Ruth Bader Ginsburg: Louis Brandeis inspired my work for women’s rights


One hundred years to the day of the nomination of Louis D. Brandeis to the U.S. Supreme Court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg paid tribute to the first Jewish justice at a program at the university that bears his name.

At Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, on Thursday, Ginsburg, who is Jewish, told a crowd of some 2,200 students, faculty, staff, elected leaders and others that she admired Brandeis for his “craftsmanship, his sense of collegiality and his ability to combine a judicial restraint with the readiness to defend civil rights and liberties.”

Brandeis’ work has influenced Ginsburg’s, both as an advocate for women’s rights and as a judge. Like many others, Ginsburg has been inspired by Brandeis’  groundbreaking approach to constructing fact-based legal briefs – still known in legal circles as the “Brandeis Brief” — that drew on real-world circumstances.

Ginsburg praised Brandeis as being open to changing his views when his “initial judgment was not right.” In the 1880s, for example, he was opposed to women’s suffrage, she pointed out; by the 1910s, he “became an ardent supporter of votes for women.”

Ginsburg’s remarks were part of a panel discussion, “Louis D. Brandeis, the Supreme Court and American Democracy,” moderated by Frederick M. Lawrence, former Brandeis president and senior research scholar at Yale Law School.

The event kicked off a semester-long series that will explore the justice’s legacy on a variety of subjects, including free speech, the right to privacy and American Zionism.

Among the other panelists were Philippa Strum, a Brandeis biographer and a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and Jeffrey Toobin, a legal journalist, author and New Yorker staff writer.

Brandeis’ nomination in 1916 was fiercely opposed by then-Harvard University President A. Lawrence Lowell, as well as other elites from Boston’s Brahmin circles. Brandeis’s nomination was confirmed by the U.S. Senate on June 5, 1916; he served on the court until 1939.

Since Brandeis’ appointment, seven other Jewish justices have been appointed: Benjamin Cardozo, Felix Frankfurther and Arthur Goldberg. Today’s court, in addition to Ginsburg, appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1993, today’s court includes Jewish Justices Stephen Breyer and Elana Kagan.

Theodore Bikel’s 90th birthday celebration


How do you celebrate the 90th birthday of a man who has had a major impact on American film, television, theater, music and social activism?

By putting on a concert and inviting legends of folk music to perform, of course.

Theodore Bikel has turned 90, and as actor and the night’s master of ceremonies Ed Asner quipped, “Theo has done more in this past decade than most people do in a lifetime.”

Hundreds of fans poured into the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills on June 16 to pay tribute to the great performer.

The night began with a screening of clips from some of Bikel’s most memorable film and television roles: an officer in “The African Queen”; the Russian submarine captain in “The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming”; Zoltan Karpathy, the dialect expert, in “My Fair Lady”; and a hilarious scene from “All in the Family,” in which he plays a German butcher infatuated with Edith Bunker.

Of his many roles, Bikel said in an interview, he has many positive memories — and some less-than-positive ones, including one scene from 1958’s “The Defiant Ones,” in which he played a Southern sheriff in pursuit of two escaped prisoners, a role that earned him an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor.

“We were traipsing around in a swamp, up to our knees in mud and slime, waiting for two Dobermans to sniff right. I thought, ‘What am I doing here? I’m a classically trained actor.’ It took two days and some of the night. But by and large, it was a wonderful experience of filmmaking and creation.”

But the Saban Theatre show focused largely on his musical contributions. Bikel co-founded the Newport Folk Festival and recorded more than 20 albums, including one called “Theodore Bikel Sings More Jewish Folk Songs.” As he took to the stage, Bikel launched into one of those songs, but first joked, “A friend of mine said it was a misnomer. It should’ve been called ‘Theodore Bikel Sings More Jewish Folk Songs Than Anybody.’”

For many Jews, beginning in the 1950s and ’60s and through to today, the Vienna-born Bikel has been the definitive voice of Jewish song and of the rebirth of Yiddish culture. Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino remembers his parents playing Bikel’s Yiddish albums at night. “For my socialist Zionist parents, this was a bedtime prayer,” Feinstein said.

The folk duo Cathy Fink & Marcy Marxer strummed their banjos, covering a Woody Guthrie song as well as a Yiddish song about the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, which killed 146 garment workers — a nod to Bikel’s long history of labor activism.

During a break in the music, speakers from The Actors Fund, Actors’ Equity and SAG-AFTRA (Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) praised Bikel’s leadership over the years in bringing fair pay to actors and performers. 

Musician Mike Stein remembered Bikel’s efforts to push the National Theater in Washington, D.C., to become racially integrated. 

“If there’s something we love about Theo, it’s that no amount of fame and achievement ever changes his fundamental mensch-ness. He remains one of us, devoted to making the world better for all of us,” Asner said.

A parade of fellow folk luminaries also took turns on stage: The venerable Tom Paxton led the audience in a sing-along of “How Beautiful Upon the Mountain,” taken from Isaiah 52:7, and Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul & Mary delighted fans with “Puff the Magic Dragon” and “Light One Candle.” Arlo Guthrie brought Bikel and the rest of the musicians on stage for a rousing rendition of “This Land Is Your Land.”

“Everybody up here, many of you, we sing for a living, we act, we do things that are important,” Guthrie said. “The most important thing for me is what it’s like to have an act of kindness done to you by somebody who’s well-known. It doesn’t happen all that often. Theo was one of those people you could count on. He is a kind man, and to me that is more important than all the other stuff.”

Composer and arranger Artie Butler took a seat at the piano to perform a couple of romantic songs, gently singing, “Here’s to life, here’s to love, and here’s to you.” Craig Taubman, well-known to synagogue audiences in Los Angeles, sang “Take your shoes off, you’re on holy ground.”

But the greatest crowd response was to Bikel himself, who received a number of standing ovations. He wore all black, including suspenders and a peasant cap reminiscent of the clothing worn by Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof,” a role he played more than 2,000 times on stage from 1967 to 2010, more than any other actor.

Despite his age, Bikel belted out song after song, pumping his fist in the air to punctuate the lyrics. The night neared a close with Bikel and the Greek-born tenor Alberto Mizrahi dramatically swapping lines in a Hebrew song about the rebuilding of the Holy Temple. And then, Bikel picked up an acoustic guitar and softly sang the Phil Ochs song “When I’m Gone,” a nod to his own mortality: 

“There’s no place in this world where I’ll belong when I’m gone 

And I won’t know the right from the wrong when I’m gone 

And you won’t find me singin’ on this song when I’m gone 

So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here.”

Even after Bikel is gone, his music will reach new ears. At one point in the evening, Rhino Records executive Mark Pinkus announced that the label would be releasing 12 classic Bikel albums on iTunes. “Theodore’s music was loved throughout the 20th century. We’re going to make sure people love it throughout the 21st century,” Pinkus said.

In the meantime, Bikel has no plans to slow down. He’s just released a new edition of his autobiography, “Theo,” with a chapter in which he reflects on turning 90. “It’s a fairly voluminous chapter. There’s a lot to reflect on,” he said. “A friend asked me, ‘Now that you’re 90, what do you have to look forward to?’ I said, ‘91.’ ”

He’s also taken to translating Yiddish literature, in an effort to connect a younger generation to the ideas of great writers that inspired him. And a documentary he produced and stars in, “Theodore Bikel: In the Shoes of Sholom Aleichem,” based on his long-running one-man show, will premiere at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival in July.

“I’m not the retired type,” he joked. But, there may be a moment of relaxation awaiting him. He said he and his wife, journalist Aimee Ginsburg, are heading to Europe for a river cruise next month. “That’ll be fun and restful. I can sit on a boat and contemplate the world as it passes me by.” 

Katy Perry, bar mitzvah DJ?


Katy Perry has released a new promo video for her new single, “Birthday,” that features the singer as a mistress of disguise.

Among other birthday-related professionals — an aged dancer named Goldie (for her “golden nuggets”) and a Craigslist birthday clown — Perry dresses as “Yosef Shulem,” a bar mitzvah DJ who has a penchant for telling offensive rabbi jokes.

Pop culture mavens who caught wind of the ire Perry drew after dressing as a geisha at the American Music Awards might have expected the pop star to learn a little about cultural (in)appropriation. But there she is, wearing a kippah, a Jew-fro, and some hastily applied facial hair.

Maybe Perry is just riding the wave of other famous bar mitzvah videos.  But the kippah-slapping, gravel-voiced Yosef Shulem character is enough to give us pause — or maybe refrain from downloading her new single.

“Did you hear about the rabbi who gave out free circumcisions?” Perry-as-Shulem asks. “He worked for tips!”

Watch the video here:

Rabbi Jacob Pressman turns 94: A community treasure


For decades now, as Rabbi Jacob (Jack) Pressman celebrated a milestone birthday, there was a gala show and dinner starring Rabbi Jack and his myriad show-biz friends to manifest and celebrate the many talents and achievements of this extraordinary man. Five years ago, Temple Beth Am celebrated his 90th birthday when he turned 89, just in case.

“At my age you don’t buy green bananas,” the rabbi said, quoting his mentor, the late Rabbi Simon Greenberg. But the celebration week will be a quiet one, as Rabbi Jack and Marjorie Pressman’s son, Joel, is gravely ill, as all who read the Jewish Journal this past month learned — gravely, but bravely, ill, still celebrating the glories of life, family and friendship, students and colleagues, the majesty of nature, the joy of song, the gift of love. 

But even at this most trying of times, Rabbi Jack’s 94th birthday warrants celebration.

In the circles I frequent as a university professor and a scholar, I know many men and women who are smart; far fewer who are wise. And Rabbi Jack is a wise man.

His role in the Los Angeles community is historic. 

Born in Philadelphia in 1919, Jack was raised at Temple Beth Am in Philadelphia, where the rabbi took a great interest in the boy and brought him in to teach Hebrew school and to run youth services. Jack was paid very modestly for his services, but in the Depression era, every dime was worth its weight in gold, and thus his interest in the rabbinate was born. So, too, his interest in a certain woman two years his junior, Marjorie Steinberg, who later became his wife and his lifelong partner of by now more than 70 years. 

A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, Pressman came to the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) just as the war began, and his rabbinic training was accelerated as the U.S. military needed chaplains, and the American rabbinate needed rabbis desperately, as young rabbis were going off to fight alongside their congregants. While still a student, Pressman served as acting rabbi of Forest Hills Jewish Center, whose own Rabbi Ben Zion Bokser was in the Army. He was instrumental in the design of the synagogue’s building, a massive structure on Queens Boulevard. Of particular interest is its ark, designed by noted artist and political satirist Arthur Szyk. Later, as Pressman was offered prestigious positions on the East Coast, JTS Chancellor Louis Finkelstein advised him to go West. Los Angeles, he said, would soon join New York and Palestine as the three great centers of Jewish life. Pressman never regretted heeding Finkelstein’s sagacious advice.

He went on to serve as assistant to Rabbi Jacob Cohen at Sinai Temple, and then, in 1950, he took over a small congregation then known as the Olympic Jewish Center, which he turned into Temple Beth Am, making it a prominent Conservative congregation of more than 1,300 families in his time. Together with his wife — and they were then, as now, a team — Rabbi Pressman served his community as an institution builder. From Camp Ramah to the then-University of Judaism (now American Jewish University), from the Brandeis campus — now Brandeis-Bardin — to Israel Bonds, if it needed to be built or to be launched, Jack and Margie Pressman built it. He was the first registrar of the University of Judaism; he was a founder of Camp Ramah; he helped recruit Shlomo Bardin to come out to the institution that now bears his name; and for years Temple Beth Am, certainly not the wealthiest of all congregations in the United States, had the largest annual campaign for Israel Bonds in the country. 

Pressman helped found Los Angeles Hebrew High, Akivah Academy and the Temple Beth Am Day School that now bears his name. With foresight, he founded a non-Orthodox Jewish high school on Los Angeles’ Westside, known as the Herzl School, which could not be sustained, but the need he saw then still remains.

The late Walter Ackerman, longtime director of Camp Ramah, remembered how not only would Pressman always become personally involved, but he engaged his ba’alabatim (lay leaders), expanded their horizons, extended their reach. And along the way, he never neglected his congregation. At a time when rabbis were taught to keep their distance from congregants, his closest friends were his own congregants — he traveled with them, enjoyed their company, went through the travails and joys of life with them, and could still remain their rabbi.

Rabbi Perry Netter recalled that when he interviewed for an internship at Temple Beth Am, he was wary of Pressman’s reputation as a showman rabbi, palling around with Hollywood stars. So he asked Rabbi Pressman how he spent his average day. Pressman took out his calendar and went through every appointment, recited by heart the circumstances of each of the congregants with whom he had met, remembered each bar mitzvah boy and bat mitzvah girl, every bride and groom. Young Rabbi Netter was wowed and went away feeling that it would be an honor to intern with this man. Rabbi Pressman may have known the rich and famous, but he also always took pride in the men and women within his own congregation.

A national communal leader in the 1960s, Pressman helped to create the Save Soviet Jewry movement that brought the plight of Soviet Jewry to the attention of the American public and helped create the program that eventually enabled tens of thousands of Soviet Jews to immigrate to Israel. 

In 1965, he joined a group of 293 Southern Californians who walked with Martin Luther King Jr., who was joined by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, then head of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. Together they crossed the Pettis Bridge to the state Capitol building in Montgomery, Ala., — with so many whites in the march and so much national attention that Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor, Birmingham’s commissioner of public safety during the American civil rights movement, could not fully unleash his troops.

Although Pressman is an institution builder, two of his major contributions to L.A. Jewish life may have been an institution he did not build and an institution he empowered to come into being without him.

After the L.A. riots, when synagogues were moving westward, Pressman committed to his congregation that they would remain in place at the intersection of Olympic and La Cienega boulevards, provided a substantial number of families would stay in the neighborhood. He went from door to door, speaking individually to families and getting them to sign up. As a result, Temple Beth Am is that rare Conservative congregation in California with a walking community, and it remains the anchor of the historic Carthay neighborhood. Three out of four of its members live within two miles of the synagogue.

In 1973, Pressman realized that in the future the “one-size-fits-all service” would not meet the needs of his congregation. Young Jews, educated at Camp Ramah and in Jewish day schools, graduates of the JTS and of Judaic studies programs, were coming to Los Angeles, many to serve its expanding Jewish community, and they wanted a self-led participatory service rather than a professionally led formal service. Pressman encouraged this group to form the Library Minyan, a family-friendly, informal lay-led minyan, which over the years was integrated into the congregation and provided its leadership. By now, Beth Am has thrived for some 43 years, and on any given Shabbat, as many as five different services are taking place within the synagogue’s walls; Beth Am became the precursor to the “synaplex.”

For many years, Pressman would say, wistfully, that he served the Beth Am community for more than 60 years, and what did he get?  “A bunch of kids running around town wearing my name on their dirty shirts.” 

The reference is to the fact that when he retired, Temple Beth Am named its award-winning day school in his honor: “The Rabbi Jacob Pressman Day School.” 

He’s talking about my kids, I thought, my kids and grandkids. This has got to stop. Don’t get mad, get even, I thought. 

I waited. And then one day I struck. 

Fresh out of the hospital, Rabbi Pressman did us the honor of attending our son’s bar mitzvah. When I rose to speak, I said, “I know your complaints, rabbi, but last week I attended a basketball game — Maimonides versus Pressman. Not bad company, Maimonides/Pressman in the same breath. My kids and the students who attend the school call Maimonides Maimo, but Pressman, they call Pressman. My daughter played Hillel the next night, Hillel/Pressman, also not bad company. I asked the students who was Maimonides, few knew that Maimonides and the Rambam were the same, but our kids all know Rabbi Pressman.” 

When my wife, Melissa, and I first came to Los Angeles, Margie and Rabbi Jack took an interest in us. When I took a new job, he admonished me on what I should do. He took an interest in my speaking style and even in the manner of my dress.

My wife and I have become close to the Pressmans over the past 16 years; we share Passover together and holiday dinners. We seek their advice; we enjoy their company, and we attend many events where Rabbi Jack gets up to speak. He is increasingly frail and walks with difficulty, but put him in front of a microphone, and 20 years come off his age. He becomes robust again, his voice strong, his wit and his wisdom intact. 

Each Rosh Hashanah, we attend the service on the first night to hear his poetic blessing, and each graduation and gala dinner of the Pressman Academy, his words are inspiring, his talent manifest. 

Rabbi Pressman’s life and his calling were one and the same. Rabbi emeritus for some 27 years, he and Margie have continued to serve the community in retirement as they did when it was their paid vocation. And we, the Jewish community — and most especially the community of Beth Am — are graced by their service and their presence.

Simply put. Rabbi Jack Pressman is to be treasured.

Polishing jewels of Elul


What is the art of welcoming?

In the eyes of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, it’s his responsibility “to create a better place, foster an open and welcoming city and find the prosperity that lifts us all for generations to come.”

For music legend Quincy Jones, it’s the act of “looking until you find a door of welcoming that’s opening up.”

And for spoken-word artist Andrew Lustig, “It’s when you’re all around a dinner table. / Sitting. / And talking and laughing. / When nobody has their phone on.”

These are excerpts from just three of the contributions featured in this year’s “Jewels of Elul,” a program created by musician Craig Taubman to fulfill the mitzvah of preparatory study during Elul, the month leading up to the High Holy Days.

Taubman has compiled a series of “jewels,” or inspirational anecdotes, focused on a central theme. Now in their ninth year, they come from a wide range of famous and under-the-radar individuals. Past contributors include President Barack Obama, Lady Gaga, the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu.

“In trying to get inspiration for the High Holy Days, we can look to many different perspectives,” Taubman said. “We live among different types of people, so we can get inspiration from different types of people, too. I try to reach out to a variety of people [in collecting passages for ‘Jewels of Elul’]. They don’t have to be Jewish, as long as they have something to say about that year’s topic.”  

Free daily e-mails, each with a unique jewel, are available by subscribing at letmypeoplesing.com/jewels. They began to be delivered to inboxes around the globe on Aug. 7, and will continue until the first day of Rosh Hashanah, on Sept. 5. A complete collection of 29 jewels is available for purchase in a printed booklet from the same Web site.

Development is under way for a “Jewels of Elul” app, “A Daily Cup of JoE,” which Taubman hopes will be released in the month of September. Inspiration will no longer be limited to the High Holy Days season — the app will serve up daily inspiration year-round, with new jewels added every day of the year, he said.

In previous years, proceeds of  “Jewels of Elul” — the booklets sell for $18 each — have gone to organizations such as Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services, Beit T’Shuvah and Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles. This year, they will benefit Tabuman’s latest project, the Pico Union center.

Located in the building that served as Sinai Temple’s original home more than 100 years ago, Pico Union is an interfaith community center that strives to unite Jews and people of other religions in a variety of ways. Congregations of all faiths are invited to reserve the space for prayer, attend concerts and performances that the center plans to host and learn to cook as a community in the center’s Holy Ground Cafe, a teaching kitchen and full-service cafe. Since its opening earlier this year, Pico Union has been reserved by Korean and Hispanic churches for worship, in addition to several Jewish congregations, Taubman said.

“With Pico Union, we are fulfilling the mitzvah of bringing light unto all nations,” Taubman said. “Pico Union is about being gracious — not only to other Jews, but to humankind.”

This year, Pico Union will host a number of festivities during the High Holy Days. A Selichot service will feature dance, theater, music and spoken-word performances. On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, there will be services led by Rabbi David Lazar from 10 a.m. to noon, followed by a lunch catered by Paper or Plastik Cafe, Mama’s Hot Tamales Cafe and Art’s Deli. Later that day, 10 speakers will give their insight on how to start fresh in the New Year. Finally, the center will host a break-the-fast bash at the close of Yom Kippur. The party will feature comedians, mariachi and Israeli bands, and a DJ.

Taubman plans to split his time between the events at Pico Union and services at Sinai Temple, which he has helped to lead for 11 years. He will be at Sinai for erev Rosh Hashanah and the first day of Rosh Hashanah and during day services on Yom Kippur.

In other words, Taubman plans on doing a lot of welcoming in the coming days and weeks.

Happy birthday Mr. Mandela: World pays tribute as ‘improving’ former S. African president turns 95


South Africa and the world showered tributes on Nelson Mandela on Thursday as the anti-apartheid leader turned 95 in hospital and his doctors reported he was “steadily improving” from a six-week lung infection.

The country has been on edge since the former president and father of the multi-racial 'Rainbow Nation' established at the end of apartheid in 1994 was admitted to hospital on June 8 with recurring lung problems that kept him in a critical condition.

It was his fourth stay in hospital in six months and has reminded South Africans that the man who is globally admired as a moral beacon against injustice and a symbol of racial reconciliation will not be with them forever.

But the mood was of celebration on Thursday as thousands of South Africans sang “Happy Birthday” and took part in charitable initiatives in a global outpouring of support for the Nobel Peace Prize laureate on U.N.-designated 'Nelson Mandela Day'.

At a United Nations event in New York marking the day, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon hailed Mandela as “a giant of our times”.

Throughout the day, crowds of well-wishers outside the Pretoria hospital where the retired statesman is being treated sang “Happy Birthday, Madiba” – using Mandela's traditional clan name – brought cakes and birthday cards and danced.

“Thank you for all that you have done for this country,” said one well-wisher, Margaret Chechie.

Many South Africans also commemorated the birthday with 67 minutes of public service to honour the 67 years Mandela served humanity by first fighting against white-minority rule and then consolidating racial harmony when he was president.

As part of the public service initiative, office workers, students, soldiers and ordinary citizens spruced up orphanages, painted walls at schools and delivered food to the poor.

President Jacob Zuma visited Mandela at the hospital and said he was making steady progress. “I was able to say 'Happy Birthday' to him and he was able to smile,” he told reporters.

Hours earlier, his office had cited Mandela's doctors saying “his health is steadily improving.”

Mandela's victory in the first multiracial elections in 1994 put an end to the apartheid system. Four years earlier, he was released from 27 years spent in prison under white minority rule, 18 of them at the notorious Robben Island penal colony.

His former wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela called the 95th birthday “a gift to the nation”.

Family members had lunch together at the hospital where the revered patriarch is being treated and his daughter Zindzi said they gave him a collage of family photographs for a present.

“Tata (our father) is making this remarkable progress and we look forward to having him back home soon,” Zindzi said.

Grandson Ndaba Mandela was more cautious about Mandela's condition. “He's still critical … he's just a lot more alert now, a lot more aware of his surroundings,” he told CBS News.

“FIRST CITIZEN”

Mandela Day celebrations in the United States included a special event at U.N. headquarters in New York, where figures such as former U.S. President Bill Clinton and the Reverend Jesse Jackson added their voices to the global tributes.

Clinton, a personal friend of Mandela, recalled the nearly three decades the nonagenarian spent in apartheid jails.

“Mandela walked out of prison after 27 years a greater man than he went in,” Clinton said. “Though he is old and frail and fighting for his life … what is in his heart still glows in his smile and lights up the room through his eyes.”

Volunteers in New York handed out South African oranges.

In South Africa, Ethiopian and Nigerian asylum seekers who had settled there fleeing persecution and conflict in their own countries cleaned streets in Johannesburg expressed their praise for the personality considered “a father of Africa”.

“In this country, Mandela is the reason all of us blacks are free, so that's why we love him as the first citizen,” said Kennedy Uzondu, 30, a Nigerian trader in South Africa.

Despite the adulation on his birthday, Mandela's post-apartheid 'Rainbow Nation' has not fulfilled all expectations.

Enormous gaps still persist in income, employment and access to education and these inequalities largely follow racial lines, according to the government's own data. White households in 2012 earn on average about six times more than black households.

Nevertheless, quality education and employment opportunities have also been opened up to tens of thousands of blacks.

Additional reporting by Reuters TV, Benon Okula and Pascal Fletcher in Johannesburg, Michelle Nichols and Stephanie Ulmer-Nebehay at the United Nations; Writing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Michael Roddy

Shimon Peres’ top 10 life lessons [VIDEO]


Shimon Peres celebrated his 90th birthday last week (his actual birthday is in August). Here he is on Israeli television sharing ten lessons he’s learned over the last nine decades.

In Israel, Sharon Stone meets her biggest fan, visits Hadassah Hospital


It’s unclear whether this guy is a fan of Sharon Stone or a fan of campy t-shirts. Either way, he had what was surely a surreal moment yesterday when, dressed in a “Basic Instinct” shirt, he bumped into Stone on the streets of Tel Aviv.

The photo went viral — so far it has close to 375,000 views. The irony factor is definitely bringing on the clicks, but we think it’s also got to have something to do with Stone’s sweet, gracious demeanor.

The actress is doing more in Israel than just posing with random admirers.  She was also photographed hanging out with Israeli and Palestinian kids at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, and tonight Stone will join Dr. Barbra Streisand and Bill Clinton at  President Shimon Peres’ 90th birthday party.

Hollywood star Sharon Stone, a long-time activist to find a cure for AIDS, visited Hadassah University Hospital Ein Kerem today to meet with Professor Dan Engelhard, head of Hadassah’s pediatric AIDS unit which  has developed an integrative method of treating children who are HIV positive in Israel and around the world. She was greeted by representatives of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, and said “I believe in the work you do, one person at a time, building this wonderful place. I urge everyone to do whatever they can do to help Hadassah. Photo courtesy of Hadassah

Happy 90th, Shimon Peres!


Dignitaries from around the world gathered in Jerusalem today to celebrate the 90th birthday of Israeli President Shimon Peres. Bill Clinton, Sharon Stone, Tony Blair, Dr. Ruth, Robert DeNiro and Barbra Streisand (who sung the traditional song “Avinu Malkeinu”) joined thousands of well-wishers at the capital’s International Convention Center.

As expected, Peres was showered with compliments, like this one, from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: “Shimon, you prove that it is possible to be curious at any age and young at any age.” Clinton referred to Peres as the “world’s social Einstein.”

The centerpiece of the event was Peres’ deeply moving, honest and beautiful speech, in which he weaved his own personal history with the history of Israel:

On this occasion, I feel grateful, because the chapters of my life are entwined with the story of the birth and the development of the State of Israel. Because I have been given the wonderful privilege to serve my country. To take part in the building of its strength. To pursue peace, our heart’s truest desire.

Peres spoke considerably more about Israel than himself — and interestingly, about his relationship with David Ben Gurion:

He taught me the importance of vision in the shaping of a desired reality. And that the moral call is the wisest of human judgments. He taught me that there is nothing more responsible than to take risks today for the sake of tomorrow’s chance. His political wisdom, his bold determination, his ability to make difficult decisions and stand by them, strong as a rock; I believe it is these traits which enabled a seemingly impossible dream to become reality, and changed forever the destiny of our people’s history.

Ever the leader, Peres was not content to rehash what his country had accomplished, but looked to the future:

Our work is not yet complete. We came to the promised land and now we must make it a land of promise. Into an exemplary country, Israel is small in territory but can be great in justice…I believe that Israel can go higher and higher, if we make the necessary decisions. We genuinely and truly strive to be a nation among nations, a nation that gives. We long for peace with our neighbors. The yesterday between us and the Palestinians is full of sadness. I believe that the Israel of tomorrow and the Palestine of tomorrow can offer our children a ray of hope.

Happy birthday, Mr. President!

Bands enter b’nai mitzvah music mix


While b’nai mitzvah parties have long featured DJs to mix tunes and rouse the crowd, some celebrants are choosing something else: teen bands.

Make all the One Direction or — for those of a certain age — New Kids on the Block jokes that you want, but this option for musical entertainment has big advantages; it’s competitive from a price perspective, according to Oscar Urrutia, founder of GEC Events and the main event organizer for June 15 Teen Party Expo in Long Beach at the Dome at the Queen Mary.

“A bar mitzvah DJ would charge roughly $1,000, and teen bands charge just the same or a little bit less. It’s something that people are trying and it’s different,” he said.  

Urrutia said several teen bands were introduced for entertainment at last year’s expo, and he found that many attendees were booking them for events.  

Jcity, a Los Alamitos-based teen pop band formed by Justice and Jazmine Lucero (facebook.com/Jcityofficial), is one band that will be performing at this year’s expo with the hope of booking more events. The brother/sister duo perform mostly at charity events or stage events with other bands, but also do carnivals and birthdays and recently performed at their first bat mitzvah.

“We would like to do more of them — bat mitzvahs are big,” Jazmine Lucero said.  

She said for parties they usually perform a mix of the top songs on iTunes mixed with a couple originals — “just energetic songs that kids can dance and sing with us; it gets the crowd more involved.”

Thousands of teens and parents are expected to descend upon the Teen Party Expo (teenpartyexpo.com) in search of the latest party trends and a swarm of vendors offering steep discounts on entertainment, music, décor and more.  Last year’s expo drew 3,000 parents and their teens from all over SoCal despite inclement weather; this year organizers are hoping for 5,000. 

The event runs from noon to 5 p.m. Admission is $10.

In addition to the exhibition with 60-plus vendors, popular DJs (including DJ Drew and Manny On The Streets from “On-Air With Ryan Seacrest,” and DJ Eddie One from LA 96.3 FM) will be mixing and hosting on the main stage alongside five teen bands performing live, who are also vying to book future celebrations.  

Hiring a DJ for a bar or bat mitzvah remains a popular option. Urrutia, whose affiliated company GEC Street Team produces all the musical entertainment for Knott’s Berry Farm as well as private events, said that a new trend at b’nai mitzvah parties is that the DJs have to entertain the adults, too. 

“We’re finding now that people want to entertain the adults as well, so we try to do games and activities that bring the adults and the kids together,” he said.  

Besides classic games like “Name That Tune,” they often do a musical quiz show and their own invention of a game called “Saturday Morning Cartoons,” in which the DJ plays music from back in the day and today and asks quiz questions from both new and old cartoon series.  

“It brings memories back to the adults and gives them a chance to connect with their kids,” he said.   

Other aspects of celebrating the coming-of-age ritual will be addressed at the expo as well. Sam Robinson, owner of Flowers by Sam and a feature designer on WE’s “My Fair Wedding,” does flower arrangements for about 20 b’nai mitzvah each year, primarily at Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel in Westwood.

Robinson said that flower requests for b’nai mitzvah celebrations tend to be traditional: pink for bat mitzvahs and blue-and-white arrangements — in which Robinson mixes white roses with blue roses that have dye injected into the plant — for bar mitzvahs.

Sunflowers are also popular for parties with both genders, and he’s found that glitter and rhinestones are very popular for bat mitzvahs. He either mixes them with the bouquet or applies crystal ribbons to the vases.

“I need some bling,” he said.  

It’s no secret that planning b’nai mitzvah parties, along with other coming-out parties, like quinceañera and Sweet 16, can get complicated — and expenses. These events have been known to average $15,000 to $25,000 on the high end, according to expo organizers.

Gilad Shalit marks first birthday since being freed


Gilad Shalit marked his first birthday since being freed from Hamas captivity.

Shalit turned 26 on Tuesday. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Shalit to wish him a happy birthday.

“This is a particularly happy birthday,” Netanyahu reportedly told Shalit. “It is a birthday of freedom. The entire Israeli nation wishes you mazal tov.”

The Shalit family plans a private birthday celebration over the weekend, Shalit’s grandfather Zvi Shalit told Army Radio.

Shalit was released last October by Hamas after more than five years of captivity in the Gaza Strip.

Supermodel Naomi Campbell celebrates birthday in Bethlehem


Supermodel Naomi Campbell visited Bethlehem in honor of her birthday.

Campbell lit candles in the Church of the Nativity Tuesday, the day she turned 42, according to reports. She ate lamb and rice at a nearby restaurant accompanied by friends, Palestinian guards and her own security guards.

“I’m happy to be here. Weapons and war, greed and oil … I hope it all stops,” she told the Palestinian Authority’s official television station, The Associated Press reported. “I care about health, about good vibrations, not destruction.”

Other reporters in Bethlehem were not allowed to interview or photograph Campbell, the Palestinian Maan news service reported.

She reportedly also visited the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

The double Bar Mitzvah — partners in time


Forty-five years after his bar mitzvah, Edward L. Moskowitz could not find the photos. They were lost in his garage, in a box, among shelves of such boxes, and were his only remaining evidence of a Shabbat he had shared in the mid-1960s with Marty November, his bar mitzvah partner.

“Any luck finding that photo of you and Marty?” I asked.

I had met Edward and Marty while studying for my own bar mitzvah (we remain friends), and after all these years, I wondered how sharing such a personal event had affected them.

“I know it’s there, I just have to find it,” Moskowitz said, responding to my photo request without a hint of uncertainty.

His search would take him back to more than the boxes of personal memorabilia and mementos stored in his Valley garage. Eventually, his search would return him to 1966, to Anaheim, where, at Temple Beth Emet, a Conservative synagogue a few blocks from Disneyland, he and Marty shared much more than the “top billing” and haftarah blessings.

For many of us who came of age in the 1960s, double b’nai mitzvah were unavoidable; the Jewish demography of the times dictated them. There are just so many Shabbats in a year, and suburban synagogues, whose stuccoed sanctuaries dotted the Southern California landscape like sesame seeds on a challah, did not have enough dates for the oncoming wave of baby boomer b’nai mitzvah.

Moskowitz and his parents originally wanted his bar mitzvah to be alone. “But someone else had a lot more pull with the temple office and got the date,” he recalled. So, with his birthday falling on March 5, and his prospective partner’s on March 1, the two were joined through calendaring, bonded by the portion Terumah.

November remembered it differently. “I liked the idea of having a partner — I only had to do half as much,” November said. “I wanted to do it with Ed.”

What they both shared a memory of was that the bar mitzvah class, held on Saturday mornings, was especially large.

“Everything was divided equally,” remembered Moskowitz, who, after seeing how the haftarah and blessings were shared, thought that a partner might have its advantages after all.

“Everything was divided but the speeches,” November remembered. “That, we couldn’t share.”

To this day, how to match b’nai mitzvah partners remains a tricky task. Rabbi Steven L. Silver of Temple Menorah in Redondo Beach, who also had his bar mitzvah at Temple Beth Emet with a partner in 1966, has found that, generations later, “I have some of the same issues at my synagogue,” he said.

Marty on his bar mitzvah day.

“You want both children to be equal in abilities. You don’t want a situation where one child outshines the other. You need to match up Hebrew, singing and their speaking abilities,” he said.

“For my bar mitzvah, I didn’t know the kid at all,” he remembered. The cantor [Philip Moddel] tried to pair me with someone who could sing better than I could, except my partner couldn’t,” he recalled. “I accepted it because that’s what everybody did,” he added.

“It was the baby boomer generation and there weren’t enough Saturdays,” he said.

Scheduling b’nai mitzvah, he noted, is “particularly challenging at a synagogue where there is only one rabbi and one cantor. It’s customary that clergy take four weeks vacation, and the congregation doesn’t want them both to be gone at the same time. So that means each year there are eight Saturdays that are not available, even more when you add in holidays,” he continued.

Rabbi Silver also has observed the sudden interdependence that the pairing can create. “If one kid falls behind it’s not just [his or her] problem; it’s the problem of the other family, too,” he said.

Beyond “half the work,” Rabbi Silver feels there are other advantages to dual b’nai mitzvah.

“Partners feel safer and less anxious. In the best situations, the partners work with each other and keep each other on track,” he said.

According to Rabbi Silver, at his synagogue, where there are 20 to 30 b’nai mitzvahs — two to three doubles — each year, the division of labor for b’nai mitzvah families can also extend to shared expenses for receptions, jointly creating bar mitzvah booklets and decorating the social hall.

“Sharing is particularly advantageous for single-parent families,” he added.

Silver, cautions, however, that double b’nai mitzvahs are not for everyone.

“I had one parent tell me, ‘I do not want my child paired up. This is my child’s [Mount] Everest,’ ” he said.

As to Everest, Moskowitz and November have good memories of their joint climb and have remained in contact through the years. November attended both of Moskowitz’s weddings, and, just this year, Moskowitz attended November’s daughter’s bat mitzvah.

“Marty also comes to my annual Chanukah parties,” Moskowitz said.

As adults, both have had careers in show business, though they have never worked together.

“We’re both very technical,” November said. “We both had darkrooms.”

Edward on his bar mitzvah day.

Moskowitz is a production sound mixer and has worked on such shows as “Golden Girls,” “The West Wing,” “Will & Grace” and “Pushing Daisies. November is a film editor whose credits include “Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey,” “Stuart Little,” “The Mist” and “Aliens in the Attic.”

Moskowitz remembered receiving an Aiwa reel-to-reel portable audio recorder as a bar mitzvah gift. “Who would have thought then that I would make my living in recording sound?” he said.

November also recalled that it was right around the time of his bar mitzvah that his interest in photography began.

Each has three children, all of whom have had an individual bar or bat mitzvah. But both feel that had more to do with their synagogue’s settings and demographics than with any negative feelings about a double b’nai mitzvah.

“When I introduced Ed at my daughter’s bat mitzvah, I introduced him as my bar mitzvah partner,” November said.

“It amazed people,” said Moskowitz, who recalled that people asked incredulously, “ ‘You still know people from your bar mitzvah?’

“There’s something quietly comforting that there are a handful of us who have known each other since childhood,” he said of his bar mitzvah and teenage years.

November sees the bar mitzvah as the beginning of a “significant relationship. I feel like it has bonded us for life,” he added.

Finally, Moskowitz, after searching through stacks of boxes for a week, found not only his bar mitzvah photo (he couldn’t find one of them together) but also his marked-up haftarah booklet, his bar mitzvah record (a recording made by Cantor Modell for him to practice from) and his actual bar mitzvah speech — one page, double-spaced. The shot he found of himself, wearing his new tallit, brought him back to that day and to an almost-overlooked aspect of their pairing.

“My grandparents bought me that tallit in New York, thinking it was the latest style and no one on the West Coast would have it,” Moskowitz remembered.

But then, on the bimah, “While both sets of parents were putting the tallisim around us, I saw that Marty had the same one.”

Shalit spends 25th birthday in captivity


Captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit spent his 25th birthday in captivity.

Sunday was the sixth birthday that Shalit has marked in captivity since he was captured by Hamas terrorists in a cross-border raid in June 2006.

Shalit’s parents led a protest in front of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office in Jerusalem on Sunday, with banners reading “We won’t let Gilad celebrate alone.” Another banner called on Netanyahu to give Shalit “his life back” for his birthday.

In a letter to their son to mark his birthday, Noam and Aviva Shalit wrote:

“With the burning sun beating on our heads, on the sidewalk adjacent to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s home, we are trying to digest the fact that 1,890 days have passed and you still are not with us. …

“We’re here. We haven’t given up, we haven’t surrendered, and we have not been broken. And we are not alone. Our dearest Gilad, many many people who are strangers to you, who you have never met, think as we do, that it is inconceivable to speak of social solidarity, of national fortitude and of having faith in the State while abandoning you to your fate. Day after day, lonely and abandoned in Hamas dungeons for over half a decade.”

Peres marks 88th birthday


Israeli President Shimon Peres marked his 88th birthday with a full working schedule.

During a meeting Tuesday with the Chinese military chief, Gen. Chen Bingde, the general offered his birthday wishes to Peres.

“Your health is not only a blessing for Israel, but also for world peace and peace and stability in the Middle East.” Bingde said.

Bouquets of flowers and birthday cards have been arriving at the President’s Residence, Israel Hayom reported, and birthday wishes are expected to be delivered from world leaders.

On Tuesday evening, Peres will be the guest of honor at a festive ceremony celebrating 110 years since the founding of the Galilee village of Kfar Tavor. The ceremony will start with a birthday celebration, including 100 children from the village who will sing Happy Birthday and present him with a birthday cake.

Peres was born in Poland on Aug. 2, 1923, according to biographical data provided on the Knesset Web site. But he marks Aug. 16, or his Hebrew birthday of Av 20, as his birth date.

Peres was elected in 2007 to serve as the president of Israel. If Peres completes his full seven-year term, he will become the world’s oldest ever head of state.

Israel at 62: The Limits of Debate


As Israel prepares to celebrate its 62nd birthday, the weather outside is chilly. The climate at home is not wonderful either.

Politicians, pundits and bloggers in faraway cafes deliver solemn verdicts on the future of Israeli-American relations. Pollsters conduct beauty contests, as if Obama and Netanyahu were rivals on “American Idol.”

A wide constellation of individuals and groups seek to undermine the legitimacy of the Jewish state, while an enemy country, run by Islamic fundamentalists, is on the verge of nuclear power. As Jews stake their claims in Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan, Muslim rabble-rousers accuse Israel of plotting to destroy Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque.

Jewish patriots excoriate human rights organizations and their donors. Provincial lawmakers propose loyalty oaths for Israeli citizens and question the Jewish identity of Jews-by-choice. No less worrisome, on the eve of Israel’s birthday, is that many Jews, in Israel and abroad, are losing the capacity for self-reflection.

Without the willingness to understand how we look to outsiders, we risk relegating ourselves to an ever-narrowing worldview. Seeking to sharpen our definition of moral clarity, we grow astigmatic around the edges, where other people live and love, dream and hallucinate, just as we do.

It’s a happy accident that Yom HaAtzmaut falls so close to Pesach — or maybe this is no accident at all. Perhaps the founders of Israel put the final touches on our Declaration of Independence, which ensures “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants,” while under the influence of the strong moral lesson of the Exodus: never to inflict upon others the suffering we endured in Egyptian bondage. “You shall not oppress the stranger,” says the Torah (Exodus 23:9), “for you know the soul of the stranger” — nefesh hager — “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

There are Jews who would claim that “all its inhabitants” applies only to Israeli citizens, and not to the residents of Nablus or Gaza City, or to Arabs in East Jerusalem. Technically, some Jews will argue, the ger or “stranger” of Exodus 23:9 means “convert” (ger tzedek) or else a halachic category of non-Jew called ger toshav, a resident alien who plays by Jewish rules, but in any case not a hostile Palestinian.

To many other Jews, it seems obvious that when the Torah says “you were gerim in the land of Egypt,” it doesn’t mean Egyptians-by-choice or resident non-Egyptians — it means a persecuted minority. And of course there are those who agree with this reading but would rationalize with a heavy heart that, nowadays, with Israel’s very existence at stake, sympathy for the Palestinian cause is a luxury we cannot afford. We are reluctant players, they would say, in a zero-sum game.

Herein lies a serious pitfall. Our justifiable indignation — over anti-Semitism, delegitimization, terrorism, the hypocrisy of the United Nations, the smugness of leftist boycotters and preachers of divestment, and a plethora of other justifiable and righteous indignations — too often blunts our sensitivity to the suffering of others. It also drives us to confuse what is right and what is smart.

Does Israel have a legal right to build anywhere it wants in Jerusalem? Sure we do, say many reputable lawyers (though not all reputable lawyers would agree.) But is it smart to exercise this right at this historical moment? Is it good, for Israel and the Jewish people, given the costs and perils entailed? Making concessions to the Palestinians is something that the Palestinians (and the Americans and pretty much everyone else) want. But is this a reason not to do it?

If even the United States of America, Israel’s greatest friend, is sending signals that Israeli policies are harmful to U.S. interests in the region, what might this mean? Is it further proof (as some Jews believe) that the whole world is against us, that we can rely on no one but ourselves, and that “they” — the nations of the world — are going to hate us no matter what we do, so we may as well do whatever we want? In which case, what exactly do we want? What kind of Jewish country? A democracy for “all its inhabitants” or only some of them?

Israel advocacy is an urgent challenge, a great moral imperative for the Jewish people. It is too complex an agenda to be dominated by lawyers or professional explainers. There are many ways to be pro-Israel, not one or two. Israel, in a physical and spiritual sense, is both an ancient and postmodern text, to be argued over like a page of Talmud in the Beit Midrash. The study hall should be big enough to accommodate a wide range of arguers: students and teachers, poets and psychologists, rabbis and generals.

There are also proud Jews out there, educated and ethical people, including many who in their gut want to love Israel, who have come to believe that the Zionist enterprise, a moral necessity at its inception, has veered so drastically off course that it is now counter-productive for the Jewish people. Are such folks treif, per se? Or do these voices — angry, sad, anguished, confused — deserve a place at the table, too? Just as not every anti-Zionist is by definition an anti-Semite, nor every West Bank settler a xenophobe, neither is a Jew who is fixated on the suffering of Palestinians a self-hating Jew. If such critics are barred at the establishment door, what does that augur for the Jewish future?

There are even good Jews who believe that a single, bi-national Arab-Jewish democracy, quixotic or absurd though it may seem, is a goal worth striving for (pesky details to be worked out later.) Martin Buber, Gershom Scholem and Henrietta Szold supported such an outcome long ago, at the time of the British Mandate. Is naïve hope tantamount to heresy?

And what of committed non-Zionists, in Los Angeles or London, who believe that a vibrant and innovative Diaspora Judaism can thrive without Israel, and can prove it by their own example? Are we Zionists prepared to listen and learn, to be energized by honest dissent? Where and how one draws the lines of legitimate debate is itself a subject for our Zionist Beit Midrash. A good place to start the conversation is a passage from page 94b of Tractate Pesachim, the Talmudic volume that discusses the laws of Passover (with sundry digressions):

“The Sages of Israel maintain: The sun travels beneath the sky by day and above the sky at night; while the Sages of the nations of the world maintain: It travels beneath the sky by day and below the earth at night. Said ‘Rabbi’: And their view is preferable to ours, for the wells are cold by day but warm at night.”

In the Talmud, simply “Rabbi” means Rabbi Judah HaNasi, the towering sage who edited the Mishnah in Palestine around 200 C.E. What on earth is he saying? Both of these astronomical theories, we know today, are poppycock, but this is not the point. By favoring the position of the “nations of the world” over the Jewish claim, Rabbi is a role model for own time, a radical advocate of the wide-open Jewish mind. It is our duty, 18 centuries later, to keep it as wide as we can — but this, too, is open to debate.

Stuart Schoffman, a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute and editor of Havruta: A Journal of Jewish Conversation, also writes and lectures widely on politics, religion and culture.

A minyan grows up (sort of)


If I wanted to start a minyan, I think the last thing I’d call it would be a “happy minyan.” Seriously, how can you live up to that ideal every week? How can you not get exhausted by the constant pressure to deliver “happy”?

And yet, every time I’ve popped into the Happy Minyan, I’ve rarely seen an unhappy face. They take their davening seriously, yes, but mostly, they take it joyfully.

Go early on any Shabbat to their home inside the Karate Academy on Pico and check out their rhythm. Over several hours, you’ll be continuously interrupted by spontaneous eruptions of joy: intense chanting of Carlebach melodies, often accompanied by some form of un-choreographed dancing.

So how do they do it? How do you explain that after 14 years, the Happy Minyan hasn’t burnt out — in fact, that they’re as hot and as happy as ever?

It’s with this question in mind that I attended their first annual gala last week, dubbed “Evening Under the Stars.”

The mere notion that the Happy Minyan would have a fundraiser is, well, weird. Since their inception, their fundraising has followed a pattern similar to their davening: spontaneous eruptions of asking.

Can’t pay the rent this month? Let’s get up and sing and dance and say a few words of Torah and then will somebody please stand up and ask for a few bucks?

A few months ago, though, they started uttering words no one thought they’d ever hear at the Happy Minyan — words like “Event Co-Chairs” and “Dinner Committee.” Obviously, someone had decided it was time to grow up and raise money the old fashioned way: normally.

But rest assured, they haven’t gone all mainstream on us, as I can attest from their Evening Under the Stars. For one thing, I’ve been to a thousand fundraisers, but I’ve never felt like I was in the middle of a forest (the venue was the Gilmore Adobe, right next to Farmers Market).

The first person I met was comedian Avi Lieberman, who was asked to emcee the event a full day before the big night.

There were more than 200 guests at the event (among them many fans from B’nai David-Judea), and it seemed as if every guest got up at some point to speak or perform.

The organizers began by expressing their gratitude to the people who sheltered them in the early years: Rabbi Abner Weiss, who was chief rabbi of Beth Jacob Congregation when he offered them a home, in 1995, and Rabbi Gabriel Elias of Congregation Mogen David, who did the same thing several years later.

Other than that, nothing about the evening felt too normal. To give you an idea: Normally, the entertainment slows down when the dinner’s main course is served. Not here. Troubadour Peter Himmelman got up on stage while we were all chomping on chicken and barbequed brisket, and asked if we could “please continue chewing, preferably in tune with the music.”

Himmelman brought down the house with a furious jam session infused with existential and hysterical ramblings.

Meanwhile, their star chazzan, Yehuda Solomon, of the band Moshav, rocked the place with his own numbers and backed up other musicians like Sam Glaser, Shmuel Levy and Jewish rapper Etan G, who revealed a rap song he had written years ago for the Happy Minyan.

Although the women didn’t play music, it was clear that they play an inspirational and leadership role at the Happy Minyan, and throughout the evening, many of them got up to speak.

Two of the original founders — Jeff Rohatiner and Jonathan Boyer — also got up; Rohatiner to sing a niggun and Boyer to tell a few stories and introduce fellow co-founder and Torah teacher David Sacks.

Sacks, an Emmy-winning writer and producer, has this inimitable way of speaking that blends wide-eyed innocence, deep love of Torah and sardonic humor. The essence of the Happy Minyan, he said, was “to dare to suggest that being joyful is normal.”

I saw plenty of that joy, but as the evening wound down I still didn’t have a clear answer to my question: How do you keep such intensity going for 14 years?

The answer, for me, came from the honorees of the evening, Stuie and Enny Wax. It hit me when I heard this number: six years.

You see, as a film about the honorees explained, for six years before the Happy Minyan ever started, Stuie Wax would host a crowd of Shabbat revelers every Friday night in his Pico-Robertson apartment.

In other words, for six years before they even thought of creating a Happy Minyan, they practiced being a happy minyan.

Then, on the seventh year, when Stuie married his soul mate, Enny, they arranged a little Shabbat minyan with friends to celebrate their union.

And guess what? It turns out the new bride really loved this little minyan, and with her blessings and support, the minyan just kept going and going and hasn’t looked back since.

So maybe that’s the holy formula behind the longevity of the Happy Minyan: practice happy for six years, and marry happy on the seventh.

Who would ever want to give that up?

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine, Meals4Israel.com and Ads4Israel.com. He can be reached at {encode=”dsuissa@olam.org” title=”dsuissa@olam.org”}.

Decorated Vet Celebrates 85th Birthday at Jewish Home


Jewish Home for the Aging resident Al Silver celebrated his 85th birthday with 40 family members and friends on July 19.

Silver’s four children presented their father with the medals of valor Silver had earned but never received during his Word War II service in the United States Navy. Among them were the Victory Medal, the American Campaign Medal, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, a bronze star, several ribbons and a special Presidential Unit Citation Ribbon for his “extraordinary heroism” while under enemy fire in Japan.

Silver joined the Navy at age 17. He was a chief machinist mate for five years in charge of operating the minesweeper’s engines and generators. While stationed off the coast of Borneo, Silver’s unit guarded a beach so that Marines could deploy there. “We had a job to do, and we did it,” Silver said. “We didn’t think about the risks or the danger.” l

Shalit’s mother: Gazans also want Gilad freed


Hundreds rallied in Mitzpe Hila on Thursday, to demand the government do more to secure the release of captive Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit.

Shalit, originally from Mitzpe Hila, will turn 23 on Friday. Shalit was captured during a cross-border raid by Hamas militants in 2006 that left three IDF soldiers dead.

Read the full story at Haaretz.com.

Jewish Agency events mark Shalit birthday


Events marking the 23rd birthday of abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit will be held around the United States on Friday.

The Jewish Agency for Israel is organizing about a dozen ceremonies to honor the soldier, who was taken captive in a cross-border raid at the Gaza-Israel border more than three years ago. He is believed to be alive and in captivity in Gaza. Shalit’s birthday is Aug. 28.

In Columbus, Ohio organizers will grant Shalit honorary citizenship. In San Francisco, a documentary on Shalit will be screened at the Jewish film festival. In Miami, children will release 1,000 balloons symbolizing the hope that he will be released soon.

“Participants at the events will be asked to sign post cards to the Red Cross asking that Shalit receive the full rights of an abducted soldier under international law and that the Red Cross work for the soldier’s release,” the Jewish Agency said in a news release on Monday.

In Israel, activists on behalf of Shalit marked his upcoming birthday by demonstrating Tuesday in front of two prisons in which Palestinians are incarcerated, disrupting family visits. Demonstrators have called on the Israeli government to withhold visitors to Hamas prisoners until Hamas allows the Red Cross to meet with Shalit.

Judea Pearl: A Poem for Israel’s 61st


(Free Translation from Yaron London’s MIRDAF)

Generous land, her veins full of honey
and blood in her rivers like water still flows.
Land whose tall mountains are carved out of copper
But her nerves out of iron, she knows.

A land whose long history is but chase after chase,
Two thousand pages plus one,
The air in her lungs half consumed, she is tired,
But will chase back her foes in the run.

She, who can see her thin life from the sideline
Shaken like a leaf, clinging to her place,
Yes, she is fearful, but as if not concerned,
Will wait for the end of the chase,

The end of the chase is in hiding, she knows,
but will come, like the sun that ascends eastern slopes.
And till then; our feet shall not stop, shall not tire
from chasing the heels of those hopes.

Dedication:
From the thousands of songs written in Israel since her birth, I find London’s MIRDAF (The Chase) to be the most poetic expression of Israel’s struggle for survival and peace. In the wake of the war of this past year, I thought it would be appropriate to translate this song into English and share with readers of The Jewish Journal this poetic mixture of our concern for Israel’s precarious position and our confidence in her eventual endurance. It is a free, non-literal translation, which attempts to capture the rhythm of the Hebrew lyrics and the spirit of the unending Chase.

Background:
The song was written for Micha Shagrir’s documentary film “Mirdaf”, during the War of Attrition (1968-1970). It describes the military situation along the Jordan border when PLO raids against Israel, followed by IDF chases after the perpetrators, became a daily routine.  The song was first performed by Chava Alberstein, to music by Nahum Haiman and can be heard on you-tube (search for Mirdaf). Some years later, Haiman tried to make it in Europe and gave “Mirdaf” to a beautiful singer named Marie Lafore who used the music and ignored the lyrics. In French the song became a romantic ballad called “Un bouquet du fleurs.”  Yaron London is one of the Israel’s top TV anchors, and hosts the popular “London and Kirshenbaum” talk show.

 

Dr. David Leo Lieber z”l: To know him was a privilege


A big part of my adult life has involved trying to live up to what Dr. David Leo Lieber expected of me. Trying to emulate his wisdom, his learning, his kindness, knowing all the while that it would be impossible.

It is told in the Book of Kings that the prophet Elijah announced to his disciples that his life would soon be at an end. His principal disciple, Elisha, asked his mentor to bequeath to him a double portion of prophecy. According to Jewish law, a first-born son inherits double the portion of the other sons, so Elisha asked his teacher, Elijah, to grant him double the spiritual portion of the other disciples.

In so many ways, I feel that I was given that double portion by David Lieber. I don’t say this as a matter of hubris but rather as a matter of my good fortune. For 30 years, I worked side by side with him. What a remarkable privilege that was. To be in his presence each day, to listen to him, to learn from him, to love him.

David Lieber was part of a generation of rabbis who were raised in Orthodox homes in which observance was taken for granted but rarely explained. In some ways, his was a religiously rebellious generation. They tended to appreciate Judaism more for its wisdom and values than for its ritual requirements.

Having said this, however, I cannot imagine anyone who was more profoundly spiritual than David Lieber. His spirituality did not have any of the external manifestations that are more common today. Rather, it was apparent in his quiet acceptance of God’s plan for him and for the world.

There are so many things I will remember about David Lieber that I could never hope to recount them all. I quote him often, and I smile whenever I use what I consider to be a “Lieberism.”

One of his favorite sayings was, “You can always tell someone to go to hell later.” Any of us who are prone to occasional flashes of anger can benefit from that bit of wisdom. Lieber used to claim that he borrowed this one from Rabbi Isaiah Zeldin of Stephen S. Wise Temple.

Another phrase he used often actually comes from the Talmud: “Sof ha-kavod lavo.” It’s a little difficult to translate into English. It is similar to “All good things come to those who wait.” But it really says that good things come to those who work hard and don’t try to force things before their proper time.

His most insightful saying is pure, original David Lieber. He often observed to me that human beings can “foresee” things but they cannot “fore-feel” them. In other words, we can often use our intellect to figure out what the future will bring, but we really don’t know how we are going to feel about something until it actually happens to us.

Whatever words of wisdom Lieber had for others, he certainly applied them to himself. He accepted whatever life had to offer, and he was one of those rare individuals who followed the rabbinic dictate: “We are required to bless God’s name when bad things happen, just as we so willingly bless His name when we enjoy the good.”

For years, David Lieber struggled with serious illness. It was not easy for him, but he did so without complaint and with true gratitude for the many productive years that were granted to him.

We all admired Dr. Lieber for his achievements, but that’s not why we loved him. We loved him for who he was as a person and the special position he occupied in each of our lives.

Even the most cynical among us yearns to believe that there is real goodness in this world, but often it’s a challenge to accept. We read about such terrible things, and we regularly encounter people who shake our faith in humanity.

But every so often, if we are very fortunate, we find a person who reminds us that human beings are truly formed in the image of God. We find someone of such extraordinary goodness that we say to ourselves, “This must be what God had in mind when He created the world.”

To know David Lieber was to know kindness. To know David Lieber was to know wisdom. To know David Lieber was to experience a quiet, steadfast faith in God and in the divine potential of all human beings.

And so we loved him. We loved him for who he was. And we loved him for seeing the good in us.

Dr. Robert Wexler is president of the American Jewish University (formerly University of Judaism) in Los Angeles.




Dr. David Leo Lieber, rabbi, scholar and president emeritus of the American Jewish University (formerly University of Judaism) died Dec. 15 at 83 after a lengthy battle with a lung ailment.

“Rabbi David Lieber was a dear friend,” said Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis of Congregation Valley Beth Shalom. “In every one of his conversations, there was a compassionate and caring soul. He leaves a remarkable legacy, not only in the public arena, in his scholarship and leadership, but in the personal relationship that he had with everyone — colleagues, congregants, students and contributors.”

Born in Poland, Lieber came to the United States at the age of 2. In 1944, he graduated magna cum laude from the College of the City of New York and earned a degree in Hebrew literature from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS).

In 1948, he was ordained at JTS. He earned his doctorate in Hebrew literature from JTS in 1951. In addition, he completed a master’s and all but dissertation from Columbia University. He pursued post-graduate studies at the University of Washington and at UCLA.

At JTS, Lieber studied under Talmudist Saul Lieberman, Jewish Bible scholar H.L. Ginsberg and philosopher Mordecai Kaplan, whose groundbreaking vision led to the creation of the University of Judaism, which was renamed American Jewish University last year after a merger with Brandeis-Bardin Institute in Simi Valley.

Following retirement in 1993, after 29 years as AJU president, Lieber continued to teach. He also began focusing on a project he had first proposed in 1969, a new commentary on the Torah. The resulting “Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary” sought to provide laity with a contemporary interpretation of the text and a commentary that embraced both tradition and change, ancient teachings and modern scholarship.

As a young man, Lieber was a leader of Shomer Hadati, the religious Zionist movement that is now B’nai Akiva. An early pioneer in the establishment of the Ramah camps, he was also the founding head counselor in the first of the camps in Wisconsin, a director in Maine and the founding director in California. Furthermore, Lieber was the founding director of Mador, the national training camp for Ramah counselors.

A former spiritual leader of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles (1950-1954), Lieber served as a U.S. Air Force chaplain, and as university chaplain for the B’nai B’rith Hillel Foundation at both the University of Washington (1954-1955) and Harvard University (1955-1956).

In 1956, when Lieber was appointed dean of students of the nine-year-old University of Judaism, the college was a Hebrew teachers institute, which also offered adult education classes, art exhibits and drama programs. The institution, today replete with an undergraduate college, graduate programs, seminary, think tanks and a large library on a 25-acre campus in Bel Air, was developed with Lieber’s help.

In recognition of his work, Lieber was awarded the Doctor of Humane Letters degree, honoris causa, by the Hebrew Union College in 1982 and the Torch of Learning award by the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 1984. Between 1996 and 1998, he served as the first West Coast president of the International Rabbinical Assembly.

Over the years, Lieber has authored some 50 articles, which appeared in a variety of journals.

Lieber is survived by his wife, Esther; sons, Michael and Danny; daughters, Susie and Debbie; and 11 grandchildren.

A service was held Dec. 18 at American Jewish University. In lieu of flowers, memorial donations may be sent to the university’s Ostrow Library at American Jewish University, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Bel Air, CA 90077.

A clash of two birthdays


Last month, in my column titled, “Al-Jazeera and the Glorification of Barbarity“, I described Al-Jazeera’s royal celebration of the birthday of Samir

Kuntar, the unrepentant child-killer psychopath and called on the network to “publicly apologize to its viewers in the Arab world for attempting to turn their children into the likes of Kuntar; to the journalism community, for robbing the profession of its nobleness, and, most urgently, to us, citizens of this planet, for re-legitimizing barbarity in the public square.”

Those who expected Al-Jazeera to apologize should recall that apology in Al-Jazeera’s worldview is tantamount to humiliating surrender. Surprising, a letter signed by Al-Jazeera’s general director, Khanfar Wadah, was received by the Israeli newspaper, Ha’aretz, a copy of which I have obtained, saying: “Elements of the programme violated Al-Jazeera’s code of ethics” (Ha’aretz, Aug. 6).

This letter prompted Ha’aretz editors to issue a cheerful headline: “Al-Jazeera apologizes for ‘unethical’ coverage of Kuntar release.” Two days after the letter was sent, however, Ahmad Jaballah, the station’s deputy editor-in-chief, denied that the channel had ever apologized or sent any letter to Israel.

On Aug. 8, in an interview with the Lebanese daily, Al-Akhbar, Jaballah called the report on the letter “utter nonsense and totally groundless” (MEMRI translation). It is, indeed, utterly impossible for Al-Jazeera to apologize for echoing its viewers’ deepest passions.

The most frequent question I received from readers of my column was: “Did you get any response from Arab or Western readers?”

I will summarize these responses below, together with responses to another, totally different birthday commemoration, one that contrasts the surrealism of Kuntar’s carnival with the spirit of our local community and illuminates what many characterize as a “clash of civilizations.”

The responses to my August column fell into four major categories, as encapsulated in the following quotes:

  • “They apologized, didn’t they? So, why rub it in?”
  • “I am ashamed of being an Arab; Al-Jazeera does not speak for me.”
  • “What do you expect of those Arabs, they are fed this hatred with their mother’s milk.”
  • “What about the millions of Iraqi children killed by Americans and the crimes of Israel against the Palestinians?”

I expected these four types of responses, but what struck me as odd was that the fourth group came not only from anti-American fanatics and jihadi Web sites but also from well-meaning American intellectuals, among them respected journalists and political analysts. It seems that two very simple ideas, so obvious to ordinary folks, have not been able to penetrate the skulls of some of our intellectuals.

The first is that, irrespective of body counts and political agendas, those who take pride in targeting the innocent or who aim at maximizing civilian casualties are not on the same side of heaven as those who struggle to prevent such acts and minimize civilian casualties.

Most people are under the impression that U.N. diplomats, coerced by a certain block of terror-sympathetic countries, are the only thinking humanoids who are incapable of formulating a commonsensical definition of the evil of terror. This is no longer true; evidently, the body-count argument now blinds the best of us.

The second idea concerns the fundamental distinction between individual behavior and societal norms. When an American or Israeli soldier targets civilians, he/she is court-martialed, not glorified as a hero for youngsters to emulate.

Al-Jazeera’s celebration of Kuntar’s birthday party was unmistakably designed and choreographed to position child-killer Kuntar as a role model for Arab society, and it undoubtedly succeeded, given the admiration that Kuntar commands these days in the Middle East, including his recent meeting with Mahmoud Abbas. Some Western intellectuals are not willing to sit down and calculate the number of years it would take for human civilization to clean up the moral warpage that Al-Jazeera is spouting in the young minds of its 50 million viewers.

In sharp contrast to the birthday of Kuntar, next month will witness another birthday celebration closer to my heart: the birthday of our late son, Daniel Pearl, who would have turned 45 on Oct. 10. Unlike the former, this birthday will not be celebrated on satellite TV with butcher knives, Hezbollah fatigues and “Heil Hitler” salutes. Instead, it will be celebrated by grass-root communities, including Danny’s musician friends, to commemorate and perpetuate his passionate use of music to connect people of diverse background.

Danny’s birthday represents the soul of a different society, one whose role models are truth-seeking journalists and bridge-building musicians not child killers; a society that celebrates life not death; one that commemorates birthdays with music and interfaith gatherings not butcher knives, assassination threats and vows to “meet the enemy very soon.”

As some readers probably know, every year since 2002, the Daniel Pearl World Music Days have taken place worldwide during the month of October. Music Days involve hundreds of musical happenings and concerts that include dedications to the ideals for which Danny stood, as well as declarations against the culture of terror and hate that took his life. In 2007, more than 500 concerts were dedicated in 42 countries, uniting and empowering many thousands of people in a stand for a more humane world.

Here in Los Angeles, this year’s World Music Days will prelude in Royce Hall on Sept. 21 with the American Youth Symphony dedication of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, joining the Angeles Chorale with “Alle Menchen Verden Bruder” (All men will be brothers). This will be followed by the Yuval Ron Ensemble on Sept. 25; the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, Oct. 4-5; the Los Angeles Master Chorale, Oct. 12; Kadima String Quartet, Oct. 22; the Victory Orchestra, Oct. 26; and many more concerts, festivals and performances dedicated to the ideal of a hate-free world.

The Los Angeles Jewish community has played a special role in World Music Days in the past seven years. Synagogues, Jewish schools and community centers have turned their October gatherings into a powerful opportunity to inspire members with unity and purpose, as well as reach out to neighboring, non-Jewish communities and catalyze lasting alliances through the shared values that World Music Days symbolize.

The Weizmann Day School in Pasadena, for example, has for the past seven years invited the children of both a Muslim school and an Episcopalian school to come to their campus and sing songs of peace in tribute to Daniel’s memory. These concerts have developed into lasting relationships and joint programming throughout the year.

Major synagogues, such as Valley Beth Shalom, Sinai Temple, Temple Israel of Hollywood and University Synagogue in Irvine have dedicated musical portions of the High Holy Days or Kabbalat Shabbat services to Daniel’s last words — “I am Jewish” — and thus transformed routine liturgical texts into a powerful poetry of pride and resilience, cogently relevant to our troubled century.

Two clashing birthdays, two cultures and two outlooks for the 21st century.

Our rabbis, cantors, school principals and community leaders understand that a birthday celebration is a profound statement of identity, not a propaganda gimmick. It is a mirror of society, its principles, norms and aspirations, not an impulsive vent of one’s hatred.

They understand that those who celebrate Kuntar’s birthday with butcher knives and Hezbollah’s fatigues are committing their children to another century of helplessness, while those who celebrate the birthday of a friendship-building journalist-musician-humanist elevate their children to a balcony of hope.

The former are nourishing a generation of Kuntars, the latter rear a generation that reveres life and can look itself in the mirror without shame.

For a full and growing list of World Music Days events visit ” target=”_blank”>www.danielpearl.org) named after his son. With his wife, Ruth, he co-edited the anthology, “I am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl” (Jewish Light, 2004).



Shooting Stars
(To Daniel Pearl)

It seems unfair, a waste,
To journey like a shooting star,
One thousand cosmic years through space.
To smile one time, just once,
Emit your brightest ever light and swing
In daring curvature to nowhere,
Like that actor on the stage
Who ends the play to no applause,
And bows to empty seats, yet glows.

Unfair! a waste!

But a child may chance to stare
And see that daring curvature, remember?
Which may bewitch this child to motion,
Remind him of those cosmic years, of freedom,
Jolt his mind to point up north
Yond the curtain of prediction,
Dare to shed the bonds of earth
And bend the course of expectation.

Unfair? A waste?

My eyes to shooting stars, to motion.
My heart to one that just passed by,
Softly traveled, bright, secured,
Like a wandering minstrel,
Measuring the path of your world, oh God,
With kisses.



Happy birthday to me


Not long ago, a guy I know, a good guy who to all outward appearances seems happy and successful, replied to a birthday e-mail I sent him at work — “go
home and blow out some candles” — with this:

“I’m 40-f—ing-8, give me a break. They tell me that’s close to 50, but I refuse to believe it.” (Only he didn’t leave any letters out of “f—ing.”)

I wrote back: “you’ve got your hair, a flat stomach, and a wife. I’d say life is good.”

To which he replied: “At 20 you won’t settle for less than several million, two best-sellers and a house in Majorca. At 48, what you said sounds really good.”

Expectations are strange things. When we’re kids, and when we’re parents of kids, we have no compunction about shooting for the stars. Every child is encouraged to believe that becoming a Michael Phelps or a Golda Meir, or however your tribe fills in the blank, is within the realm of possibility. B’nai mitzvah speeches and commencement addresses are universally about holding fast to your dreams.

But nevertheless, somewhere along the line we’re supposed to learn that the secret to happiness is adjusting our expectations to reality. Maturity means accepting that failing to get the gold or the Golda isn’t the same thing as failure. The good life is to be found in wanting what you have.

To be sure, the self-help sections of bookstores are filled with inspirational messages and 10-point-plans to the contrary. If only we visualize what we want, if only we believe in ourselves, if only we buy this book, then love and riches, fame and health, six-packs and serenity will be ours, no matter how far along in the life cycle we are.

But by and large, despite those enticing pitches, adulthood turns out to mean acceptance — of how you played the hand you were dealt, of mortality, of beshert — even if it sometimes includes flashes of 40-f—ing-8-like fury at the way the world turns out to work.

I wonder whether that rage would be mitigated if, instead of everyone being brought up to think we could be president, we were raised to believe, as Buddhists are, that desire is the source of suffering. I wonder if the gross domestic product would really shrivel, or the upward mobility of classes would stall, or the amount of art and justice in the world would decline, if we grew up already knowing how things more often than not turn out to be — if we understood early on the unreliability of the meritocracy, and the odds against our dreams, and the huge role in life of dumb luck — if the rough passage signaled in the cry of “40-f—ing-8” were not something kept hidden from children, like the true identity of the tooth fairy, the mutability of beauty, the lifelong wrestling with the meaning of existence that lies ahead of them.

In “The Uses of Enchantment,” child psychiatrist Bruno Bettelheim explains that the purpose of fairy tales is to give children an arena — a proxy world — in which to come to grips with evil, to come to terms with loss, to train their emotions for the inevitable struggles and disappointments of life. Anyone who has read the cruel original fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm will recognize the sense of this. But anyone who knows these stories only from their Disney versions will recognize how diligently we now go out of our way to insulate kids from the disturbing stuff that Bettelheim says is good for them.

Yes, I know that Bambi’s mother is killed, and plenty of other modern classics include scary separations from parents. The murder of Harry Potter’s parents by Lord Voldemort is of course the setup for the series. But (spoiler alert) no one in those seven volumes is forced to reconcile with the whole panoply of less lethal but no-less-soul-crushing disappointments — being downsized, pink-slipped, passed over, left — of which many, maybe most, lives are constructed. We are all broken vessels.

Recently I found myself reading the ” target=”_blank”>jewishjournal.com/sowhatsnew. He can be reached at martyk@jewishjournal.com.

Turning 60


Whenever Israel has a watershed anniversary, I’m a sucker for commemorative albums and coins. Like Israel, I was born in 1948. Our lives are intertwined.

Israel is my Rorschach. I see myself refracted in our shared growth and maturity. I believe that the existence of Israel makes possible the incredible blossoming of American Jewish culture. The existence of a tiny, faraway country with a Jewish name blooming in the desert upon ancient stones gives us the confidence to create the vibrant American Jewish world in which we are blessed to live. Israel gives us the courage to labor for justice — for ourselves and for others. Without Israel we would be afraid to find our voice and would not feel secure enough to raise it to advocate for others.

How many remember what it was like to be a Jew before there was an Israel? How many remember the sea change in self-image that Jews everywhere experienced after the Six-Day War?

I experienced that change firsthand. My first trip to Israel, as a college junior, landed me at Lod Airport on July 4, 1967. A soldier ran to greet us on the tarmac. Giddy with pride, he asked, “Did you see what we did?” “What are they saying about us in America?” Yerushalayim Shel Zahav, the prophetic song about the yearning for Jerusalem, played on the radio every 15 minutes.

I remember the first Tisha B’Av at the Western Wall in an independent Jewish state in 2,000 years (a Western Wall with no mechitzah) and combing the newly annexed territories with guides as awestruck as we, one of whom was Yoni Netanyahu — the hero of Entebbe.

I remember afternoons in the Old City, drinking coffee with Arab residents, sensing no one could ever own Jerusalem, but that Jerusalem surely owned me.

I remember feeling blessed to be part of Jewish history.

History. It is easy to forget history in the United States, where we assume it stands still. I’ve just come back from Europe where history is not so easily forgotten. I visited Venice’s original ghetto, where people were crammed into such a small place that buildings with six rather than the usual four stories had 6-foot ceilings. Not many Jews live in Venice today.

In Claude Monet’s Giverny, there is the medieval Rue de Juifs — Jews Street, but no Jews. I visited Amsterdam and the Anne Frank House as well as Berlin’s Jewish Museum. These emblems of Jewish history’s ebb and flow recalled Israel’s Beit Hatfutzoth (Diaspora Museum), which traces the Jewish journey from burning Jerusalem in 70 C.E. to today, underscoring that we pass through time and space and should not make assumptions.

At a time when the permanence of pax Americana can no longer be taken for granted, what are the consequences of our assumption of the permanence of the United States as a haven for Jewish safety? The sense of Israel as the homeland for stateless Jews has vanished with the image of the hairy sabra with the rounded hat — carrying a hoe — now replaced by the sabra with a shaved head — carrying a cellphone. But Israel provides us an anchor in history that we didn’t have 60 years ago. Every Jewish psyche, consciously or not, is steadier because of that anchor.

We are 60. What have we learned in progressing from that exuberance on the tarmac at 19, to the more nuanced issues faced at 60?

I have learned the proximity of joy and loss and the ability to embrace paradox holding two seemingly contradictory facts or narratives as one — such as the back-to-back observances of Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaAtzma’ut.

I have learned to fight the corrosive effect of multiple losses on my character and to struggle not to have my vision sullied by assaults to my safe place in the world.

I have learned that finding peace is more important than being right, but that I can’t make peace with someone who doesn’t see me, nor they with me if I don’t see them.

So even when we list our accomplishments at age 60: mother, author, rabbi, psychotherapist … number of Intel chips produced, per-capita books published, patents held, technological and medical super-achievements — these are the questions I ask:

Have we loved enough?

Have we forgiven enough?

Have we learned the lessons of our losses enough?

Have we walked in the shoes of those we have judged?

Do the boundaries that we create keep us safe?

When I was ordained as a rabbi in May, “haRav” was added to my Hebrew name. Rav means “great,” referring to the amount of knowledge a rabbi is supposed to have. But all who study Judaism know that the body of Jewish knowledge is infinite, and Jewish learning is an unending process. So perhaps the most important thing one can learn is humility.

Humility is an opportunity not for despair but for hope. When we admit that there is much we don’t know, we remain open to the unknown. It is the anniversary of the miracle from the unknown that we celebrate when we celebrate a birthday.

Like birth, peace comes from a place we don’t yet know. Humility keeps us open, searching the unknown with curiosity and hope. HaTikvah.

Rabbi Anne Brener is an L.A.-based psychotherapist and spiritual director. She is author of “Mourning & Mitzvah: Walking the Mourner’s Path” (Jewish Lights, 1993 and 2001. She teaches at the Academy for Jewish Religion and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and is on the board of the L.A. Community Mikveh and Education Center. She can be reached at mekamot@aol.com.

Happy Birthday, USA! Sweet dreams with the Shema


Happy Birthday U.S.A.!

We celebrate the 232nd birthday of the United States of America on July 4. Between noshing on barbecue and watching fireworks, test how well you know early American history. Circle the right answer for the following questions but read carefully — some might be a bit tricky.

  1. Jamestown, the first English colony in America, was located here: Virginia or New York
  2. The stripes on the American Flag represent the signers of the Declaration of Independence: True or False
  3. The national anthem of the United States: “America the Beautiful” or “The Star-Spangled Banner”
  4. The first president of the United States is the man on: the $1 bill or the $5 bill
  5. The war fought for American Independence from Britain was the: Civil War or Revolutionary War

Scroll down to the bottom of the page for answers

Sweet Dreams

“You shall say these words … when you lie down and when you rise.” “The Bedtime Sh’ma: A Goodnight Book,” adapted by Sarah Gershman, combines illustrations with a sweet, gender-neutral translation of the bedtime “Shema” (excerpts from the full text are in Hebrew and English in the back of the book). The prayer teaches children to give thanks for all the blessings in their lives.
The CD version includes musical selections from the “Shema” and gives children a chance to hear the prayers as they drift off to dreamland. Goodnight dreamers everywhere! $17.95 (hardcover), $10.95 (paperback), $10.95 (CD). Available in stores and at online retailers.

In Harmony

Ever wonder what music they listen to around the world? If you head over to the

Authors explain Jewish influences on their works


The Jewish Journal invited writers who will be featured at Sunday’s Festival of Books to answer the simple, essential question that every Jewish writer is often asked: “What Jewish sources — ideas, writings, traditions — inspire you, and how do they show up in your work?”

The following show that there is no easy answer to what defines a Jewish author, but there is no question that there’s much to draw upon within the faith.

Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket)

The Jewish sources that have most affected my work are stories of my father’s family leaving Germany in 1938, for the usual Jewish reasons that one would leave Germany in 1938. And the independence of suffering from redemption — in other words that you’re not rewarded for behaving well, and you shouldn’t behave well because of a possible reward.

These seem to me manifestly Jewish ideas, and it is pretty easy to find them in my work. I’ve written 13 books about terrible things that happen to children who do their best to behave well. This is arguably an encapsulation of Jewish history in its entirety.

Novelist and screenwriter Daniel Handler is perhaps best known for his 13-book children’s series collectively known as “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” penned under the pseudonym of Lemony Snicket. Under his own name, Handler has published three novels, “The Basic Eight,” “Watch Your Mouth” and “Adverbs.” An accomplished musician, Handler has played accordion on a number of recordings, including “69 Love Songs” by The Magnetic Fields.

Anita Diamant

Having written six books about Jewish practice — from weddings to birth, from conversion to mourning — it’s pretty clear that I have been inspired by the way Judaism gives expression and shape to the fluid and ineffable cycle of human life. As a journalist and adult Jewish learner, it was a pleasure, as well as a challenge, to translate the wisdom and joy of our tradition into a contemporary idiom.

The other major inspiration I find in Jewish life and letters is our history of debate. The ongoing, sometimes sublime and sometimes silly, argument found in even our most sacred books (Talmud, et. al.) gives me, as a liberal Jew, a sense of belonging to a grand, ongoing and ever-changing wrestling match with the past, with the sacred, with one another.

Anita Diamant is the author of six handbooks of Jewish life and life-cycle events, including, “The New Jewish Wedding” and “Choosing a Jewish Life.” This year marks the 10th anniversary of the publication of her first novel, “The Red Tent,” based on Chapter 34 in the Book of Genesis, but told from Dinah’s point of view. Her latest novel, “The Last Days of Dogtown,” is set in Massachusetts in the early 1800s and chronicles the lives of a group of society’s cast-offs in a poor, rural community. For more information, visit www.anitadiamant.com.

Kirk Douglas

When I was writing my last book , “Let’s Face It,” Peter, one of my sons, said, “Dad, don’t make it too Jewish.” It’s hard for me to obey him, because being a Jew is, as Cole Porter would say, “Deep in the heart of me.”

The history of the Jews fascinates me. We are only about 13 million in number, way out of proportion to what we have accomplished in life and what we have contributed to the welfare of people in so many areas. I am proud of that. And yet, anti-Semitism grows.

Being a Jew is a challenge. It’s often said, “Schwer zu sein a Yid” (It’s hard to be a Jew). To me, it’s been a challenge that I try to accept gracefully, and it has given me many rewards.

Actor, producer, director and author, Kirk Douglas was born to Russian Jewish immigrant parents in Amsterdam, N.Y. He was a wrestler at St. Lawrence University and worked as a bellhop to put himself through school at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Douglas’ books include “Dance With the Devil” (1990); “The Secret” (1992); his autobiography, “The Ragman’s Son” (1988), and “Let’s Face It: 90 Years of Living, Loving, and Learning,” which will be published by Thorndike Press in March.

Gina Nahai

The sources that inspire me are the men and women whose lives I try to render in my stories. They’re the people I grew up with or that I grew up hearing about. I watch them now as I did then and describe what I see, hear them, and write what they say. I don’t invent so much as reveal, don’t comment so much as bear witness. I think a writer’s job is to tell the truth as she sees it, and, having done that, be prepared to defend what she has said.

I’m an Iranian Jew, and most of the people I write about are Jews. I don’t pretend to capture an entire history or to portray an entire nation. I don’t believe that’s possible. But I do believe that by telling the truth of an individual’s life — a personal truth — one can arrive at a universal understanding, and this is what I aim for.

Gina Nahai’s novels include “Cry of the Peacock” (1991), “Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith”(1999), “Sunday’s Silence”(2001) and her new novel, “Caspian Rain” (MacAdam/Cage, 2007). A lecturer in the Professional Writing Program at USC, her writings have also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle and Los Angeles Magazine. Her column appears monthly in The Jewish Journal.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach

The most important Jewish inspiration that I have is the Torah, and especially great characters of the Bible. I am moved whenever I read of the kindness of Abraham, the struggles of Jacob, humility of Moses and the daring and commitment of King David and righteousness of Hebrew prophets.

Discovering these great men in the Bible fills my Jewish spirit with passion and inspiration. It is especially moving to learn of those who embody the patriarchs. In my life, a great inspiration was the Lubavitch Rebbe, who lived with the passion to serve my people and spread the word of Judaism to all corners of the world.

Generations of comics salute Mort Sahl on his 80th


“Mort Sahl changed the face of comedy. Before his, that face was Marty Allen’s.”
— Jack Riley

And if you get that reference, you would have loved the Mort Sahl 80th birthday celebration at the Wadsworth Theatre on June 28. What’s not to like? Shelley Berman in a seersucker suit and saddle shoes doing his famous rotary phone call bit. Jonathan Winters playing slugger Leland Buckhorn: “Had four wives … one liked hockey, another liked tennis, one woman just strayed in bars….”

“We are lucky to live in a time when Jonathan Winters was around,” emcee Jack Riley says.

No kidding. That goes for the rest of this cockeyed caravan, too: George Carlin, Woody Allen, Drew Carey, Norm Crosby, Jay Leno, Bill Maher and other standout stand-ups offering “Sahl-utationals” to the pioneer in political satire. Sahl was the first with an LP, first on the cover of Time, and first to understand the Hollywood-D.C. axis as a comedy act.

Once called “the fourth branch of government,” “Sahl was the revolution,” wrote Gerald Nachman in his book, “Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s.” “The mere idea of a stand-up talking about the real world was in itself revolutionary.”

I remember my father putting on Sahl’s “1960, or Look Forward in Anger” LP and how I didn’t understand a single thing. References to Bobby Baker and Estes Kefauver? I was too young to get how great this guy was.

But now I’m here among all kinds of comedic all-stars who appreciate him. The Wadsworth event is a benefit for Sahl’s Heartland Foundation, and what Harry Shearer calls, with his finest satirical twang: “Aside from Jay and Drew and Jonathan … a tribute to a time when Jews did run comedy.”

It’s like a comedy theme park, with Tommy Chong on the red carpet with Kevin Nealon, Hugh Hefner, Dick Van Patten and Rob Reiner, and Paula Poundstone stands schmoozing the founder of the first Mort Sahl Fan Club (1956). Septuagenarian Jack Riley, who played Mr. Carlin, the depressed hypochondriac on “The Bob Newhart Show” says he’s here “because I need a credit from this century.”

Waiting for a urinal in the packed men’s room, you can tell which comics have prostate problems.

Richard Lewis turns 60 today and George Carlin made 70 a day before Mort’s birthday. Lewis kvetches brilliantly about the billing tonight: “I thought it would be Jay, then Christ, then me.”

In his black Nehru shirt, Lewis says he looks “like Capt. Kirk’s cantor.”

His tribute?

“If not for Mort and Lenny [Bruce], I wouldn’t have had 25 years of drug abuse and whoring.”

Carlin tells us Sahl saw him in 1960 doing a Mort Sahl impression in a Hollywood coffeehouse between Cosmo Street and Ivar Avenue. Sahl recommended him to the “hungry i” (for “intellectual”) in San Francisco, and “onward!”(a Sahl catchword) climbed Carlin.

“I was 21 when I first saw him,” says Allen in a taped greeting. “And the minute I saw him, I just thought that there was nothing else that could be done in comedy, and he was just the best thing that I had ever seen.”

But one comedian, Albert Brooks, takes the stage somberly. “I’m embarrassed tonight,” he says. “And angry. I was told that Mort Sahl passed away.”

So Brooks reads a eulogy.

“I remember the last time I saw Mort alive,” he says, the laughter building now like something on a classic comedy LP: helpless, extended, tear-filled. “It was at a Starbucks near where I live. And now I wish I’d said the things that I really felt — how much he influenced all of us here, while he was here. But I didn’t. All that I think I said that day was: ‘Are you gonna finish that latte?’ This should be a lesson to all of us…. And I say, rest in peace my funny man. Rest in peace.”

All around the Jerry’s Deli spread afterward, are wonderful comedians who can’t get smiles off their faces: Fred Willard, Mark Schiff, Rick Overton, Darryl Henriques, Wendy Kamenoff, Paul Krassner, Edie McClurg, Larry Hankin and Barry Diamond.

It was Bart Simpson, quoting the Talmud, who asked: “Who shall bring redemption if not the jesters?” I think of Jan Murray’s and Morey Amsterdam’s funerals and how fine it is that friends did this while Sahl — who once said, “You haven’t lived until you’ve died in California” — is still alive.

“I’ve been very moved by everybody tonight,” Mort told us finally. “I want you to know it really did knock me out. I also want you to know that I’ll do it as long as they let me…. When I started this act, although I was just lonesome and looking for a family, in a larger sense I saw it as a rescue mission for America…. But I believe it more than ever, in spite of the odds, that the good guys’ll win.”

Onward!

Mort Sahl will teach a course in critical thinking at Claremont McKenna College in September.

Hank Rosenfeld assistant teaches at Roosevelt Elementary School in Santa Monica and has written a book with Irving Brecher — who wrote for Milton Berle, Jack Benny, and the Marx Brothers — coming from Ben Yehuda Press in 2008.

::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::



Mort Sahl fan tribute

Happy Birthday, Unsung Heroes, Heroes of Sherwood, Rock for Research


Happy Birthday

Topping-smothered mashed potatoes in martini glasses don’t make appearances at typical synagogue shindigs, but Betty’s Birthday Bash was no standard function.

Thrown by the atypical Westwood Village Synagogue, the evening Bash took place Dec. 24 at the Luxe Hotel on Sunset Boulevard. The purpose of the evening was twofold: to celebrate the 100th birthday and lifelong philanthropy of synagogue member Rebecca “Betty” Matoff; and to raise funds for the Modern Orthodox synagogue’s building fund, which Matoff established.

The event included a celebratory dinner, dancing and a video presentation chronicling Matoff’s dedication to charitable causes.

“I’ve been so blessed to have the chance to help others,” Matoff said. “It’s a great honor to serve, in essence as ‘Hashem’s Treasurer,’ being able to give to those individuals in need and the organizations doing God’s work.”

— Ali Austerlitz, Contributing Writer

Unsung Heroes

The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles joined the Council of Israeli Community (cicisrael.org) at a reception Feb. 2, highlighting a wartime joint effort in the local Jewish community.

Following the outbreak of the second Lebanon war, local Israeli organization leaders formed the Giyus Hul-Oversees Draft committee, which raises funds for Ziv Hospital in Tsfat and Kiryat Shmona Fire and Rescue Services Station.More than $178,200 was raised through community events, with The Federation matching the funds to total $356,542.

The funds will be used to equip the first of five new operating rooms in Ziv Hospital and to upgrade the command and control communication center at the Kiryat Shmona fire station.

The effort brought together various organizations that would ordinarily compete for the same dollars. Giyus Hul also worked with the Lions Club, an international nonprofit organization with chapters in Israel, to ensure that 100 percent of the funds raised were used for the intended purposes, with no overhead expenses.

Following the first katyusha rocket on Zefat in July 2006, the emergency room and trauma center at Ziv Hospital treated 687 civilian victims and 820 Israel Defense Forces soldiers. The 1,507 casualties were more than those treated at any two hospitals in the north of Israel combined.

Kiryat Shmona Fire Station is headquarters for the Upper Galilee; during the war 1,780 katyusha rockets hit Upper Galilee and 1,072 katyusha rockets hit Kiryat Shmona and surrounding area. As a result, 2,500 acres of forest and 5,000 acres of fields and parkland were burned.

In a letter read at the event, Israel’s Fire and Rescue Commissioner Shimon Romach expressed his appreciation for the generous donation, which will “significantly improve Israel’s ability to respond promptly to any emergency situation.”

Actor-comedian and Israel advocate Larry Miller emceed the event.

Hereos of Sherwood

California Attorney General Jerry Brown was the guest speaker when the Anti-Defamation League Pacific Southwest Region awarded the Helene and Joseph Sherwood Prize for Combating Hate at an awards ceremony Feb. 15 at the Skirball Cultural Center.

The Sherwood Prize recognizes committed law enforcement personnel who make a significant difference in their communities and serve as role models for their departments. Individual honorees were: Lt. Fred Booker, Los Angeles Police Department; Commander Lynda Castro, L.A. County Sheriff’s Department; Deputy Sheriff Rafer Owens, L.A. County Sheriff’s Department; and Corporal Alexandro Peinado, Pasadena Police Department.

Also honored with the unit award were the Federal Bureau of Investigation, United States Attorney’s Office and United States Department of Justice Civil Rights Division for the investigation and prosecution of the Avenues Street gang — the first conviction of a street gang for violating federal hate crime laws.Sherwood award founder Joseph Sherwood told the group, “With this award, we are able to achieve the well-deserved recognition for individuals who have dedicated their lives to making our community safer by fighting bigotry and combating hate, wherever it rears its ugly head.”

Rocking for Research

It was a night for music lovers to celebrate love and rock and roll while supporting Cedars Sinai Women’s Cancer Research Insitute (WCRI) at the Samuel Oschin Comprehensive Cancer Institute. Almost $300,000 was raised as music legends Willie Nelson, Jackson Browne and John Trudell presented the Give Love, Give Life benefit concert.

One-hundred percent of the net proceeds from the show benefit the Cedars-Sinai WCRI, a multidisciplinary program working to eradicate women’s cancers through research, education, early detection and prevention and advocacy.

WCRI’s Dr. Beth Karlan and a coalition of women’s health groups recently secured passage of federal legislation called Johanna’s Law, which will fund education and outreach about the symptoms of gynecologic cancer.

Under the leadership of Dr. Karlan, WCRI works side-by-side with Cedars-Sinai’s patient care programs to integrate innovative research into programs devoted to preventing, diagnosing and treating women’s cancers.

The choice of all male artists for the Give Love, Give Life concert was intentional. Each of the artists has long advocated peace, environmental and social justice issues, but this is the first time they have collaborated on behalf of women’s health and women’s cancers.

Semper Fiber


I am a big believer in New Year’s resolutions, especially of the weight-loss variety. I’ve even been known to renew my vows on a weekly basis. Yet, I have learned
that any drastic promises, such as, “I will never eat another bowl of Ben & Jerry’s Coffee Heath Bar Crunch ice cream ever again,” never work.

Other sure-fail methods include eating “calorie-controlled” blueberry gelatin and promising that you will only eat three ounces of cold turkey (skinless, of course) for lunch every day. A coworker of mine ate this way until one day she opened her mouth to speak but started to gobble instead.
Last year, I also decided that I would only weigh myself on the summer and winter solstices.

Too-frequent weigh-ins can sabotage any diet efforts, because a woman’s weight is a mysterious, jumpy, undependable thing that does not follow any known laws of nature. Over-weighing would lead to stress. Stress would slow down my metabolism, which was already prone to sleeping in late.

When my scale realized it was being ignored, it had a digital breakdown. Now my husband and sons are perplexed why the scale registers a difference of 15 pounds from a Monday to a Wednesday. Finally, payback time.

This year, I looked for fresh ideas on reducing poundage. Fortunately, I found an article that uncovered facts never before revealed to the American public. For example, did you know that Krispy Kreme Doughnuts are full of saturated fats and sugar? Who knew?

Now that I am aware of this and other startling nutritional data, I don’t dare approach within 100 feet of a Krispy Kreme shop. (Frankly, they deserve a boycott for the spelling alone.) But I am going one better: I am also making a commitment to fiber. This inspiration came from my friend Helen, who went from a pleasingly feminine figure to a lean, mean marathon machine.

Each time I saw her, she had dropped another dress size, her skin glowed more radiantly than ever and the threat of middle-aged wattle under the chin had vanished. When she moved her arms, her biceps flexed insouciantly. Helen looked fantastic. If she didn’t knock it off, I would have no choice but to hate her.

“How have you done this?” I asked, faking wonderment instead of envy.

She took my arm and leaned in close. “It’s all about the fiber,” she said. “You’ve got to try it.”
“No thanks,” I said, holding my hands up in a “stop” gesture. “It may be ecologically friendly, but pure fibers are much too high maintenance for me. I bought a linen dress once, and the dry cleaning alone nearly killed me.”

“Not that fiber,” she said. “I’m talking bran cereal, garbanzo beans and broccoli.”

She whipped a small nutrition bar out of her pocket, where she apparently kept a stash. It was made of flaxseed, apricots and at least 25 percent recycled greeting cards.

“Try this. Fourteen grams of fiber in this little bar,” she said. “But don’t say I didn’t warn you,” she laughed.

It was a strange laugh, perhaps the kind of laugh you get after ingesting too much fiber.

“Great,” I said, dropping the bar into the vast black hole of my purse. “If it works, I’ll ask my doctor for a prescription.”

“Oh, no need,” she said. “These are over-the-counter, even the blueberry. But if you’re really serious about prescription fiber bars, I know where you can order them cheap from Canada.”

And so, desperately trying to become sinewy and taut like Helen, I put my trust in fiber. Scads of fiber. My main food groups became split peas, collard greens and psyllium husks. I tossed soy nuts and lentils on everything, even cereal. One night, I dreamed that I had fallen into an open barrel of barley at the local Whole Foods store. I developed indigestion.

After two weeks of uncompromising fidelity to fiber, I had not lost any weight, but my pantry was four pounds lighter, because I had used up most of the lentils and several cans of kidney and white beans.

Then I saw Helen again, who looked more buff than ever. My indigestion flared up immediately. Probably too many raw red peppers at lunch. Not a good idea.

“What gives?” I demanded. “You claimed that you looked so great because of fiber. I’ve eaten so much fiber I could be the poster child for the National Colon Health Foundation. You must be doing something else. Come on, spill it ”

“I’m working with a personal trainer three times a week,” Helen said. “I’m sure I told you.”

I knew there had to be a catch. Helen’s confession vindicated me. A diet of chickpeas and cantaloupe might get you poster child status for colon health but would not get you on the cover of Brawny Babe magazine. The green stuff of Helen’s success wasn’t only kale, it was cold, hard cash for the trainer.

Since then, I’ve gotten used to my more fibrous diet, but sometimes I pine for hours for an empty calorie. Overall, it’s not really that bad, if you don’t mind indigestion. I can’t afford Helen’s personal trainer, but at least I know the secret of her success. Commitment, self-discipline and money.

Who knew?

Judy Gruen writes the popular “Off My Noodle” column at judygruen.com. Her next book, “The Women’s Daily Irony Supplement,” will be published in May.