Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Ang Lee, the 58-year-old Oscar-winning director of “Brokeback Mountain” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” was understated and thoughtful recently as he settled into a velvet couch at the L’Ermitage hotel in Beverly Hills. He had arrived to discuss his new film, “Life of Pi,” the story of the journey of Pi, a religious teenager from India whose entire family and the remnants of the family’s zoo sinks in a shipwreck, leaving Pi alone and adrift in a small boat, along with a tiger.
Lee brought up his memory of the last time we spoke, before the release of his 2009 film “Taking Woodstock,” a tale of hippies descending upon a Jewish resort in the Catskills to attend the legendary 1969 rock music festival. “That film was very Jewish,” the soft-spoken Lee said, with a quiet laugh. “And this new one, ‘Life of Pi’ is somewhat, a little bit Jewish as well.”
Based on Yann Martel’s 2001 best-selling novel, the film draws on imagery and motifs from the three religions Pi practices simultaneously — Hinduism, Catholicism and Islam — but its worldview is also influenced by the Old Testament and the Jewish mysticism of kabbalah. Lee said he specifically researched Rabbi Isaac Luria’s 16th-century concept of tsimtsum: how God, the infinite, created the world by opening up a vacuum within Himself. “In tsimtsum, God shrunk part of Himself in order to create the world,” Lee said. “God is perfect, but he had to shrink back to create as messy and imperfect a life as ours. It’s the essential energy of the universe.”
In the film, the sinking of the freighter, aptly named the Tsimtsum, literally and figuratively represents the stripping away of Pi’s sheltered previous life in his family’s Pondicherry zoo, as well as of the comforting religious concepts he had been taught, respectively, by his imam, priest and Hindu pandit. “On the lifeboat, Pi has no organized religion, no society, no priest or monk or any human being to tell him, ‘This is what is supposed to be.’ He is on his own,’ ” Lee said of Pi’s spiritual journey. “He’s always had faith in the abstract idea of God, but he has to be cast away to be tested, to test the strength of his faith.”
“It’s kind of like the story of Job,” the film’s screenwriter, David Magee, said during an interview at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza Hotel. “Pi finds himself questioning at every turn, why has God put these impediments in front of him, and not only through his suffering on the ocean, but then to put a tiger on the boat along with him. Yet the fear of what he must confront forces Pi into action that he might not have done otherwise. And, in the end, he comes to realize that without the tiger he probably would not have survived.”
The Old Testament power of the Divine is on display in some of the transcendent images in the film: Pi and his lifeboat are dwarfed by the stars shining above and reflecting in the water below, creating an immersion in a bowl-like universe; phosphorescent sea life glimmers magically on the vast night ocean, and, at one point, Pi loses all his supplies in a maelstrom worthy of Noah.
Director Ang Lee
Rabbi David Wolpe, who attended an early screening of the film, described the mythic character of the moment: “That scene reminded me the chaos of creation, and the tohu vavohu, the unformed void,” he said. “In the middle of nowhere, all of nature is intent on both displaying itself to [Pi] and destroying him.”
The filmmakers also were inspired by Steven Callahan, whose book “Adrift” chronicles Callahan’s 76 days as a castaway, and who became a consultant on the film. “Steven talked to us not only about the mechanics of survival but also the humility brought on by his journey,” Magee said. “It put him into both a profoundly awed respect for the universe and his very tiny place in it.”
Lee — who was raised as a Christian but now incorporates Buddhism and Hindu concepts into his personal faith — identifies with Pi’s journey because for much of his life he has felt proverbially at sea. The Chinese, like the Jews, have the concept of Diaspora, he said: “My parents escaped the Chinese revolution to Taiwan, and while we still felt we were authentically Chinese, we were outsiders there,” he recalled. While Lee considers himself an Asian filmmaker, his current home is in Larchmont, N.Y., and, “When I go back to China, I’m an outsider, too. So there’s a sense of being alien, adrift.”
“Life of Pi” merges Aesopian fable, varied religious motifs and wondrous 3-D graphics, but tackling the complex metaphysical film proved daunting for Lee, who signed on after the directors M. Night Shyamalan, Alfonso Cuaron and Jean-Pierre Jeunet dropped out of the project.
To write the screenplay, Lee turned to Magee (“Finding Neverland,” “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day”) who first read Martel’s novel on the “Neverland” set about 10 years ago and described it as unfilmable. But he jumped at the chance, about four years ago, to tackle the movie when he learned that Lee would direct.
Lee and Magee began collaborating on the film in 2010, meeting daily for months in Lee’s Manhattan loft near Chinatown. Along the way, they embarked upon meticulous research not only into 3-D technology, which Lee believed would help viewers to “feel like an insider in Pi’s world,” but also on world religions — including mystical Judaism. (In the film, the middle-aged Pi, who serves as narrator, recounting his story to a journalist, reveals that he teaches kabbalah at a university near his home in Canada.)
The kabbalistic model of creation, the tree of life, with its 10 sefirot, was part of the research leading to the design of a tree that becomes Pi’s sleeping place when he and the tiger land on a lush island that appears to be an abundant Eden. “It’s there that God gives Pi some little, imperfect but closer insight into His nature, and of the nature of the universe,” Magee said. “It’s a very Judeo-Christian concept: ‘God giveth and God taketh away.’ ”
By day, the island is a nourishing land, filled with bounty, peace and comfort. By night, it all turns carnivorous and devouring — the other side of God. That duality plays out throughout the story, in the duality of the vegetarian Pi and the carnivorous tiger, the philosopher and the animal.”
The tiger, who has the unusual name of Richard Parker, becomes a metaphor for Pi’s animal nature, which he must embrace (and train) in order to brave the elements. “I don’t see the tiger as ‘the other,’ Lee said. “Even though on the surface, he is an obstacle Pi has to overcome, he is also the inner beast that must emerge for Pi to survive.”
Richard Parker, thus, is no cute and cuddly animal, but unabashedly vicious. “Ang was very firm about not wanting to anthropomorphize him,” said Magee, who drew from a real encounter with a ferocious tiger in India while writing the film. “I can’t describe the feeling of a tiger roaring at you from four feet away,” he said. “It goes through your body like a jet engine rumbling, and you feel it viscerally; you don’t so much hear it as you feel that beast touching you with its sound.”
Variety noted the film’s “warm-hearted plea for religious faith,” but Magee sees “Life of Pi” somewhat differently. “It’s more like a warm-hearted plea for faith in storytelling,” he said. “In religion, we tell stories to make sense of this incomprehensible universe, and we were writing about the power of different stories to help you connect to the world around you and how they can help you to organize the chaos.”
“Life of Pi” opens in theaters on Nov. 21.
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November 7, 2012 | 2:01 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
This week I phoned actor-comedian Elon Gold and "The Big Bang Theory's" Mayim Bialik to get their take on the election coverage and results. Here's what they had to say:
What a close race! It had me on the edge of my seat! I had no reservations about the President's or Governor Romney's ability to support Israel or protect Israel so that wasn't stressing me out. However, the chances of me missing filming The Big Bang Theory because I'd be taking to the streets protesting a possible eventual overturn of Roe v Wade are now nil. So I guess Big Bang Theory fans can be happy President Obama won if they like my character.
-- Mayim Bialik, "The Big Bang Theory"
I am saying kaddish right now for all my doctor friends' careers!
- Elon Gold, comedian
November 3, 2012 | 12:06 am
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Exploding heads, techno-genitals, mutant offspring, a humanoid fly. Such are some of the monstrous images in David Cronenberg’s early “body horror” films, a la “Videodrome,” “Scanners,” “The Brood” and, of course, 1986’s “The Fly, ” starring Jeff Goldblum. Now Cronenberg’s 32-year-old son, Brandon Cronenberg, has spawned his own distinctive contribution to the body horror genre: the viscerally gruesome dark satire “Antiviral” -- starring Caleb Landry Jones and Malcolm McDowell -- which won the best Canadian first feature award at the Toronto International Film Festival in September and will screen at the AFI Film Festival Nov. 4 and 7 before opening theatrically in April.
The movie revolves around Syd March (Landry Jones), who works at a clinic that sells injections of viruses cultivated from sick celebrities to obsessed fans. “It’s biological communion, for a price,” the younger Cronenberg said by phone from his home in Toronto.
Syd also sells some of the more select germs on the black market, smuggling them out of the lab in his own body, meaning that he is always nauseatingly ill. Plenty of disturbing images ensue, from viscous blood pouring out of sickened orifices to needles penetrating pale tissue to gray-colored steaks – also for fan consumption – cloned from the flesh of the stars.
When Syd becomes infected with what turns out to be a deadly virus courtesy of superstar Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon), he must unravel the microbiological mystery before he, too, becomes dead meat.
Here are some excerpts from my conversation with Brandon Cronenberg this past week:
Q: Your father is a well-known (Jewish) atheist/existentialist who has said that his grisly images are meant to remind people that life and death begins and ends with the body. Do you have a similar outlook about religion?
A: I identify as Jewish, and I feel totally Jewish, but not in a religious sense. I’m a total atheist, but I think that came to me on my own. My parents never pushed me; they were very careful not to tell me how the universe is or to expose me to atheistic propaganda. I guess I never did believe in God. I was never told that God exists and I never experienced anything that led me to believe that God exists.
I don’t believe in the soul, that the body is this inanimate thing that then becomes animated by a life force and then at a certain point stops being animated by a life force. I think the idea of the soul comes from the desire to see ourselves as somehow perfect and immortal despite the physical reality of our bodies.
Q: Is that why you use such visceral physical imagery in the film?
A: Part of it is that; and part of it is to show the divide between celebrities as ideas, as cultural icons, media constructs, and then to contrast that with the human beings behind those constructs. I think we’re very uncomfortable with our bodies; we don’t want to look at ourselves too closely and see the decay, the animal reality of the human body. So in the film, making the body so explicit was partly because of this theme.
Q: How did you get the idea for “Antiviral?”
A: It was 2004; I had just started film school, I had a baddish flu and was very sick in bed. And I was having a kind of fever dream where I was half awake and sort of obsessing over the physicality of my illness and how I had something in my body, my cells, that had come from someone else’s body. The penetration of the virus into your cells is totally erotic and intimate, if you see it that way. Afterwards, when I was more sane, I started thinking about who might see disease as something intimate, and I thought a celebrity-obsessed fan might want to be infected with a virus from the object of their obsession as a way of feeling physically connected to them. And that developed into a metaphor for dissecting celebrity culture.
Q: You’ve been able to witness some of the unpleasant aspects of celebrity through the public spotlight on your own father. What kinds of things did you want to explore about celebrity culture in the film?
A: The commodification of celebrity is a huge theme. The cannibalism aspect, for me, becomes a metaphor for (literally) consuming celebrity. I think the film may take things to the extreme, but I think it’s only a slight exaggeration of what’s already out there – like people buying John Lennon’s teeth, which sold for quite a lot of money recently. Or people will buy scraps of someone’s underwear. Anything that is associated with a celebrity immediately has some market value because there’s this kind of physical fetishism.
And speaking of religion, I think this fetishism is very connected to the religious impulse. I was thinking about, say, sainthood, which is sort of like the creation of celebrities in a way; saints are people essentially elevated to the status of gods, and there’s also that element of deification when it comes to celebrity. And just as with sainthood, where old churches claim to have the finger bone of such and such saint, we fetishize celebrity “relics.” (Coughs.)
Q: Are you sick?
A: Yes, I have a cold.
Q: Can I have some?
A: (Laughs.) Yes, come to Toronto and you can catch my cold.
Q: Was there a limit on how far you would go with sickening imagery in the film?
A: I think that that imagery feeds the satire, because the film is meant as a commentary on a part of our culture that I find disgusting at times – so the film makes it viscerally disgusting as well. But I wasn’t just trying to be gross for the sake of being gross; I think it’s thematically relevant and also ties into the themes I mentioned about the body.
Q: Did you use fake needles or dummy arms to create the injection effects?
A: No, we used real needles – we had a medical professional on board – and yes, there were quite a lot of them.
Some people have fainted while watching the movie in the theater; the thing I didn’t realize is that [viewers] are very uncomfortable with needle imagery. I didn’t realize how extreme it got, so now it feels like a kind of cheap way of freaking people out.
Q: For a long time you told people you didn’t want to be a filmmaker. What changed your mind?
A: There were people who approached me with all these preconceptions based on who my father was or who they felt he was and to a certain extent that turned me off to film, because people assumed that I absolutely must be a huge cinephile and that I must want to follow in my father’s footsteps. It was very obnoxious, so it gave me great pleasure to say, no, I have no interest in film whatsoever. But then at a certain point that seemed like a bad reason not to do something that could be potentially interesting.
Q: How do you feel about being compared to your father as a filmmaker?
A: I don’t mind being compared to my father if it’s legitimate, but I do think some people overstate the comparisons. We do share the interest in issues of the body and technology; those are some of the things he explored particularly in his earlier films, although I think he’s really evolved as a filmmaker over the years.
Q: What do you like about the horror/science fiction genre?
A: It’s a good medium for caricature, and for dissecting our culture, because you can take things that we’ve become habituated to, or become too used to to see clearly, and exaggerate them to heighten the context.
“Antiviral” will screen at Mann’s Chinese 1 theater on Nov. 4 at 6:15 p.m., and at Mann’s Chinese 4 on Nov. 7 at 7:15 p.m. The festival will also screen Eran Riklis' new film, "Zaytoun," starring American actor Stephen Dorff and set in 1980s Beirut. For more information, visit AFI.com/AFIFEST.
October 28, 2012 | 1:41 pm
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.”
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
September 27, 2012 | 11:14 am
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
On a recent Wednesday morning, Stuart Perlman wore paint-splattered clothes as he loaded up his 1999 Infiniti with art supplies and cans of low-salt Progresso soup before heading out on a painting excursion to Venice Beach. Over the past two years, Perlman has been spending two to three days a week on the boardwalk, creating dozens of close-up portraits of faces of homeless “regulars” there, a number of whom he’s gotten to know well in the process. On this day, he donned a black fedora hat — “half cowboy, half-Lubavitch,” he joked — to shield himself from the sun, and after a five-minute drive from his Santa Monica home, he was greeting transients who high-fived him and thanked him for his work.
Along a low, concrete wall lined with rusty bikes and makeshift shelters, Perlman stopped to talk to Vincent, homeless and an artist himself, who wore a hoodie over his dreadlocks and who enthusiastically accepted the acrylic paints and brushes Perlman had brought him.
A few yards down, Perlman hugged Gwendolyn, an African-American who thanked him for listening to her woes when he painted her recently. “I cried so much that day,” she told Perlman, 59, who in his professional life is a psychologist and psychoanalyst with doctorates from UCLA and the Southern California Psychoanalytic Institute.
As Perlman searched for someone new to paint — he always looks for someone whose emotional tone matches his own on that particular day — he pointed out a bench where his late friend, Janet, a former prostitute and rape survivor, used to spend her days. Janet was whip-smart, compassionate and acted as a kind of social worker to the other regulars on the beach, he recalled. “But she was already coughing when I painted her a year ago,” Perlman added, his eyes filling with tears. “She died this past month of hepatitis, homelessness and heartbreak.”
Perlman’s work, which he does primarily for himself and not to sell on the boardwalk’s famous artists’ way, has nevertheless made him something of a celebrity among the habitués of the beach. So much so that a half hour later, he had no trouble persuading Trevor, 36, to pose for him atop the sandy knoll where the transient had set up camp under a palm tree.
Perlman told Trevor he would pay him $20 for posing — Perlman’s standard compensation — plus $10 more should Trevor provide him with an original poem or piece of artwork. Before long, Perlman was scribbling notes as Trevor told of losing his father to suicide when he was 5, of growing up in foster homes and taking to the streets at just 18. Perlman uses only his subjects’ first names to protect their privacy.
Eventually, Perlman set up his easel, preparing to paint Trevor’s face in his signature bold, raw brush strokes for two hours, before closing up shop and finishing the portrait at home. “The entire process takes 15 to 25 hours,” Perlman said, and he also types up a bio of each of his subjects and has videotaped interviews with one third of them; he plans to turn the interviews into a documentary.
This weekend, several of Perlman’s paintings will be on display at a conference of the Los Angeles County Psychological Association, and segments of his documentary will screen there on Sept. 29. Another 15 of his portraits also will be included in the exhibition “Faces of Homelessness,” presented by Home for Good as part of the Downtown L.A. Art Walk on Oct. 11.
“So many of these people are in so much pain; every person I have dealt with has survived significant traumas,” Perlman said. “My approach is to try to get them to open up about the horrendous things that have happened to them, and to validate their experience and their heroism.”
“My life is tikkun olam,” he said, adding that he will title an upcoming book on his project “Venice Beach Regulars: Painting the Unseen Faces Around Us.” “I want to paint what people don’t want to see, so they will learn what they need to see, so this world can be a better place.”
Given the approach of Sukkot, Perlman noted that the homeless remind him of the holiday’s “element of wandering in the wilderness and having to put up shelters by people who have been forsaken.” And just as Jews use palm fronds to thatch their sukkahs, he said, “people live at the beach under the palm trees, and actually sometimes use the leaves to make places to sleep. I feel they’re kindred spirits — part of my family and my people.”
In Perlman’s airy Santa Monica home, the more than 75 portraits he has painted since 2010 are stacked in corridors, in an office and throughout the living room, alongside photographs of his own family’s b’nai mitzvah and Jewish holiday celebrations. He said he’s made painting the Venice Beach homeless his passion project, and he uses his natural empathy to draw out his subjects’ life stories as he paints in an Expressionist style with vibrant hues. In the process, he’s heard tales of childhood sexual abuse, discrimination and struggles with alcoholism, as well as of college degrees earned and middle-class lives lost.
Many of his subjects — a number of whom have also become his friends — appear ravaged or stoic, and their visages are weathered by sun and neglect.
Stuart Perlman painting “Doc,” a former nurse, who acts as a kind of father figure to many of the grunge kids on the beach.
One painting depicts an elderly man known as “The Colonel,” a Jewish child survivor of concentration camps, whose teeth were knocked out while he served in the U.S. military during the Korean War and his legs blown up in Vietnam. Another spotlights Daniel, a former project manager for an architectural firm who spiraled into crack addition after losing his wife and children in a car crash 12 years ago. The portrait shows him appearing defeated, with a bedraggled beard, a cigarette dangling from his mouth.
Sunny — who is also homeless and living on the beach — lost his wife, Jill, to breast cancer in Minneapolis some years ago. Soon afterward, he lost their their home, due in part to the staggering medical bills. His portrait reveals a bulbous, despair-ridden face reddened by years of drinking.
“Jill fought the [cancer] battle for two years and lost it, and I’ve been a piece of s--- ever since,” Sunny, who grew up in orphanages in the South, says in Perlman’s documentary film footage. “I just gave up. I’ve been a drunk; I smoke pot. … I can’t get over her. She’s still the love of my life.”
The film also shows Janet lugging her bedding to a sidewalk where she will spend the night, placing cardboard on the concrete to protect herself from the water the local businesses had sprayed to keep transients away. “I’ll be off this planet soon,” she tells Perlman on camera. “I’m looking forward to death.”
Perlman grew up in a Conservative home on Long Island, N.Y., and said these days he celebrates the Jewish holy days with members of his wife’s Chasidic family. He also said he traces his choice of work to his commitment to helping others, a part of his Jewish heritage.
Perlman identifies with his subjects on a deeply personal level, as well. “My parents were loving and took good care of me, but I was also viciously beaten and pinched until I bled,” he said, and he has written of the violence in his 1999 book, “The Therapist’s Emotional Survival.”
“My father had been a professional boxer, and he would use those same fists on myself and my siblings. When he got really angry, he would kick me like a football up the stairs, or he’d take an 18-inch, razor-sharp lox knife and bang and shake it at me. I thought I might be gutted.”
Perlman traces his parents’ behavior to their own youthful traumas: His now-deceased father, a deli owner who was active in his synagogue and a confidante of New York Gov. Thomas E. Dewey, appeared to have suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder since serving as a bomber during World War II. Perlman’s mother, who is in her 80s, survived a severely deprived childhood during the Depression, when she had to care for a starving baby sister with no food in the house.
Perlman said he survived his own childhood, in part, “by becoming my mother’s therapist. I was a bit of the parental child,” he said. “It’s like I’ve been in training to become an analyst from the age of 5.”
Perlman now practices in West Los Angeles, where he specializes in counseling trauma victims, and he just won a Psychoanalytic Electronic Publishing Award, which recognizes the top living downloaded authors in the field. He said he has himself been in therapy for the past 36 years: “In order to do what I really want to do in this world, I have to face emotions that I can’t face alone, which is why I stay in therapy,” he explained. “I realize there’s an element in my work in which I’m trying to save everyone, because I’m also trying to save myself and everyone else in my family.”
Perlman took up painting in earnest five years ago, when his father died, reminding him that life is short and convincing him to return to his youthful aspirations of becoming an artist. He initially took classes at Santa Monica College and the YWCA, but soon tired of painting the bored-looking female models who posed for the students. Then, in 2010, on a visit to Venice Beach, he found himself drawn to its many homeless regulars, whose faces seemed to tell a thousand stories. Nervously at first, he began asking people to pose for him — but was regarded with suspicion for months. “They thought I was an undercover narcotics officer,” said Perlman, who returned often seeking to convince them, achieving his goal by spending hours talking and getting to know people as well as by handing out food and cash.
The first “regular” to agree to work with him was William, a 60-ish African-American who always wore a wool cap and down jacket, even in the blazing summer heat. “He looked destroyed,” Perlman recalled, “but the longer I talked to him, the more articulate he became and the less disheveled he looked. I’ve since had that experience often. The attention and respect you give people is like watering a wilted flower — suddenly they appear to blossom in front of your eyes.”
Perlman would go on to create many more of the portraits, all 18 by 24 inches, sometimes while witnessing a drug deal, brawl or knife fight. At times he’s been threatened — once by a man he knew owned a gun. Undeterred, he’s continued to return to Venice on Wednesdays and weekends, each time spending three to seven hours talking to and painting his subjects, then taking the works home to finish, with the help of photographs, at his kitchen easel.
“Stuart is not just painting their faces, but their souls,” said Wendy Coleman Levin, a member of Home for Good’s business leaders’ task force on homelessness. “What comes through is the genuine humanity of these individuals. He’s not just painting what you see, but what they feel.”
“I feel incredibly blessed,” Perlman said of his own life. “It’s ‘there but for the grace of God go I.’ We’re all just one step away from trauma and despair. The homeless are us, and we are them.”
For more information about Perlman and his work, visit stuartperlman.com.
More stories for Sukkot:
September 11, 2012 | 10:34 am
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
David Geffen, the notoriously press-shy billionaire Hollywood mogul, stared at me as if I had asked him to yank out a tooth. The setting was PBS’ summer 2012 press tour, on July 22, and Geffen was there to talk about the “American Masters” documentary, “Inventing David Geffen.” I asked him how his Jewish background had influenced his marked commitment to philanthropy.
The 69-year-old music and movie industry maverick brusquely replied that his parents had met in Palestine, his mother had arrived in the United States in 1931, and that his parents “were socialists. … I was bar mitzvahed, but we didn’t have much of a religious life at all.
“Does that not answer your question?” he added, icily. When I pressed him further, he snapped, “My parents were poor. They weren’t into philanthropy.” And also: “I would think that everybody’s childhood is an influence on what happens in their future, don’t you think?”
Just then, Susan Lacy, the creator of the “American Masters” series and the filmmaker behind “Inventing David Geffen,” mentioned a story she wanted to tell about Geffen’s mother, Batya. “She wants me to talk about how my mother’s family was killed. Let’s not,” Geffen said. Lacy managed to get in that the perpetrators had been the Nazis, before Geffen cut her off and moved to other questions — a number of which he also dismissed.
After the press conference, I met with Lacy, 63, who had gotten Geffen to open up significantly about numerous subjects in her fine documentary — including the gay mogul’s torrid heterosexual relationship with Cher.
Lacy said she had very much wanted to interview Geffen about his family’s wartime experience, in part because her own father’s German family had died in the Shoah. “Growing up I was obsessed, and I still am obsessed, with the Holocaust,” Lacy said. “I had nightmares for a long, long time; I would see the Nazis coming to get everybody. It had such a profound impact on me that I thought it might also have had an impact on David.” Was the subject too painful for Geffen? “Whether it was or not, he wouldn’t talk about it, and I respected that,” Lacy said. “I got him to talk about almost everything [else],” she added.
Lacy had learned a bit about the Geffens’ experience from other sources: “David’s mother, I think, had gone out of town, when the Nazis were marching into that part of Russia; and as they were coming, the townspeople rounded up her whole family and shot them,” Lacy said. “David’s mother ended up going to Palestine and didn’t know for a very long time what had happened to her family; but there was a sister who also survived who [told her]. And when his mother got the news, she had a bit of a breakdown for six months, when David was a little boy. And David just doesn’t like to talk about it; for one reason or another he’s uncomfortable.”
Geffen did talk about the issue in some depth with Tom King, author of “The Operator: David Geffen Builds, Buys and Sells the New Hollywood” (2000); it’s a biography Geffen initially endorsed before abruptly canceling further interviews, King writes in the introduction to his book.
The biography recounts how Geffen’s mother worried when her parents did not answer letters she mailed from New York to their home in Tiraspol, Ukraine. After the war, Batya’s sister, Deena, phoned from the Soviet Union with unsettling news: “I am the only one alive. Everyone else is dead,” she said. Most of their relatives had been shot in the September 1941 massacre at Babi Yar, the enormous ravine outside Kiev that had become an infamous execution site. According to King’s biography, Batya did not tell David and his older brother about the tragedy, but repressing the news eventually led her to have the breakdown, requiring her to spend months in the psychiatric unit at Kings County Hospital. She eventually recovered and became a successful businesswoman.
Of Geffen’s Jewish identity, Lacy said, his family members “were Jews, and everybody in his Brooklyn neighborhood was either Jewish or Italian; that’s the only thing he really talks about. He’s culturally Jewish but he’s not [religious], which is true of a lot of people.”