I left The Jewish Journal’s booth at last Sunday’s Israel Festival just before a loyal reader came up and asked whether I was around because he wanted, “to clean an editor’s clock.”
By then I was making my way back to my car through the throng at Woodley Park, and as I did, the same two thoughts I have every year occurred to me again: Wow, what a crowd, I marvel at first, and then: Who are these people?
A couple of middle-aged men strode in through the security checkpoint, wearing full-fledged, ill-fitting Israeli army uniforms, which reminded me that criminologists most often profile mass murderers as middle-aged white males in ill-fitting army fatigues. I passed by the Kabbalah Centre’s booth. As usual a constant crowd hovered in front of it, signing up for red string bracelets and a free book.
The Israeli paper Shavua Yisraeli had a large booth; the other Israeli weekly, Shalom LA, was nowhere to be seen.
“They’re boycotting the festival this year,” an Israeli familiar with the turf war told me, her voice dry and sarcastic. “The publishers didn’t feel the festival organizers were treating them with the respect according to their stature.” (The folks at Shalom LA had no comment.)
It was interesting who had a presence and who didn’t. The Simon Wiesenthal Center, arguably the highest profile Jewish organization in town, didn’t show up — does any Jew not know where to find them? But I do think I saw the center’s associate dean, Rabbi Abraham Cooper, walking purposefully about, sporting the only dark grey suit and tie in the park.
The crowd grew and changed by the hour. First come the hardcore lovers of Israel, eager to spend a whole day hearing Hebrew songs from the bandstand, complaining about the $6 falafels they were devouring and gossiping with friends from the Altneuland under the shade trees. But even an hour or two after the 10 a.m. opening, security personnel and L.A.P.D. anti-terrorism units seemed to outnumber visitors.
By 1 p.m. the “streets,” which are rows of booths representing Jewish organizations or businesses, filled up. The crowd was largely Israeli, with a solid representation of families with very young children, Persian Jews and the Orthodox. The Israeli community started the festival in honor of their country, and this year The Jewish Federation partnered to expand the day’s reach. But the locus of the event is still 7,500 miles east.
I go to events, banquets, synagogues and meetings all year, but few people at the festival were familiar faces, other than the regulars I see there each year: the gaunt, black-frocked man who wants me to wrap phylacteries; the pleasant folks at the Americans for Peace Now booth enduring waves of verbal abuse; the officials, like Consul General Ehud Danoch or City Counciman Jack Weiss, towing their kids about.
There were new faces, too: a striking young Israeli woman hawking T-shirts in whose simple white logo “JERUSALEM” the letters “USA” appearing in red, white and blue; roving bunches of youthful Israeli scouts eating the ripe slices of watermelon they came to sell; a middle-aged man with hand-made signs promoting a Jewish sperm bank and some eager entrepreneurs shilling for a Web site called JDivorce.com.
By late afternoon, when the main acts began to take the stage, the streets of this mini-Israel were packed with young Israelis who had come to hear a nearly free concert by Mashina, which for Israelis of a certain generation is like American Gen X-ers hearing Green Day for $5.
If some 40,000 Jews, according to police estimates, were at Woodley Park, several thousand more were scattered about the city participating in Big Sunday. Begun under the auspices of Temple Israel of Hollywood, the day of social action and giving back has grown to encompass 25,000 Angelenos of all faiths, including Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who brought the city bureaucracy on board.
The Israel Festival and Big Sunday would be the two largest Jewish communitywide events on the community calendar — if there were one community and if it kept a calendar. This is the second year the events landed on the same Sunday, guaranteeing that most people, if they were to attend either, would choose one or the other. As the saying goes, there’s only so much herring one Jew can eat. (The exception, of course, was Villaraigosa, who spoke at the Israel Festival after building benches in MacArthur Park with Big Sunday volunteers. There’s no truth to the rumors that he then raced home to shower, daven mincha and conduct a bris.)
I used to think it foolish to double up on the day, that picking one day out of 365 to have two huge events — whose success depends on a large Jewish turnout — seemed like asking for failure. But I’ve come to see the logic. The Israel Festival celebrates tribal Judaism — inward, self-celebratory, content in its own rituals, foods and certainties — a bit odd to outsiders. Big Sunday celebrates universal Judaism, the word going forth from Zion, feeding the hungry and nurturing the sick — welcoming to all. One speaks to our shared past and joined destiny, the other to our higher purpose, our common mission. Our identities commute between these concepts — from the Universal Jew to the Particular Jew, the Man Engaged vs. the Jew Apart.
Last Sunday, we saw they can, they must, co-exist. Yes it takes a village to raise a child. But it takes a tribe to sustain a village.
As I write this article, Hurricane Isabel has come and gone; its destructive force headlined the news, offering a strange but appropriate counterpoint to writing about children’s books on Sukkot and Simchat Torah. In today’s world, these holidays, following on the heels of Yom Kippur, remind us of the swift changes life brings and underscore the fragile nature of our security. Through stories, we can find shelter in the joy of offering hospitality, in helping others, in relishing happiness when we can and in acknowledging human courage and endurance in the face of trouble. These are all themes to explore as you sit, rejoicing with your children and guests, in your sukkah.
Books About Booths, Building, Bonding and Blessing
Rochel Groner Vorst’s “The Sukkah That I Built” (HaChai, 2002, preschool) is a lively Sukkot story based on the rollicking rhythms of “The House That Jack Built.” Colorful illustrations by Elizabeth Victor-Elsby humorously contradict the young narrator’s version of how his family’s sukkah was built. The work introduces holiday vocabulary, shows how to build a sukkah and makes family dynamics pretty funny.
Cooperation is the underlying message in “It’s Sukkah Time!” by Latifa Berry Kropf, illustrated by Tod Cohen’s photographs of children in a synagogue preschool (Kar-Ben, 2004, preschool). Cute kids and their teachers build a sukkah and celebrate the season. Even when it rains, they don’t mind, thinking of next year’s good harvest.
Speaking of rain, for those in moister climes, Susan Schaalman Youdovin has written “Why Does It Always Rain on Sukkot?” illustrated by Miriam Nerlove (Albert Whitman, 1990, 4-8). In this fable, when all the Jewish holidays are blessed with special gifts by the chief angel, Sukkot, believing he has been overlooked, starts to cry. Then he learns his gift is too large to fit indoors. Everyone rushes outside to celebrate his lovely booth and the lulav and etrog it contains. Now, the story goes, each harvest time Sukkot remembers the sadness of feeling forgotten and weeps again, his tears falling as raindrops to the earth.
Aydel Lebovics concentrates on the mitzvot of lulav and etrog in his picture book, “Zaydie’s Special Esrogim,” illustrated by Dovid Sears (Merkos L’inyonei Chinuch, 1991, 4-8). Though the illustrations are not enthralling, we’re provided with a thorough introduction to the assembly and use of these special symbols, as well as to the concept of tzedakah. Includes a glossary of Hebrew and Yiddish words.
“Night Lights: A Sukkot Story” by Barbara Diamond Goldin (UAHC Press, 2002, preschool — 8) was originally published in 1995, but this new edition has softer illustrations by Laura Sucher. Daniel tries in vain to hide his fear when he and his big sister sleep in the sukkah alone for the first time. He finds courage when she encourages him to consider the stars overhead as eternal night lights, and falls asleep thinking of his ancestors looking at the same stars long ago.
Books About Hospitality and Helping
Welcoming the ushpizim introduces the idea of hospitality’s importance in Jewish life. One example is “Who’s That Sleeping On My Sofa Bed? A Tale About Hospitality” by Ruby M. Grossblatt (HaChai Publishing, 1999, 3-8) with simple pleasant pictures by Sarah Kranz. Yoni loves the comfy new sofa bed his parents bought but seldom gets to sleep on it because so many visiting rabbis, sofers and others stay overnight in the Block’s welcoming home. When he thoughtfully gives up his turn on the bed to his Bubbie, his parents decide he is ready for a bigger bed of his own.
“Pot Luck” by Tobi Tobias (Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, 1993, 4-9) and “A Song for Lena” by Hilary Horder Hippely (Simon & Shuster, 1996, 5-9) emphasize the importance of sharing the best we have with others. In the first, a granddaughter helps prepare “pot luck” for a visit by an old friend; in the second, Lena’s grandmother tells of how sharing fresh-baked strudel with a beggar in Hungary brought her family a very special gift in return.
Two outstanding books for sensitizing children to the fragility of other people’s lives are “Fly Away Home” by Eve Bunting (Clarion Books, 1991, 5-10), the story of a homeless boy and his devoted father who find temporary shelter in Los Angeles’ airport, and “Uncle Willie and the Soup Kitchen” by DyAnne DiSalvo-Ryan (Morrow Junior Books, 1991, 4-8), a visit to a soup kitchen through the eyes of a young boy whose uncle volunteers there.
“Partners” by Deborah Shayne Syme (UAHC, 1990, 5-9) and “Mitzvah Magic” by Danny Siegel (Kar-Ben/Lerner, 2002, 8-14) both provide specifically Jewish ways to become God’s partners through acts of tikkun olam. Siegel provides a great variety of suggestions and organizational contacts.
Torah as the Source
Finally, celebrate Simchat Torah by reading “When Zaydeh Danced on Eldridge Street” by Elsa Okon Rael, illustrated by Marjorie Pricement (Simon & Shuster, 1997, 4-8), an Association of Jewish Libraries Sydney Taylor Award winner. Take a joyous glimpse through young Zeesie’s eyes of her stern grandfather who is transfigured by his love of Torah and of her as he dances with the scrolls on Eldridge Street.