Film Chat: The World is Funny

By Hannah Lee

This year’s Israeli Film Festival of Philadelphia opened this past weekend with the 2012 box-office hit, “The World is Funny.” The gala weekend included a visit by the director/screenwriter, Shemi Zarhin, for a Q&A session with Sunday’s audience.

Nominated for a record-setting 15 times by the Israeli Film Academy for its Ophir Awards (and won for one), “The World is Funny” is set in Tiberias, the birthplace and muse of its director. It has a stellar cast, including Assi Levy, who won a Best Actress Ophir for her starring role in the 2006 film “Aviva, My Love” (Aviva Ahuvati), also written and directed by Zarhin. This film also is graced by the presence of an Israeli legend, Yeshayahu “Shaike” Levi, whose career with the Gashash HaHiver comedy trio spanned 40 years and won the Israel Prize in 2000. (My favorite Zarhin film remains the 2007 “Noodle,” in part because of the Israeli cheerful bravado spirit and the Chinese actors.)

“The World is Funny” is narrated by a young woman, Tsephi, who cleans houses (although she doesn’t need the income) while seeking out interesting stories for the writing workshop that she attends at the library. Her duties bring her into the lives of three estranged siblings: Yardena, whose daughter died while serving in the Israeli Army; Meron, whose wife died in a car crash and whose teen son has awakened from a 8-year resultant coma; and Golan, whose sweetheart is dying from cancer.

In a testament to the writer’s craft, the film is not depressing. The director livens up the mood with comic depictions of the student writer’s scenes, including a man who falls in love with the goat he’s raising for slaughter for his son’s bar mitzvah celebration, and an assassin who only reveals his true face during his deadly assignments.

“Is the world funny?”, asked Zarhin during the Q&A session. “Well, it’s not so funny; it’s actually sad. But, it’s up to us to make it funny, because we need it to be so”, he answered.

Israeli films succeed when they are “communicative,” when they touch people, and not subjects. Zarhin concludes, “Life is a story we’re telling to ourselves — especially in Israel — and it always has a happy ending, but in Israel, it’s always too late.”

Shemi Zarhin is in front, second from the right

After the opening weekend, which included “The World is Funny,” “By Summer’s End” and a collection of short films, Israeli Film Festival of Philadelphia continues with “Life in Stills,” “Out in the Dark,” “A Bottle in the Gaza Sea, and “The Flat,” concluding with “Fill the Void,”  on March 17th and a farewell reception at Zahav.


Book Chat: Exodus to Shanghai

By Hannah Lee

Heartbreaking are the testimonies of Jews who sought every avenue of escape from Nazi-controlled Europe, but were foiled at every turn, with diplomatic and bureaucratic obstacles. They had limited access to accurate news. They had limited resources to buy their freedom and even the ones with means and the forethought found themselves victims of covetous maneuvers. Nazi regulations forbade bringing most valuables from the country and limited cash to 10 Marks or $10 per person.

First-hand testimonies are found in a book published in July, Exodus to Shanghai: Stories of Escape from the Third Reich by Steve Hochstadt. As part of the academic Palgrave Macmillian studies in oral history, Professor Hochstadt’s research focused on the odyssey of 16,000 Jews who escaped from Nazi-run Europe and found refuge in Shanghai, China when all other doors had slammed shut. The book distilled the transcripts of 13 narrators chosen from over 100 oral histories conducted with the survivors.

Most of the narrators left their homes in the frantic and brief period between the Anschluss (the occupation and annexation) of Austria in March 1938 and the beginning of war in September 1939. They came from Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia and represent a cross section of all refugees. The book does not cover the odyssey of the religious Jews from Poland, including the entire Mirrer Yeshiva, who spoke Yiddish and dressed differently from the cosmopolitan Berliners and the Viennese.

Desperate and resourceful women found out that a visa to Shanghai could release their men from concentration camps. Assistance came from the philanthropic organizations, Hilfsverein der deutschen Juden in Germany and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in New York, including tickets to Shanghai for the poorest families.

In the 1930s, Shanghai was the banking center of Asia and “an open port where the Chinese Nationalists and Communists, organized gangsters, Western capitalists, and the Japanese military competed for authority,” wrote Hochstadt. “Extremes of wealth and poverty jostled in the crowded streets.” Upon arrival, the refugees experienced culture shock in the form of the tropical heat, an alien language, and wartime inflation.

The marvel was that the refugees quickly developed a community in exile, with Jewish institutions and forms of self-governance. The Austrians even created a café life on the streets of their new home. The most ambitious and successful creation was the Shanghai Jewish Youth Association School, affectionately known as the Kadoorie School. About 600 students enrolled in a curriculum of religious and secular subjects, taught in English by the refugees and modeled after Jewish schools in Germany.

“The remarkable thing about Jewish life in Shanghai until 1943 is that there was no persecution,” wrote Hochstadt. The Japanese already controlled most of the city but, while they were allies of the Nazis, they adopted a completely different policy toward Jews. They finally took action on February 18, 1943, when they forced all “stateless refugees” who’d arrived after 1937 to live within less than a square mile in the neighborhood of Hongkou. However, the February Proclamation showed “the ambivalent nature of the Japanese attitude… the word Jew was not mentioned in the Proclamation ,” and the existing Baghdadi and Russian Jewish communities in Shanghai were spared.

With the end of the war, these refugees again had to find new places to live. Nearly all refugee families wanted to leave Shanghai as soon as possible. “Very few had been able to create a life they wanted to continue in China. Remaining in post-colonial China…meant learning and adopting Chinese culture; only a handful of European Jews accepted that challenge,” wrote Hochstadt.

Illustrative of the enormous difficulties for displaced persons after the war, one of the last groups to leave Shanghai, 106 of them without U.S. visas, were supposed to travel across the Pacific on the “General Gordon,” but the Chinese refused to allow the ship to anchor offshore.  So, on May 1950,

the refugees had to take a train to Tientsin, then board barges in heavy seas to get out to the ship. When they arrived in the United States, they were put on a sealed train and transported across the country to Ellis Island…In June, another boat took them to Bremerhaven [Germany], and they entered DP camps, where they stayed for one more year. Finally they were given visas to the United States in 1951.

By the time of the Chinese Communists’ Cultural Revolution in 1966, the Jewish communities of Shanghai “were just a memory.”

The book gives the history of the slight majority of the Shanghai refugees who came to the United States. Life in the United States meant assimilation, letting go of their German culture. They had to adjust to a new world order. One refugee, Lisbeth Loewenberg, reminisced about her adjustment to stability:

My first job that I found after one week when I walked around, that was with Collier’s magazine. This place took subscriptions, they had salesmen go running around and selling subscriptions to Collier’s and Good Housekeeping and Cosmopolitan, and so on, and I processed these orders. People took subscriptions for one year. I said, “But how do people know that after one year they will still be at that address?” I couldn’t believe in permanence anymore. I was completely shocked that some people took two-year subscriptions. It floored me. But you don’t know where you are going to be tomorrow, was my reaction. And life has actually always seemed to me not permanent.  It’s all just transitory.

Remarkably, these refugees, most of whom had been children or teens during the years in Shanghai, can even look back and say, as did Doris Grey, that they were “the best years” of her life. Another, Gerald Kohbieter, said, “It was a lifesaver. The Chinese were polite people, and they put up with a lot with us…There were some frictions, but all in all, I must say there were good hosts.”

The resilience of youth allowed many of them adapt to, and even profit from their refugee experiences. Lisbeth Loewenberg said,

All the barriers fell. It didn’t make a difference, what does your family do…because everyone was there and started from scratch, nil, nothing, in Shanghai. All things being equal, if all people start under the same adverse conditions, this is where your true ability will show or your true survival instincts or your enterprise…Don’t ever blame the condition, blame yourself.  Because under the most impossible conditions, some people will make it one way or another.

A friend pointed out to me that W. Michael Blumenthal who served as United States Secretary of the Treasury under President Jimmy Carter was one of these refugees.  He arrived in the United States in 1947 at age 21.

Professor Hochstadt earned his Ph.D. in History from Brown University, taught at Bates College in Maine for 27 years, and is now professor at Illinois College. He has just published another Holocaust oral history, Death and Love in the Holocaust: The Story of Sonja and Kurt Messerschmidt (Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine).

Book Chat: The Chinese Way to Wealth and Prosperity

By Hannah Lee

In the same way that I love cookbooks with a narrative — more memoir than
instructional manual — I found reading The Chinese Way to Wealth and
pleasurable in that I learned much about the culture of my own
people. The author is my brother, Michael Lee, and he sent me an early copy.
The fact that we grew up together does not preclude our separate areas
of experiences, with him being an expert in finance, a world traveler, and a
former student of martial arts.  This book is clearly and concisely
written with the lay reader in mind.  Speaking as an elder sister, I’m
finally realizing that there is much I can learn from my baby brother.

In our economy, who would want to learn about getting rich slowly?  However, the financial crisis of this  country is mostly attributable to the “get-rich-quick” mindset of
many Americans.  Here’s Michael’s remedy for this malaise: utilize the human capital that is in each and every one of us and apply his eight time-tested strategies for achieving financial success.  There are no short cuts and you have to learn to defer gratification.

In the Introduction, Michael retells the allegory attributed to the founder of Temple University, the preacher Russell Conwell:

a prosperous farmer who desires diamonds so badly that he
sells everything he owns and runs off to find his fortune.   After a  lifetime of trying, he dies without having achieved his goal.  Meanwhile, the person who purchased his house discovered a rich diamond mine on the very property that was sold.  The searching man would have found his diamonds if, instead of seeking his fortune elsewhere, he had dug in his own backyard.  He would have found his Acres of Diamonds, as Russell Conwell entitled his work. [p.4]

Being a preacher, Conwell must have been familiar with the Bible, but I
wonder if he knew about the parable that Jews tell about the Jew from Lublin
who dreams of a treasure near the Imperial Palace in Prague and journeys to
seek it.  He meets a soldier there who tells of his own dream of
treasure under a humble Jew’s floor in Lublin and scoffed at his likelihood
of success, whereupon the Jew returns home, digs under his floorboards, and
unearths his treasure.  The point of both stories is to draw upon our
inner resources, our innate human capital.  Michael wrote this book to
show others that they too can apply these culturally based principles that
have served the Chinese so well, both in their homeland as in the diaspora.

One illustrative chapter is the one on “Obtain “Kung Fu” in Education,” in which Michael
extolls the Chinese value of education. In January 2011, Amy Chua published a
provocative piece in the Wall Street JournalWhy Chinese Mothers are
,” (giving advance guard to her book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother) and sparked a public debate about parenting styles.  Around the same time, an international study was also  published, which is of far greater significance.

The OECD, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and
Development, a major nongovernment institution based in Paris, released the latest results in its influential Programme for International Student Assessment study.  This triennial study assessed the reading, science,
and math skills of 15-year-olds from public schools in all 34 OECD member states, as well as in a host of other nations.  The results were not encouraging for U.S. taxpayers and must have been very disappointing for the U.S. Department of Education.


That’s because in these OECD rankings, the United States, the world’s most economically dynamic and prosperous country by far, could rank no higher than thirty-first in the world in mathematics.  This dismal showing for American mathematical skills has by now become repetitious and
expected.  But to me, there was a slightly surprising outcome in the science rankings, in which the United States finished twenty-third.  Imagine, the powerful United States, home to the mighty MIT and Cal Tech, ranked essentially in the high minor leagues in the science scorecard.


…The list of the top 10 countries for all subject matters was
striking in its composition.  The city of Shanghai took first place, while South Korea took second, Hong Kong fourth, Singapore fifth, and Japan eighth. [pp.10-12]

These places all owe a cultural legacy to Confucius (Kong Zi), the
“Teacher of 10,000 generations.”  His teachings form a
“complete moral philosophy for leading a proper life,” a belief
system “in a right and wrong way to live and provides for the governance
of human relations on earth.”  Furthermore, “Confucianism may
be unique in its exclusive focus on becoming “good.”  In place
of a deity, liturgy, or intrinsic forms of worship, there is the teaching of
obtaining virtue, and only that.  This is known as Confucian moral

The earth-shattering moment occurred to me when I read: “the main
reason why education holds the esteemed position it does in the Chinese and
Confucian societies is that education provides the very and sole means of
becoming fully human.  Education for its own sake just doesn’t cut
it.”  Equally compelling for me was when Michael calls for a return
to civic education, for building an institutional movement toward the
creation of “good” people.

Also interesting to me, Michael points out the common fallacy in equating kung
with martial arts.  Kung fu actually means “mastery,” while wushu better describes what Americans think of as martial arts.  Furthermore,

some in martial arts circles believe the word shifu
to be the equivalent of the word sensei in Japanese…But there’s a word of difference between the two words.  Sensei means simply “teacher”…shifu refers to one who has mastered something.   Almost anything would be included– art, painting, physics, engineering…To be linguistically correct, one does not know kung fu; one has kung fu. [pp.23-25]

I cannot give away the secrets of this tightly constructed book, so I urge
you to get your own copy.  You’ll learn some crucial principles for
financial health and you’ll have a ball learning about the Chinese people and
its culture.

Talkback With The Band’s Visit Director

By Hannah Lee

An addition to this year’s Israeli Film Festival of Philadelphia was a showing of the 2007 film, The Band’s Visit, followed by a Q&A with the director, Eran Kolirin.  It was held on April 15 at the new home of the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in Bryn Mawr.

The film is a bittersweet account of what happens when the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra mistakenly heads to the remote fictional desert town of Bet Hatikva, where there is no Arab Cultural Center (“no Arab Cultural Center, no Israeli culture, no culture”) to stage their concert performance. They are stranded there, with little Israeli money, until the inter-city bus arrives the next day.  Despite the tension between their two countries, they’re greeted with a range of generous and grudging hospitality.

The Band’s Visit won eight Israeli Ophir Prizes awarded by the Israeli Film Academy.  Rotten Tomatoes reported that 98% of critics gave the film positive reviews, based on 108 reviews, and gave it a golden tomato for best foreign film of 2008.

Deborah Baer Mozes, the cultural attaché for the Israeli embassy, started the Q&A by asking what was the director’s inspiration?  It was the character of the Egyptian “General” (Lieutenant-Colonel Tawfiq Zacharya, superbly played by the Iraqi Jew, Sasson Gabai) dealing with his inner turmoil, of “something underneath trying to escape.”  Another audience member asked about his inspiration from the Egyptian playwright, Ali Salem, whose “My Drive into Israel” was a memoir of his 1994 trip to Israel following the signing of the Oslo Accord.  Salem later described the trip as not “a love trip, but a serious attempt to get rid of hate.  Hatred prevents us from knowing reality as it is.”  His pro-peace sentiments were controversial and Salem was banned from publication in Egypt afterwards.

An audience member asked why could the characters make phone calls from the public telephone booths without any simonim (Israeli phone tokens)?  The director gave both a practical and a poetic reply: the “142” number sequence allows one to make a collect call without simonim, but it’s far easier to make a phone call without money than to send an Egyptian band to Israel.

Another audience member noted that the filming was done in Yeruham (a desert town in the northern Negev, about 15 km from Dimona).  Kolirin has a fondness for these towns, which were planned to expand settlement into the desert, but which became dismal, forgotten places.  He expressed nostalgia for their architecture, which are gravestones to a grand idea.

How was The Band’s Visit received in the Arab world?  It was banned, of course, but it did get one screening in Cairo and Kolirin traveled there as the guest of the Israeli embassy.  It was a “schizophrenic feeling” for him, as it is a country so much like his own, but still foreign.

An audience member asked about the choice of having some characters being changed by the band’s visit, but Kolirin and other audience members disputed a change, as in whether the Egyptian character Simon completed his concerto overture.  The director said that he was more interested in a change in perspective (including that of the viewer, as in the phantom girlfriend who actually does make a phone connection) than for any external change.

Kolirin’s second film, The Exchange, was shown at the 68th Venice International Film Festival last September and will be released in the United States later this year.