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July 3, 2009

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HERITAGE FLORIDA JEWISH NEWS, JULY 3, 2009 By Stacey Palevsky j. the Jewish news weekly of Northern California Ambitious debut novel tackles big ideas Chandler Burr Chandler Burr was booted out of a Jerusalem yeshiva for "polluting" the school. Itwas more than two decades ago, when he was 23 and in Israel at the end ofayearlong back- packing trip through Asia. At the Western Wall, a young Orthodox man approached him and invited him to learn more about Judaism. He ac- cepted the invitation. Over a lunch of kosher sandwiches, Burr explained that his fa- ther grew up in Chicago and his mother in Scotland. Oh, and that she was Protestant. When the rabbi found out, he pulled Burr aside and said, "'You're unclean, you have polluted our yeshiva, you have caused us to sin by teaching Torah to a non- Jew. Your father is involved in the ongoing Holocaust of the Jewish people,'" Burr, 46, recalled. "And he told me to get out of Israel, and to never come back." That experience partially inspired Burr's debut novel, "You or Someone Like You," a story he worked on for 10 years. Itwas published in June. The book i the story of Anne and Howard Rosen- baum, a middle-aged married couple who fell in love with each other (and literature) during their first years of col- lege at Columbia University. Anne, a non-Jew, was the daughter of a British diplo- mat. Howard grew up in an Orthodox Brooklyn family, but by the time he met Anne had chosen a secular life. When the book begins, they're living in a spa- cious house in Los Angeles. Howard is a Hollywood executive. Anne, known by Howard's colleagues as the woman who always has a book in hand, is asked by a well-known producer to create a recommended read- ing list, which evolves into a book club for the Hollywood elite and turns Anne into a media star. Their marriage becomes tumultuous when an identity crisis pulls Howard back to the Orthodoxy he left behind decades earlier. "The novel addresses Juda- ism, specifically, and orga- nized religion in general, and universalism, divisiveness and tribalism--but those ideas are subordinate to the story of the characters," Burr said. "The novel is fundamen- tally about characters who change," he added. "Howard becomes a different person. And at the same time he's the same person. When we make changes, are we different? Or the same? I don't think we are more or less the same. I think people really deeply change." Though the book focuses on Judaism, Burr said it is emblematic of all faith groups. "I wrote this book about Judaism because that is my experience, but I could have written it about any religion," he said. "All of them divide people into two groups--[the faith group] and those who are less than them in the eyes of their deity." "You or Someone Like You" is awork of fiction. Sort of. The book actually con- tains more real characters than fictional ones. Burr, a longtime author, screenwriter and New York Times reporter, leaned on his journalistic experience to research real people and turn them into characters. He inserts into the novel many real-life entertainment and publishing heavyweights, such as movie producer J.J. Abrams, actress Sandra Bernhardt and Vanity Fair editor Anne Sarkin (among 95 others). Burr was raised in an Epis- copal but culturally Jewish home in Washington, D.C. He grew up attending church and also eating gefilte fish with horseradish. That melting pot made him fascinated and appalled by the ways in which faith and identity often divide us. "You or Someone Like You" explores this through the intimate prism of marriage. "I have always known that we are not our DNA," Burr said. "We are what we choose to be. We are a culture, we are our values. And we decide what they are." YOU OR SOMEON CHANDLER BURR "You or Someone Like You" by Chandler Burr (336pages, EccolHarperCollins, $25.99) Stacey Palevsky is a staff California from which this writer for the j. the Jewish article was reprinted by news weekly of northern permission. Growing up in Ivan Reit- man's shadow couldn't have been easy. With hits like "Ani- mal House," "Ghostbusters" and "Stripes," Ivan produced and/or directed some of the most iconic Hollywood com- edies of the past three decades. But that legacy didn't stop his son, Jason Reitman, from becoming an importantvoice among a new generation of filmmakers. And while both Ivan and Jason Reitman work in the broad genre of comedy, their sensibilities are strik- ingly different. On the theme of preg- nancy, for example, Ivan made "Junior" (1994), in which Arnold Schwarzeneg- ger takes a stab at male childbearing. Although Ivan said he liked the film, it was a box-office flop. Jason, by contrast, directed "Juno," a coming-of-age story about a precocious teen who becomes pregnant and puts her baby up for adoption. "Juno" was critically acclaimed, deeply politicized and awarded a best- original screenplay Oscar (the younger Reitman, 31, brought the elder, 62, to the Academy Awards as his guest). The Reitmans shared a stage at Sinai Temple recently to talk about their careers with Rabbi David Wolpe. The discussion took on a role reversal, with Jason taking the lead and Ivan relaxing into an air of paternal pride. What distinguishes father from son, filmmaker from filmmaker, is that they came of age in different eras. Ivan is the son of Holocaust sur- vivors; his mother, Clara, survived Auschwitz and his father, Leslie, was a re- sistance fighter. They fled communist Czechoslovakia in 1950, when Ivan was 5, and moved to Toronto, where Jason Reilman (1), Rabbi David Wolpe and Ivan Reitman the couple worked at a local laundromat. Jason, of course, is the son of a famous Holly- wood director, and was raised in Beverly Hills. Their approaches to film- making reflect their pasts. Once a penniless immigrant, Ivan sought commercial suc- cess with playful, profitable genre films. He dabbled in horror, the supernatural and summer camp comedies. Jason, on the other hand, grew up around privilege and is seeking to challenge his audience through satire and social commentary, as in "Thank You for Smoking" (2005), "Juno" (2007) and the forthcoming "Up in the Air," starring George Clooney. What they share, however, is a knack for success and a keen understanding of how to entertain. "I was terrified about becoming a director," Jason told the crowd. "I knew what people thought about children of filmmakers--the presumption is that you're a spoiled brat, you have no tal- ent and most likely you have an alcohol or drug problem." At first, Jason avoided his dream and enrolled in medi- cal school. His father sensed his disingenuousness, how- ever, and intervened: "I said, 'I'm sure you'll be a great doctor,'" Ivan recalled, "'but I don't think there's enough magic in it for you.'" The son returned to Los Angeles, sweet-talked his way into USC and produced a campus calendar to raise money for his first film. Jason's evolution as a film- maker occurred alongside the digital revolution, which has significantly lowered produc- tion costs. Nowadays, anyone can buy an inexpensive cam- corder and post a movie on YouTube. "It's much easier now than it was when I started," Ivan said. "My first movie was made in college, and I had to borrow equipment and raise enough money to buy film stock, which is very share a stage in Los Angeles. expensive. Then it had to be processed." "You know what you sound like now,,' Jason interjected, putting on his best old man voice. "In my day..." he grumbled mockingly. Jason also had the ad- vantage of the burgeoning of American film festivals, where new filmmakers can showcase their work. For him, in particular, they offered an opportunity to submit anonymously. "Most people are trying to break from obscurity; I was looking for obscurity. I did not want to be considered my father's son," Jason said. But apart from the challenge of forging his own way, or that he spent summers on film sets, or that typical dinner guests at their house were stars like John Belushi and Bill Murray, Reitman said his childhood with a famous father was "normal." "It's funny, because I read enough now about Hollywood that I'm surprised I didn't experience more of these things that I hear about. I've never even seen hard drugs," he said, adding, "I almost feel like I missed out on something there." By his father's account, Jason's remove from Holly- wood's corrupting powers is what gives him the ability to comment astutely. Growing up in Canada, Ivan Reit- man developed a talent for American comedy. For him, directing requires him to be aware of infinite details from one moment to the next. Jason agreed: "I find direct- ing to be a very reactionary job. It's often more aboutyour ability to react to what's in front of you than create out of thin air." Both said directing is about finding a personal voice, though Ivan had difficulty pinning his own down. "My father's filmic voice is joyful," Jason jumped in. "He wants you to feel better walking out of the theater than you did walking in. He wants you to feel that there s a haven in the world of his movies," Jason wants the opposite. "I had a very easy childhood, so it's easy for me to make a movie that's a lot more chal- lenging to people and puts a hand up to them." He said he hopes his movies raise ques- tions, rather than provide answers. Both Reitmans said they struggle to balance their ambitions with their commit- ment to their families. "Just being a parent and married and living in contemporary Western society is damn hard," Ivan said, adding that he was always careful to schedule film shoots in the summertime so his family could be at his side. Jason said he learned how to become a filmmakerwatching his father work in the editing room, where he would spend countless hours. Now a father himself, Jason said he sees how hard it is to have balance inyour life. "My morn said to my wife just before we got married, 'You know, Jason's going to have an affair--but it's not with a woman, it'll be with a movie,'" he said. "The tough part is actually not when you're away," Jason added, "it's when you're there, but your mind isn't." Their passion for their work led both Reitmans to early success: Ivan was 32 when he produced "Animal House" and Jason just 28 when he directed "Thank You for Smoking." Youth is an obvious advantage in Hol- lywood, but peaking too soon makes the threat of irrel- evance or failure more acute. Because of the length of his career, Ivan has had consider- ably more experience dealing with disappointment. "I had this remarkable hot streak for almost 15 years, and I didn't think I could fail, and suddenly I failed a bunch, and it was remarkably hard. I was really hard to be with," Ivan said. Now Jason appears to be on a hot streak: He's made only two feature films and both have received criti- cal acclaim, something Ivan received less of, though he said, "I think that was good; I was always hungry, and the hunger focused my work." Asked how Judaism influ- ences their work, Jason said that his talent as a director comes from a Jewish place. "I think Jews are great storytellers, and I think it's our legacy of storytelling that is the reason we still know who we are today. More importantly, I think we're an open-minded people, and I try to make open-minded films. I take characters who are traditionally considered villains and look at them as human beings." "I can't answer better than that," Ivan said. PAGE 21A By Danielle Berrin Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles Two generations of Reitmans produce laughs