(JTA) — Paul Farber was shocked when he first watched “Rocky” and saw a Star of David on the grave of Rocky Balboa’s coach, Mickey Goldmill.
As a Jew and as the founder of the Philadelphia-based Monument Lab, which has explored collective memory through art installations across the country for over a decade, Farber was well positioned to think about the deeper meaning of that brief shot.
“Anytime I see a Jewish funeral in a film, there’s some kind of call to attention. And I always want to know what that means, especially for a Hollywood production, especially when it may not be branded as a Jewish story,” he told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
“We’re not there in a prolonged series of mourning, but in a split second, seeing a Jewish site of a memory is really fascinating,” he added.
That outlook lies behind Farber’s work as the host of the new NPR podcast “The Statue,” a deep dive into Philadelphia’s famed statue of Rocky Balboa, the fictional prizefighter at the center of “Rocky.” The series delves into what sports and society can convey about memory, and in his research, Farber discovered a few Jewish nuggets found in the film series — including the fact that Rocky’s love interest was originally supposed to be Jewish.
“They made an actual gravestone [for her character] and it’s in Philadelphia’s most famous cemetery, Laurel Hill. And you can go there and see this gravestone where a movie character is ‘buried,’” he said. “People leave offerings on the gravestone, including small pebbles as if it’s a Jewish site of memory.”
In an interview with JTA, Farber shared his inspiration for the series, how his Jewish upbringing informed his life’s work and the role statues — such as that of Jewish baseball legend Sandy Koufax — do, and should, play.
This interview was lightly edited for length and clarity.
Jewish Telegraphic Agency: To start off, I’d love to hear about how you first got interested in studying monuments.
Paul Farber: I’m really interested in the ways that, in cities, we innovate toward the future, and also come to terms with our past, and it happens often in the same exact places. That could be a statue, a street, a corner store. And so that’s a big part for me.
What really inspired this project is a conversation I had with my mother, quite a few years ago. My mother is a lifelong Philadelphian. Her parents were Jewish immigrants in South Philadelphia. And when I told her I was teaching a class at the University of Pennsylvania about Philly neighborhoods, she asked me if I was covering Rocky. When I said, “Oh, it’s not on the syllabus” — and I may have said it in a way that felt dismissive — she gave me this look that I think a lot of us know: “How could you.” So for her birthday, we watched “Rocky” and we went to see “Creed.” My grandfather went to South Philly High and was in the boxing club. He shared stories in our family about what it meant to have sport and culture and belonging go together in South Philly. I started to see that across generations, from long before “Rocky” to this moment now, almost 50 years after the release of the film, many people’s family stories could be channeled through this statue, including my own, and that was enough of a prompt to go dive in.
“Rocky” is obviously not a Jewish story, but there are some nuggets. There’s the funeral scene, and you mentioned something about Adrian almost being Jewish. I’m curious what you think about the little Jewish pieces you can pull out of this famous story, and what those mean to you as a Philly sports fan.
It blew me away that Rocky’s coach, Mick, passes away and the character Rocky goes to his funeral, and you see a Star of David. Anytime I see a Jewish funeral in a film, there’s some kind of call to attention. And I always want to know what that means, especially for a Hollywood production, especially when it may not be branded as a Jewish story. And it just opened up a whole set of questions for me that blurred between art and life, between the film series and the city of Philadelphia.
In episode two, we showcase this monumental art book that Sylvester Stallone [who played Rocky] created. There was this passage in it that just blew me away, about the first draft of “Rocky,” where he says, “As for Adrian, she was Jewish in the first draft.” And he got feedback and cut that character. We never hear about Mickey’s Judaism. We never hear about Rocky’s bond across culture. But the fact that the first scene in the “Rocky” series is in a place called Resurrection Gym — that is obvious Christian iconography — and to put Jewish characters in is really fascinating to me.
There is another famous grave that is involved in the series. The character Adrian eventually passes away, and like the statue, which was made as a bronze sculpture, for the “Rocky” film series they made an actual gravestone and it’s in Philadelphia’s most famous cemetery, Laurel Hill. And you can go there and see this gravestone where a movie character is “buried.” People leave offerings on the gravestone, including small pebbles as if it’s a Jewish site of memory.
People talk about representation on screen, and I’m not sure a Jewish funeral necessarily does that, but I would imagine for some people, seeing Rocky Balboa say the “Mourner’s Kaddish“ was maybe their first interaction with Judaism in some way. What do you make of that?
Every shot is deliberate. And it’s actually that kind of attitude and outlook that created the Rocky statue, because Sylvester Stallone was the director of that film, and they could have made a styrofoam version or a temporary one, but they spent over a year making a bronze version so that when the camera faced it, it would make contact. I think very similarly, this is part of the artistry of Stallone that plays out in our podcast series. We’re not with him when he sits shiva. We’re not there in a prolonged series of mourning, but in a split second, seeing a Jewish site of a memory is really fascinating. And to see the coach Mickey, to have his Wikipedia page say he’s Jewish, all that we have is mourning.
I think about how for immigrant Jewish communities, there are gaps in our narratives. Throughout the series, and one of the reasons I wanted to share my perspective as a queer Jewish person who grew up loving sports in Philly, I’ve been informed by my own family’s history, and what we’re able to recall and what gaps there are. And I see that being echoed for so many people in the Rocky story.
It’s clearly a very personal story for you. Why did you think it was important to start the podcast with your own identity, and to include your Jewish mother?
I think it’s important that when we talk about sites of memory, we understand that there are shared and collective ways that we bring the past forward, and there are others that are incredibly personal. My hope was to find, in this case, to spotlight, a significant site of memory in the city, but ask questions about it. And I think it was important to note what position I would take, because I don’t believe there’s one story to the Rocky statue. To tell a biography of a statue, you actually have to tell it of the people who make meaning from it. So in the series, we do a lot of work where we want to know other people’s stories and backgrounds, whether they are refugees from Afghanistan, or community organizers in Kensington [a neighborhood of Philadelphia]. My hope was by positioning this from my perspective, almost as a memoir in a way, that it opened up space for others to have their experiences be valued and made meaning of.
Both with the podcast and in your work with the Monument Lab, how do you feel that your Jewish identity informs what you do? Do you see overlap between your Jewish values and the values you work on in your organization?
I absolutely think so. I grew up in a Jewish community in Philadelphia, and tikkun olam was a constant refrain. The work of tikkun olam meant a worldview that necessitated building coalitions and understanding across divides, to not diminish or under-emphasize them, but to appreciate how we work in solidarity, whether that’s around racial justice, gender justice, in various struggles. I am a co-founder and director of an organization that focuses on memory, and that I really get from the stories of growing up in a Jewish household, in a Jewish community, where memory lived in different ways. We were always aware of the stories of trauma and loss, as well as reconciliation and transformation, and how you work with the gaps that you have, and you listen, and you learn and you carry the story with you. Because that is the way to bond generations. Jewish memory really grounds what I do, and I seek to use it as a tool to learn more and to feed connection across divides.
Rocky takes on this almost mythical, godlike status, and his statue in Philadelphia is a bit of a pilgrimage site. Do you see any tension there as a Jew, given the prohibition against idol worship?
I think about the importance of memory, against forces of violence and erasure. I also understand that, in a world that is full of pain and difficulty and loss, we seek places to release that. And so I understand the pull to monuments. What I would like to see, and what we try to do through this series, “The Statue,” and also with the work of Monument Lab, is to look on and off the pedestal, and really think about how history lives with us. As we say in the series and other places, history doesn’t live inside of statues, it lives with people who steward them, who create other kinds of sites of memory, who are vigilant in their modes of commemoration. What I try to do in this work is understand the ambivalence around monuments, the pull to try to remember and be enduring through time, and just that constant reminder that whenever you try to freeze the past, or freeze an image of power, you cut out the potential to find connection and empowerment, and thus forms of survival.
In sports, there are so many ways to honor people, especially different ways that, like a statue, take on the idea of permanence. When Bill Russell died, the NBA retired his number 6 across the league. On Jackie Robinson Day, every April 15, the whole MLB honors Jackie Robinson by wearing his uniform number. But statues just have a different level of oomph. Sandy Koufax has a new statue in Los Angeles that was unveiled last year; Hank Greenberg has one. What do you think it should take for an athlete to reach that status?
The pinnacle in sports is to have a statue dedicated to you outside of the stadium. And I do believe the cultures of social media have amplified that, because we grew up with the story of Sandy Koufax not pitching in the World Series during the High Holy Days, and that wasn’t because we learned it from a statue or a plaque. We learned it because it was carried forward and put into different forms of remembering and recalling its importance. I went to several Maccabi Games in the U.S. — I used to be a sprinter. And the culture of memory and sport, they were one in the same.
In professional sports, the pinnacle is the statue, but I think you brought up other really important ways of remembering that operate in non-statue forms that feel like they are living memorials. The idea of retiring someone’s number, and keeping their number up, is a way to acknowledge, in this really public of all public spaces, an intimacy and a care, and especially when an athlete passes away, how that transcends the lines of city geography. Jackie Robinson Day is something that did not occur immediately after Jackie Robinson was the first Black player to play in the major leagues, but was a product of a later moment when people around Major League Baseball sought to activate his memory. So yes, a statue outside of a stadium is like a particular kind of professional accolade. But the other forms are really meaningful.
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Phyllis Pollock died at home Sunday September 3, 2023 in Winnipeg, after a courageous lifetime battle with cancer.
Phyllis was a mother of four: Gary (Laura), daughter Randi, Steven (deceased in 2010) (Karen), and Robert. Phyllis also had two grandchildren: Lauren and Quinn.
Born in Fort Frances, Ontario on February 7, 1939, Phyllis was an only child to Ruby and Alex Lerman. After graduating high school, Phyllis moved to Winnipeg where she married and later divorced Danny Pollock, the father of her children. She moved to Beverly Hills in 1971, where she raised her children.
Phyllis had a busy social life and lucrative real estate career that spanned over 50 years, including new home sales with CoastCo. Phyllis was the original sales agent for three buildings in Santa Monica, oceanfront: Sea Colony I, Sea Colony II, and Sea Colony. She was known as the Sea Colony Queen. She worked side by side with her daughter Randi for about 25 years – handling over 600 transactions, including sales and leases within the three phases of Sea Colony alone.
Phyllis had more energy than most people half her age. She loved entertaining, working in the real estate field, meeting new and interesting people everyday no matter where she went, and thrived on making new lifelong friends. Phyllis eventually moved to the Sea Colony in Santa Monica where she lived for many years before moving to Palm Desert, then Winnipeg.
After battling breast cancer four times in approximately 20 years, she developed metastatic Stage 4 lung cancer. Her long-time domestic partner of 27 years, Joseph Wilder, K.C., was the love of her life. They were never far apart. They traveled the world and went on many adventures during their relationship. During her treatment, Phyllis would say how much she missed work and seeing her clients. Joey demonstrated amazing strength, love, care, and compassion for Phyllis as her condition progressed. He was her rock and was by her side 24/7, making sure she had the best possible care. Joey’s son David was always there to support Phyllis and to make her smile. Joey’s other children, Sheri, Kenny, Joshua and wife Davina, were also a part of her life. His kids would Facetime Phyllis and include her during any of their important functions. Phyllis loved Joey’s children as if they were her own.
Thank you to all of her friends and family who were there to support her during these difficult times. Phyllis is now, finally, pain free and in a better place. She was loved dearly and will be greatly missed. Interment took place in Los Angeles.
Gwen Centre Creative Living Centre celebrates 35th anniversary
By BERNIE BELLAN Over 100 individuals gathered at the Gwen Secter Centre on Tuesday evening, July 18 – under the big top that serves as the venue for the summer series of outdoor concerts that is now in its third year at the centre.
The occasion was the celebration of the Gwen Secter Centre’s 35th anniversary. It was also an opportunity to honour the memory of Sophie Shinewald, who passed away at the age of 106 in 2019, but who, as recently as 2018, was still a regular attendee at the Gwen Secter Centre.
As Gwen Secter Executive Director Becky Chisick noted in her remarks to the audience, Sophie had been volunteering at the Gwen Secter Centre for years – answering the phone among other duties. Becky remarked that Sophie’s son, Ed Shinewald, had the phone number for the Gwen Secter Centre stored in his phone as “Mum’s work.”
Remarks were also delivered by Raquel Dancho, Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St. Paul, who was the only representative of any level of government in attendance. (How times have changed: I remember well the steadfast support the former Member of the Legislature for St. John’s, Gord Mackintosh, showed the Gwen Secter Centre when it was perilously close to being closed down. And, of course, for years, the area in which the Gwen Secter Centre is situated was represented by the late Saul Cherniack.)
Sophie Shinewald’s granddaughter, Alix (who flew in from Chicago), represented the Shinewald family at the event. (Her brother, Benjamin, who lives in Ottawa, wasn’t able to attend, but he sent a pre-recorded audio message that was played for the audience.)
Musical entertainment for the evening was provided by a group of talented singers, led by Julia Kroft. Following the concert, attendees headed inside to partake of a sumptuous assortment of pastries, all prepared by the Gwen Secter culinary staff. (And, despite my asking whether I could take a doggy bag home, I was turned down.)
Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station
This is a developing story.
(JTA) — Palestinian gunmen killed four people and wounded four in a terror attack at a gas station near the West Bank settlement of Eli, the Israeli army reported.
An Israeli civilian returning fire at the scene of the attack on Tuesday killed one of the attackers, who emerged from a vehicle, and two others fled.
Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster, said one of those wounded was in serious condition. The gunmen, while in the vehicle, shot at a guard post at the entry to the settlement, and then continued to the gas station which is also the site of a snack bar. A nearby yeshiva went into lockdown.
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced plans to convene a briefing with top security officials within hours of the attack. Kan reported that there were celebrations of the killing in major West Bank cities and in the Gaza Strip, initiated by terrorist groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Hamas said the shooting attack Tuesday was triggered by the Jenin raid.
The shooting comes as tensions intensify in the West Bank. A day earlier, Israeli troops raiding the city of Jenin to arrest accused terrorists killed five people.
The Biden administration spoke out over the weekend against Israel’s plans to build 4,000 new housing units for Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also finalized plans to transfer West Bank building decisions to Bezalel Smotrich, the extremist who is the finance minister. Smotrich has said he wants to limit Palestinian building and expand settlement building.
Kan reported that the dead terrorist was a resident of a village, Urif, close to Huwara, the Palestinian town where terrorists killed two Israeli brothers driving through in February. Settlers retaliated by raiding the village and burning cars and buildings.
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