Contest: Win a DVD of “The Story of the Jews”

Posted on May 5, 2014 at 12:20 pm

I am delighted to have five copies of the outstanding PBS series The Story of the Jews with Simon Schama to give away.  The DVD is being released tomorrow from PBS Distribution, and it is also available on digital download.

Prize-winning author of 15 books and Emmy Award-winner Simon Schama brings to life Jewish history and experience in a new five-part documentary series follows Schama as he travels from Russia and the Ukraine to Egypt, Israel and Spain, exploring the imprint that Jewish culture has made on the world and the drama of suffering, resilience and rebirth that has gone with it.

The series is, at the same time, a personal journey for Schama, who has been immersed in Jewish history since his postwar childhood; a meditation on its dramatic trajectory; and a macro-history of a people whose mark on the world has been out of all proportion to its modest numbers.SJSS600

“If you were to remove from our collective history,” said Schama, “the contribution Jews have made to human culture, our world would be almost unrecognizable. There would be no monotheism, no written Bible, and our sense of modernity would be completely different. So the history of the Jews is everyone’s history too and what I hope people will take away from the series is that sense of connection: a weave of cultural strands over the millennia, some brilliant, some dark, but resolving into a fabric of thrilling, sometimes tragic, often exalted creativity.”

The series draws on primary sources that include the Elephantine papyri, a collection of 5th-century BC manuscripts illuminating the life of a town of Jewish soldiers and their families in ancient Egypt; the astonishing trove of documents – the Cairo Geniza – recording the world of the medieval Jews of the Mediterranean and Near East; the records of disputations between Christians and Jews in Spain; correspondence between the leader of the Arab revolt during World War I, Emir Feisal, and the leader of the Zionist movement, Chaim Weizmann.

Schama talks about the turning points of the drama with living witnesses like Aviva Rahamim, who, as a 14-year-old, walked across the Sudanese desert to try and reach Israel; Yakub Odeh, the Palestinian whose village was destroyed in the war of 1948; and Levana Shamir, whose family members were imprisoned in Egypt at the same time. He debates the meaning of new archaeological discoveries of the Biblical period with Yosef Garfinkel of the Hebrew University; the Dead Sea Scrolls with their chief curator Pnina Shor; the character of the Talmud with Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of the New Republic; the photographic record of Israel’s history with Micha Bar Am; German cultural treasures from Enlightenment Germany and the music of Felix Mendelssohn with the critic Norman Lebrecht.

The series, first broadcast in the United Kingdom on BBC in fall 2013, was acclaimed in the British press as “an astonishing achievement, a TV landmark, idiosyncratic, accessible but always authoritative.”  It includes new archaeological research that is transforming our understanding of the earliest world of the Jews, and highlights evidence from the visual arts — synagogue mosaics, spectacularly illustrated Bibles, the brilliantly colorful decoration of synagogues (contrary to impressions of a monochrome religion), as well as the glorious music that carried Jewish traditions through the centuries.

Whether he’s amid the stones of 11th-century Judea, the exuberantly decorated cemeteries of Ukrainian hasidic rabbis, the parlors of Moses Mendelssohn’s Berlin or the streets of immigrant New York, Schama brings together memory and actuality, past and present, sorrows and celebrations, vindications and challenges and makes felt the beating pulse of an epic of endurance that has been like no other – a story that belongs to everyone.

To enter the contest, send an email to moviemom@moviemom.com with “Story of the Jews” in the subject line and tell me your favorite Jewish author, performer, musician, or holiday.  Don’t forget your address!  (US addresses only.)  I will pick a winner at random on May 14.  Good luck and mazel tov!

 

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Ushpizin: A Movie for Sukkot

Posted on September 22, 2010 at 8:00 am

Ushpizin is a quietly moving drama set in an almost-unseen world. It takes place in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Jerusalem during the fall holiday of Sukkot, which falls this year on Sept 22-29. During Sukkot, families build tabernacles called sukkahs out of organic materials and decorate them with harvest fruits and vegetables to celebrate and give thanks for the bounty of the season. Observant Jews eat their meals and sometimes even sleep in these huts, which have their roofs open so that the people inside can see the stars.

“Ushpizin” was made by the formerly secular actor Shuli Rand, who is now a part of the community where it was made, and which has never been shown on film before. Because of the restrictions on male-female contact in the Orthodox community, Rand’s wife had to play his character’s wife. Even though she had not acted professionally before, her performance is one of the movie’s highlights. She immediately engages our interest and her sweet sincerity makes her utterly captivating.

Rand plays Moshe Bellanga, a Hasidic Jew who is married to Malli (Michal Bat-Sheva Rand). They are devoted to each other and to their religious practice, but very poor. They are not even able to pay their landlord. And then a miracle happens. Through an American charity, they receive a special grant of $1000. Moshe’s religious dedication is so passionate that instead of spending the money on their daily necessities, he wants to use it to realize his dream. A part of the celebration of Sukkot is the waving of the lulav (a palm frond) and the etrog (a lemon-like citrus fruit), and the freshest and most beautiful specimens are sought after. Moshe dreams of a truly magnificent etrog, and this money makes that possible.

Meanwhile, some friends from Moshe’s past life arrive. He warmly welcomes them and invites them to stay in his sukkah, not realizing, or not caring, that they are thieves running from the law. The title of the film is an Aramaic term for “guests.”

The glimpses of life in this community are as interesting as the story, which unfolds in a direction that differs from the usual movie conventions of order being confronted by chaos. It is a tender, touching, and inspiring story of love, faith, and genuine goodness.

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The Last of the New York Jewish Movie Comedies?

Posted on June 3, 2009 at 8:00 am

New York Magazine uses the upcoming release of a new film by Woody Allen to consider whether this may be the last of the kind of comedy he exemplifies, the New York Jewish schnook, nebbish, and shlemiel comedy, focusing on “a brand of Jewish humor that has, in recent years, been all but scrubbed out–neurotic, depressive, abrasive, excluded.”
The movie is “Whatever Works,” directed by Allen and starring Larry David, like Allen a witer/director/performer specializing in being “neurotic, depressive, abrasive, excluded.” The film is a throwback to Allen’s earlier films. It is his first movie in years to be set in New York, the location for his best-loved movies. Allen not only named one of his most acclaimed films “Manhattan” but made the city one of the most appealing characters in the movies. Often his lead characters’ only unconflicted affection is directed at the city.
And those nostalgic for Allen’s earlier work have a special treat in store.

Whatever Works, which opens June 19, is both a greeting and a farewell, a film that marks Allen’s return to the city he abruptly abandoned, cinematically speaking, several years ago, as well as a reminder that a certain kind of comedy of which he was once the undisputed master has vanished and is being resurrected only because of an unlikely convergence of circumstances. Remember the Woody Allen of the seventies, the guy who several generations of New Yorkers decided was the comedic poet laureate of their era of the city? The man with whom they had a great first date (1973’s Sleeper) that deepened into a full-on relationship (1977’s Annie Hall) and then further enriched itself into true love (1979’s Manhattan), because we always fall in love with the one who makes us laugh? Whatever Works is, in essence, the missing movie from that period–the film that would have rounded out the New York phase of Allen’s early career if only he had made it.

The whole article is well worth reading and I especially enjoyed the chart with the history of almost 6000 years of Jewish humor.

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