Is Pope Francis a model for our rabbis?


The shift in tone that Pope Francis is bringing to the Catholic Church has serious repercussions for people who follow that religion – and those of other faith systems. As the most prominent religious figure in today’s world, the actions, ideas, and approach of the pontiff (literally, “bridge builder”) deserve attention, including among Jews. In fact, I think even our most outstanding rabbis could learn from Pope Francis.

That’s no criticism of the gedolim (leading rabbis of the current generation). Instead, it’s a recognition that Jewish leaders need not shy away from the moral and intellectual contributions of great men of other faiths. As the Jewish collection of wisdom Pirkei Avot teaches, “Who is wise? One who learns from every man.” If we’re supposed to learn from everyone, we ought to listen carefully to one of the moral exemplars of our century.

Nothing mentioned below should be interpreted as criticizing any rabbi – nor supporting the violation of unambiguous Jewish laws. Instead, I’m praising values and behaviors that Pope Francis models – at least some of which can be a lesson to every present and future rabbi, whether a local synagogue rabbi or one of our generation’s leading rabbinical figures.

Here are some qualities shown by Pope Francis that are worthy of consideration:

1. He is accessible. Many Catholics have praised the “common touch” of the current pontiff, particularly in contrast to the more aloof popes of the past. In his desire to communicate with all kinds of people, he has become conversant in 10 languages. This pope uses Twitter. Also, he regularly grants interviews to the press, and speaks openly about important moral and contemporary matters in public settings. In fact, his followers have dubbed him “the people’s pope.”

2. He is humble. Upon his election, he eschewed the tradition of sitting on the Papal Throne – and stood instead. A Jewish leader who visited him said, “If everyone sat in chairs with [arms], he would sit in the one without.” He lives modestly in a guesthouse rather than in the lavish papal apartments. He even drives himself around Rome in a 30-year-old used Renault. Previous pontiffs rode as passengers in the “Popemobile,” a Mercedes costing more that a half-million dollars in which the pope would sit on a chair made from white leather with gold trim.

3. He is traditional. Pope Francis does not surrender to calls for assimilating recent social values that are foreign to Catholicism. Thus, he does not approve of ordaining women priests, abandoning clerical celibacy, or endorsing abortion and gay marriage. On the other hand, he has been willing to listen with respect and kindness to people advocating all kinds of new ideas. He marginalizes no one.

4. He is merciful. Soon after ascending to the papacy, Francis washed and kissed the feet of several juvenile offenders. He goes out of his way to embrace people who are usually demeaned by the wider society, especially the poor. In fact, alleviating poverty seems to be the centerpiece of his papacy. 

5. He is respectful. Under Pope Francis, Catholic clergy no longer speak of “living in sin,” a phrase that had been an unnecessary slap in the face to Catholics whose family arrangements do not involve church-approved marriages. He has not changed church policy on unmarried couples cohabitating, but he sees no need to insult them, either. The recently convened Synod on the Family just released a draft document that declared that gay people had “gifts and qualities to offer,” though they maintained the church’s policies on the nature of proper bedroom and family life.

To be clear: I am not envious of Catholicism and I don’t wish Judaism would echo that religion’s ideology and practices. Rather, I’m describing the extraordinary leadership of a special person who has inspired hundreds of millions. 

Since the Talmud defines wisdom as learning from everyone, surely Jews should pay attention to a man who in just 19 months has become perhaps the most influential religious paragon in the world since the death of the Lubavitcher Rebbe in 1994. 

A version of this essay appeared in the Daily Caller. David Benkof is a freelance writer living in St. Louis. He constructs the Jerusalem Post Crossword Puzzle, which appears in the Jewish Journal. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter (@DavidBenkof), or E-mail him at DavidBenkof@gmail.com.

Some Jews still upset as Pope readies U.S. visit


When news broke last year that Pope Benedict XVI was reviving an ancient prayer for the conversion of the Jews, the reaction in Jewish circles was outrage tempered by confusion.

Communal leaders warned that the move would deal a serious blow to the four decades of progress in Jewish-Catholic relations following Nostra Aetate — the landmark document that absolved the Jews of collective guilt for the killing of Jesus — unless the pope clarified how the prayer meshed with Catholic doctrine.

Last week, as the pope was preparing to visit the United States, that clarification finally arrived — sort of.

In a statement issued through the Vatican secretary of state, the pope assured that the prayer in the Latin, or Tridentine, Mass “in no way intends to indicate a change in the Catholic Church’s regard for the Jews.” He also reaffirmed that Nostra Aetate “presents the fundamental principles” guiding Catholic relations with the Jewish people.

But as several Jewish organizations were quick to note, the document failed to expressly reject proselytizing — the precise issue that had generated so much unease. Nor did it explain how the normally doctrinaire pontiff reconciled Nostra Aetate’s ecumenical spirit with a prayer for Jewish salvation.

It is against this backdrop that Pope Benedict will arrive for a six-day visit to the United States next week — a visit that not only will feature the official meetings and stadium appearances typical of papal visits, but also an unprecedented outreach effort to the American Jewish community.

On April 18, the day before Passover, the pope will make his first visit to an American synagogue, where he will offer holiday greetings at the Park East Synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

The day before, at the John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington, he will address leaders of five faiths — Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism — and will greet 10 inter-religious leaders, including three rabbis. Afterward, he will hold a separate audience with American Jewish leaders.

But the Latin Mass issue threatens to cast a long shadow over the visit, whose theme is “Christ, Our Hope.” Several Jewish organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), issued statements in the past week with harsh appraisals of the papal clarification.

“While they say it does not change Nostra Aetate, the statement does not go far enough to allay concerns about how the message of this prayer will be understood by the people in the pews,” the ADL said in a statement. “The Latin prayer is still out there, and stands by itself, and unless this statement will be read along with the prayer, it will not repair or mitigate the impact of the words of the prayer itself, with its call for Jews to recognize Jesus as the savior of all men and its hope that ‘all Israel will be saved.'”

Some groups and observers noted that the German-born pope was well aware of Jewish expectations and chose not to meet them.

“The Vatican has pointedly refused to negate that implication” that the prayer for the Jews implies an operative call to proselytize, said Rabbi David Berger, an Orthodox representative on the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations, or IJCIC, the Vatican’s official Jewish dialogue partner. Berger emphasized that he was speaking in a personal capacity.

“The pope was aware that there were sentiments to explicitly limit this to the End of Days, and the statement does not express this sentiment,” Berger said. “So I think there was a decision not to say so.”

German and Italian Jewish leaders have threatened to cut ties to the Vatican over the issue, while IJCIC, an umbrella group bringing together representatives of various Jewish denominations and organizations, has not yet formulated a consensus opinion on the clarification. A conference call was scheduled for Tuesday.

Speaking of the papal clarification, Rabbi David Rosen, IJCIC’s chairman, said: “It would have been nice if it was more explicit” about proselytizing. “But,” he added, “very often the language of the Vatican tends towards a degree of obscurity.”

Those familiar with the pope’s schedule say that neither event with Jewish leaders will provide an opportunity for genuine exchange. Papal appearances are typically highly choreographed affairs, and meaningful dialogue with the Vatican normally happens quietly away from the media spotlight.

But the level of attention the pope will lavish on American Jews is significant in and of itself, far outstripping that given to leaders of other religious groups the pope is slated to meet with during his U.S. visit.

Jewish organizations lobbied to have the pope make a gesture to the Jewish community, and the extent of the face time they are getting with the pontiff is widely seen as indicative of his eagerness to move beyond the Latin Mass controversy.

“The significance is purely symbolic,” Rosen said, “and in religious life, symbols are not insignificant.”

Controversy over the prayer began last summer, when the pope issued a declaration paving the way for wider use of the Latin Mass, whose Good Friday liturgy includes a prayer for Jewish conversion.

An early version of the prayer contained incendiary language that spoke of Jewish “blindness” and asked God to “remove the veil from their hearts.” Amid multiple expressions of Jewish concern and confusion, the pope revised the prayer earlier this year and eliminated the reference to Jewish blindness. Instead, the prayer asks God to “enlighten their hearts, so that they might know Jesus Christ as the savior of all mankind.”

Cardinal Walter Kasper, the head of the Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with Jews, has tried to contain the fallout from the controversy. Kasper has defended the prayer theologically, but says it refers only to an End of Days scenario and is not actually a call to revive missionizing efforts aimed at Jews.

Rosen says he has written assurance from Kasper that the prayer is not a license to resume missionary activity.

Interfaith panel wrestles with troubling texts:<BR>Will the real ‘chosen’ please rise?


“We learn who we are through struggling with text,” said Rabbi Mark S. Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California. “We must learn from the scars, from the blemishes, from the ugly parts of our textual tradition, our history and our faith.”

Scholars, clergy and seminarians gathered this week at the Luxe Hotel to discuss troubling passages and ideas in Christianity, Judaism and Islam, and ways of understanding them in modern times, as part of “Troubling Traditions: Wrestling With Problem Passages,” a conference co-sponsored by the Board of Rabbis of Southern California and the Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding of Sacred Heart University.

While many of the presenters and attendees at the Oct. 15-16 conference were from the more liberal strands of their religions — few mainstream Orthodox or hardcore evangelicals were present — the hope for the meetings is that it will slowly transform the more extreme pockets, or at least save the moderates from them.

“I think we have to teach these texts to our children,” Diamond said. “I worry if we don’t, others will take them out of context and put a real negative spin — with potentially very dangerous consequences.”

In a session on chosenness — a timely talk given Conservative commentator Ann Coulter’s Oct. 11 comment, “We just want Jews to be perfected … that is what Christians consider themselves: perfected Jews” — speakers addressed how adherents have taken troubling passages literally and disseminated the resulting ideas to the world.

The Rev. Alexei Smith, the ecumenical and inter-religious officer of the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles, refers to a problematic passage in the Gospel of Mark: “He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned.” He says the authors of the text were primarily concerned with the faith of Christians in the second century.

“Even today some narrowly define it even further, that outside the Catholic church there is no salvation,” he said.

However, he said, the modern interpretation is that believers of other faiths who engage in “the sincere practice of what is good in their own religion,” will receive salvation.

“And they shall receive salvation in Jesus Christ even though they do not acknowledge him,” he said.

In the end, Smith said, the task set before his co-religionists “is to formulate a theology of the multiplicity of God without diminishing the unique privilege of our belief.”

How does any religion assert its own uniqueness while at the same time allowing for other faiths?

Each faith stakes a claim over chosenness.

Jews turn to Deuteronomy, “For you are a people consecrated to the Lord Your God: of all the peoples of the earth, the Lord your God chose you to be His treasured people.”

In the Christan Bible, it says in Peter, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a dedicated nation, a people claimed by God for his own, to proclaim the glorious deeds of him who has called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”

And as it says in the Quran, “You are the best community that has been brought forth for humanity, commanding the reputable and forbidding the disreputable, and believing in God”; and in the Sura it says, “This day I have perfected your religion for you, completed my favor upon you, and have chosen for you Islam as your religion.”

“The real origin of chosenness has to do with the structure of tribalism in general,” said professor Reuven Firestone, director of the Institute for the study of Jewish-Muslim interrelations at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR). Israel’s God was the God of Israel just as the Moabites God was the God of Moab.

“It’s logical that the relationship would be unique,” he said.

“Just as the God of Israel fought for Israel against its enemies, the God of Moab fought its battles,” he said. “The notion of chosenness became a powerful tool to claim authenticity to critique the authenticity of others.”

This is not to say that Firestone rejects the notion of the Jews’ chosenness.

“I am not able or willing to throw it out,” he said. “I remain perched on the sharp horns of a dilemma. I can’t disregard the texts – they are part of the divine word; they can’t simply be jettisoned,” he said. But on the other hand, “they can’t be taken as a simple truth.”

Definitive answers on Jewish chosenness are not exactly forthcoming.

“A good Jew doesn’t want to find definitive answers,” said conference attendee Gerald Bubis, the founding director of the School of Jewish Communal Service at the Los Angeles School of HUC-JIR. “A good Jew wants to find new questions.”

UCLA Director Rabbi Chaim Seidler Feller, who chaired the session on chosenness, offered a different, psychological perspective: “It sounds like the ploy of minority — we may be insignificant numerically, but we are God’s chosen; if you are going to be beaten up, it might be comforting to know that you are chosen.”

But in today’s world, Seidler Feller suggested, the concept of being the chosen people may have to be discarded. He himself revises the prayers, “Ki Banu Bacharta Mikol Ha’amim” (For you have chosen us among all the nations), to say: For you have chosen us with all the nations.

In a subsequent Q-and-A session, the Rev. Vartkes Kassouni of the Morningside Presbyterian Church of Fullerton suggested: “Chosenness can be understood in terms of mission than instead of identity.”

Firestone agreed. Perhaps this is all God’s plan: if he’d wanted everyone to be the same religion, he would have made everyone the same religion; maybe there are different religions so “they would compete with one another in good works,” he said.

The conference was heavily attended by Christians and Jews from various denominations, but there was a dearth of Muslim attendees and lecturers.

Sex and God


Libido. Can’t live with it, can’t live without it.

Of the three major monotheistic traditions, Judaism has arguably done the most admirable job ofmicromanaging our lust. Our tradition teaches us that while the sex drive can wreck us, it can also, if channeled correctly, lead to loving relationships, pleasure and procreation.

In the inevitable struggle between the rabbinical ascetics, who wanted no more sex than absolutely necessary, and the sages like Nachmanides, who held the body in higher esteem than even the soul, the Nachmanidean view prevailed. There are entire talmudic passages (Nedarim 20a; Pesachim 112b) that give a whole new meaning to the phrase Oral Law.

That’s why Judaism has been more agile than other religions at handling modernity’s revolution in sexual mores.

And that’s why I hope and pray the authorities of the Conservative movement choose wisely when they decide this week whether to ordain openly gay rabbis and allow commitment ceremonies for homosexuals. Their decision, which was expected earlier this week, before The Journal’s press time, presented an opportunity to display the kind of deftness and sensitivity that marks much of Jewish thinking and law on human sexuality.

A wise decision on their part will stand in stark contrast to some very public examples of sexual dysfunction hitting the headlines these days.

Take Catholicism.

Last Friday the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles agreed to pay $60 million to settle accusations by 45 people that priests had sexually abused them. The scandal speaks to a culture of institutional insensitivity that hid abusers even as it enabled them to victimize more children. But it also reflects a tradition that celebrated celibacy and sexual repression while repressing natural human urges and disguising deep pathologies.

And then there’s Islam.

Pierre Rehov’s just-released, must-see documentary “Suicide Killers,” which takes us into the lives of actual Palestinian suicide bombers, reveals young men who are so sexually repressed that the alluring fairy tale of 72 virgins awaiting them in heaven becomes compelling, if not overwhelming.

Indeed, writing in the HuffingtonPost.com, Iranian-born author Hooman Majd said the putative “war of civilizations” between the West and Islam is more about sex than we could ever imagine.

Majd cites a fatwa, or edict based on religious law, issued by a senior Shiite cleric, Kadhem al-Husseini al-Haeri on the day before Baghdad fell.

“What was most noted by the media was its rejection of an American presence in Iraq,” Majd writes. “Less noticed were the reasons given why: namely that if the U.S. stays in Iraq, ‘it will try to spread moral decay, incite lust by allowing easy access to stimulating satellite channels and spread debauchery to weaken people’s faith.'”

The Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards has been facing a fatwa of its own.

It must decide based on Jewish law, or halacha, whether to ordain openly homosexual rabbis and to marry gays and lesbians in a Jewish ceremony.

The Reform movement permits these measures; Orthodoxy clearly rejects them.

The Conservative movement, which follows a 1992 decision barring openly gay individuals from its rabbinical schools and forbidding its rabbis to perform same-sex commitment ceremonies, has struggled to find a halachic basis to fully include homosexuals in Conservative religious life.

One faction hews to the traditional interpretation of Leviticus 18:22, which on the face of it abhors same-sex unions: “Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abomination.”

Another proposal would obviate the biblical verse altogether, based on the view that it’s unjust.

Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector of the University of Judaism, proposed a third option: ending the ban but adhering to a prohibition against anal sex between men. That’s right: everything but. This compromise, floated a decade ago by Steve Greenberg, the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi, is, at first glance, ripe for ridicule.

To traditional Jews the idea is repugnant. They tacitly condone the ordination of gay rabbis — let’s face it, all denominations have been ordaining closeted gay rabbis for years — just not openly gay ones.

To secular and Reform Jews, the idea of telling couples how they can have sex is cruel at worst, a joke at best. And make no mistake, if his proposal wins, expect Rabbi Dorff, one of the country’s leading bioethicists, to become a late-night television punchline.

I appreciate the fine line the rabbi is trying to walk — opening the doors to a radical new acceptance of human sexuality within halacha, without risking burning down the whole house.

What seems hypocritical on its face — telling men they can be gay but not that gay — is actually quite honest: Rabbi Dorff is not pretending, as many traditionalists do, that homosexuality is not already a fact of Jewish life; and he is not presuming, as many more secular Jews do, that Jewish tradition can exist divorced from halachic dogma.

But in the end, I am hoping the Conservative movement, my movement, takes the more liberal tack, and welcomes gays and lesbians fully into the fold.

Greenberg himself, in his 2004 book, “Wrestling With God and Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition,” provides a way to bring gays into Orthodox life with “no humiliation; no advocacy; no lying,” that is a major step forward for halachic Judaism. It’s a powerful lesson to all other Jews, and most all other religions.

‘Because Judaism Feels Right’


Do not urge me to leave you, or to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die and be buried.

— The Book of Ruth

When 50-year-old Hector Ventura was a young boy growing up in El Salvador four decades ago, his mother would always talk about Jewish customs. Which was strange, because the Venturas were not Jewish. Like most of their neighbors, they were Catholic — not particularly devout but Catholics just the same.

It was only years later that Ventura thought to ask: “Why do you always talk about Jews?”

“Your father’s grandfather came from Spain,” his mother replied.

Last year, before she died, Ventura asked her where the family name came from. His mother said the name became Ventura when the family fled Spain during the Spanish Inquisition. Originally, she said, it was “Ben Torah.” (In Hebrew that literally translates as the son of Torah, but figuratively refers to someone who is a follower and student of Torah and religious law.)

Finding that out was the beginning of Ventura’s spiritual journey, which culminated in March, when he converted to Judaism, with his wife and three children. The Venturas were part of a group of 10 — a minyan of sorts — mostly Latino, who converted at Los Angeles’ pluralistic Beth Din (see story on page 16) under the tutelage of Rabbi Len Muroff of Temple Beth Zion-Sinai, a Conservative synagogue in Lakewood.

With intermarriage on the rise and the Jewish denominations increasingly reaching out to non-Jewish spouses, conversion has probably never been more popular.

Muroff’s group represents a new breed of converts.

“There’s usually a reason, like love or marriage for converting,” Muroff said.

By contrast, these are spiritual converts, people who feel attracted to the religion because of a connection, a sense of belonging, even a return to their roots.

They are not unlike Judaism’s most famous convert, Ruth, whose book is read in synagogues this weekend on the Shavuot holiday. Also known as Pentecost, the holiday celebrates Jews receiving the Torah, and has evolved to honor the tradition of converts.

“Ruth teaches us that a Jew is not a Jew by virtue of genes, chromosomes or blood type. We embrace those who come to us with heart, mind and soul,” Rabbi Harold Schulweis said. The senior rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom was a pioneer in reaching out to converts, first in a speech to his community 10 years ago and then in a 2003 presentation to the Rabbinical Assembly about converts and accepting intermarried spouses.

Over the years, Schulweis said he has seen an increase in the number of spiritual converts or what he calls “seekers.”

“These are not people who are coming just to stand under the chuppah,” he said, meaning people who convert only for marriage. “You have people who have made a choice consciously and heroically,” he said, because these people must face opposition from their family and often from the Jewish community itself.

No convert has it easy, relinquishing a familiar faith or secular customs, but spiritual converts may feel less that they are giving something up and more like they are gaining. Spiritual converts have much to teach Jews born into the faith, Muroff said.

“What struck me most about my converts and the whole experience of teaching them was the intensity of their interest in being seriously engaged in a spiritual quest and their willingness to make many significant changes in their lives,” Muroff said. “They helped my congregation and me to look at our own spiritual lives in deeper and more innovative ways,” he said.

He learned from them how to see prayer as something deeply personal and spiritual, rather than something rote that had to be done at set times.

Of course, people who convert “for marriage” can be just as spiritual in their embrace of Judaism as anyone else, said Rabbi Neal Weinberg, director of the Lewis and Judith Miller Introduction to Judaism program under the Ziegler School of Rabbinics at the University of Judaism.

“These are [often] people who have thought about Judaism for some time, and then they choose someone. I think we insult ourselves when we say people are only converting for marriage, because that’s not the only reason,” he said. “There are a lot of different stories behind the choosing of Judaism.”

No matter the path toward Judaism, Jews-by-Choice are “blessings” to the community, Schulweis said.

“They are literally the most active people in the congregation in terms of reading from the Torah, in terms of working on committees, in terms of doing the haftorah, in terms of attendance, in terms of Jewish commitment,” he said. “They elevate the congregation.”

Luis Perez, a Latino convert who served as an unofficial adviser to the Venturas, began his journey to Judaism at age 13, when he began to question his own Catholic faith in religious school: “I was shunned and pushed away and told not to ask so many questions,” he said.

His father was more forthcoming, telling him about his Jewish ancestry, that he was raised a Converso — Catholic on the outside and Jewish in the home — in Leon, Mexico.

“I wanted to find out more about my faith and background,” said Perez, now 22, “and my father said, ‘Well, if you’re not happy with Catholicism, try Judaism.'”

Perez did, eventually converting (first through the Conservative movement and then through the Orthodox process). He is going to graduate from the University of Judaism in December and hopes to attend the Rabbinical School of the Institute of Traditional Judaism (Metivta) in Teaneck, N.J. “I always knew I was different [than] my friends and the rest of my family,” he said. “After I discovered Judaism, I felt that was the missing link.”

Many spiritual converts talk about a “special feeling” for Judaism.

Ventura, who at his conversion took on the name “Shmaryahu” — meaning God watched over him — said it ultimately wasn’t just his lineage that prompted him to convert.

“When I came to synagogue the first time, I felt a connection between me and God,” he said.

He told his wife, Rosie — renamed Esther at her conversion — and she started attending synagogue with him and loved it, too. Their children came along, as well, and they all started taking classes with Muroff about six months ago.

His children, Veronica, 23; Hector Jr., 20, and David, 14, told him, “If you go, we’ll go” — echoing the original pledge of Ruth to Naomi.

Susanne Shier, another of Muroff’s group, didn’t know exactly what attracted her to Judaism. Raised Episcopalian in Orange County, the single mother joined a Jewish chat room and had compelling conversations with Jewish women there, so she decided to take some classes about the religion. During one, class members sang “Hatikvah” — Israel’s national anthem.

“I started crying, and then I said to myself, ‘Now wait a minute — I’m not Jewish. Why am I crying?’ And then I thought maybe I am Jewish and I don’t know it.”

She began to explore these feelings and eventually joined Muroff’s class with her 13-year-old son, Justin.

“I read that there are Jewish souls who were there at Sinai,” she said, referring to a kabbalistic teaching: When the Torah was given on Mount Sinai, at that moment, sparks of holiness touched the Jewish people and also flew out into the world, creating other “Jewish souls” — and those are the people who convert. They are less converting than coming home.

“I’ve been thought to be rational; things have to make sense to me,” Shier said. “But some things don’t make sense to my rational mind. There’s something in my heart that tells me something different.”

She and her son decided to convert. “It wasn’t really a difficult decision for us,” she told The Journal on the day of her immersion in the mikvah or ritual bath (see article on page 14). The Venturas had joined her there to show support (they’d immersed the week before.)

Shier’s son did not have to undergo a physical hurdle of conversion for men: circumcision. Justin had been circumcised at birth, so he only had to undergo the ritual symbolically, with a pinprick similar to a blood test. The Ventura men submitted to the full operation.

“When you need that surgery, that’s when you decide if you really want to convert,” said 14-year-old David. He had joined his father from the beginning in learning about Judaism.

“I never liked church,” he said. “I didn’t feel like I belonged there,” he said. When he went to synagogue, “I really liked it. It was a new experience,”

Sometimes it’s a double whammy — being Latino and now being Jewish, especially in school and in the neighborhood.

“People already look down on you,” he said. But for the most part — except for the painful circumcision, which took several weeks to recuperate from — he has enjoyed being Jewish: “I feel higher. I feel proud as one with the Jewish community.”

 

The Greatest Game


We sat at my sister-in-law’s kitchen table, 11 of us from three generations of my husband’s family, absorbed by a wicked game of dreidel on the fifth night of Chanukah, howling with abandon and anticipation at each seemingly endless spin. My 10-year-old daughter, the youngest present, was killing us all, amassing huge quantities of chocolate gold.

But this typically Jewish gathering was really something quite different than what it might have seemed at first glance. We were in one of the least Jewish places in America, in a farmhouse on the icy plains of eastern Iowa. Twinkling Christmas lights lit up the front of the house, and a tree burned bright in the living room just beyond where we were sitting. The table was laden with a mix of beautifully crafted traditional holiday cookies, and my daughter was taking more than her share of the green wreath-shaped ones. The people, too, were not what you might expect — everyone other than my husband, my daughter and I was a devout Catholic.

This year my nuclear family — the three of us — had gathered together with my husband’s family, and we were taking advantage of the odd coincidence that overlapped Chanukah so directly with Christmas. It was the first time my husband’s family had ever seen a dreidel. Before this night they’d never tasted a latke, let alone a piece of gelt.

The Jewish rituals are now familiar to Richard, my husband of 15 years, although he sometimes still feels a bit new to all of it. He takes nothing for granted in his dreidel game, now that he’s gotten pretty comfortable with the Hebrew letters and their designations. As we lit the candles on the menorah we’d brought with us from Los Angeles, he was the one to translate the prayers for his family — taking care to explain the meaning behind the Hebrew words we’d chanted, because he especially knows what it means to not understand.

Richard is in the process of converting to Judaism, a step that’s been a long time coming, although he long ago moved away from the heartfelt faith his heartland family sought to instill in him. It’s been a big move; he knew of only one or two Jewish families growing up in this region, where the most popular museum features John Deere farm equipment, and a local chain of ice cream shops is a main attraction. As we laughed through this Chanukah evening together, it was easy to understand how much he respects and loves his German, Scots-Irish family, who have stayed close to their Midwestern roots, even though they no longer till the land. His decision to change religions has been a very careful and prolonged one.

It wasn’t easy for me to enter his family, either; at least the anticipation of it was intimidating for this East Coast-born, deeply ethnic Jew. In 1989, I made my first trip to the Quad Cities, along the banks of the Mississippi at the border of Illinois and Iowa, and I was scared. I feared that Richard’s family would see me as an alien being — an aspiring intellectual, art-loving liberal. These were interests, I presumed, that they knew little about.

I was afraid they’d reject me because Catholicism is so important in their lives; it wasn’t just of passing interest that I was not one of them. Just as we Jews hope to preserve the sanctity of a Jewish family, they believe in their traditions and the need to perpetuate those beliefs. Mary, the oldest of my husband’s three sisters, is a nun; one of his brother’s sons studied to be a priest for a while. I’d had Catholic friends my whole life, but Richard’s family was somehow more Catholic, more devout and more lovingly committed to their faith than any I’d ever known.

Yet from our first hug when they met me in the airport on that first trip, they’ve never let me down. That embrace was the first of many, and I can no longer even imagine them rejecting our ways. Their early misgivings about their Richard marrying a Jew — and even about his gradually becoming a Jew — have not stopped them from accepting us for who we are. Over time, my mother-in-law has let us know that she is concerned first that we have faith in God. As for their granddaughter, she brings home stories not from a Catholic school, nor a public school, but a Jewish day school. Both of Richard’s parents joyously take in these tales like the doting grandparents they are; and they have come to Los Angeles to visit her and see her school performances.

So there we were in Iowa, playing with a dreidel because Christmas and Chanukah coincided and because this family of Catholics is always ready for a good game. As Richard patiently taught them the Hebrew letters on the dreidel — it took some effort, as those little squiggles all seemed to baffle them — I cooked the latkes with the help of my two 4H-proud nephews. Good food is a universal language. My mother-in-law knows this, too. As dinner was being prepared, she surprised me with a kugel she’d made, inspired by a recipe she’d gotten years ago from my father’s mother.

As the game ended, Mary picked up a couple of pieces of gelt to take home to her monastery. There was a picture of a menorah on the coin, and she wanted to share it with the sisters.

 

Letters


Taps for Hatikvah

It has been sad indeed to see the slow death of all things Jewish along our Fairfax stretch over the last few years (“Fairfax Shops Feel the Squeeze,” Oct. 21).

Before we are relegated to yet another historical reference on the Canter’s mural, let’s hope the community mobilizes to at least make enough of an effort to slow down the gentrification of the area.

The latest casualty appears to be the imminent demise of the Hatikvah Music store. Hatikvah Music goes back to the ’50s. It was the only Jewish music store I knew where many aspiring pop artists entered the music business as part-time sales helpers when Fairfax High was on holiday.

Lately, it had become the only store you could visit in person to get the greatest selection of Jewish music in the West (perhaps in the whole country).

Sad, sad indeed,

Ed Marzola
Los Angeles

I am one of the artists whose CDs have been sold by Hatikvah. This is one of the few places left that specialize in the promotion of grass-roots groups like ours in a menschlikhkeit and heartfelt way.

If in fact the rent increases prohibit the existence of this wonderful shop, I question the priorities of the landowner. It is a shame to lose the most important venue left for the distribution of cultural heritage on the West Coast. I’m very sorry for this development.

Josh Horowitz
Founding Member
Veretski Pass

Inappropriate Cover

Please choose titles for The Journal that we can be proud of. Your choice of covers is often embarrassing and hurtful, and could lead to anti-Semitic responses from people. “An-Jew-Linos,” the title of the Sept. 30 paper, was not appropriate and quite offensive.

We don’t want letter carriers, postmen, store owners, patrons at the library, non-Jewish readers and anti-Semites reading disgusting titles like that. We don’t want people calling Angelenos, “An-Jew-Linos.” What were you thinking? Are you trying to create problems for our community?

Be very careful what you write on the covers of The Journal. It is seen and read by many people, not just Jewish people.

Anna Kleinman
Tarzana

Nostra Aetate

Thank you for Michael Berenbaum and Jane Ulman’s comprehensive and thoughtful coverage of the 40th anniversary of Nostra Aetate (“Nostra Aetate” and “What Happened When Jews Stopped Being Jesus’ Killers,” Oct. 21). The story of Los Angeles’ role in developing Catholic-Jewish dialogue deserves to be known more widely.

The reality is that Catholics have spent a great deal more time and effort learning about Jews and Judaism than Jews have in learning about Catholics and Catholicism, let alone Christianity in general. Our community’s conversion fears must not remain stumbling blocks to knowledge and understanding.

Leadership must come not only from organizations like the American Jewish Committee but also from our educational institutions and spiritual leaders. Here in Los Angeles, for example, Milken Community High School and the University of Judaism’s undergraduate college have made progress in teaching not only Christianity, but also Islam and Asian religions.

Still, of the major rabbinical seminaries across the United States, only Philadelphia’s Reconstructionist Rabbinical College requires a comparative religion course of its graduates — and some still don’t even offer them as electives. But every priest in formation has to study the Tanakh — in Hebrew.

It is said that he who knows one religion knows none. Ignorance of the other is no excuse.

Shawn Landres
Research Director
Synagogue 3000

Valley Cities Thriving

I read your article about the West Valley JCC with keen interest. However, your statement about Valley Cities JCC gave the impression that we are just barely existing (“Milken JCC Thrives With Dollars, Sense,” Oct. 21).

I would like to inform you that Valley Cities has a thriving Early Childhoom program, and an after-school program that services 10 public schools; an LAUSD education program two days a week; Israeli and ballroom dancing; a teen center; an exercise program for seniors; play readings, bagel brunches with excellent speakers; and a kosher kitchen.

Valley Cities JCC services the East Valley community in the same way as our companion West Valley JCC services the West Valley community. For all your readers in the East Valley, come by and partake of our services as they are there for your use and enjoyment.

Marcia Mirkin
Vice President
Friends of Valley Cities JCC

‘Painful Holidays’

At the end of her article, “The Painful Holidays” (Oct. 7), Michele Herenstein bravely writes what I’ve only thought about saying to the Jewish community. As a Jewishly involved 30-something single myself, invitations to join others for Shabbat and holiday meals are painfully few and far between.

I can’t help but feel that, all too often, the community at large and specifically the synagogue-going community easily loses sight of those of us who have not yet made our own families, just when we need them the most.

Like Herenstein, I ask the community to keep your eyes out for those of us who are single. In your planning, please consider those of us single men and women who may not have anywhere else to return to after shul, except for an empty apartment.

Ellen Kiss
Los Angeles

False Use

Constantly accusing all critics of Israel and Zionism as anti-Semitic is the false use of the race card meant to silence dissent (“Teacher Class on Mideast Stirs Doubt,” Oct. 7). Accusing organizations like the American Friends Service Committee of anti-Semitism risks isolating the Jewish community from the larger human rights discourse.

The Anti-Defamation League should stop monitoring human rights organizations and instead enter into real dialogue based on universal principles of social justice. There are well-meaning people who have serious, legitimate concerns with Israeli policy and Zionism, with no malice toward the Jewish people, these concerns stemming from a global understanding of the principles of justice and human rights that should be applied to everyone. To have a different policy toward Israel would be hypocritical and indefensible.

Your article raised concern regarding conference coordinator Linda Tubach’s affiliation with Cafe Intifada, which, as you correctly reported, supports Palestinian cultural programs, such as arts, educational, labor, community and human rights organizations, all essential parts of any dynamic democracy which Israel and its defenders claim it to be. Why then, the concern with our organization?

You incorrectly reported that Tubach no longer serves on our advisory board and that it has been disbanded. It is the pen pal program that has been discontinued, not our advisory board. We are grateful for Linda’s continued participation.

Emma Rosenthal
Executive Producer
Andy Griggs
Advisory Board Member
Cafe Intifada

Major Problem — Women

I read with interest Rob Eshman’s editorial (“The Conversation,” Oct. 21). Had I been along for the ride to Colorado, I would have said that one major problem in the Jewish community is that many women are not satisfied with their roles in Judaism.

This is most likely because they do not understand that they are not required to put on tefillin, have a quorum (minyan), wear tallisim, etc. So they use their secular-oriented mentalities and vie for opportunities to participate as men, “equal rights.”

This notion of equal opportunities is irrelevant to real Judaism. In fact, it is this lack of understanding and a lack of acceptance by more secular, assimilated Jews that gave rise to the perverse concept of women “rabbis.”

What do such women dismiss as irrelevant laws that they permit themselves to touch the Torah during times of their individual menses cycle, for example? Looking for halachic loopholes for women to carry the Torah as is done at B’nai David-Judea (Orthodox), undermines women converts to Orthodox Judaism who are satisfied with their specific obligations and do not need to vie with men for such newly created opportunities.

This is the demise of real Judaism! The advent of an era of new and perverted religions that are an offshoot of Judaism, albeit embracing many other Jewish ideals and reaching out to embrace like minds who need a religion of convenience.

Zvi-Hersch Blum
Los Angeles

‘Useful Idiot’

What do you call a “useful idiot” a whole generation later? You would think after the Venona files were released and documented that the people who were prosecuted under the “red scare” were prosecuted for what they did, not what they thought, that objections to McCarthy would wane (“Ed Murrow: What’s in a Name,” Oct. 21).

Today, the parallels are clear. If the Cold War is over and Edward Rampell is still on the wrong side, why should we trust him about the war on terror?

Janet and Albert Fuchs
via e-mail

 

What Happened When Jews Stopped Being Jesus’ Killers


The Rev. Robert J. McNamara plans to do something this Friday evening that would have been unthinkable in the first 2,000 years of the Catholic Church: He’s going to a synagogue.

More unthinkable, he’s going to be delivering the Shabbat sermon.

Indeed, until fairly recently, the Catholic Church forbade priests to step foot into synagogues, even under the highly unlikely circumstances that they had been invited. After all, according to the church’s official stance, Jews were infidels who rejected and killed Christ and who needed to be converted in order to be saved from eternal damnation.

But this Friday evening, along with 100 or so parishioners from St. Bernadine of Siena Catholic Church, McNamara will share the bima with Rabbi Stewart Vogel at Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills. And he will very likely receive a standing ovation from the Jewish congregants.

Why? What changed?

What happened was something called Nostra Aetate, perhaps the most important document issued by Vatican Council II in Rome, and essentially the church’s first positive statement about Judaism since the Christian Bible began to be codified nearly 2,000 years ago.

Nostra Aetate (in our time), the Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, was promulgated by Pope Paul VI on Oct. 28, 1965. Radically reversing the church’s previous position, it states, “The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions,” referring to Judaism, as well as Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism.

The landmark document’s fourth section pertains particularly to Jews, accepting that Jews also live in covenant with God. It states, ” … this sacred council remembers the spiritual ties which link the people of the new covenant with the stock of Abraham.”

Nostra Aetate removes the charge of deicide, absolving all Jews, past and present, of killing Jesus. It also clearly “deplores all hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism directed against the Jews at any time or from any source.”

And perhaps most ground-breaking, it advocates previously forbidden dialogue, declaring, “Since Christians and Jews have such a common spiritual heritage, this sacred council wishes to encourage and further mutual understanding and appreciation. This can be obtained, especially, by way of biblical and theological inquiry and through friendly discussions.”

Nostra Aetate, according Cardinal Roger Mahony, archbishop of Los Angeles, is “a short document but one whose implications and repercussions are enormous.” And perhaps nowhere is this truer than Los Angeles, home of the largest U.S. archdiocese, with almost 5 million Catholics and the second-largest U.S. Jewish population of about 550,000.

Here the 40th anniversary was publicly celebrated on Sept. 22 before a gathering of about 350 at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, in an event jointly organized by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.

But Catholic-Jewish relations in this city have not always been so cordial.

While Nostra Aetate received an overwhelming 2,221 votes to 88 by the bishops in Rome in 1965, it received a far less favorable reception in Los Angeles by Cardinal James Francis McIntyre, known for his archconservative views and opposition to Vatican II reforms.

McIntyre, who earned a reputation as a prolific “builder of schools,” was known to greatly admire Jewish real estate developers. He claimed, in fact, that every time a Jewish developer completed a large project, he would build a church or parochial school nearby.

He was less enthusiastic, however, about building interfaith relations.

Still, as far back as 1955, without McIntyre’s endorsement and even before Nostra Aetate’s arrival, the AJC, in conjunction with Loyola University president, the Rev. Charles S. Casassa, S.J., started the Summer Human Relations Workshop. The classes, comprised priests, nuns and seminarians, with a smattering of Jews, Protestants and nonbelievers, dealt with discrimination issues.

Casassa was assisted, beginning in 1958, by Dr. Neil Sandberg, who moved to Los Angeles as AJC’s western regional director and helped expand interfaith programs.

But when Sandberg suggested increasing these Catholic-Jewish outreach efforts, McIntyre responded, “We have dialogue; I talk to Edgar all the time,” referring to his close friendship with the late Rabbi Edgar Magnin of Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

But the groundwork had been laid by Nostra Aetate, by Casassa and Sandberg and, indirectly, by a situation at Carver Junior High School, where representatives of several faiths came together to defuse racial unrest in 1969.

Less than four years after the Watts Riots, with relations between the school’s Black Student Union and the United Mexican-American Students tense and with threats from the area superintendent to expel the black students, a small group of clergy was called in.

That was the first meeting of Monsignor Royale Vadakin, then associate pastor of All Souls Church in Alhambra, and Rabbi Alfred Wolf of Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

That effort triggered the founding of the Interreligious Council of Southern California in 1970, as well as a life-long friendship between Vadakin and Wolf that transformed the Catholic-Jewish landscape of Southern California.

Vadakin and Wolf became so close that Wolf’s grandson, confused at age 5 when hearing that Vadakin was Catholic, mused, “I thought Father Vadakin and papa were brothers.”

Together, they created the Priest-Rabbi Committee, sponsored by the Board of Rabbis of Southern California and the archdiocese’s Office of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, a new position offered to Vadakin in 1971.

One of the Priest-Rabbi Committee’s early concerns dealt with several Christian Bible passages read during Lent and Holy Week that fostered anti-Semitic sentiments. One such passage was the Palm Sunday reading of the Passion according to St. Matthew, where the people cry out, “Crucify him” (Matthew 27:22) and, “Let his blood be on us and on our children” (Matthew 27:25).

The response was Lenten Pastoral Reflections, the committee’s first formal statement, issued in 1977, which offered suggestions for handling such highly charged material. “We cannot make the mistake of blaming the whole Jewish people (of 33 C.E. or of today) for Jesus’ death,” the statement advised.

Vadakin and Wolf also tackled controversial subjects in the Catholic-Jewish Respect Life Committee, which they formed in 1975 in conjunction with AJC and which included priests, rabbis and lay people from both communities. Their first topic was abortion. Many Jewish groups have long been associated with maintaining the legality of abortions, which the church opposes. Despite disagreement on this matter, discussions remained respectful.

“Was I destined to do this [interfaith work]?” Vadakin asked. “I don’t know.”

His childhood recollections include any number of positive experiences with Jews. His father worked for Sears, Roebuck and Co., and the whole family looked on Sears President Julius Rosenwald as a great hero for instituting a profit-sharing plan. Plus, living in Pacific Palisades, Jews and Catholics — who were equally disliked and discriminated against by the Methodist majority — tended to band together.

More surprising, perhaps, is the devotion to interreligious work by Wolf, who grew up in Nazi Germany. A rabbinic student in 1935, he was saved when Hebrew Union College brought him and four other students to the Cincinnati campus

“In some ways, you’d think he wouldn’t have wanted to engage in Catholic-Jewish dialogue,” said Vadakin, now vicar general of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, “but he had just a very basic belief in the goodness of the human heart.”

And, in fact, Wolf’s son, Dan, believes his father, who died in 2004, reached out even more because of his early experiences in Germany and in Dothan, Ala., home of his first pulpit. There, blacks, Jews and Catholics were discriminated against by the Baptist majority, but Wolf, according to his son, was “determined to reform the South.” Dan Wolf said, “He saw firsthand what happens if groups don’t relate to each other.”

Today, Jews and Catholics in the United States, for the most part, do relate well to one another. And while most, outside of clergy and academics, are not familiar with the actual Nostra Aetate document and its significance, they recognize and appreciate a changed environment.

They saw Pope John Paul II, on his visit to Israel in 2000, inserting a note asking forgiveness in the Western Wall and conversing with Holocaust survivors at Yad Vashem. And Benedict XVI, on his first trip outside Rome as pope in August, spoke at a synagogue in Cologne, Germany.

Closer to home, contemporary works by 14 Jewish and Christian artists depicting Passover and Easter themes were displayed together last spring at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in an exhibition titled, “Passion/Passover: Artists of Faith Interpret Their Holy Days.”

And there are many educational programs.

Wolf and Vadakin’s Jewish Intern Program, taken over by the AJC and renamed the Catholic/Jewish Educational Enrichment Program, sends Rabbi Michael Perelmuter into classes of ninth- through 12th-grade students at 17 archdiocesan high schools.

On the Jewish side, also since 1992, Catholic educator Dr. Michael Kerze has been visiting 12th-grade Jewish studies classes at Milken Community High School in Los Angeles, comparing such Catholic and Jewish concepts as repentance and covenant. He also teaches a class at Milken Middle School in which, Kerze said, students move beyond asking questions about Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny to questions about the virgin birth and the Trinity.

Many Catholic leaders believe that Christians need to study the Torah and Judaism to better understand their own religion. But not all Jewish educators believe the reverse is true, because American Jews live in a culture permeated by Christianity.

That’s not the view, however, of Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, AJC western regional director, who pointed out that society typically offers a kind of “watered-down” Christianity. “The more we learn about other religions, the more we learn about our own,” he said.

Still, difficulties and even irreconcilable differences are inevitably going to arise between Catholics and Jews, given their conflicting concepts of covenant and the Messiah, of sin and redemption. And people on both sides are leery of proselytizing, some fearing that contact could lead to a departure from the tenets of their faith or even to conversion.

Many Jews have a deep distrust of non-Jews and fear even walking into a church. Middie Giesberg, for example, a devoted member of the Catholic-Jewish Women’s Conference since 1978, remembers growing up in a heavily Irish Catholic neighborhood in Portland, Maine, and being scared to death just walking past a large Catholic church every day on her way to school.

And for the Orthodox community, Jewish-Catholic relations are generally not on the radar.

“It’s not that it’s not important, but when the Orthodox community does look outward, it has generally been in search of support for Israel, and that’s not the Catholic community, generally speaking,” said Yosef Kanefsky, rabbi of B’nai Judea Congregation in Los Angeles and president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.

The limits of religious rapprochement were evident in the reaction to Mel Gibson’s film, “The Passion of the Christ.” Many Jewish leaders criticized the film as blaming Jews for the crucifixion of Christ. Many Christians, including Pope John Paul II, characterized the film as an accurate rendition of events as described in the Bible. Pope John Paul II said, “It is as it was.”

The film “was clearly a ripple and a setback, but it’s not going to impede our progress or our work together,” said Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.

And AJC’s Greenebaum believes that the reaction to the film actually speaks to the success of Nostra Aetate. “Passion plays throughout history have been great causes of pogroms and violence against Jews,” he said, noting that Gibson’s film did not provoke such a response.

Years earlier, in fact, a notable segment of the Jewish community thought a meaningful acknowledgement was long overdue. Dabru Emet, a response to Nostra Aetate and subsequent Christian statements, was issued in September 2000 and signed by 300 Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis.

“We believe it is time for Jews to learn about the efforts of Christians to honor Judaism,” reads the text of Dabru Emet [speak the truth]. “We believe it is time for Jews to reflect on what Judaism may now say about Christianity.” It presents eight statements on how Jews and Christians might relate to one another.

And Catholic and Jewish leaders recognize solid reasons for engaging in this work.

“Too often people look to each other in moments of crisis. It’s so much more important to establish positive relations before the crises hit,” said Temple Aliyah’s Vogel.

“We can study and learn each other’s traditions and beliefs and better understand our own,” Greenebaum added.

But there’s more work to be done.

Both Catholic and Jewish leaders would like to see more education, including more serious study of texts.

“I think that the average Jewish person knows precious little about Nostra Aetate and Catholic doctrine, about what unites us and what divides us,” Diamond said.

Some Catholics would like to see Jewish students learn more about Catholicism. “What I’d like to see, to be honest with you, is a little bit more reciprocity here,” said the Rt. Rev. Alexei Smith, the Los Angeles Archdiocese’s director of ecumenical and interreligious affairs.

Some religious leaders would also like to see more parish-synagogue partnerships.

Historically Wilshire Boulevard Temple developed ties with neighboring St. Basil Catholic Church and University Synagogue with St. Martin of Tours Catholic Church in Brentwood. But only Temple Aliyah and St. Bernadine of Siena appear to have an active exchange, dating back about seven years to a joint scripture study initiated by Sister Malua Conheady and Rabbi Tsafreer Lev.

Catholic and Jewish leaders would also like to see more joint community involvement.

“Look at the needs of our city. We both have charitable organizations. Why do we continually have to work as individual entities instead of pooling our resources to help people?” Smith said.

But that sort of challenge is a far cry from a Catholicism that for centuries made theological war on Judaism and sometimes actual war on Jews.

“We are both heirs to Abraham’s challenge, ‘vehyai bracha’ or ‘become a blessing,'” said Rabbi Michael Signer, professor of Jewish thought and culture at the University of Notre Dame. “As John Paul II said to us, first we need to become a blessing to one another. And then to the world. That’s the challenge that 40 years of Nostra Aetate lays before us.”

Nostra Aetate Events


Oct. 21 — “Two Faiths, One Community.” The Rev. Robert McNamara speaks at 8:15 p.m. at Temple Aliyah’s Shabbat service at 6025 Valley Circle Blvd., Woodland Hills.

Oct. 28 — “40th Anniversary of Nostra Aetate.” Rabbi Mark Diamond and the Rt. Rev. Alexei Smith speak at University Synagogue’s Shabbat service, 7:30 p.m., 11960 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles.

Nov. 3 — The Anti-Defamation League’s third annual “Bearing Witness Dinner,” 6:30-8 p.m. at Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel, 10500 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. For information, call Jacquelyn Louk, (310) 446-8000, ext. 232.

Nov. 3 — “Nostra Aetate Today,” a lecture by Dr. Elizabeth Seitz Shewmon, 7:30-9:30 p.m., University of Judaism, 1500 Mulholland Drive, Bel Air. For information go to www.uj.edu or call (310) 440-1246.

Nov. 11 — “All About Eve: Saint or Sinner?” at the Catholic-Jewish Women’s Conference, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., St. Bernadine of Siena Church, 24410 Calvert St., Woodland Hills. For information, call Barbara Durand (805) 497-1370 or Tova Dershowitz, (310) 474-4883.

Nov. 12 — Vatican II: Nostra Aetate and Interreligous Dialogue, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Loyola Marymount University Extension, 1 LMU Drive, Los Angeles. For information, go to www.lmu.edu or call (310) 338-2700

Polish City Unveils Its Jewish History


Czestochowa is known around the world as the site of the Jasna Góra Monastery, a pilgrimage place for Poles and other Catholics who flock there to see the famous painting of the Black Madonna.

Soon, residents also will be able to learn about local Jewish history. An exhibition on the subject, based on materials from the town archives, will open for a three-month run later this month in Czestochowa, before traveling to several larger Polish cities.

Behind the newfound interest in Czestochowa’s Jews is a long story of cooperation. Two years ago, Jerzy Mizgalski, historian and dean of the local Pedagogical Institute, was doing research in the city archives, when he found thousands of documents and photographs dating as far back as 1618 connected to Czestochowa’s Jewish history.

He elicited the help of Elizabeth Mundlak, a professor of thermodynamics living in Venezuela, who was born to Jewish parents in Czestochowa and rescued by Christians during the Holocaust. Together, they conceived of an exhibition to display the archives and tell the story of the Jewish history of Czestochowa.

Before World War II, Czestochowa was home to 30,000 Jews, about one-third of the city’s population. Today there are 37 Jews living in the city.

After his find in the municipal archives, Mizgalski decided to teach a course on Jewish history, expecting about 35 students — but 400 signed up.

Mizgalski and Mundlak moved forward with their plans for the exhibition, and Mundlak approached two American businessmen and cousins, Sigmund Rolat and Alan Silberstein, to underwrite the project. The exhibition is co-sponsored by the city of Czestochowa and the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw.

Three days after the Germans invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, launching World War II, they were in Czestochowa, Silberstein said. During the war, the city was a centralized concentration point where Jews living in smaller towns were sent.

A large ghetto was established, and then a smaller one which eventually was liquidated. Jews were deported mostly to the Treblinka concentration camp, but some were put in the HASAG forced labor camp in Czestochowa.

With no precedent for an event that encompasses such a long history in Czestochowa, the group was free to be creative. They wanted to be sure that the archives showed the broad range of Jewish people and practices, from the more "quaint, religious" Jews to the fully assimilated ones, like Rolat.

"I was called a goy," Rolat remembers.

The team obtained the help of Czestochowa’s mayor, Tadeusz Wrona, who said, "It’s important for the younger generation to look at the past and future, a future that should be created together. We should look not to a future concentrating on prejudice and stereotypes but creating a future free of this."

The mayor agreed to use city funds to help restore the local Jewish cemetery.

The cemetery is accessed through the gates of the large steel mill that grew up around it, and which has afforded it a measure of protection. A month ago, the cemetery was "a jungle," said Rolat. Now, workers are clearing trees and cleaning the landscape in a way not to disturb the graves.

The restoration comes just in time for the exhibition, which will open April 21 for three months and then travel to Warsaw, Krakow and Wroclaw. The exhibition and accompanying academic symposium are titled, "Coexistence, Holocaust, Memory."

In addition to the rededicating of the cemetery, events will include a film premiere, Klezmer music, a military commemoration ceremony and a performance by the Czestochowa Symphony Orchestra, which will take place in what is now Philharmonic Hall. Before it was burned in World War II, the philharmonic building was the New Synagogue.

Above all, the backers hope to convey a program that is about Jewish life, not Jewish death.

Standing in the cemetery, Mizgalski said, "You can’t talk about the history of a Polish city without mentioning the one-third that were Jewish. The Germans wanted the memory of Jews to be erased. But we’re not allowed to forget."

For more information, contact Stan Steinreich at (212) 786-6077 or (201) 982-2373.

Cracking a Controversial ‘Code’


When Rabbi Rachel Bovitz sat down a few months ago to read
the novel, “The Da Vinci Code,” she was curious about the buzz surrounding the
controversial best-seller. But what she wasn’t prepared for was how profoundly
disturbing she would find the book.

“The book was a fun read; it kept me entertained. But my
concerns as a religious person tainted it for me,” Bovitz said. “Parts of the
book upset me because of the claims it made about Judaism which were not true,
and because of its general undermining of religion and faith.”

“The Da Vinci Code,” written by novelist Dan Brown, has
topped the best-seller lists since April 2003, prompting numerous articles and
discussions about the book’s popularity and its explorations of radical
Christian theology.

With its dramatic cover art and heavy promotion among
booksellers, “The Da Vinci Code” seems like yet another pulp-fiction thriller,
a fast-moving mystery about an art historian who gets mixed up in a murder with
international, religious and historical implications.

What makes the book stand out from the average Grisham or
Kellerman novel is its exploration of controversial issues and the author’s
uninhibited way of making assertions that, while certainly fictitious, come off
easily as fact.

Brown bases the book on the assumption that there exists a
battle between secret societies inside and outside the Catholic church. The
author also explores the premise that the early church fathers buried
information about Jesus’ marriage to Mary Magdalene, and that the artist
Leonardo da Vinci knew of this conspiracy and hid clues about it within his
paintings.

Professor J. Shawn Landres, who teaches a class on
Christianity at the University of Judaism and is co-writing a book titled,
“After the Passion Is Gone: American Religious Consequences,” sees Brown’s
novel as part of a triumvirate of cultural icons emerging within the last
several years — the other two are the evangelical “Left Behind” book series and
Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.”

“‘The Da Vinci Code’ finds fans among some members of the
Christian community because of its negative take on the Catholic church and for
giving an expanded role for women via Mary Magdalene,” he said, “but for Jewish
readers there is a different appeal.”

“What grabs Jews is the return to history,” Landres said.
“If you look at the adult education classes being offered all over town, you
see people in the Jewish community are very hungry for history, for learning.”
That is where “The Da Vinci Code” is the most dangerous, Landres noted. “On the
one hand, it resonates with a deep desire for education; on the other hand,
you’re satisfying that desire with inaccurate information. It’s like watching
‘CSI’ and taking it all as scientific fact, or watching ‘ER’ and trying to
practice medicine.”

Brown writes in “Da Vinci Code”: “Langdon’s Jewish students
always looked flabbergasted when he first told them that the early Jewish
tradition involved ritualistic sex. In the Temple, no less [sic]…. Men
seeking spiritual wholeness came to the temple to visit priestesses with whom
they made love and experienced the divine through physical union.”

While Brown’s book offers some interesting insights into
radical Christian thought and belief, Bovitz, the assistant rabbi at Temple
Aliyah in Woodland Hills, found the way it twists Jewish history to be
offensive. When she began to get questions from congregants bothered by
passages in the book, she decided this was an excellent opportunity to promote
both Jewish education and ecumenicism, so organized a panel discussion with the
Rev. Robert McNamara of the neighboring St. Bernardine of Siena Catholic
Church, on the book.

 

“We love the story of some conspiracy, don’t we?” McNamara
told the crowd of 850 who came to Temple Aliyah on March 2. McNamara said that
“The Da Vinci Code” comes at a time when people distrust authority.

Although mostly centered on Catholicism, in terms of Jewish
content “The Da Vinci Code” makes several explosive claims, including the above
idea that ritualistic sex took place within the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.

Bovitz said the concept is simply untrue, but that Brown may
have picked up the idea from reading talmudic writings about cherubic motifs
within the Temple or from references in the Book of Kings to purifying the
Temple after it had been misused.

The rabbi did say that Brown’s claim that Jesus, as a Jewish
man living in the ancient world, would likely have been married, was not
without basis but marriage “was not a legal mandate.” And while the Star of
David — a “clue” used throughout the last half of the book — is now associated
with the Jewish people, in ancient times it was claimed by many religions as a
holy symbol. The idea posited in “The Da Vinci Code” of two triangles coming
together representing male and female was “what we might call Dan Brown’s
Midrash,” Bovitz said, using the Hebrew word for explanation.

Art historian Robin Trento, one of the J. Paul Getty
Museum’s gallery teachers and an expert in Italian art, has made it her quest
since reading “The Da Vinci Code” to debunk the book’s mythology surrounding
Leonardo and his artwork. As part of the panel discussion, she noted that only
about 12 paintings have been attributed to Leonardo (his actual name, Da Vinci,
means only that he was from the city of Vinci); that only one of those
paintings may have been commissioned by the Vatican, not the hundreds claimed
by Brown, and that the author’s declaration that the artist’s paganism was
“well-documented” was completely false.

Trento said that she enjoyed the book but as a historian
felt obligated to speak out about the various inaccuracies Brown presented as
factual. She said she felt especially protective of Leonardo, a man who was not
just multitalented but well liked and respected in his time.

“I think it’s not fair to misrepresent someone about whom we
have historical documentation,” Trento said.

The main point experts emphasize is that this is a work of
fiction. Parts may be presented as historical fact, but even those portions may
have been twisted to fit the author’s story.

Asked if there was anything positive they could say about
“The Da Vinci Code,” experts said the book has increased interest in exploring
questions of faith.

“It’s a good news, bad news thing,” Landres said. “The
danger of the book is most Jews don’t know enough about Christianity to make a
judgment about ‘The Da Vinci Code’ or even ‘The Passion of the Christ.’ The
good that is coming out of it is more Jews are admitting to themselves and to
others that there is much they don’t know. The next step is to sit down and
study these documents, like the New Testament, and then to build relationships
to non-Jews to make that study meaningful.”

On May 10, from 7:30-9:30 p.m., the University of Judaism
will hold a panel discussion on “The Da Vinci Code,” called “Unraveling Fact
From Fiction.” Tickets are $20. For information, call (310) 440-1246.  

A Righteous History


More than 20 years ago, as I looked over family papers with my late father, I came across a letter referring to my "conversion." Curious, I asked
what that meant. With some self-consciousness, my father first shared with me the fact that I had a Catholic baptism as a 2-year-old child in Vienna, Austria.

My parents and I had been baptized near Vienna in 1938, as we sought to flee Austria, newly a part of Nazi Germany. We hoped we might find refuge in some Latin American country that would not accept Jews, but would accept Catholic refugees. According to my father, the priest who performed the baptism understood that ours was not a religious conversion, but one of survival.

"Why did you wait until now to tell me this?" I asked.

My father replied, "I promised your mother never to tell you. She was afraid you might lose your job at the temple." I am executive director of Wilshire Boulevard Temple. I was a bar mitzvah in the congregation and had served for many years as a teacher, educator and the temple’s camp director.

I was thrilled to hear of a Righteous Gentile who reached out to us in those threatening days. My father provided me with the certificate of my baptism. I proudly shared the story with my friends, colleagues and students. The framed certificate hangs in my home today. I came to understand my parents’ 45-year silence. They were of a place and time when blood, origin and faith could mean life or death.

We fled Austria shortly before Kristallnacht, in November 1938. Our journey took us through Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Italy. The affidavit of an L.A. relative was accepted, and that city became our final destination.

Over the years, my family’s silence and self-consciousness was no doubt fueled by survivor guilt and a sense of apostasy. As a child, I was neither told nor overheard stories about their terrible experiences. The story of our baptism was provocative. Who was this priest, Dr. Ludwig, who signed my baptismal certificate? Why had he acted boldly, unlike so many of his fellow priests and their congregants?

In April 2003, my wife and I traveled to Europe to uncover truth behind my baptism. We arrived in Korneuberg, a small town on the north side of the Danube, opposite the great abbey at Klosterneuberg.

My baptismal certificate identified the church as St. Agyd. Entering, we approached an aging priest just leaving the confessional and told him the purpose of our visit: We sought information about a Dr. Ludwig who baptized Jews during the Nazi era. Had he heard of Ludwig? Were there records we might see?

Warily, the priest satisfied himself regarding our motives. He introduced himself as Dr. Jochlinger, the senior parish priest. He said that he not only knew of Ludwig and of his wartime activities, but he had known him personally. Ludwig had survived the war, living until 1958. Jochlinger had known Ludwig as his teacher at the abbey in Klosterneuberg.

Jochlinger recalled that Ludwig was close to the artistic community of Vienna, which included many Jews. In fact, his niece was the famous singing actress Krista Ludwig. Apparently, Ludwig participated in more than 300 "emergency baptisms."

I asked if there were written records we might see. In response, he led us into a private room in the neighboring parish house. He opened the doors of a large wooden cupboard to reveal dozens of large worn leather-bound ledgers. These proved to be the registers of weddings, births and baptisms dating back more than 200 years. Based on information from my baptismal certificate, we found the appropriate volume. After leafing through pages to find the correct date, there we were: My family history was spread across two large pages in large formal calligraphy.

Ludwig was listed as officiator, Alois Holzer as "sponsor." There followed my father’s name with his birthdate and his address at birth. My paternal grandfather was identified on the facing page, listed as "of the mosaic confession" — a Jew. My father’s mother, listed with her maiden name, was similarly identified. These were the grandparents who were killed in Auschwitz. On the next line, my mother and her family were identified, with names, addresses, also of the "mosaic confession." These were the grandparents who, in 1940, made a dramatic journey through Russia and Japan, to finally join us in Los Angeles.

Then there was my name, written as the others in a bold European cursive. Because my parents were baptized first, I was listed as having two Roman Catholic parents. The pages before and after our names included dozens of baptisms performed by Ludwig, all of members of the "mosaic confession."

The amiable Jochlinger let us photocopy the relevant pages. He explained his earlier wariness was due to a recent warning regarding those critical of the passivity of Austrian clergy during the Holocaust. Jochlinger felt personally insulted, because his own mother had sheltered a Jew. In September 1938, the Gestapo called in those whose names appeared in the church records. Concerned about his potential arrest, Ludwig was reassigned to the abbey at Klosterneuberg. There he taught church history until his death.

We thanked Jochlinger for his time. How remarkable to learn about Ludwig’s efforts — more than 300 Jewish "conversions." Jochlinger was gracious and modest.

"It was my pleasure," he said. "After all, you are the only ones who have ever asked."

Apparently, neither the church nor any beneficiaries had as yet come forth to credit Ludwig. It will be my mission to add his name to the rolls of the Righteous Gentiles. He is already inscribed in the Book of Life.


Stephen E. Breuer has served as executive director of Wilshire Boulevard Temple since 1980.

Goldhagen Book Rocks Germany


The message is not new, but it still smarts in Germany: The Catholic Church stood by during the Holocaust and full atonement is long past due. That’s the message of American scholar Daniel Goldhagen’s latest controversial book, which is under attack from the church.

Acting on complaints that a photo caption was incorrect, a German court recently issued a recall of some of the books in Germany. Goldhagen said the injunction was a ploy by the church.

"This is a desperate attempt on the part of the church to try and torpedo this book and avoid a real discussion," he said Oct. 11 at the Frankfurt Book Fair.

The photo was misidentified by the archive that provided it, Goldhagen told reporters at the fair. A new German edition is now in bookstores. The book is scheduled to appear in the United States at the end of October.

Goldhagen is known for his book "Hitler’s Willing Executioners" (Knopf, 1996), which argued that there was a unique German "eliminationist anti-Semitism" that allowed ordinary Germans to participate in the Holocaust. The book was a bestseller in Germany, although it was panned by critics and historians.

During an Oct. 13 presentation of "A Moral Reckoning: The Role of the Catholic Church in the Holocaust and its Unfulfilled Duty of Repair" (Knopf, $17.50) the extent of the disagreement between Goldhagen and church officials became clear. Before a packed audience in a Berlin theater, Goldhagen said that if it wishes to repair centuries of injustice that culminated in the Holocaust, the church must make the fight against anti-Semitism "a core teaching" alongside its traditional messages of "love and goodness."

Goldhagen’s book examines church actions and inactions regarding persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany and proposes radical acts of atonement, including issuing new editions of the Christian Bible

Hans Joachim Meyer, president of the board of the Central Committee of the Catholic Church, said at the Oct. 13 debate, "This is not an historical book [but] an agitator’s pamphlet."

Both Goldhagen and his critics were heckled during the debate.

On stage with Goldhagen and Meyer were Julius Schoeps, director of the Moses Mendelssohn Center for European Jewish Studies in Potsdam, and Georg Denzler, historian emeritus at the University of Bamberg. The discussion was moderated by Jan Ross, an editor for the weekly newspaper Die Zeit.

"It is false to say the Shoah could have been stopped by the church," said Meyer, who added that the church already had rejected its historical anti-Semitic teachings.

Schoeps agreed, but noted that German bishops successfully protested against the Nazi "euthanasia" program. Thus it is fair to say that the church could have done more to stop or slow the destruction of European Jewry, he said.

Denzler, a prominent Catholic critic of the church, joined Meyer in condemning Goldhagen’s work. Calling Goldhagen irresponsible for producing a work with "no source list," Denzler asked whether the author really believes that "the main message" of the Christian Bible "is to beat the Jews to death."

"My conclusions are difficult to listen to," Goldhagen said. He called the book "a moral, philosophical investigation" rather than a work of history.

"There is no argument about the need for a debate," Meyer said. "But is this a book that encourages debate?"

"Without it, there would be no debate," Schoeps replied, drawing cheers and boos from the audience.

The contentious atmosphere is bound to follow Goldhagen throughout his current tour of Germany and Austria. From Berlin he was to go to Hamburg, Cologne, Munich and Vienna.

At the Berlin presentation, Goldhagen said he had come to his latest subject by accident after being asked to review several new books about the church’s role during the Holocaust.

"I was dissatisfied with where they stopped and the questions they didn’t ask," Goldhagen said.

So he took on the task of "expanding the notion of restitution and repair from money to a discussion of moral issues. That had not been done in any systematic way," he said.

In the past 10 years, Catholic Bishops in several European countries have made official statements recognizing their shared responsibility for the fate of European Jewry under the Nazis. Pope John Paul II prayed for forgiveness in 2000, at Jerusalem’s Western Wall.

Both the Catholic and Protestant establishments in Germany have officially ceased any mission aimed specifically at converting Jews. And in September this year, the head of the German Bishops’ Conference, Mainz Cardinal Karl Lehmann, challenged the Vatican to open all its Nazi-era archives.

"I praise the church for what is has done, and for what Catholic clergy did to help Jews [during the Holocaust]," Goldhagen said. "But there is still much more to do."

Good and Bad Tidings


We in the Jewish community can learn a lot about what has not been in the Catholic press.

If you read the mainstream Catholic newspapers over the past few months, you will find handfuls of articles and columns about sex offenders in the church. The editorials and columns are, at most, gently critical of the way church leaders have handled the crisis. The reports quote extensively from church officials on the steps they’re taking to address the problem. They do not balance these assertions with quotes from those critical of the church.

We know now that repeating what these leaders say with no independent verification, no rejoinder, no balance, is a blank check for obfuscation — witness the latest revelation that Cardinal Roger Mahoney transferred an admitted pedophile from post to post without alerting parishioners of his record.

The reason such actions are not reported in the mainstream Catholic press is simple. Each archdiocese in this country publishes its own newspaper. "Diocesan papers are like the newsletters printed by IBM or Xerox," Tom Roberts, editor of the independent National Catholic Reporter, said in an interview with The Philadelphia Weekly. "They are not going to report the bad stuff. The mission of these papers is not to dig in and tell the stories that the bishop does not want told and, frankly, that readers don’t want to know about."

The Tidings, published by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, is a great many steps up from other mainstream Catholic papers. Editor Mike Nelson is a very good writer and editor, but the content of his 100,000-circulation newspaper is limited by the fact that Tidings is a publication of the archdiocese. "We haven’t pretended that it didn’t happen," Nelson told me, regarding the sex scandals. Nelson wrote an editorial shortly before the April meeting of cardinals in Rome that urged the church to be realistic about a "problem that is not going to go away."

The Tidings also ran a two-part, 6,000-word critical analysis of the crisis by New York Times religion writer Peter Steinfels. "Cardinal Mahoney suggested we run that piece," said Nelson, who credits Mahoney with allowing more press freedom than is common at other such publications.

It’s hard to fault church leaders for exercising veto power over what goes into the media they fund. The last thing a house organ can do — even if it wanted to — is throw stones at the house. "The nature of who we are as an in-house publication is that we have limits on what we can do if we want to have jobs in the morning," Nelson told me.

But the larger Catholic community has paid a price for the lack of an independent Catholic press. The problem of sex offenders remained hidden until uncovered by general papers, and the cost has been a sense of betrayal and mistrust, amplifying the tragedy the actual offenses. "People don’t care about apologies forced by headlines," Roberts said.

There are obvious lessons here for the Jewish community and its press. At a March conference of the American Jewish Press Association (AJPA), editors of Federation-affiliated papers spoke of being pressured not to run opinion pieces that were critical of the Israeli government. Other communal organizations or machers often pressure editors to stay away from reporting on communal problems. Such reporting, they claim, impinges on their fundraising efforts, or tears at the fabric of Jewish unity.

But all indications point to the opposite: that healthy Jewish communities support an independent press. Gary Rosenblatt, editor of The New York Jewish Week, wrote a fearless series of articles exposing sexual abuse by Rabbi Baruch Lanner of the National Council of Synagogue Youth, an arm of the Orthodox Union. Other papers have taken on conflicts and scandals in their communities as well. Doing so often loses advertisers, but it gains readers. Tellingly, Nelson told me that he never received a single call from a victim reporting priesthood sexual abuse. People who feel wronged in this community do call us — they know we serve them as well.

John Ruskay, executive vice president and CEO of UJA-Federation of New York — widely considered on the cutting edge of Jewish communal leadership — told AJPA members that, painful as it sometimes is for him, Jewish papers should be honest brokers of the news. That way, he said, the Jewish press helps new generations of Jews "understand and become participants" in Jewish life.

The publisher and board of directors of this paper have wisely followed the path toward independence. The Journal’s largest advertisers include The Jewish Federation, but we are not an agency of that organization or of any other. As a business enterprise, we are grateful for our clients’ support. We endeavor to reward their faith in us by producing a paper each week that reaches the hands and hearts of as many L.A. Jews as possible. Beyond that promise, we are always open to input — but not influence — from all parts of the community.

And we hope and trust the result will be a stronger community for us all.

Rock the Pope


“I’m telling you, we’re doing something very foolish right now,” Rabbi Harold Schulweis tells me, in a voice that doesn’t leave much room for doubt.

By we, he means we Jews. The rabbi is upset with the public protest from Jewish leaders over the Vatican’s beatification of Pius IX this coming week.

In the long saga of Catholics and Jews, Pius IX was not one of the good guys. A late 19th-century pope (1846-1878), he played a key part in what was essentially a medieval crime: the kidnapping of a 6-year-old Jewish boy, Edgardo Mortara, from his home in Bologna on the specious grounds that the boy had been baptized. Edgardo was held under lock and key in the Vatican. Despite inter-national protest – not to mention the anguished pleas of his parents – Pius IX refused to free Edgardo, who eventually became his surrogate son, then a priest.

So there’s been an outcry against John Paul II setting Pius IX on the path toward sainthood: in Time and Newsweek, in major newspapers, on NPR and the network news.

Schulweis’ objection to such objections is nuanced. On the one hand, he says, it’s none of our business. Jews don’t recognize saints or sainthood, so why intervene in what is essentially an internal church matter? On the other hand, if Jews wish to protest, why not do so diplomatically, privately, without beating up on the Church in the pages of Time?

It’s a good point. From his statements on the Holocaust and anti-Semitism to his historic visit to Jerusalem (and Yad Vashem) to his siding with Jewish leaders against a nunnery at Auschwitz, the current pope has made huge strides in Vatican-Jewish relations. Just this week, leaders of the Polish Roman Catholic Church have asked for forgiveness for the church’s tolerating anti-Semitism and for other religious discrimination by Polish Catholics. “We want to express the value of the presence of Judaism in Polish history and of the coexistence between Christians and Jews,” said Bishop Jozef Zyczynski of Lublin.

Last month, 12 rabbis and priests gathered at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., for a two-day seminar on interreligious relations. “They could be conning me,” says Schulweis, a participant, “but I’ve never seen such intense contrition.” The rabbis were especially surprised when the bishop picked to lead the invocation stood up, recited the motzi in flawless Hebrew, then sat down.

The major complaint among Catholics at the seminar was that Jewish leaders offer tepid applause for major progress but complain vigorously against every slight. Schulweis attributes this to the fact that the “Jewish leaders” who speak out are often bureaucrats, not rabbis. Rabbis, he believes, could offer a more balanced, faith-based response. Also, Jews, in Abba Eban’s words, cannot take yes for an answer.

Schulweis is right. We should be enormously pleased with the progress Pope John Paul II and the Church have made. But the Vatican’s critics, which in this case include preeminent Catholics like Garry Wills, are right too: beatifying Pope Pius IX is wrong, and the world should know.

The Honeymoon’s Over

Jews, outside of the most mystical sorts, don’t have saints, and the recent history of Joe Lieberman explains why.

Two weeks ago, when “Hadassah” and “Lieberman” placards covered the floor of the Democratic National Convention like so much wall-to-wall carpeting, you couldn’t find a Jew from Dizengoff to Olympic Boulevard who had a bad word to say about the first Jewish candidate on a major party ticket.

What a difference a week makes. On Monday, screenwriter Joe Eszterhas took out a full-page ad in Variety urging Democrats to withhold their contributions to Lieberman until he makes clear his stand against media sex and violence. On Tuesday, the Anti-Defamation League – the ADL! – attacked Lieberman for “appealing to voters along religious lines” in a speech before a Black church group. “We believe there is a point at which the emphasis on religion in a political campaign becomes inappropriate and even unsettling,” wrote National Chairman Howard Berkowitz and National Director Abraham Foxman.

Meanwhile, Jews from left to right have been squirming about Lieberman’s outspoken religiosity. “He talks about Judaism the way fundamentalist Christians talk about Christianity,” said one prominent L.A. rabbi who didn’t want to be named yet. “I wish he’d give it a rest,” harrumphed a local businessman, an active and committed Jew.

But if Lieberman’s no saint, Abe Foxman is no Tom Paine. Why denounce a candidate for expressing faith-based beliefs, as if the First Amendment doesn’t apply to the devout? Lieberman has proposed no policies threatening the separation of church and state. If people are uncomfortable with his pronouncements, they can vote against him. Would Foxman rather only nonobservant people run for office? Or would he just prefer religious politicians hide their true beliefs on the stump, so unoffended voters can make uninformed choices?

The ADL’s mildly defamatory statements against Lieberman brought rabbis from across the political spectrum together to defend the senator. Both Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and Lawrence Goldmark, former president of the Southern California Board of Rabbis, told the Los Angeles Times the ADL overreacted.

In any case, Lieberman probably will tone it down. If America really wanted someone holier-than-thou, people would never have voted for Bill Clinton twice. The most exalted figure in the Democratic Jewish pantheon is JFK, whose personal morality was near-despicable. This fact shouldn’t be lost on Lieberman or Foxman: We Jews grant sainthood for getting the job done, not for getting the Word out.

Going Underground


The whole time Stacie Chaiken was growing up, nobody discussed her great-grandfather, Louie.”My Grandpa Irving refused to speak about his father. Ever,” says Chaiken, whose monologue, “Looking for Louie,” is premiering at Pacific Resident Theatre.

Louie was just one secret in a family of secrets. Growing up on a Catholic block in Covina, Chaiken hungered to learn about her Jewish immigrant roots. But no one was talking. “Fancy houses. Fancy places. That’s all I knew. That’s all they wanted me to know,” she says. There was nothing about the New York tenements. Nothing about Uncle Al, the gangster. Nothing about Louie.”Immigration is the perfect opportunity to re-create yourself, but what is lost is a tremendous richness,” Chaiken says.

So she went looking for Louie. At 20, she appalled Grandpa Irving by moving to East First Street on the Lower East Side, the neighborhood he had worked so hard to escape. She donned a pair of 1920s alligator shoes and walked her great-grandfather’s old streets.

But eventually, the family shame about Louie caught up with her. “I’m a dark soul with a sordid past I don’t even know,” she says in the play.

Perhaps that explains why Chaiken converted to Catholicism when she married another Jewish convert. She was wed in “a big Catholic church wedding with all Jews,” not all of them pleased, she notes. Every time the priest intoned, “Please stand,” her aunt hissed at all the relatives to sit.

Chaiken, the self-professed “uber-Christian,” befriended cloistered nuns. She wore Brooks Brothers outfits. But ultimately, Louie called to her. “You can’t go underground that deeply and live fully who you are,” she explains.

“Looking for Louie” began a couple of years after Chaiken’s divorce, when she decided to write a play about the past that her family devalued.

She pestered relatives for information and pored through records at the Immigration Building in lower Manhattan, where she found Louie’s old address at 61 Norfolk Street. She discovered a housing project where the tenement had been but imagined her great-grandfather davening at the decrepit old Orthodox shul across the street.

Six weeks before a workshop of “Louie” was to open in New York, Chaiken suddenly heard from her grandfather. Bring a video camera, he said. Grandpa wanted to talk.

Over five days in August 1997, 91-year-old Irving broke his lifelong silence and divulged Louie’s secret; the revelation was healing for both grandfather and granddaughter. “It was the release of the shame that had come down through the generations,” she says. “Now we can embrace who we are.”

“Looking for Louie” is at the Pacific Resident Theatre in Venice through Sept. 10. For information, call (310) 822-8392.

Another assimilation saga is “Everett Beekin,” by Pulitzer Prize finalist Richard Greenberg, which follows the process of assimilation of a Jewish family from a tenement apartment on the Lower East Side circa 1946 to Orange County in the late 1990s. The idea for the comedy-drama came to Greenberg as he was ruminating about his own Jewish childhood amid the malls and split-level homes of Long Island, where life was “assimilation as cliché,” he says. At South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa Sept. 1-Oct. 8. For information, call (714) 708-5555.

Other Jewish-themed plays in L.A. include:

Deborah Pearl’s acclaimed solo cabaret show, “Chick Singers,” in which we meet an octet of chanteuses, including an over-the-hill diva, a French blues singer, and a Jewish woman who changes her name to make it in country-western music (she ends up becoming a cantor). At the Cinegrill through Aug. 28, (323) 466-7000.

“Emma & Teddy” by Lonny Chapman, a fictional encounter between the anarchist Emma Goldman and then-vice president Theodore Roosevelt. Opens Aug. 25 at NoHo Arts District in North Hollywood, (818) 769-PLAY.

“Taking Sides,” Ronald Harwood’s powerful play about the controversial Nazi-era conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler, has just been extended through Oct. 10 at the Odyssey Theatre, (310) 477-2055.

Those who missed David Hare’s “Via Dolorosa” on Broadway can catch the one-man show on KCET Aug. 30 at 9:30 p.m. The simply staged piece is drawn from the playwright’s experiences and interviews with Jews and Palestinians during his first trip to the Middle East in 1997.

Crossed Signals


Senior Catholic Church officials are scheduled to meet in Washington in mid-June with a newly formed group of rabbis hailing from three continents and representing all three major Jewish denominations, to begin what both sides envision as a new dialogue between Judaism and Catholicism.

The initiative is the latest twist — and perhaps the strangest — in a continuing Catholic-Jewish relationship that has gone through more flip-flops than the NASDAQ in recent years.

Relations hit a low point about 14 months ago, when the Vatican suspended ties with its longtime Jewish negotiating partner, an international coalition of Jewish organizations led by the World Jewish Congress. The coalition, known as the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, or IJCIC (rhymes with “nitpick”), had worked with the Vatican steadily through 30 years of profound church reforms. Last year’s freeze followed months of intense bickering over the church’s behavior during World War II.

Then, last month, relations hit a high point with the visit of Pope John Paul II to Israel, where he prayed at the Western Wall and toured Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust memorial. Jews in Israel and around the world proclaimed the visit dramatic evidence of a new Catholic attitude toward Jews.

The upcoming Washington dialogue is meant to raise the communication between the two faiths to a new level, say spokesmen on both sides. Discussions will focus on issues like the divine roots of human ethics.

Church leaders had for years been pressing IJCIC, their traditional partner, to move beyond discussions of historic anti-Semitism and address the theological links between the two faiths. That’s met with little success. IJCIC leaders cite a traditional Orthodox ban on interfaith theological “disputation.”

The new rabbinic group, the Rabbinic Committee for Interreligious Dialogue, includes several internationally respected Jewish theologians. Among them are Israeli philosopher David Hartman, incoming U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council chief Irving “Yitz” Greenberg, University of Judaism provost Elliot Dorff, and former French chief rabbi Rene Sirat. Also included are two of America’s best known pulpit rabbis, Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth shalom in Encino and Ronald Sobel of New York’s Temple Emanu-El.

“These kinds of people are very important to us, because they are not representatives of secular organizations but religious representatives,” says Father Remi Hoeckman, Belgian-born secretary-general of the Vatican Commission on Religious Relations with the Jews.

What’s odd about the new group is that, in a crucial sense, they’re not representatives at all. In fact, the rabbinic committee was convened under the auspices of a Catholic college. Its founder, Rabbi Joseph Ehrenkranz, is director of the Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn. That’s a strange pedigree for a group purporting to represent Judaism.

Vatican officials are noncommittal on the significance of the new dialogue. “We are open to relating to any group of people that wants to share an agenda with us,” say Hoeckmann.

They haven’t always been so open. For 30 years they’ve refused to recognize any formal partner but IJCIC. Indeed, IJCIC was first set up at Vatican request, after the Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960s ordered the church to begin a long-term dialogue with Judaism.

What emerged was a coalition that included Judaism’s three main religious wings plus the World Jewish Congress and other defense agencies, representing Judaism’s communal and religious aspects. The Vatican has rebuffed repeated efforts by Jewish groups to open a second channel.

The decision to open a second channel now, with a Catholic-sponsored Jewish group, seems to show just how deeply frustrated the Vatican is with the petulant, one-note tone of its Jewish partners in recent years.

As for the new group’s strange pedigree, Hoeckmann dismisses it as a quibble. Ehrenkranz’s center, he said, “is run by Jews, and the initiative came from Jews. If it could be hosted by a Jewish university, fine. We are still waiting for it. In the meantime, you go to those who welcome you.”

Behind the complaint lies a fundamental imbalance in Vatican-Jewish relations. Catholicism, many observers argue, needs a dialogue with Judaism much more than Judaism needs a dialogue with the church. For the church, dialogue with Judaism is essential to understanding Christianity. “You can’t know what it means to be a Christian without understanding your Jewish roots,” says Eugene Fisher, ecumenical affairs director of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

But Judaism has no such need. Jews entered the dialogue 30 years ago to help rid the church of anti-Jewish biases. Thirty years later, that job is largely done. Many Jewish community leaders see little further purpose to dialogue, other than courtesy.

But that’s begun to change. For growing numbers of Jewish thinkers and community leaders, the recent Catholic-Jewish war of words over the Holocaust has been a sobering lesson in Jewish oversensitivity. Some blame the traumas of the Holocaust. Some blame the consensus-driven, lowest-common-denominator structure of Jewish representative bodies.

Still others see a problem in Jewish education, which teaches young Jews about enemies but rarely mentions friends. “This is a moral failing of the first order,” Reform leader Eric Yoffie declared in a recent speech. Yoffie called for Reform and Conservative Judaism to seize the initiative and work to improve Vatican-Jewish relations.

Increasingly, Jewish leaders now argue that Judaism needs dialogue with Catholicism more than ever, to help Jews understand their new place in the world. For that to happen, though, the dialogue must include not just thinkers but community leaders who can be expected to bring the message back to their fellow Jews — as they have failed to do before.

That’s what’s oddest about the latest events: the Jewish community is finally ready. The Vatican is snubbing IJCIC, its traditional partner, just as IJCIC has completed a major facelift in response to church complaints. Since last fall it’s named a new chairman, set up a program committee — headed by a rabbi well-trusted at the Vatican — and offered a new agenda for discussions, which church officials greeted enthusiastically. Though they won’t use the word, IJCIC’s leaders have decided to bite the bullet and move, hesitantly, toward discussing theology.

“If we’re going to move from responding to the negative to building a deeper relationship, then we’re going to need to look at the questions we face as a religious community,” says New York attorney Seymour Reich, IJCIC’s new chairman.

Under the circumstances, the Vatican’s flirtation with the new rabbinic committee has some IJCIC leaders privately wondering what in heaven, so to speak, is going on in Rome.


J.J. Goldberg writes a weekly column for The Jewish Journal

“Mea Culpa,” Meet Mea Shearim


A day after Pope John Paul II offered his unprecedented apology for historic Catholic sins, Father Dennis Mikulanis was sitting in his parish rectory in San Diego, CA, feeling just a bit miffed.

For Mikulanis, the pope’s March 12 confession was a personal milestone. As ecumenical affairs director of the Catholic diocese of San Diego for the last 15 years, he’s played a vital role in fostering religious understanding in America’s sixth-largest city. Putting old suspicions to rest is a lifelong mission. “He even has a mezuzah on his door,” says Rabbi Aaron Gold, a longtime friend.

Last week, though, after hearing the largely negative Jewish responses to the pope’s message, Mikulanis himself was feeling somewhat, well, misunderstood.

“I’ll be very honest with you — I’m disappointed in the Jewish reaction,” he said. “Here’s the Catholic Church, bending over backward to say mistakes were made, we were wrong. But nothing is ever enough. Can’t we ever hear a simple ‘Thank you’?”

The pope had captured the world’s imagination with his dramatic confession of Catholic wrongdoing through the centuries. The ritualized atonement was part of the first Sunday Mass of Lent, the first of Christianity’s third millennium.

The Church, the pope intoned, “kneels before God and begs for forgiveness for past and present sins of her sons.” Then seven cardinals rose and confessed seven types of Catholic sins: against Jews, women and minorities, heretics, native peoples, the poor, the unborn and “general sins.” The pope answered each with a prayer for forgiveness.

In a 21-year papacy filled with drama and innovation, this confession was seen worldwide as a peak moment. The Associated Press called it “an unprecedented moment in the history of the Church.” Reuters said it was “the first time in the history of the Catholic Church that one of its leaders has sought such a sweeping pardon.” The impact was magnified by the timing, a week before the pope’s historic visit to Israel.

Almost as stunning was the gesture’s speedy dismissal by Jewish spokesmen.

Israel’s Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, Yad Vashem director Avner Shalev, Anti-Defamation League director Abraham Foxman — one after another they leaped forward to voice “disappointment.” Their shared complaint: the pope hadn’t mentioned the Holocaust.

There were variations, mostly in emphasis. The American Jewish Committee’s statement was largely upbeat, though it too began with disappointment. Rabbi Lau, despite his distress, said he welcomed the pope’s “initiative to seek the forgiveness of the Jewish people” (actually, forgiveness was asked of God, not the Jews). A handful of voices, notably Rabbi David Rosen of ADL’s Jerusalem office, accepted the confession as a moment of Catholic soul-wrestling. But they were virtually lost in the flood of negativity.

Many Catholics were left stewing. Even Catholic ecumenical activists, normally Jews’ staunchest defenders within the church, sounded uncharacteristically testy.

“It’s interesting that people will make comments about what they expected from the confession,” says Father Lawrence Frizzell, director of the Institute for Judaeo-Christian Studies at New Jersey’s Seton Hall University. “It’s not quite appropriate when discussing somebody else’s liturgy. I don’t criticize Yom Kippur.”

For Father Mikulanis in San Diego, what’s most disturbing about the Jewish response to the confession is the implication that the Holocaust is a crime of the Church, comparable to the Crusades or the Inquisition.

That’s a distortion, he says. “Not a single Catholic bishop supported Hitler. The Evangelical Lutheran church did. The Catholic Church didn’t.”

It’s true, he says, that Catholics and their Church failed, like many others, to do all they might have to save Jews. That’s been acknowledged over and over. “My question is, what will ever be enough? The Church is not going to condemn Pius XII.”

Catholic-Jewish relations have moved light-years in recent years, since the Second Vatican Council voted in 1965 to absolve Jews of deicide. Pope John Paul II personally proclaimed anti-Semitism a “sin” and declared the Jews’ covenant with God “irrevocable.” Thanks to him, Catholics are no longer permitted to seek Jewish conversion.

But, Catholics complain, Jews remain woefully unaware of the sea change.

They blame internal Jewish divisions, plus the continuing Orthodox refusal to permit a full-scale Catholic-Jewish dialogue on religious beliefs. Also at fault is a growing isolationism among the most active Jews, who should be leading the way toward reconciliation.

In the last decade relations have moved backwards, dogged by a series of Holocaust-related disputes. Since 1987 recriminations have flown over a convent near Auschwitz, a papal audience for one-time Nazi Kurt Waldheim, a large cross over Auschwitz, the canonization of murdered Jewish-born nun Edith Stein, more crosses at Auschwitz, and the wartime role of Pope Pius XII.

The Vatican vowed early on to address the Church’s role in the Holocaust in a special document. The document, “We Remember,” issued in 1998, only fueled the flames. Jewish leaders claimed it ignored Pius’ culpable silence. When word leaked out that the Vatican was planning to make Pius a saint, a worldwide Jewish outcry ensued.

Finally, a year ago Cardinal Edward Cassidy, chief Vatican spokesman on Jewish affairs, ceremonially broke off relations with a Jewish committee that had been the church’s chief Jewish dialogue partner for a generation.

He accused the World Jewish Congress of “a systematic campaign to denigrate the Catholic church.”

Jewish leaders largely dismiss the crisis as an organizational spat between religious bureaucrats. But that’s a mistake, local Catholic leaders warn.

The anger is filtering down to the pews.

“There’s a growing Catholic resentment,” says Father James Loughran, ecumenical affairs director of the New York archdiocese. “Pius XII has strong support. He’s one of the great popes of the century.”

Pius, Loughran says, is widely revered as a chief architect of the modern Church. But Jews should give him a second look, too, he says. His 1948 encyclical on Scripture, “Divini Afflante Spiritu,” encouraged Catholics for the first time to read the Old Testament, “and that opened the way for a new Catholic appreciation of Jews and Judaism as the source of Christianity.” That, Loughran says, led directly to Vatican II.

Loughran’s view isn’t unanimous, even among Catholics. Father Mikulanis, while insisting Pius “has gotten a bum rap on the Holocaust,” says the idea of sainthood “boggles my mind.”

In the end, Mikulanis says, “Jews have a natural and understandable suspicion of Christianity. That’s why the Holy Father apologized.”

Still, he says, “just once I would like to see somebody say ‘Thank you for taking this step.’ I would like to see an embrace rather than a kick in the ankles.”


J.J. Goldberg writes a weekly column for The Jewish Journal

Seeking Forgiveness


Pope John Paul II will act this month on two prominent themes that have colored his papacy: seeking forgiveness for past Catholic errors, including the treatment of Jews, and his intense personal dream of making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

But his actions on these issues are coming amid questions, controversy and strained relations between the Vatican and Israel.

On March 12, which the Vatican has declared a “day of request for forgiveness” for Catholics, the pope will lead Mass at the Vatican dedicated to pardon and repentance.

Little more than a week later, coinciding with the holiday of Purim, he flies to the Holy Land, where he will retrace the footsteps of Jesus in Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority.

At the March 12 Mass, the pope is expected to deliver a sweeping church apology for past sins.

But a document slated to be issued this week in advance of the papal pronouncement set a theological framework for seeking forgiveness for past errors without necessarily admitting responsibility for them.

The document, “Memory and Reconciliation: The Church and the Mistakes of the Past,” lists a few major areas where the church had failed, including the Inquisition, forced conversion and treatment of the Jews.

“The hostility and wariness of numerous Christians towards Jews over the course of time is a painful historic fact,” the document says.

But primarily it reiterates assertions made in earlier documents and statements, including a landmark 1998 Vatican document on the Holocaust that disappointed many Jews for having defended the wartime behavior of Pope Pius XII.

As in the 1998 statement, the new document says that while the Roman Catholic Church accepts responsibility for the sins of its followers, the sins themselves were committed by individuals, not the church.

It contains no specific apology for the attitude of the church or the inaction of church leaders like Pius XII during the Holocaust. Critics charge Pius with having aided in the killing of Jews by not speaking out against the Holocaust.

The document says that while some Christians had helped Jews during the Holocaust, others had not done enough.

“This constitutes an appeal to all Christians of today; it requires an act of repentance and becomes a spur to redouble efforts,” the document says, adding that such efforts should be made so that the “moral and religious memory of the wounds inflicted to the Jews are maintained.”

Debate over these latest pronouncements and continuing controversy over the role of Pius XII already have colored the run-up to the pope’s March 20-March 26 pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

In an interview late last month, Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the papal representative in the Holy Land, strongly defended Pius XII, repeating the Vatican’s stance that Pius saved Jews by remaining silent.

“I am convinced that a great strong condemnation would have increased the persecution of Hitler against the Jews,” Sambi said.

John Paul’s trip will be the first papal visit to the Holy Land since Pope Paul VI visited Jerusalem in 1964 — before Israel took control of the entire city as a result of the 1967 Six-Day War.

It is meant to be a voyage of intense spirituality and symbolism that will enable the frail, 79-year-old pope to have direct contact with the actual sites where Christianity was born.

During his trip, the pope will meet with local leaders and visit sites sacred to Christians, Jews and Muslims. His crowded itinerary includes visits to the Western Wall and the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial.

Debate over Pius XII is just one element of controversy that has surfaced in the run-up to the trip.

Last month, leading rabbis in Israel requested that the pope postpone a Mass scheduled to be held in Nazareth on Saturday, March 25, saying it would force Israeli security officials to desecrate the Sabbath.

They also voiced concern about Christian evangelical activities targeting Jews.

Anti-pope graffiti has been found scrawled on the walls of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate and elsewhere.

Last week, members of the outlawed Jewish extremist group Kach demonstrated outside the offices of Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, carrying signs reading, “The Pope, Cursed Be He.”

Volatile relations among Jews, Christians and Muslims and continuing tensions between Israel and the Palestinians over the peace process — and particularly over the contested status of Jerusalem — have also helped raise the heat prior to the papal visit.

In Nazareth, where Jesus grew up, Israel late last year granted permission to Muslims to build a mosque next to a major Christian basilica.

This angered the Vatican, which issued strongly worded protests against the move and accused Israel of fomenting religious divisions.

The latest incident was an agreement signed last month between the Vatican and Palestinian leaders. In a clear message to Israel, the agreement said unilateral decisions on Jerusalem were “morally and legally unacceptable.”

The accord, signed at the Vatican during a visit by Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, drew sharp criticism from Israel.

The Palestinian Cabinet, meanwhile, hailed the agreement, issuing a statement calling it “a historic turning point in the benefit of peace” and “a guarantor of Palestinian national rights.”

Christian sites in Jerusalem that the pope will visit lie in eastern Jerusalem, which the Palestinians claim as the capital of a future Palestinian state. These include the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Mount of Olives.

The pope is also planning to visit the Dheisheh Palestinian refugee camp, which came under Palestinian rule in 1995. Palestinians expect him to support their return to the Israeli villages they left during the 1948 War for Independence.

Dancing to Other Tunes


I once prayed for 59 consecutive days at the Wall for a husband. I also prayed at the gravesites of a few hefty Jewish giants in Israel. I hoped that Hashem had a nice Jewish guy for me.

Last year, 44-years-old and still unmarried, I decided to take ballroom dancing lessons in Westchester. There were 100 other people there just like myself looking for a prospective spouse. We were all given name badges. I looked over the names and discovered that there were several Lukes and Peters, but no members of the tribe. Can it be true, I wondered, that Jewish men don’t dance?

Not that that fact bothered me. I was born Jewish, but raised with little religious background. I figured that if the right dancer came along, I’d be able to drift away. Or so I thought.

I continued taking lessons and within a year I went from a rhumba novice to being able to cha cha in my sleep. I went to different dance spots and soon became familiar with the other dance die-hards around town. It was at a dance hall in Westchester that I became friends and dance partners with one of my classmates. Let’s call him Christopher. We began to dance together and after a while it became clear to both of us we were having fun. Every week he would save a seat for me and when the music began we would fly across the dance floor, bodies joined, our movements a fluid whole.

Dancing led to harder stuff. Christopher began to share his most personal experiences with me. I learned early on that he was a devout Catholic and going to church every Sunday was very important to him.

Well-meaning friends and family had long told me that dating only Jewish men was limiting myself, that dating men 15 years and older would increase my possibilities in matrimony. Well Christopher fit the bill twice over: he was Catholic and 17 years older.

Christopher agreed to go to a holiday dinner at my mom’s house, and I agreed to go to mass. Celebrating holidays in my household is a new phenomena. Since my mother became a grandmother, my brother and I have delighted in our mother putting on these great holiday dinners. During such occasions she has been known to stand and sing Jewish standards. Not long ago, I got to take Christopher to our sit-down Seder. My mother was very gracious to him. When she handed out the yarmulkes she noticed that he was uncomfortable. She quickly stated that the Pope wore a yarmulke and on this particular evening Chris could be just like the Pope.

Then it was my turn to go to his turf. I accompanied Christopher to church. Seeing statues and learning that there were two other masses the same day with there being 2,100 people in attendance made me feel like a grain of sand amidst the many. I reflected upon how few Jews there are in the world and on any given Saturday not more than 100 people could be seen in any average-sized synagogue. Christopher noticed that I did not kneel. I know he must wonder why. He is a wonderful man, but we have many differences.

I realize that having spent time with Christopher has made me appreciate my roots. My closest friend asks, “So what is going to come of Christopher? Are there wedding bells in the future?” I doubt it. But I do continue to see him. He is, after all, my dancing partner.


PBS Pope Profile


There is a haunting image in the early part of the PBS “Frontline” documentary on Pope John Paul II. As the Warsaw ghetto goes up in flames, just outside the wall and within sight and sound of the remaining Jewish resistance fighters, a carousel goes round and round, full of carefree, frolicking, young Poles.

It was in the Poland of that era that Karol Wojtyla, the future pope, grew up and inevitably absorbed the pervasive anti-Semitism of the Catholic church. But he also played soccer with Jewish friends who later would perish in the Holocaust.

The evolution of the pope’s relationship to the Jewish people is traced in the second segment — of seven — in the television biography of “John Paul II: The Millennial Pope.”

The 2 1/2-hour program will air Tuesday, Sept. 28, at 9 p.m. on KCET and other PBS stations.

Forgiving the Vatican


Congregants at Valley Beth Shalom heard an unusual plea for forgiveness at their Sept. 12
Selichot services. Monsignor Royale M. Vadakin, pastor of St. Anastasia Church in Los Angeles, spoke
of efforts on the part of the Vatican to address the “bad blood” between Catholics and Jews, so that
“the year 2000 and its millennium celebration may serve as a possible vehicle for reconciliation” among
the world’s religions.

“My presence here speaks louder than words — regardless of what I say or don’t say, we’ve
begun a journey,” Vadakin said. “For me, as a Catholic Christian, it is the courage to look at and
acknowledge the sinfulness, both individual and corporate, of the Shoah which rests within my faith
reality. For you, it is the patience to lead me to those painful moments and encourage me.”

Prior to the event, members of the congregation received a copy of the Vatican document, released in
March and titled “We Remember: A Reflection of the Shoah.” Developed by the Vatican Commission for
Religious Relations over a period of 11 years, the sometimes defensive report briefly examines the history
of Catholic prejudice against Jews in the time leading up to the Holocaust and the consequences of that
relationship. It then exhorts present-day Catholics to work toward preventing any future tragedies
fueled by bigotry and racism.

The monsignor called the report “an enabling document,” comparing it to the Nostra Aetate, a report
released in 1965 that decried anti-Semitism and eliminated the practice of blaming Jews for the death of
Jesus — thus providing the first basis for Jewish-Catholic relations.

While he lauded the sentiment behind the recent report, the monsignor upbraided the Vatican
Commission for its slow pace.

“I believe an 11-year period of hyped announcement was a tragic flaw. It seems to the Jewish
community and many Catholics as if much was promised but little produced,” he said. “My hope is that all
of us — especially Vatican commissions — may take deeply to heart the Torah wisdom that the pious
promise little but produce much.”

The monsignor later commented on the current situation in Poland, where Catholics have been
planting small crosses just outside the gates of Auschwitz.

“While the Church has not taken an official position on the matter, Cardinal Glemp [the local Church
authority in Poland] has asked his people to take down the small crosses,” Vadikin said, adding that,
while he understood the local Jewish community’s consternation, he hoped that the large cross erected
outside of the camp’s gates to honor a recent visit by the Pope would be allowed to remain.

Vadakin was asked to appear by VBS’ Rabbi Harold Schulweis, a longtime participant in
ecumenical peacemaking. Schulweis said that his decision to invite the monsignor was spurred,
in part, by his frustration with Jewish community leaders who did not take the Church’s report
seriously enough.

“I know the newspapers carried some reports, but most people [in the Jewish community] didn’t even
comment on it,” Schulweis said, shaking his head. “They don’t realize how important this is to both
communities.”

The synagogue’s main sanctuary, which holds about 1,000 people, was filled to capacity for
Saturday’s event. In addition to Selichot worshipers, the audience included representatives of St.
Cyril’s and Our Lady of Grace churches, both in Encino. In honor of the monsignor and their other
Catholic guests, the VBS choir performed a special arrangement of Psalm 117 (known in Catholic
parlance as In Exitu Israel) in Latin and Hebrew, combining Sephardic cantillation with Gregorian chant.

After hearing the soaring blend of the two musical styles, Vadakin wryly remarked, “Perhaps we
all would have a greater understanding of each other if we simply sang our thoughts instead of
saying them.”