Tzivi’s Cinema Spotlight (April ’17): Tzivi raves about NORMAN!

On Account of a Hat. In one of Sholem Aleichem’s best–loved stories, a wheeler dealer is forever “negotiating transactions” until “one day God takes pity on him, and for the first time in his career—are you listening?—he actually works out a deal.” But on account of a hat, exhilaration turns into farce and when he finally gets home, the people “point him out in the streets and hold their sides, laughing.”

Has Joseph Cedar, the Israeli-American director of Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer, ever read “On Account of a Hat”? As Tevye famously said: “I’ll tell you—I don’t know!” But since I do know that Joseph Cedar planted a snippet from Fiddler on the Roof in his last film Footnote, I am placing my chips on yes.

Norman Oppenheimer, the eponymous hero of Cedar’s new film, also negotiates “transactions,” however, in Norman’s case, God’s instrument is not a hat but a pair of shoes. Late one night, on a train from Washington, DC to Manhattan, Norman describes these shoes as “the most expensive shoes in all of New York,” and, for the first time in his career, someone—a woman named Alex—is actually listening. Maybe if Norman had spent more time reading Sholem Aleichem stories, he would have known to keep his mouth shut on a train… But where better for Cedar (who also wrote the Norman screenplay) to sprinkle the seeds of Norman’s “tragic fall” than on a train from Union Station to Penn Station?

These shoes are not Norman’s shoes; he buys them as a gift for a man named Micha Eshel who has come to New York to speak at a conference. Eshel is one of three deputies to a minister in the cabinet of Israel’s (unnamed) Prime Minister, so his presentation is sparsely attended, and when it is over, he leaves the hotel and begins wandering the streets of Midtown Manhattan tourist-style. Eshel thinks he is alone. He has no idea that Norman is shadowing him, waiting for just the right moment to pounce.

This is Norman’s modus operandi, and it rarely works, but Eshel is at a low point in his life and he simply does not have sufficient energy to resist. The apparently unselfish kindness of an American man—obviously a Jewish-American man—moves him, so he allows Norman to purchase the shoes, almost as a favor to him.

Returning to his hotel, Eshel takes a call from his handler Duby, and Duby is immediately skeptical. Eshel submits, goes to dinner alone in the hotel restaurant (It must be in the hotel, Duby reminds him, because the gas company is paying for his trip!), eats oysters (treyf!), and gets drunk. Back in his room, Eshel pulls Norman’s card from the pocket of his jacket and calls. And when Norman answers, Eshel whispers to him in a moment of male bonding so heart-rending that the memory of it still send chills up my spine.

The big wheel in the amusement park? How do you say? Galgal anak?

The Ferris Wheel?

Yes, yes, the Ferris Wheel. Sometimes you’re up and sometimes you’re down. I just wanted to say I have that taste, you know? Being on top of everything? Once you’ve tasted it, you can’t settle for anything else. Do you understand what I am saying?

I do.

I too do.

The curtain falls on act one, and when act two begins “three years and many small favors later,” Eshel and Norman are both on the biggest Ferris Wheel of all, the Ferris Wheel in Washington, DC. And now I will say no more about the plot; I will talk only about the execution.

Everything about Norman is first rate. The casting is superb, beginning with Richard Gere as “Norman Oppenheimer” and Lior Ashkenazi as “Micha Eshel.” On the Israeli poster for Norman, Gere and Ashkenazi are back-to-back, emphasizing that they are equal partners in this story. On the other hand, the American poster—which only shows Richard Gere—makes the pragmatic assumption that many Americans have no idea who Lior Ashkenazi is.

To readers who fall into this category, let me just say that Lior Ashkenazi is as much a heartthrob in Israel as Richard Gere is here. Do Americans know that Lior Ashkenazi was the star of Late Marriage and Walk on Water? Do Israelis know what Richard Gere did after Pretty Woman, let alone before? No matter. Cedar knows that these two men actually do share intimate knowledge of how it feels to be at the top of the wheel, and they also understand that they have both passed its peak. Older now, they are still in the game, but more as character actors than objects of desire. How perceptive of Cedar to cast such a potent pair in a bromance of such depth and poignance.

The huge cast also contains many well-known actors playing Jewish men, and part of the joke is that most of them are as goyishe as Richard Gere is. Josh Charles as “Arthur Taub,” Dan Stevens as “Bill Kavish,” Michael Sheen as “Philip Cohen,” Steve Buscemi as “Rabbi Blumenthal,” are any of them Jewish? Josh Charles (born Joshua Aaron Charles) has a Jewish father and a mother of German/English/Scottish ancestry, so you decide. The others? Definitely not.

Only Harris Yulin as “Jo Wilf”—the “ocean liner” of movers and shakers—has a career based, to some extent, on his Ashkenazi Jewish background. But what about Hank Azaria you ask? Another joke. Azaria gives “Srul Katz” a risibly fake “Yiddish accent” which is surely intentional since this master of voices actually grew up in a Ladino-speaking family.

Meanwhile, the actors who play the Israelis in Eshel’s world (Yehuda Almagor as “Duby,” Neta Riskin as Eshel’s chief aide “Hanna,” and Tali Sharon as Eshel’s wife “Naomi”) are all stars there, even though they are probably unknown here

And Alex? Charlotte Gainsbourg plays “Alex Green” as the compleat cosmopolitan. When Norman prods, Alex tells him—in a perfect British accent—that she is from Geneva. Gainsbourg (who, like Josh Charles, has a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother) showed her gravitas early when Franco Zeffirelli cast her as “Jane Eyre” in the mid-90s, and she has carried it with her ever since through a huge number of films (many in French). As the Paris-born daughter of Serge Gainsbourg, she brings personal knowledge of Ferris Wheels to her portrayal of Alex too. When Norman asks Alex what she needs, Alex replies: “I need the satisfaction of knowing I am doing good in the world. Can you give me that, Norman?”

For once, Norman is stumped, but Cedar is not. A master of his craft, as best exemplified in two dazzling scenes in which time literally stops (first at the top, and then at the bottom), Cedar receives expert support from everyone on his team. Cinematographer Yaron Scarf (who won an Ophir Award for Footnote) is back, but for Norman, Cedar also added many newcomers to his crew including music director Hal Wilner (who brings both cantorial solos and klezmer riffs to composer Jun Miyake’s score), costume designer Michelle Matland, and casting director Laura Rosenthal. Working with a large team of American and Israeli producers, Cedar has secured his place in world cinema.

Who is “a Jew” in Norman? What is “a Jew” in this crazy world of ours? This is the conundrum in which Cedar ensnares us, because answers to questions like these are no longer as clear as they were once thought to be. And that brings us to God. Where is God in this film? God is certainly the force that powers the wheel; God is “the ghost in the machine.” But the God of Norman is definitely a Jewish God. As the Yiddish proverb says: “Man Plans; God Laughs.” In Norman, God laughs through tears.

*************************

Norman opens today (April 21) at the Landmark Century Center in Lincoln Park and the Landmark Renaissance Place in Highland Park. For times and tickets, visit the Landmark Theatres Chicago website.

Norman is Joseph Cedar’s fifth film, and yes, I have seen them all. For my reflections on Norman in the context of Joseph Cedar’s career, see my blog post (which also contains additional photos).

Top Photo: Richard Gere as “Norman Oppenheimer” on his way up an escalator. Photo by Chris Saunders.

Middle Photo: Charlotte Gainsbourg as “Alex Green” from Geneva, "the compleat cosmopolitan."

Bottom Photo: Gere and Lior Ashkenazi as “Micha Eshel” first set their eyes on “the most expensive shoes in all of New York.” Photo by Niko Tavernise.

Photos courtesy Sony Pictures Classics (2017).

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Norman (2016): Reflections on “The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer”

I am not just in love with Joseph Cedar's new film Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer, I am ensnared and somewhat obsessed.

On Account of a Hat. In one of Sholem Aleichem’s best–loved stories, a wheeler dealer is forever “negotiating transactions” until “one day God takes pity on him, and for the first time in his career—are you listening?—he actually works out a deal.” But on account of a hat, exhilaration turns into farce and when he finally gets home, the people “point him out in the streets and hold their sides, laughing.”

Has Joseph Cedar, the Israeli-American director of Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer, ever read “On Account of a Hat”? As Tevye famously said: “I’ll tell you—I don’t know!” But since I do know that Joseph Cedar planted a snippet from Fiddler on the Roof in his last film Footnote, I am placing my chips on yes.

Norman Oppenheimer, the eponymous hero of Cedar’s new film, also negotiates “transactions,” however, in Norman’s case, God’s instrument is not a hat but a pair of shoes. Late one night, on a train from Washington, DC to Manhattan, Norman describes these shoes as “the most expensive shoes in all of New York,” and, for the first time in his career, someone—a woman named Alex—is actually listening. Maybe if Norman had spent more time reading Sholem Aleichem stories, he would have known to keep his mouth shut on a train… But where better for Cedar (who also wrote the Norman screenplay) to sprinkle the seeds of Norman’s “tragic fall” than on a train from Union Station to Penn Station?

These shoes are not Norman’s shoes; he buys them as a gift for a man named Micha Eshel who has come to New York to speak at a conference. Eshel is one of three deputies to a minister in the cabinet of Israel’s (unnamed) Prime Minister, so his presentation is sparsely attended, and when it is over, he leaves the hotel and begins wandering the streets of Midtown Manhattan tourist-style. Eshel thinks he is alone. He has no idea that Norman is shadowing him, waiting for just the right moment to pounce.

This is Norman’s modus operandi, and it rarely works, but Eshel is at a low point in his life and he simply does not have sufficient energy to resist. The apparently unselfish kindness of an American man—obviously a Jewish-American man—moves him, so he allows Norman to purchase the shoes, almost as a favor to him.

Returning to his hotel, Eshel takes a call from his handler Duby, and Duby is immediately skeptical. Eshel submits, goes to dinner alone in the hotel restaurant (It must be in the hotel, Duby reminds him, because the gas company is paying for his trip!), eats oysters (treyf!), and gets drunk. Back in his room, Eshel pulls Norman’s card from the pocket of his jacket and calls. And when Norman answers, Eshel whispers to him in a moment of male bonding so heart-rending that the memory of it still send chills up my spine.

The big wheel in the amusement park? How do you say? Galgal anak?

The Ferris Wheel?

Yes, yes, the Ferris Wheel. Sometimes you’re up and sometimes you’re down. I just wanted to say I have that taste, you know? Being on top of everything? Once you’ve tasted it, you can’t settle for anything else. Do you understand what I am saying?

I do.

I too do.

The curtain falls on act one, and when act two begins “three years and many small favors later,” Eshel and Norman are both on the biggest Ferris Wheel of all, the Ferris Wheel in Washington, DC. And now I will say no more about the plot; I will talk only about the execution.

Everything about Norman is first rate. The casting is superb, beginning with Richard Gere as “Norman Oppenheimer” and Lior Ashkenazi as “Micha Eshel.” On the Israeli poster for Norman, Gere and Ashkenazi are back-to-back, emphasizing that they are equal partners in this story. On the other hand, the American poster—which only shows Richard Gere—makes the pragmatic assumption that many Americans have no idea who Lior Ashkenazi is.

To readers who fall into this category, let me just say that Lior Ashkenazi is as much a heartthrob in Israel as Richard Gere is here. Do Americans know that Lior Ashkenazi was the star of Late Marriage and Walk on Water? Do Israelis know what Richard Gere did after Pretty Woman, let alone before? No matter. Cedar knows that these two men actually do share intimate knowledge of how it feels to be at the top of the wheel, and they also understand that they have both passed its peak. Older now, they are still in the game, but more as character actors than objects of desire. How perceptive of Cedar to cast such a potent pair in a bromance of such depth and poignance.

The huge cast also contains many well-known actors playing Jewish men, and part of the joke is that most of them are as goyishe as Richard Gere is. Josh Charles as “Arthur Taub,” Dan Stevens as “Bill Kavish,” Michael Sheen as “Philip Cohen,” Steve Buscemi as “Rabbi Blumenthal,” are any of them Jewish? Josh Charles (born Joshua Aaron Charles) has a Jewish father and a mother of German/English/Scottish ancestry, so you decide. The others? Definitely not.

Only Harris Yulin as “Jo Wilf”—the “ocean liner” of movers and shakers—has a career based, to some extent, on his Ashkenazi Jewish background. But what about Hank Azaria you ask? Another joke. Azaria gives “Srul Katz” a risibly fake “Yiddish accent” which is surely intentional since this master of voices actually grew up in a Ladino-speaking family.

Meanwhile, the actors who play the Israelis in Eshel’s world (Yehuda Almagor as “Duby,” Neta Riskin as Eshel’s chief aide “Hanna,” and Tali Sharon as Eshel’s wife “Naomi”) are all stars there, even though they are probably unknown here

And Alex? Charlotte Gainsbourg play “Alex Green” as the compleat cosmopolitan. When Norman prods, Alex tells him—in a perfect British accent—that she is from Geneva. Gainsbourg (who, like Josh Charles, has a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother) showed her gravitas early when Franco Zeffirelli cast her as “Jane Eyre” in the mid-90s, and she has carried it with her ever since through a huge number of films (many in French). As the Paris-born daughter of Serge Gainsbourg, she brings personal knowledge of Ferris Wheels to her portrayal of Alex too. When Norman asks Alex what she needs, Alex replies: “I need the satisfaction of knowing I am doing good in the world. Can you give me that, Norman?”

For once, Norman is stumped, but Cedar is not. A master of his craft, as best exemplified in two dazzling scenes in which time literally stops (first at the top, and then at the bottom), Cedar receives expert support from everyone on his team. Cinematographer Yaron Scarf (who won an Ophir Award for Footnote) is back, but for Norman, Cedar also added many newcomers to his crew including music director Hal Wilner (who brings both cantorial solos and klezmer riffs to composer Jun Miyake’s score), costume designer Michelle Matland, and casting director Laura Rosenthal. Working with a large team of American and Israeli producers, Cedar has secured his place in world cinema.

Who is “a Jew” in Norman? What is “a Jew” in this crazy world of ours? This is the conundrum in which Cedar ensnares us, because answers to questions like these are no longer as clear as they were once thought to be. And that brings us to God. Where is God in this film? God is certainly the force that powers the wheel; God is “the ghost in the machine.” But the God of Norman is definitely a Jewish God. As the Yiddish proverb says: “Man Plans; God Laughs.” In Norman, God laughs through tears.

© Jan Lisa Huttner (4/21/17) FF2 Media


Top Photo from Left: Lior Ashkenazi as Micha Eshel (in Jerusalem) and Richard Gere as "Norman Oppenheimer" (in Manhattan). Image cropped from the Israeli poster.

Middle Photo: Charlotte Gainsbourg as "Alex Green." Photo by Yaron Scharf.

Bottom Photo: First row from left: Dan Stevens as "Bill Kavish," Harris Yulin as "Jo Wilf," and Steve Buscemi as "Rabbi Blumenthal" at the AIPAL Conference. Photo by Yaron Scharf.

Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

 

Q: Does Norman pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?

No.

The only woman who plays a central role in Norman is Charlotte Gainsbourg as "Alex Green." Israeli actresses Neta Riskin and Tali Sharon also have well-crafted supporting roles as Micha Eshel's aide "Hanna" and Eshel's wife "Naomi," but these three women never talk to one another.

Norman takes place in a male-dominated universe. That's part of the tragedy of the dramedy.

BONUS Click here to read Pam Powell's interview with Miranda Bailey, an American producer who worked with Joseph Cedar for the first time: “Joseph Cedar’s work is filled with symbolism and innuendo that even I – having made the film – am still discovering. One thing I love is that I discover something new re-watching every scene.”

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Tzivi’s Cinema Spotlight (March ’17): Reviews of IN SEARCH OF ISRAEL CUISINE and MR. GAGA

Spring brings two new documentary films from Israel to Chicago. One I loved. The other? No so much. So let’s start with the spinach.

Mr. Gaga, which opens tonight at the Music Box Theatre on Southport, is Tomer Heymann’s new film about Ohad Naharin, the artistic director of the Batsheva Dance Company. Chicago has long been a congenial host for Batsheva Dance Company performances, and their regular visits here have often been an opportunity for lively Hadassah member meet-ups. So if you love Batsheva Dance Company, you should certainly see Mr. Gaga.

I have long been a champion of films by Barak and Tomer Heymann, who alternate directing duties for documentaries they co-produce together under the rubric of Heymann Brothers Films. They are prolific filmmakers and many of their prior films (such as Dancing Alfonso and Paper Dolls) have been favorites of mine at our annual Chicago Festival of Israeli Cinema.

So I was surprised by my reaction Mr. Gaga, which unfolds as a fairly routine BioDoc, told in chronological order from Naharin’s early days on Kibbutz Mizra (due north of Afula) to his current role as an international cultural superstar. Of course there are many clips of Batsheva Dance Company’s uniquely athletic style, so if you are already a fan of Batsheva Dance Company, then this film is definitely for you.

But if you are new to Batsheva Dance Company, then beware. Clips of dancers in motion do not really do justice to the power of a full piece in performance, and you may come out of Mr. Gaga wondering what all the fuss is about.

To kick off the run, the Music Box has scheduled a live dance demonstration plus Q&A after tonight’s 7:15 PM screening, hosted by Anna Long (Chicago’s own GAGA-trained dance teacher). For tickets, visit the Music Box website.

Personally, I much preferred Roger Sherman’s new film In Search of Israeli Cuisine, which tells the story of a Jewish boy coming of age in America who learns to appreciate his heritage anew through food.

Philadelphia chef Michael Solomonov travels up and down Israel from top to bottom and coast to desert, sampling a wholy unexpected diversity of tastes and textures. As he chops and stirs side by side with some of Israel’s best known restauranteurs, Solomonov learns first-hand about Israeli’s creative fusion which combines the sorrows of past with exuberant hopes for the future.

This is a theme I have long stressed in prior posts and columns, most especially in my reviews of films brought to us by the terrific programming team behind our annual Chicago Festival of Israeli Cinema. We have become accustomed to describing one of Israel’s functions as “the ingathering of the exiles,” but that requires us to pay attention to all the places from which they come.

Too many Americans (including too many Jewish Americans) still think of Israel as a country founded by European Jews, especially Jews who survived the Holocaust. But this was never true and it is even less true now after several generations of intermixing. One of my friends has a father from Yemen and a mother from Poland. Is she Ashkenazi or Mizrachi? Another friend has a father from Morocco and a mother from Rumania. Is she Ashkenazi or Sephardic? The truth is that these old divisions have ceased to be definitive, especially after Ethiopians from Africa, Bene Israel from India, and Jews from the former Soviet Union (not just from Moscow but from Georgia and Bukhara) began entering the mix.

As one wise fellow says in In Search of Israeli Cuisine, a tomato has no politics. So I strongly recommend In Search of Israeli Cuisine for both enlightenment and sheer delight, but with one caution: Make sure to eat before you go 🙂

In Search of Israeli Cuisine opens next Friday (April 7) at the Music Box Theatre and also at the Landmark Renaissance Place in Highland Park.

For more photos from both films, visit my Blog: www.ff2media.com/secondcitytzivi.

Top Photo Credit: A moment from Ohad Naharin’s ecstatic “Ehad Me Yodaya,” which continues to be a highlight of all Batsheva Dance Company performances. © Heymann Brothers Films.

Bottom Photo Credit: After he arrives in Israel “in search of Israeli cuisine,” Michael Solomonov of Zahav restaurant in Philadelphia learns a million different ways to make eggplant © Florentine Films 2013 / Menemsha Films (2016).

Posted on JUF Blogs on 3/31/17

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The Zookeeper’s Wife (2017): Review by Eliana Levenson

Niki Caro’s The Zookeeper’s Wife recounts the efforts of Antonina Żabiński and her husband, Jan, who risked their lives during World War II to harbor Jewish refugees in the basement of their zoo during the Nazi occupation of Warsaw. (EML: 3.5/5)

Review by FF2 Associate Eliana M. Levenson

Warsaw, Poland, pre-invasion. Happy. Simple. Unafraid. “Antonina Żabiński” (Jessica Chastain) rides her bike through the family’s zoo, clearly at ease amongst the animals. She and her husband, “Jan” (Johan Heldenbergh), share a loving relationship, often working side by side within the zoo as equals. At a dinner party, Antonina faces some scrutiny for her behavior, unseemly for a woman of the time, and a visiting German zookeeper “Lutz Heck” (Daniel Brühl) comes to her aid. Even prior to Germany’s invasion of Poland, there is clear tension between Heck and his Polish peers.

Germany attacks. Bombs fall on the zoo, killing many of the animals instantly, releasing others from their now mangled cages. Antonina and her son run to hide in the basement, a storage space for some of the animals. When they emerge, they find their zoo destroyed, their home damaged, and slowly, they attempt to clean up.

Heck returns, this time in Nazi uniform, explaining that the Żabiński’s zoo will be used as an armament for the Nazi troops and that the animals will be killed off, for the war effort. He also plans to use the zoo’s cages for a genetic experiment he’s working on, hoping to bring back an animal from extinction. In a seemingly altruistic gesture, Heck offers to take some of the more valuable zoo animals to his zoo in Berlin, promising to return them to the Zabinskis after the war. Antonina agrees to his request without Jan present, unaware that she should not be trusting Heck or his empty promises.

For the Żabińskis, the changing world is a loss of their beautiful zoo, their livelihood. But they soon learn, for others, the Nazi invasion means so much more. When their Jewish friends come to visit, explaining the deportations and the ghettoization of Jews, the Żabińskis are quick to do what they can to assist their friends. They even agree to hide their friend “Magda” (Efrat Dor) after her husband is taken, understanding that, in doing so, they are taking a huge risk. For Antonina, this risk is enough, but Jan, who is out in the city of Warsaw, witnessing the monstrosities being done to the Jews, convinces his wife that they must do more.

Under the guise of running a pig farm to provide food for Nazi troops, Jan and Antonina become a stopping place for Jews escaping Poland. Sneaking Jews out of the ghetto and hiding them in the basement crawl spaces of the zoo, the Żabińskis attempt to provide some normalcy for their Jewish guests, including dinner parties where everyone can come out of hiding after the Nazi guards have left for the night.

Perhaps one of the most poignant moments of the film comes as the Warsaw ghetto is being burned to the ground, intercut with the Żabińskis and their Jewish refugees celebrating a Passover seder. As the familiar sounds of the Ma Nishtana carry over the destruction of the ghetto, the film provides a brief glimpse into the tragic loss of Jewish culture and community, a sentiment that is mostly overshadowed in a film that focuses on Antonina.

Though there are many ways in which the The Zookeeper’s Wife succeeds, it does add to a problematic and pervasive theme of Holocaust movies that focus on gentile morality rather than Jewish suffering. While there is no doubt that the Righteous Among the Nations such as Antonina Żabiński and her husband should be honored and remembered, the manner in which these narratives are told rewrite a sordid history by glossing over the inhumanity and focusing on gentile mercy rather than Jewish subjugation. For every one Antonina and Jan, there were a hundred just like them who were responsible for the degradation, deportation and dehumanization of thousands of Jews. For every one Jew saved by a Righteous Among the Nations, there were another million who were lost because they were seen as other, as lesser.

In The Zookeeper’s Wife the Jewish characters stand silent, resigned to their fate, idolizing a woman who is more than they can be, who, because she belongs, has the choice to be “other” where they did not, has the choice to stand up against the oppression as they could not. For Antonina and Jan and those like them, the Holocaust was an opportunity to make a choice but for the Jewish victims, this was not the case.  While it is important to tell the stories of those who chose to confront  evil, rather than cave to it, it is equally important to ensure that Jewish characters do not become props in the history of the Holocaust, merely serving to provide the context for a gentile moral triumph.

For instance, when two of the women harbored and disguised by Antonina are murdered on the streets by Nazi soldiers, discovered for being Jewish, the focus is not on the loss of Jewish life but rather Antonina’s reaction to it. She turns to her husband, sobbing, holding the pin given to her by one of the women, and inquires if it was the hair color that she gave her that allowed the Nazi’s to recognize the woman as a Jew. In moments like this, the film reveals a hidden selfishness to a character whose acts, in reality, were likely more selfless. Antonina’s role within the story should be one more of bearing witness, allowing the destruction of a people to be viewable through her perspective, and yet, the film instead, allows the Jews in her care to be a prop for her goodness.

Overall, The Zookeeper’s Wife is one of those Holocaust movies that will be lost in the canon of what some feel is an overdone genre. Outside of a few moments, the film fails to achieve true impact, likely because its focus often strays away from the Jewish tragedy in favor of Antonina’s personal struggles with Heck. While this film is not alone in using the Holocaust more as a backdrop, in many ways, the film’s treatment and use of its Jewish characters is more problematic than many of its counterparts, leaving the Jewish audience with a feeling of outsiderness, even as pieces of their own history unfold before them. Though we should be grateful to the film for sharing the names of those who saved hundreds, at its core The Zookeeper’s Wife fails to go beyond the narrative of how the darkest of times can bring out the best in people if, of course, those people are “white.”

© Eliana M. Levenson (4/2/17) FF2 Media

Top Photo: A poster for The Zookeeper’s Wife and another indication of the focus of the film not including the Jews. The poster has no reference to any of the Jewish characters or even the Holocaust itself, instead featuring “Antonina” (Jessica Chastain) cuddling a lion cub as if her loving attitude toward the animals provides insight into why she would take in the Jews.

Middle Photo: Antonina, her son, and some of the Jews hiding in her basement, decorate the  walls with Jewish symbols and other art, proof that they were there.

Bottom Photo: Jan attempts to convince a Jewish schoolteacher to come with him as the ghetto is evacuated and the occupants sent to the concentration camps. The teacher, however, refuses to leave his students and makes Jan promise to not act afraid so that the children don’t know that they are on their way to be killed.

Photo Credits: Anne Marie Fox

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Mr. Gaga (2015): Review by Jan Lisa Huttner

From IMDb: Ohad Naharin, artistic director of the Batsheva Dance Company, is regarded as one of the most important choreographers in the world. Meeting him at a critical turning point in his personal life, this spirited and insightful documentary will introduce you to a man with great artistic integrity and an extraordinary vision. Filmed over a period of eight years, director Tomer Heymann mixes intimate rehearsal footage with an extensive unseen archive and breathtaking dance sequences. This story of an artistic genius who redefined the language of modern dance is guaranteed to leave you skipping.

Bottom Photo © Gadi Dagon / Heymann Brothers Films.

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In Search of Israeli Cuisine (2016): Review by Jan Lisa Huttner

From IMDb: A portrait of the Israeli people told through food. We shot in fine restaurants, in home kitchens, wineries, cheese makers, on the street and much more. Americans see Israelis and Palestinians as always in conflict. Those are not the people of Israel for the most part. "The Search for Israeli Cuisine" will show the 70+ cultures that make up the Israeli people, each with wonderful and unique food traditions. Israel has one of the hottest food scenes in the world. Getting into restaurants in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem is as difficult as New York or San Francisco. Viewers will be amazed and impressed.

Top Photo: Michael Solomonov of Zahav restaurant in Philadelphia.

Bottom Photo: Once in Israel, Solomonov learns a million ways to make eggplant.

Photo Credits: © Florentine Films 2013 / Menemsha Films (2016)

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“The Fiddler Returns” wins award from Illinois Woman’s Press Association

FF2 Media congratulates Editor-in-Chief Jan Lisa Huttner, who just won a 2nd place certificate in the Photographer/Writer category for her January JUF News feature "The Fiddler Returns."

The Fiddler Returns By Jan Lisa Huttner

The final event in the worldwide celebration of the 50th anniversary of the first Broadway performance of Fiddler on the Roof is immanent. By the time this issue of the JUF News arrives in your mail box, a new revival – the 5th  – will have opened on Broadway. So nu, what’s new?

As I write – on December 6 – opening night – on December 20 – is a couple of weeks away. So no doubt the creative team is still fine-tuning the details. But I was at the first preview performance (on November 20), so there are a few things I can tell you now.

First of all, Fiddler on the Roof is indestructible! There is no way not to fall in love all over again the moment the fiddler begins to play that haunting opening melody on his solo violin. Composer Jerry Bock – who died in 2010 – brought forth these twenty-four pure notes from the depths of our collective experience as Jews, and no matter how many times you hear the wordless “Fiddler’s Theme,” tears will spring to your eyes. (I say this as someone who has now seen over two dozen live performances of Fiddler on the Roof – of every size and scale – in the past decade alone.)

But this Anatevka has an altogether very different feel than the one conjured up on Broadway for the 40th anniversary. In 2004, Tevye and his family lived at the edge of an elegant blue and beige birch forest, with actual musicians in the far right corner of the stage playing their instruments in a permanently star-filled twilight. The resulting air of melancholy has been replaced in 2015 with a robust, earthy look that provides a solid frame for the characters as the plot unfolds. 

Most important, all the “buildings” – like Tevye’s house and Motel’s tailor shop – can be rolled offstage in an instant to make room for dancing. And wow, is there dancing!

Although the headliner is Danny Burstein as Tevye, the real star of this show is Hofesh Shechter. Born in Jerusalem in 1975, Shechter joined the Batsheva Dance Company at age 20 and quickly rose to become one of artistic director Ohad Naharin’s go to choreographers. Those of us who have attended one of Batsheva Dance Company’s many Chicago performances know what to expect. There is nothing “delicate” about the Batsheva Dance Company style. It is ferocious, defiant, and extremely athletic. Although he has clearly “based” his work on Jerome Robbins original choreography, Shechter transforms it into something entirely new. Do men still line up to do “The Bottle Dance” at Tzeitel’s Wedding? Of course. Have they ever done it like this before? Never!

Tony Award-winning director Bartlett Sher’s new revival of Fiddler on the Roof opens December 20 at the Broadway Theatre at 1681 Broadway (between 52nd and 53rd Streets). To order tickets, call the box office at (212) 239-6200, or visit the website: http://fiddlermusical.com/. (But if you are putting together a group, then contact GroupSales@Telecharge.com.)

My complete review will be posted online as soon as the embargo is lifted on December 19. Meanwhile, you can read my review of the 2004 Broadway revival on my website: http://www.films42.com/columns/columns_fiddler.asp.

Additional reviews of multiple Metro Chicago productions can be found on my Blog: http://ff2media.com/secondcitytzivi/?s=fiddler.

My new book Diamond Fiddler: Lectures on Fiddler on the Roof will be published in May, timed to honor Sholem Aleichem’s 100th Yahrzeit.

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