November 12, 2019

IFF Luncheon, Schotland Honored, Golf Fundraiser

From left: Avi Nir, Roger Corman, Meir Fenigstein, Guy Nattiv and Jaime Ray Newman attended the annual sponsors’ luncheon for the Israel Film Festival. Photo by Todd Williamson for January Images/Israel Film Festival

The Israel Film Festival in Los Angeles held its annual sponsors luncheon on June 13 at the Beverly Hilton. The festival, which bills itself as the largest showcase of Israeli films in the U.S., used the luncheon to kick off its 33rd festival, which is set to run Nov. 12-26.

Meir Fenigstein, founder and executive director of the festival, addressed the crowd of more than 150 attendees, saying, “It is hard to believe I started this labor of love 33 years ago. Over these many years, I’ve seen the festival grow from just a few films on a single screen to the amazing celebration it has become now.”

During the luncheon, the festival presented Israeli television executive, producer and CEO of Keshet Media Group Avi Nir with the 2019 Israel Film Festival Visionary Award. Nir is known for producing such hit shows as “Homeland,” “Tyrant” and “The A Word.”

Israeli filmmaker Guy Nattiv received the 2019 Israel Film Festival Achievement in Film Award, which was presented to him by his wife, actress Jaime Ray Newman. Born and raised in Tel Aviv, Nattiv has directed such acclaimed Israeli films as “Strangers” and “The Flood.” His first American short film, “Skin,” won the 2019 Academy Award for Best Live Action Short.

Legendary director Roger Corman was recognized with the 2019 Israel Film Festival Lifetime Achievement Award. Corman has produced and directed more than 500 films including “Little Shop of Horrors,” “House of Usher” and “The Wild Angels.” Corman has also been credited for discovering Jack Nicholson, Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Fonda, Bruce Dern, Diane Ladd, Peter Bogdanovich, Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard and James Cameron.

In his acceptance speech, Corman said, “I think the Israeli Film Festival is important for a number of reasons. First, its mission of showing Israeli films to Hollywood and to the world. But in addition to spreading the information on Israeli films, it shows the world the culture of Israel, and I think one of the greatest things that filmmakers can do is to show the culture of their countries and way of living to the world so that it fulfills part of a mission of bringing the world together.”

Attendees included director Joe Dante, who presented to Corman; Rick Rosen, founding partner at William Morris Endeavor and 33rd Israel Film Festival Chairman; actress Lainie Kazan; and comedian Elon Gold, who served as the master of ceremonies.

— Shawn Rodgers, Contributing Writer 

Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles President and CEO Marvin Schotland received an honorary doctor of humane letters degree from American Jewish University. Photo courtesy of the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles

Marvin Schotland, president and CEO of the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles, was conferred a doctor of humane letters honoris causa degree by American Jewish University (AJU) during its 69th commencement ceremony, held May 19 at AJU.

Schotland’s honorary doctorate coincided with his 30th anniversary leading the Jewish Community Foundation, which manages charitable assets for more than 1,300 families.

Presenting Schotland with his degree, AJU President Jeffrey Herbst said, “You have led a remarkable increase in resources that are devoted to Jewish philanthropy. You have led continual reinventions of the foundation to reflect the changing nature of problems in our society and the evolving role for the Jewish community. And you have [written and] spoken out about and devoted resources to issues that extend beyond the Jewish community and affect us all.”

Accepting the degree, Schotland said, “I am honored and humbled by this unexpected recognition from American Jewish University. Whatever my accomplishments, they would not have been possible without the tireless contributions and support of the foundation lay leaders and staff with whom I’ve been privileged to work these past three decades, my loving family, and our community of donors blessed with both compassionate hearts and the resources to act.”

Rabbi Bill Kaplan, executive director of the Shalom Institute; Barbi Weinberg, founding president and chairman emerita at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy; and Paul Root Wolpe, research chair in Jewish bioethics and director of the Center for Ethics at Emory University, were also recognized during the ceremony. Wolpe and Weinberg received honorary degrees and Kaplan was given the Mickey Weiss Award for Outstanding Alumni.

DeeDee and Karl Sussman enjoyed the Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters of Los Angeles 24th Annual Golf Classic. Karl Sussman was honored at the event. Photo courtesy of Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters of Los Angeles

Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters of Los Angeles (JBBBSLA) held its 24th annual Golf Classic on May 20, honoring longtime supporter Karl Sussman. 

The tournament brought together more than 140 players and supporters at the Valencia Country Club. Funds raised will enable underserved children to attend the agency’s camp, Camp Bob Waldorf (CBW), for free this summer.

 This year, the organization raised more than $375,000, an agency record, giving more than 1,200 youth-in-need a camp experience. The event’s top sponsor, City National Bank, is committed to giving back to low-income families, according to JBBBSLA.

Sussman has been involved with JBBBSLA and CBW for more than 55 years. From mentoring six “Little Brothers,” to serving on the board of directors since 1973, Sussman has been a supporter of the agency in numerous ways. He has dedicated his life to helping those in need, JBBBSLA said.

Camp Bob Waldorf Director Zach Lasker said he was thrilled with the community support of this year’s Golf Classic.

“Camp is a safe space where kids discover their unique abilities, form life-lasting friendships, build self-confidence and unplug in the outdoors,” Lasker said. “Our community embraces the responsibility to ensure that kids from underserved families can access this transformative experience.  The men and women joining us embody the vision, generosity, and spirit that lifts kids up on their journey.”

Owned and operated by JBBBSLA, Camp Bob Waldorf is a nondenominational residential camp located on 112 acres in the Verdugo Mountains of Glendale. Since 1938, the camp has helped more than 60,000 underserved children, offering youth development activities for children as young as 9 and providing services to them through the age of 17 and beyond.

From left: Allen Kamrava, Ebi Simhaee, Angela Maddahi, Lida Simhaee and Dalia Kamrava attended the 2019 Sinai Temple Stronger Together gala, which honored Maddahi.
Photo courtesy of Sinai Temple

On June 16, more than 500 Sinai Temple members and supporters gathered to honor  President Angela Maddahi for her two years of dedicated service and leadership.

The evening also celebrated the contributions of 2019 Stronger Together Ambassadors Beatrice and Sean Dayani, who are Sinai Temple Religious School parents; and Cici and Dr. David Hallegua, who are Sinai Akiba Academy parents.

The theme of the evening was “Stronger Together,” and the gala’s “overwhelming feeling of unity brought the community together as one,” a Sinai Temple statement said. 

Program highlights included musical performances by Sinai Temple Cantor Marcus Feldman; Persian-American musician Chloe Pourmorady; and a children’s choir composed of both religious school and Sinai Akiba students.

The gala raised more than $400,000 in support of Sinai Temple and was co-chaired by Roz and Abner GoldstineShirin and Sam ParsiAnna and Bill Tenenblatt and Helen Sztrigler Weston and Richard Weston.

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Shepherd: The Story of a Jewish Dog

I was very happy to attend the West Coast Premiere of the outstanding film Shepherd: The Story of a Jewish Dog at the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival last night. This sold-out screening tells a moving and engaging story of a brave, intelligent dog Kaleb who is taken from his Jewish owners and is forced to work for the Nazis. Although this is a dramatic work, it is based on real history where Nazis often heartbreakingly forced Jews to give up their family dogs in wartime Germany.

If you love history and dogs, you will love this one. Often filmed creatively from the dog’s point of view, in actuality five dogs were used to convey the one role of Kaleb, based on each dog’s strengths and abilities. This is a well-told adventure story, with strong, heartfelt emotional impact.

After the screening, there was a fascinating director’s talk with writer/director Lynn Roth, led by Festival Director Hilary Helstein. Roth said she was always told not to work with kids and dogs. Here she did both! They had a very small budget, shot it in Hungary, on natural (not built) sets. Roth said consequently the film was very hard to make, but so worthwhile. August Maturo and other cast members also participated in the discussion.

August is an 11 year old actor who plays the dog owner. He is an outstanding actor, very natural, and despite his age, he carries the film.

Lainie Kazan, a good friend of the director’s, was kind enough to introduce the film. She is a well-known actor who appeared in My Big Fat Greek Wedding and many other roles on stage and screen.

All in all, a very entertaining and moving evening. The Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival continues on through May 9th. For more information and tickets, visit For more photos of last night’s film screening and discussion, visit

Renée Taylor’s Humorous Take on Weighty Issues in ‘My Life on a Diet

Renée Taylor in “My Life on a Diet.” Taken July 18, 2018, New York City Photo: Jeremy Daniel

Comedy veteran Renée Taylor reminisces about her life in showbiz, many of the famous friends she made along the way and her eternal battle with weight in “My Life on a Diet,” her autobiographical solo show opening at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts on April 5.

Written with her late husband of 53 years and frequent collaborator, Joseph Bologna, who died in August 2017, the show had a successful off-Broadway run in 2018. The Journal had a chance to view a tape of one of those performances ahead of a phone conversation with Taylor. 

The octogenarian actress, known for her portrayal of Fran Drescher’s mother Sylvia Fine on “The Nanny” and appearances in “The Producers,” Adam Sandler’s “The Do-Over,” “How I Met Your Mother” and “How to Be a Latin Lover,” collaborated on 22 projects with Bologna, including plays, TV series and television movies, and four screenplays, most notable of which was the Oscar-nominated “Lovers and Other Strangers.” 

“Joe thought it would be very helpful and inspirational to people to share my experiences as a young actress and all the diets I’ve been on,” Taylor said. “I dedicate the show to him.”

Bologna is very much a presence in Taylor’s stories and the images projected behind her throughout the show. She also speaks lovingly and often about her mother, Frieda Wexler. “I knew my mother was very funny,” Taylor said. “She wanted to be an actress. I got her a role in [the 1971 movie] ‘Made for Each Other.’ ” 

Taylor began writing essays about her “wacky family” in junior high school and made her professional stage debut at age 15 as a slave girl in a Purim pageant at Madison Square Garden. “I got $5 for dancing across the stage,” she said. “Melvyn Douglas played the king.”

“Taylor made her professional stage debut at age 15 as a slave girl in a Purim pageant at Madison Square Garden. “’I got $5 for dancing across the stage.’”

Other famous names pepper her anecdotes, including Jerry Lewis, who cast her in her first movie, 1961’s, “The Errand Boy,” Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe and the women who became her close friends, Barbra Streisand, Lainie Kazan and Drescher. Like them, she became known for playing funny Jewish women, “very pushy” mothers in particular. Playing Drescher’s big-haired, food-obsessed mom “was my favorite,” Taylor said.

On the dramatic side, she was offered the role of Golda Meir in the Broadway play “Golda’s Balcony” and regrets not taking it. But she later wrote her own show about Israel’s first female prime minister and continues to perform it for organizations and synagogues.

Renée Taylor in “My Life on a Diet.”
Photo: Jeremy Daniel

Taylor feels a deep connection to her Jewish identity. “It’s a very strong part of me,” she said. Of Russian ancestry, she grew up in the Bronx, N.Y., in a Reform Jewish home and has been a member of Los Angeles’ Creative Arts Temple for many years. “Joe and I used to get up and read the prayers on Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah. We were very active in the synagogue,” she said.  She has been to Israel twice, the first time for her son Gabe’s bar mitzvah.

Now a writer and filmmaker, Gabe Bologna directed his parents in the movie comedy “Tango Shalom,” which will begin showing at film festivals soon. “Joe plays a priest and I play an Orthodox Jewish mother,” Taylor said, adding that Gabe is also a Holocaust scholar. “He wrote a Holocaust movie called ‘Brundibar’ that’s going to shoot in the Czech Republic,” she added.

Taylor is working on a few scripts of her own, one about Mae West and another a play called “The Book of Joe,” about her husband and their life together. “We loved each other and we respected each other,” she said. “We had so much fun and we had so many laughs. All our successes and our failures were an adventure. To me, the point of life is growing and having fun. People ask me, ‘Why don’t you retire?’ I say, ‘I’m having too much fun.’ ”

Taylor has always had a keen interest in psychology and behavior “and why people do what they do. I probably would have been a psychotherapist if I wasn’t a writer and an actress,” she said. “I also love fashion and I don’t think there’s such a thing as looking your age or dressing your age. You just dress to express yourself and how you’re feeling.”

She’s excited about being back onstage, making people laugh and sharing her stories. “I like communicating with an audience in person and getting feedback from them. I love when people come backstage and they tell me what experiences they’ve had on different diets and what they’ve learned,” she said. 

With a lifetime of crazy fad diets behind her, Taylor finally found one that works. She follows Dr. Oz’s plan and doesn’t eat after sundown or before sunrise. 

“Sometimes, in the middle of the night, you want to get up and eat something. I drink water instead and I make all my dinner dates at 5 or 5:30,” she said. For her, the key to aging well, staying healthy and remaining vital is “loving what you do, loving yourself and keeping your sense of humor. You can’t take yourself seriously.”

“My Life on a Diet” runs April 5-14 at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills.

Lainie Kazan happily goes ‘Greek’ again for comedy sequel

In her more than five decades on screen, Lainie Kazan has played many Jewish mothers in movies such as “My Favorite Year,” “Beaches,” “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan,” “What’s Cooking?” and “I Don’t Buy Kisses Anymore.” But the Jewish actress’s most famous role is Maria Portokalos, the matriarch of a large and boisterous Greek family in the 2002 comedy hit “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”

Fourteen years later, she is reprising the role in the sequel, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2,” which finds Maria at a turning point. “Her marriage is rusty and she tries to fix things and make it better,” Kazan said, unable to say more about a plot twist the filmmakers want kept secret. 

Kazan was eager to reunite with her fellow cast members, including the first film’s star and screenwriter, Nia Vardalos, as well as co-stars Gia Carides and Joey Fatone, with whom she has remained close over the years. “Every time I saw Nia, I’d say, ‘So?’ And she would say, ‘Not yet, I’m not ready,’ ” Kazan said of getting a sequel off the ground. When Vardalos called to say she had a script, “We were so thrilled. We celebrated at a Greek restaurant on Larchmont,” in Los Angeles, she said. 

For Kazan, shooting the sequel felt “like coming home, really special and lovely. And I think the audience will feel the connection that we have.” 

She said she found playing Maria for the second time “so easy, like wearing an old shoe. I knew who she was, and I could embellish it. I love her joy in life, in everything. She loves her children and her husband in the most generous and warm and fun way. Even the troubles get lost in the laughter.”

The original, much-loved “Wedding” made $245 million at the box office domestically, but Kazan said she didn’t think about matching that success when making the sequel. “I couldn’t do that,” she said. “I had to just be in the moment, and it was a very comfortable place to be. I didn’t have any expectations, and I still don’t. I hope it’s a success, I hope we did a good job — that’s all I can do.”

Kazan also felt comfortable in an ethnic milieu that she finds quite familiar. “There are a lot of similarities between the Greeks and the Jews,” she said. “The way they deal with their families, the emphasis on education, a great love of family, and they give their children a lot, like we do.”

Widowed since 1989, Kazan has a daughter, Jennifer Bena, and grandchildren Isabella Blue, 16, and Grayson, 1. She grew up in a Conservative but not particularly religious family in Brooklyn, celebrating the traditions of both her mother’s Sephardic family and her father’s Ashkenazic one. 

 “We had big Pesach dinners. We had a huge family. It was very celebratory,” she recalled. “I knew I was Jewish, and I was very proud of my Jewish heritage and the fact that my grandparents were from Israel.” They made their way to Manchester, England, before moving to Brooklyn, and remained active Zionists.

Kazan has been to Israel herself, including her few months there making 1986’s “Delta Force.” “It was fabulous,” she said. “I looked up relatives and spent time with them. I’ve been back several times since. I sang at the jazz festival there.”

Today, she considers herself a “holiday Jew,” attending synagogue for the High Holy Days. But it was important to her to pass on Jewish traditions to her daughter and her grandchildren. “My granddaughter is very curious about Judaism and what it means,” she said.

Kazan’s grandmother, Jennie, born in pre-Israel Palestine, would take her to the Yiddish theater to see Molly Picon and other greats of the time. It created a special bond between them and sparked young Lainie’s interest in the stage.

“I didn’t know what they were saying, but I understood. They made me laugh, and they made a big impression on me,” Kazan said. So did her parents, particularly her father. “He was very funny, like Abbott and Costello rolled into one. My mother was very dramatic and gorgeous, always the first one in the neighborhood to do this or that. She always took me to museums and put me in a little theater group at the Metropolitan [Museum].”

Kazan’s own triple-threat talents as a dancer, singer and actor have kept her in demand on stage and screen over the years, but as much as she enjoys acting, she said, “There’s nothing like singing. The joy and fulfillment that I get is so complete. It’s also about the physical experience of singing. It’s No. 1 in my life.”

She will perform in concert around the country this spring through October, with a stop in Las Vegas at the Smith Center’s Cabaret Jazz on Oct. 28-29. 

Since 2012, Kazan has also been an adjunct professor at UCLA, teaching a class titled “Acting for the Singer,” and producing and directing her students in an end-of-semester show. Last December, they did a tribute to Frank Sinatra. She also is on the boards of her alma mater, Hofstra University, the Young Musicians Foundation and the California Jazz Foundation, and loves the opportunity it gives her to help young people launch their careers. 

As for herself, she hopes a juicy dramatic role is in her future, although she gets comedy offers more often. There’s an as-yet uncompleted independent movie called “Tango Shalom” with Renee Taylor, who Kazan shared screen time with in the television series “The Nanny,” and she believes there will be a third “Greek Wedding.” 

“Nia is talking about it,” she said.

Kazan also is active in raising money for B’nai B’rith, AIDS organizations and other charities, and will be honored at the Visiting Nurses Association’s “One Enchanted Evening” gala on May 7 in Palm Springs. She likes going there, or to the beach, to “just be quiet and read a book,” she said. 

“I’ve reinvented myself over and over again,” Kazan said. “It’s hard work but I enjoy my career, and, now, teaching. I’m proud of my ability to survive.”

“My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2” opens in theaters on March 25.

Tradition meets Hollywood at annual Spago Seder

Actress Lainie Kazan, restaurateur Barbara Lazaroff and singer Melissa Manchester lit candles on the evening of April 4 at Spago Beverly Hills, prompting Claudia Cagan, a Hollywood producer and Manchester’s sibling, to wax nostalgic for a moment.

“My mother used to do that and never told me what she was doing,” Cagan said of the lighting, seated at one of the many tables at the restaurant’s 31st annual second-night Passover seder, which raised approximately $10,000 to $15,000 for MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, according to Lazaroff, co-owner of the Wolfgang Puck restaurant. 

Cagan was among the approximately 230 attendees at the evening, which was open to all — seating for adults was $190, and $80 for children. 

Run as a traditional family seder, it featured a menu of gefilte fish made from carp, pike and whitefish; chicken-liver mousse; chicken and vegetable soup with Judy Gethers’ matzah balls; braised beef short rib “flanken”; roasted wild salmon with ginger-almond crust; ratatouille and roasted Moroccan carrots; and a selection of deserts that included a “Menagerie of Macaroons.” Live music was provided by Cantor Ruti Braier of University Synagogue of Irvine, serenading with acoustic guitar, performing numbers that included the song “Web of Women,” along with singer Carol Connors and the West Los Angeles Children’s Choir and more. 

Held in one of the city’s finest restaurants, the seder began at approximately 6 p.m. and continued past 11 p.m. 

A paperback of the Silverman haggadah was at each place setting in the restaurant’s open-air dining area. Participants did everything from dipping their pinkies into the wine glasses and letting fall onto their plates a drop of red wine for each of the Ten Plagues, to munching on matzah — shallot and thyme matzah, that is. 

Executive chef Lee Hefter, chef de cuisine Tetsu Yahagi, chef Justin Katsuno and executive pastry chef Della Gossett prepared the meal. 

Throughout the night, Lazaroff mingled, making her way from table to table, saying hello, embracing the likes of Kazan’s granddaughter, Bella Kazan.

“We have a number of celebrities here tonight, but I think of everyone as a celebrity, Lazaroff, wearing a sequined dress, said as she strolled the restaurant’s courtyard. 

Rabbi Arnie Rachlis of University Synagogue led the proceedings, sprinkling a self-aware humor about the seder into his shpiel

“Just like our ancestors did,” he said of waiters who passed warm Japanese towels to each of the participants to use during urchatz — the hand-washing  segment of the seder. He instructed each guest to wash the hands of the person to his or her immediate right (which meant that I was washing my mom’s hands). 

The event has come a long way. Lazaroff began the event in 1980, at the urging of Spago regulars, as a way to ensure that people like her would not be alone during the holiday. 

Lazaroff said that this year’s was the largest group the event has ever had.

At the seder, Lazaroff spotlighted MAZON’s crucial work, telling the crowd that the Los Angeles-based nonprofit has given out grants totaling more than $73 million for hunger-relief programs and policy work since its inception in 1985. Lazaroff said the organization helps many, including the low-income elderly,  who often must choose between life-saving medicines and food. Funds raised by MAZON can help empower seniors to have both, she said.

“We’re very proud of the partnership with Spago and delighted that Barbara continues to host the seder to benefit MAZON and the work we do to fight hunger,” Cari Uslan, director of development at MAZON, said in a phone interview afterward. 

Lazaroff spoke to the Journal about the preparation that the event requires, saying she closed the restaurant for the night to accommodate the affair. This was no small matter, given that the second night of Pesach took place on a Saturday this year, Lazaroff said. 

Guests appreciated the effort. Manchester — who recently released her 20th studio album, “You Gotta Love Life” — said Lazaroff deserves props for organizing the lavish seder year after year. 

“This becomes an extension of Barbara’s family and friends, and an extension of her heart and [she is] bringing her community close to MAZON,” Manchester said in an interview. “And the food is fantastic.” 

Attendees included Todd Krim, president and CEO of The Krim Group. The former attorney, who now connects celebrities with charities, attended with Matt Cook of the Tyler Perry television series “The Haves and the Have Nots,” and others. At one point, Lazaroff told the room that there were eligible bachelors in the crowd, signaling toward Krim’s and O’Connell’s table. 

The crowd was not exclusively Hollywood, however. Mitchell Flint, a U.S. Navy veteran who, despite laws that make it illegal for Americans to fight on behalf of foreign nations, flew with the Israeli Air Force during the 1948 War of Independence, turned out with his son Michael. However, even those two apparently aren’t completely immune to the allure of the entertainment industry: Michael Flint is currently working on an Israeli Air Force documentary titled “Angels in the Sky,” due out in 2016, for which Connors — according to a recent Times of Israel report — contributed a song. 

Among the participants who described for the Journal their favorite Passover memories were Marc and Louise Sattler of San Pedro, who were seated with Manchester and Kazan. Marc Sattler kept it real, if simple: “The seder, and getting the family together for a seder.”