The Arty Semite

Feminist Hero Esther Broner Changed the 'Order' of Things

By Tahneer Oksman

Summer is the cruelest cultural season. With that in mind, ICYMI (In Case You Missed It) is a new occasional series highlighting movies, TV shows, books, comics and everything else we might have missed in the past few months that we can catch up on in the next few.

Early on in Lilly Rivlin’s 2013 documentary, “Esther Broner: A Weave of Women” — now available on DVD — the narrator describes the effect that the author, professor and activist had on Jewish feminists of the second wave. As the narrator recalls, “We were all Jewish feminists. The question that Esther posed for us was: Do we find a place for ourselves within the Jewish tradition or remain outside?”

Esther Broner is perhaps best known for the feminist Hagaddah that she co-authored with Naomi Nimrod, which was first published in Ms. Magazine in 1977 (it took 17 years for a publisher, Harper San Francisco, to then print it as a book). The Hagaddah grew out of a women’s Seder inaugurated in 1975 that Broner, a “Seder sister,” helped to organize and run. The film includes documentary footage of this and subsequent women’s Seders, right up until Broner’s last one, in 2011. At this final Seder, seated beside her granddaughter, Broner recalled how, in the past, she had been booed out of certain synagogues for trying to stir up traditions. “I think Esther’s greatest legacy is her legitimization of alternative rituals,” Letty Cottin Pogrebin, co-founder of Ms. Magazine and a participant in many of these Seders, declares in the film.

For many of the women captured in Rivlin’s documentary, Broner’s investment in Jewish rituals and practices, and her respect for the very Orthodoxy that so often excluded women, was what allowed her to become a force in a Jewish feminist movement that eventually influenced women of all stripes, from the Orthodox to the secular. Gloria Steinem notes that for her, attending a women’s Seder was a kind of rebellion, not least because she had “never been to a Seder before in my life.”

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'Nathan For You' Is the Most Uncomfortable Show on Television

By Eitan Kensky

“Nathan For You” is built on an undercurrent of mundane desperation: most of us will go along with anything if it means 10 minutes of face-time on TV. We’ll serve (artificial!) poo flavored yogurt at our FroYo shop; court lawsuits for the publicity; deceive the public with bogus animal videos; and camp with unknown men in the wilderness. Shove a camera in someone’s face and they are no longer wary of strangers. They’ll go on dates, spill their hearts, betray secrets. It’s as riveting and hilarious as it is uncomfortable. It might be the best half-hour on television this summer.

“Nathan For You,” whose second season began July 1, is a business advice reality show. Nathan Fielder, a comedian who graduated from the University of Victoria with a bachelor’s degree in commerce, advises small businesses on how to grow. It’s like “Kitchen Nightmares” or “Bar Rescue” except Fielder doesn’t have experience and the advice isn’t good. It’s also not terrible advice (not typically, anyway). The advice has to land in the sweet spot of “bad enough to entertain the folks at home; good enough to get the business to try for a day.” It’s not a parody of business advice shows, but it frequently becomes a parody of other reality genres. The show is more confusing to describe than it is to watch.

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Why Jon Favreau's 'Chef' Is Evil

By Eitan Kensky

Summer is the cruelest cultural season. With that in mind, ICYMI (In Case You Missed It) is a new occasional series highlighting movies, TV shows, books, comics and everything else we might have missed in the past few months that we can catch up on in the next few.

Jon Favreau’s “Chef” is diverting — funny at times, warm at others — entertaining, and also vaguely evil. Its emotional arcs are satisfying. Its kid stays on the right side of movie cute. He holds back, even withholds; a clear credit to Favreau’s direction. Scarlett Johansson wears full-throated, “Buy me some Sodastream, stranger” vampiness. You really will leave the theater hungry and happy, jealous of the saffron-scented meals and backyard orchards of southern California. It’s a good movie for humid nights and also vaguely evil.

We’ve seen this story before, though that’s part of “Chef”’s charm. Chef Carl Casper (Jon Favreau) is malaised. He supposedly has final say over the menu at his top-shelf restaurant, but the owner (Dustin Hoffman) keeps talking him out of trying new spices and dishes. He’s divorced (from Sofia Vergara) and ignores his son. An all-powerful critic (Oliver Platt) rips apart his boring food and a social media flame war ignites.

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Joe Berlinger On 'Whitey' Bulger and the FBI

By Dorri Olds

“Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger” is a revelatory documentary by Academy Award-nominated and seven-time Emmy Award-nominated filmmaker Joe Berlinger. With unprecedented access, Berlinger shot his documentary from the beginning of “Whitey” Bulger’s 2013 trial and uncovers disturbing questions about the extent of FBI and Boston Police Department corruption. Berlinger’s film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival 2014 as an Official Selection.

James ‘Whitey’ Bulger was number two on America’s Most Wanted fugitives list, preceded only by Osama Bin Laden. Bulger acted as boss of the Winter Hill Irish mob family that terrorized Boston for years. In 2011, he was arrested in California at age 81 for 19 murders. Catherine Grieg, his girlfriend, was also arrested. They’d been hiding in plain sight in a Santa Monica apartment complex. Which begs the question: How hard could the FBI have been trying to find them?

As the story goes, Bulger served as an informant for the FBI since 1975. He was protected from punishment for his illegal activities in exchange for information about the Italian Patriarca crime family. In 1994, after a member of the FBI tipped him off to a pending indictment, Bulger and Catherine fled. In June 2013 Bulger went on trial for 32 counts of racketeering, money laundering, extortion, weapons charges and 19 murders. He was found guilty on 31 counts and complicit in 11 murders. In November 2013 Judge Denise Caspar sentenced Bulger to two life terms plus five years.

The New England media exposed criminal actions by federal, state, and local law enforcement officials that tied them to Bulger. Berlinger’s film asks the tough questions about the misconduct that took place.

Dorri Olds: What inspired this film?

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POEM: 'Assimilation'

By Joy Ladin

For Irving Ladin, died October 2007


It’s different
in the house of death.
There’s family here too

but no one crowds around the bed.
They hang back in the shadows
waiting for you to come to them.

The mother and father you left
marinating in their accents
whisper their Russian version

of the local dialect.
You can’t quite hear them
but completely understand.

Your mother seems younger
the wisp of a girl
whose waist was as thin as the rail of a ship

then thicker the woman
you knew better than to contradict
then too frail to stand.

She isn’t angry now.
Merely curious.
You must be changing to her too

swelling and shrinking
through the boys and men
she knew you as.

Your father is looking down
embarrassed or disappointed
to find you here on the shore of death

like a message in a bottle he sent
washed up decades later
at his feet

unread.


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Lessons of Aaron Swartz, the 'Internet's Own Boy'

By Curt Schleier

“The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz” is likely to accomplish something no politician has been able to do: unite the Tea Party and liberal Democrats.

The documentary, which goes into limited release and video on demand June 27, tells the story of the government’s overzealous prosecution of a bright young man whose only crime was to push for open access on the Internet.

Don’t be embarrassed if you are unfamiliar with Swartz. I didn’t recognize the name, either. Nor did a dozen or so people I asked. Aaron Hillel Swartz (1986-2013) was a genius, a Beethoven of the Internet.

At age 14, he helped develop RSS (Rich Site Summary), which provides updates from selected websites. He worked on the project communally with members of an organization known as the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) all of whom assumed he was an adult. They discovered the truth when they invited him to a conference and he replied he wasn’t sure his mother would let him go.

Swartz subsequently became involved in a number of computer initiatives, creating Infogami, which merged with Reddit, which was purchased by Conde Nast and made him extremely wealthy.

He continued to tinker, creating the architecture for openlibrary.org, a website that hopes to devote a web page to every book ever published and already offers free e-access to many of them.

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100 Years of the 'Joint'

By Michael Kaminer

“I live. Send help.”

With that hopeful but heartbreaking dispatch, a survivor named Luba Mizne implored the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee for rescue amid the devastation of 1945 Warsaw.

Now, her original telegram is one of more than 100 artifacts in “I Live. Send Help,” a moving exhibition at the New York Historical Society that marks the centennial of the JDC, which calls itself “the world’s leading Jewish humanitarian organization” and today operates in more than 70 countries.

The exhibition pulls from the JDC’s massive archives, which includes three miles of documents, more than 100,000 photos, and hundreds of items. An astonishing range of objects, from a bar of soap given to Bergen-Belsen survivors at a DP camp to a child’s dress distributed at Ellis Island in 1949 to a letter urging passage for a rescue caravan out of Sarajevo in 1992, makes the show much more than an academic exercise.

“Our archive is one of the most important repositories of modern Jewish history in the world,” said Linda Levi, the director of the JDC’s global archives and a curator of the exhibition. “Given the significance of our work over the last century, it seemed fitting to have an exhibition at a major institution.”

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David Wain Is Back Again

By Curt Schleier

David Wain is a co-founder of two sketch comedy troupes, The State and Stella. He is executive producer and occasional star of the Emmy-winning Adult Swim series, “Children’s Hospital.” He also has his own online show, “Wainy Days,” about his (mis)adventures with women.

But certainly his greatest claim to fame is his 2001 cult classic, “Wet Hot American Summer.” That is, until now.

Wain’s latest, “They Came Together,” will soon claim top billing. It’s a hilarious spoof on the romantic comedy genre that opens in New York, Los Angeles and other markets June 27.

The film stars Paul Rudd as Joel, the typical romantic comedy lead — i.e. “handsome, but in a non-threatening way; vaguely but not overtly Jewish.”

Amy Poehler is Molly the klutzy but cute potential girlfriend. They meet in a bookstore where they discover that they both like — wait for it — “fiction books.” But problems ensue when she discovers he works for Candy Systems and Research, the company hoping to put her little store, Upper Sweet Side, out of business.

Still, they fall in love. They fall out of love. There are complications, but — spoiler alert — there is a happy ending, with shout-outs to everything from “You’ve Got Mail” to “Crossing Delancey.”

“They Came Together” is so funny you don’t need an entire funny bone to find laughs here. A few funny cells are more than enough to see the humor.

Wain spoke to the Forward about his complete lack of preparation for this interview, the low brow-ness of his jokes and how he’s not Pagliacci.

Curt Schleier: Have you prepared enough one-liners to make me look creative and funny to the readers of The Forward?

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Fighting Aaron Swartz's War

By Dorri Olds

It’s been said that the Internet both defined and was defined by Aaron Swartz. He co-founded Reddit and co-invented RSS, but it was his fight for free speech and open access to information that was both his legacy and his downfall.

Swartz used Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) computers to hack into JSTOR, the academic database. He copied 4.8 million articles and uploaded them for public access to protest the commercialization of information on the Internet. He was arrested for wire fraud and 11 violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) and, after a two-year legal battle and facing up to 35 years in prison, Swartz hanged himself at the age of 26.

Brian Knappenberger’s film “The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz” is a personal view into who Swartz was, how much he accomplished, and what led to his choice to end his life. The film also shows how society will suffer if we ignore the relationship between our technological landscape and our civil liberties.

Knappenberger has created many documentaries, commercials and feature films, and is executive producer of the 23-part Bloomberg series “Bloomberg Game Changers” which chronicles figures like Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and the Twitter and Google co-founders. His films have explored the changing politics and tensions in the post-9/11 era.

The Forward caught up with Knappenberger to talk about “hacktivism,” Edward Snowden and Net Neutrality.

Dorri Olds: What scenes did you really like but had to cut from the film?

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David Ives Tells Truths About Roman Polanski

By Dorri Olds

Playwright David Ives got a telephone message from Roman Polanski: “I love your play and want to turn it into a movie.” The two didn’t know each other. Imagine getting a voicemail like that.

It would be an oversimplification to say Roman Polanski’s “Venus in Fur” is about sadomasochism, but technically it is. It’s about sex and power and humiliation, yet there’s nothing really sexy about it. It’s more a study of the nature of human relationships — to dominate or be dominated. It’s seen through the prism of two lonely people on the edge, played by Polanski’s wife, Emmanuelle Seigner, and Mathieu Amalric, an actor who looks eerily like a younger Polanski.

When you throw Polanski’s name into this story — that of a man who’s successfully avoided prosecution for raping a minor — the project takes on a new significance. But, as with Woody Allen, Polanski’s supreme artistry can overshadow what we don’t know and don’t want to know.

The Forward’s Dorri Olds landed an exclusive interview with Ives, who spoke about his collaboration with Polanski for their “Venus in Fur” screenplay and to elaborate on his time spent with a genius on the lam.

Dorri Olds: Where did you meet Polanski?

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'Tyrant' Is Brutal, But Not Anti-Arab

By Curt Schleier

“Tyrant” is a new series made possible by the combination of a network willing to take chances with a producer/writer/director who understands the Middle East and international intrigue.

The network is FX, which long ago decided that an audience for intelligent TV existed, and you didn’t need Kardashians to goose ratings. There followed a series of smart and occasionally quirky shows such as “Rescue Me,” “Justified,” “Sons of Anarchy” and “Louis,” which drew audiences, advertisers and critical raves.

“Tyrant”’s mastermind is Gideon Raff, an Israeli, who created the TV series on which “Homeland” is based. Once again he’s teamed up with Howard Gordon (“24”) to come up with a concept that is smart, tense and brave.

Bassam (Barry) Al-Fayeed (Adam Rayner) is the son of a dictator of Abbudin, a fictional Arab country. He fled from there two decades ago and built a new life in the United States. Now he’s a California pediatrician with a gorgeous wife and two all-American kids.

When the show opens, he reluctantly returns to Abbudin to attend his nephew’s wedding. From the get-go, there is a sense of foreboding that he and his family won’t make it home. While there, his father, Khaled, dies and his older brother, Jamal (Ashraf Barhom), is incapacitated in a car accident. While only the pilot was available for review, it seems clear that Bassam will need to stay there to rule.

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Israeli Actress Moran Atias Talks 'Third Person' and 'Tyrant'

By Dorri Olds

“Third Person,” written and directed by Paul Haggis (“Million Dollar Baby,” “Crash”), tells three love stories about passion, trust and betrayal. “In any relationship,” Haggis said, “there is always a third person present in some form.”

Israeli actress Moran Atias, who starred in the TV series “Crash,” pitched the idea of a multi-plotline film about love and relationships to Haggis. “Third Person” is the result, and Atias plays Roman beauty Monika in the movie. Atias stars opposite Adrien Brody as one of the three fraught couples. The all-star cast includes Liam Neeson, Olivia Wilde, James Franco, Mila Kunis, Maria Bello and Kim Bassinger.

Atias had worked directly with Haggis and Neeson when she starred in Haggis’s 2010 crime drama, “The Next Three Days.” Born and raised in Haifa, Atias later moved to Italy where she starred in several Italian films including the thriller “Gas.” Additionally, she worked for modeling campaigns for Dolce & Cabana, Roberto Cavalli and Versace. After much success in Italy she returned to Israel. Currently Atias lives in Los Angeles and stars in the FX series, “Tyrant,” an American show that takes place in the Middle East.

The Forward caught up with Moran Atias for an exclusive interview.

Dorri Olds: What inspired your idea for “Third Person?”

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'Making Stalin Laugh' Finds Humor in Tragedy

By Liam Hoare

Photo: Simon Annand/JW3

The second act of David Schneider’s new play, “Making Stalin Laugh,” opens in 1935, the year the Moscow State Yiddish Theater decided to mount a production of “King Lear” with its legendary director Solomon Mikhoels as the lead. Lear, Mikhoels tells the cast as the party apparatchiki watch over his rehearsal, is a “tragedy about the slow disintegration of a man’s illusions. Illusions don’t shatter overnight,” Mikhoels states, “they wither.”

A comedy within a tragedy, “Making Stalin Laugh” — premiering this month at London’s JW3 — is also about the slow withering of illusion: in this case, the notion held onto by Mikhoels that Jewish culture could survive in a state that saw Yiddish and Judaism as anachronisms, antithetical to revolution and progress.

“Making Stalin Laugh” follows the fate of the Moscow State Yiddish Theater from around the time of its production of “The Travels of Benjamin III” in 1927 until the assassination of Mikhoels by the Ministry for State Security in Minsk in 1948, the closure of the theatre company in 1949, and the Night of the Murdered Poets on August 12, 1952. Having been arrested on charges of espionage and treason, the Soviet Union’s most prominent Yiddish writers were executed as part of Stalin’s wider campaign against “rootless cosmopolitans.”

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Is the U.S. Getting Better at Soccer?

By Dan Friedman

Getty Images

As Team USA carries the hopes of the English-speaking world in Brazil, inquiring minds are wondering why England is so perennially terrible at the sport it invented (and let’s not get started on cricket).

It is a question that was surprisingly well answered in 2009, along with the corollary question about how America is getting good at a sport it barely cares about, by Simon Kuper in his book “Soccernomics: Why England Loses, Why Germany and Brazil Win, and Why the U.S., Japan, Australia, Turkey — and Even Iraq — Are Destined to Become the Kings of the World’s Most Popular Sport.”

In this soccer version of “Moneyball,” which he co-wrote with Stefan Szymanski, Kuper explains the success of various club soccer teams as well as national soccer teams through the judicious use of statistics. It explains the opportunity cost of racism in England in the 1970s and 1980s and, as the title suggests, provides a convincing explanation of why England are poor and the USA are destined for greatness.

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POEM: 'Letter to God'

By Joy Ladin

You say because I’m always about to die,
I am truly alive. My shadow stretches
over fallen branches, my skin smiles
under fingers of light, grass smiles along the path

You say is mine.
When You look at me, you see a child.
When I look at You, I see
a woman under a tree, a dog, a sign,

libraries of books I neither read nor write.
Life for You is easy as death, You do both all the time.
Try it You say. Be dead. Now be alive.
Now be everything you desire. Now let desire lie.


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From One Soccer Writer to Another

By Dan Friedman

There are two Jonathan Wilsons writing about soccer in a knowledgeable way. One is Jonathan Wilson from the Guardian, arguably the foremost journalistic expert on tactics in the modern game, the other is Jonathan Wilson, the Tufts University Fletcher Professor of Rhetoric and Debate, who covered the 1994 World Cup for The New Yorker and who covered the 2010 World Cup for the Faster Times, in the persona of a slightly demented Diego Maradona.

It’s hard for me to write about the latter Jonathan Wilson’s fast-paced memoir “Kick and Run, Memoir with Soccer Ball” — a tale that weaves the author’s passion for soccer through his life — because his dreams and realities so closely mirror my own in crucial ways. Although the details of his childhood troubles in London, his relationship with his mother, his time in Israel and the writing experiences mentioned above bear no direct relationship to mine 20 years later, his journeys through Judaism, Zionism, British and American academia into middle-class American middle age share the same outline.

Although he has more successfully used academia to straddle bohemia and bourgeoisie than I did, we both go to sleep dreaming of goals we — or more often now, our favorite teams — scored. Wilson’s knee injury means he has played his last Sunday morning pick up game, while I still struggle on. But the poignant mentions of the deaths (cancer and traffic accident) of his co-players sound a warning knell over my own beloved cohort of Sunday morning strugglers.

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Hero in Print, Villain at Home

By Allen Ellenzweig

Few of us ever face a moral decision with life or death consequences, or that threatens to influence, however feebly, the course of history. This may be one reason why the moral calculations of men and women who lived during the rise of the Third Reich and the Second World War prove so durable as the subject of literature and film.

“The Last Sentence,” director Jan Troell’s account of a renowned Swedish newspaper editor, Torgny Segerstedt, who wrote early and forcefully against Hitler in his editorials, presents us with one such man. Yet instead of portraying this valorous figure as totally heroic, Troell does something more complicated — he presents a man whose personal life contains a strong dose of moral failure.

From Troell’s earliest frames, shot in the classic black and white of the period in question, we are in the hands of a master film craftsman. (Troell is best known in America for his award winning “The Emigrants” and “The New Land.”) Simple but compelling images of leaves floating on the surface of a clear shallow stream strike a poetic but also a philosophical note: Is the image a reminder of the way in which most of us “float” on the surface of life led by imperceptible currents?

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Jewish Roots of the 'Beautiful Game'

By Dan Friedman

British Jews have never accounted for more than 1% of the population. And their contribution to soccer has always been obscured. But, in his well-researched and compellingly-written history, “Does Your Rabbi Know You’re Here?: The History of Football’s Forgotten Tribe,” Anthony Clavane explains the outsize contribution of British Jews to British soccer and their pivotal role in the creation of the English Premier League.

For America this is the first World Cup. In 1994 the USA (under the guidance of Alan Rothenberg) hosted the games but, beyond the Hispanic community, the nation’s interest was really only piqued by the world’s interest and in a proprietary concern of providing hospitality — it might just as well have been the cricket World Cup for all that mainstream America cared.

John Oliver’s primer about the evils of FIFA is one of the proofs of the current interest. The printed guides to the games in local papers across the country, The New Republic’s dedicated World Cup blog and The New York Times’s three front page stories over the past month are further proof.

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Why Soccer Creates the Best Middle East Dialogue

By Dan Friedman

Getty Images

Thinkers from Cass Sunstein to Eli Pariser in “The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding From You,” have elucidated the threat to social discourse posed by the Internet. Increasingly able to insulate ourselves from disagreement, we live in bubbles of like-mindedness. From whichever angle, it’s epistemic closure in sociological jargon, “bullshit mountain” in Jon Stewart’s terms.

Soccer is one of the few places that sworn enemies talk, argue, read each other’s news: interact. It’s not perfect, there are inequities, iniquities, pitched battles and tragedies but those narratives clash openly in the media as well as on the pitch.

Tamir Sorek’s book, “Arab Soccer in a Jewish State: The Integrative Enclave,” about the social norms of soccer in Israel is an attempt to analyze how Jewish and Arab soccer co-exist in Israel, in various different ways. And to see whether soccer, in such a conflicted part of the world, can have a constructive effect on the situation.

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Abraham Klein, The Greatest Soccer Referee

By Dan Friedman

Image courtesy Abraham Klein

Israel has reached the World Cup finals just once — Mexico 1970 — where, after losing to Uruguay and tying with Sweden and Italy, it failed to progress beyond the group stage. That year in Mexico, though, there was an outstanding Israeli success — referee Abraham Klein.

An unlikely figure to take charge of 22 iconic athletes, the Israeli Klein stood barely 5 feet tall. At age 36, he was one of the youngest referees at the tournament and a World Cup novice, to boot. And what was his first game? England — soccer’s mother country and World Cup holders since the previous tournament in 1966 — against Brazil, perennial contenders (winners in 1958 and 1962) and embodiment of the exuberant reinvention of the spirit of soccer as “the beautiful game.”

Over the span of the next four world cups (though he missed 1974) he would prove his worth as one of the world’s leading referees, officiating as linesman for the 1982 World Cup Final in Spain.

His highly meticulous and detailed system for refereeing is outlined in his book “The Referee’s Referee: Becoming the Best.” which, though a little tricky to get hold of, is a referees’ must-read.


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