Why Kol Nidre keeps calling

Although you are not sure why, you don’t want to be late for Kol Nidre. As the sun is going down, there you are in the car, even running a yellow light or two, hurrying toward the shul, temple, rented room or wherever it is you go to begin Yom Kippur.

It’s not as if you’re that religious, but somewhere in your head, where yontif memories are filtered into expectations, and doubt rubs up against belief, the majestic music and solemn words — of which you know only a few — are calling: Kol Nidre, ve-esarei, va-haramei, v’konamei.

As you look for parking, you wonder where these feelings are coming from. Is it that Kol Nidre is a powerful prayer or blessing? It’s neither. Kol Nidre, which means “all vows,” is a legal formula for the annulment of “vows, renunciations, bans, oaths, formulas of obligation, pledges and promises,” made not to another, but to yourself and God.

The murky origins of Kol Nidre do not provide much of an explanation for why it has had such a lasting grip on us. Although in Spain it might have relieved some Marrano Jews of guilt from the vows they took upon being forced to convert, many researchers believe the legal formula already was in existence long before that, sometime in the eighth or ninth centuries. The tradition of saying Kol Nidre also is supported by a Talmudic statement that calls for a similar practice to nullify every vow.

Whatever its origins, according to “A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice” by Isaac Klein, the purpose of Kol Nidre has been “to provide release from vows in matters relating to ritual, custom and personal conduct, from inadvertent vows; and from vows one might have made to himself and then forgotten. It does not refer to vows and promises to other people.”

Yet, throughout the formula’s history, that has not been the universal understanding. During the Middle Ages in Europe, for instance, some Christian courts and monarchs held that it meant a Jew could annul any promise. Some mid-19th century Reform rabbis, recognizing the confusion it could cause, even tried to do away with the legal formula.

Written in Aramaic, the language in which most Jews were conversant at that time, the idea was that everybody should understand it. Connecting us over the centuries to that age is the Jewish perspective that words are important, and that at times a promise made to ourselves or God was not made thoughtfully, realistically, with enough knowledge or the right intent, and we need a way to start anew. Kol Nidre presents that rare opportunity to reset, and perhaps it is this opportunity that draws us to hear it year after year.

Adding to its place in our lives, during the Ten Days of Repentance, the period of time from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, there is an opportunity to resolve issues between you and other people, but during Kol Nidre, there is an opening to resolve issues of the self and your relationship with God.

Helping to add drama to the recitation of this legal formula is the setting. Standing before the heavenly court of life and death brought to mind by the Yom Kippur liturgy, the recitation of Kol Nidre is the time to deliberate on our vows. The tradition is to repeat the formula three times, and thank heaven for that because even if we are late arriving, we still can hear the words: May they all be undone, repealed, canceled, voided, annulled.

Traditionally, the first time, one says the words softly, as one who hesitates to enter the ruler’s palace to make a request; the second, a little louder; and the third even louder, as one who is used to being in the ruler’s court.

Embellishing the courtly setting is the Torah pageantry. Before Kol Nidre is said, all of the congregation’s Torah scrolls are taken from the ark, and as an honor, presented to individuals to hold. In an unambiguous display, the staging lets us know under whose authority the court has been convened, and for good reason.

The Torah contains several verses concerning vows, and teaches that “you must fulfill what has crossed your lips and perform what you have voluntarily vowed to the Lord your God”(Deuteronomy 23:24). In so doing, it helps to explain the need and urgency for a legal formula that covers instances when we have messed up.

But for what year? Originally, the text read that the period the formula covered was from the “past Yom Kippur until this Yom Kippur.” However, according to “The Encyclopedia of Jewish Prayer,” Rabbeinu Tam (1100-1171), the grandson of the famous French Torah commentator Rashi, argued “’of what value is the cancellation of all vows to him who takes them and immediately declares them null and void?’”

He revised Kol Nidre to read “from this Yom Kippur to the next,” the text that most machzorim use today, although some Ashkenazi and Sephardic congregations use both, covering past and future. Others feel the revised text sufficient since it is ambiguous enough to cover the past and coming years.

For many Jews, the rush to hear Kol Nidre is not so much about the words as it is the music. Setting the table for a spiritual experience, and answering our emotional needs, if ever there were a song to begin a fast by, this would be it. Several variations are in use today, but most are derived from what is called a “Mi-Sinai” (from Sinai) melody — that is, according to Cantor Jonathan L. Friedmann, a tune “treated as if they came from Moses himself” — that emerged in Rhineland communities of Germany and France sometime between the 11th and 15th centuries.

Even if your singing voice is not one with the angels, or you can’t carry a tune in a bucket, you still can remember how some of Kol Nidre goes. Especially where it drops down low, then rises majestically, the music seems to imbue us with a sense of identity and a way to acknowledge our frailties.

The rush to shul has been worth it. Standing in the presence of Torah scrolls, family and friends, dressed in your best, maybe even in white, with the words and music washing over, we have arrived at that rare point in time when we can feel regret, and nullify some of our poor judgment.

Whether the formula gives us cover for the coming year or a chance to disavow past vows, we stand at a rare and powerful moment. Kol Nidre can lift us over missteps of the past year and help us to think, not twice but three times, before stepping into the new.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.

Yom Kippur and Streusel Topping

I’m pretty sure my binge-eating style all started at Yom Kippur.

Or birth, but whatever.

Anytime I can blame my imperfections on “my people” instead of having to take personal responsibility, I’m all in.

“I’m not loud,” I’ll scream at my husband, “I’m a Jew from New York!” Then I’ll slam something — such as my hand on a table, a fly whizzing by my head or, one time in 1997, the back door, sending shards of glass flying. That was one of those fights we used to have a decade ago, when I’d let loose and stalk off embarrassed by my rage.

But I’d also leave thinking: This is why I should have married someone more like me, another screaming, hyperemotional type from the East Coast who “gets” me, instead of an even-keeled sane man from California. Hooking my second-generation wagon to another Eastern European descendant prone to depression and mania in alternating months was so obviously what I should have done. What. Was. I. Thinking?

But back to Yom Kippur and binging.

My parents always drank black coffee the morning of the holiday. Never one to belong to a temple, my father would then spend the day pacing the house, miserable. I’m not sure what my mother did, but she definitely stopped ingestion at coffee. She wholeheartedly believed that her most significant contribution to society was a thin body, so anything that supported her cause was fantastic.

She didn’t believe in religion or God, but if there ever was a time to get with her people on something, sanctioned deprivation was it. Being human often got in the way of her lofty ambition to serve the planet as the thinnest person in the room. I have vivid memories of her body splayed out on the red-and-black-checked couch in our den, an empty bag of jelly beans on her lap. “Why did I eat all those?” she’d ask no one. On Yom Kippur, starve-binge behavior is built right into the holiday! It’s ordained by God, for God’s sake.

I don’t remember starving myself on this holy day as a kid, or as an adolescent after my bat mitzvah. Probably because I never had one — yet another illustration of my mother’s secular and not unusual sexist take on Judaism back then.

“You don’t need a bat mitzvah,” she told my sister and me.

“If you were a boy it would be different,” she’d say, taking a long drag off a Kent.

So, other than my father’s brooding, I had no understanding of the holiday. Until I was on my own and walked in to a service at B’nai Jeshurun in New York City, where children bolted up to the bimah giggling, eager to blow the shofar. The catharsis in the building was palpable.

Despite not knowing what atoning was, I’d do my best to not eat, like my parents. I spent a lot of the day thinking about cake. Specifically, streusel topping — those large pebbles of flour, butter and brown sugar plastered on top of yellow-colored cake baked by “Aunt” Minerva, the long-suffering wife of my debonair and narcissistic grandfather.

At the break-the-fast buffet table, I would position myself within arm’s reach of these balls of joy, discreetly dislodging them with my fingers and popping them in my mouth.

Yom Kippur in those years involved a lot of hand-to-mouth eating, which I enjoyed with the gusto of the most observant Jew. Unlike other meals where you had to be polite and use a plate and a utensil, no one cared! You’d been starving all day — I do mean you since I rarely succeeded. I had to eat something so I wouldn’t faint or feel anything — that’s how I rolled. Although not a lot of fun, Yom Kippur did pay off with unregulated crumb topping.

At least until I realized boys don’t like girls built like small sumo wrestlers. That’s when I stopped eating in public and started cleaning up in the kitchen more, fixated on what people left untouched.

Once in a while now, I’ll pull this trick on Shabbat.

“I got it,” I’ll say to a person offering help, eyeing a half-eaten piece of chocolate layer cake, practically breaking a sweat anticipating sneaking it into my mouth by the finger full, clanging dishes with my free hand — my tiny act of rebellion for the Jewish housewife I sometimes fear I’ve become.

If I stick my fingers in frosting with abandon, then I’m not really a grown-up, right? Despite having a husband, a mortgage and two sons (one of whom bathes me in teenage loathing), when I am swiping a thumb through buttercream when no one is looking, I am 11 again and life is sweet.

Unsurprising to me now, one hit of this and I must have more. I find more dishes to clear.

“No, really, I have it, enjoy yourself,” I say, assessing the plates I’ve picked up.

After a final scan of the kitchen for all the memories I can eat, I leave to join everyone with a cup of hot water and lemon.

The wife, the mother, the grown-up.

Chag sameach.

Dani Klein Modisett is a comic and writer, most recently of the book “Take My Spouse, Please.”

On Yom Kippur, must we ask forgiveness for communal wrongs?

On Yom Kippur, as we focus on our personal faults, how do we acknowledge those shortcomings that are more communal?

In synagogue, reciting line by line the Al Chet prayer, seeking atonement for the areas of our lives where in the past year we have fallen short, events in the news, even those that may have touched our lives, seem far away and better off resolved by the talking heads of the cable news.

Beating our chest for each “chet,” we ask God in page after painful page to forgive us for “rashly judging others,” “scorning parents and teachers,” even engaging in “idle chatter” and “forbidden trysts.” Isn’t that enough?

Yet in an “Alternative Confessional” found in the Mahzor Lev Shalem, the High Holidays prayer book published by the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative movement, we find the additional shortcomings of “refusing to hear,” “hesitating,” “complacency” and “not using our power,” which suggest we look outside the usual range of things for which we are accustomed to taking responsibility.

Reading this new litany last year, I couldn’t help but think, “Do I have to own up to this stuff, too?”

Seeking advice on how to approach the added failings, I had lunch with Rabbi Jonathan Klein, executive director of CLUE-LA (Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice), a Los Angeles-based organization that is “committed to worker justice,” according to Klein.

Before our lunch orders even arrived, I realized that chet-wise, I was not going to get off easy. Referring to the language in the High Holidays confessional prayers, Klein pointed out that “the prayers are in the plural, not just to prevent embarrassment of the individual,” but “because there is an understanding of collective responsibility.”

“If we don’t contemplate our culpability for communal wrongs at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when are we supposed to do it?” asked Klein, a former rabbinic director at the University of Southern California Hillel who was ordained from the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1997.

It was a question for which I had no answer.

“Some are guilty, all are responsible,” he added, looking at me from across the table, quoting Abraham Joshua Heschel.

Waiting for our orders, we talked over events in the news. The rabbi noted the stabbing of six marchers at the Jerusalem gay pride parade by a repeat offender, a haredi Orthodox man — a 16-year-old girl died from her injuries. There was also the firebombing of a Palestinian home in the West Bank that killed a father and his 18-month-old son, and seriously injured two other family members. The attack allegedly was perpetrated by Jewish extremists.

“We should be pondering as individuals, as part of a larger collective, how such evils can pervade our society,” said Klein, who noticed that the smoothie I had ordered suddenly was not going down so easily.

“All the chets are very real and easily done,” said the rabbi, who wanted me to understand that “chet” means “missing the mark” and not “sin,” per se. Since in the confession “they are alphabetical,” they represent “encyclopedic options for making mistakes,” he added. “There is also a recognition that there are other dimensions to a chet.”

One of those chets was the way we do business. In Los Angeles, where the county Board of Supervisors recently voted to raise the minimum wage from $9 to $15 by 2020, as well in other areas of the country, the issue of a “living wage” had earned its share of headlines, forcing us to look at the ways we literally have fallen short.

“The people who work in our stores, who we may employ, were made in God’s image, too,” said Klein, whose organization has made raising the minimum wage a key goal.

Though Klein said he was proud of the “Jewish community’s commitment to the public sphere.” But, he added, “people forget just how hard it is to be on the other end.”

Klein reminded me that the haftarah from Isaiah chanted Yom Kippur morning “teaches you to think beyond the individual.” Since I had brought along a mahzor, we looked over the lines describing the fast desired by God that directs Jews to “let the oppressed go free” and “to share your bread with the hungry.”

“The whole point of the holidays is to re-center ourselves around our commitment to the highest ideals of Judaism,” he said, leading me to ask, “How do I begin?”

On Yom Kippur, he began, “We say the Al Chet over and over. Maybe one reading should be through the lens of your individual faults.” For the second, he suggested, “make it through the lens of communal thoughts.” The third time would be “as fellow human travelers on this planet,” said Klein, noting the universality of a holiday period that begins with celebrating the birthday of the world.

The bill came and we agreed to split it, with Klein insisting to cover the tip. Rising from the table, and still digesting our conversation, I noticed that he was a good tipper.

Now there’s an app for atonement – meet eScapegoat

The confessions come flooding in at this time of year to the Twitter feed of the atonement app

Sunday’s protestors sought kaporot concessions

With chants of “Shonda,” and “Shame,” a group of around 75 protestors demonstrated on Sept. 8 in front of two sites on Pico Blvd where kaporot ceremonies were taking place.

Kaporot, which means “Atonement,” is a 1,000 year old custom observed by some Orthodox Jews between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur that consists of an individual swinging a live chicken over his head three times and a saying a prayer— in effect ritually transferring his sins to the chicken.

Afterward, the chicken is kosher slaughtered and customarily is either prepared and eaten by the kaporot observer, or given to the poor, though an article in The Journal reported that last year nearly 10 tons of kaporot chickens may have been  thrown away.

The protest was led by Rabbi Jonathan Klein, co-founder of Faith Action for Animals, an organization that supports the well-being of animals.

To demonstrate an alternative to using chickens, “Rabbi Eliyahu Fink, led the group, many of whom were animals rights activists, in a kaporot ceremony using money,” Klein said.

“People pulled coins out of their pockets and put them into plastic bags and waved them around their heads three times, and read the formula,” Klein added.

The protest, which was monitored by LAPD officers, at times grew loud, and heated with protestors leaning up against the enclosure where the kaporot was taking place and chanting and shouting into it in both English and Farsi.  “Genocide is wrong whether against Jews or Against chickens,” read a sign held by one protestor, “Kapporot not in the Torah,” read another.

Other protestors gave water to the chickens kept ready in cages nearby.

“I’m trying to keep kids off drugs, and they are calling me a murderer,” said Rabbi Moshe Nourollah, whose Jewish outreach organization Bait Aaron organized the kaporot ceremony behind Young Israel of Beverly Hills, from whom they rent the space. According to Rabbi Nourollah, the money collected—a fee is asked for each chicken—is used to help fund his organization.

“They were screaming at little kids,” said Meir Nourollah, the rabbi’s son, a schochet who traveled from Israel to ritually slaughter the kaporot chickens for Bait Aaron.

“It’s not surprising that people became so emotional,” Klein said. “They saw the blood spurting out and on the ground,” he said.

At one point during the demonstration, a blue City of Los Angeles Department of Sanitation truck stood idling a few blocks from the demonstration.

“I am here for a dead animal pick up at 8701 Pico Blvd.,” the truck’s driver sadi when asked by a Jewish Journal reporter. The address is where the kaparot ceremony was taking place. After an LAPD officer spoke to the driver, the truck pulled away.

After the protestor walked a few blocks east to Ohel Moshe, where kaporot ceremonies also were being held, Klein, in view of the group, and accompanied by the an LAPD officer met with a synagogue official, to see if some agreement could be made concerning the chickens.

“Absolutely no progress was made,” he announced after rejoining the group on the sidewalk.

However, later in the day, Nehemia Shoob, a Beit Aaron representative offered as many as three chickens per day to be rescued, if the group would refrain from loud protesting of the kaporot ceremonies.

“It was some small measure of opening,” said Klein, who said he would offer the saved chickens to rescue farms and households equipped to keep chickens.

There was another opening as well.

Around the kaporot site, posted flyers announced that the “Chickens used for Sapporo at Young Israel of Beverly Hills are being donated in (sic) The Greater West Hollywood Food Coalition.”

When reached for confirmation, Ted Landreth, a founder of the Coalition confirmed that chickens for kaporot were coming to the coalition and had been donated the previous year as well.

The day after the protest, when Rabbi Nourollah was asked if the dead kaporot chickens were trashed, he said, “We give all of them away,” and showed a receipt for the Midnight Mission in downtown Los Angeles indicating that several dozen chickens had been donated.

Several other chickens that had been slaughtered and butchered were shown in a barrel with ice.

“There would have been chickens,” said Rabbi Nourollah, “But the protestors drove people away,” he said.

“We will be taking the matter to health officials,” Klein said.

In the rabbi’s words: A difficult conversation

The conversation is supposed to begin like this: “Will you forgive me for anything I might have said or done this year that has hurt you?” 

You are sitting with a friend over coffee, during the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and you ask this question. Not easy. What if your friend responds, “What did you do or say?” Or, “You know, it did really hurt me when I found out that you … shared that story that I told you in confidence, or… didn’t include me when you had that party, or … embarrassed me in front of so and so.” These are not horrible sins, maybe, but they are the kind of interpersonal hurts that erode intimacy. 

Maybe there were more serious breaches. Could you call the relative whom you stopped speaking to over some long-ago insult and ask the same question? What kind of conversation would ensue? Or could you sit down with your partner, or your kids, or your parents and ask the same question? 

Our tradition tells us: “For transgressions between a person and God, Yom Kippur serves as atonement. For transgressions between one person and another, Yom Kippur does not serve as atonement until the one offended has been appeased.” 

To atone, there are specific instructions: You have to acknowledge the hurt you did. Then, if the issue involves money, you have to pay back the money. Next, you have to resolve never to do it again. And finally, you have to discuss the issue with the one you have hurt and ask for forgiveness. This is teshuvah (repentance); this is the work of this season. 

Asking for forgiveness is not easy, but it pales in comparison to how hard it is to forgive. Here Jewish tradition is also very clear: “If the person against whom one had sinned did not want to forgive, then one has to ask him/her for forgiveness in front of three of his/her friends. If he/she still didn’t want to forgive, then one asks him/her in front of six, and then in front of nine of his/her friends, and if he/she still didn’t want to forgive him/her, one leaves him/her and goes away. Anybody who does not want to forgive is a sinner.”

That’s pretty harsh. Aren’t some things unforgivable? Maybe it depends on what you mean by forgiveness. 

Jewish tradition tells us there are three kinds of forgiveness, articulated by Rabbi David Blumenthal in a CrossCurrents article: “The most basic kind of forgiveness is ‘forgoing the other’s indebtedness’ (mechilá) … [after] the offender has done teshuva. … This is not a reconciliation of heart. … The crime remains; only the debt is forgiven. The tradition, however, is quite clear that the offended person is not obliged to offer mechila unless the offender is sincere in his or her repentance and has taken concrete steps to correct the wrong done. … The second kind of forgiveness is ‘forgiveness’ (selichá). It is an act of the heart. It is reaching a deeper understanding of the sinner. It is achieving empathy for the troubledness of the other. Selicha, too, is not a reconciliation or an embracing of the offender; it is simply reaching the conclusion that the offender, too, is human, frail, and deserving of sympathy. It is closer to an act of mercy than to an act of grace. … The third kind of forgiveness is ‘atonement’ (kappara). … This is a total wiping away of all sinfulness. It is an existential cleansing. Kappara is the ultimate form of forgiveness, but it is only granted by God.”

Change is possible; people can learn from their mistakes. Notice that forgiveness does not mean everything returns to the way it once was; it doesn’t mean you have to invite the one who hurt you over for dinner. But it does mean that you can give up your victim status and go on with the rest of your life. 

Every night, before we go to sleep, there is a prayer that is part of the bedtime Shema: “I hereby forgive all who have hurt me, all who have done me wrong, deliberately or by accident, whether by word or by deed. May no one be punished on my account. As I forgive and pardon fully those who have done me wrong, may those whom I have harmed forgive and pardon me, whether I acted deliberately or by accident, whether by word or deed. Wipe away my sins, O Lord, with your great mercy. May I not repeat the wrongs I have committed. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to you, my Rock and my Redeemer.” 

Try saying this prayer before you go to sleep. Some congregations end their Kol Nidre service with these words. Should we?

Shana Tovah.

Rabbi Laura Geller is a senior rabbi at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills.

Atonement chickens — swung and tossed

A few days before Yom Kippur, thousands of white-feathered chickens land on Pico Boulevard. Not there to be broiled, boiled or fricasseed in any of the nearby kosher restaurants in this predominantly Jewish business district, they nonetheless have arrived in time to be served up.

Kept in cramped wire cages holding dozens of birds, the chickens are to be used for the kaparot ceremony observed by some Orthodox Jews who live in the surrounding neighborhoods.

Kaparot, or kaparos, depending on your Jewish background, means “atonement,” and is the name of a more than 1,000-year-old custom that takes place a few days before Yom Kippur, in which an individual swings a live chicken by its wings over his head three times while reciting a prayer.

According to Rabbi Alan Kalinsky, director of the Orthodox Union West Coast regional office in Los Angeles, the custom is similar to that ascribed to the scapegoat found in Leviticus, on which the people’s sins were placed. Through kaparot, sins are placed on the chicken, said Kalinsky, who has practiced the custom.

After the swinging, the chicken is brought to a shochet, a ritual kosher slaughterer, who cuts the chicken’s throat.

Jewish custom is to “give a donation for the chicken and a portion goes for tzedakah,” Kalinsky said. “In the ideal situation, the chicken should be given to the poor,” he added.

The Chabad Web site, which provides how-to kaparot instructions, also explains that the “chicken’s monetary worth is given to the poor, or, as is more popular today, the chicken itself is donated to a charitable cause.”

In Los Angeles, while some kaparot chickens might be given to the poor, this was not the case last year, according to a letter from the Los Angeles Department of Sanitation dated March 20, 2013, obtained by the Jewish Journal from its recipient, Pini Herman — who is a Jewish demographer and blogger for jewishjournal.com. On or around Yom Kippur of 2012, department trucks picked up a recorded 19,685 pounds of dead chickens from “two pickup locations in the Pico-Robertson area and one in the La Brea-Melrose area.”

A few days before Yom Kippur, Herman, who grew up Orthodox and has in the past participated in the ritual, stopped to observe kaparot ceremonies being held at Congregation Ohel Moshe, an Orthodox synagogue on Pico Boulevard whose membership includes many Iranian Jews.

Other kaparot services were held that year in Los Angeles at Bait Aaron Torah Outreach  (baitaaron.com) on Pico Boulevard as well as at Yeshiva Ohr Elchonon Chabad, near La Brea and Melrose avenues.

Herman said that after the chickens were slaughtered, he witnessed dead or dying chickens sliding down a chute into a 55-gallon drum lined with a plastic bag. Herman said he had had read reports of kaparot chickens being thrown away in Brooklyn, N.Y., so he wondered if the same thing would happen to the chickens in the drum.

The next day, driving by Ohel Moshe, Herman, who said he was on his way to pick up his son at school, saw a blue Department of Sanitation truck parked alongside the temporary enclosure where he had witnessed the kaparot service the day before. He stopped and saw bags of chicken being loaded into a truck equipped with a hydrolic lift. “Some of them were clear, and I could see the chickens,” Herman said. He took pictures. 

Disturbed by what he had seen, Herman began looking into what had happened to the chickens. He was referred by the Iranian American Jewish Federation of Los Angeles to Rabbi Michael Segan-Kohanim, who initially showed interest, Herman said, saying he would raise the issue of the disposal of the chickens with the Persian Rabbinic Council. “He said he would get back to me, but never did,” Herman said.

Herman also wrote to Rabbi Avrohom Union, rabbinic administrator for the RCC, to ask, “Should a person wanting to do kaparos make sure that the schechita [ritual slaughter] is kosher, even if they don’t intend to eat the chicken themselves?”

In late September 2012 in Los Angeles, nearly 20,000 pounds of chicken believed to have been used in kaparot were trashed. Photo by Pini Herman

Union’s response was “yes.”

Ohel Moshe was contacted for this story, but declined to comment. Rabbi Ezra Schochet, Yeshivah Ohr Elchonon Chabad’s dean, when contacted, said he knew nothing about it. Segan-Kohanim also declined to comment, due, he said, to a “personal hardship.”

“I heard people being told the chickens were going to tzedakah, and I wanted to see if the community had a mechanism that would self-correct,” said Herman, who conducted the 1997 Los Angeles Jewish Community Survey.

Beyond issues of disposal, the practice of kaparot has been getting increased scrutiny nationally from animal rights groups like PETA, as well as from an organization called the Alliance to End Chickens as Kaporos.

According to Karen Davis, the alliance’s leader and spokeswoman, the organization is not against the idea of kaparot, but supports replacing the live chickens with coins.

Davis operates a chicken sanctuary in Virginia, where she houses more than 90 chickens; she cites several rabbinic sources supporting the organization’s cause, including Orthodox Rabbi Yonassan Gershom, who raises chickens in Minnesota.

Gershom, a Breslov Chasid, wrote on his blog of the kaparot ceremony: “Imagine somebody holding your arms behind your back and then suspending you by the elbows to get an idea of what this method would feel like.” 

The alliance organizes a protest each year in Brooklyn, and Davis said she has observed dead and dying chickens being thrown into dumpsters afterward. 

Davis, who has a doctorate and has written on the “Social Life of Chickens,” cited published research from the University of California as well as her own work with chickens in estimating that the chickens used on the West Coast — former egg-laying hens—probably weigh about 4 pounds each,” and given the city’s pickup of nearly 20,000 pounds of chickens, that would mean almost 5,000 chickens were used here. 

In Los Angeles, signs, newspaper ads and even a man standing on Pico Boulevard costumed as a chicken have been used to promote kaparot. Currently, in the Aug. 29 issue of The Jewish Home newspaper, an Orthodox publication, a quarter-page advertisement tells of upcoming kaparot at two locations — at the Bnos Devorah High School yard at 461 N. La Brea Ave. and at the Yeshiva Ohr Elchonon Chabad yard at 7215 Waring Ave. 

There have also been protests in past years in Los Angeles. Nazila Mahgerefteh, who moved to Los Angeles from Tehran when she was 14, put on a chicken suit in 2007 to call a different kind of attention to kaparot.

“The children came up and hugged me,” Mahgerefteh recalled of her experience wearing her suit in front of Ohel Moshe, but then “they saw the chickens being killed, and they began to cry.” 

Two years later, while videotaping a kaparot event, she said she was punched in the face by someone waiting in line, which also broke her camera.

“We have nothing against prayer or charity,” Mahgherefteh said. “We do not believe that by taking the lives away from animals, that our sins will be forgiven. Animal welfare is in the Torah.”

When a reporter told Orthodox Rabbi Dovid Tropper of Yeshivas Ohev Shalom on Fairfax Avenue of the letter from the sanitation department, he said that he “was appalled.”

“The documentation should be brought to the attention of the rabbinical authorities,” Tropper told the Journal. “The chicken that you paid for should be given to a poor person,” he said.

However, Rabbi Yona Landau, founder of the California nonprofit Touch of Kindness, which encompasses an organization called Tomchei Shabbos (Supporters of Shabbat) that provides food and other assistance to needy Jewish families, suggested in an interview that the kaparot chickens “would not be good enough to give to our recipients.

“A lot of chickens may not be fit for kosher consumption,” he said. “What else could you do with them?” Landau also said he did not believe the city figures about the number of chickens thrown away. 

In a later e-mail, Landau wrote, “Chabad does give them [kaparot chickens] to the school and the school kashers and cleans them.” Landau offered a phone number for Rabbi Levi Raichik at Chabad’s Congregation Levi Yitzcho “to verify,” but Raichik did not respond to calls.

Tropper, recalling how kaparot was practiced in his family as a child, said, “We would eat the chicken, and my father would donate its value to the poor. The credit for a good deed comes when you give it away,” Tropper said.

He suggested it may be difficult for modern Jews, who might not know how to prepare and kasher a chicken, to keep up the tradition this way. For convenience sake, Tropper said he now prefers the use of coins instead of chickens. 

“Kaparos doesn’t justify throwing away the chicken,” he said. 

Israel Police on high alert ahead of Yom Kippur

Israel Police have been holding talks with Israeli Arab representatives in bid to diffuse tensions ahead of Yom Kippur, after the burning of an Upper-Galilee mosque earlier this week. Police hope that calm will be restored in time for Yom Kippur on Saturday.

Security forces sealed off the West Bank on Thursday at midnight, and the blockade will last for 48 hours until Yom Kippur at midnight. The blockade can only be lifted for humanitarian or medical reasons and with the permission of the civil administration.

The Taba border crossing and the Yitzhak Rabin and Jordan River border crossings to Jordan will shut down at noon on Friday and reopen on Saturday at 9 P.M. The Allenby terminal will close at 11 A.M.

Air traffic to and from Israel will halt from 1 P.M. on Friday to 9:30 P.M. on Saturday and the border crossings to Jordan and Gaza will close down. The weather forecast bodes well for fasters, with comfortable temperatures.

Read more at Haaretz.com.

Author Ian McEwan to receive Jerusalem Prize

British author Ian McEwan was chosen to receive the prestigious Jerusalem Prize.

The biennial prize, which will be awarded next month in a ceremony on the opening night of the Jerusalem Book Fair, is Israel’s highest literary honor for foreign writers. The award is given to an author whose works best exemplify the “freedom of the individual in society.”

McEwan is the author of “Amsterdam,” “Atonement” and “On Chesil Beach.”

Previous Jerusalem Prize winners include Japanese author Haruki Murakami in 2009, Arthur Miller in 2003 and Susan Sontag in 2001.

Courting Forgiveness

In this season of atonement, Jews of every stripe of observance stream into temples, synagogues, shteibels and shuls to recount their wrongs. Beating their
breasts in repentance, they beg for absolution for the sins they have committed in their daily human interactions over the past year. On Yom Kippur, many wear canvas sneakers, the plainest of shoes, in a show of simplicity and humility.

As singles, trying on different slippers and hoping for a perfect fit, we have assayed to squeeze ourselves into many an improper shoe during the past year, blistering ourselves and others in the process, becoming callused as we try to move our lives forward. This battered state yields an impressively long list (and uncomfortable memories) of dating-related crimes and misdemeanors. It is only fitting that past and current singles seize this moment to take stock of the unique ways that we have wronged each other, as men, as women, as eligibles populating the same singles pool. Once and for all, let’s take the sin out of singles.

Just like the Al Chet — the prayer in the Yom Kippur liturgy wherein the individual confesses to a litany of collective sins — that inspired this original reading, this one is also written in third-person plural. We may not recall having committed each of these individual sins, but as members of the global singles community, we admit to every transgression in the New Year’s hope that the memory of this confession will make us think twice before committing future infractions.

Preliminary studies suggest that this reading is at its most potent when read responsively before or after a singles event. For maximum dramatic effect, read the first two lines in each stanza responsively, first men, then women. The third sentence should be recited by men and women together. And while we’re asking God for forgiveness, remember — it can’t hurt to beg for a vision or a bat kol (heavenly voice) that reveals the e-mail address of your beshert. Or at least a location, so you know whether you’re trying on uncomfortable shoes in the right city.

Forgive Us: A Reading for the Dating Penitent

For the sins of men against women. And for the sins of women against men. For all of these transgressions, O God of forgiveness, pardon us, forgive us, grant us atonement.

We said we’d call. We said we’d call back. We were dishonest with you and with ourselves.
We have let the ball drop. We have refused to pick up the dropped ball. We have preferred the safety of solitude to the instability of possibility.

We have rejected you for being too fat or too plain. We have rejected you for being too short or too bald. We have judged you according to external appearances and drawn assumptions from the superficial.

We have detested you for being too materialistic. We have detested you for being too superficial. We have hated you in our hearts.

We have told you that you were “like a sister” to us. We have told you that you were “a really great guy.” We have lacked the fortitude to transition friendship into romance, and consigned you to the torment of “The Friend Zone.”

We have blown you off on the street and in front of our friends. We have pretended not to see you in bars and at singles events. We have behaved poorly and inhumanely, in favor of maintaining our own comfort.
We have demanded too much, too soon. We have pressured you into emotional commitment. We have operated according to our own interests and agendas, unconcerned with your feelings or opinions.

We have eschewed dating in favor of hot wings and professional sports. We have eschewed dating in favor of Cosmos and “Sex and the City.” We have escaped into comfort zones of food, alcohol and television to avoid potential heartbreak.

We have asked for your business cards at parties, even though we had no intention of calling. We have waited by the phone for the call you had implicitly promised. We have lived in communicational deception and delusion.

We have bantered too freely, creating a perceived depth to dialogue that was meant only at face value. We have flirted without follow-up, using subtle encouragement to convey enigmatic interest. We have left you in confusion, pondering the true intentions of our fearful hearts.

We have proposed second dates we had no intention of confirming. We have accepted second dates we had no intention of attending. We have chosen a slow fadeout over honesty, denying you the dignity of a truthful closure.


For the sins of men against women. And for the sins of women against men. For the sins of dating on the Internet. And for the sins of dating in real life. For all of these transgressions, O God of forgiveness, pardon us, forgive us, grant us atonement.

Esther D. Kustanowitz is the regular singles columnist for the New York Jewish Week, where this article first appeared. You can reach her at jdatersanonymous@gmail.com.

Playwright’s 2nd look at 1st draft brings ‘Atonement’

If it’s axiomatic that art often imitates life and that writers write what they know, then what does “Atonement” say about playwright Richard Martin Hirsch?

The 2006 play’s protagonist, Elijah Stone, is a Montreal-born secular Jew who has moved to New York City and become a famed novelist after his journalistic sniping at the Quebecois and Zionism provoked outrage among his readers in Canada.

In his search for artistic immortality, the edgy, narcissistic author has turned his back on his faith and a loving wife, yet now finds his grip on reality ever more tenuous as he gropes for a spiritual foothold in his life.

The play, which enjoyed its world premiere at Theatre 40 in a four-week run that began this week, deals with issues of faith, conscience, the creative process and the power of love to either heal or cause hurt.

A mystery-style approach to character study, the entire play unfolds within Elijah’s mind, shifting backward and forward in time as he thinks about and remembers his relationships with the three key women in his life — but how much is reality and how much invention is revealed only gradually. As the first time he has written “anything with such an intended nonlinear structure,” Hirsch said, “Atonement” is “definitely a stretch” for him.

Much of the character, Hirsch said, “is my impression of an uncle of mine,” a Canadian who was “a prolific TV and radio play writer in the ’50s and ’60s in Montreal. I just had his voice in my head,” Hirsch said, while morphing the original character, “more of a generic playwright,” into Elijah.

Most of the character’s egotism, cynicism and inability to handle fame comes from Hirsch’s uncle, he said, as well as from other individuals, many in show business, whom Hirsch has met throughout his career. Likewise, the happily married Hirsch created Elijah’s infidelity from a variety of sources.

Hirsch also drew upon his own identity as a Jewish writer to help inform the character — who changed his name from Steinberg to Stone — introducing more pronounced Jewish themes when giving his original draft a major overhaul.

Hirsch said that “although at least half, if not more,” of his roughly 30 plays “have strong Jewish characters” and include various aspects of religion, the religious focal points of “Atonement” are new for him.

“I was brought up Jewish, but I’m not religious in the least now, and I’m sort of the typical secular Jew,” Hirsch said. Current world events, “coupled with getting older, being in my 50s,” have forced him to re-examine his own spiritual values. “This character in the play is doing that, as well as I’m doing it now.”

Born and raised in West Los Angeles, Hirsch studied economics at UCLA as an undergraduate, minoring in literature — but writing came later, when he “felt the impulse” to write and enrolled in a short story workshop through a UCLA Extension course. The instructor gave Hirsch permission to write a one-act play. “After that,” he said, “I was hooked.”

Soon in the late 1970s, he was studying writing at a workshop at Los Angeles Actors Theater, penning new plays and having them read aloud and produced at small venues locally. He has since seen many of his plays performed or read at theaters throughout Los Angeles, as well as in New York, Boston and other major U.S. cities.

He shelved the original version of “Atonement” after a Los Angeles Actors Theater staged reading in the late ’70s, but in mid-2004 he reconnected, via cyberspace, with a fellow playwright who had attended the reading and had since moved to New York. The strong impression of that single reading upon this colleague 25 years later prompted Hirsch to give his first draft a second look.

Hirsch brought the script to Howard Teichman and Hindi Brooks’ Theatre 40 Professional Theatre Company’s Writers Workshop, of which he’s a member, to begin developing and reworking it into its present form.

Teichman, the production’s director, said what drew him to “Atonement” was “the whole notion of ‘How does one cope with loss?’ and ‘How does one deal with God and faith when one is a cultural Jew?'” as well as the mechanisms novelist Elijah Stone creates in his efforts “to try to find salvation and redemption.”

“Without a strong faith-based support,” Hirsch said, Elijah is “left in this void. The seeds of what he needs” exist in his mind, “but his grief has put him in such a distracted place that he doesn’t know which way is up.”

As for the play’s title, Hirsch said his protagonist “needs to atone for his self-possessive, narcissistic existence and acknowledge the existence of there being something greater than himself. To admit that, you have to admit that you’re less than that,” where Elijah “thought he was above that and just needed himself. The play is the journey to get him to that point.”

Elijah, he said, is “absolutely” fooling himself with his repeated claims that “guilt is a useless emotion.”

“He knows it’s there,” Hirsch said. “It’s in his mind, but he has created a structure for himself in his life in order to reach what he perceives to be success.” The character harbors guilt for certain aspects of his life best left unrevealed, “but he doesn’t get to that point until near the end” of the journey called “Atonement.”

“Atonement” runs March 5-29, Mondays-Wednesdays 8 p.m.; March 11 and 18, 2 p.m.; March 29, 8 p.m. at Theatre 40 at the Reuben Cordova Theatre, 241 Moreno Drive, Beverly Hills. $20 (weekdays), $22 (Sundays). For more information, call (310) 364-0535 or visit MUSIC VIDEO: Teapacks — ‘Push the Button’ (Eurovision entry)

Nice Jewish Girls Gone Bad; ‘West Bank Story’ screening

Saturday the 3rd

Naughty Jewish girls need love, too. Show it to ’em this weekend. “Nice Jewish Girls Gone Bad” returns to Los Angeles for three nights at Tangiers. The variety show features comedy, music, spoken word and burlesque, with a healthy helping of kitsch. Klezmer Juice also performs.

March 2-4, 8 p.m. $15. Tangiers Restaurant, 2138 Hillhurst Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 666-8666.

Sunday the 4th

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Wondering where to see those short films you’d never heard of before your Oscar pool? The Very Short Movies Festival presents a perfect opportunity. March 8-11, the festival takes over the Egyptian Theater, where it will screen comedy, drama, documentary, animated and experimental shorts, including “The Tribe,” and Oscar-winner “West Bank Story.”

$8-$10 (tickets), $12-$15 (festival packages). 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. (866) 376-9047. Oscar 2007: A good year for the Jews!

Feathers fly as fugitive fowl frustrates Pico-Robertson

For most of last week, a fugitive chicken mystified and delighted residentsof the traditionally Jewish Pico-Robertson neighborhood.
Rumors of its provenance flitted about for days, then came to perch on anespecially good story:
The chicken, according to neighborhood resident Rabbi Joel Rembaum, belongedto a local mashgiach, or kosher supervisor. Every year around Yom Kippur,the mashgiach, like many traditional Jews, buys a chicken in order toperform the ritual of kaparos, which means atonements. This year, it flewthe coop. 
If true, that’s one smart chicken. 
Early in the morning on the day before Yom Kippur, groups of Jews gather tohold squawking chickens by the feet and twirl them over their heads whilechanting a prayer. After the twirling, the chickens are ritually slaughteredand given to the poor. 
The ritual dates back to the Middle Ages.
 The idea was that since the Hebrew word for man (gever) and rooster were thesame, a man’s sins — and his punishments — could be symbolicallytransferred to the rooster, in the same way that during the times of theTemple, people brought animal sacrifices as penance for their sins. 

Therefore, while slinging the chicken during kaparos, the person chants,”This is my exchange, this is my substitute, this is my atonement. Thischicken shall go to its death, and I shall proceed to a good, long life andpeace.” 
For several reasons — not the least of which is its obvious cruelty — thecustom has fallen out of fashion. Some people perform kaparos by swinging abag of money over their head and then donate that money to charity. 
The fugitive chicken — black and white with a rust-colored spot and abright red cockscomb — roams from lawn to sidewalk, from rooftop todriveway. 
“I think one family is feeding it,” a resident said. 
But the story of the chicken’s provenance proved as flighty as the chickenitself. Calls to local stores with and without mashgiach’s met with denials. 
Speculation centered on Eilat Market, where giant Farsi-language postersadvertise for kaparos on behalf of Natan Eli Hebrew Academy. A marketemployee said all chickens were accounted for. 
“Everyone has seen it,” a local rebbetzin said, “but no one knows who’s itis.”
In the meantime, local animal rights groups and vegetarian activists havegeared up an annual campaign to protest traditional kapparos rites. In apress release entitled, “Jewish chicken-killing ritual Kapparot is illegal,inhumane and unnecessary. It is animal cruelty,” the activists call for animmediate end to the practice. The press release citesJewish as well as other sources as opposing the ritual.
It quotes General Manager of LA Animal Services and ex-pastor Ed Boks asstating, “Some of our nation’s healthiest animal husbandry practices andlaws originated in the ancient traditions of the Torah. Nowhere is thepractice of Kapparot even mentioned in the Torah. It is a pagan traditionthat has been muddled into the religious practices of a small Jewish sect.Kapparot should have no place in the 21st Century Los Angeles community.”
Via the Internet, activists are circulating notice of a protest againstkapparot to be held Sunday, Oct. 1 in front of Ohel Moshe temple at 8644Pico Blvd from 10-12:30 p.m. “begging people not to kill the chickens.” 
As for the fugitive chicken, as of press time, no one had claimed it, and noone had rescued it either — leaving the bird to fend for itself in a cityof speeding cars and hungry cats. 
Now that’s a sin worth atoning for. 
— Staff Report

What I Really Asked Mel Gibson

Can an alcoholic who was poisoned with his father’s anti-Semitism use a moment of naked exposure to confront his bigotry? Can he ever hope to cleanse himself of this deeply-seated
hatred or is he forever doomed?

Will he turn his life around and begin using his celebrity and wealth to combat the anti-Semitism he now eschews? Is the adage, once an anti-Semite, always an anti-Semite, unshakeable?

As a Jewish people, these are some of the questions we all personally confront in different forms during the month of Elul, the 30-day period preceding the better-known 10 days of penitence (Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur).

For some of us, combating anti-Semitism has replaced the teachings of our faith on compassion as a new form of religion. I meet many Jews who are not religious, don’t keep the Torah, but let anyone dare insult the name of our people, and they are the first to condemn him.

That may be the beginning and the end of Jewish identity for some. But I believe such a reactive mentality neglects the foundations of our faith and its teachings on redemption.

Mel Gibson made a tepid but widely reported expression of remorse and a call to begin dialogue with rabbis after spewing anti-Semitic comments. In response, I invited Gibson to publicly apologize before my congregation on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

Our faith does not believe in vicarious atonement and requires direct action to the injured party, coupled with one’s apology. The media mistakenly reported my letter to Gibson as an offer to speak, not as an offer to apologize. It furthermore omitted the key precondition of a face-to-face meeting. Should that meeting ever come to pass, I would use my 30 years of rabbinical experience, 20 of them spent in the entertainment and arts community, to evaluate Gibson’s sincerity.

I would begin by requiring him to adhere to the same four steps of repentance that I set as a guideline for myself. Firstly, he must admit his act and acknowledge that it is not a new phenomenon.

Secondly, he must make a confession of the terrible slander he uttered at a time of defensive war and great sensitivity for the Jewish people. When he declared “the Jews start all the wars,” he was pointing an anti-Semitic finger at the Jewish state, instead of at the true culprit, Hezbollah Islamo-fascism and its call for Israel’s destruction.

How would he respond to his Malibu church and home being bombarded and his children being kidnapped? Gibson needs to comprehend and fully own the scope of that libel. Individual apologies to the families of fallen Israel Defense Forces soldiers would be an appropriate start.

Thirdly, he is required to express his sincere contrition and directly ask forgiveness of the injured party. Sometimes the place you choose for such an act can send an important message.

I recently returned from Poland, where I attended a memorial ceremony at the Auschwitz death camp led by Pope Benedict XVI. During our personal exchange, he told me why he had come to that place of horror. It was, he said, “to make a statement as the leader of world Catholicism and as a son of Germany.” His humble presence and words of comfort spoke volumes.

Gibson’s father denies the Holocaust, and Gibson must now clearly and unequivocally denounce that perverted view. I urged him to stand before the Jewish community, with his children at his side, and break the intergenerational cycle of hatred.

Lastly, any sinner is required to make a, “tikkun,” a viable act of repairing the injury. Gibson should sponsor an annual seminar on combating all forms of religious, ethnic, sexual and racial hatred. Real soul repair requires time and work but it must begin.

Once these concrete steps have been undertaken, we, as a people who pride ourselves at being “the compassionate children of compassionate ancestors,” must open to accept his contrition. While we may remain skeptical, we must be prepared to forgive.

According to the prophet Isaiah, in the final days, the children of those who despised Israel will come to worship with us in the temple of Zion. (Isaiah 60:14) The objective here is not religious conversion, but rather that the persecutor shares in the perspective of the persecuted.

The world is too full of blind hatred of our people, and if we can respond to one anti-Semite is it worth the effort? Rabbinic tradition narrated that some of our worst enemies became instructors of Torah.

The great Rabbi Meir of the second century was a descendant of the Roman emperor, Nero. The offspring of Sennacherib, who sacked Jerusalem, came to teach Torah in public. These were none other than Shemaya and Avtalyon, two of the most distinguished members of the rabbinic chain of tradition. They were also the teachers of the renown sage, Rabbi Hillel, who asked, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me, but if I am only for myself, of what worth am I, and if not now, when?”

Gibson is currently in alcoholism rehabilitation, and I have postponed the invitation for a later date. The time to begin, however, is now, and these 30 days of soul-centered repentance are the opening for his anti-Semitic rehabilitation to begin and for us to ask questions about our dearly held assumptions.

Rabbi David Baron is the spiritual leader of Temple of the Arts. He is the author of the “Sacred Moments” prayer book and “Moses on Management: Leadership Lessons in Business and Life” (Simon & Schuster). He produced a nationally televised Yom Kippur program for the homebound which airs on PAX TV.

Sins the Rabbis Left Out

The writers of the machzor were pretty comprehensive in listing the multitude of sins we commit as a community over the course of the year. Some of them — such as foul speech, unscrupulous business affairs, sexual immorality and fraud — are remarkably relevant today. But the authors couldn’t have envisioned some of the temptations offered by contemporary society.

So here are some modern infractions for which you might need to atone:

For the sin of forwarding dumb jokes via e-mail;

And for the sin of forwarding e-mails which insist that you forward them or suffer the consequences.

For the sin of watching shows where people vote other people off the show;

And for the sin of watching shows where mothers admit to stealing their daughters’ boyfriends.

For the sin of cutting people off on the freeway;

And for the sin of flipping off the person who cuts you off on the freeway.

For the sin of talking on your cell phone while driving.

And for the sin of having cell phone conversations in public during which you broadcast graphic details about your love life or medical symptoms.

For the sin of using the Internet at the office to work on personal business.

And for the sin of neglecting to exit the ESPN Web site before your boss walks into your cubicle.

For the sin of buying things you don’t need because there’s a really good sale.

or the sin of paying $3 for a $1.50 cup of coffee.

For the sin of talking during High Holiday services;

And for the sin of rating the rabbi’s sermon as though it were an Olympic sporting event ("I’ll give it a 6.5").

For the sin of leaving a whole package in the cupboard with just one cookie in it (you know who you are).

And for the sin of using family members’ exploits as fodder for newspaper articles (I know who I am).

For all these sins, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement. — NSS

Date of Atonement

At this Sept. 11 anniversary, we as a community are forced to remember where we were one year ago, when the world as we knew it turned upside down, and stayed that way.

Where was I the day the Twin Towers crumbled? I’m a little embarrassed to say, but the truth is, I was on a JDate — the online Jewish singles network where nice, little, single Jewish boys find nice, little, single Jewish girls to play with. Only instead of a friendly game of “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours,” it’s usually a delicate dance of, “I’ll do my best to hide mine, if you do your best to hide yours.”

I had been schmoozing online with a nice guy named “Josh” and we had made a plan weeks prior to meet for lunch at his favorite hamburger joint, Apple Pan, for an informal get-to-know-you burger. But when the news came on that morning, the greasy spoon’s cheese-covered apple pie was the last thing on my — or anybody’s — mind.

Around a half an hour before we were supposed to meet, Josh called me and we made a mutual decision to keep our plans. Whether it was a case of “maybe it was meant to be,” a respect for beshert or the comfort of perfectly cooked french fries, we’ll never know — but for some reason, we both felt “the date must go on!” as if it were opening night of a Broadway show.

So there we were, two strangers meeting for the first time on the most solemn of occasions. I felt guilty for going on with life as usual. I deeply felt that everything should stop. But how could it? We were in a stage of active paralysis. Going through the motions of life, but not sure what they even meant anymore. The news, playing louder than usual, provided an audio backdrop for our conversation. Small talk such as, “Were you in a sorority at Penn?” or “Do you play sports?” seemed irrelevant in the foreground of burning buildings and total urban evacuation 3,000 miles away.

But when all was said and done — we met, we ate and we actually made a connection during a time of complete confusion. Was our bond authentic or just a case of “safety in numbers?” There was no way to tell.

After lunch, Josh walked me to my car and we decided to go out again. Only problem was how would we match the drama and weight of a Sept. 11 first date? The only answer was to have our second date two weeks later on Yom Kippur, the most solemn day of the Jewish year. A virtual self-denial-a-thon.

Both of us committed to fasting, but being ransplants from the East Coast, we hadn’t found a synagogue we felt at home in. So we decided to spend the day together reflecting.

Our Date of Atonement started in nature. We took a 100-plus-degree hike in the dry Malibu canyons, making resolutions and personal goals as we huffed and puffed up a dusty, shrub-lined trail. Together we shared a sweaty ablution of past sins, and brought to the surface potential new ones in an attempt to avoid them by exposing them in advance.

After our hike, we were stumped. What to do now? The usual date devices were not an option. Grab a coffee? No. Catch a movie? Uh-uh. After exhausting our possibilities, we agreed on taking a nap. And I’m talking a nap-nap, not a nap. Actual zzzs were involved.

When we awoke, having had not even an Altoid the entire day, we were ready to chow down, but the stubborn sun was not ready to set. After a while self-reflection can get a little monotonous. I felt like Narcissus on a starvation diet.

That day, I realized how much we singles hide behind date conventions. Movies, coffee, meals, music — dates revolve around activities for a reason. To provide a commonality, a place to start, something to focus on. But not on this day — it was just me and Josh. So by the time the sun went down and it was time to eat, we were tired and grouchy with that famous halitosis only a day of fasting could provide. There were no way it was going to work.

We survived the Day of Atonement together. But was struggling with temptation too much pressure for the second date? We got to know each other — maybe a little too well — and found out that hypoglycemia and dead air aren’t a recipe for romance, but possibly the start of a beautiful friendship. At the end of the day — the long day without food or activity — we realized that we were not “meant to be.” It would be our first and last fast together. But when I think back on our Yom Kippur kibitzing, I believe it’s better to have spent two emotionally gut-wrenching days — Sept. 11 and Yom Kippur — bonding with a complete stranger, than never to have bonded at all. Who knows? Maybe we will go out again. Maybe we’ll just have to wait for another disaster to strike for date No. 3.

Taking the Schmaltz Out of Our Food

At sundown on Monday we usher in the happiest day of our calendar, Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. For the next 10 days we’ll be called upon to reexamine our lives — to wake up and not only smell the roses, but plant them for other people to enjoy.

The Days of Awe end at sundown on the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when we’ll spend the day in temple fasting and praying. Our sundown to sundown fast brings us agony and ecstasy as we internalize how fleeting life is, promise to make amends for acts we’re not proud of, realize we have a whole new year ahead of us to make a difference.

As we hurriedly leave the temple with visions of chopped liver, lokshen kugel and our beloved cheese blintzes dancing in our heads, we know it’s just a matter of moments before we can eat.

Lately though, we’ve had to rethink this. Though it’s a beloved family tradition to break the fast with our favorite Ashkenazi dishes, we also know they contain ingredients that top the cardiologist’s list of no-no’s — red meat, schmaltz, cottage cheese, sour cream and butter. Fat, fat and more fat.

In response, creative Jewish cooks have been hard at work adapting these recipes. And, as rabbi and cookbook author Gil Marks says, with a laugh, "Healthy Jewish cooking is no longer an oxymoron."

Marks modifies traditional holiday recipes in "The World of Jewish Entertaining" (Simon & Schuster, 1998). He uses meat sparingly, as a flavoring instead of the main event. He also uses recipes from the Sephardim, who 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. Their cuisine revolved around the three main ingredients mentioned in the Bible: grains, wine and olive oil.

As for our traditional Ashkenazi delicacies, which nourish our souls more than our bodies, Marks substitutes yogurt for sour cream in blintzes, kugels and borsht, uses olive oil instead of schmaltz for chopped liver — or even eliminates liver altogether in favor of a pate of mushrooms, onions and string beans. Instead of stuffing chicken with oil-soaked bread cubes, he suggests apples and spinach, traditional ingredients for the New Year.

Marks has also gone where few men have ventured before him — perfecting a recipe for whole wheat challah, which subtracts eggs and extra fat, adding whole wheat, wheat germ and honey for moisture. He sweetens dishes with fruits instead of sugar. But, he cautions, "Be smart with substitutions. Don’t serve a dish just because it’s low fat. Experiment until you’re happy with the flavor."

Since we’re trying to modify tradition, not break it, instead of asking a Jewish matriarch for our Break the Fast menu, we went to premier Jewish chef and caterer, David Rubell, who serves the Break the Fast Meal at Temple Shalom for the Arts in Los Angeles.

Rubell learned about "food from the old country" from the closest person to him — his Nana Willner. "On Yom Kippur, she’d shine," he says. "Because she knew she’d be in shul all day, and exhausted when she got home, she developed a technique that I, as a caterer, use to this day.

"Nana was meticulously organized. The day before Yom Kippur, she’d assemble her ingredients, then slice, dice, and, in some cases, partially cook, then refrigerate the dishes. When she got home from shul, she’d finish each recipe and have it on the table — piping hot or ice cold — almost instantly. Nothing ever tasted like it had been sitting in the refrigerator all night. Everything was always delicious.

"I learned another lesson from Nana," Rubell says slyly. "Seltzer water in matzah balls. ‘Most people use fat, eggs and too much matzo meal,’ she’d scoff, in her inimitable Russian-Brooklyn accent. ‘And they handle them too much. Of course, they’re like lead.’

"Not my Nana’s," he says. "Hers were always light as a feather. I used to laugh, because when we’d eat at my other grandma’s, Nana Rubell, her matzah balls were like sinkers. We never told her our secret.

"When Nana made blintzes she’d insist on filling them with pot cheese. When she couldn’t find it, she’d substitute Farmer’s. Of course, she’d grouse every time. The mystery ingredient in her sweet blintzes was salt. Just like the infamous spoonful of sugar, ‘A pinch of salt makes us remember who we are and where we came from,’ she’d tell me. ‘Life is not all sweetness and honey. Never forget that!’ This is especially relevant on Yom Kippur, which is all about that little dose of reality," Rubell muses.

As Rubell grew older and started working as a professional chef, his beloved nana took sick with pancreatic cancer. He trudged down to Florida and cooked her all of her favorite meals. "That meant more to her than anything," he says, his eyes welling up. It made him start thinking about lightening the traditional Jewish foods he’d grown up with.

Today when he’s doing a menu, he starts with the dishes she’d taught him, then replaces them with healthier variations.

For example, Rubell replaces the customary sour cream topping for the blintzes with fresh berry compote. Instead of sweet, heavy babkas that "will lay in your stomach for the next three days," he’ll serve a fresh peach cobbler. Since tuna salad with gobs of mayo is a staple on many buffets, Rubell created savory Chinese Seared Ahi Tuna Salad. Instead of the traditional sweet, heavy kugel, he’ll serve a vegetable frittata. According to Rubell, "We never forget our cultural traditions, but we’re reinterpreting them for today’s healthier lifestyles."

Have a happy and healthy New Year!

Recipes for taking out the Schmaltz from Jewish food

All recipes from Chef David Rubell.

Smoked Whitefish Salad (A favorite of Theodore Bikel’s)
Smoked Trout may be substituted for the whitefish.

1 smoked whitefish, approximately 2 lbs., carefully boned
1/3-1/2 cup mayonnaise (low fat or regular)
1 bunch scallions, green part only, sliced thin

Pulse all ingredients in food processor until just smooth. Refrigerate. Serve as appetizer with crackers or challah, or as first course with baby greens and tomato.

Serves 8 to 10.

Chinese Seared Ahi Tuna Salad with Mango

1/2 cup soy sauce
1 teaspoon wasabi
1 1/2 pounds, fresh ahi tuna
1/4 cup canola oil
1 One-pound package wonton skins
1 quart canola oil for frying noodles
1/2 Six-ounce package saifun or dry
bean thread noodles, broken in half
1/4 cup toasted pine nuts
1/4 cup dry roasted, salted cashews
1 head iceberg lettuce, sliced very thin
1/2 head Savoy cabbage, sliced very thin
2 bunches green onion, green part sliced diagonally
2 mangoes, peeled and sliced thin

For Dressing:
2 ounces pickled ginger
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 bunch scallions, white only
1 cup seasoned rice wine vinegar
1/4 cup Chinese sweet and sour sauce
1/2 cup soy sauce
1/2 cup toasted sesame oil

Mix together soy sauce and wasabi. Marinate tuna in mixture for 20 minutes. Sear tuna in hot, nonstick skillet with 1/4 cup oil approximately 1 minute per side. Refrigerate immediately after removing tuna from heat. Allow to cool at least 1/2 hour before slicing for salad. Slice tuna into 1 1/2 inch pieces, reserving odd sizes to incorporate into body of salad.

Slice wonton skins into very thin julienne strips. Fry noodles in very hot oil in 3 separate batches, so as not to decrease oil temperature. Cook noodles approximately 1 minute, tossing constantly. Drain on paper towels.

Bring oil back to temperature. Fry saifun noodle halves separately from each other as they expand rapidly upon hitting the oil. Turn once, remove from pot; drain on paper towel. Repeat until all noodles are fried.

For Dressing:

Place all ingredients in blender and mix for 3 minutes.

To Assemble:

Reserving small handful of wonton noodles and nuts for garnish, toss with dressing, lettuce, cabbage, green onion, nuts, saifun and wonton noodles, and odd pieces of tuna. Place on platter; arrange remaining tuna slices and mangoes decoratively around salad. Top with additional noodles and nuts.

Serves 8 to 10.

Holiday Cheese Blintzes Topped with a Trio of Fresh Berries

(This recipe is from David’s beloved Nana Willner, who told him, “With every bit of sugar, you need a pinch of salt.”)

The pancakes may be purchased ready-made in the produce section of the supermarket.

For the pancake batter:

Breaking the Fast

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, begins at sundown on Sunday, Oct. 8, during which time a strict fast is observed

Prior to the fast, it is customary to serve a family dinner consisting of simple foods prepared with a minimum of salt and spices.

After the fast, dairy foods are traditionally served, and of course bagels are an important part of the after-fast menu, often accompanied by smoked fish and salads.

If there is one favorite item in the Jewish-American cuisine, it is certainly the bagel. Their popularity has spread to almost every part of the U.S. And many shops specializing only in bagels have popped up everywhere. We can choose from egg or water bagels, whole wheat, oat bran, rye, onion, blueberry, cinnamon-raisin, cheese and even chocolate chip bagels.

There are many opinions as to where the bagel originated. Some say Germany, while others insist it was Austria, Poland or Russia, although scholars claim that the word “bagel” is derived from the German word “bugel,” which means a ring or curved bracelet. No matter where they came from, we know that the bagel is here to stay, and they are not just for breakfast.

Few of us have attempted to bake bagels in our home kitchens.

I love making bagels, but it is true that they do take a lot of time. Bagels are made in a unique manner; they are first boiled, then baked, which gives them their distinctive shiny, chewy crust.

This year, for break-the-fast, bagels will be my theme – a bagel buffet, with enough delicious toppings to satisfy everyone.

Let your family and friends have fun creating their own open-face bagel fantasy from a selection of interesting toppings.

Izzy’s Authentic Bagels

I never knew how to make perfect bagels until I met Izzy Cohen, an elderly retired baker, who made bagels for his friends. He came to my house to demonstrate his technique, bringing his own high-gluten flour. Once you learn the basic process, you’ll love making bagels in many varieties – plain, onion, poppy seed, cinnamon, or your own special creations. You might have to go to a health food store to find the malt for this recipe.

  • 2 cups cold water
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon malt
  • 1 tablespoon safflower oil
  • 8 cups high-gluten flour (12 to 13 percent gluten) or 8 cups unbleached all-purpose flour mixed with
  • 1/4 cup powdered gluten, plus more as needed
  • 5 teaspoons active dry yeast
  • 1 tablespoon yellow cornmeal

In the bowl of a heavy-duty electric mixer, blend the water, sugar, salt, malt, and oil on medium speed.In another large bowl, mix 6 cups of the flour with yeast; gradually add flour mixture to water mixture and blend until the dough comes together. Add the remaining 2 cups flour, beating until smooth. (If any dry flour mixture remains in the bottom of the bowl, add several drops of water to moisten it and continue beating 5 minutes.)

Transfer dough to a lightly floured board, cover with a towel and let rest 5 minutes. Divide dough into 15 pieces and cover with a towel while you knead and shape each piece. Knead by folding each piece in half and pushing out any air pockets, then fold in half again and repeat. Shape into a rope about 5 inches long; form into a doughnut shape, overlap ends by about 1 inch, and knead into a smooth perfect circle. Repeat the process with remaining pieces of dough.

Sprinkle cornmeal on the board and place bagels on top. Cover with a towel and let rest 5 minutes.Preheat the oven to 425 F.

Fill a large heavy pot with water and bring to a rolling boil. Working in batches, drop 4 to 6 bagels (do not crowd) into boiling water and boil 10 seconds only. At this time, bagels should rise to the top of the water. Transfer with a slotted spoon to a wire rack and drain. Transfer bagels to a parchment-lined baking sheet 2 inches apart. Bake until golden brown, about 10 minutes. Cool on a wire racks. Makes about 15 bagels.Variations: Mix together chopped onion and poppy seeds or caraway seeds with a little coarse kosher salt. After boiling and draining bagels, press the top of each bagel into seed mixture and bake as directed.

Toasted Garlic Bagels

Instead of garlic toast using French bread, try my version.

  • 1/4 pound unsalted butter or non-dairy margarine
  • 3 to 4 garlic cloves
  • 3 tablespoons minced parsley
  • Salt
  • 8 bagels, sliced in half

In a processor, mix butter and garlic until well blended. Pulse in parsley. Season to taste with salt. With a rubber spatula, transfer mixture to a bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to use. (You can also shape the mixture into a cube, wrap in plastic wrap and foil, then freeze it; defrost until spreadable before use.)

Preheat the broiler. Spread the butter mixture on the bagel halves, place them on a baking sheet, and broil until the butter mixture bubbles and begins to brown. Serve immediately.

Grandma’s Chopped Herring

  • 1 pound schmaltz herring fillets or 1 jar (1 pound) pickled herring fillets in wine sauce
  • 2 slices challah or egg bread
  • 1 medium onion, cut into quarters
  • 1 green apple, peeled, cored, and sliced
  • 2 hard-boiled eggs
  • 4 teaspoons vinegar
  • 2 or 3 tablespoons safflower or vegetable oil

Soak the herring in cold water overnight. Drain well. Bone and skin the herring and cut it into pieces. Soak the challah in cold water for a few minutes and squeeze out the water.

Place the herring, challah, onion, and apple in a food grinder and grind. Chop the hard-boiled egg whites and combine with 3 teaspoons of the vinegar. Mix the whites into the herring mixture. Spread the chopped herring on a platter. Mash the egg yolks with the remaining 1 teaspoon vinegar and spread over the top of the chopped herring.

Cover with plastic wrap and chill. Just before serving, pour 2 or 3 tablespoons of the oil over the top. Serve with toasted bagels.

Broiled Lox and Cream Cheese on a Bagel

  • 8 bagels, sliced and toasted
  • 1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese
  • 1/4 cup sour cream
  • 3 tablespoons thinly sliced green onion
  • 1/2 cup diced smoked salmon
  • 3 tablespoons capers, rinsed
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

In a medium-size bowl, mix together the cream cheese, sour cream, onions and smoked salmon. Fold in capers. Season with salt and pepper. Spread evenly on toasted bagels. Broil 3 inches from the heat until lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Serve immediately.

Italian Deli Platter

  • 12 thin slices of tomatoes
  • 12 thin slices of mozzarella cheese
  • 12 anchovy fillets

On a large platter, arrange slices of tomatoes. Top each tomato with a slice of cheese and an anchovy fillet. Serves 12.

Smoked Whitefish Platter

  • Lettuce leaves
  • Smoked whitefish or cod fish
  • Sliced cucumbers
  • Sliced onions

On a large platter, arrange lettuce leaves, white fish, cucumbers and onions.