Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
The impoverished, self-styled aristocrat who mentors Jonathan Ames’ alter ego in his novel, “The Extra Man” (now a movie starring Kevin Kline), thinks women should know their place. “The women I like best are the ones in Williamsburg. The Hasidic women,” the imperious Henry Harrison opines in Ames’ 1998 novel. “They seem to have the right touch. They wear gingham gowns like Mary Pickford. But I don’t like the men’s costumes at all. It’s not very attractive to wear your hair in pigtails, and the black hats aren’t very good.”
Ames’ alter-ego, Louis Ives, a blond, self-loathing Jew, reflects: “I was relieved that he had said something positive about Jews….I felt more desirable as a roommate if I were viewed as an Aryan. It is a weakness of my character that I always think to hide my Jewish identity.”
The novel is now a movie by the Oscar-nominated husband-and-wife filmmakers Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (“American Splendor”)—with Ames as the co-screenwriter and executive producer. Like all of Ames’ work, the movie involves eccentricities—including unfortunate incidents with brassieres, cross-dressing, people who are “tri-sexual” and other fringy New York characters. (Ames is also the creator of HBO’s quirky detective comedy, “Bored to Death,” which returns for a second season on Sept. 26.)
Last year, Ames told me that, like the fictional Louis in his novel “The Extra Man,” he once followed a pursuit he describes as “religious cross-dressing:” primping his blond hair and donning blazers to “infiltrate WASP society” in his 20s. While at Princeton University, Ames had become smitten by what he calls “the aesthetics of the WASPy young gentleman” as depicted in the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald. And when this charade put him in hearing distance of an anti-Semitic remark, he often said nothing, hoping to “pass” and to be liked. “I had my own interior Jewish self-prejudice,” the 46-year-old writer said. Ames based “The Extra Man” on his relationship with a mentor and roommate he had as an impressionable youth in Manhattan, who contrived to live the high life by acting as an “Extra Man,” i.e. an escort to wealthy elderly women.
While Ames was busy preparing for the second season of “Bored to Death,” I caught up with Pulcini and Berman to discuss the movie version of “The Extra Man” and how they were initially drawn to the project.
Naomi Pfefferman: The last time we spoke was about your 2003 film, “American Splendor,” about the brilliant but cranky comic book icon Harvey Pekar. Do you have a predilection for characters who are “out there,” so to speak?
Shari Springer Berman: We started out in documentaries, so we have the documentary instinct for extreme characters. We didn’t make political documentaries; we made character documentaries like “Off the Menu: The Last Days of Chasen’s” and we did one about the Hollywood Forever cemetery called “The Young and the Dead,” so we’ve always had this fascination for really extreme, interesting characters.
NP: How did that interest translate into your feature films?
SSB: I’m less interested in making movies I know Hollywood likes to make – movies about good-looking people who’re having dating problems; or a guy who can’t get laid or whatever. Those people aren’t extreme enough for us to sink our teeth into.
NP: Did you know Ames’ work before you received the offer to adapt “The Extra Man?”
Robert Pulcini: Honestly, we weren’t aware of his work at all. But Jonathan’s manager kept trying to get his work to us because she thought we would respond to his talent. Jonathan’s talent is very specific: He’s got a very unique voice; he’s got this very gentle way of telling stories, but I love his sense of humor and it just clicked with us.
SSB: His work is very literate, very intelligent and bawdy.
RP: But never unkind or judgmental. Jonathan is very generous; no matter who the person is or how strange their kink is, he has a love and affection for them. So we got “The Extra Man” on a weekend read and I loved it; I was laughing out loud. I said, “Shari, you have to read this”—and she read it and felt exactly the same way. And then we found out that [our manager] had meant to send us something else by Jonathan – my manager said, “Don’t read ‘The Extra Man,’” but we said, “It’s too late, we’ve fallen in love with it.” And we found out it was available, and so we decided to option it. We had no idea there had already been many incarnations of people who had attempted to make it into a movie before we came along. But we were very optimistic and we worked with Jonathan on the script and it all came together very quickly.
NP: Did working with Harvey Pekar prepare you for working with Jonathan Ames?
SSB: Nothing compares to Harvey. There’s only one Harvey, and there’s only one Jonathan Ames. But Jonathan is very functional.
RP: I don’t know how functional he is in his personal life, but [professionally] he’s disciplined and he’s a writer and he wants to get things done. You know, Harvey is just on his own wavelength; he plays by his own rules completely.
SSB: Harvey kept saying, “I just care about the bread, man.” Like all he wanted was just to get paid…. I love Harvey, he’s one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met, but when it came to artistic collaboration on writing the script and stuff like that he was like, “I trust you, man, I just want my bread.” Jonathan is an artist and he’s got a vision and a perspective. It was great to work with him and he definite cared; he didn’t just want his “bread.”
NP: In the novel, “The Extra Man,” the character of Louis is overtly Jewish – or rather trying to hide his Judaism – but that’s not the case in the movie.
SSB: Yes, there is a lot of that in the book, but we all agreed that there was no room for it in the movie. There actually is a subplot in the novel about Henry making anti-Semitic remarks and Louis, who is Jewish in the book, lets him do it and sort of accepts it and tries to pass himself off as German. It was really interesting but such a deep, psychological thing that we thought it would be too hard to fit into the film. In the movie, you don’t know whether Louis is Jewish or not.
NP: You did keep a version of the lines from the novel in which Henry says he likes Hasidic women – he thinks they “get it” about how submissive women should be.
SSB: I thought that was the funniest thing, because it was just so weird and specific. And what is it that he thinks Hasidic women “get?” I think he’s saying they’re more old-fashioned…
RP: That they have a definite sense of gender roles, which appeals to Henry. But the thing is, Henry has these opinions that he blurts out quite confidently, but who knows what he’s thinking when he says them. That’s kind of the fun of Henry: He just powers through, he’s very determined in his world view and just keeps going forward with it. But a lot of his ideas are quite hollow when you really pull them apart.
SSB: One of the things I found really funny about the [Hasidic] line—which is one of my favorite lines in the book and the movie—is actually imagining Henry hanging out with a Hasidic woman –imagining the two of them like going out to lunch or something.
RP: Kevin [Kline, who plays Henry in the film] always compares his character to Falstaff [from Shakespeare’s plays]. He said Falstaff was an inspiration for him – in the character’s determination to survive and his commitment to his persona.
NP: Since you live in Manhattan, did you consider Henry Harrison a kind of archetypal New York character?
SSB: Absolutely. Go to any free screening at the Museum of Modern Art, and you’ll see people who have gone to every single free event where there’s free food. We always say Henry was in it for the cheese platter – like he’d go to the opening of an envelope, if it came with free cheese. I had a great-uncle, Arthur, who reminded me a lot of Henry. He wasn’t an “extra man,” although it wouldn’t have surprised me if he did that at some point in his life. He was kind of the black sheep of the family, so I didn’t get to know him until he was in his late 80s. One day my mother called and said he lived about three blocks away from us on the Upper West Side. We ended up becoming good friends of his and helped take care of him before he died.
NP: How did Uncle Arthur remind you of Henry Harrison?
SSB: He was a failed poet.
RP: He had an apartment he rented for $125 a month – a one-bedroom walkup.
SSB: In a brownstone.
RP: It was a disaster inside.
SSB: His apartment was far more extreme than Henry Harrison’s. Uncle Arthur was also obsessed with books.
RP: He always wore a tie.
SSB: Once I went to visit him in the hospital after he had had a heart attack, and it was the cutest thing—I’ll never forget he was walking down the hall to get his New York Times, since he couldn’t live without his Times; so he was walking with like an IV to get his Times and he had a tie on – he put a tie on with his hospital gown. And he was a man of letters, never married….And he would go to the museum, and sort of lived on the fringe of culture. He was one of those invisible people in New York that really do exist: They live in walkup apartments and they want to be playwrights or artists or poets and it just doesn’t work out for them. But they still haunt the museums and you see them walking around, eating the freebies – and Uncle Arthur was always there for a freebie.
NP: What were you able to bring from your uncle to Kevin Kline’s character?
RP: It was certainly this immediately recognition that what Jonathan was writing was authentic.
SSB: Uncle Arthur was also Jewish, by the way. He was born on Allen Street on the Lower East Side, and his family was very religious. But he was not a practicing Jew.
NP: When you were adapting “The Extra Man” into a screenplay, how did you handle the sexual strangeness of the story – Louis’ penchant for cross-dressing, for example, or Henry insisting that the most interesting people are “tri-sexual?”
SSB: Of course people can be heterosexual cross dressers, and that is what we determined was going on with Louis. But we also felt that Louis was very confused and Jonathan seemed to have been that way [as a young man] as well. Jonathan said in the book, and in talking to us, that there was a loneliness he felt; that he wanted love and he didn’t have it. And he confused dressing like a woman and looking at himself in the mirror as seeing love—actually having love from a woman. It came from his own insecurities and issues and fears of rejection. So we tried to understand, and to work with what was going on with Louis in the same way.
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August 9, 2010 | 1:56 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
If you ever wondered about Jennifer Aniston’s Jewish connection, alas, here it is: The sitcom star turned screen queen portrays Barbra Streisand in a special photo tribute to the legendary diva in the September issue of Harper’s Bazaar.
If, like me, you’re thinking, wow, those brilliant magazine editors couldn’t possibly have chosen anyone better to represent the original Funny Girl, you’ll be glad to know that Babs herself agrees. In a statement on her Web site, Streisand pointed out how apt the choice was:
“I was very flattered that Jennifer Aniston chose to interpret my style with the photos in Harper’s Bazaar. She’s a delightful person, and I think she did a wonderful job,” Streisand wrote. “If only she had a bump on her nose.”
That last bon mot is a snarky reference to the nose job—or, excuse me, deviated septum—Aniston fessed up to in 2007. Streisand, on the other hand, endured much criticism over the years for refusing to have rhinoplasty in the event it might compromise her voice. Streisand’s nose, at first suggestive of her Jewish ethnicity, soon became a symbol of artistic defiance. Stereotype or not, Streisand’s refusal to go the plastic surgery route, some say, caused a decline in the number of Jewish girls and women who wanted to be rid of their Jewish noses.
In a 1999 New York Observer article about plastic surgery, University of Chicago professor Sander L. Gilman was interviewed about his book, Making the Body Beautiful: A Cultural History of Esthetic Surgery and recounted a 1989 New York Magazine article citing the rise of rhinoplasty among Jewish women:
“By the mid-60’s, an upturned nose had practically become a middle-class status symbol, and hundreds of teenage girls in New York (read: Jewish girls) seemed to be wearing the same design. The bone was narrowed, the tip pinched into a triangle, and there were two distinct bumps above the nostril.’’ Jewish girls, convinced their noses are “too Jewish,’’ that is too big, want to look like typical American.
Gilman, who is also the author of “Jewish Self-Hatred” and “The Jew’s Body” talked about the implications of Streisand’s decision to keep her “too Jewish” nose.
Guess Jennifer Aniston didn’t want us getting the wrong idea.
August 6, 2010 | 11:08 am
Posted by Danielle Berrin
An article published in the L.A. Weekly this week attempts to link the family of prominent Orthodox rabbi Shmuley Boteach with a fraudulent arms dealership in Miami Beach. But a closer read of the story raises questions about the legitimacy of its claims and hints at a possible smear campaign aimed at one of the country’s most important Jewish voices.
The L.A. Weekly alleges that Boteach’s father, Yoav Botach, a wealthy real estate owner and Boteach’s brother, Bar-Kochba Botach, a law-enforcement supplier, are really high-level arms merchants who may be in cahoots with a felonious outfit in Miami Beach. Through a confusing web of allegations, the Weekly connects Bar-Kochba’s L.A.-based law enforcement supply company, Botach Tactical, with the now defunct arms dealership AEY Inc. of Miami Beach run by Yoav Botach’s grandson, Efraim Diveroli, who was convicted of conspiracy in 2008.
Diveroli was 21 when he was convicted of defrauding the U.S. government for peddling decomposing ammunition as part of a $300 million contract to arm the Afghan government. In order to duck a U.S. embargo on arms from the Chinese military, Diveroli hired a third party to repackage millions of unusable bullets he had purchased—cheaply—from China. According to the L.A. Weekly, Diveroli is currently awaiting sentencing in a U.S. District Court in Miami.
“While this is not about me, I will of course defend my father and brother, two highly respected and philanthropic businessmen, against a silly and factually absurd story that was, according to both LA Weekly and the Jewish Journal, sourced by the party who sued my father for palimony and had the large amount of money sought rejected in court.”
Indeed, the allegations connecting Botach’s business with Diveroli’s fraudulent one hinges on some dubious evidence, as well as the single-sourced testimony provided by Yoav Botach’s estranged ex-wife, Judith Boteach (the family name is Botach though several family members, including Shmuley, have changed the spelling for practical reasons). According to Judith Boteach, a 2004 federal contract granted to Botach Tactical uses Diveroli’s now defunct AEY address in Miami Beach. Another connection cited in the article reflects information found on the Web site Fedvendor.com, a portal for companies interested in government contracts, that lists Botach Tactical’s mailing address at the same Miami Beach location.
Beyond a link between addresses, the story elucidates only one other connection between Botach and Diveroli: Apparently, Diveroli spent his teenage summers interning for his uncle Bar-Kochba, and, according to an expose of Diveroli in Details Magazine, “It was there, equipping police departments, that Diveroli learned how to bid on government contracts.”
Oddly, the story also implicates Congressman Henry Waxman for his alleged “silence” on the issue, when, according to Weekly author Penn Bullock, Waxman promised to conduct an investigation into the munitions fraud and any connection to the Botach family.
Bullock writes that Waxman’s 2008 inquiry “aimed to answer a fundamental question: How did Botach’s inexperienced 21-year-old grandson Efraim Diveroli ‘get a sensitive, $300 million contract to supply ammunition to Afghan forces?’”
Congressman Waxman issued a statement explaining: “When I was Chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee we began an investigation into the procurement process at the Department of Defense that allowed AEY to receive a $300 million contract to supply ammunition to Afghan forces. In June 2008 we held a hearing on the issue in the hope that we could learn what went wrong so that we could rebuild our procurement system and protect the interests of taxpayers.”
Waxman did not allude to the outcome of that investigation, except to say that shortly thereafter he was elected Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, while the investigation remained with the House Oversight Committee.
But the real heart of this story is a common refrain: the damage that ensues in the aftermath of a breakup. In this case, Judith Boteach is accusing her ex of financial malfeasance and alleges that Yoav Botach wired money to Israel to avoid paying her.
She also claims he was influential with L.A. city and state officials. “There were special lunches, dinners and fund-raisers,” she told the L.A. Weekly. Those special events apparently included Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s “Turn Friday Night into Family Night” initiative which was launched last year in Beverly Hills, and the paper reported that Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and City Council President Eric Garcetti were in attendance. (For the record, Garcetti was a student of Rabbi Shmuley’s at Oxford, where Boteach ran a prominent speakers bureau as part of his work for Chabad, but Garcetti said he was not at the event that night. Rabbi Boteach added: Eric Garcetti, one of the most honest, sincere, and devoted figures in American political life was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford where I served as Rabbi for 11 years and where we became close. He has kindly joined many other international figures to help me create a global family dinner night.”)
For what it’s worth, Judith Boteach and Yoav Botach were never legally married—though Boteach claims she was unaware of this. In August 2009, according to L.A. Weekly, Boteach was awarded $250,000 plus legal costs in an L.A. Superior Court for “claims of assault, battery, emotional distress and unpaid work” but her palimony suit was rejected.
“Relationship breakups are always painful but disparaging one another in the press, while perhaps affording immediate comfort, is, in the long run, never conducive to healing,” Rabbi Shmuley Boteach said in a statement. “My father has been a successful real estate investor for 40 years and the suggestion he is an arms dealer is pure defamation and libel. My brother’s business sells law-enforcement, military, and public safety supplies to the police, army, and those who keep our country safe. He is a cherished friend of US law enforcement.”
Questions remain as to whether the allegations are true or if they are part of a broader smear campaign waged by an angry ex-partner and her audacious lawyer, Robert W. Hirsh.
Boteach would rather see this story buried, where he thinks it belongs: “How unfortunate that journalists simply reprint untruths without even checking the facts.”
August 4, 2010 | 2:29 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Here’s some healthy tzedakah: billionaires pledging half their worth to charity.
That’s the idea behind a campaign conceived by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett known as The Giving Pledge, which 38 other billionaires have signed on to since the plan was hatched by America’s two wealthiest individuals less than a year ago.
Joining Gates and Buffett, who, according to MSNBC have a combined fortune of $90 billion are some big names from the Jewish world, including California residents Eli and Edythe Broad (Los Angeles), Qualcomm co-founder Irwin Jacobs and his wife Joan (San Diego), World Savings Bank founding director Bernard Osher and his wife, the Consul General of Sweden to San Francisco Barbro Osher. Other prominent names on the list include New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Orthodox Jewish investor Ronald Perelman and media mogul Barry Diller and his wife, designer Diane von Furstenberg.
So why are these folks giving it away?
Here’s some nice rationale from Mayor Bloomberg, who doesn’t want to leave it all to his kids.
According to MSNBC, Bloomberg, who made his $17.5 billion fortune from financial news company Bloomberg L.P., doesn’t think his children should go through life as members of “the lucky sperm club” (as if sperm is all it takes).
“You don’t want to leave them so much money that it ruins their lives,” Bloomberg told MSNBC. “You want kids who can look back and say, ‘Yeah my family helped me but I did something on my own.’”
August 1, 2010 | 2:53 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Journal Arts & Entertainment Editor Naomi Pfefferman caught up with actor Paul Rudd, director Jay Roach and others from “Dinner for Schmucks,” which opened Friday around $8 million at the box office, giving the previous number one film, “Inception,” a run for its money. The topic was: Why title a major studio comedy “Dinner for Schmucks”— “schmucks” traditionally meaning a not-so-nice word in Yiddish?
The movie revolves around a financial analyst, Tim (Rudd), whose promotion hinges on inviting the eccentric taxidermist Barry (Steve Carell) to his boss’s “dinner for idiots,” where each guest is required to bring the biggest dunce he can find for an evening of ridicule. Rudd’s parents are Jews from England; Roach (who directed the “Austin Powers” and “Meet the Parents” franchises) converted to Judaism before marrying rock musician Susanna Hoffs of “The Bangles” at Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel in Westwood in 1993. Here’s the conversation:
Naomi Pfefferman: So Paul, do you have any elderly Jewish relatives who raised eyebrows about the use of the word, “schmuck?” in the film’s title?
Paul Rudd: Well, go right to the Jew (laughs). You know I was in shul…(joking) Actually, no, my grandfather used to call me a “schmuck” and a “putz.”
NP: Can you tell us what “schmuck” means in Yiddish?
PR: (wryly) It means “penis” right—is that what you’re looking for?...How about “putz?” I remember growing up saying “Ah, gosh, ‘putz’ is such a funny word. I would use it like, ‘Oh, don’t be a putz’— but then I thought ‘putz’ meant an ‘idiot.’ And I remember my dad saying, ‘Well, you know, actually, a ‘putz’ is a ‘penis.’ What’s up with all the [Yiddish] words, by the way, for penis?
David Guion (the film’s co-screenwriter with Michael Handelman): It’s like Eskimos have 200 words for snow.
PR: But it always took on I think not so much specificity as it does kind of a general, “Oh, you’re being an idiot, you’re being stupid – quit acting like a schmuck.” So it was strange, being Jewish—and I know there are some people who have taken offense that we called this “Dinner for Schmucks,” because I’ve read [some blog items exploring this]. But it wouldn’t even have crossed my mind that somebody might find it offensive, because I just never associated it, being Jewish, with being offensive.
Ron Livingston (actor): Also, “Dinner for Weiners” didn’t sound quite right.
NP: Will the title, as they say, play in Peoria?
Jay Roach: I think so…. For me it’s kind of an ideal word for what the story is about, because it does in modern usage have two meanings of “Don’t be a schmuck,” as in, “Don’t be a jerk,” which is what Paul Rudd’s character is going through, and “Don’t be an idiot,” which you can assume is what Steve Carell’s going through. And then in the end it sort of switches, because you find out that Paul’s character is the one who’s living a deluded kind of reality and Steve’s character is actually much wiser than he is. So it’s a funny word to say but it also resonates across what the two characters are about.
August 1, 2010 | 12:31 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
It may not have been a “kosher” wedding, but it was definitely a Jewish one.
According to the New York Times, Chelsea Clinton, a Methodist, wed Marc Mezvinsky, a Jew, in an elaborate and expensive interfaith ceremony in Rhinebeck, NY yesterday. It was also reported that Rabbi James Ponet, Yale University’s Jewish chaplain, co-officiated with Reverend William Shillady in a ceremony that included elements from both traditions. The Times and other publications say that friends and family recited the Seven Blessings, or in Hebrew, Sheva Berachot. In photographs, the groom is seen wearing a kippah and a tallit (prayer shawl), and in the photo posted here, the couple is standing in front of what appears to be a ketubah (Jewish marriage contract).
But was it Jewish enough?
Reports on the wedding effectively ended months of speculation over whether Clinton or Mezvinsky would convert. No such conversion took place. Instead their wedding became a convergence of religion, honoring both of their faiths.
In the days to come, there will no doubt be disappointed naysayers condemning Clinton, or Mezvinsky, or Clinton-Mezvinsky, for refusing to choose. They can’t have it both ways—it’ll confuse the children! One blogger on this site wrote, “I think it’s a little odd to wear a tallit and kippah, sign a ketubah, and recite the 7 blessings, when you are marrying a person who is not Jewish. Why bother?”
Well, maybe because we don’t live in a black and white world. To suggest that incorporating any element of Jewish tradition is worthless unless both bride and groom are Jewish is silly and shortsighted. It is precisely the kind of all-or-nothing extremism that has fueled religious fundamentalism in Israel, in Arab countries and around the world. Wouldn’t it be nice if instead of decrying imminent doom for the Jewish populace we celebrated this couple’s inclusion of Jewish ritual? After all, it isn’t everyday that an American president has to watch his only daughter get married with Hebrew blessings. Instead of fearful or judgmental, couldn’t we be just a wee bit proud?
Jews have always maintained that Judaism has much to teach the world, and this seems as good a time as any for a teaching moment. Or, would we rather hearken back to the days when Jews lived in ghettos and everything about them seemed strange and foreign? I say that’s a tired road.
Chelsea Clinton may not be halachically (legally) Jewish, but then, who is? Recent events here and in Israel suggest the question is open for debate.