Author Archives: Amy Stone

Feminists In Focus

February 10, 2012 by

Feminists in Focus: Yes, There’s Room for More Films on the Holocaust

Three Promises

(The New York Jewish Film Festival, presented by The Jewish Museum and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, ended Jan. 26. Look for these films at other festivals and, hopefully, in commercial distribution.)

“Three Promises”

Charm is not a word usually associated with Holocaust remembrances, but take a look at “Three Promises,” the Serbian short with English subtitles that had its world premiere at the New York Jewish Film Festival. It tells the story of Serbian Jewry through beautifully animated collages of black and white photographs from one family’s album. The album survived the Nazis. Most of the family, like almost all of Belgrade’s 10,000 Jews, did not.

The album brings them back to life. It’s a valentine to the past, combined with the horrors.

Almost overloaded with Belgrade’s Sephardic Jewish history, the script by Edward Serotta tells the love story that triggered “Three Promises”: the promise a wife made to her husband to protect their daughters, the promise a priest made to this woman to hide the girls, and the promise one of the daughters made to herself that the priest would be recognized as a Righteous Gentile.

The love story is extraordinary. A Slovene Catholic woman visiting relatives in Belgrade falls in love with a man who is Jewish and crippled. She embraces not only him but his family and his religion. Years later, thanks to a Slovene priest in Belgrade, their two daughters survive to tell the tale.

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Feminists In Focus

February 1, 2012 by

Reporting back from the New York Jewish Film Festival: But would you go there? ‘Welcome to Kutsher’s: The Last Catskills Resort’

(The New York Jewish Film Festival, presented by The Jewish Museum and the Film Society of Lincoln Center,ended Jan. 26. Look for these films at other festivals and, hopefully, in commercial distribution.)

What does it say about the state of American Judaism that the New York Jewish Film Festival’s final offering was the documentary “Welcome to Kutsher’s: The Last Catskills Resort”? Sad to say, we are talking the resort of last resort.

The Kutsher’s story testifies to the drive and determination that made Kutsher’s a  piece of Jewish Americana for more than a century. This is the tale of three generations of Kutshers who oversaw the rise and watched the demise of the resort formula they perfected. Three meals a day – all the kosher food you could eat; free, top-flight entertainment; fun for the whole family; and the Kutsher niche – famous athletes on staff.

There was plenty of room for strong women in the Kutsher family. In 1907, Louis and Max Kutsher and Max’s wife, Rebecca, had saved enough money as tailors on the Lower East Side to buy farmland in Sullivan County in upstate New York. Like other Jewish farmers, they took in boarders from the Lower East Side. When guests turned out to be more profitable than chickens and cows, the Jewish resort business was born, responding to working-class Jews finally able to afford vacations but barred from gentile-only resorts.

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Feminists In Focus

January 30, 2012 by

Reporting back from the New York Jewish Film Festival: Recreating the Past – Incessant Visions: Letters From an Architect

(The New York Jewish Film Festival, presented by The Jewish Museum and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, at www.thejewishmuseum.org/nyjff2012, concluded Jan. 26. Look for these films at other festivals and, hopefully, in commercial distribution.)

Tiny sketches sent by a young Jewish architect from the German-Russian front in World War I to woo a beautiful 16-year-old cellist in Berlin paid off.

Erich Mendelsohn, a visionary architect whose curvaceous organic sketches could have grown into Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum, won the hand of Louise Maas. Growing up in a wealthy German Jewish merchant family and studying cello at the Royal Conservatory in Berlin, she defied  her father. At 21, she married the poor Jewish architect from East Prussia.

But it worked. Thanks to his talent and her connections, Mendelsohn became the most sought after architect in Berlin – until commissions dried up and they fled the Nazis.

His monumental works have mostly vanished from the earth – bombed by Allied forces – but Erich Mendelsohn and his beloved Louise are brought back to life in Israeli filmmaker Duki Dror’s “Incessant Visions: Letters From an Architect.”

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Feminists In Focus

January 24, 2012 by

Feminists in Focus: Reporting back from the New York Jewish Film Festival Mission Accomplished for ‘Bottle in the Gaza Sea’

(Check the calendar for the festival, presented by The Jewish Museum and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, at www.thejewishmuseum.org/nyjff2012, through Jan. 26. For the Brooklyn Israel Film Festival Jan. 26-29, go to http://kanestreet.org/iff/.)

What a coup for the most political film at this year’s NY Jewish Film Festival – “A Bottle in the Gaza Sea” — to make its world premiere at the festival. And how encouraging to see that fresh and touching ground remains to communicate the message that the bloodshed between Israelis and Palestinians is too inhuman to continue.

Tal, a teen whose family has moved from France to Jerusalem, slips a message into a bottle saying that she refuses to accept that only hatred can exist between Israelis and Palestinians. She gets her brother to throw the bottle into the ocean while he’s on army duty near Gaza. An e-mail response to “bottleaccess” eventually comes from “Gazaman.”

The resulting e-mails  become poignant when terrorist attacks in Jerusalem are met with Israeli air strikes in Gaza.

The film is based on the award-winning novel of the same name by French writer Valérie Zenatti, who spent her teen years in Israel. (Her earlier book, “When I Was a Soldier,” about her life in the Israeli army, was reviewed in Lilith.)

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Feminists In Focus

January 20, 2012 by

Feminists in Focus: Reporting back from the New York Jewish Film Festival Peeling Away the Layers of ‘Restoration’

(Check the calendar for the New York Jewish Film Festival, presented by The Jewish Museum and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, at www.thejewishmuseum.org/nyjff2012. The festival runs through Jan. 26.)

Finely crafted is the operative phrase for “Restoration.”  The 2010 Israeli film (English subtitles) directed by Joseph Madmony tells the tale of Fidelman, an aging restorer of antique furniture stubbornly trying to hang onto his business. Starring Sasson Gabai (“The Band’s Visit”), “Restoration” unfolds with exquisite twists and turns that won it the Dramatic Screenwriting Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and several prizes at the Jerusalem Film Festival. (Madmony collaborated with Erez Kav-El on the script.)

Set in a timeless corner of Tel Aviv, it takes cell phones and a digital camera with video option to make clear we’re in the present.

Enter Anton (Henry David), the mysterious drifter who becomes Fidelman’s assistant. Add  Fidelman’s estranged son, Noah (Nevo Kimchi), and his very pregnant wife, Hava (Sarah Adler). And there’s the impact beyond the grave of his freshly deceased partner, Malamud, who managed the shop’s finances.

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Feminists In Focus

January 20, 2012 by

Feminists in Focus: 21st Annual NY Jewish Film Festival Opens With ‘Flood’

You can’t accuse the New York Jewish Film Festival of being a front for Zionist propaganda, especially with the festival opener “Mabul” (The Flood).

(Check the calendar for the festival, presented by The Jewish Museum and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, at www.thejewishmuseum.org/nyjff2012. The festival runs through Jan. 26.)

The Israeli-Canadian-French co-production, in Hebrew with English subtitles, could well be a film for the Manhattan JCC’s Other Israel film festival, with tales of the unhappy side of the Jewish State. There’s Yoni, the young bar mitzvah boy, earning money doing homework for the school bullies; his non-functioning pot-smoking crop pilot father; his gorgeous mom – a Mediterranean beauty – sweetly running a nursery school but screwing one of her young charges’ parents; and, if that weren’t enough, Tomer, the older brother, autistic to the point of needing constant care, back with the non-functional family when his institution goes bankrupt.

Welcome to life in the modern Jewish State. Who knew that an Israeli institution caring for the severely disabled could go bust. What a touch that the film’s one handsome Zionist-dream male is a philanderer. And that male-female roles remain entrenched unto the next generation, with the bar mitzvah boy berating his stressed-out mom for not taking adequate care of his disabled brother.

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Live from the Lilith Blog

November 8, 2011 by

Occupy Judaism – More Than A Damn Good Slogan?

Photo by Amy Stone

Is Occupy Judaism no more than a great slogan, springing from the head of social media maven Daniel J. Sieradski? Or is it verbal fuel with the power to ignite a democratic free-for-all within Judaism akin to the Occupy Wall Street movement it supports?

With the end of the High Holiday activities connected to OWS across the country, what next – if anything?

So far no catchy chants or songs for Occupy Judaism (correct me if they’ve sprouted forth.)  The lyrics streaming on mp3 Wall Street Main Street from Chana Rothman, deeply involved in both Occupy Philly and Occupy Judaism, are strictly secular: “Wall Street Main Street what’s it gonna be? How we gonna handle this inequality?” Born in Toronto, she sees Occupy Judaism as “so Jewish and so American. It’s kind of like Heschel marching with Martin Luther King, praying with his feet. … obligated as a Jew, as a Jewish leader to do the right things in the world.” But how does that play out?

Philadelphia visual artist Zoe Cohen says, “Just by holding these events we’re trying to push Jewish organizations to consider being part of this movement.” And if they do come on board, will the agents of change by changed?

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Live from the Lilith Blog

October 18, 2011 by

Occupy Sukkot/Occupy Judaism – Would you go to jail for this?

Down at Zuccotti Park (aka Liberty Plaza) we had the choice of the sukkah we go to and the sukkah we don’t go to.  It was the day after the Occupy Wall Street protesters refused to move out of the park for a sanitation department cleanup. The occupiers cleaned up the park and the establishment backed down, at least for the moment. What better place to celebrate Shabbat-Sukkot.

Photo by Amy Stone

Before the cleanup showdown, Daniel J. Sieradski, the “post-Orthodox” organizer behind the Kol Nidre service next to the park, had assembled a Chabbad popup sukkah in Zuccotti Park. The halachic hovel was unfit for man or beast – especially in high winds and rain. Friday evening Sieradski was vacating, while a few yards away, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ) were getting ready to celebrate Shabbat and Sukkot under a sturdy non-halachic shelter. “Shake, shake, sniffy, sniffy” Participants were instructed to shake the lulav and sniff the etrog.

Then the cops moved in. No tents allowed. What is this, anti-Semitism? (Just joking – haha.) What about that tent over there? Policewoman explains that the huge tarp attached to a few trees is  “not a tent. It’s an umbrella.” The guidelines are obviously in flux. The head of JFREJ, Marjorie Dove Kent, takes a hands up/hands down vote (fingers wiggling OWS vote style) on whether we want to risk arrest.

We barely have our Judaism or our politics together but the majority definitely does not want to risk arrest on this issue at this time.

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Live from the Lilith Blog

October 12, 2011 by

Kol Nidre Alongside Occupy Wall Street

Photo by Amy Stone

You’ve got to be attracted to a call to a Yom Kippur service next to the Occupy Wall Street protesters, especially when the Facebook invite starts with a quote from Rabbi Abraham Joshua  Heschel:

“Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism, falsehoods.”

The weather and the police cooperated, and at Friday’s Shabbat Kol Nidre, a crowd estimated at 700 gathered next to Zuccotti Park (aka Liberty Plaza), OWS home base a few blocks from Wall Street.

Photo by Amy Stone

The impassioned and knowledgeable leaders (one woman, several men) conducted the egalitarian service using the new Conservative high holiday prayer book, with 100 copies lent by the Rabbinical Assembly (the organization of Conservative rabbis) and numerous photo copies. The service took place on the plaza in front of global financial services firm Brown Brothers Harriman. A large Bank of America presence on one side, smoothie and halal trucks on another, just beside Zuccotti Park. It felt like davening next to the circus with the constant drumming of the OWS musicians.

Same for the Yom Kippur sermon of Getzel Davis, a fourth year rabbinical student at the “transdenominational” Hebrew College outside Boston. Davis opened up with the myth that Yom Kippur is the day we’re forgiven for worshipping the golden calf. Nothing like absorbing the message of a sermon by all assembled repeating every word. (more…)

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Live from the Lilith Blog

September 22, 2011 by

Out and Ordained – An Update

Before updating Lilith readers on the story “Out and Ordained,” in Lilith’s current issue, a few corrections to the published piece:

–While Rachel Isaacs is the first openly gay rabbinical student to be ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary, the seminary’s first openly gay rabbinical student is Aaron Weininger. He entered as a first-year rabbinical student in the fall of 2007. Isaacs entered as a third-year student in 2008.

–Rabbinical School Dean Rabbi Daniel Nevins’ comment that gay and lesbians number no more than “a good minyan” referred to the JTS Rabbinical School, not to the Conservative rabbinate as a whole.

–American Jewish University is an independent institution not affiliated with any one branch of Judaism, although the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, housed within AJU, is Conservative.

As fate would have it, New York State’s legalizing same-sex marriage came shortly after the Jewish Theological Seminary’s ordination of its first openly gay rabbinical student – putting New York’s Conservative rabbis on the line on performing gay and lesbian marriages.

The 2006 Conservative movement law committee responsum allowing gay/lesbian rabbis and cantors within Conservative Judaism also permits Conservative rabbis to perform same-sex commitment ceremonies – if they want to. Proof that homophobia is alive and well, The New York Times article on Conservative rabbis featured one New York rabbi as shamelessly saying he’s never performed a same-sex marriage in his nearly 40 years in the pulpit and is not about to start now.  Overtly sexist and racist actions are now taboo, not to mention illegal, but homophobic leaders can still exercise their prejudices.

A measure of the homophobic atmosphere within the Jewish Theological Seminary and beyond during the Conservative movement law committee’s 1991-92 hearings on homosexuality is the 1992 responsum clause against “instigating witch hunts” authored by Rabbi Elliot Dorff, AJU rector and current chairman of the law committee. Meant to protect gays as part of the responsum forbidding homosexual rabbis, Dorff said he “came to regret it – a lot.” He explained the wording was meant as “a flourish” to avoid “any kind of super investigative commission,” but the result was that gay and lesbian rabbinical students and rabbis were the victims of witch hunts instigated by outsiders. (more…)

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