The Miami tower disaster and those who find meaning in suffering by Shmuley Boteach and What's My Line? - Ed Sullivan; John Payne [panel] (Sep 14, 1958) and In ‘Lansky,’ Harvey Keitel puts legendary gangster’s Jewishness front and center
Yehuda Lave is an author, journalist, psychologist, rabbi, spiritual teacher, and coach, with degrees in business, psychology and Jewish Law. He works with people from all walks of life and helps them in their search for greater happiness, meaning, business advice on saving money, and spiritual engagement.
In 'Lansky,' Harvey Keitel puts legendary gangster's Jewishness front and center
Perhaps no American Jewish actor has been so closely associated with crime films as Harvey Keitel.
During a career now in its sixth decade, the 82-year-old Keitel has appeared in "Mean Streets," "Taxi Driver," "Wise Guys," "Bugsy," "The Two Jakes," "Reservoir Dogs" and "The Irishman," among numerous other films.
Now he's adding to the list with "Lansky," portraying perhaps the most famous Jewish gangster of all time, Meyer Lansky. The film opened in US theaters on June 25, and is available on-demand.
Lansky, born in Russia in 1902, arrived in New York in 1911. Known as the "Mob's Accountant," he was notorious in his own right, operating criminal rackets from Miami to Las Vegas to Cuba and playing a role in the establishment of what's been called the National Crime Syndicate.
The film, directed by Eytan Rockaway, has Keitel portraying Lansky in the later part of his life, telling his life story to a book author ("Avatar" star Sam Worthington). John Magaro plays Lansky in his younger years, and the cast also includes Minka Kelly, AnnaSophia Robb and David James Elliott.
While some films about Jews and organized crime, such as Martin Scorsese's "Casino," have avoided much exploration of their characters' Jewish identity — aside from the odd antisemitic slur — "Lansky" is up front about the importance of Jewishness to Lansky's story.
Harvey Keitel with director Eytan Rockaway on the set of 'Lansky.' (Vertical Entertainment/ via JTA)
We see Lansky, in the run-up to World War II, brawling with Nazi sympathizers from the German-American Bund. We also see him saying Kaddish in a synagogue and telling a rabbi joke. A montage of brutality by the Jewish criminal outfit Murder, Inc., is scored with "Hava Nagila."
"I'm an American, and a Jew," Keitel, as Lansky, says in the film. "The Germans wanted to destroy both of those things. So I wanted to destroy the Germans, and I did."
Later he's seen promising aid and help to the nascent State of Israel — only to feel betrayed in the early 1970s when Golda Meir's government denied him asylum.
"It was an important element in his life," Rockaway said of the inclusion of such details. "And I thought to emphasize that — not tremendously, but I felt it was important."
The "Lansky" film is somewhat personal for the director. He's the son of Robert Rockaway, a history professor and scholar on the subject of Jews and organized crime. The author of a 1993 book titled "But He Was Good to His Mother: The Lives and Crimes of Jewish Gangsters," the elder Rockaway conducted a series of interviews with Lansky when the gangster was in his late 70s. The scenes in the movie with a fictitious journalist named David Stone are loosely based on Robert Rockaway's own experiences speaking with Lansky.
The script, Rockaway said in an interview, drew on his father's research, although the younger Rockaway also did some of his own, noting that he was especially influenced by Robert Lacey's 1991 biography "Little Man: Meyer Lansky and the Gangster Life." The two Rockaways share a "story by" credit for the film.
Rockaway, the son of an American father and an Israeli mother, was born in Israel and went to university in New York City after finishing his mandatory Israeli army service. A graduate of New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, Rockaway has made commercials and music videos, and "Lansky" is his second film as director following the 2016 horror movie "The Abandoned."
"I tried to be as objective as I could, to a certain extent," Rockaway said of the thorny issue often raised in movies about crime bosses. "I definitely didn't want to glorify him, but he did bad and he did good."
An active criminal for more than a half century, Lansky was a rarity among gangsters in some key ways: Aside from serving a couple of months on a gambling charge, he avoided major prison time, and also managed to live to old age, dying at 80 in 1983. That gambling conviction was costly, however, as it later led Israel to deny him asylum.
Lansky's "good" side, at least according to the film, consisted of fighting Nazis, and also providing crucial support to Israel at the outset of its existence.
I definitely didn't want to glorify him, but he did bad and he did good
Rockaway says in the press kit: "Meyer was a husband, father, friend, killer, genius, criminal, patriot and the founder of the largest crime organization in American history. To fully understand and depict this complicated man, this film portrays various aspects of his life while moving back and forth from his past to his present as an old man, revisiting key moments of his life."
"This film is not about loving or hating this man," he adds, "it is about understanding him."
Keitel is among several screen portrayals of Lansky by Jewish actors, including Richard Dreyfuss in a David Mamet-written HBO movie, also called "Lansky," in 1999, and Dustin Hoffman in 2005's "The Lost City." Patrick Fischler played the gangster in the TV series "Mob City."
In "Bugsy," Warren Beatty's 1991 biopic of another Jewish gangster, Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel, the non-Jewish actor Ben Kingsley played Lansky — Keitel played a different Jewish gangster, Mickey Cohen.
But probably the most famous movie portrayal of Lansky was a fictionalized version: Hyman Roth (played by Lee Strasberg), the partner-turned-antagonist of the Corleone family in 1974's "The Godfather Part II," was heavily based on Lansky.
Roth, like Lansky, was an older Jewish gangster who worked with the mafia to build casinos in Cuba, and, like Lansky, later sought asylum in Israel.
In the new film, Lansky likens his business operations with the mob to that of US Steel, which "Godfather" fans may recognize as a line said by Roth. But according to Rockaway, it was a comparison that the real-life Lansky was known to make himself.
Coincidentally, the Jewish Strasberg, who was better known as an acting teacher than as an actor, was a teacher and mentor to Keitel — and Keitel to this day is closely associated with New York's Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute. Rockaway said he went out of his way not to watch other movies about Lansky, but he listed the films of Martin Scorsese, as well the Coen Brothers' "Miller's Crossing," as great influences.
As for Robert Rockaway, who lives in Israel and teaches at Tel Aviv University, he has yet to see the movie. The director says his father is waiting for Israel's theatrical release of the film that was sprung from his long-ago research and was brought to the screen by his son.
What's My Line? - Ed Sullivan; John Payne [panel] (Sep 14, 1958)
MYSTERY GUEST: Ed Sullivan [Host of long running CBS Sunday night variety show]
PANEL: Arlene Francis, John Payne, Dorothy Kilgallen, Bennett Cerf
The Miami tower disaster and those who find meaning in suffering by Shmuley Boteach
The belief that God punishes us because we're bad people, when in fact most of us are pretty decent even as we are imperfect, has to finally stop.
Miami Beach, Florida, where I grew up, was given a new lease on life
with the coronavirus. As New York went through the hell of infection
last March and as the governments of blue states like California and New
Jersey shut everything down, Gov. Ron DeSantis – whom our organization The World Values Network honored three years ago as a great champion of Israel – declared Florida to be a free and open state. Scores of people sold their homes in New York and relocated to Miami. The Sunshine State was a breath of fresh air throughout the pandemic as life seemed to be nearly normal. As people in New York froze at home in their lockdowns, people in Miami laughed and lived at outdoor restaurants.This was especially true of the Orthodox Jewish community. Observant Jews left their homes in New Jersey, Los Angeles and especially New York and moved to Surfside, Bal Harbor and Miami Beach. And the horrendous tax burden of the blue states made Florida all the more desirable.
Then last week in Surfside, hundreds of people came crashing down in the horrors of the Champlain Tower disasterthat is so horrible it beggars the imagination. As of this writing, more than 150 people remain unaccounted for.And
suddenly people saw that death was everywhere and inescapable. You did not need to be a Jew living in Sderot or Ashkelon with Hamas rockets falling on your head to face mortal danger. You could be in the beautiful sunshine of Miami Beach and terror could strike.We pray for all those who are still missing and yes, God does and will perform miracles.But as soon as I heard about the terrible events in my childhood home town, I knew it would lead to a general call on the part of rabbis and other leaders in the Jewish community to do some soul-searching. Such terrible events that have decimated the Jewish community over the last year from a global pandemic that hit the hassidic community especially hard, to the Mount Meron disaster, to a Jewish family killed in Italy on a cable car, to the terrorists' rockets fired at Israel, and then the Champlain Tower disaster – would no doubt lead to many telling us that God was sending us a message. We have to repent. We have to unite. We have to be less materialistic, more loving, more spiritual.All those things are true for their own sake. But I hate when we connect them with disaster. The people who are fighting for their lives at the bottom of the rubble of the Florida condominium deserve better than the rest of us pontificating as to why they were struck with disaster. They deserve our prayers. They deserve our hope. Their families deserve our love and our comfort. But what they don't deserve are our remonstrations about how we can be better people while they fight for air.
Once AND for all, we need to stop sullying religion by making it into a dogma that justifies human suffering. The belief that God punishes us because we're bad people, when in fact most of us are pretty decent even as we are imperfect, has to finally stop.I have written several books addressing the question of why a good God allows the innocent to suffer, most notably The Fed-Up Man of Faith, and Wrestling with the Divine.I am still amazed when people come up to me to argue about the content of the books, which express the Jewish idea that we must challenge God in the face of human suffering and never make peace with it and never accept that Jewish assimilation led to the Holocaust or other such twaddle.Why do so many religious people enjoy portraying God as executioner-in-chief, and are always finding reasons to justify human suffering?The Holocaust produced two camps of Jews. Many decided that the Jews had been punished for intermarriage and wanting to be secular. But others had a much more Jewish response: They rejected any theological justification or self-blame and set to work even harder toward the creation of a Jewish state where Jews would find refuge and build an army to prevent another genocide.The appropriate response to death is always life. And the Jewish response to suffering is to demand that God put an end to it.People search for a reason to explain why people suffer. They want to redeem tragedy by giving it meaning. Suffering ennobles the spirit, they say. It makes you more mature. It helps you focus on what's important in life.I would argue that suffering has no purpose, no redeeming qualities, and any attempts to infuse it with rich significance are deeply misguided.Of course, suffering can lead ultimately to a positive outcome. The rich man who had contempt for the poor and suddenly loses his money can become more empathetic when he himself struggles. The arrogant executive who treats her subordinates like dirt can soften when she is told that she, God forbid, has breast cancer.But does it have to come about this way? Is suffering the only way to learn goodness?Jewish values maintain that there is no good that comes from suffering that could not have come through more blessed means. Some people win the lottery and are so humbled that they dedicate a huge portion to charity. A rock star like Bono becomes rich and famous and consecrates his celebrity to the relief of poverty.Yes, the Holocaust led directly to the creation of the State of Israel. But there are plenty of nations that came into existence without being preceded by gas chambers and tens of thousands shot in the head in a Ukrainian ravine.HERE IS another way that Jewish values are so strongly distinguished from other value systems. Many religions believe that suffering is redemptive. In Christianity, the suffering servant, the crucified Christ, brings atonement for the sins of mankind through his own torment. The message: No suffering, no redemption. Someone has to die so that the sins of mankind are erased.Suffering is therefore extolled in the New Testament. St. Paul even made suffering an obligation, encouraging the fledgling Christians to "share in suffering like a good soldier of Christ Jesus."But Judaism, in prophesying a perfect messianic future where there is no death or pain, ultimately rejects the suffering-is-redemptive narrative. Suffering isn't a blessing. It's a curse.Save a better and safer building code and more condominium towers checked for possible corrosion, there is no good whatsoever that will come from the Champlain tower collapse. The only good is if, God willing, the missing people are found to be alive. Period.Jews are obligated to alleviate all human misery. Suffering leaves you bitter rather than blessed, scarred rather than humble. Few endure suffering without serious and lasting trauma. Suffering leads to a tortured spirit and a pessimistic outlook. It scars our psyches and creates a cynical consciousness devoid and bereft of hope.Suffering causes us to dig out the insincerity in the hearts of our fellows and to be envious of other people's happiness. If individuals do become better people as a result of their suffering, it is despite the fact that they suffered and not because of it. Ennoblement of character comes through triumph over suffering rather than its endurance.I used to love listening to the speeches of my mentor Elie Wiesel. What emerged from his haunting words is that the only thing garnered from suffering was loneliness, heartbreak and outrage. To be sure, the holocaust taught us the infinite value of every human life and the sublime quality of human companionship. But these lessons could easily be learned from life-affirming experiences like family summer vacations rather than relatives gathered outside a collapsed apartment tower with rivers of tears streaming down their cheeks.I believe that my parents' divorce drove me to a deeper understanding of life and a greater embrace of my Judaism. Yet I know people who have led completely privileged lives and have far deeper philosophies of life and are even more devoted to their religion than I am. And they have the advantage of not being bitter, cynical or pessimistic the way I sometimes can be because of the pain of my early childhood.Whatever good we as individuals, or the world in general, receive from suffering can be brought about in a painless, joyful manner. And it behooves people of faith especially to once and for all cease justifying the death of innocents and instead rush to comfort and aid the survivors. I pray for the missing in the Champlain Tower. May God grant them life.Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the author of Holocaust Holiday: One Family'sDescent into Genocide Memory Hell. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter