Courtesy Ela Stein Weissberger
One of the original casts of “Brundibár” at Terezín, with Weissberger playing the role of the cat.
“Brundibár” will be performed Saturday, March 22 at 4 p.m. and Sunday, March 23 at 7 p.m. at Seattle Children’s Theatre, 201 Thomas St., Seattle. For more information and tickets to the show and the tribute dinner, visit
Two poor children, desperate for milk for their ailing mother, go to the marketplace to perform for spare change, only to be drowned out by a wicked organ grinder — Brundibár — who monopolizes the audience. But with a little resilience and help from a dog, cat, and sparrow, the children prevail. Goodness vanquishes evil.
This is the premise of the beloved children’s opera “Brundibár,” composed by Czech musicians Hans Krása and Adolf Hoffmeister in 1938 shortly before the Nazis invaded their country. Deported to Terezín, Krása reconstructed the opera. It went on to be performed by children 55 times and, despite the irony of the material, was propagandized as proof of happiness and cultural vibrancy at the concentration camp. Krása, along with most of the children performers, were transported to Auschwitz, where they were killed. Goodness is vanquished; evil prevails.
Only one of the original Terezín performers appeared in all 55 productions, and survived. Ela Stein Weissberger, who played the role of the cat, has devoted her life to promoting “Brundibár.” Now 83, Weissberger travels to “Brundibár” productions around the world.
Weissberger will visit Seattle March 22-23 for Music of Remembrance’s production of “Brundibár” at Seattle Children’s Theatre.
“Ela has, as her personal goal in life, to share the story of ‘Brundibár’ and her message of hope and courage,” said Mina Miller, MOR’s founder and artistic director. “She’s quite a luminary.”
The opera, adapted by Tony Kushner and directed by Erich Parce, is comprised of talented child performers from Northwest BoyChoir and VocalPoint! Joseph Crnko conducts a 12-piece ensemble, with Miller on piano.
“It’s innocent, it’s engaging, it brings an unforgettable message of hope in the darkest of times,” said Miller. “It honors the lives and the legacy of those courageous persons, especially children, whose creative work was an expression of spiritual resistance to tyranny.”
An MOR fundraising tribute dinner at The Ruins in honor of Weissberger will follow the March 22 performance.
This is Weissberger’s second trip to Seattle for MOR’s production of “Brundibár.” She came in 2006 when MOR put up the show at Benaroya Hall.
“Of all the performances she’s been to in her life, she said ours was the best,” Miller told JTNews. Yet at the time, Weissberger was critical of MOR’s decision to cast young adults in the roles of children.
“This performance is very traditional,” Miller said. The performers will be younger, and the theater space allows for a set.
Since the last “Brundibár,” Miller said parents have been asking when the Seattle-based Holocaust music organization will bring it back.
“It’s been eight years, and there is a whole new generation,” she said.
However, according to Miller, this will be the last “Brundibár” run for MOR.
“It’s a huge investment in time and effort,” she said. “I think this is it. It will be up to someone else. This is it for Seattle.”
“Brundibár” is recommended for audiences age 8 and up, and presents kids with the historical Holocaust without the crushing heaviness of its reality.
“It gives them a palpable example of facing evil and forming an empowered response to it,” said Miller. “It’s timeless. It’s so accessible to children and their families.”
Miller turns to Kushner, who provides notes to his adaptation:
“Instead of false comfort, ‘Brundibár’ offers inspiration to action, and exhortation. Be brave, and you can make bullies behave! Rely on friends! Make common cause, build communities, organize and resist! And tyrants of all kinds, in every generation, can be and must be made to fall.”
Linor Abargil hugs a group of rape survivors.
“Brave Miss World” screens Thursday, March 6 at 6 p.m. at SIFF Cinema at the Uptown, 511 Queen Anne Ave. N. For more information visit www.seattlejewishfilmfestival.org.
Editor’s Note: This article by writer Erin Pike is somewhat graphic, and may make you uncomfortable, but we feel those sections are important and necessary to stimulate the discussion Erin’s situation requires.
For some reason I feel the need to say this first: I am a feminist. I am the feminist other feminists approach about controversial feminist issues. I am the advocate who will audibly react with disapproval to sexist stories told in conversation, on stage, or from a screen. I am the Bechdel Test police. I have fuzzy legs and armpits and only wear bras for special occasions. I am an old-school feminist — some might say a hard-core feminist. I am a feminist and this is my first time writing publicly about my rape.
Last month I was asked to watch and review “Brave Miss World” in preparation for the Seattle Jewish Film Festival. “Brave Miss World” is a documentary about former Miss Israel and Miss World champion Linor Abargil, who was raped and, through incredible strength and bravery, became an international activist and legal professional for victims of sexual violence. Abargil’s consistent message to survivors in the film is that they must talk about their experience in order to heal. The film was so moving and inspirational I asked to write about my personal experience, if there was an opportunity to do so.
So here I am, thanks to Linor Abargil.
I’m going to explain all of my fears, the reasons why the mere task of writing this article was nearly impossible. The largest fear is that people won’t believe me. That I’m mistaken, that what happened, somehow, wasn’t rape. That because I consumed alcohol, it wasn’t rape. That because he was my friend, it wasn’t rape. That because at one point we had dated, it wasn’t rape. That because I was sexually active, perhaps even promiscuous at the time, it wasn’t rape. That because I invited him to my apartment, it wasn’t rape. That because I was extremely emotional and unstable that night, it wasn’t rape. That because I didn’t have any visible bruises or cuts, it wasn’t rape. That because if people don’t even believe Dylan Farrow’s first-hand account of sexual assault, then what the hell are my chances, it probably wasn’t rape.
I’m afraid he will find this article and read it. I’m afraid our mutual friends will send it to him. I’m afraid our mutual friends will find this article and tell me it wasn’t rape. I’m afraid my feminist friends will be angry at me for never pressing charges or seeking legal justice. I’m afraid that by feeling so much shame and self-blame about rape, I am less of a feminist. I’m afraid my parents will find this article and tell me it was my fault. I am sad because at one point my rapist was my friend, and now he’s not, and that gives me horrible anxiety — am I a bad person for no longer being his friend? He was a good person up until that point, is he back to being a good person now? Should I have stayed in touch? Is it my fault he doesn’t understand what he did was wrong?
It was four-and-a-half years ago. He was coming to town for a convention, so I told him he could stay with me. That evening, I had an emotional breakdown, a particularly bad one. When he arrived late that night, he found me collapsed on the floor, visibly upset. And drunk. Initially he comforted me, as a good friend should, and we talked about why I was emotional. Then we ended up in my bed, kissing.
That is all I remember.
The next morning, he had left before I woke up. I noticed right away that I felt incredibly sad, and that my genital area was sore. I went into the living room and saw my roommate.
“Last night was kind of crazy,” I apologized, referring to my emotional breakdown and make-out session. As an afterthought, I asked her to give me a review on the night’s events, for clarity, if nothing else. That is when my life changed. She told me she had heard us having sex.
“You don’t remember?” she asked.
I had absolutely no recollection. My brain immediately flooded with defensive thoughts: I had wanted that, right? Since we were kissing? Even though he was completely sober and I had blacked out? It wasn’t rape because I had invited him over, so maybe it was my fault that he assumed I was interested in sex? How could such an outspoken feminist be raped by her friend?
I spent the following days totally lost and in immense pain. I needed so badly to talk to someone, yet I felt such shame and self-blame I was completely incapable of doing so. I confided in one friend, a mutual friend of ours who had dated him in high school. She immediately understood what had happened and sat with me as I called him to confront him about it. During the phone conversation, he confirmed that we “had intercourse,” but denied any responsibility for poor judgment, and insisted that what had
happened was “not non-consensual.” He wasn’t a rapist, he thought. And yet the facts were so clear: He had been in a situation of total power and control, a situation in which I had none, and he took advantage of the opportunity (rape).
I didn’t press charges. I thought the details were too confusing and unreliable, and — mostly — I didn’t want to talk about it at all. I was afraid I would never get my sex drive back or feel in control again. I wanted to be left alone to heal.
I myself wasn’t even able to call it rape until recently. In the years since, I had referred to it as “that bad sex thing,” his name on my list of sexual partners, sprawled angrily and scribbled and accented with a question mark (does he “count?”). I’ve been in therapy for almost a year now, and that has helped me come to terms with what happened. Without therapy I would probably still be in denial, and believe it to have been my “fault.”
Like Linor Abargil, I, too, become more religious as a part of my healing process. I began to attend synagogue and embrace Judaism, and I attributed the existence of a strong religious influence in my life with a dire need for existential clarity and hope.
I pen this account specifically for others like me, who may still be questioning whether or not their “bad sex thing” was really rape, who may still be blaming themselves and burying the memory, those whose rapists were friends, family, or even a spouse. Your instinct and intuition that what happened was wrong should not be silenced, and I encourage you to find support from anyone possible so you, too, can come to terms with the truth and move on to healing. If you cannot trust a family member or friend to support you, there are Internet and phone-line resources, both national (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, www.rainn.org) and local (Harborview Center for Sexual Assault, www.hcsats.org). I did not know about these resources at the time, but I wish that I had.
If you have not experienced rape or sexual assault in your lifetime — even though you cannot understand what it’s like — you are desperately needed as a supporter and confidant to the survivors around you. Be there for others, they will need you.
It is also important to acknowledge that rape and sexual assault happen to people of all genders. As I stated earlier, I am a feminist. My artwork and my life reflect that truth, and my personal interests of dismantling rape culture and attacking gender inequality happen to be a large part of who I am, interests that have only grown since my experience. But I would be remiss if I failed to acknowledge the fears that male victims face when talking about their experiences, fears largely due to the inequality of socially constructed gender roles. In short, effects of the patriarchy harm everyone, and those effects become especially apparent when navigating the complex issues of sexual assault.
I know this will sound trite, but the conclusion here is that rape sucks. Rape really, really sucks. And knowing that good people are capable of doing harmful things also sucks. It is reasonable to point at someone horrible and say they are horrible. But when someone you care about, someone “good” does something horrible, it’s easier to defend him or her and end the conversation. So this is me, starting the conversation: I have been raped and now I’m talking about it. Thank you, “Brave Miss World.”
“Aftermath” screens as a part of the Seattle Jewish Film Festival on Wed., March 5 at 6:10 p.m. at the SIFF Cinema Uptown, 511 Queen Anne Ave. N, Seattle. Visit
www.seattlejewishfilmfestival.org for tickets and information.
Wladyslaw Pasikowski’s extraordinary “Aftermath” is a rare, delicious example of a filmmaker fearlessly exposing a grievous chapter in his or her country’s history. You can well imagine that everyone prefers that the secret, and the amoral failings of a prior generation, remain buried, but one strong soul has chosen to invite the skeletons out of the closet.
The Polish director’s masterstroke is to wrap his harrowing exposé of World War II crimes and contemporary cover-ups inside the onionskin layers of a seductive thriller. A slowly unfolding mystery that grows steadily darker, “Aftermath” is crackerjack entertainment capped with an unforgettable gut-punch.
German filmmakers have examined the Third Reich and the Holocaust since the early ’50s, confronting every aspect of the Nazis’ undeniable guilt. Polish directors, however, have largely steered clear of the period, with the notable (and controversial) exceptions of Andrzej Wajda’s wrenching “Korczak” (1990) and Agnieszka Holland’s powerful “In Darkness” (2011).
Their dilemma is that the Poles, to this day, largely deny the accusation that they participated with the Nazis in the murder of Jews. (Or that they opportunistically used the invasion and the war as a cover for eliminating Jews.) “Aftermath” shines a bright light on the dark canard of Polish innocence — literally, in a middle-of-the-night climax — and the revelation could not be more shocking.
“It is a difficult and complex subject,” Pasikowski explained in an interview with Variety last year, “and one that runs against the Polish image of the country as being both a heroic fighter against Nazism and a victim, which is also true.”
“Aftermath” begins with the return of the prodigal son to the village of his childhood after many years in America. Although the surroundings and the people are familiar, Jozef (Maciej Stuhr) sees them through an outsider’s eyes. It’s a clever way of setting the scene, for we immediately identify with Jozef’s point of view.
As attractive and charismatic as Jozef is, though, we’re put off by his casual, anti-Semitic putdowns of people he works with (or for) in Chicago. It’s another canny move by Pasikowski, for it limits our identification and comfort level with the main character.
The younger brother, Franciszek (Ireneusz Czop), has been running the family farm since Jozef left. Jozef’s arrival is fortuitous, however, for Franciszek’s placid, small-town routine has been disrupted by a serious yet initially indefinable threat.
Actually, we’ve felt a sense of foreboding since Jozef got off the plane. The moment he set foot on the road leading to the farm, an unseen entity — friend or foe? — made its presence felt.
It would be wrong to reveal any more of the plot and deprive the viewer of the pleasure of Pasikowski’s carefully thought-out structure. “Aftermath” is the kind of film where every line of dialogue and every camera movement have a purpose, even if we only realize it after the fact.
Ambitious, complex, shocking and wholly satisfying (admittedly, in a disturbing way), “Aftermath” is a beautifully executed example of a film that draws on heavy-duty historical reality without exploiting or trivializing it. At the same time, it somehow also manages to integrate an otherworldly dimension into a wholly realistic story.
Above all, the film takes on Poland’s World War II-era history and its ongoing silence with intelligence, style and — at the crucial juncture — unflinching courage. “Aftermath” is a movie to be savored, admired and celebrated.
Linor Abargil, a former Miss World from Israel who was raped just months before winning her crown, has made helping women in similar situations her life’s work.
“Brave Miss World” screens as a part of the Seattle Jewish Film
Festival on Thurs., March 6 at 6 p.m. at the SIFF Cinema Uptown, 511 Queen Anne Ave. N, Seattle. Visit www.seattlejewishfilmfestival.org for tickets and information.
“Brave Miss World” is an absolute must-see documentary about Linor Abargil, the winner of the 1998 Miss Israel and Miss World pageants, and her journey as she becomes a fearless activist for victims of rape. Abargil was raped six weeks prior to the 1998 Miss World pageant, an event that she publicly recounted, and painstakingly pursued legal justice for. The film follows her story as she continues to deal with the daily and long-term effects of rape, and as she begins to reach out to other victims so she can inspire and support them.
Abargil introduces viewers to rape survivors of a diverse range of ages, nationalities, abilities, and gender. Yes, it is emotionally draining and horrifying to observe so many stories of injustice and violence, but the film ultimately provides hope in its revelation that simply speaking openly about rape is often the first step toward true healing.
The documentary is brilliantly structured — we see Abargil gain momentum in her cause, we are exposed to the concerns and objections from her family, we see her become overwhelmed by the weight of others’ stories, and finally, we see her find ultimate healing in her career as a legal advocate and in religion and faith. Director Cecilia Peck does an outstanding job of shaping the fullest possible picture of how sexual violence inevitably alters a person’s life forever, and demonstrates how Abargil’s bravery is genuinely heroic.
Though centered on Abargil’s life, the film is truly about the bigger subject of sexual violence. “Brave Miss World” smashes the taboo of rape as a subject of conversation and offers a rare insight into the international epidemic and its life-long effects on victims.
The specific medium of film documentary is also to be commended as an excellent choice for this story. Too often, rape is simply a detail in a minute-long news excerpt, or an “unfortunate incident” in the plots of television shows or movies. We see rape (usually) portrayed as something bad, and yet we aren’t directly confronted by how it, tragically, never fully goes away in the life of the victim. By watching a feature-length documentary about one person’s experience, and her subsequent exceptional activism, we see the full, comprehensive life-long path of recovery — complete with emotional, psychological, physical, legal, and spiritual repercussions. It is the most honest depiction possible.
Warning: Brave Miss World may inspire you to become an activist. Survivors and supporters alike, this is a documentary every human should see.
“Hotel Lux” screens as a part of the Seattle Jewish Film Festival on Sat., March 8 at 6 p.m. at the Stroum JCC, 3801 E Mercer Way, Mercer Island. Visit
www.seattlejewishfilmfestival.org for tickets and information.
Germany, 1933: Two performers, Siegfried Meyer and Hans Zeisig, star in a Hitler/Stalin comedy act. As Hitler gains power and control, Meyer joins the resistance and Zeisig is asked to portray increasingly offensive Jewish stereotypes. With conditions in Germany growing worse each day, Zeisig decides to leave for Hollywood, but due to a lack of proper paperwork, ends up in Moscow at Hotel Lux instead.
The film follows Zeisig into the hotel, a Communist home for exiles, bursting with rats and paranoia. There, he runs into Meyer’s friend, Frida von Oorten, a woman in whom Zeisig has developed a romantic interest. The two continue to cross paths as Zeisig, through mistaken identities and general hijinks, gains Communist rank and security by acting as Stalin’s astrologist.
Written and directed by Leander Haussmann, “Hotel Lux” is a pleasant combination of comedy, romance, and adventure, set against a dark backdrop of political and social upheaval. Because of its comedic tone, the story’s moments of violence and tragedy hit a bit harder; the comedy provides a more realistic gauge for such horrific events that were commonplace during that time.
The heart of the story is in the strength and subtle flexibility of Zeisig. Somehow, he finds a way to fearlessly hold on to his own identity, even as he must shift into other identities so he can survive. The film does an excellent job of making this constant, delicate unevenness palpable; every knock on the door could be Hitler or Stalin, the rifle could be aimed at anyone, any faucet could be bugged with a listening device by the government. The fear is crippling, and yet Zeisig, forced to notice the political reality that he was initially indifferent to, continues on.
Dark setting aside, there is a quality of magic in “Hotel Lux” provided by the glamour of the era’s style, and the interesting nature of real-life performance in the most dire of situations. At times, the shifts between scenes — a constant push against the boundaries of what it means, in a metaphorical sense, to be on-stage or off — evoke Baz Luhrmann-style theatrics. “Hotel Lux” also employs the use of Chaplin-esque depictions to highlight situational absurdities of the Nazi and Communist regimes — effective, disturbing, and also hilarious.
“Hotel Lux” is a visual and emotional delight: It is an enjoyable tale of love, friendship, and how a sense of humor and a predisposition for rebellion and mischief may truly be the most necessary traits in life.
“Wagner’s Jews” screens as a part of the Seattle Jewish Film Festival on Sun., March 9 at 12:30 p.m. at the Stroum Jewish Community Center, 3801 E Mercer Way, Mercer Island. Visit www.seattlejewishfilmfestival.org for tickets and information.
Art challenges us with all manner of serrated edges, not least the paradox that beautiful and beloved works can be produced by loathsome — or at least deeply flawed — people.
I find that it becomes easier over time to ignore the repugnant personalities and bad behavior and simply savor the music or painting or novel. A much more strenuous mental gymnastic was required for conductor Herrmann Levi, pianist Joseph Rubinstein, and producer Angelo Neumann to work with Richard Wagner for as long as they did.
Or so one gleans from “Wagner’s Jews,” a one-hour documentary made for European television and screening in the Seattle Jewish Film Festival. Perhaps of greatest interest to amateur psychologists, as well as classical music and opera buffs, the film provides valuable background and insight for viewers who aren’t steeped in Wagner’s soaring music or his callous writings.
Constructed from a prosaic mix of talking-head interviews, 19th-century photographs, and woodcuts, “Wagner’s Jews” attempts the daunting task of reconciling the loyalty and devotion that key Jewish collaborators felt toward Wagner with the demeaning anti-Semitism of his public writings (and, incredibly, in his direct dealings with Levi and Rubinstein).
Wagner’s animus toward Jews, expressed in a lengthy 1850 essay that he revised and reprinted nearly two decades later, could hardly have been based on his personal relationships with Jews. He owed much of his success to people like Giacomo Mayerbeer, a prominent German-Jewish composer who supported and touted the young Wagner, and the great Polish-Jewish pianist Carl Tausig, who sold patron certificates to fund construction of the opera house at Bayreuth.
Jews, Wagner wrote, were a “destructive foreign element” rather than a legitimate, organic part of German society or culture. Jewish artists were able to imitate but nothing more, he declared.
How could such first-rate musicians and valuable collaborators as Levi and Rubenstein work side by side with an unabashed racist? Well, to sum up the varied perspectives of the assembled historians and biographers: It’s complicated.
Classical music and opera were the cultural pinnacle of Europe in the late 1800s, and the undeniably gifted Wagner stood at the highest peak. My hunch is that Levi and Rubinstein were inspired and satisfied that they were applying their talents to the highest purpose. If they had to endure personal insults, humiliation and anguish — and there is ample evidence that they did — they would.
I don’t mind admitting that “Wagner’s Jews” demolished my ignorant assumption that the Nazis had simply embraced and promoted Wagner as an icon of superior Aryan accomplishment. In fact, the high- profile composer originated the theory that Jews were outsiders and parasites, providing a template for Hitler to build his platform of hatred and annihilation.
This crucial fact explains the fervid opposition to the proposed performance of Wagner’s work in Israel for the first time. The 2012 controversy provides a compelling contemporary frame for “Wagner’s Jews,” and invites us to grapple with the enduring conundrum of separating the creator from his or her creation.
Herrmann Levi and Joseph Rubinstein had the same problem, in spades.
“The Zigzag Kid” opens the Seattle Jewish Film Festival on March 1 at AMC Pacific Place 11. Visit www.seattlejewishfilmfestival.org for tickets and information.
An unabashed crowd-pleaser in a Day-Glo package, “The Zigzag Kid” transports young-at-heart viewers on a magic carpet of charming hijinks and manic energy.
Belgian director Vincent Bal has transposed vaunted Israeli novelist David Grossman’s beloved 1994 coming-of-age adventure fantasy from the Promised Land to a candy-cane Europe. The result is a confection of a film that dispenses laughs and life lessons en route to a poignant moral about the blood ties that bind.
A family film whose most ardent admirers will be children, “The Zigzag Kid” is fueled by primal adolescent urges. Not the ones you’re thinking of, but the pressing need to comprehend the past, navigate the present, and manipulate the future.
The opening credits immediately set the tone in smile-inducing style, employing split-screens, a full-spectrum palette, and a pop score to evoke the spy movies (and parodies) of the 1960s and ’70s.
As his 13th birthday approaches, cute-as-a-bug Nono is starting to figure out he can’t abide the rules and conventions that most people passively accept. He’s not a rebel — he admires his detective father to the extent that he mimics Dad’s deductive skills and wants to follow in his gumshoes — so much as a creative thinker and fearless experimenter.
The title comes from Nono’s iconoclasm, as well as the gold pin in the shape of a Z that the world’s greatest thief, Felix Glick, leaves behind as his signature.
But I’m getting ahead of the story. After one of Nono’s bright ideas accidentally sends a cousin’s Bar Mitzvah reception up in smoke, our erstwhile hero is dispatched to boring Uncle Shmuel as punishment. But Dad’s plan is derailed within moments of Nono boarding the train, launching the lad on a mission that takes him to the south of France and back.
“The Zigzag Kid” is tons of fun as it sets its inspired plot in motion, while Nono is a splendid protagonist who never devolves from endearing to tiresome. It helps that he’s aware he’s not completely self-sufficient, for that dollop of humility tempers his precociousness.
In fact, Nono relishes the maternal attention and affection of his father’s (ahem) live-in secretary, Gaby. The boy never knew his mother, who died when he was an infant, and he’d be very happy if the current domestic arrangement continued ad infinitum.
Suffice it to say that Nono crosses paths with the 60-something Felix Glick, who quickly presents himself as an alternate role model with his blend of resourcefulness and suaveness.
At a certain point, especially for those adults who have sussed out the relationships between the characters before Nono does, the pieces start to click into place, dissipating the film’s aura of cleverness. Everyone likes a happy ending, sure — although be advised a tragedy is revealed en route — but “The Zigzag Kid” trumpets an allegiance to the primacy of the two-parent family that is downright Spielbergian.
The original poster for 1942’s “Casablanca.” Courtesy Bill Gold/Warner Bros./Wikimedia Commons
On Feb. 14 each year, many Americans watch “Casablanca” to celebrate Valentine’s Day. As time goes by, the Jewish influences on the Oscar-winning 1940s romantic film become more apparent.
Jews involved in the production of “Casablanca” includec Murray Burnett, the author of the play on which the movie was based, director Michael Curtiz, screenwriters Philip and Julius Epstein and Howard Koch, producer Hal Wallis, composer Max Steiner, and actor Peter Lorre (born László Löwenstein).
“Burnett wrote the play before World War II began,” James Pontuso, author of the book “Political Philosophy Comes to Rick’s: Casablanca and American Civic Culture,” said. “This was a warning to Americans about what was happening. America was an isolationist country. We didn’t want to get involved in Europe, especially after World War I. In October 1941, in response to the Nazi invasion of France, the United States House of Representatives came within one vote of disbanding the U.S. army. That was our response to World War II. Burnett was warning people. He was saying, ‘Look, you Americans need to get ready. This guy [Hitler] is after you, too.’”
According to Hollywood journalist and film historian Aljean Harmetz, Burnett as a 27-year-old English teacher at a New York vocational high school went to German-occupied Vienna in the summer of 1938 to help Jewish relatives smuggle out money. He returned to the United States with the idea for an anti-Nazi play in which an embittered saloonkeeper helps a crusading Czech newspaper editor escape from Casablanca, Morocco, with the woman the saloonkeeper loves.
When Burnett could not find a Broadway producer for “Everybody Comes to Rick’s,” which he co-wrote with Joan Alison, “the play was sold to Warner Brothers for $20,000 and the title was changed to ‘Casablanca,’” Harmetz wrote in the New York Times.
Starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, “Casablanca” won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1943, and Curtiz won the Oscar for best director.
Curtiz was born Kertész Kaminer Manó to a Jewish family in Budapest, Hungary. He was fond of telling tall tales about his early life, including that he had run away from home to join the circus and that he had been a member of the Hungarian fencing team at the 1912 Olympics. In reality, Curtiz had a conventional middle-class upbringing: He studied at Markoszy University and the Royal Academy of Theater and Art in Budapest before beginning his career as an actor and director, working under the name Mihály Kertész, at the National Hungarian Theater in 1912.
“Casablanca,” Pontuso said, “was meant to be a warning, but it also ended up being a film that captured the American character.”
“It was saying America has to be responsible for what is going on in the world, and we didn’t want to do that,” explained Pontuso, the Patterson Professor of Government & Foreign Affairs at Hampden-Sydney College. “We were above European politics. Take Bogart’s Rick character. At the beginning he is self-centered and then at the end he is an idealist. If you threaten natural rights, if you threaten my ability to live as I want, you better be careful of Americans, like Rick at the end.”
Broadcaster and online journalism pioneer Eliot Stein interviewed “Casablanca” screenwriters Howard Koch and Julius Epstein in 1995. It was Koch’s final interview; he died shortly thereafter.
“When America got into World War II, one of the first things that happened was Washington, DC sent emissaries to Hollywood to meet with the heads of the studios, including Louis B. Mayer, Jack Warner and his brothers, and Daryl Zanuck,” Stein said. “They told the heads of the studios, ‘We need you. Through your motion pictures, through the newsreels, the shorts like the Three Stooges and the cartoons. We need you to promote America’s involvement in World War II…. We need to be in World War II.’”
In the movie industry’s early days, major corporations “didn’t want to get involved,” but Jews “had visions that this film thing was going to be huge,” according to Stein.
“They got involved in the business and creative ends, and it has stayed that way,” Stein says. “There is a strong Jewish influence and agenda in ‘Casablanca.’”
One of the driving forces behind “Casablanca,” Stein added, was its producer, Hal Wallis. Born in 1898 in Chicago to Eva and Jacob Walinsky, Eastern European Jews who changed their surname to Wallis, Hal’s family moved in 1922 to Los Angeles, and in 1923 he found work in the publicity department at Warner Brothers. He eventually became head of production at Warner Bros., and in a career that spanned more than 50 years, he was involved in the production of more than 400 feature films.
“Hal Wallis’s work was influenced by his Jewish background,” Stein said. “He went through anti-Semitism in his life and discrimination. He had a driving desire that this film was going to be made and be great.”
The ending of “Casablanca” — when Humphrey Bogart urged Ingrid Bergman to board the plane — continues to be a subject of debate. Most critics agree the ending implies what course should be taken in the difficult times ahead. Stein said the producers wanted audiences to walk away believing there is a greater cause than personal satisfaction.
What accounts for the continuing popularity of “Casablanca?”
“It captures the American character in many ways,” Pontuso said. “We don’t like being a world power. But who else is going to do it? Because of Hitler we had to take on world responsibilities. We do it, but only because we have to. It’s the greatest American film. It shows we’re willing to fight for the right reasons.”
Stein said that while viewers enjoy the romance of “Casablanca,” standing up against evil — of the past or present — remains an important message conveyed by the film.
“They wanted audiences to feel that we must pull together to defeat evil, meaning the Nazis,” Stein says. “It’s an inspiring movie.”
Courtesy Nick Reed Entertainment
A shot of a Czech program, prior to Alice Herz-Sommer’s deportation, featuring her on the concert bill.
LOS ANGELES (JTA)—In her 110 years, Alice Herz-Sommer has been an accomplished concert pianist and teacher, a wife and mother—and a prisoner in Theresienstadt.
Now she is the star of an Oscar-nominated documentary showing her indomitable optimism, cheerfulness and vitality despite all the upheavals and horrors she faced in the 20th century.
“The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life,” a 38-minute film up for best short documentary at the Academy Awards to be handed out next month, begins in her native Prague. Alice—everyone from presidents on down calls her Alice—was born on Nov. 26, 1903 into an upper-class Jewish family steeped in literature and classical music.
A friend and frequent visitor was “Uncle Franz,” surname Kafka, along with composer Gustav Mahler and other luminaries.
Trained as a pianist from childhood, Alice made her concert debut as a teenager, married, had a son and seemed destined for the pleasant, cultured life of a prosperous Middle European. But everything changed in 1939 when Hitler, casually tearing up the Munich accord of a year earlier, marched his troops into Prague and brought with him his anti-Semitic edicts.
Her public concert career was over, yet the family managed to hang on in an increasingly restrictive existence in the Czech capital.
In 1943, however, Alice and her husband, their 6-year old son Raphael (Rafi), and Alice’s mother were loaded on the transport to Theresienstadt. The fortress town some 30 miles from Prague was touted by Nazi propaganda as the model ghetto—“The Fuhrer’s gift to the Jews,” with its own orchestra, theater group and even soccer teams.
With the full extent of the Holocaust still largely unknown, Alice took her deportation with relative equanimity, as was typical for many European Jews.
“If they have an orchestra in Terezin, how bad can it be?” she recalled asking, using the Czech name of the town.
Alice soon found out, as her mother and husband perished there. Alice was saved by her musical gifts; she became a member of the camp orchestra and gave more than 100 recitals.
But her main focus was on Rafi, trying to make his life bearable, to escape the constant hunger and infuse him with her own hopefulness.
“What she did reminded me of Roberto Benigni in the Italian film ‘Life is Beautiful,’ ” said Malcolm Clarke, director of “The Lady in Number 6.” “He plays an Italian Jew who pretends to his young son that life in the camp is some kind of elaborate game for the boy’s special amusement.”
Liberated in 1945, Alice and Rafi returned to Prague but four years later left for Israel. There she taught at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and performed in concerts frequently attended by Golda Meir, while Rafi became a concert cellist.
Alice said she loved her 37 years living in Israel, but when Rafi, her only child, decided to move to London, she went with him. A few years later Rafi died at 65, but the mother remained in her small flat, No. 6, in a North London apartment house.
Nearly all of the film was shot over a two-year period inside the flat dominated by an old Steinway piano on which Alice played four hours each day, to the enjoyment of her neighbors.
Originally the filmmakers considered “Dancing Under the Gallows” as the film’s title before going with “The Lady in Number 6.”
It was a wise decision, for the film is anything but a grim Holocaust documentary with Alice’s unfailing affirmation of life, usually accompanied by gusts of laughter.
Her health and speech have declined in recent months, and she no longer does interviews. But in a brief phone conversation, conducted mainly in German, Alice attributed her outlook partially to having been born with optimistic genes and a positive attitude.
“I know there is bad in the world, but I look for the good,” she said, and “music is my life, music is God.”
At 104, she took up the study of philosophy and likes to quote German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who said “Without music, life would be a mistake.”
The film is peppered with such observations, which coming from anyone else might be considered a sign of Candide-like naivete.
A sampling of her sayings: “Wherever you look, there is beauty everywhere”; “After a century on the keyboard, I still look for perfection”; “I’m so old because I use my brain constantly. The brain is the body’s best medicine”; and “A sense of humor keeps us balanced in all circumstances, even death.”
Many of the observations are recorded by Caroline Stoessinger in her book “A Century of Wisdom: Lessons from the Life of Alice Herz-Sommer, the World’s Oldest Living Holocaust Survivor,” which forms the basis for the film and her on-screen interviews.
Stoessinger, a New York concert pianist, interviewed Alice and her friends over a period of 15 years and became an ardent admirer of her subject.
“Alice doesn’t complain, she doesn’t look back, she has no anxieties,” Stoessinger said. “Even in Theresienstadt, she never doubted that she would survive.”
Stoessinger also convinced Clarke to direct the film. He won an Oscar in 1989 for his short documentary “You Don’t Have to Die,” and an Oscar nomination for “Prisoner of Paradise,” which also focused on life and death in Theresienstadt.
The film’s producer, Nick Reed, like Clarke, was reluctant to take on the new assignment.
“We asked ourselves, who is going to watch another Holocaust documentary with a really old lady? Fred Bohbot, our executive producer, Malcolm and I have really been stunned by the enthusiastic reaction to the film,” Reed said.
Clarke and Reed are British-born Canadians. Neither is Jewish, but as Reed put it, “I am not a Jew, but I’m Jewish.”
Asked about the film’s budget, Reed responded, “About 35 cents, a bus token and bits of old chewing gum.”
“The Lady in Number 6” will be released in some 100 theaters across the United States on Feb. 21 and subsequently in other countries.
Matt Damon and Cate Blanchett in Columbia Pictures’ The Monuments Men.
When “The Monuments Men” was bumped from a prime December release date to this Friday, the company line was that co-writer-director-star George Clooney needed more time to properly finish the film.
Now that I’ve seen the movie, another explanation presents itself: Lacking dynamic characters and offering only occasional quivers of excitement, the World War II saga would have bombed at the box office against the high-powered year-end competition. Adding insult to injury, “The Monuments Men” almost certainly would have been pasted with the humiliation of zero Oscar nominations.
This is not to say the movie is without value, for it reminds mainstream viewers that the Nazis stole the treasures and possessions of Europe’s Jews—from paintings to gold teeth—with the same cold calculation that they murdered them.
Based on Robert M. Edsel’s 2009 book, “The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History,” the film lands a team of art experts in Europe after D-Day with the express mission of recapturing the immense horde of paintings and sculptures pilfered from museums, churches and private collections during the German occupation and subsequent retreat.
Frank Stokes (based on art historian George Stout and played by Clooney) has convinced President Roosevelt that, with victory assured, the goal of preserving civilization must shift to rescuing the world’s great artworks from certain destruction.
The seriousness of Stokes’ presentation contrasts with his jaunty, tongue-in-cheek recruitment of curators and art historians played by Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, John Goodman, English actor Hugh Bonneville (of “Downton Abbey”) and Frenchman Jean Dujardin (Oscar winner for “The Artist”).
By the time the self-titled Monuments Men arrive in France in the summer of 1944, the Jewish victims of the Nazi campaign of murder and looting have long since been deported. Clooney makes a genuine effort to include and honor their off-screen suffering, providing the movie with one of its strongest moments.
Metropolitan Museum of Art curator James Granger (Damon) has made contact with a suspicious Parisian curator, Claire Simon (the splendid Cate Blanchett, delivering the film’s lone interesting performance). However, she’s convinced the American secretly intends to take any rescued French masterpieces back to New York with him.
Simon brings Granger to a warehouse crammed with boxes of personal effects, where he comes across a portrait that is plainly neither valuable nor important.
“What is all this stuff?” Granger asks. “People’s lives,” Simon replies. “What people?” “Jews.”
The next day, Granger visits an empty apartment and, seeing where a picture once hung, replaces the portrait. Simon, who has followed him, informs him the occupants won’t be coming back. In case we hadn’t already figured it out on our own, the word “Juden” is scrawled on the wall next to her.
“My job is to find and return art,” Granger says, standing in front of the portrait. “I figure I might as well start here.”
It’s a powerful image, even without the resonance of current battles over museum-held paintings that belong to the heirs of their Jewish owners.
From this moving high point, “The Monuments Men” descends into an awkward amalgam of tepid buddy comedy (with Murray and Balaban sleepily delivering lame banter), taut set piece and earnest treatise on the crucial legacy of art.
The dramatic requirements of movies, and the challenge of getting audiences to thrill to the exploits of art experts, compels Clooney to tilt his much-older-than-enlistment-age characters in the direction of semi-comic action heroes. The upshot is that “The Monuments Men” takes a softer, less satisfying road than such acerbic World War II escapades as “The Dirty Dozen” and “Kelly’s Heroes.”
For a truly great movie about saving European art, seek out “The Train,” John Frankenheimer’s 1964 drama about the French effort (driven by engineer Burt Lancaster) to stop a Nazi shipment of stolen paintings from getting to Germany.
Hip-hop artist Nissim, whose “Sores” song features Rabbi Simon Benzaquen.
While most Seattle hip-hop fans have jumped on the Macklemore bandwagon, another local rapper has been creating music that’s just as powerful. Nissim, an African-American, Orthodox Jewish hip- hop artist is joining his familial roots with the roots of his adopted religion. Joined by Rabbi Simon Benzaquen, Nissim produced a song called “Sores” that tells the story of the African American experience of slavery in comparison to the Jewish horror of the Holocaust.
Nissim recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to crowdfund $18,000 so he can create a music video for “Sores.” Since he wrote the song, which was released on his latest album in September, he has envisioned a video that fully captures its story.
“It’s been a plan of ours since we made the song,” says Nissim. “It’s a lot of money and work to be able to pull it off. The video has to be at least as good or better than the song.”
“What Nissim and I are singing about is a message,” says Benzaquen. “There are not two people that have more in common than the African American and the Jew.”
Benzaquen met Nissim years ago when Nissim showed up at Sephardic Bikur Holim, where Benzaquen was rabbi at the time, in search of connection with Judaism. Nissim had decided to put his music career on hold to concentrate on conversion and to become more acquainted with his new community.
“I wanted to step away from my music for a while,” says Nissim. “I wasn’t sure if it was what I wanted to do or not. I wanted to study and learn.”
After hearing the rabbi sing in synagogue, Benzaquen recalls Nissim saying, “You have to come sing on my next album.”
By 2012, Nissim was ready to return to music.
“I did a lot of praying and soul searching,” he says. “The answer became so clear. I was getting a lot of calls and encouragement to return to music. Spiritually, everything was pointing toward going back to music.”
While Nissim had a legitimate concern for losing his religiosity by going back, as music can be a “tough industry,” he felt confident in his ability to incorporate his newfound religious spirituality into his art.
Nissim’s wife planted the spark of the idea behind “Sores” back in 2009.
“It wasn’t the right time,” he recalls. “I had to sit with the idea.”
Once he was ready to move forward, Nissim contacted composer Eli Cohen, who he felt was truly able to communicate the message of the song.
“I needed something to be powerful,” says Nissim. “I felt especially with Rabbi Benzaquen, he was going to be able to capture the emotion of the song, and he was not camera shy. I love his voice. He really gets into it.”
The song has moved beyond the Jewish community. After recording the track, the two performed “Sores” at Sasquatch in 2013, as well as at the Capitol Hill Block Party and the Crocodile Café. This winter, Nissim and Benzaquen were invited to perform in Beit Shemesh, Israel. Nissim also attended the White House’s Hanukkah party.
With the popularity of the song and its powerful message, Nissim decided to invest in making a short film to fully capture the meaning of the story “Sores” tells.
“The screenplay written by Zach Grashin transforms the words and music of ‘Sores’ into a short film that captures the emotions, struggle, pain, and finally hope, of both historical periods,” according to the Kickstarter campaign, which launched in late January.
Nissim needs to meet his goal of $18,000 to complete the project, but hopes to raise as much as $50,000 to capture both time periods.
Benzaquen feels strongly that “Sores” sends a message that isn’t often communicated through rap music, which he feels has lost its original intent.
“Nissim brings rap music back to its roots,” says Benzaquen. “Much of today’s rap music is very negative. What Nissim sings is positive.”
The two believe they now have a mission.
“It’s very important to bring back the friendship and camaraderie between the Jew and the African American,” says Benzaquen.
To learn about Nissim and Rabbi Benzaquen’s Kickstarter, visit kck.st/1jcNyZ3.
A scene from “The Zigzag Kid.”
The Seattle Jewish Film Festival runs from March 1–9. Contact www.seattlejewishfilmfestival.org for tickets and venue information.
When you think about the characters of Jewish arts and culture, they pretty much come down to heroes, hooligans, and comedians.
This, at least, is the idea behind this year’s Seattle Jewish Film Festival theme: The good, the bad, and the funny.
“In a way, we can look at the good, the bad, the funny, and all the ‘yetzer hara’ of Jewish life,” said festival director Pamela Lavitt. “We’re not looking at the dour or the morose or the sad.”
This year’s festival opens Saturday night, March 1, with a Dutch adaptation of Israeli novelist David Grossman’s “The Zigzag Kid,” a charming coming-of-age tale of a Bar Mitzvah boy’s hijinks on a quest to solve a family mystery and prove himself. Over the course of the festival, audiences will be introduced to the illustrious products of the “comedy boot camp” of the Catskills in “When Comedy Went to School,” the Jewish music aficionados who aided the anti-Semitic composer Richard Wagner’s career (“Wagner’s Jews”), Israeli and Palestinian stereotypes in the hit Israeli TV show “Arab Labor,” and a French couple scheming to help Soviet refuseniks pierce the iron curtain (“Friends from France”).
That’s just scratching the surface.
Struck by the “preponderance of Jewish comedians” and yet leaning toward a Jewish gangster theme, Lavitt credits the theme’s development to a phenomenal team of volunteers.
“You can actually build a theme around an idea,” she said.
As in years past, several screenings will be accompanied by discussions and events. Opening night will feature a dessert reception by Tom Douglas, and the annual Matzoh Momma brunch returns with a rousing klezmer dance party on Sun., March 2. Later that afternoon, a panel discussion with four of the world’s preeminent Sephardic scholars will follow “The Longest Journey: The Last Days of the Jews of Rhodes,” along with a traditional echar lashon (coffee klatch).
“Hands down, without a doubt, nobody should miss the opening night film, and I mean nobody,” raved Lavitt about “The Zigzag Kid.” “It has the good, the bad, and the funny. It has levity, it has humor, it has star power.”
Of notable mention in the category of “good” is “Brave Miss World,” said Lavitt, about Miss Israel 1998, who was raped at knifepoint and is now a global social justice activist.
Lavitt is also excited about the closing night film and event, the documentary “Road to Eden,” which follows musician Dan Nichols on a Sukkot tour through the Deep South. Director Doug Passon and producer Jordan Passon will be in attendance, as will Nichols himself — for a concert after the film.
“People who haven’t heard him will be blown away,” said Lavitt.
Lavitt is as excited for the festival as she is for a new festival venue: The brand new Stroum Jewish Community Center theater, which opens to the public this weekend.
“You’re in a real theater experience now,” she said. “This year’s festival is about that….We can celebrate and create opportunities to bring people together through the arts, through cinema, all year round.”
Lavitt has plans to expand the festival from a 10-day, head-exploding experience into a yearlong venture with combined food, film, and social events.
“In Yiddish it’s ‘forshpeis,’” said Lavitt of this year’s festival. “It’s a small taste. It’s an appetizer. The festival has packed so much into 10 days.”
A scale model of Joan Rudd’s pop-up Judaism exhibit.
How’s this for an idea in educating the greater community about Judaism: Put it in a storefront. That’s the thinking behind artist Joan Rudd’s J-Kick crowdfunding campaign, called the Pop-Up Cultural Heritage Exhibit.
As one of two projects currently featured on the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle’s crowdfunding site at j-kick.org, Rudd is about halfway to her $5,000 tipping point to put a six-week, “out-of-the-box, experiential exhibit that will engage Jewish community through art and educate both Jews and non-Jews, including those who have Jewish partners,” according to the site.
Rudd, a sculptor and artist whose works have incorporated Yiddish and Jewish themes (she created the Yiddish panels that used to be on Northend bus stops), makes clear that the installation is not about her, but about Jewish culture in the Northwest.
“I come from New York City. I went to a high school where Jewish students were the majority,” she explained. But after coming out to Portland in the 1960s to study art and then moving up to Seattle, she began to feel her minority status.
While many Seattle transplants see themselves as fleeing a stifling culture further east, “actually,” said Rudd, “there’s a fair amount of intolerance [here]. I think some of that is simple ignorance of what a Jew is.”
Recent experiences of anti-Semitism have reinforced this, she says.
“There’s no sort of easy explanation for why there are Jews in the Northwest,” she said.
Other immigrant experiences are easier to track because they’re a greater part of the American narrative, and ethnic-cultural museums back those stories up. But there’s no Jewish museum in Seattle. Which got Rudd, with a little help from her friends, thinking.
“If you just wanted to do show and tell, what do you do?”
The result is a plan to create a pop-up exhibit as part of Storefronts Seattle, a sort of basic Jewish culture show and tell.
It’s a confluence of ideas, weaving together physical pieces depicting Jewish life, artwork, the “immigration stories” of some of her friends, maps, a historical timeline of significant world events, and depictions of the cycle of life and the liturgical year.
A little context could go a long way. For instance, the timeline includes the fall of the Soviet Union. Explains Rudd, “There are a lot of Russians in Bellevue because of the fall of the Soviet Union.”
“Why do I consider having a connection to Jewish culture or faith important?” Rudd asks. “I wanted to make that [question] visual.”
The audience, says Rudd, is non-Jewish. But that’s posed a challenge for raising the needed funds for transportation, installation, and to pay the communications manager she’s hired — despite feedback from the Federation that the project was exactly the kind of J-Kick they were hoping for. She’s also the only individual who has submitted a project, as opposed to an organization. Most of her donors, so far, are unaffiliated Jews and Jews in interfaith marriages, or parents of children in interfaith marriages. Most are women. Outreach to rabbis and organizations has received little response.
“People who are comfy in their own synagogues don’t see a need for this,” says Rudd.
If the project doesn’t meet the tipping point to receive her contributors’ funds by Tuesday, Rudd has a few backup plans. But the Pop-Up Cultural Heritage Exhibit won’t happen, at least not as planned. If it doesn’t materialize in installation form, Rudd is mulling the possibility of a book or a web version.
Whatever happens, it should represent “engaged Jewish identity through art,” Rudd says, something that says, “that’s who we are in Seattle.”
To support the Pop-Up Cultural Heritage Project, visit www.jkick.com/campaign/detail/2268. Contributors of $50 and $100 donations receive posters: www.voices-visions.org/collection-posters-gallery.
“Folk song calls the native back to his roots and prepares him emotionally to dance, worship, work, fight, or make love in ways normal to his place.” Alan Lomax, Folk Songs of North America
Over sushi in Brooklyn the other night, I was asked to justify why we made the kids see Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen brothers’ spectacular new movie. The answers flowed easily. One: The creators of the film are geniuses and as far as art is concerned, kids, go with the geniuses. They always have something to say. Two: the movie is a snapshot of an historical moment in your hometown, New York. It’s important to know these things. An appreciation for the context of your life is important. And three (which took a bit more time to explain): There was once this guy named Alan Lomax, whose father John Lomax was the grandfather of the folk archival project for the Library of Congress and the WPA, who was a friend of your late great-aunt and who gave her a copy of his book which we have at home, one of a number of essential cataloging efforts that believe it or not changed the face of music history. There are Harry Smith’s recordings to talk about too, but the kids usually still complain when those go on.
The third, surprisingly, took no heavy lifting. For good measure we reviewed other facts about this rebel aunt: She stepped over her mother blocking the doorway to prevent her from going to college (UW-Madison in the 1930s, take a bow, please) and worked in DP camps for the JDC after the Holocaust before returning to a practice in New York.
So you see, folk song does call “the native back to his roots.”
Jews are about roots, of course. How could we not be? Meaning: Who are we without them? And yet the often derided roots (and the ignorance thereof) gives me great anxiety in our age. I suppose it helps explain why it is that for me, in a world of increasingly surface encounters, where the immediacy of experience and digitally rendered, character-limited responses (the idiot wind of discourse) which are prized over long-held beliefs and practices, I fear for the future.
We’re all so cosmopolitan, I know, I know. The grand melding that is taking place in our Digital Age has allowed for a greater confluence of cultural mixtures that pushes the boundaries of creativity to new heights, it’s true. Bieber has Hebrew tattoos and One Direction apparently “love” Jews. On balance, these are wins for our side. But not so much in a world where the tides are turning and leaving their marks on the shores of Jewish history: Too much distinction is a bad thing. Even Dave Van Ronk thought so: “We banded together for mutual support because we didn’t make as much noise as the other groups, and we hated them all — the Zionists, the summer camp kids, and the bluegrassers — every last, dead one of them. Of course, we hated a lot of people in those days.”
It was powerful to watch Llewyn Davis sing into the hurricane of popularizing forces that he knew he could never join; and it was downright energizing to hear a young Bob Dylan ascend at precisely the moment Llewyn Davis was getting his ass kicked by a prideful, defensive Southern man in a Greenwich Village back alley. History was being made, time moving forward, one soul crushed, another breaking through, cultural rebels commercial successes converging, diverging, and forging new paths on life’s journey.
It’s an old trope in America, this tension between roots authenticity and commercial success. And it applies to work in the Jewish community as well. Who we are. What we stand for. What we demand of ourselves and those in our community.
From literacy to ethically mandated behavior; from rite and ritual to the music and poetry of prayer; from what we eat to who we are and what we call home: Each are a manifestational limb emerging from the roots of Jewish history.
In a way, I was motivated to write this insignificant little blog as an homage to always remembering what matters. There’s a desperate scene in Llewyn Davis where the singer is stranded in a Chicago diner, his feet soaked and frozen, clinging to his bottomless cup of coffee, his only hope. I had days like that as a young man — feet frozen as a student in Madison, Jerusalem, or New York. Unsure of the future but dogged and determined to remain true.
I bet many of you can remember days like that. When you didn’t quite know how things would turn out but you knew you were a principled participant in a story larger, more expansive, and greater than yourself. Maybe a bud or blossom, at most a branch, on the many limbed project of your rooted existence.
Who knows? Maybe one’s life is like that branch, which for one brief moment, buoys the squirrel passing by, lifts his foot in a fleeting moment as an acorn falls, and after time, a new tree grows. Takes root.
We all do our part, don’t we?
So here’s to those with frozen feet and dreams to walk on dry land here or there, or, perhaps, on the Bonny Shoals of Herring.
I mean: What Jew doesn’t love herring?
Reprinted with permission from Andy Bachman, www.andybachman.com.
Ilan Stavans will serve as scholar in residence at Temple Beth Am, 2632 NE 80th St., Seattle from Jan. 9-12. Visit www.templebetham.org for scheduling information, including the screening of “My Mexican Shiva” at 7 p.m. on Jan. 9. Stavans will also read from “All the Odes: A Bilingual Edition” at Town Hall Seattle, 1119 8th Ave., on Wed., Jan. 8 at 7:30 p.m. $5. He will also speak about the Jews of Latin America for the University of Washington’s Stroum Center for Jewish Studies on Fri., Jan. 10 from noon–1 p.m. at Thomson Hall 317 on the UW campus. For more information, visit jewishstudies.washington.edu or call 206-543-0138.
Ilan Stavans is unrelentingly attracted to the work of Pablo Neruda.
“I think that I love Neruda enough to want to bring him to an audience that can’t read him in the original,” Stavans told JTNews. “But I also love him so much that I want people to see him in the original and how he sounds in both languages.”
Stavans, an influential author and editor, the Lewis-Sebring professor of Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College, and a former journalist will be in Seattle as Temple Beth Am’s scholar-in-residence in early January. The Mexican-born Ashkenazi Jew will also speak in other venues, including Town Hall on Jan. 8, where he’ll discuss his latest work as editor and one of the translators of the bilingual edition of “All the Odes: Pablo Neruda” (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2013), the complete collection of all 225 odes written by the Nobel-prize winning Chilean poet.
While Stavans has edited many noteworthy compilations such as “Singer’s Typewriter and Mine: Reflections on Jewish Culture” (2012), “The Schocken Book of Modern Sephardic Literature” (2005), and “Isaac Bashevis Singer: Collected Stories V. 1 and V. 2” (2004), he is as well-known for his own provocative political titles that include “José Vasconcelos: The Prophet of Race” (2011) “Mr. Spic Goes to Washington” (2008), and “The Scroll and the Cross: 1,000 Years of Jewish-Hispanic Literature” (2002).
In 2005, Stavans edited the book “The Poetry of Pablo Neruda.”
Stavans said that he can only dream of having met Neruda, who died in 1973, but the linguist, essayist, and cultural analyst said he hopes to draw the reader’s attention to the poet’s use of the Spanish language and the “silences behind the words.”
“His Spanish is deceptively simple,” said Stavans,” and then you sit down and realize that each of those words have different meanings. I have spent years and years trying to understand how he uses certain words. It’s kind of what biblical scholars do.”
The professor’s whirlwind visit continues on Jan. 9 with a screening and discussion of the film “My Mexican Shiva,” based on one of his short stories, and includes a University of Washington Lunchtime Learning lecture on Jan. 10, “The Jews of Latin America,” that will be open to the public. Stavans will cover 500 years of Jewish history, from the conversos and maranos to the Jews of modern-day Latin America.
Stavans also devotes much of his literary energy to introspective projects, often reflecting on his life growing up Jewish in Mexico City in books like “Return to Centro Historico: A Mexican Jew Looks for his Roots” (2012) and “The Inveterate Dreamer: Essays and Conversations on Jewish Culture” (2001).
In his 2008 book “Resurrecting Hebrew,” Stavans examined the beginnings of modern Hebrew in Israel through the life of its developer, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda. He discovered that Hebrew played a curious role in many complicated relationships in Israel, such as the conflict between the Orthodox and Zionist communities, the virtual expulsion of Yiddish literature from Israeli literature, and the polarization of Diaspora Jewry from Israeli Judaism.
“That is what prompted the writing of the book and it was also kind of a personal journey for me,” Stavans said. “I had grown up with Yiddish, and together with Spanish, it was the main language of communication of my childhood. Then, at some point, the elders of the Mexican Jewish community started to bring teachers from Israel and they would teach us Hebrew.”
“When the Jewish state was created in 1948, the majority of Jews in the world were Ashkenazi and spoke Yiddish,” said Stavans. “It would have been easier, faster, and less complicated to simply adopt Yiddish as the language of the Jewish State. And yet we chose to give up Yiddish and embrace Hebrew as new national language.”
Stavans laments the sidelining of other hybrid languages like Ladino and the five languages his grandmother spoke. Using her main language of Yiddish as her foundation, she mingled it with her knowledge of Polish, Hungarian, Russian, Spanish, and English, he recalled.
“So Hebrew, which had been a kind of fossilized language used by Talmudic scholars and rabbis, all of a sudden became a majority language and Yiddish was incinerated in the gas chambers, literally a language of nostalgia, put aside, in favor of a biblical language because Israel really wanted to tie themselves to their biblical roots and not to their Diaspora roots.”
Yet the scholar and writer demonstrated that he could also be pragmatic about a world where dozens of unspoken languages disappear each year.
“It’s a Darwinian world out there,” reasoned Stavans. “Languages that have a need and a reason to exist, survive.”
Author Louise Steinman talks about the reclamation of her Polish history at Elliott Bay Book Co. on Dec. 3.
When Louise Steinman first faced the suggestion of writing about Poles and Jews, she was unequivocal: No. Growing up Jewish with a mother whose parents had immigrated from Poland in 1906, she inherited what she calls “received prejudices” about Poland.
“I had no intention of setting foot in Poland or pursuing the topic,” she says.
But Steinman also knows there is truth to the cliché that writers don’t choose their stories; their stories choose them.
Her story began with an invitation from Rabbi Don Singer, leader of an informal Jewish congregation near Los Angeles that incorporates teachings from Zen Buddhism. He served as rabbi for an annual interfaith retreat to Auschwitz-Birkenau, at which participants bear witness and meditate together. He invited Steinman to join them.
“You would have to be out of your mind to do that,” Steinman thought.
Like some other American Jews of Polish descent — a population that comprises about 80 percent of American Jews — she felt no interest in reconciliation. But she became curious.
From early years working in theatre performance in Seattle, Steinman understands the power of art and experience to heal. She accepted Singer’s invitation and began to research.
She was surprised to find online a yizkor, or memory, book, from Radomsk, the town of her mother’s ancestors. These books, works of collective memory gathering written after the Holocaust, served as records of Jewish communities that had just been destroyed. Many are being translated into English from the Yiddish.
Steinman delighted in the details about her ancestral town, whose lively Jewish community co-existed with Polish Catholics and where, she writes, “a Polish Catholic painted the synagogue’s blue ceiling and a Jewish tinsmith roofed the spires of the Catholic church.”
The yizkor book pleaded: “Please! Descendants of Radomsk, wherever you are in the world; teach your children and grandchildren about our town and its people.”
“Surely they’re not talking to me,” Steinman said. “I’m a secular Jew. I go to Friday night services in a Zen center. I don’t keep kosher.” But this, she realized, is who many descendants are.
The interfaith gathering at Auschwitz-Birkenau was intensely powerful. It became the first of her nine trips to Poland over the course of a decade. Her new book, “The Crooked Mirror: A Memoir of Polish-Jewish Reconciliation,” published last month by Beacon Press, is a personal memoir of these geographic journeys and her own personal journey within Polish-Jewish reconciliation. She spoke about the book and shared slides from her trips on Dec. 3 at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Company.
The book’s title, like many Jewish anecdotes, has more than one meaning. A Polish priest, Józef Tischner, wrote: “When reflected in a crooked mirror, the face of a neighbor is distorted.” But Steinman also discovered there had been a satiric section of the Yiddish newspaper in Radomsk called Der Krumer Spiegel, The Crooked Mirror.
Steinman describes writing the book as an act of repairing the world. The book takes the reader along on that personal journey of serendipity, grief, disappointments, and connections.
Drawing on the Talmud’s statement that “a dream which is not interpreted is like a letter which is not read,” Steinman’s book is rich with descriptions of dreams as means of sorting out emotions of a journey.
Her story has resonated with people trying to connect or reconcile with their pasts, fill gaps in family history, or examine received prejudices. At the University of Southern California, several African American students related to the challenge of connecting with a past with a truncated ancestry. One student, working on a memoir, asked Steinman, “What do I do about all the gaps in the story?”
“You have to use them,” Steinman replied. Gaps and ruptures, she said, make us who we are.
Ruptures, she notes, have shaped the history of many American Jews. Almost every American Jew lost family in the Holocaust; we just may not know who they were. While her generation grew up with the maxim “Never forget,” the next step, she says, is remembering what existed before the trauma.
Her past had always felt full of nameless relatives her mother just called “the ones who didn’t get out of Poland.” Steinman found names and a great-aunt’s former house. But finding them was bittersweet.
“To gain people,” she said, “is also to lose them again.”
Rather than the generation that suffered the trauma, she says, reconciliation belongs to the next generation. But “reconciliation isn’t necessarily about forgiveness. It’s about looking at history together.”
Steinman tells of people in Poland willing to look together at the past, even the shameful past. She has become close with some of these people, and is tickled to realize that she now has friends living in Radomsko, modern-day Radomsk.
Some of her Polish friends are working on historical-memory art projects themselves, resonating with Steinman’s theater performance days. Art, she said, can help to make an absence palpable when other tangible remnants of history have been destroyed. She showed a photo of one installation: Beams of light rising from manholes in all that remained of a city’s Jewish quarter, the basements of houses long paved over.
For young Poles, there is also a sense of reclamation. Under Communism, it was taboo to talk about the fate of the Jews. When people went looking for an authentic Poland in the history of Poland’s Jews, it was a rebellious act. Times have changed: September 2014 brings the exhibition opening at Warsaw’s new Museum of the History of Polish Jews, dedicated to the hundreds of years of history of Jews in Poland.
“There’s no way to bring back the past,” Steinman says. But she believes in making symbolic gestures that resonate. Having put aside her own crooked mirror, she now hopes her book will be translated into Polish. There is interest already.
Israeli Government Press Office
Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir and defense Minister Moshe Dayan meet their troops on October 21, 1973 on the Golan Heights during the Yom Kippur War.
The latest documentary from the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Moriah Films, “The Prime Ministers: The Pioneers,” opens in Seattle on Nov. 29 and gives viewers a rare and almost-never-before-seen insider’s look at three decades of Israeli history through the lens of an insider: Ambassador Yehuda Avner, the former chief aide, English-language speechwriter, and note-taker for Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin, Menachem Begin, and Shimon Peres.
From the rare archival footage of Israel’s War of Independence, the capture and retaking of the Old City of Jerusalem, and the Six-Day and Yom Kippur wars to the resignation of Golda Meir in 1974, Avner “calls the play-by-play” for critical turning points in Israel’s struggle to survive and grow.
The nearly two-hour film is adapted from his best-selling book of the same name and is the first of a two-part collaboration between the Academy Award-winning Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder of the Wiesenthal Center, who produced and co-wrote the film, and Moriah Films’ Richard Trank, the executive producer and principal writer and director. Moriah Films is a division of the Wiesenthal Center.
After Avner introduces himself, simply identifying as an unwitting public servant in the right place at the right time, he transports us back in time.
His first-hand accounts of crucial high-level conversations, supported by photos, video, and documentation from 44 archival sources, reveal how this historic group of leaders carved out a nation by sheer nerve, guts, and will.
Avner never undermines the legacies of these larger-than-life trailblazers. Instead, they become more nuanced — more balanced.
“Their lives were totally dedicated to the defense of Israel,” Avner tells.
Of Meir in particular, “there were some situations that would have broken other people,” he said, while Rabin was “shy to a fault.”
The movie’s many astonishing still photographs include a black-and-white close-up of Rabin lighting Meir’s cigarette as they both grab a quick smoke outside of a United Nations assembly meeting.
Other photos bring us into the face-to-face negotiations between Israel’s first president, Chaim Weizmann, and U.S. President Harry Truman in his living room where, according to Avner, Truman finally realized that “Hitler’s war against the Jews was not just a Jewish problem. It was an American problem.”
In another pivotal conversation between Prime Minister Eshkol and Pres. Lyndon Johnson in the living room of Johnson’s Texas ranch, Avner recalls that Johnson was reluctant to give Israel the F4 Phantom jets Eshkol was requesting.
“The big problem is how two and a half million Jews can live in a sea of Arabs” Johnson told Eshkol. “The real question,” asked Johnson, is “What kind of Israel do you want?”
“Eshkol caught his inner ear,” said Avner. “There was something inside him that said, ‘We have to help in some way.’”
“Starting with that meeting with Eshkol and LBJ,” said Trank in an interview with JTNews, “the relationship between Israel and the United States started to become a strategic one and it kept strengthening with each successive administration.
“LBJ was really one of the first to recognize that this was not just a conflict between Israelis and Arabs,” added Trank, “but a geopolitical conflict that involved the United States and the Soviet Union.”
Avner tells how the two cemented their friendship at the ranch when LBJ, the Texas rancher and Eshkol, the original kibbutznik, both knelt down to tend to a newborn calf.
Trank and his crew shot current footage of the ranch for the segment.
“The LBJ ranch is a working ranch,” said Trank. “When we were there, there was a calf not too much older than the one Yehuda described, so we were able to intercut what we shot.”
In some of the first television ever recorded in Israel, we see Meir crying at Labor Party headquarters, her face in her hands, as she is elected Prime Minister.
“We found some things that were buried in the archives in Israel,” Trank said. “Television had just come into being in Israel when she was elected. It was probably a very early film, maybe aired once on Israeli TV, and was just buried. We were able to find it.”
The original musical score, written and conducted by Emmy and Grammy winner Lee Holdridge, is performed by the Slovak National Symphony Orchestra and adds depth, beauty and drama to the historical accounts.
The voices of Sandra Bullock as Golda Meir, Michael Douglas as Yitzhak Rabin, Leonard Nimoy as Levi Eshkol, and Christopher Waltz as Menachem Begin were used to recreate inaudible video speeches and dialogue.
“The Prime Ministers: Soldiers and Peacemakers,” the second half of the story based on Avner’s book, will premiere in the spring of 2014. This film will cover Avner’s time serving under Rabin, Begin and Peres as well as his role as Israel’s ambassador to England.
Liesel (Sophie Nélisse) and her foster father Hans (Geoffrey Rush) share a quiet moment in “The Book Thief.”
“The Book Thief” opens Thurs., Nov. 21 at the Cinemark Lincoln Square in Bellevue and on Nov. 27 at Lynwood Theatre on Bainbridge Island. Check theaters for showtimes.
Markus Zusak’s acclaimed novel, “The Book Thief,” could neither compare with nor replace the first-person reality of “The Diary of Anne Frank.” The success of the 2006 book does demonstrate, though, that younger generations will identify with and embrace a contemporary, accessible introduction to the Holocaust.
The moving film adaptation of “The Book Thief,” opening Wed., Nov. 27 and appropriate for adolescents, tilts slightly more toward a coming-of-age story than a Holocaust film. There’s no question, though, that it’s the major Jewish-themed film of the year.
“I did want to avoid the Holocaust-movie approach because it’s been done so well at times,” director Brian Percival said in an interview in San Francisco the day after “The Book Thief” opened the Mill Valley Film Festival last month. “I was never going to make another ‘Schindler’s List.’ This film was not about that. This film really was about the human triumph.”
“The Book Thief” recounts the saga of Leisel (played by Sophie Nélisse), a girl raised by foster parents in a German town during World War II. For a chunk of those harrowing years, the Hubermanns (a kindly Geoffrey Rush and a gruff Emily Watson) also hide a young Jewish man named Max Vandenburg (Ben Schnetzer), who nurtures Leisel’s budding imagination and nascent love for words and stories.
“Max is so important because he shows Liesel a different way to think about the world,” Percival explains. “There’s a beauty about his outlook that we find very engaging and Liesel finds engaging enough to invest in it and believe what he says. It’s because of Max’s inspiration that she sees the world in a different way and has the life that she does eventually have.”
Academy Award-winner Geoffrey Rush, who played the gifted pianist David Helfgott, the son of Holocaust survivors, in “Shine,” was affected by the experience of shooting “The Book Thief” in Germany.
“Standing four or five months in Berlin and [surrounding] locations, you could feel on a daily basis the city itself coming to terms constantly with the depth of its history of the last century,” Rush says.
“It was an intriguing journey to the dark side of what human behavior can become,” he muses. “It’s something you have to constantly come up against in yourself in your thinking. Germany under the rule of the National Socialists went in a particular direction and you could see how people had to make a choice: ‘Do I survive, do I protect my family, what do I do?’ That invites you in, whether it’s as a reader of the book or a viewer of the film, to go, ‘On what side of the fence would I fall if I was faced with those crucial dilemmas?’”
“The Book Thief” includes wrenching glimpses of Kristallnacht and the deportation of the Jews, but the most harrowing scene is a book burning in the town square capped by the German national anthem.
“We looked at other locations but it felt to me that there was an authenticity to shoot in Germany,” Percival says. “Filming with a predominantly German crew, I would gauge reactions as to what they felt, and that in a way would influence and, perhaps not color but make me think about the way I approached certain scenes. There were tears of shame running down the crew members’ cheeks when we were filming [the book-burning scene]. They were being forced in some ways to confront what their forefathers had been responsible for, and that was quite a moving experience.”
“The Book Thief” marks Percival’s feature directing debut after a decade of excellent work for British television that included a splendid adaptation of Charles Dickens’ “The Old Curiosity Shop” and half a dozen episodes of the hit series “Downton Abbey.” He clearly has an appreciation for past events, and how they reverberate through time.
“Ordinary people can be corrupted into believing that the worst atrocities are the right thing to do,” Percival says. “That is the key, to learn that they should never, ever happen again. If a younger generation sees this film and realizes how a society can be manipulated into believing in something so wrong, then that’s not a bad thing.”
David Laskin will appear at Stopsky’s Delicatessen, 3016 78th Ave. SE, Mercer Island on Dec. 9 at 7 p.m. Check his website for more appearances and for much more information on the author and his work at www.davidlaskin.com.
Speaking from Miami, about halfway through his book tour for “The Family: Three Journeys into the Heart of the Twentieth Century,” David Laskin was pleased with how the trip was going.
Published by Viking, “The Family” is Laskin’s own family’s saga of “ur-20th-century Jewish stories,” he says. He puts his ancestors squarely in the midst of history and traces the “three branches that became two.”
Laskin has heard equally compelling tales from his tour audiences.
“They thank me for writing the book and then they want to share what happened to their uncle, their aunt,” which creates a “sense of connection and community.”
The tour has been a Jewish homecoming of sorts for Laskin, who was born in Brooklyn and grew up in Great Neck, N.Y. The first event was at the Eldridge Street Synagogue (and museum) on the Lower East Side, “one of the most beautiful and one of the most historic” synagogues in our country, he says. Laskin felt it “was a sacred spot…[possibly] holy to my grandparents and their generation.” Today he makes his home here in Seattle.
At Shabbat services at Pittsburgh’s Rodef Sholom, Laskin spoke about the book, struck by how well it worked as a sermon, “how we have suffered, how we have endured, what we have in common.”
Laskin makes it clear that he is not conventionally religious, but says writing the book and touring have created a stronger connection to Judaism.
“I am a secular Jew,” he says, “but I’ve come to feel that category does not adequately describe who I am.”
“My grandfather, great-grandfather, great-great-grandfather…were scribes,” and Laskin says he is a type of scribe. “I write history, I write family stories. In writing the book, I came to feel that I am also a religious Jew.” Even if he doesn’t attend synagogue, he adds, it “doesn’t mean I don’t revere Judaism, I don’t revere Torah and the survival of our people.” The writing drew him to “the most meaningful and the most powerful parts of our religion.”
To write the story, Laskin took two “roots” trips, one to Israel to meet his Israeli cousins, and one to Belarus to see where his family had once lived — both those who survived through emigration and those killed in the Holocaust.
At the Western Wall, “I felt the generations were bridged,” he says, and “felt how much my ancestors would have wanted to be there.”
He felt that again at Rodef Shalom, “moved by the beauty of the prayers, the beauty of the songs…I felt this was my place.”
A freelance journalist whose pieces often appear in the New York Times, Seattle Met and the Seattle Times, Laskin describes in the introduction how the book started with a bubbe meise, Yiddish for apocryphal story. Because the Russian form of the family’s name was Kaganovich, a cousin suggested that “Stalin’s notorious henchman Lazar Kaganovich was a relative.”
Laskin was taken by the idea that while his great aunt Itel (Ida) Rosenthal was building Maidenform Bra Company, her cousin was engineering a famine that killed over 7 million people in Ukraine.
It wasn’t true, Laskin quickly learned from his Israeli cousin, “but that got me going.”
“The real gift” of his research, he says, was a “treasure trove of letters” Laskin’s cousin Benny had in Israel, most “written by people who were killed in the Holocaust.” Together the cousins, who have become great friends, translated letters from Yiddish into Hebrew and English. Back in Seattle, Laskin got Hebrew translation help from local tutor and Israeli native Aza Hadas, who offered insights as well as translation.
Laskin and his wife Kate O’Neill moved to Seattle in 1993 when she was offered a job at the University of Washington law school. He loves “the beauty, the recreation, the library systems, the gardening,” he says. “I even love the weather.”
He’s written two other books: A World War I history, “The Long Way Home,” and for kids, “The Children’s Blizzard.”
Laskin also enjoys Seattle’s “vibrant literary community,” where he counts many local writers as friends. He got both guidance and inspiration from local history writer Jackie Williams who herself has done extensive genealogical research, and who steered Laskin to JewishGen.org, “a great resource.”
“The Family” was featured on Amazon as one of October’s best books, which the author attributes partly to the allure of “the Maidenform connection,” a great American success story about “a four-foot-eleven Jewish chain-smoking tycoon,” who “started out as a socialist and ended up as the Henry Ford of brassieres.”
What Laskin does so well in “The Family” is insert his family’s personal and intimate story into the larger world history that swirled around them. Outside — and sometimes inside — the walls of their houses, pogroms raged, countries fought wars, and borders shifted. The line of demarcation between Germany and Russia in World War I cut through one of the family’s shtetlach. The world changed. Young people were drawn to Zionism or Socialism. Yet inside their houses they tried to keep the traditions of a thousand years alive until history drove them from their homes.
Spanish singer Julio Iglesias will perform in Israel on his tour next year
(JNS.org) Numerous popular singers are planning to stop in Tel Aviv during their tours in the coming year, including Julio Iglesias, Cyndi Lauper, Justin Timberlake, Beyonce, and others.
The pop stars will visit Israel despite the ongoing Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign calling on celebrities not to visit Israel.
Earlier this week, singer Paula Abdul, who is Jewish, visited Israel for a belated bat mitzvah ceremony. She met with President Shimon Peres and was photographed bathing in the Dead sea. Rihanna and Alicia Keys also visited Israel this year.
Leah (Milda Geicate) comes up from the floor of her home after her family is taken away by the Nazis.
Naomi Jaye, director of “The Pin,” will speak following the Seattle premiere at Sundance Cinemas, 4500 9th Ave. NE, Seattle at 7 p.m. on Fri., Nov.1 and Sat., Nov. 2. Visit www.sundancecinemas.com for showtimes and tickets.
When Canadian filmmaker Naomi Jaye, who had spent 10 years making short films, told friends she was embarking on her first feature, they cheered.
When she added that the project would be the first Canadian movie in Yiddish, which neither she nor her lead actors knew, the friends questioned her sanity.
Five years later, the result of her perseverance is “The Pin,” a story of love and loss during the Holocaust, of faithfulness to a promise and the question of whether a sense of humanity can survive in a world transformed into a slaughterhouse.
The movie’s first scene shows Jacob, somewhere between adolescence and manhood, emerging from a hole in a forest, glancing around warily, and then running as if escaping an unseen enemy.
In the second scene, set in a morgue, an elderly shomer, who guards the body and soul of the dead until burial, reads psalms from a prayer book while occasionally glancing at a body resting on a gurney, covered by a white sheet.
In a long flashback, the shomer recalls his youth. The year is 1941, Nazi armies have overrun his hometown somewhere in Eastern Europe and have killed his family.
He finds shelter in a barn that seems empty, but soon encounters a young Jewish girl, Leah, whose family has met the same fate and who has also gone into hiding.
After initial suspicion and confrontation, the two orphans move toward each other, emotionally and physically, fall in love, and eventually conduct their own impromptu wedding ceremony.
When Leah hears of an empty train that travels “across the border,” she and Jacob plan their escape and a happy life together. But fate and a quarrel interfere, and the young lovers are separated, neither knowing what happened to the other.
What about “the pin” of the title?
Jaye says the inspiration for the story and title came from her grandmother, who had an obsessive fear of being buried alive.
As she aged, she made her son, Jaye’s father, promise that when she died, he would prick her hand with a pin, to make absolutely certain she was actually dead before placing her body in a coffin.
This story, Jaye said, “always fascinated me, because it required an act of true love that was also an act of violence.”
When Jacob, now the aged shomer, lifts the sheet and looks at the body beneath, he realizes that lying before him is his youthful love, Leah. He remembers her fear of being buried alive, his promise to her, and he starts to look for a pin.
To Jaye, the tale represents the ultimate triumph of the human spirit.She explained this assertion by noting that the chief protagonists, “caught in a terrible situation, are able to find beauty and love.”
Some viewers may find it difficult to accept this hopeful evaluation, or appreciate the extremely slow pace of the movie, marked by long, wordless pauses in semi-dark settings.
But Jaye has a cogent explanation for using this technique: “The lives of people in hiding, as for soldiers in war, are marked by long periods of waiting,” between occasional bursts of extreme action. This was the mood she was trying to convey.
Her main problem in casting the movie was the lack of any young actors in Canada who knew Yiddish.
She solved the problem, quite effectively, by putting Grisha Pasternak, who plays Jacob, and Milda Gecaite, as Leah, through a six-month Yiddish course, and the results are quite satisfying.
Both actors arrived in Canada as children, Pasternak from Ukraine and Gecaite from Lithuania. Neither is Jewish, and both show considerable talent.
Courtesy Cornish College of the Arts
Cornish College of the Arts dancers, who will be performing to Betty Olivero’s composition that was set to “The Golem.”
“Until When?” takes place on Sun., Nov. 10 at 7 p.m. at Benaroya Hall, 200 Union St., Seattle. A “Meet the Artists” pre-concert talk will take place at 6:15 p.m. Tickets cost $40 and are available through www.musicofremembrance.org, by calling 206-365-7770, or at the door.
For its fall concert “Until When?” Seattle’s Music of Remembrance promises an enticing mix of music, theatre, and dance, including a newly commissioned choreography to accompany a suite of incidental music for the silent film “Der Golem”; a suite from the Israeli composer who first recorded “Hatikvah”; a song cycle based on the poetry of a Hungarian survivor, with a dramatic reading of the English translation; a 12-year-old violinist whose passion for Jewish music took him to Berlin last summer; and a violin sonata written by a Holocaust victim whose work was banned by the Nazis as “entartete” — degenerate.
According to MOR founder and artistic director Mina Miller, “Until When?” invites listeners to “share in the transformative power of music to move from the depths of human suffering to the healing beauty of hope and renewal.” The concert will be performed Nov. 10 at Benaroya Hall.
Betty Olivero’s “Zeks Yiddishe Lider un Tantz,” a klezmer-inflected suite for clarinet and string quartet, was originally composed for MOR as incidental music for Paul Wegener’s 1927 silent film “The Golem: How He Came into the World.” Olivero captures the legend of the Golem, in which a massive clay creature is brought to life by the wonder-rabbi Judah Loew, to protect the threatened Jewish community of medieval Prague. Olivero’s suite juxtaposes traditional Hebrew melodies with Western contemporary music to evoke the creation of the Golem, tender love scenes, and moments of fire and prayer as the community comes under siege. Miller calls the Golem legend “a metaphor for the struggle to survive during a time of persecution” — a metaphor that was all too familiar to the Jews of Europe so soon after the film’s release.
This performance of Olivero’s suite will serve as the premiere for Pat Hon’s dance composition “Destination Unknown.” Hon’s choreography, which recreates the story of the Golem through dance and movement, will be performed by her students at Seattle’s Cornish College of the Arts.
MOR commissioned Hon’s work after a previous collaboration with Donald Byrd of Spectrum Dance Theatre.
“Working with live performers on stage…was a transformative experience for Donald’s dancers,” Miller said. “We’re eager to give young artists, at an early stage of their careers, the opportunity to collaborate with professional musicians. And ‘The Golem’ is a perfect story to tell through movement.”
Marc Lavry’s “Suite Concertante for Flute, Viola, and Harp” conveys several facets of Israeli music: Pastoral and naïve, lyrical and intimate, rhythmical and energetic. After emigrating to Palestine following a Fascist coup in his native Latvia, Lavry (1903-1967) was eager to toss aside the constraints of European musical composition. The former conductor of the Berlin Symphony Orchestra, Lavry wanted to compose a uniquely Israeli music that would draw upon the sounds of his new land: Sephardic music, Arabic music, the inflections of the Hebrew language, the sounds of the desert, shepherd’s tunes. Inspired by the musical modes, rhythms, and melodies of his new country, Lavry is perhaps best known for “Shir Ha’Emek” (song of the valley), which he wrote almost immediately after his arrival.
The three movements of Lavry’s “Suite Concertante” are based on songs composed by Lavry: Shir Ro’im (a shepherd song), Prayer, and Machol (Dance). The second movement alternates between the past (minor modes that suggest Ashkenazic prayer) and present (major modes that express Lavry’s optimism at living in Israel).
If poetry is indeed “the force of few words,” Israeli composer Eugene Levitas seeks to distill it even further. His song cycle “Until When?” — which lends its name to the concert as a whole — incorporates five short poems by Hungarian-born Holocaust survivor Yaakov Barzilai, none of them longer than five lines.
Barzilai composed more than 130 poems about his experience in Auschwitz. MOR previously presented two song cycles based upon Barzilai’s poetry, which has been set to music by numerous composers. For this program, ACT artistic director Kurt Beattie will introduce each song with a dramatic reading of the corresponding poem in English, enabling the audience to grasp the emotional essence of the performance even without knowing Hebrew, the language in which Barzilai wrote after emigrating from Hungary.
The song cycle will be performed by soprano Karen Early Evans with cellist Walter Grey and Miller on the piano. The composition takes its title from the final poem in the song cycle:
Until when will we be obsessed
With their memory?
Until the very last of them
Each year, MOR chooses a recipient of the David Tonkonogui award, which offers young artists the opportunity to work with professional musicians. The award honors cellist David Tonkonogui, who “believed deeply in human rights and social justice,” according to Miller.
In evaluating applicants, MOR looks for not only outstanding musicianship but also a commitment to humanitarian causes, including a desire to learn about the musical legacy of the Holocaust.
This year’s recipient is 12-year-old violinist Takumi Taguchi. At the MOR concert, Takumi will perform Ernest Bloch’s “Nigun.” As he learned the music, Takumi became inspired to look deeper into the piece and its history and to understand the challenges facing Jewish musicians during the Nazi era. This led him to travel with his parents last summer to visit the Berlin Jewish Museum.
Also on the program is Erwin Schulhoff’s “Sonata No. 2 for Violin and Piano,” which will be performed by Seattle Symphony violinist Mikhail Shmidt with Mark Salman on piano. Schulhoff, an audacious Czech-Jewish composer whose avant-garde work was banned by the Nazis as “degenerate,” drew upon his familiarity with jazz and folkloric themes.
NEW YORK (JTA)—“Everyone knows that Jews control the media and banks and stuff,” comedian Eugene Mirman quips in a recent stand-up routine.
“But did you know that when you go to a carnival and you have to be a certain height to go on a ride, Jews control that height? It has nothing to do with safety. It’s just us flexing our Semitic muscles.”
Mirman, 39, has an impressive list of credits, including opening for popular indie bands such as Modest Mouse and Arcade Fire, and appearing on “The Colbert Report.”
But many of Mirman’s roles—from Yvgeny Mirminsky on the Adult Swim mockumentary “Delocated” to Eugene the landlord on HBO’s “Flight of the Conchords”—are thinly veiled versions of himself.
Which is just fine for Mirman, a self-declared eccentric who has defied convention from his earliest years.
The Moscow native immigrated with his family at 4 to the Boston suburb of Lexington, Mass. His Russian-Jewish family had experienced persecution and wiretapping in Moscow, according to Mirman, who is not above mocking his origins. In an early recording, he claimed to have spent his childhood eating only “government-allotted bowls of cold tears.”
At school, Mirman had a difficult time fitting in with his American peers. In the sixth grade, tasked with presenting a book report, he instead lip-synced an entire Bill Cosby stand-up routine. Afterward he was labeled “foreign and a little special,” and relegated to special-needs education for the remainder of elementary school.
“The only thing wrong with me was that I was a weirdo that hated school,” Mirman told JTA. “I’m sure now there’d be a disorder for it, but I was just an oddball.”
Stand-up comedy provided an outlet. In the 1980s he watched comedians such as Emo Phillips, Bobcat Goldthwaite and Woody Allen. He identified with their “weirdo outcast” personas and was inspired by their work.
After graduating from high school, Mirman attended Hampshire College, which allows students to design their own majors. Mirman went with comedy.
His coursework involved organizing comedy nights and writing a humor column for the student newspaper. His senior thesis was a one-hour stand-up routine that he later used as the basis for his professional act.
“It was the most helpful education I could’ve gotten,” Mirman said.
His parents, Boris and Marina, supported their son’s pursuits. Unlike many immigrant parents, the Mirmans saw a comedy career as a sign of the possibilities of America and didn’t push Eugene toward the more “practical” professions adopted by many immigrants.
“My parents never put pressure on me,” Mirman said. “They brought my brother and me here so we could pursue things we enjoy.”
Mirman is a well-known, if not quite mainstream, comedy figure. His early work included a series of surreal YouTube videos in which, adopting personas ranging from a Kurt Cobain-esque grunge musician to a secret agent, he satirizes sex education, spy thrillers and politics. He has produced four comedy albums, including the two-disc “En Garde, Society!”
He says his current role in “Bob’s Burgers,” a FOX animated show entering its fourth season, has been a “wonderful” chance to reach a new, mainstream type of audience—one that doesn’t necessarily frequent underground comedy clubs.
Now living in Brooklyn, Mirman’s schedule is a hectic hodgepodge of comedy tours, show tapings and miscellaneous projects. He wrote a faux self-help book published in 2009, “The Will to Whatevs,” in which he dispensed dubious advice such as suggesting that new office workers “pretend every day is Bring a Coyote to Work Day.”
Mirman just embarked on a six-city tour with fellow comedians Kristen Schaal and John Hodgman—the “MirmanHodgmanSchaal Sandwich-To-Go Tour.” He also is working on a pilot for a travel show.
After 10 years of touring, Mirman is candid about the challenges of the stand-up life, like hecklers. He struggles, too, with the solitary life of the road.
“You arrive in a new place, do a sound check, do the show,” he says of the nightly routine. “By the time you’re done, most things are closed in a lot of cities, and you can maybe get a meal and go to bed.”
Perhaps Mirman’s greatest asset is his distinctive voice, a flexible instrument that can descend to a deep bass rumble or tic upward into reedy disbelief. His subject matter ranges from observational humor (poor airline customer service and gay rights) to the absurd (talking horses and a sport called “extreme bowling”).
Although Mirman is more often bemused than angry, he sometimes uses his laconic style to lampoon the stodgier elements of society. He regularly makes fun of anti-abortion protesters (though he focuses on their grammar), and his latest comedy album is titled “God is a 12-Year-Old Boy with Aspergers.”
Evidence for this theory? “God wants Jews to wear hats, but only in the middle of their heads. Think about it.”
Emblematic of his signature combination of self-deprecation and self-aggrandizement is an annual comedy event called “The Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival,” which this year was held in late September in Brooklyn.
One of the festival’s events was called Star Talk Live!, a live taping of celebrity astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson’s radio show. The show juxtaposes comedians with scientific experts, resulting in long, surreal panel discussions. Mirman is a frequent guest.
At this year’s taping, the beer flowed freely, on and off the stage, as panelists conducted a rambling, digressive discussion of robotics. Lounging between deGrasse Tyson and Jason Sudeikis of “Saturday Night Live,” Mirman offered a stream of sardonic commentary to the audience’s delight.
After deGrasse Tyson mentioned the Voyager probe crossing the border between the solar system and space, Mirman quipped, “I hope it has its papers!”
“The Rabbi’s Cat” features at the Seattle Jewish Film Festival’s Family Fest October 26-27.
Seattle Polish Film Festival
The Seattle Polish Film Festival features two Jewish-themed films. “Siberian Exile” (2013, 125 mins.) follows Poles, Ukrainians, and Jews deported to the Soviet Union in 1939. Through the eyes of young Staszek, the exiles face starvation and the ruthless elements in a brutal coming of age tale. In addition to learning survival skills, Staszek has to choose between Jewish Zinnia and Russian Luybk. In “Redcurrants” (2011, 34 mins.) Swedish resident, academic and journalist Leo Kantor reenacts his life story: His childhood in Russia in World War II, his adoption by his Polish-Jewish stepfather, and the witnessing of Germans leaving Poland after the war that shaped his memories.
Films are in Polish with English subtitles. Tickets $5 for SIFF members, $10 for non-members. At SIFF Cinema Uptown, 511 Queen Anne Ave. N., Seattle. For more information visit www.polishfilms.org.
Tuesday, October 15 at 7 p.m.
Black is a Color
Art exhibit and lecture
Stan (Shlomo) Lebovic’s photo-realist artwork depicts the Holocaust’s profound and indelible impact on the generations born from the horror. Dark, yet colorful, surreal compositions seem to infuse light and hope into the darkest images of modern Jewish history.
Free. At The Seattle Kollel, 5305 52nd Ave. S, Seattle. For more information contact Rabbi Avrohom David at email@example.com or 206-722-8289 or seattlekollel.org. For more information on the artist, visit blackisacolor.com.
Wednesday, October 16 at 7 p.m.
Jezebel: The Untold Story of the Bible’s Harlot Queen
Lesley Hazleton, author of “Mary” and “The First Muslim,” will talk about her biography of Jezebel. The book was published six years ago, but the “accidental theologist” is still “half in love” with the Bible’s villain harlot queen whose history she reclaimed. Hazelton has given a TED Talk and is the recipient of a Literature Genius Award from The Stranger. Dessert reception follows presentation.
Free. At Temple B’nai Torah, 15727 NE Fourth St., Bellevue. For more information, contact Shelly Goldman at firstname.lastname@example.org or 425-603-9677, or visit www.templebnaitorah.org. For more information on Lesley Hazelton, visit accidentaltheologist.com.
Through October 20
Seattle Lesbian and Gay Film Festival
The 18th annual Seattle Lesbian and Gay Film Festival features one hyperlocal and two Israeli shorts. Benignly titled “Summer Vacation” (Israel, 2012) can only be a set up for the problems that ensue when family-man runs into his past while vacationing with his family. “Little Man” (UK/Israel, 2012) is director Eldar Rapaport’s third film based on tense relationships between men, and another Israeli foray into the suspense/horror genre. And “Pinko Fag Jew” (U.S., 2000) depicts the surprisingly little-known life of Faygele ben Miriam, the Seattle-based activist of the 1970s who pioneered for gay marriage way before his time.
“Summer Vacation” (22 mins.) screens with Boys Shorts Sunday, October 13 at 2 p.m. at the Harvard Exit Theatre, 807 E Roy St., Seattle.
“Little Man” (22 mins.) screens with Scream Queens Wednesday, October 16 at 9:30 p.m. at the Northwest Film Forum, 1515 12th Ave., Seattle.
“Pinko Fag Jew” (13 mins.) screens with Radical Faerie Short Film Festival Saturday, October 12 at 4:30 p.m. at the Northwest Film Forum.
For more information visit www.threedollarbillcinema.org/2013.
Tuesday, October 22 at 7 p.m.
In partnership with the University of Washington Germanic Department and the Seattle Jewish Film Festival, the Stroum Jewish Studies Program will screen “Hannah Arendt,” the 2012 biopic about the German-American Jewish philosopher and her controversial coverage of the Eichmann trials in Jerusalem.
At 220 Kane Hall, University of Washington, Seattle. For more information contact Lauren Spokane at email@example.com or 206-543-0138, or visit stroumjewishstudies.org/events.
Saturday and Sunday, October 26 and 27
SJFF Best of Fest Family Film Series
On Saturday at 7:30 p.m., head to the Rainier Valley Cultural Center for “Sixty Six,” a cute comedy about a hapless Bar Mitzvah boy whose big day conflicts with the World Cup in 1966. Helena Bonham Carter plays his loving Jewish mother. On Sunday at 2 p.m., check out the award-winning animated feature “The Rabbi’s Cat,” about an Algerian feline in the 1920s who actually wants to have a Bar Mitzvah. Then at 4:30 p.m., enjoy “My Dad is Baryshnikov,” about a Russian ballet student who convinces his peers that he’s the illegitimate son of esteemed dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov.
All films at the Rainier Valley Cultural Center, 3515 S Alaska St., Seattle. $5. For more information contact Pamela Lavitt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-388-0832, or visit bit.ly/FamilyFilms.
20th Century Fox
Millie Perkins, left, with Joseph Schildkraut in the 1959 production of “The Diary of Anne Frank.”
Foster Hirsch interviews Millie Perkins at Herzl Ner-Tamid Conservative Congregation, 3700 E Mercer Way, Mercer Island, on Oct. 27 at 2 p.m. $12/$8 Stroum JCC members, seniors, and students. “The Diary of Anne Frank” will screen at 10:30 a.m. that morning. The film screening will be free.
Editor’s note: The story was corrected to note that the event will take place at Herzl-Ner Tamid Conservative Congregation, not at the Stroum Jewish Community Center.
Millie Perkins was on her way to becoming a successful model in Paris when history intervened.
“I had never decided to be an actress,” she said. “I was probably 18 or 19 years old. Little did I know I was going to be a movie star.”
Now 77, Perkins is best known for her role as Anne in the 1959 film production of “The Diary of Anne Frank.” Perkins will be interviewed by film buff Foster Hirsch at Herzl-Ner Tamid on Mercer Island on Oct. 27 as part of the Stroum Jewish Community Center’s Jewish Touch lecture series.
Hirsch, in addition to teaching and writing about film, handles celebrity interviews and has brought Perkins to Chicago and Israel.
“Foster’s one of my most favorite people around, so I said yes [to Seattle],” Perkins told JTNews from her home in Beverly Hills.
Born in Passaic, N.J. in 1938, Perkins’s face was gracing magazine covers around the world by 1958. Director George Stevens noticed her looks and invited her to read for the part of Anne. But acting had never occurred to Perkins, and she knew nothing of the story of the Dutch girl whose diary would come to impact Western civilization.
She had already been modeling in London and Paris when the opportunity arose to audition. “It’s kind of a fairytale story,” she said. “All my French friends said, ‘Oh Millie, you must go,’” Perkins said.
Perkins was one of 10,000 girls to audition for the part. The diary “hit me right in the heart,” she said.
After six months of shooting, Perkins could have returned to her Parisian fairy‑ tale, but it wasn’t meant to be.
“I met this actor, Dean Stockwell, who I married for like two minutes, and became a Hollywood person,” she said.
While “Anne Frank” went on to win three Academy Awards, Perkins’s acting career never exploded. In the late 1970s, a rumor spread that she had died. In fact, she had relocated to tiny Jacksonville, Ore. to raise the two daughters she had with her second, late husband Robert Thom.
“I moved to Oregon to get off the locomotive,” Perkins recalled. “I was raising my children. It was heaven to me.”
When Thom died in 1979, Perkins said she “had to get back to reality,” and in 1980 returned to Hollywood to support her family, where she acted mostly in television, B-movies, and cult films — especially in mother roles. She appeared as Sean Penn’s mother in “At Close Range” and as the mother of Charlie Sheen’s character in “Wall Street.”
Though Perkins sounds wistful as she reflects on the turns her life has taken, it has been an adventure.
“I went out into the world, and I think I really wanted to be my father,” a merchant marine, she said.
While shooting the 1985 miniseries “A.D.,” in which Perkins played Mary, mother of Jesus, in Tunisia, she was held at gunpoint by Yasser Arafat’s soldiers at the airport.
The guard “looked at my passport and my face and said, ‘No,’” she recounted. “He shoved me in the chest with his gun.”
Perkins’ escort pushed her into a crowd onto the tarmac. “It was scary.” Of the whole experience, she said, “It was quite wonderful and difficult. But it was fun.”
On another occasion, Perkins was seated next to former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak on a flight.
“He told me wonderful stories,” she said, like the time he came upon an Egyptian soldier alone during the Yom Kippur War. In a standoff, they held their guns on one another. Then, “they looked in each others’ eyes and they both put their guns down and shared their lunches. He never told anyone that story.”
Perkins’s talk comes at a significant time: This November marks the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. The Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles is currently holding an exhibit about Anne Frank.
“The film lay dormant for many years,” Perkins said. “Then about 10 years ago there was a new flurry of interest.”
She suggests the popularity of the story is related to the increased access to information — and with it, hate.
“I see terrible hate going on, and I see great strides going on to change that,” she said. “I think Pandora’s Box has been opened. Who knows how the human race will be in 10 or 20 years?”
To this day, Perkins says she receives “hordes” of fan mail from viewers touched by “Anne Frank.”
“Anne Frank is the reason they write the letter,” she said. “That’s a good thing.”
HOLLYWOOD, Fla. (JTA)—Some were psyched for the nostalgia of “The Goldbergs,” a new ABC sitcom about a boisterous, outspoken American family set in the 1980s.
But Wednesday’s premiere was a little too loaded with references to that neon-colored, big-haired decade—think REO Speedwagon, Sam Goody, hair crimping and rabbit tail key chains.
Such period gags aside, early on it looks in many ways to be just another formulaic sitcom. There’s Beverly (Wendi McLendon-Covey), the clan’s overbearing mom; Murray (Jeff Garlin), her brash on the outside/soft on the inside husband; and their three kids. Erica (Hayley Orrantia) is pretty and she knows it, Barry (Troy Gentile) is high-strung and Adam (Sean Giambrone) is a precocious cutie pie who records the family’s histrionics on his clunky old-school video camera.
In typical family comedy fashion, they find one another incredibly frustrating, but underneath it all there’s lots and lots of love.
Folks have been comparing “The Goldbergs” to “The Wonder Years,” and with good reason. Both are time capsules containing family stories told from the innocent-yet-knowing perspective of their clans’ youngest members.
But even deeper in the archives is another comparison: The first incarnation of “The Goldbergs,” which premiered on the radio in 1929 and moved to television in 1949 for an eight-year run.
The modern version is not a remake of the original, which was the brainchild of writer-actress Gertrude Berg. The 2013 show is an autobiographical project from creator Adam Goldberg, who as a kid actually did videotape his family.
And, of course, what it means to be Jewish in America has changed drastically over the past few decades. The new Goldbergs live in the suburbs instead of a Bronx tenement. Mom and dad don’t speak with Eastern European accents or have a hard time reading English. And Pops, the eldest modern Goldberg, with his track suit and swinger talk, is a far cry from suspender-clad, Old World Uncle David.
Hollywood has changed, too. The original Goldbergs were among the first Jewish characters on television. Today our new friends are entering a landscape paved by the likes of Jerry Seinfeld, Ari Gold, Larry David, Kyle from “South Park” and, most recently, Larry Bloom from “Orange Is the New Black.”
At their core, though, the shows are quite similar. Neither is overtly Jewish—the title family name notwithstanding—and both explore the dynamics not of an average Jewish American family but of an average American family that also happens to be Jewish.
In this way, “The Goldbergs” redux is less like “The Wonder Years” and more like “The Cosby Show,” which showed much of the TV-watching public that just because a family comes from a different cultural background, they still fight, make up and wear bad sweaters.
It’s tempting to say that “The Goldbergs” is not nearly as groundbreaking or funny as “The Cosby Show” or “The Wonder Years.” Nor is it as important as the original. But after one episode, that really isn’t fair.
Hopefully as the season progresses, the show will handle its nostalgia impulse with a little more subtlety and the characters lose a lot of their caricature-like elements.
Jerusalem US LP
“Jerusalem” premiers on the West Coast Friday, September 27 at the Pacific Science Center’s Boeing IMAX. For ticket information and show times visit www.pacificsciencecenter.org/IMAX-Theaters/Shows/Jerusalem.
Despite the expense and the long travel time, most people consider Israel a place they’d love to visit. The historical significance of the country is enough to woo most anyone, regardless of cultural or religious backgrounds. It’s no surprise, then, that National Geographic would find Jerusalem worthy of its newest IMAX short film, simply titled “Jerusalem.”
With over 5,000 years of history to cover in the 45-minute film, “Jerusalem” took writer/director Daniel Ferguson and his crew five years and 15 trips to the holy city to complete. The film captures some of the most impressive city views and unique footage to ever appear on screen. It took nearly three years of wrestling with the Israeli government to even receive permission to fly over Jerusalem (a strict no-fly zone) in order to take panoramic shots of the city from above.
Narrated by British TV and film star Benedict Cumberbatch, “Jerusalem” works its way from the broader significance of the city throughout history, then narrows to life within the walls of the Old City. The film illustrates how this land, comprised of less than a square mile, has been the cradle of civilization and held up as the holiest place in the world for the vast majority of the religious population on earth.
The film follows three young women of the same age — Jewish, Muslim and Christian and virtually indistinguishable in ethnicity — living in Jerusalem. The personal stories of these girls, interwoven with the historical, scientific and religious story the city has told over thousands of years creates an intimacy that is second only to running your hands along the stones of Damascus Gate.
“Jerusalem” does not attempt to connect to the cultural struggles, study the socio-political reality of the country as a whole, or give an in-depth historical account of the city. Rather, for anyone who has been to Jerusalem, in 45 minutes the film manages to recreate a slice of that vibration, that indescribable feeling that washes over you upon approaching the Western Wall for the first time. For those who have never been, it certainly does a better job than your typical film from the Israel Ministry of Tourism. Though the goose bumps are surely IMAX-specific. On the small screen this film would lose much of its allure.
Describing Jerusalem through anecdotes does not to do justice. See “Jerusalem” and let National Geographic capture its essence for you.
A detailed study of the acts at this year’s Bumbershoot show that with the exception, perhaps, of a backup singer or two, the musical acts are woefully bereft of Jews. Where in the past we had Monotonix (the Israeli punk band whose act was cut off mid-set when the singer began crowd surfing), Tony Bennett (oh, wait, everybody only thinks he’s Jewish), Wayne Horvitz, Bob Dylan (is he still Jewish?), and Balkan Beat Box.
So if you’re perusing the lineup looking for someone to sneak a bite of bacon with, you’re stuck with the comedians. Which, if we’re going to be honest, is probably appropriate.
So here are the Jews you can check out. I’ve done some research, and most of them are actually pretty funny.
Marc Maron: “My parents were the first generation of Jews who moved as far away from their parents as possible for reasons other than fleeing a country.”
Sat. at 1 p.m., Sun. at 8 p.m. at Comedy at the Playhouse. Sun. at 4:45 p.m. at Comedy at the Bagley.
Emily Heller (she’s billed by her dad as half-Jewish, but close enough): Sun. at 2:45 p.m. and Mon. at 8 p.m. at Comedy at the Playhouse.
Mike Drucker (at least I think he’s Jewish, based on persnickety asides in his act): Sat. at 6:15 p.m., Sun. at 4:30 p.m. and Mon. at 2:45 p.m. at Comedy at the Playhouse.
Julie Klausner (a life recording of her weekly podcast): “Nothing brings a family closer on Christmas day than two Jews in a car.”
Sat. at 4:45 p.m. at Comedy at the Bagley.
Judah Friedlander: Okay, so the guy comes off as Italian — at least on TV. But dang if he ain’t hilarious. He is, after all, the champion of the world. Sun. at 6:15 p.m. and Mon. at 1 p.m. at Comedy at the Playhouse.
Bumbershoot, if you’ve been living in a cave (or you’re new to town), takes over Seattle Center this Labor Day weekend. Tickets cost way too much. But visit www.bumbershoot.org to buy them or pick ‘em up at the door.
Judy Lash Balint
Nissim (left), formerly known in Seattle rap circles as D. Black, with Rabbi Simon Benzaquen.
SEATTLE—Most Orthodox rabbis who earn the title “emeritus” retire to a quiet life of teaching and learning and visiting the sick. Emeritus Rabbi Simon Benzaquen, who recently retired after decades of service to Seattle’s Sephardic Bikur Holim congregation, does all of those activities, but now has a new and distinctly unorthodox career—as vocal accompanist to popular rapper Nissim.
Nissim, formerly known in Seattle rap circles as D. Black, was getting serious about converting to Judaism when he first heard Rabbi Benzaquen chanting Kiddush after Shabbat services several years ago. “I was blown away by his powerful voice,” says Nissim, who converted last year with his family under the Orthodox tutelage of Rabbi Benzaquen.
Fast forward to Memorial Day 2013, and the newly retired rabbi and newly observant 26-year-old rapper were appearing together on stage at the popular Sasquatch Music Festival at the Gorge Amphitheatre in eastern Washington, alongside stars like Elvis Costello and Mumford and Sons.
Spanish-born Rabbi Benzaquen, decked out in his usual rabbinic uniform of smart white shirt, black tie and suit and black hat, intersperses Hebrew verses over several of Nissim’s numbers. The young crowd of rap fans shows their approval by dancing and waving in rhythm.
Since then, Rabbi Benzaquen, who studied at prestigious yeshivot in the UK and has smicha from The Rabbinical Academy of Marseille, France, has joined Nissim on stage at gigs that include a Seattle live music club and the Capitol Hill Block Party, an annual showcase of the Pacific Northwest’s best bands and DJs.
All through his career as a congregational rabbi in Westcliff, England, Maracaibo, Venezuela, and Seattle, Rabbi Benzaquen put his training in chazzanut from London’s Jews College to good use, but he never expected his recording debut to be on a rap album.
“I used to dismiss rap completely,” says Rabbi Benzaquen in his Spanish-accented English. “I thought it was inflammatory, full of four-letter words and derogatory towards women. But now I feel that rap has got a bad rap! It’s the African American expression of everyday life.”
“Think about the Torah when it wants to teach us something,” he explains, “it’s often through shira: song or poetry. That’s what stays with you. That’s why rap can be powerful today and convey a positive message.”
In a cut called “Sores” on the forthcoming album due for release mid-September, Rabbi Benzaquen does a moving voice-over of Hebrew verses from Psalms, set to his own haunting melody, as Nissim raps two stories, one about African American oppression and another about a Jew suffering during the Holocaust.
“Nobody captures emotion like Rabbi Benzaquen,” Nissim says of his mentor’s vocal talent.
For his part, Rabbi Benzaquen exclaims passionately in response, “There are no two peoples who should be more connected than African Americans and Jews. We could learn a lot from each other.”
Both Nissim and the rabbi see their music as an opportunity to positively impact the world. “I feel a mission to help bring back unity between the African American and Jewish communities who were so close during the civil rights movement,” says Rabbi Benzaquen.
“My main point is to elevate the world,” Nissim tells JNS.org. “I have 3-4 minutes of someone’s time, and I don’t want to waste it. I want to say something to help them; to help them think about their lives and get past the struggles,” he says.
But for some in the modern Orthodox community of South Seattle, Nissim’s presence in the community has proven to be a way to re-inspire their own members.
“When I first met him, I saw that Nissim had the potential to outreach to members of our community who normally wouldn’t take Judaism seriously, such as the teens and young adults who have stopped coming to synagogue. There’s nothing more inspiring to born Jews than converts who take Judaism seriously. As a hip hop rapper, and someone who’s worked with disadvantaged teens, Nissim was a natural, and the youth and young adults were immediately drawn to him, his knowledge of Judaism, and his natural emunah,” explains community activist Rick Eskenazi, a veteran member of Rabbi Benzaquen’s congregation.
Rick and a number of Seattle youth from the congregation and the local day school and yeshiva high school have accompanied Nissim and the rabbi to their shows and feature in several of Nissim’s new videos.
Along with the forthcoming album, Nissim’s future plans include a November visit to Israel for some intense Jewish learning and a possible benefit appearance for the Beit Shemesh Educational Center for disadvantaged boys.
It’s probably safe to say that Rabbi Benzaquen, a long-time member of the Va’ad HaRabanim of Greater Seattle, who is also a certified mohel, sofer, shochet, chazan and accomplished ketubah artist, is the only retired Orthodox rabbi who can add “rapper” to his resume.
International Film Circuit
Sid Caesar and his fiancee Florence at Avon Lodge.
“When Comedy Went to School” will have a weeklong engagement, starting Friday, Aug. 23 at the Varsity Theater, 4329 University Way NE, Seattle. Visit www.landmarktheatres.com for tickets and showtimes.
To everyone under 40, and anyone outside of New York, the popular Catskills summer resorts of the mid-20th century must seem as distant, obscure and foreign as the Yiddish theatre.
The comparison is not inapt, for both institutions were important signposts in the history of Jews in America. And now, both belong more to the past than the present.
“When Comedy Went to School,” a new documentary by Mevlut Akkaya, Ron Frank and Lawrence Richards, picks a particular entry point to revisit the heyday of Grossinger’s and the hundreds of other hotels that catered to a primarily Jewish clientele: The multitude of Jewish stand-up comics who honed their routines on tough-to-please audiences, and eventually went on to success on television.
Hosted by Robert Klein and featuring interviews with Jerry Lewis, Jerry Stiller, Mort Sahl, Jackie Mason, Mickey Freeman and Larry King, “When Comedy Went to School” aims for an affectionate blend of entertainment and sociology with a poignant undertow of nostalgia.
As thrilling as it is to hear these sages and to see vintage clips of legends from A to Y (a young Woody Allen to Henny Youngman), the film suffers from a diffusion of focus. It delivers 76 diverting minutes, but leaves us still waiting for the essential documentary on the golden age of American Jewish comedy.
“When Comedy Went to School” opens Friday, August 23 at the Varsity Theatre for a week.
In the years before window air conditioners, Las Vegas, all-you-can-eat cruises and Birthright, the Catskill resorts were the preferred vacation destination for thousands of New York families. To Jews who’d grown up on the Lower East Side with 500 people crammed into every teeming acre, the wooded mountains were (you should pardon the expression) a breath of fresh air.
However, as Jackie Mason points out, the wide range of outdoor sports on offer wasn’t all that appealing to Jews, who preferred eating, sitting and kibitzing. So the hotels in the Sour Cream Sierra (or, if you prefer, the Jewish Alps), emphasized food and entertainment.
The tummlers, or clowns, specialized in physical comedy with roots in vaudeville, and it comes as no surprise that Danny Kaye and Sid Caesar got their start in the Borscht Belt. But Jews also appreciated jokes, wordplay and stereotype-flogging, which were the fertile domain of Alan King, Jack Carter, Buddy Hackett, Shecky Greene, Myron Cohen, Rodney Dangerfield and countless others.
“When Comedy Went to School” takes a stab at exploring and defining Jewish humor, but doesn’t arrive at a satisfactory answer. Curiously, neither Klein (reading Richards’ narration) nor the other comics cite their ability to gently satirize the aspirations and anxieties of assimilated and newly affluent Jews.
It’s kind of amazing, in retrospect, that so many Jewish comedians were embraced by the mainstream embodied by Ed Sullivan and Johnny Carson. However, the filmmakers’ decision to include clips from Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows,” Lenny Bruce’s act and Mel Brooks’ “History of the World: Part I”—as understandable as it may be and as amusing as they are—distracts us from the focus on the Catskills.
The filmmakers deserve credit for pushing the staid bounds of the documentary form beyond talking-head interviews and archival footage by having Klein address us from the stage of an empty ballroom (rather than disembodied voice-over narration) and by including reenactments (of ‘50s audiences at a stand-up show, for example).
Yet one can’t help wishing that “When Comedy Went to School” had been made 15 years ago, so the late Alan King, Henny Youngman and Rodney Dangerfield, among others, could have added their acerbic remembrances.
If the biggest question on your mind this weekend is, “Where can I get my hands on a Jewish version of ‘Fifty Shades of Grey?’” well, you’re in luck — sort of.
“Fifty Shades of Schwarz” has “parody” stamped right on the cover. However, a more accurate description might be “inspired by,” since the title, fortunately, is where the similarities between the two end.
In case you missed out on the last three years of literary pop culture: The original “Fifty Shades of Grey” began as Internet fan fiction based loosely on the “Twilight” series. It took the basic, screwed-up characteristics of Bella and Edward’s relationship, gave them different names and jobs, changed the environment and circumstances, then shot them into beginner BDSM territory — providing tons of detailed sex scenes and focusing on the sexual nature of the relationship.
Naturally, this was hugely popular and wildly exciting for “vanilla” folks. For many, “Fifty Shades of Grey” became the gateway drug into erotica and experimentation. Erotica enthusiasts rolled their eyes and the BDSM community yawned as the book became the fastest-selling paperback, ever. Ever. EVER.
“Why not cash in on this massive trend and write a Jewish version?” Ed Harris, a local tech entrepreneur and author, probably asked himself. So he did.
Let’s cut straight to it: It’s actually pretty entertaining. In fact, as a self-proclaimed “parody” of an already terrible book, it could quite possibly benefit from being more, well…terrible. For — unfortunately — in “Schwarz,” the action is driven by plot rather than sex.
The main character, Maya Stein, lives in Brooklyn and has a boring boyfriend named Jeremy. She meets a man named Aaron Schwarz through JDate (yep!) and they meet up for coffee. They go out several times, then things get mildly kinky: He wants to spank her during sex! So he does. But only if she doesn’t answer Jewish trivia questions correctly. It’s a game, see? Never has remembering stuff from Hebrew school been so critically important.
At that point Harris, surprisingly, takes a progressive turn in his writing and introduces another love interest into Maya’s life: A rabbi whom Maya meets through her mother. This is a pleasant diversion from the original “Fifty Shades,” where the main character is completely enveloped by a single controlling man with whom she is involved.
That is not the case here. In “Fifty Shades of Schwarz,” Maya is totally mature and in control. She juggles three men: A boyfriend, a businessman into spanking, and a sexy rabbi. That “juggling” portion of the book is really as exciting as it gets, for at the end (spoiler alert) Maya ends up married to some guy she went to high school with, pregnant and settled down and happy and boring.
Yawn-inducing ending aside, “Fifty Shades of Schwarz” is fun. There are plenty of (tame) sex scenes, and some comedic, I-know-people-just-like-this characters. If you’re stuck at a family reunion this weekend or need something to breeze through while sunbathing, you could do worse. And if your mom or 12-year-old cousin happens to be reading over your shoulder, it will only be mildly awkward.
“Fifty Shades of Schwarz” is available online from Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.
Courtesy Tacoma Art Museum
James W. Washington, Jr.’s “Bird with Nest” from 1957. Stone and wood, 8 x 14 x 4 inches, is a promised gift by the Pruzans to the Tacoma Art Museum.
“Creating the New Northwest: Selections from the Herb and Lucy Pruzan Collection” runs through Oct. 6 at the Tacoma Art Museum, 1701 Pacific Ave, Tacoma. For more information, visit www.tacomaartmuseum.org or call 253-272-4258.
Though known as strong supporters within the Jewish community, Seattleites Herb and Lucy Pruzan are also longtime patrons of an evolutionary Northwest art scene.
Through Oct. 6, Tacoma Art Museum will share more than 100 works in a retrospective exhibit from the Pruzan’s half-century of collecting, “Creating the New Northwest: Selections from the Herb and Lucy Pruzan Collection.” The exhibition includes works in a variety of art media, painting, sculpture, ceramics and glass, many created by established artists strongly identified with the Northwest: William Cumming, Gaylen Hansen, William Ivey, Fay Jones, Alden Mason and Ginny Ruffner.
Their art is intermixed with works by newer, less-known artists on the rise. Four large, abstract, colorful paintings hang in a stairway to introduce the main exhibit.
“[With the installation,] we tried to give a hint as to how the Pruzans lived with their art,” said Rock Hushka, curator of Contemporary and Northwest Art at Tacoma Art Museum. “The works are installed thematically, representing the development of Northwest art over 50 years.”
The museum even repainted the gallery’s wall in colors to recreate the Pruzan’s home interiors, showing how the couple lives with their art on an everyday basis.
“Creating the New Northwest” shares the story of how Northwest artists have shaped new perceptions and a new sense of artistic identity. The collection ranges from abstract paintings to figurative work, pop art, glass and landscapes. Hushka arranged the landscapes, installed near the entry, “in a tight salon way. It’s good as a teaching tool,” he said.
“Art brings you out of yourself and into something else that has meaning,” said Herb Pruzan. “We’re interested in the artist and the work that they produce, regardless of the style or fashion.”
Many of the artworks in the exhibition are early works and in some instances are the first works sold by the artists. The Pruzans have followed the work of some artists since the beginning of their careers, including painter Joseph Park, mixed-media sculptor Jeffry Mitchell, ceramic sculptor Akio Takamori, and mixed-media artist Whiting Tennis.
“The Pruzans came to understand that artists were finding materials to help express the experience of the Northwest: Water, forests, and earth were literally being formed into a new sense of identity,” Hushka said. “Although the Pruzans never set out to specifically form a collection or ‘accumulation,’ as Lucy calls it, it stands as a testament to their passions and reflects their belief in the essential contributions of art and artists that strengthen our communities.”
“The Pruzans remain constant in their support of our region’s artists, galleries, and museums,” said Stephanie A. Stebich, the director of Tacoma Art Museum. “Their commitment to new trends and ideas strengthens the Northwest artist community.”
“Creating the New Northwest” marks an auspicious moment in the growth of the museum’s permanent collection; the Pruzans have promised nine works to the museum, in addition to five already in TAM’s permanent collection. The gifts help advance the museum’s goal to develop the premier collection of Northwest art, according to museum staff.
“I’ve been on the collections committee at the Tacoma Art Museum for a number of years and have seen how their leadership is proceeding to develop a definitive collection of Northwest Art, which has been a great interest of ours,” said Herb Pruzan.
But, he added, the couple is interested in supporting art institutions throughout the Pacific Northwest, and have given or promised works to Seattle Art Museum, Portland Art Museum and the Henry Gallery at the University of Washington.”
A hard-bound exhibition catalogue, “Creating the New Northwest: Selections from the Herb and Lucy Pruzan Collection,” with photos of the artwork and essays by Hushka and Northwest art critic Matthew Kangas, accompanies the exhibit. The catalog provides useful background about the works and the philosophy behind a half-century of collecting.
Idan Cohen will perform “Songs of a Wayfarer” this Friday, June 14 at the Seattle International Dance Festival at 8 p.m. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit www.SeattleIDF.org.
Most people would never imagine that there was ever a time when Idan Cohen wasn’t a dancer. But they would be surprised to find out that the 35 year old, now a world-renowned choreographer, was somewhat of a late bloomer, moving into the world of dance at the age of 19.
Cohen began his lifelong love affair with the arts as a child. A classically trained pianist who played concerts all over Israel, he walked away from the piano at the age of 14 to attend a high school focused on the visual arts.
“I was playing [piano] for eight hours a day,” says Cohen. “It became a struggle. [But] I still knew that I wanted to be involved in art and I wanted to create.”
After graduation, Cohen returned to Kibbutz Mizra, where he grew up. He declared pacifism and was exempted from service in the army, instead opting to volunteer with children. He began taking afternoon dance classes at the kibbutz, and was hired by the Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company at the close of his year of volunteer service.
Cohen says he was inspired to become a dancer by his sister, Liya, who is now a dance instructor in Israel. “I always looked up to my sister,” says Cohen, whose path to dance belies a family affinity for the art form. “I have to say that I feel that dance and choreography is really the right form of art for me,” he adds. “I’m very happy with my choice.”
Cohen left the Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company in 2005 to begin creating his own work. His first full-length piece came in 2009 when he choreographed and performed a contemporary version of Swan Lake. He now leads a company with six full-time dancers, and his work has been recognized with awards from all over Europe and Israel, including the 2012 Israeli Ministry of Culture award for young artists.
Since January, Cohen has been working in the United States as a visiting artist, first as an Amherst Fellow at Amherst College in Massachusetts, and most recently as a Schusterman Visiting Israeli Artist at the University of California at Irvine. He plans to present a piece he created during his time at UC Irvine during his performance at the Seattle International Dance Festival on June 14.
The solo piece, which Cohen originally created for dancer Noa Shiloh, is set to “Songs of a Wayfarer,” a cycle of songs by Austrian Jewish composer Gustav Mahler. The lyrics tell the story of a wayfarer whose heart has been broken, and who spends his days wandering the world in search of comfort. “The songs speak a lot about the connection between man and nature,” Cohen says. “The wayfarer struggles to let the beauty [of nature] in. He feels he can only see the pain and hardship that he suffers because of the end of love.”
“Songs of a Wayfarer” is part of a trilogy that Cohen has been working on for the past two years based on the concept of cultural nesting. Cohen was inspired by his grandmother, who escaped from Austria as a teenager in 1938, but worked to maintain the culture she had grown up with throughout her life.
“My grandparents’ house looked Viennese,” said Cohen. “Everything there was almost as if you’re stepping into a time tunnel.” Cohen incorporates this visual into his performance through the metaphor of a bird’s nest, which he says “represents the idea of a home, but a home that is made of fragile objects.”
“We emigrate in the same way that birds migrate,” says Cohen, “but that concept of a home is built of ancient instinct. I play with that concept and with the image of the bird’s nest. At the end of the piece, the bird’s nest becomes a mask that swallows the identity of the dancer who is presenting it.”
Cohen argues that in this way, he is opening the discussion of cultural nesting and how it applies to the identities of Jews and Israelis today who are part of a state that is constantly fighting for its own definition of “home.”
“Let my people go” may be one of the most recognizable Jewish phrases, but Moses likely said it in a language that most Jews wouldn’t even recognize today, said Harvard comparative literature professor and linguistic scholar Marc Shell.
After all, Shell told the audience of 25 in attendance at the Seattle Yiddish Group’s June meeting, Moses spoke Egyptian throughout the first 40 years of his life, and probably some sort of Midianite language during the next four decades once he fled to the desert. Returning to Egypt and communicating through his brother Aaron would have been a challenge for Moses, because in addition to his compromised speech noted in the Biblical story, he’d been away for quite some time.
“What language does Moses speak when he speaks to Pharaoh?” asked Shell, who proved to be a master of the rhetorical question throughout his remarks. “Does he speak Egyptian, does he speak Midianite, or does he speak Hebrew?”
Shell is the co-director of the Lilly Center for Jewish Language and Literature at Harvard, co-founder and co-director of the Longfellow Institute for the Study of Non-English Languages, and a MacArthur fellow.
He has taught several languages, including Judeo-Spanish, Judeo-Aramaic, Yiddish, Judeo-Iranian, Judeo-Greek, Judeo-Italian, Judeo-Malayalam, and Judeo-Chinese.
The SYG invited Shell to try and answer the larger question of how globalization might affect the survival of Jewish languages.
“What is happening to the Yiddish language?” asked Murray Meld, co-chair of SYG as he introduced the topic. “We all know it has a lot of diversity, but with globalization, is it going to be used?”
From his vantage point, Meld sees a resurgence of curiosity for the Yiddish language from a variety of people.
“American Jews, young and old, are being caught up in the revival of interest in Yiddish language and culture,” he told JTNews.
Shell said that among the nearly 6,700 languages spoken throughout the world today, globally Jews speak dozens of variations of some form of the original Hebrew beyond the more commonly used Eastern European Yiddish and the Mediterranean Ladino.
To illustrate his point, he used examples from his own background.
“Among my Jewish friends,” recalled Shell, “the language in the home could be Judeo-Arabic, Ladino, two or three kinds of Judeo-Greek, three branches of Judeo-Kurd, all of them different from each other, and one or two kinds of Yiddish, one inflected toward the Slavic element, and one inflected towards the Germanic element, and other languages, as well.
“So, for me, a Jewish language does not mean Yiddish, nor does it mean even principally Yiddish because you can see in this list, which might go on, that Yiddish plays only a small role.”
Languages are influenced by their geographic location, their placement in a historical period, and their “linguistic uniqueness,” he said. A Jewish language, he added, is a language that has elements of Aramaic or Hebrew, where Hebrew somehow plays a role in its defining characteristic.
“Take, for instance, Judeo-Persian,” said Shell. “When Persian was first written down, it wasn’t written using the Persian alphabet, it was written down using the Hebrew alphabet. Judeo-Malayalam is one of the three Judaic languages of the Indian subcontinent. It’s one of the only Jewish languages which are not written in the Hebrew alphabet.”
Jewish languages have covered the globe, he said, mainly because of the consistent writing system that has allowed Judaic languages to flourish and to last over time.
“Judeo-Chinese is a humanistic language,” continued Shell. “On the one hand, Chinese goes vertically. On the other hand, Hebrew goes horizontally, so there’s a meeting point. Also, Chinese is a representational writing system or alphabet, whereas the Hebrew alphabet is essentially nonrepresentational.”
Ladino, which is a form of Judaic Spanish, he said, developed in the Iberian Peninsula, and was exported into many parts of the world.
That, he said, is also the history of Jewish languages. They develop within a culture and get “exiled” to other lands, far beyond their original borders.
Cultural and social factors can also foster the development of a language.
“When women, for example, knew the Hebrew alphabet but were barred from writing Hebrew, they’d use the Hebrew alphabet to write down the words of local language,” said Shell. “This was very often the origin of a Judeo language.”
Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich gives an eye-opening lesson in economics.
Most of the Jewish-related films at the Seattle International Film Festival have passed, but this one is a must-see for Jews and non-Jews alike.
Inequality for All
Sunday, June 2, 2013 – 6:30 p.m. - Egyptian Theatre
Monday, June 3, 2013 – 4:30 p.m. - Egyptian Theatre
An in-depth analysis of how American economic policy has gradually evolved to the point today where the income disparity between the wealthy and everyone else has become greater than ever and higher than in many first-world countries. Former Sec. of Labor Robert Reich is featured as the instructor in this economic history lesson explained in a way that everyone can clearly see and understand what is occurring, and why it is so detrimental to our national interest and our future as a nation. This is arguably the most significant film of SIFF 2013; it is a must see film for all Americans! Don’t miss this one!
Nu Klezmer Army
Nu Klezmer Army is one of several acts to be playing Folklife this Memorial Day weekend.
For more than 40 years, Seattle has been home to two of the largest, best-known music festivals on the West Coast: Bumbershoot and Folklife. Both happen to fall during the time of the year when our city receives a short respite from the rainy months, ushering in a time for thousands to gather in the Seattle Center for sun and song.
While Bumbershoot is a collection of some of the greatest and up-and-coming bands in many genres, Folklife is a free, weekend-long celebration of the folk music genre from all ends of the spectrum. Of course, for folk music steeped in Ashkenazi Jewish tradition, this means klezmer.
Folklife is one of the only festivals in the U.S. that brings together such an enormous collection of Jewish music based both on historical tradition and modern influences. In years past, Folklife has featured a Jewish show — a block of Jewish folk bands that performed on one date during the festival together. As Harvey Niebulski, a Folklife program committee member and curator for its Jewish music, points out, with the changing landscape and volume of programming available for Folklife, it became apparent this year that a Jewish show was unnecessary. Though the Jewish community in Seattle is still strong and growing, the presence of other new communities in the great Seattle area need space in the festival as well, he said.
“Now we work with a lot of other communities to bring them out and celebrate their own world and own culture,” says Niebulski. “We’ve dispersed more of the Jewish acts out, not all at one time.”
This year, you’ll find Jewish music sprinkled throughout the long weekend.
“There’s a lot of bands that aren’t going to be there that are often there — Klez Kids, Kosher Redhots, and others,” says Nielbulski. “They will probably be back next year to rotate out bands.”
In its second year at Folklife, Nu Klezmer Army will appear on Friday evening on the Fisher Green Stage. A punk-klezmer band “playing traditional klezmer music untraditionally,” Nu Klezmer Army is based here in Seattle. A few of its members are Seattle natives.
“We come to Folklife because ultimately it’s a celebration of the music we play and love. The festival brings together different styles of folk music from all over the world and it’s an honor to be selected to share ours,” says Dan, the band’s clarinet player. “It is also great opportunity to play for an informed and receptive audience.”
As a board member for nearly 17 years, Niebulski has seen the landscape of both the Jewish community and the Pacific Northwest change dramatically. When Folklife started 42 years ago, Jewish culture was not celebrated as openly as it is today. With a space for Jewish music has also come a space for Jewish learning and understanding for where the klezmer style comes from and how it has influenced other genres around the world. On Sunday afternoon at the EMP Learning Labs, attendees can join Niebulski for his Klezmer 101 and Jewish Music workshop to learn the history, understand the melodies, and practice the sights and sounds of klezmer.
“The Klezmer 101 Jewish Music workshop helps people to understand what is and isn’t klezmer, where some of the recognizable songs in Jewish culture come from, and how to pronounce some things,” says Niebulski. “People get to ask a lot of questions and better understand the genre.”
Nu Klezmer Army finds they have no problem appealing to the eclectic musical taste of Northwesterners. “Klezmer (and Balkan music in general) has its own niche in the Pacific Northwest and it does have a pretty strong following, but what we really enjoy is taking this music to anywhere that will have us,” Dan says. “We take this music out of its typical environment and expose it to people who have never heard it before — we bring it to all sorts of venues like the Russian Cultural Center (exactly what it sounds like) and the 2 Bit (a punk bar in Ballard) — and people are generally very open to it. This music seems to speak to a pretty diverse audience.”
So, as klezmer revives and thrives here in Seattle, be sure to catch as many new and returning acts at this weekend’s Folklife Festival, beginning Friday, May 24 through Monday, May 27 at the Seattle Center.
Schedule (for more details, see http://2013northwestfolklifefestival.sched.org)
• Nu Klezmer Army, Friday, May 24 at 8:30 p.m., Fisher Green Stage
• Erev Rav, part of the Balkan Misfits Party, Saturday, May 25 at 6 p.m., Fountain Lawn Stage
• Street Fleet Klezmer Band, Saturday, May 25 at 4:20 p.m., Fisher Green Stage
• Chervona, part of the Balkan Misfits Party, Saturday, May 25 at 6 p.m., Fountain Lawn Stage
• Klez Chaos, Friday, May 24 at 2:45 p.m., Mural Amphitheatre
• Rattletrap Ruckus, Saturday, May 25 at 7 p.m., part of the Subdued Stringband Jamboree, at the Northwest Court Stage
• Klez Katz, Monday, May 27 at 1 p.m., Alki Court Stage
• Klez Jam with Harvey Niebulski, Sunday, May 26 at 1 p.m., Boeing Green
• Klezmer 101 and Jewish Music taught by Harvey Niebulski, Sunday, May 26 at 3 p.m., EMP Learning Labs
With a voice that combines an exotic hybrid of his French roots, a decade in Israel, and a nod to the Pacific Northwest incorporated from his current environs in Seattle, Bet Alef Meditative Synagogue’s Rabbi Olivier BenHaim’s new six-step meditation CDs feature his self-described straightforward technique that is geared to the novice practitioner.
“Souls’ Journey: Meditation and Kabbalah,” his inaugural release out on April 21, is a two-CD set designed to orient the student into the Jewish mystical, Kabbalistic tree of life.
To train the aspiring listener, BenHaim begins and ends each session with a “three-fold” chant of the Hebrew word for peace and wholeness, “shalom.”
“This is Jewish,” BenHaim told JTNews. “This is from our own book. Meditation has always been part of our past and our texts.”
Once oriented to BenHaim’s chants and his use of the Hebrew names for the five levels of the soul — or as he prefers to call them, “levels of consciousness” — the student begins his or her approach toward the five levels that Kabbalists say are accessible to all of us.
“I believe you can move through the tree of life through meditation,” said BenHaim. “They were states that the Kabbalists themselves had access to. We can experience what the Kabbalists experienced themselves in their bones and in their personal experience.”
BenHaim explained that the second track is a relaxation, centering, breathing, and grounding meditation. Instructions, he said, are simple and clear.
“It’s not convoluted and we don’t use highfalutin words,” he added. “It’s a very down-to-earth practice that follows the Kabbalistic system, but most importantly, follows our day-to-day human experience.”
His advice to would-be practitioners is that they practice with one each week, master that level, and build up to the more advanced lessons.
“I wanted to make it very easy for people to find 15 minutes during the day, to plug it in, and just do it,” BenHaim said.
During the sessions, BenHaim addresses one of the central teachings in Judaism often tackled by rabbis and mystics alike: The duality of the yetzer ha’tov, the good inclination, and the yetzer ha’ra, commonly called the evil inclination. Judaism says the human personality has both; however, the good-evil dichotomy is a misunderstanding of our essential natures, they say. The yetzer ha’ra is really where we form our ideas and plans for our lives. Some benefit us and others don’t.
While meditating about this aspect, BenHaim asks the listener to become introspective and to pay attention to his or her own thoughts and reactions.
“A lot of the yetzer ha’ra is out of the emotional body,” said BenHaim. “How can we not be enslaved to our emotions — to not be under their dictate? We can be responding instead of reacting.”
The techniques in the lessons, according to BenHaim, are a compilation of approaches that have been used by mystics and Kabbalistic teachers he has studied over the years.
The five aspects of the Kabbalistic vision of “soul,” explained BenHaim, exist within us like concentric circles that lie at the core of who we are.
“Track four is a meditation that talks about the level of nefesh, which is entering into our body,” said BenHaim. “Where are the sensations? Where are they coming from? Really being aware of whatever is happening in our body.”
By using these methods, said BenHaim, meditators can access these aspects of their personality and transcend their attachment to them.
The goal, he said, “is dissolving our identification with these concentric circles starting with the outer layer and working our way in. Ultimately,” he writes on his website, “what one discovers at the center is one’s own True Identity, the Face of the One that is every one.”
BenHaim freely admits that his CDs are not meant to be a substitute for the experience of meditating in a group or a class, or with a personal guide, but he does make himself available to users for any questions or comments they may have through his site.
Mainly, he wants to get these typically esoteric mystical techniques into the hands of many more people who can’t or won’t study meditation in the other formats. Also, by having a CD, students can “plug-in” at their convenience, whenever they have the time.
In addition to dissolving the five states of the soul, BenHaim also wants to disabuse those who have the idea that meditation is “un-Jewish.”
“You’re not betraying the faith,” said BenHaim. “I will always be a student of Kabbalah.”
Courtesy Washington State Jewish Archives
Seattle Jewish philanthropists Tillie and Alfred Shemanski sit with several unidentified men at Luna Park, circa 1909-1910.
“In the Land of Rain and Salmon” will be staged on Sun., June 2 at 2 p.m. at the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute, 104 17th Ave. S, Seattle. Tickets available at brownpapertickets.com and cost $30 until May 28, $36 after. Students and kids under 18 cost $18.
Who were the first Jews in Washington State? How were they able to assimilate into American and Washington culture? Why did they move here and what were their lives like day to day?
On June 2, the Washington State Jewish Historical Society (WSJHS) and Book-It Repertory Theatre will premiere “In the Land of Rain & Salmon: Jewish Voices of the Northwest, 1880-1920” at Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute.
“It’s a collaboration of everything we stand for — our whole mission is in this production,” said Lisa Kranseler, executive director of WSJHS. “It’s bringing awareness to Jewish history and that’s important.”
Kranseler anticipates the show will sell out.
“We expect it will be very popular,” she said.
That the performance will be at Lang-
ston Hughes is significant: In 1914, Chevra Bikur Cholim (now Bikur Cholim Machzikay Hadath) built the facility and used it as its synagogue until 1958.
“It’s a really big thing,” Kranseler said. “The Langston Hughes community welcomes our community.”
This original theater production is based on “Family of Strangers,” a 2003 book authored by Jacqueline Williams, Molly Cone and Howard Droker, which describes the history of Jews in Washington, and materials from the Jewish Archives at the University of Washington’s Special Collections library.
According to Annie Lareau, education director at Book-It, the staged reading combines several vignettes from historical moments in Washington State history that involve its various Jewish communities.
“We keep authors’ words intact,” she said. “They take place all over the state and include Sephardic and Ashkenazic stories, with violin music. Photos are also displayed during the performance.”
The theater contracts with organizations like the WSJHS frequently.
“WSJHS commissioned us to create a touring staged reading, where this can be done in big or small spaces,” Lareau said. “We’ve done this several times with different historical societies.”
Author Jacqueline Williams is pleased her book is being made into a performance.
“Book-It picked out six or eight people from the book and used the dialogues from the book and supplemented it with oral histories,” she said.
4Culture, an organization that advances cultural services in King County, partnered with WSJHS to make the performance happen.
“When I heard the WSJHS had the theme of ‘Jews in Arts’ this year, and we talked about different ways of approaching it, we realized that theater-style was the one format the WSJHS would be most interested in,” said Eric Taylor, a senior staffer at 4Culture.
4Culture has helped put on other similar events.
“We have done this type of program before, starting in 2009 with commemorating Seattle’s first World’s Fair in 1909,” he said. “After the success of that program, we wanted to do something like it in the following years. In 2010 we did a performance to commemorate women’s suffrage in Washington State, which was also based on a book.”
In 2012 the performance commemorated the 50th anniversary of the World’s Fair.
Funding for this performance came from 4Culture and a Small and Simple grant from the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, which will also allow the production to tour. The performance will hit the road early summer and tour until November or December, Laraeu said.
“I’m excited about this,” Williams said. “We [the authors] used to joke about it. Oh, this book would make a great movie — there’s drama and conflict.”
Courtesy Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
Krafft’s (in)famous “Hitler Idaho,” better known as the “Hitler teapot.”
You can view Akiva Segan’s Holocaust and human rights art at Hillel at the University of Washington, 4745 17th Ave. NE, Seattle, through May 21.
What do you do when the person you love turns out to be vastly different than the person you thought he was? This is the question Northwest art lovers, Jewish and not, have been asking themselves in the months since ceramics artist Charles Krafft was exposed by The Stranger as a sympathizer of white nationalist and Holocaust denial ideologies.
Krafft creates ceramic plates, objects, and figurines in the Delft style, but with an edge: A flowery AK-47, a plate decorated with the crashed Pan-Am plane, and — perhaps most famous — the Hitler teapot. Until now, Krafft’s Nazi-related art had been interpreted as wonderfully ironic. Jewish collectors bought his work.
Around the same time that story broke, Delilah Simon, executive director of the Washington State Holocaust Education Resource Center, stopped by JTNews with a recently acquired painting. The framed oil depicts a pawnbroker with a trimmed white beard and a conniving grin, tipping a scale away from a soldier. A donor, assuming it to be a work of European anti-Semitica, donated it to the Holocaust Center.
This is not the first piece of art the Holocaust Center has received. Paintings, posters, postcards and artifacts have for years appeared at the center’s doorstep. Recently, they received a briefcase full of Nazi propaganda a new homebuyer found in the house. At an estate sale, they picked up a box full of painstakingly preserved Nazi propaganda magazines saved by a German immigrant who turned out to be a pilot for the Luftwaffe.
Other items, like a postcard for Germany’s 1937 “The Eternal Jew” exhibit and a massive poster advertising a world Jewish conspiracy, are picked up by travelers who, for whatever reason, are interested in propaganda.
So what’s to be done with it? And should our local Jewish community be concerned with revelations of Nazi sympathies and Holocaust denial in our midst?
“I think the Charles Krafft incident heightens our awareness into the subject of anti-Semitism, and how we as a community need to be ever vigilant and never assume that something isn’t anti-Semitic because we don’t want it to be,” Simon told JTNews. “We see cases of anti-Semitism happening throughout our own region. And it makes our work that much more important.”
Simon cited a phone call from concerned parents in nearby Federal Way whose son was acting violently and had joined an Aryan group. In some parts of the state people don’t know what a Jew is.
“We use [the propaganda and art] as a case study to show future generations what it looks like when a country and its laws can marginalize its people, and how that manifests itself first as something as simple as paintings, to eventually the ultimate extermination of a people, and how a society as a whole tolerated what was subtle in the beginning. And how that occurs today,” Simon said.
In light of this, a question looms large: What should be done with Charles Krafft’s Hitler teapot, Ahmadinejad hot water bottle, and swastika windmills?
Krafft, who has been long considered by admirers as a “provocateur” and encyclopedic in historical knowledge, skirts around his artistic intentions. In an email correspondence he avoided that topic, instead adjuring me to “do my homework,” which would have involved watching several Holocaust revisionism YouTube videos and blog posts. He denies the Holocaust denier title, but appreciates “revisionist research that includes the study of the holocaust as a psy ops,” according to a comment he left on a blog. In a short documentary film produced for the Seattle Channel around 2007, he says, “I know exactly what I’m doing, and any good artist knows exactly what buttons they’re going to be pushing, or they wouldn’t be artists. So I take full responsibility for the imagery I use.”
While the revelation of Krafft’s affiliations stunned the art world, the general response has been to shrug off this fringe outlier. There is an assumed separation between art and artist.
Akiva Kenny Segan, a Seattle-based artist and human rights educator whose “Under the Wings of G-d” series portrays Holocaust victims with angel wings, is understandably disturbed by Krafft’s views.
Akiva Segan and three “Under the Wings of G-d” mosaic-drawings at the Seattle
Central Community College exhibit, April 25.
“I find it troubling that people are willing to divorce a famous art person’s politics from whatever their works are, even if their work
doesn’t reflect it directly,” Segan said. “If this guy is a professed anti-Semite or racist…and his work was continuing to be popular, I would find it troubling.”
But as an artist, Segan finds it difficult to answer the question of intentionality versus interpretation. When an artist puts his or her work out for public view, “it’s out of their hands,” he said. “It’s up for grabs in terms of what people are going to make of it.”
On that note, Segan dismisses Krafft’s work as boring.
“In terms of creativity I don’t find it exciting at all,” he said. “It’s just kitschy to me.”
According to Mark Mulder, a museology master’s student at the University of Washington and the collections assistant intern at the Holocaust Center, whatever Krafft’s intentions were, the exposure of his views changes the game.
“It’s easy to see Hitler’s head on a skunk body as being kitschy, as being ironic, a way of showing absurdity,” he said. But when the artist is revealed as a Holocaust revisionist, the pieces are “not as ironic as they once appeared.”
Mulder, like Segan and many others, squirms when asked what museums and art collectors should do with the art of offensive artists. He says he’s not sure if it’s the responsibility of museums to say he’s a Holocaust denier.
“It’s contested argument,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any one answer.”
“How should the Jew react to this so-called gentleman’s beliefs? That’s a difficult question to answer,” said Michael Ehrenthal of Moriah Judaica in New York. “Ultimately, it depends [on] each one’s personal belief and opinion.”
Ehrenthal’s father’s collection of anti-Semitica is on display at the Wolfson Museum of Jewish Art at Hechal Shlomo in Jerusalem. His catalog, “The Jew in Anti-Semitic Art,” includes benign Jewish figurines and vicious Nazi propaganda, as well a porcelain ashtray with a Jew beckoning a naked little boy, captioned “The Yiddish Clipper.” This souvenir is marked “Niagara Falls, N.Y.” and dates to around 1900. Decorative plates, a porcelain tobacco jar in the shape of a Jew’s head, and (conversely) a chamber pot with Hitler’s face populate the collection.
Is Charles Krafft’s so-called Disasterware really as unique as everyone thinks, then? And should we be outraged?
“This is really nothing new under the sun,” said Ehrenthal. “We Jews have experienced this over the centuries.”
But Ehrenthal separates it from anti-Semitica. “Mr. Krafft has not exhibited or shown anything that is anti-Semitic other than personal beliefs,” he said. “You don’t necessarily have a good criticism regarding his artwork, at least up until now, unless he comes up with some thing anti-Semitic.”
Segan hopes Krafft will come around to education, especially “if he were amenable to folks like me.”
But should a rendering of Charles Manson’s swastika-engraved head show up at the Holocaust Center’s door someday, they will just have to keep educating about the dangers of propaganda.
“Propaganda can be a powerful tool to show institutional bigotry, brainwashing,” said Mulder. “It can start conversations about how the public was okay with acts that were committed.”
If you go: “Farewell, Auschwitz!” premieres on Tuesday, May 14 at 7:30 p.m. at the Illsley Ball Nordstrom Recital Hall at Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle. A “meet the composer and librettist” pre-concert talk will take place at 6:45 p.m. Tickets are $36 and available through www.musicofremembrance.org.
We may be Boomers or Millennials, Gen-Xers or Generation Thumbs, but all of us alive in this era are witnesses to the Holocaust. Survivors are still among us. We hear their reports, document them, read them, and work to maintain them accurately in the face of a forgetful world. It’s a heavy burden to carry, this witness thing. Many of us complain, “enough!” and would happily bid farewell to the name “Auschwitz” and all the baggage it deposits at our 21st-century doorstep.
But it’s ours, this baggage, and thank goodness some of our contemporaries bravely pick it up, examine it, and work it into art. Their efforts reveal that in every generation, and in the most surprising places, human creativity both survives us and helps us survive.
That is what Krystyna Zywulska’s poems and songs did for her and her fellow prisoners at Auschwitz. And that is what American composer/librettist duo Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer are doing with Zywulska’s poems in their third work commissioned by Seattle’s Music of Remembrance. Their chamber ensemble version of Zywulska’s poetry, “Farewell, Auschwitz!” will receive its world premiere at MOR’s May 14 concert at Benaroya Hall’s Nordstrom Recital Hall.
One of America’s most acclaimed contemporary opera composer/librettist teams, Heggie and Scheer created “Another Sunrise” for MOR last season. That one-woman show introduced the drama of Zywulska herself; that is, her struggle with the morally wrenching choices that allowed her to survive. Hiding her Jewish identity — she changed her name from Sonia Landau — she walked out of the Warsaw Ghetto. It was resistance work that landed her in Auschwitz-Birkenau, unacknowledged as a Jew and at first unaware of her gifts as a writer.
MOR founder and artistic director Mina Miller, a dogged researcher of such stories for over 15 years, didn’t learn of Zywulska until a presentation at a 2007 Holocaust studies conference in Warsaw by the American scholar Barbara Milewski of Swarthmore College, who researches amateur music-making in Nazi camps.
When Miller took Zywulska’s story and poems to Heggie, she said he “was more interested in social justice and the moral complexity of survival” than in simply setting Zywulska’s poems to music. In fact, the original poems had indeed been set to music — most of it lost — including resistance anthems and popular tunes of the day.
For “Farewell, Auschwitz,” Heggie says he composed music in the style of those tunes, ranging from sarcastic to comforting. The half-dozen songs are set for three voices — soprano, mezzo-soprano, and baritone — with clarinet, violin, cello, double bass, and piano.
Librettist Scheer says he “was surprised that it was such a diverse collection of concerns and hopes.” His Polish-speaking in-laws translated Zywulska’s work literally so that he could create his own poetic, singable versions in English.
“It was not what I expected,” he says. “There was gossip, all these sort of revealing cross-currents that were going on in the camps.” Scheer, who is Jewish, traces his own roots to Lodz and Warsaw, so “the cultural terrain for me starts here.”
Soprano Caitlin Lynch, who created the role of Zywulska in “Another Sunrise,” returns with mezzo-soprano Sarah Larsen of Seattle Opera’s Young Artists Program.
The baritone is Morgan Smith, who will also perform another Heggie/Scheer premiere at the May 14 concert, a song cycle version of their mini-opera “For a Look or a Touch.” Commissioned and premiered by MOR in 2007, with Smith as co-star, “Look” dramatizes a gay man’s heartbroken memories years after Nazis murdered his young lover.
Though Miller has been with MOR for 15 years and shows no interest in retiring, she has named Smith “artistic advisor,” with an eye toward the future. Even though he makes his home in Leipzig, Germany and travels constantly for his skyrocketing operatic career (his Starbuck in Heggie and Scheer’s “Moby Dick” had critics swooning), his connection to MOR has him thinking ahead.
In an interview for a Hadassah magazine story on MOR last year, Smith told me that even as he considers expanding the subject matter of MOR’s work, “The crimes of the Holocaust of course will always be central.
“There is value in telling stories through music,” he says, “especially as the generation that can give firsthand accounts is passing.”
Ironically, MOR’s spring concert on May 14 coincides with the first evening of Shavuot. Miller says she regrets the unfortunate timing, which will mean the absence of some valued staff and supporters.
But MOR is first of all a music organization, albeit one with an urgent sense of mission forged in Jewish tragedy. Just last week, the National Endowment for the Arts announced a grant of $15,000 to MOR in support of its Sparks of Glory community outreach concerts-with-commentary. These concerts are held on Saturday afternoons, further proof that MOR’s outreach stretches way beyond the observant Jewish community.
As Heggie puts it, “I don’t know anything quite like what Mina does. She is a force of nature. It’s almost like she’s a vessel through which these messages come.”
Scheer concurs: “It’s an amazing testament to what one person can do.”
Stephen Tobolowsky will speak at Temple B’nai Torah Saturday, May 5, at 8 p.m. Tickets are selling out. For more information, visit http://tbttobo-tbthome.eventbrite.com/#.
Stephen Tobolowsky has appeared in films and sitcoms from Groundhog Day to Mississippi Burning, from Glee to Californication. Tobolowsky is in Seattle this weekend to talk about his new collection of personal stories, “The Dangerous Animals Club.” He talked to JTNews about his book and his deep relationship to Judaism.
JTNews: Tell us about “The Dangerous Animals Club.”
Stephen Tobolowsky: “The Dangerous Animals Club” is a collection of stories that are all true, and they all happened to me. If I were to characterize what the entire book is about, they’re stories that are about the beginnings of things. Stories like first love, first heartbreak, first agent, first job, first dog. The Dangerous Animals Club itself was the first club I was in. So it’s our entry point into life, both the happy parts and the sad parts.
The first major loss — when I lost my mother — that story’s in there too. Most of the stories are funny. A few of them are not. I usually see most things in life as funny. It’s just kind of a barometer of who I am.
JT: Jewishness seems to factor into your work quite a bit. How does it function in the book?
ST: It’s funny. I gave the book to my Hebrew teacher to read, and she said, “You know, Stephen, this is a very Jewish book.”
We grew up in a very strange part of Texas, and there were only three Jewish families. Growing up I was always a stranger in a strange land. You grow up being like, “why couldn’t I just be like everybody else?” Our family was not particularly religious. We didn’t celebrate the Sabbath, we didn’t celebrate Hanukkah because I think Dad didn’t want to buy presents for eight days. Heaven help us, we never had any wine. But we were a very ethical family. I think that was what my Hebrew teacher was telling me. We followed Jewish values even though we weren’t educated in them that well.
JT: How about in your life today?
ST: When I came out to Los Angeles, I kept telling Mom, “I’m going to find a synagogue.” [Years later] I was working on a sitcom and the producers were Jewish. And they said, “Well, we’re going to work on Rosh Hashanah. Does that bother any of you?” Richard Kind says, “Oh, you don’t have to worry, the only Jews here are me and Tobolowsky, and we’re the best kind of Jews that there are. You know, the Jews in name only.”
Everybody was laughing, and it hurt me when he said that, but there was truth. I guess what hurt so much was that it was a barb of truth. It had been over a decade since I had been in a synagogue, maybe two.
I remember I woke up the next morning at, like, dawn, and I just couldn’t sleep all night. I had just done a movie with Larry Miller, and he was telling me about the synagogue he went to, which was one of those tiny hole-in-the-wall synagogues, just like a little house. I went over there first thing in the morning, and there was an old man sweeping up in front of the place. And I said, “Excuse me, could I have a ticket for Rosh Hashanah?” And he says, “We don’t have any tickets.” I said, “Please, I just need one. I just need one.” And he says, “There aren’t any. I’d give you one, but there aren’t any.” I said, “I’ll stand. You have to understand. I have to go this year.” He says, “There’s nothing. I wish I could help you, but there’s nothing.” I said, “Well, do you know when the guy who’s in charge of stuff? And he says, “Well, I’m the rabbi! I’m the one who’s in charge.”
And I said, “Please, please.” He said, “Well, tonight is Friday night. Why don’t you come to synagogue tonight and see if you like it, and then we’ll see if there’s any room for you on Rosh Hashanah.”
And I thought, Oh damn, I just got shnonkered! I called up my wife, Ann, and said I’m going to be home late. I said, “I got shnookered by this old man, and I’m gonna go to services.”
I was sitting in the back of this tiny little room, and the rabbi comes out and says we’re going to start with a prayer about how happy we are when brothers are united. And I had never heard the song before. Everyone sang along, and I pulled a prayer book out of the back and tried to look reverent, try to appear inconspicuous.
The rabbi goes “Stop, stop, stop! Now is not the time to be in prayers. Now is the time just to sing with joy. Sing with joy and we’ll do our prayers later.” It was obvious that I had no clue what was going on.
The rabbi does not look at me, he just says “You know, there may be some of us who haven’t been in a synagogue for a very long time. And maybe they don’t know the songs anymore; maybe they don’t know Hebrew anymore. Well, guess what, I know Hebrew very well, so I’ll do the Hebrew for you, and all you have to do is sing ‘la la la’ and be happy.” And I thought, This guy is for me! So I told the guys on the TV show that I was going to go to Rosh Hashanah. They were going to have to come up with other plans.
I ended up going every Friday night and every Saturday morning for the next 10 years. By the end of that 10 years, Larry and I were helping him with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services.
ST: You gotta have exodus at some point in your life before you’re able to come back. I began to see the wisdom in Judaism that I’d never really seen before. I didn’t understand how profound it is on so many levels. Of course, my generation is one that was very taken in the 60s with Buddhism and counter culture and all this kind of stuff. It was all there in the Torah before. The genius of the Torah — you cannot go too deep. However that came about was such a miracle, such a blessing for everybody. To have this book of wisdom that’s available for people to look at.
So I go to minyan when I can in the morning when I’m not working. I go to services Saturday when I’m not working. My wife and I, our goal is to have a real Shabbat once a month. If it’s possible. With no electronics, no nothing, no TV, where you just read, stay with your family. Just try — once! But it’s so hard because showbiz does not recognize such things. You work all the time. It’s difficult to maintain that.
This is really humiliating: I’m going to read from the Torah for the first time in my life on Shavuos. Heaven help me. Heaven help everyone. It’s terrifying.
JT: You had a near-death experience yourself, when you were thrown from a horse and broke your neck. How did that impact your faith?
ST: I’ve had in my life an unfortunate experience with the miraculous. The doctor told me I had a “fatal injury.” I felt like it was a miracle to be alive. And from that experience I understood what the Talmud talks about when it talks about the afflictions of love. Sometimes a curse is not a curse. Sometimes a curse happens to be a blessing that enables you to see your life through new eyes.
I think is what I want my stories to do. That’s what I’ve found Judaism’s done for me. I’m very appreciative of all the giants in our faith that have laid their ideas down…great minds throughout history that have embraced this idea of how to see your life through new eyes. The key to rejuvenation is all right there. That’s why I love it and embrace it.
JT: Any other projects in the works?
ST: I’m working on a second book called “My Adventures with God,” which is a series of stories about people and their relationship to things. I always saw life as two kinds of people: People who are good at algebra and people who are good at geometry. People who are good at algebra are good at finding x. To be good at geometry, you have to know the answer before you start the problem and get to the end in the fewest steps possible. That ain’t me. People’s relationship to faith is more like calculus, and most of us have dropped out of math by the time we get to that point in the book. Calculus is learning the shape of a curve. The change of trajectory, the change of minimum force, and as you go through life it all changes very much. When you’re a child religion means one thing to you, and when you start a family it means something else, and when you encounter death and near death in your own life it develops and changes again. So this book is a series of stories that starts when I was a little kid. My first exposure to God and Judaism and the Torah when I was 5 going to religious school, and the first time I broke the 10 commandments and knew it, and wanted to break them. We all have that desire to just implode on ourselves.
“Sala’s Gift” runs this weekend only, Friday and Saturday April 26-27 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday April 28 at 2 p.m. at McKinley Hall at Seattle Pacific University. Tickets are $12. For more information visit SPU’s website. An exhibit, “Letters to Sala: A Young Woman’s Life in Nazi Labor Camps,” curated by Jill Vexler and on loan from New York Public Library and the French Children of the Holocaust Foundation, will be on display in the lower level Kreider Gallery of McKinley Hall during the month of April.
The story of Sala Garncarz is full of heartbreak, horror, injustice, and, somehow, hope. Through the five years she spent in Nazi slave labor camps, Sala kept a diary and collected hundreds of letters she received while in the camps. For 50 years she kept the letters a secret.
But in 1991 she revealed the collection to her daughter, Ann Kirschner. From this moment grew a book, and now a play, “Letters to Sala,” which is experiencing its Northwest premier this week at Seattle Pacific University.
“My mother was one of those Holocaust survivors who never talked about her experiences at all,” Ann said. “In 1991 she was having open heart surgery, and right before the surgery she brought me this box, and said, ‘Here I want you to have this.’ And inside the box was what turned out to be 350 letters, which she had received while she was in not one camp, but seven different Nazi slave labor camps, as well as a diary that she had kept very early in her period as a slave laborer.”
(Indeed, the Germans were organized enough to enslave a population without letting mail service slide.)
After a family kerfuffle over what should be done with the letters — Ann thought they belonged to history, while her daughters thought they should remain private — Ann succeeded in her argument and proceeded to write “Sala’s Gift: My Mother’s Holocaust Story.” She donated the one-of-a-kind collection to the Dorot Jewish Division of the New York Public Library.
“Letters to Sala” bounces between Sala’s experiences during the war and modern-day New York City, where she reveals the collection to Ann, and Ann’s dispute with her daughters over the letters’ fate.
There are ideas in “Letters to Sala” that are intriguing, like the question of which types of artifacts are better served within the community, as opposed to kept private within a family, or the reality of what exactly it cost Sala to hide her letters while in the camps.
Ann says the letters were a way for her mother to save the lives of family and friends, most of whom were killed. “Nobody was going to take her letters. She would have died for them,” she said. “It was an act of resistance on her part, and also an act of tremendous spirituality and faith.”
Ann is happy with playwright Arlene Hutton’s adaptation of the book for the stage. “This is a wonderful way for history to find different audiences,” she said. SPU’s status as a Christian college makes the story all the more important. How many more non-Jewish people, who may not have a personal relationship to this dark period of history, will now be touched by and connected to a survivor’s incredible tale?
While the production’s set design is strong, and the use of projection provides some of the strongest moments in the show (like when Sala and romantic interest Harry pose for a photo in a camp and the real-life photo of Sala and Harry is projected above them), ultimately the play’s subject matter is the reason why it struggles and sags at times. It is a play about letters. And with letters frequently being used as substitutes for live dialogue — an especially unavoidable convention when the play itself is based on letters — why write a play when the actual artifacts and book seem to be most effective?
Perhaps Arlene Hutton’s thought was not “Why?” but “Why not?” With that in mind, it is easier to observe the ways in which the play does succeed. It shares an inspirational Holocaust story with audiences who may have otherwise never known about it, it keeps Sala’s legacy alive, and it reminds us that — in one of the play’s stronger bits of dialogue — “We will tell ourselves to endure. After all, Jews are used to it.”
Emily K. Alhadeff contributed to this story.
Courtesy Ann Kirschner
Did you know Wyatt Earp was buried in a Jewish cemetery?
This question was all it took for Ann Kirschner to tug at a loose string in the tightly knit fabric of codified history, unraveling an alternative narrative of the American frontier and opening a window onto Josephine Sarah Marcus Earp, the Jewish common-law wife of legendary Wild West lawman Wyatt Earp.
The result of Kirschner’s research is “The Lady at the OK Corral,” a biography of a woman who never wanted a biography. Kirschner was in Seattle to talk about Josephine at Town Hall on April 18.
“Here was this woman that I never heard about, never read about, and the fact that she was Jewish and married to the man who was arguably the best-known lawman of the American frontier — wow, that was pretty irresistible,” Kirschner told JTNews.
Josephine Marcus Earp lived an exciting life by all accounts, let alone as a daughter of poor Jewish immigrants between the years of 1860 and 1940. Having moved from New York to San Francisco by steamer with her family around 1870, in 1878 she took off for Arizona Territory to become an actress, only to return home a year later with her tail between her legs. But soon she was back on the road to Arizona, this time to marry her suitor, the persistent divorcee and lawman of Tombstone, Johnny Behan.
It didn’t take long for Josephine’s common-law marriage to Behan to go south; meanwhile, the dirty town of Tombstone was succumbing to chaos, with Wyatt Earp competing with Behan for leadership. Tensions mounted until October 26, 1881, the day of the infamous gunfight between Wyatt Earp and his brothers, and Johnny Behan’s cowboy faction. What is lesser known, however, is that Josephine Sarah Marcus may have been at the apex of a love triangle between Johnny Behan and Wyatt Earp.
It’s a Jewish parent’s worst nightmare. Your rebellious daughter comes back home to live with you, only to be whisked away by the nationally known, infamous, gun-wielding goy she’s in love with. For Josephine (and probably many other Jewish girls throughout history) it must have been unbearably romantic.
These are the scrappy pieces of history Kirschner chased around the country, hot on the tail of an elusive woman who never held a permanent address once in her adult life.
Not only that, but Josephine deliberately covered her tracks.
“She had a lot of skeletons in her closet,” said Kirschner. “She was a willing accomplice to the suppression of her own story.”
So many skeletons, in fact, that Josephine put a curse on anyone who dared to tell her story and fought throughout her life to suppress books and films that would expose the unsavory details. Josephine, Wyatt Earp’s fourth common-law wife, was particularly intent to silence the story of Mattie Blaylock, his third wife, the former prostitute he left who became addicted to opiates and eventually took her own life.
But so far, Kirschner has not been crushed by any falling pianos.
“I think Josephine would turn that curse to a blessing,” she said. “I think she would feel that I tried to follow the truth and tell the intimate stories about her life without trying to whitewash it in any way.”
But just because Josephine’s role in history, like many other women’s, disappeared, does not necessarily mean she should become a heroine.
“She’s a complicated figure,” said Kirschner. “I guess most biographers have a love-hate relationship with their subjects.”
But Josephine is a hero to Kirschner in some ways. “She was an artist of reinventing herself,” she said. “I love that about her. I love her love of the unconventional. I also admire her fierce love and loyalty for her husband, and the incredible modern and smart way that way she understood celebrity, and how to control the legacy of Wyatt Earp.”
Now, the answer to the question you’ve been waiting for: How did the non-Jewish Wyatt Earp’s cremated remains end up in the Marcus’ Jewish family plot in the Jewish Hills of Eternity Memorial Park?
It’s a question Kirschner gets at every talk. “The answer, I think, is just California,” she said. Josephine’s remains are also cremated and rest beside Wyatt’s and near her parents and brother.
Kirschner’s visit to Seattle coincided with an event related to her first book, the opening of “Sala’s Gift” on stage at Seattle Pacific University. Before undergoing open-heart surgery, Kirschner’s mother, a survivor of seven Nazi slave labor camps, handed her a box with a diary and 350 letters she’d received during her imprisonment. (Indeed, the Germans were organized enough to enslave a population without letting mail service slide.)
Kirschner says the letters were a way for her mother to save the lives of family and friends, most of whom were killed. “It was an act of resistance on her part, and also an act of tremendous spirituality and faith.”
Kirschner is proud of the stage adaptation, another venue for education.
“These letters were extraordinary,” said Kirschner. “But like Josephine, my mother didn’t think her story was particularly relevant or important. And she had other reasons for keeping silent. She thought that the letters might harm us, that they might make her children frightened, that we might be intolerant ourselves.”
Like the thrilling nuggets of history Kirschner obtained in her research, including a box of recorded interviews from 1960 with people who remembered Josephine clearly, the box of letters was a gift for posterity.
“[They’re] a time capsule,” she said, “a bridge back to the past.”
Courtesy Magnolia Pictures
Sam and Saul Stermer, now in their 90s, return to Verteba Cave in Ukraine, where they hid as children for over a year.
“No Place on Earth” opens May 3 at the Landmark Varsity Theatre, 4329 University Way NE, Seattle. Visit www.landmarktheatres.com for schedules and tickets.
It’s hard to imagine, with the abundance of Holocaust literature and films, that stories of mind-blowing value still remain largely untold. In 1942 Ukraine, 38 men, women and children slid deep into the earth to spend 511 days hiding from the Nazis and their neighbors in pitch-black caves. Though they all emerged from the cave, their story, for the most part, remained until recently underground.
When adventure-seeking spelunker Chris Nicola traveled to Ukraine in the ‘90s to trace his ancestry, he heard rumors of Jews who hid in the caves during the war. Indeed, deep inside Priest’s Grotto he came across a shoe, a comb, and an antique key and buttons. Nicola began the intensive process of locating the cave dwellers, whose fates no one in that part of Ukraine knew anything about. Eventually, back in North America, he found 14 of the survivors. So he began to tell their story.
That story is coming to the screen. Part reenactment, part documentary, “No Place on Earth,” opens May 3 at the Varsity Theater in Seattle.
When the Gestapo circled the village of Korolowka and rounded up the Jews to send to the camps or to dig their own graves before killing them, Esther Stermer knew that her family would submit to neither. Instead, she, her husband and their six children, along with four other families, fled about five miles away and slid through a narrow passage into Verteba cave. Verteba is exceptional among caves, carbon dating back to 5,000 BCE for probable use as a burial grounds (roughly 3,600 years before Moses’ birth, for perspective). Finding it unsuitable for life due to poor ventilation and lack of water (not to mention a Gestapo invasion), the group moved to nearby Priest’s Grotto, the 11th longest cave in the world and so complex that even experienced cavers take the fatal risk of getting lost.
“No Place on Earth” tells the harrowing story of what may be the longest-ever human underground existence, and follows Sam and Saul Stermer and Sonia and Sima Dodyk back to Ukraine to enter the caves that protected them 71 years ago.
In a phone conversation with JTNews, director Janet Tobias said a former colleague brought her the story, which was featured in National Geographic in 2004 and in Nicola’s book, “The Secret of Priest’s Grotto.” Though she was cautious at first to venture into Holocaust filmmaking territory, the Stermers won her over with their story.
“They had such pride in telling it,” she said. “They had such spirit in telling it. I thought, ‘I just need to do this.’”
Once the Stermers decided they could trust Tobias with their story, the production crew was tasked with a number of challenges, namely, transporting four elderly people down into a dangerous cave, normally accessed by a 100-foot-long rusty pipe. They built steps inside the cave and kept an ambulance on call. And then there was the gear.
“That was all very, very complicated,” said Tobias.
But the results made it worth it.
“For each of them, it was watching a person go back in time,” Tobias reflected. “Watching them remember things that happened to them at that age was really profound.”
In a Manichean twist, “I’d always thought of this as a story where light and dark were switched,” said Tobias. While the dark place was safe, “the scary place was outside…the second you popped your head out of the cave you could be dead.”
Tobias recalls being in the cave with the Stermers when Saul told Sam to turn out their light. Encased in darkness, Sam said, “Now I feel good; now I recognize where I am.”
“They loved the cave,” said Tobias. “It’s like a second mother to them.”
The group’s survival is credited to their skills and resources, said Tobias, from Esther’s “Golda Meir-like” leadership to others’ engineering skills, wits, connections with the outside world for food, and bravery.
Tobias hopes educators will use the film in the classroom.
“The way you stop genocide is one person at a time,” she said. “It is the younger generation’s opportunity and responsibility.” Kids, she continued, should see “how crazy brave and wonderful young people can be.”
On the film’s website, Nicola is quoted as saying, “I learned the Holocaust isn’t one story of how 6 million people perished; it’s 6 million individual stories.” From “Defiance” to “In Darkness” to “Inglourious Basterds,” tales of resistance and survival are joining the vast library of Holocaust stories focused on persecution and senseless acts of inhumanity.
“They came out, and they had an intact family, and no one had an intact family,” said Tobias. “So they view their experience with incredible pride. It was a story of triumph, not defeat.”
When the film screened at the Toronto Film Festival, the survivors in attendance received a standing ovation.
“How incredibly right and deserved,” Tobias thought at the time.
“They’ve kept their humanity and spirit,” she said. “I have a 92-year-old who laughs on the phone. It’s about as good as it gets.”
Courtesy Christopher Huh
A scene from Huh’s moving graphic novel about the Holocaust.
Christopher Huh is not Jewish. He has no European heritage and he’s not even old enough to drive.
But like thousands of other non-Jewish young people over the last 70 years, Huh, a 14-year-old Korean-American, became deeply affected by the historical account of the Holocaust.
As he sat in his 7th-grade class at Rocky Hill Middle School in Clarksburg, Md. and absorbed the overwhelming information from his teacher, he knew that sitting idly by while the rest of his peers appeared unaffected was not an option. So he went home, started digging deeper into the stories and the wealth of information on the Holocaust, and began to draw. His story developed into “Keeping My Hope,” a complex and beautiful narrative about an individual’s struggle in Poland during the war.
The 170-page graphic novel gives readers a meticulous account of Ari Kolodiejski and his family, as their small town in Poland transforms from a carefree village to a ghetto. Huh chooses to tell the story through the eyes of a grandfather passing on his tragic experience to his grandchildren.
“When I first decided to write the book, I thought the best way for people to learn was through a grandpa’s point-of-view,” says Huh. “I always liked it when I get to listen to my grandparents talk.”
Through his research, Huh decided to set his story in Poland, as it had the biggest Jewish population before World War II broke out. The detail that Huh puts into painting an accurate picture of pre-war Poland and then each stage of the war’s progression draws the reader in completely.
“I thought that this book should not only be a good story, but also be an opportunity for people to learn. Every little detail, I thought, should be something that spoke out,” says Huh. From towns to battles, from names to actual events and people, Huh wanted to be sure that everything in his novel was historically accurate.
“It was painstakingly difficult, but it was worth it,” he said. “I also asked my teacher, who is fluent in German, to double-check my translation.”
Huh read other Holocaust-related novels, such as “The Diary of Anne Frank,” Elie Wiesel’s “Night,” and Hans Peter Richter’s “Friedrich,” becoming well versed in the genre. Before launching into his own graphic novel, his teacher introduced him to Art Spiegelman’s “Maus,” the award-winning and most recognized Holocaust graphic novel. With all of this research under his belt, Huh set out to shape his own story to share with the world.
From his home in Maryland to as far as Israel, the community response to Huh’s self-published work has been incredible. Huh even received a letter from Elie Wiesel this month, praising his effort.
“Many people love the fact that I published this,” says Huh. “My schoolmates and teachers support me, along with my family, of course.”
As the story evolves, Huh goes into vivid detail as to Ari’s experience not only living in the ghetto, but also his transportation to and years living in Auschwitz. “The most important message in my book is that racism and prejudice are humanity’s greatest enemies and that we should always be aware of that,” says Huh. “It is explained on page 91, in the first speech bubble when Ari shows his number to his grandchildren.”
Through writing and illustrating “Keeping My Hope,” Huh has discovered his passion for both writing and drawing and plans to continue both in future.
You can find out more about “Keeping My Hope” and Christopher Huh at keepingmyhope.com. The graphic novel is available for purchase through Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.
Courtesy Charles Fox
The humble man behind “Killing Me Softly” and “The Love Boat” will tell the story of his life in music.
“An Afternoon with Charles Fox” takes place on April 28 at 2 p.m. at the Stroum Jewish Community Center, 3801 E Mercer Way, Mercer Island. For more information, visit www.sjcc.org.
“I felt he’d found my letters, and read each one out loud…”
You know why you love that song, “Killing Me Softly.” It’s not just the unabashedly confessional lyrics. It’s that heart-tugging tune that reached up into your life when you didn’t even know you needed it, and hasn’t left you since.
Charles Fox composed that tune, and hundreds more that have defined decades of American life on TV and radio, in the movies, on stage and in the concert hall. The theme songs for “Happy Days,” “Laverne and Shirley,” “The Love Boat,” the fanfare for ABC’s “Wide World of Sports,” and memorable movie-to-pop-chart hits including “I Got a Name” have earned him Emmy and Grammy awards and a lifetime of creative satisfaction, not to mention a spot in the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame. Who wrote the music in “Barbarella”? In “Goodbye Columbus”? Who wrote everything but the title song in “Nine to Five”? Charles Fox.
On Sunday, April 28, Fox will present a unique at-the-piano visit about his life and his work at the Stroum Jewish Community Center as part of its Jewish Touch lecture series.
“I’m happy to come to Seattle to sing my music,” he said via cellphone from the car as Joan, his wife of 50 years, drove them down the coast from L.A. to visit grandchildren. He reflects on what matters: “Our three children all saw me working day and night, and my wife Joan providing support for this career, so they grew up with this great work ethic,” he said. The couple has a daughter, an attorney, and two sons, one a businessman, the other a movie writer.
“I know where I got that work ethic,” he continued. “My father was a hard-working window cleaner. But he left home and came home every day in a suit and a tie, like he was ready to go to synagogue.”
In 1959, Charles Fox was an 18-year-old musically talented kid from the Bronx, already experienced making Latin music in the Catskills, when he was welcomed into the 20th century’s preeminent composers’ training studio, that of the legendary teacher Nadia Boulanger in Paris. Back home, his Jewish mother lovingly saved all his sweet letters, and Fox, one of the nicest, most humble guys show business has ever seen, published many of these in his 2010 memoir, “Killing Me Softly: My Life in Music.”
“I was just going to call it ‘A Composer’s Journey,’” he confesses, “but some friends made me reconsider.” Good move, obviously, from a publicity point of view. But not just that. “The title really has two meanings,” said Fox — the allusion to the blockbuster hit song, and the sense that, although life does have to end eventually, his life’s journey is as soft as that song.
“I feel so privileged,” said the man who has spent his career among the most competitive talents in the world. Educated in the best classical tradition, Fox creates work that transcends popular music and media: He composes and conducts for stages and concert halls around the world. Like Stravinsky and Copland, who also studied with Boulanger, he has created ballets: First for San Francisco Ballet, and then for its offshoot, Smuin Ballet, for which he is working on something new.
The Polish government commissioned Fox to compose and conduct the 2010 premier of “Fantaisie, Hommage à Chopin,” for the 200th anniversary of the birth of that legendary Polish composer. He conducted it in Gdansk for an audience of 22,000 at the birthplace of the country’s Solidarity movement.
That same year, Fox scored the documentary film “100 Voices: A Journey Home,” a powerful exploration of Jewish cultural history in Poland (it played at the 2011 Seattle Jewish Film Festival). In it, he joined his own synagogue rabbi, Nathan Lam, and over 300 others in walking paths his own father had known as a child. Fox composed an oratorio for orchestra, baritone soloist, chorus and children’s chorus called “Lament and Prayer,” a setting of Pope John Paul’s message of atonement to the Jewish People (the one he tucked into the Western Wall in Jerusalem).
“It was a very significant thing,” Fox said, to conduct the world premier at the Warsaw Opera House with the Poland National Opera Company Chorus and Orchestra.
Right now, Fox is eagerly anticipating a return to Poland. He’s been commissioned to compose a piece for the 2014 opening of the new Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw.
Earlier this month, Joan and Charles Fox celebrated with a synagogue in Stamford, Conn., where a Torah from his father’s home synagogue in Poland has come to stay. “Every Jew from that town perished,” Fox said, grateful that his father made it out before the worst. “One man in the town preserved that Torah wrapped in a horse blanket.”
Fox has received a lifetime achievement award from the Society of Composers and Lyricists. He chairs the music branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He’s been honored by the Polish Ministry of Culture for contributions to the arts and rebuilding Polish-Jewish relations.
“I have no less an excitement now than I did when I was I starting out,” Fox said. “The work makes me feel just as passionate and young.”
“An Afternoon with Charles Fox” takes place on April 28 at 2 p.m. at the Stroum Jewish Community Center, 3801 E Mercer Way, Mercer Island. For more information, visit www.sjcc.org.
“I felt he’d found my letters, and read each one out loud…”
You know why you love that song, “Killing Me Softly.” It’s not just the unabashedly confessional lyrics. It’s that heart-tugging tune that reached up into your life when you didn’t even know you needed it, and hasn’t left you since.
Charles Fox composed that tune, and hundreds more that have defined decades of American life on TV and radio, in the movies, on stage and in the concert hall. The theme songs for “Happy Days,” “Laverne and Shirley,” “Love Boat,” the fanfare for ABC’s “Wide World of Sports,” and memorable movie-to-pop-chart hits including “I Got a Name” have earned him Emmy and Grammy awards and a lifetime of creative satisfaction, not to mention a spot in the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame. Who wrote the music in “Barbarella”? In “Goodbye Columbus”? Who wrote everything but the title song in “Nine to Five”? Charles Fox.
On Sunday, April 28 Charles Fox will present a unique at-the-piano visit about his life and his work at the Stroum Jewish Community Center as part of its Jewish Touch lecture series.
“I’m happy to come to Seattle to sing my music,” he said via cellphone from the car as Joan, his wife of 50 years, drove them down the coast from L.A. to visit grandchildren. He reflects on what matters: “Our three children all saw me working day and night, and my wife Joan providing support for this career, so they grew up with this great work ethic,” he said. The couple has three children: A daughter, who is an attorney, and two sons, one a businessman, the other a writer of movies.
“I know where I got that work ethic,” he continued. “My father was a hard-working window cleaner. But he left home and came home every day in a suit and a tie, like he was ready to go to synagogue.”
In 1959, Charles Fox was an 18-year-old musically talented kid from the Bronx, already experienced making Latin music in the Catskills, when he was welcomed into the 20th century’s preeminent composers’ training studio, that of the legendary teacher Nadia Boulanger in Paris. Back home, his Jewish mother lovingly saved all his sweet letters, and Fox, one of the nice, most humble guys show business has ever seen, published many of these in his 2010 memoir, “Killing Me Softly: My Life in Music.”
“I was just going to call it ‘A Composer’s Journey,’” he confesses, “but some friends made me reconsider.” Good move, obviously, from a publicity point of view. But not just that. “The title really has two meanings,” said Fox — the allusion to the blockbuster hit song, and the sense that, although life does have to end eventually, his life’s journey is as soft as that song.
“I feel so privileged,” said the man who has spent his career among the most competitive talents in the world. Educated in the best classical tradition, Fox creates work that transcends popular music and media: He composes and conducts for stages and concert halls around the world. Like Stravinsky and Copland, who also studied with Boulanger, he has created ballets: First for San Francisco Ballet, and then for its offshoot, Smuin Ballet, for which he is working on something new.
The Polish government commissioned Fox to compose and conduct the 2010 premier of “Fantaisie, Hommage à Chopin,” for the 200th anniversary of the birth of that legendary Polish composer. He conducted it in Gdansk for an audience of 22,000 at the birthplace of the country’s Solidarity movement.
That same year, Fox scored the documentary film “100 Voices: a Journey Home,” a powerful exploration of Jewish cultural history in Poland (it played at the 2011 Seattle Jewish Film Festival). In it, he joined his own synagogue rabbi, Nathan Lam, and over 300 others in walking paths his own father had known as a child. Fox composed an oratorio for orchestra, baritone soloist, chorus and children’s chorus called “Lament and Prayer,” a setting of Pope John Paul’s message of atonement to the Jewish people (the one he tucked into the Western Wall in Jerusalem).
“It was a very significant thing,” Fox said, for him to conduct the world premier at the Warsaw Opera House with the Poland National Opera Company Chorus and Orchestra.
Right now, Fox is eagerly anticipating a return to Poland. He’s been commissioned to compose a piece for the 2014 opening of the new Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw.
Earlier this month, Joan and Charles Fox celebrated with a synagogue in Stamford, Connecticut, where a Torah from his father’s home synagogue in Poland has come to stay. “Every Jew from that town perished,” Fox said, grateful that his father made it out before the worst. “One man in the town preserved that Torah wrapped in a horse blanket.”
Fox has received a lifetime achievement award from the Society of Composers and Lyricists. He chairs the music branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He’s been honored by the Polish Ministry of Culture for contributions to the arts and rebuilding Polish-Jewish relations.
“I have no less an excitement now than I did when I was I starting out,” Fox said. “The work makes me feel just as passionate and young.”
Kirk Douglas in Cast a Giant Shadow (1966).
Film historian Bob Birchard describes an anti-Jewish prejudice in American culture that existed well into the 20th century, not at the level of the Nazi desire to exterminate the Jews, but rather looking down upon Jews as inferior to the mainstream Protestant class that developed in the U.S. Famed actor Kirk Douglas was raised against that social backdrop.
“This [anti-semitism] came about because of the large number of Jewish immigrants that came in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and the perception that they were undereducated and undercapitalized and somehow lesser than the old Anglo-Saxon stock. I think that is reflected in Kirk Douglas’s persona,” Birchard told JNS.org.
The 96-year-old Douglas—who was born Issur Danielovitch in New York to poor, Yiddush-speaking Jewish immigrants from Gomel (now Belarus) and embraced Judaism late in life after surviving a helicopter crash—has appeared in 70 films and has been nominated for the Academy Award of Best Actor three times, for “Champion,” “The Bad and the Beautiful,” and “Lust for Life,” over the course of a six-decade acting career. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1981 and the National Medal of the Arts in 2001. Listed by the American Film Institute lists as its 17th-greatest actor of all time, Douglas’s latest accolade came this February when he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Cinematographers Guild (ICG).
According to Steven Poster, national president of the International Cinematographers Guild, Local 600, when Douglas took the microphone at the ICG Publicists Award Luncheon, his vibrancy and youthful exuberance belied his 96 years.
“The ICG [at its ceremony this February] had just recognized a publicist member who is still active at 95 years old,” Poster told JNS.org. “The first thing Mr. Douglas said was, ‘I’d give anything to be 95 again. I’m 96.’ The audience erupted in laughter and applause. The depth of his career as an entertainer and the quality of the work that he did as one of America’s most important talents belies the fact that he has committed his life to his work in philanthropy and his involvement with his community.”
Growing up, Douglas sold snacks to mill workers to earn enough to buy milk and bread. Later, he delivered newspapers and worked at more than 40 jobs before becoming an actor. He legally changed his name to Kirk Douglas before entering the Navy during World War II.
Douglas’s 1988 biography, The Ragman’s Son, notes that his father was denied work in the carpet mills because he was Jewish.
“So my father, who had been a horse trader in Russia, got himself a horse and a small wagon, and became a ragman, buying old rags, pieces of metal, and junk for pennies, nickels, and dimes. Even on [New York’s] Eagle Street, in the poorest section of town, where all the families were struggling, the ragman was on the lowest rung on the ladder. And I was the ragman’s son.”
Looking back on his career, Douglas has said the underlying theme of some of his films, including “The Juggler,” “Cast a Giant Shadow,” and “Remembrance of Love,” was “a Jew who doesn’t think of himself as one, and eventually finds his Jewishness.”
In February 1991, Douglas survived a helicopter crash in which two people died. This sparked a search for meaning that led him, after much study, to embrace the Jewish faith in which he was raised. He documented this spiritual journey in his 2001 book, Climbing the Mountain: My Search for Meaning (2001). In The Ragman’s Son, he wrote, “Years back, I tried to forget that I was a Jew.”
But Douglas’s attitude changed after the helicopter crash, and he went on to say that coming to grips with what it means to be a Jew “has been a theme in my life.” He explained his personal transition in a 2000 interview with Aish.com.
“Judaism and I parted ways a long time ago, when I was a poor kid growing up in Amsterdam, N.Y. Back then, I was pretty good in cheder, so the Jews of our community thought they would do a wonderful thing and collect enough money to send me to a yeshiva to become a rabbi. Holy Moses! That scared the hell out of me. I didn’t want to be a rabbi. I wanted to be an actor. Believe me, the members of the Sons of Israel were persistent. I had nightmares—wearing long payos and a black hat. I had to work very hard to get out of it. But it took me a long time to learn that you don’t have to be a rabbi to be a Jew,” Douglas told Aish.com.
Although his children had a non-Jewish mother, Douglas has said in interviews that they were “aware culturally” of his “deep convictions,” and that he never tried to influence their own religious decisions. At the age of 83 in 1999, Douglas celebrated a second bar mitzvah ceremony.
Birchard—editor of the American Film Institute’s Catalog of Feature Films and the author of several books including Cecile B. DeMille’s Hollywood and Silent-era Filmmaking in Santa Barbara—told JNS.org that Douglas “is interesting not only because of his presence as an actor onscreen but also for his role as a pioneering independent producer.”
“He’s produced a number of films that are classics, such as ‘Spartacus’ and ‘Paths of Glory,’” Birchard said. “He is one of the people who helped form a new approach to filmmaking. As the studio system began to break down in the 1950s, Douglas was among the pioneering independent producers who was able to cash in on his screen popularity in order to make films that might not otherwise have been made.”
Douglas is one of the last surviving actors from Hollywood’s Golden Age. In 1996, he received the Academy Honorary Award for 50 years as a creative and moral force in the motion picture community. He also played an important role in breaking the Hollywood blacklist (also known as the “Hollywood Ten,” a list formed in the mid-20th century of actors, directors, musicians, and other entertainment professionals who were denied employment in their field due to political beliefs or associations) by making sure that screenwriter Dalton Trumbo’s name was mentioned in the opening and ending credits of “Spartacus.”
“Trumbo had been blacklisted in the early 1950s, and his only credits after 1953 were under another name because he couldn’t write under his own name,” Birchard said. “It was certainly a principled stand by Douglas. Douglas felt Trumbo wrote the script so he was entitled to the credit. There were a few other companies and producers, not many, who defied the blacklist before, but Trumbo was certainly one of the more important of the blacklisted Hollywood people and it essentially broke the back of the blacklist.”
The Trial opens April 5 and runs through April 28 at the INScape Arts Building, 815 Seattle Blvd., Seattle. For tickets and information visit www.wearenctc.org.
New Century Theatre’s adaptation of Franz Kafka’s The Trial opens tonight, April 5, at the INScape Arts Building. JTNews spoke with Darragh Kennan, the company’s artistic director who will also be leading the cast as Josef K., to discuss the play and NCTC’s goals for the production.
JTNews: What is The Trial about?
Darragh Kennan: The basic plot is that Josef K., who is Kafka’s everyman, wakes up one morning and realizes he’s been placed under arrest. He doesn’t know why he’s been arrested, and he spends the length of the play trying to find out what he had done that caused him to be arrested. It deals with his own relationships, his ego, his insecurity, what becomes his paranoia, and his humanity. He’s trying to figure out what he can take back and what he’s at the mercy of. [Kenneth Albers’ adaptation] is exciting, it’s sexy, and it’s really funny in a dark way. And ultimately, it’s poignant. It reflects our own humanity. People will be able to look at the play and think, “What am I abdicating right now in my life? What am I not taking ownership over? What am I taking for granted? What am I fighting for?” All these bigger questions of why we’re here on this planet.
JT: What made NCTC choose to produce The Trial at INScape, which used to be the INS building?
DK: We looked around for a place to do it, and this really unique situation with this great theater company called Satori Group [came up]. They were just moving into their new space [in] the old INS building. I thought, “That’s just too good to be true,” in terms of Kafka. The room that we’re performing our play in is the room where people used to be sworn in as US citizens. And the story of The Trial, with personal freedom and isolation and identity and government bureaucracy — it was a great fit for us.
JT: How did you translate the ambiguity and dreaminess of the story to the stage?
DK: There’s so much in terms of ambiguity. People might be spying on him, or it might be in his head. There might be a friend in the room, or that person might be working for the government. It questions everything. So I think it’s engaging and electric and dangerous at all times, and it’s very active. I don’t think of it as “dreamy” in terms of the pursuit and the forward momentum of the play.
JT: NCTC’s motto is “where risk and craft collide.” What risks are you taking with this production?
DK: I think it’s risky to do Kafka. But more risky than that is to not hide behind anything in our production. It’s going to be in a tiny room, and you’re going to be surrounded by people in a tiny rectangle. It’s a very little set. In order to have a moving evening of theater, we have to put ourselves out there. Emotionally, it’s risky. It’s vulnerable and raw to try and create truth in a tiny space like that where the audience is right there with you. And the craft is putting our experience to work and really calling each other out when we feel something is phony and not authentic in a storytelling sense. It’s theatrically risky, too. It’s about doing things that challenge the audience’s imagination in a theatrical way.
JT: Tell us about New Century Theatre Company’s background.
DK: [NCTC] got started in 2007. We’re unusual because we’re mid-level career professionals — we’re not young twenty-somethings getting started right out of college. There’d been a loss of theaters that were in the mid-range in terms of professional theaters in town. The Empty Space had closed, and Tacoma Actors [Guild] had closed. There were the big professional theaters like Seattle Repertory Theatre, Fifth Avenue Theatre, and ACT, but there wasn’t really a middle ground. There wasn’t a way for young actors to take the next step before they bridged the gap into the bigger houses. There was a need, we thought, to keep people in town — a lot of people had been leaving. We also thought we could do theater that was more centered on acting and storytelling, and not doing other people’s thinking for them. People could come to a show of ours and it would be a very theatrical experience, with a very small, stripped-down set and just actors in a room telling stories. That was exciting to us. We’re trying to blend dangerous theatricality with human stories.
JT: What do you hope the audience takes away from The Trial?
DK: We don’t do our audience’s thinking for them. I don’t necessarily expect people to explore moral and ethical issues, but we as a company look for plays that have that potential. For this show, I would love it if the audience could think about where they abdicate responsibility in their lives, or where they make choices that are almost passing the buck. But if they can see themselves in any way, and think about something in their life, then that’s a home run for me. I don’t necessarily need them to have the exact same response, nor do I want that. And I don’t want to tell them what the response needs to be. I just want to set it up in such a way that humanity is what’s in front of them. And if we do it right, they’ll see themselves in that humanity.
Courtesy Shira Ginsburg
Shira Ginsburg, creator and star of the one-woman show “Bubby’s Kitchen.”
“Bubby’s Kitchen” will have one performance on Sun., April 21 at 1 p.m. at Kirkland Performance Center, 350 Kirkland Ave., Kirkland. Tickets cost $54. A reception and silent auction to benefit Hadassah Hospital’s pediatric oncology dept. follows the performance. Find tickets and information at www.kpcenter.org/performances/bubbys-kitchen.
“Bubby’s Kitchen” is opening in Kirkland, but it’s not a restaurant. It’s a one-woman musical presentation created and performed by Shira Ginsburg, a cantor, mezzo-soprano, and proud granddaughter of “Bubby” Judith Ginsburg. The one-run show plays at the Kirkland Performance Center on April 21 to benefit the Hadassah women’s Zionist organization.
Shira Ginsburg grew up “in a family of Holocaust survivors and resistance fighters.” She has fond family memories, such as those of her Bubby Judith serving up generous amounts of food, conversation, and advice around the kitchen table. She later transformed these memories into “Bubby’s Kitchen.”
Ginsburg identifies herself as a “second-and-a-half generation Holocaust survivor in an extraordinarily tight-knit family. My father was the only son. There were three daughters,” she said. “I grew up part of a large family and one of 10 grandchildren. [My grandparents’] story was a very big part of my life.”
As a teenager in war-torn Europe, Judith (then Yudis) Ginsburg survived the Nazi occupation of her hometown of Lida, Poland. Her family did not. She lived in the forest, became a member of the Bielski partisans — the group characterized in the film “Defiance” — and fought with the Jewish resistance. After the war, Ginsburg married another partisan fighter and lived in a displaced-persons camp.
In 1949, they immigrated to the U.S. with two children who had been born in the camp. The older child was Shira’s father. The family lived in Troy, N.Y. and owned a dairy farm, where they raised what were eventually four children.
Shira Ginsburg’s pride in her grandmother’s survival and love for the family’s kitchen-table conversations were enhanced by a talent for being comfortable in front of an audience.
“I performed at [age] 4 with my aunt in her high school production of ‘The Wizard of Oz’” she said.
Ginsburg graduated from Syracuse University’s Drama and Musical Theatre program. After stints as an actress, singer and songwriter, she entered Hebrew Union College’s cantorial program. In 2009, she presented the 75-minute “Bubby’s Kitchen” as her cantorial thesis. The show premiered in New York City and has been travelling ever since. Performances have been staged in Jewish Community Centers and synagogues around the East Coast and Florida.
While the story is very Jewish, the performance has “a universal message of being raised in a family, lessons in life learned around the kitchen table,” Ginsburg said. It “resonates with people from any culture.”
The Seattle chapter of Hadassah booked Ginsburg for the benefit performance, with proceeds supporting Hadassah Hospital’s pediatric oncology department in Jerusalem. The Washington State Holocaust Education Resource Center is a sponsor as well.
“Seattle Chapter of Hadassah is thrilled to bring Shira’s ‘Bubby’s Kitchen’ to Seattle for her West Coast debut,” said event chair Karen Ovetz. “We have heard great things about the performance from our friends on the East Coast and want to share this fabulous piece of history and song with our community in Seattle.”
On stage, Ginsburg demonstrates her vocal range, her emotional connection, and solid Yiddish chops; a video clip on her website, bubbyskitchen.com, shows her performance of “Shtil Di Nacht.”
She sings “Yiddish opera, musical
theatre, chazzanut [cantorial singing], more contemporary,” she said. “It’s fun — a big range — and challenging.”
Ginsburg’s enthusiasm exists even over the telephone. She lives in New York, where she serves as cantor at East End Temple Congregation El Emet, but she spoke with JTNews from Florida, where she observed Passover with her Bubby, now in her 80s, and the extended Ginsburg clan.
“My energy is awesome around the show. I am the most proud of [it] in my life,” she said. “[It’s] a legacy to my grandparents…Every time I perform [I feel] a powerful impact on myself and others.”
An updated version of “Bubby’s Kitchen” will have new music from collaborator Jonathan Comisar. It is waiting in the wings, with the hope of a re-premiere in New York and a “more commercial run,” Ginsburg said, to increase the visibility of her grandparents’ story.
“I so wanted to have original music, and I’m just completing the last song now,” she said.
Hebrew union college
The Bonia Shur tribute concert performed by the Temple Beth Am choir takes place during Kabbalat Shabbat services on Friday, April 5, at 8 p.m. at Temple Beth Am, 2632 NE 80th St., Seattle.
He was a force to be reckoned with, this large-voiced man, the composer Bonia Shur.
When Shur died last August at the age of 89, Rabbi David Ellenson, president of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, paid him tribute for having “composed for and taught hundreds of rabbinical students in Cincinnati and cantorial students on the Jerusalem and New York campuses.” Before becoming the director of liturgical arts at the Reform rabbinical school’s Cincinnati campus, Shur placed his unique musical mark on Seattle’s Reform community as music director of Temple De Hirsch.
On Friday, April 5, Temple Beth Am’s choir will pay tribute to the legendary creative force that was Bonia Shur. The tribute includes a presentation by Shur’s wife, the equally forceful and creative choreographer Fanchon Shur, whose work often combined with his.
Shur’s “life and musical expression reflected the trajectory of 20th-century Jewish experience, from the destruction of the Shoah to the birth of Israel and the flowering of Jewish culture in America,” Ellenson noted. “Together with Fanchon’s gifted choreography, his creativity and vitality nurtured the academic and spiritual journeys of our students and enriched the larger community.”
Shur’s biography reads like an adventure movie. Born in Latvia in 1923 to a musically talented Jewish family, Shur wound up getting drafted into the Russian army, surviving by directing musical ensembles during the war. After the war, while serving as a Russian officer in occupied Germany and Austria, he escaped to Poland, joined the Jewish underground, and in 1949 moved to Israel. He lived on Kibbutz Netzer Sereni, studied with the foundational Israeli composer Paul Ben-Haim, and established his lifelong reputation as a supremely gifted arranger.
Shur moved to the United States in 1960 and worked in Hollywood. Among his projects: Collaborating on the score for the award-winning 1966 film, “The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!”
Then came Seattle.
Shur was tapped to succeed Temple De Hirsch’s legendary longtime music director Samuel Goldfarb, who retired in 1968. His dramatically different approach to the job, both musically and personally, left powerful impressions on congregants and community members. Lucy Spring, now volunteer coordinator at the Caroline Kline Galland Home, worked as assistant to both men.
“Mr. Goldfarb was very traditional,” Spring said, picking her words carefully. “Bonia was the opposite. He did a lot of writing in dissonance.”
Spring remembers Shur’s creativity and the special programs he did for the temple youth. “Along with his wife, he created a music and dance program,” she said. “Her dancing troupe was students from the temple.”
The Shurs lived in the Woodridge neighborhood of Bellevue during their six years at Temple de Hirsch (which merged with Temple Sinai in 1971 to become Temple De Hirsch Sinai). With sideburns some have described as “California-shaped,” the charismatic Shur embodied the spirit of the times.
In 1974, Shur was appointed director of liturgical arts at the Cincinnati campus of HUC-JIR. From 1974 to 2003, as “a major musical force in the Reform Jewish movement of North America,” as Ellenson put it, he “revolutionized the sound of liturgical music with emphasis on rhythm to text through contemporary sensory interpretation of worship practice. He composed arrangements in combination for cantor, choir, with diverse instrumentation. With over 300 published compositions to his credit, Shur’s prolific output for the High Holidays, life cycle, Sabbath, and festivals has influenced every Reform Jewish congregation in North America.”
In Cincinnati, Shur collaborated musically with Christian and Muslim communities. He continued composing and arranging up to the end of his life. At a tribute concert one year ago in Cincinnati marking Shur’s 88th birthday, he was celebrated as a musical revolutionary and dubbed the creator of a “Nusach America,” a now-classic set of uniquely American synagogue tunes.
Among his many works beyond the synagogue, Shur turned Seattle writer Robert Fulghum’s book “Uh-Oh: Some Observations from Both Sides of the Refrigerator Door” into a 1991 composition for a 40-piece orchestra. The work was part of the Minneapolis Chamber Symphony’s commissioned “Variations on a Theme from Kindergarten,” based on three of Fulghum’s bestselling books. The orchestra tuned not to the oboe, but to the hum of the refrigerator.
Temple Beth Am music director Wendy Marcus, who is organizing the April 5 Shabbat tribute, studied with Shur in a summer intensive in Cincinnati. She says that as far as she can tell, the Seattle tribute seems to be the first memorial tribute to Shur anywhere.
Marcus praises Shur not only for his compositional skills, but also “as a brilliant arranger, an arranger for the ages.
“He was a very adamant as a conductor,” Marcus said. “When he worked with a choir, he had a vision and he wanted people to sing his vision. It really felt like we were interacting with one of the greats.”
Courtesy Bruria Shaked-Okon
Yoni Netanyahu with his girlfriend Bruria in 1975.
The unexpectedly lovely documentary “Follow Me: The Yoni Netanyahu Story” reminds us what an unequivocal Israeli hero looks like.
A portrait of the life and times of the only Israeli casualty of the stunning long-distance rescue of the Jewish hostages at Entebbe in 1976, Ari Daniel Pinchot and Jonathan Gruber’s excellent film hearkens to a time before black and white blurred into a morass of gray.
“Follow Me: The Yoni Netanyahu Story” is now available on DVD after playing several Jewish film festivals and receiving a very limited theatrical release.
Israel owned the moral high ground on the world stage after the massacre of its athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, and continued to hold it as PLO operatives and sympathizers followed that “success” with a wave of international hijackings and hostage taking in the next few years. At home, however, national morale suffered from the heavy Yom Kippur War casualties, widely attributed to a lack of preparedness and poor decision-making.
When Palestinian terrorists seized an Air France jet en route from Tel Aviv to Paris and diverted it to Uganda, Israel stuck to its staunch policy of not negotiating for hostages. Bloodshed on a massive scale appeared inevitable until the surprise hit-and-run raid by an elite squad of Israeli soldiers — under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Yonathan Netanyahu — saved a hundred innocent lives and gave the nation a huge shot of pride and confidence.
This gripping chronology of events is intercut with Netanyahu’s compelling biography, which is largely unknown even to those with distinct memories of the exhilarating triumph at Entebbe. “Follow Me” is almost entirely in English and thus seems primarily aimed at American audiences, although it has no discernible political (or even generalized anti-war) agenda.
The eldest of three brothers, Yoni Netanyahu was born in New York City in 1946 and raised in the new state of Israel. His father was a professor and editor-in-chief of an encyclopedia, and scholars often visited their home. During Yoni’s adolescence, the family returned to the States twice for year-plus sojourns to accommodate his father’s research.
“I yearn for a place that’s narrow, hot, filthy,” a frustrated Yoni wrote from the comfortable Philadelphia suburb where they resided when he was 16. “A place that’s mostly desert and one can scarcely find on a map of the world.”
It’s apparent from photographs and the recollections of his brothers (including Benjamin, the current prime minister), lovers and fellow soldiers that Yoni was charismatic, with the open face and striking good looks of a young Pierce Brosnan.
He belonged to a generation of youthful nation-builders, and his first allegiance was to the state of Israel — even if it meant relinquishing certain goals. Wounded in the Six-Day War, Yoni married his sweetheart and moved to Boston to attend Harvard. But the pull of Israel, and the pull of the army, was so strong that they returned after just one year.
Yoni somehow finagled his way back into the military, even though he couldn’t bend or straighten his injured arm, and he was assigned to a top unit entrusted with risky and usually top-secret missions. An exceptional commitment was required, and he willingly made it even at the cost of his marriage.
There are telltale clues in his letters, and in his appreciation of poetry, that Netanyahu was a multidimensional person capable not just of leadership but reflection. Surprisingly, “Follow Me” doesn’t accentuate his lost potential for non-military contributions, nor does it invite any of the interviewees to contemplate how this deeply thoughtful, highly educated Zionist would have dealt with the invasion of Lebanon, or the construction of settlements on the West Bank.
“Follow Me: The Yoni Netanyahu Story” is a valuable, well-crafted and emotionally resonant addition to the video library of Israeli history, but it doesn’t stray beyond its boundaries. The ramifications of these events, and the ways in which Israel and the world have changed in the ensuing 35 years, are left to the viewer to mull.
The film doesn’t explore the impact of the Entebbe raid on Bibi’s politics, for example, although one might assume that the combat death of a revered older brother would make someone less willing to compromise with enemies.
We also might consider, without expressing anything but happiness for the younger soldier, how the notion of an Israeli hero has evolved from Yoni Netanyahu to Gilad Shalit.
Ryan Childers and Tyler Trerise in “The Whipping Man” at Taproot Theatre.
If you go: “The Whipping Man” opens at the Taproot Theatre, 204 N 85th St., Seattle, on Friday March 29 and runs through Saturday, April 27, with preview shows on Wednesday, March 27 and Thursday, March 28. Tickets and are available for purchase online at taproottheatre.org or by calling 206-781-9707. Due to the mature content of the play, “The Whipping Man” is recommended for ages 16 and above.
“When Moses was in Egypt land, let my people go…” The haunting words of this recognizable Passover hymn take on new meaning in the highly acclaimed dramatic play by Matthew Lopez, “The Whipping Man.”
Hard as it is to believe, over 100 years before Jews were at the forefront of the Civil Rights movement alongside their African American brethren, many were among the slave-owning population of the Confederate states. “The Whipping Man” draws the ironic parallels between these two groups of people — freed black slaves in the South at the end of the Civil War and Jews who, thousands of years prior, were themselves slaves in Egypt.
The play opens with Caleb, an injured Jewish Confederate soldier, returning from battle to his war-torn home in Richmond, Va. While the rest of the family seems to have gone missing, two of the longtime family-owned slaves — now emancipated — are all who remain to greet him. As they observe Passover together, recalling the Jewish exodus from Egypt, their shared pasts and “family secrets” call into question the futures of all three men.
“We read about the play about two years ago and found it absolutely fascinating,” said Taproot Theatre’s artistic director Scott Nolte. “As the story is told you have to bring out the rest of the skeletons of what’s going on in the family and layers of betrayal and injustice that have taken place.”
For Nolte, the lasting moral the show offers is “you’re really not going to be free until you recognize the injustices. And once you recognize them, then you can begin that reconciliation and forgiveness process.”
Nolte feels the play pays homage to the genuineness of Simon, the elder slave. “It pays a great deal of respect to the depth of his faith, in spite of the war, in spite of the death of Abraham Lincoln — Father Abraham, the American Moses. Despite his understanding that, though he thought his owners treated him like family, and he thought of them as family, that was just another layer of betrayal,” said Nolte.
The house (which is the setting of the play) is in itself reflective of the situation between the men on stage. The violent and devastating end of the war has left the house burned, shelled, and looted. The three men, essentially, are faced with the fact that nothing about the way they used to live is safe. They have to leave there and move forward — they cannot stay in this house. The same can be said of their relationships with each other.
Though there are several points at which Simon — the self-proclaimed leader of the seder — adapts the story of Passover to his own experience and the recent events (the surrender, death of Lincoln, and so on), he holds true to a traditional Jewish Passover ceremony. The men scrape together what they can in their dire situation, but they make it work. It becomes apparent to the audience that regardless of what has gone on outside the walls of their home, the men find it utterly imperative that this tradition is observed and honored.
“We have three really terrific actors that are really dedicated to it, which makes a huge difference,” said Nolte about the stirring performances by Ryan Childers, William Hall, Jr. and Tyler Trerise.
Nolte points out that, even though our response to the issue of slavery in the United States is often quite disconnected — “because slavery was a long time ago, and ‘it wasn’t my fault’” — there is importance in acknowledging the legacy of that history.
It’s easy to walk away and say, “That was a great story, but it doesn’t apply to me. I live in Seattle, and we’re not racist here.” But Nolte’s hope is that the play will go deeper than that for audience members.
As with all of Taproot Theatre’s productions, patrons who attend Wednesday night performances will have the opportunity to participate in a post-play discussion, which will feature the cast and director.
In addition, a free special event is planned for April 16: “Conversations” will be held in conjunction with the John Perkins Center for Reconciliation, Leadership Training, and Community Development at Seattle Pacific University. Nolte has worked closely with the center throughout the development of the show to help his crew better understand how to relate to the issues of slavery, justice, and human rights, and convey that energy to the audience. The post-play discussion and “Conversations” are opportunities for patrons to delve deeper into some of the topics brought up by this unique story.
Through confronting some of the most unjust and dehumanizing periods of our humanity, we are able to move forward and be truly free, Nolte pointed out.
“This play, in a sense, is all of our stories,” he said.
Yossi (Ohad Knoller) gives a lift to a gaggle of soldiers on his road trip to the Sinai in Eytan Fox’s “Yossi.”
“Yossi” opens Fri., March 8 at the Landmark Egyptian Theatre, 805 East Pine St., Seattle. Visit www.landmarktheatres.com for showtimes and tickets.
Remember that scene at the end of “The Graduate” when Elaine has skipped out on her wedding and fled with Benjamin Braddock on a city bus? The look on their faces — Katharine Ross in her white veil, Dustin Hoffman sweaty and with his hair mussed — said it all: “What in the heck do we do next?”
It’s the same look that ends “Yossi,” Israeli director Eytan Fox’s sequel, 10 years later, to his breakthrough hit “Yossi and Jagger.” But let’s start from the beginning. When “Yossi” opens, the eponymous character, Yossi Guttman (reprised by Ohad Knoller), is asleep in the call room after a long night at the hospital. He’s a middling cardiologist who has never gotten over the loss of his lover and IDF commander Jagger, who in the original film died in his arms after a skirmish in Lebanon. Yossi is lonely, overweight and exhausted. He spends his evenings eating oily takeout, watching porn and looking for one-nighters on online dating sites. His few friends — all of them co-workers — can surmise he’s gay, but he closes himself off so much that nobody knows for sure. Even the nurse who keeps trying to get him to go out on a date can’t get a straight answer about his sexuality. No two ways about it: He’s stuck.
But then he gets a visitor. Jagger’s mother comes in for an exam. Not knowing her connection to the still-mourning Yossi, she tells him about Lior — Jagger’s given name — and eventually he comes clean to Jagger’s parents about their relationship. It’s not an understatement to say that finding out about their son’s love life a decade after his death came as a shock.
But the moment finally Yossi decides to do something about his life. On a forced vacation to the Sinai, he picks up a quartet of soldiers on their way to Eilat for a weekend of R&R. One of them, it turns out, is gay. What ensues we’ve seen before. A courtship. A coupling. An awakening. Yes, it’s derivative, and the lights-on/lights-off scene — you know the one where one lover is embarrassed to be seen in the light while the other wants to see — is too rom-com in a drama that elicits few laughs.
But Fox seems to know that unlike “Yossi and Jagger,” which at the time was a shocking revelation but set the stage for Israeli gay film over this past decade, he’s not breaking new ground with the sequel. Doron Eran’s “Melting Away,” the 2011 film that broke the transgender barrier in Israel, can claim that mantle today. But just because “Yossi” doesn’t have high profile of the original doesn’t mean it’s a bad film. Though it is, admittedly, kind of a downer, the acting and direction are still well done. One scene between Yossi and Tom, the young soldier, is a case in point and an allegory for Israel today and the Israel of a decade ago. Where the older, quieter Yossi still hasn’t stopped hiding his sexuality, the younger, more boisterous Tom isn’t afraid of who he is: He flaunts it, his buddies know all about it, and it’s just one of those things they all accept.
So when Yossi has his Benjamin Braddock moment, we can only hope that if we visit him again in 10 years he has aged much more gracefully than he has in the past 10. Without it, the rest of the film would have felt like a waste.
Itai Erdal tells the story of his mother’s departure from life on the stage.
How to Disappear Completely runs March 21-24 at 8 p.m. at On the Boards, 100 W Roy St., Seattle. Tickets are $12-$20. For more information visit www.ontheboards.org.
In 1999, Israeli-born Itai Erdal moved to Vancouver, B.C. to pursue a film career. A year later, he found out his mother had been diagnosed with lung cancer and had nine months to live. Erdal returned home to care for her and to film the last part of her life. The result, “How to Disappear Completely” merges film, theater, and the grieving process into an honest and uplifting performance.
JTNews: Describe your show, “How to Disappear Completely.”
Itai Erdal: My mom died 12 years ago. She asked me if I would take care of her, because she didn’t want to go to a hospital. I filmed the whole thing. It was actually her idea.
JT: Why did you decide to use the footage for a theater performance instead of creating a documentary?
IE: First of all, at the time, it was just way too close and personal. It takes years to process what I had been through.
I work in theater, and I love verbatim theater. There’s something about real stories that touches me like no other theater does. It’s such a rare opportunity to reflect on one’s life like this through a piece of theater.
JT: How do you interact with the film onstage?
IE: All of the footage is in Hebrew with subtitles. Sometimes I do translations, sometimes I comment in general about what they’re saying, sometimes I say my friend’s words as if they’re mine. It’s a tool and device that moves the story forward constantly. Doing the show is like hanging out with my mom for an hour. I’m getting emotional just talking about it. It’s a joy. It’s a gift.
JT: How did the experience of taking care of your mom change you?
IE: All the priorities change about what’s important or not important in life. It’s the toughest thing I’ve ever had to do. My mom was such a strong woman; she was a rock. To see somebody like that, to see her fall apart completely, particularly mentally, was horrible. There was never any doubt or question about what was the right thing to do, once it’s somebody that you love. It changed me profoundly.
JT: Did it change you in a religious or spiritual way?
IE: I was brought up as an atheist, and my mom was an atheist. But since she died, I have felt her presence many times. Whereas I remain an atheist, I am somewhat more spiritual than I was. I do think that maybe the notion of a soul can exist. My mother is as present in my life in her death as she was [when she was alive].
JT: In the trailer for the show, there is a part where you are reciting Mourner’s Kaddish…
IE: It might be the first time in my life where I did do some Jewish customs, because I found them useful. My mom’s funeral was such a surreal experience for me. But saying the Kaddish, I get it now. By doing something public in the moment of your biggest grief, it forces you to be present. You can’t not be there. You can’t not feel things.
And same for the shiva: A week later, everybody cooks for you, your house is open, everybody looks at photos together…It’s a lot of laughter, a lot of joy, a lot of the tension kept in the house for months and months while waiting for someone to die is released. Suddenly, there are children in the house, there’s laughter in the house. Shiva is a fantastic tradition. I also grew a beard that I’ve kept ever since. I didn’t have a beard before. In the 30 days after your parents die, you do not shave. It’s another thing I sort of took with me.
JT: How have audiences reacted to the show?
IE: This show has touched so many people. Every time I do it there’s a line of people with tears in their eyes waiting to tell me about parents that have died, siblings that have died. People have written me letters and emails telling me their whole life story. It has by far exceeded any of my dreams for anything I could create. I don’t want people to think that it’s super depressing; [my mom] had a great sense of humor. The show is very funny! I am funny. A lot of people see the poster, my mom’s shaved head in the poster, and think it’s a depressing show. And it is sad, but it is also uplifting.
Everyone’s got their eyes on Izzy Grossman (Carol Sage Silverstein, lower left), the young woman who’s trying to decide between two suitors: A suave writer from New York or the pickle peddler from the Lower East Side. Izzy’s dilemma propels “Crossing Delancey,” a play by Susan Sandler and produced by the Seattle Jewish Theater Company. Talia Toni Marcus, far right, will perform klezmer music during each show. The production will have five performances throughout the Seattle area, starting on March 16.
Here’s the full schedule:
Sat., March 16 at 8 p.m., Kol HaNeshamah at Kenyon Hall, 7904 35th Ave. SW, West Seattle.
Sun., March 17 at 3 p.m., Congregation Ezra Bessaroth, 5217 S Brandon St., Seattle.
Sun., March 24 at 3 p.m., Temple B’nai Torah, 15727 NE Fourth St., Bellevue.
Thurs., March 28 at 7:30 p.m., The Summit at First Hill, 1200 University St., Seattle.
Sat., March 30 at 7:30 p.m., Temple Beth Am, 2632 NE 80th St., Seattle.
For tickets and further information, contact each venue or visit
Disney ABC Television Group
Left to right, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth MacFarlane and Daniel Radcliffe dancing in the opening routine of the 85th Academy Awards, Feb. 24, 2013.
LOS ANGELES (Jewish Journal) — No one sends out press releases to announce that something is not anti-Semitic. That’s why this morning’s media is full of reports that host Seth MacFarlane’s Oscar performance last night was just shy of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s U.N. speech.
The Anti-Defamation League was first out of the gate, calling MacFarlane “offensive and not remotely funny” — which in and of itself is funny, the idea that the ADL is not just the arbiter of anti-Semitism but of humor.
Then came a press release from the Simon Wiesenthal Center, seeing the ADL’s umbrage and raising it to world historical levels.
“It is unfortunate that at a time when anti-Semitism is so prevalent throughout the world,” said the center, “that Seth MacFarlane used the pulpit of the Oscars, before an audience of more than a billion people. to contribute to the myth that Jews own Hollywood.”
I found these reactions more annoying than MacFarlane’s comments, which varied from the very funny to the remotely funny, but never came close to anti-Semitism.
Seth MacFarlane was joking. He was poking fun. He was mocking the widespread understanding that Jews are disproportionately represented in the entertainment business. This fact comes as a shock to exactly no one, and the idea that joking about it “feeds” anti-Semitism misunderstands both the nature of humor and of anti-Semitism.
One thing humor does well, even better than press releases, is diffuse prejudice. It does that through mockery, exaggeration and sometimes by just bringing prejudice to light. That explains everything from Charlie Chaplin in “The Great Dictator” to Sacha Baron Cohen’s character of Borat, who got dozens of Arizonans at a rodeo to sing the “famous” Kazhakstan folksong “Throw the Jew Down the Well.” Cohen wasn’t out to whip up Jew hatred, he was out to expose human — hmm, what’s the word? — stupidity.
MacFarlane doesn’t really believe you have to change your name or give to Israel to make it in Hollywood, he was riffing on the simplistic belief that that’s all it takes.
Billy Crystal could make a dozen Jewish references at the Oscars and no one would do anything but kvell. Granted, MacFarlane’s humor is more in-your-face — but it goes nowhere that Crystal, or Adam Sandler in his “Chanukah Song,” or Lenny Bruce in his Jewish/gentile rift, or a hundred other comedians, haven’t gone before.
So why the outrage? Maybe because against the backdrop of increasing anti-Semitism in Europe and elsewhere, Jews are extra sensitive. Maybe because an older generation of Jews is unfamiliar with a newer brand of “Family Guy”/“South Park” humor. Even Amy Davidson, writing on the New Yorker blog, took offense — this from a magazine whose editor David Remnick once wrote a much-deserved, flattering profile of Howard Stern. Stern’s brand of satire paved the way for comedians like MacFarlane.
Or maybe the outrage arises because Jews are still uncomfortable with the notion of being powerful. Deal with it. Jews are disproportionately represented in Hollywood. But wait, there’s more: The Jewish state has 200 nuclear weapons and a hegemony of power in the Middle East. Jews are disproportionately represented in government, finance, law, publishing and medicine. Only Jews can read these factual statements and think, Oy!
The ADL and the Simon Wiesenthal Center not only miss the point, they are missing the opportunity. MacFarlane’s jokes, like all good humor, can get people thinking, can open a conversation: Why are Jews so prevalent in Hollywood? How does their Jewish identity inform their creative choices? How would Hollywood look if it were composed, disproportionately, of WASPs or Thais, or anti-Semites?
Hollywood is one of America’s greatest gifts to the world — why else would 2 billion people tune in to see “Lincoln” get robbed of best picture? There is nothing to hide and plenty to joke about.
Rob Eshman is publisher and editor in chief of the L.A. Jewish Journal. You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism.
Mélanie Laurent and Guillaume Gouix as Justine and Sami, before it all falls apart.
“The Day I Saw Your Heart” opens the festival on Sat., March 2 at 7:30 p.m. at Pacific Place Theatres, 600 Pine St., Seattle. Contact 206-324-9996 or visit seattlejewishfilmfestival.org for ticket information.
If Jewish sons have mommy issues, then Jewish dads have daughter issues. This phenomenon crosses time zones and national boundaries, as proven by the Seattle Jewish Film Festival’s opening night flick, “The Day I Saw Your Heart.”
The festival has strong representation from France this year. “The Day I Saw Your Heart” (“Et Soudain Tout le Monde Me Manqué — “And Suddenly I Miss Everyone” is the French title) starring Mélanie Laurent (“Inglourious Basterds”) as Justine and Michel Blanc as her meddling father, stands in the middle of a family whose dysfunction, embarrassingly, appears to be its most Jewish trait.
One has to wonder why the adorable Justine just can’t get it together. Crashing on her sister and brother-in-law’s couch — nearly botching their adoption home study — the quirky blonde picks arguments with baristas and goofs off on her job in a medical clinic by taking X-rays of household objects.
We come to find that Justine’s clinical pastime is an expression of her artistic side, and when Justin Timberlake lookalike Sami (Guillaume Gouix, who stars in recent French-Israeli drama “Alyah”) drifts into her life, he becomes an objet d’art, too. In one of the most creative romantic sequences I’ve seen in some time, Justine X-rays various parts of Sami’s body after the clinic has closed for the night. Back home with the images held up to the window, she torments herself finding the perfect arrangement.
Are her X-ray art projects art pour l’arte, or, peut-être, art pour le inner turmoil caused by la famille, in particular, le père?
Eli Dhrey, Justine’s father, not only gave his daughters a run for his love, but now, remarried and getting on in age, announces his wife’s pregnancy. This does nothing for Justine, who has spent her life trying to win his love (hence many failed relationships). And when Justine discovers that her long string of ex-boyfriends are all in close contact with her father — he’s even leaving his business to a couple of them — and that he’s pulling Sami into his collection, you can imagine all the more why she’s crashing at her sister’s place and confiscating their toaster for internal exams.
When Eli, in his meddling way, finds out that his daughter has been X-raying a boyfriend, he requests a session. But what Justine finds is not art. Holding up the image of his chest X-ray, she spots a problem with his heart. Cue the irony.
Facing a life-threatening situation, Eli and his wife and daughters have to sort out their issues before it’s too late. Although only vaguely Jewish, “The Day I Saw Your Heart” is, if you’re not too uncomfortable, heartwarming.
Anna (Hen Yanni), who was born as Assaf, works nights as a cabaret singer in a Tel Aviv gay nightclub.
What do you do when your family hates you for what you are? If you’re lucky, you get out. That’s what happens to Assaf at the start of “Melting Away,” a teenage boy who disappears after his father, upon finding women’s clothes hidden in his son’s bedroom, bolts the door to the house.
“He’ll come back,” says Shlomo to Assaf’s tearful mother, Gallia.
And she believes him. But Assaf never returns. Four years later, however, Anna does. After enlisting the assistance of a private detective, Gallia finds her son — who has since become her daughter — to let her child know that Shlomo is dying.
Acting as a care nurse by day while he convalesces, Anna appears to successfully hide her new identity from her father, whose illness has made him less of an overbearing jerk, while trying to recreate the relationship they never really had.
If “Melting Away,” which screens at this year’s Seattle Jewish Film Festival, were an American film, it likely would have made its rounds of the indie film circuit, screened at a few gay and lesbian film festivals, then been relegated to the LGBT section of the dwindling video stores in the more progressive cities around the country. But this is not an American film. This is Israel’s first examination of transgender issues on the screen, and director Doron Eran manages to create a sensitive yet engaging film that can come only from his level of experience behind the camera.
Which isn’t to say that the film is perfect. Hen Yanni is spectacular as Anna, and Ami Weinberg’s portrayal of Shlomo, the go-getter-turned-terminal-patient, is just as impressive. Limor Goldstein’s portrayal of the weak-turned-empowered Gallia is good, if not too tearful.
But the supporting cast — a favorite uncle whose understanding behavior toward a disaffected young nephew is far different from his aggressive behavior toward pretty young women, or the best friend who fears coming out to his mother — play too close to type.
But the actors work well together, and with what they have. Assaf/Anna is pensive, drawn into her career as an artist and cabaret singer, and is seemingly well adjusted despite having lived in hiding for several years. That she can slip right back into her family’s lives so easily without immediately giving herself away pushes the boundaries of believability, as does the fact that no one in the hospital questions Anna’s nursing credentials.
But those are minor quibbles in a beautifully shot, conversation-inducing picture. The ending turns much of what we’ve watched on its head, but everyone gets what he or she wants, even Shlomo, though it doesn’t give anything away to say that he dies. For everyone else, life goes on.
“MeltingAway” screens on Thurs., March 7 at 8:30 p.m. at SIFF Cinema at the Uptown, 511 Queen Anne Ave. N, Seattle. Visit seattlejewishfilmfestival.org or call 206-324-9996 for tickets.
Naim (Mahmoud Shalabi) and his friends find the bottle with Tal’s questions about life in Gaza.
“A Bottle in the Gaza Sea” screens Sun., March 03, 2013 at 4:30 p.m. at Pacific Place Theatres, 600 Pine St., Seattle. Contact 206-324-9996 or visit seattlejewishfilmfestival.org for ticket information.
“A Bottle in the Gaza Sea” (Une Bouteille à la Mer) has been billed by some critics as a Palestinian-Israeli Romeo and Juliet.
Indeed, our young protagonists — Tal Levine (Agathe Bonitzer), a French teenager who has made aliyah with her family, and 20-year-old Gazan Naïm Al Fardjouki (Mahmud Shalaby of last year’s film festival feature “Free Men”) — are from rival houses. Seventy-three kilometers apart, yet separated by walls and ideologies, they establish an unrequited friendship through clandestine emails.
But the comparison ends there. “Bottle in the Gaza Sea” is much more about the reckoning that both Tal and Naïm have to do with each other, as well as with their own families and values.
Withdrawn and jumpy after a nearby café bombing, Tal has her brother, a soldier serving near Gaza, toss a message in a bottle into the sea.
“I wonder,” she writes, “how anybody can attach explosives to his body, choose some place and watch his victims, knowing he’s about to die.” Somewhat implausibly, the bottle ends up in the hands of Naïm and his friends.
“She’s nuts!” they laugh. “She wants to know how a guy blows himself up? Abu Samir, our neighbor, will show her!”
Naïm, however, secretly contacts Tal via the email address she’s left, which begins a rocky correspondence until Tal reveals her French origins. Rather than stoking Naïm’s anger (after all, she has another homeland), this fact endears her to him. For he is studying French, and in her he has found a language partner. Ah, oui, the French save the day.
Directed by Thierry Binisti, “A Bottle in the Gaza Sea” is based on Valérie Zenatti’s young-adult novel by the same title. Knowing this, it’s easier to understand the simplicity of the friendship and some of its more problematic elements.
Yet despite the criticism, “Bottle” is beautifully shot and acted and impeccably timed. Moreover, it poignantly captures the day-to-day challenges of Naïm, Tal, and their friends and families, from Tal’s growing disaffection with her parents and boyfriend to Naïm’s frustration with his t-shirt delivery job and the extended family that has been forced to temporarily share his apartment. And while the gravity of the conflict is more heavily weighted toward Naïm — especially when Operation Cast Lead begins — their personal grievances, family conflicts, life lessons, and moments of comic relief complement each other.
No one said the Middle East conflict was easy, and these days art tends to either pick sides or neutralize the passions into a digestible lesson about how we’re all the same. “A Bottle in the Gaza Sea” takes the latter tack, but not without trying to point out the nuance along the way.
But truly, given the complexity of the situation, is a little simplicity once in a while such a bad thing?
The rabbi and his talking cat discuss the finer points of Talmud as they make their way to find a lost Jewish tribe of Ethiopia.
“The Rabbi’s Cat” screens Sun., March 10 at 2:30 p.m. at SIFF Cinema at the Uptown, 511 Queen Anne Ave. N. Contact 206-324-9996 or visit seattlejewishfilmfestival.org for ticket information.
Animated movies, even more than live-action films, invite us to lose ourselves in a wholly invented world.
French-Jewish filmmaker Joann Sfar and Antoine Delesvaux’s deliciously delirious feature, “The Rabbi’s Cat,” is set in a real time and place — Algeria in the 1930s, where Sephardic Jews and Arabs had a long history of co-existence — yet evokes the anything-can-happen quality of a fairy tale.
Adapted from Sfar’s best-selling graphic novel and its sequels, “The Rabbi’s Cat” marries his witty, untethered animation to a great, bouncy soundtrack. It’s a deeply pleasurable experience, not least because it doesn’t push and strain for deep meanings.
The episodic, digressive film may not build to a moral, but if there is a takeaway it’s that we should aspire to tolerance rather than dogmatism.
“The Rabbi’s Cat,” which won France’s César Award for Best Animated Feature, screens in the Seattle Jewish Film Festival. A few sexual references and a couple of brief sequences of violence perhaps make the subtitled film inappropriate for children under 12.
Imbued with the surreal illogic of a dream, “The Rabbi’s Cat” is utterly unique, even if the hand-drawn visuals may remind some viewers of Marc Chagall’s child-like exuberance and vibrant palette.
A widowed, middle-aged sage enjoys a tranquil, affable life with his curvaceous teenage daughter, Zlabya, who’s more interested in boys and gossip than the words of the prophets, and his cat, who accompanies him on his rounds to cafes, shul, etc.
Complying with the immutable laws of nature, one day the cat kills and devours Zlabya’s pet parrot. In a decidedly unnatural turn of events, the cat acquires the power of speech.
His first utterance is a denial that he’s responsible for the bird’s demise, a lie that provokes the rabbi into a Talmud lesson. To our amazement, the acerbic and impolitic feline is fully capable of debating issues of faith and Jewish law.
Needless to say, the rabbi can hold his own, while generally maintaining his good humor. Overall, he’s a model of equanimity, which proves essential when the duo embark on an expedition across the continent.
The impetus is the arrival of a Russian Jewish painter who’s searching for a lost tribe and a rumored city in Ethiopia. The helpful rabbi and curious cat enlist a wealthy entrepreneur and an Arab sheikh in the artist’s quest, and the quintet set off on a meandering trek through the African desert.
The film unfolds in a romantic and exotic setting, but it doesn’t romanticize or exoticize human nature. Neither colorblind nor politically correct, “The Rabbi’s Cat” revels in mocking those who only see religion, race and color.
For instance, after a memorably threatening encounter with a Muslim hardliner, the sheikh remarks, “It’s a pity He lets so many fools speak in His name.”
Bigotry is not limited to one religion, however. The mysterious city, when they finally reach it, turns out to be populated by black Jews who can’t conceive of white co-religionists and pull out their spears. Their murderous aims come to naught, fortunately.
The droll fatalism that runs through “The Rabbi’s Cat” is just one among many delights. But it’s the most consistent indicator, ultimately, of the film’s Jewish source and sensibility.
“The Rabbi’s Cat” is in French with English subtitles. (unrated, 89 minutes)
Prolific artist Joann Sfar puts watercolors to his inked drawings.
“Joann Sfar Draws From Memory” screens Sun., March 3 at 2:45 p.m. at Pacific Place Theatres, 600 Pine St., Seattle. Contact 206-324-9996 or visit seattlejewishfilmfestival.org for ticket information.
If anyone still thinks comic books — or graphic novels — are strictly child’s play, a few minutes with Parisian cartoonist Joann Sfar will erase that misconception.
San Francisco filmmaker Sam Ball’s evocative and marvelous documentary, “Joann Sfar Draws From Memory,” introduces us to the iconoclastic Jewish artist and filmmaker who topped France’s bestseller list with “The Rabbi’s Cat.”
Inspired by his grandmother’s tales of life in Algeria in the 1920s, Sfar set his talking cat saga in a neighborhood where Jewish, Arab and French traditions coexisted and overlapped.
“There’s a line in our film from Joann: ‘I wanted to show Jewish kids that their ancestors came from North Africa,’ which is true of about half of France’s Jews, ‘and I wanted to remind Muslim kids that there were Jews in North Africa, and they more or less got along for centuries,’” said Ball. “There’s no reason to have nostalgia because it wasn’t idyllic, but there is something that has been lost.”
“Joann Sfar Draws From Memory” screens in the Seattle Jewish Film Festival on March 3 at SIFF Cinema Uptown.
Ball, whose numerous short documentaries include a moody portrait of New York Jewish cartoonist Ben Katchor, “Pleasures of Urban Decay” (2000), and “A Bridge of Books” (2001) about the National Yiddish Book Center, was born in France and speaks fluent French. He says it’s misleading to view France as an anti-Semitic country, despite the anti-Jewish attacks of recent years.
“France, I think, has a complicated relationship toward ethnicity in general,” he says. “I don’t think Jews are unique in that. But there’s a great fascination in mainstream French culture with anything that has to do with former French colonies, and ‘The Rabbi’s Cat’ fits that craving.”
Some of Sfar’s appeal — and certainly his sensitivity — stem from the fact that his father is Algerian and his mother is French, which makes him Sephardic-Ashkenazi.
Ball served as associate director of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival from 1996 to 2000, and started the New Jewish Filmmaking Project for teenagers and young adults — which he continues to produce through his company, Citizen Film — with the festival the following year. His list of current projects includes a film about “Pearls of Yiddish Poetry,” the column Yosl and Hannah Mlotek wrote for The Jewish Daiy Forward for many years.
All of which is to say that Ball is an expert on films about Jewish culture and Jewish artists, and resists the tried and trite.
“I think it’s refreshing to see depictions of Jews that aren’t about gefilte fish or the Holocaust or Yiddishkeit, as much as I love Yiddishkeit,” he said. “This is a movie about the creative process. That’s probably the central preoccupation of the film: How do you take what you’ve been given, both in terms of what’s been handed down to you and your own lived experience? It’s through the act of creation that you grapple with that.”
When Ball embarked on “Joann Sfar Draws From Memory,” he discovered Sfar’s vast illustrated diaries filled with the everyday incidents in his young children’s lives.
“Joann told me that there’s something Chagall said that really resonates with him: ‘If you want to keep people safe, you put them in paintings.’ For Joann, he puts them in comic books.”
Rexhep Hoxha, an unassuming toy seller, works to fulfill the promise of his father to return three sacred books to a Jewish family that disappeared in the Holocaust.
“Besa: The Promise” screens as part of the Seattle Jewish Film Festival on Monday, March 4 at SIFF Cinema Uptown, 511 Queen Anne Ave. N, Seattle.
An important challenge for 21st-century documentary filmmakers is connecting the distant history of the Holocaust to today, and making it relevant for younger audiences.
More often than not, it’s the children and grandchildren of survivors, rescuers, and perpetrators who supply the necessary link between the past and the present.
In her riveting, revelatory, and profound film, “Besa: The Promise,” director Rachel Goslins depicts an Albanian man’s extraordinary efforts to fulfill the vow his late father made to the Jewish couple he hid during the war. The marvelously crafted film, with a fine score by Philip Glass, simultaneously honors the broader efforts of the entire population to protect its Jews from the Nazis.
These days, Albania is looked down upon as the most broke, backward province in Europe, but the country deserves a better reputation. Immediately before Mussolini’s troops invaded and drove him into exile, King Zog granted citizenship to every Jew living in Albania.
Following their beloved king’s lead, and in keeping with their highly developed code of honor, the populace assumed the responsibility of sheltering its Jews. Some 70 percent of the Albanians who saved Jews were Muslim, and “Besa: The Promise” is intended in part as a rebuke of the conventional wisdom that Muslims and Jews are natural and eternal enemies.
Admittedly, Albania is a small country and we’re not talking large numbers of Jews, but every life and every act of conscience counts. That’s the attitude of the tireless Norman Gershman, an American who embarked a decade ago on a campaign to find, photograph, and extol the Albanians who aided Jews.
“Besa: The Promise” artfully weaves the historical overview and the aging Gershman’s solo crusade with the fascinating, nearly unbelievable persistence of an unassuming toy seller named Rexhep Hoxha. Born in 1950, Hoxha grew up hearing his father’s story of hiding a Bulgarian Jewish couple and infant during the war.
When the Jewish family fled, they left three prayer books — treasured family items that, if they were stopped en route, would have betrayed their Jewishness — in their benefactor’s care. He promised to return them after the war, but to his dismay he was never able to locate the family, and neither they nor their children ever showed up to reclaim them. After his father’s death, Rexhep Hoxha inherited the “besa,” the Albanian custom of keeping one’s word and helping in times of need. The traditional concept of besa expanded to include the Albanian Muslim protection of Jews during the war years.
What gives the film its tension is the mysterious behavior of the Jews, whose inexplicable failure to seek out and thank their rescuers after the war (of greater importance, arguably, than recovering their property) contrasts with Hoxha’s unwavering, Internet-aided persistence.
The trail eventually leads to Israel, where we watch with apprehension to see if the people of the book will be embarrassingly and insultingly cavalier about Hoxha’s remarkable commitment to return their precious books, or if they will match the singular character of the Albanian (and his son) we’ve come to admire.
Lawyer-turned-filmmaker Goslins has made a rare film that lets us spend an hour and a half awed by the best qualities of human beings, inspiring us to manifest our own.
From the poster of “Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir.”
The Seattle Jewish Film Festival runs March 2–10 at SIFF Cinema Uptown, AMC Pacific Place, and the Stroum Jewish Community Center. Ticketing, schedule and location information will be available online at www.seattlejewishfilmfestival.org as of Feb. 8.
If the first 17 years of the Seattle Jewish Film Festival were its childhood, its 18th “chai” year is the time for it to spread its wings.
“We sort of feel a little bit like a teenager going off to college,” said festival director Pamela Lavitt. “We were raised by [the American Jewish Committee], we got our foundation, our values, and a lot of purpose from that…parenting relationship. Now it’s sort of taking that next step out of the home.”
That next step is the festival’s move this past fall from the AJC to its new home within the Stroum Jewish Community Center.
Aside from an unusually Francophile-heavy lineup, most attendees won’t see a huge difference from past festivals — films will again be screened March 2–10, mainly at the SIFF Cinema Uptown and AMC’s Pacific Place — but people paying attention will see new integration with many of the other programs the JCC already offers.
Part of growing up is the gift of reflection: The arts theme the festival has embraced, “Not a Lawyer, Not a Doctor? Jews in the Arts,” is just self-deprecating enough to channel the festival’s inner Woody Allen, and Lavitt hopes those selections can be a draw for people both in and outside of the Jewish community.
The lineup includes a step inside the studio of renowned graphic novelist Art Spiegelman in Clara Kuperberg and Joelle Oosterlinck’s documentary “The Art of Spiegelman.” Michael Kantor’s “Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy” tells the stories of popular luminaries such as composer Irving Berlin, which Lavitt calls “star-studded and schmaltz in one fell swoop.” That film, incidentally, takes advantage of the festival’s new home: It screens in the Stroum JCC’s Mercer Island auditorium at noon on March 6.
In what could be a controversial but eye-opening selection, the story of disgraced Polish-French filmmaker Roman Polanski is told in “Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir.” The director fled the U.S. in 1977 after being convicted of statutory rape of a 13-year-old girl, yet not many people know about his having lived in the Krakow ghetto or the hardships he
suffered as a child.
The film “really humanizes his life a great deal, and I think people will find it gripping,” Lavitt said. “Some may come for the train wreck effect, others might find that he’s a fascinating human being and has endured a great deal.”
One feature that should have wide family appeal is the film version of French cartoonist Joann Sfar’s “The Rabbi’s Cat.” The adaptation of Sfar’s two graphic novels based in pre-war Algeria, which show that Jewish community from the eyes of a talking cat, should be appropriate for kids age 9 and up. And yes, it’s animated, so no live cats were injured in the making of this production.
Sfar actually appears twice in the film festival: The documentary “Joann Sfar Draws from Memory” looks into the prolific 41-year-old artist’s inspiration and the 150 graphic novels he has written.
Opening-day film “Hava Nagila” is a documentary about just that: The popular dance that flares up at every Jewish wedding and Bar Mitzvah, and has been sung by the likes of Harry Belafonte, Elvis Presley, and…wait for it…Leonard Nimoy. The screening coincides with the annual Matzoh Momma Sunday brunch, so come hungry and wear comfortable shoes, as there will be dancing. Local klezmer band The Klez Katz will perform on-site before the show for a hora to snake all the way through the Pacific Place theater.
“It is going to be quite the event,” Lavitt said.
While the festival’s original parent, AJC, has let its child leave the nest, the human-rights organization still plays a role with its annual Bridge Series. This year, “Bottle in the Gaza Sea” depicts a budding but uncomfortable friendship between an Israeli teen and a Gazan Palestinian, while the Spanish film “Angel of Budapest” tells the story of Spanish diplomat Ángel Sanz Briz, who did for Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust what Oskar Schindler did for Polish Jews. Both that film’s producer, José Manuel Lorenzo, and Luis Fernando Esteban, honorary consul of Spain, will speak at the screening.
If there’s a highlight to the festival, it will be closing night. For the first time in its 18 years, the festival will have a free community-wide screening. “The Words,” starring Bradley Cooper and Zoe Saldana, was produced by homegrown up-and-comer Michael Benaroya. Benaroya, 31, whose most recent film “Kill Your Darlings” premiered last month at the Sundance Film Festival, will receive the SJFF’s “Reel Difference” award for his already-expansive accomplishments in film.
“This is truly the combination of community building, celebrating and arts festival,” Lavitt said.
Itzhak Perlman performs with Rohan De Silva on Tues., Feb. 19 at 7:30 p.m. Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle. Visit www.seattlesymphony.org for tickets.
What’s so Jewish about the fiddle? Okay, the violin. You do know that even classical players of this little box are known to call it a fiddle, right?
Of course, the title of the Broadway show about the one on a roof has been embedded in contemporary Jewish consciousness for 50 years. You’ve probably seen Marc Chagall’s cockeyed, colorful image of that fiddler. Why did the creators of a show about Sholem Aleichem’s decidedly non-fiddle-playing farm papa, Tevye, choose to evoke that image? Well, I’ll tell you: Tradition.
“It was a lot easier to schlep a fiddle than a string bass or cello,” says Temple Beth Am’s music director Wendy Marcus. A career klezmer fiddler and Yiddish culture maven, she’s quick to point to the obvious: During our long years in Eastern Europe, we often had to move. Quickly. With big families and little baggage.
Opportunities for shtetl dwellers to attend, say, a concert by a piano virtuoso with a resident orchestra? Pretty unavailable. But a traveling klezmer band could show up, wedding or no wedding, play, and move on. Hard to carry a piano around with a band like that, although the fiddler might show up with a keyboard player strong enough to hold up an accordion.
So while Bach composed and performed at magnificent organs installed in imposing buildings, and Mozart developed his genius at delicate harpsichords available in every royal patron’s household, the fiddlers whose names we will never know developed certain music to delight people longing for the comfort of a home.
Portability is one thing. The comfort of familiarity is another. The sound of the violin is the closest instrumental sound to the human voice, as both Marcus and my own music theory teacher, Sandra Layman, remind me. Steeped in fiddle playing from klezmer to Romanian, Greek, Turkish and Hungarian, Layman’s album “Little Blackbird” still startles me with how these four little strings can imitate the expressions of the human vocal cords.
“The violin can get close to the krechts,” that catch in the throat that American country music also uses, “and microtones of the voice,” says Layman.
“Of course,” she adds, “the voice was especially important because of its preeminence in synagogue services. Oh, and the voice is usually portable, too.”
As Marcus puts it, “The voice and the violin — so alike and so revered in the Jewish tradition — infuse the heart with fire and magic.”
Well, yes, and even with humor. Once upon a time, no less an American Jewish musical wit than George Gershwin had fun with the predominance of Jews among the star violinists of his time. In a 1921 song called “Mischa Jascha Toscha Sascha,” George and lyricist brother Ira tossed off lines like, “We’re not highbrows, we’re not lowbrows…we’re He-brows from the start,”
Those lines got laughs at parties — particular the heady ones attended by these very virtuosos — Mischa Elman, Jascha Heifetz, Toscha Seidel, and Sascha Jacobson, all Russian-born marquee names of the day. (Hear it in a classic recording by a cheekily named group, “The Funnyboners,” on a CD set called “From Avenue A to the Great White Way: Yiddish and American popular songs, 1914-1950.”)
Which brings us, once again, to Itzhak Perlman, playing Benaroya Hall on Feb. 19, with just about 200 tickets left to go toward a sellout of a hall that holds 2,481 people. And it’s not even with the whole Seattle Symphony: It’s a recital! Just one fiddler with one pianist. Despite Perlman’s delight in his late-career “roots music” experiments with the Klezmatics, Andy Statman, and the Klezmer Conservatory Band — the “In the Fiddler’s House” projects — Perlman in recital remains close to his own personal musical roots. He’ll play Beethoven, Franck, and a phenomenal virtuoso showpiece by Fritz Kreisler, the guy the Gershwins’ song calls “Dear Old Fritz.”
And not to be forgotten is this: Perlman is a sabra, born in 1945 in Tel Aviv. One of the great Jewish heroes of the baby boomer generation, he’s teaching, conducting, and performing not just great music, but a great message. A mensch like this sings out to the world in a voice that feels like the best, and most comforting, of the land that we call home.
Hubbard Street Dance Chicago in Sharon Eyal’s “Too Beaucoup.”
Hubbard Street Dance Chicago performs on Sat., Feb. 9 at 8 p.m. at the Paramount Theatre, 911 Pine St., Seattle. Tickets cost $25-$40. Visit www.stgpresents.org for tickets and information.
Two world-acclaimed dance companies will link Chicago to Israel to Seattle for one night this February. On Saturday, February 9 at the Paramount Theater, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, the American contemporary dance company celebrating its 35th year, will perform two works by the Israeli choreographers Ohad Naharin and Sharon Eyal, both of Batsheva Dance Company.
Easily considered a rock star in his native country and in the world of contemporary dance, Naharin has been a dancer, the creative director and the choreographer for the famed Tel Aviv-based dance company since 1974. Besides his commissions for Hubbard Street, Naharin’s work is in the repertoires of major European, Canadian and American contemporary dance companies, including Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, Lyon Opera Ballet, Frankfurt Ballet, Nederlands Dans Theater, Les Grand Ballets Canadiens de Montréal, and Le Ballet du Grand Theatre de Geneve.
Sharon Eyal has been the house choreographer for Batsheva Dance Company since 2005; the Jerusalem native danced with the company from 1990 to 2008. Eyal additionally collaborates with music producer Gai Behar. Together they created works for Company E, Tanzcompagnie Oldenburg, and Hubbard Street Dance Chicago.
Each of the two dance pieces on the touring repertoire was created specifically for Hubbard Street’s repertory and touring company, which, like Batsheva, brings forth new works that typically stretch the audience — perhaps as much as the dancers themselves. Hubbard Street is known for an emphasis on Pilobolus-style movement, agile physicality, and for commissioning choreography from internationally recognized artists outside the company.
Though designed by two Israelis affiliated with the same contemporary dance company, “the two pieces [we are presenting in Seattle] are very different from one another,” said Hubbard Street dancer Penny Saunders via phone from Chicago. “They are enthralling…Batsheva Dance Company is known consistently for pushing the envelope.”
Saunders has been a member of Hubbard Street’s touring company since 2004.
“[This is] the first time we focused on this area of the world,” she said of Israel’s company. “We just recognized they were doing incredible work.”
The first piece, “THREE TO MAX,” is a collage of past works created by Naharin over the past decade. The Hubbard Street website cites Naharin’s “Gaga” method of movement. Part of the method involves covering studio mirrors to let dancers observe and analyze multiple moves at once.
“We are aware of the connection between effort and pleasure,” Naharin explained.
In conjunction with her co-creator Behar, Eyal developed “Too Beaucoup,” meaning “too, too much,” which aims to manipulate and replicate precise, robotic movement that offers a sense of watching a 3-D video.
Saunders said the dance company “has a lot of moving parts: The school side, intensive programs, the dance hub [which includes] the main touring company and the junior company Hubbard Street Dance 2, the education outreach, and the school shows.”
Some of the outreach includes being active in Chicago Public Schools and bringing in youth dancers.
“Younger dancers are a catalyst,” Saunders said.
The Seattle performance is supported in part by the Consulate General of Israel to the Pacific Northwest. The Jewish community in Chicago has already seen these works, Saunders said, including the city’s mayor, Rahm Emanuel, a former dance student who will be honored by Hubbard Street Dance Chicago this spring for his support of the arts.
Next on its West Coast tour the company performs at Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall on February 13. The close-knit, 18-member dance company tours year-round; the West Coast tour started in Scottsdale and performed in Berkeley and Arcata, Calif. prior to Seattle.
“Art and dance are necessary for life and give richness,” Saunders said. “Come with an open mind. The specific performance will be eclectic, engaging and
forward thinking. Viewers are bound to be surprised.”
Author Ellen Cassedy wrote about her experience in Lithuania to learn about the fate of the country’s Jews during and after World War II.
Ellen Cassedy will address the Jewish Genealogical Society of Washington State on Mon., Feb. 11 at 7 p.m. at the Stroum Jewish Community Center, 3801 E Mercer Way, Mercer Island. Free for members/$5 nonmembers. On Tues., Feb. 12 at 7 p.m. she will speak at the University Bookstore, 4326 University Way NE, Seattle. Free.
In the year since her book, “We are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust” (University of Nebraska), came out, Ellen Cassedy has traveled around the country to speak about the summer she spent studying Yiddish in Lithuania and what she learned about how Lithuanians are trying to come to grips with what happened to their Jewish citizens during World War II.
“It’s been quite an adventure,” says the author. “I’ve been so moved by people who have opened themselves up to this material. Just reading about the Holocaust is hard and painful.”
Cassedy will speak in the Seattle area twice next week. On Mon., Feb. 11, she will appear at a gathering of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Washington State. On Feb. 12, she speaks at the University Bookstore.
Cassedy journeyed to Lithuania, where her family had its roots, to take an intensive course in Yiddish. Just before she left, her uncle made a startling revelation to her about his time in the ghetto, which changed her perspective on the Holocaust.
Living in Vilna, once known as “Jerusalem of the north,” she began to ask Lithuanians about their perspectives on what happened during the war. She learned that moral definitions are not always drawn as clearly as most of us believe.
“My book asks people to look with respect at people who a lot of us in the Jewish community in the United States have thought of as being on the other side,” she said.
The author continued her language studies, and her often-humorous attempts to master the extremely complicated grammar of Yiddish are laid out side by side with her conversations with Lithuanians, including an elderly man who wanted to talk to a Jew before he died.
Complicating the issue is that many Lithuanians see themselves as victims, too — both of the Nazis and the Soviets. Many are completely ignorant of what happened to the Jewish population, a testament to how isolated the cultures were from one another. There is much denial, and there were many righteous gentiles.
Cassedy explores the moral gray area of what gentile Lithuanians did and did not do during the war.
“If it’s a choice between protecting your own family versus reaching out across a cultural divide to stand up for another part of a population,” observed Cassedy, we are naïve if we think we would automatically rescue someone else at our own risk.
“It’s a question we all have to ask ourselves,” she said.
By writing this book and speaking about it, she said “what I do today is make sure I don’t have to make that decision.” She said she hopes for a world “where people can stand up in the face of injustice without jeopardizing ourselves.”
Cassedy doesn’t challenge Lithuanians. She asks some gentle questions and observes “some brave souls” — a minority of Lithuanians who pose these questions “to their fellow Lithuanians.” In that country, currently dominated by right-wing nationalist politics, Cassedy feels it’s important to talk to those who are engaged in what she called “good-hearted…fragile initiatives” of getting their society to talk about the Holocaust.
Her message to genealogy groups is not different than her message to the general public, said the author.
“I talk about how my own genealogy journey morphed … in this larger exploration and I draw ties to what we’re after as genealogists and what I discovered,” she said. It “gives you respect of the lives of ordinary people.”
For some, “the enormity of the Holocaust and the right-wing nationalism that you find in Lithuania today…is overwhelming,” Cassedy said, and she respects those who speak out about the issue. However, she prefers to “shine a spotlight on the good things that are happening there,” she said, and “ask people to be sophisticated enough to see that things are complicated.”
Cassedy has really thrown herself into the book-promotion process, the burden of which falls on almost all authors today. As a founder of the working women’s organization 9to5, organizing is “in my bones,” she says. She’s also continued her Yiddish studies and meets monthly with her Yiddish group to discuss Yiddish literature.
There’s more information at www.ellencassedy.com.
Sababa performs on Fri., Jan. 25 at 6 p.m. for Shabbat Shira and at 7 p.m. on Sat., Jan. 26 at Temple De Hirsch Sinai, 1511 E Pike St., Seattle. They will perform on Sun., Jan. 27 at 11:15 a.m. at the TDHS Religion School, 3850 156th Ave. SE, Bellevue. All events are free.
Sababa plays contemporary Jewish music, but it would be a mistake to think that the band’s music only touches young people, says Scott Leader, who co-founded the musical trio with Robbi Sherwin and Steve Brodsky.
“We had this gig in Naples, Fla.,” he says, “and there was nobody there under 75 years old.” He admits he expected that a rock group and the older crowd wouldn’t mix.
“Instead, it wound up being one of the best shows we ever did. They loved it — and everybody had a granddaughter that they wanted me to meet, too.”
Leader, a vocalist and multi-instrumentalist who has been the music director at Temple Gan Elohim in Phoenix for nearly a decade, is also a major light in Jewish rock — writing, performing and recording his own music, as well as producing recordings for other artists.
Sababa will perform on January 25–27 at Temple De Hirsch Sinai in Seattle and Bellevue.
Sababa’s latest recording is called “Shalosh.” That’s the Hebrew word for three, and it seems that threes are wild right now for Sababa — whose three players who live in three time zones recently released their third album — hence the title.
Sherwin and Brodsky have Jewish rock credentials just as strong as Leader’s.
Sherwin, a cantor, hails from Austin, Texas, one of the capitals of American music, has sung on a host of albums and has two solo albums to her credit: “Todah LaChem” (“Thanks, Y’all”) and “Aish HaKodesh” (“The Holy Fire”).
Brodsky, who lives in Denver, was a founding member of the band Mah Tovu and is director of new media and special projects for URJ Books and Music, the Union for Reform Judaism’s publishing house.
“We got together in 2005 and it’s been a great ride,” Leader says of the group. “Individually, the three of us were heavily involved in Jewish music.”
They traveled in the same circles, doing performances at Jewish events such as CAJE (Conference on Alternatives in Jewish Education) gatherings and the Union for Reform Judaism biennials, and they all had a background in Jewish summer camps and as NFTY (National Federation of Temple Youth) song leaders.
“We were going out of our way to perform with one another,” Leader says. “So we decided one day: ‘Why don’t we get together and be a band?’ ...
“We all write and play instruments, and we really believed that when we came together we had a great synergy.”
That was borne out by what he calls “a killer first album” (“Pray for the Peace,” 2007).
“It did really well, and we started traveling all across the country.”
“It’s All Good,” the band’s second album, was released in 2010, continuing Sababa’s journey.
Since radio play is negligible, it’s the traveling and performing — mostly to do synagogue gigs — that builds their audience.
“It’s at the live performances that people hear about us,” he says. “We’ll be at a temple in some city and somebody who was at the show will come up afterward and say, ‘I’d love to have you come to our temple.’ “
In case you’re wondering, Sababa’s music is not rock ala the Rolling Stones or Bruce Springsteen. The group’s sound is driven by vocal harmonies. On the band’s recordings, you’re just as likely to find a vocal backed by a quiet piano or acoustic guitars and mandolin as you are to find full-on rock arrangements using such staples as electric guitars, saxophones and drums.
The songs’ styles range from reggae (check out their “Hinei Mah Tov” from “It’s All Good”) to calypso (“One Little, Two Little” from “Pray for the Peace”) to harmony-drenched folk-rock (“Am Yisrael Chai,” the sprightly track that leads off “Shalosh”).
“If you would have told 19-year-old Scott that I’d make a living playing Jewish music when I grew up, I wouldn’t have believed you,” Leader says. His vision of a music career was definitely in rock-star mode but there came a day when he realized, “I wasn’t going to be the next Billy Joel.”
He’d been playing Jewish music since his teens and a light bulb turned on for him at a Jewish music gig with Sam Glazer and Noah Budin.
“I realized while I was on stage with these guys, ‘I like being Jewish, why not do this Jewish music thing?’ “
That decision represented “a sort of practical approach,” he says.
“As an artist, what do I want from people? I want them to listen to music I created and have it mean something to them,” Leader says. Unlike the audiences for secular music at a club, for instance, Jewish music audiences “inherently listen. They tell themselves, ‘I want to hear what this guy has to say.’ That began to speak to me.”
The whole point is to connect with people who aren’t reached by traditional Jewish services and music, he says.
“The beauty of Jewish music is that everybody sort of connects to it in their own way.”
Andry Laurence/Seattle Rep
The cast of “Photograph 51” surrounds its heroine Rosalind Franklin, played by Kirsten Potter.
“Photograph 51” runs February 1 through March 3 at Seattle Repertory Theatre, 155 Mercer St., Seattle. For more information and tickets, visit www.seattlerep.org. Following the Feb. 17 matinee performance, a panel discussion will be held to discuss the role of women in science today.
Up alongside the process of major scientific research and discovery is the necessity of human communication. Within that context comes miscommunication. This scenario is the subject of “Photograph 51,” opening February 1 at Seattle Repertory Theatre on the Seattle Center Campus.
Written by Anna Ziegler, the play is directed by Braden Abraham, a native Northwesterner who’s been at The Rep for nine years, most recently as associate artistic director.
Early genetic research in post-war Britain brought fame to scientists like James Watson, Maurice Wilkins, and Francis Crick. Additionally, Rosalind Franklin was involved in leading research in several areas of scientific importance, including the identification and discovery of the structure of DNA.
Yet in 1962, Watson, Wilkens, and Crick shared the honor of a Nobel Prize, while Franklin’s contribution went unmentioned, her role dismissed and downgraded by Watson in his account of the discovery of the double helix.
Rosalind Elsie Franklin’s contribution to the discovery of DNA, with the use of an X-ray diffraction image of DNA nicknamed Photograph 51, is only recently becoming part of history. Fellowships, awards, and even a university have been named after her, and books have been penned about the physicist who died in 1958, at 37, of ovarian cancer.
The play focuses on the young British Jewish woman from Notting Hill, London. Born into a family long involved in Jewish causes, Franklin’s uncle was Sir Herbert Samuel, High Commissioner of Palestine during the British Mandate. Early on, Franklin showed a talent for chemistry and physics and stubbornly stayed true to her love of science, receiving her Ph.D. from Cambridge University. Her research extended far into natural and what later became genetic science.
Playwright Ziegler discovered Franklin and her story when researching another play. “I had never heard of her, but later [developed] a ‘love affair,’” she said. Ziegler worked on a project commissioned for the state of Maryland about three women in science. “It was a total education,” she said. “I even learned about the race [to discover the structure of DNA]. It was fun to write a play that’s an education for yourself.”
“Drawing from real accounts and her own imagination, Anna presents a fictionalized version of the race to claim this enormous discovery in very human terms,” said Abraham.” This is a play about the rewards and sacrifices of achieving great things.”
Franklin was “complicated, a prickly person, and was hard to work with,” said Ziegler. The role of Franklin will be played by Boston University grad Kirsten Potter.
“The portrait you see is [that] she’s a strong, directed person…but how circumstances get in her way” said Abraham. Franklin “was an outsider at King’s College,” and the play shows “how she feels, how she is being treated — she protects herself.”
“This is where the plays starts,” said Ziegler, “with a central miscommunication: [Franklin] thinks she is in charge.”
Staged in the smaller Leo K Theatre at Seattle Rep, all six characters remain on stage the entire time. Abraham says his production will be fluid, combining “narrative, real scenes and commentary.”
Asked if or how Seattle’s reputation as a biotech and science hub was a factor in staging the play here, Abraham said that the theatre “has added performances [because] Rosalind Franklin is pretty famous in the biotech community.”
This is Ziegler’s second time in the Northwest: In 2007, the Icicle Creek Theatre Festival in Leavenworth presented “Dov and Ali.” Ziegler likes the art scene at Seattle Center and finds Seattle “friendly, welcome and supportive,” she said. “It’s not true everywhere.”
“Photograph 51” has already played to audiences in Los Angeles, New York, Washington, D.C., and Minneapolis. It has garnered awards from the Tribeca Film Institute Sloan Filmmaker Fund and STAGE International Competition. A film version starring Rachel Weisz is in the works.
“Photograph 51” has “a sense of humor, and it’s funny, not dry,” said Ziegler. “There’s real warmth. It’s definitely not a play written by a scientist.”
If you go: “Undo,” written by Holly Arsenault and directed by Erin Kraft, runs Thursday–Saturday at 8 p.m., Jan. 18 through Feb. 16. At the Annex Theatre, 1100 E Pike St., Seattle. Tickets ($5–$20) are available at www.annextheatre.org.
“Undo,” a play about a Jewish couple’s divorce ceremony, premieres at Annex Theatre Jan. 18. Annex company member Erin Pike interviews playwright Holly Arsenault and actors Mark Waldstein and Samantha Leeds.
JTNews: How would you summarize “Undo”?
Holly Arsenault: “Undo” takes place in a world that is exactly like our own, except in order to get divorced, you have to endure an elaborate ritual of undoing that involves everyone who was invited to your wedding. In the world that we’re in, all religions have this ritual. It’s not just a Jewish thing. But the family whose ritual we are seeing happens to be Jewish.
JTNews: Mark and Sam, what characters do you play?
Samantha Leeds: My character is the youngest daughter, Naomi. She’s 14. She’s taken on Judaism in an intense way to cope with the [dissemblance] that’s going on with her family.
Mark Waldstein: I play Abraham (Abe), who is the father of the groom, soon-to-be-ex-groom. Abe is sort of the patriarch of this play. He’s always nudging people. He’s not afraid, at times, to speak his mind.
JTNews: Why did you choose to focus on a family that is Jewish?
HA: I loved the image of the broken glass, which plays a central role in this play. That is the only reason that I made them Jewish. My stepfather’s Jewish, so a little part of my family was Jewish, and I had Jewish friends growing up.
I wrote the first couple of scenes almost 12 years ago, and then I put it in the drawer for over a decade. In that decade, I married a Jewish person, so I gained this huge, wonderful Jewish family. Suddenly, one day, I thought, “I think I might be able to write this play now.” It wasn’t that clear of a trajectory. It wasn’t like, “Oh I get Jews now, I’ll write this play.” I sat down to write another play, but this one kept asserting itself to me. I could hear these people talking to me in a way I hadn’t before. A lot of people have commented that it feels really appropriate. “Somehow, this feels like something that Jews would do” is a comment that I get a lot.
MW: When I first read the script, I actually had a moment where I said to myself, “This isn’t real…is it?”
SL: I did that, too!
MW: Could I have possibly have been around all this time, and missed that somehow?
HA: My mother-in-law said, “I’ve been Jewish my whole life, but is it possible that I just missed this?” People have said to me throughout this process, “Is this real?” And I say, “Really? You think that somebody has to put on their wedding dress and go back — you think that’s a real thing that could actually happen?” Despite that [the play] is a fantasy, the tone is stark naturalism.
JTNews: Was the Jewish context was the right choice for this play?
HA: Absolutely. It fits in this world. And maybe if I had decided that they were Methodists, and did that research, I may have found ways that it aligned. But —
MW: [Whispering] Methodists aren’t funny!
HA: [Laughs] For one thing, the characters needed to be funny —
MW: No one tells Methodist jokes.
HA: [Laughing] So yes, that helps. Another reason that it feels possible to people is, I think that Jews “do” death better than a lot of other religions, by which I mean they don’t try to ignore it.
And this ritual is essentially a funeral. So it makes sense to me that it makes sense to other people, that this feels like something that Jews might do. Because the ritual that I’ve invented is honoring this institution that existed, and honoring how difficult it is to end it, and allowing people a vessel for experiencing that and sharing their grief about it.
SL: It’s okay if the audience thinks that this is a very real ritual. That’s what the theater is for, right?
HA: It’s not a play about Judaism. The play is also in a suburb of Philadelphia, but it’s not a play about Philadelphians.
MW: Because at heart, it’s a family play. It’s about a family who happens to be Jewish. And that’s a real thing in the world. Not every Jew goes around broadcasting that.
SL: Mark and I grew up two towns away from each other in New Jersey, at different times. From a purely cultural level, this play is so fun. I remember reading this play for my audition and just being like, “Yes, this is so right on!” There’s something so satisfying about doing this show.
HA: As a non-Jewish person writing a play about Jewish characters, there’s anxiety. I want to get it right. I want to be respectful. I want people to understand the tremendous affection I feel for this culture, for Jewish practices.
MW: Everything Holly just talked about, Sam and I are here to attest to. She’s done it very thoroughly.
Film professor and buff Foster Hirsch, who will talk about Jewish comedians of the 1950s during his January visit to Seattle.
The Jewish Touch takes place on Sun., Jan. 6 at 2 p.m. at the Stroum JCC, 3801 E Mercer Way, Mercer Island. Single tickets for individual lectures of the Jewish Touch series are $8 for SJCC members/$12 general admission For more information, contact Kim Lawson at KLawson@sjcc.org or 206-388-0823. All lectures are presented with audio-visuals supplements.
Foster Hirsch loves movies with passion and enthusiasm. A professor of film, commentator, interviewer, historian, author and critic, Hirsch is at heart a lover of movies who translated that passion into a 40-year teaching career in the film department at Brooklyn College.
He also gives illustrated lectures on cinema to the general public. On January 6, Hirsch will visit the Stroum Jewish Community Center on Mercer Island for the third time for its Jewish Touch lecture series. He will share research for his latest book (forthcoming, Knopf), which examines Jewish comedy in ‘50s in Hollywood.
Hirsch has 16 books on theater, film personalities, impresarios and genres under his belt, and has a solid academic pedigree and 45 years of teaching experience to support that, with “no plans to retire.”
Speaking with JTNews from his home in New York, Hirsch recalled in his resonant voice, “I always loved going to movies, since I was a kid.”
He is a fan of drama and comedy, but comedy, he says, “was not good in the ‘50s. In the ‘30s there were great screwball comedies. Nothing like this in the ‘50s. Danny Kaye, Judy Holliday and Jerry Lewis were all Jewish, [but] they weren’t allowed to play ethnic types. They ‘read’ Jewish but their characters are not Jewish.”
Hirsch’s lecture material is original, says program chair Joyce Rivkin, who originally booked Hirsch back in 2010. “He tailor-makes it [for our audience].”
Rivkin says she “discovered Foster while I was researching who could lecture on Woody Allen for our 2010 series. I knew he had written a book on Allen so I had a feeling he could deliver a comprehensive lecture — and I was right.”
At that lecture, Hirsch gave a full perspective of both Allen’s comedies and more serious films.
When he returned last year, he gave “a fascinating lecture on Hollywood and the movies of the Holocaust,” Rivkin said. “This will be his third season with us and I have no doubt he will be as entertaining and informative as before.”
The program has proved itself with JCC members. “The Jewish Touch series has become very popular and our audience base is growing,” Rivkin says. “I think it’s important for the world to know the fabulous contribution Jews have made to the arts and I like to think this series somehow enriches the soul.”
Later in January, after his appearance at the SJCC, Hirsch will head down the coast to Los Angeles where he’ll host the American Cinematheque tribute to actor Martin Landau, with a screening of “Crimes and Misdemeanors.”
Courtesy Lauren Grossman
Lauren Grossman’s feminized Leviathan.
Lauren Grossman’s work will be on display at the Platform Gallery, 114 Third Ave. (Pioneer Square), Seattle through Dec. 15. For more information visit www.platformgallery.com/current.html or www.laurengrossman.com.
The first floor of Lauren Grossman’s Central District home is gutted and full of lab glass, molds, materials, and grotesque curiosities (sewn-up body parts, a headless rendering of Christ affixed to pipes, a gum-pink whale pocked with false teeth) produced over the course of her three-decade career as an installation and sculpture artist captivated by biblical imagery. Between the house and her studio in the backyard, she points to a headless bust on the ground.
“There’s Job’s wife,” she said, “with her head blown off.”
Grossman is one of the artists whose work will be featured in Elles: Platform, a women’s group show at the Platform Gallery in Pioneer Square through Dec. 15. The show is one of several community partner exhibits and events organized as a local response to Seattle Art Museum’s Elles: Women Artists from the Centre Pompidou in Paris.
The daughter of a Jewish father and Presbyterian mother, Grossman, 52, grew up in Tucson, Ariz., an area she describes as heavily Roman Catholic. But coming of age in the 1960s, after much religious content had been purged from the curriculum, Grossman realized she was missing crucial cultural knowledge.
“I knew I didn’t have enough information,” she said. “Because I didn’t get it, I started researching it. The more research I did, the more interesting it became.”
Grossman holds a bachelor’s of fine arts in ceramics from the University of Washington. In addition to making jewelry out of lab glass as well as candles, Grossman spends much of her time casting molds, smelting iron, and welding, resulting in installations that, according to her artist’s statement, engage “the peculiarities of the Judeo/Christian legacy.”
Her current exhibit at Platform — the gallery that represents her work — uses the book of Job as a jumping-off point. In particular, she focuses on the conversation between Job and God about Leviathan, the mysterious ancient sea beast that periodically surfaces throughout the Tanach.
In keeping with Elles, Grossman sought a feminine approach.
“The interesting thing to me is that he’s gendered in the text,” said Grossman. “I’m positing the other gender of Leviathan.”
The three sculptures she’s showing are small, lumpy, slipcast porcelain whales with breasts precariously perched on scaffolding.
“Maybe Leviathan had a wife. Maybe Leviathan needs a mate,” she said. “I’ve been thinking a lot lately about being a wife, because I am one, and have been one for some time. Wife-ness changes as you get older. It becomes more of a long-term partnership.”
Originally, Grossman planned to show Job’s wife, but the iron for the mold didn’t heat properly. Hence the headless woman in her yard.
“I rarely have studio disasters like that, but it was just a really bad day,” she said grimly.
The breasted Leviathans are “fun little pieces to me about gendering the impossible to imagine,” Grossman said.
The scaffolding gives a sense of weightlessness and symbolizes the shaky constructs we live on.
“Some of my work is more serious than others,” she added. “I would say this is on the lighter end.”
A photo “The Flat” director Arnon Goldfinger found of his grandfather while still in Germany.
“The Flat” opens at the Landmark Varsity Theatre in Seattle on November 16. Check your local listings for showtimes.
For those of us far enough removed from the generations of Jews and Germans who lived through the extraordinary horrors of the 1930s–1940s, it is nearly impossible for us to wrap our brains around Holocaust denial. It is difficult to imagine that the tragedy and horrors of that time would not be something revealed to our generation by those who lived through it. But that deeply unimaginable horror has kept many of us in the dark all these years later. When we think of all of the Jews and Germans who have come forward years later to tell their stories and make sure that we never forget, we sometimes do forget about those who suffered in silence for fear of remembering what they went through.
Filmmaker Arnon Goldfinger found a unique opportunity to use his masterful ability for storytelling through documentary film when his 90-year-old German grandmother died in Tel Aviv. Goldfinger was a first-generation Israeli after his grandparents emigrated from Berlin in the mid-1930s. Having grown up with no knowledge of his grandparents’ history in Germany before World War II, Goldfinger uncovers information, bit by bit, about his grandmother and grandfather that shocks and disturbs him.
The Tuchlers — Goldfinger’s grandparents —worked with a German couple, the von Mildensteins, to convince Jews to move to Palestine in the early- to mid-1930s. While the von Mildensteins’ true intentions with these transports remain unclear even after World War II breaks out, according to the propaganda papers Goldfinger finds, this strategy was all part of the Nazi plan to rid Germany of the “Jewish problem.”
Despite the von Mildensteins’ dubious connection to the Nazis, Goldfinger uncovers evidence that the Tuchlers and von Mildensteins continued to communicate and remain friends well into the 1950s. For him, the idea that Jews could maintain a friendship with possible Nazi collaborators after the war is mindboggling.
Goldfinger’s effort to not only uncover as much as he can about his grandparents’ past, but also to wrap his mind around the apparent denial of this past by both his mother and the von Mildensteins’ daughter, makes for an extremely compelling documentary.
Again, we are familiar with stories of survivors coming forward with their stories, but we’re less accustomed to stories of those who deeply denied and kept their history buried. Goldfinger struggles with how to approach the von Mildensteins’ daughter, Edda, who never asked her parents about their involvement in the war. He struggles even more with his own mother’s disinterest in her parents’ past, the truth about her grandmother’s death at the hands of the Nazis, and the fact that she never asked questions about all of this while growing up.
Goldfinger captures his subjects’ generational distinctions. The two women — Goldfinger’s mother Hannah and Edda von Mildenstein — point out how difficult it was for not only the generation that lived through the Holocaust to talk about what happened, but also the difficulty the next generation had asking questions. The subject was forbidden in many households and it wasn’t until the third generation became discontented with merely accepting the silence that people began to act upon their need for answers.
Many of the questions about the Tuchlers’ story go unanswered, as Goldfinger realizes that without knowing what truths were told between his grandparents and the friends they kept in touch with in Germany after the war, he cannot know many things for sure. But these truths become less important to him than the way his mother emotionally responds and deals with these revealed secrets. “The Flat” is an eloquently orchestrated documentary about how human beings cope with the reality of the Holocaust in a unique way we do not see often in film.
The 1960s and its shifting societal attitudes are a common thread in four new novels of Jewish interest.
Closest to home is Issaquah author Jane Isenberg’s newest mystery-cum-historical novel, The Bones and the Book (Oconee, paper and on-demand, $14.95). Isenberg, who we just profiled as one of our five women to watch, is the award-winning author of the Bel Barrett mystery series and of a memoir about teaching.
The 1965 Seattle earthquake makes an unexpected widow of Rachel Mazursky, but it also uncovers a leather bag of bones and an unsolved murder in Seattle’s underground. There’s also a diary in the bag, written in Yiddish. Suddenly in need of both employment and diversion, Rachel offers to translate it for a University of Washington professor and becomes absorbed in the life of Aliza Rudinsk, a young Jewish immigrant who came to Seattle in 1890. While Rachel wrestles with the translation, she wrestles with her new circumstances in a world that is still prejudiced against working women. Rachel finds parallels in Aliza’s world as she doggedly pursues the circumstances of Aliza’s death.
Moving back and forth from the 1960s to the late 1800s gives the author a chance to explore the roles of women in both eras, along with creating a page-turning mystery. (The novel had to be set no later than the ‘60s, says the author, or the bones would have decomposed.) Isenberg researched extensively, and the book is filled with wonderful details about Seattle of both eras and other tidbits about clothing and immigration that lend an authentic touch.
Andrew Goldstein’s The Bookie’s Son (617 Books, paper, $14) offers an interesting contrast, set in a tough Bronx neighborhood in 1960 and told from a guy’s perspective. The press release reveals that this wonderful story is based on the author’s memories.
Twelve-year-old Ricky Davis tells the story. Ricky’s family does not live the idyllic life pictured in old TV shows. His father is a small-time bookie indebted to the Mob, which has brought a constant threat of danger into his family’s life. Young Ricky is determined to rescue them, particularly his beloved mother and grandmother, with both funny and disastrous consequences. He remains sweetly naïve despite dangers of neighborhood bullies and sociopathic gangsters, all while preparing — barely — for the biggest danger of all, his Bar Mitzvah.
The author’s varied career has included organic farming and Zamboni driving. Now he’s given us a very promising debut novel.
Poet Alan Shapiro’s first novel, Broadway Baby (Algonquin, paper, $13.95), doesn’t fully live up to expectations from the author of more than 10 books of poetry. The main character, while riddled with faults, is intriguing enough to keep the reader going, but the writing is flat, never developing the emotional tension and relief expected of a novel.
“Broadway Baby” does make important points about a number of issues, all worthy of discussion. Perhaps Shapiro was just trying to do too much in a short book.
Miriam has been damaged by distant parents and the anxious grandparents, Holocaust survivors, who raise her. Growing up in the 1950s, she abandons dreams of a stage career for a conventional life and marries too young. Confined and suppressed by societal expectations, although she doesn’t really know it, Miriam pushes her middle son to become a musical theater performer.
Shapiro states in his notes, “personal experience is not art, and art is not personal experience,” but the reader suspects this is a memoir in disguise. The book disparages Miriam, who is indeed carping, critical, thoughtless and unsympathetic, but also struggles to understand her and the family and society in which she grows up. Her inability to connect with, or even understand her children, is tragic, but until the very end she inspires no other emotional response, besides cringing, in the reader.
Twelfth & Race by Eric Goodman (U of Nebraska, paper, $18.95) doesn’t take place in the ‘60s, except for an opening flashback that is crucial to understanding the rest of the book.
Thanks to an identity theft, the life of white Jewish Richie Gordon takes an unusual turn when he starts dating the black woman who is the ex-girlfriend of the man who stole his wallet.
When a white man dates a black woman in a racially charged (fictional) city in Kansas, questions of identity and belief are bound to arise. On top of that, Richie discovers something about himself and his family that radically changes his self-perception. After a young black man is shot and killed by police and the city erupts in riots, Richie has to make some choices about where his loyalties lie and what family really means to him.
These books, upon reflection, share another common thread. Even with a male narrator or protagonist, they are about women, women who by personality or circumstances are unusual or quirky, just a little outside of the norm.
The Midwife of Venice by Roberta Rich (Gallery, paper, $15). America of the 1960s (see “Learning Jewish History,” page 18) was definitely a better place for Jews than Europe of the 1560s. In this novel, a young Jewish midwife leaves the Venice ghetto to illegally deliver a noblewoman’s baby. She needs the fee to free her husband, a spice trader who has been captured and enslaved by the Knights of Malta. But her success propels her into a family conflict that could prove deadly to her and her community.
The author, while inspired by a visit to that ghetto, tells us that the history is correct, but the characters and plot are entirely imagined, as very little information exists about women of that time. Though occasional plot points may seem unlikely, the story keeps the book moving.
A Mind of Winter by Shira Nayman (Akashic, paper, $15.95). In the wake of World War II, three narrators tell their stories (with only a few distracting diversions into the third person), slowly weaving their tales until they twist together at the end.
Shifting between Shanghai, to London, and New York, Caroline, Marilyn and Oscar tease out their connections at a languid pace as the reader tries to put the specifics together — and please don’t read ahead. The publisher calls it a “thriller,” but it would be better termed a “puzzler.” Nayman, a psychologist and writing instructor, has crafted an absorbing and intriguing third novel.
The Golem of Rabbi Loew by Johnny Townsend (Booklocker.com, paper, $16.95, ebook, $2.99). This collection of interesting and well-written short stories needs a “graphic sex” warning. Despite the promiscuous cruising gay lifestyle that turns up in many of these stories, most are concerned with the characters’ issues of identity around sexuality and religion. Townsend explores other themes, too, including science, education and family, all hinting at personal experience. We do know he is a gay excommunicated Mormon who converted to Judaism. His Jewish characters represent a wide diversity of observance, from Reform to ultra-Orthodox. While some may find the sex unsettling, there are more distressing things than that happening in some of the characters’ lives.
The Final Reckoning by Sam Bourne (Harper, cloth, $26.99). The protagonist of this fast-paced thriller — written under the pen name of British journalist Jonathan Freedland — is cynical attorney Tom Byrne, called in to investigate the shooting death of an elderly man mistaken for a terrorist at the UN. Tom soon suspects the victim was less innocent than he seemed, as he discovers a hidden brotherhood of vengeful Holocaust survivors.
It’s a brisk and absorbing read, but Bourne relies too heavily on typical thriller plot devices, red herrings, anonymous shadowy characters and secret diaries. Most interesting is the bit of history that inspired the book — a covert group of Holocaust survivors really did hunt down former Nazi officials — and the Holocaust-era scenes are vividly drawn. This edition has not been edited for American readers and the British slang provides additional entertainment. When a character is as shocked as if he’d just seen “Snow White having a fag,” it’s just a cigarette, so wipe that smirk off your face.
We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust by Ellen Cassedy (U Nebraska, paper, $19.85). This moving, well-crafted book explores the legacy of the Holocaust in contemporary Lithuania through the lens of the author’s family.
A vibrant religious and cultural Jewish community flourished in Lithuania before the Holocaust destroyed it. In 2004, longing to recover the Yiddish she’d lost with her mother’s death, the author enrolled in a Yiddish-language summer intensive in Vilna, once known as the “Jerusalem of the North.” She also resolves to explore the history of her family and the Jewish community in her ancestral homeland. Right before she leaves, her uncle reveals a disturbing story, and an elderly man from her family’s village makes an unusual request.
Yiddish proves complicated and complex, and Cassedy’s frustrations with her lessons are interwoven with frustration about contemporary Lithuanian attitudes toward the Holocaust. But that is paralleled by her respect for those Lithuanians — some Jewish, mostly gentile — working to restore Jewish history and culture in that country while they still heal from the abuses of Soviet authority. The issues are much less black and white than the author wants them to be as she learns of genocide, rescue, and compromises of survival. This is a personal story, too, inspired by a daughter yearning for her mother and all the words — Yiddish or otherwise — that were never said.
The Scattered Tribe: Traveling the Diaspora by Ben Frank (Globe Pequot, paper, $17.95). Frank is an experienced traveler and travel writer who has circled the globe, who always seeks out remote outposts of Jewish communities where he can find them. Part history, part anthropology, part travel guide, this is a fascinating and entertaining account of his travels and the far-off communities he’s connected with in places like Myanmar, Tahiti and Siberia.
State of the Nation Report: Society, Economy and Policy in Israel 2010, edited by Dan Ben-David (Taub Center, paper). A policy wonk’s total delight which, caveat emptor, this reviewer did not actually read. Lots of interesting information can be gleaned, though, from perusing the book’s many tables and graphs. Produced by the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel, the book explores public spending, education, income inequality, education and more in that country. One graph that stands out shows that the U.S. and Israel are fairly equal in underpaying teachers compared to seven other developed nations, including South Korea (at the top), Australia and Denmark.
Hey, what’s that I hear in the background? It’s nice, it’s perhaps a little worldly, it’s even got a little beat. It’s Hanukkah-like, but it also makes me feel like I’m in an airport gift shop. Which can only mean one thing: Putumayo has put out an album of Hanukkah songs.
“Putumayo Presents: A Jewish Celebration” is, for all intents and purposes, a Hanukkah album with a mix of klezmer, world, and even some Yiddish lounge music. There’s plenty that’s familiar — including a version of “Ocho Kandelikas” to satisfy the Sephardic audience — and some that might be new to you. The inclusion of the Uganda’s Jewish community, the Abuyudaya, would be ground-breaking if we hadn’t first heard it a decade ago. But that’s the story with Putumayo: None of it’s daring, and while you may snap your fingers or tap your toes, it probably won’t have you dancing in the aisles. But it’s not boring. Put it on quietly on repeat for your wintry cocktail party and your guests will have the times of their lives. Just don’t expect anyone to ask where the music came from.
“Putumayo Presents: A Jewish Celebration” is available Nov. 27 anywhere you can find artsy gifts or incense.
“Cantata for the Children of Terezìn” by Mary Ann Joyce-Walter
Ravello Records, $16.99 CD. 50 minutes.
Reminiscent of Mahler and Brahms, with a generous dash of shtetl melancholy, this cantata sets seven poems composed by children in the Terezìn concentration camp. The recording was made in 2007 in Ukraine, by the Kiev Philharmonic Orchestra and King Singers of Kiev; the conductor was the late American composer (“Taliban Dances”) Robert Ian Winstin.
Some years back, Seattle’s Music of Remembrance commissioned a new work by another American composer, Lori Laitman, based on some of these same poems, titled, like the publication that brought them to light, “I Never Saw Another Butterfly.” Terezìn, near Prague, was unique among Nazi transit camps: A place full of artistic talents, some of whom were encouraged, and most of whom were, eventually, sent to their deaths.
Composer Mary Ann Joyce-Walter, longtime music faculty at Manhattanville College in New York, places seven of these little poems within a sweeping orchestral effort, with mixed success. She quotes a gentle phrase from “The Moldau,” though not the one “Hatikvah” is based on, opening (and closing) the work with the calm of that famous Bohemian river, but she soon gets into much darker stuff. Chugging basses and march-like cadences mark the unmistakable awareness of the young poets’ fates. The Russian chorus provides stately support. A heartfelt instrumental interlude features clarinet and balalaika (mandolin?), and tender strings.
The expressive voice of a childlike soprano serves the solos well. In one movement, an American-accented child speaker’s voice declaims the poignant “The Little Mouse” with just the right tone; Joyce-Walter’s percussive, haunting accompaniment matches perfectly.
But who is this talented child? No credit given. The soprano (Oxnaya Oleskaya) is not named in the CD booklet, only onscreen for the listener taking advantage of the “enhanced CD.” Not sure why my computer didn’t see the full scores and extended liner notes that the cover notes promised.
The poems are in English (whose translations?), which is not such a comfortable fit for the singers (the soprano sings “De Roiz” in Franta Bass’s “The Rose”). Musically, this is a fine performance of a work that breaks no new compositional ground, but expresses grief and hope with minimal horror. An additional tone poem, “Aceldama,” by the same composer, covers the same terrain.
The terrible place of horror that was Terezìn continues to provide artists with inspiration. Other writings by children in Terezìn found their way into Laitman’s “Vedem,” another MOR commission. The “Vedem” film, “The Boys of Terezìn,” is out there in schools. Somewhere, there’s always a youth troupe rehearsing a play based on “I Never Saw Another Butterfly.” And among the production credits that do get into the accompanying notes for Joyce-Walter’s Cantata, there’s one for the founder of a New York project called Children and Artists of Terezìn.
This very weekend, Viktor Ullmann’s Hitler-mocking opera “The Emperor of Atlantis,” composed but suppressed in Terezìn, is being performed onstage both in New York City and in Seattle, at Benaroya Hall for Music of Remembrance (www.musicofremembrance.org).
The murdered artists have done their part. Our contemporary artists, having heard them, are doing theirs. And that allows us all, even now, still to bear witness.
Emily K. Alhadeff
Deb Perelman, founder of the popular food blog Smitten Kitchen, speaks to an audience of more than 100 at the University Bookstore during her Seattle visit.
Deb Perelman is dreaming about a pumpkin cheesecake gingersnap pie.
“I think I just dream [recipes] up most of the time,” Perelman explained. “They just haunt me.”
Perelman, the woman behind the wildly popular Smitten Kitchen food blog, is currently touring the United States with her just-released book, “The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook” (Alfred A. Knopf, cloth, $35).
Perelman spoke to a packed room of salivating fans at the Book Larder and the University Bookstore in Seattle on November 7 and 8 before signing books.
“Smitten Kitchen” details Perelman’s cooking exploits from her 42-square-foot New York City apartment kitchen. Her focus on accessible ingredients and “comfort foods stepped up a bit,” accompanied by professional-grade photographs, have driven her from casual cook to foodie fame.
“I thought it was going to last six months,” Perelman said of Smitten Kitchen when she launched it in 2006. “I wasn’t a cook, I had never been to cooking school…. I get excited about pancakes.”
This year, Smitten Kitchen was listed as one of Forbes’ 100 Top Websites for Women and it won Best Food Weblog at the 12th Annual Bloggies Awards; in 2011, it won Best Cooking Blog by Saveur magazine and was listed as one of the 25 Best Food Blogs of 2011 by Time. It has attracted the attention of Martha Stewart, Gwyneth Paltrow, and dozens of magazines and newspapers. Her Facebook page is just shy of 100,000 likes.
Perelman jokes about her massive fan base. “My mom writes them a check every month,” she said (she has also won accolades for humor). “I’m still really dumbfounded. I don’t know how it happened.”
Perelman started blogging in 2003, just as the phenomenon of documenting personal experience online was going mainstream. Smitten (pre-Kitchen) tracked life in New York, dating and “general early 20s blather,” Perelman said. “I roll my eyes at the thought of how clever I thought I was.”
The Carrie Bradshaw dream quickly ended, though, when Perelman met her husband a few months later. She was cooking a lot and reading food blogs, so she closed down Smitten and opened Smitten Kitchen. And history was made.
Though Perelman scoffs at the idea that she’s famous, she’s a member of the upper echelons of female food-bloggers-gone-viral, women like Julie Powell (Julie and Julia), Molly Wizenberg (Orangette), and Clotilde Dusoulier (Chocolate & Zucchini), who sought a creative escape from ordinary life and laid bare their personal lives through quiche Lorraine and lemon tarts. Their followers enjoy reading about their lives and their foibles as much as they return to the site over and over again for the “food porn.” When Perelman announced the birth of her baby boy, 2,274 of her fans posted heartfelt congratulations in the comments boxes.
“I’m not a cook, I’m not a photographer,” Perelman said. “[Popularity] just happened slowly and gradually.”
Perelman is an omnivore who was raised on her mother’s French cooking, inspired by Julia Child.
“I feel like I missed the part of my childhood where I was supposed to be eating traditional Jewish foods,” she said. “It wasn’t tsimmis, it was boeuf Bourgignon.”
Yet she has strong feelings about Jewish foods.
“There’s a great affection for kugel in my family,” she said. She cites a family legend: When her parents were dating, her mother asked her father’s family for their scrumptious noodle kugel recipe. His aunt told her that if she wants it, she’d have to marry him.
“I guess people have gotten married for worse reasons,” Perelman laughed.
Perelman has mixed feelings about the latter-day foodie trend of reclaiming and modernizing traditional recipes. Traditional dishes have a comfort value — when you go home to visit your parents, and your mother says she’s going to make her potatoes, “you’re hoping your mom is going to make potatoes the way you’ve always had potatoes.”
At the same time, she said, “I’ve been told to behave, and I just can’t.
“There are times you can make adjustments for the better without losing the soul of the dish,” she said. “You can make a new brisket without being rude to the old brisket.”
Perelman says she jots down ideas as they come to her, and she’s got a list of about 1,000 more dishes to try. Of the thousands of recipes she’s created and posted over the past six years, they’re all her baby — in addition, of course, to her own.
“I couldn’t pick a favorite,” she said. “It would be like picking a favorite child.”
NEW YORK (JTA) — It’s not every day an Israeli wakes up to an email inbox full of love letters from Iran. Yet they come in droves to the Israeli singer Rita Yahan-Farouz.
The 50-year-old Iran native, who performs under the name Rita, is arguably Israel’s most popular female entertainer. She has put out 12 albums since hitting the Israeli music scene in 1985, many of them going platinum on the country’s charts.
Rita’s latest album, “My Joys,” is sung in Farsi, in which she is fluent. By including old folk tunes from Iranian culture, like the traditional Persian wedding song “Shah Doomad,” Rita has won legions of listeners in a land whose leaders regularly call for her adopted country’s demise.
“You wouldn’t believe some of the emails I get from people in Iran,” Rita says laughingly while traveling from Los Angeles to San Francisco as part of her U.S. tour through mid-November. “They tell me how much they love me and how much they love Israel.”
Rita describes her musical vibe as a “gypsy band,” infusing classic Mediterranean spirits of complex percussion rhythms and upbeat tempos with unusual instruments of the genre like woodwinds, ouds and violins.
Growing up in Tehran under the shah’s rule, Rita remembers a vibrant childhood filled with Persian music. Still, the family kept their Jewish identity a secret from neighbors. In 1970, when Rita was 8, her family moved to Israel.
“My sister came home from school one time in tears because her teacher asked her to recite a Muslim prayer in front of the class. The teacher was shocked when she didn’t know it,” Rita recalls. “After that incident, my father decided we should leave Iran.”
Rita says she has dreamed of creating an album that could serve as a bridge between two countries that have seen nothing but tension in recent years.
“The songs on my album in Farsi are the soundtrack of my childhood,” she says. “My mother had a beautiful voice and was always singing these traditional songs to me, even when we were in Israel, so there was always a piece of Iran in me. There’s more to the region than violence, bombs and darkness, and I want to share the rich culture I am a part of.”
Since Iran’s Internet is heavily censored by the government, Rita’s album is sold on the black market, fans have told her. But her music is played at weddings and nightclubs in Iran, and she says her fans love the fact that she’s Israeli.
Rita says the power of music has already created a dialogue with the people of Iran: Many who email her write that they don’t hate Israelis and want nothing more than to hear her perform.
“I’m completely in love with your voice — you have no idea how hard it was to send you this email!” one fan writes. “My wish is that one day I can see you perform in Israel — even if this means that upon returning to Iran, I would have to be beaten, and imprisoned for three years.”
And another: “I’m writing you from Shiraz in Iran, and just wanted to tell you that you’re a source of great pride for us. The beautiful and emotional songs you sing in this time of war, this crazy time of Islamic control gives an overwhelming feeling of closeness and love between the countries of Iran and Israel. I ask from the great and merciful god to send you happiness and health.”
Rita is happy she can send positive messages about Israel to the rest of the world, and would like to perform in Iran.
“There’s a good chance I will perform in Iran very soon, as soon as the borders are easy to open,” she says. “I have a strong connection to the people of Iran and it would send an incredible message.”
Maestro Ludovic Morlot, left, director Erich Parce, second from left, and the vocal cast of Music of Remembrance’s production of “The Emperor of Atlantis.”
“The Emperor of Atlantis” will be performed Friday, Nov. 16 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Nov. 18 at 6 p.m. For tickets and information, visit www.musicofremembrance.org. The first 100 high school students who sign up there will receive a free ticket to the concert. Tickets are $36.
An opera written in a Nazi concentration camp about a murderous ruler who tries to outdo Death himself might sound far-fetched. But that is exactly the story behind “The Emperor of Atlantis,” to be performed by Music of Remembrance November 16 and 18 at Benaroya Hall.
MOR launches its 15th season with the opera composed by Viktor Ullman while imprisoned at Terezín, along with works by Ernest Bloch and pioneering Israeli composer Marc Lavry. Seattle Symphony music director Ludovic Morlot will conduct.
“Atlantis” will be sung in English by a cast of mostly local singers.
“It’s very accessible,” says MOR’s artistic director Mina Miller. “It’s as much musical theater as it is opera.”
Miller notes that the piece has many aspects of “Kurt Weill cabaret,” with plenty of sharp-edged satire. “If you’re new to opera,” she adds, you will see and hear “a great example of how music can bring human stories to life.”
Viktor Ullman (1898–1944) was a prominent composer and conductor who worked in Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia. Though he was only half-Jewish and raised Catholic, he was still considered a Jew under Nazi racial laws. Ullman was deported to the Terezín concentration camp in 1942.
Terezín (Theresienstadt) was actually a holding camp for the death camps, but was presented to the outside world as a “paradise ghetto.” Many prominent Jewish cultural figures were imprisoned there, who gave the camp a rich artistic life despite its harsh conditions. Ullman composed prolifically at Terezín, writing “The Emperor of Atlantis” with librettist Peter Kien during the latter half of 1943.
The plot: The mighty Emperor Overall proclaims total war. All humankind will fight and all will be killed. Death, angered that his role has been usurped, goes on strike.
Since no one can die, all manner of bizarre situations ensue. Two opposing soldiers — a man and a woman — cannot kill each other, so they make love instead. The sick and wounded protest their limbo between life and death. The emperor’s power begins to crumble. Eventually, Death proposes a solution to the impasse, which we won’t give away here.
“Atlantis” actually went into rehearsal at Terezín, but the Nazi authorities saw parallels between the emperor and Hitler, and banned it. Ullman gave his score to the camp librarian, who survived the Holocaust. In October 1944, Ullman was deported to Auschwitz and murdered in the gas chambers, along with most of his fellow luminaries.
Ullman’s music is a rich synthesis of many musical sounds from the first part of the 20th century. One can hear German Romanticism, the influence of Ullman’s teacher Arnold Schoenberg, and the jazz-tinged, cynical ambience that permeated Berlin in the 1920s. A lullaby from the Thirty Years’ War (which decimated
Germany’s population in the 1600s) appears. The hymn “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” is used ironically, as is “Deutschland über alles.”
Stage director Erich Parce uses the musicians (13 members of the Seattle Symphony) as actors. He places them, dead or dying, in a bombed-out theater, where Death and his assistants (two dancers) bring them back to life to perform the show. Parce has also added some modern visual elements to support the action.
What should listeners take from the production? It “demonstrates how the Holocaust contains important and relevant lessons for our time, and for people of all faiths,” says Miller.
“History gives us such lessons, but we keep repeating them over and over,” Parce adds. “How do we then change our lives and go forward?”
Marc Lavry (1903–1967) was, like Ullman, a well-known composer and conductor in the 1920s. He worked with several German orchestras and opera companies, collaborated with theater director Max Reinhardt, and composed for the German cinema. When Hitler came to power, Lavry returned to his native Latvia, and when Fascism arrived there, he moved to Palestine.
Lavry was reborn musically in his new home. Within two years, he had drawn the sounds he heard around him into his music, and helped create what became the Israeli musical style. One could say that Lavry was to Israeli music what Smetana, Bartok, Kodaly and the “Russian Five” were to their countries.
The composer’s son, Dan Lavry, lives on Bainbridge Island.
“[He] told me that music does not exist in a vacuum, that it reflects a culture and is connected to the land,” Lavry says of his father. “When he came to Israel in 1935 there was no such thing as Israeli music, but there was a desire to create a modern Israel…The settlers went through a great cultural transformation. The old Hebrew language was revived to replace the Yiddish, the Jewish food was replaced by Middle Eastern flavor, working the land and manufacturing was to replace commerce.
“So my father came into such an environment equipped with a classical music background and much familiarity [with] European Jewish music. His music after 1935 reflects his experience. He wrote early Israeli songs, the first Israeli opera, the first symphony. In fact he was a pioneer, a trend setter.”
Marc Lavry is represented on the program with his “Three Jewish Dances for Violin and Piano, Op. 192” from 1945.
The concert opens with a performance by young cellist Benjamin Schmidt, winner of this year’s David Tonkonogui Award. Schmidt will play Ernest Bloch’s “Prayer,” accompanied by a string quartet including his father, Seattle Symphony Orchestra violinist Mikhail Schmidt.
The fictional movie poster of fictional Luther Stallings’ fictional film persona.
Back in his prime, Luther Stallings was the biggest, baddest, blackest Kung Fu champion and action movie star to walk the streets of L.A. With his co-star Valletta Moore by his side, the man was the definition of cool. Even 30 years later, after the drugs and the drinking and the comebacks gone bad, the star of the infamous Blaxploitation “Strutter” series could knock out a couple of oversized henchman so fast that if you blinked, you’d miss it.
What Luther Stallings couldn’t do was save Michael Chabon’s new novel. In fact, Luther, despite his talents, never made it beyond supporting character in a cast that’s too vast. As I read. And read. And read, I couldn’t figure out what bothered me so much about “Telegraph Avenue” (Harper, $27.99). Then it hit me. This book, it’s like the menu at Cheesecake Factory. It’s got pages and pages of just about anything you’d want to eat, but none of it feels authentic. It’s all oversalted, high cholesterol, and sampled by focus groups. And they’re almost the same number of pages.
These are, admittedly, harsh words for an author who wrote my favorite book of all time, “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,” and whose 2007 “Yiddish Policemen’s Union” is among my top 10. That an author so imaginative might not be able to top two masterpieces shouldn’t be unimaginable — who talks about Beethoven’s 10th, after all? — it’s that with this go-round, it feels like he’s trying too hard.
Luther’s son Archy is the closest thing this story has to a hero — though a tragic one. Archy and his best friend Nat Jaffe own Brokeland Records, a failing music store on an uncharted desert island between Berkeley and Oakland that sells nothing but vinyl — in 2004, when the record business is suffering and those ubiquitous white headphones have been popping up all over town.
The writing is on the wall now that Oakland native and former NFL star quarterback Gibson Goode, a.k.a. G Bad, the fifth richest black man in America (he owns a zeppelin!) has come back home. City councilman Chandler Flowers III, who’s got his own checkered history with Luther, has just thrown his support behind G Bad to build a Dogpile Thang, his popular chain store geared toward black consumer culture, complete with an expanded vinyl record section, just two blocks from Brokeland.
Naturally, Archy and Nat smell a rat, and their reactions trickle into to their marriages. Gwen, Archy’s about-to-be-estranged wife, and Aviva, an ace midwife who has long suffered husband Nat’s Brooklyn transplant neuroses, are business partners as well, dealing with their own issues. Gwen, 36 weeks pregnant and livid about revelations of her husband’s infidelities, has put her professional partnership and their hospital access in jeopardy following complications during a homebirth.
Then there’s the kids: Julius, Nat and Aviva’s 14-year-old son, has fallen in love with Titus, the 15-year-old son that Archy kind of knew he had, but had not laid eyes on until, well, just now.
Everything up to this point has taken place on the day the story opens. Tired yet?
Also on day one, just before he encounters his “new” son, Archy has his first encounter in years with Valletta. It appears that Luther is back in town, news that Archy doesn’t exactly welcome. Things head downhill from there.
Chabon jumps into the heads of each of these characters, and many others, but so many feel crudely drawn that even toward the end the only character I felt I really knew was the young, heartsick Julius with his unrequited love.
The author writes the language of black Oakland through Archy and the old men who hang out at the record store all day, but Toni Morrison is far better at the dialect, and Percival Everett’s contemporary black fiction (not to mention the laissez faire attitude both he and Chabon try to get across in the writing process) feels much more like the real thing, because it is the real thing.
In the end, though, it’s Chabon who saves his own book. As a writer he is still unique, musical, and a joy to read. In the hands of an amateur, “Telegraph Road” wouldn’t have made it past the literary agent’s desk.
But like the obnoxious advertisements on the pages opposite Cheesecake Factory’s menu items, he resorts to gimmickry — Gwen, grumpy and about to burst, also happens to be a black belt in qigong and catches a teacup flung at her head from close range (never mind that Chabon, breaking the cardinal rule of “don’t write in a gun that you don’t plan to shoot” never gives Gwen another chance to break out her lethal fists); a fundraiser at a Berkeley mansion features a certain African-American state senator from Illinois with his own race for U.S. Senate well underway (this is 2004, remember); a 12-page, single sentence in which Fifty-Eight, Mr. Jones’s parrot, surveys the goings-on in the East Bay upon being set free.
Imagine a climax of this story that’s something akin to the last fight scene of Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill Vol. 1,” a Busby Berkeley-esque scene of synchronized Kung Fu fighters. Which would have made sense, given how much ink Tarantino gets in this book, and given that if you’re going to remove your story from the authenticity of the Blaxploitation era, you may as well give credit to the original homage rather than the real thing. But sorry, not here. All we get is over-sugared cheesecake.
It’ll probably be a good five years until we see Chabon’s next novel. You might be better off waiting.
Courtesy The National Center for Jewish Film, www.jewishfilm.org.
A scene from “The Dybbuk.”
When cinema was still in its youth, Hollywood built a story around the High Holidays. Its tale was a measure of Jewry’s ties to tradition, but also a gentle sign of its loss.
In “The Jazz Singer” (1927), America’s first feature-length sound film, Jakie Rabinowitz is a cantor’s son whose father expects him to follow tradition and stand by his side in the synagogue to chant Kol Nidre, the prayer that opens the erev Yom Kippur service. But as the eve of the holiday approaches, the father is told that 12-year-old Jakie is singing in a saloon. The cantor angrily fetches him home and gives him a thrashing. Jakie vows to leave home for good. As the father chants Kol Nidre at shul, the son takes to the streets and embarks on a life singing jazz.
Years later, his career on the rise, his name now changed to Jack Robin (played here by the great Al Jolson, whose life had inspired the story), he visits his parents on his papa’s 60th birthday, announces he’ll soon be starring on Broadway, and hopes to make peace with his folks. Jack’s mama welcomes him back eagerly, but the father orders him to leave. Soon after, the cantor grows ill and hovers between life and death. Jack’s mother appears at the Broadway rehearsals and begs him to sing Kol Nidre in place of his father. But Yom Kippur is also the show’s opening night. The film constructs a virtual morality play around this dilemma.
I won’t tell you the outcome, except to say that the film would be incomplete without a Jolson version of Kol Nidre. Or at least it sounds like Kol Nidre — but in Jolson’s handling, the Aramaic-language lines are radically abridged and repeated, over and over, in a reverie of improvisation. In effect, it’s Kol Nidre as jazz. The film here subtly portrays the passing of tradition into a creatively eroded form, symbolic of what New World Jews have done with the old.
In 1937, Jews in Poland did a film version of S. An-sky’s acclaimed Yiddish play, “The Dybbuk.” In the film, two Hassidic Jews, Sender and Nisan, are longtime friends who meet up only infrequently during holiday pilgrimages to the Rebbe of Miropolye. One such time, they pledge their yet-unborn children in marriage. Soon after, Nisan is drowned and Sender, preoccupied with money, forgets his promise to his friend.
Years later, an impoverished scholar named named Chanan makes his way to Brinitz, Sender’s town, where, as a Sabbath guest at Sender’s, he instantly falls in love with Sender’s daughter Leah, who loves him in return. The father, unaware that Chanan is the son of his long-departed friend, is determined to betroth Leah to the richest suitor he can find. Desperate to win Leah’s hand, Chanan immerses himself in kabbalistic magic so he can conjure up barrels of gold.
Intensely ascetic, Chanan grows ever more unbalanced, and when Leah’s engagement to a rich man’s son is announced, he calls on Satan for help, then keels over and dies. When Leah is later about to be married, she becomes possessed by her dead lover’s spirit. Her father then takes her to Miropolye, where he petitions the Rebbe to exorcise the wayward soul.
The film, one of the last great cultural products of Polish Jewry, is a rich portrait of pre-modern Jewish life and custom. Unlike the play, it opens with an impassioned table sermon by the Rebbe on the youthful days of the fathers-to-be. The sermon deals with the Yom Kippur ministrations of the high priest in ancient times — if an impure thought were to enter his mind in the Holy of Holies, “the entire world would be destroyed.” The Rebbe compares this to the precarious journey of some unfortunate souls, who pass through several lifetimes (these Jews believed in reincarnation) in striving toward their source, the Throne of Glory — only to be cast down, just as they reach celestial heights. As this point in the Rebbe’s sermon, Sender and Nisan inopportunely try to inform him of their pact.
When, a generation later, Chanan fantasizes a union with his beloved Leah, he refers to it as “the Holy of Holies.” In retrospect, the Rebbe’s sermon becomes a prophecy of Chanan’s disastrous fall. But “The Dybbuk” never ceases to exalt the lovers’ bond, though the Rebbe and his court try their best to undo it. The holiest moment of Yom Kippur, though fraught with catastrophe, remains a symbol for the resistance of these lovers to a world enslaved by money and class.
A third film, Barry Levinson’s “Liberty Heights” (1999), is a nostalgic comedy about growing up Jewish in 1950s Baltimore. It both opens and closes on Rosh Hashanah, when the Kurtzman family customarily attends synagogue. Nate Kurtzman (Joe Mantegna) has his own New Year custom of exiting early from shul to stroll to the nearby Cadillac showroom, where the coming year’s models are on display. Each year, Nate trades in his Caddy for a spiffy new one, which he can afford — not from fading profits of the burlesque house he owns but because of his thriving illegal numbers racket. Nate is otherwise a solid citizen, a devoted husband and father, who has raised himself up from humble origins, and had often, in his youth, proven himself a scrappy street fighter against neighborhood anti-Semites. Most of the film deals with the adventures of Nate’s sons, Van and Ben (Adrien Brody and Ben Foster) and their relations with gentile girls — Van’s pursuit of a beautiful, old-money debutante named Dubbie, whom he met at a party; and Ben’s friendship with Sylvia, a black classmate.
Levinson’s framing the story inside the Jewish New Year and Nate’s Cadillac ritual is important. The Kurtzmans are nominally observant Jews — perhaps even Orthodox, but in a laid-back, assimilated way. Though Nate’s wife shows remnants of clannishness, the Kurtzmans are open to the winds of change. While both the New Year and the “new car year” are equally important to Nate, their overlap seems a portrait of the tradition’s loosening grip since the days of “The Jazz Singer.”
Even “The Dybbuk,” flawless as its command of pre-modern tradition had been, was the creation of Jewish moderns: Playwright Ansky had been a secularist and socialist revolutionary, folklorist, and humanitarian activist. The film’s creators were immersed in avant-garde theater and Expressionist idioms, and director Mihał Waszyński was a gay man who had left behind his Orthodox background and pretended he knew no Yiddish. But what unites these three films is not just their deep awareness (hidden in “The Dybbuk”) of the secular world, but also their willingness to invoke tradition as a yardstick. The High Holidays might be a site of fading cultural memory, but the theme still strikes a responsive chord among filmgoers, Jewish and gentile alike.
Joel Rosenberg teaches film and Judaic studies at Tufts University. His articles on the cinema of Jewish experience have appeared in various journals and collections, and he has recently completed a book, “Crisis in Disguise: Some Cinema of Jewish Experience from the Era of Catastrophe (1914-47).”
Occasionally, a book comes out that changes history. One of these books is the Aleppo Codex, the Hebrew Bible manuscript that has survived a millennium and several perilous journeys. Another is “The Aleppo Codex: A True Story of Obsession, Faith, and the Pursuit of an Ancient Bible,” by Canadian-Israeli journalist Matti Friedman (Algonquin, $24.95).
In or around the 10th century CE, a scribe in Tiberias named Shlomo Ben-Buya’a completed an authoritative version of the Hebrew Bible — the five books of the Torah, the prophets and writings. Written on folios of animal hide, rather than as a scroll, this Bible was not meant for religious purposes.
By the time Ben-Buya’a set his tree-gall, iron-sulfate, black-soot ink to the page, the Jewish people had been dispersed for about 1,000 years and lived in independent communities, most of which were now under Islamic rule. Like Jewish communities across the world today, they read from the Torah throughout the week and relied upon it for religious guidance. But the Torah wasn’t written in stone, and the need arose for an accurate Bible with codified spellings and pronunciations that Jewish communities could refer to without differentiation. This version became known as the codex, or the Crown.
The Crown lived intact for 1,000 years, managing to escape, unscathed, attacks by the Seljuk Turks, the Crusaders, the Mongols, and a devastating earthquake. It was ransomed along with human lives and traveled from Tiberius to Jerusalem to Cairo, making its final stop in Aleppo, Syria. The ancient community of Aleppo Jews guarded the Crown in a safe in a grotto in the bowels of the main synagogue. They revered it, even believing it harbored protective powers.
So, how, after a millennium of survival in death-defying conditions, sometime after 1947, did nearly half of the pages of the Crown of Aleppo get lost? This is the story Friedman is here to tell.
It’s a story others have tried to tell, and failed.
Friedman, who currently writes for the Times of Israel and has specialized in religion, archaeology and politics in the Middle East, is a master storyteller. He weaves through a millennium of history with the ease of a seasoned time traveler, starting in 1947 Flushing Meadow, N.Y. From there it’s to Aleppo and a zigzag to Crusader-sacked Jerusalem, 1940s Syria, 12th-century Egypt, and 1950s Israel, coming up for air periodically at the present day, where he holds scraps of history that crumble to dust in his hands.
The popular story goes like this: When news of the vote to establish a Jewish state hit the Arab world, mobs looted and burned down synagogues and Jewish businesses, and in Aleppo they dragged the codex from its safe and burned it. After the dust settled, Jewish community members collected the scraps of parchment and saved what they could; other fragments disappeared with individuals, later to turn up in people’s homes and wallets in New York, where they were cherished as talismans. Rumor had it the codex was lost. In time, however, it resurfaced almost entirely intact. After much pressure and one botched operation, the Aleppo Codex was smuggled into Israel in 1958 and entrusted to the Ben-Zvi Institute in Jerusalem. The book’s story of survival, rescue and return would seem to be no less miraculous than the Jewish people’s itself.
Today the codex lives inside a secret vault at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. But the manuscript that reportedly left Syria complete is now missing almost half of its story: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, Esther, Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah and most of Deuteronomy, Amos and Song of Songs are gone.
Friedman stumbled upon the Crown in 2008 while working on an article for the Associated Press. He was intrigued by its virtual anonymity. How was it that hardly anything was known about this epic work, which came to dictate the Bible’s pronunciation and cantillation for the future of Judaism, and about the 40 percent of it — including almost the entire Torah — that disappeared? But as he started investigating the deeper questions about the book’s missing sections, his leads went cold, and his contacts stopped returning his calls.
Friedman found himself in the Aleppo Codex Underground, with a cast of characters chasing the same elusive goal: The missing pages.
“Listen,” Ezra Kassin, amateur Crown sleuth and Aleppo émigré to Israel, says to Friedman in the book’s introduction, “you’re entering a minefield.”
“I nodded, pretending I knew what he meant,” writes Friedman. “He shook his head. I had no idea.”
The Aleppo Codex, as it turns out, has had more sightings than Elvis, and the story of its emergence from the synagogue’s flames has several vastly different versions. In the 1990s, Mossad operatives went into Syria looking for the missing pages. Even they came back empty handed. Something happened to the Crown, and the onus, Friedman comes close to but shies away from concluding, is on the Israeli government.
In this way, Friedman is no more successful than his predecessors at closing the case. The key witnesses won’t talk, have given contradictory statements, or have died. Friedman, talented investigative journalist as he is, continuously runs toward the heart of the mystery, only to realize it is a trompe l’oeil as he smacks into another wall.
Friedman’s narrative provides hope: The rest of the codex is out there, and, as one player informs him, readily available if someone would come forward with just $1 million. But hope dissolves into frustration. “The Aleppo Codex” challenged some of my most staunchly held beliefs: That libraries are always the best places for books, that Zionism was good for all Jews, that human beings will ultimately do the right thing.
It’s painful to think about the possibilities for the codex’s fate. How could the people of the book “lose” half of the most important manuscript outside of the Dead Sea Scrolls? Could it have been stolen and sold by Israeli officials, who worked so hard to obtain it? Could a community that feared the supposed awesome power of the book be reduced to selling its desecrated pages on the rare book circuit?
Friedman passes over, disappointingly, one other theory: The spiritual potency of the Crown is keeping it hidden. Ronen Bergman, writing in the New York Times Magazine (“A High Holy Whodunit,” July 25), picks up this thread. The Crown was inscribed with a blessing and a curse: “Blessed be he who preserves it and cursed be he who steals it, and cursed be he who sells it, and cursed be he who pawns it. It may not be sold and it may not be defiled forever.”
At one point, Bergman writes, Israel’s chief rabbi reversed the curses, so that anyone harboring parts of the Crown would be cursed and hence turn them in. But the community replied that “the faith of the Jews of Aleppo in the power of the codex is greater by far” than the rabbi’s pronouncement. Could it be that the keeper of the rest of the Aleppo Codex is not a thief, but instead perceives the Western-influenced State of Israel, with its unquestioned faith in libraries and institutions, as the real thief?
It requires a paradigm shift, and it may be out of left field, but I wish Friedman had pondered the possibility.
That critique aside, “The Aleppo Codex” is a rare example of untold Jewish history. It’s riveting, mysterious, and a piece of good literature, like its subject.
Natasha Calis stars as Em in “The Possession.”
“The Possession” opens Friday, Aug. 31 throughout the area. Check local theater listings for showtimes.
Something odd happens while Stiles White, co-screenwriter of “The Possession,” is answering my first question: My computer crashes.
This would normally not be worthy of comment, although your correspondent’s Mac is new and hiccup-free.
White, chuckling, is quick to pin this annoying, albeit minor, setback on a dybbuk. After all, that’s what we’re gathered on the phone to talk about, for it’s an unhappy dybbuk that propels “The Possession.”
In Jewish lore, a dybbuk is the spirit of a dead individual that takes up residence in the body of a living person. “The Possession” follows a child who buys a small box at a yard sale, and unwittingly becomes the host for a troubled spirit. Em’s divorced parents, Clyde and Stephanie (played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Kyra Sedgwick), must transcend their differences to help her, aided by a young sage named Tsadok (played by Matisyahu).
“It’s really about this recently divorced family, they’ve lost their way, they’re maybe not living life in a spiritual way, and in the arc of the story they have to come together,” explains co-screenwriter Juliet Snowden. “What was interesting [to us] was for the main character, Clyde, to come into this religious community — this other family, that’s devoted to their prayer, their lifestyle, their commitment to their faith — and for this outsider to see a better way, a higher way of thinking.”
The husband-and-wife screenwriting team, whose credits include “Boogeyman” and “Knowing,” first encountered the concept of a dybbuk in a 2004 Los Angeles Times story about the bizarre, unexplained misfortunes that befell one owner after the other of an old wooden cabinet initially purchased at an Oregon estate sale.
“As writers of horror movies and thrillers, we’re always looking for stories and articles on weird real-life things,” White explains over the phone from Los Angeles. “We’re also interested in what’s scary to people. This scary wine cabinet was interesting because we all drive by antique sales and garage sales and are interested in the history of odd objects that belonged to other people.”
Snowden and White read the Times story and filed it away. It circled back to them a few years later when they were working on a different project for Jewish director Sam Raimi’s production company, and were asked to take a run at the idea.
Hollywood has a bottomless appetite for both spooky stories and the casual exploitation of time-honored legends and folktales. But White and Snowden, non-Jews originally from Houston, Texas, and Natchitoches, Louisiana, respectively, weren’t interested in using a dybbuk simply as the hook for a generic horror movie.
“You would be shocked by how much Jewish research we did,” Snowden declares. “I’m talking months. I want to know everything about these characters inside and out, and good writing is about authenticity.”
In a way, they had a head start.
“We actually lived in Hancock Park, in the second largest Hasidic community in the U.S., for seven years when we were [first] married,” Snowden relates. “We loved being in this culture that we didn’t understand at all.”
After the duo decided that Em’s father needed a mentor who was steeped in Judaism, Snowden and White agreed he should be Hasidic. One of their goals was to introduce a particular type of Jew that very few audience members ever have the opportunity to meet.
“We would see all these young men in our neighborhood and they were so cool looking,” Snowden recalls. “We wanted our character — who knows something that our main character does not, and is typically [in movies] an older man or an older woman — to be a young guy in his 30s, maybe listening to music on headphones, in high-tops with a suit. We told the producers, ‘We see this as a Matisyahu guy.’ We wrote it with him in mind.”
Countless actors were auditioned, with the expectation that the chosen thespian would be outfitted with the requisite beard and trappings by the makeup department. While they were rewriting the script, Snowden and White were informed that Matisyahu himself had been cast in the role. They were over the moon, not least because the famed rapper already had the beard. (The movie was filmed before he shaved it off, in an extreme makeover.)
“Oh, my God, we were so thrilled,” Snowden effuses. “That authenticity, the movements he could give during prayer.”
“He would make little adjustments,” White adds, “give the producers feedback, little things that would add authenticity that his character would or wouldn’t do.”
Matisyahu’s performance was a kind of validation of, or repayment for, the Jewish foundation upon which White and Snowden constructed their screenplay. As a guide to shaping their main character’s arc while they were writing, they taped a quote from Rebbe Nachman of Bratslov to the wall: “Everyone can attain the highest level. It depends on nothing but your own free choice…for everything depends on a multitude of deeds.”
Snowden emphasizes, “That’s not where Clyde starts out.”
Jewish magician talks Houdini
Gwen Davis • Special to JTNews
Posted: August 29, 2012