No business like the news business: Aaron Sorkin on ‘Newsroom’

Aaron Sorkin, the playwright, television writer and Oscar-winning screenwriter of “The Social Network,” is causing a stir with his new HBO series, “The Newsroom,” about the inside antics of a cable news show and its commentary on American journalism. Sorkin’s “The West Wing” and “Sports Night,” among others, have earned the veteran show creator a reputation for intense examinations of institutional milieus — government, sports and now the news industry. He’s also distinguished himself through his style of writing, famous for its prolix dialogue, withering wit and moral idealism, for which he ranks among the most literary of Hollywood writers. In an e-mail interview, Sorkin expounded on the journalism he trusts, how he copes with bad reviews and the unique rewards of having a daughter.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For more information, visit

Clinton, Bush to Appear Together During 2010 AJU Lecture Series

Two former presidents will share the stage when American Jewish University’s (AJU) Public Lecture Series returns in early 2010. Former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush are scheduled to appear together at Universal’s Gibson Amphitheatre on Feb. 22, the university announced Monday.

Clinton has made several appearances during the series’ history, and in 2004 he spoke with Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kansas), former Senate Majority Leader and GOP challenger to Clinton during the 1996 presidential election. The Feb. 22 event will mark President Bush’s first appearance with the high-profile lecture series, which is organized through the AJU’s Department of Continuing Education.

Past political speakers at the AJU series have included Vice President Al Gore; Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright, Henry Kissinger and Colin Powell; White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove; White House Press Secretaries Ari Fleisher and Dee Dee Meyers; Israeli Prime Ministers Ehud Barak and Shimon Peres; and U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Tickets for the Feb. 22 Clinton-Bush event go on sale Nov. 5, with prices ranging from $75 to $125.

For more information, call (310) 440-1246.

To read a background article about the AJU lecture series, from 2001, click

East Meets West

About six months ago, Gregory Rodriguez, a contributingeditor to the Los Angeles Times opinion section, phoned his friend, Rabbi GaryGreenebaum, West Coast regional director of the American Jewish Committee (AJCommittee). Rodriguez had attended events purported to promote intellectualfellowship among diverse Angelenos, but had found them not-so-diverse. “There’sa lot of lip service paid to crossing barriers in this city, but manygatherings are organized around political or ethnic lines,” Rodriguez said.

To mix things up a bit, the two friends went on to launch aprogram, co-presented by the Los Angeles Public Library. The series, Zócalo,which means “public square” in Spanish, will gather Eastsiders and Westsidersfor private discussions and public lectures on crucial civic issues. It kicksoff at the downtown Central Library’s Mark Taper Auditorium on April 9 at 7p.m., when the Economist’s Washington correspondent Adrian Wooldridge,co-author of “The Company: A Short History of a Revolutionary Idea,” willdescribe his take on the corporation as “an engine that can work for the publicgood as well as ill,” Greenebaum said.

Four more speakers through July will include the preeminentAfrican American essayist Debra Dickerson and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, theOscar-nominated director of “Amores Perros.”

The series joins a burgeoning trend of L.A. programs devotedto the intellectual life, from Lunchtime Art Talks at the UCLA Hammer Museum tothe literary salon Beyond Baroque.

“But we don’t want to be labeled a salon,” Rodriguez said.”We want to create a nonpartisan, multiethnic place in a city that has fewneutral, welcoming places.”

Like Zócalo, its conveners represent East and West LosAngeles. Rodriguez, 36, is a Mexican American who lives in a Northeastneighborhood, Hermon, near Highland Park. Greenebaum, who is in his 50s,promotes intergroup relations through the regional office of the AJCommittee,located in West L.A. The two men met when Rodriguez interviewed Greenebaum fora piece that touched on Latino-Jewish relations several years ago.

They’re hoping Zócalo — sponsored by groups as varied as TheJewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles and Citibank — will introduce Angelenoswho wouldn’t normally meet. “A group devoted to fostering fellowship and newideas will be a powerful contribution to the new L.A.,” Rodriguez said. 

For information about Zócalo events, which will be broadcastover KPCC 89.3 FM, call (213) 228-7025.

Silence in Any Language

The Holocaust, as seen through the eyes of five international filmmakers, will air on successive evenings on Cinemax, from April 15-19, at 7 p.m.

Collectively titled "Broken Silence," the series, produced by James Moll (who won an Oscar for the documentary, "The Last Days"), consists of one-hour documentaries from Hungary, Argentina, Russia, Czech Republic and Poland, each in its native language with English subtitles.

The series is one more spinoff from the prodigious work of Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation in videotaping the testimonies of more than 50,000 survivors in 57 countries and 32 languages.

While the massive testimonies are still being catalogued, the Shoah Foundation has already culled its archives to produce three prize-winning documentaries and two educational CDs.

Cinemax made tapes of three of the five films available for previews, of which the most impressive is the Hungarian entry, "Eyes of the Holocaust," by director Janos Szasz.

Szasz, the son of two Holocaust survivors, focuses on the experiences of child survivors and dedicates the film "to the 1.5 million children who perished, and for those who survived and had children of their own."

As in the other films, the actual survivor testimonies form the backbone of the documentary, but Szasz interweaves some devices that might have been jarring in a filmmaker of less artistic sensitivity.

One such device is to have a young girl read out the dictionary definition of each topic, such as "anti-Semitism," "ghetto" and "deportation," which is then graphically illustrated by archival footage.

In keeping with the emphasis on children, Szasz occasionally relives the stark footage by introducing their drawings, as well as puppets and toy trains, on their way to Auschwitz.

Throughout, there are the haunting eyes of children, tearful and bewildered as they are separated from their parents, huge in the gaunt faces of death camp survivors.

The one-time child survivors, now old, remember well: the gleeful laughter of their gentile neighbors as the Jews march to the deportation trains; concentration camp life in which "there was no space for solidarity, everyone had to trample on the others," and the sad conclusion, "God was not there in Auschwitz."

Los Angeles-based Andy Vajna ("Rambo" and "Total Recall") served as the documentary’s executive producer.

Russia’s "Children From the Abyss" also concentrates on the younger victims of the Holocaust, with director Pavel Chukhraj largely letting the horrifying facts and reminiscences speak for themselves. Leafing through old family photo albums, Chukhraj creates a picture of pre-war Jewish life in the Soviet Union, which seems a touch too idyllic.

Curious, in the light of Stalin’s subsequent paranoid anti-Semitism, is the faith of some death camp inmates that "If Stalin knew what was happening here, he would save us."

Another delusion by some as the deportation trains rolled onward was that "We are being sent to Palestine — it’s warm there."

Most gut-wrenching are the recollections of the child survivors of Babi Yar, where 150,000 Kiev Jews were slaughtered, and the sadistic brutality of the Ukraine police, which exceeded even their German masters.

The Czech Republic’s "Hell on Earth" was directed by Vojtech Jasny, who fought the Nazis as a partisan after his father was murdered in Auschwitz.

He focuses on the sad history within his country’s borders: Hitler’s rapturous reception by the Sudeten Germans in 1939, then the occupation of Prague and, after the war’s beginning, establishment of the "model" concentration camp at Theresienstadt.

In Czechoslovakia, as in Austria, the anti-Semitic laws that took years to evolve in Germany, were imposed full-blown and immediately on Czech Jews.

As throughout conquered Europe, most Czech Jews ended up in Auschwitz, and the graphic details of the survivors’ recollections bear out their insistence that "It is impossible to share our experiences, they can’t be captured."

Radio Yiddish

When she was 16, KCRW General Manager Ruth Seymour was captivated by her studies with the Yiddish scholar Max Weinreich. “Yiddish is magic,” he told her. “It will outwit history.”

Seymour took his words to heart. Of late, she has been doing her part to help the mamaloshen survive. In 1995, she and KCRW teamed up with the National Yiddish Book Center to create “Jewish Short Stories,” a National Public Radio series read by actors such as Leonard Nimoy and Jeff Goldblum. The program was a peculiar excursion in time-travel: back to the days of golems and rebbes and schlemiels all living together in the shtetl. Yiddish, apparently, worked its magic: At least half the NPR network ran the program, including markets as unlikely as Coos Bay, Ore., and Bozeman, Mont. KCRW sold well more than 1,000 cassette sets of the series.

This year, the program is back by popular demand, and because Seymour wanted to bring the series into the postmodern era.

“This is a darker, edgier series,” says Seymour, adding that a Sholom Aleichem story explores the suicide of one of Tevye’s daughters.

Once again, celebrities agreed to work for the union base rate of around $11 an hour — perhaps because of the Yiddish yearnings latent in Ashkenazi DNA. William Shatner, Richard Dreyfuss and Ed Asner signed on, as did directors Arthur Hiller, Jeremy Kagan and Claudia Weil. “Chicago Hope” star Hector Elizondo, of Puerto Rican heritage, said that he was drawn to the series because he has converso blood.

The 18-part series, dubbed “Jewish Stories from the Old World to the New,” includes stories and novel excerpts by authors such as Bernard Malamud, E.L. Doctorow, Saul Bellow and Max Apple. It also includes a number of works by women writers: Allegra Goodman’s “The Four Questions” humorously explores the conflict between three generations of American Jews; Pearl Abraham’s “The Romance Reader” focuses on a restless Chassidic woman; Leslea Newman’s “A Letter to Harvey Milk” examines the friendship between an elderly Jewish man and his lesbian creative-writing teacher.

Ironically, Seymour, who has created Mexican and Korean short-story programming for KCRW, says the only critics of “Jewish Stories” have been…Jewish. “Some people fear that publicly celebrating our Jewish heritage will excite anti-Semitism, which is ridiculous,” she says.

To buy a CD or audiocassette of the series, or for programming information, call (310) 450-5183 or (800) 292-3855.

Fine Cut: A Festival of Student Film

Student films from throughout Southern California are currentlybeing featured on the three-part KCET series “Fine Cut: A Festival ofStudent Film,” airing on Sundays at 10 p.m. The series, hosted bydirector Michael Apted, will feature a total of 17 films fromstudents at UCLA, USC, CalArts, Loyola Marymount and the AmericanFilm Institute. Ranging in length from three to 32 minutes, theentries include dramas, documentaries and animation.

Debuting last Sunday, “Fine Cut” continues this week with anotherentertaining lineup. “In the Hole,” the true story of a Queensteen-ager who steals a New York subway train for a joyride, isfeatured; “Hole” debuted at last year’s Telluride Film Festival’sFilmmakers of Tomorrow program. Also this week: Tony Bui’s impressivedebut, “Yellow Lotus,” the first American film shot in Vietnam, whichwowed audiences at Telluride in 1995 and won the Loyola Marymountgraduate a lucrative feature contract; “The Projects,” a satiricallook at California immigration policies; and “INFITD,” a UCLA dramaabout a young boy who wards off evil forces by chanting “INFITD,” anacronym for “I’ll not fall into the Devil.”

Both of this week’s animated shorts are courtesy of CalArts. MarkOsborne’s “Greener” uses a variety of techniques, including thepainstaking stop-motion and hand-coloring processes, and “Stampede”is a three minute piece created with hand-carved rubber stamps.

Next week’s installment includes “Independent Little Cuss,” winnerof the Gold Medal at the 1996 Student Academy Awards, which documentsthe story of disabled-rights activist Carole Patterson as sheprepares to marry a non-disabled man against the wishes of herfamily. Also scheduled is “Unbearable Being,” an animated short abouta personal identity crisis; the computer-generated “Cocoon”; and”Sitting in Limbo,” starring Adam Wylie (“Picket Fences”).

Buñuel in Mexico

Fans of Spanish director Luis Bunuel will want to check out theLos Angeles County Museum of Art’s current series that showcases hisMexican work. “El Bruto,” “Abismos de Pasion” (his surreal “WutheringHeights” remake), and many other works unavailable on video are amongthose featured. At LACMA’s Bing Theater, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., LosAngeles. Call (213) 857-6010 for a complete schedule.

Documentary Days

Laemmle Theatres’ current series of documentaries continues at theGrande 4-Plex in downtown Los Angeles. This week: “Colors StraightUp,” which profiles a year in the life of Colors United, anafter-school drama program for youth in Watts. The Grande is at 345S. Figueroa St. Call (213) 617-0268 for show times.

Go to The Jewish Journal’s 7 Days in theArts