December 15, 2018

Brothers Find Each Other Decades After WWII

Izak and Shep Szewelewicz. Photo courtesy of Alon Schwarz.

Izak Szewelewicz was born in the Bergen-Belsen displaced persons camp in 1945. When he was 3, his mother, Aida, sent him to Israel to live with an adoptive family.

Growing up, Izak didn’t know he was adopted. Then, before he turned 13, Aida made contact with her son. They reunited at Izak’s bar mitzvah and stayed in touch. She would fly from Canada, where she lived, to visit him in Israel.

When Izak asked about his father, Aida said his name was Grisha, and he had been killed in the war. Izak didn’t probe further.

Flash forward many years. Izak, nearly 70, has a family of his own. His relatives have made a pact never to reveal the truth: Izak has a brother. But one day the secret comes out, sending Izak on a life-changing journey.

“We’re two brothers trying to learn about each other after 68 years.” – Shep Szewelewicz

That quest is the subject of the film “Aida’s Secrets,” which will be shown on Oct. 27 at Laemmle Town Center 5 in Encino; Laemmle Royal in Los Angeles; and Laemmle Playhouse 7 in Pasadena.

Israeli Alon Schwarz, Izak’s nephew through marriage, directed the film. It documents the family’s journey as it seeks out Izak’s long-lost brother, with help from a genealogy-research firm.

“I went through months of research,” Schwarz said. “You build stories in your head. We built a timeline. It was something very personal for me to finally have this happen in front of my eyes.”

The family locates the brother, and — 20 minutes into the 90-minute film — Izak goes to Winnipeg, Canada, to meet him. His name is Szepsyl Szewelewicz, or Shep. He is 10 months younger than Izak and blind.

“It was quite a shock to get a call saying you have a brother,” said Shep during a phone interview. “We’re two brothers trying to learn about each other after 68 years.”

It turns out that Shep had never met his mother, Aida, who was living in a Canadian nursing home at the time of filming. Grisha, or Greg, was also Shep’s father — and had survived the war. He had raised Shep and died in 2008.

At Shep and Izak’s tearful reunion in the film, they decide to visit Aida so Shep can meet her. When Aida sees Shep, she embraces him and acknowledges him as
her son.

“When you haven’t met your brother or mother for a long period of time it’s hard to take in,” Shep said. “It was with some trepidation that I went. It was nice for her to say, ‘My Shepsyl’e’ to me. It gave me affirmation that I was her child.”

Schwarz said the reunion “was like a climax of emotions. We didn’t even know if she would acknowledge Shep. Everybody in the room was crying except Aida. But she was very emotional.”

Shep visits Aida a few more times, trying to get more answers out of her. She won’t divulge whether Izak and Shep had the same father — or that there is a third brother (as the family discovered independently).

Shep said Aida was tight-lipped because of the horrors she saw during the war. She had to learn to be quiet and guarded in order to survive.

As a teen, Aida was forced to work for a German woman, a Nazi, said Schwarz, the director: “She probably got abused by Nazi soldiers.”

Aida died in 2016, and Shep and Izak are in occasional contact. During the filming, Shep visited Israel for the first time and celebrated Passover with his brother. After growing up an only child, Shep said, he enjoyed sharing the seder with 20-plus relatives. “It was really lovely. I never had that.”

“Aida’s Secrets,” first released in 2016, has played at film festivals around the world. After screenings, “people hug me, they kiss me, they get emotional,” Schwarz said. “For me, the film has been the closing of a circle.”

“Aida’s Secrets” will screen Oct. 27 at Laemmle Town Center 5, 17000 Ventura Blvd., Encino; Laemmle Playhouse 7, 673 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena; and Laemmle Royal, 11523 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles.   

The brothers Farook: one a decorated veteran, the other a killer

One brother liked to party and chase girls. After high school, moved by what he saw as his patriotic duty, he enlisted in the Navy and received two medals recognizing his contributions to “the global war on terror.”

The other was deeply religious and became increasingly intolerant, ultimately nursing a growing hatred that led him, along with his wife, to open fire on a San Bernardino holiday party last week, in what law enforcement officials have termed a terrorist attack.

Syed Raheel Farook and his younger brother Syed Rizwan Farook grew up in the same house, attended the same high school two years apart and, as teenagers, often socialized in the same groups. But as they grew older their paths diverged.

Rizwan is now dead, gunned down by police in Southern California after joining with his wife in killing 14 people and injuring 21. Raheel is alive and left to wonder what went wrong.

The contrasting lives of the Farook brothers, described by friends, neighbors and former classmates who knew them both, is a disturbing tale, in part because there are so few clues to why they turned out so differently.

The family, including Raheel, declined repeated requests through their lawyers for comment for this story. But those who knew the brothers say that by high school, their differences were apparent and growing.

“Most people here go to mosque to please their parents,” said Shakib Ahmed, who attended mosque with the Farooks.

Raheel, the older brother, was that kind of kid, he said. He went to Friday prayers, but he also liked to drink and had a girlfriend in high school who wasn't Muslim.

Rizwan was quieter and more serious – and far more religious. Only with his older brother, friends said, did they see Rizwan lose his temper.

“He was nice to everyone else, but he was kind of the dominating type. He would yell at his brother,” Ahmed said.


Soon after graduating from high school in 2003, with the U.S. invasion of Iraq just months old, Raheel joined up and went off to boot camp in Illinois, according to naval records. In 2004, he was assigned to serve on the USS Enterprise as an information system technician.

Back home, Rizwan, a bright boy, finished high school a year early according to school records. In the years that followed, friends and neighbors say, he quit wearing jeans and polo shirts and donned robes.

“I noticed a change with the clothes and the beard,” said Ahmed.

At home, there was increasing turmoil. In 2006, the boys mother, Rafia Farook, filed for divorce from her husband Syed after more than 24 years of marriage, according to court documents.

In court filings, Rafia cited multiple instances of domestic abuse, asserting that her husband was “mentally ill” and threatened “to kill himself on a daily basis.” During one violent incident, she said, her son came between them “to save me.”

Gasser Shehata, a friend of Rizwan's from a San Bernardino mosque, said that Rizwan talked to him in recent years about his religious issues with his dad while growing up, and how he came to side with his mother in their disputes. Shehata said that Rizwan told him that his father refused to pray regularly, which was a source of tension.

When Rizwan joined the dating site in 2013, his profile described how he spent much of his free time “memorizing the Qur'an and learning more about the religion.”

He was looking, he wrote, for a woman “who takes her religion very seriously and is always trying to improve her religion and encouraging others to do the same.”

Even as the distance between the brothers grew, they remained bonded.

Attendees at Rizwan's wedding reception last year at the Islamic Center of Riverside said Rizwan seemed to enjoy his brother's easy and relaxed manner with the guests, even though he said little and seemed withdrawn. At one point, Raheel even teased his younger brother, calling him “Rizi,” which Rizwan took in good humor.

Some of those who knew the Farooks have thought deeply about the brothers and their differences in recent days. But many of the things they come up with could apply to any siblings.

“Raheel was just a normal … guy,” said Usmaan Arshad, who attended La Sierra High School with the brothers. “No one talked to Rizwan,” he said.

Rose Aguirre, a neighbor of the family for years, said the difference between the Farook sons had seemed to her to boil down to the fact that Raheel was “more personable, more Americanized” than his brother.

But those characterizations worked only before last week, when it became apparent that the differences went far deeper.

Attorney David Chesley told CNN on Monday that Raheel “is very upset with his brother.”

“He's totally depressed and broken with grief.”

Judge won’t drop charges against Baltimore brothers

A Baltimore judge will not drop the charges against two Jewish brothers accused of beating a black teenager.

Judge Pamela White on Tuesday denied the motion to drop the charges against Avi and Eliyahu Werdesheim, according to The Associated Press.

The brothers have pleaded not guilty to charges of second-degree assault, false imprisonment and carrying a deadly weapon in the alleged beating of Corey Ausby in November 2010. They face up to 13 years in prison if convicted on all three counts.

At the time of the incident, Eliyahu, now 24, was a member of the Jewish neighborhood watch group Shomrim. Avi is now 21.

On April 26, White also denied a separate motion filed on behalf of Ausby to drop the charges.

“It was not your decision whether to bring charges against the defendants, it’s the state’s decision,” she told the teen, according to the Baltimore Sun.

The Sun reported that Ausby said on the stand, “I been wanting to drop the charges all the time, I didn’t even want to go through [this].”

Brothers’ religious discrimination suit settled

A nationwide staffing company settled a lawsuit filed on behalf of two Jewish employees who were subjected to religious discrimination.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission had sued Texas-based Administaff, Inc., which provides human resource teams for small- to medium-sized companies, and Conn-X, a Florida-based cable service provider, after brothers Scott and Joey Jacobson were harassed for approximately two years at the Conn-X office in Edgewood, Md.

Administaff will pay the brothers $115,000 for religious discrimination, and will abstain from engaging in harassment on a religious bias and from retaliating against employees who report such harassment. Administaff also agreed to revise its policy against harassment and retaliation, and provide training for its managers on anti-discrimination laws.

The Jacobsons were called “dirty Jew” and “dumb Jew,” and were subjected to other anti-Semitic comments beginning in 2005. Scott Jacobson had his work vehicle defaced with a swastika and was forced into a trash bin for the amusement of managers watching on work surveillance cameras, calling it “throw the Jew in the Dumpster.”

Attempts to reach a voluntary settlement fell through, leading to the EEOC lawsuit. The suit against Conn-X remains unresolved.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits religious harassment.

Ted Kennedy Dead at 77


U.S. Senator Edward M. Kennedy, a major figure in the Democratic Party who took the helm of one of America’s most fabled political families after two older brothers were assassinated, died late on Tuesday at age 77.

“Edward M. Kennedy, the husband, father, grandfather, brother and uncle we loved so deeply, died late Tuesday night at home in Hyannis Port (Massachusetts),” the Kennedy family said in a statement.

“The Jewish community knew three Ted Kennedys,” wrote Jewish Journal Editor-in-Chief Rob Eshman, ” and not all will be mourned equally. There was Ted the Brother, Ted the Scoundrel, Ted the Israel-Lover.”

Read the full story at

Read the full statement here:

Edward M. Kennedy – the husband, father, grandfather, brother and uncle we loved so deeply – died late Tuesday night at home in Hyannis Port. We’ve lost the irreplaceable center of our family and joyous light in our lives, but the inspiration of his faith, optimism, and perseverance will live on in our hearts forever. We thank everyone who gave him care and support over this last year, and everyone who stood with him for so many years in his tireless march for progress toward justice, fairness and opportunity for all. He loved this country and devoted his life to serving it. He always believed that our best days were still ahead, but it’s hard to imagine any of them without him.

Obituary links:
To read Rob Eshman’s commentary, “Ted Kennedy, Israel and the Jews,” click here.

Brotherly Advice

In the last year, my younger brother has been asking for and taking my dating advice on an almost daily basis. It’s a fact that continues to astound me. This isn’t to say I don’t have anything worthwhile to say on the topic, despite the fact that I’m married now and raising two kids. It’s more that I’ve simply never had this kind of relationship with him before.

My brother and I were born two years apart. We shared a room growing up, played with “Star Wars” action figures together and coordinated plans to torture our younger sister, but around high school our paths split. He was into extreme sports and living life on a razor’s edge, whereas I was content lounging around the house reading and going with friends to places like Gorky’s to get into philosophical conversations.

The one thing we still had in common was our appreciation for women, but even there we differed. He liked the adventurous party girl, while I was drawn to the moody intellectual type. He ended up converting at age 16 to Catholicism after dating a Catholic girl, while one of my love interests led me to get serious about my Judaism and attend Shabbat services at CSUN Hillel.

My brother and I eventually found ourselves in completely different cities, and our phone calls went from weekly to monthly. As time went on, I was surprised if I heard from him more than a few times a year. We saw each other for the first time in eight years when I flew out to the Midwest to be a groomsman at his wedding in 1999. And I realized how far our paths had diverged when he proudly showed off the printed wedding blessing his in-laws secured from Pope John Paul II.

Like many men, my brother and I relied too much on our spouses, and we willingly sacrificed our male friendships on the pyre of our turbulent marriages. I was left with one close friend when my first marriage crumbled three years later. In 2004, when my brother’s marriage and business were falling apart, he couldn’t name any guy whom he could count as a reliable friend.

Throughout his contentious divorce, we still barely talked. I wasn’t sure what help I could offer him or whether he’d want it. But when he finally opened up to me a few months later about how he wanted to find love again, I couldn’t hold my tongue.

I told him to focus his time and energy on rebuilding his life and his self-esteem. He couldn’t offer stability to anyone, and he needed time to find himself outside of the context of a relationship.

“Date,” I said, “there’s no reason to get serious about anyone.”

Naturally, he didn’t listen. He moved in with a new girlfriend who had a tattoo emblazoned provocatively across her chest and observed a three-drink minimum when she visited with our family.

It wasn’t long before my brother started calling me with his doubts and anxieties. She was still chummy with her ex, he said. After he found multiple calls on her cell phone to her former beau, he wasn’t convinced everything was kosher, especially because their love life had hit a rough patch.

“She must have girlfriends to run to for advice,” I said. “Assume she isn’t just ‘talking,’ and tell her to drop him as a friend or you’re moving out.”

And to my surprise he did it. He moved out.

When he got his own place, I told him not to invite women over. He didn’t believe me at first. When he found two women he’d dated staking out his home at different times to see if he was bringing anyone else over, it dawned on him the advice might exist to protect him.

When he blew some first dates by talking too much, my advice was to keep his mouth shut, start listening and asking questions, but without turning it into an interview.

“Women want men to be enigmatic,” I said. “They’ll project what they want onto you. Don’t let your reality interfere with their fantasy.”

The guy who almost always wanted to talk about himself suddenly started taking the back seat in our conversations and shocked me by asking about my life.

After months of living on his own, my brother eventually reached a point where he told me he didn’t want or need a relationship. It amused him to no end that even though he was forward with women about not wanting a commitment, they still pursued him with a dream of getting to see his home — and with the hope of eventually moving in.

My brother has since been called a player — as well as many other names that can’t be printed in a family newspaper — but he learned quickly that many women will keep calling even after they’ve sworn off of him for good. It was a liberating revelation for him, because he saw that he didn’t have to become someone he wasn’t in order to attract a woman.

He’s even started to explore his Jewish heritage. He calls me frequently from the road as he’s on his way to use the gym at his local JCC, asking my advice about how he should handle his evening. And after joining a Jewish dating site, he asked me to recommend a synagogue for him to try on for size. Needless to say, Mom is kvelling.

I’m just excited that he’s also sought out his old friends, reserving a few days each month to play poker or get together for dinner. He tells me that they trade dating advice as they sit around the table, sharing what works and what doesn’t.

Although I’m about 1,600 miles away from him, I’m always by the phone, ready with some advice when my brother needs me. And I’m glad to know that even if I can’t join him at the table with his buddies, at least he’s regularly offering me a seat as one of the important men in his life.

Israel’s Cain and Abel Syndrome


“Cain’s Field: Faith, Fratricide, and Fear in the Middle East,” by Matt Rees (Free Press, $26).

Journalist Matt Rees was born in Wales, the great-nephew of two brothers who joined the Imperial Camel Corps and made their way to Egypt in 1916. His uncles fought in a World War I campaign that brought fame to another Welsh-born soldier, Col. T.E. Lawrence of Arabia. In 1917, the year in which the Balfour Declaration was issued, they rode through Jerusalem astride their camels.

Eighty years after his uncles’ journey, Rees traveled to the Middle East to report on the conflict. Now bureau chief in Jerusalem for Time, he has been covering the region for eight years. In his first book, the award-winning correspondent looks to the relationships between brothers who, unlike his uncles, don’t get along. His focus is not the conflict between Palestinian and Israeli, but among the people on each side; it’s a picture of betrayals, hatred and, sometimes violence.

Rees draws on another pair of brothers for the title of his book, “Cain’s Field: Faith, Fratricide, and Fear in the Middle East.” As he writes, “These two Middle Eastern nations battle over a land that was the field Cain farmed in the Book of Genesis. Cain’s offering of ‘the fruit of the ground’ pleased God less than the ‘firstlings of his flock’ offered by his brother Abel, a shepherd.”

He explains that Cain, who felt wronged by God, answered with a new wrong, murder. As he traveled around Israel and looked more closely at different readings of the text, he began to see the story differently than he had as a child, where Cain was seen as simply evil. Instead, he empathizes with Cain’s simple humanity and sees divine injustice. But, as he points out, people on each side, both Palestinians and Israelis, see themselves as Abel, having been wronged by their brother, Cain.

The book is particularly timely, in light of Yasser Arafat’s death, and new possibilities for hope in the Middle East. Rees writes about individuals, many of whom have not spoken publicly before, and he proves himself a good listener and skillful as a teller of other people’s stories. Each chapter is built around internal rifts, whether between supporters of Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, or secular and ultra-Orthodox Jews. While still the objective journalist, it’s clear that Rees cares deeply about the people he’s writing about. He has a great eye for detail, noticing, for instance, that the cellphone of a Palestinian father — whose unarmed son was killed by Arafat’s police and another son was wanted for the revenge killing — trills out the lambada.

“Neither side,” Rees says, “will be able to risk a true peace with the other until it feels secure enough in its own society. Without such a sense of security, the internal ruptures will prove deep and will be disastrously exacerbated by attempts to make peace with the other side. That’s why an Israeli rightist shot Prime Minister Rabin, and it’s also why the peace process inexorably led the Palestinians toward their violent intifada of the last few years.”

“It seems to me now,” he writes, “that the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians is like the spark that jumps between two electrodes. The electrical charge flashing between the two sides is real, but to focus entirely upon it, as interpreters of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle are doing, is to ignore the tangle of wires leading back from each electrode to the source of the current.”

Rees looks like Central Casting’s version of a foreign correspondent: tall and confident with rugged good looks; he speaks both Hebrew and Arabic, and his English is Welsh-accented. Before moving to Israel, he lived in New York for six years and covered Wall Street. From the time he arrived in Jerusalem, he was struck by how much he liked the people he met. In writing about business, he says that he never met people who explained the drama of their lives, in ways that are eloquent and real, as Israelis and Palestinians do.

Unlike his uncles, Rees is a Jew. He converted before his marriage, although he is now divorced. To the Palestinians, he doesn’t look like an Israeli, “which is what a Jew looks like,” so his identity is concealed.

Even those who follow and study the conflict intently will learn something from this book. On the Israeli side, one of the most surprising and troubling chapters, “The Dark Refuge,” relates to the treatment of Holocaust survivors in the country’s mental institutions. He profiles Dr. Yoram Barak, who has been working to ease their current suffering, recognizing that absolutely nothing can make up for being “consigned to little more than a steamy dungeon for half a century by the State of Israel, the country that was supposed to be a haven for people just like this.

When Barak takes a new job as head of a hospital psychogeriatrics ward, he learns that most of his patients do not speak, and all are survivors. Rees explains “this ghostly quiet was a mirror of the silence that greeted these people in Israel when they came from Europe. It was not only Barak’s predecessor who was complicit. An entire society refused to listen to these people when they arrived.”

After experiencing the worst of inhumanity, most suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. But they were incorrectly diagnosed as schizophrenics — and were treated over the years with insulin shocks, cold showers, antipsychotic drugs, electroconvulsive treatments and lithium, beatings, too. No one talked to them.

Their situation was created by inequities of patronage and corruption inherent in the health care system, as it was established by the early Zionists. With sensitive reporting, Rees demonstrates the way the Zionists looked down upon survivors.

He highlights the Sephardi-Ashkenzi rift by interviewing a singer who asserts a new identity performing the songs of his Moroccan background. Rees also describes the role of venerated Sephardi rabbis considered holy men and visited for their advice and blessings. And he interviews settlers and those on the Israeli left.

On the Palestinian side, he follows stories of splits between the old guard and young guard, between power brokers and street fighters, fugitives and henchmen. He interviews Zakaria Baloush, an official who had been part of Arafat’s inner circle, who speaks openly about Arafat’s destructive and divisive rule, and how he played people off of one another. Rees spends time with Hamas member Imad Akel, tracking him down in a refugee camp and in relatives’ homes. Akel, who was sought both by the Palestinian Authority, for a revenge killing, and by the Israelis for killing Jews, told Rees that if he wrote truthfully about him, the two men would be in paradise together one day. But Rees thought that surely Akel would arrive first, “for he sought it and there were many who wished to send him to the world beyond life, whether he found paradise there or not.”

Although the stories in the book can be harsh and profoundly sad, Rees is ultimately hopeful about positive changes, both within the two societies and between them: “I think that right now we have the opportunity, with the death of Arafat, to really change Palestinian society fundamentally.”

He sees the situation getting better between individuals, if people learn to listen to one another and to look inward, “It’s harder to hate a person you can put a face on than an institution. I don’t think there are any intractable problems. If you think it’s intractable, you haven’t been able to think outside of conventions.”

He’s critical of much daily reporting, which he sees as cliché-ridden and formulaic, too dependent on what the leaders are thinking. Unfortunately, he says, many journalists are trying to find the story, not the reality.

Rees, who lives in the Katamon section of Jerusalem, has already stayed in Israel longer than most journalists who pass through for a couple of years. For now, he has no plans to leave, and admits that living in Israel has made him a more tolerant person. He enjoys his life, has friends who share his passion for his soccer team, Manchester United, and he finds that in the Middle East, there’s always something new to see.

Sandee Brawarsky is the book critic for The Jewish Week.


Evan and Jaron

“Hey, Mr. Lowenstein, welcome to life.”

That’s the wakeup call that Jaron Lowenstein, half of the pop duo “Evan and Jaron,” says that he got this last year as he and his brother plan their comeback — without a major studio backing.

“We lived a charmed life, I felt like I’ve had everything fall in my lap till I was 29 years old,” says Jaron, who just celebrated his 30th birthday with his twin brother Evan in March. “The last six months, I’ve had to work for stuff. I mean, I’ve always worked hard, and I love doing what I do, but it’s having to feel like I’m doing almost the same stuff again to start the second time around.”

The second time around isn’t easy for any act, and a couple of years out of the limelight is like an eternity in the entertainment world.

But here we are on this sweltering Monday morning, Jaron looking scruffily handsome, diamond eyes sparkling over killer cheekbones as he animatedly talks about their new album “Half Dozen” on sale this week.

Since The Journal wrote about E&J nearly three years ago, their looks haven’t changed much, but it seems like everything else has for them. For one, Evan’s had a daughter and is trying to balance stardom with family-man-dom. Secondly, the world has seen an Orthodox presidential candidate, rendering E&J’s Sabbath-observant clause no big deal. And most importantly, E&J have left their last label, Sony/Columbia in order to release their new album on their own.

“We’re the luckiest guys alive, we got offered five different record deals and we chose not to go with them, because we felt we’d merely be trading seats in the Titanic,” Jaron says. If they didn’t make so much money with the label when things were going well, “why would I jump in with them [now] when it’s not working? Maybe they’ll figure it out, but maybe I will too.”

The Lowenstein’s risk-taking comes at a time when the music industry is hemorrhaging revenue from illegal downloading. And as music fans rebel at the high price of albums they can virtually get for free, E&J are hoping to tap into the anger and the indie current by selling their album at a fraction of the normal $20 cost.

The album — actually, it’s half an album, with six
original songs and three bonus tracks — will sell for $5.98 for the first 60
days (“What Jew wouldn’t like that?” Jaron jokes), and afterward for $9.98,
available on their self-mocking Web site, .

In the last three years, the Lowensteins have learned not to take themselves too seriously. Fame and its fleeting nature is the premise of the sitcom they’re pitching to Fox, based on their lives. “We were in Lawrence, Kan. playing a car dealership for 13 people and a Bozo the Clown look-alike. And we locked ourselves in the car and we’re like, ‘We’re not gettin’ out, we are not gettin’ out,’ and we’re like, ‘You know what? We are getting out,” Jaron says, punctuating his story with high-pitched melodic giggles. “And that’s the reality. It’s like a microcosm of the real roller coaster life.”

Plans for the show are on hold while they go on tour next week, and they’re hoping that their music — not the marketing — is what will help them reach their goal of selling 100,000 records. Like their last album, “Half-Dozen” offers a number of catchy tunes that you won’t be able to get out of your head as soon as you hear them on the radio, and especially after you’ll hear them on the radio a zillion more times. Take “What She Likes”:

“She likes the romance/to slow dance/staying out all night./She lights the Christmas lights all year round/why put ’em up take ’em down?/She watches baseball/hates the mall/but hangs out with the guys./That’s what I know about what she likes.”

With simple guitar and harmony in their similar overlapping twin voices, songs like “Stuck in the Middle” tell more mature stories than “Crazy,” about a couple who fight but can’t split up. “Now we’re stuck here/standing in the middle/of a mess we made./It’s all too little too late./You call your mother I write a song/We’ve come to agree that we can’t get along./Why can’t I say goodbye?”

Saying goodbye to their record label might bring one small advantage: perhaps this time around, E&J won’t have to contend with being typecast as a boy band or as singers for a teeny-bopper audience.

“Most of our fan base now is who it was — 18-40, 25-35, 18-34,” Jaron says. The brothers — who see themselves more in the mold of Simon and Garfunkel or a “male Indigo Girls” — got pigeonholed after they appeared in 2000 on MTV’s “Total Request Live” and Columbia decided to exploit their looks, with Chanel stepping in a year later with a merchandising tie-in.

“There is a reason we’ve toured with Sting, with Jimmy Buffet…and none of those other bands did,” Jaron says, referring to boy bands. “Because we’re in that genre. That’s our core, that’s where we come from.”

Speaking about where they came from, making a comeback is doubly hard when you come from the Orthodox community. There’s a reputation to uphold.

“Having established ourselves as the ‘Orthodox guys,’ we’re Modern Orthodox,” Jaron says, although Evan is more religious than he is. Single and about to start touring next week, Jaron says he thinks twice about his behavior because he’s become a role model to the Jewish community. In the last four years, Jaron says they’ve received tens of thousands of letters from Jews across the denominational spectrum. “And that’s great. But it also comes with a lot of responsibilities to maintain.”

But keeping kosher and Shabbat — which has cost them dearly in the past, making them miss out on summer tours — is important to the brothers. Jaron lovingly discusses what it’s like to be from such a tight-knit community.

“It’s so funny, every time we perform in front of Jewish people there’s that Jewish mother syndrome. You know, no matter what you do, there’s something wrong.” Jaron puts on an old Jewish man voice: “They’re not that good/They are that good/I heard they were better. Which one of them’s this? Are they really religious? Can they be….? If they’re really this, where’s their yarmulke? How do they do that?”

In his regular sweet voice Jaron says, “Jews are the quickest to claim people” — and he puts on his old man’s voice again and says, “Billy Joel’s Jewish/no he’s not Jewish.” Now back to Jaron again: “But as soon as they claim that ‘yeah we got one,’ then they just rip ’em apart. It’s like, let’s prove that he’s not really a Jew.”

On Sept. 11, Two Brothers Unite

Although I was there, I can’t tell you much about the events of Sept. 11, 2001, that you don’t already know. After all, you had CNN; I only had my two eyes and the prescription lenses I thankfully remembered to grab as I fled the apartment. Yes, I watched from a few blocks away as the towers fell, but without the benefit of a zoom lens or slow motion video (thank God for that — there was nothing that I saw I wished to see again or in greater detail).

Indeed, the overwhelming personal tragedies and the incredible acts of heroism have been recorded and retold. I cannot add to them. But I can tell you one story, a small one, about two brothers from Long Beach who found themselves that morning on opposite sides of a river.

A decade ago, my wife, Jackie, and I returned to Southern California from New York City, where we had lived for five years. I continued to make frequent business trips there. On the bright, clear morning of Sept. 11, I lazed sleepily in the apartment my company keeps in lower Manhattan .

I was alone. My brother, with whom I share the place when I come to New York, had an early plane to catch, and had left a couple of hours earlier. As I debated whether or not to get up and shower, he was sitting in the terminal at Newark Airport waiting for his Atlanta flight to be called. At the next gate, passengers lined up to board United Flight 93, bound for San Francisco. Randall casually watched them embark; he would be one of the last to see them alive.

Within minutes of the first attack, my building was evacuated. I stood in the park, 37 floors below my apartment window, with my eyes squinting against the sunlight, my heart racing, my mind recoiling, rejecting the evidence of my senses.

As the first tower fell, I was speaking with Jackie on my cell phone, reassuring her that I was alright, although she surely knew otherwise from the sound of my voice. I stood, a couple of hundred yards from the billowing smoke, trembling and terrorized. Randall watched helplessly from the airport, from which the towers were — had been — clearly visible.

Stunned, I began wandering the city, dazed and aimless. Randall, however, had the opposite reaction: he was galvanized, committed and determined to find a way back into Manhattan. His goal was to reach me and make sure I was OK.

Like me, Randall grew up in Long Beach, attended Jewish day school and celebrated his bar mitzvah at Temple Beth Shalom. Unlike me, though, he never left the neighborhood until the day I asked him to come work with me. Within a couple of weeks, he was setting up an apartment on Manhattan’s Chambers Street, learning the subway system and discovering ways to have videos and snack food delivered on demand via the Internet. By Sept. 11, my brother had been working with me for three years, spending about one week a month in Southern California and the rest of the time in New York City.

And so it was that morning, as about 8 million people worked desperately to leave Manhattan as quickly as possible, Randall focused his considerable ingenuity and sales ability on doing just the opposite.

The obstacles to reaching this goal were fairly considerable. Of course, all of the usual routes into Manhattan — subways, ferries and bridges — were closed. River traffic was warned away from the city’s many docks.

Randall, through a combination of persuasion, bribery and alert observation, finally reached Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Like our great-grandparents over a century earlier, he arrived on the island without a dime in his pocket. He set out on foot for SoHo, about 3 miles away, where he found me a couple hours later.

I was shaken, but fine. He was exhausted, but fine. I was relieved to have him with me. We spent the rest of the week together before finally coming home. Our flight was on Rosh Hashana; as Randall said at the time, "It’s not a problem. God is on vacation this week."

Soon it will be Rosh Hashana again. The High Holiday prayerbook, the Machzor, includes the words "These things I will remember." I carry hundreds of memories of Sept. 11, 2001, many of them terrifying that I would gladly be rid of. But I will also remember that somebody crossed a blockaded river and walked half the length of a city just to look in my eyes, to be reassured that I was OK.

Thanks, Randall.

Native Son

A few months ago, I wrote a story in these pages about my experiences as a Jewish Big Brother. As Paul Harvey says, here’s “The Rest of the Story.”

My Little Brother, Josh, invited me to his graduation from Northwestern Law School last month. “No, thanks,” I said. “I can do better. Let’s go back to Montreal.” He hadn’t been there in 18 years, since he was 9 years old, leaving the only home he’d ever known in a taxi, with tears running down his face. He still identifies himself as Canadian and an Expos fan. (Believe me, I tried to divorce him of the latter notion, but to no avail.) And so we set out to go home, to Montreal, over the Memorial Day weekend.

Josh came back to Los Angeles after graduation and we had lunch with Bobbi Feinberg, the wonderful woman who made our match 16 years ago. We hadn’t seen her in at least 10 years. Big and Little Brothers are brought together though a thorough screening and interview process, but chance also plays its part. On another day, or if I lived a few miles farther away, perhaps we’d both have made different matches with other people. Who knows how those might have turned out?

At my request, Josh’s mother sent me a three-page, single-spaced e-mail list of personal sights to see while in Montreal, including the hospital where Josh was born and the name of his pediatrician. I figured if I never saw the hospital where I was born, neither should he. For that matter, what was he going to talk about with the pediatrician? Get out the file and discuss a 20-year-old runny nose? That wasn’t making the cut on our itinerary.

Our first day in town we headed out to the old neighborhood, Notre Dame de Grace, and saw his house, which had fallen into some disrepair. He remembered the banister he used to slide down, and the same floral wallpaper was in the entry hall. Presumably, the plastic green army men Josh buried in the garden before he left were still there, under a lawn overgrown with dandelions.

We walked a few yards to a pocket park where he used to play ball, with stones unevenly marking imaginary bases … pretty much as he remembered it, except that it seemed so much smaller now. Hard to believe it was once big enough to play baseball in. The huge hill he remembered leading up to his house is now a gentle slope, a rise of perhaps 15 feet. It, too, seems to have shrunk with age.

We rang the doorbell of his neighbors, a wonderful couple named Pearl and Robert Adams who’d lived on the block for 29 years. Robert played chess with David Burt, Josh’s father, every day when David was ill. Toward the end, when David was too weak to move the pieces, too weak to even speak, Robert would touch each of the pieces until David raised his eyebrows, indicating which one to move. Pearl couldn’t quite get over Josh’s resemblance to his father, but also had to wrestle with the idea that the 9-year-old boy she knew was now a 6-feet-tall law school graduate.

Then we drove out to the cemetery, and read the “Kaddish” at his father’s gravesite.

That night we went to the Expos game. I’d contacted their front office, told them our story and asked for a tour of the stadium. “Whatever you’ve got,” I said. “Do you think he’d like to throw out the first pitch?” Goosebumps. “Yes, I think he’d like that,” I said.

This was the kind of secret I like — the kind I can tell everyone I know except two people, without fear of getting caught. I didn’t tell him until we got to the ballpark.

An hour later, as he stood on the field at Olympic Stadium, an interesting thing happened. He got on his cell phone to call his pals in Chicago and Los Angeles. I wasn’t listening, but I couldn’t help hearing that he told one of his friends, “My brother set it up” — dropping the prefix “Big.” After 16 years together, we are family.

He showed me how you hold a split-finger fastball, suggesting this was the pitch he’d use when the time came. I suggested he try to get the ball somewhere in the vicinity of home plate.

Josh was never the most demonstrative kid, something that used to frustrate me to no end, but this was a pretty emotional trip, and I knew it meant a lot to him. When we were about to go our separate ways at the airport, he thanked me for an “amazing” trip, something he’d never forget.

I said, “Now there’s something you can do for me,” and I gave him a little note with three words on it: Pay It Forward. “Go make a difference in someone else’s life now.”

Jewish Big Brothers is on the Web @


J. D. Smith, pictured above right with his Little Brother, can be found at

A Swinging Time

Joe and Harry Gantz, of the HBO peephole-fest "Taxicab Confessions," say it’s a good thing they attend Reform Temple Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills. "It’s the most liberal synagogue in town," says Harry, 43, the more easygoing Gantz. "No one raises eyebrows about what we do."

Cinematic voyeurism is what the brothers do best. In 1995 — before shows like "Survivor" launched the reality TV craze — "Taxicab" broke boundaries (and earned Emmy nominations) by filming passengers with five hidden, lipstick-size cameras. Strippers, morticians, junkies and grandmothers spilled their guts to the cabbies, who were told what to say by the Gantzes (they communicated via earpiece from a van). The Washington Post praised the brothers for shaping "their material so that it seems neither voyeuristic nor judgmental."

The brothers took the same approach to "Sex With Strangers," a feature-length documentary about the swinging lifestyle, opening today in Los Angeles. The stark film, which focuses on three couples, is a narrower portrait than David Schisgall’s 2001 doc, "The Lifestyle," which offers a broader social perspective.

During an interview in their Woodland Hills office — where a dusty "Confessions" cab graces the front yard — the Gantzes described how they got the idea for the movie. "When we were filming ‘Taxicab’ in Las Vegas, we picked up a couple from a swing club called The Red Rooster," says Joe, 47, the more soft-spoken, intense Gantz. "They started talking very matter-of-factly about these over-the-top sexual experiences, and we began to wonder if the experiences impacted other aspects of their relationship."

After scouring swingers clubs and magazines around the country, the brothers eventually settled on three couples, including a pair of Washington state medical professionals who cruised bars in their RV "love boat." To shoot the sex scenes (which constitute only seven minutes of the film), the Gantzes watched on a remote monitor while directing cameraman via an earpiece. The startlingly unsexy movie has more to say about jealousy than sex, prompting the tagline, "And you thought monogamy was hard."

Since the controversial movie was filmed, four of the subjects have lost their jobs — including a National Guard helicopter pilot a year shy of retirement. "We felt terrible about that, but I don’t feel our work exploits anyone," insists Joe, who’s also a writer and photographer. "We’re giving regular people the chance to tell their story in a straightforward, nonjudgmental way."

The brothers — whose office is lined with photos of their respective wives and children — trace their approach in part to their Jewish roots in Cincinnati. Their open-minded parents refused to follow the white flight out of their inner-city neighborhood, so most of the brothers’ childhood friends were black. "Our folks believed in the Jewish tradition of questioning, and that sexuality is an integral part of the psyche," says Joe, who like his brother had a Reform bar mitzvah.

Adds Harry, a former actor-director: "It’s no coincidence that Freud was Jewish."

Probing human nature was the goal when the Gantzes teamed up to make their first cinema vérité-style documentary, "Couples Arguing," for PBS in 1987. They found couples willing to beep them the moment they started fighting and to retreat to separate rooms until the filmmakers rushed over.

"Taxicab Confessions" came about when networks refused to buy their series, "Life at Random," about people whose names were plucked out of a phone book. "But we were able to convince HBO to do ‘Life at Random’ in a cab," Joe notes.

Today, the brothers are proffering even rawer fare on their Web site, Crushed Planet, and they are also developing a fictional feature film that’s the virtual opposite of "Sex With Strangers." "It’s a comedy about monogamy," Joe says. "It explores what it’s like to be married."

"Sex With Strangers" opens May 3 at the Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles. For more information call (310) 478-6379.

Anti-SemitesPlead Guilty to Firebombing

Two brothers, both self-proclaimed anti-Semites and white supremacists, pleaded guilty Sept. 7 to firebombing three synagogues in the Sacramento area two years ago.

Benjamin Matthew Williams, 33, considered the instigator in the attacks, faces 30 years in federal prison. His brother, James Tyler Williams, 31, is to receive 18 to 21 years when sentence is pronounced in November.

The torching of the three synagogues in the pre-dawn hours of June 18 marked the opening of the 1999 “summer of hate,” which included an arson attack on a Sacramento abortion clinic, also admitted by the Williams brothers. Subsequent months saw a shooting spree that wounded five at the North Valley Jewish Community Center, and a white supremacist’s killing rampage in the Midwest.

Following their conviction in federal court on the firebombings, the Williams brothers will be tried in state court for the killing of a gay couple, two weeks after the Sacramento arsons. Prosecutors said they would seek the death penalty.

Hardest hit by the synagogue attacks was Congregation B’nai Israel, a Reform temple, which last year celebrated its 150th anniversary, and which sustained more than $1 million in damages.

Substantial damage was also suffered by Congregation Beth Shalom, also Reform, in suburban Carmichael, and Kenesset Israel Torah Center, an Orthodox synagogue.

In a news conference following the guilty pleas, Louis Anapolsky, president of B’nai Israel at the time of the arson, said, “The wounds that were inflicted, which ran so deep, today are beginning to heal.”

At two of the synagogues, the perpetrators left leaflets proclaiming that the “International Jew World Order” and the “International Jewsmedia” started the war in Kosovo.

While he was held in prison, the voluble elder Williams initiated a series of press interviews in which he declared his readiness to be executed as a “Christian martyr,” whose death would spur increased attacks on Jews, homosexuals and various minority groups.

Following the synagogue attacks, a unity rally of all faiths and races in Sacramento drew 5,000 people and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to help the shuls repair their buildings.

By a coincidence in timing, Gov. Gray Davis appeared two days before the guilty pleas at Congregation B’nai Israel. He chose the venue to sign into law a bill prohibiting insurance companies from canceling, fail to renew, or raise premiums on policies of organizations filing claims based on hate crimes.

The bill was introduced after Congregation B’nai Israel was denied renewal of its property insurance after filing a claim for $1 million in damages sustained during the firebombing.

The new law goes into effect Jan. 1, 2002, and protects religious, educational and nonprofit institutions and organizations that have suffered losses due to hate crimes.

“The damage done by hate crimes cannot be measured solely in terms of physical injury or dollars and cents,” Tamar Galatzan, Western States associate counsel for the Anti-Defamation League, said. “When an insurance company blames the victim for being targeted — by cancelling or not renewing a policy — the perpetrator’s message of hate and exclusion is reinforced.”

Of One Mind

Joel and Ethan Coen, the quirky auteurs of “Fargo,” “Raising Arizona” and “The Big Lebowski,” are groaning.

They are recalling a recent viewing of their first feature film, “Blood Simple” (1984), a stylish, noirish tale of murder in Texas, which is being reissued in theaters today. “We cringed through the whole movie,” admits Joel, the elder brother, who is tall and thin, with tousled long hair and a scraggly goatee.”It was a bizarre and interesting exercise,” adds Ethan, who has freckles, round spectacles and a closely clipped red beard.

When an impending DVD release led to the restored director’s cut of “Blood Simple” not long ago, the unconventional Coens did exactly the opposite of what one might expect: They made the movie a bit shorter. “We cut out all the boring parts,” they say, in stereo, with twin shrugs. They also did some re-editing, remixed the sound and added some music they couldn’t afford when they were just a couple of tenacious Jewish kids from Minneapolis shlepping their first film around to festivals in order to find a distributor.

“Blood Simple” put the brothers on the map (Ethan quit his job as a statistical typist at Macy’s), and the Coens went on to write, produce and direct a series of off-center, ironic, unsettling fables peopled with vividly drawn cartoon characters.

Though Joel is credited as director and Ethan as producer, their work is so enmeshed that even the actors can’t say who does what. It’s been said that a typical exchange after a take involves Ethan saying, “Joel,” to which his brother replies, “Yeah, Ethan, I know. I’ll tell them.”

Their odd, distanced, outsiders’ view apparently comes from growing up Jewish, with Orthodox grandparents, in the icy American heartland, which is depicted in the Oscar-winning “Fargo” as a flat, frozen wasteland, occasionally broken by a tacky pancake house or a motel.

Everything about life in the suburbs outside Minneapolis was banal, they insist; the brothers, whose parents were university professors, amused themselves by making Super-8 films or watching kitschy programs on TV. While their sister went off to become a physician in Israel, they escaped to New York, where they worked odd jobs, bummed money from friends and scraped together the funds to complete “Blood Simple.”

The irreverent Coens are notorious among journalists for refusing to answer questions, but they perked up during a Journal interview when asked about the preponderance of unusual Jewish characters in their films. There is Bernie (John Turturro), the gay Jewish con man from “Miller’s Crossing”; the Clifford Odets-like playwright (also Turturro) afflicted with writer’s block in “Barton Fink”; and Walter Sobchak (John Goodman), the crazed Vietnam veteran of “The Big Lebowski,” who insists he cannot do this or that because he is shomer Shabbes.

Joel says the idea for Sobchak began as he was thinking about his Orthodox maternal grandparents and about an observant actress who once asked him if she would find work in the theater if she could not perform on Friday nights. “We wanted to explore the idea of someone in modern society who cleaves to all those rules,” Joel says. “The whole idea of this loose-cannon, gasbag Vietnam vet” proclaiming himself religious was rather funny and ironic, Ethan suggests.

As for “Barton Fink,” the brothers began the script as an antidote to their own writer’s block. While penning “Miller’s Crossing” in 1990, they could not finish the script. Instead, they paced, chain-smoked, telephoned friends, but nothing seemed to help. So they simply started another screenplay. “[It] washed out our brain, and we were able to go back and finish ‘Miller’s Crossing,’ ” Joel told The New York Times.