A family, accomplished but without much gain


Joshua Henkin, author of “The World Without You” (Pantheon Books, $25.95), has frequently said in interviews that he first fell head over heels in love with reading and then convinced himself he could become a writer because he intuitively sensed what was missing in other people’s fiction.  His antenna has failed him here.  This is a sprawling novel about a large secular Jewish wealthy family gathered to memorialize the loss of their brother Leo, who was killed more than a year before, while working as a journalist in Iraq.  The Frankel family is an accomplished bunch, yet there seems to be a mean streak that infuses the most minor of interactions.  They don’t talk to one another, but seem to compete in an endless round robin of verbal volleyball that drains the reader’s patience.  Perhaps worst of all, there is a bitterness in how they confront one other that lacks both empathy and insight.  We sense that this is a family whose members long ago left each other’s daily orbit, and now time and distance have only deepened the corroded black holes that were present before the tragedy of their brother’s death.

The parents, Marilyn and David, have been married for more than 40 years and seem to exist in parallel universes of their own invention.  They swipe at one another over trivialities, and the intimacy of their early years has clearly been replaced by the ritualized routines of upper middle class professional life.  Marilyn is a doctor, and David used to teach high school English at a private school in Manhattan.  The adult children are a diverse lot.  The eldest, Clarissa, is 39 and struggling with infertility.  Lily is a hot-tempered lawyer based in Washington, D.C., who seems to have channeled her mother’s intensity and perfectionism.  Noelle had the most difficulty growing up with this clan, which might be why she now lives in Israel, where she and her husband are raising four children and have become Orthodox.  Her transition to religious life makes the entire family uncomfortable.  There is also Leo’s widow, Thisbe, and their toddler son, who have flown in from California.  Henkin begins the story in July of 2005 as the family gathers at the Frankel’s beloved summer home in the Berkshires. 

If I were a publisher, or even a movie producer, and had received the proposal for this project, I would have green-lighted it immediately.  Perhaps Joshua Henkin was going to treat us to a gut-wrenching meditation on family and sibling rivalry.  Possibly he wanted to explore how most of us foolishly glorify our childhood and need to be forced to come to some sort of adult reckoning about what we really had and what we didn’t.  Maybe this talented author wanted to shed some needed light on the unsettling mixture of love and bitterness that still confuses many of us whenever we go home again.  Or perhaps Henkin was planning to veer off in an unexpected direction and shine his authorial gaze upon the loneliness of adult life, or the spellbinding allure of adult power.  None of this happens.

Instead, Henkin chooses to inundate us with melancholy pseudo-dialogues and meaningless clips of conversation.  No one seems to be actually talking.  His characters feel like they are playing darts with one another.  There is a repeated pattern of competitive jabs interspersed with embarrassed silences.  Occasionally, one family member approaches another with an overly dramatic, “How are you?” which is usually followed with something like “Fine,” or perhaps “I’m always fine, aren’t I?”  There is simply no penetration into anyone else’s consciousness, and the reader starts to dislike this bloodless group. Sadly, in Henkin’s dysfunctional familial universe, no one can help anyone else, let alone listen to them.

Yet, there is one scene that remains embedded in my memory, where Henkin seems to have finally given himself permission to linger.  The Orthodox daughter, Noelle, goes upstairs to visit her father, who is lying placidly in his bed, reading a book about the Civil War.  She approaches him uncomfortably with pecan ice cream, which she delicately sets down beside him.  He asks her about her life in Israel and seems genuinely curious about her transition to religious life.  She tells him about some of what she has mastered in order to become Orthodox and questions him about his own past.  He reminisces with her about his love of teaching and how much he misses it.  He tells her how important his students were to him and how competent he felt with them.  She tells him how worried she is about him, and the silence that ensues makes sense, for once.  But soon enough the ice cream she has brought him begins to melt, and Henkin takes us somewhere else.


Elaine Margolin is a frequent contributor of book reviews to The Jewish Journal and other publications.

Bookmark These for Summer Reading


Summer is here, and the time is right for touring authors. Here are the highlights of the season for poolside and airplane reading, including some local appearances by the authors themselves.








Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. He blogs at jewishjournal.com/twelvetwelve and can be reached at books@jewishjournal.com.

Excerpt: ‘Proust Was a Neuroscientist’


Walt Whitman

The Substance of Feeling

The poet writes the history of his own body.

— Henry David Thoreau

For Walt Whitman, the Civil War was about the body. The crime of the Confederacy, Whitman believed, was treating blacks as nothing but flesh, selling them and buying them like pieces of meat. Whitman’s revelation, which he had for the first time at a New Orleans slave auction, was that body and mind are inseparable. To whip a man’s body was to whip a man’s soul.

This is Whitman’s central poetic idea. We do not have a body, we are a body. Although our feelings feel immaterial, they actually begin in the flesh. Whitman introduces his only book of poems, Leaves of Grass, by imbuing his skin with his spirit, “the aroma of my armpits finer than prayer”:

Do artists intuit scientific truths?


Jonah Lehrer’s book, “Proust Was a Neuroscientist,” is based on a misunderstanding. Nonetheless, it is engaging, informed, wide ranging and altogether worth reading. At times it has the whip-smart feel of the best term paper you’ve ever read; if only one could adjust the thesis a bit, it would settle in to what is its real nature — a provocative meditation, not a genuine discovery.

Lehrer’s claim is that certain select artists effectively discovered modern truths of neuroscience simultaneous with, or even before, scientists did themselves. He makes his case through chapters on each of eight artists: Marcel Proust, George Eliot, Gertrude Stein, Paul Cézanne, Auguste Escoffier, Igor Stravinsky, Walt Whitman and Virginia Woolf. The astonishing act of intuitive/artistic legerdemain illustrated by Proust is his discovery, neurasthenically ensconced in his famous cork-lined room, that memories are not solid recollections, but shift and change with time. Our memory is always the memory of the moment, never the recollection of eternity; each time we recall, we change the recollection.

Virginia Woolf’s discovery is that “the mind is not a place; it is a process.” Lehrer quotes from Woolf’s short, swirling masterpiece “To the Lighthouse” to illustrate the thesis: “Such was the complexity of things … to feel violently two opposite things at the same time; that’s what you feel, was one; that’s what I feel, was the other, and then they fought together in her mind, as now.” Lehrer proceeds to compare this to discoveries in neuroscience about the different functions of different parts of the mind.

Does the reader begin to see the trouble? I may as well assert that Judaism, with its theories of yetzer hatov (good inclinations) and yetzer hara (bad inclinations), anticipated neuroscience because the sages, too, understood the mind as a battleground of conflict. Samuel Johnson, long before Woolf (and as different in temperament as might be imagined), said that two things about the human heart may be contradictory, but both are true. Woolf’s exposition is more delicate, in service of Lehrer’s larger project (about which more in a minute) but all these examples are less anticipation than artistic statements of the prevailing intellectual ethos.

Although you pick your artists, you get your sensibility. Though Lehrer barely mentions them, you may as well mix Henry James, James Joyce and Henri Bergson all together to get the delicate stream of consciousness that is more true to what we know of the mind’s workings than, say, Anthony Trollope. The key is to choose a frame and then find an artist that fits. If you were doing sociology, Trollope’s stolid, knowing class-conscious characters work beautifully. For the brain, we go to those whose subject was not the workings of society as much as the workings of the introspective self (though Proust, comprehensive artist that he was, did both). Lehrer’s choices — Whitman, Stein, Woolf — paid attention to what went on within their own minds. And to suggest this is no more charged than to say that Sophocles anticipated Freud. Writers will, as sensitive and intelligent people, anticipate some of the discoveries of other fields — sociology, psychology and hard science. But did ancient Greek philosopher Democritus, who spoke of atoms, really anticipate modern physics, or did he imaginatively give voice to a possibility of the world that, in a way he could not have imagined, was proved true? Equally, when Lehrer writes that George Eliot celebrated freedom, the infinite possibilities of the individual to change, he might equally well have chosen Shakespeare or Bocaccio or the Bible.

What to my mind does not work so well as a definite thesis, works beautifully as an intriguing, elegant meditation. Lehrer is a young man (26 years old) of wide experience and remarkably broad, assured learning. He is lavishly gifted with associative abilities; one fact, one observation or apercu suggests another, and he is off and running. He noticed similarities and suggests affinities. The book is a short, readable feast.

Nevertheless, Lehrer’s larger project is the development not of a union of science and religion, though he makes the obligatory nod to C.P. Snow and E.O. Wilson in developing a culture that embraces both. His larger project is the development of a sensibility. There are science writers whose work shows an exquisite artistic sense, such as Loren Eisley and Lewis Thomas. There are writers who are intimately acquainted with the sciences, such as Richard Powers and Andrea Barrett. Lehrer offers us an image of these two great fields of human endeavor in concert. Images enrich one another, and each aids in understanding the other.

There are three principle joys in reading this book, none inferior to the other: What we learn about science, what we learn about art, and what we anticipate will come next from the pen of this gifted and sensitive observer of life and art.

David Wolpe is senior rabbi of Sinai Temple. His column on books appears monthly in The Journal.

Raising pint-sized ‘People of the Book’


To harried modern parents, few things sound more luxurious than a quiet weekend away — no cell phones, no televisions — with a pile of unread books. To the vast majority of their children, few things sound more torturous. It’s not that modern-day kids don’t enjoy reading. Most do. It’s just that an abyss of high-tech alternatives and jam-packed daily schedules have left them unlikely to discover that reading offers a world of excitement that could put their Xbox 360 to shame.

Nevertheless, as academic demands become increasingly grueling and college admission requirements increasingly stringent, strong reading skills might be more important to kids today than ever before. Studies consistently show better readers get better grades. Reading is, after all, the very heart of education. Reading enriches the imagination, builds vocabulary, teaches grammar and makes students better spellers and writers. If our kids are going to thrive and succeed in our fast-paced, achievement-oriented society, they need to be proficient readers.

So what’s a 21st-century parent to do? Pile on the after-school tutoring? Threaten that the kids will lose their instant messaging privileges if they don’t finish their reading assignments?

Perhaps the philosopher Epictetus put it best: “If you wish to be a good reader, read.”

There never was and never will be any other way.

In celebration of Jewish Book Month, here are some suggestions for fostering critical literacy skills and igniting a lifelong love of reading in your child:

Give Reading a Prime-time Slot

Regardless of how much kids like to read, they won’t read if they haven’t any time to do so. By setting aside twenty minutes or so every day (right before bedtime usually works well), we provide our kids ample reading opportunity while sending the message that it’s an activity worthy of their precious time.

Check the Reading Level

When children take on books beyond their proficiency level, they can become rapidly disheartened. To determine whether a book is too hard for your child, have her read the first page aloud to you.0 If she stumbles over more than five words, put it back on the shelf and help her make another selection.

Enlist Hollywood

Seeing a story on the big screen (or a small one) can provide just the spark kids need to pick up the book version. Flicks like “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events,” “Harry Potter,” “Harriet the Spy” and “Stuart Little” are sure to have your little stars hitting the library in no time.

Entice Them With Glossy Pages

Kids needn’t peruse classics to reap the benefits of reading. Magazines that zero -in on children’s passions — from skateboarding to fashion- – can inspire even the most reluctant readers to start flipping pages. Techno-savvy kids can pull up favorite magazines online at sites like Sports Illustrated Kids and Time for Kids.

Create a Library on Wheels

Propensity toward carsickness aside, keeping a supply of books in the car will turn all those idle hours in traffic into valuable reading time.

Turn Them on to Books on Tape

Listening to a book on tape while following along in the real thing gives struggling readers (or those who simply want to tackle a book that’s beyond their reading level) an opportunity to enjoy the story without getting bogged down by difficult words.

Money Talks

In addition to your child’s regular allowance, provide a small allotment exclusively for reading material. Even if all your kid can afford is a paperback book or magazine, you’ve helped your cause.

Start a Parent/Child Book Club

This hot new trend in book clubs offers benefits galore, ranging from heightened reading skills to multigenerational bonding.

It’s in the Bag

Stash some books in a tote bag and pull them out whenever you and your kids get caught in a holding pattern. Whether waiting at the doctor’s office or a restaurant, your children will be thankful to have books to bust their boredom.

Add ‘Book Night’ to Your Chanukah Traditions

Reserve one night of your Festival of Lights this year for family members to exchange hot reads. Spend the rest of the evening enjoying your new books together. Make your gift last all year long by tapping Family Reading Night as a weekly tradition.

Read to Your Kids

For kids who are learning to read — and even those who are old pros! — it’s always a treat to listen to a book. Use expression and intonation as you read to encourage your kids to do so on their own.

For more information, visit
Sports Illustrated Kids: ” target=”_blank”>http://www.timeforkids.com.
Find out everything you need to know about organizing your own parent/child book group at:

Get ready to bug out


With few exceptions, I sincerely hate bugs … a lot. I hate the way they look. I can't stand it when they bite. And most of all, I feel violated each time I catch one crawling up my leg. Yeeech!

While my hatred of bugs may seem a tad extreme (but definitely warranted), it may be that we're intruding on their lives rather than the other way around. That's the way Joshua Abarbanel and Jeff Swimmer see it, and their new book, “A Field Guide to Household Bugs: It's a Jungle in Here” (Plume, $12), explains that our well-protected homes may be more of a feeding ground for bugs than we think.

Turning “the idea of home as a sanctuary on its head,” Abarbanel and Swimmer say, their book — which has the potential to bring out the Jewish neurosis in anyone — offers a comedic yet factual look at the bugs currently living around, on or even in you.

They enter your home by hitching a ride on family pets or simply taking advantage of open doors, pet doors, open windows, tears in window screens, vents, pipes and cracks. After reading the field guide, I inspected my shared apartment and bathed … and then bathed again.

There's much more to the book than the mere gross-out feature. Abarbanel and Swimmer say their book works because “the characters are so compelling and bizarre; their behaviors are so weird and unusual.”

In the chapter Demodex Folliculorum, Abarbanel and Swimmer delve into the bugs more commonly known as eyelash mites. The guide explains that at any given time, you could have 20 to 30 of these critters wrapped around the base of your well-groomed lashes.

The two agree that the most Jewish-sounding name for a bug would probably be the silverfish (Lepisma saccharina), and that the earwigs (Forficula auricularia) get mad Jewish props for their love of books.

As we celebrate Sukkot, Abarbanel and Swimmer have some good news for you. The two say your sukkah is likely less infested with bugs than your home, which should make the mitzvah of sleeping in our biblical huts a little easier to carry out.

Joshua Abarbanel and Jeff Swimmer will sign “A Field Guide to Household Bugs” on Sunday, Sept. 30, 2 p.m. at Dutton's Brentwood Books, 11975 San Vicente Blvd. Los Angeles.

For more information, visit

New Pesach ‘traditions’ might be purr-fect for your family


“Pesach for the Rest of Us: Making the Passover Seder Your Own” (Schocken Books, $22.95).

When author Marge Piercy was a little girl, her grandmother set a special place at the Passover seder for Blackie, her grandmother’s cat.

He was a very dignified cat, Piercy recalled in an interview. “Blackie sat quietly in his chair while we went through the entire maggid,” the re-telling of the Passover story.

Piercy’s grandmother insisted that Blackie ate with a knife and fork — but only if nobody was looking. So every Pesach, the young girl would wait to see if this night would be different from all other nights and the finicky feline would join the family and cut up his piece of pot roast.

Whether it was the warm memory of that cat or of watching her grandmother create the annual seder in her modest Cleveland apartment — setting out her Passover-only dishes, ironing her spotless tablecloth saved for special occasions, polishing the fine silver candlesticks she had brought from Lithuania and, especially, preparing the traditional meal, Pesach remains the prolific poet and novelist’s favorite holiday.

Piercy has just published “Pesach for the Rest of Us: Making the Passover Seder Your Own,” which is filled with insightful writings and illustrative poetry from the personal haggadah she’s created for her own seders, as well as her recipes. On April 2, the first night of Passover, Piercy will honor her grandmother, Hannah Levi Bunnin, by cooking her Gedempte Flaisch Mit Abricotten (Pot Roast With Apricots) for guests at the seder she has presided over for the last 25 years.

“If I weren’t honoring the memory of my bubelah, I would probably serve lamb, because of its association with Pesach,” she wrote in the book. Although she loves recreating her grandmother’s Ashkenazi menu, lately she’s added Sephardic Chicken Soup (from Jews originally from Spain) and Mizrachi Charoset, (made by Jews of Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Iran), because of her fascination with the different food traditions.

For this year’s seder, she has created a special egg salad to eat during the part of the service that calls for dipping a sprig of parsley and a hard-boiled egg into saltwater to symbolize spring and the cycle of life, but also to make visceral the tears of the Jewish slaves in Pharaoh’s Egypt.

Instead of the traditional basket of eggs passed around the table, Piercy serves eggs mixed with parsley, salt, cucumber, fennel, olive oil and lemon juice during the first part of the reading of the haggadah. Piercy says it’s a time for lively discussion, but as the service is also long, people get hungry, especially the children, who just want to eat. So Piercy serves the salad right after the Hillel sandwich. Eating the eggs, parsley and salt in a salad fulfills the requirement; it’s also an admirable start for the meal, she says.

A fish dish is traditionally served after the egg is eaten, and many matriarchs spend the better part of a day making fresh gefilte, a family favorite. But for the rest of us who have neither the time nor the inclination, Piercy offers an easy, appealing recipe for chopped herring.

Every year, Piercy says, she tries to make Passover more relevant to her life and to what is happening in the world. She has created her own, personal haggadah.

“It’s 65 percent poetry — it’s been a ‘work in progress’ for more than two decades,” she said.

Piercy dedicated “Pesach for the Rest of Us” to her grandmother, who in some sense presided over the seders of the writer’s youth, though her grandmother’s role was most of all about making sure everything was ready for the seder, because since she was Orthodox, her son presided over the service. Piercy says, however, that over the years, in writing her haggadah, she kept in mind, the importance of making tradition accessible to young people — of touching each child and creating a feeling of belonging so they will turn toward, and not away, from their religion.

In the book, Piercy writes about how women over the past century have demanded that Judaism speak to them, that it serve and acknowledge their experiences, their needs and their humanity. She adds an orange on the seder plate and Miriam’s cup to complement Elijah’s.

“Pesach for the Rest of Us” offers visceral ways of experiencing our ancestor’s journey, such as taking off our shoes and plunging our feet into cold water, reminiscent of the Sea of Reeds or walking outside and gazing at the moon to remind us the Jewish calendar is based on lunar cycles.

But best of all, she shares with us recipes that make sense today and no doubt would have appealed to the gentlemanly Blackie. Enough so, certainly, to make him pick up his knife and fork to cut up his herring.

Mizrachi Charoset
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1 cup apples, peeled, cored and quartered
1 cinnamon stick
3 cardamom pods
1/2 cup almonds and pistachios
1/2 cup pitted dates
1/2 cup white figs
1/4 cup dried cherries
1/4 cup pomegranate seeds
Black pepper to taste
1/4 cup cherry or orange brandy, sweet wine or grape juice
Honey or brown sugar to taste (optional)

Sprinkle lemon juice over the apples. Set aside. In a food processor or with a mortar and pestle, grind together cinnamon stick and cardamom pods. When they have consistency of a powder, add nuts and then the apples and dried fruit. Keep a light hand on the pulse button. Consistency should have a bite to it.

Remove ingredients to a large bowl. Fold in pomegranate seeds, brandy, wine or grape juice and, if desired, sugar or honey.

Taste charoset to see if it is just the right blend of sweet and tart. Add honey or sugar for sweetness, lemon juice to make it more tart. Mix to combine. Serve in glass bowl.

Makes 3 1/2 cups.

Barri Evins: A Book Can Change the World


“It is hard to convey the special sense of respect, dignity and approbation that can be conveyed by calling someone ‘a real mensch,'” writes Leo Rosten in “The Joys of Yiddish.”

The Yiddish word infuses the basic German denotation — “person” — with an almost indefinable connotation. A mensch is a person who is upright, honorable, decent, as Rosten writes, a person to admire and emulate.

So, why not just call such people saints or angels?

Because, as the stories below will demonstrate, these people have no such airs. They are people, like you, like us, who in the course of schedules no less hectic and demanding than our own, manage to reach out and help others, make the world a better place, day in and day out. They are doing what we all should, and what we all can do, despite the fact that most of us don’t. They are just people — menschen, to use the proper Yiddish plural — who understand the power and possibility of what just one person can do.

So, we are delighted to introduce you to The Journal’s second annual List of Top Ten L.A. Mensches.

This year we’ve added a new category, as well: Honorary Mensch — A non-Jew whose work exemplifies this very Jewish notion. Thank you, Marilyn Harran.

And thank you to all our mensches. Maybe next year, we’ll all be candidates for the list….

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

‘>Alex Baum

‘>Eve Marcus

‘>Marilyn Harran

‘>Rebecca Levinson

‘>Yoram Hassid

Each Christmas, Barri Evins and a group of volunteers give away thousands of books at Head Start magnet centers throughout the Los Angeles area. At each center, volunteers greet each child individually, ask them their age and then present them with a brand new book especially selected for them.

“We want them to feel important and cherished” said Evins, who 15 years ago created From the Heart, a nonprofit designed to promote literacy and foster a love of reading in children living below the poverty line.

The daughter of two psychologists, Barri Evins was born in Florida and raised by a mother whom she describes as “an extraordinary woman … a philanthropist, and a hands-on volunteer.”

Evins emphasized “hands-on,” because that is at the core of the philosophy of From the Heart.

“We want them to have something new of their own,” she said. “To create that moment is a transformational experience for both the people who are giving and those who are getting.”

For many children, this gift is the first book ever to go into their home.

Evins is dedicated to the concept of tikkun olam (repairing the world). She firmly believes that “when you give a child a book, you give them the world” and, by promoting literacy, you can empower them to do virtually anything.

Her organization works most of the year collecting, counting and sorting books and preparing for the Big Book Giveaway, where volunteers, often together with their families, meet at Head Start centers to put the books into the hands of some 5,000 children who range in age from 3 to 18. To date, From the Heart has given away nearly 70,000 books.

A graduate of Northwestern University, Barri heads her own film production company, “be movies.” She is currently working on a project about Stetson Kennedy who, she says, was considered to have been the single-most important factor in curbing the Ku Klux Klan.

While From the Heart was started with a group of young women in the film industry, it has grown greatly, and today, Evins said, its biggest challenge is “finding other people from all walks of life who would like to get their hands dirty, shlepping, sorting and giving books to make sure that each child gets a book that excites them.”

On a personal level, Evins confided that she would “like to find a nice Jewish boy who’d like to help me give out books.”

From the Heart works with One Voice, a grass-roots, nonprofit agency that creates meaningful, innovative and effective ways for people to help others in need. It has no overhead and all contributions are used to carry out its mission.

To contribute or volunteer, contact Barri Evins at FromTheHeart345@aol.com.

Choice of a Jew generation


If you’re in a bookstore and see a book with two impish-looking guys trying to sneak a light for their cigarettes from a chanukiah, then you’ve happened upon “Jewtopia: The Chosen Book for the Chosen People” (Warner).

Yes, the saga of Los Angeles’ longest running original play continues. “Jewtopia,” the play, was first brought to us in 2003 by two unemployed writers/actors who maxed out their credit cards to mount the funny, if somewhat stereotypical, comedy about dating and Jews. It was originally supposed to run for six weeks but was so popular that it extended for another year, then left in 2004 for an off-Broadway run in New York, where it’s still playing to sold-out audiences.
Now Bryan Fogel and Sam Wolfson, the creators and sometime actors in the play have expanded their “Jewtopia” vision into a book, and they are working on a movie deal as well. The 200-plus page color book, might be mistaken for a coffee table book — except that much of the material inside is not fit for the living room.

Consider, “The Jewish Kama Sutra: An Illustrated Guide to Lovemaking,” because “Jews are certainly not known for their prowess and skills in the bedroom.” Positions include “The Challah,” “The Heimlich,” “The Reader” “The Minyan” and “Bubbe’s Visit” (She cleans while he…oh, don’t ask.)

“It’s to be read in the bathroom only,” jokes Wolfson, who plays Adam Lipschitz, a Jewish guy facing extraordinary parental pressure to marry a Jewish woman.

“I think it should be read at the family seder — it’s a good substitute for the Haggadah,” replies Fogel, who in the show plays Chris O’Connell, a Christian obsessed with meeting a Jewish woman who strikes up a bargain with Adam to help him pass as a Jew if Chris can find Adam a date.

To be sure, there’s more than just sex jokes in “Jewtopia: The Chosen Book…” There’s a chapter on Jewish History, the Holidays (“Celebrate the Bad Times”), Food (“Anyone Have Some Zantac?”) Travel (“Planes, Trains and Diarrhea”) and Conspiracy Theories (“Do Jews Control the World?”) with real, live facts mixed in with, well, bubbemeises, like Moses’ lost diary or the game “Match the Nose to the Jew.”

In a world where it’s hip to be sardonic about Jewish identity (Heeb, Jewcy, Rabbis Daughter) “Jewtopia: The Chosen Book…” is a more idealistic, “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Jewish Stereotypes” kind of take on our people-sophomoric and sometimes scatological humor by two guys who are clearly having fun.

“We kind of consider ourselves the Trey Parker and Matt Stone of the Jewish world,” Wolfson says, referring to the creators of “South Park.” “Not so much enforcing stereotypes but having fun with them.

So they’re not self-hating Jews?

“We hate ourselves for so many other reasons,” Wolfson says. “There are so many good reasons to hate ourselves aside from being Jewish.”

Bryan Fogel and Sam Wolfson will be reading from “Jewtopia: The Chosen Book for the Chosen People” on Nov. 2, at 7:30 p.m. at Barnes and Noble, 16461 Ventura Blvd., Encino.— Amy Klein, Religion Editor

Forget Aesop, Think Kushner


Jacob always falls asleep during the rabbi’s speech and dreams of making money to further his riches.

Daniel is so poor that when he sweeps the floor while the rabbi talks, he can barely hear anything over the growling of his stomach.

Both these men’s fates come together in the children’s fable “In God’s Hands,” written by Lawrence Kushner and Gary Schmidt, fancifully illustrated by Matthew J. Baek. (Jewish Lights Publishing, $16.99). Kushner’s other children’s books include “Because Nothing Looks Like God” (Jewish Lights, 2000) and among his adult books is “The Way Into: Jewish Mystical Tradition” (Jewish Lights, 2004), Schmidt is the author of Newbery Honor Book “Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy” (Clarion, 2004).

In the spirit of old Jewish tales, “In God’s Hands” takes place in a nameless small town in an unnamed time with the rich man and poor man lost in their own thoughts: “That’s pretty much how it went day after day. And that’s how it might have kept on going until, one morning, Jacob, the rich man, did something he had never done before: He woke up, just for a moment, during the reading of the Torah. Why did he wake up just then? Who knows?”

Jacob hears the rabbi recite a verse from Leviticus. “You shall bake 12 loaves of challah, and set them before Me in two rows, six in each row.”

It’s a tale of crossed wires — like Guy De Maupessant’s “The Gift” – when Jacob starts to bring the bread to the synagogue when no one is there, and places them in the ark. Daniel comes to synagogue to pray to God for food and finds the loaves of bread. Both men believe that God is directly responsible, until the rabbi witnesses the whole scene and brings the men together to understand that the miracle comes from within them.

“God does not eat challah. And God does not bake challah,” the rabbi says. “God’s miracles are not like that.”

Jacob and Daniel understand.

“If you were there, you might see them — two men standing together, looking at one another,” the book ends. “Two men who understand that their hands are the hands of God.”

 

Turning The Pages of Childhood


"Mommy, will you read to me?"

My 10-year-old daughter asks me this question every night. Even if I’m exhausted, or just want some time to myself, I almost always say yes. Before I turn around, she’ll be 11, then 12, then a teenager.

She will no longer need her reading fix with Mommy. "Time will not be ours forever," as Ben Jonson wrote back in 1607, when the printed word was still a new invention. I want to make this time with my daughter last.

My husband and I also have three sons who are older than Yael, which means I have clocked 15 solid years of reading aloud to our children. Because we have worked to instill a love for the written word in them, Yael’s requests to have me read to her make me feel that we have succeeded.

I take special delight in being asked to read to a child who has already read on her own for several years. (And her brothers all did the same thing.) Admittedly, if we allowed them to watch TV or play computer games for hours on end, the children may well have preferred to experience some frenetic galactic explosions on the screen to having me read to them. But we didn’t, and we have been rewarded richly for it. Over the years we have enjoyed countless delicious reading experiences together: Roald Dahl’s magical "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory"; E.B. White’s timelessly charming "Charlotte’s Web"; Beverly Cleary’s series about the irrepressible Ramona and Henry Huggins; and so many more.

I also take particular delight in reading to my children when they are already independent readers because I missed this kind of quiet growing up. Memories of my childhood are filled with the theme song to "Bonanza" bouncing out from one bedroom where my father watched, competing with the canned laugh track of "The Odd Couple" in the den, where my Mom and I watched. We watched others live imaginary lives more than we talked about our own real ones, and sat passively more than we engaged with one another.

I’m secretly happy that my kids complain — not about wanting to watch TV — but about a lack of books in the house. This, despite the groaning weight of books, often double-stacked, on every inch of bookshelf space we have in every room in the house. Their reading appetites are insatiable. Even when I read to Yael, one or two of her older brothers sometimes drift in to the room and take a seat. After all, who could resist this exchange between Charlotte and Wilbur — no doubt the most endearing spider and pig to ever grace the pages of a children’s book:

"Why did you do all this for me?" Wilbur asked. "I don’t deserve it. I’ve never done anything for you."

"You have been my friend," Charlotte replied. That in itself is a tremendous thing. I wove my webs for you because I liked you. After all, what’s a life, anyway? We’re born, we live a little while, we die. A spider’s life can’t help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies. By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone’s life can stand a little of that."

Who could ever tire of reading exquisite children’s writing like this, with elegant philosophy thrown in?

My husband and I may have fostered our kids’ love of the written word by reading to them when they were small, but they have continued to develop the passion on their own. Sure, it may partly owe to a Nintendo-deprived existence, but so what? In learning to love to read, they have also learned to love learning for its own sake. They have made this gift their own, and it will enhance their lives for as long as God grants them time on this earth.

As much as their reading thrills me, sometimes, even I have to pry their faces out from behind of a book. Even reading, taken to extremes, can become an isolating activity. I can’t always stop them from reading in the car, under the kitchen table, in the bathroom and, of course, under the blanket late at night, but there are a lot worse problems a parent can have.

When our kids are all grown up, I hope that their memories of our reading together, snuggling on the couch or in bed, will be among the most meaningful of their childhoods. I know that they already are for me. If I’m lucky, Yael will continue to ask me to read to her for many chapters yet to come.


Judy Gruen is an award-winning humorist and columnist for Religion News
Service. More of her columns can be found at www.judygruen.com.

Writing Well Is the ‘Best Revenge’


It’s 7 p.m. on a recent Monday at Samuel French book store in Studio City, and Stephen Fife is hanging out, waiting for more people to show up for a reading of his new memoir, “Best Revenge: How the Theater Saved My Life (And Has Been Killing Me Ever Since).”

The person responsible for promoting such events is abroad, he says, creating a publicity glitch that’s resulted in, well, hardly anyone turning out to the reading, save for eight friends and fans. It’s a fitting snafu, given that Fife’s hilariously caustic memoir covers everything that can go wrong with anything to do with the theater — and why he perseveres.

“Revenge” revolves around a 1998 staging of his acclaimed adaptation of Sholem Asch’s Yiddish classic, “God of Vengeance,” directed by his idol, the legendary Joseph Chaikin. The book recounts Fife’s misadventures during that Atlanta production — such as his frantic attempts to find free places to crash — between astute insights into the play, the American theater and his colorful past.

Fife, 51, describes growing up an “upper-West-Side-private-school Jew,” the proverbial “black sheep” of his privileged family. He recalls earning good reviews and no money for plays such as his Pinteresque Holocaust saga, “Mickey’s Home”; suffering criticism while adapting “Vengeance” for Manhattan’s Jewish Repertory Theater in 1992 and his unabashed envy of successful playwrights. (During the reading, he asks at least two people if they’ve read Donald Margulies’ adaptation of “Vengeance,” which — as he gleefully notes in his memoir — Chaikin disliked.)

In an era in which showbusiness autobiographies often present the author as hero (think Neil Simon’s “Rewrites”), Fife “carves out a niche for the less-than-gorgeous dramatists of the world,” according to American Theatre magazine. “[He] is unafraid to tell the unattractive truth from the worm’s eye view, to reveal his own schadenfreude, to swipe at colleagues for real and imagined slights.”

“Fife offers a dirty-thoughts-and-all self-portrait in extreme close-up, in the model of early Philip Roth,” another publication, Creative Loafing, said.

Looking artsily rumpled in black jeans and a T-shirt at the reading, the playwright comes off more like an affable, self-deprecating cynic; he smiles politely when a woman gushes, “You have wonderful, self-effacing humor, kind of Larry David-ish.”

Fife is less prickly than David, but he does take umbrage with American Theatre’s claim that his “Revenge” digs at people to get even.

He wrote the book for different reasons, he says during an interview in his sunny, cluttered Santa Monica apartment. He got the idea back in 1998 when, while reeling from a difficult divorce, he unexpectedly realized his 18-year-old dream of working with Chaikin.

“I had in mind a memoir that would deal with the actual experience of theater and would convey a visceral sense of dedicating yourself to an art form you love, regardless of whether you are successful,” he says.

Fife began scribbling notes during rehearsals of Asch’s 1905 drama, about a shtetl pimp who raises his daughter “purely” upstairs while getting rich off the brothel below. The inevitable production problems ensued: Fife says he was appalled, for example, when a promotional poster depicted a drawing of a naked woman dangling from a Star of David (to add insult to injury, the woman didn’t even look Jewish). Then, a community leader denounced the play as “an attack on Jewish businessmen” and the production hung in the balance until the leader attended a rehearsal and approved the show, Fife says.

Behind the scenes, the playwright continued to fight with his girlfriend, who had helped him find a place to stay in Atlanta but was chagrined when he refused to buy his host a thank-you gift.

OK, so he may have burned some bridges in Atlanta, and “Revenge’s” tell-all stories aren’t pretty, but then again, “Blood has to be spilled for comedy to be truly funny,” he says.

“People like to gloss over the nastier sides of things,” he adds. “But I wanted to present the truth about the journey of the playwright, warts and all.”

He doesn’t spare himself: “I think I come across as a pathetic character, for the most part,” he says. “I show my professional insecurities and my rocky history in my relationships, including a number of e-mails that were quite unflattering, in which my girlfriend speaks of me as a ‘constantly rebelling little boy.'”

The playwright appears to have made progress, since he currently shares his apartment with said girlfriend, now his “life partner,” and their 5-year-old daughter. He’s also become the literary director of a new Los Angeles area theater, Pacific Stages, whose debut production is his own black comedy about dating, “This is Not What I Ordered.” Thus far the production has had at least one crisis, a problem with an actor who, in Fife’s words, was “just mugging like crazy.”

So the theater is continuing to save his life, and to kill him.

“I have a play opening this week,” as he told participants at his reading. “So obviously, I’ve learned nothing.”

“This is Not What I Ordered” runs May 28-June 27 at the Zephyr Theatre in Hollywood. For tickets, $20, call (323) 655-TKTS. “Revenge” readings are scheduled for June 6 at Pacific Resident Theatre in Venice, (310) 822-8392; June 9 at Book Soup in West Hollywood, (310) 659-3110; and June 12 at Borders Books and Music in Hollywood, (310) 659-4045.


Excerpt from Stephen Fife’s "Best Revenge: How the Theater Saved My Life and Has Been Killing Me Ever Since":

Not that it was a pleasant thing to admit, but there comes a point when many of us stop being good sports and start wishing some ill-will on our more favored peers, no matter how talented they are. And Donald Margulies was a talented playwright, whose play "Sight Unseen" had recently won the Pulitzer Prize. Since then, he had been dubbed the official "Jewish-American Playwright" in some press-sanctioned ceremony to which (as usual) I had not been invited. My own Jewish play "Mickey’s Home" had been beaten out several times by his plays, in one case actually getting knocked off a theater’s roster when a new play of his suddenly became available. (That theater’s artistic director, the very picture of WASP gentility, had actually said to me: "Well, you couldn’t expect us to do two Jewish plays in one season, could you? We have subscribers.")

But now Margulies had crossed the line, he had climbed into my wheelhouse and made it personal. Five years after my version of "God of Vengeance" had been produced at Playhouse 91 on New York’s upper East Side — receiving 17 rave reviews and selling out the last few weeks, despite losing our big-name star during rehearsal — I received a call from a literary associate at the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven, offering me 30 pieces of silver (alright, 20), to be on a panel discussing a production of The Donald Margulies version of "God of Vengeance."

I had put down the receiver and silently screamed at the playwright’s decibel (which not even dogs can hear) and then phoned a friend of mine who worked at Long Wharf. She had smuggled out a script, meeting me in the parking lot of a large shopping center, where I had to read the 200-plus page script on the spot, as if I was Julius Rosenberg memorizing state secrets. In the end, that production was canceled (another 20 pieces of silver down the drain), but his version was out there, hanging over my head. So what if it had 25 characters and included a full klezmer concert? I mean, he was Donald Margulies, the darling of regional theater, the state-sanctioned "Jewish American Playwright" — so what chance did my script have, right? Except Joe Chaikin liked my version better. Yeah. He loved my version, and he was going to direct it. The Joe Chaikin.

The Giving Ladder


"Rambams Ladder: A Meditation on Generosity and Why It Is Necessary to Give" by Julie Salamon (Workman Publishing, $18.95).

Even a wizard at niche marketing would tremble before the title of Julie Salamon’s most recent book. "Rambam’s Ladder," based on an ancient text by Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, sounds like it’s bound for the remainder bins even before it hits the Judaica sections. Don’t be fooled; this slender volume is a (mistitled) must-read for every individual, Jew and non-Jew alike, who recognizes his or her greater responsibility as part of a family, community and member of society.

Ben Maimon, a 12th-century physician, philosopher and scholar, is best known as Maimonidies or Rambam. Salamon uses his text, the Ladder of Charity, as the inspiration for her title and the basis for her eight-step ladder explaining different levels of charitable giving: the reluctant giver is at the bottom of the ladder and the individual whose charity enables someone to become self-reliant at the top. In between fall all vagaries and levels of giving — unsolicited charity, giving with a smile or giving with a scowl, anonymous donations — with a separate chapter dedicated to each rung of the ladder.

The ground beneath the ladder of charity is always shifting, Salamon says. By the time you have finished her text you fully grasp that there is no such thing as a simple act of charity. Do we give out of self-interest, to atone for past sins, to alleviate guilt, to impress, to ingratiate favor? At the end of the day, who is giving to whom?

Billed as a road map to charitable giving, "Rambam’s Ladder" begins as one woman’s journey, subtle and stirring, to make sense of her world following the horror of Sept. 11. An inveterate volunteer and do-gooder, Salamon’s reaction to the tragedy of Sept. 11 was to gather her children near and to protect her own. Her husband bolted into action, running to donate blood, to dispense sandwiches, to search for the missing. Sept. 11 is the crucible for inhumanity and terror on the one hand, and profound acts of kindness and charity on the other.

"The tragedy of human history lies in the enormous potential for destruction in rare acts of evil, not in the high frequency of evil people," said the late Steven Jay Gould in response to Sept. 11. "Complex systems can only be built step by step, whereas destruction requires but an instant. Thus, in what I like to call the Great Asymmetry, every spectacular incident of evil will be balanced by 10,000 acts of kindness, too often unnoted and invisible as the ‘ordinary efforts’ of a vast majority."

Paolo Alvanian is an ordinary man responsible for one such act of kindness. He watched from his downtown restaurant as the Twin Towers crumbled. The events of that day transformed him from a man who did not believe in charity — an immigrant who believed that everyone should pull themselves up by their own bootstraps — into a giving man. He dedicated a day for charity where all proceeds from his restaurant were donated to the Red Cross. He did away with his set prices and asked his patrons to pay what they could afford. One woman ate a small salad and wrote a check for $400. The lesson of the reluctant giver: "Giving may begin as a way to make order out of chaos, and turn out to be a transformation."

Alvanian’s simple act changed his perception of himself, his place in the world and his feeling of responsibility to others. "I’m not Mother Teresa. I’m not equal to her liver for generosity. But I believe that if you give from you heart you will have it returned back."

Each and every one of us is not only capable of, but obligated to be charitable. Reading this book forces us to examine how we stack up — or which rung of the ladder we are on. The book is thoughtful, poetic and a gripping read.

Salamon interviews the homeless man on the street and the CEOs of major corporations. She references Enron, Sotheby’s and Scarlett O’Hara all in the same breath. She is brutally honest about her own conflicts, preferring to give money to a presentable homeless man rather than the crazy one muttering under his breath. And her reporting is thorough and relevant. We learn that the United States has more billionaires than any other country in the world: 216 out of 497 in 2001: "Yet the U.S. Bureau of the Census reported in September 2002 that 32.9 million Americans, 9.2 percent of the total population, were officially considered poor."

Too many Americans, it would seem, have yet to reach even the first rung of the ladder.

It is not natural to want to give away one’s money; in fact, one could argue that being philanthropic is counterintuitive. Ramban’s goal — and Salamon’s mission — is to press the importance of our hardwiring a charitable instinct into the soul. No easy task, but one she takes on with courage and zeal. Every parent will immediately recognize the importance of this book not only for themselves, but also for their children. No child is too young to understand the importance and the impact of a charitable life. The sooner the indoctrination begins the better.

Shoah Book Brings Museum Experience


"A Promise to Remember: The Holocaust in the Words and Voices of Its Survivors," by Michael Berenbaum. (Bulfinch Press. $29.95.)

You don’t find an index or bibliography in a museum. You go there for images, for impressions, to be moved, as well as educated — so, too, with "A Promise to Remember."

Michael Berenbaum, a first-rate scholar and writer, who was founding director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., has produced, in effect, a traveling museum, or in barely more than two score pages, a traveling museum exhibit.

More than a catalogue of a museum exhibition, Berenbaum, now director of the University of Judaism’s Sigi Ziering Institute, presents a total museum experience. Instead of walking down aisles and reading information panels, you hold the artifacts in your hands.

Through words (his own and interviews with a small number of Holocaust survivors), photos (mostly sepia, with some in color), reproduced documents (copies of a wartime rabbi’s sermon from Berlin and a politician’s letter from Bulgaria, etc.) and an accompanying CD (audio to complement the visual), Berenbaum emphasizes, subjectively but accurately, some of the most important elements of the Shoah experience.

These Shoah elements include: the background of the Final Solution, ghetto life, the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, the participants and bystanders, rescue by sympathetic non-Jews and, finally, liberation.

This book is clearly for the novice, for someone uninitiated in the terror that gripped the world in the mid-20th century — for the individual who isn’t likely to enter an actual Holocaust museum. The book is a tactile, sensual experience. Only the sense of smell is missing.

In the introduction, Berenbaum writes, "Nothing this brief could possibly do justice to an event as vast as the Holocaust, which evolved over 12 years and enveloped the entire continent of Europe; which consumed some 6 million dead; and whose implications are seen in headlines and images that have entered the conscious and unconscious of all humanity."

He offers nothing new in these pages, no new facts or novel interpretations, but the totality of the familiar, presented in an unfamiliar way, is striking and unsettling. The product, part coffee table book, part reference guide, is a beautifully designed masterpiece. You read the chapter on "The Decision to Kill the Jews," and you look on the same page into the austere eyes of Richard Heydrich and his fellow henchmen in genocide and you feel a chill.

He offers no footnotes or bibliography — no scholarly sources beyond the identifications that describe the interviewees. They aren’t needed; anyone affected by the book, whose interest is whetted, can contact the institutions cited in the acknowledgments.

The book isn’t meant to be read in one reading. Each chapter, to be absorbed and understood adequately, should be read separately. It will take the careful reader a few hours to go through "A Promise to Remember."

Just the length of time it takes to walk through a museum.

A Plethora of Pages


Sunday, Nov. 9

Jewish Community Library of Los Angeles: 3 p.m. "On the Road With Lamb Chop Show," with Mallory Lewis. Jewish Community Library, 6505 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. For more information, call (323) 761-8648

Jewish Federation of San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys: 10 a.m. Breakfast and discussion with law professor Michael Bazyler about his book, "In Holocaust Justice: The Battle for Restitution in America’s Courts." Temple Beth Shalom, 14564 East Hawes Street, Whittier. The event will be repeated on Tuesday, Dec. 2. For more information, call (626) 967-3656.

Monday, Nov. 10

Jewish Community Library of Los Angeles: 7 p.m. Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz will talk about his new book, "Opening the Tanya." B’nai Judea Congregation, 8906 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. For more information, call (323) 761-8644.

Wednesday, Nov. 12

Mount Sinai Memorial Parks-Sinai Temple: 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m. The first West Coast Jewish Children’s Literature Conference. $55. Sinai Temple, 10400 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. For more information and reservations, call Susan Dubin, (818) 886-6415.

Jewish Federation of San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys: 8 p.m. Donna Rosenthal will discuss her book, "The Israelis: Ordinary People in an Extraordinary Land." $5. Temple Ami Shalom, 3508 E. Temple Way, West Covina. For more information, call (626) 967-3656.

Thursday, Nov. 13

Jewish Federation of San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys: 8 p.m. Rabbi Edward Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino will discuss his book, "Tough Questions Jews Ask: A Young Adult’s Guide to Building a Jewish Life." Temple Beth Israel, 3033 North Towne Ave., Pomona. For more information, call (626) 967-3656.

Sunday, Nov. 16

Mount Sinai Memorial Parks-Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles: 10 a.m.-2:30 p.m. The Jewish Children’s Bookfest. The Triangle at Mount Sinai Memorial Park, 6150 Mount Sinai Drive, Simi Valley. For more information, call (866) 266-5731.

KOREH L.A.: 9:30 a.m. Volunteer training. Sinai Temple, 10400 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 761-8153.

Jewish Federation of San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys: 10:15 a.m. Breakfast, discussion and study session with Rabbi Tirzah Firestone, author of "The Receiving: Reclaiming Jewish Women’s Wisdom" and "With Roots in Heaven." $5 breakfast, $15 study session. Temple Amit Shalom, 3508 E. Temple Way, West Covina. For more information, call (626) 967-3656.

Tuesday, Nov. 18

Jewish Federation of San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys: 8 p.m. Former public defender, now stay-at-home mother, Ayelet Waldman will discuss the most recent books in her Mommy Track Mystery Series, "Death Gets a Time-Out" and "Daughter’s Keeper." $5. For location and reservations, call (626) 967-3656.

Wednesday, Nov. 19

Jewish Community Library of Los Angeles: 7 p.m. Robert A. Rosenstone, professor of history at California Institute of Technology, will discuss his first novel, "King of Odessa." Jewish Community Library, 6505 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. For more information, call (323) 761-8648.

Jewish Federation of San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys: 11:30 a.m. At this special luncheon, cookbook author Marlena Spieler will discuss and conduct demonstrations from her most recent book, "The Jewish Heritage Cookbook." $36. For location and reservations, call (626) 967-3656.

Thursday, Nov. 20

Jewish Federation of San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys: 8 p.m. Gregg Hurwitz will discuss his book, "Kill Clause." Scripps College Campus, Malott Commons, Hampton Room. 345 E. Ninth St., Claremont. For more information, call (626) 967-3656.

Sunday, Nov. 23

Jewish Community Library Los Angeles: 3 p.m. "The Drama of Jewish History" with author Gloria Mikolwitz. Jewish Community Library of Los Angeles, 6505 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. For more information, call (323) 761-8648.

Jewish Federation of San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys: 10:30 a.m. Family event with Sylvia Rouss, author of the "Sammy Spider" series. Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center, 1434 N. Altadena Drive, Pasadena. For more information, call (626) 967-3656.

Sunday, Nov. 23

Jewish Community Library Los Angeles: 4 p.m. "Lose Yourself" with Jewish rapper Etan G. Jewish Community Library of Los Angeles, 6505 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. For more information, call (323) 761-8153.

Jewish Federation of San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys: 7 p.m. Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis will discuss his newly reissued book, "In God’s Mirror: Reflections and Essays" at this special event. Congregation Shaarei Torah, 550 S. Second Ave., Arcadia. For more information, call (626) 967-3656.

Tuesday, Dec. 2

Jewish Community Library Los Angeles: 7 p.m. Author Joan Leegant will lecture and have a booksigning of "Hour in Paradise," which was recently chosen for the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers program. For more information, call (323) 761-8648.

Sunday, Dec. 7

Jewish Community Library Los Angeles: 3 p.m. "Exploring Faith and Generosity" with author and Holocaust survivor Sonia Levitin. Jewish Community Library of Los Angeles, 6505 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. For more information, call (323) 761-8648.

Sunday, Dec. 14

Jewish Community Library Los Angeles: 3 p.m. "The Very Best Chanukah Gift," with children’s author, Joanne Rocklin. Jewish Community Library of Los Angeles, 6505 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles For more information, call (323) 761-8648.

Thursday, Dec. 18

Jewish Community Library Los Angeles: 11 a.m-1 p.m. Chanukah at The Grove. For more information, call (323) 761-8648.

Sunday, Dec. 21

Jewish Community Library Los Angeles: 3 p.m. "Kosher Sushi" parent-child workshop with chef Juniper Elkman. Jewish Community Library of Los Angeles, 6505 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. For more information, call (323) 761-8648. — RB

Literary Look at the ‘Jewish Experience’


This Shavuot, as we read about Ruth’s decision to convert, we should examine our own religious connection: To what extent do we (and would we) internalize the essence of the Torah?

In fact this question touches upon the much larger issue of what it means to be a Jew. "The Jewish Experience" is mentioned frequently and can refer to bagel brunches as easily as it can to surviving the Holocaust. That both of these are cultural references is not a coincidence; Judaism has traditionally emphasized actions and American society echoes this approach. There is however, a component beyond The Jewish Experience. There is an experience of being Jewish. There is a unique way of seeing life that informs all of our cultural practices and associations. This distinct worldview is what we embrace on Shavuot.

Three books in particular directly address the experience of being Jewish, each from a slightly different vantage point.

Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin’s work, "To Be a Jew: A Guide to Jewish Observance in Contemporary Life" (Basic Books, $18.50), is often at the top of the reading list for people considering conversion. It begins with an overview of the basic tenets of Jewish thought, then elaborates upon these tenets by showing how they manifest in Jewish practices. And while it can certainly function as a practical handbook, it differs from one in that it constantly engages in a discussion of "why". Donin explains early on that the Torah was given in order to bring sanctification to the world. He continues, "The purpose of holiness permeates all of Jewish religious law, and encompasses every aspect of human concern and experience." Even if the reader gets no farther than page 35, orienting oneself to this concept alone can be life-altering.

The book is highly informative, with facts brimming on every page. It can be read in its entirety or consulted as a reference. Discussions are authoritative without being preachy. And where there is the possibility of controversy (e.g., birth control), Donin is remarkably adept at focusing on areas of common ground among rabbinic opinions.

"Judaism for Everyone: Renewing Your Life Through the Vibrant Lessons of the Jewish Faith "(Basic Books, $27.50) by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach (of Kosher Sex fame) incorporates imagery and language from popular culture, especially the realm of New Age. The book contains a great deal of social philosophy, a fair amount of theorizing on contemporary life by the author and some very cogent articulations of the Jewish perspective on life. By packaging traditional Jewish thought in Bodhi Tree wrapping, potentially daunting ideas are made accessible to an audience that might not otherwise be reached.

Among the book’s most compelling points are the contrasts between Judaism’s views on life and those of the ideological competition. Jackie Mason jokes that Jews don’t have a sense of what it means to be Jewish beyond the understanding that "we’re not goyim." In this age of cross-cultural pollination, it is useful to know where ideas originate in order to better recognize what is the essence of our own.

Divergent approaches to suffering place Judaism in opposition to Christian thinking as well. Boteach notes that the message of the crucifixion to Christians is: "Without suffering there can be no redemption." On the other hand he writes, "In Judaism, however, suffering is anything but redemptive…. Ennoblement of character comes through triumph over suffering, rather than its endurance." As a supreme example of this view he cites the establishment of the State of Israel in the aftermath of the Holocaust: "The response to death is life." Though it borders on the melodramatic, no one familiar with Jewish history would argue with this statement.

The most profound distillation of what it means to be Jewish can be found in the pages of "The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels" by Thomas Cahill (Anchor Books, $14). The book is written with a poetic sensibility that belies an appreciation of life so rare in academic circles it is almost nonexistent. Cahill’s scholarship focuses on history as "the narratives of grace."

The Jewish gift referred to in the title is the introduction of linear thinking. Prior to Abraham, all people conceived of life as a circle or spiral, with events simply repeating themselves into infinity: "The Jews were the first people to break out of this circle, to find a new way of thinking and experiencing … so much that it may be said with some justice that theirs is the only new idea that human beings have ever had."

The text illustrates how choice and decisionmaking could not exist without the shift from the circular to the linear. The Ten Commandments could not exist, nor could the capacity for morality, nor, ultimately, Western civilization.

It seems ironic that the book that best encapsulates the Jewish contribution to society was written by a non-Jew. Then again, perhaps it is appropriately heartening and in keeping with our role as the standard-bearers for a more perfect world. Maybe we’re doing something right after all. And maybe, the more we internalize our gifts as a people the better able we will be to share.

BJE Selects ‘Leaf’ for Reading Initiative


Assimilation. How Jewish children should best be educated. Oppression against Jews and the Jewish State. Whether faith can provide meaningful answers.

Those topics lead to unexpected plot turns in “As a Driven Leaf,” a historical novel selected by Orange County’s Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE) for “To Read as One,” its first communitywide reading initiative, which began last month.

Written by Milton Steinberg, the book is based on a historical character, a renegade rabbi who lived during the Roman conquest of Judea and was excommunicated. The novel provides a context both historical and cultural for many dilemmas confronting contemporary Jews, said Howard Mirowitz, of Newport Beach, the BJE’s treasurer.

“It makes us realize where our own reactions are coming from,” said Mirowitz, who with his wife, Ellen, co-chaired a group that organized “Driven Leaf”-themed events. “To Read as One” aimed to reach a segment of the Jewish population that is unaffiliated, Mirowitz said.

“If nothing else, they read a book that’s really worth reading,” he added.

The age-old conflict between contemporary standards and
tradition that confront the book’s characters will be discussed by Rabbi Claudio
Kaiser-Bleuth in a final “To Read as One” event, May 4, 10:30 a.m. at Tustin’s
Congregation B’nai Israel. A study guide for the book is posted online at www.bjeoc.org.

Who I Really Am


Here’s the scenario: I travel for work almost 20 days a month. It’s lonely out there on the road, one long Bob Seger song. Dating is almost impossible, but I’ve met a guy who seems to fit the suit.

By that, I mean he’s employed, smart, sweet, even Jewish. We’ve had two dates so far, both stellar. We held a competition about who could dredge up the most Jewish name from our family vault. A bartender declared me the winner with "Fraindle Vishnotzky."

I was sure this would be an adorable story down the road. We were already calling each other Vishnotzky, and everyone knows nicknames are the first step on the road to togetherness.

Since I’m only home a week at a time, I’m in an intimacy hurry. I’ve got to get this going before the next stint in a suburban Holiday Inn in Irving, Texas. I need someone to call at night, a touchstone.

Vishnotzky has been a little flaky, but I have to overlook that for obvious reasons. He’s supposed to call later, and I’m sure he’ll ask me out for one last date before I dash off. There’s nothing to do but wait, so I take a long walk through Koreatown.

This question popped into my head: What is the one story I could tell about myself that would expose who I really am? That one anecdote that would encapsulate my whole self, that story I’d tell to hasten the bonding process. This is the story that I recalled as I strode down Beverly Boulevard. You probably have one, too, if you think about it. Here’s mine.:

I’m snuggled in my sleeping bag, the one I take out every summer, which has that musty, mountain smell. The only light in the cabin is coming from my mother’s flashlight, a dim pool pointed at a hardback book. She’s reading aloud, one chapter a night, like she does every summer.

I’m 8 and my brother’s 10. We’re city kids, other than once a year in Yosemite, when we scoot around in flip-flops covered in bug spray. We ride old, slow horses and swim in a mossy lake. We play Ping-Pong for hours on a table circled by big trees.

This year, the book is John Steinbeck’s "Of Mice and Men." When the chapter is over, I hear the flashlight switch off. It’s dark and it’s a fact that there are bears around, but I’m more scared about what’s going to happen to Lenny. I just hope he gets to tend to those rabbits and alfalfa. It doesn’t seem like much to ask.

The summer before, the book was Kurt Vonnegut’s "Breakfast of Champions," which may have been age inappropriate, but my mother’s the type of person who talks to children using words like "ominous." She’s never uttered "coochee coo" in her life. Anyway, we liked the book. We liked hearing my mom say, "Zihuatanejo."

But Steinbeck is devastating us. He has that magical way of concocting the most painful possible human scenario and then shaking some salt on the open wound. That’s how I happened to walk in on my brother, breaking the unspoken contract, reading ahead.

I came in to grab a towel, and he was sitting on his cot, finishing the last page of "Of Mice and Men," red-eyed and red-handed. He said, "Don’t tell mom I cried." I didn’t. It was the only time I ever saw my brother cry, save the unforgettable Ricky Schroder "Don’t die, champ" scene in "The Champ."

I never forgot the power of those stories, my mom’s voice in the dark, wishing she’d turn pages and read all night.

As an adult, there’s nothing I love more than listening to books on tape — fiction, true crime, anything — especially while on a road trip. It’s the most soothing mixture: the freedom of the open road with the comfort of a story carrying you forward, whispering in your ear as you fly down the highway. It’s the best kind of freedom, the kind where someone is holding your hand part way.

Mom read with her Yosemite voice, measured, smooth and calm. Sometimes, she answers the phone with that voice, out of nowhere, and it brings me back. I want to be 8 again, dirty feet rubbing together under my sleeping bag for warmth.

We didn’t have much time for each other back then. My brother lived with my dad. My mom worked two jobs.

Maybe that’s what I’m straining to hear when I listen to books on tape or even NPR. I’m trying to hear something as distant and muted as a creature rustling around in the night. It’s those short chapters in a now-closed book, that time when our heads were on our pillows, our minds on the same page, our story the same.

Anyway, that’s the memory I fantasized about sharing. The one, if I had to pick one. He never called that night, but he did call that memory to mind. For that, I’m thankful.

Teresa Strasser can be seen Saturdays at noon and 10
p.m. on TLC’s “While You Were Out” and is on the Web at www.teresastrasser.com .

A Dose of Wisdom to Combat Illness


"Illness and Health in the Jewish Tradition," edited by David L. Freeman and Judith Z. Abrams (Jewish Publication Society, 1999, $24.95).

What is your definition of a new book? Mine is a book that I have not yet read, regardless of when it was published. And so, let me call your attention to a book that was published a couple of years ago, but that did not receive the attention that it deserved and that you may have missed.

This is a book for those who are or who some day may be ill, which is another way of saying for everyone. It contains wisdom culled out of ancient, medieval, modern and contemporary Jewish literature that is intended for the patient, the caregiver and the physician. Like every anthology, it has some passages in it that will be your favorites and some that you will not like as much, but there are more than enough of the former to make this a precious and valuable collection.

The writings are of different kinds. There are, first of all, selections from the Psalms, because this is the great treasure house of the human spirit. The Psalms are poems and prayers written by and for those who are ill, and because they are so excruciatingly personal, their power does not diminish with the passing of the centuries.

Then there are selections from rabbinic literature, from both the legal sections and from the midrashim. And then there are selections from the law codes, in which all the bewildering questions that confront patients, caregivers and physicians today are struggled with: When should you visit a sick person and what should you say? When can you let go of life and how long should you fight? How much must you tell a patient when he/she wants to know the truth and how much should you tell when he/she does not want to know the truth?

There are also essays by modern Jewish thinkers–Harold Schulweis, William Cutter, Hirshel Jaffe and others — each reflecting on what they have learned as a result of their illnesses and what they now understand as a result of their recoveries.

These essays do not deal, for the most part, with the theoretical theological questions but with the real concerns of people who are in the hospital. They do not deal with such questions as who has priority for a transplant or whether euthanasia or abortion or stem cell research are right or wrong.

Instead, they deal with such questions as what can we do to make a patient feel that he/she has some control, how can we make the consulting room look less forbidding to the caregivers, and how can a person who has to wear a silly looking gown and a bracelet with his name on it, and who has to sleep in a bed that has sides like a crib, and who has to stare up at the nostrils of those who treat him, feel dignity?

Above all, they deal with the question of where shall a patient find a measure of hope and meaning in the time of illness?

There are a 127 selections in this book. They range from the Chumash and the Book of Job through Maimonides and Glueckel of Hameln in the Middle Ages, to Sholem Asch and Sholom Aleichem in modern times, to Victor Frankl, Max Lerner, Abraham Joshua Heschel and Adin Steinsaltz in our own time.

The prayers and the customs of the tradition are here, such as the "Misheberach," the changing of the person’s name, the amulets, the vidui. New customs and new ways of giving hope and will to live are to be found here, too.

Not only will each person have his or her own favorite in this anthology, but I suspect that different pages will be each person’s favorite at different times in his life. Rachel Cowan’s memoir of what it was like to stay in her husband’s hospital room and to celebrate Shabbat with him there near the end of his life is a gem that those who need be caretakers will appreciate.

The physician’s oath and Isaac Israeli’s portrait of the good physician will speak to doctors about the spiritual challenges they face. (I wish that Nancy Flam’s exquisite prayer for doctors to recite when they lose a patient had been included; perhaps it can be added in the next edition.)

The principles of administration for a hospital that were written for Kiryat Sanz Hospital in Netanya, Israel, is an extraordinary document that should be must reading for anyone who administers a hospital. Many other selections in this collection will speak to those who are, or who some day will be, ill and will show them what those who have walked the lonely path that they must tread have learned.

This source book is the work of two remarkable people: Dr. David Freeman, who teaches internal medicine and rheumatology at Harvard Medical School, and Rabbi Judith Abrams, who teaches Talmud via the internet from Houston.

The book came out of a healing service called Refuat Hanefesh that has been held since l990 at Temple Israel in Boston, where patients, caregivers and physicians meet once a month to share prayers, poems and readings — many of them set to music — and study selections from classic Jewish sources and contemporary Jewish thinkers that grapple with how to achieve both strength of body and strength of spirit.

Now that I have discovered this anthology, I am going to make it the textbook for a study group on health, illness and recovery that I want to teach in my community, because there is no one who does not now or will not some day have to confront the issues that this book deals with. So it is a wonderful resource to study now, as well as when we will need it.

My Brother’s Keeper


My brother, who at 70 is younger than me by two years, has a world-class collection of the mysteries of Agatha Christie and a complete set of the novels of Anthony Trollope. They are being joined, gradually, by the Greek historians and Galsworthy’s Forsythe Saga.

These volumes, together with the Wall Street Journal, the New Yorker, the Economist and other publications to which he subscribes, sit on a bookshelf and rolling table by his bedside in a nursing home about one mile from our home in Providence, RI.. My brother never married or fathered children so on the wall over his bed are pictures of our parents and my wife and daughter. If I could locate them I would also find place for his doctoral degree in economics from Harvard and his law degree from New York University.

But they have been lost over the years of his illnesses, which began in his 20s with schizophrenia and now include Parkinsons, some dementia and occasional seizures. These have so debilitated him that he rises from his bed now only to shuffle slowly behind his walker to the bathroom.

I visit him three or four times a week, bring him another book, straighten out his bookshelf, give him news of those of his friends who still call me to ask of his condition, and sit for a half hour or so by his bed just to let him know that I am there. There is little verbal communication between us since he finds it difficult to understand what anyone is saying and often simply doesn’t respond.

For half a century we had no contact with each other. I lived as an adult first in Jerusalem, then Los Angeles and now Providence. For some of those years he was institutionalized. When schizophrenia became controllable by drugs he began to write textbooks on economics one of which, on anti-trust legislation, is still in the libraries of many universities.

Later my brother moved to New Zealand where he was an advisor to the government on economic matters.

I did not hear from him until several years ago when, babbling incoherently, he wandered into a doctor’s office in Manhattan and was placed in a hospital. He remained there for a year, during which I visited him weekly and finally succeeded in having him brought to Rhode Island, having found a nursing home both clean and compassionate.

When he came here last year, my wife outfitted him with an electric typewriter, paper, a small desk, a dictionary and a thesaurus. He spent several hours each day writing charming little stories about animals and even began a memoir about his years in New Zealand. I hoped that we might be able to publish some of his writings but gradually he lost interest and also the dexterity required to type. Today the typewriter gathers dust as do the TV and the VCR, neither of which he can operate or in which he has any interest.

Often when I visit he is sleeping, the effect I imagine of some of the drugs he takes. I try to rouse him just to let him know that I am there but he rarely awakens. I place the newest book on his table, spend a few minutes straightening out his things and leave, guiltily relieved if truth be told, that I have the half hour free to attend to other matters. If he were in a coma or otherwise near death I would stay, hold his hand to let him know he was not alone, and read by his bedside although neither Christie, Trollope nor the Economist are my preferences.

He has support in addition to my visits. The Rhode Island Jewish Federation sends a rabbi to visit him and supplies him with religious objects necessary to observe the Jewish holidays. And the nursing home staff bought him some Christmas cookies and chocolates so that he would not feel left out of the celebrations. I would like to be able to ask him about his life in New Zealand, his opinions about the Microsoft anti-trust case, and other matters about which he has some expertise. As the only Republican in a family of liberal Democrats, his thoughts on impeachment would be interesting to hear and to discuss.

But he is past all that now. His days and nights are spent in bed, moving restlessly from a lying down to a sitting up position and back again. The doctors tell me that this is a symptom of his illness and that all of his problems are progressive; that he can remain this way, his mind functioning but his body helpless for some years to come.

In the meantime I note a slight improvement. He has remembered another author he would like to read, Angela Thirkell, a British novelist. I have checked with Books in Print; Ms. Thirkell’s novels have recently appeared in paperback. There are a good number of them; my brother’s reading schedule is set for several months to come.


Yehuda Lev writes from Providence, Rhode Island.

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