Behind the Music: The Wedding Singer


In the 1998 hit comedy "The Wedding Singer," the eponymous character was a nice Jewish boy named Robbie. At the Sept. 2 Century City Park Hyatt reception of 30-something newlyweds Daphna Ghozland and David Hollander, the wedding singer is a nice Jewish boy named Robbie. True, the latter — singer/pianist/bandleader Robbie Helperin — will occasionally perform the odd ’80s pop song with his Simcha Orchestra as Adam Sandler did in the movie, but that’s where the parallels end, or at least, that’s where Helperin would like them to end.

"It was kind of painful to watch," Helperin said of the movie that immortalized his profession as a "Loserville" populated by "creepy musicians," in his words.

But this 39-year-old Jewish band performer doesn’t see his job that way. "Part of my drive has been to dispel the stigma of the job by making it as phenomenal as it can be," Helperin said.

The job of a wedding singer is unlike that of other musicians, like a rock star or concert pianist, because a successful wedding band is one that you notice — and one you don’t. It’s the soundtrack of your wedding, but it’s also the background music.

"I want people to be comfortable speaking," Helperin said. "I don’t want to be the kind of performer that takes away from the bride and groom. At the same time, you need to be control. You say as little as possible but as much as you need to get the job done."

While Ghozland, a psychologist, and Hollander, an optometrist, helped Helperin narrow down the song list for their Labor Day wedding, they trusted Helperin enough to let him choose most of the material.

"Robbie’s very organized, which certainly helped," Hollander said. "I told him I wanted to dance all night. I didn’t want any rap. Basically dance music from the ’70s and ’80s."

At his Beverly Hills office, Helperin has binders filled with music culled from dozens of cultures. He uses the latest computer software to keep clients and schedules meticulously organized and cross-referenced.

For the big fat Jewish wedding, Helperin offers a wide variety of styles: Klezmer, Moroccan, Yemenite, Persian, Israeli Folk, Chasidic, Yiddish, Musica Mizrachit, modern Jewish rock, modern Jewish funk and modern Jewish disco.

"Most Jews are exposed to a very tiny percentage of the Jewish music out there," Helperin said.

Ghozland also needed some French standards to entertain her father’s Algerian-French side. The Simcha Orchestra offered "La Vie En Rose," the Moroccan tune "Porom Pom Pero" and, for the father-daughter dance, "Under Paris Skies" — all sung in French.

Helperin was a 24-year-old aspiring pop star who counted James Taylor and Billy Joel as inspirations when he joined the Simcha Orchestra, which was founded 20 years ago by Jerry Katz, a guitarist who had once performed with Shlomo Carlebach. "At the time, I had hair down to my shoulders," Helperin said, "Jerry asked, ‘You a musician?’ I said, ‘Yes.’"

Over time, Helperin’s role within the band expanded. After Katz made aliyah to Israel, Helperin inherited the Simcha Orchestra on June 5, 1993.

"The same day the business became mine was the day I got married," Helperin said. But he and the band didn’t perform at his own wedding. "My wife told me to take the day off."

With a wife to support and the details of his rapidly growing endeavor to oversee, Helperin put aside his pop-singer dreams. Under Helperin’s leadership, the Simcha Orchestra amassed a roster of musicians who have performed with Frank Sinatra, Neil Diamond and Woody Herman, and have played for Steven Spielberg, Bob Dylan and Quincy Jones.

The band’s present lineup includes guitarist Tom Bethke, bassist Chris Haller, Bob Faust on trumpet, Joel Lish on viola and singer Sareet Atias. Drummer Jay Setar has been with the band since the early 1980s. Recent additions include cellist Jan Kellie, trombonist Rob Kaufman, and violinist Jonathan Dysart.

Percussionist Jeff Stern — a Burbank resident who recently played at "Hallelu" and has worked with Craig Taubman, Sam Glaser and Debbie Friedman — had his very first Jewish gig under Katz’s Simcha Orchestra.

Woodwindist Geoff Nudell, who reconnected with junior high school pal Helperin six years ago, admitted that he does not get too sentimental doing weddings and b’nai mitzvah. "It’s a job. I don’t mean to sound callous, but I don’t have any emotional commitment," Nudell said.

Some gigs can be trying, especially religious weddings, which can demand long, uninterrupted performances from the band.

"The schedule is such so that there’s continuous music and intensity," said Nudell, who has played bass clarinet for the TV series "Monk" and on the "Undercover Brother" soundtrack. "Typically, the average hora is 30-45 minutes nonstop, so that can be taxing."

Helperin still dreams of returning to his original singer-songwriter aspirations. But for now, he has a wife, a 4-year-old boy and a 9-month-old girl to provide for.

"I really like what I do," Helperin said of leading the Simcha Orchestra. "It’s got a little element of everything I ever loved about music — I get to orchestrate and arrange, conduct, I get to sing, I get to make people happy. The only thing I miss is the songwriting. I’m still looking forward to getting back to that one day."

Circumcision Lite


An undeniable physical reminder of a man’s connection to Judaism, circumcision has been an important focus of the first days of a boy’s life since before we received the Torah. However, for almost as long, there have been people who question the act of circumcision and those who have rallied for eliminating the practice.

Modern times are no exception. In fact, through televised programs and numerous Web sites, the anti-circumcision movement is gaining increased exposure and coverage.

Though most Jewish families still choose to circumcise their sons, some parents are looking for alternatives to their baby boy’s tearful parting with his foreskin. Often, these parents are torn between sparing their child the pain of circumcision and maintaining a connection with Jewish traditions and commandments.

As central as the mitzvah of circumcision is to Judaism, some parents have created alternative rituals. One such ceremony is called brit shalom, or covenant of wholeness, during which parents might read Bible passages and recite the traditional blessing normally recited at a brit milah, but there is no circumcision performed.

Another procedure called hatafat dam brit is also being used in place of a circumcision. Usually only appropriate in the case of already circumcised converts or adopted babies, or when a baby is mistakenly circumcised at the hospital, hatafat dam brit is a Jewish ritual circumcision performed by drawing a drop of blood from the site of the circumcision.

Dr. Fred Kogan, a prominent mohel in the Los Angeles area, is concerned about the increasing number of requests he is getting for this ritual. “People don’t want to circumcise during this big anti-circumcision movement and are looking for something to take its place,” he says. “People have been calling me now, saying, ‘We think it’s barbaric, horrific, and we don’t want to do this to our child.'” He adds that, on the other hand, parents may want to placate grandparents, and many don’t want to exclude themselves from the Jewish world.

In reality, there is no alternative to circumcision, Kogan maintains. “Circumcision is a cultural, physical sign,” he says. “It’s something you have to go through if you want to be part of the team.”

Rabbi Yehuda Lebovics, a Los Angeles Orthodox mohel, has not received many requests for circumcision alternatives, but he is quick to dismiss the appropriateness of hatafat dam brit. “It is totally invalid, totally meaningless. The only way that the drop of blood is valid is if there is no foreskin.” Otherwise, he says, “It is just a waste of a drop of blood.”

Rabbi Dennis Eisner, L.A. director of the Berit Milah Program (a joint project of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, where he is assistant dean, and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations) is in contact with mohels throughout the world. Regarding invalid applications of hatafat dam brit, he says, “I don’t think it’s very widespread. … There may be people out there who are trying to appease parents, but those people are wrong. They are doing a disservice to the young men who are entering in the community. It is not what we’re about, not what we’re promoting, and not what we’re suggesting.” Though he recognizes that the once-asserted medical benefits of circumcision are now falling into doubt, Eisner does not see this as relevant to the Jewish act of brit milah. “There is some ambivalence about the medical act of circumcision, but we are not about the medical act of circumcision,” he says, but about entering into a covenant with God.

Leaders in the anti-circumcision movement say the number of Jewish parents looking for alternatives to circumcision is rising. Ronald Goldman, author of “Questioning Circumcision — A Jewish Perspective” and director of the Circumcision Resource Center in Boston, Mass., says, “The large majority of Jews are not aware of the religious reasons” for circumcision “and do so for cultural reasons.”

Goldman, who does not see his ideas as a threat to modern Judaism, says his book is not directed at traditional Jews. “We are not here to tell people what to do, but to provide an alternative. We’re here to support Jews who are questioning circumcision, to let them know they are not alone. … We have been contacted by hundreds of Jews who are questioning circumcision. We’re also here to clear up the myths and misunderstandings about circumcision.” Goldman calls into question whether one really needs to be circumcised to be Jewish, suggesting that one only needs to be born to a Jewish mother. He adds that circumcision is in direct violation of the Torah’s prohibition against self-mutilation.

Rabbi Mark Fasman of Temple Sinai in Westwood says, “These points are dealt with extensively by the rabbis.” While there are laws against self-mutilation, circumcision is considered the removal of something that is not necessary, he explains, comparing the foreskin to the unneeded parts of a fruit. “It’s important at one stage, but it is ultimately not part of the fruit, like the stem of an apple.” Fasman says, “Human beings don’t own their bodies; God owns their bodies,” adding that it is God who is commanding us to circumcise.

Fasman sees the modern hesitations about circumcision as partly due to our rights-based society. “Rights is a whole new language, and it is often at direct odds with standard Jewish thought. We are inheritors of the rabbinic tradition, which is [that] we best fulfill our obligations in this world. We best fulfill our obligation through the performance of mitzvot.”

According to Anita Diamant in “The Jewish Baby Book,” the Torah refers to the foreskin as the orlah, which, she says, “means not only foreskin but also any barrier standing in the way of beneficial results. The word orlah is also used as a metaphor for obstructions of the heart that prevent a person from hearing or understanding God. Removing the orlah is interpreted as a permanent, physical sign of dedication to the ongoing task of perfecting the self in order to be closer to the Holy One.”

All parents of Jewish boys feel anxiety about their sons’ discomfort during the bris, but most accept it as part of being Jewish and as something the baby gets through. While Jewish parents seeking alternatives to circumcision are few, Kogan fears it’s a growing trend. “When anything starts, people say, ‘Eh, it’s nothing.’ But if I had three people call me in the past three years, and none in the previous 14 years, there must be a lot more people out there.”

Tragedy or Exploitation?


The photograph of the Palestinian father cradling his terrified son moments before the boy was killed in Gaza this fall was viewed live on television and reproduced on the front pages of newspapers around the globe. Like the photograph of the boy with hands raised standing in the Warsaw Ghetto, nobody who saw desperate Jamal Al-Durrah vainly trying to shield 12-year-old Mohammed can ever forget the terror in their eyes.

From the day that the French television photographer snapped the pictures, the image has mesmerized the world. For Arabs, Mohammed became an icon for all victims of the intifada; his image plastered on countess posters. In Egypt, even tissue boxes were manufactured bearing his likeness.

His father, himself wounded, was interviewed by the world’s leading journalists, appearing on prime-time television in the United States. There was a media pilgrimage to Amman to conduct interviews by Al-Durrah’s hospital bedside. Israeli journalists joined in; Al-Durrah appeared in the Israeli press, on radio and on television.

Israel was well aware of the extremely negative propaganda effect of this incident. Although shortly afterwards the Israel Defense Forces accepted responsibility for Mohammed’s death, some insiders felt this admission was rash and premature. Among them was Maj. Gen. Yom Tov Samia, the army’s southern commander. Samia conducted an investigation and an abortive campaign to reenact the shooting in an effort to prove that it was Palestinian shooters who had felled the boy. But the Israeli army had already demolished the wall against which the pair had leaned. Samia’s efforts came to naught. The picture had done its damage, or its work, depending on one’s point of view. Even if it could be scientifically proven that Israelis hadn’t fired the lethal shots, it didn’t really matter to the world any more.

Now, more than four months later, the photo is once again in the spotlight.

MSNBC is currently conducting a public poll on its Web site to choose the photograph of the year 2000. To date, 480,000 votes have been cast for 49 entries. The shot of Al-Durrah and his son, titled “A Death in Gaza,” has garnered more than 39,000 votes and is currently in sixth place. The five ahead of it are all sentimental images of animals.

A callous propaganda war is raging to exploit this personal tragedy. In recent days, Jews have received e-mails informing them of the poll and urging them to vote for other photos, trying to calculate which has the best chance of overtaking “A Death in Gaza.” “Obviously,” they write, “we have to try to stop it from winning.” Forward the message on to “everyone you know as well!” instructs the e-mail. Instead of taking the lesson of the picture to heart, people who ought most to be disturbed by its implications are implored to try to minimize it.

Meanwhile, the Palestinians are busy disseminating e-mails, too, instructing exactly where to click in order to vote for “A Death in Gaza.” They stress the importance of casting a ballot, since winning may get it renewed exposure, and caution that “once the opposition sees this they will also begin to vote heavily.” Apparently this tactic is not a new one, for the Palestinian e-mail continues: “In the past, we have generally managed to outvote them!”

As bloody as our days have become, it has been said that the real war is the war of the media. Unlike claims that horrific scenes are often staged by cameramen anxious for a scoop, no one dreams of impugning the integrity of the photograph of Al-Durrah and his late son. Yet there seems no limit to the lengths taken to hit home one’s point of view.

The wrong conclusion to reach after reading about the MSNBC poll is to race to one’s computer and to vote either for or against “A Death in Gaza.” An ideological vote either way compromises the voter’s integrity and demeans the dignity of the subjects.

If one picture is worth a thousand words, this one may well be worth a million. Its real lesson is to put all parents in the Middle East on notice. If the perverted hatred which fuels some on both sides overtakes us all, every parent — Arab or Jew — is in jeopardy. Even the parent who tries to keep his children safely inside, out of harm’s way, may some day find himself crouching in front of a stone wall trying to shield a son or daughter, both of them caught in the crossfire. And chances are, no one will be around to take their picture.

The Oldest Diary


There is something otherworldly about the experience of a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. It is perhaps the preeminent spiritual-cultural paradox in all of Jewish life. When girls and boys focus so intensely on this personal lifecycle event, each possesses a transcendent, timeless and eternal quality.

I was reminded of this recently as I was sitting in my study helping a young girl work on her speech a few weeks before her Bat Mitzvah. We began talking about her upcoming Bat Mitzvah and how it made her feel about being Jewish, how she might describe her own Jewish identity and her place in the history of the Jewish people.

In order to put into words exactly how she saw her relationship to the Torah and the passing down of Jewish tradition, she told me the following story: “Imagine that my parents and I decided to research our family history, and we discovered that my great-great-great-grandmother had lived her whole life in a small village in Russia. When we discovered that this same small village still exists today, we decided to take a trip to see where my great-great-great-grandmother lived.

“When we got there, it looked like it hadn’t changed in 200 years, and we began to explore the small, crowded streets. Suddenly, we stumbled upon the very house in which my great-great-great-grandmother had lived. When we knocked on the door, an old woman came and asked us what we wanted. We told her – through our interpreter, of course – that she was living in the exact same house that my great-great-great-grandmother had lived in and we were curious to see what it was like. She immediately invited all of us into her home.

“While my parents were busy talking to the woman, I walked in to explore another room. As I looked around, I noticed that one of the floor boards was loose, so I pulled it up and discovered a very, very, very old and dusty book. I grabbed the book and ran back in to show my parents. The woman who lived there took the book from me and began to read it.

“She told me that it seemed as if I had actually found my great-great-great-grandmother’s diary. Here were stories all about how she lived, what she thought about and what her dreams were for the future.”Imagine how incredibly excited I was to find this book. It was the most amazing thing I had ever owned, and I was thrilled to be able to read all about my own ancestor’s life. Who wouldn’t want to find a remarkable diary like that?”

“And Rabbi Reuben,” said the young girl, “that is how I feel about my Bat Mitzvah. When you hand the Torah from my grandparents to my parents and then me, it will be just like I’m getting the oldest family diary that has ever been found. Like I am saying to everyone, ‘This is now my story, too.'”

In this week’s Torah portion, Moses recites the final poem that he has written in his diary. He begins this poetic conclusion to the entire Torah by challenging us to recognize that the words and laws, commandments and ethical foundation of the Torah “isn’t a trifling thing for you, it is your very life.” Indeed, at this most sacred season of the Jewish year, our real challenge is to figure out each day how to make the precious inheritance which is our own Torah wisdom a meaningful part of our everyday lives. Then, says Moses, we will long endure on the earth, and the world will be a more sacred and holy place because we are in it.

Steven Carr Reuben is senior rabbi of Kehillat Israel, the Reconstructionist congregation of Pacific Palisades.

Raising Boys


This past year, Toys R Us was excoriated for proposing and, in some instances, constructing separate “Boys World” and “Girls World” sections. But public outrage quickly forced the 707-store retailer to abandon this gender-based marketing concept, which it euphemistically referred to as “logical adjacencies.”Twenty years ago, I would have vehemently condemned Toys R Us’ discriminatory actions, perhaps even joining the ranks of the politically correct protesters. Girls, I would have argued, have as much right to play with a Tonka truck as boys with a Little Tikes vacuum cleaner. And not only a right, a need.Twenty years ago, I was single, childless and clueless.

But I had come of age in the late 1960s and 1970s, witnessing the birth of the pill, Ms. Magazine and Helen Reddy’s hit song, “I am Woman,” watching a total upheaval of traditional sexual roles, rules and expectations.

By the early 1980s, I had seen Sally J. Priesand ordained as the first female American rabbi, Sandra Day O’Connor appointed as the first female United States Supreme Court justice and Sally Ride launched into space as the first American female astronaut. And I firmly believed the slogan – before I met my husband, Larry, of course – that a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.

The truth is that the feminist movement, especially during the last 30 years, has brought women unprecedented and very necessary civil rights. It has increased our pay, our sense of confidence and our reproductive options. Clearly, in the words of Bob Dylan, “the times they are a-changin’.”

Changing so much that by late 1983, married and pregnant, I envisioned raising my first son in an idyllic, egalitarian environment. I would teach him to be vulnerable and sensitive, to share his toys graciously with his playmates and to assist me joyfully and willingly with household chores. My future daughter-in-law, whoever she might be, would sing the praises of my parenting skills.

Then Zack was actually born – and I watched the powers of the Y chromosome unfold before me. I watched him hide his favorite toys before a friend would come over. And even more horrific, in our then-adamantly pacifistic, weapon-free home, I watched him fashion guns out of Legos or pieces of toast. Or shoot with a pointed forefinger and raised thumb.

In 1987, Gabe was born. As a toddler, he transformed his cute, cuddly Care Bears into deadly weapons to hurl against his older brother. Later, he used his artistic skills to draw guns and forts and armed castles. Then, in 1989, with the birth of Jeremy, I learned the true meaning of the word risk-taker. Barely walking, he regularly climbed atop the kitchen table and marched across it. Worse, before he learned to swim, he jumped fearlessly into the deep end of swimming pools. He also wrapped Levolor cords around his neck and headed for electrical outlets with letter openers.

By the time my fourth son, Danny, arrived in 1991, my feminist outlook had flip-flopped. I had accepted the reality of innate, intrinsic and God-given gender differences, differences not easily altered by well-meaning and enlightened parents and parenting manuals, differences fundamentally immune to social and cultural influences.

The Talmud agrees. “It is the way of man to subdue the earth, but it is not the way of a woman to subdue it.”

My friend Doug Williams also agrees. Recently comparing our respective hormonally charged home environments, Doug, the father of three daughters, said, “At our house, we have talking, talking, talking. Everything has to be processed.””Come to our house,” I offered. “We have punching.”

“Boys are just hard-wired a certain way,” my husband, Larry, says. And studies confirm this. Males have 10 to 20 times higher testosterone levels than females as well as lower levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that reduces confrontational and impulsive tendencies.

Overall, men are more competitive, aggressive, physical and prone to taking risks.That’s why, with four boys, we have plastic surgeons on call.And that’s why females, who have been trying for the past several decades to remake males in our image, to make them more communal, cooperative and compassionate, have been unsuccessful. Indeed, no matter how much we ask our husbands and sons to talk about their feelings, how often we ask them to process and not necessarily solve problems or how many pink polo shirts we buy them, biology trumps behavioral influences, nature trumps nurture.

This doesn’t mean that I don’t passionately and unequivocally believe in equal civil, social and religious rights for males and females.

It doesn’t mean that I condone rude, offensive, outlandish or inappropriate behavior. Or that I ever accept the excuse that “boys will be boys.”

But it does mean that no matter how generically, unideologically or “illogically adjacent” Toys R Us arranges its thousands of toys, my sons, every time, will make a beeline to the weapon aisle.

To the Graduates


I can’t remember a word spoken by Ira Goldstein, the Plainview (NY) High School valedictorian, Class of 1965, but I’m sure his graduation address was brilliant. Ira, who apparently was in the Philosophy Club with me for three now-forgotten years, was the most brilliant boy in a class of brilliant boys. Girls were “smart” or “sweet” in those days; boys were “brilliant.”

“The difficult he does quickly; the impossible takes a little longer” was written under Ira’s school photo. He was destined for greatness, but I never heard about him again. I used to follow him home from school, padding along behind him since he lived around the corner from me. I can’t remember a word he said.Still, I miss him terribly. I know this sounds insane, but 35 years later I think I’m finally ready for high school. Having worked on my self-esteem for three decades, I’d finally be capable of talking to Ira about things that matter. Leslie Wiletzky, who had been a god to us girls as sophomore class president the year after I moved from the city to the suburbs, would no longer intimidate me either. I’m even ready for Bob Dickman (Fencing, Honor Society, Russian Magazine) now. And what about Allen Kranz, sports editor? I can still fake interest in football, if that’s how the game is played.

Yes, now I’m ready for high school. I’m confident I can enter the girls’ room on my own now, without a bodyguard. I’m not afraid of those “Leader of the Pack” gang girls with their teased hair and stiletto nails, though I still dream about them and break into a sweat.

The first time around, none of my outfits were good enough, and the fashion police in the sorority crowd had real fun snickering at my plaid skirts. I didn’t own a single Orlon sweater, let alone a twin set! These days, I’m an adult and wear jeans. But just in case I relapse into self-doubt, it’s good to know that I can have all the sweater sets I want – and in Lycra – since my mother no longer co-signs my charge card! I can afford my own Kate Spade bag, too, if I want one. You can’t be too well-armed against peer pressure.What a wuss I was. I hated lunch hour, spent writing morose poetry and trying on shades of lipstick, even though my best friend at the time, Diane Cobert, swore in my yearbook that we had endless fun. “I can still remember that first day in Caf 2A eating spaghetti,” she wrote in my yearbook. “Ever since it’s been a ball.”

What an actor I must have been. Everyone, it seems, admired my sense of humor. I burned my hair during the National Honor Society candle lighting ceremony. What a joke! David Don, however, took me seriously.

“Despite your liberal tendencies, you’re still OK,” he said. See, it began early.No matter what they say in the Plainview Gull, I was totally unhappy, and I mean every single day. Paul Kornreich (Chess, German Club) had the right idea. “Whenever you’re feeling gay,” he wrote, “just remember the miserable times we had in history; that will cure you.”

I made it look good, I guess, as did we all. I don’t remember my public speaking class, but Barry Aaronoff insists I alone made it endurable for him. “The only good spot of the period was you.” He never said a word to me, I swear it.

It’s no wonder that it took so long for the pain to ebb. We were just kids, hurting each other mercilessly in preparation for the real world, which has been kind in comparison. That’s why I’d like once again to look into Barry Aaronoff’s eyes.

“You wrote ‘I’ll never forget,'” I’d tell him, pointing to his own handwriting. “Did you?”

Since I’m on the topic of high school graduation, it’s not too early to address the college road ahead. Inspired by Maria Shriver’s best-selling “Ten Things I Wish I’d Known – Before I Went Out Into the Real World,” here are the first “Four Things I Wish I’d Known – Before I Went to That Hare Krishna Meeting” (with more to follow soon):

1) Learn who you are: Many people think college is the time to experience alienation, to respect other cultures more than your own and to bust the rules. Fine, but rebellion gets tiresome. Plan to take a Jewish studies course. There’s more to our tradition than your Bar/Bat Mitzvah. Your non-Jewish roommate may know more about religion than you do. 2) Get a support system: You may think Hillel is square, but come the High Holidays, you’ll be glad it’s there. Keep the number posted. Use It. 3) Watch out for loneliness. Suicidal thoughts and depression are too common among freshmen. Don’t be macho. Call home. Light candles. Keep your spiritual life alive. Get a subscription to your hometown Jewish newspaper. 4) Satisfy your curiosity, but don’t forget to come home. Of course you may want to date non-Jews.

But then get smart and see Rule 1): Learn who you are.Meanwhile, has anyone seen Ira Goldstein?

Marlene Adler Marks is senior columnist of The Jewish Journal. Her e-mail address is wmnsvoice@aol.com

Memories of Summer Camp


My first and only experience at summer camp was magical, or so it seemed to me. I entered a world I had never known before, and by summer’s end had gained some recognition into who I was and who I was not. No mean feat at 13.

A city boy, I developed at camp a feel for the country, which meant the forests and lakes of upstate New York. The silence and solitude of canoeing across an open lake got to me immediately. I prevailed on one of the boating counselors to make me an assistant in exchange for doing some of the grunt work around the dock. Every day at dusk, before putting the boats away, the two of us would set out across the lake in silence. I thought at that moment the universe belonged to the two of us.

It turned out that I had a talent for cross-country running, not a popular activity at camp that summer. Mostly I liked the sense of being alone – away from counselors, rules (Lord, there were so many rules) and, yes, even from the other campers – and running a makeshift course through the woods was exhilarating. My mind could range free as I ran: First I would empty my head of everything, then conjure up images from particular books I was reading to an imagined future that lay just beyond reach waiting to be encountered or fashioned by me. It was only in midsummer that a singular recognition dawned on me: I was an only child who did not particularly like the press of living with so many other bodies and voices. Running cross-country was a way of escaping.

So was birding. I was an athletic kid, used to the rough-and-tumble of school yards and city sports. But when a nature counselor passed along a copy of Roger Tory Peterson’s “Field Guide to the Birds,” another new world opened for me. Later in the year, and indeed in the years after that, I would head off spring weekend mornings for Central Park, Van Cortlandt Park, the Bronx Botanical Gardens, binoculars and Peterson’s guide firmly in hand. Of course, this too was a separate world – and one, moreover, inhabited mostly by adults. They were different from my parents, and from my relatives too.

They were quieter, for one. And they extended me a courtesy I treasured; despite our differences in age, they treated me like an equal, a member of some loosely affiliated but unincorporated “club” of bird-watchers, rather than as some 13 or 14-year-old kid.

Once, my father, suspicious that I might be engaged in some unsavory activity, questioned me about what I did when I was out birding. I tried to describe for him the sight of several blue herons I had watched that morning. They were sitting, perched on a long, thick, low tree branch hanging over the sluggish Bronx River. Suddenly, first one, then the other lifted off the tree, cutting arcs and patterns over the water, then began circling upward across the sky. My father stared at me blankly for a minute, not sure whether I was teasing him, then turned away. It was not one of my more successful moments.

There were mishaps at camp, to be sure. Once I seriously miscalculated and overturned badly in a canoe far out in the lake. Luck and the quiet skill of the boating counselor (I wasn’t so foolhardy as to break the waterfront rules and canoe alone) saved my hide, meaning perhaps my life. Fortunately, at 13 immortality is assumed and it neither deterred nor dampened my enthusiasm for boats and canoes.

It was inevitable that I would antagonize a counselor. I was grateful only one had singled me out for “not being part of the camp.” I lacked team spirit and set myself apart, he told me. I was going to be his summer project. It was clear he did not much like me. Nor, truth be told, did I care for him.

I volunteered for overnight hikes andbetween those trips, working with the boats and hanging out with the nature counselor, I managed to stay out of his way. Most important of all, I avoided complaining about him. It was between the two of us, and I didn’t want him to hear me grouse, nor was I willing to have him prevail.

By summer’s end, it had settled on me that I was a contrarian and pleased to be one, though at the time I did not know the word, nor had ever heard it in conversation. That was not supposed to be the outcome for a boy away at summer camp, where learning to get along and go along were the defining and accepted rules of the game.

But I knew I did not particularly care one way or the other about getting along, and I definitely resisted going along. It was astonishing to me that I had survivedthe camp experience, had not fallen afoul of more counselors who saw me as subversive, as someone who was not a team player and had therefore taken it upon themselves to straighten me out. But that had not occurred.

Nor was I singled out for being a nonconformist by some of the other kids. In general I was neither popular nor unpopular. Just someone who went through the summer camp unremarked, an outsider and yet not quite an outsider, for there was no active rebellion. I thought of myself as moving in a sidewards way, more aslant the others than in the same direction or in confrontational opposition.

Deep down I knew that I had begun, quite consciously, the difficult task of becoming my own person, and wanted time and space in which to sort things out. At camp, without much effort, I had that chance.

A Better Strategy


History never precisely repeats itself. I was cleaning up after dinner the other evening when I heard my daughter, Samantha, now nearly 17, on the phone; she was talking with a guy named Vinnie.

“Vinnie?” I said, as she hung up. “I think we should be focusing on Jewish guys now, don’t you?”

“He’s a friend, Mom,” said Samantha.

And to my surprise, I let it go at that because I wasn’t sure what else to do.

I had had my own Vinnie when I was just about Samantha’s age: an Elvis look-alike, down to the huge, dark pompadour over his forehead. I thought he was earthy and exotic, exciting, if not dangerous. He worked in the gas station across the street from the bakery where I did the afternoon shift. I could see him, and his black leather jacket with the turned-up collar, through the window, as he washed windshields and pumped fuel. It made the hours fly by.

Vinnie was a secret. I told him never to call me at home. I knew that a trial awaited me if Vinnie’s existence was revealed. Yes, a trial, literally speaking. Our dinner table would convene as night court. I would present my own lawyerly defense of Vinnie, citing my rights as a free woman in America to explore the vast terrain of good-looking guys before I settled down with a nice Jewish man. But the court would not be moved, and, eventually, I would burst into angry tears. Before I could finish presenting my logic and my evidence, my parents would invoke the name of my grandfather, who, they promised, would sit shiva for me if I married “out.” Truly, I was lost.

Now that I’m a mother myself, I understand my parents’ concern. I, too, hope that my daughter will marry a Jewish man, and for most of the same reasons. The best of those reasons remains that it is easier for a husband and wife to get along in the storm-tossed seas of marriage if their values, beliefs and rituals are similar. Though opposites do attract, intermarriage remains a hard business, at times requiring the suppressing of spiritual growth of both parties. A parent can argue, without a trace of ethnocentrism or paranoia, that a marriage and a home life organized around Judaism’s ethical principles, its calendar, Shabbat, and its love and concern for family harmony has a wonderful future going for it.

And, yet, I don’t want to guilt-trip my daughter, either, since that would certainly backfire.

What to do?

Just a few days after the call from Vinnie, I saw a newspaper advertisement paid for by the New York branch of the Conservative movement. The ad was selling, of all things, the benefits of Jews marrying Jews. And the ad’s tone was, with but one exception, so balanced, so smart, that it can only help those who, like me, are struggling for the right strategy on this ticklish issue.

“When You Tie the Knot, Don’t Break the Chain,” the ad’s headline read. And then it went on to make the common-sense argument that marrying a Jew is good for you. Here’s a line or two that I liked:

“If you were born Jewish, the rich and remarkable heritage that is Judaism is yours. All that is wonderful, all that is joyful, all that is sacred in Judaism belongs to you and to those who come after you.”

This ad is quite a distance from the “your grandfather will sit shiva” approach of a generation ago. In fact, the ad succeeds, I believe, because it captures the way many of us — especially those who are now parents — regard Jewish life today: “wonderful,” “joyful” and “sacred.” We are committed to community, to raising Jewish children, and to providing the spiritual and educational experiences that will be of lasting value in our children’s lives.

Yet, strangely enough, though we are much more fully engaged in Judaism than we ever expected to be when we got married, many of us parents are still “laid back,” hesitant to force Judaism upon our children where their own future marriages are concerned. We want them to choose it naturally, as we did.

But maybe saying nothing is as bad as saying too much. Maybe our children need to know what is expected of them, and that we’re looking to them to keep the faith, indeed.

To be candid, I’m not thrilled with the ad’s declaration that “interfaith marriage dilutes Jewish identity and removes future generations from the Jewish fold” — since this is not provable and disregards the great contribution of Jews by Choice toward the very renewal so many of us are enjoying. I think the attack on intermarriage is ill-considered and wrong.

Nevertheless, with that exception, it’s a relief to hear the other words, which break the ice and encourage parents and children to discuss marriage and Jewish family life in a new and thoughtful way.

“Don’t be a weak link in a chain that has proven unbreakable for more than 5,000 years,” says the ad. “Marriage within the faith. It really does matter.” That’s the point, indeed.


Join Marlene Adler Marks, senior editor of The Jewish Journal, this Sunday morning at the Skirball Cultural Center when her “Conversations” guest will be Los Angeles historian Mike Davis. Her e-mail address is wmnsvoice@aol.comHer book, “A Woman’s Voice” is available through Amazon.com>

Dear Deborah


Detail from the cover of “Boy MeetsGirl,” a romance comic book, 1947

Suffocating Sweetheart

Dear Deborah,

I am engaged to a wonderful man whose “littleproblem” has become very, very big during the course of our two-yearcourtship and has grown acute during our engagement. He was always alittle possessive when we dated, but, then, it made me feel loved. Iactually thought it was sort of sweet and sexy, and it made me feelprotected.

His possessiveness has grown into what I feel isan invasion of my privacy that seems, to me, to be not sweet at all.It feels controlling — as if he thinks of me as an incompetentchild. He’ll show up uninvited to a girlfriend-only lunch; he’ll tryto find me a job with a friend of his before I even open theemployment ads; he calls my doctors and asks about test results forme.

When I complain, he says that he is just trying tobe helpful, and asks why I don’t appreciate his love and caring. Ido, but I’m worried about feeling more and more “devoured” by his”caring,” and I’m asking for help in how to deal with it because, atthis point, I feel inclined to hide my whereabouts and activities sothat he cannot butt in so freely — even though I have nothing tohide.

Feels Devoured

Dear Devoured,

“As wolves love lambs, so lovers love theirloves,” wrote Socrates. While you found the wolf at first to becompelling, you are now beginning to feel more like a lamb chop thana lamb. Should you marry him without resolving this now, youundoubtedly will be devoured by his controlling nature.

You must tell him that this issue is seriousenough to cause you to call off the whole deal if it is not resolvedimmediately. Explain in as concrete a manner as possible thebehaviors that are not acceptable to you, and why. Listen to what hesays — whether he is defensive or truly understands you. He may beinsecure and need a little help in some areas, he may have somecharacterological issues that are deeply entrenched, or he may notsee the need to change. If you get nowhere with him, get counselingtogether immediately.

It will take courage to face these issues squarelyand at once, but not to do so will ultimately reduce you from lamb tolamb chop to mucky, little divorce statistic.

Mommie Dearest?

Dear Deborah,

My 7- and 10-year-old sons recently sat me downand told me what I was like when I got angry. They said that Iscreamed a lot, acted like a “monster,” frightened them, and wasentirely different from the “sweet mommy” who usually takes care ofthem. I always knew I had a temper, but I had no idea I was havingsuch an effect. My husband thinks they are just spoiled and don’twant to hear about it when they do wrong.

I am a little confused about how to handlethis.

Chicago Mom

Dear Mom,

The Talmud states that if one person tells youthat you have ass’s ears, pay no attention. But if two tell you,you’d better saddle up.

Whether or not your children are spoiled is notthe issue. Whether or not they don’t like criticism is not the issue(who does?). Rather, the fact that both your children experience yourrage as frightening and deemed it important enough to approach you iswhat counts — that, and your ability to hear them with an openheart.

Yelling is not an effective way to discipline.Either children get scared or feel bad about themselves, and,eventually, they become so inured to yelling that they tune you out.Also, they will learn to be yellers from your example. Learning tomanage anger is the task at hand.

First, when you feel the rage coming on, stop.Notice the buildup of anger. Catch yourself before you hit rage.Collect your thoughts before you speak. Then choose a differentmethod, preferably quieter and with less blame. Use consequencesrather than fear. “You may not go out and play until your rooms areclean.” “No TV until the homework is done.” “Here is ashmatte. Now goclean up what you spilled.” In other words, actions should havelogical consequences that teach children responsibility.

If you lack the necessary self-control to stopyelling, there are anger-management and parenting books and classes.If that fails, there is counseling. The fact that you are taking yourchildren’s feelings to heart is a good prognosis.

Mother-in-Law Blues

Dear Deborah,

My mother-in-law has been in the hospital,recovering from surgery for a week. She is a widow and has alwaysbeen an unpleasant, demanding and self-absorbed woman, but she is myhusband’s mother and children’s grandmother, and because I have noremaining parents, I do want to be a good daughter-in-law.Furthermore, my husband is an only child, so there is no one else totake care of her. He works more than full time, and since my job ispart-time, I feel it is my duty.

I visit her every day, bring her anything she asksfor, and, when she is well, take her shopping and to doctorsappointments. I try. Yet she barrages me with complaints about how noone cares about her, no one visits her, and so forth.

She doesn’t understand that I do work, havechildren (which is another full-time job) and have a life. She thinksthat I am her servant, which would be OK if she showed anyappreciation whatsoever. I am at my wit’s end with her complainingand sometimes want to say what’s on my mind, and yet I never say aword.

At Wit’s End

Dear Wit’s End,

There seems to be a rather fine line between”honor thy parents” and “kick me.” I mean, Martyr of the Year is arotten, low-paying job with no benefits and zero glory.

Have you said anything at all when she complainsabout the dearth of visitors, such as: “What am I? Chopped liver? Ihave visited you every day. It hurts my feelings when you say thingslike that.”

Although you are a true mensch for your efforts, thereis no law against directly and kindly saying how you feel. You neednot be abused to be a dutiful daughter-in-law.

Deborah Berger-Reiss is a West Los Angelespsychotherapist. All letters toDear Deborahrequire a name, address and telephone number for purposes ofverification. Names will, of course, be withheld upon request. Ourreaders should know that when names are used in a letter, they arefictitious.

Dear Deborah welcomes your letters. Responses canbe given only in the newspaper. Send letters to Deborah Berger-Reiss,1800 S. Robertson Blvd., Ste. 927, Los Angeles, CA 90035. You canalso send E-mail: deborahb@primenet.com

 

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