OPPENHEIMER: What is his story?

I felt compelled to watch Oppenheimer because of all the buzz. We all know that Robert Oppenheimer was the creator of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, finally defeating the relentless WWll Japanese attack on the US at Pearl Harbour and the invasion of China and other far east countries.

Over the first two hours of the film, Oppenheimer one gets glimpses of the painstaking and unpredictable process of scientific inquiry and the many players, institutions and financial resources involved in such an endeavour. The film’s last hour is taken up by the political machinations that affected Openheimer’s life after 1954.

From watching the film, it was tough to assess who Oppenheimer was. Was he a Communist and passed secrets to the USSR? What was his extra-marital affair about? How does it affect him when his mistress commits suicide? His face throughout is challenging to read. I must admit that I found it hard to understand the film, so I researched online.

JNS editor-in-chief Jonathan Tobin speaks with historian Harvey Klehr, author of several books on Soviet spies in the US and shares the reality of intense soviet interest in spying on the Manhattan Project from the 1930s onward. Starting at 16:28, Harvey Klehr (*1) reports on the efforts of the Soviets to penetrate the Manhattan Project.

There were many members of the communist party in America before WWll. Apparently, at the Berkkley University lab, many of Oppenheimer’s students were members of the communist party. It was not illegal, and many of Oppenheimers’ friends and relatives, including his wife, were known members of the Communist party. Some of them did have contact with intelligence forces in the university. The FBI knew all this when Oppenheimer was chosen to lead the lab. It is also known from wiretaps that once Oppenheimer was named to head the project, he distanced himself from the Communists, and the Soviets were never able to get him to cooperate. However, there were two spies inside the Manhattan Project. One of them is Ted Hall, a brilliant young graduate student who may not have been a party member. He was not “recruited” but “volunteered” to spy for the Soviets. He later confessed and was sent to jail. The other one, Ted Fuchs, a British double agent, later became known to the FBI. Still, he never revealed, and the FBI could never prosecute him because the evidence would have betrayed US intelligence secrets.

As for the truth about the third hour of the movie, the best description I found about what the actual motivations were behind the secret trial that eventually removed Oppenheimer’s security clearance in 1954 is fully revealed in an Article initially published in the September 1977 issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Vol. 33, No. 7, page 12. It is much more complicated than the personal jealousy and treachery implied in the movie. The attack on Oppenheimer came partly from the newly elected president Eisenhower, who wanted to show that the Democrats had been soft on the Communists along with Roy Cohn, the treacherous head of the FBI’s obsessions and the hidden conflicts between Oppenheimer and some of the players in the atomic project. (*2)

In an opinion piece in the NY Times, (*3) Kai Bird, author of American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the book on which Oppenheimer the movie is based, writes as follows.

Sadly, Oppenheimer’s life story is relevant to our current political predicaments. Oppenheimer was destroyed by a political movement characterized by rank know-nothing, anti-intellectual, xenophobic demagogues. The witch-hunters of that season are the direct ancestors of our current political actors of a specific paranoid style…Oppenheimer did not regret what he did at Los Alamos; he understood that you cannot stop curious human beings from discovering the physical world around them. One cannot halt the scientific quest, nor can one un-invent the atomic bomb but it is up to each and every one of us to ensure that our current technologies are integrated by our leaders into a sustainable and humane civilization.

Yom Kippur confronts us with the fragility of man in the face of the viccisissitudes of both man made and natural disasters. These three historic movies, Golda, Shttl and Oppenheimer, remind us that a human being’s insight is limited in contrast with God’s gaze who sees all and judges each of us every year on this day. This is one of the main themes of Yom Kippur as expressed in this hymn: 

You (God) remember all the workings of the universe

And you note all the creatures of this world

All events and mysteries are revealed to you

Because there is nothing forgotten before Your Holy Throne

Or hidden from your gaze.  

Yishai Rebo, the popular Israeli singer has just posted a new chant of these Hebrew prayer verses: Hebrew transliteration, Ata zocher below *4



But as humans we are all subject to the vicissitudes of human failings.

The Yom Kippur service repeats many times that these three things alone have the potential to allay the evil of any harsh decrees that may befall us – 

Teshuva/desire to change, tefila/asking for our needs, and tzedaka/deeds of charity and kindness – 

Yom Kippur is the day designated for us to confront this reality by sharing our private struggles before our God and praying to be remembered for life and for goodness in the coming year. 

Here is the haunting Yom Kippur refrain sung by Cantor Gideon Zelermayer and the Shaar Hashomayim Montreal Synagogue choir: * from the standard Yom Kippur prayerbook.

Remember us for “Life”,(*) oh King Who Desires Life, 

and Inscribe us in the Book of Life

For your sake, Oh Living God. 









*1. JNS editor-in-chief Jonathan Tobin speaks with historian Harvey Klehr about the movie Oppenheimer and the legacy of American Communism. The story re communism starts at 16:30 min. https://youtu.be/sYCyMCR4ynA?si=fp1Wbq5uSENNd49D&t=990
*2. The Oppenheimer case: A study in the abuse of law by Harold P. Green, July 17, 2023, Published in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists
*3. NY Times opinion piece by Kai Bird, author of American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer
*4. YouTube: Ishay Ribo & Mordechai Ben David – Ata Zocher


SHTTL has been screened and has won prizes at film festivals (*1). I was fortunate to view it at a private screening sponsored by the Montreal Holocaust Museum. According to Eric Gozlan, one of the producers, who was present at the screening, it will be released in Ukraine in October 2023 and Canada in 2024.

SHTTL is the most difficult one of the four movies, but it is also the most unforgettable. The film starts in a Ukrainian forest, recounting a Hasidic folk story and two young men eager to get somewhere on foot. They arrive at a noisy market where people seem to know them. There is a Soviet manager of some workers, lots of crosstalk, and mentions of the protagonist’s former girlfriend who is engaged to be married that weekend. There is a dreamy sequence with the protagonist’s dead mother, an encounter with his father, and a beautiful scene in a synagogue. In other words, you are drawn into a slice of life where you spend 24 hours with the characters who inhabit this tiny unknown village in Ukraine near the Polish border.

SHTTL creatively brings you into this village life before the Nazi invasion of Ukraine as an active observer. I loved the subtle hints at how the religious Jews, the more secular Jews, the Russian occupiers and the other neighbours get along or don’t get along.

Director Ady Walter explained that he left out the “e” in the word “shtetl” to signify the loss of villages like the one in the film that were wiped out by the Nazi invasion. SHTTL then becomes a memorial to those who died as the film emphasizes their tragically lost lives rather than their horrible fate. Did I mention that the film is filmed entirely in the native languages of the villagers, Ukrainian, mostly Yiddish, perhaps some Russian and German, all with English subtitles?

There is a strong Montreal connection. Two of the producers are well-known Montreal entertainment professionals: Eric Gozlan (*2), known for Beautiful Boy, StandOff, A Score to Settle, Bandit, and Joe Sisto (*3), entertainment lawyer, known for Valerian and the City of a Thousand Plane, Upside down, Brick Mansions and Erased.

The producers hope to submit this film in the foreign film category this year on behalf of Ukraine! Kudos to all who worked so diligently in creating this masterpiece of the 21st century.



*1. Shttl, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shttl
*2. Eric Gozlan, https://www.imdb.com/name/nm2480811
*3. Joe Sisto, https://www.imdb.com/name/nm2339368

BARBIE: Who is She?

Barbie was the most enjoyable movie – it has music, jokes, and a powerful message.

Barbie dolls and Ken dolls, favourite toys of little girls and boys, become animated characters with human traits. They all party gayly until the horrible idea of “death” intrudes on their magical world. For the rest of the film, girls and boys, men and women, bosses and parents, all are put under the microscope of evaluation, and they all somehow manage to “find” their “true selves”.

The film reminds me of the High Holiday synagogue pageant of Yom Kippur the Jewish Holy Day that deals with our everyday sorrows and vicissitudes. The ritualized text of the daylong service reminds us of all the calamities that can occur to anyone of us, without our consent. This day is dedicated to meditative self-reflection. Have we strayed from the straight and narrow? Have we hurt people in our lives? Are there fences which need mending? 

The process is ritualized by midnight services in synagogues during the month preceding Yom Kippur called Selichot services. Still, while the work is private and personal, the Selichot services are communal gatherings and, in Israel, often include public concerts and musical gatherings. I attended one of these concerts at Beit Avichai in Jerusalem. 


The message of our tradition is that human transformation, improvement for the better, is always possible and as close as the nose on your face! This process is called “teshuvah,” the most straightforward translation is “returning, returning to your pure soul.”

 In a world that frequently moves at an alarming pace, it is essential to find moments of peace and connection. Our annual Jewish High Holidays remind us that, like Barbie and Ken, we can all grow and evolve for the better, both individually and as a community.



On August 24, the Federation CJA, Montreal’s central Jewish community organization, kicked off its annual fundraising campaign by renting out all eight screens of the newly refurbished CineStarz Deluxe Cavendish movie theatre, to offer two screenings of Golda, starring Helen Mirren about the iconic Israeli political figure, Golda Meir.

CJA is part of the tradition of philanthropic communal care dating to biblical times with the mandate “to feed the hungry and clothe the poor.” In Montreal, this organization celebrated its centennial in 2017. On the homepage of their website, they have an incredible video launching this year’s #StandUpCampaign, #Standup for our vulnerable, #Standup against antisemitism and #StandUp for Jewish identity. (*1)

The film Golda had me on the edge of my seat as it depicted the horrible situation Israeli citizens and soldiers found themselves in going out to a war launched by Egypt and Syria and the tacit support of Jordan on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year in 1973. With the army and reserves poorly prepared for the attack, Israel was in an existential crisis, with the lives of six million Israelis threatened with total annihilation.

The film focuses on Meir’s leadership during the war. She was the Prime Minister of Israel and the designated commander-in-chief. An archive recently released from the battle gives a glimpse of the atrocities of the event.

The war started on Saturday, but by the time we got [to the Golan], it was early morning on Sunday. And what we entered was a very difficult scene of utter chaos. Burnt tanks, tens of casualties and people screaming for help. (*2)

Serious losses were incurred on all sides – 2,688 Israeli soldiers killed, 7,700 for Egypt and 3,500 for Syria. (*3)

Ultimately, Israel received the needed supplies and could advance to Damascus in Syria and invade Egypt in the south. Thus, the attacking armies were the ones suing for a ceasefire.

Golda resigned shortly after the war, and for a long time, many blamed her personally and wondered whether her being a woman or her age influenced the poor preparedness and the losses incurred.

This movie depicts Golda’s reality as much more complicated than anyone knew. It shows her secretly undergoing cancer treatment, taking over the media response from General Moshe Dayan to bolster the public’s spirits when she felt he was failing and sending the wrong message, and dealing with the geopolitics of the US reluctance to provide arms to Israel. In brief, this movie focuses on Meir’s compassion, intelligence, and committed leadership and service to her country under very challenging circumstances.

The essence of Golda is revealed in her empathy towards those in her immediate circle and her holding the line almost single-handedly when the going got tough. We can learn much about her leadership, especially her motto to always put the needs of the state and the people ahead of her own. She successfully guided her nation through a trying moment, and we all owe her an outstanding debt of gratitude.

Watching Helen Mirren portray the dilemmas of this complicated personality is well worth the cost of this ticket. Her face practically opens the movie and speaks volumes without uttering a word. She deserves an Oscar for this performance!


1. Federation CJA video #standupcampaign
2. Archives of the Yom Kippur War
3. The Yom Kippur War: Background & Overview, “serious losses were incurred on both sides – 2,688 Israeli soldiers killed, 7.700 for Egypt and 3,500 for Syria” (www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/background-and-overview-yom-kippur-war)


Heroes: Then and Now

In general, each of the Five Books of Moses and all the weekly Torah portions read in the synagogue are named after the first significant word of the book. For example, Shemot (Names in English) is the first important word in the first sentence of the Book of Exodus.

“These are the names of the children of Israel who came to Egypt. (Exodus CH 1:V 1) Eleh Shemot bnai Yisrael…

Despite this simple explanation, many have sought to interpret the significance of the specific appellation. Rabbi Shipell of Lockdown Univerity shared this one recently.*1

Some in the Book of Exodus are named, but many more are referred to anonymously.

A man of the house of Levi went and married a daughter of Levi. The woman conceived and bore a son.” (Exodus ch 2 v 1-2)

Although many are referred to anonymously, their mission is no less significant. If they had not each performed their specific tasks, as our Passover Haggadah text states, “we, and our children, and our children’s children would still be slaves in Egypt.”

Among the first persons named explicitly in the text are the Egyptian midwives to the Hebrews, Shifra and Puah. These two women’s acts may be the world’s first recorded historical narrative of civil disobedience.

Now the king of Egypt spoke to the Egyptian midwives, one who was named Shifrah, and the second, who was named Puah. And he said, “When you deliver the Hebrew women, and you see them on the birthstool, if it is a son, you shall put him to death, but if it is a daughter, she may live.” (Exodus 1:17-21)

But the midwives did not follow the Pharoh’s demands.

The midwives, however, feared God, so they did not do as the king of Egypt had spoken to them, but they enabled the boys to live. So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said, “Why have you done this thing that you have enabled the boys to live?”

Another character who disobeyed the Pharoh’s immoral decrees was the Pharoh’s daughter.

Pharaoh and the Midwives

Pharaoh and the Midwives, James Tissot c. 1900 (Source: https://thejewishmuseum.org/collection/26330-pharaoh-and-the-midwives)


Pharaoh’s daughter went down to bathe in the Nile, and her maidens were walking along the Nile, and she saw the basket in the midst of the marsh, and she sent her maidservant, and she took it. She opened it, and she saw him, the child, and behold, he was a weeping lad, and she had compassion on him, and she said, “This is one of the children of the Hebrews.” (Exodus Ch 2 v 5-6)

This is the origin story of how Moses was saved from death and named and adopted by the Egyptian princess. Interestingly, Phaproh’s daughter is not named here, but she is the one who called the baby Moses, and this is the name by which he is known to this day!

She named him Moses, and she said, “For I drew him from the water” (min hamayim mishitihu). (Exodus Ch 2 v 10)

The Discovery of Moses (1886). Oil on canvas, 196.7 x 276.8 cm (77.4 x 108.9 in). Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery (Source: The Yorck Project (2002) 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei (DVD-ROM), distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. ISBN: 3936122202.)


Modern Day Heros

It is now seventy-eight years since the defeat of the Nazis in WWll, and every day I learn about many hitherto anonymous people who were so significant to achieving that victory, some of them Jewish, many of them not. 

One of these liberators I recently learned about is the remarkable Portuguese-born double agent Juan Pujol García, who single-handedly decided in the early 1930s that Hitler had to be defeated. He managed to avoid conscription to Franco’s fascist army but was determined to pursue his goal of defeating Hitler and his forces. So he decided to pass himself off as a devoted Nazi in Spain. He began to send reports to Germany based on available information. He was so convincing that the Nazis enlisted him to go to Britain to enlist other double agents. Once in England, he ingeniously created a fictitious non-existent network of English double agents complete with code names and reports throughout the war. The English decoders of Nazi communications discovered what he was doing and then enlisted him formally to work for the Engish spy network, MI-6.

As MI-6 called him, Agent Garbo succeeded in deceiving the German high command several times in the allies’ favour. With the covert help of MI-6, he created a field of realistic-looking, blown-up balloon tanks and rows of planes set to go, which were photographed and sent to the German High Command. With these pictures, Agent Garbo convinced the German High Command that the invasion would be at Calais, not Normandy. He is genuinely one of the spies about whom it could be said if not for him, the war may have gone very differently. He was successful in his mission and lived to tell the tale and write his memoir, Operation GARBO: the personal story of the most successful double agent of World War II, on Jan. 1, 1985, by Juan Pujol & Nigel West.

Joan Pujol Garcia

Juan Pujol García as a conscript, 1931 (Source: http://twi-ny.com/blog/2011/11/18/garbo-the-spy/)

Thousands of others like Juan Pujol García are only now being discoverethatnd children took it upon themselves not to for him do the right thing.

Another hero I discovered as I watched the recent movie, Simone, Woman of the Century, is Simone Veil.

Simone Veil (European Parliament) at the Four Freedoms Awards ceremony in Middelburg Date: June 23, 1984 Location: Middelburg, Zeeland

The story of Veil’s life is seen from her joyful upbringing in a secular Jewish family to her arrest and deportation to Auschwitz, the day she received her high school diploma and her post-war accomplishments: – marrying and raising a family, acquiring a French law degree and serving in the French government and managing to alleviate the plight of prisoners of war, chronic drug users,  achieving legal abortion rights in a Catholic country, and becoming the first president of the European Parliament, the EU, to finally avoid the wars that have torn Europe apart for hundreds of years.

I have often considered the line Marc Antony spoke in Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar.

“The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.”

It seems to me that it is just the opposite, “the good that men do lives on and remains with us for all generations to record and recall.”



*1 Rabbi Shipell of Lockdown University gives a weekly seminar on the Torah portion of the week on Lockdown Univerity. To subscribe, contact Lockdown University Staff at info@lockdownuniversity.org.