Mitzvahland: For all your Jewish needs


On Sunday, my wife and I drove out to the Valley to buy a new sukkah. It was time. I’d bought our old sukkah from an Armenian Catholic who supplied booths to vendors in farmers’ markets. When his orders began to spike in September, he realized he could have a good little side business selling these things to Jews for their holiday of Sukkot. Only in America.

That was 15 years ago. This time, I couldn’t find a listing for his company, but I did reach the owner of a place called Mitzvahland on Ventura Boulevard in Encino.

He spoke in a thick Persian accent, and I felt like I had just reached the trading pit on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. “Sukkahs? Yes! Size? Yes, we got it, we got it! Tarp, yes, come!” And he hung up. If you want a sukkah, call a Judaica store the day after Yom Kippur. If you’re looking for customer service, call L.L. Bean.

So we drove to Encino, the Old Country. When I grew up there, there were Jews, but nothing like what’s happened since. In the late ’70s, the Iranian Jews arrived. Then waves of Israelis settled in. We third-generation Ashkenazi children moved to the city or farther west, to Conejo. What was once a monochromatic, acculturated, if not assimilated, Jewish community became more observant, diverse, multiethnic.

We pulled into a mini-mall near Balboa Boulevard. Across a large storefront shul hung a huge banner that advertised the time for prayer services. Mitzvahland took up two more storefronts. 

Inside, it was the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. An elderly Iranian-Jewish man was behind the cash register, helping a customer and speaking into his cell phone. The store phone rang. He picked it up and now had three conversations going — one in English, one in Hebrew, one in Farsi.

A dozen customers crowded the sukkah display, next to which lay a stack of shiny metal pipes and a huge mound of bamboo poles. Two young religious Jews helped them make sense of the sukkah kits for sale. A woman in a low-cut blouse — unlikely to be Orthodox — waited patiently. Behind her two barrel-chested Israelis wearing tight T-shirts advertising a nightclub held pounds of bright plastic fruit decorations, eager to pay. Another Israeli man walked in, checkbook in hand.

“What is the end of the line?” he asked, slightly mistranslating the Hebrew phrase. 

At the counter, a young father ordering his first sukkah presented a list of specs right out of “This Old House.” “Just get the kit,” the owner said.

My wife went to the back of the store, where a vast table was covered in neatly laid out etrogs and boys formed branches of myrtle, willow and palm into a sheaf of lulavs. A boy of perhaps 8, wearing an embroidered velvet kippah, was braiding dried palm fronds together to form the holster that holds the three branches together. “Does that come with the sukkah?” a woman, clearly a first-time sukkah buyer, asked. 

Nope — another $45, at least.

Growing up, most of my friends were Jewish, but we didn’t know from lulavs and etrogs or even Sukkot. Those were the “Mad Men” years. It was edgy and funny to be culturally Jewish, like Barbra or Woody, but to practice the rituals, to identify religiously — that was for the Orthodox.

Slowly, that has changed — partly because of the immigrants, unabashed in their affiliations, and partly because the needs that the mysteries of tradition and community fill could not long go unmet. The doomsayers keep telling us that a new generation is turned off to Judaism. But one sure sign they’re wrong is the number of non-Orthodox Jews who now put up sukkot, or celebrate the holiday with others. 

“Thirty years ago, people thought sukkot were only for synagogues,” Rabbi Yonah Bookstein, who grew up Conservative, told me. “It was a revelation you could build one in your backyard. Now, everyone and their mother is selling sukkot on Pico-Robertson.”

Sukkot turns an average autumn evening into summer camp. No one does it because they have to, like Yom Kippur, but because they want to. 

And so, even as the American Jewish community has grown wealthier, more powerful, more stable, we find ourselves pulled toward Sukkot, the symbol of a tentative existence.

 “We dwell in fragile booths because we are secure,” wrote Rabbi David Wolpe. “Only someone who feels safe chooses a rickety dwelling.”

In our solid, complicated lives, we yearn to reconnect to what is true, simple and sweet: shelter, food, community.

The night before we decided to buy a new sukkah, I had a dream that I was 15 years old and working at Miss Grace Lemon Cake, where I worked on and off through high school. 

In my dream, I was packing the warm sugary cakes into their tins — just as I used to do as a teenager — but every so often I’d stop to eat a slice. In the morning, the dream meant nothing to me.

It was only after we loaded our sukkah kit in our car and drove away that I realized: Miss Grace Lemon Cakes used to be located in the exact storefront where Mitzvahland is now. What was sweet, is still sweet, and will remain sweet — and we will keep returning to it, as the saying goes, generation after generation. There is no end of the line. 

See their commercial here:


Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism.

Are Jews Smarter?


A reported link between Ashkenazi intelligence genes and susceptibility to genetic disorders is clearly mixed news for the descendants of Eastern European Jews.

It may come as little surprise, then, that reactions to a new study linking the two are a mixed bag as well.

After all, if what the University of Utah researchers say is true, some Jewish mothers may just have had their dreams for brilliant children turned to nightmares. Beyond that, it may also mean that Ashkenazim have, albeit unwillingly, “been part of an accidental experiment in eugenics,” as The Economist magazine put it in a recent article (see below).

“It has brought them some advantages. But, like the deliberate eugenics experiments of the 20th century, it also has exacted a terrible price,” the article says (see bottom bar).

The mere mention of eugenics, which refers to a movement to improve humankind by controlling genetic factors through mating, is enough to ring bells that many Jews would rather not hear 60 years after the Allied defeat of the Nazis.

According to the study, scheduled to appear in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Biosocial Science, Ashkenazim do better than average on IQ tests, scoring some 12-15 points above the test’s mean value. But they also are more likely than any other ethnic group to suffer from diseases such as Tay-Sachs, Gaucher’s disease and Niemann-Pick — related conditions that can be debilitating and deadly. The new study hypothesizes that the genetic disorders could be the unfortunate side effects of genes that facilitate intelligence.

But for some people, ascribing collective traits to entire ethnic groups — especially to European Jews — reminds them that the Nazis heaped a pile of supposed genetic characteristics on that continent’s Jews and used the characteristics as a basis to exterminate them. Indeed, the researchers said, they had difficulty finding a journal that would publish their findings.

For other people, criticizing such research on this basis reeks of political correctness. This is real science, the researchers said, with real potential to help save Jewish — and other — lives.

“When you study genetics in order to cure diseases, that’s great,” said James Young, a Jewish studies professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and the author of “Writing and Rewriting the Holocaust: Narrative and the Consequences of Interpretation.” “But when genetics are studied as a way to characterize or essentialize a whole ethnic group or nation of people, then I think it’s very problematic.”

Still, Young said, “I was kind of intrigued by this connection, and the dark irony of what it means to have your intelligence gene linked to a so-called genetic disease gene. It’s kind of striking.”

For Dr. Guinter Kahn, a Miami physician who lectures internationally on German doctors during the Holocaust, studies like this have real scientific merit.

“This stuff is being done with genes, and they’re actually finding true results,” he said. “The stuff they did in World War II was pure baloney, motivated by the greatest geneticists of that time in Germany — but they all fell into the Hitler trap.”

Although no one is questioning the researchers’ motivations, some observers worry that their findings may be misused.

“Will bigots use this? Bigots will use anything,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation league.

However, he said, their abuses should not block research that could benefit the Jewish community.

Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt agrees. When it became clear that fewer Jews were killed at Auschwitz-Birkenau than had originally been thought, some Jews worried that this information would be manipulated by Holocaust deniers to back their claims, said Lipstadt, a professor of modern Jewish and Holocaust studies at Emory University.

“I had people say to me, ‘We shouldn’t talk about these things,'” Lipstadt recalled, “I said, ‘No, no, no. It’s always good to talk about the truth.’ We should never be afraid of the truth.”

As to concerns about what it means to say that one group of people is genetically smarter than others, Henry Harpending, a professor of anthropology at the University of Utah and one of the study’s three authors, said that such complaints boil down to political correctness.

“It’s no secret,” he said of the Ashkenazi IQ numbers. “Your grandmother told you this.”

The study notes that although Ashkenazi Jews made up just 3 percent of the U.S. population during the last century, they won 27 percent of the country’s Nobel Prizes in science, and account for more than half of the world’s chess champions.

However, Harpending added, this is “the kind of thing that you’re not supposed to say these days.”

“We regard this as an interesting hypothesis and are a little surprised at the attention,” he said. “On the other hand, geneticists kind of know that variation between populations is almost certainly in the DNA, and they kind of don’t talk about that” for fear of losing federal funding for their research.

“What we’ve done is started out with an idea and followed it, so what we have is a pretty interesting and pretty good-looking hypothesis — and it ought to be tested,” Harpending said.

Could this research actually end up helping anybody?

Gregory Cochran, one of the study’s authors, hopes so.

“I don’t have the cure to any disease in my pocket. I wish I did,” he said. But “if this all pans out, you learn something about how the brain works. Who knows? Maybe you can do something to help some people one day.”

The study says that because European Jews in medieval times were restricted to jobs in finance, money-lending and long-distance trade — occupations that required greater mental gymnastics than fields such as farming, dominated by non-Jews — their genetic codes over the course of some generations selected genes for enhanced intellectual ability.

According to the study, this process allowed these Jews to thrive in the limited scope of professions they were allowed to pursue. Further, in contrast to today, those who attained financial success in that period often tended to have more children than those who were less financially stable, and those children tended to live longer.

It is for this reason, the researchers said, that many Ashkenazi Jews today have high IQs — and it may also be the reason they suffer from the slew of genetic diseases. According to the researchers, many individuals carrying the gene for one of these diseases also receive an “IQ boost.”

Rabbi Moses Tendler, who holds a doctorate in biology and teaches biology at Yeshiva University, said there is “no doubt that genetic makeup determines intelligence and, indeed, predisposes as well as offers resistance to genetic diseases.”

However, Tendler took issue with the study’s findings. The fact that Jews did not intermarry until relatively recently, Tendler said, led to a concentration of various genes among their numbers, some good and some bad.

“Wherever they were, Jews lived on an island,” he said.

In scientific terms, arguments similar to Tendler’s are known as a founder’s effect.

Rabbi Arthur Green, dean of the Rabbinical School at Boston’s Hebrew College, wondered whether the findings took into account all relevant factors in the development of Jewish intelligence. He noted that during the period in which the researchers believe the Jewish intelligence gene began to be selected, the majority Christian world was, in a sense, selecting against such a gene.

“In that same period of 1600 to 1800 years, Christian Europe was systematically destroying its best genetic stock through celibacy” of priests and monks, he said. “The Christian devotion to celibacy, particularly for the most learned and highest intellectual achievers, diminished the quality of genetic output and created a greater contrast with the Jewish minority.”

The Jewish devotion to study and learning, meanwhile, also probably worked in tandem with economic factors in the development of intelligence, Green surmised.

In some of the Ashkenazi disorders, individuals experience extra growth and branching of connectors linking their nerve cells. Too much of this growth may lead to disease; increased but limited growth, though, could breed heightened intelligence.

In an effort to determine the effect of Gaucher’s on IQ, for example, the researchers contacted the Gaucher’s Clinic at Shaare Zedek Hospital in Jerusalem. Although the center did not have specific IQ numbers on patients at the clinic, the jobs they held were high-IQ professions: physicists, engineers, lawyers, physicians and scientists.

“It’s obviously a population with enriched IQs — big time,” Harpending said.

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