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Cinema Judaica: The War Years – Part 3 Interview with the Author

CCAR Press is proud to be the ebook publisher of Cinema Judaica: The War Years, in partnership with Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, which organized the related exhibition.  Though a departure from the usual books published by CCAR Press, this was a wonderful opportunity for collaboration with one of our Movement partners, and one that provides unique and fascinating educational content for our members and their communities. In anticipation of the launch of Cinema Judaica, we took the opportunity to sit down with the author, Ken Sutak. Cinema Judaica is available through iTunes or Amazon.  Read Parts 123, and 4 of this interview.      

CCAR Press: You’ve been a great speaker on the Jewish lecture circuit since the time of the original Cinema Judaica exhibits in New York.  I want to ask you to step into your synagogue speaker shoes for a few moments in order to give our readers a sense of what it’s like to attend a Cinema Judaica lecture.  Let’s assume that you have just been asked at one of those functions to elaborate on the question of social impact versus political impact.

Ken Sutak: Okay.  Here goes.  Social impact is closely related to political impact.  In a democracy the social impact usually precedes the political impact.  President Roosevelt couldn’t get too far ahead of the American public, either. Whenever he had tried that before 1940, he was checkmated and his re-election prospects were seriously endangered.  He needed visible public support to sway a resistant Congress, and these bellwether movies wore their intentions to garner public support for military preparedness on their sleeves.  It is pretty clear for instance, as Cinema Judaica chronicles in an exciting way I hope, that the anti-Nazi films released by the major Hollywood studios from May 1939 through July 1941, especially the barrage from almost every major studio that began in June 1940, helped  Roosevelt push his key military preparedness programs through a divided Seventy-Seventh Congress, beginning in May 1940.  I am referring to the huge new ship-CJ Sample 8building and aircraft construction projects that operated on accelerated production schedules at breakneck speed, the Selective Service Act that established compulsory conscription without a Declaration of War, the Lend Lease bills that rearmed the British and later armed the Russians with war materials despite constant German U-boat threats to our Eastern coastline and numerous sinkings of our trans-Atlantic shipping.  This  informal relationship between the movie industry and the government during a time of national crisis enabled America to use the critical eighteen-month period before Pearl Harbor to prepare to wage an enormous two-ocean war with three Axis Powers in two hemispheres with multiple fronts that could not have been won by the Allies otherwise.

CP: Why is that?

KS: Because without the massive infusion of American-made tanks and other war materials that the British received in North Africa before the Battle of El Alamein in late 1942, and the Russians received before and during the Siege of Stalingrad at roughly the same time, North Africa would have fallen into Hitler’s hands.  For all military purposes, Germany would have won the war.  The Russians would have been overrun by Hitler’s Sixth Army  soon after Rommel’s Africa Corps had rolled its Panzer  divisions over Montgomery’s army and plowed through Egypt to reach Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, where the oil pipelines that supplied the Royal Navy and kept it afloat were located.   Then Rommel’s Africa Corps probably would have received the 180,000 German and Italian infantry reinforcements that Berlin actually dispatched to Tunis when Rommel was in retreat.   Together with the Africa Corps these augmented German forces would have been used to smash through the Caucasus in order to strike the main Russian Army on its southern flank and destroy it.   Hitler’s armed forces would then have been in position to prevent an invasion of Europe from any direction, and to reinforce the Japanese in the Pacific from both Egypt and Eastern Russia before American soldiers could even make their first landfall in Tunisia, where they were initially defeated as it was.  Meanwhile the Einsatzgruppen, the SS death squads that accounted for much of the actual killing of civilian populations in the Holocaust, would have continued their advance behind Hitler’s Sixth Army through Russia.  Additional Einsatzgruppen units had already been assembled by Berlin to follow Rommel’s advance into Egypt, Palestine, and the rest of the Middle East once Rommel had broken through the British and Australian lines at El Alamein, which would have extended the Holocaust into that region.  Now, that is what did not happen. Instead, the American war materials kept coming across the Atlantic in large amounts to resupply the British and the Russians because America had built so many ships to move them and so many factories to make them in the year and a half before Pearl Harbor happened.  And American reinforcements replete with more tanks and war materials were on their way to the North African front not far behind these critical supply ships because America  had instituted a nationwide draft with the bi-partisan support of both Roosevelt and his opponent Wendell Willkie even before the 1940 election took place.

As a consequence, Montgomery was able to repell Rommel’s advance in November 1942 and drive the Africa Corps back toward Tunisia. There the British, the Australian, and the newly arrived American forces converged on Rommel’s reinforced Africa Corps for several more months of fierce give and take battles in North Africa.  By the end of May 1943, Rommel’s once unbeatable army had surrendered, North Africa was in Allied hands instead of Hitler’s hands, and the Allies were in a position to invade Europe and win the war in Europe.  Of course, that would take another two years of tremendous joint efforts and extensive Allied casualties, starting with the Russian victories at Stalingrad and soon afterward Leningrad and then the invasion of southern Italy by the Americans and the British in July 1943.   Nevertheless, for the motion picture industry there is an important connection between what Warner Brothers began in May 1939 and what happened in May 1943 to turn the tide of the Second World War decisively in favor of the Allies.  We can infer a cause and effect relationship which culminated in that turning point because in August 1941 the isolationists both in and outside of the Seventy-Seventh Congress reacted to the movie studios’ role in this great military preparedness endeavor with an openly anti-Semitic congressional investigation of the studio executives’ alleged “warmongering” conspiracy with an interventionist President.  The ensuing hearings in the Senate then blew up in their faces and faded away by the end of October 1941.  That was because Americans, on the whole, having already moved from predominantly isolationist attitudes to predominantly interventionist attitudes over the preceding year and a half, rejected what the isolationists were up to by that time, just as they denounced the anti-Semitism in Charles Lindbergh’s ill-conceived September 11, 1941 Des Moines speech which was part of that whole circus.  For the period after the war was over, though, cause and effect relationships are not so readily apparent.

CJ Sample 9CP: Can you give me an example of that ambiguity?

KS: I can give you one that bridges both Cinema Judaica books and ties them together sequentially.  It is well known that anti-Semitism in America plummeted during the twelve-year period following the general release and wide popularity of the critically acclaimed 1947 film Gentleman’s Agreement.  One often discussed study of that dramatic drop attributes it to the social impact of this one great film.  But was there really such a cause and effect attributable to this one film, very influential though it certainly was?  Gentleman’s Agreement was one of four so-called “social films” released in the post-war period between September 1945 and 1948.  All of them are discussed and illustrated with several of their rare posters and other promotional materials in my book, after being placed in context.  Gentleman’s Agreement was the only one of the four that attacked White Anglo Saxon Protestant anti-Semitism, country-club anti-Semitism if you will.  The other three “social films”—The House I Live In, Crossfire, and Open Secret—attacked the kind of American anti-Semitism associated with Coughlinism or the German American Bund.  That was the kind that gave rise to some really hateful street violence against Jewish Americans in Boston, New York, Providence, and Chicago before or during the war, usually perpetrated by teenage youths.  Which type of American anti-Semitism dropped more precipitously or more noticeably in the ensuing twelve years?  Did the early postwar Jewish biblical or historical epics released in succession—Paramount’s Samson and Delilah in 1950, 20th Century Fox’s David and Bathsheba in 1951, and MGM’s Ivanhoe in 1952—contribute more or less to that vital achievement?  Each one of these epic films was either the biggest or second biggest box office success of its release year.

That means among other things that they all reached a very large mass audience because they possessed crossover appeal.   Did the ensuing phenomenal box office success of The Ten Commandments, released in October 1956 just before the start of the Sinai War between Israel and Nasser’s Egypt, have even greater influence?  Did the similarly huge box office success of Ben-Hur, which was released to unanimous critical and also interfaith acclaim in November 1959?   Did Exodus, another big epic film based on Leon Uris’s blockbuster historical novel, which followed the premiere of Ben-Hur thirteen months later into the same reserved-seat theaters that Ben-Hur vacated?  Like Ben-Hur, Exodus became a big popular culture event in 1960 and 1961, but the book paved the way for that by creating a popular sensation in 1958 and 1959.  The only thing that can be said for sure, I think, is that all these films achieved a very significant positive influence on American society by acting in combination, whether they were designed to do that or not.   They were part of a continuous process that started with the major studios promoting religious and ethnic universalism during the War Years. Then, once Judaism was recognized by postwar social commentators and accepted by most of the country as one of America’s three major religious faiths, together with Protestantism and Catholicism, these mainstream films quickly and quite self-assertively also evolved into popular examples of Jewish particularism.  Elizabeth Taylor as Rebecca in Ivanhoe,  Charlton Heston as a very physical Moses, Heston again as a Star of David-wearing, mezuzah-kissing Judah Ben Hur, and Paul Newman as the Israeli superhero Ari Ben Canaan, repeatedly declared and even insisted throughout these crowd-pleasing spectacular films that they were proud and determined Jews.  More than that, they did so in the context of the biggest action epics of the 1950s.  Gentleman’s Agreement and the other “social films” of the late 1940s were aimed at–and for the most part connected with—a mixed audience of sophisticated adults in large cities.  The Jewish-themed biblical and historical epics that followed them were aimed at everybody, everywhere. Millions of American kids and adolescents saw them at an impressionable age, alongside millions of adults of all ages.  Altogether, from top to bottom, across every age group and every religious group, the postwar Jewish-themed films from 1945 to 1959 demonstrated that the process of remaking our nation, which started in the middle of the Second World War, was a continuous and ongoing one.  But just how much any one of them contributed to that process, no one can say for certain.

To be continued…  Part 4 of the interview will address, among other questions, what we can learn from Cinema Judaica, The War Years about Jewish identity.

You are invited to join us for a book launch, July 17th, 2013, from 6:00-7:30, at Hebrew Union College, 1 West 4th Street, NY, NY, 10012. Please bring ID.  

Ken Sutak is an attorney in New York with a specialization in entertainment law. In addition to the Cinema Judaica books, Ken Sutak has written or contributed to two legal books including The Great Motion Picture Soundtrack Robbery published by Archon, and two environmental reports published by the Mayor’s Council on the Environment in New York City.  Two of his famously long and influential film music essays, The Return of A Streetcar Named Desire and The Alamo Remembered, are available online (the latter with Technicolor scenes added) as internet republications by Pro Musica Sana and Cinemascore/SCN.  He is currently collaborating with the California-based writer Ken Dixon on another narrative-pictorial e-book, based on the Leatherstocking Tales of James Fenimore Cooper, for Emerald Chasm Entertainment.

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Machzor Blog: A Yom Kippur Feast

On a Shabbat morning this past April, members of my congregation test-piloted the Yom Kippur Morning Service for Mishkan HaNefesh.  By design, we did not read Torah or Haftarah in order to maximize our time together to explore aspects of the service that were unfamiliar to congregants.   I tried to minimize my own instructions and commentary about the prayers (not an easy thing for me to do!) in order to allow the service to unfold without my serving as a filter between the service and the worshipper.

Immediately following the service, and before we broke for lunch (deliciously transgressive on “Yom Kippur”) congregants broke into four groups, enabling participants to respond to a series of questions posed by the editors of the machzor.

The responses were overwhelmingly positive.  Comments included:

The poetry moved me to tears.

We liked that the poetry was drawn from a variety of writers, especially women!

The classic Hebrew prayers were kept but people liked that the accompanying        readings were different and uplifting.

The new machzor did a good job modernizing the text.

The service also included readings from people other than rabbis such as     Richard Feynman, a physicist.

There were multiple points of view which resonated for different people.

Even someone who was not Jewish found a universal message in the machzor.

The readings made the congregation participate rather than act like an audience.

The Un’taneh Tokef commentaries made it more meaningful.

Mishkan HaNefesh felt much more flowing than Gates of Repentance, which seems very rigid. This new machzor is more personal and engaging.

Not surprisingly, there were also critical comments about the service.  Some criticisms were superficial, relating to the page lay-out that undoubtedly will be corrected in the final version.  Other comments were more substantive, expressing disagreement with the content of some of the poems and translations.

Following our piloting of Mishkan HaNefesh’s Yom Kippur Morning Service, one congregant plaintively asked me, “Do we have to go back to using Gates of Repentance?”  Talk about a hunger for meaning and substance during the High Holy Days!  Clearly the vast majority of my congregants welcomed the spiritually focused, contemporary language and interpretations offered in Mishkan HaNefesh.

On a personal note, I was thrilled with this new service.  I had not piloted any of the previous services from Mishkan HaNefesh and I am thoroughly convinced that the language, poetry, interpretations, and theological dimensions contained in this new machzor will inspire my congregation.    I look forward when in 2015 the final edition of our new machzor will offer Reform Jews a deeper embrace of the transformative power of the Yamim Noraim.

Avi Schulman is the Rabbi of Temple Beth Torah in Fremont, California.

Learn more about the new CCAR Machzor.  For more information about participating in piloting, email machzor@ccarnet.org.

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Cinema Judaica: The War Years – Part 2 Interview With the Author

CCAR Press is proud to be the ebook publisher of Cinema Judaica: The War Years, in partnership with Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, which organized the related exhibition.  Though a departure from the usual books published by CCAR Press, this was a wonderful opportunity for collaboration with one of our Movement partners, and one that provides unique and fascinating educational content for our members and their communities.  In anticipation of the launch of Cinema Judaica, we took the opportunity to sit down with the author, Ken Sutak. Cinema Judaica ebook is available through iTunes or Amazon.  Read Parts 123, and 4 of this interview.    

CCAR Press: What does Cinema Judaica, The War Years have to say about how Hollywood saw Jews and Jewish history during the period it covers?

KS: Perhaps the most important thing it says, implicitly, about the “Hollywood” aspect of your question is that we in our Jewish communities, especially, have to stop referring to Hollywood as a monothematic or monolithic force when it comes to promulgating or allegedly ignoring Jewish issues, Jewish images, or Jewish themes, which often overlap with general American issues, images, or themes.  Otherwise, we will continue to overlook the people of this period who did things that we should take pride in, or in some  cases, not.  Moreover, the motion picture industry figures who greenlighted or put together the films covered by the book did not so much portray Jewish history as they actually made Jewish history, which quickly became part of the broad swath of American cultural, political, and even military history of the period.

CCAR: Can you explain that distinction? 

CJ Sample 5KS: “Hollywood” in the 1930s and 1940s consisted of eight major studios.   Seven of them were owned and/or operated by largely Jewish studio executives.  They produced and/or distributed most of the movies Americans saw in their theaters during this period.  These eight major studios were surrounded by a constellation of smaller companies.   Many of the smaller studios were owned and/or operated largely by Gentiles.  Like Republic Picturess run by Herbert Yates which made mostly Saturday afternoon serials and low-budget westerns from 1935 to 1955.   Like tiny Walt Disney Productions run by the great popular culture innovator himself, which only made cartoons and animated features prior to 1950.   Like little Monogram Pictures, the crime movie factory, to name only three that also produced and released some surprising Jewish-themed films featured in the book.  These smaller studios were mostly dependent on five of the eight major studios for distribution of their own movies. They often took their production cues from what the majors made.  The so-called moguls, most of them Jewish, who owned and ran the majors displayed a wide variation in their attitudes toward placing Jewish characters, themes, or issues in their movies after Hitler came to power in the 1930s.  In addition to wanting to avoid bankruptcy once Jewish content was forbidden by Hitler’s henchman Joseph Goebbels in Europe, a major market, they had to be very careful about not getting too far ahead of their predominantly Protestant public in the US.  Not to mention their predominantly Catholic vetters and censors embedded in the Hays and Breen Offices.   That’s partly because their movies enjoyed no First Amendment protection  by decree of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1915, and partly because there were Neutrality Laws in effect, and partly because there was open and sometimes virulent anti-Semitism in several sectors of the country.

By the end of January 1940, however, five months after World War II began with Hitler’s sudden invasion of Poland, these studio heads, their appointed censors, and their big domestic audience, of predominantly different faiths, all found themselves becoming bound together in an emerging, perhaps unexpected common cause, as usually happens in times of crisis in America, to the dismay of isolationists. Some of the Jewish studio chiefs, like Harry Warner and his brothers Jack and Albert, along with some of the Jewish independent producers like Walter Wanger  and Jesse Lasky, had been hellbent on fighting Hitler and National Socialism and all other forms of political fascism through some of their movies, to the extent they could get those movies made and released, from the beginning.  These were the boldest or the most driven producers, the people responsible for making classics like Confessions of a Nazi Spy, Foreign Correspondent, and Sergeant York.  On the opposite side of the commitment spectrum, others like Irving Thalberg at MGM could not have cared less.  In the middle ground at first were important figures like the Cohn brothers, Harry and Jack, at Columbia and Louis B. Mayer at MGM, and potentially aggressive leaders like Murray Silverman at United Artists and the lone Protestant studio chief, Darryl F. Zanuck at 20th Century Fox.  Despite some hesitant starts, they all eventually threw the fortunes of their studios in with the Warner Brothers approach, releasing pivotal 1940 movies in the first half of that year like My Nazty Spy, The Mortal Storm, The Lion Has Wings, and I Married a Nazi.

Those early anti-Nazi movies rapidly broke down censorship barriers and opened the floodgates to more interventionist films.   Most people went to the movies several times a week in those days, so the national debate between interventionism and isolationism heated up.   All of these movies together with many similar ones were a big part of that national debate.  They were  designed to portray the pressing reasons, in stark visual terms as well as dramatic ones, why an unprepared America had to prepare pell-mell for an impending all-out war with Nazi Germany.  In time, and just in time as it turned out, most of the American public came to agree with them.  I think it is one of the great American war stories of the first half of the Twentieth Century.  But it has been largely overlooked because these predominantly Jewish studio chiefs weren’t fighting on the front lines alongside Eisenhower and Patton and MacArthur.   Jews and Jewish history were not only a part of this war story, they were a seminal part of it.  Much like Hyam Salomon played a seminal role in the Revolutionary War.

CCAR: How did these films impact on how America saw Jews and Judaism during this period?

CJ sample 7KS: That depends on which side of America we are talking about at any given point in time.  The 1930s were a very tough time, for a lot of people and for a lot of reasons.  By September 1939, when Nazi Germany crushed Poland in two weeks, there were over a hundred fascist groups operating in the United States.  Almost all of them hated Jews and Catholics alike.  Then huge changes affecting Jews and Judaism along with everybody and everthing else occurred in America during the period of 1939 to 1949.   Not just during the Great Debate period of 1939 through 1941, and not just during the postwar period, but smack in the middle period.  One writer on the Great Debate period and the middle period that I particularly admire is Geoffrey Perrett, although he too got the “Hollywood” part of the story wrong and dismisses it in a single paragraph. He also mistakenly placed the height of the Holocaust in Europe after the Germans began to lose the war, rather than before.   But we all make narrative mistakes, we’re human, and those mistakes don’t diminish the importance of his 1973 book entitled Days of Sadness Years of Triumph, The American People, 1939—1945.   In that book, Perrett calls the period of January 1943 through August 1945 the “Remaking of a Nation,” meaning our nation.  That was when the British, the Russians, and we latecomer Americans finally were able to go on the offensive in North Africa, the Soviet Union, and the Pacific, after taking terrible beatings everywhere.   So this was a very turbulent, fast-shifting time period to begin with, and the answer to your question will differ according to what timeslot in that spectrum the thrown dart falls on. The answer to your question also depends on how you go about measuring social impact, which is hard to do unless there is a political impact.

To be continued…  Part 3 of the interview will cover, among other things, the relationship of social impact to political impact. If you missed it, be sure to read Part 1 of the interview.

You are invited to join us for a book launch, July 17th, 2013, from 6:00-7:30, at Hebrew Union College, 1 West 4th Street, NY, NY, 10012. Please bring ID.  

Ken Sutak is an attorney in New York with a specialization in entertainment law. In addition to the Cinema Judaica books, Ken Sutak has written or contributed to two legal books including The Great Motion Picture Soundtrack Robbery published by Archon, and two environmental reports published by the Mayor’s Council on the Environment in New York City.  Two of his famously long and influential film music essays, The Return of A Streetcar Named Desire and The Alamo Remembered, are available online (the latter with Technicolor scenes added) as internet republications by Pro Musica Sana and Cinemascore/SCN.  He is currently collaborating with the California-based writer Ken Dixon on another narrative-pictorial e-book, based on the Leatherstocking Tales of James Fenimore Cooper, for Emerald Chasm Entertainment.

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Machzor Blog: Liturgy with a Coat of Many Colors

Several years ago one of my congregants captured the essence of a discussion about a future Reform Machzor by saying, “I would like the liturgy to be like a coat of many colors.”

All of us present for the conversation understood.  This congregant was referring to the way in which the standard High Holiday liturgy mostly presents a single image of God.  “He” is enthroned on high; God rules, decides, and forgives a very frail humanity.

Before Mishkan Hanefesh had taken shape, my congregants and I were hoping for a Machzor that went beyond the “black and white” theology presented in the historic liturgy.  We were hoping to move, you might say, to “full color,” to the multi-faceted way in which Jews of the past have explored divinity, prayer, and life as well as the ways in which contemporary Jews continue that process.

The good news from my perspective is that, on the whole, my prayers and those of my congregants are on their way to being answered.

Back on a chilly Sunday morning in April, we used the new pilot service for Yom Kippur Morning and found much of what we experienced moving, challenging, and relevant.

Opposite Mi Chamocha, we encountered a reading based on the Mechilta’s assertion that the mighty God can sometimes be a silent God.  Later in the Viddui another text began with these words, “It is not easy to forgive God…The human suffering that surrounds us feels utterly unforgivable.”

There was sweetness too among other readings.   A beautiful poem on the page facing Ki Anu Amecha played with the metaphors of God as a Shepherd or Master.  The text invited worshipers to imagine God was a caring Gardener (1) and to consider what it might be like to experience love and tenderness from such a divine source.

From my perspective, several translations also elegantly reframed the connection between God and humanity.  “Avinu, Malkeinu, enter our names in the Book of Lives Well Lived.”  “For all these wrongs, God of forgiveness, forgive us, pardon us, help us atone.”

As you can tell, I liked this new presentation of the Yom Kippur liturgy.  Perhaps because my congregants have spent so much time with me considering and reconsidering faith and theology, they too were intrigued.  There was less formality in this proposed Machzor.  God isn’t as high.  Then again, we humans are not as low.  Both parties play a more balanced and significant covenantal role.  Both parties are where they need to be in order to have the kind of encounter that can make the High Holidays as meaningful as they really ought to be.

Mark Shapiro is the Rabbi of Sinai Temple in Springfield, Massachusetts.

Learn more about the new CCAR Machzor.  For more information about participating in piloting, email machzor@ccarnet.org.

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Mishkan T’filah for Children: Interview with Artist Katie Lipsitt

We’re very excited about our new release, Mishkan T’filah for Children, edited and with texts by Michelle Shapiro Abraham with art by Katie Lipsitt.  We took this opportunity to speak to the artist about her work.

CCAR Press: Let’s start with an introduction.  Tell us about your background.

Katie Lipsitt: I was born in NYC and raised in Brooklyn. I went to Saint. Ann’s School (a private, secular school) and then Barnard College in Manhattan, where I truly discovered my love of making art!  After college I moved to Los Angeles to study fine art at Art Center College of Design, Pasadena and to be with my then-boyfriend/now husband. But after a year I found myself production designing student films at USC, and before you knew it, I left art school and was working full time as a set decorator in TV and Film! After having children, I became an elementary school art teacher, then became an art teacher at Environmental Charter middle school here in LA, and made more time to create my own collage art!

CP: How did you become interested in art?

KL: There was never a time that I wasn’t interested in making art! I grew up surrounded by artists and creative people. My mom was a fashion designer and is an artist. My Dad was a creative director of an ad agency. Being interested in art is just in my blood!

CP: Tell us about being chosen to do the art for MT for Children

69-weekday_Amida-t'filat_HaLevKL: When I was chosen to illustrate the Mishkan T’filah for Children, I was just THRILLED! My personal Jewish journey has been so enriched by sharing in my children’s experiences at Jewish preschool and later, Hebrew School. It felt so significant that I would get to make images for OTHER children to enjoy during prayer at religious school and family services.

 CP: What did you learn in the process?

KL: For the first time, I learned something about what the prayers actually MEAN. Now, when I’m in synagogue, I imagine my own illustrations and understand the services more deeply.

CP: What do you think is important about art in a prayerbook for children? What does it add to their prayer experience?

KL: I think that artwork in a prayerbook for children needs to be simple, bold and graphic. It needs to bring the essence of the words to life in a way a child can comprehend.

CP: It’s interesting to note that the people all have different skins tones and looks, and there aren’t any “traditional” families. Why did you choose this approach?

KL: I wanted the depiction of the children to reflect the more diverse Jewish community that one finds in the Reform Movement today. I wanted no child to feel excluded.  I wanted it to represent the reality of the families who belong to synagogues and are raising Jewish children.

CP: How did being a mother and a teacher impact on the choices you made in creating the art?

KL: Both of those helped me to truly imagine how a child would experience this prayerbook. I could imagine my own children’s reactions and associations to imagery, as well as those of my students.

CP: Can you describe the technique that you used to create the art?  And who are your artistic inspirations?

IMG_1391-1KL: The technique I used to create the illustrations was collage and where needed, a bit of watercolor, colored pencil and pen.  The simple, fluid lines of Henri Matisse’s late collages and the layered, bold cut paper technique of Romare Bearden were my artistic inspirations.

CP: Which is your favorite image and why?

My favorite image is the image of the girl reading a prayerbook. She looks so much like my daughter, Lucy, and she has the same intensity and focus that Lucy has when she is in T’filah!

 Katie Lipsitt is available for projects, workshops and programs in the Los Angeles Area: ktlip01@gmail.com

Mishkan T’filah for Children is available at a special discount of 25% through July 15th.

 

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Machzor Blog: Rosh HaShanah Morning and Torah Reading Options

The most traditional texts for the Torah reading on Rosh HaShanah morning are Genesis 21 and Genesis 22. In many congregations that observe two days of the holiday, it is most customary to read 21 on the first day and 22 on the second day. Genesis 21 begins with the notion that God remembered our matriarch Sarah and enabled her to have a child. The idea of remembering is tied to a name of Rosh HaShanah in the Bible: the Day of Remembrance. This is the lesson: God remembers us as God remembers Sarah. To paraphrase a very different cultural artifact: “God knows when we have been bad or good so be good for goodness sake.”

Genesis 22, the famous Binding of Isaac story, may be read on the second day for the prosaic reason that it is the next part of the Torah, and thus no Torah scroll maneuvering is needed. There are also connections between the ram in the story and the sounding of the ram’s horn. In addition, there are a multitude of sermonic challenges, explaining why God would test Abraham in such a way. But then maybe that is the point of Rosh HaShanah: we are all being tested.

When Gates of Repentance was adapted more than thirty years ago from the British liberal machzor, the committee decided to omit Genesis chapter 21, perhaps due to its negative treatment of a non-Israelite, but also because of lack of space. Space was lacking because Genesis 1 was added. Rosh HaShanah is considered by the ancient Rabbis to be the birthday of the world, so it follows that reading about the birth of the world is apt.

Mishkan HaNefesh, the new CCAR machzor, will include all three of these three choices, enabling congregations to have more options about what to read on Rosh HaShanah.  In addition, the editors wish to also add a fourth option: chapter 18 of Genesis. Why? Genesis 1 is beautiful but offers no human narrative. Genesis 21 and 22 feature the founder of what will become Judaism acting in ways that modern readers easily find questionable, i.e., casting out his son Ishmael and her mother and then readily agreeing to kill his beloved Isaac. On the other hand, Genesis 18 features Abraham questioning God, like a loyal but confident subordinate might question his or her boss. When God chooses collective punishment for all the inhabitants of Sodom, Abraham asks God, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth not also act in a just manner?” We the editors feel that a story showing the positive side of Abraham’s development as a leader is inspirational for all of us who aspire to act with righteousness, even if at times that means questioning authority.

We hope that the Torah choices included in the new machzor will prompt many years of conversation about important topics and lead as well to chesbon hanefesh, a searching of our own souls for the good and the true.

Rabbi Edwin Goldberg has served as the senior rabbi of Temple Judea in Coral Gables since 1996. In July he will begin serving as the senior rabbi of Temple Sholom of Chicago. Rabbi Goldberg is the coordinating editor of the forthcoming CCAR Machzor and is the author of five books including, Saying No and Letting Go: Jewish Wisdom on Making Room for What Matters Most and Love Tales from the Talmud. This post also appeared on http://www.reformjudaism.org. 

Learn more about the new CCAR Machzor.  For more information about participating in piloting, email machzor@ccarnet.org.

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Machzor Blog: Thoughts on Torah Readings

Our congregation, Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, New York, has been worshipping with a draft copy of Mishkan HaNefesh for three years now, on the second day of Rosh Ha-Shanah.  About four hundred congregants and members of the community-at-large show up for this service, and we have taken the opportunity not only to pilot the new machzor from the pulpit, but also to invite the participants’ feedback.  In general, opinion about the machzor is positive, with many praising the dignified, uplifting, and poetic English prayer-renderings and meditations, and others appreciating the opportunities for study and reflection built into the machzor.

Because the draft copy we have been piloting does not feature a Torah service, we have jumped back into Gates of Repentance for the Torah Service and we have produced our own one-page handout for the Shofar Service.  The Torah service, however, prompts a fascinating question about which our congregation and clergy have been wondering aloud for a couple of years:  what Torah readings will Mishkan HaNefesh propose for reading on First and Second Day Rosh HaShanah?

This spring I taught an eight-week adult education course in midrash using Akedat Yitzhak (The Binding of Isaac, Genesis 22) as our primary text.  While many of the students feel spiritually and emotionally drawn to the Binding of Isaac and recognize its importance within Judaism–an importance that led to our Reform Movement proposing it as the reading for First Day Rosh HaShanah, instead of on Day Two, where it is found in Orthodox and Conservative circles–many agreed that the time has come to re-locate Akedat Yitzhak on Day Two, and replace the Torah reading for First Day Rosh Ha-Shanah with the traditional Scriptural passage, Genesis 21, which not only sets up the drama for day two (Genesis 21 details the birth of Isaac and his place in Jewish genealogy), but also beautifully meshes with Rosh Ha-Shanah themes of birth and hopefulness.

I would warmly support the re-introduction of this text.  It would embrace the value of Klal Yisrael, the unity of the Jewish People, by bringing us into common practice with other streams of Judaism.  It would also invite the rabbi to explore new and varied preaching topics on Rosh HaShanah morning, and offer new discussion topics for congregants.

Knowing our Reform Movement, and the format of Mishkan T’filah, I suspect that choices will be offered, including the choice of reverting to Genesis 21.  Readers, what do you think?

Rabbi Jonathan Blake serves Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, NY.

 Learn more about the new CCAR Machzor.  For more information about participating in piloting, email machzor@ccarnet.org.

 

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Books News Reform Judaism

Cinema Judaica: The War Years – Part 1 Interview with the Author

CJ Cover
CCAR Press is proud to be the ebook publisher of Cinema Judaica: The War Years, in partnership with Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, which organized the related exhibition.  Though a departure from the usual books published by CCAR Press, this was a wonderful opportunity for collaboration with one of our Movement partners, and one that provides unique educational content for our members and their communities. As the print book was developed by another entity, we were able to lend our epublishing expertise to this project.  In anticipation of the launch of Cinema Judaica, we took the opportunity to sit down with the author, Ken Sutak. Cinema Judaica is available through iTunes or AmazonRead Parts 123, and 4 of this interview.    

CCAR Press: What is Cinema Judaica?

Ken Sutak: First of all it is a term used by collectors of old movie memorabilia—usually paper artifacts of a promotional nature—related to the Jewish-themed films that were made prior to, say, Woody Allen’s.  In this sense the term refers to these paper collectibles, which are perishable if not preserved, and in variable condition this far out from the dates of origin of the source films.  Old movie posters are the prime example.  Sometimes the term is used to refer to the source films themselves.   I adopted the term as a brand name for two popular culture poster exhibits that I produced for the Hebrew Union College—Jewish Institute of Religion Museum in New York City during the Spring of 2007 and the Spring of 2008, on the subject of these films and their influence on contemporaneous American life.  The exhibits were divided between the period 1939 to 1949, which I called “The War Years,” and the period 1949-50 to 1971-72, which I called “The Epic Cycle.”  And now, the term Cinema Judaica is the common title of two books I have written, with different subtitles that track the exhibit titles.   Both of them are illustrated with high res color photos of several hundred of these paper artifacts combined. Together, the two  books cover the same narrative scope of the exhibits, but in more depth, with greater detail, and a lot more rare imagery than even the original exhibits could accommodate.  Since both exhibits were very popular, they have since been turned into  travel exhibits in the United States, available through the HUC-JIR Museum to other museums and similar institutions, where they tie into the books and vice-versa.

Sample CJ page 2CP: What got you interested in this topic?

KS: Being part of the baby boomer generation I have always been fascinated by the spectacular epic films of the 1950s and the 1960s, whether biblical or strictly historical, whether Jewish or Christian if biblical.  But I wasn’t very interested, or even much aware of, the Jewish-themed wartime films of the late 1930s and mid-1940s, until I put together a bunch of old movie posters from the postwar Jewish biblical films for display at the Brooklyn Heights Synagogue, where I am a longtime member.   I found that something was lacking.  I happened to show my agent, Kay McCauley, a list of these posters that I subsequently compiled for a proposed exhibit in Manhattan.  She immediately encouraged me to think of the project as a book.   But a book has to have a beginning, middle, and end.  Then you suggested that I should consider broadening the scope of the project to include the World War II period.  So that idea entered my thinking through a side door, or front one is more like it in terms of an overall Cinema Judaica chronology.  Originally, though, for both the proposed exhibit and the book that Kay encouraged me to write, the War Years material was just going to be a prologue to the Epic Cycle material.  Then Laura Kruger, the Curator of the HUC-JIR Museum who had invited me to produce the exhibit with her, decided that it should be divided into two parts, and presented as two exhibits one year apart.  Jean Rosensaft, the Director of HUC-JIR Museum, got behind this notion of presenting two sequential exhibits in a big way.  So Cinema Judaica, The War Years, being the smaller of the two planned exhibits, much like a preview to the larger, more majestic Epic Cycle exhibit to come, was presented first, as a lower floor exhibit presented concurrently with some unrelated exhibits on the main floor of the museum. 

CP: What was the reaction?

KS: What happened next surprised everyone, I think, especially me.  People attending the main attractions began to be drawn to the subject matter of the War Years exhibit downstairs, magnetically.  Whenever I dropped by, mesmerized museumgoers or some of the rabbinic students at HUC-JIR college would tell me that they were stunned by some of the posters or trade adds or rare stills on display, or by things they had learned from the signage.  In many cases, they had never heard of much less seen these Jewish-themed films that, altogether, related a gripping wartime story through a striking visual collaboration with the written signage that they had not been told before.  Meanwhile, what amounted to four other Jewish museums and two secular ones in the United States plus three in Europe had begun asking HUC to allow the War Years exhibit to travel.  A year later, the Epic Cycle poster exhibit came along as planned, taking over almost the entire main floor of the museum.   Those posters, which interwove the Jewish biblical films, Holocaust films, and War of Independence films of that period, with connective signage, just dazzled everyone who entered the building, and usually blew them away before they left.  At that point the Lucius N. Littauer Foundation provided grant money to cover the photography, graphic design, editorial, and printing costs of a tie-in book.  I was given carte blanche to decide what to do with it.  Ultimately, I decided to split it into two sequential books.

Sample page CJCP: Why did you want to write the “War Years” Cinema Judaica book first, instead of the more majestic, as you put it, “Epic Cycle” Cinema Judaica book?

KS: They were being written together.  I didn’t decide to spin off the War Years material into a separate book until I had researched as many prior writings on this subject matter as I could find, while tracking down and watching the films themselves.   I  discovered that there were almost as many wartime films of Jewish interest as there were Epic Cycle films of Jewish interest—about sixty films in each category.   That kind of division called for separate but equal treatment.  I also discovered that there was a lot of misinformation about this subject in circulation, in both the limited scholarly journal literature on the subject and in the broader film histories or social histories.   Not to mention what too many film critics in the present era had been saying erroneously about the presumed historical background or the predominantly Jewish movie studio heads of the time, whenever they occasionally revisited a prominent  Jewish-themed wartime film like The Great Dictator or The Mortal Storm.   I address, and correct, a lot of that misinformation in this book.   For the most part I do that just by trying to get the overall story that binds these Jewish-themed films together right, and by making sure that the Jewish studio heads, writers, directors, and in some cases actors and actresses who deserve credit for their contributions are named.  Many of these motion picture industry figures of the late 1930s and 1940s, even some of the most famous ones during that period, are now almost forgotten within our Jewish communities, if they are remembered at all. In many instances the reader will never have heard of them before.  I wanted their names to be recorded in one place, and one day remembered as a group, because they all played an important role, big or small, in this aspect of Jewish involvement in America’s wartime history, at a time when nearly the whole world was on fire, especially for Jews.  Plus, I saw an opportunity for producing a book on a sprawling subject that hadn’t been done before, except in bits and pieces or sections of other writers’ books, or in Jewish history journal articles on one isolated aspect or another of the subject matter, or in parts of documentaries, some of them off the mark.  I credit these previous writings at the end of my book.  And then of course there was the impetus of the rapidly vanishing primary materials that I needed to illustrate the book with, so that it would have the same popular appeal for general audiences as the museum exhibits.   Not to mention the advanced age of some of the people I wanted to consult for information or, possibly, rare artifacts to show.  In some instances, I already knew how hard it was going to be, and that it might be impossible, to locate even one surviving poster for a given film that needed to be included.  This was particularly true for the foreign Holocaust films that were only briefly available in the United States around  1949 or 1950, and the postwar “exodus” films that were produced and released independently, on small budgets, at approximately the same time.  So, for Cinema Judaica, The War Years, getting the book done and getting it out there, with contemporaneous imagery, was very much a matter of “It’s now or never.”

To be continued.  Part 2 of the interview will cover such questions as: “What does Cinema Judaica, The War Years have to say about how Hollywood saw Jews and Jewish history during the period it covers?”

You are invited to join us for a book launch, July 17th, 2013, from 6:00-7:30, at Hebrew Union College, 1 West 4th Street, NY, NY, 10012. Please bring ID.  

Ken Sutak is a litigation attorney in New York specializing in entertainment law. In addition to the Cinema Judaica books, Ken Sutak has written or contributed to two legal books including The Great Motion Picture Soundtrack Robbery published by Archon, and two environmental reports published by the Mayor’s Council on the Environment in New York City.  Two of his famously long and influential film music essays, The Return of A Streetcar Named Desire and The Alamo Remembered, are available online (the latter with Technicolor scenes added) as internet republications by Pro Musica Sana and Cinemascore/SCN.  He is currently collaborating with the California-based writer Ken Dixon on another narrative-pictorial e-book, based on the Leatherstocking Tales of James Fenimore Cooper, for Emerald Chasm Entertainment.

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Books General CCAR Rabbis Reform Judaism

Fish Forks and Beer Mugs: Choosing the Right Technology for Publishing

The nature of the book has changed dramatically in recent years. From the old standard of signatures of paper, in multiples of 16, 24,or 32, bound between covers and filled with typeset text, we now have ebooks, and PDF’s, and audiobooks, and apps – and that’s just for starters.

There are so many choices about how to produce a book. And yet, the essence of a book in many ways remains unchanged. They remain transmitters of ideas, containers of human experience and expression.

As a publisher, I’m often asked about how we will use technology with any given project. My answer is very simple: In as many ways as possible. For while it’s true that the technology presents us, a publisher using Hebrew text, with real challenges, and while it’s also true that we also have real financial limitations, our goal is always to create as many different versions of a book as we can, taking into account what makes sense for that particular content. For even with all the options we have available today, publishing should not be driven by technology, but rather by content development.

Publishing is no longer focused on the physical manufacturing of objects. But just as has always been true in publishing, content has to be developed carefully, thoughtfully, and creatively. That is our central goal at the CCAR Press. First we need an idea that is right for our core market, an approach that aligns with our mission, and the right team of editors and/or writers. Each project has different specifications and uses, and so allows for different formats. There are technological options we can consider today that weren’t possible last year. Surely that will be the same next year as well, and so on. Some projects, like the Daily Blessing App, are not physical books at all. Some projects, like Mishkan T’filah, exist as a physical book, an App, and in Visual T’filah, and we will continue to develop other versions as technology and finances allow. Mishkan R’fuah: Where Healing Resides, is both a physical book and an ebook. And so on.

iT'filahThere’s a lot of talk in the publishing world about how people are choosing to read today. Publishers carefully study stats about how people are reading, and which demographic is doing what in which medium. But I’m not convinced it’s a competition between formats. Rather, it may be that the more formats, the more we can customize our personal reading experiences.

The other day I was listening to a book on Audible and the voice in my ear said, “In this audiobook you will learn…” which I found rather jarring. For me, the experience wasn’t about listening to an audiobook. I had simply chosen to listen to this specific book, rather than read it. I hadn’t shopped for an audiobook, I had shopped for this particular title. The fact that it was an audiobook was insignificant. The audiobook aspect of the experience was a doorway to step through, on the other side of which was the content of the book. What mattered ultimately was the content, not the format.

Growing up I learned that salad is eaten with one kind of fork, and the main course with another. Dessert might be eaten with yet another. Later I learned that fish has its own kind of fork, and even later was introduced to such specialty items as pickle forks and olive forks.  Think too about glasses – this kind for water, this kind for white wine, this kind for red, and a frosted mug for beer. Each was created to best serve the experience of imbibing that particular food or drink, but in the end, the purpose is all the same: to convey the food or the liquid to your mouth.

So too with different book formats in this age of multiple choice. As a reader, I find myself choosing different formats depending on the content and context. I prefer printed books for poetry, for Torah commentaries, and for cookbooks. Yet I read fiction almost entirely on my iPad. I listen to non-fiction business books on my phone. It’s not a competition between the formats, but rather a matter of which one I prefer for the particular content.

The questions about how to best use technology in publishing are challenging and enormous. Publishers of all shapes and sizes are required to constantly keep learning new skills, and consider new options. But the core of publishing is still about content. For publishers, technology is not the goal, it is merely the means.

Rabbi Hara Person is the Publisher of CCAR Press

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Books General CCAR Prayer Rabbis Reform Judaism

Mishkan T’filah for Children: Creating a New Siddur for Families and Schools

I have always wrestled with the siddur.  However, I thought I had reached my peace with it, until I was asked to write Mishkan T’filah for Children.

My HUC year in Israel was the first time that my Hebrew was good enough to actually understand the prayers that were ingrained in my memory.  The first time I read the familiar Hebrew words and understood their translations, I found myself unable to pray.  The God that I believed in wasn’t the all-powerful “Male Sky God” that the rabbis seemed to know – a God who is “King of the Universe,” who is “High and Exalted,” and who we beseech to “rule over us in steadfast love and compassion.”   This was not my God.

Like many of us, I would decide that the words didn’t matter as much as the people and the places.  I wasn’t the first Jew to not believe the words in every prayer, and I surely will not be the last.  I teach prayer and encourage students to grapple with the words.  I lead prayer and find ways in my introductions and chosen melodies to explain and add meaning to the text.  And I pray, often turning off my mind to let my spirit soar.  And for me, it worked.

That was, until Rabbi Hara Person reached out to me and asked if I would consider writing Mishkan T’filah for Children, a siddur intended for grades k-2 and me.   Though I teach prayer, and lead prayer, writing a movement prayer book was a very different prospect.  I had read enough Sasso and Kushner to know that children’s books could provide diverse images of God, but could a children’s prayerbook successfully do the same?  Was there a way to show those varying theologies while still staying true to Reform Movement prayer?   What was the balance between keeping the words of our tradition, and encouraging different ideas and concepts to emerge?

I have to give credit to my husband, Rabbi Joel Abraham, for his help at this point.   “Why does God have to be the “Creator of Peace,” he asked.  “Why can’t God just be the “Peace”?   Indeed why not?

How many different classes and programs have I taught where we explore the many different images of God that are part of the Jewish tradition?  Why can’t a prayerbook for children share that variety?  Indeed, a key component of the “regular” Mishkan T’filah is its inclusion of different English readings that give a variety of God images.   Even the traditional siddur, with in the limitations imposed by the culture that created it, reaches for diverse images of the Divine.

And so, I began to work.  We would still refer to God as “Ruler of the Universe,”  but find places where God was also the Light, the Peace, or the Artist.  I added images of God “tucking us in” and “helping us be strong and brave,” and kept images of God as “Creator of Miracles” and “Giver of Live.”  We would praise God for being holy, and also recognize the Holy Spark with in each of us as God as well.

It is an incredible gift to have your theology challenged.    The process of writing Mishkan T’filah for Children was just that for me – not only my own voice, but the voices of parents, children, and clergy loud in my mind, questioning each word that I chose.  Did this image of God to too far? Should I be more daring and go farther?    I teach my students that we are Yisrael – the Ones who Wrestle with God. It is an incredible gift to be invited to engage in the struggle.

Michelle Shapiro Abraham, RJE, is the Director of Education at Temple Sholom in Scotch Plains, NJ.  She is also the author of numerous Jewish curricula and children’s books, and works extensively as a consultant for a variety of Jewish Summer Camp grants and projects.  Most recently she served as the Jewish Educational Consultant on the Foundation for Jewish Camp Specialty Camp Incubator.  

Order Mishkan T’filah for Children by July 15th to receive a special pre-publication discount of 25%. Also forthcoming from CCAR Press is Mishkan T’filah for Youth, intended for grades 3-6.