June 26, 2019

Chef Lior Hillel Puts Openness, Hospitality on Menu

Chef Lior Hillel is the successful co-owner of several popular restaurants. He and his partners, Robert and Danny Kronfli, recently renovated and updated their old restaurant, Bacaro LA, reopening it as Bacari West Adams. Although he’s been openly gay for years, Hillel struggled with coming out, and his experiences in restaurant kitchens were not always positive. Because he doesn’t want others to go through similar challenges, he ensures that his restaurants foster an environment of acceptance and nondiscrimination. Born and raised in Israel, Hillel has a well-regarded, established culinary presence in Los Angeles.

JewishJournal: You moved from Israel to the United States is 2005. Was that for professional reasons?

Lior Hillel: Partially. At the time, being gay in Israel was somewhat difficult. My dad was sick and the decision was made not to let him know — to keep it under wraps. So, part of the decision to move was to advance my career, but also so that I could live life to the fullest. 

JJ: How was the culinary experience different here?

LH: It’s less restrictive. It was a dream of mine to go to Le Cordon Bleu in Pasadena and work with ingredients that didn’t have kosher dietary restrictions. It was profound to my development as a chef. 

JJ: How difficult was it to adjust to living in America?

LH: It did not feel natural at first. As an Israeli, I was used to being around family. Family is your safety net and they keep you from falling through the cracks. I had parents, siblings and other family back in Israel. But I had one brother in Pasadena, and I wouldn’t have moved here if he wasn’t here. The transition was difficult and challenging. 

JJ: When did you decide to be more open with your family about your sexuality?

LH: The secret was buried in 2009 when my father died. I confessed over an open grave right before they put the soil on. I confessed and completely buried that secret. I knew that I didn’t bring any shame to my family. 

JJ: You got married in Israel. What was that like?

LH: It was beautiful. My brother was a little apprehensive at first, but he melted a little when he saw the ceremony. He knew it was special. It was intimate and full of love. It embodied the Jewish traditions that I connect with, such as respect for others and having good values. From that foundation, you can do whatever you want, but you need to have that basic human decency. 

“It did not feel natural at first. As an Israeli, I was used to being around family. Family is your safety net and they keep you from falling through the cracks.”

JJ: Did you consciously decide to become an advocate for LGBTQ people in the restaurant industry?

LH: It’s something that evolved over time. I got involved in the ROI community (an international network of Jewish change makers/innovators/entrepreneurs in their 20s and 30s). I wasn’t always treated well throughout my career in kitchens. I was humiliated, put down. There were times when my work was sabotaged. When I got into a position of power or privilege, I knew I wanted to offer a place to work that accommodates the needs of others. If I can make someone’s life easier or smoother, I will definitely do so. Also, part of being Jewish is providing for others, just like some people did for me on some occasions. 

Interior of Bacari W. 3rd

JJ: What role does your Judaism play in your life?

LH: I’ve been questioning the religion part because we’ve lost a lot of family members due to cancer. I’ve been wondering why God is allowing this to happen. But I don’t question the values or culture. I embrace the traditions and values fully. My husband, Zachary, is not Jewish, so we have discussed how we will handle having kids. 

JJ: What type of food do you serve at your new restaurant?

LH: The food is Mediterranean. When I joined the restaurant group in 2008, I put more of my imprint on the menu. What we have today is an emphasis on fresh, small plates. It’s almost like we’re taking people on a Mediterranean tour. We also have some American dishes. We’re known for using fresh, mostly local ingredients that are full of flavor. I like well-rounded dishes with an acid component, spices, crunch and colors. 

JJ: Your business partners are Lebanese. What commonalities do you have that make it a good partnership?

LH: It’s interesting, because we eat the same foods, like the same flavors and have the same type of cooking. We were also raised in many similar ways — things like respecting your elders and having a strict upbringing. 

JJ: What kind of experience can guests expect at your restaurant?

LH: They will be treated with great hospitality. This applies to everything from the food to customer service. We treat our guests like they walked into our house. This is a part of Mediterranean hospitality. 

Allison Futterman is a writer based in North Carolina.

Mark Schiff: Thoughts From a Stand-Up Guy

Standup comedian Mark Schiff has been a headliner at all the major casinos in Las Vegas and Atlantic City. He has appeared on “The Tonight Show” and “Late Night With David Letterman,” and has had HBO and Showtime specials. The 60-something comedian has been the featured act at the Montreal Comedy Festival and appeared in Judd Apatow’s “Funny People” with Adam Sandler. He has also written for and guest starred on the sitcom “Mad About You,” and was a writer on “Roseanne.” His first play, “The Comic,” ran in Los Angeles for 10 months and played at The Aspen Comedy Festival, after which HBO optioned it for a movie. Schiff talked with the Journal about the influences on his career, his interests and pursuits.

Jewish Journal: When did you become interested in doing stand-up comedy?

Mark Schiff: When I was 12, my parents took me to see Rodney Dangerfield and I knew what I wanted to do for a living. I had no idea how to do it or anyone that had ever done it. But the door to becoming a stand-up is wide open to everyone. It’s the most diverse and inclusive business in the world. If you’re funny, they will come.

JJ: Who were the comedians in your “freshman class” when you were learning the ropes at New York City comedy clubs?

MS: Gilbert Gottfried, Jerry Seinfeld, Larry Miller, Paul Reiser, Marc Weiner, Larry David and Steve Mittleman.

JJ: Which comedians have been your greatest influences?

MS: Lenny Bruce, Bill Cosby, Woody Allen, Robert Klein, George Carlin and Alan King.

“I love reading books about rabbis. After reading those books, I wanted to grow a beard.”

JJ: What are you reading these days?

MS: All very serious biographies. I love reading books about rabbis. “A Tzadik in Our Time” and “All for the Boss” are two great rabbi books. After reading them, I wanted to grow a beard.

JJ: Do you have any hobbies or interests outside of show business?

MS: I collect old movies I never watch. My other hobby is trying to decipher things my wife says to me. Many times, she will say something, and I’ll go into another room and try to figure out exactly what she means. I know I’m wrong about something, but not always sure what.

JJ: You’ve lost a lot of weight. How have you managed to keep it off?

MS: I lost 50 pounds seven years ago. Almost anyone can lose weight, but few can keep it off. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It’s a constant fight and it doesn’t get easier. I have a fat man inside of me constantly wanting to come out. I’m a vegan, and I exercise seven days a week. And I’m strict. No pizza, pasta, bread, frozen yogurt, chips, dips, desserts, fried food, licorice, sugar or sugar substitutes, coffee or tea. And very little to no oil. I believe with every fiber of my being it’s life or death. As the rabbis say, “Choose life!”

JJ: What accounts for the longevity of your 28-year marriage?

MS: I stopped dating other women. Also, I took acting lessons, so I know how to pretend to enjoy doing the things my wife asks. I also stopped trying to turn her into my mother. And I try to make her laugh. All I have to do is ask for sex and she’ll laugh for hours.

JJ: Any charities close to your heart?

MS: My wife, Nancy, and I like The Salvation Army, Feed the Children and The Leprosy Mission. I also like doing hands-on work, like visiting sick people. Loneliness is a problem for most people, but when you’re sick, magnify it 20 times. I was with my friend Jack the other day. Jack is 90 and in a nursing home. When I went to see him last week, he told me he wanted to die. Fifteen minutes later, we were telling each other jokes. Go visit sick people. It’s good for them and it’s good for you.

Mark Miller is a humorist who has performed stand-up comedy on TV and written for the Los Angeles Times Syndicate and various sitcoms. His first book, a collection of his humor essays on dating and romance, is “500 Dates: Dispatches From the Front Lines of the Online Dating Wars.”

Donny Most: Happy Days Are Here Again — in Music

More than acting, directing and producing, Donny Most’s greatest joy is singing. Widely known for playing the comic character Ralph Malph on the long-running TV sitcom hit “Happy Days,” Most has reinvented his career with a concert tour called “Donny Most Sings and Swings,” in which he sings big-band-era-style songs during a two-hour show.

Born and raised in Brooklyn, Most cut his teeth performing in the Catskills. He has performed multiple times at the local jazz clubs, Catalina Bar & Grill in Hollywood and Vitello’s in Studio City, as well as other venues around the country.

Most, 64, lives in Westlake Village with his wife of 36 years, Morgan. They have two daughters.

Jewish Journal: When did you realize you loved music and singing, and when did you believe you had talent as a singer?

Donny Most: It really started for me when I saw the movie “The Jolson Story” when I was 9 years old. The movie and Jolson’s singing had a very strong impact on me. I bought a bunch of his albums and would sing along to them over and over. My interest in this music led me to learn about many of the legendary singers of the Great American Songbook, like Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Dean Martin, Tony Bennett and Bobby Darin. I wound up taking singing lessons at a school in NYC when I was around 13 or 14, and when I was picked to be part of a professional review performing in the Catskill Mountains at age 15, I knew I might have what it takes.

JJ: How and when did the idea of the concert tour come about?

DM: It was about 4 1/2 years ago. I had put my music aside when I shifted my focus to acting in my late teens, and this kind of music was falling out of favor during this period of profound change. Because the jazz standards have come back, it hit me that if I was ever going to do this music again, now was the time.

Because the jazz standards have come back, it hit me that if I was ever going to do this music again, now was the time.

JJ: Are audiences surprised when they see the actor who played Ralph Malph, a comic character, belting out jazz and swings tunes?

DM: Yes. People who haven’t heard my CD or seen any videos from my live performances are definitely surprised when they come to one of my concerts. They are constantly saying, “We had no idea you could sing like this.” They tell me they were “blown away” and things like that, which is, of course, always nice to hear.

JJ: Did you entertain at family bar mitzvah celebrations when you were growing up?

DM: Well, I got up with the band during my own bar mitzvah and sang a Jolson song. I’m pretty sure I did the same kind of thing at several of my friends’ and relatives’ bar mitzvahs as well.

JJ: What did you learn from performing in the Borscht Belt as a teen?

DM: I got to sing in front of different audiences, with different bands, in different nightclubs about three to five times a week all summer. It’s hard to quantify what that learning experience was, but I know it taught me a lot.

JJ: What is your favorite song to perform and why?

DM: That’s a tough question, as I love so many of the songs. But when I became a huge Bobby Darin fan when I was young, I loved singing along with him to his great version of “Mack the Knife.” To this day, I feel like it’s in my blood.

JJ: In 2009, you starred in the movie “The Yankles,” portraying the father of a yeshiva student. Did being Jewish help you in this role?

DM: I’m sure it helped, as that background and experience informed me quite a bit. Even though I did not go to a yeshiva, I knew people that did. I had interactions with that world, knew the culture, etc. So having that kind of knowledge and connection always helps you as an actor.

JJ: Any causes near and dear to you?

DM: My wife was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease about 16 years ago, so we have been involved in many fundraising events for Parkinson’s. One organization we have worked with on several occasions is the Michael J. Fox Foundation. Also the Keck School of Medicine at USC, where my wife’s doctor does research.

JJ: How about if we wrap up this Q-and-A with your signature line from Happy Days?

DM: Even in 2018 — I still got it!

Stacy Karten is a former sports and contributing editor for the Baltimore Jewish Times.

Screenwriter Ed Solomon’s Excellent Adventure

By the time Ed Solomon was 21, while he was still a student at UCLA, he was a staff writer on the ABC sitcom “Laverne & Shirley” — and at the time, the youngest member of the Writers Guild. He went on to become a staff writer and producer on Showtime’s “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show,” an early cable hit that was often experimental and groundbreaking in its approach to television comedy.

With writing partner Chris Matheson, Solomon developed the characters Bill and Ted, first as an improv sketch and then in the film “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.” The film put them on the map as studio feature screenwriters. As a solo screenwriter, Solomon entered the A-List with the script for “Men in Black,” setting his signature style of visually innovative, intelligent, character-based comedy.

In 2016, Solomon turned to drama, teaming with director Steven Soderbergh and HBO for the original interactive long-form branching narrative “Mosaic,” starring Sharon Stone, which was released first as an app in November, and then as a limited-run series on HBO in January.

Solomon, 57, currently is writing a second project in the branching narrative format for producers Soderbergh and Casey Silver.

Jewish Journal: How did you find the transition from TV sit-com writing to feature film writing?

Ed Solomon: The same thing Garry Shandling taught me when I wrote on his sitcom also applies to feature films — always make sure you’re writing from truth — that you’re clear about the internal truth of whatever the project is and that you are faithful to that truth. What is this story about at its deepest level? What is its organic DNA?

JJ: How do you feel your Judaism has influenced your work and/or your life?

ES: I think the combination of our Jewish shared history of sadness and loss, displacement, cultural identification no matter where you are geographically, and sense of humor has deeply informed my work, life and sense of empathy, along with a willingness to find joy in life, joy in pain.

I remember [actor] Tommy Lee Jones being very unhappy with me, saying, “It’s either comedy or science fiction; make up your mind.” — Ed Solomon

JJ: What stands out about your “Men in Black” experience?

ES: Initially, it was a comic book. I struggled for a while trying to find an angle on it until I came up with this idea — what if the tabloids were actually all correct and that’s how the aliens communicated with each other? Suddenly, I had the key and the tone for the piece. And at that point, that world started to open up and become very fun. And yet, I remember [actor] Tommy Lee Jones being very unhappy with me, saying, “It’s either comedy or science fiction; make up your mind.”

JJ: How did you come to be involved with Steven Soderbergh and “Mosaic”?

ES: Four years ago, Steven approached, wanting to experiment with this branching form. We’d been friends and he knew that I’m always interested in trying to do new things. We share the belief that one of the ways to have a vital and long career is to keep pushing yourself out of your comfort zone. We decided a small-town murder mystery might be a good first start.

JJ: Any fond memories as a writer?

ES: One was staying up till 2 a.m. in my dorm to watch Jimmie Walker perform one of my jokes on “Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert.” The other was Barack Obama using a line I wrote during the 2008 campaign.

JJ: Any hobbies or interests outside of show biz?

ES: I’m a parent of two children whose lives are endlessly fascinating. I do volunteer work on weekends. I love music, reading, meditation, playing sports when I can and travel. I’m interested in every moment of my life. But, honestly, I’m so fascinated by the writing process that I don’t feel I need another hobby to make my life feel fun.

Mark Miller is a humorist and journalist who has performed stand-up comedy on TV and written for a number of sitcoms.

Phil Rosenthal’s 3 Desires: ‘See Everything, Do Everything, Eat Everything’

Phil Rosenthal is best known as the creator, writer and executive producer of the critically acclaimed CBS sitcom “Everybody Loves Raymond,” starring Ray Romano. Rosenthal’s new show, “Somebody Feed Phil,” is now streaming on Netflix, and showcases six cities: Bangkok, Tel Aviv, Lisbon, Mexico City, Saigon and New Orleans, where he eats an assortment of food ranging from high-end restaurants to street vendors. The Tel Aviv episode will be shown on the big screen at Temple Israel of Hollywood at 6 p.m. March 11.

Jewish Journal: How has your Judaism informed your work?

Phil Rosenthal: I’ve inherited a Jewish sensibility and sense of humor from my parents and all those who came before me. All the Jewish comedians, character actors and writers I was exposed to also reminded me of my family in their sense of humor. And with regard to the Italian family we portrayed on “Everybody Loves Raymond” — Italians and Jews do share two traits: all problems are solved with food, and the mother never leaves you alone. But, then again, what culture doesn’t have that? We’d get letters from Sri Lanka saying, “That’s my mom!”

JJ: Why did you want to adapt “Everybody Loves Raymond” for Russian television, despite having little knowledge of Russian culture?

PR: They asked me, and I thought, “Here’s an adventure!” And when I asked the head of Sony if I could bring a camera crew to document the whole thing and he said yes, that’s what really sealed the deal. So we did the show and made a documentary of our experience called “Exporting Raymond.” It turned out way beyond my expectations of a cultural comedy — and it’s available on Netflix, if people want to see it.

“Italians and Jews share two traits: all problems are solved with food, and the mother never leaves you alone.”

JJ: In your two food shows, “I’ll Have What Phil’s Having” and “Somebody Feed Phil,” you travel to popular locations worldwide to sample the food. What prompted this?

PR: It stems from when we did an episode of “Everybody Loves Raymond” in Italy. Ray was not excited about going, so I thought that’s what this show should be about — his character not being excited about going, but once he’s there, he becomes very excited about everything, the food, the people, and so on. And when we filmed it, what happened to his character, I saw actually happen to the person! I thought, wouldn’t it be great to one day have a show where you could do this for other people, turn them on to the magic of traveling? It’s the greatest gift you can give yourself and your family.

JJ: You’ve been married for 28 years. What’s your secret for the longevity of the relationship?

PR: My wife is a saint. Oh, you want more? And sense of humor; I think that’s the most underrated human value. The other stuff of marriage can fade a little bit, but as long as you can laugh with your partner, that’s everything because that’s what remains at the end of the day. I think that’s how we pick our friends and that’s how we ultimately pick who we marry. The appreciation of each other’s sense of humor is everything and connects us in the deepest possible way.

JJ: Any charities close to your heart?

PR: Arts education charities. In fact, we have one run by my wife, Monica Rosenthal, called the Flourish Foundation (theflourishfoundation.org), whose mission is to support and provide opportunities for a complete education for middle school, high school and college-age students in the Los Angeles area, with a primary focus on the performing arts. We also support food banks, food charities and cancer charities.

JJ: What remains on your bucket list?

PR: The world’s pretty big. I have to see everything, do everything, eat everything. You’ll never be as young as you are right now, so while your legs still work, while you still have the breath in your lungs, go. At the end of our lives, we only regret the things we didn’t do.

Mark Miller is a humorist and journalist who has performed stand-up comedy on TV and written for a number of sitcoms.

Jewish Background Helps Comedian Rise to Roastmaster General

Jeff Ross is a comedian, writer and producer also known as the Roastmaster General. His comedy roast “victims” have included Rob Lowe, Justin Bieber, James Franco, Charlie Sheen, James Carville and Donald Trump. Jeff’s most recent comedy special is “Jeff Ross Roasts the Border: Live From Brownsville, Texas,” which is available on Comedy Central and iTunes.

His latest TV series is “Jeff Ross Presents Roast Battle,” a comedy competition show about to start its third season on Comedy Central. He will be appearing live at Caroline’s Comedy Club in New York City, February 8-11.

Jewish Journal: What motivated you to become a comedian?

Jeff Ross: I was struggling, living in New Jersey with my grandfather, trying to start a video production business. A buddy said, “Why don’t you try taking this stand-up comedy class? I think you’d be good at it.” He said it would be a good way to meet a girlfriend, have a social life and a creative outlet. The class was near the bus station where I was going home every night, anyway. So, I tried it on a whim, really enjoyed it right away and was the best one in the class, so I stuck with it.

JJ: How has your Jewish upbringing and heritage influenced your work and your life?

JR: Being Jewish makes you funny. It’s almost in our DNA. Although my Judaism isn’t the main focus of my act, it’s a big part of my personality. I love families, food, fun, parties and busting chops. Love of life. L’chaim.

“Being Jewish makes you funny. It’s almost in our DNA.”

JJ: What qualities make a perfect roast joke?

JR: The best roast jokes are backhanded compliments, where the recipient not only laughs along with the audience but goes home and tells their family about it; jokes that they’re proud of. That’s the heart of the artichoke for me, that’s what makes me feel good, when the joke lives longer than the show.

JJ: Your process for creating roast material?

JR: I do research. I’m all in. I go to battle to prepare. I get in shape. I go to the gym. I hang up pictures all over the house of the target I’m roasting. I buy their books, watch their movies, listen to their music. It’s war — take no prisoners.

JJ: Any charities close to your heart?

JR: The USO and what they do for our troops stationed overseas. You can’t play that up enough because it’s so important. And Meals on Wheels. When I was a beginning comedian and my grandfather was dying of cancer, Meals on Wheels delivered kosher meals to him, checked on him to make sure he was OK and helped him and me get through the day.

JJ: Tell us about your new special, “Jeff Ross Roasts the Border: Live From Brownsville Texas.”

JR: I went down to the Mexican border and did a show in front of the border fence for the immigrant community down there. I worked a year on it. It’s a very complicated subject and the jokes as well as my emotions are deep and sometimes confusing. I learned a lot, including how lucky I am that I was born in America. One point I make in the show is that Jewish people tried to come to America at the beginning of World War II and we sent them away. Now, we’re saying the same thing to these other refugees from other countries. Maybe we should take a look at all that.

JJ: Have you retained your dancing skills from your appearances on “Dancing With the Stars”?

JR: Oh, I had those skills way before “Dancing With the Stars.” I won a dance class in summer camp when I was about 8 and never looked back since. Don’t even tell me I’m not great. [Laughs] My family was in the kosher catering business; I know every dance you can think of from the “Hustle” to the horah.

JJ: What kinds of hobbies and interests do you have outside of comedy?

JR: Dancing, eating and looking for a wife.

Mark Miller is a humorist who has performed stand-up comedy in nightclubs and on TV, and has written on numerous sitcom staffs.

Eddie Jacobs: Bringing the Holocaust Home to a New Generation

Eddie Jacobs is the co-founder, with scholar and author Michael Berenbaum, of Berenbaum Jacobs Associates, which seeks to transform the “traditional” Holocaust museum — such as Yad Vashem in Jerusalem or the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles — by broadening its relevancy for present and future generations. In this interview, Jacobs, a one-time rising actor on Broadway, explains how this concept is being applied to new museums being built in Cincinnati, Dallas and the Balkan nation of Macedonia.

Jewish Journal: Is there a need for transforming “traditional” Holocaust museums? If so, why?

Eddie Jacobs: The museums you mention are groundbreaking historical museums that transformed the way in which the public views the subject matter of the Holocaust as well as how historical museums may present difficult and complex narratives. To a great extent, the new generation of museums is a result of the success of those mentioned. Ever-expanding interest in the subject, unexpected attendance rates, and visitor and educator encouragement have forced these — and new institutions — to expand their subject portfolio into broader realms.

JJ: If so, how do you visualize this transformation?

EJ: From a programmatic standpoint, it means a broader menu of subjects. Where once just the Holocaust story was told, we now see forays into other atrocities and genocides, human rights, tolerance and civic responsibility. Further, new technologies have been developed allowing expansion of the exhibition palette. Virtual-reality survivor testimony is now being incorporated where students can ask questions of a three-dimensional holographic projection of an actual Holocaust survivor. Virtual “tours” of concentration and death camps have been methodically and realistically constructed. As technology progresses, the challenges facing the educator and museum designer to find a balance between genuine reality and virtual reality become ever more complex.

“New technologies have been developed allowing expansion of the exhibition palette.”

JJ: How do you make the memory of the Holocaust meaningful to generations born after the actual Holocaust?

EJ: The first thing that we must do is to legitimize that question. We always begin our museum experiences with an orientation space meant to introduce our visitors to the journey ahead. At the very top of the agenda is to ask that fundamental question: “Why should I care about this event?” “How does it touch me today?” “I know that it was awful, and it’s very sad, but what relevance does it have in my life and reality?” We answer these questions by saying that the purpose of the exhibition they are about to see will allow each of them to draw their own answers and conclusions to those very legitimate and important questions.

JJ: What are some of your major projects at this time?

EJ: In March, the Holocaust Memorial Center for the Jews of Macedonia is opening in Skopje on the 75th anniversary of the near total destruction of that community. There, we have the opportunity to tell the story of a Jewish community in existence since Roman times, their special relationship to Alexander the Great and his inclusion in the Talmud, the Golden Age of Spain and subsequent expulsion, Ladino culture, and then the particular Holocaust narrative that befell that community. In January of next year, we will be opening the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum. The first part of the museum is a unique Holocaust narrative which transitions into a groundbreaking exhibition on human behavior and how we all can create a better world. In Dallas, 18 months from now, the Dallas Holocaust and Humanity Museum will open, featuring a singular Holocaust narrative which seamlessly transitions into a human rights exhibition, and culminates in an innovative exhibition called “American Ideals, Reality and Repair.”

There are other projects in the works, but these represent some of the upcoming highlights.

JJ: Among Hollywood filmmakers, you occasionally hear the phrase “Holocaust fatigue” to indicate that the general moviegoer — not necessarily Jewish — may be getting tired of the subject. What is your view?

EJ:  My view is, of course, biased. That said, check out the attendance levels at the ceaseless flow of Holocaust-related movies, books, art shows, dance works, theatrical presentations, museums etc. As stated above, the methodology that we have created in transmitting these stories strikes universal chords. Hence their popularity despite the difficult subject matter. There is also a statement of profound humanity. For in all that darkness, the sparks of kindness and compassion we discover continue to inspire us. And the example of the survivors, in their resilience and grace, elevates us.

Wendy Liebman: Clinical Psychology’s Loss Is Stand-Up Comedy’s Gain

Stand-up comedian Wendy Liebman has performed on late-night TV talk shows hosted by Johnny Carson, David Letterman, Jay Leno, Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel and Craig Ferguson; also on Hollywood Squares and at comedy clubs and events throughout the United States. She has starred in specials for HBO, Comedy Central and Showtime, and was a semifinalist on NBC’s “America’s Got Talent.”

She is known for her distinctive style, which includes quick follow-up jokes to her original one-liners. In many cases, her punchlines seem to fall after the joke is over, delivered with unexpected timing. Her video, “Wendy Liebman: Taller on TV,” is available on Amazon.

Jewish Journal: You were a college psychology major. What happened?

Wendy Liebman: I was planning on becoming a therapist. So before applying to get a degree in clinical psychology, I got a job at Harvard Medical School, doing psych research at Massachusetts Mental Health Center. And it was utterly depressing. And I was clinically depressed myself. Luckily, I took the mail in for the wrong apartment one day and read the course catalog from the Cambridge Center for Adult Education. I took an acting class, but the teacher quit after the first lesson. So they told me to pick something else, and when I saw “How to Be a Stand-Up Comedian,” I had a eureka moment.

JJ: Who are your favorite comedians?

WL: I grew up watching Phyllis Diller, Bob Hope, Barbra Streisand, Woody Allen, Cher, Flip Wilson, Carol Burnett and Lucille Ball. When I was starting to do stand-up, I watched Steven Wright, Howie Mandel, David Letterman, Garry Shandling, Roseanne [Barr] and Joan Rivers. Some of my favorites working now are Nikki Glaser, Brian Regan, Sarah Silverman and Brian Kiley.

JJ: How do you feel your Jewish upbringing/heritage has influenced your work and/or your life?

WL: The people I grew up around were very clever and open-minded, and humor was almost a way of life, a commodity, a sixth sense. Perhaps our collective fear/anxiety/grief as Jews is relieved by the hope that is communicated through laughter.

JJ: What kinds of hobbies and interests do you have outside of comedy?

WL: I’m in love with my dog, JJ. I watch a lot of shows on the Food Network (even though I don’t know how to cook — even JJ’s like, “That’s OK — I’ll eat out tonight!”). I play the piano and sing like no one can hear me.

JJ: Any advice to budding comedians?

WL: Go to a million comedy shows. Become a student of stand-up. And perform as much as humanly possible. There is no shortcut. You just have to get onstage all the time.

JJ: Any movies, TV shows, books, plays, radio programs, blogs, podcasts or apps you’d like to recommend that have been especially impactful (and/or entertaining) for you?

WL: My husband, Jeffrey Sherman, is the funniest person I know, but quite shy and not a performer. He is a writer/producer/composer and the son of Robert Sherman, one of The Sherman Brothers who wrote a lot of music for Disney [“Mary Poppins,” “It’s A Small World,” “The Jungle Book,” etc.]. Jeffrey and his cousin Gregg did a documentary about their fathers called “The Boys: The Sherman Brothers’ Story.” I recommend that! Also, the Amazon show “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” and the Netflix series “Somebody Feed Phil.”

JJ: What’s coming up for you? Any charities close to your heart?

WL: For three years, I’ve produced and hosted “Locally Grown Comedy,” a monthly showcase of great stand-up comedy at Upstairs at Vitello’s Supper Club in Studio City. Charities I regularly perform for include weSPARK Cancer Center (wespark.org), the Tuberous Sclerosis Alliance (www.tsalliance.org), and facioscapulohumeral dystrophy (fshsociety.org).

JJ: What remains on your bucket list?

WL: I’m writing a one-woman play (“What to Wear to Therapy”), a musical about three stand-up comedians in Las Vegas over Valentine’s Day weekend (“Home on Tuesday”), a children’s book about losing a pet (“Keeping Miko”) and a novel (“As Isabel”). And now I’ve told you about them so I have to finish them. And I’d love to play a therapist in a sitcom!

Mark Miller is a humorist who has performed stand-up comedy in nightclubs and on TV, written on numerous sitcom staffs, been a humor columnist for the Los Angeles Times Syndicate and is a current Great Gigs interviewer and humor blogger for The Huffington Post.

UN Watch Leader Faces a World of Challenges While Defending Israel

Photo courtesy of U.N. Watch

Hillel Neuer considers it a badge of honor that he is a “feared and dreaded” figure at the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC), as the European newspaper Tribune de Genève once described him.

“There are people who cross the street in Geneva to avoid me,” Neuer said. As executive director of UN Watch, a nonprofit that monitors United Nations activities, Neuer is both watchdog and whistleblower, holding world powers to account when it comes to their human rights records. A lawyer, activist and humanitarian, Neuer spoke with the Journal from Geneva, where he lives and works.

Jewish Journal: As head of UN Watch, you define yourself as “the voice of conscience at the United Nations.” What’s it like to be the guy defending democratic ideals in a room full of non-democratic countries?

Hillel Neuer: It often feels surreal. You ask yourself how bizarre is it that you need to state basic truths in an arena that is often Orwellian, where the worst criminals are often the prosecutors and the judges.

JJ: The U.N. Human Rights Council notoriously singles out Israel for violations even as far worse offenders go unchallenged. Where is this discrimination most evident?

HN: During a given meeting, you’ll have resolutions — maybe one on Iran, one on Myanmar, one on North Korea and then five on Israel. And it’s not just the numbers: When there is a resolution criticizing a country, the practice at the U.N. is to recognize and acknowledge various positive things [a country has done], whether they are justified or not. But when it comes to Israel, even though Israel has done many positive things, none of this ever appears in the resolutions. This is part of an attempt to portray Israel as so evil, nothing good can be said of it.

“I’m the most hated man at the United Nations. I get looks of death from a vast array of people.”

JJ: What is the motive for a non-Arab, non-Islamic country with no history of anti-Semitism to vote against Israel?

HN: The U.N. is a political body and many resolutions and elections are decided by vote trading. ‘You vote for me, I vote for you.’ So the Islamic states number 56 and they will go to some island state and say, ‘We will give you 56 votes for your issues and all you have to do is vote for our resolutions against Israel.’ … It’s realpolitik.

JJ: It sounds like the Arab and Islamic states have outsized power at the U.N.

HN: Since the 1973 war [when the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, better known as OPEC] imposed an oil embargo, the Arab world has been clear that if you don’t do things they like, your country won’t have oil. Sovereign wealth funds from countries like Qatar have tens of billions of dollars they could invest in your country if you vote the way they want you to. There is also fear of terrorism. Some countries perceive that if they are too friendly to Israel, they will risk making themselves into a target for terrorist groups.

JJ: U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley has won many fans in the Jewish world for standing up for Israel at the U.N. What difference has she made?

HN: There’s been a moral clarity. She’s been forthright in calling out what she sees as plain bigotry and things that make no sense. Seeing her hand raised to veto [the recent Jerusalem resolution] was a very powerful moment. An iconic picture, I would say.

JJ: Is your credibility ever challenged because you’re Jewish?

HN: I’m the most hated man at the United Nations. I get looks of death from a vast array of people — dictatorships like China, Russia and Cuba because we bring their victims [to testify] very effectively and ambush them. But at the end of day, I don’t walk through life worrying what my handicaps are. We all have them.

JJ: As a human rights organization sworn to defend Israel, how do you address Israel’s offenses against the Palestinians?

HN: Even if I’m aware Israel has blots on its record, I’m going to speak out against human rights abuses in Syria, Libya, Yemen, Venezuela. That’s our role. We’re there to deal with the subjects not being dealt with. Israel has dozens of NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] that hold the [government and] IDF [Israel Defense Forces] to account. We fill the void in Geneva.

JJ: What could Israel do to help your work combatting the prejudice against it?

HN: On the day of [Israeli] elections a few years ago, I had given a speech telling the world to look at Israeli democracy in action, explaining that more Arabs than ever had been elected to the Knesset, etc. … And then [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu made that xenophobic statement, ‘Arab voters are heading to the polling stations in droves,’ which was unhelpful to me. And I told his government that immediately.

Q&A with Wolf Blitzer on Muslim Refugees, ‘Fake News’ and His Favorite Journalism Movie

CNN newsman Wolf Blitzer, one of the world’s most recognizable journalists, has personal and professional connections to the Holocaust and Israel.

Blitzer’s paternal grandparents died in Auschwitz. His parents, both survivors from Poland, immigrated to the United States after the war, following the 1948 passage of the Displaced Person’s Act, which opened America’s borders to Europeans persecuted by the Nazis.

Blitzer, 69, was born in Germany and raised in Buffalo, N.Y. He was a reporter in Israel before joining the staff of CNN in 1990.

After being honored Nov. 5 by the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, Blitzer discussed today’s Muslim refugees, being a Jewish journalist at a time of rising anti-Semitism, his favorite journalism movie and more.

Jewish Journal: Can you compare the plight of Jewish refugees after the Holocaust with today’s Muslim refugees from Syria? 

Wolf Blitzer: As a son of Holocaust survivors who came to the United States as refugees after World War II, I strongly believe in refugee resettlement. This country welcomed my parents, who went on to establish a wonderful life in Buffalo, N.Y. My parents, like other Holocaust refugees, were thoroughly vetted by U.S. officials before they were granted entry visas. My dad told me about the questions he was asked. They were so grateful to this country and went on to become great American patriots.

JJ: How comparable are the situations?

WB: Refugees are refugees even as there are, of course, different degrees of oppression that made them refugees. Surviving genocide and mass murder, for example, is different than surviving a civil war. But make no mistake: Both are awful and brutal.

JJ: What can be done about Holocaust denial in the Muslim world? 

WB: The best way to deal with Holocaust denial is to get the truth out there — whether it’s here in the United States or elsewhere around the world, including in the Muslim world. And that’s where Holocaust survivors play such a critical role. They survived the horror and their stories are so powerful. Unfortunately, they are now in their 80s and 90s and there are fewer survivors every year. Their personal stories and testimony — shared at Holocaust museums on video — will remain and should be told in the Muslim world and everywhere else.

JJ: Before joining CNN, you worked at The Jerusalem Post and at Reuters’ Tel-Aviv bureau. How was the transition to CNN?

WB: It was very smooth. The folks at CNN are so nice. They really spent some time helping me during the transition. I was a print reporter and the hardest thing was learning how to write for television. It’s different than writing for newspapers or magazines. But in the end, it’s all about being a reporter and gathering the news. Those techniques are the same. My first day at CNN was May 8, 1990 — and Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait a few weeks later in August. I was CNN’s Pentagon correspondent, so I had no choice but to learn all about broadcast journalism very quickly.

JJ: Do Jewish journalists have special responsibilities at a time when anti-Semitism in on the rise?

WB: Our responsibility is the traditional responsibility: report the news honestly and fairly and get the job done. That’s what we’ve done for my whole career, that’s what journalists do and that’s what the viewers, readers and the listeners deserve — factual, honest reporting.

“Occasionally we make a mistake. If we have to correct something, we correct it, then we move on.”

JJ: In the age of “fake news,” and with President Donald Trump calling CNN fake news, how can journalists ensure that the public can continue to trust the media?

WB: Just keep doing our job and don’t get distracted. Just report the news and be honest and responsible. Look, we’re the first draft of history. Occasionally, we make a mistake. If we have to correct something, we correct it, then we move on. But it’s not that complicated: just report the news. That’s what we try to do.

JJ: What’s your favorite journalism movie?

WB: “All the President’s Men.”

JJ: What’s the likelihood of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement?

WB: We’ve been working on that a long time. Let’s see what happens.

Q & A with Daniel Radcliffe

Photo courtesy of Momentum Pictures.

In the “Harry Potter” films, actor Daniel Radcliffe battled the evil Lord Voldemort with his wand and fortitude. Since the eighth Potter film premiered in 2010, the English actor has tried to diversify his career with films such as the supernatural thriller “Horns,” the gay, Jewish beat poet saga “Kill Your Darlings” about Allen Ginsberg, and the horror film “The Woman in Black.”  Now he’s back with a new movie, “Jungle” — which hits theaters on Oct. 20 — based on the book of the same name by Israeli adventurer Yossi Ghinsberg. The memoir tells of Ghinsberg’s misadventures during three weeks stranded in the Amazon jungle in Bolivia in the early 1980s. The Journal recently caught up with Radcliffe, whose mother is Jewish, to talk about his new film.

Jewish Journal: Why were you drawn to the story and to the character of Yossi Ghinsberg?

Daniel Radcliffe: I pursued the part passionately. Sometimes when a story is true and incredibly powerful and communicates something that’s useful about the human survival instinct, I just wanted to become a part of further disseminating that story into the world.

JJ: Did you identify with the story’s themes of survival, especially as an actor after Harry Potter?

DR: You can be worried that people will typecast you, but I’ve been lucky because for every director who saw me out there as just Harry Potter, there was another one who was excited by the prospect of reinventing that image.  You just sort of grab those opportunities when they come around as much as you can. And also I’m very lucky that I’m in a position where I don’t have to work, so I don’t have to accept roles that I’m not passionate about.  

JJ: You spent many hours speaking to Yossi about his experiences. What kinds of questions did you ask him?

DR: Just talking to him about his inner monologue; how he kept himself going.  He said an interesting and also very sad thing about hope. I asked whether the hope of getting home is what kept him alive, and he said actually the opposite was true. Most of the time, he was just surviving from one moment to the next. He said that the moment when a plane flew overhead, he thought he was going to be saved. But the second when that plane flew away was the most demoralizing, deepest despair he had ever felt. He said as useful as hope can be, it can also break your heart.

JJ: Did you learn anything interesting from Yossi about Israelis?

DR: It was this idea that for the generation of kids who grew up as the sons and daughters of Holocaust survivors, like Yossi, what is your responsibility?  What do you have to live up to? I think that because Yossi wanted to go off backpacking, that was a disappointment to his father, a Holocaust survivor, and so I think his journey was tinged with a bit of guilt.

JJ: You went on an extreme diet for a month to lose weight for the final scenes of the film.

DR: I was generally having a fillet of fish or chicken and a protein bar every day, as well as vast amounts of coffee and cigarettes. It just makes you feel a tiredness that seeps into your whole being.

JJ: What was it like to film the scene in which your character removes parasitic worms from his forehead with a pair of tweezers?

DR: When you look up and you see the crew looking beyond grossed out, you go, OK, clearly it’s gone all right.

JJ: What was your most difficult moment on the shoot?

DR: One moment that was particularly heartbreaking was when the final scene was postponed for a week because the river had risen 7 or 8 feet and washed away our set. In my hotel room, I had a massive bar of chocolate and I had asked the kitchen to give me a steak for that night; I was going to eat finally. I was so close that I could practically taste it, and then it got rescheduled a week. 

Martin Storrow: Putting creativity toward the greater good

Martin Storrow. Photo courtesy of Martin Storrow

Name: Martin Storrow
Age: 34
Best-known for: #First100Ways
Little known fact: “I played cymbals in the school band. I was the disruptive person. At my mercy, a song could have a great or disastrous ending, depending on when I clashed the cymbals.”

From professional music to young adult engagement to projects of social good and activism, Martin Storrow, 34, approaches all aspects of his life creatively.

He co-founded #First100Ways, a campaign designed to mobilize people around small, positive actions they can take every day for 100 days to benefit a cause or an organization. Before that, he launched Keys for Refugees, a refugee-awareness campaign.

Storrow has worked for or volunteered with many Jewish organizations, including the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s (JDC) Entwine program for young Jewish leaders and Moishe House, where he planned and coordinated retreats for young Jews.

What do you consider your life’s central purpose?

To use creativity for good. That’s what ties it all together. I’m happiest and feel most fulfilled — through music or social good — when I’m doing something that utilizes my creativity toward what feels like the greater good.

What did #First100Ways achieve, and what’s the next step now that the campaign has concluded?

The best thing about it was we ended up with this team of people, the combination of whom was so weird: artists and policymakers in [Washington] D.C., and advertising and media professionals and lawyers. All these people together in the room would have been the funniest little party you can imagine. We started with an email — “Does anyone want to do something?” A group of 15 people were at our core, with an outer team of 100 people, and we were able to build it together.

The biggest lesson was that perception plays such a huge part in our experience. [After the last election,] people around us were living in uncertainty and, in the face of that, we were able to create productivity in a way that was in its conception nonpartisan and inclusive. Our goal was to be progressive but never to be partisan. The goal now is to figure out a meaningful next step for our community of 7,000 active users.

How have Jewish values helped power or inspire your work or creativity?

I grew up with creativity as a Jewish value. We are a part of creation, and just as creation is responsible for us being here, creativity is at the core of Jewish life. It feels really natural that those two go together: being encouraged to question everything, not always as a deconstructive process but as a constructive process building toward new ways that things can be done.

How did you meet your fiancée?

This is a wonderful Jewish Journal question. I met Rachel Brandt, who works in advertising, at a Moishe House retreat in Northern California. She was not involved in anything Jewish at the time. And now her parents always tell me how happy they are that we met! She has constantly raised the bar, encouraging me to be my truest and best self. When I get a crazy idea for what I want to create, she’s the one who tells me to do it, let’s just do it. I don’t think I could have done any of these projects without a partner like her.

We owe a lot to the Jewish community. We’ve had a lot of great experiences because of the Jewish community. Local organizations like the Pico Union Project gave us opportunities to get involved, and JDC trips to places like Ethiopia, Turkey, Georgia and Cuba have enhanced and enriched our lives. We can see the world because people are generous. There’s a lot of generosity out there.

What’s the most important business lesson you’ve learned?

You can’t do it alone. I had a mentor early on who told me this but I had to live it in many iterations to learn it. It’s a wonderful thing when people can dream with you and help make your dreams reality. Having an awesome team, we accomplished something together we couldn’t have accomplished individually. Finding the right people is important.

How do you stay inspired when things get challenging?

I read a lot. And I’m always looking at how I can get my hands dirty with whatever’s happening in the world. The thing that keeps me inspired is knowing that it’s a rare day when someone is going to knock and say here’s how you can help. But I know that you don’t have to be an expert to help out. If I’m feeling uninspired, I think about where the needs might be.

If money were no object, which issue in the world would you devote your attention to?

That we could ensure that every single person on this planet had a home. It wouldn’t be that hard if we just decided to do it.

Which three songs and three Jewish values would you say are essential to you?

Songs: “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” which I listened to for the first two months of this year on repeat. Paul Simon’s “Graceland” — it’s not a very Jewy choice, but still. And “Landslide,” by Stevie Nicks. One of the first songs I ever learned on guitar, but no one sings it like she does.

Jewish values: Tikkun olam, Tikkun olam, Tikkun olam.

What’s an interesting thing about you that most people don’t know?

I’m a secret writer. I have kept a journal for 13 years. It’s a Word document that is 1,300 pages long, single-spaced.

So, if you turned that into an autobiography, what would you title it?

“Just Make Up Your Mind Already: The Martin Storrow Story.”

Who would play you in the movie version of that autobiography?

Until Maya Angelou died, I had this dream that she was my spirit animal in some way. … She would have played me. I aspire to be the kind of person that Maya Angelou could have portrayed in a movie. But let’s not kid ourselves, probably Ben Stiller.