Posted by Danielle Berrin
One of the things I admire about Haim Saban is that he's fearless.
Saban is not afraid of anybody. In fact, he is that rare person who is so singularly powerful, he has the luxury of saying whatever he darn well pleases about whoever he darn well likes (or doesn't like, like Mitt Romney, for example).
So why wouldn't he comment when I emailed him about Stevie Wonder's cancellation on L.A.'s annual Friends of the Israel Defense Forces dinner, which Saban and his wife, Cheryl, will host next week? Why would he not even say, 'I'm really disappointed'?
According to a press release issued by the FIDF national office earlier today, “Representatives of the performer cited a recommendation from the United Nations to withdraw his participation given Wonder’s involvement with the organization."
Wonder is a U.N. Messenger of Peace, a ceremonial post held by "distinguished individuals, carefully selected from the fields of art, literature, music and sports, who have agreed to help focus worldwide attention on the work of the United Nations," according to a description on the U.N. Website. Author and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel is a Messenger of Peace, along with celebrities George Clooney, Charlize Theron, Edward Norton and Michael Douglas. "Messengers of Peace," the Website notes, "through their public appearances, contacts with the international media and humanitarian work, help expand understanding of how the ideals and objectives of the Organization demand everyone’s attention." Will the other messengers speak out on Israel's behalf and encourage Wonder to change his mind? It seems peace ought to be apolitical. But we'll see.
It's also a little ironic that Wonder canceled on Saban -- but really, Israel -- on the same day the U.N. voted to upgrade Palestine (by which is meant the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza) to a non-member observer state in an overwhelming vote: 138 to 9, with 41 countries abstaining.
But it is, perhaps, even more ironic, that the intrepid Saban, who told The New Yorker's Connie Bruck in 2010, “I’m a one-issue guy, and my issue is Israel” will not utter a single word about Wonder's cancellation, ostensibly related to Wonder's role with the U.N., a mere two months after President Obama nominated Saban's wife, Cheryl, to the U.N. General Assembly.
If it really is the U.N. that's getting in the way of Wonder performing next week, one would assume Cheryl Saban, another U.N. representative, might also be compromised for chairing the dinner?
But I suspect Wonder is really capitulating to the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement and using the U.N. as his excuse. And Saban may be hesistant to protest since his wife is now U.N.-attached. Knowing the Sabans, they likely see the U.N. post as a way of helping Israel from the inside, a position not worth risking.
Meanwhile, former Universal Music Group executive David Renzer, who created the nonprofit Creative Community for Peace (CCFP), an organization that seeks to counter artist boycotts of Israel, and who has previously spoken out against campaigns that pressure artists to boycott Israel, is now working for Saban.
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November 29, 2012 | 5:10 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Earlier this week, I asked political commentator and comedian Bill Maher, host of HBO's "Real Time with Bill Maher" to weigh in on the outcome of the 2012 election and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Below is the uncut, uncensored interview in which he talks about America's number one political priority, the negative edification of the Bible and what his (Jewish) mother taught him about anti-Semitism.
Hollywood Jew: What was your big takeaway from the election this year?
Bill Maher: It’s the year Obama won. I was for that, so you know, I’m very happy about it. I’m more relieved than I even thought I would be.
HJ: Any lessons from a historic campaign that cost nearly $1.5 billion?
BM: After the election, Sarah Palin wrote on her Facebook page that Romney lost because early money in the swing states defined him, and that’s the whole reason I made my contribution to the Obama PAC. That’s what the Democratic strategists thought, and it kinda worked, because those numbers really never budged throughout the whole campaign. The media went through hoops covering all the ups and downs but people just basically made up their minds pretty early.
HJ: What do you think will be the single most important issue facing the American people in the next decade?
BM: The environment. Because if we don’t fix that, there are no other issues.
HJ: What are your favored sources for news and commentary? Or what book or writer influenced you the most? I know it wasn’t the Bible.
BM: (laughs) Well, it could be -- in a negative sense. Actually I took a bible course in college. It’s funny, making the movie “Religulous,” what I found out is that people who are religious have no idea about their own religion. They are completely clueless; they do not know what’s in the Bible. You could quote them something and say it was from the Bible and they would nod their head. I think if they read the bible, especially the Old Testament, I think they would be appalled. If you just told them it was something else, if you just said, ‘Read this story,’ you know, about this God – let’s call him Spor -- and how he’s wiping these people out and ethnically cleaning them for no apparent reason, how he does things on a whim and how he’s jealous; They’d go, ‘This is terrible.’
HJ: It’s no secret you’re not a great admirer of religion. But I’ve seen your live stand-up show and it seemed to me the religion you poke fun of the least is Judaism. Why is that?
BM: We do poke fun of it quite a bit in “Religulous” but I mean it’s certainly not as dangerous as Islam and Christianity. Those are warlike religions. The Muslim world was conquered in a century. Mohammad died in 632; by 732, they were at the gates of France, they were in the Pyrenees. Jesus Christ, I mean, you don’t do that by handing out pamphlets and singing ‘Cumbaya.’ They conquered by the sword.
HJ: So, in your opinion, Judaism is not as bad because it’s not as violent?
BM: There’s a lot to be made fun of in any religion, and that includes Buddhism, by the way. A lot of my Hollywood friends think ‘Oh, Buddhism is a philosophy, it’s not a religion.’ It’s a religion because it includes crazy whack shit that doesn’t exist, that somebody made up, like reincarnation. OK. But I mean, Judaism, we had a lot of fun when we did “Religulous” [because] we went to the institute where they invent devices that allow people on the Sabbath who cannot use electricity to take an elevator or ride in a wheelchair.
HJ: The Shabbes Elevator
BM. The Shabbes Elevator. Stuff like that is just insane and it’s funny but it doesn’t really threaten anybody’s life. I did a joke in my act about, ‘I’d like to see Joe Lieberman as President because he doesn’t use electricity on Friday night and so if there’s a nuclear attack, he gets a Shabbes goy to launch our nuclear missiles.’
HJ: I know you’ve been to Israel and that you’re part Jewish. What’s your view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? How optimistic are you that they’ll find a two-state solution?
BM: I’m optimistic that it’ll get worked out in the same way I’m optimistic that Marijuana will be legal all across the country; perhaps not in my lifetime, but at some point. But I’ve never hid the fact that I don’t think it’s a conflict where both sides are equally guilty. I’m more on the side of the Israelis; that’s why Benjamin Netanyahu did my show a few years ago, before he was Prime Minister.
HJ: Why are you more on the side of Israelis?
BM: Take this conflict; here, everyone in the newspapers, the pundits, they talk about it like it’s very complicated. It’s not that complicated: Stop firing rockets into Israel and perhaps they won’t annihilate you. I mean, it’s so crazy when you look at these images on TV. Ok, they just had a little war. It lasted a week like most Israeli wars do; the Israelis lost a handful of people, shot down most of the rockets, and the neighborhoods in Gaza are devastated. They’re rubble. They lost over 1,000 people and yet somehow Palestinians are celebrating in the streets? I don’t get this celebrating when you just totally got your ass kicked.
HJ: The Atlantic journalist Jeffrey Goldberg pointed out that many in the media tend to point out the disproportionate casualty count between Israelis and Palestinians, and he wisely wondered if there is a moral difference between attempted murder and successful murder.
BM: It’s obvious that Israelis, in all of their battles with the Palestinians, show restraint. Because they have nuclear weapons. And if the situation was reversed, I don’t doubt for a second that Palestinians would fire them immediately. They’d use the maximum of what they have available and the Israelis don’t.
HJ: There was a big debate this week in the Jewish world that arose from a dispute between two rabbis about whether Judaism should be more universal and humane or more tribal and self interested. But it is widely felt that the Israeli army conducts itself with deep concern for the humanity of the people they are fighting.
BM: Let’s not forget the other side of this issue, which is, the Palestinians do have gripes, and most Israelis do not agree with the Netanyahu government on the settlement issue. [Israelis] want a two state solution. I don’t think anybody’s ever gonna be happy or the conflict will ever end before that happens and as many writers have pointed out, Israel faces the problem of becoming a minority Jewish state within their own country if they allow this to keep going. There has to be some solution. In a lot of ways, what we see in Israel is their government has been taken over by the equivalent of what would be the Tea Party in this country. If you talk to most people in Tel Aviv, I don’t think they’re for what the government is doing, but when it comes to self-defense -- Obama himself said the other day: There’s just not another country in the world that would allow missiles to be rained down on them without fighting back. What I find so ironic is that after World War II, everybody said, ‘I don’t understand the Jews. How could they have just gone to their slaughter like that?’ OK, and then when they fight back: ‘I don’t understand the Jews. Why can’t they just go to their slaughter?’ It’s like, ‘You know what? We did that once. It’s not gonna happen again. You’re just gonna have to get used to the fact that Jews now defend themselves -- and by the way, defend themselves better. I mean, this is a country, after all, that is surrounded by far greater numbers than their own [and] they are like two generations ahead in the military technology they have.
HJ: Considering the reality of an unstable Middle East, an Iranian nuclear threat, a stalled peace process and a civil war in Syria, what’s the best thing Israel can do to engender moral support from the international community?
BM: I think they’re over worrying about international goodwill. I hope they are, because it’s great to have but it doesn’t really feed the bulldog, you know? As my Jewish mother used to say, whenever there was a problem in the world, she would go, ‘Oh I know they’re gonna get around to blaming the Jews.’ [Laughs] And it’s kinda true. I mean, you know, it’s like somebody who’s always worrying whether everyone’s gonna like them -- Obama kinda had that problem in his first term -- but at a certain point you learn: You know what? A lot of people are not gonna like you no matter what you do, so just do what you’re gonna do. Just be yourself. And do what you think is right. And if they condemn you or hate you, that’s really kinda their problem.
November 29, 2012 | 1:33 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Who knew that this year’s most exciting Thanksgiving week sporting event would be a rabbinic version of “Celebrity Deathmatch”?
The Gordis-Brous feud had all the grit and coarseness of the now-defunct claymation MTV show in which two celebrities nastily sparred in a wrestling ring (and it usually ended badly), but alas, none of the wit that made the show such a guilty pleasure. This time it was not a fight to the death, of course, but a war of words about the very nature of Jewish conscience.
Last week, when Rabbi Daniel Gordis published a scathing takedown of Rabbi Sharon Brous and her call for equitable empathy during the Gaza conflict, a divisive and inelegant battle began over the moral constitution of the Jewish character: Are we only for ourselves? Are we for others? Is it treasonous to sympathize with your enemy’s children?
For his opening battle hymn, Gordis chose words from Cynthia Ozick: Universalism is the particularism of the Jews. He didn’t mean it as a compliment, but as a conundrum: Caring for the welfare of all people as much as one’s own makes loyalty impossible, he wrote. Which side are you on when two sides go to war?
“Taking a side doesn’t require a complete collapse of empathy for the consequences of one’s actions upon other people,” literary critic and editor Leon Wieseltier told me when I called him for his take. “What Gordis is really asking for is not loyalty; it is a kind of ethical callousness — to limit the ethical to the tribal. He says that empathy for the suffering is a form of treason unless the suffering are Jews. No Jew can accept that,” Wieseltier said. “No thoughtful Jew.”
Dealing in moral absolutes is a dangerous game; there is no perfect universalism or perfect particularism any more than there is a perfect rabbi. To be wholeheartedly for one or the other leaves no room for, obviously, the other. And what sort of world does that portend?
Historically, had Israelis been less humane, would they have demonstrated such repeated willingness for peace? And had Palestinians been less tribal, might they have been more willing to compromise and share? Life is almost never black and white. And who would want to live in a world with only two colors?
Yet borrowing a pitiful play from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or at least its leaders, Gordis and Brous seem to be arguing past one another. She says, “Have empathy,” and he says, “Choose sides”? What accounts for their stunning inability to speak the same language?
In this tale of two rabbis in two cities, place plays an indispensable part. Their quarrel is not just a quarrel of ideas, but of divergent worldviews, at least in part a function of their environment.
Brous lives in Los Angeles, a city that, despite its share of troubles and inequities, offers an image of worldly peace. Her closest neighbor is Hollywood, not Hamas. And every Shabbat, she has the incomparable blessing of having her husband and three young children, her sister, her parents and even her in-laws sitting safely in services where she can see and hear them.
Gordis lives in a different setting. He inhabits an unpredictable and inconstant universe that stores the promise of peace but all too frequently erodes into a battlefield. His two children serve in the Israeli army, which means he often has no idea where they spend Shabbat, or whether or when he’ll spend another Shabbat with them.
“My sympathies here go more to Gordis, for the simple reason that he has skin in the game,” Atlantic magazine journalist Jeffrey Goldberg e-mailed. “It is easy to feel sympathy for Gaza in West L.A., where the groups that rule Gaza aren’t trying to kill you.”
From the comfort and remove of Los Angeles, Brous can devote her rabbinate to dreams of a world perfected, whereas Gordis, from his imperiled encampment in the Middle East, dreams only of preserving the world that he’s in.
So instead of deriding Gordis for shutting down democracy, Brous might realize that even with his demagoguery, they’re having a talmudic-style dispute on the most democratic terrain in the world: the Internet. And rather than launch a terrifically unfair accusation of treason out of primal fear, Gordis should realize he is not as friendless and alone as he thinks: Was there any significant American - Jewish opposition to the operation in Gaza last week? Did American Jews accuse Israel of war crimes? Did they even debate Israel’s just cause?
Perhaps the lesson of this rabbinic dispute is that Brous could be slightly more tribal and Gordis just slightly more human and both could show significantly more sangfroid.
“Brous could do more to educate her followers on the facts of the Gaza controversy, rather than simply on the emotions they should be feeling,” Goldberg suggested. “She could spend a bit more time explaining the ideology of Hamas to her followers, and what it means for their own future.”
And, from Wieseltier: “If Gordis worries about excessive universalism, he should look at the ethical code of the [Israeli] army; they’ve been amazing at trying to guarantee that particularism is not all that drives their soldiers.” And, he added, “When Gordis accuses Hamas of crimes against humanity, he is not appealing to a Jewish principle, he is appealing to a universal principle.”
Turns out, Ozick is right. Judaism is not so tribal as we think, but biblically anchored by a moral philosophy that affirms the inherent dignity of every human being. In the Talmud it says, “Whoever destroys a life, it is as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.”
The verse does not say Jewish life, just life. And that, in particular, is what makes the universe more Jewish.
More on the compassion controversy:
November 29, 2012 | 11:35 am
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Pop music icon Stevie Wonder has cancelled his performance scheduled for the Dec. 6 FIDF Gala in Los Angeles saluting IDF Soldiers. The event is sponsored by philanthropists Haim and Cheryl Saban.
The 25-time Grammy winner was to appear for an expected 1,200 FIDF supporters, including dignitaries from the U.S. and Israel, at the FIDF Western Region Gala, which is also scheduled to feature Grammy Winner David Foster & Friends with “Seinfeld” veteran Jason Alexander as Emcee.
According to a press release issued on the morning of Nov. 29: “Representatives of the performer cited a recommendation from the United Nations to withdraw his participation given Wonder’s involvement with the organization. FIDF National Director and CEO, Maj. Gen. (Res.) Yitzhak (Jerry) Gershon: ‘We regret the fact that Stevie Wonder has decided to cancel his performance at an important community event of the FIDF, an American organization supporting the educational, cultural, and wellbeing needs of Israel’s soldiers, their families, and the families of fallen soldiers. FIDF is a non-political organization that provides much-needed humanitarian support regardless of religion, political affiliation, or military activity.’”
Representatives at both the national and local FIDF offices declined to comment further on the reason for Wonder's pullout, but it appears there was a substantial online campaign calling for Wonder's withdrawal from the event.
The Website endtheoccupation.org, ostensibly a part of the international Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement is celebrating a "victory" after posting a letter to Wonder pressuring him to cancel.
"We are a diverse group of people of conscience and social justice organizations around the world, saddened by the announcement that you will be performing and helping to raise money for the Israeli army," the letter said. It went on to draw parallels between South African apatheid and Israel's policies towards the Palestinians and clocked more than 4,000 signatures the morning of the cancellation, according to their Website.
Another online petition, at the Website Change.org posted by a woman from Italy and with 4,570 signatories stated: "We call on Stevie Wonder, as a conscientious American advocate for human rights and dignity not to support the Israeli Defense Force by performing at their gala fundraiser... The IDF is an institution which promotes, enables, and protects Israel's Apartheid regime."
This targeting of high profile celebrities who express plans to perform in or on behalf of the State of Israel is not uncommon. In recent years, a group of music industry executives established the nonprofit Creative Community for Peace (CCFP) to privately and publicly counter artist boycotts of Israel.
Earlier today, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported that a source who had read emails between Wonder's reps and FIDF organizers said Wonder would pull out and play dumb: "[He would] claim that he did not know the nature of the group, the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, and that he believes such a performance would be incongruent with his status as a U.N. 'Messenger of Peace.'"
It is hard to believe a music legend such as Stevie Wonder, who has been in the business for decades, would not pay closer attention to the organizations for whom he agrees to perform (in this case, the purpose of the organization is evident in the name of the organization). It is harder still to believe this would occur under host Haim Saban's watch, since he is a devoted music fan and has in the past secured the entertainment acts himself. Last year, for example, Saban's good friend Barbra Streisand performed at the banquet, and the year prior, Andrea Bocelli included one of Saban's favorite songs, "Besame Mucho," in his 6-song set.
But what's a favor to a friend in the face of political fearmongering?
November 20, 2012 | 3:13 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
In the beginning, there was comedy.
"Have you heard the one about two Jewish ladies sitting around in a restaurant, and the waiter comes up and says, ‘Is there anything all right?’” the multi-hyphenate filmmaker Rob Reiner asks the moment we sit down in a glass-enclosed cove adjacent to his private office on Sunset Boulevard.
Actually, I tell him, I’ve heard the other one, about the two gentiles who meet on the street — one says, ‘How are you?’ The other says, ‘Fine.’ ”
He laughs, in recognition.
Jokes about the Jewish penchant for kvetching are a Reiner favorite. In fact, I first heard the latter joke from Reiner Senior, aka Carl, earlier this year. The like-father-like-son comes as a relief, since I had read that Reiner Junior told Bill Maher he has no religious affiliation. “An un-Jewish Reiner?” I thought. That’s like Madonna without a cone-bra.
When I mention this to Reiner, he responds with a curious mix of what I can only describe as spiritual secularism.
“I believe we all have a search that we go thorough,” he says. Though he illustrates this in a peculiar way: “I believe Jesus was a man. He was not a God. He was a man, a Jewish man. And if you believe that Jesus was a Jewish man, and that, for whatever reasons — he didn’t know who his father was, he was feeling empty — he went looking to find something, and he went into the wilderness and he came back and he preached ‘love thy neighbor,’ ‘do unto others,’ and the fact that he arrived at those deep philosophical beliefs was because he went through a process of doing the work.”
Reiner equates this with how math teachers require students to “show their work.” And though one could counter that religion, too, encourages responsibility, Reiner camps himself in with a growing number of secularists who see religion as proscriptive and extreme. “Organized religion, generally speaking, has a way of taking away that search, that thought process,” he says.
Boy, would he have a field day with Talmud.
For the director of Hollywood classics such as “When Harry Met Sally …,” “The Princess Bride,” “A Few Good Men” and “This Is Spinal Tap,” Jewishness courses through the blood and the brain, but not necessarily via the Bible.
Reiner grew up in an Italian-Jewish neighborhood in the Bronx, where he said he never experienced any kind of anti-Semitism. “Growing up, the show business atmosphere shielded me from a lot of that,” he says. But despite his untroubled childhood, the history of Jewish persecution looms large. His worldview, for example, is largely organized around ideas of self-preservation and survival. And he understands his role as a storyteller as a response to Jewish history.
“Humor is a way of letting your emotions out, of unburdening yourself from the angst that goes on inside of you as a result of having been persecuted,” he says. “And Jewish people have been so burdened for such a long time that it gives birth to great innovation, a desire to succeed, to survive. And because Jews were [exiled from their] homeland, they had to survive by intelligence and wits.”
Despite his distancing from Judaism, almost every value he claims to hold comes — admittedly, even proudly — directly from the Jews. But he finds himself more closely aligned with the ideas that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s father, Benzion, (to say nothing of Adolf Hitler) popularized in his work, in that he sees Jews as a race. “There are traditions and customs that have nothing to do with religion, but have to do with you as a person,” Reiner says. For example: “Jewish people have always stressed education; there is a high level of intellectualism among Jews — look at Freud, Einstein, Salk. When you talk about such a small group of people in the world and to have such a massive impact on society — whether it’s in economics or the arts, medicine, science — it’s extraordinary!”
His unmitigated awe at Jewish exceptionalism prompts me to tell him he sounds like my mother. He is undeterred. “I think it has to do with fighting back, this desire to succeed; because we’ve been persecuted.”
The cool thing about Reiner is that he’s taken his feelings about Jewish exceptionalism, of chosen-ness, and channeled them into Jewish responsibility. A renowned and respected political activist, he supports causes ranging from early childhood education to the environment to gay rights. Through the nonprofit Parents’ Action for Children, which he co-founded with his wife, Michele, he championed the 1998 ballot measure California Children and Families Initiative, which proposed levying a tax on tobacco to pay for developmental programs for preschool children. Reiner got so many Hollywood heavyweights to support the measure — including Dustin Hoffman, Nicole Kidman, Steven Spielberg and David Geffen — that it prompted the San Francisco Chronicle to quip that the campaign had “more silver screen glitter than Glinda the Good Witch’s magic wand.” The proposition passed.
Another success came in 2003, when he led an effort to save California’s Ahmanson Ranch and Ballona Wetlands from commercial development. The swath of land just west of the San Fernando Valley was a famed movie location, including for the film “Gone With the Wind.” Reiner also lobbied heavily, albeit unsuccessfully, to defeat Proposition 8, the 2008 ballot measure banning same-sex marriage in California. His activism prompted the group California Watch, a subsidiary of the nonpartisan Center for Investigative Reporting, to name him one of the top 100 political donors in California. According to its Web site, Reiner ranked 17th among California’s big givers (just below T. Boone Pickens Jr., the energy and oil magnate from Texas); he gave nearly $3.5 million to political campaigns between 2001 and 2011, at least half of which went exclusively to ballot measures.
“It’s just ingrained,” he says of his activism. “It’s not like I feel I have to do it; it feels like it’s just part of me. I was raised to have a larger sphere of concern for others. It’s in the DNA of being Jewish to feel put upon and to feel burdened, and it’s in our DNA to want to unburden others.”
I ask him if he believes in God.
“I don’t believe in the religious view of God,” he says. “My personal belief is that all living things are interconnected in some way and that when we die, there is energy, and we all become part of some cosmic consciousness. A cosmic soup!”
Oddly enough, that could also describe his political philosophy, which is more or less about preserving the integrity of all creation. Reiner believes every person should have access to health care and education (“It’s a right, not a privilege”), and that the environment deserves the same stewardship and protection. A staunch Democrat, he explains his party loyalty simply: “The Democrats have always espoused: ‘Everybody gets help.’ ”
Although Hollywood is notably generous with causes, Reiner tends to steep himself in the things he cares about, both financially and physically. “Doing good requires more than just being a celebrity,” he says. “For me it[’s] actually taking on another job.” He counts his father and writer/producer Norman Lear as his role models, both Hollywood icons.
Only at the end of our conversation do I realize I barely asked him anything about the movies. And I read somewhere that he was quoted as saying that no matter what he does in life, he’ll never top being Meathead, the son-in-law in “All in the Family.” Does it annoy him that he could engage in so much other important work, but all anyone wants to talk about are his movies?
“I love making movies,” he says. “I love entertaining people. You get a lot of pleasure in helping people, but you also get a lot of pleasure in knowing you’ve given somebody pleasure.”
Weeks after we talk, his assistant e-mails to tell me Reiner left town to begin work — as an actor — on Martin Scorsese’s latest film, “The Wolf of Wall Street,” in which he will play a Long Island stockbroker who chooses prison time over cooperating with a securities fraud case. Oh, and his character also happens to be Leonardo DiCaprio’s father. But like Reiner said about the neighborhood where he grew up: “Jews and Italians are almost interchangeable.”
November 16, 2012 | 1:16 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Last week in Los Angeles, Leonard Cohen fell to his knees.
He did this a half-dozen times over the course of his three-hour show at the Nokia Theatre, because it’s all part of his act — and at 78, Cohen is not about to start trading off his trademark moves. He still wears that hippie-chic fedora, for instance, and hoveringly croons over the mic as if telling it a secret it will keep. But the knees are another matter.
With this stunning feat of agility at an age when others are walking with canes, the troubadour proved he is as nimble of body as he is poetic of mind. Only, these weren’t the falls of a young poet, laying himself bare in art and in love; this was the shimmering plunge of a long-lived man, humble and grateful before his fans. It was the fall of a man who knows that soon, he will not be able to rise again.
Barbra Streisand, on the other hand, playing to a sold-out Hollywood Bowl that same week, isn’t really the type for knee-dropping. Instead, the legendary diva did the most un-diva like thing: singing two nights in the wintry cold, compromising her costumes to stay warm inside her coat. Her 70-year-old voice, once unparalleled in pop music, is now softer and huskier and less likely to hit the high notes, but her performance was still grand — a feat of endurance, devotion and generosity (and plenty of Jewish schtick).
For two iconic entertainers, age is just a number and the show must go on. Even in the shadow of their younger, abler selves, Streisand and Cohen proved that time hasn’t re-written every line as much as it has offered a chance to repeat the best ones. After all, whose voice wouldn’t be a little tired after seven decades of so much to say?
Still, reality spun its mortal coil.
Cohen was frank with his audience from the start: Would this be the last time they meet? The implication was clear, and so he promised to give them everything he had. When he sang, “My friends are gone and my hair is gray /I ache in places I used to play,” it was impossible to hear those words as distant poetry and not personal confession. Cohen was singing his life, offering his prayers, writing his own epitaph.
“Reach into the vineyard of arteries for my heart / Eat the fruit of ignorance and share with me the mist and fragrance of dying,” he wrote in “The Spice Box of Earth.” As an aging lion with a storied past, he does not wish to retire or retreat, but to invite others to accompany him in old age. The love he never gave, he wants to give now.
“I had wonderful love, but I did not give back wonderful love,” he wistfully told a Swedish reporter in the 1990s, according to The New York Times. “I was obsessed with some fictional sense of separation. I couldn’t touch the thing that was offered me, and it was offered me everywhere.”
Growing old means admitting regret, and it has made his music more melancholy.
That sense of humility and authenticity was also evident during Streisand’s show, which felt a little like a living-room gathering but with nearly 18,000 friends. Streisand talked as much as she sang, reminiscing about time gone by (she recalled how it felt during her first Bowl performance, back in 1967, when she discovered Warren Beatty was in the audience) and shared the things that matter most to her (she sang a touching duet with her 45-year-old son, Jason Gould, and screened a video montage of mother-son photographs Jason had made for her 70th birthday). Her openness and candor offered a rare glimpse into her fiercely protected private life.
She also knew when she needed a break. And though she puffed up her absences with other “gorgeous” acts, they couldn’t compare. For the consummate perfectionist, there can be no changing of the guard (Really, who could possibly replace her?), but it was, perhaps for the first time, Streisand letting her guard down.
The personal, sermon-y style of her show seemed to be a tacit acknowledgement that if this wasn’t going to be her best performance, it would be her most intimate. She even took time to answer fan questions submitted to her Web site, and answered them with the same wit and verve that made Fanny Brice her “Funny Girl.”
More than 40 years after that role made her a star, Babs can still deliver a song that radiates with the full force of human emotion. As Stephen Holden wrote in The Times after her performance in Brooklyn last month: “Like few singers of any age, she has the gift of conveying a primal human longing” through sound.
One gift time has given to both Babs and Cohen is that their own primal need to be center stage has slackened. When once they needed to be stars, now they share their spotlight. As Cohen said, these are the days to reply to love, to give back some of the extraordinary blessings their talents wrought.
One way not to die, it seems, is to help others live. And to keep singing past that ephemeral peak until forced into silence.
November 11, 2012 | 1:51 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
There is a little known story that on the night filmmaker Stanley Kubrick died, director Steven Spielberg gathered some friends together and showed the final scene from Kubrick's 1957 film "Paths of Glory." He reportedly chose this particular scene because he believed it demonstrated an aspect of Kubrick's character that was more or less absent from his other work, and after seeing “Paths” at LACMA last night (part of a series of screenings being offered in conjunction with the new Kubrick exhibit), I can’t stop thinking about what this scene meant (though Kirk Douglas, the Clooney of his day, did a fine job of moving me to distraction).
In the final scene of the film, a gang of heathen soldiers, fresh from watching three of their comrades executed by firing squad, let loose at a local bar. Battered by battle and compromised by country, they have been reduced to sacrifices on the altar of patriotism. Their response is regression.
The soldiers are drinking and shouting raucously when a young farm girl is dragged out onto the stage for their entertainment (in the post WWII era, they are French and she is German). Tears streaming down her face, the men wildly catcall, jeer and jibe at her as the bar owner, clutching her possessively, offers her up for their amusement. Kubrick’s savvy eye saw the savagery of the battlefield echo in a supposedly civilized milieu.
Flustered and weeping, the farm girl summons the strength to sing for these brutes a mellifluous melody. She is like them; vulnerable, degraded, powerless. But she is also different: From the depths of her degradation and despair, she offers tenderness. And note by note, as if entranced, the savages become quieter and softer, allowing the sweetness of her voice and the intensity of her emotion to sweep them away. Slowly, soldiers begin to sing and men begin to cry. The nakedness of her pain cracks a hole in their hearts, and they open.
Though Kubrick's work is famous for its fatalism, this scene struck me as deeply religious. Men are not stone, Kubrick seems to be saying, and even beneath layers of hurt, confusion and corruption, humanity remains. The spark of God endures. When there is warmth, hearts turn toward the sun.
To watch, scroll to 3:12 in the below clip:
November 8, 2012 | 9:30 am
Posted by Danielle Berrin
It’s hard to read “The Richard Burton Diaries” without feeling just a tad envious.
His love with Liz, as Dwight Garner wrote recently in The New York Times, was “so robust you could nearly warm your hands on its flames.”
Although the legendary couple was hardly a paragon of marital virtue (they married twice and divorced twice, drank recklessly and fought fiendishly), they did form a beguiling blueprint for marital bliss.
On their first honeymoon, Burton cautioned himself: “Have to be careful. I might become idolatrous.” Years later, when they had been apart for a mere three days, he whined, “I miss her like food.”
For Burton, a vaunted actor with a literate mind who could buy jets and rubies on an exultant whim, Elizabeth Taylor was “the greatest luck” in an otherwise inordinately lucky life. Sure, their relationship was characterized by erratic behavior and emotional tumult, but Burton knew its merits outweighed its deficiencies: “She has turned me into a moral man,” he wrote in 1968. “[S]he is a wildly exciting lover-mistress … she is a brilliant actress, she is beautiful beyond the dreams of pornography … and she loves me!”
But such rapturous romance can be confounding for anyone who believes marriage should be about safety and stability. Never one-note, their relationship proved that sometimes the deepest love can come in a most chaotic package.
“Marriage doesn’t have to be a partnership of equals,” writer Ada Calhoun observed after reading the aptly titled Liz and Dick biography “Furious Love,” on which the upcoming Lifetime movie “Liz & Dick” is based. “It can be a bodice-ripping, booze-soaked, jewel-bedecked brawl that survives even death.”
It is the je ne sais quoi quality of the Taylor-Burton romance that author and speaker Esther Perel describes as eroticism. In her nearly three decades as a marriage-and-couples therapist, the Belgian-born Perel has learned a thing or two about how to sustain Liz-and-Dick desire over time. A self-professed sexuality expert, the Hebrew University and Oxford-educated guru is also the author of the internationally acclaimed book “Mating in Captivity,” which has been translated into 24 languages and seeks to answer the rub: “Why does great sex so often fade for couples who claim to love each other as much as ever?”
This is what Perel calls the crisis of modern love.
“How do you ask the same relationship to give you excitement and edge, novelty, adventure and risk, and, at the same time, give you security and predictability?” Perel said during an interview last week. (She will appear in conversation with me following Sinai Temple’s Friday Night Live service on Nov. 9.) “Whatever eroticism thrives on,” she added, “is what family life defends against.”
It isn’t exactly shocking that the need for secure love and the pursuit of passion can be antithetical: Love seeks comfort and familiarity; desire is about mystery and distance. Love is reliable; desire is unpredictable. Love prizes safety; desire thrives in danger. We yearn for what we imagine, not what we see.
“Emotional and erotic needs are quite different,” Perel explained, but when combined add up to “the ultimate adult relationship.”
For the first time in human history, couples are asking their monogamous relationships to satisfy not only biological and security needs, but also primal pleasure needs: the hungers, and longings, and yearnings that stir in their souls. This existential and philosophical challenge was unthinkable before women’s liberation, which granted sexual freedom; contraception, which liberated sex from the sole realm of biology; and the gay rights movement, which enabled the notion of sexuality as an identity.
But soul-shattering sex is not enough to end ennui. There are great marriages devoid of sex, and sex-filled marriages that are not erotic. “Eroticism is not about sex,” Perel said, though it demands that; rather, it is a sensibility, a worldview, that engages “our entire human drama.”
“It is the ultimate invitation of an other to be allowed to meet in those places of your being that go beyond words, beyond the civilized polished parts of ourselves. It is a level of intimacy that is unique. It is about maintaining a relationship that makes you feel alive.”
Somewhat surprisingly, Perel alighted on her theory as a consequence of growing up the daughter of Holocaust survivors. “When you’re the child of survivors, you never fully believe in security,” she said. “You live with the fear that everything can change from one minute to the next, that you can lose everything. And in response to that, some of us shut down.”
She wondered what would restore the desolate to life.
“What the body can express is way beyond what words can only hint at,” she said. It seems like an ironic comment from someone who counts reading Tolstoy as an erotic experience, but then, it is erotic in the way a nature-lover sees sublimity in a sunset. “A great writer creates through words an experience in our bodies,” she said.
True passion is a passion for the whole of life. It is lust for the fullness of the human experience. Even Burton admitted, “I am as thrilled by the English language as I am by a lovely woman or dreams.”
Burton teaches that passion begins in a single soul. It is the sacred and inviolable mystery of the human heart, a question seeking an answer. Burton found in Liz a partner in his quest. Their destination, always unknown.
“Passion comes with an amount of uncertainty that you can tolerate,” Perel said. “Can you live without it? Yes. But once you have known it, and it is absent from your life, do you long to go back there?