Jewish hotspots during Brazil’s blockbuster Carnival season

Brazilians know how to party. Nowhere is that more obvious than at Carnival, Brazil’s most popular celebration festively combining its rich and multi-ethnic melting pot. It’s also one of the world’s largest multi-day celebrations, when ecstatic crowds enjoy fabulous samba parades and enormous street parties.

Carnival follows a lunar calendar, so the exact date varies — this year it’s Feb. 5-10. The celebration kicks off Friday night and ends on Ash Wednesday at noon, when some very hungover Brazilians are forced to go back to work. Easter Sunday comes 40 days after.

Though it may have Catholic connotations, the roots of Carnival trace back to pagan rites of spring held by the ancient Romans and Greeks. Across Europe, the season was celebrated with parties, masks and dancing in the streets. The Portuguese brought the Carnival concept to Rio in the late 1800s, when French-style balls and masquerade parties became common. Over time, unique elements deriving from African, Ameri-Indian and even Jewish cultures were incorporated.

Carnival has become a proud national institution — and Brazil’s 120,000 Jews have found numerous ways to engage with the festivities around them (or escape them altogether, should they so choose).

Here is an appetizer of this blowout Brazilian party highlighting five of the most Jewish ways to spend Carnival. Read on for a vicarious glimpse — or, if you’re lucky enough to be in Brazil this weekend, head to one of these hotspots, slap on some sunscreen, grab a “caipirinha” and prepare to get your samba on!


This year there’s hot Jewish news at the Sao Paulo Sambadrome — a samba arena with a concrete runway the length of nearly six football fields lined with stands that hold 27,000 spectators.

Two Ashkenazi Jews, Ronny Potolski and Jairo Roizen, are making headlines for their joint debuts as songwriters and composers for their first-division samba schools, Unidos do Peruche and Perola Negra. (A samba school is a sort of club in which thousands of members practice and perform in huge compounds devoted to samba. Structured like a guild, they have a strong community basis and are usually associated with and named after a neighborhood.)

In fact, Potolski’s love of samba is so deep that it inspired the real deal. In 2008, he fell in love with Thais Paraguassu, an amazing porta-bandeira, a female dancer who carries the samba school’s flag. Paraguassu converted to Judaism and the two married last year.

You can samba with Potolski, Roizen and Paraguassu at one of Sao Paulo’s 14 schools performing on Friday and Saturday.


Over 1 million tourists from around the world come to enjoy Carnival in Rio. Prior to hosting events in the 2016 Summer Olympics, the Rio Sambadrome will showcase 26 samba schools that will wow spectators with their exquisite choreography and elaborate floats. (If you can’t join the 60,000 lucky ones in the stands along the nearly half-mile-long runway, there’s a live TV broadcast that reaches some 2 billion viewers.)

Generations ago, Jewish engagement in Rio Carnival took place at Yiddish Avenid, a nickname for the area in downtown Rio de Janeiro where most of the Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe settled between the 1920s and 1960s. Here, Jews exchanged klezmer and other European music traditions with those of their lower-class Afro-Brazilian neighbors. The neighborhood is part of a larger district known as “Little Africa” that’s now recognized as the cradle of samba.

Jewish themes often permeate Rio’s majestic parade, though that’s not the case this year. In 2003, the Mangueira samba school won second place — yes, there is a jury and a trophy — for depicting the story of the Ten Commandments, including a float in the shape of a Star of David and costumes embellished with sidelocks, tefillin, small Torahs and dreidels.

However, Rio’s parade often mixes the sacred and the profane, and it’s famous for igniting controversy around samba songs and themes. In 2008, for example, a planned Jewish-themed float by the Viradouro samba school made headlines for portraying piles of Holocaust victims’ bodies and even a dancing Hitler. Fortunately it was banned before the show started.

Yet like most Brazilians, Rio’s Jews can be found among the celebrants cheering for their favored samba school.


Blocos are street party groups that joyfully dance, sing, drink, flirt, kiss and do, well, whatever else among the skillful drummers playing samba. This year in Rio, 505 blocos are set to perform.

Founded by a group of 13 youths, including nine Jews, the bloco Sargento Pimenta — Portuguese for “Sergeant Pepper” — has quickly become a phenomenon. It draws some 180,000 people who want to dance and sing to samba versions of Beatles hits.

About 10 percent of Pimenta’s 140 musicians are Jewish, so if you scream “shalom” during their presentation on Monday, you may hear “baruch haba,” the Hebrew salute for welcome, as a reply. Give it a shot!

Pimenta has performed in some Jewish weddings where traditional Jewish songs were played.

“But our bloco does not have a religion, it belongs to Carnival,” Leonardo Stul, one of its founders, told JTA.


After a 90-minute drive from Rio, you reach Teresopolis, a cozy mountain town. So many of Rio’s Jews keep a vacation home here that it’s also known as Eretzopolis, a riff on Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel. Those who don’t have a condo here tend to have relatives or friends who do.

During Carnival, the small local Jewish population of 500 triples with the influx of Rio residents seeking cooler temperatures and a more peaceful environment.

But for those who can’t disconnect from the thrill, the Carnival ball held by WIZO – the global Jewish women’s volunteer organization dedicated to social welfare — is the place to be, especially if you have kids. Because Purim always falls very close to Carnival, the Jewish holiday is always the theme. The Queen Esther pageant, which closes the ball, is a must-go for little girls – see if you can count how many are dressed as Elsa from “Frozen.”

“We are very glad to see that our ball has become a much-awaited event in our community,” WIZO Brazil’s president, Silene Balassiano, told JTA.

For the Jews of Sao Paulo, a traditional spot to escape Carnival craziness is a condo in the coastal city of Guraruja — sometimes known as Guarushalayim, an amalgam of Yerushalayim, the name of Jerusalem in Hebrew, and Guaruja.


Bahia, in northeast Brazil, is known as the country’s most musical state. It’s the epicenter of African culture here and birthplace of capoeira, the Brazilian martial art.

Capoeira has become a hit in Israel — as such, an estimated 2,000 Israeli tourists disembark in Bahia’s capital city, Salvador, from December through Carnival, according to a local Jewish source.

Forget about sambadromes here; instead, Israelis and local Jews meet at “trios eletricos.” Unlike Rio’s blocos, which are mostly stationary, trios are trucks loaded with speakers and topped with a stage that move through three official routes along the city’s streets. Behind them, some 2 million people dance along more than 15 miles of streets.

During Carnival, local synagogues are said to welcome some 200 Israelis for Shabbat dinners.

“The vast majority are backpackers who have just finished their military service in Israel and come to South America to celebrate,” said Mauricio Laukenickas, who runs a local travel agency. “Whether you are Israeli, or wherever you come from, baruch habah to Carnival in Bahia.”

Carnival ride’s name upsetting Fla. Holocaust survivors

The name of a ride at a South Florida fair is offending some Holocaust survivors living in the area.

The Zyklon ride at the Broward County Fair conjures up the cyanide gas used in Nazi death camps.

“Of all the names in the world, why do they need to name rides that?” Rita Hofrichter, a Holocaust survivor who works at the Holocaust Documentation and Education Center in Hollywood, Fla., told the Florida Sun-Sentinel newspaper. “It’s upsetting to me to come across that as a survivor. I lost my whole family in the gas chambers, particularly in Auschwitz.”

The ride’s owner, Frank Zaitshik of the Michigan-based Wade Shows, said Zyklon is German for cyclone and that the ride was named by its Italian manufacturer, which has since gone out of business.

Zaitshik told the Sun-Sentinel that he has heard the complaint before and now intends to change the ride’s name.

The Best of (Jewish) Los Angeles 2008

We like to think of our Annual Guide to the Best of (Jewish) Los Angeles as kvetch-proof. Our writers and editors provide personal favorites that are so idiosyncratic and eclectic that it’s hard to argue. (“No, that’s not the best place to buy a $50 set of used Talmud, this is!”)Our contributors are out there — in the community, in the neighborhoods, off the beaten track — and their choices not only reflect the varied tastes of our staff, but the great diversity of L.A. Jewish life. Year after year, by the way, Los Angeles is still our “Best Jewish City.”

Best Places to See Jewish Opera: Los Angeles and Long Beach

Thanks to maestro James Conlon and his “Recovered Voices” project, Los Angeles Opera has become the go-to destination in this country to see fully staged productions of works suppressed by the Nazis. This year’s fare included the one-act “The Broken Jug” by Viktor Ullmann, who composed the piece just before he was interned at Terezin (he died in Auschwitz in 1944). Conlon aims to stage one such opera per year to help “right musical wrongs” — Walter Braunfel’s rarely performed “The Birds” is planned for 2009. Meanwhile, the iconoclastic Long Beach Opera had such a successful run with its re-staging of Grigori Frid’s “The Diary of Anne Frank” (performed in a parking garage to evoke the claustrophobia of Anne’s attic) that a second production was added this month.Los Angeles Opera, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles.(213) 972-8001.Long Beach Opera, 507 Pacific Ave., Long Beach. (562) 432-5934. .

— Naomi Pfefferman

Best Really Jewish-Themed Plays Now Around Town (or, At Least, Some of the Many)

If you’re in the mood for a long weekend of Jewish theater (you’d have to start on a Thursday), check out Jennifer Maisel’s “The Last Seder,” in which the family patriarch has Alzheimer’s, the pregnant lesbian daughter brings her life partner and another daughter shows up with a guy she met at the train station, among other intrigues (at the Greenway Court Theatre through July 27). Then there’s Naomi Newman, of San Francisco’s acclaimed Traveling Jewish Theatre, who’ll play a Holocaust survivor recounting her long life (traversing the 20th century) in Martin Sherman’s solo show, “Rose” (among Rose’s adventures: visits to a hippie commune and to a West Bank settlement), at the Odyssey Theatre (July 5-Aug 31). “The Accomplices,” by former New York Times political reporter Bernard Weinraub, spotlights what the United States government and American Jews did — and didn’t do — to help Jews fleeing the Nazis, at the Fountain Theatre (July 12-Aug. 24). The satiric “Adam Baum and the Jew Movie,” directed by Paul Mazursky, is at the Hayworth Theatre through July 20. Watch these pages for more shows as they hit town. Greenway Court Theatre, 544 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 655-7679. Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 477-2055. Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 663-1525. Hayworth Theatre, 2509 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 389-9860.

— NP

Best New Literary Salon:Town Hall’s Writers Bloc

A decade ago, Andrea Grossman started Writers Bloc in her Beverly Hills kitchen; over the years, the salon has hosted pop-culture-meets-literati conversations between the likes of Norman Mailer, Elmore Leonard and Erica Jong. This past year, the venerated series merged with Los Angeles’ 70-year-old Town Hall Los Angeles program to form (what else?) Town Hall’s Writers Bloc series, which has made a splash with authors from Salmon Rushdie to angry Jewish comic Lewis Black. Stay tuned for best-selling author Paul Auster (“Brooklyn Follies”) who will talk about his war-themed new book, “Man in the Dark,” later this summer.Town Hall Los Angeles, 515 Flower St., Los Angeles.

— NP

Best (Sinfully Rich) Persian-Infused French Bakery: Mignon

When I see a bakery with a French name in the Valley, it’s a good bet it’s Persian. One example is Mignon Bakery (mignon means cute in French). The aroma of fresh pastries baking and the owner’s warm smile make Mignon a delightful stop on a shopping trip to Valley Produce, a favorite market among Israelis. Although there are French items, so far I’ve focused on the Persian pastries, and all that I’ve tried have been fresh and of good quality, from saffron-glazed turnovers with almond-cardamom filling to tasty cinnamon-walnut baklava to exotic sweets like cardamom-flavored chickpea balls. There are a variety of Persian cakes and pastries, like delicate Yazdi cupcakes, syrupy fried pastries and gata, a rich round breakfast bread. This is the only place I know to get fresh barbary bread, the long, oval ridged Persian bread. Like baguette, it has a pleasing crust that’s most delicious when just baked. If you want some, come early — they disappear quickly. Try not to eat the whole loaf before you get home! Mignon Bakery, Valley Produce Plaza, 18353 Vanowen St. Suite G, Reseda. (818) 774-9920.

— Faye Levy

Best Place to Learn Persian and Hebrew While Drinking Blended Coffee: The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf


The L.A.-based Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, whose stores are certified kosher throughout Nevada and Southern California, draws a wide range of customers who enjoy drinking a blended beverage and maybe picking up a new language. At many of the stores, from Pico-Robertson to the Westside to Ventura Boulevard, you can hear Persian-language speakers and Hebrew speakers mingle over mochas. Just plop in a corner and see if you can follow along. As an added bonus, the purple straws and yummy pastries have been joined by challahs, available for order and pickup right at the store. For locations, visit

— Shoshana Lewin

Best Way to Visit the World of Krusty the (Jewish) Clown: The Simpsons Rideat Universal Studios Hollywood


Homer, Marge, Bart and the rest of the family have recently moved from Springfield to Universal City. The six-minute simulator attraction took the site once occupied by the “Back to the Future” ride — and completely changed the look of the theme park’s upper lot. The ride takes you into the crazy world of Krusty (a.k.a. Herschel Shmoikel Pinkus Yerucham Krustofsky) through a visit to the very low-budget Krustyland. But there’s a hitch: Sideshow Bob has escaped from prison and can’t wait to get revenge on Krusty and the Simpsons. After riding Krusty’s “


“Beware the beautiful masked woman on Purim.”

I texted a young friend after midnight on Saturday night, before my carriage turned into a Purim
pumpkin. Because when he saw me, he didn’t know it was me.

I suppose I couldn’t blame him: My hair was blown out straight and silky, I was wearing a fancy lace strapless number because I’d been at a wedding that day and, for the occasion of Purim, I donned an extravagant purple-feathered eye mask.

I didn’t exactly mean to go incognito, but when my friend Ben didn’t recognize me — even after chatting with me for a minute at the noisy Purim carnival — I realized I was onto something: I could be anyone.

Don’t get me wrong, I like myself. I “really, really like me.” Most of the time, anyway. But there are scant opportunities in life to observe other people at their most boisterous and maintain anonymity — unless you count watching reality television. This was my chance to actually interact with people who were being completely and totally themselves, albeit dressed up as something other than themselves.

Costumes have a way of doing that for a person; paradoxically, by shifting their persona, they can shine and be their best selves.

This is probably why I have always loved “fancy dress” parties. Growing up religious, Purim was one of my only opportunities for wearing a costume, aside from theme parties (preppie/nerd, literary characters, etc.). In the last few years I’ve added Halloween to my repertoire, but here in Los Angeles a costume party seems to be an excuse to dress as sluttily as possible — which, in principle, I’m not necessarily against — but bearing one’s belly button, to my mind, defies the whole notion of not revealing oneself.

For me, just dressing up is not enough. On Thursday, at a Purim party at Pearl’s, sponsored by Atid, Stephen S. Wise and Taglit/Birthright, I was a flapper in a white shimmying dress, white stole and long cigarette (I didn’t inhale). It was glam and fun (I won a prize! Although I came in behind “Jews for Cheeses”).

But at Saturday night’s Ikar social justice carnival I realized what I really want from a costume party: To be masked. Concealed. Hidden. Veiled. I suppose I could have gone in a burka (topical, yet modest!), but I think my dramatic streak has always yearned for masquerade balls of old — women swathed in layers of satin, bewigged in piles of curls, corseted in laces that squeezed the lifeblood out of them, ensconced behind bejeweled masks — identities so subsumed they could lose themselves for the night.

And so it came to pass, in the Time of the New Millennia in the land of Angels … at J-Connect’s party on Sunday night, I went completely undercover. To match my purple mask, I wore a purple lace vintage dress (wire stays instead of corset) and the most mysterious smile I could muster. Because, apparently, it’s not the eyes that are the window to the soul, but the smile.

“Is that Amy Klein?” said my friend Avi, who had overlooked me in a group conversation until I grinned.

“You should write more because I want to read about someone who feels as miserable as I do,” he said.

I quickly pulled my mask down as I made my way around the room, eavesdropping, conversing, listening and flirting.

Meeting people in costume is a double-edged sword: It’s mysteriously alluring, but what if the man under the sufi hat has no hair?

“What if your cheeks are as fuzzy as your mask?” one suitor asked, begging for a peek. Since it was only my eyes, I lifted the mask for a moment, to assuage him that I wasn’t Chewbacca.

“Do I know you?” others said. I shook my head, no, with a smile.

Tonight I didn’t want to be known. Amid the sea of costumes, from the store-bought (policeman, red riding hood, etc.) to the topical (a dead-on mustachioed Borat) and the minimalist (cowboy/girl, pirate, kitten) and a scantily clad belly dancer or two (see: Halloween), I was one of the few to remain faceless.

What does that say about me? Am I secretly afraid to reveal my truest self? And what does it say about those who don’t dress up at all? Are they so unabashedly themselves they don’t need to hide behind a costume? Or are they just afraid to let go? Do they not know the beauty of the Purim commandment, to get drunk enough so you don’t know the difference between “Cursed Haman” and “Blessed Mordechai?” (Do they even know who Haman and Mordechai are?) Do they not know that Purim is a time to shake it up a bit; be someone you normally aren’t — or at least different from how others may see you?

That was what my costume afforded me: the ability to escape others’ perception of me for the evening. Yes, behind the mask, it was still me in there, intermittently wondering things like, what am I doing here? Why can’t I be lying on my couch reading the Sunday New York Times? Does red wine stain? But no one knew it was me, and that allowed me to mostly escape myself. My sometimes fabulous, sometimes neurotic, multifaceted, misunderstood self.

So yes, t’was I behind the purple plumed feathers. Sorry if I didn’t say hello.

But heads-up for next Purim: I think I’ll be wearing a burka.

This Week – Carnival Time

We arrived early for the Purim carnival last Sunday. The giant bounce house still lay in a wrinkled, uninflated wad on a corner of the parking lot. The only children around were, like our son, middle school volunteers, corralling the puppies for the puppy-petting booth, lining up bottles for the ring toss.

The temple brotherhood had sponsored a Red Cross Blood Drive van, so, with some time to kill, I signed up and sat in line.

A man from the temple stepped out of the donor van, rolling his sleeve back down over his arm.

“Remember,” he said, “When they ask you if you paid for sex in the past 12 months, ask them, ‘Does jewelry count?'”

Next to me, an elderly member of the Temple Brotherhood laughed, leaned over and offered his own topper, a kind of dirty-joke midrash. It involves a mother and her daughter and — it’s not for a family paper.

It was a cool, beautiful morning, and there I was on a sidewalk on La Cienega Boulevard, with a stranger telling me a foul, funny joke as if we’ve known each other all our lives. And I thought: I ought to go to shul more often.

When I do go, I’m always struck not by what happens in the sanctuary, but by the buzz of life and activity in the halls and lobbies and reception rooms.

On Purim, Temple Beth Am is a Brueghel painting come to life: Men, women and children in bright clothes, racing here and there, greeting each other, laughing, arguing, weeping in every corner of the frame.

No, it’s Brueghel plus a soundtrack. Man, it’s noisy. When it’s your kid beside you doing the yelling and tugging, you hardly notice. Now we buy our son and daughter a pack of tickets and they run off with friends. A new generation of 3-foot Esthers and 2-foot Mordecais are screaming for the mini-Ferris Wheel and squealing on the Whirl-a-Gig.

In another part of the carnival, I overhear a recently divorced man baring his soul to a friend, shedding tears on a stairwell. A single mom arranges a week’s worth of play dates for her son, so she can get in more overtime hours. Two friends trade news on a third friend’s cancer treatments. Their conversation quickly moves on to arranging meals and carpools for the ailing woman. Downstairs, in the deafening conviviality of the food room, a group of men discusses Hamas and the new school building project.

“Rabbi Malkus is in the dunk booth!” a day school father calls out to me. He gives it the import of a late-breaking news story and makes a beeline to take in the sight.

I saw the rabbi get dunked last year, as dozens of Pressman Academy students cheered. We’ve come a long way as a people, indeed, from Moses, to Hillel, to Maimonides, to Kook, to a rabbi in a skin-tight wet suit, shivering on a plank above some murky water. But the kids are having fun.

If “Crash,” this year’s Oscar winner for best picture, was about a Los Angeles where people needed to ram their cars together just to have human contact, the synagogue is the “anti-Crash.” It is the public square in the midst of the city; the village green in the midst of the country; the shtetl in the midst of the 21st century.

What confounded me at the carnival was how the vibrancy of synagogue playgrounds and pews — whether at Beth Am or Adat Ari El or Valley Beth Shalom or Sinai or dozens of other congregations in the region — contrasts with the portents of doom and gloom coming, as David Letterman might say, from the main office.

The Conservative movement is in a state of well-documented flux. Once America’s largest Jewish denomination, it has been superseded by the more liberal Reform movement. At the other end of the spectrum, the Orthodox movement has fewer adherents but a faster growth rate.

And although synagogues with successful day schools, like Beth Am, have many young families, the Conservative movement overall is aging faster than the others.

Conservative rabbis from around the world will meet next week in Mexico City at the Rabbinical Assembly convention to hash out future policy in the face of this numerical decline.

Many observers say the fall-off reflects a larger cultural shift. Conservative Judaism developed a century ago as a backlash against both Reform innovation and Orthodox stasis. It flourished in the postwar years, when all America wanted to have its change and retreat from it too.

But — so goes this analysis — in a polarized era of red versus blue states, secular versus religious, it’s not surprising that Judaism’s middle cannot hold. Conservative liturgy and law is too constricting for most Jews, too liberal for others. So the number of Jewish Goldilocks — for whom warm porridge is just right — is dwindling.

The problem with this explanation is that Conservative doctrine worked to keep many Goldilocks from getting any porridge, period. It excluded many of the Jews who would otherwise have been drawn to synagogue life. It was late in ordaining women, it is still dithering over ordaining gays — the issue will be a major source of contention in Mexico City — and it has been sluggish about welcoming and including converts and the spouses of intermarried Jews.

Without working to develop more welcoming standards, the Conservative movement will regain its primacy about when Dwight D. Eisenhower regains the presidency.

The impetus for its renewal, if it arrives at all, won’t likely come from seminarians and lawgivers, but from congregants and pulpit rabbis, camp counselors and school teachers. They’re the ones who understand that what a successful movement needs is less doctrine, and more dunk tanks.


Mecca in the Valley

Deep red curtains, dark lighting, cushiony pillows and pictures of camels and bellydancers adorning the walls: That’s what you’d expect from a restaurant reputed to be one of the best Middle Eastern eateries in Southern California.

Instead, what you find is a bright diner-like atmosphere, with orange and yellow arches on the walls, in a strip mall in Sherman Oaks. Oh, and a long line of Americans, Arabs, Druse and Israelis.

Carnival’s green awning welcomes guests in Hebrew ("Bruchim Ha’baim") English and Arabic. Newspapers in three languages line the table of the anteroom, as people wait for a table or takeout on this busy Saturday night.

More than a month after the terrorist attack on America, when incidents of prejudice and hate crimes against Arabs — and people of Middle Eastern appearance — have climbed to a worrisome pitch, the restaurant seems largely untouched.

"The nice thing about this place is that everyone can intermingle and leave politics out the door," says Michael Jamal, 39, a Lebanese-American Druse from Studio City.

"One thing about the restaurant — you would think if all these people can sit and eat and enjoy without feeling guilt or tension, this should be an example for the whole Middle East."

Sharon Skolnik certainly didn’t come to talk politics or socialize. Skolnik, 26, who came to the United States six weeks ago from Israel, visited the restaurant with her boyfriend for the food. "It’s just known to have great food. Everyone knows about it," she says in Hebrew.

Some 50 percent of the customers are Israeli, management say, and the other half are a mix of everyone else.

Arlene Batchley, a native New Yorker who has lived in Encino for years, this time brought her son, Gary, who sports a number of tattoos and a necklace with a gold coin set into a Star of David.

"He said to me that after Sept. 11 no one’s going to come here," Arlene says gesturing to the long line. "He was wrong."

The attacks on America haven’t scared people away from this Lebanese restaurant which serves Middle Eastern food like moussaka, kibbeh, stuffed grape leaves, shawarma, hummus and baba ghannouj. If anything, say the restaurant staff, people have been friendlier and have gone out of the way to come here.

"There’s been no difference from our customers, everyone is open-minded," says Nabil Halaby, Carnival’s part owner and manager for the last 12 years. The restaurant was opened 17 years ago by its chef, Afif Al-Hakim, who named it after his first job, at a restaurant of the same name, in the thriving capital city of Beirut.

Halaby, 42, is a Lebanese Druse born and raised in Kuwait until he moved to America at age 16. At the end of a busy evening, he sits around the table with the waitresses, kibbitzing with them in a way that it’s unclear who’s boss.

"It’s not easy working with a mix of Middle Easterners," he says. "They all put their two cents in."

"But we don’t get anything back!" jokes Najwa Shaw, one of the waitresses.

"Seriously," says Aline Fahima, "A lot of our customers come in and want to talk about politics or the situation, but we don’t discuss it with them, really. Between ourselves, well, we’re like family."

Halaby adds his two cents: "Our customers too, we know 90 percent of them, their families, what they like
to eat. We see their kids grow up, so they’re like family too.”

Purim Magic and Minutia

Late one night last week, Rabbi Chaim Hanoka stood talking to David Angel in a large, almost empty parking lot, well past the appointed hour that each man had expected to get into his car and drive home. Hanoka was attempting to unravel the mathematical complexities of how Purim falls in Adar Bet, or the second month of Adar, this year, making 2000 a leap year, not only in the solar calendar but in the lunar, or Jewish calendar, as well.

Hanoka, a cheerful young man in a black hat, and the director of Chabad of Pasadena, was explaining all this outside the campus of Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center (PJTC) after a fruitful planning meeting for the community Purim carnival, that both he and Angel had earlier attended. Angel, a stout, friendly man, who could be easily mistaken for a lumberjack, grasped the implications of the two leap years immediately, which, no doubt, will help him in figuring out the odds for the ping-pong ball toss next week. Angel, who is a member of Temple Beth David, was brought in last year to sit on the committee, and now finds himself in a permanent, lifelong position (not that he asked); Hanoka came along a few years ago when Chabad got started in Pasadena.

The committee, which has been meeting around a large rectangular table in the Center library since January, is one among thousands that meets this time of year to select, and perfect, the games and booths that will appear at Purim carnivals around the country. In Pasadena, the carnival has been celebrated as a community event for the past 20 years, rotating each year to a different synagogue, “Which means that the community isn’t split up in six different directions,” explained Edeena Gordon of PJTC, a member of the committee. Rochelle Coombs of Congregation Shaari Torah, still remembered the days of her childhood, during the ’60s, when the carnival was only at PJTC, but now supported — with her time and her money — the group approach.

The carnival, which commands about 500 fun-loving participants will offer the usual stress-releasing booths and games. “Most of the booths are to get out your aggressions,” Hanoka ventured. When asked, though, what karaoke or the lollipop toss had to do with Purim, Angel spoke for the group: “There is a little connection to Purim in all of the booths,” he said, such as the Vashti ring toss, the knock-down-Haman ball toss, the Queen Esther karaoke experience, and so on and so forth. The sisterhoods from the participating temples, Coombs was eager to add, were making the hamantaschen.

The committee, which by now is working together as smoothly as a well-oiled grogger, had a pretty good grasp of the difficulties and last-minute tie-ups that lay before them. During the meeting, the smallest minutia was presented and discussed: Were the churros kosher? Adrienne Matros of PJTC’s Weizmann Community Day School said they were. Matros, whose father works at the West Co. Bakery, which is donating all the churros, explained it was a matter of the dough… and the bakery. Gordon, who commanded the north end of the table, was satisfied with their qualifications but was stuck on how many churros to order. “A couple thousand,” Rabbi Hanoka calculated, from the other end, “Just get rid of them before Pesach.” When Combs announced that Congregation Sharri Torah’s youth group wanted to do a karaoke booth instead of the usual dart balloons, the meeting room erupted: “Why is it one or the other?” “The more the merrier.” Finally a conciliatory Angel came through, “Okay, okay,” he said, taking a swig of his Coke, “we’ll take the dart balloons.” Shirli Cohen, the youth and seniors director at PJTC, supported his decision: “It’s not hard, it’s easy, well, it’s hard to win, but not hard to run.”

A zillion more mundane details were gone over that night, and still the committee worked on. Perhaps, I thought, not entirely unselfishly, it’s not such a bad thing that the planning committees of the world are confined to musty meeting halls, with ancient maps of Palestine on their walls, so that children — and those of us who still act like children — can partake of the magic that is this holiday.

Final on the agenda was the dunk tank: The temple kids were so excited about being the “victims” in the tank that it occurred to the committee that they might be able to charge them to participate. “The Tom Sawyer approach,” Angel mused, “‘You want to whitewash this wall?'” This idea so delighted those sitting around the table that they momentarily lost focus and drifted off into their own magical worlds before returning to reality. “How often do you think the kids are going to get dunked?” Gordon asked, in a practical, no-nonsense voice. The committee agreed it depended on the adult who was in charge, his sense of humor and who was inside the booth, “If you don’t like the kid… beeeep!” a voice cackled, somewhere off in the distance. Moved by the spirit, and the increasingly late hour, the committee landed on the idea that if they could convince their rabbis to get into the water, they could make a small fortune. Turning to Rabbi Hanoka, Matros asked if he wouldn’t mind taking a dip in the tank, “With a swim suit it wouldn’t be so bad,” she said. “If I’m going in there,” Hanoka said firmly, “it’s $500 a ticket.” The thought stopped the committee dead in its tracks: “Do rabbis wear swim suits?”

PJCT’s Purim Carnival will be held March 19 from noon to 3 pm. 1434 N. Altadena Dr., Pasadena, (626) 798-1161.

More Purim Stories:

The Purim mitzvah of giving food, mishloach manot, gets an L.A. twist.

A personal perspective on Esther’s legacy.

Children’s books for Purim.

Don’t let the holiday pass you by! Find an event to attend in our Purim listings.