The Arty Semite

The Yiddish Path to Acting Fame and Fortune

By Jordan Kutzik

A version of this post appeared in Yiddish here

Like all actors attempting to break into the notoriously difficult profession, Michael Levi Harris is seeking to stand out. Luckily, Harris has a talent that is almost unique: he has an exceptional knack for languages. Not only can Harris speak many tongues but he also has a rare aptitude for accents and can, with a little practice, perfectly mimic the sounds of languages that he doesn’t know.

Harris’s linguistic skills are highlighted in the new short film “The Hyperglot,” a romantic comedy in which the main character, Jake, a talented polyglot played by Harris, tries to locate a woman with whom he has instantly fallen in love after seeing her on the subway.

Because she left behind a book in Maltese, Jake begins to learn the rare language in case he ever meets her again. While Jake looks for the pretty Maltese woman, he stumbles into a series of comical incidents in which he has the opportunity to speak many languages. By the end of the film Harris’s character speaks Arabic, Icelandic, Italian, Portuguese, Japanese, Russian, Norwegian, both American and British sign-language and finally, Yiddish. Watching Jake, the audience soon learns that although the hyperglot can speak at least 11 languages, he can’t properly flirt with girls in any of them.

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Why David Broza Still Has Hope for Peace

By Curt Schleier

Courtesy David Broza

David Broza is likely Israel’s most famous singer-songwriter. With a throaty Leonard Cohen sound and earthy Bruce Springsteen lyrics, Broza has recorded platinum albums and toured the world to great acclaim.

He is also among the nation’s most recognized peace advocates, a fact that fueled his most recent activities — an album, “East Jerusalem/West Jerusalem” (S-Curve Records), and an accompanying documentary of the same name.

The film recently aired at the Other Israel Film Festival in New York, and at the ABC Foundation Conference in Miami. It is essentially a making-of-the-album film, but also focuses on Broza’s efforts to use music to bridge the gap between Israelis and Arabs.

The concept was simple. Broza rented time at the Sabreen studio in East Jerusalem, a center of the Palestinian music scene. He gave himself eight days and eight nights to record 13 tracks heavy on a peace motif. On each he is complemented by a number of Israeli and Palestinian musicians and singers, including Mira Awad. To add a bit of American flavor he brought in Steve Greenberg and Steve Earle to produce.

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6 Movies About Ex-Orthodox Jews Everyone Should See

By Anne Joseph

In contemporary cinema the representation of Jews is not so unusual. However, ex-Orthodox Jewish characters are portrayed far less often. Nonetheless, their role is significant and in some cases, iconic. (See my recent piece about Anna Wexler and Nadja Oertelt’s documentary ‘Unorthodox’ for one of the most recent examples.) Here are six of the best.

1. The Jazz Singer (Alan Crosland, 1927)

Famous for being the first film with synchronized dialogue, this classic talkie stars Al Jolson as Jakie Rabinowitz, the son of a cantor who defies the traditions of his Orthodox parents because of his desire to pursue a career as a jazz singer. Following punishment by his father, Jakie runs away from home, but many years later his professional success comes into direct conflict with his religious and family responsibilities.

The film was remade twice — in 1952 (directed by Michael Curtiz) and again in 1980 (directed by Richard Fleischer and Sidney J. Furie), the latter starring Neil Diamond and Lawrence Olivier.

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Orthodox in Israel, Secular in Kathmandu

By Anne Joseph


Courtesy Anna Wexler

At 8 years old, Anna Wexler wanted to be a great Torah scholar. At 12 she started to question her faith, and by 16 she was an atheist. It was at this point that Wexler decided to break away from her Modern Orthodox, New Jersey upbringing, to live a life with no rules and no limits.

Gravitating towards others like her, she says they went “pretty wild.’” But during their gap year, a significant change occurred. While she was travelling in Kathmandu, her rebellious friends had “flipped out” in Israel. Having gone to yeshiva, they had become religious, and exchanged their former lifestyle for one of modest dress and Torah study. It led Wexler to question why, and forms the subject of her debut documentary, “Unorthodox.”

The film has had several successful U.S. film festival screenings, including at the Boston Jewish Film Festival and DOC NYC. It will receive its U.K. premiere later this month during the U.K. Jewish Film Festival.

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Maggie Gyllenhaal's Top 8 Roles

By Curt Schleier

It’s no surprise that the Roundabout Theater Company’s revival of Tom Stoppard’s “The Real Thing” boasts Maggie Gyllenhaal in the role of Anna. She is a strong, intelligent activist and actor, a key player in this drama about marital love and infidelity. It’s the type of character Gyllenhaal regularly and successfully inhabits.

For the young actress, who recently discovered her birth name is Margalit (Hebrew for Pearl), it adds another star performance in her ever-expanding galaxy. Here are some others:

1. The Honourable Woman

Gyllenhaal played British business executive Ness Stein in this eight-part mini-series that aired originally on the BBC and last summer on the Sundance Channel. Stein, who is Jewish, works hard to build bridges of peace between Israelis and Palestinians, but as soon becomes clear in this spy thriller, it is a complex and difficult task. But the series and Gullenhaal’s performance won raves, with The New York Times saying she played “a principled but conflicted woman whose quicksilver personality alters from hour to hour and flashback to flash-forward.”

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Philip Roth, Film Critic

By Gabe Friedman

Getty Images

In 1957, while writing his first novel and teaching at the University of Chicago, Philip Roth found an unexpected way to get out some of his trademark anger: movie reviews.

From June 1957 to the spring of 1958, until he moved from Chicago to New York, the 23 year-old Roth wrote film reviews for The New Republic. According to Tablet Magazine, Claudia Roth Pierpont (who recently wrote “Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Books” ) noted that Roth received $25 per review and eventually bought a used car with this pay.

Below are quotes from some of his reviews, which, like Roth himself, tended to be more than a little cynical.

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Filming the Wives of Bali

By Dorri Olds

Courtesy of Elemental Productions

Filmmaker Robert Lemelson’s “Bitter Honey” is a documentary about polygamy and violence towards women in Bali, Indonesia. Lemelson filmed three families — three husbands, 17 wives and 20 children — over a seven-year period. Many were tricked into being co-wives and are psychologically manipulated and physically abused by their unfaithful and often cruel husbands once they are married. Feeling trapped for economic and cultural reasons, they remain with their husbands despite their grim conditions. It is fascinating and heartbreaking to watch them open up to Lemelson about their ongoing plight: their fear and sadness.

Lemelson, 53, has been making documentary films in Indonesia for two decades. The New Jersey native is also a professor of anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles, with a specialty in Southeast Asian studies, psychological anthropology and transcultural psychiatry. He was a Fulbright scholar in Indonesia and holds a master’s degree in anthropology from the University of Chicago and a doctorate in anthropology from University of Califaronia, Los Angeles.

The Forward’s Dorri Olds caught up with him in New York City, at the Clinton Global Initiative, with which he has been involved for the last 5 years.

Dorri Olds: How did a nice Jewish boy from New Jersey end up in Indonesia?

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When Investigative Reporting Turns Deadly

By Dorri Olds

Writer Peter Landesman seems the only good choice to have written “Kill the Messenger.” The movie is about Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner) who broke the story that the CIA, during the Reagan administration, was part of a conspiracy that looked away while gobs of cocaine was smuggled into the U.S. and the money from drug sales funded weapons for the rebel forces in Nicaragua. The influx of coke was also at the root of the 1980s crack epidemic.

In an almost parallel universe, Landesman wrote an expose for The New York Times magazine in 2004 called “The Girls Next Door” about the horrors of America’s sex trade. Like Webb, Landesman was accused of inaccurate reporting and wild exaggerations and had to fight for his reputation.

Gary Webb died in 2004. His life had been destroyed. He’d suffered depression, substance abuse, lost his marriage, his career, his credibility and then his life. His death was ruled a suicide. But how do you shoot yourself in the head twice?

The Forward caught up with Landesman to talk about the movie and the dangers inherent in uncovering “stories that are too true to tell.”

Dorri Olds: Did writing the screenplay for “Kill the Messenger” hit close to your own experiences?

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Trying To Find the Real Heinrich Himmler

By Curt Schleier

A sense of irony is helpful, perhaps even necessary, to truly appreciate “The Decent One,” the new documentary about Heinrich Himmler. The paradox begins with the title character.

He was the architect of the Final Solution, commander of the SS, and a man who in civilian clothes looked like a Jewish accountant.

What Vanessa Lapa, the Belgian-born, Israeli filmmaker, has attempted to do is juxtapose the man who considers himself the height of German morality, a man who loved his wife and his mistress equally (see what I mean about irony?) with the human being responsible for millions upon millions of deaths.

The idea originated with the recent discovery of a treasure trove of Himmler papers including diaries, documents and photos. These were originally uncovered at the end of the war in Himmler’s residence by American soldiers who, hoping to cash in on the cache, kept what they found instead of turning it in.

A portion of the find wound up at Stanford University and the remainder disappeared, hidden in the home of an Israeli. How he came to own it is unclear, but he sold the material to Lapa’s father. Fascinated, she used it as the basis for her film.

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Conversations With Ed Koch

By Curt Schleier

That Neil Barsky selected Ed Koch as the subject of his first film was far from an accident. Barsky spent his formative years in New York during Koch’s mayoralty (1978-1989), both as a high school student and later as a journalist.

The city was in the midst of desperate times. Crime was rampant and the Big Apple was running out of cash and time. Koch ran as a “liberal with sanity” on a law and order platform shortly after the 1977 blackout and ensuing riots; he easily defeated a passel of more liberal Democrats (Bella Abzug and Mario Cuomo, among them) for his party’s nomination and then won the election handily.

Koch was brash and combative in a New York City kind of way — at least in the way New Yorkers like to think of themselves. Barsky is a former journalist — he wrote for the Wall Street Journal and the New York Daily News — and he comes to filmmaking by a circuitous route. He ran a hedge fund, Alson Partners, named for his children, Alexandra and Davidson, but “retired from the hedge fund world” in 2009 when the market collapsed. After a brief stint teaching college-level economics, he self financed “Koch,” his first foray into the world of documentaries. The movie opened to near unanimous praise last year and will be broadcast September as part of POV’s 27th season on PBS.

Barsky spoke to the Forward about his life journey, why there was a time when Koch refused to speak to him and the Yiddishkeit in his life.

Curt Schleier: How did you go from hedge fund entrepreneur to filmmaker?

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Forging Art for Fun and Philanthropy

By Dorri Olds

Art forger Mark Landis is the subject of the documentary “Art and Craft,” directed by Sam Cullman, Jennifer Grausman and Mark Becker. The film focuses on Landis’s history of art forgeries and the process he went through to create and donate them. The film also features Matthew Leininger, a museum registrar from Cincinnati who discovered the fakes and made it his mission to track down and stop Landis.

At the age of 17, Landis took the death of his father very hard. He was sent to a mental hospital for treatment and diagnosed with schizophrenia. Later he took art classes at the Art Institute of Chicago and worked on repairing damaged paintings. He bought an art gallery but it went bust. At 30, he went back to live with his mother.

In an attempt to honor his father and please his mother, Landis donated a Maynard Dixon painting he’d copied to a California museum. After that went well, he continued to paint dupes and donated them to 60 museums over a 20-year period. Most times he approached the museums impersonating a priest.

Landis said, “I liked being a priest and being kind to people. I remember once I was at a bus station and saw a family who had everything they owned tied up in boxes so I watched all their things for them when they wanted to go off and do something. Then, when they came back I gave them a blessing and sent them on their way. I’ve also comforted people at airports, with marital problems.”

In 2007, Landis offered a few paintings to the Oklahoma City Museum of Art. The museum’s registrar, Matthew Leininger, investigated the pieces and discovered that one of the paintings had already been donated to the SCAD Museum of Art. Leininger dug deeper and found out that Landis had tricked more than 60 museums in 20 different states. It became Leininger’s mission to stop Landis from deceiving museums. Landis did not sell any of the paintings, so he has never faced legal charges for the fakes.

We talked to directors Cullman and Grausman about meeting Mark Landis, authenticity in art, and what will be in the DVD extras.

Dorri Olds: How did this project begin?

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Israel Horovitz on Paris and the Movies

By Curt Schleier

Israel Horovitz is the author of over 70 produced plays, most famously “Lebensraum,” his “Fountain Pen” trilogy, and “The Indian Wants the Bronx.” But, as he explains, “I was turning 75 and I thought that would scare the hell out of me.”

The “that” that he refers to is directing the film version of “My Old Lady.” One of his plays, “North Shore Fish,” was filmed in 1997. He’s written original screenplays. And he’s directed a documentary that ran on Bravo. But this is first time he’s taken on all the forms at once.

“My Old Lady” is set in France, where Horovitz spends much time. He is kind of a literary Jerry Lewis, whose work is appreciated and much honored there, including the recent award of a Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters.

Here, Mathias Gold (Kevin Kline), a down-on-his luck New Yorker, inherits a lavish Paris apartment from his estranged father. He intends to sell it, but discovers he has tenants, Mathilde Girard (Maggie Smith) and her daughter Chloe (Kristin Scott Thomas), who can block the sale under a complicated French real estate law known as viager.

With nowhere else to go, Mathias moves in as well, and uncovers secrets about his family and theirs. The film is funny, intense, romantic, and the principal actors are exceptionally well cast.

Horovitz spoke to the Forward about how the film came about, the anti-Semitism he faced growing up and why some of his children were raised secular and some Jewish.

Curt Schleier: When you write, do you think of your plays cinematically?

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Leonard Maltin's Last Movie Guide

By Curt Schleier

The word is out. Leonard Maltin’s annual movie guide has fallen into what, in Hollywood speak, would be called “developmental hell.” First published in 1969 and annually since 1986, the new 2015 edition is its last. Like newspapers and other print media, it has fallen victim to the Internet, where much of the information is readily available, easily accessible and free.

The story behind the series is probably more interesting than the average “Transformers” film, however. Maltin was a high school student who published a fanzine. An English teacher impressed with his work put him in touch with a publisher, who was similarly awed.

The first edition of was to become “Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide” was called simply “TV Movies.” It “is a terrible title,” Maltin said in a telephone interview. “A competitor used up a better title, “Movies on TV.” It was actually Maltin’s suggestions for improving that book that convinced the publisher to sign the high school senior.

“I suggested adding a more extensive cast list, the director’s name, and indicating if it was in color or black and white, which was more important then.”

Maltin spoke to the Forward about being a high school nerd, his favorite (and least favorite) films, and davening with Theodore Bikel.

Curt Schleier: Were you a nerd in high school?

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Down the Mystical Rabbit Hole

By Curt Schleier

“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.

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Looking for Kabbalah at a Rangers Game

By Elyssa Goodman

“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?

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The Murder Trial Will Be Televised

By Dorri Olds

“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?

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Lenny Abrahamson, Ireland's 'Third Most Famous Jew'

By Curt Schleier

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?

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How Nina Paley Made 'This Land Is Mine' Viral

By Roz Warren

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.”

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Growing Up Orthodox With Robin Williams

By Tova Ross

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.

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Toronto Deli Sponsors Palestinian Film Fest

By Michael Kaminer

It seemed like a great publicity stunt: Just as the conflict in the Middle East started boiling over, Caplansky’s Deli announced its sponsorship of September’s Toronto Palestinian Film Festival.

Except Zane Caplansky, the deli’s owner, inked the deal months ago. And while he expected some backlash, the war’s escalation has cast an outsized spotlight on his support of the tiny film fest in Canada’s largest city.

“This was not some grand political statement,” Caplansky told the Forward from Toronto. “I’m not taking sides. I have no agenda other than community building, cross-cultural understanding, and a nice gesture for this film festival.”

Caplansky said he reached out to festival organizers In January. “I was doing some work with an organization called Action Against Hunger. One of their staffers mentioned TPFF. I had no idea it even existed,” he said.

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