Posted by Danielle Berrin
Hollywood Jew has learned that two of L.A.‘s most influential and innovative rabbis—Sinai Temple’s David Wolpe and IKAR’s Sharon Brous—will head to the White House next week for the first ever Jewish Heritage Month reception with the Obamas. Other members of the L.A. Jewish community said to be invited include: Olympic swimmer Dara Torres, Jumpstart co-founder Shawn Landres, JDub records CEO Aaron Bisman as well as Eli Winkelman, the founder of Challah for Hunger and Mindy Finkelstein, the young woman who was wounded during the 1999 shooting at the JCC.
According to the White House press release, “The reception serves as an opportunity to highlight and celebrate the range and depth of Jewish American heritage and contributions to American culture.”
Timing, of course, is everything: The “first ever” celebration of its kind comes during one of the tensest periods in the America-Israel relationship, with the Obama Administration reaching out to a polarized and, in some cases, disillusioned Jewish community.
The full guest list has not been released, though it’s likely there will be more L.A. community leaders and an entertainment exec or two in attendance as well. The administration has promised to include “a range of community leaders and prominent Jewish Americans from Olympians and professional athletes to members of Congress, business leaders, scholars, military veterans, and astronauts.” Because, you know, Jews do it all.
President Obama said as much in his statement about the event: “The Jewish American story is an essential chapter of the American narrative. It is one of refuge from persecution; of commitment to service, faith, democracy, and peace; and of tireless work to achieve success. As leaders in every facet of American life—from athletics, entertainment, and the arts to academia, business, government, and our Armed Forces – Jewish Americans have shaped our Nation and helped steer the course of our history. We are a stronger and more hopeful country because so many Jews from around the world have made America their home.”
Now if only he had such kind words for Israel.
Check back next week for Rabbi Wolpe’s and Rabbi Brous’ thoughts on the reception.
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May 17, 2010 | 9:40 am
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Rachel Uchitel, best known as Tiger Woods’ favorite mistress has inked a deal to pose for Playboy. But there’s a catch: she has three weeks to back out, no strings attached, in case she discovers her inner-Jewish modesty. Besides, she only plans to bare her top half and backside anyway.
Perhaps beneath her fame-hungry, gold-digging mistress exterior, Uchitel is just a nice Jewish girl trying to make her way in the world. (Yes, she really is: read about it here.) And what better way to punctuate the Tiger-fame-wave than by leveraging her notoriety into a high profile Playboy spread?
But if what she’s looking for is a way out, the Torah has her covered. What exactly does the good book say about posing in the nude?
Luckily Los Angeles is host to uber-hip dean Rabbi Brad Artson, who presides over the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University. In an essay on Parashat Yitro, Artson writes about the difference between nudity and nakedness.
Nudity, he says, is a state of personal intimacy and trust, “beautiful and simple” like a baby’s tush; Nakedness, however, is a state of mind and implies a lack of protection, vulnerability, objectification.
“Nakedness can also be an assault on those forced to view another person undressed,” Artson writes. “Only someone very powerful, arrogant, or angry (socially or sexually) is in a position to impose their nakedness on others. To be forced to confront someone’s nakedness can be jarring. To endure someone’s exhibitionism is to have one’s privacy and modesty shredded.”
Hmmm… Playboy as assault on personal dignity. Of course! Revenge.
But there may be another motive yet…
Of all the mistresses in the woods, Uchitel was considered by Tiger the most fair. A recent Vanity Fair spread investigating the Woods scandal referred to her as “The Love Affair,” because, according to the magazine, Uchitel and Woods had a relationship that was “based not only on lust but also on love.” In his essay, Artson quotes a 13th century Spanish text, the Sefer Ha-Hinnukh that says, “For out of one’s action is the heart acted upon.”
Now that could mean one of two things: either she’s hoping her exhibitionism and sexual freedom will help her get over him, or maybe, just maybe, she’s trying to win him back.
More Rachel Uchitel on Hollywood Jew:
Yes, Tiger Woods mistress Rachel Uchitel is Jewish
May 12, 2010 | 1:17 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Brett Ratner and I have a sordid past.
He was my first big Hollywood profile and he left a lasting impression—or depression, depending on how you look at it (see below). Last week, at the Simon Wiesenthal Center gala honoring Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, I decided it was high time we made up. After all, he’s a Hollywood director and I’m a Hollywood journalist and we’re bound to cross paths every now and then, just like a pair of estranged lovers. And wouldn’t it be better if we got along? Besides, we have history.
After I introduced myself to Ratner anew, he grabbed me by the arm, pulled me to his table, and said to Howard and Grazer sitting across from him, “You see this girl? She almost ruined me!”
If you’re curious as to why, read my 2008 profile of the ‘nice Jewish director’:
I’ve been cornered downstairs in the gold lamé disco basement at Brett Ratner’s house and he’s hitting on me.
His insistence suggests he’s accustomed to getting his way with this, and I’m trying not to think about the surroundings—a wealthy bachelor’s lavish playpen, which quite conspicuously insinuates sex.
“Can we go on a date?” Ratner asks, drawing closer. “My mom loves you.”
He doesn’t seem to care that I’m a journalist on assignment or that when he offered to give me a tour of his Benedict Canyon manse, I was thrilled to explore the architecture: a Tudor-style estate designed by Hoover Dam architect Gordon Kaufman.
I push him away and tell him I’m seeing someone, but he insists that shouldn’t matter since I’m not yet married.
“I really want to pursue you,” he says in his soft, almost effeminate voice. “When are we going out? I like you. Are you gonna make me wait? Don’t make me wait.”
May 11, 2010 | 4:39 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
For Israel and much of the Jewish community, the next inconvenient truth is the quickening reality of a nuclear Iran.
For Lawrence Bender, the producer who helmed the eye-opening global warming documentary “An Inconvenient Truth,” nuclear armament is a pending disaster. Bender and director Lucy Walker will screen their documentary, “Countdown to Zero” at the Cannes Film Festival this week in hopes that the film will catalyze political action. The film explores the current global impulse to go nuclear, the possibility for accident and miscalculation, and features commentary from a bevy of prominent political figures, including Jimmy Carter, Mikhail Gorbachev, Tony Blair, and Pervez Musharraf. Even Valerie Plame Wilson, the outed CIA operative, makes a cameo to comment on the rickety climate surrounding—what the film is calling, “the second nuclear age.”
According to the blog The Daily Beast, which ranked the film as one of the most anticipated screenings at Cannes, Bender said he hopes the film will not only raise mainstream awareness but “help create the political will necessary to ensure that the Senate ratifies the New START Treaty without delay or partisan bickering.”
Well, that would be one thing the U.S. and Israel could agree upon.
Check out the haunting trailer:
May 7, 2010 | 12:40 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
A MUST-read on Steven Spielberg.
Nicole LaPorte, author of the new book, “The Men Who Would Be King” (a.k.a the scions of Dreamworks: Spielberg, Katzenberg and Geffen) reveals the inside story of the failed Dreamworks empire. Her portrait of Spielberg depicts a side we haven’t seen—or haven’t wanted to see—namely, that of a needy child in search of business partners who could serve as surrogate parents. LaPorte breaks down a world that seemed largely perfect on the outside, “suitable for framing,” she writes, in order to reveal the darker details surrounding Spielberg’s “shattered dream” as she calls it. The book purports to reveal details of Spielberg’s failed marriage to Amy Irving, his veneration of producing partner Walter F. Parkes and the elaborate world around him designed to cater to his whims (the author writes that at Amblin Entertainment, there were speakers in the bushes so that Spielberg’s spontaneous cravings and requests could be satiated immediately).
Read more at The Daily Beast:
For protection, Spielberg had always had surrogate parents, such as the late Lew Wasserman and Sid Sheinberg, the legends of Universal. Amblin, meanwhile, was overseen by the husband-and-wife team of Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall, who tended to Steven’s day-to-day affairs and were referred to as the “parents.” Kennedy, a scrubbed, athletic type whose style was forceful diplomacy, understood that working for Spielberg wasn’t just about execution; it was about cushioning him from the harsher truths. When her husband left Amblin to set up a production company elsewhere, the idea was that Kennedy would follow. The couple wanted lives of their own. But Spielberg was so upset over the prospect of her leaving—considering it a kind of desertion—that in retaliation he forced her to delay her departure. At Amblin, the situation was labeled “the divorce.”
At DreamWorks, Spielberg replaced the aging, disempowered Wasserman and Sheinberg with guardians just as tough: Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen. Assuming the Kennedy/Marshall roles were another husband-and-wife team, Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald, who ran DreamWorks’ live-action studio. Hollywood was shocked when that job did not go to Katzenberg, who had nearly 20 years of studio experience (Katzenberg himself was pained and embarrassed by the news, according to friends), considering that, between them, Parkes, an Oscar-nominated screenwriter and MacDonald, a former junior studio VP, had virtually none. But for Spielberg, it was a no-brainer: He believed in the couple, trusted them above anyone, and valued their sophistication, class, and taste. For a man, who as one person says, “falls in love with people,” Spielberg was enamored of his friends, most especially Parkes, a tall, unnervingly good-looking Yalie whose overpowering confidence and verbal agility caused one associate to describe him as “a Shakespearian actor holding forth on the Globe stage.”
No one could miss the Freudian implications of the relationship between the nerdy boy-man, who, growing up in unkind suburbia, had wanted “to be a gentile with the same intensity that I wanted to be a filmmaker” and this chiseled golden boy, who had grown up as Wally Fishman in Beverly Hills, but changed his name to Parkes when he landed in New Haven.
“Walter Parkes is Steven’s idea of what he should have been—East Coast-educated, upper-middle-class family, good-looking guy, right wife the first time, not the second time,” said producer Tony Ludwig.
Unlike most, Parkes wasn’t afraid to stand up to Spielberg, and had no trouble telling the director that some of his ideas were harebrained, or, worse, low-brow.
“Walter wasn’t afraid to bully Steven,” said one insider, “with everything—his looks, his ideas.”
But the couple’s inexperience running a studio became apparently almost immediately—it would take three long years before any movies were released, a fact that drove Katzenberg, especially, mad (at one point he confronted Parkes at a company retreat: “Where are my movies, Walter?”—and Parkes’ propensity to rewrite scripts and bully not just Spielberg, but filmmakers, with his healthy ego, would ultimately make DreamWorks quite the opposite of what it set out to be at its inception: an artist unfriendly place.
May 7, 2010 | 12:03 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
The Simon Wiesenthal Center Museum of Tolerance once again proved that their cuddly relationship with Hollywood is a boost for their cause.
This year’s national tribute dinner honoring director-producer team Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, along with three medal of valor recipients, attracted the most star-studded crowd of recent years. Some of the industry’s heaviest heavyweights – including Jeffrey Katzenberg, Bob Iger and Russell Crowe—clustered at the center of the Beverly Wilshire ballroom for a 2-hour homage to MOT’s human rights work.
The annual event was held on May 5 and drew leaders from the Walt Disney Company – including Iger, its CEO, and chairman Rich Ross, as well as the top brass from NBC Universal – comprised of controversial chief Jeff Zucker and Universal Studios head Ron Meyer, who sat with the honorees in a likely show of solidarity for the upcoming Grazer-produced “Robin Hood” starring Crowe, who was there to present Howard and Grazer with their Humanitarian Award.
Also at the dining-room-table-of-honor was director Brett Ratner who has made it something of a personal tradition to lead the hamotzi.
The only misguided star that evening was emcee Jay Leno, who was late, and whose brief routine on rectal-inserted bombs and explosive diarrhea failed to thrill. (Hear that Mr. Zucker?) Katzenberg wisely detected the crowd’s cool reception and announced that Leno had kindly written a check – no word on how much – to the Wiesenthal Center.
“Had you mentioned that before,” Leno said, leaning into the mic, “I would have gotten bigger laughs.”
Rabbi Marvin Hier transitioned the crowd into the serious part of the evening, the presentation of the medal of valor honors, by applauding recipients who “celebrate the principles of human dignity and tolerance and stand firm against the apostles of hatred and bigotry.” He had high praise for each of the three medal recipients: a posthumous Sir Winston Churchill—“the man who saved Western civilization” – a brave prime minister who defied popular opinion to combat Hitler and his regime; a posthumous Le Maire Aristide Pelissier, the mayor of a small French town, Les Brunels, who provided a mother and her daughter safe-haven from the Nazis; and Dr. Ofer Merin, the deputy director general of Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem who oversaw the IDF Field Hospital operation in Haiti.
“One thing they all share is courage,” Churchill’s granddaughter, Celia Sandys, who accepted the award on his behalf, said of the honorees. She spoke of Churchill’s moral courage to be “a lone voice” warning England of the threat building across the English Channel. Despite opposition from within his own country, “He didn’t give in,” she said. “We felt he was put on this earth for a purpose, that he was walking with destiny,” she said. Quoting one of Churchill’s own self-reflections on fighting the Nazis, she read, “All my past life was but a preparation for this hour and this trial.”
The dinner, though largely a schmoozefest, wasn’t short on teary moments. Esther Lieberman, who was only a young girl when Pelissier saved her from the Nazis, stood on the stage as her 13 children and grandchildren rose from their seats to gallant applause. And Merin, who was heroically applauded for his work in Haiti, received an emotional standing ovation buttressed by palpable Jewish pride in Israel. Merin spoke about the Israeli mission in Haiti, and said that despite their very best efforts, the Israeli medical team was but “a drop in the ocean,” able to treat only a fraction of the 300,000 Haitians injured. This was a sobering realization for many of the physicians, Merin said, who had to learn “the ability to accept what we could do, and what we could not.”
Crowe took the stage next to introduce Howard and Grazer with a speech he twittered he had “spent most of the day writing.”
“What is at the core of the American dream,” Crowe said, “is tolerance and humanity; in [Howard and Grazer’s] work, you see tolerance and humanity are very important to them, and when you meet them you realize their kindness as men.”
Though it wasn’t explicit why Grazer and Howard were chosen to receive the evening’s highest honor – especially in light of the work of the evening’s other honorees—they both delivered tender and personal remarks about what the award meant to them.
Howard, who is not Jewish, recalled a time early in his career on the set of “Happy Days” when director Jerry Paris noticed him pacing nervously. Howard told Paris he was indeed feeling jittery.
“Cute,” Howard remembers Paris saying. “Waspy on the outside, total Jew on the inside!” (If only Leno had thought to serve up some Jewish jokes..)
Howard said that Paris, who died in 1986, would often say to him, ‘It’s never too late—we can still Bar Mitzvah you!’
“Well Jerry, this is not quite the bar mitzvah you dreamed of but it’s pretty remarkable,” Howard said to heaps of laughter.
Howard spoke eloquently about the importance of American leadership in promoting cultural diversity and “the human yearning for unity.” The SWC museum, he said, “is a living reminder that silent witnesses to tyranny and injustice are tacit supporters.”
Before the crowd spilled out of the ballroom and into the valet line, Leno singled out one audience member, Berkeley student body president Will Smelko, who recently risked his own popularity to veto a fashionable divest-from-Israel bill that had been passed by the student senate.
“Will, you are that next Mayor in France,” Leno said.
A woman who identified herself as a Holocaust survivor approached Smelko on the way out and said, “People like you saved my life.”
So why did a 22-year-old non-Jewish student leader go against the grain for the Jewish state?
“It was a very one-sided attack on Israel,” Smelko said of the bill. On the surface, it seemed to make some sense, he said, but a closer look indicated a more spurious agenda. “The bill was being used for the political delegitimizing of the State of Israel. Something told me the way they used the bill was morally wrong.”
May 3, 2010 | 6:40 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
It is fascinating—and painfully compromising—to realize how many 20-somethings work in the White House. These are not your typical 24-year-olds of course; they’re preternaturally gifted, seriously ambitious and mostly Harvard graduates who also happen to be extremely attractive (example: Alejandra Campoverdi paid for Harvard by modeling for Maxim, among other esteemed publications). “Obama’s 20-somethings” were the subject of a lengthy but not overly illuminating feature in yesterday’s New York Times Magazine in which we learned the things we expect to hear of such folk: they work long hours, they’re treated like “minicelebrities”, they think Obama is a saint.
But here’s something we didn’t know: In the world of Obama’s 20-somethings, “Friday-night Shabbat dinners have become something of a ritual,” the article said. “A chance to relax and spend a few hours with friends, reflecting on the week.”
Yes, even in the midst of world priorities like universal healthcare, a disastrous oil spill and scary dictators going nuclear, the Obama aides, several of whom are Jewish, take time out for Shabbes dinner.
ERIC LESSER LOOKED out over the containers of Thai carryout, the bottles of wine and the Shabbat candles. “Should we do Shalom Aleichem?” he asked, and the whole table began singing a warbled but hearty version of the song that welcomes Shabbat. In Lesser’s group house of Obama staff assistants, Friday-night Shabbat dinners have become something of a ritual, a chance to relax and spend a few hours with friends, reflecting on the week. Sometimes it’s just the four housemates, sometimes it’s a large group from the campaign trail or the White House, sometimes it’s friends from college and people who happen to be in town.
Once it was even their bosses — “the Bosses Dinner,” they still call it. David Axelrod, Lesser’s boss, was out of town, but others came: Jake Levine’s boss, Carol Browner, the White House coordinator of energy-and-climate policy; her husband and her sister; and Ziskend’s boss, Jared Bernstein, the vice president’s chief economist, along with his wife and their two young kids. Linda Douglass, then the director of communications for the White House office of health reform, was also there.
Around the table on a late September night, the weekend of Yom Kippur, were the four housemates along with Samantha Tubman, a 30-year-old associate director to the social secretary who helps plan nearly every White House event, and Sam Wilson, 27, the deputy director of broadcast media for the White House office of communications. On the campaign trail, Tubman was a press wrangler, one of the most difficult and least glamorous jobs. She had to make sure the press corps was fed and on time, all while dealing with lost luggage and hotel mishaps. Tubman, who is petite and has a quick, engaging smile, was also an older-sister figure to a lot of the young staff members. “Do you remember when we met at a coffee shop in Keene, N.H., when I was still a college student?” Ziskend asked, turning to Tubman.
At the end of every Friday dinner, the tradition is that everyone goes around the table and says something from the past week for which they’re grateful. Over Whole Foods gingerbread and brownies, Lesser looked at his watch and announced, “O.K., we’ve got to do this and then get out of here.” They all had other friends they were trying to see that night.
Tubman started. She talked about her past week in Pittsburgh at the G-20. It was crazy, chaotic and sleepless — a bit like life on the trail, she said, and she was appreciative that she got to know some new colleagues in an intimate, campaignlike way. Lesser talked about going home for Rosh Hashanah and how it was nice to be reminded that “there are people there who I care about and who care about me and who don’t care about the stimulus package in Washington.”
May 3, 2010 | 11:26 am
Posted by Danielle Berrin
News of Sandra Bullock’s choice to have her adopted son circumcised has tickled the Jewish media: Isn’t it cool that non-Jews are getting their kids circumcised, too? And not just the snip-n-clip way, but the Jewish way, with a mohel.
The Jewish Telegraphic Agency’s Ami Eden writes, “Some corners of the blogosphere were citing the report as proof that Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson have competition for Hollywood’s most beautiful Jewish starlet award. But plenty of celeb-obsessed Web sites were saying the opposite, insisting that what’s newsworthy here is that a non-Jewish movie star chose to go with a Jewish ritual circumcision.”
What makes it more interesting, though, is that a high-profile celeb like Bullock is taking up the ritual during a period of sharp decline. According to a 2008 L.A. Times article, ritual circumcision of American boys dropped from 85% in 1965 to 56% in 2005. Unless performed for religious reasons, the story said, many parents chose to opt out because of questionable medical benefits and the stigma of genital mutilation. Then came a startling new development when a study out of Africa found that circumcised males were “51% to 60% less likely to acquire HIV from heterosexual vaginal sex with an infected woman.”
It’s doubtful Bullock chose the Jewish rite for that reason, but then, why did she?
Whether or not one circumcises their offspring comes down to a personal choice that is often influenced by religion, ethnicity and/or culture. Bullock hasn’t publicly said why she chose circumcision for her son but she did say, it was “the greatest moment I have ever had in my life.”
From a Jewish perspective, it is seen as the sign of a sacred covenant between God and the Jewish people. Rabbi Ed Feinstein, who is one of the most brilliant and charismatic teachers around, has a slightly more nuanced—and unconventional—view. He once told a class I was taking that all of Jewish tradition could be interpreted as an effort to curb male violence. And what better way to remind men to calm themselves down than to mark their sex organ with a reminder of God? It’s quite a theory, isn’t it? The curious thing, of course, is that this binding covenant performed on men is meant to bind all Jews. Modern, progressive incarnations of the tradition struggle with this indirect impact on women in many ways, but we’ll leave that to seminal female thinkers like Aviva Zornberg who is more than capable of elucidating a feminist philosophy.
In the meantime, we can delight in the brilliance of Judaism to offer the world a universal, sacred birth rite that imbues a splashy Hollywood adoption with a little bit of meaning. Hear that Brad and Angie?