November 18, 2018

Lior Ashkenazi Goes International

Lior Ashkenazi, a three-time winner of an Ophir Award from the Israeli Academy of Film and Television, is a big star in Israel with films such as “Footnote,” “Walk on Water” and “Late Marriage” to his credit. Now, with three new films in or soon coming to theaters, the 48-year-old actor is receiving international acclaim as well.

His latest Ophir was for his performance in “Foxtrot,” as a father who receives the devastating news that his soldier son has been killed in action. Ashkenazi called the role “The most difficult thing I have ever done in my career.”

“Everybody in Israel knows someone who lost a member of his family, in a war or terror attacks. The grief, unfortunately, is surrounding us,” Ashkenazi said in an interview via Skype. “The most difficult thing for me [in the “Foxtrot” role] was trying to deliver the sorrow. I thought that maybe I could try do it physically. So, I didn’t sleep for two days before the first shooting day. And it worked. It was like vertigo. There was no time and space. Everything was almost in slow motion.”

He kept up the sleep deprivation on shooting days — sleeping only on weekends — and wore no makeup on set. “What you see in the first act of the movie is for real. Maybe I went too far,” he said.

Ashkenazi can also be seen portraying former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in “7 Days in Entebbe,” a film about Israel’s mission to rescue hijacked plane hostages from a Ugandan airfield in 1976.

“I didn’t sleep for two days before the first shooting day. And it worked. It was like vertigo. There was no time and space. Everything was almost in slow motion.” — Lior Ashkenazi

For Ashkenazi, who played a fictional Israeli prime minister in “Norman” (2016) opposite Richard Gere, playing a national icon like Rabin was daunting.

“I couldn’t ignore the burden on my shoulders,” he said. “And I didn’t want to imitate him, as in a sketch. So, I tried to find nuances, like his smoking. He smoked three packs per day. And I talked to his staff and watched a lot of footage, including home videos. The [Rabin] family helped a lot.”

Ashkenazi’s newest release, “Shelter,” is an espionage thriller in which he plays an Israeli intelligence agent. The film’s director, Eran Riklis, gave him his first TV role more than 20 years ago. “He’s brilliant and made a wonderful adaptation of the story,” the actor said. “I couldn’t resist.”

Ashkenazi was born in Ramat Gan to parents who came from Istanbul, Turkey, in 1964 “and brought with them all the Sephardic traditions. My mother tongue is Ladino. I see myself first as an Israeli,” said the married father of two daughters. “I’m Jewish mainly when I’m abroad. We do celebrate the holidays — Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Passover — but not in a religious way, more like as a tradition of our people.”

Until a few years ago, Ashkenazi was primarily a stage actor, but he’s now concentrating on movies, and writing and directing for the theater, with the occasional TV project. He’s currently shooting the music drama series “The Conductor,” playing the title role. He’s next set to shoot “Esau,” based on the Meir Shalev novel, with Harvey Keitel; and “My Zoe,” written, directed and starring Julie Delpy, in the fall. And he has plans to direct a new play at Habima, the national theater of Israel.

For Ashkenazi, an increasing involvement in international projects “is more challenging for me, dealing with a foreign language and breaking my usual routine,” he said. But he’s ready for whatever the future has in store for him. “I’m always looking forward.”

“Foxtrot” and “7 Days in Entebbe” are in theaters now. “Shelter” opens April 6 at the Laemmle Town Center 5, Monica and Ahrya Fine Arts theaters; and April 7 at the Laemmle Playhouse 7.

What’s Happening in Jewish L.A. Mar. 2-8: Special Film, Comedy and Debates




In the movie “Foxtrot,” Israeli director Samuel Maoz depicts the gut-wrenching grief, the overzealous mourning relatives, the well-meaning bureaucrats, and the downward spiral of depression and anger that come with losing a son in the military. Israel’s entry in the Oscar race for best foreign language film (which, ultimately, was not nominated) is a wrenching portrayal of parental grief, the joys and stresses of marriage, the boredom of army life and how Israel’s occupation policy humiliates the occupied and hardens the occupiers. The film opens at Laemmle’s Royal Theatre before expanding to additional screens on March 9. Various times. Friday-Sunday: $13, general; $10, seniors and children. Monday-Thursday: $12, general; $9, seniors and children. Laemmle’s Royal Theatre, 11523 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 478-3836.


Friday Night Unplugged

Friday Night Unplugged injects soul and meaning, through mindful meditation and a cappella prayers, into Shabbat services. Get into the zone for a meaningful and uplifting Friday night led by Rabbi Mendel Simons, director of Young Jewish Professionals of Los Angeles. A burgers-and-beer cocktail hour follows. 5:30-7:30 p.m. $10. The YJP Loft, 7122 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 692-4190.


Nefesh Shabbat

Uplift the soul and experience Shabbat during this biweekly service led by Wilshire Boulevard Temple Rabbi Susan Goldberg and the WBT Nefesh band. Come early for a potluck at 6:30 p.m. and stay for the acoustic guitars and vocal harmonies. A musical, spiritual and community-oriented evening awaits. 7:30 p.m. Free. Wilshire Boulevard Temple, 3663 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (213) 835-2146.


Rabbi Keara Stein, director of InterfaithFamily/LA, leads the final session of a four-part speaker series, “There’s Nothing New Under the Jewish Sun: A Look at Modern Issues Through a Jewish Lens.” The program has examined the hot-button topics of the day, including sexual harassment, fake news and the internet. 9-10:45 a.m. Free. The Studio @ SIJCC, 1110 Bates Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 663-2255.


San Fernando Valley-based Temple Judea encourages the entire family to enjoy a day of festivities, featuring rides that are bigger and better than ever, including a Ferris wheel, zip line, giant slide, bouncy houses, obstacle course and Lego pit. Of course, no carnival would be complete without nosh, and this event serves up plenty, with hot dogs, burgers and cotton candy among the options. 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Wristbands ($40 for unlimited rides and food) and tickets ($25 for 20) are available for purchase in advance or at the event. Temple Judea, 5429 Lindley Ave., Tarzana. (818) 758-3800.


As the nation grapples with gun violence in schools and public spaces, Temple Isaiah holds a timely discussion with representatives of Women Against Gun Violence, which seeks stringent gun laws. The morning event will focus on how to talk to children about guns; how to keep children and communities safe; how to ask your family, friends and neighbors if they have guns and whether the guns are locked up; and what gun owners should know about locking up their guns. Light breakfast served. 9:30 a.m. Free. Temple Isaiah, 10345 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 277-2772.


Kehillat Israel marries Hollywood’s most glamorous night with tikkun olam. Guests are invited to watch the Academy Awards on the big screen while packing 1,500 lunches for homeless people. Don’t miss this “golden” opportunity to mingle, gossip about the winners and repair the world. Recommended for guests at least 8 years old. Free and open to the public. 5-9 p.m. Sign up to attend or sponsor at Kehillat Israel Social Hall, 16019 W. Sunset Blvd., Pacific Palisades. (310) 459-2328.


Marc Maron

Jewish comedian Marc Maron headlines a special event that is sure to have audiences laughing out loud all night long. The veteran stand-up comic draws on 20 years of writing and performing experience, which includes conducting intimate interviews with iconic personalities on his hit podcast, “WTF With Marc Maron.” Don’t miss an opportunity to spend the night with one of the sharpest funnymen working today. For ages 18 and older only. 6 p.m., doors; 7 p.m., performance. $20. The Ice House, 24 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena. (626) 577-1894.


One LA, a coalition of faith-based organizations committed to social justice, including Temple Beth Am, Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills and Temple Judea, holds a conference focused on the moral and economic framework for supporting immigration. 6-8 p.m. Free. Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, 8844 Burton Way, Beverly Hills. (310) 488-1167.


“Jewish Soldiers in Blue & Gray”

More than 10,000 Jewish soldiers fought in the Civil War, the nation’s deadliest war, which pitted brother against brother and Jew against Jew. The film “Jewish Soldiers in Blue & Gray” tells a remarkable history, including Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s order expelling Jews from Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi; the rise of Sephardic Jew Judah P. Benjamin to secretary of state of the Confederacy; the imprisonment of Confederate spy Eugenia Levy Phillips; and the story of Abraham Lincoln’s Jewish doctor, who moved through the South as a Union spy. Sponsored by the Jewish Genealogical Society of the Conejo Valley and Ventura County. 7-9 p.m. Free. Temple Adat Elohim, 2420 E. Hillcrest Drive, Thousand Oaks. (818) 889-6616.


Elie Wiesel

Elie Wiesel played many roles in his life: Holocaust survivor, activist, author, educator and Nobel laureate. Join scholar Michael Berenbaum as he discusses Wiesel as a dissident against Jewish passivity, indifference and complacency. Berenbaum will examine Wiesel’s early years and his dissidence that ultimately became part of the Jewish agenda. 7:30 p.m. $18. David Alan Shapiro Memorial Synagogue, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Bel Air. (310) 476-9777.


“Story Time at Noah’s Ark”

Accompany your children to a one-of-a-kind, story-time experience. Listen as flood stories from cultures around the world are brought to life through the timeless tradition of oral storytelling. The program is presented weekly on Wednesdays at 2:30 p.m. $12, general; $7, children 2-12. Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4500.


Atid, Sinai Temple’s group for people in their 20s and 30s, holds an evening yoga class for all levels, from beginners to seasoned yogis. 7:30-8:30 p.m. Free. Sinai Temple, 10400 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 474-1518.


Ayelet Waldman

Kay Redfield Jamison, author of the 2017 book “Robert Lowell: Setting the Stone on Fire,” which illuminates the interplay of mania, depression and creativity, and Israeli-American author Ayelet Waldman discuss “Mental Illness and Creativity.” Waldman explored similar themes in her 2016 book, “A Really Good Day,” which told of the author’s experiments with small doses of LSD to brighten her mood. The two authors challenge the audience to think differently about a misunderstood condition. 7 p.m. Free, advance ticket required. Getty Center Harold M. Williams Auditorium, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles. (310) 440-7300.


Lillian M. Wohl

Since 1994, “Jewish music” has emerged as an important yet ambiguous mode of cultural expression in Argentina, making audible Jewish history in Latin America and affirming a contemporary Jewish presence in the region. Lillian M. Wohl, the Lowell Milken Fund for American Jewish Music Post-Doctoral Fellow at UCLA, discusses the intersection of  cultural renewal and memory in Jewish music performed in public and private spaces in Buenos Aires. 4-5:30 p.m. Free. RSVP to UCLA Faculty Center, 480 Charles E. Young Drive East, Los Angeles. (310) 267-5327.

Fewer Tribe Members Get Oscar Nods

Photo from Flickr.

In a normal year, a rundown on Academy Award nominations is cause for Jewish celebrations and self-congratulations. However, 2018 is not one of those years.

Even the iconic Steven Spielberg couldn’t break the jinx. While his widely praised “The Post,” a paean to journalistic courage, got a best picture nod, Hollywood’s most admired Jewish name was shut out of the best director list.

Another apparent shoo-in, actor James Franco, who just won a Golden Globe for his turn in “The Disaster Artist,” went missing on the Oscars’ best actor nomination list. It is a fair assumption that a rash of current reports on Franco’s sexual misbehaviors contributed to the omission.

To add to the disappointments, “Foxtrot,” Israel’s wrenching entry in the best foreign-language film category, was eliminated after earlier making the shortlist of nine nominees. In the same category, Germany’s “In the Fade,” which focused on the rise of neo-Nazism, was also eliminated.

However, not to paint an entirely dark picture, there were some eminent Jewish names on the final nomination list. Foremost is the film “Call Me By Your Name,” which probes the love affair of two young Jewish men in the 1980s, which came up with four nominations for Jewish talent. These included lead actor Timothee Chalamet, best picture, adopted screenplay and best original song (“Mystery of Love.”)

Other members of the tribe also made it to the finals — the glamorous Academy Award ceremony in Hollywood on March 4. Among them are Britain’s Daniel Day-Lewis for his role as a noted dressmaker in “Phantom Thread.” Day-Lewis, a three-time best actor winner, has announced his retirement from stage and screen.

Also nominated were veteran composer Hans Zimmer for his numerous film scores, including “Dunkirk.”

Another composer, Benj Pasek, who wrote the lyrics for last year’s hit “La La Land,” is up this time for best original song, “This Is Me,” from the musical “The Greatest Showman.”

Well, there is always next year.

JTA contributed to this report.

Israeli film makes Oscars shortlist

Screenshot from YouTube.

“Foxtrot,” Israel’s entry in the Oscar race for best-foreign language film, has made the shortlist of nine movies among submissions from 92 countries.

Directed by Samuel Maoz and starring Lior Ashkenazi and Sarah Adler, “Foxtrot” is a superb and wrenching film about parental grief at the death of a soldier son, the joys and stresses of marriage, the boredom of army life, and how Israel’s occupation humiliates the occupied and hardens the occupiers.

In a previous phone interview with the Journal, Maoz described his film as “the dance of a man with his fate … there are many variations to this dance, but they end up at the same starting point.”

The film has come under fire by Miri Regev, Minister of Culture and Sports in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet. “It is inconceivable,” Regev declared publicly, “that movies which shame the reputation of the Israel Defense Forces … and that are supported [financially] by the state… are selected to showcase Israel cinema abroad.”

In the interview, Maoz did not directly address Regev’s criticism, but declared, “When my brothers are dying, I have the right to make such a movie.”

The German movie “In the Fade,” which also made the cut, addresses the rise of neo-Nazism in present-day Germany, dramatized through the murder by a neo-Nazi couple of a German woman, her Kurdish husband and their small son.

Director Fatih Akin, a German-born citizen of Turkish descent, attributed the growing neo-Nazi sentiment mainly to hostility to the large number of refugees, mainly from Muslim countries, admitted into Germany.

“We are seeing the rise of a new racism in Germany, based on the fear that the existing German identity will be altered by the refugees,” Akin said in a phone interview.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean and director of the Global Social Action Agenda for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, commented that hate groups everywhere “have perfected the delivery system” of their anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish messages through the use of social and other media.”

In contrast to nearly every other year since the end of World War II, none of the 92 entries deal with the Holocaust or the Hitler era. This may well indicate that to a new generation the horrors of the 1930s and ‘40s are now ancient history.

Still, that doesn’t mean that there were no international films of note on the subject. The outstanding Hungarian film “1945” deals with the return of a Jewish father and son to their native Hungarian village, immediately after the end World War II in 1945. The movie vividly portrays the resultant fear of the village’s gentile residents, who had helped themselves to the homes and goods of their expelled Jewish neighbors, and are now in a panic at the prospect of having to return the looted goods.

Unfortunately, each country is allowed only one entry, and Hungary instead chose “On Body and Soul.” The film, which also qualified for the shortlist, focuses on an unusual romance between two workers in an animal slaughterhouse.

Problems of the Middle East get a close-up in Lebanon’s “The Insult,” also among the chosen nine films. The movie is directed by Ziad Doueiri, who earlier got into hot water in his country for shooting an earlier film in Israel.

In “The Insult,” a dispute between a Lebanese Christian and a Palestinian refugee escalates into an acrimonious national dispute threatening a social explosion in divided Lebanon.

Other films and countries on the Oscars shortlist are “A Fantastic Woman” (Chile), about the tribulations of a young transgender woman;

“Loveless” (Russia), which takes a harsh look at Russian society; “The Wound” (South Africa), exploring issues of masculinity in the story of a closeted gay man; and “The Square” (Sweden), a sharp satire of the art world.

The nine shortlisted films will be winnowed down to five when nominations in all Oscar categories are announced on Jan. 23. Academy Award winners will get to clutch their trophies on March 4 at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, during a glamor-filled evening televised to 225 countries and territories around the globe.

Israeli Film ‘Foxtrot’ Examines a Dance with Fate

Actor Lior Ashkenazi as Michael Feldman (third from left) is stunned when he is informed that his soldier son Jonathan has been killed. Photos by Giora Bejach, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

The controversial film “Foxtrot” opens with two somber-faced soldiers arriving at the front door of a successful architect, Michael Feldman (played by Lior Ashkenazi), and his wife, Daphna (Sarah Adler). Daphna immediately guesses their mission and faints, while the emissaries regretfully inform Michael that the couple’s son, Jonathan, has fallen in the line of duty.

As family and friends gather for the funeral, a third military messenger arrives to announce that there has been an unfortunate mistake. Another soldier, also named Jonathan Feldman, has been killed, but Michael and Daphna’s son is alive and well.

The mood and locale of the film then change abruptly to a remote army checkpoint on Israel’s northern border, guarded by Jonathan and three fellow soldiers. They live in a large, converted container and operate a manual gate to allow an occasional camel to pass through. Even more rarely, a car with a Palestinian family stops for inspection.

During one such stop, the bored Israeli soldiers get their kicks by making the nervous driver and passengers, dressed up for a wedding, stand in the pouring rain during a lengthy car inspection. During another inspection, something goes horribly awry,
but the Israeli army brass quickly covers up the traces.

“Foxtrot” is a wrenching film about parental grief, the joys and stresses of marriage, the boredom of army life, and how Israel’s occupation policy humiliates the occupied and hardens the occupiers.

The drama won the Grand Jury Prize at the prestigious 2017 Venice International Film Festival and racked up 13 Ophirs (Israel’s version of the Academy Awards), including best film, which automatically makes it the country’s entry in the Oscar race for best foreign-language picture.

In a telephone interview from Tel Aviv, director Samuel (Shmulik) Maoz described “Foxtrot” as “the dance of a man with his fate.”

Despite its superb artistry and acting, the film has become somewhat of a political and ideological football in Israel. As in many other countries, the predominantly left-liberal filmmakers (in Tel Aviv) often have been at loggerheads with the right-conservative government (in Jerusalem). Another factor in the tense relationship is that the government-supported Israel Film Fund contributes to the budget of practically every film made by Israeli talent, including “Foxtrot.”

The movie has come under fire publicly from Miri Regev, minister of Culture and Sports in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet. “It is inconceivable that movies which shame the reputation of the Israel Defense Forces are those that are supported by the Israel Film Fund, which is supported by the state,” Regev declared in an interview on Israel’s Channel 2 TV station. “And those are selected to showcase Israeli cinema abroad.”

In the interview, Maoz pointed out that Regev had not actually seen the film, adding, “When my brothers are dying, I have the right to make such a movie.”

When “Foxtrot” screened in various European cities, Israeli diplomats frequently told Maoz that the film single-handedly had negated years of Israeli public relations efforts.

Actor Yehuda Almagor (seated) as Avigdor Feldman, tries to console his brother in “Foxtrot.”

Actress Sarah Adler portrays Daphna Feldman, mother of Israeli soldier Jonathan in “Foxtrot.”

The director believes that underlying many of Israel’s actions is the enduring trauma of the Holocaust. But he also maintains that Israelis who have seen action in the defense forces have been supportive of “Foxtrot.”

When he speaks of combat, Maoz, 55, is talking from personal experience. He was a gunner in a tank during the first Lebanon invasion in 1982, and his harrowing experiences are reflected in his first film, “Lebanon” (2009).

Maoz also knows firsthand the trauma of believing, mistakenly, that one has lost a child. It happened when his oldest daughter ran consistently late for school and always asked her father to call (and pay for) a taxi to get to her class in time.  After a while, Maoz concluded that the habit was not only expensive but also bad for the girl’s education, so one morning he told her to take a public bus — Line 5 — to school like all the other students.

About half an hour after she had left, her father heard on the radio that a No. 5 bus had been blown up by terrorists, with dozens of people killed. Desperately, he tried to get through to her on the phone, but all the lines were tied up. “The next hour was worse than all my time at war put together,” he said.

Later, his daughter returned home. She had just missed the bus that was blown up by terrorists.

“Foxtrot” will screen for one week at Laemmle’s Royal Theatre in West Los Angeles, starting Dec. 8 — its qualifying run to compete in the Academy Awards. The movie will be released in Los Angeles theaters on March 2.