Mayoral Magic


 

At your next dinner party, here’s a surefire way to bring the sparkling conversation to a dead stop. In the midst of all the banter about the Oscars and Westside real estate prices and Michael Jackson, chime in with, “So, what do you think of the mayoral race?”

Go ahead. Ask it. Within five minutes, you’ll see tumbleweeds blowing through your living room.

There is a political junkie class in the city for whom the mayoral race has been the issue over the past few months. But beyond that group and their co-dependents in the media, the level of interest in who will be the next leader of the largest city in the most populous state in the world’s most powerful nation is close to nil.

“I don’t really care,” said a friend of mine tied in with the entertainment industry, “and I don’t know anyone who does.” He paused for a moment. “Why is that?”

The Los Angeles Times editorialized on this question a few weeks back, but the Times and the other media is part of the problem, with our largely predictable, dutiful and resolutely plain coverage. This is a race that has to be sold to voters — why it’s important, what’s at stake, who stands to win and lose –and most coverage doesn’t appeal beyond the public access news chat set.

Here at The Journal, we’ve run several insightful columns and had some solid initial coverage. But have we done enough to goose potential voters?

Many in the media blame the candidates themselves. All the candidates are Democrats, all are decent, safe men, nary a grandstander, bully or bigmouth among them. They have their 20-point traffic plans and 30-page crime plans, but they seem strangely detached from the here and now. They haven’t jumped on the volatile issues of the day — the shooting of 13-year-old Devon Brown by an LAPD officer after Williams stole a car, the closure of King/Drew Medical Center — and staked out a controversial or challenging position. Can you imagine a New York City’s mayoral race that doesn’t involve the words controversial, volatile or challenging?

The last multicandidate election to spark widespread interest in Los Angeles was the 2004 Democratic presidential primary. Even the local television news covered it. The Deaniacs, the Kerryites, the Clarkettes — people in this town were passionate, Brentwood was thick with fundraisers and policy papers on early childhood education and universal health care actually circulated alongside weekend grosses.

With only three weeks to go to Election Day, how can we recapture the kind of democratic magic that only Iraqi Shiites and Kurds have known since?

I have two strategies. To all in the entertainment industry who plunged headlong into the presidential primary but think civic politics is beneath you, I suggest thinking of the current field of five men as midseason replacements for last summer’s cast.

In the role of Missouri Rep. Richard Gephardt, we have Mayor James Hahn. Quiet, no great shakes on the stump, but a solid vote getter with down-the-middle policies. Bernard Parks, city councilman and former police chief, is Connecticut’s Sen. Joe Lieberman. A bit dull on camera, but very engaging and direct in person, and no pushover to traditional Democratic interest groups. City Councilman Richard Alarcman is Howard Dean, the new Democratic Party Chair. He gets in some good zingers in the debates, maybe appears a bit too left for some, but in governing has been much more pragmatic. As Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, there’s his former Los Angeles campaign chair, City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa. The putative front-runner, the party pick, Villaraigosa has 1,000 times more charisma than Kerry but, well, they’ve both lost the big one once. That leaves Gen. Wesley Clark for former assembly speaker Bob Hertzberg — not a terrible fit. Both pragmatic Democrats with solid Republican affiliations, both a bit tentative about joining the race, though they each warmed up to the challenge after a while, though Hertzberg hugs more people in a day than Clark probably has all last year.

Does that help? The comparisons are crude, as many analogies — especially tongue-in-cheek ones — must be. But at least they help provide a hook for those who otherwise couldn’t tell Alarcman from the Alamo. Anyway, take heart, this time a Democrat will definitely win — how often can you say that these days?

As our columnist Raphael Sonenshein has pointed out, although Jews represent just 6 percent of the population, we make up 18 percent of the voters in municipal elections. The statistics are even more skewed for donations and activism among individual Jews. So although we might need less encouragement than other voters, the apathy is still there, and that’s a shame. Crime, traffic, failing schools, economic development, poor air and dirty water — these are issues that affect all of us every hour of every day. They are the stuff of City Hall, and who sits there does matter.

We’ve just completed the last of our in-house sit-downs with each of the major candidates, and we’ll publish the fruits of those interviews in our March 4 issue. (The election is March 8.)

In the meantime, take time to do your own research, seek out and get to know something about these men. Because whether Los Angeles thrives or declines depends in no small part on the person who leads it.

In his soon-to-be-published book, “The City: A Global History” (Random House), Journal columnist Joel Kotkin writes that the world’s great cities have survived marauders, sieges and all manners of disasters. For these cities, even utter destruction was not final. But what the citizens of every great city must have is a “peculiar and strong attachment, sentiments that separate one specific place from others.” In the end, Kotkin writes, cities are held together, “by a consciousness that unites their people in a shared identity.”

I myself am looking at these candidates to see who best engenders and conveys that sense of common purpose, of shared greatness. I want a mayor who stands for what Kotkin calls, “the powerful moral vision that holds cities together.”

If he also supports a subway to the Westside, that would be nice, too.

 

Passing on a Legacy of Love


“All That Matters” by Jan Goldstein (Hyperion, $17.95).

Walk into Zabar’s and it’s easy to spot 76-year old Gittel “Gabby” Zuckerman. She’s feisty and funny, and her shrinking height and failing health don’t diminish her power. Nor do the memories of the family she lost in the Holocaust ever leave her.

Gabby is the heroine of Jan Goldstein’s uplifting first novel, “All That Matters,” a book that’s been compared to Mitch Albom’s “Tuesdays With Morrie,” for sharing the wisdom — this time in fiction — of an elderly person facing death. It’s Gabby who ultimately saves her granddaughter Jennifer, and the novel follows their journey together, toward each other, affirming memory, life and love.

Jennifer loses her way after her Hollywood producer father (“Harvey Weinstein in a size 40”) leaves the family and marries a younger woman (“Ms. Beverly Hills Aerobics”), and after her mother Lili’s death. Lili was fatally struck by a car while crossing a Los Angeles street, on a day when she lent Jennifer her own car. After Jennifer feels abandoned by one more person, a boyfriend who promises her a better life and then asks her to move out, the young woman tries to commit suicide on Venice Beach — but she is found by a truck driver.

Defying her doctor’s orders, Gabby flies across the country when she hears the news and insists on bringing her only child’s only child home with her to the Upper West Side, rather than allowing her ex-son-in-law to confine her to an institution. To see her granddaughter so troubled “was a grandmother’s pain, one that reached the deepest part of her, a place where the memory of lost family resided.”

Gabby wrestles with God, never forgiving God for failing to save her family in Poland, yet on occasion she offers up prayers of gratitude nonetheless. But when it comes to Jennifer, she found that God “didn’t seem a reliable bet,” so she turns to her late daughter, Lili, searching for her voice.

It’s exactly this time of year when Gabby and Jennifer return to New York City, when the air is crisp and the leaves are turning burnt orange and golden. The fall scene on the book jacket could be Central Park, where some of the novel’s key scenes are played out. When Jennifer first enters her grandmother’s apartment in the West 70s, she “took a deep breath and exhaled, looking over the glass coffee table overflowing with tchotchkes. It was if she’d entered a time warp, fallen into some kind of back hole where everything modern and contemporary had ceased to exist.”

The author — whose book recently made the Los Angeles Times best-seller list — is an L.A.-based poet, playwright and screenwriter who has written two nonfiction books, “Life Can Be This Good” and “Sacred Wounds.” One fact about him doesn’t appear on the book jacket: He’s a rabbi, trained in the Reform movement. For 20 years, he was the rabbi-in-residence at Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge, and he now heads a congregation called Shofar, “a show business shul,” he said. He said that his rabbinic experience “has given me insight into human psychology and what moves people.”

As a man probing the inner lives of women, he credits the powerful example of his mother, who was a poet, and his father, who was an actor, and helped establish a conservative synagogue in Burlington, Vt., where he grew up, “surrounded by poetry and theater.”

Goldstein explains that he also learned a lot about women as a single father, with primary responsibility for raising his three children — two daughters and a son, who are now grown up — after a divorce. Now 53 and remarried, he also has a stepson and a young daughter.

His attraction to the rabbinate grew out of his involvement in the ecumenical movement in Vermont.

“We wanted to bring people together, to create more understanding between religions,” he said. “I wanted to explain who Jews are.”

Throughout his rabbinic career “the writer in me has been wanting to come out,” he said.

He describes his Jewish outlook as “progressive in orientation, with a healthy respect for tradition and a healthy hunger for creating new forms of ritual. Telling stories is a very Jewish activity, also a human activity, making meaning out of human experience.”

“We have a profound power through creativity to help alter the world. In a small way I’m doing that through the stories I tell.” He added, “Artists like to nudge the world along.”

“All That Matters” was inspired in part by the suicide of a vivacious young woman Goldstein had taught; he hadn’t seen it coming and that haunted him.

“I wondered if I could create a character who could intercede, who could mentor her back to discover the joy of living,” he said. “I couldn’t think of a more dramatic person to reach someone and show someone how precious love is than someone who has seen the worst that life can dole out.”

The character of Gabby was informed by several Holocaust survivors he has known, who have a joyous quality about them — in spite of all they have been through. In particular, his father had a cousin whose own experience of surviving and being hidden by a righteous Polish woman is reflected in Gabby’s story. Goldstein was also influenced by a meeting with Simon Wiesenthal in Vienna, when he was researching an earlier nonfiction book. Some of Wiesenthal’s determination — how early experiences in his life led to his involvement in bringing the world to justice, and a sense of owing something to future generations — surfaces in Gabby.

For Goldstein, the message of the book is about second chances in life, about learning to savor life’s gifts.

“Sometimes we look in the wrong places for a special kind of love that can rejuvenate our lives,” he said.

Goldstein’s writes with ease and fluidity, and he explains that he finished the book quickly, in 10 weeks.

“It just poured out of me,” he said.

While he was writing, he could imagine a film version and several producers have shown interest. The author dreams of Natalie Portman playing Jennifer.

About the book title, he sounds rabbinic, “When we discover what matters, life becomes different and better.”

Goldstein will be the featured guest at Sinai Temple’s Friday Night Live on Nov. 12, 7:30 p.m. 10400 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood.

The Heimish Home Stretch


Finding a nice Jewish neighborhood to live in can be a tricky process if you’re moving to a new city. Realtors might not be able to tell you if the house you are interested in is near a synagogue, if there are Jewish schools nearby, what sort of a community you are moving into or whether there is a community in the area.

HeimishHome.com, a new Web site that wants to be the one-stop shop for researching Jewish neighborhoods. Heimishhome has listings from realtors in different neighborhoods around America with special features that allow the users to check how close the house is to the nearest shul, school, kosher restaurant or mikvah. There are also editorials on the site that offer thumbnail descriptions of the different communities. Thinking of moving to Cherry Hill, N.J., but aren’t sure what awaits you there? Log on to Heimishhome, where you will find out that Cherry Hill “is blessed with all the necessities a Jewish family needs and enjoys a reputation for hospitality, warmth, and friendliness.”

Alon Tamir, a 22-year-old Australian Yeshiva University computer science graduate said he started the site after he got married and realized he had no idea which community he wanted to live in.

“Here you have an infinite number of choices, and I realized there was no one place you could go or one group of people you could speak to where you can find out about the community [and whether] it would be a place where you could feel comfortable about having a Jewish life,” he said.

Through his online connections, Tamir eventually decided that Teaneck, N.J., was the place for him.

Currently the site gets 150,000 hits a month and has about 300 listings, and it is slowly becoming a place where new communities or communities in need of revival can broadcast their wares to new customers.

Tamir envisions that it won’t be long before the site has thousands of listings from all over the world.

“People say to me, ‘How come no one ever thought of this before?'” Tamir said. “‘It makes our lives so much easier!'”

For more information log on to www.heimishhome.com .

Matzah Masters Write About Every Nook and Cranny


Ari Greenspan knows his matzah. It’s not the only thing he knows, but he definitely knows his matzah.

The former New Jersey resident has studied it inside and out, from the firebricks that line his own homemade oven in the basement of his house in Efrat, Israel, to the unbaked hidden particles that accumulate when the dough folds over in the oven, thus rendering it chametz.

He knows about rolling the reddeler — the metal wheel that makes the little holes in the matzah — the long spatulas used to place the dough into the oven and what differentiates matzah from bread.

"From the time flour and water mix, 18 minutes later we call that chametz," explained the 41-year-old Greenspan. "Wheat has carbohydrates and proteins, and the water allows enzymes to mix with those carbohydrates, break them down and create gas, and that gas is what’s responsible for the dough rising. And those processes, indeed, scientifically happen in give or take 18 minutes, when you start to see the effects of that gas."

Understand that it’s not just matzah that Greenspan knows. His high energy level and inquisitive mind have led him to become proficient in many disciplines.

Greenspan is a religious scribe; an artist, who makes stained-glass windows for synagogues and has built a stone-and-metal ark; a ritual circumciser and a ritual slaughterer — "I’ve never gotten the knives mixed up" — and if you have problems with your teeth, dentistry is his day job.

He is perhaps best known to those who wear prayer shawls as the man who helped rediscover and implement tekhelet, the strand of tzitzit made with the blue dye from snails. It was during his research on tekhelet that he discovered little-known historical facts about matzah, like how the Jews in the Shoah risked their lives to fulfill the commandment.

"I went to meet the brother-in-law of the last Radziner rebbe about tekhelet, and he told me that while he was in hiding with the partisans in the forest, he managed to bake some matzah," Greenspan said. "They have a piece of it till this day."

He’s heard and read many such stories and is now compiling them for a book he and his partner, Ari Zivotofsky, are writing on the history of matzah and the Jews who made it. It will touch on Jewish culture and geography from Uzbekistan and Morocco in the 1800s to the Lower East Side of New York at the turn of the 20th century to Russia during the Cold War. Topics will include the science of bread, literature from medieval manuscripts and tidbits like how in 1919, the Pacific Biscuit Co. used a swastika as its logo for matzah.

Baking and learning about matzah has always been a particular love, an annual pleasure for Greenspan. It started 1987 in Long Island, N.Y., when he and his friend Zivotofsky — today a professor of brain sciences at Bar-Ilan University — hand built a small oven in a neighbor’s back yard.

"It never dawned on me that real people actually bake matzot," Greenspan said. "I thought you could only buy matzah in a store from a factory."

"So," he continued, "Ari and I went to a store in Bayonne, N.J., bought some firebricks and built this ziggurat-pyramid-shaped thing that held one matzah, if we were lucky. It was so much fun. We got maybe two kosher matzot the whole time, but that was the beginning of it."

Greenspan moved to Israel a year later and built one in his basement, then tore it down and built another and then did it again. It’s not that he’s trying to perfect a commercial operation. Greenspan just bakes for his family, his community in Efrat and for schoolchildren who come to his house before Pesach to learn about this fundamental Jewish rite.

"One of the things that’s tricky is that when a matzah comes out of the oven, sometimes if the matzah is thick, or there’s a lot of moisture in the dough, the outside will cook but the inside is soft," Greenspan said. "It’s tricky because it could look beautiful and soft when it comes out, but after it cools down and gets hard, you don’t realize it, but you could be eating chametz."

"So we don’t mess around," he explained. "Every single matzah that comes out of the oven is held and tested by hand by bending it and playing with it before it has cooled down."

It was the school visits that started Greenspan on the book.

"I prepared a two-page pamphlet to teach the groups about the laws of matzah, and as part of it, I photocopied engravings and woodcuts from medieval hagaddot," Greenspan said. "It amazed me that we still do it exactly the same way, and those images were what started me researching the topic."

Never one to be satisfied doing one project at a time, Greenspan is currently working on another aspect of food: the kosher slaughtering and eating of quail, pigeon, dove and geese. These exotic animals are halachicly kosher but fell out of favor on kosher menus within the last 200 years. He and Zivotofsky have been speaking to old-time shochtim from Jewish communities around the world, collecting the oral tradition on which these birds and other animals were slaughtered.

"We joke that we are halachic adventurers, pushing the envelope within the boundaries of Jewish law," Greenspan said.

He and Zivotofsky will lecture at a May conference in New York, under the aegis of the Orthodox Union, on exotic kosher animals and their tradition. That will be followed with a dinner that night that will include exotic fowl and animals.

In the meantime, research on the matzah book continues, and the authors are asking anyone with stories and photos of anything to do with matzah to e-mail them at ari@tekhelet.com.

"Many people have special memories of matzah," Greenspan said. "Ask any soldier, for example, what was his most special religious experience, and almost to an army or a war they will tell you the seder. It was and is for many the quintessential Jewish experience."

The two authors have no illusions about the book being a bestseller, but that’s not the point, Greenspan said.

"I think it will appeal to many people, but in reality, I am doing it for myself," he said. "I love the research. Digging up the stories and photos is fascinating, interesting and fun. Traveling around to dozens of factories and granaries is like going on school trips, and the colorful people you get to meet are very unusual."

"But I think this book will have a very wide appeal, because matzah is possibly the most universal Jewish icon," Greenspan said. "There is something about reliving the experience of the Exodus and every subsequent oppression and redemption that exists in the crunch of the matzah."

Elli Wohlgelernter is former editor of Diaspora Affairs for the Jerusalem Post.

Q & A With Steve Oney


Los Angeles writer Steve Oney’s book, "And the Dead Shall Rise" (Pantheon Books, 2003), details two infamous, unsolved crimes: the 1913 murder of non-Jewish preteen Mary Phagan in an Atlanta factory and the arrest, trial, conviction, death sentence commutation and 1915 abduction and lynching by a 25-man mob of Leo Frank, the factory’s Jewish, 29-year-old Northern-born supervisor. In 1995, on the 80th yahrtzeit of Frank’s death, Temple Kol Emeth in Marietta, Ga., helped place a plaque on the building built on the spot where the tree used to lynch him grew. Oney, a 49-year-old former Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter, whose wife is Jewish, spent 17 years researching the 742-page book.

Jewish Journal: This book genuinely seems to have taken a chunk out of you as a writer and as a person.

Steve Oney: If somebody had told me I was going to spend 17 years on this book when I got started, I would have quit — immediately. The deeper I got into it, the more entranced I was by the subject; this double-murder mystery, two unsolved killings, the murder of Mary Phagan and the lynching of Leo Frank. So, yeah, it was a chunk of my life. But I don’t know how I could have spent it better.

JJ: Were you trying to give this case, journalistically speaking, a proper, dignified burial?

SO: I took it as a point of pride to get the truth of who lynched Leo Frank. He was the most celebrated convict in America; he was in the state prison, and he was abducted from the state prison without a shot being fired. And then after abducting Frank, these 25 [lynch-mob members] drove by circuitous routes over 150 miles on unpaved roads in Model Ts and lynched Frank the next day at dawn. Not a one of them was arrested or even inconvenienced.

JJ: There’s a body of Leo Frank literature and writing that most people don’t know about; why is there so much of it?

SO: Well, the material is so inherently dramatic. A little girl, Mary Phagan, beautiful, busty, murdered on Confederate Memorial Day, 1913, in a society that is in transition from the old South to the new South. Her boss, a Northern Jew named Leo Frank, convicted of her murder and then lynched — and out of that lynching rose … the modern Ku Klux Klan, and it galvanizes the Anti-Defamation League.

JJ: Do you think it was romanticized?

SO: In many of the previous accounts of this case, there’s the inevitable section where the writer will say, "Outside the courthouse where Leo Frank was tried, people yelled, ‘Hang the Jew or we’ll hang you!’" In my book I say it didn’t happen. It was something that someone wrote a couple years after the crime, and then it got stuck into subsequent recountings of the story.

JJ: I was specifically fascinated by your use of the term, "Negro." You use it not in quotes and not in italics, but as a common term in parts of the book. What made you choose that term?

SO: I agonized over that choice. Frank was convicted largely on the testimony of a black, self-confessed accomplice named Jim Conley. For one of the first times ever in a capital murder case in America, especially in the South, an all-white jury accepted a black man’s word over a white man’s word. I thought I could never express how stunning a fact that was if I used polite terminology of today. I had to situate you back in the South of 1913 to make you feel what the racial tension was like and to make you see through the use of the word, Negro, how all white people would view a black man at that moment. Even with that rationale, I agonized over it. I can’t impose the polite parlance of contemporary usage on the time. So that’s why I decided to use the word, Negro.

JJ: Many of the Atlanta Jews, in the fallout of the entire tragedy, leave Atlanta, but they stay in the South, as opposed to some of the [non-Jewish] characters who move north. Didn’t that strike you as odd?

SO: Southern Jews are Southerners and Jews second, or they’re both simultaneously. But they are as wed to the land and to the Southern way of life as any Southern [non-Jew]. The Jews of Atlanta in particular, the German Jews into which Leo Frank married, they fought for the Confederacy or their forebearers did. They were very much Southern patriots and that was, on the one hand, why they stayed, on the other hand, why Frank’s lynching was such a shock to them. They stayed, but they nursed very quietly this grievous wound.

On Feb. 22, Oney will give a talk from 10 a.m.-noon at a private Westside home. For more information, call Judi Book at (310) 470-8986.

Mostow Terminates Fans’ ‘T3’ Fears


With the relentlessness of a Terminator pursuing its victim, the fan hounded Jonathan Mostow at a convention. "You aren’t the original director of the ‘Terminator’ movies," he said. "Are you going to ruin [the franchise]?"

It’s a question observers have posed, albeit more politely, since Mostow stepped into the oversized shoes vacated by franchise creator James Cameron two years ago.

While Cameron’s 1984 "Terminator" and the 1991 sequel redefined the sci-fi-action hybrid, Mostow has just two previous feature film credits — one a submarine thriller, "U-571," prompted by growing up "in the shadow of the Holocaust," he said.

So even Mostow hesitated when the call came to direct "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines," when Cameron passed after years of legal wrangling over the rights to his films. "I thought, ‘I’m going to follow in the footsteps of arguably one of the most famous directors of our time, which was daunting,’" Mostow said. "So I thought about it for a few weeks."

When he did say yes, his approach was simple. "I had to put my trepidations aside," he said. "I know people will compare my movie to Cameron’s, but I can’t control any of that. I’m a fan of his films, so I just focused on creating a movie that I, as a fan, wanted to see."

If Mostow initially seemed an unexpected choice for "T3," he has a history of thwarting expectations. Growing up in a Conservative Jewish family of scientists and classical musicians (his father was a Yale math professor), the hope was he would become an academic or a cellist. Instead, he discovered dad’s windup 8 mm camera and made his first film at age 12.

At Harvard’s highbrow visual studies program, Mostow’s senior thesis — a horror film with an exploding eyeball — "was not particularly well-received," he said. Not long after, he saw "The Terminator" and was riveted by "the epic stakes juxtaposed against intimate drama."

"But had anyone told me I’d eventually direct a ‘Terminator’ film, I would have fallen out of my chair," he said.

Instead, he waged a Terminator-worthy struggle to make it in Hollywood, sometimes living at the poverty line or working as an "SAT tutor to children of the stars" between television projects. His feature film big break was 1997’s "Breakdown," a stranded-in-the-desert story he decided to write one day while unemployed and watching "Oprah" in his underwear. The film became a surprise hit.

"U-571," about a plot to swipe Germany’s Enigma encryption device, was inspired by a childhood in which Hitler "was still a lingering horror," Mostow said. His father had taught trigonometry to artillery officers who used the math to blitz Nazis; Mostow’s uncle was shot down and killed over North Africa.

Although the director engaged in painstaking research to recreate World War II submarine life, English newspapers indignantly pointed out that the Brits — not the Yanks — stole Enigma in 1941.

More questionable press followed after Mostow signed on to "Terminator 3." Even star Arnold Schwarzenegger told Entertainment Weekly he missed Cameron before Mostow "proved to me that he had what it takes to make this work."

The director, meanwhile, had his own concerns about the project. Since "T3" was one of 23 sequels slated for 2003, including "Matrix Reloaded" and "X2," he worried it was just another studio attempt to cash in on a perceived "sure thing." He changed his mind when producers agreed to let him help rework the script to explore the psychological angst of martyr-hero John Connor (Nick Stahl).

In the "threequel," Schwarzenegger’s good cyborg protects Connor from a sexy fembot Terminatrix (Kristanna Loken). Directing actors to play these robots proved unexpectedly tough, Mostow said, because "it involves suppressing all innate human emotion." To help Loken, he approved training in mime and krav maga, the hand-to-hand combat system used by the Israeli army.

"It’s the brutality of the system they were after," Terminator krav maga instructor Wade Allen said.

While anticipating movie reviews can be brutal for some directors, Mostow is resolved not to worry. "Of course, when you know fans really care, it makes you just put the pressure more on yourself. To be safe, I won’t publish my address, although I’m sure those angry letters will find their way to me somehow."

"T3" opens July 2.

Seeking Redemption


In college, I tutored in a maximum-security prison for kids
who had committed violent crimes. I met a 17-year-old boy there who
had killed a 16-year-old boy earlier that year. He had been
tried as an adult and sentenced to life. Though we were only together for a
couple sessions, he left an impression that to this day still haunts me.

He kept a cracked, yellowed newspaper photo of his victim in
his pocket. And he would constantly pull it out, unfold it, gaze at it, then
put it back in — only to remove it again and stare at it some more.

The sentencing judge not only made the boy finger his
victim’s personal effects, he also made him wear the dead boy’s clothes. The
boy told me he even had to put his victim’s jacket, and it made him feel
“spooked.” “Like I didn’t know that this kid was, like, a human being or
something,” the boy said. It was the judge, in fact, who told him to keep the
boy’s photo.

But the judge never told him he had to look at it forever.

And yet he couldn’t let it go. It was as if by staring at
this two-dimensional image he was trying to reconstruct some three-dimensional
persona. As if a kind of understanding would emerge, a way of grappling with
the magnitude of his actions.

It was this relationship — these two boys, total strangers
now bound forever by one horrible deed — that was the initial inspiration for
“Levity.”

In researching the movie, I spent time with a lot of people
who had committed murder when they were kids. I met some through youth groups,
others through church and community programs. Some I interviewed extensively,
others I just followed around for a while. They were all different ages, yet
each had in common that he was trying to come to terms with the consequences of
what he’d done. Some (those who believed in God) were trying on a spiritual
level, others (those who didn’t) on a secular level. For all of them it was a
kind of obsession.

The other thing they had in common was a sense of futility.
At the end of the day, none actually thought he could ever make up for his mistakes.

When I sat down to write the script, I called a friend,
Naomi Levy, who was a rabbi at a Conservative temple in Venice. I told her I
wanted to tell a story that questions whether any number of so-called “good”
acts can outweigh one very bad one. And I told her I want the central character
to not believe in God. (It seemed to me that if he believed in God, there would
be more of a proscribed path for him to follow, and that was too easy.) I asked
her what my protagonist might have read that would underscore his belief that
he would never be redeemed.

Naomi pointed me to Maimonides, a 12th-century Talmudic
scholar who wrote about the five steps one must follow to achieve redemption.
The last three involve making right with your neighbor, making right with God
and being in the same place and behaving differently.

“Levity’s” central character, Manual Jordan, knows he can’t
return the dead boy like a stolen chicken. And he doesn’t believe in God. And
since he is convinced that time makes certain one is never in the same place
twice, Manual knows there’s no hope for him.

But Manual has a conscience, and he’s obsessed with trying
to salvage some version of a life. And even though he knows his is perhaps a
lost cause, he desperately wants his somewhat hesitant presence on the planet
to not be wasted. So he bumbles and stumbles, disconnected from the flow, never
really knowing where he’s going, yet somehow guided by what may be seen as his
best intentions.

So often I think we feel our behavior as individuals doesn’t
have any effect; that what we do doesn’t really matter. “Levity” looks at how,
to the contrary, the world around us can actually hinge on our individual
actions. What we do can have direct, instantly determinable consequences, or
our words and actions can ripple away behind us, in subtle ways we never know
and could certainly never predict.

For instance: the boy who started this whole thing off. At
18 — just two weeks after we met — he was transferred to a state penitentiary.
I never heard from him again. My guess is he’s still there. And he’d certainly
have no recollection of our time together — I was one of dozens of tutors. So
there’s no way he could possibly imagine how our brief conversation had any
effect on anything. Most likely, he was just trying to get out of talking about
math and English.

But, looking back, if I follow the steps that lead to this
very moment, right now, as I sit at this table writing this piece, I arrive at
that image of that nearly 18-year-old staring at that photograph of that
eternally 16-year-old.

And I think about how those two boys — completely unknowingly
— changed my life. Â


Ed Solomon makes his feature directing debut with “Levity,” which he also wrote. The film opens April 4 in Los Angeles and New York.

The Cost of Boycott


For some time, Dr. Eitan Galun, the head of Hadassah Medical Organization’s Goldyne Savad Gene Therapy Institute, has been engaged in research to cure a genetic disease prevalent in the Palestinian community. He recently requested genetic material from a Norwegian scientist and was refused. "Due to the present situation in the Middle East, I will not deliver any material to an Israelitic (sic) university," she responded by e-mail. With this statement, she engaged in nothing less than a boycott of Israel and its scientists. By her actions, which confuse science with politics, the Palestinian population will needlessly continue to suffer from a disease that could be cured through scientific cooperation. This irony seems to have escaped the Norwegian researcher.

This is only the latest example of how some sectors of the international community are singling out Israel and the Jewish people for boycott and censure. Israel has long and consistently been a prime target of international boycotts. Since 1948, the Arab League has enforced a triple-level boycott aimed at isolating the Jewish state: Through economic warfare, it has targeted Israel and Israeli businesses in a primary boycott, companies that did business with Israel or Israeli companies in a secondary boycott and, finally, companies that deal with businesses on the secondary boycott list. Since October 2000, the Arab League has reinvigorated its boycott of Israel.

The Arab League boycott of Israel is illegal under U.S. law. The Export Administration Act of 1977, the primary anti-boycott law, prohibits any U.S. citizen or company from complying with a boycott against a country friendly with the United States. Any requests received by an individual or company for boycott information must be reported to the Office of Anti-Boycott Compliance in the Department of Commerce. Fines have been imposed on U.S. companies that acquiesce to the Arab boycott of Israel.

Within this context, it is distressing that there are increasing calls for boycotts within the American Jewish community. To decry the actions of those who would willfully bring economic harm to Israel while mimicking them against other targets — media outlets, fast food chains, auto manufacturers, entire nations — is to employ an insupportable double standard. The wisdom from Pirkei Avot of "Do unto others…" still rings true even — or especially — in our very dangerous world.

From a practical standpoint, too, boycotts present major strategic limitations. An editorial published in the May 2, 2002 issue of the prestigious British journal Nature, reacting to the spate of European boycotts against Israeli scientists, stated: "…the concept of a research boycott restricts channels that are better kept open. …Such boycotts are misguided and should be opposed in favour of constructive initiatives." In the end, boycotts effectively isolate their targets and withdraw the boycotter from the opportunity for future dialogue.

For instance, if we do not like the way that Israel is portrayed in the media, initiating a conversation with the newspaper, radio station or magazine is the most constructive avenue for change. Hadassah did just that — to some stiff criticism recently — when we invited the president of National Public Radio (NPR) to participate on a panel discussion at our national convention that analyzed media bias against Israel. There were many in the audience who think NPR does not treat Israel fairly in its coverage of the conflict. They forcefully stated so. They listened and they were heard. There were those who disagreed with the speaker’s conclusions, and those who did not. Yet, no one left the session without feeling that an open, freewheeling and important discussion had taken place — that this dialogue was a starting point that holds great promise for change.

The concept of dialogue is sacred to Judaism. The Talmud is written in the form of a dialogue with several minority opinions represented. In civil affairs, democracy is civic dialogue governed by law. As Americans, we are citizens of the world’s most successful democracy. As members of the Jewish community and the Zionist movement, we are grounded in a strong tradition of democracy and dialogue. We proudly point to Israel, our Jewish homeland, as the only democratic state in a region rife with dictators and demagogues who use boycotts to destroy our Zionist dreams.

Boycotts — which by their very nature rule out dialogue — are not democratic tools. In this age of instant communication, most boycotts derive from that most ungoverned of democracies, the World Wide Web. With its promise of reaching thousands of people with the click of a mouse, the Internet has given anyone, anywhere — with a beef and a computer — the ability to organize a boycott. In fact, we are living through the Wild West of the Internet age. Facts are rarely checked; targets are chosen at will; damage is done at lightening speed. Rather than fostering democracy, employing the Web to engage in boycotts is to encourage herd mentality at its worst.

The Hadassah National Board recently passed a policy statement rejecting all calls for boycotts from the Jewish community. We urge our members to resist the nearly endless and seductive invitations to join boycotts. We urge the same of our colleagues in the Jewish community at-large. We urge everyone to keep the paths of communication open, to discuss, to argue, to settle conflicts through open negotiations and not the unilateral actions of a boycott. As in the case of the Norwegian researcher, the cost of doing otherwise is simply too great.

New Vistas


"The New Geography: How the Digital Revolution Is Reshaping the American Landscape," by Joel Kotkin. (Random House, $22.95)

Joel Kotkin, a senior fellow at both Pepperdine University Institute for Public Policy and Milken Institute and a research fellow at the libertarian Reason Public Policy Institute, for 20 years has been researching and writing about what he terms "intangible" inputs into economic life.

His previous book, "Tribes: How Race, Religion and Identity Determine Success in the New Global Economy," studied cultural factors that, for example, gave Jews and expatriate Chinese communities tools for their historical economic successes.

Likewise, he argued that Southeast Asians and Koreans, among others, benefit from a variety of culturally based strategies that enable them to negotiate the shoals of a fast-paced, chaotic and demanding business environment.

In "The New Geography," Kotkin, an occasional Journal contributor, brings a similar analytic approach to the impact of the digitized economy on our physical environments. Forgoing jargon, except for the symbolic language he creates to explain some of the more overt effects of the great economic transition we have witnessed in the past 10 years or so, Kotkin writes an extremely accessible book that explores the choices and consequences of where and how we choose to live and work.

Three homemade neologisms act as his introduction to our new geography: valhalla, nerdistan and midopolis. The cutesy names belie a serious argument: that each of the three types of places, representing different tracks and classes in the new e-economy, express the different interests and capacities of their inhabitants.

One of the historic privileges of great wealth was to gain physical distance from the masses. That distance historically was constrained by practical necessity: the need to oversee in person one’s business interests, the limitations of communication, the time needed for one to travel, and one’s own need to have goods and services in somewhat close proximity. As both communication and travel have become faster, more efficient and increasingly inexpensive, the entrepreneurs of the new e-economy can locate themselves far away.

Vail in Colorado, Park City in Utah, and any number of other places are these valhallas. The locations play no part in the economic lives of their new residents, however, and the flow of wealth into such areas often leads to a serious disruption in the lives of others who live and work there. "They may be breathtakingly beautiful as places, but they are no longer rustic in the nature of their economy or, increasingly, in their population," writes Kotkin. "As Ed Marston, editor of the Rocky Mountain News, suggests, ‘What is Montana without cowboys? Once you get rid of agriculture, you’re left with nothingness. You’re not using the land. It just becomes ‘looking country.’"

Not everyone can be a wildly successful entrepreneur, and the management and technological sectors of the new economy need their physical places also. One group gravitates toward Kotkin’s so-called nerdistans: these master-planned communities feature "a more ‘campus-like’ environment, often with landscaped walkways and access to bikeways and other recreations." These are idealized communities for raising families; refurbished suburban dreams catering to the concerns of scientists, engineers and technocrats in the e-economy.

Parallel to that are the urban pioneers, the artists, artisans and generally creative types who flock into Kotkin’s "artful city," working in a more informal manner, seeking the inspiration and excitement of a revitalized urban life.

True to his long roots in Southern California, Kotkin uses local geography to illustrate his point. Irvine is a nerdistan; Santa Monica, the hip, urban "artful city."

Often those in the latter are the childless, gay, empty-nesters, divorced or never-married. In some ways, one can imagine the Getty Center as a nerdistan/artful city monument. Its design is certainly campus-like; its contents, well, arty.

The midopolises are more problematic. Typically, as the suburbs recycle and grow denser and grittier, they devolve into slums. But the great influx of immigrants, with their verve, determination, hard work and overall economic and social energy, help resist the natural history of the housing stock. As soon as they can afford it, they settle away from the inner city and into the suburban landscape, where they reshape traditional suburbia in surprising ways.

The San Gabriel Valley is in sections overwhelmingly Asian, with an elaborate and sophisticated Asian cultural and economic infrastructure, while previously "lily-white" suburbs have often become predominantly Latino. Both populations are driven to thrive in an economically beneficent environment relative to their respective homelands.

Nonetheless, the midopolises as often as not rely on the old economic mode — light manufacturing, retailing, import-export firms — rather than the new one, which has the potential of seriously limiting these groups’ progress up the economic ladder.

Kotkin points to a potential real-estate crisis. As retail sales move more to the Internet, the vast retailing physical structure will be threatened. For massive big-box stores, a 6 percent loss in sales to the Internet could translate into a 50 percent loss in profitability. Just as traditional downtown shopping areas died in the wake of regional malls, so too regional malls can suffer seriously over the long run when exposed to e-commerce.

As he explores the implications of the class stratification growing out of the digital revolution, Kotkin uses a wide range of historic analogies: Rome, Greece, Venice, Amsterdam, London. In doing so, he traces the arc of urban life, examining the relevance to our situation of the growth of artisans, the rise of factories, the inevitable development of conflict along class lines in highly stratified cities. He fears that those conflicts could grow here: the educated, online, plugged-in will so far economically surpass the under-educated and off-line that the valhallas and nerdistans will become in all essentials separated from the midopolises and city centers.

His hope is that we realize we live not only in virtual reality, but in a physical reality of place; that the intersection of real, lived human lives determines both economic and community success. "The oldest fundamentals of place — sense of community, identity, history and faith — not only remain important, they are increasingly the critical determinants of success and failure," he maintains. As always, Kotkin remains both open-eyed and optimistic.