As the summer heats up and we head for the beach to tan, swim or just cool off, we might ask: Has the Pacific coastline always been such a splashy draw for Los Angeles Jews?
In Venice, Jews have worshipped at Mishkon Tephilo since its formal founding in 1918, and on Ocean Front Walk at Temple Beth Yehuda (built in 1940), which closed in the early 1970s. But for the rest of us, aside from using the shore on Rosh Hashanah as a place to toss our sins away at tashlich, how have we given a Jewish touch to all that vaser?
For starters, let’s give the swimsuit a try-on.
Frederick (Fred) Cole (1901-1964), who changed his name from Cohn, was an actor in such silent films as “The Dangerous Blond” and “Two-Fisted Jones.” Nudged by family members to get into something more stable, he didn’t have to look far.
In the 1890s, his father, Morris Cohn, and mother, Edith, had established in downtown Los Angeles one of the city’s first clothing manufacturing firms, West Coast Manchester Knitting Mills, which was a maker of men’s long knit underwear.
In 1925, Fred convinced them to start making swimsuits as well. Capitalizing on the allure of Hollywood glamour — one of his first suits was called the “prohibition suit” because it was so revealing — by 1941 the line had become so successful that Cole changed the name of the company to Cole of California.
Cole of California magazine ad, April 1948 (Michael and Benjamin Levin)
According to Elizabeth A. Greenburg, the author of the entry on fashion in the Cambridge Dictionary of Judaism and Jewish Culture, Cole’s company, which reflected the Southern California lifestyle, “transformed women’s swimwear through important innovations,” including in the 1920s “the lower back and defined bust”; in the 1930s, Matletex, “Cole’s exclusive process of stitching rubberized thread through fabric” (which helped achieve a close fit); and, the 1940s, the two-piece “Swoon suit.” The latter “laced up the sides of the trunk and featured a tie-bra,” wrote Greenburg, who was one of the curators for the Yeshiva University Museum show “A Perfect Fit: The Garment Industry and American Jewry, 1860-1960.”
Less famous, but creating his own wave in swimwear, was Harvey Cooper (1907-2004), whose company Maxine of Hollywood, after World War II, produced suits that fit the average woman and were sold nationally at Sears, Montgomery Wards and Macy’s.
“He followed the trends,” said Ilse Metchek, president of the California Fashion Association.
“He had a devoted group of employees,” Metchek recalled. “He was a bon vivant, a joy to be around, unless you crossed him,” she added. “Also a good dancer,” said Metchek, who, beginning in the early 1960s, worked for Catalina, a leading Los Angeles swimwear and sportswear company.
So now that you are stylishly attired, it’s time to set sail.
In 1952, “five Jewish men,” Louis J. Rosenkranz, Charles E. Leveson, John R. Sahanow, Joseph Weiss and William C. Stein, “got together and said we’re going to make a yacht club,” said Susan Artof, who has been a member of the Del Rey Yacht Club in Marina del Rey since the mid-1970s.
Jason and Veronica Artof – May 6, 2007
“They were not allowed to join any other yacht clubs,” said Artof, who, along with her husband, Paul, owns a 42-foot sailboat. “Joe Weiss wanted to enter the Ensenada [sailboat] race and was told that he couldn’t. He needed to belong to a recognized club, and it seems no one would take him,” Artof said.
By 1953, Weiss and the other four founders had signed up enough additional members to satisfy the Southern California Yachting Association membership requirement of 25 and were able to enter the race.
After meeting in “people’s living rooms and restaurants,” they opened their first club building in Marina del Rey in 1964, said Artof, who confided that the only boat her grandparents were on “was the one coming over from Europe.”
In its early years, the club’s membership was 80 to 95 percent Jewish. Today, “it’s more like over 60 percent,” said Artof, whose son had his wedding at the club and used his boat instead of a car to make his reception getaway.
Over the course of the club’s history, the members have shared seders, Rosh Hashanah dinners, and hosted an annual Federation fundraiser, as well as bar and bat mitzvahs. Some club members have a mezuzah on their boat, and there’s even a weekly Yiddish class.
Not all their sea-faring neighbors have been happy about the presence of a Jewish yacht club, however.
According to Artof, it was not until 1990 that the Newport Harbor Yacht Club, established in 1916, granted reciprocal privileges with them, something other clubs, including the California Yacht Club (their neighbor) had done earlier, said Artof.
On other occasions, she also has heard that the phrase “bagel bay” has been used in reference to her club.
“We’re haimish, there’s a friendly, open Jewish flavor,” said Artof. “There’s not as much drinking here. At the bar, we sell a lot of seltzer,” she added.
Finally, for Jews not content to sail the waves, there is surfing.
According to author and surf journalist Paul Holmes, several Jews have figured prominently in California’s surfing scene, including Dorian “Doc” Paskowitz (born in 1921), a doctor who left his practice and founded California’s first surfing school in the early 1970s, and Nachum Shifren (born in 1951), who grew up in the San Fernando Valley to become a Chasidic surfing rabbi. Then, there’s Gidget.
The fictional character Gidget (short for “girl midget”) was based on Kathy Kohner, a Jewish 15-year-old, the daughter of a Czech-born Jewish refugee screenwriter, Frederick Kohner, who lived in Brentwood. As reported in the Jewish Journal, in 1956 Kohner’s daughter was hanging out with a bunch of Malibu surfers and came home speaking their lingo. Seeing an opportunity, her father converted his daughter’s name to Francis Lawrence and wrote a novel titled “Gidget.” Thus, an American surfing fad was born.
A more recent legend on the Southern California surfing scene is Joseph Wolfson. Known especially in Hermosa Beach and Manhattan Beach as “Dr. 360,” for his ability to completely spin around while riding a big wave, Wolfson was one of the pioneers of body boarding and a winner in national and international competitions both in that sport and body surfing.
Wolfson, who lived in Manhattan Beach and was known simply as “Wolfie,” would get up by 6 a.m. and “howl his way to the surf at Marine [Avenue],” his sister, Paula Ethel Wolfson wrote in an email. “He would also howl his way back.”
“He began body surfing and fell in love with belly boarding before the invention of the modern-day boogie boards,” she added. “He and friends split surf boards in half,” she wrote.
At 13, Wolfson, who was born in Brooklyn in 1949, had a “cultural” bar mitzvah at the Long Beach Jewish Community Center,” Wolfson recalled.
“He worked full time” as the parks and recreational director of the City of Carson, and “was in the water most every day.”
“He would sit on a board and spin three, four or five times across the face of a wave,” Kevin Cody wrote in the South Bay’s Easy Reader.
In 1998, Wolfson was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer and quietly began giving away his savings as well as his car and home in Mexico, “Casa de 360,” to those who could use them.
One night, according to reports, Wolfson, intending to end things, left behind a note and $5,000 for a party, then paddled out and tied himself to a buoy and went to sleep. Found the next morning by a lifeguard, he was just barely alive. Three days later, when he was released from the hospital, he grew concerned about the impression his suicide attempt might make on children. He had been a teacher of water safety, and after the attempt, many children had sent him letters, writing of his positive influence. Wolfson decided to live on and catch a few more waves.
The incident received national attention on TV’s “20/20” and “Prime Time Live,” and his legend grew. However, in 2000, he died at age 50, when his car veered off the Marina Freeway, went down an embankment and hit a tree.
He called himself the “Aquatics Peter Pan,” his sister said.
A plaque placed by Wolfson’s friends in front of the lifeguard station at Marine Avenue in Hermosa Beach reads, “Married to the Sea. A true Waterman. AAAHHOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!”
SATUDAY, APRIL 27-SUNDAY, APRIL 28
LAG B’OMER EVENTS
LGBT-friendly congregation Beth Chayim Chadashim hosts its inaugural Lag B’Omer celebration with singing around the fire pit at its new campus. Sat. 7-9 p.m. Free. Beth Chayim Chadashim, 6090 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 931-7023. bcc-la.org.
Moishe House celebrates the holiday with a massive bonfire at Huntington City Beach. Fun, s’mores and singing included. Bring your guitars, drums ukuleles and whatever else. Sat. 7 p.m. Free. Huntington City Beach, 101 Pacific Cast Highway, Huntington Beach. (510) 452-3800. moishehouse.org.
Valley Ruach’s young professionals host a Lag B’Omer BBQ Bonanza, including Havdalah, games and a kosher barbecue with beer, hot dogs, hamburgers and veggie options. Sat. 7 p.m. Free ($5 suggested donation). Community member’s home in the Valley (RSVP for location). (818) 835-2139. valleyruach.org.
Adat Ari El hosts a dinner, activities and a fire-and-drums dance performance. Sun. 4-8 p.m. $18 (adults), $10 (children). North Weddington Park, 10844 Acama Drive, Studio City. (818) 766-9426. adatariel.org.
Bend the Arc and the Jeremiah Alumni Association team up with the Shulamit Gallery to host an evening exploring the Jewish tradition for counting the omer. In sprit of the holiday, join them for art and learning around a rooftop terrace fire pit. Sun. 5-7:30 p.m. Free (RSVP requested at firstname.lastname@example.org). Shulamit Gallery, 17 N. Venice Blvd., Venice. (310) 281-0961. shulamitgallery.com.
Progressive congregation Nashuva holds a mystical night of celebration and bonfires by the sea, complete with a drum circle. Attendees start with drumming and a picnic, followed by a bonfire and a hot dogs and marshmallow roast. All ages welcome. Sun. 7 p.m. Free. Dockweiler State Beach, between lifeguard stations 52 and 53, Playa Del Rey. nashuva.com.
The Lag B’omer Day of Jewish Unity concert, parade and fair features special guest star Dudu Fisher, the Cheder Menachem Boys Choir, marching bands, clowns and jugglers, colorful floats, rides, game booths, a petting zoo, kosher food stands, a Hollywood stuntman and circus performer and more. Sun. 10:30 a.m. (concert), 11:30 a.m. (parade), 12:45-6 p.m. (fair). Pico Boulevard (Between Doheny and Wetherly). (424) 242-2239. lagbomerla.blogspot.com.
A Palestinian principal was punished over a spontaneous beach party that emerged during a field trip in Israel.
Mohammad Abu Samra, 33, says he landed in hot water when video and images of his pupils dancing on a beach in Jaffa with bikini-clad women and Israeli beachgoers were sent to the Palestinian Ministry of Education.
The incident took place at the close of the Qalqilya Al Salam Secondary School’s 11th- and 12th-grade field trip to Jaffa beach led by Abu Samra, reportedly the youngest principal in the history of the Palestinian Authority, according to the Dubai-based Al Nisr Gulf News.
According to Abu Samra, an Israeli DJ began setting up on the beach as he attempted to load the buses to leave before their day permits expired.
“My pupils started dancing, and I also joined them at the beginning to let them have fun,” Abu Samra told the news agency.
“Volunteers shot a video and took a couple of still photos and forwarded them to the Palestinian Ministry of Education, with a complaint that the incident would imply that there was normalization of ties with Israel and it exposed the young generation of Palestinians to Israel’s illicit code of conduct,” he added.
Abu Samra was reassigned to a school about 30 miles away. Students reportedly have protested the education ministry’s actions.
That Tel Aviv and Los Angeles are located on almost the same latitude is not the only parallel between these two metropolises. Near both locales, geothermal activity deep below the Earth’s surface reveals mineral-rich thermal waters. Where to indulge in balneotherapy — treating disease by bathing — in Southern California is no secret, but some of Israel’s unique getaways may remain off your radar. Some actually date back thousands of years to the Talmud and the Roman Empire. These hot springs and “wellness attractions” are an ideal way to soothe your soul, from Israel’s north to south, in the brisk temps of winter after a long flight or any time you’d like to relax on a visit to the Holy Land.
SOUTHERN GOLAN HEIGHTS
Hamat Gader, the site of ancient Greek city Gadara, is home to Israel’s largest and oldest spa complex. Established by the 10th Legion of the Roman Empire as the second-largest bathhouse in the entire empire, second-century Roman ruins stand within this massive 40-acre parkland. Hamat Gader’s 107-degree mineral water is pumped into two massive outdoor hot pools (one shaded, one open to the elements); an outdoor pool with a delicious, massaging hot waterfall; Jacuzzi beds; an indoor facility; and a higher-ticket-price, secluded area within the on-site hotel’s beautiful grounds. Relaxing in these waters is believed to speed up cell renewal, and relieve urinary tract and digestive issues. The young and young-at-heart will love the massive water slide that culminates in a dizzying bowl and lands you with a massive splash into a deep, cool plunge pool (not recommended for guests with neck and back problems). Within Hamat Gadar’s massive grounds, you can indulge in a wide range of spa treatments, seven restaurants (including kosher Asian, fish/meat, vegetarian), hot and wet saunas and a full gym. You can also visit the Hamat Gader crocodile farm, home to 200 beasts of various species, one of the largest in the Middle East.
Hamat Gader is located on the southeastern part of the Sea of Galilee, a short distance from Tiberius. (4) 665-9964. hamat-gader.com/eng.
Tiberias Hot Springs
Mineral water from a whopping 17 different hot springs flows into the Tiberias Hot Springs. With almost 100 types of minerals erupting from more than 600 feet below sea level, the original location offers separate pools for men and women, and a newer Chamei Tiveria HaTzi’eira across the street offers a family-friendly environment. Known in the Talmud for their curative powers, these mineral waters and the accompanying services are a new twist on the ancient destination famous since antiquity. Complete with a gym, Finnish sauna, and health and beauty treatments, including a luxurious mud wrap, it is located a stone’s throw from Hamat Tiberias National Park. Enter the gardens through the Ernest Lehman/Haman Suleiman Museum (admission charged) and take care to avoid scalding yourself on the channels of steaming water flowing in the open air. Catch a glimpse of the ruins of ancient medicinal baths and the opulent historic Severus synagogue dating from the time of the Sanhedrin. This floor, the earliest synagogue mosaic in the country, features highly detailed images of menorahs and a zodiac calendar.
Located on Route 90 out of Tiberias South. Call the spa at (4) 672-8580, and obtain more park information at parks.org.il.
While prospecting for oil in the 1980s, mineral springs were discovered at Ga’ash. Named for the biblical mountain beside the grave of Joshua, this kibbutz-run hot springs and day spa is located about 20 minutes north of Tel Aviv. Five hot springs feed the site and a beautiful, massive pool boasting 40 thermo-mineral water jets complements a water massage center with high-pressure sulfur jets and exceptionally large wet and dry saunas. Spa services include shiatsu, peeling (exfoliation), mud, reflexology and hot stone treatments. Packages are available that include a kosher meat meal, robe service and massage. To extend your visit overnight, bookings at the rural guesthouse, located within walking distance to the beach, include free admission to the spa and a 10 percent discount on spa services and restaurant meals.
Book treatments in advance by calling (9) 952-9404. hameigaash.co.il.
Ein Gedi Spa
As the lowest point on Earth, the Dead Sea is full of extremes. It boasts a 23 percent oxygen level in the air, the highest on the globe, and rates of 30 percent salinity, 8.6 times saltier than the ocean. Combine these conditions with the highest levels of calming bromine both evaporating off the sea and concentrated in the water at the Ein Gedi Spa, and a visit here is one serious recipe for deep relaxation. Soak in the sea itself, or even better, one of six intense sulfur pools — pumped from nearby hot springs. Legendary Dead Sea dips are multipurpose, scientifically proven to soothe muscles, joints, skin problems and respiratory concerns with unique healing properties unparalleled the world over. And Dead Sea mud, available in a large unlimited-use vat on the Ein Gedi Spa beach, reportedly absorbs toxins, strengthens hair and boosts circulation. Tram service to the beach, mud and access to single-sex and co-ed sulfur pools are included in the admission price. There is an additional nominal cost for towel and locker service. Located near Kibbutz Ein Gedi, which also offers tranquil accommodations.
(8) 659-4813. ein-gedi.co.il.
Ein Gedi Spa Photo by Daniel Baránek
True to its name, the Dolphin Reef in Eilat is, of course, home to a pod of beautiful bottlenose dolphins. With paid admission, guests observe their natural activity in an ecological park. With higher-priced bookings, guests also swim, snorkel and dive with these amazing sea creatures. Unbeknownst to many visitors, however, the reef also boasts a lush garden hiding a large wooden terrace. Step inside this multilevel, massive sukkah and you’re treated to a feast for the senses. Tiny white lights twinkle over abundant cushions and couches to create a tranquil, “shanti” vibe, complete with views overlooking the Red Sea. All this is merely a backdrop for one of the coziest escapes in the entire south, if not all Israel. Contained in the lower level of the structure is a trifecta of Relaxation Pools. Although open year-round, these pools are heated just right, making them even more tempting in cooler temperatures. Three stress-reducing flavors provide options to chill out in the shallow fresh water, give yourself an impromptu salt exfoliation in the zero-gravity, complete flotation, high-intensity salt pool or make like a dolphin in sea water. These womb-like pools boast other added features: underwater music, flotation “noodles” and staff to arrange these colorful supports under your neck and limbs and gently guide you through the water. For ages 18 and up, each two-hour visit includes light refreshments and towel service. Advance reservations required, with additional costs for guided flotation sessions. For extra cozy points, book your visit at night. But since the cost includes admission to the Dolphin Reef beach for the day, arrive earlier to catch a glimpse of these amazing mammals.
(8) 630-0111. dolphinreef.co.il.
Dolphinarium, Eilat Photo courtesy Israel Ministry of Tourism
When outside of Israel, add 011-972 before the phone number. Within Israel, add a zero before the area code
Award-winning journalist Lisa Alcalay Klug has written hundreds of articles for mainstream and Jewish media outlets, including The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Jerusalem Post. She is the author of “Cool Jew: The Ultimate Guide for Every Member of the Tribe,” a National Jewish Book Award Finalist. Her next book, “Hot Mamalah: The Ultimate Guide for Every Woman of the Tribe,” debuts October 2012 everywhere books are sold. cooljewbook.com.
A lawmaker from the haredi Orthodox Shas Party said Gilad Shalit should have spent his first Shabbat of freedom not at the beach but praying in synagogue.
Meshulam Nahari also said during a Shas convention this week that the 25-year-old soldier should have recited the benediction of deliverance in synagogue, a Jewish prayer of thanksgiving recited when someone survives a difficult or dangerous time, Ynet reported.
Photos of Shalit at the beach were published in the Israeli daily Haaretz; a Haaretz photographer had been camping on the beach with his family when he saw the Shalits arrive early in the morning.
Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef has called on Nahari to help bring Shalit closer to Judaism, Nahari said according to Ynet.
Nahari invited the Shalit family to come to his home to say the benediction prayer, Ynet reported.
Shalit was freed last month in a prisoner swap for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails after spending more than five years in captivity. The Israeli media has for the most part respected the family’s wish for privacy.
On paper, the Rosh Hashanah ritual of Tashlich is about doffing one’s sins to start the new year with a clean slate. For Jason Mauro, 16, it’s also about beach football.
Every year since he was 8, Mauro and his friends at Temple Israel of Hollywood have marked the afternoon ceremony, which the synagogue holds at a beach in Santa Monica, with a sand-logged scrimmage.
“It’s a routine now,” said Mauro of Studio City. “We bring a couple of footballs and give some to the younger kids. The games used to be kids vs. parents, but since we’ve gotten bigger and stronger, they kind of back off.”
Family ball games, picnics and drum circles are revitalizing Tashlich as a booming social event, local rabbis say. Built on the traditional casting of sins — often symbolized by breadcrumbs, rocks or lint — into the ocean, the ritual now draws throngs of participants eager to celebrate community, revel in the great outdoors and cut loose.
“People are really gung-ho about Tashlich,” said Rabbi Michelle Missaghieh, associate rabbi at Temple Israel of Hollywood. “After spending the morning in synagogue, they get to take off their stockings and shoes and suits and ties and dresses and put on shorts and T-shirts and bathing suits and sun block. They take picnics and blankets, and we all meet at the beach.”
Maybe that’s why the ceremony, which Missaghieh brought to the Reform congregation when she joined its staff 13 years ago, has been steadily gaining in popularity. Starting with about 100 participants the first year, Temple Israel’s Tashlich event now draws a gathering so large — more than 450 people, Missaghieh said — that they have to obtain a permit from the city of Santa Monica to accommodate the crowd. The city also assigns lifeguards to watch over the waterside festivities.
“It’s a great service for people with families,” said Temple Israel member Bruce Miller, who has taken part in Tashlich for the past six years with his wife, Tracy, and their three young children. “You’re not sitting in one place in a big room where you have to be quiet and sit still. Three-year-olds don’t do that so well. Here, they can run around. Tashlich is more connected to things kids can relate to.”
Miller, a television writer based in Hancock Park, also enjoys the chance to experience Judaism amid nature’s majesty.
“It’s wonderful to hear the shofar outside at the beach,” he said. “Near the water, under the sky, it seems more spiritually relevant to what the holiday is about.”
A few blocks south on Venice Beach, Nashuva encourages Jews of all ages — including total strangers catching rays nearby — to tap into their spiritual sides by taking part in a drum circle. With more than 1,000 participants, Rabbi Naomi Levy said she’s been told Nashuva’s Tashlich ritual is the largest Jewish drum circle in the world.
“We’ve been doing this for four years, and it’s been growing exponentially,” Levy said. “We blow the shofar at the beach as a call for all Jews to come. You’d be surprised how many times we get an Israeli jogger passing by, or a couple of sunbathers who happen to be Jewish. You see people coming from all different parts to join in.”
Members of the Nashuva community, which during the rest of the year holds Friday night Shabbat services at Brentwood Presbyterian Church the first week of each month, gathers for Tashlich at the beach off Venice Boulevard at 4:30 p.m. on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. Organizers hand out percussion instruments, but attendees are also urged to bring their own. Drums, tambourines and even spoons are welcomed.
The first time Brentwood resident Carol Taubman took part in Nashuva’s Tashlich ceremony in 2004, “it took my breath away,” she recalled. “There were so many people, all dressed in white, and this fabulous drumming circle. There was a great sense of community, and it was very powerful.”
Taubman has attended Tashlich ever since, drawn back by the inclusive spirit of the event.
“It’s such a welcoming experience,” she said. “Some people can be intimidated by all the prayers at a synagogue service, but anybody can hit a drum or bang two spoons together. It’s like sharing a communal language.”
But the point of Tashlich — to cleanse oneself of the past year’s sins — shouldn’t be undermined by the ritual’s festive atmosphere or the ease of tossing breadcrumbs into the ocean, said Rabbi Dan Shevitz of Mishkon Tephilo in Venice.
“The notion that we can dispose of our sins in such a casual manner is problematic,” said Shevitz, whose Conservative beachfront service gathers 200 to 400 people each year. “You can’t just empty your pockets and be rid of your sins. It takes more work than that.”
Shevitz has put together a reading reflecting the idea that sins can never be truly cast off, but they can be “purified, as we treat sewage.”
The ceremony, which Mishkon Tephilo has done for decades, attracts more and more congregants each year, he said. “It’s as much a social occasion as a liturgical one. It’s a refreshing alternative to the sobriety of the morning service.”
Further inland, Encino-based Valley Beth Shalom has seen a spike in Tashlich attendance for the same reason. The Conservative congregation has been holding a ceremony on the second day of Rosh Hashanah for the past 10 years at Encino’s Lake Balboa.
“Tashlich is amazingly popular,” said Rabbi Edward Feinstein, senior rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom. “The sunshine is wonderful, we’re out in the fresh air, and we can begin to smell the autumn coming. It’s really joyful.”
This year, Valley Beth Shalom will partner with Valley Village congregation Adat Ari El for a joint Tashlich service. Feinstein is expecting a crowd of about 250 at the lakeside park, which Los Angeles park rangers keep open an extra hour for the ceremony.
An added bonus of holding Tashlich at the site, Feinstein noted, is that the bits of challah thrown into the water end up feeding the ducks that live on the lake grounds.
Temple Israel of Hollywood chooses to forgo traditional breadcrumbs for a more novel approach to the purging of sins, Rabbi Missaghieh said. As soon as the crowd gathers at 4 p.m. on the first day of the holiday, all the children begin building a wall of sand along the shore. After songs and readings, participants consider an area of their lives they want to improve in the new year, then inscribe their thoughts by hand into the wall. The waves eventually wash the sand away, carrying congregants’ written confessions out to sea.
“I think there’s something very magical about it,” Missaghieh said. “You spend the whole morning thinking about God, talking to God. But then you actually go out into nature and feel the grandness of God’s creation on the day of creation. It’s a very visceral moment; not just your mind, but your whole body is experiencing the rebirth of the world.”
Britains’ Sky News reports from Tel Aviv on an Israeli advertising campaign to sex up its image.
The wind blew cold and fierce and the waves crashed onto the beach as the sun set pink behind the craggy Santa Monica Mountains and bonfires battled for their lives in pits carved into the sand.
It’s a scene that might well seem like any weekend at Dockweiler Beach in El Segundo, the only Los Angeles public shorefront where bonfires are legal. But last weekend, there was a different type of crowd, for a special type of celebration: Lag B’Omer.
Never heard of it?
Don’t worry, many Jews haven’t. Lag B’Omer, literally the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer — the period between Passover and Shavuot — is a relatively minor Jewish holiday that in recent years has become more popular among spiritually seeking Jews.
It marks the day that the plague that killed 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s students ended; it also marks the anniversary of the death of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, who some think wrote the primary Kabbalistic text, the Zohar.
The holiday has always been observed by the Orthodox, and in Israel, it’s celebrated nationally and is a school holiday, but these days, some non-Orthodox synagogues, Jewish youth and singles groups and others have also taken to the beach to build fires, sing and revel in the fun.
“I’m really into how a lot more Jewish events have spread to non-Orthodox communities, like tashlich,” said Donna Bojarsky, a political consultant. On Tashlich, as part of the Rosh Hashana celebration, people throw bread into a body of water to symbolically wash away sins.
Like Lag B’Omer, the ritual often involves a trip to the beach and has become a festive community event, a way for Jews of all stripes to find new meaning and connections to Judaism outside the typical American “three-day-a-year” traditions.
“I think that’s a cool thing, and I wanted to support it,” said Bojarsky, one of 60 or so people who came to the bonfire of Nashuva, the spiritual community led by Rabbi Naomi Levy. A half-dozen or so bonfires from various Jewish organizations and groups of friends peppered the beach on both Saturday and Sunday nights this year. Many postponed the event from its actual night until Sunday because of the late hour of the Shabbat sunset.
The spirit of the holiday can be as different as the people celebrating it. At the Kabbalah Centre on Robertson Boulevard, Saturday was an all-night learning, singing and dancing affair celebrating Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. In Israel, tens of thousands of people visit his grave to say special prayers, and upsherin, the first haircuts for 3-year-old boys, are also done there, and around the world, on this holiday. Picnics, outings, concerts and all types of celebrations mark the day, which breaks up the mourning period of the Omer.
“Legend has it that Shimon Bar Yochai hid in a cave for 12 years,” Rabbi Levy explained to the Nashuva participants. They were sitting bundled up against the wind on beach chairs and blankets, surrounding an array of drums about to be played. Levy told how a freshwater spring and a carob tree appeared near the rabbi’s cave, and he survived on those while he studied inside the cave. When he emerged, he could no longer understand regular life, because he was on such a high plane, and so Lag B’Omer became a celebration of the mystical Torah, the way that Shavuot is a celebration of the physical Torah. “Tonight, in honor of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, we’re asking ourselves to take ourselves into a another world, a mystical world, and enter into a place of joy and insight,” Levy said.
Some groups had bonfires to celebrate Bar Yochai — and their identity.
“He’s Sephardic, a hero to Jews,” said Sandy Benchimol, director of the Sephardic Educational Center, an organization with branches around the United States, Canada and Israel. By the time the sun went down, SEC had the biggest bonfire on the beach and some 60 twenty-somethings.
For others, Lag B’Omer is not about anything religious at all.
“We’re here to pass on the tradition,” said Ayelet Sason, who sat at another bonfire with some 20 other Israelis. Like most of their countrymen, they mark holidays with barbecues and had brought supplies to make hot dogs and hamburgers to accompany the chips and marshmallows that were at every one of the Lag B’Omer tables. They also brought guitars and songbooks to sing traditional Hebrew songs like “Tumbalalaika” and “How Good It Is to Come Home.”
And for those involved in kiruv, or outreach bringing Jews closer to Judaism, Lag B’Omer is a way to bring it all together — identity, community, spirituality, religion and fun.
“They get Jewish identity by getting together for a Jewish festival,” said Rabbi Chaim Brooke, head of CSUN Hillel, at the fire for students from Chabad at Santa Monica College, Pierce and CSUN. “It inspires them to be better Jews and better people.”
If you tell anyone I know that I was awake at 7 a.m. on a Saturday morning, on purpose, they wouldn’t believe you. If you added that I didn’t immediately turn over
and go back to sleep, they would start laughing. If you told them that the reason I was awake at the crack of dawn on a weekend was to go camping, they might actually bust a gut.
Although this statement may seem more the result of a chocolate-induced hallucination, or simply a trip out of reality, the bottom line is that it’s all true.
I, Caroline, the lover of sleeping in, the guru of late nights, the “midnight is early” girl, saw Saturday before noon came around. How did I get into this predicament, one might ask? Was I possessed by an evil spirit? No. Was I pulling an all-nighter and just never went to bed? Not quite. The answer is that I was awake that early on a weekend because I had a boyfriend.
So now you’re wondering how those two things go hand in hand? Well, we had reached “that place,” the place all new relationships reach at one point or another, that spot where your mutual likes have reached an end, and you start hearing yourself say, “I’ll try that” to your significant other’s idea of fun.
We all know and have been at “that place,” where a die-hard sports fan might find himself or herself taping a game or favorite TV show so they can go to their significant other’s family gathering. A person who isn’t overly fond of the beach might start trudging through the sand because it’s their honey’s favorite place in the whole wide world. A picky eater might take small bites of unappealing foods without admitting their distaste.
This is when we are testing our own comfort zones. When the person we’re dating mentions the word “hiking” or “musical,” do we shudder, scream and run in the opposite direction? Or do we slowly push ourselves and try that something new.
When my boyfriend first mentioned camping, I won’t lie: I definitely hesitated. At first I found the suggestion more comical than anything else.
Me, camping? Are you serious?
Now I don’t want you to get the wrong idea. I happen to love nature. But I tend to enjoy taking pictures of nature more than, say, living in nature. I’d rather watch the National Geographic channel on the couch than sleep on the ground in the woods.
But after “I’ll try it” slipped out of my mouth, I soon found myself experiencing my first “true to life; sleep in a tent; live with nature; no hot water; cook your food; granola bar for breakfast; what’s that noise in the bushes … did you hear that, too?” camping trip.
The good news was that my boyfriend had picked a spot that was simply stunning. Our campsite was steps from the ocean, with a backdrop of bright green hills covered with yellow wildflowers. As we took in the sunset barefoot on the beach, I remember thinking, “If this is camping, I can deal with it.”
As the night went on, it seemed that I was not only tolerating camping, but, dare I say, actually enjoying it. The night sky was just amazing. I saw a sea of stars, and could even see them twinkling in different colors.
Although I was slightly sleep deprived by the end of the weekend, I had to agree with my boyfriend that camping can be a very relaxing experience. I had pushed outside of my comfort zone, falling asleep to the sounds of the ocean, the wind and the gazillion or so frogs living in the stream right behind the campsite. I can honestly say that I truly enjoyed myself.
The thing about reaching “I’ll try it” is that you are daring to imagine that things can work out for the best, and that you can add another activity to the list of common likes.
So will I go camping again? Sure. But if he thinks he’s ever going to get me to try and actually like hiking, he’s got another think coming.
Joyce Brooks Bogartz’s look isn’t quite what you’d expect from the owner of a kosher restaurant. Adorned with brown and cream dreadlocks, the nearly 50-year-old proprietor of Malibu Beach Grill would at first glance seem to fit in better with customers sporting board shorts than black hats. But this post-punk Gidget is the kind of ‘Bu Jew who is as comfortable around Chabadniks as she is with surfers.
“Having a kosher place, you can only be so risqué in your appearance,” she said.
Situated a quick jaywalk across Pacific Coast Highway from Surfrider Beach and the Malibu Pier, Malibu Beach Grill is a kosher oasis in a town renowned for breathtaking seaside vistas, A-list celebrity sightings and new-age crunchiness. And nearly two years after the controversial ouster of Malibu Chicken by building owner Chabad of Malibu, Malibu Beach Grill is well on its way to carving out its own niche with an eclectic menu that can best be described as California fleishig (meat).
But the road to winning over the locals wasn’t easy.
Brooks Bogartz and her husband/silent partner, Gary Bogartz, each worked full-time jobs in addition to the restaurant during the first year. Malibu Beach Grill was open 16-hour days in the first six months, and differentiated itself from many area restaurants by offering delivery.
“I thought I worked hard before this. I had no idea,” said Brooks Bogartz, a former entertainment publicist and Chabad Telethon coordinator.
“For a year we were the walking dead,” she said. “I was sleeping four hours a night.”
Business is starting to pick up at this cozy kosher surf shack, both from word-of-mouth in the observant world and hipster bon mots in the L.A. Weekly last summer.
To compensate for being closed Friday night and Saturday, the restaurant stays open until 10 p.m. Sunday to Thursday, making it a favorite with Pepperdine students, especially during winter months. The free wi-fi doesn’t hurt, either.
The novelty of buying kosher food at the beach keeps observant families showing up en masse on Sundays and on weeknights during the summer. More than a few put Malibu Beach Grill on the itinerary so out-of-town guests can savor the SoCal ta’am (flavor).
“It’s a small place, but it’s better than what we have in Philadelphia,” said Shira Weitz, 22, who was visiting with friend Este Kahn.
“They put an interesting twist on everything,” said Kahn, a 22-year-old Fairfax resident. “It’s different from what you get at other kosher restaurants. It’s not just a plain burger.”
The burgers at Malibu Beach Grill offer a Cali twist: the Sunset features sundried tomatoes, caramelized shallots and basil aioli. And when the kitchen staff asked Brooks Bogartz how she wanted to prepare the Mexican food, in Jewish fashion she answered the question with another question: “How does your grandmother do it?”
Kashrut for the restaurant is handled by Rabbi Levy I. Zirkind out of Fresno.
Brooks Bogartz identifies as shomer Shabbat, and as a resident of the Malibu area since 1994, she attends services at Chabad of Malibu, whose sign featuring a surfing rabbi has graced PCH since 2001.
Despite the dread cred and her sister Collette’s local notoriety as a surfer, Brooks Bogartz has yet to actually grab a stick and hit the waves.
“My dream is to learn how to surf in Hawaii, where it’s warm,” she said.
Instead, Brooks Bogartz spends her time working alongside her dedicated kitchen crew, which has remained the same since its opening, slowly building up the restaurant’s catering and walking the tables to make sure her customers are happy.
“I have the Jewish mother inclination to feed everybody,” she said.
In November 2004, I sat in Rabbi Yonah and Rachel Bookstein’s kitchen. They are a young couple with three children, and together they run the Cal State Long Beach University Hillel (he is spiritual adviser; she is program director).
Apple laptop on hand, Rabbi Bookstein talked of a dream about a conference for young Jews, where they could hang out and learn. No agendas, no gimmicks.
I jokingly labeled it a conspiracy. But with the collaboration of a Web journal, or “blog,” known as Jewlicious.com, the conference “Jewlicious @ The Beach” launched in April 2005.
Parents don’t understand why 300 young Jews packed the Long Beach Alpert JCC for the Jewlicious sequel on Feb. 17. We came for food and song, complete with banging on the tables and exuberant dancing wherever there was room. At the Sunday night concert, “Jewbilation,” you could see the look of shock on the older generation’s faces as we jammed to Hebrew heavy-metal songs by the Maccabees. This was not your mom’s “Oseh Shalom.”
Jewlicious included panels on everything from “Kabbalah and Madonna” to “Jews Who Protest.” There were workshops, musical jams and tons of food. It was attended by young Jews in the spotlight, such as writer Ruth Andrew Ellenson, editor of “Modern Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guilt,” and Matisyahu, the Chasidic reggae superstar my dad refers to as “the hip-hop hoo-hoo.” But most of all, it was everything that the Booksteins hoped for: a celebration of being young and Jewish and alive.
What many people don’t realize is that a new Jewish youth culture is coming to the surface. For us, it’s old school meets new school-klezmer with a hip-hop beat (brought to “Jewbilation” by the amazing DJ So Called and Beyond the Pale).
We are of all ethnicities and levels of observance, and we include some in the process of conversion. Some young Jews have become more observant, much to the shock of less traditional parents. Orthodoxy is no longer old-fashioned, but a source of fascination.
We have faced anti-Semitism in all forms. At a women’s session, one girl told us that when she was in high school in Glendora, swastikas were carved into her desk and she was beaten up-twice. Anti-Israel activities on campuses these days often turn hateful against “Zionist Jews.” Many of us have been told to accept Jesus before we go to hell. Our response is Jewish pride.
We love eating, wine tasting, the beach, dancing, movies, fashion and long conversations. We’re activists, writers, musicians, artists, vegans, nonconformists, Shabbat-observers or just attracted to big noses. If you like being Jewish, you are an MOT, or Member of the Tribe.
And what do MOTs do? We rock out to Matisyahu and Israeli hip-hop. We wear shirts that say, “Eat me, I’m kosher.” We like poking fun at ourselves, with examples ranging from the movie, “The Hebrew Hammer,” to Rav Shmuel’s cutting jibes in his song, “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”
We love Israel, although some of us are more willing to criticize its policies than others. We’re glued to our computers, and use them to connect to other Jews. We understand that there are many people in the world who still hate us, and in order to prevent them from bringing us down, we have to come together.
Sometimes it worries me that the pendulum will swing back. Yes, we have come very far in our Jewish youth culture, but for how long will the Los Angeles Times refer to Matisyahu as a Jesus-figure, as it did after the Ragga Muffins Festival in Long Beach? For how long will we be cool and not have to respond to the world outside?
Luckily, Jewlicious @ The Beach was my answer. Between musical jam sessions and henna tattoos , we had created something very important: a community, a safe haven where we could express who we are and learn. The Jewish youth culture was creating a home — a home we have desperately needed.
Judaism is changing as youth takes over the reins. It’s us taking our Judaism away from what others tell us it is and transforming it, letting it grow and making it into our own.
I guess it is a conspiracy after all.
Reina V. Slutske is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles.
Your wedding party is an entourage of childhood friends, college roommates, siblings and other close family members. Most have been by your side, contributing their time, energy and love throughout the entire wedding planning process. So, when the big event is about to happen, how best can brides and grooms offer their thanks?
As one would when shopping for any gift, it’s best to keep each individual in mind, choosing imaginative and stylish gifts that come from the heart, say bridal advisers at theknot.com.
Are traditional gifts the way to go?
“Brides can give the bridesmaids something to wear on the wedding day such as a necklace or earrings,” said Kathleen Murray, weddings editor at The Knot. “For the guys, a wine set, Swiss Army knife and golf kits are great traditional ideas.”
Looking for something a little trendier?
Owen Halpern, co-owner of OwenLawrence, an Atlanta boutique, prides himself on offering shoppers items they won’t see in every other shop.
For bridal attendant gifts he suggests a crystal bedside carafe, Italian crystal clocks by Arnolfo Di Cambio or beautifully boxed Italian vodka shot glasses by Salviati — all gift items that are as special as the occasion they mark.
He also said people are “loving” gift items called Elton Rocks, made out of colored, scented resin — “sort of an alternative to potpourri.” (According to Halpern, Elton John allowed his name to be used on the product because a portion of the proceeds are donated to his AIDS foundation.)
Halpern indulges OwenLawrence shoppers with champagne or signature bellinis, offered “only in crystal with linen napkins — no paper or plastic,” to help everyone enjoy “the finer things in life.”
“It’s a stressful time. Brides and grooms can relax and enjoy the shopping experience,” Halpern said.
Anything monogrammed is also popular for attendant gifts.
“Monogramming anything from jewelry to flasks to sandals for a beach wedding is hot right now,” Murray said.
While fountain pens may have become the joke of traditional bar mitzvah gifting, pens are popular as gifts for grooms’ attendants.
“We’ve sold everything form Mont Blanc, Cross and Watermans to Parker and Cartier. Generally we engrave initials of the groomsmen. It’s a small gift, but it’s a valued one,” said Steve Light of Artlite.
No matter how much appreciation you might want to lavish upon your bridal attendants, the sheer quantity can tally a daunting price tag. Be sure to ask yourself how much you plan — and can afford — to spend.
Murray normally advises bridal couples to spend what they can, but on average it’s usually $75 per person. The best man and matron or maid of honor should get something a little more lavish.
Yet, if a tight budget is cramping your style, there are great ways to get by.
Inexpensive gifts for bridesmaids can include an engraved silver photo frame or compact mirror, nice jewelry or beautiful candles.
For groomsmen, engraved pewter beer steins, silver pocketknives or cigar holders are usually low-priced.
Murray says it’s all about being a smart shopper.
“Inexpensive gifts are really just being able to find a great buy,” she said. “The bride may find a bracelet worth thousands of dollars, but if they look harder, they can find one for a lot less.”
Of course, if you decide to splurge on the wedding party, the options are endless. “The Knot Complete Guide to Weddings in the Real World” offers ideas ranging from remote control cars for guys, a certificate for an acclaimed restaurant or spa certificates to tickets to a game or play, silk pajamas, beauty baskets or cigars.
For bridesmaids, Murray says classes are always a popular item.
“Cooking, wine tasting, photography classes are all great options,” she said. “Again, base your decision upon each bridesmaid’s specific interest. For groomsmen, look into golf or ski lessons or even a bottle or case of wine from a great vineyard.”
Still stuck on what to get? Consider using your own talents. Artists can create drawings, paintings or pottery, while musicians can create a CD of their own music.
“If a couple does not feel they have such talents, or do not have time to make their gifts, they can have gift baskets created that are personalized to each attendants’ tastes and interests,” Murray said.
Laura Vogltanz of Copley News Service contributed to this article.
Back to the Beach
Just because we’re back in school doesn’t mean we can’t think about the beach. If you want to go into the new Jewish year with another mitzvah under our belt, here is a fun opportunity:
Coastal Cleanup on Sept. 17
Help clean the Coastal Park area at Cabrillo Beach in San Pedro, as well as the Point Fermin Marine Life Refuge, from 9 a.m. to noon. After the cleanup, stay for refreshments during an open house at the Salinas de San Pedro salt marsh (noon-2 p.m.). Learn more about this unique habitat by using binoculars and microscopes to observe live animals. This is a free activity.
Groups please call the education staff at (310) 548-7562 ext. 217 to reserve and arrange for parking.
Catch a Wave
There’s nothing better than spending a hot summer day at the beach. Sink your toes in that golden sand and surf those blue waves.
So, what are you waiting for? Let’s hit the beach!
What will you find at the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium?
The following words all start with the word sea:
Sea + It shines in the sky and on the movie screen __ __ __ __
Sea + A cool, green vegetable __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __
Sea + UR + part of your face __ __ __ __ __ __
We’re Cleaning Up!
Heal the Bay invites you to leave “Nothin’ but Sand” on the beach.
Come to Santa Monica Beach on Aug. 20, 10 a.m.-noon.
Park in lot 4S at 2030 Barnard Way and meet other volunteers at the north end of the lot at the end of Bay Street. Get involved. Help clean up our beaches!
The Fab Four wrote many incredible songs about all sorts of people and places. Can you think of two Beatles songs that have to do with the sea? You might want to ask mom or dad for help with this one — but beware, they just might start singing.
My friend Rhonda asked me nonchalantly, “Where are you going for Pesach this year?”
Envisioning the whirlwind travels ahead, my head began to spin. “I’ll begin at Target for new shelf paper, sponges, paper goods, cleansers and a new broom. Then I’ll dock briefly at Ralphs for the special deal on shmura matzah and whatever else they’ve got for Pesach that’s on sale. Next I’ll bully my way in to the kosher market for meat, wine and enough matzah meal to plug up the Hoover Dam. Then I’ll get over to Stan’s Produce for fruits and vegetables. By that time, I’ll have thought of dozens of other things I need, and start the whole thing over again. How about you?”
“We’re going to the Mauna Lani Hotel in Hawaii,” Rhonda said, barely able to look me in the eye.
Faster than you could say “dayenu,” my Jewish spiritual training to be happy for my friend battled with a far less noble instinct: insane jealousy. Never having been to one of these glatt-kosher shebangs, part of me longs for the unimaginable luxury of an entire Pesach without the endless cleaning or shopping, a week of catered gourmet cuisine, my choice of inspiring shiurim and lectures, and simple relaxation. But with a family of six, the cost of these jaunts sends me reeling. That kind of money pays for one and a half tuitions for a year. It could almost remodel a bathroom. We just don’t have that many disposable shekels lying around.
When I think of the burgeoning business of plush Pesach resorts, all I can say is, we’ve come a long way, bubbeleh. Not for these Jews the toothbrush scrubbing of the glass refrigerator shelves, the scouring of closets in search of a long-lost Milk Dud or the hefting of briskets large enough to feed every player on the Lakers. No, these Jews can just up and sell the chametzdik house for the week before jetting off to relive the Exodus on a sun-drenched beach. Well, a beach has sand, and Egypt had sand, so maybe there’s the connection.
My good friend, Dr. Diane Medved, a clinical psychologist and author, has never made Pesach at home. That’s because she and her husband, nationally syndicated talk show host and author Michael Medved, are sought-after speakers on the Pesach resort circuit. Over the years, they’ve poured their four cups of wine in Coronado, Phoenix, Hawaii and, Diane’s personal favorite, Hot Springs, Va. The Medveds have to sing for their suppers, with each of them giving lectures five or six times during the week. Still seems like a great deal to me.
“I know I’m diminishing my reward by not making Pesach at home,” Diane told me, “but I’ve managed to let that pass by. I don’t miss layering aluminum foil all over my kitchen and buying all that matzah. I look forward to it as a vacation.”
Although Diane lectures on relationship and child-rearing issues, her best-attended class is dubbed, “Free From the Fat Mentality,” an especially relevant topic given the food, which Diane says is served in “staggering” proportions.
Diane also enjoys meeting new friends, as well as the choice of participating in communal seders or small family seders, which are both offered.
But other friends who’ve attended resorts have returned convinced that Pesach was meant to be celebrated at home. And despite my slight case of Pesach resort envy, I also find the hard work of making Pesach liberating in its own way. If I am disciplined, I’ll clean and cook while listening to taped shiurim on the spiritual messages of Pesach. If I am disciplined, I’ll also take time to think, taking a “spiritual inventory” of myself while I clean. That way, both my house and my neshamah can embrace the holiday on a deeper level.
Also, being so deeply invested in the process of making Pesach makes sitting down to the seder an enormously satisfying feeling. Besides, Moshe didn’t keep barging into Pharoah’s palace demanding, “Let my people go … to the Las Vegas Ritz Carlton!”
I’m sure it’s possible to have a meaningful Pesach when you are also snorkeling or tossing the dice in a casino in between buffets (Is there ever a time when there isn’t a buffet?), but after all these years, finding myself in a resort while celebrating our redemption from slavery would feel like an out-of-body experience. Or like I won the lottery.
If money were no object, or if I were invited as a guest at a resort in exchange for some speaking gigs along the way, I’d be mighty tempted. (Note to Pesach resort planners: Very few people fall asleep during my humor presentations. And after all that food, they might be falling asleep because they’re full.)
In the meantime, I’m rolling up my sleeves, digging out my Pesach tapes and starting the Pesach-prep hustle. Perhaps sometime soon I’ll be rich enough to say, “Next year in Palm Beach!”
Judy Gruen is the author of two award-winning humor books and the popular “Off My Noodle” column. Read more of her work on www.judygruen.com.
Why wait till tashlich to celebrate your Judaism at the beach? On Dec. 16, Pacific Jewish Center (PJC) will commemorate its recently wrapped renovations with a rousing Chanukah party.
To say that “The Shul on the Beach” — literally located on Venice’s boardwalk — is enmeshed in the fabric of Venetian society is to state the obvious. After all, PJC will sometimes hold Havdalah and kiddush on the beach, where panhandling musicians greet congregants with a “Shabbat Shalom.” And when PJC, a lively Orthodox synagogue, needs people to shlep furniture, they can often count on the residents at the Phoenix House residential treatment center next door to lend a helping hand.
“Let’s put it this way,” said PJC Associate Rabbi Avi Pogrow. “There’s no shortage of musclemen around.”
As it turns out, Pogrow himself is something of a muscleman. Since arriving at the PJC in late 1996, Pogrow decided to go with the flow and build his biceps, triceps and abs.
“As Jews, it’s important for us to be fit spiritually, mentally and physically,” Pogrow said.
Anyone who regularly accepts invitations for Shabbat meals knows that physical fitness is easier said than done. That’s why, when the young, sandy-haired rabbi isn’t grappling with weighty Talmudic studies, he grabs his weights. Under the guidance of personal trainer Moses Rose — an ex-Marine and former Washington Redskin who goes by the moniker “The Rugged Man” — Pogrow pumps iron and carries out a daily regimen that consists of sit-ups, push-ups (1,000 each) and “sand dancing.”
Pogrow, 29 and single, grew up in ultra-Orthodox Monsey, N.Y., and attended yeshivas in Brooklyn and Jerusalem. He heard good things about PJC from his older brother, Rabbi Meir Pogrow, who was a visiting rabbi there.
In 1997, at the rabbinically tender age of 26, Avi Pogrow assumed the associate rabbi post at PJC. He was asked by Senior Rabbi Daniel Lapin to help revitalize programs, outreach and services at the 23-year-old congregation, which serves members living in Venice and the surrounding Pacific Palisades, Santa Monica and Marina del Rey neighborhoods.
Pogrow’s installation is no accident. Lapin has made a conscious effort to attract young marrieds and singles to his shul. In addition to hiring Pogrow, Lapin still holds a weekly shiur every Monday night at the Doubletree Hotel in Santa Monica.
“We’ve taken what could be construed as a boring service, and re-energized the shul with spirited singing of [Shlomo] Carlebach tunes,” said Pogrow, who has seen an influx of young professionals and East Coast couples with Ivy League diplomas at his services in the last few years.
Pogrow’s proud of the haimish atmosphere he’s helped cultivate at PJC.
“We mix authentic Judaism with California innovation and East Coast authenticity,” Pogrow told The Journal over a low-carb Beverlywood-area breakfast. “But there’s a lot of East-Coast flavor. I’m still trying to get the carbs out of the kiddush.”
Annual Pacific Jewish Center Chanukah party takes place on Sun., Dec. 16, at 7 p.m. at Pacific Jewish Center, 505 Ocean Front Walk, Venice. Live music by the Simcha Orchestra. Tickets: $18. To RSVP, call Rabbi Avi Pogrow at (310) 581-1081 or e-mail RPogrow@PJCenter.com. For more information, visit www.pjcenter.com.
I arrived in Miami Beach one morning last week on a mission: to find the last kosher hotel in South Beach, an ultra-hip area of restaurants, clubs and shops that used to be the hub of Florida Jewish life.Today you can drive along Ocean Drive (inch along is more like it) and see scores of suburban teenagers and sophisticated European tourists sitting at Art Deco restaurants and hotels, sipping their lattes and looking to be seen, but you won’t find many Jews. South Beach is where Gianni Versace was murdered on the steps of his mansion and where Gloria Estefan, Madonna and Sylvester Stallone all have had multimillion-dollar homes at one time or another.
Today, posh South Beach is almost unrecognizable as a place where Jewish retirees came to get away from harsh winters for five months out of the year. A prime example of the vast change between then and now can be found at the intersection of 17th and Collins Avenue, one of the busiest corners on the beach.On the ocean side of Collins is the Delano, a beautifully renovated Art Deco hotel owned by Ian Shrager, former partner of Studio 54. Walking into the Delano is like walking onto a movie set, only a movie set located on Mars. Oversized furniture placed at random decorates the spare, narrow lobby, while the staff stands spellbound against a lime-green background. Out back, where hotel guests dine and wander the grounds on their way to the beach, naked jet-setters lie under starched white sheets getting rubdowns by hotel masseurs. On the beach, more naked guests and beautiful people in fancy blue cabanas.
In contrast, directly across the street, on the west side of Collins, is the Plaza South. The Plaza South, like dozens of other hotels in South Beach, used to cater to winter guests until the ’70s, when the hotel turned into a residential nursing home.
Now, white-haired men lean on their canes or sit in wheelchairs on the small verandah, watching the blur of activity down Collins, while their African American caregivers take in the crowds at the Delano, probably wondering how things could have been so transformed. The two worlds, old and new, still co-exist, but for how long is anybody’s guess.
Determined to find at least one kosher hotel, I drove to Eighth and Collins, where my Aunt Dora used to stay with her mother, who wintered at the Edison, a kosher hotel near the ocean. I thought I might be able to find the building, but all that I could find was Armani Exchange and Kenneth Cole shoes.Aunt Dora wrote a description of the area as it existed at the time: “There was a stretch of hotels [along Collins Avenue] with long front verandahs. The little old women would sit there for hours reminiscing about their pasts. On the bulletin board in the foyer there would be announcements of upcoming events, i.e. the big weekly special: ‘ICE-CREAM TONIGHT!’ Every week they would have a concert on the beach.”Talk about laughs, it was hilarious – an old ‘cucker’ would stand up and announce he’s an expert on imitations, then would commence to imitate a rooster, etc.! Mama gave up – she said, ‘Who wants to waste time with these altinkas [old Jewish people]? Another thing I remember: we’d always go to a Jewish movie. Inevitably, they’d be about family relationships, how ungrateful the children were to their old parents and how lonely the old people were.”
After Eighth Street, I headed down to the Sanford L. Ziff Jewish Museum of Florida at Third Street and Washington Avenue, an area that was humming with Jewish activity until the ’50s. Founded five years ago, the Jewish Museum is in the former Beth Jacob Synagogue, which housed Miami Beach’s first Jewish congregation. Built in 1936, the building features Art Deco architecture, a copper dome, a marble bimah and 80 stained-glass windows.
The museum evolved from a traveling exhibition called “MOSAIC: Jewish Life in Florida,” depicting Florida’s early Jewish community from 1763 to the present. The exhibition, which consists of photographs, artifacts and oral histories, generated so much interest that a permanent building had to be found. At present, the museum houses this collection, plus other traveling exhibitions, cultural and education programs, and a research center.
At the museum I got a wealth of information on Jewish life but also a more realistic view of my search, from a man named Elliot who volunteers at the museum. “All the Jews [of South Beach] have either moved to Broward County [Fort Lauderdale and vicinity], Douglas Gardens Nursing Home or straight to the cemetery.”
After hours of searching out leads and talking to various people, I realized that it wasn’t the last kosher hotel I needed to find, but the first.
The Nemo Hotel at 110 Collins Ave., just around the corner from the Jewish Museum, was the first kosher hotel in South Beach. The Nemo was built in 1921 by Joseph and Harry Goodkowsky of Maine and Sam Magid from Boston, Harry’s brother-in-law. Today, Myra Far, Harry’s daughter, lives in Bar Harbor Island, Florida, and is very active in the Jewish community as well as recounting her family’s history.According to Far, it was “rich Uncle Sam” who got the ball rolling on building the Nemo, financing the hotel with money made in Boston. Her father was the contractor, and her Uncle Joe was the proprietor. The Nemo, a magnet of hospitality, drew hordes of Jews from Montreal and New York to the warm climes of Florida. Far spent her childhood on the East Coast, but in the ’30s, after her father died, she returned to the Nemo with her widowed mother and sister.
Far remembers that time perfectly: “South Beach had a real small-townish feel. We frolicked on the beach at 10th Street, meet all the boys, have corned beef sandwiches, eat ice cream at Dolly Madison’s.” Myra and her friends even watched the turtles lay eggs.
She remembers well the scores of Jews who lived in small apartments in South Beach or wintered at the kosher hotels – groups of retired furriers and teachers and “politically incorrect” Workmen’s Circle Jews, who would get into trouble for their views. They would gather at the beach to play lotto and bingo or entertain each other with labor songs. At the museum, I saw photographs of what Far was talking about: large crowds of older Jews raising hell on their banjos and guitars, mingling together for what looked like a hootenanny on the beach. “They were a rabid bunch,” Far recalls.
Her cousin Julia Goodkowsky was in charge of the Nemo’s kosher kitchen, cooking hot, healthy meals of chicken soup, giblets, borscht and herring. “It was first-class Jewish cooking, very delicious,” Far says, emphasizing the “delicious.” In 1936, Far married husband Aaron at the Nemo, descending down the staircase into the main lobby and then out into the courtyard, standing under the arches posing for pictures. On her wedding day, the guests dined on kosher stuffed squab, a delicacy of the time. For Passover, the Goodkowsky family and other Jews would travel uptown to the Fontainebleau, a large hotel at 44th Street and Collins that catered to Miami Beach’s Jewish community, with Rabbi Lehmer, the dean of Miami Beach rabbis, presiding over the seder. To this day, the Fontainebleau maintains a kosher kitchen.
The Nemo remained lively through the 1940s but soon faced drastic changes. By the late ’50s and early ’60s, “the Nemo was a dump,” Far says.
“The whole area was a disaster,” recalls Ben Grenwald, a past Miami Beach City Commissioner who served 1979-83 and who, along with Barbara Capitman (who single-handedly saved Art Deco architecture from demolition), was responsible for revitalizing the area. “Many of the hotels had fallen into disrepair,” Grenwald recounts. “The old hoteliers had mortgages they couldn’t pay, and no bank would help them. Then in the ’70s young people started coming down, and New Yorkers made real estate investments, buying up three and four hotels at once.” With the influx of Marielitos (Cuban boat people), younger crowds, and East Coast real estate magnates, “a lot of people with walkers were pushed out [of South Beach
],” Grenwald says.
Five years ago the Nemo Hotel was bought by Miles Shefitz, a restaurateur, who has since spent thousands of dollars in renovations for a fancy restaurant, of the same name. A few years ago he called Far to find out if the hotel had once had a restaurant, a necessary step to obtaining a license. She had fun telling him of her wedding day, a magical time, when she descended down the staircase to eat an elegant meal of stuffed squab. “By myself, I’m a book,” Far laughs, recounting a long-ago past.
The Nemo staircase is gone now, but the original floor of that time, black and white tile, remains. The Nemo safe, for the jewelry of those who could afford such things, is still there, now on the patio as a cabinet for a computer that keeps track of the high-priced fare. The Art Deco architecture, with its graceful arches and metal window frames, is still there, but nothing remains of the spirit of the original hotel or the people who once stayed there.
Before I left the area, I went back to the Delano to watch the crowds at the ocean, wondering how long it would be before South Beach is forgotten as a once vital nexus of a generation of Jews. Fortunately for us, people like Myra Far and the Jewish Museum’s MOSAIC program are making sure their history remains alive.