“Walk Like an Egyptian” Re-Tooled as a Chanukah Song by its Very Jewish Singer

Experiencing your annual frustration that all Chanukah songs suck?  Well, here’s a sweet surprise.  Check out Susanna Hoffs, pop star and former member of The Bangles, re-tool their 1985 mega-hit “Walk Like an Egyptian“, to “Nes Gadol Hayah Sham” , a song all about Chanukah, here in performance with the great Aimee Mann* and Ted Leo. It’s not just that Hoffs is Jewish, by the way; she has yichus. She is the granddaughter of the late Rabbi Ralph Simon, who served Congregation Rodfei Zedek, in Chicago’s South Side Hyde Park neighborhood from 1943-87, was President of the Rabbinical Assembly (Conservative), and was a leading founder of Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, and, therefore, the entire Ramah camping movement. He was a larger-than-life community rabbi for his historical moment of big house Judaism, and inspired countless people. See him here, with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Hoffs’s uncle and cousin, Rabbis Matthew and Joshua Simon, were also prominent rabbisMore »

#TBT: Joan Rivers and Funny Jewish Women

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.


Robin Williams: A remembrance

This is a guest post by actor and stand-up comedian Yisrael Campbell whose show Circumcise Me is now running at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. 

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.

Are You The Living Embodiment of a Terrible Jewish Stereotype?

…then this production company wants to make you a reality television star!

Friday, Mar. 22, 2013, 12:06 PM
Reality TV
Pay Rate: $300 if cast for Demo

Prod. Co.: Matchbook Company
Casting Director: Morgan Evans
Interview Dates: April 9th, 2013
Shoot/Start Date: April 2013
Location: NYC

PLEASE EMAIL US AT: matchbookcompany@gmail.com

Those who will be cast will be taped for a pilot presentation to be pitched to major networks.


Looking for larger than life NY Jews with stereotypical personalities to create a cast for the next great reality series. This is a chance to work with a three-time Emmy award winning director and a top production company.

THE HAGGLER: Wiz in negotiating for anything. Get an extra thousand dollars off your new car purchase…PLUS free car washes for 5 years! Selling your home “The Haggler gets the brokers to kick in some of his fee toward making the deal. Buying a floor model Get it for practically nothing. The Haggler pushes the envelope and then pushes it further. Knows just how far to push before the deal goes sour. (Hairy Israeli type with gold chains, open shirt)

THE BANKER: Expert in investments and accounting. Getting the most deductions on your taxes without raising a red flag. How to invest for your and your children’s futures. Even teaches children how to start saving for their own college education. (Nerdy wimpy accountant type with glasses)

THE BARGAIN-HUNTER: Finds great deals on everything from luxury to low-end items. Expert in Coupons, day-old bread sales, free dinner on your birthday restaurants, two for one specials, doubling the value of your toilet paper, saving money across the board. Even has a diamond guy he wants to hook you up with. (a man or a woman)

THE MOTHER: An opinion on everything, she’s the Yoda for all advice. How to get over a cold, how to bag a man, how to make an excuse to get out of anything, how to make the perfect brisket, and perhaps most importantly, how to feed your family on pennies a day. (Big woman, always dressed up with a brooch and sparkly sequined top. Loud and thick accent, she has a natural humor)

THE PRINCESS: Perhaps the smartest one of all. She’s perfected the way to marry a man to pay for everything. (sexy and well-put together, you’re constantly at odds between wanting to sleep with her or slap her)

Wake the f**k up!

In August, Jewish Council for Education and Research approached author Adam Mansbach (End of the Jews) with an idea for a pro-Obama spoof of his profane book for new parents, Go the f**k to sleep, the video of which had been later narrated by Samuel L. Jackson for audible inc.  It was quite the hit with those whose children would not hit the sack.

The Jewish Council for Education and Research was previously responsible for Sarah Silverman’s “The Great Schlep” and “Scissor Sheldon” videos (did you think she did that all herself?). Rather than give his permission, Mansbach offered to write it himself and as the project developed, reunited with Samuel “Snakes on a Plane” Jackson to narrate and star in the project.  

The result is Wake the f**k up, a new video reminding us to vote (for  Obama) that is getting a lot of attention and play on the youtubes.

I don’t personally feel it any great accomplishment of craft or cleverness, but is noteworthy in that JCER is now officially a Super PAC, has  funding from George Soros and is using its funding to offer campaigns rooted in Jewish culture as a counterpoint to the Adelson cash flooding the election. Its also noteworthy in that it is circulating virally (voluntarily) rather than mass-cast on the airwaves.  Its not Ezekial 25:17, but it has about the same amount of profanity (you have been warned) and is just as entertaining.Watch it here.

Crowe to play Aronofsky’s Noah

Russell Crowe
Dario Cantatore/Getty Images Russell Crowe

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 comes on the heels of the quite public demise of another epic on The Maccabees following a biblical meltdown by esrt-while anti Semite Mel Gibson toward his scriptwriter Joe Ezterhaus, who brought us quality films like Showgirls.

“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.”

N0 kidding, Joe?  News to us… Who wants to eat?

More Jedis than Jews in the Czech Republic?!

Hilarious and amazing. This might be one of the greatest things I’ve read in quite some time. Apparently, there are just under 3000 Jews in the Czech Republic; however, according to the most recent census data, those in the Czech Republic who voluntarily filled in their religion as “Jedi” numbered over 15,000.

I hate to have to ask this, but would a Jewish Jedi be a Jew-di? Terrible, I know — forgive me.

The Most Important Film You Will Ever Watch

In what seems like a development only possible on the satirical pages of the Onion, Mel Gibson’s Icon Productions has just unveiled plans to co-finance a new film about Judah Maccabee, with Joe Eszterhaus of Showgirls fame onboard as screenwriter.  This is too good to be true. I mean, who better than Mel Gibson, the man who boldly asserted that Jews are responsible for all wars in the world,  to capture the quintessential epic military struggle of Jewish national religious pride versus the lures of assimilation?

I can see it now: in a creative twist on the Hanukkah story as related by the Talmud, Mel Gibson’s Hanukkah Tale: The Jews burn for eight days.

In light of this exciting news, I’d like to offer Mr. Gibson some free advice as preparations go underway for this sure-fire blockbuster:

Free Casting Advice to Mel Gibson from a Jewgirl Cinephile:

The first one is a no-brainer: we’re casting Russell Crowe as Matisyahu (if the connection isn’t obvious to you already, here’s a hint: follow the first link and check out 1Maccabees 2:46)

The role of Judah Maccabee is a tough call, but I think our winner is Vincent Gallo.

In his debut dramatic performance, Prince Harry of England will play Jonathan Maccabeus, and comedian Andy Dick will play Simon Maccabeus. John Hyrcanus will be played by Rick Sanchez.

Charlie Sheen needs a role in this cinematic masterpiece as well.  Let’s cast him as Eleazer Maccabeus.

We’re going to offer the role of Antiochus to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—an offer he surely can’t turn down.

Oh, and wardrobe will definitely be by John Galliano.

Well, time will only tell what choices Gibson will make, but if he sticks to my above plan, we’re going to have something even greater than The Passion of the Christ (2004).  Or, as Reb Yudel puts it, “If Gibson’s Hanukkah film succeeds, can his Tisha b’Av blockbuster be far behind?”

Incidentally, I vividly recall dragging a date to a Sunday matinee screening of his last Jew epic in 2004. We paid for two tickets to see Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights in the hopes that our tickets wouldn’t profit Gibson’s film, but later, a friend in the industry explained to me that films only benefit from concession stand money, not from actual ticket sales. Alas.  The film itself wasn’t particularly noteworthy, aside from its curious subtitling choices. While Gibson promised to cut out any direct implication of the Jews in Jesus’ crucifixion, the English subtitling did not always match the Aramaic dialogue onscreen. (I attended a high school which forced us to learn Aramaic. Now on facebook, I smugly resent that under the languages option, there is an “Aramaic of Jesus” and not also an ‘Aramaic of Rabban Gamliel.”)  We, along with busloads of young Christian children, some of whom were as young as four years old, proceeded to watch what amounted to two full hours of Jesus being beaten to a bloody pulp. ::Spoiler alert:: Jesus is killed.

We’ll take off our shtreimls if you put on more clothes…

I'd rather go nude than take off my shtreiml

I'd rather go nude than take off my shtreiml

Most of the world is perfectly fine with Pamela Anderson taking off her clothes. I admit I am. So are most of the Israeli men oggling her figure while the blond bombshell visits Israel this week as a judge on the Israeli version of ‘Dancing with the Stars.’

One might assume correctly that Israeli Hardeidim would feel otherwise, and indeed when Anderson visited the Kotel she managed to cover herself appropriately enough not to rile its self-appointed guardians.

But Anderson’s agenda in Israel was not limited to television appearances. She is an advocate for PETA’s anti-fur efforts and as luck would have it Israel’s Animal Welfare Law bans the import of real fur products.

The catch?  The bill has been stymied by United Torah Judaism’s MK Moses, a Shtreiml-wearing Belzer Hasid. Shtreimls are those funny looking fur hats worn by many men in several hasidic sects. And many a hasid is loathe to set aside their beloved head pelt. So what if its 90 degrees in the shade in Mea Shaarim? It would be sacrilege to shun the shtreiml.

And so it would seem that Anderson’s efforts to try and convince the Haredim holding up the bill to give up their shtreimls are for naught… Doubly so because if anyone is going to avert their eyes and ears from the charms of this shalicha, its Hareidim.

There are of course a multitude of other sorts of fur hats worn as well, notably the spodik, worn mostly by Gerers. The Gerer Rebbe, however, issued a chumra on the purchase of actual fur spodiks, as they are a sign of ostentation. Gerers wear phauz fur spodiks. Say that ten times fast…

So there is precedence of adopting altern-hat-ives among hasidim.  If she really wants to get the Hasidim to take off their fur, Pamela should maybe offer up the possibility of dressing tznius all the time… Or better yet, threaten not to and to parade around the Kotel again. The Hareidim would of course have a predictable response, but it might also have an unintended consequence- thousands of Chilonim thronging to the Kotel…

Ironically, there’s a wonderful related post on this by YESHA spokesman Yisrael Medad. And some nice pictures too, one of which is above.


On a lighter note, Jewish women in Hollywood are still a topic of discussion. In a recent Slate article Rachel Shukert gushes over the show madmen for its portrayal of… Jewish women.

Although there seems to be some breakthrough in how Jewish women are shown in popular media, somehow, writers – many of them Jewish men, while having no problem casting Jewish women as beautiful, write Jewish women as unpleasant.

On a technical level, this comes as no surprise—there is certainly no shortage of beautiful actresses who happen to be Jewish: Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Mélanie Laurent, Hollywood ur-Jewess Natalie Portman (whose name I can never hear without a preface of “why can’t you be more like …”). But they rarely, if ever, play explicitly Jewish characters—sainted Holocaust victims notwithstanding. Hollywood’s repulsion isn’t directed toward actual Jewish women, but toward its image of the “Jewish Woman” who even in 2010 is still consistently portrayed as bossy, obnoxious, pushy, materialistic, shrewish, gauche, and impossible to please: Mrs. Ari on Entourage, Susie Greene from Curb Your Enthusiasm, Jill Zarin from The Real Housewives of New York (a real person playing a fictional character playing a real person). Real Jewish women can laugh at these depictions, but they can sting, too, not least because they are so often manufactured and promulgated by Jewish men: our brothers and our cousins and our dads. I mean, is that what they really think of us?

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.”

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…

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 myjewishlearning.com), 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 »

The Original Jazz Singer

For the hillulah* of Reb Shlomo Carlebach.

*celebration of the anniversary of his passing.

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 »

Two gay Jews walk into a bookstore…

When I was younger, I was half convinced that all gay people were Jewish. Certainly, the only images of gay people I saw in the media were characters in the plays of William Finn, Tony Kushner, and Paul Rudnick. (That I considered Broadway plays to be “the media” is likely a unique feature of having been a gay, Jewish, middle-class kid.) I’ve remained a fan of all three writers ever since, so I was delighted to see that Rudnick had a new memoir out last month.

I Shudder is a collection of autobiographical essays very much in the David Sedaris mold, although Rudnick’s New Jersey Jewish relatives, New York theatrical exploits and Hollywood headaches provide quite a different framework for his humor. It’s to his credit that stories about his great-aunt Lil are every bit as entertaining as his account of visiting a real-life nunnery for inspiration while writing Sister Act. His only missteps come in the segments that give the book its title. Peppered throughout the book are “Excerpt[s] from the Most Deeply Intimate and Personal Diary of One Elyot Vionnet.” Rudnick certainly can write in character — his “If You Ask Me” column in Premiere magazine, written as middle-aged housewife Libby Gelman-Waxner was hysterical — but Elyot’s complaints about the insufferable people one encounters in life don’t measure up. These essays’ weakness is only made more visible by their inclusion in an otherwise fabulous collection.

Mental: Funny in the Head, by Eddie SarfatyRudnick isn’t the only gay Jewish funny man with a new collection of autobiographical essays. Eddie Sarfaty, a stand-up comedian who’s probably best known to those who summer in Provincetown (where he’s had a regular gig for many seasons) has produced Mental: Funny in the Head. I’ll say up front that it’s unfair to Sarfaty to compare his book to Rudnick’s — but they came out within months of each other, and I read them back to back, so what can you do? On the other hand, I have a soft spot for Sarfaty because he performed a stand-up show as one of Keshet’s very early fundraisers, back before anyone had ever heard of us.

My feelings on Mental are much more mixed. When it’s at its best, such as when Sarfaty writes about his relationships with older relatives, it’s both funny and touching. (His publisher has posted Second-Guessing Grandma, the first essay in the book, for free on-line.) But too much of the book doesn’t measure up to its best parts, and I found myself impatient for chapters on the comedian’s sex life to end so I could get to the good bits about his European vacation with his parents. The nice part of a book like this is that you can skip past chapters you don’t like without worrying that you won’t be able to follow what comes next. The essays aren’t presented chronologically, and when events from previous essays are mentioned, they’re explained as though the reader is encountering them for the first time. I loved roughly half of the essays, but could have done without the other half. (My favorites: “My Tale of Two Cities,” about the aforementioned European trip; “Can I Tell You Something?” detailing the comedian’s experience teaching a stand-up class for amateurs; and “The Eton Club,” a tribute to a certain kind of gay culture that died off with AIDS.)

Both Rudnick and Sarfaty profess their own distance from Jewish religion, but both books are infused with Yiddishkeit, from the focus on Jewish family dynamics to the meditations on how Hillel’s teachings might inform the way we partake in online cruising sites. Neither book is likely to inspire readers to find any great insights into Jewish culture, but I suspect most Jewschool readers will find many moments in each that provoke a knowing smirk of familiarity.


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.

The Unwatchable

unbornmovieposter1Just saw “The Unborn” on DVD – an unbelievably cheesy horror film about a young woman who is plagued by a dybbuk that has been haunting her family since the Holocaust. OK, I rented this one because my son told me that Gary Oldman played the exorcising rabbi. How am I going to pass that up?

Almost reaches the level of high camp – almost, but not quite. There’s lots of stuff you’ve seen in this kind of thing before (i.e. creepy dreams on dark rainy nights, the heroine prancing around for much of the movie in her underwear.) It also has its share of stuff I assume was meant to be scary, but mainly just left you scratching your head (i.e. an elderly man falls out of his wheelchair, twists his head around 180 degrees, and scuttles like a crab while chasing Jane Alexander through a kind of gothic elder care facility…)

Rabbi Gary Oldman was a bit of a disappointment, but he did figure in the movie’s most hilarious moment: he convenes a sort of interfaith exorcism minyan together with an Episcopal priest/basketball coach, who solemnly describes the exorcism ceremony to the heroine, then asks her to sign a release form before he can proceed…