Jew are you?

What of this Generation Gap?

Independent filmmaker Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon has released Generation Gap, an interesting short film about the impact of the Holocaust on three generations of his family, including his grandfather Wilhelm and father Julian.  Watch the entire Generation Gap film below.  Ungar-Sargon previously released the controversial feature-length documentary, Cut: Slicing Through the Myths of Circumcision.   His second feature-length documentary, A People Without a Land (more on it later), is post-production right now.

A good Jewish film not about Israel-Palestinian conflict, the Holocaust, or Hareidim?

I got to watch my good friend Josh Freed’s feature film Five Weddings and a Felony a few weeks ago at its premiere in DOC-NYC, New York’s Documentary Film Festival. Here’s a trailer:

The film was great – thoughtful, funny (sometimes painfully so), introspective, maddening, and somehow sweet. I was going to write a summary but the director, Josh Freed, does it better on the film’s website. Before I get to that though, I highly recommend this film for anyone who wants to showcase young, Jewish artistic talent and are willing to deal with the controversial and real issues that face young Jews today. For information on how to show the film in your community, email fiveweddings (at) gmail dot com.

I began making the film that became Five Weddings & A Felony when I was 24 as a courtship strategy to win over a woman I felt unworthy of, with no idea what I was doing, hoping just the fact that I was doing it would impress her. It (the film) was abandoned several times as I fled relationships I was afraid to commit to, but I kept returning to it because the women in my life just seemed so screen-worthy to me, and I hoped the footage might illuminate the mystery of why such beautiful creatures would ever be attracted to me. It didn’t. It shall remain a mystery. But over the 4 years it took to finish it, the film came to represent for me my slow march toward adulthood – as if only a complete document of all my selfish behaviors and irrational fears would allow me to move beyond them.

Though the film is full of my own idiosyncrasies, it also reflects a trend among my generation (you may say I’m messed up, but I’m not the only one). Some researchers and psychologists want to codify a new life stage, between adolescence and adulthood, called “emerging adulthood,” because we twenty somethings are taking our sweet time getting to those milestones – financial independence, marriage, children – that our parents achieved at 23, 24, 25. Emerging adulthood is marked, according to a recent New York Times Magazines article, by “identity exploration, instability, self-focus, feeling in-between and… a sense of possibilities.” And there are so many possibilities: for those of us whose parents are liberals from the 60′s – they encourage us to explore, find ourselves, try different relationships. Premarital sex and cohabitation are so widely accepted we don’t feel much pressure to get married. Even though the economy collapsed and we fear we’ll never have job stability, we know that the world is changing faster than it ever has before, which means more potential for exciting achievements (or, devastating failures).

At its heart, Five Weddings is a journey into modern courtship, with the unique intimacy afforded by the tiny Flip camera. Any woman who has ever been in the unfortunate situation of being attracted to a man-child like me will relate to it, as will all the guys out there who have ever been afraid of the idea of marriage and children. I know there’s plenty of you out there.

Fress. Kvetch. Shtup.

Your life is a mess. You’re tired of the routine, you’re constantly craving more of what you’ve already attained, and you find true satisfaction in nothing and in no one. Well here’s the quick fix:
1. Plan an expensive get-away.
2. No, actually, scratch that—plan three expensive get-aways.
3. But it’s not just the location that’s getting to you. You’re also sick of your significant other. So dump the schlub, give no real reason for your decision to break-up, and then…
4. Swear with almost-compelling adamancy that you’re not looking to be in a relationship—
5. then sleep with a string of people who look nearly indistinguishable from your former sig-o. The key here is that they all must be young, virile, and totally whipped.
6. All the while, make sure not to deny yourself any culinary pleasure.
7. Gleefully declare your independence from weight concerns, as you claim to gourmandize your way around the world, eat more—while still fitting magically into your ever-expanding wardrobe of size 2 sartorial splendor.
8. Seek counsel from at least two oppressed Third World women who are visibly ‘ethnically Other.’
9. But in the end, make sure that it is you who gives them advice. After all, what are you if not the paragon of discipline, self-control, and loving-kindness?
10. Find yourself…in the arms of a ruggedly handsome Brazilian.

Summarized  (in case we’ve lost you already): Eat without gaining weight, pray without believing, and love without…well, loving. In case you have not sacrificed 133 minutes of your life watching the film adaptation of Elizabeth Gilbert’s best-selling Eat Pray Love (which I have not read), the 10 rules outlined above will help you attain enlightenment, according to the film’s impeccable logic. Writing a review of this film, pointing to its almost laughably offensive hypocrisy and disturbingly classist, racist, and sexist messages, is like shooting fish in a barrel, and many have beat me to this task already. Instead, I want to reflect on the larger trends that this film and the book upon which it is based represent and how we can use Judaism to deal with some of these cosmic issues that the EPL cult supposedly tackles and resolves.

In this month of Elul, leading up the earlier-than-usual battery of Jewish holidays this year, we are charged with the task of intensive cheshbon nefesh, a kind of introspective reflection on our actions over the past year.   In the current climate of crassly classist and gender-coded self-help quick-fixes, traditional Judaism offers us a much-needed antidote to the kind of ‘me first’ mentality of NSA new-agey spirituality that this film so strikinglyeat-pray-love-02 emblematizes. EPL has to be one of the least Jewish films  out there: despite the protagonist Liz’s insensitive and exploitative treatment of most of the other characters in the film, never once does our well-fed world-traveler express any genuine remorse for her cavalier treatment and attitude towards others.  Perhaps most notable in Liz’s string of careless actions towards others is her bizarrely under-explained, sudden, seemingly arbitrary abandonment of her spouse at the very outset of the film. While classically “Jewish guilt” can be stretched to unhealthy limits, at the very least it affirms that which is most essentially human about us—our ability to feel, our ability to be accountable to others.

In Avot d’Rabbi Natan, chapter 41, we are told that we should regard even the slightest wrong we commit against another with utmost seriousness; whereas we should not dwell on the good deeds we have performed for others.  This is a near 180 reversal of the EPL approach which dangerously conflates boundless personal enlightenment with boundless self-entitlement.  In the EPL film, protagonist Liz Gilbert’s single outward act of kindness to others –the scene in which she ‘selflessly’ emails her friends, appealing to them for donations to help a natural healer and her daughter build a house in Bali—is piously prefaced by Gilbert’s self-righteous declaration that this request comes in lieu of her annual birthday celebration. The dramatic montage that follows of her friends receiving the email appeal signals to us that this Liz’s ultimate moment of enlightenment; this is her defining moment of ‘giving,’ Beyond the obviously paternalistic quality of the rich-white-woman-saves-the-struggling-natives, this scene smacks of the kind of  crass, self-congratulatory armchair philanthropy that lulls people into self-righteous complacency:  ‘I’ve written the check; I am now absolved of further responsibility towards my fellow humans.’

Real loving-kindness involves a long-term investment in the sanctity of the Other.  And no, not just that supposedly ‘significant Other’—rather, the acknowledgement of all other people as significant, and the realization that we must invest in them not only materially, but also personally. The way to grow with others is to take responsibility by being present in their lives. What Liz lacks is a sense of rootedness, the sense of unity upon which community is based.  All of Gilbert’s globetrotting points to an inability and lack of desire to commit to other human beings and forge authentic relationships.
Again, it is entirely unclear what exactly propels Liz to leave her husband at the outset of the film—all we’re told is that ‘things can’t continue this way,’ although we see nothing particularly alarming onscreen. In fact, what we see is all fairly typical and benign; Liz and her adoring husband are engaging in light banter.  All we know is that Liz cannot handle her life as it is any longer. What present-day in-vogue spirituality misses is the point that one can actually discover boundless meaning in the routine of real, mundane life. Patience and forbearance might be considered passé, but it’s the real deal.

Case in point: even the National Geographic-quality cinematography, with its wide lens doting lovingly on EPL’s glamorously sun-soaked characters and sweeping, exotic landscapes and, bursting with exuberantly lush colour, still fails to make us love the film or the figures portrayed therein.  In this film, everything—and everyone—is relegated to the status of ambient scenery…a Potemkin village populated by poorly developed stereotypes. Despite a good chunk of the film taking place in India and Indonesia, we are basically spared any unpleasant and ‘unpalatable’ scenes of actual poverty and suffering.

It’s 133 minutes of tantalizing culinary, spiritual, and pseudo-sexual foreplay. Nothingeat-pray-love-03 ever really materializes, except for the sheer ubiquity of the material forces driving the ‘action’ (if you can even call it that). Set against only the most breathtaking of landscapes, we watch Robert’s character shamelessly indulging in an endless parade of epicurean delights, nearly interchangeable, conventionally attractive young men, and more generally, snorting up the cocaine of petty affirmation through the regurgitation of self-help platitudes.  EPL, with its ‘money and men can cure all’ approach is panglossian at best, and is inhumanely narcissistic at worst.  In this past week’s Parasha, Parashat Ki Tetse, we read towards the beginning of the portion of the sin of gluttony (Deut. 21:20-21); a gluttonous son technically qualifies for death by stoning. Indeed, death by stoning would have made the film considerably more interesting.

One of the more amusing points of the film, which is replete with instances of consoling consumption and too many delightful moments of conspicuous product-placement to mention, is when Liz seeks “whatever” (let’s just call it that, since her Self seems like a lost cause) at an Ashram, and is told she can purchase a “silence” tag at the bookstore. Even the choice to remain silent must be purchased!  Indeed, instead of appealing the Master of the Universe, we are advised to whip out our MasterCard.

Interestingly, God is never really mentioned in the film. Only at one point, when Liz first decides to “pray,” does she sort of address ‘God,’ but,  like everything else in the film, “God” here functions ornamentally, much in the same way as all of her beaus blend into the landscape as figures she uses instrumentally, solely for the purpose of her immediate personal edification and comfort.  Clearly, Liz’s ‘prayer’ is more a signifying act than a genuine appeal or promise for anything. Indeed, that very brief ‘prayer’ scene typifies today’s NSA spirituality.

According to an April 2010 article in USA Today, a whopping 72% of the members of generation Y in the U.S. self-identify as “more spiritual than religious”: a diffuse, general sense of “spirituality” seems to prevail among the younger generation. Exactly what such figures mean is an interesting question.  Perhaps young people, jaded by the perceived hypocrisy of societal institutions involved in questionable military adventures abroad and eat-pray-love-04failed economic and social policies at home, wish to avoid the stuffiness of institutional structure as they seek personal meaning.  This avoidance of established institutions, while perhaps explainable, is, nevertheless, regrettable.  While more structured and specifically religious forms of meaning-making can be stifling, this is not the time to abandon all forms of committed/practice-oriented devotion.  If anything, the young have the potential to infuse these older traditions with a new, updated kind of meaning and help build a form of worship and practice that is better attuned to the needs and desires of today’s meaning seeker.  But practice-based, community-oriented religion has received an unnecessarily bad rap these days.

Don’t get me wrong—spirituality is a beautiful thing in its genuine form. But every intention needs a structure—a calendar and a location—and most importantly, a community.  As social animals, even the seemingly solitary act of self-improvement relies heavily on our interaction with others.  Admittedly, at a certain point, it is difficult to draw a line separating ‘religion’ and spirituality.’ Ideally the two converge to create the ultimate meaningful devotional experience. In a way, the two share many of the same potential dangers: exploitative leadership, false promises, extortion of money, and so on. But in today’s cult of “take time for You,” these dangers seem to proliferate with the false comfort of ‘all you can eat’ spirituality that cuts you off from any real sense of empathy, participation and activism.

Is Javier Bardem holding a banana? Really??

Getting back to the film for a moment though: even in her supposedly most vulnerable moments in the film, there is something decidedly smug about Liz’s spiritual odyssey, which culminates in a neatly-resolved scene where she pursues a relationship with yet another attractive man.  Having found ‘love’ (or at least lust), Liz’s journey comes to a eminently photogenic close. As we move through the month of Elul, it is critical for us to keep in mind that true seeking never finishes in a Hollywood ending, but rather, is more challenging and also more beautiful and infinitely more subtle.

As we reflect on the past year and plan how we can create more genuine religious (or spiritual, if you like) experiences in the year to come, remember the words of André Gide who said, “”Believe those who are seeking the truth. Doubt those who find it.”

Seeing “Budrus” in Ramallah

It is one thing to know that peace-loving Palestinians exist, but quite another to join several hundreds [700, I have since learned] of Palestinians giving a standing ovation five minutes long to a film about non-violence. Last Wednesday night, I sat in an IMAX-sized theater in the West Bank Palestinian city of Ramallah for the grand opening of Budrus, a documentary about a village that successful relocated the security barrier off their lands through peaceful protest. I was overwhelmed, galvanized.

Budrus is a film that challenges everyone’s preconceptions — Jew, Arab, other — and aims to pry open space in reluctant hearts. Five years ago, the village of Budrus successfully averted the construction of the security barrier from cutting off a majority of their farming livelihood and through their cemetery. The film follows Ayed Morrar, Fatah activist turned community organizer, as he unites with local Hamas leadership, the town’s women led by his daughter, alongside Israeli activists. It heals doubts across multiple themes: the divide between Israelis and Palestinians, the rivalry between Fatah and Hamas, the place of women in Palestinian society, and the use of violence. A more inspiring combination couldn’t possibly be more remarkable to see, nor to witness its raccous support by the people of Ramallah. More »

Old school Israel in Living Colour: give us the night’s bright colors, give us the greens of summers

Have you ever wanted to see how the newly-founded State of Israel looked in colour?  Now you can. 

During the first few decades of the State, Fred Monosson, a well-healed American Zionist, attempted to capture the everyday life in the newly minted State of Israel and the joie de vivre of the early pioneers on colour film stock. The footage (sampled in this video) also includes images from the ruins of post-war Europe.


The recent recovery of this rare footage—very nearly trashed after being discovered  in  the attic of the deceased Monosson’s Boston home—constitutes a story in its own right.   Thanks to Israeli filmmakers Avishai Kfir and Itzik Rubin, the film and the story of its recovery has been immortalized in a fascinating documentary, אני הייתי שם בצבע,  I Was There in Color, which premiered this April in the US. 

As producer Itzik Rubin suggests in the video, it is always fascinating how our collective memory of a particular historic period is irrevocably coloured and shaped by the media with which we associate it. We tend to imagine certain periods in the past as eternally “black and white,” with the somber, formal quality of standard history textbook illustrations. Part of the shock and beauty of this footage is precisely the everydayness of the images it offers.

On the other hand, these images are not exactly random or everyday: we see some of the state’s most celebrated political and military figures gracing Monosson’s lens, and the crowd scenes he captures are exuberantly happy—all this during a period of great suffering and struggle.

Perhaps the most interesting part of this clip happens at about 11 minutes in, as current Israeli President Shimon Peres recalls a warmer, less materialistic Israel of a bygone era.  Peres’ bittersweet comment about the old mentality, while it may also gloss on the social realities of the times, at least nods to what is not being said elsewhere here, namely, the shifting of attitudes and values in today’s Israel.

Does Monosson’s footage then filter early Israel through rose-coloured glasses?

Perhaps, but this is still some rather remarkable footage certainly worth watching.


“…makes you think all the world’s a sunny day”


(Hat tip to Dr. Grace Cohen Grossman, who brought this footage to my attention.)

Jewish Summer Movie Preview

Two upcoming movies I’m guessing the Jewish community will be discussing this summer: “Holy Rollers” (above), based on an apparently true story about Hasidic drug runners; and “The Infidel” (below), a wacky comedy about a British Muslim man who discovers his birth parents were Jewish.

My early reviews: the latter movie looks like a hash of the stupidest stereotypes of Muslims and Jews (tho I’ll admit that the final line in the trailer made me laugh out loud).

Re “Holy Rollers:” the peyos in “The Chosen” were more realistic…

Ever Fancied Yourself a Producer?

Three Boston-area Jewish professionals-cum-independent-documentarians are working on an hour-long documentary about Birthright Israel… and they need YOUR HELP!

Mifgash: Encountering Jewish Identity in the 21st CenturyThe project is called Mifgash: Encountering Jewish Identity in the 21st Century, and the filmmakers are about $800 away from their $10,000 goal. If you’ve ever wanted to see your name in the credits of a film, this could be your chance, for as little as $36. For a grand, you can become an Associate Producer. If you’re interested in chipping in, check out their page on Kickstarter.

From the trailer, the film seems like a Birthright lovefest, so I’m curious to see if the final project includes the voices of Birthright’s critics. Then again, the trailer also features at least one image of tefillin and no drunken hookups, so one wonders how much the film will really reflect the Birthright experience.

Reb Wallace Berman

berman_2A Gut Vokh oyf aykh un oyf kol Yisroel.

There is a lot to be said about the possibilities of Jewish film. We’ve heard about kollel guys turning the lens on themselves, Israeli filmmakers orchestrating the visual return of Jews to Poland, or Palestinian filmmakers depicting the society that excludes them.wallaceberman_wall1972-1973

Then there is Wallace Berman. Born on Shaolin Island in the Roaring 20s, his family made their way to California in 1930, just in time for the Depression. He was a member of many loosely organized bohemian camps. He’s often mentioned in the same catalogs as Artaud, Bukowski, and Burroughs – but like some tzadikim, he wasn’t exactly like any of them. Berman experimented with proto-xerography processes to create collages that upended conventions in postwar American art. The only film he made is called Aleph – and it brings together his interest in abstract visualizations and Jewish Mysticism.

Watch Aleph HERE.

Decade In Review: Best JewFilms of 2000-2009

Operating in JST, we still haven’t released our ‘best of’ series as we reflect upon the last decade. This is the first of several posts in which we will review various aspects of Jewish culture in the past ten years.

Let’s face it: if there’s one thing Jews do, it’s watch films (unless they’re ultra orthodox, in which case they absolutely don’t). If there’s another thing Jews do, it’s criticize. Allow me to indulge in both of these glorious activities. Right now.

 keepingupwiththesteins1We all have our favourite hidden ‘Jew’ moments in films. Whether it’s the chaotic hava naglia scene in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985); when we meet the Royal Tenenbaum’s pet bird Mordechai (2001); the Heveinu Shalom Aleichem scene in Todd Solondz’s Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995); the creepily touchy-feely prison counselor with a golden ‘chai’ dangling from his neck in the opening of the Coen brothers’ Raising Arizona (1987), or, of course, the fact that the second instance of music in the first-ever feature-length ‘talkie’ is non other than Kol Nidrei (The Jazz Singer, dir. Alan Crosland, USA, 1927), film is a landfill of subtle references to all things Jewish. 


Perhaps my favourite Jew film of all time, the 2009 Academy Award nominated film, A Serious Man, outdoes itself in this sense: instead of a few understated touches in the mise en scène, the film is wall-to-wall Jewish; my immediate reaction upon leaving the theater after having watched it for the first time was, “for whom was this film made??”  The answer to this question seemed, curiously, quite obvious, when, after viewing this film several times with a variety of  friends, it became clear that  the multiple, cryptic Jewish references  flew by my non-Jewish friends, leaving them rather flummoxed by their inability to access the critical subtext of this film.  Usually however, what I am calling here a ‘Jew film’ reads more accessibly to its general audience. Whatever Jewish element is present in the film is noticeable enough to humour those privy to the joke but also sufficiently subtle to camouflage effortlessly within the rest of the film, thus not disorienting or confusing the general audience. 

In our context here, a “Jew film” will be defined as one containing some prominent Jewish element, such as an obviously Jewish character, prominent mention of a Jewish holiday, or other Jewish cultural references. For the sake of this list, I have not listed every Israeli film that has been made over the past ten years. On the level of logistics that would be rather unwieldy; on the level of content, I do not believe that everything Israeli automatically translates into ‘Jewish.’

(I once had a highly awkward argument with Israeli author A.B. Yehoshua about this.) Disagree with me if you must, but I am correct.

Upon reviewing this semi-complete list, I find it rather unsettling that a sizeable chunk of these selections are Holocaust-themed films. That is to say, many of these films are transparent expressions of the Holocaust-as-Jewish-identity theme that has haunted international Jewry for the past 60-some years.  One would hope that in the process of healing from the catastrophic events of the mid-20th century, “Jew Film”, while not abandoning the memory ofwib2 past horrors, might equally embrace the more vibrant and varied—if sometimes confusing—aspects of 21st century Jewish culture and existence.

Finally, I’d like to thank the Academy*—er, sorry—a handful of good friends who helped me compile this list: Tamar Fox (of, fellow teutophile Sonia Gollance, and former film collaborator Izzy Moskowits.

*(For any Jewish Chicagoans reading this, I am not referring to the high school I attended.)


Raysh’s top ten Jew films of the 21st century:
Winner: A Serious Man / Waltz with Bashir (a tie)


The other eight, in alphabetical order:

Alles Auf Zucker! (dir. Dani Levy, Germany, 2004)            

The Bubble (הבועה) (dir. Eytan Fox, Israel, 2006)                                                      
Kedma (dir. Amos Gitai, Italy/Israel/France, 2002)                                                      

Mary (dir. Abel Ferrara, Italy/France/USA, 2005)                                                  

Monsieur Ibrahim et les fleurs du Coran (dir. François Dupeyron, France, 2003)                     

O Ano em Que Meus Pais Saíram de Férias (dir. Cao Hamburger, Brazil, 2006)

Palindromes (dir. Todd Solondz, USA, 2004)                                                              

Sarah Silverman: Jesus is Magic (dir. Liam Lynch, USA, 2005)


The collective Jewschool writers’top Jewfilms of the first decade of the 21st century list:

Arranged (dir. Diane Crespo/Stefan C. Schaefer, USA, 2007)        

The Believer (dir. Henry Bean, USA, 2001)        

boratBorat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (dir. Larry Charles, USA, 2006)             

Everything is Illuminated (dir. Liev Schrieber, USA, 2005)             

For Your Consideration (Christopher Guest, USA, 2006)              

Keeping the Faith (dir. Edward Norton, USA, 2000)                                              

Keeping Up with the Steins (dir. Scott Marshall, USA, 2006)        

Late Marriage  (חתונה מאוחרת) (dir. Dover Koshashvili, Israel/France, 2001)    

Loving Leah (dir. Jeff Bleckner, USA, 2009)                                     

A Mighty Wind (dir. Christopher Guest, USA, 2003)                     

Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (dir. Peter Sollett, USA, 2008)                                  

The Pianist (dir. Roman Polanski, France/Poland/Germany/UK, 2002) 

Trembling Before G-d (dir. Sandi Simcha Dubowski, Israel/France/USA, 2001)

A Serious Man (dir. Ethan and Joel Coen, USA/UK/France, 2009)                             

Sixty Six (dir. Paul Weiland, UK, 2006)

Ushpizin (האושפיזין) (dir. Giddi Dar, Israel, 2004)                                                           

When Do We Eat? (dir. Salvador Litvak, USA, 2005)

(Disclaimer: there are undoubtedly films I have missed here. This is where you come in: feel free to add more in the comments).



And here is every first-decade 21st century (2000-2009) ‘Jew film’ that comes to mind: More »

Srugim Update – Two more episodes Wed. night at the JCC, plus watch on The Jewish Channel!

Thanks to all the folks who came out last Wednesday for the NYC premiere of Srugim. We had a blast watching it in a big group and then meeting up for drinks afterward.

Mazal tov to everyone who entered the Srugim “Name that drink” contest.

  • First place: Naughty Nati (Chocolate Martini)

  • Second place: Ani Ekadesh (Champagne with blueberry essence)
  • Third place: Katamonster (Sam Smith English Ale)
  • Honorable mention: No Sex On the Beach
  • Folks will be gathering once again at the JCC in Manhattan tomorrow (Wednesday, Feb. 10) for the 3rd and 4th episodes of season 1 (yes there will be English subtitles).

    Not in NYC? Host your own watching party & catch it on the Jewish Channel on Saturday nights. [Note: TJC is available on cable -- iO Optimum ch. 291, Time Warner ch. 528, RCN ch. 268, Verizon FiOS ch. 900, and Cox Cable ch. 1. For more information, visit] Send some photos to editor-at-jewschool-dot-com & we’ll post them on the site. (Or just share them with us on facebook)

    Al Gore is GOD

    In Episode 4 of The Adventures of Todd & God: Bal Tashhit (Do Not Destroy), a godly Al Gore teaches Todd how to go green, just in time for Tu B’shevat!

    What Makes a Hero?

    What Makes a Hero?” is a rough cut of a promotional video I produced for UJC’s Jewish Community Heroes awards in 2009. It wasn’t used during the campaign, but I am happy to release this long form version of the video, which features interviews with about 25 people on the streets of New York City and Brooklyn. The video was recently presented at the Limmud NY 2010 Conference.

    Produced and directed by Jewish Robot, interviews conducted by Paul Berger, shot and edited by Simon Weaver.

    2009 Hazon Food Conference, Day 1–A shtetl in NoCal and a singing Jewish Cowboy

    It is so wonderful to be on the idyllic central California coast with 630+ people all interested in discussing the relationship between issues of food justice, nutrition, and the environment, and how it relates to the Jewish community. The participants here represent 5 countries, 29 states in the US, come from all sorts of backgrounds and identities, and are all here to forge community for the next three days.

    The breathtaking drive from Los Angeles to Monterey distracted me to the point that I was not able to make it to the conference center in time for the afternoon sessions that kicked off the conference, so below is a write-up of this evening’s events.

    As this is a Jewish food conference, we were treated this Christmas Eve to Chinese food and movies. While there were amazing movies to choose from, I chose to go with a documentary on the Jewish community of Petaluma, CA called “A Home on the Range,” which was directed and produced by Bonnie Burt and Judy Montell. More »

    Mohammad Bakri: The Fate of Oedipus

    Mohammad Bakri in "Laila's Birthday", showing at the Other Israel Film Festival, photo courtesy of NY Times

    Isaac Zablocki is the director of The Israel Film Center at the JCC in Manhattan and Executive Director of The Other Israel Film Festival

    When we at the Other Israel Film Festival announced the screening of Mohammed Bakri’s latest documentary Zahara (trailer), I was surprised to receive extreme responses from some members of the community. I believe this misled outcry is precisely the problem the Other Israel Film Festival is aiming to fix. Our primary goal is, through film, to open dialogue and promote understanding. The misconception some have of Arab citizens of Israel and particularly of M. Bakri is at the heart of our festival.

    I first saw Mr. Bakri in the flesh when I was in high-school. He played in a revolutionary production of Oedipus the King at the Jerusalem Theater. He stood as symbol of co-existence between Arabs and Jews and the ultimate image of Arab citizens of Israel. He was a household name in Israel and beyond, best known for his role in Beyond the Walls which was nominated for an Oscar. Bakri was a brilliant Oedipus, a master at his craft. The production was of Brechtian form and sought to remind the audience of relevant messages that stand behind the play.

    Bakri’s artistic performances transcend stereotypical Arab-Israeli politics. He is not foremost a Palestinian actor, but rather an actor first and foremost. Still, he connects art and social change and walks a fine line between these passions. It was clear he wanted to be recognized as an actor first and not as an Arab. And he achieved that.

    But then came the downfall. Like Oedipus, he went from being king to an enemy of the state. More »

    Jewesses in Hollywood

    “Lights, Camera, Social Action – Jewesses in Hollywood”

    Olivia Cohen-CutlerOlivia Cohen-Cutler, senior vice-president of ABC Television, chair of the Morningstar Commission, and board member of the Jewish Women’s Archive will lead a discussion on the diversification of the Jewish woman in Hollywood on October 28, 2009 at 7 pm at Temple Shaaray Tefila in New York.

    A few days ago, I had the chance to speak with her. As one would expect, she is a funny, well-spoken woman. At ABC she is, essentially, the censor: she ensures that community standards are upheld, including monitoring for obvious things like racial slurs, but also for stuff you might not otherwise notice. (I have to admit, all I could think about when she mentioned her job was John Waters‘ autobiography in which he talks of his interactions with the Maryland censors’ board, back in the 1960s when he was starting out.) But while I’m sure her job at ABC is really fascinating, what I was really interested in was the topic of her discussion: the changing face of Jewish women in television and on film.

    The Morningstar Commission was started in 1997 to counteract the nearly invisible faces of Jewish women. When they appeared in media at all, Jewish women were almost always portrayed negatively. Gallons of ink have been spilt over discussions of why many Jewish, male writers wrote Jewish women so nastily (a trend more or less started by the tiresome Philip Roth and Herman Wouk and continued up until today). My least favorite example of this in film being Keeping the Faith in which Ben Stiller can’t find a Jewish girl to marry because they are all self-absorbed, vain, or worse, but luckily for him his blonde, gentile girlfriend may convert! She’s good enough for him! More »

    Man tracht un Got lacht (but with us or against us?): A Review of A Serious Man (2009)

    Between services this Yom Kippur, I attended a talk by a revered and learned elder in my community. Michael had a number of urgent messages to share with us that day. One of them was that the biblical story of Job never actually happened. “The Job story never happened. They say so in the Talmud.” Here was a righteous man, who happened to be a Holocaust survivor, feeling the need to tell us, on Yom Kippur of all days, that the Job narrative was nothing more than a fiction with an abstract moral. He did not explain why he chose to speak of this particular subject, but it seemed as though he wished to assure us that no life could be as unbearable as Job’s.

    Michael Stuhlbarg stars as physics professor Larry Gopnik in writer/directors Joel & Ethan Coen’s A SERIOUS MAN, a Focus Features release.The next week, I saw the opening of the Coen brothers’ new film A Serious Man, set in 1960s Minnesota, with many scenes filmed at our congregation in St. Louis Park, MN. Seeing Michael, in his distinct, heavy Czechoslovakian accent, call the protagonist’s young son up to the Torah in the film’s climactic bar mitzvah scene caused me to view A Serious Man in an entirely different light. I began to consider the possibility that this film, centering on the multiplying woes of an earnest, unassuming suburban Jewish mathematics professor, was a modern re-casting of the Job narrative. Both in his personal life, which included his wife’s sudden announcement that she wanted a divorce, his children’s apathy, his neighbor’s hostility, and in his professional life, where his travails included the shocking attempt of a student bribe him for a passing grade and the frustrating uncertainty of his department’s tenure review committee’s decision, Larry, his glasses eternally askew and his life a mess, is beset with anxiety and ethical crises brought on by harsh and seemingly random circumstance. Larry’s troubles are decidedly modern problems, but the questions he asks are timeless. (Curiously, Michael – my fellow congregant who appeared in this film — was the only character in the modern American part of the film–which constitutes the bulk of the film’s narrative–to speak with even a trace of an old-world accent.) The Yiddish of the opening scene gives way to an affectively flat English which dominates the heart of the film. Only in this bizarre bar mitzvah scene are we reminded of that world, for a fleeting moment.

    This understated but extremely ambitious films tackles the formidably expansive subject of human suffering, but framed within a very specific moment of Jewish life in America.

    Formatted like a Talmudic discussion, the film opens with a piece of visual aggadah, a symbolic prefatory anecdote, a distinctly theatrical and subtly witty Polish shtetl scene, which could have come straight from the pages of Yiddish modernist writer Sholem Asch. While the Yiddish accent of the wife in this scene was a bit off, gestural richness abounded, amply compensating for any such technical shortcomings. The dybbuk character was portrayed masterfully by Fyvush Finkel, whose facial contortions alone were enough to recall the communal soul of a people of a bygone era. This was a world inhabited by spirits, talismans, premonitions, and acceptance of harsh fates.
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    So. Yeah. Thanks to JDub Records’ blog for pointing out that someone has got it in their heads to make an epic biopic about Moses–with green screen technology all around. So says the post at JDub:

    According to 20th Century Fox, “The Moses story will be told using the same green screen strategy as ’300,’ so it will feel more like that pic or ‘Braveheart’ than ‘The Ten Commandments,’ the 1956 Cecil B. DeMille film.”

    So this movie is gonna be kind of like if Moses led 300 ancient commando Israelites out of Egypt while epically battling Pharaoh, who, in this version, will have a mysteriously and inhumanly deep voice. God help us.

    The good news?

    The popular mythical and magical elements inherent in the Book of Exodus will be there–including the plagues visited upon Egypt and the parting of the Red Sea–but [this] version will also include new elements of Moses’ life that the writers culled from Rabbinical Midrash and other historical sources.

    Midrash, you say? Historical sources? Now I’m interested. Hopefully they’ll be wise enough to emulate DreamWorks, who, wile producing their super-awesome Prince of Egypt, hired acclaimed and also super-awesome biblical translator Everett Fox to be a consultant on the film.

    For more on my love of Prince of Egypt and or Everett Fox and of their connectedness, check out this post at The Reform Shuckle.