Reb Zalman Has Gone Home


Rebbe Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Founder of the Jewish Renewal and Spiritual Eldering Movements. Rabbi of my rabbis. At the Aspen Peace Conference in November 2008. Photo by Cathleen Falsani.

News just reached me that Reb Zalman (Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, one of the founders of the Jewish Renewal Movement and my rabbi’s rabbi) died this morning in Colorado.

He was a magnificent human being, one whose light and wisdom and grace shaped the lives of two of the most important people in mine: Rabbi Allen Secher and Rebbetzin Ina Albert.

Several years ago, I spent a few magical days with Reb Zalman in Aspen and celebrated Shabbas with him at a Peace Conference — a ritual he invited all to participate in, as was his way, including an imam who was also in attendance at the conference. It was one of the more consciously transcendent experiences of my life, for which I ever will be grateful to the Rebbe.

May God comfort those who knew him best, and may his light and love emanate forever.

We transmit our wisdom to future generations.  This process not only seeds the future, but crowns an elder’s life with worth and nobility.
Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi

Learn more about Reb Zalman and his legacy HERE.


Reb Zalman and Imam Mohammed at the Aspen Peace Conference, 2008. Photo by CF.


Reb Zalman giving Shabbas challah to Imam Mohammed Bashar Arafat at the Aspen Peace Conference, 2008. Photo by CF.


Shabbas wine and candles at the Aspen Peace Conference, 2008. Photo by CF.

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‘The Immigrant’ lands close to home

My grandmother, Nellie Brady Page, circa 1925.

My grandmother, Nellie Brady Page, circa 1925.

When she was 20 years old, she traveled from her home in Ballyjamesduff, County Cavan, Ireland, to Liverpool, England, where she purchased a second-class ticket and boarded The Baltic ocean liner.

Eleven days later, on Dec. 19, 1920, she arrived at New York’s Ellis Island, alone, with $20 in her pocket.

Her given name was Ellen Brady and she went by “Nellie,” but on his manifest, the immigration clerk recorded her first name as “Ellie.”

She was my grandmother.

It was the date stamp that flashed across the screen as The Immigrant, the splendid new film from director James Gray, began that caused a catch in the back of my throat:  “Ellis Island, New York. January 1921.”

That was just a few weeks after my grandmother arrived at the busy immigration station in New York Harbor.

The coincidence brought tears to my eyes and dredged up an emotions I didn’t realize I had throughout the rest of the nearly two-hour film.

[WARNING: some spoilers ahead.]

The Immigrant stars (and was written for) Marion Cotillard in the eponymous role as Ewa Cybulski, a young, single émigrée who sails with her sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan) to New York from their native Poland. When the sisters arrive at Ellis Island, Magda, who is suffering from some sort of respiratory ailment, is quarantined and separated from Ewa, who is, subsequently, threatened with deportation for being a woman of “low morals.”

We suspect otherwise, but it isn’t until much later in the film that we learn Ewa didn’t sell her body on the journey to New York; rather she was raped by men on board the ship that spirited her to a new land of opportunity.

Immigration officials tell Ewa they’ve heard about what she had “done” on the ship as she sailed to the United States. They told her that the address of her relatives — an aunt and uncle who had settled in Brooklyn — didn’t exist; that there was no one to greet her, she was unwanted, and would have to return to Poland.

Ewa is “rescued” by Bruno (played by the magnificent Joaquin Phoenix), a charming man who claims he represents an immigrants aid organization. Bruno manages (via an established bribe racket to funnel vulnerable women his way) to get Ewa off of Ellis and into Manhattan island, where he offers her a place to stay and work as a seamstress.

She is wary of Bruno and with good cause. Soon enough, with ample promises of helping her raise the money to release Magda from the hospital on Ellis Island, rather than sewing clothes Bruno casts Ewa in his racy vaudeville show (playing a relatively demure, fully clothed Statue of Liberty among a cast of topless “immigrants” from “exotic” lands), and, eventually, pressures her into prostitution.


Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix) and Ewa (Marion Cotillard) in a production still from “The Immigrant.”

Despite her wide, dark eyes and slight frame, Ewa is neither weak nor naive. She is, however, thanks to the men (and a few women) determined to exploit her from the moment she stepped onto the boat in Poland, desperate. Bruno and others prey on her desperation and she knows it.

But what choice does she have?

She is a young, unmarried woman; alone, poor, and “undocumented.” She risks arrest and deportation if she seeks help from authorities, who may not be able (or willing) to offer any tangible assistance. Ewa chooses what she believes is the lesser evil, realizing that she has no “good” choice to make.

Enter Emil (Jeremy Renner), aka “Orlando the Magician” (and Bruno’s cousin), who takes an immediate shine to Ewa, offering her a rose when he performs for inmates at Ellis Island while she is detained there.


Unlike the rest of the people she’s met since her arrival in New York, Emil doesn’t want her body. But he still wants something.

Both Bruno and Emil want Ewa, for different reasons, none of them entirely good. Their lust to possess the winsome émigrée sparks familial rivalry and tensions that end badly for all involved.

There is ample pathos, tragedy, and small victories in The Immigrant, but I’d stop short of calling it a “melodrama,” as more than a few other critics have chosen to do. Director Gray, who says Ewa’s story was inspired in part by old family photos taken by his grandfather who arrived at Ellis Island in 1923, demonstrates restraint in this stellar period piece and doesn’t go for the easy extra squeeze of drama or emotion when so many others would.

The tale he tells struck a deeply truthful chord in me, even if my own grandmother’s fate was somewhat less tragic than Ewa’s.

When The Baltic pulled into port at Ellis Island in late December 1920, Nellie disembarked, made her way to the immigration inspector, answered his 29 questions, and walked into the Great Hall to find her older sister, Rose — who had herself arrived at Ellis Island in 1913, married, and settled in New Jersey — waiting for her.

She moved to New York City, where she had other siblings, and eventually settled in working-class Stamford, Connecticut. Nellie worked as a domestic for a wealthy family; and soon met, fell in love with, and married my grandfather, Francis Page, himself an orphan of immigrant parents from Ireland and England.

My grandparents - Francis Page and Nellie Brady - on their wedding day.

My grandparents – Francis Page and Nellie Brady – on their wedding day.

Poppy Page worked for the railroad — in a job that had him outside in the fresh air he required after having been mustard-gassed during World War I — and Nellie bore him four children.

My mother, Helen, was Nellie’s middle child. And when my mother was three, my grandmother died during labor with her fourth child, a girl named Elizabeth, who passed away shortly after she was born.

Nellie’s story is tragic, and she endured hardship as an immigrant. But not to the extent that Ewa did, and not in the way far too many immigrants still do today.

Ellis Island, which at the time of Ewa’s and my grandmother’s arrivals processed an estimated 5,000 immigrants each day, closed in 1954. The immigration process in the 21st century is much different from what it was in 1921. There are many more hoops to jump through as well as far more oversight with accompanying checks and balances. At least that’s the plan.

My son is an immigrant. He arrived in the United States from his native Malawi 103 years after his great-grandfather from Italy; 105 years after his great-grandmother from Italy; and he became a citizen 90 years after his Irish great-grandmother, Nellie, first set foot on Ellis Island.

When we arrived as a family at Los Angeles International Airport, with our legally adopted son and an official dossier of supporting paperwork from the state department, we had to wait for hours with other immigrants from Asia, South America, eastern Europe, Africa, and the Middle East until we could let him our boy into the arms of his chosen uncle in the arrivals hall.Our clerical delay was a minor inconvenience and a tiny taste of the hardships Ewa and millions of other immigrants endured.

“When you see Uncle Dave, that’s when you’re officially a U.S. citizen,” I told my son.

I’ll never forget the leap he took and how David caught him mid-air, hugged him to his chest, and said, “Welcome home, buddy.”

Safe. Secure. A citizen with all the rights with which I was born; the rights that immigrant grandparents came to this nation to secure for us.

In 2014, nearly a century after Ewa and Magda arrived on our shores, immigrants remain easy targets for corruption and exploitation, whether they are forced into prostitution or modern-day slavery, paid less than a living wage or less than their non-immigrant coworkers, or face more subtle intimidation and discrimination from employers, schools, landlords, neighbors, and even the government (local and federal).

Ewa (Marion Cotillard) and Emil aka "Orlando the Magician" (Jeremy Renner) in "The Immigrant."

Ewa (Marion Cotillard) and Emil aka “Orlando the Magician” (Jeremy Renner) in “The Immigrant.”

The Immigrant stands as a reminder that, while we have come so far in this nation of immigrants, we have still farther to go to live up to the promise of Emma Lazarus’ poem inscribed beneath the broken chains on the pedestal where Lady Liberty stands in New York Harbor:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”










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The Poem That Inspired Aronofsky’s ‘Noah’

(Left to right) Darren Aronofsky and Russell Crowe on the set of NOAH, from Paramount Pictures and Regency Enterprises. N-19090

(Left to right) Darren Aronofsky and Russell Crowe on the set of NOAH, from Paramount Pictures and Regency Enterprises.

Last week in a piece that ran in The Atlantic, I interviewed Noah director Darren Aronofsky about the spiritual message, import, and inspiration behind his epic reimagining of the ancient biblical story. You can read that interview in full HERE.

During our conversation, Aronofsky talked about a prose-poem he’d written as a 13-year-old seventh grader in Brooklyn that was inspired by the Noah story and launched him on his career path as a writer. He recently discovered the actual poem in a box of childhood mementos while searching for baseball cards for his seven-year-old son.

Today, Darren’s representatives shared a PDF of his ‘The Dove’ poem, which you can see below, followed by its transcription.





J.H.S. 239

January 13, 1982

Aronofsky, Darren


The Dove

Evil was in the world. The laughing crowd left the foolish man and his ark filled with animals when the rain began to fall. It was hopeless. The man could not take the evil crowd with him but he was allowed to bring his good family. The rain continued through the night and the cries of screaming men filled the air. The ark was afloat. Until the dove returned with the leaf, evil still existed. When the rainbows reached throughout the sky the humble man and his family knew what it meant.

The animals ran and flew freely with their new born. The fog rose and the sun shone. Peace was in the air and it soon appeared all of man’s heart.

He knew evil could not be kept away for evil and war could not be destroyed but neither was it possible to destroy peace.

Evil is hard to end and peace is hard to begin but the rainbow and the dove will always live within every mans’ heart.


You can read my review of Aronofsky’s Noah HERE and the transcript of my interview with his friend, collaborator, and co-writer of Noah, Ari Handel, HERE.

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@PONTIFEXCELLENT: Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone…

<> on May 18, 2013 in Vatican City, Vatican.For the first time in its 46-year-plus history, Rolling Stone Magazine has chosen to put a pope on its cover. (This also means Papa has scored the Holy Trifecta of Magazine Covers: Time, The New Yorker, and now this.)

Papa Frank is the cover-pontiff (and lead story) in Rolling Stone’s February 2014 edition. The story, written by contributor Mark Binelli (who has most recently also written about the Nuns-on-the-Bus controversy, the “hijacking” of Kansas politics by conservatives, and Johnny Depp the “last buccaneer”) is lengthy and as riveting as any of the magazine’s best narrative pieces.

In his story titled, “Pope Francis: The Times They Are A-Changin‘” (with the subtitle, “Inside the Pope’s Gentle Revolution”), Binelli writes in part:

After the disastrous papacy of Benedict, a staunch traditionalist who looked like he should be wearing a striped shirt with knife-fingered gloves and menacing teenagers in their nightmares, Francis’ basic mastery of skills like smiling in public seemed a small miracle to the average Catholic. But he had far more radical changes in mind. pope-francis-news-for-the-first-time-in-history-a-pontiff-has-graced-the-cover-of-rolling-stone-magazineBy eschewing the papal palace for a modest two-room apartment, by publicly scolding church leaders for being “obsessed” with divisive social issues like gay marriage, birth control and abortion (“Who am I to judge?” Francis famously replied when asked his views on homosexual priests) and – perhaps most astonishingly of all – by devoting much of his first major written teaching to a scathing critique of unchecked free-market capitalism, the pope revealed his own obsessions to be more in line with the boss’ son….

Down in the rainy square, the crowd cheers for its new friend, Cool Pope Francis, until he retreats back into the mysteries of the walled city he now rules. I’m reminded of another moment from the press conference on the plane, when a reporter attempted to pin Francis down on gay marriage and abortion. And what is His Holiness’ own position on these matters? The pope’s artful dodge struck me as brilliantly Clintonian. “That of the Church,” Francis said simply. “I’m a son of the Church.”

He didn’t add, because he didn’t have to, that he’s the father now, too.

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@PONTIFEXCELLENT: “Nuns Are Grrreat!

<> on May 18, 2013 in Vatican City, Vatican.After Mass in St. Peter’s on Feb. 2, Papa Frank spoke to the world about those leading the “consecrated life,” i.e., clergy and men/women religious. (Sunday was the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, which the Catholic church marks as “World Day for Consecrated Life.”

According to Catholic News Service, Papa Frank said:

“There is such a great need for their presence, which reinforces and renews the commitment to spreading the Gospel, Christian education, charity for the neediest, contemplative prayer, the human and spiritual formation of the young and families, and the commitment to justice and peace in the human family,” the pope said.

Straying from his prepared text, Pope Francis told people gathered in the square: “Think what would happen if there weren’t any sisters, if there weren’t any sisters in the hospitals, no sisters in the missions, no sisters in the schools. Think what the church would be like without sisters — no, that’s unthinkable.”

Consecrated life is a gift that moves the church forward, he said. “These women who consecrate their lives to carrying forward the message of Jesus — they’re great!”

I couldn’t agree more, Papa.

Below are a few shots of some of the thousands of sisters who gathered to celebrate Papa Frank’s inauguration mass not quite a year ago. I LOVE nuns. 

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Philip Seymour Hoffman: Lord Rest His Soul

Actor Philip Seymour Hoffman-1527808Perhaps the finest actor of my generation (IMHO), the Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead today in his New York City apartment.

Goddammit. Addiction is an awful disease.

My heart, and those of millions of other fans and those who knew and loved him best, felt shattered upon hearing the unexpected and tragic news.

As we mourn his death and celebrate his life, may we remember him in our prayers and especially lift up his children, Cooper, Tallulah, and Willa.

In 2005, Hoffman directed an off-Broadway production of “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot,” for which our mutual friend, Father James Martin was the “theological dramaturge.” I was writing for the Chicago Sun-Times when Fr. Jim’s book, “A Jesuit Off Broadway,” came out and wrote about it in a column recounting the choice I had to make 25 years ago or so between acting and journalism. On this incredibly sad occasion of Philip’s untimely passing, I wanted to share a bit of it with all of you. May God rest his soul and comfort all those who loved him.

Ideally at least, both acting and journalism are all about chasing, uncovering and presenting what’s true. Both vocations do that in community — be it a metro news staff or a dinner theater troupe.

Some of the similarities are vividly explored in a marvelous new book by one of my favorite priests, the Rev. James Martin, about his experience as a “theological dramaturge” for the Public Theater production of the play “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” in New York two years ago.

Martin’s book, A Jesuit Off-Broadway, recounts the months he spent consulting on spiritual and biblical matters for the play written by Stephen Adly Guirgis, directed by Oscar winner Philip Seymour Hoffman, and featuring actor Sam Rockwell as Judas.

Martin, author of last year’s best-seller, My Life With the Saints, is also a journalist. A onetime Chicagoan, he is an editor at America magazine in New York. In A Jesuit Off-Broadway, he tenderly records the play’s creation process from 10 pages of dialogue to a heralded five-week sold-out run.

Far from being an outsider, the priest is quickly adopted into the sometimes hard-partying, profane and deeply spiritual ensemble of actors that included Eric Bogosian in the role of Satan.

Along the way, Martin discovered a loving camaraderie among the cast of “Judas” that most churches would envy and learned lessons about his faith and his Lord that he hadn’t anticipated. One of the most poignant comes in a conversation with Hoffman about his gentle method of directing.

“Sometimes you have to tell someone exactly what you want,” Hoffman says, “but you can’t dictate. You have to keep suggesting. Otherwise the person becomes a sort of empty shell, they end up performing in a way that’s not, well, spiritual.”

This reminds the priest of someone else.

“His approach mirrored the way Jesus preached,” Martin writes. “Much of Jesus’ preaching involves inviting his listeners to consider something new. . . . Or, to use [Hoffman's] words, Jesus was always suggesting, in order that the decision to follow or not to follow was that person’s own decision.”

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