Saturday, December 29, 2007

Ricky's Wiki Googled

Who comes up with these names anyway?

Resuming my genealogical research, I googled (yes, it can now be used in lower case because it is an "official word" and no longer just a proper name) my paternal grandfather's hometown in the Ukraine.

Prominently featured were a Wikipedia (this one's still a proper name) article to which I had contributed. There I noted a mistake I had not yet corrected--the year that the Nazi Einsatzgruppen (death squads) followed their advancing German army across the Russian Ukraine and rounded up and shot Jews in every locality, including those relatives of mine who had not emigrated to the U.S. or Israel. A family tree I had stated it was 1942, but during my visit to Yad Vashem, I discovered it was really 1941.

Anyhow, after fixing that, I searched for a couple of other topics in Wikipedia, adding some edits to another article I had previously contributed to.

It's quite amazing that this open encyclopedia exists and that everyone in the world can contribute information to make it as accurate (possibly, also, as biased) as possible. The site does have some controls, and I've read some interesting articles discussing how they function (most notably locking most people out from controversial subjects). Wikipedia articles I've read on subjects I know fairly well have turned out to have a high degree of accuracy.

The other Google (gotcha!) listing for the town happened to be a Google Earth placemark I had set online to mark it geographically based upon latitude & longitude coordinates I received from a reliable source (OK, he's a distant cousin). I guess I wasn't sure I was posting it correctly for the world to see, but it's there.

What amazed me the most, however, was that my previous blog post mentioning the town, Staro Zakrevsky Meidan, also appeared when I googled (gotcha again!) the name.

So, be careful what you blog--once it's posted, you will have been published in perpetuity by the siliconopoly!

Until next time...


Friday, December 28, 2007

Rick Stein's War

If there is such a thing as a just war, Charlie Wilson may have been correct in identifying the attempts by the mujahedeen against the invading Soviets in their last hurrah in the 1980s as such a beast.

At least that's what I come away with from watching the film "Charlie Wilson's War," a highly entertaining and engaging look at an unlikely hero, a publicly obscure Texas Congressman who, nonetheless, was owed a lot of "chits" by his colleagues since (the film claims) he never sought pork barrel projects for his own district and could bank his political capital instead.

There are farfetched elements to the film which make it even more entertaining than it probably was in reality, but this boozin' cruisin' womanizin' Texan was in the right place at the right time to tilt American policy towards active covert support of the mujahedeen through back channels involving the unlikely cooperation of Israelis, Pakistanis, Egyptians and Saudis. And that support tipped the balance of the 1980s Afghani war to become a Soviet Vietnam from which the Russians retreated, tail-between-their-legs (and, in the view of many, the ultimate downfall of the Soviet Union).

Of course, casting Tom Hanks as Charlie Wilson makes him a lovable's in the opening moments, as he's cavorting naked in a hot tub with Las Vegas beauties that director Mike Nichols seals his party-boy image, and then directs his (and our) attention to a Dan Rather-in-the-field report on the mujahedeen that captivates Wilson and (we are expected to believe) begins his conversion to the cause that will dominate his future time in office. Yes, a little suspension of disbelief is required, but after all, it may be "based on a true story" as the opening credits inform us, but it's also Hollywood.

No better example of that is the casting of Julia Roberts as a friend of Charlie's, a superrich former beauty queen, turned born again Christian and now rabble-rousing to do something about Afghanistan. It strains credulity to see Roberts in that role after some of her working class roles, but even rich, educated Texans, perhaps, should not be expected to possess a savoir faire that belies their true nature regardless of economic status. After all, we learned that thirty years ago during the heyday of "Dallas," didn't we?

Stealing the show (as usual) is the metamorphic Philip Seymour Hoffman, as a scorned CIA operative who becomes the key functionary of Charlie Wilson's war. He borders on the cartoonish--but then again so do the other lead characters--yet he has a couple of really astoundingly funny scenes worth the price of admission alone.

Nichols is a seasoned (read: slick) director who peppers the film with remarkable details, like when Wilson's aide-de-camp, a beautiful young woman, is found sitting forlornly at the bottom of the stairs with mistress Roberts' dogs, drinking the martini Roberts directed her to obtain, while Wilson & Roberts are upstairs, er, mixing their own martini.

Ultimately, we are instructed to take from the film the lesson that our abandonment of Afghanistan after the departure of the Soviets led to 9/11 and our belated, half-hearted return there afterwards. That's a sobering thought in a film that includes a few heartrending moments that build our sympathies for the Afghani people, but what the viewer is left with is an indelible portrait of an unremarkable man who, for all his amusing personality flaws, wound up playing a critical role in this moment in history, and just about persuades us that not only can war be just--it can be a helluva lot of fun, too!

Until next time...


Sunday, December 23, 2007

Dawnhawks at the Diner

We were treated to the early morning subculture in our little town of San Juan Capistrano (not so little, actually, at 35,000 "peopulation") as this frosty day broke and we headed to Mollie's, you know, the place by the railroad crossing.

It was 7 a.m., when we thought they opened, but the sign says 6 on Sundays, 6:30 the rest of the week. We've only been going there for 17 years.

Two sheriffs cars parked outside, but no sign of them when we entered. Just an old guy sitting at the counter with his travel coffee mug and the perky old hostess, thin as the toothpicks on the cashier's desk, greeting us and asking "Two for breakfast?" Nobody behind us and no supper menus in sight, ah well, we followed her anyway to a booth immediately behind the man at the counter.

Garrulously, he greeted another geezer who arrived steps ahead of us, launching into a barrage of commentary on topics I took no notice of, but that were punctuated frequently with "bullshit", echoed by his companion. He passed a half gallon E&J brandy container from in front of him to his neighbor who sniffed it, saying he stopped drinking long ago and resisting Mr. G's goading to go ahead and taste it.

He wore a building materials sweatshirt and shorts, sported a crew cut and boasted of plans to take the "sled dogs" to the beach this morning, when a third denizen rolled in, semi-consciously, plopping down on the end seat, taking a load off his puffed up ankles lightly covered with flipflops. Number three, cap pulled down to keep the fluorescents out of his stupored eyes, asked Mr. G if he was planning to go down to Calvary today, but Mr. G demurred.

Young blonde waitress responds to Mr. G's inquiries "did she like the Christmas gift he gave her" to which she replied, "see how tight these are" pointing to her sub navel jeans, "can't you see how tight these are? I ate four candies yesterday and three today."

By 7:30, new faces started arriving, all old, obviously regulars, in festive wear, bearing gifts, and the aging surfer types bundled up against the cold except for the shorts-and-flipflops uniform they never doff--not even for weddings or funerals, since among their crowd those only take place on the sands.

The only conclusion is that there's a world I've somehow been missing in my own burg until now.

Until next time...


Friday, December 21, 2007

On Imagination, Fantasy and Verisimilitude

I often characterize the difference between film and theatre as being a choice between verisimilitude and using one's own imagination. In film, nothing need be left to the viewer's imagination--and rarely is, making it a more passive experience. Live theatre depends upon each audience member's own camera lens, which doesn't always focus on where the director has chosen--the lens is always wide-angle without closeups even though there are theatrical conventions and the use of lighting to draw one's attention.

So, you can consider yourself an auteur when you attend the theatre.

These thoughts came to mind when we saw Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street this morning--the film musical, not the stage musical, directed by one of the world's greatest fantasists, Tim Burton.

Having seen previously only the televised version of the original production with George Hearn and Angela Lansbury, directed by Hal Prince, with its seemingly deliberate staginess underscoring the Grand Guignol bloodbath it portrays, I wondered if I'd be entering "nighttown"--the cartoonish underworld of The Nightmare Before Christmas and Sleepy Hollow and Corpse Bride.


It makes the streetlife of Victorian London in the film Oliver! seem positively Disney-esque by comparison. And while the film medium's ability to produce vividly realistic imagery with no detail unillustrated is exploited to the fullest in Sweeney Todd, Tim Burton's hallmark fantasmic excesses always provide little reminders that what we're seeing is not real, but imagined.

Take, for example, his use of blood in the film, of which there is much spilled, dripped, drained, splattered and squirted. Redder than the makeup lining the underside of Johnny Depp's eyes, shinier than the gleaming mettalic orbs in a pinball machine and more viscous than the oil pooling up under my 15 year old car, this is not something anyone would mistake for "real."

How about the real cockroaches crawling amidst the filthy counters in Mrs. Lovett's meat pie shop? They look like real bugs to me, but the frequency and timing of their appearances are as choreographed as an Agnes de Mille number from Oklahoma. Ditto the rats on the streets and in the sewers.

One of the most telling exampes, early in the film, was after he arrives at the garrett above Mrs. Lovett's and the camera pulls back from the window to a wider aerial shot of London rooftops and forbidding, black cloudy skies, the scene goes dark entirely for a moment and as the camera continues to pull back we realize we've just passed through thick black smoke from a chimney across the street (symbolically foreshadowing the smoke from the basement crematorium Todd & Lovett later set up?).

This is not using the film medium's skill at verisimilitude to achieve perfect naturalism but rather to paint an unreal world, a world in the imagination of its creator--and ultimately a mechanism that provokes a little more than just a passive response from its viewers even if we are not using our imagination exactly the same way as we would in the live theatre.

It's exciting to experience, not least of which is the Stephen Sondheim musical it envelopes.

Until next time...


Monday, December 17, 2007


When attending an international theatre festival, as I just did, even one whose purpose is to promote a specific nation's theatrical output, it was illuminating to meet theatre practitioners from so many other countries.

I became friends with artists and producers from Hong Kong and Kenya, Serbia and Nigeria, Hungary and Sweden, Germany and Slovenia, Estonia and Turkey, Australia and the U.K.

Many of our concerns are the same: how to keep live theatre relevant in an electronic entertainment age, how to prevent government support for the arts from disappearing, how to balance programming that fills the seats with work that is meaningful and substantive.

America is famously ignorant about the rest of the world, and I'm afraid that as much as I have prided myself on keeping abreast of what's going on abroad, I was shocked to discover how little I really know and how provincial I truly am.

The festival was a refreshing wake-up call that has prompted my interest in the world of theatre beyond the U.S., and I'm working to broaden my knowledge of what's being produced beyond our borders.

At a time when, thanks to globalization, we are perfectly willing to embrace the awareness of brand names we'd never heard of previously, I think it's time for us to welcome warmly other nations' cultural "products" as well.

Until next time...


Saturday, December 15, 2007

My 15 Minutes of [Israeli] Fame

A week ago, on Friday, I was prominently featured in an article about Israel's growing exports of culture that appeared in Yedioth Ahronot, a daily newspaper.

I told my friend, playwright Shmuel Hasfari, that I was disappointed it wasn't in Haaretz, the liberal paper I read daily online, but he laughed and said "are you crazy?, Yediot Ahronot is the largest paper in Israel, that everyone reads it, so I should be very pleased." In fact, with a circulation of about 600,000, I learned that about 2 out of 3 newspaper readers in Israel read it.

Because it's in Hebrew, and my reading skills are a bit spotty, I can't understand everything in the piece, nor every quote from me. But there is a top of the page headline quote that roughtly translates as:

"Richard Stein, American theatre producer & director comments: 'I want to direct and produce more Israeli plays. If I found here an Israeli Neil Simon, who writes comedies that don't address the political and social life of Israelis, I wouldn't direct that. But something in Israeli theatre that exposes Americans to the Israeli way of life and gives us a perspective
than we don't get in America, that's what I'd like to see communicated.'"

And there's another two paragraphs of the reporter's conversation with me, citing my American premiere production of Hasfari's "The Master of the House" last spring.

So, I guess, for 15 minutes, I was the best known American stage director in Israel!

Until next time...


Friday, December 14, 2007

Culture Shock

Having spent the last two weeks in Israel, and finding myself quite at ease living in Tel Aviv for that time, it was quite a shock to return to the United States of Christmas.

For so long I've taken it for granted, particularly in Southern California which is nothing if not over-the-top when it comes to gussying up for the holiday beginning as early as the day after Halloween (some enthusiasts up the hill from us keep their decorative lighting illuminated year-rouond).

But having been out of the country, residing temporarily mere minutes away from where the celebrated event actually took place, I saw virtually no evidence of Christmas.

And Hanukah, which in the U.S. has come to be touted as a sort of Jewish Christmas, rivalling the Christian holiday in garish decorations and commercialism, is a minor religious holiday in the Jewish state. Hanukah menorahs may be visible in shops, the ubiquitous Chabad proselytisers conduct public candlelighting ceremonies accompanied by song and families do gather (like my own cousins did), but a stranger would never conclude that he's arrived during some important holiday.

With my home neighborhood lit up like, well, you know, I felt like an alien. And it now being rather late to begin our own process of Christmakah/Hanumas decorating, Alison and I opted to forgo it this year.

At least her mother's care package came on time, with nutballs, gingerbread men, date nut loaf and garlic cereal snack mix, to give our home the slightest tinge of festivity. And I'm still being expected to fry up a batch of potato latkes even though, by now, Hanukah's eight days and eight nights have passed.

Until next time...


Thursday, December 13, 2007

"I Can See Clearly Now" Redux

Three months after my left eye cataract was removed and replaced with an implant, my right eye was done yesterday, and again the Johnny Nash song is prevalent in my mind:

I can see clearly now, the rain is gone,
I can see all obstacles in my way
Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind
It’s gonna be a bright (bright), bright (bright) Sun-Shiny day.
I think I can make it now, the pain is gone
All of the bad feelings have disappeared
Here is the rainbow I’ve been prayin' for
It’s gonna be a bright (bright), bright (bright) Sun-Shiny day.
Look all around, there’s nothin' but blue skies
Look straight ahead, nothin' but blue skies

Until now, I have not seen clearly through my eyes. Now there's no excuse for any inability to see clearly through my soul.

Until next time...


Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Yad Vashem

Israel's memorial to the Holocaust is both a place of remembrance and an extensive museum about pre-Nazi Jewish life and how that changed during the war. I had not been back since 1973, and in 2005, the place reopened its new facilities designed by architect Moshe Safdie. Beautiful yet overwhelming, solemn but not morbid, comprehensive yet human are how I would describe the place.

Today, I browsed their website to see if they had in their database three of my father's first cousins whom we know were shot by the Nazis in 1941 when the Einsatztruppen followed the frontline troops to massacre Jews in village after village. I saw similar names from within the region, but no exact matches, so I added a Page of Testimony for each one: Zushe, Jacob and Shaindel Fogel. We know little about them, only their parents' names and that they died in 1941. Perhaps I will find more about them eventually to add.

If you are interested, the website is

Until next time...


Saturday, December 8, 2007

Final Night in Israel

Deborah from Australia & Tom from New York, new friends from the IsraDrama 2007, and of course "moi".

Though Hanukah is not a major religious holiday in Judaism, it is an especially festive time in Israel. Right now, as I type this, I am hearing from my window a band on Dizengoff Square performing Hanukah songs.
Last night I enjoyed Hanukah at the home of a cousin of mine. It is a time especially for the children, and the little ones dominated everyone's attention. Gift giving to children is customary, but it is not at all like Christmas (or how Hanukah now tends to be celebrated in the West) with many gifts and substantial gifts to all.

This morning, playwright Hasfari picked me up early and took me to breakfast in the town of Ramla, an ancient town located near Ben Gurion Airport (not to be confused with Ramallah on the West Bank). There we went to a restaurant called Halil, where we ate masabcha, a breakfast hummus that is warm, slightly liquidy and filled with whole chicpeas, with sides of pickles, olives, pita bread and a side order of falafel balls (also good to dip into hummus). This is a locals place that's not easy to find, so it's the kind of thing that an Israeli friend you know or meet while here might be willing to take you to--it's about 20 minutes from Tel Aviv.

Then we drove into the Judean hills, where the coastal plain begins its rise toward Jerusalem's mountain tops. In the Beit Shemesh area, Samson lived and fought the Philistines, who were actually from Santorini but migrated to this area after the great volcano eruption & earthquake there, according to Hasfari.

In this area, too, there are the caves of Lu-Zit, natural caverns that are 50 to 100 feet high, and have been enlarged by ancient residents of the area. Hasfari theorized that they might date back as far as to when the Midianites were pillaging the Israelites, shortly before Samuel was approached by the elders to give them a king (Saul), but little archaeological work has been done here yet, and the place is also off the beaten track to the extent that there are few signs.

Then we visited Bet Gemal, which is today a Catholic monastery located on a site that dates back at least to the Byzantines and probably Biblical times. From there, you can also view the city of Beit Shemesh, which has had an influx of religious Jews settling there in recent years.

Back to Hasfari's place where we had cholent and other great things for lunch, and then it was time to say good bye.

Tonight is my last night here, and I plan to visit the bar Silon on King George that has been my watering hole now for 2 weeks, where I have gotten to know the owners Shugon & Orren, bartenders Michal, Shay and Yael, the waitresses Yael, Talia and Naama, and patrons Yoav, Dan and Eitan. Great music there, very "heimisch" as they say in Yiddish, patrons are mostly age 25-35, but at 54, I felt welcome, comfortable, and made friends.

A final day tomorrow to stroll the streets before heading to the airport.

L'hitraot, Tel Aviv!


Thursday, December 6, 2007

A Day in Tel Aviv-Jaffa

With the conference now concluded, I spent the morning walking amidst three unique shopping areas in the older section of Tel Aviv. All three begin at the same intersection, branching out from there: the tony Sheinkin Street for more traditional fashion shopping (clothing, accessories, jewelry) and the highly-regarded Orna & Ella restaurant (which I didn't sample this trip); the Nachalat Benjamin, an area of wide pedestrian-only cobblestone streets lined by historic buildings housing mostly textiles, fabrics, home furnishings and jewelry shops, and where you can enjoy a quiet cup of coffee outside without the noisy sounds of traffic drowning out your thoughts; and Carmel Market, the chaotic narrow lanes of vendor stalls hawking everything from some of the most fabulous looking produce I've ever seen to cheese, meat, fish, olives, spices, and also including household items, casual clothing, fashion accessories, etc.

From there, I walked 30 minutes to Jaffa (called Yafo here), and found myself buffeted by gusts of winds as I overlooked the Mediterranean's swelling waves and gathering clouds. Jaffa is a city about 4000 years old, and is a walled enclave on a promontory above the sea, today home to theatres, galleries, a museum and restaurants. Its stone-clad charm is irresistible.

Until next time...