Archive for October, 2012

Rabbi Looks For Laughs With (Fictional) ‘Kosher’ Porn

October 29, 2012

This article was first published in The Times of Israel.

A rabbi (Lawrence Kushner, left) introduces a pornographer (Matthew Jacobs) to the Torah in “Your Good Friend.” (Photo credit: Courtesy of Dovetale Films)

Many people look to Lawrence Kushner, a Reform rabbi and author in San Francisco, for guidance on Judaism, spirituality and Kabbalah. If he gets his wish, they’ll soon also see him in a very different role: as an authority on kosher pornography.

To be clear, it’s not Kushner himself who’s a kosher porn maven, but rather the rabbi he plays in a new feature film he co-produced, “Your Good Friend.” But because the movie in many ways reflects his real life, audiences might be uncertain where Kushner ends and his character begins.

The film, which marks Kushner’s acting debut, tells the story of a recently widowed East Coast rabbi who moves to San Francisco in hopes of returning to the apartment he once happily shared with his late wife. While hanging out at a local coffee shop, he meets the current occupant — a washed-up pornographer. Before long, the two strike up a friendship and concoct a get-rich-quick scheme they hope will allow the pornographer to return to his native England and the rabbi to buy the apartment. The scheme is, rather improbably, a pornography website with a rabbinical seal of approval — deemed kosher, as it were, because it’s intended to jump-start married couples’ sex lives and help strengthen their relationships.

“The notion of kosher porn is absurd, and that’s why it’s funny,” Kushner explained recently at his home, which he’s decorated with many of his own oil paintings. (Rather than nudes, the works tend to show landscapes and street scenes, and are strictly G-rated.) “The question is whether we can persuade you for 10 minutes that it could possibly work.”

Despite the concept’s shock value, kosher porn is to some degree beside the point. Instead, the conceit draws audiences into a surprisingly philosophical, yet humorous, “Odd Couple“-type narrative about two older men — Kushner’s uptight Rabbi Zander Lustig and the down-and-out pornographer Jules Epstein — who bond and betray one another, and ultimately bond again.

For viewers familiar with Kushner and the film‘s setting, it can occasionally be difficult to distinguish falsehood from the truth. The movie stars a cast of non-actors, and is presented as a behind-the-scenes look at the making of a documentary.

“We sell it as a mocku-docu-drama,” said Matthew Jacobs, who directed the film, plays the pornographer and served as Kushner’s co-producer. “So it really is hard to work out what is real and what is fictional.”

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© 2012 Renee Ghert-Zand.  All rights reserved.

An Independent Minyan For The Middle-Aged

October 25, 2012

This article was first published as “New S.F. minyan embraces idea of ’empowered Judaism'” in JWeekly.

Independent minyans such as the Kitchen and Mission Minyan in San Francisco  have a reputation for attracting young, progressive Jews in their 20s and 30s. But middle-age and older adults also are finding their way to these lay-led, Jewish prayer and study communities.

One of the newest is Kehillah San Francisco, a nondenominational, progressive minyan created less than two years ago.

KehillahSF participants meet monthly for a Kabbalat Shabbat service and oneg, observe the High Holy Days together and gather for semimonthly Saturday morning study sessions. They also have set up a social-action group, as well as a shiva group to support those in mourning.

Participants in the Kehillah San Francisco minyan during tashlich at Stern Grove in San Francisco. (photo credit: Julie Bannerman)

The minyan was founded by a group made up of some members of San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El who were unhappy when 20-year veteran Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan’s contract was not renewed by the congregation in late 2010.

The minyan has seen interest in its model grow and its number of participants increase, including many who are older than is typical in an independent minyan, with children in high school, college and beyond. But expansion is not a primary goal of the budding venture.

“KehillahSF’s interest is quality, not quantity. It’s not necessarily hungry for growth,” explained Wolf-Prusan, one of the minyan’s participants.

Although he is a rabbi, Wolf-Prusan does not lead the minyan. “People who join KehillahSF are interested in strengthening their capacity for creating their own religious life,” he said.

“We are very much inspired by ‘Empowered Judaism,’ ” said Harriet Prensky, referring to a book by Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, one of the founders of Kehilat Hadar, an independent minyan in New York.

Prensky, an attorney, helped found KehillahSF and acts as its volunteer coordinator. In fact, everyone involved is a volunteer, as there is no staff. Officially, the group has a minimal board structure to satisfy legal requirements for nonprofit religious organizations, but in practice anyone can step up to suggest an activity or lead a subgroup.

“Ideas percolate up,” said Julie Bannerman, another attorney who has been with KehillahSF since the beginning.

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© 2012 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.

3,000 Years of Persian-Jewish History

October 24, 2012

This piece was first published on The Arty Semite blog at The Forward.

David and Leora Nissan in Purim costumes, Tehran, Iran, 1964 (Courtesy of David Nissan).

At a time when Iran is in the American consciousness thanks to both Washington and Hollywood, a major exhibition about the Jews of Iran has opened in Los Angeles. “Light and Shadows: The Story of Iranian Jews,” which originated at Beit Hatfutsot: The Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv, is at the Fowler Museum at UCLA until March 10, 2013.

The show, the first ever in the United States on Iranian Jews, traces the 3,000 year-long history of Iranian Jewry with more than 100 objects ranging from archeological artifacts to intricately made Judaica to illuminated manuscripts to contemporary photographs and art installations. According to Smadar Keren, Beit Hatfutsot’s curatorial department director, it took two years to collect the various objects and mount the exhibition, which ran in Israel for most of 2011 and was a huge success.

Moti Schwartz, Beit Hatfutsot’s director noted that “Light and Shadows” represented a major turning point for his museum, which does not have its own artifact collection, save for a few items. Based on the positive response to the exhibition, the museum is now set to open one on the Jews of Bukhara, with exhibits on other Jewish communities in the works, as well.

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© 2012 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.