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 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.
April 4, 2013 | 1:09 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Roger Ebert, the legendary film reviewer, has died at age 70 of cancer. His decade-long battle with papillary thyroid cancer began in 2002 and ultimately robbed him of his ability to speak, eat or drink.
Despite the life altering setback, Ebert worked tirelessly through the disease. He continued to write prolifically, regularly publishing his beloved and trusted movie reviews and even made high profile speaking appearances -- including a popular TED talk -- made possible through the use of cutting-edge voice technology. In 2010, he told Esquire magazine, “When I am writing, my problems become invisible, and I am the same person I always was. All is well. I am as I should be.”
But despite his dogged optimism, things had seemed especially ominous of late, as when earlier this week, he announced on his Website that because of declining health, he would be cutting back on movie reviewing. Even that admission of decline, though held a hint of promise, and included a business announcement that he had planned to purchase his website Rogerebert.com from the Sun-Times and relaunch it.
In his 2011 presentation at the TED conference, "Remaking my voice" Ebert described in painful detail the deprivations that resulted from his cancer battle and the astonishing technologies that had helped him cope. You can watch the video (which has nearly 400,000 views) here:
Ebert rose to prominence with his sidekick and sparring partner, fellow movie buff Gene Siskel, with whom he could make or break a movie's fortunes with the flex of a thumb. Their trademark "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" movie reviews were for many years a staple in the cultural lexicon.
Though Ebert was Catholic, Siskel was Jewish, and just after Siskel died in 1999, Ebert eulogized him for the Chicago Sun-Times, recounting a conversation they had after a speaking appearance at the Harvard Law School Film Society:
That night we had dinner together in a hotel in Cambridge, and had our longest and deepest philosophical discussion. We talked about life and death, the cosmos, our place in the grand scheme of things, the meaning of it all. There was a reason Gene studied philosophy: He was a natural.
He spoke about his Judaism, which he took very seriously. His parents had started one of the early synagogues on the North Shore after World War II. "I had a lot of long talks with my father about our religion," Gene told me. "He said it wasn't necessary to think too much about an afterlife. What was important was this life, how we live it, what we contribute, our families, and the memories we leave." Gene said, "The importance of Judaism isn't simply theological, or, in the minds of some Jews, necessarily theological at all. It is that we have stayed together and respected these things for thousands of years, and so it is important that we continue." In a few words, this was one of the most touching descriptions of Judaism I had ever heard.
Ebert also wrote with great sensitivity about his Catholic school upbringing and his struggle with faith in God. Despite his skeptical beliefs, religion was an object of fascination for him, a class he considered a “favorite subject.”
In a personal essay for the Chicago Sun-Times, "How I Believe in God," he pontificated about his religious and spiritual beliefs, elucidating the moral code he adopted from the Church (and, really, the Hebrew Bible). "Catholicism made me a humanist before I knew the word," he wrote.
[O]ur theology was often very practical: All men are created equal. Do onto others as you would have them do onto you. The Ten Commandments, which we studied at length, except for adultery, "which you children don't have to worry about." A fair day's work for a fair day's wage. A good government should help make sure everyone has a roof over their head, a job, and three meals a day. The cardinal acts of mercy. Ethical behavior. The sisters didn't especially seem to think that a woman's place was in the home, as theirs certainly was not. You should "pray for your vocation." My mother prayed for mine; she wanted me to become a priest. "Every Catholic mother hopes she can give a son to the priesthood," she said, and spoke of one mother at St. Patrick's, who had given two, as if she were a lottery winner.
His so-called secular humanism -- though he eschewed labels -- made him comfortable with religious behavioral principles but not theological ones. “I believed in the basic Church teachings because I thought they were correct, not because God wanted me to.” Throughout his life, he stubbornly struggled with the existence of God, explaining his personal theology in a way that lay plain his confusion: "If I were to say I don't believe God exists, that wouldn't mean I believe God doesn't exist. Nor does it mean I don't know, which implies that I could know."
Despite his identification with Catholic teachings, however, he resisted religious conformity and was honest about his contradictory impulses. He admitted to spending "hours and hours in churches all over the world" not to engage in prayer, of course, but to "nudge [his] thoughts toward wonder and awe." The angels of his religious nature ultimately won out, since he clearly had a spiritual bent but he also felt a substantial degree of institutional disillusionment. "I have no interest in megachurches with jocular millionaire pastors,” he wrote. “I think what happens in them is socio-political, not spiritual." Still, when recounting a childhood tale of a priest who comforted a young Ebert by holding him in his lap, he reassured readers "no priest or nun ever treated me with other than love and care."
In the end, though, his ultimate spiritual principle strikes as deeply Jewish:
“I am not a believer, not an atheist, not an agnostic. I am still awake at night, asking how? I am more content with the question than I would be with an answer.”