Keep Grandparents’ Legacy Alive


What is our role in the interfaith family unit? We are not just the grandparents; we are the Jewish grandparents. Their other grandparents are Christian, Muslim, Hindu or of another faith. Even when grandchildren are not raised within any particular faith, this is how we will be distinguished. Why? Because interfaith children are part of two-family cultures; therefore identifying us as such, is necessary.

We must begin to realize that one of the richest gifts we can give to our families is who we are. As their Jewish grandparents, we have the opportunity to impart our rich heritage to our grandchildren.

Why is it important to provide this legacy about your roots to your grandchildren? Because your roots are their roots. Their sense of identity will develop from a greater knowledge of their ancestors. Sharing your family information can help them understand their connection to their history, giving them something to draw on when making decisions for themselves as they mature. As the Jewish grandparents, we can also help our grandchildren learn and enjoy the feeling of Yiddishkayt, so much a part of our culture, by sharing traditions that have endured for more than 5,000 years. We do not know what spiritual choice they will make in the future, but we can enrich their lives by imparting our traditions while we are still here. Of course, do so only with the permission of their parents, to insure that you are not disrespectful of their own spiritual choices.

Here are some ideas to personalize your family history for your grandchildren:

1. Make a written family tree. Identify each person with his or her Hebrew name (if possible).

2. Put family photos into albums, with names and dates (if available). Enlist grandchildren to help out.

3. Write down your memories (childhood experiences of holidays, stories of raising your children, etc.) in a book for your grandchildren.

4. Send letters to grandchildren far away. Children love receiving mail. If they are nearby, work on holiday projects together.

5. Incorporate Yiddish words and expressions into conversations. Find Yiddish words that have crept into the English language and use them. Ask grandchildren for their meanings. They’ll love it!

6. Since food is such an important part of Jewish roots, invite family to holiday celebrations, or offer to come to their homes to help prepare for the holidays. Cooking specific holiday foods together will not only give them time with you, but they’ll be actively participating in a Jewish tradition as well, leaving an imprint on their memories that can never be erased!

7. Create a special recipe book of your own holiday foods. It’s one thing to say my mother made these great dishes, another to have recipes to recreate them for their own families.

8. Send treats for specific holidays, such as hamantaschen for Purim, to families far away. Include the recipes with a little history about their connection to the holiday.

9. Make a video history of family holidays. Conduct video interviews with older family members, asking questions that will stimulate their memories, such as about holidays, emigrating history, etc.

10. Read and tape holiday stories for younger grandchildren. Watch movies together with older grandchildren, such as “Crossing Delancey,” “Hester Street,” “Schindler’s List” and others. (Ask parents’ permission first, of course.) This will give you the opportunity to answer their questions.

Who knows, they may love these ideas so much that they, too, may want to continue these traditions with their own families for generations to come. It’s worth the effort!

And the Rabbi as Himself


Rabbi David Baron of Temple Shalom of the Arts, the synagoue attended by the big and medium-sized names in the entertainment industry, has a starring role in the new Universal movie, "Along Came Polly."

Well, not exactly starring, but he plays the rabbi officiating at the wedding of Reuben Feffer and Lisa Kramer, portrayed by Ben Stiller and Debra Messing, respectively.

Always a quick study, Baron delivered his dramatic lines, "Kiss the bride" and "Break the glass" to the great satisfaction of director John Hamburg.

Regrettably, the marriage is short-lived, even by Hollywood standards, when the blushing bride tumbles into bed with a hunky scuba diving instructor on her Hawaiian honeymoon.

"Sadly, a number of marriages I perform end in divorce, but normally not quite as quickly as in the film," the rabbi joked.

"Polly" is about a risk analyzer for an insurance company (Stiller), who in his own life is pathologically adverse to risk. All that changes, following the aborted honeymoon, when he meets free-spirited former classmate Polly, played by Jennifer Aniston.

Baron, the actor, was discovered by "Polly’s" producer, Stacey Sher, whose own wedding ceremony to music director Kerry Brown was conducted by Baron last year. The couple is still happily married.

At the Sher-Brown nuptials, Baron recalled, usher Danny DeVito escorted maid of honor Cameron Diaz to the bimah. Due to the height disparity between the two, Danny’s arm ended up around Cameron’s tush, to the palpable envy of the males in the audience.

Portions of Baron’s last Yom Kippur service were televised nationally and recorded for the benefit of homebound worshippers.

"Along Came Polly" opens in theaters Jan. 16.

The World, Observed


The moment former Sen. Gary Hart told the audience at theMilken Institute’s Global Conference that America is “at a crossroads,” Abe Zarem leaned over to me and said, “He’s wrong.”

There were 1,500 people sitting in the audience listening toa panel tussle over the United States’ role in the world. For a conference thatannually attracts the world’s financial and academic elite, the seating at theBeverly Hilton was refreshingly democratic: no place cards, sit almost anywhereyou like. So I found myself between Charlie Woo, the innovator behind downtown Los Angeles’ Toy Town district, and Zarem, inventor, professor, entrepreneur,thinker.

“Crossroads is not the right word,” Zarem told me,correcting Hart, “because at a crossroads you pick a direction and you knowwhere you’re going. We’re at a cloverleaf. When you turn off a cloverleaf youdon’t know where you’re going.”

He’s right, and the better metaphor explains why MichaelMilken hosts his annual conference. Business leaders and others pay $1,900 ahead for three days of seminars, lectures and shmoozing, hoping to get a peakbehind the curves. The presenters are Nobel and Pulitzer Prize laureates,chiefs of finance, politics and academia, and, in Milken’s words, “about 40 peoplewho are paid to do nothing but think.”

The attendees seemed to break down along the “not mutuallyexclusive” lines of the intellectually curious, the portfolio warriors huntingopportunity and the elbow-rubbers, who figured that what works for Milken mightwork for them, too — George S. Kaufman called that “gelt by association.”

Milken’s genius has always been at mining capital markets tofind undiscovered value. In the 1980s, he restructured the corporate world byfocusing on financial markets. After legal battles and a jail term about whichhis official conference biography is admirably up front, his focus has expandedto other forms of undervalued capital, human and social.

Laying bare these veins of capital enables individuals andgovernments to unleash what Milken called “the most powerful force in theuniverse: compound interest.” (Milken claimed Albert Einstein said this aboutcompound interest, but Einstein authority Alice Calaprice has said he probablydidn’t.)

Milken, who was elected cheerleader at Birmingham HighSchool in the early 1960s, is cheerleading still, filling the dais with anenergy that wouldn’t be out of place at a human potential seminar. But — andthis is all to his credit — this was a conference devoted to the potential of humanity — and if in uncorking that potential some people profited, good for them, goodfor us all.

So, Monday evening’s panel discussion offered a hopeful viewof humanity’s potential. Moderated by Milken, the discussion featured NobelLaureate Robert Fagan, biologist Paul Ehrlich, futurist Alvin Toffler andlinguist Steven Pinker.

Fagan said that the obvious next source of unleashableenergy lay Far East.

“The most important economic event is the emergence ofChina,” Fagan said. “By 2030, the Chinese economy will be bigger than theeconomies of America and Europe put together.”

Other speakers on the panel agreed, and the presence ofentrepreneurs like Woo, founder of the Megatoys corporation, was all the proofthey needed. Drawing on a network of Asian contacts, Woo, 47, built the toydistrict downtown from a single $140,000 warehouse into an area that employsmore than 4,000 people, boasts revenues estimated at roughly $500 million ayear and controls the distribution of some 60 percent of the $12 billion intoys sold to American retailers. China is the new plastics.

Toffler said that the current economic meltdown is a hiccupin the “knowledge revolution,” what he called the “Third Wave” of humandevelopment after the agrarian and Industrial revolutions.

“Between 1750 and 1950 there were 27 financial crises inAmerica and England,” Toffler said. “None of them stopped the IndustrialRevolution.”

What stands in our way, Ehrlich warned, is our careless useof natural resources and the fact that a full third of the world still lives inpoverty. “The current system is unsustainable,” he said.

But Pinker and the others stressed humanity’s adaptability,our ability to innovate our way out of problems. By the evening’s end, evenEhrlich offered hope that “humanity, as smart as we are, will get smart enoughto save our butts.”

On Tuesday evening the “Big Picture” narrowed to focus on”America’s Role in the World.” This discussion featured William Bennett, formersecretary of education; Robert Bartley, editor emeritus of The Wall StreetJournal; Hart; and Stephan Richter, publisher and editor-in-chief of TheGlobalist. Despite King’s vain efforts to expand it, the debate swirled aboutthe current war. It became clear that so many of the big questions Americafaces — what we stand for, how we are to exercise our power, whether the worldwill fear us, hate us, respect us or all three — are being played out now inthe sands and cities of Iraq.

The conference provided a time to take a step back from anda more distant perspective on these unknowns, just before we turn off thecloverleaf.  

Day of ‘Reckoning’


“A Moral Reckoning: The Role of the Catholic Church in the
Holocaust and Its Unfulfilled Duty of Repair” by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen. (Knopf,
2002). $25

After provoking a furious debate over the role of ordinary
Germans in the Holocaust with his book, “Hitler’s Willing Executioners”
(Vintage, 1995) Daniel Goldhagen tackles an even more explosive subject, the
role of the Catholic Church in the Holocaust, in his new book, “A Moral
Reckoning.” The power of the book is neither in the answers it gives nor the
evidence it marshals, but in the questions it poses. None is more central than
the one that frames the book: “What must a religion of love and goodness do to
confront its history of hatred and harm, to make amends with its victims and to
right itself so that it is no longer the source of a hatred and harm that,
whatever its past, it would no longer endorse?” Goldhagen approaches the
question in three parts: Clarifying the Conduct, Judging the Culpability and
Repairing the Harm.

Clarifying the Conduct:

What the pope knew Of Pope Pius XII, Goldhagen asks: What
did the pope know of the ongoing slaughter of the Jews? What could he have done
about it? What did he do, what didn’t he do and why? Curiously, the bulk of the
Vatican archives related to the Holocaust remain closed except to selected
scholars. But Goldhagen relies upon the work of historians such as David Kertzer,
James Carroll and Susan Zucotti, who have done original research in the
archives that are available, to answer these questions forcefully.

The wartime pope knew. He could have done much. He did
little. The church’s response was ambiguous and ambivalent. And it established
a climate of anti-Semitism that enabled the murderers to murder.

Goldhagen argues that Pius XII offered no protest, though he
knew the broad contours of destruction. Early in his papacy, Pius XII refused
to issue what has now become known as the hidden encyclical condemning racism
and anti-Semitism, an imperfect — albeit unambiguous — document drafted for
Pope Pius XI, his predecessor, and under review by the ailing pontiff when he
died.

The behavior of the pontiff and the institution he led, are
subject to scorching criticism by Goldhagen, much of it — but not all of it —
justified.

Nowhere is Goldhagen more persuasive than when he contrasts
the Roman Catholic Church’s behavior with the Danish Church, French Catholic
bishops, the Orthodox Bulgarian Synod of Bishops, the Greek Orthodox bishop of Athens
and even the bishop of Trieste who protested on behalf of the Jews. Clearly,
more was at stake for the pope — much more — but the standing of the Roman
Catholic Church only intensified its responsibility.

Judging the Culpability:

Why was the leader of the Roman Catholic Church so
indifferent?

Here Goldhagen is on familiar ground — but a reader wouldn’t
know it from his writing. Simply put, he argues that the church wanted a
completely Christian Europe and therefore was not unhappy at the elimination of
the Jews, while disapproving of the methods that the Germans employed. The
church wanted to eliminate the Jews by conversion; the Germans by
extermination.

In this, the church was motivated by the theological
tradition of supercessionism, the belief that the church had come to fulfill
Judaism and to replace it, denying all legitimacy to the ongoing life of the
Jewish people. The belief that Jews had crucified Jesus meant that genocide is
an appropriate punishment for deicide. As a result, Goldhagen says in a
hard-hitting but unoriginal manner, a tradition of enmity found its place in Christianity.
Jews were associated with the devil and with all forms of evil, and charged
with the most basic of all accusations: that Jews crucified Jesus Christ and
accepted responsibility for all future generations. Goldhagen calls this the
Church’s “Bible Problem,” noting that many verses in the Gospels “defame the
Jews” — 450 verses in the four Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles alone.

Goldhagen does not inform his readers that the Christian
“Bible Problem” impacts far more on mainline Protestants and evangelical
fundamentalists than on Roman Catholics, whose church traditions mediate direct
biblical contact. And yet, evangelicals are, today, Israel’s most vociferous
supporters.

Indeed, there have been scores of works by Christian
scholars, theologians, church officials and academics, Protestant and Roman
Catholic alike (and Jewish scholars of the first century and of anti-Semitism)
seeking to overturn anti-Semitic elements of Christianity, to discredit supercessionism
and to accept the ongoing life of the Jewish people, both in its political
(Zionist) and in its spiritual manifestations. Most recently, the Roman
Catholic Church in the United States came out against proselytizing the Jews, a
position the Baptists cannot accept.

Goldhagen does not seem to understand the tools available to
religions to transform elements of their own tradition by commentaries and by
building up other teachings and thus, adjust to changing times and values, even
as they stress that nothing sacred has been altered. In the end, Goldhagen
contends that the church undermines the integrity of the sacred text by
pretending that the Christian Bible is not a profoundly anti-Semitic text. It
must declare “the falsehoods false and sinful, and remove them from the text.”
They are not the word of God, because neither God nor Jesus would tell such
lies.

Goldhagen exhibits little understanding that religions don’t
quite act that way. He also does not describe what John Cuddihy has described
as the ongoing “ordeal of civility” in a world in which interreligious civility
is now essential to our collective survival. The Catholic Church may now not be
the enemy, but the example.

And perhaps, too, Goldhagen pays too much attention to the
written word, completely ignoring symbolic actions.

When Pope John XXIII stopped at a Roman synagogue and
greeted its Shabbat worshippers, when Pope John Paul II worshipped at a Roman
Synagogue and treated the Jewish service as an act of devotion to God and when
John Paul II visited Israel and prayed at the Western Wall and condemned
anti-Semitism as anti-Christian — these were all gestures of immense
significance.

We have come a long way from disputations.

Some of Goldhagen’s judgments are measured. But they become
somewhat invisible given the nature of his protest. He knows that the Roman
Catholic Church rejected Nazi racism because it believed in the power of
redemption: Jews could convert. The church, he emphasizes, shared the goal of
eliminating the Jews, but could not sanction the means.

Why, then, did they ultimately not act to prevent the Final
Solution? He offers three basic reasons: They believed Jews to be evil and
harmful; they did not object in principle to the punishment of Jews; and they
lacked empathy for Jews. As Irving Greenberg pointed out three decades ago, the
more devout a country — the more it regarded the Jew as other — the greater the
percentage of Jewish victims.

Repairing the Harm: What must  be done to make amends?

According to Goldhagen, the Vatican needs to give up and
cease diplomatic relations with other states. It must stop calculating its
place in the world politically. The Roman Catholic Church must embrace
religious pluralism; it must eliminate doctrine of papal infallibility and view
the Jewish way to God as being as legitimate as the Catholic way, understanding
that the ultimate salvation of Christians is in no way dependent upon the
actions of Jews. And it must rewrite the Christian Bible eliminating
anti-Semitic elements.

Goldhagen writes: “Until the Catholic Church inscribes in
its official doctrine reformed statements of the sort that I have discussed and
until the church announces them loudly and emphatically so that there is no
doubt, we should not mistake the theological reflections of some Catholics or
hints by the church, as anything but what they are: laudable personal
reflections and intimations.”

But they are also key ingredients to spurring change.

I suspect where I most differ with Goldhagen is not at his
rage at the past, but his assessment of the contemporary Roman Catholic Church.
For 15 years I taught at Georgetown University, a Jesuit — and arguably
therefore a Roman Catholic — university, and met students who had been products
of American Roman Catholic parochial education. Beginning in 1984, less than
two decades after Vatican II, when I gave a lecture on anti-Semitism, my Roman
Catholic students had never heard of Jews as Christ-killers. The changes initiated
in the aftermath of the Vatican council had taken root in schools and
seminaries and in the hearts and souls of my fellow theologians.

So I look differently at certain documents such as “We
Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah,” whose overall content is good, but in
which not everything that should be said is said; in which there are attempts
to save face and to neutralize conservative and even reactionary elements that
must approve of such documents. Just look at the threat of a heresy trial for
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks by his Haredi colleagues to understand how far along the
path toward religious pluralism the Roman Catholic Church has come under the
current pope.

In the end, “A Moral Reckoning” is disappointing. The anger
is genuine; the scholarship is derivative, but, at points, unreliable. Time and
again it ascribes but does not document motivations. Material is often
presented in its harshest light while more nuanced interpretations may be more
accurate. Its prescriptions are unrealistic. It displays no knowledge of major
areas of post-Holocaust theology. And it is uncharitable to genuine efforts by
behalf of many within the Catholic Church to confront their past and to do
better.

The Ziering Institute is hosting a three-part dialogue among
Roman Catholic, Protestant and Jewish theologians, philosophers and historians
called, “The Vatican, The Pope and The Holocaust.” The first will be on Jan. 22
at 7:30 p.m. Gindi Auditorium, the University of Judaism, 15600 Mullholland
Drive, Bel Air, (310) 476-9777 ext 445.


Michael Berenbaum is director of the Sigi Ziering Institute at the University of Judaism, an adjunct professor of theology at the UJ, former president and CEO of the Survivor of the Shoah Visual History Foundation and former project director and director of the Research Institute at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

The Joys of Rena


Rena Sofer always seems to land ethnic roles. As the newest regular on NBC’s “Just Shoot Me,” Sofer plays Vicki Costa, a hairdresser from Brooklyn, whose name is Greek, but whose ethnicity is undefined. It’s reminiscent of her Emmy-award winning role of Lois Cerullo Ashton, the brassy Italian Brooklynite she played for five years on the soap opera “General Hospital.”

She’s also known for playing journalist Rachel Rose, the stereotypically ideal Jewish woman who goes out with a Reform rabbi (Ben Stiller), in the 2000 film “Keeping the Faith.”

In real life, Sofer doesn’t date a rabbi — she was raised by one, albeit of the Orthodox persuasion. Perhaps it’s her religious background — intermittently attending Lubavitch and Conservative day schools in Pennsylvania and New Jersey — that gives her the edge of authenticity.

For example, when she went to audition for the part of the Orthodox Jewish bride-to-be in the 1992 film, “A Stranger Among Us,” she knew she stood a good chance of getting it. “All these blonde Nordic-looking women are going over their lines,” she said, and they were making eye contact and flirting for their “first time” meeting with the groom. But Sofer knew better. She wouldn’t look him in the eye or touch him. “It’s negiyah,” she said, referring to the Jewish prohibition of men and women touching. Sofer landed the part.

Words like negiyah easily roll off Sofer’s tongue, probably because she was raised in a religious home. Sofer was 2 when her parents divorced, and she moved with her father and brother from California to Pennsylvania and then New Jersey. There, Sofer attended a Lubavitch school.

Sofer said that since an early age she has questioned her religious upbringing. Lubavitch “turned me off to a lot of it, but I love the ritual of Judaism and I love the spirituality of Judaism,” she said.

Although it may seem unorthodox for the daughter of a rabbi, she began modeling at age 15, when she was discovered in New York’s Greenwich Village. Her father was always encouraging and paid all the expenses. “As religious as he is, he’s always been supportive of my life and my choices,” she said. Her father believed modeling would help her since, “when I was younger, he saw me as a child that didn’t have a lot of confidence.”

She quickly decided that modeling was not for her, and went into acting. She got her first steady gig as a teenager in the role of Rocky McKenzie on the ABC soap “Loving,” working her way up to parts in TV shows like “Melrose Place,” “Friends,” “Seinfeld” and a recurring role on “Ed,” as well as in Steven Soderbergh 2000 film, “Traffic.”

The role of Judaism in her life has carried over into at least three parts. In addition to “Keeping the Faith” and “A Stranger Among Us,” Sofer played a Jewish character in an episode of the sitcom “Caroline in the City” titled “Caroline and the Nice Jewish Boy.” She’s also had an appearance on “Politically Incorrect,” with Bill Maher, discussing God and the meaning of life. Sofer sees her casting in these kinds of roles as quite logical. “I’ve been studying to play a Jew my whole life. I can walk in there with an authenticity.”

Sofer’s Judaism may not fit into her father’s mold, but it’s clearly a big part of her life. She refused to wear a cross for her role on “General Hospital,” and a wedding scene that called for her to kneel before a large crucifix had her in tears. And despite her first marriage to a non-Jew (her co-star and husband on “General Hospital,” Wally Kurth), one thing that was always understood was that their daughter would be raised Jewish. Sofer does say that the fact that Kurth wasn’t Jewish “made a difference in my life.” She compares it to her current relationship with fiancé director/producer Sanford Bookstaver (“Fastlane”). “When I go to temple with my fiancé, I don’t have to explain what’s going on.”

Today, Sofer lives in Los Angeles with fiancé, her father and her daughter from her marriage to Kurth.

These days, Sofer’s planning her wedding. “Dad, God willing, will perform the ceremony.”

Of her role on “Just Shoot Me,” she said she’s thankful for the security. “The gift to me is to be able to come in for 22 episodes, as opposed to doing a pilot where you don’t know.”

Her other recent work was in this month’s television remake of Stephen King’s horror classic, “Carrie,” where she played the compassionate gym teacher, Miss Desjarden. Sofer, whose first name means “joy” or “song” in Hebrew, was particularly pleased to get to play this part because of her love of King’s books. Her own idea of joy is a road trip with the “Bag of Bones” book on tape, read by King, playing on the car stereo. “Listening to him scare the crap out of you — it’s fabulous!”

“Just Shoot Me” airs Tuesday nights at 8 p.m. on NBC.

Terrors of the Resistance


The highly controversial French documentary film, “Terrorists in Retirement,” offers a striking revelation that, on reflection, should come as no surprise at all — Eastern European Jews played a prominent role in the most daring exploits of the World War II French resistance movement. This truth comes as a jolt only because French popular myth and official histories have so thoroughly suppressed it, considering it harmful to the nation’s heritage to admit that stateless immigrants, facing deportation and almost certain death, fought harder for France’s freedom than did many citizens who were content to collaborate with their German conquerors.

The film, produced in 1984, sparked a huge uproar in France when a state-television network initially banned it. Now Los Angeles audiences can see for themselves what the brouhaha was all about when “Terrorists in Retirement” — in the original French title, the word “Terroristes” was placed in ironic quotation marks — screens at the Laemmle Theatres this month.

In 1980s France, the basic facts about Jewish resistance fighters were only the beginning of the film’s disturbing disclosures. The most contentious news that the documentary delivered concerned the 1943 betrayal of the main Jewish resistance group based in Paris — the public execution of 23 men arrested by the Gestapo and French authorities. (For propaganda purposes, the Nazis put up a red poster with the dead men’s pictures on it, asserting that France was well rid of these despised foreign troublemakers.) The film’s claim, in few words, is that the French Communist Party was responsible for their deaths.

It’s a complex story, but also a simple one. Much of it is told by a small number of Jewish resistance survivors, men who were in their teens during the war — mainly Polish Jews whose families had fled to France in the 1930s — and who had strong ties to the Communist Party through their parents or because it appeared to be the most militant opponent of fascism.

When the film’s director, Mosco Boucault, an Armenian Jew, found them 40 years later, they were working in obscurity in garment trades. Boucault filmed them at their sewing machines, or with scissors or needle and thread in hand, and somewhat incongruously presents the 60-year-olds re-creating several of their wartime exploits, with extras awkwardly standing around in makeshift uniforms representing German guards or assassination targets.

One of the film’s most important charges maintains that the party’s first betrayal of Jews in France came through the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939, the non-aggression treaty that was in place when the Nazis overran France and set up the Vichy regime. When Jews were ordered to register and even when the first roundups occurred, the resistance survivors recall, the party’s advice was to acquiesce. By the time the Nazis invaded Russia and the Communists resumed the struggle, it was too late: The apparatus for deporting Jews to the camps from France was firmly in place. (At that time, the film suggests, the Jews’ dire situation served as an effective recruiting device for the resistance — fight or die, or at least die fighting.)

After nearly an hour of filling in the background, the film abruptly opens the debate over the 1943 betrayal. A fighter who had been captured and tortured had revealed many details about the Jewish group to the Germans. Communist leaders were aware for some time that police and Gestapo agents were tracking the Jews (as well, as Spanish, Italian and other foreign segments of the resistance organization). The question is, why were the endangered fighters not sufficiently warned or hidden or sent to other regions? (Among the survivors interviewed, several had chanced to go out of Paris at the time of the mass arrests.)

The film — bolstering its grim argument by interviewing several French historians — contends that the Communist resistance needed to get rid of its foreign fighters at just that time. Maneuvering had already begun toward post-liberation political alignments: With Charles de Gaulle’s Free French movement either a potent rival or a potential ally, the Communist resistance wanted to ready itself for postwar power struggles by refashioning itself as quintessentially, patriotically French. That its fiercest and most effective fighters were Jews and other foreigners was a major handicap that the roundup conveniently took care of. In fact, if it hadn’t been for that red Nazi propaganda poster, about which the literary surrealist Louis Aragon later wrote a poem, the significance of the non-French role in the resistance might have been almost completely lost.

The battle over the film back in the 1980s took place while the French Communist Party was still a viable political force. Reports at the time suggest that the party began agitating against the film as soon as it heard about the production, several years before the work had been completed. As one of his narrators, Boucault enlisted actress Simone Signoret, who had recently broken with the Communists after having been a longtime supporter — a casting choice that surely increased the film’s potential damage to Communist mythology.

Some 16 years after it was made, “Terrorists in Retirement,” if at times unpolished, tells a tragic and compelling story.


“Terrorists in Retirement” screens Nov. 23-Dec. 8 as part of the Laemmle Theatres’ “Bagels and Docs” A Jewish Documentary Series.” For information, call (310) 478-1041.

The Arts



Far Beyond Tears

For his portrayal of Primo Levi in’The Truce,’ John Turturro tried to approach the subject as Levidoes: delicately and subtly

By Naomi Pfefferman,

Senior Writer

In March 1996, John Turturro packed a trunk filledwith Primo Levi’s books and traveled to a remote part of the Ukraine.His destination was the set of “The Truce,” Francesco Rosi’s filmbased on Levi’s searing 1963 memoir “The Reawakening.” Portraying theHolocaust author, Turturro sensed, would be the most difficult roleof his life.

The epic film follows Levi as he is liberated fromAuschwitz in mid-winter and begins the long, tortuous, journey backhome to Turin, Italy. It explores Levi’s human reawakening, as hemeets heroes and thieves, Gypsies and intellectuals in the settlementcamps and Red Army convoys of chaotic, post-war Europe.

The role is something of a departure for Turturro,who is best known for portraying complex, edgy ethnic characters,often Italian or Jewish, in the films of the Coen brothers or SpikeLee. He has been Bernie “The Schmatte” Bernbaum, a homosexual, Jewishgrifter, in the Coens’ “Miller’s Crossing.” A Clifford Odets-type inthe Coens’ “Barton Fink.” A nerdy Jewish contestant, Herb Stempel,in “QuizShow.” Adysfunctional widower-to-be in“Unstrung Heroes.”

John Turturro is best known for portrayingcomplex, edgy ethnic characters, often Italian or Jewish, in thefilms of the Coen brothers or Spike Lee. Above and lower left as heappears in Francesco Rosi’s film, “The Truce.”

But playing Levi in“The Truce” immersed Turturro in a wakingnightmare. Especially painful was the opening sequence in which Leviand the other human skeletons silently stare at their approachingRussian liberators.

“The scenes behind barbed wire were almostimpossible to do,” admits the 41-year-old actor-director, betweenediting sessions for his upcoming film, “Illuminata.” “I tried toapproach the subject as Levi does: delicately and subtly. His booksare not histrionic. They are not about him venting, though that wouldhave been valid. People going through that experience didn’t cry;they were far beyond tears.”

Turturro is Italian-American, but his ties to thesubject of the Holocaust run deep. His wife of 13 years, KatherineBorowitz, is Jewish. Their 7-year-old son, Amedeo, is named after thepainter, Amedeo Modigliani, who like the younger Turturro is Italianand Jewish. In the interfaith household, “We have Chanukah everyyear, and my wife sort of gets through Christmas,” the actorsays.

John Turturro learned about World War II from hisfather, who lived under fascist indoctrination in Italy until heemigrated to America at the age of 6. As a young man, he served inthe Navy and was sunk aboard a U.S. destroyer on D-Day. He was sofiercely opposed to fascism that he required his son to watch myriaddocumentaries about the Holocaust. “At 7 or 8, I saw all thesehorrific images, and they burned in my mind,” Turturro recalls. “At avery young age, I realized, ‘This happened. This reallyhappened.'”

During his childhood in working-classneighborhoods of Queens, Turturro devoured books on the Holocaust. Itwas a private preoccupation as he pursued his very public interest inthe theater.

Turturro graduated from the Yale School of Drama;earned a 1984 Obie and caught Spike Lee’s attention with hisperformance as a neighborhood psycho who throws his mother out thewindow in the 1988 film, “Five Corners.” Lee knew Turturro would beperfect as Pino, the racist pizza-maker who helps incite the riot in”Do The Right Thing.”

As his career took off, Turturro earned areputation as an intensely physical actor who is obsessive aboutresearch. For “Do the Right Thing,” he worked in a pizza parlor; for”Quiz Show,” he interviewed and re-interviewed the real HerbStempel.

But for “Miller’s Crossing” and “Mo’ BetterBlues,” Turturro received criticism that seems ironic in light of hispresent role. In “Mo’ Better,” Turturro and his younger brother,Nick, portray money-grubbing Jewish jazz club owners, Moe and JoshFlatbush. On the set, the actors performed a cartoony, vaudevillianschtick, which,Turturro says, was ineffectually edited during post-production. Theactor, however, was surprised when everyone from Time magazine to theAnti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith denounced the characters asanti-Semitic stereotypes. “Obviously, if I had thought the film wasanti-Semitic, I would never have done it,” he insists.

Similar accusations haunted the release of”Miller’s Crossing,” in which Turturro plays a gay-Jewish hustler whois both pathetic and sleazy. “People were calling the Coenshomophobic and anti-Semitic,” Turturro recalls. “But Joel and Ethanmake fun of everyone. They make paraplegic jokes in ‘The BigLebowski.'”

Turturro is sick of answering the accusations andhe isn’t much happier with questions about his ubiquitous ethnicroles. “No one ever tells Kevin Costner, ‘Gee, it’s too bad youalways play WASPs,” he snaps. “Yes, I’m dark, I have curly hair, Ihave a prominent nose. What do you want me to do, have plasticsurgery?”

“Look, my characters are always diverse,” he adds,on a softer note. “I’m not frustrated, so what’s the bigdeal?”

When Turturro was approached to do “The Truce” in1991, he was, coincidentally, portraying Hitler on-stage in Brecht’splay, “The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui.” Actually, Martin Scorsesewrote him a letter about Rosi’s project, adding that Turturro wouldbe perfect for the role. Apparently, Rosi had obtained Levi’spermission to do the film just a week before the author had committedsuicide in 1987.

Turturro had never read any of Levi’s prose orpoetry, but he was quickly taken with the writer. He read every oneof his books; practically memorized Levi’s Auschwitz memoir, “If ThisIs a Man”; read “The Monkey’s Wrench” to his son; and did extensiveresearch at the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. He spokewith Holocaust survivors and traveled to Turin to interview Levi’sfriends, who had dissenting opinions about whether the writeractually had committed suicide.

Turturro also haggled for a year to obtain a BBCinterview with the author, though he was initially hesitant to watchit. “I worried that I would be disappointed,” the actor says,sheepishly. “But Levi was really the quiet, penetrating man who hadwritten those books. I felt, as I had as a reader, that he and I wereintimate friends involved in conversation.”

Nevertheless, the actor was nervous as he left for thegrueling, 17-week shoot in the Ukraine. He believed it would be”impossible” to truly enter Levi’s world, though the freezing setsand desolate landscapes helped. To prepare for the most difficultscenes, which inevitably had little dialogue, he read and re-readpassages of “The Truce” or perused the many other Holocaust volumeshe had brought to the set.

Turturro, who had lost 30 pounds for the film,returned home to Brooklyn thin and exhausted. The emotional toll wassuch that he did not travel to Italy to promote his two other filmsat the Venice Film Festival. Even his mother repeatedly remarked thathe had changed.

“Levi’s experience was unimaginable, but I had theteeniest window on what it must have been like,” the actor says. “Yetin a way, the film was also a beautiful experience, because there isa beauty to Levi and his work.”

Turturro, who hopes “The Truce” will introduceLevi to a whole new audience, recently watched the film with Amedeo.He spoke with his son about the Holocaust, just as his father haddone with him when he was 7 years old. “I think he understood some ofit,” he says. “He was a bit upset, because the movie is very sad. Iexplained certain things I thought he could handle, and as he getsolder, I’ll share more with him.”

The Truce opens April 24 in LosAngeles.

 


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