At the July 8 gala opening of “The Holy Land” at the Leonard Nimoy Theater at Symphony Space, the crush of photographers went flash ballistic as Danny Aiello emerged from his Jaguar and the film’s stars — Oren Rehany and Tchelet Semel — trod the red carpet.
Subtitled “A Yeshiva Student, a Russian Prostitute, a Love Story,” this is an X-rated movie in mufti whose more accurate “handle” should be “Sex, the Yeshiva Bokher and the Big Bang.” In one of the film’s early sequences, Russian sex slave Monika (Julia Gilinski), a dancer at a Tel Aviv strip joint, slithers down a pole topless and thongless. This leaves religiously conflicted Mendy (Rehany), a naive B’nei Brak refugee, slack-jawed with eyes agog.
Described as a “coming of age” tale, “a love story between two young adults,” the film also features Saul Stein as the drug-using, drug-smuggling former American war photographer Mike, owner of Mike’s Place, a Jerusalem bar. Also on the film’s menu: religion bashing, betrayal, good and bad Arabs as well as fanatic gun-toting settlers. Not an honorable kibbutznik or Technion scientist in sight.
Produced four years ago by writer-director Eitan Gorlin during what he called “a window of hope” in the peace process, the film is “loosely based” on his 1997 novella, “Mike’s Place, A Jerusalem Diary,” which he wrote after bartending in the real-life Mike’s Place. Gorlin, who was raised in an American Orthodox home, attended a Zionist yeshiva and spent a year in the Israel Defense Forces. So what went wrong that in his film, whose title suggests a “religious” travelogue, he homes in on the country’s ugly underbelly?
Still, this darkly convoluted film is worth seeing, particularly because of Tchelet, who plays Sasha, a 19-year-old Russian prostitute who works her tush off to reclaim her passport — and freedom. With cascading honey-colored hair and luminous eyes, the Israeli-born actress’s quicksilver emotional turns have visceral impact and elicit empathy. Is Mendy really in love with her, or are his hormones calling the shots? Another puzzler: In an interview, Gorlin stated: “Mendy is a bit like Jesus, and Sasha a bit like Mary Magdalene. It was very important to me that this story have a biblical flavor.” Did I miss something?
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During my chat this week with Arthur Berger, director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, about the museum’s current exhibit, “Anne Frank the Writer: An Unfinished Story,” he mentioned that on June 24 “about 50 White House interns, most for the first time, visited the museum as well as the Anne Frank exhibition.”
I told Berger how impressed I was with first lady Laura Bush’s moving words at the June 11 opening. The first lady said: “No matter how much we read, we will never understand the Holocaust. I thought I knew my history, but when I visited Auschwitz a few weeks ago, I realized there are things textbooks can’t teach… how to feel when you see prayer shawls or baby shoes left by children being torn from their mothers.… What moved me the most though were the thousands of eyeglasses, their lenses still smudged with tears and dirt… how many needed those glasses to see — and how many people living around the camps and around the world refused to see…. We see today, we know what happened and we will never forget…. The writings of Anne Frank remind us of the power of hate and the need to end discrimination in the world.”
Apropos, I told Berger about my 1981 visit to the Anne Frank House and my outrage at seeing posters and books with unrelated political agendas being peddled in the Frank’s house information room. I later visited Freda Menco, a Dutch journalist and TV personality, who told me, “Anne and I were on the same train… but please… do not ask me about my Auschwitz experience.”
As an afterthought, Menco added, “My family has been in Holland for 350 years. It was not until the war that I knew I was Jewish.”
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All things glitzy are not happening in the Hamptons! Nicole and Steve Rifkind, a music producer, hosted a June 26 benefit for the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding at their spectacular Beverly Hills home with pool and gazebo overlooking “the Valley.”
Among the 150 guests were movie producer Robert Evans, actor Taye Diggs, composer Lalo Schifrin (“Mission Impossible” theme), “American Idol” judge Randy Jackson and music producer and guitarist Nile Rodgers.
The foundation, which supports strengthening black-Jewish relations, presented its Joseph Papp Racial Harmony Awards to TV and movie producer Bernie Brillstein (“Ghostbusters,” “Ghostbusters II,” “Blues Brothers,” “Dangerous Liaisons”), director Brett Ratner and Geffen Records senior executive Jeff Harleston.
“Listen to this,” the foundation’s president, Rabbi Marc Schneier, said to me: “First Bernie Brillstein told the crowd that he got a [surprise] call from [foundation board member] Russell Simmons from Cannes, France. Then Harleston told about a call he received from ‘a rabbi I did not know’ — me — and his reaction was: ‘I thought I did something wrong!’”