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Potok’s ‘Asher Lev’ in L.A. debut at the Fountain, Jewish identity, Israeli film

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The L.A. premiere of “My Name is Asher Lev” (now extended through May 18 at the Fountain Theatre) is a great way to connect with your Jewish identity this Passover season, but it would be appropriate any time of year, regardless of your religious preference. Aaron Posner’s award-winning adaptation of Chaim Potok’s brilliant novel is a play about realizing artistic expression and honoring tradition—ultimately it’s about being true to yourself, whatever the cost.

Lev (played with great sensitivity by Jason Karasev) is a young man who finds his calling as an artist at an early age, and struggles with the decisions he has to make as an observant Jew. His chosen field also brings him into conflict with his parents in the confines of Brooklyn’s Chasidic community, especially when he begins painting crucifixes and nudes.

Joel Polis and Anna Khaja are superb in depicting Lev’s parents and other characters who inhabit his world; the emotional aspects of the play are intensely felt and expressed by the cast of three. Director Stephen Sachs’ highly effective staging is complemented by Jeff McLaughlin’s minimalist set, Ric Zimmerman’s lighting and Lindsay Jones’ music and sound design. See it or regret it. Call 323-663-1525.
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Jesse Quinones’ feature film debut, “Calloused Hands,” is as well a coming-of-age story that deals with Jewish heritage and finding one’s potential. The film (now on DVD from Horizon Movies, distributed by Kino Lorber) centers on a 12-year-old baseball wiz and his stepfather; at heart, says writer-director Quinones, it’s “a tribute to…men who are tortured by the dreams that slip through their fingers, men crushed by the immense weight of the American Dream."

Jewish identity is central to Lawrence J. Epstein’s “American Jewish Films: The Search for Identity” (available in paperback from McFarland & Co.) The book offers intelligent discussion of everything from “The Jazz Singer” and “The Great Dictator” to “Annie Hall” and the film version of Chaim Potok’s “The Chosen.” Along the way Epstein covers assimilation, the Borscht Belt, anti-Semitism and Zionism.

Raphael Nadjari’s “A History of Israeli Cinema” (also on DVD from Kino Lorber) is an absorbing two-part documentary, a socio-political exploration of a cinematic national identity. Director Amos Gitai, actress-director Ronit Elkabetz and producer-director Menachem Golan are among the interview subjects; the film, which features clips from more than seven decades of films, is in Hebrew with English subtitles.

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