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Authors: Abigail Pogrebin

Tags: #Fiction

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BOOK: Stars of David
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While he didn't dare tell his parents about being teased as a youngster, that secrecy became impossible in his teenage years. “My last year of high school—when we were living in Northern California—I really encountered anti-Semitism,” Spielberg says. “That was the first time I was ever slugged in the mouth for being a Jew. That was the first time I was ever kicked in the groin for being Jewish. That was the first time I ever had pennies thrown at me in a very quiet study hall while a hundred kids around me were trying to study. That was the first time I saw people walking twenty yards out of their way to knock me into a wall on their way to class. It was the first time anti-Semitism became physical abuse. That had never happened before.

“My mom—which was even more humiliating—decided she would now drive me to school. We only lived within a fifteen-minute walk from the high school but my mom insisted on taking me in her army jeep and picking me up every day until this would end. But it never ended. It ended only when I graduated. Still, all that time I never went to a teacher. I never went to a dean. I never complained. I never turned anybody in.” He was too fearful of reprisals from the kids responsible. “It was a group of about six seniors. We all graduated in the same class. I've never mentioned their names and I never will.”

I assume he's been tempted, all these years later, to give them a call. “Actually, one of them called
Close Encounters
came out,” he says, clearly aware that his fame had turned the tables. “I'd had these two big successful movies—
[1975] and
Close Encounters [of the Third Kind,
, and I got a call from one of these guys right here in my office at Universal Studios. He wasn't the worst of the group, and ironically he'd become a police officer, working in San Jose. We had a very nice conversation. I never brought it up; I should have. He never brought it up; he should have. And that was the last we spoke.”

Why does he think he should have opened old wounds? “Because I had been fantasizing about getting all these guys in group therapy with me,” he replies, with a deep laugh. “I just wanted to ask them, ‘Why did you make my life miserable for a whole semester?'”

Spielberg says this hazing made him appreciate the sting of even small slights. “It gave me tremendous respect for any personal injustice meted out by people who are intolerant of the differences in others,” he says. How does he react when he hears people say, in effect, ‘Enough with this anti-Semitism stuff; it's not an anti-Semitic world anymore'? “I will join them in saying, ‘Enough of this anti-Semitism stuff' once this ‘anti-Semitism stuff' is over,” Spielberg replies flatly. “I don't know when that's going to be. It may be over in Hollywood, where I've never experienced anti-Semitism anywhere inside the film industry in my entire career. But I know it exists all over the country in pockets. If it doesn't exist vocally, it exists in whispers.”

He never felt bigotry after high school, but he observed it on the set of
Schindler's List
(1993)—his widely acclaimed, Oscar-winning film about Oskar Schindler, the German Nazi officer who saved more than 1,100 Polish Jews during the Holocaust by employing them in his factory. “Everybody experienced anti-Semitism in Poland when we were making the movie,” he recalls. “They were putting all sorts of anti-Semitic slogans on the walls with spray paint, painting swastikas on our set. And there were incidents in our hotel, the Hotel Forum, between Ben Kingsley and a German businessman. Because I'd hired Jews to play Jews and Germans to play Germans, and suddenly this German businessman walks into the dining room of the hotel and he's surrounded by Israeli actors who I'd brought in from Israel to play the Jews in my movie, and he began loudly making disparaging remarks, until Ben Kingsley leapt across the table and brought him to the ground. And the hotel staff ran over and pulled Ben off of this guy, and told this guy never to come back.”

Why did Spielberg feel so strongly that only Jews should play Jews? “Because it's in my nature, I think—especially in a story about the Holocaust—to be able to commiserate and to tell the story with members of my own race. That was very important to me. In fact, I unfairly developed a very, very strong ‘attitude'—in quotes—about the German actors playing the Nazis. These were just really good actors I had cast who wanted to talk to me about
Close Encounters
Raiders of the Lost Ark
— they were fans—and I was giving them an attitude: ‘I can't talk about that now; I'm too into this.' Whereas I would happily talk to the Israeli actors about anything they wanted to talk to me about.

“And then one day we had Passover at the Hotel Forum and we invited the whole cast and crew to come. The Israeli actors all came in and sat around me with the Haggadahs, and then all the German actors playing the Germans came in. And the Israeli actors took the German actors and shared their Haggadahs with them; they took them through the entire seder. I sat at the head of the table and I just cried like a baby. Nobody understood what was wrong with me—people kept coming over to me saying, ‘Are you okay?' I was wrecked by that. And I apologized to a lot of the actors the next day when we began shooting again. I said, ‘If you felt a distance or a coldness from me, it's the uniform. I'm having a real tough, tough time with the uniform you're wearing.' And I think everything changed for the better after that. The fact that the German actors took it upon themselves to come to a seder and sit with the Israeli actors and learn about the holiday was an epiphany for me.”

Spielberg was given
Schindler's List,
the book by Thomas Keneally, in 1982 by then-president of Universal, Sidney Sheinberg, who'd found and bought the book for the studio. Spielberg waited a decade to make the film. “I put it off because I knew I wasn't ready to tackle that subject,” he says. “I needed to know I was ready before assuming a maturity on film that I knew I didn't possess at that time, in the early eighties. I think making
The Color Purple
[1985] and making
Empire of the Sun
[1987] were the two stepping-stones that led to my feeling ready to direct
Schindler's List.
And without those two pictures, I probably would have had to find two more films of more mature, adult subject matter before I could have felt qualified—not just as a Jew but as a filmmaker—to tackle that subject and to acquit that film powerfully.”

When it came time to start the project, he was still uneasy. “I was more frightened of bringing shame to a segment of the survivor population already devastated by what occurred. My big, big fear was that somehow the film would be too sweet and saccharine, too sentimental, and I could somehow trivialize the impact on film that the Holocaust had on the real people in real life. I didn't ever think a survivor would see the movie and say, ‘That's exactly the way it was.' I was hoping they would see the movie and say, ‘It was something like that, but worse beyond your imagination and beyond my communication.' So that would have been a great compliment. And indeed many, many survivors who saw the movie felt the film honored their experiences; but of course no book, no film, no television mini-series, no poetry or music can ever replicate the experience that the Holocaust survivors had firsthand. That's impossible. It will never be communicated in its savage intensity by any of the creative arts. I knew that going in, but I just didn't want to soft-pedal it. I didn't want to water it down. And I didn't care if it got an X rating. I would have been very happy to show the picture in the few movie houses that would dare to exhibit it.”

He says he almost intentionally sabotaged its commercial viability. “Obviously I did a lot of self-destructive things: I shot it in black and white; the movie is three hours and fifteen minutes long; it's about the Holocaust; there's full-frontal nudity; there are unspeakable acts of horror and bloodletting—all based on the facts. But this was obviously a film— especially to Universal Studios—that was not going to make its money back. And I have to give credit to Sid Sheinberg, who had the courage first to buy the book, but more importantly to give it to
—a person who had just made a movie about a friendship between an alien and a human. For Sid to even have thought that someday in the future I could have been the right filmmaker for this—that's the most courageous thing Sid ever did— giving it to me and not Sydney Pollack or somebody else who had already proved themselves worthy of telling a story like that. But he gave it to me; I'll never forget him for that. Also for allowing me to make this picture in black and white, R-rated, over three hours long, with no punches pulled, and saying, ‘I don't care if it does cost twenty million dollars'—which is how much the film cost to make—‘if we lose every penny, it will have been worth it just to have released that picture.' That's what Sid said to me and that's why he's my hero.”

I ask Spielberg how it felt to be the one to resurrect scenes of unspeakable horror—for instance, the scene where hordes of women are corralled into the “showers.” “I felt shame,” Spielberg recounts. “I felt shame for being a witness with my clothes on, in relative safety—standing in the shadow of the camera—while a hundred women disrobed, actually had their heads shaved, and were forced into these shower rooms. These actors portrayed women who didn't know whether there would be Zyklon-B gas or cold water coming from the taps. At Auschwitz, when the women were first taken off the transports, they didn't know whether it was going to be gas or water, because by then the rumors were all over that these were death camps.

“And it was also the feeling that I wanted to save everybody. I wanted to run in there and say, ‘You don't have to take your clothes off, you don't have to go into the shower, this doesn't have to happen; the Holocaust
never should have happened.
' And then finally stopping those words from reaching my lips and realizing that we were here because the Holocaust
happen, and maybe we can do something about it never happening again, if I can be so pretentiously bold in making that statement. Because I really felt that if this film changed ten minds, it would have been worth the effort. If it could turn ten deniers into people who accept the statistics of the six million, it would have been worth the effort. If the film lost all its money—all twenty million dollars and all its marketing costs and everything else—but one teacher decided to show the film to his or her class, it would have been worth the effort. And that emboldened me to tell the story as powerfully as I knew how in 1993.”

The film not only garnered Spielberg the kind of respect he'd had yet to earn from critics and from the Hollywood community (the film won the Academy Award for best director and best picture), but it was an unambiguous commercial success, grossing $100 million at the domestic box office and more than $320 million worldwide. “It was a complete affirmation of the fact that people
paying attention,” he says. “They weren't going to forget about the Holocaust. And it also opened the door to the Shoah Foundation, which is now the reason I realize I made the picture. I didn't know why I made
Schindler's List
, but only in retrospect can I say I made it so the Shoah Foundation would exist.”

The Shoah Foundation—Shoah means catastrophe in Hebrew and has become a synonym for genocide—was created by Spielberg to preserve the stories of Holocaust survivors from all over the world and to catalog them for use in schools and libraries. “I never would have imagined collecting the testimonies on videotape of survivors in sixty-four countries in thirty-seven languages—fifty-two thousand of them have already given their testimony—had it not been for some of the actual survivors depicted in
Schindler's List
coming up to me when they came to visit Poland for the first time since 1945 to try to get me to listen to their
life stories. These survivors wanted to tell me not just about the segment of their life experience that we were depicting on film, but about all of it.”

Obviously he's heard the sentiment that Jews shouldn't hold themselves up as the only people to have suffered a genocide, that they should let it go a little. “The Jews are just the people who
let it go,” he says fervently. “Because everybody
wants to let it go. If the Jews let it go, the entire roof falls in.”

Kenneth Cole

THE FOG AND DRIVING RAIN don't detract from the majesty of Kenneth Cole's estate in Westchester. As I drive through the electric security gate (which he's left open for me), past wet green lawns and a tennis court, I can't help thinking,
This Jewish boy from Great Neck made good

He answers the front door himself—looking compact and younger than his forty-nine years—dressed in jeans and a gray cotton button-down shirt with a black T-shirt underneath. Very Kenneth Cole. I catch only a glimpse of the elegant foyer and sweeping staircase before he leads me into his office on the main floor—a cozy room with antiques, a mannequin torso, and a wall full of enlarged black and white photographs of his three photogenic daughters, products of his eighteen-year marriage to Maria Cuomo. (She is the daughter of former governor Mario Cuomo and chair of a national housing program for the indigent, HELP USA.)

Cole and I sit on opposite sides of his desk, his hands folded in front of him on a leather blotter. He has jotted down some notes on a legal pad, and the fact that he has prepared for this interview should not surprise me: It's clear early on in the conversation that Judaism is a subject to which he's given a great deal of thought, especially lately. He begins haltingly, explaining that it's a delicate time in terms of this issue. “Being Jewish was always something I was proud of, but it wasn't until my father passed away about twelve years ago that I became much more committed to learning about why my Jewishness mattered so much to me.”

His father, Charles Cole—formerly Cohen—was a shoe manufacturer whose profession Kenneth initially rejected in favor of law school plans, but ultimately chose and pursued with astounding success. (His company, Kenneth Cole Productions, which he founded in 1982, has one hundred thirty stores in twenty-five countries, annual worldwide sales of over one billion dollars, and was ranked among the top one hundred New York companies in June 2003 and for the five years prior.)

Cole has often described his father as his greatest mentor, but Charles's death jolted Kenneth into an emotional reexamination of his dad and his heritage. “I think that maybe I just needed to connect a little bit more to
and to get a sense of him,” Cole says now. “And through him, probably myself. I believe that we are all essentially the culmination of our life's experiences and relationships. And that relationship—for me and probably for most people—was as important as any.”

He says he wasn't particularly curious about his religion growing up. “I didn't have a real understanding of what it meant to be Jewish—what those four thousand years of history had entailed. I knew that it was something that many people had committed their lives to. I knew that, over the years, it was as defining a characteristic of who someone was (or wasn't) as any. I also knew that so many Jews, whether they wore their Jewishness on their sleeves or not, had died just because they were. But I never really took the time to put any of it in perspective. I just hadn't felt a need to.”

That changed when he was seventeen years old, in 1973. His parents, who he says always came up with “inspiring” summer adventures, suggested he work on a kibbutz in Israel—a farming collective where families live and labor together for the benefit of their shared community. “When I search back for one experience in my life where I learned and came away with the most, I think it might have been that summer,” he says. It was harder work than he was prepared for. “The ritual essentially was: You woke up at four-thirty in the morning, had a quick something to eat—a piece of bread and a glass of juice—and you were in the fields by five picking peaches. And you worked three or four hours
hard and then you had your big meal—or the big breakfast—at about eight, nine in the morning. And then you got back to work, until about twelve o'clock, and then you'd rest.” (His rhythmic, run-on cadence has the unmistakable feel of a rabbi telling an ancient parable; I can tell there's a lesson coming.) “And then you'd sleep because you'd worked hard and it was very hot and that was the most productive use of your resources and that was the way you were expected to contribute to this community—this idealistic settlement which was socialism in its purest form.

“So during the hot hours of the day, everyone took naps and rested. And then they woke up, exercised—usually soccer—and had a light dinner, and there was a little socializing and then eventually you'd go to bed.

“But for me it was different: When everyone started picking peaches, I would find the biggest peach I could and hide behind the biggest tree I could find and essentially napped, and picked one bucket of peaches for every eight or ten of everyone else's. And I thought that I had found the way to realize the same rewards as the next guy while doing far less. (Not uncharacteristic of much of what I did in those days.) And then, at the end of the day, while all the others rested, I would go off to look for excitement, young people, Americans, and maybe trouble. Because I

“Maybe two-thirds of the way through the summer, I realized one day that I hadn't fooled anybody. That everybody knew what I was doing but nobody really cared. And in the end, the only one I was
fooling and shortchanging was myself. So I started working because I realized that I had to; I hadn't been ‘carrying my weight.' And immediately everything improved—especially my relationship with my peers. In many ways, I grew up that summer. I realized you can usually find shortcuts, and that in the end, they rarely work. You get out what you put in.”

It feels like he's told this story before, perhaps to his daughters as a kind of cautionary tale. The success of his company and his punishing schedule over the years are testament to his work ethic. But when I ask if he considers his stick-to-itiveness to be a Jewish trait, he shrugs. “I've always been very determined and ambitious, which has manifested itself on a baseball field or a ski slope, or even the desire to finish reading a book before the other guy starts it.” He describes this drive as a “compulsive disorder; I don't know if it relates to my upbringing.”

A housekeeper has brought in coffee and cake on white china, but Cole doesn't touch it. The phone on his desk rings intermittently, the cell phone vibrates, his Blackberry moans, the fax purrs, but he ignores them all. I can't help but appreciate that he's decided to keep work out of this meeting, but I'm aware of how persistently it intrudes. Without making too much of it, I do get the feeling that Cole has decided this subject merits his attention.

He continues: “About two months after I came back from the kibbutz, the Yom Kippur War broke out and I wanted to enlist. I felt this sense of connection and obligation. You don't get many opportunities in life to do things that are important. And my kibbutz friends (by far the toughest I had ever known) were all in the military and would be fighting, and I felt I should be with them and not look for another shortcut.” Logistics prevented him from joining up. “The realities weren't so simple,” he says. “The Israeli army had no interest in taking untrained seventeen-year-old Americans.”

It sounds like his radical moment passed like so many youthful phases do, and he's almost dismissive of it now. “In retrospect, that was more a Zionistic thing than it was a Jewish thing for me.”

The “Jewish thing” was still dormant as his career took off, and as he drew so much attention in 1985 for his provocative advertising slogans, such as
“What you stand for is more important than what you stand in,”
which didn't show shoes, but a shoelace in the shape of an AIDS ribbon. “The time to do something meaningful is often when others are less inclined to,” Cole says. “In my career, that's what I've always done. I made a very public, emphatic commitment to AIDS research nineteen years ago because it was the right thing to do and nobody else was.” His ads would go on to address gun control, homelessness, and reproductive rights. For instance:
“We think women should have a choice when it comes to being pregnant. Barefoot
is another story.”
“Wearing protection is the new black,” “Not voting is so last
season,” “Gun safety . . . it's all the rage,”
“Choice. No woman should be
without one.”
One ad,
“What's wrong with shoeing the homeless?,”
asked buyers to donate shoes to the homeless in exchange for a discount on a new pair. He donates forty percent of his sales every year to AMFAR on World AIDS Day, and received the Amnesty International Media Spotlight Award in 1998, along with other honorees.

But Cole is wary of suggesting that social activism is specifically a Jewish value. “It's hard to say, ‘Jews are this way and gentiles are that way.' And you stand a very real chance of it being misinterpreted.” He suggests Jews have been persecuted for centuries, in part because of their perceived smugness: “It's so much a part of the plight of Jews for 3300 years, ever since Moses left the mountain and we said, ‘We are the Chosen People.' Even though it is a cornerstone of much of what has driven us, it could be perceived as arrogant and something one probably shouldn't share with others unless you know them to be Jewish. One could certainly make the case (and many do) that we're
chosen people. Since most religions trace their roots back to that same moment.”

Cole clearly wants to make sure his Jewish pride isn't mistaken for self-importance. That sensitivity has to be born, in part, of having married a non-Jewish woman who is raising their children Catholic. Cole takes care not to undercut non-Jewish faiths, even going so far as to extol the worth of religion, period—no matter what brand. “So many people have improved their lives by finding faith,” he says. “It offers moral boundaries they may never have had. It provides a sense of purpose that may never have existed. And it constantly reminds them that they're not alone.”

He returned to Israel a second time with his two eldest daughters, then eleven and nine, to give them a slice of his history. “I wanted them to get a sense of the part of them that's Jewish, to understand its richness and at the same time to understand how it relates to other religions—or not—and to be able to put it in perspective.”

When he wed Maria in 1987 after a year-long courtship, he joined a family whose Roman Catholicism seems as strong as its Democratic ideology. At their wedding, which took place in the presence of four hundred guests at the New York State governor's mansion in Albany and was covered as a news story by the
New York Times
, both a priest and a rabbi presided. But when it came to raising their children, Cole agreed to defer to Cuomo's religion. It's clear now that he didn't anticipate how difficult that was going to be. “A lot of this journey of mine back to Judaism became more impassioned since,” he says. “But this is what we agreed to do. And I felt that this is what we needed to do for the children.” He pauses. “And it's hard for me every day.”

Clearly he's now navigating his way through conflicting attachments. He celebrates Christmas. He meets privately with a rabbi once a week. (“It's therapeutic,” he says. “One hour a week, I close my door and turn off my phone, which I don't do easily. And I try to make sense of who I am, why ‘this' has all come to be, and if and how our lives make sense in a world that so often doesn't.”) He holds Passover seders—at which some of Maria's family are often present. The “father-daughters trip” to Israel was perhaps another equalizer; he says Israel itself dramatizes the coexistence of faiths. “I wanted to show them the coming together of Christian and Muslim and Jewish beliefs pretty much on one hill, in one place. It was important to me to show them not just what Israel has meant to me, but what it means to the world.

BOOK: Stars of David
13.43Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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