Posted by Tom Tugend
Pete Steffens, journalist, teacher, political activist and champion swimmer, died on Aug. 23, at 87, in Nanaimo on Canada’s Vancouver Island, and I lost a friend of 60 years standing.
Pete had the privilege, and the burden, of being the son of a very famous father, muckraker Lincoln Steffens, as well as the stepson of screenwriter and humorist Donald Ogden Stewart.
That was a difficult heritage to live up to, but Pete made his own mark in many fields.
Pete was born in San Remo, Italy, the only child of Lincoln Steffens and writer Ella Winter, and was educated at Harvard and Balliol College, Oxford, where he competed on the rowing team.
He qualified for the Italian Olympic swim team before returning to the United States to serve in the navy during World War II.
I met Pete after the war when we were fellow copyboys on the San Francisco Chronicle, a lowly position (at $32 a week), but which proved to be a springboard for some subsequent journalistic careers of some note.
Pete, who was fluent in eight languages, including Russian, Czech, Italian and Greek, made his journalistic mark working for Reuters in London and the Middle East, for TIME magazine and other publications and broadcast outlets.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, while reporting on Israel and Jordan for TIME, he met Israeli radio reporter Ella, but when they decided to get married, they ran into the same obstacles faced by any planned interfaith marriage in Israel.
While going through the family documents, Pete discovered, rather to his surprise, that his mother, Ella Winter, was Jewish, which cleared the bureaucratic hurdles.
Returning to the United States, Pete turned to teaching at UC Berkeley what he had practiced as a journalist. He jumped full force into the Free Speech Movement of the day and was a mentor to FSM leader Mario Savio.
In the early 1970s, he returned to Israel, to research the early Hebrew-language press and to serve as literary editor of the New Outlook, a magazine written and published jointly by Jewish and Arab Israelis.
His longest teaching stint, lasting 27 years, was at Western Washington University in Bellingham, WA, where he became deeply involved in journalism education for young Native Americans.
Pete spent some years in northern England, where his second wife, author and academic Valerie Alia was teaching, and the couple then moved to Vancouver Island, where Valerie cared for her husband during the lengthy illness preceding his death.
Pete’s writing was notable for the incisive profiles of such world leaders as Golda Meir, King Hussein of Jordan, and other Middle East notables. After a stay at Charlie Chaplin’s Swiss villa, Pete wrote a cover story for Ramparts magazine on the great comedian.
When Pete drew his first breath, Lincoln Steffens, born in 1866, one year after the end of the civil war, was 58. When he died in 1936, Pete was only 11.
Except for historians of American journalism and politics, the name Lincoln Steffens does not ring many bells, but his legacy persists.
At the turn of the 20th century, Lincoln Steffens was at the head of a group of intrepid reporters who exposed the corruption of politics and plutocracy, eating at the heart of American democracy.
Now considered the father of investigative journalism. Steffens shook the political and financial establishments with “The Shame of the Cities.”
The 1904 book, a collection of his exposes for McClure’s magazine, is still studied in university history classes, as is the monumental and best-selling “The Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens” (1931).
After the October 1917 Revolution, Steffens visited the newly born Soviet Union, interviewed Lenin, and returned an ardent (though later disillusioned) admirer, proclaiming, “I have seen the future and it works.”
Steffens’ fellow “muckrakers,” so labeled by President Teddy Roosevelt, included the likes of Upton Sinclair, Jack London, Ida Tarbell, Ray Stannard Baker and Frank Norris.
The muckrakers’ latter-day descendants, carrying on the legacy of investigative journalism, count among their number Rachel Carson, Jessica Mitford, Ralph Nader, I.F. Stone, Studs Terkel, Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein and Seymour Hersh.
“The legacy of Lincoln Steffens looms large to this day, if only because the issues he engaged in – from urban poverty to corporate greed – are still alive,” notes historian Dan Letwin of Penn State University.
“He would be distressed (if not surprised) to see how the grotesque inequalities of wealth and power continuer to subvert American democracy,” Letwin said.
Some years after Lincoln Steffens’ death, his widow, Ella Winter, married screenwriter (“The Philadelphia Story”) and humorist Donald Ogden Stewart, who became Pete’s stepfather.
In Pete’s honor, the Western Washington University Foundation has established a journalism scholarship fund for Native American students. Donations may be sent to the Foundation, 516 High St., OM 430, Bellingham, WA 98225. For information, phone (360) 650-3027, or visit www.wwu.edu/give. Please indicate "Pete Steffens Scholarship".
In recent years, Pete worked closely with Peter Hartshorn, author of the recently published “I Have Seen the Future: A Life of Lincoln Steffens.”
At the time of his death, Pete was completing a book of memoirs and helping screenwriter Allison Burnett research a film on Lincoln Steffens.
Pete Steffens is survived by his wife, Valerie Alia, his first wife Ella Steffens, daughters Daneet Rachel Steffens and Sivan Alena Steffens, stepsons David Restivo and Daniel Restivo, stepbrother Donald Stewart and step-granddaughter Mary Margaret Hope-Restivo.
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September 13, 2012 | 11:25 am
Posted by Tom Tugend
September 12, 2012 | 3:28 pm
Posted by Tom Tugend
A film insulting the prophet Muhammad sparked instant riots in Libya and Egypt on Tuesday, but the alleged facts underpinning the story seem to be collapsing just as quickly.
Enraged by available clips from the film, which describe Islam as “a cancer” and Muhammad as a homosexual who approved sexual child abuse, demonstrators in Benghazi killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three fellow diplomats, while protestors in Cairo attacked the U.S. embassy there.
In initial news reports in the Wall Street Journal and the Associated Press, which quickly went viral, the director-writer of “Innocence of Muslims” was identified as Sam Bacile, a 56-year old Israeli-American property developer in Los Angeles.
Bacile, supposedly phoning from an undisclosed hiding place, told AP that the film was made as a provocative religious statement, which he, an “Israeli Jew,” made at a cost of $5 million, raised from 100 Jewish donors.
Hardly any statement could have done more to further inflame hatred of Jews, Israel and America in the Muslim world, but at this point the story started to unravel.
First, a high-ranking Israeli official in Los Angeles said that extensive inquiries among Hollywood insiders and members of the local Israeli community failed to turn up a single person who knew a Sam Bacile.
Then the Israeli government in Jerusalem couldn’t turn up any citizenship records under that name, while California officials reported that no real estate license had ever been issued to a Sam Bacile.
Blogger Edward Blackthorn (www.publici.com) raised some basic questions as to why $5 million was needed for a film described as “unprofessional” by the Hollywood Reporter, and expressing doubt that any producer could find 100 financial backers for such a dubious enterprise.
“How did Sam Bacile manage to convince AP with so little proof, over the phone, and with such a shaky story?” Blackthorn asked, adding, “Not a single outlet has made any attempt at further vetting such a report.”
The most damning analysis came from Jeffrey Goldberg, national correspondent for The Atlantic, who managed to contact Steve Klein, described in earlier news reports as Bacile’s “associate” or “consultant.”
For starters, Klein has been described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an “extremist” and self-described militant Christian activist, who led anti-Muslim protests.
Klein then told Goldberg that “Bacile” was a pseudonym, and that the real person, whatever his name, “is not Israeli…I doubt he is Jewish. I suspect this is a disinformation campaign.”
Undoubtedly there will be further revelations, but it seems safe to guess that some leading American media outlets will have to spend considerable time scraping eggs of their corporate countenances.
September 12, 2012 | 10:19 am
Posted by Tom Tugend
A high-ranking Israeli official in Los Angeles said today that after numerous inquiries, it appeared that no one in the Hollywood film industry or in the local Israeli community knew of a Sam Bacile, the supposed director-writer of the incendiary film “Innocence of Muslims.”
The official expressed some doubt that a person by that name actually existed.
The Los Angeles chapter of the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Islamic Shura Council are holding a press conference today to condemn the killing of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and attacks on diplomatic facilities and persons in Libya and Egypt.
In Washington, CAIR’s national officials called on Muslims in the Middle East “to ignore the trashy anti-Islam film that resulted in the attacks.”
September 4, 2012 | 8:09 am
Posted by Tom Tugend
If you thought your daughter’s odd behavior was just another pre-teen phase, there may be an alternate explanation: The Dybbuk is back and has returned to the screen in “The Possession.”
Rooted in 16th century Jewish mysticism and folklore, a dybbuk is the dislocated spirit of an odious sinner, who died before repenting and now seeks refuge from avenging angels, usually within a female’s soul and body.
In keeping with the times, the film’s malevolent spirit has migrated from the East European shtetl of S. Ansky’s iconic play, “The Dybbuk,” to contemporary American suburbia and the home of Clyde Brenek.
Brenek is a high school basketball coach, conflicted about the divorce from his wife Stephanie and father of two girls, Hannah, 15, and 11-year old Em.
Clyde takes the two girls to a yard sale, where Em is oddly attracted to a box, smaller than a case of beer and inscribed with Hebrew letters, and she persuades her father to buy it.
Em takes the purchase to her room and, overcome with curiosity, pries it open and finds inside a bird’s skeleton, a lock of hair, strange carvings, and an ancient looking ring.
Predictably, terrible things begin to happen. Em stabs her dad’s hand with a fork, giant moths invade her bed and room, and when the father disposes of the box in a distant dumpster, she sallies forth in her nightgown across dark deserted street to retrieve it.
The increasingly desperate father seeks medical advice and an MRI scan reveals strange apparitions within the girl’s body. A psychiatrist is ineffective, but finally a professor recalls the dybbuk story and advises Clyde to travel to Brooklyn and appeal to an old Hassidic rabbi.
Clyde’s pleadings are rejected by the rabbi, but his son, played by alternate rock and reggae star Matisyahu, takes pity and agrees to try exorcism.
In a stormy session, Em is freed of the dybbuk, who then infests the father, until finally forced to beat a protoplasmic retreat back into the box. Though seemingly defeated, the dybbuk extracts revenge in a shocker of a final scene.
There is no gainsaying that the movie is really scary, even to the mature skeptical mind, and this reviewer had to take a long swim in the UCLA pool to shake off the after-effects. The film is rated PG-13, which, one assumes, means that our TV-raised adolescents can take the special effects in stride.
That said, it is fairly safe to wager that “The Possession” will not win any Oscars, though young Canadian actress Natasha Calis, as the possessed girl, is convincingly frightening.
Jeffrey Dean Morgan as the sorely tried father turns in a solid performance, while Kyra Sedgwick is stuck in the role of his shrill, angry ex-wife. Matisyahu, as the exorcist, makes an impressive screen debut.
Horror meister Sam Raimi is co-producer, with Danish director Ole Bornedal helming the film and Juliet Snowden and Stiles White credited as writers. The Lionsgate/Ghosthouse production is based on a 2004 Los Angeles Times article by Leslie Gornstein, titled “A jinx in the box?” which gives the film a conceivable claim to veracity.
The Times article tracked a mysterious box allegedly brought to this country by an aged Holocaust survivor, which went through the hands of various calamity-prone owners, until auctioned off an eBay. The high bidder was Jason Haxton, a medical museum curator, who investigated the story over many years and turned it into a book, “The Dibbuk Box.”
(The word “dybbuk’ comes from the Hebrew word for attaching oneself or clinging, and in English transliteration may be spelled with either a “y” or an “i”)
Just before the opening of “The Possessed,” the Geffen Playhouse concluded the stage run of “The Exorcist,” with a different approach than the famed 1974 movie, but also based on William Peter Blatty’s novel.
The timing is coincidental, but attests to the continuing fascination with the spiritual possession theme, especially in movies which reenact the viewer’s dreamlike fears while he is safe in his seat, said Edna Nahshon, professor of Hebrew at the Jewish Theological Seminary, who specializes on the Jewish theater.
The same theme is found in various forms in almost every culture and religion and, as in Jewish tradition, is almost invariably male and usually possesses a female soul and body. This scenario gives the possessed woman a “voice” to say what is normally repressed, including sexual desire, Nahshon said.
However, in the film, the gender identities are less clear, with the dybbuk considered female, according to director Bornedal.
Nahshon judged the movie as “effective,” but noted that “it doesn’t quite work with a non-Jewish girl as the victim of so specifically Jewish a spirit.” More importantly, she added, the movie deviates from tradition since the dybbuk never identifies herself nor the grave sin that brought her to her present state.
In our time, the dybbuk theme is still alive in the Hassidic world, Nahshon said, and is historically connected to kabbalistic teaching on the transmigration of souls.
As the current movie illustrates, the old folk tale can be easily adapted to today’s technological advances, which may actually spur a kind of latter-day revival.
“We live in a time when science and such innovations as computer-generated movies seem like magic. But we know it’s not the real thing, so we thirst for genuine magic,” observed Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple, who recently (6/29) wrote The Journal cover story on “Dybbuks, Demons and Exorcism in Judaism.”
Still, there are some limits to technology, as in one recent exorcism, which was conducted via Skype. It didn’t work, Nahshon reported.
The question remains whether there might be some truth to the story as represented in the movie, the Los Angeles Times article, and Haxton’s book, “The Dibbuk Box.”
English Professor Howard Schwartz of the University of Missouri-St. Louis, who has written extensively on Jewish mysticism and folktales, including an afterword to Haxton’s book, remains uncertain.
The book’s story is rooted in the actual world, with people sending emails and buying and selling on eBay, Schwartz wrote, but in the end he leaves it to the reader to decide whether the story is real or a hoax.
However, both Haxton and Schwartz shed some light on the mysterious box, which had apparently been used as a wine cabinet and was inscribed with words from the Shema prayer.
The current owner of the box is director Bornedal, who has buried it in his backyard. “I’m not superstitious,” he affirmed in a phone interview, and has proven it by wearing for a few weeks the ring found inside the box.
But even he acknowledged some twinges of concern while a plane passenger, flying at 30,000 feet and aware that the ring was flying along in his suitcase.
Bornedal speculated that the dybbuk’s possession of the girl Em was largely an allegory on her inner fears at a time when her parents were going through a bitter divorce. While shooting the movie, he concentrated on the job at hand rather than worry about the dybbuk’s alleged powers.
He maintained this attitude, even when all the neon light fixtures exploded one day on the set in Vancouver, Canada, and when a fire destroyed all the props used in the movie, shortly after the film wrapped.
That the dybbuk theme is alive was proven in the 2009 movie “A Serious Man” by Joel and Ethan Coen. It opened with a visit by a presumed dybbuk in an East European shtetl, while its central character is a man beset by all kinds of slights and setbacks neither he, nor the wise rabbis he consults, can explain.
As for the grandfather of the cinematic genre, the 1937 Polish Yiddish film “Der Dibbuk,” it has been restored by the National Center for Jewish Film (www.jewishfilm.org) and continues to enjoy considerable popularity.
In recent years, the restored “Dibbuk” has screened worldwide in venues ranging from the Austrian Film Archive to an outdoor screening at the Hollywood Bowl, said Lisa Rivo, the film center’s associate director.
Included in the center’s holdings are 44 feature-length Yiddish films, about half the estimated silent and sound Yiddish movies made in Europe and America, with many of them now lost.
Among the restored Yiddish films are “A Vilna Legend” (Dem Rebens Koyekh) and “The Vow” (Tkies Kaf). Both touch on the dybbuk theme, but with the star-crossed lovers happily reunited in the end.
September 2, 2012 | 12:09 pm
Posted by Tom Tugend
Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple has confirmed that he will deliver the invocation at the Wednesday (9/5) evening session of the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina.
His prayer will focus on the ideals animating the United States, Wolpe said, and will precede speeches by Elizabeth Warren, Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate seat from Massachusetts, and former President Bill Clinton.
In a bipartisan endorsement of the American rabbinate, the presentation by the Conservative Rabbi Wolpe will balance the invocation given by Orthodox Rabbi Meir Soloveichik at the opening session of the Republican National Convention in Tampa.
This year, Wolpe was named the most influential rabbi in America by Newsweek magazine and one of the 50 most influential Jews in the world by the Jerusalem Post.
He is the author of seven books and widely known as a newspaper columnist for national dailies and the Jewish Journal, and as a radio and television commentator.
August 16, 2012 | 12:11 am
Posted by Tom Tugend
Ari Ephraim Rubin, vice chairman of the Jewish Defense League long led by his father, Irving (Irv) Rubin, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound on July 20. He was 30.
Ari Rubin had been active since his youth in the militant JDL, which has long been rejected by mainstream Jewish organizations for its violent tactics, and he became vice chairman in 2006.
His death was ruled a suicide by the Los Angeles County coroner’s office, whose spokesman, Craig Harvey, said that a neighbor found Rubin in his car with the self-inflicted gunshot wound to his head.
The report was confirmed by Sgt. Marty Morrow of the Glendora police department, who said that foul play was ruled out, though no suicide note was found.
Local media did not pick up on the story because the family limited the announcement to a paid obituary in the Pasadena Star-News of July 25, while the coroner and police treated the case as a routine suicide.
Ari Rubin’s death continues the chain of violence that has ended the lives of the JDL leadership overall, and the Rubin family in particular.
Rabbi Meir Kahane, who founded JDL in 1968, was murdered in 1990 in New York by an Arab-American assassin. His son, Binyamin Zev Kahane, 34, was killed 10 years later, by Palestinian gunmen, while driving with his wife and five daughters to their home in a West Bank settlement.
Irv Rubin, Rabbi Kahane’s successor, was reported by officials to have committed suicide in 2002 in a Los Angeles federal detention center after cutting his throat with a jail-issued razor and then jumping or falling over a railing and plummeting to his death.
Rubin, 57, had been indicted and was awaiting trial for allegedly plotting to bomb a Culver City mosque and the offices of a California congressman of Lebanese descent.
Shelley Rubin, Irv’s wife, has consistently denied that her husband took his own life and filed a wrongful death suit against prison authorities.
In addition, Earl Krugel, who was indicted with Irv Rubin in the alleged bomb plot, was brutally murdered by a fellow prison inmate in 2005.
In reporting Ari Rubin’s death, the Jewish Defence League U.K. described his death as “another tragic loss for the Right Wing Jewish Leadership, first Rav Meir Kahane, then Binyamin Kahane. Irv Rubin and now his son. When will it end?”
In the obituary notice inserted by his family, Ari Rubin was described as a lifelong resident of Arcadia, who graduated with high academic honors from Pasadena City College and Cal Poly, Pomona.
“He shared his family’s passion and fearless advocacy of Jewish civil rights practically from birth,” the obit noted, and after his father’s death became responsible for JDL’s organizational strategies and development, while also serving as the group’s Web master.
In 2008, Ari visited Israel for the first time through the Birthright Israel program. He returned in 2010 to study at Aish HaTorah in Jerusalem, then “embracing the Orthodox Jewish lifestyle and striving to be a better Jewish man in the world.”
He is survived by his mother, Shelley, younger brother Kelman, and numerous uncles, aunts and cousins. Graveside services were held on July 24 at Sholom Memorial Park in Sylmar.
Ari Rubin leaves behind a different and weaker JDL than his father led. Although repeated attempts to reach a JDL spokesperson or family member were unsuccessful, two civil rights leaders, who have tracked, and strongly criticized, JDL over the years, believe the organization has fallen on lean days.
They attribute the decline to the death of Irv Rubin, which was followed by bitter internal splits and declining membership. While JDL claimed 13,000 to 15,000 members at one time — a figure considered vastly exaggerated by outside experts — it did receive some recognition in the 1970s and early 1980s, when its efforts on behalf of Jews trying to leave the Soviet Union elicited some support in the wider American Jewish community.
Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, told The Journal, “In recent years, JDL has become rather small and ineffective. Its rallies and protests have rarely attracted more than a dozen or so supporters.
“JDL and other Kahane offshoots in the U.S. that advocate similar Jewish nationalism (like the Jewish Defense Organization and the Jewish Task Force) are slightly more active, although their follow-through on planned events is also inconsistent. Meir Kahane’s ideology continues to have a following in extreme circles in Israel, but not under the JDL umbrella.”
Mark Potok, senior fellow with the Southern Poverty Law Center in Alabama, commented, “It’s been downhill since Irv Rubin died. I think [his successors] tried to look and perhaps be more moderate … but I don’t think they succeeded.”
On its Web site, JDL claims to have domestic chapters in Arizona, Los Angeles-San Diego, South Florida, Chicago, Louisiana, Michigan, South Carolina and Texas. A listing for New York contained the notice, “Our New York chapters are reforming. Please get in touch today if you’re interested in leadership or membership in New York and stay tuned for details coming soon.”
Beyond the United States, JDL lists chapters in Canada, Britain, Germany, France, Holland, Denmark, Sweden and South Africa. The Web sites of the German, French and British chapters showed enough activity to publish the obituary for Ari Rubin in their respective languages.
August 1, 2012 | 3:13 am
Posted by Tom Tugend
It took 64 years, with a detour to Israel’s War of Independence, but Mitchell Flint is finally getting to see the London Olympic Games, live and in person.
In the summer of 1948, Flint looked back on a four-year stint as a U.S. Navy fighter pilot in the Pacific during World War II and had just earned his degree as an industrial engineer at the Berkeley campus of the University of California.
At the same time, the newly declared State of Israel was struggling to defend itself from six invading Arab armies and, Flint recalls, “I’m Jewish, Israel desperately needed trained fighter pilots, so I thought I could perhaps do something to sustain the state.”
Applying for a passport in San Francisco, Flint was asked by an official about the purpose for his trip. It was illegal for an American citizen to fight for a foreign nation, so Flint, on the spur of the moment, said, “I’m going to London to see the Olympics.”
The Olympic Games had been suspended during the war years after the 1936 Nazi-staged competitions in Berlin. The 1948 resumption in London was dubbed the Austerity Olympics in Britain, where rationing was still in force, and visiting teams were asked to bring their own food.
Flint’s father, himself an American naval aviator in World War I, had died and Mitchell’s widowed mother was determined that her son, having survived one war, would not risk his neck in another conflict.
So falling back on his earlier fabrication, Flint assured his mother that he was just going over to watch the Olympics as a graduation present to himself.
He stayed in London just long enough to convince some distant British relatives to send pre-written postcards to his mother at given intervals, assuring her that he was fine and extending his travels to other European countries.
Actually his Israeli undercover contact sent Flint to Czechoslovakia to train in some rebuilt Messerschmitts, Germany’s main fighter plane during World War II, and then on to Israel to join the country’s fledgling air force.
Alongside a couple of Israeli pilots, who had served in Britain’s Royal Air Force, augmented by volunteers from the United States, Canada and South Africa, Flint got to fly – and crash – in unreliably reconfigured Messerschmitts, as well as Mustangs and Spitfires.
He remembers most vividly leading a strafing and bombing run on the Fallujah Pocket in the Negev, where encircled Egyptian troops, commanded by Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser (later Egypt’s president), were holding out against Israeli forces.
Returning to the United States, Flint settled in Los Angeles, switched professions to become a lawyer, married his wife Joyce, and welcomed two sons into the world.
Now 89, Flint, always a sports buff, mentioned occasionally how sorry he was not to have seen any of the events at the 1948 London Olympics. His son, Mike, listened and proposed that the two of them make up for lost time by flying to London for the 2012 Olympic Games.
Speaking from a hotel in the British capital, the elder Flint described attending the spectacular opening ceremonies, and plans to be on hand for the tennis and equestrian competitions, as well as the closing ceremonies.
On Tuesday (7/31), a television crew from NBC’s affiliate in Los Angeles broadcast an interview with the senior Flint, but son Mike, a movie producer, has more ambitious plans in mind.
Inspired by his father’s deeds and reminiscences, Mike has been lining up money and talent for a full-scale documentary feature on the birth of the Israeli air force, titled “Angeles in the Sky.”
The project’s website lists as director three-time Oscar winner Mark Jonathan Harris, writer Jack Epps Jr. (“Top Gun” “Dick Tracy”), composers Allan Jay Friedman and Jonathan Tunick, executive producer Mark Lansky and producer Mike Flint.
Oscar and Emmy nominee Carol Connors, who co-wrote the theme song for “Rocky,” was so taken by the “Angels” story that she has already composed a theme song for the film, Mike Flint said.
He is aiming for the film’s release in 2013 to mark the 65th anniversary of Israel’s rebirth.