Meant2Be: Barking up the right (family) tree
My whole married life I wanted a dog, but my husband and I always rented places that had “no pet” policies — not that it would deter me from constantly asking him for one. I was mostly joking, but secretly hoping he’d surprise me and bring one home from work someday.
After all, he works at the Pasadena Humane Society & Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, a bit of a tease for me. He would always reply with a kind “no,” and remind me of the no pet policy. However, he promised that once we moved to a place that allowed pets, we would adopt a dog.
Just two weeks after moving into a new place earlier this year, that day came.
The actual process of finding a dog was a little like internet dating. I browsed the Humane Society’s “Available Pets” page every day looking for a match, until I came across a pint-size, tri-color, female Chihuahua/papillon mix named Chalupa. I had been asking my husband about a number of dogs before coming across Chalupa — who looked like she was wearing boots with her white paws and brown legs — but many already had long waiting lists of other potential adopters.
She was found as a stray and was adopted, but then quickly returned. We felt bad that she had to start the shelter process again, so we started the adoption process that day. Two days later — March 4 — she was in her new forever home with us.
A couple’s surrogacy mitzvah
Orit Harpaz loved being pregnant with her son Theo, now 9. The Sherman Oaks-based photographer got pregnant quickly, had no trouble carrying the child, and delivered at home with her husband, Gal, also a photographer, at her side. At the same time, she watched her best friend struggle through an unsuccessful in vitro fertilization and then research adoption. When the friend raised the idea of pursuing surrogacy, Orit, without hesitation, offered to do it herself.
“Seeing how painful it was for her and how something that came so easy to me and was such a joy to me, that was what triggered the idea,” Orit said in an interview.
The friend declined. But the idea stuck with Orit, fitting with her desire “to do a mitzvah, to do something really selfless and kind for someone else.” And so, last year Orit gave birth to a healthy boy, Aaron, for another family.
Every marriage has its challenges, its high and low points, agreements and disagreements, but not every marriage is tested by the emotional charge of creating a new life on behalf of someone else. And, to be sure, the surrogacy was a decision the couple made together and was clearly not something that Orit and Gal entered into casually. Already married for 14 years, they were also intimately familiar with the process. One couple they were very close with had had five children via surrogates. It was a completely “rosy” picture, Gal said. Still, when Orit first raised the idea in earnest, he was unsure.
“I was worried about going through a pregnancy for someone else, about complications,” he said over coffee in the couple’s breakfast nook, his wife at his side. “I was worried about what kind of toll it would take on our family, and Theo’s involvement. But once I saw it was something ingrained in her, it didn’t take too much for me to come around.”
“The way we work is,” Orit said, “I’ll have an idea, and he’ll say, let’s do the research. How hard I want to work on something gauges to him how strongly I feel about it.”
“Ultimately, it’s one of those life decisions that, once the seed has been planted, I don’t think it goes away,” Gal added. “You either start to grow together with it or start to grow apart.”
It was a two-year process of connecting with an agency, being matched with a family, meeting with lawyers, contracts and more contracts, and, ultimately, the egg transfer.
Orit recalls the day she and Gal sat down with Theo. “I remember saying, ‘We’re going to help another couple have a baby because they can’t have a baby.’ ” Naturally, Theo wondered if the baby would be his brother or sister.
“And it was like, ‘No, it’s not going to be related to you,’ ” Orit said. “We had to have the little ‘how babies are made’ talk. He seemed to really understand it.”
Friends and family generally had one of two reactions, Gal said. “There were people who were, like, ‘That’s the most amazing thing I have ever heard,’ or, ‘You guys are completely nuts.’ ” Several relatives wondered why the couple did not simply have more children of their own. The answer: They were happy as a family of three.
Orit tried to steer clear of the naysayers. “Whenever there was someone who was negative about what we were doing, Gal was always the knight in shining armor who wanted to protect our decision to do this and educate people,” she said. “That also brought us closer together.”
When Orit and Gal started on this journey, they did not know if they would maintain any sort of relationship with the other family after the delivery. Theo did want to meet the baby at the hospital. They knew that much. But beyond that, they would simply wait and see.
The delivery itself went smoothly, however, immediately afterward, Orit had to be rushed to an operating room. Her life was in peril, and she needed an immediate blood transfusion. Despite this complication, she said she has no regrets.
“I feel as long as I have this faith in something larger than my own life and my own world, I’ll be taken care of in the way I need to be,” she said. “That the decisions I make will lead me to a better place, even if things don’t go quite as planned, even if there is trauma or disappointment or something bad happens. Those are always lessons.”
Today, the two families have grown quite close. They go on hikes together, with Aaron bopping along in a baby carrier on his dad’s back, or they meet for lunch, and celebrate each other’s milestones.
“We have a wonderful bond,” Orit said. “We have a child that bonds us. So in a sense I call them my surrogate family.” (Theo calls Aaron his “surrogate bro.”)
“I also feel like they would be there for us if we really needed something,” Orit said, “not just because they feel indebted to me, but because we’ve come to have an amazing relationship.”
A rabbinic lesson in marriage counseling
All too often, religious and societal taboos impede honest dialogue about difficult issues that can affect any marriage, such as spousal abuse, blended families, adoption and infidelity.
Learning how to deal with those situations is one reason why Associate Rabbi Adir Posy of Beth Jacob Congregation, a Modern Orthodox shul in Beverly Hills, decided to participate in the pilot Rabbinic Marriage Counseling course at Yeshiva University in New York City.
“The program created a safe place for important issues like abuse and sexuality to be discussed and addressed,” Posy said. “Too often, these issues are not part of our day-to-day communal conversation, and it may lead to more problems. A course like this gives me the tools to have a sensitive and appropriate way in which to address these things in my community.”
The program, which began in October and runs through April 15, combines online interactions and lectures, required reading and two in-person seminars in New York. Taught by a team of rabbis, doctors and mental health professionals, the program covers topics from dating to divorce to the death of a child, and every difficult-to-broach topic in between.
“The issues are so wide-ranging: sexuality, abuse, and even meta-issues, like, ‘What does counseling look like for a rabbi? When do you refer to a therapist? What’s your role as a rabbi after referral?’” said Rabbi Levi Mostofsky, director of continuing education at the Center for the Jewish Future at Yeshiva University.
Rabbi Benjamin Resnick, a Jewish Studies teacher at New Community Jewish High School in West Hills who also holds a master’s degree in social work, said it helps participating rabbis like himself understand their role in the dynamics of someone else’s relationship.
“Anecdotally speaking, I dealt with a few difficult cases, each involving divorce situations gone wrong. Despite my degree in social work, there were times when a party insisted on an ultimatum — which makes it hard to negotiate and hard to empathize with appropriately — especially when you’re tempted to take sides,” Resnick said. “It’s important to be able to negotiate, to help someone process their feelings and, especially, to know when you’re out of your depth and need to give a referral to someone who has more extensive training and experience.”
Not only does the course combine Jewish Studies with advancements in psychological and counseling knowledge, but the very essence of how this program is taught utilizes a marriage of technology with traditional teaching tools.
The 40 participants — who come from North America, Australia and Israel — telecommute to 17 online lectures. They also have two books, as well as many additional articles that they read as part of their curriculum.
The classroom interaction is done via Web seminars and live discussions to create an interactive classroom. For those who can’t participate live, they can watch the lecture later online and submit any questions they have via e-mail or an online community. Everyone convenes twice at Yeshiva University for two daylong seminars.
For Resnick and Posy, it’s a great system.
“It’s much more convenient for out-of-towners like me,” Resnick said. “I have been able to attend a few sessions ‘live,’ but I’m often teaching at that time, so I watch the class at a more convenient time — certainly more convenient than flying to New York once a week.”
Posy agreed: “For someone of my learning style, this format was perfect.”
He said his congregation has been supportive of his efforts at professional development.
“From my perspective, I never see myself as a finished product when it comes to my development as a rabbi. There is always more to learn and always a new prism through which my work can be viewed,” Posy said.
Although seminaries like Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) and American Jewish University (AJU) have their own pastoral counseling programs, the curriculums there focus more on theory than does the Yeshiva University course.
According to Rabbi Dvora Weisberg, director of the School of Rabbinic Studies at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles, “The course is intended to teach basic principles and theories, so students can provide appropriate support for people going through difficult times, preparing for life cycle events, and so they can be sensitive to the ways that people react to stressful situations.”
The course includes guest lectures by mental health professionals as well as some role-playing and opportunities for students to discuss issues they come across during their fieldwork.
At AJU, the pastoral counseling course is a yearlong class taught by a Conservative rabbi who is a practicing psychotherapist, said Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, Goldstine Dean’s Chair of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies.
“The focus is on elevating the humanity of each person and being there to help them through the challenges life throws their way,” said Artson.
One of the largest differences that sets the Yeshiva University course apart is that the student body tends to have been in the rabbinical field for a number of years. Roughly half of its lectures come from rabbis, while the other half come from clinical psychologists, medical doctors, clinical social workers and working mental health professionals from a variety of specializations.
On one of the first lecture days, for example, the director of the department of gynecology at Montefiore Medical Center who is also a certified sexuality counselor teamed up with a rabbi from the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary to address the effects of pornography on intimacy, among other topics. The class goals included how rabbis should use Jewish teachings to address issues in a spiritual and realistic way.
“The synthesis of the medical and psychological knowledge that is merged with the halachic [Jewish law] details that influence the Jewish views on marriage is really what sticks with me from this course,” said Posy. “It gave me a new appreciation of how all of these things — the medical, the Jewish and the psychological — work together to provide a holistic view of what a marriage is, and [what it] can be.”
Kidsave changes lives for orphaned children, adoptive parents
Santiago Brown calls himself a “cashew.” It’s his way of combining the words “Catholic” and “Jew,” to refer to his unusual religious background. He lived in Colombia in a Catholic orphanage until being adopted into a Jewish family a year ago, at the age of 12. His mother, Lori Brown, a graphic artist and Nashuva member, says Santiago has Jewish music on his iPod and tells his friends, “It’s awesome to be Jewish.”
Brown first connected with Santiago through the organization Kidsave and its Summer Miracles program. Kidsave founders Terry Baugh, in Washington, D.C., and Randi Thompson, working in Los Angeles, were inspired to start the nonprofit after making visits to foreign orphanages where they witnessed children who were often left alone for hours without personal attention or mental stimulation. Kidsave, which has offices in Bogota, Colombia, and Moscow, is designed to find families for these children, as well as mentors and other sources of support.
Kidsave’s Summer Miracles program brings Colombian children from group homes and foster homes to the United States for four weeks during the summer. The children stay with “host-advocates” who care for the children while they are here, and who take it upon themselves to help find permanent homes for the kids.
Summer Miracles focuses on older children, usually between the ages of 8 and 11, who are often overlooked in the adoption process. Selected children must be legally and emotionally ready for adoption and typically are not more than two years behind academically in their home countries.
“I think there is a niche for these children,” says Sari Weiner, who adopted a child through Kidsave’s domestic hosting program, Weekend Miracles. As an older parent, Weiner did not want to adopt an infant, believing she would be too elderly by the time her child was grown. Other families may not have the energy for younger children or may want an older sibling for their other children.
Once chosen for the program, the children are brought from foster homes and group homes all over Colombia to the country’s capital, Bogota, for two weeks of training, psychological counseling and workshops. They are taught guest etiquette, some English and a bit about U.S. culture.
Host-advocates also complete role-playing workshops before the children arrive to prepare them for how to deal with situations that may arise. Rhona Rosenblatt, who has helped a child get adopted through a hosting program before and is hosting again this summer, jokes, “All the kids are doing great. The adults are constantly checking on them, being paranoid, but they are always fine.”
It costs a total of about $7,500 to bring a child to the United States through Summer Miracles, according to Thompson. Of that amount, host-advocates contribute a hosting fee of $1,250 and an application fee of $275. Host-advocates generally raise money through grass-roots organizing, while Kidsave itself receives grants and large donations.
Once the children are here, the host-advocates’ job is to spread the word about Kidsave and attend weekly events to introduce their visiting children to families. Susan Baskin, who is currently two weeks away from adopting the child she hosted last summer, mentioned Kidsave in her profile in The Jewish Journal’s “My Single Peeps” column. Brown, Santiago’s mother, has used Facebook, word of mouth and even a blurb on the Nashuva Web site to spread information about Kidsave. Brown says she brings up the organization in conversation whenever possible. Once, a teller at the bank who saw Santiago ended up mentioning Kidsave to a friend, and that friend is now in the process of adopting a child of her own.
Kidsave does not facilitate adoptions. Families who wish to adopt Colombian children after their summer visit must go through the normal international adoption process. Lauren Reicher-Gordon, the vice president of Kidsave and director of Family Visit Programs, said, “We are the yentas, the matchmakers.”
However, their success rate is noteworthy. Eighty percent of children from Summer Miracles are now adopted or in the process of being adopted, according to Reicher-Gordon. She attributes the high rate to the time families spend getting to know the kids.
Baskin agrees. Before hearing about Kidsave, she had attempted adoption on her own but was turned off by the lack of information about and time with the prospective children. “As a single woman, I felt I might not have the financial and emotional resources if the match was not good,” Baskin said. Kidsave motivated her to try adoption again because it gave her time to get to know her prospective child and a realistic idea of what it would be like to be a parent. Baskin hosted Johana in the summer of 2011 and will be leaving to pick up her new daughter in Colombia in two weeks.
The risk of any hosting program, of course, is that children’s hopes will be crushed if the adoption does not work out. Marcia Jindal, director of the intercountry adoption program at Vista Del Mar, has worked with Kidsave for seven years, doing home assessments before the children arrive, training the families, providing support and resources while the children are here, and conducting post-placement studies on children who have been adopted.
Jindal says there are pros and cons to every program. In her experience, she said, “The biggest negative that families find in these hosting programs is they feel it’s unfair to get the child’s hopes up. But there’s no way to prevent that, unfortunately.” Even if the families have the intention of adopting, the home countries of the children could at any time revoke permission to adopt. Additionally, a sudden family illness or financial problem could prevent the adoption from going through.
Reicher-Gordon says Kidsave has specific instructions for hosting families about how to approach the issue of adoption while the children are visiting. “It is not discussed when the kids are here. They are told they are learning English and having a cultural experience. … We know that kids are hopeful [for adoption], but it is not in the best interest of the children to tell them that before they leave.”
It is, nevertheless, a challenging issue to navigate. Baskin described taking Johana, who was crying and clinging to her, to the airport at the end of her visit. “I wished I could say I was going to adopt her. But all I could say was, ‘I will see you again.’ ”
Jindal stresses, however, that there are more positives than negatives to a program like this one. “Any way that we can get the word out there that children are waiting for permanency is good.” Vulnerable older children do need to be connected with families before they age out of the foster care system, and she says Kidsave does a very good job of matching children with families. “The families are really committed to advocating for the children.”
At the most recent Summer Miracles event, it appeared the hosting families cared deeply about their Kidsave children.
Baskin still remembers the expression on Johana’s face when she walked in the sand and splashed in the ocean for the first time a year ago.
Brown is hosting two more boys this summer, a second boy named Santiago — this one is 11 — and Julian, 12. The visiting Santiago recently learned to ride a bike for the first time.
“My heart is filled with joy and love,” Brown said. “They just need homes; they’re good boys. … The magic in them is amazing.”
Dual Identity, Double the Questions
Chinese villagers found the baby, abandoned by her birth parents, in a basket on a riverbank.
“Just like Moses,” the child’s adoptive mother, Terri Pollock, says.
Today, Leah Hua Xia Pollock, 14, lives in Seattle and plays the flute in her temple’s klezmer band.
Last year, Leah became a bat mitzvah. As she stood on the bimah, looking out at the crowd of white faces before her, “it just dawned on me,” she said, “that even if I do look in the mirror and see someone different from the people around me, it doesn’t matter, because I’m accepted.”
Leah is among the first in a tidal wave of Chinese-born girls who are growing up in Jewish families in the United States. When she was adopted in 1992, she was one of only 206 Chinese children brought to the United States that year. Last year, Americans adopted slightly more than 7,900 children from China, nearly all of them girls.
China only opened its doors in a big way to international adoption in 1991 to help mitigate its problem of abandoned children, brought on by China’s one-child policy. That policy, which the government enforces by imposing economic penalties for noncompliance, combined with the traditional culture that sons care for their parents in old age, had resulted in a sea of neglected children, particularly girls.
These days, more American families are adopting from China than any other foreign country, and a large number of those families are Jewish. A wave of girls is now coming of age, starting to face challenging issues of identity.
There is the question of what it means to — look Jewish — for one — and the matter of who is a Jew in the eyes of the Jewish
Actor’s Missing Dad Takes Center Stage
In his raw, autobiographical monologue, “Who Is Floyd Stearn?” actor Michael Raynor struts onstage with a swagger reminiscent of James Caan. Raynor, playing himself, jabs a finger at a faded photograph.
The photo was taken on 185th Street in Queens, on his grandmother’s lawn. In the photo, an athletic, brawny man embraces a 3-year-old. The man is Raynor’s father, Floyd Stearn. The smiling boy is young Michael, who clutches a toy banjo, his blond bangs peeking out from a cowboy hat.
Raynor tells the audience that, even at 40, he cannot discuss the photo; should anyone pressure him, he angrily departs.
“Every time I see the picture I cry,” he adds quietly. “That’s why I can’t look at it. I see the happiness in my face, and it scares me. I’m hoping it won’t go away.”
His father’s sudden departure at age 7 cost him much happiness for years, and this macho-yet-tender one-man show is Raynor’s attempt to re-connect with his father and to understand the man who abandoned him.
The 2004 off-Broadway success is among a slate of recent plays to explore dysfunctional Jewish families in crisis, notably Tony Kushner’s Broadway musical, “Caroline, or Change,” which had a run in Los Angeles late last year. Raynor’s piece is a “Rashomon”-style mystery, with the actor portraying himself at various ages, as well as his mother and grandparents, who offer conflicting theories about his late father.
Was Stearn a nice Jewish boy who loved his children, but was kowtowed by a hostile ex-wife and a domineering second spouse? Or was he a heartless deadbeat who sent Michael birthday cards with no return address signed by himself, his new wife and children?
Because his relatives were tight-lipped, all Raynor knew until five years ago was that Stearn had been a burly jock.
Of his penchant for Caan, he says: “I looked for my dad in tough Jew father figures in films, like Caan, Kirk Douglas and John Garfield. I emulated the qualities I imagined my father might have had.”
In fact, the actor arrives at an interview on the Westside with that Caan-esque saunter and the tough-but-senitive guy persona he projects onstage.
At 18, he said, he adopted his stepfather’s surname, because he had been more a father to Raynor than Stearn. But Stearn’s absence continued to wreak havoc in his life. In relationships, he says, he was “programmed to disconnect,” cutting off friends and girlfriends “to create perceived emotional safety.”
Because arguments over child support, in part, had kept his father from him, financial concerns haunted Raynor. Though he had played the leads in his Jewish summer camp plays, he did not initially pursue theater, because he worried that actors lived hand-to-mouth. Instead, he worked in the financial field, on the floor of the commodities market, until he finally accepted a role in an off-off Broadway play in his late 20s.
Also in his 20s, Raynor received a notice of disinheritance, stating that his father had died of bone cancer at 42.
“I went shopping and stocked up on food, because I knew I wasn’t going to be leaving the house for a while,” he recalls in the play. “I cried and fell asleep and cried and fell asleep for two days straight. And the worst part is, I thought I had finally forgotten him.”
The actor’s anguish apparently hits a nerve for some viewers. After seeing the show in 2002, radio’s Howard Stern wrote Raynor: “Not many men could openly confess before an audience the intense father hunger they had…. It’s very easy as a man to show anger, but a lot more difficult to tap into the longing and desire for a caring, loving father.”
Despite his father hunger, Raynor built a busy career, playing leads in independent films such as “The Waiting Game” and the HBO miniseries, “From the Earth to the Moon.” He continued to know almost nothing about Stearn — until he chanced to pick up his own cousin at a party eight years ago (he hadn’t seen her since she was a girl). Once recognition set in, she told him Stearn’s mother was alive and living in Florida.
On the “Moon” set in Orlando, Fla., six months later, Raynor finally mustered the courage to call his grandmother, whom he had not seen in a quarter century.
“I showed up on her doorstep on what happened to be her 87th birthday,” he recalls. “I felt like I was walking into a psychedelic flashback.”
The emotional visit turned out to be “more healing than 1,000 years of therapy,” he says. “I learned what I had previously kept from myself because it was too confusing: That my father had loved me, even though he left.”
Raynor discovered more by tracking down his half-siblings and convincing sometimes-reluctant relatives to conduct more than 50 hours of taped interviews. He decided to turn the material into a play, though the writing process was so painful it kept him up at night.
Yet performing the piece — and saying “Kaddish” for Stearn onstage — proved cathartic for Raynor, who is considering parenthood for the first time in his life.
“I was severed from my father, so what I do in the play is to resurrect him and reconnect with him, if only in spirit.”
“Stearn,” runs through Sept. 27 at the Pilot Light Theatre. (323) 960-4418.
Mom, Can We Keep Him?
If your kids are out of the house and you’re experiencing empty-nest syndrome, how about considering adoption? Don’t worry though, this adoptee will be pretty low-maintenance — all he needs is a caring family, food, water and, of course, plenty of fly-repellent gel.
The adoptees are donkeys that are a part of the Israel-based charity, Safe Haven for Donkeys in the Holy Land (SHADH). The U.K.-registered organization was founded to rescue and protect abused and abandoned donkeys and mules in Israel and the Palestinian Territories.
Apparently, the beasts of burden are so greatly burdened in the Middle East that they have captured the attention of SHADH, animal rights activists and concerned families around the globe. Sold for as little as 100 shekels (approximately $20) in Israel and the disputed territories, there is very little value attached to a donkey’s well-being. As a result, when donkeys are injured, sick or too old to work, they are often abandoned and left to starve; many suffer from abuse.
Founded by Lucy Fensom, a former
airline stewardess, SHADH is dedicated to the rescue of these oppressed animals and committed to improving their plight through community-wide education. Abandoned donkeys are taken to SHADH’s “Safe Haven,” located 40 minutes from Tel Aviv at Moshav Gan Yoshiya, where they can live in a safe and protected environment. There are currently 29 donkeys at Safe Haven and all are up for adoption for only $6 per month.
While the animals must stay at Safe Haven — they don’t make great house pets — families will receive a photograph of their donkey, an official certificate of adoption — and full visitation rights.
Problems and Promise
Just off Motor Avenue in West Los Angeles, about where cars shoot out from under the 10, a simple sign points the way onto the campus of Vista del Mar Child and Family Services. Go fast and you’ll miss the sign and the 17.5 acres beyond it of bungalows, recreation areas and service buildings.
Through an army of staff and volunteers, Vista del Mar and its five agencies form one of the largest providers of adoption, foster care, psychiatric, crisis intervention and health services in California.
Vista touches thousands of lives. It operates at a constant deficit on a $24 million annual budget. And you can bet Vista — like every social service provider in Los Angeles — is eyeing President George W. Bush’s faith-based initiative very, very carefully.
The initiative is controversial, but like most good controversies, the sides are not shaping up quite as you’d expect. Some liberals who ordinarily would be at the barricades defending the separation of church and state wouldn’t mind funneling chunks of government change into their social service programs. Some conservatives, who would ordinarily leap to defend a federal program that recognized the value of religion in American life, don’t want to see their tax dollars go to religious groups they don’t like.
In fact, Bush’s plan to spread "compassionate conservatism" has already created the kind of open religious rancor that, well, the wall between church and state is supposed to help block. In statements on the initiative, Jerry Falwell demeaned the Muslim faith, Pat Robertson slammed the Hare Krishnas and the Anti-Defamation League, and everybody pretty much unloaded on the Church of Scientology and Louis Farrakhan.
By last Monday, the administration was rethinking the most controversial portion of its initiative: a proposal to expand the charitable choice provision of a 1996 law signed by President Bill Clinton that lets religious charities compete for government welfare dollars.
Bush’s initial proposal called for opening up government funding opportunities from a few programs to more than 100, in areas ranging from after-school programs to community policing. Local Jewish-based charities would like to be among the funded.
Vista del Mar was founded in 1908 as the Jewish Orphans Home, and today its clientele is about 40 percent Jewish. In order to receive the government grants it currently does, Jewish Orphans Home needed to file a DBA under the Vista name.
"We are investigating ways the [faith-based] program might apply to us," said Gerald Zaslaw, Vista’s CEO and president. The majority of Vista’s many services have no religious component, but the Bush proposal set Zaslaw thinking that it might be possible to tease out the ones that do, such as High Holiday services and other specifically religious programming. "It’s going to be tough to separate out the Jewish elements," Zaslaw said.
The same thinking is going on over at Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles (JFS). Upwards of 75 percent of its clients are Jewish, but the counseling and intervention services it provides have no religious component. They can’t: the organization, a beneficiary agency of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, receives about $800,000 annually in federal money. But director Paul Castro figures some of the faith-based funding might be available for specialized services, such as its Orthodox Counseling Program.
Castro worries that the administration’s idea might reverse a time-honored notion of social service providers: meet the clients where they are. "We don’t impose our agency’s underlying spiritual values on the client. It’s about the client, not who we are," he said. "Our concern is this flips it." In other words, a person who is desperate for one type of counseling may have to take it with a dose of the provider’s religion.
That scenario frightens providers, but not enough for them to dismiss the whole program. "You’re going to have to set up some safeguards, but I think there could be tremendous value," said Rabbi Hershey Ten, who founded and directs The Jewish Healthcare Foundation–Avraham Moshe Bikur Cholim (JHF). JHF provides free and subsidized health care and social assistance throughout Los Angeles and California.
Faith-based groups, Ten asserted, can deliver some services more effectively at the local level. They know the needy, and the needy trust them. "This is not a question of separation of church and state," said Ten. "It’s about the best way of delivering a product to the market."
And paying for it. For the people at Gateways Beit T’Shuvah, a residential therapeutic community for Jewish addicts and ex-convicts, the faith-based funding could be a boon. Unlike other social service groups founded or run by members of the Jewish community, Beit T’Shuvah (the House of Return), has a solely Jewish clientele and uses Judaism in its recovery program.
"To me it sounds like what I’ve been waiting for," Beit T’Shuvah director Harriet Rossetto said of the initiative. "We never sought government funding because we remain a Jewish program. Judaism is intrinsic to what we do here, because it enhances the recovery process."
The president’s initiative sounds like just the kind of policy Rossetto said she would oppose if it weren’t for the fact that those she serves would benefit mightily from the extra funding. "Everybody I usually agree with disagrees with me on this," Rossetto said.
Whether those disagreements can be worked out depends on the details of the final faith-based initiative that Bush proposes: what groups will be eligible, how they will be assessed, what they can and can’t do with the funds. As of now, the administration has gone back to the drawing board.
Ultimately, says JFS’s Castro, "it’s hard to tell how the initiative will play out. We’re monitoring it. By the time it gets down to local level, it may look very different."
If it gets down here at all.
“Unholy Order: Mystery Stories with a Religious Twist”
In 1995, nurse, mystery writer and prospective single mom Serita Stevens traveled to Romania to adopt an abandoned 9-month-old baby girl. So appalled was she at the conditions in the orphanage at which she finally met her future daughter, she started Hugs and Hopes–Romania to help care for the orphans and abandoned children in a country still struggling to recover from the ruin and desperation caused by the Ceausescu regime.
In “Holy Orders 18,” Stevens lines up prominent mystery writers, all of whom are donating their royalties to the organization. Besides supporting a good cause, this collection of short stories is also fun. While not “serious” literature, “Holy Orders,” perhaps unintentionally, gives a pleasant overview of the state of “pulp” mystery fiction.
As the reading public has become larger, what were previously just genres have become elaborate marketing strategies. Mystery, romance, science fiction, action, police procedurals all have their own sets of authors, magazines, even publishing houses. Here we get a collection of the techniques and themes of contemporary “bloodless” mystery short stories. While each has a religious setting of some sort, the twists of plot dominate.
Some of the now-familiar conceits of mystery writing surface in an amusing ways. Two stories, for example, are set in medieval Europe, a favorite haunt these days for ingenious plot turns in recast whodunits. Both Margaret Frazer and Mary Monica Pulver feature an English Catholic ecclesiastic in the role of detective by default.
The most harrowing stories are cast in the first person. Two of those in Stevens’ collection, “Widow’s Peak” by local author Rochelle Krich and “Remembered Zion” by Carolyn Wheat, both revolve around the continued unfolding of suffering entailed by the Shoah. Instead of solving some mystery of crime, as do the other stories, they solve a mystery of self.
Stevens’ own contribution seems to some degree autobiographical, as it centers around an observant Jewish woman’s quest to adopt a baby in Romania. The story also features, amusingly, an inadvertent vampire. Even vampires, Stevens’ tale would have us believe, yearn for yamim Ha-Moshiach, the coming of the days of the Messiah.
Anne Perry and Ralph McInerny’s contributions are classic examples of mystery misdirection, befitting the two arguably most well-known authors in the collection. Perry’s narrator, for example, is in the mode of James Stewart’s role in “Rear Window,” the passive watcher who figures it all out. McInerny brings his famous Father Dowling into play once again. One wishes that the late Harry Kemelman, author of the Rabbi Small series, were around to add his two talmudic cents to Stevens’ mix.
A pleasant way to spend an evening, and, besides having some fun, you’ll get to help a good cause.
Operation: GobbleCrying ‘fowl’ on Thanksgiving by feeding, not eating, a turkey.
Judaism commands us to be kind to animals.
Thus I don’t eat them and I don’t keep them as pets. But this Thanksgiving, I’ve gone a step further. I’ve rescued one.
“Oh great, you adopted some foul fowl,” my husband, Larry, says.
“Not any old fowl,” I answer, “but Pumpkin, a 40-pound domestic white turkey who was found abandoned at a hatchery loading dock. I saved her life.”
Indeed, Pumpkin will be served a scrumptious Thanksgiving feast instead of being served as one.She will dine on cranberries, grapes, lettuce, popcorn and pumpkin pie with her fellow feathered friends at a farm sanctuary in upstate New York.
“But you can’t have Thanksgiving without the turkey,” my three omnivorous sons, aged 16, 13 and 11, protest. “It’s tradition.”
Even the 9-year-old vegetarian, who won’t share a tube of toothpaste with his meat-eating brothers, chimes in. “It’s tradition. Like when you make latkes for Chanukah, you have to kill some potatoes.”
But, ironically, turkey, by most accounts, was conspicuously absent from the first Thanksgiving celebrated by the Pilgrims and Native Americans in 1621.
The feast, most likely a customary fall harvest festival for both cultures, consisted of foods such as cornmeal mush, nuts, fruits, popcorn and breadstuffs. Meat, if there was any, was probably some deer meat and game birds. Or perhaps some fish.
Turkeys came later. As did the actual holiday, which was not officially proclaimed and uniformly celebrated until Abraham Lincoln, in 1863, designated the fourth Thursday of November as Thanksgiving Day.
And 11 years later, the first Thanksgiving Day football game was played, introducing yet another tradition popular in my testosterone-heavy household.
But, for me, Thanksgiving has become less about calorie consumption and combat and more about compassion.
For it was 10 years ago, while preparing one of Pumpkin’s predecessors, that I became acutely aware that the poor bird, never mind that it could drown itself if it looked up during a rainstorm, was once a living creature. On the spot, I became a vegetarian.
But it was thousands of years ago that the Torah taught us the mitzvah of tza’ar ba’alei chayim (not causing pain to animals). Maimonides, the medieval sage, traces this command back to Numbers 22:32, where the angel of the Lord says to Balaam, “Why have you beaten your ass these three times?”
Other biblical laws involving compassion toward animals abound. Deuteronomy 11:15, “I will also provide grass in the fields for your cattle – and thus you shall eat your fill,” has been interpreted by the Talmudic rabbis to mean that a person should not eat or drink before providing for his animals. And Deuteronomy 22:10 states, “You shall not plow with an ox and an ass together.”
Judaism, however, clearly differentiates human life from animal life, always stressing the unique value of humans. But the two are not unrelated. As Maimonides says, “If the law provides that such grief should not be caused to cattle or birds, how much more careful must we be not to cause grief to our fellow man.”
Plus, it’s not by chance that some of America’s most notorious mass murderers, including Albert DeSalvo, the “Boston Strangler,” and Jeffrey Dahmer, the cannibalistic murderer, tortured and killed small animals as children.
Isaac Bashevis Singer, winner of a Nobel Prize in literature and dedicated vegetarian, once said, “How can we pray to God for mercy if we ourselves have no mercy?” He added, “I personally believe that as long as human beings will go on shedding the blood of animals, there will never be any peace.”
But life is full of compromises. After the flood, for example, during a period of declining moral standards, of men eating limbs torn from living animals, God concedes to man the right to eat meat. He stipulates in Genesis 9:4, however, that “flesh with its life, which is its blood, you shall not eat,” meaning that the animal must be killed and the blood, synonymous with life, removed.
And I’ve conceded to my family the right to eat turkey at our Thanksgiving feast. Though this year, in an acknowledgment of what she calls my “increased evangelicalism,” my mother has willingly agreed to cook a free-range turkey, one not genetically engineered nor inhumanely raised under “factory farm” conditions. “Besides,” she says, “it tastes better.”
For my part, I will be bringing the traditional carrot pudding and the increasingly traditional vegetarian nut loaf. I will also be bringing, with the hope of inaugurating a new Thanksgiving custom and instilling an increased awareness of the sanctity of all life, a framed photograph of my adopted turkey, Pumpkin.
What to Do With Your Kids
Saturday, Nov. 18:
Santa Monica Public Library hosts a Children’s Book Festival, featuring storytellers, crafts, a puppet show, and authors and illustrators, including Sid Fleischman and Karen Winnick. 10 a.m.-4 p.m. 1343 Sixth St., Santa Monica. For more information, call (310) 458-8600.
Sunday, Nov. 19:
Singer, songwriter and children’s author Barney Salzberg will perform and sign copies of his books following the Children’s Book Fair at B’nai Tikvah Congregation. $7. Performance at 1 p.m.; book fair 9 a.m.-1 p.m. 5820 W. Manchester Ave., Westchester. For more information, call (310) 649-4051.
Sunday, Nov. 19:
The Shirettes, featuring Pearl B., Sue Epstein, Judy Farber, Cindy Paley and Ditza Zakay sing in a Jewish Children’s Concert at Adat Ari El. $5. 11 a.m. 12020 Burbank Blvd., Valley Village. For more information, call (818) 766-9426 ext. 652.
Mothers and Daughters
By Janet Fitch
Little, Brown, $24..
When author Janet Fitch was 9, her longtime friend disappeared into the netherworld of the Los Angeles foster care system.
The girl’s mother had died, then her father and an elderly aunt. When her older brother, a junkie, was arrested, the terrified child was whisked away to parts unknown and Fitch never saw her again. “That haunted me,” the author says. “To know on a gut level that things could happen, through no fault of your own, and you could just disappear.”
Fitch’s acclaimed, best-selling debut novel, “White Oleander” (Little, Brown $24), explores her childhood concern. The book examines how an adolescent’s life disintegrates after her mother, Ingrid, a coldly beautiful, self-absorbed poet, murders her faithless lover and goes to prison. Twelve-year-old Astrid roams from foster home to foster home in every corner of Los Angeles, struggling to fashion an identity in the company of strangers.
The book’s protagonists are Nordic and non-Jewish, but Fitch says the novel reflects her own Jewish concerns. “White Oleander” began as Fitch was attending a 12-step program and searching for spirituality seven years ago. It was a turning point in her life, she says. Raised in an “overly-assimilated” family in Los Angeles, she wanted her young daughter to have the solid Jewish identity she lacked. She purchased her first menorah and attempted to celebrate Chanukah, though she didn’t know anything about the Festival of Lights. “We sang ‘Light My Fire’ and anything that had the word ‘candle’ in it,” laughs Fitch, who went on to light Shabbat candles and attend High Holiday services.
She also began to think about one of her favorite books, “The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon,” which describes a moral system that was anything but Jewish. Shonagon, a lady-in-waiting to the Heian Empress Teishi in 11th-century Japan, lived in a cruel, beautiful world where the sensibility was strictly aesthetic. “I began to wonder, ‘What if a person like that were forced to live in a crummy apartment and work a crummy job at the end of the 20th century?'” says Fitch, who promptly created Ingrid, the monster. “I thought Ingrid was funny, but no one else did. So I gave her a daughter, and then it wasn’t funny anymore. It was a crime against nature.”
Fitch, like the fictional Astrid, is a survivor. A shy, intense child, she once sought to win the favor of a third-grade teacher with a lovingly-rendered short story. “I wanted her to like me,” the Silver Lake author recalls. But the paper came back with nary a remark, save spelling and grammar corrections. “I did not write again until I was 21,” Fitch says.
She cobbled together a living by working as a typesetter and an entertainment journalist, a discipline she loathed. She didn’t sell her first short story for 12 years. During a nursery school exercise, Fitch’s daughter was once asked, “What kind of mail do you receive?” “We get rejection letters,” she replied.
One of them was encouraging, however. Novelist Joyce Carol Oates wrote Fitch that her short story was too long for the Ontario Review, but might make a strong first chapter for a novel. “I kept that Post-It on my computer for years,” says Fitch, who turned the chapter into “White Oleander.”
When the book hit the stores this year, the author was thrilled just to have a publisher. Then Oprah called. The famed talk show host loved the novel and picked it to join her book club. “White Oleander” shot to the top of the best-seller lists and a Warner Bros. movie is in the works.
All the attention has been “surreal,” Fitch says. But, like Astrid, she knows that “anything can happen,” so she has matter-of-factly gone back to work, this time on a novel inspired by her Jewish grandmother’s experience as an exiled New Yorker in Los Angeles.
In the meantime, she is looking forward to appearing on a panel about mothers and daughters at the People of the Book, the Jewish Book Festival on Nov. 16. “The act of considering moral questions is Jewish,” she says of Astrid’s journey in “White Oleander.” “The active, personal involvement with developing an ethical system is one of the major components of Judaism.”
Janet Fitch will appear Nov. 16, 7:30 p.m. at the West Valley JCC in West Hills. For information, call (818) 464-3300.
Are You My Mother?
All her life, Jeanette Kopitowsky has been searching for a face in the crowd. She scans strangers’ faces for someone, anyone who looks like herself. Her biological mother. Her father. A sibling.
The playwright-actress, who was abandoned by her parents as a baby, grew up in foster homes until she was adopted by a Jewish family at the age of seven. She describes the painful experience in her powerful, one-woman show, “What’s Your Name, Who’s Your Daddy?” which asks the question, “Do I exist if I don’t have anyone to claim me?”
In one scene, young Jeanette approaches a dark-haired woman in the supermarket and gingerly says “You look like a very nice lady…and I think you might be my mother.” The child asks the woman to meet her in the same spot the following day, but the woman never appears.
“Even today, when I see people who look like they could be related to me, I always want to ask them ‘What’s your name?’ or ‘Do you know a Jeanette?'” Kopitowsky told the Journal.
She says she wrote the play to heal herself, and also to help other foster children to heal. “I want to let people know what can happen to the psyche of a child in foster care,” says the actress, a para-professional counselor at the Stephen S. Wise Adoption Support Center. “I want them to know what it is like to feel like an outcast because you don’t have a family.”
All Kopitowsky has of her birth mother is a “faded little picture” of an unsmiling woman with haunted eyes. From the Jewish adoption agency, she had learned that her mother was an Argentinean-born teacher who had suffered from mental illness. Jeanette and her younger brother were whisked away to separate Jewish foster homes; her Catholic mother had insisted upon Jewish families, perhaps because she had assumed that Jews make good parents.
Nevertheless, Kopitowsky always felt “different, alien, apart” while growing up in an upper-middle-class Jewish foster home on Long Island. “Instinctively, I knew that I did not belong,” she says, “and that I was not supposed to stay.” Every Saturday, Jeannette stared enviously at the other Jewish children who were walking with their “real” parents to shul.
Her foster parents did not neglect her, she insists, but it was clear she was not their own. So Kopitowsky learned to parent herself: She cut her own hair, bought her own toiletries, drank soda for breakfast, walked herself to school, dressed herself in the hand-me-downs provided by her guardians. She was punished for writing her name in crayons on the floor of her bedroom. “I was marking my territory,” Kopitowsky explains. “I did it for the same reason that I compulsively hoarded my Halloween candy. As a foster child, I just needed to know that something belonged to me.”
When Jeannette was 5, a social worker told her that she was going to Buenos Aires to live with her real mommy and her little brother. One day, the doorbell rang, and there was the social worker with a little boy, his eyes round as saucers. “Here is your brother,” the social worker said, “and the two of you will take the airplane ride together to Argentina.” The social worker took the children to Burger King to get acquainted, but Patrick was so scared that he threw up.
After that day, Kopitowsky did not see her brother again for two decades. Something had happened to their birth mother, the social worker said, and Jeannette would have to find other parents.
“Auditioning” for an adoptive family, Kopitowsky believes, is what turned her into an actress. Even at age 6, she knew she had to appear cute and charming in order to impress prospective parents. “Please take me!” she would pray.
In the play, the actress describes the day she arrived at the Long Island home of the Kopitowsky’s, the people who would eventually adopt her. “My forehead started to sweat, my heart started to race, I couldn’t breathe right….I [thought] I was about to die,” she remembers. Upstairs, the skinny, brown-haired girl stared in disbelief at the lovely bedroom that Diane Kopitowsky had prepared for her, with butterflies all over the walls and a bedspread with a rainbow and ruffles. “This [is] too good for me,” she says in the play. “I’m a foster kid.”
The Kopitowskys proved warm and loving parents, but the damage had already been done. Jeannette became an actress, in part, to seek the love and attention she had missed during her first seven years of life. She studied theater at Pace University, did TV commercials and musical theater in New York and moved to L.A. in 1995.
After some detective work, she found her biological father, who refused to return her letters and hung up on her when she telephoned. “That was devastating,” Kopitowsky says, “but it also provided closure and allowed me to move on.” At the suggestion of her therapist, the actress began writing a one-woman show to explore and exorcise her childhood memories of feeling “lost, confused and unwanted.”
And around the time she conceived the play, several years ago, Kopitowsky received a startling telephone call that would change her life. A strange young man was on the other line. “He said, ‘My name is Patrick, and I’m your brother.’ I was so shocked that I dropped the telephone,” the actress recalls. The siblings talked for three hours, then arranged to meet on the top of the Empire State Building. Kopitowsky first spotted him while she was waiting for the elevator near the 80th floor; he was holding a bouquet of flowers. “We ran to each other and hugged,” she says.
Recently, Patrick flew to Los Angeles to see a special performance of “What’s Your Name?” the proceeds of which benefited the Stephen S. Wise Adoption Support Center. Afterwards, he embraced his sister. “He told me that the play was his therapy, because he went through all the same feelings that I did,” Kopitowsky says.
The Oasis Theatre Ensemble presents “What’s Your Name, Who’s Your Daddy?” through Aug. 15 at the Electric Lodge, 1416 Electric Ave. in Venice. Tickets are $15, and $20 for the Aug. 15 benefit performance for Concerned United Birth Parents. For information, call 310/ 823-1286..