Posted by Danielle Berrin
Yes, that’s right, Jon Stewart is all grown up.
The news that Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert will stage their own satirical rallies at the National Mall in Washington D.C. on October 30 to countermand—or erase the memory of—the one held by Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin just a few weeks ago, is a fascinating twist in American politics and media.
Long trumpeting themselves as comedians only, Comedy Central’s (and perhaps the country’s) two funniest funnymen are finally taking themselves seriously.
Just the other day, TheWrap.com’s Dylan Stableford reported on the release of the biennial news consumption survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, highlighting the following finding: In terms of age, the “Colbert Report” (80%), “Daily Show” (74%) and New York Times (67%) have the biggest percentage of viewers and readers in the coveted 18-49-year-old demographic (Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly (35%) and Sean Hannity (33%) have the smallest—tear, tear).
Stewart, for all his humor and lunacy, has become a check-and-balance voice not only for the U.S. government but for the entire American media. On a light day, Stewart might point out hypocrisies stemming from news coverage on MSNBC, CNN, and his favorite source of folly, Fox News.
On his show last night, he touted his upcoming rally as “a clarion call for rationality”—“a million moderate march, where we take to the streets to send a message to our leaders and our national media that says, ‘We are here! We ... are only here until 6 though, because we have a sitter,’” he joked.
Being insanely ironic himself, Stewart knows crazy when he sees it. And unlike most media outlets today, he isn’t afraid to call it like he sees it. Of course, it helps not having powerful corporate interests determine your politics, but that’s what makes Stewart so good: he is truly an independent voice. And more than ten years in (Stewart took over “Daily Show” duties from Craig Kilborn in 1999), he has become one of the most honest and important voices in American discourse. Funny, serious, newsy or otherwise, you won’t find a more intelligent American (Jewish) commentator with the verve and wit to captivate audiences young and old.
I suggest finding your spot on the lawn.
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September 14, 2010 | 12:20 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Don’t expect all tutus and point shoes from this ballet-centered psychological thriller from Darren Aronofsky, a film that, at least in the trailer, displays a fierce blend of sexual and violent intrigue. But you can expect a lethal dose of drama coming from the hottest menage-a-trois of Jewish actresses ever seen together on screen.
Let’s count: First, there’s Jerusalem-born, Long Island-raised Natalie Portman in the leading role; then Winona Ryder, born Winona Laura Horowitz, who plays Portman’s slightly elder competition; and then there’s rising star Mila Kunis (“Forgetting Sarah Marshall”), born to a Jewish family in the Ukraine, who plays Portman’s arch-nemisis (and brief sexual flame).
Not to mention, director Aronofsky is also Jewish, raised in a conservative home in Brooklyn, New York (and lives with another Jewish actress, Rachel Weisz).
With this film—and his personal life—Aronofsky could be considered an iconoclast, smashing tired stereotypes of nagging, homely Jewish women and replacing them with sharp, lusty actresses.
In the past, Hollywood has avoided casting Jewish women as leading ladies. In a 2009 article for Tablet Magazine about how Hollywood has historically preferred “shiksas”, writer Liel Liebovitz wrote:
Since the dawn of American entertainment, Jewish women were largely rendered invisible, absent everywhere from burlesque to Hollywood to prime-time television. Instead, they watched as their sons and brothers and husbands became successful producers, directors, and impresarios, powerful men who then chose to populate their works with a parade of sexy, sultry shiksas who looked nothing like their female kin.
In a 2001 interview conducted by Emma Forrest for Blackbook magazine, Rachel Weisz offered her insight as to why that was the case:
EMMA: Is it limiting as an actress to be perceived as being too ethnic in any way?
RACHEL: Well, I think you and I have always felt the same way — that we’re Jewish but we can get away with just being exotic. We’re kind of Jews in disguise. Those cultural stereotypes about the Jew with the big hooky nose and the fleshy face rub off on you. That’s terrible to admit, isn’t it.
EMMA: Well, it’s that Jackie Mason joke about how no Jewish woman wants to look Jewish: “‘You think I look maybe a little Italian, I look a little Russian, perhaps I can be Spanish?’ … ‘You look Jewish!’”
RACHEL: Hollywood’s run by Jews. I was advised by an American agent when I was about 19 to change my surname. And I said “Why? Jews run Hollywood.” He said “Exactly.” He had a theory that all the executives think acting’s a job for shiksas.
EMMA: Of all the self-loathing Jews in the world, the most self-loathing are the Hollywood Jews. They don’t want to see images of themselves on screen. That’s why Lauren Bacall had to hide her identity, and Winona Ryder changed her name from Horowitz.
RACHEL: In some way acting is prostitution, and Hollywood Jews don’t want their own women to participate. Also, there’s an element of Portnoy’s Complaint — they all fancy Aryan blondes.
With “Black Swan,” Aronofsky, the director of such deeply penetrating films as “Requiem for a Dream” and “The Wrestler” subverts ancient stereotypes about both Jewish women and ballet. “Swan” is a story about the dark underbelly of the dance world, foreshadowed in the trailer’s opening line: “I had the craziest dream last night,” Portman’s character says in voiceover, “about a girl who is turned into a swan, but her prince falls for the wrong girl and she kills herself.”
It promises to be a drama of biblical proportions helmed by three of Hollywood’s hottest Jewish women. In the trailer, a montage of balletic daring, mutilated skin and edgy sexuality unfolds in haunting flashes with a close-up of Portman’s blood-stained eyes hinting at utter emotional despair.
It’s the kind of deep, wrenching drama that makes up the fabric of every Jewish soul.
For Kunis, that depth has been shaped by growing up Jewish in Communist Russia and having lost countless family members in the Holocaust. She once told the Website JVibe.com:
[When] I was in Russia. I wasn’t allowed to be religious. My whole family was in the holocaust. My grandparents passed and not many survived. After the holocaust in Russia you were not allowed to be religious. So my parents raised me to know I was Jewish. You know who you are inside. You don’t need to tell the whole world. You believe what you believe and that’s what’s important. And that’s how I was raised. My family was like ‘you are Jewish in your blood’. We can celebrate Yom Kippur and Hannukah but not by the book. We do it to our own extent. Because being in Russia…Bar Mitzvahs weren’t held. When I was in school you would still see anti-Semitic signs. One of my friends who grew up in Russia, she was in second grade. And she came home one day crying. Her mother asked why she was crying and she said on the back of her seat there was a swastika. Now this is a country that obviously does not want you. So my parents raised me Jewish as much as they could and came to America. I love my religion. I think it’s a beautiful religion but I took parts of it that I want for myself. I don’t need to go to temple. I will, but I don’t need to.
For her part, Portman has said she hates playing Jewish women on screen. In February 2010, she told Elle magazine, “I’ve always tried to stay away from playing Jews. I get like 20 Holocaust scripts a month, but I hate the genre.”
Though “Black Swan” is a far cry from the death camps of Europe, its emotional depth is palpable, as are the psychological pressures real. This is the kind of emotional turmoil that stems from fame, performance and artistic perfectionism .
As Sharon Waxman, editor in chief of The Wrap.com notes on her blog, we have Fox Searchlight to thank for bankrolling the Jewish-star-studded film. Waxman wrote that, even with all the star power, the film almost didn’t get made:
I can easily imagine all the pitch meetings at which approximately five minutes in, some executive probably said:
“Does it have to be ballet?”
“Every singe studio turned this down,” Waxman reported Aronofsky saying after a screening in Toronto. “This time I had a movie star. But everyone turned it down. There is no money for independent film.”
Fox Searchlight’s gamble may pay off considering all the early Oscar buzz. But it seems that with this one, the audience is in for the real treat.
Check out the trailer:
September 13, 2010 | 4:58 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Insert any number of kosher jokes here.
Still, the question remains: what exactly was Lady Gaga trying to say by donning a dress made of meat at the MTV Video Music Awards last night?
The blogosphere has since erupted in explications: Was she commenting on factory farming? Insulting vegetarians? Presenting a cheaper alternative to fur?
According to the Washington Post, Gaga told Ellen DeGeneres in a taped interview that will air today, that, “It is certainly no disrespect to anyone that is vegan or vegetarian. As you know, I am the most judgment-free human being on the earth. However, it has many interpretations, but for me this evening ... If we don’t stand up for what we believe in and if we don’t fight for our rights, pretty soon we’re going to have as much rights as the meat on our own bones.”
I bring this up because I am in the middle of a profile on Muslim-American scholar Najeeba Syeed-Miller and one of the things we discussed upon meeting last week, was—surprise, surprise—fashion. Syeed-Miller is an elegant woman for whom dress is an outward emblem of identity. In other words, she wears a hijab (hair covering) as an expression of her faith. But her getup is hardly conservative—on the contrary, it is striking. On two occasions I’ve seen her wear brightly colored scarves, glittery jewels and beautifully embroidered clothes. Fashion appears as much a part of her self-expression as her religious identity.
“The way that I dress is a manifestation of being American; there is a religious component to wearing a scarf, but the way it manifests itself for me is partly a cultural context,” she said during an interview last week.
For women who want to be taken seriously, dressing fashionably can be a double-edged sword. If a woman draws attention to her exterior, the thinking goes, she must be compensating for a paucity of interior gifts; she’s probably not smart or talented or skillful.
“You can still wear heels and be supportive of women’s issues because it’s about choice,” Syeed-Miller said. “It’s not easy because when do you get to the point where you’re judged by it? But I also feel like completely denying women any choice in their dress also takes away something that is innate.”
For women of different backgrounds, she explained, fashion can be a bridge between cultures.
“In cross cultural conversations, fashion will come up for women and they will connect over that,” she said.
Still, as Gloria Steinem pointed out last March, the problem is that even in a post-feminist world, women are valued based on their appearance before they are considered for their skills.
“Do I think about how I get dressed? Yeah,” Syeed-Miller said. But she also agrees with Steinem: “I feel like there’s so much concentration on womens’ dress both internally and externally to the extent that it takes away from discussion about real issues around women.”
That’s where we could learn from Lady Gaga, whose style of dress often is the issue.
September 13, 2010 | 4:49 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Nate Berkus, the Chicago-based interior designer who has appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show more than 80 times and will debut his self-titled show on NBC tonight.
I know what you’re thinking: Seriously, what Jew has time to redecorate their home when the high holidays keep us plenty busy with a mandate to redecorate our souls?
As it turns out, though, a little investigation into this surface-oriented designer has revealed something deep and profound about the Jewish concept of teshuvah—or, “return” as we describe the process by which we repent and repair what is tragically broken in us throughout the high holy days.
Berkus, a Southern California native (born in Orange County), was vacationing with his partner, the photographer Fernando Bengoechea in Sri Lanka when the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami devastated the coast of Southeast Asia. Berkus survived the tragedy, but his partner did not.
In a 2008 interview with the Windy City Times, Berkus explained how reflecting on that tragedy transformed him.
“I sort of have reached a stage with that [ tragedy ] where I do still reflect on it quite frequently, but I tend to reflect more on who I’ve become and what I’ve learned since that day,” Berkus told reporter Ross Forman. “I would never wish for anyone to experience what I experienced, the personal loss I experienced with Fernando dying and also witnessing what I witnessed, including the deaths of so many. But the truth is, the lessons that I’ve learned from that changed me so profoundly as a person, thus I wouldn’t recognize myself before the tsunami.”
Sometimes, even the most horrific traumas can be tools for helping us refashion our lives.
“When you go through a life-altering experience, you can come out [ of it ] in one of two ways: You can come out as a stronger version of the person you were before, or you can let it destroy you. Even through my grief, and truly for the first time ever understanding what grief was, I knew on some level that I would make myself a better person as a result of that, that it wouldn’t be the one thing in my life that defined me. For me, a lot of things define [ me ] ; I’m not just defined as being on TV. Nor am I just defined as being Jewish, or being gay or being the eldest son. Rather, I’m all of those things.”
Rabbi Sharon Brous, founder of IKAR, often teaches that the reason Jewish tradition demands we examine our own suffering is so that it awakens us to the suffering of others. Every year, during Passover seder, Jews recall the Exodus from Egypt as if we were there; and every year, between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, again, Jews are instructed to internalize our own brokenness, and our failings, so that we may transform our pain into something that makes us, and the world in which we live, more whole.
Sometimes, even seemingly superficial TV personalities can teach us life-sustaining torah.
September 8, 2010 | 4:58 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Even Hollywood feels quieter as Rosh Hashanah sweeps in with the sundown.
For the next two days, even Jews who don’t consider themselves religiously observant will probably find themselves sitting in the pew of some synagogue (Hollywood has a lot of what we call “high holiday Jews”) doing their very best to connect to a tradition that for many of us seems ancient, irrelevant and tribal. Synagogues throughout the country, and in Los Angeles in particular, will see their numbers swell, their hallways swarmed and their rabbis do all in their power to teach, inspire and connect to God, the ultimate studio boss. In that space, some Jews will pray, some will inevitably find staring at plaster more amusing than the sermon, and still others will hide their iphones and blackberries in the pages of their mahzor (high holy day prayerbook) to catch up on The New York Times. But even those who find the liturgy foreign and inaccessible, unrelatable or weird, will drag themselves to shul, armed with nothing more than their identities, to engage in the unifying fabric and comfort of community.
Others will twitter.
The Hollywood Crush blog at MTV.com reported this morning that celebrities Nicole Richie, Ricky Martin and Pink all took to their twitter accounts to say “Shana Tovah” (Happy New Year) to their followers and Jewish friends. Pink, born Alicia Moore has a Jewish mother and is celebrating her birthday this Rosh Hashanah as well.
Another gossip blog, famecrawler, wondered about the high holiday whereabouts of famous Jews Adam Sandler, Sarah Jessica Parker, Jerry Seinfeld and Ben Stiller. Like, would somebody please tell us where they go to shul? Too bad paparazzi: no flash photography allowed on chag.
It occurs to me that Rosh Hashanah and Hollywood have something unusual in common: They both offer visions of the world as it is and visions of the world as it could be. Rosh Hashanah reminds us of who we are in the world and tells us that change is possible. Hollywood has the power to conjure human dreams and the influence to affect social and political change. It’s no wonder Jews have been the primary architects of Hollywood—hours upon hours in shul, you start to think about an Oscar.
Just as every unwritten script is a blank slate, Rosh Hashanah offers the soul a chance to begin again, to renew, to start fresh. Beginnings are a fundamental part of the fabric of human life and an essential element of every story. The high holidays, like going to the movies, offers us the chance to reflect on what is real, right where we are, and to imagine an ideal of where we ought to be. These are the dreamy visions of Hollywood: full of human drama, conflict and comedy, but also vehicles for imagining something different—like, say, giant blue avatars, surreal dream sequences with Leo DiCaprio and a world in which a vampire can love a high school girl.
This year let us continue to dream of a world redeemed, where violence is only seen in movies and movies wield their power to change the world.
[correction appended: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that musician Joel Madden is Jewish.]
September 7, 2010 | 12:00 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
From the nape of her neck to just below her collarbone, Victoria Beckham has a famous line of Hebrew scripture inked onto her skin: “Ani ledodi vedodi li haro’eh ba’shoshanim.”
The verse, from the Hebrew poem Shir Ha’shirim, or in English, Song of Songs, means “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine, who grazes among lilies.” Beckham’s Jewish-inspired body art (her husband, soccer star David Beckham identifies as “half Jewish” since his maternal grandfather was Jewish) was noted in a recent New York Times profile of Mrs. Beckham and her burgeoning fashion line.
This tattoo, as NYT writer Ruth LaFerla portrays it, is more than just a meaningful emblem: it is an act of marital commitment.
The brief skirt she wore for her interview was demurely balanced by a cropped Alaïa cardigan that revealed nothing more brazen than a line of Hebrew scripture tattooed at the base of her neck: “I am my lover’s and my lover is mine,” meant to cement her marriage bond, which has survived numerous allegations of Mr. Beckham’s infidelities.
There is a well-known Jewish taboo regarding tattoos – namely, that Jews shouldn’t get them—which makes the idea of a Hebrew tattoo seem nothing short of an oxymoron. But it is striking that the Beckhams chose to “cement” their marital vows with a permanent reminder from the Jewish tradition. And the choice to ink their flesh with a line of Hebrew poetry seems to signal something different than, say, a tattoo of a butterfly. Which made me wonder, in the eyes of Judaism: Are all tattoos created equal?
“There’s a mishna [in Makkot] that states that anybody who puts a lasting mark on their body is culpable, meaning they’ve committed a sin,” Rabbi Aaron Alexander, Associate Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University explains. “But then another rabbi comes in and says the only way you can become culpable is if you write the name of God.”
The prohibition against Jews getting tattoos comes from a verse in Leviticus that forbids gashing one’s flesh: “You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on yourselves; I am the Lord.” The juxtaposition of the law with ‘I am the lord’ is the reason some interpret the prohibition to mean ‘tattoos are fine, as long as they are not God’s name.’ The provenance of the prohibition, according to Alexander, is also related to ancient idolatrous practices of tribes surrounding the Israelites. But primarily, the prohibition against permanently altering the body is related to the concept of b’tselem elokim – that human beings are created in the image of God, and that such pristine perfection should not be altered.
“That’s the piece we deal with as moderns,” Alexander says. “What does it mean to see yourself in the image of God; to understand that your body is a gift from God, on loan from God? Judaism tells us, ‘you’re beautiful; there’s god in you’ – regardless of how society views a person—and if you see yourself that way, then your appreciation of that fact means you do not need to add human art. Your body itself is art.”
Just to be clear, Victoria Beckham is not Jewish, but her impulse to ink—and to do so Jewishly, is something plenty of Jews either do or desire. Even though Alexander would not condone Jews tattooing, he does allow that in another sense, body art can be seen as a godly act.
“I believe many people tattoo themselves in order to become part of the artistic nature that is the body, in service of the fact that their bodies are b’tzelem elokim and they want to be in partnership with that creative expression. In that sense, I get it and I’ve seen beautiful tattoos.”
Alexander added that rabbinic awareness of the dogmas surrounding b’tzelem elokim led to some of Judaism’s bodily practices like wearing tallit (prayer shawls) and wrapping tefillin (phylacteries). But those rituals, while related to the holiness of the body, are time-bound and transient. And the interesting purpose of Beckham’s tattoo, in particular, is that it exists precisely to connote permanence: a permanent mark to reinforce the aspirational permanence of marriage.
A noble aim, indeed; but not really a kosher one:
“While her intentions may be beautiful and meaningful and powerful in the context of her relationship, there has to be a place where we say, ‘This is sacred in and of itself,’” Alexander says. “My understanding of Jewish tradition would suggest she find a way to live out ‘Ani l’dodi’ so much so, it’s as if it is tattooed on her at all times, while keeping the perfect body God gave her intact.”
Well, at least on the point of Victoria Beckham’s perfect body, Rabbi Alexander’s assertion is beyond dispute.
September 3, 2010 | 5:42 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
The filmmaker Julian Schnabel premiered his new movie about the Middle East conflict at the Venice Film Festival this week, telling audiences he felt a personal responsibility as a Jew to tell the story from a Palestinian perspective.
That makes Schnabel one of those rarefied artists with the courage to challenge established paradigms with his work.
The film, told through the eyes of two Palestinian women and based on the autobiographical book by Palestinian journalist Rula Jebreal, spans 40 years in Israeli history, from the creation of the state in 1948 to the failed Oslo Accords in 1993.
According to The Guardian, Schnabel told a Venice audience: “Coming from my background, as an American Jewish person whose mother was president of Hadassah [the Women’s Zionist Organisation of America] in 1948, I figured I was a pretty good person to try to tell the story of the other side.”
“I felt it was my responsibility to confront this issue because, maybe, I’ve spent most of my life receding from my responsibility as a Jewish person,” he said.
With the renewal of peace talks this week between Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas, Schnabel’s timing couldn’t be timelier. “One of the reasons why I made this film,” he told his audience, “is that it was so obvious to me that there are more similarities between these people than differences.”
Read more from The Guardian:
Miral tells the story of the Dar al-Tifl orphanage in Jerusalem, which was set up by a rich socialite called Hind Husseini in 1948 after she came across 55 orphans in the street. Within six months she had a school for 2,000 children.
The film shows how one of the orphans, Miral, is forced to grow up fast when she falls in love with a Palestinian activist. Miral is played by Slumdog Millionaire’s Freida Pinto, and while there have been eyebrows raised at the Indian actor’s casting as a Palestinian, Pinto bears an uncanny resemblance to Jebreal, on whom the character of Miral is based. Vanessa Redgrave and Willem Dafoe have small cameo roles.
September 2, 2010 | 1:04 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Could Ben Affleck become for Boston what Martin Scorsese is for New York?
That seems to be the thought implied by a recent New York Times piece positioning Ben Affleck for a comeback. Not that Affleck, who is one of Hollywood’s most famous—and highly paid—faces needs any sort of popular resurrection. What he’s hoping for with his next film, “The Town”, which he co-write, directed and stars in, is to reassert his presence as one of Hollywood’s highbrow. That is, to make himself worthy of his Oscar-winning status; Affleck wants to be seen as more of an artist, less of a movie star.
“This is an emblem of the person I want to be going forward,” Affleck told the The Times about his new direction.
In the spirit of the upcoming high holidays, it’s the perfect time for an Affleck rebirth. His Jewish audience may even forgive his unimaginative work (as if any sort of repentance could compensate for the disastrous “Gigli” with J-Lo) if there’s reason to believe something better awaits. The real challenge for Affleck, it seems, is figuring out exactly what he wants to do. Now that’s he’s both movie star and family man, does Hollywood still hold allure? When he says he wants to do better, does he mean it?
Jewish tradition tells us that before one can move forward, it’s important to look back. If Affleck plans to recommit to his career, he might want to reflect on past mistakes. And since Affleck is rumored to be half-Jewish, that’s enough for us to suggest some teshuvah is in order.
Ever since he and pal Matt Damon won the screenwriting statue for “Good Will Hunting” in 1997, Affleck’s career took on a typical post-Oscar trajectory: boring parts and big paychecks. Here are five films we think he should apologize for:
1. Reindeer Games – Aside from the Charlize Theron shiksa appeal, we’re not sure how this movie got made.
2. Bounce – This film, co-starring Affleck’s then-girlfriend Gwyneth Paltrow (also half-Jewish by way of her father, Bruce Paltrow) not only dashed hopes for a rom-com revival, their subsequent breakup signaled the death knell for what could have been ridiculously good looking Jewish progeny.
3. Pearl Harbor – Historical narratives should not be left in Michael Bay’s hands. Period. But we give Affleck brownie points for going all biblical, marrying his “brother’s” lady and fathering his offspring.
4. The Sum of All Fears – Did anyone actually see this?
5. Jersey Girl – Not even the porno subplot could redeem this Kevin Smith rom com. You know it’s a bad sign when the leading man has better chemistry with his onscreen daughter than his lover, played by Liv Tyler.
A bright spot on Affeck’s resume appeared in 2007, with his turn as director in the acclaimed film “Gone Baby Gone.” Here’s to hoping his instincts as filmmaker win out over his proclivities as leading man.