The Arty Semite

How Shabbat Dinner Can Save America

By Curt Schleier

In the film “Fed Up,” opening May 9, the untenable reality pours down like a mid-summer rain:

  • In the United States, more people die from obesity than starvation.

  • 87% of food items on supermarket shelves have added sugars.

  • Teenagers are having gastric bypass surgery.

We’ve become a corpulent nation, which is not news to anyone who has spent a day at the beach and seen 6-, 7- and 8-year-olds overflow their bathing suits.

The documentary, from filmmaker Stephanie Soechtig, is executive produced by Laurie David, a social activist who served similar duties on the global climate change documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth.” She’s also the co-author with Kirstin Uhrenholdt of two cookbooks: “The Family Dinner,” about the importance of families eating together, and out last month, “The Family Cooks,” which includes over 100 easy-to-prepare recipes for healthy family meals.

David spoke to the Forward about how she came to the documentary, what she thinks it will accomplish, and how her Shabbat meals honor the homemade food ethic.

Curt Schleier: How did you get involved in this project?

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Polio Couldn't Stop Hit Songwriter Doc Pomus

By Curt Schleier

“I was never one of those happy cripples,” is the way Jerome Felder described himself.

Felder Family Archive
Mort Shuman and Doc Pomus (right).

Why would he be? He was just 6 years old when he contracted polio. And in a sad irony fit for a blues song, the young Brooklynite caught the virus at a country summer camp he’d been sent to specifically to avoid the disease.

It’s no wonder that Felder was attracted to the Joe Turner songs of pain and suffering he heard on the radio. It’s no surprise, too, that the teenager started hanging out at blues clubs.

What is a little shocking is that when they asked this white Jewish kid on crutches what he was doing there, he had the chutzpah to say he was a blues singer. And he was. Except for the name, of course. So he changed it, to Doc Pomus.

As filmmaker Peter Miller points out in his documentary, “A.K.A. Doc Pomus,” Felder ultimately went on to write the songs that became the soundtrack for many of our lives: “Save the Last Dance for Me,” “This Magic Moment,” “A Teenager in Love,” “Can’t Get Used to Losing You.”

Pop song writing in the ‘50s was centered on the famous Brill Building in Manhattan, the ground zero of the music publishing business. In the world of Brill Building writers — Gerry Goffin and Carole King, Howie Greenfield and Neil Sedaka, Barry Mann and Cyntha Weil, among others — Pomus and his partners were the sun around which other planets revolved.

Miller spoke to The Arty Semite about how he came to make this film, his background in Jewish-themed documentaries, and how marriage changed his level of observance.

Curt Schleier: You’re only 51. Were you familiar with Pomus-era music?

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'The Neighbors' Celebrate 'Challoweenukah'

By Curt Schleier

Shades of “Chrismukuh.”

That’s the blended holiday celebrated by the blended Cohen family on the TV show, “The O.C.”

But Challoweenukah?

It’s the holiday that will be celebrated on the October 18 episode of “The Neighbors,” a show about blended peoples.

When the Weaver family moved into the gated Hidden Hills development last season, they discovered their new neighbors were aliens from the planet Zabvron. And the two cultures had a lot to learn about each other.

The Zabvronian leader, Larry Bird (Simon Templeman) — all the aliens have taken the names of famous athletes — falls in love with the holiday of Hanukkah as soon as he hears about it. He decides he wants to combine it with his other favorite earth holiday, Halloween. When no one show’s up for the first seven nights, Larry decides to publicize the celebration by giving out candy to kids at the local playground.

This is not the first time Larry became obsessed with earthly holidays. Earlier this season he discovered April Fools Day, which he quickly and accurately describes as “a lot more fun that Yom Kippur.”

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Chief of the 'Bad Jews'

By Curt Schleier

Joshua Harmon applied for admission to the Juilliard School’s prestigious playwriting program three times. Three times he was told sorry, try again. On his fourth attempt, “Bad Jews” got him in.

Joshua Harmon (left) and Bad Jews director Daniel Aukin. Photo courtesy of Roundabout Theater Company.

No, that’s not a reference to crooked admissions officers. “Bad Jews” is Harmon’s play about relatives battling over a special chai pendant that belonged to their late grandfather.

The play opened for a brief run last fall in The Roundabout Theatre’s 62-seat Black Box venue to rapturous reviews. It’s success prompted a move to the larger Laura Pels Theatre, where it opens October 3.

The fight at the play’s center is between Daphna (Tracee Chimo), the most religiously observant of three grandchildren, and her cousin Liam (Michael Zegen), who doesn’t believe at all and wants the chai to give to his non-Jewish girlfriend.

The verbal sparring gets heated and even physical at one point, often prompting debate from departing audience members. Harmon spoke to The Arty Semite about his “very exciting ride,” the play’s title, and why he likes to stand in the back of the the theater almost every night.

Curt Schleier: You’re a playwriting student with an off-Broadway production under your belt. You’re probably more successful than your teachers.

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Journey to the Heart of Alzheimer's

By Curt Schleier

Courtesy of HBO

To paraphrase a famous fundraising slogan, a mind is a terrible thing to watch wasting away.

But that’s what filmmaker Alan Berliner does in his moving and lovingly motivated documentary, “First Cousin Once Removed,” premiering on HBO September 23.

Berliner’s subject is his cousin, Edwin Honig (1919-2011), the noted poet, translator and teacher, who spent the last years of his life suffering from memory loss and Alzheimer’s.

Berliner filmed Honig five or six times a year over the last five years of his life and his decline is heartbreaking. Towards the end, he doesn’t recognize images of his younger self, his mother or his children.

But in the midst of his decay he occasionally becomes lucid, spouting poetic phrases both playful and profound. When Berliner asks if it is okay to film him Honig replies: “Mirror, mirror on the wall; you can be camera and I will be all.” At another point in the movie, he comments on the trees outside his apartment, “Leaves very still. But in the stillness there is movement. A moving painting.”

Berliner spoke to The Arty Semite about his relationship with his cousin, the difficulty of watching his deterioration and his propensity to make very personal documentaries.

Curt Schleier: How close to Edwin were you?

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A POW's Unlikely Friendship in Lebanon

By Curt Schleier

The drama and tension of life in the Middle East are a potential goldmine for filmmakers. Few have excavated that terrain more successfully than Israeli director Eran Riklis.

Courtesy Strand Releasing

“Zaytoun” (Olive), which opened in New York September 20, is his latest movie to examine the region’s politics in micro-terms. There was an Israeli Druze cross-border wedding in “The Syrian Bride”; the destruction of a Palestinian woman’s lemon grove in “Lemon Tree,” and now “Zaytoun.”

Like the other films, Zaytoun has an elevator-pitch plot: an unlikely friendship between a young Palestinian boy and an Israeli fighter pilot downed over Lebanon. But like the others, a capsule summary does little justice to the nuance, intelligence and delicacy Riklis brings to his projects.

It’s 1982 and a civil war is ravaging Lebanon. Fahed (Abdallah el Akal) is a 12-year-old who lives with his father and grandfather in a Palestinian refugee camp. Both enthrall the youngster with tales of their old home in what is now Israel and carefully tend a young olive tree sapling they plan to plant on their return.

Fahed tries to pick up extra cash by selling gum and cigarettes outside the camp, but Lebanon is a dangerous place. The Lebanese seem to hate the Palestinians almost as much as they hate the Israelis. Fahed and his friends are forcibly recruited by a local PLO commander and undergo what passes for military training.

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'Jewtopia' Isn't the Jewish Utopia We Were Looking For

By Curt Schleier

Courtesy Variance Films

One of the toughest tickets on Broadway today is “Book of Mormon,” the hilarious spoof on the Church of Latter Day Saints. It is a hoot. But I distinctly remember how uncomfortable I was as I watched, even while laughing out loud.

My personal litmus test in these situations is, what if the writers were making fun of me? Would I still be laughing?

Those of you who want to find what it feels like when you’re the target of jokes need only attend a screening of “Jewtopia,” which opens in select cities around the country September 20. Based on the play of the same name it is a sad exercise in self-mockery that uses virtually every stereotype to ridicule Jewish characters.

Actually, they’re more like caricatures. There isn’t a full-blooded character to be found anywhere. If the script were written by non-Jews, the ADL would be screaming, and with good cause.

Writers Bryan Fogel (who also directed) and Sam Wolfson actually started out with a potentially engaging concept. Christian O’Connell, who is not Christian in name alone, dated a Jewish girl in college who made all decisions for him. She broke up with Chris at graduation when they were about to enter “the real world,” where, of course, she’d marry a Jew.

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Versailles McMansion Couple Returns to Small Screen

By Curt Schleier

The Siegels are back.

David and Jackie Siegel, last seen in the Documentary “The Queen of Versailles,” are the first guests in a new CNBC program, “Secret Lives of the Super Rich,” premiering September 25 at 9 p.m.

Even in a show dedicated to conspicuous consumption, the Siegels are special. When last seen, the Siegel empire was in disarray and their Orlando-area mansion — designed to resemble Versailles — was in foreclosure.

But at least the Siegel economy has rebounded. David Siegel’s Westgate Resorts time share company is recording record profits, he says. Now he’s repurchased the manse from the bank and has resumed construction.

How big is the place? It has 13 bedrooms, 30 bathrooms, 11 kitchens and a 20-car garage. It is so big that at one point in the tour, Jackie Siegel gets lost and doesn’t know what room she’s in.

“Nobody needs a house like that,” David says. He is right, of course.

While business is good, the family is cutting back. It is chartering out the two jets it owns and flying commercial some of the time.

To help support the family, Jackie wants to go back to work. Sort of. She hopes to land her own reality show — though there’s nothing real about her life.

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Iddo Goldberg Gets His Big Break

By Curt Schleier

The reason Iddo Goldberg is chatting with The Arty Semite is ostensibly his new film, “And While We Were Here,” opening September 13. But the conversation is less about his co-star Kate Bosworth than about his grandma Luba, who represents Judaism to him.

In the film, the Israeli star plays Leonard, a concert musician booked to play on a beautiful island off Italy’s Amalfi coast. His marriage to Jane (Bosworth), a writer, is strained. While attempting to adapt her grandmother’s World War II stories, she stumbles into a romantic affair with a younger man.

Goldberg spoke to The Arty Semite about Israel, his family and his career.

Curt Schleier: At first, Jane and Leonard seem like an ideal couple. Then there’s a hint of a death that’s never fully explained.

Iddo Goldberg: They’d been trying to have kids for a few years. The director didn’t want to be very specific, but this was the third baby that [was a miscarriage]. The couple really loved each other. But [this] was just tearing them apart. It was too painful to talk about any more. They just tried to ignore it.

This is your first big film lead. What does this mean for your career?

I’m not sure. You can never tell. Next up is a BBC 2 miniseries, “Peaky Blinders.” You should look it up on the web.

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How Josh Pais Learned To Be Invisible

By Curt Schleier

Courtesy Magnolia Pictures

Josh Pais has been in dozens of films playing many roles, including Raphael — not the painter, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Rurtle. But for most of his career he has been a sought-after character actor in independent films.

Pais’s current effort is Lynn Shelton’s “Touchy Feely,” co-starring Rosemarie DeWitt, Ellen Page and Allison Janey. Pais and DeWitt are Paul, a dentist with a declining practice, and his sister Abby, a massage therapist with more bookings than she can handle.

But something happens. Paul suddenly finds the ability to heal Temporomandibular Joint Disorder (TMJ) and his practice becomes bountiful; meanwhile, Abby can’t stand touching anyone’s skin.

Pais talked to The Arty Semite about how he learned to be invisible, the difference between independent and studio films, and his Dutch father who spent World War II working for the underground and hiding in Amsterdam.

Curt Schleier: There are two Pauls. One seems insecure and the other is confident and positive. Which one describes the real Josh Pais?

John Pais: At this point, I’m more the “after” dentist. I would say I’m quite happy in my life the majority of the time. Earlier in my life I was more questioning, overly trying to figure things out. I like this way much better. I think success is tied to it. I always worked pretty steadily. But maybe out of some kind of fear I put the brakes on letting myself be as successful as I’d like to be. More and more I’ve taken the brakes off and let whatever happens happen.

What part of yourself did you question?

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Johnny Cash's Jewish Manager

By Curt Schleier

Courtesy Jonathan Holiff

Jonathan Holiff had a tough time growing up. His father was occasionally physically and always emotionally abusive. “If there was a definition of emotionally abusive in the dictionary there’d be a picture of my father next to it,” Holiff says. He quickly adds, though, “You have to put it into the context of the times.”

His father, Saul, is the subject of Jonathan’s documentary, “My Father and the Man in Black,” opening in New York and Los Angeles September 6. The Man in Black is of course country music singer Johnny Cash. Saul was associated with the superstar for 17 years, and for 13 of those as his manager.

The film starts with Saul’s suicide. Eight months later, Jonathan’s mom gives him the key to his father’s storage locker. There the younger Holiff discovers a treasure trove of material, including 60 hours of an audio diary his father recorded as well as phone calls with Cash that Saul secretly recorded, which became the main resource for the movie.

Holiff spoke to The Arty Semite about the “cathartic experience” of making the film, how the combination of Johnny and Saul was “greater than the sum of its parts” and the anti-Semitic comments by June Carter Cash that caused the rupture in their agreement.

Curt Schleier: Did you like your father?

Jonathan Holiff: I certainly didn’t like him until after he died. I had an unprecedented opportunity not many children get to know one’s father before and after he died. The audio diary and phone calls allowed me to identify with him, with his business, with his family. And suddenly what for me as a child was a two-dimensional authority figure became a richer, more complex person, albeit a tragic one.

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Sigourney Weaver Will Star in 'Exodus'

By Curt Schleier

Getty Images

Sigourney Weaver is set to team up again with Ridley Scott, the director who made her a star. That was in “Alien,” singular; this time there are a bunch of aliens.

Weaver will star in “Exodus.” For the record, this is not a re-imagining of the Leon Uris book that featured Paul Newman and Eva Marie Saint, among others, but that other Book of Exodus.

According to the Hollywood Reporter, she will play Tuya, mother of Ramses II (Joel Edgerton). The perhaps inappropriately named Christian Bale stars as Moses, while Aaron Paul, of “Breaking Bad” fame, will be Joshua.

Filming begins in Spain, Morocco and England next month. Steve Zaillian (“Schindler’s List”) wrote the screenplay following previous versions written by Adam Cooper and Bill Collage.

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Austin Winsberg's Best and Worst Blind Dates

By Curt Schleier

First dates are always problematic. That’s especially true when it’s a blind date. The inherent tensions of the situation form the humorous backdrop for a new Broadway musical, “First Date.”

Austin Winsberg

Aaron (Zachary Levi) is a little uptight; Casey (Krysta Rodriguez) is less so. It does not look like this is a match made in heaven. Or is it?

The play was written by Austin Winsberg with music and lyrics provided by his friends, Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner. “The idea came from us, three Jewish boys who dated a lot of girls, and what we thought of the dating world,” Winsberg told The Arty Semite.

This is the first play for Winsberg, whose background is mostly in film and television (“Jake in Progress,” “Still Standing”). He spoke to the Forward about his blind date experiences, dealing with some “mean spirited” reviews and his own bar mitzvah — in Israel, at age 19.

Curt Schleier: Did you meet your wife on a blind date?

Austin Winsberg: I did, actually. My best friend growing up is her third cousin. They hadn’t seen each other for a long time and reconnected at a Mother’s Day reunion. He and I have the same taste, and he told me had this wonderful person for me he wanted to set me up with. I asked him if she’s so great why don’t you want her. He said it was because she was his cousin. So we went out to dinner.

How did it go?

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Avi Hoffman Is Still Too Jewish, Again

By Curt Schleier

Just a few minutes into his performance, the screen behind Avi Hoffman lights up with an image of him as an 8-year-old with peyes. Not just any 8-year-old with peyes, mind you. He’s Tevye in a local production of “Fiddler on the Roof,” a performance his mom taped for posterity — perhaps anticipating this very moment.

Hoffman shares some of that audio recording, including his rendition of “If I Were A Rich Man,” sung with a distinct Bronx twang. Next up: his professional debut two years later in a Folksbiene production of “Bronx Express,” followed by his move to Israel, where his acting troupe entertained troops during the 1973 Yom Kippur war. To quote the King of Siam (or Yul Brenner), from there on in Hoffman’s career retrospective, “Still Jewish After All These Years,” is essentially, etcetera, etcetera.

Hoffman has gone to this well twice before, in “Too Jewish” (1994) and “Too Jewish, Too” (1998). But the truth, it never gets old — in part because Hoffman is so good at what he does. At 55, he’s still in fine voice, and his self-deprecating humor keeps this from becoming a vulgar exercise in patting-himself-on-the back. Hoffman is a man who knows how to milk a laugh — and a tear.

Part of the show’s appeal, too, is that like kosher hotels in the Catskills, the world he describes is slowly vanishing, and sadly, so is the audience that remembers it. Take his imitation of Yiddish comic actor Menasha Skulnik — it might have been dead-on, but my guess is that few in the audience could testify to that. But much of the rest of his 90-minute performance will likely be as warm and familiar to his likely audience as chicken soup.

Hoffman performs songs by the Jewish songwriters he grew up admiring, such as Paul Simon, Billy Joel and Bob Dylan; songs from some of the plays he appeared in, and a moving piece about his father. (His mother, Miriam Hoffman, contributes to the Forverts — he calls her the “Jewish Dave Barry.”)

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Israeli Series 'Irreversible' Making Its Way to ABC

By Curt Schleier

Another Israeli series will likely make its way to American television. In fact, Deadline Hollywood reports that “Irreversible,” based the Reshet TV show “Bilti Hafich,” is almost guaranteed a spot on ABC.

The network gave the okay to Sony TV and Peter Tolan (“Rescue Me,” “Analyze This”) for a pilot and agreed to a seven-figure penalty if it doesn’t air. Adding to the unique nature of the arrangement, the series’ Israeli co-creator, Sigal Avin, will be the sole writer on the show, direct the pilot and executive produce.

“Bilti Hafich” is about the trials and tribulations of an eccentric and self-centered couple. It premiered in January and rocketed to the top ranks of Israeli TV ratings. It was renewed for a second season.

ABC, Reshet and Sony TV also teamed last year on another Israeli series, “Divorce.” It went to pilot, was not picked for this fall, but the cast’s options were picked up. So it remains a contender.

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Get Your Sukkah on TV

By Curt Schleier

New York Public Television wants to celebrate the Holidays with you. Or, more accurately, it wants you to celebrate the Holidays with them

The station is preparing a documentary, “Sacred,” it hopes will be a portrait of a year in the spiritual and religious life on earth. To accomplish that mission, it is crowdsourcing — that is getting anyone and everyone to provide resource material by providing video answers to the question: “What is sacred to you?”

Submissions may be included in the finished film. Or not. Currently, the producers are looking for video of families celebrating Sukkot — “as observance of Jewish law will allow.” High Holiday footage is also welcome.

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The Life of Linda Lovelace

By Curt Schleier

Before home computers, before the Internet, there was Linda Lovelace. For those who may have missed the 1970s, Lovelace starred in “Deep Throat,” the first “adult” film to receive mainstream distribution.

Typical porno flicks of the time were sleazy, hurriedly shot and poorly lit. “Deep Throat” was comparatively better, and even had an unusual comic plot. Lovelace was unable to achieve satisfaction in the traditional matter because of — how to put this? — a physical anomaly. Without going into detail, consider the film’s name.

That was humorous, perhaps. But there was nothing funny about her real life. Lovelace later revealed that she was abused by her husband and forced not only to appear in this film, but to perform acts of prostitution, as well.

Her life is the subject of a new biopic, “Lovelace,” which opens August 9 in theaters and on Video on Demand. It is directed by Rob Epstein, 58, and Jeffrey Friedman, 62. The pair are also behind such well received documentaries as “Common Threads: Stories From the Quilt” (an Academy Award winner) and “The Celluloid Closet” (for which they won a directing Emmy). Their first narrative film was “Howl,” which starred James Franco as a young Allen Ginsburg.

Epstein and Friedman spoke to The Arty Semite about tandem directing, casting “Lovelace” and how being Jewish affects their expectations.

Curt Schleier: How long have you two been working together?

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How Robert Klein Saved Rodney Dangerfield's Life

By Curt Schleier

“When Comedy Went to School,” a new documentary opening in New York and Los Angeles July 31, tries too hard to be both a history of Jewish comedy and the Catskills. It’s a lot of territory to cover, but the producers made at least one right choice: The film’s narrator is Robert Klein, 71, the veteran comedian who’s covered a lot of the same territory himself.

Phil Konstantin/Wikimedia Commons

Klein has starred on TV (he had the first-ever HBO comedy special), on Broadway (he’s a Tony nominee for “They’re Playing Our Song”) and of course at stand-up dates at night clubs, college campuses and JCCs. Oh, yes, he headlined at the Concord and Kutcher’s, too.

Klein spoke to The Arty Semite about his nostalgia for the old Catskills, changes in the comedy universe and how he saved Rodney Dangerfield’s life.

Curt Schleier: “When Comedy Went to School” made me sad. There are generations of young people who don’t know anything about the Catskills — a great era in New York Jewish life.

Robert Klein: There’s nothing there anymore. I had a club date there last summer in Loch Sheldrake [once home to many major hotels] and everything is shuttered up. It’s depressing.

You had your first taste of live comedy there, didn’t you?

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Confusion in the Hardware Store

By Curt Schleier

Paul Manuel Kane had ambitious goals for “Dancing on Nails,” including discussions of race, love and family. Unfortunately, these themes play out in the context of a five-caricature play. Not characters, but caricatures, whose motivations are confusing and undermine the best of Kane’s intentions.

Marina Levitskaya

The setting is New York in the spring of 1953. Sam Heisler (Peter Van Wagner) is a 50-year-old Jewish bachelor who seems most comfortable in the successful hardware store he owns.

His only employees are Carlos, a never-seen deliveryman, and Rose Levitt (Lori Wilner), Sam’s unhappily married cousin. Her husband, Joe (Michael Lewis), is a would-be jazz musician who blames the world for his problems.

Luba (Lauren Klein) seems to be a family friend, whose sole purpose is to fill in the many plot holes on the play’s road to an unsatisfying denouement.

Rose has hired a young African American, Natalie Washington (Jazmyn Richardson), to help out at the store. Natalie lives with her grandmother, wants to be an opera singer, and studies music.

At first Heisler is cold to her, insisting she stay late on her first day when she clearly wants to leave. He’s also dismissive of her goals. “Don’t throw your life away with fancy ambitions,” he tells her. “You gotta be practical.”

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Retired Older Men Eating Out Wednesdays

By Curt Schleier

“The Romeows” is not a misspelled attempt to re-write Shakespeare. Nor does it have anything to do with cats. It is, in fact, a gentle, heart-warming film about the enduring friendship of a group of guys, members of the same Brooklyn College house plan (class of ’59). The title stands for “retired older men eating out Wednesdays.”

The group meets weekly for dinners that are part reminiscence, part philosophy and part therapy. Director Robert Sarnoff started to film them on a regular basis in 2008, as their 50th class reunion approached, and then shot them again in 2012.

There is something poignant about how they maintain their relationships (and still laugh at each other’s jokes) so many years after they first met. Clearly, the nourishment they get from these sessions fills their souls as well as their bellies.

In individual interviews and during their meals, they talk about everything from their mortality to the legacies they’ve left their children.

“The Romeows” will resonate with anyone who lived through that era, particularly New Yorkers who attended any of the tuition-free city colleges, all top ranked academically and important steps into the middle class and beyond for immigrants and their children.

Quoted in the production notes, Sarnoff said the audience attending an early screening reacted positively to the film, “but many questions led me to believe there was some confusion. Clarification was necessary.”

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