Maccabean dream or Hasmonean nightmare? (Chanukah 5776)

In 1972, during Richard Nixon’s visit to China, Premier Zhou Enlai was asked what he thought about the French Revolution. He responded, “Too early to tell”. His answer is celebrated to this day as an illustration of the supposed Chinese ability—and the Western need—to take the long view of history.

In fact, Enlai wasn’t really being so philosophical; he had simply misunderstood the question. He thought he was being asked about the French student revolts of 1968, the effects of which were still reverberating in capitals across Europe.

But don’t worry; Jews never needed Zhou Enlai to take the long view of history. For our people, ancient history is still playing out; it molds our values, and it affects our understanding of the modern world. History and present are two inseparable parts of one long adventure whose denouement we are still expecting.

This seamless flow of Jewish history was much in my mind this week, because Enlai’s unintentional warning against haste in judgment is particularly relevant when it comes to Chanukkah. Beyond the candles, the dreidels, and the artery-clogging foods, Chanukkah brings us a complicated and contradictory story that defies easy evaluation.

I grew up believing that Chanukah told an epic story of freedom. I believed, together with Howard Fast, that it was “the first modern fight for freedom”. For me, the Maccabees were romantic and idealistic warriors, wise democratic leaders willing to give their lives for tolerance and for the right of all people to worship and live as they chose. I imagined the Maccabees as an improbable combination of Che Guevara, John F. Kennedy, and Abraham Joshua Heschel. 

And Chanukah was indeed all that. The Maccabees were the original “band of brothers” who defied insurmountable odds and challenged a mighty empire to reclaim their right to be different, to live independently as masters of their own destinies. They sought Jewish rule for nobody but the Jews; they didn’t want to impose their ways on anybody else. They only wanted peace and respect for all. It’s an inspiring, ever-relevant tale, and it fills me with pride that it was my people who first fought for these values.

But, as I later learned, this is only one face of the Chanukah story. Viewed from another angle, Chanukah is an ugly story of zealotry, civil war, abuse of power, and eventual ruin.

The Maccabees weren’t only fighting the Seleucid army—they were fighting other Jews, namely the mityavnim, those Jews who had adopted the Greek language and Hellenistic customs. In other words, the Maccabees declared war on the “assimilated.” Jews who didn’t conform to their interpretation of Judaism were put to the sword or had to seek refuge in the Diaspora. In an all too common reversal, those who fought intolerance became intolerant themselves.

It gets worse. Simon Maccabee, the last surviving brother of the original band and the first ruler of independent Judea, tried to stay true to the original Maccabean values. He didn’t proclaim himself king, but high priest and nasi (a Hebrew term meaning ”ethnarch” or “leader,” the same word used in Modern Hebrew for “president”), and he was elected in a democratic fashion. But things went downward from there. Simon was murdered by fellow Jews, and his descendants showed fewer scruples. Violating the “Davidic principle” (that only descendants of King David can be kings of Israel), they took the crown for themselves. Assuming full kingship while retaining the high priesthood, the power-hungry Hasmoneans  violated a paramount idea of Judaism: the separation between royal and religious power. All the while, recurrent civil wars cost tens of thousands of Jewish lives.

John Hyrcanus, Simon’s son, did something else that is anathema to Judaism: after his battles with the Idumeans, he forced the conversion of the entire population. Not exactly a way to honor the ideals of tolerance and freedom of his father… But then, that was hardly the only departure the Hasomneans made from the ways of their ancestors. Indeed, while one of the first purposes of the Maccabees had been to fight the “Hellenized” Jews, the Hasmonean kings had no qualms about adopting the nice accoutrements of Hellenistic life for themselves. Even their regal title changed to basileus, the Greek designation. (This hypocrisy reminds me of some of today’s Jewish American leaders who claim that criticizing Israel is beyond the pale, but who vociferously and publicly attacked Yitzhak Rabin during the Oslo Peace process).

The Hasmonean misadventure ended, as it only could, in farce and tragedy. John Hyrcanus’s grandchildren, Aristobolous II and Hyrcanus II, engaged in yet another vicious civil war and both had the brilliant idea of inviting Rome to intercede in their favor. You can imagine what came next: the beginning of the end of Jewish independence for two thousand years.

Looking at the state of the Jewish People today, there is in us much of the light of the Maccabees and, sadly, much of the darkness of the Hasmoneans. If you ask me which I think will prevail—which will be the ultimate heritage we derive from the Chanukah story—I have to agree with Zhou Enlai: two thousand years later is too early to tell.

During the last few months we have heard dangerous echoes of the Hasmoneans: zealotry and internecine hatred running wild, poisonous cocktails of religion and power politics, and, as in John Hyrcanus’s time, abandonment of our most basic values. We must ask: are we living the Maccabean dream, or the Hasmonean nightmare? How can we celebrate Chanukah once we know how the story really ends?

And yet, the story hasn’t ended even now. Now more than ever, in these times of violence and hatred, of intolerance and radicalism, we need to rescue the original light of the Maccabees that illuminated a vision of peace and respect; the light that expelled darkness and tyranny, and made freedom and tolerance a sacred imperative. Peoples, like stars, are entitled to a momentary eclipse in which light fades away. That is tolerable if we bring the light back, if we don’t let the eclipse lengthen into endless night.

As funders we have a major role to play, for every grant, every project, every act of kindness can be an opportunity for healing a broken word and reconciling a split community. We can—we must—be the light that shines through the cracks of our imperfect reality.

This year, as we celebrate the courage and the miracles of yesteryear, let us commit to building a world in which light outweighs darkness and hope vanquishes despair. Let us face violence with the conviction that—as the Maccabees taught us—right can triumph over might, and even when we walk through the dark valley of intolerance, let us celebrate every ray of the light we give to others.

Yes, it’s too early to tell. It always will be, because the battle between light and darkness is not an event but an ever-unfolding process.

The Chanukah story is still being written today, and what makes it frightening—and beautiful—is that the ending depends on us.

Chag sameach!

Andres Spokoiny is President and CEO of Jewish Funders Network

The dark side of Chanukah

Almost anyone who celebrates Chanukah today knows at least the rudimentary outline of its story. A righteous Judean clan in the 2nd century B.C.E. led an uprising against Greek-influenced Seleucid rulers who had desecrated the Temple and outlawed the traditional practices of Judaism. The revolt led to the recapture of Jerusalem, the purification of the Temple and the establishment of an independent Jewish state.

But there are a number of darker events related to Chanukah and its aftermath that have been swept away in the aroma of frying latkes and the whiz of spinning dreidels. The first is that the war Chanukah commemorates was in fact a civil war, fought between Hellenizing Jewish reformers and Jewish traditionalists whose Temple-centric life had been severely compromised by Greek influence and rule. The fratricidal conflict consumed 34 years in the life of the nation and resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths.

With the conquest of Jerusalem in 164 B.C.E. and the complete defeat (although annihilation would be a better description) of the Hellenizers 22 years later, the lone surviving brother, Simon the Maccabee, stood widely recognized as ethnarch and high priest of the first independent Jewish state in 440 years. It would, then, be his progeny and descendants who would dominate Judean life over the next century.

Simon was succeeded by his able and fervent son John Hyrcanus, who expanded the realm and remained faithful to the example laid down by his father and uncles. It was during the reign of his grandson, Alexander Jannaeus (104 B.C.E.-76 B.C.E.), however, that the Hasmonean legend began to disintegrate. Alexander had no interest in the religious fervor of his ancestors and exhibited a particular hatred for religious rigorist sects, such as the Pharisees and Essenes. He carefully aligned himself with the upper-class Sadducees and in one incident massacred 6,000 Pharisee worshippers in the Temple courtyard after receiving a personal insult from them during the Festival of Sukkot. The incident spurred the renewal of a civil war that resulted in 50,000 more Jewish deaths. In one further event, after returning to Jerusalem following a victorious campaign in the north, Alexander had 800 of his Jewish male prisoners crucified, but not before murdering their wives and children before their very eyes.

After the death of Alexander Jannaeus, the Hasmoneans continued as rulers of Judea for another 40 years — in and out of civil war — until finally being all but eliminated by Herod the Great (37 B.C.E.-4 B.C.E.), an Idumean usurper who feared the family as a threat to his rule.

The point of recalling this gruesome tale is to illustrate a historical truism. History often comes full circle, rendering meaningless the achievements of previous generations because memory has lapsed and the commitment to former ideals is absent. The Hasmoneans began as liberators and ended as oppressors. They started as fervent adherents to Judaism and concluded as its deniers. In the end, they far more resembled the Greek-inspired Hellenizers they had fought to eliminate than the vaunted redeemers portrayed in legend.

Ancient Judea’s contemporary political incarnation, the State of Israel, also has much to learn from the historical lessons of the Hasmoneans. As a country that formed 60 years ago with high ideals and the promise of Jewish renewal, the current state is transforming into a bitter parody of itself. Rampant political corruption, an incompetent and self-serving echelon of leaders, an oligarchical economic structure that places 60 percent of the country’s assets in the hands of less than 1 percent of its population and a poverty level that hovers around 33 percent, are all signs of the imminent collapse of idealism and foundational principles. The abandonment of the Jews of Gaza, evicted from their homes in 2005, is yet another sad example of how deeply bruised is the Israeli notion of respect for and protection of Jewish life, property and dignity.

It is important to remember that men can never predict how their descendants will act or how their legacy of achievement will be treated. But the burning question the full Hasmonean story presents to us is how can nations protect the memory of past struggles and make them meaningful and relevant for the current generation? Ironically, the institution of the Festival of Chanukah was such an attempt. And in large part it succeeded. But the nagging question remains — why did things go so terribly wrong in ancient Judea within such a relatively short period of time? Given our current national challenges, this Chanukah our thoughts should be firmly on that question, as much as on the great Hasmonean triumphs of 2,000 years ago.

Avi Davis is the Executive Director and Senior Fellow of the American Freedom Alliance.


For as long as I’ve worked in the Jewish community — 14 years — I’ve heard insults leveled at Iranian Jews.

They’re pushy, acquisitive, flashy, nouveau riche, cheap. They’re grasping, insincere, clannish, suspicious, old-fashioned. “They’ve ruined Beverly Hills High.” “They’ve invaded Milken High.” “They’ve taken over Sinai Temple.”

I repeat the invectives by way of making one point: Enough already.

This week marks the 30-year anniversary of the beginning of the Iranian Revolution. The overthrow of the Shah of Iran and the ascent of the mullahs led to the exodus of thousands of Iranian Jews.

Within months, one of the world’s oldest and most vital Jewish communities had fled and scattered across the globe: Europe, Israel, the United States. It was the Jewish Diaspora, Take 392.

The bulk of the Iranian Jewish Diaspora ended up in Los Angeles. By some estimates, there are between 40,000 to 45,000 Jews of Iranian descent living in Los Angeles today, almost 10 percent of the entire Jewish population.

As these Jews integrated into American society, they also had to integrate into a Jewish community whose roots go back to the 19th century, and whose ethnic makeup was (and is) largely Ashkenazic.

On the surface, the differences are charming, but barely enough to sustain a good sitcom episode. We eat roast chicken, they eat fesenjan. We eat matzo brei, they eat kookoo sabzi (kookoo, by the way, is better). We finish dinner at 8 p.m. They start dinner at 11 p.m. (Granted, there are enough hors d’oeuvres beforehand to stuff Michael Phelps.) We honor the Torah as it passes us in synagogue by discretely touching our prayer books to it. They embrace it like a life preserver, and kiss it like a long-lost friend.

We say sweetheart. They say joon.

I learned joon at the bat mitzvah of my daughter’s close friend Daniella, whose parents came from Tehran. On the pulpit, they kept referring to their daughter as Daniella-joon. They called their rabbi, Rabbi-joon. And when Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben got up to bless the family, he called everyone joon, as well. There were titters at that one, so at dinner — around 11 p.m. — I asked what the word means.

Joon means “darling” or “sweetheart” in the Persian language, as in, “Rabbi darling.” You get the Yiddish equivalent by adding a -le at the end of a name, though I can’t imagine many rabbis adjusting to being called, “Rabbi-le.”

The sheer quantity of joons in Iranian Jewish speech points to some of the deeper differences between Los Angeles’ Iranian and non-Iranian Jewish communities. The obvious one is language, which can reinforce a sense of separateness and strangeness.

There are strong cultural preferences that easily breed conflict. There is the battle within Iranian Jewish culture to preserve traditions and mores, even if that means appearing insular, or worse, to your new Jewish neighbors.

As one jilted Jewish woman told me of her ex-boyfriend, who came from a traditional Iranian home: “I was Jewish enough to date, but not Persian enough to marry.”

For three decades now, Sinai Temple has functioned as our own laboratory for this historical moment of Iranian-Ashkenazi contact. The old, established synagogue in Westwood experienced a steady influx of Iranian Jews, who eventually comprised 30 percent to 40 percent of membership. Sinai Temple became our very own Jewish Cultural Supercollider.

Tensions rose until Rabbi David Wolpe delivered a sermon in 2001 that called on each group to do the hard work of integration and compromise.

“In order for us to be a community–not an ‘us’ and a ‘them’– we have to recognize certain things,” Wolpe intoned. “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. I do not want an ‘us’ and a ‘them.'”

The sermon went a long way toward cooling the reactions in the Supercollider. An Iranian Jew, Jimmy Delshad, went on to become president of Sinai Temple (and eventually mayor of Beverly Hills), and from what I understand the synagogue has no more tension, infighting, gossiping and name-calling than is absolutely necessary in Jewish life.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in Los Angeles, there are signs the worst of the nastiness is ebbing. The younger generation has integrated into both the Jewish and larger society with astonishing speed and success. America is the Land of Hyphenated Identities, and young Iranian Jews will no doubt succeed in navigating it as have previous tribes.

As for the established Jewish community, I’d like to believe we have become 100 percent accepting. I’d like to believe that on the occasion of this 30-year anniversary, those of us who still default to — I’ll be blunt — racist generalizations, take the time to learn the remarkable recent history of Iranian Jewry — a story as compelling, frightening and death-defying for those who lived it as any our own relatives experienced.

I’d like to believe we’ll come to understand that there was exactly no — zero — difference between our antagonism of this greenhorn community and the cold-shoulder with which established German Jewish communities in America greeted the waves of our Eastern European ancestors 100 years ago.

“Many of these new arrivals . . . have brought with them unfamiliar customs, strange tongues, and ideas which are the product of centuries of unexampled persecution,” wrote Louis B. Marshall in 1904 of your bubbe and zayde. “But what of that! They have come to this country with the pious purpose of making it their home; of identifying themselves and their children with its future; of worshipping under its protection, according to their consciences; of becoming its citizens; of loving it; of giving to it their energies, their intelligence, their persistent industry.”

“The Russian Jew is rapidly becoming the American Jew,” he continued, “and we shall live to see the time when [they] will step into the very forefront of the great army of American citizenship.”

That process is well under way here in Los Angeles. Since 1978, Iranian Jews have injected into a stable, maybe even staid Jewish community talent, industry, a profound connection to their Jewish roots and a desire to have a positive political and social impact on the city. They have energized a Jewish community that could always use invigorating.

More than L.A. Jewry saved the Iranian Jews, the Iranian Jews saved L.A. Jewry.

They are, in a word, joon.

‘War on terror’ needs Muslims to be part of solution

Imagine for a moment a Muslim teenager somewhere in Europe, “with the Internet in his living room, the world in his mind and his heart torn apart by a million
identities,” as Swiss-born Muslim intellectual Tariq Ramadan described him.

How do you prevent that young Muslim from being lured by radical ideas? That was the question at the heart of a conference organized at The Hague recently by the Dutch national coordinator for counterterrorism.

The answer often depended on the religious background of the speaker. Muslims said historical grievances — real or imagined — that had left the Islamic world feeling wronged by the West must be tackled. The sense of being wronged, they said, fuels anger that could push a young Muslim into the arms of radicals.

Non-Muslim speakers said the gap between the values practiced inside the home of that European Muslim teenager and those practiced outside his front door were the points of vulnerabilities. The truth is somewhere in the middle and probably best understood by Muslims who live in the West.

Unfortunately, not enough of them were present to offer their solutions. Ramadan and I were the only ones on the conference list of speakers. One Dutch Muslim was co-chair of one event. Had more Western Muslims been invited to speak, they could have posed some questions — about historical grievances, about values — that would demand self-criticism from all of us.

Historical grievances are indeed important, but how far back should we go? The Spanish defeat of Muslims in 1492? The end of the Ottoman Empire in 1912? The creation of the State of Israel in 1948 and the subsequent Palestinian dispossession? The European colonization of several Muslim countries during the 20th century? The two U.S.-led wars in Iraq, the second of which continues its bloody spiral to this day?

Radical groups are particularly fond of using the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and numerous studies have shown what a jihadi magnet the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq has become. It is foolishly dangerous to deny that.

Who can forget Shehzad Tanweer, the 22-year-old British-born-and-raised Muslim, who killed himself and six others in one of the suicide attacks on the London Underground on July 7, 2005? In a message he recorded before the attacks and aired on their anniversary a year later, Tanweer warned of more attacks in the United Kingdom unless it pulled its soldiers from Afghanistan and Iraq and stopped its “financial and military aid to America and Israel.”

But Muslims must acknowledge and take responsibility for the manipulation of historical grievances, as Osama bin Laden’s latest message clearly shows. In an audio recording that appeared on a jihadi Web site during our conference, Bin Laden called on followers to go to Darfur to fight “Crusader invaders” — by which he meant a U.N.-African peacekeeping force to be sent to the war-torn Sudanese region.

But here’s the catch: Muslims are killing Muslims in Darfur. This is no Israeli occupation or U.S.-led invasion with which he inflames the masses. Bin Laden is manipulating the sheer ignorance among many Muslims about events in Darfur. And just as importantly, he is playing on grievances, which in this instance are only perceived.

The sad fact is that more Muslims today are dying at the hands of Muslims than by acts of Israelis, Americans or any other perceived enemies, whether it’s from almost weekly suicide bombings in Pakistan, intra-Palestinian fighting or sectarian violence in Iraq.

History shows external influences have certainly been brutal in all those areas, but a clearer focus on the present could help Muslims realize it is not all about “us vs. them,” but also “us vs. us.”

It would be na?ve to deny that there is a problem over common values in Europe today. When Muslim men deny their wives treatment at the hands of male doctors in the emergency rooms of European hospitals, it’s a problem. When young girls and women are considered “too Western” and murdered by their families for the sake of honor, of course it is a problem.

But it would be simplistic and prejudicial to assume that all Muslims share such views or values. Had more Western Muslims been invited to the conference to share their experiences — dealing with radicalization or as liberals who identify with “European values” — that diversity would have been made clearer.

At one point, frustrated by questions of “where are the moderate Muslims” from various European delegates — one even said his country had invited a liberal group all the way from Indonesia, because they could not find one closer to home — I offered to connect them with various “moderate,” liberal and secular Muslim groups I had found throughout various countries on the continent. It was disheartening to think that I had found them while some from the counterterrorism community could not.

As Ramadan reminded the conference, preventative methods are bound to fail unless they include Muslims as part of the solution. To only view Muslims as potential radicals is the quickest way to alienate the very people needed to solve the problems.

The word “prevention” is not heard enough in the chatter over the “war on terror.” So kudos to the Dutch for including it on their counterterrorism agenda.

They would be wise to also include European Muslims in future conferences on how best to promote that prevention.

Mona Eltahawy is an award-winning New York-based journalist and commentator and an international lecturer on Arab and Muslim issues.

Assimilating Roth’s PC Parable

When veteran producer Tom Rosenberg read Philip Roth’s 2000 novel, "The Human Stain," he immediately vowed to turn it into a movie. Roth, considered one of America’s greatest living writers, was his literary hero; the novelist "not only chronicles what it is to be Jewish in America, he chronicles America," Rosenberg, 56, said.

"Stain" dissects the politically correct zeitgeist Rosenberg detests. Set during the 1998 Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, the hero is Coleman Silk, an aging classics professor accused of making a racist remark and then targeted by a PC witch hunt. In the aftermath, he befriends a reclusive writer, begins a scandalous affair with a young janitor and reveals a secret: He’s actually a light-skinned black man "passing" as Jewish.

While many of Roth’s previous novels skewer assimilating American Jewry, "The Human Stain" explores the consequence of a more radical kind of assimilation.

The story intrigued Rosenberg because he, too, has experienced the "stain" of otherness and the tension between social expectations and personal identity. Even after his mother, a Protestant, converted to Judaism, he overheard his grandmother derisively refer to her as a "shiksa."

"But I am half my mother," he said, "and I never felt the same about my grandmother again."

As an attorney in the Ozarks in the 1970s, "People used to come see me just to see a Jewish person," he said. He figured he’d be run out of town when he wrote a rebuttal to an anti-Semitic letter to the editor; instead, he became a local hero.

Rosenberg was equally resolute about adapting "Stain," although "everyone thought I was crazy," he said.

The last time a Roth novel made it to the screen was 1972’s "Portnoy’s Complaint." The more complex "Stain" jumps around in time, interweaves plots and subplots and conveys action through interior monologues.

Then there was the matter of convincing the notoriously prickly Roth, whom Rosenberg met at a cafe near the author’s Litchfield, Conn., home. The writer "is a person who, before you open your mouth, you’d better know what you’re talking about, otherwise just be quiet," Rosenberg said.

It helped that the producer had read almost all his books, and promised to respect "The Human Stain." In the end, the blunt author was surprisingly amenable: "You’ll have only one problem with me," he said. "If the check doesn’t clear."

Once the check did clear, Rosenberg and his Lakeshore Entertainment partner, Gary Lucchesi, tackled another hurdle: Hiring a screenwriter to adapt the book. They decided on Nicholas Meyer, 57, a cerebral writer-director who had turned one of his own novels, "The Seven Percent Solution," into an Oscar-nominated film. A bonus was that Meyer, like Rosenberg, had been a Roth fan since reading 1969’s "Portnoy’s Complaint."

"At the time I was fascinated and titillated and probably missed the point," the screenwriter said of the controversial, sexually frank book.

Meyer, the son of a psychoanalyst and a concert pianist, said he came to appreciate Roth for his "3-D snapshots of this country at different periods in history." "Goodbye, Columbus," for one, captured the "nouveau riche vulgarians" he met at his New York private school and the "staggering displays of ostentation" he saw at bar mitzvahs.

Meyer was drawn to "Stain" for its equally biting expose of American Puritanism, but he hadn’t a clue about how to adapt it. The sprawling story overwhelmed him, as did the idea of rewriting the literary giant Roth.

"In a novel you can do whatever you want," he said. "But a drama has to be a drama, with actors, protagonists, antagonists; there has to be development, exposition, resolution. And I’m thinking, ‘How do I reorganize this material so that it has dramatic direction and meaning?’ The problem preoccupied me for six weeks."

Two days before he was scheduled to meet with the producers, he said, "I was bitching and moaning and my wife said, ‘Why don’t you just tell them you couldn’t figure it out? So I just gave up."

Not long after, Meyer had an unexpected brainstorm while sitting in the bath. He realized that Act I should describe the professor’s fall, concluding when a character asks why Silk used the term "lily white."

"The whole second act becomes an answer to that question by showing Coleman’s African American roots," Meyer said. "The third act is, ‘OK, now that you know who Silk really is, you’re going to watch his destiny played out freighted with that knowledge.’ Once you know his ‘backstory,’ as we say in Hollywood, he is like an entirely different character."

When Anthony Hopkins’ agent phoned him, he had been reading the novel — his third Roth book in as many months. He was so impressed by Meyer’s script that he signed on to play Silk the day after he read it.

Perhaps Hopkins is drawn to the quintessentially American Roth because he relocated to California several years ago and became a U.S. citizen. The expatriate said he identifies with his character because, "I also have broken away, out of my life, and reinvented myself…. I’ve shed a few skins and gotten away from situations and environments that I find stifling," he said at a press conference.

His co-stars include Nicole Kidman as the janitor, Faunia, and Gary Sinise as the writer Nathan Zuckerman, who has appeared in eight Roth books and is the author’s literary alter ego. "Stain’s" Zuckerman, like Roth, is a recluse recovering from prostate cancer.

To prepare for the role, Sinise read previous novels in which the character appears: "But ultimately I decided I’m not playing a mythic literary figure," he told The Journal. "You can’t play that or be intimidated by that."

More helpful was the filmmakers’ decision to change Zuckerman’s age from 70ish to 40ish, increasing the dramatic tension.

"Nathan is a younger man who is spurred back to life by his vital, older friend," Sinise said.

Meyer is matter-of-fact about the age change: "Adapting a novel is like a translation, a transposition," he said. And then Roth seemed pleased upon visiting the Williamstown, Mass., set in 2002 — although he admitted he hadn’t bothered to read the screenplay.

"Once I got over being hurt and relieved, not necessarily in that order, I realized it made perfect sense," said Meyer, who is adapting two more Roth novels for Lakeshore.

"He wrote the book the way he wanted it, so why would he want to read how Mrs. Meyers’ oldest fooled around with it?"

"Human Stain" opens in Los Angeles next week.

Faith in Travel

Vail, Colo., might seem like Siberia compared to the more established Jewish community of Los Angeles, yet here in Lionshead (elevation: 10,350 feet) there’s some 75 Jews gathered for Shabbat morning services.

Under the burning morning sun, the clouds feel close enough to touch as we sit on wooden benches facing the stage, a "wedding chapel" on the precipice of a mountain. Aspen trees line the hillsides and, in the clear distance, peaks crowned with snow glisten, reminding us of Vail’s other purpose.

As a relative newcomer to Southern California, I can find no rationale for leaving my beach community during the summer, but my internal travel bug is oblivious to reason and has sent me off to Colorado for outdoor adventures.

Yet, I am really only following in the tradition of the Jews, who have historically always been a nomadic people. Only in this last century have we seemed to settle down, and still, we are a more transient and traveling people than most. Perhaps it has to do with the comfort of readily available communities located in places as far as Siberia or as close as the Rockies.

B’nai Vail, a congregation of some 230 households, usually holds weekly services in the Vail Interfaith Chapel in the Valley, but in the summers they use the outdoors by praying at Gore Creek outside the chapel — and twice each summer at Eagle’s Nest on the mountain.

Its mission statement reads: "We are an active community committed to building a Jewish congregation that is welcoming to individuals and families of all backgrounds including full-time locals, part-time, summer and winter residents and visitors who are here for just a short time. The beautiful and splendid natural environment that surrounds us enhances our Jewish experience,"

Cantor Jennifer Werby welcomes the congregation, advising us to take in our surroundings and yet remain "present" for the services, to push away thoughts of the outside world and concentrate on the godly. It’s hard not to. Even as a baby fox darts by with a mouse in its mouth, as mountain bikers and hikers stand on the side observing, the cantor’s familiar opening Carlebach melody brings me back to dozens of similar services, from Los Angeles to the Upper West Side and Jerusalem.

During the Torah reading — yes, on the top of the mountain, there’s a Torah, not to mention wine and challah for "Kiddush" — the cantor calls up various members of the congregation and, finally, all those who have not been called up. We stand close to the edge of the stage, closer to the sky than to the ground, recite the blessing and kiss the holy scroll.

I am visiting a girlfriend who has moved here to be with her boyfriend, whom she is hoping will eventually convert to Judaism. This is his first service, and I think it has inspired him; I have been to services all my life, and it has managed to move me, too.

In life, when we travel, we seek out the exotic, yet we also search for the familiar. The Jewish communities of Colorado are challenged by issues similar to those in other American communities: intermarriage, assimilation, disinterested youth, etc., etc., ad nauseam. The characters are even the same.

I was reminded of this when I visited my cousins in Denver, the rabbi and rebbetzin of the Charedi community, a growing group of some 100 families. I asked my cousin if he would be interested in meeting with the Conservative rabbi of a synagogue on the other side of town. My learned cousin stammered; he was busy, he might say hello in a social setting, he said. Finally, as I stood there, he admitted: "We don’t have official meetings with them, because we Orthodox only believe there’s one way — the Orthodox way."

A meeting with non-Orthodox rabbis would imply that he believed the others were rabbis, he explained, citing the rabbi he followed who ruled against it. A gentle and intelligent man, my cousin brought to life for me the conflict in the book, "One People, Two Worlds," conversations between a Reform and an Orthodox rabbi who ultimately could not seem to find common ground.

The old Zionist pioneering song says, "Kum v’hithalech ba’aretz…" ("Get up and go travel around the country, with a backpack and a walking stick, and maybe on the way we will meet the Land of Israel").

Wherever our travel bug takes us to this summer — whether it’s Israel, Denver, Siberia or Spain — we may be trying to escape, but what we might find, as I did in Colorado, is ourselves … for better and for worse.

The Ethnic Revolution

Contrary to the ever-hopeful predictions of the Republicans, Jewish voters proved remarkably resistant to change in this month’s congressional voting.

But that predictability — Jews voted overwhelmingly Democratic, with a few regional exceptions — belies a seismic shift in ethnic politics. Several groups came out of this year’s electoral brawl strengthened — a message that is being heard loud and clear by politicians.

The rise of these groups, along with decreased electoral participation by Jews, may threaten Jewish political clout if community leaders do not heed this month’s wake-up call.

“Assimilation has a political as well as cultural impact,” said a leading Jewish political analyst. “Fewer Jews may be voting as Jews. At the same time, there’s a danger we will succumb to the trend of indifference we see in the electorate at large. What we need now that other groups are coming into their own is more Jewish turnout, not less, [and] more identification with our community’s core issues.”

Complacency, this analyst said, could turn the gains by other ethnic groups into a zero-sum game — with Jews on the losing end.

The raw numbers on Nov. 3 told an intriguing story. Jewish voters were actively wooed by both parties, and in several close races, it was expected that they could provide the margin of victory.

But when the votes were tallied, the Jewish vote made a discernible difference in only a few. Jews voted the way they always vote — about 80 percent Democratic, 20 percent Republican. There were variations, but the pattern was clear; even Sen. Alfonse D’Amato, R-N.Y., who received about 40 percent of the Jewish vote against a Jewish rival six years ago, sank back to 23 percent, thanks to a series of gaffes and an aggressive campaign by his rival, Rep. Chuck Schumer.

Jewish “swing” voters, who can go either way, seemed scarcer than ever. Despite recurrent predictions that Jews are shifting to the GOP, political scientists say a muscular Christian right and a Republican Congress dominated by ultra-conservatives are keeping Jews firmly on the Democratic side, even though many may be attracted to the other Republican Party — the party of fiscal conservatism and individual freedom.

The African-American vote was also a lock for the Democrats. But the potential size of that bloc — and the fact that it was pivotal in a handful of contests — is not passing unnoticed by political strategists.

In Maryland’s gubernatorial contest, for example, a last-minute Democratic get-out-the-vote effort in the black community propelled the lackluster incumbent, Parris Glendening, to a convincing victory over challenger Ellen Sauerbrey.

Other ethnic blocs are rising even faster. The huge Hispanic vote came out in force, boosting Democrats in California, Republicans in Texas and Florida. Hispanic voters represent an emerging swing vote, which makes them a particularly worthwhile investment for party tacticians. Just behind them are Asian-American voters, by some accounts the next great untapped swing vote.

In a number of states, the message politicians heard was this: The black vote is increasingly important to the Democrats because of the big numbers that can be turned out under the right circumstances, and the burgeoning Hispanic community can be a swing constituency worth fighting for.

The Jewish community, in contrast, is numerically small, increasingly fragmented and utterly predictable — a constituency easy to take for granted, or to write off entirely.

GOP leaders say that they’re not going to slacken their Jewish outreach, but it’s hard to see how the party can justify the effort, given election after election of disappointing results.

Democratic officials are confident that the Jews will stay put, leaving them free to devote greater energy to the larger but less active black community — and to ethnic swing constituencies, including Hispanics and Asian-Americans.

A shift to the center in the Republican leadership could change that calculus, but there are no indications that is likely to happen.

So where does this leave the Jews? Some pillars of Jewish strength are unchanged, but there are alarming signs of a weakening at the polls.

Jews remain disproportionally involved in financing political campaigns; no other group has exploited the controversial campaign finance system as effectively.

“Elections today are decided by money, and Jewish contributions — especially to the Democrats — are substantial,” said American University political scientist Amos Perlmutter. “That means Jewish influence will remain strong, particularly on the Democratic side.”

The Jewish community is also unusually effective in lobbying and in working with state and local officials who may someday run for Congress, a long-term strategy that is already paying big dividends. Other groups are playing catch-up, but they have a long way to go.

Although the community is increasingly divided over the Mideast peace process, Israel continues to offer a focus for activism that multiplies Jewish power. The emerging Hispanic bloc, by way of contrast, is divided by economic class and country of origin. Their numbers and involvement may be growing, but translating that into effective political action will be difficult without an overarching issue.

And Jews continue to be disproportionately involved in politics as campaign consultants and workers, as party officials, as congressional and administration staffers.

But as intermarriage and assimilation continue to deplete the Jewish demographic presence, Jewish political power at the voting booth may stand on an increasingly narrow base.

Most Jewish analysts say that turnout, traditionally higher than among non-Jewish voters, is declining, although statistics are scarce. If that is true, the rise of other ethnic groups — the big story in 1998 — will erode Jewish power.

Apathy and indifference, the poisons of democratic political life, may be particularly toxic for Jews. Finding antidotes — including new ways to get Jews to the polls and new ways to educate them about the Jewish importance of political issues — is the major challenge facing the community’s political leaders in this new era of energized ethnic politics.


Just to clarify Tom Tugend’s “Strain in the Relationship” (Aug.22):

Hollywood’s power brokers of Jewish ancestry met on Tisha B’Av atthe Hillcrest Country Club (over shrimp cocktails, perhaps?) todiscuss their “genuine quest for a ‘new identity’ in theirrelationship to Israel.”

Are we all comforted to know that Israel’s American support liesdisproportionately in the hands of such people so profoundly capableof deep introspection on this most somber day in the Jewish calendar?

Can we say that their need for self-deification will never bereconciled with the survival of Israel as a Jewish state?

As for Billy Crystal or any other celebrity of Jewish ancestry:Their interest or participation in anything Jewish is directlyproportional to the impact on their showbiz careers.

Howard Winter

Beverly Hills

Jewish Masochism

We non-Orthodox Jews should face up to this fact: We daily bemoanassimilation and the predicted disappearance of the Jewish peoplebecause of this. But we cannot argue the fact that wherever thenon-observant or semi-observant Jew dominates Jewish life,assimilation thrives and Jews flock to the Moonies and other cults.

We’ve done a lousy job of preserving Jewish identity. So, where dowe get the arrogance to force this miserable record upon a Jewishnation, from afar yet? Making donations to Israel should not give usthe right to force our way of life on the Jews who live there. Suchan attitude is hardly in keeping with the Jewish tradition oftzedakah. The recipients of our charity should not be beholdento us.

Our masochism truly shines bright when we consider how stupid itis for us, non-Orthodox Jews, to push the wrong buttons at thisextremely volatile time in our history. Our very survival is at stakebecause of the devotion towards our destruction, displayed by theArab enemy. We could at least have the common sense to put offinternal fighting until we have neutralized the danger from theoutside enemy.

By the way, has any one of us seen a published comment by even oneArab that attacks the Arabs in a manner that is equal to the flood ofanti-Israel articles by Jews? Talk about masochism!

Leon Perlsweig

Los Angeles

Unequal Treatment

I was shocked and saddened to read two reports from Israel(“Caught In a Maelstrom,” “Another Melee Erupts as Women Pray withMen at Western Wall,” Aug. 15). How can we anguish over the seriousdisturbances in Israel between the Israelis and the Arabs when wehave such nasty and hateful disturbances within our own people? Howcan we rightfully accuse others when we seemingly have no controlover our own actions?

I am sick and tired of those who claim to be so devout that theycannot follow the basic tenets of the Torah; we are bidden to takeresponsibility for our own actions and not to blame others.

I have found that shame, blame and regret are not satisfactoryconditions with which to live life. Is this the way to love yourneighbor as yourself? Of course, if you do not love yourself, then itbecomes easier to lay the blame on another.

The shameful way that the women were treated when they attemptedto pray is disgusting behavior and I can find no reasonableexplanation for it. How can we justify the male attitude whichdemeans women in these ways? This is 1997, and I have not found anyjustification which says that women are to be given unequal rights.

If we can not live in peace with each other then how in the nameof G-d can we ever expect to live peacefully with any other people?Let us pray that we will be able to treat each other with respect andtrue understanding, not just tolerance. Then perhaps the rest of theworld may be better able to treat us that way, too.

Polly Hertz

Los Angeles

South Bay Greetings

In case you have forgotten, we too live in the South Bay and havedone so for the past 23 years. We have been active in building aschool, mikvah, day care center, adult center and have an affiliationof 500 friends.

Surprisingly, your cover story “Wave of the Future,”(Aug. 22)forgot a main Jewish group. Hopefully, this is not a common practice.

Rabbi Eli Hecht


Chabad of South Bay



It was wonderful to see that the South Bay Jewish community is notforgotten. We certainly are alive and well. I believe people have toknow that there are Jews living in other neighborhoods other thanjust the Valley, the Farifax area and the Westside.

But, my disappointment came when I saw that the synagogue myfamily belongs to was relegated to less than one line. B’nai TikvahCongregation is also a member of the South Bay Council of theFederation. We are 51 years young and have the motto of “Not justanother shul!” Our credo is we are small enough to encourage personalrelationships but large enough to offer a variety of programs.

We joined the synagogue when our oldest child was ready for Sundayschool and have remained members for over 44 years. To our delight,our son and daughter-in-law have joined and nothing gives us morepleasure than sitting next to them and our grandchildren at services.

And now we are very excited about our new and dynamic spiritualleader, Rabbi Michael Beals. We were delighted as he conducted hisfirst Shabbat service last Friday night. The sanctuary was crowedwith adults and children who were anxious to welcome him and hislovely wife, Dr. Elissa Green-Beals, to Westchester and B’nai TikvahCongregation.

We believe that the Jewish Journal left our a very important partof South Bay Judaism when they choose to omit any significant mentionof B’nai Tikvah Congregation.

Ileene Morris



After reading your article “Wave of the Future,” (Aug. 15) I wasstruck with the similarity of our own experience in starting a shulin Oxnard, a city that is considered bamidbar, “in thedesert,” as regarding Jewish matters, by the Los Angeles Jewishcommunity.

Our synagogue, Congregation Am HaYam, “People of the sea,” is theonly Conservative synagogue between Thousand Oaks and San LuisObispo. We had our first service last May, starting out in members’homes, and now in a rented hall. We hold Shabbat services on thefirst and third weekends of each month at the Oxnard Monday Clubwhere we will also be holding our first High Holy Day services. Weare affiliated with the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism andnow have a membership of almost 50 families. Everyone who attendsservices, besides remarking about how warm and friendly they are,says the same thing: “I didn’t know there were this many Jews in thearea!”

There is no kosher butcher or baker in our area so that when wehave a Shabbat dinner we have to bring the food from the San FernandoValley.

Our services are warm and inspiring due to our rabbi/cantor, RabbiGerald Hanig, who was the cantor at Temple Ramat Zion in Northridgefor over 20 years. His intellect, devotion to Judaism and truly warmpersonality are our major asset. We also have none of the politicalinfighting and divisiveness or more established Jewish synagogues andother institutions. Due to the popularity of our area as a vacationresort, we also have a number of visitors to our synagogue. Indeed, alarge percentage of our members live in Los Angeles and have weekendhomes here.

So you see, you can find a synagogue in the most unlikely city.Even in the strawberry capital of the world, Oxnard, Calif.

Morton H. Resnick


Congregation Am HaYam


The Journal Critiqued

I would like to share some thoughts that have been brewing in mymind for some time now:

It might be unprofessional of me to question the value of theTorah interpretations which distinguished colleagues of mine arewriting. To my mind they add little understanding concerning theweekly parsha that is read in the synagogue. Some may think that thisan appropriate application of the midrash technique hallowedby our tradition but the Journal columns miss the mark. Usually about75 percent of the writing deals with a personal anecdote or a generalobservation on the peccadilloes of life and then a few verses fromthe weekly portion are dragged in give these ruminations some We havea right to know what the Torah portion is all about.

In my view the Journal is overloaded with material about thepolitical merry-go-round in Israel. The L.A. Times already gives ussufficient coverage of the scene there. What we need from a Jewishweekly are articles in depth, exploring the background of thecultural and religious events percolating over there.

I now notice stacks of copies of the Journal for freedistribution. Where did I get the notion that it is available only toFederation contributors? Besides, it upsets my aesthetic taste to seecopies of the Journal roll in the gutter along with the L.A. Weekly.

And finally your writers should have some sensitivity to thenuances of the Yiddish and Hebrew languages. I bite my tongue whenthe L.A. Times and non-Jewish writers commit these linguisticindiscretions. But Jews, certainly those whose aim is to make theirreaders more literate, should know that the plural of chasid ischasidim and the plural of mensch is menschen. Maybe your writersshould take some basic courses to appreciate the soul of Yiddishkeit.Let’s not bowdlerize our heritage.

Harry Essrig

West Hills

The Latest Crisis

Gary Rosenblatt citing Egon Mayer, recently wrote, “the organizedJewish community is obsessed with the sense of crisis that fuelsvirtually every Jewish cause (“‘Vanishing’ Jews Are Still Here,”Aug.8). It appears that our local Messianic synagogue has provided thelatest crisis (“Who Is Not a Jew?” Aug. 22). Marlene Adler Marksstates that Conejo Valley leaders have all mobilized around this newcause. No doubt they have pulled off a fund raising coup in theprocess. Apparently Messianic Jews are not the only Jews that lovepublicity.

Marks refers to a “besieged Jewish community.” Messianic Jews, inthe U.S. and in Israel, have been the victims of death threats,arson, physical violence, and vandalism because of our beliefs. Who,I ask, is besieging whom?

There is good reason that the phrase, “Who is a Jew?” is alwaysleft unanswered in our age of Jewish diversity. Marks celebrates thenotion that Rabbinic Jews can at least rally around their fear ofMessianic Jews. But if fear and paranoia against a small andrelatively powerless Jewish group is the only thing that can uniteRabbinic Jews today, then they of all people, are to be most pitied.

Murray Silberling

Messianic Rabbi

Beth Emunah

Woodland Hills


In Marlene Adler Marks’ column last week, Debbie Pine wasidentified as working with Cult Awareness Network. In fact, Pine isthe director of the Maynard Bernstein Resource Center on Cults. TheCult Awareness Network was purchased by the Church of Scientology.

The Journal regrets the error.

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