“Kabbalah Me” is a fascinating and inspiring story about a man’s spiritual journey into the complex world of Jewish mysticism. But on another level, it is also a sad and revelatory documentary about how faith and religious observance are marginalized in our society.
Steven Bram is a successful filmmaker and chief operating officer of a New York City-based company that produces sports films. His brother was on the 102nd floor of the World Trade Center on 9/11 and, though he doesn’t say it, presumably died, leaving behind a wife and children.
This is what started Bram’s soul-searching pilgrimage, his hunger for what he calls “a deeper kind of spirituality.” Both Steven and his wife, Miriam, were raised in secular households. His father came from — and rejected — what Steven calls an Orthodox background, but is apparently Hasidic.
As part of his quest, Bram travels to Brooklyn to meet his Hasidic cousins for the first time. He spends Sukkot with them. Initially, he feels like a visitor from another planet. Soon, however, he feels another emotion: “Part of me is a little jealous that they have this intense spirituality,” he says.
Bram begins regular meetings with a rabbi about Kabbalah and begins, Madonna-like, to immerse himself in it — at least superficially. Because of the pop star’s interest, Kabbalah has become something of a rage, attracting far more dilettantes than serious students.
Bram seems to fall somewhere in between. He seeks guidance from numerous rabbis, attends large religious gatherings in Madison Square Garden and Met Life Stadium in New Jersey, and even travels to Safed, Israel, in his odyssey.
David Gregory is writing a book about his Jewish faith, something that was presumably tested in recent weeks.
The long-time NBC newsman, who was just dumped from his job hosting “Meet the Press,” is also known in D.C. for hosting the Jewish holidays. He’s reportedly studied with a Jewish scholar.
Jonathan Karp, who heads the Simon & Schuster Publishing Group, told Politico’s Mike Allen that he met David in 2011 and the two have been working on the project ever since.
Karp said Gregory is “a natural story teller,” and the book will be published sometime next year.
“This book has always been intended as an exploration of an aspect of David’s life that viewers rarely see in his journalistic work,” he added
“[It] was never intended as a memoir about his career. That objective hasn’t changed and will not change. This book will be about the inner spiritual journey many of us take in our lives.”
Gregory may find solace in the fact that “Meet the Press” ratings decreased in its first week without him. Also, when one door closes another opens up. He will have a window this fall to speak about the political landscape and upcoming elections to a number of companies and trade associations. As a journalist, he was restricted from these lucrative possibilities by NBC.
“I was going through a quote-unquote midlife crisis to some extent,” says documentary filmmaker Steven Bram, whose spiritual journey is the focus of new documentary “Kabbalah Me,” which he co-directed. A series of traumatic events, among them losing his brother-in-law on 9/11 and the financial crisis of 2008-2009, caused Bram, a born-and-bred New Yorker who runs a sports film production company, to have some seemingly unanswerable existential questions. “I kept asking, is there more to life than just going through the motions?”
One day, a friend who took him to a New York Rangers game suggested seeking out a rabbi for help. “I never really thought of a rabbi as a therapist like that,” says Bram, who had lived a secular life to that point. One rabbi followed another, and today, he is actively spiritual and has a documentary to show for it. Elyssa Goodman spoke with Bram about documenting his quest for spiritual enlightenment in “Kabbalah Me,” and the role Judaism and Kabbalah now play in his life.
Elyssa Goodman: Why did you decide to make a documentary out of this experience?
Like No Other
By Una Lamarche
Razorbill, 352 pages, $17.99
In her new young adult novel, “Like No Other,” author Una Lamarche explores the racial and religious tensions in Crown Heights through the chance encounter of a West Indian boy and a Hasidic girl and the relationship that blossoms between the two.
When a hurricane traps Devorah Blum and Jaxon Hunte in an elevator, the two Crown Heights teenagers find themselves drawn into a forbidden romance that forces both characters to re-examine their roles and communal lives. Lamarche paints Jaxon as a book-smart nerd with a heart of gold and Devorah as strong and inquisitive. Both characters speak with young, fresh voices and try to balance their own personal dreams with the values of their families.
Sadly, the narrative fails to subvert the tropes to which it falls prey. There is little reason given for why Devorah and Jaxon fall so madly in love, and Devorah’s brother-in-law, an uptight, misogynistic and racist Hasid and member of the Shomrim community patrol, is unforgivably outlandish.
“Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart” is a documentary about the 1990 media spectacle of the first televised murder trial. Reality TV was in its infancy. Pamela Smart, 21, was accused of plotting the murder of her husband. The young men who carried out the murder got reduced sentences for serving her up as a black widow. The film explores the impact of TV on the case and on public opinion. The jury was not sequestered and it seems Smart was tried and convicted in the media.
Filmmaker Jeremiah Zagar investigated Pamela Smart’s trial and questions arose about the nature of justice, fame and storytelling. Was this trial fair? We talked to Zagar about the role the media played in the outcome of the trial.
Dorri Olds: What was it like visiting Pamela Smart in prison?
Jeremiah Zagar: Meeting her convinced me to make the film. She was different in person than any of the archival footage I’d seen. She’s incredibly smart, funny and warm, not that wooden, cold person on TV. I thought I’d make a film about this person you’ve never met before. The film became about how the camera changes people and changed her trial.
Do you mean she had stage fright?
(JTA) — When it comes to Hasidic characters in movies, film consultant Elli Meyer believes that the real deal trumps a random actor in costume.
But that approach isn’t without its challenges.
Meyer, a New York-based Lubavitcher Hasid, recounted one occasion when he was hired to cast extras for a film but refused upon learning that shooting would take place on Yom Kippur.
“Who told you to hire Jews?” one of the producers said, according to Meyer, though ultimately the shooting was postponed.
Meyer is among a handful of Jews from haredi Orthodox backgrounds who have carved out an unusual niche in show business as occasional consultants on films and TV shows aiming to authentically depict Hasidic life.
These consultants often find themselves having to dispel misconceptions about Hasidim as they advise on language, costuming and plot, sometimes even stepping into rabbinic roles as explainers of Jewish law.
Meyer, 59, has been doing this kind of work for a decade. In 2014 alone he has acted in, consulted on or done casting work for more than half a dozen TV shows or movies.
He said he was motivated to get into the consulting business because he was appalled by the sloppiness of many depictions of Hasidic Jews.
“They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid,” he said of directors and producers in general.
From “Salome Libretto”
Through the fercockte gawk-stalkin’ hack stackers
of antiquity trickery lexically-licked sticky flickering
Salomé, you are bringing in the big guns
Opening the sluice gates
with your hyper dramatic excess
Flexed with swishy riffs, pithy spiff grifters
Like a shattered chatter box schadenshow
like a discordant accordion
like manna from mayhem
you are ebullient as you blow
like a feisty
zeitgeist, a forever riviera
and i say hula lily hillbilly, billiard bombast
ho-hum hum de lilah bruja hoo-ha slap trap
of schizmatic revisionism
And take your slinky hijinx, pixie
fixity of prurient lure of twirly whirlers
a contretemp tempestuous extempora & lay me down in
an elixir mixer of lexically robust postulates
which say ce soir bette noir,
of gnarly parlors
in a coughing scoffed cacophony of
a miscued skew of super cinder cendre
slippery ceiling singing
in the flotsam frayed refrain. stay
Irish director Lenny Abrahamson concedes that his latest film, “Frank,” is eccentric. The movie is inspired by British comedian and musician Chris Sievey, who adapted the stage persona of Frank Sidebottom and toured Britain with a band.
Not well known outside the U.K., Sievey was similar to — but never quite as successful as — artists like Andy Kaufman, Pee Wee Herman and Tiny Tim, who also adopted stage guises.
“Frank” stars Michael Fassbender as the title character, Maggie Gyllenhaal as band member Clara and rising star Domhnall Gleeson as a keyboard player and wannabe composer. The band of oddballs composes esoteric music, but finds unexpected popularity via You Tube — popularity that inevitably dooms the group.
It’s not likely to be this summer’s blockbuster, though a laughing Abrahamson says, “That would be nice. Let’s not give up on it.” He quickly added, “It’s more strange when you see it on paper than when you see it in the theater.”
Abrahamson spoke to the Forward about this new film, his first film, and about being the third most famous Irish Jew ever.
Curt Schleier: “Frank” is kind of, well, a weird film. What drew you to it?
On the Daily Show, Maggie Gyllenhaal told Jon Stewart that she has not received any backlash about the politics of “The Honorable Woman,” the new show that she stars in. Since it centers on the ongoing turmoil of Israeli-Palestinian relations, Stewart looked amused.
“You have very thoughtful friends,” he said.
Granted, the eight-part mini-series written by British director Hugo Blick is only a few episodes into its run on the Sundance Channel (in the UK, five episodes have aired already). There is still an ample amount of time to provoke both critics and political pundits.
However, for the moment, the series seems focused on avoiding taking a side. The first episode introduced a very complicated political murder mystery. Gyllenhaal plays Vanessa “Nessa” Stein, the daughter of a successful English arms dealer who supplied Israel with weapons and was murdered 29 years ago in front of his children. Nessa, along with her brother Ephra, has inherited her father’s company and has a plan to remodel the business as a supplier of peace, not war. The idea is to bring Internet and phone cables to impoverished Palestinian territories to enable education and communication. As Nessa says, “Terror thrives in poverty, it dies in wealth.”
The plan is jeopardized when a man is found dead in his hotel room. We learn that the victim is a Palestinian who Nessa planned to give a lucrative contract to construct the communication infrastructure. Of course, allegations from both Israelis and Palestinians ensue, and protestors hound Nessa with questions wherever she goes.
Whenever the Israeli-Palestinian conflict heats up, “This Land Is Mine,“ Nina Paley’s brilliant, succinct and devastating three minute animated history of the conflict, played out to Andy William’s performance of “The Exodus Song,” goes viral.
Given recent events, Paley’s film has gotten plenty of views since she first posted it online in October 2012 — 10 million, so far, with more viewers every day.
The “Exodus song,“ explains Paley on her website, “was the sound track of American Zionism in the 1960s and ‘70s,” and “expressed Jewish entitlement to Israel.”
“God gave this land to me,“ proclaim the lyrics, penned by, of all people, Pat Boone. The problem? A succession of peoples have felt that God gave this land to them. “By putting the song in the mouth of every warring party,” Paley observes, “I’m critiquing the original song.”
School was out on that wintry day around Thanksgiving of 1993, and my mother was charged with taking care of me, my siblings, and my best friend of that particular week. It was too cold to play outdoors, so my mother, car-less for the day, schlepped all of us on the B44 city bus to the Sheepshead Bay movie theatre to see some animated film. Only when we got to the theatre, it was sold out. The only other appropriate movie for the range of children my mother had assembled was something called “Mrs. Doubtfire.”
“PG-13?” my mother said doubtfully, and then sighed. “Oh well, we’re here already.”
You can guess what happened next. For those two hours I sat riveted with my eyes glued to the screen as a crazy, hysterical and frenetic man-child — Robin Williams — took nary a pause in a string of Victor-Victoria antics that left the entire audience in breathless laughter. Even when I wasn’t in on the joke — and I frequently wasn’t, at only 7.5 years old — I knew this actor was hilarious as sure as I knew the sky was blue. He also sounded vaguely familiar. “He sounds like the Genie from ‘Aladdin,’” my brother whispered suspiciously to me.
Whoever he was, I fell instantly in love with him. A budding young cinephile who had to use subterfuge to get my fix in a household where television and movies were strictly regulated, I had never seen someone onscreen come so vibrantly, wonderfully alive, or display such hyper-kinetic and fast-paced energy. That the film also offered me my first taste of more salacious jokes and themes that were absent in my diet of Disney and black-and-white classic films was an added bonus.
With attendance figures stagnant, Philadelphia’s National Museum of American Jewish History should change its name, retool its mission, and target broader audiences.
That’s the message in a prickly editorial from Liberty City Press, an independent news service whose publisher boasts personal ties to the museum’s founders.
Headlined “History Museums Sucking Wind on Independence Mall,” the piece was sparked by a report from local arts organization AxisPhilly that early audience projections for several Independence Mall museums, including NMAJH, had been inflated, sometimes by as much as 100%.
Liberty City Press is an independent weekly newspaper distributed by the Philadelphia Multi-Cultural News Network, whose members include Philadelphia Sunday Sun, The Philadelphia Gay News, Al Dia, The Jewish Exponent, The Metro Chinese Weekly and The Metro Viet News.
“My greatest concern is that someone’s going to have to subsidize this museum,” Ken Smukler, the founder, publisher and editor-in-chief of Liberty City Press, told the Forward. “And it’s not going to be the Pennsylvania government, which subsidizes a bunch of cultural institutions that are failing. The museum’s going to look to the Jewish Federation for money. They’re the subsidizer of choice. And that would be a drain on Federation for years to come.”
Last July, the Jewish Literary Journal (JLJ) celebrated its first anniversary.
A year ago, co-founders and now editors-in-chief, Aaron Berkowitz and Ariel Stein, graduates of Yeshiva University and the University of Pennsylvania, respectively, realized that there wasn’t an outlet specifically designed for Jewish writing, and so set out to create their own.
“We saw one or two journals. They weren’t timely. We hadn’t heard of them before,” Stein said during a phone interview. “We wanted something that would be current, publishing online and publishing often.”
The JLJ publishes short fiction and non-fiction, and poetry. Most of the narratives revolve around Judaism and Jewish customs, but occasionally the Jewish angle is not emphasized at all. Each issue usually comprises of one or two pieces of fiction, one creative non-fiction, and anywhere from one to three poems. Authors are often free-lance writers, and come from a variety of backgrounds.
Stein and Berkowitz fund the journal themselves and edit around their full time jobs. Stein is a research specialist at the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University, while Berkowitz just finished teaching middle and high school writing, and will be starting his Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing in Poetry at Sarah Lawrence College later this autumn.
According to Berkowitz and Stein, the Jewish Literary Journal receives all kinds of submissions. Recently, people have been submitting visual art and photography, alongside their staple supply of writing.
Over the course of their first year in publication, they received a healthy supply of works. “We were getting submissions all over the country and all over the world.” Jokingly, Stein assured, “It wasn’t just our friends.”
For their anniversary, they celebrated with a different version of their journal. For the first time, they gave writers a paid incentive to submit to the Jewish Literary Journal. They provided the prize money, and asked authors to submit pieces that centered on the theme of creation and building.
Still, the road to their first anniversary was not smooth. Over the course of their first year, Stein and Berkowitz learned not to expect anything. “You’re not going to get a Pulitzer Prize,” Aaron explained. “When we started off we didn’t know if we would get any submissions,” Stein added.
But submissions they did get. “I’ve felt the pain of turning away quality submissions,” Stein said. Unfortunately, even if a good piece was submitted after the deadline, the editors-in-chief had no choice but not to include it in the issue for that month
Complications arose when Stein had to relocate to work, and Stein and Berkowitz had to figure out a new type of working relationship through phone and e-mail to maintain the Journal.
In the future, Stein and Berkowitz hope to expand the journal to include more art pieces and provide an outlet for interaction between readers and authors and artists, such as readings or galleries. However, right now they’re strictly an online journal.
Stein and Berkowitz welcome any submission that showcases the Jewish experience.
“Jews as a people have always been writers,” Berkowitz said. “Creative writing as a whole is important to define what it means to be Jewish.”
He defied his dad and got beat up
He worked for the gang and got shot
They wished for war and the war came
She sassed her mom and got the ice treatment
We murdered the whales and our mother is furious
They wished for war and the war came
You falsified the data and the drug killed
She bribed the inspector and the building fell
They wished for war and the war came
We spent beyond our means and went broke
We pissed on Muslims and now they hate us
They wished for war and the war came
I wished for peace and the war came
Courtesy Jewish Museum Vienna
I know you can’t go home again, especially if home is a country your family was forced to flee. I was under no illusion that a lilting Strauss waltz would be the soundtrack to my visit to Vienna, where both my parents were born. Still, I’d traveled to the city earlier this summer to see how my relatives had lived, not to dwell on their victimization. Which is why I was looking forward to exploring the Jewish Museum Vienna — and why I was also dreading it.
I figured that, just as the Anschluss looms over all the books I read about fin-de-siecle Vienna, the horrors of the Holocaust were bound to shadow a place devoted to tracing the city’s Jewish past. Indeed, the institution itself was collateral damage. The world’s first Jewish museum, established in 1895, it was shuttered by the Nazis in 1938, its sacred objects and cultural artifacts from throughout the Austro-Hungarian empire dispersed.
The main Dorotheergasse branch of the museum is on one of the narrow streets that thread through the city center, just blocks from such popular attractions as St. Stephan’s Cathedral. It’s only natural that the words “Jüdische Museum Wien” would appear on directional signs helping visitors navigate this maze-like tourist hub. Nevertheless, I was spooked to encounter the word “Jüdische” in bold German letters on an arrow pointing towards my destination. I felt suddenly exposed, like I had sprouted a yellow star.
Most actors strive to be a triple threat; James Franco puts them to shame. The actor, film director, screenwriter, producer, film editor, teacher, author and poet has an ever growing resume that began with his humble beginnings on the TV show “Freaks and Geeks” and currently ends with his role as writer-actor-director of the new film “Child of God.” The film centers on Lester Ballard, a deranged, violent necrophiliac for whom we somehow feel sympathy.
Franco, 36, a Palo Alto, Califorina native, is known for going back to film school at New York University and pursuing a Ph.D. at Yale University even after his career had taken off. And with a penchant for making films from unfilmable books like this one — based on Cormac McCarthy’s book of the same name — the man of many titles is bound to only add more.
The Forward’s Dorri Olds sat with Franco to discuss this project as well as those past and future.
Dorri Olds: Why do you choose literary books that don’t lend themselves to film?
James Franco: That’s a good question. I just saw an interview with Robert Altman kind of talking about the same thing. His process is not Kubrick’s process, and you wouldn’t want it to be. I went to film school NYU, where the MFA [Master of Fine Arts] program teaches you to find your own voice. Before film school I had written screenplays and found I wasn’t pushing myself as far as I could. In school I began to adapt poems for films. “Herbert White” was based on a poem by Frank Bidart, and “The Clerk’s Tale” was by Spencer Reece.
“The Good and the True,” a two-person play that just transferred to New York after runs in the U.K. and Belgium, unexpectedly became a potential nova-making vehicle.
The play originally starred Saul Reichlin as Milos Dobry (Dobry is Czech for “good”) and Isobel Pravda (Russian for “true” — hence the title), who played her grandmother Hana.
However, because of a glitch in a U.S. State Department computer, Isobel was unable to get her visa, and the producers, with limited access to the theater (a new show begins there in mid-September), had no choice but to start without her.
Enter understudy Hannah D. Scott. I was, of course, hoping for a Lou Gehrig or Leonard Bernstein moment, where a last-minute substitute steps in and becomes a star.
Sadly it’s not to be. Both Scott and Reichlin are competent, but are hampered by a script that is surprisingly vanilla.
Shortly before his death, Walter Wolff handed his daughter, Nina Wolff Feld, a green metal file box. In it was a treasure trove of wartime letters written by him during his time as a U.S. Army Intelligence officer to his family. Feld, a writer and artist born and bred in New York, translated the letters into a new book, “Someday You Will Understand: My Father’s Private World War II” (Arcade Publishing).
Walter Wolff, who was fluent in five languages and went on to found and run the home furnishings company Bon Marché in New York, was born in Germany in 1924. As Hitler rose to power, Wolff and his family, which included his sister and parents, were forced to keep moving until they settled in neutral Belgium. But on the eve of the Nazi invasion in 1940 they began a harrowing 16-month escape through occupied Europe, arriving in New York in September 1941, just months before the attack on Pearl Harbor.
In his letters, Wolff wrote endlessly, documenting both his training and experience as one of the well-known Ritchie Boys, an elite group of U.S. Intelligence officers known for their expertise in psychological warfare and interrogation. Wolff’s niche was vetting war criminals during the early postwar period. Many soldiers, like Wolff, were Jewish and had escaped from countries occupied by the Nazis. They enlisted or were drafted into the U.S. Army, where they became staunch defenders of American democracy shortly after running for their lives.
A version of this story first appeared on Women’s Voices for Change.
The best comic novel I’ve read this year wasn’t published by Random House or Penguin. It was self-published by Philadelphia writer Stacia Friedman. The title? “Tender is the Brisket.” Does the book live up to the comic promise of that title? Absolutely.
Ruth is a TV writer who, as her gold-digging pal Katya frequently points out, “is over forty… with nothing to show for it.” A few sitcoms, a couple of failed relationships, a marriage that went south — and no kids. At 42, Ruth wants what most women want — true love. She also wants a child.
A little financial security wouldn’t hurt either.
When her father dies, Ruth flies to New York for the funeral. To prevent her selfish siblings from stashing their wealthy mother, who has dementia, in a home, Ruth moves in with Mom and takes over the burden of her care. Which means continuing to cope with her malicious brother (a drop-dead-handsome man desperately seeking the money he needs to transition into a drop-dead-gorgeous woman) and her hostile sister, a clueless writer of self-help books like “The Highly Sensitive Person’s Guide to Highly Insensitive People,” whose hubby is cheating on her and whose teenage daughter is totally out of control.
Call it the world’s most local travel magazine. Every issue, Berlin-based Flaneur profiles one iconic street. And its latest issue — the first to look outside Germany — delves deep into Rue Bernard, the Montreal thoroughfare whose Jewish DNA stretches back a century. “It represents Montreal in a hyperlocal microcosm, meaning the street reflects the Franco- and Anglophone identities at the same time as well as the Jewish community,” founder/publisher Ricarda Messner told the Forward. “The stark contrast between the street’s Outremont and Mile End side” — ultra-Orthodox and hipster, respectively — “was really the vital aspect of our choice.”
The magazine’s first issue covered Kantstrasse in Berlin; #2 surveyed Leipzig’s Georg-Schwarz-Strasse. “The magazine embraces the street’s complexity, its layers and fragmented nature with a literary approach,” says its web site. “The reader is challenged to become a Flaneur himself, wandering the pages of the magazine as if discovering the street.” Editor-in-chief Fabian Saul talked to the Forward from Rome, where he and Messner are scouting subjects for issue #4.
Michael Kaminer: There’s been a lot of tension between Orthodox Jews and everyone else in Outremont. Did you sense that as you got immersed in daily life on Bernard?