Ashkenazi chief rabbi said he recognizes Lookstein conversions


Israeli Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau said he recognizes conversions performed by the prominent American Orthodox Rabbi Haskel Lookstein.

A rabbinical court in the central Israel city of Petach Tikvah in April rejected the conversion of a woman converted by Lookstein when she applied for marriage registration with her Israeli fiancé.

Lookstein is the former rabbi of Kehilath Jeshurun, a tony modern Orthodox synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper East Side that counts Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushner as members. Trump, daughter of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, converted under Lookstein’s auspices in 2009.

Lau said in a letter to Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein and opposition leader Isaac Herzog that Israel’s Chief Rabbinate recognizes Lookstein’s conversions, and that the rejection of the woman’s conversion was made by the individual rabbinical court, the haredi Orthodox newspaper Kikar HaShabbat reported Tuesday. Lau was responding to a letter from Edelstein and Herzog.

An appeal of the case is set to come before the Supreme Rabbinical Court on Wednesday.  Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef will preside over the hearing and reportedly will deliver a decision at the end of the proceedings.

A demonstration against the Chief Rabbinate is scheduled to be held near its offices  at the time of the morning hearing.

 

Bridging two cultures within one community


A recent discussion at Sinai Temple called “Inside the Persian Jewish Community” examined the community’s internal as well as external forces, as talk turned to the stereotypes and tensions that sometimes develop with local Ashkenazi Jews. 

“Persians feel so judged by the Ashkenazi community,” said Saba Soomekh, a religious studies professor at CSUN who was born in Tehran and raised in Beverly Hills. 

Saba Soomekh

She was joined in the program by Gina Nahai, an author and Jewish Journal columnist who was also born in Iran. Sinai Rabbi David Wolpe moderated the event, which attracted more than 200 attendees.

Wolpe discussed his community’s day school, Sinai Akiba Academy, saying students become aware there is such a thing as Persian and Ashkenazi sometime around fourth grade, and judgments ensue.

“It’s like someone drops fairy dust on them and they all know where they come from,” he said. “Both groups feel the otherness of the other, and that leads to feelings of both superiority and inferiority at the same time.”

A spring 2014 Sinai Akiba Academy advertisement in the Journal underscored the issue of how some prospective Ashkenazi families have shown ambivalence about sending their kids to the school, which has a large Persian population. 

“ ‘Too Persian.’ Looks awful in print? It sounds worse in a whisper,” the ad said, which sparked a firestorm of controversy upon publication. 

Nahai, whose recent novel, “The Luminous Heart of Jonah S.,” is about the Los Angeles Persian community, blamed both communities for the division. 

“To some extent, the Iranians need to change. … On the other hand, Ashkenazis also need to drop this visceral lack of acceptance that they have for us,” she said. “Now, everything obviously is a generalization … so it’s not the case everywhere, but, too often, I see eyes that roll the minute someone speaks English with a Persian accent, or anything that can be used against us will be used against us by Ashkenazis. Also, judging and creating that divide, I think we are both to blame for this division.” 

The dialogue at Sinai in Westwood also offered insight into generational differences within the Persian-Jewish community, especially between those who emigrated out of Iran during the Iranian Revolution and those who were born here. Wolpe described it as “the struggle of the 25-year-old Persian-Jewish resident of Westwood or Beverly Hills as opposed to the struggle of the 60-year-old.” 

Nahai said that for young people, it’s a very difficult place to be in.

“I think a 20-year-old and younger people have a sense they have to choose between their [Persian] community or being embraced by the [broader] community. … They have to choose between that and their independence.”

Soomekh, also a visiting professor of Iranian-Jewish history at UCLA and author of the book “From the Shahs to Los Angeles: Three Generations of Iranian Jewish Women Between Religion and Culture,” said many of her students are first-generation Persian Jews who want to follow their heart but are held back by their parents’ wishes. 

“This is what makes the [Persian] culture so beautiful —‘I live for you, and you live for me.’ But it’s difficult when you are a young adult to grow up in an [American] environment that’s saying, ‘Do what you need to do. Be happy, whatever makes you happy,’ and you’re saying, ‘Oh my God, I feel so guilty … my parents, they aren’t approving of this. They did so much, they escaped the [Iranian] Revolution and I want to make them happy,” Soomekh said. “So I think that’s where they really struggle.”

The largely Persian crowd, which engaged in a Q-and-A with the speakers at the end of the evening, listened attentively as Wolpe spoke of an anthropological work by Ruth Benedict that explains the world as having both “shame cultures” and “guilt cultures.” In the former, a community’s judgment of one’s actions is what matters, and in the latter, one’s own estimation of himself or herself is of utmost importance, he said. 

“My own view is that the Persian-Jewish community is a shame culture and the American-Jewish community is a guilt culture. What happens when Persian Jews come to America [is] they have guilt and shame, they have to get the community to approve and they have to feel good themselves,” he said. “And it’s too much.”

“You’re right,” Soomekh said, “and this is the biggest struggle for young adults wanting to appease families, community — not ruining the family name, whatever that means, and yet, at the same time, being able to do what they want to do.”

When wedding traditions collide


Everyone has certain images they associate with a Jewish wedding: the chuppah, the horah, the breaking of the glass and, of course, large spreads of food. But certain elements can get complicated in a place like Los Angeles, one of America’s largest Jewish melting pots. 

Just look at Rabbi Tal Sessler, an Ashkenazic Jew who serves as senior rabbi at Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel. He points out that the mix of diverse Jewish communities cannot help but lead to a different kind of intermarriage — between Ashkenazic and Sephardic individuals, for example — that he likes to call “inter-chuppah.” 

The impact on wedding ceremonies is inevitable as traditions meld, borrow from and are influenced by one another. For example, Sessler said: “One [practice] which is a distinctly Sephardic aspect of the chuppah ceremony is placing a tallit over both the chatan [groom] and the kallah [bride]. It has become increasingly popular in Ashkenazi-American circles. While it is not done in Israel, it is done in American Jewry outside Orthodoxy because people feel strongly about not making their ceremony asymmetrical or overly male-dominated.” 

Rabbi Menachem Weiss of Nessah Synagogue (a Persian congregation in Beverly Hills), who also is director of the Israel Center at Milken Community Schools, said different customs evolved naturally out of Jews living in different places throughout history. Ashkenazim were originally from France and Germany, while Sephardim were originally from Spain, Portugal, North Africa and the Middle East.

“The way they were acclimating to the society they lived in affected how they practiced Judaism, as Jewish communities were segregated geographically and the various communities did not connect with each other,” Weiss said.

Preserving wedding traditions from each spouse’s heritage, therefore, has become important not only as meaningful visual adornments for the ceremony but also as a means of following one’s family tree.

“If I were to trace my roots back and go through my family’s line — from Spain to Hungary and on to New York City — the various things we do are somehow shaped by where my ancestors lived,” Weiss said. “My spouse brought in Jewish customs shaped by where her family came from through the generations.”

Consider some differences: In the Ashkenazic tradition, the Shabbat when the groom is invited to be called up to the Torah takes place before the wedding and is called “aufruf,” (Yiddish for “calling up”). In Sephardic communities, the groom’s Shabbat takes place after the wedding. Other ceremonial religious traditions that differ include the bedeken (the groom handling the bride’s veil), with Askhenazi grooms veiling the bride before she walks down the aisle and Sephardic ones only unveiling the bride.

There are cultural differences, too.

“As I am Israeli and my wife is American, we noticed there are cultural nuances that come into play that don’t relate directly to customs, but [to] cultural norms from that country,” Sessler said. “American and Jewish Ashkenazis have smaller weddings in terms of the numbers of guests, while Sephardic and Israeli families stage larger weddings.”

The mood of the service can also vary among groups — in the way the betrothed couple walks down the aisle, for example. In Ashkenazi tradition, only the bride and groom go down the aisle, whereas in Persian ceremonies, the entire family participates, and they sing and dance. 

Shimmy Lautman, a Valley-based wedding photographer, is Ashkenazic but will be marrying a Sephardic woman this summer.

“One thing her family is doing, which I was not previously exposed to in my upbringing, is a pre-wedding henna party,” he said. “Another trend I am seeing within my work is [an update of] the bedeken custom. In ceremonies I have covered where an Ashkenazi groom marries his Sephardic bride, he will meet her halfway and do the veiling there, rather than put the veil on before the ceremony.”

It’s all part of making the ceremony reflect the unique personalities and traditions of each couple, he said.

“From my standpoint, it makes a wedding a lot more interesting socially and visually when various Jewish customs from different cultures are included,” Lautman said. “As essential elements of a Jewish ceremony are not going away, they way people interpret them will keep those traditions evolving.”

One issue that can come up in an inter-chuppah wedding is how the ceremony will “sound” to the family guests on both sides. Rabbi Daniel Bouskila, director of the Sephardic Educational Center, an international educational and cultural organization with a campus in the Old City of Jerusalem, said that while the songs’ and prayers’ meanings are generally the same, Sephardic variations are more flowery and embellished than Ashkenazic versions.

“The basic wedding layout is the same … but will it play to the audience is what people should consider,” Bouskila said. “If a couple is looking to integrate different traditions, they should consider what the ceremony will sound like.”

If a song or prayer is sung in a Sephardic style, one could direct Ashkenazi guests to read the text and follow along. Couples also can alternate the style in which songs are performed during the course of the ceremony.

“People are finding clever ways to keep different traditions alive, because it is so important to have the traditions of all sides expressed,” Bouskila said. 

Weiss acknowledged that couples will pick and choose what speaks to them and theorized that as younger couples tend to be less dogmatic, there will be more leeway and compromise when deciding which customs to carry forth.

“In today’s times, we’re all living together, our children are going to school together, going to shul and falling in love with one another,” he said. “We have a reintegration going on, mending those segments of the community that were previously divided into Ashkenazi, Sephardic, Persian and others. It is my hope for the future that there will be a time where there will be a complete reintegration of the Jewish people under one title, ‘Israel.’”

The Patriots’ Julian Edelman’s Jewish ties


During the Super Bowl Sunday night, many Jews across the country no doubt had the same question: Is Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman Jewish?

Edelman had an excellent game Sunday night, catching nine passes for 109 yards and a touchdown in New England’s dramatic comeback victory over the Seattle Seahawks. He also happens to have a Jewish-sounding name.

But is he actually a member of the tribe?

While his father has Ashkenazi roots, this is what Edelman had to say on the topic on a media day before his previous Super Bowl appearance with the Patriots in 2012:

“Well, I’m not completely Jewish, if you know what I mean. I know people want me to be. My father is Jewish. My mother isn’t. I’ve been asked this before. I guess you could say I’m kind of Jewish but not really.”

For the record, while traditional Jews believe one must have a Jewish mother or convert in order to be considered Jewish, both Reform and Reconstructionist Jews recognize patrilineal descent.

In an interview with the NFL Network last season, Edelman asserted more clearly that he is in fact Jewish. When asked for some “good Christmas answers” to questions from one broadcaster, Edelman said, “Well, I’m Jewish, but I’ll try to keep it to Hanukkah presents even though Hanukkah’s over.”

Here are a few facts about the Patriots’ Jewish (or not) star receiver:

He played quarterback in college.

Before shifting to wide receiver in the pros, Edelman was a quarterback for a year at the College of San Mateo in California and three years at Kent State. During his senior year at the Ohio school, he also led the Golden Flashes in rushing yards. No word on whether he also showed up at the campus Hillel.

He was not expected to do well in the pros.

Scouting reports from 2009, the year Edelman entered the NFL draft, called him too small and said he would not be a high-impact player. Edelman was not even invited to participate in the NFL Combine, a show of physical tests for professional scouts. He was drafted in the seventh and final round.

His father (not exactly your stereotypical American Jewish dad) became an auto mechanic at age 14 but pushed him to succeed.

After his Super Bowl win Sunday night, Edelman told reporters:

“My dad was just a little trailer trash white dude that worked his tail off, didn’t have a dad. He started working at 14, didn’t get to play sports. He dedicated his life to his kids to let us live our dreams. I love my dad.”

ESPN ‘s Jackie MacMullan expanded on the influence of Edelman’s father, who pushed the future star to tears while training him.

His teammates nicknamed him “squirrel.”

Not much to explain here except that Edelman is noted for his constant hustle and energy.

It is worth pointing out that Edelman is not even the most Jewish player on the Patriots — backup safety Nate Ebner’s father was a Sunday school principal at Temple Shalom in Springfield, Ohio. In addition, team owner Robert Kraft is Jewish and, a week before the Super Bowl, spoke at an event honoring the rabbi of a Brookline, Mass., synagogue. (Kraft’s speech starts at 28:00.)

Who knows? Maybe Tom Brady’s menorah will inspire Edelman to become more involved with his Jewish side.

Israel Meir Kin is a threat to all Jewish women


A little over a thousand years ago, Rabbenu Gershom of Mainz, the leading scholar of Ashkenazi Jewry, enacted bold legal measures to protect Jewish women from abuse.

Last week a fellow named Israel Meir Kin poked his finger in Rabbenu Gershom’s eye, and now every Jewish woman is at risk.

In his day, Rabbenu Gershom began to notice a disturbing and outrageous trend. Husbands, who found that they now fancied another woman, were taking advantage of the Biblical law allowing them to divorce their wives unilaterally and virtually without cause. And with the stroke of a pen, and the cold delivery of a divorce document, they were shattering the lives of their wives and families. Rabbenu Gershom strode into the breach and proclaimed a ban of excommunication against any man who divorced his wife without her consent. And to insure these husbands who lusted after another woman wouldn’t simply marry their new love without divorcing their first wives, he placed the same ban of excommunication on any man who married more than one wife, effectively ending the practice of polygamy in Ashkenaz. Rabbenu Gershom was determined that Jewish women would no longer be subject to this kind of abuse at the hands of their husbands.

In our day, Israel Meir Kin has undone Rabbenu Gershom’s work. This past Thursday, as about 30 of us stood in protest, he blatantly violated Rabbenu Gershom’s ban, by marrying a second woman without divorcing his wife. As if it were not enough that for the past 9 years he has spitefully been refusing to grant a Jewish divorce to his wife Lonna (allegedly unless she were to pay him hundreds of thousands of dollars), he has now completed his journey of shame by toppling the age-old ban on polygamy. (See the articles in this past Saturday’s New York Times, and the Jewish Journal.

Make no mistake. Israel Meir Kin’s actions are not merely outrageous and despicable. His actions threaten all of our daughters and all of our sisters. I can guarantee you that at this very moment there are men who are watching, waiting to see whether Israel Meir Kin gets away with this. And if he does, there will be more Israel Meir Kins. And every single married Jewish woman will be shorn of the protection Rabbenu Gershom had afforded women for the past millennium.

If you know Israel Meir Kin, a physician’s assistant now residing in Las Vegas, Nevada, or if you know someone who knows him, you must act now. Bring whatever legal form of social or economic pressure to bear on him that you can. This is a moment that has the potential to wreak havoc and misery for generations to come. Unless we act to stop it.

The origins and meanings of Ashkenazic last names


Ashkenazic Jews were among the last Europeans to take family names.  Some German speaking Jews took last names as early as the 17th century, but the overwhelming majority of Jews lived in Eastern Europe and did not take last names until compelled to do so.  The process began in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1787 and ended in Czarist Russia in 1844.

In attempting to build modern nation states, the authorities insisted that Jews take last names so that they could be taxed, drafted and educated (in that order of importance).  For centuries, Jewish communal leaders were responsible for collecting taxes from the Jewish population on behalf of the government and in some cases were responsible for filling draft quotas.  Education was traditionally an internal Jewish affair. 

Until this period, Jewish names generally changed with every generation.  For example if Moses son of Mendel (Moyshe ben Mendel) married Sarah daughter of Rebecca (Sora bas Rifke), had a boy and named it Samuel (Shmuel), he would be called Shmuel ben Moyshe.  If they had a girl and named her Feygele, she would be called Feygele bas Moyshe.

Jews distrusted the authorities and resisted the new requirement.   Although they were forced to take last names, at first they were used only for official purposes.  Among themselves, they kept their traditional names.  Over time, Jews accepted their new last names, which were essential as they sought to advance within the broader society, and as the shtetls themselves became more modern, or Jews left them for big cities.

The easiest way for Jews to assume an official last name was to adapt the name they already had, making it permanent.   This explains the use of “patronymics.”

PATRONYMICS (son of…..)

In Yiddish or German, it would be “son” or “sohn”  or “er”

In most Slavic languages like Polish or Russian, it would be “vich” or “vitz” ), anglicized to “wich” or “witz).

For example: the son of Mendel took the last name Mendelsohn; the son of Abraham became Abramson or Avromovitch; the son of Menashe became Manishewitz; the son of Itzhak became Itskowitz; the son of Kesl took the name Kessler, etc.  

BASED ON WOMEN'S NAMES

Reflecting the prominence of Jewish women in business, some families made last names out of women’s first names:

Chaiken—son of Chaikeh

Dvorkin–from Dvora

Edelman—husband of Edel

Frumkin–from Frume

Gittelman—husband of Gitl

Glick or Gluck—may derive from Glickl, a popular woman’s name as in the famous “Glickl of Hameln,” whose memoirs, written around 1690, are an early example of Yiddish literature

Gold/Goldman/Gulden may derived from Golda

Malkov/Malkin—from Malke

Leaman/Lehman–husband of Leah

Pearlman—husband of Perl

Rivken—from Rivke

Soronsohn—son of Sarah

PLACE NAMES

The next most common source of Jewish last names is probably place names.  Jews used the town or region where they lived—or more likely where their families came from—as their last name, reflecting the Germanic origins of most East European Jews.

“Ashkenazi”   itself a Jewish last name and there is a famous Yiddish novel by I.J. Singer, the older brother of I.B. Singer, called The Brothers Ashkenazi, set in Poland.

Asch—acronym for towns of Aisenshtadt or Altshul or Amshterdam

Auerbach/Orbach

Bacharach

Berger—generic for townsman

Berg (man)—from a hilly pace

Bayer—from Bavaria

Bamberger

Berlin—Berliner, Berlinsky

Bloch—foreigner

Brandeis

Breslau

Brodsky

Brody

Danziger

Deutch/Deutscher—German

Dorf(man)—villager

Dreyfus—from Trier, in Latin Treves

Eisenberg

Epstein

Frankel—from Franconia, region of Germany

Frankfurter

Ginsberg

Gordon—from Grodno, Lithuania or from the Russian word gorodin, for townsman

Greenberg

Halperin—from Helbronn, Germany

Hammerstein

Heller—from Halle, Germany

Hollander—not from Holland, but from town in Lithuania settled by Dutch

Horowitz, Hurwich, Gurevitch—from Horovice in Bohemia

Koenigsberg

Krakauer—from Cracow, Poland

Landau

Lipsky—from Leipzig, Germany

Litwak—from Lithuania

Minsky—from Minsk, Belarus

Mintz—from Mainz, Germany

Oppenheimer

Ostreicher—from Austria

Pinsky—from Pinsk, Belarus

Posner—from Posen, Germany

Prager—from Prague

Rappoport—from Porto, Italy

Rothenberg—from then town of the red fortress in Germany

Shapiro—from Speyer, Germany

Schlesinger—from Silesia, Germany

Steinberg

Unger—from Hungary

Vilner—from Vilna, Poland/Lithuania

Wallach—from Bloch, derived from the Polish word for foreigner 

Warshauer/Warshavsky—from Warsaw

Wiener—from Vienna

Weinberg

OCCUPATIONAL NAMES

Craftsmen/Workers

Bader/Teller–barber

Baker/Boker—baker

Blecher—tinsmith

Fleisher/Fleishman/Katzoff/Metger—butcher

Cooper/Cooperman—barrel maker or coppersmith

Drucker—printer

Einstein—mason

Farber—painter/dyer

Feinstein—jeweler

Fisher—fisherman

Forman—driver/teamster

Garber/Gerber—tanner

Glazer/Glass/Sklar—glazier

Goldsmith —goldsmith

Graber—engraver

Kastner—cabinet maker

Kunstler–artist

Kramer–store keeper

Miller—miller

Nagler—nail maker

Plotnick—carpenter

Sandler/Shuster—shoemaker

Schmidt/Kovalsky—blacksmith

 Shnitzer—carver

Silverstein—jeweler/silversmith

Spielman—player (musician)

Stein/Steiner/Stone—jeweler (but more likely invented “fancy shmancy” names)

Wasserman—water carrier 

Merchants

Garfinkel/Garfunkel—diamond dealer

Holtzman/Holtz/Waldman—timber dealer

Kaufman—merchant

Rokeach—spice merchant

Salzman—salt merchant

Seid/Seidman—silk merchant

Tabachnik—snuff seller

Tuchman—cloth merchant

Wachsman—wax dealer

Wollman—wool merchant

Zucker/Zuckerman—sugar merchant

Medical

Aptheker–druggist

Feldsher—barber surgeon in military service

Related to garment work or tailoring

Kravitz/Portnoy/Schneider/Snyder—tailor

Nadelman/Nudelman—also tailor from “needle’

Sher/Sherman—also tailor from “scissors” or “shears”

Presser/Pressman—clothing presser

Futterman/Kirshner/Kushner/Peltz—furrier

Weber—weaver

Wechsler/Halphan—money changer

Related to liquor trade

Bronfman/Brand/Brandler/Brenner—distiller

Braverman/Meltzer—brewer

Kabakoff/Kreuger/Krieger/Vigoda—tavern keeper

Geffen—wine merchant

Wine/Weinglass—wine merchant

Weiner—wine maker

Agricultural

Ackerman- plowman

Hoffman–estate manager

Religious/Communal

Altshul/Altshuler—associated with the old synagogue in Prague

Cantor/Kazan/Singer/Spivack—cantor or song leader in shul 

Feder/Federman/Schreiber—scribe

Gottlieb–God lover

Haver—from haver (court official)

Klausner—rabbi for small congregation

Klopman—calls people to morning prayers by knocking on their windows

Lehrer/Malamud/Malmud—teacher

Rabin—rabbi  (Rabinowitz—son of rabbi)

Lamden/London—scholar from the Hebrew lamden

Reznick—ritual slaughterer

Richter—judge

Sandek—godfather

Schechter/Schachter/Shuchter etc.—ritual slaughterer from Hebrew schochet

Shofer/Sofer/Schaeffer—scribe

Shulman/Skolnick—sexton

Spector—inspector or supervisor of schools

PERSONAL TRAITS

Alter/Alterman—old

Dreyfus—three legged, perhaps referring to someone who walked with a cane 

Erlich–honest

Frum—devout

Gottleib—God lover, perhaps also referring to someone devout

Geller/Gelb/Gelber—yellow, perhaps referring to someone with blond hair

Gross/Grossman—big

Gruber—coarse or vulgar

Feifer/Pfeifer—whistler

Fried/Friedman/Freedman—happy

Hoch/Hochman/Langer/Langerman—tall

Klein/Kleinman—small

Klugman—smart

Koenig—king, perhaps someone who was chosen as a “Purim King,” in reality a poor wretch

Krauss—curly, as in curly hair

Kurtz/Kurtzman—short

Reich/Reichman—rich

Reisser—giant

Roth/Rothman—red head

Roth/Rothbard—red beard

Shein/Schoen/Schoenman—pretty, handsome

Schwartz/Shwartzman/Charney—black hair or dark complexion

Scharf/Scharfman—sharp, i.e  intelligent

Stark—strong, from the Yiddish shtark 

Springer—lively person, from the Yiddish springen for jump

Sussking/Ziskind—sweet child

Weiss/Weissbard–white hair/ beard

INSULTING NAMES

These were sometimes foisted on Jews who discarded them as soon as possible, but a few remain:

Inkyk–turkey

Grob–coarse/crude                    

Kalb–cow

ANIMAL NAMES

It is common among all peoples to take last names from the animal kingdom.

bear—Baer/Berman/Beerman/Beronson

eagle –Adler (may derive from reference to an eagle in Psalm 103:5)

camel—Gelfand/Helfand (technically means elephant but was used for camel too)

carp—Karp

falcon—Falk/Sokol/Sokolovksy

finch—Fink

fox—Fuchs/Liss

pike—Hecht

ox—Ochs

quail-Wachtel

HOUSE SIGNS FROM FRANKFURT AND PRAGUE

Einhorn—unicorn

Hirschhorn–deer antlers

Loeb–lion

Rothschild—red shield

Schiff—ship

Spiegel—mirror

Stern—star

Strauss—ostrich or bouquet of flowers

HEBREW NAMES

Some Jews either retained or adopted traditional Jews names from the Bible.

The big two

Cohen– Cohn, Kohn, Kahan, Kahn, Kaplan, Kagan

Levy—Levi, Levine, Levinsky, Levitan, Levenson, Levitt, Lewin, Lewinsky, Lewinson

Others from the Bible

Aaron—Aronson/ Aronoff

Asher

Benjamin

David—Davis/Davies

Emanuel—Mendel

Isaac—Isaacs/Isaacson/Eisner

Jacob—Jacobs/Jacobson/Jacoby

Joseph–Josephs/Josephson

Judah—Idelsohn/Udell/Yudelson

Mayer/Meyer (Talmudic, not Biblical)

Menachem—Mendel/Mann

Pinchas–Pincus

Reuben—Rubin

Samuel—Samuels/Zangwill

Simon—Schimmel

Solomon—Zalman

HEBREW ACRONYMS

Baron—bar aron (son of Aaron)

Beck–bene kedoshim (descendant of martyrs)

Getz—gabbai tsedek (righteous synagogue official)

Katz—kohen tsedek (righteous priest)

Metz–moreh tsedek (teacher of righteousness 

Sachs/Saks—zera kodesh shemo (his name descends from martyrs)

Segal/Siegel—se gan levia (assistant Levite)

Shub/Shoub–shochet u'bodek (ritual slaughter/kosher meat inspector)

HEBREW-DERIVED NAMES

Leyb means “lion” in Yiddish.  It is the root of many Ashkenazic last names including Liebowitz, Lefkowitz, Lebush and Leon.  It is the Yiddish translation of the Hebrew work for lion—aryeh.  The lion was the symbol of the tribe of Judah.

Hirsch means “deer” or “stag” in Yiddish.  It is the root of many Ashkenazic last names including Hirschfeld, Hirschbein/Hershkowitz (son of Hirsch)/Hertz/Herzl, Cerf, Hart and Hartman.  It is the Yiddish translation of the Hebrew word for gazelle—tsvi.  The gazelle was the symbol of the tribe of Naphtali.

Taub means “dove” in Yiddish.  It is the root of the Ashkenazic last name Tauber.  The symbol of The dove is associated with the prophet Jonah.

Wolf is the root of the Ashkenazic last names Wolfson, Wouk and Volkovich.  The wolf was the symbol of the tribe of Benjamin.

_____________________________________________________________________

Eckstein—Yiddish for cornerstone, derived from Psalms 118:22

Good(man)—Yiddish translation of Hebrew word for “good”–tuviah 

Margolin—Hebrew for pearl

Jaffe/Yaffe–Hebrew for beautiful

INVENTED ‘FANCY SHMANCY’ NAMES

When Jews were required to assume last names, some chose the nicest ones they could think of and may have been charged a registration fee by the authorities.

According to the YIVO Encyclopedia, “the resulting names often were associated with nature and beauty.  It is very plausible that the choices were influenced by the general romantic tendencies of German culture at that time.”  

Applebaum—pear tree

Birnbaum—pear tree

Buchsbaum—box tree

Kestenbaum—chestnut tree

Kirshenbaum—cherry tree

Mandelbaum—almond tree

Nussbaum—nut tree

Tannenbaum—fir tree

Teitelbaum—palm tree

other “baum” names

Names with these combinations were also chosen or purchased:


Blumen (flower)                                                       

Fein (fine)                                                       often combined with:

Gold                                                               “berg” for hill or mountain, “thal” for valley,

Green                                                             “bloom” for flower, “zweig” for branch, “blatt”

Lowen (lion)                                                   for leaf, “vald” or “wald” for woods, “feld”

Rosen (rose)                                                   for field,  “farb” for color, “stein” for stone

Schoen/Schein (pretty)

Other aesthetically pleasing names

Diamond

Glick/Gluck—luck

Goldman

Fried/Friedman/Freedman—happiness

Lieber/Lieberman—lover

Silber/Silberman–silver

FROM NON-JEWISH LANGUAGES

Sender/Saunders—from Alexander

Kelman/Kalman—from the Greek name Kalonymous, popular among Jews in medieval France and Italy.  It is the Greek translation of the Hebrew “shem tov” (good name)

Marcus/Marx—from Latin, referring to the pagan god Mars

ANGLICIZED NAMES (or why “Sean Ferguson” was a Jew)

Jewish last names were often changed or shortened by immigrants themselves and their descendants— to sound more “American.”  (In rarer cases, immigration inspectors may have accidently changed the names of immigrants by misreading them. )

For example, Cohen to Cowan, Yalowitz to Yale, Rabinowitz to Robbins, as reflected in this ditty:    

And this is good old Boston;

The home of the bean and the cod.

Where the Lowells speak only to the Cabots;

And the Cabots speak Yiddish, by God!    

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

What happened to the last names of Ashkenazic Jews who immigrated to pre-state Palestine and to early Israel???   

David Green became David Ben Gurion

Abba Meir became Abba Eban

Golda Meyerson became Golda Meir

Amos Klausner became Amos Oz

Syzmon Perski became Shimon Peres

Ariel Scheinerman became Ariel Sharon

Moshe Shertok became Moshe Sharett

Levi Shkolnick became Levi Eshkol

Yitzhak Jeziernicky became Yitzhak Shamir

Why?   To distance themselves from Ashkenazic Jewry

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.

A Sunday call on same-sex marriage


I was talking with a young woman last Sunday afternoon. She had called me because she read the column I wrote here last month, about Sinai Temple’s decision to perform same-sex weddings. She said she’s gay and came out to her family a year ago. They’re Iranian Jews who care a great deal about the judgment of their friends and relatives. They’ve given her untold amounts of grief for the shame they think she’s brought on them. They tell her she’s ruined the family name, made her sisters and female cousins unmarriageable, bitten the many hands — the grandparents’, the aunts’ and uncles’, the friends of friends’ — that have reached out to save her from her own foolishness. 

I’m neither the village elder nor the town psychologist. I listened to this woman’s story because she sounded sincere and spent and terribly, tragically sad. Like so many traditional Jews who still live under the illusion that they can re-create, in Los Angeles, the suffocating, male-dominated, vicious-aunt-and-mother-in-law-operated households of the old ghetto, her family had raised her to be seen and not heard, obey but not think, get married and have children, and live happily ever after no matter how she really felt. She had done all that, even married, up to her mid-20s. In the last year she divorced her husband, came out first to her family and then in a public way, and was abandoned and denounced by the older members of her extended family. 

I’ve never met this woman, but I know her well. She’s the Ashkenazi girls I meet at USC, who tell me they’ve had to break a dozen taboos just to avoid being married right after high school. She’s the Iranian girls I hear about who might have two doctorates and a silver star for community service, but whose families are ashamed of them because they remain, in their early 30s, still unmarried. It’s true that coming out, especially for a woman, is a much more drastic, even shocking, step than choosing school over marriage, but at their core the two are really not that different: a 1,000-year-old taboo; a trembling, terrified individual mustering the courage to cross a barrier; a family that wants the best for its children, that believes it knows best. 

Forget the wicked witch of an aunt who takes advantage of a family crisis to vomit her own, bottled-up grief and insecurity on a helpless niece, the washout uncle who has no power in his own house and decides to be king in someone else’s. Forget the friends who suddenly crawl out of the bushes to warn of the seven plagues. The parents of these defiant girls, I know, love their children as much any of us. What they do, right or wrong, is what they believe is right. 

Often, they’re right; sometimes, they’re not. 

I said this to the young woman on the phone last Sunday — that as parents, we fail not as much in our love as in our wisdom. “You can judge a man by what he does,” a character in a novel once said, “or you can judge him by what he would have done had he been aware of all his options.” So often, I told this woman, I’ve erred with my own children because I didn’t know better. Then, as now, I wished for nothing more than a voice that would save me from my own, so-called, wisdom. 

Maybe, I said, your parents don’t know there are other respectable, happy families in their community who have accepted and even embraced their children’s homosexuality. Maybe they don’t realize that the world is infinitely bigger than the few dozen self-appointed “leaders” they think they should follow. 

I received a great many e-mails and Facebook messages in response to the article about same-sex marriage. A few Ashkenazi readers warned me of heavenly wrath and earthly pestilence. One Iranian man complained that the Conservative movement is responsible for the fact that his daughter has gone to college and, as a result, remains unmarried in her 20s. Another berated me for calling some Orthodox Jews intolerant, then went on to say that the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform movements were all “European garbage.” There’s only one kind of “real” Judaism, he said, and that’s what he practices. But by far the great majority of writers expressed support and appreciation for Rabbi Wolpe’s decision to perform gay weddings at Sinai Temple. And by far the great majority of these writers were Iranian Jews who were glad to see their point of view reflected in the article. One woman stopped me on the street to say how proud she is that her daughter is involved in her school’s gay-straight alliance. A man wrote to say he attends an Orthodox shul, but that if his own children turn out to be gay, he would want to have a place like Sinai for his whole family to attend. 

Maybe, I told the woman on Sunday, your parents would act differently if they were aware of other possibilities. 

No one has asked me for advice here; even if they had, I doubt I’m qualified to offer it. But just in case my Sunday caller’s parents find themselves in the same dark valley where I often reside, in case they, like me, long for some hitherto hidden pathway to make itself visible, I thought I’d offer these small bits of truth: 

• Your daughter is not as small or large as her sexual orientation. She has a thousand other emotional and intellectual facets and capabilities. She’s the same child you deemed worthy of your love and protection before she, or you, knew she was gay. She is more precious, more important to you than all the wagging tongues and trigger-happy fingers who’ve suddenly decided that their own limited lives would improve if only someone else’s child would be banned by Rabbi Wolpe from marrying in Sinai Temple. For every one of those soap-box preachers in this town, there are dozens of intelligent, educated, wise men and women who accept and embrace your daughter and support her quest for personal fulfillment. 

You are not as small or large as your daughter’s sexual orientation. Even the town lunatics who try to cow you into “controlling” your children because they’re afraid of losing what little control they have over their own wives and daughters know this. They realize, even if you don’t, that the era of collective shame and inherited guilt, of an entire family being blamed for one member’s deeds or misdeed, has long passed. 

Finally, 

• There was an age in which most Jewish parents would rather see their daughter dead than divorced. The fear then — public embarrassment, social isolation, loss of status for the family and eternal misery for the divorced woman — was remarkably similar to the fear now. But times have changed for divorcees and, believe it or not, at least in California, for gay women and their families. 

It’s not easy to stand back and watch while one’s children make choices that we believe are wrong. The key is to remember that not everything we know is right. Outside the shtetls and the ghettos and the limited minds of big-mouth crusaders, there’s often more than one possibility.


Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is “Caspian Rain” (MacAdam Cage, 2007). Her column appears monthly in the Journal.

Dynasties prevail as Lau, Yosef win chief rabbi races


David Lau and Yitzchak Yosef, both sons of former Israeli chief rabbis, were elected Ashkenazi and Sephardi chief rabbi of Israel, respectively.

Wednesday’s vote by 147 Knesset members, local officials and regional rabbis was the culmination of a tense, months-long campaign with an unusually high public profile. Both terms are for 10 years.

Lau, who won 68 votes in the three-candidate race, is the son of former Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau. Like his father, who served from 1993 to 2003, Lau hopes to serve as a bridge between Israel’s Modern Orthodox and haredi Orthodox communities. He is currently chief rabbi of the central Israeli city of Modiin.

Yosef is the son of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of the Sephardi Orthodox Shas party who held the post from 1973 to 1983. The head of the Hazon Ovadia yeshiva in Jerusalem, which was founded by and named for his father, picked up 68 votes to defeat three candidates; next was Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu with 49. His win is seen as a victory for Shas, which the elder Yosef founded soon after his chief rabbi term ended.

Lau staved off the challenge of runner-up Rabbi David Stav, a reformist candidate who gained widespread support from secular Israelis with his pledges to streamline the rabbinate bureaucracy. Stav, who garnered 54 votes, also was the preferred candidate of several political parties, including the centrist Yesh Atid, the hardline Yisrael Beiteinu and the nationalist Jewish Home.

Israeli Chief Rabbi Metzger under house arrest


Police placed Israel’s Ashkenazi chief rabbi, Yona Metzger, under house arrest following a 10-hour interrogation on corruption allegations.

According to The Jerusalem Post, police ordered Metzger not to leave his home for five days.

Investigators from the National Fraud Squad raided Metzger’s home and offices as part of a bribery, fraud, money-laundering and breach-of-trust case. Police suspect Metzger pilfered donations, the Post reported. Metzger’s lawyers said the rabbi denies all allegations against him.

Metzger is forbidden to make contact with either of the other suspects in the case, including Haim Nissan Eisenshtat, who worked for years as Metzger’s driver and personal assistant, and Simcha Karkovsky, the manager of the Beit Hatavshil charity in Bnei Brak.

[Related: Bribery? Fraud? Israeli police question chief rabbi on graft allegations]

Following an undercover investigation, officers went public on Thursday, arresting the three suspects and seizing documents, computers and other materials from Metzger’s home and office.

Angelina Jolie has double mastectomy after discovering ‘Jewish gene’


Actress Angelina Jolie had a double mastectomy after discovering that she had the breast cancer gene common to Ashkenazi Jewish women.

Jolie wrote in an Op-Ed in The New York Times that she decided to have the surgery after being told she had the BRCA1 gene mutation and had an 87 percent chance of developing breast cancer.

Jolie’s mother died of cancer at a young age, and Jolie wrote that she wanted to reassure her six young children that she would not die young as well.

“We often speak of ‘Mommy’s mommy,’ and I find myself trying to explain the illness that took her away from us,” Jolie wrote. “They have asked if the same could happen to me. I have always told them not to worry, but the truth is I carry a ‘faulty’ gene, BRCA1, which sharply increases my risk of developing breast cancer and ovarian cancer.”

Late last month, Jolie completed three months of surgeries, including breast reconstruction.

“I choose not to keep my story private because there are many women who do not know that they might be living under the shadow of cancer,” Jolie wrote. “It is my hope that they, too, will be able to get gene tested.

“I wanted to write this to tell other women that the decision to have a mastectomy was not easy. But it is one I am very happy that I made.”

Can Bibi’s wife Sara spoil Israel’s coalition?


Forging a coalition is, without a doubt, the most difficult part of the election process in Israel.

After a long, hard fought and often ugly election battle, it falls to the future prime minister to make deals with those who were, until recently, his nemesis all in order to obtain the required 60 Knesset seats necessary for his party to govern the country. Election planks and platforms are first weighed and then cast away in favor of the issues of power, control and of course, prestige.

Well before the final results were in, Benjamin Netanyahu placed calls to potential coalition partners. Immediate calls went out to the ultra orthodox Sephardi party Shas which then won 11 seats, the ultra orthodox Ashkenazi party United Torah which then won 7 seats and the anti ultra orthodox Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party which in the end won 19 seats.

The call Netanyahu did not immediately make was to the party that, to all appearances, is the natural partner to his own Likud/Yisrael Beitenu party. Netanyahu did not place a call to Ha Bayit Hayehudi (The Jewish Home) party, a modern Zionist orthodox party which garnered 12 seats, until late Thursday. And there is a simple reason for that.

Netanyahu's wife Sara did not want him to make the call. There is bad blood between Naftali Bennett, the leader of The Jewish Home, and Mrs. Netanyahu. The feud goes back to the time before Bennett headed and then sold a multi-million dollar start-up it goes back to the time when Bennett was chief of staff in the office of the prime minister.

Imagine the pressure in the Netanyahu household. Netanyahu needed to weigh the sides to weigh the wrath of his wife against his need for a successful coalition that would insure his position as prime minister. Not an easy decision to make. Sara has a strong hold on her man, but the pull of the prime ministry may be even stronger. Despite the protestations and clash of personalities, Bennett can only help Netanyahu and the phone call was made.

Sara Netanyahu is known to have a long memory and to hold a grudge. Many an adviser who crossed paths with this first lady ended with crossed swords and was tossed out with the trash. She is probably no different than Barbara Bush or Nancy Reagan or, for that matter, Hillary Clinton. But she is definitely less subtle. In the end Sara will probably lose this battle, but she will come back later with a vengeance.

Israel is thought to be so easily understood by Western commentators and analysts. Pollsters think that it is an easy nut to crack. But unless you understand the nuance of the country, unless you can read the people, commentators, analysts and pollsters will get it wrong every time.

They think that because English is so readily and often eloquently spoken and because so many Israelis have been educated in the United States or other Western countries that Israel is a Western culture. But it is not. Israel is almost Western, but it is also very much a Middle Eastern country — albeit a modern Middle Eastern country, and that makes all the difference.

Many western commentators don't really take the time to analyze Israel. That is why for months now commentators and analysts have been talking about the radicalization of Israeli politics and bemoaning the fact that mainstream Israel was leaning more and more to the right.

If this election teaches us anything it teaches us that they were wrong. Why were they so wrong? They failed to do their own analysis and instead, these observers of Israeli politics swallowed hook, line and sinker the Palestinian line. That line is simply anti-Israel. And so anything that is not decisively pro-Palestinian is seen by commentators as rabidly right wing and as an extremist point of view.

By now the picture of true Israeli society should be perfectly clear. The centrist Atid party with nineteen seats is now the 2nd largest party in the Knesset only after Netanyahu's Likud. And it will almost certainly insist on playing a major role in the ruling coalition. The most important platform put forth by Atid is the universal draft – a requirement that every Israeli serve in the army. This general platform resonated with masses of Israelis and was also referred to as 'an equal burden' to be shared by all Israelis, including Arab Israelis. This issue catapulted Atid into a major position in the 19th Knesset.

Interestingly, the other new and newly huge party in the Knesset, Habayit HaYehudi or The Jewish Home, now the fourth largest party in the country, believes in the same principle. And both parties believe in the breakdown of the power of the ultra orthodox rabbinate.

These two new parties, both led by young new political leaders, obtained a combined thirty Knesset seats. That is exactly 25% of the Israeli parliament. They are not extremist. They are a real reflection of the new Israel.

With Netanyahu and his 31 seats, Yair Lapid and his Atid party with 19 seats and Naftali Bennett and his The Jewish Home party with 12 seats these three parties combined have 62 seats, a perfect number to form a ruling coalition. They make up just over half of the 120 seats needed to form a government.

Sara Netanyahu had better start getting used to it. I think that her husband will be spending a lot more time with Naftali and Yair than he will with her in the very near future. The rest of Israel made the decision for him.

Unexpected Israeli cuisine


I'm not sure what I expected. Hummus, certainly, but what else? Stuffed derma? Latkes? Matzah ball soup? As a native New Yorker with Ashkenazi roots, the foods I associated with being Jewish were the foods I associated with my grandparents. By extension, I suppose, I also associated these same foods with Israel, though those connections were more subconscious than explicit. 

Early last fall, I received a call. Israel’s Ministry of Tourism was organizing a small culinary trip, and it invited me to come along as a guest. I’d never been to Israel, and I suddenly had the opportunity, through my work as a food writer, to tour a country incredibly important to my religious and cultural heritage. I said yes. Six weeks later, I checked my preconceived notions of Israeli food along with my luggage and embarked on an unparalleled culinary journey. 

With me were Hugh Acheson, Ottawa native and current owner of three Georgia-based restaurants (as well as an author and television personality); Ben Ford, proprietor of popular Culver City gastropub Ford’s Filling Station and two new soon-to-open restaurants; Viet Pham, one of Food & Wine magazine’s Best New Chefs of 2011 and co-owner of the Salt Lake City restaurant Forage; and Maury Rubin, pastry chef, author and owner of six New York City bakery-cafes, including the flagship City Bakery in Union Square. Because I was traveling with four chefs, our itinerary was designed specifically to introduce us to Israel’s rising culinary stars and evolving cuisine, a cuisine steeped in the traditions of the Middle East but with notable European influences.  

It quickly became clear that today’s Israeli chefs take the region’s best-loved ingredients — the fresh fruits and vegetables, the tahini, the fish, the labne — and morph many of them into dishes with modern flair. In addition, the culinary phrases we Americans now bandy about so often are becoming a part of the Israeli food lexicon as well: “artisanal” oils, “farm-to-table” restaurants, “sustainable” aquaculture and viticulture practices, “foraged” herbs and plants. These efforts reflect both practices already in place (and, in some cases, in place for ages) as well as a concerted appeal to the sophisticated modern traveler.

Take foraging. We learned from Abbie Rosner, who has written widely about foodways in the Galilee (she has lived there since the 1980s), that Arabs have been foraging wild foods in that region since biblical times. This clearly touched a chord with chefs Ford and Pham, who forage regularly to procure produce, herbs and edible weeds for their respective restaurants. During our journey across Israel, they would constantly stop to pluck berries from branches or even gnaw on bits of the branches themselves, tasting as they went. Israel was a forager’s dreamland, and these old practices connected the country to two modern American chefs in a very special way.

Then there were the bakeries.


Croissants at the Port of Jaffa. Photo by Cheryl Sternman Rule

I personally loved our visits to Israeli bakeries, from tiny Ugata in Kibbutz Kinneret, to Dallal and Bakery 29 in Tel Aviv, to the most casual outdoor bakery cart in the Port of Jaffa, piled high with two-toned croissants. For Rubin, the baker in our group, these bakery visits were especially exciting. At Bakery 29, owner Netta Korin glowed visibly when Rubin introduced himself. A former investment banker at Lehman Brothers in New York, Korin (who was born in Israel but raised in the United States and Europe) was a devoted customer at Rubin’s City Bakery before she moved back to the country of her birth. In early 2011, she opened her small, quaint Tel Aviv bakeshop, specializing in cinnamon rolls and scones. Korin, remarkably, donates 100 percent of her profits to the IMPACT! scholarship program, which supports Israel Defense Forces soldiers who could not otherwise afford to pursue higher education. 

As for the restaurants, they spanned a wide spectrum. We enjoyed our first dinner high in the hills above Jerusalem at Rama’s Kitchen in Nataf. Run by Rama Ben Zvi (an Israeli Jew and former dancer with a doctorate from the Sorbonne), the rustic outdoor eatery gave us our first taste of Israeli-style communal dining, with each of us sweeping bits of pita through plates of pureed baked potato, garlic confit and olive oil; creamy labne; and chicken liver pate with roasted beets. Dishes of white balsamic aubergine (eggplant), rare filet mignon with green tahini sauce, and Jerusalem artichoke and sweet potato followed.  

We soon tasted the ebullient and colorful cuisine of Jerusalem chef Uri Navon at Machneyuda, his popular restaurant adjacent to the famous Mahane Yehuda Market; enjoyed a multicourse Lebanese- and Jordanian-inflected lunch at Ktze HaNachal restaurant in the Galilee; and experienced the handiwork of chef Moshe Segev, chef of El Al airlines, at his eponymous restaurant Segev in Herzliya. At one point, servers brought out a salad in a glass wine bottle that had been sawed in half and opened flat like a book; this was, by far, the strangest serving vessel I’ve ever seen.

Was every dish a home run, every meal worth raving about? Of course not. But many high-end chefs are pushing boundaries, taking risks and infusing old-fashioned dishes with modernist touches. Some succeed, and some fail — and to pretend otherwise, or to see the failures as disappointments — would be to miss the point entirely.

For me, the point is this: The cuisine of Israel is on the precipice of change, and much of it is not only fresh, but exciting. It’s like art, with hits and misses, highs and lows. Perhaps most telling was my favorite dish of the trip, at once both humble and almost absurdly transgressive in its simplicity. It was a whole head of charred cauliflower plopped, plateless, in the center of a paper-lined table at the cheeky Tel Aviv restaurant Abraxas North. Any country whose chefs have the chutzpah to serve diners a head of blackened cauliflower and expect them to pick off florets with their fingers is a country I’m glad I visited, and to which I hope soon to return.


Cheryl Sternman Rule is the author of “Ripe: A Fresh, Colorful Approach to Fruits and Vegetables” (Running Press: 2012) and the voice behind 5 Second Rule, named best food blog of 2012 by the International Association of Culinary Professionals. Learn more at cherylsternmanrule.com.

Studying Sephardic roots


Adina Jalali, a 15-year-old student at Yeshiva High Tech in Los Angeles, has many Ashkenazi friends, but when her parents recently offered her the chance to visit Israel for the first time, she opted for a trip that would resonate with her Sephardic upbringing. 

Over winter break, Jalali, from Beverlywood, was one of nine teens to visit Israel on a unique tour run by the Sephardic Educational Center (SEC) out of Los Angeles.

While the tours organized by the SEC — for teens and young adults as well as people their parents’ age and older — go to some of the same cultural and holy sites as other trips, the emphasis here is on Sephardic history, culture, philosophy and religious practice. 

“Every other Israel program is ‘Ashkenaz,’ and I would have had trouble relating to them,” Adina said. With the SEC, “we visited Sephardic synagogues, went to the tombs of Sephardic rabbis, ate Sephardic food. I connected to my culture and am feeling proud of being Sephardic.” 

The SEC was founded in 1979 to provide Jews of all backgrounds with “authentic Sephardic Judaism,” according to Rabbi Daniel Bouskila, the center’s director.

“The goal was to share more than ethnic food and music,” he said.  “Our purpose is to share the whole intellectual, spiritual and halachic side of Sephardic Judaism that has been a largely untapped resource.” 

In much of the Jewish world, Judaism “has been largely expressed through an Ashkenazi lens, whether it be [Joseph] Soloveitchik or [Abraham Joshua] Heschel,” Bouskila said of the preeminent Orthodox and Conservative rabbi-thinkers of the 20th century.  

“What we’re saying is, there is another way to approach Judaism and the issues” ordinarily seen through the lens of Reform, Conservative or Orthodox Judaism.

The fact that most Diaspora Jews are unfamiliar with the works of the great Sephardic rabbis “is largely due to the language factor,” the rabbi said. The SEC is now assembling a team of scholars in Israel who will translate some of these texts. 

In its early years, the SEC focused on educating high school pupils, college-age students and young adults, but in recent years it has expanded to adult education programs. The Los Angeles center serves more than 2,000 adults each year. 

“In the Diaspora we are an outreach organization,” Bouskila explained. “It can be anything from scholar-in-residence lectures to informal groups [in] private homes.” 

There are Shabbatons, and Bouskila himself offers lectures on Sephardic customs and practices prior to major Jewish holidays. Topics this winter include a series on Maimonides. 

The center’s most well-known event is its annual Sephardic Film Festival, which is a fundraiser and a way to contribute to the cultural life of Los Angeles and educate the public. In November, the 11th annual film festival began with a gala evening at Paramount Studios. The weeklong festival, which attracted 1,500 movie-goers, screened films about Jewish communities in Iraq, Egypt, Turkey, Morocco, Yemen and India, among others. Every night featured a Q-and-A by a Sephardic actor, filmmaker or rabbi. 

Neil Sheff, a Westside immigration attorney, helped create the film festival and remains co-chair. He was part of the first SEC Israel summer program in 1980, and he went on to be a counselor for future summer programs as well as the first executive director for the center in Los Angeles.

The SEC and its programs have been like family for Sheff, now an executive board member in Los Angeles and Jerusalem — and not just because he met his wife at one of the center’s cultural and social programs for young professionals and his 15-year-old son just returned from a trip to Israel with the organization.

He continues to organize and attend retreats and gatherings for young couples and families, and aside from whatever specific material he learns, the events carry a more important, consistent message: Judaism without extremism or judgment of others.

“The approach that the SEC promotes, which is a classic Sephardic approach, is one of moderation that makes Judaism as a lifestyle accessible to all at each individual’s own level of observance as we strive to learn more about our religious heritage,” Sheff said.

While the SEC’s executive offices are in Los Angeles, where it offers a broad array of programming, the center’s heart is in Jerusalem. There it maintains a small but vibrant campus that serves as a base for visiting groups. 

In a typical year, the campus, located in the heart of the Old City of Jerusalem, hosts 50 to 75 teens and young adults. Every other year, it also hosts 20 to 25 adults.   

“We’re not a mass production type of organization,” Bouskila said. “We fill a niche.”

Adult visitors to Israel spend a week immersed in seminars, beit midrash learning and a bit of travel. Local professors and scholars provide the teaching.  

This year’s teen participants — whose parents visited Israel on SEC tours decades ago — went to the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum, hiked in the Ein Gedi nature reserve near the Dead Sea and climbed Masada. 

While such activities are fairly typical of teen tours, others were more unique. The L.A. students attended the graduation ceremony of Air Force pilots in the presence of the prime minister and the minister of defense. After the ceremony, they met one of the star graduates: the first religious Israeli woman to become a combat navigator. 

“We took pictures, but we can’t share them due to military regulations,” Bouskila said. 

In the northern city of Sfat, they visited the tombs of the Sephardic refugees exiled from Spain who later formed the inner circle of kabbalists.

Every morning and on Shabbat, the participants prayed from Sephardic prayerbooks and recited the melodies they have known since childhood. 

The center’s location in the Old City enabled the students to soak up Jewish history and learn about the Jews, Muslims, Christians and Armenians who live there. 

“Our center in Jerusalem is our intellectual, spiritual home,” Bouskila said, “where all our programs are housed.”

The three-building complex includes classrooms, multipurpose rooms, a synagogue, dining hall, full-service catering kitchen and about 50 dorm rooms. Renovations will add 15 luxury rooms, a library/beit midrash, new classrooms, offices, a student lounge and lecture hall as well as a museum/visitors center. 

When its own groups aren’t using the campus, the SEC rents it out to other groups. The income helps support SEC programs and made it possible for the center to host the most recent group of students free of charge. 

“This current trip, they paid only the airfare,” Bouskila said. 

Although he could have come to Israel on just about any teen program, Ezra Soriano, 16, from Woodland Hills, was determined to tour with the SEC, just as his parents did in the 1980s.

“I’m with Rabbi Bouskila and a bunch of friends, and I’m learning a whole bunch of new things about myself and the people around me,” he said. 

One thing Ezra learned is that the Jewish traditions his family practices at home are shared by many other Sephardic Jews. His family’s roots are in the Greek island of Rhodes.

“I thought I was unique, but now I’m grateful that I can share these traditions with my friends and hopefully with my own family one day in the future,” the teen said. 

While Sephardic culture is a central theme of the SEC tour, Soriano and his friends spent their winter break getting to know all kinds of Israelis. 

“I’m realizing how closely connected I am to Israel and how much more connected I want to be,” Soriano said. “When we get home, we want to be ambassadors to all the people in our Jewish community.”

Israeli chief rabbi visits Berlin on circumcision issue


Israel’s chief Ashkenazi rabbi said in Berlin that medical training for mohels, or ritual circumcisers, could resolve concerns in Germany regarding circumcision of male children.

In meetings Tuesday with government officials and Berlin’s Jewish community, Rabbi Yonah Metzger noted that mohels could be trained and certified by German doctors. But he emphasized that the Chief Rabbinate in Israel has to make final decision on whether a mohel is up to par.

The suggestion echoes that of the Brussels-based Conference of European Rabbis, which in July announced that Germany’s mainstream Orthodox rabbinical body, the ORD, would create an association of mohels to be supervised by the Association of Jewish Doctors and Psychologists. This project already “is in the works,” Israel Meller, ORD administrator, told JTA Tuesday.

At issue is a ruling in May by a Cologne district court, which said that the circumcision of male infants may be done for only medical reasons. All other circumcisions of a minor would be considered inflicting bodily harm, according to the ruling. The case involved the circumcision of a Muslim boy, but affects both Jews and Muslims.

Although ritual circumcision remains legal, some hospitals have ceased offering the procedure while the debate rages. Meanwhile, mohels continue to perform ritual
circumcisions at private homes or synagogues, far from the public eye. Germany’s parliament has indicated it will step in with a law to protect ritual circumcision for Jews and Muslims.

Germany currently has an estimated 10 Jewish mohels, including women, who also are medical doctors specializing in urology. It is not clear whether they would receive the OK from a traditional rabbinate, however.

Jewish tradition requires that boys be circumcised on the 8th day after birth; postponement is possible in the case of illness.

Metzger addressed the Jewish community at the Centrum Judaicum in Berlin on Monday, in a talk sponsored by the Jewish Community of Berlin, the Chabad Lubavitch Jewish Educational Center of Berlin, several Chabad-related educational institutions in Berlin, Keren Hayesod and other local Jewish associations.

On Tuesday, the rabbi was accompanied by Berlin Chabad Rabbi Yehudah Teichtal in meetings with government officials. According to Die Welt newspaper, Metzger said that a proper brit milah does not cause suffering: “We give the infant a drop of sweet wine and then he falls asleep,” he said, adding that in the rare case of complications, doctors and not mohels are usually to blame.

Dramatic progress in in-vitro detection spurs new push for Ashkenazi Jews to do genetic disease test


Susan and Brad Stillman grew concerned following their son Benjamin’s birth in September 1998. He was fussy and congested, had difficulty breastfeeding and didn’t take to the bottle.

The parents brought him to the pediatrician and then to a hospital pediatric care unit near their home in Rockville, Md., a suburb of Washington.

Benjamin soon was diagnosed with Riley-Day syndrome, now called familial dysautonomia, a genetic disease of the autonomic nervous system that disproportionately strikes Ashkenazi Jews.

When the Stillmans got married in 1995, they were tested for Tay-Sachs disease, the only genetic disease prevalent among Ashkenazim for which screening was available, and neither parent was found to be a carrier or to have the disease.

“Ignorance was bliss,” Susan Stillman said. “We had no idea we were carriers for FD.”

Today, tests are available for 19 chronic conditions that are known as Jewish genetic diseases, including familial dysautonomia. Testing capabilities have risen dramatically: Just one year ago, individuals could be tested for 16 conditions; in 2009, the number was 11. Among those conditions, in addition to FD and Tay-Sachs, are cystic fibrosis, Gaucher disease, Canavan disease and Niemann-Pick disease.

Organizations dealing with Jewish genetic diseases are intensifying their efforts to educate Ashkenazim of childbearing age about the need to be screened for all 19 conditions with a single blood test, and to update tests that have already been conducted. The experts view this as a serious communal health issue, with one in five Ashkenazim estimated to be a carrier of at least one of the 11 diseases that could be tested for in 2009.

A study by New York University’s Mount Sinai School of Medicine in Manhattan found that significant numbers of New York-area Ashkenazim —one in every 3.3 — are carriers of at least one of the 16 diseases tested for last year.

A carrier rate of one in 100 for an individual disease would be “of concern,” said Dr. Adele Schneider, director of clinical genetics at Philadelphia’s Victor Centers for Jewish Genetic Diseases.

As with any genetic disease, when both parents are carriers, each of their children will have a 25-percent likelihood of being affected; the more diseases for which each parent is a carrier, the greater the odds of the children being affected.

“If you and your spouse find out that you’re carriers, you may not want to take that one- in-four chance,” said Karen Litwack, director of the Chicago Center for Jewish Genetic Disorders. “It’s a terrible ordeal for parents to go through. From a Jewish community standpoint, there’s a general consensus that education and outreach will, hopefully, prevent this kind of thing from happening.”

Experts in Jewish genetic diseases are seeking to promote awareness of the potential problems, because screening before a pregnancy can offer options for preventing or dramatically reducing the chance of a child being born with a disease. The four main alternative options are utilizing a sperm donor; utilizing an egg donor; pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (in-vitro fertilization of the mother’s egg, analysis of the embryo, and implantation only if the embryo is healthy); and even aborting a fetus affected by both parents’ disease-carrying genes.

“Screening is protecting future generations,” said Randy Yudenfriend-Glaser, who chairs the New York-based Jewish Genetic Disease Consortium. She is the mother of two adult children with mucolipidosis type IV, one of the known Jewish genetic diseases.

“When you’re young and getting married, you don’t want to know about it because it’s scary,” she said. “But you should want to know about it.”

Experts also emphasize the need for each carrier to be screened prior to each pregnancy to account for additions to the screening panel in the interim.

Several organizations are expanding their outreach to rabbis and Jewish communal leaders to enlist their help in persuading prospective parents to get tested. Even doctors don’t push sufficiently for testing, representatives of these groups say.

The Victor Centers’ survey in April of 100 Atlanta-area obstetricians, gynecologists, primary care physicians and pediatricians found that only 51 percent routinely recommend preconception screening, and just 34 percent recommend updated screenings between pregnancies. Not a single respondent reported recommending screening for more than six of the 19 known diseases.

The findings were “stark” and “very worrisome,” said the Victor Centers’ national project director, Debby Hirshman.

The agency’s Atlanta Jewish Gene Screen program has secured the agreement of area rabbis to distribute fact sheets to the 17,000 congregants expected to attend High Holiday services next month.

The Jewish Genetic Disease Consortium, with the support of the New York Board of Rabbis, last September inaugurated a clergy awareness program.

Several rabbis have taken the effort to spearhead educational efforts into their own hands. Rabbi Peter Kasdan, a Reform rabbi from New Jersey who has moved to Florida in retirement, has made it a requirement that couples undergo testing before he performs their weddings. Rabbi Larry Sernovitz of Philadelphia’s Old York Road Temple-Beth Am, whose son was born with familial dysautonomia, successfully lobbied the Union for Reform Judaism to host a session on Jewish genetic diseases at its upcoming convention in Washington. Rabbi Joseph Eckstein, who lives in New York, lost four children to Tay-Sachs disease, and in the 1980s he founded Dor Yeshorim, a Brooklyn-based organization that promotes screening in Orthodox communities.

In August, the Victor Centers rolled out an iPhone and iPad application it has developed with information on Jewish genetic diseases.

The outreach efforts mean a lot to Stillman. Last week, she spoke about her situation during a panel discussion at the 31st IAJGS International Conference on Jewish Genealogy in Washington. Stillman described her son as a sweet, loving child. Benjamin, who is entering the eighth grade, plays piano and plans to celebrate his bar mitzvah in September. But he’ll always have to eat through a feeding tube and to receive daily medication.

Stillman isn’t sure if Benjamin can live independently, marry or have children.

“I don’t know how long my child will live. I can’t look too far down the road—only half the kids live to age 30,” she said of those diagnosed with familial dysautonomia. Her presentation at the genealogy conference, Stillman said, had one goal: raising awareness.

“It can happen to you,” she said. “I am a regular person. It happened to me.”

With Egypt in turmoil, Israel rethinks readiness for multi-front war


Although it’s still far from clear how the uprising in Egypt is going to play out, the volatility there is already raising questions in Israel about the Jewish state’s readiness for a war on several fronts.

The optimistic view in Israel is that a wave of democracy will sweep the Middle East from Cairo to Tehran, making war in any form less likely.

The pessimists—there are many here—see an ascendant Islamic radicalism taking hold in Egypt and elsewhere, thus compounding the military threats facing Israel.

In the Israel Defense Forces, generals are planning for worst-case scenarios.

In a series of farewell addresses this month, outgoing IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi offered a rare insight into how the Israeli military sees the emerging threats and what it is doing to meet them.

Ashkenazi spoke of “tectonic changes” in the region, leading to gains for the Iranian-led radical axis at the expense of the region’s moderates. He pointed to the growing dominance of Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Islamist shift in Turkey and now the danger that Egypt, once the linchpin of the moderate camp, will fall into the orbit of radical Islam.

Things could get even worse, he said, when the Americans finally pull out of Iraq, leaving that Shiite-dominated country free to lurch toward the radicals.

In Ashkenazi’s view, all this means that the IDF needs to prepare for a significant broadening of the spectrum of threats against Israel. Not only does the IDF have to be ready to fight a simultaneous war on several fronts, it must be able to wage very different kinds of warfare—from “low intensity” irregular conflict with terrorists, to classical conventional warfare against regular armies, to missile warfare against states or powerful non-state actors like Hezbollah.

Even though the threat of terrorist or missile attack might seem more imminent, IDF doctrine under Ashkenazi has put the emphasis on war between regular armies.

“We must train for classic conventional warfare. It poses the biggest challenge, and from it we can make adaptations to other forms of warfare, but not vice versa,” Ashkenazi argued earlier this month at the 11th annual Herzliya Conference on national, regional and global strategic issues. “It would be a mistake to train for low-intensity conflict and to think that the army will be ready overnight to make the switch to full-scale warfare.”

During Ashkenazi’s watch, which began in 2007 in the wake of the army’s much-criticized performance in the 2006 Second Lebanon War, the IDF focused on enhancing its already impressive accurate long-range firepower, rebuilding its neglected capacity for sweeping armored maneuvers, and honing coordination for joint ground, sea and air strikes. Training on all relevant parameters was increased by an estimated 200 percent.

According to Ashkenazi, Israel’s “smart” guided missile firepower is at the cutting edge, and in some aspects the IDF may even be a world leader—for example, in its ability to pinpoint targets in the heat of battle and bring lethal fire to bear within seconds.

Despite the focus on conventional warfare, the IDF also developed specific capabilities for terrorist and missile warfare. This includes a four-layered anti-missile defense system starting with the Arrow missile, which is capable of intercepting long-range missiles at altitudes of above 50 miles, to the Iron Dome system for shooting down low-flying, short-range rockets.

In any future missile war against Hezbollah in Lebanon, Ashkenazi says the IDF will apply conventional warfare skills, committing ground forces to attack the enemy in its embedded positions and considerably shortening the duration of the conflict.

Perhaps the most dramatic stride forward made by the IDF over the past few years is in field intelligence. If in 2006, its “bank” of targets in Lebanon numbered approximately 200, today the figure is in the thousands. Ashkenazi insists that firepower is meaningless unless there are targets of high military value.

“Show me your targets and I will tell you what your military achievement will be,” he declared at the Herzliya Conference.

All this adds up to a military doctrine that is likely to give the IDF the capacity to wage different kinds of warfare simultaneously on several fronts: the so-called Revolution in Military Affairs, or RMA. Israel sees an edge here over potential foes: While Israel has inculcated this sophisticated, real-time interoperation of accurate long-range firepower, high-grade intelligence, command and control, and joint forces operations, its potential adversaries have not.

For comparison, the largely American-equipped and -trained Egyptian army—with some 700,000 troops (450,000 in the standing army and about 250,000 reserves), 12 ground force divisions, and approximately 3,400 tanks and 500 fighter planes—is considered by far the strongest in the Arab world. Some of the equipment is state of the art: Egypt has about 1,000 Abrams M1 tanks and just over 200 F-16 fighters.

But the Egyptians have not even begun to incorporate RMA.

“RMA requires a great deal of training of a very special kind,” Yiftah Shapir, director of the Military Balance Project at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies, told JTA. “In my view there are just two armies who have these capabilities at the highest level: the U.S. Army and the IDF. And simply buying the platforms does not give this kind of capability.”

Indeed, largely because of the RMA disparity, Shapir says that in the event of war between Israel and Egypt, he would expect a result similar to that achieved by the American army in Iraq in 2003.

“The American army in Iraq was not any bigger than Israel’s standing army. They had only three divisions, one of which came late,” Shapir said. “True, their air force was much bigger, but it was mainly because of the advantages of RMA that they defeated an army of 21 divisions in two weeks. I would expect the IDF to achieve a similar result, perhaps not quite so easily or with so few casualties.”

Not that anyone thinks the Egyptians will be quick to wage war on Israel or abrogate the peace treaty between the two countries. If Egypt did, at the very least it would forfeit the $1.3 billion it receives in annual American military aid.

Moreover, to launch a ground war against Israel, Egypt would have to order the American-led multinational peacekeeping force out of Sinai, the huge buffer zone between the two countries. That’s something a new regime would be unlikely to undertake lightly.

Nevertheless, Israeli generals already are insisting that in an increasingly unstable region, they will need more platforms and more troops. Otherwise the IDF, fighting on several fronts, could find itself overextended.

The change of events in Egypt portends a major argument in Israel over increasing the defense budget here.

L.A.’s Top Ten Mensches — big hearted Angelenos


“It is hard to convey the special sense of respect, dignity and approbation that can be conveyed by calling someone ‘a real mensch,'” writes Leo Rosten in “The Joys of Yiddish.”

The Yiddish word infuses the basic German denotation — “person” — with an almost indefinable connotation. A mensch is a person who is upright, honorable, decent, as Rosten writes, a person to admire and emulate.

Boy, could we use some now.

As the last pieces of 2008 crash down around us, there is ample evidence that mensch-hood (more properly, menschlikayt) is in short supply, at least judging by headlines. Worse, the Bernard Madoff scandal revealed a disturbing tendency to hide chicanery under the guise of do-goodery. Madoff, his middlemen and some charitable boards were doing good while doing wrong — either out of evil, in Madoff’s case, or, at best perhaps, just out of gullibility and incompetence.

So we look to The Journal’s fourth annual Top Ten Mensches list to brighten our spirits and boost our hopes for a better year. As the stories here demonstrate, these are people who in the course of lives no less hectic and demanding than our own, facing temptations no less alluring than those we all confront, manage to reach out and help others, making the world a better place, day in and day out.

The Jewish Journal created this list as a response to all those lists extolling fame, money, power and hot-ness. We honor these special ten because they are just people — menschen, to use the proper Yiddish plural — who understand the power and possibility of what just one person can do to help others.

Thank you to all our mensches, and to all who offered up names for consideration. Maybe next year we’ll all be candidates for the list….

Gabriel Halimi: Partying For a Cause

It was a stuttering problem that turned Gabriel Halimi into a mensch.

“I had a really bad stutter when I was kid,” the now 27-year-old recalled recently. “My therapist said I needed to speak up in class and try to get myself to talk more, and then I started falling into leadership activities because it forced me to talk.”

Dressed in a pink shirt and a brown blazer, Halimi looks much like the young professionals he now helps lead in the 4-year-old Beverly Hills-based nonprofit, Society of Young Philanthropists (SYP).

By day, Halimi works at ACG, a real estate consulting firm. But he recently passed the California Bar exam and said he hopes to be practicing as an attorney by February.

In addition to working full time and attending Loyola Law School, Halimi is one of 25 young professionals who helped found SYP and is currently serving as one of its board members. The philosophy behind SYP, Halimi said, is simple.

“We wanted to do well in our work,” he said. “We wanted to party, and we wanted to do something bigger than ourselves, and that’s kinda where SYP was born.”

Halimi grew up in Los Angeles, attending Temple Emanuel Community Day School before eventually transferring to Beverly Hills public schools. But Halimi said it wasn’t until college that his Jewish roots really took hold.

At UC Santa Barbara, Halimi joined the Jewish fraternity, Alpha Epsilon Pi, and became immersed in its world of partying and doing good.

“He was really seen as a leader even among his peers,” said Elishia Shokrian Bolour, a childhood friend who, along with Halimi, helped found SYP.

However, Halimi insists that working with SYP has demanded little self-sacrifice. Throughout the year, SYP holds events — big, bold, boisterous events — and rather than have all the money go to the DJ, the club or the liquor, the majority of the proceeds (about 70 percent) goes to charity.

“We just kinda wanted to get people to think in more philanthropic terms,” Halimi said. “If you’re going to be doing this anyway [partying], you might as well be doing it for a good cause.”

On May 14, 2005, Halimi and his friends launched SYP’s first event by pulling all their resources together and throwing a huge bash in Beverly Hills.

Approximately 500 young Angelenos — mostly ages 18-30 — raised close to $70, 000 for three Jewish organizations: IMA Foundation, which is dedicated to disaster relief in Israel; the educational foundation Magbit, which helps those in Israel gain a higher education; and Beit T’Shuvah, a Jewish drug rehabilitation center in Culver City.

Halimi said his favorite SYP cause so far, however, has been one that doesn’t directly involve the Jewish community: Darfur.

“It was just so beautiful,” Halimi said, referring to the $45,000 SYP donated to American Jewish World Service’s relief work in Darfur. “We could see beyond ourselves and recognize that there are a lot of people out there that could use our help.”
“It goes to the principle of tikkun olam,” healing the world, he said.

SYP is not a Jewish organization, although most of those involved have grown up within the Jewish community, and the nonprofit does not make any outright political statements.

“We don’t want to take any kind of political stance that might alienate someone,” he said.

The organization chooses the causes it supports democratically, allowing every member to have a say in the direction of the nonprofit.

In addition to SYP, Halimi is involved in 30 Years After, a nonprofit dedicated to uniting the Iranian American Jewish community, and the Lev Foundation, which promotes balanced, responsible living and is named in honor of Daniel Levian, a recent victim of a drunk driving accident.

When asked, Halimi said he doesn’t consider himself a mensch — he’s not worthy, he claimed — but he offered up this definition of one: “Someone who can see past themselves.”

But just ask Rhoda Weisman, executive director of the Professional Leaders Project, an organization dedicated to developing the next generation of Jewish leaders. She said, “In all honesty, if you were to ask me what a definition of a mensch is, I would name you Gabe.”

— Lilly Fowler, Contributing Writer

Kim Krowne: ‘Hakuna Matata’Means Bringing Hope to Tanzanian Kids

Kim Krowne thought she’d be attending medical school. Instead, the 24-year-old Northridge native, a graduate of Sierra Canyon and Milken Community High School, spent most of 2007 and 2008 in Tanzania, improving the lives of orphaned children and many villagers. She’s been home for the past several months and plans to return to Africa in January.

ALTTEXTOnce a “total planner,” Krowne’s current philosophy of life is more hakuna matata — “there’s no problem” in Swahili, a language she speaks fluently. “Obviously, this was not my plan. But I love it. There’s so much work to be done,” she said.

The focus of her passion is the Matumaini Child Care Center, a small three-room building in the village of Rau that houses 20 children, ages 6 to 15. Krowne discovered it in the fall of 2006 while taking a year off after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, where she fulfilled her premed requirements while majoring in the sociology and anthropology of health, concentrating on Africa.

At that time, the nongovernmental, nonreligious and nonprofit Matumaini Center cared for eight children whose parents had either died of HIV/AIDS, were alcoholic or couldn’t afford their care. Newly opened, it desperately needed funds for food and school fees, less than $20 annually per student. Krowne immediately e-mailed family and friends and raised $1,000.

She came home in March 2007 knowing she would return. Her last week there, she had met Michelle Kowalczyk, 27 and a nurse, and asked her to look after the kids, who then numbered 20. Kowalczyk also became enamored.

The following December, Krowne and Kowalczyk together formed a nonprofit, Knock Foundation (www.knockfoundation.org), to help solicit donations and grants. They also signed a five-year contract with Matumaini (meaning hope in Swahili) to fund the nonprofit and become decision-making partners.

When they returned to Tanzania they facilitated a host of improvements, including providing the children with nutritious meals, medical and dental care and school uniforms and supplies and paying salaries to the orphanage workers.

They also had bunk beds built in the rooms, upgraded the latrines, improved the general cleanliness and constructed a chicken coop on the property.

Their reach extends as well to the greater community in Rau and nearby villages, with the goal of making families more self-sufficient. One such effort, dubbed the Piggery Project, has provided 50 families with supplies needed to build a pig hut, as well as two pigs to raise. The families will keep some of the proceeds from the sale of the pigs and reinvest the remainder. They hope to expand the project.

They have also renovated a government medical clinic and dispensary in Shimbwe, the only health facility available to serve thousands of people in the Kilimanjaro region. In addition to repairing the clinic’s roof and painting its rooms, they purchased laboratory materials and medications.

Plus, they organized a two-day life skills and HIV/AIDS seminar in conjunction with a local NGO that was attended by 100 women and children. It will become a yearly event.

To date, Krowne and Kowalczyk have raised about $85,000 and need an additional $35,000 for 2009 to sustain the current projects. They would also like to construct a new building for Matumaini, start another orphanage and help provide secondary and university education for the children, among other dreams.

Kowalczyk marvels at Krowne’s ability to transcend barriers. “Kim has been able to reach people who otherwise would have been untouched,” she said. “We’ll be doing this for the rest of our lives.”

To make a donation or for more information, visit www.knockfoundation.org, call (818) 831-6075 or e-mail kim@knockfoundation.org.

— Jane Ulman, Contributing Editor

Genetic research can open book on Jewish identity — for good and bad


Father William Sanchez wears a Star of David pendant on the same chain as his crucifix, and he keeps a menorah in his parish office. After a DNA test confirmed his Sephardic roots, the Albuquerque priest has been actively reconciling this discovery with his Catholic beliefs.

“Knowledge of my Jewish ancestry has provoked me to question things, yes,” Sanchez says in the book, “Abraham’s Children: Race, Identity and the DNA of the Chosen People” by Jon Entine (Grand Central, 2007).

Looking back over his childhood in New Mexico, Sanchez now recognizes the Jewish signs: his parents shunning pork, spinning tops during Christmas and covering the mirrors at home if someone in the family died.

For Crypto-Jews like Sanchez, DNA testing services can confirm or disprove suspicions about a hidden Jewish family history, uncover unknown genetic disease risks or inspire greater exploration of Judaism. For small populations in Africa and Asia, genetic research has shed light on claims of Jewish ancestry and provided a better understanding of Jewish migration over thousands of years.

But critics fear that Jewish genetic research also opens a Pandora’s box. The discovery of a shared genetic marker among men who claim to be descended from Kohanim grew into wild, exaggerated claims in the media that geneticists had confirmed the story of Aaron. Some have decried research exploring a genetic basis for Ashkenazi intelligence as politically incorrect and racist, since all humans are 99.9 percent similar.

Entine, who will be speaking at Adat Chaverim and Brandeis-Bardin this weekend, believes exploring that .1 percent is worth getting researchers riled up.

An American Enterprise Institute fellow and former NBC news producer, Entine is no stranger to controversy. He tackled the topic of race in sports with “Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We’re Afraid to Talk About It” (PublicAffairs Books, 1999), which was lauded by Scientific American as a “well-researched, relatively thorough and lucidly written case.”

After “Taboo” was published, Entine learned his sister had breast cancer. As a teenager, he had lost his mother, grandmother and aunt to cancer over a period of three years. The family assumed it was a coincidence at the time, but recent genetic testing revealed the BRCA2 genetic mutation contributed to his sister’s cancer.

Since Entine has a young daughter, he decided to undergo testing, which confirmed he carries the mutation. The experience inspired him to research the link between Jews and DNA.

The result is “Abraham’s Children,” a survey of Jewish genetic research paired with a chronicle of Jewish history that explores the thorny question: “Who is a Jew?”

Entine writes that Jewishness is a function of religion and ancestry, shaped by faith, politics and culture. Given the Jewish community’s historically insular nature, most Jews also share genetic markers, which speaks to common ancestors.

This commonality inspired research in the 1990s that found the Cohen Modal Haplotype, a set of six identical genetic markers shared among Ashkenazic and Sephardic Kohanim, passed from father to son on the Y chromosome, which doesn’t change much over time and may have originated with a common ancestor. While the genetic markers alone do not prove the existence of Aaron, they can be seen to confirm a biblical tradition.

The haplotype, however, is also not unique to Jews — Kurds, Armenians, southern and central Italians share these same markers but to a lesser extent.

MUSIC: ‘That Yemenite Kid’ Diwon makes a mix tape — in Yiddish


NEW YORK (JTA) — Courtesy of Diwon, the artist formerly known as DJ Handler and otherwise known as the executive director of Modular Moods and Shemspeed.com, comes this fresh mix of pop, hip-hop, electronica and . . . Yiddish?

We spoke to “That Yemenite Kid” and asked him what’s up with this unusual release.

JTA: As an artist and producer you’ve focused on highlighting Sephardic and Yemenite Jewish music as an alternative to what some see as the Ashkenazic domination of the Jewish cultural scene. With that in mind, what’s a nice Yemenite kid like you doing in a Yiddishe place like this?

Diwon: I’m half-Yemenite. My other side is Ashkenaz. That is the side that came out here. Don’t forget, I started a klezmer punk band in college called Juez. So this really isn’t too far out for me. I think just because of the recent change of my artist name from DJ Handler to Diwon and some of the press around the music, now I’m seen as very Yemenite and the past is sort of washed over. I’m definitely more passionate about the Yemenite music I’m making because I feel that there has already been a big Yiddish and klezmer music revival.

At the same time, I don’t know of any Yiddish mixtapes that have ever been made — you know, Yiddish through the eyes of a street mixtape DJ. It was a challenge to take the source material flip it over my own beats and remixes and then throw in some of my friends who are fusing Yiddish with electronic music and what not. Plus that Andrew sisters “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen” is so hot. I DJ it in clubs all the time. That in itself was almost reason enough to create this mixtape.

JTA: I notice you have some Hebrew language stuff in there as well. That’s going to make the Yiddishists angry . . .

Diwon: Ha! I don’t know. I guess some controversy is good.

There is a lot of great classic Yiddish music out there that, beyond revivals from Golem and Socalled, most young Jews today are completely unfamiliar with.


Click for streaming audio

JTA: Do you see any potential for the reinvigoration of Yiddish music as anything more than a novelty for this generation?

Diwon: I could see why people would say that Socalled is a novelty, but you could argue the music isn’t a novelty because he grew up listening to Yiddish records and this is how he makes Yiddish music — as opposed to say, an artist who put one Yiddish thing on their non-Yiddish album, as a novelty.

It’s a tough question to answer since most artists fuse different elements and genres and influences into their compositions. I don’t think that it’s novelty if an artist fuses their tradition into their music if it’s done in a sincere way and not with a smirk.

JTA: But what about for the consumer? So let’s say your doing Yemenite music isn’t a novelty, it’s an expression of your identity, but for the average music consumer, it’s a novelty. Take Matisyahu for example. Did non-Jews buy his album because he’s a great reggae artist, or because he’s an amusement?

Diwon: I think it depends on the consumer. One who isn’t that familiar with the tradition might buy it as novelty. But someone who knows the music and likes Yiddish or Yemenite music will buy it to expand their collection and for them its not necessarily a novelty purchase.

I know non-Jews who bought Matisyahu’s record because they like reggae. But then there are tons that probably bought it off the hype that was fueled by the novelty of it all. But I don’t think any of that matters. If he had put out one record and then went to making regular, non-Jewish reggae, I think it would be different. People would say “what a fake” and “what kind of marketing stunt is this?” But the fact is this is his true expression. He tours the world playing it and he is onto his third record, making it. It’s obvious that he doesn’t view it as a novelty. And the fact that he is still successful at it shows that it’s definitely more than a novelty. That and maybe the fact that he doesn’t wear a suit and a black hat anymore.

JTA: How’s the Jewish music scene holding up in light of the current economic downturn? Is your label, Modular Moods, surviving, thriving, dying?

Diwon: Well stateside we’re still alright. It’s a bit harder when I tour internationally, but no matter what I’m still going to grind and get as much good music out there as possible. If only to cheer up the people who are down due to the economy.

JTA: Well, giving away free music helps!

Diwon: Yeah, well music is basically free nowadays anyway, so why try and front? I feel like I give 75% of my music out for free and use the other 25% to fund it all and survive.

JTA: So what can we expect from Modular Moods in the coming months?

Diwon: Don’t miss the Sephardic Music Festival this Chanukah in NYC, the Shemspeed 40 Days 40 Nights Tour of college campuses in February, and a slew of new songs and albums unlike anything people have ever heard. We ain’t gonna stop now.

Jewish women change their destinies by testing for genetic mutation


Erika Taylor didn't want to know whether she had the breast cancer gene.

“My thinking was I would never get a prophylactic mastectomy,” Taylor, 44, said of the idea of removing her breasts as a preventive measure. “I just thought it was horrible thing to do to myself, and if I was unwilling to do that, why bother finding out?”

[RELATED: Women support each other in navigating genetic risk]

Her grandmother died of breast cancer at 56, and her mother battled and beat the disease in her 30s. Taylor, who is single and the mother of a 14-year-old boy, always suspected cancer was in her future, but taking steps to confirm that was not something she wanted to do. Until she got her own diagnosis.

A routine mammogram last November revealed early stage noninvasive cancer cells in Taylor's milk ducts, making information about her genetic status vital for determining her treatment.

“All of a sudden, the idea of 'I would never do such a thing' goes out the window,” she said. “It's astonishing how quickly you go, 'OK, OK, what do I need to do? I'll do it.'” Taylor's mother tested first, and when she was identified as a carrier of the BRCA 2 genetic mutation common in Ashkenazi Jews, Taylor tested next. In January, she found out she, too, carries the gene that makes it likely that even if she were to rid herself of her diagnosed cancer, it would probably recur.

Like a growing number of women, Taylor faced both the gift and the terror of knowledge.

One in 40 Ashkenazi Jews — compared to one in 500 in the general population — carries a mutation that gives women a 50 percent to 85 percent chance of getting breast cancer by the time they are 80. The genetic mutation, discovered in 1994, also increases the likelihood of melanoma and ovarian, prostate or pancreatic cancer. While within the general population about 5 percent of cancers can be attributed to a hereditary syndrome, in the Jewish community, that number is closer to 30 percent.

When Ashkenazi and Persian worlds collide — community healing begins at shul


In March of 2001 I delivered the sermon abbreviated and reprinted here. Having been the rabbi at Sinai Temple for four years, it seemed time to straightforwardly address the tensions between the Persian and Ashkenazi communities.

Since that time, by dint of committees, school parents and children and genuine efforts, Sinai has managed to forge a largely integrated community.

In a comment not reproduced, I spoke about Esther’s transformation in the Purim story as a model for us. We have been transforming the synagogue to a beit knesset — a house of gathering for all Jews, a transformation which makes us proud.

I want to begin with two thought experiments. First, imagine your grandparents built a synagogue. Your parents grew up there and so did you. You knew the place and
loved it.

One day, a huge population of people with the same religion but a different culture and language joined. Suddenly you felt an alien in your own home. How would you feel?

Now imagine that tomorrow a catastrophe occurs and all the American Jews have to flee. Where do we go? We go to Israel.

As American Jews lacking the time, organization or inclination to build our own synagogues, we join existing ones in Israel. We bring, of course, our own language, our own customs, our own outlooks, and it’s not long before we hear our Israeli brothers and sisters say, “You know, this would be a good place if it weren’t for all those American Jews.”

We say to them, “But hey, we’re Jews, too.”

To which they answer, “You’re not our kind of Jews. You don’t speak our language, you don’t know our customs — you invaded our synagogue.”

If you can put yourself in the place of both groups in that thought experiment, then you know what has gone on over the past 20 years at Sinai Temple. It’s not the whole story, but it’s a big part of it. Both groups have felt aggrieved, and as a result, they have done what aggrieved people often do, which is to dig in.

And they have not given the time, the effort or, perhaps, the emotional sympathy to understand how the other side feels.

So I want to speak very frankly to both sides about how we should be and what we should do.

First of all, let’s recognize that there are differences. Sometimes these differences are painful. For example, Ashkenazim don’t like to hear from Persians that our families are a mess. But it’s true.

It’s not true of every American Jewish family, God knows, but I have to tell you, my father grew up in a house of aunts and uncles and grandparents and cousins, and they were all together all the time.

We have no family in this city. And that’s true of almost every third-generation American I know. So when a Persian family says to an Ashkenazic family, “Look, we want our family around us. We’re afraid of losing the family structure we have. We don’t want our families to end up like American families,” we may be defensive, but they’re not wrong.

The Persian community may not be able to avoid the disintegrating family, but who can blame them for trying? Are there problems in Persian families?

Absolutely; I hear them in my office. Are there wonderful Ashkenazic families?

Yes, many. But one way of not being defensive is seeing ourselves realistically, too. And realistically, for all the blessings of America, this country has not been a blessing for the extended family.

On the other hand, to our Persian members: You must also realize that when you speak Farsi in this synagogue, this is what you are saying to your Ashkenazic fellow synagogue members, to your fellow Jews: “I do not care whether you understand my words. You are not invited to join this conversation, and that’s why, in part, I’m speaking a language you don’t understand.”

That may not be what you intend, but it is the inevitable message.

Some of these conversations are conducted by people who do not speak English.

That I understand. But if you do speak English and choose not to use English when there are other English speakers around you, it is a way of saying, “I don’t care if you understand me.” That is painful, it is exclusionary, and it is a shame.

To our Ashkenazic brothers and sisters: Some of the most disturbing, prejudiced and even racist remarks I have heard in the past several years have been directed against the Persian community by the Ashkenazic community. Every time I hear about how they do business, I think “That is what people say about Jews.”

How they do business. Now if you say to me, well there are members of the Persian community who are prejudiced, too, I have no quarrel with you. I’m sure you are right, but you know what? I can only change my own soul. I cannot change someone else’s. So before you begin to accuse others, ask yourself what you believe and what you know about others who are not like you.

In order for us to be a community — not an “us” and a “them” — we have to recognize certain things. The Ashkenazic side has to realize that this synagogue will never be the synagogue that it was 40 years ago. It is not going to happen.

It has changed, and if that gives you pause and gives you pain, I understand it, but the same thing is true of this country and of this world. To our Persian members, this was founded as an Ashkenazic synagogue, as you know, and the basic rites are true to that tradition. I am delighted you chose to join us, and presumably you did so because you want this kind of synagogue. There are mores and customs that will be different from the synagogues of your origin, and we ask you to support us in those.

When two communities merge, there is enough pain to go around. Nobody gets everything they want. It is not only called a synagogue. It is called life. Here is the crucial point: When I say I want one community, I mean it so much I am ready to tell you this: If you or your children or your grandchildren are not prepared to marry a member of the other community, then you do not belong in this synagogue.

Iranians Open Shul in Garment District


With a new Torah in their arms, about 100 local Iranian Jewish businessmen sang Hebrew songs and danced down a busy street in downtown Los Angeles’s garment district June 13 to celebrate the official opening of a new synagogue, where many Iranians have their businesses.

As a DJ blasted Israeli music and kebab dinners were served, congregants packed the elegantly decorated 700-square-foot sanctuary, known as the “Downtown Synagogue,” to give thanks and pray. The shul is situated inside a store, alongside fabric outlets, on Cecilia Street, between Eighth and Ninth streets.

“Baruch Hashem, we are very pleased with the new synagogue,” said Avi Cohan, a local Iranian businessman who is one of the founders of the Downtown Synagogue. “It looks just amazing with the nice chairs, and it’s perfect for many of us who wanted a place for prayer at the end of the work day.”

Prior to the festivities, approximately 25 Iranian Jewish business owners gathered at a local textile warehouse, where they each pledged to donate between $260 and $1,500 for each of the last Hebrew letters Cohan was writing to complete the synagogue’s Torah. The Torah was made in Israel for the congregation, and funds still needed to be raised to cover the cost.

Cohan had reason to boast about the new synagogue, whose initial dozen or so congregants first began to assemble in his downtown office to recite Mincha and Arvit prayers nearly 12 years ago. The congregants formed the initial Downtown Synagogue because they were often unable to beat the rush hour traffic to arrive at daily services at synagogues in Beverly Hills and West Los Angeles.

“It’s very convenient for me, because sometimes during the week, I’m in downtown and need a place to pray, so I go there because there is always a minyan, and it’s close by,” said businessman Dara Abaei, an Iranian community activist.

Cohan and other founders said they wanted to create a place of spirituality, as well as a social center, in the business district, which also has an Iranian shul in the jewelry district, between Broadway and Hill streets.

“Our main goal was to little by little get businessmen in our community to close their businesses on Shabbat and bring them closer to God,” said Cohan. “Many are also, unfortunately, too busy during the day to make it to a synagogue to say the Kaddish on the anniversary of their parents’ deaths, so our synagogue provides them with a place to do that.”

Although the afternoon ceremony marked the official opening of the synagogue space, Cohan said congregants have unofficially been holding services at the Cecilia Street location for the last two years.

Contrary to most shuls, the Downtown Synagogue is open only on weekdays and closed on Saturdays and High Holidays. Between 50 to 60 people regularly attend. On Tuesdays, congregants also hear a devar Torah by Rabbi Yosef Shem Tov of the Torat Hayim Kohel in the Pico-Robertson area.

The move to create a formal space for the group began in 2003, when local Iranian businessmen Ezri Namvar and Solomon Rasetgar stepped forward to furnish the rent-free store situated inside a building they co-owned. Namvar and Rastegar recently sold the building housing the synagogue, but they said the current owner, who is not Jewish, has continued to permit the congregation to stay there without paying rent, Namvar said. The new owner was not available for comment.

Cohan said approximately $15,000 was raised through direct contributions. Unlike Ashkenazi Jews, who generally generate the revenue for synagogues through membership fees, Iranian Jews have traditionally raised such funds by auctioning off aliyot during services or asking individuals for direct donations.

Namvar said his family has always strived to keep Judaism alive in Los Angeles and worldwide by supporting Jewish groups, regardless of their specific denominations.

“Our passion is for Jewish education, and we try to help organizations that promote Jewish education, whether they are Orthodox, Reform or Conservative,” Namvar said.

For more information on the Downtown Synagogue call (213) 215-6061.

 

Jew Who?


There is a new twist to the contentious question of who is really a Jew. John C. Haedrich, who claims that his DNA proves his Ashkenazi descent, is challenging the State of Israel to recognize his Jewishness under the Law of Return.

Authorities in Israel have so far not commented on his claim, but Haedrich, a prolific writer of letters and e-mails, has vowed to pursue his quest in the Israeli courts, if necessary.

In an interview, Haedrich, 43 and owner of a nursing home for the elderly in Glendale, said that all his immediate relatives are dead or estranged, that Judaism was never practiced in his home and that the DNA test is the only proof that he’s a Jew. He said that he discovered his Jewish sense of identity five years ago, when he visited Krakow and Auschwitz and “suddenly had a feeling that I was Jewish…. I also heard that one relative in Poland had been a rabbi.”

In numerous letters and more than 100 e-mails to Israeli officials and synagogues in Los Angeles, to American Jewish organizations and newspapers and to Israeli universities and human rights organizations, Haedrich tops his missives with the sentence “Re: State of Israel refuses to accept DNA test results as proof of being Jewish!”

The actual eight-page DNA analysis is not as definitive. It states that “The distribution of the haplotype [genetic marker], combined with the origin of the surname, suggests a Polish Ashkenazic Jewish family background with the past 500 years,” on the father’s side.

On the maternal side, “The subject is descended from a lineage … founded 16,000 to 20,000 years ago in the Mediterranean or Middle East.”

Haedrich acknowledges that the 1950 Law of Return, which defined the rights of Jews to settle in Israel, did not mention DNA testing.

But he argues that “DNA testing is admissible in Israeli courts in homicide and paternity cases, and who is to say that it cannot be used to support a birthright?

“Had DNA testing been available in the 1950s, who is to say that the Knesset would not have considered it?” Haedrich said.

Haedrich declined to establish his Jewish bona fides by undergoing a formal conversion.

“I don’t want to go the religious route,” he said. “This is a quest for my personal identity.”

The Journal contacted the North American Aliyah Center in New York, whose executive director, Michael Landsberg, is checking his Jerusalem headquarters for a ruling on the Haedrich case. No response has been received so far.

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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Is There a Smart Gene in Ashkenazis?


The idea that some ethnic groups may, on average, be more intelligent than others is one of those hypotheses that dare not speak its name. But Gregory Cochran, a noted scientific iconoclast, is prepared to say it anyway. He is that rare bird, a scientist who works independently of any institution.

He helped popularize the idea that some diseases not previously thought to have a bacterial cause were actually infections, which ruffled many scientific feathers when it was first suggested. And more controversially still, he has suggested that homosexuality is caused by an infection.

Even he, however, might tremble at the thought of what he is about to do. Together with Jason Hardy and Henry Harpending of the University of Utah, he is publishing in a forthcoming edition of the Journal of Biosocial Science a paper that not only suggests that one group of humanity is more intelligent than the others, but explains the process that has brought this about.

The group in question is Ashkenazi Jews. The process is natural selection.

History before science.

Ashkenazim generally do well in IQ tests, scoring 12-15 points above the mean value of 100, and have contributed disproportionately to the intellectual and cultural life of the West, as the careers of Freud, Einstein and Mahler affirm. They also suffer more often than most people from a number of nasty genetic diseases, such as Tay-Sachs and breast cancer.

These facts, however, have previously been thought unrelated. The former has been put down to social effects, such as a strong tradition of valuing education. The latter was seen as a consequence of genetic isolation. Even now, Ashkenazim tend to marry among themselves. In the past they did so almost exclusively.

Cochran, however, suspects that the intelligence and the diseases are intimately linked. His argument is that the unusual history of the Ashkenazim has subjected them to unique evolutionary pressures that have resulted in this paradoxical state of affairs.

Ashkenazi history begins with the Jewish rebellion against Roman rule in the first century CE. When this was crushed, Jewish refugees fled in all directions. The descendants of those who fled to Europe became known as Ashkenazim.

In the Middle Ages, European Jews were subjected to legal discrimination, one effect of which was to drive them into money-related professions, such as banking and tax farming, which were often disdained by, or forbidden to, Christians. This, along with the low level of intermarriage with their non-Jewish neighbors (which modern genetic analysis confirms was the case), is Cochran’s starting point.

He argues that the professions occupied by European Jews were all ones that put a premium on intelligence. Of course, it is hard to prove that this intelligence premium existed in the Middle Ages, but it is certainly true that it exists in the modern versions of those occupations. Several studies have shown that intelligence, as measured by IQ tests, is highly correlated with income in jobs such as banking.

What can, however, be shown from the historical records is that European Jews at the top of their professions in the Middle Ages raised more children to adulthood than those at the bottom. Of course, that was true of successful non-Jews, as well. But in the Middle Ages, success in Christian society tended to be violently aristocratic (warfare and land), rather than peacefully meritocratic (banking and trade).

Put these two things together — a correlation of intelligence and success and a correlation of success and fecundity — and you have circumstances that favor the spread of genes that enhance intelligence. The questions are, do such genes exist and what are they if they do? Cochran thinks they do exist, and that they are exactly the genes that cause the inherited diseases that afflict Ashkenazi society.

That small, reproductively isolated groups of people are susceptible to genetic disease is well known. Constant mating with even distant relatives reduces genetic diversity, and some disease genes will thus randomly become more common. But the very randomness of this process means there should be no discernible pattern about which disease genes increase in frequency.

In the case of Ashkenazim, Cochran argues, this is not the case. Most of the dozen or so disease genes that are common in them belong to one of two types: They are involved either in the storage in nerve cells of special fats called sphingolipids, which form part of the insulating outer sheaths that allow nerve cells to transmit electrical signals, or in DNA repair. The former genes cause neurological diseases, such as Tay-Sachs, Gaucher’s and Niemann-Pick. The latter cause cancer.

That does not look random. And what is even less random is that in several cases the genes for particular diseases come in different varieties, each the result of an independent original mutation. This really does suggest the mutated genes are being preserved by natural selection. But it does not answer the question of how evolution can favor genetic diseases. However, in certain circumstances, evolution can.

West Africans and people of West African descent are susceptible to a disease called sickle-cell anemia that is virtually unknown elsewhere. The anemia develops in those whose red blood cells contain a particular type of hemoglobin, the protein that carries oxygen.

But the disease occurs only in those who have two copies of the gene for the disease-causing hemoglobin (one copy from each parent). Those who have only one copy have no symptoms. They are, however, protected against malaria, one of the biggest killers in that part of the world.

Thus, the theory goes, the pressure to keep the sickle-cell gene in the population because of its malaria-protective effects balances the pressure to drive it out because of its anemia-causing effects. It therefore persists without becoming ubiquitous.

Cochran argues that something similar happened to the Ashkenazim. Genes that promote intelligence in an individual when present as a single copy create disease when present as a double copy. His thesis is not as strong as the sickle-cell/malaria theory, because he has not proved that any of his disease genes do actually affect intelligence. But the area of operation of some of them suggests that they might.

The sphingolipid-storage diseases, Tay-Sachs, Gaucher’s and Niemann-Pick, all involve extra growth and branching of the protuberances that connect nerve cells together. Too much of this (as caused in those with double copies) is clearly pathological. But it may be that those with single copies experience a more limited, but still enhanced, protuberance growth. That would yield better linkage between brain cells, and might thus lead to increased intelligence.

Indeed, in the case of Gaucher’s disease, the only one of the three in which people routinely live to adulthood, there is evidence that those with full symptoms are more intelligent than the average. An Israeli clinic devoted to treating people with Gaucher’s has vastly more engineers, scientists, accountants and lawyers on its books than would be expected by chance.

Why a failure of the DNA-repair system should boost intelligence is unclear, and is, perhaps, the weakest part of the thesis, although evidence is emerging that one of the genes in question is involved in regulating the early growth of the brain. But the thesis also has a strong point: It makes a clear and testable prediction. This is that people with a single copy of the gene for Tay-Sachs, or that for Gaucher’s, or that for Niemann-Pick should be more intelligent than average.

Cochran and his colleagues predict they will be so by about five IQ points. If that turns out to be the case, it will strengthen the idea that, albeit unwillingly, Ashkenazi Jews have been part of an accidental experiment in eugenics.

It has brought them some advantages. But, like the deliberate eugenics experiments of the 20th century, it has also exacted a terrible price.

This article is reprinted with permission from The Economist magazine.

 

Mikveh Plunges Into Uncharted Waters


Since the klezmer revival exploded a quarter century ago, the Ashkenazi musical tradition has experienced more variations than deli sandwiches. There has been klezmer-infused jazz, hip-hop, bluegrass and most any other permutation one can imagine. But as klezmer has morphed from shtetl to nightclub fare, one of the most unusual things it has added is women, said musician-scholar Yale Strom.

"Traditionally, the purveyors of Yiddish songs and culture were women, but that didn’t occur outside the home," said Strom, author of "The Book of Klezmer" (Chicago Review Press, 2002). "Women did not play in klezmer bands because of the Orthodox prohibition against hearing a woman’s voice and because nice Jewish girls stayed home."

"Even today, women are underrepresented," violinist Alicia Svigals said of klezmer. In recent years several all-female groups have sprung up, including Mama Labushnik and the playfully named Isle of Klez-bos. Perhaps the most accomplished of them all, Mikveh, named for the ritual bath, performs at Temple Israel of Hollywood on Sunday.

The quintet brings together some of the best klezmer musicians anywhere: Svigals, a founding member of The Klezmatics; vocalist Adrienne Cooper, a premiere interpreter of Yiddish song; bassist Nicki Parrott, who has worked with David Krakauer’s Klezmer Madness; accordionist Lauren Brody; and trumpeter Susan Hoffman Watts.

If these maidlech had united two decades ago, they "might’ve had to skulk around under a banner like ‘The All-Girl Klezmer All-Stars,’" Rolling Stone noted in 2001. Having come together in the more empowering 1990s, the 5-year-old group has been widely lauded for its musical virtuosity and its fresh, feminist take on traditional Eastern European songs.

In "A gutn ovnt Brayne" ("Good Night Brayne"), a battered wife tells her neighbor about the abuse; "Sorele’s Bas Mitsveh" honors the girl’s rite of passage; "Borsht" extols the virtues of, well, borsht, and "Yosemame" ("Orphan Mama") describes the quiet grief of miscarriage.

Mikveh’s musical voice fills a void, according to Svigals: "I can’t think of another song about miscarriage, although it’s such a universal experience," she said. "We’ve had elderly women come to us in tears after our concerts, talking about their miscarriages which occurred 60 years ago. The material has just had such a tremendous impact."

Mikveh began making an impact back in 1998 when playwright Eve Ensler asked Svigals to put together a klezmer ensemble for a performance of her "Vagina Monologues," to benefit battered women.

"Afterwards, we looked around at each other and said, ‘This is the start of something good,’" Cooper recalled. "It wasn’t so much that we were all women as the fact that we had such a fabulous front line of players."

Nevertheless, each of the performers had experienced "being the only woman in the band," Svigals said. "There was this huge repertoire of women’s folk songs out there, but they weren’t the songs the male-dominated groups were choosing to revive," she added. "As an all-female group, this was the area in which we felt we could make a difference, so Adrienne went out of her way to find [such] songs."

Cooper discovered "Good Night Brayne" in an obscure library anthology published in Jerusalem; she borrowed "Borsht" from a Ukrainian Jew who had brought the tune with her to Brighton Beach and adapted "Sorele’s Bas Mitsveh" from a piece about a bar mitzvah. Band members have also helped compose original songs such as "Orphan Mama," which uses imagery from a Yiddish poem by Itzik Manger.

The goal is to help nurture and evolve Jewish culture: "We don’t want to just recreate the old 78s," Cooper said. "We want to bring the music forward to the audience, not bring the audience back to the music."

Mikveh members intend to do just that when the group performs at The Nimoy Concert Series at Temple Israel of Hollywood on Sunday; June 20 happens to be Father’s Day and the irony hasn’t escaped Svigals.

"Of course, we all have fathers, so we will rock the house," she said.

Yet when asked if there is a daddy version of the classic "My Yiddishe Mama," the violinist was temporarily stumped.

"There is no ‘My Yiddishe Tateh," she replied after a pause. "But that should give us some food for thought. We’ll have to work on that and see what we come up with.

The result could be one more variation on the seemingly endless klezmer theme.

For tickets, $8-$25, and information about the concert, June 20, 3 p.m. at Temple Israel, 7300 Hollywood Blvd., call (310) 478-6332. Tickets can also be purchased at the temple’s box office, which opens Sunday at 1:30 p.m.

Mizrachi Options to Liven the New Year


While apples and honey are de rigueur among Ashkenazim for celebrating the New Year, Middle Easterners turn to the more exotic, like dates, quinces or pomegranates during the High Holidays. So if you’re looking for some unique recipes this High Holiday season, you might want to turn to Faye Levy’s latest cookbook, "Feast from the Mideast: 250 Sun-Drenched Dishes from the Lands of the Bible" (HarperCollins, $29.95).

Levy lived in Israel for nearly 12 years, where she met and married her husband, Yakir. A cooking novice until her mother-in-law took her in hand, she soon developed a love for the varied, bold flavors of her adopted home. She went on to train at the renowned La Varenne in Paris and to produce more than 20 cookbooks and writes with authority and passion on the cuisine of the Middle East.

"It is amazing how all these people who can’t get along eat the same things," observed Levy, whose cookbook highlights cuisines of over ten countries.

"Eating together and discussing food and recipes is a great way to bring people closer," Levy continues. "Arabs and Jews share a lot of the same food. The Islamic rules of halal are similar to our laws of kashrut. We both don’t eat pork. Arabs do eat shellfish, and they don’t have a problem mixing milk and meat, but they hardly ever do it.

While the book explores the foods of all faiths and nationalities of the region, so many of the dishes are perfect for Rosh Hashanah because of the Middle Eastern fondness for incorporating local fruits, a perfect way to wish guests a sweet New Year.

"Sephardic Jews begin the Rosh Hashanah meal with dates, just as we do with apples and honey," Levy noted. "And in Greece, Turkey and Morocco, all around the Mediterranean really, quinces are really important for Rosh Hashanah. Moroccan Jews do dip apples in honey, then dip them in sesame seeds, symbolizing our wish that our people be numerous. Pomegranate seeds are traditional for the same reason."

Chicken in Pomegranate Walnut Sauce, a classic dish of the Persian kitchen, is appropriate for the holiday, Levy said.

"Pomegranate juice and paste are available in Middle Eastern and gourmet markets, because a lot of American chefs, like Bobby Flay, have suddenly become very excited about them. It has become trendy," she said.

If you can’t find either, Levy advises using pomegranate juice, now readily available in supermarkets, and adding less water.

Traditional holiday foods vary from country to country and from family to family. Some people avoid sour tastes for the holiday, like lemons and vinegar.

Persians, however, favor tart over sweet and love a splash of lemon juice on many dishes, Levy noted.

"In fact, I have a friend from northern Iran who says that the pomegranate paste available in this country is too sweet, so he asks his relatives from Iran to bring some from home when they visit." Some people avoid black ingredients for the New Year, so they use golden raisins instead of dark and do not serve eggplant. Since the word for leeks in Hebrew means "destroyed," many serve leeks to convey the wish that our enemies be destroyed.

Some people will not eat walnuts, but will use almonds; others eliminate nuts altogether.

"In our family we always have rice with toasted almonds and dried fruit for Rosh Hashanah," Levy said. "Middle Eastern cooks have so many delicious ways to do rice, and some, like Almond Apricot Basmati Rice, are so good you could consider them a dessert, a side dish or a main course.

"Sweetness for Rosh Hashanah is more of an Ashkenazi thing," she said, "though certain Middle Eastern Jews do it, too. Moroccans often serve vegetables sprinkled with sugar, but sometimes instead of making food sweeter, they might just tone down the spiciness."

For example, fish is traditional for Rosh Hashanah, particularly served with the head.

Moroccans might make Foil Baked Trout with Red Pepper and Garlic, but omit the jalapeño and lemon for Rosh Hashanah.

"It really depends on your family’s tradition," Levy said.

For Ashkenazim, Rosh Hashanah would not be complete without honey cake, but Sephardim of the Mediterranean may choose Citrus and Spice Quinces with Cranberries or Date Pinwheel Cookies. Honey isn’t found necessarily in desserts in the Middle East, Levy said, though some might use it as syrup on cake. Fruit with Honey, Figs and Dates will appeal to both camps as a sweet ending to the Rosh Hashanah dinner.

"It’s perfect for the season and really easy. And it goes well as a topping for traditional honey cake, too."

Dja’jeh b’Ah’sal (Chicken With Prunes and Honey)

Sauce:

2 cups pitted prunes, soaked in 1 cup cold water for 15 minutes

1/4 cup honey

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Chicken:

5 to 5-1/2 pounds chicken pieces (white and dark meat), skinned

1/4 cup olive oil

1 cup finely chopped yellow onions

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Three 3-inch-long cinnamon sticks

2 cups cold water

Prepare the sauce. Place the prunes and soaking water in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, uncovered, for 10 minutes. Add the honey and cinnamon. Mix well and simmer until the prunes absorb some water and soften (they should be soft yet retain most of their shape), about five more minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside.

Prepare the chicken. Rinse the chicken under cold running water and pat dry with paper towels. Place on a plate.

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat and cook the onions, stirring, until golden and soft, three to four minutes. Add the chicken pieces and brown, cooking for two to three minutes on each side. Add the salt, pepper, cinnamon sticks and water, stir well, and bring to a slow boil over medium-high heat. Pour the sauce over the chicken. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, covered, for one hour.

Uncover the skillet and cook until some of the excess liquid cooks off and the sauce has thickened to a gravy-like texture, an additional 20 to 30 minutes.

Serve on large platter, garnished with one cup blanched whole almonds, toasted in a dry skillet over medium heat until golden.

Ka’ikeh b’Ah’sal (Honey Cake With Sesame Glaze Cake)

4 large eggs, lightly beaten

1/3 cup tahini (sesame paste)

2/3 cup honey

1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract

2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

Glaze:

2/3 cup honey

1 tablespoon tahini

2 tablespoons sesame seeds

Preheat the oven to 350 F.

Prepare the cake. Combine the beaten eggs, tahini, honey and vanilla in a large bowl until smooth.

In a medium-size bowl, combine the flour and baking powder. Add to the wet mixture and mix well.

Pour the batter into a greased 9-by-13-inch baking pan or 9-inch Springform pan and bake until a toothpick or knife inserted into the center comes out clean, 25-35 minutes.

When the cake is ready, remove from the oven and allow to cool for about 45 minutes. With a knife, loosen the edges of the cake. Place a large plate on top of the cake pan and flip the pan upside down.

Prepare the glaze. Combine the honey and tahini in a small saucepan and cook over low heat until blended to a smooth consistency, four to five minutes. Add the sesame seeds and mix well. Remove from the heat and immediately pour the hot glaze over the top of the cake, allowing the glaze to soak in. Let cool for 30 minutes.

Cut into diamond shapes about two inches long and one inch wide and serve at room temperature. Do not refrigerate.

Faye Levy will be signing "Feast from the Mideast" at the Jewish Community Library of Los Angeles on Tuesday, Oct. 21 at 7 p.m.

For more information or to R.S.V.P., call (323) 761-8648.

Judy Bart Kancigor, author of “Melting Pot Memories,”
can be found on the Web at

Recall Golus


As recall fever is sweeping the state, a number of cars in the Pico-Robertson and Fairfax neighborhoods are sporting bumper stickers that say “Recall Golus.” Who is Golus exactly, you ask? Is it Gray Davis’ middle name? The name of the 136th candidate on the ballot?

The stickers, which Rabbi Shimon Raichik of Chabad of Hancock Park produced, are actually a call for the Messiah to come. Golus is the Ashkenazi pronunciation of the Hebrew word galut, meaning exile, as in the state of being for the Jewish people before the Messiah comes and redeems us all to Israel.

If Golus is recalled, then the entire state of California will be transported to the Holy Land, and we won’t have to worry about a budget crisis, Davis’s lack of personality or unsavory Arnold Schwarzenegger interviews — which definitely makes recalling Golus something worth thinking about.

One People, Two Cuisines


Because my ancestors were from Eastern Europe, specifically Latvia, Lithuania and Vilna, I am Ashkenazi. Just as I thought all Jews spoke Yiddish, a language I delight in because it’s so colorful, I grew up thinking Jewish cooking was my mother’s brisket and carrot tzimmes, my Granny Fanny’s chopped liver and my Aunt Dorothy’s blintzes with sour cream. That’s not to mention the dishes my brothers and I used to giggle about because their names were so amusing — knaidlach, kreplach and knishes.

Now that we’ve all grown up, I’m not sure what was so funny. Maybe that’s the joy of childhood — you laugh at anything. Recently I’ve become fascinated by Sephardic cooking — maybe because I didn’t grow up with it, maybe because the combinations are so creative, maybe because its evolution is so interesting.

What is the difference between Ashkenazi and Sephardi cuisine?

Ashkenazi cuisine evolved in smaller, contained areas in Eastern Europe and therefore was insular and specific. It left little room for interpretation when it was presented to Jews in the United States, Canada, South America, South Africa, Palestine and the Western European countries of Belgium, England, France and Holland. According to Claudia Roden in “The Book of Jewish Food,” the Ashkenazic tradition of “poor food” — from people whose life had been filled with poverty and insecurity — greatly impacted the new communities, which embraced these life-sustaining recipes that had been passed down from generation to generation.

In contrast, the Sephardim have always encouraged those who moved from one area to another to establish a unique congregation in their new community.

When they migrated to areas as diverse as North and South Africa, the Middle East, India and later to the Mediterranean countries of Spain, Italy, Portugal, Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey, they embraced the customs and traditions of their new homes and incorporated not only the customs and cuisines of the areas they settled in, but the varied ingredients and cooking styles.

Sephardi cuisine is eclectic and regional, differing from country to country and city to city. It encompasses styles as diverse as Maghrebi Jewish — Moroccan, Tunisian, Algerian and Libyan; the Judeo-Arab cuisines of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Iran, and the Mediterranean. Therefore it combined sweet with sour, added nuts and fruits to meats and salads and encouraged experimentation with unusual fresh fruits and vegetables.

Because the Sephardi incorporated cooking traditions from both the economically and culturally deprived peoples in Islamic lands, as well as the aristocratic elite from Baghdad, Spain and the Ottoman world, some of the recipes are primitive and peasantlike, while others are refined and sophisticated. But even the “depressed” countries offered dishes requiring elaborate procedures, delicate flavorings and appealing presentations.

Fermenting agents such as yeast are banned, as are the five types of grain: wheat, barley, rye, oats and spelt. Bread, cakes, biscuits and all foods containing ingredients made from these grains are chametz. The Ashkenazim also forbid rice, dried corn, dried beans, peas and lentils, although the Sephardim allow them.

Because of the demands of cooking without grain or leaven, a whole range of ingredients are used in nontraditional ways. Instead of stuffing poultry and meat with breadcrumbs, we use matzah farfel, mashed potatoes, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds. While Ashkenazim don’t use grains, Sephardim use cracked wheat, ground rice and a variety of other cereal seeds.

Pastries are made from ground almonds, walnuts and hazelnuts; potato flour; potato starch; matzah meal, and matzah cake flour. The favorite cookie at Passover is macaroons, made of coconut, ground almonds, sugar and egg white. Fritters are made of matzah meal. And pancakes are replaced with matzah brie, using sheets of matzah soaked in beaten eggs.

Sephardim in Morocco barbecue during the holiday to remind us that our people left Egypt in such a hurry, they grilled foods over a wood fire. A popular Sephardi dish at Passover is fava bean soup because it was a favorite of the Egyptian slaves.

Many of the following recipes are by Toribio Prado, chef/owner at Cava Restaurant in Los Angeles who hosted a Sephardic Passover Dinner for many years.

MOROCCAN PASSOVER CHICKEN SOUP

Chicken soup knows no boundaries and is equally popular with both Sephardi
and Ashkenazi. When done well it is as highly prized as a vintage wine. The
variations are endless.

2 tablespoons olive oil
2 onions, sliced
2 leeks, sliced thin
3 carrots, sliced into rounds
1 2-pound chicken breast, boneless and skinless, sliced
2 quarts chicken stock (see recipe)
1 cup fava beans, dried and rehydrated with hot water
3 stalks celery, thinly sliced
2 cups water
1 cup white wine such as chardonnay
1 tablespoon ground coriander
Pepper to taste
1 cup cooked chickpeas
Kosher salt and white pepper to taste

Heat a large stockpot until very hot; pour oil into
pot. Add onions, leeks and carrots; heat until onions start to become
translucent. Add chicken breast to vegetable mix. When chicken is no longer
pink, add stock, fava beans, celery, water and wine. Add coriander and pepper.
Let soup come to boil; turn down to simmer. Skim soup for residue on top every
10 minutes or so, until it is clear. When vegetables are al dente add chickpeas,
salt and pepper. Serve hot. Serves six.

 

CHICKEN STOCK
8 pounds chicken bones
6 quarts cold water
1 onion, halved
2 stalks celery, halved
2 carrots, quartered
1 packet bouquet garni or
1/2 teaspoon each dried thyme, whole peppercorns, garlic and parsley stems tied in a cheesecloth.
Kosher salt to taste

Combine bones and water. Bring slowly to boil. Skim surface for coagulated residue. Simmer stock for five hours. Add onions, celery, carrots and sachet. Simmer for one hour more. Strain, cool and store in refrigerator until used. From Toribio Prado.

INDIAN SALADE COCHIN
(INDIAN TOASTED MANGO SALAD)

The simple combination of mangoes and cucumbers is at once sweet and tart, aromatic and pleasing. Regular cucumbers may be substituted if English cucumbers aren’t available.

1/4 cup fresh mint, chiffonade
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lime juice
Zest of 2 limes
1 tablespoon ground coriander
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/4 cup walnut oil
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
Kosher salt to taste
10 English cucumbers, skinned, seeded and sliced thin
3 large mangoes, peeled, sliced into 1/2-inch pieces

In a large mixing bowl add first nine ingredients. Whisk together until smooth. Add salt. Toss cucumbers with dressing. Brush mangoes with a little oil; grill until a nice brown color is achieved. Dice and add to salad. Serves six. Adapted from Toribio Prado.

T’FINA CAMOUNIA (TUNISIAN ROAST
LAMB)

This dish has a strong delicious flavor thanks to the combination of garlic, mint and sugar. The amount of garlic depends on your taste but it’s best to use sweet, young garlic. Those who love garlic call the dish “thoumia” (thoum means garlic). It takes two days to prepare so allow enough time.

1 3-pound leg of lamb, bone in, with fat trimmed
2 tablespoons fresh mint, chopped
2 tablespoons fresh rosemary, crushed
2 tablespoons fresh oregano, chopped
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons kosher salt
1 tablespoon fresh sage, chopped
1 tablespoon fresh thyme, chopped
1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
6 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1/4 cup port wine
1/4 cup olive oil

In medium bowl, mix together all ingredients. Let sit overnight. Rub spice mixture all over lamb. Place in baking dish. Cover and let stand in refrigerator overnight.

Preheat oven to 375 F. Put lamb into oven, uncovered, for 30 minutes or until meat temperature reads 100 F. Turn oven down to 325 F. Bake lamb about 1 1/2 hours more. Lamb will be medium rare when internal temperature is 135-145 F. Serves six. Adapted from Toribio Prado.

AROMATIC COUSCOUS

The most famous of North African foods, couscous is served at all celebrations — from elaborate weddings to Sabbath dinners to Passover. Unfortunately, it is virtually impossible to find the unprocessed grain outside North Africa. Try to find couscous that is commercially “rolled” but not precooked. Although grains are a familiar sight on Sephardic tables during Passover, they are forbidden among the Ashkenazi.

4 cups chicken stock
Pinch saffron threads
1 tablespoon ginger, peeled and chopped; or 1 teaspoon ground ginger
Dash of ground cloves
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
Olive oil as needed
1 1/2 cups onion, diced
8 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
2 cups couscous
1 cup Italian parsley, coarsely chopped

Place stock and spices into large stockpot. Bring to boil. In another pan add oil, onions and garlic. Sauté until soft and browned. Add onion and garlic mixture to water. Add couscous to stock. Turn fire off. Stir a little and cover. Add parsley. Let stand until liquid is completely absorbed. Break up cous cous with fork when ready to serve. Serves 6. From Toribio Prado.

POULET AUX DATTES (CHICKEN WITH
DATES)

This Moroccan combination has roots that go back to medieval Baghdad. It is important to taste and adjust the seasonings, because the right balance of flavors is a delicate matter in this dish. It usually needs plenty of black pepper to counteract the sweetness.

6 chicken quarters
4 tablespoons peanut or sunflower oil
2 large onions, coarsely chopped
2 teaspoons cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon mace
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1 tablespoon honey
Salt and plenty of black pepper to taste
1 cup pitted dates
Juice of 1/2 to 1 lemon
A pinch of saffron
1/2 cup blanched almonds, toasted or fried

In a large pan, sauté chicken pieces in oil for a few minutes, until lightly colored, turning them over once. Remove chicken. Add onions; cook on low heat until tender. Stir in cinnamon, mace, nutmeg and honey; pour in 1 3/4 cups water.

Stir well; add chicken pieces. Bring to boil, add salt and pepper; lower flame and simmer for 25 minutes. Add dates, lemon juice and saffron; cook for another five to 10 minutes or until chicken is tender. Place on serving platter, sprinkle with almonds. Adapted from “The Book of Jewish Food” by Claudia Roden, (Knopf, 1996).

TEZPISHTL (TURKISH ALMOND-NUT TORTE) WITH FIG
TOPPING

The perfection of this dish depends on the freshness of the nuts.

Syrup
2 cups sugar
2 cups water
2 teaspoons lemon juice
Cake
5 eggs
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup corn or sunflower oil
Juice and zest of 1 orange
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 1/4 cups Passover fine matzah cake meal
1 1/4 cups almonds, blanched and finely chopped

To Make Syrup

In a saucepan mix sugar and water together; bring to boil. Add lemon juice; simmer over low heat for 10 minutes. Cool.

To Make Cake

Beat eggs until frothy; add sugar; continue to beat until golden and well mixed. Add remaining ingredients, one at a time; stir into batter. Pour into oiled and floured 13″ x 9″ x 2′ cake pan; bake at 350 F for 30 minutes. Test if it done with a toothpick. Remove cake from oven; pour cooled syrup over it. Let cake stand for two hours before serving to allow syrup to be absorbed. Makes one cake, about 18 pieces.From Toribio Prado.

HONEY AND MARINATED FIG TOPPING

1/2 pound dried white figs, washed and dried well
1 bottle port wine
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 cup honey
Pinch of nutmeg
Pinch of cinnamon

Place figs and port wine in large bowl; marinate overnight. Drain figs; reserve wine. In large saucepan add sugar, lemon juice and honey. Simmer, being careful not to burn sugar. Raise flame to medium. Add reserved port wine, nutmeg and cinnamon. Reduce by half and add figs. Stir well. Serve with torte.

EARLY AMERICAN SEPHARDIC CHAROSET
BALLS

3 cups raisins
2 cups whole almonds, blanched
1 green apple, peeled and cored
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon or to taste

In a food grinder, coarsely grind raisins, 1 1/2 cups of the almonds, apple and cinnamon. If using a food processor, grind in quick pulses so as not to over-process. Set aside in bowl. Using your hands, press mixture into balls the size of large marbles. Press one of the remaining almonds into each charoset ball. Makes about four dozen balls. Adapted from “Jewish Cooking in America” by Joan Nathan, (Knopf, 1998).