January 22, 2019

A Jewish Guide to Summer Movies

Photo courtesy of Walt Disney Films.

If your summer activities include multiple trips to the multiplex, this calendar of films with Jewish themes, stars and filmmakers will help you plan what to see and when. Tribe members in bold.


Han Solo was killed off in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” but he’s young and very much alive in this prequel set a decade before “Star Wars.” Alden Ehrenreich plays the role that Harrison Ford made famous as the hero of “Solo: A Star Wars Story,” which reveals how Solo, despite being kicked out of flight academy, became a galaxy-hopping space cowboy and met his Wookiee sidekick, Chewbacca. Ron Howard directs from a screenplay written by father-and-son team Lawrence and Jonathan Kasdan, and the cast includes Donald Glover, Emilia Clarke, Woody Harrelson, Thandie Newton and Jon Favreau, voicing the CG alien Rio Durant (May 25).

Ehrenreich, whose credits include “Beautiful Creatures,” “Hail, Caesar!” “Blue Jasmine” and “Rules Don’t Apply,” got his start in only-in-Hollywood fashion. He made a funny video for a friend’s bar mitzvah that was shown at the party. Steven Spielberg saw it and arranged a meeting for the young actor with his casting director. That eventually led to roles on “CSI” and “Supernatural” and his first feature roles were in Francis Ford Coppola’s “Tetro” and “Twixt.”

A Los Angeles native who grew up on the Westside, Ehrenreich is of Ashkenazi-Jewish heritage with roots in Russia, Austria, Hungary and Poland. It’s another thing he shares with Ford, whose maternal grandparents were Jewish immigrants from Minsk in what is now Belarus.


Zoey and Madelyn Deutch in “The Year of Spectacular Men.” Photo courtesy of Mar Vista Entertainment.

This project is literally a family affair: The romantic comedy stars sisters Zoey and Madelyn Deutch and their mother, Lea Thompson (“Back to the Future”), making her feature directorial debut from Madelyn’s screenplay. Zoey and the sisters’ father, Howard Deutch, are among the producers. Madelyn (“Outcast”), who also composed the score, plays Izzy Klein, a recent college grad struggling to navigate the ways of the real-world and relationships, and turns to her mom and sister for support.

In other “Spectacular” instances of art imitating life, Zoey (“Before I Fall,” “Why Him”) plays an actress on the rise, and her former boyfriend Avan Jogia plays her actor beau. Zoey also stars in the Netflix romantic comedy “Set It Up” with Glen Powell, playing a pair of overworked assistants who scheme to get their demanding bosses (Lucy Liu, Taye Diggs) out of their hair by getting them to date (both films: June 15).


“Spiral.” Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group.

Much scarier than any horror movie because it’s all too real and happening right now, the documentary “Spiral” explores the rise of anti-Semitism and violence against Jews in Europe, specifically in France, where political, social and racial divisiveness runs deep. Presenting different perspectives, filmmaker Laura Fairrie follows people on different sides of the issue in France and the Middle East, and their stories are emotional, heartbreaking and chilling.

Among them: An Orthodox Jewish history teacher resists giving in to fear; a family of proud French Jews reluctantly emigrating to Israel; Orthodox settlers in the West Bank fear their Palestinian neighbors; young Palestinians want their land back; disenfranchised Black and Muslim Frenchmen; Dieudonné M’Balla Balla, a French-African Holocaust denier whose anti-Semitic rants and videos fuel terrorism; and the young prosecutor on a mission to send him to prison (June 22).


Paul Rudd in “The Catcher Was a Spy.” Photo courtesy of IFC Films.

Although his Major League Baseball career was less than stellar, catcher Morris “Moe” Berg’s secret occupation as a spy was a lot more exciting. It’s the subject of the thriller “The Catcher Was a Spy,” based on the book of the same name by Nicholas Dawidoff.

Paul Rudd plays Berg, a multi-lingual Jewish Princeton University and Columbia Law School graduate who joined the CIA-precursor the OSS in 1943. Although Berg participated in several covert operations during World War II, the film focuses on his mission to determine if German nuclear physicist Werner Heisenberg was building an atom bomb for the Nazis. The cast also includes Mark Strong, Sienna Miller, Guy Pearce, Tom Wilkinson, Jeff Daniels and Paul Giamatti as Dutch-Jewish physicist Samuel Goudsmit (June 22).

Rudd returns to superhero mode in “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” a sequel to the 2015 blockbuster “Ant-Man” that finds him paired with the other titular insect (Evangeline Lilly) on a mission to rescue Wasp’s mother, played by Michelle Pfeiffer (July 6).


Olivia Thirlby and Jonathan Rhys Meyers in “Damascus Cover.” Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment.

Twenty-one years after it was published, author Howard Kaplan’s best-selling first novel, “Damascus Cover,” finally makes it to the screen with a top-tier cast including John Hurt in his final film performance. Set in 1989, the espionage thriller stars Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Israeli spy Ari Ben-Zion, who is given the mission to smuggle a Jewish chemical weapons scientist and his family out of Syria to safety in Israel. Hurt portrays Miki, Ben-Zion’s boss at the Mossad, and Olivia Thirlby plays the love interest, an American photographer. Several Israeli actors are also in the cast, including Igal Naor (“Munich”), Neta Riskin (“Shelter”) and Shani Aviv (“Beauty and the Baker”). Directed by Daniel Zelik Berk, the film, shot in Morocco, won four awards at the Manchester Film Festival in England and swept the Boston Film Festival, earning six awards there last year (July 20).


Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Sarah Paulson, Rihanna, Helena Bonham Carter, Mindy Kaling in “Ocean’s 8.” Photo by Barry Wetcher/Warner Bros.

Josh Radnor (“Rise”) stars in “Social Animals” as a lovable loser who meets his soul mate (Noël Wells). Just one complication: He’s married to someone else. The relationship comedy also stars Carly Chaikin of “Mr. Robot” and “The Handmaid’s Tale’s” Samira Wiley (June 1).

After a 21-year hiatus, Jeff Goldblum reprises his role as chaos theorist Ian Malcolm in “Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom,” which picks up four years after “Jurassic World” and involves a volcanic eruption that threatens the dinosaurs of Isla Nubar (June 22). Goldblum is also in “Hotel Artemis,” about a secret hospital for criminals in 2028 Los Angeles. Jodie Foster runs the place, and Sterling K. Brown, Sofia Boutella, Jenny Slate and Goldblum are among her nefarious clients (June 3).

“Oceans 8” flips the gender on the “Oceans” crime caper franchise, with Sandra Bullock as Debbie Ocean, mastermind of a plot to steal the $150 million diamond necklace an actress (Anne Hathaway) will wear to the annual Met Gala. Handpicked for their particular criminal expertise, her crew includes Cate Blanchett, Helena Bonham Carter, Mindy Kaling, Rihanna and Sarah Paulson. Gary Ross (“Seabiscuit,” “The Hunger Games”) directs from his own story and screenplay (June 8).

In the dark thriller “Under the Silver Lake,” Andrew Garfield investigates the mysterious disappearance of a new neighbor who vanished the day after their date. The “Hacksaw Ridge” Oscar nominee is the frontrunner to win a Tony Award next month for his leading role in “Angels in America” on Broadway (June 22).

Rob Reiner directs “Shock and Awe,” about journalists seeking the truth about the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that the George W. Bush administration used as the pretext for the U.S.-led coalition invasion of Iraq in 2003. Reiner appears as Knight-Ridder news agency chief John Walcott, and Woody Harrelson, James Marsden and Tommy Lee Jones play the reporters (July 13).

A sheltered wife and mother named Agnes (Kelly McDonald) comes into her own when she discovers her talent for solving jigsaw puzzles in “Puzzle,” directed and produced by Marc Turtletaub and co-written by Israeli Oren Moverman (“The Dinner”). Austin Abrams, whose credits include “Jewtopia,” “The Walking Dead,” “Paper Towns” and “Brad’s Status,” plays Agnes’ son (July 22).

Dracula (Adam Sandler) takes his clan on a cruise in the animated “Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation,” also featuring the voices of Mel Brooks as Drac’s dad, Vlad, Andy Samberg as son-in-law Johnny, and Fran Drescher as Eunice, the bossy Mrs. Frankenstein (July 13).

Jonah Hill plays sober coach to a quadriplegic cartoonist (Joaquin Phoenix) in the dramedy “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot,” based on a memoir by John Callahan. Jack Black portrays the drinking buddy responsible for the car accident that put Callahan in a wheelchair (July 13).

Teaming with Kate McKinnon in the action comedy “The Spy Who Dumped Me,” Mila Kunis gets mixed up in international espionage when her CIA spy ex-boyfriend becomes the target of assassins (Aug. 3).

In the vein of “Love, Actually,” “Dog Days” tells intersecting tales about L.A. dog lovers. The ensemble cast includes Adam Pally as a musician tasked with puppy-sitting his sister’s Labradoodle (Aug. 3).

Blessings of Missile Defense

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Iran broke the seal on its conflict with Israel last week. Instead of using one of its many terror proxies to attack Israel, it went solo, mano a mano, by launching a probing, unmanned drone into Israel that the Israel Defense Forces were forced to take down. An Israeli jet was destroyed in the skirmishes that followed. This is an ominous escalation of a growing, tense conflict between Israel and Iran.

With Iran so embedded on Israel’s border, Israelis must prepare to defend against not only medium-range missiles fired from mountain bunkers in Syria, but also the potential threat that Tehran might directly join the assault on the Jewish state with its own longer-range arsenal.
So, while American defense planners concentrate on rising tensions with “the loco in NoKo,” the IDF has its hands full as Iranian allies Syria and Russia provide air defenses against prospective Israeli air force strikes on deeply buried underground sites launching missiles into Tel Aviv.

The answer to that challenge is the ever improving success of missile defense.

President Ronald Reagan launched the Strategic Defense Initiative 35 years ago, challenging the immorality of the policy of “mutually assured destruction” (MAD) of any nation whose government launched a first-strike nuclear attack against the United States or our treaty allies. The MAD doctrine threatened millions of civilians under tyranny, likely deterring U.S. counter-strikes, not the Soviet “Evil Empire.”

Instead, Reagan proposed a more prudential course to deter war and to increase our national security capability, via an integrated and layered architecture of networked sensors and ground- and sea-based detection radars and interceptor missiles seeking “hit to kill,” or explosive blast fragmentation, of enemy warheads.

Liberal critics mocked Reagan’s vision as “Star Wars,” proclaiming “a bullet cannot hit a bullet.” They were wrong. And they continue to fret that missile defense is “flawed, imperfect and expensive.”

But decades of startling scientific and technological advancements have resulted in ballistic missile defense elements now operated by United States military personnel at U.S. Strategic, Northern, Pacific and European commands and U.S. Forces Japan.

Detractors rarely note that Israelis sleep under the proven protection of the Iron Dome.

Missile defense doesn’t promise perfection. But detractors rarely note that Israelis sleep under the proven protection of the Iron Dome, and the steadily developing David’s Sling and Arrow missile defense systems funded, developed and tested in cooperative ventures with the United States.

U.S. and Israeli intelligence communities track rocket and missile threats proliferating from a dangerous array of national and nonstate terror actors projecting power in regional and strategic contexts and featuring potential new countermeasures such as hypersonic glide vehicles and varying trajectories to make short, medium, intermediate and intercontinental range missile threats more complex, survivable, reliable and accurate.

Defense analysts consider Iranian and North Korean missile accuracy, range and lethality of particular concern.

Iran threatens maritime activity throughout the Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz and has famously inscribed the slogan “Death to Israel” on missiles featured at military parades.  Iran’s progress on space launch vehicles provides Tehran with the means and motivation to improve their submunition payloads as they continue to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

North Korea has expanded the sophistication and range of its ballistic missile forces with an unprecedented level of nuclear tests and ballistic missile launches. When a state employee in Hawaii accidentally created a false alarm, citizens and tourists experienced the existential threats humanity faces from rogue regimes such as North Korea, which might blackmail the West with threats to shut down the American electrical grid with an EMP attack over the U.S. continental homeland.

In the age of missiles, robust, operational and position-optimized missile defense systems are mandatory for the U.S. and Israel to deter and defend against any potentially imprudent, irrational or ideological adversary.

Larry Greenfield is a fellow of the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship & Political Philosophy.

Jedi-ism and Judaism

The loudest noise coming out of Hollywood this holiday season is “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” Even if the last thing you want to do is see another “Star Wars” movie, you might be interested to know about the secret message embedded in this film that the Jewish people have known for 2,000 years.

Everyone knows from the title that it’s a story about “the last Jedi,” but even if you’ve seen the film you may not know that saving Jedi-ism is a lot like saving Judaism. (Warning: Spoilers ahead.)

Master Yoda would have been an awesome rabbi was the first thing I thought when the Jedi master made his surprise appearance in an iconic scene.

Luke Skywalker, the Jedi hero who saved the galaxy, is broken by the destruction wrought by rogue Jedi warriors. Menacing torch in hand, Luke approaches the Jedi Temple and its small library of ancient texts. Suddenly, Master Yoda’s ghost appears.

Everyone in the theater expects Yoda to stop Luke. But director Rian Johnson does exactly the opposite of what we would expect in a “Star Wars” film. Yoda incinerates the Jedi Temple with a bolt of lightning. Cackling, Yoda reminds Luke that Jedi wisdom is more than a temple and books. Luke will not be the last Jedi.

For 1,500 years, Judaism was organized around the Temple. Around 2,000 years ago, that Judaism broke. Hanukkah celebrates a brief return to the glory of Temple-centric Jewish life. But within a few generations, the Hasmonean dynasty was more Roman than it was Jewish. The Temple was inaccessible to most Jews, its authority a corruption magnet. Tragically, we were exiled as our Temple burned to the ground. Judaism should have ended in the Temple’s smoldering wreckage.

The rabbis saved Judaism by moving Jewish life from the Temple to the Talmud, reimagining Judaism as a decentralized, wisdom-based, accessible religion — the secret of Diaspora Judaism.

Johnson (and Yoda) did the same to the Jedi religion by burning the Jedi Temple to the ground.

The soul of every conflict in “The Last Jedi” dances around this question: How to reconcile the past, the ancient, calculated and wise with the future, the fresh, impulsive and creative?

To Luke, The Force is broken. Jedi-ism is a failure — it must end forever. Yoda disagrees because The Force and Jedi wisdom are eternal, with or without a building or books. The Jedi will live on through a new Jedi hero — Rey.

Very rabbinic.

“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” was supposed to tell us Rey’s story. The postmodern Jedi warrior who reawakened The Force with her courage and kindness in the previous film was an orphan. But surely her parents were special in some way? Luke Skywalker was an orphan until he discovered his father was Darth Vader, in the original “Star Wars” trilogy. Rey is a Luke Skywalker–type hero. Surely, Rey would discover the identity of her parents in “The Last Jedi,” the second of a trilogy.

Master Yoda would have been an awesome rabbi.

Instead, Rey’s nemesis, Kylo Ren, divulges that her degenerate parents sold her for beer money. Rey is literally no one from nowhere. Yet, Rey is a gifted Jedi. “The Last Jedi” tells us that there is no birthright to The Force and Jedi wisdom. They are accessible to all.

Before the final credits, we glimpse the ancient Jedi texts stowed aboard the Millennium Falcon. Apparently, Rey took the books before Luke and Yoda burned down the temple. When I saw those books, a new thought popped into my head.

Yoda was rabbinic, but he was wrong. The Jedi religion would disappear if it relied entirely on an oral transmission from Master to Padawan. Yoda was stuck in the same stagnant vision of the Jedi religion as Luke.

Rey is the Jedi hero we have been looking for. Ancient wisdom must not be discarded nor can it be entrusted to our fickle collective memory. Wisdom must be portable and flexible enough to take on our journey. The great rabbis of post-Temple Judaism knew this and turned us into the People of the Book.

Yoda would have been a great rabbi. But Rey is the visionary rabbi who preserves the past by reimagining a place for ancient wisdom in the future.

Eli Fink is a rabbi, writer and managing supervisor at the Jewish Journal.

Donald Glover is Childish Gambino?!

Earlier this week I was driving to work when a song I had never heard came on the radio. I found myself moving with the music in the car and immediately fell in love with the singer, even though I had no idea who it was. The song touched me in a way I can’t really explain, other than saying it spoke to me. It made me happy and I didn’t want the song to end. I asked Siri who was singing and she told me it was Childish Gambino.

I felt like I had discovered something new and immediately called my son to let him know of my fantastic new discovery. I let him know my new favorite song was Redbone by a great new group, Childish Gambino. My son started laughing and it actually took him a minute to stop. He let me know Childish Gambino was a man not a group, and he had been listening to him and a fan of his work for several years.

He thought it was hilarious I had “discovered” someone who was so famous. He was impressed however with my taste in music. I decided to Google Childish Gambino to see if there were other songs I would like or if it was a one song kind of love. It was then I discovered Childish Bambino is also Donald Glover, who is a comedic genius I love. Am I the only person who did not know they were the same person?

Donald Glover wrote for one of my favorite shows, 30 Rock, and I knew of him as a writer first. This man is an artistic genius so it makes sense Redbone would speak to me, because Donald Glover’s work has spoken to me before. I am amazed however that loving his work the way I do, I never knew Donald Glover and Childish Gambino were the same person. This man’s talent is layered and everyone will love at least one layer.

I feel like I’m rediscovering someone I already know, and that is a wonderful feeling. I am impressed by this young man and find myself feeling proud of him, which I suppose is ridiculous, but I want good things for him. He has made me happy over the years, so I want happiness for him. Redbone is a brilliant song and I must look insane grooving to it in the car like I’m home alone in front of a mirror singing into my hairbrush.

While disappointed to not have discovered a new artist, I am thrilled to have come upon this layer of his work and have no shame in sharing I listened to Redbone 11 times on my way home last night. I feel like one of the cool kids and am looking forward to spending the weekend with Childish Gambino. Give him a listen. Redbone, Sober, or Baby Boy may help you to keep the faith.

Carrie Fisher, Princess Leia of ‘Star Wars’ fame, dies at 60

Carrie Fisher, the actress best known for playing Princess Leia in the original “Star Wars” films, died days after suffering a heart attack on an airplane. She was 60.

Fisher’s family spokesman Simon Halls confirmed to multiple publications that she passed away Tuesday morning.

Fisher had been in intensive care at the UCLA Medical Center after having a heart attack on Friday during a flight from London to her home in Los Angeles.

Fisher, a native of Beverly Hills, California, was the daughter of celebrity parents: singer Eddie Fisher, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, and actress Debbie Reynolds.

The actress told J., the Jewish News Weekly of Northern California in 2008 that she frequently attended Friday night services and shared Shabbat meals with Orthodox friends.

After only one major film role — the comedy “Shampoo,” alongside Warren Beatty and Julie Christie — Fisher as a teenager was cast as Princess Leia in “Star Wars,”  George Lucas’ 1977 blockbuster. She reprised the memorable role in the next two “Star Wars” films and in 2015’s franchise reboot, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” She will appear in “Star Wars: Episode VIII,” set to be released in 2017.

Also a prolific writer, Fisher wrote four novels and three memoirs, including “Postcards from the Edge,” in which she described her substance abuse issues. She was married and divorced from the Jewish singer Paul Simon.

The new Han Solo is Jewish – and he was discovered at a bat mitzvah

The next time you’re kvetching about having to go to another bar or bat mitzvah, think about this: Steven Spielberg could be there, and he could make you a star.

That’s how it worked out for Alden Ehrenreich, who is reportedly finalizing negotiations to be the next Han Solo. Ehrenreich, who is Jewish, is set to star in “Star Wars: A New Hope,” a Disney film about Solo’s backstory. Harrison Ford, now 73, played the character in the original “Star Wars” movies, as well as the latest one.

Ehrenreich, 26, has been in numerous films, most recently playing a hick Cowboy & Western movie star in the Coen Brothers’ “Hail Caesar.”

Ehrenreich’s big Hollywood break came 12 years ago, when he made a movie screened at the ceremony of a friend’s bat mitzvah, according to the Daily Beast.

Although Ehrenreich later described the movie as “a piece of shit,” Spielberg, whose daughter Sasha was friends with the bat mitzvah girl, was in the synagogue — and was impressed.

“I’m this 14-year-old, skinny little kid with long hair,” Ehrenreich told Rolling Stone. “I break into her house, try on her clothes and make up a song. All of this is just us literally taking a camera and going like, ‘Okay, ha ha, do this.’ We showed it to our parents—‘We’re gonna play this at her bat mitzvah!’—and they were like, ‘You look like an idiot in this. I don’t think you should really do that.’ We didn’t care.”

As a result of the film, Spielberg invited Ehrenreich to meet with him at the DreamWorks studio and introduced him to filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, who cast him as the lead in the 2009 film “Tetro.” Ehrenreich’s performance in that movie spurred film critic Roger Ebert to dub him the “new Leonardo diCaprio.”

The new Han Solo film, announced in 2013, is scheduled to be released in May 2018.

In January, four other Jewish actors — Logan Lerman, Dave Franco, Ansel Elgort and Emory Cohen — made the short list of actors under consideration for the star role, according to a list published by Variety.

Speaking about the project last year, writer Lawrence Kasdan said, “It will not be like, here is where he was born and this is how he was raised. I think what it will be is what was he like 10 years earlier, ya know, maybe a little earlier you’ll get a glimpse, but … what formed the person we meet in the cantina? It is not so much about his specific history. It is about what makes a person like that?”

In other words, what was Solo’s rite of passage into adulthood? Perhaps there was a bar or bat mitzvah involved.

Han Solo a Jew? Three Jewish actors reportedly short listed for the role

“Star Wars” character Han Solo could soon join the tribe.

After seeing thousands of auditions, Disney and Lucasfilm have narrowed down their list of actors to star in an upcoming “Han Solo” spinoff film to “about a dozen,” Variety reported.

Three Jews — Logan Lerman, Dave Franco and Emory Cohen — are on the short list, along with other big names, like Miles Teller and Scott Eastwood, Clint Eastwood’s son, according to Variety’s sources.

Cohen, 25, appeared in several independent films before his breakout starring role in “Brooklyn” last year.

The still-untitled Han Solo film will feature a younger version of the character first immortalized by the one and only (half-Jewish) Harrison Ford, Variety reported. The film won’t go into production until next year, according to Variety, but whoever wins the starring role may also make a cameo in “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” which is already filming.

Variety reported that executives will likely decide between the would-be Han Solos in the next few weeks.

May the force be with them all.

Star Wars and Jewish Cosmic Wars

I made a bet with myself that I could resist using the Star Wars craze as an analogy to write something about the state of the Jewish world. The moment I lost that bet was when I discovered, in Terror in the Name of God, Mark Juergensmeyer’s landmark book about religious extremism, the concept of “cosmic war.”  Then I realized that, just as Darth Vader and Han Solo are involved in a cosmic struggle, so too are we. Sadly.

Juergensmeyer and others use the term “cosmic war” to characterize conflicts in which one or both sides are extremely polarized, perceiving their fight to have larger-than-life proportions.

In a cosmic war, a disagreement over a specific issue—say, a government policy, or a territory—becomes much larger and much simpler. It’s a supremely significant struggle between pure good and pure evil, a fight to carry out the divine plan or enact the group’s ultimate destiny. Losing such a war is unthinkable, compromise with the “primary enemy” is impossible, and even those in the in-group who  consider compromise, or question the cosmic nature of the struggle, come to be seen as the enemy themselves (“the secondary enemy”). In a fight between martyrs and demons, moderates can’t be tolerated, and the primary and secondary enemy become so conflated that they are interchangeable.

Cosmic warriors feel ennobled, exalted. They aren’t just thugs or bullies; they are saving the world. Simultaneously, they invariably see themselves  as victims. Any violent act they commit is always self-defense, and in any case the urgency of the fight supersedes all laws and scruples. The dramatic denouement is always near, and the actions of a cosmic warrior can tip the balance to ultimate victory. That’s how jihadis of all religions go about murdering noncombatants without the slightest pang of conscience.  

These characteristics are demonstrated clearly by Islamic radicals, who fight for world domination and completely blur the distinction between primary and secondary enemies. The FIS in Algeria mainly killed moderate Muslims and neutral villagers for not joining their jihad. All Islamic terrorists see themselves as victims and “martyrs,” and compromise isn’t possible or desirable. Believing their cosmic war to be simple and binary, Islamic radicals are untroubled by inconvenient facts; radical Muslim clerics can claim — against all evidence — that there was never a Jewish Temple on the Temple Mount.

The mentality of cosmic war, while most prominently expressed in Islamic fundamentalism, is not the exclusive patrimony of Islam. All our communities, to different degrees, are infected by the same virus. In the Jewish world, the notion that we are at cosmic war is gaining ground, and creating a culture of unprecedented polarization and violence.  

When Yigal Amir killed Yitzhak Rabin, he was conflating the primary enemy with the secondary enemy who negotiates with him. Not all manifestations of cosmic war are immediately violent like Amir’s act of murder, but they do contribute to creating the ferment of violence. The latest of many examples in Israel include the vicious and verbally violent attacks on Israeli President Rubi Rivlin for daring to attend a conference of “left wingers,” and a video of wedding revelers singing as they stab the photo of a Palestinian infant. These unthinkable expressions of violent intention toward a president with whom they disagree, or a child far too young to deserve anyone’s enmity, can only be explained by the paradigm of cosmic war. A similar pattern emerged in the American Jewish community during the debate around the Iran deal. Both sides saw their opponents not as holding valid but dissenting opinions, but rather as cosmic foes.

We see the same ideology gaining ground in the larger American political scene. Policy debates and discussion of ideas are conspicuously absent from a political discourse that focuses increasingly on demonization. As with the Temple Mount, facts become irrelevant; the more outlandish the claim, the more political rewards one reaps. When reading the “fact check” after a recent presidential debate, I was bewildered; only one claim was qualified as “true but misleading”— all the others stood in diverse degrees of falsehood. It doesn’t seem to matter.

Cosmic wars, religious or secular, never end well. Their fighters hope their martyrdom will bring final victory, but while they may find death, they do not achieve their utopias. They come to the end as pathetic extremists, dying for no cause except hatred and paranoia, and creating vast suffering around them.

The weakening of the moderate center is changing the face of the Jewish community, which seems now to be dominated by extreme positions on the left and right. Without a conscious effort, the wave of radicalization sweeping the world will drag us, too, into the abyss of self-destruction. Now, more than ever, we need to be advocates of rationality and moderation. True, traditional Judaism embraces the vision of a future utopia where there’s no war and suffering: It’s called “the messianic era”. We pray for that several times a day and we never cease yearning for that time. But our sages, conscious of the dangers, never perceived this aspiration as a call to jihad or cosmic war. Rather, they saw it as a beacon that would guide human self-improvement until the final goal is attained at the “end of days.” Furthermore, the Jewish promise of a messianic future enables more pluralism in this world; disagreements don’t require an absolute winner now, because —as the Talmud says—the messiah will elucidate who’s right.

We must reject the notion of cosmic wars. Our disagreements are differences of opinion that can be bridged, not monumental fights to the death. We must reclaim our heritage of “elu v’elu,” the principle that two divergent opinions can be true and Godly. We need to reframe our conflicts as specific rather than cosmic, and rescue the notion of pragmatic compromise that was so dear to the Talmudic masters. This fight for moderation is a worthy and noble one, and it is one that we can win with the force of our reason and our passion.

May that Force be with you—and may we all remember that any Force worthy of the real world is a lot more complicated than one that has only two sides of Light and Dark.

Andres Spokoiny is the Executive Director of Jewish Funders Network

The Force is strong with Conservative movement teens

No spoilers here, but you must have noticed by now that “Star Wars” is everywhere. With the recent release of “The Force Awakens,” everyone from die-hard to casual fans are analyzing all aspects of the movie, from the posters to the cameos.

The big questions fans are asking: Will this “Star Wars” film live up to the originals in the franchise? Will it be faithful and convey the same meaning? Does the new generation at the helm have what it takes to tell the story in as compelling a way as the generation that preceded it?

These are also the questions our Jewish community is asking about Jewish teens: Will the Jewish future be strong in their hands? Will they grow to be faithful to our tradition? When they tell the story of the Jewish people, will it be recognizable to those that came before them?

As a professional in the Jewish teen space and a “Star Wars” fan, I am here to say yes. Many of our teens, especially those engaged in Jewish youth movements, are committed to a meaningful future for our people. I know this because I spend my time with them as director of teen learning at the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism.

This week, we are gathering in this city for USY’s 65th international convention. Each year, our teen leaders are asked to create a convention theme. This year they came up with “Think More, Do More, Be More,” with a focus on advocacy and training about how to use their voices so they can advance from bystanders to “upstanders.”

Asked why this was important, they answered: “We are getting so many messages about what is waiting for us when we leave home, people who are attacking Israel, anti-Semitism and more. We want to be prepared to take the values we learn in USY to be ready for our future.”

What happened next was amazing. The teen leaders created a survey for their peers and received hundreds of clear and purposeful responses to this question: What area would you like to learn how to advocate for?

The top answer was preparing to speak up for Israel, followed closely by addressing and combating anti-Semitism. The teens also offered a thoughtful list of other topics: mental health awareness, gender equality, racial and economic justice, the environment and LGBTQ issues. The overwhelming sentiment is that they have grown as weary of being considered the leaders of the future as they are eager to lead now. And they have spoken up to ask for the training they need to do so.

Many agencies in the Jewish community and beyond — including the Anti-Defamation League, Sojourn, Keshet, Avodah, U Mattr and AIPAC — have stepped up to participate at the convention and make this a reality.

This is the real work that needs to be done with teens. We need to empower them to be drivers of the Jewish future and facilitate their strides to take ownership of their Jewish experience. We may not recognize all the areas where they choose to focus as the core issues of previous generations, but we need to trust that they are working as those before them to build a world of meaning that includes our most cherished Jewish values.

In the Talmud, there is a sci-fi type story told of Moses, who asks God as he receives the Torah why there are little crownlets on top of the letters. God responds that one day there will be a Rabbi Akiva who will make mountains of meaning from these little crownlets. Moses asks God to show him this rabbi, and in true movie fashion we find Moses in the back row of Akiva’s classroom.

The discussion is completely foreign to Moses, who becomes distressed until he hears a student ask, “From where do you know that?” Rabbi Akiva responds, “It is from the Torah that was given to Moses on Sinai.” Moses is comforted instantly by the link between the generations.

Which brings us back to The Force. Will the new movie feel like the original? The good news is that the answer is yes. But at the same time, the new chapter adds its own voice.

This is what we need in our Jewish community. We need to turn out and support (hopefully with “Star Wars” ticket sales-type dollars) our teens in writing their next chapter. We will find that we recognize our story in theirs and be amazed what they have added.

Rabbi David Levy is director of teen learning at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

The Jewish Force awakens: A ‘Star Wars’ Chanukah gift guide

In the nearly 40 years since the breakout success of the first “Star Wars” film, the franchise has raked in $37 billion, mostly from branded toys and other merchandise.

Ahead of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” — the latest reboot of the films, by director J.J. Abrams — there’s a whole new generation of intergalactic gear to spend your money on. And some of it’s even Jewish!

With the Force awakening just after Hanukkah, on Dec. 18, here are the 5 best Jewish-themed “Star Wars” gifts money can buy.

“A hoot, these Yoda Mezuzahs are,” reads a product description, in appropriate Yoda syntax, on the Modern Tribe Judaica website. The company notes that Lego has not officially authorized the mezuzah, but Yoda likely would – because let’s be honest, he’s pretty much a wise old rabbi.

2. Lightsaber candle stick

This recreation of Darth Vader’s lightsaber handle is billed as “perfect for breakfast on Bespin,” a fictional planet in the “Star Wars” universe – but it would work equally well as a shamash holder. The candlestick comes with three red candles (the color of Darth Vader’s weapon). Warning: It may lead to an impromptu lightsaber duel at the family Hanukkah table.

3. The “droidel”

Everyone’s favorite astromech droid, the lovable R2-D2, has been transformed into everyone’s favorite Hanukkah toy. However, the product, which can be made out of a paper printout and a pencil or straw, is much less hi-tech than its robot subject.

4. “Star Wars” kippah

When it comes to “Star Wars” yarmulkes, committed fans have a decent array of choices on websites like Etsy. They are guaranteed to look better than Anakin Skywalker’s humorous hair braid seen in the prequel films.

5. Kosher R2-D2 cookies

These kosher cookies would fit in equally well at a Hanukkah party or a “Star Wars” movie marathon. But it might take a strong connection to the force to find them, as they are not available to order online.

Han Solo blasts into Disney’s ‘Star Wars’ universe with own film

Han Solo, the “Star Wars” space hero who always has a fast ship and a good blaster, will get his own stand-alone film, the Walt Disney Co said on Tuesday, directed by the “Lego Movie” film makers.

The untitled Han Solo project, slated for release on May 25, 2018, will be the second stand-alone “Star Wars” anthology film, following the release of “Rogue One” next year.

These films will explore a separate part of George Lucas' intricate intergalactic universe and will intersperse the new trilogy of “Star Wars” movies kicking off with December's highly anticipated “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”

The new Han Solo film will focus on the origin story of the character made famous in the “Star Wars” films by actor Harrison Ford, who will reprise that role in “The Force Awakens.”

Solo was introduced in the original “Star Wars” film as a former smuggler who takes Luke Skywalker aboard his ship, the Millennium Falcon, and helps him escape Darth Vader.

Solo becomes the lovable scoundrel of the Rebel Alliance, fighting against the oppressive Galactic Empire along with his friend and co-pilot Chewbacca, a bear-like “wookie.”

“The story focuses on how young Han Solo became the smuggler, thief and scoundrel whom Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi first encountered in the cantina at Mos Eisley,” Disney said in a statement.

Filmmakers Chris Miller and Phil Lord, best known for “Lego Movie,” the reboot of “21 Jump Street” and also Fox TV's hit comedy series “The Last Man on Earth,” will direct the movie, which has yet to announce a cast.

“We promise to take risks, to give the audience a fresh experience, and we pledge ourselves to be faithful stewards of these characters who mean so much to us,” Miller and Lord said in a statement.

Writer-director Lawrence Kasdan, best known for co-writing “The Empire Strikes Back,” “Return of the Jedi” and “The Force Awakens,” will pen the screenplay with his son Jon Kasdan.

“The Force Awakens” is the first of three new “Star Wars” films being produced by Walt Disney Co since it purchased the franchise from Lucasfilm in 2012 for $4.05 billion.

The six previously released “Star Wars” films have grossed more than $4.4 billion at the worldwide box office since 1977 and spawned a legion of devoted fans.

Disney to release ‘Star Wars: Episode VIII’ in May 2017

Walt Disney Co will release the eighth installment in the “Star Wars” sci-fi film series on May 26, 2017, Chief Executive Bob Iger said on Thursday.

Iger, speaking at Disney's annual shareholder meeting, also announced that a spin-off from the franchise set for release in December 2016 will be called “Rogue One.”

Israeli producer Ram Bergman to produce ‘Star Wars’ films

Israeli producer Ram Bergman will make the next two “Star Wars” films.

Bergman, who moved to Hollywood from Israel in 1991, will produce “Star Wars” Episodes VIII and IX, according to the Times of Israel.

Bergman was named one of Variety magazine’s Top 10 producers to watch in 2005, the year he produced “Brick.” He also produced the 2012 film “Looper.”

Baby’s parents looking for hope, help and a miracle

Baby Leah tenses and contorts in her crib at Mattel Children’s Hospital UCLA. A visit to her in the room requires suiting up in a gown, gloves and mask to ensure she doesn’t become sick in her fragile state. Zev and Frani Esquenazi’s little girl, who is named for Princess Leia from the “Star Wars” films, has received multiple spinal taps, MRIs and EEGs, and is breathing through her trachea. Her movements are erratic.

After employing the expertise of more than 40 doctors and a round-the-clock nurse service, the Esquenazis are no closer to solving the mystery of Leah’s illness than they were when she was admitted to the hospital months ago.

Leah has outlasted many dark predictions.

“On Frani’s first Mother’s Day, the doctor told her that the baby was probably not going to make it,” Zev Esquenazi said. “That was the gift she got on Mother’s Day. And, of course, she outlasted the doctor’s [prediction].”

Housing Leah in one of the best hospitals in the country is essential to her survival, but it’s not cheap. Zev Esquenazi said a social worker said the medical bills are hovering around $2 million so far. In order to be with their daughter at all times, the Esquenazis have stepped away from their jobs temporarily. Friends and strangers alike have come to their aid. In this case, their love of “Star Wars” is on their side.

Zev is a member of the 501st Legion, a worldwide organization for “Star Wars” costume enthusiasts. When Leah first became sick, he told the story to his fellow Facebook friends and “Star Wars” fans. Without asking, the 501st Legion began organizing and raising money.

A Facebook group called “May the Force Be With Princess Leah” was created and now has nearly 4,000 fans. A close friend and prop builder, Jason Watson, created a donation page for the family, which Zev Esquenazi said has been invaluable. “Star Wars” stars, such as actor Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca), Lucasfilm marketing head Steve Sansweet and “Clone Wars” voice actor Stephen Stanton have helped get the word out. Donations of props and memorabilia from Mayhew, Stanton and other supporters have been auctioned off in support of the Esquenazis. In less than 30 days, Zev said, more than $30,000 has been raised for the family. Chai Lifeline also helped with rent and food when the family needed it the most.

“Really, if it wasn’t for them coming to our aid, we would literally be out on the street,” Zev said.

Story continues after the jump.

Donations help pay for food, gas and the large insurance deductibles that the couple has been struggling to cover since Leah became sick. What’s more difficult is the unknown nature of Leah’s illness. The Esquenazis have applied for aid from organizations such as California Children’s Services but have had little success.

“That’s the other issue that we’ve been having: that you have these organizations that help kids with cancer or help kids that have (muscular dystrophy) or Parkinson’s,” Zev said. “But because she is not officially diagnosed with anything, we can’t get the help that we need.”

One doctor at UCLA speculates that between 10 and 20 percent of such neurological illnesses go undiagnosed. Frani Esquenazi said she hopes Leah can inspire and raise awareness about situations similar to hers.

“People don’t know that so many kids go through this until you go through it with your kid,” Frani said. “You feel like the only person this is happening to, but there are so many families out there.”

George Lucas’ Princess Leia asked for help from her only hope, Obi-Wan Kenobi. But the Esquenazis’ 5-month-old Princess Leah in the pediatric intensive care unit needs the help of more than just one person. Support from around the world has poured in for Leah and the Esquenazis, but more is needed.

To read updates from the family about Leah, visit princessleahdiaries.blogspot.com. Donations through PayPal can be made directly to the family through the page. To avoid PayPal fees, donors can also send checks to the address on the blog. Supporters can also like the Facebook group “May the Force Be With Princess Leah.” Monetary donations help a lot, but Zev Esquenazi said he doesn’t want supporters to feel like they need to donate money.

“For me, hope and prayers are just as important as money,” he said.

‘Star Wars’ for Jews

I was out communing with the nerds last weekend, contributing to the $158.5 million record four-day opening for “Revenge of the Sith.” Now that the series is over and done with (at least until George Lucas launches his live-action “Star Wars” television series), I began reflecting on all things Jewish in the saga set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Even though Lucas considers himself a “Buddhist Methodist,” and many of the themes from the series are inspired by the universal mythic structure explored by writer Joseph Campbell, there are some elements in the series that are undeniably Jewish.

Is Darth Vader a Kohen?

Even though it’s too small to see on screen, part of Darth Vader’s chestplate features three lines of Hebrew, one of which appears to be upside down. What the lines say is a matter of much online debate among Jewish “Star Wars” fans. On TheForce.net, which features photos of the Hebrew script in question, one blogger believes it’s a play on a section from Exodus 16 about repentance, while another thinks the lines read: “His actions/deeds will not be forgiven until he is proven innocent” and “One shall be regarded innocent until he is proven guilty.”

May the Fast Be With You

Much like nonpracticing Jews, many of the folks in the “Star Wars” universe invoke their belief in the Force, a God-like energy that permeates every living thing, typically when a situation seems dire or when luck is needed. And even though there aren’t that many Jedi, the only people who seem to practice this faith on a day-to-day basis, the Order has an opulent temple.

Once Anakin Skywalker was done offing the Jedi order in “Sith,” I pondered why they would have bothered to construct such an obscenely large facility, especially considering that each time it’s featured in the films the structure is obviously not being filled to capacity. Then it dawned on me: the High Holidays.

Shylock in Space

Lucas was criticized for being fairly politically incorrect with his aliens in “The Phantom Menace,” from the Japanese-sounding Neimodians and the grammatically strained Jamaican gobbledygook of the Gungans. But the character most offensive to Jews was the flying alien Watto, the bearded, Eastern European-accented slave owner of the Skywalker family, who comes off as a greedy Jewish merchant. To paraphrase Jar Jar Binks: Mesa farklempt.

Yoda: In the ‘Know’

The name of the pint-sized Jedi Muppet, voiced by Jewish actor-director Frank Oz, translates as “the one who knows” in Hebrew. Yes, but when that knowledge is delivered in a way that’s reminiscent of a bad fortune cookie, it’s difficult to take seriously.

Jedi Jew

Anakin Skywalker’s story is quintessentially Jewish. He starts off as a cute kid everyone thinks will grow up to be the messiah. When he finishes studying with the rabbi (Obi-Wan Kenobi), he disappoints everyone by dropping out of the shul and falling in with the wrong crowd. In his old age he ends up a ba’al teshuvah.

C3PO, Bar Mitzvah Boy

After the Rebel Alliance landing party is captured by the Ewoks on Endor in “Return of the Jedi,” Luke Skywalker levitates the chair C3PO is sitting in to convince the fuzzy creatures that the protocol droid is a god. The only thing missing from this scene: a round of “Hava Nagila” and Ewoks dancing in circles.

Jewish Chicks Kick Butt

In the prequels, we have Natalie Portman, an Israeli-born Jew, playing Luke and Leia’s mother, Padmé Naberrie Amidala. While she fought beasties and looked fabulous doing it in a slinky white cat suit in “Attack of the Clones,” Amidala never displayed the same feistiness that made Leia stand out in the original films.

Carrie Fisher, Jewish on her estranged father’s side, played against the Jewish American Princess stereotype as the gun-toting, take-charge Princess Leia Organa. Never one to shy away from a fight, Leia, in a very Judith-like way, seizes on an opportunity and strangles Jabba the Hutt to save her own people in “Return of the Jedi.”

Even if the “Star Wars” saga wasn’t written specifically with Jews in mind, the theme of good versus evil set in an alien universe speaks to the American Jewish experience. Like Luke Skywalker and Han Solo, we must often choose between the comfortable complacency of assimilation and the risks associated with membership in a noble but highly misunderstood path to repairing the universe.

May the tikkun olam be with you.