A scene from the hit movie "Dunkirk," which was based partly on a book by Jewish author Joshua Levine
A scene from the hit movie "Dunkirk," which was based partly on a book by Jewish author Joshua Levine

The Jewish historian behind ‘Dunkirk’; most famous Eritrean Jew? and more

Jewish historian behind ‘Dunkirk’

The summer’s dramatic hit is, of course, “Dunkirk.” Director Christopher Nolan also wrote the screenplay, but he gives great credit to historian Joshua Levine, who wrote the companion book to the film, “Dunkirk: The History Behind the Major Motion Picture.” Nolan and Levine interviewed Dunkirk veterans for several years before the film began production. Levine was born in the Bahamas, became an English barrister and then chucked that for a short-lived acting career and, finally, a career as an independent historian. Since 2006, he’s written three other books on aspects of World War II history.

In an Aug. 2 interview with Military.com, Levine succinctly summed up what the miracle of Dunkirk meant to Jews and to every European enemy of Hitler: “I’m Jewish. If the British had come to terms with Hitler, well, you know I wouldn’t be here today. … Effectively, the whole of Europe would have been Nazified. All the freedoms, all the liberties, everything that we take for granted in this country [Britain] would have been bled away.”

The “Dunkirk” score was written by Oscar-winner Hans Zimmer, 59, a frequent Nolan collaborator. Nolan says: “Hans’ unique score drives the visceral sense of action the film needs to put the audience right into the story, using images, sound and music.” Zimmer’s mother, a German Jew, escaped to England in 1939.


America’s most famous Eritrean Jew

This summer’s surprise comedy hit is “Girls Trip,” a genuinely funny film with finely crafted characters. It’s about four lifelong friends who renew their sisterhood during a trip to New Orleans. Critics agree that the breakout performer is stand-up comedian Tiffany Haddish, 37. Her father left right after her birth (running from the law for selling fake green cards). She found him in 2008. He told her he was an Eritrean Jew. That would make Tiffany the most famous American of Ethiopian/Eritrean Jewish ancestry.

Haddish has said in two video interviews that her father, who died earlier this year, was an Eritrean Jew.


See ‘Good Time’

I confess, I had barely heard of filmmaker brothers Josh Safdie, 33, and Ben Safdie, 31, before reading the amazingly good reviews for their new film “Good Time” (opened Aug. 11 in limited release). Born and raised in New York, they are distantly related to prominent Israeli architect Moshe Safdie, 78. The Safdies are independent filmmakers who previously made two low-budget feature films and one documentary. Those films also got very good notices. “Good Time” may be their breakthrough film; make a note to see it if you can handle its harrowing subject matter.

Robert Pattinson (“Twilight”) gives what Variety calls a “career high in [a] nervy thriller.” He plays Connie, a scuzzy career criminal who participates in a botched bank robbery that lands his mentally ill brother, Nick (played by Ben Safdie), in jail. Over the course of one long night, Connie delves into the underworld and engages in spasms of violence in a desperate and dangerous attempt to get his brother out of jail. The supporting cast is equally praised by Variety, including Jennifer Jason Leigh, 55, as Connie’s “incandescently wasted girlfriend.”

Josh directed the film with his brother and wrote the screenplay with Ronald Bronstein, 43. Looks like Hollywood finally has noticed the Safdie brothers and is trying to get them to direct more popular material. (A Bay Area release date is not yet set.) Netflix snapped the film up at the Cannes Film Festival for streaming in most world markets, while Amazon Prime has the American streaming rights.


Streamin’ away

“Icarus,” a smash at the Sundance Film Festival, premiered on Aug. 4 on Netflix. It’s a documentary about doping in sports (especially in Russia). The director and on-camera star of “Icarus” is Bryan Fogel, 43. You might know him as the author of “Jewtopia,” a hit comedy play that was made into a much less successful film in 2012.

The first 11-episode season of “Atypical” premiered on Netflix on Aug. 11. It’s a comedy/drama about Sam, a teenage boy with high-functioning autism (Keir Gilchrist). Jennifer Jason Leigh and Michael Rapoport, 47, co-star as the parents of Sam and his older sister. Sadly, the Hollywood Reporter slammed “Atypical.” While noting that the acting was strong, the Reporter said the scripts, starting with Episode 3, were “unbelievable and poorly executed … Repeatedly wrongheaded decisions, mostly from Elsa [Leigh], turn ‘Atypical’ into a contrived mess shockingly fast; you watch it go from potential Netflix gem to no-thanks network hash in roughly four episodes.”


Birth of ‘Rhinestone Cowboy’

Songwriter Jimmy Webb was interviewed by NPR right after Glen Campbell’s Aug. 8 death. Webb wrote some of Campbell’s biggest hits, including “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” “Wichita Lineman” and “Galveston.” Webb said Campbell didn’t get enough credit for his hits. “Nobody compared with him when it came to picking a song and then arranging it,” Webb said. “He left his stamp on whatever material he did.”

That certainly is true for Campbell’s biggest hit, “Rhinestone Cowboy” (1975). Larry Weiss, 76, wrote the words and music and recorded the song in 1974, but it hardly sold. Campbell chanced to hear it in Australia and was “pitched it” by a music executive upon returning to the States. He made the wise decision to record it and crafted it into a hit with the help of top producer Dennis Lambert, 70.

Weiss, the son of a textile manufacturer, was born in Newark and raised in Queens and Los Angeles. He had some success in songwriting in New York and Los Angeles. But he had no major hits before “Rhinestone Cowboy” and none since. Still, according to a 2013 profile and interview in MAMi magazine, Weiss lives a comfortable and happy life in Nashville. In 2010, he released “Cut and Scratches,” an album that included the song “My Forefathers.” MAMi said it was “Larry’s tribute to his Jewish ancestors that proclaims how proud he is to carry on their tradition.” It’s not a great song, but I appreciate knowing that the original Rhinestone Cowboy is a proud Jew.

Nate Bloom

Nate Bloom writes the "Celebrity Jews" column for J.