STAR mixes tradition, values, fun for Sephardic teens


Who knew that playing paintball and taking trips to the Santa Monica Pier could be so … Jewish?

Since 1998, mixing social activities with Judaic values has been at the core of the nonprofit group Sephardic Tradition and Recreation (STAR). Thousands of the area’s young Sephardic Jews have mingled with others like themselves while learning about their roots — and having some serious fun in the process — thanks to the Van Nuys-based organization.

“We at STAR have one fundamental goal, and that is Jewish pride,” said Rabbi Yitzchak Sakhai, the organization’s program director. “As we like to say, empty pride is what has always been frowned upon by Judaism. We at STAR try to instill in our youth enough knowledge of their background, customs [and] history that when they do feel proud of their Judaism, it’s not just empty pride, but filled with history and knowledge.” 

The organization sponsors a host of activities for children ages 7 to 18, who are divided into four age groups. They gather for movie nights, parties, paintball, even trips to Israel — all in the hope of instilling a sense of pride in the younger generation of Jews. A trip to the Santa Monica Pier for Chanukah, for example, might also include arts and crafts or a show-and-tell on how to press oil from olives, Sakhai said. 

STAR is the brainchild of Hyman Jebb Levy, 88, a retired businessman and member of the Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel in West L.A., who saw a need to connect young Sephardic Jews to their Jewish heritage. (Ashkenazic Jews are welcome to take part as well.)

“I’ve always been interested in Jewish education, and I’ve always believed that if you don’t educate the youth about their Jewish roots, you have no future,” Levy said. “So when I retired … I saw there was no youth program in the Sephardic synagogues in the city, and so I got together with some friends in the community and we started STAR.”

The key to STAR’s success, he said, has been working with children starting at a young age, and gradually sharing the beauty of Jewish traditions and cultures with them through different activities. The program focuses on six principles: community, tradition, values, preservation, Israel and pride.

“At age 7 is when you want to start educating them about what it means to be Jewish, and they have a place where they can make other Jewish friends and just have fun,” said Levy, who hosted a Sukkot party at his Encino home that drew about 120 people. “Studies have shown that Jewish children who are more involved in the Jewish community at a young age typically tend to  remain connected to Judaism as adults and marry other Jews.”  

STAR’s leadership said they try to offer a friendly approach without coming across as aggressive.

“We do not want to come across as pushy or forcing religion on them,” said STAR’s executive director, Rabbi Menachem Weiss. “Our goal is to be their friend and invite them into a Jewish environment that is enriching to their lives and showing them the value of being a part of the Jewish community.”

The staff is hands-on, visiting young Jews in their homes to pass out custom-made Passover haggadot and offering teens opportunities at Shabbaton events to ask STAR’s rabbis about challenging issues from everyday life — anything from drug use to premarital sex to peer pressure.

“When the kids see that the rabbi is friendly and approachable, then Judaism becomes cool for them,” Weiss said. “So when kids can’t speak to their parents about something, they can come to us for guidance. Or sometimes, if the parents are seeing their children getting off track at school or hanging out with the wrong crowd, the parents can ask us to intervene because we have had this relationship with their kids for many years at STAR.”  

To create a more direct connection with the Holy Land, STAR has developed the Magen Leadership Program for teenagers. It involves a three-week trip to Israel, where the teens not only learn about the Jewish state, but they also volunteer for charitable causes and help groom a new generation of Jewish leaders.

STAR alumnus Justin Daneshrad, a UCLA graduate who is now 21, said the organization provided a transformative experience during his younger years.

“The most important thing for me in being a part of STAR was the sense of unity and friendship with other Jews my age that I felt while I was involved with their activities,” said Daneshrad, an Iranian-American Jew. “If I could sit down with Jewish parents today, I would tell them that by getting your kids involved in STAR, you are helping to instill in them moral guidance, Jewish values and a strong foundation for their future, because the people at STAR really care about us.”

 For his part, Levy said he has been delighted with the outcome of STAR’s activities for young Sephardic Jews in the city over the years, and he hopes the organization soon can establish its own youth center where Jewish students can hang out, study and participate in different activities.

“This entire experience has been very gratifying for me because when I go to synagogue, these kids involved with STAR come up and shake my hand or give me hugs,” Levy said. “So I really feel like I’m doing right by the Jewish community, and that’s the best part of it all.”

Stormin’ da castle: Tony Curtis in Hollywood


In “Cultural Amnesia,” Clive James’ eccentric encyclopedia of modern culture, the Australian critic devotes some of his most enthusiastic pages to Tony Curtis.

One might not think that Curtis, whose fame rests more on his beauty and outsized personality than on the quality of his movies, deserves to be ranked as one of the essential figures of the 20th century, alongside Thomas Mann and Margaret Thatcher.

But to James, who saw Curtis’ movies as a teenager in postwar Australia, the actor — with his frank sexiness, his adolescent intensity, his comic zest — seemed to incarnate the glamour of the American century.

The irony, of course, is that to Americans, Curtis looked like anything but an all-American boy. Gary Cooper and Henry Fonda, with their WASP uprightness, were the kind of actors chosen by Hollywood’s Jewish filmmakers to be icons of American heroism. Curtis, on the other hand, was undisguisably ethnic. There may have been Jewish movie stars before Curtis, from Emmanuel Goldenberg (Edward G. Robinson) to Issur Danielovitch (Kirk Douglas). But none of them sounded like Bernie Schwartz, who even after he changed his name was unmistakably a Jewish street kid from the East Side of Manhattan. It’s no coincidence that the one line of Curtis’ that everybody knows is “Yonda lies da castle of my fadda” — a silly phrase given an ethnic mangling, it seems to encapsulate his whole career and persona.

In “American Prince” (Harmony, $25.95), his utterly synthetic, deeply unreliable yet fascinating new memoir, Curtis does not fail to defend himself against that infamous line. In the first place, Curtis, who will appear at American Jewish University on March 15, insists what he really said in “Son of Ali Baba” — the 1952 film he describes, with admirable directness, as a “another sand-and-tits movie” — was “Yonder in the valley of the sun is my father’s castle.” More important, his accent was not especially notable in the movie — no more so, at any rate, than in “Some Like It Hot” or “The Defiant Ones” or “Sweet Smell of Success,” to name some of his more enduring films.

The line didn’t become notorious, Curtis says, until Debbie Reynolds made fun of it on a talk show: “Did you see the new guy in the movies? They call him Tony Curtis, but that’s not his real name. In his new movie, he’s a got a hilarious line where he says, ‘Yonder lies the castle of my fadda.'”

“You could chalk her ridicule up to my New York accent,” writes Curtis (as channeled by Peter Golenbock), “but when she mentioned the issue of my real name on television, I began to wonder if there was something anti-Semitic going on there.” And while immersed in “American Prince,” this roiling stew of Curtis’ grievances and boasts, the charge of anti-Semitism does seem plausible. Everybody changes their name in Hollywood — after all, Janet Leigh, Curtis’ first wife, was born Jeannette Morrison — so why should Bernie Schwartz’s fake name be especially noteworthy? And why should a Jewish accent be considered more inherently anachronistic than, say, the plummy English of Laurence Olivier, with whom Schwartz played a famously suggestive scene in “Spartacus”?

The answer, Curtis has no doubt, is that Hollywood in the 1950s was a closed caste that had no place for a Jew — at least for a Jew like him. Curtis, born in 1925, had grown up in one of those very poor, very troubled immigrant Jewish families whose miseries you can read about in the fiction of Delmore Schwartz and Daniel Fuchs, or the memoirs of Alfred Kazin. His mother was frustrated, vindictive and unstable — later in life, Curtis writes, she would be diagnosed with schizophrenia — while his father, a tailor, struggled to stay afloat during the Depression. The family would sometimes have to squat in the tailor shop. On one traumatic occasion, when Curtis was 10 years old, his parents deposited him and his younger brother in an orphanage for two weeks.

As a young boy, Curtis writes, he was constantly bullied — by non-Jews for being a Jew and by other Jews for being poor. The worst blow came when Curtis was 13 years old, when his younger brother, Julie, was killed by a truck at First Avenue and 78th Street. His parents sent Curtis to the hospital, alone, to identify Julie’s body.

No wonder Curtis dropped out of high school and joined the Navy when he was just 16 years old, forging his mother’s signature on the parental consent form. And no wonder that, when he came back to New York at war’s end — never having seen combat — he immediately found another kind of escape in acting. His first professional job involved touring the Catskills in a “a play about anti-Semitism and the Jewish experience in America,” whose bathetic title — “This Too Shall Pass” — Philip Roth would have been proud to have come up with. Curtis also worked briefly in the Yiddish theater in Chicago, where he kept himself entertained in schlocky roles by ad-libbing lines like “I would rather be in the movies!”

Soon enough he was, thanks to a Universal talent scout named Bob Goldstein. And here begin the reader’s doubts about the anti-Semitism that, according to Curtis, froze him out of Hollywood’s A-List. Bob Goldstein discovered Curtis; Jack Warner befriended him on the plane to Los Angeles (one of the many moments where Curtis’ story conforms a little too perfectly to Hollywood archetype); Abner Biberman was his studio-assigned acting coach; Lew Wasserman and Swifty Lazar were the agents who made his career; Billy Wilder gave him his best part. All of these men, of course, were Jewish, as were the moguls who built the studio system in the first place, and many of the producers, directors and writers who still ran that system when Curtis was signed as a contract player in 1948.

Curtis never remarks on this obvious fact, which rather undermines his insistence that being a Jew “was a strike against you in Hollywood — as it was in most places.” Yet “American Prince” makes it possible to understand why Curtis could believe this. He was not looking at the whole ecosystem of Hollywood, he was only concerned about the intricate status hierarchy of Hollywood’s stars, and in that hierarchy, it is true, WASPs held the highest places. Curtis writes feelingly about ancient snubs from stars like Debbie Reynolds and Henry Fonda and Ray Milland: to him, a New York Jewish dropout, such people seemed like prom kings and queens.

Yet Curtis doesn’t fully appreciate how much his on-screen allure owed to his being Jewish. Like Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift and James Dean, who arrived in Hollywood at the same time he did, Curtis was a new kind of Hollywood leading man whose appeal flowed from his neurotic intensity and exotic, almost feminine beauty — a whole different type from the Jimmy Stewarts and Cary Grants of the past. And it was Curtis’ Jewishness, including the wounds that resulted from it, that allowed him to fit this new image of American masculinity so perfectly.

To the teenaged Clive James, watching “Son of Ali Baba” in Sydney, even “Yonda lies da castle of my fadda” sounded quintessentially American: “Nothing mattered except the enchanting way that the tormented phonemes seemed to give an extra zing to the American demotic.”

Tony Curtis will appear in conversation with radio talk show host Bill Moran at American Jewish University on Sunday, March 15. A book signing of “American Prince” will follow. $25. For more information, call (310) 440-1246.

Reprinted with permission from Nextbook.org, a new read on Jewish culture.

Adam Kirsch is the author of “Benjamin Disraeli,” a new biography in Nextbook’s “Jewish Encounters” series.

‘Nick and Norah’ star Kat Dennings is infinitely Jewish, in her own way


Who would use tikkun olam, the Jewish concept of repairing the world, as a lead-in to a movie love scene?

Norah Silverberg, the lead character in the hit teen comedy, “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist,” that’s who. The film tracks an offbeat love story between high school students Nick (Michael Cera) and Norah (Kat Dennings) as they traverse through New York City in search of a mysterious band (“Where’s Fluffy”) and Norah’s lost, drunken girlfriend.

Along the way they meet an interesting cast of characters, including Norah’s ex-boyfriend, the sleazy Tal (Jay Baruchel), who is using her in hopes her famous dad will produce his Jew-power album. Oh yeah — and Norah tells Nick about tikkun olam — right before she makes her move on him.

But actress Kat Dennings, who is Jewish, like the character she plays, didn’t know the concept before the film. “I had to ask people around the set about the Hebrew words,” she said in a phone interview with The Jewish Journal. “I couldn’t pronounce it.”

Dennings, who is 22 and lives in Los Angeles, is different from Norah, an 18-year-old who lives in Englewood, N.J. For one thing, she’s not a “JAP” — as Nick calls Norah in the film.

“I don’t even know what JAP really means,” Dennings said. “That’s just something kids say to each other.”

She said she is very different from Norah, except “for both being brunettes and Jewish,” and “I tend to worry a lot and take care of my friends — I take a mothering role,” she said.

The trailer

Still, she was attracted to the film, based on a 2006 novel by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan (Knopf Young Adults) that had far more Jewish references. (In the book, Norah talks often about Judaism.) The film’s Judaism has been “moviefied,” Dennings said.

“I liked that Norah was a strong and unique female lead, not the type of girl I was used to seeing in films like this,” Dennings said. “I liked that she was Jewish — it’s different from what I’ve seen in the past.”

Although she says she’s “a billion percent Jewish” (“I don’t think I have any relatives who aren’t Jewish”), she considers herself more ethnically and culturally affiliated than religiously so, as do many of her generation.

For example, on her blog — which she’s had for an astonishing seven years — she has posted a video titled “Happy Purim!” about her and a faux pregnant friend clowning around. “It had nothing to do with Purim, but we filmed it on Purim,” she said.

After an article about her appeared in Vanity Fair, she blogged, “push Aunt Nancy aside and throw open the screen door, because ‘Hollywood’s Next Wave’ just got a lot Jewisher.”

The youngest of five children raised in Philadelphia, “I went to my little friends’ bat mitzvahs, but I’m not that into religion,” she said.

Which is funny, since the pale-skinned, pouty-lipped actress’ first standout role was in “Sex and the City,” playing Jenny Brier, a teen who hires Samantha to do publicity for her bat mitzvah.

She says she’s not worried about being stereotyped; she’s also starred in “40-Year-Old Virgin,” “Charlie Bartlett,” and guest starred in TV’s “CSI: Miami” and “Without a Trace.” She is also set to film “Sendor,” with Woody Harrelson.

Judaism, she said, “is an important part of my history, but, as a whole, religion is not a part of my life.”

“It’s a background thing, but I’m proud to be Jewish.”

Tranforming the Synagogue — A Scorecard


Synagogue transformation programs exude good intentions, but do they actually work?

The record is mixed. They are no panacea, but they sometimes benefit participating congregations — at least temporarily — by attracting newcomers, energizing existing members and perhaps forcing the synagogues to re-examine themselves.

For example, Rabbi Shawn Zevit, a spokesman for the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation, said participating congregations in his movement have enjoyed “modest success” in luring unaffiliated Jews, although getting them to participate in synagogue activities has not always been easy. On the other hand, he added, some existing members have become more deeply involved in congregational life thanks to transformation initiatives.

Those initiatives include Synaplex, whose core mission is to strengthen Jewish identity and create a sense of community largely by making Shabbat meaningful.

Turnout at synagogues that have participated in the program for at least two years generally doubles, triples, or even quadruples on Synaplex weekends, according to Rabbi Hayim Herring, a spokesman for Synaplex’s parent organization, STAR, or Synagogues: Transformation and Renewal. What’s more, Herring added, membership has either stabilized or increased at 17 pilot congregations evaluated by his organization, even those that had been losing members.

But a boost in headcount does not necessarily translate into meaningful change, according to representatives of both transformation projects and participating synagogues.

“The goal of a synagogue is not simply to get people to use it, although that may be the initial goal,” said Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. “The ultimate goal is to effect change in the person and the congregation. I’d look at the situation two years from now and see how many people have had continuous involvement, or became involved only because this is something new.”

The success rate of these experiments varies dramatically, according to Epstein. Without offering percentages, he said he has observed “large numbers” of congregations that seek a “quick fix,” and therefore have achieved only limited success — and “large numbers” that have been able to reinvent themselves and become more vibrant institutions.

Benchmarks of congregational transformation come in many forms — some of them concrete and easy to quantify, but many more of them abstract and difficult to attach numbers to. They may be manifested by congregants who now take Jewish learning seriously. Or who have inculcated Jewish values into their lives. Or feel prayer in their bones for the first time. Or it may be reflected in a once-impersonal synagogue that now has a warm, friendly atmosphere and makes newcomers feel at home.

Whether these innovations actually take root is the product of many factors, according to Epstein and others, including the quality of leadership at individual congregations, and that can vary widely. The consensus: The best leaders are visionaries who cultivate congregations that creatively and boldly pursue long-lasting change rather than simply add new programs. Ideally, such an approach is so firmly implanted in the congregational culture that it will survive changes in synagogue personnel.

“You have to be ready to look at yourself objectively and critically and really be honest about what your strengths and weaknesses are,” said Rabbi Daniel Freelander, vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism. “You need to create rising expectations and break your sense of complacency. It’s very difficult.” Freelander said only about one-half of the congregations he has monitored have been able to create a climate that is conducive to profound change. “But when it happens,” he added, “you can see the light bulbs going off and the congregation is better for it.”

The point at which change becomes “meaningful” or even “profound” is subject to interpretation, of course. Herring of Synaplex, for one, said an important threshold has been crossed when a congregation “moves from using Synaplex as a program to using Synaplex as a way of doing business in the synagogue.”

However it is defined, fashioning a truly transformative approach to congregational thinking and decision-making “is incredibly hard to do and we still have a lot to learn about how to do it,” said Lawrence Hoffman, the co-founder of Synagogue 2000, an initiative that was launched in 1995 and recently evolved into a leadership-training program known as Synagogue 3000. The goal of Synagogue 2000, in part, was to help congregations become more spiritual, adult-centered and welcoming.

Hoffman estimates that about one-third of the 100 congregations served by Synagogue 2000 had poor leadership, and therefore achieved lackluster results. Of the remaining synagogues, he said, about one-third of them were modestly successful at transforming themselves and one-third were very successful.
Amy Sales, associate director of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University, said that about half of the Synaplex synagogues she surveyed could legitimately be called success stories.

A third major shul-overhaul program is the Experiment in Congregational Education (ECE) , which focuses on Torah study as an important entry point into Jewish life. “On one level, transformation seems daunting,” said ECE director Rob Weinberg. “But on another level, we’re just asking congregations to do the best of what they already do, but on a regular basis.”

Stressing that he considers success to be a “continuum, rather than a yes-no proposition,” Weinberg estimates that roughly one-half to three-quarters of the synagogues that have participated in his program for several years have in fact transformed themselves.

Temple Shalom of Newton, Mass., is one of them. Under the ECE aegis, the 1,000-family Reform congregation spent five years coming up with five core Jewish values — lifelong learning, enriching spirituality, creating community, social action, and Jewish continuity.

Ideally, every new synagogue event or program exemplifies one of those values. For example, when three of the temple’s aging Torah mantles disintegrated, more than 330 members, from nursery school children to grandparents, needlepointed decorative covers for the new mantles, illustrating the values of kedusha (holiness) and kehillah (community).

Meanwhile, the congregation has become active in its local federation and the national Reform movement and has sent two large groups to Israel this past year.
“That’s what it means to us to be a learning congregation,” said Temple Shalom education director Julie Vanek. “Not just creating programs, but helping people reflect on who they are and what they want to be.” l

Magen David Adom and the Case for Diplomacy


GENEVA — After 75 years, humanitarianism prevailed over rejectionism. Last Thursday, in the early morning hours, delegates to the 29th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, assembled in Geneva from 192 states and 183 relief societies, voted by overwhelming majority to recognize the Magen David emblem and admit Israel’s relief society. In marking an end to one of the most notorious international restrictions against the Jewish state — reminiscent of the United Nation’s 1991 repeal of its “Zionism is Racism” indictment — the historic achievement refutes a fatalistic approach toward Israel’s isolation and underscores the potential of determined diplomacy to eliminate the demonization of Israel within key institutions of international law.

Success last week was hardly assured. The two-day conference was marred by acrimony as Muslim delegations from more than 50 countries attempted, first, to force the conference to adjourn, asserting that it was “procedurally illegal.” When that failed, the Islamic bloc, rejecting compromise, demanded last-minute amendments to the conference’s carefully negotiated resolution, seeking to wrest unrelated political concessions from Israel. When those, too, failed — thanks to the resolve and determination of Dr. Jakob Kellenberger, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and conference chairman Dr. Mohammed Al-Hadid (a Jordanian) — the Muslim group filibustered with one point of order after another, forcing the delegates to stay until 3 a.m. before the final vote and conclusion of the conference.

There were sharp words. The Syrian delegate accused Kellenberger of “lacking neutrality and objectivity.” The Palestinian ambassador said the conference was “an Israeli ploy,” and that Israel is the world’s “most flagrant violator of international law.” The Saudi representative said Israel’s relief society violates international humanitarian law “every day.” Iran’s delegate said the Magen David Adom (MDA) “insists on racial discrimination” and that its admission would be a “threat for the unity of the movement.”

It was precisely this sort of vehement opposition — part of a decades-long campaign to cast Israel as a pariah within the international arena — that hitherto prevented the Israeli society from joining the movement.

Few causes in recent years have galvanized supporters of international equality for Israel as much as the exclusion of the MDA. Mobilizing the principal actors — the U.S. government, the American Red Cross, the ICRC and the Swiss government — were not only Israeli démarches, but also the appeals of thousands around the world together with sustained diplomatic campaigns by several groups.

The MDA victory is two-fold. First, Israel’s humanitarian society will now be able to count on the support of the international movement as it fulfills its mission to serve those in need, and to fully cooperate with all societies, including the Palestinian Red Crescent that was admitted simultaneously.

Equally as important, there is a monumental achievement on the level of symbol. The Star of David is the emblem of Israel’s relief society, but it is much more. It is the flag of the State of Israel and the historic symbol of the Jewish people. Until last week — at a major world body that literally defines itself by symbols — the Star of David was rejected. Thanks to the activism of so many around the world, today it is accepted.

With the alarming rise of anti-Israel boycotts and selective divestment, some would surrender to the notion that Israel is fated to dwell alone, relying on the rabbinic dictum of “Esau hates Jacob” as a rule of nature. Hope is not a strategy, but neither is defeatism. The fact is that by working with allies and sympathizers the world over, determined diplomacy repealed an invidious U.N. resolution in 1991, won Israel’s admission to one of the United Nations’ five regional groups (albeit in New York only) in 2000, and, in 2006, has gained international recognition of the Magen David.

Will the U.N. General Assembly ever eliminate its annual ritual of condemning Israel in 19 one-sided resolutions? Will the world body’s human rights apparatus ever abandon special agenda items for the singling-out of Israel? We do not have to complete the work, but neither are we free to desist from it.

Hillel Neuer is executive director of UN Watch and editor of its news and comment Web site,

7 Days in The Arts


Saturday, May 13

The beat goes on today at the annual Santa Monica Festival. Head down to participate in a drum circle; hear multicultural music, including a concert by Bucovina Klezmer; and enter the Eco Zone. The city steps up its commitment to environmental responsibility this year, with totally solar powered stages and a host of activities centered on caring for the Earth, including an outdoor adventure challenge course for kids, and a mobile TidePool Cruiser.

11 a.m.-6 p.m. Free. Clover Park, 2600 Ocean Park Blvd., Santa Monica. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt =””>

Sunday, May 14

When a lovely young woman becomes possessed by a dybbuk, it takes a minyan to cast out the demon. In Paddy Chayefsky’s “The Tenth Man,” they only have nine, until they pull a troubled man off the street to help with the Jewish exorcism. But he’s got his own demons. The play opens this weekend at The Skylight Theatre.

8 p.m. (Fri. and Sat.), 3 p.m. (Sun.). $20. 1816 1/2 N. Vermont Ave., Los Feliz. (310) 358-9936.

Monday, May 15

Great American music takes center stage this evening, with a tribute to the works of celebrated lyricist Dorothy Fields. Michael Feinstein, Marvin Hamlisch and others perform “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” a celebration of the life and lyrics of Fields, who wrote the titular hit, and numerous others including “The Way You Look Tonight” and “I’m in the Mood For Love.” A post-performance cast party will follow. The event benefits L.A.’s Center Theatre Group’s discount ticket programs, and is hosted by Corina Villaraigosa.

8 p.m. $200 and $500. 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. (213) 972-3139.

 

Tuesday, May 16

S.T.A.R. Sephardic Tradition and Recreation goes big this Lag B’Omer, and invites the community to join in. This evening they’ve rented out the Santa Monica Pier for a citywide Jewish celebration, complete with rides, kosher food and live entertainment.

5-9 p.m. $8. Santa Monica Pier, Santa Monica. (818) 782-7359. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt = “”>

Wednesday, May 17

Bring your child — or your inner child — to L.A. Artcore’s exhibition of Ursula Kammer-Fox’s “Play Mates,” on view through May 31. Kammer-Fox has created a number of whimsical sculptures of made-up creatures for this show, and she explains, “I perceive one of life’s demands to be that we escape our prisons. This body of work represents my escape from the prison of constant seriousness, and the esthetics of higher education.”

Noon-5 p.m. (Wed.-Sun.). Free. LA Artcore Center, 120 Judge John Aiso St., Los Angeles. (213) 617-3274. ” width=”15″ height=”1″alt = “”>

Thursday, May 18

Lauded short story writer Deborah Eisenberg discusses her latest collection, “Twilight of the Superheroes: Stories” on KCRW’s Bookworm program this afternoon. Host Michael Silverblatt will engage Eisenberg more specifically on the subject of writing about the post-Sept. 11 American sensibility.

2:30-3 p.m. KCRW 89.9 FM.

Friday, May 19

Silliness reigns at the Academy tonight, as it presents a special cast and crew reunion and screening of the classic comedy “Airplane!” Writers-directors Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker and actor Robert Hays, among others, are scheduled to attend the discussion. No word on the jive-talking Barbara Billingsley.

8 p.m. $3-$5. Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Samuel Goldwyn Theater, 8949 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. (310) 247-3600.

7 Days in The Arts


Saturday, May 6

Playwright Colette Freedman offers two divergent works now on the stage. “Iphigenia at Aulus” is Freedman’s adaptation (in rhyming iambic pentameter, no less) of Euripides’ classic tale about the Greek king who must sacrifice his daughter to assure a victory in his attack on Troy. “Sister Cities,” by contrast, is her more straightforward story of four sisters reunited after the death of their mother. They both play this weekend at Circus Theatricals Studio Theatre at the Hayworth.

$15-$20. 2511 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>

Sunday, May 7

Four talk-radio personalities compete for air time in today’s panel “The Impact of Talk Radio” at the University of Judaism. On your AM dial, Bill Handel (KFI), Michael Jackson (KNX), Doug McIntyre (KABC), and Stephanie Miller (Air America) participate, along with editor and publisher of Talkers magazine Michael Harrison. Veteran talk show host Bill Moran will ref.

2 p.m. $20. 15600 Mulholland Drive, Bel Air. (310) 440-1246.

Monday, May 8

The intense relationship between 30-something displaced cowboy Harlan Carruthers and rebellious teen Tobe creates the backbone of the new movie, “Down in the Valley,” which opens this week. Edward Norton and Evan Rachel Wood star in this dark film written and directed by David Jacobson.

Laemmle Theatres. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>

Tuesday, May 9

Existential questions make for a unifying theme in Jewish Artist Network’s latest group show. Sharing a space at 661 N. Spaulding will be Heather Rose’s color photography layered negatives, Jeremy Oberstein’s combined photographic images, Joseph Mamos’ watercolors, Moshe Hammer’s illustrated Hebrew calligraphy, Yoshimi Hashimoto’s photo-based imagery and Zlata’s acrylic and oils.

Noon-5 p.m. (Tues., Thurs., Sun., or by appointment.) JAN Gallery, 661 N. Spaulding, Los Angeles. (562) 547-9078. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>

Wednesday, May 10

This month, the American Cinematheque at the Aero Theatre solutes the comic works of favorite nebbish Woody Allen. Tonight, catch his classic comic fantasy, “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” about a depression-era waitress’ love affair with a matinee idol. Screenings of “Hannah and Her Sisters” and “Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask)” are scheduled for later in May.

7:30 p.m. $6-$9. 1328 Montana Ave., Santa Monica. (323) 466-3456. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>


Thursday, May 11

Hope Edelman, author of “Motherless Daughters,” visits Village Books this evening, to discuss her new follow-up book, “Motherless Mothers.” Attend the book signing to hear her talk about the experience of motherless women when they become mothers themselves.

7:30 p.m. Free. Village Books, 1049 Swarthmore Ave., Pacific Palisades. (310) 454-4063.

Friday, May 12

Opening this week is the Zimmer Children’s Museum’s latest exhibition, “show & tell: the art of time” Seventy-eight artists, humanitarians and social activists created unique, often whimsical sculptures playing on the theme of “time.” The pieces will be auctioned off at the May 7 opening reception, to benefit youTHINK public school art and education program, but will remain on view through June 9.

Open Tues.-Thurs., and by special arrangement by calling Carrie Jacoves, (323) 761-8992. $3 (ages 3-12), $5 (adults), Free (ages 2 and under, and grandparents accompanying a grandchild). Zimmer Museum and Jewish Federation Bell Family Gallery, 6505 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 761-8990. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>

An Ode to Parents and Other Strangers


When Paul Reiser co-created and starred in the 1990s hit sitcom, “Mad About You,” — about a secular Jew married to a Christian — he helped spur a new trend in TV comedy: the cute but neurotic Jewish leading man. Along with Jerry Seinfeld and Richard Lewis (“Anything But Love”), he elevated male Jewish characters from whiny sidekicks to leads that remained appealing, despite their anxieties and preoccupation with exasperating parents.

Reiser’s new film, “The Thing About My Folks,” also revolves around a secular Jew, Ben Kleinman (Reiser), who is preoccupied with exasperating parents. In the comedy-drama, Ben bonds with his father, Sam (Peter Falk) on an impromptu road trip after mom (Olympia Dukakis) unceremoniously leaves dad. During assorted misadventures, Ben learns more about his father — indeed his parents — than he ever knew before.

The Jewish Reiser began writing the script around the time he starred in the 1980s coming-of-age film, “Diner,” in part because he was curious about his own parents.

“[I’d] look at pictures and go, OK, you were a young, handsome, beautiful couple,” the 48-year-old said. “How do you go from 24-year-olds who kiss for the first time in a car to 70-year-olds falling asleep watching Mike Wallace?”

The film explores their journey in fictional form; it’s also an ode to Reiser’s late father, a crusty, scrappy businessman who apparently did not reveal much about himself. Then, one day in 1983, the actor heard his father laugh hard while watching Falk — who excels at playing crusty, scrappy characters — in Neil Simon’s “The Cheap Detective.” It was a rare, much treasured glimpse into the inner life of the elder Reiser, who seldom belly-laughed, the actor said recently at the Four Seasons Hotel.

“I said, ‘Huh, Peter Falk is the only guy that always makes my dad laugh,'” Reiser recalled. “The next morning, I woke up and thought, OK, I’ve got to make up a movie … with Peter Falk as my father.”

Perhaps because of his father’s affection for Falk, Reiser, too was a big fan: “I fell in love with him … from the first time I saw him in ‘Robin and the Seven Hoods.'” he said. He later noticed similarities between the two older men, who both seemed unpretentious and down to earth.

Yet over the years, Reiser did not complete his Falk project, in part because he was intimidated by the personal nature of the material, he told the Bradenton Herald. It was only after Sept. 11 reminded him that life was short that he sat down and wrote the script in just two weeks He promptly sent it to Falk, the son of Eastern European Jews, who accepted the role the next day. Apparently the fictional Sam fits into his long acting portfolio of cops, G.I.’s, husbands and other men who “don’t have a pretentious bone in their bodies,” Falk (“Columbo”) told The Journal. “This man can be wrong, but he’s never fake.”

Unlike Reiser, the older actor became a television star in an era when it was seldom acceptable for a show to revolve around a Jewish character. Hence his famed 1970s TV detective was the Italian Catholic Columbo, although he just as easily could have been named Goldberg. Conversely, the fictional Sam exhibits distinctly Jewish values.

“He works hard and he believes in this: You provide for your family. You provide for your children. You provide for your wife and you don’t cheat,” Falk said.

Reiser, for his part, is more Jewishly active than the fictional Ben, participating in Jewish charities and at his synagogue, Stephen S. Wise Temple, The Forward said in 2003. Yet he does not regard the feature as a Jewish movie. It’s a universal film about parents and children.

“We have been taking ‘Folks’ from city to city, and finding out this is so resonating with people in every market, in every demographic,” he said.

The film opens Friday in Los Angeles.

 

Read All About It


 

At this moment, I have no idea if Jennifer Garner is having Ben Affleck’s baby, who Hilary Swank is wearing to the Oscars or what brand of moisturizer Catherine Zeta Jones has shipped in from a nunnery in Peru.

I am no longer binge reading. As of now, I’m out of touch with In Touch.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with reading celebrity gossip magazines. If you can do it in moderation, I applaud you (and please let me know if Lindsay Lohan’s dad ever gets his act together). In my case, however, I was a problem reader and I had to put the magazines down. It started innocently enough. I was working on a morning news show in New York and doing occasional segments with writers from Star Magazine, In Touch, People and other weekly magazines. I’d interview gossip writers about the celebrity news of the day, how Julia Roberts was handling her pregnancy, what new freebies Star Jones was hoarding. This was all part of my job, and it never went to “a bad place.” Soon, the magazines started showing up at my office, sent to me by publicists. They’d sit on my desk, as enticing to me as a fistful of Vioxx. Inevitably, a co-worker would glance down and notice a particularly poignant headline, for example “Celebrity Flaws.”

“No way! That is not Jerry Hall’s thigh,” they would squeal, snatching the glossy from my desk. “Are you telling me those are Paris Hilton’s feet? Those are huge!”

Like children hearing the muted tones of an ice cream truck entering the cul-de-sac, other women would materialize, hungry for cellulite secrets and maybe a scoop of schadenfraude.

“Let me see that. Are those Angelina Jolie’s hands? She has man hands!” someone else would chime in, peering down at the cover. The excitement would build until I’d give the magazine away.

One moment, I was indifferent to celebrity hands, the next they had a choke hold on me. I started smuggling the magazines home in my purse.

Because I worked the early morning shift and kept odd hours, I found a stack of magazines really took the edge off trying to busy myself during the day. I’d climb in bed with dozens of stories about Tara Reid and Ashton Kutcher, a cold Fresca and the compelling desire to disappear into a world of customized crystal cell phone covers and anorexic Olsens.

This went on once a week for nearly six months, until I finally saw the correlation: pop culture binge reading sessions were always followed by fitful naps and waking up with a vague but nasty sense of emptiness. Strangers like Pamela Anderson and Britney Spears wormed themselves deeply into my subconscious and wandered lost like ghosts with excellent teeth and Uggs. No matter how much I devoured their stories, one truth remained. They were on the Red Carpet — I wasn’t even at Red Lobster.

I’d like the say it’s just that simple, that reading about the rich and famous is painful unless you’re one of them, but I doubt that’s it. I’m going to guess that even the rich and famous suffer low-grade ennui after thumbing through the pages of Star. There’s just something about immersion in a sea of other people’s lives — from their handbags to their Oscar parties to their kabbalah bracelets — that drowns out anything real. What’s so dazzlingly distracting is also what’s numbing and uncomfortable.

When you think about it, garden-variety gossiping usually gives you a temporary high but leaves you feeling out of sorts. Binge reading works on the same principle, but it’s even more distressing. It’s gossip without the human interaction, a one-way conversation about people you don’t know, a mindless activity that quietly fosters longing and loneliness, at least for me.

On the subway once, I saw a young woman flipping through an Us Weekly. I was surprised, because she didn’t look the type. She was all no-fuss hair and debutante angles and perfectly fitting khakis. I studied this woman, with her tennis-lesson body and lightly worn monogrammed bag. When the subway stopped at 59th, she was halfway through the magazine. I saw her put it on the seat next to her, and snatch it back up again, and put it down before she gathered her things and stood up. I wanted to tap her and say, “I know.”

As long as life is sometimes uncertain and boring and as long as there are airplane flights and waiting rooms and eating meals alone and afternoons gaping with open spaces, I’ll always be looking for distractions. All I can hope for now is that they involve far less of Melania Knauss.

As it turns out, people who need People are not the luckiest people in the world.

Teresa Strasser is a TV host and Emmy Award-winning writer. She’s on the Web at target=”_blank”>teresastrasser.com.

 

Israel Serves Up a Star


When the U.S. Open swings into New York Aug. 30, you’ll have to squint to find Israel’s tiniest tennis player.

It’ll be easier to catch her on the scoreboard. She’s the one with the muscular name — Anna Smashnova-Pistolesi — and the big game.

Generating power with her 5-foot-2, 117-pound frame, Smashnova-Pistolesi has smashed her way to No. 19 in the Women’s Tennis Association rankings.

You can simply count on Smashnova-Pistolesi. This is her third straight year ranked in the top 20. She’s 9-0 in WTA tournament finals. That makes her one of Israel’s most effective athletes.

Smashnova-Pistolesi has done it on the go. She was born 28 years ago in Minsk, Belarus. Her family moved to Israel when she was 14. She stays at her parents’ home in Herzelia when she’s in the country. She has her own home in Italy, where she lives with her husband, the former pro Claudio Pistolesi.

You can call Smashnova-Pistolesi a walking United Nations. But she knows her loyalty.

“I always play under the Israeli flag and represent my country at every tournament,” she said. “I am always happy by the widespread support that I receive from Israeli fans throughout the world.”

Even though Smashnova-Pistolesi stands tall in Israeli sports, her Italian shift makes it tough for her to connect with some Jews. She keeps trying to win points well after serving in the Israeli army in the mid-1990s.

“If there are people who don’t appreciate what I have done,” she said, “I can only say that I am sorry that I cannot reach out to everyone, but with so many tour events, the rigorous training necessary and the constant traveling, tennis is really a demanding sport.”

She also waves the flag for other Israeli players: “Shahar Peer has a lot of potential. She is ranked No. 17 in the juniors and has a very good attitude. She could become quite good, and there are also some good boys; Dudi Sela got to the semis of the U.S. Open junior boys event last year.”

Smashnova-Pistolesi has had an active summer. She entered all the California tournaments and the Olympics. She didn’t win a trophy or medal, but in Los Angeles she picked on someone much bigger, Daniela Hantuchova, and cut down the once-rising Slovakian.

The next day, Smashnova-Pistolesi wilted under a sizzling sun and against a hot Svetlana Kuznetsova. The fullbacklike Russian proved too strong.

“She didn’t give me many chances,” Smashnova-Pistolesi conceded after getting cooked.

Smashnova-Pistolesi hopes to bounce back at the U.S. Open. She certainly has the strokes, especially one mean backhand. It could be the third best one-hander among women pros after Belgium’s Justine Henin-Hardenne and France’s Emelie Mauresmo.

If Smashnova-Pistolesi beats top pros such as those, her name will grow. Even if her body doesn’t. — Bucky Fox, Contributing Writer

Meyers Writes Her Own Happy Ending


A decade ago, filmmaker Nancy Meyers became intrigued by a Hollywood friend who exclusively dated younger women.

"They were always between 25 and 30," said Meyers, 54, who directed the Mel Gibson hit, "What Women Want." "Over the years, he went from his 40s to his 60s, but the women never got any older."

As she advanced through her 40s, Meyers felt increasingly "invisible" around her friend; she wondered, "If I were stranded on a desert island with such a man, would I still be invisible?"

Her musing led to a movie premise about a cradle-robber who falls for his girlfriend’s mom.

Because Meyers’ screenplays always reflect her life, she wasn’t ready to tackle the topic until she divorced around 2000 and found herself 50ish and single.

"Suddenly my premise became a completely different kind of story," she said. "I wanted to write about the realities of a couple falling in love late in life."

Her new romantic comedy, "Something’s Gotta Give," tells of Harry Sanborn (Jack Nicholson), a roguishly charming record company executive whose girlfriends are under 30. When he attempts to consummate his latest relationship at her mother’s beach house, he collapses from a heart attack and is left in the care of the mom, Erica Barry (Diane Keaton), a no-nonsense Jewish playwright. As the two are forced into each other’s company, sparks unexpectedly fly.

Last week the National Board of Review named Keaton 2003’s Best Actress for her performance.

Time magazine called the comedy a "December-December romance"; it’s one of an unprecedented new crop of films, including "House of Sand and Fog," that frankly depicts older couples having sex.

Yet some viewers see "Give" as Meyers’ romantic fantasy, complete with a cute young doctor suitor for Erica played by Keanu Reeves. While the director admits the Reeves relationship is a stretch ("I’ve not dated a 36-year-old doctor, unfortunately," she said), she doesn’t think the Harry-Erica pairing is far fetched.

"People say, ‘You’re movie is so optimistic,’" said Meyers, who admits she’s had one age-appropriate relationship since her divorce. "Are these people suggesting that if single men had the option, they’d never go with anyone their own age? I don’t think that’s true. There are a lot of men married to women their age who aren’t waiting for their spouses to die or to get a divorce so they can have that trophy wife. And I think that a lot of men, when they do meet someone close to their age, feel they have found something perhaps more solid than when they’re dating a woman 25 years younger. I mean, it must be a relief not to have to act 35 in bed when you’re 60."

The down-to-earth Meyers has always had a penchant for turning fantasy into reality. The daughter of a Philadelphia voting machine manufacturer, she dreamed up her first movie — literally — while under anesthesia at the dentist at 14. "It was a Doris Day-Rock Hudson comedy," she said. "When I awakened, I told the dentist the entire plot."

Yet Meyers initially didn’t set her sights on Hollywood, due to the more conventional path outlined for women of her generation. "At my Reform temple, girls weren’t even bat mitzvahed," she said. "I was always jealous of the boys, because for girls it just wasn’t done." While attending American University, she said she "went with the program and got engaged to a Jewish boy my junior year. But instead of getting married, I canceled weeks before the wedding and moved to California in 1972."

Early on, she sold cheesecakes, based on her Aunt Estelle’s recipe, while struggling to support herself as a screenwriter. She met her future husband, TV writer Charles Shyer, while on a date with his best friend, Harvey Miller.

"Charles was this cute guy wearing a B’nai B’rith T-shirt," she said.

In 1979, Meyers, Shyer and Miller collaborated on "Private Benjamin," based on her idea about a naive Jewish woman (Goldie Hawn) who joins the Army after her husband dies on their wedding night. The story reflected Meyers’ experience of canceling her wedding and reinventing herself in Hollywood, but observers saw the character in a less flattering light.

"People like to call Judy Benjamin a Jewish princess, but I take great offense at that expression," she said. "It’s a racist, sexist caricature: the girl who gets a nose job, who shops and wants to be taken care of. But Judy is actually a woman of her time, with the problems of her time. Because of social conventions, she was following a road that wasn’t right for her, and the Army allows her to grow up and to figure out her life."

Meyers shared a 1981 Oscar nomination for "Private Benjamin"; over the years, she became known for films she co-wrote with Shyer, including 1984’s "Irreconcilable Differences" and 1991’s "Father of the Bride," which he directed.

Along the way the couple had two daughters, but didn’t marry until 1995. "I wanted us to be filmmaking partners without having that husband-and-wife-team cliché hanging over us, because in Hollywood, people always assume the wife isn’t responsible for the work," she said.

In 1998, Meyers made her directorial debut with "The Parent Trap," a remake of the Disney classic about twins who get their divorced parents back together. Behind the scenes, the opposite was happening for Meyers and Shyer, the film’s co-author.

"The relationship had changed to the point where neither one of us thought we could get it back where it was," she said.

They separated that year.

"What Women Want" (2000) her first project without Shyer, reflected those circumstances. The female lead, played by Helen Hunt, is a recently divorced advertising executive who reveals she had collaborated with her husband and is nervous about going it alone.

Despite Meyers’ trepidations, the movie became a box office smash and made her one of the most sought-after female directors in Hollywood; it’s perhaps one reason Nicholson, who had never worked with a woman director, agreed to read "Something’s Gotta Give" around 2001.

"I hadn’t worked for two years, I didn’t want to work, but this was the kind of script I had never seen," said Nicholson, who is himself perceived as an aging playboy. "One of the biggest misperceptions about me is that I am not a romantic, but I’ve always been deeply sentimental. And one of the most refreshing things about this picture was getting to do the kinds of things on film that I do in real life."

Meyers, for her part, shares attributes with the fictional Erica: The character is also a successful writer who calls her daughter "Bubbie" and peppers her speech with Yiddishisms.

While it’s surprising to hear Keaton, the WASP from "Annie Hall," refer to Diane Sawyer "going into caves in Afghanistan with a shmatte on her head," the actress was comfortable with the role.

"This film is Nancy’s celebration of older women, and I’m thrilled she picked me as her representative," Keaton said.

So will viewers enjoy seeing such a celebration on screen? Meyers thinks so.

"Baby Boomers want characters who reflect their lives," she said. "We’re not dead yet. Just a bit over 50."

"Something’s Gotta Give" opens today in Los Angeles.

Dr. Laura Loses Her Religion


Controversial syndicated radio-show host and public advocate of Orthodox Judaism Laura Schlessinger — "Dr. Laura," as she is known to her 12 million daily listeners — confessed on air this month that she will no longer practice Judaism.

Although Schlessinger — who very publicly converted to Judaism five years ago — said she still "considers" herself Jewish, "My identifying with this entity and my fulfilling the rituals, etc., of the entity — that has ended," she said on "The Dr. Laura Schlessinger Program" on Aug. 5.

Syndicated nationally since 1994, Schlessinger has won over listeners with her hard-edged advice and razor-sharp tongue. Yet her brash style, not to mention her espousal of a strict "moral health" code — including controversial condemnations of homosexuality as "a biological error" — put her at odds with wide swaths of the Jewish community. Many found her moralist, black-and-white, you’re-with-me-or-against-me stance to be more representative of evangelical Christians than of Jews, who were often among her most outspoken critics.

Schlessinger’s office said she was unavailable for comment.

In her 25 years on radio, Schlessinger said she was moved "time and time again" by listeners who wrote and described that they had "’joined a church, felt loved by God’ and that was my anchor."

Schlessinger even hinted at a possible turn to Christianity — a move that, radio insiders say, would elevate her career far beyond the 300 stations that currently syndicate her show.

"I have envied all my Christian friends who really, universally, deeply feel loved by God," she said. "They use the name Jesus when they refer to God … that was a mystery, being connected to God."

Of her conversion to Judaism, Schlessinger said, "I felt that I was putting out a tremendous amount toward that mission, that end, and not feeling return, not feeling connected, not feeling that inspired. Trust me, I’ve talked to rabbis, I’ve read, I’ve prayed, I’ve agonized and I came to this place anyway — which is not exactly back to the beginning, but more in that direction than not."

Born to a Jewish father and an Italian Catholic mother, Schlessinger was raised in Brooklyn in a home that was without religion. Approximately 10 years ago, prompted by a question from her son during a viewing of a Holocaust documentary, Schlessinger, 56, began exploring her Jewish roots.

She underwent a Conservative conversion in 1997, and later decided to undergo an Orthodox conversion instead.

"I still see myself as a Jew," Schlessinger said on the air. "But the spiritual journey and that direction, as hard core as I was at it, just didn’t fulfill something in me that I needed."

Even Schlessinger’s detractors were shocked by the news. "I can’t tell you how significant this is," said fellow Jewish media star and "Kosher Sex" author Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who has sparred with Schlessinger over her comments on homosexuality.

"Dr. Laura always equated her morals and ethics with Jewish morals and ethics," he said. "That placed the American Jewish community in a real fix; on the one hand, she made Judaism very popular, on the other, she made it vilified and hated by many people."

"It seems incredible that an ethicist and moralist of her standing would invoke such shallow arguments," added Boteach, who was en route to an appearance on the syndicated television show "Blind Date." "I never got great applause for my work from the Jewish community — but my people are my people, whether they love or hate me."

Star of the Canyon


The Canyon Country Store — the star-studded grocery featured in the older woman/younger man film "Laurel Canyon," starring Frances McDormand — is actually run by two Persian Jews.

Owner David Shamsa and manager Tommy Bina have tried to maintain the store’s authenticity.

Shamsa, who was an influential Persian Jew in Iran during the shah’s regime, was the head of National Iranian Steel Mill Corporation and director of Iran Hotel Corporation, hosting many American officials such as Henry Kissinger, and Sens. Barry Goldwater and Ted Kennedy.

Just a few months before the Islamic revolution, Shamsa fled to the United States and, in 1982, bought the building in Laurel Canyon.

The only store nestled in the verdant Laurel Canyon, Canyon Country Store, built in 1919, has served as a location for several films and is also a hangout for many artists, musician and actors. The cozy, friendly place is reminiscent of a small-town store — whose patrons have included celebrities like Liam Neeson, Sophia Loren and Mick Jagger. Downstairs is a restaurant, Pace ("peace" in Italian), and adjacent is a wood house where Jim Morrison used to live.

Bina told The Journal he feels a responsibility for the entire neighborhood. Together with other locals, he has formed a voluntary group to clean up Laurel Canyon’s surrounding area, for which he has received an award.

"The city doesn’t take care of this area very well," he said. "We do this to protect the environment."

Meyer: Hero or Anti-Hero?


“A Jewish friend of mine loves ‘The Sopranos,'” Italian American actor Joe Bologna said with a groan. “I told him, ‘How’d you like to see a show called “The Goldsteins” about white-collar criminals and the biggest shyster is Izzy Goldstein?”

Bologna isn’t about to play Izzy, but he is the co-author and star of a monologue he said breaks ethnic and gangster stereotypes. In “Meyer,” he portrays Jewish mobster Meyer Lansky — previously depicted in films such as “Bugsy” (1991) — as both a ruthless thug and a pathetic alter-kacker. At the beginning of the play, the character sips Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray Soda and kvetches about Israel denying him citizenship under the Law of Return.

While Bologna usually eschews mobster roles, he was receptive when Richard Krevolin asked him to co-author “Meyer” in the 1990s. The 38-year-old Jewish author (“King Levine”) told Bologna he’d interviewed Las Vegas hoteliers who’d described Lansky as “ice-cold” and others who remember him passing out candy while walking his Shih Tzu. He said his fascination with the gangster began when a con-man bilked his Connecticut neighbors by posing as Lansky’s nephew around 1980. “This guy played into the Jewish reverence for the tough Jew,” Krevolin said. “So I began wondering, was Lansky an American Jewish hero or was he an anti-hero?”

Audience members were so divided on the issue that they screamed at each other after “Meyer’s” debut in San Diego several years ago. But Bologna — best known for writing and performing comic plays with his wife, actress Renee Taylor — sees the mobster as poignant. Lansky’s persona reminds the actor of his gruff father, who also grew up in a cold-water tenement but chose the family shoeshine business over the mob. “Lansky decided not to ‘carry a lunch pail’ and ultimately paid the price,” said Bologna, 67. “And that’s tragic. It’s Shakespearean.”

Sephardic Survival


“Survivor” as inspiration for Jewish programming?

It seems strange that the divisive show where deceit, backstabbing and empty promises are de rigueur would serve as the inspiration for a Shabbaton that stresses the importance of religious and cultural continuity. Yet Sephardic Tradition and Recreation (STAR) has seized on this pop culture phenomenon and infused it with a positive spin.

STARvivor 2, STAR’s follow-up to its popular STARvivor Shabbaton, is set for Dec. 7-9 at Gindling Hilltop Camp in Malibu. The first STARvivor, held last April in Malibu, separated 20 teens into three tribes — Issachar, Levi and Judah — complete with their own tribal banners. After Shabbat, the tribes squared off in timed, Jewish-themed competitions: in one, the tribes squeezed juice from grapes into a cup and then recited the “Kiddush,” while another had them build a makeshift home in order to affix a mezuzah.

“You’re basically competing with MTV,” said STAR Media Director Abraham Raphael, 29, who developed the Shabbaton idea. “You want to make sure that whatever you do is going to be sophisticated and exciting.”

Locally, there have been few, if any, events geared toward Sephardic youth outside of synagogues. As a result, many Sephardic teens end up choosing between assimilation or participation in an established system of programs steeped in Ashkenazic traditions.

While there has never been a formal Sephardic population study in Los Angeles, rough estimates by Sephardic organizations place the number somewhere between 75,000 and 150,000, and most agree that the population is dwindling.

“You see a desperation among parents who want to get their kids involved,” Raphael said.

It’s this growing assimilation and loss of Sephardic culture that prompted philanthropist Hyman Jebb Levy to found STAR in 1998. The organization reaches out to students, from elementary to senior high school, with year-round social and recreational programming that emphasizes Sephardic community involvement, the preservation of traditions, and a pride and love for Israel.

“We try to incorporate something in the ritualistic aspect of Judaism, always in the Sephardic minhag [custom],” said Rabbi Brad Schachter, 31, STAR’s executive director. “Whatever it may be, this is how the Sephardim do it.”

Taking another cue from “Survivor,” campers were also videotaped during competitions and at tribal council, where each tribe selected one person to give an impromptu speech about Jewish survival. The resulting footage fueled parents’ demand for a second STARvivor.

“When people saw what we did, they said ‘I want my kids on that. I didn’t realize it was going to be that good.’ Now it’s on to round two,” Raphael said.

During next week’s STARvivor 2, the campers will be separated into four tribes — Simon, Levi, Judah and Issachar — and face all new competitions.

Thankfully, the similarities between the Shabbaton and the television series end when it comes to food. STARvivor 2 will serve authentic kosher Sephardic cuisine, whereas “Survivor” contestants have had to consume such Third World delicacies as grubs, rats and cow’s blood.

STARvivor also differs from other Shabbatons in that it has set a cap at 40 students.

“If you have too many kids it becomes impersonal,” Schachter said.

Danit Namvar, 14, said STAR won over both her and her friends during the Shabbaton by giving the campers a voice.

“At other camps they lecture you, but with STARvivor we get to do fun activities and talk about issues. The people who didn’t go heard how much fun it was, and now they want to go,” Namvar said.

Schachter, who is Ashkenazi, said he welcomes the opportunity to reach out to kids and is more than comfortable working with Sephardim. During a seven-year stint in Israel, Schachter spent four years living in the Old City, where he often sought out Sephardic minyanim.

“Even though I’m not a Sephardi, I feel very connected to their heritage, their history and their passion for Judaism,” said Schachter.

“As far as the customs, I’m learning more and more every day,” he said. “That’s what we’re trying to get across, teaching [Sephardi] their own customs that unfortunately have been lost over the generations.”

Despite STAR’s plethora of entertaining activities, it isn’t always fun and games. In March 2000, Levy’s daughter passed away following a battle with cancer. STAR took 30 Talmud Torah students from Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel in Westwood to visit with Levy as he sat shiva. The sight of the students brought tears to Levy’s eyes.

“We brought them in, and they saw the Sephardic traditions of mourning,” Schachter said. “This was an opportunity to teach them.”

For more information about STARvivor 2, call (818)
782-7359, or visit www.lastar.org .

Out of “Focus”


"David Mamet calls me Hebraically challenged," confides actor William H. Macy, a longtime collaborator of the esteemed playwright. "I’m the ultimate [gentile]. Part of me is the imploding WASP, a role I’ve certainly played to death."

With his weak smile and wounded-looking blue eyes, Macy was riveting in his Oscar-nominated turn as a car dealer struggling to cover up his wife’s kidnapping in the Coen brothers’ 1996 film "Fargo." He was the humiliated husband of an oversexed porn star in "Boogie Nights," and a beleaguered 1950s sitcom dad in "Pleasantville."

Which is why he was cautious when director Neal Slavin asked him to star in his noirish feature-film debut, "Focus" — based on Arthur Miller’s 1945 novel about a milquetoast mistakenly identified as Jewish by his anti-Semitic neighbors.

"I told Neal I was all wrong for the role," says the earnest, 51-year-old actor. "I said, ‘Anti-Semitism is a vicious thing, and I don’t want to offend anyone by presuming to know what it feels like. Plus, I don’t even look Jewish.’ And Neal very gently said, ‘That’s why you’re perfect. Intolerance has nothing to do with reality.’"

Just to make sure, Macy described the problem to Mamet. "What’s the matter with you?" the Jewish writer retorted. "When Arthur Miller writes a novel, you jump to bring it to the screen."

Mamet reminded Macy of how he’d silenced a journalist who’d asked why there were no Jewish actors in his 1991 Jewish-themed film, "Homicide." "David said, ‘Huh, interesting concept, casting by religion,’" the actor recalls. "That shut her up in a hurry."

Miller wrote "Focus" to expose the seldom-discussed anti-Semitism prevalent in New York in the early 1940s.

Macy says he didn’t witness anti-Semitism while growing up outside Atlanta in the 1950s, but another kind of prejudice profoundly affected his life. When he was 10, his father — a medal-winning World War II pilot — was so shocked by the seething racism he saw at a PTA meeting that he moved the family up North.

At his new school in Cumberland, Md., Macy experienced bias when his classmates jeered at his thick Southern drawl. He was ostracized for years until he sang a sexually explicit song at a high school talent show — and was elected class president. "I was thrust into the limelight, but I still carried this secret that I felt like the outsider," he says. "I think that’s why I’m so good at playing ordinary guys who get in over their heads."

Around 1970, Macy was studying acting with Mamet at Goddard College in Vermont, where Mamet presided over class wearing severely tailored military fatigues. "At our hippied-out school, David was the only teacher talking structure," says Macy, who ultimately mastered the playwright’s difficult, staccato dialogue. "He said, ‘Be prepared, or don’t come to class. If you ask stupid questions, I’ll throw you out."’ In 1972, Macy followed Mamet to Chicago, where he helped him co-found the St. Nicholas Theater and originated roles in Mamet’s plays "American Buffalo" and "Oleanna." He went on to star in other Mamet films such as "State and Main," in which he played a non-Jewish film director fond of matzah and Yiddishisms.

"David just loves to hear me struggling with Hebrew and Yiddish," says Macy, whose first line in "State and Main" is a bungled "Vus machs tu?" (How are you?) "I kept asking him to repeat the words, and finally Dave said, ‘As well as you can say them will be just bad enough.’"

A more difficult task was landing the role of Jerry Lundegaard in "Fargo," which Macy secured after a lengthy period of abjectly begging the Coens. "I was desperate because I’d understood in a nanosecond how to do the character," says the actor, who knew he had to make viewers feel sorry for the despicable Lundegaard. "I fantasized that Jerry’s objectives were pure, and that he felt he was trying to save his family."

Macy says he was drawn to "Focus," in part, "for the chance to play ‘The Guy’ — the leading man — which doesn’t happen that often." The film presented "an interesting acting problem, because my character, Lawrence Newman, is so passive."

He feels the film has an eerie resonance after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when innocent people began to be targets for hate crimes because they looked Middle Eastern. "Osama bin Laden teaches hatred, and so does Jerry Falwell, for blaming the attacks on homosexuals," Macy adds. "It’s our collective responsibility to stand up and tell those people they’re wrong. Just as Lawrence Newman learns in ‘Focus,’ it is our fight. We are all responsible."

"Focus" opens today in Los Angeles.

Every Inch a Star


In a gated community high above Los Angeles, Tony Curtis is holding court in the foyer of his two-story house in the shady corner of a cul-de-sac. Wearing white shorts and Birkenstocks, he is reclining on the staircase like a prince from one of his early movies. His famous blue eyes peer over spectacles as he simultaneously signs bills, rejects scripts, answers the telephone, and coordinates two assistants, a housekeeper, and sundry deliverymen.

He ignores the five cats and six dogs that pass to-and-fro in the foyer, where piles of Curtis’ still-life paintings are stacked here and there. He is more attentive to the stunning, six-foot platinum blond who inches down the stairs in four-inch heels: his thirtyish fifth wife, Jill. She gets an approving look over the half-specs. “You’re a very handsome woman,” he says.

Bulgarian Rhapsody


The exterior of the 1909 Central Synagogue inSofia. Below, Robert Djerassi, a Bulgarian official of the “JewishJoint” agency on a stairway of the Jewish Community Center with astar of David as part of the rail design

Photos by Larry Gordon

When I was asked to teach at a Bulgarianuniversity, my only clear images of the Balkan nation included itsinfamous Communist-era spy system, its great Olympic weight lifters,and its national women’s choir, whose haunting harmonies were popularin the West.

Quickly, however, I learned something else as Iresearched whether to accept the Fulbright grant to lecture injournalism at the American University in Bulgaria. “You know,” therefrain came to me suddenly from various sources, “that Bulgariasaved its Jews.”

No, I didn’t know. And, of course, as with allthings in history, the reality of Bulgarian Jewry turned out to muchmore complicated than that simple declaration. But this wasindisputable: The number of Bulgarian Jews actually increased duringthe Holocaust, even though the country was an ally of Hitler. Andafter the war, the new socialist government allowed 45,000 — thevast majority of Bulgarian Jews — to emigrate en masse toIsrael.

I was intrigued by the idea of an Eastern Europeancountry even marginally friendly to Jews during and just after WorldWar II. Partly as a result of that (and, I admit, a midlife desirefor an adventure), I moved with my wife and our then-5-year-olddaughter from our Los Angeles home to spend six interesting andchallenging months in a mountainside city close to the Greek border.When I wasn’t teaching, we often traveled two hours north to Sofia,Bulgaria’s capital, cultural center and focus of Jewish life. Thatwas two years ago. I recently returned by myself to Bulgaria for afew weeks to do more research about, among other topics, its Jewishcommunity and the entire country’s troubled efforts to create amarket economy from its post-communist shambles. Clearly, my initialinterest has turned into a deep emotional attachment to thisadmittedly obscure and small country (population 8.5 million) on theBlack Sea, just south of Romania. I like the yogurt and red winethere too.

During our first visit to Sofia, we attended RoshHashanah services at the Central Synagogue, an imposing Moorish-stylebuilding located a few blocks from the Sheraton Hotel and Sofia’smain department store. At the time, the crumbling main sanctuary wasin early stages of a restoration that continues today, its archwaysand domes being replastered and painted in vibrant colors, and itslovely chandeliers being repaired.

Services were held in a small side chapel, withTurkish-style rugs lining the walls and two rows of wooden seatssurrounding the bimah on three sides. I had never attended aSephardic service before and was fascinated at the differentmelodies. My daughter, accustomed to American Reform style, had neversat separate from me in a synagogue and was not happy aboutit.

At the synagogue, we were able to communicate withsome Bulgarians through a mixture of my Russian, which is closeenough to Bulgarian, and my wife’s Spanish, which is close enough tothe traditional Ladino that Bulgarian Jewish senior citizens stillspeak. The Ladino is a reminder of how far Jews settled after their15th-century expulsion from Iberia. In fact, Sofia’s rabbi, anIsraeli who arrived in 1994 and the first rabbi in Bulgaria in 30years, also can converse in Spanish. And young Bulgariansincreasingly study English. We also met young American social workersfrom the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, who laterinvited us to holiday meals and helped us a lot.

After services, a lively crowd gathered in thecobblestoned courtyard for the kiddush. That open-air plaza behind ahigh metal gate was most evocative to me. It was here that many ofSofia’s Jews had gathered in May 1943 to plan protests against whatalmost became their deportation to German death camps. And it washere that many learned the deportations were canceled. If stonescould speak.

Unlike most of its neighbors, Bulgaria had littletradition of anti-Semitism. That remained so during centuries ofOttoman rule and after Bulgaria won its independence in 1878. Forexample, Bulgaria’s King Ferdinand even attended the dedication ofthe Central Synagogue in 1909, something unthinkable for the rulersof nearby nations at the time. Ferdinand’s son and successor, Boris,had Jewish friends but became an ally of Hitler in hopes of regainingterritory lost in previous Balkan wars. That bargain with the devilhad its price, to be paid in part with a policy against the Jews.Starting in late 1940, Bulgarian Jews were expelled from majorcities, put on work crews, and stripped of professional status andproperty as an appeasement to Hitler. Bulgarian occupying troopshanded over 11,000 Greek and Macedonian Jews to the Germans. TheNazis kept pressing for the deportation of Bulgaria’s own Jews.However, many aristocrats, intellectuals and, perhaps most important,leaders of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church publicly protested. The Jewsthemselves lobbied like mad. King Boris’ role in all this remains amatter of historians’ debate. Some think that he was crucial incanceling the deportations and should be considered among theRighteous Gentiles. Others maintain that the king decided to stallHitler only because the war had turned against the Germans and Borisdidn’t want Bulgaria to face even greater censure from the Allies.(The most complete source for this is Frederick B. Chary’s “TheBulgarian Jews and the Final Solution” [University of PittsburghPress].) Whatever the motives, the outcome was Jewishsurvival.

For the Bulgarian Jews who did not emigrate toIsrael by 1951, the next 40 years of Marxism brought religioussuppression and a high rate of intermarriage.

Between 5,000 and 8,000 remain, and they now arebenefiting from the new freedoms brought by the fall of communism.The old synagogue and the 1930s-era Jewish community center abouthalf a mile away are coming back to life. In fact, an entire newfloor is being added to the center for youth classrooms. Youngpeople, who come from highly assimilated families, gather to studyHebrew and Jewish customs that many of their parents never learned.The “Siddur” has been transliterated for the first time intoBulgarian. Pesach seders are big public affairs. And a new public dayschool, with government support, teaches Hebrew as part of itsrecognized curriculum, attracting many Jewish children.

Robert Djerassi, a 49-year-old Bulgarian who has beenworking for the Joint for several years, took me on a tour of thecommunity center. He showed me the new construction, the library, thewrought-iron Stars of David and the menorahs that have remained fornearly 70 years on stairway banisters.

Djerassi recalled the thrill of Jewish revivalstarting in 1989. Some of that emotion cooled as everyday life undercapitalism took hold, said the former engineer. “Still, Jewish lifeis very active, sometimes hyperactive,” he said. “Sometimes I jokethat we have almost too much in activities for the number of peoplehere. Sometimes I joke that we have to import Jews.”

All that is encouraging to an outsider from LosAngeles. But one can also see a very different side of BulgarianJewry in the community center. In the office of the Jewish Agency, anincreasing number of people have been applying for aliyah to Israel,often to escape the brutal economic troubles that have roiledBulgaria in the past few years. A corrupt government ruinedBulgaria’s banking system last year and caused hyper-inflation.Without outside Jewish aid for heating bills and food, some Bu
lgarianJewish elderly might not have made it through the winter. Finally,last spring, a reformist pro-Western government was elected, and theeconomic situation is improving.

Beyond economics, many of the young people whoseJewish consciousness is newly raised are torn between moving toIsrael and trying to keep things going in Sofia. With assimilationand emigration, some people wonder if there will be any Jewish lifeleft in Bulgaria in a generation.

“There is a tension. We develop young leaders,help make them become more and more interested, and they often makealiyah,” said Simone Shaltiel of Chicago, a 24-year-old Joint workerin Sofia. She spoke as she was getting ready to take a group ofJewish teens on a weekend retreat.

Joseph Levi, the 71-year-old president of theJewish community, has a philosophical view. I interviewed him in thedusty office of the synagogue, often interrupted as senior citizenspeppered him with all kinds of requests for help. I asked him: “Willthere be a Bulgarian Jewish community in 20 years?”

Levi chuckled a bit. “Look, 50 years ago, we werethinking this community would disappear in five or 10 years. And weare still here,” he said. “We hope in 50 years to still be here.”

Larry Gordon also writes for the Los AngelesTimes.

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