Empty nest, full fridge
LAMB WITH ALMONDS
LAMB WITH ALMONDS
Fifteen years removed from championship racquetball, Jerry Hilecher decided to attempt a comeback in the sport that made him famous, put him in the conversation about the greatest players and earned him enshrinement in the USA Racquetball Hall of Fame.
He had had back surgery, two right-knee operations and two hips replaced — the price his body paid for competing at so high a level for so long. But in the past few years he felt healthy again, so the father of three decided to get back in the game and competed in various local tournaments and, this past April, a regional qualifying tournament.
The dominance returned. Nobody scored more than eight points against him in any set of the latter (matches are best-of-three to 15, with the deciding set to 11). Still, as the Northridge man considered the prospect of seeking an national amateur singles title, the fact remained that he was 58 and more than 25 years past his prime.
But what a prime.
From 1975 to 1987, Hilecher (pronounced hill-LEE-sher) was a top-10 player, finishing in the top four in 10 of those years, including No. 1 in 1981. He won 10 national and world titles, and played in more than 100 finals. He won singles, doubles and mixed-doubles titles.
With his boomer body feeling good, Hilecher in May entered the 55-and-over division at the 2013 Ektelon Nationals in Fullerton, Calif., confident he would dominate again.
“I had been playing great, beating everyone I played,” he said. “I had such great success in the last six months.”
Yet as he competed, something nagged at the edge of his mind: What have I got to prove? Why am I even here?
A True Great
Racquetball is more of a fringe sport now, but in the late 1970s and early 1980s, it was wildly popular. Hilecher was there at the beginning and lasted longer than any of his contemporaries. He saw the sport’s meteoric rise and its equally spectacular crash.
Few will disagree that Hilecher was one of the sport’s true greats from its golden era. He is enshrined in the Missouri Racquetball Association, Missouri Jewish Sports and USA Racquetball halls of fame.
Hilecher, who earned the nickname “The Maverick” for his style of relentless play and for his outspokenness, said he had the intensity of tennis greats Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe. “I was never afraid to speak my mind,” he said, “but in speaking my mind, good and bad, in politics you’re going to rub people the wrong way.”
Still, “what I accomplished for as long as I accomplished [it] is worth mentioning,” he said. “I would do anything to win back then. I was the most competitive player you’d ever meet.”
In From the Beginning
Hilecher grew up in the University City section of St. Louis, then nicknamed “Jew City” for all the Jews who lived there. Since his home had no air conditioning, it was natural for Hilecher and his friends to hang out at the Jewish community center (JCC) pool, then go inside and play handball and racquetball.
Joseph Sobek had invented racquetball in 1950 in a Connecticut YMCA, but it became popular through its growth in YMCAs and JCCs throughout the country, including the one in St. Louis frequented by Hilecher and his friends Marty Hogan and Steve Serot, two future hall of famers.
“We were able to build our games up, and it was like we were in a tournament every day,” Hilecher said. This forced Hilecher to develop his intensity and even led him to alter the pronunciation of his name (hill-LAY-sher) as part of his racquetball persona.
Hilecher attended the University of Missouri and won the national intercollegiate title in 1973 as a freshman. He turned pro after that.
The mid-1970s was a time when interest in racquetball exploded. It left the Ys and JCCs and expanded into its own clubs.
“It was a ride where literally everyone you talked to played racquetball,” Hilecher said. “Celebrities played racquetball. We were part of charitable events. It was a great time to be part of that.”
However, with a rapid rise came competition and politics, and Hilecher was in the middle of it. In 1981, Catalina sportswear attempted its own eight-tournament racquetball tour and signed 12 of the top men’s players. A different company, Ektelon, sponsored Hilecher, who was president of the professional players association, and, despite being ranked No. 2 in the world, he wasn’t included.
Hilecher took legal action in San Diego, his residence at the time. He wanted a judge to impose a cease-and-desist order on his exclusion from the tournament, but the judge refused because he didn’t believe the exclusion would cause the sport irreparable harm.
At the time, non-Catalina players were allowed to play one event in their geographic area. For Hilecher, that was Los Angeles. So he entered — and won.
The next week’s event was an invitational in Winnipeg, Manitoba, which pitted the top eight American and Canadian players and was taped by ESPN. This was outside Catalina’s tour, so Hilecher competed — and won.
Catalina subsequently extended an invitation to Hilecher.
Two years later, as racquetball’s rise continued, Playboy wanted in. Hilecher negotiated a 10-event, $1 million deal, only to have Playboy pull out over fears that not all of the top names would take part. Many top players had deals with other racquetball-related companies and wouldn’t or couldn’t break those contracts.
Looking back, Hilecher said, the Playboy failure sounded the death knell of racquetball’s golden era. He stuck around until 1987 before going into sales, although he continued to play a bit on the Legends Tour and in selected local and regional amateur tournaments. In 1999, he started Gateway TelNet, which sells and services business phone and business computer networks.
Now he lives with his wife and children in an expansive home, complete with guesthouse and pool, and he is very involved with his synagogue, Temple Ahavat Shalom. There are few reminders pointing to his glorious athletic past outside of his guesthouse, where visitors will find a desk on which only a small fraction of all the trophies, medals, pins, photos — and a Nike shoe with his name on it — tell the story of that part of his life.
Then and Now
But the Maverick couldn’t stay away forever, and in May he was in Fullerton vying for a national championship. Seeded sixth in the 16-competitor 55-plus age draw, Hilecher won his first match 15-1, 15-3 before losing to No. 3 seed and eventual finalist Glenn Bell in the quarterfinals,15-12, 15-10.
What Hilecher found — and what surprised him — was how different it felt playing this time around.
“I didn’t have the same desire. It wasn’t as meaningful,” he said. “My play was lackluster. I enjoyed the match, and losing didn’t bother me, which was not normal.”
But even then, Hilecher still was recognized and respected as a legend. Bell said to him, “Jerry, it was an honor to play against you,” Hilecher recalled.
Hilecher has said that he’s done competing, that he isn’t entering tournaments like this again. But who knows?
“I can’t say never,” he said. “I might get the hunger because I didn’t succeed last time.”
— You grew up believing that eating all your vegetables would help starving children in China.
— You took an Iowa Test with a No. 2 pencil in school … and that’s all you ever knew about Iowa.
— When you were a child, your favorite television shows were hosted by clowns, cowboys or hand puppets.
— Growing up, you spent Saturday mornings watching cartoons, Saturday afternoons at a matinee movie and Saturday evenings playing outside.
— You know George Reeves is the real Superman and Clayton Moore is the only Lone Ranger.
— You remember TV stations signing off the air at night with “The Star-Spangled Banner” and starting each day with test patterns.
— Somewhere in the back of your closet you have a pair of bellbottom pants, a paisley blouse or platform shoes.
— Your memories of “tripping the light fantastic” have nothing to do with dancing.
— You know how to do the Teaberry Shuffle.
— You once thought guys with mullets were cool.
— The notion that gas would cost more than 50 cents a gallon someday was ridiculous.
— Hitchhiking was once an acceptable form of transportation to you.
— Your current mail consists of AARP newsletters, Cialis coupons and Amberen samples.
Rhoda Weisman, executive director of the Professional Leaders Project, which is designed to engender and support a new generation of leaders in the Jewish community, talks about why the Jewish establishment needs to change, why young leaders are just as crucial as big donors and what it’s like to be a woman at the top.
Jewish Journal: Working in a Jewish organization doesn’t sound like a sexy job. Why should people want to go into Jewish communal work?
Rhoda Weisman: I think I have the sexiest job. Because sexy jobs are jobs that provide you with a lot of room to be creative moving toward a real sense of purpose and meaning.
JJ: Jewish institutions seem to be inordinately focused on engaging young people. Why is it important to cultivate young Jewish leaders?
RW: I don’t think that we as a larger community have been successful in creating a very strong pipeline connecting the baby boomers to Gen X and Gen Y. There’s never been a time when leaders in their 20s and 30s have been as equipped for leadership as now: Many of them have come from homes of privilege where they’ve been able to advance themselves in a whole number of areas. So, you have people in their 20s that have the same skills and talents etc., as people my age and in their 40s.
JJ: What do Jewish organizations need to do to entice young people?
RW: The power structure has to be changed. The old model is autocratic, and the new model has to become decentralized and democratic so that the next gen that comes in will have the same say as people who have been there for a while.
JJ: But it seems that the Jewish establishment is resistant to allowing young leaders the same kind of power that big donors have.
RW: They need to learn from the boomer generation of parenting — to look at younger talent as partners and provide them power to make decisions.
JJ: Being of the baby boomer generation yourself, do you ever feel inadequate compared to young ‘talent’?
RW: Not only do I never feel that way — there’s not a day that I’m not excited about growing people’s potential. The future of American Jewish life depends on being able to grow this potential that can carry on the 3,000-year-old Jewish story in new ways.
JJ: What’s the biggest problem facing the Jewish communal world?
RW: A lack of courage and a lack of leadership. But also, the inability to look at oneself and be self-reflective. When an organization is not effective, either change it or let it go out of business. We are at a very crucial point in which the next 20 or 30 years will determine the quality of Jewish life in America over the next century. And the biggest problem is a fear of busting out of the old model.
JJ: You seem to be an unconventional thinker. What does it take to think outside the box?
RW: I never think that something’s not possible. Anything can be moved; anything can be changed. But if something really doesn’t work, than I stop, put it to bed, and move on. I believe in excellence, and there’s no excuse for anything less — Jews in America are used to that.
JJ: Why does philanthropist Michael Steinhardt trust you with his money?
RW: He trusts me because I deeply care about him; he’s not a conduit for his money, he’s a partner. We’re true partners. And, because I have the courage to stand up for what I believe in, in a world where oftentimes women don’t and men do.
JJ: You have a reputation for being intimidating and intense. Why do you think people describe you this way?
RW: To create organizations that are successful, it takes time, a commitment to excellence, motivating individuals, hard work and tenacity. When these traits are attributed to men, they are called driven, visionary, a real leader. When these traits are attributed to women, they are often referred to as intimidating, aggressive, intense, tough.
I’m intimidating because I’ll press for people doing their very best, even when it’s not comfortable. And I’ll live with the fact that people don’t like me sometimes.
JJ: What is it like to be a woman at the top?
RW: It’s a lot of fun! One of the reasons that I’m at this place is that I don’t think about it that much. It’s not been a burning issue for me. It didn’t even occur to me that I didn’t have a place at the table. I felt that I had a responsibility to add to the conversation.
JJ: Is there still a glass ceiling?
RW: Yes. I don’t believe one sex or another should be dominant. Gender balance in positions of power is what creates a healthy community. But there’s a dark side — I don’t know how to say that my back is black and blue from the women that I thought were going to help me. People take out their jealousies on you.
JJ: How would you describe your leadership style?
RW: Leading younger Jews is a tremendous responsibility, and I think what we do is very holy work. I believe that I have someone that I’m constantly reporting to. I’m a deeply God-driven person.
For me the most exciting part about anything I’ve done in all of my work is opening doors and getting as many people into these conversations impacted, inspired, longing to lead, wanting to make the Jewish community a thousand times better than it is.
Don’t write them off yet. They are in their 40s and 50s. They are affluent, highly educated, and full of energy. They are unaffiliated. And they are suddenly asking big questions.
These days Jewish funders have all but written unaffiliated Boomers off for dead. Of course the focus on Gen-Xers and Ys is critical. The National Jewish Population Survey sounded an alarm about intermarriage and disaffection that no Jewish leader can afford to ignore. On the other hand, a myopic obsession with NextGen Judaism would be a huge mistake to make.
Every seven seconds another Boomer turns 50. Boomers may have walked away from Judaism years ago, but right now we have a rare opportunity to reach them as they begin to ponder midlife and consider the mark they are making on this world. They are unfulfilled at work. The money they’ve earned hasn’t brought them meaning. They have seen people they love become ill or die. They’ve watched marriages crumble. When they look in the mirror they are noticing new wrinkles and gray hairs; when they look in their souls they are noticing a new restlessness and a yearning for connection to something sacred and timeless.
Some may argue that Boomers searching for meaning can simply turn to the structures that already exist — the synagogue, the adult education program, the JCC. But the Boomer I am describing here is no different from the 20-year-old we are now trying so hard to reach through a host of new, hip, creative, cutting-edge programs. These Boomers have not been inspired by the institutions of Jewish life. That’s why they left in the first place. They are bored in temple. A surgeon I know explains the problem this way: “I grew up on the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Why should anyone expect me to be inspired by Jewish opera or Chasidic tunes?” This surgeon is not a lazy Jew, and he’s not a shallow Jew either. He is a starving Jew looking to be challenged intellectually and nourished spiritually.
Retailers know that Boomers represent a huge consumer market. That’s why the Gap introduced relaxed-fit jeans. And it’s why the cosmetics industry is making billions on anti-aging products. Matt Thornhill, president of The Boomer Project, a market research and consulting firm offers this advice: “If you have a product or service or company that can help Boomers fulfill (their) quest for vitality in any aspect, you’ll be successful.”
I stumbled on this question accidentally. Five years ago, a colleague of mine, a rabbi in New York, called me to see if I could check out an organization his 25-year-old brother had become involved in. The following Sunday morning I found myself at Agape, a nondenominational church in Culver City led by the charismatic Rev. Michael Beckwith. There were 2,000 people there on their feet pouring out their hearts to God.
I was overwhelmed by a sense of loss as I took in this powerful experience. Why can’t Judaism move thousands like this? Then I read the names of the Agape prayer leaders and was shaken to see so many Jewish names. Agape is attracting Jews who believe deeply in God, who want to pray, but who cannot find God in a synagogue.
After that morning at Agape I began interviewing unaffiliated Jewish seekers. I wanted to know what moved them. I wanted to understand why they would go to a church or a Zen center or to yoga, but not to synagogue. In response to these conversations, a group of eight of us founded Nashuva, an outreach organization that seeks to draw young, disaffected Jews back to a soulful Judaism that is committed to social justice.
Nashuva has struck a chord with 20-somethings. But to our surprise, a new sub-population, one we had not targeted, surfaced in our midst: Boomerangs — unaffiliated Jewish Boomers in their 40s and 50s who were raised as Jews, became disaffected early on, and for the first time in their adult lives are looking for ways to return to Jewish life. Although at Nashuva we continue to inspire and activate Jews in their 20s and 30s, enthusiastic Boomerangs have also become integral to our organization.
People reaching midlife who dive into a new passion usually become groundbreakers. The great scholar Rabbi Akiba was 40 when he began to study Torah. Philanthropist Les Wexner was in his late 40s when he set out to solve the problem of uneducated Jewish leaders. Michael Steinhardt was the same age when he founded the Jewish Life Network. Look what American Jewish World Service president Ruth Messinger has been able to achieve in the Jewish arena after a life of public service in the secular world. So why shouldn’t there be a Wexner fellowship for potential leaders in their 40s and 50s? Why isn’t there a Makor for Boomers? Why can’t there be a Jewish service corps for Boomers?
So many innovations in Jewish programming today are being created by Boomers for the next generation. What would happen if these same Boomers tried to create cutting-edge programs to inspire their own generation of unaffiliated Jews — their own brothers and sisters, their own colleagues at work, their own neighbors down the street. It may not be a sexy pursuit, but it certainly is a worthy one.
Boomerangs are hungry, and they have much to offer the Jewish community if we can inspire them and draw them back in. Alongside all the worthy projects that are now surfacing to capture the imagination of Gen-X and Gen-Y, we need to remember that Boomers are poised now to return to the passion and idealism of their youth. If we want to be a vital community we ought to invest serious time and money into launching creative and innovative programs and services that will welcome Boomers back. A generation that was inspired by JFK, RFK and Martin Luther King Jr., may very well be ready to heed a new call.
Boomerangs will bring with them not only their skills and passion, but billions of dollars. They have accumulated enormous wealth on their own, and they are now about to inherit their parents’ wealth as well. Is it wise to neglect them?
When sexy authors like Erica Jong and Jerry Stahl get together onstage, you expect fireworks. But when I drag my friend Kay up to Skirball for the Writers Bloc conversation, the room is too bright, and Kay tells me Jong’s blue-framed eyeglasses and gold necklace make her come off more Carol Channing than “sex goddess.”
“Sex goddess” is how Writers Bloc founder Andrea Grossman introduces Jong, known for her 1973 literary sensation, “Fear of Flying.” Now 64, Jong has a new memoir, “Seducing the Demon,” which seduced most of the middle-aged women into coming tonight.
“Of course that’s why I’m here,” says a woman in a Princess Cruises pumpkin-colored pantsuit. “Her book had such a big effect.”
“I wanted to see what she’s up to now,” adds the female half of a baby boomer couple sitting near us.
Two hipsters in berets and leather (Stahl fans?) complete the scene in the Skirball’s Haas room.
Stahl wrote his own 1999 sexual memoir, “Perv — A Love Story,” and his first book, 1995’s “Permanent Midnight,” a memoir about his time as a drug-addicted TV writer, became a Ben Stiller movie. Kay finds heroin a tired literary cliché. But at the first mention of “sex” she perks up as a bent smile lifts one side of Stahl’s mouth.
And we’re off!
But instead of gland-to-gland combat, what we’re witnessing is an intimate exchange — sex talk in the salon. Jong, called by Grossman “a lightning rod for the last 30 years,” comes off strong in front of a crowd. Stahl plays it self-deprecatory. The one-time creator of Penthouse Letters mixes the right combination of dirty talk and fawning to coax Jong into going for the water bottle. In her newest confessional, Jong writes about sleeping with Martha Stewart’s husband. Stahl quips that he did the same with Stewart’s husband.
“Martha’s a sister,” Kay whispers. “Erica shouldn’t go around bad-mouthing her.”
But she digs the quick, black-clad Stahl. He generously lets Jong bang her political gong to make points against fundamentalist anti-Semites and fixed elections. And when she mentions Justice Sandra Day O’Connor “worried about a drift toward fascism,” Stahl says he slept with her, too.
“How was she?” Jong asks.
“Brittle,” Stahl replies. “But rightward leaning.”
He teases Jong into enticing us with a tale from “Seducing the Demon,” about a British poet (her demon muse) whom she resisted with a sudden revelation: “I can’t [sleep with] this guy … he’s an anti-Semite!”(Didn’t Larry David do something similar on “Curb Your Enthusiasm”?)
Then, in keeping with a Skirball tradition, someone in the audience shouts out: “Can’t hear you!”
“Sorry,” Stahl says. “We’re all getting old. Some go deaf. I just speak quietly.”
This segues into what we came for: Jong taking on taboos.
Her next book? A study of her father’s death. She says death and aging are taboo because we’re in denial. But being 64 offers a unique perspective.
“Death starts taking everyone around you,” Jong says. And at the same time, “your kids in their 20s become very needy. So here you are in between these two generations.”
Sounds like a whole new area for her “to blow open,” Stahl prods.
“We all end up a heap of chemicals and a black spot on the ground,” Jong says. “Within a year there’s nothing there except the words you left behind.”
Aging and death. How the baby boomers have turned! Luckily, these two discuss elderly sex.
People with Alzheimer’s make love, Stahl says, “like there’s no tomorrow.”
Jong describes nursing homes where bed hopping has become de rigueur.
“I’m thinking about investing in designer diapers,” says Stahl, drawing laughs. “Seriously.”
Wham bam, pass the Depends? By the time the gal in the orange pantsuit asks about Jackie Collins, Kay has heard enough.
“How about an interview with the Skirball landscape artist?” she says. “That’s impressive work.”
Hank Rosenfeld just helped Irv Brecher compete his memoir on aging and sex and Groucho Marx, called “Go for the Jocular!”
Lo Ozev At Hair Avur Af Echad Anachnu Shnayim Tamid, Beneynu
(“I won’t leave the city/not for anyone/we are two, always/between us, one God.”)
— Shlomo Artzi and Shalom Chanoch, “Live at Caesaria”
Don’t believe everything you hear. Two of Israel’s greatest rockers — Shlomo Artzi and Shalom Chanoch — are leaving Israel, albeit briefly, pairing up for a joint three-concert tour to promote their new album, “Live at Caesaria,” in New York, Miami, and Los Angeles, homes to Israel’s largest expat communities.
Although Israeli stars have toured America for years — consider Idan Reichl’s recent popularity at the Kodak Theatre — this tour will be the Israeli equivalent of say, Billy Joel and Elton John touring together. These two Israeli mega-singer/songwriters have produced hundreds of pop songs over more than four decades, and they continue to sell out concerts despite their advancing ages — both are nearing 60.
But unlike Joel and John, who are increasingly relegated to “soft rock” and appeal primarily to their original Gen-X and Baby Boomer fans, the Israeli rockers still enthrall their original fans from the 1960s and 1970s, even as they have captured the hearts of later generations. (This is particularly true of the blue-eyed, dimpled Artzi, who still draws a bevy of screaming, belly-shirted young things rushing the stage at his concerts.)
Part of the pair’s cross-generational appeal is, of course, due to the fact that Israel is a small country, without much room for niche markets: Rock is rock. (Not like America, with its hundreds of Grammy categories). But it’s also because the two men, in a way, are Israeli rock. No, they are Israel: Chanoch was born in 1946, and Artzi was born in 1948.
Chanoch jumped to fame when he teamed up with that other great Israeli star, Arik Einstein, in 1967. In the 1970s Chanoch became a star in his own right, but for the next years continued to write songs performed by other Israeli artists.
Artzi got his start in the army band and in 1975 was chosen to represent Israel at Eurovision. He lost the competition, and soon after recorded “He Lost His Way,” which was meant as a last hurrah, but instead reignited his career.
Each of the artists’ songs have flooded the radio waves for nearly five decades, a soundtrack, of sorts, to Israel’s many wars, casualties, celebrations, assassinations, and shifting moods — from hopeful to cynical and hopeful again.
“There has not ever been another man/like that man,” Artzi sang on the tribute album made following the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, a song that became a mantra for the mourning peace camp.
In 1985 Chanoch came out with his humorous “Mashiach Lo Bah” — which became a pop sensation and later entered the lexicon, with its typically Israeli cynical chorus: “The Messiah isn’t coming — and he isn’t phoning, either.”
Neither artist’s lyrics seem particularly religious: (Consider Artzi’s song, “Here and There”: “Here and there the Messiah’s plane flits about/when will it land near us on the shore? She says: He who believes in lies will be disappointed.”) But their ironic faith reflects the tone of much Israeli culture. Many of their songs are about love, about friendship, about wars, and always with a little politics thrown in.
Last summer, Artzi and Chanoch performed together in the amphitheater in Caesaria, in Northern Israel. There, Chanoch played one of Artzi’s most popular songs. “Suddenly when you didn’t come/I felt like this.” Artzi later said it was best performance ever of the song. In turn, Artzi sang one of Chanoch’s songs, and a joint performance was born. After 42 performances in Israel, the duo comes to America (New York’s Beacon Theater on March 5; Miami on March 8; and Los Angeles’ Kodak Theatre on March 11).
One problem with tribute albums, where artists sing another artist’s song, is that a fan has to be able to let go of the original version to appreciate strangers singing the familiar song. (Does one really want to hear Kate Bush singing “Rocket Man,” on the Elton John tribute album “Two Rooms”?)
It can be disconcerting to hear the two singing each other’s top hits on the album.
And yet, after five decades on the Israeli scene, their songs have become such a fabric of Israeli society, their fans overlapping, their voices sounding increasingly similar as age takes its toll (let’s not forget the smoking) that it seems somehow only fitting for Israel’s two great icons to merge their playlists.
And besides, in concert, they’re singing all the songs together.
Like this one, written by Chanoch, performed first by Einstein.
Kama Tov Shebata Habayta/Kama Tov Li’rot Otcha Shuv …
“How good it is that you’ve come home/How good it is to see you….”
The March 11 concert at the Kodak Theatre starts at 8:30 p.m. $47-$147. 6801 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. For tickets, call (213) 480-3232.