6/24: Fiddling in Brooklyn

CertificatePSHHuge thanks to my schvesters in Park Slope Hadassah for the opportunity to present my latest program on Fiddler on the Roof:


Moving Beyond Our Father’s Fiddler

The audience was feisty and fully present, and my schvesters gave me several new things to think about as I continue my research on Fiddler on the Roof.

As the title suggests, I am now looking beyond the 50th “Golden” Anniversary (on 9/22/14) to the 75th “Diamond” Anniversary in 2039.

Do I really believe people will still be going to performances of Fiddler on the Roof in 2039? Yes I do! Furthermore, I also believe people will still be going to performances of Fiddler on the Roof when it celebrates its Broadway Centennial in 2164 :-)

Todah Rabah / Sheynem Dank / Special Thanks to Janet Young — President of Haddasah’s Brooklyn Region — for bringing the projector, setting it up, and doing the flips while I spoke from the podium.

Additional appreciation goes to Park Slope Chapter President Ethel Gold, and to my Temple Beth Emeth schvesters — Barbara Katz, Elaine Sarfadi & Hazel Tishcoff — for their continued encouragement and support. And need I say that the pickles at Essen Deli are beyond compare?!?

Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Chicago anymore…


Click here to download yesterday’s presentation as a pdf: FromGoldToDiamondJLH

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Berlin Yuppy “Hanna Eggert” (Karoline Schuch) cynically takes a career-advancing assignment in Tel Aviv which turns her well-ordered life inside out.

By opening herself up to both past and present, Hanna’s future possibilities take on whole new dimensions.

Inspired by a novel by Theresa Bäuerlein, director Julia von Heinz (collaborating with screenwriter John Quester) has crafted a beautiful film with great resonance. (JLH: 4.5/5)

Click HERE for our FF2 Haiku. NOT YET SEEN BY RICH.


Top Photo: “Hanna Eggert” (Karoline Schuch) arrives at Ben Gurion Airport wearing all her German “armor.”

Bottom Photo: When Hanna goes to meet “her survivor” for the first time, she is clearly expecting someone old and piteous, someone who will burden her with tragic stories laced with self-pity. What a surprise, then, to find herself ushered into the apartment of “Gertraud Nussbaum” (Lia Koenig).

Photo Credits: Vered Adir

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CJFF Overview

AviMomChicago has a new film festival!

Beginning tonight, the Chicago Jewish Film Festival will show 10 films over two long weekends. Screenings will be held at the Cinemark/Century in Evanston, the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie, and the Music Box Theatre on Southport, with related programs at the Victory Gardens Theatre in Lincoln Park and at the Mayer Kaplan JCC in Skokie.

Of the 10 films on offer, I have seen six and all six – three documentaries and three feature films – are Highly Recommended.

The three documentaries – Before the Revolution, Crime After Crime, and Marvin Hamlisch: What He Did For Love – span decades locations, and genres. On the other hand, the three features – Hannah Arendt, La Rafle, andThe Pin – are all focused on the Holocaust.

Although two of these films – Before the Revolution and The Pin – are new to Chicago, the others have already played somewhere in the metro area, and some of them are even available on DVD at this point. No matter. Nothing equals the experience of seeing a film with a live audience… and then heading out to discuss it with your friends once the credits roll!

Here are synopses of the six films in alphabetical order. Each synopsis has a link back to my full review (which also contains photographs and additional background information).

Before the Revolution

In the 21st Century, Iran is a major power in the Middle East and one of Israel’s greatest existential enemies. So it will no doubt surprise many people to learn that in the 20th Century, the Iranian government had a close relationship with the Israeli government. In fact, in pursuit of modernization for his then-backward country, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (the last Shah of Iran) was heavily dependent on Israeli talent.

And because one of the many Israeli technocrats who worked in Iran was his father, filmmaker Dan Shadur is now able to provide a fascinating first-hand account of what is was like to be an Israeli child growing up in Teheran in that “golden age” before Ayatollah Khomeini drove the Shah from power. (Documentary)

Crime After Crime

Joshua Safran is a California attorney specializing in property law when he agrees to represent a battered woman named Debbie Peagle who is determined to overturn her murder conviction.

Filmmaker Yoav Potash follows Safran for years as he digs deep into Torah for sustenance through a long and exhausting appeal process. Since Safran is always unplugged on Saturdays, he’s the last to receive an important update at critical point in the appeal, but he returns from his Shabbat observance refreshed and renewed.

Watching Safran battle on thus becomes an uplifting Jewish experience far deeper than a typical Law & Order episode “ripped from the headlines.” (Documentary)

Hannah Arendt 

Barbara Sukowa stars as Hannah Arendt, the German-born political philosopher best-known today for her books on 20th Century totalitarianism.

Director Margarethe von Trotta’s film (based on a screenplay by Pamela Katz) focuses on Hannah Arendt’s attempts to introduce nuance into discussions of the Holocaust when she covered the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1961.

The result was an uproar that started in the pages of The New Yorker magazine and still resonates today. (BioPic/Drama)

La Rafle

Melanie Laurent stars as Annette Monod, a member of a prominent French Protestant family who cared for Jewish children rounded up in 1942 and herded into the Vélodrome d’Hiver (a sports stadium near the Eiffel Tower known colloquially as the “Vél d’Hiv”).

If the name Vél d’Hiv already sounds familiar to you, it’s probably because you either read Tatiana de Rosnay’s best-selling novel Sarah’s Key (published in 2007), and/or saw the film adaptation released in 2011 (which starred Kristin Scott Thomas as an American journalist).

But writer/director Rose Bosch feels no need to engage our sympathies by adding a contemporary heroine. Bosch keeps La Rafle firmly anchored in the horrific events of 1942, and her film is all the better for it. (BioPic/Drama)

Marvin Hamlisch: What He Did For Love

This is filmmaker Dori Berinstein’s third Broadway documentary. The first was ShowBusiness: The Road to Broadway,  which I reviewed for the JUF when it played at the Music Box Theatre way back in June 2007. The second was Carol Channing: Larger Than Life, which received a “Gold Hugo” nomination in the documentary film category from our 2011 Chicago International Film Festival.

When I asked her about the affinity between Jews and Broadway, Berinstein said: “Theater makes you think and theater makes you feel. There’s a long, very wonderful history of Jews being involved in this art form, and having used it to create change in the way people see the world. It’s also just an inspiring, transporting art form, so what’s not to love?” And that is the story of Marvin Hamlisch in a nutshell.

Born into a family that had no grandparents, Hamlisch used music to “create change in the way people see the world,” and Berinstein, with her extraordinary insider access, makes it clear that Hamlisch (who died in 2012 at the age of 68) lived a life well-lived. He was not only an “EGOT” (that is, the winner of an Emmy, a Grammy, and Oscar, and a Tony), he also won a Pulitzer Prize, two Golden Globes, and shelves full of additional honors and testimonials. His legacy is enormous.

Marvin Hamlisch: May his memory be for blessing. (Documentary)

The Pin

This haunting film about two young people who find each other in a barn at the edge of the Russian border has somewhat the same feel as The Last Act of Lilka Kadison (which some of you may have seen at the Lookingglass Theatre  Company at Water Tower Place back in 2011).

Unlike so many Holocaust films, The Pin is delicate & understated, showing how the power of imagination under impossible circumstances became a tool of survival.

Note that all of the dialogue in The Pin is in Yiddish, with English subtitles of course. (Romance/Drama)


The Chicago Jewish Film Festival is sponsored by the Jewish Community Center of Chicago (JCC Chicago) with support from The Mrs. Zollie Frank Fund and the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago. Additional participants include the Chicago Festival of Israeli Cinema, the Chicago YIVO Society, the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute and ShPIeL-Performing Identity Theatre.

Yasher Koach to Artistic Director David Chack and the 2014 CJFF Mishpokhe.

For more details (including schedules and tickets), visit the CJFF website.

Unfortunately I have yet to see the other four films: Blumenthal, Closer to the Moon, Megillas Lester, and Precious Life. I hope to catch up with all of them soon!

Top photo:From Before the Revolution. Photo courtesy of Heymann Brothers Films.

Bottom photo: From La Rafle. Photo courtesy of Menemsha Films.

Posted on JUF Online on 6/19/14.


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ZacEphronFeh! In this dismal display of “least common denominator” filmmaking, Seth Rogan goes mano-a-mano with Zac Ephron, totally wasting the talents of all concerned.

Neighbors has one of those “concept plots” that sounds like it was cooked up in a bar: what if some guy is living in the suburbs and he has just become a new father and one day a wild fraternity house moves next door? And what if the guy wants to be “cool” because he still lives in his college town and the frat boys are students at his Alma Mater? And what if the head of the fraternity has wasted his entire college career cooking up pranks and now the frat house is on probation?

Answer: Endless scenes of drinking, drugging, and partying, leading to lewd behavior, car crashes, and explosions, and ending with the inevitable fist fight. Feh!

Unlike Adam Sandler (who almost always manages to carry his Jewish identity gracefully), Seth Rogan makes me cringe. It goes without saying that his wife in Neighbors is a shiksa (which is par for the course these days). But when, in a moment of stress, Rose Byrne screams out “Fucking Jews and your mothers!,” I think Rogan has gone one step too far. There are a couple of other Jewish references, none of which are either important or necessary, but this degree of hostility is beyond the pale.


Top Photo: Zac Ephron as “Teddy.”

Bottom Photo: “Kelly” (Rose Byrne) and “Mac” (Seth Rogan) meet-up with their friend “Jimmy” (Ike Barinholtz) to figure out how to win back the neighborhood. Curiously, Mac and Kelly are alone in this endeavor. Even though the frat house is negatively impacting the entire block, no one else seems to mind…

Photo Credits: Glen Wilson

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SylvieTestudAfter her mother dies, a grieving daughter (Sylvie Testud) finds documents that reveal a lost chapter in the lives of her parents.

Gorgeous semi-autobiographical period film written & directed by Diane Kurys turns out to be about French Holocaust survivors who find it difficult to put the horror behind them.

Sensuous and heart-breaking, For a Woman is a totally satisfying “movie movie” that also has a sly sense of humor.

Click HERE for our FF2 Haiku. NOT YET SEEN BY RICH.


Top Photo: After her mother dies, “Anne” (Sylvie Testud) discovers a box of her old papers.

Bottom Photo: Lyon, France (1947)

Photo Credits: ?

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01InsideLodz 1962: “Anna” (Agata Trzebuchowska), a teenage novice in a Polish Convent, is about to take her vows when the Mother Superior (Halina Skoczynska) insists that she visit her “Aunt Wanda” (Agata Kulesza), someone whose existence had been hidden from her until that moment. As soon as they do meet, Wanda immediately informs Anna that her real name is Ida and–surprise, surprise–she was born Jewish.

Leaving the theatre, my husband Richard and I agreed that the austere back & white photography (by cinematographers Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal) was exquisite, and Agata Trzebuchowska (making her screen debut) had a face made for the camera.

But after that our discussion became quite heated, and we started to wonder if we had actually seen the same film…?

The film I saw was spare to a fault, with way too much left open to interpretation. The Mother Superior, for example, periodically gives Anna/Ida long, stern looks that seem fraught with significance, but she barely has a single line of dialogue beyond telling Anna/Ida–in the film’s opening act–that she must visit her Aunt before taking her vows.

It turns out that Aunt Wanda is a fairly important person; some might even call her “notorious.” Therefore, since the Mother Superior has always known who Anna/Ida’s Aunt Wanda is, she has known for a very long time that Anna/Ida was born Jewish. But beyond that, we have no clue to what the Mother Superior is thinking.

Why does the Mother Superior insist that Anna/Ida must meet Aunt Wanda before she takes her vows? Maybe she wants Anna/Ida to know who she “really is” before she allows this very young woman to make such a serious commitment? Or maybe she thinks that “Jewish Blood” might eventually pollute her otherwise pristine convent? Who knows? The screenplay tells us nothing beyond the fact that she is obviously watching Anna/Ida’s behavior–both before and after her visit to Wanda–with an extra measure of critical attention.

The lack of narrative detail is especially disappointing because the screenplay was co-written by director Pawel Pawlikowski (who–to date–has been a marginally successful filmmaker) and Rebecca Lenkiewicz (who is already a very successful British playwright).

Even though it is only 80 minutes long, Ida feels much longer. In fact, with its long, wordless, static–albeit beautifully composed–shots, it often felt interminable to me. The first time I saw it (at a critics screening at the Film Forum on 4/25/14), I was desperate to flee the theatre as soon as the credits began to roll, although I forced myself to stay seated until the bitter end just to make sure I hadn’t missed anything. And then I went back to the Film Forum with my husband Richard (on 5/3/14) to see it  a second time start to finish, resulting in even more frustration.

I don’t know this for a fact, but my gut tells me that Lenkiewicz’s dramatic skills were tightly constrained by Pawlikowski’s visual aesthetic. The result is a film that is so obsessed with fetishizing the face of a beautiful young woman that it ultimately loses its way in the forest (and yes, I do mean that literally as well as metaphorically).


Top Photo: “Wanda” (Agata Kulesza) and “Ida” (Agata Trzebuchowska) are in Wanda’s apartment. Since Ida has had no knowledge of her parents, she is seeing photos of them for the very first time.

Bottom Photo: Wanda faces off against a steely police officer who has no idea who she is. Why does he arrest her? Does he really think she was driving drunk and needs to be incarcerated for her own protection so she can “sleep it off”…? Or does he arrest her to teach “the Jew” a lesson–to bully her and intimidate her and force her to stop asking questions about the fate of Ida’s parents…?

The screenplay gives us no answers. We are left to draw our own conclusions. But suffice it to say Wanda wins. As soon as they learn who she is, Wanda is released and the police officer–bowing and scraping–obsequiously begs her forgiveness.

Now that she has decided to look for her family’s remains, after shirking the burden for some 20 years, Wanda will not be stopped… And that is how Ida winds up–inevitably–in the heart of that dark Polish forest…

Photo Credits: Sylwester Kazmierczak and Liliana Milewska

SPOILER ALERT +++ May 24th Addendum +++ SPOILER ALERT

TZIVI RANTS: My fundamental problem with Ida is that the screenplay is so deliberately spare that the film becomes a Rorschach Test. And sad to say, I think the less you know about the Holocaust, the more likely you will be to misinterpret what little bits of information are actually provided in the film. In other words, while everyone is certainly free to see whatever they see in it (of course), the things you see in it are likely to reflect what you knew — or thought you knew — before you entered the theatre.

Here is one example: I participated in a contentious thread on IMDb (the Internet Movie Database) in which a woman I assume to be Catholic was arguing that “Ida believes in Jesus and wants to be a nun.” For this woman, if Anna/Ida wants to be Catholic and she doesn’t want to be Jewish, then that’s the end to it. If she has absolutely no interest in Judaism — never bothering to ask Aunt Wanda or anyone else about what it might mean to be Jewish — then that’s fine. Anna/Ida doesn’t think she’s Jewish, so she’s not Jewish. Full stop.

My Response: For most Jews, many Poles, and all Nazis, Judaism is more than a statement of religious belief. Anna/Ida was a baby when the Priest brought her to the convent. So while the lady on IMDb clearly thinks Anna has chosen to be “a practicing Roman Catholic,” some might say that was simply the way Ida was raised.

“She believes in Jesus so she wants to be a nun,” repeats the lady on IMDb. But do we really know this? Perhaps in her brief time away from the convent, Anna/Ida has learned that the world is a rather frightening place. So maybe she has decided to return to the convent because the convent is, after all, the only “home” and the only “family” this very young woman has ever known…

Some will say Pawlikowski leaves these questions to the audience, but I think that’s a cop out. Me, I don’t think Pawlikowski has given sufficient thought to “the Jewish Question.” I think he’s really interested in creating beautiful images of Poland before the thaw, but he has adroitly used the Holocaust to add “gravitas” to an otherwise thin aesthetic exercise.

A Cynical Question: Would Ida have all this buzz now if it had just been about a beautiful teenage nun who has a brief affair with a handsome jazz musician before taking her final vows?

Before you answer that question, I think you should take another look at exactly what Ricky Gervais had Kate Winslet say in the infamous episode of Extras which appeared just before Winslet did, in fact, win an Oscar for her role in The Reader. 

Ranting about Ida now reminds me of my earlier rants about The Pianist and The Reader. To be blunt, some films may well be about The Holocaust, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are “good for the Jews.”


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NoorCropA tip of the hat to Pierre Dulaine!

In 1994, long before ballroom dancing received mainstream acclaim through the wildly popular TV show Dancing With The Stars (which premiered in 2005 and is now in its 18th season after having received multiple EMMY nominations almost every year from the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences), Dulaine created the “Dancing Classrooms” program, which has become his lasting legacy.

Dulaine began his own dancing career in Birmingham, England in 1958 when he was 14 years old. By 1966, Dulaine was in London performing in West End nightclubs and competing in events like the All England Professional Latin American Championships. And by 1972, he had made his way to Manhattan, where he added teaching assignments at prestigious schools like the American Ballet Theatre and Juilliard to his already extraordinary resume.

Another visionary named Diane Nabatoff optioned the rights to Dulaine’s life-story in 2000. In 2006, she released the narrative feature Take The Lead, directed by Liz Friedlander and starring gorgeous Antonio Banderas as Dulaine.

Meanwhile, filmmaker Marilyn Agrelo produced and directed Mad Hot Ballroom, which was named one of the Top Five Documentaries of 2005 by the National Board of Review. (To orient yourself, recall that the Oscar winner for that year in the Documentary category was March of the Penguins.)

But the character called “Pierre Dulaine” in Take The Lead is heavily fictionalized, and the person identified as “Pierre Dulaine” in Mad Hot Ballroom serves only as the “Master of Ceremonies” at various competitions. He is always in the background and he is never interviewed on camera.

Now, finally, in 2014, Pierre Dulaine is very much front and center, touring the world with the Dancing in Jaffa team as the star of his own life story, and it turns out that story begins in Mandate Palestine.

Dulaine was born in Jaffa in April 1944. As he tells us in Dancing in Jaffa, his mother was part Palestinian and part French, and his father was a British soldier of Irish descent. These were complicated times and Dulaine’s heritage magnified the complexity considerably: Palestinian, French, British, Irish… oy! LowRezPoster

The one thing Dulaine clearly was not was Jewish, and in 1948, after Jaffa became part of the new state of Israel, his family began wandering, living for a time in Amman, Jordan before eventually settling in Birmingham.

(Note that the precise reason Dulaine’s parents decided to leave Jaffa is never made clear. Dulaine implies that they had to leave because of the Israeli takeover, but this is unlikely. Obviously many Palestinians still live in Jaffa –that is why this film is set there — and other Israeli films like Ajami and Jaffa have already mined this territory. More likely, they had to leave in 1948 with the rest of the British Army did… but who knows…)

Decades later, after the huge success of the “Dancing Classrooms” program—which now serves thousands of children all around the world—Dulaine returns to his birthplace to sprinkle magic dust over a set of selected schools in Jaffa… and the amazing thing is, it works!

By the time of the final competition, Hebrew-speaking children are dancing with children who mostly speak Arabic, and Palestinian mothers in hijab are sitting next to Israeli mothers in tee shirts. The boys and girls on the dance floor are poised and graceful, their teachers are beaming, and everyone in the bleachers is clapping and cheering.

Outside the warm dance spaces, however, “real life” continues to be just as complex as ever. Award-winning Israeli director Hilla Medalia includes tension-filled street scenes with Israeli adults marching in honor of Yom Ha’atzmaut while Palestinian protesters commemorate the Nakba.

What holds the narrative together is the gradual emergence of Dancing in Jaffa’s true star: Noor Gabai.

Noor is the daughter of a Jewish woman who converted to Islam when she married a Palestinian man. Although she is raising her daughter as a Palestinian, Noor’s mother, now a widow, sends her daughter to one of the few mixed schools in Jaffa that is committed to treating all students equally. Nevertheless, when we first meet her, Noor is sullen and resentful. Classmates say they are afraid of her, and no one wants to dance with her. Then Pierre appears and he sweeps her up in his arms and he changes her life.

What will happen to Noor and the rest of these children after Dulaine is long gone? Maybe someday Hilla Medalia will do a Part Two, but for now the only thing we know for sure is that Pierre Dulaine has created something that should be too good to be true… and yet… somehow… it works!


Top Photo: Noor Gabai.

Bottom Photo: Pierre Dulaine.

Photo Credits: Courtesy of IFC.

For more on Dancing in Jaffa from the feminist perspective, click HERE.

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