A Judaism of public service

When I asked Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky whether his Judaism has influenced his work as a supervisor, which involves helping some of society’s sickest and poorest people, his answer was as complicated as the man himself.

I’ve found that asking Jewish politicians how Judaism affects their work produces replies more introspective and thoughtful than their usual carefully crafted responses. This was also the case with Yaroslavsky, who is beginning his last year on the board, forced out by term limits. Previously, he was a Los Angeles city councilman, and before that he was a young leader in the movement to free Jews from the Soviet Union.

Yaroslavsky and his colleagues — Gloria Molina, Mike Antonovich, Don Knabe and Mark Ridley-Thomas — are responsible for administering welfare, foster care, public health, county hospitals, the jails, homeless services — in fact, just about everything dealing with the low end of the economic scale in Los Angeles County.

He paused to consider my question, then said: “I think the answer to that is no. It doesn’t give me any special insight. I think that anyone who suggests that a Jewish politician has any advanced insight over social justice issues over anybody else hasn’t read the New Testament or talked to any of my colleagues. … I don’t think you can pigeonhole people based on religious upbringing.’’

And yet, Yaroslavsky said, there’s something different about being Jewish, influenced by the concept of tikkun olam, repairing and healing what is broken in society. “We know what it is like to be marginalized or persecuted, and if we can’t respond to people who are now being marginalized and persecuted or eliminated, then who are we?” he asked. “So there is definitely a sense of obligation for all the right reasons.”

But, he added, “We are not the only people who believe that. There are many religions [that do]; the Catholic Church has made incredible sacrifices in countries in Central America, in other parts of the world. … I think what is unique about the Jews is that we are such a small number of people on the planet … 13 million and dropping … a small number of people who, because of this obligation to tikkun olam, and to step into the breach, we carry a disproportionate impact. … Where there is a social justice cause, where there is a civil rights cause, where there is a human rights cause, the odds are you are going to see Jews involved. … And that’s who we are.”

As we talked, I referred to him as an “observant Jew,” which I thought he was.

Yaroslavsky interrupted. “I’m not observant in the sense that I don’t observe the Sabbath, I don’t go the synagogue every Saturday,” he said. “I was raised in a Labor Zionist home; religion was not part of the Jewish atmosphere of the house, but it was a very Jewish household. Israel was the centerpiece of the household. My parents were both Hebrew teachers. My first language was Hebrew. … My sister immigrated to Israel. We celebrated the Jewish holidays, not as religious holidays so much, but as Jewish festivals. Passover was a tradition; Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur were the only two religious holidays we celebrated. I still do. We keep kosher at home.

“When you say observant,” he clarified, “I think of people who don’t drive on the Sabbath, [who] go to shul every morning, or once a week. I’m not religious in that sense; I’m traditional, I identify with the Jewish people. Rabbis of course will debunk everything I am about to say, but I just don’t find you have to be a religiously observant Jew to be a good Jew or an active Jew. With 13 million Jews on this planet, there is enough room in that tent for a variety of ways to celebrate your Judaism.” 

A great influence on him was Labor Zionism — the socialist-oriented movement born amid Europe’s anti-Semitism. “Labor Zionism was basically a movement to create a Jewish state with social justice values. … Everybody had a stake in society, not just the people who were wealthy, not just people who had it made,” Yaroslavsky said.

“A lot of the people in the union movement in the early part of the 20th century came out of the Labor Zionist movement,” he added, “people who were in the civil rights movement disproportionately came out of the Labor Zionist movement. I was inculcated in values of social justice, civil rights and the story of the persecution of the Jewish people, of my own family.

“When I was growing up, going into government was a way to advance the values of social justice. On all levels, the international level, the national level, the local level. That’s what got me interested in politics in the first place … certainly what got me involved in the Soviet Jewry movement,” he said.

“I certainly didn’t think I would stay in local government for four decades. But what has kept me motivated and going in this field was the opportunity to make a difference. It’s a cliché, but its true.”

I wondered how this translated into action in Los Angeles County, where the problems are so great that, I suggested to him, “You must feel like you are banging your head against a wall.”

Yaroslavsky replied, “Almost everything we do in county government can make you feel as though you are banging your head against a wall, because Los Angeles County is the biggest county in the United States, 10 million people, almost 2.5 million at one point were uninsured, had no health insurance. In Los Angeles, the problems are on steroids. … You can throw your hands in the air and say there is no way you can house 55,000 homeless people.  I say, ‘That’s right, there’s no way.’ But we can house 5,000. And the template we use to house 5,000, we can then use to house 15,000 or 20,000. Pretty soon we can pretty much take care of the problem. It’s a matter of doing it in bite-sized chunks.

“It’s like we’re a football team that is down 45-to-0 at halftime. All we need to do is score seven touchdowns. It isn’t going to be easy, but you’ve got to take your shots. So I am not intimidated by the numbers, not even intimidated by the county jail situation,” he said, referring
to the overcrowded jails facing charges of brutality by sheriff’s deputies and, at the same time, dealing with growing numbers of mentally
ill inmates. 

After our conversation, I realized I had forgotten to ask him what he’d be doing after his term ends. He replied by e-mail: “I have made no plans at this point. I’m still focused on finishing my term and completing the goals I set for this final year. I plan to write a memoir about my work as a public servant in Southern California and to stay involved in one or more capacities in the civic life of Los Angeles. I have not yet decided how I’m going to allocate my time or where.”  

It should be a valuable book. 

Letter to the Editor: Marijuana, Persians and the Oslo Accord

More on Marijuana

It can be seen by the article “Light-Up Nation” (Oct. 4) that medical marijuana is truly a science and has medical and emotional benefits. My hope is that funds will be allocated in the near future so that more research and clinical trials can be done. Why is it considered OK in the Jewish communities to partake of alcohol and, as the distributor might say, “drink responsibly,” but marijuana is still looked at in a different light? Not everyone who smokes is a “stoner,” in the classical sense of the word. There are many of us who use it responsibly and productively. The foolishness of some patients’ use should not outweigh the wondrous benefits of a product. Any product — be it tobacco, alcohol, food, pain medication — can be overused and abused. How is marijuana any different? I know there will come a time in the future when the community will open its mind to see the healing effects of cannabis.

David Perl via e-mail

The article gives many anecdotes of beneficial effects of marijuana. I believe the author should have listed some of the side effects, such as impaired cognition and increased incidence of auto accidents in users.

Dr. Stuart Goldman via e-mail

Perspective on Persian Civilization

I enjoyed reading Gina Nahai’s article “On Being Persian” (Oct. 4). However, the historical information found in her essay is incorrect regarding one issue and disputable regarding another. The Persian civilization is not “the oldest civilization known to man — one that predates Egypt’s by 500 years.” Rather, the Persians first appear in historical documents in the seventh century B.C.E., while Egyptian civilization can be traced back to the fourth millennium B.C.E., predating Persia by close to 3,000 years. 

Further, Nahai refers to the Cyrus Cylinder as a “declaration of human rights,” which “states that all people captured and enslaved by the rulers before him should be allowed to return to their homelands and worship … whichever god they please.” While Cyrus did allow the Temple vessels to be returned to Jewish authorities and the rebuilding of the Temple and the Jewish community in Judah, that these events are based on what we read in the Cyrus Cylinder is not so clear. The contents of the inscription do not clearly mandate that subject peoples are allowed to go home, but only that their gods can. The intent of the inscription is to legitimize Cyrus’ conquest of Babylon and the vast empire that came with it. 

Thus, while Cyrus is viewed very positively in Jewish history for granting permission to the Jewish community to rebuild the Temple and restore Jewish life in their homeland, the contents of his cylinder do not necessarily reflect a recognition of human rights and religious freedom. Will I nevertheless go to the Getty Villa to view the Cylinder during its visit to Los Angeles? You bet.

Elaine Goodfriend, adjunct lecturer in Jewish studies CSUN, The full version of this letter is at jewishjournal.com.

On the Oslo Accords 

I did not attend the American Freedom Alliance conference on “Oslo @ Twenty,” but if the Journal account (“20 Years Later, the Oslo Accord,” Oct. 4) is any indication, the lack of any support for the Oslo accords expressed at the conference means that the attendees were badly served.

Unmentioned in the article, and apparently at the conference, is the fact that the Israeli government itself has used the threat of not cooperating over that part of the Oslo accords that remain in effect to discourage independent Palestinian Authority behavior, such as statehood recognition from the United Nations. The fact is, Oslo is very much alive, especially in the minds of those working for peace. And so are the peace optimists. 

Barry H. Steiner, political science professor CSULB

A Thank You From Cantor Pressman

Thank you for this (“Unafraid of Death, Cantor Offers a Philosophical Love Fest,” Oct. 4). Not sure that one of so many people facing cancer deserves such a fuss, but I am honored.

Cantor Joel Pressman via jewishjournal.com

Boyarsky’s Loss Brings Empathy

I have met Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, who is beloved by many (“Seeking Consolation,” Sept. 27). I’m glad he was a source of solace. The High Holy Days always lead me into meditation on the losses and the blessings of this life. Bill Boyarsky’s loss of his oldest daughter, Robin, is a wound I cannot imagine. In time, I hope it heals.

Linda Deutsch via jewishjournal.com

A really lovely piece, Bill. I wish I had a Chaim in my life. I think of Robin all the time, as I think about our Cindy.

Al Martinez via jewishjournal.com


An article about Cantor Joel Pressman (“Unafraid of Death, Cantor Offers a Philosophical Love Fest,” Oct. 4) mistakenly reported that a cover story on Pressman had appeared in the Beverly Hills Courier. It was the Beverly Hills Weekly that published the story. 

Opinion: Berman vs. Sherman: Evaluating their congressional records

Much of the debate in the San Fernando Valley contest between Reps. Howard Berman and Brad Sherman has revolved around their congressional records, but I’m having trouble deciphering them. And if it’s hard for me, after spending years writing about legislation, pity the interested voter. In their years in Congress — 29 for Berman, 15 for Sherman — they have cast many votes and introduced bills, either as a main author or collaborator. Because there’s a public record of this activity, you’d think it would be easy to look it up, rather than rely on the candidates’ speeches, charges and counter charges.

But, as David A. Fahrenthold wrote in a fascinating article in the Washington Post, the main source of a Congress member’s votes and proposed legislation is a Library of Congress Web site called THOMAS, named for Thomas Jefferson. As Jefferson was an accomplished scientist as well as our third president, he would no doubt be appalled by the backwardness of his namesake site. Its clunky system, Fahrenthold wrote, permits searches of bills by name, author and subject. “But researchers can look only at one bill at a time — divorced from the patterns, history and context that make all the difference on Capitol Hill,” Fahrenthold said.

It took a Princeton freshman, Josh Tauberer, to figure out how to incorporate all this into a database.  Today, 11 years later, his site, GovTrack.us, puts it all together. While Tauberer says his site isn’t perfect, many groups depend on GovTrack.us. “What happens if he walks in front of a bus?” Daniel Schuman of the nonprofit Sunlight Foundation asked Fahrenthold.

I looked up Berman and Sherman on the site. First of all, I learned that only about 4 percent of bills introduced in the House ever pass, which provides a bit of context to the Berman and Sherman boasts of effectiveness. I know that bills passed are an incomplete measure of work done in the House. Much of what members accomplish is done behind the scenes, through deal making, vote trading and calling in of favors. In addition, Berman and Sherman have often been co-authors of bills when other members took the lead and got top billing. And, as minority liberal Democrats in a House run by conservative Republicans, their power is currently severely limited. Still, that 4 percent figure is interesting and not one mentioned on the campaign trail.

Although GovTrack.us compilations go back to when Berman entered the House in 1983 and Sherman in 1997, I limited my search to 2011 and 2012. Time and space prevented a more extensive search, but interested readers can dig deeper at the GovTrack.com Web site.

In 2011 and 2012, most of the bills Berman introduced appeared to be going nowhere. President Barack Obama signed his measure allowing some Israeli investors to work in the United States, and the House passed his bill designed to promote exports. Most of his legislation went to committee, where GovTrack.us gave the bills low chances of approval, ranging from 7 percent for a bill increasing aid for Israel missile defense down to 1 percent for most of the rest of them. That doesn’t tell the whole story. For example, Berman’s proposal to give special status to foreign farm workers, given a 3 percent chance of passage, might be part of immigration reform, if that ever passes.

Sherman’s bills also went to committee, and they, too, were given a slight chance of passage. They include measures authorizing the president to stop transfers of goods and services that would hurt national security, provide a form of the Dream Act for illegal alien students, toughen sanctions against Iran, and prevent state and local governments from banning circumcision. None of his bills became law during this period.

I didn’t think this information told the whole story. Previously, Berman and Sherman had sent me lists of their legislation that they felt was important, but I wanted it in their own words. So I called Berman and Sherman and asked each of them what were their proudest accomplishments in the House.

Each gave me two. “Hansen Dam,” said Berman. He told me that in 15 years of work, he got the federal funding to turn the huge area in the northeast San Fernando Valley from a disreputable gang hangout into the popular recreational area it is today, with swimming, fishing, athletic facilities, picnic areas and other features.

Second, he said, was Iran, where Sherman has accused him of being too soft on sanctions. “My opponent will try to tear it down, but I have been the congressional leader in this effort,” he said. Success will come “when Iran has abandoned its nuclear weapons. We are in the middle of this effort. They are still enriching uranium.”

For his part, Sherman said, “My two most important accomplishments consisted of blocking bad things, which is just as important as passing good bills.” He cited his part in leading in the effort to rewrite the 2008 recession bailout program — the Troubled Asset Relief Program, known as TARP — to protect taxpayers and the government from loss.  Second, he cited his work with other members to block regulations that would have made it more difficult to get a home mortgage. “The regulations would have banned mortgages for even high qualifiers unless they had 20 percent down,” he said. “That would have depressed the entire Valley economy.”

Each man is campaigning as if he were a master of Congress. But what the record shows is that it’s hard for a liberal Democrat to be Superman in this conservative House. So the fight goes on, and so does the digging by journalists, interested voters and by those dark-arts workers in the two campaigns, the specialists in opposition research. To be continued as the campaign unfolds.

Bill Boyarsky is a columnist for The Jewish Journal, Truthdig and L.A. Observed, and the author of “Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times” (Angel City Press).

L.A. Sukkah sit-in shows Jews’ passion for politics

As I stopped at the sukkah in the Occupy L.A. encampment outside City Hall, I thought of the Jews’ role in the upcoming presidential election, which will be taking place amid a recession and doubts about President Barack Obama’s attitude toward Israel.

The sukkah was an excellent counterpoint to the anti-Semitic drivel coming from a fired Los Angeles substitute teacher and a couple of sign holders on the other side of City Hall.  I ran into Rabbi Yonah Bookstein and his young daughter and son at the sukkah.  They offered me a piece of an excellent honey cake, made by his wife that morning.  Occupy L.A., he told me, was “tapping into the Jewish mission of redemption.  In our society, there is a lot of inequality and injustice, and by them [the protesters] being there, they are bringing attention to these social problems in the most visible way in my lifetime,” he said. At 42, the rabbi noted that he missed the anti-Vietnam war movement.

The presence of one sukkah here is no more solid a tipoff to Jewish political sentiment than the Occupy L.A. encampment is to the electorate at large.  But both are signs of something going on, of unhappiness over joblessness and the injustice of financial institutions that have escaped blame for the recession and prospered during hard times, thanks to the bailout.  Some people have criticized the Occupy movement for being fuzzy about its goals. But what is striking to me is the staying power of the occupiers. And, on the other ideological side, the Tea Party — also anger based — has also shown the same ability to stick around.

A stronger indication of Jewish community sentiment is the American Jewish Committee (AJC) Survey of American Jewish Opinion, released in September. It found that the Jewish community shares other voters’ strong discontent with Obama’s handling of the economy. Just 37 percent of those polled approved of the president’s economic performance. That’s just about the same figure as for all Americans.  And it’s a sharp drop-off from the year before, when 55 percent of Jews supported Obama on the economy, compared to 45 percent of all Americans.

What’s unclear is the personal impact.  How many Jews are unemployed? How many have lost their businesses or are just hanging on? These are what will determine political choices as next November’s election draws near.  The hardship felt by people who are suffering can also radiate outward to family and friends, also shaping their voting behavior.

The number of such people isn’t known. Pini Herman, co-author of The Jewish Journal’s Demographic Duo blog, estimates that there are 25,000 Jewish unemployed in Los Angeles County.  But he also said this is just an educated guess, based on out-of-date population statistics.

Jewish Journal reporters, including myself, have found strong signs of economic hardship in the Jewish community as the recession wears on.  Workers in social service agencies described to me how long-term unemployment has hit Jews who have never before been out of work.  All through last year and into this year, public school administrators have told me of Jewish families returning to the Los Angeles Unified School District because they can’t afford private schools.

Whether they will blame Obama or the Republicans for their plight will be determined by the long campaign ahead and by events yet to occur.  Obama is attacking the Republicans in a populist way that, to a mild extent, echoes what can be heard at the Occupy encampments, as he pushes for passage of the various elements of his jobs bill.  The Republican alternatives—deregulation, more oil drilling, protecting the wealthy from tax increases — may catch on with this disenchanted electorate, but so far there’s been no sign of it.  Polling numbers for Congress, including the Republican House, are worse than Obama’s.

Israel, of course, will be the other factor impacting the Jewish vote.

In 2008, Obama received about 78 percent of the Jewish vote. Lawrence Grossman, in a JTA op-ed on the AJC survey, wrote that “among Orthodox Jews, who make up 9 percent of the sample, disapproval is much higher, 72 percent.”  Evidence of that came earlier this year, when Orthodox Jews helped elect a Republican in a New York congressional district that is one-third Jewish and had not sent a Republican to Congress in 90 years.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been a big help to the Republicans, as a persistent critic of Obama on Israel.  Netanyahu’s speech to Congress last spring reminded me of a Republican political rally.  The Israeli newspaper Haaretz put it well in a headline: “Is Obama’s Problem That Netanyahu Is a Republican at Heart?”

Whether it is Netanyahu’s love of market-based conservative economics or his distrust of Obama on Israel, the Republicans see Netanyahu and his stand on the settlements as an opportunity. The New York Times reported that the Republican National Committee plans to target several Democratic-held districts where it believes Jewish voters could help them win.  Meanwhile, House Speaker John Boehner is speaking to Jewish groups.

Republicans have tried this before without much success, but this year Israel is a more polarizing issue.

How decisive an issue Israel will be in November likely will depend on the economy and how angry and insecure voters react to what Obama and the Republicans say about that.  The lesson of the Occupy movement — and the Tea Party — is that people are staying mad and are ready to act on their anger.

Bill Boyarsky is a columnist for The Jewish Journal, Truthdig and L.A. Observed, and the author of “Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times” (Angel City Press).

A doctor’s visit

A visit with Dr. Eugene Gettelman, who celebrates his 100th birthday on June 17, shows how much medicine has gained and lost in the last half century.

We talked recently in the sitting room of his apartment at Westwood Horizons, an upscale retirement home near UCLA. His friend, Dr. Herb Levin, had suggested I do a column on Gettelman’s reaching the century mark.

I had met them when I was invited to speak at a monthly luncheon of retired physicians at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Occasionally, Gettelman, Levin and their friend, Dr. Fred Kahn, take me to lunch at the UCLA Faculty Center. They like to talk about politics. I’m interested in the old days of medical practice — at least their old days.

That’s what I wanted to talk about when Gettelman and I settled down for a chat. As a pediatrician practicing in the San Fernando Valley, he treated generations of children, starting from when he completed Navy service in the South Pacific during World War II. He is a lively man with a friendly and calm manner, undoubtedly reassuring to parents and children as well.

I asked him to repeat a story he had told me before, which I thought illustrated the sharp instincts, intelligence and guts that were so necessary to doctors working without today’s sophisticated diagnostic tools and drugs.

Gettelman was senior resident at Michael Reese Hospital in Chicago in the mid-1930s. In those days — hardly imaginable today — strep throat was a dread ailment that could affect the mastoid and turn into meningitis. For the children he was treating, “it was like a death certificate,” he said.

At the time, 100 Jewish physicians who had fled Hitler’s Germany were working at Reese, a Jewish hospital. One of them came to Gettelman with a German article telling how doctors there were using sulfa drugs to cure infections, a new treatment first tried in 1932.

Several children were dying in Reese Hospital from meningitis. “I had more guts than brains in those days,” Gettelman said. He called the manufacturer, Bayer, in Germany. The company air expressed a pound of a powdered version of the drug.

There were no directions with the package. The drug, Gettelman said, had never been used against meningitis. But he decided to try it.

He asked the parents. He told them their children were dying. The parents told him to go ahead. Gettelman mixed the powder with a solution in what he thought would be a safe proportion and injected it into the spine of one of the sick children.

“It worked,” Gettelman said. “With the first patient, the temperature came down.”

The story reminded me of House, television’s irascible high-risk doctor, who operates on instinct, experience and guts.

“Do you watch ‘House?'” I asked Gettelman.

“Sometimes,” he replied.

“House would have done what you did,” I said.

Gettelman smiled. “That’s exactly right,” he said.

In Gettelman’s younger days, doctors marched through the hospital in something called “grand rounds.” Held on Sunday mornings, when all the doctors were available, the rounds were led by the head of the department, dressed in morning coat and striped pants, followed by a procession of residents and interns from one hospital room to another.

They descended on patients, who must have been surprised, if not scared. The lowest-ranked intern would spell out the symptoms. The head doctor would question the usually nervous intern. Then the group would retreat to the hall, and the department chief would explain the lessons to be drawn from the case.

When he was practicing in the Valley, Gettelman visited patients at Encino Hospital in the morning, saw ill children in his office all afternoon and made house calls in the evening. Doctors knew their patients and watched for symptoms. They didn’t dismiss childhood headaches, Gettelman said. A headache could mean polio. “A belly ache could be appendicitis,” he said.

Those days are gone, he said, and with them the young doctors who opened solo offices and started treating patients one on one, becoming part of their lives. Today’s doctors’ offices are big. Some are well organized, others not.

“The personal relationship between the doctor and the patient has deteriorated,” he said.

But on the plus side, antibiotics have all but eliminated the crises Gettelman faced in his youth. These days, he wouldn’t have to play a hunch and order those sulfa drugs from Germany.

He noted approvingly that radiology has made possible huge advances in diagnosis. Gettelman keeps up on medical developments, and he attends frequent lectures and other sessions at Cedars and UCLA.

On Sunday, June 15, family and friends will gather at the UCLA Faculty Center to celebrate his birthday. Gettelman and his late wife, Rita, had two sons, Alan and Michael. There are five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

My interview was ending. We had talked for an hour, and it was lunch time. Gettelman walked to his closet and pondered which of his several sport coats to wear downstairs for lunch. He chose the camel hair.

A table had been reserved for him. He ordered the salad, and I had the turkey sandwich. We discussed politics, not agreeing all the time, but enjoying the conversation. After an hour, the dining room was emptying, and I stood up to leave.

As I drove home, I thought about all the changes Gettelman has seen and what a remarkable man he is. This was one visit to the doctor that actually made me feel good.

Until leaving the Los Angeles Times in 2001, Bill Boyarsky worked as a political correspondent, a Metro columnist for nine years and as city editor for three years. You can reach him at bw.boyarsky@verizon.net.