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August 28, 2009

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"N HERITAGE FLORIDA JEWISH NEWS, AUGUST 28, 2009 PAGE 11A ,y at 78 By Ron Kampeas WASHINGTON (JTA) -- Robert Novak, the conser- vative columnist whose scoops broke many a career, made his reputation as a journalist by being unafraid to attack his ideological brethren. The same dynamic under- lay the contentious and at times ugly relationship he had with fellow Jews. Novak died Aug. 18 in Washington after an ex- tended struggle with brain cancer. He was 78. His career, which sub- sided about a year ago after his brain tumor diagnosis, included an influential column written with his colleague, the late Rowland Evans, as well as a ubiquity on a number of talk shows. Some of his erstwhile political enemies filled the airwaves last Tuesday eulogizing him, a practice that might have baffled the irascible giant slayer: He was not above excoriat- ing the recently deceased, including Orlando Letelier, the Chilean dissident as- sassinated in 1976, or the journalist I. F. Stone, who died in 1989. Novak's views were firmly on the right, but it did not keep him from criticiz- ing his political fellows. Dori/Creative Commons Robert Novakran arunning battle with pro-Israel groups, claiming they were unduly influential in Washington. In 1976, he and Evans unearthed talking points delivered by Ford admin- istration diplomat Helmut Sonnenfeldt that described Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe as preferable to the nationalism that might otherwise have ensued. The revelation helped attach to Ford a reputation for ap- peasement and set the stage for Jimmy Carter's victory that year. More recently, Novak was unsparingly critical of the Bush administra- tion's decision to go to war in Iraq, earning him the opprobrium of the war's defenders. But it was an effort to defend the Iraq invasion that almost railroaded Novak's career: He was the first to publish the name of CIA operative Valerie Plame, as part of the Bush administra- tion's retaliatory campaign against her huband, Iraq War critic Joseph Wilson. Novak's role in the affair contributed to the end of his long CNN career. Novak was born to Jewish parents, but said he never felt particularly connected to the faith. "The family was not very observant," he told CNN in 2005, describing his up- bringing in Joliet, Ill. "My father had never been bar mitzvahed and his father was not a very good Jew, but I was bar mitzvahed," Novak said. He cooperated in 2003 with the Washingtonian magazine in a feature about his conversion to Roman Ca- tholicism five years earlier, and said that although he joined a Jewish fraternity in college, he was turned off by Judaism. "I found the same thing in Judaism as a young boy as I did later in the Unitar- ian Church and then at the Episcopal Church," he said. "They seemed very ungodly. The clergymen seemed very secular." Following his Conversion, U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N. Y.) report- edly quipped, "Well, we've now made Bob a Catholic. The question is, can we make him a Christian?" Novak's distaste for ro- bust Judaism was, perhaps, most manifest in his review of David Frum's 2003 book describing his experience speechwriting for President George W. Bush. "While Frum calls himself 'a not especially observant Jew,' he repeatedly refers to his Jewishness," Novak wrote in the American Conservative--an unusual broadside for a figure who was not shywhen describing his conversion to Catholi- cism. "It is hard to recall any previous presidential aide so engrossed with his own ethnic roots. Frum is more uncompromising in support of Israel than any other is- sue, raising the inescapable question of whether this was the real reason he entered the White House." Frum counterattacked with an article that named Novak as one of a commu- nity of "unpatriotic con- servatives." He cited Novak specifically as the first to suggest, in his Sept. 13, 2001 column, that the U. S.-Israel friendship was a motivating factor in the terrorist at- tacks on the United States two days earlier. Novak's attacks on the pro-Israel community re- peatedly veered into the conspiratorial; he helped purvey the notion that the Iraq War was fought in Is- rael's interest. He also was a rare mainstream voice en- dorsing the widely rejected claim that Israeli forces had intentionally attacked a U. S. naval ship in the Medi- terranean Sea during the Six-Day War in 1967. In his 2008 autobiogra- phy, "The Prince of Dark- ness, " Novak credited Evans with reporting and writing their columns that criticized Israel. "But," he quickly added, "my name appeared on every one of them and I agreed with my partner. The issue was just not on the top of my priority list, then or now." When he did return to the subject in the years fol- lowing Evans' retirement and subsequent death, Novak did so most often because of his concerns over the fate of Palestin- ian Christians. He formed an alliance of sorts with a fellow Catholic from Il- linois, the late U. S. Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), who in his capacity as chair- man of the U. S. House of Representatives Foreign Relations Committee made Palestinian Christian relief a central cause. An April 2007 Novak column gave voice to Israel's arguments that the security barrier has reduced suicide attackers. But he also noted that "Bethlehem's mayor, Vic- tor Batarseh, has a special problem because tourists and pilgrims no longer stay overnight in the city of Christ's birth. Out of money and credit, he is ready to lay off the city's 165 staffers." Several times in his au- tobiography, Novak wrote about what he described as the efforts of pro-Israel critics to get newspapers to drop his and Evans' syndicated column. Novak claimed that shortly after being told by the editor of the Newark Star-Ledger in 1975 that advertisers were complaining about Evans and Novak's "anti-Israel" reporting, the newspaper dropped their syndicated column. "It was one of about a hun- dred newspapers that we lost in a surprisingly short pe- riod of time," Novak wrote. "Whatever the reason--and I had my suspicions--we never built back our base." By Naomi Pfefferman Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles When half a million exu- berant participants con- verged on Bethel, N.Y., for the legendary Woodstock Music and Art Fair 40 years ago, it proved a harmoni- ous blending of two diverse populations: the young people who turned out to celebrate the festival's ode to flower power and the older locals who largely made the festival possible in the historic Jewish mecca of the Borsht Belt. Ang Lee's new film, "Tak- ing Woodstock," which opened Aug. 28 and is based on the memoir of the same name by Elliot Tiber (born Eliyahu Teichberg) describes this unexpected intersection of cultures through the eyes of an en- trepreneurial son of Jewish immigrants, who saw the festival as an opportunity to save his family's failing bungalow colony. Like the 2007 memoir, which was recently released in paperback (Square One Publishers), the film re- volves around the family's decrepit El Monaco mo- tel--a collection of rotting shacks teetering on uneven foundations in White Lake, N.Y.--where cash flow had reduced to a trickle. The region had thrived during the early 20th century, when Jewish New Yorkers flocked to its accommodations to escape the summer heat; but by the 1950s, businesses were in decline as former patrons found they could price as a Catskills vacation. All over Bethel and nearby hamlets in 1969, the surviv- ing motels are in decline, with porches sagging and shutters hanging off their hinges. Tiber, a closeted gay interior designer living in Manhattan, has been called home by his desper- ate parents to manage the E1 Monaco, which by that time is in such dire straits that the advertised air con- ditioning units are dummy boxes built into the walls of each room. Motivated in equal parts by duty and guilt (his over- the-top shrewish mother often describes how she escaped pogroms in Minsk), Tiber becomes president of the Bethel Chamber of Commerce and pounces when neighboring towns refuse to house the Wood- stock festival. He has a permit for his own music festival and his close friend, the American Jewish dairy farmer Max Yasgur, pos- sesses a cow pasture that could provide the perfect venue. Before long, im- presarios descend upon the area, by helicopter and limousine, and set up camp at the El Monaco; then the hippies begin to arrive, espousing peace and love to the elderly Teichbergs, who are befuddled by their music and casual nudity but ecstatic as rooms and cash registers fill to overflowing. Liev Schreiber plays a drag queen and ex-Marine who offers security services to the motel; Emile Hirsch portrays a burned-out Vietnam vet; Eugene Levy a savvy deal for the use of his land but becomes a beloved figure when he ad- dresses the festival crowd; and Demetri Martin stars as Tiber, whose quest for per- sonal freedom mirrors the spirit of Woodstock itself. The seeds of the film were planted at 5:30 a.m. one morning in 2007 backstage at a San Francisco televi- sion talk show where Tiber was promoting his book and the Oscar-winning Lee (,'Crouching Tiger, Hid- den Dragon," "Brokeback Mountain") was discuss- ing his Chinese-language spy thriller, "Lust, Cau- tion." The gregarious Tiber promptly gave Lee a copy of his memoir and delivered a two -minute pitch about why it would make a great movie. "Usually'when someone gives me a book, I walk around the corner and throw it in the nearest trash can," Lee said, a tad sheepishly, from his home in Larchmont, N.Y. But something about Tiber's pitch made Lee recall how he viewed his 1997 film, "The Ice Storm," as "the hangover of Woodstock"; the film ex- plored the consequences of free love arriving belatedly to an American suburb in 1973. Lee also remembered how much TV news of the festival had meant to him as a 14-year-old in Taiwan, where police forcibly cut off the hair of would-be hip- pies. "And I had just done six tragedies in a row--I was exhausted, in the abyss and looking to do a comedy, something warm at heart said. ',I thought Elliot's book could provide that material, as well as capture the spirit of the festival by observing the changes in the Teichberg family dynamic." Lee's English-language films often explore his take on American culture; they have been so diverse--from "Sense and Sensibility" to "Hulk"--that creating them has required meticulous research on the part of the Taiwan-born director. But the Borsht Belt proved an easier study: "I am sur- rounded by Jews, working in the film industry," Lee explained with a laugh. "And James Schamus, my screenwriter and creative partner, is Jewish, not Irish; his ancestors changed their last name." As Lee prepared to shoot "Taking Woodstock," his Jewish friends and col- leagues regaled him with stories of childhood so- journs in the Catskills. "I also felt I wanted to do this Jewish material because I know these friends and be- cause some of our greatest filmmakers and films have a Jewish sensibility. "I feel that Jewish people know Chinese people very well, that somehow we are related, in our emphasis on tradition and a certain way of life," he added. "James; for example, understood me well even before I spoke fluent English; he would write my scripts as early as 'The Wedding Banquet,' reading Chinese poetry, philosophy and literature as background, and then try to write the dialogue, and I Ken Regan Kelli Garner (!), Paul Dana and Demetri Martin star in 'Taking Woodstock.' And out of frustration, he would give up and just write the characters like Jews, and I would say, 'Oh, that's very Chinese' ... in the way that people process their thoughts and how they go about their motivation and relationships." The Teichberg family's experience with pogroms and resettlement also felt familiar to Lee. "We, too, use the term Diaspora," he explained of Chinese immigrants to the United States and elsewhere. "My father's family members were part of the landlord class in mainland China, so his parents were shot and shameful, so I always had this guilty feeling that I was failing my father," he said. His viewing of the clas- sic Dustin Hoffman film, "The Graduate," however, convinced him that film- making was not necessar- ily a frivolous aspiration; and Woodstock gave him a glimpse of the freedoms that were possible in the United States. Elliot Tiber's character in "Taking Woodstock"-- which has received mixed reviews--eventually breaks free of his family entangle- ments and finds a haven in the environment of the counterculture. "But I am his entire family wiped out still forever alien, not so during the Maoist purges." Lee's father, the sole sur- vivor, relocated to Taiwan, where the filmmaker was born in 1954 and, as the first son of a first son, was expected to carry on the Lee name and to help make up for the loss of the family tree. "But being an entertainer in much different from the Jewish experience of feel- ing that your true culture is adrift," Lee said. For information about Tiber's memoir, visit elliot- Naomi Pfefferman is arts & entertainment editor for The Jewish Journal of ( ,i