The Arty Semite

When a Terrorist Is Not a Terrorist

By Curt Schleier

Image courtesy of HBO

When is a terrorist not a terrorist?

That’s the question asked and answered in the important HBO documentary, “The Newburgh Sting,” which debuts July 21 at 9 p.m.

It’s been over five years. Still, many people are likely to remember how a joint terrorism task force arrested four men before they could bomb a Bronx synagogue and JCC, and fire a missile at military aircraft at Stewart Airport in upstate New York.

The government gratuitously went through the process of a trial, but the men, who became known as the Newburgh Four, had already been convicted in the media.

However, an investigation by filmmakers Kate Davis and David Heilbroner suggests that the four men were not terrorists, but dupes in an elaborate plot set up by an FBI informant.

Following 9/11 (which the FBI missed), the Bureau set up a network of informants to root out home grown terrorists. Most (if not all) of these informants were set loose on mosques. This certainly isn’t politically correct, and no U.S. mosque has yet ben implicated in any kind of terrorist plot. But the FBI seems to have adopted a “We screwed up and now we have to catch up” attitude that made its agents willing to overlook such niceties.“The rules are off,” was a common refrain in FBI offices.

Important, too, these undercover informants were financially rewarded. Previous criminal activity was overlooked. So, if they couldn’t find genuine terrorists, they were potentially motivated to create them, or else lose their jobs. And that seemed to be the case here.

Newburgh, 60 miles north of New York City, is an impoverished community. Shahed Hussain, an informant and shady character, visited the local mosque and asked the Imam if he knew anyone interested in Jihad.

The Imam suggested congregants stay away from him, but Hussain kept showing up in fancy suits, fancy cars (plural) and flashing wads of cash.

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When Music Is the Best Medicine

By Curt Schleier

Photo courtesy of BOND/360

Carly Simon recently told The New York Times that one of her goals this summer was to see “Alive Inside” again. She calls the documentary, which won the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, “an extremely moving depiction of the power that music has.”

She’s right. And so were the Sundance folks who selected the film as a favorite. It’ss a tear-jerker of a magnitude to raise the stock price of Kleenex Corp.

The movie chronicles Dan Cohen’s efforts to bring music to dementia patients in nursing homes and the extraordinary impact his project has had. It’s not just any music, but an iPod full of songs the patients grew up with.

Cohen, 62, posses a master’s degree in social work, but spent most of his professional life working for a tech company. In 2006 he read an article about how ubiquitous iPods had become, and wondered if he’d have access to his iPod if he were ever confined in a nursing home.

Cohen spoke to the Forward about his project, how the documentary came about, and forming the charity Music & Memory.

Curt Schleier: What happened after you read that article?

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Filming the One-State Solution

By Mira Sucharov

With the two-state solution increasingly invoked as either tragically out of reach or altogether unjust, a new film seeks to examine another possibility for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: the one-state solution.

More in the tradition of didactic documentary films than storytelling ones, Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon’s “A People Without a Land,” which recently premiered at the Manhattan Film Festival, winning a “Film Heals” award, features the most prominent voices of the one-state movement. There’s Ali Abunimah, founder of The Electronic Intifada, Omar Barghouti, an organizer of the BDS movement, and anti-Zionist activist Jeff Halper. There’s also Neta Golan, a trilingual Israeli-Jewish Ramallah-based activist for Palestinian solidarity, and Eitan Bronstein, director of Zochrot, an Israeli NGO that seeks to raise awareness of the Nakba. Rabbi Asher Lopatin, a U.S.-based Orthodox rabbi, provides a slightly different twist on the one-state idea, and Saeb Erakat and Hanan Ashrawi make brief appearances.

Perhaps most importantly, the film admits modesty in its aims, something that is both its strength and its weakness. Through the words of the interviewees, the film stresses the desirability — rather than practicability — of the one-state option. “First tell me whether it’s a good idea,” one of the interviewees suggests, “then we’ll talk about what is possible.” A more ambitious project might have attempted to tackle the equally pressing question of whether and how the one-state option could be brought to fruition given the historical propensity for the two-state option on each side. And despite recent polling revealing that the two-state solution is losing adherents, the one-state solution is even less appealing (with only 10% of Palestinians favoring it).

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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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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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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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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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How Shep Gordon Became a Real 'Supermensch'

By Curt Schleier

Comedian Mike Myers found the perfect vehicle to make his directorial debut: “Supermensch The Legend of Shep Gordon.”

The title makes it sound like another Myers comedy, a Jewish “Wayne’s World” or “Austin Powers.” In fact, it is an extremely well-executed documentary about one of the most captivating figures in the history of rock and roll.

Shep Gordon is not someone you’ve likely heard of. He managed Alice Cooper, Teddy Pendergrass, and Pink Floyd (inexplicably for just nine days), among others. He created the celebrity chef category. And he lived a remarkable life — something between a frat boy’s fantasy and a rabbi’s delight.

Even better, from Myers’s point of view, Gordon is a brilliant raconteur with a vivid memory that apparently survived the prestigious amount of drugs he consumed. Part of Myers’s success here is simply based on his ability to point a camera and press record.

Gordon grew up in a Jewish family in Oceanside, New York, and accidentally found a career in show business after he was slugged in the face by Janis Joplin. A word of explanation:

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From the Nursing Home to Jerusalem

By Curt Schleier

David Gaynes’ documentary, “Next Year in Jerusalem,” answers the old question of whether the glass is half empty or half full. At the Jewish Home for the Elderly in Fairfield, Conn., where the film was shot, both are the same.

Gaynes brought his camera to the nursing home, where the average age is 91, as some residents were preparing to tour Israel. The unavoidable first impression of their lives is depressing: the glass is less than half full.

The facility itself seems modern and clean. The staff seems helpful and caring. But still it is a waiting room for the funeral home, and there’s no way to pretty that up.

One of several residents we meet is Selma Rosenblatt, 93. She is bent over so far by osteoporosis that she can’t lift her head high enough to see in front of her. Recently, she says, a fellow resident died during a meal in the dining room, calling it “a wonderful way to go.”

Juna Wein, 89, says “it’s kind of dull for me here.”

Regine Arouette, 87, is Flemish and was a hidden child during the war. Her son and his family are in Belgium. “Sometimes I feel so lonely,” she says.

But, unexpectedly, despite the wheelchairs and walkers, Parkinson arms and other assorted ailments, the residents’ buoyant spirits begin to shine through.

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Portraits of Holocaust Heroism

By Curt Schleier

The title characters of filmmaker Michael King’s inspirational documentary, “The Rescuers,” are a dozen people, mostly diplomats, who saved thousands of Jewish lives during the Holocaust.

In many cases, they defied their own government’s specific instructions in order to arrange exit visas for families otherwise headed for extermination. Some of these stories are already reasonably well known.

There was Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish first secretary in Budapest, who mysteriously disappeared after the Soviets drove the Nazis out of Hungary; Carl Lutz, the Swiss vice counsel in Budapest, featured character in the recent film, “Walking With the Enemy”; and Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese consul in Lithuania credited with saving as many as 3,000 people.

Others are less familiar — at least to me — and, in some cases, unexpected. Selahattin Ulkumen, the Muslim Turkish consul in Rhodes, and Angelo Rotta, the Catholic Bishop in Budapest, helped save thousands. None is as surprising as Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz, a Nazi Party member and a German attache in Copenhagen. He arranged for Sweden to take in the city’s Jews, saving 7,200 lives.

It isn’t all about numbers, however. One of the rescuers was Princess Alice of Greece, great granddaughter of Queen Victoria and grandmother of Prince Charles, who hid a Jewish family in her Athens palace.

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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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Uncovering the Remains of Treblinka

By Curt Schleier

Dr. Caroline Sturdy Colls is a British forensic archeologist. Much of her work is with police departments, often literally digging up missing persons — so she’s used to uncovering remains.

Still, what she discovered during her research at the Treblinka death camp was so emotionally wrenching, it forced her to tears. A riveting account of her work there, “Treblinka: Hitler’s Killing Machine,” airs March 29 at 8 pm on the Smithsonian Channel.

Treblinka was actually two camps. Treblinka 1 was supposedly a labor camp. Treblinka 2 was almost certainly the most efficient murder operation in the history of mankind. About 900,000 people fell victim there in a little more than a year. Camp commanders bragged about their efficiency.

But, facing an oncoming Soviet army, the Germans destroyed the buildings, dug up mass graves and burned the bodies, forced local people to spread the ash and planted trees to cover over what had been the camp.

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Growing Up in a Former Synagogue Sanctuary

By Renee Ghert-Zand

For the many people walking through New York’s Lower East Side on any given day, 70 Hester Street is just one of many historic buildings. But for 37-year-old filmmaker Casimir Nozkowski, this former synagogue is home. He grew up in the loft space on the upper two floors, which his artist parents, Thomas Nozkowski and Joyce Robins, used as their studio for 45 years until they were evicted in 2012.

With a sense that 70 Hester Street would likely the suffer the fate of so many other buildings in the old neighbourhood and be torn down to make way for a new, sleek condominium or commercial space, Nozkowski started filming his childhood home in June 2012. His premonition turned out to be correct. Not long after, his parents received notice that the building was being sold and that they, as rental tenants, would have to move out.

“I went in to overdrive when we got the eviction notice,” Nozkowski told the Forward. “I started editing as I was still filming, and finished the film toward the end of 2013.” Fortunately, he completed the documentary in time to submit it for the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival, which accepted it for its City Limits: New York Shorts program. In its world premiere, “70 Hester Street” will be screened five times between April 17 and 27.

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Some Jews Are Funnier Than Others

By Curt Schleier

A popular form of entertainment is watching comics analyzing comedy — a subject that doesn’t easily lend itself to analysis. Simply: What’s funny is what makes the lady in the third row laugh. You cannot tell her she’s wrong; if she doesn’t laugh it isn’t funny, she does and it is. End of story.

Still, shows like Jerry Seinfeld’s “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” David Steinberg’s “Inside Comedy” on Showtime and the DVD “When Comedy Went To School” (about the Catskills) are all the rage.

I suspect the DVD release of Alan Zweig’s documentary, “When Jews Were Funny” will swiftly put an end to that. Zweig interviews about 25 comics of various ages and levels of success: Howie Mandel, Shecky Greene and the late David Brenner, among others in the top tier, and numerous others I’d never heard of before.

Part of the documentary’s problem is visual. Even under the best of circumstances, a film made up almost entirely of talking heads lacks tempo. It simply moves from one face to another, in this case with each face saying almost the same thing we’ve heard over and over again: Comedy comes from suffering and who has suffered more than Jews?

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Aaron Swartz Story Comes to Sundance

By Piya Sinha-Roy

(Reuters) — A year after Internet activist Aaron Swartz committed suicide, a new documentary brings to light the young computer prodigy’s earnest battle to bring online freedom of access to information for everyone.

“The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on Monday and director Brian Knappenberger was joined by Swartz’s father Robert and two brothers, Noah and Ben, all of whom received a standing ovation.

“It’s unbelievably hard for us, but Aaron is dead, there’s nothing we can do about that,” Swartz’s father told the audience, saying he hoped the film would raise awareness of Aaron’s activism and encourage others to fight on his behalf.

Swartz died aged 26 in his Brooklyn, New York apartment on January 11, 2013, after facing felony charges brought by a federal grand jury that included theft, wire fraud and computer fraud.

The federal indictment said Swartz, a fellow at Harvard University, had downloaded millions of articles and journals from digital archive JSTOR through the Massachusetts Institute of Technology servers. Swartz, who pleaded not guilty to all counts, faced 35 years in prison and a $1 million fine if convicted.

In the film, which is a contender in Sundance’s U.S. documentary competition, Knappenberger focuses on Swartz’s intellect and growing political ambitions, with interviews that shed insight into his personality from Swartz’s family, friends and colleagues.

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The Mischievous Life of Marcel Ophüls

By Allen Ellenzweig

The documentary “Ain’t Misbehavin’” — which received its American premiere January 8 at the New York Jewish Film Festival — is a significant change of pace for its director, Marcel Ophüls. Previously, Ophüls has given us magisterial inquiries into 20th century moral outrages, including his pre-eminent “The Sorrow and the Pity,” a disturbing exploration of French collaboration during the Nazi occupation, and “The Memory of Justice,” which examined the postwar world’s legal and ethical sense in the wake of the Nuremberg trials.

In “Ain’t Misbehavin’” — a terrible English title for what should have been a direct translation from the French, “A Traveler” — Ophüls is up to something decidedly more mischievous: He offers a self-portrait in late age, a memoir of youth, the tale of a family’s diaspora in the face of the Nazi menace, and a distinguished filmmaker’s tribute to his father, Max Ophüls, who himself had a legendary career in Germany, France and Hollywood, with films of dark romanticism including “Letter from an Unknown Woman,” “The Earrings of Madame de,” and “Lola Montès.”

Using still photographs, clips from his father’s films and his own, and interview footage shot in various world capitals and resorts, Ophüls fils presents himself as a travel guide of his family’s enforced peregrinations, a self-styled failed roué whose adored wife has separated from him, and a filmmaker whose nearly two-decade retirement this film ends.

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Hitchcock Holocaust Doc To Be Screened At Last

By Renee Ghert-Zand

A Holocaust documentary by Alfred Hitchcock will be screened in theatres and at festivals later this year, and on television in early 2015 to mark the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Europe at the end of World War II.

It was not widely known that Hitchcock was enlisted in 1945 by his friend and patron Sidney Bernstein to assist with the making of a documentary on German atrocities. The Guardian reports that Hitchcock was so traumatized by the footage shot by British and Soviet film units at liberated concentration camps that he stayed away from Pinewood Studios in Buckinghamshire, where he filmed some of his films, for a week. “Hitchcock may have been the king of horror movies but he was utterly appalled by ‘the real thing.’”

The idea was to produce and show the film to the Germans to make them face and take responsibility for what they had done. However, production was delayed, and by late 1945, there was less interest. Apparently, “the Allied military government decided that rubbing the Germans’ noses in their own guilt wouldn’t help with postwar reconstruction.”

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My Marvin Hamlisch Moment

By Curt Schleier

The only thing wrong with the latest American Masters profile is the title.

Courtesy Hamlisch Family

Officially it’s “Marvin Hamlisch: What He Did For Love.” More accurately, it should have been “Marvin Hamlisch: Mensch.”

Hamlisch was a musician of almost unrivaled accomplishment. He provided the music for numerous plays (“A Chorus Line,” “They’re Playing Our Song”) and films (“The Way We Were,” “The Spy Who Loved Me”). He wrote pop songs (his first hit was “Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows”). He conducted major symphonies and, famously, was musical director for Barbra Streisand’s concert tour.

His work made him an EGOT — the term given to someone who’s won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony. Only 11 people have ever done that. But Hamlisch also added a P — a Pulitzer. The only other person to do that was Richard Rodgers.

Hamlisch was the son of Jewish immigrants from Vienna who, fortunately, saw the storm clouds early and left. Much of the rest of the family perished in the Holocaust. His widow, Terre, said: “He used to say, ‘Do you know how lucky you are to have your grandparents?’ That’s why he loved family and appreciated the things he did have.”

His father, Max, was a professional musician and his mother, Lily, was the prototypical Jewish mom. Marvin’s cousin, Rabbi Paul Kushner, tells a story that proves that point.

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Claude Lanzmann and the Boss of Theresienstadt

By Allen Ellenzweig

“The Last of the Unjust” is at once a documentary on the Holocaust, a character portrait, an inquiry into the nature of evil, a rumination on drawing moral distinctions, and a lesson on the pedagogical limits of film. This well over three-hour documentary, directed — or should we say “constructed”? — by Claude Lanzmann, whose nine-and-a-half-hour “Shoah” of 1985 set the bar impossibly high for anyone foolish enough to take on the same subject, is an adjunct to that earlier project. In “The Last of the Unjust,” Lanzmann takes a massive amount of interview footage with one Viennese rabbi, Benjamin Murmelstein, originally intended for “Shoah,” and uses it to home in on this particular Jew caught up in the ethical quagmire of the concentration camps.

In this case, the “camp” is the model village Theresienstadt, the former Czech garrison Terezin, “given to the Jews” by Hitler, but used for propaganda purposes such that the International Red Cross was taken in by the elaborate subterfuge. As a Nazi “public relations” film of the period shows, Theresienstadt was populated by happy, well fed children playing games, vigorous Jewish athletes engaged in a soccer match around a large inner courtyard for the pleasure of a packed “house,” and talented Jewish musicians performing symphonic music for the interned masses. Factory workers industriously produced goods for the self-sufficient village, and so purposeful and idealistic are the looks on all of these Jewish faces, one wonders if Leni Riefenstahl could have produced any more invigorating picture of Jews as their own master race. Indeed, in this piece of twisted propaganda, Theresienstadt is made to appear a homeland for which any Jew would seek to make aliyah.

But Lanzmann’s film does not provide a historical reconstruction of the town itself; instead, in a week’s worth of interviews conducted in 1975 with Murmelstein, the third Jewish elder to have administrated the town, and thus a man at the will and whim of the Nazis, Lanzmann forces us to measure the guilt or innocence of a Jewish “collaborator” — one of those Jewish elders whom Hannah Arendt fingered with contempt.

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Stephen Sondheim in Six Songs

By Curt Schleier

Once upon a time, Americans grew up humming show tunes. They dominated radio airwaves, so, even if you hadn’t seen the musicals (or the films made from them), you knew the melodies and words to the songs of “Oklahoma,” “Carousel” and “My Fair Lady.”

But that changed as pop, rock and rap started to control airtime. Today, it’s a rare Broadway song that cracks the national consciousness. It’s in part for this reason that James Lapine’s HBO documentary, “Six by Sondheim,” which debuts December 9, is so fascinating and important.

Courtesy HBO

Lapine uses archival footage as well as fresh performances by Audra McDonald and America Ferrera of six Stephen Sondheim songs to tell the story of the composer’s fascinating and troubled life.

Some of the stories will be familiar to Sondheim enthusiasts, especially those who’ve read Meryle Secrest’s outstanding biography, “Stephen Sondheim: A Life.” He was a child of divorce. His mother once sent him a note saying she was sorry she gave birth to him. But he lived near the Pennsylvania home of Oscar Hammerstein, who mentored and encouraged him and became almost an adoptive parent.

That turns out to have been entirely appropriate, since Sondheim went on to become heir to Hammerstein (and Rodgers) and certainly the greatest Broadway composer of his generation. His shows, starting with “West Side Story” and including “Gypsy,” “Sunday in the Park With George” and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.”

He’s sort of like Mozart,” Lapine told the Forward in a telephone interview. “His work is going to live.”

Of course, Lapine is not exactly an unbiased observor. He’s been Sondheim’s partner on several musicals. They shared the Pulitzer for “Sunday in the Park” and Lapine won a half dozen Tonys for directing and writing the book of plays for which Sondheim wrote music. Lapine talked to the Forward about how he and Sondheim met, about their collaborations, and how the film came about.

Curt Schleier: How did you meet Stephen?

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  • "We must answer truthfully: Has a drop of all this bloodshed really helped bring us to a better place?”
  • "There are two roads. We have repeatedly taken the one more traveled, and that has made all the difference." Dahlia Scheindlin looks at the roots of Israel's conflict with Gaza.
  • Shalom, Cooperstown! Cooperstown Jewish mayor Jeff Katz and Jeff Idelson, director of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, work together to oversee induction weekend.
  • A boost for morale, if not morals.
  • Mixed marriages in Israel are tough in times of peace. So, how do you maintain a family bubble in the midst of war? http://jd.fo/f4VeG
  • Despite the escalating violence in Israel, more and more Jews are leaving their homes in Alaska to make aliyah: http://jd.fo/g4SIa
  • The Workmen's Circle is hosting New York’s first Jewish street fair on Sunday. Bring on the nouveau deli!
  • Novelist Sayed Kashua finds it hard to write about the heartbreak of Gaza from the plush confines of Debra Winger's Manhattan pad. Tough to argue with that, whichever side of the conflict you are on.
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
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