October 17, 2018

Stay Beautiful: Cosmetic Treatment Trends of 2018

The cosmetic industry is ever-changing, bringing us more advanced aesthetic enhancements backed with extensive scientific research. As times go by, treatments become more affordable and people more acceptive of the possibilities hidden behind the procedures. With new technologies, results became more subtle and yet noticeable, while the recovery period got cut down significantly. Wondering what 2018 has in the bag for us? Here are the top cosmetic treatment trends that lie ahead.

Micro-botox Will Take the World by Storm


In the last couple of years, we have seen the trend of treating wrinkles before they even appear. Prevention-oriented patients have already discovered the magic of micro-botox and we will surely see this treatment skyrocket this year, particularly in Europe. Micro-botox isn’t used only to prevent or reduce lines. It can also do wonders for enlarged pores, given the fact it targets sweat and oil glands, as well as specific facial muscles. It tightens the skin, boosts its radiance, and makes it look smoother and dewy. Micro-botox might also be a great solution for getting rid of acne. Neurotoxins are injected in smaller dosage and more superficially, which is why micro-botox is also known as intradermal botox. An average treatment is about half an hour long. The results are visible after a week and last up to 4 months.

Liposuction Remains Popular


Developed in the late 70’, liposuction has come a long way. It is one of the most popular treatments used to eliminate excessive fat that usually accumulates in the abdomen area, thighs, or waist. The technology has advanced and today, one can choose between many different types of liposuctions.

For example, Australia is one of the first countries in the world that supported the development of tumescent liposuction, brought by the cosmetic surgeon specialist Dr. Lanzer. Tumescent fluid prepares the fat by using a diluted local anesthetic, so there is less pain while the excessive fluids get effectively removed. The antibacterial components prevent infections. Fat is removed through the process of suction (tiny incisions are made), instead of the old way of directly cutting it, which makes the healing process faster and the overall results better. Other liposuction treatments include laser lipo, lip sculpture, ultrasound liposuction, etc.

In-depth Skin Care


Further evolution in skin care formulas will certainly continue, and so will the interest of consumers to try out new technologies. Probiotic skin products are slowly being introduced with carefully crafted beauty ingredients that improve levels of healthy bacteria in the skin. In addition to high-tech formulas, organic and all-round-natural prestige products will sweep us off our feet, offering a healthier alternative to other brands that potentially contain harmful chemicals. A bit weirder treatments called “vampire facials” became a trend thanks to celebrities, and they will gain more popularity in 2018. Non-invasive anti-age and various laser treatments won’t fall behind, as they are becoming more budget-friendly.

Non-surgical Nose Corrections


Rhinoplasty can now be performed without the surgery and the painful recovery period. The procedure is done within around 30 minutes or less, and most importantly – the downtime period is significantly shortened compared to the traditional rhinoplasty. Using specific injection (contains calcium and cellulose), any bumps or imperfections are easily resolved, and the wanted appearance and symmetry achieved. The procedure takes one’s nose more straight and appealing: the nose “blends” into the face once the proportions are restored. Depending on the type of filler used, results can last up to two years.

Exciting cosmetic treatment trends lie ahead in 2018! Of course, beauty is a more complex concept that cannot be brought down just to our physique. But looking good contributes to feeling good. Invest some time in pampering or get rid of the imperfections that make you feel self-conscious. Just remember to do it for yourself and to feel more comfortable in your own skin – never for someone else.

A Deeper Feminism

Photo from Pexels.

When I lived in Washington, D.C., in my 20s, I often wore miniskirts. The prim and proper ladies there used to stare at me. This didn’t make me stop, but it did make me feel self-conscious until a friend said, “You know, it’s not that they disapprove; it’s that they wish they could wear them, too.”

I never wore miniskirts to work. I could have — there wasn’t much of a dress code — but I was eager to be taken seriously as a writer. You could say that’s a double standard, but perhaps it isn’t. I’m not sure if a guy who wore his shirt unbuttoned to his navel would have been taken seriously, either.

Once or twice I put myself in situations that could have led to unfortunate outcomes. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have done that. The one time something icky — but not scarring — happened was on a high school ski trip. I never told anyone afterward; at the time, I thought these types of things just happened.

Like many women, these past couple of weeks have made me think about various experiences I had in my late teens and into my 20s, and how I handled them. Feminism freed young women to wear miniskirts, go unchaperoned on high school ski trips, go to the apartments of older colleagues to watch movies.

Sometimes we make these choices to experiment; sometimes we make them to help us define our identities; sometimes we make them just for fun. Sometimes they end badly.

Nevertheless, the freedom to make these choices is an essential part of feminism. But there is another essential part that hasn’t gotten much attention. Along with freedom comes a need for thoughtfulness, a need to recognize reality and human nature.

We have an opportunity to deepen feminism with wisdom and even joy.

For me, that begins with facing reality. Take beauty. Contrary to Naomi Wolf’s infamous “beauty myth,” beauty is not a social construct forced upon women to keep them in the bathrooms and out of the boardrooms. Evolutionary psychology has explained why men are attracted to youth and beauty (the instinct to father healthy children), and no amount of social engineering is going to change that fact.

What can be changed is our attitudes toward beauty. When I write about art and design, I use the term “deep beauty” to describe a layered, soulful, imperfect beauty that stems from nature. Women (and men) also can strive for a deeper beauty — a beauty that resonates with soulfulness, intelligence and confidence. A beauty that doesn’t fade.

Sexuality, both male and female, also exists.

Last month, my 8-year-old son and his friend were tossing a football in Central Park when we happened upon some young women who were topless. Not surprisingly, the boys started to stare and giggle. The women scowled at me: How dare I raise a son who hasn’t been taught that this is normal and natural!

Actually, the boys’ response was normal and natural — hormones begin to kick in well before puberty. Sure, you have every right to go topless in Central Park. But don’t expect human nature to look away.

Women are equal to men but we are different. This is a reality that we should not just accept, but embrace. We should take pleasure in the differences. Do we really want to live in a sanitized world devoid of any flirting or sexual tension? Or worse, do we want to live in a world where we become so paranoid that men and women in professional situations are afraid to shake hands, let alone hug?

Yes, we need to teach males of all ages that being a respectful gentleman is a prerequisite to 21st-century masculinity. But we also need to teach females that being a strong, responsible woman is a prerequisite to 21st-century femininity and feminism.

The fact is, women who are truly in touch with their sexuality tend to be the strongest women. I’m not talking about flaunting one’s sexuality; I’m talking about a deep sexuality that comes from being comfortable with yourself.

I know a 40-ish woman in New York who runs a multinational company. She started it from scratch and never changed any aspect of herself in the process. With her infectious laugh, inspiring charm, and sensually appropriate attire, she walks into a room like a boss — but also as a woman.

That’s deep feminism.

Karen Lehrman Bloch is a cultural critic and the author of “The Lipstick Proviso: Women, Sex & Power in the Real World” (Doubleday).Her writings have appeared in The New York Times, The New Republic, The Wall Street Journal and Metropolis, among others.

Nava Feller’s products are what come naturally

Nava Feller

Being the founder of a business specializing in natural skin care and wellness products can come with a level of glamour, as you tap into the desires of customers looking for an emotional lift or a burst of energy from your gels, creams, capsules and cleanses.

However, Nava Feller, creator of the Nava Natural line of products, says she finds her motivation from different sources — her Jewish faith, her Israeli upbringing and motherhood.

Feller came to the United States in 2004 and a year later launched her business in Beverly Hills with the intent to create products that integrated natural elements from the Dead Sea. She had become familiar with the health benefits of botanicals and minerals from the Dead Sea over the course of her life, starting with her family’s annual vacations there and continuing with her studies of natural medicines in Israel and at the International School of Detoxification in Sarasota, Fla.

“While [the Dead Sea] was always a favorite place, I never thought about why my parents kept taking us back there until I was older,” said Feller, 57. “I then realized they wanted to take advantage of the Dead Sea’s health benefits, and for my brother and I to understand its effects on the muscles, skin and our overall well-being. I also observed people from all over the world were coming to the Dead Sea to experience these benefits in addressing chronic skin diseases like psoriasis, eczema and acne, as well as cardiovascular and lung diseases.”

Beginning with a handful of clients, the business now has thousands of customers who buy her products at her Beverly Hills shop, as well as from spas and salons in Palm Springs, Colorado, Oregon and Switzerland, as well as online.

Before coming to the U.S., Feller enjoyed a happy marriage, raising her two children — Stephanie, now 36, and Kevin, 32 — and several successful careers. She was a member of a professional dance troupe and then a dance instructor until 1979 in her native Israel. After she married, she and her husband moved to Switzerland, where she opened a dance and fitness studio, which she operated through the 1980s. In 1992, she and her husband decided to move back to Israel to strengthen their children’s Jewish roots and open a restaurant in Eilat.

Yet in three years, their life was interrupted when her husband received a diagnosis of terminal cancer, which tested her Jewish faith and definitions of health and wellness. The family eventually spent his last months in Switzerland, where he believed he would receive the best treatment.

“When doctors found my husband’s brain tumor, they told him there was no hope,” Feller said. “By telling him this, they took from him the very thing that keeps one alive, and he died three years later. Instead of allowing myself to grow bitter, however, I got into learning about preventative remedies. I turned this time into a series of teachable moments for my kids, learning from my husband’s passing and paying tribute to him by feeding my family a healthy, raw and vegan diet.”

To set a positive example for her children, Feller said, she shifted their focus from what she considered to be the fear-driven aspects of Western medicine to proactive approaches to health and nutrition. When Stephanie was 25 and suffering from skin irritations, neck and stomach swelling, and weight gain — the cause of which doctors could not pinpoint — Feller searched for a deeper connection between inner health and outer appearances.

“I reasoned that as she was still mourning the death of her father and holding those feelings of loss and sadness within her body, this was contributing to her various maladies,” Feller said. “Then, one day, a miracle happened when Stephanie read ‘The Complete Master Cleanse,’ and then did the cleanse for a month.” That regimen improved Stephanie’s condition and motivated her to take greater responsibility for her health.

When Feller moved to the U.S., her desire to keep connected to the benefits of the Dead Sea led her to sell skin care lines with Dead Sea ingredients produced by other companies. This turned out to be field research, as she noticed some products contained parabens, petroleum and other artificial ingredients, colors and fragrances. She then decided to start her own line of products that would be free of such additives.

Items from the Nava Natural line of products

After Nava Natural’s first few years, instead of growing her skin care line like other entrepreneurs, Feller scaled back her product offerings to what she calls the “Fabulous 5” (Eye Control, Line Control RSMO, Healing Anti-Aging Facial Treatment, Facial Peel and Sparkling Body Scrub).

“To make the customers’ experience of the Dead Sea more authentic, I got rid of things that did not relate to what Israelis actually used for their daily care based on what I saw growing up,” she said. “In 2015, I launched five herbal remedy kits with Dr. Robert Morse, an expert on herbal medicine under whom I studied for two years. The kits are designed to stimulate the lymphatic, endocrine, kidney, digestive and other functions that impact one’s well-being.”

To assign clients the right regimen of herbal tonics and supplements, Feller addresses their current health issues and general state of mind. Customers who want a comprehensive plan or cleanse can make an appointment to visit Feller’s home or have her come to theirs to have her develop a custom, three- to five-day program of juicing and herbal usage.

Feller said her motherly instincts come into play when recommending different products to her clients. She helps adults pass along their newly attained habits for good health and nutrition by encouraging them to teach their children as early as possible to read labels and make good food decisions.

“Children need to fall in love with Mother Nature — the colors of the vegetables, fruits and herbs — and understand it is made for them, as opposed to processed foods made for profit,” she said. “A good visual lesson is to have kids compare the orange color of natural juice with orange soda. Have them taste and smell both, and ask them what tastes more ‘real’ to them. It makes an impact, and once they have an awareness of what originates from nature, you can then teach them to say, ‘No, thank you’ to processed food.”

“Based on my Jewish upbringing,” she said, “I believe that, as God created a beautiful world, there are many things sourced rather than produced that heal and nourish the body. After all, animals and birds are not buying junk food or fad beauty products. They have an instinct for finding things in nature that are good for them, and [they] don’t rely on commercials or publicity to find them.

“Somewhere along the way, [humanity] took a few wrong turns, and now my job is to put it back in the right direction.”

Jewish patients taking new look at rhinoplasty

Whether to assimilate or meet a specific standard of American beauty, generations of Jewish teens and young adults have turned to rhinoplasty and other cosmetic surgeries in hopes of improving their career, romantic prospects or social acceptance.

More recently, however, as Jewish patients redefine their notions of beauty, Los Angeles area Jewish plastic surgeons are changing the way they communicate with their patients about what cosmetic surgery — if any — should be done.

These doctors report they also are getting a new wave of Jewish baby boomer clients who have had second thoughts about rhinoplasties done earlier in their lives. Whether they acquired the “button” nose (a standard nose job “style” from the mid-20th century) or something a bit more natural done recently, they want to rediscover their identity by having their original nose reconstructed.

“It’s the Jennifer Grey effect,” Dr. Alexander Z. Rivkin explained, referring to the Jewish actress whose rhinoplasty affected her appearance dramatically. “[My patients] felt like they had lost their uniqueness, a part of their body that connected them to their family and heritage.”

“Mark,” a New York native and California transplant, experienced this effect. After finding success during the 1980s San Francisco tech boom, he decided to have a nose job, thinking it would enhance his status and acceptance in the comparatively less-Jewish milieu of the Bay Area.

“I used to have a Bob Dylan nose, not large but clearly Semitic,” he said. “After the nose job, my cousin told me I looked like an Episcopalian.”

health1Even after a successful procedure, Mark realized he no longer looked like himself. When a music industry job brought him to Los Angeles a few years later, he embraced the city’s larger Jewish community but felt guilty about his nose job. Fully comfortable in his Jewish skin, he found he wanted his old nose back.

The procedure, revision rhinoplasty, can cost from about $14,000 to $24,000, depending on the surgeon, location and specific techniques required. According to Mark’s Beverly Hills-based doctor, Behrooz Torkian, the rebuilding of ethnic features involves using grafts from cartilage elsewhere in the body, such as an ear or a piece of rib, to re-establish features of the nose that were removed. Reversal procedures, he said, are performed more often for Ashkenazi Jews who received “cookie cutter” noses that did not fit their faces in the days before computer imaging.

“Mark’s story resonated with me because I think the worst thing that can be done to a face is to change it in such a way that does not respect its original anatomy or the ethnic features of the face,” Torkian said.

Rivkin, a Westside surgeon and assistant clinical professor at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, started offering a less invasive and expensive alternative to revision rhinoplasty 13 years ago in response to Jewish patients who said they felt as if they had lost a critical part of themselves when they had their ethnic bump shaved down.

The procedure, which involves injected cosmetic fillers, ranges from $2,000 for a temporary procedure lasting up to 18 months to $4,000 for a “permanent” procedure, lasting 10 years or more.

health2Dr. Nima Shemirani, a Beverly Hills facial plastic surgeon, said although younger Jewish patients explore rhinoplasty and other procedures to fit Hollywood ideals of beauty, future generations will be more accepting of their natural ethnic features. He recommends beginning the “Why rhinoplasty?” conversation earlier in life with a board-certified practitioner, especially because revision rhinoplasty is always more complex than primary rhinoplasty, with double the healing time — especially for Middle Eastern and Sephardic Jews.

“A rhinoplasty can be more drastic for these patients and take away ethnic features which may be desirable as they get older,” Shemirani said. “Ashkenazi Jews have more Caucasian features and, therefore, a rhinoplasty can simply help enhance their looks without losing their ethnicity. Even so, we like to catch patients before they make the mistake of getting a nose that doesn’t match their face.”

Torkian pointed out that the standardized “button,” “cookie cutter” or “pixie” nose associated with baby boomer patients does not match up with many other Jewish features and, therefore, telegraphs that a procedure has been done.

However, with advances in preoperative imaging and surgical techniques, today’s primary and revision procedures reflect a more ethnically sensitive approach to the face as a whole. While these advances give the advantage to patients undergoing surgery for the first time, they also have sparked a
trend among patients who previously had not had the opportunity to avoid the “cookie cutter” nose.

“We live in a world in which cultural tolerance and religious sensitivity are greater than they have been in the past,” Torkian said. “I think the desire to keep some cultural or ethnic features is multifaceted and complex, but it appears that people generally are embracing their heritage, are proud of it, and want to ensure not to completely wipe it off of their faces.”

Is beauty a Jewish value?

When we talk about Jewish values, we usually refer to things like justice, compassion, generosity, humility, honesty, faith, wisdom and so on. We rarely talk about beauty.

Beauty is vain and superficial, we’re so often told.

And yet, the word “beautiful” is prominent on this week’s cover of the Jewish Journal, which features an unusually beautiful sukkah, created by designer Jonathan Fong.

Normally, our instinct would be to focus on a deeper meaning of the holiday — the sukkah as a metaphor for humility; as a wake-up call to help the homeless; as a physical, palpable link to our ancestors; as a paradox of frailty and strength; or as an eternal symbol of Jewish endurance.

Those angles are all more profound and meaningful than the notion of beauty. So, why would we feature aesthetics on our cover this year?

One answer is that maybe we simply need a break from all the heaviness. Yes, we can overdose even on things like depth and meaning. Let’s face it, especially at this time of year, we’ve all been marinating in one deep sermon after another. Serious, heavy issues are weighing on us — whether about Israel, society’s ills or the need to transform our lives.

So, it’s quite possible that a light, beautiful sukkah might be just the right antidote to holiday heaviness — an ideal opportunity to lighten up and let all this depth sink in.

Or not.

This shouldn’t surprise anyone, but in Judaism, meaning lurks everywhere — even in something as superficial as beauty.

“Beauty enhances the mitzvot by appealing to the senses,” according to “Gates of the Seasons: A Guide to the Jewish Year” (Central Conference of American Rabbis). “Beautiful sounds and agreeable fragrances, tastes, textures, colors, and artistry contribute to human enjoyment of religious acts, and beauty itself takes on a religious dimension.”

In other words, by adding beauty to what we see, hear, taste and feel, we enhance our spiritual experience of the mitzvah, which brings us closer to the mitzvah itself.

Beauty is also defined, in the Jewish tradition, by the virtues of endurance and permanence.

As Rabbi Joshua Shmidman explains in the magazine Jewish Action: “The Torah requires: ‘And you shall take unto yourselves on the first day (of Sukkot) a fruit of a beautiful tree — pri etz hadar.’ The Talmud (Sukkot 35a) wishes to define what constitutes a beautiful tree by analyzing the Hebrew word for beautiful, hadar.

“The sages conclude that it is the etrog tree, because the word ‘hadar’ is interpreted to be a fruit which ‘dwells continuously all year on the tree’ (ha-dar, literally, ‘that which dwells’). Thus, they understand the word ‘dar’ to mean the opposite of temporary or intermittent residence; rather, it implies permanence, a continuous process through time (similar to the French ‘duree’ or the English ‘endure’).

“The etrog tree fulfills this requirement of constant dwelling, for most other fruits are seasonal, but the etrog grows, blossoms and produces fruit throughout all the seasons: in the heat and the cold, in the wind and in storm — it stubbornly persists! It endures! And in the Jewish view, that is why it is beautiful.”

In addition to its permanence, beauty is also an expression of love. 

As my friend Rabbi Benjamin Blech said to me over lunch last week, adding beauty to a mitzvah — such as making a sukkah beautiful — is an expression of love because it’s a sign that “we are doing the mitzvah not just because we have to, but because we want to.” We glorify God’s presence by going beyond the minimum requirements, by pouring out our love for Him just as we would for those we deeply love.

As the rabbi spoke so beautifully about love, I reflected on another aspect to beauty that is often overlooked — and that is, the beauty of the words we speak.

I don’t care how beautiful we make our sukkahs or holiday tables, if some well-intentioned guest decides to ambush the conversation with a rant against Obama, or Israeli settlers, or the tragic mess in Syria, or any number of incendiary topics best left for another time — all that aesthetic beauty we’ve spent so much time creating will be immediately colored ugly.

If beautiful sounds contribute to the human enjoyment of religious acts, I can’t think of a more beautiful sound than that of pleasant conversation that stimulates the mind and warms our hearts.

In short, by making our sukkahs beautiful and adding meaningful and beautiful conversation, we can honor the enduring value of Jewish beauty, enhance our spiritual experience and deepen our love for the Almighty.

How’s that for superficial?

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

Alon Shalom: A (hair) cut above

Walking into Israeli hair stylist Alon Shalom’s new salon on Melrose Avenue is like entering a luxurious lounge in Marrakech. From sumptuous archways to Moroccan-inspired tiles, it’s easy to forget this is West Hollywood.

Shalom wants the salon to be an intimate experience that helps his clientele relax. To do this, he has designed the space with a sense of home — which for Shalom meant tapping his Moroccan roots as well as drawing inspiration from his father’s and grandfather’s generations.

“My salon is very sharp and old-fashioned,” Shalom said, adding that he wanted a classy style — not too punk rock. “I want customers to feel like they are coming to my house, and to get to know me well enough on a personal level to say, ‘Oh, it’s so you!’ ”

Shalom, 40, has a die-hard following that turned out to celebrate the grand opening of his eponymous salon on April 29. His client list reads like a talent agent’s dream, including Israeli producer Noa Tishby and actress Mercedes Masohn.

Between his smile and sunny disposition, it’s easy to understand Shalom’s appeal. Of course his ability to style hair is what keeps people coming back.

“I’ve known Alon for almost 10 years,” said Bodo Loerke, one of Shalom’s clients. “I go to him because of his skills. He really knows how to use someone’s face for style guidance. He has a real talent — the kind of talent that cannot be learned.”

Shalom believes he was destined to be a stylist. By age 12, he was something of a neighborhood superstar in his Tel Aviv beach enclave.

“I was giving all the local women Farrah Fawcett flips,” he said. “As a kid growing up in the 1970s, I remember watching ‘Charlie’s Angels’ at my neighbor’s house every Friday because they had a color TV. I was obsessed with the hair!”

It wasn’t long before Shalom gained a loyal following. He says the local girls and their mothers would visit him each week for his keen styling sense. “I knew I could do it well, and I loved it. I was so passionate about it. The girls at school would tell me I’d be famous one day. But I was naive and thought, ‘It’s just a hobby.’ ”

His hobby eventually blossomed into a high-profile career. Quickly rising to fame in Israel, he styled A-list celebrities, models and locals alike. Within a few years, he brought his talents to Los Angeles, working in salons and in the fashion industry.

For Shalom, success is measured by the satisfaction of his clients.

“I love making people smile when they leave,” he said. “It’s much more than a career accomplishment. It makes me so happy to know that when I’ve done my job, someone is going to sleep at night feeling good about themselves.”

Consuelo Costin, an Alon client for four years, agrees, saying, “You know that as bad as you come in looking, you’ll come out that amazing. … He’s a perfectionist, and that’s who you want cutting your hair.”

For both men and women, Shalom praises class and simplicity. “God knows what he did when he created you. You don’t need to go to extremes. Instead of dying your hair an extreme color and going with a crazy cut, add lowlights and soft layers,” Shalom said. 

Shalom says beauty comes from within, even when it comes to hair.

“Hair is a lifestyle,” he said. “It’s about what you put into your body and how you live your life.”

As for current trends, Shalom stands by his principle that classy is chic. “Men should take a cue from past generations. The ‘Mad Men’ look is something guys really love right now. You just need the right products.”

Another important tip that Shalom expressed is to be careful not to over-tend one’s hair. “Don’t shampoo too much because it creates frizz,” Shalom warned. “The natural oil on your scalp is plenty to give it healthy shine.” 

Shalom’s enthusiasm is obvious. “I never did this for the money. It came from my love for hair and people,” he said.

But his passion has certainly paid off. Before the grand opening event, Shalom posted a poignant thought on his Facebook page: “As a kid I used to watch ‘Melrose Place’ on TV. Now I own a store there. Dream big and they come true!”

Alon Shalom, 8014 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 782-0141.

Author, psychiatrist Judith Orloff on the power of emotional freedom

Dr. Judith Orloff’s adolescence reads like a Jewish version of “Girl, Interrupted,” the 1999 film starring Wynona Ryder as teenage social misfit whose parents sent her to a psych ward. However, there is a happier ending in Orloff’s story.

In the opening chapter of her New York Times best-seller, “Emotional Freedom: Liberate Yourself From Negative Emotions and Transform Your Life,” Orloff describes how she felt suffocated growing up as a teenager in the upper-middle-class Jewish milieu of 1960s West Los Angeles. She rebelled against the social conventions of her parents’ Jewish country club, Hillcrest, flouted synagogue services, slept in her “holey” jeans and got involved in the drug scene. But what really unnerved her parents were her intuitions and dreams. Orloff describes how she had an uncanny connectedness to her inner world, even predicting her grandfather’s death through a dream.

“From the very beginning, I had a strong sense of God, since I’ve been little,” Orloff said from her home in Marina del Rey in a living room furnished in white and wicker. The red-haired, blue-eyed Orloff faces the Pacific Ocean through large paneled windows, sitting with a calm poise that likely comes from daily meditation and walks along the shore. “I had a strong connection to nature and God, and that seemed more real to me than what was happening here.”

But what Orloff saw as a spiritual gift of intuition, her parents saw as a mental health problem. They checked her into the adolescent substance abuse unit of Westwood Psychiatric Hospital, where she befriended Windy, a “comrade in captivity,” who organized an escape plan with Orloff. Not long after, through the help of a wise psychiatrist, Orloff realized that she was never really free — that her life was simply a reaction to her parents and her surroundings. That’s when her path to emotional freedom began. Two decades later, she returned to that same hospital, treating patients as a well-known psychiatrist.

Orloff is a pioneer in marrying traditional medicine, intuition, energy and dreams in an approach she calls “energy psychiatry,” which she uses in her private practice in Century City. 

Orloff defines emotional freedom as the transformation of negative emotions — fear, depression, anxiety, frustration, loneliness, jealousy and anger — into positive ones: courage, joy, calm, patience, connectivity, self-esteem and compassion. In “Emotional Freedom,” she provides meditation exercises to foster intuitive awareness, discusses the instructional power of dreams, outlines various emotional types and “vampires,” and methodically analyzes major emotions — their physiological, spiritual and psychological sources. 

She often candidly culls from her own personal experiences to demonstrate her points, and a figure that fits prominently into her tales is her mother.

“My mother never wanted me to incorporate intuition in medicine,” she said. “She was afraid it would be thought of as weird.”

Also a physician, her mother ran a thriving practice in family medicine into her 70s, yet Orloff describes her mother as constantly living with a sense of inadequacy. She observed how traditional Jewish services didn’t usually offer the spiritual grounding to relieve her stress and fear.

But on her deathbed, her mother finally revealed to Orloff a secret: She came from a line of intuitive healers, which Orloff is quick to point out doesn’t translate into “psychics,” a term she doesn’t like to use.

Orloff never became the conventional doctor her mother dreamed she would be, married to another Jewish doctor. On the lookout for her beshert, she has always been more attracted to creative types — writers, poets, artists — although in the book, she described a relationship with a devout Orthodox scholar, whose linear, intellectual path to spirituality stifled his feeling of connectedness to “God.” He rejected her suggestions for new meditation techniques, and the relationship ended after his rabbi called Orloff a witch.

Orloff has longed healed the rebel inside and connects to Judaism through its spiritual and mystical tradition. Rabbi Donald Singer, the leader of the Shir Hadash community and a Zen Buddhist, is her personal rabbi.

“The Jewish practice primed me to an openhearted, loving connection to God with beautiful ritual chants and God and a sense of family and community,” Orloff said.

In her study, which is dominated by a large Mac on her desk, a mat for yoga and stretching, and a corner with cushions for meditation, she looks lovingly at a picture of her parents.

After they passed on, she returned to a major source of her teenage rebellion, Hillcrest Country Club, and gave a lecture about her second book, “Second Sight,” to a very receptive audience. Orloff recently completely a book tour and is currently conducting workshops across the country.

“I’d give anything to have mother sitting there dressed to the nines in the front row,” she writes, “just once, even though I know she’s cheering from the Other Side.”

Orloff will be holding a workshop on “The Power of Intuition and Emotions to Heal,” Oct. 28-30 at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur. Her Web site is


The skin under skinny jeans

Those once-coveted outfits in your closet now elicit sighs of “I have nothing to wear” as last year’s trends take their inevitable plunge. While you’re hunting for the hottest fall fashions this month, remember also to invest in what will never go out of style: soft skin, silky hair, well-groomed nails and a radiant face. These products highlight the most gorgeous accessory you’ll ever own: you!

1. If you don’t get your fill of apples and honey during the New Year, add a little to your bath with SpaMitzvah’s Applebaum Bath Drizzle ($48). Soak in the skin-softening honey while the scent of apples and cinnamon lifts you away from the stress of your day. spamitzvah.com

2. Those perfect, non-crunchy curls you envy on models in fashion mags only seemed possible via Photoshop, until the Mixed Chicks strutted onto the scene. The Canoga Park-based line offers a No Frizz Trio of Shampoo, Conditioner and a Leave-In ($39.33) that beautifully defines curls on girls of every cultural background. mixedchicks.net

3. Bring some of fall’s bright hues to your fingertips with OPI nail lacquer in Hot and Spicy (from $2). The pumpkin hue gives a shout-out to the season and is much more fun than your routine clear coat. opi.com and local salons

4. Relaxing skin treatments are all the more soothing when you can feel good about how they’re made. Containing only natural, environmentally friendly ingredients made in Israel and never tested on animals, AVANI’s Mineral Body Scrub ($39.99) exfoliates and moisturizes with Dead Sea minerals, jojoba oil and vitamin E. avani-deadsea.com

5. Want poutier lips without the needles? Micabeauty Cosmetics’ Lip Plumper in bronze ($29.95) uses the organic compound niacin (a B vitamin) to plump your kissers while other all-natural ingredients moisturize and shine. micabeauty.com

6. Everyone from salon pros to frizzy-haired seventh-graders has been buzzing about Moroccanoil hair products — and for good reason! Moroccanoil’s original Oil Treatment ($40) leaves your locks so visibly glossy and touchably soft that you don’t have to explain why you can’t stop running your fingers through your hair. moroccanoilproducts.com

Fashion & Beauty: Highlighting the hottest local Israeli designers

Some of the top names in fashion today are Jewish: Donna Karan, Anne Klein, Calvin Klein, Michael Kors. And that’s just the Ks on what is a long list of designers who have shaped the American fashion industry since its beginnings in the textile factories of New York, Boston, Philadelphia and other urban centers. Jewish immigrants started out as tailors and factory workers and parlayed their skills into opportunities to climb the social ladder. “Jewish immigrants had another advantage — a talent for reinventing themselves and a sensitivity to image,” wrote Johanna Neuman in a brief history of Jews in fashion, “From Ghetto to Glamour.”

In this issue, we take a look at a new breed of Jewish immigrants — Israelis — who are making their mark on American fashion. From Gypsy05’s flowing, eco-conscious line of casual wear to Tal Sheyn’s high glamour evening gowns, and from YMI’s figure-hugging jeans for young women to Dina Bar-El’s luxurious dresses, these four SoCal designers are continuing the legacy of Jews who have translated their own personal aesthetics and passionate self-expression into fashion we can all appreciate and enjoy.

What is art good for?

Still, the question remains: What, in this world filled with strife and need and uncertainty, is the use of art?

The planet’s on the verge of destruction, entire nations are starving to oblivion, man’s cruelty to man has reached new heights, and yet we persist — writers and musicians and painters and sculptors — telling stories in one form or another when we all know they’ve all been told before, that nothing we could invent would rival the truth in its enormity and outrageousness, that on any given day there are bigger, more urgent tasks at hand.

What is the wisdom, I ask myself every day, of working so hard (and we do work hard) to offer the world something it has not asked for and probably doesn’t want?

It is true that I write because I can’t help it, that every artist is compelled by a wanting that is more forceful, more insistent, than good old common sense. But it is also true that I wake up every day to the same question that haunted me the day before: to what end?

Years ago, on a perfect spring afternoon in Los Angeles, I had occasion to sit next to a very elegant, very quiet gentleman at a luncheon on an outdoor patio. He was introduced to me by one of his fawning, breathless fans as “Jack Boul, a great artist, exceptional, really, though he doesn’t like to talk about it, he lives in Maryland, he’s had a retrospective at the Corcoran, and would you believe that Paul Richard, dean of the capital’s art critics and longtime critic for The Washington Post, said his work ‘delivers to the brain bracing little jolts of a strong emotion sensed seldom in contemporary art.’ Can you imagine? Sensed seldom in contemporary art?”

Graciously, if a bit embarrassed, or so it seemed to me, Boul shook my hand, then looked away. For the rest of the afternoon, he listened politely to the conversation but spoke little, giving the impression that he was thinking of other, more significant matters; that he was looking through his surroundings at deeper, more remarkable places. Just when I thought he had had enough of the shallow, West Coast — it’s all about me and my social ambitions — talk that is the hallmark of all such luncheons, I heard the click of a camera and turned to see that Boul was taking pictures — of me, of all people — just shooting away without a word until, satisfied with what he had captured, he put the camera down without an explanation.

“He likes to study things,” the fan volunteered. “The walls in his studio are covered with photographs.”

Weeks later I would receive a picture of myself in the mail: I’m sitting under a tree with very green leaves; it’s a bad hair day, and I have no makeup on, and I’m wearing something dark and simple, which makes me look even more washed up, and yet, this is the best picture of myself I’ve ever seen. It’s more real, more familiar, more I know this person than any image I could find, even in a mirror. I put the picture in a frame directly outside my office.

Is this, I wonder every time I go into and out of the office, what art is for? To capture the truth of a person or a thing? To tell that truth in unexpected ways to people who expect it least?

This month, the Museum of the Holocaust in Los Angeles will feature 17 monotypes by Boul. Titled, “Responses of the Innocent: American Jewish Artists and the Holocaust,” the exhibition also includes works by two other artists, Lee Silton and Rifka Angel, and will run from Dec. 14 to Feb. 27.

Boul’s monotypes are of dark, shadowy figures that linger in the memory long after they’ve been viewed. Eric Denker, senior lecturer at the National Gallery of Art, wrote about them in his book, “Intimate Impressions”: “While the subject of the set is the nightmare of the Holocaust, the more universal content examines man’s inhumanity to man.”

Is this, I ask myself as I sit down to search again for the right words, the right voice with which to tell a story, the purpose of art? To study the nature of man, understand its failings, expose its vices?

Boul was 19 years old, the son of a Russian émigré father and a Romanian mother, when he was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1946. He was born in Brooklyn, had grown up in the South Bronx. When the Army called, he was studying at the American Artist’s School in New York. But the Army sent him to Europe, to a prisoner of war camp outside Pisa, Italy, where he served as a sergeant in the Army Corps of Engineers.

“I remember showing German prisoners of war pictures of the liberated concentration camps,” he says of his time in Italy. “They refused to believe the pictures. ‘You have your propaganda, and we have ours.'”

Back in the United States after the war, he finished art school, became a highly successful painter and printmaker. He taught art at the American University in Washington and later at the new Washington Studio School. He painted landscapes, urban sites, the human figure in its many forms and manifestations.

Mostly, he sought to reveal the core of his subjects, to overcome the physical details that set one apart from another and arrive instead at their collective truth. In 1987, many shows and exhibits and years of teaching behind him, he went to see a film, “Shoah,” and remembered the German soldiers at the prisoner of war camp. Forty years had passed since he heard the soldiers deny the Holocaust.

“I was very moved,” he says of the film. “It showed the cattle cars that transported people to the concentration camps, the furnaces where people were cremated and the fields where the ashes were scattered. It never showed the victims. I remembered the photographs I had seen in Italy 40 years earlier and decided to look for other photos of the camps.”

In the U.S. Archives in Washington, he found hundreds of photographs from different concentration camps.

“I looked at the photos for days and made drawings. In my studio, I made these monotypes from the drawings. I wanted to make something that would help to keep that memory alive.”

The result was the 17 monotypes that will be on view at the Holocaust Museum. This is only the second time (the first was at the Corcoran) that Boul has allowed the collection to be shown, and it’s due in no small part to the efforts of Mark Rothman, the museum’s executive director, who has made every attempt to craft an exhibition that stays true to the intent of the artist and the merit of the art.

Perhaps, then, this is what art is good for: to bear witness to the truth, no matter how often it is denied? To remind those of us who want to forget? To tell a story — yes, a story that has been told a thousand times before — one more time, to one more person.

“Responses of the Innocents: American Jewish Artists and the Holocaust,” Jack Boul, Rifka Angel, Lee Silton,” runs Dec. 14 to Feb. 27 at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, 6435 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 651-3708. http://www.lamoth.org.

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

Beauty can arise from tragedy

In mid-July, our 26-year-old son, Micah, lost a lifelong friend, whom he had gone all through school with at Adat Ari El and Milken. On that day, Micah went to a birthday party for his friends Arash Khorsandi and Daniel Levian, two Persian Jews in his intimate circle of about 20 friends from his high school class. The bonds among these kids have only grown stronger since they all returned from college.

Micah left the party early because there was a reunion at Camp Alonim that evening that he did not want to miss. We spoke to him and asked about the party, “Lots of drinking, but I got to spend some good time with Daniel Levian, who kept kidding me, ‘Micah, I knew you’d be one of the white boys to show up.'”

Since the seventh grade, the Milken friends have always joked with one another about their Persian and Ashkenazic backgrounds. My son and all his Ashkenazic friends used to refer to the Persians as the Persian Posse. No one could have predicted the lifelong friendship that would flourish among all of them.

Late the next afternoon, Micah called sobbing: “Daniel Levian was killed in a car accident leaving the party last night. His brother is in critical condition.”

As the events unfolded, it was a story that could only be measured against the biblical account of Job. It was everyone’s worst nightmare. Daniel and his brother were passengers. They had taken a taxi to the party and intended to take one home. But as they were leaving, they accepted a ride home with another friend, who survived the accident with minor injuries. Daniel’s brother initially was given a 2 percent chance of survival; he has since come home and is expected to make a full recovery.

Arash and Daniel had been inseparable best friends since the seventh grade. I remember Daniel as an outgoing, engaging roly-poly kid and Arash as a talkative little guy with big, expressive eyes. They grew up to be two swarthy, handsome, successful young professionals with slick black hair raised to stylish points above their scalps — Daniel a real estate investor and Arash a lawyer.

Following Daniel’s death, Arash immediately began working through his sorrow. Just days after the accident, he gathered his friends to meet as a group with a psychotherapist. He followed up with a Friday night Shabbat dinner attended by those who had been at the party, because they all recognized that they needed to be together.

The conversations that ensued began with memories of Daniel, but then transitioned into why Daniel had died; what vulnerabilities they all could encounter; and for which actions could they take responsibility. Faced with Daniel’s death, they were forced to admit that the out-of-control consumption of alcohol among their generation was the fatal mistake. As they spoke further, they realized that many of their generation of young Jewish professionals, including themselves, were living in excess, not only with alcohol, but also through materialism. They spoke about their value system, which ultimately returned them to their Jewish roots.

Since July, about 30 young people, Persians and Ashkenazim, have begun to meet regularly to create the LEV Foundation, inspired by their love and their loss of Daniel Levian. Lev, which means “heart” in Hebrew, is what they often called Daniel.

Recently I sat in as Arash and another close friend, David Chasin, came to The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles to present the LEV Foundation to Federation President John Fishel and ask for guidance and infrastructure support. David is a participant in The Federation’s Geller Leadership Project. The two described Daniel’s personality and values, and through pictures and stories, they brought him right into the room with them. They proudly told Fishel they were not looking for money; the group, their friends and families would be the funders.

The LEV Foundation envisions itself as built upon multiple pillars. One of them would be social service projects designed to protect young Jews from driving drunk by offering free taxi service to pick them up and take them home. The group even worked out ways that kids’ cars could be driven home so no one would feel they had to drive in order to hide their behavior from their parents.

Another pillar would be advocacy, tackling the issues of excess so apparent in this generation.

Another would be about values, offering Shabbat dinners alternating between Ashkenazic and Persian traditions, Torah study, Israel travel and funding. During this phase of The Federation presentation, Arash and David commented that every one of the 40 young people involved in the creation of this foundation are either day school graduates or Birthright Israel alumni.

I thought about the millions of dollars the Jewish world has invested in day schools and Birthright. If there has ever been a return on the community’s dollars, this effort is the best demonstration. When the critical need arose to face this tragedy, these kids had the knowledge, the values, the tools and the path on which to place their sorrow, so that from it they could work to create a better world. These are our community’s children, of whom we can be very proud.

I thought about all the comments I had heard over the years in the kids’ day schools about the Persian, Israeli and Russian populations.

“Oh, the school is becoming so Persian! The school is becoming so Israeli!” Together, these kids prove that their parents were wrong. As they are showing us, the schools have turned out Jewish kids who can bridge the gaps between them themselves by celebrating one another’s cultures, knowing they are all deeply connected as Jews and friends who share many common experiences.

As Arash and David walked out, I could see Daniel Levian being carried on their shoulders: He wasn’t the tall, thin young man with slick black hair. He was the roly-poly, engaging kid I remembered, and I realized he belongs to all of us.

Gary Wexler, a former advertising agency creative director, owns Passion Marketing, a consulting firm to nonprofit organizations worldwide, including major Jewish organizations in the United States, Canada and Israel.

Israeli photo application promises more beautiful you

If the camera could lie, would you let it?

Three Israeli computer scientists from Tel Aviv University have developed the ultimate enhancement tool for retouching digital images. Called the Beauty Function, their program scans an image of your face, studies it and produces a slightly more beautiful you.

Introduced at a conference in Boston recently after more than three years of work, the Beauty Function is the inspiration of Tel Aviv University’s Daniel Cohen-Or and Tommer Leyvand.

In developing the Beauty Function, they asked 300 men and women to rank pictures of peoples’ faces — with varying degrees of beauty — on an attractiveness scale of 1-7. The scores were correlated to detailed measurements and ratios of facial features, such as nose width, chin length and distance from eyes to ears.

Some 250 measurement points were taken into account and, once formulated, researchers developed an algorithm that let them apply some of the desired elements of attractiveness — as mathematical equations — to a fresh image.

The result is a computer program that within minutes can decide how to make you more beautiful. Larger eyes perhaps? A less-crooked nose? How about lips slightly closer to the chin?

When carried out on a large number of sample images, volunteers agreed that 79 percent of time the effects of the Beauty Function — which can be applied to both men and women — made a face more attractive.

Photo-editing software companies such as Adobe (manufacturer of Photoshop) are potential customers of the new tool, and researchers hope it will also become a must-have add-on for all digital cameras in the future, “just like the red-eye function is today,” Leyvand said.

Like a true scientist, Leyvand has also tried using the Beauty Function on himself and family members. One relative told him that she was pleased with the output.

“She told me, ‘Now I know what I need to do to improve my makeup application,'” Leyvand said.

“If you can understand what the algorithm of the Beauty Function has chosen to do on your face,” he added, “it can help you accentuate parts of yourself deemed more attractive. You might want to use more lipstick to make your lips fuller.”

Plastic surgeons, he adds, may find it helpful to increase business. With a flick of a switch they can show people how minor alterations on the face and neck can enhance attractiveness.

Chances are most people will opt to keep enhancements in the realm of the digital world. And there is a need: It is no big secret that celebrities and models are being digitally enhanced in pictures and magazines. Why shouldn’t all of us enjoy some of that picture-perfect retouching too?

“Beauty is not in the eye of the beholder,” co-researcher Cohen-Or said. “Beauty is merely a function of mathematical distances or ratios. And interestingly, it is usually the average distances to features which appears to most people to be the most beautiful.”

“I don’t know much about beauty and I don’t pretend that I do,” he added, “but the nice thing about this project is that we didn’t intend or aim to define beauty. We don’t care about the reasons that make someone appear to be more beautiful. For us, every picture is just a collection of numbers.”

Leyvand and Cohen-Or envision that such a tool will be used for producing the ultimate dating site picture, and as a one-stop-shop enhancement tool for photo editors at glossy magazines.

Whatever the purpose behind using Beauty Function, the researchers are confident it will make a splash in the photo-editing world. Unlike existing software that relies on human intervention to decide what changes to make, the Beauty Function uses the computer to decide. Also, current touch-up software has magazine editors complaining of doctored images looking “cartoony” and little like the original. By comparison, the output of the Beauty Function looks natural.

Since its unveiling in Boston, the response to the Beauty Function has been overwhelming: Media, including New Scientist and Forbes, have been eager to report on a computer program that can change the landscape of digital photography.

The Beauty Function idea started around the time Leyvand had finished his master’s degree in 2003. Lingering around the computer science lab at Tel Aviv University, he continued to ping-pong ideas off his former mentor, Cohen-Or. Together they decided to build on a body of work in the area of computer learning, which was started by Dr. Gideon Dror at the Academic College of Tel-Aviv-Yaffo.

“When I thought about what he did, I thought about using his idea to guide an actual change towards making a picture more beautiful,” Leyvand recalled.
Today, Leyvand is in Redmond, Wash., working for Microsoft as a computer developer, while Cohen-Or has taken on the task of commercializing the beauty software.

As part of his ongoing work as a computer scientist, Cohen-Or also works with the notion of finding a similar beauty function related to color. Color harmonies exist, he said, yet not a lot has been done with aesthetics and color. Finding or matching the right harmonies of color — opposites or colors belonging to the same hue — can have a big impact on advertising and art, he believes.

But with or without color, the Beauty Function is bound to impact the way snapshots of our faces are taken and processed.

“Think about how great this could be for a professional photographer at a photo shoot,” Leyvand said. “Normally they take hundreds of pictures to capture the right expression for the perfect shot. It is a rare combination of light, camera position and angle of the face that makes the perfect picture.

“Getting that moment is a kind of magic. I think with our software we can capture that magic moment every single time.”

Tel Aviv University Homepage:
‘ TARGET=’_blank’>http://www.cs.tau.ac.il/~tommer/

Daniel Cohen-Or’s page:
‘ TARGET=’_blank’>http://www2.mta.ac.il/~gideon/

Karin Kloosterman is a freelance writer for ISRAEL21c, a media organization focusing on 21st century Israel.

God Is Gray

“This is heaven,” I announced Sunday afternoon.

Cruising the city (the absence of traffic in itself celestial), sunroof open, exposed shoulders browning. Wild poppies glistening, swaying in a soft breeze scented by orange blossoms; singing along to KOST 103.5 FM:

I can see clearly now the rain is gone,

I can see all obstacles in my way.

Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind.

It’s gonna be a bright, bright sunshiney day.

“Heaven,” I said. “Yep,” everyone agreed, celebrating under flawless sapphire sky — free from even the teeniest speck of a cloud — “this is paradise.”

Heaven, paradise — choose a synonym: ecstasy, bliss, rapture. We use such words to describe experiences of perfect, supreme happiness, God on earth. The conditions on Sunday merited all such descriptions, especially that immaculately blue sky. Skies like that burn gloom away.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Gray days certainly have a subtle beauty. But no one calls Seattle paradise, and if Fritz Coleman reported that a cloud was going to remain interminably over Los Angeles, a mass exodus to South Beach would certainly ensue.

I’d probably go, too. I mean, who wants to live under a cloud forever?

How dull. How boring.

Those are the synonyms for “cloudy,” along with: hazy, murky, gray, obscure — not the ideal forecast, to say the least.

What would inspire my sermons in such weather? How would I instill faith in God if I were denied its experience? Because the experience of the Divine is an ecstatic one, right? It is the feeling of rapture, bright, glorious bliss, isn’t it? I mean, no one prays in hopes of reaching an enhanced state of hazy obscurity.

And yet, this week’s parsha tells us that from the day the Israelites erected the tabernacle (the place of Divine presence made manifest on earth) a cloud covered it. Seems they weren’t singing much about sunshiny days, for, “so it was always: The cloud covered [the tabernacle] by day and the appearance of fire by night” (Numbers 9:16).

No need for sunglasses or flashlights near God’s house. More like a mobile home than an estate, the cloud was the original built-in navigation system: When it moved, the people picked up the tabernacle and followed it, “and in the place where the cloud abode, there [they] encamped.”

Meaning, the closer we get to the experience of God on earth, the more overcast it is, and if it starts to clear up, we should move away from the brightness and follow the clouds. Always.

And so I must ask: Are you kidding? What, so heaven is hazy? God is gray?

Maybe. At least, the ultimate experience of God is gray. As in not black nor white, not agony nor ecstasy, not seasonal affective disorder nor carcinoma from sun overexposure; it is the subtle obscurity at the nexus of all those extremes.

According to the portion, God’s presence is made manifest in the middle. We call that dull, murky or boring — or, we can call it balance. See, the ultimate Los Angeles Sunday might be our human definition of heaven, but it is one that is inherently dependent on a day of equivalently dismal, mud-sliding gloom.

Here on earth, that’s how we see things: in terms of their polarities. The big Chief set that up in Genesis: light opposed darkness, day defined night, man contrasted woman. God created all the highs and lows in precise opposition to one another as the essence of our human experience — to be tempered with our spiritual experience. But we lost our way and got stuck in the duality, where our delusional aspirations for perfection and delight led to swings toward equal and opposite desperation. Lost in the realm of heroes and villains, beauty and ugliness, we still think that bad feelings will disappear when bright, sunny days come back around.

From this human perspective, it makes sense that we would equate a Divine day with dazzling, untainted perfection. But God is beyond our mundane experience. He is the source of it. She is the containment of it all. And in recognizing that God is One, we head for the clouds — we welcome the haze.

A cloud sheltered the Divine’s residence among the Israelites every day, and fire illuminated it by night; it is never fully dark nor light in the presence of what is most holy. Always a bit obscured, for how could we possibly apprehend everything or nothing?

God is gray. God is the opaque place in between all of our yearnings for some ultimate and definitive extreme. And while I am still “in heaven” that summer has finally descended upon La La Land, I am well aware that it is only as glorious as it is because it contrasts the nasty cold I kvetched about all winter.

Sunday was a temporary ecstasy for which I will pay with my grief in the fall. But if I can remember to set my sights on the clouds, as few or many as they may be, I will be sheltered by their subtle and eternal protection, predictably guided back to my own center. It may not be rapture, but it will certainly be peace. Wholeness. Shalom. That is paradise. A cloudy day.

Karen Deitsch is rabbi at Temple Ahavat Shalom in Northridge.


Home Pampering Easy as 1, 2, Ahhhhh

No one deserves a spa experience more than you do. Just picture it — warm tubs scented with essential oils, invigorating body scrubs, refreshing botanical blend face masks smoothed on in soothing circular massaging motions and misty showers with luscious gels.

Sound divine? You bet. Millions of people are embracing the spa experience — taking what was formerly an exclusive pleasure of the rich and famous and turning it into a health and wellness phenomenon.

Millions of spa-goers must be on to something. But why limit all that good stuff to the precious times you can book at a spa? Why not have a spa experience whenever you choose?

It’s easier than you think to have sensual and sensational spa experiences in your own home, on your own time.

Create an Inviting Environment for the Senses

“The first step is to create an environment for your spa experience,” said Susan Kirsch, owner of Kirsch Cosmetic Clinic and Spa in Toronto, Canada. “Remember to incorporate all of your senses.”

Since water is an important part of most treatments, the bathroom is a good place to create your home spa, Kirsch said. All it takes is a little imagination.

A really simple way to transform any regular bathroom, she said, is to soften the lights.

“Have a dimmer installed on the light switch,” Kirsch said. “Just dim the lights and light some candles to turn an everyday bathroom into something that looks a bit more special.”

If a warm, bubbling bath is your idea of heaven, consider having a hot tub installed in your backyard, on your deck or inside your house. Currently, more than 5 million households now own a hot tub and by the end of this year, roughly 400,000 Americans are expected to purchase a hot tub for their homes, according to a recent study by the National Spa and Pool Institute in Alexandria, Va.

“Some people think a hot tub is a luxury item. I think it’s a necessity,” Andrea Martone said. “And my husband and daughters feel the same way. It’s much better to relax and de-stress in a hot tub after dinner than to sit in front of the television set. Sometimes we use it together. We light candles and chat. And sometimes I use it by myself — to meditate or just go to another place in my mind.”

Prices on hot tubs, according to the National Spa and Pool Institute, range from between $2,500 to more than $10,000 (plus installation costs). The average price is about $5,500.

Just as certain sounds can unsettle us, other sounds can help us achieve a sense of calm. Kirsch likes to use music that’s soothing and relaxing at her spa and during her at-home spa treatments — “something that’s appropriate for a healing environment,” she said.

She says she often plays the music of singer Enya.

“Choose whatever works for you,” she said.

For Martone, it’s the splashing sounds of water.

“I’ve got little waterfall fountains all over my house,” Martone said. “They bring a sense of calm to whatever room they’re in. My daughter even has one in her room for doing homework.”

Martone is a New York City publicist and co-founder of Spa-Daze, a company that provides professional spa treatments and services for groups of four or more in the setting of your choice — including your home.

Martone also suggests burning essential oils to set a relaxing tone for an at-home spa experience. She recommends using a 50/50 mix of your favorite essential oils and water for a scent that’s noticeable but not overpowering.

“Different scents can help create different moods,” she said. “For example, lavender is very calming to the senses and nice to burn at night before going to sleep. And oils like eucalyptus and peppermint are soothing — especially if you’re ill — and can help you breathe easier.”

Choose Your Products

If you are a spa devotee, you may already be one step closer to recreating your spa experience at home. Many spas sell the products they use in their treatments — facial masks, exfoliates, bath and shower gels, lotions and more. At Kirsch Cosmetic Clinic and Spa, staff members will custom mix body scrubs and other beauty potions for guests. So if you’ve had a particularly divine professional treatment, buy the product to use at home. You can conjure up your fond memory of that experience as relaxation therapy.

When shopping for new products for your home spa, buy in small quantities — especially if you have sensitive skin, said Carrie Pierce of Ecco Bella Botanicals of Wayne, N.J. Ecco Bella, which means “behold beauty” in Italian, is a line of natural, gentle-to-the-skin cosmetics and skin care products that use medicinal-grade essential oils.

“It’s important to have the luxury of trying a new product or scent without making a huge and perhaps costly commitment,” she said.

For that reason, Ecco Bella offers smaller, lower-priced “try me” sizes of their scented bath and shower gels, lotions, parfums and fizz therapy bath marbles.

It’s important to find scents formulated to enhance the experience you’re trying to create in your home spa, Pierce said.

Then revel in them. For example, lemon verbena has a reputation as a mood-lifting, feel-good scent. And vanilla reputedly has an aphrodisiac-like effect on men — “second only to the scent of pumpkin pie,” Pierce said.

“Layering your selected scent by using a gel, lotion — maybe spraying a little parfum on your pillow — is a luxurious way to take care of yourself and to take your spa experience with you,” she said.

Formulate a Plan

Don’t try to do too much all at once, Kirsch advised.

“Remember, your primary goal is to feel relaxed and pampered,” she said.

For a simple and luxurious home spa experience Kirsch recommends the following head-to-toe regime.

You can begin one of two ways — either by covering your head with a towel and lightly steaming your face over a basin filled with boiling water or by gently swabbing your face with a warm, damp towel.

“Your choice,” Kirsch said. “If you want to go the simple route, the warm, damp towel works just fine.”

The next step is to exfoliate — or slough off — dead skin cells.

“The skin has a natural turnover of cells. When you exfoliate, you just help that natural process along,” Kirsch said.

When choosing a product, remember exfoliates generally come in two forms — gel and grain.

“The gel form is less invasive and may be good to start out with,” Kirsch said.

Apply in circular massaging motions with your fingertips. Leave the exfoliate on until it feels tacky and almost dry. Then slough it off with the flat part of your fingers. Rinse with water.

Next, apply a mask in the same circular massaging motions.

“It’s important to choose one that’s formulated for your skin type,” Kirsch said. For example, if your skin is dry, you’ll want to use a hydrating mask.

While the mask does it’s magic, draw a warm bath.

“Put a drop or two of essential oils in the water,” Kirsch said. “Soak for a while in the bath, then exfoliate with a body scrub. Try using a loofah mitt and massage in circular motions.”

Then rinse and be careful getting out of the tub since it will be slippery. Apply a moisturizing body lotion.

It’s important to wait 48 hours after shaving or waxing before using a body scrub and don’t use it on any areas that have cuts or nicks.

Remove your mask by rinsing with lukewarm water. Apply a moisturizer using circular massaging motions — and don’t forget your neck.

Use pumice to smooth away hard or rough spots and calluses on your toes, heels and the bottoms of your feet. Apply a moisturizer.

“Give your regular moisturizer an enriching boost by breaking open a Vitamin E capsule and mixing it into the lotion,” Kirsch said.

The final step in your at home spa experience, Kirsch said, is to climb into your bed, nestle under the comfy covers and listen to music for a while.

“You should feel totally rejuvenated and stress free,” she said.

And if for some reason you don’t, you can try again — and again — until you get the hang of it. In this case, there’s absolutely no harm in trying.

“These lovely things you can do at home for yourself can really elevate the quality of your life,” Pierce said. “They can make a woman feel sexy, cherished, valued, calm and better able to cope. They allow you to embrace yourself.”

Beth Gilbert is a New York-based writer.

Get Enraptured With the Central Coast


California is beautiful. You can forget that sometimes, living in Los Angeles, fighting traffic, commuting past big-box retailers and strip malls and — does it get any worse? — Lincoln Boulevard.

But drive a few hours and you will find Beauty herself, and you will once again be certain few places on Earth are as spectacular as the state in which you live.

Case in point: a three-day weekend drive from Los Angeles to Half Moon Bay via Hearst Castle and Paso Robles.

Now is the time to take this trip, when the summer crowds have departed Mr. Hearst’s

California Thanksgiving Resources

Congregation Ohr Tzafon (Reform)
2605 Traffic Way
Atascadero, CA 93477.
For more information, call (805) 238-1502.

Hearst Castle
Tour reservations are highly recommended. Call (800) 444-4445, or reserve online at www.hearstcastle.com.

The Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay
1 Miramontes Point Road, Half Moon Bay. For more information, call (650) 712-7020, or visit www.ritzcarlton.com/resorts/half_moon_bay.

Sea Otter Inn
6656 Moonstone Beach Drive, Cambria.
For more information, call (800) 965-8347 or visit www.seaotterinn.com.

Willow Creek Olive Ranch-Pasolivo
8530 Vineyard Drive, Paso Robles. Open Friday-Sunday and by appointment.
Call (805) 227-0186 or visit www.pasolivo.com.

homey little cottage near Cambria, when the olives are ripe and the extra virgin oil is flowing in Paso Robles, and when, at the end of the car ride, you can literally soak in the Martha Stewart-perfect holiday atmosphere of the Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay. Pumpkin facial, anyone?

Los Angeles to Cambria is an easy four-hour drive, along some of the world’s most beautiful, usually sunny, coastline. Numerous reasonable priced “inns” — actually gussied up motor lodges — line the shore drive just north of Cambria. Most feature swimming pools, quick access to a network of coastline trails, and views of cows meandering the hills opposite PCH. There are no kosher restaurants in town, but the elegant Sows Ear Cafe on Main Street and the more family-friendly Brambles Dinner House offer high quality fish and vegetarian dishes.

Arriving in the bustling tourist town by 2 p.m. still allows enough time to see Hearst Castle, just 20 minutes away. Make your reservations by phone or online, and secure a tour time. Many of the lodges in Cambria offer slightly discounted tickets to the castle, and will make the arrangements for you

Tour One, the basic first-timer’s tour, takes just under two hours. And for first-, second- or third-time visitor, the scope and design and ostentation of the castle never fails to impress. Newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst toured the castles of Europe as a young man, and set to emulate them on this windswept, untrammeled piece of coast. Beginning in 1919, Hearst built but never completed the castle on his 240,000-acre San Simeon ranch.

Take in the sumptuous furnishings, the elaborate outdoor pool where Winston Churchill and Cary Grant and others frolicked, the “guest cottages” designed down to the door jambs by Old World artisans, the mosaic tiled indoor pool and the landscaping of thousands of native citrus and other trees and shrubs — “unbelievable” is the word you will hear your fellow visitors whisper most.

For visitors whispering in Hebrew, the museum offers a translation of the salient points of the tour in pamphlet form — just ask for it in the beginning. And it might help Jewish visitors appreciate the site more if they gloss over Hearst’s early enthusiasm for Adolf Hitler and Italian fascism — the staunch anti-communist reportedly struck a newsreel deal with the Führer following the 1934 Nuremberg Rally, and used his media empire to justify the Nazi invasion of Ukraine. Take comfort instead that Hearst was an enthusiastic participant in the July 1943 Emergency Conference to Save the Jewish People of Europe in New York City, which attempted to show the Roosevelt administration that saving European Jewry was not just a Jewish issue, but an American one.

Tour One will leave you with what the Hebrew pamphlet might call a ta’am shel od — a taste for more — but there is also more California to explore.

Lock the kids in the car and backtrack south through Cambria to Highway 46 East, one of the last and most beautiful underdeveloped agricultural byways in the state. Vineyards from such wineries as Eberle, Tablas and Tobin James give way to rolling pastureland, steep arroyos, olive groves and old farmhouses. Take it slow — you’re looking at Napa or Sonoma 30 years ago.

Just outside Paso Robles, tour the Willow Creek Olive Ranch, makers of Pasolivo, a superb native olive oil. You could spend thousands to fly to Tuscany for the same olive-crushing experience, and not taste any better oil.

You can stop for lunch in Paso Robles and, if there on Friday, attend the 7:30 p.m. Shabbat services at Congregation Ohr Tzafon.

Continue north from Paso Robles on Highway 101, then make your way west to Highway 1 and Half Moon Bay, about three hours away.

In October, this remarkably quiet and well-kept town just 40 minutes south of San Francisco hosts a pumpkin festival, drawing too many thousands of visitors from all over. But come November, the almost perennially foggy weather and non-freeway access ensure a quieter time.

There are a handful of quiet bed and breakfasts and some larger lodging alternatives in the area. For a splurge of opulence and natural beauty, nothing, however, surpasses The Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay.

The relatively new luxury hotel can’t justify its existence based on resort weather or famous environs. Set on a cliff overlooking a turbulent and unswimmable portion of the Pacific, it is the epitome of a destination hotel.

Fortunately, it is self-contained.

There is a full-service spa that draws on a famous local resource to come up with a pumpkin-peel body scrub and pumpkin mask. An attendant spreads the mushed-up pulp on your skin and, lo and behold, you feel your carapace give way.

A cozy fire is always stoked in the lounge, and guests gather outside at night by fire pits — thick blankets provided — to look at the surf and the stars, or dip in a cliffside Jacuzzi.

The restaurant, Navio, offers a Sunday brunch of staggering quality, as well as special holiday meals. Kosher catering is available by special arrangement.

Thanksgiving time is celebrated here in a big way. A display of giant pumpkins welcomes visitors, and there are holiday cooking classes for adults and children (as at many Ritz Carlton’s, there is a schedule of high quality kids’ programming for ages 4-12).

In fact, the resort, which has all the signature Ritz amenities and luxuries, offers a complete Winter school of some 50 classes — from chocolate cookery to wedding planning.

Along with the a Scotland-like golfing experience (we watched many diehards tee off in light drizzle), there are many outdoor activities available — whale watching, mountain biking, hiking.

But our favorite, of course, was curling up under one of those blankets by the outdoor fire pit, and recounting our long trip through the beautiful parts of California.

Lack of Jewish Life in Greece Just Myth

When twilight descends on mountain villages and sun-kissed beaches, sociable Greeks make their way to tiny sidewalk cafes. They toast the end of the workday with anise-flavored ouzo, accompanied by plates of broiled octopus and green olives.

Dinner in the taverna is a long, lingering affair filled with an array of garlicky salads, fish, meat and maybe a slice of phylo-wrapped kasseri. As the night winds down, life moves to the cafeneion, where sweet and potent Greek coffee and perhaps a nibble of baklava serve as the perfect nightcap.

Poets have been known to wax lyrical about “the glory that was Greece.” Yet a visitor to Greece today quickly finds that the glory’s not only in the past tense. While those who built the shrines to Zeus and Apollo are long gone, the people who inhabit modern Greece are unquestionably alive.

The nation’s once-proud Jewish population, which dates back to Alexander the Great, was largely decimated during World War II. But from Rhodes to Athens, Greece’s rich Judaic history and culture are being preserved, and the seeds of the Jewish community are beginning to take root again.

Athens, a megalopolis whose population tops 3 million, has all the hallmarks of a major city: museums, theaters, office towers, the occasional Starbucks. Still, it remains quintessentially Greek.

Armed guards in short, pleated skirts; tasseled caps, and shoes with floppy pompoms keep watch in front of Parliament, across the street from Athens’ Syntagma (Constitution) Square. At regular intervals, they solemnly perform an oddly lopsided strut, complete with high kicks and sustained balletic poses. It’s a hint that the impulse to break out the dance moves is deeply rooted in the Greek soul.

Part of the thrill of Athens is that history is everywhere. A shady café in Plaka borders the delightful Tower of the Winds, dating from the time when Julius Caesar’s Romans ruled Greece. On a shopping expedition to the Athens Flea Market, tourists find themselves skirting the Ancient Agora, where Socrates and Plato once strolled. The city’s main bus lines terminate not far from the massive, horseshoe-shaped Panathenaic Stadium. Built in the fourth century CE on the ruins of an earlier stadium, it was restored for the first modern Olympic Games in 1896, and played a dramatic role in the opening ceremonies of the Athens Olympiad of 2004.

But what makes Athens most special is the large flat hill in its center — the fabled Acropolis. Visitors must wend their way on foot, past the charming restaurants and shops of the old Plaka district, to reach one of the world’s most dazzling sights. The Parthenon, along with the other ruined temples that gleam in the bright Greek sun, dates from the fifth century BCE. In ancient times this was the center of community worship, and it’s easy to imagine throngs of pilgrims bearing offerings for the goddess Athena here.

But not every ancient Greek worshipped a pantheon of gods and goddesses. In the marketplace under the Acropolis are the remains of a fifth century BCE synagogue, which still feature carvings of lulavs and a menorah. Happily, Athens can also boast Jewish sites of much more recent vintage. The city is home to the handsome Jewish Museum of Greece, built in 1997, which gives eloquent testimony to the lost glories of Greek-style Judaism. Today Athens’ small but vibrant Jewish community — comprising more than 3,000 of Greece’s 5,000 Jews — supports a day school, a youth center and a functioning synagogue.

Beth Jacob, founded in the 1930s, occupies an austere neoclassical building on a quiet street that was once the heart of a bustling Jewish quarter. It is open for Sephardic services throughout the year. Directly across Melidoni Street, one can also spot the historic (and well-guarded) Ioannina Synagogue, dating from 1903. Once the headquarters for Athenian Jews who embraced Greece’s ancient and unique Romaniote tradition, it is used on the High Holidays, but can also be viewed by special arrangement with the Jewish Community of Athens organization, which shares its premises.

Further afield, the traveler can find traces of Jewish life both on the Greek mainland and on many of Greece’s most romantic islands. One prime destination is Thessaloniki, also known as Salonika, where Jews who had fled from Spain in the 15th century found a safe haven under Ottoman rule. As late as 1900, almost half of the city’s population was Jewish. Now the 1,300 Jews still remaining in the area enjoy a community center, a school, and a kosher butcher, as well as a daily minyan. It’s possible to visit several charming Thessaloniki synagogues, along with a newly enhanced Jewish history museum that stands in the heart of the picturesque Modiano Market.

Jews planning to cruise the Greek islands can explore their heritage when they tire of beachcombing. In Corfu, a 300-year-old synagogue displaying a collection of Torah crowns is open every Saturday and by appointment. Remnants of Jewish life dating back to antiquity are found on Delos, Naxos and Zakynthos, among others. Chalkis, on the island of Euboea, claims to be the oldest Jewish community in Europe: today a 19th-century synagogue is a reminder of past glories. In Hania, Crete, an international archaeological effort led to the recent restoration of a Romaniote synagogue built in the middle ages. And a similar venture, spearheaded by Aron Hasson of Los Angeles, has helped preserve the Jewish historic sites of Rhodes. (See accompanying story.) The island’s 16th century Kahal Shalom, Greek’s oldest-functioning synagogue, now also plays host to the Jewish Museum of Rhodes. This informative museum makes an excellent jumping-off point for tours of the ancient Sephardic quarter known as “La Juderia.”

Most Hellenic vacations prove unforgettable because of the hospitality of the Greek populace, the beauty of the Greek landscape and the antiquity of the Greek culture. It’s no surprise that Jews lived contentedly on Greek soil for more than 2,000 years. Today’s visitor can revel in the splendors of Greece, while still pausing to remember the Jewish people who once made this land of sun and sea their home.


Jewish Life Blooms at Christian College

From different points along the ever-ascending road up this Malibu hillside, the beckoning ocean, the preternaturally landscaped lawn and the roughly rounded mountains peek through the three-story cross that has been punched out of a solid obelisk.

The breathtaking beauty of Pepperdine University inspires spirituality, surely not unintentional for the founders of this 67-year-old Churches of Christ institution, where instilling moral values based on a love of God is as much a part of the mission as academic excellence.

At the very top of the tiered campus is Pepperdine’s School of Law. On its top floor is the office of Sam Levine, an associate professor of law who happens to be an Orthodox rabbi at the nexus of quietly flourishing Jewish community in the middle of a Christian university.

"I think practicing religion is more natural in this type of setting," said Levine, a 36-year-old New Jersey native who moved to the Pico-Robertson neighborhood two years ago with his wife and two small children. "They understand religion and respect religion."

Levine’s hiring seems to be part of a conscious effort in the past few years to make the university more diverse, in part by building up the Jewish faculty and fostering inclusiveness for Jewish students.

"On the one hand we are not narrow and doctrinaire, but on the other hand we do care about our faith mission and we represent ourselves as a Christian university," Provost Darryl Tippens said. "That raises interesting questions of where people of other faiths fit into the institution, and we’re saying they do fit in."

Faculty and students attest to the spirit of warmth and welcoming that characterizes Pepperdine and its willingness to accommodate Jews, whether it is by scheduling meetings and events around Jewish holidays, not calling on first-year law students the day after Yom Kippur or procuring kosher food.

On a deeper level, Jewish insights and ideas are often sought out in the classroom, meetings and conferences, enriching the religious conversation that is central to the school’s mission.

"I think the key to Pepperdine is that it is such a religious school that they really honor people who come in from other traditions," said Laurie Buchan, the only other self-identified Jewish faculty member at the law school, who organized a mock seder with the Jewish Law Students Association (JLSA).

It hasn’t always been this comfortable for Jews here.

"My impression was that Pepperdine was strictly Christian and that other points of view were not going to be welcome, and that was how I lived my first year," said Nancy Harding, who came to work at the Graduate School of Education and Psychology (GSEP) in 2000.

That changed for Harding when a new dean took over GSEP, eventually initiating a diversity task force. About a year before that, new president Andrew Benton had made diversity a stated goal.

Even with these advances, being a Jew at Pepperdine can be internally dissonant.

Undergrads, including the estimated 30 or 40 Jewish students, are expected to regularly attend convocations, and religious classes are part of the core requirements. While graduate students (there are roughly 300 Jewish students in Pepperdine’s four schools) do not have religious requirements, attending any number of Bible study groups at faculty’s homes can heighten a student’s visibility.

Levine and other faculty and students say no one has tried to proselytize or confront them in a hostile way.

Levine has become the unofficial rabbi of Pepperdine. Jewish students often come to him for counseling, and faculty members consult with him on Jewish law and Tanach. Levine has declined invitations to offer opening prayers at meetings, but has delivered a devotional — basically, a d’var Torah — at a faculty seminar. Even the provost had Levine review a speech on the Bible.

Levine’s class in Jewish law and his extracurricular weekly Torah study classes are attended by Jews and a fair number of non-Jews.

The Torah study was started last year by Bob Hull, a 35-year-old first-year student inspired by the Bible study going on around him. Now, he brings in a borrowed stack of Bibles and kosher Krispy Kremes every week.

Hull said the prevalence of religion at Pepperdine makes him feel at home.

"An invocation at the front of a meeting or get together really informs it as a moment of reflection and spiritual connection," he said.

Emily Berg, a Reform rabbi’s daughter and a JLSA leader, said her connection to Judaism has become stronger while at Pepperdine.

"Before, Judaism was something I did and I removed it from the rest of my life. The Jewish community at Pepperdine really lets you bring it out and incorporate it into your life," said Berg, who has helped build the JSLA from 15 students to about 40.

The visible Jewish presence of JSLA and Levine has had a deeper influence as well.

When Bob Cochran, director of the law school’s Institute on Law, Religion and Ethics, puts together conferences, he always includes Jewish scholars, who, Cochran says, "are our religious cousins."

Cochran also includes in the brochures a "Note to our Jewish Colleagues," stating that lectures on Saturday are kept philosophical in honor of Shabbat, and pointing to local synagogues and the availability of kosher food.

Berg sees accommodations such as this as the core of Pepperdine’s identity.

"Pepperdine is a place for people who believe in something more than just themselves — whether it is religion or the law — people who subscribe to the idea of community and to contributing to more than just your own well being," she said. "They are going to make it a welcoming place for anybody who shares that idea."

Viva Vashti

“Vashti’s the only one in the Purim story who should be congratulated,” my son Danny, 12, says.

You may recall that King Ahasuerus, who had been sumptuously drinking and feasting with his Shushan subjects for seven days, ordered his chamberlains to “bring Vashti the queen before the king wearing the royal crown [some sources say wearing only the crown], to show off to the people and the officials her beauty” (Megillah 1:11).

But Vashti, whose self-respect would never allow her to participate in a “Girls Gone Wild” video or a Super Bowl half-time show, refused.

Ahasuerus “therefore became very incensed and his anger burned in him” (Megillah 1:12). He consulted his legal experts who advised that “Vashti never again appear before King Ahasuerus” (Megillah 1:19). This was interpreted to mean, at best, she was banished or, at worst, beheaded.

“She died for what she believed in,” Danny adds.

And how was this courageous death rewarded? By total vilification by the talmudic rabbis, obvious adherents of the “no good deed goes unpunished” theory.

These rabbis claimed that she deserved to die, postulating that she was cruel and arrogant and, in fact, had forced Jewish maidens, while disrobed, to spin and weave for her on Shabbat. Or that because her grandfather was the notorious Nebuchadnezzar, who had destroyed the First Temple, she planned to prevent Ahasuerus from allowing Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple.

Other rabbis claimed she was an exhibitionist who would have relished parading naked but was self-conscious because leprosy had broken out on her body or, in another version, because the angel Gabriel had pinned a tail on her.

And from what basis do these far-fetched explanations emanate? The hardly incendiary line “But Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s commandment conveyed by the chamberlains” (Megillah 1:12).

Indeed, to appropriate a popular bumper sticker, if you’re not outraged by Vashti’s bad rap, you’re not paying attention.

Interestingly, Mordechai also takes a contrary stand in the story, refusing to bow down to Haman, who had been promoted to Ahasuerus’ chief adviser. Day after day, the king’s servants asked, “Why do you disobey the King’s command?” (Megillah 3:3). But Mordechai “did not heed them” (Megillah 3:4).

But while Vashti is condemned for standing up for her beliefs, Mordechai is praised, never mind that his act of defiance so enrages Haman that he schemes to murder not just Mordechai but every Jew in the kingdom.

“But otherwise there wouldn’t be a story,” my ever-practical husband, Larry, says.

“Maybe there shouldn’t be a story,” I answer.

Not for this holiday, which can’t decide if it’s a cartoon, a satire or another near-historical rendition of the near-annihilation of the Jews. This holiday that exhorts us to drink until we don’t know the difference between “blessed by Mordechai” and “cursed be Haman” and that applauds the murder of 75,000 innocent Persian citizens.

And, most disturbing to me, this holiday that promulgates the belief that women should be soft-spoken and obedient.

Ahasuerus and his experts aren’t upset merely by what they perceive as Vashti’s solo act of insubordination. Rather, they are concerned that all the women in the kingdom will follow Vashti’s assertive lead. And so they advise that an irrevocable decree be proclaimed in all the land that “all the wives will show respect to their husbands, great and small alike … and … every man should rule in his own home” (Megillah 1:20-22).

I understand that the story of Purim, whether fictional or not, takes place in a certain historical and sociological context.

But I also understand, more than 2,000 years later, that the anti-feminist values it espouses need to be exposed loudly, clearly and even stridently, especially when the rights of women worldwide continue to be constricted.

Purim presents us with an opportunity to increase awareness of female repression and exploitation by congratulating Vashti on her refusal to be a sex object, as my son, Danny, suggests — and by realizing that this story of excess, absurdity and superficiality, contrary to popular belief, is not in good fun. Rather, it is as vicious and insidious as any Jewish American Princess, dumb blonde or other ethnic or gender joke, and it doesn’t lend itself to defenses such as “lighten up.”

As the lone female in a house of four sons, ages 12, 14, 16 and 20, I’ve worked hard to deconstruct the story of Purim. I know I’ve succeeded when I hear Jeremy, 14, complain, “Mom, you’ve already ruined Purim for us.”

“Good,” I say, for my goal is to raise four enlightened sons who relate to females respectfully and equally. And my secondary goal is to eventually have four daughters-in-law who don’t despise me.

The Megillah tells us that more than 2,000 years ago the unexpected happened. This year, it’s time for the unexpected to happen again, the transformation of Vashti from villainess to valiant heroine.

Freelance writer Jane Ulman lives in Encino and is the mother of four sons.

Europe’s Tragic Melody

“Gloomy Sunday” is the English title for the more aptly named German-Hungarian film “A Song of Love and Death,” but under either label it is a movie of exceptional visual and dramatic beauty.

Opening in the 1930s in Budapest, fabled in pre-war Europe for its handsome architecture and women, “Gloomy Sunday” starts as a good, old-fashioned love triangle, or rather a quadrangle.

Vying for the ravishing Ilona (Erika Marozsán) are Laszlo (Joachim Król), who employs Ilona in his cafe-restaurant; Andras (Stefano Dionisi), the cafe’s soulful pianist; and Hans (Ben Becker), a somewhat awkward German tourist.

For Ilona’s birthday, Andras composes “Gloomy Sunday,” a ghostly but fascinating melody, whose somber lyrics tell of a distraught lover contemplating suicide to rejoin his dead mistress.

The 1930s song became a phenomenal hit in its native Hungary, throughout Europe, and in America through Billie Holliday’s recorded version. To the horror of its creators, the song triggered a string of suicides by young romantics throughout the world.

Also affected is Hans, who tries to drown himself in the Danube after Ilona refuses to marry him. He is rescued by Laszlo, and the two men swear eternal friendship.

A few years later, Hans returns to Budapest in the uniform of an SS officer to assist Adolf Eichmann in the final solution of the Jewish problem. Hans has found a better way by demanding large bribes from wealthy Jews to spare them from deportation.

Caught in the Nazi net is Laszlo, an indifferent Jew (“If my parents had been Iroquois, I’d be an Iroquois,” he shrugs) but a Jew, nevertheless. Initially, Hans shields his old rescuer, but ultimately turns his back as Laszlo is pushed on the train to Auschwitz.

Some 45 years later, Hans comes back to Budapest, now a fabulously wealthy businessman and even hailed as the noble savior of Budapest Jews during the war. He returns to Laszlo’s old restaurant, orders the violinist to play “Gloomy Sunday” — and finally pays for his betrayals.

German director Rolf Schuebel masterfully underplays a story that could easily have descended into mere sentimentality, and we guarantee that all male viewers will fall in love with Ilona, and all the ladies with the pianist Andras.

“Gloomy Sunday,” in German with English subtitles, opensNov. 7 at three Laemmle theaters: the Music Hall in Beverly Hills, the Playhousein Pasadena and the Town Center in Encino. For more information, visit www.laemmle.com .

Echoes of Esther

The Purim beauty pageant of 1956 is long forgotten in the shtetl that was Queens Village, N.Y. But for me it is the stuff of personal destiny.

In those postwar years, women stayed home with their children, and men went from job to job before landing at their ultimate careers. The whole neighborhood buzzed with the promise of economic expansion and grand rewards for hard work.

I was not a conventionally pretty girl. My face — even at 8 years old — betrayed a kind of insistent intelligence that made adults squirm.

But when the mimeographed flyer came home announcing the costume contest for Queen Esther, there was no question that we would compete. Bess Myerson was already the first Jewish Miss America. Anything could happen.

My father worked as a window trimmer. He created the storefront commercial displays that attracted buyers on city streets. It was a low-prestige job my mother clearly felt was beneath him. But if he didn’t yet have his own store or a profession like other Queens dads, my father had talent that no one else could match: crepe paper.

Dad and I worked on my costume for what seemed like weeks. My skirt and crown were silver. He laid out the colored balls of thick, corrugated streamers creating the flower accents. He demonstrated how to make the huge roses that would sit on my waist and shoulder — tying the whole assembly together. He stretched the expanding paper to the left and right and twirled it into the most beautiful cabbage leaves I’d ever seen.

As we sat there, twirling red and pink and orange paper, we moved back in time but forward into urgency. I was Esther, and Dad was Mordechai, preparing me for my fate. To my mind, Esther was no more beautiful than I, but she knew what she was about. By the time I paraded through the tiny shul that Purim Sunday, winning by acclaim, I was one with the Jewish people.

Over many years, I’ve had reason to ask what makes people leave their faith, and what makes them stay. During the early angry years of feminism, there seemed more reason to leave an entrenched male-dominated Judaism than struggle for change. But I couldn’t ever leave, and maybe the twists and turns of a paper rose explain why.

I spent Monday morning with director-writer Ellen Sandler, as she put the finishing touches on “Echoes: Voices of Esther,” an original reading created by the MorningStar Commission, a Hollywood-based group affiliated with Hadassah and committed to improving the media portrayal of Jewish women. “Esther” will be performed this Sunday night at the Skirball Cultural Center. Sandler and six other writers have returned to their own roots to see the connection between the biblical Esther and their own lives.

Sandler was rehearsing Melissa Greenspan in the role of Sophie Lapin, a founder of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (written by Lapin’s granddaughter, actor-writer Shelly Goldstein). For some, Lapin is merely the stuff of history, but for Sandler, this is her own life.

“I was there,” said Sandler, who is the former co-executive producer of “Everybody Loves Raymond.” “I came to New York from Sioux City, Iowa, to make it in theater. I got my start sewing 200 seams on the right and 200 seams on the left.”

It’s easy to hear the echoes of Esther in the voices of famous women like Golda Meir, Lillian Hellman and Henrietta Szold, but also of lesser known Nina Friedman Abady, product of Jewish Selma, Ala., who walked with Martin Luther King, Jr. (whose story is co-written and portrayed by her daughter, Caroline Aaron); Hannah Levitt, who danced with Adolph Hitler, and Tola Friedman, the youngest person to survive Auschwitz-Birkenau. In the audience, listening to her own “echo,” will be Soraya Nazarian, who brought her family to safety out of Ayatollah’s Tehran.

Perhaps every Jewish woman’s life echoes that of Esther: who creates the tough roots of destiny from stuff as fragile as a paper rose.

For tickets or more information, please call (310)
712-5400 or visit www.morningstarevents.com .

Redefining Beauty

Four years ago, Camryn Manheim walked into David Kelley’s office, feeling glum. She knew the executive producer didn’t want her for his new ABC drama, “The Practice.” After all, Hollywood typically ridiculed women who were 5-foot-10 and a size 22. Kelley practically yawned throughout her interview. “It was disastrous,” she told The Journal.

But slinking out of his office that day in 1996, the Jewish actress spotted a cribbage board — and felt a spark of chutzpah. “Why don’t we f— this audition and I’ll play you right now for the part?” she said. “If I lose, you’ll never see me again. But if I win, I walk out of here with the script.”

Kelley suddenly lost his bored look. “You don’t understand,” he warned. “I play the computer.”

“No, you don’t understand,” she retorted. “I play for money.”

Kelley didn’t play Manheim that day, but he was impressed enough to create a “Practice” role just for her: the gutsy, no-nonsense lawyer Ellenor Frutt. “When I got the phone call from my agent, saying that I had gotten the part, I sat down in the middle of my kitchen floor … and wept,” Manheim wrote in her 1999 memoir, “Wake Up, I’m Fat!” (Broadway.) Her sense of victory was sweet. It came after a bitter, 20-year battle for acceptance in a business that worships svelte actresses — a battle that nearly cost Manheim her life.

When her NYU drama professors strongly suggested she lose weight or leave the program in the late 1980s, she began taking speed and accidentally overdosed. “For the longest time, I hated myself because I was fat,” she says. “I let just one thing define me. Then I decided I wasn’t going to conform to a standard that wasn’t developed with me in mind.”

Manheim’s campaign against the beauty myth culminated with her accepting an Emmy for best supporting actor in 1998. Wearing a low-cut black Emanuel gown, Payless shoes and Target earrings (12 in one ear), the “Practice” star thrust the award high over her head and declared, “This is for all the fat girls!”

The self-professed “poster child for fat acceptance,” says she used the f-word deliberately in her Emmy acceptance speech. “If you say a word enough, it robs it of its power,” she explains. And the show offered the perfect opportunity to advance her cause. “It’s abhorrent to me that women hate themselves so much for being overweight. I want to do everything in my power to fight that.”

Fighting injustice appears to be genetic for her. Born Deborah Frances Manheim, she grew up in a culturally Jewish home in Long Beach. Her Polish-immigrant grandfather was an early organizer of the millinery workers union. Her mother, Sylvia, attended the Yiddishist-socialist IWO schools and worked as a switchboard operator for the Communist Party. Manheim’s Uncle Bill organized the New York taxicab drivers and eventually became secretary-treasurer of local 840 of the Teamsters Union. Her father, Jerry, a math professor, picketed segregated restaurants in the 1950s, and was denounced as a communist by Sen. Joseph McCarthy. “He was blacklisted,” Sylvia told The Journal. “He lost his job, and I went to work selling freezers door-to-door. It was a difficult time for our family.”

Nevertheless, the Manheims continued to equate their Judaism with social action, toting young Camryn to rallies to protest racism and the Vietnam War. When Camryn was arrested at a pro-choice rally in the early ’80s, she called her parents from jail. “Mazal tov!” Sylvia shouted into the phone.

Manheim quips: “For my family, protesting injustice is like ‘mitzvah therapy.'”

During her childhood, Manheim, now 40, felt that her parents supported every kind of underdog save one: the fat person. When Manheim began gaining weight at age 11, her parents shlepped her to a series of psychiatrists and hypnotists. They even tried bribery. When Camryn was a preteen, she signed her first contract: “If you lose 15 pounds by March, we’ll buy you a brand new bike.”

“We thought Camryn would have more boyfriends if she were thinner,” Sylvia says sheepishly.

Manheim’s self-esteem plummeted. She tried to hide her body with baggy Levis, which she even wore into the shower. At the age of 13, she says she missed all her friends’ “baruch atah adonais” because mom wouldn’t let her wear pants to bar mitzvahs.

A few years later, she found respite working summers at the Renaissance Pleasure Faire, where big, busty wenches were de rigueur. More acceptance followed at UC Santa Cruz, where the actress wore Birkenstocks and protested against the Miss California pageant. During a post-graduation trip to Israel, an empowered Manheim decided to change her ho-hum name to something more stylish. “Some people get to the Wailing Wall and have a vision; I heard a voice,” she writes in her book. “Camryn … Camryn … Camryn.”

But when Manheim enrolled in NYU’s esteemed graduate drama program in the 1980s, she ran smack into size discrimination. Professors hounded her to reduce. “They said ‘You are never going to work if you are a big girl,'” the actress says. “The subtext was, ‘We don’t want that black mark against our school.'”

At NYU, Manheim was always cast as a middle-aged frump. “I was also Rebecca Nurse in ‘The Crucible’ — she’s at least 80,” the actress recalls. “And Queen Margaret in ‘Richard III’ — she’s not just old, she’s dead.”

A desperate Manheim began taking speed daily to lose weight. When she dropped 80 pounds, her professors were jubilant. “But I was a wreck,” she says.

After her near-fatal overdose on speed, she quit drugs and nicotine — and promptly gained back all her weight. When she flew home to visit her parents, who now kvell over her, they couldn’t hide their disappointment. After some unpleasant words with her father, Manheim packed her bags and didn’t speak to him for almost a year, she writes in her book.

Back in New York, she immersed herself in liberal causes, took a job as a sign-language interpreter and worked on regaining her self-esteem. When leading roles didn’t come her way, she wrote a hilarious, poignant one-woman show, “Wake Up, I’m Fat!” about being fat in a society obsessed with being thin. The monologue, filled with “fat survival” tips such as “stay horizontal on the beach,” played to packed houses off-Broadway in 1995. When a casting director sent Kelley some videotaped scenes of the show, Manheim earned an audience with the TV drama king.

In 1996 she snagged the role of Frutt, who, like Manheim, is culturally Jewish and determined to fight for the underdog.

But her very first day on “The Practice,” the actress discovered she was going to have to play an additional role: that of “Fat Police.” When the director described her character’s first shot of Frutt eating a doughnut, Manheim convinced him to lose the food, not wanting to reinforce stereotypes.

When the prop guy put a huge bowl of candy on Frutt’s desk, Manheim again confronted the director. “Let me tell you a little secret. Fat girls don’t keep candy on the desk. They keep it in the drawer,” she said.

The bowl was moved.

When Manheim later learned that a love interest was in the works for Frutt, she lobbied Kelley to cast a hunk in the role. Not only did she get her wish (actor J.C. McKenzie), she also convinced Kelley to write her some juicy love scenes.

Off the set, Manheim continues to lobby against the beauty myth and to show that “big women can be sexy.” The cover of “Wake Up, I’m Fat!” depicts the actress wearing a swimsuit and a beauty pageant-style banner reading, “Miss Understood.” “I wanted it to be in-your-face,” she says. “I also felt I needed to do something that was scary for me — which was to be half-naked in public — to show I was facing my fears.”

In April, Manheim starred in and executive-produced the ABC movie, “Kiss My Act,” one of the rare television programs in which the fat girl gets the cute guy. She says she’s motivated by the self-hating letters she receives from overweight women. “They’re heartbreaking,” she says.

Since winning her Emmy, Manheim has been featured on the cover of magazines such as People, TV Guide, Mode (the publication for full-figured women) and this month’s More.

When asked if her success has changed things for big women in Hollywood, Manheim sighs loudly. She points out that Julia Roberts is rumored to have been signed to play the overweight heroine in a movie version of the book, “She’s Come Undone,” Wally Lamb’s novel about a girl’s journey from fat teenager to trim adult. “I am going to lead the crusade against that,” Manheim says, grimly. “I am desperate to see a big girl in that role, myself or someone else.”

Meanwhile, the actress is continuing to enjoy her latest role: that of single mother. In March, the unmarried actress gave birth to a boy, Milo (named for the hero in her favorite children’s book, “The Phantom Tollbooth”). And while she won’t reveal the identity of his father, she will say she plans to raise Milo culturally Jewish, emphasizing social action.

Though Manheim doesn’t belong to a synagogue, she supports Hadasssah and the annual Justice Ball, which benefits Bet Tzedek Legal Services. She believes Frutt would approve of the nonsectarian legal program. “Jewish charities offer opportunities for everyone, which is what I love about the Jews,” the actress says. “You do not have to be a certified Jew to reap the benefits.”

“The Practice” airs Sundays, 10 p.m. on ABC.

Favorite exclamation: Man-oh-Manischewitz!

On her old amphetamine habit:

“The scary thing about speed is that it works.”

“Sure, it may kill you, but you’ll look great in that coffin.”

Worst confrontation with an NYU drama professor:

“You, Camryn Manheim, have a very bad attitude.”

Camryn: “I have a fat attitude?”

How to stand up on the beach without looking fat:

“You have to maintain the camouflage of the towel while trying to slide the shorts on up over the buttocks region, and then you have to say something in a dramatic fashion to cause a diversion, like ‘Hey, look, it’s Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr making out in the surf!'”

Why she wrote her show, “Wake Up, I’m Fat!”:

“I wanted to create the only role for which I would not be rejected.”

On parents:

“[They] know how to push your buttons, because, hey, they sewed them on.”

First question on Camryn’s “boyfriend application”:

Do you have an on-again, off-again girlfriend?

(If so, do not complete this form).

Excerpted from Manheim’s 1999 memoir, “Wake Up, I’m Fat!”

Head Trip

Jim Wayne has cut my hair for more than 20 years. He created first the wedge look and now the clipped curly style of my professional photos. He cut my hair after my husband’s funeral and let my hair grow long when I began dating. He set my daughter’s French twist for her bat mitzvah and did a blunt cut for her high school senior prom. Once, in a fit of creativity, he chopped my locks to within an inch and dyed what was left purple. Curly or wavy, tinted or natural, we’ve been through it all. But though Jim and I go back a long way, nothing prepared either of us for the day last week when he took an electric shaver and buzzed me bald.

"You have a great-shaped head," he said. "You’ll be fine."

His voice was a low growl, the way men sound when they are swallowing tears. The timbre reminded me of how my surgeon, C. Gordon Frank, sounded when he was getting ready to take out part of my lung.

"You’re tough," Frank told me. "You’ll be fine."

Jim sat me in Nicole’s manicurist corner with the curtains drawn. We gossiped about politics, culture and everyone we all know. As I heard the sound of the shaver, I held on tight and reached for a prayer.

"Thank you, God, for allowing me to reach this season."

I felt insane. Why was I saying "Shehecheyanu," the prayer of survival, in the midst of chemotherapy? First, I couldn’t think of anything else. But also because it was the right thing to do.

I had been losing my hair all week, beginning day 12 after chemo. My parents, visiting for Passover, were thrilled to see me looking normal and healthy, and I was happy to comply. Cancer is a disease as much about appearance as reality. We won’t know how the tumor cells are doing until the next CT scan. But we all know that a woman with her own curly hair is doing well.

By the end of their stay, I was leaking hair all over my pillow. I wore my wig for my folks, so they wouldn’t go into shock the next time.

"You look cute," my father said. "You’ll do fine."

But as Jim’s razor made its way up and down my scalp, I felt quite other than fine. I felt militantly grateful. And powerfully confused. Grateful to science for getting me to Taxol, the chemotherapy of choice for lung cancer.

But confused: The whole world would look at me, a bald woman with a fringe of black hair, and say "Oh my God, Marlene has cancer." I wanted them to say, "Oh, thank God, Marlene’s in treatment for her cancer." If I weren’t in chemo, then surely I would keep my hair and everyone might be relieved. And just as surely, I would die.

Coincidentally, I had forgotten to bring my wig to Jim’s. I left his Beverly Hills salon and drove immediately to a feminist seder at Kehillat Israel. I walked into the synagogue social hall, late and tall. Immediately there were 150 people eyeing my new naked do. I felt strong and sexy, like in the ’60s when I went out without a bra. And just as saggy when the night was through.

The next day I wore my wig. It is blonde, elegant and organized in a City Councilwoman Laura Chick way, which my curly hair has never been. There was nothing to explain. No politics of uplift. No one asked how I was, because with a wig, I look fine.

Here is my dilemma: I can present myself to the world bald, brave and true — and scare people away. Or I can wear the wig, attractive and false, and get the comfort from others that I need to survive.

Judaism has two words for female beauty, reflecting the public and private spheres of life: they are yofi and chen.

Yofi is conventional, physical beauty, the kind that attracts men and women to each other at the currently popular Speed Dating extravaganzas. Would I wear my baseball cap or go bald to a Speed Dating session? Probably not. Would I wear the turquoise turban that makes me look like my Aunt Anna? Only on the 10th date, if then.

Chen is the more difficult, intimate beauty. It means finding favor. Chen is inner light, truthful self-acceptance, and it is rare indeed.

Maybe the answer for the wig vs. bald conundrum is that there are no set answers. Like cancer, I deal with it one day at a time, one situation on its own terms.

One might hope that my closest friends would find my bare skull attractive. They saw me through my surgery. They sit with me in my chemo. They understand my doctors. They say "Shehecheyanu" with each victory. They know the chen in me.

But if we are going to the theater, they’d probably say, "Yofi. Live a little. Wear the wig."

Dreaming C’s

Either the apocalypse is coming, or I’ve been living in Los Angeles too long. Last night, I woke up from the most vivid dream, the kind that feels like it lasted all night, the kind of dream that feels like a journey through every emotion.

I dreamt that I had gotten a breast enlargement.

In the dream, I agonized over the decision — the size, where the scars would be. When I awoke from surgery, I felt the breasts, a solid C cup, overly firm, scars across the sides. They were heavy, swollen. I pondered the things I could wear, the bikini tops, the low-cut sweaters. I was going to draw attention. Cars would stop as I passed. I had arrived.

Until the thought hit me: What had I done? I was stuck with these things forever. They sat up high and surreal on my chest. Everywhere I went, they would follow. Special bras would have to be bought. I couldn’t run, couldn’t sleep on my stomach. I would have to accommodate and explain these for the rest of my life. A terror gripped me, and I awoke in a sweat.

Smacking the snooze button, I ran to the mirror. The familiar 36B breasts were back. I was relieved, but a little disappointed, too.

Oddly enough, the dream followed the pattern of a recurring nightmare I’ve had for several years, in which I give birth to a child, go through pain, labor and finally elation at this glowing little baby in my arms before the thought paralyzes me: I will be responsible for this thing for the rest of my life, and I can’t take it back.

That nightmare seems normal enough for a woman in her 20s, but the breast dream — what was that all about?

Considering I grew up in California in the era of rampant breast enhancement, I was remarkably free from breast envy, for a girl with an athletic body and a pretty flat chest.

The French say the perfect breast should fit into a a champagne glass, and that saying pleased me well enough. I was never self-conscious, never wanted to buy into another reason for a woman to feel insufficient. I would never have considered risking major surgery to transform my body into some distorted, grotesque male fantasy. It seemed absurd and sad.

But I moved to Los Angeles, and, two years later, the dream.

Jung said a dream is like a letter from the unconscious to the conscious mind, full of symbolism and waiting to be opened. So I thought about it.

It’s always been clear to me that beauty opens doors, but never so obvious as it is here. Any pragmatist can see that beauty, perhaps in the form of a pair of surgically enhanced breasts, eases one’s way through life.

Beauty is within. Bodies of all shapes are beautiful. Our bodies are just the hand dealt to us in a game of gene poker; they don’t represent our spirit or our talents or what we have to give the world. These things I know and have been told about since I was old enough to ask my mother to teach me how to shave my legs. Still, there’s no erasing the inexorable experience of watching a roomful of men become stunned, speechless and momentarily still when a gorgeous winner of the genetic lottery glides into a room.

I think in many women my age there are two warring wants: There’s the desire to make our mark as individuals and be free of the shackles of facials and waxing and the silly search for the perfect lip shade. Underneath lurks the inexplicable desire to stop traffic with the sheer force of a pretty face and a perfect body.

I’ll never forget renting a documentary on Sylvia Plath when I was in college. There were the depressions, the intense inner life, the angry, lyrical poems. But what haunted me were the stills of Plath posing as a model, lithe in Capri pants, for the Smith College yearbook. I was stunned. Plath herself was caught in the same conundrum.

Two women I know, about 10 years older than myself, tell me that there will be stretch marks to come, drooping and the occasional unfortunate hair to be plucked as the breasts age. I will have to steel myself against comparisons with some air-brushed ideal whenever a man sees me naked. It will only get harder to assure myself that breasts are just a feature like any other, designed for a purpose, appealing at any size.

Wouldn’t it be easier just to save my pennies and wake up one day in a recovery room to a perfect rack?

Hence, the dream. The unopened letter is just a note from the back of the brain to say, Guess what, read all the feminist books you want, go as far as your courage and intellect can take you. But make no mistake, the struggle that began in puberty remains.

Junior high. The boys rate the girls in the class, ranking them from one to 10. I don’t know what I want more, to merit a high score on the pretty list or to beat out Moukie Moore in the spelling bee. High school. I know the answer, but I don’t raise my hand in class, because Alan Aranofsky might think I’m a geek or my voice might sound funny when the answer comes out. I scribble it in my notebook. College. I’m working my way through school and getting straight A’s in two majors, but I’m also scooping ice cream and I can’t stay away from the mint chip. I’m chubby and round-faced, and nothing else seems to matter.

Here I am, years later and still hearing the silent ratings from one to 10. As much as I hate myself for it sometimes, I still feel good when I look good, and life comes more easily to me.

I won’t be getting the breast enlargement, but my girlfriends tell me there’s a $72 bra made in Italy that is a magical investment. It lifts and separates. The underwires don’t dig. It looks natural, and with a deftly placed combination of silk and latches and straps, it gives you a slightly better silhouette than your genes may have had in store for you. Best of all, at the end of the day, it comes off.

Teresa Strasser is a twentysomething contributing writer for The Jewish Journal.