Childhood Dreams


Have you ever loved something you have never seen in real life, only photographs? Convinced that if you were to ever see it, you would plunge into depths of joy that engulf your entire being? Scared that if you did see it, you would somehow be disappointed and your dreams crushed? Over the weekend a dream of mine came true and I was profoundly moved by it. I spent the weekend in the English countryside and was transported to my childhood dreams.

I have always wanted to live in the England countryside. I would have a grand, old home with lots of land, magnificent gardens, and tons of animals. I’d spend my days walking through fields and forests, cooking glorious food, with a door always open to family, friends, and strangers. Anyone who had a story to share. I’d have a massive dog and an English husband. As I’ve grown old the dream remains the same, only now there is a pub in town that makes a great Cosmo.

Adam Ant was the first man I ever fell in love with and he was the husband of my childhood dreams. I thought he was the most handsome man in the world and I’d listen to his records endlessly. I thought we’d get married and live happily ever after. I was certain if given the opportunity to meet me, he’d fall instantly and desperately in love. Every minute I spend in England is with the hope I’ll see him, our eyes lock, and our lives entwine as they were always destined to.

I stayed in a magnificent home and as I wondered into each room it took my breath away and required all my strength not to cry. I stood in my sprawling bedroom as the sun was setting, looking out onto the Isle of Wight in the distance, and I was mesmerized. It is not often someone’s dreams come true and I was emotional. I felt as if my beloved English father was looking down on me, thrilled the dream we had spoken of so often had come true. It was magical.

The rooms were romantic and historical. The fireplaces held stories of so many who sat in front of them. There was so much to see one could spend days in each room and constantly discover new treasures. The home was grand and important, yet warm and welcoming. You could feel happiness contained in the walls and while I’m certain a home so old must be haunted, the ghosts were simply happy to have company and enjoyed the merriment. I loved every moment.

On Sunday, pretending that I actually lived there and Adam was on his way home, I went to the pub and raised a glass to my dad, who’s stories of his childhood in England became my dreams. I took lots of pictures with both my camera and my mind’s eye, so I could come back to the exact moment we walked through an enchanted forest with deer running between 2000-year-old trees. It was a spectacular weekend and I am once again dreaming of a life here.

Sidebar: The pub didn’t make a Cosmo, so I requested the drink I invented in my country home. The “Fallen Angel” is now a favorite and I’ve had a couple since the weekend. The drink is fizzy elderflower, a shot of vodka, and a splash of grenadine, over ice. It is sweet and light and the perfect substitution to my believed Cosmo. I’m not sure how easy it will be to find sparkling elderflower in LA, but I will, and Fallen Angels will be a go to beverage for the summer. Try it!

It is quite spectacular to be transported to your childhood at the exact moment you see a vision of your future. This piece of heaven made this angel very happy. Thank you to my lovely hosts for a wonderful time. From the walks, to meeting the animals, to the Yorkshire pudding and blackberry crumble, it was all perfect. I felt lucky to be included in the weekend and look forward to one day being your neighbor. I am looking out for Adam, and keeping the faith.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Adopting a new view of faith and family


Let’s get one thing out of the way — yes, Susan Silverman is the sister of actors and comedians Sarah Silverman and Laura Silverman. Perhaps more significant, however, are Silverman’s other achievements and credentials. She is a Reform rabbi who lives in Jerusalem, where she is a highly visible leader of the egalitarian Judaism in Israel. She is the author (along with her husband, Yosef) of “Jewish Family & Life.” And she is the founder of JustAdopt, a nonprofit that is dedicated to finding homes for “unparented” children from around the world.

That’s the theme of her latest book, “Casting Lots: Creating a Family in a Beautiful, Broken World” (Da Capo), an endearing and inspiring account of her own efforts to adopt a child from Ethiopia and raise him as a Jew in Israel. As we quickly learn, the first task turned out to be rather more daunting than the second. Indeed, Silverman’s book reveals some important truths about the choices one is compelled to make to be a parent, a Jew and a resident of Israel.

Silverman, as it happens, is a natural storyteller, and “Casting Lots” is a memoir rather than a manifesto. She harks back to the formative years of her childhood and allows us to witness a childhood tragedy that cast an ineradicable shadow over the generations. She introduces us to her sisters in intimate and surprising ways: Susan and Laura bestowed the nickname “Skunky” on younger sister Sarah because they regarded her as “poopy” and made fun of Sarah’s abundant body hair. “We took to petting Sarah’s legs, repeating, affirming, ‘Your fur is so beautiful.’ ”

And so we begin to understand the toughness and resilience that can be found in Silverman’s big, noisy, sometimes contentious but ultimately loving family. She explains, for example, that the divorce and remarriages of her parents opened the door for other kinds of blended families. “My family doesn’t make distinctions among ‘step,’ ‘half,’ or, to some extent, ‘ex,’ ” she writes. “ ‘Adopted’ was certainly not going to be a defining category.”

When Susan flew to Addis Ababa in 1999 to bring home her adopted son, Adar, it was yet another sister, Jody, who accompanied her. “My whole life had led to this place,” Silverman writes of their arrival at the African Cradle Children’s Center. Yet the baby who was handed to her was dressed in pink. “I looked at him face-to-face and said, baby-voiced, ‘We’re gonna make sure YOU have a penis.’ ” And Jody cracked: “Your first words to your son. Should I write them in his baby book?” Susan said: “This is the first uncircumcised penis I’ve ever seen. Well, sober.”

Susan Silverman, like her sister Sarah, may be blessed with an ironic and ribald sense of humor, but she is also given to theological musings that are no less edgy. “[F]or the first time in my whole life, no voice in my head negotiated with God,” she recalls. “[N]ow, my sister, my new son, the caregivers, and the children in this orphanage with me comprised a microcosm of love, tragedy, hope, apathy, brokenness, and healing — the shattered and the whole — the promise of Sinai. And in it I wasn’t God’s judge or God’s bitch. I was God’s partner.”

The adoption was only the first obstacle. Silverman, a Reform rabbi, sought an Orthodox conversion for her Ethiopian-born son, a culture clash of epic proportions. “I thought about calling the Unitarians,” she cracks. But she was willing to cope with rabbis who refused to recognize her own ordination “as an insurance policy against the schmucks who would question Adar’s Jewish identity.” Even so, it took six years to complete the conversion. But the long ordeal only deepened Silverman’s understanding of Jewish identity.

“Adar held within him a world of disparity and contradiction — gratitude and blame and hope and fear — that could be cracked open like an egg, exposing its spiritual and physical contours,” she muses. “Appreciating mystery is the only way I could honestly approach Adar’s origins. It was the only way I could fathom God. In this way, Adar was a portal to kedusha – holiness.”

“Casting Lots” is, among other things, an act of courage. Silverman is brutally honest about herself, her family and her faith. She wants to inspire her readers, but she never fails to remind them that parenting requires not only love but, perhaps even more importantly, patience, strength, compassion and determination, all qualities that’s she possesses and seeks to share. 

JONATHAN KIRSCH, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.

Jack Bender on flying among the stars


Jack Bender has recurring dreams of flying. 

His work life is deeply embedded in the fantasy world — he was an executive producer on “Lost” and he’s directed episodes of “Game of Thrones” — but his dreams are what great TV is made of. 

“I had some dreams where I would go so high, I would go into astro propulsion like a Marvel movie, above the Earth, and see dark space and then start to fall,” he said about his nocturnal flying episodes.

He’s even hit the ground once, even though, he said, “They say you can’t.”

“I remember one time really falling and not jerking out of the dream like I usually do, and I remember thinking, ‘Just hang in there, it’s going to be OK.’ So I willed myself to keep the movie going.”

With lucid determination, Bender stayed in the dream. He kept dropping until he hit the ocean. “At least I think it was the ocean. I can’t remember,” he said.

Bender’s dreams have inspired “The Urban Acrobats,” a short story featured in his new book, “The Elephant in the Room.” “The Urban Acrobats” tells the story of two high-flying individuals who fall in love, have a falling out, and get back together. 

Writer, director and producer Jim Abrahams has always liked pickle relish


This interview originally appeared on Zócalo Public Square.

Jim Abrahams is one-third—along with David Zucker and Jerry Zucker—of the legendary writing-directing-producing trio that gave us some of our most beloved and goofy movies. Before a screening at the Million Dollar Theatre of their 1980 comedy Airplane!—Mayor Eric Garcetti’s pick for Zócalo and KCRW’s “My Favorite Movie” series—he talked in the Zócalo green room about coveting a cameo by Ben-Hur, the sweetness of Charlie Sheen, and his weakness for Love Actually.

Q: What’s your favorite condiment?

A: Well, that’s a no-brainer. Pickle relish. It’s always been a favorite. I’m sort of a connoisseur.

Q: What was the celebrity cameo that got away?

A: Charlton Heston. Actually, we’d always go to him. He was very nice and polite, but never interested.

Q: What salad dressing best describes you?

A: Blue cheese…it’s lumpy.

Q: What’s your favorite thing about the exclamation point?

A: In regards to Airplane!—because there’s an exclamation point in the title? It made us chuckle to put it next to a bland word.

Q: What was the first album you bought?

A: West Side Story—no, it was The King and I.

Q: What was the last movie you saw that totally cracked you up?

A: I enjoyed Bridesmaids a lot.

Q: What word or phrase do you use most often?

A: Bullshit.

Q: What was the best part about working with Charlie Sheen?

A: The truth is he’s really a sweet guy and a tremendous professional. He’s one of these guys who walks onto a set and always goes up to the grips and the sound guy to say hi. He behaved like a regular person—there’s no star stuff to him.

Q: How did you get into trouble as a kid?

A: I’d wake up in the morning! When we started our careers, we were going to incorporate—form a corporation—and we didn’t know what to call it. The Zuckers said we should call it “Abrahams boy.” Because when we were kids, their parents would say to them, “Watch out for the Abrahams boy!”

Q: What movie (other than any of your own) have you seen the most?

A: I can’t pass by The Godfather if it’s on TV. I have to watch. And I have to watch Love Actually if I come across it.

Author, psychologist delves inside ‘The Israeli Mind’


Alon Gratch practices psychology in New York but was born and raised in Jerusalem, which puts him in a unique position to tell us how Israelis see the world. Indeed, as he writes in “The Israeli Mind: How the Israeli National Character Shapes Our World” (St. Martin’s Press), “I came to see that since I’d left Israel, scarcely a day had gone by that I was not somehow, however vaguely, aware of my Israeli DNA.”

Gratch’s book comes at an opportune moment. Never before have the distinctions between the world views of American Jews and Israelis been more fraught with conflict and misunderstanding. The debate over the nuclear deal with Iran is the flashpoint: “At the time of my writing, no one knows if the West’s negotiations with Iran will slow down or stop its apparent race to develop nuclear weapons,” he observes. “Thus, in the next year or two, whether or not a deal is reached, the whole world will be watching Israeli behavior.”  

So Gratch assumes that the whole world has a stake in understanding what he calls the Israeli national character. Thus, for example, he seeks to explain why former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, among other American politicians and diplomats, have characterized more than one Israeli prime minister as “aggressive, arrogant, defensive, unyielding, intransigent, obstinate, argumentative, rigid, brusque, bullheaded, unreasonable, negative, mistrustful, obstructive, disruptive, and provocative.” Gratch sums it up as a manifestation of “the unique Hebrew word davka,” which he defines as a “naysaying tendency to disagree for the sake of disagreeing.”  

Gratch may be a psychologist, but history, diplomacy and politics provide him with the key to the davka phenomenon and how it reflects the Israeli national character. “A quick excursion into Zionist history would readily explain why the Israelis needed to develop this type of naysaying defense mechanism,” he explains. The pioneers of the Jewish state said “no” to all of the failed coping strategies of the Diaspora and “no to the local Palestinians who didn’t want them there; no to the Arab countries who vowed to drive them out of Palestine; no to depending on foreign governments and their police forces for protection.”

In his search for the commonalities of Israeli character, Gratch is compelled to point out the long and sometimes bloody history of conflict within Zionism and the Jewish state. Even so, he insists that the naysaying of one Jew to another Jew is consistent with his findings. “In light of this history, it is hardly surprising that many Israelis on both sides of the political map agree on only one thing, which is that they have nothing in common with each other,” he writes. “But paradoxically, because both groups have emerged from the same polarized environment, they do, in fact, have a great deal in common in their psychological make-up.”

Using the tools (and sometimes the jargon) of a psychologist, he looks at two versions of the mythic Israeli narrative — “the old, religious chosen-people variant” and “the new, miracle-in-the-desert Zionist variant” — and declares them both to be a kind of narcissism. Yet he does not see the duality as wholly dysfunctional. “Both play a role in how Israelis interpret the world,” he writes. “To a large extent, they are also responsible for the Israelis’ extraordinary record of achievements, as well as their failures and their persistent, potentially tragic denial of certain Middle Eastern realities.”

Not every example in “The Israeli Mind” is drawn from geopolitics. He describes how he witnessed a lighthearted conversation in a Jerusalem coffee shop between a graduate student and a young teacher about classroom cheating. “Well, if I caught a student cheating, I wouldn’t view it as a negative,” the teacher said. “I would see it as an indication that he wants to succeed.” Gratch concludes: “The Israeli mind’s failures at empathy, its lack of regard for reality, and its relentless drive for success, all produce a predilection for cutting corners, bluffing, and lying.”

The values and behaviors that make up what Gratch calls the Israeli national character can be seen as a form of psychological self-defense. “Israeli psychologists … have noted that everyday belligerence in Israeli society is rooted in unconscious anxiety,” he writes.

“Ever fearful of suicide bombings, rockets, bad news from the front lines, and even car accidents — driving on Israeli highways can be unsettling — Israelis live in a hyper-vigilant state of mind, often exercising a first-strike option in anticipation of an attack. Collectively, they can’t quite believe that the miracle of the Jewish state will endure.”

Throughout “The Israeli Mind,” Gratch demonstrates a mastery of the delicate inner workings of the human mind and, at the same time, a profound insight into the epochal movements of history — a rare but essential balancing act. He is a compassionate but exacting observer of the Israel character at a moment of great peril and consequence. That’s why his book is not only a work of genius but also, and more important, a beacon of light and hope. 

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.

L.A.’s newest rookie transplant: Elaine Soloway


Next time you move cross-country to Los Angeles, do it the Elaine Soloway way. (The SoloWay?) Pack whatever you can into flat-rate Priority Mail boxes from the post office and mail them over a period of six months. Get a place on airbnb.com in a hip L.A. neighborhood, close to shops, restaurants and the Upright Citizens Brigade, an improv comedy theater that reminds one of their connections to Chicago’s Annoyance Theater. Don’t bother with the expense and hassle of a car; use your own two feet, a public transit pass, Uber and Lyft. Arrive in L.A. on a Friday, and find community by Saturday morning at Temple Israel of Hollywood’s weekly Torah study. Live close enough to your daughter and grandsons to be in their lives regularly, but never underfoot. And don’t worry about that bookstore reading of your new book, “Green Nails and Other Acts of Rebellion: A Life After Loss” … you may be new in town, but it will be standing room only.

“Be sure to mention my age,” the petite 76-year-old writer/blogger, PR and social media consultant urged me. “I don’t ever want people to see their age as a deterrent.” After one conversation with Soloway, there’s no chance you will.

After a lifetime in Chicago, Soloway uprooted herself to be closer to her daughter, Jill Soloway — the creator of the wildly popular Amazon dramedy “Transparent”— and two grandsons. Those of us who are familiar (or obsessed) with the show already know the Pfeffeman family, and that Shelly, the matriarch (played by Judith Light), endures two major life shifts: her first husband comes out as transgender and her second one suffers from a debilitating illness. 

Although “Transparent” is a work of fiction, it has some biographical elements. When the show won best television series,  comedy, at the Golden Globes, Jill Soloway thanked “my own ‘trans parent,’ my Moppa,” referring to Elaine’s first husband, who came out as transgender. And, as Elaine’s second husband, Tommy, fought a little-known dementia called frontotemporal degeneration, she was his primary caregiver. As she watched her strong, independent husband’s decline, becoming someone who was unable to speak and who needed round-the-clock care, Soloway wrote about it in her blog, The Rookie Caregiver, which, after Tommy’s passing, became The Rookie Widow. Those two blogs served as foundation for “Green Nails,” which brings the author’s book total to three (in addition to “Green Nails,” she’s written a memoir, “The Division Street Princess,” which started as a blog, and a novel, “She’s Not the Type”). She also contributes to the blog Never Too Old to Talk Tech — Soloway used to work at the Apple store in Chicago and helps people learn how to use their tech devices. Some Internet digging reveals some additional blogging efforts, including Soloway Stories, and a professional website, elainesolowayconsulting.com, offering services in public relations, coaching and technology.

Shortly after the book reading, Soloway launched another blog, The Rookie Transplant, chronicling her experiences as a newbie making her way as she always has — independently, taking L.A.’s roads less traveled, specifically, bipedal locomotion and public transit over the expense (and convenience, some might argue) of a car. One recent Facebook post chronicled her trip to the Apple Store: “My visit to Mecca at the Grove. Took the 780 from Hollywood and Vine. 30 minutes.”

“Because I walked so much in Chicago, I walk here.” She explained how she has mapped her neighborhood by walking it, using trips to Ralphs or to the bank as an excuse for what she calls “functional exercise.” When she’s not on foot, she’s on a bus, watching the landscape go by and listening to people’s conversations. “You miss the world if you’re in a car.” 

While her most recent move happened after Tommy’s death, Soloway has been charting her own path for decades. At 51, yearning to learn more about Jewish life, tradition and Hebrew, she organized her own course of adult bat mitzvah study, performing the traditional bat mitzvah tasks and planning her own party. At 60, “to proclaim a new me … an audacious me,” according to her blog account, she got a tattoo on her left biceps — “a wildly-colored, 5-inch picture of a chubby heart, musical notes, rays of sun and roses, intersected by banners bearing the names of my two cheeky daughters, Faith and Jill.”

Soloway also doesn’t let mortality get in the way of regularly conversing with those who have passed on — primarily her husband Tommy and her parents — using them as characters in her essays and blog posts. One recent post was about her deceased mother wanting the new iPad. “It’s all a way into conversation,” Soloway observes. “The main thing about people who die is that we shouldn’t forget them — this way, they’ll never fade away.”

As someone who had been in Los Angeles only a few months, Soloway had expected 10 people to show up at Skylight Books in support of “Green Nails,” but the reading drew more than 60, including a few from the “Transparent” crew, among them actor Lawrence Pressman, who played Shelly’s ailing husband, Ed. Although her daughter’s network undoubtedly was responsible for a few of the folks in the room, the packed house had more than a little to do with the auteur herself, a master marketer who expanded her skill set as technology developed, incorporating her insatiable curiosity for computers into decades of solid public relations and marketing experience. 

“I love pens and spiral notebooks, but I also love the mystery of computers,” she said. “Social media saved my PR business; I hated calling people on the phone to pitch, but by following journalists on Twitter and sharing columns with them, I built relationships. These days, you have to know all the bloggers.” When it came to the book, she again blended classic and modern methods: running a Kickstarter crowd-funding campaign to get the book made, mailing personal notes to backers, and sending promotional postcards about book readings to ensure her message reached everyone. 

Now the septuagenarian Soloway is looking ahead and hoping for companionship. “I’ve been widowed for two years; I am interested in meeting a man my age who is seeking a companion, not marriage. He should be healthy and able to drive — at night would be a bonus. But, at the top of this list is: He should make me laugh.” Until that man comes along, Soloway is counting her blessings for the Los Angeles friends and family who have made her feel at home.

“This crowd is funny as hell, and it’s wonderful to laugh,” Soloway said. “I’m so grateful for this brand-new adventure.”

Esther D. Kustanowitz was once a carless rookie transplant to L.A. Now she blogs at myurbankvetch.com and writes about social media and communications at her professional site, EstherK.com.

A conversation with Erwin Chemerinsky


Jonathan Kirsch: Let me begin with a quote from “The Case Against the Supreme Court.” You write: “From the outset, in writing this book, I have been concerned that it would be criticized as a liberal’s whining that the Court’s decisions have not been liberal enough.” What apprehensions did you have, if any, about the reception to your book? And did those apprehensions turn out to be well founded? 

Erwin Chemerinsky: Like any author, my largest fear is that no one will pay any attention to the book. But one has to say what one believes is right. 

JK: You concede in your book that you have not fared well in the cases you have handled in the Supreme Court. Do you think that the criticisms in your book will make it even harder when you next appear before the Court?

EC: I don’t think the justices will pay much attention to this book. If they do, I think they will agree with a lot of what I have to say. 

JK: Traditionally, the Supreme Court included a Jewish seat. Does the Jewish seat survive in any sense? 

EC: The first Jewish justices — [Louis] Brandeis, [Benjamin N.] Cardozo and [Felix] Frankfurter — are among the most renowned in history, but I think the Jewish seat is a dead letter. It ended when Abe Fortas left the Court in 1969, and Nixon did not replace him with a Jewish justice. No Jewish justice served [again] until Justice [Ruth Bader] Ginsburg was appointed in 1993. Now there are three Jews and six Catholics on the Court, and it’s hard to speculate what that will mean.

JK: Your principal argument is that the Court has failed to protect the individual against the powerful, both in government and business. Does this reflect an ideological stance rather than a judicial philosophy?

EC: It’s not ideological. The purpose of the Constitution is pre-eminently to protect minorities of all sorts. The majority does not need the Constitution to protect itself; the majority can protect itself through the judicial process.

JK: Do you think the program you suggest stands any realistic chance of being adopted?

EC: I think so, at least for some of them. For example, I think there is a constituency to apply ethical rules to Supreme Court appointees and a strong desire to change the way the Supreme Court communicates by allowing cameras in the courtroom. Term limits has the broadest support — if Rick Perry and I can agree on that, it shows the scope of the constituency. But it would take a constitutional amendment, and that makes it far less likely.

JK: Do you despair of achieving the primary goal you advocate, that is, the appointment of a majority of justices who embrace the notion of favoring the rights of individuals above the prerogatives of the wealthy and powerful?

EC: The honest answer is, I don’t know. Had [Al] Gore or [John] Kerry been president in 2005, when [William] Rehnquist and [Sandra Day] O’Connor were replaced, constitutional law would be vastly different today. It’s possible to imagine a Democrat winning in 2016, but it’s also possible to imagine a Republican winning, which would result in a conservative Court for the rest of our lifetimes. 

Leonard Fein, progressive activist and writer, dead at 80


Leonard Fein, a towering figure in Jewish progressive thought and action, died Aug. 14. He was 80.

 “Leibel” as he was universally addressed, was a prolific writer, a professor at Brandeis University and the creator of organizations and institutions that have left a lasting imprint on Jewish and general community life.

He and Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom founded MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger in 1987, which is headquartered in Los Angeles, The two men were friends for 40 years, and Schulweis recalled “many happy moments” with the man he knew as “a genuine idealist, a man of prophetic vision and integrity, who never calculated whether any of his actions would benefit him personally.”

Abby Leibman, the present CEO and president of MAZON, characterized Fein as “a true visionary, who turned his visions into reality…His commitment to social justice extended to all, regardless of faith and nationality.”

In 1981, Fein was one of the founding members of Americans for Peace Now and continued as an active board member throughout his life. A statement released by APN lauded Fein as “a combination of philosopher and reformer, organizer and agitator, truth-teller and joke-teller, irrepressible idealist and hard-boiled realist and one of the finest men we have had the honor to know.”

Among his many other contributions and accomplishments, Fein, together with Elie Wiesel, founded Moment Magazine in 1975 and set up the National Jewish Coalition for Literacy in 1997.

A companion in many of these endeavors, particularly MAZON and Americans for Peace Now, was Prof. Gerald Bubis, a colleague of 50 years standing.

“Leibel was not afraid to speak up, challenge authority or confront the establishment, while relishing his role as a curmudgeon,” Bubis said. Despite personal family tragedies, Fein pursued his heavy schedule as speaker, writer and organizer, Bubis added.

Fein’s influence and impact on thought leaders was multiplied through his frequent columns in The Forward, New York Times, New Republic, Los Angeles Times and The Nation.

Writer Bel Kaufman dies at 103


Writer Bel Kaufman,  granddaughter of Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem, has died.

Kaufman, author of the 1965 hit novel “Up the Down Staircase,” died Friday in Manhattan at the age of 103.

The novel was based on her experienced teaching in public school in New York City. She used real memos from the administration and other documents to tell the story of a fictional teacher working to inspire her students despite the bureaucracy and chaos.

The book was made into a movie in 1967.

Kaufman was born in Berlin and grew up  in Odessa and Kiev. She came to the United States in 1923 and earned a master’s degree from Columbia University.

She had trouble obtaining a job in the public schools due to her lingering Russian accent, according to the Los Angeles Times.

At the age of 99, Kaufman taught a course on Jewish  humor called “Six Weeks of Laughter” at her undergraduate alma mater Hunter College in New York.

 

A journalist’s perspective


Why are you asking so many questions and wanting to write about our community in the newspaper? Why do people care about Iranian Jews in Los Angeles? Do you really think you’re accomplishing anything by writing about our triumphs and failures in the newspaper?

These and other intense questions were often fired at me by local Iranian Jews, starting about 12 years ago, when I first set out to report on this very special community. It is my community, and traditionally it has been very tight-knit and intentionally private, closed off to outsiders. But it includes an array of individuals with many stories and a very rich background. As a son of this community whose parents fled Iran’s fundamentalist Islamic regime more than three decades ago, I nevertheless felt called to share the beauty of Southern California’s Iranian-Jewish heritage.

In my opinion, the Iranian-Jewish immigration to the United States represents, perhaps, one of the greatest sociological experiments of the 20th century. It is the story of what happens when you uproot one of the world’s oldest Jewish communities, a group that was deeply rooted in Iran for centuries, and then transplant it into the United States — one of the most advanced and dynamic modern societies in the world. Who would have thought that this immigrant community could, in such a short time span, blossom and successfully acculturate as it has in the United States in slightly more than three decades?

I feel tremendously blessed to have had the unique opportunity of sharing some of the local Iranian Jewish community’s incredible accomplishments in business, the arts, philanthropy, literature, politics, education, medicine, real estate and contributions to the betterment of Southern California. For example, if you just venture into downtown Los Angeles’ garment or jewelry districts, you will find that a vast majority of businesses are owned by Iranian Jews. Local elected officials often point to the fact that downtown Los Angeles has gone through a tremendous transformation during the last three decades, with billion-dollar industries thriving in neighborhoods that once were blighted.

This is largely the result of Iranian-American Jewish entrepreneurship. Iranian-Jewish families, such as the Delijanis and others, have invested heavily in downtown’s real estate and the revitalization of the area’s historic Broadway district. And, at the same time, some members of the Nazarian family have shown extraordinary entrepreneurship in the community. The Nazarians are among the major shareholders in the telecommunications giant Qualcomm, and they own major hotels and nightclubs throughout Los Angeles. There’s also the Orange County-based Merage family, which in 2002 sold its privately held corporation, Chef America (maker of the popular Hot Pockets frozen foods), to Nestle for $2.6 billion. These and countless other Iranian-Jewish entrepreneurs have, without doubt, contributed significantly to the economic vitality of Southern California.

Iranian Jews have not been successful only in business; many from the community have also pursued higher education in medicine, architecture, the law, engineering and various sectors of academia. You need only to walk into any of a handful of Los Angeles-area hospitals, including Cedars-Sinai, UCLA, Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center or St. John’s Health Center to encounter Iranian-Jewish physicians in almost any specialty you can imagine. It is no secret that Southern California’s Iranian Jews are perhaps one of the most highly educated immigrant communities because of their families’ strong emphasis on the importance of education.

Area universities also have countless Iranian-Jewish scientists and researchers, among them the prestigious City of Hope medical facility in Duarte, which regularly boasts of having in its ranks Dr. Samuel Rahbar, a leading endocrinologist who is on the brink of finding a cure for some types of diabetes.

In recent years, Iranian-Jewish writers Gina Nahai, Angella M. Nazarian and  Roya Hakakian have received international acclaim for their books in English, which often reveal aspects of the community’s personal struggles in moving from the traditions of Iran into the United States. And, yes, even celebrity Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who is currently a candidate for U.S. Congress in New Jersey, has written countless best-selling books and appeared on television programs, is half Iranian-Jewish.

With Hollywood close by, the community also has entered the entertainment industry, and Iranian-Jewish film producer Bob Yari is one of the success stories. In 2006, Yari’s film “Crash” won the Academy Award for Best Picture. More than a dozen local Iranian-Jewish actors in recent years also have appeared in countless major films and television programs, including the popular suspense drama “24.” 

Local Iranian Jews also have ventured into politics and fully embraced American democracy since their exile. Most notable was Jimmy Delshad, a businessman who became the first Iranian Jew elected to public office in the United States when, in 2003, he became a Beverly Hills city councilman. Then, in 2007, he made national news when he became that city’s mayor. Delshad left public office last year,  but now Beverly Hills has two Iranian-Jewish city commissioners. Likewise, in 2008, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa appointed Iranian-Jewish attorney H. David Nahai to be the general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. For a time, Nahai oversaw one of the largest public utilities in the country.

A new, younger generation of Iranian-American Jews — many of them born in the United States — formed the organization 30 Years After (30YA) nearly five years ago, and it quickly became one of the community’s most successful civic and political nonprofit groups, mobilizing Iranian Jews in Los Angeles and New York to become more engaged in the U.S. political process.

Interestingly enough, the younger generation of Iranian-Jewish professionals in recent years has been at the forefront of sharing their parents’ and grandparents’ countless stories of escape from the persecution of Iran’s fundamentalist Islamic regime. That narrative has been critical in helping other Americans to better understand the threat that the current Iranian regime poses to the rest of the free world.

In 2009, I remember being given the opportunity to interview family members and close friends of Habib Elghanian, the late leader of the Jewish community in Iran, who was executed by Iran’s Islamic regime in 1979 on trumped-up charges of spying for Israel and the United States. Hearing their bone-chilling stories of the circumstances surrounding Elghanian’s execution made me realize how his murder became a primary catalyst for thousands of Jews to flee Iran after the revolution.  

For all of the Iranian-Jewish community’s financial and academic success, local Iranian Jews have, over the last three decades, not forgotten their strong Jewish roots. You cannot walk into any of the major Los Angeles-area synagogues, among them Stephen S. Wise Temple, Sinai Temple, Tifereth Israel Sephardic Temple and Valley Beth Shalom, without encountering local Iranian Jews who make up a substantial portion of these congregations.

I often ask myself what would have happened to many of these local synagogues today if the Iranian Jews had never immigrated to this city? Perhaps Los Angeles’ robust Jewish community would not have been as strong as it is today. For instance, Pico-Robertson and Encino are now among the most vibrant Jewish areas in Los Angeles as a result of a large segment of Iranian Jews living and working there.

And this also has led Iranian Jews living in both West Los Angeles and in the San Fernando Valley to establish more than two dozen synagogues of their own. Both big and small, many of these Iranian synagogues operate from store-front properties all along Ventura Boulevard, while, at the same time, many in the community are still drawn to lavish synagogues, including the Nessah Synagogue in the heart of Beverly Hills. 

Over the last 30 years, Southern California’s Iranian Jews also have set up and funded many of their own nonprofit groups, including the Hope Foundation, the Jewish Unity Network (JUN), the SIAMAK organization, and others, to support Iranian-Jewish families struggling financially. In recent years, younger Iranian Jews have been giving back to the larger community in Los Angeles by donating money, time and energy to nonprofits dealing with the homeless and to local law enforcement, such as a the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.

In 2005, Iranian-Jewish businessman Paul Merage gifted the University of California, Irvine, business school with a $30 million endowment, the largest in university history. The Merage family also donated $3 million to the Jewish Community Center of Orange County, which bears the family’s name, and supported the Orange County Performing Arts Center as well as the Second Harvest Food Bank in Orange County. 

After encountering firsthand the horrors of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, Southern California’s Iranian Jewry has made support for Israel a paramount concern over the decades. A large segment of local Iranian Jews has been involved with a host of philanthropic causes related to Israel, through Hadassah, the Jewish National Fund, Israel Bonds, Friends of the Israel Defense Forces and the many universities based in Israel.

In the late 1980s, it was a group of Southern California’s Iranian Jews that established the widely successful Magbit Foundation, which has since provided millions of dollars in interest-free loans to cash-strapped college students in Israel. The Iranian-Jewish Y&S Nazarian Family Foundation also has donated extensively to an array of higher-education institutes in Israel, and in the last few years, also funded the establishment of an Israel Policy Center at UCLA. The Iranian-Jewish Merage Foundation over the years has provided endowments to universities in Israel, and, since 2004, has helped fund the Ayalim Association’s program in Israel that is slowly establishing various new settlement blocs in the Negev and Galilee regions of the country. In 2010 the SIAMAK organization launched and funded Project Jacob, a revolutionary new program to nurture and develop innovative medical, high-tech and alternative energy research at Israel’s Ben-Gurion University.

Despite Southern California’s Iranian-Jewish community’s success and generous philanthropy, the community has not been immune to an array of problems. Community activists such as JUN’s Dara Abaei will attest to the difficulties some local young Iranian Jews today face with the sale and use of illegal drugs. I remember reporting on the tragic story of three young Iranian-Jewish men who were killed in a West Hollywood apartment during a drug deal that went bad in August 2010.

There are also families struggling with issues of spousal abuse and alcoholism. There are a number of poverty-stricken Iranian-Jewish families, who, over the last four years, were hit hard by the bad economy. Some are on the verge of homelessness. No doubt the few Ponzi schemes allegedly carried out by Iranian-Jewish businessmen in recent years — against their own community members here in Los Angeles — have wiped out the finances of hundreds of families and destroyed the long-standing trust that many Iranian Jews once had in one another. 

Covering these stories of difficulties faced by local Iranian Jews has been personally heart-wrenching for me, and not easy to write about, because the community has a long-standing, albeit unspoken, taboo of not airing its dirty laundry in public. Many feel their reputations in the community will be destroyed, or the “authorities” will come after them for speaking out, as had been the case for them in Iran. 

I will never forget two years ago, when I first reported on the community’s businessmen involved in the alleged Ponzi schemes, and I was approached by a 79-year-old Iranian-Jewish grandmother who overheard me interviewing one of the victims. With tears in her eyes, she grabbed my arm and said to me,  “They’ve stolen $100,000 of my entire life savings, which I brought out of Iran with great difficulty — I am so ashamed because I have nothing and have to live with my children. Why won’t any of the local rabbis or leaders tell them to at least pay back the money they took from us old people?” 

I had no answer for this poor, old woman but I believed it was important to cover this story in order to shed light on the suffering of the victims instead of trying to sweep the issue under the rug, because this community needs to face its demons and find real solutions to help people. The local community also has  struggled in recent years with not having a base of strong leaders and serious activists to properly address the continually evolving issues of Jewish immigration from Iran, social problems within families and creating a closer overall cooperation with the larger Jewish community through the Los Angeles Jewish Federation.

My reporting has focused on many of these significant accomplishments and changing elements within the local Iranian-Jewish community, and as a journalist I don’t mean to boast about them. Yet I cannot help but feel a tremendous amount of pride for how this 2,700-year-old community has remained vibrant in this new world, yet held steadfast to its Jewish identity and continued to grow and thrive. Who would have thought that a Jewish community that once lived for centuries as second-class citizens in Iran, and that faced unimaginable persecution, would one day be thriving in a country that represents the greatest democracy on Earth? The story of the Iranian-American Jews continues to amaze me. With its mix of ancient history and rich traditions, and its embrace of a whole new, modern world, it is a community that I truly love and respect. 

My only hope is to continue to have the opportunity to share Iranian Jewry’s remarkable story in the coming years.


Learn more about L.A.’s Iranian-Jewish community by visiting Karmel Melamed’s blog at jewishjournal.com/iranianamericanjews.


Iranian Jews: The art, culture and history

Q&A with Nikki Levy


“Saturday Night Live” alumna Laraine Newman shares an experience she had in high school, when, high on a psychedelic drug, she saw her mother as a person and not just her parent for the first time. 

Actress (and daughter of Motown icon Diana Ross) Tracee Ellis Ross, one of the stars of the TV series “Girlfriends,” which ended in 2008, shares a story about when she once used what she thought was a toilet, but which was actually a stage prop, and how she worried that her mistake would ruin her mom’s reputation. 

On Sept. 13, Newman and Ross were among a cast of comedians, screenwriters and actors who appeared in the show “Don’t Tell My Mother!” an increasingly popular storytelling comedy show produced monthly at Café Club Fais Do-Do in Los Angeles. Next month, the show celebrates its one-year anniversary with a performance on Oct. 11 and expands to New York.

“Don’t Tell My Mother!” creator Nikki Levy is a producer at 20th Century Fox who grew up in a Jewish household in New York — with a stereotypical Jewish mother. During a series of interviews, she described how, for her, the show’s best stories are wild without being mean-spirited, salacious but still enlightening. The following is an edited and condensed version of those interviews.

 

Jewish Journal: If you’re a performer, what’s the incentive to go out in front of an audience and share something personal and humiliating, other than to get laughs? Are there other reasons that performers might do it?

Nikki Levy: I figure it’s for a couple of reasons. One, it feels really good to be honest — and sometimes it’s easier to do it in front of a crowd than in front of a really good friend. 

Also, I think people like to get exposure. Someone who is doing our next show got an agent from doing the show [last May]. Someone also cast a pilot from doing the show. So there’s the actual work incentive.

But I think the other incentive is the honesty involved with it. I work in the entertainment business, a lot of people I get are people who act and write, and I think a lot of people don’t get to do this kind of show. They’re maybe on a TV show or write for a super successful sitcom or something, but that idea of sharing writing, performing in a different kind of medium and in a really personal way is kind of freeing. They’re not writing for someone else’s voice, not writing for a character. They’re writing as them. 

 

JJ: Your audience has been growing, and similar comedic storytelling shows also have been dong well. Why do audiences respond so enthusiastically to this type of confessional storytelling? 

NL: Well, my feeling is we’re bombarded with so much bulls— all the time that it’s very compelling when someone honest is performing. I learned this thing once, in acting class — it’s a reason we look at car crashes: All of a sudden, we see something that’s real, it captures us because it’s truth. For instance, in a play you drift off, but the minute someone gets real, actually real, your eyes automatically go to that person. In this world now, with Facebook, Twitter and celebrities tweeting personal things, we’re past the point of going to see stand-up [comedy], of someone doing a character. People want to see things that are real and things that are honest.

 

JJ: You’ve had 10 shows and hosted dozens of performers at this point. Do performers make similar confessions? You said a lot of the stories have been salacious. What other topics have popped up a lot, besides sex? 

NL: We had a great story from someone who accidentally shoplifted at age 24 and got arrested, when really she was spacey, as opposed to shoplifting. One of my favorite stories — by [performer] Jen Kober — she told a story about being a fat kid in a small town and her mother would make her ration cheese that she got from Costco. Jen, 8 years old, realized she needed to steal the entire block of cheese and convince her mother she never bought it. That’s a story I loved. They’re definitely not all sex stories. Drugs come up. Getting arrested comes up. Stealing comes up. Losing your virginity is something that comes up. 

I told my “Hand-Job in the Holy Land” story. … I think it was probably 1993. It was the USY Israel Pilgrimage. … I told that story in March. People loved it. It was short, like five to seven minutes, and people loved it. A lot of audience members are Jews … a lot of the audience having been in USY tours when they were kids. 

 

JJ: How did you become interested in comedy?

NL: Well, I came from a totally bananas household, the wild, wild East Coast of Queens. And coming from two parents who did not get along, there was a lot of yelling, so I would park myself in front of the TV and I would pop in the same three VHS tapes over and over again: “Coming to America”; the critically acclaimed [she says this sarcastically] “Moving Violations,” starring Bill Murray’s brother, John Murray — it’s so awesome but so bad; and “National Lampoon’s European Vacation.”… I don’t know what drew me to comedy, but I loved it and I love everything about it, and I was totally in love with Eddie Murphy, completely in love.

When I was 12, I came out to L.A. with my mom to visit family, and one of my family members worked at Paramount, so we got a tour of the studio lot, and I saw Eddie Murphy’s golf cart — this is during the ’80s, and I thought, “Oh my God, I’m totally going to work at a studio, in movies, in casting or development.”

For whatever reason, I chose development. But I loved comedies since I was  a kid, probably because it was a great distraction from all the craziness at home. It was such an awesome escape.

 

JJ:  So when did you move to Los Angeles to pursue development?

NL: I moved in November 2002. I’d been working at the Oxygen network, in New York, but I’d gone to school [at Northwestern University] for film [specifically, creative writing for media]. I always wanted to work in film, and there was no film in New York. I was 24 years old, and my mom said, “If not now, when? And if you don’t like it, come back.” 

I sublet my amazing place in Park Slope, and I came out here, and I felt the max I would be here is six years. [She landed several jobs, including positions at Imagine Entertainment as the junior development executive on Oscar nominee “Frost/Nixon” and running “Ice Age” director Chris Wedge’s animation company, before taking a break living in Buddhist monasteries in Northern California, “because I wanted a change,” she said.] … It was during that time, between Imagine and working for Chris, that I started writing again and doing a little performing here and there. 

Last October, we had our first [“Don’t Tell My Mother!”] show, and we had 100 people waiting at the door. It was Yom Kippur, and it was my birthday. … I had told my producer to lay out 35 seats because I wanted the place to look packed. … When all those people came, I was flabbergasted, literally. 

 

JJ: So your expectations for the show weren’t high?

NL: No, I didn’t have any high hopes for the show. I just figured we’ll do it, and it will be fun. I worked with people on their pieces, like I do now, and hoped it would be good. … I couldn’t believe all these people came. Granted, they were mostly my friends, but still they showed up and gave the impression that maybe there is something to this. The theater took the entire door of 100 people. I didn’t even arrange anything with them. They took all the money because I was, like, whatever, I don’t care.

I get that a big part of [the success] has to do with the title — we all have something with our moms and want to hear salacious stories that you wouldn’t share elsewhere. … But I couldn’t believe it. I felt like I was finally inhabiting my own skin. And it became, like, OK, we’re here to make these people happy. Let’s just have fun. And it was such a fun show.

For information about upcoming performances of “Don’t Tell My Mother!” visit donttellmymother.com.

Frankfurt ripped for honoring scholar who backs Israel boycott


Protests are mounting against plans by the city of Frankfurt to honor Jewish-American scholar Judith Butler, a staunch critic of Israel.

The Central Council of Jews in Germany and the political activist group Scholars for Peace in the Middle East are among groups that have slammed the city  for choosing to honor Butler with its Theodor W. Adorno Prize on Sept. 11. The $63,000 prize is awarded every three years for “outstanding performances in the fields of philosophy, music, theater and film.”

Butler is a supporter of the United States Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel and also participated in the Canadian Israeli Apartheid Week in 2011.

Stephan Kramer, general secretary of the Central Council, reportedly called the choice of Butler, whom he said supports boycotts against Israel but considers Hamas and Hezbollah legitimate social movements, “outrageous.”

But Frankfurt Deputy Mayor in Charge of Cultural Affairs Felix Semmelroth, a member of the board that decided last week to honor Butler, said in a recent statement to JTA that the board of trustees at its May 30 meeting was “of the unanimous opinion that the Adorno Prize should go to Judith Butler for her comprehensive work on gender theory.”

Semmelroth wrote that “the incriminating statements that are now coming out were not the subject of discussion [by the trustees] and were clearly unknown to them; and they also don't change anything regarding the importance of the work of Judith Butler.”

Planners of a protest demonstration called for Sept. 11 in Frankfurt also circulated a petition in which they noted, among other things, that Butler boycotts universities in Tel Aviv — an official partner city with Frankfurt — “but has no problem delivering lectures at the Bir Zeit University, which evidence shows is dominated by supporters of Hamas and Hezbollah.”

Butler defended herself in a Sept. 1 editorial published in two German newspapers, saying that she did not take attacks from German Jewish leaders personally. Rather, she wrote, the attacks are “directed against everyone who is critical against Israel and its current policies.”

Frankfurt's mayor, Peter Feldmann, the city's first Jewish mayor since 1933 and a member of the Social Democratic Party, was not involved in the decision to honor Butler. His predecessor, Petra Roth, of the conservative Christian Democratic Union Party, was on the board that chose Butler.

Adorno (1903-1969), for whom the prize is named, was the son of a Catholic mother and Jewish father. He survived the Third Reich in exile and returned to become one of Germany’s foremost sociologists,  philosophers and art critics, particularly known for his criticism of fascism and for his writings on the Holocaust.

Acclaimed writer Nora Ephron dead at 71


Writer and film director Nora Ephron, known for work on movies such as “When Harry Met Sally,” has died in New York at age 71, according to media reports Tuesday night, hours after it was first revealed that she was gravely ill and near death.

A spokeswoman for her agency, Los Angeles-based Creative Artists Agency, declined to comment on the reports. Nicholas Latimer, a spokesman at publishing company Random House, told Reuters Ephron was “gravely ill.”

He could not confirm reports that she had died, which was reported by The New York Times, The Washington Post and show business newspaper Daily Variety.

Earlier on Tuesday, New York based gossip columnist Liz Smith told entertainment industry website The Hollywood Reporter that she had spoken to Ephron’s son, Jacob Bernstein, and the family is already planning a funeral.

“I was told this morning that she was dying, but I can’t confirm it,” The Hollywood Reporter quoted Smith as saying.

ABC News posted a story on its website citing sources close to the family as telling the TV network Ephron is “gravely ill.”

[MORE: Remembering Nora Ephron]
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Ephron, known for screenplays “When Harry Met Sally,” “Sleepless in Seattle” and more recently, “Julie & Julia,” which she also directed, had not publicly addressed suffering from any illness in recent months.

During a long career, Ephron has written for newspapers and magazines. She published books and essays, but is perhaps best known for her work in movies.

She was nominated for three Academy Awards for writing romantic the comedies “Harry Met Sally,” “Sleepless in Seattle” and drama “Silkwood.”

Reporting By Piya Sinha-Roy; Editing by Bob Tourtellotte and Philip Barbara

Six writers, six ways to reveal truths


On May 23, Valley Beth Shalom hosted an event designed to inspire the creation of new Jewish comedy and drama, and encourage the ongoing tradition of Jewish creativity and invention. Moderated by VBS Senior Rabbi Ed Feinstein, the program was a presentation of the synagogue’s Jewish Writers Roundtable, a group of about 10 members. Over the course of the evening, six of these writers—including Sarah Goldfinger (executive producer/writer, “CSI,” “Hawaii Five-O”), Michael Halperin (writer and TV executive), Jamie Pachino (screenwriter and writer, “Fairly Legal”), Stephanie Liss (playwright and writer, “On Holy Ground”) Ronda Spinak (artistic director and co-founder of the Jewish Women’s Theatre), and Lynn Roth (executive producer/writer, “The Paper Chase”)—all shared excerpts from recent works in which they reflected on contemporary Jewish life. Set before symbolic stained glass windows and a well-lit ark, the pieces read throughout the evening addressed Jewish faith and tradition at important moments in Jewish history and daily life. In just an hour and a half, the audience eavesdropped in a women’s bathroom at a wedding (Goldfinger), hid in Warsaw during the Holocaust (Halperin), heard an unconventional mother’s speech at a bar mitzvah (Pachino), escaped Tehran during the violent overthrow of the shah (Liss), explored the experiences of female rabbis (Spinak) and watched as Sigmund Freud came to terms with the changing state of Vienna for a Jew like himself (Roth).

The main motivations behind the evening, Feinstein said, were to “create a place for Jewish artists and art within the community,” and to “use theater as a mode of sharing ideas.” Stories, Feinstein pointed out, can create community through shared anxieties, values and reflections on the Jewish condition. Storytelling, Feinstein said, “is elemental to being a human being,” and the six pieces heard that evening portrayed moments in Judaism in which individuals are tested, but ultimately triumph.

Just as important as the Jewish spirit of creativity that Feinstein hoped the audience would take away from the evening was the notion that the writers should leave with the understanding that “the community appreciates their work.”

In his opening remarks about the evening, Feinstein explained that in Jewish tradition the “revelation of ultimate truth is through a book,” and that in this tradition of literacy as a spiritual element, the “people who assemble words share in the creation of the world.” Feinstein said he hopes to hold similar events in the future in order to open more eyes to new Jewish writing as well as to learn how to incorporate drama into synagogue life.

Award to recognize Jewish Journalist’s 50-year career


The year was 1960. Tom Tugend, living in Israel and working as the temporary head of the Weizmann Institute of Science’s public relations department, had to make a choice: keep his job or return to Los Angeles to a UCLA job he’d had before moving to Israel. He went back to UCLA — and, for the sake of the Jewish media internationally, it was a good decision. Working at UCLA led to writing positions for Jewish newspapers locally, nationally and in Israel.

On March 25, the Benefactors of the Jewish Club of 1933 will recognize Tugend’s work, including his contributions to JTA, the Jerusalem Post, the London Jewish Chronicle and The Jewish Journal. The organization is awarding to Tugend, who was born in Germany in 1925, its 2012 Heritage Award, which recognizes European immigrants’ accomplishments in arts, writing, business and other fields.

“I’m still not sure who initiated it, but anyhow it’s always flattering when somebody thinks well enough of you to put you in [for] an award,” Tugend said. “None of us as journalists are overwhelmed by compliments, so it’s always nice.”

In fact, the board members at the organization chose Tugend from among seven nominees.

“Tom has a very distinguished background, he’s done a lot of wonderful things in the Jewish world, and he was born in Berlin,” Peter Rothholz, a Benefactors’ board member, said. “That combination is exactly what we honor at the Benefactors of the Jewish Club of 1933.” During the 1930s, German-speaking Jews, setting out to assist in the Americanization of German-speaking Jewish immigrants, formed what was then called the Jewish Club of 1933. In the 1980s, the group evolved into a philanthropic organization.

In 1984, toward the end of Tugend’s 30-year career at UCLA, where he worked as a science writer, the Summer Olympics were held in Los Angeles. UCLA ran an international pressroom, and the Jerusalem Post and the London Jewish Chronicle asked Tugend to report on the Jewish athletes. This established his connections with those papers, which he continues to write for today.

Like many journalists, he wrote his first story as an undergraduate student — for UCLA’s campus newspaper. Unike many journalists, Tugend wrote for a U.S. Army newspaper, in his case, during the Korean War. Tugend had also served as a combat infantryman in France and Germany during World War II and as an American volunteer in an anti-tank unit during Israel’s War of independence. After his military stint, he worked as a reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle. Later, he moonlighted as a copy editor at the Los Angeles Times. He has spent more than 50 years as a journalist, many of them while juggling a full-time job at UCLA to support his family. In 1993, he became a contributing editor at The Jewish Journal.

Tugend’s work for Jewish media often has dealt with Jewish figures in Hollywood. He called an interview he did with Stephen Spielberg for The Jewish Journal, prior to the release of “Schindler’s List,” “probably the best interview I ever had in my life.”

The award ceremony for the 2012 Heritage Award will take place during the Benefactors’ annual meeting and brunch on March 25 at the Los Angeles Jewish Home.

Feminist writer E.M. Broner dies at 83


Jewish feminist writer E.M. Broner, perhaps best known as the co-author of “The Women’s Haggadah,” has died.

Broner, a longtime professor of English at Wayne State University, Sarah Lawrence College and other schools, died June 21 in New York at 83. The cause of death was multiple organ failure, her daughter Nahama told the Times.

“The Women’s Haggadah,” first published in Ms. magazine in 1977, was an early feminist interpretation of the Passover seder. It has been used by numerous women’s weders and inspired similar re-imaginings of other Jewish rituals.

Broner hosted women’s seders at her Manhattan home starting in 1976, The New York Times reported. Among the well-known Jewish feminists and writers who attended were Grace Paley, Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug and Letty Cottin Pogrebin.

In 1994, Broner published “Mornings and Mournings: A Kaddish Journal,” a chronicle of the year she spent trying to say Kaddish for her father in an Orthodox synagogue in New York.

Broner also was a prolific writer of spiritually infused, Jewish-themed fiction. One of her most popular books was “A Weave of Women,” released in 1978, which told the tale of abused women living together in Jerusalem in the early 1970s and creating new feminist rituals.

N.Y. Times apologizes for pro-Palestinian writer


The New York Times apologized for allowing a writer who has attended pro-Palestinian rallies to co-author a story claiming that Jewish criticism of Israel has grown in the San Francisco region.

The Feb. 3 article, headlined “A Jewish Group Makes Waves, Locally and Abroad,” covered tensions among Jews in the area. It focused particularly on Jewish Voice for Peace, which is noncommittal on whether Israel should become a binational state.

It quoted Jewish Voice for Peace leaders as saying that its membership has grown “significantly” since the 2009 Gaza War.

“After this article was published, editors learned that one of the two writers, Daniel Ming, had been active in pro-Palestinian rallies,” said an editor’s note that was appended on Feb. 8. “Such involvement in a public cause related to The Times’s news coverage is at odds with the paper’s journalistic standards; if editors had known of Mr. Ming’s activities, he would not have been allowed to write the article.”

It was not clear if Ming is a staffer or a stringer.

Judy Toll is one funny valentine


Groucho Marx said anyone can get old—all you have to do is live long enough. But what can you say about a comedian who lived it all in 44 years, as a breakthrough stand-up, gifted improv actor and writer for the hottest HBO comedy show?

Meet Judy Toll.

“Judy was a Jew; I don’t know if you’re aware of that,” comedian Andy Kindler deadpanned. “She came from a long line of Jews.”

Toll also went and took her mother to the Holy Land, married an Oscar-winning filmmaker from the Simon Wiesenthal Center and was loved by so many friends that she even went to therapy with them.

Now, according to the documentary made by her brother, Gary Toll, Judy was “The Funniest Woman You’ve Never Heard Of.” It’s a labor of love that rushes at you through her characters, her lovers, her sketches from The Groundlings, her episodes from HBO’s “Sex and the City” and her family life in Philadelphia.

“The Funniest Woman” is wrapped in anecdotes from creative pals like Kathy Griffin, Wendy Kamenoff, Taylor Negron and Michael Patrick King who detail the more hellish dramas Toll created to jump on stage and talk about. Friends loved this frenetic personality who struggled to turn her pain into our pleasure before succumbing to cancer in 2002.

“What a thing for her to have this terrible affliction when she had such a profound influence on the comedy business,” comedian Rick Overton said. “Her bold character work, the sort of thing that stars have.”

As a child in the 1960s, Toll starred in her family’s living room—mocking in-laws with perfect mimicry and mad-libbing Hawaiian Punch ads.

“I never laughed as hard with anyone as I did with Judy,” her brother said.

Toll and her siblings would stay up until mom Sandy yelled because their father, Jay, had to get up early to get to the furniture store he ran on Market Street in Philly for 40 years. Sister Joanne (now a producer of HBO’s “In Treatment”) helped shoot Super 8 movies—not normal family nachas but scripted, elaborate spoofs.

“Judy often said she had the most fun in her life making our movies,” Gary Toll said.

Groundlings veteran Jim Doughan remembers the Tolls as “the weirdest family I’ve ever encountered.”

From Samuel Gompers Elementary School (Kevin Bacon’s mother was her teacher), Toll launched her career: Suburban theater trouper and “My Fair Lady” fundraisers for the Philadelphia chapter of ORT.

This was followed by her brilliant, disruptive Hebrew school years.

“She jumped off a sofa and broke her leg two weeks before her bat mitzvah,” Gary Toll said. “Probably an early example of her causing drama. Bat mitzvah was a big showcase for her.”

After theater at U Mass, Toll became the first female comic “in the comedy club surge of the early ‘80s,” according to Steve Young, co-founder of the Philadelphia Comedy Works.

“On stage, she did characters and jokes. Off stage, she did Judy. That’s who you fell in love with,” he said.

Kamenoff remembers meeting “this sweet little blond, Jewish angel” while doing her own act there. “Barely 5-foot-1, with this huge personality. I said, ‘Oh my God, I love you, let’s be friends!’” she said.

Toll and Kamenoff shared the kind of adventures particular to stand-ups on the road in the 1980s.

“Madonna was doing her ‘Blond Ambition’ tour,” recalled Kamenoff, now a writer and teacher. “We did our ‘No Ambition’ tour—Utah, Wyoming, Montana. Honky-tonks with screen doors slamming, the stage the size of a desk. These were cowboys who had never seen a Jewish girl in their life. Or a woman comic.”

Judy won them over.

“She didn’t have a censor,” Kamenoff said. “They loved her.”

After arriving in Los Angeles, Toll rose through the comedy ranks.

“When you were around Judy, you laughed a lot,” said actress Edie McClurg, who performed with Toll at The Groundlings Theatre. “She was a pretty and beautiful soul.”

“She was born to do characters,” Gary Toll added.

After seeing Toll creations like Naomi the B.U. feminist and neurotic Sheila Naselstein, who returns matzah when it’s broken, a critic for The New York Times called her, “a combination of Judy Holliday and Gilda Radner.”

Radner was her idol.

Buzzing around Los Angeles with a CMDYGAL vanity plate, Toll worked part time selling Chipwiches at the La Brea Tar Pits and broke through with Groundlings partner Wendy Goldman on a sketch called, “Casual Sex.”

Ivan Reitman bought and produced their play as the 1988 movie, “Casual Sex?” starring Lea Thompson and Victoria Jackson. Upset she wasn’t cast to play herself, Toll instead found success writing sitcoms, appearing in other films and on shows like “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” During the dulled-down comedy club scene of the ‘90s, Toll found a home at Un-Cabaret, an alternative comedy space for stand-ups stretching into storytellers.

“Audiences witnessed a diary of what was going on in her life,” Kamenoff recalled. “She discovered her voice there.”

“Judy always called Un-Cabaret the ‘comedy of love,’” said Beth Lapides, the venue’s co-creator. “That was one of her major themes. And she loved when there was a small audience, because it was so much more intimate.”

At the Un-Cab, wearing her favorite cherry earrings, Toll read new writings or ranted out her hypochondria—“I live in anxiety and fear!”—detailing her calamities in and out of romance, AA, OA and even Scientology. But when a boyfriend found an irregular mole on her back, she really did get sick. Melanoma.

“Judy and our mother took a trip to Israel and Judy was very affected,” Gary Toll said. “She started going back to services and studying. I don’t think Judy would have dealt with her cancer as courageously as she did if Judaism had not been a part of her life.”

She also got the job of her life with HBO’s “Sex and the City,” writing about what she often talked about on stage: women falling for the wrong men. Writer Liz Tuccillo remembered Toll as being “amazingly upbeat in the writers’ room while battling her illness.” One day though, “she told us that she felt like she had lost her sense of humor. She was crying a bit. Soon, however, she started talking about how her sense of humor had moved to Florida to retire. She went on to write some of the show’s funniest lines that afternoon,” Tuccillo said.

How Hollywood’s Hunt ‘Found’ Elinor Lipman’s novel


Elinor Lipman, writer of smart and often hilarious modern-day social satire, considers herself “the luckiest writer.” Her first novel, “Then She Found Me,” well-received when it was published in 1990 and selling steadily ever since, has inspired the film of the same name — starring, co-written and directed by Helen Hunt — that opens in theaters this Friday.

But fans of Lipman’s novel should be forewarned: Don’t judge the movie by its book. Hunt spent nearly 10 years nurturing this project and in the process changed many of the novel’s particulars — adding and deleting characters and sub-plots, altering motivations. Yet the film is faithful to the heart of the story and retains Lipman’s signature balance of wit and pathos.

In the novel, 36-year-old, never-married high school Latin teacher April Epner, adopted daughter of Holocaust survivors Trude and Julius, is a no-nonsense, plain-Jane kind of gal — but one with a sure, quiet sense of self and a quick wit. Out of the blue, shortly after Trude dies (and less than two years after Julius’ death), a mysterious stranger appears with a message from April’s birth mother, employing stealth and melodrama to tell her, “I represent someone from your past … would that be welcome news?”

Thus begin the misadventures of the shy schoolteacher and her overbearing, confessional-talk-show-host birth mother, Bernice Graves. In Lipman’s novel, April struggles for self-definition — and compassion — in the face of Bernice’s glaringly different personality. Her turmoil is buffered by a blossoming love she shares with the equally retiring yet charmingly wry school librarian, Dwight Willamee.

Lipman, though neither adopted nor an adopter of children herself (she and her husband have one son), had nevertheless long been intrigued by the emotional conflict and drama inherent in birth-parent/adoptive-child reunions. When a friend found his birth mother when he was in his 40s, Lipman decided to further explore the subject and make it the focal point of her novel.

In Hunt’s film version, Bernice (Bette Midler, delivering some of the film’s funniest lines) and April (Hunt) similarly navigate the minefield of their budding mother-daughter relationship, but there’s no shy librarian in sight. Instead, April marries, then is summarily dumped by, her man-child fellow teacher (Matthew Broderick) and subsequently falls in love with the also recently dumped, nurturing father (Colin Firth) of one of her kindergarten students. The film’s April, nearing 40, desperately wants a child; this becomes a central theme in the movie.

Hunt explained that she was drawn to the originality of the novel and to “the way Elinor surprised me in the story.” She initially tried to acquire the film rights in the early 1990s, but the book had already been optioned — before it had even hit bookstores — by Sigourney Weaver’s production company, which rebuffed Hunt’s overtures for involvement.

Several years later, after Hunt had won four Emmys for her role in the NBC hit comedy series, “Mad About You,” and the 1997 Best Actress Oscar for her performance opposite Jack Nicholson in “As Good As It Gets,” she was finally able to secure the rights to Lipman’s book.

Meanwhile, not surprisingly, Lipman had been wondering if the film would ever be made.

“I got a call from Helen Hunt’s manager on the day my mother died [in 1998],” Lipman said; the call “was like a little ray of sunshine in an otherwise sad time.”

Despite Hunt’s fondness for the novel (“the novel is perfect,” she said), she wrestled with the screenplay for nearly five years, trying to translate what she considered a “subtle, internal” story into an external, visible story that would work on screen.

One solution was to have April want a baby; Hunt felt that would externalize a longing that remains inchoate in the novel. It was also a deeply personal addition for Hunt, who said she “wanted a baby very much during the time I was working on the script.” She now has a 3 1/2-year-old daughter with television producer and writer Matthew Carnahan.

When Hunt read an essay on betrayal by Jungian psychologist James Hillman, she finally “found her north star about what she wanted to explore in the film,” Lipman said.

The central theme of the film became, “You can’t really love until you’ve made peace with betrayal,” Hunt said.

So, in the film, April becomes both a victim and perpetrator of betrayal, who at times feels betrayed by God.

Hunt, whose paternal grandmother was Jewish, also made April more of a religously observant Jew, in order to give her protagonist “a deep sense of tradition [and] a specific version of faith that doesn’t back away from the difficult questions,” she said.

Spurlock embarks on a cinematic quest for Osama


When writer/director Morgan Spurlock (“Super Size Me”) discovered he was going to become a father two years ago, he was concerned about the tumultuous state of the world into which his child was being born. Spurlock’s wish was to give his child a safer and more harmonious place to live. So, after a crash course in combat survival, the filmmaker set off on a journey through the Middle East to find the one man who has shaped the world’s perception of that region in recent years: Osama bin Laden. The results of that quest are documented in his new film, “Where in the World Is Osama Bin Laden?”

Spurlock’s cinematic search included stops in Egypt, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Israel. He employed producers/guides in each country to help him get around and into neighborhoods where the people — not the media or politicians — could share their feelings about their lives, bin Laden, America and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Along the way he discovered a great commonality between the people of those regions and an America that is rarely portrayed in the media.

“One of the things I wanted to do was take the film out of these two-minute sound bites that we get on the news,” Spurlock said. “On TV, we always see these shots of people who scream and yell, and we don’t get to hear from everybody else. The thing that I really love about the film is that it shows that there really is a tremendous amount of humanity.”

Spurlock’s film also paints a vivid portrait of the devastation and violence in those regions.

“One of the goals of this film, for me, was to show what people face on a daily basis,” the director said. In parts of Israel, “there are rockets falling from Gaza every day. There are people in the Palestinian territories who are trying to maneuver through there, but between the wall and the checkpoints, it makes it almost impossible for them.”

Jeremy Chilnick, who co-wrote and co-produced the film (along with producer Stacy Offman), was profoundly moved by the footage of war-torn Israel that Spurlock was sending back to him at his New York production office.

“One of the most powerful scenes in the film is when Morgan is sitting in a bombed-out school, and you see the look on his face, probably thinking about his own child,” Chilnick said.

Among other things, one of Chilnick’s key jobs, according to Spurlock, is to play the role of pragmatist.

“Jeremy is a great ‘no’ man. So when I say I want to do this, this and this, he says, ‘no, no, no,'” Chilnick added. “Except for when Morgan said, ‘I want to go looking for Osama bin Laden.’ That probably should have been a no right there.”

Spurlock and his crew faced constant dangers during filming. They traveled with the U.S. military in Afghanistan, and while there was some comfort in having the protection of trained soldiers, there was an additional liability in being embedded with them.

“The most frightened I was over the course of this trip was with the military — because those guys are targets,” Spurlock said.

“Every day they’re targeted by the Taliban and Al Qaeda or militant extremists. One day we got called out of the camp because there was an ambush on the governor’s convoy. Another day there was an IED that was discovered in front of our convoy as we were rolling along, and they diverted us back to the base. There are scary things that happen when you’re out there.”

One of the more confrontational moments Spurlock faced in the film was not in the war zones of Afghanistan but inside an Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem. While walking the streets looking for someone to interview, Spurlock and crew were surrounded by a hostile crowd, demanding that they “get out!”

“I think it was distrust of the media and of outsiders,” Spurlock said. “I think the greatest part of that scene is when the people are confronting us, and one guy makes it a point to come up to us and say ‘These people who are screaming and yelling at you — most of us don’t think like them.’ That was such a beautiful thing to have happen. That one little bit mirrors and parallels a lot of the same voices that we hear in the film.”

This film has left Spurlock more optimistic about the world and its future, he said. His journey taught him that people everywhere share the same hopes and dreams for themselves and their children. And that one of the great little-known commonalities between east and west is a love of professional wrestling. Now that his son, Laken, has been born, Spurlock has hopes that the lessons he learned from his film will be passed on to his child.

“One of the things that was instilled in me by my parents was the idea that you should try to make the world a better place for your kids than what was given to you,” the proud father said.

“And one of the things that I hope I can give to my son is to expose him to people and cultures and ideas that will broaden his horizons,” he added. “That will cause him to question things not only in our country, but outside our borders. I hope that in some ways I can inspire him to want to seek out answers on his own. I think that would be the greatest hope that I have.”

“Where in the World Is Osama Bin Laden?” opens in theaters April 18.

We plan, Sherre laughs


The conversation was joyful and funny, but something was bothering me. I couldn’t stop thinking about the poached eggs.

We had all ordered our breakfasts at the same time. I got my Irish oatmeal, my daughter got her bagel and cream cheese, but the poached eggs? It seemed like they would never come. Every time a server would come near our table, I would arch my neck to see if they were carrying the poached eggs. Waiter after waiter walked by, only to deliver food to other patrons.

The poached eggs weren’t for me, they were for Rabbi Sherre Hirsch, and the fact that they took forever to show up bothered me a lot more than it bothered her.

That’s a good thing, too, because Hirsch has been talking a lot these days about the importance of learning how to handle the curve balls that life throws at us.

What do we do when things don’t turn out the way we expected? When the great marriage we always dreamed about has turned into a nightmare? When our dream career has become tedious and repetitive? When our kids are not the Ivy League geniuses we wished they would be? When good friends disappoint us? When siblings, parents, bosses or rabbis let us down? When a tragedy turns our lives upside down?

Or when the poached eggs we ordered for breakfast take forever to show up?

When she wrote her new book, “We Plan, God Laughs,” Hirsch knew there were no easy answers, and that the subject of how to handle — and transform — life’s disappointments was as enormous and complicated as the subject of how to handle life itself. So she faced a dilemma, a common one in today’s publishing world: Go too deep and no one buys the book, but make it too simple and you trivialize the subject.

And while she certainly didn’t want to trivialize the subject, when you see the subtitle of the book — “10 Steps to Finding Your Divine Path When Life is Not Turning Out Like You Wanted” — you can’t help but wonder whether she did in fact make too many concessions to the marketing dictates of modern publishing.

Each chapter has a convenient opening that summarizes each “step” to finding your divine path. The chapters themselves read like a who’s who of spiritual self-help: “Ending the Excuses,” “Getting Present,” “Celebrating the Divine You,” “Partnering with God,” “Re-creating your Creator,” “Finding Your Divine Spark,” “Engaging Up,” “Finding Meaning” and “Questioning.”

It all feels really neat and user-friendly — perfectly tailored for today’s harried consumers who have little time to read but still crave anything that can improve their lives.

So what saves the book from being another exercise in predictable self-help?

For one thing, the author herself.

Once you get past the paint-by-numbers packaging, it’s her personality and generosity that dominate the page.

Sherre Hirsch wants to help you. That is clear. She will do whatever it takes to touch you and help you. Even if it means dredging up the saga of her parents’ divorce, or the time a baby boy died on the day of a bris she was supposed to officiate, or the loving couple who were looking forward to a beautiful retirement but were rudely interrupted by the husband’s heart attack.

Hirsch doesn’t hold back. She will cajole, entertain, surprise, slow down, speed up, get somber, tell stories, go biblical, play best friend, big sister, stern teacher or philosopher; she’ll get sappy, passionate, reflective and a little raw; and, if she has to, she’ll even stoop to corny metaphors (“Lemons do not always become lemonade. Sometimes they become lemon pie or the base of some weird jam.”)

She does all this in the service of helping you turn your life around — like she did hers.

It doesn’t matter that you might have heard or read some of these concepts before. Hirsch doesn’t pretend that she has written the “Guide to the Perplexed”; she understands that 800 years after the era of Maimonides, the trick in today’s world is not to obsess with philosophical novelty but rather to fuse disparate elements into an engaging and personal message.

She’s savvy enough to be herself and allow her infectious personality to shine through. Like one of my advertising clients used to say, “I don’t care how much you know until I know how much you care.” Well, from the first line of her book, you know that Hirsch cares. If she were a therapist, you’d want to get better just to not let her down.

The deeper ideas in the book have a way of sneaking up on you. The rabbi takes you on these little journeys where, for example, a 10th grade science class on the subject of inertia will gently morph into the notion that the opposite of faith is not skepticism or cynicism, but fear. Or a discussion of leaky roofs will evolve into a challenge to become “the owner of your own life plan” where “fine” and “settling down” are just not good enough. Or a moment in New York’s Central Park will become an epiphany on the deadening effect of routine.

The book ambushes you throughout with these personal challenges to see life differently. Maybe that’s the rabbi’s secret weapon: camouflage. You expect, when you see the pretty cover of the book, that you’ll be getting soul candy, and then you’re taken on a little whirlwind that makes your soul taste all the food groups — even the bitter herbs.

There’s a delicious irony in the notion that if after all the efforts to plan an easy-to-read book on navigating life, God decided to laugh … and instead of an easy book, out came a mash-up of ideas that shakes you up and doesn’t let go.

Just like the poached eggs that took forever, Rabbi Sherre Hirsch would have no problem with such an unexpected turn of events.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

Enter Elijah, designated drinker


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In a video on his elijahdrinks.com Web site, Jaffe demonstrates his invention to a friend. Because he wanted a genuine reaction, he had a set-up that sitcom writers seldom encounter: “I had to do it in one take.” (Thus Jaffe mentions in the video that it sells for $29.95, when it’s actually priced at $34.95 plus shipping on the

Books: Bird-watching and ‘the Jewish question’


No doubt because I once worked at a Jewish newspaper and have written a novel about a woman rabbi — not to mention a work of nonfiction called “The Talmud and the Internet” — I am sometimes asked if my new book about bird-watching, “The Life of the Skies,” is a Jewish book.

At the risk of sounding like the joke about the zoology student obsessed with Jews who called his thesis “Elephants and the Jewish Question,” I invariably find myself answering, “Of course!”

It may seem strange that a book that talks about John James Audubon, Henry David Thoreau and Roger Tory Peterson, and that includes a quest for the possibly extinct ivory-bill woodpecker, seems to me to be so obviously Jewish. Must everything be about Jews? The answer, of course, is yes, everything is about the Jews — or at least Judaism is about everything.

I began bird-watching 15 years ago and, unlike many activities, I can trace it back to its originating moment. I was at Shabbat lunch one day in Manhattan, and a man — a rabbi, as it turned out — observed that “the warblers will be coming through Central Park soon.”

It was March. I had no idea what warblers were, but I knew I wanted to go out and find them. I felt, almost mystically, that they might lead me somewhere.

I’ve been following them ever since, and they have led me many places — outward into this country and other countries — especially Israel, where birds are movingly abundant, and also into myself, my own evolutionary origins and the mysterious questions about what my relationship is to the natural world that produced me and from which I was nevertheless oddly cut off.

“Birds are the life of the skies, and when they fly they reveal the thoughts of the skies,” wrote D.H. Lawrence. That phrase, “The Life of the skies,” has theological overtones.

Whether you believe birds were created on the fifth day of creation, as the Bible tells us, or that they evolved in slow, painstaking eons from a dim reptilian past, their existence embodies and raises religious questions.

Are birds the life of the skies because the skies have no life outside of the biological world that fills them — no divinity? Or are they the life of the skies because divinity, creation itself, is implicit in them? Even as it may be implicit in us, animals though we be.

Environmental questions are at heart religious questions. What do we owe the natural world and why? Must we save the natural world because the earth is the Lord’s, as the psalmist said so beautifully? Or because it is ours?

Either way, we should care about saving it, but I think it is important to push through to the questions — the religious questions — at the heart of our interest in the environment.

I worked at The Forward newspaper for 10 years, beginning in 1990. It never once occurred to me that Abraham Cahan, the creator of the Yiddish Forverts, was a bird-watcher. But then I read that in 1903, when the Kishinev pogrom broke out, Cahan was off bird-watching in Connecticut and, according to a friend’s memoir, rushed back to New York, binoculars and bird guide in hand, because he “wanted to be with other Jews.”

This of course might tell you that there weren’t a lot of Jews bird-watching in Connecticut in 1903, when bird-watching was just coming into its own. But it makes great sense to me now that Cahan was a watcher and namer of birds.

His whole project as a journalist, in addition to the search for justice for working people, was to help Jewish immigrants feel at home in America. His newspaper, for that reason, used increasing amounts of English and answered questions continually about the habits of the country.

Birds for Cahan were, I suspect, another dimension of the vocabulary of America. We sturdy ourselves in new places by leaning on the natural world.

Audubon, who arrived in America from France in 1803, was an immigrant as much as Cahan, and by creating “The Birds of America,” he was in some sense assimilating himself into his new home, even as he was giving his new home a wild, animal aura.

Abigail Adams wrote to her husband, John Adams, when he was off on a diplomatic assignment, “Do you know that European birds have not half the melody of ours?” That quotation appears as an epigraph in Alfred Kazin’s landmark study of American literature, “On Native Grounds,” which Kazin published in the dark year of 1942.

Kazin was himself a child of immigrant readers of the Yiddish Forverts, and one feels in his whole book the urge to establish himself as part of the American landscape. Much as any founding father — or founding mother, which Abigail Adams really was — he wanted to put his country on equal footing, both morally and politically and also environmentally, with Europe.

Birds are the language spoken by the land itself. In that sense, they are transcendent of any single nation, even as they reinforce national identity.

Birds raise complex questions of belonging, much as Jews often have.

I was once talking to Kazin, and he told me his daughter was living in Israel.

Well, I said, “She’s really on native ground.”

Kazin became extremely upset. “You think that’s funny,” he said, “but it’s not.”

He had labored too long as a child of immigrants to fit himself into a single place. He wanted to be a bird of America.

But even the birds of America nest in one region, winter in another, pass through a third during migration. I see birds in Central Park that come from Costa Rica and are on their way to Canada.

Kazin’s ethnic anxiety mirrors a larger anxiety about where we ourselves belong in the natural world. We all must figure out where we belong geographically but also metaphysically. We are technically in the animal kingdom but also in a kingdom of our own devising that sets us apart from the animals.

Photo exhibit highlights the human cost of our bounty


In the stark black-and-white photo, two small children play in and around water, as children anywhere might do on a hot day. But there’s something odd about the image: it isn’t the shore or a recreational pool they’re playing in, but a concrete irrigation canal.

“The children’s father works in the orchards,” said Rick Nahmias, creator, writer and photographer of “The Migrant Project: Contemporary California Farm Workers,” a recently opened exhibition at the Museum of Tolerance and of the book of the same name.

“Their mother works in the packing houses. Midday they pack a lunch and the kids bring their pet chicken, and they play in the canal…. Against all odds, these people are holding their family together. There’s something beautiful about that,” Nahmias said.”At the same time, there’s something horrifying because it’s not Santa Monica Beach or the YMCA. It’s an agricultural canal, and the water is tainted with pesticides.”

Nahmias, who is Jewish and in his early 40s, lives in the San Fernando Valley. A photographer/writer/filmmaker who has worked for corporate and organizational clients, his recent efforts have focused on what he feels “really matters”: documenting the lives and struggles of marginalized people and communities. His other photo-documentary projects include “Golden States of Grace,” a collection of images and oral histories depicting off-the-beaten-path religious groups in moments of sacrament and prayer. Another undertaking, “Last Days of the Four Seasons,” now in post-production, chronicles the lives of Holocaust survivors residing in a Catskill bungalow colony that is in the process of being shut down for good.

Nahmias said that the idea for “The Migrant Project” took root in 2002, when he was working for Arianna Huffington as a writer and researcher.

“On a break from my political writing, I spent a week at a culinary institute in Napa,” Nahmias said. “While there, I realized that no one talks about how this amazing bounty of food gets to our kitchens and tables. And I thought: ‘Let me take a stab at this.’ I felt passionate enough about this issue to leave a paying job in order to try to do something that was both creative and political.

“Another thing was that I had spent time [researching] the life of Edward R. Murrow, especially ‘Harvests of Shame,’ his groundbreaking 1960 documentary on migrant farm workers. I had not seen anything done currently that addressed that.”

In order to gather material for “The Migrant Project,” Nahmias crisscrossed California’s agricultural areas, from Calexico to Sacramento, listening to stories and taking photos. His aim was to put a human face on what he calls an “invisible and consistently neglected population.” Each of the exhibition’s 40 black-and-white photos — which are accompanied by Nahmias’ written commentary — offers a glimpse into the “collective saga about the very human cost of putting food on America’s table.”

For example, there’s Maria. She looks, unsmilingly, straight at the camera, her face framed by leaves. On the day Nahmias was scheduled to shoot Maria’s portrait, she was evicted from the trailer park where she lived with her three children. Her Latina landlady had “snooped around” and discovered Maria is HIV-positive.

“Here was an incident of bad behavior by someone in the community to someone beneath her,” Nahmias said. “Do I glaze over that? Or do I document it? I felt I had to bring that truth out and let people make of it what they will. It was amazing to me that Maria could put aside her own issues, her eviction, her fear and pain, her anger and sadness, and talk very candidly with me about her journey, what she’s doing now, how she’s surviving.”

Nahmias pointed out another photo: A laborer is in the shade of a grapevine, cutting down a bunch of grapes. He’s on one knee, his back ramrod straight, a hedge-clipper in his right hand, his left hand swathed with a protective cloth. A shaft of sunlight slants down on the grapes and makes them look like precious jewels. The light, the farm worker’s pose, his concentration — it looks like a religious moment in a classical painting.

“It had to be about 110 degrees when this photo was taken,” Nahmias said. “This gentleman was kneeling in this grape arbor all morning. I’d heard from a number of farm workers that they see their labor as a spiritual duty — helping to bring God’s bounty to the earth. Religion is one of the few shreds of dignity that farm workers have, something they can hold onto while doing enormously hard work and suffering degradation.”

Nahmias said more than a million people in California are involved in migrant farm labor, and the big growers have little or no human connection with them.

“A middleman-agent brings the growers undocumented laborers who are willing to work for three or four dollars per hour,” Nahmias said. “If a worker is owed [money], what’s he going to do? He doesn’t speak English; he can’t go to court because he works six days a week, and there are 8,000 complaints piled up ahead of his.”

While preparing this exhibition, Nahmias said he came to believe “that no other group of people in this country works as hard and is paid so little for that work. And no group plays such a vital role in preserving the lifestyle that we’re fortunate to have.

“I hope that this exhibit lays a few seeds of compassion … so that when people look at ‘the immigration issue,’ they’ll realize it’s a human issue…. We eat three meals a day, and we’re incredibly lucky to do that…. I do educational programs, I talk with the kids, I tell them, ‘Look, you’re going for your Happy Meal, this is where that tomato comes from’…. [So] by virtue of the lives we lead, as Americans and as human beings, we owe it to the migrant workers to look in their eyes and understand how we’re reflected in their eyes. We owe it to them to understand what responsibility we have.”

The exhibition continues through May 25 at the Museum of Tolerance, 9786 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. “The Migrant Project” book is available at the Museum of Tolerance. Half the proceeds from book sales will go to organizations helping migrant farm laborers. For more information, call (310) 553-8403.

As she remembers it


Do you write from memory? Someone always asks, and I become tongue-tied and uncertain, scrambling for the words, the ways to make believable what I know will sound bizarre — a too-complicated response where all that is required is a simple “Yes” or “No” or “Sometimes; the rest is research.”

I lived in Iran for only 13 years. I remember very little — a handful of places, a couple of dozen friends and relatives. Yet, I’ve spent my entire career writing about the country and its people, and I’ve written it all — this is the part that’s difficult to explain — from memory.

“There were always two of us,” I want to say when someone asks me where my novels come from — “Back then, in Iran, in that place where all the stories began, where all the men and women, the ghosts and legends and bitter, half-invented truths that made up our daily reality lived and died in grand, spectacular, forever tragic ways.”

There I was, the child who engaged and enjoyed, who accepted, as the innocent would, without questioning, without doubt or judgment, the stranger-than-fictional world she was born into, who passed through those years unscathed and unscarred, bearing few memories and even fewer attachments, crossing easily, effortlessly, over to a life in the West. And then there was that other me, that silent, invisible, forever-present part of me that watched and remembered. That other one, the one who’s silent except when I write, saw the things I could not bear to see, felt the emotions with a force that I, as a child, could not withstand. It is she who remembers and who tells, who tries to bring together the scattered pieces of time, the shattered bits of lives, glue them into a canvas and, in the retelling, make them whole.

I remember our house, its grand, almost theatrical beauty — high brick walls and hand-painted, gold-leafed ceilings, freshwater pools with statues of mermaids and dolphins rising in the shade of hundred-year-old trees — in the midst of a city that had grown too fast, become too unwieldy too soon. I remember my grandparents — the men angry and disappointed, the women quietly resigned. My parents — young, beautiful, determined to break out of the life of tradition and obedience they had been born into. My two sisters — green-eyed, golden-haired, quiet as angels and equally helpless.

She remembers the rest — the friends and strangers, neighbors and long-lost cousins, desperate salesmen on one last call for the day, wiry old tax collectors bearing suitcases that were empty when they arrived, filled with cash and other valuables before they left — the tales they told or that were told about them, the grudges they bore, the triumphs they boasted of.

I remember what was — our little elementary school with the green painted gates and the play areas that were reserved for boys, the principal who walked around the yard wearing stilettos and carrying a horse whip, two feet of snow in the winter, sweltering sidewalks in summer.

She remembers what wasn’t — the kindness we didn’t see from our teachers, tolerance from our elders, gentleness from a landscape, a climate that, although breathtakingly beautiful, showed no mercy to the weak.

I remember what I wished for — good grades; my parents’ approval; the white pleated skirts and gleaming sharp colored pencils and scented erasers that my friends brought back from America every summer.

She remembers what I feared — to fail in school and therefore be barred from going to university; to fail my parents and therefore become, like all those other girls whose stories I heard as a child and that I would write about in my novels, a source of shame and infamy to my own children and theirs; to fail among my peers and therefore become, like the runaway aunts my mother told me about who, try as they might, could not conform to the mores of the day and had to leave or be driven out of their hometown, never to be allowed to return.

I do write from memory — yes — I want to say to those who ask, but my memories are few and uncomplicated. It’s the shadow in the back of the room where I sit to write, the voice I hear only when I see the letters appear on the blank screen, the child who refuses to grow up lest she forget to bear witness — it is she whose memories I write from.

Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is “Caspian Rain” (MacAdam Cage, 2007). This month’s column previously appeared in Jewish Book World.

Excerpt: ‘Proust Was a Neuroscientist’


Walt Whitman

The Substance of Feeling

The poet writes the history of his own body.

— Henry David Thoreau

For Walt Whitman, the Civil War was about the body. The crime of the Confederacy, Whitman believed, was treating blacks as nothing but flesh, selling them and buying them like pieces of meat. Whitman’s revelation, which he had for the first time at a New Orleans slave auction, was that body and mind are inseparable. To whip a man’s body was to whip a man’s soul.

This is Whitman’s central poetic idea. We do not have a body, we are a body. Although our feelings feel immaterial, they actually begin in the flesh. Whitman introduces his only book of poems, Leaves of Grass, by imbuing his skin with his spirit, “the aroma of my armpits finer than prayer”:

Life on the picket lines — a striking writer reports


When I was asked by The Jewish Journal whether I’d like to write something funny about the WGA strike, I thought — hey, there’s nothing funny about this:
corporate bullies refusing to pay writers for their work. This is serious.

But as my friend Rob Lotterstein, creator and executive producer of Fox’s “The War at Home” says, “Just because we’re not writing doesn’t mean we’ve lost our sense of humor.”

I see Rob at Friday’s rally in Fox Plaza, and he says: “This is like Yom Kippur for writers. We run into many of the people we would prefer not to see; I thought we hated each other but on a day like today … all is forgiven. We smile a too-broad smile, ask how they’re doing and wish them well.”

I can’t help but notice that we’re standing next to a table piled high with bagel halves spread with cream cheese schmears. It’s no secret that the Writer’s Guild has a greater-than-the-general-population proportion of Jews in its membership. Did the grocery store workers or the janitors union have bagels when they went out on strike?

I bet they had doughnuts. We have doughnuts, too — Krispy Kreme — and gourmet churros — but they’re being passed out by assistants, not rank and file. We know they’re assistants because they’re wearing baseball caps with agency names embroidered on them. They’re here to lend support, sent by the people who really stand to lose money in this strike: the agents. The cute 20-somethings from United Talent Agency proffer jumbo-size plastic trash bags filled with Power Bars. On the picket line two days ago at Sony, I watched a frail young man balance a cardboard tray of Starbucks cups offering, in a distinctive lilt: “Mocha? Anyone want a mocha? I’ve got one mocha left.” This is Hollywood; the privileges don’t die easy.

We have welcome support from SAG (Screen Actor’s Guild). The actors’ contracts come up in June, and they will have the same issue on the table: payment for work sold to new media. We know who they are, because they look so much better than we do. Writers tend to be dough-y and out of shape — all that compulsive eating to stem the anxiety of the blank page — we generally wear ill-fitting, faded T-shirts and “relaxed fit” jeans. Actors have to maintain a better body image. It’s their job. They work out and dress in clothes that show off their toned muscles. Anyway, we’re glad they’re here. More bodies — especially beautiful ones — on the line are a good thing.

The actors also draw the media. Here in Fox Plaza there are 4,000 writers, and yet all the cameras are trained on the two actors from “Reno 911” who’ve shown up in their sheriff’s costumes. Have you watched the show? They wear official-looking shirts and hats, but micro-mini shorts — at least the guys do. Well, I have to say, he does have great legs and an adorable butt. I can only imagine that casting call. Then there’s a gorgeous young actress, dressed in a diaphanous black cocktail dress appropriate only for an awards show. She’s floating through the crowd carrying a large sign, trimmed in ostrich feathers, that reads “DAY 5.”

The rally does what it’s supposed to: Make a lot of noise, buoy spirits, solidify determination and get us more coverage in the press and on the Web. Tom Morello and Zack de la Rocha of Rage Against the Machine sing us a couple of “fight songs” — OK, not exactly Pete Seeger singing to coal miners, but I take a picture with my cell phone and call my daughter Molly at college to tell her. She gets off to call her boyfriend because apparently he’s a major R.A.T.M. fan. Later that night she sends me an e-mail of support telling me the O Bar in West Hollywood is offering Strike Specials. Solidarity!

The R.A.T.M. guys finish and Jesse Jackson speaks. I call my son, whose name is also Jesse, to tell him. “What’s Jesse Jackson doing there?” my Jesse asks, with his natural-born instinct to cut to the chase. The only answer I come up with is, “It’s win/win. Everybody gets a picture in the paper.”

Then the speeches from our leadership — our Executive Director David Young recalls how the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers has made the identical disingenuous claims, over and over, every time there is a new development in entertainment: videocassettes, DVDs, cable and reality TV. They whine, “We don’t have a business model yet…. We aren’t making any money.” The crowd spontaneously erupts in a chant of, “Bulls–t! Bulls–t!”

Our chief negotiator, John Bowman shouts, “Come back to the table, baby! We can work it out.”

Seth McFarlane (creator, executive producer of “Family Guy” and the voice of Stewie) speaks with humor but decided strength when he tells us that on the third day of the strike all “Family Guy” assistants were fired by Fox. “Instead of negotiating, they lashed out at the little guy. What a classy move.”

Then he urges all show runners (executive producers like himself) to personally continue to pay their assistants while we’re out on strike. A truly classy move.

The best speaker is, no surprise, an actor! Alan Rosenberg, president of SAG (and Jewish, if you’re keeping score) pulls in cheers with lines like: “They worry about profit margins and we worry about paying our bills!”

I wonder, is the White House in his future? Or at least the California governor’s mansion? You may remember, Ronald Reagan started out as president of SAG. Of course, Reagan sold out the actors on residuals, while Rosenberg is fighting for them. A nice Jewish boy. Last, we hear from the much-venerated Norman Lear who buttons up the speeches with a laugh when he says, “I was here when we struck against the Pharaoh.” So I guess there is a Jewish influence on this strike line.

That’s my personal report from the ground. If you’d like a simple explanation of the real issues this strike is about, I recommend this YouTube video:

Kushmet


Last Monday night, I was sitting on stage at American Jewish University interviewing Tony Kushner, talking Life and Judaism and Big Ideas to a man who is arguably America’s greatest living playwright, when, suddenly, the words of what is arguably the world’s cheesiest bubble-gum song popped into my head:

Torn between two lovers/Feeling like a fool/Loving both of you is breaking all the rules.

It didn’t come to me just as punishment for listening to too much AM radio in the ’70s. It was something Kushner said. He called David Mamet a name. I love Mamet, author of “American Buffalo” and “Glengarry Glen Ross” and “Speed the Plow.” I love Kushner, author of “Angels in America” and “Homebody/Kabul.”

I would stand in the TKTS line on any freezing windy gray February day in New York for discount tickets to see anything either man has written — who can afford Broadway at face value? — and here I was, hearing one of them groan at the mention of the other.

Not at the artistry. Let me be clear. Because of the politics. Yes, it was not artist versus artist, but, wouldn’t you know it, Jew versus Jew. Mamet’s name came up because I asked Kushner about how it is that Phillip Roth and Arthur Miller bristle at being called “Jewish writers,” whereas Kushner and Mamet both identify strongly, even pugnaciously, as Jewish writers.

“Yeah,” said Kushner. “He’s definitely more pugnacious than me.” But then Kushner sighed. He is, in person, somewhat slight, with a beautiful looping Jewish nose, a high forehead, a chin veering toward weak, and enough curly brown hair to make a man of 51 look almost inappropriately young. What he said next about Mamet came out with almost a touch of despair. “He’s so butch.”

The audience laughed; it was funny because, to quote Homer Simpson, it’s true.

Mamet is built like a Battle-Bot, he has pecs on his pecs, a close-shaved head and in between writing lines like the opener to his book “The Wicked Son” — “The world hates the Jews. The world has always and will continue to do so.” — he practices jiu-jitsu almost every day — with his rabbi. That’s not just butch, that’s shtarker.

As a fellow artist, Kushner offered nothing but adulation for Mamet’s work. “I’m hugely indebted to him as a playwright. I think Mamet invented a new kind of stage language that everybody in America [has followed]. I certainly couldn’t have written Roy Cohn … had I not listened to Mamet. He’s a big influence. And I say that just gasping in horror at a lot of things he says politically.”

In “The Wicked Son,” Mamet’s non-fiction book of essays about Jews, he takes off after members of Kusher’s beloved New York Upper West Side Secular Left for their collusion with “Israel-indicting bodies,” their “blame the victim mentality” and their “idiotic, immoral cant.”

For Mamet, equivocation or hesitation when it comes to anything but the quick, sharp defense of the Jewish state is a sign of capitulation at best, apostasy at worst.

But Kushner embraces uncertainty. “I have very mixed and complicated feelings about the state of Israel as a Jewish American,” he said on Monday evening, “and I’m furious at being represented as this kind of marginal crazy who’s plotting to destroy the state of Israel. I think everybody harbors their own secret doubts, or at least most of us do, and everybody’s afraid to say them, because the orthodoxy is policed with such violence and vituperation.”

Kushner and director Steven Spielberg endured a wave of criticism from some within the Jewish community who felt their film “Munich” stretched too far in trying to humanize Palestinian terrorists, or in trying to insert moral quandary into the minds of Israelis assigned to kill those terrorists.

I asked Kushner why Mamet, among others, finds his position so unpalatable. “It’s because they’re trying to defend the indefensible,” Kushner said. “It’s trying to uphold the reality you can’t uphold. It’s a cartoon version of Middle Eastern politics that almost no one in the state of Israel recognizes. There’s easily 50 percent of the Israeli population that’s progressive.”

I’m not sure of that number, especially in the wake of the Hamas takeover of Gaza, but Kushner was clearly still feeling the sting of “Munich.”

“I can’t feel neutral about the state of Israel because I’m a Jew,” Kushner said, “and I would like to see Israel survive and prosper. I absolutely don’t believe in single-state solution. I believe in a two-state solution. I’ve never anywhere on earth said I believe Israel should be forced to give up its identity as a Jewish state … that obviously wouldn’t work. It would be the end of Israel.” But Kushner attacked those who disagree with what he considers his more thoughtful approach to Israel’s conflict.

“[Mamet’s] view really almost goes to neighborhood street gang turf war, the people on the hill and the people in the valley. It’s like that Billy Jack anthem. You can’t talk in those terms.”

“I understand we have a history of horrendous persecution and oppression,” Kushner said. “The Holocaust was only 60 years ago. Anti-semitism is everywhere in the world today. It’s scary to be a Jew. You’d be stupid not to be scared. So I get the fear that’s behind it. But, you know, being a minority is hard, because you’re outnumbered. So you have to start asking yourself really grown-up serious questions about how do minorities survive… and there are lots of interesting answers, and one of them is nationalism, and one of them, the one I prefer, is the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, a pluralist democracy.”

And so, my two favorite playwrights find themselves on opposite sides of a longstanding Jewish divide. “All sound creative art is rooted in a ghetto,” the critic Ludwig Lewisohn once wrote. Once out of that ghetto, the roots bifurcate, and we Jews have fashioned two strategies for survival. For the Mamets, salvation lies in toughness and certainty, the People of the Butch. For Kushner, our promise is in compromise and doubt.

“People say the artist has the ability to see the future,” the writer Eric Hoffer once said. “That’s not true. The artist has the ability to see the present.” But what happens when their prophesies collide? I know my answer: you try to live somewhere in between.

To hear of the Kushner interview, click on these files:

Kushner on Mamet
Kushner on parental influence
Kushner on Jewish identity
Kushner reads ‘Prayer’
Kushner on Israel

Books: ‘Primo Levi’s Journey’ traces the path of a survivor


“Primo Levi’s Journey” defies neat categorization. It’s part travelogue, part Holocaust remembrance, part philosophical reflection.

The documentary’s roots lie in the Italian Jewish writer’s long journey after his liberation in January 1945, from Auschwitz to his hometown of Turin on a train trip escorted by Russian soldiers for a 10-month zigzag course across much of Europe. It seems guided, or rather misguided, by an unknown hand and could have been mapped out by Kafka himself.

Levi and 600 other Italian camp survivors and ex-prisoners of war crossed from Poland to Ukraine, laid more than two months in Belarus, then traveled through Moldavia, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, Austria and Germany, finally reaching northern Italy thousands of miles later.

He wrote down the recollections of these wanderings in “The Truce” (published in the United States as “The Reawakening”) many years after describing his one year in Auschwitz in his major work, “If This Is a Man.”

In 2005, Italian filmmaker Davide Ferrario decided to mark the 60th anniversary of Levi’s liberation by retracing the route with a camera crew. Intercutting footage from the 2005 journey with Levi’s earlier observations on the same places, the film is disorienting in the beginning. Only gradually does it become clear that Ferrario is contrasting how much — and how little — has changed in the 60-year interval.

In the cities, Americanization and globalization have left their obvious marks. Intimate pubs, and corner stores have given way to McDonalds and supermarkets patronized by jean-clad natives and foreign immigrants. But, to his surprise, Ferrario found that in rural and farming areas, time has often stood still.

In Belarus, he encounters a perfect replica of the 1930s Soviet Union, as if preserved in amber. After being arrested as a suspicious foreigner, Ferrario is proudly treated by the local KGB to a grainy agitprop film of peasants celebrating the joys of working on a communal kolkhoz.

Old hatreds remain, as in Lvov, where young Russians beat a young singer to death for performing patriotic Ukrainian tunes, and in Munich, where neo-Nazis mourn the good old days.

Levi’s 1945 observation of a planet “that prefers disorder to order and stupidity to reason” seems as apt as ever.

There are some truly Kafkaesque sights along the way. In Budapest, it is the Cemetery of Communist Statues, displaying huge sculptures of Lenin, Stalin and muscular workers with a sign, “We accept credit cards.”

Like most Italian Jews, Levi grew up thoroughly assimilated and really awoke to his Jewishness only in Auschwitz. In one scene from his 1945 travels, Levi encounters two Yiddish-speaking girls and introduces himself as a fellow Jew. The girls reject him outright, saying, “You don’t speak Yiddish, you can’t be Jewish.”

When Levi returned to Turin after the war, he resumed his profession as a chemist, writing intermittently. In 1987, he fell down a flight of stairs in his home and died. The coroner classified the death as a suicide, though Levi’s family and some friends protested that he had died accidentally.

Ferrario believes that the writer took his own life, but, hesitating to use the word “suicide,” simply states in the film that “he threw himself down the stairs.”

Perhaps Elie Wiesel had it right, when, hearing of Levi’s death, he remarked, “Primo Levi died 40 years earlier in Auschwitz.”

“Primo Levi’s Journey” opens Nov. 2 at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills.

Artist-Writer Maira Kalman creates illustrated memoir


When asked why she became a painter and writer, Maira Kalman, author of “The Principles of Uncertainty,” an illustrated memoir, says, “I can’t do anything else. I clean very well. I’d like to be a maid for the Duchess of Devonshire.”

That Kalman, who will be appearing Oct. 30 at Los Angeles’ downtown Central Library for one of its ALOUD events, would seek, even somewhat jokingly, a job outside the United States is no surprise. She has lived in Rome, was born in Israel to Russian-born parents and now lives in New York. She is also a Francophile, and the bold use of color in her exquisite paintings shows a clear connection to the work of Matisse and Cezanne.

As much as she is celebrated as a painter and illustrator — her work has adorned the cover of The New Yorker and has been exhibited at the Julie Saul Gallery in Manhattan — Kalman says, “I guess I consider myself a writer.”

“Principles” is not her first book. She has previously written and illustrated a dozen children’s books and, as befitting her New Yorker pedigree, she illustrated a new version of Strunk & White’s classic, “The Elements of Style,” a text whose introduction was first published by The New Yorker.

A series of ruminations on life and death, as well as desserts, hats and walking, “Principles” conspicuously invokes Proust in its stream-of-consciousness style. But Proust is not the only literary figure who turns up in Kalman’s text. She also writes about Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Kafka; visits a friend named Molly Bloom; calls her daughter Milton, and draws a painting of an androgynous Nabokov, wearing what appears to be lipstick and women’s shoes, while reading a book on the science of butterflies and moths.

In fact, Kalman only writes about one painter: British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who painted as a hobby, but of course is better remembered as a wartime statesman, orator and writer, and who won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

There are occasions when Kalman suspends her penmanship, idiosyncratic in its inconsistent use of capital letters within words, a bit harsher than the soft lines that often characterize women’s handwriting and types captions for illustrations.

She explains that she typed the chapter on February because “I didn’t want the handwriting to be lyrical, since February is such an impossible month…. It’s cold and gray and sad and rainy.”

She also sometimes includes blurry photographs of people walking, instead of her gouache-on-paper paintings. “I take hundreds of photos a week,” said this cross-disciplinary artist, who also has designed fabrics, clocks and umbrellas and is now working on an opera of her book with composer Nico Muhly.

A strain of melancholy runs through “Principles” — in the tales of the death of her husband and aunt, the Holocaust and Israel’s recent war against Hezbollah. But Kalman, who was in Israel last year during the war, seems to be heartened by the rudeness of an Israeli, who in the midst of the conflict flicks the remains of rotting cherries off his car onto her shirt. And she notes that the ice cream man is still selling his wares on the beach, and the secondhand bookstore and flea market in Tel Aviv are still filled with customers.

The final illustration of a river rippling down a falls into a pool leaves us with an image of tranquility and vibrancy. On the flip side of the page is a message from a World War II poster that still resonates today, “Keep Calm and Carry On.”

Maira Kalman will appear in conversation with Louise Steinman on Tuesday, Oct. 30, 7 p.m. For information call (213) 228-7025.