Jews in the News: Scott Frank, Marielle Heller and Ron Leshem

All Sorts of Battles: Chess, Tanks, and Pandemics

Now streaming on Netflix is “The Queen’s Gambit”, a new 7-part mini-series. It is based on an acclaimed novel of the same name. Many tried to turn “Gambit” into a film, but gave-up. It’s hard to turn a novel that centers on tournament chess into an exciting drama. However, almost all critics agree that SCOTT FRANK, 60, who co-wrote the series and directed it, has succeeded. Frank has a long track record of turning novels and comic books into hit films (“Get Shorty”, “Minority Report”, “Wolverine”, and “Logan”).  He broke into directing with “Godless”, a 2017 original Netflix series that he also wrote-- “from scratch”. It is a feminist Western with great action scenes. Critics loved it and so did audiences. I loved the fact that Frank worked in a poem by Hebrew poet JUDAH HALEVI (1075-1171) into the last scene.

“Gambit” follows the life of Beth Harmon (Anna Taylor-Joy). Her mother dies when she is 8 and she is put in an orphanage. Chess becomes her psychic refuge and she quickly shows she’s a prodigy. The series follows her from the orphanage to the highest ranks of international tournament chess. MARIELLE HELLER, 41, has a large supporting role as Mrs. Wheatley, a woman who adopts Beth when she is 16. Heller is best known as a director (“Diary of a Teenage Girl” and “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”). 

By the way, several articles say that many have wondered whether “Gambit” is modeled after a real woman chess champion. The novel’s author, the late Walter Tevis, was asked this question years ago.  He said, “No, it isn’t about a real woman.” The only woman to have (really) reached the career level of the (fictional) Harmon is JUDIT POLGAR, 44, a Hungarian Jew who is almost universally called the “strongest female player ever”. Polgar, a now retired chess Grandmaster, was only 8 years old when the Tevis novel was published. So, she couldn’t have been an inspiration for him.

The Israeli series “Valley of Tears”, about the 1973 Yom Kippur war, premiered on Israel TV in mid-October. HBO Max “people” saw it then, bought it, and “super fast tracked” it (Good new material is hard to find during the pandemic). On Nov. 2, it was announced that the first two of the series’ ten episodes would stream on HBO Max on Nov. 12. Each following week two more episodes will be shown.

“Valley” is the most expensive Israeli series ever made. It is costly to depict the intense combat during the Yom Kippur War. The show’s publicity release says: “It tells four emotional and highly personal stories of individuals swept away from their loved ones by the ravages of war, four parallel plotlines, intertwined together into one climactic battle.” The series was co-written by RON LESHEM, 41. He also co-created “Euphoria”, an Israeli TV series that became, in its American version, a hit for HBO. Leshem served in Israeli military intelligence and for three years reported on events in the Golan and the West Bank for a leading Israeli paper.

I haven’t seen the series, but I am guessing that the bulk of its combat scenes will be on the Syrian front and not on the Egyptian front. I say this because “Valley of Tears” was the name given to the Yom Kippur War battles on the Golan Heights, where 173 Israeli tanks stopped 1,200 Syrian tanks from reaching the Jordan River. For more background, do watch an excellent 2011 documentary that is posted on YouTube under the title “Greatest Tank Battles-The Yom Kippur War 1973”. Most of the real “Valley of Tears” story is told through interviews with Israeli veterans who participated in the Golan tank battles.

In a recent column, I listed a number of Jewish physicians who were working on a Covid-19 vaccine and/or frequently appeared on news programs to discuss the pandemic. Here’s one more: Dr. RICHARD BESSER, 61. Trained as a pediatrician, he joined a CDC unit focused on epidemics in 1991. He was named acting director of the CDC right after Obama became president. Shortly thereafter, the swine flu epidemic hit, and Besser was praised for way he conveyed information to the media. In 2014, he joined ABC News as its chief health and medical editor. In 2017, he was named President of the very prestigious Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. His brother, MITCH BESSER, also a distinguished doctor, is married to famous singer Annie Lennox.


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