Posted by Danielle Berrin
Reboot, the highly selective Jewish think-tank that invites “young, Jewishly unconnected cultural creatives” to imagine ways of modernizing and revitalizing Jewish tradition, has unfurled its latest effort with “Unscrolled,” a compendium of divrei Torah written by popular artists and writers.
The nearly 400-page tome, teal-colored and etched with gold, includes Torah commentary from a diverse group from the literary, entertainment and media worlds, including Damon Lindelof, creator of the television series “Lost,” novelist Aimee Bender and New York Times journalist Susan Dominus. The aim of the project, explained editor Roger Bennett, a founder of Reboot, is to inspire readers to go from these biblically based riffs to the real thing.
“We’d like to add new members to the oldest book club in the world,” Bennett said during a brief phone interview prior to the L.A. launch, which is Oct. 28. Bennett stopped short of saying he expects the book to inspire religious awakening. “The book is a means to an end; what we’d like is for people to pick up the original text and come to their own conclusions.”
That’s just as well, as the 54 entries in “Unscrolled,” which correspond to the 54 parashiot in the five Books of Moses, read more like biblically inspired writing experiments than serious Torah scholarship. Lindelof, for example, has taken a stab at “Vayera,” the richly dramatic Genesis tale in which God instructs Abraham to sacrifice his son. In Lindelof’s imagination, “Abe” is a cycloid psychotic being evaluated by a case officer.
“… I apologize if I’m kinda just leaping in here,” the officer tells Abe. “My wife says I’m a little … y’know, blunt? But here we go. I just want to know … I want you to explain … exactly why you tried to kill your son.”
The incredulous tone of the officer (or, perhaps, Lindelof) bespeaks the point of the project as described on the book’s cover: These writers are themselves wrestling with Torah, not necessarily intending to teach it. In fact, it was Lindelof who hatched the idea for the project during an intensive discussion about the binding of Isaac at Reboot’s annual conference in Park City, Utah. The difficult subject matter triggered such a dynamic discussion that Lindelof suggested a project tackling the whole Torah, but in a nuanced and personal way.
“I just liked the idea of trying to reinvent a story that felt familiar, but looking at it through a newer lens,” Bender, award-winning author of “The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake” and “Willful Creatures,” told me by phone. “These tales, they have wonderful story arcs, they are malleable and flexible, and they are there to be interpreted. That’s the whole deal. If people get overly reverent about how to think about a story, then it gets a little hardened.”
Bender, who teaches creative writing at USC, took on “Noah.” But rather than focus on the familiar flood drama, she chose the Tower of Babel as her subject, offering a part-fiction, part-rumination piece on the meaning of language. “I’m a writer, so language is compelling to me,” Bender said. Even so, the exercise in writing a biblical story, while not entirely new to her, felt distinct. “These stories are such great stories, and to be reminded of that, and to be reminded that they are supposed to be played with, that they are not flat, that they are surfaces to plunge into,” was thrilling. “I’m so not one to try to sell Torah, but I think the job of people who interpret it, or any piece of liturgy, is to try to light it up in someone’s mind. Make it alive to them.”
Bender said she doesn’t expect the book to inspire piety but hopes it will provoke new thinking about an ancient text. “I don’t think a book like this is gonna tip someone towards prayer, but I think it creates an intellectual playground.”
Although its Torah can be slight, “Unscrolled” offers a surprising swath of forms and stories. Some are serious: For “Tsav,” Reboot co-founder Rachel Levin offers a personal essay on the quiddities of growing up a rabbi’s daughter; and for “Lekh L’kha,” Jill Soloway’s fiction grapples with unexpected consequences of infidelity. But the book also offers more than its fair share of tongue-in-cheek kitschiness. In “West Wing” writer Eli Attie’s “Nitzavim,” for instance, Moses takes a meeting with two men who sound a lot like Hollywood agents. Reboot’s ample Hollywood constituency has endowed the book with a number of scripts, lending it a more playful than pensive tone.
“Unscrolled’s” unorthodoxy is part of its novelty, the creators say. “It’s valuable because you’ve got these creative people who are not your usual suspects as commentators on Scripture, giving an unusual perspective on Torah,” said Amichau Lau-Lavie, who served as a kind of rabbinic adviser on the project. “Because of the celebrity status, because of the tongue-in-cheek attitude, it has more potential to reach your average unaffiliated Jew than something that would appear in a very Jewish outlet.”
“Unscrolled” is even unorthodox for Reboot, an organization that, in the past, has focused more squarely on Jewishly inspired ritual than Jewish texts. Its 10Q, for example, invited Jews and non-Jews alike to answer a series of deep questions during the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur; Sabbath Manifesto made a case for “a national day of unplugging”; and Sukkah City saw the erection of a dozen avant-garde sukkot in the middle of Union Square in Manhattan. But while each project has been seeded by Jewish tradition, “Unscrolled” is the first in Reboot’s more than decade-long history to veer from isolated ritual into the realm of religion — which may be the edgiest thing about it.
“It took over a decade to go beyond, ‘Oh, this is cool, let’s talk about borscht,’ to ‘Let’s delve into texts,’ ” Lau-Lavie said. “And the Reboot process is analogous to what is happening in the larger Jewish world, which is to get people from illiteracy, gradually, in baby steps, to more literacy.”
Teaching Torah to the untutored is Lau-Lavie’s specialty. As founder of the popular “Storahtelling” series and spiritual leader for the pop-up community Lab/Shul in New York City, he said the key to inspiring the writers of “Unscrolled” was inviting them to personally experience the text. “I always begin by looking at the text and asking people to react,” he said. “It’s about access. Most of [the writers] really were not versed in Torah and certainly not in commentary. If anything, I would say they had negative baggage, you know, Hebrew school, bar mitzvah stuff.”
So is “Unscrolled” worth its salt if it serves as a gateway to Torah only for its writers? “Dayenu,” Lau-Lavie said, even while admitting that his deeper hope is that “it will be infectious in some way, viral perhaps.”
Bennett said he hopes every b’nai mitzvah in America gets a copy of “Unscrolled” along with their Kiddush cup. But Lau-Lavie said Reboot’s ultimate challenge is to figure out how to move young Jews from what he calls “peak experiences” (like Birthright and Reboot Summit) into deep, ongoing engagement with Jewish tradition.
“Once you have literacy and expose people to what Judaism has to offer, beyond the clichés and badly crafted educational experiences we’re all familiar with, than it’s like, ‘Wow! I want more.’ ”
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October 18, 2013 | 4:55 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
If Wallis Annenberg hadn’t become famous for her philanthropy, she’d have become famous anyway for her parties.
The billionaire heiress to father Walter’s publishing fortune – who at one point counted TV Guide and Seventeen magazine among his holdings – has none of her father’s business ambition but has soundly inherited his public beneficence. With a flashier flair for what's in fashion.
With the launch of the latest public space to bear the family name – the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills, soon to be known as simply, The Wallis – the Annenberg heiress has proven she isn’t merely standing on the shoulders of a visionary giant, but has become one herself.
Two city blocks in Beverly Hills were closed last night to make way for a gaggle of glamorous guests out to celebrate the center’s grand opening, including Eli Broad, Vanessa and Jacqui Getty, Gia Coppola, Ed Ruscha, Jodie Foster, Charlize Theron and rock-star couple Gwen Stefani and Gavin Rossdale -- to name a few. “This,” one prominent Jewish philanthropist and million-dollar donor gushed, “is an A-list party.”
But the belle of the ball was really Wallis, who without much fanfare has expanded her father’s emphasis on education, media and the arts to include the performing arts, environmental activism, social justice and animal welfare. And in recent years, she has quietly championed a number of public spaces in Los Angeles that have made it a more admirable city.
In addition to running the family foundation that built the Annenberg Schools for Communication at UPenn and USC, the Annenberg Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Annenberg Space for Photography in Century City, the Annenberg Community Beach House in Santa Monica and countless other communal initiatives, Wallis then offered the lead gift ($5 million) to build a swanky, new state of the art theater facility connected to the historic Beverly Hills Post Office. The place that once processed Tennessee Williams’s letters would soon become a venue that could also stage his plays.
Today, the mostly brick building has been boldly restored, lavished with bronze and marble, and stood as glamorous and gleaming as the thousand guests that poured out of luxury cars and into its grand Roman hall. There, Italian designer Salvatore Ferragamo set up a “pop up” shop where guests could buy architectonic stilettoes and golden clutches as pricey as a piece of art.
“They’re saying this line is Old Hollywood,” one of the sales attendants told me, “but I think it’s more Andy Warhol.”
Old meets new might have been the theme of the evening, where the Post Office built in 1933 under FDR now swarmed with stars and celebrities and ladies tasked with policing party PR. Was that Demi Moore looking over-Ashton beatific in a beaded blue backless? And the young Camilla Belle in a peach chiffon princess dress cozying up to her ex- (Jonas Brother) Joe Jonas? And just look at those two Slumdog stars, Dev Patel and Frieda Pinto, seeming so happily ever after. It’s so un-Hollywood! Smile for the cameras, now.
Way back when, Humphrey Bogart mailed his letters here and Fred Astaire danced in the lobby. On this night, live performers floated above the valet line on springy stilts, dancing in the wind to a show of light and sound. And in the backyard promenade terrace, separating the post office from the new theater designed by Zoltan Pali (rules of historic preservation prohibit any new construction from touching the old building) LA’s high society sipped champagne and scotch to the strummings of a mariachi band while women dressed as Spanish-styled eye candy swished through the crowd in canary-colored costumes and giant floral headdresses. So many warm bodies, and only the hors d’oeuvres sat cold; as “Girls” creator Lena Dunham recently tweeted in the words of her designer pal Zac Posen: “If you want to be left alone at a Hollywood party, just stand near the food.”
After cocktails, guests were ushered in two shifts to accommodate the large crowd, into the adjacent Goldsmith Theater (named for Jewish Federation machers Elaine and Bram Goldsmith, who, along with Annenberg and the City of Beverly Hills, each donated $5 million or more to create the center) where an original performance recounted the history of the post office.
Told through the letters of its grand old patrons – Martha Graham to Aaron Copland, Groucho Marx to Woody Allen, Tennessee Williams to Texan stage producer Margo Jones (on the eve of opening her own regional theater), the 30-minute show featured surprise cameos from Kevin Spacey, Diane Lane and John Lithgow, and offered a sneak peak of what’s to come onstage here, including Broadway musicals, contemporary dance, ballet and orchestral soloists.
But it was the street dancer Lil Buck, who stole the show, dancing to an Ave Maria violin solo the way Michael Jackson might have danced had he known ballet. Call it ballet-hop.
And that was only Act II.
“Are you as fond of being with 1,000 of your closest friends as I am?” one gentleman whispered to another as guests poured out of the theater and into the block-long tent erected on Crescent Drive where Wolfgang Puck served filet mignon and truffled risotto.
Wallis herself sat at the entrance to the tent, table No. 43, with actors Charlize Theron and Tim Robbins as well as former studio chief Sherry Lansing. Next to her was a vacant seat, where a rotating cast of characters came to charm and celebrate her throughout the evening.
Dinner was followed by a Ferragamo fashion show, featuring a flock of phlegmatic models so thin they looked pre-pubescent. Then, the young Italian tenor Vittorio Grigolo, who sounds like Pavarotti but looks like a Michelangelo performed a stunning set of opera ballads that made even the beautiful and talented seem a little dull by comparison.
Wallis promised world-class culture and even before the center’s official opening in November, she has delivered.
Goodbye Old-guard Annenberg. Hello, Wallis.
October 9, 2013 | 11:35 am
Posted by Danielle Berrin
I really wish that counting myself among the illustrious 7 percent would mean that I am a billionaire. But, alas, the classification in this case refers to something far less glamorous: I am religious.
The rabble-rousing results of the predictable recent Pew poll suggest that one quarter of American Jews do not consider themselves as I do. The statistic sounds alarming but is really not, because the organized Jewish world has been kvetching about this trend for years, and anyone who is newly up in arms about how much this Pew stinks can find solace in at least one glaring exception: me.
According to the poll, Jews who leave the movements they grew up in tend to move in the direction of less tradition (meaning, less religion), with Orthodox Jews becoming Conservative or Reform, Conservative Jews becoming Reform, and so on. “Most Reform Jews who leave,” The New York Times tells us, “become nonreligious” — except for 7 percent.
I’ve always liked bucking a burly trend.
Growing up, I attended Jewish day school at Temple Beth Am in Miami, Fla., where I didn’t learn Hebrew, but where ours was one of a handful of families out of 1,000 who actually celebrated Shabbat. Counter-intuitively, it was my mother who brought Shabbat into our home, despite the fact that her own Jewish mother died when she was 10, and her Jewish father remarried to a Christian woman who raised the family with Christmas. Even though my father was raised with strong ties to organized Jewish life (my grandparents helped found our temple, wrote big checks to AIPAC, the JCC and AJC and would poo-poo-poo even a “Chanukah bush”), it was, in fact, my Jewishly illiterate mother who taught us about Shabbat, and holidays, and treif and was the only member of our family who ever abstained from that sweet, succulent shellfish every time we dined at the famous Joe’s Stone Crab.
I really miss those crabs.
Shabbat dinner was easily the bedrock of our family life. I’m not sure we knew the observance was supposed to continue into Saturday until my mother started attending Shabbat morning Torah study, which in high school became the only reason for me to open my eyes before noon. But even though we regularly attended “temple” (shul is an anomalous word in Reform Judaism) and stayed near our Sabbath table Friday nights, we never built a sukkah; never stayed up all night on Shavuot; most definitely didn’t know about Tisha b’Av; and never even came close to a piece of Talmud.
But what we did do sparked within me a hunger that has not abated. When I moved to Los Angeles in 2007, I thought I’d won the Jewish lottery. Jewish life was so rigorous and rich, so creative and multivalent, and it was everywhere! L.A. was Israel Adjacent. I had never known the Jewish community could extend beyond one’s synagogue.
Within a few months, I was attending services every week. After hearing one unusually dazzling sermon — Heschel! Cathedral in Time! Shamor V’Zachor! — I started keeping kosher. My mother was only too happy to comply when I insisted that, for the first time in our lives, we purchase a kosher turkey on Thanksgiving. She was considerably more perplexed by my ensuing romantic absorption in rabbis. I fell in love with one, for whom I strictly observed shomer Shabbat, and then when that ended, I fell in love with another. (Freud might say, I’m looking for God.)
A few weeks ago, I was out with a writer friend who is quite well known in American culture for being a Jew, but who has probably had even less Jewish education than me. Every time we meet, he is so eager to talk Big Jewish Questions — why is the world hostile to the Jews? Why does God ever condone violence? And, wherefore art thou, women? — like he’s been given unsupervised play time in the Jewish sandbox.
And even though he has a distant relationship to the tradition, he understands its fundamental character; he cathects to the narrative, and is fascinated and ravenous to know more. It’s like his whole life he’s been starving, and wants at last to eat. (Don’t worry, I warned him about that apple.)
To him, I sound like a Jewish scholar. “I’m not a scholar,” I told him. “But I am a student.”
Call my Judaism “lite” if you like, but whatever I grew up with was enough to spark a lifetime journey toward more tradition. Today, Judaism literally spills from my tongue almost every time I speak, to the point where whenever I’m back in Miami, family and friends inevitably ask why I am not enrolled in rabbinical school. I don’t really have a good answer, but I do hope that my Jewish journey is never complete.
This past summer, I began saying Kaddish for my mother, who died suddenly at age 61. After reading Leon Wieseltier’s “Kaddish,” I couldn’t abdicate that responsibility. “It is my duty,” he wrote of his own experience performing the central ritual of Jewish mourning. I know that I, too, owe my mother that honor — not just because of who she was, but because she gave me everything I am — her blood made me a Jew.
No question, being religious is a climb. It is hard. And it doesn’t always feel good. It is an endless, arduous process of growing and changing, stretching and building, learning and failing, never being satisfied and resisting the comfort and safety that comes with standing still. Its path is not linear, either. It ebbs and flows, speeds and slows, with static, reversals and quantum leaps. Being religious is admitting that tradition is something always inside you, the intrinsic symphony of the soul, softly playing at the core.
Should I count as religious? Should my friend count as not? I’m not sure, but I’m also not sure that’s the point. Here’s what I know: In 1939, he and I both would have been sent to Auschwitz. And 3,000 years before that, we would have walked side by side through the sands of the Sinai Desert, basking in the afterglow of God’s great blessing to this diverse and dazzling people.
October 8, 2013 | 3:07 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Gina Nahai, the distinguished Iranian-American author, has filed a workplace discrimination and harassment lawsuit against the University of Southern California and one of its employees, Brighde Mullins, an award-winning playwright and poet who serves as director of the USC Dornsife’s Master of Professional Writing program. Nahai is listed on the Dornsife Web site as a lecturer in the writing program. Nahai alleges in the suit that she has been subject to discrimination, harassment and retaliation, which has “derailed [her] career, livelihood, and spirit,” according to a complaint filed with the Los Angeles Superior Court on Sept. 12.
Nahai, the award-winning author of four novels, a frequent lecturer and regular columnist for the Jewish Journal, is claiming she was “systematically discriminated against because she is an Iranian Jew.” In the suit, Nahai claims that Mullins, her department superior since 2008, has unfairly and unceremoniously denied her opportunities for advancement.
Nahai is herself a graduate of USC’s Master of Professional Writing Program and has been an adjunct professor in the department since 1999. In the suit, she claims she has been seeking a promotion at least since 2008, when Mullins arrived, but says she has been repeatedly “denied the status of assistant professor despite her accomplishments” and that instead of advancing, Mullins reduced her role and teaching responsibilities.
She further charges that Mullins practiced “open contempt,” “hostility” and “derision,” which included off-color remarks and references to her faith and ethnic background.
By e-mail, Kelly Bendell, who works in the USC’s Office of the General Counsel, dismissed Nahai’s allegations.
“The university is committed to a teaching and learning environment free from unlawful harassment and discrimination,” Bendell wrote. “Ms. Nahai had already made her claims known to the university prior to filing this lawsuit, and the university has determined that they are wholly without merit. The university is proud of its diverse and talented MPW faculty, including its director, Ms. Brighde Mullins, and will vigorously defend against these unfounded allegations.”
Due to the pending lawsuit, Nahai would not comment, and referred the Journal to her attorney, Gail D. Solo, who e-mailed the following statement:
“We stand fast to the integrity and facts that have been set forth in the complaint. We will litigate this righteous cause, so important to persons of all faiths and backgrounds of Los Angeles, in the judicial system, not outside the system; and we look forward to justice being achieved.”
Nahai’s 17-page complaint cites numerous instances of Mullins’ allegedly acting in a discriminatory and aggressive manner over a five-year period. The complaint claims that upon Mullins’ arrival at the university, her attitude toward Nahai was instantly chilly. Nahai claims that at their first meeting, Mullins made veiled references to Iranian Jews as “you people,” and alleges Mullin remarked, “You’re all very ambitious,” in reference to Iranian Jews.
In April 2009, just before Nahai was about to give a lecture titled “The Enigma of Iran” at the Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities, Nahai claims Mullins said to her, “I’m a playwright and a poet; I don’t need to know about Iranians and Arabs.”
Also in 2009, Nahai says she secured a scholarship from the Casden Institute at USC for creative writing students who wanted to focus on “Jewish life in America.” When she brought the news to Mullins, the department head allegedly said, “I have a concern about the Jewish theme.”
When, according to Nahai, she offered to fund her own visit to other universities in order to recruit new students to USC’s graduate writing program, Mullins allegedly said, “We have to be careful about how we represent ourselves. ... It’s important to have the right face to represent us.”
Nahai claims Mullins also removed photos of her and her books from USC promotional literature and the university’s Web site; cut her teaching hours by half “to less than living wages”; devalued her degree from terminal to non-terminal so that she was not eligible for advancement; and practiced “open contempt,” “hostility” and “derision,” according to the complaint. Nahai’s suit claims these actions isolated her from the USC community.
The suit also charges the university with retaliation and accuses it of failing to protect her, claiming that when she tried to report the matter to USC’s Office of Equity and Diversity, officials refused to intervene or investigate. After she protested, the suit alleges the university tried to force Nahai to quit.
“Despite the relentless pressure on her to resign in disgust, plaintiff seeks only to be able to continue to teach, a true love in her life, and thrive in a discrimination-free work environment, exactly what our California’s anti-discrimination laws and constitutional protections guarantee,” the lawsuit says.
The suit seeks financial compensation for lost earnings, benefits, bonuses and salary increases, as well as punitive damages for emotional distress and an injunction.
October 6, 2013 | 4:30 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Last week, I drove out to Malibu so I could listen to a bunch of Hollywood Jews wax poetic on ethnic identity.
The Pepperdine University panel, part of a 6-week series of events honoring Hollywood’s Jewish moguls, was titled, “American Dreams and the Big Screen: Projections of Jewish Faith, Ethnicity and Culture Through the Generations,” only it was heavy on actual projection and light on ethnic posture.
Instead, the panel doubled as a tribute to fathers and sons, with panelists Bruce and David Corwin, owners of Metropolitan Theatres, producer Hawk Koch and son Robert, an entertainment attorney, as well as uber-producer Walter Mirisch and son Lawrence Mirisch, of the Mirisch Agency each reflected on Hollywood’s glittering past and then puzzled over its future.
When asked by moderator, Craig Detweiler, the director of Pepperdine’s Center for Entertainment, Media and Culture, to what degree he identified with Hollywood’s Jewish character, Mirisch spoke instead about his formative love for film.
“During a very difficult time in U.S. history and in my family’s history,” Mirisch said, referring to the Great Depression, “movies provided an unbelievable escape.” The producer of the films “Fiddler on the Roof,” “West Side Story” and “Some Like It Hot” added that “It was always my ambition to spend my life creating this extraordinary kind of entertainment. I was only trying to fulfill a boyhood ambition.”
Hawk Koch, who currently serves as prexy for the Producer’s Guild of America, and is the only second-generation president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in its history, was animated by a different need. “I never saw my father,” he told the 40-person audience of his producer father Howard W. Koch. So when his father took him to work one day, and it happened to be on a movie set, Koch Jr. was instantly gripped. Maybe it was the cowboys and Indians, he said, or maybe the fact that his father teased him with Hollywood glitz. “Guess who gave me my first horseback ride?” he prodded his young son. “Clark Gable.”
Bruce Corwin said he recalled his own father, Sherill, donating their family-owned movie theaters to synagogues who needed overflow space on the high holidays. “It was a way of saying, ‘We want to contribute to the Jewish community, we want to participate,’” Corwin said.
“Just for the record,” his equitable son David added, “we rent theatre space to any religious group who wants it.”
Rob Koch said he tried to stay away from “the family business” but all was futile under the sun. Even after attending law school, Hollywood sucked him back in. “Being a producer now, though, is different than it was,” he lamented, citing a shrinking number of studio movies, a “condensed” star system, and additional reluctance to fund anything other than tent-pole blockbuster films.
Mirisch’s son, Larry, agreed. “There was always some caution in [my father’s] encouragement,” he said of his initial plans to join the entertainment industry. But, it was too fused into his bloodstream. “I’ve been on film sets my whole life,” he said.
“I really wanted him to be an astronaut,” Mirisch pere joked.
“If pumping gas is what you want to do,” Koch said of his son’s ambitions, “do what you love.”
But even the accomplished elders know that their offspring have inherited a different world. After watching a long reel of clips that Mirisch Jr. compiled of Mirisch Sr. – including press highlights, Oscar acceptance speeches and scenes from the films, “The Pink Panther,” “The Magnificent Seven,” “In The Heat of the Night” and the original, 1968 version of “The Thomas Crown Affair” – it became all too clear to everyone in the room that Hollywood just don’t make ‘em like they used to.
“In the old days, if studios made 15 films, probably 10 films per year made absolute financial sense,” Hawk Koch said. “The other 5 was about going with their gut – and led to films like ‘The Godfather’ and ‘Chinatown.’”
But could it really be The End of the Affair?
“It’s true that deals are more difficult, more complicated,” Larry Mirisch said. “But I would suggest the problem we face has to do with the content of films.” There is a pitiful paucity of “movies about people, stories that have heart,” he added. “Today people are making movies about things, and people can’t relate. Finding projects that have some emotion in them is incredibly difficult – and the competition is tremendous.
“That’s why all the great filmmakers are moving to television – HBO and Showtime are giving them what the Mirisch Co. used to do.”
But, Hawk Koch wondered, “How do we get young people interested in those movies? Do they go to the Landmark, the Arclight, the Laemmle? Will they watch those kinds of films? Because ‘Transformers’ is not going to win best picture,” he quipped.
As Oscar season falls upon us, it is worth celebrating what this weird race for kudos and commercialism adds to American culture, filling in the gaps of what is so wantonly absent from all those summertime flops: deep, searching, complicated drama -- the stuff of good storytelling, just like Jewish tradition has taught.
October 2, 2013 | 12:44 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
“Don’t think I am just a beauty queen,” Yityish Aynaw, the 22-year-old Ethiopian-born beauty, declared from the bimah at Ohr HaTorah last Shabbat. With sass and a smile, she crowed, “I was a commander in the Israeli army.”
It comes as no surprise that the woman now known as “Miss Israel” is more than just a docile dish. “People who know me, they don’t see me only as a beauty queen, because they know who I am,” she said during an interview at her hotel on Sept. 29.
Aynaw (pronounced ay-NOW) was in Los Angeles as part of a four-city tour with the Rev. Ronald V. Myers, a doctor/preacher/jazz musician who created the National Juneteenth Observance movement, whose aim is to inaugurate an official legal holiday honoring the end of slavery. Myers told me he sees Juneteenth as a day of reconciliation and healing, “the African-American Yom Kippur.”
So imagine how agog he was when he discovered that Miss Israel is black. He invited her to the United States, he said, so he and fellow black Christians could “connect with their Hebrew roots.”
“She’s bringing us all together,” Myers said at the Little Ethiopia Cultural and Resource Center on Fairfax Avenue, one of the Sabbath day tour stops, this one honoring “Titi” — as Aynaw is known in Israel — with a traditional Ethiopian dance performance. “Many African-Americans do not know that there are black Jews, that we have a common history,” he added. When Myers first learned about Aynaw’s story, he was bothered that her plight was so private.
“Why doesn’t anybody know what Israel did to rescue Ethiopian Jews?” he wondered. “It’s like a secret.”
Even after Israel rescued thousands of Ethiopians in the 1980s and ’90s through Operations Moses and Solomon. Those who remained Jews still felt compelled to hide their Jewishness, Aynaw said. Born in Gondar, Ethiopia, to a single mother who died of cancer when Aynaw was 10, she never met her father but said didn’t miss him: “My mom was a strong woman,” she said. “She was like a mom, a dad — everything.” After her mother’s death, Aynaw and her older brother made aliyah to Netanya, where her maternal grandparents were living.
“As a child, I never felt Ethiopia was my home,” she admitted. “People would always call us ‘falasha’ ” — a derogatory term for Jews that means foreigner or exile — “and my mother all the time [would] tell us about Israel. We dreamed about Israel. We always wanted to make aliyah.”
She was 11 when she finally arrived in Israel, but there she discovered a very different country than the one she had imagined. The move from her tiny Ethiopian village to the thoroughly modern land-of-her-dreams was drastic and unsettling. “In my fantasy,” she said, struggling to communicate with her basic English, “I [would] go to Israel and everything — gold! Jerusalem of gold … everything gold. And we [would] have honey in every place. … And [then] I come to Israel, and I see elevators, lights, cars. … No gold.”
But she was still smitten. Aynaw quickly learned Hebrew and overcame her sense of otherness to become a well-integrated member of Israeli society. So much so, in fact, that she also joined the ranks of Israel’s privileged elite as a military commander, and, later, a lieutenant. Speaking in Hebrew, she told Ohr HaTorah — through the fluid translation of Meirav Finley — that the most valuable lesson of her service was one of paradox: As the presiding commander at an Israeli checkpoint, where she oversaw 90 or so officers, she insisted that passing Palestinians be treated with both decency and dignity, but also with a fair amount of suspicion, as serving higher ideals can demand holding opposite views with the same hands.
Now, the bold beauty queen is out to prove that she can morph from orphaned child to leading lady. “To represent Israel, it changes everything,” she said. “You want to do the right thing; you don’t want to disappoint. So I can’t act like I want to every time — I have to be perfect. I have responsibilities.”
One of those is developing her passion project, a community arts education center in Netanya for at-risk children, many of whom she has seen go from playing ball in the street to smoking cigarettes and drinking beer. “A lot of children in my neighborhood, after school, they have nothing to do,” she lamented.
Last March, during Barack Obama’s first visit to Israel as president, Titi was among the Knesset members and army generals trotted out to meet him.
“I knew everything about him,” she said, explaining that she had done a school project on the first black U.S. president. “I liked that all the time he dreamed.”
When Israeli President Shimon Peres introduced Aynaw to Obama, Peres presented her as “Israel’s queen,” referring to her biblical tie to King Solomon’s consort, the Queen of Sheba. “She is the modern Queen of Sheba,” Peres said.
“My heart leapt from my chest,” Aynaw admitted of meeting her idol. Standing in a room with so many luminaries gave her an idea of where to go with her studies in government at Herzliya’s Interdisciplinary Center.
“Right now I need to model so I can make money for a campaign,” she said, laughing. “Because if you have a good campaign, it means you’ll be prime minister.”
September 24, 2013 | 11:14 am
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Even in the age of Louis C.K. and Sarah Silverman, there is something both retro and refreshing about Billy Crystal’s class-act comedy.
On a recent Thursday night, nearly 600 people packed into the Directors Guild of America Theater — at $60 a pop — to hear Crystal’s mesmerizing mix of menschy, (mostly) clean humor and spot-on celebrity impersonations. Crystal was doing the rounds to promote his new book, “Still Foolin’ ’Em: Where I’ve Been, Where I’m Going, and Where the Hell Are My Keys?” which is part memoir, part meditation on turning 65. His fellow sexagenarian, stand-up comic David Steinberg, was on hand to interview him for the salon series Writers Bloc.
“Why a book?” Steinberg asked the seasoned screenwriter, joke writer and sketch writer.
“Well,” Crystal began, “funny things were happening to my body, funny things were happening to my memory, and gravity was happening to my [male sexual organ]. I thought, ‘While I can still remember everything, I should write it down.’ ”
Declining memory was one of the evening’s big topics, with Crystal recounting all the various names, faces and ways he forgets, in addition to his chronic habit of “nodding off” during movies and Broadway shows. “The only thing that keeps me awake in movies are the shmucks who text,” he said, adding of Broadway: “I haven’t seen anything all the way through in years. I’ve seen ‘Death of a Sales---’ and ‘The Book of Mor---.’ How many people liked ‘The Book of Mor---’?”
To stay alert, Crystal said he has tried sitting closer to the stage, but during a performance of “Fences” starring James Earl Jones, he realized why the first three rows were clear. “I got spat on,” he said, demonstrating how sticky sheets of mist roused him from his slumber. “But I stayed up the whole time.”
Versatile, theatrical and inoffensive, Crystal’s shtick still holds sway with his sweet-spot boomer crowd, even as younger generations have traded up old-school storytelling in favor of more salacious snark. And despite the fact that Crystal has aged out of playing romantic leads, as he did in the ’80s and ’90s with “When Harry Met Sally …” and “Forget Paris,” his comic appeal remains.
“If you didn’t have at least 100 belly laughs, you weren’t there,” one female member of the audience said, suggesting a title for this column.
Crystal really is on a roll: This fall, he will revive his Tony Award-winning one-man show about his childhood, “700 Sundays,” on Broadway; after that, he begins shooting the FX pilot “The Comedians,” with Broadway “Book of Mormon” star Josh Gad.
Part of Crystal’s staying power is rooted in his knack for nostalgia. Throughout the evening, he reflected on the formative events that shaped both his personal and professional lives. He recounted, for instance, the circumstances leading to his first television interview, at age 25, with Muhammad Ali; his lifelong obsession with baseball; the early loss of his father; his awe of celebrity influences like Johnny Carson and Sammy Davis Jr.; even his crush on Sophia Loren.
“We had a three-year torrid affair,” he said of his lust for the Italian screen siren. “We made love in so many unusual places — sex you cannot imagine!”
Then, he added: “I was 13. She had no idea I existed.”
Borrowing a page from the Philip Roth handbook on sexual repression, Crystal devotes a short chapter of his book to sex. In it, he constructs an imagined dialogue between two characters, “him” and “her,” which takes place first at age 25, and then again at 65:
Her: I love to feel your heartbeat through your shirt.
Him: Every beat is for you.
Her: Maybe it’s your pacemaker.
Him: Call 911, I’m having palpitations.
Despite the obvious downsides of getting older (“I Worry” and “Take Care of Your Teeth” are two other chapter titles), Crystal said that, at 65, he is more open, comfortable and secure in his skin than ever before (though his current look suggests he is not averse to augmentation). Rather than hide his vulnerabilities, he now chooses to expose them. In the last chapter of his book, Crystal writes about going with his wife to pick out cemetery plots and nearly having a nervous breakdown.
When the funeral director suggests a plot near a lake with a view, Crystal is exasperated. “WHO GIVES A F--- ABOUT THE VIEW? I’M DEAD!” he writes. That was the moment he realized that all he really wants (besides not to die) is a simple funeral service, “for it to be funny, for Janice to be stunning and charming as she always is, for my friends to tell great stories,” and for his kids “to be strong and make people laugh.”
He ends the book by imagining himself in heaven, which begins on the happiest day of your life.
“I’ll be eighteen and Janice Goldfinger will walk by me in a bikini, and I will follow her and it will start all over again.”
What’s the secret to such a great marriage? Steinberg asked him at the end of the night.
“Easy,” Crystal said without missing a beat. “We see other people.”
September 23, 2013 | 10:46 am
Posted by Danielle Berrin
A view of the 2013 Emmy Awards — through a Jewish lens
1. Tradition, tradition, tradition.
2. Identity crisis
From host Neil Patrick Harris’s opening monologue about the changing television industry to a 3-hour telecast that looked and felt like the Tony Awards, TV is deeply unsure of itself. The entire Emmy telecast transpired under a veil of self-consciousness, with sporadic musical numbers that added to the confusion (“The Number in the Middle of the Show” was one such dopey attempt at self-ridicule). Nevertheless, producers tried hard to put a positive spin on an insecure time: “These are remarkable times for television,” Harris said. “The content has never been more varied, the viewing [has] never been [sic] easier. You can now watch TV on your TV, on your laptop, on your mobile device, on a watch, on google glass[es]...”
Still, for traditionalists, things seem so out of whack that even Kevin Spacey made an in-character cameo as Congressman Frank Underwood from “House of Cards” to call a group of current and former Emmy hosts “blithering buffoons.” In coded but metaphorical language, Underwood confessed it was almost “too easy” to get the former hosts -- Jane Lynch, Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel and Conan O’Brien, who all made appearances -- to sabotage Harris (read: Netflix unnerves Network TV).
3. Many a mourner’s Kaddish
Emmy night was filled with remembrances of people passed. In addition to broadcasting the annual list of names of the deceased, special guest presenters offered personal tributes to the stars, including Edie Falco for James Gandolfini, Robin Williams for Jonathan Winters, Rob Reiner for “All in the Family’s” Jean Stapleton and Jane Lynch for “Glee’s” Cory Monteith.
4. The power of As It Is Written
In one of the evening’s bigger surprises, Jeff Daniels took home the Emmy for lead actor for his portrayal of Will McAvoy on HBO’s “The Newsroom” -- but he gave all the credit to writer/creator Aaron Sorkin. “The great American playwright Lanford Wilson said, ‘Whatever you do with your career, make it matter, make it count.’ Aaron Sorkin makes it matter and makes it count.” Daniels’s homage to Wilson, the Pulitzer Prize winning dramatist, was the highbrow reference of the evening, and an acknowledgment that storytelling is not just showmanship but sustenance.
5. In praise of spiritual balance
Upon accepting her second consecutive award for playing Carrie Mathison on Showtime’s “Homeland,” actress Claire Danes thanked her husband, actor Hugh Dancy for “making me so whole and happy so I can be so entirely unhappy in the world of make-believe.”
6. A healthy dose of Chutzpah
Upon accepting his acting award for playing Liberace in HBO’s “Behind the Candelabra” Michael Douglas surprised the audience with some suggestive homoeroticism. “This is a two-hander,” Douglas said, as he graciously acknowledged his co-star Matt Damon, who played Liberace’s lover in the movie. “The only reason I’m standing here is because of you,” he added. “So, do you want the bottom or the top?”
When “Behind the Candelabra” uber-producer Jerry Weintraub accepted the Emmy for best miniseries or movie he added to the evening’s chutzpah factor with a quip on his success: “People always ask me, ‘How do you do all this?’” Weintraub said. “I don’t do it all. Everybody else does it all and I get all the credit.”
7. A healthy dose of humility
When Steve Levitan accepted the fourth consecutive Emmy award for “Modern Family,” he said that all the success still feels “surreal.” “None of us grew up feeling like winners,” he began. “So thank you to the bullies, the popular kids, to the gym teachers who taunted us, rejected us and made fun of the way we ran. Without you, we never would have gone into comedy.”
8. Embracing the vicissitudes of life
When Don Cheadle curated an homage to television (and U.S.) history, he channeled the Torah's message of transformation. After the famous CBS News clip in which Walter Cronkite announced President John F. Kennedy’s death, he talked about the journey from darkness to light, the experience of grief to healing. After national tragedy and trauma, "dark clouds lifted" with the arrival of The Beatles, who told us “it was OK to experience joy again.”
“Two emotionally charged events forever linked in our memories,” Cheadle said, adding that, “fifty years later, they underscore the immediacy of TV, and its tremendous impact on our society. The boxes are thinner, the screens are flatter and more portable, but television’s power to engage, inform and unite continues to have a profound purpose -- as we remember the past, celebrate the present and anticipate our future.”