Dialogue With Israeli Director, Dani Menkin

By Hannah Lee

The growing prominence of Israeli films was evident in the recent Oscar awards when Joseph Cedar’s Footnote was a strong contender for Best Foreign-Language Film award.  At the 16th Israeli Film Festival of Philadelphia, Dani Menkin and Yonatan Nir’s Dolphin Boy was shown to an appreciative audience on Saturday night, March 3.  Director Menkin also spoke at Drexel’s Judaic Studies Program about the making of fiction and documentary films in Israel on March 5.

Dolphin Boy is about an Israeli Arab teen, Morad, who’d been so savagely beaten by his classmates that he becomes catatonic, suffering from a form of post-traumatic shock.  His father refuses to commit him to an institution, and in desperation, he brings Morad to the Dolphin Reef in Eilat for aquatic therapy.  The documentary follows Morad over four years as he learns to communicate first with the dolphins, then with the human world, but with some kind of amnesia about his trauma.

Menkin, who’s spending the year teaching at Wesleyan University and is Artist- in-Residence at Syracuse University, showed clips of his movies and recalled his early career as a sports reporter for the Israeli sports channel in 1994.  In 2001, he worked on an adventure series for National Geographic.  During those years, Menkin worked as a directing supervisor for the Israeli feature Hochmat HaBeygale (The Wisdom of the Pretzel)  with the director Ilan Heitner.

Once he realized that the short documentaries that he’d been making on sports could be considered “films,” he started working on longer-length features.  Documentaries, said Menkin, offer more surprises than in fiction.  Menkin compares making a documentary to going fishing– you could come up with nothing, a little fish, or a dolphin (a reference to Dolphin Boy).  He normally shoots about an hour of footage for each minute of the final film.

Menkin named his film company, Hey Jude Productions, after the McCartney song lyrics, “Take a sad song and make it better.”  His 2005 feature 39 Pounds of Love is about a man named Ami Ankilewitz, who was diagnosed at childhood with an extremely rare form of spinal muscular dystrophy that severely limited his physical growth and movement.  When Menkin embarked on filming, he knew only that his subject was disabled.   He did not know that there would also be a love story and that Ankilewitz would be so funny.  In fact, the film never once mentioned the disease or used the term, “disabled,” at the request of Ankilewitz.  39 Pounds of Love was nominated for the Oscars and was shown on HBO.  Menkin could also do the converse: take a funny or light story and find the emotional, serious core, as in his recent Je T’aime I Love You Terminal about 24 hours in a young man’s life after his misses his connecting flight home to his fiancée.

Menkin never studied film-making but, ironically, he now teaches it.  Citing Paul McCartney who never studied music but played from the heart, so that “he didn’t know he wasn’t supposed to double his notes,” Menkin made many mistakes with his first film, but those mistakes have become his signature style.  For Je T’aime I Love You Terminal, he filmed without any professional actors, relying on real people (including his mother) and he allowed room for improvisation.  He does what “feels right” to him.

Director Joseph Cedar said to The Jerusalem Report [February 27, 2012]: “When you look at those [Israeli] films, the reason they were nominated or received attention outside of Israel didn’t really have to do with their political message or their subject matter.  It had to do with filmmaking.”  Menken also does not make movies about the political situation in the Middle East, but he does want to say that what is unique in Israel is the Film Fund, in which the government subsidizes film-making, including the ones that criticize national policies.   Last year’s Israeli version of Occupy Wall Street, which resulted in a turnout of some 350,000 people, was led by filmmakers in a citizens’ revolt against economic inequalities.  Menkin related that the government also applauded the protestors.  The freedom accorded to Israeli filmmakers is a luxury that he values, in light of the concern he has for his Egyptian friends and colleagues and the national turmoil they’re experiencing at home.

During a discussion, I asked Menkin that in comparison to early cinema in America and the thriving Bollywood cinema in India, why does Israel not make escapist movies?  “The Wisdom of the Pretzel” was an escapist movie, retorted  Menkin.  More seriously, he believes that Israeli films tend to be more realistic, because of minimalist  budgets that precludes elaborate sets, costumes, and fantasy sequences.  Under the constraints, Menkin chooses to tell an “honest, character-driven story” and he tries to be original.  He hopes that in two years, he could make an authentic American movie with a universal theme — “although they might still eat hummus,” quipped Menkin.  This was puzzling as he acknowledges that his best stories — even the ones that succeed in America — are of Israeli characters.  Professor Rakhmiel Peltz, Director of Judaic Studies at Drexel, was vocally aggrieved, pointing out that the real-life characters in Dolphin Boy were uniquely Israeli, and thus more interesting for their uniqueness.   Menkin recalled his wonder that an Arab father could be as nurturing as a Jewish mother.

Israeli films have garnered four Oscar nominations in the past five years, which is proportionally high for a small nation.  Since 1991, the Israeli Ophir Award winner for Best Film is automatically designated the Israeli submission for the Oscar.  In 2008, The Band’s Visit won the Ophir Award for Best Film but was disqualified from the Oscars for containing too much English dialogue.  The runner-up Beaufort was submitted in its place, resulting in Israel’s first Oscar nomination in 23 years.  Dolphin Boy will open in New York cinemas on April 23rd.

The Israeli Film Festival of Philadelphia continues with

Tickets can be purchased online.

The video links can be viewed on: http://blog.pjvoice.com/diary/1987/dialogue-with-israeli-director-dani-menkin

How Commerce Fostered Ethnic Identity

By Hannah Lee

As part of a series on immigrant history, the National Museum of American
Jewish History and the University of Pennsylvania’s Jewish Studies program
convened a panel of scholars on February 9th titled, “Getting Ahead:
Immigrants, Business, and Ethnic Identity.” Three scholars presented the
experience of Jewish, Italian, and Korean arrivals in America.


Banana cart, 1900, Library of Congress

Hasia Diner of New York University said that Jewish historians have been
reticent to study the impact of business on immigrant life when, in fact,
business was a major lure to America. It’s a rich window to understand the
communal experience, providing an “inside/outside” focus with
businesses that met the needs of their people, the “co-ethnics,” as
well as businesses that served as liaisons to American society.

These entrepreneurs often became their communities’ leaders, as founders
of synagogues and backers of charitable programs. Their stores were their
communities’ initial meeting places. In 1909, a group of mothers in Boston’s
South End met at Hyman Danzig’s Three and Nine Cent store and dedicated
themselves to improving health care in their poor neighborhood. Their efforts
lead to the establishment that year of a 45-bed hospital, Beth Israel, which
later expanded and became Harvard University Medical School’s teaching

In modern times, these ethnic businesses still draw people back from the
suburbs to the original neighborhoods in the cities.

As described in Mary Antin’s The Promised Land, a
memoir of growing up on Arlington Street in Boston, the Jewish women who ran
small businesses cooked during the lulls and customers learned to wait for
the proprietor “to salt the soup and remove the bread from the
oven.” Women were influential as customers too, as they organized the
kosher meat boycotts in 1902 to protest the sharp increase in the price of
kosher meat.

Jewish peddlers were often the first contact with the outside world. They
traveled widely, even going to Southern plantations for their
African-American customers. In one curious episode in rural North Dakota, the
German immigrants asked their Jewish peddler — recognized for his piety — to
fill in for their Lutheran minister while he was away. So, the Jew did what
he knew, which was to teach parshat hashavuah, the Bible portion of
the week, to the congregation.

Diane Vecchio of Furman University in Greenville, SC spoke about how
Italian women engaged in income-producing activities that allowed them to
remain in their homes and combine work with domestic responsibilities and
childcare. Three types of businesses were favored: taking in boarders and
selling groceries and serving cooked foods as an early form of restaurants.

Offering strangers a bed, dinner, and laundry services for a fee —
initially to single men, then to married men who came ahead of their families
— was a strong break with tradition but it was unlisted, relying on
word-of-mouth references. In contrast, the grocery stores were listed in the
name of the husband but were often run by the women. These stores sold
homemade wine and home-baked bread in addition to imported foodstuffs that
were important to the community. One woman shopkeeper managed even without
any English fluency (or any writing of any kind) by creating symbols to
record the transactions of each customer.

The restaurants were similar to the trattorias of Italy. They
served simple, local fare without any menus. Over time, Americans
“assimilated” to Italian food, so by the 40’s and 50’s, Americans
readily traveled to the Italian neighborhoods to eat. In this way, Italian
women had a major role in creating Italian identity in the United States.

Jennifer Lee of the University of California, Irvine and a Visiting
Scholar at the Russell Sage Foundation reported that Korean immigrants have
been the most educated, with 51% of them arriving with a college education
(and another 20% with some college background). This is compared to a 27%
rate of college education amongst other recent immigrants and 28% of American
citizens with a bachelor’s degree. Korean immigrants migrated towards
business as a response to blocked opportunities in the U.S. labor market
because of their language barrier.

Korean merchants often operated in African-American neighborhoods, which
are under-served by larger chain stores and supermarkets, often superseding
the Jews. An interesting point made by Prof. Lee was that Koreans were
especially good at mass-marketing luxury products. Whereas manicures used to
cost $25 in full-service beauty salons, they are now only $7 to $9 in
dedicated nail salons. Fresh flowers used to be available only at the
florists, but they now can be bought cheaply at the corner deli.

A common criticism of these incursions into black neighborhoods was
competition by foreigners. The reality is that African-American businesses
served their own, particularly in styling hair and serving soul food. Koreans
chose businesses where they needed minimal language, and the Jews still in
the community — as second- or third-generation descendants —  ran stores
that marketed high-end products such as furniture.

The media likes to focus on conflict, said Professor  Lee, who began her
graduate study in 1992 at the time of the fierce race riots in South
Central Los Angeles. But, what she was reading by the theorists was
not supported by what she witnessed on the streets of West Philadelphia
or Harlem, New York. Often, Korean merchants hired African-Americans
as cultural and linguistic brokers, conflict resolvers, and mediators.
This was important in fostering civility and heading off conflict.
She also noted that Korean women were better at this skill than men,
so they were often deployed to greet customers at the front
of their stores.

The boycotts that have been waged against Korean businesses were protests against
the symbol of black subordination, not against specific customer
relationships. The protestors imported the value of black control in their
neighborhoods. During the Depression in New York and Chicago, the slogan,
“Don’t shop where you cannot work” was also used against Jewish
merchants. In the mid-60’s, black nationalism also fought Jewish merchants,
claiming their aggrandizement at the expense of black ghettoes. But as the
sociologist John Dollard has written, the merchant sees only green, not black
and white.

Once immigrants manage to move their businesses into the larger society,
they served to foster greater understanding and to overcome prejudice by
allowing Americans to become familiar with them, by personalizing them.

An audience member asked why do ethnic groups gravitate towards similar
businesses? Co-ethnics have the advantage of sharing business acumen and
business opportunities, said Professor Lee. Businesses are often advertised
for sale only through ethnic newspapers.

How do immigrants get the money to open their businesses? Professor
Vecchio said that the women often did so in their own homes, with minimal
capital investment.  Professor Lee noted that immigrants do not rely on
American banks, preferring to borrow money from family or from co-ethnics.
Businesses are often paid partially in cash, with negotiated schedules
for full payment. Using rotating-credit associations, such as favored
by Koreans, every member contributes to a communal pot; the first person
to use the money gets the least, the last member to get access to the
money gets more, similar to interest accruement.

Kevin Kim, a Korean immigrant who runs a dry-cleaning store in my
neighborhood, recalls that his mother controlled the family’s money, doling
out $50 per week in spending money to each member who worked. It’s how they
managed to save money — by enlisting their relatives and to limit
expenditures. This frugal and industrious pattern of entrepreneurship is
still active in the many immigrant communities in the United States.


Winter Markets

By Hannah Lee

Do you miss the farmers’ market in winter?

If you’re like me, it’s a let-down to buy produce flown or trucked in from California, which is what are available these days in the supermarkets, even in Whole Foods, which may have the biggest selection of organic produce around. Some farmers’ markets are open on Saturdays, but if you keep Shabbat, your best option is the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia. It’s open seven days a week, and it’s indoors, so you (and the vendors) do not have to freeze in the open air.

When was the last time you’ve visited this market? You’ll be surprised and delighted by the lively changes there. Check out the Reading Terminal Market website for fun events, including the Valentine Day’s wedding of four couples in the center court at noon.

Among my favorite vendors is Steve Bowes of Bowes Family Farm. Stop by for a chat and a lesson about biodynamic and organic farming. He’s at the market on Thursdays to Saturdays from 8 to 6 and Sundays from 9 to 5.

The Fair Food Farmstand, run by Fair Food Philly, offers organic eggs, dairy, and meats as well as seasonal produce and artisanal foods. They’re open every day.

I always stop by Iovine Brothers Produce to gaze at their lovingly display of fruits, vegetables, and specialty produce. It’s where I can get fresh mushrooms not found elsewhere such as King trumpets and hen of the woods as well as the gourmet favorites: chanterelles, enokis, morels, and porcinis.

The Cookbook Stall is also fun, with a diverse selection of books that cannot be found in a general bookstore. Its hours are: Mondays to Saturdays from 10-5 and Sundays from 11-3.  If you have a particular title in mind, you may call to check on its availability at:  215-923-3170.

Every Wednesday & Saturday, you could learn the story behind cheese steaks, hoagies, pretzels and other Philly food favorites, and the 116-year history of the vibrant Reading Terminal Market where they’re sold, during a 75-minute tour led by Carolyn Wyman, food historian, author, and journalist.

Discounted parking at 12th and Filbert is available for two hours and at least $10 in purchases.

For photos, go to http://blog.pjvoice.com/diary/1789/winter-markets

Reflecting Ourselves

Recently, a new friend commented that I seem to balance my two heritages effortlessly.  Of course, I laughed, because the truth is that it’s been a hard-won struggle.  My college roommate, Merrilea, once asked if I’ve ever looked back or regretted my spiritual and cultural journey.  Oh no, I told her, it’s like what mountain-climbers do: they don’t look down because they don’t want to be paralyzed with fear and they stay focused on the goal.  But, while I’ve immersed myself in Jewish culture and law, was I neglecting my native heritage?

For many years, I would get agitated in January, fretting that I was not Chinese enough.  Living as I do in the Jewish community, how could I observe the New Year’s as does my mother?  After all, no one would come pay me a ritual visit on the first day— my parents often host up to 50 visitors that day or the next Sunday— so why bother with the cleaning and symbolic food preparations?  One of the breakthroughs was the realization that while I may be living in exile– albeit self-imposed– I can surround myself with as much cultural meaning as I need.  In a way, it’s a mirror reflection of what the Chabad shluchim (emissaries) do when they bring their families on assignment far from organized Jewish life.  These dedicated rabbis and their wives live amongst people who do not share their values, but they do inculcate in their children a love for Yiddishkeit.  This realization gave me an inner serenity at last.  By my actions at home, I can bring up my girls with an appreciation for their dual heritages.

* * *

Over winter vacation, my family saw the new play by Tony-Award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang, Chinglish, a comedy about an American businessman who is desperate to launch a new enterprise in China, but who cannot speak Chinese.  Chinglish had its test run at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago in early summer and it opened on Broadway on October 27, 2011.

Of Hwang’s entire oeuvre, this play may have the widest appeal, because of China’s growing economic influence.  More limited in focus was his inaugural play, the Obie Award-winning FOB (which I’d enjoyed), which depicts the contrasts and conflicts between established Asian-Americans and “Fresh-Off-the-Boat” new immigrants.  Even his best-known play, M. Butterfly, was of limited appeal, at least for my husband.  Referencing Giacomo Puccini‘s opera, Madama Butterfly, the play is “also loosely based on news reports of the relationship between a French diplomat, Bernard Boursicot, and Shi Pei Pu, a male Chinese opera singer who purportedly convinced Boursicot that he was a woman throughout their twenty-year relationship.” [Wikipedia]  The play premiered on Broadway in 1988 and made Hwang the first Asian-American to win the Tony Award for Best Play and it was also his second play to be a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

My husband and I liked Chinglish but our elder daughter hated it, and our younger one was unmoved by it.  We had mezzanine seats, so the projected captions overhead did not divert our vision.  The play had no moral center and no uplifting conclusion.  We were not perturbed, maybe because our view of business is that it is essentially an amoral profession, with profit its only goal.  I was also not insulted by the portrayal of the Chinese as people who admire financial shrewdness and opportunism.  The American character is revealed as having had a role in the Enron scandal and that sordid past is what finally greased his way into doing business in China.  Kudos to Stephen Pucci who played another non-Chinese character and who spoke beautiful, fluent Mandarin.

More recently, I pulled out our copy of Ang Lee’s 1994 film,  Eat, Drink, Man, Woman, to compare it to Maria Ripoli’s 2001 homage film, Tortilla Soup.  A feast for the eyes as well as our ears, with Chinese spoken in the former and Spanish in the latter.   It’s notable to me how dated the 1994 film is to my eyes in 2012.  The plot still resonates though, with the characters unable to articulate their love for each other.  In both films, the widowed father has single-handedly raised three daughters, who are now ready to lead independent lives.  Being a foodie, I was fascinated by the close-up shots of the chef father as he prepares his multi-course gourmet feast for their Sunday dinners together.  Notably, Director Lee interrupted his actors so that no one actually ate any of the delicious-looking food in his film, leaving the viewer as frustrated as his characters.

In the bonus footage in the DVD edition, there was an interview with Lee and his writer/producer partner, James Schamus, who talked about their collaboration in writing a script that authentically portrayed family relationships.  Several drafts were rejected, until Schamus discovered that when he substituted the names of the Chinese characters for those of the Jewish relatives he’d grown up with– such as Aunt Sylvia– he was finally able to nail the emotionally fraught scenes to Lee’s satisfaction.

While cultural mores are particular to one ethnic group, human emotions are universal.  Perhaps that’s how I should have responded to my friend.