Television
Fri, 02/13/2009
Special To The Jewish Week
“We could be like the Mayans and the Incas. People will come to Jerusalem and say, ‘Yes, there were these curious people there.’” The statement comes around the middle of “Out of Faith,” a documentary that offers a moving, honest and evenhanded look at the problems interfaith marriage creates for the Jewish people. We all know the numbers. Half the time a Jew marries, it’s to a non-Jew. And in only a third of those unions are the children raised Jewish. What provides this film with its power is that it isn’t about abstract statistics; the film is about one family in conflict over the issue. The matriarch, Leah Welbel, and her husband, Eliezer, survived almost three years in Auschwitz. They had two sons, one of whom married a Christian who converted, and five grandchildren. When the first grandchild, Danny, married, Leah refused to speak to him. “If I let this happen, I feel like I betray” all those who died, she says. “I paid the highest price for my Jewish faith. I paid it with blood. And that reminds me, stick to our faith.” Of course, the issue never is simple. Although she was raised Orthodox, she was in many ways a cultural Jew who, unlike her mother and grandmother, never lit Shabbos candles — though she says she was Jewish in her heart. Half of Danny’s relatives — the family of his convert mother — are Catholic. And to add just a touch of pressure, his wife Shannon is pregnant and about to deliver Leah’s first great-grandchild. The film was shot over a period of about four years and it seems as though Leah comes to regret her decision, but is too prideful to make the first overture. And Danny and his wife are too angry. At one point, they refuse to come to a family Thanksgiving celebration because she will be there. It puts strains on the entire family. When Danny’s sister Cheryl also marries a Christian she’s worried about how her grandmother will react. As she tearfully recounts, Grandma embraced her. But it was a bittersweet moment. At the moment of embrace, all Cheryl thought about was how Leah “doesn’t accept Danny and how much pain he and Shannon must be in at that moment.” The filming took place over four years and includes visits to Leah’s hometown in Slovakia and to Auschwitz. The denouement is almost poetic: a sad poem, but certainly fitting. “Out of Faith” airs April 2 at 10 p.m. on WNET and WLIW. ‘Kings’: The biblical David, in prime time? Michael Green is adamant. His new series, “Kings,” is not a religious show. Sure, it is based on the biblical story of King David, but it is really a “story about a hero rising into his own.” “Kings” is set in modern times in the fictional nation of Gilboa. The country is ruled by King Silas Benjamin (Ian McShane). A local lad, David Shepard (Chris Egan) is anointed by the Rev. Ephraim Samuel (Eamonn Walker) shortly after they meet. Subsequently, David goes on to slay Goliath, an enemy tank. “There are a lot of expectations, a lot of preconceptions and we’ve worked very hard to reach beyond them,” Green says. “Most people expect knights on horseback and it’s not that. Some think it’s just a Sunday sermon, and it’s not that either. What it aspires to be is an epic story and family drama.” What Green has done is use the biblical story as a “springboard for larger storytelling. People familiar with the original text will see a lot of tropes and fleshed-out biblical text.” But the scripts will not be a compilation of biblical verses. Moreover, they will present David flaws and all. “The interesting thing about David’s story in the biblical text is that the Bible makes no apologies for his often wrong behavior. It was the job of later rabbis and writers. They found fault with what David did…. “People who’ve read the texts know he was flawed. He stole another man’s wife, had him killed and was punished for that. He is a character whose flaws make him as interesting as his good deeds; good is not nearly as entertaining as vice.” But even if they don’t know the Bible, Green is confident that viewers will enjoy the show. In fact, some who’ve seen it have gone back to the Bible to check its accuracy. Green doesn’t believe “Kings” will engender a negative reaction from the religious community. In fact, the feedback he’s received from various religious leaders who’ve seen the two-hour pilot is that they “found it very interesting and something they’d like to see more of.” NBC apparently isn’t worried either. “They found [the subject matter] intriguing. I told them of my approach and that I have a background that lets me know the material well enough that they seemed to trust me.” Green grew up in Westchester County and attended Westchester Day School. “Like most yeshiva bochers, I had mixed experiences — some very positive and some very negative.” He went on to have an unlikely combination of twin majors at Stanford: human biology and religious studies. After floundering for a while, Green went on to work on such shows as “Sex and the City,” “Cupid” and “Heroes,” before creating “Kings.”  David is such a rich character that Green is not worried he’ll run out of storylines — even if the show is a mega-hit. Besides, he’s a fatalist. If he should run out of stories, “they’ll find someone else.” “Kings” premieres Sunday, March 15 at 8 p.m. on NBC. ‘Jerusalem: Center of the World’: Three thousand years in two hours, intelligently narrated. In many ways, the title of this fascinating and informative documentary perfectly describes its subject: “Jerusalem: Center of the World.” It is where Abraham came to sacrifice Isaac, where Jesus cured a man of blindness and Mohammed ascended to heaven. It is home to some of the holiest sites of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Yet many, if not most people are unaware of its history beyond the broadest brushstrokes. For one thing, Jerusalem was a holy site long before Abraham brought Isaac to Mount Moriah. Generations of Canaanites considered it a sacred place, which is possibly why Abraham ended up there. Because of a lapse in faith, Moses was not permitted to enter Jerusalem. David made it his capital in part for political reasons. It was neutral territory that did not belong to a single tribe. One of the first things he did was purchase the land on top of Mount Moriah, intending to make it the site of a Temple to house the Ark of the Covenant. But because he had blood on his hands, God forbade him to build the Temple, a job left to his son, Solomon.  The Queen of Sheba, attracted by Solomon’s renowned wisdom, came calling with gifts. There are some who believe they had a liaison and subsequent rulers of Ethiopia claimed they were direct descendants of that union. After several failed revolts against his rule, the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the Temple, took the inhabitants prisoner and bought them to Babylon. About 70 years later, the Romans conquered Babylon, returned the Jews to Jerusalem and encouraged them to rebuild the Temple. Herod the Great, the Roman king of Judea, greatly expanded the temple to the point that it became a tourist attraction and known as Herod’s Temple. Those are just anecdotal tidbits from an intelligent, two-hour documentary that traces the city’s history. Senior NewsHour Correspondent Ray Suarez narrates in a dispassionate manner — appropriate counterpoint to the way Jerusalem is often discussed. “Jerusalem: Center of the World” airs April 1 at 9 p.m. on WNET and WLIW. THE LIST “House of Life: The Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague,” WNET and WLIW, April 6, 10 p.m. The 12,000 stones of The Old Jewish Cemetery may cover as many as 100,000 members of Prague’s once large Jewish community. During the German occupation, it was the only place Jewish children were permitted to play. Under communism, it became the site for trysts. Each year more then half a million people visit the cemetery and the area surrounding it; once the ghetto, it is now fashionable. “Miss Irena’s Children,” CBS, April 19, 9 p.m. Anna Paquin stars as Irena Sendler, a Polish Catholic social worker, who organized an effort that rescued 2,500 Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto and almost certain death. For her efforts, she was nominated two years ago for the Nobel Peace Prize. “Independent Lens: Steal a Pencil for Me,” April 21, 10 p.m. This documentary, which received a brief theatrical release, is an unlikely but true love story set in a concentration camp. “Independent Lens: At Home in Utopia,” WNET and WLIW, April 28, 10 pm. The American dream of a home of one’s own seemed unreachable for the immigrants and factory workers of the early 20th century. That is until the Coops, a cooperative apartment complex in the Bronx, was built in the 1920s by Jewish garment workers. This documentary traces the history of the community from the 1920s through mid-century. “World War II: Behind Closed Doors,” WNET and WLIW, Wednesdays, May 6-20, 9 p.m. This six-hour miniseries re-examines key decisions made by Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt during the war.