Left to right, Ori Laizerouvich, Israel Atias, Daniel Gad and Omer Perelman Striks co-star in The New Black. (photo from ChaiFlicks)
I have to improve either my Hebrew comprehension or my English speedreading skills before April 12. The second season of The New Black premières that day on ChaiFlicks and it’d be great if I could understand more of what was going on – even with my limited capacity, the first season was an absolute blast.
Also recently premièring on the streaming service ChaiFlicks, which carries all sorts of Israeli films and TV shows, was the second season of Checkout, an Israeli comedy in the tradition of American sitcoms Superstore, The Office and Parks and Recreation. It has some seriously funny moments, though a couple of the characters may grate on folks, as some of the characters on the aforementioned American shows did.
Superstore takes viewers into an Israel that most Jews will recognize, but that will be less familiar to those whose only experience of Israel is via the news. The show is set in a small supermarket, Issachar’s Bounty, in a small town, Yavne. The store’s patrons are regulars, and one in particular, fanny-packed customer Amnon, who has a complaint or gets into a confrontation every time he comes in to shop, is particularly annoying, as often is his main sparring partner, the brash cashier Kochava. But the other characters – notably Shira, the store manager who idolizes and sees herself as an up-and-coming Steve Jobs – offer enough less-in-your-face humour that the show is well worth watching if you like reality-show-type comedies. As in the other shows of this genre, there is a camera crew making a documentary about the store, so the characters not only interact with one another, but express their views in interview snippets with the film crew.
In the guise of humour, many a true observation is made in Superstore, which touches upon social inequality, terrorism, racism, homophobia and many other issues. Viewers can choose to just laugh at the goings-on depicted or they can take more away from the show. The same can be said of The New Black, which has some uncomfortable moments – for example, are we supposed to laugh when one of the yeshivah students is appalled when his matchmaker sets him up with a woman who uses a wheelchair? I don’t think so. I think we’re supposed to be appalled at his behaviour, behaviour that one can easily imagine of many self-absorbed 20-something guys who fancy themselves a prize despite all evidence to the contrary.
That the four yeshivah boys at the centre of The New Black seem like regular college-age men is why the show has broad appeal. That is does, while also being packed with somewhat-high-level (to non-Orthodox Jews) talmudic discussions, is a notable achievement. It is easy to see why the show was nominated for eight Israeli Television Academy Awards. It is smart, engaging, fast-paced and has a fantastic soundtrack. While non-Jews will have to watch it with a semi-knowledgeable Jewish friend and non-Hebrew-speaking Jews will occasionally have to press pause to take in the subtitles fully, The New Black has legs … and Borsalinos aplenty.
For access to these two comedies, and many other programs, visit chaiflicks.com.
Co-creators Eugene Levy, left, and son Daniel Levy were among the Schitt’s Creek panelists at the 92nd Street Y in New York City on Jan. 17. (photos by Rod Morata/Michael Priest Photography)
Fans of Canada’s mega-hit TV show Schitt’s Creek were eagerly eyeing the stage at the 92nd Street Y in New York City on Jan. 17. They had just viewed the first two episodes of the sixth and final season on a big screen and the main cast was about to appear. When the curtain lifted, the audience loudly cheered, as Eugene Levy (Johnny), Daniel Levy (David), Catherine O’Hara (Moira) and Annie Murphy (Alexis) sat smiling.
The moderator, Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson, didn’t waste any time asking why they decided to call it quits.
“We had discussed it and thought six seasons would give us enough time to tell our story,” said Daniel Levy, the show’s co-creator, co-executive producer, writer and Eugene Levy’s real-life son. “Working so closely with the show, it almost spoke to me. I felt we built enough to land the plane, so to speak. From day one, I have been aware of overstaying your welcome. I would rather leave people with a real joyful idea of what the show was and what it meant to them.”
The clever, funny, quirky Schitt’s Creek is a fish-out-of-water sitcom in which the ultrawealthy Rose family – Johnny and Moira and their two adult children, David and Alexis – goes into bankruptcy and loses everything. With no money and nowhere to live, they have little choice but to relocate to Schitt’s Creek, a Podunk town that Johnny once bought David as a joke. Their new home is the town’s no-frills one-storey motel, and the foursome, who had previously been preoccupied with their own extravagant lives, learn to become a real family. “When you get down to it, the stories are about who people are, not what they are,” said Eugene Levy.
Once settled into their new life, the Rose family has to contend with the town’s scruffy mayor, Roland Schitt (Chris Elliott), his wife, high school teacher Jocelyn (Jennifer Robertson), the sarcastic motel receptionist, Stevie Budd (Emily Hampshire), and café waitress Twyla (Eugene Levy’s real-life daughter, Sarah Levy).
Schitt’s Creek, filmed in Ontario, premièred in 2015 on CBC in Canada and Pop TV in America. It’s produced by Not a Real Company Productions Inc. In 2017, the show started airing on Netflix as well, and viewership soared. The series has won numerous awards, including Canadian Screen Awards, and an MTV Movie and TV Award for Daniel Levy.
Initially, Daniel Levy came to his dad with the show’s premise and a script. “In the beginning, it was a way to do something with your son,” recalled Eugene Levy. “We started it as a great project and wanted to make it as far as we could. We ended up getting it on the air in Canada on a real network – and I thought that was great. Cut to five years later and, thanks in a major way to Daniel, who has guided this to a brilliant conclusion, Schitt’s Creek has received so much acclamation and passion from fans.”
Each season, the writers have been able to advance storylines without crossing the line into absurdity, and the actors have been able to develop their characters’ unique personalities and eccentricities.
“I wanted to make sure the actors were challenged and excited about coming back [each season] to do their parts,” said Daniel Levy. “When you have a cast of this quality, an ensemble as extraordinary as we have, it would be a dishonour not to show up each season with great storylines, given the calibre of work that they do. The actors need to feel challenged and excited to come back to do their part – that’s what keeps them motivated. When things flatline, people check out.”
He continued, “When you create characters the audience loves, you can take them on a lot of terrific story rides. With the growth of the characters, we were able to add in a layer of sentimentality. Without sounding shmaltzy, there was such a collective sense of excitement with our cast and crew, that actors showed up to watch scenes that they weren’t even in.”
The show’s writing has revealed the characters’ different layers. Take Alexis, for example. While she is self-involved, mostly oblivious and enjoys referring to past relationships with Hollywood celebrities, she is still charming. “When we met Alexis on paper, she was not that likeable – she was quite shallow and selfish,” said Murphy about the character she plays. “But, when I got the breakdown for the audition, at the end it said, ‘a young Goldie Hawn,’ who is bubbly and effervescent, but grounded. I wanted to play her as a fully fleshed out human being. The writers did a good job letting her grow as a human. I have so much fun playing her.” (Alexis often exaggerates her hand gestures and is fond of saying, “Ew, David!” to her brother.)
Moira, the family matriarch, has become an iconic figure over the years. Before moving to Schitt’s Creek, she was a socialite, actress and inattentive mother – she didn’t even recall her daughter’s middle name! While she remains eccentric, self-absorbed and theatrical, she, too, is likeable. “Originally, I wanted to come up with a character I would have fun playing and people would love watching,” said O’Hara, who wears a variety of wigs in every episode. “I didn’t know anyone would care. But the writers kept giving me great opportunities.”
Moira accentuates inappropriate syllables when she speaks. How does she choose which syllables to accentuate? “In the moment, it just makes sense,” O’Hara said, laughing, and raising her voice at the word “sense.”
The character of David has a few obsessive-compulsive tendencies, is occasionally hypochondriacal, is into pop culture, has a keen eye for fashion and is often sweetly sarcastic. He opened the store Rose Apothecary and started to date Patrick (played by Noah Reid), his business partner. As the series progressed, the two fell in love and, in the last season, they plan their wedding. When asked if the sexuality addressed in the series caused advertisers to push back, Daniel Levy said he wasn’t aware of any advertiser having done so. “The networks have given us a lot of freedom,” he said, “and, for that, I am so grateful.”
From the beginning, Schitt’s Creek was a low-budget show. “We were just a little Canadian television show,” Daniel Levy admitted, adding that they didn’t exactly have the budget of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. “But not having money helped. We had to maximize our budget and were forced to be creative and put the little money we had on the screen. As the expression goes, diamonds are formed under extreme pressure. Great work happens where you are pushed to the limits.”
The final episode will air April 7. “It’s a beautiful conclusion to the series,” said Eugene Levy.
Daniel Levy wrote the last episode of the show in half a day. “Because we had exceptional writers who helped me make this show what it was, the last episode essentially wrote itself,” he said. “We didn’t want to backload a ton of stories, which can happen in some series finales. I didn’t want to be burdened with expectations of making it any bigger than it is, because it’s a small show. I didn’t want it to feel any bigger than any other episode we had done. I wanted our last episode to be just a great episode of TV.”
Alice Burdick Schweigeris a New York City-based freelance writer who has written for many national magazines, including Good Housekeeping, Family Circle, Woman’s Day and The Grand Magazine. She specializes in writing about Broadway, entertainment, travel and health, and covers Broadway for the Jewish News. She is co-author of the 2004 book Secrets of the Sexually Satisfied Woman, with Jennifer Berman and Laura Berman.
Jacob Samuel is at Yuk Yuk’s Vancouver Dec. 27-28 to record his debut stand-up comedy album. (photo from Jacob Samuel)
Jacob Samuel’s headlining performances at Yuk Yuk’s Vancouver Dec. 27 and 28 are special – Samuel is recording his debut stand-up comedy album live.
“I have complete freedom content-wise, and I am trying to record an album that has 45 minutes of the best jokes possible,” Samuel told the Independent. “I’ll mainly be recording jokes from the act I’ve honed over the last five to six years in venues throughout Canada. Part of my act has jokes about being Jewish and Judaism that I’m very proud of because they challenge stereotypes people may have about Jewish people as opposed to confirming them.”
The last couple of years have been productive for Samuel.
In 2017, he was part of the television taping at the Winnipeg Comedy Festival and he made his first appearance on CBC’s The Debaters. Since then, he has appeared two more times at the Winnipeg Comedy Festival and has returned to The Debaters, as well.
In 2018, he made his debut at the Just for Laughs Festival in Montreal and he was featured on JFL Northwest’s Best of the West Compilation album last year. In total, he has now taped five sets for Canadian TV and has performed even more times on CBC Radio.
“This summer,” said Samuel, “I got booked to go to the Just for Laughs Festival in Montreal for the second time, back-to-back. I went to perform on the Hasan Minhaj Gala. The galas are taped for TV in the 3,000-person theatre at Place des Arts.
“Getting on a JFL gala is the most coveted spot in Canadian comedy because those are the biggest shows at the festival. Every year, only a dozen or so Canadian comics get that opportunity.
“JFL Montreal, by the way, is the biggest comedy festival in the world – the entire comedy industry is there. So, when I was there, I was able to connect with 800 Pound Gorilla, an American Record label (based in Nashville) for comedy, and I told them I was doing a gala and wanted to record an album soon and, luckily, they were interested in signing me.”
Success entails doing harder gigs and carries the pressure to produce material at a faster pace, said Samuel, but he seems to be keeping things in perspective.
“I’m in my early 30s now, so the main thing in my life is that I enjoy getting home and going to bed earlier more than I use to. I don’t stay up late hanging out and drinking with other comics as much after shows. Not that I was ever a big partier, but it’s just nice to admit you like being in pajamas now.
“I also met my girlfriend/partner through comedy and we’ve been living together for a year-and-a-half now. So, I do a lot of writing by bouncing ideas back and forth with her. I have many more jokes now about being in a long-term relationship. My partner is not Jewish and did not know many Jewish people growing up, so it’s been interesting observing what she thinks about Jewish culture. I took her to her first Passover seder last year. On the way there, she asked me what it would be like and I said, ‘It’s hard to describe but tonight will be the most excited you’ll ever be to eat a hard-boiled egg.’”
Samuel recalled his early days in comedy.
“When I did my first open mic, I just wanted to see if I could physically do it,” he said. “I did not intend to become a comedian but, somehow, I got hooked and kept going. I’m starting to close in on 10 years and it’s weird to think about because, in some ways, comedy still feels like such a new thing. Having said that, when I look at very old videos, I cringe. I keep a hard copy of some of my earliest jokes in a drawer just to remind myself how far I’ve come (those jokes were very bad).”
When asked how his comedic content, delivery or style has changed since he began, Samuel said, “In short, it’s gotten a lot better. Part of learning how to do comedy is trying a lot of different types of jokes and seeing what works for you. So, now, I have a much better idea of what my ‘style’ is. Also, after countless professional club gigs, five TV tapings and several radio appearances, I’m a much stronger performer than I used to be. I’m able to do more complicated bits of material and I can now take ideas that used to be too abstract or subtle and make them work. I now have way fewer jokes about being single and way more jokes about things like carrot cake and moths.”
In addition to stand-up, Samuel is also a talented cartoonist, even having his work published in The New Yorker. While this aspect of his creative life has been put on the backburner for the last few years, he said, “I’m still cartooning but I’d like to put more time into it after this album.”
Other than that, he said he doesn’t have any other major projects planned at the moment.
“I’d like to do a second album in a few years, when I have more material. In the meantime,” he said, “I’ll keep trying to return to Canadian festivals and TV and radio. My partner and I would also like to do more sketch writing. Maybe I’ll submit to write for Canadian TV.”
Tickets for the live album recording shows Dec. 27 (8 and 10:30 p.m.) and Dec. 28 (7 and 9 p.m.) are on sale at yukyuks.com/vancouver.
A still from the Netflix show Living With Yourself, co-starring Paul Rudd.
As the secular New Year approaches, many people make resolutions, in an effort to become a better person. What if there were a shortcut? What if, for a tidy sum, you could be transformed, virtually overnight, into the person you’ve dreamed of being?
This the conundrum posed by the Netflix show Living With Yourself, an eight-part series released in late October, starring Paul Rudd and Aisling Bea, who play spouses Miles and Kate Elliot. Rudd is also one of the executive producers.
The premise is this: Miles, a shlub discontent with and disconnected from his wife, and suffering career ennui, discovers a “spa” that offers a treatment to improve his charm and confidence. For a small fortune, they promise, a “new you.” And so, a shlemiel enters and a gentleman exits. Just one problem: [spoiler] it’s actually a cloning lab and, unbeknownst to Miles and Clone Miles, the two men exist and, later, each must contend with the other in his life.
Rudd’s 25 years of movie experience includes Ant Man, Anchorman, Knocked Up, 40-Year-Old Virgin and Clueless. On television, he played Mike Hannigan in Friends and appeared in Reno 911, among other things.
The New Jersey-born actor hasn’t been shy in publicly discussing his Jewish identity. He kibitzed a bit about his Jewishness in an interview segment of Between Two Ferns. In an episode of Finding Your Roots, he found out that his grandfather, Davis Rudnitsky, fought the Nazis, only to return home to England to face antisemitism. In 2017, Rudd played his first (overtly) Jewish character, Moe Berg, in the biopic The Catcher Was a Spy, about a baseball player who joins the Second World War effort as an undercover agent.
In Living With Yourself, there is one explicit Jewish moment, when a Holocaust survivor tells Miles an off-colour anecdote about the Shoah, involving pork. But there are also hidden Jewish themes. For example, envious of a colleague’s extraordinary success in the office, Miles is spurred by the prospect that his technological makeover could help him outperform this coworker. Though Judaism has no problem with someone being motivated to accomplish because of another’s success, the Torah warns against jealousy. The ninth commandment is one obvious caution against such sentiment: “Thou shalt not covet.” Another is Joseph’s brothers (Genesis 36), who, enraged with jealousy, sell Joseph into slavery. In a sense, Miles and Clone Miles are like brothers, and they develop petty and spiteful jealousies, wanting the best of both worlds, but not able to have it.
If only Miles initially had derived fulfilment and was grateful for what he had, he wouldn’t be in this much trouble. Ethics of Our Fathers (Pirkei Avot) (4:1) advises just that: “Who has wealth? The one who is pleased with his lot.” The meaning isn’t limited to “wealth” of materials, of course, but the wealth of blessings that are bestowed upon us, including, for most of us, our loved ones, our safety, our employment and access to the necessities of life.
Notably, though, Miles versus Clone Miles is illustrative of the yetzer hara (good inclination) and the yetzer hatov (bad inclination) at battle with each other. Interestingly, neither character is completely good nor bad, but a combination, reflecting the real, complicated, human condition, where we have both inclinations competing inside us.
Often, we are able to convince ourselves of the nobility of our decisions – that is, find a good reason for our perhaps less-than-good action; explain away the importance of a choice’s potential harm. Paradoxically, the yetzer hatov has a sneaky side. To explain this, author and radio host Dennis Prager often cites the late Rabbi Wolfe Kelman, former head of the Conservative rabbinate. He once told Prager that he had his yetzer hara under control, but his yetzer hatov “always got him into trouble.”
Rarely do ordinary people wake up each morning and strive to make another human miserable. Still, we must wrestle with our “other” selves, overcome our justifications and egos, to make principled choices. Every day is a lesson in living with ourselves.
Dave Gordonis a Toronto-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in more than 100 publications around the world.
Maurice Yacowar and wife Anne Petrie. (photo from Yacowars)
Shtisel, the unlikely yet addictive hit television series about a Charedi family in Jerusalem, is now the subject of a new book, Reading Shtisel: A TV Masterpiece from Israel, an episode-by-episode analysis penned by Victoria writer and critic Maurice Yacowar, which he will share at the Jewish Community Centre of Victoria June 2.
Yacowar, a retired film professor, began his project in December 2018, as Netflix started airing the series that has become de rigueur viewing among Jews and non-Jews alike. As with many of the show’s aficionados and binge watchers, he was hooked, but his is the only book on Shtisel written thus far. The book’s first printing took place in March.
From his perspective, the show transcends what some may initially dismiss as soap-operatic tendencies. Not a character, not a scene, not an action in the two-season, 24-episode show is out of place, according to Yacowar.
“People (and animals) come and go, some questions may seem unanswered, but those elements are not relevant to the story. Nothing in the show is superfluous or unnecessary. Everything has a reason. We enter their domain, and we leave it, just at the right time,” he recently told the Jewish Independent at a Victoria restaurant.
Hence, the use of the word masterpiece in the book’s subtitle. “People from all cultures are able to relate to the drama and the compassion,” Yacowar explained.
“What’s more, no character stands for a safe idea,” he added. Shulem, the patriarch of the Shtisel family, is the most confounding of them all. At times, he is bullying to the point of being dictatorial; at other times, gentle and caring.
All involved do things that are not “in character,” said Yacowar, which takes viewers along various side streets or smaller stories within the story. There is the studious Zvi Arye, who, after watching a video taken in childhood, laments having had a shot at singing stardom thwarted; the scheming Lippe, who, for a time, abandons his family, though exhibits moments of great kindness and affection to those closest to him; and the show’s least sympathetic character, Nuchem, who doesn’t want his daughter, Libbi, to marry a deadbeat artist, aka his nephew Akiva, Shulem’s son.
Throughout the series are connections to the world outside the strict ultra-Orthodox confines of the Geula neighbourhood in Jerusalem, said Yacowar. Grandmother Malka is fixated by American daytime dramas, Giti’s need for money after her husband departs for Argentina leads her to seek work as a housekeeper for a clothing store manager, and cellphone use among this set of Charedim is ubiquitous.
It is Akiva’s desire to be an artist, though, which perhaps represents the greatest struggle between the secular and the religious in the show, not to mention the personal psychological conflict for the character himself. There are times, particularly those when he is immersed in his art, that Akiva appears to shift seamlessly from one world to another. And others, such as the scene where Akiva is presented with an award and funds for his art at an elite gallery, when the distinction between the pious Shtisel family and mainstream Israeli society could not be more pronounced.
Akiva, Yacowar pointed out, manages to rise in his battle and become his own person as the series concludes at the end of Season 2, no longer shackled by the vagaries of his father’s moods. In contrast, Shulem’s flaws – his conceit and ego, his inability to accept his son’s success in that other world – are on full display.
Yacowar doesn’t expect everyone to agree with his assessment of the series. “Other critics may well choose different points of emphasis, different connections and implications in phrase, situation or device,” he writes. “That’s the beauty, magic of connecting with a drama of such extraordinary richness and complexity.”
There is one point, however, on which he does expect readers of his book to be in agreement: “Let there be the illumination of a Season 3 – but only from the same creators and the same depth and integrity.”
Yacowar has written more than a dozen books on subjects ranging from the films of Alfred Hitchcock to the comic art of Mel Brooks and Woody Allen. He has written two books about The Sopranos and a humorous work, Mondays with Moishe.
Reading Shtisel: A TV Masterpiece from Israel is available online and at Congregation Emanu-El and the JCC of Victoria. Yacowar’s June 2 presentation at the JCC will start at 11 a.m.
Sam Margolishas written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.
The fear, bloodshed and massive loss of life in the cause of freedom are illustrated through remarkable – and convincing – dramatic reenactments in D-Day in 14 Stories. (photo from YAP Films and the History Channel)
The horrors and heroism of D-Day took place 75 years ago June 6. A remarkable new documentary, with distinct Canadian and Jewish connections, will air on the History Channel June 1. D-Day in 14 Stories includes firsthand recollections from Allied and German soldiers and French civilians – many of them kids or teenagers at the time of the conflict.
The massive battle of the Second World War saw more than 150,000 Canadian, American, British and other Allied soldiers storm the beaches of France, marking the turning point of Nazi – and Allied – fortunes.
D-Day in 14 Stories is a social history of D-Day, a joint production of YAP Films and the History Channel. The events on that long-ago day in 1944 are illuminated by eyewitness accounts from some of the few remaining veterans of that historic battle.
On D-Day alone, 359 Canadian soldiers were killed. More than 5,000 Canadian soldiers died during the succeeding weeks of fighting in Normandy. The fear, bloodshed and massive loss of life in the cause of freedom are illustrated through remarkable – and convincing – dramatic reenactments, visual effects and historical footage, including a trove of colour film taken by a soldier using an early Bell and Howell handheld movie camera.
Many soldiers on both sides were just following orders but, as Morton Waitzman recounts in the documentary, some Jewish soldiers felt a particular motivation.
“Being of the Jewish faith myself, and so many of my comrades, we knew we had to get over there as soon as possible to do whatever we could to stop this terrible curse,” he said. As a communications specialist, he connected American and British forces with members of the French Underground to help coordinate the battle.
The Germans were anticipating an attack, but had no idea when, where or how large a force the Allies would assemble. The documentary follows a wall of soldiers parachuting through a cascade of tracers. In all, 13,000 Americans dropped inland by air to support the amphibious landing and undermine the German response.
While one Allied soldier says, “Anybody who says they weren’t afraid is not telling the truth,” a German soldier recounts, tellingly: “We had no fear. We were convinced that we would win.”
Until D-Day, the British Air Force had strafed the Normandy coast, but returned to their island redoubt. French residents of the area were familiar with the routine: take shelter when the alarms go off and come back out when they ring again.
Bernard Marie was a 5-year-old child in Normandy at the time.
“The big difference is that, on June 6th, the siren never came back,” he said.
In all, 7,000 vessels embarked from Britain to the French coast. The Allies had no illusions about the cost of the operation. Casualties were anticipated to reach 25 to 30%.
Emotionally powerful dramatizations follow 16- and 17-year-olds as they face the life-and-death moment for themselves and the free world.
“Some never got off the boat,” recalled one soldier. “They were shot, bodies laid all over, boats turned upside down, real chaos. We still kept going forward.… Soldiers.”
One survivor remembers that, despite the explosions all around him, his sole consideration when coming ashore at Normandy was that his socks were soaked through.
The average soldier was carrying 35 kilograms on his back and, for those whose vessels did not manage to make it close to shore, jumping off the ship, in many cases, led to almost instantaneous drowning.
If they survived the initial landing, the soldiers had to confront the German enemy firing down from above at Allied soldiers who were effectively sitting ducks. A German soldier recalls: “We merely had to point that machine gun and it was like cutting wheat with a scythe. For the odd miss, we had a thousand hits.”
The film admirably makes the effort to capture the particular experiences of African-American and First Nations soldiers.
Waitzman, the Jewish American soldier, went on to fight in Europe and participated in the liberation of concentration camps.
“We became eyewitnesses to the Holocaust by what we saw,” he says in the film. “We were very compelled to tell the details to young people. We had to talk, to fight this as much as possible.”
Another veteran of the battle reflects on the loss of life, but ponders the alternative: “God knows what would’ve happened if we hadn’t done it.”
The cast of the Disney Channel’s Andi Mack included, left to right: Asher Angel as Jonah Beck, Peyton Elizabeth Lee as Andi Mack, Joshua Rush as Cyrus Goodman and Sofia Wylie as Buffy Driscoll. (photo by Disney Channel/Mitch Haaseth)
Before it was canceled two weeks ago, after three seasons, the Disney Channel’s Andi Mack covered new ground. The tween coming-of-age show not only had a Jewish character, Cyrus Goodman, but he was the first openly gay character on the channel. The coming-out storyline, which aired earlier this year, received high praise for the way it was handled. The show’s inclusivity is one reason fans are still fighting – via social media – to keep the show on the air. New episodes will run through the end of summer.
Joshua Rush, who played Cyrus, is Jewish himself. On the ABC TV show Good Morning America, Rush, who is 17, said that the response was overwhelmingly positive. “I’ve really gotten to see the myriad ways that both this new coming-out scene for Cyrus, and this Jewish representation of his family, has affected the fans,” Rush said.
The scene in which Cyrus comes out to his friends is set in front of a buffet spread of traditional Jewish food at his grandmother Bubbe Rose’s shivah. While explaining the foods, such as kugel, classic bagels and lox and gefilte fish, he blurts out that he is gay. The episode, called “Once in a Minyan,” was written by Jonathan Hurwitz, whose credits include The Daily Show. Hurwitz shared in a guest post for GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) that he was driven from personal experience to write this episode as “someone who’s Jewish, has dealt with long-term anxiety and has come out to his friends and family.”
Cyrus’s Judaism allowed the writers and show’s creative team to incorporate Jewish traditions and rituals. In one episode, Cyrus has a bar mitzvah – and, in it, Rush recites the same Torah portion from his own bar mitzvah. Another example is the shivah scene, where the writers included Jewish bereavement rituals like covering mirrors and the recitation of the Mourner’s Kaddish; there is also a yahrzeit candle on display.
Prior to the announcement of the show’s cancelation, the Jewish Independent spoke with Rush, who was born in Houston, Tex., but now resides in Los Angeles.
JI: Did you have any input in the character being Jewish?
JR: Our show’s creator, Terri Minsky, is Jewish, and so am I. From the beginning, there had been discussions of the character being Jewish, but actually acting on it in the context of the bar mitzvah and shivah episodes came later, after the character was more fleshed out. The storylines themselves were all Terri’s though.
JI: Did you suggest the bar mitzvah storyline, since you had recently had one?
JR: After learning of the character’s Judaism and being more comfortable with Terri and the writing staff, I was immediately very excited at the idea of giving Cyrus a bar mitzvah. I loved mine but, because I celebrated mine in Israel, I didn’t get all the accoutrements of an American bar mitzvah, so I really enjoyed the massive party we had for the “bash mitzvah”!
JI: What kind of feedback have you gotten from family, friends and fans about your character being gay? Being Jewish?
JR: The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. I think, a lot of the time, the media, and especially kids shows, display Jewish characters in side plots. See Chanukah being “Jewish Christmas,” Pesach being “Jewish Easter,” etc. With this great representation of the religion in the cast and writer’s room, we were able to show a Jewish character who is a main character, who has his own life, his own story, and being Jewish is just a part of that. Not being the butt of jokes as a result of his faith has given me a lot pride.
JI: What messages do you hope viewers will get from your storylines?
JR: I think something that’s really special about Cyrus is that he knows that he doesn’t know everything about the world and about himself. But he’s never afraid to ask the tough questions about who he might be and what that means for his life. That’s an incredibly honourable thing, and I think we can all learn from that.
JI: On a personal note, does your family celebrate Jewish holidays?
JR: We celebrate most holidays and being Jewish is a big part of our household. The show was very flexible with allowing us to celebrate Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah, and we even cooked traditional Jewish foods for Chanukah every winter, much to the delight of the crew. (My dad makes the best matzah balls on planet earth!)
Alice Burdick Schweiger is a New York City-based freelance writer who has written for many national magazines, including Good Housekeeping, Family Circle, Woman’s Day and The Grand Magazine. She specializes in writing about Broadway, entertainment, travel and health, and covers Broadway for the Jewish News. She is co-author of the 2004 book Secrets of the Sexually Satisfied Woman, with Jennifer Berman and Laura Berman.
My kids have developed a fascination with the PBS TV show This Old House. They love watching how old houses are fixed, restored and cared for by these talented workmen. I have always liked this show, too, and, as it goes, this is a pretty safe way to share “adult” TV programming with 7-year-olds.
Over Thanksgiving, one of my boys decided that we should all sit on the couch. Mommy would help one boy with his knitting and the other with his crochet and we would watch this show. Well? It would be a great weekend. (This kid also suggested we eat potatoes, noodles and rice for dinner, thus creating the ultimate “couch potato” scenario!)
While this may just be a funny episode in our family life, it’s a good reminder that we’re all quirky folk. My family might be different but, in reading the weekly Torah portions from Simchat Torah onwards in Genesis, we learn that, historically, the Jewish people originate from interesting stock. So, if we look to our ancestors (way, way back) to inform our understanding of ourselves, that might be a good thing.
There’s plenty of negativity in Genesis (Bereishit) in terms of how people behave towards one another. It’s a reminder, without giving a list of every kind of licentious or bad behaviour, that we have the capacity to do each other great harm. There are murders and sexual assaults. There are also people held up as role models, despite their flaws.
There are Abraham and Sarah, who welcome in guests, make them bread and offer them hospitality, and then Sarah demonstrates that having a sense of humour goes a long way. When told she would give birth to Isaac as an old woman, she laughs. This was a great response in many ways – she has a healthy sense of both humour and skepticism about the world.
There’s Rebecca, who offers (more) hospitality to Abraham’s servant. Isaac is so respectful of his father that he follows him up Mount Moriah to do a sacrifice – even when it seems clear that he will be killed.
Genesis offers one story after another. Each one deserves examination. However, when doing a quick reading through several of these episodes, I saw how different the characters are from one another. Some individuals struggle with what they learn from G-d, and some are believers. Others, like the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, are deemed irretrievably flawed, but Lot’s wife, who is initially saved, is too curious or doubtful, and turns to salt anyway.
I pondered some of this as we watched the guys from This Old House go to Texas to help after Hurricane Harvey hit Houston. We described the terrible flooding from hurricanes and boat rescues to our kids in ways they would understand, so we talked about Noah and the ark. On another episode, we learned that one of the young apprentices on the show had passed away in his sleep, from a longtime medical condition. He was age 18. So we paused the TV show. We talked about how he worked hard and did a good job, and his family and the people he worked with – all loved him. That his death was a shock and very sad, but that we believe, as Jewish people, that when a person’s body is buried, his soul goes up to be with G-d.
There is no perfect way to talk about life-threatening storms or untimely death. Though we try to shield our kids from the hardest things in the news, truth be told, the gentle teaching of the craftsmen and parents on This Old House was just right for my kids to understand. Between very basic Torah stories and real-life events, we had a lot of help in talking about these hard issues.
Even as an adult, sorting through the stories in Genesis seems daunting, just as coping with the news has been. My husband and I have both lived in places where we’ve experienced tornadoes and hurricanes. I wish I could spare others the experience of waiting in the cellar until the storm passes. However, I’ve been struck by the commonalities I’ve seen between our weekly Torah portions and these challenges.
It’s important, when facing adversity, to offer generous hospitality and kindness to those around you.
It’s good to give respect to your elders and those who might be able to lead you through hard experiences.
Being a resourceful “maker,” someone who builds or creates what he or she needs during an emergency, can save a life or bring forth life.
A sense of humour can help us through really difficult challenges.
People who suffer through losing everything during life-threatening situations like hurricanes and tornadoes are just like everyone else. They’re individuals, who may be quirky or kind, who do good and bad things. It can be hard to relate to their situation and remember that beyond all our differences and preferences, they are just like you and me.
We read Genesis every year at synagogue. We revisit these ancestors and remember how they persevered through difficult experiences. It’s a chance to imagine yourself not just as Abraham or Isaac, but as Hagar, abandoned with an infant, or Keturah, a second wife. We can be Noah’s family in the flood, just as many hurricane survivors might have felt.
Religious traditions interpret these biblical stories in different ways, but in watching This Old House, we see people rebuild homes after a hurricane, and how they offer each other food, water, tools and other necessities. This reminds me that some lessons are the same for everybody. Hospitality, kindness, respect, resourcefulness and a good sense of humour – whether you learn them from Genesis or from fix-it shows on TV, they help bring us together in positive ways.
Joanne Seiff writes regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. See more about her at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.
Inception’s collaboration with FashionTV brings viewers backstage. (photo from Inception)
Netflix has become the go-to service for finding the latest and greatest movie and television programming. An Israeli startup called Inception wants to do the same for virtual reality.
The Tel Aviv-based company operates as both a production studio and an aggregator of curated virtual reality (VR) content. On Feb. 6, it announced the launch of a new channel to introduce more VR into the news experience, offering 360 top Associated Press (AP) videos across a broad spectrum of historical, cultural and social topics. The channel can be downloaded from the Inception app across platforms including Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, Microsoft MR, Samsung Gear, Google Daydream, iOS and Android.
Inception, which first caught Israel21c’s attention at the launch of the Tower of David Museum’s Innovation Lab last fall, received a $15 million investment in August 2017 from European television conglomerate RTL Group. The Series A round also included angel investors James Packer, Gigi Levy-Weiss and iAngels.
RTL’s FreemantleMedia owns the rights to dozens of big-name television shows, which helps explain where Inception is going. For example, Inception wants to use VR to transport viewers truly behind the scenes of the reality TV program The X Factor. Imagine standing beside the singer – or sitting with the judges watching the performance – in a 3-D immersive and interactive environment. Right now, that experience has to be pre-recorded but, someday, VR users will be able to jump into a program as it happens.
Live streaming is “already technically available today and we believe that, with the right content it will become mainstream,” Inception chief executive officer Benny Arbel told Israel21c.
Or, here’s another scenario. Imagine exploring in virtual reality the Shadow Monster’s tunnels in the Upside Down on the hit Netflix show Stranger Things.
“The beauty of VR is that it lets you actually enter a new location or scene,” said Arbel, “whether you’re a spectator or a participant.”
Inception’s focus on serialized TV sets it apart from other VR companies like Within and Here Be Dragons, which produce beautiful but mostly one-off VR experiences. Among the dozens of VR entries on Inception’s website are collaborations with Time Out for virtual walks through exotic locations (from Thailand to Tel Aviv) and FashionTV, where you can sidle up to a super-model as she heads down the catwalk.
Inception has standalone projects, too: a partnership with Pitchfork is the driving force behind the pop culture magazine’s new VR Music Channel. And Inception is developing a VR experience that transports visitors to the world of medieval knights at Jerusalem’s Tower of David Museum.
It’s the episodic content that gets Arbel most excited. With Time Out, he said, “we continuously add new content about different city locations and venues. We hope users will start using these channels for their city updates instead of existing TV or the web.”
If and when they do, it’s likely to start with a “360” experience, which Arbel called “the biggest enemy of VR.” He explained that 360s are flat, non-interactive videos that allow you to explore VR on your computer, often via YouTube. While Inception makes 360 video versions, too, Arbel said, “It’s a necessary evil, a way of promoting what we do to everyone.”
Inception’s VR content is video-based. Depending on which way you turn your head or make a gesture, a new video will be triggered. This is a bit reminiscent of Israeli pop-star-turned-startup-maven Yoni Bloch’s Interlude, now renamed Eko, which develops tools for making interactive (though not VR) videos.
Inception was founded in 2016 by Arbel, Dana Porter, Effi Wizen and Nitzan Shenar. The company’s 30 employees are spread out in offices in London, New York and Los Angeles, in addition to the Tel Aviv headquarters.
Inception is “platform agnostic,” Arbel stressed. That means its content “will play well with all the different kinds of headsets out there,” including Oculus, which Facebook acquired for some $3 billion in 2014, as well as Samsung’s Gear, the HTC Vive and Microsoft MR.
Some of these devices operate by placing one’s mobile phone into the headset, but those aren’t so popular or user-friendly. “People don’t like giving their phone to someone else,” said Arbel. “The most interesting segment is the standalone headsets, where there’s no phone or computer required; the graphic engine is built into the device and it’s connected to the cloud via wi-fi.”
Arbel added that new and improved headsets come out every few months and the next generation of the Oculus may be the “hero device that changes things for everyone.” According to Statista, the installed base of VR headsets is projected to grow to 37 million by 2020.
What about the kind of virtual experiences made terrifying by science-fiction TV shows such as Black Mirror, where the VR is broadcast directly into a user’s mind without the need for goggles or other external hardware?
“We know for a fact that what we are seeing today is just early days of VR form factors,” Arbel said. “We are sure hardware will change dramatically and become much easier for us to include as part of our daily lives. Precisely because of this, we make sure that our content can be viewed on any type of device – even the futuristic ones.”
In the meantime, and for those without a headset, Inception’s VR experiences are available on the Apple and Android app stores. For more information, visit inceptionvr.com.
Israel21cis a nonprofit educational foundation with a mission to focus media and public attention on the 21st-century Israel that exists beyond the conflict. For more, or to donate, visit israel21c.org.
חרדים שטסו מניו יורק הצליחו להגיע לטורונטו לפני כניסת השבת. (צילום: acidbomber via en.wikipedia)
האתר החרדי בחדרי חדרים טוען שחסדי השמים עזרו לחרדים שלא לחלל את השבת. לדברי חדרי חדרים קבוצה של חרדים התכוונה לטוס מניו יורק לטורונטו, לקראת השבת באחד מימי שישי האחרונים. הטיסה התעכבה והחרדים שחששו מלחלל את השבת ביקשו מצוות הדיילים לרדת מהמטוס. פתאם “כשלפתע חסדי שמים” טוען האתר, מגדל הפיקוח ניתן אישור המראה למטוס, תוך שאיפשרו לו לעקוף את כל שאר המטוסים, שהמתינו בתור הארוך על המסלול. עם הנחיתה בטורונטו צוות המטוס ביקש מכל הנוסעים להישאר במקומם, וזאת כדי לאפשר לקבוצה של החרדים לצאת ראשונים מהמטוס ובמהירות. האתר מציין עוד כי בזמן שהחרדים יצאו מהמטוס, הנוסעים היהודים שנשארו לשבת כיוון שאינם שומרי שבת, בירכו אותם בברכת שבת שלום.
אזה טעות: צעיר גנב ארנק ממתאגף לשעבר שהראה לו את כוחו
מתברר שצריך לדעת גם ממי לגנוב ולמי לא ממולץ כלל להתקרב. כך למד על בשרו צעיר בן עשרים וחמש, שגנב ארנק מתושב העיר ורנון שבמחוז בריטיש קולומביה. קווין ברקהאוס שהיה בעברו מתאגרף מקצועני, הבחין פתאם כי מהמשאית שלו נגנבו ארנקו, וכן המעיל וזוג הכפפות. ברקהאוס הכועס הזעיק את אחיו והשניים החליטו להסתובב ליד מספר חנויות משכון בעיר, בתקווה שהגנב ינסה להציע לאחת מכן לרכוש את שללו הגנוב. ואכן זה בדיוק מה שאכן קרה. שני האחים הבחינו כי ליד אחת החנויות עומד צעיר שלבש את המעיל הגנוב ובידו החזיק תיק. ברקהאוס התקרב אליו במהירות ודרש שיציג לו את תכולת התיק. בתחילה החשוד הסכים אך אחרי כן הוא חזר בו. ברקהאוס חטף ממנו את התיק ופתח אותו. הוא מצא בתוכו את ארנקו הגנוב והכפפות. לאחר מכן הוא החליט לפעול מהיר והפיל את הצעיר והצמידו בכוח חזק למדרכה. באותו זמן אחיו רץ להזעיק את המשטרה למקום. המתאגרף לשעבר הצליח אפילו לצלם את עצמו מחזיק בצעיר ששכב על המדרכה ללא תנועה. המשטרה עצרה את הגנב והגישה נגדו כתב אישום על פריצה לרכב וגניבת רכוש.
טלוויזיה של כסף: חברה למיחזור מצאה כסף בטלוויזיה שהוחזר לבעליו
תושב מחוז אונטריו בן השישים ושמונה הופתע ששוטרים דפקו על דלת ביתו באחד הערבים. השוטרים הראו לו קופסא ושאלו אותו אם הוא מזהה אותה. האיש (שהמשטרה לא פירסמה את שמו עד כה) הכיר מייד את הקופסא והשוטרים ביקשו שיפתח אותה. בפנים נמצאו לא פחות ממאה אלף דולר בשטרות וכן אף מסמכים בנקאיים של האיש. השוטרים ציינו שהקופסא נמצאה בתוך טלוויזיה שפורקה במפעל למחיזור. האיש נזכר פתאם שלפני לא פחות משלושים שנה, הוא החביא בתוך טלוויזיה כסף שקיבל ירושה מהוריו וכן מספר מסמכים. הוא שכח בכלל מהכסף ולפני מספר שנים נתן את הטלוויזיה במתנה לחבר קרוב. מתברר שהחבר מאס בטלוויזיה הישנה והחליט להעביר אותה למפעל למחיזור. עובד המפעל שפירק את הטלוויזיה מצא בתוכה את הקופסא. הוא פנה למנהל שלו ודיווח לו על מציאת הכסף והשניים הזעיקו את המשטרה. השוטרים בדקו את הכסף ומצאו שהוא חוקי. לאחר מכן הם איתרו בקלות יחסית את האיש לפי המסמכים שהשאיר בקופסא. לאחר שהתברר למשטרה שאין לו עבר פלילי, והוא הצליח להוכיח כי הוא קיבל את מאה אלף הדולר בירושה מהוריו, הכסף הוחזר לו לשמחתו הרבה. סביר להניח שלהבא אותו אלמוני מבוגר לא יחביא עוד כסף בתוך טלוויזיה או בתוך חפץ אחר.