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From e’Lollipop to education, and everything in between

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JULIE LEIBOWITZ

Now living in Israel, Lazarus is clear that he will not be making the e’Lollipop of the Arab-Israeli conflict. This is because he believes that unlike South Africa, where there was “some common ground and people didn’t want to hate each other”, Arab and Israeli protagonists have nothing in common.

Lazarus believes that the most pertinent issue facing Israelis is, in fact, the conflict between religious and secular. Like South Africans during apartheid, he believes Israelis aren’t really so divided. Hence, once again, he is working on a movie which talks through the naïve eyes of a child. This time it’s about finding – or rediscovering – G-d.

Lazarus should know. Through a life of many twists and turns, he has travelled the journey from secular to religious himself. It required levels of introspection and investigation that come naturally to a creative at the top of his game, and has given rise to the observation that “you don’t control your life, you merely steer it in the right direction”.

Over the past 50 years, Lazarus has gone from being a high-budget advertising executive to a cult feature filmmaker, to the developer of early childhood education materials. He has been based in South Africa, New York, and Israel, and has crisscrossed the globe more than 100 times. Spiritually, he has gone from being a “naïve Jewish boy from Zululand”, to a hard bitten New-York sophisticate, to an orthodox Jew.

It’s a life story in the truest sense. And, Lazarus is a master story teller.

E’Lollipop was a groundbreaking movie in its time. It has been hailed by South African politicians as a seminal influence in preparing the ground for talks between Nelson Mandela and FW De Klerk for the good of South Africa.

At the time, however, Lazarus simply intended to rise above the negative status quo of apartheid – and the verkrampte (highly conservative) censor board – by showing life through the eyes of children. He wanted to communicate a human message without delving into the swamp of ideology.

Behind Lazarus’s filmmaking is a successful career making big-budget commercials for large corporate customers like British American Tobacco, Coca-Cola, General Motors, Mattel, Mobil, and Disney. He was approached to do e’Lollipop because of work done for tobacco tycoon Anton Rupert creating Peter Stuyvesant adverts for the big screen.

Productions like these cost in the region of half a million to a million US dollars (R6.9 million) for 30 seconds, requiring a high level of skill and a certain amount of ruthlessness and cynicism. It was to this world that he left South Africa to go to the United States in 1985.

Though he excelled at making adverts, and had a wonderful life living in mid-town Manhattan for 20 years, he increasingly began to question his spirituality, and started investigating what it meant to be Jewish.

Lazarus has always been open to the mystical. Even in his early e’Lollipop days, he took advice from famous Zulu sangoma Credo Mutwa, and his mother, “had every Taoist and Buddhist in our home”. But it was an encounter and a spiritual epiphany with Sioux holy man Frank Fools Crow while working on a feature film about Native Americans that brought it all to a head.

“Frank, a wonderful, wisened man with white hair tied in a pony tail, looked at me and said, ‘Aren’t you Jewish?’ I said, ‘Sure, of a kind. Why are you asking me this?’” Lazarus recalls. “You know, you’re 40, you’ve been successful, you get into a false sense of security that you are OK. But I knew that I didn’t know. Fools Crow said, ‘Look into who you are. Your source is one of the highest spiritualities that exists. You don’t have to continue to find out what spirituality is.’”

His search for meaning brought him in contact with notable New York Chassidic teachers, including famous Chassidic singer Mordechai Ben David, and the teachings of the Ribnitzer Rebbe. It also led to a filmmaking project in collaboration with Rabbi Berel Wein to bring Wein’s Jewish history tapes to the screen.

This project started with a serendipitous meeting with Wein through a mutual friend, Dr Robert Cohen, while visiting his sister in Atlanta in 1996. “I was thinking: why am I trained? I can’t find another story like e’Lollipop. I’m not interested in making films like Star Wars or Tomb Raider. Rabbi Wein had amazing history tapes which had been hugely successful, particularly in American jails. He was looking for a filmmaker to take it from audiotape to film,” Lazarus recalls.

The two have since created 11 films which are now available in 400 Jewish schools across the world including South Africa.

Lazarus, by this time an orthodox Jew, moved to Israel in 2005, where he now resides in Beit Shemesh. He continues to work in film and advertising, but his most recent enterprise is quite different – and similar – at the same time.

“I love children, and a lot of my life’s work has been about education,” he says. Through his work for Disney and Mattel, and following a meeting with a pious rabbi in Los Angeles who was deeply involved early childhood education in the US, Lazarus came upon a new idea. This was to produce education materials that were entertaining and interactive, as opposed to passively entertaining.

Called TJ & Pals, it is now a fully-fledged, downloadable, two-year curriculum of education materials for pre-schoolers, available on any device. The programme has numerous South African partners, including ORT, and is being localised for the South African market.

After Lazarus embarked on the project using his own money, it turned out that the original Dr Cohen who introduced him to Rabbi Wein had also made aliyah, and was living close to him. Cohen wrote him a cheque, and they eventually raised more than $1 million (R13.9 million) to start the project. It just goes to show, you don’t control your life… you merely steer it in the right direction.

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