Jews in the News: Amy Schumer, Joaquin Phoenix and David Reich

At the Movies: Opening April 20

 “I Feel Pretty”, a comedy/drama, marks the directorial debut of the screenwriting team of ABBY KOHN and MARC SILVERSTEIN, both 46. They wrote “Pretty” and their previous screenwriting credits include a string of box office hits, including “Never Been Kissed” (1999), “He’s Just Not That into You” (2009), “The Vow” (2012), and “How to be Single” (2016).

 AMY SCHUMER, 36, stars as Renee, a cosmetics company employee who struggles with low self-esteem, mostly engendered by her perception of herself as not pretty. These feelings hold her back until she gets knocked out in an exercise class. She wakes up believing she is a supermodel. Armed now with self-confidence, she begins to live her life fearlessly. EMILY RATAJKOWSKI, 26, plays a regular at Renee’s gym. Renee looks up to because she’s stunningly pretty. However, Emily’s character, too, struggles with insecurities. Throughout most of the film there is one looming question: what will happen to Renee when the effects of the fall wear off and she realizes she isn’t a supermodel?

“You Were Never Here” may be the sleeper hit of the year. It was screened last year at the Cannes film festival. It received a rapturous reception from the critics and from the audience. At the film’s close, the theater audience gave it a seven-minute standing ovation. The director/writer, Lynne Ramsey, got the Cannes best screenplay award and JOAQUIN PHOENIX, 43, got the Cannes best actor award.

 Phoenix plays Joe, a combat veteran and former FBI agent who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. As the film opens, he is a freelance gun-for-hire and his specialty is rescuing young women who are being trafficked as prostitutes. He’s hired by a New York state senator who has recently learned where his daughter, a forced prostitute, is being held.

 Saying more would really be a spoiler!  But, be warned, there is a lot of violence. There are also a lot of unexpected plot twists. One footnote: Alessandro Nivola, 42, has a small but important role as the Governor of New York. His paternal grandmother was Jewish and I spoke to him back in 2008 when he starred as legendary record executive LEONARD CHESS in the bio-pic, “Who Do You Love?”. He doesn’t play a nice guy in “Never Here,” but he couldn’t have been nicer when I talked to him. A real sweetie. (This film was bought at Cannes by Amazon and I suspect it will be on Amazon’s streaming service before year’s end).

The Far Past Explained

 Geneticist DAVID REICH, 44, who studies ancient lineages, has a distinguished personal lineage. His mother, TOVA REICH, 75, is a novelist, mostly addressing Jewish themes. Tova’s brother is famous “open” Orthodox rabbi AVI WEISS, 73. His father is WALTER REICH, 74, an academic who was the first director of the U.S. Holocaust Museum.

 Reich, a real Nobel Prize contender, is one of the top two or three geneticists in the world studying ancient DNA lineages. He and his colleagues at a Harvard lab have made astonishing advances in the last five years that have revolutionized our knowledge of the various human species (including Neanderthals) and the movement of various peoples during pre-historical times. His new book, “Who We Are and How We Got Here,” is being hailed as a readable, almost exciting exploration of how new techniques in DNA sequencing. Pioneered by Dr. Reich and his colleagues, these techniques have answered many questions thought unanswerable: like whether Neanderthals mated with modern humans (they did) and how come Europeans and Native Americans share so much DNA (they had a common ancestor people in Central Asia). The list of fields his work may influence is almost endless, with history, archeology, and medicine leading that list.

 While looking up Dr. Reich, I came across some work he did in Jewish genetics that was first reported in 2011. This work was news to me. Reich says that the Jewish genetic record --including all Jewish groups--Sephardi, Ashkenazi, and Mizrahi, etc.--shows that around 2,000 years ago there was an influx of sub-Saharan genes into the Jewish population and Jews in all these groups, today, are genetically 3-5% sub-Saharan. Exactly how this happened is unclear. Reich points out that this study shows that unexpected DNA influxes happen in the most insular of groups. This study made me ponder my relation to African-Americans and to consider the scientifically plausible possibility that some famous Jews of 2,000 years ago, like Rabbi AKIVA and, yes, JESUS, had even a higher percentage of African DNA.


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