Posted by Danielle Berrin
Never underestimate the miraculous confluence of Jews and Torah.
After minyan this morning a bunch of us minyan-aires were standing around eating bagels and lox and discussing post-Thanksgiving frequent flyer travel. That's when a woman I've never seen before came up and introduced herself. She asked, in turn, who I was and what I do. It turns out that she knows one of my colleagues, and that in the not-too-distant past, she was featured in the Jewish Journal, as part of our ongoing series on Holocaust survivors.
"And what do you write about?" she inquired.
"Oh, Hollywood, mainly," I told her. "But I also write about other things."
I elaborated about my non-Hollywood work.
"My granddaughter wants to be a journalist," she confessed, "but we're trying to discourage her. It's a difficult field."
"Well, it can be," I said. "The whole profession is in flux right now, but the work can be very gratifying."
She asked if I would speak with her granddaughter. I said of course... how old is she... we have internships... yadda yadda. I even offered for her granddaughter to attend to one of our editorial meetings. She was very grateful. She asked if I would put my contact information in her iPhone.
"Maybe I can help you too," she said, as I punched my digits into her device. "My son-in-law works on 'Mad Men.'"
Obviously, my ears perked up.
"Oh really?" I replied, thinking that whoever her son-in-law is, he probably works in the writer's room or something like that. "What's his name?"
"Matt Weiner," she said.
And that is just one reason why I will continue to attend daily minyan and say Kaddish for my mother with great fidelity. Never underestimate God's wonders, in Hollywood and beyond.
12.5.13 at 10:57 am | Never underestimate the miraculous confluence of. . .
11.27.13 at 2:54 pm | Rabbis Adam Kligfeld and Ari Lucas answer probing. . .
11.24.13 at 12:15 pm | Meet the woman who turned Suzanne Collins' young. . .
11.21.13 at 11:48 am | What I found transcendent about Handler’s. . .
11.9.13 at 12:57 pm |
10.29.13 at 6:31 pm | Zusak talks about choosing “Death” as a. . .
10.2.13 at 12:44 pm | The modern "Queen of Sheba" as Israeli President. . . (839)
12.5.13 at 10:57 am | Never underestimate the miraculous confluence of. . . (495)
5.18.12 at 2:38 pm | Now in it's fifth season, Jewishness on "Mad Men". . . (344)
November 27, 2013 | 2:54 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
As Chanukah was approaching this year, I sat down with two Conservative rabbis -- Adam Kligfeld and Ari Lucas of Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles -- to discuss the challenges and complexities of one of Judaism's most celebrated stories and holidays. Here they answer questions about the Maccabees' violent dark side, reveal Chanukah's mythical origins in the Garden of Eden and why its absence from the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) does nothing to diminish its significance.
Jewish Journal: Give me your pithy TV pitch of the Chanukah story.
Rabbi Adam Kligfeld: There is just no reason to oppress or put down or demean or persecute someone else for their religious beliefs and actions. Of all the yuck that has happened to the Jewish people, Chanukah was first time the persecution of them was because of religious ideals as opposed to territorial expansion, or the need to enslave for personal gain. [Chanukah] was about the Hellenists feeling a great affront at monotheistic temple worship and wanting to replace it with something more in line with their understanding of the way the world worked. My spin on the concept of pirsumei nissah, the notion of publicizing the miracle, is that Judaism learned early on and needs to still proclaim that others’ beliefs and rituals should be sacrosanct.
That was longer than a TV pitch.
Rabbi Ari Lucas: My TV pitch is about bringing light to the darkest days of the year. Chanukah celebrates the universal and the particular: the light that I have to shine is special because it’s mine, but through my celebration and appreciation of the light that is uniquely mine, I come to appreciate light in general.
JJ: When Chanukah is taught, we generally focus on the triumph of the small over the mighty, on religious freedom, the miracle of the oil and re-dedicating the temple. But we really shy away from talking about the Jew-on-Jew violence that occurs in the story -- the wholesale slaughter that has been described in some literature as a kind of civil war. Why don’t we talk about that more?
AL: This is a core question about religious commemoration in general and Chanukah in particular: What is the story we tell? And the way you tailor the story depends on who your audience is. You might give a different explanation of Chanukah to a five-year-old than a ten-year-old, or to a non-Jewish neighbor. The way we commemorate historical events through religious celebration [focuses on] particular elements that we want to elevate and draw out. So I guess you could say there’s some element of censorship. For me, as a religious leader, my question is: Can we not whitewash the complexities and nuances of a historically difficult moment in Jewish history, and still light our Chanukah candles and celebrate?
AK: What you’re asking about Chanukah could be asked about all of our holidays and all of our sacred cows. Can you be an ardent Zionist and engage in post Zionist critique at same time? Can you observe Pesach with gusto and still know intellectually that there are serious questions about how it happened and whether it happened? Purim is an even more egregious example of this than Chanukah. The narrative we tell about Purim is so incredibly tailored and whitewashed: You’ve got the hero and heroine of the Purim story named after Babylonian gods; you’ve got a Jewish community living in exile after King Cyrus issued an edict that allowed them to go back to Caanan. So why didn’t they go back? Why are we elevating this community when it was really an assimilated Jewish community that was rejecting Israel? But when it comes to the 14th of Adar, I do want my children to dress up as Mordechai. And the same is true for Chanukah. In religious life, we have to be able to distinguish between what’s history and story, but embrace story. Because history doesn’t always fill you up with meaning, it fills you up with facts. If we’re always de-compartmentalizing we’ll end up with something very brittle and ultimately meaningless.
JJ: You could also argue that grappling with these complications create richness and complexity. Are we doing enough of that wrestling?
AK: I am someone who will err on the side of being more careful. I’m choosing to live a Judaism that’s intellectually honest. I will now pepper a biblical critical approach to a text in the middle of a Rashi class with adults in a way that I don’t think I once was comfortable with, because I want them to be able to grapple with both sides. But I also want them to love the Torah.
JJ: Knowing what we know about the way the Maccabees achieved victory, how does that complicate our understanding of their heroism?
AL: The heroism of the Maccabees is not what I’m celebrating on Chanukah…
AL: I’m celebrating God’s salvation of the Jewish people in a time of great danger -- maybe salvation from themselves, from internal strife, maybe from the external threat of the Greeks -- but when I say the blessings over the candles, I don’t say ‘Thank God for the Maccabees.’ I say, ‘Praised are you Lord Our God who commanded us to light these candles and who performed miracles.’
AK: She’asah nissim, not she’asu nissim – singular. The maker of the miracles in the religious language is ‘God,’ not ‘them.’
AL: There’s the line from Psalm 46, al tiv'tehu vindivim, b'ven adam she'ein lo t'shuah -- do not put your faith in human beings, they will disappoint you. Human beings are mortal, and being mortal means both finality and being flawed. So inevitably human leaders are going to let us down, they’re going to disappoint us. And so the question really is: Does that destroy your faith? Are you going to say ‘Forget it?’ Or if after that disappointment, you’re going to hang in there, and see the opportunity for repair.
JJ: As religious Jews, how do we celebrate and idealize our cultural myths and stories while also acknowledging cultural flaws and failures?
AK: That’s part of the modern liberal Jewish experience, with gravity pulling you in two different directions. And you can’t average them together; you actually have to live with two different tropes in your mind.
JJ: The Chanukah motto is Zechariah 4:6, “Not by might, not by power but by my spirit…” expressly shifting the focus from the militant to the mystical. Why do the rabbis end up spiritualizing what was really a military victory? Was that a way of reinforcing the idea that human beings cannot be counted upon, and that God is ultimately responsible for history?
AL: When the rabbis in the Talmud ask ‘What is Chanukah,’ they tell the story of the oil. But in the Al Hanissim prayer, which makes its way into the siddur -- and I think of the siddur as the ultimate arbiter of Jewish thinking -- speaks very candidly about the military victory. And therein you have this dialectic: We’re celebrating a military victory, but we’re also reminding ourselves of our core vision of a messianic time. It’s realism mixed with idealism: the realism is that military strength and power is sometimes necessary in order to achieve our political and physical salvation; and yet, the ultimate spiritual salvation will only be through means of peace.
AK: But do you think that [the rabbis’] oil-izing and miracle-izing a military victory was ultimately a message of peace triumphing? Or do you think that’s our modernistic wish that that is what they were doing?
AL: I think there’s a long-standing tradition of taking examples of violence and saying, ‘We recognize that this was important and a necessary evil, but it’s an evil.’ [The rabbis] are grappling with that; they’re not comfortable with the idea that violence was how we achieved salvation.
JJ: Are you both comfortable with violence being the means for victory?
AK: Am I comfortable with the fact that [the Maccabees] had to win a war to save the Temple? Yes. Totally. I’m also comfortable with the fact that we had to win a war in 1948 to get Israel. I can sermonize about John Lennon’s world where neither border nor ideology exist, and maybe that’s originally what humanity could have achieved, but in the world that we have inherited, there are certain things that require force, that require strength, that require principle. And I’m totally comfortable with the fact that had that military victory not taken place, our little experiment [called Judaism] would have been over.
JJ: Is the messianic vision we hope for – the world redeemed -- one in which violence does not exist? Is that the ultimate mark of spiritual evolution?
AK: I’m not convinced that Judaism can Torah itself out of our own instincts to be violent. I don’t think of Judaism or even Torah as a perfect salve to the human instinct to battle. In fact I think that the rabbis trying to figure out what happens before Cain kills Abel is a recognition, deep within humanity, that, if you take my flower pot, or my wife, or anything else that I own, I might have to kill you.
JJ: None of the books of Maccabees are in the Tanach – they’re all apocryphal. How does this affect the way we regard the holiday?
AL: I was raised thinking that the only reason Jews put such an emphasis on Chanukah is because we were trying to give our children something as a response to Christmas. In my adult life, I’ve come to appreciate that both [Chanukah and Christmas] have light as a central symbol, and there’s this question about shining the light that is uniquely ours into the public sphere. There’s a story in the Talmud about Adam, the first man, who saw that the days were getting shorter and shorter, and so he’s getting nervous. What is going to happen? Are the days going to keep getting shorter and shorter such that there is no daylight? So he’s trying to figure out the patterns of nature, and then around Chanukah time, he sees that the sun is getting higher in sky. And so the first man celebrated a festival for eight days, offering thanks to God that the universe wasn’t destroyed. So maybe there’s some pre-Chanukah/Christmas elemental aspect [to the holiday], something about the experience of nature during this time of year.
AK: There was a pagan holiday, called Saturnalia or something, celebrating the return of the sun at end of the winter solstice. I think the rabbis were aware of this, and they wanted to make Chanukah [appear] even earlier, [to reinforce the idea that] Chanukah was really born in the Garden of Eden, and so would predate any sort of pagan [ritual].
JJ: Addressing the theme of religious pluralism, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg writes that Chanukah "challenges modern Jews to review their own easy acceptance of cosmopolitanism and sophisticated culture as superior to the sentiment and tribal feeling of being Jews." In light of the recent Pew poll results, this strikes me as a relevant dilemma for American Jews, because it highlights the conflict between universalist strivings and particular identities. Is it possible to live deeply in these two worlds at once?
AK: Clearly, yes.
AL: I’m doing my best…
AK: We are paragons of that! My image for this is a tiny piece of Yellowstone National Park [in southern Montana]. When I was a 20-year-old, I went to this place where there is a natural pool of water that brings glacially cold water from way-up-there down, and it pools in the same spot that thermal, hotter-than-you-can-imagine-water is coming up from below. And they pool in this natural eddy and they don’t average; it doesn’t create tepid water. It creates a very bizarre and stimulating experience where literally pieces of your skin are very, very hot and pieces are icy cold. And it’s exhilarating. I claim, without apology, to live in exhilarating modern times that excite me, and titillate me, and make me so proud to live in a world where my intellect does not have to be dampened to be alive. At the same time, there’s an equal part of my soul that relishes being a modern representative of an ancient tradition. And I find my modern, pretty traditional, conservative, observant American life to be extremes coexisting, that could easily flatten each other out, but don’t.
AL: Hellenism sought to flatten difference, [and] to make everyone according to the Greek paradigm. That is not what I believe pluralism is. I don’t believe that pluralism is this hands-off, everyone-does-what-they-want and every opinion is valid, in order to respect everybody [paradigm]. Because then we get to this place of ‘I cant even be critical of morally abhorrent positions because everybody does what they believe is right and who am I to judge?’ The Jewish people have always been the people who say that difference is something that you need to respect. I went to Jewish day school through 12th grade, and then college was this amazing, diverse exchange of ideas and culture. And I found that initially my instinct was to try and be like everybody else, just fit in, and minimize the parts of myself that were Jewish and differentiated me. Ultimately I found that I was more respected and more interesting to people, and that I had something to contribute, when I was more fully and authentically Jewish.
JJ: Greenberg calls this the Jewish resistance to homogenization.
AL: Yes! That’s why I love Greenberg. He’s awesome. We resist and we celebrate difference and that should also attune us to celebrating difference when we encounter it.
JJ: But, I wonder, when encountering an ultimate crisis of loyalties, as we see in the Chanukah story, what is required for someone to choose Jewish survival? Greenberg writes that in order for Judaism to persist, there must be “a primordial will to Jewishness first, or to Israel’s survival first,” which conflicts with the impulse to align with universal humankind.
AK: Are you asking me, ‘Do I think the Maccabees and the Hasmoneans were right to name the abject Hellenizers as being dangerous to future of the Jewish people?’ Yes, they were. Because if you don’t have stalwarts who are willing to pound the pavement, your ‘ism’ [as in Judaism] will die. I do think there are people who will quietly choose to opt out, and do the modern version of ‘Hellenize’ and one of my goals as a rabbi and as a Jew is to make sure there’s an address for people who are not making that choice, without demonizing those who do. I have members of my own family who I don’t think of as evil people at all, but our Torah never captured them. It’s not their fault. My job is not to give them a scarlet letter as Destroyers Of The Jewish People but to make sure there’s a robust and interesting and vibrant home for those who still want to play for this team.
When I was younger, early on in my career, I cared more about numbers -- numbers of people who came to shul on Friday night, people who came to this or that program -- but I can’t win that game. I can’t have my professional life be contingent on what decision a family makes on a Thursday night at 8pm, whether to come to my class or not. I can’t have my sense of value be dependent on that, nor can I have my career be dependent on that. I have to have my life and my career be dependent on values that are important to me and how I’m living them, teaching them, expressing them, mirroring them, modeling them, and knowing that they matter in the world and that hopefully they’ll matter to other people as well.
AL: That’s why I admire my senior rabbi. That question has been imposed on us from the outside far too often, and sometimes in ugly ways from the inside: Are you in or out? And I think what I love about what [R’ Kligfeld is] saying is ‘We love our people and we’re going to invest in the things we believe are right. And if it’s home for you, come join us; and if it’s not, maybe one day it will be; and even if it never is, we’re still going to keep the hearth fire burning.
JJ: How do you teach your children about Chanukah?
AL: Having not done it yet, but anticipating it [for the first time this year], I think the wisdom of our tradition is to teach the child wherever that child is. And at a very young age, it is about what we do. We light candles, and we sing songs. And that’s it. And eventually that child will ask ‘Why are we lighting these candles?’ In some way, that’s what all of ritual is: it begs questions.
JJ: Why do we celebrate the Chanukah oil miracle for eight nights when the first night wasn’t a miracle?
AK: That first night, the miracle was not being demoralized. It was knowing that there was no chance of the oil lasting and still lighting. When a person is grievously depressed and doesn’t jump off a bridge but goes and seeks help, “That is a miracle too…” [he sings, from ‘Fiddler on the Roof’]. I have no guarantee that my great, great grandchildren will observe Shabbes but I’m going to light candles this week. That [is] my sense of what it means to be truly courageous.
November 24, 2013 | 12:15 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
In 1993, the New York Times described Nina Jacobson as a "baby mogul" who, at 27, had already landed one of Hollywood's top jobs as vice president of production for Universal Pictures. Back then, she was considered "a powerful punker," as the Times put it, with a penchant for black leather and mutliple piercings.
Today, she is better known as the prescient mind who optioned Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games and turned it into an international mega-hit film franchise.
Last June, I had the honor of interviewing Jacobson as part of a recurring salon series hosted by L.A.'s Jewish Federation's Entertainment Division. For about an hour, I got to ask her anything and everything, from the infamous chutzpadik that launched her career (during a job interview, she told producer Joel Silver she heard he was "not a mensch") to how she perceives her own wielding of power. I also got to ask her what her shadow life would look like (the parallel, but unlived life she might have lived had she not become a film producer), and the answer she gave will surely surprise.
I haven't had a chance to review the tape yet, but if I can, I will add some highlights and soundbites here.
In the meantime, here is an in-depth and intimate conversation with a Hollywood producer who is as smart and thoughtful as she is successful, and as interesting and empathetic as her Hunger Games heroine Katniss Everdeen.
ps: Introducing Jacobson is Jonathan Littman, president of Jerry Bruckheimer Television and chair of the Federation's Entertainment Division.
November 21, 2013 | 11:48 am
Posted by Danielle Berrin
"I didn’t want to say words that somebody had written for me, you know? I wanted to use my own mind," stand-up comedian and talk show host Chelsea Handler declared to a room full of high-powered women at the inaugural Women A.R.E. Summit on Nov. 7, a gathering for L.A.'s civically minded jet set.
Handler was explaining why she didn't want to become an actress.
"I don’t think actresses are fun to be around," she said with disarming nonchalance. "They’re competitive. You don’t have to be jealous of other women! You have to embrace other women. We can all lift each other up."
Handler took the stage at the SLS Hotel in Beverly Hills for a brief inspiring talk during a day-long conference that focused on female voices in social entreprenuership, healthcare, philanthropy and art. In 7 minutes, she offered her punchy pop philosophy of life, beginning with her flawed childhood, her decade-long struggle for success, and concluding with what she considers the true thrill of her fame and fortune: “To be able to give,” she said.
Handler pioneered the field of women in late night television with her show, "Chelsea Lately" and is the bestselling author of candid self-portrait books including, "My Horizontal Life: A Collection of One-Night Stands" (2005), and the equally revealing, "Are You There, Vodka? It's Me, Chelsea." When she refers to fame and fortune, she isn't exaggerating: Handler is a bonafide hit, evinced by a twitter account that has nearly 5.5 million followers.
But for such a routine entertainer, Handler was not cool as a cucumber when she addressed about 500 women who were also wealthy and powerful. Instead, she was surprisingly emotional. Though her speech was earnest, energetic and effusive, she visibly trembled throughout the delivery. So much so that I wondered if she was shaking because it was uncharacteristically personal, or because it was impossible to keep her balance in 4-inch stilettos.
Mostly, though, her message was moving and poignant. I fear that at times, we find it a little too easy to resort to cynicism and to condescend to celebrities who have discovered their own depths, as if to say that having fame, fortune and a heart is a revelation. What I found transcendent about Handler’s speech, besides her raw delivery and unflinching honesty, was her humility about her own gifts.
The Torah, was really offered by her sister, Simone, who taught Handler that she was b’tzelem elochim, created in God’s image, with totally unique talents that only she could offer. At the exact moment Handler feared “being a waitress when I’m 30,” the realization of her essential uniqueness gave her the courage to continue to push forward.
But what Handler ultimately understood was that the blessing her sister offered was a blessing for all humankind: that every soul contains a unique spark of the divine and exists for a special purpose. “I really believed she was only talking about me, and that I was the only person in the world that had something... And [my sister] said, ‘There’s room for everyone.’”
Now that Handler is fulfilling her purpose in the world, she said she finds the most joy in giving things away. It reminds me of the beautiful verse from Hillel Bavli:
Let my life grow a wealth of word and deed,
steeped in the fountain of my being,
without my measuring all things
for only what they have to offer me.
Straight from her quivering lips, here’s Chelsea Handler’s Torah uncut and uncensored:
I grew up in a family with six kids, and my father was a used-car salesman, and for some reason my mother found that attractive and married him. They were the biggest messes you could ever see and I grew up and I was like, ‘How are you guys raising us? This is bullshit! Like, do you have a job? Where’s the money?’ Nothing was working at all and it was complete mayhem and pandemonium and I just wanted to grow up and have a real life, a real job, and have money to support my family that I do not want to have.
So I came out to Hollywood when I was 19 years old, I’m like, I’m not going to college, I don’t want to go to college. And my father is like, ‘Fine. Just leave.’ So I came out to California, I didn’t know anybody, I didn’t know anything, and I started waiting tables and I lived with my aunt who had nine kids, and I just start auditioning. And I was auditioning and auditioning and trying to get roles, and I couldn't get any roles, I couldn't get any acting jobs, and I was getting pissed. And I didn’t want to say words that somebody had written for me, you know? I didn’t want to go in for an audition and read from a script somebody else had written for me, so what I wanted was to say my own things. I wanted to be my own person. I wanted to use my own mind. I wanted to have my own opinion, and I wanted to create my own job. I’m like, if I’m auditioning for jobs as an actor, someone’s gonna be telling me what to do and I don’t want anybody telling me what to do. Ever again.
So I decided to do stand up comedy -- which is humiliating. And, you know, you’re doing sets at The Coffee Bean or whatever, you know, at 1:30 in the morning, and you’re like in front of two people. I was doing all these terrible things and I was just so deflated, and I was so depleted, and it was six years of, you know, doing nothing, making no money, and having to borrow money from my brothers and sisters, and I called my sister up [one day] --and this is why women are amazing -- I called her up and I’m crying, and I was like, ‘What if i never make it? What if I never get a break? What if I’m a waitress when I’m 30? What am I gonna do?’
And she’s like, ‘You’re gonna make it, you’re not gonna be a waitress when you’re 30 because you have something that no one else has. You’re an individual, and you have something no one else has. And I thought she was just talking to me. And she was talking about everybody; everybody has something that no one else has -- and that was the most amazing thing that she had ever said to me because I really believed she was only talking about me, and I was the only person in the world that had something. And I was like, ‘I’m amazing! You’re right!’ And she said, ‘There’s room for everyone,’ that’s what she said, ‘make room for yourself because you can do something that nobody else has done.’ And when you’re a stand-up you can create the job; the job is around you. You’re the center of the universe, you’re not auditioning for a role. And [when the executives] said, ‘Do you want to do sitcoms?’ I said, ‘No, I want to be a woman in late night; there are no women doing that and I want to do that. Fuck those guys!’
And so I did it. I don’t know how I did that, but I did do that, and then I hired all these other women who work for me and we all do it together, and I have a staff of 500 people working on several different television shows and 300 of them are women. And, you know, it’s amazing. It’s an amazing, amazing feeling to be able to help other people, whether it’s a man or woman, but to have so many strong powerful women around you and to bring them up with you is something that is so important. And to realize that there is room for everybody. I didn’t want to be an actress because I don’t think actresses are fun to be around. They’re competitive. You don’t have to be jealous of other women, you have to embrace other women, you know? We can all lift each other up.
And everytime I meet somebody in this business, or I meet a woman, I always try to make sure that they know I’m not that type of girl. I’m not gonna steal your husband --- one time that happened -- but, you know, I’m not gonna do that! Not on purpose, anyway, you know? I mean, I’m gonna send you soup when you’re sick. I got to buy my sister -- that sister who gave me that advice -- I got to buy her a house. And I got to buy my aunt a house. I got to buy my makeup artist a horse the other day -- she refuses to date guys and I’m like, ‘I’m just gonna get you a horse, OK? Whatever you do behind those closed barn doors, that’s your business.’
But I mean those are the things in life that make you feel amazing. And I don’t sit around announcing these kinds of things to people all the time, but that’s amazing to be able to give, to be able to make a ridiculous amount of money and share it with people, and take people on trips, and to share, you know? Get involved with these organizations and these charities that all of these women are here talking about...
I like to make people laugh. I like to write my books because they’re stupid and it gives me joy, because I like to see people laughing. So anybody who thinks I’m funny? I’m happy about that; I’m happy that I can share that with them. When I see somebody on a plane reading a book and laughing, I’m like, ‘I wanna do that. I want to make that person laugh.’ And I was on a plane with my sister Simone, and somebody was sitting behind us and laughing out loud, long and hard, and really, it was annoying. And I said [to my sister], ‘Can you please say something? I’m trying to sleep. I mean, I can’t say anything, I’m famous. And [my sister] turned around and the woman was reading my book. So that was very funny. So I’ll just say that I think, you know, it’s great that all you girls are getting together. I love these conferences, I go to these things all the time, and hopefully this is the first of several and many, many years, and I will be happy to come back anytime anybody asks me to do anything.
And if anybody in this room needs donations or money or anything like that: I’m your girl.
November 9, 2013 | 12:57 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Wallis Annenberg doesn’t care much for doing interviews.
I know this because I started trying to get one six months ago, after going on a hard-hat tour of the new Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills, when it was still under construction. And I tried again last week, when Annenberg appeared as the keynote speaker for the inaugural Women A.R.E. summit, a daylong confab held at the SLS Hotel for accomplished and philanthropic women, when again I was told, “Wallis isn’t doing interviews.” Ironic then, that it was onstage at the summit that Annenberg announced, “I have very little use for the press. For the most part.”
Don’t tell that to the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at USC, founded in 1971 by her father, Walter Annenberg. I imagine her caveat – for the most part -- is due to the fact that her life’s work is built around community-building – from the Annenberg Community Beach House to the many arts and culture institutions she supports, including the Annenberg Space for Photography and the performing arts space newly dubbed The Wallis – and she must know, deep down, that in order for those massive philanthropic efforts to “advance public well-being,” as is the Annenberg Foundation’s mission, people actually have to know about them.
But for the most part Annenberg prefers to stay private. To date, the most significant piece of journalism that exists about her is a 2009 Vanity Fair profile that fawningly declared her the most important philanthropist in this city. “It sometimes seems as if Wallis Annenberg is single-handedly funding L.A.,” VF’s Bob Colacello wrote. Her friend Betsy Bloomingdale (yes, that Bloomingdale) described her as “the Brook Astor of Los Angeles,” a nod to old-moneyed New York.
The antithesis of a self-promoter, Wallis’s way of doing things is to deflect attention from herself by creating a more dazzling diversion. At the performing arts center’s recent lavish opening, a star-studded party induced the press to focus on the panache while Wallis didn’t have to utter a word. So her appearance at the Women A.R.E. summit offered a rare, unqualified glimpse into Annenberg’s inner-life. For 30 minutes, Annenberg sat in the hot seat, draped in a crimson blouse and sporting a large ruby cuff bracelet, as Huffington Post senior editor Willow Bay cajoled from her a lively, pungent dialogue.
Of course, the conversation had to start with her father. The only child of publishing tycoon and philanthropist Walter Annenberg, young Wallis was born into 1-percent kind of wealth. “Don’t misunderstand me, it was very nice, very comfortable, but it’s not what I wanted,” she said. She may splurge on a chauffeur-driven Mercedes Maybach, but still she confessed, “I don’t want to be a slave to the things, you know? And the more you own, the more they own you, which has been my experience. But they never fixed me, and they never made me happy.”
After her father sold his Triangle Publications to Rupert Murdoch for $3 billion in 1988, he used one third of the profits to establish the Annenberg Foundation. “The thing that I wanted from him was the foundation,” she said. “I never wanted anything else.” But in order to prove her worthiness, she appointed herself as her father’s apprentice. She confessed she used to listen in on his phone calls and crept into his office when he wasn’t looking to read his mail.
Annenberg isn’t shy about her resourcefulness – or her craft. “I can generally see a con or something shoddy coming at me within five seconds on the telephone,” she said with total assurance. Annenberg doesn’t seem the type to suffer fools. “I loathe secrets,” she said, “and if I know anybody who is carrying on in the office and forming cliques or secrets or anything of that nature, they’re not gonna be around very long.”
Her tough talk, however, belies her efforts towards democratic leadership. Unlike her father, whom she colorfully described as “a one man operator” – “You either agreed with him or left,” she said -- Wallis claims a more inclusive style. She noticed in the non-profit field a “disconnect” between board members, board chairs and paid executives, and so created an initiative called Alchemy, which trains nonprofit leaders to work together more efficiently. To date, 1,700 non-profits have been through the training program, she said, and Alchemy’s leadership seminar tends to sell out each year.
Even so, she admitted that working by committee on the performing arts center was a real challenge. “For me, it was kinda hard – I’ll be very honest with you. I do sort of like being the boss,” she quipped. Fortunately for Annenberg, who quite literally puts her money where her mouth is, she got her way when others wouldn’t. “The minute the money was involved, everybody whewww - they all scattered,” she said, adding wryly, “and they stopped giving so much advice.”
For a woman with billions to spend on charity and another reported $200 million in her private accounts, Annenberg appears surprisingly grounded about her wealth and power. “You can’t solve any problem by writing a big check,” she declared. “There are just not enough zeroes.” In jest, she offered an illustrative anecdote: “We have a big problem with Aids in Africa! Here Bill… [Clinton]. It doesn’t work that way.”
Of all her public projects, she singled out the Wilson Park Annenberg Tree House in Torrance, a 2,500 square-foot, handicap-accessible tree house that offers panoramic city views. “This didn’t cost a lot of money,” she said, pointing out that the most elaborate projects aren’t necessarily the most rewarding. “If you could see those [handicapped] young people and older people going up in this tree house, and the joy they get when they are parallel with the leaves and the trees and they can see the ocean, it’s very moving.”
Bay’s toughest question came at the end: What does Annenberg expect in return for all her public investments?
“Well, accountability is very important,” Annenberg said, careful not to betray the business-savvy inside. But, at the end of the day, she said, seeing people enjoy her contributions makes her most happy. “When I used to feel depressed -- I was living in Malibu at the time -- it was kinda lonely. I would just simply go down the road and see the Annenberg Community Beach club, and you know, look over the fence, and you see mothers and fathers with their offspring enjoying this space.
“That’s the reward. That’s my jewelry. You can’t get that in a Neiman Marcus catalog.”
Now in her 70s, Annenberg is happy to bask in a child-like petulance, full of wit and one-liners and the kind of banter that comes from accumulated wisdom she is more than confident to share. It was purpose-driven philanthropy that saved her.
“I was as crazy as a bat,” she said of her younger self. “I think life is a process, and it takes a long time to really get to the place, at least for me, where I like myself and I don’t have to hurt myself -- because that is something I engaged in when I was younger…
“So I think today, what’s happened is my insides match my outsides. And I like myself. And that’s it.
October 29, 2013 | 6:31 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
“Everyone thinks that to be a writer, you must have a great imagination. And I say, ‘no, I just have a lot of problems.’” -Marcus Zusak
Back in September, I interviewed Australian author Marcus Zusak about his bestselling novel “The Book Thief” before an audience at L.A.’s Museum of Tolerance. It tells the story of one German family who clandestinely defies Hitler and Nazism through a series of large and small acts, including hiding a Jew, which test their conscience and their courage. Published in 2005, the book spent more than 230 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Next week, the movie version of “The Book Thief” will hit theatres, starring Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson and newcomer, Sophie Nélisse. In this edited and condensed transcript of our conversation, Zusak talks about choosing “Death” as a narrator, the power of stories and why there can never be enough Holocaust literature.
How does it feel to see a work that took years and years to write come to life on screen? Is it surreal?
It’s been surreal right from the beginning, because I never thought [this book] would be successful at all. Not to sound too glib on the whole subject, but I imagined that moment when someone tries to recommend it to their friend to read, and they say ‘Well what’s it about?’ and, well, ‘It’s set in Nazi, Germany, it’s narrated by death, nearly everybody dies, it’s 560 pages long -- you’ll love it!’ You just can’t imagine this will do well. And I think that that’s the best thing that can happen because you don’t even think about the audience anymore.
The book uses the backdrop of World War II and the Holocaust, which are these massive, formative events of the 20th century. How do you make subjects of that magnitude, which loom so large in our collective imaginations accessible for readers?
Honestly, I think it’s luck. The first page I ever wrote called ‘The Book Thief’ was about a girl stealing a book in modern day Sydney [Australia]. It was really rough, just on a piece of paper, and then I started writing this, and I thought ‘Oh I’ll just throw that idea of the book thief girl into this’ -- not thinking about book burnings or about how Hitler destroyed people with words; not thinking that this girl would be stealing words back and writing her own story of this world. All these things come together as you’re writing. So sometimes it’s best not to think about it.
Throughout reading this book, I kept thinking of the quote by German poet Heinrich Heine who said, “Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings” – an idea he formed well before the Holocaust. Which I think speaks to your ingenious choice to use “Death” as the book’s narrator. In such awful circumstances, when in fact human beings are being burned, you went and conceived of death as a character – a personality – and an empathetic one, because in ‘The Book Thief’ Death actually resists his mission.
What’s funny with the death idea is -- hopefully when the book is done it looks effortless, but it was a nightmare, writing it. It was awful. I wrote 200 pages really quickly of this book, and it took me until page 200 to realize Death was just too macabre. He was enjoying his work too much. It was almost like I’d write a page and I’d need to take a shower. He’d say the most awful things, like, ‘This is the story about a young girl. Do you like young girls? I do. But then again, I like everybody.’ It was a really sinister slant. And then I thought of the last line of the book: What if Death is afraid of us and for us? Then I re-wrote it from the beginning and couldn’t stop.
In the story, “Jews” serve as this kind of monolithic group character in the background, who, obviously, from what we know of history, suffer through this ill-fated destiny. And yet, your main characters, who are seemingly ordinary German citizens, are also doomed to tragic fate, and experience all kinds of pain and suffering. Was that mirroring conscious -- the idea that during war, everybody suffers?
I didn’t set out to do that. Imagine waking up one day and realizing you can speak another language that you didn’t know. The stories were there. It’s like I opened up this little part of my mind and just pulled this world out. That makes it sound easy and it wasn’t, but it was there. So the idea that ‘everybody suffers’, you never start there. It just slowly piece by piece came together, and you’ve got one of the greatest villains of all time in the background doing what he’s doing; and that’s the paradox of the whole thing: for the story, [Hitler] is a great thing, but for history it’s such an awful thing.
It’s possible to make the argument that all books celebrate words and storytelling, but this book overtly, self-consciously does so. I imagine that as a writer this idea is very close to you, so how would you define the power of words and stories?
Where do I start? The hardest question to ever answer is: What is the book about? But at the end of the day I think what this book is about is: that what we’re made of is stories, and what we need are stories. Think of your life without stories. How many stories do you think you’ve been told in your life? How many do you think you’ve told in one day? My Mom and Dad came to Australia [from Germany] with nothing -- they didn’t have a toothbrush. But they had stories.
The book addresses the power of words – suggesting they can be used either in the Hitler sense (for destruction) or in the Liesl sense (for creation). Does that awareness suggest you feel a moral responsibility for what you’re writing, or the way that you write it? Do you feel a sense of mission in your work?
Especially in this case I did, and I think I do in general. People could say, ‘Don’t talk about the Holocaust in this sense,’ or they’ll say, ‘Do we really need another book set during the Holocaust? Do we really need another movie?’ Or they could say, ‘Ah, your book spent 375 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list -- you’ve done pretty well out of all of that suffering!’ So I ask: Was my motive in the right place? Is the world a better place for the fact that [this] book is out there? I was reading The Diary of Anne Frank on the plane [to Los Angeles] and the flight attendant passed by and said ‘What are you reading? Oh! I haven’t read that in ages…’ And a few hours later came past again, everyone else was asleep and I’m still reading, and he said to me, in this sort of jovially, jokey, flight attendant way, he said, ‘I don’t want to spoil it for you but she dies in the end -- you know that don’t ya?’ And that’s why we still need books about the Holocaust.
‘The Book Thief’ has a great deal of tragedy in it but it also is a celebration of life. In fact, it’s full of opposites -- acknowledging a world of both beauty and brutality, of human beings who are deeply flawed but also capable of incredible grace, and its characters are able to find passion and purpose in the bleakest of conditions. Was there a religious or spiritual impulse guiding this view?
I think it’s that idea of spirituality without religion. Like where Death says, ‘You think you’re the only one God never answers?’
October 25, 2013 | 3:22 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
After my recent post about the western region gala fundraiser for Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF), I got an unhappy email from one of the organizers.
In my original post “Low-key FIDF fundraiser still rakes in the dough,” I described the Oct. 22 event as “uncharacteristically tame.”
The organizer wrote that the word tame is defined as “lacking spirit or interest,” a description that did not fit an event that every year is quite meaningful and emotional -- and as I personally noted, “one of the most energizing and inspiring of the year’s Jewish lot.” (That is high-praise from someone who attends more than her share of Jewish fundraising events each year.)
I used the word “tame” because, according to my dictionary, it is defined as “not exciting, adventurous, or controversial,” as in the example sentence: network TV on Saturday night is a pretty tame affair.
That does not mean that network TV on Saturday night is not valuable or important. It just means it’s not Prime Time. It’s not A1 or Page Six. But it’s still worthy.
So let me clear: the FIDF gala chaired yearly by Haim and Cheryl Saban is deeply important. It raises tons of money for our Israeli brothers and sisters in the Israel Defense Forces who risk their lives defending the sacred Jewish homeland and preserving the values of the State of Israel. My comment was of the event itself, not the organization or what it does.
The reason I used the word “tame,” as defined above, is because it was decidedly less “exciting and controversial” than last year, when, apparently caving to outside pressure, event headliner Stevie Wonder canceled his scheduled performance -- a week before the event. Speculation over the how and why saturated last year’s event with an electrified charge; a national media blitz ensued, and the event quite literally became the talk of the town.
Because many supposed that Wonder’s cancelation most likely stemmed from the anti-Israel movement known as BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions), the fundraiser doubled as a passionate pro-Israel rally. That night, every pro-Israel pronouncement, every declaration of love and honor took on an added, urgent resonance.
Reporting on the same events year after year can be tedious and a little humdrum. How many different ways can you describe events that are not wildly creative parties, but fundamentally formulaic and routine? You can’t; but the ritualized aspect of these events makes it all the more clear when something veers from the script, and as a reporter, it’s my job to report.
All things considered, this year’s FIDF event was no less emotional or meaningful than any year prior. In fact, as I noted in my post, it focused more on the soldiers and their stories than any attendant glitz or gossip. And more importantly, it still raised a ton of money -- a record, in fact -- totaling $20 million, after Saban himself conducted a live auction-style fundraiser from the stage.
And it had Simon Cowell. And Lionel Richie.
Something I’ve learned over the course of six years in community journalism is that sometimes cold, hard reporting has to be moderated by a larger sense of mission.
Tame described a party, not what the party was all about.
October 23, 2013 | 4:27 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Where have all the big stars gone?
There was nothing flashy or fanciful about this year’s Friends of the Israel Defense Forces western region gala, annually chaired by billionaire mogul Haim Saban and his wife, Cheryl.
The Oct. 22 event, held at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, is usually one of the most energizing and inspiring of the year’s Jewish lot, but this year was some exception – in more ways than one.
The gala itself was uncharacteristically tame. In the past, the usually star-studded event has filled the giant ballroom at the Hyatt Regency in Century City, sometimes with upwards of 1,200 guests. Iconic musicians like Andrea Bocelli and Barbra Streisand have performed, while “Seinfeld” star Jason Alexander has dutifully emceed.
But this year, there was little of that. The venue was changed to the Hilton, which is reliable but smaller. No headlining musical act was invited to perform, though the always entertaining David Foster Wallace reprised his role as host of “FIDF Idol” an after dinner concert in which mostly up and coming talents took the stage. [It was pointed out to me that I should have acknowledged surprise guest Lionel Richie, who gave a surprise performance at the end of the night.]
Big name attendees were also scarcer this year, though Israeli mega-producer Avi Lerner was there, as was Electus founder Ben Silverman. The shiniest star in the whole lot, though, was the real “American Idol,” Simon Cowell, who sat gleaming in a corner with his very pregnant girlfriend (Jewish divorcee Lauren Silverman, with whom Cowell had an affair while she was still married) and from where he publicly pledged $50,000 to the Israel Defense Forces.
That’s right: Simon Cowell, critic extraordinaire, is officially a Zionist; and, on his way out of the gala, told me his plans to visit Israel later this year.
But the Cowell coup was hardly the evening’s redemptive triumph. Far be it from Haim Saban to get upstaged by tamping down. In the end, the host himself took to the podium to project his power and remind everyone that this festivity is really a fundraiser – $5.2 million in 2009, $9 million in 2010, $14 million in 2012 – and a whopping $20 million in 2013, a record-breaking sum.
Even without the frills, Saban proved he could still bank boodles. The emotional centerpiece of the evening was what it should have been: Israeli soldiers telling their personal stories. One young man recalled losing five family members and his sight to a suicide bombing; and a local L.A. couple with two sons in the IDF earned the blessings of a surprise, staged visit. Why spend a bundle on big rooms and bad food when there could be more for the cause?
Maybe this year Saban decided not to put his money where his mouth is, but where his heart is.