December 13, 2018

Homeland vs. Homeland

Photo from Flickr.

How does an Iranian-American Jew who was born in post-revolutionary Iran, granted refugee asylum in the United States at the age of 7, and now remains unabashedly supportive of Israel, process the possibility of a hideous war between her former homeland and her eternal homeland?

She has a stiff drink every time Israel strikes an Iranian military base or arms shipment in Syria (to celebrate Israel’s miraculous might), and a stiffer drink every time an Iranian leader vows to “level Tel Aviv to the ground” (to aid with sleep).

Anxiety over Iran-Israel tensions is nothing new to Iranian-American Jews, many of whom struggle with the complexity of their triple identity as Iranians who lost their homeland, Jews who embrace Israel as their beloved, and fiercely patriotic Americans who can watch the horrible conflict between Iran and Israel unfold from the comfort of their patio chairs.

My final goodbyes — to my family, home, school and, basically, to everything — when we escaped Iran in the late 1980s have left me traumatized, and I am often confused over my own feelings toward Iran.

I was born after the revolution, into the murderous country we’ve known for 39 years as the Islamic Republic of Iran. I also was born into the mandatory headscarf, the reign of the Ayatollah Khomeini, and the heinous air raids of the Iran-Iraq War. It was truly a special time to be alive.

Even my grandmother’s first name was Iran. The irony was not lost on us when she escaped to Israel.

I should hate Iran, but like many who fled there, I compartmentalize the country. There’s the regime, which evokes my hateful repulsion; the people, most of whom are just looking to live free, normal lives filled with family, work and reasonable inflation rates. And then, there are my memories and my heritage; the fact that nearly every one of my ancestors was born and buried in the land; the romanticizing of the space that held my childhood flights and fears. Even my grandmother’s first name was Iran. The irony was not lost on us when Iran escaped to Israel.

It makes me sick to my stomach that the land of my birth poses the most violent threat to the land of my soul.

Do I miss Iran? Sometimes, although it often feels like missing your first tattoo (if your first tattoo ended up being a horrible disaster). The nostalgia that stems from the fact that it was your first always will remain, but so will the seemingly irreparable emotional pain and physical damage that it caused you, especially if you got your first tattoo on your posterior. Then, it forever remains … a pain in the ass. I guess that about sums up my relationship with Iran.

For me, Israel encompasses unparalleled pride over its might and morality, and palpable despair over anyone attacking the Jewish state. As an Iranian-American Jew, I also experience my share of guilt over Israel, because the closest that my community comes to sending its children into a war zone is when we drop them off at a kosher Persian market on a Friday morning.

For Iranian Jews in America, Israel is also tied to our past trauma, when we consider whether our safety in the U.S. would ever deteriorate so much that we would have to flee to Israel. We know exactly what it was like to have fled home because home was no longer habitable. The possibility that we would again have to flee (if the U.S. took a turn for the worse) after several decades here makes us cringe with pain as we wonder: How many times can one person flee “home” in a lifetime?! Cashing in on our miraculous insurance policy through Israel’s exquisite promise of protection for global Jewry isn’t something most Iranian-American Jews might want to do, because it means that America will have failed us. I hope that if I ever make aliyah, it will be through a joyful choice, and not persecution or war. I can’t take that again.

Of course, America’s miraculous embrace comes at a price: My community has everything it needs here, whether in Beverly Hills or Baltimore, which makes me wonder when exactly former homeland and eternal homeland will be replaced in our hearts and memories with the glorious country that took us in and gave us everything, including the Bill of Rights, UCLA and Costco.

I’m giving it two more generations.

Tabby Refael is a Los Angeles-based writer.

AMERICAN ASSASSIN *Cast Interviews and Movie Review*


The late Vince Flynn spent more than a decade writing about fictional counter-terrorism expert Mitch Rapp.  While American Assassin is based on the novel of the same name, this origin story is actually the eleventh book in the series.  Rapp’s early story appealed to director Michael Cuesta.

As he started reading the script, Cuesta was captivated by the first ten pages.  He says, “I love action movies, but when you don’t care you disengage despite the fact that there’s so much action. [After] that opening sequence…you can take me anywhere as a viewer. I’ll do anything and trust almost anything [Rapp] does.”

Cuesta cast Dylan O’Brien (Teen Wolf) as Rapp, drawing inspiration from an experience with the Mossad.  While shooting the second season premiere of Homeland in Tel Aviv, the Mossad gave series star Claire Dances a bodyguard for protection.  Cuesta says, “I kept complaining where the f*** is the bodyguard?  I thought the guy wasn’t around and then finally, I’m like who’s your friend?”  Cuesta learned the young man shadowing Danes wasn’t her friend, but her protection.  He says, “they come in all shapes and sizes.  They don’t have to look like Stallone.”  It was with that image in mind that he cast O’Brien in the lead role.

O’Brien’s appearance contributes to the nuanced relationship among the characters.  Michael Keaton plays Rapp’s mentor, Stan Hurley, creating a father/son dynamic in look as well as theme.   In fact, the familial dynamic is an important one throughout the movie and is referenced repeatedly.  Roles and relationships are constantly shifting.  Sanaa Lathan’s Irene Kennedy is Hurley’s boss, though as a child she looked up to him as it was her father who was Hurley’s contemporary.  The constant struggle of childlike insubordination and subsequent maturation is a recurring theme and evident across multiple relationships.

For more about families in American Assassin as well as interviews with Michael Keaton and Dylan O’Brien, take a look below:


—>Keep in touch with the author on Twitter and Instagram @realZoeHewitt.  Looking for the direct link to the video?  Click here.

All film photos are courtesy of CBS Films.

‘Homeland’ creator to direct film on Israel’s rescue of Ethiopian Jews

Since adapting his Israeli show “Prisoners of War” for U.S. audiences in the form of the Showtime hit “Homeland,” writer and director Gideon Raff has seen his Hollywood career take off.

After creating the series “Tyrant” for FX and “Dig” for USA, the Israeli Raff has now sold a pitch for a film on Israel’s early 1980s rescue of Ethiopian Jews to Fox Searchlight Pictures.

According to Variety, Raff will write, produce and direct “Operation Brothers,” which will be based on Israel’s efforts in the ’80s to airlift Ethiopian Jews who were trapped in refugee camps and discriminated against in Sudan. Raff’s film will follow the story from its beginnings in 1977, when then-prime minister Menachem Begin ordered the Mossad to devise a plan to save the Ethiopians. It is unclear yet whether the film will depict either of Israel’s two biggest rescue operations: Operation Moses (1984 -1985 ) or Operation Solomon (1991), which combined led to the rescue of over 20,000 Ethiopians.

A French film from 2005 named “Live and Become,” which centered on a young Ethiopian’s journey during Operation Moses, won a Cesar award (the French equivalent of an Oscar) for best screenplay and garnered several other awards in international festivals.

Alexandra Milchan, who was an executive producer on the 2013 hit “The Wolf of Wall Street,” is set to produce alongside Raff.

Raff has been arguably the most successful Israeli crossover filmmaker in recent years, bringing Israeli and Middle Eastern themes and political issues into the Hollywood mainstream. “Homeland” and its progenitor “Prisoners of War” both involved soldiers who return home after being held captive by Islamists. “Dig,” which got poor reviews and was cancelled after one season, followed an American FBI agent on an archaeological mission in Jerusalem. “Tyrant,” which has reached moderate success, follows the son of a fictional tyrannical Arab ruler in a fictional Middle Eastern country. The latter two shows had to be filmed outside of Israel during the summer of 2014 when the conflict between Israel and Hamas flared up.

But if Raff’s new project succeeds, it might be the most quintessential Israeli work he has created so far.

Larry Sultan: Finding beauty photographing the mundane

The late photographer Larry Sultan was fascinated with the mundane. A longtime San Fernando Valley resident, he captured images of his parents at home, of porn stars looking bored between shoots and of day laborers in neighborhoods where they could never afford to live.

The exhibition “Larry Sultan: Here and Home” continues through March 22, 2015, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). It’s Sultan’s first full retrospective, including more than 200 photographs representing five major bodies of work, beginning with his conceptual and collaborative projects of the 1970s and ending with his solo efforts that were cut short by his death in 2009 at 63 from cancer. 

Sultan played with the conventions of documentary photography, turning his lens toward his family and those around him. He examined California like an anthropologist, looking beneath the surface at the often-hidden communities that make up the region’s tapestry. 

The show begins with his final project, “Homeland” (2006–2009) then moves backward chronologically. Sultan moved to Northern California in the early 1970s, but he continued to draw inspiration from the landscapes of Southern California. His photos of Latino men — staged with day laborers he hired from waiting areas outside hardware stores — show them standing on the edges of suburbia in the coastal areas of San Francisco Bay. The men are shown taking food to a potluck, or standing in a batting cage, as if they’re re-creating the idea of home.

“I’m not sure if there is a specific term for these places,” Sultan wrote. “They are deeply reminiscent of the terrain I sought out as a child; the empty fields behind malls and scruffy borderlands of the L.A. River that ran behind my house in the San Fernando Valley. These places represent a small and vanishing patch of paradise that existed just outside the boundaries of property and ownership; a free zone that eased my (adolescent) uncertainty and provided a safe place away from the judgments of others.”

The themes of labor and domesticity continue in Sultan’s series “The Valley” (1998–2003), which skewers the fantasy world of pornography. Actors, directors and assistants all look equally unaroused amid the middle-class homes of the San Fernando Valley that were rented for the shoots. If sex is happening, it’s off to the side or in the background, with the cameras and booms in the foreground. The images are absurd and slightly off-kilter in revealing the carefully crafted illusion of sexual transgression.

“I’ve been on sets where you see a porn actress standing in a room naked, and you start to look around and you see details — a mezuzah and a Book of Knowledge on the bookshelf,” Sultan wrote. “She does something to that room and that room does something to her. There’s a reciprocity of strangeness going on in there.”

Perhaps Sultan’s best-known series is “Pictures From Home” (1982–1992), a beautiful record of his elderly parents. The images look more like documentary film stills than staged family snapshots, with his parents sitting around the kitchen table, gazing at a sunset or reading in bed. In one striking image, called “My Mother Posing for Me,” Sultan’s father is seated and watching baseball on TV while his mother stands against a wall and stares directly into the camera. The image raises questions of gender roles and expectations, of family relationships, and of beauty and aging.

“Dad With Golf Clubs” (1987), from the series “Pictures From Home.”

“What drives me to continue this work is difficult to name. It has more to do with love than with sociology, with being a subject in the drama rather than a witness,” Sultan wrote. “I realize that beyond the rolls of film and the few good pictures, the demands of my project and my confusion about its meaning, is the wish to take photography literally. To stop time. I want my parents to live forever.”

Sultan’s father moved the family from Brooklyn to the San Fernando Valley in the late 1940s and became a successful salesman, but lost his job when his company merged and he refused to move back to the East Coast. The series “Pictures From Home” is supplemented with actual family photos from Sultan’s childhood, and documents, such as the termination notice his father received from the Schick Safety Razor Co. in 1971.

“My Mother Posing for Me” (1984)

“My family’s home movies were a repository of the most romantic, lavish pictures of home,” Sultan wrote. “I began to study these home movies, looking for myself, looking for the evidence of my life. I realized I could reshape them like a good dream. I could reinsert myself into family life, I could tell the story of my family through their documents.”

Documentary photographer Catherine Opie, a professor of photography at UCLA, studied under Sultan at the San Francisco Art Institute in 1983. “One of the things that I love about Larry the most in terms of his teaching is that he built my inner confidence around what I was making,” she said. “So he didn’t necessarily want me to emulate him at all as an artist, nor did he feel that he had all the right answers. What he did was, he looked at your work very thoughtfully, and then encouraged you to continue with it.”

The LACMA exhibition also includes “Swimmers” (1978–1981), a formal exploration of public swimming pools, with images taken underwater of legs and arms. Another room in the exhibition shows a sampling of magazine editorial assignments. His commercial work influenced his artistic work, as well. “The Valley” is from a photo shoot for Maxim. When he was hired by Interview to photograph socialite Paris Hilton, Sultan rented his childhood home and posed her sitting in a bathrobe in his parents’ former bedroom.

The series ends with “Evidence” (1977), made collaboratively with Mike Mandel, inspired by the discovery of NASA’s photographic records. The pair created a fictitious enterprise named for a defunct postcard company, and managed to access similar archives at corporations, research institutions and public agencies across the country. By placing these found images of industrial processes and experiments in a sequence, the work creates a narrative where there is none, bringing into question ideas of reality, art and appropriation.

“What they were really interested in was different ways of putting these images out into the world,” Mandel said. “So, making these small books, making billboards and allowing people to see images and photographs in ways that they might not otherwise anticipate. Not in a museum, not in a gallery, but out in the world.”

LACMA has re-created one of the unique designs for billboards by Sultan and Mandel, and put them up at 15 locations around Los Angeles — a 1975 billboard that reads “Oranges on Fire,” with a drawing of a hand holding a few flaming oranges. By adapting a well-known marketing image and attaching a nonsensical message to it, Sultan and Mandel mimicked advertisements but also forced passers-by to confront their own role in a commercial system.

“Larry Sultan: Here and Home” continues through March 22, 2015 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Horrorism in the Middle East

“…there are only wrong choices, and it’s like I’m … I’m finally seeing it now for the first time: Nothing good can happen in this f—-d-up world we’ve made for ourselves.”

— Carrie Mathison, “Homeland,” Season 4, Episode 8, Nov. 16, 2014


You know who agrees with Carrie about the Middle East these days? Everyone. We sit here an ocean away and watch it go from bad to worse. 

There’s New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, who wrote this week, “What is unbearable, in fact, is the feeling, 13 years after 9/11, that America has been chasing its tail; that, in some whack-a-mole horror show, the quashing of a jihadi enclave here only spurs the sprouting of another there.”

There’s Tom Friedman, also writing for The Times, who all but threw up his hands in his last two columns. “In sum,” he wrote, “there are so many conflicting dreams and nightmares playing out among our Middle East allies in the war on ISIS that Freud would not have been able to keep them straight.”

There was the estimable Robert Satloff, in Politico: “It will likely take an even more dramatic brand of divine intervention to prevent a slew of worsening Mideast problems — renewed Israeli-Palestinian tensions, Islamic terrorism, Iranian nukes and so on — from landing squarely on the desk of the next U.S. president.”

And former diplomat Aaron David Miller, who wrote this week on, “We’re stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, and where ambiguity and uncertainty will rule over clarity and stability for years to come.”

This week began with the execution of American hostage Peter Kassig, and before it was out, we witnessed the attack in a Jerusalem synagogue, which left (as of press time) five Israelis dead. 

These acts share a brutal, personal, senselessness that “terrorism” doesn’t quite begin to describe. A British journalist coined a better term: “horrorism.”

Horrorism combines terror with the purposeful depiction of as much personal human suffering as possible. Terrorism uses bombs, and airplanes; horrorism uses knives, fists and axes. The ISIS video, the aftermath of the bloody synagogue — there is nothing more frightening than what one pair of human hands can do to a fellow human.

In Israel, after the creation of a strong, vibrant nation state, we are back to Kishinev 1903, and the pogrom that inspired Theodor Herzl to push for a Jewish state. As the poet Hayyim Nahman Bialik wrote back then, “… the hatchet found them there.” And again it finds them, and again we mourn, “A place of sainted graves and martyr-stone.”

And that’s what makes great minds, starting with Carrie Mathison, despair. After all the involvement, money, strategy and grand plans, we are back to the Bronze Age, back to bloodlust and human sacrifice. What’s worse, as the political solutions recede, the religious aspects of these conflicts loom larger and larger. 

In Iraq and Syria, the religious war — a disaster we helped create — now seems entirely predictable. In times of chaos, people gravitate toward what the philosopher Robert Nozick calls “protective associations.” Kurds become more Kurd, Sunnis more Sunni, Shiites more Shiite. If a functioning state can’t offer protection and security, pre-existing identities will.  

“When the state collapsed,” legal and Islamic scholar Noah Feldman writes in “What We Owe Iraq,” “people had little choice but to find some marker of identity that they thought would have some chance of working for them. And these were the identities that were there. We didn’t create these identities —they already existed — it’s that we turned those identities into focal points for self-organization, by virtue of our failure to provide security. And we therefore made these ethnic/denominational identities much more important for Iraqi politics than they otherwise would have been.”

Speaking last month at Harvard Law School, Feldman (who will be a scholar-in-residence at Sinai Temple Dec. 4-6) said he doesn’t think ISIS will survive three years facing opposition from most of the Arab and Muslim world. But he doesn’t say that what will follow will be any less extreme.

In Israel, there’s a similar dynamic. Secular Palestinian leadership is almost an oxymoron. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas foments revolt and Jew-hatred on the one hand, then condemns, in the weakest possible way, attacks on innocent Israelis. Lacking strong secular leadership, young Palestinians from Gaza to East Jerusalem turn to their “protective associations” — religious leaders, the mosques, Hamas.

The police call them “lone wolf” attacks, but you can only have lone wolves when there is no alpha dog.  

Attacks in Jerusalem, the holy city, carry the import of holy war. Things can so easily spiral out of control, beyond the city limits, beyond Israel and into the rest of the world.

“The religious dimension of the conflict is very dangerous and explosive,” Shin Bet security services chief Yoram Cohen told members of a Knesset committee, according to Ha’aretz, “because it has implications for the Palestinians and for Muslims everywhere in the world. We have to do everything possible to instill calm.”

Instill calm. When he figures out how to do that, he should let the rest of the world know how.

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at Follow him on Twitter @foodaism.

‘Homeland’ co-creator wants Israel to be prime spot for U.S. TV shows

The Israeli co-creator of hit spy thriller television series “Homeland” believes his native country should become a prime location for U.S. television shows about the Middle East and is working hard to make this happen.

Writer-director Gideon Raff is at the helm of Fox drama “Tyrant” and NBCUniversal archeological mystery “The Dig”, two U.S. productions under way simultaneously inIsrael – a first for the country's small but active entertainment industry.

Until a decade ago, Israel was shunned by foreign studios for fear of suicide bombings during a Palestinian uprising. But with the violence now abated and many neighbouring Arab states riven by strife, Israeli facilities enjoy a new appeal.

“To concoct the Middle East in Los Angeles you have to spend a lot of money. You need to get the cars, the attire and the faces right,” Raff said in an interview at his Tel Aviv office, its walls festooned with actors' headshots and storyboards.

“The Middle East is not just a desert, and Americans are increasingly sophisticated and expect a show set outside the United States to have been shot outside of the United States.”

He gave, as an example, the experience of filming in Jaffa, an Arab district of Tel Aviv, where “the moment you set up, everything you get on camera is worth millions of dollars”.

Raff said Israel, as a Middle East location, faced brisk competition from Jordan and Morocco, where filming can be cheaper. Israel does not offer significant tax breaks to foreign productions and its television crews charge close to U.S. rates.

But the 42-year-old Raff, who has a second home in California, said his American colleagues were drawn by the after-hours attractions of liberal Tel Aviv and “freewheeling Israeli creativity, which helps a lot in getting the job done”.



“Tyrant,” which airs in the United States next month, portrays the Americanised son of an Arab dictator who, while visiting his family, finds himself in the midst of an uprising.

The drama's pilot was shot in Morocco and the remaining 10 episodes of the first season are being filmed, well away from public view, in a custom-built studio complex outside the Israeli town of Kfar Sava, as well as exterior locations.

Raff denied an Israeli newspaper report that “Tyrant”, set in the fictional country of “Abu Din”, drew inspiration from Syria's civil war-racked Assad dynasty. He described the show as a broader examination of a revolutionary epoch in the region.

“It aspires to bring the Arab world, the Middle East, to American society and American screens for the first time.”

Raff's partner in the $30 million project is U.S. producer Howard Gordon, with whom he collaborated on “Homeland”, an Emmy award-winning Showtime series about a CIA officer chasing a Marine POW turned al Qaeda sleeper agent.

That show, now in its fourth season, was based on an Israeli television drama created by Raff, “Hatufim”, and used several locations and actors in Israel.

Raff said the success of “Homeland” could prove a double-edged sword for Israel, raising the profile of local professionals but leading many to secure jobs abroad.

“So what I tried to do was to help the industry here by bringing productions here,” he said.

His Hollywood credentials helped Raff launch “The Dig”, two of whose six episodes he will direct when filming gets under way in Jerusalem next month. He describes that show, which is being co-produced by Israeli entertainment firm Keshet and is scheduled for broadcast by USA Network at year's end, as “a kind of 'Da Vinci Code' set in the world's holiest city”.

“The Dig”, whose hero is an FBI attache to Israel caught up in a murder mystery, is set partly in a archeological site in Arab East Jerusalem. Palestinians claim the territory as their own and worry that the show might validate Israel's hold on it.

“Such a production will legitimise the annexation of Jerusalem and the destruction of the authenticity and character of the occupied city,” PLO negotiator Hanan Ashrawi said in December.

Raff said that, though locations were still being sought, there were no plans to film in the East Jerusalem hot-spots.

“We are not doing anything to be provocative,” he said. “This is not a show about the (Israeli-Palestinian) conflict.”

Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky

Must-see TV: Sitcoms, sex top Fall lineup

It’s September at last, when summer reruns and C-level realty shows cede their timeslots to returning favorites and new contenders. This fall’s offerings include Jewish connections galore, on and off camera; prolific producers J.J. Abrams, Jerry Bruckheimer and Jonathan Littman are just a few of the series’ creators. Littman is behind “Hostages,” the CBS drama based on a concept producer Alon Aranya brought over from Israel about a female surgeon ordered to kill the president or her family will die. Fittingly, returning favorite “Homeland,” also based on an Israeli series, plans to shoot the last few episodes of its season in Israel. As for Jewish stars, these are some of the familiar faces you’ll see. 


James Caan in “Back in the Game.” Photo by Randy Holmes/ABC

Those who know James Caan from gritty dramatic fare like “The Godfather,” “Misery” and more recent turns on TV’s “Las Vegas” and “Magic City” might be surprised that he’s starring in a sitcom. “Unless there are 12 people dead on page 20, I don’t usually get the job,” he quipped. But having occasionally waded into comic territory with lighter fare like “Elf,” Caan said he is “really excited about laughing a little bit” as a curmudgeonly ex-baseball player and coach whose daughter and grandson move in with him in ABC’s “Back in the Game.”

The sports milieu is a comfortable fit for Caan, who played football in college at Michigan State University and coached his son’s Little League team. He also was known as “The Jewish Cowboy” when he worked the rodeo circuit. “In many ways, my whole life has revolved around sports,” he said, and he’s got the scars to prove it. “I’ve had 15 operations, screws in my foot, just had my elbow sewn back together from non-Jewish activities, choices that were not very Yiddish.” 

But if being an athlete was outside the Jewish norm, becoming an actor was even more unusual for a kid from a tough Bronx neighborhood. “I don’t think any actors came out of there,” he said. “That was an even bigger convention to break.”

“Back in the Game” premieres Sept. 25 at 8:30 p.m. on ABC.


Andy Samberg in “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.” Photo by Mary Ellen Matthews/FOX

It should come as no surprise that Andy Samberg was voted class clown in school. “I got kicked out of class a lot for not being able to keep my mouth shut,” said the former “Saturday Night Live” mischief-maker, who stars as smart-ass, hotshot detective Jake Peralta in the Fox comedy “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.”

“Jake goes into the crime scene acting like a maniac, but he’s great at catching bad guys. He’s serious when it comes to solving crimes, so when he’s being a jackass, you can forgive him,” observed Samberg, who is comfortable with the “irreverent and silly vibe” of the show. “To show up and be handed 25 great jokes is the best feeling you can have as a comedian,” he said.

The Berkeley native is from a long line of funny Jews. “I grew up in a funny family with a funny father, and his family was funny. We were always joking around and cracking each other up,” Samberg remembered. He wasn’t raised in an observant home. “I’m much more into the heritage and the history of it and remembering everybody that came before me more than the religious part” of Judaism, he said.

Samberg admits to missing his friends at “Saturday Night Live,” particularly the “camaraderie and the intensity of coming up with something on a Thursday or Friday and have it be on television on Saturday.” He’d be glad to make a guest appearance. “I’ll go back to host anytime they want me to.”

Brooklyn Nine-Nine” premieres Sept. 17 at 8:30 p.m. on Fox.


Linda Lavin in “Sean Saves the World.” Photo by Chris Haston/NBC

Best known as the titular waitress on the long-running sitcom “Alice,” and later as Nana Sophie on “The O.C.,” and more recently, for movie roles in “The Back-up Plan” and “Wanderlust,” Linda Lavin returns to the small screen this fall as Sean Hayes’ pushy, meddling mom, Lorna, in NBC’s “Sean Saves the World.”

“It’s great to be back. I love being in this town with a job,” said Lavin, who was lured by the “smart, sophisticated” pilot script for the show about a divorced gay father and his relationships with his mother, teenage daughter and co-workers. “The generational differences are a source of comedy,” she added

Although the family’s religion has not yet been established on the series, Lavin finds that being Jewish, as well as female, “gives me a unique perspective on life. I bring what the script and tonality demands, whether it’s Jewish, European or New York humor. As an actor, I’m not the same in everything I do, but I bring myself to everything I do.”

“Sean Saves the World” premieres Oct. 3 at 9 p.m. on NBC.


Seth Green plays stoner Eli Sachs in “Dads.” Photo by Joseph Llanes/FOX

The premise of the Fox sitcom “Dads” is simple: A pair of best friends and business partners, played by Seth Green and Giovanni Ribisi, have their lives disrupted when their fathers (Peter Reigert, Martin Mull) move in with them. Green, as single stoner Eli Sachs, and Riegert, as his grumpy dad David, in a case of art imitating life, are Jewish. “Jewish negativity, guilt, pessimism — there will be a lot of that stuff,” said executive producer/writer Alec Sulkin, adding, “The other pair is as WASPy as they come.”

Green, (“Family Guy,” “Robot Chicken”), whose diverse comic influences include Mel Brooks and Don Rickles, finds depth in the played-for-laughs father-son arguments. “The relationship is so caustic. We say whatever we’re feeling. We may not be solving anything, but there are moments of tenderness and connection where we’re trying to find a way to each other despite so much acquired damage,” he said. 

Thankfully, Green’s relationship with his own father, Herb, a retired teacher, is drama-free. “My dad and I get along really well,” he said, adding, “I’ve definitely acquired more sympathy for my parents as I’ve gotten older and see things from a different perspective. I don’t know that I’m in a hurry to have kids, but I would do my best not to completely foul them up.”

“Dads” premieres Sept. 17 at 8 p.m. on Fox.


Lizzy Caplan in “Masters of Sex.” Photo by Craig Blankenhorn/SHOWTIME

Since starting out in the television cult favorite “Freaks and Geeks,” Lizzy Caplan has worked steadily in TV and film in everything from “True Blood,” “Mean Girls,” “Cloverfield,” “Party Down” and “127 Hours” to a role on “New Girl” last year. Her latest role is a distinct departure from what she’s done before, and certainly her most provocative: sex researcher Virginia Johnson in the Showtime drama “Masters of Sex.” 

Based on the book of the same name by Thomas Maier, the series co-stars Michael Sheen as William Masters, Johnson’s boss and subsequent research partner and lover. Calling Johnson “by far the most layered and the toughest” character she’s played to date, Caplan says she was drawn to the contradictions in a 1950s woman and single mother with a progressive attitude toward sexuality. “She wasn’t tied down by society’s moral rules,” she said.

Lamenting the sexual double standard that still exists six decades later, Caplan feels “fortunate that I wasn’t raised in an ultra-religious household where I was told to abstain from sex and think of my body as evil.” A Los Angeles native, she did attend Hebrew school, Jewish camp, had a disco-themed bat mitzvah and went on an ulpan group trip to Israel at 16. She started acting professionally shortly thereafter.

While she’d been “quite comfortable” in the comedic, contemporary niche she’d carved out for herself, Caplan is relishing the opportunity to step out of that comfort zone. “I needed something like this,” she said, “I’m hoping that the audience will be accepting of me trying something new.”

“Masters of Sex” premieres Sept. 29 at 10 p.m. on Showtime.


James Wolk stars in “The Crazy Ones.” Photo by Monty Brinton/CBS

After memorable turns in the dramas “Political Animals” and “Mad Men,” James Wolk is putting his comedy and improv theater background to use in the CBS workplace sitcom “The Crazy Ones,” opposite Robin Williams and Sarah Michelle Gellar as father-and-daughter owners of an advertising firm. 

Although he says it’s “nearly impossible” to keep a straight face in scenes with Williams, Wolk is relishing his role as young creative genius Zach Cropper. “He’s flying by the seat of his pants. He’s like Peter Pan — he never wants to grow up.” 

Wolk, who grew up in the Detroit area in a Reform Jewish home, was bar mitzvahed and has fond memories of celebrating the Jewish holidays and of one Jewish food in particular. “Detroit has amazing challah,” he said.

While Zach Cropper isn’t Jewish, Wolk plays a doctor named Noah Bernstein in the romantic comedy “There’s Always Woodstock,” due out later this year. 

Travel plans are also on his future agenda. “I’d like to make a trip to Israel at some point,” he said. “I never took my Birthright trip.”

“The Crazy Ones” premieres September 26 at 9 p.m. on CBS.

Other offerings of note: The PBS documentary series “Genealogy Roadshow” includes the story of a Latina from Texas hoping to verify her Sephardic Jewish ancestry (Oct. 14). Oliver Jackson-Cohen plays reporter Jonathan Harker in NBC’s “Dracula” (Oct. 25), and Ben Rappaport joins the cast of CBS’ “The Good Wife” as a fourth-year associate who’ll join the new law firm Alicia (Julianna Margulies) and Cary (Matt Czuchry) are secretly forming (Sept. 29).

The 2013 (Jewish) Emmy nominees

The 2013 Emmy nominations are in!  We won’t bore you with the whole long list, but we will share this compact yet impressive group of Jewish nominees. Here goes.


Mandy Patinkin, “Homeland”


Lena Dunham, “Girls”

Julia Louis-Dreyfus, “Veep”


Mayim Bialik, “The Big Bang Theory”


Michael Douglas, “Behind The Candelabra”

Tune into CBS on September 22 at 8 p.m. to see who goes home with a shiny statue. (And to see who’s wearing what, of course.)

AJU’s Geller Fest spotlights the arts

In a new venture into presenting the arts, American Jewish University (AJU) will hold its first-ever Geller Festival of the Arts this summer, drawing names like Joan Rivers and Gideon Raff, the Israeli creator of “Homeland.”

Running June 16-20, the week’s four events all will be held in AJU’s Gindi Auditorium at its main campus on Mulholland Drive.

Gady Levy, vice president of AJU and dean of the Whizin Center for Continuing Education, said the festival honors Bruce and Jeanette Geller, major supporters of the Whizin Center. Bruce (1930-1978) was an award-winning screenwriter most famous for creating, writing, producing and directing the “Mission: Impossible” television series.

For the last several years, AJU sponsored a screenwriting competition in honor of the Gellers, which gave awards to three Jewish-themed screenplays. This year, Levy said, it was time to try new. 

The Geller festival will include two performances and two evening discussions (with Rivers and Raff), during which, Levy said, the two stars will “interact with the audience and answer questions in an open dialogue.”

The week will kick off June 16 at 7 p.m. with an evening of contemporary dance by BODYTRAFFIC, directed by Tina Berkett and Lilian Barbeito, and L.A. Dance Project, directed by Benjamin Millepied, a choreographer best known for his work in the movie “Black Swan.” Immediately following the performance, Berkett and Millepied will discuss the Judaism has had on their work.

On June 17 at 7:30 p.m., Raff, the Israeli writer of Showtime’s Emmy-winning series “Homeland,” will analyze the differences and similarities between the American show and Israel’s highest-rated drama of all time, “Hatufim” (abductees), on which “Homeland” is based. Raff created, wrote and directed “Hatufim,” and, according to the event’s Web site (, Geller will also address the different markets that the two shows target.

Internationally renowned Israeli singer Noa (Achinoam Nini) will perform in concert in what will be the Los Angeles premiere of her world tour on June 18 at 7:30 p.m., accompanied by a quartet and her partner, collaborator and instrumentalist Gil Dor. (See related story on p. 10.)

And on June 20, the festival will conclude with the main attraction, comedian and actress Joan Rivers. The American comedy queen will deliver her lecture, “My Life in Show Business: 135 Years and Counting.” Rivers, 79, will discuss her life and her illustrious career. Following the lecture, she will take part in an on-stage interview and take questions from the audience.

“We have been trying to get Joan Rivers for a couple of years now,” Levy said. “We are looking forward to having her share both her comedy and life story — the influence of Judaism on her long career and her take on recent events.”

Rivers and her daughter, Melissa, are in Los Angeles filming the weekly WE TV series “Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best?”

For tickets or more information, call (310) 440-1246 or visit

Rereading Leon Uris’ ‘Exodus’ a disquieting experience

In preparation for Israel’s 65th birthday, I recently reread Leon Uris’ novel “Exodus” — and found it disturbing and unsettling in many ways.

I first read the book in 1970, around the time of my first visit to Israel, and fell in love both with the book and the country. I was swept away by the romance of the story, entranced by the characters, and I identified strongly with the Jews struggling to establish their homeland against tremendous odds.

“Exodus,” published in 1958, was of course a hugely influential book. A massive best seller (No. 1 of the New York Times list for 19 straight weeks) that also became a mawkish movie two years later starring Paul Newman in the role of the hero, Ari Ben Canaan, it played a major role in the way American Jews and people around the world viewed Israel as well as Arabs. 

“As a literary work, it isn’t much. But as a piece of propaganda, it’s the greatest thing ever written about Israel,” Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, said.

“Exodus” is credited with setting the tone for international press coverage of the Six-Day War and helping to inspire a Jewish revival among Soviet Jews, prompting them to oppose the communist regime and demand the right to immigrate to Israel. It made Jews around the world proud. It provides the background music to the enduring love affair between American Jews, in particular, and Israel.

For those who may not remember, “Exodus” begins in British-occupied Cyprus. Thousands of Jewish survivors of the Nazis striving to immigrate to Israel have been herded into squalid refugee camps surrounded by barbed wire. The intrepid hero, Ari Ben Canaan, arrives to orchestrate a daring scheme that will shame the British, break the blockade and allow the refugees to proceed to the Promised Land, where they can then take part in the armed struggle for independence.

From the initial scene-setting in Cyprus, Uris takes readers through a series of extended flashbacks that cover the history of Zionism, the settling of the land of Israel and the development of the Palmach, the Haganah and the Irgun. Other flashbacks describe various aspects of the Holocaust, including the rescue of Danish Jewry, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the workings of Nazi extermination camps. Uris at one point describes the Holocaust as “a dance of death with six million dancers!” — one of many unfortunate turns of phrase in the book. 

Finally, the story races through the United Nations partition vote in 1947, the withdrawal of the British and the 1948 War of Independence.

When I first read the book at age 16, I responded to it mainly with my heart — whereas now I read it mostly with my head. Then, I fell in love with Uris’ Israel, which was populated by healthy, strong, lusty young men and women, the latter invariably described as “high-breasted,” which was thrilling in itself at that point in my development. They spent their days wearing blue shirts and short pants, working the land and fighting off Arab marauders, and their nights dancing the hora and making love while murmuring verses from the Song of Songs. 

 “There was an aggressiveness and pride about them … and they were always filled with the songs and dances and ideals of the redemption of the homeland … These were the ancient Hebrews! These were the faces of Dan and Reuben and Judah and Ehphraim. These were Samsons and Deborahs and Joabs and Sauls,” Uris breathlessly tells us.

Uris’ Israel is very much the Israel of Labor Zionism and the kibbutz and moshav (agricultural co-op) movements. He buys into the concept of the “new Jew” — the independent fighter so unlike the weak Jews of the Diaspora who had been left defenseless against the Nazis. Ari Ben Canaan himself is a “strapping six-footer with black hair and ice blue eyes who could be mistaken for a movie leading man. He doesn’t act like any Jew I’ve ever met. You don’t particularly think of them as fighters,” one British character says.

The most disturbing facet of the book is Uris’ depiction of Arabs. In fact, the word “Arab” rarely appears without the adjective “dirty” or “stinking” appended. A few examples:

• “The air was foul with the mixed aroma of thick coffee, tobacco, hashish smoke and the vile odors of the rest of the village.”

• “Nazareth stank. The streets were littered with dung and blind beggars … filthy children were underfoot. Flies were everywhere.”

• “How pathetic the dirty little Arab children were beside the robust youngsters of Gan Dafna. How futile their lives seemed in contrast to the spirit of the Youth Aliya village. There seemed to be no laughter or songs or games or purpose among the Arab children.”

• “They seemed the dregs of humanity. The women were encased in black robes and layers of dirt. The children wore dirty rags.”

• “The Arab section of Safed held the usual broken-down hovels that are found in every Arab city and town in the world.”

• “At least the Arabs are friendly,” Ari said. “They are Christians.” “They are Christians who need a bath,” Kitty replied.

These are just a few of many, many examples that become cumulatively oppressive. There is one “good” Arab in the book, Kammal, the mukhtar of Abu Yesha, a village neighboring the Gan Dafna Zionist village named after Ari’s martyred first love. Kammal recognizes that the Jews have “performed miracles on the land and … are the only salvation for the Arab people. The Jews are the only ones in a thousand years who have brought light to this part of the world.”

But Kammal’s son is weak and allows himself to be drawn into an attack on the Jewish village in 1948. The result is the righteous and deserved expulsion of his people into exile — which pretty much sums up Uris’ view of how the Palestinian refugee problem was created. 

Uris also shamelessly invented events, which are presented as if they were historical. Given the choice between the facts and the legend, he always went for the legend — which he made up in the first place. The main example of this is his retelling of the story of the refugee ship Exodus, which gives the book its title. 

In Uris’ version, the boat is loaded with children who go on a hunger strike and then threaten to commit suicide, one an hour, until the British relent — which they do, allowing the ship to triumphantly sail to Haifa. In reality, the Exodus was boarded by the British, who tried to deport the immigrants to France. When France refused to take them, the British had to return them to Germany, where they were forcibly disembarked. That story is dramatic enough in its own right and prompted an international press outcry that severely discredited the British and their blockade policy. But it did not fit Uris’ dramatic purpose.

Many reviewers have commented on Uris’ clunky prose and his stereotypical characters. He certainly has a talent for evoking a place — as in this description of a small port in Cyprus: “Kyrenia was picturesque and remote and quaint to the point where it could not have been more picturesque or remote or quaint.”

The central love affair, between Ari and the American non-Jewish nurse Kitty Fremont, is curiously flat. Kitty wants Ari to show his emotions and acknowledge his vulnerabilities. She wants him to need her. Finally, with one more tragic death, he does — but only for a short time. Soon enough, he says, he will strap on his armor and return to the battle. Kitty says that’s good enough for her.

It occurred to me that their relationship mirrored the way many Israelis see the United States as a whole. They want Americans to love them and help them out and be there for them in emergencies or moments of rare weakness — but they don’t want to be dependent or vulnerable.

Despite its many faults, “Exodus” still packs an emotional wallop. A few times, I felt myself responding, just as I had when I first read it as a 16-year-old. The sheer narrative thrust and energy leading to the climactic moments where Israel is reborn as a state moved me. We need to remember that story and not take the creation of Israel for granted, and for that purpose, “Exodus” still has a role to play.

But in 2013, Uris’ narrative is insufficient. Now the challenge is to win the peace rather than to prevail in war. We need to find a way of living side-by-side with the descendants of those “stinking Arabs” who fled the land in 1948. We are entitled to our founding myths and our national narrative — but Uris does not serve us well in pointing a path to the future. 

Alan Elsner, a journalist and author, is vice president of communications for J Street. 

Ang Lee doing TV

Academy Award-winning director Ang Lee will tackle television for the first time, directing a pilot for a show written by the Israeli writer who created the popular drama “Homeland.”

Gidi Raff's pilot for “Tyrant,” about an American family caught up in a Middle East country, was picked up by the FX cable channel. FX announced last month that Lee will direct the pilot this summer.

It is Lee's first project since the “Life of Pi,” Reuters reported — Lee won the Oscar for best director.

The Israeli TV network Keshet is collaborating on the series.

Obama quotes Hatikvah in Passover message

President Obama cited the Israeli national anthem's invocation of an ancient Jewish longing for a homeland in his Passover message.

“Last week, I visited the state of Israel for the third time, my first as president,” Obama said in his message reeled Monday just hours before the start of the holiday. “I reaffirmed our countries’ unbreakable bonds with Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu and [Shimon] President Peres.

“I had the chance to speak directly with young Israelis about the future they wanted for their country, their region, and the world,” Obama continued. “And I saw once again how the dream of true freedom found its full expression in those words of hope from Hatikvah, lihyot ‘am chofshi be’artzeinu, 'To be a free people in our land.'”

The Obamas on Monday evening hosted a seder, a White House tradition begun by Obama.

Included in the seder was a seder plate given as a gift by Sara Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister's wife, to Michelle Obama, the first lady.

Earlier Monday, Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser who helped plan Obama's trip last week to Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian areas, briefed Jewish and Arab American leaders about the trip in an off the record call.

Separately, the Rabbinical Assembly, the umbrella body for the Conservative movement, wrote Obama thanking him for the trip, saying it had created a “personal and intimate bond” between Obama and Israel's people.

“It is our fondest hope that this new and powerful connection, characterized by enhanced trust and respect, will open the door to renewed progress in the quest for an enduring peace between Israel and the Palestinians,” said the letter.

Dunham doubles up at Globes, Israeli docs’ double Oscar nomination, Sandler’s countless Razzies

The 70th annual Golden Globe Awards kicked off the Hollywood awards season on Sunday, and it was in television that the Jewish people stood tall — notably Lena Dunham, the new queen and unchallenged ruler of television comedy.

Dunham, the creator of “Girls,” brought home two awards — for best actress as Hannah Horvath and for the HBO show itself, which won best comedy.

The Golden Globes are widely seen as a bellwhether for the Academy Awards (doubtful, since “Argo” beat Spielberg's Oscar favorite, “Lincoln”).

In her acceptance speech, a shaken Dunham said, ”This award is for every woman who felt like there wasn’t a space for her. This show has made a space for me.”

In addition, Dunham thanked a man named Chad Lowe. The reason for the random nod? During the 2000 Academy Awards, Lowe's then-wife, Hillary Swank, forgot to thank him as she accepted the best actress award for “Boys Don't Cry.” Dunham, the sweetheart that she is, promised Lowe she would mention him if she ever won an award — and so she did.

Another TV topper was “Homeland,” the Showtime CIA thriller based on the Israeli show “Prisoners of War.” The show won best drama, in addition to best actor for Damian Lewis and best actress for Claire Danes.

Daniel Day-Lewis, who portrays Abraham Lincoln in “Lincoln,” won best actor in a drama.

Oscar nods for Spielberg and Israeli documentaries

A few days prior to the Golden Globes, the nominees for the 85th Academy Awards were announced, and Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” led the way with 12, including for best film and best director. Spielberg is still expected to take both awards despite falling short in the Golden Globes to Ben Affleck of “Argo.”

On the Israeli side, the lack of presence in the Best Foreign Film category was compensated by a heavy presence in the Best Documentary field, with two nominees: “5 Broken Cameras” and “The Gatekeepers.” The former tells the story of a Palestinian farmer who tries to document Israeli settlers building homes and a barrier wall in the West Bank village of Bil’in.

“The Gatekeepers” is a series of interviews with former heads of Israel's counterterrorism agency, the Shin Bet, who describe their role carrying out operations against Palestinians.

“Family Guy” creator Seth MacFarlane will host the 85th Academy Awards on Feb. 24.

More Razzies expected for Sandler

In addition to celebrating Hollywood's best, the worst of showbiz is also recognized this season with the annual Razzies. As in past years, Adam Sandler is set to clean up, leading the way in nominations for his 2012 film ”That’s My Boy.”

Sandler’s film is nominated for worst picture, worst screen ensemble, worst director and worst screenplay. Sandler, 46, is nominated for worst actor and worst screen couple with Leighton Meester.

Sandler also dominated the Razzies last year for his horrendously unfunny comedy “Jack and Jill.”

This year, the tribe gets another Razzies shot with Barbra Streisand, who was nominated for worst actress for “Guilt Trip.”

Day-Lewis needed coaxing to play Abe

More about Spielberg's “Lincoln.” Ten years ago, when Spielberg was starting to work on his film about the 16th American president, he asked the Jewish actor Daniel Day-Lewis to star as the protagonist. Day-Lewis said no.

On Monday, Spielberg shared the rejection letter for the first time with the crowd at the New York Film Critics Circle Awards.

“It was a real pleasure just to sit and talk with you,” the letter reads. “I listened very carefully to what you had to say about this compelling history, and I’ve since read the script and found it in all the detail in which it describes these monumental events and in the compassionate portraits of all the principal characters, both powerful and moving. I can’t account for how at any given moment I feel the need to explore life as opposed to another, but I do know that I can only do this work if I feel almost as if there is no choice.”

Day-Lewis also writes, “I’m glad you’re making the film, I wish you the strength for it, and I send both my very best wishes and my sincere gratitude to you for having considered me.”

But Spielberg being Spielberg wouldn't take no for an answer. He sent Day-Lewis a second and third version of the script, both of which he declined as well. Spielberg then turned to Tony Kushner, the screenwriter with whom he collaborated for “Munich,” and Day-Lewis finally complied.

With a Golden Globe and possible Oscar, Day-Lewis likely has no regrets.

And then there's Maude

For those who have ever doubted the legitimacy of the acting of Maude Apatow, the daughter of celebrated filmmaker Judd Apatow, here’s reason to confirm you're a fan. In a deleted scene from Apatow’s recent film “This is 40,” Maude demonstrates that she is able to perfectly impersonate all three of the Kardashian sisters, even at the age of 15. First she mocks Khloe, whom she calls the smartest (“Well, out of all of them”) and then nasally mimics her ”Lamaaaaar.”

Maude then moves onto Kourtney, the sister she calls the most responsible, and puts on a typical Valley girl drawl to talk about Scott Disick, who is “so out of control.” Finally, she deadpeans into Kim in a higher pitched voice and whines about not having butt implants.

When Seth met Mindy

If anyone fits the role of a summer love at Jewish camp, it's Seth Rogan. The “Knocked Up” actor is set to guest star as Mindy Kaling’s childhood sweetheart from Jewish camp in Fox’s “The Mindy Project,” the network announced. In an episode titled “The One That Got Away” that is set to air Feb. 19, Mindy will reunite with Rogan’s character, Sam, who was the first boy she ever kissed, and the two will rekindle their romance after reminiscing about all those good times at Jewish camp.

Samberg is back

Like him or not, Andy Samberg is back. The Jewish comedian who left “Saturday Night Live” last year is planning to return to television soon. According to Entertainment Weekly, Fox ordered an untitled pilot about “a diverse group of detectives at a New York precinct.” The project will be executive produced by Dan Goor and Mike Schur of “Parks and Recreation.” This will be Samberg’s second television project since his departure from SNL. Last summer, Samberg starred in the successful British comedy “Cuckoo” as a hippie American who marries a British woman.

For more Jewish entertainment news, visit, the illegitimate child of JTA.

‘Homeland’ scores at Golden Globes

“Homeland,” a television drama based on an Israeli program, won for best drama at the Golden Globes Awards.

The Showtime program, based on “Hatufim,” or “Prisoners of War,” also received awards for best actor, Damian Lewis, and best actress, Claire Danes, at Sunday's awards ceremony.

Parts of the show's second season, as well as the first, were filmed in Israel.

The popular comedy series “Girls,” created by Lena Dunham, received the Golden Globe for best comedy. Dunham, who also stars in the show and is one of its writers, won as well for best actress in a comedy series.

“Argo,” a thriller based on the real-life plan to free American hostages in Iran by creating a fake movie production as a cover, won for best film drama and best director for Ben Affleck, beating out the favored “Lincoln,” directed by Steven Spielberg.

The Golden Globes are awarded annually by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.

Home after Birthright

Moledet means “homeland” in Hebrew, and it’s no coincidence that it’s been chosen as the name of a pilot program aimed at maintaining the passion of recent Los Angeles Birthright alumni following their return home from Israel. 

Applications for the new program, created by American Jewish University (AJU) in cooperation with Birthright NEXT, will be available beginning Dec. 1.

The success of the Taglit-Birthright Israel program is no secret. More than 300,000 Jewish young adults between the ages of 18 and 26 have been inspired by its all-expenses-paid trips to Israel since 1999. While in Israel, they’ve embarked on journeys all over the nation: hiking Mount Carmel, eating falafel on a beach in Haifa and praying at the Kotel. Participants also have taken part in a mifgash  — or “encounter” — with their Israeli peers.

However, once these young adults return to the United States — 16,000 of them to the greater Los Angeles area so far — it’s proven more difficult to maintain their enthusiasm for Israel. Moledet aims to re-create the awe and profound sense of identity felt by many upon their first trip to Israel, according to Gady Levy, dean of the Whizin Center for Continuing Education and vice president of AJU.

“We wanted to create a program that emphasizes advocacy and knowledge about Israel and how to incorporate that into your own identity, and retaining that connection to Israel while living in the States,” Levy said.

Moledet will begin this summer, July 18-28, with an immersive retreat for 50 participants at AJU’s 2,700-acre Brandeis-Bardin Campus in Simi Valley. While there, attendees — who must have participated in Birthright during the past 18 months — will delve into Jewish and Israeli-themed activities while living kibbutz style.

“There will be an emphasis on the arts, with Judaism being taught as a civilization rather than just a religion. So we’ll teach things like music, painting, photography, dance and cooking,” Levy said.

Throughout the year that follows, participants will be invited to private events, receive literature about Israel on a regular basis and be paired with a mentor — a community leader who will help them become leaders in their own right.

“Our ideal candidate would be somebody who actually understands and wants to continue their relationship with Israel and their Jewish identity,” Levy said. “We also want people who are very passionate. Our ideal is someone who can help foster this passion and understanding in the community and can commit to the time to work with the community throughout the year.”

One of the ways participants will “pay” for this otherwise free program — it is funded by a grant from the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles and other donors — is by creating two Los Angeles-wide events for the Jewish community, whether it be a program for Jerusalem Day or something else that promotes education or the social betterment of the city.

Levy hopes that this pilot program will help create the framework for a program that can be used nationwide. 

“My ultimate goal would be to create the masterbook for Moledet — from how to interview applicants to perfecting the curriculum,” Levy said. “That would be, for me, the greatest outcome.”

For more information, visit this story at

“Homeland,” based on Israeli series, wins best drama Emmy

The television drama “Homeland,” which is based on the Israeli series “Hatufim,” was named the year's best drama series at the 64th Primetime Emmy Awards.

“Homeland” also won Emmys for best actress – Claire Danes, and best actor – Damian Lewis, as well as for best writing. “Hatufim” creator, Israeli Gideon Raff, won the best writing award along with Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon. The cast of “Homeland” was in Israel in May to film parts of the second season.

The Emmy Awards were held Sunday night in Los Angeles.

Homeland's win prevented “Mad Men” from winning its fifth straight best drama Emmy.

“Modern Family” took the Emmy for best comedy series.

The list of nominees had included several Jewish stars.  Jewish filmmaker and actress Lena Dunham was nominated for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series for her role as Hannah Horvath on the HBO series “Girls.” The show also was nominated for Outstanding Comedy Series and was inspired by Dunham’s experiences as a Jewish young woman living in New York City.

Larry David, who is best known as one of the creators of the TV show “Seinfeld,” was nominated as Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series for his role in the HBO series “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” The show also was nominated for Outstanding Comedy Series.

Mayim Bialik was nominated for Outstanding Supporting Actress for her role as Amy Farrah Fowler on the CBS show “Big Bang Theory.” The show also was nominated for Outstanding Comedy Series.

Max Greenfield, an American actor known for his roles on “Veronica Mars,” “Ugly Betty” and “Modern Men,” was nominated for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series for his role as Schmidt in the Fox series “New Girl.”

‘Prisoners of War,’ inspiration for TV drama ‘Homeland,’ now airing on Hulu

The Israeli television drama “Prisoners of War,” which inspired the American TV drama “Homeland,” will be available on

“Prisoners of War,” which began airing in March 2010 and is now in its second season, centers on the lives of three Israeli soldiers who have returned home after more than a decade in captivity in Lebanon.

The New York Times reported that two of the show’s first 10 episodes are available on, which streams TV shows and movies. New episodes will appear every Saturday.

Hulu is not available in Israel.

“Prisoners of War” was named 2010’s Best Drama Series at the Israeli Academy Awards for Television.

“Homeland,” which began airing last October, focuses on a CIA agent who believes that a returned American prisoner of war may be aiding terrorists.

At home, on stage and screen

Somewhere in Creede, Colo., en route to a mountain cabin in Santa Fe, N.M., Mandy Patinkin is above 10,000 feet. “If I sound stupid, it’s because there’s no oxygen up here,” he says.

No chance of that. In fact, Patinkin — a legitimate star of stage, screen and song for more than 25 years — is quite articulate, and in good spirits. Given that many know Mandel Bruce Patinkin primarily through some rather dark and tumultuous characters, including Saul Berenson, the conflicted CIA mentor he plays on Showtime’s acclaimed series “Homeland,” the jokes and lighthearted self-reflection are welcome.

And authentic, says Patinkin, 59, who adds, “What I want more than anything is to be hopeful and optimistic.

“For the majority of my career, the music I have performed all over the world has been the furthest thing from darkness,” he continues. “The one caveat I would offer to that is that I have an affinity for the music of Stephen Sondheim. I feel that he writes like Shakespeare, and both of these people struggle with darkness. But the gifts they have left humanity is that, in the body of their works, they have struggled through darkness to show the light.” 

En route to his first vacation in “I can’t remember when,” Patinkin soon will return to sea level to a full slate of concerts — some with longtime friend and co-“Evita” Tony winner Patti LuPone and some solo — as well as production on the second season of “Homeland,” which starts shooting in May.  Also on the Patinkin docket: trying out a two-person performance with cross-dressing artist Taylor Mac titled “The Last Two People on Earth” and — whenever possible — collaborating with his songwriter son, Gideon Grody-Patinkin, a musician the elder Patinkin says he seeks out for creative advice rather than the other way around.

His schedule, Patinkin concedes, can get Byzantine — so crowded, in fact, that a Tel Aviv run of the Anne Frank-themed play “Compulsion,” which he headlined in 2011 in New York, will have to wait. Still, his current slate of projects is feeding his soul. “An Evening With Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin,” which opens a six-day run at the Thousand Oaks Performing Arts Center on March 20, is an always welcome chance to take the stage, while the first season of “Homeland” was, in Patinkin’s words, “One of the most extraordinary experiences of my career.”

That’s saying something. Patinkin burst onto the scene in 1979, winning a Tony Award for his portrayal of Che Guevara in the Broadway premiere of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Evita.” In 1984, he earned a Tony nomination creating the role of Georges Seurat in Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park With George.” A successful TV career followed, with extended stints on “Chicago Hope” (earning Patinkin an Emmy in 1995), “Dead Like Me” and “Criminal Minds.” On the big screen, in such films as “The Princess Bride,” “Alien Nation,” “Yentl” and “Dick Tracy,” Patinkin has worked with the likes of Warren Beatty, Madonna and Barbra Streisand.

Patinkin sang in his synagogue choir while growing up on Chicago’s South Side, but his music career came about almost by accident. Since kicking off a series of off-night performances at the Public Theatre in the mid-1980s at the suggestion of Public Theater impresario Joseph Papp, Patinkin has never stopped singing, doing regular concerts and cutting CDs, including the all-Yiddish “Mamaloshen.”

The music he performs, Patinkin points out, is usually upbeat, especially when he’s working with LuPone.

“If I’m tired and exhausted and something happens, I’ll probably lean more toward the darker side of experiencing the moment,” Patinkin says, “and Patti is almost exhaustingly optimistic and positive, so she doesn’t allow on stage or off any sadness, for the most part.

“I love that,” Patinkin continues. “She is the best medicine in the world for me. Don’t think I don’t have tough times, but I go back to that drugstore of hope and optimism whenever I can.”

Patinkin and LuPone were at Juilliard at the same time, although in different classes, and they never met. Patinkin recalls being blown away by LuPone’s work in a student production, and several years later, the two actors came together again in a New York rehearsal room for “Evita” with Patinkin cast as Che Guevara, the conscience of Argentina, opposite LuPone’s Eva Peron.

The two performers stayed in touch over the ensuing years. In 2002, Patinkin was invited to perform at the opening of a theatrical complex in Texas. The organizer told Patinkin that LuPone was slated to perform, and he told LuPone that Patinkin had also committed.

“The truth was, he didn’t have either one of us,” Patinkin says. “Even though he lied, when he came to ‘Patti-Mandy’ on Broadway, I told him, ‘I’m counting on you to lie again so I’ll get the next great thing in my life.’”

The resulting two-person performance, guided by Patinkin’s longtime musical partner Paul Ford, charted the creative journey of two musical souls, incorporating classics from the Great American Songbook, as well as other works, such as a Rodgers & Hammerstein set from “South Pacific” and “Carousel.”

“We’re theater animals,” Patinkin says of himself and LuPone. “We both love the theater, and we deeply love performing. I think it’s where we both feel the most alive.”

It was in the midst of another theater production, “Compulsion,” that Patinkin received the script for a television pilot based on an Israeli series called “Prisoners of War” (its original title was “Hatufim”). The producers, Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa of “24,” wanted Patinkin badly enough that they were willing to work around his crazy schedule. The pilot of “Homeland” would shoot in Charlotte, N.C., and, in order to accommodate Patinkin, who was doing tech rehearsals for “Compulsion” at the Public Theatre in New York, they flew him back and forth between New York and Charlotte.

“It couldn’t have been a worse calendar,” says Patinkin, who had not seen the original Israeli series. “But I read the pilot script and gave it to the smartest people in my world — my wife and my dearest friend — and said, ‘Tell me if I’m crazy, but this is one of the finest things I’ve ever read.’ ”

“Homeland,” which recently garnered two Golden Globes — best television series (drama) and best actress in a television series (drama) — is a riveting, serialized thriller: In post-9/11 America,  rogue CIA agent Carrie Matheson (Claire Danes) suspects that U.S. Marine Sgt. Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), who returns to a hero’s welcome after eight years as an Iraqi prisoner of war, has been “turned” and is now a threat to the nation. The agency largely ignores Carrie’s suspicions and her erratic choices even threaten to jeopardize Saul Berenson (Patinkin’s character), her wise mentor and longtime friend.

“It’s a very complicated series of relationships,” he says. “I have never been in a piece where I’ve been on the edge of my seat waiting with bated breath for the next script to come in. I’ve told the writers, ‘Don’t tell me what’s going to happen, whether I’m a good guy or a bad guy.’ In either case, the modus operandi is that I believe in what I’m doing.”

Berenson is Jewish, as are many of the characters Patinkin has portrayed in his long career.

“Being a Jew is who I am,” he says.  It informs every aspect of who I am.”

“An Evening With Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin” plays March 20-25 at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza. For more information, please visit

How Tel Aviv became big business in Hollywood

In December 2009, Avi Nir, the chief executive of one of Israel’s largest broadcasting and production companies, invited the Hollywood agent Rick Rosen to spend a day at Keshet’s Tel Aviv office. Nir, who has a reputation among his Hollywood counterparts for being an aggressive visionary, sensed an epic change afoot in the Israeli entertainment industry. Soon, it would be producing more content than the country could commercially support. So Nir turned his hungry eyes toward the American marketplace. Hollywood, he figured, could offer opportunities. Not only as an entrée into a lush foreign market, but also as a model for how to export entertainment around the world. And Rosen, he thought, could teach the Israelis a few tricks. With the right sell, Rosen, a partner at the renowned William Morris Endeavor agency, could even become an advocate.

After a handful of morning meetings, Nir took Rosen to lunch at an Italian restaurant, where he described a new Israeli series titled “Hatufim,” or “Prisoners of War.”

“Do you know who Gilad Shalit is?” Rosen recalled Nir asking, in a recent interview. “Well, imagine if there are three Gilad Shalits, and two come back as heroes, and then you find out that maybe things aren’t exactly as they appear to be, maybe one of them was working for the Mossad. Do you think that could work in the States?”

Rosen thought for a second. “Absolutely,” he said. “If the returning soldiers are Americans from Iraq or Afghanistan.” Before 9/11, Americans may not have had an appetite — or an understanding — of living in a nation perpetually at war, but suddenly, Israel and the United States had something psychically important in common. “I know the perfect person to do this,” Rosen told Nir. “Howard Gordon.”

Rosen remembers Nir’s excitement at the prospect of Gordon, the award-winning producer of “24,” working on an Israeli show. A few days later, when Rosen touched down in Los Angeles, he called Gordon from the airport. “I have your next show,” he said. And thus, “Homeland” was born.

“Homeland” is now the eminent example of how an Israeli idea can transform into an American sensation. The Showtime series, which completed its first season in December, is a psychological thriller about a mentally unhinged CIA agent, Carrie Mathison, played by Claire Danes, who suspects returning Iraq veteran Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) of having been “turned” by terrorists. Inspired by the Israeli version “Hatufim,” about three soldiers returning from 17 years of captivity in Lebanon, “Homeland” just won the Golden Globe award for best dramatic television series and has been responsible for a surge in the pay-cable channel’s subscribers, helping edge it closer to its rival, HBO. “Homeland’s” critical acclaim has been equally prodigious: The New York Times’ Alessandra Stanley devoted an entire column to last season’s series finale, calling it “a clever, maddening and irresistible invitation to keep watching” — just the type of criticism every show craves. Mark Kaner, president of 20th Century Fox Television Distribution, said “Homeland” has been sold into 31 major territories around the world, and he expects the show to produce profits comparable to Gordon’s previous hit, “24,” which Kaner described as an “enormous” financial success.

“It’s sort of embarrassing at this point,” Gordon said of the effusive praise. “I only look at it as having further to fall.”

But here in Hollywood, and 9,000 miles away in Israel, everyone else is looking at “Homeland” as a paragon. As the Israeli entertainment industry becomes a font of innovation and creativity, Hollywood is serving as both mentor and marketplace, helping the tiny Middle Eastern country turn local ingenuity into an international commodity.

Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison in the Golden Globe-winning Showtime series, based on Israel’s “Hatufim.” Photo by Ronen Akerman/Showtime

Indeed, Israel’s popularity as a content creator has prompted a feeding frenzy in Hollywood; at least six Israeli formats (Hollywood jargon for story lines, on which adaptations are based) are currently in various stages of development, including the police procedural “The Naked Truth” at HBO, the time-travel musical “Danny Hollywood” at the CW, the divorce sitcom “Life Isn’t Everything” at CBS and the small-town murder mystery drama “Pillars of Smoke” (aka “Midnight Sun”) at NBC. Considering how hard it is to get any show on the air, some American writers have joked that they’d have better luck getting Hollywood’s attention if they hit in Israel first. Director Jon Turteltaub, for example, recently announced that he is attached to direct the remake of the popular Israeli film “A Matter of Size,” a smash on the festival circuit, which Paramount Pictures will produce. The activity back and forth has become so substantial of late that many of Israel’s writers, producers and even the major networks are now being represented by U.S. talent agencies. As content increases, so does competition.

“Every Israeli who ever put pen to paper — talented or not — now thinks they’re going to become millionaires in the United States, and it’s getting a little bit ridiculous,” Rosen said.

Inclined to play the part of the superior parent, Hollywood has responded to this escalating business relationship by downplaying it. At a recent event at UCLA sponsored by the Younes & Soraya Nazarian Center for Israel Studies at which Gordon appeared as keynote speaker, he cautioned against unwarranted excitement. “Is there a story?” he asked. “Is there a pipeline between Israeli content creators and American producers? Because, sometimes stories tend to inflate themselves and become bigger than they are.”

What’s clear is this: Many in Hollywood believe it is too early to tell whether the current frenzy will last. Some say they have already begun to see the effects of commercialization on Israeli content. And so far, only two shows — “In Treatment” and “Homeland” — have succeeded in crossing over to an American audience. Others were utter failures: CBS’ “The Ex List,” which premiered in October 2008, lasted less than a month, with only half the produced episodes airing, and Fox’s “Traffic Light,” which premiered in February 2011, lasted only through May.

But anyone who knows Israelis knows that they are indefatigable. And they’re not likely to surrender to a little bad luck as long as the Hollywood connection presents a dual opportunity to triumph on the world stage. At the very least, these opportunities could inject serious cash into Israel’s economy, but the more monumental prospect lies in the ability of entertainment imagery to influence public discourse and opinion.

For people who have either a fixed or unformed image of Israel, the way Israeli life and Israeli values are transmitted through film and television could expand their impressions of the Jewish state. Because as any lover of film or literature knows, the pleasures of culture can be so powerful as to make a consumer feel connected to its creator. So imagine what it would mean for a viewer in Spain or France or China to discover that his favorite show originates in Israel, and to feel connected to the humanity of the stories Israel tells about itself. It could, as many dearly hope, illuminate Israel in a completely new way.

“God knows how many people have heard about ‘In Treatment’ and ‘Homeland’ being Israeli shows and are kind of thinking to themselves, ‘Maybe they’re not savages,’ ” the Israeli actress and “In Treatment” producer Noa Tishby said. “Maybe it’s not Afghanistan over there.”

Solving the riddle

Overnight, they lost their homes, their jobs, their life savings. At nine in the morning, they were well off; by noon, they were impecunious.

All the hard work and planning, the expensive education, the sacrifices, all the good fortune, the street smarts and common sense and old wisdom they had fallen upon or inherited or learned on their own — gone in a matter of hours, sucked away by the greed and immorality, the cravenness and stupidity of those in charge.

I’ve seen this movie before.

Thirty years ago this month, before Freddie Mac and Bernie Madoff and failing automakers, before Henry Paulson and Merrill Lynch and billion-dollar bailouts that don’t make a dent, tens of thousands of Iranian Jews watched helplessly as their lives unraveled through no fault of their own. It was the height of the Islamic Revolution, the climax of months of anxiety and stalemate.

In Los Angeles and New York and elsewhere in the West, families who had left Iran “for the summer,” to “wait out the troubles” and “return in time for the kids to start school in September” realized there was no going back. From far away, they watched as their homes and businesses were confiscated in Iran, as they and anyone else deemed sympathetic to the shah were fired from their jobs, tried in absentia and condemned to death.

Strangers in a strange land, they had no bank accounts, no credit, no knowledge of the workings of Western commercial systems. One minute they were successful professionals and artists and entrepreneurs; the next minute they were being yelled at by impatient clerks at discount stores, where no one cares who you once were — either learn English or go home.

And yet they endured. Most even triumphed.

I’ve wondered about this for 30 years, and more so in the last few months: How, I’ve asked myself, did our parents do it? How did they suffer so much loss with such grace, find their footing in a foreign land, start over and build again, often better than the first time?

Women in their 20s and 30s, with young children and no income, a husband stranded back in Iran; elderly men who spoke not a word of English, who had survived the ghetto and the poverty of old Iran, thrived under the shah only to see it all disappear; middle-aged couples with elderly parents and teenage sons and daughters — three generations of loss and alienation under one roof.

Where did my parents find the strength, the faith that sustained their own optimism and made the success of my generation possible?

Ironically, it was the economic meltdown of 2008 that helped me solve the riddle of 1978 and ’79. Through the torrent of bad economic news and the sorry spectacle of reckless dealers and malicious trustees and criminally ignorant public officials, I spent the better part of last year reliving the worst moments of the Iranian revolution. Both in terms of personal loss and collective angst, the parallels between us then and us now are obvious.

There must be a lesson here, I thought.

This is what I remember of the years directly after the revolution: my mother on the phone with her sisters a dozen times a day; my father sitting down with friends and strangers from Iran, talking into the early morning hours about what could be done, and how, and at what cost.

My brother-in-law walking every square foot of Westwood Boulevard and the downtown jewelry district, stopping every time he ran into another Iranian so they could bring each other up to date on what they had learned most recently. My cousin moving into her parents’ two-bedroom apartment with her three young daughters and two unmarried sisters.

My grandmother baby-sitting her grandnieces and nephews after school so their parents could work. Entire families moving to small towns in Kansas and Oklahoma, where a son or daughter was attending college.

Kids my age going to school in the daytime and working (illegally) at liquor stores at night to help pay the rent. Shabbat dinners with seven aunts and their husbands and children; Passover seders with 62 cousins and everyone’s in-laws.

We were lost, but never alone.

It’s one of those traits — this enhanced sense of community, this emphasis on the value of friendship and family, even if you don’t like the friends or the family, this recognition that we are defined as much by what we do individually as what we achieve as a group — that have as many drawbacks as advantages.

It’s the old village mentality, the need to belong at almost any cost, that is often deplored in traditional societies such as our own. It’s a tribal force that breeds conformity, nurtures intolerance, stifles the tendency toward originality and privacy on the part of the individual. At the same time, though, it’s a safety net like no other, an organized base of support that can catch a people — even Western people — in free fall, a sure thing when nothing else is for certain. It’s the one place, the one truth, you know holds no surprises.

“Why must we visit our great-great-aunt and her weird children and snooty grandchildren every time she invites us to her house?” my sisters and I used to bug my mother in those years.

“We see her because she’s your great-great-aunt,” my mother would say, as if that was supposed to make any sense.

We didn’t like the aunt, and she didn’t like us, and still, she came to our house, and we went to hers, and we all made nice to each other like little robots on some kind of mission of cordiality, the purpose of which is only now becoming evident to me: She wasn’t important in and of herself, this aunt. She was a link in the chain, a knot in the safety net, and so were we, and so were the weird children and the snooty grandkids.

In a fractured society, amid fear of the future and shame about the past, where so many families are standing at the edge of poverty and unemployment, and so many of the trusted have proven unworthy of trust, the old village may just be the place we all want to go back to.

For the children of those Iranian Jews who weathered the storm three decades ago and are caught in its midst again this year, the question is, have we kept enough of our parents’ values to be able to find our way back to the safety and support of the tribe?

For the rest of the country, descendants of those immigrant communities who came to America a hundred years ago and built the country into what it is today, the question is, will they look to the past, discover the secret of their parents’ survival and come together once again as a family?

Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is “Caspian Rain” (MacAdam Cage, 2007). Her column appears monthly in The Journal.

Yom Ha’Atzmaut 2007: What Israel means to me

From a chapter in the book, “What Israel Means to Me: By 80 Prominent Writers, Performers, Scholars, Politicians, and Journalists,” edited by Alan Dershowitz (John Wiley & Sons, 2006).

I was born in Tel Aviv, in 1936, and, quite naturally, my feelings toward Israel are suffused with the love, pride, memories, music and aromas that nourish and sustain all natives of any

Yet, remarkably, as the years pass, I discover that these same feelings towards Israel are echoed by people everywhere, including many who have never set foot in that country.

My family’s love affair with Israel begins in 1924, when my grandfather, a textile merchant and devout Chassid in the town of Ostrowietz, Poland, decided to realize his life dream and immigrate to the land of the Bible.

Family lore has it that my grandfather was assaulted one day by a Polish peasant with an iron bar shouting: “Dirty Jew!”; he crawled home then, wiped his blood and announced to his wife and four children: “Start packing! We are going home!”

In the weeks that followed, he sold all his possessions, and, teaming with 25 other families, he bought a piece of sandy land about seven kilometers to the northeast of Jaffa. That land was near an Arab village called “Ibn Abrak,” described by the newspaper Haaretz (July 1924) as “a few mud-walled huts surrounded by a few scattered trees.”

The Arab real-estate broker in Jaffa had probably no inkling why a group of seemingly educated Jews, some with business experience, would pay so dearly for a piece of arid land, situated far from any water source, which even the hardy residents of Ibn Abrak found to be uninhabitable.

But the 26 Chassidic families knew exactly what they were buying — Ibn Abrak was the site of the ancient city of Bnai-Brak, well known in the biblical and rabbinic days, the town where Rabbi Akiva made his home and established his great yeshiva.

The sages say that it was to Bnai-Brak that Rabbi Akiva applies the famous verse: “Justice, Justice shalt thou pursue. (Sanhedrin. 32b)”

The vision of reviving the spirit of that ancient site of learning was well worth the exorbitant price the broker demanded, the dusty winds, the merciless sun, the lack of water, and all the daily hardships that pioneering agricultural life entailed.

My father was 14 when his family arrived at Bnai-Brak in 1924, and whenever he reminisced about that early period of hardship, he always referred to it as the “rebuilding of Bnai-Brak,” as if he and my grandfather had been there before, with Poland and the whole saga of the Jewish Diaspora merely an unpleasant nightmare.

We, the children who grew up in Bnai-Brak, had not the slightest doubt that we had been there before. Every Passover, when our family’s reading of the haggadah reached the well-known story of the five rabbis who were sitting in Bnai-Brak, reciting the story of the Exodus, my grandfather would stop the reading, look everyone in the eye, issue one of his rare mysterious smiles, and continue with emphasis: “She’Hayu Mesubin b’Bnai Brak….” The message was clear: “We never really left home!”

A short distance from our school, there were two steep hills that almost touched each other. The older boys told us that the two hills once were one, and got separated when Bar Kochba — the heroic figure who led a futile Jewish rebellion against Rome in the second century C.E.. — rode through them on his famous lion, causing the gully between.

We had no doubt that it was only a matter of time before we would find Bar Kochba’s burial place; we needed only to dig deep enough into these hills — which we did enthusiastically for hours and hours. It was only a matter of time, we thought, before the earth all around us would ooze and unravel the mysteries of our historic infancy.

It was this cultural incubator that shaped my childhood — an intoxicating enthusiasm of homecoming and nation rebuilding.

Those who say that this sort of culture no longer inspires youth in our generation are mistaken. Seventy-eight years after my grandfather first set foot in Bnai-Brak, in a desolate shed in Karachi, Pakistan, his great-grandson, Daniel Pearl, stood before his captors-murderers and said: “My father is Jewish, my mother is Jewish, I am Jewish,” then, looking straight at the eye of evil, he added one last sentence: “Back in the town of Bnai-Brak there is a street named after my great-grandfather, Chayim Pearl, who was one of the founders of the town.” Was a page of history ever chanted with a greater pride? Was a more gentle love song ever sung to a homeward-bound founder of a new town?

My mother’s story was different, yet still driven by the same forces of history. A resident of Kielz, Poland, she applied for immigration in 1935, when anti-Semitic intimidation reached unbearable proportions. Hitler came to power two years earlier, his threats were broadcast all over Europe, the handwriting was on the wall and masses of Polish Jews applied for immigration to their biblical homeland — Palestine. Ironically, the Brits were bending to Arab pressure to stop Jewish immigration, and my mother’s hopes of leaving Poland before the storm fell at the mercy of a political controversy that has not been settled to this very day.

I recently read the argument the Arabs used in that debate, as published in the Arabic newspaper, Carmel: “We know that Jewish immigration can proceed without dispossessing a single Arab from his land. This is obvious. And this is precisely what we object to. We simply do not want to peacefully turn into a minority, and European Jews should understand why.” The counterargument of the Jewish leadership was equally compelling: “This sort of morality is morality of cannibalism, not one of the civilized world, for it dictates that the homeless must forever remain homeless; we beg merely for a small fraction of this vast piece of land” (paraphrased from Zev Jabotinsky’s 1937 “Medinah Ivrit”).

But the British sided with the stronger, allowing a trickle of only 15,000 immigration certificates per year. My mother could not wait and paid a huge sum to a cousin who had an immigration certificate to arrange a fictitious marriage that would later be annulled. Fortunately, her father intervened and she found a better prospect — my father — a sun-tanned young Palestinian in summer suit, who was searching the towns of Poland for a refined European bride. Her parents, her brother and her sister were not so lucky. Stranded by the British-Arab blockade, they perished in the Holocaust, with 6 million other victims.

Search for Similarity in Aliyah Tales

“Aliya: Three Generations of American-Jewish Immigration to Israel” by Liel Leibovitz (St. Martin’s Press, $24.95).

When the Pilgrims were making their way to the land that would become America, Liel Leibovitz’s German ancestors were moving to the Holy Land. A cultural writer for The Jewish Week, Leibovitz is a ninth-generation Israeli, now living in New York City. His own story of leaving Israel — for now — and his constant grappling with that question is the back story for his compelling and original book, “Aliya: Three Generations of American-Jewish Immigration to Israel,” in which he profiles three families who made aliyah at different points in Israel’s history: 1947, 1969 and 2001.

Since 1947, approximately 100,000 American Jews have made aliyah. Last year, 3,100 new immigrants from North America arrived in Israel, an increase of 15 percent over 2004, and the highest number since 1983. In fact, aliyah numbers have been rising steadily over the last three years, with a lull in Israeli-Palestinian violence and an improving economy.

Through detailed, intimate reporting about his subjects’ lives, Leibovitz describes their motivations, but comes to understand that stated reasons aren’t enough, that the “real answer simply isn’t available to the cognitive facilities. It must be felt. It is sensed when one walks down the streets of Jerusalem, realizing that one’s ancestors walked those same streets centuries ago.” As he explains, it’s a spirituality that has less to do with texts and ritual than with “the air and the hills and the sea.”

Leibovitz is not a character in this book; his politics are not expressed. But the book is the narrative he lives and thinks about daily, albeit with a twist, as he says in an interview. Rather than asking about why he decided to leave Israel and live here, he ponders, after living in America and coming to know the American Jewish community, “why people who seemingly have it all would leave a comfortable place for a place that’s still unsafe.”

Now 29, he traces the intellectual journey that led to this book back to his childhood in the Tel Aviv suburb of Herzliya. His fascination with things American began when he was about 9 years old and visited relatives here; he was awestruck by the variety of food, television shows and movies. He remembers his absolute shock when he learned that these same relatives were making aliyah, giving up America.

After serving in the army and attending Tel Aviv University’s film school, he moved to New York, first working in a hardware store and then as a senior press officer for the Israeli Consulate. He later enrolled in the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

“As much as I wanted to pretend that I was cosmopolitan at heart, once I came to live here, I realized just how Israeli I am at my core — it’s more biological than ideological,” he said. “I thought furiously about what my move meant, as opposed to the move of my cousins.”

At Columbia, when he began thinking about a book topic, he had no doubt about its theme. He spent two years researching, making 11 trips to Israel. To find the three families, he interviewed 180 people.

Stylistically, “Aliya” is in the tradition of serious nonfiction books by journalists that look at the events in ordinary people’s lives as a way of illuminating the historical landscape. Perhaps the first and best-known contemporary book in this genre is J. Anthony Lucas’s 1985 Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Common Ground,” which told the story of the court-ordered desegregation of Boston schools, through the stories of three families.

Leibovitz is a fine storyteller, and he succeeds in capturing the character and mindset of his characters. His three families represent the three main waves of immigration: the first, between 1947 and 1952, including people who had experienced World War II in some way; the second and strongest wave, between 1967 and 1972, inspired by the Six-Day War and the American sociopolitical culture of the late 1960s; and the third wave, from 1980 to the present, when the largest group of immigrants were Orthodox families.

Betty and Marlin Levin, an energetic couple now in their 80s, moved to Israel in 1947; their voyage by ship was their honeymoon. In New York, Betty worked as Hebrew teacher and Marlin, who fought in World War II, was a journalist and photographer. They were both passionately moved by the struggle for a Jewish homeland, and Marlin, after fighting the Germans, questioned how he could sit back while his own people were on trial. After arriving in Jerusalem and finding things not quite as they had pictured, the Levins were still determined to love their new city — “where strangers were virtually nonexistent” — and did. Marlin immediately found work with The Jerusalem Post and on his first day on the job, witnessed an explosion in the street. He continued to cover the city’s struggles as the nation was founded and war broke out.

Mike Ginsberg first moved with his mother and brothers to Israel before the 1967 war and they returned to the United States; he moved back in 1969, inspired by the Six-Day War. He fought in the Yom Kippur War and settled on a kibbutz in the north, where he has helped repel terrorist attacks. Over the years, he has spoken to many groups of American tourists and now is always moved when some young American-born Israeli soldier says that hearing Mike inspired him to make aliyah. He doesn’t think it’s necessary for every Jew to move to Israel. “The most important thing, he tells anyone who will listen, is to make the Jews united, in the United States and all over the world, to make them united in their support of each other and in their love for Israel. That, he says, is what he lives for.”

Sharon and Danny Kalker, the parents of four children, are the most recent arrivals — they moved to Israel from Queens in 2001, settling in Hashmonaim, a community just outside the Green Line. Making aliyah was something they considered for many years, and they were inspired by their oldest daughter’s decision to stay following a post-high school year there. Their religious and working lives are quite different than they expected and eventually very satisfying, although in the course of getting adjusted to their new lives, their marriage breaks up. Leibovitz explains that he gave them the option of not appearing in the book once they decided to divorce, but they chose to have their story told.

What the three families — who never met one another — share is a passionate commitment to Zionism and, on a certain level, to Judaism, Leibovitz explains. He also points out the tremendous hardships all have accepted: All of them, in different ways, have dodged their share of bullets. But for the most part, these are not people who questioned their decisions to move.

At home on the Upper West Side, Leibovitz and his wife, an American who has lived in Israel, speak a private blend of Hebrew and English, and move among several communities. He has come to believe, like Mike Ginsburg, “that it doesn’t matter where you live, it matters what’s in your heart.”