Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
In Susan Polis Schutz’s documentary “Seeds of Resiliency,” which will screen at the Laemmle Theatres through Nov. 1, Mike Stevens, a father of young children in his early 40s, describes how he first responded to his diagnosis of stage IV lung cancer in 2005: “I curled up in fetal position in bed and cried myself to sleep,” the La Jolla resident says. “I thought my life was over.”
Instead, after two rounds of chemotherapy that left him weak and emaciated, “I started living my life,” he says. Despite his severely decreased lung function, and no guarantees of survival, he adds, “I started doing things I never would have done if I were healthy.” He sold his business, built his dream house in the mountains, and became an advocate for lung cancer research. “It’s not about the bad stuff, it’s about the good stuff,” he says of his outlook day-to-day.
Stevens is among 12 people of disparate ages and backgrounds profiled in “Seeds of Resiliency,” which began when Polis Schutz – herself a survivor of a six-year battle with clinical depression – began wondering “what are the common characteristics of people who survive serious tragedies and trauma?” the filmmaker, who belongs to a Jewish renewal synagogue near her home in Boulder, CO, said in a recent telephone interview. “Everyone has challenges in their lives, and some people move through them while others curl up in a ball and give up. I really wanted to know how some people [thrive] and others just don’t.”
In “Seeds,” we meet a refugee from Uganda whose son was beaten and killed in prison, who founded a relief organization to help other refugees, as well as a spina bifida patient, now a professional wheelchair motor cross athlete, who tells others that “When life gives you limits, push them." We also meet Candy Lightner, the founder of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, who turned her grief and rage after her daughter was killed by a drunk driver into a national organization. “The point is to do something,” she advises others who have undergone family tragedies. “I don’t want people to think they have to start a movement, but they can still do little things that make an impact.”
“I found that the two most important things that helped people overcome tragedy were their attitudes of hope – that you don’t give up, you fight and persevere – and also every single one of the people I interviewed turned their traumas into a desire to help other people,” Polis Schutz said.
In the film, Holocaust survivor Fanny Lebovitz, who now lectures about her experience, recalls her nightmarish time in Auschwitz, where she slept on a filthy bunk teeming with bedbugs and cockroaches. “I used to dream about sleeping on white sheets again,” she says of one way she managed to keep her spirits up in the camp.
Edith Eger, another Auschwitz survivor, recounts how she used her imagination to get through a terrifying dance performance for the infamous Dr. Mengele: “I knew he was the one who [selected inmates] for the gas chambers, she says. “[So] I closed my eyes and pretended that the music was Tchaikovsky and I was dancing ‘Romeo and Juliet’ at the Budapest opera house.”
Eger shared the piece of bread Mengele gave her with other girls in her bunk; later they made a chain with their arms to carry her after she fell during the freezing death march from Auschwitz. “The worst can bring out the best in us,” said Eger, who used the memory, in part, to give her strength when she lay near death, her back broken, upon liberation.
“Seeds of Resiliency” is Polis Schutz’s fifth documentary (others, such as “Anyone and Everyone,” about gay children coming out to their families, have aired on PBS stations). But she is perhaps best known as the co-founder of the groundbreaking electronic greeting card company, BlueMountain.com, which reportedly sold in a transaction valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars in 1999.
Polis Schutz, who is also a poet whose work graced many of the Blue Mountain cards, has had a fascinating life journey. Now 67, she was born into a Jewish working class household in a poor neighborhood in Peekskill, NY, where her mother often worked menial jobs to support the family and young Susan worked cashier and other jobs starting in her early teens. Eventually, she put herself through college at Rider University in Lawrence, NJ, and began her career teaching Head Start students at a school in Harlem.
She and her husband, Stephen, a physicist and artist, were deeply in debt with student loans when, on a lark, he suggested that he illustrate one of her poems on a silk screened poster around 1970. After copies of the work sold out at retail stores near their home in Boulder, the couple paid a $700 deposit on a truck with a camper and began traveling the country, selling their posters from Boston to San Francisco.
By 1980, their Blue Mountain Arts company had 200 sales representative and 100 employees; when Stephen chanced to send their oldest son, Jared (now a Democratic congressman from Colorado) an animated email birthday card in the 1990s, the idea for Blue Mountain.com was born.
Along the way, Susan Polis Schutz wrote some 10 books, many of them memoirs or collections of her poetry. “Depression and Back: A Poetic Journey through Depression and Recovery,” recounts how, some seven years ago, she woke up one morning “and felt like I had died,” she said in our interview. “I stayed in bed for the first three months, and while I kept getting better and better, I was a mess for a while.” Perhaps the depression stemmed from exhaustion, as well as a family propensity for the condition, but with therapy and medication Polis Schutz slowly recovered and began wondering how others with depression had coped.
The result was her 2010 documentary, “Misunderstood Epidemic: Depression;” Polis Schutz’s other documentaries include “Over 90 and Loving It,” about vibrant nonagenarians, and “Seeds of Resiliency,” for which she shot more than 100 hours of footage in several cities over three years.
“I was looking for people who were willing to talk about their pasts and why they thought they had been able to survive,” she explained.
One poignant subject is Rufus Hannah, who was homeless for 22 years until he got sober and became an activist for homeless rights in 2005. “My parents were alcoholics; my mother gave me beer in my bottle,” he says on camera, adding that he was an alcoholic from age 14.
In the film, he returns to the dumpster where he had lived for decades, and recalls how a man once offered him $5 to star in a film he says eventually became part of the infamous early “Bumfights” videos. At the time, Hannah says, he jumped at the chance to earn some money to buy alcohol: “They put me in a shopping cart and pushed me down a flight of stairs,” he recalls, as we see footage from “Bumfights” and Hannah’s bloodied face. “I became ‘Rufus the Stunt Bum,’...and then things got scarier," he adds. "They provoked us to fight each other.”
Hannah’s injuries left him with double vision, epilepsy and a speech impediment, but that didn’t stop him from hoping he could one day get off the streets. The change came when, after an alcoholic seizure, Hannah saw an image of his daughter sitting on the edge of his makeshift bed. “I made the decision that my kids were more important than drinking,” says Hannah, who spent 29 months getting sober and now has eschewed alcohol for nine years.
With the help of a businessman who became his mentor, Hannah is now the assistant manager of an apartment complex and has a home of his own.
An important part of his life continues to be encouraging others who are still on the streets: “I always said I wanted to find a way to give back,” he explains. “I have a wonderful life now.”
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October 11, 2012 | 8:33 am
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
The short film, “Jew,” has one of the bolder titles to cross my desk in recent years. It’s downright provocative, which was filmmaker Josh Berger’s intention, he told me at the premiere of the 38-minute movie for some 200 viewers at the El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood recently.
The drama revolves around a modern Orthodox boxer (played by Berger) who encounters anti-Semitism at the gym and in his neighborhood. The harassment gets so bad that his younger brother – who has just become bar mitzvah – questions whether it would be easier to be non-Jewish. Meanwhile, a racist youth – just out of jail and down on his luck – targets the brothers’ synagogue for a hate crime, with tragic results.
So why did Berger title the film, “Jew?” Dressed all in black at the premiere, he began by describing his trip to concentration camps and to Israel on the Birthright Israel March of the Living program some years ago. There, Berger was startled to learn that anti-Semitism is still alive and well in parts of Eastern Europe.
Back in Los Angeles, he had been overhearing anti-Semitic remarks by people who assumed he was not Jewish. (Actually Berger grew up in a Reform home in Santa Cruz before moving to L.A. to become an actor.) “Don’t be such a Jew” seemed to be a common slur to mean “don’t be cheap.”
“Used by the wrong person, ‘Jew’ becomes a derogatory word,” Berger explained. “But I wanted to make a movie that would inform people about what the word really means.”
And so he brought his idea to the film’s co-writers, Dean Anello and Michael Carney, who also directed the movie, which was shot over four days with a $50,000 budget. To write the drama, the team drew on hate crime incidents that had been reported across the country – including a game called “beat the Jew” allegedly invented by students at a high school outside Los Angeles, Berger said.
“I wasn’t interested in making another ‘American History X,’” Carney, who grew up in a fundamentalist Christian home in the South, recalled at the Q&A after the screening.
“But when Josh talked about his research [including speaking to an official at the Simon Wiesenthal Center], I was shocked that these kinds of hate crimes are still occurring. This stuff is very real. For me it was a chance to sink my teeth into something that hadn’t even been on my radar before.”
After the screening, a number of viewers remarked that the film could well apply to all kinds of racism today. “You definitely hit the target,” an African-American man said at the Q&A. “The film is very timely to all the things that are still going on now. This story is not an old story, and unfortunately will never be.”
For more information about the film, visit www.jewfilm.net.
October 10, 2012 | 12:06 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Talk of Iran these days tends to be about threats of the annihilation of Israel, the potential of nuclear weaponry and bellicose leaders. But before all that, over its almost 3,000-year history, Iran has had one of the deepest and richest artistic heritages of any place in the world, and its Jewish cultural component, in particular, is both intrinsic to the place and not so well known to the outside world — even much of the Jewish world.
Among the examples:
A pair of 19th century painted-wood doors decorated with an image of a couple in an intimate tete-a-tete as he strums a sitar behind a raised curtain, with a love poem in Judeo-Persian inscribed in a cartouche below.
An early 20th century Persian wall carpet made in Kashan lavishly decorated with intricate biblical scenes and Hebrew inscriptions, in the style of Persian miniature painting. An undersized set of leather tefillin, from the town of Mashhad in the mid-19th century, indicating one way this community of Jews forced to convert to Islam secretly practiced its Judaism — by creating phylacteries small enough to hide under their headdresses.
And a ketubah (Jewish marriage contract) ,drawn in vibrant hues of amber and crimson in Isfahan in 1921, richly ornamented with intertwined images of birds and blossoms, as well as the cypress tree, a symbol of eternal life dating back to the ancient Zoroastrian religion of Iran.
These objects, all of them included in “Light and Shadows: The Story of Iranian Jews,” opening at the Fowler Museum at UCLA on Oct. 21, are just a sampling of the more than 100 sumptuous artworks and other objects — including rare archeological artifacts, illuminated manuscripts, ritual objects and amulets — that will be on display. Together, they tell the 2,700-year history of the Jews of Iran, one of that country’s oldest minorities. There are flat, hand-shaped Torah ornaments unique to the Jews of the area, as well as ornaments shaped like the Zoroastrian motif of the botah — almond leaves attached to a stem.
The exhibition’s timeline begins in 539 B.C.E., when Cyrus, the founder of the first Persian Empire, defeated the Babylonians and annexed the regions where the exiled Jews from Jerusalem and the kingdom of Judea had settled after the destruction of the First Temple in 586 B.C.E. The narrative continues through the Arab-Muslim conquest of Iran in the seventh century and the more hostile Imamite Shiite conquest in the early 1500s that prompted the harsh conditions for Jews that waxed and waned until the tolerant reigns of the Pahlavi shahs in the early 20th century. And the show continues even further, through the Islamic Revolution of 1979 to the contemporary period, there and abroad.
“We wanted to show that throughout these nearly three millennia, the lives of Iranian Jews have vacillated between marginalization and integration into the complex and fascinating fabric of Iranian society,” said Orit Engelberg-Baram, curator of the exhibition, which originated in Tel Aviv in 2010 at Beit Hatfutsot — the Museum of the Jewish People. “We call it ‘Light and Shadows’ because there are so many contradictions in the story of Iranian Jewry — on the one hand, persecution; and on the other, assimilation and rich tradition, and, in later epochs, wealth.”
The show was first conceived in the Beverly Hills living room of attorney Ruth Shamir-Popkin, a Polish-born Israeli émigré who serves on the board of Beit Hatfutsot. About six years ago, she called a meeting with the museum’s then-director, Hasia Israeli, and several prominent members of Los Angeles’ Iranian-Jewish community. “The museum had always been accused of being very Ashkenazi oriented, and not enough about other communities,” Shamir-Popkin recalled of that conversation. “I knew the Iranian-Jewish community had never found a way to express itself historically in an exhibition, so I thought it was time.”
She suggested to her guests that they mobilize members of Los Angeles’ community to create such a show, and with the Y&S Nazarian Family Foundation offering support, museum officials began two years of intense research, scouring the world for artwork and artifacts.
What’s unique about the exhibition is that a number of the objects came directly from members of various Iranian communities, according to Moti Schwartz, Beit Hatfutsot’s acting director, and Smadar Keren, director of the museum’s curatorial department.
“We did [borrow] from museums and archives, but many of the artifacts came from people who are not even collectors,” Engelberg-Baram said. “We asked them, ‘What do you have from your home, from your parents’ or grandparents’ homes?’ Most of them said, ‘We fled Iran during the Islamic Revolution of 1979, and we didn’t keep anything.’ Later, they would call us and say, ‘I found such and such, but I don’t know if it’s interesting for you.’ And then we would discover treasures.”
At the Fowler Museum, the exhibition opens with what is the most famous Persian-Jewish story of all, Purim’s biblical story of Esther, the Jewess who heroically foiled a plot to exterminate the Jews of Iran. In addition to a floor plan of the tomb of Esther and Mordecai in the modern-day city of Hamadan, a protective silver amulet is shown inscribed with the names of the four traditional biblical matriarchs, as well as the name of Esther, as if she were a kind of fifth in the lineage.
A photograph of a fresco from the Dura Europos synagogue, circa 245 C.E., depicts the villain Haman, barefoot and humiliated as he leads Esther’s triumphant cousin, Mordecai, on a horse through the streets of Shushan. A second image reveals Mordecai on his throne, wearing the flowing pantaloon garb of the Persian royal house of the third century B.C.E.
On a computer screen, an illustration from a 17th century book, done in ink and tempera, helps to recount a tale, dated 1333, of Esther and Ardashir (another name used for the biblical King Ahasuerus); this work shows how Persian Jews sought to reimagine Esther as the mother of King Cyrus. In the painting, a squatting Queen Esther, naked from the waist down, is graphically shown giving birth to Cyrus, accompanied by angels and handmaidens, an iconography similar to that used by Muslim artists of the time to depict the birth of heroes and monarchs.
A contemporary mixed-media work by the young New York artist Josephine Mairzadeh, “Five Generations of Reflection Into the New Year/Esther’s Legacy,” is meant to serve as a family tree for the entire Iranian-Jewish community, from a rendering of the doorway to Esther’s tomb to images of eggs, symbolizing the future generations Esther inspired.
Other sections of the exhibition recount how Jews became a reviled minority after the Imamite Shiite factor of Islam rose to power in the 1500s, when all non-Muslims were considered infidels whose very bodies were regarded as impure. Shiites were forbidden from coming into physical contact with Jews, who on rainy days were not allowed even to venture outdoors lest their essence pollute the environment. Jews were denigrated, as well, by laws forbidding them from practicing most respectable professions and even from wearing matching footwear.
The 1905 book “Five Years in a Persian Town” describes how these discriminatory practices continued even into the early 20th century; its illustrations show Jews wearing tattered clothing and ill-fitting, mismatched shoes.
After a pogrom in 1839 involving rape and murder in Mashhad, in northeastern Iran, the entire Jewish community was forced to convert to Islam, although they continued to practice Judaism in secret. Among their treasures is an ingenious Ner Tamid (Eternal Light) from a Mashhadi synagogue-turned-“mosque” that was disguised as a round copper box that could be quickly shut, extinguishing the interior lantern, should non-Jews enter the place of worship.
There are also tiny silk jackets worn by Jewish child brides (girls were betrothed in early childhood so that no Muslim could later ask for her hand in marriage), as well as dual marriage contacts — a clandestine one written in Hebrew for internal use, and another in Farsi, in accordance with Islamic law.
The reigns of the Pahlavi monarchs in the early 20th century brought positive change — and even prosperity — to Iran’s Jews, as evidenced by a photograph of the last shah visiting with the Jewish representative to the Iranian Parliament and then-Chief Rabbi Yedidia Shofet. Another photo depicts Israeli hero Moshe Dayan standing with officials outside a large mosque, demonstrating the regime’s amicable relationship with the State of Israel.
While videotaped testimonies demonstrate the plight of Iranian Jews who fled to Israel or Los Angeles during the 1979 Islamic revolution, two photographs show startling images of Jews and even Rabbi Shofet participating in anti-shah demonstrations leading up to the revolution. The protesters are either Jewish leftists or community members who wished to show solidarity to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in order to ensure the future safety of Iranian Jewry.
The exhibition at the Fowler will include new additions to the artwork seen at Beit Hatfutsot, including snapshots of Iranian-Jewish community events in Los Angeles and mixed-media work by local Jewish artists, commissioned by the Fowler, according to the museum’s Shirley & Ralph Shapiro director, Marla C. Berns.
A lyrical video by Jessica Shokrian celebrates the community’s ritual observance while describing her own complex relationship with her traditional family, and Shelley Gazin’s installation spotlights generations of women, from grandmothers draped in American flags to a young karate champion who participated in the Maccabiah Games.
Earlier in the exhibition, one poignant photograph depicts two siblings, David and Leora, who appear to be holding hands while wearing their Purim costumes in Iran in 1964: Leora is dressed as the Israeli flag, while her brother is dressed as the flag of Iran. The photo could serve as a metaphor for the relationship between Iran and Israel during the Pahlavi era: “It looks like a dream, or a vision of the future, when we now hear constantly every day about maybe a war coming, and very threatening news about the relationship between Iran and Israel,” curator Engelberg-Baram said.
For more information about the exhibition, visit fowler.ucla.edu.
Iranian Jews: The art, culture and history