Love her or hate her, Joan Rivers, aleha shalom, was one of the most recognizable American Jews of the past half century and one of our most successful comics. By my count, she has been mentioned five times in Jewschool’s storied history, so today, for Throwback Thursday, here’s sarah‘s 2007 review of the San Francisco Jewish film festival, including a review of Making Trouble: Three Generations of Funny Jewish Women, produced by the Jewish Women’s Archive and focusing on Molly Picon, Fanny Brice, Sophie Tucker, Joan Rivers, Wendy Wasserstein and Gilda Radner. All six of these Mt. Rushmorians of Jewish comediennes have left us now. Rest in…oh, who are we kidding? Joan Rivers isn’t resting any kind of way; she’s working some crowd to find the laughter and absurdity in the awfulness of something in olam haba.
I came home from a busy day at the Fringe, handing out flyers all morning on the Royal Mile with hundreds of other actors and comics. I did my show—getting our largest audience and almost no laughs. But that is okay. I am a trained actor after all. I plop down on the couch in my empty 5 bedroom apt. When this trip was planned two families were going to be spending two of the three and a half weeks’ run here in Edinburgh. Then with the war in Gaza, my writing partner Gary’s family hadn’t come at all and in fact Gary had had to leave early. My wife Avital and our kids had only come in for four days. So instead of ten of us here, there is just me, in a five bedroom apt. Alone and doing the thing I love most —performing
I turned on the TV and not a minute later they broke in with news: “Robin Williams found dead in Northern California.” After Sky’s coverage of the war in Gaza I wasn’t sure they could be trusted. So I did what we do, I Googled it. Nothing, no one was reporting anything. So I did what we do when Google fails us. I tweeted it “Is this true? Is Robin Williams dead?” Sadly it is. Robin Williams is dead. Robin may your memory be for a blessing. It certainly has been in my case. The tweets and status updates are flowing strong. Finally, now, two hours later I find a tweet other than some form of Robin Williams is dead. And even as someone updates that she was chased out of a mall by police in Middle America while shopping for her daughter’s first day of kindergarten, and I realize that people won’t just write about Robin for the rest of our lives, and as the status updates move on, all I can think is Robin Williams is dead.
I met Robin twice. The first time was at a party for the premiere of the film Hook. It was at that party as I stood next to Robin holding a tray of pigs in a blanket that I heard Robin say the following words “When I graduated from Drama School (he had attended Julliard) there wasn’t enough work so I started doing standup.”
I’ve said that line a million times. It fit for me too. Each time I said it I thought of Robin. Each time I think: “Wow I’ve never had his career.” It isn’t just those two things we shared. We’ve both struggled with depression and addiction. He achieved more in his work. I seem to have achieved more in the arena of mental health. I’m not bragging—the game isn’t over for me. I could go down in the same shit storm he has, that’s the nature of the beast. But for today I won. I’m clean, I’m dealing with my stuff. Robin lost today and with that loss we all lost. With his death all of our lives will be sadder, have a little less laughter, a little less joy.
The second time we met was at the Comedy and Magic club in Hermosa Beach California. I was writing for a friend and he was middling behind Ray Romano. Evan called and said: “Come to the show tonight there’s going to be a surprise.” Well sure enough Robin showed up, and while Ray did his hour, six of us sat backstage. Robin was warm and generous he didn’t need to be the only funny one or the only one telling jokes. Then he went out on stage and got a standing ovation simply for walking out on stage. It doesn’t get any better than that. Expect to know that he was there to get his act tight for a fundraiser for Christopher Reeves’ charity for spinal cord injuries.
There is a story in the Talmud in Maseket Taanit that tells the story of Elijah walking in the market and he is asked “Does anyone here have a place in the world to come?” At first Elijah says no, but then he says, “Those two over there.” The narrator runs to them and asks what they do, and they answer “We make people laugh.” Surely the same is true for Robin. Surely he has a place in the world to come. If I weren’t living my dream, performing daily at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, seeing great comics and actors—many I’m sure inspired by Robin Williams— then there’s nowhere else I’d rather be than at the show tonight in heaven. Robin, Lenny, and Richard. It’s been so long since Robin was the opener.
The new doc by frequent Jewschool guest blogger Eli Ungar-Sargon is premiering on July 3. If you are in New York go see it. The film is by turns saddening, angering, depressing, and hopeful. What more can you ask?
July 3rd at 3pm at the Quad Cinema 34 W 13th St. NY.
Two years ago, on MCA’s “sheloshim“ (when I was still a guest-poster at Jewschool), I posted this piece trying to capture the depth of grief that some of us otherwise rational and well-balanced adults experienced over Brother Yauch’s passing. Every word still feels raw and fresh to me. For the man who put TiBeT in the popular American discourse, here’s today’s TBT for MCA. Namaste.
I’m not sure it’s healthy to adore short movies as much as I do. Much like a beloved album, it’s tempting to just play them over and over again. I am prepared to play I’m A Mitzvah over and over again. It’s one of those situations you’d pray would never happen to you: you’re stuck in a rural area of a foreign country, watching over your friend’s corpse for the night. The next day, you’re due to escort their corpse back to America. For the night, you’ve got a jury-rigged kaddish, a cardboard shipping container with your dead friend in it, and a lot of tequila. The film was successfully funded via Kickstarter last year.
Content Advisory: half-naked dead man, multiple graphic photos of a penis, a mostly naked late night swim, kissing.
This is a guest post by Chava Shervington. A passionate and committed Jewish diversity advocate, Chava co-founded an organization which created opportunities for Jews of Color to connect in safe spaces across the East Coast. Currently, Chava is honored to serve as president of the Jewish Multiracial Network, an organizational leader in a movement to make Jewish racial/ethnic diversity fully embraced in American Jewish life.
In recent years there have been a rash of documentaries of Muslim converts (or reverts as they are called in Islam), as there seems to be a particular fascination with white Westerners who decide to take on Islam. Most of these documentaries focus on the motivation of the convert, the reactions of their families and communities, as well as their adjustment to adopting Muslim law and social customs. ”Mom, Dad, I’m Muslim” is both a unique story and a missed opportunity. While there have been many stories of converts to Islam, this one had the potential to explore an entire range of issues besides the usual family tension and personal struggle, but it barely scratches the surface of the story of Maor, a young Jewish woman in Israel who converts to Islam.
While there is definitely focus on Maor’s family (a hodge podge of characters, including an anti-religious brother, a Kahane supporting father, an increasingly observant mother and younger brother, a confused younger sister, and feisty grandmother), we only seem to get half of the story. Everyone outside of her grandmother seems to be supportive of her religious choice and allows her to exist on the periphery of their traditional Jewish lives. For the most part they seem to express apathy with her choice, but support her out of love. Her grandmother is the only one who ever vocalizes strong opposition to Maor’s new religious conviction, although even though her mother vocalizes her support, under the surface their seems to be a genuine hope that this is only a phase. There seems to be a concerted effort not to ostracize her for her conversion. While her family makes Kiddush and hamotzi for Shabbat dinner, Maor sits silent at the table in her hijab, at a Yom Hazikaron ceremony she stands silently while her family and others proudly sing Hatikvah, she’s obviously strongly connected to her family members, but at the same time completely disconnected from their Jewish identities.
Unfortunately, that disconnection is never truly explored. Maybe it’s because as with many converts (to any religion) she finds the motivations for her conversion difficult to express. When asked by her younger sister, the answer is couched in a metaphor of white roses, but essentially boils down to “because that’s what I think G-d wants from me”. But for us as an audience it feels like we a) came into the story halfway and b) only get half of the story.
As a Jewish watcher I was left with so many questions: What was Maor’s Jewish background prior to her conversion?; Did she ever explore Judaism further? How are the things that appeal to her about Islam-modesty and interactions between women and men-different from traditional Judaism? How does she relate to her Jewish identity? Did she experience any emotional conflict with changing her identity? Has her conversion affected her relationship to the state of Israel? We learn of her strong connection with Arab Muslim classmates from an early age, and the death of one in particular seemed to affect her strongly, but because we know so little about her interaction with the Jewish community all we’re left with are questions.
There are so many topics introduced and barely covered, particularly those things that make this such a unique conversion story. As a Jewish Muslim convert in Israel, Maor, must do more than take the shahada (Islamic creed declaring the oneness of Gd), she must undergo a formal conversion with the government so that she will be allowed to marry a fellow Muslim. We learn absolutely nothing about what that involves, how long it takes, or what she must undergo. When she changes the nationality on her identity card, does she experience hesitation or only relief? (Spoiler—she does find a Muslim husband, but we learn absolutely nothing about the process and/or how her unique circumstances factor into her decision.) One minute she’s talking about starting to look for a husband, the next she’s looking at his picture online, two minutes later she refers to him as her fiancée. It’s a completely unexplored whirlwind.
One thing we do understand throughout this film is how incredibly lonely Maor’s journey is. When not at home or running an errand with her family, she’s shown walking and sitting alone. No one in her community speaks to her; she is the constant subject of stares and is questioned by both Arab Muslim and Jewish communities. The story flows from one scene in a restaurant when she’s questioned by Muslim customers and workers: “Is she Arab, is someone in her family Arab, where does she live, is she married” to a Yom Hazikaron ceremony where she faces the same questions from Jews, along with assumptions such as that she must have grown up not surrounded by Jews, she must have no connection/relationship with her family, etc. It isn’t until almost three quarters through the film that we meet a friend outside of her family, Lital, another Jewish convert to Islam.
As the film ended, I was left with so many mixed emotions; I could only wish her happiness in her journey, yet feel sadness about her path, and continue to wonder how she got there. I’m not sure it’s a story I as a committed Jew could ever feel completely comfortable with, but still wish I could appreciate her story and motivations, but this film left so many topics unexplored, I’m not sure we as the audience can get there.
By no accident does Fill The Void begin in a supermarket. That a religious mother and daughter would spy on a potential suitor in as banal a site as a supermarket is funny precisely because it is banal. But as much as the scene plays with a caricatured image of Haredi women (where else would a housewife be outside the home?), it plays against it. The story begins with a seal of disapproval—not from a rebbe, but rather curiously, from the gaze of a mother and daughter—eying a potential match for the daughter. The young girl’s possibilities might be limited, but she has choice in the matter. Or so it seems. After all, it’s she and her mother who snoop on the Hasidic suitor in question—not the other way around. The viewer is not entering, as framed by the opening scene, a matchmaking marketplace where women can be acquired like a product on an aisle shelf.
Fill The Void is a tale chock full of reversals—of things that lie outside law altogether, in the realm of the extrajudicial. Unsurprisingly, the film begins with the backward temporality of Purim. And as the plot moves forwards, the more it unravels backwards. A young mother dies, leaving her widowed, crestfallen husband with a motherless child—a mirror image of yibum, the Levirite marriage, where one brother dies and the next brother marries his sister-in-law. But the film stages the scenario in reverse. And the reversal is instructive. An unexpected tragedy forces the family to confront what happens when a void, a chasm, a cleavage, opens—when not law, but sticky interpersonal subjectivities, rule supreme. What happens when religious actors in their daily performance of ritual have no script from which to read? When the choreography has-yet-to-be-penciled-in? And, in this space of extrajudiciality, is filled the precarity of feeling. An unmarried, eighteen-year old girl must navigate the vertigo of defining where agency and restriction lie in a space outside the bounds and boundaries of law. As revealed in a most poignant scene, the rebbe asks her:
“[So] what does the daughter feel about thematch?”
“This is not a matter of feeling,” she retorts with restraint.
“This is only a matter of feeling,” the Rebbe responds gingerly.
The film captures, with a minimalist aesthetic, the claustrophobia of a family in mourning. Their apartment becomes a feeling organism—radically open at times and frightfully closed at others. It can stretch to accommodate swarms of guests and then retract back into itself, with the touch of a sliding door, into chambers of intimate solitude. Alcohol reveals secrets. Cigarettes calm nerves. And the Karliner niggun, “Kah Echsof,” is sung earnestly as the women stare blankly onto the dishes of a set Shabbos table.
And when she quakes tearfully in a wedding gown with the purest devotion of dveykus to the recitation of Tehillim—beside her mother and aunt—the camera navigates across the ritual geography of the wedding. It glides from the wedding chair—a safe domain of feminine kinship—to the chuppah—a liminal, makeshift home—and ends inthe yihud room. Between the seen quivering moments of intimacy (with the divine) and the unseen quivering moments of intimacy (with her husband) is formed a visual dialectic between the concealed and revealed. And as soon as her husband enters the yichud room and places his fur hat on the rack, the camera pans on her face—wan with the terror of the unexpected. The movie ends. Black fills the screen. But so much is filled in the void.
April 19th, 70 years ago, the Jews in the ghetto rose up against the Nazis. The day before Pesach, the day they were to be deported to certain death, they rose up and fought for as long as they could. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was ended on May 16th. I’ve been thinking a lot about it lately, in part because it’s the season, as it were, for remembrance and anniversaries.
I appreciate the extent of knowledge we’ve gained about the Shoah, but revisiting the past with no return to the future makes me uneasy. It ignores history since then, it makes us seem like a people who no longer live and breathe. So today, I wanted to highlight some Kickstarters that are telling the stories of Poland’s Jews, neither ignoring the Shoah nor focusing solely upon it.
In Broken Branches, animator Ayala Sharot tells the story of her grandmother, Michal Rechter. Rechter was sent from Poland to Israel by herself, on the eve of WWII. She never saw her family again. In a mix of line drawing animation, animated scenes, animation adapted photographs and oil paint-glass animations, she tells the story of her grandmother in 25 minutes. Sharot’s work that we see in the trailer is talented and well-suited to how she’s framed the story being told. The project has squeaked into being funded, but still has a few weeks to go.
In Adam Zucker’s documentary The Return, the documentarian takes his skills to Poland. Jewish life is still reviving, defining itself, exploring an identity that stretches into the past, but the future as well. In his project’s description it says “The film tells the very human story of acknowledging the past without being beholden to it.” The women the documentary focuses on are all negotiating identity, in a Jewish community devastated by a war from before they were born. The Return has a few weeks to go as well, but still has more than $25,000 to go. What footage is in the trailer looks like it was shot with a keen eye, and I look forward to seeing where the project goes.
For almost two decades, my relationship with the Western Wall, or Kotel as it’s known in Hebrew, has been deeply fraught. Having been raised in a religious Zionist family, I was taught as a child to revere “these stones that have the hearts of men” as sacred. But one year, when I was 15 years old, I had an experience at the Wall that changed all that.
It was the holiday of Shavuot and the custom in my hometown of Jerusalem, was for people to stay up all night studying Torah and then walk to the Kotel to pray at dawn. Having participated in an early prayer, I was on my way out of the plaza when I spotted a few dozen non-Orthodox men and women gathered in the parking lot. Before they were able to get very far into their egalitarian service, the group was surrounded by a jeering mob of ultra-Orthodox thugs who yelled insults and threw garbage and dirty diapers at them. I remember standing with the non-Orthodox group in solidarity until the police arrived and forced us to leave.
Today, I am no longer a religious Zionist. For the past four years I’ve been working on a film about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that has upended the way I think about Israel, Zionism, and my own Jewish identity. Indeed, I now know that the Western Wall plaza is actually the site of a disturbing crime. A mere two days after capturing the Old City of Jerusalem in 1967, the Israeli military approached the residents of the Moroccan quarter, which ended just meters from the Western Wall, and asked them to leave. When they refused, their houses were demolished and they were expelled. More than one hundred Palestinian families were made homeless that day and at least one woman was killed during the demolitions. They were not the first Palestinians to be treated by the State of Israel in this manner and they would not be the last.
In a way, the internal Jewish dispute over who gets to pray at the Kotel is analogous to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The logical and just solution is for everyone to be able to share the space equally. But one group claims exclusive rights and uses the violence of the state as a vehicle to maintain its privilege there. The difficulties in achieving a just solution are not practical so much as they are psychological and emotional. Moreover, the problem is not the presence of Orthodox and non-Orthodox worshippers in the same space. The problem is the inequitable orientation of the police toward the two groups.
I’m hopeful that the latest proposal by Natan Sharansky to solve the problem of non-Orthodox prayer at the Kotel will work. After all, most Israelis do recognize that Jews of different stripes have an equal right to pray at the Western Wall. And what a small step it would be to go from that to seeing the other half of the population living between the Jordan and the Mediterranean, along with their brothers and sisters in exile, as having an equal right to share the land. Perhaps it’s time to shift our focus from “the stones with hearts of men,” to “the men with hearts of stone.”
This is a guest post by Alexander Bodin Saphir, a filmmaker, playwright and current ‘author in residence’ at London’s Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital.
At last month’s Oscar ceremony both Israeli documentary nominated films — The Gatekeepers and 5 Broken Cameras — which are critical of current Israeli government policy, lost out to Searching for Sugarman. The fact that they lost is not particularly noteworthy (winning an Oscar is even more of a crap-shoot than getting onto the short list).
But what was noteworthy was the response of Limor Livnat, the then Minster for Sports and Culture who was more than happy that neither Israeli nominated film won the coveted Oscar. Admitting to Haaretz ‘that she did not even watch the Oscars award ceremony on Sunday and felt no anxiety about the announcement of the winner in the Best Documentary category. “I was anxious mainly because I wanted Lincoln to win best director,” Livnat said with a grin’.
When four Israeli organisations representing producers, directors, screenwriters and documentarians sent Livnat an open letter of protest she responded with incredulity, “I was shocked by your shock … I, who am opposed to censorship, call on all of you to [conduct] self-censorship. After all, Israel is a democracy to be proud of, but a democracy that is on the defensive, because lined up against 5 Broken Cameras are thousands of families that have been destroyed by Palestinian terror. You do nothing about that − you don’t make movies, you are living in a movie…” (Livnat’s favourite book, according to her Facebook page is George Orwell’s 1984. You can’t make this stuff up!)
And all of this is happening while the Israel Film Council instigate new funding parameters, which the Likud minister hopes will stop the production of Israeli films that “slander the state of Israel before the whole world.”
Forget for a second that Winston Churchill was adamant that “Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.” What is all the hubbub about?
Two sides of the same story?
It’s fascinating that these two films should be released and nominated the same year as although they are two very different kinds of films, they are dealing with similar issues, albeit from contrasting perspectives. More »
When Hava Nagila: The Movie played the Boston Jewish Film Festival last year, I rolled my eyes and opted out of what I assumed would be a twee, cloying tribute to the ubiquitous anthem to American Jewish vapidity.
But when, three weeks into my relocation to New York City, a friend asked me if I wanted to take his second ticket to see it at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, I tried to stifle my skepticism in favor of a night out in my new home.
I was prepared for a nostalgic campfest, and while there was an element of that, the film was also surprisingly moving and educational. I even got a little teary-eyed during the segment with Harry Belafonte. I was surprised to learn the film was created by the team behind the excellent Hannah Szenes documentary, Blessed Is The Match. Director Roberta Grossman and producer Marta Kauffman said that after they completed their Szenes film, both women’s daughters asked them to work on a happier project – hence “Hava Nagila.” And while this is a happier film, it doesn’t shy away from a number of challenging questions about Jewish engagement, the Israel/Diaspora relationship, and the blooming and wilting of various strains of Jewish culture.
The movie begins a national roll-out this week. If it’s playing near you, check it out.
The following is a guest post by Efrem L. Epstein. Efrem is the founder of Elijah’s Journey, an organization focusing on the issues of suicide awareness and prevention in the Jewish community.
For several months now I’ve joked about the potential lawsuit I could file against Matthew Quick, author of the novel “Silver Linings Playbook” from which the film nominated for eight 2013 Oscars is adapted. On first glance, Pat Peoples (renamed “Pat Solitano” in the film) could only be based on me. We’re both die-hard Philadelphia Eagles fans, who took up dancing as a hobby, spent time living in Baltimore, wrestled with issues of life’s purpose and idealized love and battled the demons of depression and won (K’eyn Ayin Hara). In reality, I am hardly the only person in the world who can relate to Pat. Depression affects 350 Million globally and, in the U.S. alone, there are 1,000,000 suicide attempts annually. Many are surprised to learn that reported suicides outnumber homicides by more than a 2:1 ratio (and if one were to account for unreported/unconfirmed suicides the ratio would likely be closer to 3:1). In thanking David O. Russell after her SAG-AFTRA Best Female Actor win, Jennifer Lawrence proclaimed, “You made a movie for your son so that he wouldn’t feel alone, and so that he could feel understood. And I think I can speak on behalf of most of us and say that you helped more than your son. You’ve helped so many sons and daughters, husbands, wives, everybody.”
The positive lessons that can be learned from Silver Linings Playbook are so numerous that at times it feels like an entire social justice curriculum…and a good one at that! Not only does the movie enlighten us about tolerance and acceptance but it also offers some fresh and rich insight on how we as a society can move past many of our stubborn stigmas regarding depression, mental illness and emotional disorders (three cheers for Pat’s character being portrayed as both desirable and dateable even with his demons and flaws). And let’s not forget the lesson about how so many of our personal relationships (romantic, platonic and family) can be improved through more open and honest lines of communication. Silver Linings Playbook has also been a wonderful conversation-starter that has prompted many public figures to further share their own stories. I strongly recommend reading former Congressman Patrick J. Kennedy’s piece from The Daily Beast.
But the movie is especially poignant in my eyes for offering up a “playbook” of sorts for handling life’s curves. Life is, and should be, full of dreams but the dark side of dreams is that they often get shattered! Six months before Pat Solitano appeared on movie screens, Vice President Joe Biden gave many of us in the suicide awareness/prevention movement our own “Jackie Robinson moment.” Recalling the tragic accident which claimed the lives of his daughter and first wife, he recounted, “”For the first time in my life, I understood how someone could consciously decide to commit suicide…because they had been to the top of the mountain and they just knew in their heart they’d never get there again.” As we watch Pat move on from his old dreams to build new ones, we realize a truth of life: Bad things do happen to us and sometimes REALLY bad things happen to us, but even amongst our most shattered dreams there is always a road back to happiness. “Folks, it can and will get better,” Biden told the audience later in his speech.
Cartoonist Nina Paley has been working on a (potential) feature film called Seder-Masochism, and earlier this week she released a first look, which is also its last scene. “This Land Is Mine” illustrates the battles over the patch of land that’s been known as Canaan, Israel, Palestine, etc. in a way that’s reminiscent of Chad Gadya without the animals. Check it out:
Following Earth Day it seemed appropriate to share that Academy-ward winning actor Russell Crowe will star in director Darren Aronofsky’s (Black Swan) feature film about the biblical boat builder, Noah. The film will be released spring 2014. Crowe’s depiction of Jewish detective Richie Roberts in American Gangster keeps coming to mind, how he was such an everyman. Now he’ll get to be an ish tzaddik tamim haya b’dorotav(A righteous man in his generation). Exciting. Hunky. Noah. I can’t wait for the musical. I wanna hear Crowe say, “I’m on a boat!”
“The news prompted the “Basic Instinct” writer to allege in a letter posted by the Wrap that Gibson, who was to produce and possibly direct the film, never wanted to make it because, as Eszterhas said of Gibson, “You hate Jews.”
In the 1920’s, Soviet filmmaker maverick Lev Kuleshov demonstrated how the juxtaposition of distinct, isolated filmed images can suggest psychologically-charged narratives: for example, a shot of a relatively ‘neutral’ gazing face followed by a shot of a bowl of soup leads viewers to understand that the person in the first shot is hungry. This all-important editing technique in cinema routinely forces us to forge narrative meaning and continuity by connecting isolated images and scenarios. It takes a particularly gifted filmmaker to transcend and even reverse such a tendency in the process of creating dramatic tension.
Such a filmmaker is Joseph Cedar, who most recently directed the dark comedy Footnote. At the very start of the film, the audience is required to interpret the context—in this case, the induction ceremony of the Israeli Academy of Arts and Sciences scene—based on the face which confronts us, and not vice versa. Via a tight medium close-up shot, we are introduced to Uriel and Eliezer Shkolnik, a son and father situated side by side amidst the assembled crowd. We later learn that have both spent their professional lives as academics. Uriel ultimately disappears from the frame (as we soon learn, from the off-screen dialogue, to ascend to the podium and accept the honour of his induction to this society), but the camera remains fixed on the singularly disturbed visage of his father. As we watch Eliezer’s almost haunted, blank expression, which suggests a deeply repressed quiet fury, we also listen to Uriel’s acceptance speech, in which he relates an anecdote from his early childhood involving his father. Read or heard in isolation, the speech would most likely appear benign–even gracious. However, as we absorb the tortured, humiliated look of defeat fixed on Eliezer’s face as the camera gradually positions him in the frame’s center throughout this long take, and as we listen to the polite collective laughter punctuating Uriel’s clever moments of public oratory, it is nearly impossible to not interpret the son’s words as anything but the severest cruelty. More »
I am something of a Jewish education crumudgeon. In many years in the trenches working with teens, I saw lots of failed attempts by well-meaning innovators to marry Torah content with 21st-century technology. But while Second Life classrooms have turned to ghost towns and the web is littered with class-project blogs that stopped after one post, G-dcast is going strong.
Perhaps the real strength of G-dcast is that it doesn’t try too hard, and I mean that in the most complimentary way possible. G-dcast works because the concept is simple: invite creative people to narrate a bit of Torah (or a bit about a Jewish holiday), illustrate their narration with animation, and release them for free on YouTube. (Once they got established, G-dcast added some smart extras like a DVD version and complementary curriculum for use in classrooms.) But really, the magic formula of short, entertaining, and free should be studied (like Torah!) by anyone else hoping to break into this field.
And speaking of breaking into the field, that’s where G-dcast’s latest innovation gets me all tight in the pants. They’ve announced plans for Studio G-dcast, a six-day intensive workshop this summer for emerging writers, poets, singer/songwriters and animators who are currently in college or graduate school. This has the potential to be the artistic beit midrash of the future today, where people who tell stories through words (& music) pair in chevruta with those who tell stories through pictures and motion to uncover meaning in our sacred texts. See why I’m getting all tight in the pants?
Application deadline is Friday, March 9, so get crackin’.
A few years ago, my roommate had a Miss America pageant watching party. The only way to get through such a thing, if you choose to indulge in it in the first place, is to attack it with an unparallelled level of snark, such as the world has never seen, which we did. That was the last time I saw a beauty pageant, until today.
“Defining Beauty: Ms. Wheelchair America” is a feature included in the Reel Abilities: NY Disabilities Film Festival, a project dedicated to promoting awareness and appreciation of the lives, stories and artistic expressions of people with different disabilities, founded by the UJA-Federation. Director of the Israel Film Center at the JCC in Manhattan, Isaac Zablocki, who also directs the festival, told me,”The film celebrates an inclusive society, which I believe is something very important to the Jewish community.”
Ms. Wheelchair America is a beauty pageant, seeking to provide an opportunity for women to educate and advocate for folks with disabilities. Women between the ages of 18 and 60 and who rely on wheelchairs as the their primary form of mobility are eligible. The documentary, directed by Alexis Ostrander, follows five women as they compete for the title of Ms. Wheelchair America.
The film is unflinching; early on, Amber Marcy (Ms. Wheelchair America Michigan 2009) tells the camera that she “took a dump in my pants” before her first meeting with the judges. She and Alyson Roth, Ms. Wheelchair America California, discuss how complicated it is to control their bowels and get into the handicap stalls when they need to. A central theme throughout involves confronting truths, as well as the stereotypes and misconceptions about disabled women. Michelle Colvard, Miss Wheelchair America 2009, said, “Either you’re a hero or you’re a victim.”
The line between hero and victim is indeed blurred as we learn more about the five contestants. Identities get more complex as the film goes on-Erika, the single mother with three children whose spinal injury is the result of an abusive boyfriend, is criticized by her mother and the father of one of her girls for making bad decisions. Alyson, an overachiever whose reaction to her injury has been to start loving Jesus a lot, spreads a rumor that Santina, another contestant, has been making pornography catering to those who fetishize disabled women.
It’s worth noting that all the winners of Ms. Wheelchair America listed on the website are white skinned women. While we’re told throughout that Ms. Wheelchair America is supposed to be an atypical pageant, there’s an evening gown competition, montages of the women putting on make up are featured, and the panel of judges seems to be largely middle aged, able bodied white dudes. The narrator of the film, Katey Sagal, reminds us that although the contest is about achievement, advocacy and education, the contestants still really want to win. The parents of the contestants say things like, “It doesn’t matter if you win, you’ve already won.”
“Defining Beauty” is a challenge, full and honest and complicated, which in my opinion, is the best kind. You can still catch it, with the rest of the films in the Reel Abilities Festival. Check them out here.