping nachas over the achievements of our children and our parents, and joining with our nation in collective grief.

To deny the grief would make us aliens.

To deny the joy would make us monsters.

Understand, the capacity to live in this two-tiered world is no small gift. Some 60 percent of the American public admits to feelings of depression since the attacks.

Who can deny that depression is appropriate at the massive, sudden incineration of 5,000 lives?

The bombing of enemy targets in Afghanistan ended the tension over when America would respond to the destruction of the World Trade Center and at the Pentagon. But it may only have compounded the question of how this charge on a wasteland would end terrorism.

Certainly, it was depressing to find Syria, whose history of harboring terrorists is notorious, voted into the United Nations Security Council. This followed a hollow and horrifying General Assembly debate in which nations postured over the meaning of the word "terror," daring to equate American foreign policy with the hijacking of our own jets. What a charade.

And it was more than depressing — demoralizing, if not outrageous, is more like it — to witness the isolation of Israel and the public spanking of Ariel Sharon for saying what so many Israelis and American Jews fear will be true: that the cost of the war against terrorism might be paid for by Israel. American Jews, like most Israeli ones, accept the inevitability of a Palestinian state, but not at the cost of the security of Israel. The Bush administration is in a diplomatic pickle, but allowing Sept. 11 to become Palestinian independence day without guarantees of peace for the Jewish State is a bad solution.

As we observe these international events, many of us feel powerless. Anxious. Fearful for safety and national destiny. Depression, as Reb Nachman of Bratslav wrote, may be the worst killer of all, worse than a suicide bomber. Depression is the killer from within.

Don’t let them get you. So, at a time when we are afraid — of crowds in the shopping mall, and anthrax in our stadiums and mass transit — it’s all the more important to guard, encourage and practice our rightful talent for joy. It’s no trivialization of the national mood to insist upon our rights to a full, joyful life, even in times of stress. Anything less is suicide.

I didn’t hesitate for more than a minute to travel to New York for my father’s birthday celebration and cousin Reed’s call to the Torah. That minute was spent wondering if I had bought my ticket too soon, that maybe I could have got a better deal once the airline sales kicked in.

Otherwise, even the act of packing my bags helped me give vent to a kind of healthy anger. Terrorism may have made this nation suddenly a bit too vast and slightly inconvenient. But I’ll be damned if I’d make more of it than that.

At the terminal gate, we travelers participated in a kind of sham security. Anyone who has flown to Jerusalem knows what the real thing feels like, the one-on-one scrutiny that puts bad guys on notice. This endless round of showing identification is not it. Sitting at the gate two hours early, my fellow passengers and I gave each other the once-over. You could see us thinking: Who among us is a secret fanatic? Which of us could be relied upon to stand firm against terror, if it were to occur?

It was depressing to think it had come to that, but just as depressing to note the utensils that came with our regulation airline meal: silver fork and spoon, and plastic knife with a serrated blade, standard for a 3-year-old’s tea party. You gotta laugh. So I got to New York uneventfully (thank goodness). And there I felt the extraordinary sweetness of reunion in hard times.

Reed, the bar-mitzvah boy, mentioned the World Trade Center in his d’var Torah; clearly the attack is the key event of his young life. And he lit the first candle in memory of those who died Sept. 11, their lives cut down.

Then on to the Greatest Generation celebration of my Dad’s 80th year.

"Ah, Marlene," said Evelyn, a family friend. "All of us here — your Dad and Mom and Bernie and I — know what it takes to survive. You get up each day and do what has to be done."

Joy becomes infinitely more dear when you know what’s at stake.

Remaining Humble


No one likes to be criticized, especially when it comes from someone in your own family. Children hate it when parents tell them how to live their lives. Parents hate it when their own parents tell them how to raise their children. Husbands hate it when their wives criticize how they spend their weekends. No one enjoys being criticized.

So it comes as no surprise that when Moses faces the greatest criticism of his career as a leader this week, he strikes back with all the force he can. And what makes it more than merely idle jealousy is the fact that the one doing the criticism is also a member of his extended family, a man from his own tribe, someone who was part of the leadership elite of the Israelites.

The man, Korah, accuses Moses of arrogance — the sin of acting as if he is holier than (read — "more important than") everyone else. He challenges Moses by throwing his own teachings back at him, saying, "How can you act like only you have a special relationship with God and at the same time teach us that all of Israel is ‘a kingdom of priests and a holy people’?"

One of the most remarkable aspects of this rebellion was that it cuts to the heart of what is undoubtedly the single most important personality trait that Jewish tradition ascribed to Moses, namely, his humility. In fact, the rabbis of the Talmud remind us that it is written in the Torah itself that Moses was the humblest of men and that his personal humility was one of the main reasons God chose him to become the one who led the Jewish people from slavery to freedom.

Each of us has the tendency to see the best in ourselves and the worst in others. Yet the rabbinic tradition holds up humility as one of the most important qualities that a leader can possess. There is a famous Midrash in which each of us is to imagine that we have two notes from God in our pockets — one says, "The whole earth was created for my sake," and the other says, "I am but dust and ashes." Each day as different situations arise, we are to reach into our pockets and pull out either one or the other of these notes.

When we begin to act with arrogance or look down upon another, "I am but dust and ashes" will remind us that every human being we encounter has his or her own unique spark of the divine within. When we are beset by doubts and begin to focus on our own human frailties, "The whole earth was created for my sake" will remind us that we, too, are created in the divine image and as such have fundamental worth and value.

The reason that tradition depicted Moses as one of the most humble of all leaders was to serve as a model for each of us in our daily lives. If even Moses, the greatest of all leaders in Jewish history, was able to remain humble and recognize that he was simply a vehicle for God’s work in the world, then we too have the obligation to see our hands as God’s hands, our eyes as God’s eyes, and our hearts as God’s heart. Each time we relearn that lesson and recognize God as a power that works through each of us, we may be inspired to encourage those around us to feel better about themselves and to discover their own inner spark of the divine as well.

More Bangs for the Buck


Jerry Bruckheimer laughs when you mention the reviews that charge he makes money, not art. “Thanks for reminding me,” he quips. “But I get great reviews from the Bank of America.”

A fitting response for a producer who is the uncontested King of the Hollywood Blockbusters.

His “Pearl Harbor,” the priciest movie ever approved by one studio, opens today with the biggest series of explosions ever recorded on film.

In the 1980s, Bruckheimer and his then-partner, Don Simpson, bought matching black Ferraris, hired identical twin assistants and churned out a string of multibillion-dollar testosterone-fests like “Top Gun” and “Beverly Hills Cop.” Even after Simpson died of a drug overdose in 1996, Bruckheimer continued to reign as cinema’s adrenaline mogul with flicks such as “Con Air” and “Armageddon.” If you do the math, he’s probably the most financially successful producer in movie history, with film, video and soundtrack revenues topping $11 billion.

So what if the critics dump on his movies? Bruckheimer says he personally identifies with the genre. “It’s about overcoming your problems and succeeding,” he says. “I like movies about triumph. It parallels my own life story.”

If Bruckheimer made his own biopic, it would begin with his childhood home in a blue-collar Jewish section of Detroit just after World War II.

Bruckheimer’s house was so small that he could stretch out his arms in any room and touch opposite walls, he has said. His parents were German Jewish immigrants who arrived in the United States in the 1920s; his father was active in a Conservative synagogue. Bruckheimer senior made only $140 a week as a salesman. But Bruckheimer was more ambitious.

When his parents dropped him off at weekly matinees, he dreamed of Hollywood. “I wanted to make movies,” he says. “I fell in love with the magic.”

Bruckheimer studied photography, won some local prizes — and fled Detroit the way his parents had left the Old Country. Hollywood was his goldine medine; he arrived here after giving up a lucrative Madison Avenue advertising job to accept a low-paying 1972 movie gig. By the early ’80s, he was collaborating with Simpson on “Flashdance,” a surprise hit that put the producers on the Hollywood A-list. Over the years, Simpson would describe their partnership as like a good marriage, but without the sex. Bruckheimer gleaned ideas for films by reading four newspapers a day and 90 magazines a month.

He says his drive to succeed was motivated by his parents’ immigrant experience. “They were always scraping together a nickel,” he says. “I didn’t want to be poor, to tell you the truth.”

Given his family history, one would expect Bruckheimer’s World War II movie to be set in Nazi-occupied Europe, not the Pacific. His mother’s half-siblings died in concentration camps, while his uncle, who was fluent in German, served as an interpreter in U.S. intelligence.

Then again, Bruckheimer knows a good story when he sees one. While other producers feverishly developed Holocaust-themed projects in the wake of “Schindler’s List,” he paid attention to a Disney executive who described visiting the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor. The exec noted that the battleship was demolished within five minutes during the Japanese surprise attack on Dec. 7, 1941. “We thought that would make a great backdrop for a movie,” Bruckheimer says. “It was the first time we were ever defeated on our own soil. That’s not something we should forget, because history has a tendency to repeat itself.”

These days, Bruckheimer does not belong to a synagogue, but he is returning to his roots by developing his first Jewish-themed film, “Operation Moses,” based on the mass airlift of Ethiopian Jews to Israel in 1985. It’s a saga worthy of a Bruckheimer movie, with a cloak-and-dagger military operation, a dangerous desert journey and an inspiring ending. Will the movie be an action film? “Absolutely,” Bruckheimer says. “I [envision] a number of explosive sequences.” The producer is so proud of the project that it’s prominently listed in his bio in the production notes for “Pearl Harbor.”

But don’t suggest to Bruckheimer that Jewish action heroes won’t draw big bucks. “If there is a stereotype that Jews aren’t action heroes, you can always get around it,” he says. “What’s important is the storytelling.”

Which brings Bruckheimer back to the subject of the critics. “Even if they don’t like my movies, the public does,” he insists. “That’s why I make my pictures. I’ve gotta take the bright side.”

Exploring the Inexplicable


My mother and I have an ongoing dispute. Sometime in the late 1960s, she was given an oversized French photograph book about the Holocaust, titled "La Deportation." As an act of Jewish solidarity, she has at times prominently displayed it. I find the cover painfully disturbing. It is the portrait of a survivor taken shortly after liberation: gaunt, staring, blank from the horror. When I visit, I turn the book face down, so as to be neither accused nor bearing witness. She turns the book back, face up, deliberately to engage with that image.

A rabbinic dictum teaches that there is no end to the learning of Torah. Nor can there be an end to the unfolding of both details and understanding about the Holocaust, no matter how often we turn the book cover face down. Each of the following books represents a different approach, none definitive, but each worthy and powerful in its own right, subject to its own limitations.

"Rethinking the Holocaust" by Yehuda Bauer. (Yale University Press, $29.95)

Yehuda Bauer, director of the International Institute for Holocaust Research at Yad Vashem, spends a great deal of necessary effort examining and correcting our language in "Rethinking the Holocaust." He points out that it was not the victims who were dehumanized, but the perpetrators, high and low, who dehumanized themselves.

It is only with tremendous effort that we can dissect the nature and components of the first systematic, industrialized, determined, ideologically inspired and directed effort to thoroughly eliminate a group of "racially" identified people.

This definition leads Bauer to argue that the idea of the Holocaust should be used exclusively in regard to Jews.

From the Nazi viewpoint, having identified Jews as the source of all pollution in the world, eradication of that pollution would naturally lead to utopia. Thus, Bauer contends that while Poles were considered inferior, Gypsies racially dangerous (inasmuch as they interbred with "pure" Germans), and the handicapped selected for elimination as a eugenic goal, the Holocaust can only be understood in light of the specific targeting of Jews.

The conduct of German foreign policy illustrates the point: the Nazis did not demand that their allies — Italians, Hungarians, Romanians, Bulgarians — hand over their Gypsy or handicapped populations to the death-camp industry, only the Jews.

Bauer, a public and determined secularist, maintains that all human experience can be understood, and in order to combat dehumanized evil, every effort must be made to understand.

"The Holocaust Encyclopedia" edited by Walter Laqueur, associate editor Judith Tydor Baumel. (Yale University Press, $60)

"The Holocaust Encyclopedia" reveals Walter Laqueur’s historical and journalistic competence in great depth as it catalogues the seemingly trivial (to the degree that anything pertaining to the Shoah can be deemed trivial) and the truly masterful.

Yehoyakim Cochavi submits a dense eight-page essay on ghetto cultural life, a form of Jewish resistance widely accessible to many Jews and unduly ignored. The article on the Gerhard M. Riegner memorandum (sent in March 1943 to the governments of the United States and Great Britain, appealing to them to save the Jews in Nazi-occupied countries from a "carefully planned extermination campaign") was written by Riegner himself, World War II director of the World Jewish Congress’ Geneva office.

Riegner reconstructs the anxiety he felt at his newly acquired knowledge of the depth and direction of Nazi Germany’s actions, goals and capacities in eminently readable, clear and concise prose.

Among other contributors to the encyclopedia are some of the most important scholars today, including Michael Berenbaum (at the University of Judaism) and Saul Friedlander (occupant of the "1939" chair at UCLA).

"Scrolls of Testimony" by Abba Kovner. Foreword by Irving Greenberg. (Jewish Publication Society, $75)

Abba Kovner’s breathtaking "Scrolls of Testimony" tries to evoke the inexplicable horror of the victims.

Kovner — poet, avenger, partisan of Vilna, voice of conscience and memory in Israel, an almost inadvertent survivor — self-consciously modeled his last and unfinished literary work on the scrolls used as part of Jewish liturgy (Esther, Jonah, Song of Songs, Ruth and Kohelet). The pages, beautifully laid out, suggest traditional Jewish texts, bordered by notes, asides and emendations.

In his foreword, Irving Greenberg relates that Kovner hoped that these Scrolls of Testimony would find a place in the Jewish liturgy, to be a formal voice of Shoah memory.

Perhaps in Hebrew, these "Scrolls" work. This translation is well worth reading for its own merit but does not work as a unified liturgical piece. Its length alone precludes its exclusive inclusion. Woven together are pieces of memoirs, short stories and poems. Like virtually all works that try to create a literary visceral sense of the Shoah, "Scrolls of Testimony" is disjointed, chaotic, dark and fearful. On that account, Kovner gives us a distant feel for the victims. But few of us would wish to voluntarily recount for an extended time those searing, horrific feelings.

"The Last Album: Eyes From the Ashes of Auschwitz-Birkenau" by Ann Weiss. Foreword by Leon Wieseltier. (W. W. Norton & Company, $39.95)

Ann Weiss’ "The Last Album" illuminates lives lost and images found.

During a small, somewhat private tour at Auschwitz, Weiss was accidentally led into a room that housed 2,400 photographs brought there by deportees. (Successfully hidden by Auschwitz inmates, these personal items were usually destroyed along with their owners.) This small selection documents Jewish life before and during the war in the two small towns closest to Auschwitz, Bendin (also called Bendzin and Bedzin) and Sosnowiecz.

A number of families from those towns are detailed. Some relate the painful irony of death and survival.

Concerned about marriage prospects, Yoel and Ruchel Diament packed off their middle daughters, Mindl and Gila, to their aunt in Montreal. Photographs of Gila with her husband, daughter and sister Mindl were sent to the parents, who carried them when transported to their deaths. Photos taken in Canada and retrieved from Auschwitz waited 60 years to be published in New York.

But there are too many individual stories, millions too many individual faces, for us to remember or to grasp. n

"The Holocaust Chronicle: A History in Words and Pictures" edited by David Aretha. Foreword by Michael Berenbaum. (Publications International, Ltd., $40)

"The Holocaust Chronicles" presents pictures, brief explanations, one-page essays and a continuing timeline of the numbing details, year by year and month by month, with a story provided for each date.

It is a coffee-table book, if a work on this subject can be called such; a valuable research resource for the casual reader and a powerful introductory overview of the historical facts. A thorough index and a related Web site flesh out publisher Louis Weber’s effort to make this book a portable archive and act of remembrance.

But the strength of a book such as "The Holocaust Chronicle" is also its weakness. Its timeline-based organization means that thematic issues are approached obliquely, at best, and cross-referencing material is complicated.

To study, for example, the fate of Greek Jewry, one crosses 22 different short, almost breathless references. On the other hand, start at page 405 and read to page 501, and 1943 is laid out: deportation, resistance, rescue, battles in the Soviet Union, agitation in the United States.

Two of the principal consultants on "The Holocaust Chronicle" are Marilyn Harran of Chapman College and John K. Roth, Russell K. Pitzer professor of philosophy at Claremont McKenna College.

"The Columbia Guide to the Holocaust" by Donald Niewyk and Francis Nicosia. (Columbia University Press, $45)

Donald Niewyk and Francis Nicosia’s "The Columbia Guide to the Holocaust" instructs the student in the basics of modern academic Holocaust study and research.

A dry historical overview opens a work seemingly geared to an introductory college class in Holocaust studies. The second part outlines the abstract issues that roil academic and scholarly waters: how to define the Holocaust, identify its roots, and see how the Final Solution came about. Who were the perpetrators? What were the victims’ reactions? How did bystanders behave? Was rescue an option? What are the enduring effects of the Holocaust?

Niewyk and Nicosia concisely try to illuminate the ground current Holocaust studies in the United States tend to cover.

The third section is a bare-bones chronology; the fourth, a short encyclopedia; the fifth, a worthwhile list of various resources: print, film, Web sites, organizations, museums and memorials.

Survivors’ Stories


In 1989, Judith Mendel Novack decided to come to terms with her Holocaust memories. She wrote “The Lilac Bush,” a memoir drawn from her Hungarian girlhood and its tragic aftermath, then persuaded a small New York publisher to bring out her manuscript in book form. Novack wasn’t bothered by having to pay up front to see “The Lilac Bush” in print. After all, she was not in it for the money. Upon receiving the very first copy, she brought it straight to her grown son. He had never before heard her story.

Many Holocaust survivors have turned to self-publication as a way of confronting their past lives. The author of one memoir said, “I couldn’t wait to spit it out.” Embarrassed at having to pay to be published, she does not want to be identified. But her investment has brought her tangible dividends: letters from around the world and the discovery of former childhood classmates who now live an easy drive from her Southern California home.

David Meyer, professor of Jewish history at UCLA, explains the recent surge in Holocaust memoirs. First of all, he said, “at a moment in history where survivors are quite literally passing from the scene, there’s a sense of urgency to record one’s story before one’s voice is no longer able to be heard.” And the widespread interviewing of Holocaust victims by such groups as the Survivors of the Shoah Foundation has opened the emotional floodgates for many who were once reticent. As a historian, Meyer sees value in these memoirs: each survivor’s personal story “gives shadings to our comprehension of an event too large for us to fully comprehend.”

If, however, a survivor’s recollections seem overly embellished, they can be perceived as falsifying history. That’s why Samuel Goetz, founder of the UCLA Chair of Holocaust Studies, advises his fellow-survivors to “bear witness to your own experience. Don’t pass judgment or talk outside of your own experience.” Goetz takes his own advice in “I Never Saw My Face” (2001), the understated prose narrative in which he details his life, from ages 14 through 17, in three Nazi concentration camps.

Because of his long-term commitment to Holocaust education, Goetz first queried a university press but quickly discovered the realities of the publishing field. Ultimately, he settled on Rutledge Books, which states its mission on its Web site: “This successful, full-service subsidy publisher can transform your manuscript into an attractive quality book and promote it.” By paying Rutledge for its services, Goetz received a well-edited volume that looks fully professional. Rutledge even helped create the cover design Goetz had envisioned: the only existing childhood photo of himself, superimposed on a copy of his certificate of liberation.

After chronicling her years in Nazi-occupied Hungary, Rose Farkas contacted Santa Barbara’s Fithian Press. An imprint of Daniel & Daniel, which also produces mysteries and belles lettres, Fithian specializes in what it calls “co-publishing.” Publisher John Daniel insists that Fithian is not a vanity press, cranking out shoddy volumes for anyone who can pay the tab. (Today, several e-book companies, like the 1stBooks Library, fulfill this function.) By contrast, Fithian’s staff picks and chooses among submissions, because “we always have to be sure that we will be proud of the book.” Although authors do cover the costs of publication, they receive generous royalties for copies sold, and Fithian both distributes and publicizes its output.

Farkas is not ashamed that her handsome hardcover memoir, “Ruchele: Sixty Years from Szatmar to Los Angeles” (1998) cost her $11,000. Of the 1,000 copies printed, she has sold more than half and given many to museums and synagogues. “Ruchele” is available through commercial outlets; it also appears in a slender catalogue wherein Fithian enumerates its full line of Judaica.

To tell the story of how he escaped the Nazis by leaping from a moving train, Joseph Rebhun first formed a tiny company, Or Publishing. He printed 3,000 copies of “God and Man in Two Worlds” (1985), and “acting as his own public relations man,” he said, sold them all.

Years later, a copy came into the hands of freelance editor Carol Field. Because Rebhun is a doctor, she approached Ardor Scribendi, which calls itself “a publishing house for physicians by physicians.” Ardor Scribendi’s founder, Dr. A. Bernard Ackerman, asked Rebhun to trim the religious philosophizing that had dominated the original book. “I don’t want to hear a God story,” Ackerman said. “I want to hear your story.” The result is the gripping “Leap to Life: Triumph Over Nazi Evil” (2000).

When Lya Stern and her brother Andy Weiss decided to celebrate their mother’s 80th birthday by collecting her writings, they chose to join forces as Lyandy Press. With “The Complete Self-Publishing Handbook” as her guide, Stern put in countless hours ensuring that the work was professional in every way. She paid a designer $2,600 to oversee the look of the volume and spent another $8,000 for the printing of 1,000 copies. Now “Life at the End of the Tunnel,” a survivor’s memoir by Irene Weiss, is available for purchase. Weiss’s short sketches combine tender memories of a bygone world with chillingly precise recollections of day-to-day life at Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. But her proud children are discovering that until they acquire marketing know-how, they’ll never get the book into readers’ hands.

One boon to those who have not yet told their stories is the Holocaust Survivors’ Memoirs Project, sponsored by the World Jewish Congress in close alliance with Elie Wiesel. Through a recent grant to Wiesel from Random House, the project is committed to gathering and publishing prose narratives from anyone whose life was changed by the Shoah. Coordinator Charlotte Yudin admits that publication criteria have not yet been determined. But she has already been barraged by survivors who implore her, “Please, I’d like to see this published before I die.”

Rutledge Books, Inc.
(800) 278-8533 www.rutledgebooks.com

Fithian Press (805) 962-1780 www.danielpublishing.com

“The Complete Self-Publishing Handbook” by David M. Brownstone and Irene M. Franck (Plume, 1999)

Holocaust Survivors’ Memoirs Project (914) 722-1880

Family Affair


Raven-haired actress Juliet Landau is best-known for playing characters with a dark, wicked edge. In Tim Burton’s "Ed Wood," she was the starlet who out-conned Hollywood’s schlockiest filmmaker. In "Theodore Rex," she was the James Bond-ish vixen Dr. Veronica Shade. On TV shows "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Angel," she is Drusilla, a bloodthirsty addict with an enabler boyfriend named Spike.

"We are the Sid and Nancy of the vampire set," says Landau, the 29-year-old daughter of "Mission Impossible" stars Martin Landau and Barbara Bain.

At Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s Westside campus this month, the actress, who was raised in an assimilated Jewish home, will again take a walk on the dark side, but in a very different kind of play. She’ll appear in Richard Rashke’s "Dear Esther," based on the true story of Esther Raab, one of 300 Jews who escaped the Sobibor death camp in 1943.

The piece is primarily a dialogue between the main character, Esther (Bain), and "Esther 2" (Landau), Raab’s conscience, alter ego and younger self. Landau’s own mother will play the other half of Landau’s character, which might prompt some to envision Dr. Freud stroking his beard and asking a question or two.

During the course of the play, the two Esthers work through the guilt and rage Raab feels about her mother’s suicide during the Shoah.

"It’s strange," admits the younger actress, who, like her mother, is a member of the Actors Studio. "But it’s a good casting choice. Much of an actor’s work is creating a history with the other performers, but with my mother, that is already taken care of. We have a deep knowledge of each other and a history to draw upon when we step onstage."

For Landau, show business is in the blood. During her childhood, her parents’ friends included Carl Reiner and Carroll O’Connor, so Juliet believed that everyone had his own TV show.

Acting, however, was off-limits for Juliet and her older sister, who attended the American School in London while their parents fought off aliens in the TV show "Space 1999." "They didn’t want to subject us to the vagaries of the business," says Landau. "And then I never wanted to be an actress; that was my parents’ world. I was a dancer."

After working as a professional ballerina for five years, Landau became disillusioned with the business and enrolled in an acting class.

Soon after, she began earning positive reviews for performances in plays such as Wendy Wasserstein’s "Uncommon Women & Others."

Burton was so impressed with her audition tape that he hired her even before he cast her father as the aging horror star Bela Lugosi (for which Martin Landau earned the Oscar for best supporting actor in 1995). Father and daughter discussed dailies on the set, though they only appeared together in one scene, a re-enactment of Ed Wood’s "Bride of the Monster." "Dad put my character in a trance, then he took a whip and started beating this other character as I was lying there," Landau recalls. "It was very bizarre."

Since Landau enjoys working with her mother, with whom she has appeared in half a dozen staged readings, she was amenable when director Alexandra More called and asked if she would co-star with Bain in "Dear Esther."

Like her parents, who helped found the Los Angeles branch of the Actors Studio, Landau will approach the role with her usual meticulous attention to detail. She has already gathered a stack of books on the Holocaust, including "I Never Saw Another Butterfly: Children’s Drawings and Poems from Terezin Concentration Camp."

Her DramaLogue and Emmy Award-winning mother will not need to do such in-depth research. While Juliet grew up a generation removed from the Holocaust, Bain, née Millicent Fogel, remembers being terrified of the Nazis as a child. "I looked as blond and corn-fed as everyone around me in my Chicago neighborhood, yet there was an ominousness in the air, and I felt unsafe," she told the Journal.

She will no doubt identify on some level with her character’s main struggle: coming to terms with the death of one’s mother. When Barbara Bain was 18, she was summoned home from school because her own mother was dying of pancreatic cancer. "It was a very, very painful time," she recalls. "I didn’t know what hit me."

Bain, who conducts a workshop in sense memory (the use of personal emotions to fuel a performance), may use some of that technique to bring the fictional Esther to life. When Juliet wondered whether the approach can emotionally crush an actor, her mom provided words of wisdom. "It’s not threatening, but healthy," she said. "It’s a catharsis, a release."

For tickets to "Dear Esther," April 18 and 19 at the Irmas Campus of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, 11661 W. Olympic Blvd., call Rabbi Karen Fox’s office at (213) 388-2401, ext. 269.

Words, Blessed Words


Every year for Women’s History Month, I’m asked to address groups of people brought together to mark the occasion. Some years it’s at a university, a museum, or a foundation. This year it’s in the Milken High School library.

I like the idea, of course — to support the library and the school, to visit with a group composed of many of my own friends. In December I say an enthusiastic “yes!” In February I sign off on the invitations and begin spreading the word. Things are rolling right along, I’m told. The library expects a full house. In March I begin to wonder what, if anything, I have to say.

I’m not usually at a loss for words, it is true, but something about a library, about speaking there during Women’s History Month, strikes a nerve and resonates deeper than usual. I find myself haunted by a vision at once familiar and removed — a pre-adolescent girl in a gray-and-white uniform sitting on bare stone steps in a busy hallway. People race up and down the staircase and barely notice her. Little boys in starched shorts bound out of their classrooms to play soccer in the yard. Teachers prance about the hallway, taking care to look as imposing, as intimidating, as they can. Older girls — seniors maybe — walk around in skirts they have shortened way beyond school regulations and cry on each other’s shoulders about first love. The girl in the gray-and-white uniform hardly looks up from the book in her lap.

I know this girl, I realize, or I used to. She was the one with the curly brown hair and the mortal fear of the geography teacher, the one who had to memorize all the math equations because she never did understand the logic of numbers, who almost failed P.E. because she couldn’t touch her toes with her fingers. Every day at recess, she goes into the school library, I remember, and takes out any book she likes. The librarian, if there is one, has no idea what’s on the shelves and certainly doesn’t care who reads what, as long as she’s left alone to file her nails.

I read trashy novels and great works of art, poetry and prose and plays. Some of it I don’t understand at all. Some I can’t stop thinking about. At home I watch my family, our friends, strangers who stop by every day to speak to my grandfather or to sell trinkets to my mother and grandmother. I watch them and imagine their lives, the very music and movements of their days, painted into the folds of a book.

A woman who visits often is said to have murdered two husbands for their money.

My blue-eyed French grandmother tells me about the time she was 6 years old, alone in Paris because her parents had gone off to war. German planes would drop bombs out of the sky, and she refused to hide in a bomb shelter. Food lines stretched 10 blocks long, and she stood alone with her pet mouse to wait her turn.

The male servant who has been with us for 30 years was given away in childhood by his parents, who were too poor to raise him. He marries a woman who wears tight satin dresses and sings old Persian love songs. She leaves him the day after the wedding.

I watch the people around me and see their sadness, their courage, their ability to persevere.

The servant whose wife has run away keeps a closet full of double-breasted suits and silk ties he will never wear. My French grandmother endures the war by looking at maps of faraway places and imagining herself there. The woman with the two dead husbands finds a third potential victim and brings him over for tea.

I watch these people and think of their lives as a box of treasures — the stories lying in the dark, gleaming and radiant and waiting to be told. The stories are what define them all, I realize. Untold, their tales will fall like leaves into silence.

In my school library, I read a poem by an Iranian woman poet. “Dasthayam ra dar baghcheh mikaram,” it says: I will plant my hands in the garden. By the time I read the lines, the poet has already killed herself. It’s something women poets often seem to do, I observe. Writers in general appear to like suicide, drinking, being poor. I would love to become a writer myself, to have books that will end up on the shelves of a school library and maybe even be ignored by the librarian. But I study the job requirements — a bathrobe, a bottle of pills, a glass of Jack Daniels in the morning — and decide I don’t qualify.

Yet the poet’s words, the images they have conjured, stay with me week after week as I read on the steps of the school library. I imagine the hands, the ones she has cut off and planted, blooming out of the ground like blood-red roses. It occurs to me that long after the poet is gone, the hands will continue to blossom.

I follow the row of roses out of childhood and into adolescence. I go to another place — a different language, different people and customs and books. In school, we read the works of dead Western writers, the mental ruminations of middle-aged philosophers who smoke too much and do not know when to put the pen down. Hemingway leaves me cold. Stendahl is a cure for insomnia. Simone de Beauvoir, I think, is why many poets commit suicide.

I long for the school librarian who doesn’t know one book from the other and who therefore cannot tell me what’s appropriate reading for an educated young lady of my age. I read “Marjorie Morningstar” and, to the everlasting horror of my English teachers, declare it’s the best thing I have read that year.

I don’t know this yet, but I’m looking for passion beyond the structure of the sentence, for language that is fluid and easy and that rings like a melody. For a plot that moves backward or forward, but that moves. I think of words — spoken, read, remembered or forgotten — I think of them as the one reality that connects me to a world of strangers.

At 16, I move farther west — to America this time — and start again. In Los Angeles I meet Iranians who have escaped the revolution, who have come here thinking they will stay a month and have stayed a decade, then two. Their stories are not written in any books, can’t be found in any library, won’t be discussed at forums during Women’s History Month. I ask them to tell me what they remember, what they want to forget. I want to know the unthinkable, the unspeakable. Some hesitate, then give in. Others seek me out and won’t stop.

I wonder now if it’s possible to write without drinking, if suicide has gone out of style, if being poor is really so bad. I want to take the stories of each person I meet and plant them into the ground like roses, gather their tears in a jar and save them like diamonds in the light. I want to record their voices as they sound to me, to capture their images as they appear to me.

I ask my husband what he thinks a writer is.

“A writer is someone who writes,” he says.

He’s missed the part about the bathrobe, I think, doesn’t know you can’t write if sober.

Or maybe he sees a reality that’s different from mine. Maybe he sees options I do not know exist.

I tell myself that if I’m patient enough, perhaps even foolish enough, I may be able to paint the stories onto a canvas where their colors would be stored, that I may put together a history to tell during Women’s History Month.

I see a blue tulip, a pair of golden eyes, a child with angel’s wings. I see things that have never been or that maybe cannot be, secrets that have been guarded for too long, tales that have been told but not heard. I see them and think that perhaps I can plant my own row of flowers in this new world, that I can watch them grow and follow them to a place where friends reunite and strangers meet, and the words of dead writers glow in the dark like rubies.