Posted by Danielle Berrin
I was supposed to be in the middle of a very deep, earthly, heavenly, kabbalistically guided meditation last Shabbat when the Kingslayer from “Game of Thrones” invaded my higher consciousness.
It was an odd, even disturbing connection to make in the middle of the second annual “Seeds of Peace” conference, a multifaith meditation and social justice event held at the All Saints Church in Pasadena, where nearly 500 fellow spiritualists had gathered to eat gluten-free paprika brownies and let the tenacious and timeless (and ageless) best-selling spiritual guru Marianne Williamson stir their sensitive souls. So why, exactly, the nefarious warrior played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau on “Thrones” felt invited to this silky setting was perhaps best explained by my meditation guide, the Israeli mystic Gilla Nissan, who said, “We are here to reconcile contradictions.”
When I first entered the event through the church courtyard, it was almost too easy to be fooled by its frou-frou fripperies: men and women roaming about in full religious regalia; booths touting exotic, energetic jewelry and spiritual journey books of every stripe; Zen-like healers performing what looked like public exorcisms while a group of drummers banged out beats for a blissed-out crowd. There were a stunning 19 options for morning meditation, including Japanese Shumei philosophy, Lotus Sutra chanting, Raja yoga and color science. But while cosmic consciousness is a venerated ideal, this multifaith mash-up wasn’t only about pathways to private heaven; it was about fusing piety and politics and bringing heaven down to earth. This was no place for “Om, blah blah blah blah …” as Williamson put it, but rather, a more defiant “Om, really?”
Battle-ready in her spear-like red stilettoes, Williamson served as the bridge between meditative rapture and political outrage. She urged the crowd to crusade against corruptive forces, naming corporate special interests as the most odious. She decried empire, aristocracy and the average American citizen’s lack of legal proficiency, oft quoting Franklin, Lincoln and Kennedy to prove her own political pomps. “Too many are undisturbed,” she said, that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, one of the suspected perpetrators of the Boston Marathon bombings, “was not read his Miranda rights” upon arrest. “That is not just for him, it’s about all of us,” she declaimed to uproarious applause.
A fiery, didactic orator, Williamson did not disguise her disdain for the spiritually self-centered. “An enlightened state of consciousness is not the endgame of the spiritual journey,” she said. “The whole point is not to dwell in some light and let darkness fend for itself. We’re here to be a light,” she said, transparently channeling her inner Jew.
“We cannot ignore the political realities that confront us now,” she railed. “We need to be politically savvy if we’re serious about transforming the country.”
Enter the Kingslayer, and a bold and bitter truth that HBO’s “Game of Thrones” expresses so entertainingly: In the pursuit of power — and power is necessary in politics — the ruthless and unscrupulous tend to rule the roost, and the nice and the noble get their heads chopped off. The Kingslayer didn’t usher his family dynasty to the throne armed with holy dispensation; he won it with the sword he used to slay the reigning king. It’s a troubling truth. But the vortex of history, like the kabbalistic view of the Tree of Life, is fraught with the tension of opposites: good and evil, light and dark, love and indifference, boundlessness and boundaries. All are forever in conflict in the world and in the soul.
As Nietzsche wrote, “Everything becomes and recurs eternally — escape is impossible! … The idea of recurrence as a selective principle [is] in the service of strength (and barbarism!).”
Good begets good, violence begets violence and so on. Even the Kingslayer had to confront his enduring attachment to the sword when comeuppance finally came and his hand was cut off. Despairing of his fate (“I was that hand,” he groans), a female companion derides his resignation: “You have a taste, one taste, of the real world where people have important things taken from them, and you whine and cry and quit.”
As Williamson likes to say, “Cynicism is just an excuse for not helping.”
I asked filmmaker and journalist Ruth Broyde-Sharone, the organizer of “Seeds of Peace” and a member of the Southern California Committee for a Parliament of the World’s Religions, how she found the will to unite so many differing, often divided groups in common purpose. “Well, it happened when I was in college” — at Northwestern, outside Chicago — “and I was asked to leave housing because I was Jewish,” Broyde-Sharone said. “I never quite got over that moment. I didn’t even walk when I graduated because I was hurt by what happened.”
But she didn’t whine or cry or quit; she became “a self-appointed peacemaker” and joined the campus human relations council. With “so many areas where injustice prevailed” Broyde-Sharone has spent the next three decades doing interfaith work. She even wrote the book, “Minefields and Miracles: Why God and Allah Need to Talk.”
For her, the spiritual and the political are inseparable, even if at times irreconcilable. She dares to imagine a world where no single religion rules but where common religious values are heirs to any throne.
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April 23, 2013 | 5:06 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Last week I attended a pretty wicked writers workshop at USC where the novelist and screenwriter Stephen Chbosky gave an unofficial two hour master class on writing for film and television. Much of it focused on Chbosky’s breakout hit, “The Perks of Being A Wallflower,” a novel he conceived of at 21, began writing at 26 and turned into a movie three failed drafts later, at 42. (Chbosky also wrote the screenplay for the hit musical “Rent,” for which he was handsomely paid, explaining “This is why you want your movies to get made,” and co-created the short-lived but fiercely loved TV series “Jericho,” which upon cancellation, prompted fans to send nearly 40,000 pounds of peanuts -- 8 million individual nuts, according to ABC News -- to network executives in protest. The show was subsequently picked up for 7 more episodes.)
A fascinating speaker and thinker, Chbosky was exceedingly generous in dispensing advice to aspiring writers, from basic tips (“Write everyday; it doesn’t have to be so inspired, it just has to be”) to the more nuanced (“Don’t describe how people look; if you don’t, you’re inviting the reader to do it for you”). But of all the many pearls he unstrung in a short afternoon, what struck me the most had to do with a little choice he made in adapting “Perks” from page to screen.
For the role of Patrick, one of the novel’s central characters, a vivacious and charming teenager who is also openly gay, he cast the equally vivacious and charming Ezra Miller, who is magnetic on screen. “If you’re gay in high school, that’s who you’d want to be,” Chbosky said of Miller. In the book, Patrick smokes constantly, but in the movie, not a cigarette in sight. But this seemingly small detail was considered with deep seriousness.
Chbosky confessed that as a teenager he had a smoking habit for several years. Fortunately, or so he thought, he quit. Then he went to the movies and saw Christian Slater smoking (in a film I can’t recall) and Slater “made it look so fucking good, I picked it up again and smoked another 17 years.”
A quiet but collective gasp could be heard when he said this. Chbosky is now a husband and a father, a role one can assume has matured his attitude towards health and life in general, but what’s even more remarkable is that his concern extends to every single eye that lands on his screen. Rather than cite artistic license, or necessary drama, or the absolute unbending coolness of character, he cut the cool in favor of conscience.
More filmmakers like Chbosky, please. And for those who have seen “Perks,” more films from Chbosky.
April 23, 2013 | 12:40 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
A coterie of strapping and stylish Israelis gathered at the Writers Guild of America Theatre on April 18 for the opening night of the 27th annual Israel Film Festival, which doled out honors to the former head of Paramount Pictures, Sherry Lansing, and the actor Martin Landau.
After cocktails and hors d’oeurves, festival attendees piled into the 540-seat theater for a screening of “The Ballad of the Weeping Spring” and a short ceremony emceed by Jewish L.A.’s go-to guy, comedian Elon Gold. Gold, who admittedly performed gratis, reprised his chockablock Jewish routine which by now is mostly recycled shtick. But he did manage to get a good laugh when discussing President Obama’s recent trip to Israel, and in particular, his introduction to the newly crowned, Ethiopian-born Miss Israel, Yityish Aynaw, who is roundly celebrated as “the first black Miss Israel.”
“Boy that worked out well,” Gold deadpanned.
After introducing the producer Avi Lerner, Chairman and founder of Nu Image and Millennium Films (the latter of which has since been put on the auction block) as a longtime supporter of the festival, Lerner’s extremely pithy remarks prompted a clean and clever retort: “That was the least amount of words ever spoken by an Israeli,” Gold said.
Lansing was more prolific with her prose, recounting major steps in a long, colorful career. She ultimately became the first female ever to head a major Hollywood studio before “rewiring” to run the non-profit Sherry Lansing Foundation. Lansing began her remarks with a generous acknowledgement of the Israeli entertainment industry.
“Israeli movies and TV shows are so original, we’re copying them,” she said, adding that what sets Israeli culture apart is its willingness to be self-critical. “That’s very unusual,” she said, citing films like the Oscar-nominated “Waltz With Bashir,” “Lebanon,” and one of Israel’s two 2013 Oscar nominees, “The Gatekeepers.” She also said “Homeland” and “In Treatment” are “two of my favorite shows in my entire life.”
It was a reflective night for Lansing, who, at 67, was being honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award though she shows no signs of slowing down. She is now a prolific philanthropist, focusing on education and healthcare as well as a Regent of the University of California, among other involvements. And although her moviemaking days are over, she celebrated their legacy in her life, films that inspired her growing up on the south side of Chicago to overseeing icons like “Titanic” and “Forrest Gump.”
“Through movies I learned about love, about social justice,” she said, naming “The Pawnbroker” and “To Kill A Mockingbird.” “I got lost in the magic of the movies, films so powerful they changed my life. And a lot has changed since I ‘rewired’ but one thing hasn’t changed,” she said, addressing the filmmakers in the audience: “You can think of anything and you can make it happen.”
So, “keep making films, make them better and more challenging. Make us think, make us feel,” Lansing said.
Landau, who was presented with a career achievement award for film and television work spanning six decades, including Oscar nominated roles in “Ed Wood” and Woody Allen’s “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” was eloquent and even poetic comparing his personal journey to that of Israel’s.
“Israel and I grew up together,” he said, noting he was 28 and working in the art department at the New York Daily News when Israel became a state. When he was struggling to make a living, “Israel too was struggling to survive… to convert a strip of arid land into a fertile farmland.” Landau also noted some of Israel’s progressive triumphs, such as electing a female Prime Minister at a time when it was “unheard of.”
He spoke of his abiding love of movies, old movie palaces and the still glamorous but seemingly ancient movie stars like Garbo, Gable and Lombard. “I longed to be a part of it all, part of the magic, and so I became an actor,” he said.
Now 85, Landau concluded a nostalgic night on an optimistic note: “Israel and I have aged together, witnessed and experienced massive change, but we’re still very much alive.”
April 18, 2013 | 5:31 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Nobody likes a know-it-all.
When Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg burst onto the scene with “Lean In,” her best-selling broadside against gender inequality in the workplace, many saw an occasion for a mean-in.
Sandberg’s apparently maddening message, “that men still run the world” despite the triumphs of the feminist revolution such as suffrage, equal access to education and sexual freedom, is coupled with an exhortation to women to stop holding themselves back and to aim for top jobs in government and industry. Yet her attempt to revivify feminism’s fading star was promptly met with roaring rebuke.
A “PowerPoint Pied Piper in Prada ankle boots,” The New York Times’ Maureen Dowd condescendingly called her. Another Times reporter, Jodi Kantor, author of “The Obamas,” blithely suggested Sandberg’s privilege might render her message irrelevant: “Will more earthbound women, struggling with cash flow and child care, embrace the advice of a Silicon Valley executive whose book acknowledgments include thanks to her wealth adviser and Oprah Winfrey?” she wondered.
At the Washington Post, Melissa Gira Grant likened “Lean In” to a “vanity project”: “This is simply the elite leading the slightly-less-elite, for the sake of Sandberg’s bottom line,” she wrote. And in The Nation, the headline: “What ‘Mad Men’s’ Peggy Olson Teaches Us That Sheryl Sandberg Doesn’t.”
Oh, for the days when discourse was kind.
Sandberg’s closest counterpart, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, has also been subjected to “so much scorn” as “The End of Men” author Hanna Rosin noted on Slate. Ever since Mayer changed Yahoo’s flexible telecommuting policy (and famously forwent her maternity leave), she has been pilloried for her indifference to work-life balance while male CEOs who have also nixed pliable policies — including the heads of Best Buy and Bank of America, as a Washington Post article noted — have never been called anything near “The Stalin of Silicon Valley.”
To make matters worse, though this is hardly new, most of the catty name calling has come from other women — many of whom, one suspects, continue to struggle on a far more ordinary plane with the many trying tasks Sandberg has mastered. Why else so much scorn for someone so worldly and winsome? Any degree of psychological acuity could uncloak this cast of envy: Sandberg may be hard to take because not only does she have-it-all, she actually is-it-all — smart, self-made, super-accomplished, superrich, personable, poised and pretty. And there are aspects of her fortune that simply can’t be earned; they are a gift of nature.
As the author and literary critic Clive James recently said to The New York Times, “Spraying cold water on a witch hunt is one of the duties that a critic should be ready to perform.”
Well, how about a Bible scholar instead?
“When you think about it, women can be tremendous diminishers of other women, and that’s very unfortunate,” the writer and educator Erica Brown told me. Brown knows this fraught terrain; as a career-driven mother of four — she is a prolific writer and currently serves as the scholar-in-residence at The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington — she admitted to tuning out social criticism of her choices. “Those voices are paralyzing,” she said. “I think it really speaks to the insecurity of women in society today — that they still profoundly feel a need to either criticize or judge one woman’s lifestyle and life choices in a certain kind of catty, feline belittling way.” The Sandberg backlash, she suggested, “may be coming from people who are so threatened by the subtlety of having to juggle a world that they simply can’t accept the fact that someone has done this successfully, and they want to poke holes in her happy cloud.”
Some of the criticisms, of course, are valid. Like when Daily Beast editor Tina Brown opened her Women in the World Summit with a “call to arms,” pointing out that in a world in which millions of women still struggle for basic civil rights, “Leaning in isn’t enough. … Pushing up against the glass ceiling is practically a luxury when you consider the millions of women who can feel the floor dropping beneath their feet.”
But Sandberg has considered that, too. When she hosted a book party for Nobel Prize winner Leymah Gbowee, who sparked the nonviolent revolution that led to the ouster of Liberian dictator Charles Taylor, many of her guests asked Gbowee what they could do to help. “More women in power,” Gbowee replied. Sandberg believes, “Conditions for all women will improve when there are more women in leadership roles giving strong and powerful voice to their needs and concerns.”
Biblical women, who were rarely vested with societal power, frequently took it upon themselves to change the tide of history. Following Pharoah’s decree that all Israelite first-born boys be killed, it was Miriam who scolded her father Amram for divorcing his wife — “Your decree is worse than Pharaoh’s!” she cried — as it meant that neither male nor female Hebrews would be born. It was Miriam who followed Moses, the brother she prophesied, down the Nile River and into Pharaoh’s home, where she cleverly arranged for the child to be nursed by his biological mother. And further back, intuiting that leadership could fall into the wrong hands, Rebecca craftily machinated for her son Jacob to steal his brother’s birthright. And how could we forget Yael, who used her powers to seduce in order to surprise: Once King Sisera was in her tent, she did a very unladylike thing and stabbed him in the head, saving Israel from war.
In the Bible, women take tactical initiative, Brown said. “They’re not asking anyone’s permission.” But by contrast, even in today’s “post-feminist” world, she added, “Women tend to need to be invited to take positions of leadership; they wait to see if someone acknowledges them or finds them worthy.
“If you’re really a leader, what are you waiting for? The women who have made history have not waited.”
Women who have made history also offer another indispensable lesson of leadership: that real change does not occur in isolation, but in community. So every woman who leans out from Sandberg’s cause because it isn’t inclusive enough, or sufficiently relevant, is only further fragmenting the feminist cause. Who cares if Sandberg is a queen? This American royal is telling all women everywhere that they’re capable.
April 16, 2013 | 2:21 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
In a pointed and deeply personal profile by Jonathan Van Meter for the New York Times Magazine, former congressman Anthony Weiner and his wife, Huma Abedin offer an account of life from the "post scandal playbook" -- that is, from the trenches of their private life following Weiner’s very public political disgrace.
For those who were out of town that spring: It was May 2011 when Weiner pressed send on that "one fateful tweet," as he calls it, accidentally tweeting a picture of his boxer-clad package to nearly 45,000 followers. Soon after that, further revelations of his sordid online life led to a fallout that nearly wrecked his marriage and his political prospects. Weiner explained his lubricious carelessness thusly:
For a thoughtful person, it’s remarkable how little thought I really gave to it until it was too late. But I think a lot of it came down to: I was in a world and a profession that had me wanting people’s approval. By definition, when you are a politician, you want people to like you, you want people to respond to what you’re doing, you want to learn what they want to hear so you can say it to them.
One can only have so much empathy for the affliction of narcissism, though his candor is admirable, however belated. Time, as we know, is a great healer, and in the nearly two years since Weiner's boneheaded bravura, he and his family have come to grips with his gaffe: Weiner now sees a shrink, has become the primary caregiver for his 13-month-old son and weeps with desperate gratitude over his wife's forgiveness.
Prior to the scandal, Abedin admitted that the couple had not spent more than 10 consecutive days together since they had been married. When she became pregnant, they took an otherwise unprecedented two-week trip to Europe. “That was the longest period of time we’d ever spent together,” she told Van Meter. “Later, when we thought about it, we didn’t realize that so much of our lives were kind of these snippets of, we see each other for a few days and then are separated.”
As is often the case with the highly ambitious, especially those who zealously pursue political careers, both husband and wife were so myopically-invested in their work, family life was relegated to a limited realm. Until, ironically, their marriage was tested.
Abedin said that she did not make her choice to forgive Weiner “lightly.” But since granting him the second chance he both wanted and needed, he told the reporter that this time, “I’m trying to make sure I get it right.”
And what does that mean? According to Van Meter:
He seems to spend much of his time within a five-block radius of his apartment: going to the park with Jordan; picking up his wife’s dry cleaning and doing the grocery shopping; eating at his brother Jason’s two restaurants in the neighborhood. This is what happens after a scandal: Ranks are closed and the world shrinks to a tiny dot. It is a life in retreat.
It is also a life lived among family, from which there is no retreat -- especially when you share the home corner-office.
Last week, I asked the writer and educator Erica Brown, who currently serves as the scholar-in-residence at the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, about qualities of leadership. She reiterated the teaching of the 19th century German rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch who believed that behavior within a family determines how individuals will behave within community. For Hirsch, this notion is supported by the order of the Ten Commandments, which he divided into two categories: the first five relate to God, and the second five relate to man. The turning point, Hirsch taught, is the fifth commandment: Honor thy father and thy mother. Why? Brown explained: “Because your parents really are the microcosmic form of authority in your life, and they will teach you how to see God as an authority in your life.”
Respect for authority is a pre-requisite for leadership; if one does not adhere to the concept of authority, then leadership is meaningless. And without the humility to recognize forces beyond one’s control, any leader may become vulnerable to the bottomless needs of their ego (see: Weiner, Spitzer, Clinton, Kennedy et al.).
Family, then, in the way Hirsch sees it, becomes not only a moderating force but a model. “There’s this sense of family being the determinant of how you’ll function in community and it’s meant to prepare you for that,” Brown said. But, she added, “Today we don’t think of leadership that way.” The biblical ideal does not translate particularly well in most of American politics where there is tendency to separate the private individual from the public figure. “And as a result, we have loads of politicians who are not fidelitous [sic] to their spouses and that is somehow separate from their relationship to leadership. We kind of atomize that they lead in one arena and they may not be moral exemplars in another.
“But what if we looked at someone and said, ‘Who are you in all these different situations? What is your identity in the boardroom, in the bedroom, in the playroom, in the family room, in your volunteer context; who are you?’ How can you create a more holistic identity so that you’re leading in any place you are?”
Weiner may be learning this lesson in reverse. He began his career as a dazzling boy wonder who whizzed into political office at 27 with all that blustery boy swagger only to become unglued by 46. Van Meter tells us, his “pugilistic political persona bled into his personal life and made him, ‘hard to take,’” -- that last quote courtesy of his brother, Jason Weiner.
Only now, at 48, after a humiliating collapse is he confronting the demons of his discontinuous personality and beginning the work of the family. Stripped of her political power role, he is taking turns as husband, father, friend, brother.
It can be granted that Weiner’s lachrymose lament does seem genuine (he refers to himself as an idiot three times in the story), but no remorse is entirely selfless; the need for redemption undergirds repentance. And with a New York City mayoral race around the corner, and apparently some valuable campaign matching funds set to expire soon after that, Weiner has his eye on returning to politics. Private penitence, it seems, is incomplete without public absolution.
According to the article:
[H]is political committee spent more than $100,000 on polling and research by Obama’s longtime pollster, David Binder... The focus of the poll, Binder says, was the question “Are voters willing to give him a second chance or not, regardless of what race or what contest?”
Barring something truly egregious (which, let’s face it, an explicit tweet is not), Judaism teaches that both God and man are inclined towards second chances. Every year on Yom Kippur, Jews repent their sins and repair broken relationships in order to restore themselves to dignified living.
Still he says, “I want to ask people to give me a second chance. I do want to have that conversation with people whom I let down and with people who put their faith in me and who wanted to support me. I think to some degree I do want to say to them, ‘Give me another chance.’”
He deserves a chance to do that teshuva, literally “return” in Hebrew -- a return to fidelity, to rectitude, to goodness and wholeness. Perhaps his reconciliation with his family will prove edifying in his political life. Could error, struggle and salvation accord him the gift of better leadership?
Maybe. As Weiner said of the polling results on his character, “People are generally prepared to get over it, but they don’t know if they’re prepared to vote for me. And there’s a healthy number of people who will never get over it.”
April 12, 2013 | 1:16 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Yesterday I spent the day at Milken Community High School reporting on the Righteous Conversations Project, a group that pairs teens and Holocaust survivors for intensive one-on-one dialogue.
In recounting their survival stories, survivors often say that egregious acts of silence aided and abetted their torment. As the statesman and political philosopher Edmund Burke famously said, all that is required for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.
But doing nothing is itself an act. As Susan Sontag shrewdly observed: “Silence remains, inescapably, a form of speech.”
No matter the circumstances, not to speak out is statement making; it is an act of acquiescence to what is.
April 10, 2013 | 4:41 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Rabbi Michael Rose Knopf has written a defense of the Newsweek/Daily Beast rabbi list for the Huffington Post in which he basically makes the argument that since the list honors ‘influential' rabbis and not ‘best' rabbis -- even though it is called ‘top' rabbis (definition: the highest or most important rank, level, or position) -- that it is perfectly legitimate, not harmful and “succeeds” in its aim.
But Knopf’s defense distorts the debate about the rabbis list in several egregious ways. In his opening paragraph, for instance, I was especially disappointed to discover he considers the cover story I wrote about the list for the L.A. Jewish Journal a “ferocious polemic” (his ever-so-subtle suggestion came via linking to my piece with those words) since it was meticulously reported and thoroughly detailed; in fact, every single person who either conceived of or worked on the list is represented in the piece, as are a number of well-respected rabbis, many from the list, some not, almost all of which were quoted on the record. And, (unlike the Newsweek list) the story was contextualized with a range of concrete measures, which in addition to the interviews, included original graphs and charts. All of this was done for the express purpose of representing the subject’s fullness and complexity.
I’m not sure if Knopf read the piece, but if he had, he might take note; instead, he deigns to mislead his readers by suggesting that my story appeared “almost immediately” after the 2013 list was published, when in fact, the story appeared both in print and online about two weeks prior to The Daily Beast posting.
The most harmful error, however, is the result of a shocking misperception. In his piece, Knopf feels the need to mount a defense of individual rabbis, which implies that he either used the reportage as occasion to acknowledge his teachers and mentors, which is sweet, or he deeply misunderstood the Jewish Journal’s coverage. My reported story was a critical and analytical look at the history of the list and its impact on the scant but visible parts of the community who care about it; it was not at all about the worthiness or deservingness of individual rabbis (in fact, I noted my intense admiration of many of the listed rabbis in a recent blog post). Similarly, Dennis Prager’s opinion column for The Journal, to which Knopf also refers, explicitly states: “This is no reflection on the rabbis who made the list.” And indeed Prager took pains to single out those list-making rabbis he deeply admires.
The rabbis who make the list are really beside the point; and it’s worth noting that never during the course of my reporting was it revealed to me who would appear on the 2013 list. Instead, my reporting was based on extensive data my colleague Jonah Lowenfeld and I compiled, given the available lists from 2007-2012.
The point of my piece was not to suggest that the hard-working and very talented rabbis selected don’t deserve the acknowledgment; it was to question the purpose of the list. After all, the rabbinate is supposed to be one of the few places in American life where the centrality of holy work and higher thinking obviates the need for a competitive and shallow star system. But perhaps the writer James Salter was right when he wrote, "We live in the attention of others. We turn to it as flowers to the sun."
April 7, 2013 | 3:58 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
I had dinner with a friend last night who told me there is no excuse for the infrequency of my blogging as of late (though I do have excuses; he just wasn't interested in hearing them).
"Just post little things," he urged.
So in the spirit of maintaining constancy in light of my absence, I thought I'd share an interesting verse from Salvador Dali, which I discovered at a retrospective of the artist’s work at Centre Pompidou during a recent visit to Paris.
By now it is well known that Dali was fascinated by film and theater and had hoped to transpose his painterly gifts into storytelling on screen. Though he found limited success in that endeavor, it did result in some fruitful collaborations: first, with the Spanish surrealist filmmaker Luis Bunuel, with whom he produced two films, "Un Chien Andalou" and "L'Age d'Or," both of which were formative influences in the surrealist film movement.
But true to his zealous, striving nature to achieve the pinnacle of success, Dali also turned his sights towards Hollywood, with whom he had a definite but vexing relationship. He spent considerable time in Los Angeles in the 1940s while collaborating most famously with Alfred Hitchcock, the outcome of which resulted in an edgy dream sequence for Hitchcock’s 1945 film "Spellbound" (several years ago, during their own Dali retrospective, LACMA devoted an entire room of the exhibit to this sequence).
In 1946, Walt Disney hired Dali to develop a storyboard for the short film "Destino" inspired by the hit Mexican song of the same name. Though Disney and Dali worked on the project for eight years, the Walt Disney Company became beset by financial difficulties in the aftermath of World War II which forced the project on hold; "Destino" was not fully realized on screen until 2003, when Walt's nephew Roy revisited the project. The film that resulted is a magnificent and wild, entirely un-Disney-like music video that tells a deep and daring love story, more provocative and sophisticated than most other Hollywood renderings of romance.
In the end, Dali's work on film was not deemed commercially viable enough to justify further investment, a harsh reality that deeply disappointed him. Then again, the self-declared megalomaniac ("I am surrealism!") disdained any imposition of limitation on his talents.
Though much has been made of Dali's fascination with Hitler (the subject of many of his paintings but never his public reproach), Dali also had a mysterious relationship with Jews and Judaism. In 1967, he was commmissioned by Shorewood Publishers, a purveyor of art books, to create a series of paintings depicting Zionist history to mark the 20th anniversary of the founding of the Israel. According to The Forward, the Emory University scholar David Blumenthal, a professor of Judaic studies, owns one of these paintings and several years ago undertook to investigating Dali’s relationship to the Jews:
He tested a number of proposed theories: Did Dalí secretly have Jewish ancestors? Did his wife, Gala? Did the artist feel some kind of empathy for the Jewish people? Or, conversely, was he simply trying to build a Jewish market, even exploit the Jews for commercial benefit? ... And “Aliyah” is not his only Jewish-themed work: He produced other paintings, as well as two sculptures, “Menorah” and “Western Wall,“ whose images he licensed to a man named Jean-Paul Delcourt in 1980. Delcourt has since built a small industry of Dalí Jewish art products.
Which brings me to the passage I mentioned at the beginning. The following excerpt comes from Dali’s own writings and beautifully illustrates (as only an illustrator can) the importance of place -- and not just any place, a particular place -- in the formation of one’s identity. Naturally it recalled for me the Jewish tie to Israel:
Like a good workman, I tend to my field, my boat -- that is the painting I am finishing -- while striving for simple things: eating grilled sardines and walking along the beach with Gala at nightfall, watching the gothic rocks turn into nightmares in the night. I built myself on these shores. This is where I created my image, found my love, built my house. I am inseparable from this sky, this sea, these rocks: I am forever tied to Portlligat - which means 'tied-in port' -- where I defined all my raw truths and my roots. This is the only place where I am home: everywhere else, I camp.
Dali’s last line makes a good case for capturing the essence of exile -- another enduring Jewish theme. On that note, I offer a shattering passage from Victor Hugo’s pen, also discovered during my trip to Paris, in which he describes the 18 years he spent in exile from France after publicly opposing Napoleon III’s seizure of power:
A man so ruined that only his honor remains, so despoiled that all he has is his conscience, so isolated that only equity remains close, so rejected that only truth has stayed with him, a man cast so totally into the darkness that all he has is the sun: that is what it is to be an exile.