April 26, 2007
The Next (book) conversation
Nextbook, an organization devoted to Jewish literature, culture and ideas (www.nextbook.org) came to L.A. last weekend, staging a full day festival at UCLA's MacGowan and Freud theaters called "Acting Jewish: Film, TV, Comedy, Music," the first of what it hopes to be an annual event.
According to Nextbook Director Julie Sandorf, the notion of an L.A. festival was inspired by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, filmmaker and author David Mamet, whose book, "The Wicked Son," Nextbook published with Shocken. The festival's purpose, Nextbook Program Director Matthew Brogan declared, was to bring "together writers, actors, directors, and musicians to talk about the imaginary Jews of popular culture and their real life counterparts."
Mamet agreed to participate in the event, in a conversation on the subject of "Make Believe Jews," in the words of the event's program, "about how Hollywood has treated the Jews and his own attempts to create a different kind of onscreen Jewish character."
Mamet's interlocutor was none other than yours truly. I must now disclose that I was paid an honorarium for the pleasure and the challenge of doing so (they actually handed me a check when I walked off stage!); and that for the occasion I purchased a new jacket at Sean, my favorite men's store (I didn't need to disclose that part; I just wanted to). Sandorf introduced me as "a great friend of Nextbook," which is a compliment I accept. Such is my bias to take into account as I share my subjective impressions of the event.
On Saturday evening, Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan hosted a screening of two silent films. First was D. W. Griffith's 1910 short "A Child of the Ghetto," which featured footage shot on New York's Lower East Side. It was akin to traveling in a time machine to see the bustling activity of families and street peddlers on Rivington Street (today's equivalent would be walking down Alvarado Street in Los Angeles toward Langer's Deli, where the vibrant ethnic community is Latin rather than Eastern European Jews); followed by "East and West," a 1923 Yiddish film starring a young Molly Picon that established the pixy-ish qualities that would, in a few years, make Picon the highest paid Yiddish actress in the world.
Sunday, Nextbook presented eight different panels on film, TV, Hollywood novels, food, and music including such diverse presenters and topics as Bruce Jay Friedman, Bruce Wagner and Ella Taylor on the Hollywood novel; Frank London, Jewlia Eisenberg and Josh Kun talking Jewish music; and Jonahan Gold, Leslie Brenner, Evan Kleiman and Jeffrey Shandler discussing food and film. The panels overlapped and intersected and, like any festival, there was always the risk that you were missing something interesting happening somewhere else.
For example, while I was on stage with Mamet, Turan was in another hall sharing the exuberant ethnically Jewish pre-code film comedies of Max Davidson -- a presentation I would have been eager to attend. Similarly, I missed seeing my friend, journalist David Margolick, participate in the panel on "Jewish Stardom," which also included USC professor Leo Braudy (one of the most knowledgeable film experts around); artist, essayist and self-proclaimed Jew-ologist Rhonda Lieberman; and the very learned and entertaining Jeffrey Shandler, who co-authored with Jim Hoberman the excellent and essential "Entertaining America: Jews, Movies and Broadcasting" -- all because I rushed to hear Adam Gopnik talk about Jewish comedy.
Gopnik was, much like his essays in the New Yorker, erudite, charming and polished. He revealed that he arrived in New York in 1979 hoping to be a stand-up comic, or a songwriter -- and it is safe to say that he has become a literary tummler, heir to a tradition of reporting and performance, part Robert Benchley, part Calvin Trillin. As for my conversation with David Mamet, I have little recollection of what was said (my mind always goes blank the minute I leave the stage), but I've been told a podcast will be available soon from Nextbook.
My friends and family report that the conversation covered a full spectrum of Jews on film, from Mamet's own childhood performances for the Chicago Board of Rabbis, to the Yiddish Theater in Odessa, the Group Theater in New York, "The Jazz Singer," "Exodus," movies about the Holocaust, and Jewish characters Mamet has created, including a recent episode of "The Unit" called "Two Coins" that took place in Israel.
I've been told that often the most important information in a psychoanalytic session is revealed in the last few minutes, just as we often put the most important info into the P.S. of a communication. One of the highlights of Mamet's appearance for me came in a follow-up question from the audience when Mamet told, or more correctly in the parlance of Hollywood, pitched the assembled listeners a story involving both an Israeli fighter pilot and tales from Rabbi Isaac Luria that he hopes to write and direct.
But that was just my panel. I spent the rest of the day bouncing among the presentations. Here are some things that struck me:
- Nextbook's Sara Ivry hosted a panel of young actors whom she ably cajoled into some trenchant revelations. Actor Adam Goldberg ("Saving Private Ryan"), whose mother is not Jewish, related it wasn't until he was auditioning for film roles in L.A. that he found himself being typecast for Jewish parts, while being told he's "too Jewish" for other parts. By contrast, in TV, Goldberg explained, he is rarely cast as someone identified as a "Jew." Laura Silverman, who plays Sarah Silverman's sister on her TV program (and is her sister), said that she often goes up for Jewish parts, which are then awarded to actresses of Latin or Italian heritage, but when she goes up for parts that are Italian or non-Jewish, she is always dismissed as "Jewish." Both actors said they believe parts should be cast free from any ethnic consideration -- but wish they also got the benefit of such "blind" casting. Both said they had, at one point, considered changing their names.
- Meital Dohan, an Israeli-born actress who appears in "Weeds" as Yael Hoffman, said that most casting directors thought her name "exotic" rather than Hebrew and wanted to cast her as Russian more than Jewish.
- In his presentation, Adam Gopnik traced three generations of humor from Henny Youngman (his grandfather's era) to Woody Allen (his father's time) to Seinfeld (his own era). But he felt that he had reached a point where he could understand the humor of, but not always laugh at, the outrageous comedy his children enjoy from such current performers as Sarah Silverman and Sascha Baron Cohen (which is the way I feel about such animated fare as "The Simpsons," "South Park" and "Family Guy" -- I get what's funny, it even makes me laugh sometimes, but as humor it's just not for me).
- Bruce Jay Friedman revealed that the older he gets, the more Jewish he has become. He explained that when he was younger and wrote his novels and stories, such as "The Heartbreak Kid," although audiences thought of them as Jewish, he viewed them as about characters caught in predicaments.
- Bruce Wagner was funny, intelligent, perceptive, deep and heartfelt -- reminding me that whenever I hear Wagner speak, I am always struck by the fact that this man who at times looks like Max Schreck on a break from shooting Nosferatu and who has written novels filled with toxic levels of anomie, is in person warm, considerate, thoughtful, and passionate about what he is attempting to achieve in his novels.
- Evan Kleinman hosted a panel on food and film with L.A. Weekly's Jonathan Gold, the just-named Pulitzer Prize winner, Leslie Brenner, food editor of the Los Angeles Times, and Jeffrey Shandler, in which they all pondered why there was no Jewish American film equivalent of foreign films celebrating food such as "Eat Man, Drink, Woman," "Like Water for Chocolate" or even "La Grande Bouffe." Good question -- with no definitive answer except to say that the Jewish experience of food is connected to guilt, family and sex. Accordingly, they screened memorable dinner scenes from films and TV programs such as "Annie Hall" and "Sex and the City."
- Finally, hipsters Frank London of Klezmatics fame, Jewlia Eisenberg (yes -- that's how she spells her first name) of Charming Hostess and Josh Kun, whom you may know from the recent "Jewface" CD and who has recently joined the faculty of USC's Annenberg School for Communication, at one point took their audience on a musical journey through time and space, playing music by Jewish artists from all over the Levant and explaining the specific meaning of certain notes and scales in a manner that made you realize the sacred and hypnotic power of music.
The day after the event, questions popped into my head: Was the conference too academic or intellectual? A case of too many panelists talking about movies, music and books, rather than seeing (or listening to) writers and artists performing their work? Was the audience, the majority of whom were over 40, too old? What does it take to get people 30 and under to attend? How many attendees does it take to make a festival successful? Worth repeating? Does Los Angeles need a festival of Jewish culture? What does it accomplish?
I know the questions are worth asking, but I'm not sure the answers matter. Particularly given that the traditional Jewish answer to the question, "Does it help?" is: "It doesn't hurt."
What impressed me, overall, is how collegial the event was. There were near 500 attendees throughout the course of the day, and people fell into conversation with each other, as if shared interests were introduction enough. This held true for presenters as well as audience members. Lunch was available on the courtyard in front of the theaters and in the Murphy Sculpture Garden, and as a klezmer band played, a large crowd of people, many of whom did not know each other, sat down in various groupings together, and each joined in their own conversations. It was, to this observer, a rare moment -- one that doesn't happen in Los Angeles enough.
L.A. is a city of kindred souls waiting to find each other. To the extent that Nextbook can stage an event that gets people to engage, to be entertained, to learn about Jewish artists, writers, musicians, performers and movies they never knew about, or to revisit or reconsider them -- they are fulfilling their mission. The conversations they inspire can bind us, sustain us, fulfill us; but most important, they create a hunger for more, for the next conversation.
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he's an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week.